October 18th, 2011
|07:21 pm - Sunk|
It's now been about four months since I last blogged but I've thought about you every day. Now it's time to repay you for your patience - here are the first two chapters of my latest novel for your perusal. Please do tell me what you think - constructive (and gentle) criticism is always welcome. More than anything I'd like to know if you enjoyed what you read. I'm nervous about this whole endeavor for various reasons so it would be helpful to know if those niggling little negative voices are justified, this time.
Trigger warnings, I guess, for violence, swearing and the POV of a guy who's not too aware of his own priviledges.
K x x x
The Men in the Moss-Green Suits
It all began with a burrito.
She brought it over while he signed some papers after work, smiled genuinely as she set it down, made his whole body go still for a second before he could swallow his cola. Her nametag didn’t even have her name on it.
He watched her go, the paperwork forgotten. She set down the rest of her tray – five large beers - by a large and bawdy crowd who cheered and waved her off. Her smile was fixed, now, her, eyebrows unnaturally high, and when she walked back into the kitchen her shoulders were tight and pushed back. He studied the muscles in them.
She had been wearing a peachy floral dress and khaki army boots that reached all the way up her calves. Her hair was pulled into a lazy half-bun, red waves splayed out behind it like a star. Owl didn’t think he’d seen anyone so beautiful before.
She was an important discovery for Owl, and although he desperately wanted to get to know her on equal terms, wanted to know the creases and the dark places of her personality, he had already categorised her as a treasure, a rare and glittering prize that no person deserved to keep all to himself. In the two weeks it took him to finally ask her out, he often dreamt that she was a jewel-coloured butterfly or a tropical bird and he reached out with his net only to feel disgust and emptiness upon catching her.
It was a stormy Thursday evening and rain was fighting to get in through the gothic window panes when he invited the now off-duty waitress to sit with him. They were still at the restaurant she worked at, Café Osmosis, a comfortable but hippyish vegetarian place downtown, near the office, that Owl had begun to frequent since that fated lunch-time burrito. He wasn’t a vegetarian, but he considered himself a gourmand and had since discovered with a happy reverence that Café Osmosis made the best vegetarian burgers that he had ever tasted.
Rocket - like the plant, not the explosives, she had told him dryly, automatically- was a few months older than Owl, and a natural red-head, with a sleeve of colourful tattoos on one arm and a passion for good wine and mystery novels. She had olive skin and when she smoked, she did so with a poise and elegance that Owl had only seen in old black and white films. She was waitressing part-time here, her favourite restaurant in the city, until her music career really took off – she had been playing the piano since she was 5 years old and had a passion for writing music with a mix of punk and cabaret style. She was a relatively successful indie artist already, with a small but fierce fanbase. Owl had never heard of her music but, the next day, when he sneaked his earphones into the office computer, he warmed to the howling piano tunes quickly, learning most of the words on the second listen. She reminded Owl of a shy deer or a feral cat; she looked polished, always fiercely cheerful and slightly haughty, even, but there was a wildness in her that Owl was viscerally attracted to and afraid of all at once. Still, when Owl had asked her if she wanted to go out for drinks, she had smiled warmly and politely and said yes, that would be lovely, and she knew just the place for a night like this.
They fought against the rain, Owl without a coat or jacket, Rocket laughing as she teased him with her umbrella, to a bar a few streets up called Kathmandu, where she forced him to try an appletini - which, to his horror and her chuckling glee, he loved – and it took several of them before she’d managed to get him to open up about his own life. He told her everything he thought was important but still she wanted more from him – and he told her more, in a completely genuine, drunken way he’d never been able to achieve before. Under the influence of the vodka and her prodding he felt like a god and a child all at once. He told her about being raised by his grandparents, about his boring but stable accountancy job, the story about how he got the scar below his eye – a bike ride when he was very young, a crash he didn’t remember. He talked until he felt bare and exposed, and she dragged him out into the rain and kissed him, hard, on the lips, then left him alone in the night to fend for a cab.
By their fourth date, he was sure he was in love with her.
It was the night after their fifth date - a trip to the rainy, storm-swept seaside where Owl had enjoyed a gigantic icecream and Rocket had worn an enormous orange mac that made her look beyond perfect – when Owl had started to notice that something felt odd. Not about the relationship, he decided with some relief – about himself. It was in the electricity of his veins, a crackling in his skin, a dryness of his mouth that told him something wasn’t right. He sat up for a long time in bed, sweaty in just his boxers even though it was full-blown Winter outside, icy wind slamming leaves into the windows like crispy little parachutes. He couldn’t read, couldn’t concentrate on the TV, was too fidgety to just stare at the ceiling until sleep took him over. It was a physical ache in his bones now, an anxiety that tossed his muscles around and crushed the air out of his torso.
He got up. He paced. He headed to the kitchen.
The steady hum of his refrigerator was already a comfort when he got downstairs, bundled up in an over-sized dressing gown and fluffy bear-feet slippers. He relaxed into the routine of it, opened the door to reveal the cool glow of the fridge, the jangling of the bottles suspended on the inside of the door. His hand hovered over various items - left-over pizza? Home-made cookies? Something sensible like plain old toast? He slid his slippered feet along the tiles over to the counter, reaching for cereal with his right hand, dragging the gold-topped milk out of the door compartment with his left. He shifted his weight, not quite able to reach the cereal he wanted while facing the fridge.
And then he stopped dead.
There was a man crouching behind the breakfast bar, holding something shiny and sharp.
Owl’s heart stopped in his chest.
He fought to remember how to breathe and tried to order his tired mind. There was a man in his house – no locks had been obviously broken, he was armed, he was in uniform, and he was clearly hiding very efficiently, melting with the shadows, even though he was hiding rather in plain sight. Owl searched for a strategy, an idea; the silence behind his forehead was deafening – everything swirled in dizzy circles and he did his best to rein them in. He didn’t think the man had noticed Owl noticing him – he still crouched, inhumanly still, barely visible at all in the shadows, the moss green of his suit and his dark hair fading away into the darkness of the still house. It had been his weapon that had given him away, shiny and curved with gold on the handle. Owl tried to take inventory while behaving as normally as possible. He forced himself to hum, fiddled with the top of the milk bottle, forced his hand to continue to grope around on the counter top for a cereal box. His ears filled with an odd kind of ringing. There were heavy-bottomed frying pans and woks hanging by hooks against the blue walls. Knives, where were the knives? Little shakers of chilli – would that be enough to blind somebody? No, that’s stupid, he thought desperately, giddily, feeling the organisation of his thoughts start to slip and rumble again. He thought of Rocket. He steeled his mind. He lifted a bowl out of a top drawer to his far left and, with what he hoped would be a very subtle sleight of hand, slid a chef’s knife from a block into his left hand.
He strode, right foot forward, to the breakfast bar, slipping the knife up into his sleeve. By the time his left foot caught up with his right, he was staring openly at the shadows under the breakfast bar, his tongue huge in his mouth, his palms soaking. The man lifted his head very slightly.
The uniformed man made the first move, slashing sideways with his long, curved blade, gold handle flashing under the unnatural light. Owl hopped backwards to keep his legs out of the way, scrambling back against the cabinets, his knife jumping to his hand of its own accord. The stranger knelt deliberately, ducked his way under the table and stood up to face Owl – for the first time he got a good look at him, with high cheek bones, a ragged scar that left his smile lopsided through a thin, dark beard. The man’s smile made the grip on Owl’s knife tighten, his nails digging into his palms, eyes bulging for a second so that his sight went blurry. The question of ‘What are you doing here’ died in his throat – now he was sure that the man meant to kill him.
This time, Owl made the first move – he barrelled forward, knife held up near his head and pointed forwards, and then the smiling man was beneath him, twisting his own blade under Owl’s grip on his wrist. Owl’s kitchen knife stayed forgotten in his other hand as he concentrated on keeping the man prostrate and as immobile as possible. They stayed like this for only a few seconds, teeth bared at each other, gasping and snarling as kicks were aimed and bites were narrowly missed, until one of the man’s knees found a place in Owl’s side, winding him completely, sending him splaying out on his side on the cool tiles. He curled up, the fight forgotten, trying to remember how to breathe, and then the man was kneeling by his side.
Owl’s chef’s knife was at his own throat, his pulse roaring through his ears and pounding into the point of the blade. Owl’s breath returned as painful, whooping gasps. The man in the moss-green suit grinned through his dark beard and twisted back the knife.
It came out hoarse and low and Owl shut his eyes against his humiliation and the painful death to come. But it didn’t come. Owl tried to keep taking in breath, concentrating on pushing air in and out of his body, wincing at the pain in his side, tasting blood. He tried to roll over and look the man in the eye.
He wasn’t there. Owl stood as best he could, unarmed and breathing hard, and saw the man by the door. He was unconscious, for sure. Owl staggered over to take a look. He studied his face hard. He was younger even than Owl, maybe in his very early twenties, his scar glistening under the kitchen lights. A little blood was visible in his nostrils, bubbled up against his teeth. It didn’t look like he was breathing. Owl didn’t want to get close enough to check. Maybe he’s taken a poison capsule, thought Owl, a sick, cold feeling rising from his chest to his throat. Isn’t that what these types of people do?
All Owl wanted to do was sink back onto the floor and go to sleep – but there was a voice chanting, repeating in his head, telling him to get out, get out, get out. He didn’t even pack any belongings or stop to take the knife, but went slowly upstairs to change, grab a change of clothes and some shoes and shove them into an old hiking bag, then pulled himself down the banister and straight to the front door, still wheezing and hoarse, and groped around for his keys before heading out onto the front step.
It was drizzling, very slightly, as he stepped outside. He turned to face the door, to lock it, when suddenly he was back on the floor, dizzy, the pain in his ribs singing out. Another figure was crouched in the shadows, dark skinned, stocky and wide-eyed. He wasn’t holding a golden blade but a long length of wire, which he flexed and twisted around his fingers. Owl tried to push himself up but couldn’t get off of his back, felt blood starting to spring from the back of his head. He groaned on the concrete as the other man, wearing the same moss-green suit as his dead colleague, stepped into the porch light. This man wasn’t smiling. He knelt down next to Owl, still wearing his poker face, and whispered into his ear,
“We know what you are.”
Owl took the opportunity to jam the keys into the assassin’s eye.
The man gave a strangled yelp, grimaced, and fell onto his knees, clutching at his face. Owl knew he wasn’t badly injured, just hurt enough to be subdued for now and very angry later, so he fled against the rain in a random direction, trying to stay near houses and street lights. He ran without thought or feeling and only stopped when the pain in his side became too much, when his breathing had turned to large huffs of pain, and he found himself outside Café Osmosis.
By now, the rain was beating down on him, spattering the streets and painting the whole city a darker shade of grey. He checked his watch – it was nearly midnight. The café was almost certainly closed, his girlfriend was definitely off-shift. But he had nowhere else to go and nothing to lose, so he banged on the door and stood back, trying to fight off his urge to run away again, maybe turn himself in.
The manager opened the door – Owl knew he was the manager because Rocket had pointed him out, a man with dreadlocks and a Thundercats tattoo. He took one look at Owl stood in the rain and gasping with pain and effort, and his face fixed into a grim expression mixed with pity and fear.
“I’ve seen you around”, he said.
Owl said nothing.
“You’re looking for Rocket,” he went on, staring at Owl openly. Owl tried not to think about how stupid he must look and simply nodded sorely. The man regarded him quietly for a moment. “You’re lucky I live upstairs. I’ll call you a cab to Rocket’s flat. Come in for a cuppa while you wait. I’ll double-bolt the door.”
The man ushered Owl inside impatiently and he stepped into the warm, dry stairwell, breathed in the familiar smells of the café, and he struggled not to cry with relief.
“What in sweet hell is this?” she asked, clutching her kimono by the waist. “What time is it, even? Get the shit in here before you freeze to death.”
She leaned back against the door frame so that the lemony light flooded the street outside and he dripped and shuddered his way inside, finding himself cold with shock after the warm taxi ride over. “And take your God damn shoes off, you douchecanoe”, she added as she shut the door behind them.
He had never seen Rocket’s flat before. It was pokey and dim with damask carpets and old floral curtains but it was beautiful because it was so like her, vintage furniture and modern art prints filling the wide space, a baby grand shining where a settee and TV would have been in anyone else’s house. Behind the piano was a window-ledge that had been turned into a reading cubby, covered in patchwork quilting and two enormous plush swans; a ukulele and a chaise lounge sat together near a bookcase and an ancient wardrobe in a far corner, lit by a huge lamp with a home-made shade; a space on the floor next to an old black fireplace was dedicated entirely to cushions and plushies, a curtain erected around it to form a make-shift tent. There was no bed, only a comfy old futon to face the fireplace. The kitchen was cluttered but the living space was spotless, except for sheet music littering the floor like an extra, musical carpet. Framed photos were everywhere, full of birds, seascapes, beaches, friends, Rocket as a young girl, posing for the camera.
Owl stripped to his boxers, hung his sweat and rain soaked clothes in Rocket’s bathroom, found a fluffy green towel to keep himself warm, and sank onto the red sheets of the futon. He was still shivering, teeth chattering, but the shock of the whole thing was starting to wear off. Rocket was already heating milk in a pan, stacking two mugs on a pile of cook books. Owl read the titles of the make-shift coasters, wiping his glasses a few times as the lenses steamed in the new heat. ‘A Vegetarian Christmas’. ‘Cooking with the Seasons’. ‘Vegan Cakes Take Over the Universe’.
“You like cinnamon?” Rocket asked, paused with a shaker over the pan. She smiled at him, a radiant smile, but when she didn’t see an answer in his face, something changed about her whole demeanour, a subtle but total shift in her whole physical being. She added the cinnamon, a spoonful of sugar, gave a quick stir, and padded across the tiles to the battered carpet, sitting lightly on the end of the bed. She had shed the kimono, was now only wearing shorts and a holey old band t-shirt. She was wearing no make-up; her hair was much curlier than usual, spiralling into the gap between her shoulder blades. Owl looked at his knees.
“What happened, honey?” she asked.
He relaxed into the kindness, the attentiveness, and he told her the whole story, about the terrible men in the moss-green suits, his panic in the kitchen, the body in his house, the injured man outside, his dash in the rain to the bar, his ending up here, in Rocket’s home. She looked him in the eye the whole time, her dark eyes reverberating with the surprise or concern or amusement of her eyebrows, her lips.
They drank their milk in comfortable silence, fingers linked, before sliding under the sheets, Owl following Rocket. He scooted up to her, his head aiming for the hollow of her shoulder, but she rolled onto her side, grumbling something about personal space.
Owl deadpanned and edged back along the bed. "Apologies, Ms de Melo, didn't mean to give you the vapors," he drawled in his best Southern Gentleman accent.
"I'll give you the vapors," Rocket hissed, giving him a sidelong glare from under her lashes - although not quite a glare because she took the time to smile a little, push her chin out - Owl had to hold his breath to keep his body still and his face humorously blank. He could see his heartbeat moving the covers over his sternum, thought about the blood being pushed through their veins, wondered if he could feel the heat of her if he was a little closer. When he woke the next morning, she was cuddled against his stomach. Her breath tickled him; he stroked her hair. She was just as warm as he’d hoped.
He watched the sunrise through her floral curtains, careful not to move and wake her until he found himself bored and achey, the pain in his side and his head pulsing out of control.
“It’s morning,” he said. He nudged her gently; her eyelids fluttered.
“Nnnnng”, she said.
“What’s for breakfast?”, he asked. “Got any bacon?”
“Only a steaming bowl of screw you,” she said.
After that, Owl couldn’t stop giggling. Maybe he’d hit his head harder than he thought last night? Even after Rocket elbowed him hard in the ribs (thankfully not the ones he had hurt the night before, which were now coloured by a huge and ugly bruise), even as he howled in faux pain, even as she threatened to knee him in the crotch and, to distract her, he noogied her until her hair was a birds nest. They lay together hooting with laughter on the futon, all tangled in the sheets. And then, when they were both out of breath, she rolled smoothly over and threw cushions at him until he got up, too.
He helped her fold the bed back into the sofa and made a pot of tea while she made pancakes and strawberry sauce, flipping them expertly.
He took some time just to look at her, then – the soft lines of her, the broadness of her shoulders and hips, the strength of her thighs and calves, the way her hands were small but her fingers long, the fact that she had an overbite that made her lips pout, her mouth open slightly. Her dark freckles, her fat eyebrows, the way she slouched a little from the middle of her body, to one side – all of the imperfections were mesmerising, hypnotic until he heard her shout “What are you staring at, buttmunch?” and received a flying strawberry to the face.
They sat together on the window ledge wearing yesterday’s clothes.
“These pancakes are amazing”, said Owl earnestly.
“I’ve had a lot of practise”, she said. “It’s one of the only things I’m actually allowed to make in the kitchen at work.”
“I mean it. Better than restaurant quality. Best I’ve ever tasted – even better than the ones I had in France.”
Rocket shook her head. “Stop ass-kissing just because I’m housing you as a fugitive.” Then, quietly, seriously – “I’ve never even been abroad.”
“No kidding”, said Owl, genuinely surprised.
“Nope. Lived my whole pathetic life in this city. I’ve never even been somewhere that’s dark enough that I can see the stars.”
“Shit,” said Owl.
They sat in companionable silence for a little while, each enjoying their breakfast.
“Speaking of fugitives”, he said.
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking that through. It seems like the only sane way to deal with this is to bring in the bounty hunters. I am going to set up old-fashioned wanted posters all over the city. ’Owl Pascal’, they’ll say. ‘Wanted for the accidental and humorously grisly maybe-deaths of two guys who tried to break into his house and kill him. $5000, dead or alive.’ And then there’ll be an adorable mugshot of you, with your scar and your big nose and your skinny shoulders and everything. They’ll flock like fucking flies to a sewer.”
Owl rubbed the scar under his eye at her mention of it. “I’m serious. I don’t even know what this means for either of us. They looked like serious business. I mean, Jesus, they had uniforms and everything. Look what one of them did to me with one well-aimed knee,” and he lifted his t-shirt to show the spread of the black and purple across his ribs.
She considered the injury for a moment, then questioned lightly, “Were they the Men in Black?”
Owl laughed through his nose. “Hilarious. Sure, maybe they were just robbing my house, but maybe they were mafia hitmen or something? Maybe they were, I dunno, the MI5 or - or kidnappers? I thought about going to the police – but maybe they are the police?” He ghosted a look at her but she was staring through the window onto the dirty pavement outside. “I’m scared, Rocket. I don’t want either of us to get hurt.”
“For a start, if they are in fact the MI5, I think they would have definitely killed you.”
“Secondly, what would the mafia even want with you?” She scrunched up her nose. “Does London even have a proper Mafia?”
“I dunno, on both counts. But that’s my point. We don’t know who this is – we don’t know what they’re capable of or what they want with me.” He cupped her face in his hands. “We don’t know what they want with you, now. I shouldn’t have come here.”
Anxious, bespectacled grey locked onto softly amused brown as she said, “I’ve been waiting for you to come here for a long time. I just didn’t know how to ask.”
They kissed, said nothing again for a little while.
“Funny that a murder needed to happen for you to invite yourself over.”
“Thanks for the reminder.” Owl paused for thought. “Maybe we need to go somewhere safe for a bit.”
“Got anywhere in mind for this most romantic of holidays?”
“No ideas so far.”
Owl got to his feet and paced around the space between the tented cushions and the baby grand. Rocket watched him go.
“I know a man,” she said, with deliberate mystery, “with secret places.”
“Anything I should be jealous about?”
“Nah. He’s a librarian and a historian – I’ve known him since I was a kid.” Owl had a sudden image of a young Rocket, sat in the children’s section of the library, reading the Necronomicon. “Classy motherfucker. He collects artefacts from a place I’ve never really heard of – somewhere way out to sea. Anyway, where he works is like a library, a museum and his house all in one huge building, so it has a shit-load of rooms. Good for hiding coveted items away from thieving fingers,” she wiggled her own fingers at Owl in a spooky kind of way, “and I guess secreted people who wish to be spirited away.”
Owl stopped pacing.
“Sounds like a cool guy,” he said thoughtfully. “And a cool house.”
Rocket nodded quickly a couple of times. “Good for hide and seek, anyway. His name is Fancy,” she said. “I think you’d like each other.”
“I already do, if you do. But can we trust him with this?”
Rocket nodded again, excitedly, her eyes closed sagely. “I’ve dumped a lot of shit on him before and he’s always come out the other end smiling with a zip-lock mouth. He holed me up in there for a while once, one time when I ran away from home. Then again when I had to escape an old girlfriend – you have no idea how much of a fruitcake she was.” Owl stared at her, wanting to know the stories, but Rocket pressed firmly on. “We’d definitely be safe with him until this whole thing blows over.” She stole a look at him under her lashes. “You got anyone you wanna call? Maybe tell your folks you’re going out of town?”
He hadn’t thought of that, which made him feel a small, short stab of regret and shame. “I think it’s best if my grandparents don’t know. Maybe I’ll write to them when I’m settled.”
“Sure. My parents wouldn’t care, anyway.” Rocket paused. “There’s one person I want to meet up with first, though. That ok with you?”
“Sure,” Owl echoed, “Though I might need to get hold of some warmer clothes, first.”
“You can borrow some of mine. I’ve got some fleeces and scarves that are yours for the taking. Weren’t you ever a Scout?” she asked cuffing him on the arm and swaggering off towards the battered old wardrobe. “It’s time somebody taught you to be prepared.”
The person Rocket wanted to visit was her sister, Marie. She assured Owl that, although Marie had an exotic name, she was a little bland and, well, vanilla. Rocket whispered the word in a hiss like it was the very worst thing a person could be, but after the strange events of the last day or so, Owl would have welcomed the comforts of being a small part of an ordinary person’s ordinary day. So, as the couple alighted from the bus with hands clasped together in nervousness and scarves raised to their noses as a kind of feeble disguise, Owl wasn’t expecting the grand house, the small but mesmerising oriental garden through which the path to the house snaked, and the beautiful woman who answered the door. Marie had Rocket’s dark skin, the same wavy hair, the same broadness and slenderness combining to make an hourglass, the same self-respect set into her face. She was blonde-ish, the colour of her eyes more superficial, a set of ice-blue frames perched on her nose. In contrast to all of Rocket’s bangles, festival-bands and friendship bracelets, she wore only one piece of jewellery – what looked like an antique bronze key, worn with a thong around her neck.
As soon as Marie had opened the door, she had swept Rocket into a hug, enveloping her somehow even though she was maybe a head shorter. Owl got the distinct impression that Marie would not have hugged anyone else on her doorstep, and that Rocket wouldn’t have let anyone else hug her. “Well, this is a pleasant surprise,” she smiled as they broke apart, Rocket looking as though her dignity had been hugged out of her, Marie looking genuinely but reservedly delighted. Owl raised a hand as an awkward wave. “And is this the new boyfriend I’ve heard so much about? I hope he hasn’t gotten you into any kind of trouble.” Owl felt the colour rise in his cheeks, which Marie responded to by widening her smile in reassurance. Rocket rolled her eyes.
“It’s all the right kind of trouble, I’m afraid. Let us in, Marie, we’re freezing our balls off out here.”
Once they were safely inside, hot chocolates being grasped firmly in everyone’s grip, they found themselves in an impressive if modest living room, of which all of the furniture was cream.
“We’re going away for a while,” said Rocket firmly. “We’ll probably be staying at Fancy’s for a bit – for some downtime. Maybe I’ll be home after that – maybe not. You know what it can be like. Life of a tortured artist, yada yada.”
“Mmm,” said Marie, taking a thoughtful and understanding sip of chocolate. “Another of your escape attempts, I imagine.” She didn’t say it unkindly, was almost certainly joking, but Owl felt Rocket bristle from across the gap between their chairs. “Do say hello to Fancy for me, won’t you?”
“I’m sure I’ll remember,” sulked Rocket. “Anyway, I didn’t just come here to say bye. I was wondering if you could do some favours for me.”
“Could you check on the flat now and then, make sure it hasn’t been broken into, searched, anything like that? And maybe dust Egbert every once in a while?”
“Your piano? That’s fine. I’ll make sure he’s dust-free and ready to rock on your return.”
Rocket looked at her with open affection, then. “Thanks, honey,” she said.
Marie turned her attentions to Owl after that, and he suddenly felt as if he were under intense and subtle scrutiny. “You take care of my sister, won’t you, Owl? I imagine you know this by now but she can be a bit of a tearaway.”
“I imagine it’ll be her looking after me,” returned Owl, and they both laughed while Rocket went back to sulking in her armchair.
After that, it was only a short subway ride to Fancy’s, Owl still warm and sleepy from the hot chocolate, Rocket visibly fretful and sad. He wanted to comfort her as badly as she needed comfort, but he did not know how, so he simply held her hand on the journey while she looked grumpily out of the window at the darkness of the tube tunnels.