Prudence

Prudence: Chapter 6b

Quinn sits in a toilet cubical, elbows on his knees, head bowed into his hands, eyes clenched to stem the tears. The bathroom reeks of disinfectant. They must pump it in for it to remain this strong at this time of night. Perhaps it’s a way to keep people from congregating in the bathroom for too long, or perhaps it’s just a constant antiseptic safeguard.

For Quinn, it’s irrelevant. He’s not moving.

The bathroom door swings open.

Laughter.

Then footsteps, heading across to the urinals.

‘You see that blonde?’ one voice says. It’s deep but coarse, the sound of somebody who’s been smoking too heavily for too long, although Quinn pictures the man as young with bronzed skin, a cleft in his chin, and black hair. He has a Cockney accent, which makes him sound jocular. Next comes the sound of somebody urinating. Then it’s echoed.

‘In the red dress?’ another voice asks. This is smoother, oily almost, although the French accent makes it almost comical. Quinn bets the man is dark and athletic and has never had a woman decline him. ‘Or the one with the little top?’

‘Little top.’

‘Yeah.’

‘What do you think my chances are?’

‘That shit she was doing with you on the dance floor was indecent.’

Husky Voice laughs.

Quinn knows nothing about these men, and he knows they’re not talking about Amber, but he recognises they’re predatory. Like Marcus. They see something they want, they hunt it. Women aren’t women. They’re conquests. And yet what’s he done? Taken the one thing he had and gave it to somebody to pillage.

Planting his elbows into his thighs, Quinn drops his head into his hands. He can’t believe he’s done this. He should leave now – collect his money from Mr Hermes, pay off his debts, take a little for himself, and leave the rest to Amber as an apology. Maybe he could start over somewhere, although he’s sure that wherever he goes, he’ll always carry the shame of what he’s done.

Of course, he can’t collect until Savage consummates the deed. That he will consummate it is a certainty, although Quinn doesn’t know why. Amber’s always been faithful, has always been chaste, but perhaps that’s what makes it a certainty – she’s a lamb to Savage. The thought twists Quinn up so tight he’s sure it’ll tear him apart and leave him shredded on the floor. He sobs, a guffaw that explodes from his throat, and clunks a hand against the wall of the cubical to steady himself.

‘Hey, man, you okay in there?’ This comes from Husky Voice.

Quinn looks up through bleary eyes, then dries them with a fist.

‘Hey?’

‘I’m fine!’

‘Okay, man. Just asking.’

As Quinn leans back on the toilet, he hears the footsteps move to the sinks, then running water. The image of Amber with her legs wrapped around Savage’s hips, Savage spinning her around flashes through his mind but now it transforms into them naked, Amber shrieking as Savage drives himself into her again and again.

Quinn collapses shapelessly onto the floor, leans against the toilet bowl, and dry retches as the sound of hand driers fills the bathroom. The toilet water reeks of antiseptic. Quinn’s eyes water and the smell fills his mouth. The hand driers silence. Footsteps head out.

Quinn bows his head.

He’s alone.

* * *

Rupe knows it’s foolish to remain any longer. As he takes a seat at the North Bar and orders a Vermouth, he concludes he’s foolish to be coming here at all. Around him, there are young faces, people vibrant with energy. He is a relic.

He takes out his wallet. In one of the plastic pockets is a picture of his wife, smiling in front of a tree. Her smile is mischievous. There is a similarity to Joy – at least vaguely. He took the picture in the park, just an hour before she died, collapsing as they shared waffles at a little outdoor cafe. The picture now has a connection to the sadness which follows.

He strokes her face with his thumb. He is stupid to come here, to chat up women ten years younger than him, if not half his age. There is nowhere any relationship can go. People don’t come here to settle down. They come here to let go.

As for Joy … what was he thinking? There hasn’t been a single man tonight who wasn’t attracted to her, who didn’t lust after her. How could he compete? But he was sure there was something there, although it was likelier a middle-aged man’s foolish whimsy.

Rupe closes his wallet and shoves it into his pocket. The flirting is done. The game is over. He will make one final play for Joy. It will be futile – he is sure of that. But it will put the exclamation mark on his endeavours. Then he will go home, take the gun he keeps for home security from the desk drawer in his study, put it to his temple, and that will be that.

He swallows his Vermouth, slams the glass on the bar, pushes his way through the crowd and heads out into the juncture. People stream past him, as if riding the slipstream of the breeze coming from the lobby. Its coolness dries the sweat on his brow and tickles a chill down his shirt.

Ahead of him looms the stairwell leading up to Constance’s office, guarded by two behemoths. Rupe wavers. Naturally, there would be security. He was stupid – or idealistic, (but perhaps it amounts to the same thing) – to forget them.

Rupe wonders if he could charge them – run right through them while they’re unprepared and race up the stairs. He doesn’t fancy his chances. He has been to clubs and bars and has never seen security so militant, so prepared. It would be easier breaking out of hell than causing trouble here.

He leans against the wall, lifts his head up to the ceiling, and revels in the breeze. He’s never realised it before but this is really the best place to be. There is nowhere cooler, the crowd is thinnest, and the music muffled. It almost gives one room to think.

Rupe closes his eyes. He can wait. That’s the plan. Sooner or later Joy will emerge. Then he will pick up the game they’ve been playing.

And, one way or another, finish it.

* * *

Noah and Mr Hermes stare at one another, almost as if each is daring the other to break the silence. Noah has no idea what to say, though. He has failed. There is not much place to go from here. They both know it. The best option would be to leave.

When Mr Hermes smiles, Noah notices two things for the very first time: that he has never remembered Mr Hermes as being anything other than this old; and that his face is thin, with dark eyes sunk into cavernous pits, high cheekbones, and a grin of manic, if not senseless glee. He’s a skeleton who put on a body of flesh that doesn’t fit right.

‘Shall we begin?’ Mr Hermes asks.

‘Why do you do this?’ Noah asks.

‘That is not the way the game is played, Noah.’

‘I don’t care how the game’s played.’

‘Do you question why the sun comes up? Why there’s crime in the world? Why injustice runs rampant? When you hear of random shootings, do you question whether you should go out and live your life? Or do you hide? Cower? That was your father, Noah.’

Noah glowers at Mr Hermes, an angry rebuke dying on his lips as a waitress brings Mr Hermes another iced water, and Noah a scotch rocks. Mr Hermes lifts his iced water and swirls it, like it was a fine wine whose bouquet he wanted to enjoy.

‘Is everything all right here?’ the waitress, Martina, asks. ‘Can I get you anything else?’

‘We are fine, dear,’ Mr Hermes says.

Martina leaves.

‘Your father and I built our fortunes from nothing but, as the cliché states, blood, sweat, and tears. But your father, he couldn’t enjoy it. He feared losing it. Every day presented a new danger. Inevitably, he locked himself in his house. Locked the world out. Withered away. Became a gibbering old fool with too much power and too little sense. Surely you remember, Noah. Your parents might’ve divorced, you might’ve seen your father little, but surely you remember the man he became.’

Noah drops his gaze from Mr Hermes.

‘Of course you do. I may have my faults, but I lived my life. And then some. I took a kingdom and built it into an unassailable empire.’

‘By cutting my father out—’

‘I did what was necessary, Noah. It had nothing to do with your father. He was my best friend. He married my sister, your mother. But he had become a ship whose hull had been compromised. Like the Titanic. Do you think they stayed aboard trying to keep the ship afloat? No, they understood the need to cut their losses, just as I did. Your father was a brilliant business mind, once upon a time. When he was no longer serviceable, when he was no longer committed to the very ambition we pledged to pursue when we were young, then I had to do what was necessary. What about you, Noah? Can you do what’s necessary?’

Noah picks up his scotch rocks, and takes a sip. He wants to appear debonair, but is sure that Mr Hermes can hear his heartbeat, can see how rapidly his chest heaves to accommodate his breathing, can smell that his sweat is not from the humidity but from fear.

‘Of course—’ he begins.

‘No. You couldn’t even fulfil a simple temptation – the simplest temptation. Who wouldn’t want to prostitute themselves for women? You. You are your father’s son. You have his dreaming spirit, but not his endeavour.’

Noah downs his scotch and, immediately, the waitress is putting another one in front of him and taking his empty glass away. Has Mr Hermes planned this, to ply him with alcohol and make him malleable? Noah doesn’t care. It’ll do for now.

‘Give me another chance,’ he says.

‘How would you like all this?’ Mr Hermes waves his hand idly. ‘Indeed, how would you like your father’s fortune?’

‘How?’

Mr Hermes reaches into his jacket and produces a gun – a silver automatic with a black grip, which he puts on the table between them. Noah’s eyes scan the barrel. Engraved across it are the words SMITH & WESSON. He knows this gun. He’s seen it before.

‘Is that—?’

‘The gun your father used to kill himself. Of course, you know that. You found him, this gun in his hand. With it, he consolidated my fortune.’ Mr Hermes slides the gun across the table to Noah. ‘With it, you can consolidate yours. The question is, will you?’

Noah gulps his scotch, sets the glass down, and picks up the gun. The waitress is by his side, replacing his empty glass with another full one. Noah tries to drag the gun under the table, but hits the edge of the table instead. There’s a clatter which draws the attention of people close by. Then he has it hidden. The waitress is oblivious. She takes his empty glass and leaves.

‘Well, Noah?’

Noah turns back to Mr Hermes.

‘What are you prepared to do?’

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