Holly has never seen anybody shot before, other than on TV shows and in films, and she has often wondered how realistic those depictions are.
In the instant between Noah pulling the trigger of his gun and the bullet hitting Mr Hermes, she expects him to be punctured, the way a balloon might, and for there to be a splash of blood.
But there is none of that.
Noah’s gunshot thuds into Mr Hermes’s shoulder as if it is hitting mud, disappearing with an understated, if not undignified plop.
Holly is sure that cannot be right, that the bullet must be a dud, or that Mr Hermes must be wearing a vest of some sort. It would make sense, given he must have lots of people angry at him – he would want to protect himself.
But the bullet must be live because he recoils into the wall, falls back into his chair, and his hand clutches at the wound, although there is no blood – well, at least none that Holly can immediately see.
Noah continues holding the gun aimed at Mr Hermes, hand trembling. Whatever impulse brought him this far has already been spent. Now the doubt floods in. But all Holly feels is cold glee. She has no sympathy for Mr Hermes as he sits there with that mildly astonished look on his face.
‘I’m sorry,’ Noah says. He releases the gun, and lets it fall from his grip like its touch repulses him.
Mr Hermes lifts his head and bellows with laughter. The astonishment falls away. His grey eyes are unnaturally bright – the flash of a knife’s blade before it cuts. Whatever humanity he has shown this night, whatever seeming interest in the people for whom he sets temptations, it is gone now, and whatever remains is not only unbound, but fearless and feeds from the anarchy.
Holly takes a step back. It’s not doubt that creeps in; it’s terror that storms in. This has transcended the grievances that powered her. Mr Hermes and Noah operate on another a level – a level that even Noah doesn’t understand. But Mr Hermes does; he is privy to wickedness and fury that they cannot even dare to grasp – or should dare to grasp, lest it drive them mad.
This is truly his playground now.
‘The boy finally stands up for himself and he apologises,’ Mr Hermes says. ‘You’re too pure for this business. You best flee now. Before it’s too late. Like your father. Hide yourself away. And when the world becomes too painful, when the price for success too high, then end it all and be done with it until it’s only you and your damnation. As for you,’ he turns to Constance, ‘this cheap physical victory – do you really think it will be enough?’
‘It’s a start,’ Constance says.
‘This is only the beginning!’
Mr Hermes shoots back to his feet, although his hand remains clutched to his wound. Flames leap up around him, almost as if they have lifted him and support him and drive him, fuelling him with an incendiary fury that cannot be contained within a simple and limited Temptation.
Holly is transfixed, again sure she sees figures in the flames – imps and demons and other things that don’t have names. They are his allies, his servants, his propagators. The ceiling collapses behind her in a crash. Embers and sparks spray her and Rupe. She shields her face as the fire rages and the smoke thickens. Her clothes cling to the sweat on her body.
‘You stupid woman!’ Mr Hermes says. ‘I give you Prudence. Hand it to you.’
Holly points meekly at herself, sure that he is addressing her. She wants to be gone now; it was arrogance to think she could challenge this man. Her legs are leaden and her mind opens to the realisation that she would do anything to escape him, and regardless of what it means for herself.
‘You promised things to me, promised an end to the indulgence and largesse and graciousness that have become staples under Constance. But look at you.’
It is when Mr Hermes exaggerates a shake of his head that Holly realises he is not addressing her but Joy. She has been luminescent this entire night – until now. Now she is a sad dim shade eclipsed in the conflagration. She lowers her face, like a child being admonished by the principal.
‘You’re already proven soft. Weak.’
‘No,’ Joy says. ‘Not weak—’
‘Yes! Weak! You had the power to oust her! Did it not occur to you she might have some contingency?’
Joy puts a hand on her hip. ‘Didn’t it occur to you?’
‘This,’ Mr Hermes throws his arms out, the roaring flames growing, ‘is my contingency!’
Rupe steps up behind her. ‘I don’t think you should be angering him,’ he whispers into her ear.
‘You insolent fool,’ Mr Hermes says. ‘She was your first test, and already you fell complacent, certain once you had displaced her, she would just walk out into the night, just as alone and powerless as the night she arrived.’
He thrusts one hand at her. The palm and finger are bloodied and his exposed wound festers, although that should be impossible given it is fresh. On closer inspection – in the instant Holly has – she sees that shredded flesh around the puncture writhes. She is reminded of maggots.
A tremendous splintering fills the Lounge as one end of a beam, blackened and alight, shears from the ceiling and collapses towards Joy. She stares, frozen and wide-eyed. Rupe leaps in front of her and shoves her aside. The beam strikes him flush in the face, breaking his nose and fracturing his cheekbone. He is knocked to the floor, the end of the charred beam pinning his chest.
Joy kneels by him, cradles his head on her lap, and strokes his face with her hand. ‘Rupert?’ she says. ‘Rupert?’
Rupe looks at her, and lifts a hand, as if to caress her cheek. He smiles, just a small smile, but it makes him young and unconcerned – a man from a lifetime ago. But then he looks past her, and his eyes alight. I do not know what he sees, but it’s something that brings him both comfort and peace. He lets go of everything from this night – the one individual in this troupe who can. Then his hand falls limply by his side, and his head lolls.
‘Rupert!’ Joy says, streams of mascara running down her cheeks as she cries.
‘Such weakness,’ Mr Hermes says.
Noah tries to grab the beam, although flames run across its surface and the cracks of it glow orange. Boyd and Ox gape at one another, then stare at Constance. Her face is distant, her eyes brimming, as if she is recalling her own sadness. Boyd and Ox holster their guns and grab the beam. Together, the three men attempt to hoist it, but it is heavy and Holly can hear it splintering from where it remains attached to the ceiling.
‘Much like you, Constance,’ Mr Hermes says. ‘Do you remember when you first came here?’
‘Don’t,’ Constance says.
Mr Hermes snorts as pockets of the walls explode. Holly thinks it is because gas mains have ruptured, but I know better. I feel the entire Lounge trembling, like a heart that spasms out of rhythm before it fails. As it dies, the organs that rely on it shut down.
‘Stoned on heroin, your lover – your fiancé – retreated to your car out in the lot,’ Mr Hermes continues. ‘He called you. Begged for your help. Begged you to come to him. He knew there was something wrong. And what did you do?’
Mr Hermes grins. ‘You were given the task of ejecting Sarah, just as Joy was given the task of ejecting you,’ he says. ‘You – personally – took her by the scruff of the neck, marched her to the front door, ignoring her pleas, ignoring her cries, ignoring her pathetic grovelling, and threw her naked out onto the street. There, your legend was forged before a crowd of worshippers. Then you assumed her office. All while your poor lover expired in your car.’
Tears streaming from Constance’s eyes but evaporate on her cheeks in the heat. ‘You bastard.’
‘No, not me. You paid that price. Happily. Lustfully. Greedily. Just as you,’ Hermes directs his gaze at Joy, ‘now have. But look at her.’ He thrusts a finger at Constance. ‘Is she happy? What has this brought her? She is a cautionary tale, but you gladly and willingly rush to that fate for just a moment of power.’
Fire rages across the lounge, shooting from the walls and the floor and the ceiling. The other end of the beam which pins Rupe crashes down. Noah pulls Joy clear, as Boyd and Ox leap back to safety. The entire Lounge shakes and sparks fill the air like buzzing fireflies. Joy kneels back by Rupe’s side.
Holly runs her hand over her eyes. Sweat pours from her. Tongues of flame lash her body, just as they – those sepulchral figures appearing fleetingly – dance around Mr Hermes, almost as in accompaniment with his amusement.
‘All of you!’ He lifts his head and laughs again. ‘Such foolish weakness. And you,’ he looks back at Constance, ‘who would remain queen! Don’t you realise where you are? What you’re doing? What it takes?’
‘Enough is enough!’ Constance says.
‘No, Constance. It is never enough. Never. You have forgotten your place. You have forgotten how truly ephemeral you are.’
Constance shakes her head. ‘No.’
‘You, who would take this action. Prudence is about me. Prudence needs me. Not you. Me. It’s like I always say, the body is weak, flesh is temporary, but some things, some things are eternal – such as the repercussions for what you’ve done here. You will know them. Now. And forever.’
‘We’ll see about that,’ Ox says.
He draws his shotgun and pistol and fires at Mr Hermes. Boyd flanks him and draws and fires his weapons. For as much as they have been the jokers over the years, they are now ruthless. This is why they are here and what they have waited for. They have no vested interest in this outside of being in Constance’s employ, and cannot be tarnished by Mr Hermes’s manipulations in the same way that the others can.
He is pinned against the wall as bullets tear through his body. His arms flail, and perhaps it is just a twitch of nerves, but his lips curl into the smallest smile.
The gunfire ceases.
Mr Hermes falls back into his chair and teeters there. The bullets have shredded his clothes and his torso, but there is remarkably little blood – only the smallest rings of red around the wounds. He sits there, oblivious of the fire as it burns, melting his suit, singeing his hair, and blistering his skin.
He reaches for his glass. The ice has melted and the water has overflowed. He picks it up just as the ceiling collapses. The table disappears under the weight of flaming debris and a fireball explodes across the lounge.
Holly acts instinctively, grabbing Noah’s arm and pulling him to the floor. Around her, Boyd and Ox shield Constance, and dive on top of her, as Joy covers Rupe as best as she can. Holly feels the hairs on her neck incinerated as fire races over her and a stifling roar fills the lounge.
She feels Mr Hermes on top of her, feels his hands caress her body, feels him slip insidiously inside her. She has unwanted images she cannot push from her mind of deep-throating Mr Hermes, of Mr Hermes fucking her, sodomizing her, as the fire rages around them, but it is not Mr Hermes – or perhaps it is him when he was young: he is tall and powerful, a build labour has hardened, and his skin is bronzed and leathery. He has made love to countless women and men – has indulged in their bodies, has used them in ways that have left them full of self-loathing, and then discarded them in ways that have humiliated them so he can feed from their shame. His voice is in Holly’s ear whispering inexorably, and although Holly cannot understand what it is he is saying, his words demean her and fill her with a cold dread.
Then there is nothing.
The roar abates and only the fire remains, crackling around them. Holly lifts her head and looks back to Mr Hermes’s booth. A giant bonfire rages, the tips of the flames sporadically blue. She shivers, clutches her arms around herself, and drags herself up into a kneeling position. There’s nothing but a wall of flame in front of her. The thickening black smoke rolls across the lounge.
Shadows appear, amorphous but darkening. They are the wraiths. Holly is sure of it. They have come to claim them at Mr Hermes’s beckoning. She recoils, then falls onto her butt. Joy sits up to nestle Rupe’s head in her lap. Boyd and Ox sit up, supporting Constance, although she looks the least fazed of everybody.
‘What’ve you done?’ Joy asks.
‘What you thought couldn’t be done,’ Constance says.
‘At what cost?’ Joy strokes Rupe’s hair from his face.
‘There’s always a cost.’
The shadows darken. Something sizzles. The smoke thickens. One of the shadows solidifies as it bursts forward. Holly scampers back. Noah looks up at her, yanks her by the wrist.
‘Watch out!’ he says.
Holly spins her head and sees she has almost backed directly into fire. She freezes as more figures emerge, but they are not wraiths, but fire-fighters in their gear, hoses aimed at the blaze.
She closes her eyes.
They are safe.
Then she hears Mr Hermes’s voice, or perhaps imagines it, in her mind.