|Publisher:||Grand Central Publishing|
|Sold by:||Hachette Digital, Inc.|
|File size:||758 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Catch Me When I Fall
By Nicci French
Warner BooksCopyright © 2006 Nicci French
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI'M ATTRACTED TO DANGER," he said. "Always have been. What can I get you two?"
I thought for a moment. Pace yourself, Holly. It was an hour since Meg and I had left the office but I was still buzzing. Fizzing. I once had a friend who was working as an actor. He'd told me how after a show it would take him hours to wind down, which was a bit of a problem if the curtain went down at half past ten and you had any ambitions to fit in with the rest of the world. Mainly he found himself fitting in with other actors who were the only people who felt like heading out for dinner at eleven and sleeping until noon every day of the week.
Another friend from college is a long-distance runner. She's impressive. She almost got into the Olympics. She runs ridiculously fast and far just to get her body going. Then she runs a properly serious distance and punishes herself up steep hills. After that, the difficulty is to bring her body back to normal again. She does more running simply to wind herself down. Afterward she puts ice on her muscles and joints to cool them. I could do with that. Sometimes I feel I'd like to put my whole head into a chinking barrel of ice.
"It's not that difficult a decision," he said. "Meg's already asked for a white wine."
"What?" I said.
For a moment I'd forgotten where I was. I had to look around to remind myself. It was just wonderful. It was autumn, but it was a hot evening and the crowd in the Soho bar was spilling out onto the street. It felt like the summer was going to go on forever, winter would never come, it would never rain again. Out in the countryside there were fields that needed water, dry riverbeds, shriveling crops, but in the middle of London it was like being by the Mediterranean.
"What do you want to drink?"
I asked for a white wine and some water. Then I put my arm on Meg's shoulder and murmured into her ear, "Did you talk to Deborah?"
She looked uneasy. So she hadn't.
"Not yet," she said.
"We need to talk about this. Tomorrow, okay?"
"Still or sparkling?" asked the man.
"Tap," I said. "First thing, Meg, before anything else."
"All right," she said. "Nine o'clock then."
I watched her and she watched the stranger walking over to the bar. He had a nice, open face; what was his name? Todd, that was it. We'd all staggered over from the office. It had been a hard day. We'd arrived as a group but gradually been diluted by the crowd. I saw familiar faces around the room. A room full of happy people who had escaped from their offices. Todd was a client who had come over to the office to check our proposal and he'd tagged along with us. Now he was trying to buy the drinks at the crowded bar. He was having difficulty because one of the women behind the bar was being shouted at by a rude customer. She was foreign-something like Indonesian-and the rude customer was yelling that she had given him the wrong drink. She was having difficulty understanding what he was saying. Look at me when I'm talking to you, he said.
Todd came back clutching the drink for Meg, the two drinks for me and the beer for himself.
"They wouldn't give me tap water," he said. "It's from a bottle."
I took a sip.
"So you like danger," I said.
"You make it sound stupid but yes, in a way."
Todd proceeded to tell us about a holiday he'd taken. He was cheerily proud of it. He and a group of friends had been celebrating something so they had undertaken a succession of dangerous sports across southern Africa. They had white-water rafted in Zambia and canoed past hippos in Botswana and bungee jumped from a cable car going up to Table Mountain and scuba dived with great white sharks.
"Sounds amazing," said Meg. "I don't think I'd have the nerve to do that."
"It was very exhilarating," he said. "Terrifying as well. I think maybe I liked it more in retrospect."
"Did anybody get eaten?" I asked.
"You go down in cages," he said. "And we didn't actually see any."
"Cages?" I said, pulling a face. "I thought you liked danger."
He looked bemused.
"Are you kidding?" he said. "I'd like to see you jump from a cable car hundreds of feet up with just an elastic band for protection."
I laughed, but not meanly I hoped.
"Haven't you read our brochure?" I said. "We've arranged bungee jumps. We've done the risk assessments, we've organized the insurance. I can tell you that it's less dangerous than crossing the road."
"It's an adrenaline rush all the same," Todd said.
"You can get adrenaline off the shelf," I said.
Was he going to get offended or was he going to smile? He shrugged self-deprecatingly and smiled.
"So what's your idea of danger?" he said.
I thought for a moment.
"Real things, where it matters. Searching for unexploded mines and then defusing them. Working as a miner-but not in Britain. I mean in Russia or the third world."
"What is it that frightens you most?"
"Lots of things. Lifts, bulls, heights, bad dreams. Almost everything about my job. Failure. Talking in public."
"I don't believe that," he said. "That was a good presentation today."
"I was terrified beforehand. I always am."
"So you agree with me. You like challenges."
I shook my head.
"Your bungee jumping and canoeing past hippos, that was in a brochure. You knew how it was going to turn out." I heard a noise behind me and turned around. That man was complaining to the woman again but worse this time. She was trying to explain and she was almost crying.
"What about you, Meg?" Todd asked, turning toward her. She smiled up at him shyly and opened her mouth, but I interrupted her reply.
"You're saying you like risk?" I said.
"Do you want to show me?"
"Holly!" said Meg nervously.
Todd's eyes flickered from side to side. I detected a flutter of excitement but also of nervousness. What was coming?
"What do you mean?"
"You see that man at the bar, the one being rude to the girl?"
"Do you think he's being a bully?"
"Go and tell him to stop it and to apologize for his behavior."
Todd tried to speak but he started to cough instead.
"Don't be daft," he said finally.
"You think he'll hit you?" I said. "I thought you were attracted to danger."
Todd's expression hardened. This wasn't funny anymore. And he had stopped liking me.
"It's just a way of showing off," he said.
"You're scared of doing it."
"Of course I'm scared."
"If you're scared of it, then the only way to get rid of the feeling is to do it. It's like scuba diving with sharks. But without the cage."
I put my two glasses down on a table.
"All right," I said. "I'll do it."
"No, Holly, don't ..." said Meg and Todd together.
That was the only encouragement I needed. I walked over to the man at the bar. He was also wearing a suit. Every man in the room was wearing a suit. He must have been in his mid-thirties, balding, especially on the crown of his head. He was florid-faced from the heat of the day and maybe from the week's work and from his agitation. I hadn't noticed how large he was. His jacket fitted awkwardly around his broad shoulders. Also I hadn't noticed that he was with two other men. He was still saying something basically unintelligible to the woman.
"What's going on?" I said.
He turned around, startled and angry.
"Who the fuck are you?" he said.
"You need to say sorry to this woman," I said.
"You don't talk to people like that. You need to apologize."
He pronounced it with particular emphasis on the "k" sound, so there was a pause between the two words. Did he think I was going to walk away? Did he think I was going to cry? I picked his drink up from the bar. It was a tumbler. I brandished it at him, holding it barely an inch from his chin. It would be good to say that the whole bar fell silent, like in an old Western, but there was no more than a ripple of attention around us. The man himself looked down at the glass, as if he was trying to see the knot of his own loosened tie. I could see that he was thinking quickly: Is this woman mad? Is she really going to smash a glass in my face? For this? And I should have been thinking much the same: If he could insult and shout at some poor woman behind the bar for giving him the wrong drink, what would he do to me for physically threatening him? And I could have been thinking, as Todd probably had been thinking, that this man might be just out of prison. He might have a propensity for violence. He might especially enjoy picking on females. None of this occurred to me. I was just looking into his eyes. I felt the throb of the pulse in my neck. I had the vertiginous feeling of having no idea what would happen in the next five seconds.
And then the man's face relaxed into a smile.
"All right," he said. Delicately he reached up and took the glass from my hand, as if it might go off. He downed it in one. "On one condition."
"I'll buy you a drink."
I started to say no and looked around for Todd. He was gone, as was Meg. I wondered at what point they had fled the scene. Was it in anticipation of what might happen? Or was it when they saw what actually had happened? I gave a shrug.
"Just do it," I said.
He was quite gentlemanly about it. He gestured the nervous woman over. He nodded at me.
"This woman-what's your name?"
"Holly Krauss," I said.
"Miss Holly Krauss tells me that I was rude to you and that I ought to apologize. On reflection I think she was right. So, I'm very sorry." The woman looked at me and then at him again. I don't think she properly realized what was going on. The man, whose name was Jim, ordered me a double gin and tonic and another for himself.
"Cheers," he said. "And incidentally she really is a bloody awful barmaid."
I downed my drink in one and he ordered me another and from then on the evening speeded up. It was as if I had been on a big dipper and it had climbed and climbed all day and at the moment when I held the glass under Jim's chin was when it got to the highest point where it perched for a moment and then began to descend more and more quickly. The bar began to feel like a party where I knew quite a lot of the people or wanted to know them or they wanted to know me. I talked to Jim and his friends, who found the whole episode with the glass very funny and kept on telling it over and over, teasing him about it.
I was talking to a man who worked in the office across the courtyard from us and when he headed off with some friends along the road to a private club for supper he asked me along and I went. Events occurred quickly but also in snapshots, like moments illuminated by a strobe light. The club was in an eighteenth-century town house, all shabby wood paneling and bare boards. It was an evening where everything seemed easy and available and possible. One of the men at the table where we ate was the director of the club so he was joking with the waiter and getting special food for us to try. I had a long intense conversation with a woman who worked for something amazing, a film company or a photographic company or a magazine, and later I couldn't remember a word of it. The only thing I remembered was how when she stood up to go she kissed me full and hard on my mouth, so that I tasted her lipstick.
Someone suggested we go dancing. He said there was a new place that had just opened not far off and it would be getting going about now. I looked at my watch and saw that it was past midnight; I'd been up since half past five. But it didn't matter.
We all walked there together, a group of about ten people who until an hour or so ago had been strangers. A man put his arm around me as we walked and started singing in Spanish or Portuguese or something. He had a beautiful voice, very deep, which boomed out into the soft autumn air and I looked up and saw there were stars in the sky. They shone so bright and near I almost felt that if I reached out I would be able to touch them. I sang something, too, I can't remember what, and everyone joined in. People were laughing, holding each other. Our cigarettes glowed in the darkness.
We ended up near the office again. I remember thinking I'd come full circle and I was less tired than I'd been when I left. I danced with the man who'd sung in Spanish, and then with someone who said his name was Jay, and I was in the women's toilets where someone gave me a line of coke. The club was small and crowded. A black man with soft eyes stroked my hair and told me I was gorgeous. A woman, I think she said she was Julia, came up and said that she was going home now and maybe I should as well, before something happened and did I want to share a taxi, but I wanted something to happen, everything to happen. I didn't want the evening to end yet. I didn't want to turn out the lights. I danced again, feeling so light on my feet it was almost like flying, until the sweat poured down my face and stung my eyes and my hair was damp and my shirt stuck to me.
Then we left. Jay was there I think, and maybe the singer, and a woman with amazing black hair who smelled of patchouli and other people I remember only as silhouettes against the sky. It was so beautifully cool outside. I pulled the air into my lungs and felt the sweat dry on my skin. We sat by the river, which looked black and deep. You could hear the tiny thwack of waves on the bank. I wanted to swim in it, to lie in its dark currents and be swept away down to the sea where no one could follow me. I hurled in a handful of coins, though only a few of them reached the water, and told everyone to make a wish.
"What's your wish then, Holly?"
"I want it to be always like this," I said.
I put a cigarette in my mouth and someone leaned toward me, cupping the lighter in their hands. Someone took it out of my mouth and held it while he kissed me and I kissed him back, pulling him toward me and gripping his hair in my hands, and then a different person kissed me as well, his lips on my neck and I tipped back my head and let him. Everyone loved me and I loved everyone. They all had tender, shining eyes. I said the world was a more magical place than we knew. I stood up and ran across the bridge. With each step I felt that I might never land on the ground again, but I could hear the sound of my footfalls echoing around me, and then the sound of other footfalls, too, following me, but they couldn't catch me. People were calling my name, like owls hooting. "Holly, Holly!" I laughed to myself. A car swept by, catching me in its headlights and then letting me go again.
I stopped for breath at last, near an arcade of shops, and they found me there. Two of them I think. Maybe, maybe not. One grabbed me around the shoulders and pushed me up against a wall, and said he'd got me at last and wasn't going to let me go. He said I was wild, but that he could be wild, too. He picked up a brick. His arm arced back over his head, just a few inches from me, and I saw the brick sailing through the air. There was a loud crack and a violent star spread in the plate glass window in front of us and a pyramid of tins collapsed on their shelves, and for a tiny second it was as if we were going to step through the perfect star into a different world and I could be someone entirely new. New and fresh and whole.
Then the alarm broke over us, nasal shrieks that seemed to be coming from every direction, and he took me by the wrist.
We ran together. I think there were still three of us but maybe there were only two by then. Our feet seemed in time. I don't know why we stopped running, but I know we were in a taxi, speeding along empty streets, past shops with metal shutters and dark houses. A fox froze as the taxi approached, orange and still under the street lamps. It slipped into a garden, a slim shadow, and was gone.
After that, there are things that I remember and don't remember at the same time, like something happening to someone else, in a film, in a dream you know you're having but can't wake up from. Or rather, it was like something happening to me, but I was someone else. I was me and not me. I was a woman laughing as she went up the stairs in front of him, a woman standing in an upstairs room with one dim light in the corner, an old sofa heaped with cushions and hanging from the ceiling, a turquoise parakeet in a cage. Was there really a parakeet piping away, looking down at her with its knowing eyes, or was that a strange hallucination that worked its way into the bright fever of the evening? A woman looking out of the window at roofs and nighttime gardens that she'd never seen before.
"Where the fuck am I?" she said, letting her jacket slide to the floor in a puddle of darkness, but she didn't really want to know the answer. "Who the fuck are you?" she asked next, but she didn't want to know that, either. It didn't matter at all. And he just laughed anyway and pulled the curtains closed and lit a cigarette, or perhaps it was a joint, and passed it to her. She could feel excitement throbbing loose and deep along her veins, and she sat back in the sofa, against the cushions, and kicked off her shoes and curled her bare legs up under her.
Excerpted from Catch Me When I Fall by Nicci French Copyright © 2006 by Nicci French. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.