Prudence

Prudence: Chapter 8d

It’s the heat that hits Dante first. It’s been hot and stuffy all night, but now it’s thick enough in the air that it makes it hard to breathe. He closes his hand tighter around Patricia’s; it’s become so sweaty that he feels it could slip right out.

‘Take a look at that,’ he says, gesturing with a thrust of his chin.

Wisps of smoke undulate across the hallway ceiling.

‘Fire?’ Patricia says.

Dante shrugs, but that’s the likeliest possibility.

They navigate through hallways intersecting the private rooms. The doors to the private rooms are flung wide open and they appear empty. Dante peeks in several as they pass: they are small, like cells, with dishevelled beds – evidence of rapid departures.

They reach the first gaming room. Empty also. The arcade dance machines blink and chirp, prompting players to be ready. There’s nobody at the machines in the rooms that follow. In the first pool room they enter, cues on the floor and balls on the table suggest the game was abandoned midway.

‘I don’t like this,’ Patricia says.

Neither does Dante. He is afraid to say anything, afraid Patricia will hear the terror in his voice. People have fled en masse. Fled. Dante fights the urge to break into a sprint. That’s the fear talking. He has to stay calm. Patricia huddles closer. He thinks she’s doing it for her own assurance, but sees on her face that she’s read him; she’s doing this to comfort him.

As they continue, voices become evident. Now Dante feels a tinge of curiosity. If there is a fire, who would remain behind? Patricia tries to burst ahead, but he clenches her wrist. She turns back to him, puzzled. Dante doesn’t know what to say to her. He holds up a finger, as if to sshhh her, but that’s not right either, so he takes the lead, almost tiptoeing.

When they reach the archway to the adjoining gaming room, they see Marcus leaning against the pool table, his bare chest glistening, a Corona in hand. A redhead kneels before him. At first, Dante is sure she’s fellating Marcus, but then it becomes apparent she’s fitting his leather pants to him, sealing the Velcro seams up the sides. Marcus lifts the Corona above her head, as if preparing to strike her.

‘Marcus!’ Dante says.

Marcus freezes. Gabriella pivots, sees Dante and Patricia, then looks up to Marcus just as Marcus is putting the bottle on the bank of the table. She frowns. She hasn’t seen enough to condemn Marcus but has seen enough to suspect something may have been awry. Of course, she doesn’t know whether Dante’s cry was a warning or a greeting, and Dante himself doesn’t know what Marcus was planning to do.

Dante darts forward, dragging Patricia behind him. He throws his free hand forward. Marcus takes it tiredly and shakes it. Dante’s about to question his friend over what’s wrong, but sees a red welt on his shoulder. He peers around Marcus and sees the road map of lashes.

‘What the …?’

Marcus shakes his head. ‘Just fun and games,’ he says.

Patricia exchanges a look with Gabriella. Neither knows the other but an understanding passes between them. Dante’s seen it happen all the time between Flavia, Amber, and Holly. In situations like these, women develop telepathy. Patricia’s face goes hard and her hand slides from Dante’s.

‘We need to go,’ she says.

‘You okay to walk?’ Gabriella asks Marcus.

‘I’m king of the hill,’ he says.

Marcus follows Patricia’s lead, his movements initially stilted, but growing more fluent as they progress from the gaming rooms. Ahead, a few people are packed around the exit into the juncture, shrieking and trying to push their way out.

‘Come on!’ Marcus says. ‘Come on!’

Flames are everywhere – coming from the walls and the ceilings and surrounding Constance’s office. The dense smoke stings at their eyes.

People shuffle into the juncture, their jackets pulled over their heads like cowls. Teo is tall and unbowed, his glistening skin reddened, his eyes tearing, one hand covering his mouth, spluttering as he waves people on like a traffic cop, picking them up when they fall, urging them when they slow, and pointing them in the right direction when they’re confused.

The fire sizzles and hisses; wood splinters, shearing free; the ceiling fractures. People scream and move instinctively. A ceiling fragment hit the floor and blocks the door. Flames mushroom out, driving everybody back. The sudden despair is tangible.

‘Back!’ Teo says.

But Marcus keeps moving. His motives are difficult to discern – despite his glibness, he is struggling to reconcile what’s happened to him, Gabriella’s kindness, and the dread that now runs rampant. Regardless of his confusion, though, he is calm.

He scans the ceiling and then the fragment, and determines it’s not thick – it is like a sheet of plasterboard. The biggest danger is it’s burning. He shrugs off Gabriella and Dante, then rolls his shoulders.

‘Marcus, what’re you doing?’ Dante asks.

Marcus charges and lifts his shoulder. He bullocks into the fragment. It shatters around him. Marcus’s momentum carries him into the lobby and onto the floor. People cheer him as he slowly picks himself up. He looks at everybody grimly. He should be jubilant; he should be flattered; but instead he is lost in the realisation of something he has never known in his life – connectivity.

He and everybody else are in this together. He doesn’t have to be the iconoclast; nor does he have to move through life in disdain. Previously, these attitudes have been part of a regimented programming, but now there’s a glitch – an instant of self-awareness. Tainting it is the resentment – he finds difficulty in trying to ingratiate himself into the whole, and he spurns that closeness because it scares him just as much as it calls to him.

Before I can read which way he falls, he turns and heads out.

Dante, Gabriella, and Patricia are speechless.

The wall to the right of them collapses. Teo pushes them clear, but debris strikes him in the back and knocks him to one knee. Two other men are pounded to the floor, their jackets on fire. Teo covers one, smothering the flames with his body. Dante falls on the other. He, Patricia, and Gabriella help the men to their feet. They spill into the torrent of people.

Dante’s instinct is to follow, but wiping the cuff of his sleeve across his eyes, his gaze goes to Teo, who remains on hands and knees on the floor, his back bucking as he coughs, spittle dribbling from his mouth. Dante wonders how long he’s stood here shepherding others out. Then he realises the answer is simple: Too long.

Kneeling, Dante folds his hands around one of Teo’s giant biceps. ‘Come on!’

Teo pushes himself to his feet. Patricia is under his other arm, supporting him. He coughs, the sound so dry and rough Dante’s sure his throat must be shredded. Dante gestures for Gabriella to take his position, and she slips under Teo’s other arm.

‘What’re you doing?’ Patricia says.

‘Go!’ Dante says. ‘Go!’

‘What?’ Patricia says.

Dante bundles her, Gabriella, and Teo towards the lobby. ‘Now!’ he says. ‘Get him outside!’

They stagger out, Teo’s tremendous girth dwarfing Gabriella and Patricia. At one point, Teo falls to one knee. Patricia and Gabriella hoist him back up. They scramble into the lobby, leaving Dante to look around frantically. Others stumble past blindly. He urges them on.

‘This way!’ he says. ‘This way!’

Patrons flock to his voice, loud and unusually commanding over the fire. Burning beams fall around him. Sparks sizzle through the air. Yet he stands resolute, continuing to cry out.

‘This way! This way!’

He herds people into the lobby. Cold, night air swamps them. Sirens wail in the distance – too late probably, as I feel the fire ravage me.

* * *

Quinn almost trips as people burst from the restaurant and into the juncture. His hand slides from Amber’s. He turns against the stampede and sees that she’s fallen to one knee. He grabs her by the wrist and pulls her up to him. For a moment, they embrace.

‘Don’t let go,’ he says.

‘I won’t.’

Savage passes them, waving everybody forward. ‘Come on!’ he says. His bronzed skin glistens; his topknot flows behind him. Right then, Quinn loathes him. He is so majestic and brave and sure.

They charge down the juncture, doubled over and coughing. The smoke is everywhere. A figure is silhouetted in the exit of the lobby, calmly directing the patrons. Quinn envies him – the danger brings out the best in some people, such as this person, and Savage.

Wood shears. A beam falls from the ceiling. Amber pulls Quinn clear. The beam strikes Savage in the back, knocks him to the floor and pins him there. Quinn and Amber kneel by him. His face is dazed. He paws at them helplessly.

Quinn grips the beam. It is charred black and top end is still on fire. The wood burns his palms. He tries to lift it but the beam is too heavy. Savage wheezes, blinks, and stares at Amber, touching her face with one hand.

‘Go!’ Savage says.

‘But—’ Amber says.

‘Now!’ Savage says.

‘Quinn—?’

But Savage is right. The situation is hopeless, and they’re only risking their own lives by remaining.

Quinn shoves Amber into a crowd of people as they storm for the exit. She tries to fight their momentum. The silhouetted figure at the end of the juncture urges them on. Quinn takes one step to follow her. Then another. There is nothing he can do for Savage. And perhaps it is just as well given everything that has happened but, of course, that is an ugly rationalisation Quinn cannot digest. If the positions were reversed, Savage would not abandon him.

Quinn stops. ‘Fuck!’

He grabs the beam by the corner again. His muscles strain; his chest – particularly where Savage kicked him – cramps. The beam elevates no more than an inch, but he does not relent.

‘Go!’ Savage says. ‘Save yourself!’

‘Shut up,’ Quinn says.

His palm blisters and sparks pockmark his pants and shirt. Muscles strain all over his body. Then Dante is at his side. He grabs the same end of the beam. Together, they are able to hoist it up, inch it from Savage’s body, and throw it to the floor.

Savage wheezes, his eyes rolling back up into his head.

They take Savage’s hands and haul him to his feet. He totters, barely conscious. He could be injured fatally, although a petty part of Quinn’s mind suggests Savage’s physique perhaps cushioned the blow. Quinn runs Savage’s arms around his shoulders. Dante helps Quinn support him as they head down the juncture.

‘Take him!’ Dante says.

As soon as Dante steps away, Savage falls to one knee. Quinn moves without thinking. He grabs Savage’s arm, throws it over his neck, thrusts his shoulder into Savage’s midriff and lifts him into a fireman’s carry.

He lurches into the lobby, expecting Dante is right behind him, but there is nobody. Quinn spins on his heel, Savage’s weight threatening to topple him. Dante remains in the juncture, surveying the flames and the stragglers who are still filtering out. Smoke engulfs him, as if he were an illusionist about to pull off some trick – he is the composed marshal in the midst of the pandemonium.

‘Go!’ Dante says, waving Quinn onwards.

Quinn’s strength is deserting him. Sweat pours down his face and the burns on his hands are excruciating.

He turns back, and blunders into the night.

* * *

Flavia is lost, although she knows that is stupid – or at least it should be. She recalls when LeBeau brought her here thinking they’d slipped into some other place. Now, all she sees are tall, narrow hallways and marble walls. Her breathing is uneven and her vision blurs. Perhaps it is a panic attack, although she’s never had one before.

The answer dawns much simpler on her: the drug that LeBeau gave her. That must be the answer to all this – to the loss of inhibition, to the loss of perception and spatial awareness, and to these physical symptoms. Relief overwhelms her. She is not safe, but at least she has an answer – and a big answer at that, too – for everything else that has gone on.

‘Hello!’ she says.

Her voice bounces through the hallways until she’s sure it echoes back to greet her. She can imagine another version of herself – perhaps the idealistic version who only wanted to meet LeBeau – emerging to bid her farewell. But that is stupid, too – the drug again. She never should’ve taken it.

Plunging onwards, she remembers somebody once telling her that if you kept your hand on the right wall in a labyrinth, eventually you would find your way out. Who knew how many dead ends that involved, though? She just wants to be out of the darkness.

She stops. Holds her breath. Was that footsteps? She listens but cannot hear anything. It is her paranoia. That is the only explanation. It must be the drug – but now, as much as a panacea the drug has become to address this series of bizarre events, the scapegoating doesn’t bring assurance.

Hallways twist and weave, and several times, she thinks she has somehow circled back to an area she has already passed through. She’s sure that’s not the way it was before. LeBeau’s path seemed direct. But maybe she got it wrong, following LeBeau blindly. LeBeau. When she finds him, she’ll lambast him, job be damned.

Footsteps. She spins. But there’s nobody. She thinks of the robed figure. It’s not that he was frightening, but it was just so damned unusual. She shivers. She cannot help it. The shiver runs from her shoulders down to her thighs where the hem of her dress still sticks to her.

Light ahead. Flavia is sure of it. She hurries. Yes. The walls become red-bricked. Then, there are the archways of the gaming rooms. Smoke is thick in the air. She doesn’t know what that is about.

She turns back to look at from where she came, smiling triumphantly. Whatever – whoever – was following her, she is clear now. Perhaps it was LeBeau playing one final game. It doesn’t matter.

Spinning, she runs right into somebody. It’s the crimson robe from the basement. He grabs her wrist – only, it’s not a he. The robes might hide her figure, but up close Flavia can see the person is her height, that she is slighter of build, and that she is curved like a woman. Her hands are smaller, but strong.

Flavia flails, but her grip is unbreakable. The mask seems to twist into a leer. The grey eyes are cold and ageless and knowing. Again, Flavia imagines finding herself, but now it’s a version of herself that has shed all earthly ties and filters, until only this ancient lost soul remains.

‘Let me go!’

The robed figures shakes Flavia once, by the wrists, but hard enough that her resistance ceases. She leans in, as one would to a partner to give them a tender kiss.

‘I’m sure we’ll be seeing you again,’ she says, then releases her grip.

Flavia runs. Runs hard through the gaming rooms. They’re all empty and she batters smoke away unthinkingly with one hand. She does not question it. Or the absence of people. The fear has brought focus, and within minutes, she has shot out into the juncture.

She raises one arm to shield her eyes. Her breathing locks as smoke forces its way into her throat. People are everywhere, stumbling, lurching, and pushing onwards. She has no idea what has happened, but it’s not difficult to recognise the danger. Standing central to it all is Dante, ushering people out; he is calm and commanding and purposeful – something he has never been before in all the time Flavia has known him. What grips her now is the certainty this is not Dante but some other doppelganger.

She cries out to him, although her voice trembles: ‘Dante!’

When he turns to look at her, what strikes her is the change in his face – the loss of the diffidence, and a newfound bleakness that has little to do with the fire. He is changed. Just as dealing with LeBeau has changed her, something has changed Dante.

He pulls his shirt over his face and approaches. A beam falls from the ceiling right before him and explodes. A wall of fire erupts between them. He lifts an arm over his face and gestures for Flavia.

‘Come on!’ he says.

‘I can’t!’

‘Now!’

Flavia looks at the sheet of flames before her. She should be afraid. But given everything that’s happened tonight, this presents the least trepidation. She closes her eyes and jumps. The heat scalds her and singes her hair. Her dress burns and pockets of it melt. Hands close around her, strong and unyielding. She’s sure it’s the crimson-robed figure. She has jumped to her.

When Flavia opens her eyes, they’re so bleary she’s sure she sees that face mask. Her vision clears. It’s Dante – the man she fell in love with, the man she had planned to spend the rest of her life with, and the man she cheated on. The shame lashes at her. He is too sweet and good-natured for her.

‘Come on!’ he says.

He drags her to the lobby as firemen charge in, hoses blazing. The air sizzles and steams around them and Dante totters onwards blindly, carrying Flavia into the coolness of the night.

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