Unshaven, unkempt, and an avid Boston Red Sox fan, Alan Simpson was a most unlikely psychic. But his peculiar “gift” made him an expert — if reluctant — tracker of persons, missing or dead.
So when the mayor’s son is kidnapped, it’s only natural that his old friend Detective Kelliher should come to Alan for help. Yet from the start, Alan finds himself haunted by the image of a beautiful and troubled young woman named Julia — a woman Alan is dangerously fated to love.
For Julia is the unwitting pawn of an incredibly potent psychic presence — a man with a power even greater than Alan’s, but corrupt to the core.
Marlborough Street is a stunningly original look at love and evil — and a man caught in between.
“The author creates page-turning suspense; the narrative pace is swift. Everybody in the book has a secret, and Bowker teases the reader until the last bit of mystery has been clarified . . . . Bowker’s characterization and plotting are top-rate.” — Fantasy Review
“A curiously compelling novel, with an immensely likable hero whose unique abilities and eccentric lifestyle give the narrative an original angle and unsettling psychological undercurrent.” — Booklist
“A page-turner.” — Midwest Book Review
A reader review:
“Alan Simpson is an unusual kind of guy, a bit scruffy and seedy looking, and complacent in his lifestyle. He likes to hum classical tunes, rooms with a cat named Dusty, lives on Marlborough Street in Boston and roots for the Red Sox. He day jobs (if that’s a verb) as a private secretary for an eccentric millionaire with the unlikely name of Pottston Phipps. And Alan is also a bit psychic.
Actually, he’s a mediocre psychic. His mother is heaps more occultly gifted than he is. But,occasionally, Alan uses his prescience to help out his friend Police Detective Kelliher on cases. This time out, the young son of the mayor has been kidnapped. But the vision that comes to Alan is unsettling. Something seems to be mockingly aware of him; then, a haunting image of a beautiful woman’s face appears in the vision. Alan gums up the works when he falls for Julia, the owner of that face. But Julia is a pawn of Seth Stone, an amoral man of considerable paranormal abilities. Alan’s romance hits a snag when Seth enters the picture and takes Julia away to California. Being warned by his mother that if he goes, he won’t come back, Alan decides to follow his heart anyway. Goodbye, complacency. Very, very soon, Alan finds himself in deadly confrontation with a malignant psychic talent whose powers dwarf his own.
Richard Bowker writes Marlborough Street with a direct, simple style and an understated flair. He couches his words in a way that lets the reader sink comfortably into the outrageous premise of his tale. His portrayal of unassuming, down-to-earth Alan Simpson is a big component in the likability of the book. Bowker eschews the standard romantic model of the female love interest with his depiction of the wayward girl, Julia. Julia might be in love with Alan. Yet Seth’s overpowering influence on her makes her disregard and discard him time and time again. With this quasi love triangle, the author heartbreakingly explores the varying degrees of love, obsession and power. This book is very good, very enjoyable.
Other works by Richard Bowker I recommend are Replica (about a replicated American president in the near future) and Dover Beach (sci-fi about a P.I. in a war-devastated America)
Here is the first chapter of Marlborough Street:
Life is like a bowl of cereal. The same old artificial flavors pour into our bowls day after day, breakfast after breakfast. And then one morning, when we least expect it—presto!—out pops the free iron-on decal. The wise man has his iron ready.
What Is Life Anyway?
The Public Garden at twilight: the Swan Boats bedded down for the night, the Beacon Hill matrons home clipping coupons, the bums gone to the Pine Street Inn. A gaunt, white-haired jogger, face twisted with pain, pounded past a couple of teenage thugs sharing a joint. A young woman walked her Doberman and silently dared the thugs to try something. Alan Simpson hummed a leitmotif from Lohengrin and tossed the last of his peanuts to some eager pigeons, who crowded around him as if he were giving the Sermon on the Mount.
Alan wore a rumpled gray suit coat and corduroy pants. His brown hair needed a trim, and he had nicked himself shaving in a couple of places along the sloping line of his jaw. He looked like a perpetual graduate student, a preppy after a hard night.
When the peanuts were gone the pigeons wandered away, and so did Alan. The Red Sox were on TV tonight, and he had to get home. He tossed the empty bag onto an overflowing litter barrel, crossed over to Marlborough Street, and walked past the fragrant magnolias and old-fashioned streetlamps to the town house that contained his apartment.
Dusty meowed irritably as he entered. It was late, and she was hungry. “Yeah, yeah,” Alan muttered. “Pigeons have to eat too.”
The phone began to ring as Alan was opening a can of Tuna ‘n Liver Feast. He hesitated for a moment, then let it ring. He fed Dusty and stuck a frozen dinner in the toaster oven for himself. Then he popped open a can of Budweiser, picked up the phone, and dialed a number.
A hurried voice answered. “Kelliher.”
“What’s up, Jim?”
“Where’ve you been?”
“Feeding the pigeons.”
“God help us, he’s going soft. Can you come right over?”
“I haven’t eaten. People have to eat too.”
“Come to O’Rourke’s. I’ll have a cheeseburger plate waiting.”
“The goddamn taxpayers of the city of Boston. This is important, Alan.”
Alan took a sip of his Bud and decided Kelliher was probably right. “Okay. I’ll come.”
“Ten minutes. Take a cab.”
Alan walked. He wasn’t fond of cabs. O’Rourke’s was on the other side of the Back Bay, past the tony stores and the expensive condos, the Neo-Gothic grandeur of Trinity Church and the blank immensity of the Hancock Building—around the corner from police headquarters, at the edge of the seedy side of town. It was a small bar and grill with uncomfortable stools and vinyl booths that were cracked and taped; it stank of cooking oil and stale beer; it was always crowded.
Kelliher was in a cramped booth at the back, next to the men’s room. He was a big man with thinning brown hair and the pushed-back nose of an ex-lineman. His polyester tie was loosened at the collar. A cup of coffee sat untouched in front of him. The cheeseburger plate was waiting, as promised.
“You walked,” Kelliher said as Alan slid into the booth.
“Were the taxpayers going to spring for the cab?” Alan loaded his cheeseburger with ketchup and began to eat.
“I don’t think you’ve ever taken a cab in your life. I don’t suppose you’d start just because it’s a matter of life and death.”
“You just told me it was important,” Alan said between bites. “The Red Sox are on TV tonight, by the way.”
“Screw those bums. Listen.”
Kelliher leaned forward, competing with the raucous off-duty cops at the bar. “His Honor the Mayor has a kid, name of Todd. Eleven years old. Goes to this fancy private place, the Cadbury School, over in your neck of the woods. I guess His Honor doesn’t think too much of our public school system; can’t say I blame him. Anyway, Todd didn’t come home from school today.”
“Probably playing pinball in Harvard Square.”
Kelliher ignored the remark. “The mayor called us around four o’clock. We went over the route the kid usually takes home—along Newbury, over to Beacon, up the Hill. One of the men found this at the corner of Newbury and Clarendon.” Kelliher reached down beside him and picked up a faded-green hardcover book.
“Have you dusted it for prints?” Alan asked.
“We’re not total incompetents,” Kelliher said.
Alan read the title. “Our Fascinating World. Isn’t it, though? Geography?”
Kelliher nodded and set the book down on the table.
“Anybody call the mayor up demanding twenty million dollars in Krugerrands?”
“Not a word.”
“The media know about it?”
“His Honor wants to keep it quiet, at least until we’re sure the kid isn’t playing pinball. Wouldn’t look good to have these little domestic problems on the six o’clock news.”
“Yeah, meanwhile the kid could be rotting in some alley. So I thought—give my young friend Alan a call. What do you think?”
Alan looked at the book. “I can but try.”
A burly fellow wearing a Celtics T-shirt came out of the men’s room, jiggling his fly. “You want to do it back in my office?” Kelliher asked.
“Doesn’t matter. I should finish my cheeseburger, though.”
Kelliher rolled his eyes and leaned back. “And he never gains an ounce,” he muttered.
“That’s ’cause I walk instead of taking cabs.” Alan gulped down the cheeseburger and wiped his hands carefully with a napkin. Kelliher slid the book over to him.
Alan laid his hands lightly on the cover. Children in cute ethnic costumes smiled up at him from between his fingers. Most of their faces had mustaches carefully drawn on them. Alan smiled back. The crowd at the bar was laughing at something that was going on in “Family Feud.” Alan was vaguely aware of Richard Dawson’s unctuous voice, the clinking of glasses, a conversation about variable mortgage rates. Kelliher’s hands closed around his coffee cup.
Alan waited and tried to relax. He wanted, as always, to force it out of his synapses or the ether or wherever it resided, but he knew that to force it was to lose it. It was a gift, and one does not demand gifts. So instead he hummed Mozart to himself, letting the music carry him along, hoping the gift would get bored or jealous and finally appear, dismissing the melody, dismissing everything but its own strange reality. His mother had once said, “It’s like having the whole universe inside your head, waiting to surprise you.” Alan had never quite decided whether such a state of affairs was delightful or terrifying.
He began to sweat.
The children’s faces grew larger, their mustaches became ominous. He was struggling briefly, then his grip on the book seemed to loosen, and the children’s faces fell away, spinning into blackness.
His eyes were shut. Was it over? No. Out of the blackness came sounds: a chuckle, dry and coarse as sandpaper; a low, obsessive moaning; the rustling of wind through tall trees. And he shivered through his sweat, because the sounds were different from the struggle, the sounds were aimed at him. But how could that be? I’m looking for a kid, his rational mind complained, in confusion, but no one was listening.
His mouth was dry; blood pounded in his head, turning the blackness red. What about the kid?
Don’t worry about the kid; worry about yourself.
And then a face appeared, and he forgot about the kid, forgot about himself. A face as beautiful as Boston, as fragile as a dream. Its almond eyes begged him to come, begged him to stay away; they wanted him, they warned him. Alan’s confusion was total now, but other emotions were more important. Fear. Desire. I don’t want to hear that moaning. I want to touch that face.
But it too disappeared, the mirror clouded over, and in its place were the children’s faces once again, smiling up at him, happy to be drawings on a book cover. The audience cheered wildly on TV. Kelliher was staring at him. “Alan? You okay, Alan?”
“I don’t think I liked that cheeseburger,” he replied slowly.
“You get anything?”
He shook his head tentatively. “It was all muddled.”
“Well, was he kidnapped?”
“Oh. Oh, yeah. Pretty sure about that.”
“Is he still alive?”
“I think so. It was kind of a… blur.”
“What do you mean?”
Alan paused, and then shook his head again. “Sorry, Jim. I just don’t have the words.” He knew Kelliher wasn’t satisfied, but if he didn’t understand it himself, how was he going to make Kelliher understand? “I think I should go home. Thanks for dinner. Give my love to Connie.”
“You looked pretty scared there for a second,” Kelliher remarked. “I’ve never seen that before.”
“The kid was scared. I guess I felt his fear. That isn’t going to help you find him, though. Listen, the Red Sox game is starting pretty soon and—”
“Oh, all right. Get lost. When’re you coming over?”
“I’ll call. Sorry again.” He pushed the book back to Kelliher and walked out of the place, feeling Kelliher’s eyes on him until he stepped outside into the growing darkness.
The walk home did little to clear his head of the muddle. He wasn’t even sure he wanted it to go away. Nothing like this had ever happened to him before, and it seemed to be worth some thought. The trouble was, thinking about one of his visions was like trying to grab hold of mercury. It just slithered away, back into the ether, leaving him no wiser than before. What was the use?
Back in his apartment he opened a beer and turned on the TV. Dusty sauntered in from the bedroom, stretched, and jumped up onto his lap. The vision faded. Why should he even bother with it, when reality offered such contentment?
The question remained unanswered for about an inning, long enough for the Red Sox to fall behind and that face to bubble up in his memory. It was real, too. Almost a child’s face, yet more worldly-wise than he could ever hope to be. A calloused strength beneath the vulnerability; horror beneath the beauty. And why hadn’t he described it to Kelliher? He suddenly felt much less content.
“What have I accomplished today, Dusty?”
The cat purred. She had been fed. What more did the man need to accomplish?
“From a cosmic perspective, I mean. Can a cat look at things from a cosmic perspective?”
Dusty shut her eyes, eliminating all perspectives entirely.
Alan sighed and sipped his beer. “You’re a big help.” Finally he got up, spilling Dusty unceremoniously on the couch, and turned the TV set off. “If I’m not back in two hours, organize a search party,” he said. Dusty eyed him grumpily, then trotted into the bedroom. Alan headed back out into the night.
He walked hurriedly over to Newbury Street, past the darkened boutiques and art galleries to the corner of Clarendon. He saw a policeman talking to a fellow with the double-knit look of a detective. This was the place. He stood on the curb and hummed a Mozart aria.
A couple of minutes later the aria was over, and Alan’s mind was still stubbornly in the realm of the rational. He stopped and considered. Try another corner. He crossed the street and leaned against a no-parking sign.
Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso
Notte e giorno d’intorno girando
Delle belle turbando il riposo—
Get in the car.
What the fu—
He felt his arm being wrenched, the book falling, a dive into darkness. Then movement. All right. He followed the movement.
It was like chasing a nightmare—except that he was moving through this reality as well, dodging real cars with real drivers shaking their fists at him, bumping into pedestrians and mumbling apologies now. And meanwhile, in his synapses or in the ether, afternoon sun glinted off a yellow Volkswagen that sped down Clarendon Street with a woman and a boy inside.
He had never done this before; till now his gift had been resolutely immobile. He wasn’t sure how, but he managed to maintain a precarious balance between the two realities, walking through the nighttime world in pursuit of the afternoon car, his mind somewhere between or beyond both of them.
…Except for the part of it that was impatiently inquiring: Why are you doing this? Why not call up Kelliher, tell him: Yellow VW, beautiful brown-haired girl heading south on Clarendon?
And, as the questions remained unanswered: You’re heading into the South End now, Simpson. It’s dangerous in the South End.
He stopped on the overpass above the turnpike and listened to the cars hissing by below. The VW faded momentarily, but he knew (don’t ask him how) he could get it back. Police headquarters was just a block east. He knew that he was about to get into more trouble than he wanted to have in his life, and it could all be avoided by crossing the street and heading for Kelliher’s office. Tell me what to do, he asked the night, and the face appeared once again in his mind.
Clear enough. He let the gift do its work, and the VW appeared immediately, a hundred yards away, ready to lead him on the chase. He took a deep breath and followed.
…Past the sleazy bars on Tremont Street, the drunks lurching toward him looking for a handout, past the walleyed, toothless bag lady, the little black man with the porkpie hat, the pimpmobiles, the closed and grated shops; beyond, into the shadowy streets lined with row houses, half of them gentrified, half still filled with rats and roomers. And then it was gone, flickering away like the end of a movie reel, and he was alone on a dark unfamiliar street. He started searching through the nighttime world for a yellow Volkswagen.
It was parked on the next street over. California license plate. He tried the doors. Locked. He looked at the row houses. Which one?
He had a headache now. His feeble brain was not used to this sort of exertion. Just a little bit more, he pleaded to the deity who was in charge of such matters. He grabbed the VW’s door handle again and waited.
The images came. Dragging the dead weight. Hot tears. Up the steps. Thirty-eight. Fear, and darkness, and waiting.
“Ju—Ju—Ju—,” he muttered, like a Tremont Street drunk with the DT’s. He shook his head, found the street number, and climbed the steep steps to the front door.
It was a rooming house. The entryway was littered with handbills and broken glass. The inner door was open, its lock twisted out of shape. The first floor reeked of pork chops. A Spanish radio station blared from somewhere up above. A baby cried. Alan hesitated, then went up the stairs.
How about the room number? he asked the deity. Por favor.
He walked down the short hallway to his left. What would Jim Kelliher do now? Well, in the first place he wouldn’t be here by himself. In the second place he might conceivably have a weapon of some sort. All Alan had was his gift, which was not the most reliable of companions.
He stopped in front of a door. He touched the knob and knew that it was the right one. What now?
He closed his eyes and knocked rapidly. “Open up, Julia,” he commanded.
It was not his voice.
There was silence. Alan waited, motionless, frightened by the unfamiliar sounds that had issued from him, frightened by everything. Then there were footsteps, and the door opened.