It was a film noir, bluesy midnight in November when it all began. As wet with possibilities as the rain-slick streets, traces of perfumes lingering, taxis heading to the hotspots that would combat the chill of solitude and looming winter, ghosts of the storied past lurking beneath the copper spires of that haunted hunting ground of mine, the fast, feminine 4/4 click-clack tattoo of my high-heeled boots on the pavement, in the town where I was born. Copenhagen.
I prowled for my favorite prey that night, someone young and tasty, someone I had wanted a while, an Irish bad boy who liked it spiced with a riding crop, imagination and the fur-lined handcuffs I carried in my handbag. I left him asleep with a souvenir and a smile on his face, and stomped out the leftover thrills with my boots across a Friday night town in search of mulled wine to simmer down. When they stopped, I stood in front of the Crossroads Café.
See it as I did, the place nearly empty a half hour before midnight, filled with flea market finds and blues legends on the walls. A couple talked in earnest, hushed voices in one corner beneath Howlin’ Wolf, and in another corner, a trio of tipsy girlfriends rehashed the week’s horrors beneath Bessie Smith’s motherly gaze. Robert Johnson sang ‘Little Queen of Spades’ on low.
See me in my dim, far corner at the back, curled up with my wine, happily alone, until suddenly, I wasn’t.
A man sat in the chair on my left, close enough to touch. I was so surprised, I forgot my manners.
“What happened?” I said for hello. “Nineteen empty armchairs and you had to sit next to me?”
He glanced down at the floor and smiled before he looked up. “Actually,” he said in American English and leaned closer on his right arm, “I came to talk to you.”
For a moment, I felt dizzy. I knew that voice, I had heard it before, but where?
The candles on the table flared and burned brighter. He looked to be around my age or a little older, someone who lived carefully but well. He wasn’t tall and that was a definite new thrill, since I looked him right in the eyes, but he was very broad in the shoulders, in top-to-toe black from his beat-up leather jacket to the lived-in jeans and biker boots. He was pale and clean-shaven, with a high, broad forehead beneath very black, shoulder-length hair swept back from his face, a long, straight nose above a mouth that seemed both cruel and soft. It was a face that challenged me to a second look.
“Why me? I’m just another face in the Friday night crowd.”
He smiled wider, leaned closer. “But you have potential,” he said. “What if you could be somebody?”
This was not my usual brand of stranger-in-the-night small talk. “Really? Who are you to say?”
“Ah.” He sat back in his chair for a moment, looked away, then leaned even closer. I inhaled the smell of his leather jacket and something else, some disturbing scent that made me dizzier still, dark, leathery, and very heady. Labdanum, yes, that’s what it was, and something spicy, and…I was so dizzy.
“I have many names. You know who I am. Look closer.”
I looked again. His eyes were a unique shade of red-brown that could turn either hot or cold in an instant, eyes that missed nothing, saw everything, eyes that hid an entire well-traveled Roman empire behind them. They were the eyes of a man who knew too much, watchful, guarded eyes that waited for you to trip up. I saw a flirt in those eyes. “Let me rip off your clothes,” they said. “With my teeth.”
I had no explanation for what I felt that moment. It was nothing I could put my finger on, nothing rational, nothing except a pair of warm brown eyes that never looked away from my face and that scent of peril, perdition and passion. It was erotic, it was dangerous, and it frightened me half to death.
How did I know? Was it that indefinable creature lurking in the back of his eyes, a gleam that told me this could be more than I thought, he was more than I thought, and what did I even think? I wanted to kiss him, and I wanted to scream and run away.
I took a deep, surreptitious breath, exhaled, and blinked. The realization came all in a rush, just who he was, who he resembled. I still didn’t know what he was doing in a Copenhagen café near midnight with nonentity me.
Leaning on his arm, looking me right in the eyes with a teasing grin on his face was the Devil, perfectly disguised as one very particular rock legend in the nosebleed stratosphere of badass. The voice, the intonation, the eyebrows.
I sat back in my chair. Fuck me! Breathe, woman. Breathe. Why that one? I was face to face with my favorite, secret sexual fantasy. Whatever else I did, I should play this cool.
“Well…” I laughed, “that’s unexpected. The Devil impersonating a rock star.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Just returning the favor. He’s done it to me enough times.” He shrugged. “I knew I should have stuck to the goat’s head and cloven feet.”
Only one location in the US came with that level of sarcasm. It was a flawless illusion.
“So why are you here with me?”
“I’m here because of you. You know…” he sat back casually, planted a foot on his knee. “Women are so surprising. Around your age, most of them pack it in, call it a day, cut their hair short and give up the ghost. Not you.” He leaned toward me. “You began to write. I know about those blogs you write, you think no one ever reads them but you write them anyway. I know about that novel you’ve been writing these past seven years, I know everything about you. I know that if you can’t write, your head will explode.”
He was so close. That terror I felt, that sense of apprehension didn’t leave me, but I wasn’t quite so afraid. That scent had a remarkable effect. If this had been his lookalike, I knew what I’d do. I’d do something that did not involve overstuffed forties armchairs.
“Really?” I could be sarcastic, too.
“You have a head stuffed with wild ideas. You can change the world if you want to, and don’t tell me you don’t!” There was a challenge in his eyes, a challenge broadcasting clear as daylight: “I dare you!”
“Well, I guess that if anyone would know that, it would be you,” I said.
He sat back, shrugged and looked away.
Several layers of tension floated in the air between us. That tension of the unknown, the tension of a dare, the tension of that feather-soft touch of fear I could almost taste, and another, louder kind of tension I knew so well. A twinge that made me shift in my seat, a tingle that made me wonder what those elegant hands would be like on my skin, what would he feel like, what would he taste like, did he…
It was so powerful, I couldn’t breathe. I let out a long, surreptitious sigh.
“I’m here…” he said it so low I had to lean forward to hear it, “to make a deal with you.” No condescension in his eyes, no irony on his face, no sarcasm hiding at the corners of his mouth. That was unnerving.
Play it cool. “Come on. Kind of old-fashioned in this day and age, wouldn’t you say? Dude, I’ve read Faust in several versions, and do you know, I don’t believe in absolutes or black and white, I don’t believe in sin or redemption and I don’t even believe in you.” I sat back and reached for my wine, had a sip and placed the glass back on its saucer. “You know how it goes. Where there is little faith…” I shrugged.
He laughed and smiled wider. “Devils are a necessity. Yeah. I know. This isn’t Faust. Whether or not you believe in me doesn’t matter. What matters is you.”
“Me?” I bleated, before I spat out a clove.
“You. What makes you happy, what fulfills you, what makes you feel as if you have a reason to live? Your writing. You’re good, you’re so good you can blow away the world. Wouldn’t you like to do that all the time?” His tone was soft and intimate, as if he knew everything about me and liked what he knew. He gave me a little-boy grin. “Wouldn’t you like to see your dreams come true?”
In our right-angled armchairs, we were almost close enough to kiss. His eyes slid down to my mouth, and my lips tingled with anticipation.
“Wouldn’t you like to be…” he murmured in my ear, “someone important?” He sat back, waved his hand and pointed to an empty spot on the opposite wall.
I saw…a vision. A vision of all my dreams come true, of everything that could happen the minute I walked out of the Crossroads Café, everything I could become. I saw myself in front of my laptop, plugged into my iPod, writing with a white-hot fury. I saw myself at meetings with people I didn’t know, I saw myself holding a hardcover copy of my book in my hand. I saw myself on a New York street in front of a large bookstore with my book and my face on prominent display, and I saw myself in an orange-gold room, doing what I did two hours before, but whoever was with me was in shadow. I saw myself on a stage on front of thousands of people with a microphone in my hand. I saw… all my dreams come true.
It felt so real, it took my breath away.
The vision disappeared, and I turned and looked him right in the eye. Still, that feather-touch of fear at the back of my neck, still that dangerous gleam in his eyes. He was the Devil. I had no doubts at all. Even so, I felt that sharp twinge, that expectant tingle on my skin. I was so turned on, you could have plugged me into the national grid and lit every Christmas tree in Denmark. He knew, I could tell, I saw it in that ghost of a grin on his face, saw it when his eyes slid down to the DD bumps in my sweater and gave him away.
I grabbed him by the lapels of his leather jacket and pulled him closer. “That begs a question, you know. What do you get out of it?”
That little boy grin spread from one ear to the other. “I told you, this isn’t Faust. I don’t want your soul, baby. According to Saint Augustine, you don’t have one.”
I instantly let go and sat back in my chair, thoroughly disgusted. “Oh, fuck Saint Augustine! He was a guy, what did he know?” So far as I was concerned, Saint Augustine and ‘The City of God’ was an excellent reason to remain an atheist for life. I realized just what he had said.
“Then what do you want?”
This time, he grabbed me by the shoulders. Again, that pornographic grin of possibilities, and I was already a puddle in my chair. “A little faith in humanity, a little hope, baby. I want to know there’s one person on Earth who dares to dream, who dares to follow that dream wherever it leads and fuck the consequences. No one has ever had much faith in you, have they? I do. I want you to return the favor, to have faith that I can make that happen for you, that’s what I want.”
Breathe. Play it cool. “Oh, puleeze. Dude, I’m forty-six, a little long in the tooth to fall for ye olde Hollywood producer routine, don’t you think? Well, I’m sure you can. What else do I know? Nothing is ever that cheap.” I glared him right in the face.
One eyebrow lifted. “You don’t open the door when opportunity comes knocking? You’re not getting any younger. You’re on to something now, something that could be big, but I guess if you don’t have the guts…” he shrugged and moved away, and as he did, I felt a chill, as if the courtyard windows were open to a frigid wind.
He really did know everything. I could resist whatever life threw my way except chocolate, cake, testosterone bombs and a challenge, not always in that order. Heaven forfend I ever encounter all four at once.
Breathe. I blinked. “And if I don’t, or I can’t?”
Again, he pointed to the opposite wall. Another vision, another possibility, another option to choose from.
I saw my most harrowing nightmare come to life on that wall, every fear I ever held. It wasn’t pretty, I’ll say that much. It was so painful to watch, it took my breath away, or else it was the sudden, brutal cold in the room.
I sat back with my wine, had a sip and thought. The Devil looked away, out the courtyard window.
“I have to make that decision now?” I asked. Even my voice sounded diffident. I felt it in my bones, this was a moment, this was a decision that would change my life forever. When I set my wine glass back on its saucer, my hand shook so much, it clattered on the porcelain.
In a flash, he grabbed me again. His voice in my ear was a silky soft, potent promise and a far-off unspoken threat. I was more frightened than I had ever been in my life and I was more aroused than I had ever been too, perched on that perilous razor’s edge between terror and desire.
I wanted to run out the door and never return, I wanted to scream as loud as I could, and I wanted even closer, even tighter. I wanted to feel those hands, I wanted that mouth, so soft, so cruel, so close. I wanted all my dreams come true. But what did I want more?
Almost of their own volition, my hands slid underneath his jacket collar and cradled his jaw. I moved closer still and breathed him in, that haunting, disturbing scent of perdition and peril, inhaled him in that animal way women do to gauge a guy they plan to kiss. Before I had time to regret it, I kissed him as my answer.
This was no hesitant first-time kiss, reading the geography of someone new. This was just civilized enough to taste the savage behind it. No brimstone, no mouthful of monsters, only a mouth and a tongue that knew precisely where my secret buttons were located. For the first and only time in my dissolute life, a kiss was enough.
He broke away after a while, trailed a finger down my neck behind my ear I felt as a line of fire burning on my skin. His eyes were as soft as a promise, but there was a grin hiding in the corners of his mouth, that mouth I wanted again. “Don’t forget your wine.”
“Oh!” The real world crash-landed back into my consciousness. My entire mouth was on fire. I had a sip of wine. When I looked again, he had vanished.
The flea market grandfather clocks suddenly began to chime in unison. Midnight.
Surely I had been here for more than half an hour? I felt dizzy again. The candles on my table spluttered and hissed. Underneath the saucer of my wine glass was a large denomination bill, and on the chair where he sat mere moments before was an indistinct puddle of something black.
It was a t-shirt. In the world I moved in, t-shirts were passports and ID badges and sacraments. They proclaimed who you were and what you believed in, could open doors, start friendships or fights all over the world. I wrote in several of them, collected them at concerts.
The t-shirt in my hands was such a rarity, few people even believed it existed, but I knew better. It was quite simply one of the rarest, the coolest, most ultimate of black t-shirts in rock’n’roll history, over thirty years old, silk-screened by hand and in mint condition. No pinholes, no frayed collar, no degrading of the image in front. I buried my nose. I smelled his haunting scent, a perfume of perdition and peril, dark and otherworldly.
I eyed the bill on the table, the t-shirt in my hands. I still had time to regret but I wouldn’t. It wasn’t as if I had anything at all to lose.
Instead, I put the bill in my pocket and the t-shirt in my bag, downed my glass, donned my jacket and walked out of the Crossroads Café, my lips on fire and visions and dreams dancing on air.