Constance’s intake of breath is a sharp hiss.
She and Teo study the array of screens in her office, their attention fixed on the screen displaying what is designated Gaming Room 7: Patricia – in nothing but her tiny g-string – sinks ball after ball. The guys in the room groan. Patricia pockets the black ball. There is no fuss about her victory. Some of the guys quit the room – there’s only half as many as were in there when Joy played Patricia. Unceremoniously, Patricia draws another ticket from her hat and calls out the number. No response. Whoever owned the raffle ticket is long gone. As is the bearer of the next ticket. Third time lucky, she draws somebody.
‘She keeps winning,’ Teo says. ‘And she’s good enough not to lose to any of the buffoons in there with her.’
‘They’re meant to win a few when they get to the end,’ Constance says.
‘Savage’s doing it in his room and making a show of it. Patricia’s bullying these guys. Humiliating them.’
‘As much fun as that sounds, it’s not what she should be doing. She’s always been a model employee. What triggered this behaviour?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Rewind the recording,’ Constance says. ‘Let’s see if one of these buffoons somehow sparked this indignation.’
Teo takes the chair at Constance’s desk, activating her laptop out of standby. Immediately, he accesses the surveillance logs.
‘Out of curiosity,’ Constance says, ‘how’s Noah doing?’
Teo looks up from the laptop. ‘He won’t last the night,’ he says.
‘I didn’t think so,’ Constance says. ‘But perhaps that’s a good thing.’
‘What?’ Constance asks.
‘Temperance? From you?’
Constance frowns, the observation as much a surprise to her as it was to Teo.
‘We all change as we get older,’ she says. ‘Don’t we?’
* * *
Ox has never been a dancer. Never. In all the time he and Boyd have come here, they’ve adhered to an uncompromising routine: they’re the first ones in, they sit at the bar, they chat, they ogle, they drink, they’re the last to leave. They have been propositioned – after all, they’re two good-looking guys. But no woman, no matter how stunning, has ever tempted them.
But now Ox is in the centre of the dance floor, trying to keep up with Joy. His overcoat swirls around him, and his sunglasses almost fall from his face. Joy grinds her crotch against his hip. Ox steps back; he has no idea what he’s doing, or how to handle Joy’s explosiveness. Joy thrusts her hips at him. Ox falls into synchronicity with her energy. He has not her grace – not even an iota of it – but he does his best to match her enthusiasm.
When the song has ended Joy bounces back towards the bar and grabs Boyd by the wrists. Ox follows behind her. He’s covered in sweat and his breathing is heavy.
‘Your turn, handsome,’ Joy tells Boyd.
‘I can’t dance,’ Boyd says.
‘It didn’t stop your friend.’
She tugs Boyd from his stool. Ox takes their Gallia Lagers from Boyd, then Boyd is gone, swallowed into the hive which is the dance floor.
Ox sinks into the seat vacated by Boyd, drinks, then holds the bottle to his neck. Sweat continues to stream from his temples. He glances at Rupe, who now watches Joy dancing with Boyd – or at least watches Joy dancing; Boyd bounces on his toes. It’s as close to rhythm on the dance floor as he can manage.
‘She’s out of control,’ Ox says.
‘She’s a force unto herself,’ Rupe says.
‘Ain’t you jealous?’
Prince arrives with another Gallia just as Ox finishes his bottle. He swaps with Prince, empty Gallia for a full one.
‘Thanks, Prince,’ Ox says. Then, back to Rupe, ‘How can you just sit there? She’s gorgeous, she’s hot, she’s happening. Make a move.’
Prince grins wryly. ‘Careful. This is the blind leading you.’
‘Come on, Prince! I’ve been around. I’m not that bad.’
‘You’re probably worse.’ Prince moves off to serve another customer.
‘How about it?’ Ox asks.
‘When the time’s right,’ Rupe says, ‘I’ll make my move.’
‘And when will that be?’
‘A woman like Joy you can’t just approach, as if she was just some unthinking floozy,’ Rupe says. ‘She is classy. Sophisticated.’
‘She must be courted, honoured, and then, and only then, must she be approached – when I have done everything to deem myself worthy in her eyes.’
‘Perhaps. But love is crazy.’
‘You’re in love already? Like, at first sight?’
‘At first glance – sometimes, a glance is all it takes.’
‘I think maybe you need to rethink this,’ Ox says. ‘Won’t be me or my friend, but she just may pick a dance with the wrong guy and then, well, you’ll see if the time’s right.’
* * *
LeBeau gets up from his booth and ambles across to the dance floor. The crowd has tightened around Joy and claps in tempo with the music. Her dancing is primal. Some people in the world lead. That is Joy. Everybody has fallen in rhythm with her, as if this was some complicated dance number choreographed for a pop diva. Boyd is almost abashed, continuing to bounce on his heels. It’s not that he hasn’t a clue what to do on the dance floor. He hasn’t a clue what to do with her. Or himself.
But LeBeau has ideas. He always has ideas. He would’ve liked to take some time with Flavia. He’d been able to smell her vulnerability. It had aroused him to the point LeBeau needed release. He could have just about anybody here – just as he has done so repeatedly in the past. But that’s too easy. He needs a challenge. This brunette is as elevated as she is sultry. He would like to cast her down and bend her to his whim.
LeBeau walks out onto the dance floor. People melt from his path. The overcoated fool she’s dancing with doesn’t flinch as LeBeau glowers at him. For a moment – just a moment – LeBeau thinks he might’ve overstepped here. This guy isn’t a typical fop. LeBeau can see it in the set of his shoulders, in the way he holds his arms. This man is a hunter. LeBeau has retained people like this for odd jobs. The prudent thing would be to withdraw, but prudence isn’t something LeBeau has ever enjoyed.
‘Mind if I cut in?’ he says.
He would’ve told anybody else he was cutting in – non-negotiable. But now, he presents an offer, as small as it is, an opportunity for this goof who can’t dance, who looks like he’s not enjoying himself out here, to escape with his dignity intact. Well, that’s the way LeBeau reads it. And he can see Boyd knows LeBeau wants him to read it that way. But Boyd snorts. It infuriates LeBeau. There’s no moral superiority here. When Boyd steps back, it’s as if he does so with the intent that LeBeau fail.
‘Be my guest,’ Boyd says, and heads back for the bar.
LeBeau doesn’t care, though. Or he tries not to, losing himself in his desires. Joy is magnificent. She throws her arms around his neck and sways in front of him. She gyrates down to his knees, so that LeBeau looks down on the top of her head and thinks this is exactly the angle he wants to see her in. Then she uncoils to her full height.
‘That was rude,’ Joy says.
LeBeau falls into beat with her tempo. He’s majestic on the dance floor. One thing he learned when he was young was there’s no better pick-up than good dancing. His hands move down Joy’s sides – his left hand sliding under Joy’s satchel – and cups her buttocks. She doesn’t tense, as some women do, unsure how to handle such a sudden solicitation. It tells him she’s accustomed to this – well, that’s how he interprets it.
‘He didn’t deserve you,’ he says.
‘Know about the private rooms here?’
‘You got something in mind?’
‘How simple do you want me to put it?’
‘Real simple for a real simple girl.’
Joy grins, and runs a finger down LeBeau’s sweaty chest. He usually doesn’t perspire – at least not severely. But he’s soaking now. She’s pristine, and he has an urge to sully that. He wants to see Joy bracing a headboard as he bangs her from behind, her butt fitted in his hands just like he’s holding it now. His hands claw, like a teenager having a clumsy grope. He meant to impose his will upon her, but something is happening: he feels like he’s whirlpooling down around her, until he’s losing himself to insecurity and uncertainty that he hasn’t felt since he was a child.
‘So what do you say?’ he asks, a desperate, wheedling quality entering his tone.
Joy presses up against him and stands on her toes until they’re face to face. She’s hot. Literally. LeBeau’s never felt a woman physically as hot. She must have a fever or be on Ecstasy or X’cess or one of those designer drugs that comes with weird physical side-effects. Not that it matters – all the better.
LeBeau leans in, the way a lover does to suggest a kiss. She’s unmoving. He thought earlier she was accustomed to such solicitations, but now a new possibility opens up to LeBeau: she’s fearless.
‘I’m not that simple,’ Joy says.
‘Want to start?’
‘You know, sex is going to get you into trouble.’
‘Night’s young. And …’
Joy lays a single finger across LeBeau’s lips. She leans closer in towards him. LeBeau latches one hand into the arch of her back, his other moving up to her face. She’s playing him and he’s sick of it. He’s said all he has to say. Now there’s but one thing left.
He moves to kiss her.
She pirouettes on her heel and breaks through the crowd.
‘Hey!’ LeBeau says, stumbling forward now that’s she’s no longer there to brace him.
Joy keeps walking.
She disappears into the crowd.