The Night Climbers A Novel
By Ivo Stourton
Simon Spotlight Entertainment Copyright © 2007 Ivo Stourton
All right reserved. ISBN: 9781416948698
There were security barriers in the foyer, thick glass turnstiles that fell open when you stuck the right card in the slots. The receptionists, however, were the real security. "Can I help you?" rang out across the lobby from behind the desk like "Who goes there?" from a battlement. It was a surprise, therefore, to find Jessica sitting in my black leather chair, waiting for me to return from the basement gym where I had spent a cathartic lunch break pummeling my personal trainer, sweating out the last drops of the previous night's whiskey. I knew from the way she looked at me, tilting her head forward and peering out from under her blond bangs while she gave me a lopsided smile, that she had lied her way in. Her expression was just as I remembered it when we'd gotten away with something, and it pulled me back into the past with the force of a scent. At thirty-two she was already losing her looks. They were not going gracefully, with the haunting quality that briefly heightens doomed beauty. She had bags under her eyes and a spot on her chin where her makeup had formed a beige scab. I took no pleasure in this, but I did take pleasure from the fact that I didn't care. Indifference, not feigned but genuinelyfelt, was a hard-won victory, and I prized it.
She was playing with the objects on my desk. My pens were scattered over the blotting paper.
"How can I help?" I asked.
"Don't you want to know how I got in? I pretended to be from London Underground. I read about the deal you're doing, turning public services private. I'm your two thirty." She grinned. "You look nice. And you look rich." She leaned across the desk and lifted one of the silver balls on my Newton's Cradle, letting it go to hit its fellow with a gentle click.
As I looked at her, I tried to gauge her financial situation. It seemed the quickest way to divining what she wanted. Her platinum hair had been recently cut and highlighted. Her fingernails were salon neat and unpainted, but shined. She wore a simple, scuffed Tiffany silver pendant. Her black suit could have been tailored, but Jessica had always had a body that made cheap clothes look expensive. In the days when I had known her well, she had practiced a policy of sartorial simplicity designed to exhibit her natural gifts and I think to embarrass the girls who dressed up. I could not tell whether this policy had survived the passing of her beauty. I thought on the whole that choice had given way to necessity. There was no ring on her finger.
Jessica sat back in her chair and met my eye as if to ask, "And what has become of you?"
"So, you're my two thirty. I bill at two hundred and fifty pounds an hour. What can I do for you?"
"You can give me a discount, for starters."
We looked at each other with fixed smiles, our gazes headlights speeding toward each other in the dark. She relented first. "I need a place to stay for a few days. I don't want to go to a hotel. I don't want to go to friends. I don't want to be found."
She rose from my seat. Her movements still had the light accent of childhood ballet. Born of parental ambition, undone by a teenage growth spurt, a graceful precision was the last legacy of repetition and bleeding toes. To my displeasure, I noticed that behind the chair sat a briefcase and a piece of fake Louis Vuitton luggage, its beige midriff distended with packing. Jessica knew the difference that social leverage could make, and it would be that much more awkward to dismiss her if she had all the practical necessities already at hand. I wondered what the receptionists downstairs would think of my attractive female client arriving prepared for an overnight stay. It was typical of Jessica to cause disruption simply by virtue of her presence. The air was still filled with the faint metallic click of the toy she had set in motion on my desk. With an air of unimpeachable honesty, she addressed me eye to eye.
"Is there somewhere else we can go to talk? I don't mean to be melodramatic; I just haven't seen you in a long time, and if I'm going to get turned down I'd prefer to do it somewhere pretty. Don't you have a client hospitality area or something? After all, I am a client." She grinned again.
We stood in the lift, and I watched as the two halves of my image slid together in the metallic panels of the doors. Jessica's appraising look was still fresh in my mind, and I checked myself out discreetly. My dark hair was perfectly slicked, my blue eyes glowed even in the dull surface of the metal. My arms were thick from the gym. The slight bulge of flesh around my collar appeared again today. I raised my chin a little to tighten the skin. Jessica almost caught me in the reflection, and I looked away. The lift deposited us smoothly on the top floor, like riding up in the palm of a giant. The doors slid apart, and my image divided and disappeared. By the time we arrived, Jessica was solemn, demonstrating one of those mercurial mood swings that had confounded her youthful suitors. The young men at Cambridge could never tell whether to court her as a child, a princess, an executive, or a clown. Only the few of us who had become truly close to her had learned to read her sudden shifts, like sailors at the mercy of an unpredictable sky.
The great glass wall of client reception disclosed a cinematic view of the city, stretching down to the glittering ribbon of the river and the stately dome of Saint Paul's. On the Southbank the great blocks of culture faced the towers of commerce, the National Theatre hunkered down on the edge of the Thames, its gray concrete balconies camouflaged against the sky. I put on my overcoat and led Jessica past the ranks of black leather sofas, neatly stacked periodicals, and the fresh fruit and orchids quietly dying in their glass vessels.
The Japanese garden on the client reception floor had one of the best views in the city. Old enemies appeared on the eastern horizon, Magic Circle law firms sitting in state by Moorgate. The balcony overlooked Saint Andrew's Church, a tiny nub of conscience subsisting in the center of the financial monoliths, so much older than the buildings that blocked it from the sunlight. The leaves of the weeping willow in the churchyard spilled over the wrought-iron railings onto the pavement. The roof garden itself was composed of large black obsidian stones and elegant little shrubs arranged on a bed of white sand. The sand was raked into perfect parallel trenches, like a plowed field in delicate miniature. A slate walkway paved the edges and formed a bridge over a tiny stream that bubbled up through the rocks. The sky seemed huge when you were so many floors above the skyline, with no other buildings hemming it in. It closed like the lid of a freezer over the cold city. I felt proud to have brought her up here, on top of my impressive building, above my kingdom.
I slid the door closed behind us, and heard the comforting click of the catch, sealing my working world inside like the body of a despot in a vast stone tomb. The wind was strong so high above the street and carried a film of drizzle that coated the garden with a thin layer of cold moisture. She walked away from me, her heels sounding on the gray slate, and leaned on the stainless steel banister that separated the balcony from the empty air beyond.
"I know what you're thinking, James. I'm not on the run from the mafia or the police, and I don't want money from you or help or anything else, really, except a couple of showers' worth of hot water. You work during the day. I go out at night. You won't even see me, if you don't want to."
"I don't know how you are placed financially, Jessica," I said, slipping into my professional idiom. "But it seems to me that you could easily budget for a hotel with a higher degree of anonymity than an old university buddy's flat."
She sat on the metal bar that ran around the side of the balcony and put her feet against the large black boulder nearest the edge of the carefully raked white sand, dimpled from the raindrops. Behind her I could see a roof that the building's architects had never intended for public view. It was ten stories down. I thought of how best to guide her back from her perch without showing that it made me uncomfortable.
"You have become pompous. Is that what we are? Old 'university buddies'?"
Angry horns bleated down in the street. With her hands clutched around the bar and her shoulders hunched a little forward against the chill, she straightened her long legs slightly, leaning her slender torso fractionally backward into space. I felt the sharp edge of a fledgling concern tapping against the inside of my skull. With a steady voice, I answered. "I haven't seen you in the best part of a decade. What would you prefer to be called?" She was already drawing me away from a proper examination of her motives.
"Oh, I don't know. Something with a little feeling. Playmate, darling, co-conspirator..." This last one she delivered in a theatrical, breathy whisper.
"I think I have company this weekend," I said.
"She'll understand. Women like to be made to wait. You don't want to be overly available."
Not these women, I thought.
She shivered and tugged the thin material of her jacket tight around her thin, slight body. The falling mist strengthened for a moment into drizzle. She straightened her legs with little jerks, a childish gesture of distraction that pushed her body farther and farther out over the edge. I clenched my hands behind my back so that she could not see them. There was a light wind, so high above the street, and it carried the loose strands of her blond hair up and over her cheekbones.
"My place isn't big. I don't have a spare bed, and -- "
She pushed up suddenly onto the balls of her feet. The gesture carried her too far, and she fell first backward, then forward to the floor with a spasmodic tightening of her stomach. A surge of adrenaline manned my chest, and I ran toward her with an inarticulate cry. She was laughing with the exhilaration of her near disaster and with triumph at the terror in my face. I had started out across the perfect garden, breaking the patterned surface with my feet. The cut of my suit pushed me into an unnatural feminine jog, and I knew that I must have looked ridiculous. I acknowledged her victory with a sheepish smile and walked over to where she leaned laughing against the rail. Her laughter gave way to a coughing fit, and she bent over almost like an old man clutching her stomach. Somehow the moment seemed vulnerable rather than disgusting.
"So, can I stay or what?" she said when she had regained some measure of control.
"Fuck it. Why not."
She was lying, but there would be time to discover the truth. I could not remember when an obligation had been placed on me that was purely human. I did things because of what I had signed, what was expected, what was right, what was paid. This I would do because of who had asked me. I said yes because once I would have done anything for her and required nothing in return. Many people would have once done anything for her, but she would have actually accepted my help.
"We'll stay up all night. It'll be like old times," she said. "You might even have fun."
Copyright (c) 2007 by Ivo Stourton
Excerpted from The Night Climbers by Ivo Stourton Copyright © 2007 by Ivo Stourton. Excerpted by permission.
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