Prudence

Prudence: Chapter 8b

Holly’s rage is the anchor that keeps her rooted to the floor. She should flee – crawl out on hands and knees if necessary. All the other patrons have fled. That’s what you do in dangerous situations: it’s fight or flight, and nearly everybody has wisely taken the flight option.

That means she wants to fight.

That option firms in her head, but then grows ablaze. She doesn’t just want to fight. She wants to destroy. She wants to see Mr Hermes razed to ashes, and here is an opportunity: two gunmen and this aging blonde. Holly should be frightened, but she is eerily calm, and able to survey the situation clinically.

The gunmen are focused on Mr Hermes. They have no interest in anybody else. Holly wants to urge them to finish what they’ve started, although she recognises there is never a prudent time to address anybody holding a gun.

The solution is much simpler: if they don’t see this through, she will.

She glances at the gun shoved down the front of Noah’s pants.

‘Wait!’

Joy strides into the restaurant, Rupe bounding behind her like an adoring puppy. Flames dance around her, allowing an unencumbered path, some – Holly believing it a trick of her imagination – twisting and shaping fleetingly into towering wraiths revelling in the mayhem. She can hear their sweet cries, mesmeric and undeniable.

‘What’ve you done?’ Joy asks, arms held wide.

She indicates the restaurant burning around them. I can feel it seizing hold, scorching my bricks, ravaging the stucco finish, incinerating fittings, and spreading through the walls. This isn’t just fire, though. It’s anger. It’s lust. It’s the decadence that abounds here – and has abounded here since my doors opened. But now it is unleashing, seeking its own freedom to wreak an unspeakable, irreconcilable havoc not just upon those here, but everywhere.

‘This is not his concern,’ Constance says, pointing at Rupe.

‘You’ve made it everybody’s concern!’ Joy says.

‘No.’ Constance looks at Mr Hermes. ‘Just ours.’

‘Walk away,’ Joy says.

‘Would you?’ Constance says.

‘It’s my time.’

Constance takes a step up to Joy. Sweat pours from her, staining her t-shirt and matting her hair yet, as always, she remains majestic, unbowed.

‘No, not yet,’ she says. ‘If you had a fraction of intelligence, of foresight of what lies ahead, you would turn away. Go.’ Then, she waves at Rupe, and almost as if scoffing, adds, ‘Take him! Have a life beyond these walls.’

Joy looks at Rupe. Everybody pauses. Even the flames seem to hold still.

Mr Hermes cackles. ‘You,’ he says, ‘all so petty, all so greedy. For what little thing? Some small semblance of control? For some inkling of power? It is delicious. You little fools. You’re no more than pawns, the lot of you.’

And each of the people who have dealt extensively with Mr Hermes know this is true. They have coveted what has been afforded them until they have lost sight of everything else. It has been seductive and addictive, something they have not only wanted to hold onto, but which they’ve hoped would elevate them.

All but Holly, who has waited quietly, who hasn’t sought any form of self-aggrandisement, and has only lamented what she has sacrificed: control, and control for something she thought was real – her love for Marcus. Her life has been a series of illusions. Now she is dealing with reality: it is up to her, and in this realisation she is unleashed.

She grabs the pistol from Noah’s waistline and, roaring, springs to her feet and charges Hermes. Rupe instinctively reaches for her. Boyd and Ox part, as if understanding her intent and allowing her the best target available. She fires one shot. The bullet thuds into the wall just above Mr Hermes’s shoulder. He is unmoved, unflinching, smiling at her. The gun kicks up in Holly’s hand. She readjusts her aim but arms close around her, and hands clench her wrist. She is spun and disarmed. It is Noah. He restrains her, a lover’s embrace.

‘Sorry,’ he says, then holds the gun limply into the air, to show everybody it’s under control. ‘Sorry!’

His hand tightens around the grip of the gun and he thrusts it at Constance.

‘Sorry,’ he says again.

Constance blanches. Boyd moves to cover her, Ox to intercept Noah.

Mr Hermes chuckles.

Noah pivots and aims the gun at him.

Mr Hermes’s eyes go wide.

Noah fires.

* * *

There’s nobody in the change rooms. Clothes lie strewn across the floor and on chairs, and make-up is upended on tables.

Dante heads to the doorway, and stares out at the hallway. Sounds are dim here, and he pushes one ear forward, as if that’ll help him determine what he’s hearing. It’s not the general hubbub of the crowd. There are cries. Shouts. People hollering to one another. It is the cacophony of panic.

He should leave, but what Patricia’s has done holds him here. She has sacrificed something in urging him to go, but at what cost? He feels it now. The heartbeat. My heartbeat, thumping so it vibrates through everybody and everything, uniting us all to the same harmony, and now infusing us with discord.

He heads into the change room and down the stairwell, making his way to the doorway that led out to his balcony. Patricia is there, zipping up her jeans. Her jaw is clenched, her lower lip thrust out petulantly.

Dante throws out a hand. ‘Come on.’

‘What’re you doing back here?’

Come on!’ Dante shakes his hand once more.

‘Are you mad?’

Dante doesn’t know why he thinks it but he’s sure if he gets Patricia out of here, she’ll be safe. But if she remains, she’ll be consigned to some unspeakable lot. Perhaps that’s who the people down there are in their masks – those who rebuked temptation or lost themselves to the seduction.

And the simpler truth is he knows if he leaves her, he’ll always regret this decision – she could still rebuke him, but he has to know that he tried.

‘Please.’ Dante thrusts out his hand again.

Patricia no sooner takes his hand than he’s pulling her from the balcony, up the stairwell and back into the change rooms. Still they’re empty. It wouldn’t matter if they weren’t. Nobody is going to get in his way now.

* * *

Quinn charges Savage, holding the chair aloft, aware of faces in the restaurant turning to him. Everything is a blur, or seems that way – everything but Savage. Quinn is sure he should close the distance in seconds, but Savage moves almost as if he belongs in a different timeframe.

He spins Amber away, and, in the same motion, kicks. The sole of his boot – Quinn noticing fur tassels hang from their golden buckles – thunders into Quinn’s chest. The sound of the impact is an explosion. Quinn’s breath bursts from his mouth. He flies backward and hits the floor, the collision sounding like another explosion. The chair sails from his grip, and bounces off a table. More explosions.

‘Quinn!’

Amber immediately kneels by his side, cradling his head in her lap. This is what she did in the game he injured his knee, charging down from the bleachers, pushing through players and coaches, and kneeling beside him to comfort and assure him as the doctor examined him.

She glowers at Savage. ‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing?’ she says.

‘He came at me with a chair!’ Savage says.

‘Quinn? Quinn, are you okay?’

Amber caresses his cheek and kisses his forehead. Her hands are cool and Quinn smells alcohol on her – he’s unsure what. His chest feels locked. He tries to tell Amber he cannot breathe but the words emerge tiny and unintelligible. Some people gather around. Others hurry out. Quinn closes his eyes. He’s sure the pain will pass, but the embarrassment will endure. More explosions rock through the restaurant but he identifies now they’re coming from somewhere else.

‘Quinn, tell me you’re okay.’

Quinn’s chest heaves. He opens his eyes and nods in Amber’s hands. She kisses him on the lips, her fingertips tracing the curve of his cheek. Savage leans forward and offers his hand to Quinn. Quinn grasps Savage’s hand. Savage hauls him up effortlessly and, as Quinn gasps for breath, the first thing he notices is the whiff of smoke.

‘I can’t talk …’ Quinn says, his voice barely audible, aware that Savage is still staring – glowering – at him.

‘I’ll get you something.’ Amber rushes to the bar.

‘This your plan?’ Savage asks. ‘To appear the hero?’

For a second, Quinn doesn’t understand. But then it clicks: Savage thinks this was all a ploy so Quinn could run in, rescue his girlfriend, and appear the jealous but loving boyfriend rescuing her from a predator.

Quinn doesn’t know what to tell Savage. Savage is unflinching, and Quinn fears this could erupt into violence – Savage has already shown how adept he is. Quinn lowers his head, eyes bleary. And then, to his surprise, Savage claps him companionably on the back.

‘It’s okay,’ Savage says. ‘I guess you’ve worked out what you want.’

‘Yeah,’ Quinn says, and then, with greater conviction: ‘Yeah.’

Amber returns with a glass of water, which Quinn downs in one gulp.

Smoke seeps through the walls and curls towards the ceiling. Somebody screams, ‘Fire!’, and it becomes an alarm that is echoed. People rush from the restaurant. Quinn is caught in the exodus. He throws a hand out, and catches Amber’s wrist. Savage is separated behind them, but that suits Quinn fine.

‘Quinn!’ Amber says. ‘What’s happening?’

Quinn shrugs as they march from the restaurant. In the juncture, flames dance from the archway to the Blue Lounge, shooting across the hallway. The opposing wall is ignited, immersing the ceiling. It is impossible how quick the fire spreads. I feel it in my bones.

Security and staff (at least those who have not fled) do their best to control the situation. Some have fire extinguishers and blast them into the archway, but to little avail. Others try to marshal patrons out, but there is little order. Most bustle against one another, often stumbling, several tripping and trampled.

Quinn tries to process what he’s seeing, and then work out the best course from here.

Amber eases her wrist from his hand, and then takes his hand, clenching it firmly. ‘Hold onto me,’ she says, ‘no matter what.’

Quinn smiles. ‘No matter what,’ he says.

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