My novel, Mouth, is a lightly humorous urban adventure novel set in a busy downtown financial district, and revolves around the comings and goings of people at a small restaurant/eatery that serves bite-sized sandwiches. Following the disappearance of the tenant who used the office space directly above, the owners of the eatery find out that all is not what it seems, and that secrets and subterfuge are all around them.
This is my first attempt at fiction, and if I were asked which authors my writing most resembles, I would say, humbly, that it attempts to walk in the great footsteps of Douglas Adams (although this is not a science fiction book), or the mildly absurdist work of Robert Rankin’s The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse.
I have had a few people read it and say they enjoyed it, so I thought I would put chapter 1 up on the blog here and see if anyone else does too. Naturally, it is available for sale at Lulu.com, if you like it enough to buy the rest.
All comments are welcome, of course.
Chapter 1: Monday 9:30 a.m.
There they were – those sensuous lips – red, glistening, and slightly parted, as if in anticipation of whispering something sinful to a closely-positioned lover’s ear. They were beautiful in their vivid glistening redness – they were captivating. And they were three feet wide. They seemed to hover over the storefront in breathless anticipation, ignoring or perhaps just unaware of the noises of the city street around it.
“No,” Sandy said, “This is not right.” He climbed back down the stepladder and darted through the traffic to the other side of Jasper Street, where Christine, his partner in both business and life, stood, her hands clasped around her morning coffee.
Together, they looked at the lips – a display of sensuous pouting that formed the centerpiece of the new signage over the doorway of their restaurant. “They’re too sexy,” he said. “They look like they belong over a strip club, not a sandwich shop.” Christine nodded her head in agreement. The lips themselves were just a mock-up; a heavy paper poster hung over the door where the final signage would ultimately go. But yes, the come-hither look they gave off hinted at delicacies that could not easily be placed inside a glass display case alongside chopped lettuce and diced tomatoes.
Randi, the sign’s designer, was standing alongside the two business partners, bristling perceptibly. He toyed with his mobile phone, turning it over and over, winding it through the fingers of his right hand as a magician would do with a playing card. His left hand perched – not rested – perched on his hip, and he stood with his legs tightly pressed together. He looked about as relaxed as a lightning rod. Randi had designed the lips sign, and he now saw that it was not a great success in the eyes of his customers. Therefore he was not happy. He looked at them for further guidance; his pride, hurt by this initial lukewarm reception of his design, being carefully disguised inside confident gestures of consultant’s bravado.
He did have other clients waiting, after all; other clients whose problems could be solved much more quickly than this. There was the spa just up the street, for example, that offered speed-zen for the overly busy. He had recently advised them to cut their mantra back by fifty percent, from om to o, which took half the time to read and pronounce, and was easier for busy clients to remember in-between reading other texts. This suggestion had resulted in the extension of his contract, and the spa’s owners were now eager to review his multimedia production entitled PowerPoint Towards Enlightenment.
Just for a fleeting moment Randi redirected his gaze over the shoulders of his clients, up the street a few blocks. He saw a police car emerge from somewhere and turn south onto Jasper Street, heading in their direction. It had its lights on but no siren, and was threading its way southwards through the thick morass of taxicabs, delivery trucks and other cars. Randi watched it but paid it no heed. He looked back across the road to the restaurant, and felt suddenly tired of the whole Mouth project. He felt creatively spent. He wished his phone would ring. He toyed with the idea of activating his fake-call app and pretending to receive an important incoming call from a big client, just to remind these two that he was truly a force to be reckoned with in the design community, but that would require a great deal of acting, and he just didn’t have the energy for such subterfuge. He returned his gaze to the work at hand.
The store, over whose doorway Randi’s gigantic paper lips fluttered, was called Mouth. It was an eatery, really, not a true restaurant, and it was owned and run by the two people who were now making Randi feel untalented and fraudulent. Their names were Sandy Parkinson and Christine Lee. Within the hierarchy of dining establishments, Mouth existed a few rungs higher than a sandwich shop, many rungs higher than a greasy spoon, but quite a few rungs lower than an actual sit-down restaurant. Mouth tried to present itself as having a kind of trendy and economical Euro-stylishness; it tried to deliver panache without being overwhelmingly French.Nestled as it was, on the street level of the Century Consolidated Building, an office tower in the dead center of the city’s financial district, its main clientele consisted of members of the business community who came in for a quick coffee and something to eat between seven and nine o’clock in the morning, and then came back for lunch around noon. Generally by four o’clock the stools in the eating area of Mouth were already upside-down on their tables in a classic rendition of dining room rigor-mortis while Sandy and Christine swept the floors clean. Mouth was purely a daylight establishment.
The unique selling point of the eatery though – its trademark – was the size of the portions: they were tiny. The sandwiches, quiches, desserts, and everything else on offer came in two-inch square morsels – a single big bite – or two small bites. This was done for a couple of reasons; the first was that it gave people a chance to try more than one meal item during each sitting. Second, as Sandy and Christine were proud to point out, their servings helped customers save money and eat healthier by choosing smaller portions. Three squares a day was the catchphrase printed on top of the menu. It suggested to all comers that three of these morsels would be enough to keep anyone energetic and vibrant for the long afternoon to come. Three squares and a square of dessert, of course.
The third reason for the portion sizes was purely economic. The markup was great. People paid for convenience, and the portions allowed the eatery to make more profit per pound of food than it could with regular meal items. It worked very well.
So it was this unique approach to meal size that gave rise to the name of the establishment. It was called Mouth, an anatomical label that invited customers to use their own mouths for two purposes: to eat and to talk. In short, to enjoy a social lunch, in manageable portions: an oasis of civility amid the daylight rat race.
But for now, Sandy, Christine and uptight designer Randi stood there, across the busy street from Mouth, each waiting for their respective muses to descend from the place muses come from and deliver a newer, better inspiration for the signage that was to eventually occupy the space over their door and its adjacent plate glass window. But none of them actually felt any muses arriving. Instead they felt the lingering chill of the city morning slip under their coats and pull at the skin of their chests and backs, for although it was past 9:30 on a bright spring day, the canyons of the city’s financial core let no direct sunlight fall upon them. This would not happen until the hour of high noon.
They stood there, motionless amid the busy pedestrians of Jasper Street. Well, almost motionless. More than once they had to step out of the path a random Blackberry druid, one of those busy people who walked with head bowed and eyes directed solely towards the screen of their phone, relying on peripheral vision and faith to guide them to their destination unharmed. But other than that the three of them were motionless.
As they stood there, another police car materialized from Wellington, the cross-street to the south of them. It turned northwards and headed towards them, so that it, as well as the squad car Randi had previously noticed, were heading towards each other, and toward them, amidst the morning traffic. This second car was one of those slick unmarked units that everyone everywhere immediately knew was a squad car due to its exceptionally white headlights and a lack of hubcaps. At this moment though, there was no secrecy. It was on the job. It had a red light whirling around on its dashboard, and its bright headlights were flashing in a cool alternating strobe style that exclaimed distinct purpose and focus.
So now there were two police cars, coming towards them from opposite ends of the block, one from the south, the other from the north. And very soon, there they were, converging right across the street from where Christine, Sandy and Randi all stood, screeching to a halt, nose-to-nose, directly outside the entrance to the humble eatery called Mouth.
The three of them watched the action unfold, detached, curious, and a little nervous. Behind them, a small knot of people also stopped to watch. Others chose to observe peripherally, while continuing to text or email with the intensity of storefront psychics, their thumbs twitching on keypads like a squirrel working on an acorn.
The doors of each of the squad cars opened. The flashing lights, however, were not turned off. From one car, two officers stepped out, one in uniform, the other in regular clothes. From the other car, another uniformed officer appeared. They walked casually, no guns drawn, no hint of emergency. But for all their apparent lack of urgency it was obvious they were not merely dropping by the eatery for a coffee and a square of cake. The two uniformed officers, their chests large and sculpted thanks to their Kevlar vests, swaggered slightly due to the plethora of tools and weapons attached to their belts. They walked on either side of the plainclothesman, and together the men approached the eatery. Sandy and Christine held their breath. The officers walked to the door of the restaurant. Sandy and Christine stood transfixed. The officers walked to the doorway, and continued to walk straight past it. They turned instead at the next doorway, the big one that gave entrance to the lobby of the Century Consolidated office tower itself. They passed through the revolving doors, stopped, and spoke briefly to the security guard at the front desk. Finally, the three officers along with the security guard disappeared into the stairwell, opting, for some reason to not wait for an elevator.
Sandy and Christine stopped squinting through the lobby glass and instead refocused their minds and their eyes on the project at hand. They looked at each other, and then they both looked at Randi.
“Can you provide us with any more design types by the end of today?” Christine asked hopefully. Randi touched his index finger to his chin, pushing it up slowly until it rested under his pursed lips. He hoped this pose made him look very creative and artistic, and maybe even mysterious.
“I think we can rustle up one or two more,” he sighed. “I tell you what, let me snap some pictures of the storefront, and we’ll Photoshop some more samples and email them to you this aft. Would that work?”
“Yes,” Sandy interjected before Christine could form any sort of response. He knew how quickly Christine could get her claws out when she felt she was being given the run-around. She might even be justified in doing so, but somehow he felt that would not motivate Randi to produce any new good ideas. “That would make sense,” he continued, referring to Randi’s proposal to shoot some pictures, “But let me get the stepladder out of the way first, so at least the store looks better.”
He started to cross back across the street, walking around the back of one of the book-ended police cars. His own peripheral vision picked up the flash of Randi’s cellphone camera. Clearly Randi was an artiste on a shoestring budget and a schedule to match, and was unwilling to even wait for the stepladder to be removed. Sandy’s attention returned quickly to the revolving doors of the main entrance of the Century Consolidated Building. Back across the street, Christine and Randi’s gaze did the same, for the police were coming back out now, and they had someone else with them: a large man – rotund large, not tall large. A Chinese-looking man who was holding his hands close in front of him under a raincoat. The first officer exited out onto the street via the revolving door. The other officer and the plainclothes detective accompanied the Chinese man through the adjacent automatic wheelchair access door.
As the four of them emerged onto the sidewalk the Chinese man looked around and smiled politely. He did not appreciate being made a public spectacle, it seemed, but he made pains to avoid looking like a captured criminal. His expression was one of polite accommodation, as if the officers had made a silly mistake, one which could easily be ironed out within twenty minutes or so, with no loss of face to anyone involved.
He was escorted to the unmarked squad car, whose rear door had been opened for him by the first officer. With the by-the-book courtesy that the police always seem to offer to people they’ve just arrested, he was advised to lower his head upon entering, which he did. Gravity then took over and he flopped heavily onto the car’s bench seat.
The cars extinguished their flashing lights and pulled away from the curb, one, then the other, in opposite directions, another mission accomplished. The sidewalks returned to their normal morning pace, and the sound of city continued in everybody’s ears.
Though they were across the street from each other, Sandy now at the door of their establishment, and Christine still with Randi, the two partners could read each other’s expressions perfectly. They looked up at the street in the direction the unmarked squad car had disappeared. “There goes Mr. Fuen,” they thought, “Our best customer.”
Chapter 2: Tuesday 2:30 a.m.
“Mouth. 9:30 a.m.” The words were written in beautifully precise fountain-pen handwriting on a yellow sticky note that had been placed in the exact middle of an otherwise empty desk. There were no other words on the paper, and no other sticky notes or messages of any kind nearby. But there didn’t need to be. This one word said it all. It’s what the man in the beige suit and the sleek brown leather shoes had been sent to collect.
His name was Paul Kamir. It was two-thirty in the morning and the desk he was standing before was situated in the middle of an office belonging to the law firm of Shakewell & Poor LLP. Just like many high-profile firms, Shakewells as it was known in the industry, occupied numerous floors of the city’s high-rise towers, and in this case it owned the six topmost floors, forty-nine through fifty-five, of the Century Consolidated Building on Jasper Street. It was a firm that provided legal services to the financial titans of the neighbourhood. If anyone needed advice on merging and acquiring businesses, or suing them, or both, Shakewells was the place to go.
The top two floors were the nicest ones, where the most senior partners held court, and where guests and clients were welcomed before being whisked elsewhere. These floors spoke to the firm’s prosperity and success: modern furnishings, soft recessed lights, plenty of fine woods, a clean, streamlined reception desk where no less than three very proper and professional receptionists managed inbound calls and visitors — but not couriers — during daylight hours, and endless displays of tasteful but forgettable art with coffee table books to match.
There were no receptionists on floors fifty-four and fifty-five right now however, and their switchboards and computers were quiet. It was, after all, very late at night. And Paul was not actually in the reception area, anyway. He was on floor forty-nine, the lowest tier of Shakewells’ vertical estate, in the bullpen, where during the day, clerks and junior lawyers printed and shuffled reams upon reams of briefs, reports and invoices and delivered them to their masters who occupied the outside-track offices that overlooked the city.
Paul had to be extremely quiet as he moved about the bullpen, for even at this late hour he knew was not alone. He could make out the sleeping form of an articling student — or perhaps it was a junior lawyer — curled up on a sofa in the anteroom of one of the offices, his suit jacket serving as a blanket. A nearby computer screensaver seemed to be performing the duties of a nightlight. This was a legal eaglet, no doubt about it, putting in long hours each night, and facing many more gruelling years of similar servitude before being allowed to truly fly with the flock.
Paul Kamir was trespassing at this moment. He was standing in the bullpen, holding the yellow slip of paper that he had been sent to collect. And he was also standing forty-nine floors above the very eatery that was named on the sticky note: Mouth. It was in fact seventeen hours now since he had stood on the sidewalk, a few paces away from the restaurant’s door, and had watched, along with several other pedestrians, as two uniformed police officers and one plainclothes officer had escorted a rotund Chinese businessman out of the building and into the back seat of a squad car.
Paul recalled the odd moment, all those hours before, during which the Chinese businessman, before bending his head to squeeze his ample self into the back seat of the police car, had looked up, and had seemed to single Paul out from the group with a look that combined a pleasant smile with a gaze direct enough convey familiarity and recognition. The memory of this contact was still fresh in Paul’s mind. He shuddered slightly. Though he was at this moment illegally at large within the labyrinth of a major law firm, it was not that that bothered him. It was that gaze. He did not know this Chinese businessman personally, but the man, by contrast, seemed to know Paul all too well. And that, Paul thought didn’t make sense.
To Paul, these high-rise offices always seemed more sinister at night. The lighting was turned low, but it was never fully extinguished. Recessed fluorescent lights still illuminated the main corridors, even though the cleaning staff had finished up and departed long ago. Really, there was no reason for any lights to remain on, yet there they were. All was relatively quiet. Computer fans hummed of course, the wall clock in the kitchenette ticked the seconds of the night away, and the only sound of any consequence was the occasional “plock” of a disoriented bird as it flew directly into the building’s plate glass windows, after having mistaken the late-night office illumination for starlight.
The fates of these birds would rest entirely now on their individual capacity to revive before completing their forty-nine storey free-fall toward the stone apron of the plaza below. Those that woke up mid-descent would be free to fly woozily away towards safer perches, or maybe just toward the windows of other buildings. Those that landed stunned but otherwise uninjured would have three hours to collect their wits and fly away. But those that could do neither of these things faced being hoovered up by a man on a vacuum tractor whose sole job was to drive around the building sucking up stunned birds so as not to horrify the earliest of the morning commuters.
The darkness of a city late at night was a stark contrast to its daylight identity, since the night moved in more subtle phases. Once the last of the revellers had left the restaurants and bars after last call, the night moved from comfortably cool to seriously chilly. Streets became quiet places populated only by taxis, litter and the homeless. Stores and restaurants that had enticed customers with open doors and specials during the day now dozed in a half light, sealed, secured and protected by the unblinking eyes of their security systems. Soon, the nadir of the night would come over the buildings, an extremis of nothingness that lasted just a few minutes at which point even the stars seemed to lose interest and disappear, before the heralds of the morning arrived: the street cleaners, the newspaper trucks and the bakery trucks.
Paul Kamir was not supposed to be there, in that office, of course. And certainly not at two-thirty in the morning. He wasn’t an employee of the firm. He was there because he had been sent to pick up the message on the sticky note; a message dispatched by someone who did work at the firm, but who did not want to be identified. It was Paul’s job to collect the information in the dead of the night. The note, he was told, would contain the instructions to a meeting place, and that meeting place now turned out to be the eatery called Mouth.
Mouth. The eatery on the ground floor of this very building. The eatery with the back access door that only Paul and a few others of his kind knew about. Not a restaurant, an eatery. Famous, he knew, for presenting all of its offerings, from lasagna to tiramisu, in two-inch square portions, in order to allow the hungry power-suited workers of the city’s canyons a chance to eat good food in bite-sized portions. Mouth was not a health-food store, he knew. What its servings lacked in size, they made up for in rich and satisfying taste, weight and quality. Paul had often been mistaken for a vegetarian, with his darkish skin and Indian-sounding same, but he was neither. He declared himself more accurately as a second-level vegetarian, meaning a person who actually ate things that up until recently had been vegetarians, such as chickens, pigs and cows, and as such, he loved the convenient offerings of this little eatery. He was glad the meeting would happen there. It would mean a great breakfast.
He looked around the office. The cubicles in the bullpen reminded him of some sort of an egg carton or a grid where people low in the corporate pecking order processed the raw material of litigation, and in a sort of electronic peristalsis, pushed it through their internal computer network it was eventually expelled across the desks of higher-order specialists who in turn processed it some more and produced an higher and more expensive order of output.
Now Paul stood among these empty cubicles, with the hand-written sticky note safely in his pocket. It was time for him to leave. He looked around once more to ensure no one had been watching him during his moments of distraction and possibly calling the police or the building’s own security people. Nope. He looked over at the articling student, who was still busy sleeping. He headed noiselessly towards his exit. Not towards the main foyer, of course, for that’s where the cameras and motion detectors were, and where the doors were magnetically locked and on timers. And, of course, he didn’t have a security pass. There was no safe route for him that way. No, he went to the kitchenette — the place where people who brought lunch rather than did lunch stored their Tupperware containers filled with last night’s leftovers; where a bulletin board announced next month’s company fundraiser, and where the inexpensive wall clock, purchased from an office supply store, ticked the away the seconds of the deep night.
Paul expertly pulled the fridge away from the wall. It was a full-sized model, but it glided easily on its rollers. He pushed it back in again, and looked to the floor to see if any tell-tale skid marks or dust tumbleweeds would reveal evidence of this visit to any coffee-craving early-birds a few hours from now. But there was nothing. The Shakewell & Poor cleaners were indeed thorough. He pulled the fridge away from the wall again – farther away this time. Quickly and expertly he slipped into the space he had made between the fridge and the wall. There was his door. It looked simply like a large fuse-box door about fifty inches wide and fifty inches tall, gunmetal grey, with a recessed handle — totally nondescript. It was identical to the one in the photocopy room on the other side of the floor that he had used to enter the office just a few moments ago. The access door looked like it just belonged there. It was an ordinary, necessary and tiny component of the huge entity that was the Century Consolidated Building complex, nondescript and unnoticed.
Paul removed the access door and stepped into the dark recess beyond. He checked that the sticky note was still in his pocket. Although he didn’t need it anymore, he wanted no traces of his visit. He carefully pulled the fridge back flush against the wall, and snapped the false fuse box door back in its place. He fished out a slender LED flashlight from his pocket and held it between his teeth in preparation for the quick behind-the-walls dash to the elevator banks. He made one final check through a discreet peephole that looked out between the fridge and the microwave counter. All was well. All was quiet. He turned and was gone.
(c) 2013 Steve Prentice.
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