Sixteen

“Wake up!” Marina slammed a cup of strong-smelling coffee on the bedside-table. “I’ve got a proper job for you.”

I grunted, rubbing my eyes; I hadn’t been fully asleep, but I’d been unwilling to face the day; rain was pattering morosely against the window pane.

She was still wearing her glamorous dress from the night before, still immaculate after whatever it was she’d been up to.

“More stooging?” I grumbled.

“I said a proper job,” Marina snapped impatiently. “Drink your coffee. It’s nearly twelve.”

The previous evening she had required my presence on her arm at a performance of La Boheme. The set of instructions she’d delivered beforehand had not been promising, and it had proved to be a humiliating experience. Dressed to the nines, we’d arrived arm in arm, quietly making a spectacle of ourselves amongst the more dignified opera-goers – Marina sparkling with jewels – and taken position in expensive seats in the stalls, careful to make ourselves noticed with our scandalous intimacy.

At the interval I had gone to collect our drinks order, subtly managing to end up at the back of a very English queue, casually observing the middle-aged man approach Marina and engage her in conversation. Whilst I waited politely in shuffling line, Marina gradually warmed from courteous colloquy to enthralled, flirtatious repartee.

I’d lingered until Marina gave me the sign, then approached with two bubbling champagne flutes, my expression one of confusion. By this time, the man’s arm had possessively taken Marina’s waist.

“I say, what’s going on here?” I’d asked loudly enough to attract glances from those around us, my voice frightfully faux-posh.

“Your presence is no longer required,” Marina informed me sweetly, smiling at the man who had claimed her for his own.

“No offence, sonny,” the man grinned odiously, “but a woman like this needs a real man. Not a boy.”

He was ugly. Not offensively so, just ordinary, run-of-the-mill ugly, with blunt features and reddened skin that seemed raw somehow. He was portly, shorter than me, his suit was good-quality but ill-fitting and the wrong shade for his colouring, and he exuded a repellent sense of smugness, despite his many obvious flaws. He was horrible, and it was frankly implausible that Marina would be won over from me by him – but that was the plan, so I had to make it seem so.

People were watching openly now, intrigued by the strange, public scene, my role in which was to submit to this poor specimen of humanity.

“She’s my date,” I’d implored, veering from Berty Wooster to an American teen-flick. Hey, I never claimed to be an actor.

“Not anymore,” he gloated. “Run along home to mummy.”

Make it believable, Marina had said. Don’t give up too easily.

“Why should I?” I’d asked petulantly, careful not to make it too forceful.

“Well, you might want to change your trousers,” the man laughed.

I wasn’t expecting it – it certainly hadn’t been in the script – but there was a horrible inevitability as I let him take the bubbling glasses from my hands, pass one to Marina, and flick the contents of the other in the direction of my crotch.

I hadn’t been enjoying the performance anyway; it had all been very histrionic.

The thing that really rankled was that I was aware that Marina was punishing me for going AWOL. She could have got anyone in to have drinks thrown at them, but she chose me. She had decided that I needed putting in my place.

In fact, looking up at her still glowering – I noted that she was now minus jewels.

I wondered whether the little drama she’d bidden me take part in had been necessary at all, or a folly for her own amusement during an otherwise bog standard exchange of goods.

“Did you have fun last night?” I asked dourly, sipping the coffee.

“Oh darling,” she cooed, stroking my face with a red talon. “Were you jealous?”

“No,” I said stoutly, “I just wondered what that stupid pantomime was really about.”

She was visibly pleased to see that she’d pissed me off. I hoped I was right to let her see it; I had an inkling that if I tried behaving as though it hadn’t bothered me she’d contrive something worse.

“The less you know, the better. How many times do I have to tell you, dear Kit?” she purred. “The golden rule is not to ask questions. Now, this job I have for you – ”

“Does it involve a bucket of wallpaper paste or a malfunctioning hosepipe?” I asked suspiciously.

I’d judged it right, I thought – she actually laughed properly and suddenly seemed much friendlier than she had been of late.

“Sadly, no. It’s a simple delivery job – you could do it blindfolded, and possibly handcuffed. That won’t be necessary on this occasion, however…”

The shop was down a side-alley off Charing Cross Road. Compared to the neighbouring bookshops it was decidedly down-market. The upstairs part made an unconvincing stab at respectability with a disparate assortment of discount books, but it was dominated by a vulgar illuminated sign pointing down the ramshackle staircase promising ‘SEX BOOK!’

I sighed as I followed it, wondering whether I’d been presumptive in thinking that Marina’s vengeance had exhausted itself.

It was quiet in the basement, surprisingly well lit and non-dingy. I’ve always been baffled walking round Soho by the sheer quantity of sex shops, bemused that with the onslaught of pornography freely available on the internet they would still have any customers – and the sex book market must surely be even more niche? Did they rely on traditionalists, technology luddites, the proverbial old men in flasher-macks?

There were only two people in the room – a young women and an old-ish man who seemed prime flasher-mack stock, though he was actually rather smartly dressed in tweed. His hair was too long, slightly greasy and grizzled, however, and an attempt at a moustache was thoroughly sinister.

The woman looked up at me from the heavy copy of ‘The Most Enormous Cocks’ she was perusing and blushed.

“Looks good value,” I commented cheerily.

“I was just browsing – for a friend  – a hen party – it’s not for me,” she stammered, returning the book hastily to the shelf, and disappeared up the staircase, with the tweed-man watching her sadly.

“Half an hour she’s been ‘browsing’,” he sighed.

“It does rather draw you in,” I admitted, glancing at a stack of the same book on a display table. The penis on the front was indeed enormous.

“It’s very reasonably priced,” tweed-man tempted, scenting a sale.

“I’m sure it is,” I said quickly, “but that’s not what I’m here for.”

“Oh?” tweed-man was instantly on his guard.

“Are you Alistair Reynolds?”

“Depends who is asking,” he was puffing out his chest now, drawing himself up straight.

“I’m an associate of Marina Gallows’,” I explained.

“Who?” his acting was as bad as mine.

“She said to remind you of the Fleet affair,” I said crisply, watching his face pale.

“That was a long time ago,” he said gruffly.

“You owe her,” I stated firmly, holding his gaze, having no idea whether this was true.

Eventually he nodded.

“What can I do for Ms Gallows?” he asked, his tone falsely jovial.

“She’s after The Book of Alice.

Alistair jumped as though I’d dropped something on his foot.

“Hush, hush, young man,” he warned me, laughing nervously, peering up the stairs to check no one was within hearing distance. “Let’s discuss this somewhere less public, eh?”

He beckoned me to follow him past the shelves and through a bead curtain at the back. Beyond, there was a shabby desk in one corner and more shelves; but the books displayed here were clearly not the two-bit erotica of the main section. These books looked old and smelt strange.

“Specialist stuff,” Alistair remarked, watching my curious perusal warily.

“The porn is a front,” I surmised.

“My customers value their privacy,” Alistair admitted. “Now what, I ask you young man, makes Madame Gallows assume I would possess the afore mentioned tome? She must be highly cognisant of the fact that it is both extremely rare and extortionately expensive. Indeed, some have gone so far as to suggest that its very existence is a mere myth!”

He was talking far too much.

“You have got one though, haven’t you?” I grinned.

“I’m not saying I have and I’m not saying I haven’t,” he blustered.

“But you are saying that it would be very expensive?”

“Undoubtedly, should the volume in fact exist, it would worth a great deal of…”

I had casually taken out the very thick wodge of £20 notes which Marina had entrusted to me.

Alistair was eyeing them hungrily.

“Just supposing I did have a copy, say…”

I fanned myself archly with the money. His expression twitched from one of avarice to an itch of concern.

“What do you want it for, anyway? You don’t have the whiff of a necromancer.”

“Mr Reynolds,” I sighed, making the cash disappear into my coat, “do you habitually interrogate your customers? Are you in the business of asking questions or selling books?”

He reached instinctively after the money, checked himself, grunted, and, after a brief internal battle, gave me an oily smile.

“Quite right, young sir,” he fawned odiously. “How wise you are.”

“Do we have a deal?”

“Yes, yes,” he muttered. “Once I’ve checked the money, of course.”

“You can check it once I’ve seen the book,” I said firmly.

He seemed as though he was going to protest, then reluctantly sighed his assent. “Ok. Give me a moment.”

I watched with interest as he moved a section of books from a shelf to reveal a hidden safe in the wall. He very purposefully blocked my view as he entered the combination, whispering strangely to himself as he did so. Once opened, he pulled on a pair of white gloves before peering inside and selecting the desired volume. He held it very gently in one hand as he re-locked the safe before turning back to me.

The book in his gloved-hands was quite small and slim – no bigger than a paperback, but with a stiff green cover. He angled it so that I could see the text on the spine; faded black in a simple typeface – The Book of Alice. No author indicated. As I leaned in towards it, he snatched it away from me.

“Don’t touch it, you fool,” he snapped.

“I wasn’t going to,” I said calmly. “I’m not wearing gloves.”

“Yes, yes,” he said, trying to compose himself.

Handling the book clearly made him nervous, perhaps because it was so valuable. He took it over to the desk and deftly wrapped it in thick brown paper.

“Let’s see those notes, then.”

I handed them over, watching him closely as he suspiciously flicked through them, presumably checking for counterfeit.

“It’s not faery gold,” I joked – but he only nodded in agreement. “It’s a fair price,” I added firmly. “You wouldn’t get better elsewhere.”

“No,” he conceded. “Gallows knows her stuff.”

Eventually he nodded, tucking the money away in a pocket inside his blazer.

“Well, that’s that, then,” he said, sounding oddly resigned. He held the parcel out to me, inspecting me grimly. Any humour in his expression had drained away. “Be careful with it, young man.”

“I will,” I promised blithely. As I took it, I felt a strange jolt, like a spark of static electricity. Alistair saw me react, and his countenance darkened further. I nodded at him and escaped quickly through the bead curtain and up the stairs.

Soho Square – a leafy moment of calm amongst the madness of Soho, beloved by pigeons and tourists alike.

The slight pattering of rain meant that most people were passing through rather than nestling down on the benches, or sprawled out on the grass, as they would in summer. The wet weather was to my advantage in making it much easier to read the plaques on the various mostly-vacant benches. Eventually I found the one – Kirsty MacColl, 1959-2000 ‘One Day I’ll Be Waiting There, No Empty Bench in Soho Square’ –  and sat on the left side as I had been instructed, and waited.

And waited.

The bells of St Patrick’s sounded three o’clock.

I shuffled my cold feet, watching the passing array of people, eavesdropping on snatches of conversation in a multitude of languages.

I wished fervently that I hadn’t allowed Marina to bully me out of the flat before I could pick out a book. I had The Book of Alice, of course, but it was wrapped snugly in paper, and too valuable to get out in the rain – and, anyway, Marina had forbidden me to read it.

“Not a word,” she had hissed forcefully. “Do you understand me? Don’t even open it. Swear to me you won’t.”

I’d laughed, but she’d been serious. She’d made me swear.

Did she never read Bluebeard? Surely she must realise that telling someone absolutely not to do something was the sure and certain way of making them burn to do it?

Now that I thought of it, I could feel the book in my inside pocket, strangely heavy for such a small volume, weighing against my chest. But more than that; I could feel its presence in some peculiar way… a sort of tingling, itchy sensation…

St Patrick’s signalled the half-hour.

I sighed; bored and uncomfortable, and increasingly cold and damp.

There was a briefly exciting moment when someone sat beside me, making me jolt out of a gloomy daze – but there were in fact two of them, speaking enthusiastically in Italian, only pausing at the bench for a quick, pungent cigarette. It was a relief when they moved on.

And then he was walking towards me through the drizzle; he stood out somehow amongst the throng, as through they were just a superimposed background and he was the only real thing.

He was a tall, slim figure, dressed entirely in the black, with a long coat that billowed fetchingly as he strode with big, purposeful steps. His hair was black and sweeping, and even from the considerable distance I could tell that his eyes were an electric blue. As he surged towards me he seemed to bring a thunderous charge of his own, making the air almost crackle.

“Be discreet,” Marina had said.

Discreet? How could this man ever be discreet?!

However – despite the churning feeling in my stomach as he sat at the other end of the bench – it seemed that not everyone was affected by his presence in the same way. The sense of danger and excitement which I could feel radiating from him didn’t seem to be drawing the passing eyes of strangers as I would have expected. No. It seemed that it was just me who had the prickling, adrenaline-rushing impression that some wild, powerful creature was on the loose and after blood.

I couldn’t look at him directly. It was taking all my self-control just to keep breathing. I peered out of the corner of my eyes, to register him placing a red rose beneath the plaque – the agreed signal.

With a flap of coat he was up and striding off.

I took several deep, calming breaths, then hastily rose to my feet and followed after him.

I’d been worried that I’d lose him – I hadn’t been trained in the art of trailing – but even when I lost sight of him in a crowd or when he turned a corner, I could still feel him ahead of me.

He headed into Cromptons. Moments later, so did I. It was too crowded for me to see him amongst the writhing bodies, but I knew that he would have headed straight for the Gents. I wound through the packed heat of bearded men to the back of the pub and found the door I was looking for.

A man at the urinal grinned at me as I ignored the free cubicle and instead tried the door of the other. He’d left it unlocked for me, so I slipped self-consciously inside – blushing at the knowledge of the urinal-man’s presumption; Cromptons was a very proudly gay pub.

It was a very small cubicle, and neither of us was exactly petite, though he was taller than me. Somehow he managed to stand to his full height, taking up much of the space, forcing me to squish against him as he secured the lock.

I couldn’t avoid his eyes any longer in that enclosed space; they bore through me, impossibly blue, tanging like iron. My heart was thumping in my chest – a strange buzzing spreading through my body. Desire?

I felt ungainly, clumsy and foolish – acutely embarrassed of myself.

“I believe that you have something for me?” he said quietly.

I fumbled silently in my pocket – not trusting my tongue to allow me a coherent sentence – and eventually located the package. He took it from me, smiling gleefully as he held it, apparently not needing to unwrap it to be assured it was the sought tome.

“Excellent. Thank you,” he said, looking at me properly for the first time – a curious interest sparking in his extraordinary eyes as he appraised me. I could see him reading the raw hunger in me, and it caused him to smile all the more. “Marina’s done well for herself.”

He reached forward…

For a dizzy moment, I thought he was going to kiss me.

But no – he unlocked the door with a snap, opening a gulf of space between us as he detached himself, still smiling beautifully as he watched me yearn, abandoned in the open cubicle.

He disappeared with a crash of the door, leaving me bereft, staring aimlessly after him.

“Never mind, mate,” a man with bald-head and badger-esque beard consoled me. “There’s plenty out there who’d have you.”

“Cheers,” I thanked him lamely, and went out to the throbbing bar. I felt the sudden need for a strong drink.

*

“Who was that man?”  I demanded urgently.

“Never mind that,” Marina decreed, “did everything go ok with the delivery?”

“Yes, fine, but who -”

“And you didn’t look at the book?”

“No, but -”

“Good. That’s ok, then.”

“But I want to know -”

“I want doesn’t get, Kit,” Marina said firmly. “How many times do I have to tell you? Discretion is our watchword.”

I collapsed on the sofa in a disgruntled, groggy heap. I’d found several men who were happy to buy me drinks.

“Did I say you were allowed to get pissed?” Marina huffed crossly.

“I was out waiting in the drizzle for hours – I needed a drink to warm me up,” I protested.

“Well, don’t get too comfortable there,” Marina commanded. “I’ve got another job for you.”

“No,” I groaned. “Not now…”

“Yes, now,” Marina affirmed. “It’s urgent. I need you to rescue someone.”

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