The next evening, it had got near to ten o'clock by the time I met up with Stephen. I was feeling much better. Work had refreshed me, it being the month of big sales and the store consequently being full of bargain hunters, most of them in a mood to fight and buy. We'd moved almost all our Christmas stock, even including a few pink-and-yellow ties I'd thought no one would ever buy. I guessed the January thaw had brought out so many shoppers, there was bound to be someone among them who would choose the worst there was.
The night was still not perishing cold the way it had been at Christmas. Wrapped in my new coat I felt citified and clear-headed and on the verge of new adventure. Stephen and I walked up the hill from the metro, crossing Sherbrooke and Pine, climbing more and more gradually through the snowy air. The lights and the cars sloshing by on the salted street, the people alighting from cabs in front of restaurants or popping out of bars along the street, everyone bundled into coats and scarves and hats, all of it and all of them seemed to me wonderful. I had been so glad that whole day to be back at work. Now I was glad to be walking with beautiful Stephen at my side, his hair gleaming in the street lights.
Our destination, Stephen said, was a friend's apartment. Turning east off of St-Denis, we threaded through a narrow, snow-blocked street and then another. The friend's place was in a red stone house that, I supposed, had once been fine. A stone beast with claws and a monster's head crouched above the door. The lintel was wide and massive-looking, the floor of the foyer paved with squares of pale stone. If I hadn't immediately smelled garbage and, in the stairwell, bad plumbing as well, and if I hadn't, with every step, ground unswept grit beneath the soles of my boots, I might have thought the place quite splendid.
Lifting the long panels of my maxi-coat, so they wouldn't drag and trip me on the stairs, I climbed and at the same time listened for party sounds, but all I heard was Stephen's tread close behind me like an echo of my own. In all this tall, old house, it seemed, there was only the sad clatter of our footsteps.
At the fourth flight I was breathing hard and thinking of reasons for why I should leave, when I heard the click of a door opening above us. In the sudden wash of light, the hall and stairwell became empty and strange. "My, oh my," came a dry voice. "If it isn't pretty Stephen come to see his friend Del. And with a little chum. How jolly."
The man waiting to greet us as we reached the fifth level was taller than Stephen and more solidly built. He was also older. His long black hair had grey mixed in. "So. The country girl," he said to Stephen and shook my hand in an exaggerated way. Though he had sounded sarcastic, his eyes gazed at me and then at Stephen with what looked like reproach and maybe sadness too.
In his apartment there was no party, no people at all but us three, and, to tell the truth, the big front room looked not quite furnished. There were places to sit, but it was as if earlier in the evening a couple of broad-backed movers had lugged in the black leather couch and the small white and black rug, the metal floor lamps, the chair made of chrome and canvas. These were set at one end of the room like rocks in a river. The rest of the wood floor was bare and shiny. Along one wall, shelves held records and what looked like fancy stereo equipment. On the opposite wall hung a bunch of photographs. These were black and white and all, as far as I could see, of naked men and women arched or folded into dancer's poses.
While Stephen went out to the kitchen to find us something to drink, I walked over to look at these pictures and discovered the people in them were not in fact naked, but wearing leotards. I supposed that Del had something to do with dancing as well as acting.
"Got anything new?"That was Stephen's voice calling from the kitchen. "You lost out to Franz at the Tuppenny, didn't you?"
Del had dropped down onto his leather couch. The cushions had made a sound like a slow fart as his body sank into them. His eyes had been following my stroll along the wall, and now I saw them squeeze shut for a second, as though the mention of his losing out to whoever Franz might be was too much for him to bear. He drew a hand across his brow, like Camille dying in the old movie. "Oh, Stephen," he said, "don't remind me. You know the drill, mostly voice-overs...nausea first and last. I did read for Gustav last week, but of course I haven't heard. It's just—"
"Are you sure you've got something decent to drink out here?" That was Stephen again.
"Of course, I do, Stephen, dear. Over the fridge. Just look. I had some grass too. Jean-François brought me a tot of Acapulco Gold last week. He buys it over at the université. But that's all gone bye-bye now." He glanced over at me then. I was still standing in my coat, more or less in the middle of the room. "Do sit down, Nancy Jean, darling, and do take off that long, long coat."
I slid out of my coat and then lowered myself into the chair. Del pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit himself one. He sighed as he exhaled, and then, as if it was almost more than he could manage, he tossed the pack and his lighter to me. "Sorry, darling. I'm a beast when I'm not working."
I took a cigarette from his pack and lit it. The cigarette tasted dry and hot, as though the tobacco was old. I didn't much like to smoke in any case, but I persisted, taking big drags and exhaling as fiercely as I dared. I'd decided that I needed to do something in order to make my presence felt. Stephen came back with three glassfuls of a dark brown liquid that smelled of prunes but tasted worse than any prunes I'd ever been made to eat.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Devil Out There by Julie Keith. Copyright © 2000 by Julie Keith. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.