Chelsea, London, June 3rd, 2005
The light from the window was bright and, despite the fact that Carter Fleming had had barely four hours sleep, he found it difficult to rest. Birthdays were the worst. Supposedly celebrations, he found them to be reminders of things which had passed. Another year gone, another tick on the biological clock, another day without her.
Pulling the sheets aside, he slipped from the bed. He generally took the week of his birthday off and this year was no exception, though he was beginning to think it had been a bad idea. He had hardly left his flat, spending his time moping around the place on his own. The Jade Dragon was not a place you could feel sorry for yourself. There he had to be the ebullient host. There he smiled, no matter what he felt like. No, on second thoughts, everyone was entitled to some time in which to be themselves. Time to mourn the passing of friends, and years of wasted existence. Being entirely self-centred, and self-destructive, for a week was allowed, wasn't it? Wasn't this what he deserved? All he was good for?
He poured himself a whiskey and raised the glass to his reflection. 'Happy birthday, Carter, dear chap,' he said. 'Looking damn good for forty-nine.' It was true, despite the bags under his eyes and the slightly sallow quality to his skin after several days of heavy drinking, he looked little more than thirty. On a good day he looked twenty-five.
'It's your birthday, old man,' he said to himself, 'what are you going to do with yourself?' Thankfully, his reflection refrained from answering, so he raised his glass to his mouth and drank with it instead. 'Well, you could stay in and get monumentally slammed again. That would be fun.' He took another drink and grimaced. 'Perhaps not. When a man is tired of fourteen year-old single malt, is he tired of life?'
Once again, his reflection refused to comment.
Carter woke with a start, the memory of the dream fresh in his mind. It faded rapidly as he shook himself awake, but he knew what it had been. The car on the beach at the bottom of a cliff, the explosion of the petrol tank. He always woke up as the ball of flame rose toward him. He had lost her twice. The accident had happened more than a year ago and he was still having the nightmares. Somewhere south of the river was a young woman who, he suspected, was having the same nightmares. He had wondered about calling her, going to see her, but she had not known him. If she remembered him at all it was as a client of her parents or a face at the funeral.
He pulled himself to his feet. This was stupid. It was almost four in the afternoon on his birthday and so far he had managed to get mildly drunk and get a couple of hours of fitful sleep. He needed to celebrate somehow. He needed to celebrate surviving another year, another year clean of corruption. He had wine, he could order in food, that left company. He needed company, but who? His mind ran over a bevy of potential partners for the evening. But they all had one problem in common; he knew all of them.
Making up his mind, he strode purposefully over to where his phone sat on a small table and dialled a number from memory. 'Gillian? Excellent. It's Carter Fleming. I need some company for tonight. Someone new and make it special, if possible, it's my birthday.'
The voice on the other end sounded faintly amused. 'Happy birthday, Mr Fleming. I think I've got just the girl for you. Around eight?'
'Perfect. I'll be waiting.'
For a brief few seconds, Carter Fleming experienced something he could not recall ever having happened before; he was speechless. The girl standing outside his door was possibly the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his life. Her skin was porcelain smooth, her brows perfectly arched and set above a pair of eyes which were deep and black. Her face was angular, exotic; high cheekbones and the hollow cheeks of a model. A cloud of soft, lush, chestnut hair surrounded her face and fell over her shoulders. Her body was only hinted at under a large, leather coat, but there was the suggestion of an ample bosom and swelling hips.