Mr Hermes’s smile brims with malice and condescension and something else – something vile and irreconcilable.
Holly had entertained the belief that perhaps his temptations might be altruistic, that he might be some eccentric billionaire interested in helping those trying to find a start in life. But of course that’s silly, a romantic notion. She now understands Mr Hermes’s only motivation is subjugation. He wants only to bend her to his whim so he can feed off the humiliation.
‘I feel you have not told me everything about yourself, Holly.’
Holly tries to hold his silvery gaze, but she is stripped bare, sitting naked, not just physically, but all her thoughts; her memories; her fears, joys, and shames. They tumble to the front of her mind, stark and confronting and wholly unnerving.
‘I can’t control what you feel,’ she says.
Mr Hermes drinks from his glass of clear liquid. ‘Not to worry. I’ve read more in your words than you might think you’d said. Let us reflect: you work in PR, although it is a job for you, and not a career; you are engaged to be married; and you seemingly lead a relatively sedentary life, socialising with friends, and enjoying only the occasional night out. At home, you enjoy ordinary pleasures, such as restaurants, movies, and a game of pool. This trip is one last fling before domesticity, isn’t it? And then it’s life in the suburbs, children, soccer, and school concerts, until one day you wake up, find you’re forty, and regret the things you didn’t do.’
The heat flushes in Holly’s cheeks. It’s not an unusual life course, but as Mr Hermes talks about it, it becomes empty and unsatisfying. She has always been happy to let life take her where it will, but that now proves to be falling hideously short of expectations. But why? It’s not a question she can answer.
‘I’m sure you would probably expect something vulgar and predictable from myself in terms of a temptation,’ Mr Hermes says. ‘Perhaps the suggestions of something …’
He pauses, but Holly anticipates he already knows what he’s going to propose. She won’t play his game. Won’t hang on his baited breath. She’s already given him too much power. He is a master manipulator. She downs what remains of her muddy-pink Tequila Sunrise. It’s gone warm and she gags on it, so she gestures to the waitress for another, then turns back to Mr Hermes, like she’s forgotten he was in the middle of a sentence.
‘You were saying?’ she asks.
‘Do you expect something—?’
‘Decadent?’ Holly finishes, determine to seize control of the conversation. ‘You’re so predictable. What a shock that it’s come down to sex. You’re just a dirty old fucker.’
‘Perhaps. We all have our dark sides, don’t we? I offer temptations, but they’re around us every day in life. We try to resist them. Sometimes, we don’t. Sometimes, they blind us and disorient us, until we lose ourselves in them.’
Whatever control Holly felt she’d wrested away evaporates. She knows exactly what he’s going to say next – as if he’s reading a cue from her own experiences.
‘You surely would not be affronted by the suggestion of something like a ménage a trois, would you?’
Holly fights to contain herself, but the guilt pulses from her skin. She takes a deep breath, and tries to roll with the conversation. She will not win control of what’s happening, but neither does that mean she has to surrender it entirely.
‘Why would you think suggesting a threesome would shock me? Do you think I wouldn’t do it for a million dollars?’
‘Maybe you would.’
‘Maybe,’ Holly admits with aplomb.
‘Maybe you already have.’
Holly takes a breath, trying to use the silence to break Mr Hermes’s momentum while she tries to process what’s going on.
He knows, he knows, he knows.
‘Has your fiancé made any large deposits or expensive purchases recently?’ he asks.
‘You don’t know who he is.’ The words are hollow. Holly speaks them out of reflex.
‘No, I would know little about one Marcus Handley – or so it would seem. Tell me, Holly, and be honest, has anything unprecedented occurred in your life recently? Anything unforeseen?’
The pieces form a picture. The old man stipulated earlier that by taking an audience with him, she was obligated to introduce him to somebody new – just as Quinn introduced her. And who could’ve introduced Quinn? Yes, it would be Marcus – Marcus, who is always looking for an opportunity, always chasing a thrill, always shattering boundaries.
She shoots up from the booth and bumps into the waitress who’s brought her drink. The Tequila Sunrise flips in mid-air and sprays Holly’s dress. The waitress apologises and runs to the bar to get a towel. Holly pats herself down. She’s wet and sticky. It reminds her of the hotel room, of the end, lying under the two business execs.
‘Now don’t forget, Holly,’ Mr Hermes says, ‘I still have a temptation to set you.’
The waitress arrives with a a hand towel. Holly shoves her aside and runs out, missing Quinn by moments as he charges into the piano bar and up to the booth.
‘Get the money ready, you old fuck!’ Quinn says. ‘Because I’m about to collect.’
Mr Hermes smirks.
‘What’re you laughing at?’
‘Remember what I told you, Quinn.’
‘Flesh is weak. Temporary. Remember I told you that.’
Quinn leans towards Mr Hermes, planting his fists into the tabletop. ‘What the fuck does that have to do with anything?’
‘Because here’s another lesson for you, Quinn, one you would be wise to remember: the only things eternal in this life are those feelings that are most primal to us – rage, lust, survival. What do you feel now, Quinn? What do you feel now—?’
Mr Hermes lifts his head and laughs uproariously. Quinn has never been violent, never been in a fight his entire life, but right now his face mottles, veins bulge from his neck, and his clenched fists tremble. Mr Hermes continues to laugh. Quinn thumps the table with his left hand so hard that Mr Hermes’s glass jumps and is upended; Quinn will learn much later that he’s broken a knuckle. For now, though, he feels nothing but oblivion.
He turns, charges out, Mr Hermes’s laughter ringing in his ears.
* * *
LeBeau sits back in his booth, surveying the women who pass him. He gauges buttocks first, then cleavage, hips (and, where attire allows, crotches), then faces. One of the reasons he enjoys coming here is the smorgasbord of gorgeous women – and that’s how he sees them, as a buffet from which he can choose.
He follows the progress of a lithe redhead as she walks to the bar, then a short waif of a blonde and her busty raven-haired companion, then a voluptuous brunette with her bearded companion. LeBeau catalogues everybody in his immediate vicinity. But nobody appeals beyond the most superficial level.
He sips from his double Tom Collins. One of the waitresses – a lean blonde – walks to the bar, carrying a tray filled with empty glasses. LeBeau studies her butt. Perhaps the service is something he can try, although employees are strictly off-limits – at least while they’re at work. It’s a stupid policy. He should talk to Hermes about changing it.
A figure blocks his sight. He doesn’t have to look up to know it’s Flavia. He snorts dismissively, then sips from his Tom Collins.
‘Oh, you again,’ he says, then leans over so he can look at the waitress, but she takes a tray of drinks and disappears into the crowd. LeBeau looks up at Flavia. Her jaw is hard and her shoulders squared. She’s angry. He likes that.
‘You still looking at auditions?’ she asks.
‘I don’t need people who don’t walk the walk,’ he says.
‘You’re full of hot air.’
‘No.’ Flavia slides into the booth and puts her hand on LeBeau’s thigh.
‘Is that meant to impress me?’
‘It’s meant to be a start.’
LeBeau chuckles, reaches into his jacket pocket, and pulls out his gold case. He opens it to reveal an array of small, triangular lime pills contained in foam niches. He takes a pill, pops it into his mouth, and washes it down with a drink from his Tom Collins.
He is closing his case, but then it occurs to him, almost as if little more than an afterthought – if men such as LeBeau have afterthoughts, and everything isn’t by some grand design – to reopen it and thrust it in Flavia’s direction. She stares at the little lime pills uncertainly.
‘What are they?’ she asks. ‘Ecstasy?’
‘A derivation. Designer brand. X’cess. Much better.’
Flavia has never partaken in anything stronger than a joint. She worries what will become of her if she takes this pill. What will she do? Will it lower her inhibitions? Will she lose control? There are so many questions that she cannot answer, and that frightens her. She shouldn’t be here as it is, and that indignation that fuelled her bravado wavers.
LeBeau grins broadly. ‘Yep, just like I said.’
He starts to withdraw the case but Flavia catches him by the wrist. She takes a pill from the case and before any doubt can halt her, pops it into her mouth, then takes LeBeau’s Tom Collins and sips from it. The gin is bitter – it’s never a drink she’s adopted – but she tries not to let it show as she sets the glass down.
LeBeau snaps his case closed. ‘Well, well, well,’ he says.