In the Flesh is a dark and sexy story that has had several incarnations in its shorter form, but never quite worked because it needed space to grow. I couldn’t think of a better place for it to grow. In the Flesh is a blend of paranormal erotica and almost, but not quite … okay, quite possibly … horror. What I’m sharing with you, this version, is an expanding work in progress. You get it just shortly after I write it, and as far as what happens next, well … we’ll see.
In The Flesh Part Five
It was a trickle of sweat under my arms and along my ribs that brought me back to myself. My arse ached from sitting on the hard cement of the pavement. The sun baked down on my back and a large hand gently stroked between my shoulder blades. At some point, Michael had joined me. I couldn’t say when.
“You’re all right. You’ll be fine. It’ll be okay.” His voice was barely more than a whisper, but his touch was solid and comforting. “I know it’s a lot to take in, but better you know. If you don’t know, you can’t fight.” He stood and offered me his hand. “Come on back inside. I’ve had Izzy keep the food warm. You need to eat.”
Back in the Little Chef, Izzy delivered the reheated plates offering me a look of sympathy. Then she nodded at Michael, refreshed our coffee cups and left. He gestured to my plate. Grudgingly, I forced the first bite of eggs past my gag reflex only to discover that they tasted pretty damn good.
Michael watched as I gulped two more bites, stuffed half a piece of toast in my mouth and washed it down with coffee. He raised his own cup and held my gaze. “When was the last time you ate?”
“I don’t know.” I thought about it while I polished off a rasher of bacon. “I guess the last real meal I had was the takeaway I ordered my first night at Chapel House.”
His gaze was beginning to make me squirm. “That’s a long time between meals.”
“I had a lot on my mind, what with Annie behaving so strangely and all.” But even as I said it, I felt the skin on my arms prickle. I wasn’t known for my lack of appetite, I, who never missed a meal augmented by several snacks in between. The only time I wasn’t hungry was when I was asleep, and even then sometimes I dreamed of food.
His own meal barely touched, he sipped his coffee, then leaned across the table, still holding me in blue scrutiny. “Susan, tell me about the dream.”
I’d eaten my breakfast and half of his and sat shivering in his jacket by the time I’d finished telling him about last night, struggling to keep the details to a minimum and the whole experience at a safe distance. We waited for Izzy to fill the cups again, and then I plucked up my courage, rubbing my arms, now tender where the bruises bloomed and darkened. “It wasn’t a dream, then.”
“Some of it was, fortunately.” He nodded to where I still chafed my arms. “Those are evidence that it wasn’t all a dream, but the fact that you woke up in your own bed… Well, something interrupted his efforts, I’d say.”
“But how could that be,” I said, remembering the feel of being battered, being invaded, falling through the bottom of the world, remembering the empty eyes of the angel, his hand extended to me in invitation.
He leaned closer across the table until his forehead nearly touched mine. I was struck by how large he really was. I was tall and well muscled, but he made me feel petite, delicate. Why hadn’t I noticed that before? His large hand came to rest on mine and his voice was a soft rumble I felt deep between my hipbones almost like the first intimations of a storm. And fuck, if he didn’t quote John Donne!
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
By the time he was finished, I was shivering uncontrollably, and I would have laughed if I hadn’t been so frightened. “So he’s not God, this imaginary lover who seduced my friend and nearly raped me, but the rape part was a dream because God rescued me from this devil or demon or whatever the fuck he is before he could do the deed? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
He downed the last of his coffee and pushed his plate aside. “I’m only trying to tell you that nothing that’s happening to Annie or to you is straight forward. Things are always way more complicated than the stories in the mythology books, and even in the Christian Bible, make them out to be.”
We sat in silence for a long moment, watching a young couple try to settle two small children and a toddler into a booth nearby. “It was a seduction, not a rape,” he said absently watching the man settle the squirming child into a high chair. “He doesn’t want to take you by force. He wants you to come to him willingly. He’s not above hurting you if you don’t, but it’s your free will he wants most. He wants you to want him like you’ve never wanted anything in life. Your lust, your desire for him, that’s the thing that empowers him most, you see?”
Even the thought of my experience in the bathtub made my nipples tense, and that the sensation low in my belly wasn’t entirely fear made me flush with anger. “No. No I don’t see. I don’t see at all. Is he a demon?” I spoke the word through my teeth, the shape of it the bitter pip at the center of sweet, ripe fruit. “Or … maybe an incubus? I mean he did come to me in a dream, didn’t he?”
“He’s neither, but he has characteristics of both. He’s what he needs to be. He has no definition, not really, and
he’s attached to the place, you see? That place, the place where Chapel House was built, was a site of power long before Christianity came to Britain, long before there was even a name for the ancient powers, the forces that command the changing of the seasons and the ebb and flow of the tides. Back when people lived in fear of the dark, and offered sacrifice to drive back the forces they didn’t understand, the forces that led to famine, starvation, death. He was always there. That place, it’s his place, and he’s happy to share it, needs to share it, actually, but his hunger is as bottomless now as it was when the blood of virgins and young warriors stained the altar stone.”
“How the hell does a builder know all this stuff?” I asked, still shivering into the leather of his jacket.
He shrugged. “I make my living doing renovations of listed buildings mostly. I do a lot of old barn conversions as well, and church and chapel conversions, of course. I specialized in that area because I find the history of the places I renovate fascinating. I know just enough archeology to understand that old buildings often have a history older than the building itself, and that history often connects them with the space where they’re built. When your friend hired me to renovate Chapel House, I jumped at the chance. I got more than I bargained for,” he added as an afterthought.
“He won’t let you go easily,” Michael replied, slapping down money for the bill. “Especially if what Annie said is true, and he had her send for you. You’re the one he wants. You’re the one he’s chosen.”
I pulled the jacket tight around me. “You said he wanted me willing. Well I’m not.”
He held my gaze. “You weren’t even tempted?’
I felt colour rush to my face and the bruises on my arms tingled as though they had just been caressed tenderly. He didn’t wait for my reply. It was obvious, I guess. “Susan, you have no idea just how persuasive he can be. If you wanted him, if you were tempted even a little bit, he’s already found a way in. The only way to keep him from getting what he wants is to get as far away from him as possible, and even then he won’t make it easy.”
“Jesus,” I murmured, clenching my eyes tightly.
Michael said nothing, only sat watching me.
“And Annie?” I asked, at last.
He looked down at his hands now folded on the table as though he were about to say a prayer.
“What about Annie?” I asked again. Feeling my chest tighten and my throat constrict.
“I don’t know.” His voice was barely audible. “If he’s had her call you. If he’s already grooming you.”
“He’s not grooming me,” I said, a little louder than I intended. “I’m not his for the taking, and I want my friend out of there.”
He said nothing. Only sat looking at his hands. “I have to get my stuff.” I said again. “My phone, my car keys, my computer. All my stuff is there. I want it back.”
This time he did look up at me and smiled. “Yes, she told me you were a writer.” Then he added quickly. “In the beginning, when she first hired me, she told me, and I know enough about writers to know that the tools of their trade are their treasure. Especially in this day and age.” Then before I could respond, he stood and offered me his hand. “Come on. Let’s get your stuff back.”
Twenty minutes later we stood together at the front door of Chapel House, our knocks unanswered. My calling through the door that I just wanted my stuff drew some suspicious looks from passers by, but no response from inside.
“She’s in there,” Michael said, before I could ask. “She’s just not responding.”
“So what should we do? Call the police?”
“I don’t think so,” he said, taking me gently by the elbow and turning me about. “I know another way in. You were staying in the makeshift guest room? I’ll get your stuff. You wait in the truck.”
We walked in silence back to the alley where he’d parked and he helped me up into the cab. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”
He placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed gently. “Don’t worry. I’ll get it.”
“Be careful, Michael,” I called behind him as he headed through the wrought iron gate.
It felt like I waited ages for him to come back. I was just about to get out of the truck and see if I could find him when I noticed a splash of colour under a bramble thicket on the alley side of the fence. I slid from the seat, leaving the door open in case I wanted to return in a hurry. Reminded of the bruises on my arms, I wondered just what good I though that would do.
Sure enough, there under the brambles were my things, as thought someone had tossed them in a heap over the fence. Mindless of the prick of the brambles and the sting of nettles, I tugged and pulled both my travel bag and my shoulder bag free. Holding my breath, heart pounding, prickle flesh climbing my spine, I dragged everything back into the truck then slammed and locked the door behind me. My computer was safe in its sheath inside the shoulder bag, right where I always carried it. And slid into the little side pouch next to my car keys, I found my cell phone and my wallet. Everything in place. The clothes in the travel bag, my toiletries, everything had been neatly packed before it had been tossed over the fence. The relief of having my stuff back was short lived, my thoughts returned to Michael. What the hell was taking him so long?
Once again I slid out of the truck and closed the door carefully behind me. The alley was deserted. I smelled neither roses nor burning garbage. Perhaps Annie was occupied with her lover and neither of them noticed me. Or perhaps they were occupied with Michael and he was in trouble. As an afterthought, I opened the door again and pawed through the space behind the seat until I found a screwdriver, not a big one, but big enough to do some damage if I needed to. But then, what was I going to do, use it in my friend? Clearly it would do no good on this lover of hers. Nevertheless, I gripped it tightly, shut the door behind me and headed through the wrought iron gate.
Almost immediately I found myself engulfed in the overgrown garden. With heart pounding in my chest, I stood for a moment trying to get my bearings. It seemed like a straight shot from the back door to the gate this morning when Annie kicked me out. Surely I would have remembered the way. Surely it wasn’t so complicated. I squared my shoulders and moved forward into the garden, convincing myself that all I had to do was follow the main path. Ten minutes later, I realized the folly of my decision as I pushed and shoved through ivy and overgrown hawthorn, adding new scrapes and scratches to those already stinging from recovering my bags. I smelled neither roses nor garbage, only the thick, rank scent of summer vegetation. Surely I’d be okay. Surely I’d not drawn any unwanted attention, but where the hell was Michael? What was taking him so long? Christ! What if something had happened to him? Annie clearly wasn’t herself. What if she’d taken the butcher knife to him? What if he was somewhere inside Chapel House wounded and bleeding while I was out here wandering around in the garden unable to get to him. Once again I wished desperately to wake up from the bad dream and find myself safe and secure in my own flat in my own bed. Instead I was brought up short, coming face to face once again with the stone angel, empty eyes locked on me, outstretched hand beckoning me, as though he might lead me to safety. But it was the sculpted face so full of concern, so focused on me, that held my attention. The face, suddenly familiar, suddenly recognizable. Though the eyes were empty, aged marble and not stunning blue, there was no mistaking the strong lines of the face, the square jaw. Even the broad shoulders, the posture of strength and determination, all familiar to me.
“Michael?’ My strangled whisper sounded like a shout in the deep silence. But then again, I might have yelped. I might have even screamed just before I turned to run.