Constance paces back and forth, pausing only to stare at the array of screens and survey what’s going on while her attention is squandered here.
It’s rare for any long-serving employee to betray the trust invested in them. Transgressions usually occur in the first three months, when either the novelty and infamy, or demands and scrutiny, of working here is likeliest to overwhelm them.
Constance stops in front of Patricia. Patricia’s eyes are big and dark, her face bereft of all guile. She is like a child who has misbehaved, yet does not understand why she will be punished.
‘If Noah had any hope of finding it in himself to be an Icon,’ Constance says, ‘to be who Prudence required him to be, your little outburst discouraged him. You’ve been a faithful employee for five years. Why?’
‘I’m sick of being leered at,’ Patricia says, ‘of being degraded and objectified, of being propositioned—’
‘You hold the power, Patricia.’
‘That’s a rationalisation.’
‘Maybe in the world outside these walls, but here it’s a truth.’
Joy sits calmly in a chair by the door, hands folded in her lap, her satchel resting against her hip. She could be waiting for her car to be serviced. Funnily, Constance does not remember her sitting down; Teo led in the troublemakers, and lined them up before her desk. When did Joy slip away? And why hadn’t Teo stopped her?
Constance is renowned for her composure, for being unflappable regardless of the situation. She has always been haughty but measured – imperious. It creates that aura around her that intimidates others. But now, some uncertainty slips through – a tiny amount, but more than she has experienced in many years – and it unnerves her.
She has encountered numerous disruptive elements – reporters hunting for stories; unions seeking conditions which would unravel the very mechanisms of how everything functions here; and, occasionally, crusaders, believing that if they can impose their own interpretation of equality here, it will be a platform to spread those attitudes across the world.
‘You inspired this sudden rebellion,’ Constance says. ‘What are you? A radical?’
Joy leans back in her chair but says nothing.
‘We’ve examined your depredations on our surveillance.’ Constance indicates the array of screens. ‘You’ve gone from one room to the next, wreaking a trail of havoc. I must admit, I admire your style.’
‘But I’m having trouble understanding why.’
‘You’re a queen who holds court over her undeserving subjects,’ Joy says. ‘But the truth is you’ve lost touch.’
Anger flashes across Constance’s face. She has heard everything over the years – insults, demands, and propositions. It has never flustered her. But she sees something in this woman she struggles to identify; I see it, too, but I recognise it – this woman might be a young Constance.
Joy folds one leg over the other, clasps her hands across her knee, and rocks back in her chair.
‘Prudence is carnal,’ she says. ‘That’s what attracts everybody. That’s what they feed one another, feed these walls. But now it’s parlour tricks. This,’ she scowls at Patricia, ‘petty little fool demonstrates how out of touch your current employees are with the foundation on which Prudence was built. What will you do with her? Dock her?’ She chuckles. ‘Suspend her? Or, God forbid, dismiss her?’
‘And what should I do with her? Here is a boon to you: how would you handle her?’
Joy rises and turns her attention on Patricia. ‘Stand up.’
Patricia’s eyes flit to Constance, requesting approval. Constance is about to nod, but Joy is upon her, crossing the distance between them in a shadowy blur. Her hand knots into Patricia’s hair, yanking her to her feet. Patricia shrieks. The towel falls from her body. Joy holds her aloft, so that Patricia rises onto her toe-tips. Patricia’s hands close around Joy’s wrists, but if she’s trying to free herself, she fails. Teo moves to intercede, but Constance holds up a hand to halt him.
‘Perform one last duty and you’ll be free from being an Icon forever,’ Joy tells her.
‘Please!’ Patricia says. ‘You’re hurting me!’
‘What do you say?’
Joy shoves her. Patricia falls to her knees, tearful. Constance only now realises that Joy is neither a transient nor a staple, but something else entirely, something spat out from the collective heart of where the deepest, darkest desires of every transient and staple who has ever set foot in here lurks, a chorus that is black and odious and underpins every action and thought.
‘Who are you?’ Constance asks, approaching Joy slowly, and finally taking her in – studying every curve, every shadow, every blemish. ‘Some model excommunicated by the industry?’
Joy is stoic.
‘A failed actress, perhaps?’
Still, Joy does not move.
‘Maybe even something pettier like … a porn actress, possibly?’
The tiniest flicker of irritation crosses Joy’s face, although whether it’s because Constance has guessed correctly, or because Constance’s guess is so insulting, is unclear.
‘I think they like those who have aimed high and fallen short, or fallen foul, consumed by wanton excess,’ Constance goes on, as she stops before Joy. ‘Those who have become open to the very decadences born out of hopelessness and desperation.’
‘There are things happening of which you’re aware, but over which you have no control,’ Joy says. ‘However, first,’ she looks at Patricia, ‘let’s deal with her.’
* * *
Rupe doesn’t know what to do after Joy is taken. He sits in the Yellow Lounge, wondering what she might’ve done to be seized by security. Of course, Rupe recognises she is a free spirit – he knew that the moment he saw her. But there are many free spirits here – or at least while they are here. There was something else about Joy, though. It was freedom with purpose.
Leaving the Yellow Lounge, Rupe wanders aimlessly – onto the second floor, to the North Bar and South Bar, back into the Red Lounge, and finally to the Blue Lounge. He goes to the bar and orders a Gin & Tonic, although he contemplates going home. The night is empty, like so many have been. Maybe this is his lot and there is no escaping it, and excursions like this are nothing more than exercises in foolish naivety.
If he were younger, he’d entertain thoughts of rescuing Joy. He’d storm up into Constance’s office, if such a thing were possible through all the security. He’d argue persuasively and win Joy’s freedom, and she would be forever indebted to him. Of course, he is not younger and such notions are juvenile.
He takes his Gin & Tonic and sits in one of the booths. Mr Hermes is in the booth next to him. Rupe thinks about the stories he’s heard of this man, and would like to believe them apocryphal. The stories add to the mystique here, and are embellished upon retelling until they bear no resemblance to the truth – if there is indeed a truth.
Rupe suspects Constance has retained an actor to play the role of Mr Hermes since the real Hermes is a reclusive billionaire, often spoken of, but who hasn’t been seen publicly for over twenty-five years.
‘You would be wrong, though.’
It’s Mr Hermes who speaks. Rupe hears an accent, although he cannot identify it. Likely it’s something that has been mongrelised over the years, if not decades, to the extent it has evolved and become unique.
Mr Hermes sips from a glass of clear liquid. ‘I have seen you here before,’ he says. ‘Many times. And yet we’ve never crossed paths.’
‘I have never needed you,’ Rupe says.
‘And why would anybody need me?’
‘I hear you sell dreams. For a price.’
Mr Hermes chuckles. ‘That’s an interesting turn of phrase. And what of yourself? Have you no dreams? Romance? Love? Happy ever afters?’
‘You’ve read me well.’
Mr Hermes’ silver eyes might be seeing right into Rupe’s heart, although Rupe knows that’s both silly and cliché. But he does recognise in Mr Hermes a man who can gauge character.
‘You’ve experienced loss. Not recent. But it stays with you.’
‘My …’ He cannot name her. My wife. The words reverberate in his mind. But he cannot speak them . ‘An aneurysm.’
Mr Hermes laughs, but not unkindly. He appreciates Rupe’s mourning – that a man can express such devotion, even beyond death. What’s more, although Rupe himself doesn’t know this, this is the closest Mr Hermes has come to exhibiting compassion not only this night, but for many years.
‘Then why do you come here?’ he says. ‘The companionship found here is fleeting.’
‘That’s a generalisation.’
‘That is a rule.’
‘There are exceptions.’
Mr Hermes pauses in the act of bringing his glass to his mouth. ‘You know what I do.’
‘I think I know.’
‘As you said, I sell dreams. But at a price. Some say the price is the cost of morality, or virtue. I say it is just a test. As the years have gone on – and I have been doing this a long, long, time, Rupe, not just here but in other establishments, on street corners, in darkened alleys, and in the corners of people’s most disturbing but unspoken thoughts – I have found the parameters have changed. It used to be so much simpler to outrage. To test. There was a time that proposing adultery was unthinkable. But today …’ Mr Hermes shakes his head sadly, and finally takes a drink from his glass. He sets it down, and shakes the glass so the ice rattles melodically. ‘Declining standards, Rupert. Declining standards. Deteriorating morality. I should enjoy the disintegration of our scruples, but the truth is that it’ll be the end of us all.’
‘Then why do it—’
‘Because it is a necessity. For the lack of a better term, people want to believe in magic.’
‘Magic?’ Rupe arches one brow.
‘Perhaps it is best called opportunity. There is magic in opportunity, in the boundless potential of what could be. But this is an art. I could propose the outrageous – such as bestiality, just for example. But there would be some ingrate or degenerate who’d be more than happy to comply when the reward is a million dollars.’
Rupe splutters into his drink. ‘A million dollars? This isn’t for real, is it?’
‘Here, our fantasies are real. That’s why Prudence exists. Why I’m here. But this position becomes more demanding. It takes a studious eye to determine what lies at the heart of one’s fears, what cripples them … or at the very least repulses them. In the end, you could consider me a liberator of fears, inhibitions, and conformity.’
‘And what lies on the other side of that?’
‘Or perhaps chaos.’ Mr Hermes purses his lips. His face looks particularly skeletal. ‘Perhaps you should abide here. Or abound. Lust is a marvellous salve. And there is freedom like you have ever known – not liberty, which imposes upon us laws and rules, but genuine freedom to do as we will.’
Noah enters the lounge and strides right over to Mr Hermes’s booth, sliding in with familiarity. His shoulders are slumped, his head bowed.
‘I was fired,’ he says.
‘My nephew,’ Mr Hermes explains to Rupe, before turning to Noah. ‘Then I guess your dreams of avarice will just have to come through hard work.’
‘The hard way’s not fair. I should have my father’s—’
‘Your father left his position – and your inheritance – in trust with me until I deemed you ready to handle it.’
‘Just as it was for your older brother. But he quickly proved his worth. Of course, your brother was not the reckless and irresponsible teenager you were, Noah. ’
‘This is not a negotiation, Noah.’
Noah lowers his head, his jaw bulging as he clenches his teeth.
‘See?’ Mr Hermes says to Rupe. ‘The youth of today – greed. And I set the boy such an easy temptation. Could he prostitute himself? Many would find it simple. Enjoyable. Not Noah. He is rare, a mortal throwback.’ He narrows his eyes at Noah. ‘If you found that distasteful, you’ll find your father’s and my business far more unpalatable.’
‘I nearly managed it.’
‘One thing you must learn in life, Noah, is that you either accomplish or fail. There is no in-between. So, tell me: are you ready to go again?’