Boyd leans on the bar and wipes the sweat from his brow with the cuff of his sleeve.
‘Was that the best you could do?’ Ox says.
‘You know that saying “I’m a lover not a fighter”?’ Boyd asks.
‘I’m a sitter – well, most of the time, anyway.’
Prince appears and hands Boyd a Gallia. Boyd takes a gulp and turns just in time to see Joy leave a flabbergasted LeBeau in the middle of the dance floor. LeBeau frowns – the look of a man struggling to process something he’s never had to deal with: rebuke. Boyd can’t help smiling. Couldn’t happen to anybody better.Maybe it’ll teach LeBeau some humility, although Boyd doubts it.
‘I was telling you sooner or later she’d meet the wrong guy,’ Ox says to Rupe. ‘I thought it’d be him.’
‘She’s better than that,’ Rupe says, jumping up from the stool. ‘Excuse me.’
He flees across the dance floor, allowing Boyd to resume his vacant stool.
‘What’s his story?’ Boyd asks.
Ox shrugs, and takes a drink from his Gallia.
* * *
Flavia stumbles from the Red Lounge, pinballing between people. She murmurs her apologies the first few times, but then shoves her way through. It’s gotten busy but the people are faceless to her. She feels like one of them: part of a mass with no distinguishing features. Ordinary. She has never felt ordinary in her life, but now the possibility frightens her.
She enters the juncture, into the cool breeze that wafts through, breaks through two guys, and bumps into Quinn. His eyes widen at the sight of her. She’s startled at his surprise. Then just at seeing him. But the familiar face grounds her. Maybe she is looking for success in the wrong places. As much as the world refuses to believe it now, your life can be purely about personal success, rather than material achievement. Flavia grasps the potential of that as a concept, and finds it oily and repugnant.
‘Quinn!’ she says, but that’s as far as she gets.
There’s another rush of people. But they’re not hurrying to go anywhere – they’re moving for security, led by Teo, who takes long, urgent strides. They head into the Yellow Lounge. The crowd thins again.
‘Flavia!’ Quinn says. ‘Where’s Amber?’
‘I don’t know. Where’s Dante?’
Quinn isn’t sure how to answer. After they’d split from the girls, Marcus had brought them to one of the gaming rooms where a brunette was playing strip pool. Quinn quickly excused himself to see Mr Hermes. It’s likely Marcus and Dante are still in that gaming room, but should he really be bringing Flavia to see that? To see them ogling a stripper? Amber would be aghast. Flavia’s much more liberal but …
‘Quinn?’ Flavia says.
‘I … well, I left them a while ago … and … and …’
Flavia immediately sees through his pretense. ‘You know where they are,’ she says. ‘Take me there.’
There is something imperious about her. Quinn can see why she always gets her way with Dante.
Quinn nods. ‘Follow me.’
* * *
Most agree that the décor in the Yellow Lounge is hideous, a ghastly mustard finish that’s unsettling on the eye. It’s the least frequently visited of the piano bars, and those who come do so just to say that they’ve been in it, and that they can’t believe it’s the colour it is.
As with the other Lounges, candelabras provide what dim light there is. Shadows flicker across the Lounge and threaten to darken into something black and sepulchral.
The pianist plays beautifully – one of Beethoven’s Sonatas – and the small audience is transfixed. For Rupe, who follows Joy in, the people appear mesmerised, but Joy is indifferent as she takes a position at the bar and orders herself an iced water.
She plucks a cube out of the glass and suckles it between her lips as she closes her eyes. Rupe watches her, uncertain why he’s holding his breath. Then he realises: it’s because she is. She purses her lips, extracts the cube, and deposits it back in her glass.
‘You should stop following me,’ Joy says, rattling her glass and staring down at the sparkling ice cubes.
‘I will if that’s what you want.’
‘I would’ve thought my behaviour would’ve discouraged you.’
‘Perhaps that is why you are behaving that way.’
There is sadness in Joy’s face as she caresses Rupe’s cheek. ‘You have an innocence about you,’ she says. ‘But you are in lust with an illusion.’
‘Then you don’t think I’m an illusion?’
‘I’m not in lust,’ Rupe says.
Teo and the his security team enter. Nobody else regards their entrance, instead remaining fixed on the pianist. His head rocks and his body sways as his fingers race across the keyboard.
‘Constance would like the pleasure of your company in her office,’ he says.
‘About?’ Joy asks.
‘You may discuss that with her.’
Joy finishes her water, sets the glass down, and pushes off from the bar. Rupe moves to follow. Teo holds out one hand. The security team hulk threateningly, a posse just waiting for their opportunity. In an instant, Rupe projects an unfortunate chain of events – beaten by security, dragged from the Lounge, and tossed into the street.
‘Only the lady,’ Teo says.
‘Goodbye, sweet Rupe,’ Joy says, touching his cheek once more. She follows Teo from the lounge. Security close position behind her.
Rupe sits back on a stool.
* * *
Boyd and Ox have regained their equilibrium. Both sit as they always do – butts on stools, backs leant against the bar, elbows sprawled back on the bar top.
The music changes. Boyd’s unsure what it is – and always has been. For as long as he’s been here, the music has been white noise to him, one song blending tunelessly into the next. The only thing he recognises are changes in tempo, and what’s come on now is something slow and moody – something that would be played for lovers. Ox is little better, his knowledge of music encapsulating the 1980s and only that decade. Everything else is irrelevant. But he tilts his head at the new melody – a ballad. He thinks it’s awful, and determines if any couples think it’s worthy of dancing to then they’re not in love but stupid about each other, although it might amount to the same thing.
‘I’ll tell you one thing,’ Boyd says.
‘Every night has its epoch.’
‘Indeed it does.’
Prince shows up behind them with two Gallia Lagers. ‘How is it you two don’t get drunk?’ he asks.
Boyd takes the Gallia. ‘We’re beer nymphs.’
‘Gods of Beer and Drinking,’ Ox says, grabbing his Gallia.
‘We drink among you mortals as an entertainment.’
Their manner is grandiose. They have always been so, but there are times Prince is sure he catches a glimpse of something else, something serious that they work hard to mask with their constant batter and flashes of irreverence. Prince is sure they have a greater purpose in life than to be barflies, and what he’s seeing here is just a conceit.
Boyd and Ox toast the necks of their bottle.
‘To beer goddery,’ Boyd says.
‘Is that even a word?’ Ox says.
‘It is now.’
They drink, and return to surveying the crowd.
* * *
It’s always dangerous when events shape the mood of a crowd. Earlier – and as has been the case almost every night Patricia has been an Icon – the general mood was lustful but good-natured. There are some nights it can get ugly, when the wrong element instigates a mindset that is dangerous. Tonight, though – thanks solely to Patricia – the crowd is desperate and humiliated.
Patricia sinks the black. It’s her twelfth straight win. She pumps her fist. Her opponent, Dante, glowers at Marcus. It’s one thing to be beaten by an opponent who’d earlier been deemed inferior, but it’s another to be beaten by somebody who is meant to lose.
Dante, whose self-esteem has always been shaky, feels something close to humiliation. He fights it, and tells himself this is a fix that’s gone wrong. That’s all there is to it. Patricia has beaten others, so it’s not just about him. He clings to the image of Flavia – a beautiful, talented woman, and she’s with him. She wouldn’t be with a loser.
‘Guys,’ Patricia says, ‘I’m taking a fifteen-minute breather.’
‘You can’t do this!’ Dante says.
Timing is vital in life. Most never find that synchronicity where events coincide with opportunity. It’s usually blind fluke when it occurs. Just as it is now when Quinn and Flavia appear in the archway.
Flavia gasps when she sees Dante take hold of Patricia by the wrist.
‘Ever since that other stupid bitch beat you, you’ve been unbeatable,’ Dante says. ‘Aren’t you meant to be losing to us?’
Patricia stamps Dante’s toe with the butt of her cue. He cries out and she breaks free. She starts for the opposing archway. Dante snatches for her but misses. A group of men block her path. She puts her hands on her hips, as if challenging them. It’s a brave move. And foolish. Sometimes, all it takes to beat a bully is to stand up to them, but a pack? That’s a different matter. Fortunately, on this occasion it, works. They have been exposed as cowards and part to let her through.
Marcus waits behind them. ‘Now where do you think you’re going?’ he asks.
‘Get out of my way.’
‘Why don’t you make me?’
Patricia tries to sidestep to the right; Marcus blocks her. She tries to sidestep to the left; Marcus blocks her. He enjoys the power and, unlike the others, he genuinely has a streak of cruelty that comes from upbringing – his father was a drunk, abusive, and an adulterer. Marcus often tells himself he is not his father, but on occasions like this behaves just like him.
‘Out of my way,’ Patricia tells him.
Marcus takes a step up to her, leering at her bulbous breasts almost touching his chest.
‘Come on, babe,’ Marcus says. He runs a finger up her arm, over her shoulder, and caresses her cheek. ‘Let’s play nice, huh?’
‘Marcus, come on,’ Dante says. ‘Enough’s enough.’
‘I’ll tell you when enough’s enough,’ Marcus says.
‘Let her go.’
‘Stop being such a girl, Dante.’
Flavia stomps into the room and grabs Dante by his sleeve. He spins and, briefly, he pulls his fist back, preparing to fight. Truth be told, he’s anticipated security would accost him, and he’s stayed his counterattack not because he’s seen it’s Flavia, but because it’d be foolish to tackle security.
‘Dante!’ she says.
Her cry distracts Marcus long enough that Patricia breaks past him. He pirouettes to catch her, but too late. ‘Fuck!’ he says, although he feels the smallest relief worm its way into his head. In the aftermath of such encounters, he recognises he is his father’s son, and the shame washes over him. But another part of his mind – where the dissonance pulses and threatens to blossom and consume him – tries to dismiss the pangs of conscience, and encourages him to embrace that feeling of power such behaviour grants him.
Flavia’s attention, though, is focused only on Dante. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ she asks.
‘Having fun,’ Dante says. ‘Lighten up.’ He grabs her by the waist, pulls her close to him, and runs his hands down to her butt. ‘How about we have some fun?’
He would never usually be so bold, but he’s been drinking, and the events of the night have emboldened him not so much with bravado, but stupidity. On a good day, Dante is not an overly intelligent or emotionally aware man, so such episodes push him into a territory where he becomes hurtfully cavalier.
Flavia shoves him in the chest, twirls, and tries to get out of there. Dante snatches her back by the wrist so hard that Flavia yelps.
‘Take it easy, bud!’
It’s a young guy with a crew-cut and the bearing of somebody in the military. His shoulders are huge, and his calm is disconcerting. This man has been in service and has also seen action. He is the sort of man who should be heeded. But Dante feels he has no business here.
‘This is my girl, bud,’ Dante tells him.
‘She don’t belong to you.’
Dante shoves him in the face; Crew-cut stumbles back a step. He cocks his arm to prepare for a punch. Then Marcus is there. He catches the punch mid-swing, spins Crew-cut around, and throws a punch. Crew-cut staggers back – but only for an instant. He has been trained to absorb punishment, process pain, and respond instinctively. He grabs Marcus by the collar. Dante releases Flavia and jumps on Crew-cut’s back.
Flavia decides it’s time to get out of there.