Curtis just wanted everyone to get the hell out of his way. The wind was chilling this morning, cutting his skin with icy needles even through his second-hand padded jacket. It wasn’t the weather for hanging around bloody chatting, or wandering aimlessly arm in arm in a zig-zag up the middle of the street. Didn’t they realise other people had things to do, places to go? With a rueful grin, he hitched his packed messenger bag further up on his shoulder and braced his knee against the wall of the nearby dry cleaner’s shop grocer’s, while he rearranged the outsized pile of boxes he was carrying down the road from where he’d parked his van. He wasn’t really built for heavy lifting: even at twenty two, he’d never grown over five foot eight or out from a thirty four inch chest size. But he was wiry and stronger than he looked. And he was on a mission to get all this stuff delivered so he could take a decent break for lunch.
Curtis’ delivery schedule that morning included a couple of boxes to the Chinese grocer’s on Gerrard Street, then a delivery of part-frozen prawns to the kitchen of the West London Hotel at Leicester Square. At ten o’clock he was due to collect the coffee machine from the comedy club and take it for repair. Then he had a spare hour–hopefully–when he’d promised himself a large sausage sandwich from the German café and an ice cream at With A Kick. He’d become a real fan of the shop ever since his flatmate Phiz introduced him to it. He’d laughed out loud at the bloody stupid names they had for the ice cream dishes, but after he tasted Phiz’s favourite “Slap and Tickle”–with chocolate ice cream and brandy–he only opened his mouth for eating. He readily admitted they were fabulous recipes. And the shop itself was a bizarre little corner of Soho. In any visit, he might see tourists, Turkish families ranging through three generations, old age pensioners, guys wearing leather collars under their zipped jackets, men in clown costume, and once he’d even stumbled into what looked like a party for guys built like rugby players. Or maybe they really were rugby players.
And there was always plenty of smiling at With A Kick. Like Curtis said, bizarre. Curtis tried to keep pretty cheerful, but sometimes he was just too fucking busy, even if and when he had things to smile about. But if it was gonna happen, it’d probably be around that amazing shop.
Things had gone well so far on his daily round. The grocer’s delivery was quick, leaving him time to collect the coffee machine earlier than expected. He’d have been more or less in time for the hotel’s prawns, but then a bus broke down in the middle of Charing Cross Road, and Curtis’ van got stuck in the traffic. When he finally drove his van up the small service road around the back of the hotel, he could see a handful of kitchen staff standing in the back yard. Maybe they were just outside having a ciggie, rather than waiting for a few boxes of prawns to arrive. When the largest man among them spun around to glare at Curtis’ approach, Curtis knew the ciggie theory was blown to hell.
“Got here as soon as I could,” he called as he scrambled out of the van. He swung open the back doors of the van, making lots of noise about it.
“Told the boss you weren’t reliable,” the big man said. It was a definite sneer. He sauntered across the yard, dressed in the white kitchen jacket and check trousers that announced he was a chef, swaggering with the weight of his own importance. Curtis’ description of the man would have been far less complimentary: the chef was a hulking great lump of homophobic lard, and he and Curtis always ended up trading insults. One day, Curtis was gonna wallop him, even though he was three times Curtis’ size. Brave talk? Oh yeah. Curtis was afraid the chef would just bounce like a punch ball, and swing right back.
“I’m usually here on time,” Curtis said, trying to keep the anger out of his voice. “So are you gonna give me a hand with the boxes?”
“You’re the delivery boy.” The chef shrugged, and leant against the side of the van. He gave a cold, ugly grin as Curtis lugged the first box into his arms. “That’s what you’re fucking paid for.”
“And you’re paid for resting your fat arse on my van?” Curtis cursed his big mouth the minute the words were out.
The chef straightened, his face red. This close to Curtis, he loomed over him. “You wanna make something of it, you won’t be delivering here again, kid.”
“You didn’t sign the contract, you don’t call the shots, mate–”
“I mean, mate,” the chef broke in, his voice a menacing rasp yet loud enough to be heard by everyone else. “Broken fingers aren’t fit to lift your fucking fag dick, let alone a box of prawns.”
The fury and hurt rose like a wave of scarlet heat through Curtis’ body. Not that he wasn’t used to his fair share of homophobic abuse, but things had definitely improved since he’d built up a network around Soho and the Square. And it wasn’t like he minced about in sequinned Dr Martens. It really was only morons like this who still couldn’t get their thick head around their own prejudice. He took a step forward, planning a suitably crisp reply to the fat git’s total absence of human civility, let alone any nod to political correctness. The chef glared back and balled his fists. So that’s how it goes. The sniping was over. Curtis took a deep breath and wondered who would put the bits of him back in the van and get him home after the inevitable pummelling.
A punch came out of nowhere, at least that was how it seemed. The one thing Curtis knew was that neither he nor the fat git had thrown it. Curtis stared, astounded, as a fist landed on the chef’s jaw. It was like a movie: he watched each step like it was in slow motion. The fist hit the nose–the sound of slapped flesh and crunched bone followed a fraction afterwards–then the chef’s head twisted sharply back and to the side. His eyes were full of angry shock and his mouth gaped wide, his cheek crushed flat on the side of the blow. Curtis even imagined the soundtrack swelling into a cymbal crash as the man’s knees buckled and he slumped back against the side of the van. Slowly, he slid down to the ground.
“Sonofabitch!” came a man’s curse. Curtis whirled to see a stranger grimacing and cradling his right wrist in his left hand. He caught Curtis’ gaze and grinned ruefully. “Haven’t hit a guy for a long time, I’m obviously outta practice.” He had an American accent, with a very slight southern drawl.
Curtis stared at him. “What the fuck d’you think you’re doing?”
The man did a double-take. “What d’you think I’m doing?” He nodded sharply at the chef, currently wheezing against the passenger door. Blood dripped into his hand, which he cradled at his nose, and dribbled on down his white uniform. “Shutting up that sewer-mouthed sonofabitch, that’s what.”
Curtis did a quick scope out of the area. The other staff had rather miraculously vanished at the first sign of trouble, though Curtis suspected that if the chef had been less of a turd, they might have stayed around to help out. Instead, he was pretty sure they thought the pig deserved everything he got. But whether that meant being beaten up by some weird Transatlantic stranger…
Curtis peered back at the stranger. He didn’t look like one of the porters or kitchen staff. Rather incongruously, he was dressed in smart suit trousers, pristine white shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and a silk waistcoat. Curtis looked quickly at the man’s shoes, because for him, that was the real mark of a person. And then he laughed aloud.
The man frowned at him. “What’s so funny?”
“Cowboy boots,” Curtis said, his words shaky through the laughter. “You’re dressed like posh totty but you’re wearing cowboy boots!” They were smart ones, mind you, in supple, expensive-looking black leather with attractive stitching on the top. But they weren’t exactly what you’d usually accessorise with smart evening wear. Like Curtis would know…but, still.
Curtis shrugged. “Usually refers to girls, but I think you qualify as well. Means smart looking, expensive clothes, usually a posh voice…” And cute, cute, cute his mind cackled in the background.
The man frowned again, glanced down at himself and then laughed. “These clothes ain’t my usual look. I play piano in the dining room and I’m on call for a business lunch event. They like me to wear full costume even for rehearsal.”
“Boots and all?”
For the first time, wariness flickered in the man’s eyes. “You have some kinda fixation. The boots are definitely mine, my pride and joy. Where I go, they go.” He bent quickly and gracefully at the knees and scooped something up off the ground behind him. “This, too.”
A cowboy hat. A cowboy hat? Curtis watched the man perch it back on his head–where Curtis had to admit it looked like it had belonged since birth–and wondered what part of the time travel universe he’d stepped into. He snuck a more searching look over the man himself, rather than his clothes. He was a couple of inches taller than Curtis but much more strongly built. Broad shoulders hinted at a lot of power in his arms and long, lean back. His skin was the kind of white that looked good tanned, compared to Curtis’ naturally darker tone. He was clean-shaven with wide grey eyes, and his dark blond hair curled down over his ears. It all framed strong, not traditionally handsome features. His mouth was perhaps too wide, his nose bent in the middle as if he made a habit of punching chefs on the nose and a couple of them had got a return blow in. And so when had Curtis become a casting scout for Calvin Klein? He shook himself for getting carried away. But it was a striking face regardless, and Curtis felt a small frisson of excitement run down his spine. Jesus, get a grip! But he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had sex, proper sex that was, with another human being, not just wanking off to a magazine so he didn’t forget what other things his dick was hanging there for. Now he was eyeing up a stranger in a seedy back yard at half past eight in the morning.
Then the guy smiled at him from halfway under the brim of his hat, and suddenly Curtis’ small frisson turned into a full-blown sexual tsunami.