This is the first chapter of a novel that Harriet Stuart and I have written. It takes place in the early 1920s, following Declan Falker, a time traveler who falls in love with flapper girl Charlie O’Brian and has to deal with the consequences. Enjoy!
Chapter One: Declan
Declan let the noise of the club wash over him in a wave. He breathed in deeply, the scent of illegal alcohol and perfume thick in the air. It had been a long day. It was nice to be somewhere where there was nothing to do except… relax.
“Care to dance?” A girl appeared before him, dressed all in shimmering black, holding out her hand. Declan smiled, taking her hands in his. This was what he loved about these places. The expectations were so low. You went up and danced with total strangers, letting them distract you, yourself distracting them, with no expectations that you’d ever see each other again. So easy.
“And you are?” Declan asked, leading her to where the dancing was.
“Katriona Devon,” she said. “You?”
“Declan Erikson.” The name almost felt true. It had been five months since he’d been back home, back with his true name.
She started stepping to the beat of the music, dragging him along. “Declan… Irish?”
“You have a problem with that?” People did, sometimes. In the cities, he didn’t have to watch out for the Ku Klux Klan, but it was still nice to know.
“Not at all.” She smiled at him. “My father’s Irish.”
“Then yes.” He let his voice slip into its natural lilt for her. He usually hid his accent, once again to try to avoid prejudice. It helped him pretend to be another person—but Declan had never hated his voice, and liked it when he could speak and hear his own words, instead of a stranger’s, from his mouth. “My mother is Irish.”
“So. What brings a nice boy like you to a place like this?” Katriona asked as the music picked up its tempo. He chuckled. She didn’t want to know the answer to that—yes, he was here for fun, here to relax, but also because he swore that he had seen Fitzgerald on the streets. Photographs of F. Scott Fitzgerald at a nightclub, well, that would be priceless. Declan was notoriously bad at finding celebrities, which frustrated him to no end. But this could be a catch.
“The same as you, I suspect,” he said, distractedly looking over her shoulder for Fitzgerald.
“And what do you think I’m doing here?” She smiled at him, batting her eyes slightly.
“Oh, you know.” He winked. “A little bit of music, pretty people… how better to spend an evening? And how better to find trouble?”
“You’re in the business of finding trouble, then? I completely approve, by the way.”
“The business? Mademoiselle, I am a professional.” It was hardly sarcasm. Where had Fitzgerald gone?
“Imagine that,” she said, tightening their hold and moving in closer. “So am I.”
“One of my peers, then! A pleasure.” Declan was slightly uncomfortable with how close she was. But he wasn’t about to let her know that. He’d seen worse—not that it had made him any more comfortable. Some days, in these clubs… well, it made him wish he’d decided to specialize in the 1800s. Very chaste dancing then.
“What trouble do you normally seek out, Mr. Erikson?” she asked.
“A little of everything,” he replied. The man was nowhere to be seen. “I’m quite the connoisseur.”
“Well, you dance wonderfully. I think connoisseur is the right word for your talents.” He probably shouldn’t have been flirting so heavily. These girls sometimes took it too far. He’d have to dance the next with another, to make sure this Katriona didn’t get any ideas.
The song ended, and Katriona lifted their clasped hands so she could spin out. She smiled at him, breathing heavily. “I’m parched. Shall we get drinks?”
Omnometry, he was terrible at refusing people… “But of course.”
She kept hold of his hand and took him to the bar in the back corner of the club. A tired-looking man ushered them into a back room, after checking them over to see that they weren’t police. The smell of alcohol was stronger, here, and unlabeled bottles lined the shelves behind a rough bar.
“An Alexander,” Declan said, fishing in his pockets for money.
“Gin Rickey,” Katriona ordered. She grabbed for her purse and rifled through it, then closed her eyes and sighed heavily. “Not again…”
Declan resisted sighing. He’d given generously to a street urchin earlier… and he was running out of liquor… but he had to pay, short on cash as he was. “Let me.” He paid the bartender, who mixed up their drinks with lightning speed.
“My hero,” she said dryly. “I’m such a dolt… But thank you.”
They took their drinks back to the main room, and stood on the edge, watching the dancing and enjoying the music. And, in Declan’s case, still looking for Fitzgerald. He was itching to get a good photo, though he’d have to be careful. He didn’t have his period camera on him—it was too big to take into places like this. He’d have to use his small one, which called for discretion…
Still holding her glass in one hand, Katriona placed a cigarette between her lips and lit it. Then she glanced over at Declan again. “What do you do in the city, Mr. Erikson? Besides look for trouble.”
“I’m a photographer,” Declan said. “And a journalist.”
“Covered any interesting stories?”
“I’m more into social sciences,” Declan replied. “Taking photographs of the city. The people. The everyday that we so often miss. Like Jacob Riis.”
“Who?” she asked, taking a drink.
“The photographer,” Declan said. “Took pictures of the tenement houses… published a book that showed how awful it was. Helped the Progressive Party.” That was probably a little too much information, but that was what naturally happened. “Beautiful photographs… of human suffering.”
“You have an interesting idea of what’s beautiful,” she said.
“His photographs changed the world. I’d like to do that one day.” Not that he was allowed to change anything. Supposedly. Belatedly, he realized that she’d been setting him up to flirt. His inner historian needed to just shut up and let him enjoy a pretty girl’s company.
“Well I think that’s a wonderful goal, Mr. Erikson.”
Declan tried to recover himself, taking a sip of his drink. He grimaced. This was not his usual haunt, and the liquor here was terrible. The cream did little to disguise it.
“Of course,” Declan said, “as a photographer, I’m always looking for more…” No, not conventional, girls didn’t like to be called conventional… or everyday… curse his mind… he was running out of time before it got awkward… “Aesthetic forms of beauty, as well.” That would have to do.
“Do you have any… specific subject in mind?” Katriona asked raising an eyebrow. By the bones of the plague, now he needed to find something subtle and flirtatious to say in reply again. Conversation was an art, and he was rusty—and distracted by the fact that Fitzgerald was here, somewhere, not twenty feet away, and he was stuck talking to this girl. Pretty as she was, he had better things to do.
“Oh, I have a special eye for the dramatic.” He eyed her black dress and the long string of amber beads around her neck. “The exotic, the mysterious…” That wasn’t a good ending… “Like yourself, for instance. You’re excellent at getting me to talk, but I know nothing about the lovely Miss Devon.”
“Oh, I’m not nearly as interesting as you…”
No, Declan thought. No, you’re probably not. But that was another thing you didn’t let girls know.
“I don’t believe that for an instant.” Declan took another sip of the cheap liquor, scanning the crowd for Fitzgerald—there, was that the back of his head? “A girl as pretty as you always has her secrets… especially when she ends up in a place like this.”
She smiled a little. “You think I’m pretty, Mr. Erikson?” Declan smiled down at her. At least he could honestly answer that question.
“Very pretty.” He probably should have put his arm around her, but he decided against it—particularly since she had a lit cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. “And very mysterious.”
“I make my trade being mysterious,” she said.
“Oh?” Declan took out his own cigarette, snatching the lighter from her pocket. She giggled, and he lit the cigarette then tossed the lighter back to her. “Tell me more.”
She pocketed the lighter and took a drag from her cigarette. “I’m a psychic,” she whispered conspiratorially.
Declan raised his eyebrows. “Really?” He held out his palm. “Please. I’m desperate to know the future.”
She put down her drink and took his hand, studying his palm carefully. “You’ve made a great journey… you’re eager to prove yourself and cast off an overhanging shadow… and the stranger you’re looking at over my shoulder is not who you think he is.”
“What?” Declan asked, surprised. Katriona smiled dryly.
“You’re looking at someone over my shoulder. Not a friend, not an enemy—a stranger, then, who you think you know. You don’t know him.”
“It’s F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Declan said.
“The writer?” Katriona raised an eyebrow. “I read The Beautiful and Damned. It’s nonsense.”
Just wait until Gatsby comes out… Declan thought. Three years. Three years before he could start making references.
“And that’s not Fitzgerald,” Katriona said. “I know that man. Frank Johnson. Not a writer, by any stretch of imagination. He fancied himself a poet when trying to catch my eye, but…” She made a face. Declan found himself smiling.
“But how did you know that I didn’t know him—” He caught himself, and smiled, tapping his temple. “But of course. Psychic.”
“Do not doubt my powers with the supernatural,” Katriona said, grinning at him. “If I wanted, I could tell you more about your ghosts than you yourself even know.”
“My ghosts?” Declan said in a low voice. This was easier than flirting.
“Everyone has things that haunt them…” she murmured. “What do you think yours are, Mr. Erikson?”
“Isn’t that for you to tell me?”
She smirked. “The spirits grow unclear when… spirits are involved. And you don’t want to hear me talk. I’d rather it come from your pretty lips.”
“I come here so that my ghosts can’t follow me,” Declan said. She really had gorgeous eyes. The evening had been a waste as far as Fitzgerald was concerned, and the drinks were awful, but he would stay a bit longer for conversation with a young medium. A pretty young medium.
She stamped out her cigarette in an ashtray then took his hand again. “I come here for that very reason as well,” she said quietly. “Shall we escape together, Mr. Erikson?”
“A medium, escaping her ghosts?” Declan said, staying carefully out of her reach.
“Like I said, we all have things that haunt us. I read those of other people. I don’t like reading my own.”
“I can understand that. We both have to carefully avoid our own futures, so they can’t weigh us down…” Declan hesitated. “But if you could know your future, would you?”
She smiled, dropping his hand to touch his arm. “I care little about the future. And I try to escape my past. It’s the present that interests me most. Here and now… no guilt, no consequences, just… present.”
“The present,” Declan mused. “But there is no present. Every moment—as soon as you can think of it, it’s gone.”
“Exactly. Life is fleeting. Every moment that passes idly by is wasted. So shouldn’t we make the most of the moment we’re currently in?”
“We have no choice. The past is a nasty monster. The future’s almost as bad. The present is the only place that’s safe.” He let her pull him a little closer.
“The present is more than safe,” she said, placing a hand on his waist. “The present is exciting.”
Declan realized, all in an instant, that she wanted him to kiss her. He hesitated.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” she said softly. “It’s just another fleeting moment. Here and then gone.”
Here and then gone. He could bury the past—and the future—for an instant. Declan put his hands around her waist and drew her in close.
“Let’s escape together for just a moment,” she murmured. She put one hand at his hip and the other on his cheek and leaned in.
Declan hesitated for just one more moment—but he couldn’t let his past haunt him, not here, not now. He leaned down and kissed her, and let the moment overwhelm him—her hand on his cheek, her lips against his, the music in the background… this was a good moment. A moment just for Declan Erikson, with no other name to distract from it. He tried to make it last.
Eventually she pulled away and pressed her forehead to his, smiling. “That was… lovely, Mr. Erikson.”
“The moment was too short,” he said. “But yes. Thank you, Miss Devon.”
“It doesn’t have to be short,” she whispered. “If you’re feeling brave.”
Declan lifted a hand to her cheek. “I told you. I’m a professional troublemaker.”
She put her hand on his chest this time, draping the other around his neck. “Then let’s make trouble.”
Declan leaned up against the wall behind them, pulling her against his chest and kissing her again. His mother would not have been pleased… Omnometry, but he was breaking the no interference rule… and the no romance rule… but that didn’t matter. He should be allowed an escape. And she really was lovely. Declan ran a hand down along her neck, but the moment still wouldn’t last long enough.
Even after the kiss ended, Katriona stayed pressed against his chest. “I don’t want to leave,” she said softly.
“Then don’t,” Declan said. “At least, not for long. You’re lovely… I wasn’t joking about the photography. Come over. I’ll give you my address… you can wear something pretty, and I can make you into art.”
She pulled away, looking at the floor. “I can’t… I’ve already stayed here too long. I’m sorry, Declan. I have to go.”
He stepped away from her, rather surprised, cold after having her next to him for so long. Had he done something wrong? She probably thought he was trying to use her…
“I— they wouldn’t be— you could wear whatever you wanted—” Declan stammered.
She smiled sadly at him. “It’s not that. I just need to get home. Maybe… maybe I’ll see you here again. We can have another moment.”
Declan sighed, and let go of her hand. “Until then, Miss Devon. Thank you for the moments.”
“Thank you for the moments,” she echoed quietly, then turned and walked away, her hand slipping into her purse.
Declan watched her go, and then sighed. He might as well be on his way, then. She was the only reason he’d stayed.
He pushed his way through the crowd, silently cursing himself. Yes, she’d been a lovely distraction, but he was breaking so many rules. He shouldn’t be upset that she’d left—it was for the best.
Out of habit, Declan felt for his watch. In moments like these, the heavy ones, he needed something to ground him—
His watch. It wasn’t in his pocket.
He felt at both of them, and then inside his vest, and then in his pants pockets—but there was no denying it. His watch was gone.
He traced his steps back to the wall where he and Katriona had kissed. Had it fallen out? But it had been clipped to his button… it couldn’t have fallen off. He leaned up against the wall, trying to picture the moment again… Katriona had had her hands at his sides… very possibly in his pockets… she’d been on top of him, after all…
“Damn,” Declan swore. Then— “Damn.” He needed that… if she examined the watch too carefully—or his wallet, which he now realized was gone as well—then he would be in so much trouble. Much, much worse trouble than simply kissing a girl. Declan jogged through the crowd, shoving dancers and other kissing couples out of his way. But when he got up the stairwell that led to the ‘respectable’ business that topped the speakeasy, she was nowhere to be seen. Of course… that’s why she had wanted to leave so quickly. She’d known he’d figure out the truth soon enough.
Declan touched his lips. He was a fool… He was supposed to be an expert at this, and she’d robbed him as easily as taking candy from a baby! Very dangerous candy. World changing candy.
He had to find Katriona Devon. How many beautiful Irish mediums could there be in New York City, anyway?