Read the previous chapter, Chapter 9, here first.
Chapter 10 of Deviance, London Psychic #3. Click here for buy links to the full book.
Blake looked around the small flat, traces of a woman he didn't know yet in the furnishings and pictures on the walls. He usually read objects where the memories of those entwined with them were dead and gone, the civilizations they came from crumbled and fallen. But this woman, Olivia, might come home any minute and it made him anxious.
The last time he had read a living person, it was the day of his father's death. He had seen demons consume the frail body and that had sent him over the edge into his own madness. But that's why he was here. He still owed Jamie for rescuing him from the delirium of the RAIN experiments. If she needed to know what was going on, then he had to help, even if it put his job in jeopardy.
He looked at his watch. He could still get back within the hour if they were quick.
While Jamie began to search the living room area, Blake walked through into O's bedroom and sat down on the futon, looking around the small bedroom for a sense of what O valued most, for what might give him insight into her life.
He looked down to the side of the bed at a low table with a lamp on it. There was a jade greenstone pendant lying there, shaped in a Maori manaia design. With the head of a bird, a human body and the tail of a fish, the manaia was the messenger of the gods, representing spiritual power and a guide beyond the physical realm. The frayed leather cord tied around the neck of the bird indicated that O wore this often. Something about it called to Blake and he could almost feel the smooth stone in his palm.
He took off his gloves and picked up the pendant with bare hands. The crisscross network of scars didn't prevent him from feeling the coolness of the jade and the contours fitted into his hand perfectly. His heart raced a little in a combination of fear at what might come but also exhilaration at glimpsing into another's world. He closed his eyes and let the visions come.
The mists of memory swirled about him and Blake sensed many emotional threads tied around this one pendant, but there was one that was particularly strong. He let himself sink into that layer of consciousness and opened himself up to the sensation.
He was weightless, floating in a blue-green ocean, experiencing a scuba dive as O had done one day when she had worn the pendant. Blake heard the rhythmic sound of her deep breathing through the regulator, watched the bubbles float away and, for a moment, he understood why people craved time underwater.
He could feel O's calm, her almost meditative state as she finned above a rocky bottom. It was cool and he could feel the thickness of the wetsuit she wore. These were temperate waters, not a warm coral paradise. Mats of thick kelp covered the walls and rocks around, swaying in the surge. Wrasse in shades of purple and green darted in and away, curious of the diver, while blue two-spot demoiselles clustered in the shelter of the kelp.
O leaned forward, tipping over to descend, exhaling to empty her lungs. Her buoyancy control was natural and her body relaxed, as if she were part of this aquatic realm, unhindered by the heaviness of the gear she wore. A hole in the rocks appeared as she descended and she finned towards it, heading into a sea cave.
It was dark inside but Blake sensed no fear in her. She added a little air and then floated, neutrally buoyant.
Blake felt another presence, something substantial, something powerful. His eyes adjusted to the dark and shapes appeared in the cave. There were boulders on the bottom, lumps of grey stone covered in soft coral, big-eye fish clustering at the edges of view. Something stirred in the shadows and then moved towards them in the water. O's excitement was palpable but she stayed motionless, waiting for it to come closer.
The octopus ascended, its tentacles hanging below, curling slowly in the water. It was large and covered in nodules, its bulbous head as big as a watermelon. Its eyes were pools of black in the semi-darkness but Blake sensed an intelligence and a curiosity for the creature who entered its territory. It glided past towards the cave entrance and O turned to watch it silhouetted against the light, following slowly after. Its movement was mesmerizing, each tentacle a separate dexterous limb twisting in the blue.
It swam out of the cave and O emerged after it, eyes fixed on its strange beauty. It was inescapably alien, a body with no backbone that could squeeze into the tiniest hole and yet, out here, it was glorious. Blake tried to fix the moment in his mind, the sun shining down through the water patterning on the octopus' skin as it turned in the water to examine the diver in the light. The second stretched on and Blake felt the connection, understood why O was so fascinated with the creature. It was wild and free in this wide ocean, something a human could never be.
The sound of a boat engine rumbled through the water and the octopus shot away incredibly fast, all eight tentacles thrusting, turning its body into a torpedo that sped out of sight. Blake felt O's loss at its disappearance, the moment broken, perhaps never to be repeated. As the intensity of the experience dropped away, the mists of memory began to swirl about him and he reached for tendrils of pain associated with the pendant that were bound to another time and place.
As he fixed on the new vision, it crystallized into a tattoo studio. O lay on her back, the pain intense as the tattoo artist inked a tentacle on the skin under her exposed breast. The man looked up, his brown skin marked with a full facial Maori moko.
“Just say the word, O, and we can take a break.”
“I can do another ten minutes,” she said, clenching her fists. “We've got to finish it. I'm moving to Europe as soon as we're done.”
“I'm going to miss my finest work,” the man said, bending his head again. “But maybe I'll see you at the tattoo convention sometime. I've heard they have a good one in London.”
The buzz of the tattoo machine started again and Blake could feel the nuances of pain as it inked O's skin. There was a sense of being fully present in her body, a crossing over into a place where thought was secondary to physical sensation. It was an initiation of sorts, where pain represented the crossing of a threshold into a new world. Once crossed, there was no way to remove the mark.
Blake understood now why O wanted to have the octopus on her skin. It represented camouflage and the ability to transform its body in movement. It was grace and intelligence and, ultimately, escape. It had marked her that day in the sea cave and now it would mark her skin until death parted them.
That thought ripped Blake from the vision, for he felt no sense of O's end in the strings of memory. He didn't really understand what the visions meant or how they worked, but he had learned to trust his instinct. O was alive – at least for now.
Blake pulled his hand from the pendant and sat for a moment, breathing deeply as he reoriented himself to the surroundings. He looked up at the Japanese octopus print on the wall and smiled. The vision he had seen was a privilege, a glimpse into a world he might never see with his own eyes. Sometimes his psychic ability was a curse, to be drowned in tequila until he could no longer feel. But this was a glimpse into something wonderful, and now he felt such a connection with O that he was determined to help Jamie find her.
He stood up and went back into the living area. Jamie flicked through a pile of papers on a bookshelf and looked up as he came in.
“Find anything?” she asked, then frowned. “Are you OK? You look pale.”
Blake held up the pendant. “I read this and at least now I understand her obsession with octopi. I had a brief tattoo experience, as well.”
Jamie raised her eyebrows. Blake knew she had been skeptical at first, doubting the veracity of his visions. But after the last two cases they had been involved in, she accepted what he discovered without need for further explanation.
“Did you see anything that could help us find her?”
Blake shook his head. “Nothing concrete, but I think it would make sense to connect with the tattoo community in London. Her ink had deep meaning for her and might bring us closer to finding out where she was last night. Her tattoo artist was Maori and I think I'd recognize him if I saw him again.”
Jamie shuffled through the papers on the desk. She held up a printed flier for the London Tattoo Convention and smiled.
“This is a multi-day event and it went on late into last night. Maybe O was there? We could head over now and see what we can find out. Can you spare the time?”
Blake thought of the caution that lay on his desk back at the British Museum, of Margaret's stern expression. He should get back and spend the rest of the day in research. But when he was with Jamie, his craving for alcohol lessened and surely the focus on finding O, a living woman, was more important that investigating those dead and gone.
“I'll file the time under research,” he said, with a smile.
The Tobacco Dock was an early nineteenth-century warehouse of sturdy brick and ironwork that had once housed imported tobacco. It was in that part of East London described as ‘up and coming,' still underdeveloped and affordable but on the edge of turning fashionable. It wouldn't be long before the artists had to move even further out of the city.
“I've thought about getting a tattoo, you know,” Jamie said as she and Blake entered the gates into the venue. “I can't decide what I'd want to have done though.” She thought of Polly and how her daughter would have liked to help choose the design. There were so many possibilities. But in the end, Jamie knew that her own body carried the memory of her child, her own flesh and blood now turned to dust.
“I'm considering it too,” Blake said, pulling Jamie from her thoughts. “When I read O's pendant, I had a glimpse of what ink meant to her and why the octopus is her totem. I'm convinced there will be people here we can ask about her.”
The venue separated into several spaces around open courtyards overlooked by a second tier of rooms. There were booths hung with flash, tattoo art displaying the style of the artist from traditional naval styles to curly feminine floral motifs, Chinese dragons and darker tribal marks. A rock band played to a lively crowd, overlaying the sound of buzzing from the tattoo machines. There was sizzling from the barbeques and the smell of roasting meat, hot chips and coffee hung in the air.
A generation ago, there would have been stereotype attendees to these type of events – fat and balding Hell's Angel types, gang members, sailors and prostitutes. A freak show of outcasts, considered deviant by decent people. But now the crowd was mixed, beautiful young women wandering amongst middle-aged rebels sipping Pinot Grigio, and, of course, a healthy dose of leather-clad men, from male model to grandfather. Some art was discreet, a single image on a patch of skin. But others had gone all in, art personified, their bodies a canvas of meaning.
A man walked past wearing plain black jeans and boots, the simplicity setting off his bare torso. There was no patch of skin unmarked by dense tattoos, the images ranging from the head of the Devil at his navel, to a huge dragon around his ribs that wrapped into steampunk wings on his back. His head was shaven and his skull and face were tattooed in strong black geometric shapes.
“With so many inked bodies and tattoo artists, how are we going to find those connected to O?” Blake wondered aloud.
They continued walking through the maze of booths. The buzz of tattoo machines was a soothing backdrop, like bees on a summer's day. Many of the clients lay relaxed under the skilled hands of the artists, trusting their skin to strangers.
“Why do you think tattoos have become so popular these days?” Jamie asked, as they stopped to watch one artist ink script into a man's shaven skull.
“Marking skin is nothing new,” Blake said. “The oldest human bodies found in glaciers have tattoos, showing allegiance to a tribe or gang, or to God. Perhaps that's the point. We've lost that sense of meaning in our secular society so we go through ritual behavior in the ultimate pursuit of individualization. Tattoos are only the start – I've read that there's also a rise in piercings, scarification, branding and implants.”
Jamie thought of Rowan Day-Conti's extreme body modification from the Jenna Neville case, and his obsession with how the body could be used in life as well as in death. He had been her first connection to O.
The rock music finished and the roar of the crowd subsided. In the brief lull, Jamie heard music that reminded her of the night at the Torture Garden when she had seen O dance.
“This way,” she said, heading off in the direction of the music, through the crowds of people as Blake tried to keep up.