The Book of Sylvia, by Michael Scott Miller
Under suspicion of abetting a robbery, London streetwalker Sylvia Smith doesn’t know where to turn. Frightened and alone, she arrives on the steps of St. Alban’s church, where she meets Father Christopher Fosberry, a priest consumed with self-doubt as he struggles to resurrect his dying church.
Together they set out to recover the stolen money, following a cryptic clue whispered to Sylvia by her client as he was taken into custody. They quickly find themselves drawn toward one another by a mutual sense of despair and a desire to help the other. But Sylvia soon discovers that the more she guides the priest, the deeper she drives a wedge between the man and the church.
The knocking on the door interrupted Sylvia’s sound sleep. More pounding followed, louder and more insistent. Sylvia stirred.
“Dorset Police. Open up.” The voice sounded as though it came from someone who enjoyed the opportunity to shout these words through the closed door of the English country inn.
“Oh, no. Not again.” Sylvia nudged James Delaney, who lay by her side. He remained motionless, save for the rhythmic expansion and contraction of his chest cavity, which accompanied his guttural snoring. She nudged him again, harder.
“What is it, sweetheart?” James peeled his eyes open to a squint.
“The police are at the door.” Sylvia threw her legs over the side of the bed and reached for a terrycloth robe from the chair by the nightstand. “Might as well get it over with.” She sighed. “I honestly don’t know how they found me all the way out here.”
“Wait!” But James was too late. Sylvia had already unbolted the door.
Two police officers, dressed in black suits, crisp white shirts, and black ties held their badges out at arm’s length and introduced themselves as Detective Inspector Hudson and Detective Sergeant Canterbury.
James rose from the bed. He wore a sleeveless undershirt that was just long enough to cover his pot-bellied stomach, a pair of blue and red striped boxers, and navy blue dress socks. The few strands of dark brown hair remaining on his head were disheveled.
Sylvia’s resignation turned to surprise when the two officers marched past her and approached James. She was accustomed to run-ins with the police. They were a given in her line of work, but the police rarely sought the gentleman who’d hired her, unless of course, he was a curb-crawler. It wasn’t as if the policemen had trailed them from the spot on Seven Sisters Road where, at least up until the last month, Sylvia had peddled her wares.
She and James had largely kept to themselves since the night in mid-May that they had met on that London street. James had approached her in his rented BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo, seemingly unaware of the ban on cruising slowly through known prostitution trafficking zones with the intent of engaging a prostitute. While the U.K. government permitted prostitution, it had enacted laws to keep the business out of the public eye and made it illegal for either the buyer or seller to solicit on the streets.
James had taken Sylvia back to a rented flat in London where the two spent a rather uneventful night. James was not a skilled lover, Sylvia observed. Not that she really cared. Quick and simple was her preference. It was work after all—less effort was better than more.
“So what brings you to the U.K.?” Sylvia had asked the American as they lay in bed after their first encounter. “Are you here on business?” Many of Sylvia’s clients were businessmen, alone in London and seeking companionship. James had grunted, rolled over, and mumbled something about needing to get some sleep.
A couple of days later, Sylvia had spotted the same imperial blue BMW heading up Seven Sisters Road from central London. The car came to a halt in front of her.
“Back for another tumble?” she shouted into the window, knowing the public playfulness would rattle her reticent client.
Looking uncomfortable as Sylvia giggled, James motioned for her to get into the car. She complied, and he sped off.
“I missed you, you know,” Sylvia said, playing the game of making her client feel they shared some special connection. James glanced at her expressionlessly and shifted his eyes back to the road.
After an additional awkward silence, Sylvia started again. “So where to, luv? Same place as last time?”
James didn’t take his eyes off the road. “Actually, I’ve rented a room at a country inn in Ansty. Would that be all right?”
“That’s more than two hours away, isn’t it?”
James nodded. “I’ll get you back to London afterward. I promise.”
Ansty was farther than Sylvia was accustomed to traveling, but if James was willing to pay for the entire night and drive her back in the morning… then why not?
After driving for close to two and a half hours, mostly in silence, along England’s M3, James pulled into the arcing driveway and stopped outside the stone and wood Pendrangle Inn. The innkeeper, clad in a gingham dress that revealed every bulge in her body, greeted them cheerfully at the door. “Evening, Mr. Delaney. Welcome back.”
“A good evening to you, Mrs. Donegal. May I introduce my friend, Sylvia?”
The two women shook hands, and Mrs. Donegal eyed Sylvia. “Welcome, my dear. Will you be staying with us long?”
“Uh, no, probably not. I’m just passing through.” Sylvia fumbled the words. While no stranger to checking into hotels with clients, she rarely had to deal with face to face encounters with proprietors. In her London world, the extent of her interaction with hotel staff was typically an amused glance from a reception clerk.
James hastily bid the woman a good night and ushered Sylvia up the stairway.
Following this second night of uninspired sex, the two dressed and got ready for the ride back to London. James still had not spoken more than a few words to her. He wasn’t unfriendly, Sylvia assessed, just awkward around the ladies, perhaps.
As they walked down the cobblestone path to the car, James stopped suddenly.
“I just had a thought, Sylvia,” he said, calling her by name for the first time. “How would you like to spend the day with me?”
Sylvia felt his request odd, and she looked at him sharply. James’s gaze traveled uncomfortably down to the ground and back up to her eyes as he awaited her reply. His eyes did pause, ever so briefly, on her breasts, which were in a state of perpetual emergence from her red camisole.
“You know that’s not how it works, right?” she replied with a coy smile.
“Oh, yes, yes.” James fumbled for his wallet. “I’ll pay you, of course. Let’s see, I still owe you for last evening. How much was that again?”
“Same as last time, guvnor. Seventy-five quid.” Sylvia cracked a piece of chewing gum. She wondered what type of businessman couldn’t keep such a simple transaction straight.
To keep her mind off the unpleasantness of her job, she frequently tried to piece together the life stories of her clients, and then test whether or not she was right. Sometimes she was, and sometimes she wasn’t, but most of the time, she never found out. Still, the mental activity served its purpose.
Sylvia had initially decided that James was some type of banker, with a frumpy wife at home. He looked to be roughly in his mid- to late-forties, so maybe he had teenagers at home or even away at school. Average, boring, middle class family. Average, boring life. James was probably looking for an adventure while the mouse was away from the cat, but not entirely certain how to make one happen.
She was beginning to reassess. It was strange that, on this particular Wednesday, there wasn’t anywhere that James needed to be.
James handed over the seventy-five pounds, which Sylvia shoved into the pocket of her tight white shorts. She still wore her clothes from the night before, right down to the red stilettos. Sylvia eyed him, awaiting his next thought.
“So, what would you say to two hundred pounds? Spend the day and evening with me, and I’ll drive you back to London tomorrow morning.”
Sylvia hesitated. James’s proposition was somewhat unusual. “You’re not into anything weird or kinky, are you?” At thirty-two years old, Sylvia had enough experience to handle herself, but caution always played a role. Long ago, she had chosen to work without the protection of an associate. She’d heard too many stories. They seemed to provide as much danger as protection. She was pretty certain that James was nothing more than an inexperienced lover and a shy, socially awkward human being. Then again, that’s probably what they said about Jack the Ripper, she thought. Well, not the inexperienced lover part.
“No, no. Heavens, no.” James blushed. “You see, it’s just that, I, uh, I don’t really know anyone in England. I thought maybe you and I could have breakfast, maybe go for a drive in the country. You know, be tourists for the day.”
James was certainly chattier this morning, Sylvia noticed. In fact, in this conversation, he might have exceeded the sum total of the words he had spoken to her on their first encounter and the previous evening combined. He appeared to be warming up to her. She still wondered what brought him to London, but maybe she’d get him to open up over scones and tea.
“Meals included?” Sylvia asked after considering the offer.
James laughed. “Sure. Meals included.”
They headed to Meryl’s, a little tea and biscuit shop along the two-block commercial strip of nearby Dorchester. The sunlight against the golden yellow walls of the tiny shop nearly blinded Sylvia, so they took a corner table in the shadows. After ordering food and drink, Sylvia set to talking.
“So, luv, open up. You still haven’t told me what brings you to jolly old England.”
“Do you interrogate all of your clients?”
“Only those who want to play pretend tourist. I figure if we’re going to be the old married couple on holiday, I ought to at least know a little about you.”
“Very well. I am on sabbatical.”
“Sabbatical? From what?”
“I’m an English professor at a college in America.”
Sylvia’s job depended upon the study of behavior, and James’s body language implied a level of uncertainty.
“And so this is what you Americans do on sabbatical? Visit foreign lands, pick up escorts, take them out to breakfast?”
James laughed. “Well, not officially. I’m here to do some research.”
The young waitress stopped by with a blueberry scone for James, a cinnamon one for Sylvia, a teapot, and two cups. They paused in their conversation while the waitress placed the items on the blue and white checkered tablecloth.
“What kind of research?” Sylvia asked as the waitress returned to the pastry counter.
“Oh, well, I’m still deciding on that. I’m going to do some writing, you know, for the university, but I haven’t determined what just yet. Maybe something on English writers, or poets, or whatever. Just some boring old stuff.”
“I see,” Sylvia concluded, not sure that she truly did. She took a sip of her tea. Jasmine. A notable cut above the tea I have to settle for in London.
“Anyway, I don’t really feel like talking about that. Let’s talk about something more interesting.”
“Whatever you say, luv.”
“I noticed a clothing boutique a couple doors down. How about we pick up some clothes for you so you don’t have to wear your clothes from yesterday?”
Sylvia agreed that would be nice. After they finished their scones and sipped the last of their tea, James paid the check, and they walked down to the boutique.
Sylvia came out of the dressing room wearing a royal blue and white halter, tan shorts, and sandals, in case they would be doing some walking. Her stilettos were good for only one thing: getting customers.
Sylvia noticed that James paid with cash, pulling a wad of folded over bills from his pants pocket, scraping off a few, and handing them to the cashier.
James and Sylvia spent a pleasant day together, driving through the countryside of Dorset and Somerset, along the escarpments of the Blackmore Vale where they could look out on the lush greenery of the expansive valley, passing through charming market towns and villages, and stopping to purchase a picnic lunch in the market at Shaftesbury. The following morning, James drove Sylvia back to London and dropped her off outside her flat in the East End.
“Will I see you again, luv?” Sylvia winked and climbed out of the car, slinging the bag of yesterday’s clothes over her shoulder. She leaned in the car window, arms propped on the door.
“You just might.” James winked back.
About the Author
Michael Scott Miller works with numbers by day in the business world and with words by night. He began writing shortly after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and has had his work published in the Welcomat (now Philadelphia Weekly) and wrote music reviews for the Wharton Journal while his wife was getting her degree there.
He has written two novels, Ladies and Gentlemen…The Redeemers, and The Book of Sylvia, both works of contemporary fiction with strong emphasis on their characters.
Miller grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and now lives in Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania with his wife and three children.
To order The Book of Syliva, go to www.amazon.com/The-Book-of-Sylvia-ebook/dp/B008C2GSC2
For more on Michael, visit www.michaelscottmillerauthor.com/index.html
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