The Curse

The following is an excerpt of a fantasy novel I am currently working on. It is out of context, but forms a whole mini story on its own. There are two things I need to explain to put it in context.

First: the central character, Hacronas, is an infamous thief and assassin. He is also telepathic. He has done horrible things up to this point in the story and has just been critically injured after falling off a cliff in the dark while trying to escape a dragon. He ended up on the shore of the river, which is where this excerpt begins.

Second: I am playing around with an experimental writing style for Hacronas’ viewpoint. It is a stream of consciousness type of narrative with italicized sentences thrown in to represent outside thoughts that Hacronas detects without even trying. They are typically completely unrelated to the narrative and hopefully they provide an interesting but readable representation of what telepathy might feel like. It is given a better introduction when it is first used, but it may not be clear in this excerpt without this explanation.  I’m not fully sure of its effectiveness yet, and I may change it to a more conventional style if it doesn’t work. I welcome feedback on the style.

I am posting this for an Internet content maker who goes by the name of Aureylian because her Minecraft persona fit one of my existing characters extremely well. This is intended mostly as fanservice for Aureylian and her fans. Also keep in mind that this is a rough draft and may change to a certain extent if I find it lacking. I’m not soliciting them, but I welcome critiques as long as they are polite and helpful. “You suck” is not an example of a helpful comment, even if it’s true. Feel free to comment on this blog, on my Tumblr account, or even via Twitter @bk_price. The post will not stay up indefinitely, but it should remain up for a decent amount of time, and I may repost it later if I get enough requests.

 

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“Beans, beans, the musical fruit, the more you eat the more you toot.”

The final word of the verse was punctuated serendipitously by a resounding fart, followed by a trio of titters. An odd bunch of travelers passed along the bank of the river. One, the largest of the five, bore the appearance of a bare-chested boy with curly brown hair and the horns, legs and waist of a gray-haired goat. His hooves dug divots into the ground as he skipped and twirled. He was accompanied, and oft-times pestered by, three tiny winged lasses wearing diaphanous gowns of pink, blue, and yellow. Leading the pack was a short hunchbacked old fellow with a gnarled and grotesque countenance arrayed in a fine red coat laced with gold, with a cocked hat of the same color and black buckled shoes.

The three pixie girls spun and flitted, casting rainbow rays about them. Their high-pitched chatter was frenetic and typically incomprehensible to anybody but themselves. Most of it that day concerned the sheer cliffs of the mountains and the dragon rumored to live in a cave somewhere high above. The deformed old leprechaun trudged ever onward, scouting for anything of interest along their way. The happy-go-lucky faun kept dancing along with a carefree vivacity, giving no heed to what surrounded him. He burst into the same verse of song as before. “Beans, beans, the musical fruit, the more you…”

The faun plowed into the suddenly stationary leprechaun, knocking the hat off of his glorious orange hair. Angrily he exclaimed, “Peter, watch it! I almost tripped over you.”

The crotchety old leprechaun scowled. “Me name ain’t Peter, Mike,” he reminded the faun in his thick brogue.

“Your name’s what I say it is as long as you’re under my geis.” He stuck his tongue out at the leprechaun. “And I told you not to call me Mike. It’s Tiri to you.”

Two of the pixies had whisked Peter’s hat up and were playing tug-of-war with it. Peter snatched it from them angrily. They buzzed away in annoyance and started pelting him with elf-shot.

“What is it you found, Peter?” asked Linsie, the pixie in pink. Her translucent wings flung a glittery aura about her with each flap.

They all looked down at the rock-strewn eddy where Peter had stopped. A man lay on his face – human from the looks of him. Blood covered the riverbank around him. “He sure doesn’t look good,” said Callie, the pixie in blue.

“He looks dead,” said Tiffie, the final yellow-clad pixie. She darted around the inert body, poking at it occasionally.

Meanwhile, Peter stared longingly at the motionless human. His shoulder-length black hair was matted and sticky with blood. His clothing was torn and ragged, revealing grisly wounds and bruises. His arms were covered with intricate tattoos that made Peter dizzy just looking at them. His battered face bore a beard trimmed to encircle his mouth. “He’s a bonny lad, ain’t he?” He reached out to touch the fallen man’s hair gently. Then he let out a prolonged fart that whistled a bit.

The pixies giggled uncontrollably. When they regained their composure they burst into an impromptu tune. “Peter O’Pooter, sitting in a tree. F-A-R-T-I-N-G.”

Enraged, Peter leaped up, trying to grab the little sprites, but he tripped over the man on the ground and fell in the mud. That sent the pixies into a spasm of sniggers. “Hey!” shouted Tiri. “Put a sock in it!” The pixies fell suddenly silent, drooping as they hovered in the air. Peter peered up through mud-encircled eyes as he carefully replaced his soiled hat. Tiri renewed his study of the fallen human with great interest. “Dead or not, let’s take him back to the village with us. If we can fix him up he’ll make a great pet.”

“Ooh!” exclaimed Callie. “What’ll we name him?”

“Captain Sparkles,” “Millbee,” cried out Linsey and Tiffie at the same time, quivering with delight.

“Vex,” offered Peter, stroking the man’s hair lovingly.

The pixies frowned. “That’s a stupid name,” they opined in unison.

Tiri stroked the triangular tuft of hair on his chin. “You know, what the heck. Peter found him first, so he gets to pick the name. Vex it is.”

 

Gasp. Eyes open. A foul smell. It’s dark. Not where I remember – what do I remember? He’s been sleeping for a long time. A dragon. Running. Falling. Squee! It was dark in the dragon’s lair, but this isn’t that place. I don’t think so, at least. Can’t catch me! There are others here. I can feel their minds. But they’re different. Not human, not elf. These are more frenetic; harder to keep pace with them. Knobby ain’t my friend no more. I’m on a bed. It’s comfortable. I should look arou… “Ow!” No, maybe not. Over here, where Mike can’t see.

Something beside my bed, stirring. “You’re up!” I think the ball rolled over here. Now the thing is running across the room. Door opens. Bright. Too bright. Hand up, shield eyes, more pain. Groan. “Hey, everybody, Vex is up!” What’s a Vex?

Head hurts. Light is stabbing my eyes. Yay, he’s up! Little things filling up the room. What are these things? Lamps are lit. I can see better now. Glitter on the lamps. Rainbow colors along the wall. Can’t see what they’re made of. Pink bedding, pink pillows, pink shuttered windows – so much pink. I can’t see. A loud fart. Giggles. Oh, so many giggles! Pain knifing through my head. These guys are really starting to piss me off! Little things like large flies swirling overhead, chattering incessantly. Oh, Gods, now I can smell the fart!

“Give him some room!” Someone else is in the room now. It’s a party. Oh, great! I get to play with him first. Some queer little boy with goat legs. Oh, say it isn’t so! Are these fairies? He looks so real. Bugger!

Do I know this knucklehead? Gotta wait for Mike. He seems to know me somehow. Let’s find out his name. Let’s see what’s in that head of yours. His name is Tiri, but his friends call him Mike. Where is my gum? He’s grinning widely. “My name’s Tiri, but my friends call me Mike.” You don’t say.

Wriggle fingers. “Afraid I’m in no shape to shake hands.” He has to be the one who can break the curse. Do the fay folk even shake hands?

“It’s okay, Vexie-poo. Ya don’ hafta strain yourself.” Calloused hands on my arm. He’s in bad shape. What is that thing? A leprechaun, maybe. Gods, it got a good whack from the ugly stick! This is getting boring.

“Can it, loverboy!” This Tiri fellow seems to be in charge. Tiri is pushing the leprechaun back. Another fart. Ooh! A shiny! More giggles slicing through my brain. “I beg your forgiveness. That’s Peter. He gets a bit over-excited when we have visitors.”

Where is everyone?  “And gassy.” That came from a little flying thing. A pixie. Hard to latch on to her thoughts. Oh, there it is. Linsey.

Everyone is laughing. Farts are funny. Chanting. “Peter O’Pooter, Peter O’Pooter.” Peter…no, not Peter – whatever his name is, rushing out the door in tears. He’ll never love me now!

The faun is upset. “Shut!” “Your!” I’m leaving. “Stinking!” I kind of like this little fellow. “Traps!” The room is silent now. “Get out, all of you!” This Tiri’s a hothead. “Scram! Let the poor sod get some rest already.” Meanie!

Tiri’s right. I’m pretty tired. I could go for a game of hurling about now. That impromptu party wore me out. I haven’t actually looked at myself yet. He doesn’t know what we’ll do to him when he gets better. Yikes! A lot of bandages. How bad off was I? “Hey, how…?” He’s gone.

 

“Vex.”

A voice. It echoes, but it’s muddled. A twitch at my cheek.

“Vex.”

Still asleep, I think, but I see light. Whiteness. A long white flowing dress. Scarlet cape. Wavy red hair. Smooth milky skin. Big captivating green eyes. Voice peppered with sweet euphony. In a word – adorable.

“This is me. This is the true me.” I don’t know what you’re talking about, woman.

She comes near, a hand placed on my chest. A gold pendant nestles just above her cleavage. The lust is rising inside me. She raises her face toward me. Her breath comes out slowly. It smells like cake.

“Do you want me?” she asks seductively, her hand tracing a path across my chest to my neck. She cocks her head, a dreamy look coming over her emerald eyes.

I swallow hard. “Of course,” I breathe, caught in the sway of her sensual allure. Her eyes are cast downward. Her lips approach mine.

We are at the verge of an impassioned kiss. “I am not what you think I am,” she whispers. Wind blows her gown about her. “I am not Peter.” Oh, the creepy leprechaun. I didn’t need that image in my head. I pull back. She looks up at me with soft eyes. “I am Aureylian, and this is my true form.” She pulls close again. I’m raring to go. She raises herself onto her toes. So close. “I need you to love me.” Hot breath on my neck. I’ll love you all night long, sweetie. Just stop teasing me. “Only you can break the curse,” she murmurs. Those lips. Almost touching mine. She’s drawing me in. “Only you ca…”

She’s gone. Where’d she go? Hey, girl, come back. I’ll break anything you want you little vixen.

“Get outta here.” Little bitch has gone too far this time. A gasp. A fart. I’m up, but pain. Oh, the pain! Tiri. He’s angry. Peter. He – she – cowers under his blows. Aureylian? Was it just a dream or…? Did he understand? She runs out the door.

Tiri’s face. Looking me over. What’s the racket out there? “Sorry about that. Like I said, Peter gets a little overanxious when new people come along. I hope he didn’t bother you too much.” I can’t let him stay.

I’m still confused and bleary-eyed from my sudden awakening. The each-uisge. “Relax.” A hand is on my leg. Tingling. Drifting off. “Just go to sleep.”

A faint image before my eyes – white and red and soft. A word on my lips. “Aureylian.” The hand grips tighter. Then darkness.

 

I wake again. Candy. How long have I been here? Candy. It’s the same house, the same damn fairies, the same… Candy. I feel no pain. That’s not the same. Shoulder. No bandages. Leg. No splint. I’m healed? Candy. And apparently somebody really likes candy.

On my feet. To the door. First time in – seriously, how long have I been here? Get away! It’s mine. Blinking against the brightness. I’m in the forest. Cottages. Fairies everywhere, most of them near a tree with something hanging from a branch. I can’t get it. I’m still a little wobbly. Ow! My head. Feels like I had a few too many flagons in the local tavern.

A path lined with flowers of every color. Bright colors everywhere. Pinks, blues, reds, oranges. A rainbow. This’ll be a good hiding place. Fairies running everywhere. “Vex!” Oh, damn! It’s Peter. He has to remember. He just has to. Hugging my knees. Just go away, you twerp. Or change back into that lovely thing from my dream. Candy.”Are ye well enough to play?” Fart. Like I said, give me the foxy redhead and we’re good to go. The stinky leprechaun, not so much.

“What’s going on over there?” I still don’t know what that thing hanging from the tree is, but it’s broken, and there’s a pile of fairies crawling over each other to get whatever’s on the ground.

“Oh, ‘tis a piñata. You hit the bugger and it’s got candy inside.”

Piñata. Okay. These fairies have the weirdest toys. Fart. I need to find that kitty. The annoying pixies are here. Great! “You’re all better.” That’s not Linsey. Don’t care enough to find out her name.

I almost wish those fairies would have left me to die. I like this music. Would’ve saved me the torture of this kaleidoscope nightmare. I need to get away. These freaks are holding me back. I have a job to do, and I don’t have time to play dolls. The Dragonhelm is my goal, and I’ve wasted enough time already. “I have to get out of here.”

He’ll think it’s just a normal horse, until it takes him into the water and drowns him. “Cant’cha stay even a bit longer?” Peter’s looking up at me. There is yearning in those eyes. “It’s nice here, don’ ya think?”

“Looks like a unicorn threw up all over your village.” A laugh. I can climb that tree.

Fart. I need him. Awkward silence. “I was just hoping…”

My patience has fled. “Hoping what, Peter? Hoping I could bang you to free you from your ‘curse?’” I wave a hand in his direction. “Look at you. You’re a big fat farting freak, not some winsome maiden. I can’t stand to look at you, or even smell you. So get lost!”

Everyone has stopped what they were doing. They are looking at us. Peter is crying. I don’t care. He runs away. At least the smell is gone.

Tiri is coming my way. Peter’s real miffed. He is leading a horse by its reins. I think he’s cheating. That must be the each-uisge. The “water horse.”

“Feeling better?” Water. You know the answer to that, chum.

“Good enough.” What’ll we do next? The horse is huffing. “Fine steed you got there.”

“Fastest horse to roam any land.” He’s telling the truth there. That’s good enough for me. It’s time for a tickle attack. Faster I’m out of here the better. I can keep the horse in line. “You can have him. My gift to you.” Yeah, some gift. I’ll go down to the river to look for dragonflies. “Nearest place you might be interested in is Lendoal, over there.” He’s pointing behind me. East, I think. Now I just need to tie these sticks together. “Full of elves – you know how it is.”

They are gathering around. Looking at me. A fairy send off, I suppose. Didn’t stay long, did he? Climb onto the saddle. They look even smaller from up here. There he goes. Does he know about the horse? Peter, standing far away. Moping. I wish that Aureylian thing were true. That could have been fun. Now he’s running. He’s got a hold of my pant leg. “Vex.” Not my name, moron. “Don’t go. Mike, he’s not good. He’s unseelie. He cursed me, and he’ll hurt you. That horse…” Tiri pushes him away.

Is Peter still at it? “Get lost, Peter, or you’ll get it.” Tiri isn’t lying. He means Peter some serious harm. Peter claws his way over Tiri. I really need to get a better hammer. He pushes the faun out of the way. He has some spunk after all. He’s grabbing my leg again. “It’s all glamour. You know what I really am.” Peter pauses, breathing hard. “I love you, Vex.”

“No you don’t. You don’t even know my name.” Kick her away. Don’t leave me. She falls to the ground. Fart. Her face is wracked with disbelief. Whip the reins. Feel into the mind of the each-uisge. Water. This bastard isn’t going to drown me. It leaps to a gallop, so fast the land is a blur. But in that blur I see a face, one face that haunts my every thought. Aureylian.

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Hook Ups – Chapter 3

Copyright 2012, B.K. Price

This is the third chapter in the short story entitled “Hook Ups.” Unfortunately, it may also be the last excerpt I can publish on this blog if I try to get it published. I would like to thank Mike Smith for the story idea taken from his blog. You may find the first two chapters in the Fictional Follies section of my blog.

 

3

This is my prison. I’m not incarcerated by walls or bars or electric fences. There are no guards with vicious dogs keeping me at bay. No shackles bind my wrists nor hobble my ankles. My prison is not one of brick and mortar, but of morons.

So went my thoughts as I wandered the lovely gardens fronting la Maison de Recontres – the Dating House. This charming French mansion had been co-opted as the temporary home of the vapid contestants of Hook Ups. For one whole television season we would live side by side and try to make a romantic connection or risk being unceremoniously voted out of the House by the viewing public. There was currently an uneven ratio of men to women, so not everyone gathered in the yard of the Dating House would actually make it inside. This cast party was the final push, the last hurrah for many who wanted to go far on the show. They would have to work the crowd, making connections with people so that the viewing public would vote for them as a starting couple.

A cool breeze swept through the garden, relieving the day’s heat. I briefly closed my eyes as it slid across my face. I wasn’t stressing over making connections. The mass of fools huddled together like pigs slurping from a trough. Speed dates, alcohol-induced antics, and general wandering from one potential partner to another were among the tactics being employed tonight. I wanted none of it.

At least the beer was good. I sipped from my red plastic cup as I leaned against the cast-iron fence, watching the young contestants test their mettle in this game of romance. There was probably some psychological insight to be gained from those observations. The herd mentality in regards to romance. Groupthink. It was probably a very fascinating social experiment for someone interested in that sort of thing. I was not interested. I just wanted to be alone.

Getting out of the camera’s eye would have been nice as well, but I knew there were cameras everywhere, recording every move of every contestant with the aim of broadcasting the most interesting behaviors on live television so that the viewers could call, text, or tweet their votes for whomever they thought should be paired up. Even my sulking in the shadows would be viewed – and hopefully it would cause the viewers to eliminate me.

Would the winner be the brash muscle-bound meathead from New Jersey who didn’t seem to own a shirt and thought it was funny to spit beer all over the adulating crowd surrounding him? Maybe it would be the designer-label airhead with the tiny pink purse who had all the lads around her in a lather. There were so many choices; I couldn’t imagine how the viewing public would decide the winner from among them. All I knew was that after tonight I would be nothing more than an also-ran, and I could go back to my normal life with a nice little paycheck and most of my pride still intact.

“I think Simmy might go all the way,” said a familiar voice beside me. I looked down at my side and saw Kimberly mimicking my fence lean. “He’s not a big stupid jerk or a stuck-up bitch like everyone else.”

I looked back at the crowd. “I haven’t met this Simmy yet,” I said. Of course, I wasn’t planning on meeting him either.

Kimberly perked up. “Oh, he’s the best!” she effused. “His real name is Maksim Vladovsky, and he’s in a hurry.”

I looked at her, puzzled. “What do you mean, ‘hurry?’”

“He says he’s rushin’,” she explained. I laughed. “What’s so funny?” Kimberly asked.

I almost started to explain to her that he was actually telling her he was Russian, but I thought better of it. Re-explaining the explanation would just be a headache, and I was already well on my way to one whopper of a migraine. Instead I said, “That arse holding the nozzle of the keg. I just can’t help but laugh at how stupid he is.” It was true enough, and Kimberly bought it.

“I talked to him. His name is Mike Tripp. I don’t like him at all. I’d only hook up with him if everyone else rejected me.”

I looked at Kimberly sternly. “Don’t ever settle for anyone like Mike. You’re better than that.”

Kimberly sighed. “I don’t know. I can’t seem to get anywhere with anyone here. They all have their little social groups and I can’t get in. I’m afraid, Steven. What if I can’t find anyone? I don’t want to be voted off right off the bat.”

I grabbed Kimberly’s shoulder and pulled her close. I had grown fond of her. She was a good girl, ditz though she was. She just needed some guidance. “Look, Kimberly, this is just a television program. You’re a beautiful, sweet girl. You’re more than the empty cameras around us, or this made-up fantasy of youthful romance. If you get voted off you walk away with your head held high, okay? You show the world that Kimberly Czerwinsky…”

“Simmons,” she corrected.

“…Simmons, is nobody’s doormat. You are in control of you, not anybody else. Don’t let what they think of you determine what you think of yourself.” I stopped there, a bit giddy with the fervor of my inspirational speech.

Kimberly smiled. Then she did something she had never done before. She reached up, pulled me closer to her, and kissed me on the lips. Fully on the lips – like nobody but Corinne had done recently. She lingered, too, and when she pulled back her eyes were soft and adoring. I was too startled to say anything or even move. I imagined Corinne watching this on the screen and nearly bursting with jealousy. But then again, she was the one who put me there in the first place. She had to expect this might happen.

For a moment Kimberly clasped my fingertips in hers, saying nothing but just looking up at me. The look had something underneath it that made me uncomfortable – whether it was because I didn’t share the sentiment or because I did, I couldn’t tell. Whatever the case, she released her hold and returned to the crowd of her peers.

That night we were housed in a hotel across from the Eiffel Tower. I was restless all night, but I couldn’t tell why. Any sleep I got was sporadic and fitful. In the morning, exhausted, I presented a lethargic counterpoint to the excitable idiots around me.

The gimmick of the day was the distribution of keys. Everyone who got a key had been voted into a pairing. Everyone who didn’t was immediately ejected from the program. I watched the ubiquitous Korean twins hand out keys, wondering if there were just two of them. They always seemed to emerge from the Dating House with different outfits. Perhaps there was an assembly line of Korean twins constantly being churned out from behind the scenes.

In the end, six men left the program keyless and vastly dejected. Unfortunately, I wasn’t among them. Even after the Korean woman pressed a key into my hand I stared at it, dumbfounded. Surely Corinne was pulling some serious strings to keep me on the program.

However, we weren’t all in the clear yet. While all of the keys opened the front gate leading to the Dating House, only ten couples would participate in the season’s episodes. By my count twelve couples had received keys, meaning another four people would discover that their keys didn’t open any of the doors inside the mansion. The keys had no identifying marks. It was up to the contestants to try them in the various door locks to discover which room was theirs.

I meandered sullenly through the Dating House, halfheartedly checking my key in the locks and desperately hoping it would not open any of the doors. I wasn’t entirely sure what doors were to bedrooms and what doors led to other areas. That confusion brought me to a nondescript door at the end of a hallway. I tried my key in the lock, but the door was already unlocked. It swung open as I turned the knob.

The first thing that I noticed was the smell – a moist and acrid scent that smelt of decay. It was strong as a drunkard’s breath, and just as foul. The light from the hallway seemed to stop at the door, unable or unwilling to go inside the strange room. My chest became tight with a sense of dread, but at the same time I felt compelled to move into the room, despite its pitch blackness. I threw my arms out to feel my way in the darkness. Fortunately, the room (or corridor) was narrow enough to locate a wall quickly. Unfortunately, the wall, and the floor, gave way as I put my weight on them.

They didn’t break, and I didn’t fall, but they were squishy – spongy, perhaps. I commenced a tense struggle to shift the weight on my arm, resting against the spongy wall, to the weight on my feet pressing against the floor. It was not too different from trying to walk across a mattress that is suspended in the air without the firmness of a box-spring beneath it. As I struggled with the logistics of maneuvering through the strange room my eyes had acclimatized to the darkness enough to make out shapes on the floor. It was too dim for me to see what exactly they were. The scent of decay was overpowering by now. I turned toward the doorway, the light of the hall strangely dim and fuzzy. I dropped onto my hands and knees, it being the only way I could make my way back out with the precarious footing and the strong waves of nausea that had just come over me. My hand felt something on the floor. It was long and thin. I held it up. It was hard to see, but it looked like a bone, possibly human, with a fair bit of gore still clinging to it. Startled, I cried out and flung it away from me, and then scrambled across the spongy floor until I was back in the hallway again, heaving on the brink of vomiting.

I was startled to see one of the Korean twins standing there, her face smooth and expressionless. She looked at me for a moment, then into the dark room. “That room is not ready yet,” she stated emotionlessly. Her words were heavily accented, but not like a Korean. The accent was unlike any I had ever heard before.

I looked down at the gore-covered bone on the floor. “What the Hell was that?” I asked, gradually rising as the waves in my stomach subsided.

“A haunted corridor, for the Halloween party,” she explained, grabbing the bone and tossing it back inside the dark room. Sniffing the air, she added, “It looks like we will need to tone down the smell, though.” She cracked an awkward and creepy smile, completely devoid of humor. She shut the door, locking it this time to avoid anyone else wandering in and spoiling the surprise. “Tell nobody about this,” she warned. Something in the tone of her voice sent a shiver of dread down my spine. Then she examined my key and graciously guided me to the door that it was supposed to open. It worked, and I was hurriedly ushered inside, greeted by a very excited Kimberly.

“Wow!” she exclaimed. “They must have voted us together as a couple.”

My mind was numb. I looked towards the door. It had shut, and Kimberly and I were alone. But then again we weren’t. The cameras were everywhere – except the bathroom. I grasped Kimberly’s arm and shoved her into the bathroom along with me, shutting the door.

“Something’s wrong here,” I warned her.

Kimberly shrugged. “They probably just saw that kiss and thought we were making a romantic connection.” She paused, then said, “Maybe we were.”

“Not with the vote, with this place,” I said. I heard a knock on the bedroom door, followed by a voice calling my name. “Something isn’t right. You need to be careful.”

The bedroom door opened, and I could hear footsteps approach the bathroom door. It had no lock. I pulled back against the far wall, clutching Kimberly closely. I had no weapon, but I would claw and scratch if anyone tried to harm either of us. The doorknob turned slowly, then the door creaked.

One of the Korean twins poked her head into the room. “Mister Jones?” she asked. “Are you all right?”

“Get away!” I said.

The woman pushed further inside. Her outfit was different than the twin I had encountered earlier, but her appearance and voice were exactly the same. “I was told you were not feeling well.” A hand appeared through the doorway, clutching something. I pushed Kimberly behind me to shield her.

The woman shook the thing in her hand. It rattled. “I thought you might like some pills to help settle your stomach,” she said. “I’ll set them on the tub.” She put the bottle of pills on one edge of the porcelain bathtub and retreated through the door, shutting it firmly before she went across the bedroom and out into the hallway.

I dropped into a sitting position on the floor, the adrenaline subsiding in my system. Kimberly moved forward, grabbing the bottle of pills. “I’ve been feeling a little sick myself,” she said, twisting the lid open. “I could use some of these.”

It took me a moment to realize what she was doing, but when I did I leaped up. “Don’t!” I shouted, striking the bottle out of her hand. She looked at me with surprise, but she had already popped two of the pills into her mouth.

Kimberly chewed the pills, then swallowed. Her brows furrowed, and her face crinkled. Then a smile overtook her face. “Cherry,” she happily reported.

 

Hook Ups – Chapter 2

Copyright 2012, B.K. Price

Please enjoy the latest installment of Hook Ups. For more information on its origins, see the first installment on my Fictional Follies page.

2

I’m nobody special. I was born and raised in Mexico, Missouri – the “Fire Brick Capital of the World.” Yes, that’s a real place. People ask me that all the time. I wasn’t a model student. I got my share of F’s alongside my C’s and B minuses. When I came to Europe I hopped around quite a bit. Menial labor was the name of the game for me. I’ve worked the docks in Rotterdam, painted houses in Gillingham, cleaned toilets in Basildon, and even swept out chimneys in London.  My latest stint was as a security guard in Ipswich. I’m no Einstein or Aristotle. Nobody’s going to be giving me a Nobel Prize any time soon. So keep that in mind when I say that on that day, as I walked down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris surrounded by a horde of addle-headed numbskulls, I felt like a goddamn Rhodes Scholar.

Our journey began at the Arc de Triomphe, and I could see in my mind’s eye the cold rotting corpse of Napoleon turning over in its grave as his monument of triumph was overwhelmed by the vain and stupid masses. Our journey was to take us approximately two kilometres along the length of the Champs-Élysées to the Place de la Concorde, where the crowd of hopefuls would meet with various potential sponsors in an effort to get a chance at fame and fortune, as they saw it. The feeling of excitement was palpable in the air. All I felt was nausea in the pit of my stomach.

There had to be thousands of would-be contestants marching down the empty avenue that day. I felt like I would suffocate on perfume and body spray, and more than once I wished some muscle-bound bonehead would put his damn shirt back on and shut his trap. If Hell wasn’t exactly like this the Devil wasn’t doing his job right.

As it turned out, I was premature. The real Hell was still awaiting me farther down the road.

I had been to Paris at least twice before. It’s a magnificent city, full of culture, atmosphere, and history. One can’t gaze upon landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and the Louvre and not feel the reverent weight of their majesty and elegance. However, as I walked down the brick-paved street, the curved glass roof and blue-green statues of the Grand Palais to my right and the tree-lined parks to my left, it felt more like the Ringling Brothers had rolled into town. Throngs of boisterous onlookers lined the pavements along the avenue, cheering wildly at the mass of contestants marching down the road. Gaudy banners festooned elegant architecture. Bulbous balloons and hideous streamers festered and rotted on lines hung across the street. A cacophony of fireworks punctured the air as these hopefuls from around the world approached the Place de la Concorde and a chance at instant fame. The entire spectacle seemed like a warped parody of a Bastille Day parade. Whatever city official had approved this monstrosity had sold his soul to the Devil.

The only indication that I was still in France and hadn’t descended into some tumultuous layer of Hell was the solitary red-, white-, and blue-striped flag fluttering from a spire atop the Palais. Outside of that I could have been in Arkansas for all I knew. This was not Gay Paree. It was obscene. The very thought of this eminent city playing host to a reality dating program was unthinkable. “Hook Ups,” the program was called, and normally I wouldn’t come anywhere near it. But Corinne had managed to persuade me to be a part of this rubbish using something more compelling than words.

Why she wanted me here was anybody’s guess. She said it would provide Hook Ups with a unique twist – the grizzled old fellow trying his luck with the young and vacuous lasses. I thought that was pure bunk. She was always a bit dodgy with her reasons, but Corinne definitely wanted me among the contestants. Maybe she would get a bonus for it. Maybe she just got her jollies from seeing me in uncomfortable situations. Who knew? I would probably never spend time in front of a camera anyway.

To get on the program a potential contestant had to convince one of the potential sponsors to put up a rather large amount of money on his or her behalf. Everyone receiving a sponsorship would go on to the next step, while the remaining candidates went home disappointed. Only a nutter would sponsor the lone fifty-four year old among all the beautiful and stupid twenty-somethings. I was certain that whatever diabolical plan Corinne had for me would go down in flames after I failed to achieve sponsorship.

Having assured myself of my imminent failure, I felt more at ease, and realized how much my feet hurt after the better part of our two kilometre journey. It occurred to me that there might be a method to this madness – a test to see who had the wherewithal to complete the walk and who would be thwarted mid-journey. Now that I thought of it, the crowd of contestants seemed somewhat thinner than when it began.

Clever, I was thinking to myself when the young girl walking beside me stumbled. I instinctively twisted towards her and caught her arm. She hopped a couple of times, put a hand on my arm to steady herself, and looked up at me. “Thanks,” she said. “I think I broke a heel.” She looked down. “Damn it! I did.” Letting go of me, she crouched down to retrieve the high heel that had broken away from one of her pumps. When she stood up again she was holding the black leather heel in front of her. “Now what am I going to do?” she wondered aloud, then broke into tears.

I became instantly uncomfortable. I looked around, searching for someone who knew what to do when a woman cried. All I could see in the immediate area were mind-numbed masses. I supposed even the idiots and attention-seekers had feelings and dreams. Today many of them would have their hearts broken and their dreams shattered. This girl wasn’t going to be the last one to cry before the day was done.

By now I had gotten a comforting arm around the poor girl. “Don’t cry,” I said, more as a plea than an attempt to comfort her. “It’s only a heel.”

“It’s not the heel,” the girl explained. Her words were now coming out fast and mumbled, intermingled with loud heaving sobs. “We’ve been walking for miles and I’m tired and this stupid road is all broken I never should have come here what was I thinking I can’t do this I’m just a stupid hick…”

I pushed her away, maintaining a hold on her shoulders. “Hey!” I chided. “Don’t call yourself stupid. You’ve come a long way. You’re strong and smart.” I squatted down so we were the same height, then faced us both forward. I pointed towards the tall obelisk with its pointed crest glowing golden in the distance. “See that?” I asked. Without waiting for her to respond, I said. “That’s the Luxor Obelisk. The French brought that here all the way from Egypt, and if you don’t know already, that’s a very long ways away. The thing weighs over 200 tons. Do you know how much a ton is?” The girl shook her head. “It’s two thousand pounds, which makes the whole obelisk weigh a total of…”

“Two million pounds,” the girl finished, awestruck.

I paused for a moment, then simply nodded my head and said, “Spot on.” I wasn’t in the mood for a math lesson. “Well done,” I added.

The girl smiled at me. I continued.  “You can probably guess that something that heavy would be hard to bring all the way to Paris from Egypt. They didn’t have all the big machines we have today. They had wooden boats and lots of people who had to pull and carry the thing all the way here. It was hard.”

The girl looked at me with curiosity. “How did they do it?” she asked.

“If you want to find out,” I said, “you can look at the pictures at the bottom of the obelisk. They show exactly how they did it. Do you want to see that?” The girl sniffed and nodded eagerly. “Then let’s go see.”

I had her break off the other heel so she could walk normally. Her spirits raised and her curiosity piqued, the girl walked alongside me contentedly. As we travelled, I introduced myself. “I’m Steven Jones, by the way,” I said.

The girl seemed uneasy. “I’m, uh, Kimberly,” she said. “Kimberly Czer, uh, Simmons.”

“Cheruhsimmons,” I repeated. “That’s a strange name.”

She seemed frustrated. “No, just Simmons. Well, actually Czerwinsky.”

I lowered an eyebrow. “I don’t understand.”

“My last name is Czerwinsky, but Corinne told me to use Simmons instead.”

My eyes shot wide open. “You know Corinne?” I asked.

Kimberly nodded. “Yeah. She found me in a nightclub in San Francisco. Said I’d be perfect for this show. Are you her dad or something?”

I looked away, gritting my teeth. It was a fair question, but it stung a little. “No,” I said. “She wanted to put me on the program too.”

Kimberly looked me over, her face filled with disbelief. “Really?” she said. Then realization hit her. “They must be doing a version for old people, too.” She looked around. “I don’t see any others, though.”

Don’t grab her throat and choke her, don’t grab her throat and choke her, chanted the sensible part of my mind. I wished I had some alcohol to drown it out.

Shortly thereafter we reached the Place de la Concorde, and the Luxor Obelisk now towered high above us. “There it is,” I said.

I saw my daughter in the crowd. She waved and gestured to me to come to her. I waved back, then turned my attention to Kimberly for a moment. “Well, we made it all this way. I told you you were strong.” Kimberly nodded and smiled sweetly. “I just saw my daughter over in the crowd. I’ll go over there if you don’t need me to look at the obelisk with you.”

Kimberly shook her head. There were tears in her eyes again, but they weren’t tears of defeat any longer. “No,” she said. “You go see your daughter. She has a really cool dad.” Kimberly raised herself on tip-toe and kissed me on the cheek. “Thanks so much.” Then she turned away to go see the obelisk.

I felt proud of her at that moment, and just a little emotional – until she turned around again and said, “Oh, and good luck on your old people show.” I sighed. So much for tender moments.

My daughter was right up against the barrier when I approached. “Hi, daddy,” she said. When I was near enough she hugged me.

“Hey, Sarah-saurus,” I replied, using the nickname I had given her when she was nine. For some reason it had stuck with her throughout the years.

Sarah was looking at me with that sceptical look she tended to get. “Are you completely off your nut? What are you doing in a reality television competition?”

“If I knew I’d tell you,” I said. “Corinne talked me into it.”

“Oh, right, the mysterious girlfriend you’ve been carrying on with. So when will I get to meet this Corinne?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. This place is a madhouse. Corinne could be any…oh, hi, Honey.”

Corinne had appeared suddenly from the crowd as if summoned by the mere mention of her name. Her demeanor was perfectly calm, but her eyes shot alarm at me. The message was clear: We’re not supposed to act like lovers in front of the other contestants. That was what she had told me when she was trying to convince me to become a contestant. Naturally, I pointed out that we wouldn’t have to hide our affection if I wasn’t a contestant in the first place, but then she climbed on top of me and that and other protestations quickly faded into a lust-addled, “Of course, my love.”

Her serious face quickly turned to a warm smile. “I’m glad you made it, Steven. Everything’s been going along wonderfully.”

Sarah cleared her throat, giving me a serious stare. “Oh, right,” I said. “Corinne, this is Sarah.” I indicated my daughter with an upraised hand. “Sarah, this is Corinne.”

Sarah and Corinne faced each other. “It’s so good to finally meet you,” Corinne said. “Steven, you never mentioned how absolutely stunning your daughter is.”

Sarah smiled weakly and shook hands with Corinne. “And you never mentioned how…youthful your girlfriend is.” The look she gave me said it all. What on Earth are you thinking?

I shot a glance at Corinne, but she didn’t seem alarmed by the use of the word girlfriend. Sarah continued. “So, Corinne, how did you convince my father to make such a fool of himself?”

Corinne looked over at me. “I wouldn’t call it making a fool of himself. We’re conducting a unique social experiment here. He’s more like a science assistant.”

“Or a Guinea pig,” Sarah interjected.

“It’s all right, sweetie,” I said. “Corinne just needed my help, and that’s what, uh, friends do. It isn’t a big thing. I’m not even going to get a sponsor, anyway.”

Corinne looked at me sharply. “Why do you say that?”

“Come now, Corinne, you can’t expect a fifty-four year old man like me to win the support of a sponsor over thousands of good-looking and youthful candidates. They would have to be either nutters or heavily bribed to sponsor me.”

Corinne cocked an eyebrow. “Is that so?” Turning back to Sarah, she said, “So, your father tells me you work in the video game industry. I was just playing this fascinating game called Sentient where the main character is a newly-awakened A.I. You should check it out; it’s pure genius.”

Sarah chuckled. “I’ve not only played it, I helped design it.”

Corinne gave her a look of surprise. “Really? But wasn’t it made by 2OP Studios?”

Sarah nodded. “2OP got swallowed up by Quantic Dream. That’s how I got here.”

Corinne set her arm across Sarah’s shoulders and the two pulled close to discuss things in depth. “You know what my favorite part was? That boss battle against Maltheuse…” They had started walking into the crowd, chatting away like old chums.

“Oy, what about me?” I called out.

Corinne turned back momentarily. She tilted her head toward the Place de la Concorde. “Sponsors are there. Go around and make your pitch to them.” When she saw my face she added, “Just humor me, okay?” Then she turned back and the two women continued their enthusiastic exchange.

Lovely. My daughter and girlfriend were getting chummy. No good could come of that.

I didn’t make any pitches. Humor Corinne? – Certainly. Prance around like an idiot? – No way in Hell. I did spend the time watching the other contestants, though. They wandered around the oval road surrounding the obelisk, stopping at various booths to meet with the sponsors. Most of them engaged in mini auditions where they apparently talked about themselves and why they were the best investment for the sponsor. I hadn’t paid much attention to the details of the process, but the sponsors stood to make or lose a fair bit of money based on how well the viewers liked their candidate. The longer a candidate survived before being chucked, the higher the payout for the sponsor, but I got the impression that they needed to stay for a certain amount of time in order for the sponsor to break even. It also sounded like they would get more adverts based on the success of their candidates.

The selection process lasted throughout the day and into the night as the thousands of candidates milled about and tried to woo a sponsor. The shops in the area were closed for the duration of the event, but there were stalls on the Concorde selling a variety of interesting food, and I was famished. I knew what Sarah would think of my food choices, but I didn’t care. She wasn’t there. Truffles and crepes it was, then.

Having survived the annoying ordeal of the previous day, I returned to the Place de la Concorde in the morning to revel in my failure to get sponsored for that useless program. The street was laid out with countless folding chairs set all around the central plaza and the obelisk. I found a seat apart from everyone else and waited for the rest of the contenders to arrive.

I located my daughter in the crowd of onlookers, and we waved to each other. Corinne was seated on a stage newly erected around the Luxor Obelisk, along with a pair of gorgeous Korean women who looked exactly alike, down to the same outfits consisting of a plain white blouse with a collar halfway up the neck and tight sequined white shorts. Corinne was dazzling in a figure-hugging green kimono with a floral print. I found myself imagining how it would look pooled on the floor beside my bed. Keep it in your trousers, warned my sensible mind.

Hung-over contestants were still filing in, gradually filling the empty seats, although I noticed that we seemed to have lost some contestants overnight. Kimberly somehow managed to find me and gave me a hug before we sat beside each other. “I’m so excited,” she said, churning her legs up and down while she sat. “Aren’t you?”

I nodded absently. “Thrilled,” I said without enthusiasm. In truth I felt like I was at the graduation ceremony for Dumbass University. All I could hope was that Kimberly wouldn’t gab my ear off throughout this annoying ordeal.

Corinne came to the small podium at the front of the stage and explained the rules of the competition. Every contestant had to be in a pairing by the end of each episode. If any were left unpaired they were ejected. The viewers would vote at the end of each episode for the couple they though was the best pairing. The couple receiving the lowest vote total at the end of each episode would be ejected at the end of an extra results episode. The couple that prevailed at the end would either split the winnings or share them as a romantic couple, whichever they preferred. Blah blah blah. I just wanted to get this over with and go back home.

After her speech, Corinne began reading the name of each sponsored contestant and their sponsor. As each name was read the contestant would stand up screaming with glee and either jump up and down or jog in place excitedly before going up one side of the stage or the other and receiving a large sticky-backed tag from one of the twins with their sponsor’s name on it. When Kimberly’s name was called she did the same, then gave me a hug before running up to get her tag. Vanderlinde’s, the tag said. I had never heard of that company.

As the ceremony continued I slouched more and more in my chair, dozing off all the while, until something set me wide awake. Corinne’s voice hummed over the loudspeakers. “And last, we have a late entry into the mix. A new sponsor, Quantic Dream, has chosen Steven Jones.”

My eyes were wide open now, and I shot up in my chair. I looked up at Corinne in alarm. She was smiling mischievously and beckoning for me to come up to the twin who had my sticky tag at the ready. Kimberly was delighted and waved enthusiastically at me from the stage. I looked over at Sarah. She had her cell phone against her ear and she was smiling playfully as well. It was then that I realized the fix had been in from the start. My daughter and my girlfriend were in cahoots. I slumped down again, groaning. The sensible part of my mind was playing I-told-you-so. That’s what you get for letting your John Thomas make the decisions for you, mate.

God I needed a drink to make that damnable voice just sod off!

Hook Ups – Chapter 1

Copyright 2012, B.K. Price

What follows is the consolidated first chapter from a short story I am writing called Hook Ups (it was previously released in two parts). This is based on a post I read on WordPress by a blogger named Mike Smith. He related a dream he had and it spawned this idea for a horror story about a new reality show called Hook Ups that is more than what it seems. The idea percolated in my brain and I had to start writing it. I’ve been having a blast. This is a first draft, and it doesn’t get into the horror aspect yet, but there will be blood, believe you me. Since I hope to send this in for publishing whenever I finish it, I can’t put the whole story here, but I can put a few excerpts to see if you folks enjoy it. And be sure to stop by Mike’s blog, MikesFilmTalk, to see the excellent articles he has written, including the one that inspired this story: The Dating House. All of the story’s excerpts can be found in the Fictional Follies section of my blog. I will update them as I revise the draft, so check back again if you are interested in following the updates.

1

Kimberly Czerwinski drummed her fingers against the luxurious leather armrest. Her seat was comfortable – more comfortable than any car seat she had ever been on. She could feel the gentle vibration of the limousine’s motor through the lush carpeting beneath her feet. It should have been an exciting moment for her, escorted in a swanky limo like a V.I.P., but she couldn’t help but feel nervous and a little vulnerable. The figure-hugging blue dress she wore made her feel almost naked. Her legs were crossed vice-tight and she kept pulling at the hem of her mini-dress.

The champagne bottle stood unopened in its tub of ice, and the long-stemmed glasses rattled in their lacquered wooden slots. Normally she would have popped the cork already and had more than her share of the bubbly. But instead she sat board still with her tiny black purse clutched closely in her lap. The windows were too darkened to see much of the world outside, and the black panel that separated her compartment from the driver’s section made her uneasy for some reason. She wished her girlfriends were there.

She was not alone, however. Off to her right, sitting on the sideways seats, was the woman who had approached her in the night club. Concentrate as she might, Kimberly couldn’t remember the woman’s name. She appeared to be Asian, and she wore a high-necked sleeveless white blouse and tight shorts covered with glittering white sequins. Together they looked like two party girls out for a night on the town.

“We’re getting close to the studio,” the woman said without a hint of an accent. Kimberly stared intently at her elegant features. “We need to make sure everything’s ready.”

The woman eyed her up and down, paying close attention to Kimberly’s smooth white legs. There seemed to be something beneath that stare, something carnal. Kimberly scooted more squarely into her seat and pulled at the all-too-high hem of her dress uncomfortably, darting an anxious glance at the tinted window. She remembered the woman out on the dance floor, always hovering near her like a sparkling ghost, hips gyrating to the music. This was San Francisco, after all.

“That dress will do for now,” she stated flatly. “We can work on wardrobe after the auditions are finished.” She was one to talk, dressed like she was. “About the name, though – how do you pronounce it?”

“Kim-buhr…”

“No, no, the last name,” the woman said.

“Oh,” said Kimberly. “Cher-vin-skee.” Kimberly pronounced it slowly.

The Asian woman frowned. “Really?”

“It’s Polish,” Kimberly explained.

“Yeah,” said the woman, “I don’t think so. Too ethnic.”

“But it’s my name,” Kimberly retorted.

The woman furrowed her brow in thought for a moment and then achieved a wide-eyed idea, raising her pen in the air. “Simmons,” she said. “That’s a much better name.” She scribbled in her notebook.

“But my name is…” Kimberly began.

The woman patted Kimberly’s knee. “Trust me. The audience will respond better to a name like Simmons. Cherwhatsit is just too hard to relate to, and it looks like a mess on the screen.” She leaned back. “Don’t worry. We’ll put the right name on your check.”

My check, thought Kimberly. She’d be on television and getting paid! It was all like a dream. One minute she was out in the night club partying with her friends, the next she was being driven to an audition for a new reality television show in style. A smile slid across her face. She could get used to this.

“Besides, actors use false names all the time. You don’t think Tom Cruise was really born with that name, do you?” Kimberly couldn’t argue with that. He had probably been born Maynard Dalrymple or something hideous like that.

“The accent I’m not so in love with,” the woman confessed.

“What accent?” Kimberly was getting a little defensive.

“That whole Kansas bumpkin thing.”

“Arkansas,” Kimberly corrected.

The woman rolled her eyes. “Whatever. You know, maybe it actually could work. You could be the Mary-Ann of the show. You know, the cute country girl. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s not like there’s time for a voice coach anyway.”

Kimberly felt the excitement rise. “Where is this show going to be? Your country?”

“My country?”

“Yeah,” said Kimberly. “Japan.”

The woman smiled and shook her head. “Oh no, honey, I’m not Japanese. I’m Korean.”

Kimberly let out a heavy breath, relieved. “Oh, thank God! I totally forgot your name, Corinne. I was too embarrassed to say anything.”

The woman’s face contorted in confusion. “What? I, uh, no, that’s not my na… You know, forget it. We’re not going to be in Japan. We’ll be in Paris.”

“Paris, Arkansas?” said Kimberly, incredulous.

“Um, no – wait, there’s a place called Paris in Arkansas?”

“Yeah,” said Kimberly. “It’s about fifty miles away from my hometown. Their cheerleading team beat ours in the Logan County Varsity Championships my senior year.” Under her breath she muttered, “Stupid Eagles!”

The woman huffed in amusement. “Well, as much fun as it would be to hold the show in Paris, Arkansas, I’m afraid we’ll have to settle for Paris, France.”

Kimberly had pulled out a compact and was pursing her lips while she checked her makeup in its tiny mirror. “I’ve never been to that state.”

The Asian woman didn’t even look up from her notebook as she said, “Well I’m sure you’ll love it.” Smiling, she shook her head slowly, “You’re going to fit right in.”

*    *    *    *

I was nursing a half of Scotch when she walked in – tight sequined red dress, stiletto heels, legs that went on forever. Her straight black hair came down to her shoulders, framing strikingly beautiful Korean features. Intrigued, I leaned back against the bar, trying to drown out the blaring sounds of the hip-hop music and the inane chattering of the berks dancing on the floor, if you could call it dancing. Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but it looked more like a grand mal seizure set to music.

The Korean woman had spotted me, and I could tell that she was just as intrigued. She began sauntering towards the bar, and fortunately nobody was beside me. Her steps were supermodel suave, hips churning gracefully. I braved a short peek at her cleavage. It shivered invitingly with each movement. She didn’t sit down on the stool as much as she poured herself into her seat, smooth as water flowing, giving me the perfect view of that trim and shapely backside of hers. God, I was torturing myself!

Her smile hadn’t fully committed itself to her face yet, but her eyes provided the full story, roaming from my face downward. It was sly, that look, an expression of curiosity mixed with come-hither seduction. I looked down at my tired old clothes. Surely she was pickled looking at me like that. Or a prostitute.

She turned her face away from me, arms resting on the bar, pouty lips held still as if in anticipation of what might come out of them. “Drinks here any good?” she asked in a silky-smooth intonation that wasn’t even slightly inflected with an Asian accent. If anything it sounded a bit Canadian.

I took my cue from her and looked forward as well. “Decent,” I said. I held up my glass and shook it back and forth as I turned my head just enough to spy her out of the corner of my eye. “Scotch is, at least.”

She swung her stool around until one elbow was resting on the bar and she was facing me. I swung around to face her in synchronized harmony. Her brown eyes fixed onto mine. “Pleasure,” she said, extending her hand.

The way she said it had me wondering whether the pleasure was in our meeting or a promise of things to come. Something deep down hoped for the latter. She’s at least half your age, warned the sensible part of my brain. I took a drink in an attempt to kill it.

I grabbed the proffered hand and with one pump we were chums. “Steven,” I said in a terse introduction. My mouth felt dry. My heart beat heavily in my chest. “Ah, gyuh…” I stammered. Get it together, you old coot! I took another swig of my Scotch. “Y…you, uh, remind me a little of Gaemi Halkki.” That’s it, old boy, pay her a compliment.

Her face took a sudden turn from warm and inviting to cold and lethal. Her hand snapped back to her side. “What did you just call me?” she asked through her teeth.

I leaned backward, sputtering and grasping for words. I couldn’t understand what had just happened. “I’m…I’m sorry,” I finally apologized. “I didn’t know you dislike her so much.”

The woman’s brows furrowed. “Dislike who?”

“G…Gaemi Halkki,” I said. “The Korean pop singer.”

The woman’s eyes fluttered. A look of relief softened her face and turned up the corners of her mouth. “Oh, God!” she exclaimed as she started to laugh. “I thought you were saying I looked like an aardvark.”

I laughed with her, although I didn’t know why. “What?”

She put a hand on my arm and spent a moment trying to stop laughing. “Gaemihalkki. It means aardvark in Korean.”

I now knew what we were laughing about. “Oh, bloody hell!” I said.  “I can’t believe I said that.” Taking hold of her hand once more, I shook it again and said, “Let me re-introduce myself. My name’s Steven, and I’m a right idiot.”

The woman giggled and enthusiastically returned my handshake. “Well, Steven Idiot, I am…” She paused suddenly, looking skyward as if trying to remember her name. Finally, she said, “…Corinne.” Her lips twisted in amusement at the mention of her name. If there was a joke in that, I didn’t understand it. “I’m surprised you knew my ethnicity. Most people think I’m Japanese.”

“Well, I’m not a complete idiot. It’s more like seventy-five percent idiot, thirty percent excellent mathematician.”

Corinne laughed again. “Don’t forget to squeeze comedian in there.” My eyes traveled down her dress and lingered at the shadowed line where her smooth white legs emerged. God, did I ever want to squeeze something in there! Get it out of your mind, came that damned sensible voice again. I downed some more Scotch. Why wouldn’t the voice die already?

Pulling my brain away from the lewd paths it was following, I said, “Between me and my daughter, we’ve been exposed to enough Japanese and Korean entertainment to know the difference by now.”

Corinne frowned and looked down at my lap. I felt a little uncomfortable. Like most men, I don’t like women frowning when they look at my crotch. “Your daughter?” Corinne repeated. “I…well, I thought you…” She made a gesture toward my crotch. Only it wasn’t my crotch.

I held up my hand, finally understanding. “Oh, no, I’m not married,” I said, wiggling my fingers just to emphasize the absence of a wedding band. “Twice divorced, however.” That suggested she wasn’t a prostitute out to turn a trick. A hooker probably wouldn’t care if I was married. Of course, she could have just been playing me for a fool.

“How is your daughter coping with your divorces?” Corinne asked. I sensed genuine concern in her voice.

“Well,” I said. “She’s twenty-two, and they happened quite a long time ago.”

Corinne looked me over with a sly smile. “Twenty-two? You’re too young to have a twenty-two year old daughter.”

Too young? I was fifty-four, and I looked it. This Corinne was either plumb off her rocker or drunk off her sweet young arse – or a lying street-whore trying to crack on to me so she could bugger off with a few quid. She’s dodgy, mate, said the sensible voice, and for once I was willing to listen to it.

“What’s your angle?” I asked.

“I beg your pardon?” Corinne responded.

“The flattery. What’s your motive, hun? You out for a shag and a blag?”

“A what?” she asked.

“You know, take the gullible sod back to your flat, get him rat-arsed, and then have a few thrusts under the covers before you make off with his valuables.”

Corinne surged up from her stool. “Why I never! Are you calling me a hooker?”

I stood up as well, the alcohol raging in my system. “Well, I sure as Hell don’t look too young to have a twenty-two year old daughter. You have to be running some sort of scam to lie to my face like that.”

Corinne’s mouth was open, but nothing was coming out. She just huffed while her eyes shot venom at me. She grabbed her purse from the bar and spun around, storming toward the door. Before she got there, she turned, her eyes streaming with tears. “I wasn’t trying to trick you,” she said, her tone subdued. “I just wanted to get to know you.” Then she turned around again and went through the door.

I downed the remainder of my Scotch and slammed the glass down on the bar. The nutters out prancing on the dance floor remained oblivious to everything except their ridiculous gyrating. I looked towards the door once again. God I was a fool! No wonder I was still single after all this time.

Out on the pavement I looked to the sky. Smelt like rain. I didn’t want to linger too long. A couple of metres away a limousine was ticking over. Limousines weren’t a common sight in this part of Ipswich. I couldn’t see through the tinted windows, so I didn’t know who was inside, but I didn’t really care, either. Probably just some middle-class bloke larging it in a rented limo for the day. I just needed to get back to my flat and sleep the Scotch off before I made even more of a mess of things.

It was while I was sleeping off that Scotch that I was awakened by a knock on my door. My trousers were on the floor, but I didn’t bother putting them on before I answered it. Whoever it was would just have to live with it. I whipped the door open, intent on exclaiming, “Do you have any idea what time it is?” except I didn’t even know what time it was. But when I saw who it was beyond the door all words escaped me except one. “Corinne!”

There was no time for further words when she came at me, lips locking onto mine. From that point on we were all hands and lips, driven only by the need we had for each other. Her dress was off, then we spun onto the bed and fell into urgent lovemaking until we lay sweaty and knackered with the bedding all askew.

I was just starting to doze off when Corinne started up with some pillow talk. “So tell me more about your daughter,” she said, swirling a finger around my chest.

I blinked my eyes, forcing them wide open to drive off the haze of sleep. “She’s…well, she’s great. Smart, successful. She works for a company called Quantic Dream. She lives in Paris now.”

That bemused smile slid across Corinne’s face again. “You’re talking about the one in France, right?”

I felt like I was hearing a joke that I wasn’t in on. “Uh, yes. Is there another one?”

Corinne patted my chest. “I just wanted to be sure you weren’t talking about Arkansas or something.” She snuggled against me, then said, “Do you get to see her much?”

I shook my head. “Only when she’s on holiday. Why?”

Corinne raised herself up and looked at me with her soft brown eyes. “Because I think I know of a way you can see a lot of her.”