I meet with Deleena most nights. Sometimes we dine together or pop into a bar for a drink, but often we just stroll, taking London's warren of streets at random, seeing where the night leads us. I feel like a prince when she's by my side. All is good with the world. Even my ghosts pull back, as if repelled by the warmth I'm feeling inside. For the first time in years I find my waking hours more than just bearable at best, as they've been ever since the ghosts entered my life - with Deleena, they're a pleasure.
Deleena seems to be a creature of the shadows. She favours dimly lit spots. She has sensitive eyes, which is why she prefers small, romantic restaurants to those which are harshly illuminated. That suits me fine. It means I'm discovering new sides of her every time we meet. A mole on her left shoulder when her bra strap slips. A freckle on her right ear which was previously hidden by her hair. A slightly discoloured tooth.
I occasionally worry that her beauty might crumble if I ever see her in strong, direct, sustained light, that she'll be revealed as a hideous hag, hiding behind a veil of paint and make-up. But of course that's nonsense. I see enough of her, even in the shadows, to know it's no mask.
She loves books, and though our tastes are similar, they differ in many ways too. For instance, her favourite novel is The Alchemist. I always dismissed that as a feel-good piece of New Age hokum, but she argues its case convincingly and has started to win me over.
One night she brings the book with her and reads out some of her favourite extracts to me while perched on a stone bench in Trafalgar Square. I listen to her with a warm smile, dreamily studying her lips as they softly open and close while forming the words. If Paulo Coelho himself happened to be passing and offered to stop her and treat me to a personal recitation, I'd scowl and tell him in my best British bobby impression, 'Move along, sir. Move along.'
Since we spend much of our time discussing books, I start telling Deleena about the new novel that I'm working on. I hadn't meant to share the details with her. Normally I don't reveal anything about my work during the formative stages. The first anyone usually sees of an Ed Sieveking story is when I send a third or fourth draft to my agent. But it seems natural to involve her in my thought processes, to bounce ideas off her as I do off Joe.
As close as we've become, at the same time I feel somehow strangely distant from Deleena. Our dates have been chaste affairs. We haven't even kissed. Twelve nights of wining and dining, exploring the streets, baring our souls, and we haven't touched lips. Does that mean she simply wants me as a friend? I'm not sure. Sometimes she looks at me like she wants to pledge herself to me on the spot. Other times I catch something melancholic in her expression and feel sure that she's about to cut me off with her next words, tell me she never wants to see me again. She confuses me. Maybe that confusion is part of her appeal.
She can be miserly with her time too. She'll often leave early, maybe before the end of a meal or not long after we've set off on a walk, offering one feeble excuse or another, leaving me to stare longingly after her and brood on what might have been. On those nights I try to walk off my frustration and tune her out of my thoughts, but the less time she spends with me, the more I lust after her.
I like to think I'm a good judge of character - a writer needs to be - but with Deleena I just don't know. There are moments when I feel incredibly close to her, then she'll blink and it's like I don't know her at all.
Joe can't help as he hasn't met her yet. I'm keen to introduce them but they keep missing one another. Joe has cried off a couple of times when customers have made after-hours demands of him. Deleena had to work late another evening. We were meant to get together last Sunday for a barbecue, but first Joe got called away and then Deleena rang to say old friends had dropped by unannounced. If I didn't believe that we live in a universe of chance, I'd swear destiny was working to keep them apart.
I've been grinding away on the plot of the book, trying to figure out why my lead character was killed. It can't be random. The story is crying out for a reason that will drive the narrative forward, but I can't decide what it should be. One evening, surrounded by a sea of notes in my hotel room, I mention to Joe that I've come to a block, and in a moment of genius he provides me with the answer.
'The killer works for an agency,' Joe says. 'They eliminate people with powers like theirs, people who won't work for them, who they see as a threat. Our main guy is spotted. They check him out, decide they can't use him, and kill him.'
'Then he comes back as a ghost and makes them eat a hundred unholy pillars of fire when he tracks them down,' I enthuse, thumping Joe's back.
'Know what?' I mutter a few minutes later, having scribbled down the idea and played with it a bit. 'You just earned yourself a credit in the book.'
Joe's eyes widen. 'You're gonna put my name on the cover?'
'No,' I laugh. 'But how about a creative consultant nod on the title page?'
'Are you serious?' Joe whoops.
'Of course I'll have to cut you in for a percentage of the profits as well.'
'Aw, Ed, there's no need to . . . '
'I insist. How does five per cent sound?'
'Why not ten?' Joe responds immediately.
'Let's stick with five,' I chuckle.
'This calls for a toast,' Joe beams and rushes to the minibar.
'I can't believe how generous I've become,' I note wryly as Joe pours a rum for me. 'If you'd told me a few weeks ago that I'd be offering to share credit with somebody, I'd have said you were crazy.'
'Having second thoughts?' Joe asks nervously.
'No,' I smile. 'I'll hold true to my word. Do you want it in writing?'
'Don't be stupid. I trust you.'
I finish off the rum and pour myself a second miniature bottle. I take this one slowly. I don't want to drink myself into a stupor before nightfall.
'Maybe I'll include Deleena in the credits too,' I murmur.
'Why?' Joe frowns. 'She hasn't injected any ideas.'
'True, but we have her to thank for my generosity of spirit. If I wasn't falling in love, I doubt I'd be so willing to involve you in the creative process.'
Joe drops his gaze. 'You're falling in love with her?' he asks quietly.
'I guess. Hell, I don't know, maybe it's the rum. Cheers.'
'Cheers,' Joe says, but soberly.
'What's up?' I ask.
'Nothing. It's just . . . when am I going to meet her? It's been more than two weeks and you haven't let me see her.'
'Is it my fault you've been fixing fridges, TV sets and God alone knows what else every time I try to introduce you?'
'No, but . . . ' He shrugs. 'I've spoken to a few of my friends who were at Shar's party, and nobody knows her. I've been wondering why I haven't bumped into her before. From the way you describe her, she's hard to miss.'
'She is,' I sigh, day-dreaming of Deleena in the black dress she wore when we first met. 'But it's not odd that your friends don't know her. She's a client of Shar's. She didn't know anyone on the boat. That's why we hooked up - we were the only two who were alone.'
'Still, you have to bring her to see me, Ed. For all I know, she's one of the ugly sisters.'
'Up yours,' I retort, and Joe laughs.
I pour a third shot of rum and ponder my good fortune. A book that's shaping up nicely. A relationship with a beautiful lady who brings out the best in me. And a good friend. It's a far cry from my usual lonely, passionless life. For years I've limped along, nursing grudges, bitter at the world for what it did to me, haunted by my ghosts, desperately searching for proof that the spirits are real, that I'm not insane, struggling to hold on to whatever thin slivers of sanity I can claim to be in possession of. Now I can see light for the first time in ages. Maybe love will cure me of my ills and banish the spectre of the ghosts. If they're the product of a disturbed mind, perhaps all I need to make them go away is to find the happiness that I was sure I'd always be denied.
I'm not sure what I've done to merit this good fortune, but I'm determined to appreciate it for as long as it lasts, and if the fates are kind, who knows, it might just last for ever.
Another night in the company of the delectable Deleena. She takes me to a busy little restaurant overlooking the Thames. I tell her about my conversation with Joe. She laughs and says to bring him along any time. I propose heading out to the countryside for a weekend away, all three of us, but she isn't warm on that idea.
'Work's even busier than usual. I could be summoned without notice any day, even a Saturday or Sunday. I don't fancy having to cut short a break and drive all the way back.'
'I thought slavery had been abolished,' I scowl. 'Surely you can ask for a Sunday off?'
'Of course I can. But there's a post opening up shortly and I'm in with a chance of bagging it. That would mean more income, more security and - ' she leans over to playfully stroke my nose - 'longer holidays. Three of us are in the running and we've been working flat out to impress our lords and masters. A plea for personal time now and I might as well forfeit. So, sorry, but . . . ' She shrugs prettily.
We move on to the subject of the book and I tell her how it's progressing.
'Have you interviewed any more mediums?' she asks.
'Not this week.'
'Did you look up Etienne?' She's referring to Etienne Anders, a medium she recommended.
'I rang her a few times. She was engaged once and I got her voicemail the other times. I hate leaving messages, so I hung up.'
'Do you still have her card?' Deleena presses, and I nod. 'You should ring her. I told her you'd get in touch. She's really good, Ed. I've been to lots of mediums over the years and she's the only one who genuinely impressed me.'
'I'll contact her, I promise, but at the moment I'm exploring other angles. If you want, I can cancel a few things, swing by tomorrow.'
'No,' she smiles, laying a hand on mine. 'You don't have to go out of your way on my account. I'm trying to help, not interfere. Just hold on to the card and . . . ' As her eyes wander, she freezes. Her hand goes limp and slides away. Following the direction of her gaze, I spot a table of five middle-aged men, boisterously pulling crabs apart. Deleena is focused on a man to our left, long grey hair tied back in a ponytail, a heavy tan, immaculately dressed.
'Something wrong?' I ask.
'No,' she gasps, but now she's leaning over, using me to block the man's view of her if he happens to look across.
'Who is he and why are you hiding from him?' I murmur.
'Someone I know and don't want to meet.' She removes her napkin from her lap. 'Do you mind if we leave now? I know we haven't finished, but . . . '
'That's OK.' I signal the waiter for the check, keeping my body between Deleena and the mystery man. Once I've paid, I rise carefully, let her tuck in behind me and head for the exit, shielding her all the way, asking no questions, trying not to stare at the table of strangers as we pass.
I picked up a knife as we were standing. I didn't let Deleena see. I keep it held by my side, ready to sweep it up defensively if we're threatened, old habits kicking in automatically. Nobody living sees me palm the knife, but the ghosts spot it and press forward, leering, sensing blood. They'd love it if things went bad. I imagine it's what they long for more than anything else in the world.
But this time the ghosts are disappointed. The man doesn't spot Deleena. Once outside, she slips around the side of the restaurant and stands staring across the river, arms crossed, shivering. I say nothing, waiting for her to tell me what's going on, calmly pocketing the knife. Part of me wishes I'd been given a chance to use it. That part misses the old days. It wants them back.
'This looks bad, doesn't it?' Deleena croaks.
'An ex-boyfriend?' I guess.
'God, no, nothing like that. Bond Gardiner? Never!' She looks up at me. 'Does that name mean anything to you?' I think for a minute and shake my head. 'He's . . . well, I guess there's no other way to put it. He's a gangster.'
I frown. 'What does he have to do with you?'
'He wanted to open an account with my bank. My superiors rejected his request, but I was charged with breaking the bad news to him. He lost his temper and said some vicious things, stopping just short of open threats. He sent a card the next day apologizing for his outburst, but still . . . '
'You don't want to talk to the scary gangster again.'
We share a smile. I'm relieved it's nothing serious. There's a lot I don't know about Deleena. All sorts of dark thoughts had been flitting through my mind. The ghosts look sullen. They start to drift into the background again. My power over them is growing. I almost turn and flip them the finger, but then I'd have to explain that to Deleena.
'Where now?' I ask.
She shrugs. 'Grab a cab? Head up the West End and catch a late film?'
'I'd rather go for a walk.'
I'm staring at her, pressed against the wall of the restaurant. She looks so young in the shadows. Beautiful. I reach out and brush her hair from her eyes, then run a finger down her cheek and over her chin.
Deleena stares back, lifting her head slightly, lips thinning into almost invisible lines. This is the first time I've made an advance. I'm not pushing for sex - I don't want our first time to be out in the open, against a damp wall - just a kiss. Normally I wouldn't feel nervous, but with Deleena I'm petrified. If she turns her head away, where does that leave us?
I lean forward slowly, lips opening, giving her plenty of time to object. She doesn't move. I press my lips softly to hers, hold a moment, withdraw and gaze into her eyes, searching for encouragement.
Deleena parts her lips, edges forward, stops. 'Ed . . . I know you've been patient. I know we haven't discussed this. I know you must be wondering what I'm up to.'
'That's OK,' I whisper.
'I want to.' The briefest, shakiest of grins. 'But in my own time. Don't rush me, Ed, please?'
'I won't.' I steal another short kiss. 'I'm in no hurry.'
'It's OK if we just kiss?' she asks.
'We don't even have to do that,' I tell her.
'I don't mind kissing,' she says, and now she's smiling. 'Just go easy with the wandering hands.'
'I'll be the perfect gentleman,' I swear, taking her into my arms as she stands on her toes and embraces me, opening her mouth, exploring my lower lip with hers, tugging at it teasingly with her teeth, then allowing her lips to slide over mine, sealing the kiss.
We stand in the shadows, joined. I let my hands move down to the base of her spine, but no further. She presses closer into me. Through her warm tongue and lips I detect the brisk beat of her pounding heart.
'Deleena,' I moan, but before I can say any more, she silences me with another kiss and soon I'm lost. Words become meaningless. The ghosts are forgotten. There's only me, the night and her.
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