Boyd and Ox no longer drink with the abandon of earlier. Their eyes flit nervously among passers-by and their conversation is hardly as glib, although if somebody were to overhear them they would think it as meaningless as ever.
‘That brunette’s panty-less,’ Boyd says
He points with the neck of his Gallia at two women who walk past. The brunette is in a tight pink dress that shapes the curves of her buttocks. Her friend is a tall woman wearing a mini skirt.
‘The other one’s wearing a … a …’ Boyd’s eyes narrow speculatively.
‘Am guessing she’s also going commando,’ Ox says.
‘Gotta look out for her on the dance floor.’
A fair man with a wealth of curly hair and designer beard passes, leaving a wake of rank cologne.
Ox theatrically waves a hand in front of his face. ‘Is that meant to pass for cool?’
‘Hopefully it’s just meant to pass,’ Boyd says.
‘If there’s one thing about places like this, it’s brings out the try hards.’
‘You’d think there’d be some authenticity here.’
‘Can get authenticity from people who don’t know who they are.’
Boyd toasts Ox in agreement.
Prince appears behind them, leaning over the bar. ‘Guys,’ he says, ‘what’s this proving?’
‘What isn’t this proving?’ Boyd asks.
‘It isn’t proving that you’re not a pair of primordial dickwads,’ Prince says.
‘Prince, that cuts,’ Ox says. ‘That really does.’
A short but statuesque blond dressed in hot pants and an equally tight and short vest walks by.
‘She just had sex,’ Ox says.
‘Yep.’ Boyd nods. ‘She’s got fuck-me bruises.’
‘Fuck-me bruises?’ Prince asks.
‘On her hamstrings,’ Boyd says.
‘Comes from her ankles up on her guy’s shoulders, the guy’s hands clawing into her legs,’ Ox says, mimicking the action.
‘You can always tell a woman who’s had sex that way.’
‘You guys are kidding me,’ Prince says.
‘How do you tell the guys who’ve just had sex?’
‘Most of the time?’ Boyd says. ‘By the stupid grins. Well, stupider grins.’
‘See all the small and insignificant things we notice, Prince?’ Ox says.
‘But that’s all they are,’ Prince says. ‘Small and insignificant, unless you work out a way to put them to some use, and I can’t see that such a way exists. Trying to impress me with them isn’t going to cut it. You’re coming across as nothing but a pair of throwbacks.’
Boyd laughs – a hearty, good-natured laugh at his own expense, which makes me think, possibly for the first time ever in relation to these two, that their flippancy is a cover for something greater, something they work hard not only to conceal, but distract others from, just as they’ve distracted Prince these many years.
‘Prince, we’re not trying to impress you,’ Boyd says. ‘This is what we do.’
‘This is who we are,’ Ox says.
‘We’re just trying to demonstrate that we notice things.’
Prince leans forward on the bar, sensing what I’ve picked up. He looks from one, to the other, and back again, then pulls back, unnerved. These two have never given him cause for concern – they’ve never given anybody cause for concern, sitting their drinking as they do each night. In the early months when Prince first met them, he would marvel at their inactivity. But, after a while, Prince acclimated to them, and accepted them as part of the furnishings.
In the world outside these walls, Prince’s life is hectic and full, and he’s always been sure of not only his own place in the world, but the places of the people around him. Now he’s not so sure. Now he fears that these two men who he has served beers for so long, with whom he has had meaningless exchange after meaningless exchange, with whom he has developed something of a friendship, are not the people he thinks. They are something darker wearing masks of flippancy to fool everybody around them – well, everybody but Constance. Surely she would know.
Prince’s curiosity gets the better of him, and he knows he shouldn’t, he tells himself he shouldn’t, but he decides to probe.
‘Do you ever notice anything with perhaps a bit of meaning?’ he asks.
‘Of course we do.’
Prince braces himself, almost regretful he has pursued this conversation. He knows it can’t go anywhere he would like. Still, he forces the next word from his mouth: ‘Like?’
‘You ever notice how hot it gets in here?’ Boyd asks.
‘Yeah. Of course.’
‘Every club’s hot. You get an enclosed area full of people, it gets stuffy. Have always thought here’s worse. Don’t know what it is. I tell a lie. I think I do but … maybe I don’t know. It’s damn hot in here. You’d think you’d get used to it, us coming here as long as we have, the way we have. But you don’t. Of course, you never do with heat. It’s like summer when there’s a heatwave. You’d think when you get a string of hot days that at some point, you’d acclimate. You don’t, though. You just wait for the heat to break. Sometimes, when it goes long enough and you get desperate enough, you pray for it to break.’
Boyd lifts his Gallia to his lips, but has second thoughts about taking a drink. He presses the bottle to the side of his neck.
‘’Course, you get out there in the juncture, and you feel that cool breeze waft in from outside. Just funnels right down the hall there. Sweet relief. Sometimes, at the end of the night when we’re going, I just stand there, close my eyes, and revel in it, revel in it like I know the heat’s at an end and the change is coming. So, you know what else I notice, Prince?’
Boyd’s soliloquy has overwhelmed Prince. Never in all the time Boyd’s come here has he spoken uninterrupted and as earnestly for such length. Prince becomes conscious of the beads of sweat on his temple that break and race down his cheeks, and the way Ox sits up straight, hulking, until he dwarfs everybody around him. Patrons coming to the bar give him a wide berth, like he is a tethered vicious dog who might snap at them if they get too close.
‘There’s a change coming,’ Boyd says. ‘But it’s not getting cooler.’
* * *
As Flavia follows LeBeau, her legs tremble and her heart thumps so hard she is sure each beat will be the last. She wants to dismiss that it’s guilt, and tells herself that perhaps it’s the bass from the music or, likelier, the drug she took. The sweat beads on her forehead. Her dress is scratchy against her skin.
Now every small thing she notices is pronounced and overwhelming – from the way the strap of her shoes cut into her heels; to the tightness of her dress; to the bounce of her hair on her neck; to the air that wafts across her face; to the shadows that play about LeBeau’s figure.
This is madness to give herself to LeBeau. And for what? A career? Revenge? Neither motive is right. It’s not too late to decline LeBeau and call it a night, but part of herself that she wants to deny is excited about what the outcome of this tryst might be.
As LeBeau leads them through the array of gaming rooms, Flavia’s only reservation is that they might bump into Dante. Such a possibility should horrify her. What would she say? Hey, Dante, this is Edan LeBeau. He wants to fuck me. But the possibility doesn’t horrify her. There’s no revulsion. In fact, there’s almost a perverse glee. Yes, Dante should see her, just as she saw him with that stripper, or whatever she was. See how he likes it.
Although, of course, she’s sure that Dante didn’t take it further. He wouldn’t have. Somebody like Marcus might. Marcus is sociopathic that way. Flavia has known men like him, who treat women as a conquest. She sees it in his relationship with Holly; he treats her as a trophy he has won. But Dante is all bluster. He would’ve flirted, felt good about himself, and then possibly even sought her out so he could engage in some vicarious fantasy, using some tacky lines that would most likely appal her. That’s Dante’s way. If the stripper would’ve reciprocated, it would’ve frightened him.
LeBeau is like neither. Marcus is arrogant. He expects things because he is good looking and charismatic, and doesn’t understand when something doesn’t fall his away. He carries with him a sense of entitlement. Dante is diffident. He meekly plots his course through the world, surprised when something beneficial happens to him. He is like a beaten dog begging for scraps. But LeBeau is confident to the point he is prescient. He has had interactions like this so many times he has learned to read people, to anticipate their responses, and to subtly manipulate them to the outcome he desires.
It’s why now he has moved with purpose. They have passed through the gaming rooms. Flavia doesn’t know where they are now. The music has faded so that she can only imagine hearing it. The light dims. There’s no sign of people. The walls aren’t the same red bricks either. They’re darker, like marble, only rough. There are big brown doors in them. The private rooms, perhaps? It’s foolish, but Flavia’s sure they’re somewhere else altogether now, that they’ve absconded through some secret passageway into some other establishment.
They reach the end of the hallway. At first, Flavia doesn’t realise a man lurks in the shadows. He’s dressed in black, and wears black sunglasses. Then his head swivels towards them; his sudden smile is two big rows of white teeth that might open up and snap them in half. LeBeau expects his movement, but Flavia jumps.
‘Prometheus,’ LeBeau says.
‘Mr LeBeau,’ Prometheus says, inclining his head.
He opens the door. A stairwell plummets into a small antechamber, dim light seeping in from a hallway which shoots off from it.
Flavia has heard the stories of what goes on in the basement – sex games; an underground realm; a secret society where sex is currency, reward, and punishment all at once. Of course, they are stories. Nobody she knows has ever been in the basement. Stories are always relayed via a friend of a friend of a friend, and such retellings always come with embellishment. Well, that is what Flavia tells herself, and tries to hold onto, as a new certainty punctures her numbed mind: those stories are in no way big or wild enough to genuinely reflect the truth.
LeBeau takes her hand.
Flavia holds her ground.
LeBeau grins wryly at her. ‘Well?’
Flavia looks over her shoulder. She can’t see more than ten feet. She strains to hear music, to hear people, but there’s only silence now, other than for her heartbeat echoing in her ears. Dante is somewhere back there. The perverse glee evaporates. Dante, so meek, so loving, and usually so devoted.
All that remains now is the guilt.
Flavia closes her eyes and tells herself that if it’s meant to be with Dante, he’ll contact her in the next ten seconds. Her phone will ring. Or vibrate. It’ll be Dante suggesting they get together for a drink. It’ll mean they’re meant to be and, with that being the case, she’ll turn and head right back out of here.
Time stops. LeBeau awaits her. As does Prometheus. But neither says anything. There’s only stillness, and a dull roar in her ears as she counts – counts so slow that her ten amounts to twenty-five seconds. She wills Dante to contact her, and when nothing’s forthcoming she forces the interpretation that it’s a rebuke. That’s how simple it is.
This is her fallback. She sees that now. She has always used this as if some higher power, some cosmic divinity, could impress upon her Dante’s love by organising some whimsical connection that can validate their love. But it has never happened.
She wants to tell herself that this need is mere superstition, a desire to prove the merits of their relationship, and that love is built on proven tangibles, like the way Dante occasionally surprises her with breakfast in bed, or the way he has held her when she’s come back from unsuccessful interviews, or the way he’ll whisper he loves her after they have had sex and he has orgasmed.
But logic is overriden. The sign here is simple: perhaps it’s just not meant to be, and that her career is more important – a rationalisation, no doubt, and one that Flavia knows may come back to haunt her, but her thoughts are scrambled, and in this moment it is just her, LeBeau, and whatever future she can wrangle from this tryst.
LeBeau’s hand tightens around hers.
She opens her eyes.
LeBeau tugs her hand.
They go down the stairs.
Prometheus closes the door behind them.