The Viper

Håkan Östlundh

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

1.
 
 A bounding neon horse reflected in the dark glass facade opposite Arvid Traneus’s apartment on the border between Roppongi and Akasaka in Tokyo’s Minato district. Its precise gait was unclear and with each step it changed colors in a shower of stars. Its rounded babyish features bore little resemblance to a real horse. Missing was the muscle definition, the nervous gaze, and the awesome power that a live animal of that size possessed—a massive creature that could easily injure a human being without intending to.
A raven flew sluggishly between the skyscrapers, virtually indiscernible in the darkness. He had shuddered the first time he had heard that lingering shriek. In Tokyo it wasn’t the seagulls that took over the city when the human population retired for the night, it was the ravens.
You got used to it.
Arvid Traneus turned his back on the October night outside the bedroom’s panorama windows, the horse’s never-ending gallop and the flickering lights of the city. He looked at Kass, the young woman who had just entered the room. She had tilted her head slightly and smiled sadly at him. Her black hair cascaded down over the shoulders of her red silk dress. She was holding a wineglass with both hands, in it the last of the Cheval Blanc from the bottle he had uncorked.
It was a final farewell.
The assignment had originally been intended as just a quick consulting job. As it turned out, he had ended up spending seven years traveling back and forth, and three more in the apartment; ten years in Tokyo altogether, the last two of them with Kass. And now it was time to return home. It was over. All of it. The job, the city, the woman.
He walked up to her and she met him halfway. He took the glass from her and set it down on the ledge in front of the window. He pulled her close to him and laid his hand on her golden-brown thigh protruding from the slit in her short dress. She pressed up against him.
“Kass,” he mumbled into her hair, which was decorated with shiny little bows that matched the red of her dress.
She had brightened up his last two years in the city. Made it easier to breathe in the scattered shards of free time he had allowed himself between work and sleep.
He ran his hand up between her legs and spread her hairless vulva with his fingers. She let out a loud, shrill moan. Out of arousal he thought at first, but as he continued to move his fingers in the manner she usually liked, he noticed that she had gone rigid. She had turned cold as ice.
Then came another whimper, only pitched higher this time, and definitely not pleasure induced. She gasped the way one only does when one is truly frightened.
He looked at her. She stared out at the bounding manga horse.
“Kass?”
She didn’t answer.
“Kass, what is it?”
He waved his hand in front of her staring eyes.
“Kazu-mi!” he cried out. Like one might to a child about to put her hand on a hot stove.
She gave a start and looked at him with a furtive, anxious expression.
“What is it?” he asked again.
She shook her head and ran her fingers nervously through her hair so that the red bows came off and dropped to the floor.
“I don’t know. Nothing. It’s just silly…”
Yet her eyes still sought their way back to the window and lost themselves in the distance, as if she saw something else completely than the neon horse’s fitful prancing.
The animated horse had not been there six months ago. He had chosen this neighborhood because it lay far from the neon lights and nightlife. It was the government and diplomatic district, where interspersed among the office complexes was an occasional stack of high-rise apartments. Not a soul on the sidewalks after seven at night. But the city was constantly changing, above and below the surface. From his window he could see four new skyscrapers rising ever higher; the cranes at the very top had shut down for the night, visible only by their blinking red aircraft warning lights.
Constant flux, interminable growth. Neon flickered. Money changed hands. Sums that made the national budget of a small country like Sweden seem like chump change flowed daily through the stock exchanges and currency markets. Multinationals collaborated, competed, and annihilated one another. And that was where Arvid Traneus came into the picture. In the annihilation. Of corporations that is.
This assignment had, following a drawn-out struggle, ended badly for the competitor, much worse than had been intended. And the slaughter was actually pointless. His employer would only be able to fill up part of the void that was left behind. The rest would just fall into the hands of some other grateful competitor.
He stroked Kass’s back.
“Better now?”
“I’m fine,” she said and kissed him on the neck. “Make love to me now,” she whispered.
She lifted her arms above her head as he pulled off her dress with a rustle. She stood there naked in front of him, smelling of earth and rubber from the robust red wine, vanilla, and a hint of lemon from her perfume, and something else that was her own essence. Warm skin and loins.
Kass backed him up toward the foot of the bed, as she unfastened the stubborn black leather belt that he had bought just the week before. She unbuttoned his trousers and grabbed hold of his cock.
“He wants to come to Kass,” she whispered, pursed her lips slightly, and let a thin string of saliva dribble down onto the head of his manhood and into her hand cupped underneath. In a quick, gentle motion, she rubbed in the saliva and he felt his legs turn to rubber.
Ten years. Had it been worth it?
For Arvid Traneus the answer was definitely yes. He had made a fortune for himself during these years. And yet that fortune was just a fraction of the money he had made for his employers, so their answer would likely be yes, too, if they would even be able to think of it in those terms. For them the contest was never over. All triumphs were temporary. They would continue to battle on for another ten years, and ten more after that.
He had been brought in to devise a strategy for increasing the company’s market share by 5 percent. That was what they had agreed from the beginning. A tall order, but still specific and realistic. Then it got bigger. Their ambition grew and he was drawn in deeper and deeper, enticed by an offer he couldn’t refuse; a breathtaking monthly salary and options the value of which, through his own efforts, would multiply many times over. If he succeeded.
He built up his own team. Flew back and forth to Tokyo, before finally ending up living there for the past few years.
Kass sank down onto her knees by the bed and looked at him with that wanton sideways glance that he could never quite decide whether she was feigning or not. But it didn’t matter to him. If she was putting it on she was doing a good job of it, and she was doing it so that he would like what he saw, and that was worth a lot to him.
He had very nearly lost his best man because of Kass. She had belonged to Stephen first. That was how Arvid had met her. His gaze had been drawn to her constantly throughout that dinner. It can scarcely have escaped Stephen’s notice. The following day he had gotten hold of her address and telephone number, and when he had called her up and suggested they meet she had answered yes at once.
Arvid was under no illusions about Kass and how she lived, but he knew that she had nothing to gain by leaving Stephen. She had done it simply because she had wanted to. Of that he was convinced.
Stephen had taken it hard. At first he had tried to reason with Arvid, get him to let her go. When Arvid refused, when he claimed on top of everything else that there was nothing he could do about it, that it had been Kass’s decision, Stephen became furious. He threatened to quit, even went to the extreme of packing his things and flying back to England, though he never turned in any letter of resignation.
Arvid went so far as to appeal to Stephen’s professionalism. Stephen sulked for a while, but of course he came back. He had far too much to gain to throw it all away just out of some vain demonstration of … well, of what … pride? He would only have made a fool of himself. She was just a kind of whore after all. Albeit not one you could pick up on any street corner.
She kissed his cock with gentle lips.
“Let me know,” she whispered before disappearing between his legs.
She always said that. He smiled at the black head of hair bobbing back and forth down there. If she didn’t know him well enough by now to be able to tell when he was about to come then that was her problem, he thought to himself.
It was actually Stephen who had come up with the idea that had made the whole thing possible, he and that blessed Norwegian computer whiz Olaisen. But it was Arvid who had been in charge when they had set the whole thing in motion. In the end it was neither marketing strategies nor product development that had brought Pricom to its knees, but an intricate scheme involving the company’s shares that had been made possible by Olaisen hacking into their computer system. They had been able to peer right into the heart of their competitor. And then they had crushed him. It was a dirty trick of course, but business is always dirty, so there wasn’t much more to say about it.
Kass’s tongue fluttered like a butterfly of moist flesh. He ran his hands over her glistening black hair, brought his fingers together behind her neck, and held her head firmly in place. He stared out into the darkness and his pupils followed the movements of the neon horse involuntarily when he came.
After a prolonged silence, a sudden spasm that caused everything to relax, he let go and slipped out of her mouth. She slowly raised her left hand and drew the back of it across her lips and chin. Arvid Traneus looked at Kass and felt how he suddenly became filled with something heavy and black. He hadn’t felt it so strongly for a long time. It almost suffocated him.
He didn’t love her, but she was nice to be with, beautiful to look at, and pleasurable to make love to. She was delicate and petite, light as a feather. He could lift her up like a child. He had never heard her complain or whine or question anything. He had never seen her look at another man when they had been out together.
And yet … He was under no illusions. She had left Stephen to be with him. And now their time together was at an end. It was possible that he could take her with him. Though she would never ask him to. In that case, it was up to him to invite her. He had considered it, but he had another life waiting for him, besides which, she was what she was after all. It would be a strange mixture of private life and business.
Their time together was over. He would leave and she would remain where she belonged. Alone. Free. Available. Who would she move on to after him? Someone he knew? Had she already made arrangements? Would she be slipping into another man’s bed already tomorrow? Look at him with that longing gaze and say, “He wants to come to Kass.” Suck his cock?
He met her gaze as she looked up at him and he realized in an instant that he didn’t have the slightest inkling of what was going on in her head. Was that the look of sad farewell he saw in her dark eyes, or was it just an act, like when they narrowed with desire and arousal? Was she in fact indifferent? Did she hold him in contempt? Was she smiling inside though the corners of her mouth were angled slightly downward? Was she laughing to herself?
He surprised himself. He wasn’t normally a brooder. Resolutely and very deliberately he pushed the thoughts of Kass out of his mind. All these questions were pointless. They were in the midst of a parting of the ways. She was no longer his concern, nor he hers.
It must have been a moment of sentimentality that had caught him unawares. It wasn’t like him. He adjusted his clothes, buckled his uncooperative belt, and picked up the red silk dress from the floor.
She eyed him with a look of mild incredulity.
He reached out and helped her up. Her skin was warm against his fingers, but the warmth and fragrance meant nothing to him now. He held out the dress.
“You’d better go now,” he said.
Her lower lip, pursed just a moment ago, drew in and tensed up. Her gaze still sought out his, questioningly, as if there was something left to say.
He handed her the dress and slowly walked over to the table in the other room to see if there was any wine left in the bottle. Behind him he heard her get dressed.
 
Copyright © Håkan Östlundh 2008 by agreement with Grand Agency
Translation copyright © 2012 by Per Carlsson