Title: URBAN WILDLIFE BLUES
Or, maybe not the tail you thought it was.
Part 1 of 9
Rating: PG13, probably
Word Count: 3,220
Summary: A bit of an adventure. A new departure for Howard, a surprise for Vince and the return of an old enemy.
Warnings: Some nastiness, violence, drug refs and swears (oh, and some s/ash ;) here and there)
Disclaimer: Sadly I own neither the creators nor their characters, and I will not, nor would I ever wish to, profit from either.
Notes: My first attempt at an adventure.
Huge, huge thanks to themogwai for her insightful and inspiring comments and super–rapid beta turn-round
Vince Noir had a secret. It was exciting, important and thrilling. So thrilling, he felt like he was under some kind of spell.
He had seen Howard Moon dance.
Just thinking about it could make Vince grin to himself and skip in a way that would in itself have made him look ridiculous, had he not already been wearing stack heels and a bowler hat. The way it had happened, was happening, was this.
He had finally removed himself from some mid-week all-nighter just as the sun was rising, having drunk himself sober, and was trudging home feeling like most people do after a rough day at work; misinterpreted, taken for granted, bored. It had been a hot series of days, with sultry, humid nights that made clubbing difficult and sleeping even more so. Now, walking home sore-footed, the city fug glowing yellow and promising yet another uncomfortable day, the coolness of the early morning had put him somewhere between resigned and comfortably numb.
Then he had turned the corner into the lane at the back of the Nabootique and seen him.
It wasn’t normal dancing, or at least not Vince’s idea of dancing. Howard was moving slowly, but fluidly, his arms reaching out to thin air, twisting, describing slow arcs around his head, hands finding their own pattern. His stance was deliberate, his weight switching first one way then another with a roll of his hips or a delicately-placed foot. His eyes were closed and – judging by the huge, antediluvian headphones clamped to his ears, the wires trailing to the waistband of his trousers – he was lost in some jazzy musical dream. But no jazz trance had ever made Howard behave this way before. His body twisted and turned, beautifully balanced and controlled, with a grace and skill his normal life generally denied him. And totally preoccupied in his dance and music, he gyrated on completely relaxed, and yet, to Vince’s eyes, miraculously vibrant.
At the first sight Vince’s hand had flown to his mouth in the universally-recognised gesture of shock and surprise, his eyes goggling. In seconds he’d had enough presence of mind to duck back behind the wall, and there he stayed, leaning against the cool brick with his hand still pressed to his mouth whilst Howard completed his set, took off the headphones and, with a slightly self-conscious shake of his arms and legs, made his way back into the shop.
What at all other times in Vince’s life, and certainly of late, would have been his natural response – to laugh, to mock, to taunt – completely failed to kick in. Instead he remained rooted to the spot. The image of what he had seen was burned into his memory. Everything was clear. The twisting sinews in the strong forearms, the intense concentration in the furrowed brow, the way the loose shirt rode up as Howard raised his arms, revealing the endearing roundness of his belly.
Oh, there was more…. the jut of hipbones; the dusting of golden-brown hair below his navel; the flat slope of creamy skin descending below the waistband of his summer-weight chinos; the dimples in his lower back; the delectable – yes, delectable – curve of his arse; the long, long legs. Vince saw it all but had difficulty processing the flood of images.
This clearly was no pole dance. Vince struggled to find an analogy, but reckoned it was some relation to Tea-Chai, or Shi-Tee, or whatever it was the OAPs did in the park, this time with a jazzy flavour – this was Howard, after all.
But Howard. Howard dancing like this. Howard’s body. Something hit Vince’s gut like an express train and left him gasping. Long after Howard has disappeared – long, long after – Vince pulled himself together and slipped into the shop to commandeer the bathroom. And to try to regain enough self- control to behave as if nothing had happened.
But of course it had. Because immediately, Vince’s life started to change.
It started the very next night. Out drinking with Leroy it was relatively easy to slip away when the noise and press of people could cover his exit. He hadn’t realised before quite how easy. Then home, in his room, hardly daring to sleep in the hope that Howard would dance again. Which he did, rising in the early dawn – Vince heard his cautious footfalls down the stairs as he made his way to the yard. And Vince, upstairs, inched the window open and, crouching on the floor wrapped in his floral kimono, craned carefully out to see the dance unfold.
There were set moves, he could see. His brain cell absorbed them like flashes from a glitter ball, storing them away with perfect clarity. By the time the same thing had happened the next day, and the next, and the one after that, Vince could sit by the window, dancing in his head in time with Howard, his hands involuntarily making the same twisting, graceful moves as those of the dancer in the backyard.
After about four days, Howard Moon – Man of Action, explorer, philosopher, observer of the human condition – finally twigged something was going on. It wasn’t just the quite altered atmosphere in the shop, with Vince more helpful, more chatty, less acerbic than of late – well, for quite a long time, actually. No, most noticeable were Vince’s early nights. After so long, Howard’s sleeping brain was attuned to registering Vince's return each night, finally relaxing and switching off when it was clear he was back safely. There had been many times in the past when Howard’s waking mind had chided him for being such a sap. But the feeling didn’t last long. The fact of the matter was that Howard slept better knowing the occupant of the room down the hall had finally staggered home. Which is why the early nights, the quiet, barefoot completely sober tiptoeing up the stairs, rang strange. He mentally logged it, proposing to perhaps venture asking about it should things get more extreme.
Which they did, but not in a good way.
It began simply enough. On the fifth day, Vince took up his position by the window as he heard Howard descend the stairs. The back door opened, and Vince heard a muffled exclamation of disgust. He craned a little more, but could see little until suddenly there was Howard’s broad back and the splash and rush of water as he threw a bucketful over the back step. A clank as the bucket was set down and then Howard was back in the yard. And Vince relaxed as the show commenced, smiling unconsciously, his hands mirroring his friend's movements in a small, shy dance of their own.
“You been scrubbing the yard?” Vince asked as nonchalantly as he could at breakfast, full of sunshine after the morning dance but still intrigued.
“Oh God,” Howard huffed as he poured out Vince’s cheerios. “Something threw up on our step last night. Had to sluice it away.”
“Eeew!” Vince wrinkled his nose at the thought, and then had a thought of his own.
“Who though? You don’t tend to get clubbers coming up the back way… um, I mean, going that way.” Except me, his brain-cell had reminded himself.
“Don’t think it was a person,” continued Howard, putting toast on the table and opening up the Dalston Gazette. “Didn’t seem ….um… what you’d normally expect…” He rolled his eyes apologetically at Vince’s second, cheerio-muffled “Eew!” “I think it was some kind of animal. And it smelt really strange...”
“Howard, please!” came the plea, cheerios swallowed in haste. “That’s more than enough information at breakfast-time. Or any other time, for that matter.” Vince put down his spoon and held up his hands as if to ward off further grossness.
“No, really strange,” mused Howard, Vince’s pantomime failing to distract him. “Something fishy.”
“Something else too… can’t place it, but definitely mackerel.”
“Must be some mangy cat then. There’s plenty round here. Well rough. Never pass the time of day with you.”
Howard tapped his teaspoon on his mug, still thoughtful.
“Maybe…” he chewed his toast for a moment, some undefined worry creasing his brow. Vince watched him cannily as he shovelled in the cheerios.
Then Howard's face cleared. He smiled at Vince. Vince grinned back and some cheerios fell out. Things were back to normal.
And so it was that the first sign passed unnoticed.
The next morning, full of pleasant anticipation, Vince woke to the sleepy, early chatter of cross, overheated birds and the stealthy pad of Howard's feet down the corridor. The back door opened. By the window, Vince wriggled his shoulders in excitement, only to be greeted by silence. Puzzled, he leaned out a bit more. Howard was stooping to pick something up off the back step, a bin-bag in his hand. Straightening up, he strode over to the wheelie-bin they now kept in the yard, wrapping up the bag as he did so. He tossed it into the bin, paused for a moment looking in, then closed the lid and walked back towards the shop.
And looked up.
Started blue eyes met startled brown.
“Mornin’!” Vince attempted a cheeky smile.
“You’re awake? I mean, you’re awake! It’s six o’clock!”
“Well, early birds and all that Howard. Besides, it’s a bit too hot to sleep, innit?” He studied his nails disingenuously, then looked up.
“What's going on down there, Howard? I mean the bag and everything?”
Howard still stood transfixed. This was Vince as he’d never see him before. No, scratch that. He suddenly realised he was seeing Vince as he’d never seen him before.
The sleep-ruffled black hair, the cheeky quirk of the lips, the impossible spade of a nose that nevertheless made him look almost elfin, the extraordinary clarity of the blue eyes. All of it better for clubbing-free nights, but all so…. all so….
He swallowed hard and tried a smile back at the puzzled grin, illuminated in the window by early sunlight and wreathed in flowers. He wondered briefly when they’d installed a window-box, but then he realised it was Vince’s kimono framing the scene,
Vince contemplated his friend over his steaming mug. Troubled, definitely troubled. He’d forgotten what fun it was to watch each little thought flicker over Howard’s face. And it was a nice face, he remembered. Very nice indeed.
“There was something else on the back step this morning. A rat.”
Vince looked grave. “Dead?” he enquired, solemnly.
“Um… yes, dead.”
“Black, white, brown or piebald?”
“What? Oh, brown I suppose. Yes, light brown.”
“No-one I know, then.”
“Hmmmm?” Vince was nose-deep in his mug.
“It had been beheaded.”
“No, I mean something had bitten its head off. It was just lying by the body like a little… a little… “
“Yes, head. So I wrapped it all up and put it in the bin. Weird thing to be there.”
“Those mangy cats again.” said Vince. But he was feigning indifference. Howard’s brain was working overtime, and none of it looked good.
“Look,” Vince continued, “maybe it was a mob hit. These rats are into some well suspect stuff around here. Or maybe someone’s sending Naboo a warning, ‘cos of his dodgy brownies. There’ve been quite a few complaints lately.”
“Maybe.” Howard looked doubtful. “Well, we’ll ask him later.”
A pause. Vince cocked an eyebrow.
“Well, what else?”
“Er… there was this smell…”
“Oh, Howard, please! Enough of the nasal musings! Mackerel, it’s a cat. Tuna, it’s a cat…”
“No!” The sharp syllable shut Vince up in a flash. “No,” softer this time, “vaguely bathroom-y, like shampoo. As well as stinky.”
“An odd combination, Sherlock Moon. Now, you gonna make some more tea, or what?”
He waited for the next thought to twitch across Howard’s face. He was pretty good at working out what it might be.
But it took him by surprise nonetheless.
“You going out tomorrow night?”
Vince swallowed a mouthful of tea in a defensive reflex. Was Howard on to him?
“Dunno yet.” He tried for nonchalance. “Why d’you ask?”
“Oh… nothing, it’s just… No, never mind.”
Vince saw thoughts flicker and disappear, too fast to log. So he threw in a little surprise of his own.
“But tonight I’m not!” he announced on impulse. Howard raised an eyebrow. “No, tonight let’s stay in, hey Howard? Watch a movie? You can maybe show me your stamp collection again. You haven’t done that for ages…”
This is it, thought Howard. Clearly there was something seriously wrong. Vince was behaving uncharacteristically, un-Vince-ily, rationally.
“Vince… er… are you feeling okay, by the way? Not feverish or anything?”
Vince looked perplexed, stemmed in mid-flow.
“Only… you’ve not been out much recently, and then waking up before six, and now staying in… Should I get you some paracetamol?”
“Howard, don’t be a plank! I’m fine! I just thought it would be a nice change tonight. Look…” He grabbed the Gazette from the counter and pointed to the BBC 4 listings. “Look, a programme about bassoons! With that Alan Nutjob bloke you like to listen to! You watch that, and while you do, I’ll cook dinner…”
He couldn’t fail to register the flash of desperate fear on Howard’s face at the idea of Noir in the kitchen, even though the other recovered as fast as he could.
“No! No! I mean, that would be lovely, but… are you sure you don’t need a lie-down, Vince? You’re beginning to worry me a bit.”
Vince frowned. Howard changed his tack. “Look, that would be lovely, but hardly fair on you.”
“Well, that’s true, Howard…”
“So why don’t I get a takeaway – your choice – and then we’ll watch a movie. How about ‘School of Rock’?”
And so it was the second sign passed unnoticed too.
It was a pleasant evening. More than pleasant. Naboo and Bollo came home early and watched the movie with them, Naboo brushing off Vince’s queries about possible enemies, contract killings and hash cakes.
“Don’t be thtupid. As if anyone around here’th got the gumpthion…”
There was tea, a bit of crimping, relaxed laughter, a lot of smiling. Standing by his bedroom door, Howard reflected on how his face hurt from all the smiling. A nice hurt.
Vince watched him from down the corridor.
“’Night then, Howard.”
“’Night, little man.”
Howard’s eyes widened, albeit imperceptibly, with shock at what had slipped out. Vince just beamed. Then their eyes locked and something passed between them. Something sad, something happy. Something full of loss and longing, and yet … the hint of promise. And neither of them understood it.
“Sleep well, then.”
And Vince did, at first, despite the oppressive heat. He walked through a sunlit pasture of cheerful flowers, sensing a solid presence by his side, always there but unseen. It made him happy. And after walking and walking, he came to a house, made entirely of chewy cola bottles. Genius! You could kind of see through it, in a funny way. He turned to call to his silent friend beside him, and his friend was gone.
No longer genius.
He spun back to face the house. With a broad crack it split down one side and the cola bottles tumbled out, bouncing everywhere. He had to jump to avoid them. And with that he woke with a start, conscious even then that the sound in his dream was something related to the shop. He lay tense and motionless, ears straining. He thought he heard Howard’s door open and waited. Nothing else happened. Howard would surely call him if he were needed. Howard would…. Howard….
He woke again, no longer happy; now full of foreboding. A few hours of fitful sleep had passed. He pursed his lips and stared at the ceiling.
“Now is the time for action,” he told himself. “or something”. Tea, probably.
Down the corridor he could see Howard’s door ajar. He tiptoed along the thin carpet and peered in. Nobody. The bed was rumpled as if the covers had been thrown back suddenly and with force. Very un-Howard-like.
Vince padded downstairs, tying the kimono sash in a firm knot. He noticed he was shivering in the pre-dawn darkness. In the shop the lights were all on. Howard was sitting at the table in the back room in his vest and pants (hot weather sleeping attire) holding an object – a package? He had his back to Vince, and was staring out at the dark yard. The sudden appearance of Vince’s reflection made him jump. He twisted in his chair and attempted to conceal the object under the table.
“What’s going on, Howard?”
“I have no idea.” It was said heavily, the worry lines creasing Howard’s face deeply. “I heard
“Me too! But… um… I went back to sleep. I thought you’d...”
“I came downstairs.” Howard was barely listening. “Someone had thrown something through the window.” He gestured to the floor and Vince finally noticed that the small pane to one side of the door was smashed. Broken glass glittered in the harsh strip lighting.
Not swept up. Very un-Howard-like as well.
“About one o’clock.”
“That was, like, three hours ago! Have you stayed down here since then, you jazzy freak?”
“I was waiting.”
“In case something else happened.”
Something else. The words hung heavy in the air between them.
“And did it?”
Vince grinned, determined to snap Howard out of his introspection. “It was probably just kids, trick or treating…”
“Vince, it was one a.m. And it’s July.”
“Or a disorientated bat, or… or….” He tailed off. Howard’s shifty look and hidden hands prompted his brain cell.
“You said ‘threw something’! Threw what, Howard? Not more shampoo?”
It was meant in jest, but Howard’s expression as he looked up made Vince start.
“Show me,” he demanded, holding out a hand.
Howard sighed and placed the object he was holding on the table.
It was a doll. Or rather two bits of dolls. The body and limbs were those of an Action Man. The head and neck rammed onto the torso had come from some Barbie lookalike. It had long black hair. Wrapped around the arms and upper body was a long, raggedy twist of dirty tinsel. From its neck to its hips ran a jagged black mark as if carved with something. A knife? Or maybe a claw? An odour, faint but entirely repellent, hung around it.
With fastidious fingers, Vince turned it over. Haphazard letters scrawled down the broad plastic back to spell a name.
V I N C Y
He considered it for a long moment, then flipped it over again. When finally he looked up, he saw his friend watching him, brown eyes full of concern. Vince’s heart missed a beat.
He looked back at the doll, pursing his lips again (a good look, he thought, well intellectual).
“If this is meant to be me,” he said, gesturing to the doll’s square chest and well-developed biceps, triceps and pectorals, “then I’ve been working out more than usual lately.”
A longer pause. Howard drew a breath and spoke.
“Vince. He’s back.”
A/N: Can you guess who it is yet?
There’s a clue tucked away in here in a rather obscure reference to an early version of the latest Live Show…. J