Apricot Eyes (novella)
In Apricot Eyes by Rohan Quine, a cat-and-mouse pursuit through the New York City night involves a preacher, a psychic and a dominatrix, broadcast live on air—until a horror is unearthed, bringing two of them together and the third to a sticky end.
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First taster of Apricot Eyes, from chapter 3 “The stalking on the subway train”
[…] His eyes are fixed on me with a mixture of loathing and growing recognition. Before either of us can speak, an uptown train draws in between us. The train doors open; he enters, walks straight to the window on this side and carries on his staring, from three metres closer than before. Then he raises one hand to point at me, and with his other hand slashes the air in front of him at neck level, suggesting decapitation. He learned that gesture from Lucan, I recall—and he’s got slightly better at executing it now, but I’m not inclined to cut him any slack for this. We hated each other on sight in Asbury Park, with a chemical hatred that I can feel is quite undiminished.
The loudspeakers announce, “This train is being held momentarily in the station and will be moving shortly.” Kev quits glaring, moves away from the window and sits with his back to me.
Within a second I decide: I’m going to tail the fucker.
OK, how to do this? I note that he’s in the rearmost carriage (the two platforms here are staggered, so their rear ends are anomalously opposite each other), and then I run for the stairs to the uptown platform, which I reach just in time to jump aboard the second-last carriage before the doors close. (And praise the Lord for the recent introduction of free transfers to uptown trains here—formerly another anomaly at this station.) With care, I approach this carriage’s rear end, peer through the windows in the connecting doors, verify Kev doesn’t know I’ve joined him, and sit down out of his sight. The train sets off.
So, Mr Banton’s given up his enforcement activities for Lucan’s drug-dealing operation, found heavy-duty religion and is now preaching family values on TV. It suits him.
I check the time. It’s late. Maybe he’s going home. OK, let’s see where he lives.
We draw into Astor Place station. I lean forward cautiously and peer through the window. My quarry remains in place, his eyes closed.
Next stop, Union Square. I lean forward again, to see him rise and leave the train. I rise too and succeed in tailing him, straight across the platform and into an uptown 4 train, where I install myself unobserved in the carriage just in front of his.
Twenty-Third, Twenty-Eighth and Thirty-Third Street stations flash by, impregnable to fast trains. So he doesn’t live Downtown, I conclude.
Grand Central Station, and Kev’s eyes remain closed. Fifty-First Street flashes by. We draw into Fifty-Ninth Street; he remains motionless again. So he doesn’t live in Midtown either. He must have died young and opted for the Upper East Side—very fitting for a rich televangelist.
Sixty-Eighth and Seventy-Seventh Streets flash by, then Eighty-Sixth Street slows down outside and I prepare to move. But Kev stays in place there, only looking up to check the stop.
East Harlem? Is the televangelist keeping it real, I wonder, as Ninety-Sixth, One-Hundred-Third, One-Hundred-Tenth and One-Hundred-Sixteenth Street stations hurtle by.
One-Hundred-Twenty-Fifth Street; and here at last, as I follow him surreptitiously, Kev does get out—but only to sit back down on a bench on the uptown 6 platform.
It’s a subway map moment. I spot such a map further down the station and navigate myself to it. OK; so we’re going to Mott Haven, South Bronx. I’m not entirely sure I’m dressed for this, but we’re on a mission now, so we’d better stick with it.
A local 6 arrives. Again I board the carriage just in front of Kev’s and filter down the length of it, out of his sightline, where I find myself facing through the windows in the doors. Dusty grey pipes, cables, pillars and occasional dim caverns streak by me.
Then the train emerges above ground and onto elevated tracks. The stations, mostly empty, give little clue to the gangland below. One-Hundred-Thirty-Eighth Street, Brook Avenue, Cypress Avenue, East One-Hundred-Forty-Third Street, East One-Hundred-Forty-Ninth Street, and now Longwood Avenue. I check a map above the windows. It’ll be three more stops before we reach any place where a self-respecting televangelist would live—but no, for there in the next carriage Kev is getting up and leaving the train.
With great care and a bit of luck, I follow him undetected through an almost deserted station. Where on earth are we going here?
Outside the station Kev sets off without a pause, not west into the night-lit throb of Mott Haven, but east across Bruckner Boulevard and under the booming truck-roar of the Elevated Expressway. From here on, civilisation ends, for beyond this echoing space of concrete columns stretches the industrial district of Hunts Point. As Kev exits the Boulevard up Lafayette Avenue, I glance down at the rusty railroad in the cutting beneath us. From what I know about this grimy peninsula we’re heading into here, I decide we’d better conclude there can be no redeeming purpose whatsoever for Kev’s journey tonight. I follow him nevertheless, right onto Tiffany Street, keeping my distance.
In the daytime this corner of the Bronx is dominated by the rumble of trucks along Hunts Point Avenue to the wholesale food market at the end; and by traffic connected with the numerous chop-shops engaged in the business of breaking up stolen cars in order to sell off their components, many such establishments being staffed by mean-looking guard-dogs at the entrance, to ensure an attentive front-of-house welcome. By night the peninsula’s main trades are drugs, and sex for drugs.
Second taster of Apricot Eyes, from chapter 5 “The golden limousine and the sudden hanging legs”
[…] Back home again, I sit, close my eyes and try to work out what to do. Perhaps a jaunt to West Fourteenth Street, to get relaxingly embroiled in police enquiries? No; me neither.
But I ought to do something here, surely. Do what, though? I get ready for bed, lie back and set out to think this through. My sight drifts up and hovers over the Lower East Side, then down to float above a black tanker that’s sweeping north between the high-rise projects and the East River. High smoke coils from the generating station, up ahead and to the left. On the right shines the East River, jagged with reflections of white and red and yellow lights burning on deserted warehouse buildings on the far Brooklyn shore.
Beside the black tanker, from a golden limousine, leaks gasoline, streaming out unseen upon the concrete.
A guard-dog howls somewhere, unheard by the drivers.
The limousine erupts with a dull boom, swelling to a fireball of orange flecked with scarlet. Cars scatter, screeching. Regardless of the road’s swerve left at East Fifteenth Street, the ball hurtles on, hits the barrier and bounces up and outward, raging and spinning.
Through the roar of dirty flame and bursting glass, a flail of tiny hands and mouths silent-screaming trapped in buckled metal flash, then they fall to the river with a crunch and hiss of steam.
The dog howls again among the yellow-lit projects, while the black tanker clanks on undaunted, up the East Side Highway towards the Bronx.
Over the great town of psychiatric compounds and hospital blocks between the river and First Avenue—high above that blast of pain cushioned in the soft wink and hum of shiny buildings—my vision soars again, shoots uptown a mile, then plummets in a graceful arc, down to Sixty-Third and a sleeping Kev, down to his bedside Bible and the long fat water-bug sitting on it, licking clean its feelers as it paws at the book.
The longer I tune in to Kev, the more I see about his life: the passionate sincerity and energy he brings to his campaigns and plain-speaking rhetoric; his pleasure at the growth in small-town support across the States; and the practical effects of isolation and despair in the intended populations, leading to suicide or to violence from others, as appropriate. Always hard to quantify, but growing, growing steadily! I find myself snatching single images of individual human pain—nails sticking out red and jagged from the grey flood of pain that is caused or increased by him. I catch in particular the pain of the few who are always targeted and damaged by the rest, to the music of his preaching. I feel for the nails, as they poke from the surface and get bent out of shape. Then, among these nails of pain, I focus on the golden nails of hard-won magic, and I cry at the beauty of them, sticking out against the light, against the odds, against the flood, in triumph: pinpricks of gold amid the grey and red…
I long to stop this man from inflicting any more: his hate must come back on him, as deserved.
The darkness of my feelings stands bare, like those sudden hanging severed legs, side-lit in the moon-glimmer coming through the windows in his high-ceilinged, claustrophobic bedroom right now…
My vision rears up beside the preacher’s bed, turns around and shoots across his room at shoulder height, bursting through the window pane to fly across a roofscape of chimneys, dusty parapets, aerials and water tanks.
Third taster of Apricot Eyes, from chapter 9 “A lapful of broken glass”
[…] I’m deeply relieved to find him still wedged behind the cab of the tanker; though my relief is perhaps greater than his, because the tanker is now barrelling along at what feels to him like an unholy speed, north-east up Bruckner Avenue. Back among cars and activity and street lights now, he is also starting to feel rather too visible. This feeling grows alarmingly when the tanker slows to join the Bronx River Parkway, a car draws up alongside him and he glimpses a horrid vision, down beside him: a large family crammed into a tiny space, with leaping dogs, bawling children and loud inane voices on a radio. “Nightmare,” he thinks. “I’d sooner choose that prison barge.” Even more distressingly, two horrible gum-chewing children in the back seat have seen him and are now fighting over how to wind the window down. They hit each other, then are hit in turn by a parent… Scorpio drums his silver fingernails tightly on a metal strut and listens with impatience for the sound of vehicles moving up ahead. If the vermin succeed in winding the window down and start shouting up at him, then Kev will notice and probably investigate matters and discover him. He glances down, observes that the fight is still in progress, and catches for an instant the grinning semi-focused gaze of one child: passionless, compassionless, thoughtless and sealed-off, without imagination or real curiosity, and safely protected from the danger of wonder, it makes him laugh mirthlessly aloud.
Still he drums his fingernails, and still the traffic isn’t moving—yes it is, at last! One more glance down, and this time he catches just his own form reflected on the window, behind which the dreary family squabble carries on: clutching at his metal niche, his long black hair spilling out along his bare arms and round his fully made-up face (now a little smudged), he reminds himself of a manic dark monkey staring hatred out of wide-burning, silver-shadowed eyes. He laughs aloud a second time, and watches his reflected hand dip into his shoulder-bag and reach out a catapult. As the tanker revs its engine in readiness to move, he aims the weapon at the child, pulls back the elastic and shoots the little stone. For a split second Scorpio sees his own reflected face snarling up with a feral sensuality and glee, before it cracks at the window’s burst and falls into the screaming child’s blood-spattered lap, along with a lapful of broken glass.
Firing up its engine, with a roar that drowns the scream and the blaring of the car’s horn, the tanker presses grimly up the ramp to the Parkway. Its slimy cargo sucks hard, swilling at the warm black metal just beside his ears; and close behind his smooth and delicate neck, those screeching teeth…
Now the preacher steps on the gas with a vengeance. Two metres down through the truck’s articulation, Scorpio can see the roadway streaking by at sixty, seventy, eighty miles an hour. On his left, beyond the barrier, white lights zing by at twice these speeds, while the red lights on his right fall slowly behind. As the warm air buffets his ears and lashes his hair about, the tanker hurtles on, over and under the streets and expressways of Bruckner and West Farms, streaking through the Gardens and past the Woodlawn Cemetery. It exits the Parkway and the Bronx at last, slows down, turns off Hillview Avenue and heads up a track discreetly signed “Hillview Reservoir”.
Shorter teasers of the 11 chapters of Apricot Eyes are here:
Table of Contents of Apricot Eyes
1. Jaymi’s hunt for Scorpio
2. The black-thighed scorpion
3. The stalking on the subway train
4. The girls on West Fourteenth Street
5. The golden limousine and the sudden hanging legs
6. Ten screens of eyes in the neon
7. Phaon and the second like a teardrop
8. Screeching worms
9. A lapful of broken glass
10. A drag-queen drives a tanker
11. Ecstasy in Hunts Point