Chapter One

[About the novel]
November 24th, 2004
... It's raining men. Hallelujah, it's raining men! ...
Charlie tapped her heels against the barstool and took another sip of her Vodka Orange. Outside it wasn't raining men, but rather cats and dogs. Pedestrians were bustling along the sidewalk, trying to dodge oncoming umbrellas and treacherous puddles that had formed at the kerb. A bulky tourist had stopped in the middle of the pavement to consult his inconveniently unfolded map of London. From the left, a young woman in high heels approached. She was gesticulating angrily on her cell phone and noticed the human roundabout too late. His ham-sized elbow almost knocked her off her feet. She glared angrily at the man and set out to give him a piece of her mind. At that moment, a truck thundered by. Charlie held her breath. Ploughing along the kerb, the truck's tyres splashed up a generous amount of dirty water that rained down on the hapless bystanders. Charlie exhaled and grinned. Miss High Heels was not amused.
Charlie turned back to the counter and sighed. To think that this little incident had been the highlight of the evening. She had been sitting here for three hours straight, waiting for customers, and so far, not a single one had shown up. Damn. In one week the rent was due, the Christmas holidays were fast approaching and on top of it all she had to sit through a couple of very mean tests at school. Jacobs had been threatening his students with these tests for weeks. There was always so much to do, and never nearly enough time to do it. She felt herself heading towards yet another chase-me-through-dark-alleyways nightmare.
She looked around the pub. The Puss in Boots definitely wasn't what it used to be. But she still preferred it to walking the streets in this terrible weather. Outside, Miss High Heels and the tourist had moved on, but the downpour was unabated. Charlie made a note in her mental agenda: no matter whom you leave with tonight, make sure that he has enough money to pay for a taxi. Both to his place and back. If you want me wet, baby, you better keep me dry.
"Nice song, huh?"
Charlie needed a few seconds to realize that the ingenious comment had been made for her sake. Long enough for her eloquent neighbour to spark off another proof of his wit: "Geri Halliwell. It's raining men."
Charlie stared at him in disbelief. He couldn't be serious. From his greasy hair and the yes-I-hate-toothbrushes smile to every single one of his smutty, trembling fingertips, this guy was a study in embarrassment. A very accomplished study, in fact. If this was the best the Puss in Boots had on offer tonight, she would have been better off at home, giving the final touches to her paper for Jacobs. Which, come to think of it, was due this Friday. Only tomorrow afternoon and evening to work on it. Not that much time, considering that she was hoping for an A. Rumours had it that Jacobs was not only a very competent, but also a highly dedicated tutor (hard to believe, but apparently true) and thus Charlie had decided (quite unilaterally, so far) that Professor Jonathan Jacobs would be her tutor during her practical training next spring. He might not yet know about his luck, but it was nevertheless an unchangeable fact of life. Still, it would not hurt to convince him of her intellectual merits early on.
Seeing that she was not at all interested in a conversation with him, the Geri Halliwell fan added: "Do you come here often?"
Ahh. Almost as ingenious as talking about pop music. She'd better put an end to this brainless chitchat and explain to the nitwit that she was definitely out of his league. Miles. He couldn't afford her, even if he were the Sultan of Brunei. Which he wasn't, anyway. She turned around and gave him her most charming forget-about-it smile. Time to launch into her sorry-but-no speech, which she kept ready for occasions such as these.
"You know ..." she began, when a grass-green plastic jacket shoved itself into the gap between their two barstools. At the same time, a pair of slender, manicured hands started brushing up and down her arm.
"Scusey-scuse, I'd need a bit of space. Just for a teensy little sec. Barman! Another red one, thingy, please and a Lemon Ice and a ... can I get you something as well, honey? For the trouble?"
Charlie gaped at the apparition in green that had so miraculously separated her from Mister Unwanted. Unfortunately he looked happily gay and thus did not qualify as potential customer. But never mind that now. He had rescued her, albeit unknowingly, so he deserved at least the honour to buy her a drink. "I'd like a Vodka Orange, thank you."
"The Russian and the Big-O it is. Barman: do your duty. Vodka à l'orange for my new friend here. Do you want to come over to our table, honey? Much more comfy-cosy than at the bar."
Charlie had to laugh. This guy was really something. Quite an original, from ponytail to toe. Why not have a drink with him? Seeing that her regulars seemed to make a point of not showing up at the pub anyway. Without a further glance at the Geri Halliwell fan, who tried to regain her attention with a sleazy wink, Charlie accepted the invitation, the drink and Ponytail's hand.
"Ok, you lead the way." She hopped from the barstool and followed her rescuer through the throng of customers to a table under the large windows. Outside it was still raining, but there were less people on the pavement now. Judging from the crowd in the pub, most of them had taken refuge in the Puss in Boots. Ponytail squeezed himself onto the bench next to a young man and motioned for her to take a seat opposite them. Ok. Definitely not a potential customer.
"There's your Lemon Ice, honey, and this is ... do you have a name, honey?"
The first honey gave her a friendly smile, so Charlie thought that she, being the other honey, should introduce herself. "I'm Charlie."
"Charlie! What an oh so very nice name! Hi, Charlie. I'm Blake, like William, you know, the bloke with the Tyger, and this is Chris. I'm very much in love with him and he also with me, I think. So, Charlie, anything planned for tonight?"
Rocking back and forth on the edge of his seat, Blake gave Chris' thigh a lusty squeeze and flashed her a wide, expectant grin. He definitely looked eager to get into her pants. But then he also looked very, very gay. So much so in fact, that she started to wonder whether it might just be an act. She knew that a lot of women felt attracted to homosexuals, if only because of the challenge to bring these hard-to-get guys back onto the 'right' path. Not that the proselytisers were ever successful in their endeavours. But her thoughts were wandering. Back to Blake and Chris. The former was still grinning expectantly, so Charlie turned her attention to the latter. Gazing into his bottle of Lemon Ice like a clairvoyant into his crystal ball, Chris might as well have been a deaf-mute. In any case, he still had to utter his first syllable. A deaf-mute. Interesting. A hearing impediment probably was a blessing if you were going out with babbly Blake, who, Charlie noticed, had been constantly talking to her for the last half minute. She focused back on the verbal waterfall cascading down in front of her.
"... not like we were really hoping to meet anyone interesting in an ordinary pub like this. The Puss was more meant as a, you know, sort of a diving board into deeper waters. A jet stream taking us down to the darker realms of Poseidon, where shady sharks meet sirens sweet, to stay in the picture. Speaking of sirens, Charlie, what's a girl like you doing in a haunt like the Puss? It's not your usual pick-up bar, by the looks of it."
"What makes you think I want to be picked up?"
Blake gave her an even wider grin. "Touché! Charming Charlie - twelve points. La charmante Charlotte - douze points ... But, to answer your question: What made me think that? ... I don't know. You're alone, you're sexy. I'm alone ... well, sort of, alone with Chris, but still - we're both pretty alone together. So ... you aren't? Waiting to be picked up, that is? Because if you are, we'd propose us." Ultra-wide grin. End of speech.
Charlie smiled to herself. A candid waterfall and his mute friend. Jay and silent Chris. This promised to become a very interesting night indeed. "You'd propose yourself for what, exactly?"
Damn, she hated that part where she had to bring up the money topic. She never knew how to steer the conversation into that direction without feeling slightly embarrassed. A pity there wasn't a fixed rate, like for other basic goods such as petrol or milk. That would be a useful task for Labour. Maybe she should talk to her local MP about it? ... Oh my, her thoughts kept drifting off, and Blake was tireless. She'd again missed half of what he had been saying.
"... or whatever thought will strike our fancy." End of speech. Oops, she'd missed the important part. Focus on the task at hand, Charlie: how to push this friendly chat into Sterlingshire.
Chris leaned over and whispered something into Blake's ear. To Charlie's delight, he even nibbled teasingly at his friend's earlobe. Who in turn nuzzled his nose into Chris' neck and murmured an answer. Charlie felt a warm, pulsating throb building up in her pants. She pressed her legs together and alternately moved them back and forth. The hard seam of her jeans created a most delicious friction against her crotch. Mmmmh. Okay, guys, what's the deal? Maybe she should be straightforward. She could look this Blake guy in the eye and say: "Whatever you want, I'm ready for it, but you know it'll cost you, right?" She wondered how he would react to that. Laugh? Grin? Be offended?
"Chris here was wondering whether you'd do it for the fun of it, or whether you'd like us to ... how shall I put it? ... engage into a pecuniary transaction, thingy."
Charlie exhaled. The subject was breached. Perfect. She smiled her most charming thanks-for-mentioning-it smile and nodded emphatically. "That would be so obliging of you. You know, I'm a poor student, and London is quite an expensive city."
Now it was Blake's turn to nod vigorously. "Oh, definitely! Exorbitant cost of living. Way up there. A shame, really. Such a beautiful city and no one can afford to live in it. ... Well, sort of, I mean, seven million people obviously can afford it somehow, but still. Whore's prices, that's what they're asking. Oops, sorry, no offence, just a manner of speaking, you know." He grinned apologetically. He had a face you could fall for. Not her, of course, but a romantic, young girl might. Somehow, he reminded her of that actor who played this private detective in Sweating Bullets, back in the early nineties ...
"No offence taken. To come back to the pecuniary matters, well, it would of course depend on what you want exactly. What was it again you said you wanted?"
"Whatever strikes our fancy? From the back and from behind, you know. Me'n Chris are quite open-minded."
"I have no doubts whatsoever about that. So. You were thinking about the whole night, right? At least a few hours? That would be 150 pounds. That's what I usually ask one guy, and you're two, so it's quite a deal." Please say yes, next Wednesday's the first of December and I'll have to pay my rent, so pleeeease.
"Fair enough. Sounds good to me. So I'll go call a taxi, ok?"
"Oh, and the cab money back downtown ... I forgot to mention that ... if you don't mind."
"No prob, honey. We'll get you safely back to home sweet, don't worry. Now, if you 'scuse me for a moment, I'll go grab a cab." Blake glided out of the bench, as gracefully as a panther strolling through a mountain scenery. A self-assured, slender predator flexing his muscles for the kill. Or in this case, stepping out of the pub to call a taxi on his cell phone. Charlie watched in fascination as he strolled purposefully towards the pub door.
Chris smiled reassuringly at her. "Don't worry if you only get half of what Blake says. He loves wordplays. And he speaks seven languages, which obviously doesn't make things any easier for us common mortals."
Charlie laughed. "I actually find his way of speaking quite entertaining. Is he always so talkative?"
"Mhm. Twenty-four seven. 365 days a year. More, if it's a leap year. You eventually learn to shut it out. Like the traffic that drones on and on, but you don't really notice it anymore."
Charlie was about to answer, when she felt the metallic zip of a plastic jacket in her back and two strong hands pressing down on her shoulders. Massaging her expertly. Mmmmh.
"Cab's coming in a sec. Oh, and it has almost stopped raining. How about we wait outside, honeys? Such a nice smell of freshly washed tarmac in the air. Much better than the stale cig'n booze fog in here."
He didn't stop talking all the way to Notting Hill. By the time the cab had turned left onto Marylebone Road, Charlie knew that Blake was a professional artist, a sculptor in fact. Right now, he was in his clay phase, as he put it.
"... the urge to create beautiful objects by moulding a soft, moist, pliable texture," explained Blake, his hands sensuously grabbing the air in front of him. Charlie listened with interest. He sounded so earnest and excited when he talked about his art.
Somewhere on Westway, his constantly roving hands brushed as if by chance against her shirt, and Blake let out a little squeak. "Is that a breast?" he cried, utterly astonished.
Charlie laughed. "Is that so strange?" she asked him, amused. "What were you expecting to find on my chest - hands and feet?"
Blake shook his head, his eyes wide with wonder. "No, of course not. But still - the female mammalian appendages never fail to fascinate me. Do you mind if I touch? Just a bit?" He prodded her shirt carefully, as if afraid that the soft protrusion might suddenly jump out at him and swallow his hand. Emboldened, he then pressed his palm against her chest, kneading and moulding in expert sculptor's fashion. "Mmm, so nice," he murmured under his breath, "so sweet." His other hand wandered up her thigh, gliding into the warm slit between her legs. He rubbed his thumb against the hard seam of her jeans and moaned sensuously into her ear.
The driver stared straight ahead, focusing on the road. He didn't pay any attention to the curious scene unfolding in the back of his cab. After all, this was London. The city of loonies and nutters, the town that truly harboured Bedlam. He didn't mind driving any of its inhabitants, as long as they paid the fare and none of them threw up in his car. These three seemed fine on both accounts, so he was more than happy to ignore an occasional squeezed ma'am alien what's-its-name.