London was a vast confusion. A sporadically beautiful confusion, granted, with centuries jammed together in a crazy patchwork, twelfth-century chapels cozied up against Seventies laundromats and Nineties pawnshops. Enticing scents of cinnamon, spicy curries and exotic spices wove together with sour beer, hot tires, the musk of bodies jammed together and garbage left to cook too long.
It was New York on acid, on quaaludes; New York left to stew for several hundred more years. Pax found that he rather liked it.
After spending a week’s worth of afternoons wandering free museums and galleries and another couple of days peering longingly at the outsides of ones he could never afford to get into, Pax was lost – again – in some neighborhood that featured a high number of upscale houses and schools and the usual unexpected pockets of poverty. He fingered the few coins and bills in the front pocket of his third-best cords, holding a slightly tattered umbrella against the moisture in the air that couldn’t quite decide whether it wanted to be rain or mist. If he wasn’t mistaken, that was a noodle shop on the corner ahead, and they tended to have good – and more importantly, cheap – food.
Cheap was important to a jazz musician visiting London on a brief and tightly funded tour. The Earl Thomas Quintet was kept busy playing almost every night, but none of the venues paid particularly well and by the time the take was divided five ways, they were all struggling to get by. Cramming all five of them into one cheap boarding room helped, but they couldn’t agree enough on food to share that expense more than once or twice a week.
Mind on possible food and keeping his only decent sport jacket dry, he never caught the faintest warning as a dark-clad figure burst out of nowhere, slid across his path so close their chests touched, and took off across the street.
“What the hell?” he thought, hand going automatically to his inside jacket pocket with the nervousness of the first-time international traveler and finding – nothing.
Pax whipped around, peering into the light rain, and barely caught sight of a dark blur vanishing between two buildings. Without a pause for thought, he took off after the shape, automatically collapsing the umbrella as he ran but holding on to it. Down narrow paths and between tiny backyards he chased the dark shape, getting drenched in the process. Eventually the chase moved away from the poorer area and into a place where sidewalks occasionally opened into small parks, and still the form kept ahead although Pax was pretty sure he was cutting the lead.
Crossing one tidily landscaped park, he finally got a break. The thief tried to leap a rose hedge and caught a foot in the tangles, falling hard on the other side. He managed to regain his feet before Pax caught him, but now only twenty feet or so divided them. Pax was starting to breathe hard, but cleared the hedge and landed solidly, making up another few feet. Pounding across a flat open area, Pax blinked rain from his eyes and squinted at the figure so close in front of him, then brought up the umbrella he’d held on to all this time.
Calling up everything he ever learned as a college javelin thrower all those years ago, he took aim with the umbrella and let fly at the dark back.
It wasn’t Olympic caliber and it almost missed, but by luck it winged the thief in the back of one thigh hard enough to draw a heartfelt, “Bloody fuck!” and send the form stumbling to its knees. And then Pax was on it, grabbing it by one shoulder, yanking it over and shoving it down onto the soggy ground, right fist cocked.
Prepared to give the thief as much of a thrashing as he could manage without breaking any fingers, Pax was taken by surprise when the thief immediately wrapped his arms around his head and started shrieking, “Stop, stop, don’t hit me, please,” in a plummy British accent.
What the fuck?
“Put your hands down,” he ordered, straddling the slender body to hold it in place. “Slowly.”
“But it’s raining.”
“Jesus Christ! You’ve been running in it. Uncover your fucking face.”
Still primed and ready to punch, Pax watched as the boy – no, young man – unwrapped his arms and squinted up into the rain, which had grown heavier. Good god, what a pretty boy, all perfect skin and coffee curls that looked good even wet. The black sweater appeared to be cashmere; a quick touch confirmed it. What the very best-dressed pickpockets are wearing these days.
“I want my wallet back,” Pax said, baffled. Maybe England had a different class of criminals.
“Pants pocket,” the thief said. “Left side. Look, can I sit up? It’s bloody muck down here.”
“No,” Pax said, ramping down out of fear into frustration, doing an awkward cross-body search of the kid’s pockets. Nice pants, too. Felt like a heavy silk, maybe. He found his wallet as promised and pulled it out, tucking it back into his jacket and reaching up to shove sopping hair from his face. “Now we find the nearest police.”
“NO!” For the first time, the kid looked worried, brown eyes flying wide. “No, please. No police. Jesus, I’d be crucified.”
“Well I’m not just letting you go, y’little shit. You stole my wallet.”
“And I gave it back. We’re all square, right?” The kid flashed him a thousand-watt smile that even in the drizzling rain was impressive. It probably worked to get him out of every bad situation he’d ever staggered into. Too bad Pax wasn’t in the mood.
“Hardly. An apology doesn’t quite make up for the crime you and your droogs cooked up down at the milk bar,” he drawled sarcastically.
The kid looked at Pax as if he had just sprouted purple horns and a candycane beard. Pax rolled his eyes and muttered something about “fucking illiterates.”
“Hey, now… I am so literate. I’ll have you know I attended an excellent uni.” The kid actually looked irritated, lying there in the puddled grass, soaking wet.
“No doubt why you need to pick pockets and have no knowledge of Anthony Burgess,” Pax said, and his tone was the only dry thing around. “One of your premiere novelists, by the way.”
“Christ… Man, I’m soaked. Just… let me up. I won’t run.”
Truth was, Pax had no idea how to find a policeman anyway, and he had recovered his stolen property, so except for the irritation factor and the purpling bruise on his previously good impression of London, he figured he might as well write off the incident.
On second thought…
Pax reached into the kid’s pants pockets again.
“Hey! Stop that! What are you, some kind of filthy pervert?”
“Yeah, the kind who hangs out with fancy pansy-ass pickpockets.” Pax searched both front pockets, then dug around behind the kid to strike paydirt. A wallet. He pulled it out and flipped it open.
“Give me that back!” Angry now, the kid started shoving in earnest to get up. Holding the wallet out of reach, Pax straightened off him, stood and backed away quickly, flipping through the wallet until he found the drivers license and pulling it out. He tossed the wallet on the ground near the kid’s feet.
“You can’t do that,” the kid shouted. “That’s mine. I need it to drive.”
“You took mine,” Pax said reasonably. “Quid pro quo…” he glanced down at the pinky red license, “… Jonathan Alexander Rupert McCoy.” And looked up, grinning widely. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Just give it back,” McCoy said. “Give it back and we’re even. You’ve proved that the big bad American always wins, okay?”
Pax stared at the kid for a long thoughtful moment, considering, then he tucked the drivers license deep into the soaking wet front pocket of his cords and pulled his own wallet back out of his jacket. “Want to see what you stole, rich boy? Want to see what your haul was gonna be? Here ya go.”
He held the thin wallet open in the once-more drizzling rain to reveal a passport, a drivers license and, when he nudged the bill section open, a single twenty-pound note. He snapped it shut and slid it back inside his jacket.
“What were you planning to do with your stolen goods? Obviously you don’t need my money. Were you gonna toss it somewhere? Take’em back to laugh over with your friends, then toss’em? In the meantime I’m stuck with no money, because, Jonathan Alexander Rupert, that was my last twenty here in your fair city, and no passport, which is a stone bitch to get replaced.”
McCoy had crossed his arms and was shivering in the rain and looking petulant. “Fine, I get it. I’m a terrible person. Now give me my license. It’s all over. Go back to your life.”
“Y’know what?” Pax said slowly. “I don’t think so. You want your license, you can get it tonight, after ten, at the Ocean in Hackney. See you there.”
Leaning over to pick up the now-bent umbrella, Pax simply walked away. It didn’t really matter which way he went, since he was thoroughly lost. He’d just have to walk until he found some method of getting back to the rooming house, then on to the gig.
McCoy, Jonathan Alexander Rupert, for whatever reason, never said a word.
Jon was simply furious as he splashed to the nearest street and hailed a taxi to take him home.
It was a simple prank, for christ’s sake. Just something he and the hobs had come up with over a few beers after work. Pick a direction. Spread out. See who could pick a pocket, undetected, and get back the fastest. No harm, no foul. Not like they were out to rape and murder.
So of course he has to pick some self-righteous American prick with a superhero complex who fucking chases him down. How crazy is that? And it’s not like he could go back to meet up with the lads now, not soaking wet and filthy and having been done in by some watery old American git.
Jon stared out the rain-streaked windows as the taxi whisked him away from the parts of London where he played and into the much posher part where he lived. Geezer had no right saying the things he did. Not like he’d set out to hurt anybody. Just a prank, that’s all. Absently he rubbed the back of his thigh where a pretty spectacular bruise was sure to be forming.
Brought down by a hurled brolly. Christ. He’d never live it down if the lads found out. But that was all right. No way they could, really.
Except that he didn’t have his freaking drivers license.
Shit shit shit. And Jon was one of two consistent drivers in the group, the others being generally either between cars or between licenses. It’d take weeks to get a replacement, and he didn’t dare drive without, since he’d been warned off twice before.
Bloody hell. Where had the old man said? Ocean. He’d heard of the Ocean, of course. Not exactly the club scene, but a decent place. The Ocean in Hackney: What would an apparently poor American be doing there?
Jon sighed as the taxi pulled up in front of his parents’ large house. Guess he’d spend tonight in Hackney.
Hackney was among the poorest of London’s boroughs, but home to arguably the liveliest arts scene in the city. The newly renovated Ocean had become a popular center for live music in the 2000s, hosting everything from MTV events to intimate jazz shows.
When Jon climbed out of a taxi into the noisily crowded street, he blended immediately in with the hip young crowd. Since he was hardly there for his own pleasure, he made his way directly to the Ocean and then stood inside the glittery lobby, trying to figure out where the fuck this crazy American might be.
It’s not like the Ocean was a small venue. With three stages, it could hold up to 3,000 at a time, and Jon had no idea what kind of show the American might be interested in seeing. He wove his way through the coffee shop lines to check out the listings and posters on the main boards.
Looked like two Scottish tradpunk bands on the main stage. Hard to imagine the American being a big fan of that. Stage 2 was Carmela Inkele, a traditional singer/pianist from Brazil. That might be the one. At least the smaller stages only held 100 each, so he’d have an easier time spotting the American, Jon thought.
Stage 3 had a jazz quintet, The Earl Thomas Quintet from the U.S. Jon wrote that off. Why would somebody come all the way to England just to listen to a group from back home? So Stage 2 it was.
But as he was stepping away from the boards, the jazz poster caught his eye again and he looked at it more closely. It was one of those artsy things, with black and white photos blurred together, but damned if one of those faces didn’t look a lot like his…er… victim? Surely not.
Jon walked away toward Stage 2. Stopped. Came back and looked at the poster again, then growled and headed toward Stage 3.
The quintet had only barely settled in to their second set by the time Jon found a seat about halfway back. The program promised music ranging from classic Jelly Roll Morton through Thelonius Monk and Bill Evans and extending into the newest forms of European jazz, including compositions by Norwegian pianist Bugge Wesseltoft. It all meant very little to Jon, as he was more interested in House and Drum and Bass, but he figured he could last until the intermission.
It took him only a couple of minutes to spot the American. For one thing, only two members of the quintet were white, which narrowed his task considerably. For another, the other white guy was about 30 years old and dark-haired. Which left the pianist.
He was turned mostly sideways to where Jon was seated, but the view was clear enough that he could recognize the American he’d … well… robbed. Jazz wasn’t Jon’s thing, but then he’d never really sat and just listened to it for any extended amount of time. Letting the complex threads of music sink into his psyche, he watched the pianist – the program identified him as Paxton Clayborne of NYC – marry the keys, seeming to become one with the instrument. Long fingers caressed, hammered, stroked the keys, pulling out breathtaking chords, lyrical melodies and jarring clashes.
Jon found himself wondering, in passing, how those fingers might feel on skin. He mentally slapped himself for the thought and went back to listening to the music. But the thought was in his mind now, and wouldn’t be shaken.
Clayborne never looked up except between numbers, when he’d sit up and stretch, staring at the ceiling. Otherwise, he hunched over the keyboard, longish sandy hair spilled all around his face, locked away from the real world into a land of music.
Jon slowly realized that he really regretted stealing the man’s wallet.
But maybe not entirely.
At intermission, he made his way to the stage. The musicians hadn’t left the stage, but were huddled at the back, talking and drinking. He stood at the foot of the stage, near the piano, and called out, “Mr. Clayborne!”
Maybe Clayborne wasn’t accustomed to being hailed by audience members, because he looked around immediately, startled, blue eyes searching for the caller.
“Here,” Jon said, and waved a bit.
Clayborne smiled, a flash so fast, there and gone, that Jon wasn’t entirely sure he’d seen it. Then the pianist was crossing the stage, tucking sandy hair behind his ears and digging in a pocket. Reaching the floor lights, he handed the license over.
“Wasn’t sure you’d come,” Clayborne said.
“I wasn’t, either,” Jon replied. “Realized I didn’t know how to find you.”
“But you did.”
“Like the music?”
“I’m starting to.”
“That’s good, then.” Clayborne slid his hands into his pockets and looked wistful, lit from below. “Thanks for coming. Nice to see a familiar face. Even if it is a pickpocket.”
“I’m not really a pickpocket.”
“Hard to prove from today’s encounter.”
Jon looked down, then back up. “I’m sorry,” he said sincerely. “I was an ass. What would you say if I bought you dinner after the show?”
“I’d ask if it was likely to be noodles.”
“Not a chance.”
“Then I think we might have a deal.” Clayborne smiled down at him. The man had gorgeous eyes, intensely blue, and a fascinating scar on his chin. “So which do I call you? Jonathan? Alexander? Rupert? or McCoy?”
“Call me Jon.”
Clayborne glanced over his shoulder and saw that the others were moving back to their instruments, then looked back at Jon. “I’m Pax. See you after the show.”