I enjoy creating new characters. Here’s one that turns up in my new novel Flight of the Butterfly, due to be published in September 2012. This is a first draft, so may contain errors.
The man in the black wool coat and fur hat was turning white. Everywhere, a crusted, frictionless treachery had given way to deep snow, squeaking underfoot. Mournful stone buildings created a canyon around him. The wind sought its narrowness, revelled in the lift of speed it gave, the obliterating effect of the locust-swarm of flakes that came with it. He pulled his head down into the inadequate embrace of his coat collar, leaned forward into the blast. He knew Edinburgh better than any taxi driver. Especially its secret places: the dark corners, alleyways and blind crannies. And yet – the whiteness disoriented, his confidence dipped, stride slackened. Then, a brief glimpse of dark grey fluted columns and steps up to a grandiose entrance. Moments later, he turned right into Rose Street. In its narrow confines, the wind eased and he strode the last few yards to the pub.
His pub. The public house of Pavel Sergeyovich Vodyanov. One of only three left in the centre of the city. This was his haven, the only unsullied and legal aspect to his life. It floated like a swan above the murky, tendentious waters of the Vodyanov empire. There were no drugs, or prostitutes or paedophiles or bank robbers or swindlers allowed. Only ordinary folk and alcohol. At least, that was what he liked to believe.
The entrance was set in the corner of the building. Oak half-doors in a bulky stone surround; above, a semicircular fanlight; above that, the name in gold letters – McTurk’s. Pavel pushed the doors open, stepped into the narrow entrance porch and shut the weather out behind him. He knocked the snow from his shoes, removed his coat and shook it. Then he went in, pushing the inner door against its closer. Warm air swaddled him, familiar smells of malt, wood smoke and human frailty. Yellow-orange light from the fire made an ever-changing tableau of faces and furniture and shadows. Conversation ebbed. Pavel walked to the bar, set along the back wall, and laid his coat on the old, polished surface. Cherry, his favourite wood. He ran his hand over it. Conversation picked up.
“What can I get you, Mr Vodyanov?” Behind the bar, a thin man with a stoop and a slack grin, wearing a black waistcoat.
“Visky. Best malt.”
Davie the barman reached down for the bottle he kept specially for his boss, poured a generous measure into a shot glass. Pavel drank it Russian-style. Lift, pause, lift, head back, gone, glass smacked on the bar.
“Now, slow one.”
Davie palmed a whisky glass this time, same full measure. Pavel nodded wordless thanks.
“Kerilas is here, yes?”
“Aye, he’s up the stair.”
“Anyone looks for me, I’m not available, okay?”
Upstairs: a room lit by a wood fire and the reluctant glow from a single window; unfurnished, bar for a single table and two chairs. A heavily-built man with a face like a boxer who had long passed his sell-by date was sitting, reading a newspaper. He looked up when Pavel came in, leaned forward to stub out a black cheroot.
“Ah, Pavel Sergeyovich. Good morning. How are you, my friend?”
Pavel sat down, put his glass on the table.
“Karilas, my old friend, I am svimming against tide of history. And history is going down plughole, make no mistake. Country has gone to dogs, chickens and fucking animals of all kinds. Once I made honest living from prostitutes and gambling. But now? Pffft! Money is gone. No one pays. Whoresons all poor, Pavel Sergeyovich poor.”
“We haven’t quite got to that pass, my dear man. But times are tough, I do agree.”
“Tough? Tough you say? Tougher than ex-vife’s fucking heart, I tell you. And what do you know? You are just ignorant Lithuanian peasant.”
The other man smiled.
“I may be ignorant and I may be a peasant, but at least I have a university degree in accounting, otherwise Vodyanov Enterprises Inc. would have gone down the plughole a long time ago, along with history and everything else.”
Pavel took a mouthful of whisky, rolling it round his mouth before swallowing, held out a hand towards the other man.
“Listen to him. Thinks he is bees ankles, this Lithuanian.”
He thumped his chest.
“Who was it who came here twenty years ago with nothing but clothes he stood in and made name for himself? Who was that, eh? Not fucking Karilas. No! It was Vodyanov.”
“Sure it was.” Karilas leaned back, enjoying the ride. “And the fact that you had the balls to slip a sharp knife between the ribs of Godfather Rubienski just at the right moment in time, did you no harm at all.”
He leaned forward and tapped his finger on the table.
“But these days are gone, Pavel Sergeyovich. And we have to think differently.”
Pavel’s bluster evaporated and his head went down, shaking from side to side.
“I know, I know. But it is hard for old bastard to learn new tricks.
He ran a hand through the thick bristle of his greying hair.
“Anyway, anyway. Tell me about what you have done with woman and her two companions. I worry about them.”
“We have them locked away in a safe location. They will do us no harm.”
“Perhaps we would better neutralise them completely, then they would truly be harmless, yes?”
Karilas shook his head.
“We’ve already had this conversation, old friend. They could be useful to us, to give information, or to find information, or as hostages. We must keep them unharmed until we are sure that we can no longer use them to our advantage.”
“And what of American?”
The other man frowned, compressed his lips for a moment.
“Nothing further. He keeps himself well hidden. I have men working to find him, but I suspect that he is too wily an operator for us. No doubt when he wants our assistance, he will contact us again.”
Pavel threw himself back in his chair, swung on it for a moment, then sprang to his feet and stood, back to the fire, hands behind him.
“I don’t like it. Pavel Sergeyovich wishes to know what goes on in his patch. Find him! Find this American and bring him to me. I will make him talk.”
Karilas crossed his legs, lit another cheroot, exhaled its acrid smoke.
“You really want me to allocate more resources to this? Already, we have to keep fewer and fewer people running hard to stop us falling on our collective faces. I’m telling you, the American will show himself when he is ready. Or not. We have other things to worry about.”
Pavel flopped back into the chair, the flash of impatience running to ground.
“Okay, okay. I leave it to you. What else have you to report?”
Karilas pulled a map from his pocket, unfolded it on the table. It was his favourite prop when he reported to Vodyanov. The crisp outline of city streets had blurred over the years, the corners of folds opened up to allow light through. Both men leaned over it, though it was a merely a talisman. They carried all the information they needed in their heads.
“Wieng is up to something,” Karilas said. “It may be big or it may be nothing. Impossible to tell. I will know more tomorrow.”
Pavel shivered, picturing the small, dapper figure of the Chinese, bowing and smiling. He put his hand on his chest, fingers spread.
“You know I have heart of lion, Karilas, but I swear Wieng makes shivers in spine.”
“I also feel that way. But these people are in the same situation as we are. The cake is no longer big enough to divide amongst us. If you ask me to guess, I’d say that Wieng is planning to take it all.”
Pavel circled a finger over an area of the map.
“And what about Pilton? What news from there?”
Karilas sat up slowly, stretching his back, rubbing his hands on his thighs.
“Lost, I fear. Gone to anarchy. Local gangs fighting it out on the streets, good people moving elsewhere. Nothing there for us anymore.”
“Not possible to have meeting with gang leaders? Work out deal?”
Slow head shake.
“To what end, Pavel Sergeyovich? We would be negotiating over dust and rubble. These people are nothing but trouble for us. Now that we no longer supply them, because we lost so many of our people, they come looking for what they want. This kind of chaos will just move out from these areas and engulf us, if we don’t come up with a plan.”
“I know, I know. You tell me this all time. We talk plan.”
He sat back.
“Okay. But I warn you, this is going to be a whole new way of thinking for us.”
Pavel had folded his arms.
“You want old dog dance new tricks, yes? You think I am not able?”
“It’s not your ability that’s in question, old friend.”