Constance leans against the edge of her desk, arms folded across her chest. She has been hostess a long time and remembers many eventful nights. Indeed, she remembers every night in vivid detail, once recalling them with condescension and judgement, then with amusement, and now with a wry disassociation.
There have been attacks against Icons, fights on the dance floor, journalists sneaking in attempting to find the famed basement, numerous acts of copulation in dark corners, and even an attempted robbery.
But tonight has been different because it’s involved an uprising. The only time she has experienced anything similar was the night she was offered the position of hostess.
She surveys her guests: Dante, Marcus; Patricia, a towel wrapped around her; Noah, face downcast, and dressed again; and Joy.
It’s Joy who Constance lingers on longest. The others are young fools. Constance can read them as if their histories were printed on their faces. Joy is a similar age, but inscrutable. Constance senses in her an unnerving implacability. It feels wrong. Everybody who comes here has an agenda, one not only driven by the most primal instincts, but also slave to them, the way they might be slave to a narcotic, even when they know it’s killing them..
‘Busy night,’ Constance says.
Teo, arms folded across his chest, is unimpressed. ‘We’ve had busier.’
While Teo sees more than he lets on, he doesn’t always understand it. He is happy to accept that sometimes, regardless how hard they try to contain what goes on here, sometimes it explodes, and they’re simply left to deal with the clean-up. But Constance appreciates that explosions can wreak irreparable damage, as well as hurt bystanders.
She pushes off from her desk and approaches Noah. He is wringing his hands, and staring down at his feet.
‘From the onset, you’ve been diffident, Noah,’ she says. ‘You haven’t had the heart to let go. It’s not something you learn. It’s something can do or you can’t. You are not what you think.’
‘What?’ Noah says. ‘What aren’t I? I don’t understand.’
‘Then that’s the problem, Noah. You don’t get it. You don’t get Prudence. If you need to think about it, you don’t fit. You just need to be.’
‘That’s just … just silly.’
‘Perhaps. But it is what it is. It’s surprising given your family.’
‘I’m not my uncle. I’m not my brother.’
‘That might not be such a bad thing.’
‘Then what do you want from me? All of you, what do you expect?’
‘I can only speak for myself, Noah: I expect nothing. You’re dismissed.’
‘I can go?’
‘We’re done, Noah.’
‘I’m sorry I disappointed you.’
‘Noah, I don’t understand why you’re here – I truly don’t. Perhaps you should look into your motivations.’
Teo grabs him by the elbow and ushers him towards the door. At one point, Noah tries to ask a question, but Teo continues urging him, a large hand in the small of Noah’s back. Teo’s been in this position many times – ex-employees wanting explanations as to what they’ve done wrong, or what service they haven’t filled, or what they can do to be better. It’s best to see them out instead of engaging in conversations that can become circular and unfulfilling.
Constance waits until Noah’s gone and the door’s closed before she turns her attention to Marcus and Dante. They’re good-looking young men. Out in the world, Constance is sure young women would look at them and their first impression would be they’re fine catches. But she senses something in Marcus, an underlying mean-spiritedness. Worse than that, it’s petty. The other just seems misguided.
‘Beginning a fight is a serious offense,’ Constance says.
‘We didn’t start it,’ Marcus says evenly. ‘It was that other guy. Why didn’t you drag him in here?’
‘Marcus, is it?’
‘We have surveillance.’ Constance indicates the array of screens. ‘We saw what happened. You confronted this Icon. Your friend manhandled a young woman—’
‘My girlfriend!’ Dante says.
‘That is absolutely no excuse to manhandle her.’
She glowers at Dante, ablaze in her fury. He shrinks before her – a child trapped in a man’s body. She is tempted to have him tossed, but doubts that would teach him anything. He needs to learn, and she sees that this is the night that will be his educator, whether he likes it or not.
‘This other man attempted to intercede – diplomatically,’ Constance says. ‘You provoked what occurred next.’
‘This wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for her!’ Marcus thrusts a finger at Patricia. ‘She fucked up the whole room!’
Constance directs her gaze upon him, but he is unflinching. She can read his mind: he is thinking of her sexually; he thinks he would like to teach her a lesson through sex, as if he could fuck her into obedience and subjugation. This one is dangerous – not irredeemable; not yet. But he is reckless, and that could go anywhere.
‘We saw you also,’ she says. ‘We saw the way you treated our Icon.’
‘All I told her was that she should play nice.’
‘So your motives were altruistic?’
Constance lifts her head and laughs. ‘You’re a brazen one. Here are your options – you can be banned permanently from Prudence or you can serve a penance.’
‘You will be an Icon tonight.’
Marcus’s grin is immediate. ‘What?’ he says. ‘Play pool, lose, and strip for women? Like that’s a punishment.’ He jumps to his feet. ‘Where do I sign up?’ His face turns sombre. ‘Wait, no tricks, right?’
‘No tricks,’ Constance says.
‘How is this going to punish me? What do you think this is going to do?’
‘It will teach you what it’s like to be on the other side.’
‘You think that’s gonna bother me?’
No, Constance thinks. It won’t bother him. But tossing him would do no good. That would become a spur for him – a reason to justify his outlook on women. He might enjoy playing the Icon, but she hopes that a sliver of understanding will sink in, and germinate.
‘That remains to be seen,’ she says.. As for you,’ Constance turns to Dante, ‘you’re free to go.’
‘Just like that?’ Dante asks.
He’s astonished, and Marcus is equally flabbergasted. Good. These two, so recently joined at the hip. She sees their mutual history now, Dante following Marcus blindly. Now their paths have been split. It will sew the seed of discontent between them, perhaps force Dante to think for himself.
‘Just like that.’
‘Why’re you giving me a penance and not him?’ Marcus says.
‘Given your reaction,’ Constance says, ‘I didn’t think what I’d handed you was a penance.’
‘I’m just wondering.’
‘You tell me this woman you manhandled is your girlfriend?’ Constance asks Dante.
‘Then you are in enough trouble.’ Constance folds her arms back across her chest. ‘You can go. You – Marcus. Wait outside until I can have somebody set you up.’
Teo begins to guide them to the door. Dante’s happy enough to be out of there and keeps his eyes straight ahead. But Marcus turns, backtracks, and shrugs off Teo’s guiding hand.
‘After the performance I put on,’ he says, ‘you’re gonna be giving me a job.’
‘We’ll see,’ Constance says.
Teo ushers them out and closes the door.
* * *
Marcus and Dante wait outside Constance’s door, their thoughts already heading in separate directions:
Dante is contrite, thinking about how he can make things right with Flavia. He’s screwed up in the past but never like this. He blames the room, and the pack mentality that developed.
But Marcus is scornful. He understands the reasoning behind Constance’s treatment of him, but dismisses it. He’s sure Constance has both misread him and underestimated him. By the time the night’s done, she’ll be embarrassed that she believed such a stupid penance could humiliate or educate him.
‘We’re lucky,’ Dante says.
‘I heard she tore the balls off a man who messed up one of the rooms. He went crazy on ecstasy and assaulted an Icon. Security stripped him and held him while Constance tied fishing line around his balls and pulled until he screamed for mercy.’
Marcus laughs – the typically embellished story that’s used as PR. Why would anybody misbehave here when such urban legends are floating about? It fuels his determination to create his own legend.
‘That’s bullshit,’ he says.
‘She let you off. She made me an Icon for a night. You really think they’re the actions of somebody who castrated a man? Bullshit.’
Dante shrugs, unconvinced.
‘What’re you gonna do while I’m entertaining?’
Dante knows he should be honest with Marcus, tell him he’s going to seek Flavia’s forgiveness, even if means getting on his knees and begging her. But Marcus will mock him for being soft. Marcus, after all, never is with Holly – well, in the time that Dante has known them. Dante doesn’t understand how Holly deals with it.
‘I’m gonna find Flavia,’ he says, sliding his hand into his pocket and feeling the ring box in there. This is a sign. Yes, that’s it. That’s exactly what it is. Just as his and Marcus’s paths converged, now they will diverge, and the prospect excites Dante. Dante’s hand tightens around the box. He’ll find Flavia, plead for her forgiveness, suggest they grab a bite, and propose in the restaurant. He grins foolishly, sure that each step he visualises will lead to the next.
‘You okay or have you had an aneurysm?’ Marcus asks.
‘I’m good,’ Dante says.
Now he’s not abashed, but indignant at how Marcus might scorn him. But it doesn’t matter because Marcus doesn’t matter. He’s been a temporary influence, and a perverse influence of sorts. Dante thought that was something he could enjoy, or learn from, but he was wrong not only to think it, but to believe that it was something he both wanted and needed. The benefit is it’s clarified not only what he wants, but how he’ll attempt to achieve it.
‘I’m gonna find Flavia and do some entertaining of my own.’
Marcus cackles and holds his fist up. Naturally, he thinks of sex.
Dante releases the ring box, pulls his hand out of his pocket, and half-heartedly knocks Marcus’s wrist.
‘I’ll catch ya later,’ Dante says.
‘Later,’ Marcus says.
Dante heads down the stairwell from Constance’s office.