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February 21, 2014

Sample Chapter: Cobalt, by Nathan Aldyne

If you’re reading and enjoying Vermilion and wondering about the next book in the series, we have Chapter 1 of Cobalt for you. Here, our heroes are summering in Provincetown and Clarisse stumbles upon a corpse on the beach (as one does). We love this quote from GCN, describing Cobalt: “In many ways it’s not all that different from Miss Marple snooping about St. Mary Mead, only here drag queens replace governesses and coke dealers replace vicars.”

    At a quarter past one the following Saturday afternoon as the Provincetown ferry was being secured to the wharf, Clarisse Lovelace, attired in a white sailor-suit top with blue piping and matching white bell-bottomed pants, was first in line to disembark. A little girl had tried to slip in front of her, but when Clarisse pointedly remarked that it wasn’t too late to be hurled overboard the child retreated. The ankle strap of one of Clarisse’s heavy-heeled sandals was loosened to lessen the pressure on a large blister that had developed on her heel since the morning, her cascade of black hair was tangled about her shoulders from having been whipped by the salt wind for the past three hours, and her oversized octagonal sunglasses were perched awry on her nose—the right-hand stem had been broken by an ecology freak rushing to the railing when whales were sighted off the port bow. Her sailor’s cap had blown off before the ferry had even left Boston harbor. Clarisse’s back ached from carrying her overstuffed leather bag, and when she hoisted it over her shoulder, a thick strand of her hair caught in the zipper.

    “Move it, lady!” urged the three dozen or so day-trippers directly behind her, who were desperately eager to trample Provincetown in the three hours they had before the ferry began its voyage back to Boston.
    She turned with a glance of loathing for them all.
    When she reached the wharf, she stepped quickly to one side. As she painfully disentangled her hair from the zipper of her leather bag, she watched her fellow passengers swarming off the ferry. The travel bag was dropped onto the rough weathered boards and the costume for that night’s party, in a suit bag, laid carefully over it. Behind her a gaggle of adolescent boys in swim trunks and diving goggles were splashing in the water, shouting “Coins, coins!” up at the passengers. Several amused women stopped to toss pennies, but the divers contemptuously allowed these to sink, and screeched, “Quarters! Throw some quarters!”
    The teenaged voices had anything but a salutary effect on Clarisse’s headache. She stepped to the edge of the wharf and, when one boy whose voice was particularly harsh shouted, “Throw, throw!” Clarisse ripped off her broken sunglasses and flung them at his head.
    She picked up her bag and moved down the long pier. Before her, Provincetown was spread in a multicolored crescent along the inside of the Cape Cod hook. As she trudged along with her bags she watched eagerly for a sight of Daniel Valentine, but saw neither his face nor form. One of the very few handsome men she had seen on the ferry moved along beside her almost in step. He was of medium height and size, and much more than medium good looks, with short dark hair and a carefully trimmed mustache. His skin was flawless and though the summer was just under way, already well tanned. He wore black sneakers and button-fly jeans. His shirt dated from the fifties: bright red, patterned in lines of small black tulips, with the long sleeves carefully rolled to encircle his large biceps. But it was his eyes that most drew Clarisse’s attention: they were a startling cobalt blue. When Clarisse paused, exhausted, he stopped and offered to carry her bag for her. She accepted gratefully.
    “My name’s Jeff,” he said, then amended, “Jeff King.”
    “I’m Clarisse,” she replied, but did not offer her last name.
    “Are you down for the weekend?”
    “No, I’m here for the summer. But the fact is,” she added confidingly, “I hate resorts.”
    “Where are you staying?” Jeff asked.
    “At my uncle’s place.”
    “You’re lucky. I tried to get a reservation, but there wasn’t anything available. I’ll have to see what turns up.”
    Clarisse looked him over and laughed. “I imagine you’ll come across someone with an extra pillow.”
    Jeff smiled at the compliment. “I hope so. I used to come down here a lot, and I had a lot of friends here. I guess I’ll have to see who’s in town this season.”
    They had reached the municipal parking lot, and Clarisse thanked Jeff for his assistance.
    “Where does your uncle live? I’m not doing anything, I might as well take it on for you.”
    Clarisse, sensing that Jeff wanted nothing more in the world than for her to offer her uncle’s living room couch as a place to stay the weekend, smiled warmly, and said, “Thank you, but a friend is supposed to be meeting me. Of course, if he’s not here in five minutes, I have every intention of murdering him.” She collapsed onto a piling that looked to have a tolerably clean surface. “I’m just going to sit here for a few minutes and put myself together. A woman resolved to commit a capital crime can’t be too careful about her appearance.”
    “You look great,” said Jeff. “I noticed you on the ferry. Your outfit looks great.”
    He seemed disposed to linger, perhaps to see if the compliment had assisted his cause, but Clarisse put her hand around the handle of her bag and politely wrested it from him. “Thank you again,” she said in a tone of voice that did not brook argument.
    After an awkward moment in which he swung his own bag to and fro, Jeff said, “There’s a big costume party tonight.”
    “I know,” replied Clarisse.
    “Maybe I’ll see you there,” Jeff continued lamely.
    “Of course. I’ll be the one with blood on my hands.” She pointedly turned her head toward the town, as if searching for her friend, and Jeff walked on.
    Clarisse sighed, opened the zipper of her bag a few inches, and rummaged inside. When she found her brush, she pulled it violently through her hair until she thought it might be just presentable, and then stood and straightened the shoulders of her blouse. She opened her bag further and extracted a bottle of aspirin and gulped three down dry. She took out her box of adhesive bandages, and placed one over the blister on her heel. She stood, hoisted her bags with a groan, and set off for the Throne and Scepter.
    The early afternoon was cloudy, and the brisk salt air was spiked with the scent of impending rain, but Clarisse was well enough acquainted with the unpredictability of Cape Cod weather to distrust her senses completely. In Provincetown you might taste rain, and still hope for a brilliantly sunny afternoon.
    Saturday afternoon had brought a full complement of tourists to the town. Commercial Street, the principal thoroughfare, which follows the line of the bay and beach for the entire length of the crescent-shaped town, was lined on both sides with families from inland states, couples who doubtless thought themselves in love, and little knots of sullen teenagers who had been told that Provincetown was the hottest place on the Cape but now were at a loss to determine what raised the temperature so. The gay men and lesbians were either still in bed, already at work, or sitting at the Boatslip feeling guilty about starting to drink so early in the day. Turning onto Commercial Street, Clarisse pushed her way along the narrow sidewalk, constantly smiling and saying “Excuse me, please, I’m pregnant,” until she found herself standing before the Throne and Scepter. It was half past one, but already the tiny tables placed among the green palms on the shaded veranda were taken up with chatting tourists who had turned their chairs so that they might watch the ceaseless parade along Commercial Street. A thin young man whose surliness qualified him for any waiter’s job in Provincetown glanced with disdain at Clarisse and her baggage, but she ignored him and barged through the open French doors into the bar.
    In the sudden dimness of the interior, she could barely make out more potted palms, lazily swirling ceiling fans, and mirrors set to catch the reflections of the street. Clarisse lurched forward to where she remembered the bar to be.
    “Pour me a drink before you die,” she gasped, and in another moment, as her vision began to take in more detail, she saw a glass of ice and clear liquid sitting on the bar before her.
    “I’ve been waiting for you,” said Daniel Valentine. His blond hair and beard were lighter than when she’d last seen him, and much more closely cropped.
    “I expected a deeper tan.”
    Valentine shrugged and automatically made a preening motion of tucking in his clinging red T-shirt. His sleek, tapered muscularity strained the cotton. “How can I get a tan when I’ve got the day shift? That’s why I didn’t meet you at the ferry. How was the ferry?”
    “The ferry was the most horrible experience of my entire life,” said Clarisse evenly. “It was insult, torture, and degradation.” In three long swallows, she had finished her drink. She hadn’t put the glass down before another took its place. Valentine drew a pack of Luckys from the back pocket of his jeans, lit two, and handed one to Clarisse.
    “I’ve never ridden the ferry,” he remarked. “I thought it was supposed to be quaint or something.” He glanced at her sailor’s outfit. “Did you keep getting mistaken for crew?”
    “There was a Dixie Cup jazz band,” said Clarisse. “It was amplified. And it played polkas. For three hours. A great number of people danced. They danced the polka. The people who didn’t dance the polka got drunk and sang sentimental Irish songs. The people who didn’t dance or sing, threw up. Oh yes, and on the upper deck, where I got to sunbathe for half an hour before the sun went behind a cloud, there was an eighty-one-year-old man who stood on his head and delivered a lecture on the dangers of tobacco.”
    “Did you meet anybody cute?”
    “Well, there were approximately nine hundred persons on board the ship. I counted three attractive persons. Two women—very sweet and doing a duet of ‘I Only Have Eyes for You.’ And one man—who wanted me to put him up for the weekend.”
    “Sounds promising.”
    “He was gay—but I don’t think he knew I knew that.”
    “Still sounds promising. Did you make an offer for me?”
    “Valentine, I am very unhappy. My new sunglasses were torn off my head and smashed. A little boy sat on the costume that I had planned to wear tonight. I have a blister on my heel and a headache that only death will cure. I’m in no condition to pick up tricks for you.”
    “Well, you’re here. That’s something.”
    Outside, in the street, cars moved haltingly, trying to make headway through the milling throngs of pedestrians. A disgruntled driver blasted his horn at three women on roller skates who banged his trunk as they went by. A child shrieked when its ice cream cone was gobbled up by a passing mastiff. Someone wearing a large felt hat fashioned in the likeness of a goose peered in the window. The sun was suddenly obscured by a thick cloud, and there was a low bellow of thunder. Clarisse looked around the dark, hot, empty bar. “For this I quit my job, and sublet my rent-controlled apartment? Where’s the sun?” she demanded. “Where’s the fun? Where’s the romance?”



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