Dante drifts into the Red Lounge, his phone pressed to his ear. His call to Flavia doesn’t connect. He checks his phone. It has three bars of reception, so that’s not the problem – at least not on his side. But given all the brick, there must be areas where reception is dubious, which begs the question of where Flavia is. Dante puts his phone away. He’ll try again in five minutes, although he’s already tried three times.
He takes a seat at the bar and orders a Bourbon & Coke. The barmaid, Providence, mixes it deftly. Dante stares at her rounded hips, at the size of her breasts. She is intimidatingly statuesque. He’s never had a woman like that, and doesn’t understand his sudden captivation. Like many men, he appreciates beautiful women, but this appreciation has something else about it, something that doesn’t entirely sit comfortably, and which he tries to wrestle with.
‘Problem?’ Providence asks.
Dante is about to tell her he’s lost contact with his girlfriend. His hand goes into his pocket and feels the ring box there. Providence smiles at him. It’s a great smile. Dante would like to see her face contorted into a variety of other expressions. Of course, he knows that’s not going to happen. And he justifies now that his objectification is nothing more than harmless fantasizing, although he wonders if this is all simply a way to try rationalise what happened in the gaming room with the Icon Patricia – this is all harmless fun. Nobody is getting hurt. Or at least that’s what he tells himself.
‘I’ve gotten separated from my friends,’ Dante says.
‘That happens. Prudence is like a city unto itself.’
She pushes his Bourbon & Coke across the bar. He hands her a twenty.
‘Keep it,’ he says.
‘Thank you.’ Providence sticks the money in the register, but doesn’t pocket any change.
Dante leans one elbow against the bar, trying to look as casual as possible as he surveys the people in the Red Lounge. There’s only a few, and the bulk of them are men, handsome with dark, brooding façades, square-jaws, and gym-junky builds. They could be models retained to create a profile of flawless clientele – striking, silent men who are perfect frozen in this snapshot. They highlight to Dante how imperfect he is. He should be airbrushed out of this shot.
‘Looking for somebody in particular?’ Providence asks.
‘Where are all the women?’
‘The place is filled with them.’
‘Not in here.’
‘It fluctuates. What’re you looking for?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You don’t know?’
‘Maybe you’ll never know.’
Dante grins at her, although he’s worried he’s coming across as oafish. Marcus is the master of expressions: he could be an actor with a library of responses to call upon depending on whoever he’s talking to. Quinn always has that babyface naivety, although that’s appealing in its way. No doubt, that’s what entranced Amber. Dante doesn’t think he has anything as flattering. He’s always worried he comes across as a clod.
‘How about you?’ he asks.
‘I’m on duty.’
‘When do you get off?’
Dante appreciates how cliché this sounds, and knows he is horribly ill-equipped to use such a line. She should laugh at him now. Or roll her eyes. Or walk away. Or, worse, throw his drink in his face. Or even summon security to toss him. Dante sees each scenario play out in his mind. But Providence does none of this. She leans over the bar so her face is inches from Dante.
‘Do you really think you could handle me?’ she asks.
Dante has a moment of indecision – he should back off. But he feels reckless after the events of the night. As wrong as it is, he decides to double down. There’s still no harm being done.
‘I could try,’ he says.
‘What if I said let’s go for it right now?’
Providence unbuttons the top button of her vest, teasing a glimpse of her bulbous cleavage. Dante can see the swell of her left breast. The sight shouldn’t fluster him as it does, but it’s not the sight itself, but Providence’s confidence. These things aren’t meant to happen – least of all not to him.
‘What if I said I could take you somewhere private just sixty seconds away and you could have your way with me?’ she asks. ‘Do you think you could handle me?’
‘Would you?’ Dante’s eyes flit around the Lounge. ‘Really say that, I mean?’ There’s nowhere he can see that offers immediate privacy, although the back corner, behind the mirrored octagon, is secluded. He swallows nervously from his drink. He cannot believe what he’s said. He should’ve been like Marcus. Marcus would’ve been equally as aggressive. Would’ve counter-attacked. He’s unsure why he’s back to trying to emulate Marcus – perhaps because Dante himself feels so out of his depth.
Providence reaches across the bar and puts a hand on his arm. Her cleavage is more apparent. He should lean in and kiss her; that’s exactly what he should do. Instead, he jumps when she touches him. Sweat trickles down the sides of his face. She pulls back.
‘I don’t think you could handle me,’ she says.
Dante laughs. She is right. And he accepts that there’s no shame in that. This is his lot. She could take him in her hands, scrunch him up, and dump him into a wastebasket. That in itself is about as big a honour as he deserves.
‘I think not.’ He finishes his Bourbon & Coke, swallows some of the ice into his mouth, and slides the empty glass across the bar. ‘Do you do that with all your customers?’
‘Just the ones I want to prey on.’ Providence puts the empty glass into the sink, grabs another, and shovels some ice into it.
‘Why? Why would you want to do that?’
‘Most men are like lions born and bred in captivity. Sure, they’re fearsome in that habitat. But take them out of their zoos, put them back in the wild, and they just don’t know how to survive.’
Providence slides the Bourbon & Coke across the bar. Dante reaches for some money. Providence holds up a hand.
‘On me,’ she says.
‘Thanks.’ Dante takes a sip. She’s made it strong. ‘So what was the purpose of this little interplay?’
Providence buttons up her vest. ‘Just wanted you to know you’re in the jungle now,’ she says.
‘What’s that mean?’
‘Just watch out who you try to bite.’
* * *
Marcus doesn’t know how the Icons wear these outfits. The crotch pinches, the armpits scratch, and the leathers are too hot. He just wants to be out of it. Of course – and now he can’t help grinning, as two members of security escort him to his assigned gaming room – that’ll happen soon enough.
He thinks he should be nervous. There should be a shortness of breath or his heart should thump. But there’s just excitement. He can’t believe it, but he really wants to do this – is looking forward to it more than he’s looked forward to anything recently.
When he steps into the gaming room, the first thing that greets him are the cheers and wolf whistles. He holds a hand up. Faces confront him – too many to take in at once. Most seem older than him, though – in their thirties. He guesses they’re bored housewives out for a night on the town. At the back is a small twenty-something group deliriously excited, one with a sash declaring her the bride – a hen’s party. In the opposite corner are several older women, possibly in their forties. More power to them.
Marcus throws his arms up and pivots on his heel as he makes his way to the table. ‘Ladies, the show is back on!’ he says. ‘And I am the damned prize!’ He folds his hands behind his head, gyrates his hips and feels corny doing it, but is gratified when the women roar. ‘All righty! Let’s get down to it!’ He takes a book of raffle tickets out of his pocket and waves them in the air. ‘Who wants a ticket?’
The women surge forward. Marcus backs into the table, fearing he’ll be crushed. Even though they’re only women (well, that is how he sees them), there’s so many of them and he understands that a delicate balance must be maintained. He is at their mercy, but they can’t realise it. He must control them, just as they should be controlled.
‘Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Ladies!’ Marcus thrusts his hands at them, like a traffic cop gesturing for cars to stop. ‘Let’s take it easy!’
He pushes his hands back again and the women pause, then take a step back. They survey him hungrily. Their eyes consume him. Marcus unbuttons the top button of his vest. Some of the women are still, but others cheer or laugh. This is so easy, and empowering, to control them at a whim, but he has always been good at seduction, although never on such a large scale. The cheap titillation empowers him.
‘Okay,’ he says. ‘Calmly and coolly, who wants a ticket?’
‘I’ll take them all.’
The voice cuts through the din; Marcus is sure who it is. The heads of the women turn. The group parts. Holly stands there, a stack of cash in her hand. She strides down the aisle the women have formed and right up to Marcus.
‘You can’t do that!’ one of the women says. She’s perhaps thirty-five, with black hair and a little plump. There’s a sadness in her eyes and her face is too heavily made-up. Marcus assumes she is married to some loser, and this is an escape for her. Holly imagines she’s married to somebody overbearing, and her struggle to make it work leaves her disconsolate.
‘This guy’s my fiancé,’ Holly says.
Her eyes don’t leave Marcus’s. He’s seen her angry – plenty of times. Usually she screams and rants and gesticulates. She’s never like this, as if the rage has transcended all reflexes and diluted her anger into this tight focus. Only one thing could make her like this, although he doesn’t know how she would’ve found out. He decides it’s best to be oblivious.
‘Too bad,’ the plump woman says. ‘You can’t protect him by hoarding all the tickets. He’s open slather.’
‘Who said anything about protecting him?’ Holly asks. ‘We’ve got issues to deal with.’
‘Take it to a marriage counsel—’
Holly’s head cocks back. She glowers at the woman, who falls silent.
‘You know, I’d love to entertain you, Holly,’ Marcus says, ‘but you couldn’t afford this whole book of tickets.’ He waggles them in front of her face.
Holly puts her money away. Marcus is sure he’s dissuaded her. But instead she grabs a cue from the rack on the wall.
‘Let’s play tit for tat,’ she says, chalking the tip of her cue. ‘You win, I strip. I win, you strip.’
Marcus likes the idea – a contest; moreover, it’s a contest he’s sure he’ll win. She’s good at pool, but not as good as him. He’d like to strip her, item by item, in front of a crowd, and show her – and everybody else in here – just who’s in charge. It’s a lesson in love, relationships, and roles.
‘You’re just gonna make a fool of yourself,’ he says, knowing that no warning will stop her now. This is Holly: she is indignant. She will pursue this regardless of the circumstances.
‘Wouldn’t be the first time,’ she says.
‘Okay.’ Marcus darts around the table, fishing the balls out of the pockets. ‘I’m gonna send you out of here with your tail between your legs, then I’m gonna give these ladies the show they deserve.’
As he grabs the rack and sets up the balls, the plump black-haired woman goes up to Holly and puts a reassuring hand on her shoulder. ‘No offense, honey,’ she says, ‘but I’m starting to get the feeling you’re engaged to a prick.’
The comment’s indiscreet. Marcus knows he was meant to have overheard it. Just like that, the mood in the room has changed. There’s no heady anticipation. When Marcus surveys the women, he sees recrimination. Typically, they’ve bonded behind Holly. He should excuse himself, say he has to piss maybe, then just not come back. That will get him in trouble with Constance, but so what? The only thing which stops him is he refuses to let a group of women – even a mob – intimidate him. Anyway, security remain in the doorway.
He takes the rack from the table. ‘You want to break?’ he asks Holly. ‘Or should I?’
* * *
Teo opens the door to Constance’s office. Patricia, wrapped back in her towel, exits, not looking back. She knows it wouldn’t be wise and Teo can’t blame her. The tension has clogged his lungs. The sound of the door closing is like a starting pistol. Constance stands up straight. She is always imperious, and there is always the hint of underlying menace, the stringency of her authority, but now she is terrible also. Any of her employees would bow their heads, afraid to meet her gaze. Not Joy, though. Hands on the hip, butt cocked jauntily, satchel resting on her belly, she glares at Constance.
‘I asked it before,’ Constance says, ‘and I’ll ask it again: who are you?’
‘Do you remember when you first came here, Constance?’ Joy asks. ‘You were an arrogant, spoilt girl. However, you were also methodical. Calculating – at least once you got straight.’ She walks to Constance’s bar and traces a finger across the various bottles. ‘Age has brought you wisdom and maturity.’ She turns. ‘You’ve grown up. Maybe, worse than that, you’ve outgrown Prudence.’
Constance laughs. ‘Did that old fool send you?’ she asks.
‘He is a fool,’ Joy says, ‘but he’s merely a face, isn’t he?’ She approaches Constance. ‘Prudence is greater than one man, or one organisation, or even us. It’s an institution.’
‘The way you handled Patricia—’
‘Is the way you would’ve handled her, once upon a time. You’ve grown complacent. You’ve grown,’ Joy reaches out and, as if for emphasis, pokes Constance in the left side of her chest, ‘soft.’
‘Teo, get this woman out—’
Joy fires a hand at Teo, one finger pointing to condemn him. ‘Stay!’
Teo had been in the process of kicking off to cross the distance as quickly as possible, but now he is frozen. He recognises the command in Joy’s voice. He hears it in Constance’s every night. But there is something different about Joy – that lack of familiarity he hears with Constance. Joy’s tone is cold but flawless. It is the only thing Teo hears and it incapacitates him.
‘Even calling for your footpad,’ Joy says, ‘is such a sign of weakness.’
‘So be it,’ Constance says. She tries to maintain her nonchalance, but her voice is far away and a roar fills her ears. ‘Just between us, then.’
‘Just between us,’ Joy says. ‘But not for much longer.’