Dante sits in the middle of the road, knees folded up to his chest. His hands –red and blistered, burns scarred into the flesh – shake. Police have already spoken to him and commended him, as have firefighters.
He is a hero.
But when he closes his eyes, he thinks not of the fire, nor of how he could’ve died, or of the lives he helped saved, but of Flavia.
She sits at the back of an ambulance, a blanket draped around her shoulders as a paramedic examines her. She is not hurt. Dante knows that. At worst, she is miffed. That is a good word for Flavia; life miffs her. Her unflappability is her strength, as is her ability to cannibalize any situation for her own ends. She will use this to further her celebrity. It’ll be the story where she regales friends and acquaintances, or even strangers, because it’ll make her the centre of attention – that’s what she’s always desired.
She nods once to the paramedic who asks her something, and comes over to Dante, kneeling by him. Dante notes that the hem of her dress is folded, and although her bare legs disappear into darkness under the dress, he is certain she isn’t wearing panties. Of course not. They’re still lying on the floor in the basement somewhere.
‘You were very brave,’ she says.
‘I don’t know what got into me,’ he says.
Flavia takes his hands, and turns them over. ‘Do they hurt?’
Her voice is so sharp and the question so unexpected that Dante flinches. Flavia gazes over his shoulder, her face going hard, her jaw tensing. Dante doesn’t have to look to know Patricia’s there, getting checked out by another paramedic.
The nerve of Flavia to show jealously, all things considered. He pushes himself to his feet, and clenches his fists despite the pain that burns in his palms and races up his wrists. He shoves his hands into his pockets and feels something in his right pocket – the engagement ring box. His hand closes around it and tightens. The box’s velvet finish feels like sandpaper.
Flavia rises before him, the folded hem of her dress hiking up almost indecently. She pushes it back down, then folds her arms across her chest, the way she does whenever she wants an explanation from him. It’s astonishing how quickly this relationship dynamic has reasserted itself.
‘She’s an Icon,’ Dante says.
‘They play pool and strip with each loss.’ Dante would usually couch such a truth in diplomacy, or hide it altogether. But how dare she confront him.
‘Is that how she was dressed when she played pool?’
‘She’d finished her round. I’d met her in one of the Lounges.’
Dante tenses. She knows! That’s the only explanation for Flavia pushing it. Dante helped numerous people out of the fire – Patricia could’ve been somebody entirely random. But Flavia knows that’s not the case.
Explanations race through Dante’s head. Did Flavia see them somehow? Impossible, given what Flavia was doing. Unless she saw something prior – perhaps through surveillance in the Lounge, like they had in Constance’s office. Is that what prompted her sordid little tryst?
Dante stops himself. He doesn’t have to justify himself given what she’s done.
And he doesn’t have to make excuses for her.
‘Where were you?’ he asks.
‘You. Where were you?’
‘I tried calling you.’
Flavia reaches into the little purse she keeps strapped to her left wrist and pulls out her phone. It doesn’t alight when she tries to activate it. She twirls the phone around. Her fingers go to the on/off switch. But then she twirls it again.
‘Battery must’ve died,’ she says.
Dante wants to snatch the phone out of her hand. He’s sure her actions suggested her phone is off and she was about to switch it on, but she realised how implicating that would be. He should check for himself. But he doesn’t. She puts the phone back in her purse.
‘Well, where were you anyway?’ he asks.
Flavia pauses longer than she should. She has no idea what Dante knows. He might’ve been with Holly and Amber. He, Holly, and Amber might’ve been throwing back shots with Marcus and Quinn. The wrong lie here could condemn her. Dante can almost see her mind ticking over, considering her alternatives.
‘Meet somebody, did you?’ Dante can’t stop himself.
Flavia’s eyes blaze. She teeters – just for an instant, before steadying herself. Just as she knew something happened between him and Patricia, Dante is certain she’s realized that he knows what she got up to.
‘No,’ Flavia says. ‘Just some … other women.’
Dante could challenge her, but he knows where it’ll lead – accusations, recriminations, shocking truths. Then, it’s all over. And just several hours earlier he was contemplating life with her. How quickly it has changed. Worse, how easily it has changed – not just with her, but himself.
He should walk away. She should walk away. That’s what sane people would do, but love and relationships have little to do with sanity. The night is an aberration. She has wronged him, but sanctimony is hypocritical given he has also wronged her. Now it’s move on, or ride the bump.
‘Look, let’s just forget it, okay?’ he says.
Flavia’s face softens. ‘Sure.’
Dante pulls the engagement box out of his pocket and thrusts it at her. Her reaction genuinely touches him: her eyes go wide, her mouth drops open, then she covers it with her hands. She bounces up and down on the spot and begins waving her hands in front of her face.
‘Oh my God!’ she says.
Dante opens the box. She holds out her left hand and he slides the ring onto her finger. He holds it up, the single diamond – which he’ll be paying off for the next year – gleaming in the firelight. Then she throws her arms around him. He embraces her. She does feel good against him. He kisses her. All is forgiven – well, that is the affectation.
They part, Dante’s hands linking around the small of her back, Flavia’s around his neck. She smiles that big smile that transforms her into the celestial, sultry beauty that he has always deigned to orbit.
‘Let’s do it as quick as possible, hey?’ he says.
‘Really. I don’t want to wait.’
Flavia tightens her grip on him and kisses him again, this time passionately. Dante’s hands move down to her buttocks. He wants her – as soon as possible. He wants to take her until she’s quivering and whimpering in his arms and wailing in paralysing orgasm – not something he’s accomplished previously, but he’s going to try, damnit.
It’s Edan LeBeau. Flavia flushes – Dante can almost feel the heat of her embarrassment, and it takes him several seconds to realise this is the man he saw her fucking.
Dante’s arms tighten around Flavia, although she squirms around so that she is facing LeBeau. LeBeau shows no interest in Dante, and his grey eyes are cold and hard and unnatural. There’s not a hint of lust. Instead, he holds out a business card.
‘We have a couple of projects coming up you might be good for,’ LeBeau says. ‘Give me a call during the week.’
Flavia takes the card.
The corner of LeBeau’s mouth twists into a grin. ‘You could be a star,’ he says. ‘Call.’
As he turns, his eyes fleetingly meet Dante’s, but there is nothing there: no form of acknowledgement or guilt or even condescension. Dante simply doesn’t exist.
LeBeau pushes his way through the crowd, then walks off into the night.
‘Who was that?’ Dante asks.
‘Producer I met.’
They stare at one another, the silence between them laden with the threat of truth. But they have plotted a course now, and one in which truth does not fit. They will try to make this work, they will try to ignore the uneasiness that the other will betray them again, and they will try to love one another – it’s as much as they can do.
Flavia tucks the card into the cleavage of her dress, examines her ring, then kisses Dante soundly.
Dante is unresponsive momentarily.
Then his arms fold around her and he kisses her back.
* * *
Constance wraps her arms around herself and shivers. The breeze that cuts through her is icy. She cannot remember the last time she has been this cold. In fact, she cannot remember the last time she has simply been cold.
A paramedic approaches her but she shoos him away, and threads a passage through the survivors who litter the street. She recognises employees, and even many of the patrons. Some look as if they’re preparing to kick-on through the night. Others have blackened faces. Some are burned.
Emergency move tirelessly around her. Police contain gawkers and take statements. Paramedics treat the injured. Firefighters contend the blaze, which Constance refuses to look at. She keeps her back to it, thinking their battle is useless. This isn’t a fire that will be beaten. It’ll have to burn out. That means time.
Her gaze drifts to the cabin of an ambulance in which Teo lays wearing an oxygen mask – smoke inhalation, apparently. Boyd and Ox sit with their backs against a fire truck. Somehow, they’ve found Prince. Constance almost expects the bartender will have a beer for the two. Ox looks up at her, still wearing his stupid sunglasses. Flames reflect in their lenses. Ox rises and drapes his overcoat around her. Constance nods a thank you. She wants to continue, but a voice pulls her back.
‘Was it worth it?’
Constance doesn’t have to turn to identify Joy, but does so anyway.
Joy’s still in her latex suit, but the majesty is gone. Her eyes are rimmed red – she looks like a child who has thrown a tantrum. Constance is unsure what to say to her. There is plenty that can be said, but not much of it is appropriate right now – if it ever will be. Years ago, Constance might’ve welcomed the confrontation. Now it seems meaningless.
She starts away.
‘Don’t you turn your back on me!’
Constance pauses just a moment, but reminds herself it would be unproductive to argue – at least here and now given what’s happened. She continues. But Joy’s stilettoed feet patter behind her and, in no time, she’s in front of Constance, barring her way.
Constance doesn’t push it, but Joy offers no recourse.
‘Well?’ she says again.
‘You think this is my fault?’
‘Isn’t it? Isn’t it?’ Joy’s voice grows shrill. ‘Who refused to go quietly? Who had gunmen there as a contingency? Who shot up the Lounge?’
‘Just goes to prove you didn’t know everything. Nor do you still. You really are insignificant in the grand scheme of things.’
Joy swings her hand to slap Constance. Constance catches her by the wrist, Joy’s palm just inches from her face. Joy tries to shake her hand loose, but Constance holds it firm.
‘I was insignificant in the scheme of things,’ she says. ‘That’s why they chose me. They wanted me out because I became significant. They might’ve given you my office, but don’t think you’ve filled my shoes just yet.’ She releases Joy’s hand. ‘You remind me of myself. Young, headstrong, and sure you know it all.’
‘Except I’m not a junkie.’
Constance doesn’t flinch. ‘You don’t know the person I was when I came here. You don’t know what I’ve seen since I’ve been here. You don’t know who I’ve become. Nor what I’ve done – usually unthinkingly. I’ll tell you a truth: my biggest regret in life is taking this job. I should’ve packed up and went home. Things could’ve been different. Everything could’ve been different. Life might’ve been mundane, at least by the standards I know now, but maybe that might’ve been more than enough. Do you understand that?’
The hardness in Joy’s face dissolves and she totters back on one heel. Her eyes brim. She has recognised a reality that it took Constance over ten years to reconcile: that there are other choices. For Constance, it had been too late – or at least she had told herself that.
‘I don’t know what it is,’ she says, ‘but leave Prudence. Take that other road.’
Joy brushes her eyes with one wrist, and then she is back – sultry and unassailable. Hands on her hips, she shakes her head once, as if to shake off whatever sentiment had been about to grab hold of her.
‘I saw that opportunity you’re talking about,’ she says. ‘I even projected where it would lead. Maybe I should’ve taken it. But it’s too late now.’
‘Nothing’s too late.’
‘Tell Rupe that.’
‘Was he your lover?’
‘He was a man I just met.’
‘There are other men.’
‘And … what? Go on dates? Dinners? That whole rigmarole before you find somebody worthwhile. I turned my back on Rupe because I thought he was a silly man. And probably he was. I doubt anything permanent would’ve happened.’
‘You doubt? Or is that something you tell yourself? I used to tell myself the same things.’
‘I don’t know. But whatever he represented, I think it’s harder to get there,’ Joy’s eyes dart towards the fire, ‘than here.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Constance says. ‘Ultimately, this became everything for me. My everything. Maybe that’s why they chose me originally because they knew it would consume me that way. Maybe that’s why they chose you because they knew you would be the same. If you understand that, then you should understand why I didn’t just turn and walk out. I tried to make something of it – possibly, to compensate.’
‘So you sacrificed it all,’ Joy says. ‘Even Prudence herself.’
Constance finally flips a gaze back over her shoulder at the fire. ‘Prudence will be back. Just try and stop her.’