Prudence

Prudence: Chapter 4b

Quinn and Holly sit shoulder to shoulder: Quinn is like an animal that has tensed, ready to spring away; Holly has drawn herself upright, wanting to look down upon and command the situation. Quinn marvels at how she can be unafraid given he thinks what they’re attempting is crazy.

But he says nothing.

And tries to offer nothing.

Holly puts a hand on his. He flinches briefly, but then curls his arm around her back. She nestles into him with familiarity that comes with surprising ease, but which embarrasses him. He could never be like this with anybody but Amber. Just doing this feels like cheating.

Mr Hermes is inscrutable as he surveys them each in turn, although he holds Quinn’s gaze much longer than he holds Holly’s. It’s cliché when somebody is described as looking inside another person, but that’s what Quinn experiences.

His memories flash through his head, a chronology of his life, meeting Amber, the first kiss, the first time they had sex, falling in love, and the dreams they had of forging a life together.

But now, a shadow draws over them – the world most don’t consider: where dreams are shattered, and the ugliness of life creeps in; the misery of missteps and misdeeds; the randomness of injury, illness, and the obliteration of the best of intentions.

Quinn forces himself to stare back unblinkingly. To look away would be an admission of guilt. But Mr Hermes has him now – has all of him. It was stupid to come to him, and worse to draw Holly in. Holly won’t recognise the danger. Like Marcus, she will welcome it, confront it, and try to brave through it.

But there is no braving through some things.

A small smile plays at Mr Hermes’s lips.

‘So we were wondering,’ Holly says, ‘whether you could come up with a different sort of temptation.’

The waitress, Martina, brings them drinks – the lemon with the three blocks of ice in the clear liquid for Mr Hermes (Quinn is now beginning to suspect that the clear liquid is nothing but water), the Corona with the lime for himself, and a Tequila Sunrise for Holly.

Quinn’s concern grows. They hadn’t ordered.

‘How about if I came to you instead and that way, you lay the temptation on Quinn and pay me out?’ Holly asks once Martina leaves.

Mr Hermes picks up his glass and swirls it so that the blocks of ice clink. ‘Amber, is it?’ he asks.

Holly nods. She stirs her Tequila Sunrise with the straw so that it becomes a muddy pink.

‘The temptations are there to take or leave,’ Mr Hermes says. ‘They are not a negotiation. Secondly,’ he turns sharply to Quinn, ‘I warned you not to lie to me.’

Quinn wants to confess to salvage the situation, but the humiliation engulfs him. He stamps down on the fear and tries to feign indignation. Nothing but a croak comes out.

‘Lie?’ he asks finally.

‘I fell in love with your description of your fiancée,’ Mr Hermes says. ‘I fell in love with her sweetness and innocence – oh, I know, that is such a cliché, and it makes me seem such a dirty and corrupt old man. But there is not enough innocence in this world, and particularly in here.’ He takes a drink. ‘This is not your fiancée.’ He uses his glass to gesture at Holly. ‘Although there is something enchanting about you. Something brazen. Those wide, open eyes; that husky voice; your full, pouting lips. What have you been doing with that voice, those lips?’

For an instant – but an instant is long enough – Holly is taken aback. Her hands tighten around Quinn’s. He’s sure she’s going to bluster her way through this, although it wouldn’t do them much good. But her pause allows Mr Hermes to sweep on.

‘Perhaps you’d care to make some money yourself,’ he says, ‘and give Quinn what he needs.’

Holly takes a drink of her Tequila Sunrise. ‘Fine, let’s hear it.’

‘Don’t do this,’ Quinn says.

‘No, it’s okay. I’m in charge of the situation. Like he said, it’s mine to take or leave.’

‘Yes it is. Leave us, Quinn.’

‘No—’

‘It’s okay.’ Holly pats his hand.

‘Are you sure?’

Holly nods.

Quinn slides out of the booth

‘Quinn!’ Mr Hermes says.

Quinn turns nervously.

‘Your temptation remains open – it’s yours to take or leave. That’s your decision to make. That’s the reason for Prudence. Haven’t you learned that by now?’

Quinn says nothing. He feels bound to the spot, netted by his own stupidity. He would flee now if it weren’t for Amber. He must make it right for her. But still, he doesn’t know how.

‘Now go,’ Mr Hermes says.

As Quinn leaves, the last thing he hears Mr Hermes say is, ‘Now tell me about yourself … Holly.’