Undertow, page 1
By J.M. Snyder
Published by JMS Books LLC
This book is available in print.
Visit jms-books.com for more information.
Copyright 2008 J.M. Snyder
Cover Credits: Morozova Tatiana
Used under a Standard Royalty-Free License.
Cover Design: J.M. Snyder
All rights reserved.
WARNING: This book is not transferable. It is for your own personal use. If it is sold, shared, or given away, it is an infringement of the copyright of this work and violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
No portion of this book may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the publisher, with the exception of brief excerpts used for the purposes of review.
This book is for ADULT AUDIENCES ONLY. It contains substantial sexually explicit scenes and graphic language which may be considered offensive by some readers. Please store your files where they cannot be accessed by minors.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Published in the United States of America.
* * * *
By J.M. Snyder
Pulling into the first empty parking spot he could find, Derek Meredith cut off the engine of his car and doused his headlights. The night seemed to rush in, pressing against his windshield as if testing it for entry cracks. For a long moment he sat in the darkness, listening to the tick tick tick of his car’s cooling engine and, beyond that, the sea breeze that rustled the leaves on the palm trees surrounding the parking lot. Through his windshield he could see the ocean roiling below the cliffs like a dark beast uneasy in sleep.
Derek knew that feeling, all too well.
He glanced in the rearview mirror and saw the mission-style adobe dwelling behind him, the windows lit from within, a neon sign beaming the name of the bar into the night. Den of Thieves. For all the time he’d spent on the shore, he’d never been here before. Then again, he wasn’t the type to frequent bars—up until a few months ago, he’d been in a happy, satisfying relationship that kept him home nights with his lover, Tad Archer. A few months ago, he would have laughed if someone suggested he’d find himself in the parking lot of the Den of Thieves, about to meet a man he knew nothing of beyond a cryptic message on his voicemail. The passenger seat of his car, empty. The bed he used to share with Tad, just as bare. His heart, somehow still beating despite it all…
Thinking of Tad aggravated the wound. With a jerk, Derek tugged on the rearview mirror, and the warm, bright sign of the bar was replaced with his own dark, haunted eyes. They churned like the sea out there, torn up with pain he no longer allowed himself to feel. Tad was gone, he admonished silently—how many times did he have to remind himself of that little fact? Half his soul, his reason for breathing, had slipped beneath the waves one rough afternoon four months ago today and never reappeared.
In the rearview mirror, he studied his reflection, the smooth skin of his cheeks that looked stretched and pale in the darkness, the tight set of his thin lips, the faint lines around his pain-filled eyes and, above them, the shock of red roots beginning to grow beneath the black dye he’d used to smother his fiery hair. Like a thumb ground into a healing wound to reopen the pain, he forced himself to say the name out loud, “Tad.”
His heart pounded in his chest, his head ached. Tad is dead, he wanted to say, but his throat worked around the words, refusing to let them out, give them weight, make them real.
Pushing the mirror away from him, Derek yanked his keys from the ignition and opened his door to stagger out into the night. The cool sea air licked his hot face and ruffled his hair. The slam of the door was lost in the wind; turning up his collar, Derek set his back to the cliff and the sea below it and headed for the bar.
* * * *
Inside, the Den was packed. As the door swung shut behind him, Derek peered through the crowd and wondered how he’d ever find a man he didn’t even know. Patrons lined the bar, jostling each other to catch the bartender’s attention; a row of booths stretched along the opposite wall, and a few wooden tables filled the center of the room. Everywhere Derek looked, people laughed and drank and called to each other over the pounding bass that poured from the sound system to beat against the walls. Derek recognized the tune of an old song, some hair band from the 80’s—here and there a few people sang along, their voices rising over the music. “I got the peaches, you got the cream.”
I can’t do this, he thought, one hand reaching for the door. He felt like a hole torn in the fabric of existence, an ugly bruise on otherwise flawless skin. It was too much, too soon, he shouldn’t even be here…
Then, despite the crowd, he felt someone watching him.
He glanced around, searching for a familiar face, and caught the bartender staring at him as if he were the only customer in the place and the man wanted to know what he’d drink. Tall and well-built, when he smiled at Derek, he showed way too many teeth.
No. With a shake of his head, Derek muttered to no one in particular, “I was just leaving.”
In his mind he moved toward the door, back out into the cool night, back to his empty car and down the barren stretch of road until he reached his lonely apartment. He could picture the rest of his evening all too well—lying on the sofa because he couldn’t face the dark bedroom, silence so severe he might have gone deaf, time crawling by as he waited for sleep to claim him. Then the dreams would come, suffocating nightmares of the ocean, floating hair obscuring his vision, a hand stretched for him but just beyond his reach, Tad. A longing so poignant, an ache so real, he would cry in his sleep and only realize it later, when he woke with puffy eyes and clogged sinuses.
Unfortunately, his body didn’t get the message he wanted to leave. Instead of stopping at the door, he found himself propelled toward the bar. As he moved closer, a woman in front of him turned, grinned to someone behind him, then slid off her barstool to push past Derek. He helped himself to her seat and the bartender approached with an empty shot glass in one hand. Waving it away, Derek admitted, “I’m just here to meet someone.”
“Isn’t everyone?” the bartender countered.
Derek’s mouth twisted into a poor attempt at a smile. “I don’t mean like that.”
The bartender gave Derek a knowing grin and held out a hand. Derek found himself drawn into a firm handshake. “Welcome to the Den of Thieves. So who’re you meeting here?”
“I don’t know,” Derek admitted. From beneath the bar, the bartender retrieved a bottle of bright pink Raspberry Schnapps. With a shake of his head, Derek started, “No, really, I don’t—”
“One Undertow,” the barkeep said, speaking over Derek as if he’d ordered the drink. “Coming right up. This friend of yours…”
“I don’t know him.”
Derek watched the bartender fill half the shot glass with the pink alcohol; it winked in the glass like liquid bubble gum. Then the bottle disappeared back beneath the bar and another took its place—Blue Curacao. As the bartender filled the rest of the shot glass, the two colors blurred together to form a deep indigo so dark, it reminded Derek o
The bartender’s voice came from far away, as if he were the dream and the horror of losing his lover was Derek’s burden to relive over and over again.
With a shake of his head, Derek realized he’d missed a question; since Tad’s disappearance, since his death, Derek had found himself dropping out of the world from time to time, and he had to force himself to return to the land of the living. “I’m sorry?”
“I asked your friend’s name,” the barkeep replied. At the confusion on Derek’s face, he prompted, “The person you’re meeting here tonight?”
“Oh, right.” For a moment Derek looked around the bar as if he had never seen the place before in his life. Fear rose in him, an overwhelming sensation of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as if he had somewhere else he needed to be. Someone he needed to find.
Steadying himself, Derek raised the shot glass and threw it back. The alcohol tasted like NyQuil—it rushed down his throat, stealing his breath. “God,” he gasped. When he set the glass back down, the bartender refilled it despite the shake of Derek’s head. “That shit’s lethal.”
“That’s an Undertow.” The bartender’s grin widened, if that were possible. “It grabs you when you least expect it and pulls you under.”
Derek grimaced at the full glass and couldn’t imagine drinking from it again. “I don’t want more.”
The bartender simply told him, “Courtesy of your friend.”
Then he looked across the room and nodded at someone Derek couldn’t see. He turned to follow the glance; in the last booth, along the far wall, a man sat draped in shadow. His face was hidden by the wide brim of a black cowboy hat, and a single red feather bobbed from its band. When the man saw Derek, he raised a shot glass as if proposing a toast.
* * * *
The brief message had been left on Derek’s voicemail three weeks in a row. There was something about the raspy male voice that sounded oddly familiar, like a forgotten song heard years ago. Derek found himself playing the message over and over again in the hopes of jogging his memory, but try as he might, he couldn’t recall where he’d heard that voice before.
“I’ve found what you lost,” the caller said. No greeting, no identification. “Meet me at the Den of Thieves on Saturday, midnight. You’ll get it back.”
Derek ignored the first call. It had to be someone playing games, he told himself, dialing numbers at random and leaving odd messages to fuck with strangers’ minds. He stayed in that Saturday, spending the weekend in the same way he spent all others—asleep, dreaming of Tad in an effort to drown the pain of losing him.
The next call came three days later. Same message, same voice. “I’ve found what you lost.”
Derek tried to shrug it off. But the voice haunted him, its message worrisome. What had he lost? He didn’t know—he had his keys, his cell phone, his driver’s license. He spent the next weekend rummaging through the apartment, taking inventory, looking for what might be missing. But how did one look for something that might not be there? All Derek found were Tad’s belongings, boxed away in the bedroom closet, and he spent a heart-wrenching night wrapped in one of Tad’s faded flannel shirts, crying into soft material that still held traces of his lover’s scent.
When the call came a third time, Derek almost caught it. He’d just turned off the shower when he heard the phone ring. He scrambled from the tub, one hand snagging a towel as he raced from the bathroom, but the moment his hand touched the receiver, the phone’s jangling ring stopped. He waited a full five minutes, toweling himself off right there in the hallway, then picked up the receiver. The interrupted dial tone told him he had a message, and damned if it wasn’t the same one. “I’ve found what you lost.”
“What. The. Fuck.”
In his frustration, Derek slammed the receiver down three times, punctuating each word. It’d be worth meeting the man if only to stop the calls.
* * * *
Drink in hand, Derek navigated through the crowd to the shadowy far corner. As he approached, he studied the stranger waiting for him, who threw back shot after shot of the horrid blue-black drink the bartender had called an Undertow. The black cowboy hat was pulled low over the stranger’s eyes, but stringy blond hair curled around the brim of the hat, gray-green in this bad light, as if the man had spent too much time in chlorinated water. His skin was sallow, unhealthy looking; what Derek could make of his face looked thin and pinched—a pointed chin, a heavy lower jaw, a wide mouth that split into an easy grin when Derek stopped in front of his table.
The stranger looked up at him, giving Derek a glimpse beneath the hat and, to his surprise, he recognized those red-rimmed eyes. He remembered where he’d heard the caller’s voice before—it had been years since he heard it last, when he had been much younger and Tad not yet in his life. The air seemed to rush out of him as he dropped into the seat opposite the man who had been his first friend, his first love, all those years ago. Lingering affection and a hint of nostalgia filled his voice. “Kellen.”
Across from him, Kellen tipped back his hat, allowing Derek to get a good look at the man who had grown from the boy Derek once knew. The same lines that rimmed Derek’s eyes spidered around Kellen’s; his skin was taut, tight over sharp cheekbones, and pale as if he’d stayed underwater for too long. But his smile warmed his features, and his sea-green eyes sparkled with mirth when he murmured, “Da, Dere. Ichta san chia.”
Without thinking, Derek’s mind translated the ancient language into English. It has been too long. With a sip of his drink, he grimaced, then replied, “I’m known as Derek now. By Mananan, you’re the last person I expected to find waiting for me here. So you’re the one who was calling me? Why didn’t you just say so?”
A faint smile toyed around the edges of Kellen’s lips. “Would you have showed up if I had?”
The smallest hesitation contradicted Derek’s reply. “Of course,” he said, sipping again at the drink in his hand to avoid meeting Kellen’s steady gaze. “We’re old friends, Kell.”
Reaching for him across the table, Kellen’s long, thin forefinger stroked the back of Derek’s hand. The touch was ticklish but Derek didn’t pull away. He watched, mesmerized, as Kellen traced runic patterns onto his skin, and remembered those fingers elsewhere, smoothing along his chest, curving between his legs. In a distant voice, Kellen whispered, “We were more than friends, once. If you remember.”
Derek jerked his hand from under Kellen’s, then ran it through his close-cropped hair to play off the gesture. “We were just kids then.”
“There is nothing childish about the way I feel for you,” Kellen replied.
Is, feel. As if time had not yet dulled the edge of Kellen’s affection for him. This was why Derek would have never agreed to meet the man. He had never returned Kellen’s feelings, not to the extent his friend had hoped for, and for that, Derek was sorry. But his heart belonged to Tad; the moment he’d met the man, the rest of his old life—his old friends—had fallen away.
When Kellen stretched out for him again, Derek moved his hand into his lap, beneath the table, out of reach. “No, I…” He sighed, so damn tired. “Kellen, I can’t. I’m—”
With someone, he almost said, but he stopped himself before the words were free.
There was a sadness in Kellen’s voice when he asked, “How long has it been?”
“Four months,” Derek choked. He ran a shaky hand down his face as if he could wipe away the pain that tore him up inside. “Not a day goes by I don’t miss him. You just don’t know—”
“Don’t be so sure.”
Derek glanced up and, for a brief moment, saw his own pain mirrored in Kellen’s eyes. Then his old friend cleared his throat, sa
With a rush of clarity, it hit him. I’ve found… “My God,” he whispered, eyes widening. “Tad. That’s it, isn’t it? That’s why you called. You know where he is.”
Kellen stared at him, the ghost of a smile on his face. Derek struggled to rein in his thoughts—he wanted to vault across the table, throttle the man opposite him, demand answers…but that slight grin said it all. Almost dreading the reply he might get, Derek asked, “Is he…?”
“Alive, yes,” Kellen conceded. “The question is, what are you willing to do to get him back?”
Despite appearances, Kellen was not human. The pale skin and washed-out hair were reactions to the air and the sun. After a lifetime spent beneath the waves, where his hair usually wisped around his face like golden silk and the greenish tinge to his flesh was not uncommon to his race, the human form was harsh to Kellen, dry and unprotective. Derek remembered the feeling well; for the first few months after he’d left the ocean behind for good, he had spent an excessive amount of time in the shower stall at Tad’s apartment, just standing beneath the chlorinated spray, wishing the water coursing over him held even a smidgen of brine.
Kellen belonged to an ancient race of sea-dwellers known as merrows. Derek knew this because he had also grown up among their number, in the rough waters just out of land’s sight off the California coast. Called Dere then, he would swim in toward the shore, drawn by the lighthouse that marked the inlet to San Diego Bay. There he’d hide among the breakers and watch the surfers with their unwieldy boards that seemed to turn into fish whenever they navigated the waves. He ached to touch those firm, tan bodies, to feel how smooth the dry skin must be beneath his webbed fingers, to cover those laughing mouths with his own cold lips.
But his excursions from the merrow pod were never solo. Kellen, a few years older than Dere and infatuated with the younger merrow, always swam two strokes behind him wherever he went. How many times had Dere felt his friend rub alongside him as they swam together, a playful gesture Dere tried to discount? How often had Dere turned his hungry stare from the surfing humans to see his own lust mirrored in his friend’s eyes, directed his way?
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