Smoke and Ashes
Victoria has no idea of her real potential – just another mundane 30+ woman going about her everyday business – until a tall man erupts into her neat boring life. A tall man, she realises, who brings a whole slew of shitty issues she’d rather not have to deal with. And then there’s the thing with magic?
Struggling to collapse her sopping brolly, Victoria ‘Tori’ Brown raced as fast as her ballet pumps would carry her. Late for the train again, squeezing past fellow commuters with a mumbled ‘sorry’, or ‘’scuse me’, she hadn’t even had a chance to snatch her habitual coffee for a much-needed caffeine hit. Sidestepping a tourist squinting at the map of the Underground, she managed to ignore his plea for assistance, and launched onto the escalator behind two teen girls, unsettling an elderly man and his dog when she crammed in front of him.
The kids were wagging school, skirts up their backsides and, tuning half-heartedly into their conversation; she allowed the topic to wash over her – ‘he never said that, did he?’ ‘Yeah’. Emphatic nodding followed and raucous laughter, whispers behind a hand… ‘He did so… this long… I swear’.
Interest piqued, Tori’s ears perked; overhearing smut on the way into work made the travel more interesting than usual, but the girls peeled off, disappearing in another direction. Disappointed, Tori made for the Victoria Line, and the pursuing, unsettled edginess hammered a tattoo in her head and guts.
It had come back, her recurring dream of watchers, the vile, creeping sensation they brought, as if they peeled her skin from her flesh. A cold sweat woke her last night; her quilt kicked into a tangled heap, and with it came the inevitable lack of sleep. If she could get past the feeling something waited to leap at her from the shadows, she might have been able to get some rest, but no.
Oh and the lights that pulsed just at the fringe of her vision; they were back too. Except whenever she tried to focus on the damn things, they disappeared in a puff of smoke, leaving her baffled. Not exactly new found territory for her, being disorientated, but this horrible jittery crap made her sick as a dog, and tetchy with all and sundry. Which brought her back to the dream, because those lights figured in her dream and current misery in a pretty sizable way. They had a starring role, if truth were told, so the dodgy goings on of two nubile schoolgirls paled into insignificance in comparison.
Even after a drunken binge when she’d sunk enough to float the QEII, or popped the sleeping pills her doctor described as ‘very efficient’, the dream cropped up, with full on effects of dazzling multi-coloured glory the morning after. Effective my arse, she thought, bitterly.
Moreover, her stalker had come back on the scene – as if things couldn’t get any worse. She chewed it over, what she’d spotted about the creep who lurked in doorways, flitting into shadows when she happened to get close. Or rather, what she hadn’t spotted, because he always disappeared, and she’d called the police, but well… just not enough evidence, Miss.
The cops were right, she had squat – just an impression of piercing eyes, and thick hair curling past his collar. Not the sort of bloke she drew attention from as a general rule. No, she could count on her fingers the numbers of eligible bachelors who’d shown an interest in her over the last six years, and not one of them fitted the pretty loose description of Mr. Stalker man. Racking her brains proved no help either, and a list of suspects hadn’t taken shape the way the fuzz wanted.
Concentrate, she told herself, angry her chaste nighttime activities wanted to leach every aspect of her attention from the really important stuff. Like the daily concern of earning enough to live on.
Somehow, she found her way onto the train. A fish packed in diesel, sweat, and steady choking heat; Tori grabbed hold of a handgrip, shuffling into position, anonymous bodies rammed hard against her. Somehow another half dozen people managed to push their way into minuscule gaps as the doors slid shut. Thrown about in a haphazard fashion when the train started to move, she swayed to the rhythm of the carriage, the stench of humanity filling her nostrils. The burgeoning headache gathered strength. Lights began to flicker at the periphery of her vision.
Saliva collected in her mouth, and nausea came with a sudden crash of pain. Head about to explode, Tori faltered, knees buckling, but just as she thought she would slide in a pool of vomit down the back of a fellow passenger, a set of strong fingers supported her elbow. Surprised, she flinched, and tried to yank away. Held tight, she looked up, squinting against the unnatural glare of fluorescence.
“You don’t look well,” a deep voice resonated over her head.
“I’m okay,” she managed, and gulped as spew made a speedy entry into her mouth. Thank god they’d be at the next stop in moments. There was nothing for it; she’d have to call in sick. Even Juicy Lucy, the office jobs-worth, couldn’t cope with puke, and would come over all squeamish. Probably enough to climb down from her moral high horse about never-had-a-day-off-sick-once.
The train whined to a halt, and she rushed the door, bolting through the tangle of commuters onto the platform, and headed for the exit, aware her would-be rescuer followed a short distance behind. A fresh wave of dizziness attacked with no warning. Diving for the wall, Tori clung to the cool tiles, while fighting down nausea. Mr. Strange hovered at her side and she focussed on his boots. Brown leather, probably Italian, so no doubt expensive. Amazing how the possible cost of a pair of shoes could act as a distraction.
“Let me help you upstairs,” he said. His voice was warm, resonant.
“Thanks,” she mumbled, the gallop of hooves in her skull still unbearable. “I’ll be fine.”
“Nonsense,” he said, and didn’t budge. Even managed to prevent her from being walked into, though Tori couldn’t quite see how he managed it? It was weird, the way people streamed past, as if she wasn’t there. A warp in the space-time continuum perhaps, she wondered idly, and groaned loudly enough for him to add, “You don’t look fine.”
A firm grasp took her arm, and unable to break away, she found herself marched at a brisk pace up the stairs to the not-so-fresh London air. Cool rain-laden wind brushed through her hair and she gulped it down, starved for it and the delicious overtones of carbon monoxide. Mr. Knight-in-rusty-armour’s hand moved to her back.
Somehow, Tori managed a brisk nod, and took a reviving gasp, the sensations of sickness and headache receding. One breath, and another, cool, moist, welcome, the bright spots of colour fading from her vision, and using the moment, she flicked a glance upwards to sneak a look at her knight’s mug. Handsome, she decided. Not handsome in the standard Hollywood way of Jonny Depp or Brad Pitt, but good enough for an old bird like her to wonder why he’d come to her rescue?
“Do I know you?” she asked, and tried, politely, to move away from his rather tall presence. “Thank you anyway, but I think I’ll take it from here.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” he said, and the tone seemed quite cheerful, as if he hadn’t a care in the world. His hand curled at her waist, pulling her closer to his side. “I believe -” he murmured, and the impression of a grin reached her as he bent to her ear – “we should move somewhere drier. I was thinking coffee might be a good idea, don’t you?”
“I was thinking,” Tori said sharply, unhappy she liked the feel of his arm supporting her, “perhaps I should shout for the cops, or kick you in the nuts if you don’t let me go.”
“Tori,” he admonished, and shocked her to silence, “why would you want to do that, when I’ve just saved your rather splendid ass.”
Saved? Mouth open, she allowed him to take charge and hustle – definitely hustle – her along the road, until they reached the closest coffee shop. Not only that, but he’d called her by name and said her was ass splendid, which definitely didn’t happen. Therefore, it meant either impending insanity, she’d gone insane and hadn’t noticed, or she’d really run into your local oh-so-friendly sociopath?
“And don’t think of trying to get away, Tori,” he said, even as the thought percolated to the top of the jelly between her ears, “because I need your help.”
“What?” Weak-legged, Tori allowed herself to be guided into a booth, and he threw himself into the opposite seat. She focussed on him, sociopath it was then.
Catching her arm, he said, “I know this must be a shock, my dear?” Concern sat easily on his long features, kindness almost palpable. “But I really do need your help.”
“I don’t even know you,” she managed at last, groping in her bag, finding instead a half-eaten packet of mints, three paracetamol, half a dozen screwed up receipts, and a tampon. Frustrated, Tori glared at him. “How could I possibly help you?” She continued to fumble about. Damn the liner, damn it, why hadn’t she replaced the bag with her new one? She’d only bought it the other day; so important things wouldn’t get lost. “Why the hell would I help you?”
“Are you looking for this?”
Tori looked up from her search, and sucked back a breath. Black and shiny, her personal alarm dangled from his elegant fingers before he placed it on the table between them. It sat there, accusing, and she stared at it before taking her hand out of her bag. She clenched it until she felt her nails bite into the skin of her palm, and then slipped it into her pocket, the rounded edges of her phone cool against her fingertips.
“Because, if you were,” he said, a faint grin curling the corner of his mouth, “the battery is dead as a dodo, and your phone won’t work either at the moment.”
“Right.” Tori chewed her lip, and searched her mind for something else she could do. Legging it out of the bog window, perhaps, if she could get past him?
“Oh, Tori, Tori.” He sounded disappointed. “Is that the best you can think of, the toilet window?”
A lump the size of a dinosaur appeared in Tori’s throat, and she felt the stirrings of a full on panic attack. He couldn’t have? Surely he hadn’t…? Impossible. Wasn’t it? Did he really just read her mind?
She croaked, “How did you do that?”
“Calm down, you’re quite safe. Why don’t you let me to get you a drink, and I’ll explain.” Patting her hand, he cocked his head a little, and appeared to think carefully about what he’d just said. “Well… Up to a point.”
Too stunned to do more than nod feebly, she watched his tall figure stride to the counter. This shit didn’t happen to her, did it? When did Tori Brown ever get picked up on the tube by an odd bloke with the Devil’s own knack as a pickpocket? Not to mention a voice like hot chocolate and gorgeous blue eyes. I’ll tell you when, she thought, fucking never. Maybe if she closed her eyes, she’d wake up? Clenching her eyes tight, Tori decided when she next opened them normality would reign; she’d be on the tube, or in bed. Something like that. One. Two. Two and a bit… The noise of the shop burgeoned around her, chatter, chatter, chatter, the click of mugs, cups, cutlery … Three.
Shit! So much for that little experiment.
Far too skinny for someone so tall, she mused, watching him, and she suppressed the sudden urge to buy him a sandwich, or cake. That might be going a bit too far, she decided, and folded her hands in front of her on the table’s surface. Now she was starting to think of him like a date. Frustrated, Tori jiggled about on her seat, checking out her surroundings, before he came back with coffee and a big smile. White, even, the sort of smile that could get a woman into a great deal of trouble. Problem being most women would follow that smile without hesitation, right down to Hades. Worse, she hated to admit; she could add herself to the list.
Setting the cup down in front of her, he folded into his seat again and examined her, one arm draped nonchalantly across the back, legs crossed. “It’s exactly the way you like it.”
Tori glanced down at her drink, noted the creamy froth and sprinkles of chocolate. Cappuccino, her favourite. She frowned. Looking up into stormy blue, she leaned forward a tiny bit. “What the hell is going on, and who the hell are you?”
“Oh,” he said, and leaned in too until she could smell his skin, clean, soapy. “I’m your personal demon.”
Tori laughed. It rolled out of her, a loud snorting guffaw, until she started to choke. All around she could sense the kind of stiff disapproval such behaviour garnered from punters all over the UK. Censure came at her in waves, and that was just from the man opposite. Managing to lift her head up at last, his expression was stony.
“Finished?” he asked.
“Come on,” she said. “That’s just ridiculous.”
“You all have them.” Arms folded, his face had darkened, the storms in his eyes crackled lightening. Tori could swear she heard thunder. “Some have more than others.”
Despite pretty good evidence he might be an escaped nutter, Tori could see how seriously he took this nonsense. It wouldn’t hurt to try a different tack. “Look,” she said, “I’m certain -”
He made a rude noise, cutting her off at the knees. “Please, don’t bother to patronise me, Tori.” The clouds in his eyes cleared, and a rueful grin appeared. “You want proof.”
“You think?” Tori shook her head, and played with the cup in front of her. Turning it, she dipped the spoon into the froth and stirred the chocolate absently. Looking up, she squinted at him. “You have to admit it doesn’t sound kosher, does it. I mean, who the hell are you really? No bullshit.”
Disappointment flashed across his features. “No bullshit, eh?” Sighing, he gazed through the window, then back to face her. “OK, how is it I know your name, or you like your coffee exactly that way?”
She shrugged, and gave him the once over. “Dunno. You’re a STALKER!”
This comment appeared to please him as he threw back his head and roared with laughter, an effect Tori hadn’t expected. A surge of indignation threatened to overwhelm her better judgement, but she bit her tongue and resorted to a scowl. “Yes,” he agreed, once he’d managed to get his amusement under control. “Absolutely I am.”
“You are so full of shit.”
Reaching across the table his large hand covered hers. “Without a doubt,” he said. “So let me take you home and I’ll tell you about magic.”
“Two chances,” Tori said, firm as rock. “None and eff all.”
Sighing, he glanced out of the window, gave a soft hiss, and faced her again, every scrap of humour leached from his face. A shimmer moved over his eyes, and for a second she thought she saw gold lacing the blue and slits for pupils. Then he blinked and it disappeared. “You need my help too, Tori.”
Curious to see what had changed his mood so fast, Tori glanced out of the window as well. On the verges, pigeons milled, no different from any London borough, though these feathered rats looked sharper. Shiny jet eyes stared back at her and Tori suppressed a shiver.
“Need your help?” she repeated, puzzled, taken aback once the remark sank in.
“Let me help you.” That sounded pretty much like a plea as he gazed into her soul.
“I don’t even know your name,” she said. Self-preservation kicked into gear for a second, before being overwhelmed by a sudden urge to believe him. She made another attempt at common sense. “What do I call you, apart from weird bloke who whisked me off a train?”
He narrowed his eyes, and huffed out, “You can call me Ash.”