Everything is shades of blue – the carpets, the walls, and the tablecloths. The candelabras hanging from the ceiling and ensconced on the wall create the conceit that the Blue Lounge is bathed in moonlight.
Quinn frowns. His stride slows.
The décor is old and valuable. Quinn does not know – nor appreciate – that it is only replica of antique Hepplewhite. Couples are scattered around him; some stare lovingly at one another, others hold hands, while others fix their attention on the pianist in the furthest corner, his fingers a blur across the keyboard of his grand piano as he plays a melancholy sonata. Quinn knows little about classical, but thinks it might be Beethoven, although he is only guessing.
At the rear is the mirrored octagon. He sees himself tall and lean, his hair cropped close. The reflection makes him feel as if he himself is trapped within one of the octagon’s faces. He leans across to the right, his reflection stretching disjointedly across to the next face. He pulls back sharply, feeling as if he has been shorn in two.
Quinn – as so many do – marvels at the octagon’s existence. It creates the illusion that the Lounge is bigger than it is, extending into an inescapable prism, although the reflections are fractured given the angles of the octagon’s walls.
Now, behind his own reflection, he spots the man he came here to see, and approaches warily.
Mr Hermes is seated in a booth in the deepest, shadowy corner of the Lounge. He is so tall and thin that many marvel that he is even alive – a bundle of broomstick limbs and knobby joints, his jaundiced skin taut over the curves of his skull. His wispy hair doesn’t seemed to have thinned from age, but as a result of some illness. His charcoal suit is too big, and cut sharp at the shoulders.
‘Please,’ Mr Hermes holds his hand out, ‘sit.’
The booth is a perfect three-quarter circle. A candelabra extends from the wall above it. Several of the bulbs pulse, the way bulbs do before they blow. The wiring must be bad. Quinn has seen it often enough at work. He is sure it’s a fire hazard. But that is not his concern right now.
He eases himself into the booth – his right knee is reluctant to fold, and his thighs brush the underside of the table.
Now, in the light from the candelabra, Quinn sees that Mr Hermes’s face is remarkably smooth, although crows’ feet extend from mismatched eyes – one grey, and the other blue. His brows are thin and seem inscribed on his face.
‘I …’ Quinn begins, but he can’t hold Mr Hermes’s gaze. Quinn drops his head.
‘You don’t know whether you should be here,’ Mr Hermes says. His voice is soft – so soft that Quinn must lean across the table to hear him – but coarse, like it’s been exhausted from overuse. His teeth are perfectly even and white, although the rims of the gums seem raw. ‘You’re not the first to think that. But like those before you, you’re eager for an opportunity. Everybody desires opportunity, Quinn. The question is how far you’re prepared to go to realise it.’
‘No false bravado, Quinn. Not yet at any rate. A moment, though. Do you have a phone?’
‘Yes. Most people carry them nowadays. Do you have one?’
‘Yes …’ Absently, Quinn takes his phone out of his pocket. He doesn’t know why he does it.
‘Turn it off.’
‘If you wish to have an audience with me, then you have an audience with me. Exclusively. You will not be disturbed. Another will not take your focus from what I have to say. These are the rules, Quinn. Now decide.’
Quinn unlocks the phone and turns it off. Then he puts it back in his pocket as a waitress arrives. The first thing Quinn sees are her legs, taut and so long he thinks she must be six feet tall. The tightness of her leather shorts shapes the part of her crotch. Quinn continues looking up. She is small breasted, with long, coppery hair and full lips.
‘Can I get you something?’ she asks.
‘My usual, Martina,’ Mr Hermes says, ‘and a Corona for the young man.’
The waitress leaves. Quinn tries to be inconspicuous about looking at her as she goes. The swells of her buttocks peek out from above and below the hems of her shorts.
‘Is that meant to impress me?’ Quinn asks, returning his attention to Mr Hermes. ‘That you know I drink Coronas?’
‘I’m not here to impress you, Quinn. Why would I bother? I don’t care who you are. I don’t care what you do. I don’t care what you think. If there should be any respect in this relationship, it should be your respect for me. You know who I am, of course.’
‘You own Prudence.’
Mr Hermes chuckles. ‘The relationship is a little more complicated than that.’
‘I wouldn’t be sitting here if I hadn’t researched you. I’m not an idiot.’
‘No. Of course.’ Mr Hermes holds a finger up to his thin lips. ‘Before we continue, you need to understand – as you should’ve been told already – that by sitting opposite me, you are entering an unspoken contract. You may decline whatever opportunity I present you, but merely by sitting there and continuing to listen to me, you are then obligated to introduce somebody else to me.’
‘Like a chain letter.’
‘Exactly like a chain letter.’
‘And if I don’t? Or if I said I would, but didn’t?’
Mr Hermes’s thin lips draw into a wry smile. ‘Now why would you do that, Quinn?’ He leans across the table. ‘There are many forms of power in this world, Quinn. I may appear old and frail; indeed, the body is weak. Flesh is weak. Temporary.’
He reaches across and pinches Quinn’s hand. His fingertips are smooth but hot. Quinn snatches his hand back.
‘But some things,’ Mr Hermes says, ‘are eternal.’
‘Are you trying to scare me?’
‘Quinn, if you are at least not unnerved yet, then you are either a very stupid young man or a very arrogant one. What will it be?’
Quinn feels this is wrong. But the possible pay-off could set him up for life – could set him and Amber up. And he feels he is owed. A basketball star in college, a knee injury ruined his prospects. Now he is an electrician, but already feeling discontent. This meeting with Mr Hermes could solve all his problems. Then he could buy a ring. Tomorrow. Propose to Amber tomorrow night. Put a date on their wedding. Plan the names of their children. Everything could unlock into the future he has always dreamed about.
‘Look at our waitress. Behind you.’
The waitress, Martina, leans against the bar, her shorts tight, her legs long, smooth, toned. Other men in the restaurant try to be as every bit as inconspicuous as Quinn was earlier in studying her, just as the women are in their regard for the waiters.
‘Beautiful, isn’t she?’ Mr Hermes asks.
Quinn turns back to him, folds his hands on the table in front of him. ‘Yeah.’
‘Could you see yourself with somebody like that, Quinn?’
‘I have a partner.’
‘And your feelings for her are true.’
‘Of course. What sort of question is that?’
‘But it doesn’t stop you thinking, does it?’
Quinn says nothing.
‘It’s fine to think, Quinn. We all do. And it’s part of what I want to preface with you. Are you ready to communicate, Quinn? You still have a chance to leave.’
Quinn considers it. Then, finally: ‘Go on.’
‘You must understand that the everyday world is constructed of layers. It’s like having your girlfriend at your place for the first time; you might perform an impromptu clean-up so as not to make a bad impression.’
Quinn glowers at Mr Hermes. That’s exactly what had happened with Amber. Everything had gone in the closet or under the bed, and he’d opened the window to air the room out.
‘It comes down to what we can be, what we are, and what is. Often, the latter is lost, or infrequently revealed. Look at our waitress, Quinn.’
The waitress chats to the bartender as he places their drinks onto a tray – a Corona with a lime in it; and a small glass with a clear liquid that contains a lemon and three blocks of ice.
‘Gorgeous,’ Mr Hermes goes on. ‘And we objectify her. How many men – and women, for that matter – see her tonight and their first thought is imagining how they would fuck her?’
The waitress lifts the tray with their drinks and starts towards them.
‘But who is she behind this image? What are her hopes? Her dreams? Perhaps she’s studying to become a lawyer or a doctor. Or possibly she has a drug habit. Or perhaps both. Is this really her? We accept it is. We don’t question. But if you stop to think, it’s unlikely it is. So who is she really?’
Martina returns to their table and puts their drinks in front of them.
‘Thank you, darling,’ Mr Hermes says.
‘You’re welcome.’ Martina smiles, picks up her tray, pivots on her heel, and leaves.
‘A beautiful smile, wasn’t it? A man could fall in love with a smile like that, don’t you think, Quinn? Is that what did it for you when you met your partner?’
Quinn says nothing, although Amber’s smile did entrance him – so pretty, so guileless. She’d been sitting in the second row. He was having the sort of game that was drawing the attention of scouts. People had been screaming for him, caught in the fervour of his brilliance. But she’d been genuine – and the only person to stay with him when he injured his knee just three months later, and the offers evaporated.
‘Those lips are beautiful. But, if you paused to think, to contemplate, where have they been? How many men has she fellated? None? One? Five? Fifty? Five hundred? How about women? Would you think about that when you kiss her? What sort of women is she in the confines of her bedroom? What has she done with partners? What has she allowed partners to do to her? She is young and looks happy and healthy. But perhaps behind closed door she is something else entirely.’
‘Do you have a point?’
‘We exist, Quinn, both in the mainstream and undercurrent of society. We market ourselves in the mainstream. In the undercurrent, we are who we really are. We might deny it for a while, or be recalcitrant to show it when entering relationships, but you cannot deny your true being.’
‘I still don’t see your point.’
‘What’re you looking for, Quinn? Product? Or reality?’
‘I don’t see the difference.’
‘You will when it’s done.’
Mr Hermes lifts his glass and swirls it under this nose. He puts it down, plucks out the lemon, and bites the pulp. His face doesn’t register its taste. He swallows it, downs his drink in one gulp, and plops the lemon rind into the empty glass.
‘I sit here and I offer temptation, Quinn. People – young fools such as yourself – sit opposite me hoping I will pay them one million dollars if they fulfil the temptation I set them. But you know this. That’s why you’re seated opposite me. And you, like so many, see it as a possible doorway to a ready-made future.’
‘Three young men, three very macho and egotistical young men, once sat opposite me and I set them the temptation that if they formed a sodomy-chain and engaged in the act to fruition in one of the private rooms, I would pay them one million dollars. Each.’
Quinn is in the process of lifting his Corona to his mouth. He stops. ‘Did they …?’
‘Two of them were willing. One declined. The two – with help from considerable alcohol – talked the other into it. In the lead-up to the act, though, one of those two reneged. The original protester followed. That left one disappointed young man, although he did exhibit obvious relief. You see, Quinn, they could deal with the product, but not the reality. Many young men and woman have sat opposite me, but very rarely, extremely rarely, have I had to pay – and when I have, there have been … consequences for the payee, in dealing with what they’ve done.’
‘Why? Why do you do this?’
‘Isn’t it obvious?’
‘I don’t understand. I didn’t believe it when I heard about it. But I saw the … I just … Before you go ahead, I just want to understand.’
‘We have a symbiotic relationship, you and me. You have a need. I offer the potential to fill it. If there were no needs, I would cease to exist. That is as close to an answer as I will give you. Otherwise, the reasons are my own. The question now, though, is whether you are still interested?’
Quinn plants his hands into the face of the table and begins to slide himself out of the booth. He stops, his right knee aching as it supports him in this position. One million dollars. He and Amber would never look back. But then he visualises three men in a sodomy chain. He gets out of the booth.
‘You could just propose anything,’ he says.
‘I don’t propose outrageous acts for even in such random anarchy, there are fools who would acquiesce in their greed for money. I read you. And I choose my temptations accordingly. I don’t force them upon anybody. You must be a willing participant.’
‘And if I decline?’
‘You walk away.’
‘And if I fail?’
‘Then you may learn something about yourself.’
‘Nothing other than what I stated initially: you must introduce another to me.’
Quinn slumps back into the booth.
‘Excellent, Quinn. Now it is time to learn about you. Tell me about yourself. Omit embellishment. Change nothing. I will know if you do.’
Quinn nods, sits back down – albeit on the very edge of the seat – and finishes his beer for courage.
* * *