Read the previous chapter, Chapter 3, here first.
Chapter 4 of Deviance, London Psychic #3. Click here for buy links to the full book.
Blake Daniel tried to concentrate on the document on his screen. He willed his brain to conjure the next sentence and strained against the need to get up. He swallowed and clenched his fists under the desk.
Just one drink and the anxiety would subside.
This need for alcohol was a permanent thudding in his blood. His father's recent death and the discovery of a dark family history had sent him back into the tangled embrace of the tequila bottle. But now he was determined to pull away. Jamie managed her grief at the loss of her daughter and she was much harder hit than he was. Coffee would be a better remedy – at least for now.
Avoiding the critical eye of his ever-watchful manager, Margaret, Blake walked upstairs, out of the research area of the British Museum into the Great Court. It was a stunning marble courtyard with glass panels overhead that allowed the sun to touch every corner, a magnificent setting for the treasures within. Blake loved his job as an artifact researcher at the museum and every time he walked these halls, he marveled again at how lucky he was to work here.
He grabbed a coffee and a cupcake from the posh bakery in the forecourt, then found a place to sit so he could look out at the crowd. He popped a couple of headache pills and then sat for a moment, watching the people go by. He tried to guess the nationalities of those who walked past, a game he often played here in the city where all could find a place. Blake felt at home in London, where his own mixed-race heritage was a cultural norm. His mother was Nigerian, his father Swedish, and his caramel skin and blue eyes were less unusual here than in either of their native countries. Not that he had been to either. He listened to chattering voices around him, most in languages he couldn't even guess at, let alone understand. Perhaps it was time to visit.
Blake sipped his coffee, holding the hot brew between gloved hands. The thin leather hid deep scars across his skin from years of abuse. His father had tried to beat the Devil from his son, intending to destroy the ability to read objects and see visions from the past, or even another realm. But the beatings hadn't worked and the visions still came – sometimes as a gift and sometimes a curse. Blake had reconciled himself to his scars years ago, but now he was almost glad of them, a physical reminder that his father had even existed at all. After years of hating the man, his death hadn't brought peace, only more questions.
A gaggle of chattering schoolchildren caught Blake's eye, their laughter a welcome remedy to his melancholy. As they walked past, the shifting crowd around them parted for a second and Blake saw someone in their midst, a craggy face with a hint of familiarity. The man's eyes were a piercing blue, his features sculpted by northern winds, a scar across his nose like a mountain gulley. His body was like a menhir carved from ancient rock. He was still, his limbs tense. It was as if he waited for something – or someone.
Blake shivered, his skin goosebumps as he remembered the vision of the bloody rite of Odin, a human sacrifice to the gods of the north that he had glimpsed through the Galdrabók, a grimoire of Icelandic spells. His father had kept the powerful book under lock and key, but now it lay wrapped in sailcloth under Blake's own bed. He sometimes looked at the runes within, his gloved fingers tracing the angular lines that marked out his name as gifted, wondering about the others whose names were etched in a similar fashion. For the men who renewed the sacrifice of Ymir were his kin, and he saw an echo of them in the man here now.
He stood, trying to see the man more clearly even as the tourists whirled about, sweeping him out of view. Blake walked quickly towards the place the man had been standing, but he was gone. If he had even been there. Blake rubbed his forehead, urging the pain to subside. Could his visions be bleeding over into the real world? Or was he just seeing his father's face in the visage of another old man?
Blake walked back to the research area and pushed the glimpse of the man from his mind. His supervisor, Margaret, gave him a stern look, as she always did when he took too many breaks for her workaholic sensibility. She beckoned him into her small office.
Time to go on the offensive, Blake thought. He smiled, meeting Margaret's eyes with a direct gaze that made most women blush, a hint of promise for pleasures after dark. He had the look of a boy-band singer after a night partying, perennial stubble and close-cropped dark hair, and Blake knew he could turn on the charm when needed. He walked into Margaret's office, a mischievous smile on his lips.
“I've had some ideas about what we could call this new exhibition,” he said, seating himself on the side of her desk, leaning towards her a little, his posture deliberately relaxed.
Margaret was the archetype of a middle-aged museum researcher, a little wide in the hips, no makeup, greying hair. But Blake liked that in an academic. One of his idols was Mary Beard, a professor of classics at Cambridge who brought Roman culture to life with her down-to-earth ways, uncaring of what the world thought of her looks while she stunned the public with her brilliant mind.
“You know that's up to the marketing team,” Margaret said. “They're trying their best with the – unusual – material.”
“How about the Las Vegas of Londonium,” Blake said with a cheeky smile. He indicated the clay sculpture of a phallus lying on Margaret's desk. “Or Cocks of the Capital.”
Margaret's mouth twitched.
“Cock of Ages?” Blake added.
She couldn't help but laugh at that. The musical, Rock of Ages, played down the road from the museum and was popular with tourists.
“Hmm, not sure that will fly,” she said. “Although it looks like we're going to have to make it over-eighteens only.”
“Better for marketing anyway,” Blake said. “After all, the British Museum does have one of the largest collection of pornography in the world. Bless those Victorians.”
Few were aware that the British Museum had the Secretum, founded in 1865 after the Obscene Publications Act, which preserved a chronology of pornography from the era. Blake stood up to leave.
“Can you shut the door a minute?” Margaret said, her voice suddenly serious. Blake pushed it shut, and the click of the door echoed in the pit of his stomach.
He sat back down on the chair opposite her.
“How's your paper coming along?” she asked, her voice losing all trace of flirtation now. “You seem to be behind … again.”
Blake looked away. “I know. I'm sorry – my father's death …”
“I'm sorry about his passing, but we have a hard deadline on this exhibition. You know that. I need researchers who can deliver on time, and you've been repeatedly absent or late this last year.” She paused. “Sometimes when you come in, I know you've been drinking, Blake.” She pulled a paper from a folder next to her computer. “This is a formal warning about your behavior. It goes on your record and it means you're on notice.”
Blake took the paper, but he couldn't read the words. They swam in front of his eyes, a mixture of legalistic terminology and HR gobbledygook. If only he could just have a drink. It would help his concentration.
At heart, he knew the discipline was deserved but it felt like he'd been slammed into a wall. His life was a balancing act, for sure, but he had thought he was managing it well enough. This job was stability even as his personal life was in shambles. He couldn't lose it.
“Blake, do you understand what this means?” Margaret's voice was a little softer now.
“Yes, I … I need to get back to work.” He waved the paper, attempting a smile. “Lots to do.”
Margaret nodded. “I'll expect an update at the end of the week.”
Blake left Margaret's office and went back to his own desk, a little corner haven in the bustle of the museum. He sat down heavily and stared at his computer screen for a moment. He ran his gloved fingers along the edge of the desk, considering the possibility of just walking out.
The craving for a drink was overwhelming, but he had removed the flask of vodka from his bottom drawer last week in one of his attempts to go cold turkey.
There was a bar across the street, though.
He only had to walk upstairs and over the road and he could soothe the crazy and focus again.
He took off his watch and laid it on the desk next to him. I don't have to stop drinking forever, he thought. Just another ten minutes.
He opened the file on his computer and focused on what he needed to do. The research team had a lot of objects to sift through for this exhibition, searching for the ones that would be the most effective to convey the desired message. It was about the sexual history of London, a daring subject that skated near some difficult truths about the capital's past. But history didn't have to be portrayed as dry and dusty.
Blake's visions enabled him to see the real people behind the objects, and his job was to help others see them too by putting together insightful curated displays. He loved to bring history to life, giving a glimpse into a past that might inspire others to learn as he had. What better place than the British Museum to do this work? There really was no substitute, so he couldn't lose this job. He just couldn't.
He started typing up his research notes, making suggestions for his specific area. The idea for the exhibition stemmed from the remains of a substantial Roman temple discovered to the south of Southwark Cathedral, with stone foundations and tessellated floors. A jug inscribed with Londini ad fanus Isidis – ‘In London, at the Temple of Isis' – had been found nearby in 1912, a relic from Roman times.
Southwark back then had been outside the defended area of the Roman city, a no-man's land where any sin could be indulged. There was evidence that Isis, Apollo and Hermes had been celebrated in wild processions culminating in frenzied public orgies on the same land where the cathedral now stood. Every night was Saturday night in Roman Southwark, and alcohol played just as much a part in the lives of the Romans as it did for contemporary Londoners.
Blake forced down his itch for a drink, checking his watch.
Another ten minutes.
He rested gloved hands against a spintriae, a Roman brothel token with lists of services for purchase. He wondered what he would see if he tried to read it with bare hands. Would he glimpse the life of the Roman red-light district? Did he want to?
There was a room in the museum that few knew of where he would go to read sometimes. Not read with a book, but with his bare hands, to see into the past of the objects he researched. As much as he considered the visions a curse, he also craved them. Just like the tequila bottle. Was it the lure of the unknown, a break from stifling normality? When he drank, and when he read, Blake didn't know what would happen. Was it about loss of control?
Blake pulled his hand away from the object. He wasn't strong enough to witness what this token might show him this morning. The Romans understood appetite in all its forms: food, sex, violence. All were celebrated to excess in the Roman world. Perhaps our time is not so different, Blake thought. There is such a thin veil of civilization over our animal nature, after all. It takes little to let our teeth show.
The face of the man upstairs flashed into his mind, and then a memory of the vision in the Nordic forest. The groans of the dying strung up in trees, the grunt of the men who hacked at the corpses, the moon on the dark blood that soaked the earth.
Blake shook his head, banishing the images. He began to search the database for details that would add color to the description of the spintriae, attempting to balance the truth with language that would educate but not offend. He tried several different descriptions, chuckling to himself as he wrote, trying for a balance of double-entendre that skirted the edge of acceptability.
As he delved into the archives, he discovered the lists of sexual services were not only displayed on tokens. There were women, known as bustuariae, who worked the cemeteries lining the roads out of London. They used gravestones to advertise their services, chalking up their specialty and prices during the day and liaising with clients after sunset. Sex and death were intimately wound together and this could add a new angle to the display.
Blake pulled up the records from the Pompeii exhibition from a few years back, one of the most popular for the museum. The ancient city was the ultimate combination of sex and death, with art depicting satyrs raping animals and gods abusing maidens, where myriad clay penises were dug from the ruins and wall frescoes depicted scenes of orgies. Blake leaned in to type more quickly, the thrill of discovery suppressing his cravings, at least for now.
Click here to continue reading Chapter 5.