Immortal Muse - Opening Sample

NOTE: The sample offered below is from the manuscript, not the book, and thus may vary slightly from the book text...

The Bent Calliope reeked of spilled beer and desperate egos. The aromatic combination spilled out of the open door, past the bouncer, and onto Rivington Street, wrapping insistent arms around Camille and shepherding her toward the tavern.

“Hey, Ink!” she called to the bouncer, sitting with one ample ass cheek on a rickety barstool to the side of the entrance as he texted on his phone. “Warm enough for you?”

Ink’s pear-shaped body leaned back against pallid bricks. The yellow tubes of the Bent Calliope’s neon sign glowed above him, lending the man the sickly pallor of the living dead. The hue didn’t manage to make his thinning hair, too-wide features, or the poorly-drawn tattoos crawling his arms and emerging from the frayed collar of his plain white tee appear any more attractive. “Too warm,” he answered, glancing up from the phone. “Better out here than in there, though.” There was no ambition burning inside Ink at all; he had been sitting on the same stool the first night Camille wandered into the Bent Calliope a year ago; she suspected he would still be there, growing steadily older, heavier, and more sedentary, long after she left.

“I hope the beer’s cold, at least.”

“When you find out, let me know.” He nodded his head toward the door. The white noise of a dozen simultaneous conversations drifted through the rumble of two-decade-old, stale music. “Half your crowd’s in there already.” There was a subtle, possessive emphasis on the ‘your.’

“Thanks, Ink.”

Camille entered the Bent Calliope largely unnoticed as she passed through the crowd, one of the advantages of being significantly shorter than most people. Her group was there, as Ink had said: in the rear corner furthest from the jukebox speakers, where one could nearly carry on a conversation without shouting. Through the shifting forest of bodies, Camille glimpsed Morris’ shaved head gleaming in the fluorescent lights, his dark skin beaded with sweat—despite an early May heat wave, the Bent Calliope’s proprietors had yet to turn on the air conditioning. Morris seemed to be gesturing to someone to his left—probably Mercedes, who was also one of the regulars.

Camille could feel their pull, an almost physical tug in her head as if emerald ropes were snaking out from them to her, lashing around her and pulling her toward them, and yet...

There was someone else here. Someone whose pull was noticeably stronger.

Close to the polished, glass-ringed bar, Camille stopped. A man sat on one of the stools, his left hand cradling a pint glass. He was the source. He stared at her; when she glanced at him, the sense of instant connection made her inhale. A green aura hung around him, so bright that she wondered that none of the customers could see it. As their gazes met, he looked away quickly, guiltily. Camille continued to study him as he pretended to be looking at his foam-smeared glass. She could see the glimmer of a gold ring on his left hand, and her mouth tightened. Well, there’s a problem… Camille sidled up to the bar near him, taking a stool that had just been vacated. “Hey, Tom,” she called out to one of the bartenders. “A pint, please.” She set a five down on the bar top.

As Tom placed the glass under the Guinness tap, Camille noticed that the man was watching her again, this time via the mirror behind the bar. She could see her reflection also: a woman most people would guess to be in her early-to-mid twenties; wavy, auburn hair settling just below her shoulders; large green eyes; petite enough that she sometimes still found herself being carded. Again, when he realized she had noticed his attention, he turned back to his glass once more. The feeling of connection remained, the sense of needing to know who he was, what he was. Inviting tendrils the color of spring grass slid from him toward her and she wanted to touch them and taste them, but she did not. She watched and she wondered: he was a painter, she had almost decided when Tom set the Guinness in front of her, curtains of light-brown foam still falling from the head into the darkness of the stout. She let the drink settle. She felt the stranger’s intention in the moment before he moved, frowning a bit as he slid from his barstool, circling behind the two other patrons between them. She could feel him at her back, a pressure all along her spine. He enveloped her in his unseen radiance, and it was nearly too much to bear.

She waited, taking a slow sip of the Guinness and licking the foam from her lips. When he still didn’t say anything, she turned slowly on the stool. His hair was a sandy brown and longish, scraggly enough that it looked like it had been months since it had last been cut. Strands frothed around the collar of a blue sweater over an oxford shirt; the sweater was rumpled, as if he just pulled it out of an overstuffed drawer and put it on. He had the build of a runner. His height was average, perhaps six foot or an inch or so taller. She held his gaze for a moment: his eyes were that shade that might be a light blue, a pale green, or even a dappled gray depending on the light, and she liked the faint crinkles at their corners, which told her that he smiled a lot.

She glanced significantly at his left hand. “You’re supposed to take that off first,” she told him. “Though the white line would still be a dead giveaway. Woman know to look for it.”

She was pleased to see him flush, and more pleased to see that he made no attempt to cover the ring with his other hand or put it behind his back—though he did glance at her own unadorned left hand. Instead, he held up his hand as if seeing the ring for the first time himself. No, not a painter, or there’d be pigment under those fingernails... Maybe a writer? “That’s not why-” he began, then shook his head. She found she liked his voice, too: a warm, easy baritone.

Why are they always already married? It just make things complicated. There was no answer to that. There never was.

He gave a long exhalation that sounded more like a sigh. “Look, umm, jeez… I don’t really know how to say this. It’s just...”

Camille found that she was smiling in spite of her reservations; his smile in return deepened the lines around his eyes: a genuine smile, an inviting one. “It’s just...?” she prompted.

Another exhalation. “I’m a photographer—a professional. That’s how I make my living. I was wondering... Have you ever modeled before?”

“If that’s a pick-up line, Mr. Married Photographer, I have to tell you that it’s really beyond lame.”

He was shaking his head before she finished. “No, no,” he said hurriedly. “It’s... well, you have an interesting face—and an interesting accent, too, I have to say. What is that? French?”

“French by way of Italy and other places a long time ago—though I’ll give you credit; most people don’t notice it anymore. And yes, I’ve sat as an artist’s model if that’s your question,” she answered flatly. “And I don’t do porn,” she added. “Hard or soft core.”

Another head-shake. His eyes widened. “Umm… Good. I don’t either.”

“So there are no nudes in your portfolio?”

The color was still in his cheeks. “Well, yes. A few. The human body’s beautiful—which is, I know,” he said hurriedly, “what every erotic photographer says. But I don’t do anything prurient. At least, not to my mind.”

“And I’ll bet all those nudes are female?” He didn’t need to answer; she saw the answer in his face. “Uh-huh.” Camille took another sip of the Guinness. You should get up and walk away. Go back to the ones you’ve already chosen. You don’t need this one, even if his green heart is so interesting. Are you truly ready for what that would mean? Are you willing to take the chance of fouling up what you’re here to do? The tendrils of his soul-heart slid around her, enticing. She felt, also, the dangerous blue strands within it. But knowing what she should do didn’t seem to matter. She didn’t move to leave, stroking the rim of her glass. “So you do art, not wedding shots and not porn.” She already knew the answer; she would never have stayed otherwise, would never have talked to him. She would never have noticed him if it were any other way. The connection would not have been there.

“Pretty much. Along with some commercial stuff now and then to pay the bills.”

“New York’s full of people who call themselves photographers,” she said. “The city’s positively stuffed with them.”

“I’m different.”

“Of course you are.”

He reached into the pocket of his jeans, pulling out a small flash drive, handing it to her. A name—David Treadway—was screened onto the black plastic in bright yellow letters, along with an address, e-mail, and cell phone number. “My business card and portfolio,” he told her. “Why don’t you take a look at the sample shots on the drive? If you like them and if you’re interested give me a call.”

She held up the drive. “I know your name now, David. Aren’t you supposed to ask for mine?”

“Give it to me when you call.”

“When? Not if?”

“I’m figuring you’ll like the shots,” he said. His smile appeared again, a flash of teeth and a crinkling of his eyes. The color of his aura deepened, and with it the feeling of connection, of needing to know this person, became more urgent inside her. Strange colors rode in the emerald, colors she’d seen only a few times before, and that scared her more than the fullness of the energy. “Look, I have to be going,” David said. “I really hope you like what you see.” He nodded toward the flash drive. “Give me a call. Or e-mail me. I’m serious; I’d be interested in working with you. I can’t pay you much, but there’d be something in it for you.”

He hesitated, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. She put the flash drive in the pocket of her jeans. “I’ll look at it,” she told him. “From there, we’ll see. Is that good enough?”

“Sure. I’m fine with that.” He was staring at her, as if he were trying to memorize the lines of her face.

“You have to go,” she reminded him.

“Yeah, right.” He favored her with another smile. Yes, the lines at the corners of his eyes folded nicely. “Talk to you soon, I hope.”

This time he did turn, sliding between the people behind him and heading toward the door. She watched David as he opened the door of the Bent Calliope and nodded to Ink; she felt him leaving as well—the creative energy, the potential bottled inside him, the connection, his soul-heart—until the door closed again. She touched the pocket of her jeans, feeling the lump of the thumb drive under the cloth, touching it the way she often touched the pendant around her neck, stroking it as if for reassurance. “Damn it,” she whispered aloud. “I don’t need this. Not again. Not now.”

Now that he’d left, she could again sense the others in the back of the room; they’d been lost in his larger wave. She took her glass from the bar, leaving the change Tom had put on the bar top, and threaded her way through the crowd. She slowed as she approached the group, though. Their energy illuminated the air, like a sun shining through forest leaves, light just beyond the range of the visible, and she could bathe in it and take it in. It would nourish her. Yet...

Morris would be talking about his latest project—something properly avant-garde and non-accessible, like the video of his ice sculpture melting in real time that had garnered him some interest in the Times last year. Rashawn’s forearms would be spattered with paint from her current work. Kevin’s hands would be restlessly drumming on his thighs as he sat, as if part of his mind were still attached to the drum kit back in his apartment. Mercedes would be sitting silent and listening, watching, and imagining each of them as a character in her novel. And Joe... And James...

Artists all. Creators all. And when Camille arrived, they would all turn to her—smiling or dour or somber—and they would all want to talk to her, to pull at her mind, to ask her opinion, to tell her what they were doing...

To take what she had to give them.

‘Her crowd,’ as Ink called them. Her entourage. Her lovers, many of them. The ones who fed on her, and she on them in return.

Camille’s forefinger traced the outline of the thumb drive through her jeans. “Fuck,” she said.

She turned, set her half-full pint on the nearest table, and left the bar.