A collaboration with Phoenix Fiery
 Enigma “Sadeness”
 Enigma “Find Love”
 Enigma “Mea Culpa”
Strictly invite only. That’s what I was told. Apparently, I should be feeling privileged as precious few people knew about the ball and only a very select few received invitations. This was the kind of affair reserved for the most decorated pillars of the community; the barristers, business magnates and politicians of this world. My presence was to be more indebted to blind fortune than anything else as I’m about as regular as Joe gets. It turned out that it is who you know that determines what you know around these parts as I earned this exclusive opportunity through a loose affiliation with the town mayor. I hardly knew him if I’m honest but had been serving him Cointreau for the past five years now and, during that time, he opened up to me more than he had his own long-suffering wife. I knew that it had become a marriage of inconvenience to him as it was on account of her that he started these bi-daily visits in the first place. I’d heard the term comfort of strangers before now and that was exactly what he received from our regular one-way tête-à-têtes; somebody more prepared to listen than facilitate the sound of their own voice every time he pauses for breath. I had become his one true confidant.
I’m fairly sure that he was fully aware that I suffered no sleep loss over his candid confessions and that just made him trust me all the more. I’ve never been one for gossip and keep myself largely to myself; thus making me a valuable asset as his multiple indiscretions would likely land him in hot water should that data fall into the wrong hands. That’s the beauty of being a bartender; you get to play sponge. Shift after shift I listen to other folk’s woes and they never particularly bother me. What I learn at work is wrung out before I chime the last bell; then it ceases being of importance as, my life’s uneventful enough as it is, without being constantly reminded that every other bugger is having all the fun. When Major Wilson Bettis approached me to ask me along to his own exclusive soirée; I was tempted to flat decline but sheer fascination got the better of me as he informed it was to be held at an undisclosed location and that my identity would never be compromised. Sounded suspiciously like a swinger’s party to me and a connected guy like Bettis would likely circulate around women half his age when having a night off from the old ball-and-chain.
If they were half his years then that would place them squarely in my ballpark. It was sixteen months since I last participated in mutual sex, other than the long-running sensual saga of me and my right hand which has punctuated any slump perpetually. You would think that, being a bartender, I would be beating the ladies off with a stick but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. While there is no signage denoting this to be a men only bar, the name alone guarantees that 99.9% of its patronage be male. The Alpha Den. You can understand why I found his offer of clandestine hedonism appealing. Damn right I wasn’t about to pass this up and I listened intently to every vague detail he shared with me, as opposed to nodding at regular intervals as is ordinarily the case with Wilson. Friday night at 1.15am on the cusp; picked up in a stretch limo from directly outside my one-bedroom apartment, then a silk headscarf secured around my face to ensure no intel on whereabouts. On arrival, I would be required to don my Venetian mask behind a blackened screen, before being ushered inside to join the congregation. It all sounded delightfully surreptitious and I figured my first move upon entry would be to drop my keys in a bowl by the door and go circulate. He’d often remarked that one day he would get me laid so I guessed it was simply my time to collect on those dividends.
Allow me to throw a wrench in the works of my parable right now and pose you a question. Would there be any circumstances whereby you would regard me as being capable of murder? I know it’s a bit out of left-field just putting that out there unannounced but it’s important I know your rejoinder before I commence any further with my tale. You don’t need to tell me your thoughts; I shall discern the answer from your eyes alone. Good, I can see that the results are unanimous. Fret not; your secret is nothing if not safe with me. Thank you for humoring me; I’d be lying flagrantly if I said that it hadn’t been playing on my mind. I’m the one guy people tell their indiscretions; this alone ensures that nobody gives a rat’s ass about any menial folly in my sorry life. But I require a level of trust be ascertained before telling you the events of Friday 13th February, 2015. Should you not wish to bear a burden, then you may want to cease reading any further as this night’s events will be my constant chaperone through to my ultimate passing and are about to become yours also. Excuse me momentarily, I believe the lady doth protest waiting.
Waiting in line for my morning cup of coffee, I felt a gentle embrace of my upper right arm, and an envelope was ushered into my hand quickly. The messenger spoke no words, turned and quickly ventured back to the black automobile awaiting him. Curiosity instantly began eating away at my mind. What could be enclosed in this elegant package, tied in a silky deep violet ribbon? I hastened outside without so much as placing my order. Upon reading the enclosed card, more wonderment ensued. Why, moreover, who would present me with an invite to an exclusive, invitation only ball? Being mild acquaintances, although far from friends with many here in the upper echelon of the community, I surely would never have expected that. As a forensic analyst I receive first-hand knowledge on more than anyones fair share of cases and secrets as they cross my desk, of which some of the details remain in my guarded custody, crossing with me even unto my passage from this earth. On occasion I have been known to be a fill in date for a few well to do bankers, certainly nothing serious and absolutely non sexual relations of course. That has been without so much as a kiss for the better part of twenty months, a strictly non sexual existence except for a few, select self-inflicted, toy induced encounters.
Where had this invite come from? I had heard some chatter about a ball. Never crossed my mind that I would get an exclusive invite. Although flattered, I must admit that as thrilled as I was at receiving this request, the feeling of hesitation was overwhelming. Game playing and illusions have always been an area of intrigue for me and I accepted willingly. Never mind that the date of said event was Friday the 13th February, 2015. At 1:00am precisely, a black limo pulled up outside my one story apartment, sent to gather me. A black sheath was placed over my eyes, keeping this shrouded in mystery. On arrival at my destination, a large ornate building, I assumed it as a residence, as there was not one sign to give telltale hint of its location. I was then handed a beautifully ornate mask that I donned willingly enough and escorted through huge intricately carved doors. Once inside I was advised by a man in a white mask, swathed in a flowing black cape that said mask was to remain in place.
I must admit that upon entering a chill ran up my spine, that of the unknowing. How intense was this setting that lay before me and what laid in wait beyond this magnificent entrance? Before we proceed, I ask you to ponder, would I be brazen enough to put my reputation at stake? Could I be willing participant to the horror that I was in part to solve? I need no answer as I see you are intrigued as your eyes say as much. Should you care to take this journey with me, I must be adamant in ensuring your silence of said events. Good to know that you are a keeper of secrets also, as you will need to be.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that anticipation was tremendous. Upon entering through the heavy wooden door my eyes gazed over ornately intricately carved ornate furnishing, at all angles. The doorman gently placed his hand on my elbow and ushered me in to another room to my right. The dress I selected for this particular occasion was a silken red, floor length formal, tucked and gathered in all the right places, slit up my left leg just shy of stopping at the hip. It was admittedly daring and certainly tantalizing as it slid over ever inch of skin. Red stiletto heels made traversing the freshly waxed wooden floor a treacherous game. My usher, I’ll refer to him as Ramone, led me down into the sunken room.
This room hosted a bar carved out of rich mahogany, trimmed in scarlet leather, and opening up into a large ballroom. The lighting was sullied and set the tone as one of sensual ambiance. The music that played was a distinguishable upbeat waltz and, for all intent and purpose, designed to keep the guests in a heightened state of light, airy fun. I recall looking around that room and soaking in the company of whose presence I shared. Among the current attendees there were men in tuxes and several woman in scanty, yet formal gowns, and each had their assigned masks. There were menial conversations taking place, of which I couldn’t care less.
As I absorbed my surroundings and soaked in its finer detail, Ramone once again placed his hand on my elbow and escorted me to the bar, where a man in a tux and full venetian mask with delicate white-gloved fingers, nodded and, in a single gesturing motion, handed me an envelope. Accepting his signal, Ramone continued to escort me straight through to the other side of the ballroom and, upon opening a door, gestured me into another room. I stood in awe at the magnificent library sprawled out before me. Ramone again took my arm and led me into an elevator. My curiosity at this point had taken over every ounce of me and if asked at that particular moment what was transpiring, I would have been found wanting.
The elevator, deliciously decorated in gold and red velvet, was excitedly rich and emboldened. When it stopped the door slid open in front of me to reveal a very dimly lit hallway, still in the same decor. Ramone slid behind me and once again took my arm, leading me left down the hallway. We stopped in front of a room with its heavy door closed then, without a sound, Ramone turned and ventured back the way we had entered. I was left standing in the darkened hallway alone with only an envelope and my clutch bag as company. My initial assumption was that this was going to be a masquerade ball and not much more. When I found myself standing there I was overcome with curiosity, fear, and allurement. I could never have imagined, recalling that night now, that things would have unfolded in the manner in which they did.
Would you think me a devil’s fool to know that I was excitedly aroused by the fear that night? Would I be able to conquer my fear and inhibitions, moreover, could they turn on me in such a way to be party to murder? I would think you mad to even consider such before the night of Friday the 13th February, 2015. I unfastened that envelope and unlocked the door to what was to be my room for the evening. Before me was a huge canopy bed laced in violet crepe velvet, adorned with various pieces of rich furniture. I set my clutch on the table and opened the crisp envelope. Inside there was a hand written note.
Being a bartender, you get used to witnessing some pretty rare sights. Ordinarily these consist of inebriated patrons attempting to over-compensate for their miserable existences by acting out under the influence. However, I had never before been made privy to something so clandestine. I say made privy where, in truth, I hadn’t the faintest inkling as to what was about to play out and was beginning to feel a twist in my gut which suggested I would have been more savvy just to stay at home this night. But something ensured my investment, perhaps it was the deep throbbing in my loins, as I was ushered through the congregation towards a plush chamber to a more secluded set of coordinates.
There, before me, was an envelope. As quickly as I had entered the room, I was left to my own devices. Patience had never been my strongest suit thus my first instinct led me to believe that the answers I craved would be found inside said envelope. I did so excitedly like an infant on receipt of their first Christmas gift, but there were no facilities available for steaming it open, thus I tore it apart crudely and plundered its contents with my shaky hands. My eyes bulged the moment I unfolded the note and I knew instantly that my life would never again be the same after this night. Instead I would be required to burden the weight of an act I was, in no way, at comfort with. The terms were clear and concise, it was expected of me that I snuff out another in exchange for my safe passage or else meet with dire consequence. Talk about Sophie’s Choice.
My next impulse was to flat refuse these unsavory terms and threaten to blow the lid on this whole shady debacle. I was not the murdering type, such tools eluded me, and I struggled to swat a common fly without feeling the pangs of guilt so how on God’s earth would I muster the will to end another’s life so unceremoniously? Then I considered the company I was keeping this night. Major Wilson Bettis was well-connected and not the kind of gentleman one wishes to cross. Moreover, he had introduced me to his world, albeit from beneath a secluded shroud, and chances are I would not be afforded freedom willingly, should I rebuff this request. If I needed any further encouragement to fast-track myself to becoming a cold-blooded killer then further investigation provided that ominous extra nudge.
A solitary photo was curled up inside the letter and this provided additional terms which I was at distinct discomfort with. My only child, Nathan, would invariably become compromised by my insistence that this wasn’t for me. I had met his mother, Betsy, whilst still fresh behind the ears and her pregnancy had come as the kind of surprise an eighteen year-old buck fresh out of school is not adept at handling. Betsy and I split weeks later, while my progeny was still in a state of gestation, and it seemed like the only plausible conclusion seeing as her parents despised me for deflowering their princess. I was not present for the birth and conspicuously absent from any subsequent birthdays until he turned five. While it was still suggested, somewhat forcibly I might add, that my identity remain ambiguous, Betsy desired for him not to miss out on a male role model, thus I began to play an active part in his development as the favorite uncle. I knew the truth but he would never be permitted to learn of any genetic implication.
If I failed to adhere to the terms drawn out conclusively within this letter then Nathan would become at risk. In addition, I would not be permitted to engage in a single verbal negotiation as I completed said task or else the results would be just as unfavorable. If I felt despondent over such enlightenment, then that was only set to escalate upon perusal of a second more dubious image. It was Nathan again, only this time, the picture appeared to have been freshly snapped. It depicted a veiled intruder, clad in the kind of get up that I was currently adorning, stooped over his bedstead with a serrated blade pushed up against his throat as he slept. It may well have been an elaborate hoax but I wasn’t in a position to call any bluffs right now. The fact that my hosts were very much aware of my background suggested that they had done their homework and I evidently wasn’t being afforded the freedom to operate with just mind.
Just then I heard a gasp, followed shortly by what appeared to be snivelling, emanating from the adjacent chamber. The fortifications were burly and soundproofed securely, thus any audible sound bite was clearly one of significant distress. Somebody was in the very next room and clearly their receipt of assertive intelligence was every bit as disparaging as mine. Before I could so much as ponder my next action; a sound rang out from the adjoining wall to my left and it began to gradually rise as though somebody unseen was manning a crank of sorts. As it began to lift, my opposite number was steadily revealed and within seconds I was more than aware of her opposing biology. Slender legs, hugged tight by crimson linen, pinpointed by red stiletto heels which were faced squarely in my direction. On the dresser beside me was a blade not unlike the one which currently compromised my son’s safe passage. My terms, should I choose to accept them, were now very much clear and, as the ascending screen reached my new playmate’s voluptuous tightly compacted bosoms, I knew only too well that the insisted masquerade was about to commence.
A shrill gasp escaped my throat as I read the note accompanied by a photo of my most precious gift, my son Nate. Nate was the product of a whirlwind romance with Peter, who I had believed at the time, all of seventeen years young, to be the love of my life. After the first week of what seemed like ceaseless hungry sexual exchanges, I had become pregnant and, with no thanks to my overbearing parents, had basically become their prisoner, prohibited from seeing Peter. Somewhere deep inside I had longed for that relationship with Peter back and the next five years were heartbreaking as I was not the one forbidding Nate from a relationship with his father, but his wealthy controlling grandparents. Upon laying the note on the mahogany dresser, another photo slipped to the floor. The second picture showed Nate sleeping and a mysterious figure with combat knife held close to his throat. The accompanying words eluded that my forthcoming decisions would, indeed, have severe ramifications and, if I declined to adhere to the terms, my precious boy would come to grave harm.
Not a single word was to be uttered and failure to comply would end this game instantly. Upon reading the terms, my heart sank, aware that my son’s fate laid just beyond the adjoining doorway. I wanted only to run from this infernal place and scoop up my child before any harm could befall him but knew in my heart that this was my only hope of saving his life. I lifted the dagger laid on the dresser and turned towards the alcove with a deep breath, heels clicked with what seemed an endless echo of determination. Approaching the partition into the adjoining room, with dagger in hand, I pulled the lever down and the dividing door began to ascend. Fighting the tremendous urge to run with every last ounce of my being, I adjusted my mask and prepared for the moment of truth. As the partition began to rise, a man’s shiny black dress shoes came into view. I could hear him clearing his throat and evidently he was just as nervous as I.
It’s funny how your body has a tendency of betraying you at the most inopportune of moments. Here I was, contemplating snatching another’s life away unceremoniously, yet still I couldn’t help but feel vaguely aroused. I certainly wasn’t exactly intoxicated by the prospect of what I was about to do to ensure my precious son’s survival, but I’d always been a sucker for a good mystery, never more so than when it presented in such an easy on the eye package. Had I been given the option for this masquerade, then I would have selected a similar creature to the one currently just yards away from my personal space. She had to be 5″3, plus another inch or so for those ruby heels and, though her face was obscured by her mask, seemed hand-crafted for the sake of my own intimate fantasy.
Clearly just as nervous as I, she appeared to be relaxing a little on account of my own awkwardness and that likely had something to do with the fact that she too held a blade, similar to mine. Whatever our connection, it was bound to be unspoken, but it didn’t take a great stretch to work out that her terms and conditions were likely just as unaccommodating. That said, how could I be sure that she was even in two minds? Perhaps her brief posed little challenge and I was about to be excised from festivities before I could so much as leave an imprint. We tend to take people on face value and that is all well and good but that painted veil was robbing me of any discernible currency. You would assume that, at times like these, one would not be willing to leave anything to chance but that wasn’t helping me to grip the dagger any tighter.
It just felt right to observe how this played out a little longer before committing one way or another. After all, a masquerade was what had been advised, and both of us were dressed for the occasion. Of course, my son’s safekeeping was beyond imperative but still I couldn’t bring myself to dim the lights on our rendezvous. If ever I had seen a sight for sore eyes, then she was most certainly it. Indeed, I could almost taste her sweet flesh, on optical reconnaissance alone. Neither of us seemed prepared to make the first move so the dance had already began in earnest. As the gentleman, I felt obliged to step forward, but this wasn’t to prove necessary.
Intrigue now replaced hesitation as I approached my opposite number. He was rather tall, around 6 feet 2 inches, and clad in a double-breasted black tuxedo with a black hooded shroud over his head and also wearing a mask, reminiscent of the Phantom of the Opera. This second room was identical to the one I had just vacated. On the dresser were two crystal sniffers and a decanter half-filled with brandy. Approaching the stand and standing no more than six inches from the cloaked man, I tapped on the decanter with the tip of my dagger. Without hesitation, he poured a generous amount of the dark liquid into each glass. Placing my weapon on the dresser momentarily, I grasped the tumbler and devoured its contents as my suitor commenced to do the same before pouring a refill. Looking directly into the blue eyes of this shrouded stranger, I suddenly felt overcome with a curious sense of calm. Forgetting about the task at hand for a moment, I then reached behind me and released the zipper to my crimson gown.
Inside my heart was racing wildly but still I felt strangely relaxed, so much so, that I turned my back to the masked man and consumed my second tipple in one long swig. Just as I did, I felt his warm hands on my shoulders as his fingers slid down both straps and my dress gave way, pooling at my feet. This, in turn, ignited a hunger that had been pent-up for a great length of time and, apprehension now subsided, I turned slowly to face the stranger. I was totally exposed, left only in crimson stilettos and garter belt, but still felt no desire to cover up. Stepping over my discarded shroud, I moved closer, reached up and released the tie holding his cloak together, relieving the dagger from his hand and placing it on the stand. As our eyes met once more, I commenced to tear open his shirt, sending the buttons clattering to the floor. Whoever had arranged this rendezvous were likely observing our every move but the fact is that I found the notion somewhat intoxicating.
Even though I had every right to feel vulnerable given the fact that I no longer possessed the required tool to conclude our masquerade, something had me feeling decidedly at ease. Whatever nerves I had felt previously had now disbanded and I liked the way our dynamic was playing out. Whilst clearly timid, she took control where necessary, which was one of the things that first attracted me to Betsy funnily enough. Indeed, it wasn’t the only similarity. If I didn’t know better this could have actually been her as she certainly fitted the profile. I dismissed this consideration immediately but one glance at her bare shoulders and it was right back on the agenda. Light freckles, so faint that they barely even registered, and just the same neckline I had kissed so many times before we were so callously separated. I didn’t let her spot this double take as our association was already on a knife-edge but inside my head I was processing data frantically.
Then it hit me and with some force I might add. Why wouldn’t this be Betsy? I mean, it made perfect sense to pit us against one another, particularly given the stakes. She was just as trepidatious as I at the offset and unwinding with the same velocity now that we were standing mere inches apart, her practically naked and me well on my way. Whomever had arranged this engagement would benefit more by offering both parties kindred purpose. It was all starting to make sense and this left me with emphatically mixed emotions. Familiarity wasn’t the issue here, but then, it was actually the most pressing one. To my knowledge, she hadn’t quite arrived at the realization part as yet, and I was happy for it to remain that way for a little longer. Should I have been correct in my presumption, then this would be our last masquerade and that nullified a great deal of the urgency.
No sooner had I eased off the gas as that red stiletto touched metal and the game was on once more. She began leaning in, tentatively but steeped in foregone conclusion. This was two things to me. It was precisely what my throbbing member had been suggesting ever since the partition lifted. Kissing those lips one final time was a dangerous proposition and therefore utterly galvanizing. It was also a critical blow to my solar plexus. Finality. This final embrace would condemn one of us to untimely closure and the other to eternal purgatory. Hardly a win-win situation. When our lips last parted, I had to come to terms that they would never again reconcile. That was the most bitter pill I had ever been forced to swallow but not half as sour as the one I would soon find stuck in my throat. At least before there was hope, albeit fleeting. So why was it that blind faith kicked in as those blushing lips hovered with intent before me? Autopilot perhaps? No, I knew precisely what I was doing.
As our lips finally locked in ravenous embrace, I was struck like steel by the instant realization that the man in front of me was none other my heart’s desire, Peter. The threat of losing my son suddenly become shatteringly real but still I remained composed. Reaching up and grasping his throat while placing my other hand in his, we commenced our masquerade. I followed his lead as he span me around and we glided gracefully across the floor. Pulling me close, his tongue probed between my lips until it met mine and I reciprocated fully, feeling the soft skin of his navel beneath my nails as I unfastened his trousers and reached inside to locate his throbbing member. This provoked an instantaneous response and he laid my back against the cold pine floor, sliding his scimitar of sin inside me. I bit my lip as each thrust reached deeper inside and sent me into ecstasy.
She knew what I knew. I knew that. This wasn’t simply two individuals caught up in the moment, raging pheromones alone didn’t fuel this kind of transaction. We were always good at communicating, never more so than when making love, only then we did so through every surging fiber and with no necessity for words. Said filaments were igniting like never before and each subsequent wave caused us both to shudder. However, I knew this was only about to intensify further. You see, surrender was never her strong suit. I was deep inside her, deeper with every thrust, and starting fires that were clearly out of her control. But still I felt resistance. Resistance to accept perhaps? Resistance to commit? Resistance to let go? I wasn’t sure at this point but knew that the answers were coming. Betsy had a name for my penis – the scimitar of sin. Right now it was the rapier of desire and probing its intent with just the same precision. Then it happened.
Unable to shake the feeling that this was to be our final embrace, I surrendered completely to seduction, curious as to whether our hidden audience were enjoying the show. Every fiber was blazing as we reached climax together then, once any fluids had been exchanged, he placed his face on my chest, looked up into my eyes, and mouthed two words gently. “I’m sorry”. With that, I felt the icy steel of his dagger as it began to infiltrate my right side and nestle into my kidney. I knew right away that my wound was to prove conclusive but, if this was going to secure our son’s safe passage, then I was fully prepared to offer my life to make it so. Right now all I wanted was comfort in my dying moments and Peter granted this willingly by pressing his lips against mine once again. He didn’t seem fazed as I bit down on his lower lip, causing his warm blood to trickle into both of our mouths.
I truly was sorry. Moreover, I knew that my apology had been accepted. One of us had to die. Those were the terms. They were made more than clear at commencement and we had both signed this tryst regardless of ramification as Nate was the only priority here and we knew it. Granted, identity was no longer a riddle, and that cast a light on things that neither one of us would have considered. But nothing had changed. Betsy being more stubborn than I, she would never have taken the plunge like I just did. Not this particular plunge anyway. She blamed herself for us drifting apart as ultimately it was her that extinguished our light when it became impossible to continue. Giving up on something that she never ceased believing in was the hardest thing she ever had to do. She never told me that but eyes don’t lie when your soul is invested. Had I opted to take the fall then she would never have forgiven herself and likely been dead too in a year. Not that I was feeling particularly preppy about killing her softly. But I had more to lose on this occasion and we both knew that.
With tears flowing freely from my flickering eyes, I wrapped my legs around his back once last time, forcing my wound to open further. He slid his sin inside of me once again, this time thrusting ever so delicately in precise synchronicity with the music. There seemed to be no better way of this concluding than the way in which it began. With my heart’s last effort to compensate for the loss of blood, I looked in his eyes I mouthed my parting gesture. “I’ve always loved you”. With tears visibly welling in his eyes too now, his firm hands reached up and cupped my face and he kissed me longingly one final time, before reaching for his dagger again. The second incision was just beneath my rib cage and he continued to navigate his blade until the dagger tip pierced my heart. It was safe here, held tight in my true love’s arms, where I would remain until my final breath had been spent. I could feel his own heart thundering as he held me close and, sheathed in my blood as it pooled around him, he wept.
What had I done? Needless to say this was the first question I asked myself as my one true love went limp in my arms. I had adhered to the terms of my cruel contract to the letter and knew there was gratuity for services rendered. So why did I feel nothing but desolation? Seems like a no-brainer when you consider the woman I loved was gone but this wasn’t just a simple case of not knowing what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. Right up to the final twist of metal, I cherished her very marrow. Somehow continuation no longer felt compulsory or even the slightest bit attractive. I knew what she would say if she were here now. Live your life, smile and love, nurture and grow, reach and grasp. Honoring that should have been sufficient not to do what I did next. But that is where I failed her most. As I gripped that dagger and plunged it deep into my own beating heart conclusively, I desecrated our love forever, even though love was the only reason why I did it. Regret never interested me greatly if I’m honest. I guess I always knew it would pay me a visit eventually. As my own breathing became labored and I began slipping in and out of consciousness, the only right thing to do seemed to be resting my head against her chest one last time. For the first time since I had met Betsy and basked in her glow, it simply wasn’t there and I was left dancing with myself.
Keeper of the Crimson Quill