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by Sarah Black
Category: Romance/Gay Fiction
Description: Former Marine Will Marlowe dreams of being a great classics scholar, but his subversive street art, Bad Toys, is what he does best. When he's sent to London to retrieve Tommy Jones, what he's really interested in is a chance to take Bad Toys global. He doesn't expect cancer survivor Tommy to captivate him or to become the pet project of a real live--dead--author. Meanwhile, Tommy is struggling to write a dissertation about Christopher Marlowe while conveniently ignoring the fact that he knows Marlowe didn't die in 1593. And Marlowe's ghost? He has an agenda all his own that seems to involve two parts mystery, one part romance.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2012 2012
eBookwise Release Date: March 2012
4 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [145 KB]
Reading time: 94-131 min.
Will unpacked his duffel bag on a park bench. Malibu Barbie was wearing a bright yellow sundress with yellow strappy sandals, and he carefully positioned pink sunglasses shaped like tiny hearts on her nose. Next was the hat, a wide-brimmed straw hat with yellow and pink ribbons that curled onto her bare shoulder. Excellent. The hat was critical, since it would keep Barbie from spotting what Mr. Potato Head, sitting next to her on the bench, was doing.
Mr. Potato Head was carrying a small cane, and he was using the tip to stealthily slide Barbie's skirt up her tanned thigh. His face was a masterpiece of dumb lust. He didn't see Mrs. Potato Head behind the bench, snarling, her red patent leather purse ready to descend on his head.
He photographed the scene, packed up the toys, and was out of the park and back home before the dew had dried on the sweet summer grass.
* * * *
Will had started Bad Toys as a joke while he was still in Afghanistan. The unit had received a care package from a small town in Kansas. PFC Braddock and Corporal Binns had pulled everything out, looking for copies of Maxim, cookies, or microwave popcorn. The rest of the unit had watched the unpacking in disbelief. Barbie and Ken, Mr. Potato Head, GI Joe, Humpty Dumpty, a plastic bag of small green soldiers, another of cowboys and Indians. Some soft little stuffed animals from the zoo, giraffes and hippos and lions.
The plastic warriors had quickly found homes in BDU pockets, but the rest of the toys had sat in the mess tent, on the table with the silverware, staring at them with painted eyes like some bizarre raspberry blown from America. Until Will had carefully positioned Barbie kneeling on Humpty Dumpty's face, her head thrown back in passion. Barbie was surprisingly limber. Ken and GI Joe had their own fling on top of the salad bar, tiny erections made from elbow macaroni filched from the kitchen. Will never stopped to analyze what he was doing, but from that strange beginning, Bad Toys became an Internet sensation, and Will grew the heart of an outlaw.
* * * *
He was a year out of the Corps, finishing up a degree in classical history at George Mason. Will thought he might go to law school since he felt like a cynical asshole all the time. Law seemed to be the proper career for a person with his outlook on life. His mother had suggested he might want to talk to someone at the VA. He'd assured her it wasn't PTSD, just a bad mood that had lasted three years. He kept forgetting to schedule the LSAT, though, and when he should have been doing research and filling out applications, he found himself roaming the city with a bag full of toys, planning a little street art. So he was ripe for it when one of his professors pulled him into his office. "William, I've got a problem."
"What's the matter, Dr. Jones? You don't have another flat tire, do you?" Will wasn't sure how a grown man with a PhD and a head full of gray hair had managed to not learn how to change a flat, but he had spotted him in a downpour, wringing his hands and trying to figure out which end of the jack was up.
"No, it's a bit more serious this time." His office was crowded with overflowing bookshelves, the only visitor's chair holding a pile of files in primary colors. "Just move those, William. I need to tell you a story."
Will put the files on the floor, sat down. "What's up?"
Dr. Jones stared out the window, his hands on his hips. "I have a nephew. Did I tell you? His name is Tom. My older brother's son. He's a gentle boy, not really strong. He's been working on his PhD in Elizabethan literature."
"He's at Oxford." Dr. Jones pulled his desk chair around and sat. "So what happened is that last year, late in the summer, he got sick. It was totally unexpected, but he had leukemia. It seemed to come like a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky. Neither of us really knew how to handle it. He and I, we're the only family we have left now."
"He went to a doctor, right?"
"Oh, yes, of course. I don't mean we didn't know what to do to get him medical care. We didn't know how to handle the emotional consequences. The threat. The unexpected mortal nature of the condition. I was overprotective, I'm afraid, and Tom became... somewhat eccentric. More so than his usual, and he was always an original boy."
Will raised his eyebrows.
"I remembered you had been a Marine. You've got a Purple Heart, correct? I saw the tag on your motorcycle. That made me think you might have a better understanding of the way near-death changes a person. That you might understand what he's going through."
"Okay." Will was remembering the way this particular professor liked to lay extensive groundwork before he got into the meat of a lecture.
"The oncologist told Tom his leukemia was in remission about a month ago, and he was free to continue his studies, so he went off to England to work on his dissertation. And that's when the... when the strange...."
"He started to see ghosts. Not just random ghosts, like ghosts on the street. Not like Casper. He's talking to the ghost of Christopher Marlowe. And that's not even the worst part."
Will opened his mouth to speak, realized he didn't have any idea what to say, and closed it again.
"He's become convinced after talking to Marlowe's ghost that Kit was not killed in Deptford in 1593, but that he escaped and went to live in Germany." Dr. Jones stood up, began an agitated pacing. "William, do you understand my concerns? If he begins to spout off crackpot theories about Christopher Marlowe, his academic career will be in ruins before he's even granted his degree. I mean, these conspiracy theorists are the laughingstock of the academic world!"
"Wait a minute, I've heard about this. Some people say Christopher Marlowe faked his death and he was really Shakespeare or something, right?"
"There're a hundred theories. That is the stupidest of them all. William, I'm afraid this belief of his is somehow rooted in his leukemia. It's like he has some emotional trauma from being so ill, and it's finding expression in
this--" He waved his hands. "--this ghost obsession."
Will waited. He still wasn't sure what Dr. Jones wanted.
"Do you understand my concern? You see how this could happen?"
"Yes. What do you want me to do?"
"I want him at home, where I can care for him properly. I'll pay for the plane ticket and give you money for expenses. You aren't enrolled in any classes this summer. I want you to go to England and bring him home. Would you consider doing me this favor?"
* * * *
Will understood better than most how near-death experiences changed a person. Some people talked to Christopher Marlowe's ghost, some people twisted Gumby and his little horse Pokey into obscene positions and put a photograph of the outrage on the Internet. What was the big deal? You just found a way to live, shouldered the burden, and moved on. Carried it around with you like a rucksack full of rocks. He rubbed the scar tissue that stretched down his right arm.
So Tom Jones had leukemia? He was better now, thanks to his good health insurance and his overprotective uncle, and he was off at Oxford writing his dissertation. Did he realize how lucky he was? He hadn't gone into the military, and gone to war, so he had a way to pay for his college. There were a million, a billion people in the world who'd had a rougher life. Will thought Dr. Jones and his nephew Tom, that gentle boy, could use a little toughening up. America was making people soft as taffy on a hot summer sidewalk. And taffy was annoying when it stuck to your shoe.
He woke the next morning from a dream of England in June, the sky bright, air sweet as cherry blossoms, as cotton candy. He was lying in an English garden in Deptford, the fragrant, old-fashioned roses over his head like the cavorting fat pink bottoms of women in French paintings. There was a man lying next to him in the grass. He'd raised Will's hand to his lips.
He should go to England. Why not? Was anything left of Wordsworth's daffodils? There would be gardens, nonetheless. And the British Museum, with half the Parthenon on display. He would go, collect the gentle boy, and bring him home. See the sights and smell some English roses.
* * * *
Will was poring over a copy of Dr. Faustus. Dr. Jones put a cup of mocha down next to him and pulled out a chair. They were sitting on the patio of Starbucks and Dr. Jones had brought him some research material. "This guy had a dark side, no question. Listen to this: 'What art thou, Faustus, but a man condemned to die? Thy fatal time doth draw to final end; despair doth drive distrust into my thoughts....'"
"Tom studied Dr. Faustus when he was an undergraduate. I wonder if the themes are preying on his mind?"
"Oh, hey, I recognize these lines! 'Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Ilium--Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. Her lips suck forth my soul: See, where it flies!'"
"It might be one of the great tragedies of English literature, his death at such an early age. The stories we lost! He might have eclipsed Shakespeare if he had lived. No one disputes this."
Will closed the book. "He seems to have had a bit of an anger management problem. I would guess a drink problem."
"Hard to say for sure if his acting out was related to his work as a spy, or the times, or if he was just a man who couldn't handle his drink. It was a cruel time, though, Elizabethan England. And Kit Marlowe was not able to control the truth in his pen. I doubt he was able to control his mouth any better."
Will opened up a copy of Hero and Leander. "I think he just wanted to write. If he faked his death and fled to the continent, could he have stopped writing? Would he have let George Chapman finish this poem? That's what would stop me believing the theory that he escaped the assassination at Deptford. I don't know if a writer can stop writing, and if he didn't, where are the poems? Or the plays, if he was writing for the theater? Maybe he was writing in German."
"Dear boy, don't even start thinking along those lines, I beg you. He died in Deptford, at Ingram Frizer's dirty hand. We're just greedy, I think. We read Tamburlaine and the heart breaks, to think what we have is all there is. Can you leave tomorrow?"
"Yes. If Tom doesn't want to come home, I'll call you."
"Oh, you can talk Tom into anything, William. I'm sure of it. I'll tell him to meet you at the airport."
* * * *
Gatwick Customs and Immigration proved to be difficult. When the agent saw his duffel bag full of toys, he escorted Will to a private room for a thorough pat-down and the toys were checked carefully for the presence of illegal substances. The officer even took Mr. Potato Head apart and pulled Skipper's head off to peer inside her plastic body. When the toys proved to be drug-free, the officer asked Will what he was planning to do with them in Great Britain. Had he ever been arrested or jailed? Was he perhaps planning to meet a child with whom he had communicated online? Will sat alone for an hour while databases of pedophiles were searched for his image. He couldn't explain that the toys were for a web site that most countries in the world would class as obscene. He was remembering with exquisite clarity that he was American, and freedom of speech had a different meaning in different countries; he wasn't sure Bad Toys wouldn't get him thrown in the local clink.
But the Brits had freedom of speech, didn't they? Will was trying to remember, fragments of the Magna Carta and something about King John and Robin Hood rolling through his brain. He determined to come up with a good cover story before he traveled again. But there was no way he was leaving the toys behind. Art was universal. He had been thinking about a scenario involving a tiny Thomas the Tank Engine and Raggedy Anne perched on London Bridge, and was not ready to give it up.
By the time he was let go, with a stern warning that they would be keeping an eye on him, the arrivals lounge was nearly deserted. Tom was reading, a book propped on his knee, and the sign with Will's name on it had fallen to the floor. He was easy to recognize, though, with the dreamy, elegant face of a scholar in Elizabethan literature. He was thin, like he'd outgrown his elbows and knees, and so pale his skin was nearly translucent. He had long fingers and a beautiful chin and mouth, silky black hair that looked fine as a child's, and black-framed glasses on a Roman nose. He looked up, startled, when Will sat down next to him, and Will saw his eyes were the clear blue of a summer sky and innocent as a robin's egg. Tom blinked, remembered where he was, and looked around for the sign.
"Hi," Will said, sticking out his hand. "Will Marlowe. No relation. Sorry I took so long. Immigration thought I looked like a dirtbag."
"Tom Jones," he said, folding a bookmark into his book and taking Will's hand. "Also no relation. To the fictional character, I mean. I am related to my uncle, of course, and I assume he sent you? To check on me?"
"You assume correctly. Did you bring a car?"
"Oh, God no. I can't drive over here. They've got a good Underground, though. We can get anywhere we want to go. How long are you going to stay?"
"I don't know. Can you put me up for a couple of weeks?"
"Sure, of course. Any relative of Christopher Marlowe can stay with me as long as he wants." Tom grinned when he said this, a flush of color rising to his cheeks.
"No relation, I told you."
"You can't know that, Will. He had all those sisters! Besides, have you seen the portrait they found in Cambridge? You look just like him. I've got a little bed-sit. You don't mind doubling up?"
"No, that's cool. If we drive each other crazy, I'll go off to a hostel."
"Didn't my uncle warn you I'm already crazy? Talking to ghosts and all that?"
Will stopped and looked at Tom. His cheeks were still flushed with color, but he looked like he was the willing butt of some great cosmic joke. Will felt the weight of a duffel bag full of toys on his shoulder. "We're all crazy, bud."
* * * *
Will let Tom pull him through a confusing maze of streets, up and down escalators, back and forth through turnstiles, and onto trains. He leaned his head back, closed his eyes, and listened to the people they passed speak in their charming accents. Tom leaned over. "It's a bit before ten here. Are you hungry? Feel like an early lunch?"
"No, I'm okay for a while."
"We can go back to my place, then, and stash your bag. Do you feel like exploring a bit, or do you want a nap? I always want to lie down after a plane ride. I don't know why sitting makes me feel so tired, but it always does."
"Maybe I can just kick back on the couch for a couple of hours. You cook?"
"Not much," Tom admitted. "There are some take-out places close by, but I haven't had much of an appetite the last few months. The food's good, though. And I've got tea and biscuits."
"Is your appetite bad because of the chemo?"
Tom looked away. "Yeah. I haven't quite come back to myself, not yet. But it's getting better. I think fish and chips saved my life. For the first month I was here, that's all I could eat."
"I like fish and chips."
"My uncle told you about the leukemia?"
"So you know I've had cancer and talk to Christopher Marlowe's ghost. I don't have any other secrets. Are you going to tell me yours?" Tom was grinning, a tiny bit of chagrin in his eyes, his bottom lip caught between his teeth.
Will smiled back at him and closed his eyes. "Maybe."