When Holly walks in, she is amazed how I seem truer than I was before – the fire has eviscerated the façade, and what remains is the character. Others don’t feel it. But she does, although she is not sure what to make of it. A flood of emotions overwhelms her – memories of that fateful night, what happened to her, and what she tried to do.
It has been six months – six months in which many deliberated what would be done with me. Some argued I should be knocked down. Others insisted I was an institution and such treatment was sacrilegious. The debate raged back and forth, but the point was ultimately moot. There are some forces in this world greater than mortal whim.
Following the restoration, the panelling is gone, revealing the original red bricking, although there is evidence of scorching – the black charred blasts stand out like museum exhibits. The marble floors that were discovered underneath the carpeting and floorboards have been scrubbed until they are pristine. It’s hard to believe that a fire almost destroyed me, though when Holly pauses in the lobby and takes a deep breath, she is sure she can still smell the smoke. Many find this a novelty. She finds it distasteful.
Flavia is in the juncture with a camera crew filming her as she reports on the grand reopening, idiots crowding behind her to get on TV, gesticulating, as if that’ll endear them to audiences. Dante’s a little bit further down, leaning against one wall, arms folded across his chest, a whimsical expression on his face as he spins his wedding band on his finger. Holly cannot tell if he’s proud or bemused.
Heading up the stairs onto the second floor, Holly finds the table she had occupied with Flavia and Amber. She takes a seat there and looks down at the dance floor. Boyd and Ox sit at the bar. Now, they’re dressed in jeans and leather jackets, looking much like any other patrons. She wonders if they’re still armed. Do they remain contingencies? If so, against whom? Holly decides she doesn’t want to know.
Her phone vibrates. She pulls it out of her pocket – Amber.
Holly answers, pressing the phone to one ear, and her hand to the other to block out the music. Six months ago they sat here together. She had shared the secret of her threesome. Now they couldn’t be further apart.
‘Hey!’ she says. ‘Where are you?’
‘Quinn and I aren’t going to make it,’ Amber says. ‘It’s …’
Amber doesn’t finish, but Holly shivers, and can imagine what Amber was about to say: It’s that place. Every patron from that night was invited to the reopening. Expenses – such as flights and hotel accommodation – were taken care of. Amber and Quinn were reluctant suitors. Holly had to talk them into it – just as a reunion. Well, they made it as far as the hotel.
‘Maybe we can do lunch tomorrow?’ Amber says.
‘That’ll be great,’ Holly says. ‘I don’t know if Flavia’s free, though.’
‘If she’s not, she’s not.’
Amber is uncharacteristically dismissive. While she and Holly have kept in touch regularly, Flavia has been busy nurturing her burgeoning career. Both Holly and Amber are happy for her, but know that while they’ll maintain their own friendship, Flavia will become little more than a footnote – somebody they once knew.
‘I’ll buzz you tomorrow morning,’ Amber says. ‘Have a good night.’
Have a good night. As if that’s possible. More and more, Holly is regretting returning. Amber and Quinn must’ve reconciled that truth. They didn’t need to come to experience it. They’re safe and comfortable in each other’s company. Holly envies that.
A hubbub cuts through the music. She sees the crowd part as Teo escorts Joy to the bar. Joy is dressed in a smart charcoal business suit, the lapels black but glittery. Every set of eyes fix on her. She exchanges effusive greetings with Boyd and Ox; they part so that she can sit between them. Prince serves Boyd and Ox another Gallia, and Joy a Vermouth.
Holly rises and picks her way back through the crowd to get to the stairwell. She makes her way down and sees Flavia once more. She has a champagne flute now. A waiter with a bronze muscled physique wearing little leather shorts pours her champagne. Flavia takes a drink and declares the reopening official.
Her crew disperses. Edan LeBeau is immediately by her side – Holly does not know where he was lurking. He pats Flavia on the shoulder, commends her, then kisses her on the cheek. His right hand seems too low on her hip. Dante scowls and pushes off from the wall, hurrying down the juncture.
Holly drifts through the gaming rooms. Around her, Icons captivate patrons, just as they always have. Holly stops by the archway of one entrance. The Icon here is familiar: Marcus – he has taken part-time employ here, although he spends his days on street corners, sketching, while his family back home wonder what’s become of him. But Holly is glad for him. He is talented, and she hopes this will lead him somewhere meaningful, although she is doubtful.
This version of him – dancing up to the crowd, exciting them by gyrating and thrusting his hips – is the incarnation of everything that’s wrong with him, and it dominates his choices. She wishes he would turn his back on it, but knows everybody has their own duality.
Among Marcus’s admirers is Gabriella. He sidles up to her, pivots on his heel and presses his back against her. Her hands run down his chest and glistening abs. Holly must admit his physique is spectacular. It was always good, but now it’s lean and chiselled. And he has magnetism. That’s why she was first attracted to him. But magnets can repel, too.
His gaze connects with Holly’s. His smile flickers, but just for an instant. Then his face grows steely. He hugs Gabriella to him, his hand clutching her buttock. She is surprised, but then laughs.
Holly has seen enough – not because she is jealous (although she is surprised there is a spark of jealously), but because of the sense of inevitability. Everybody at some point in their life must face who they are, although most spend their lives running from that encounter – at least until they can run no more. Holly worries that despite the facelift that’s been applied to me, everything else is too samey, and if she stays too long see will lose her newfound self-awareness.
She quits the gaming rooms and makes for the Blue Lounge – the heart of what happened. Her breath is short and she feels stifled around her collar. Her first instinct is to leave. Her second instinct isn’t just to leave, but to flee – to scurry for the exit. But this is the reason she came.
To face this down.
She marvels at the absence of any evidence of the fire here, given this was the fire’s origin and the events which unfolded. But nothing: the décor has been replaced, although now the style is Victorian, offering a sense of stateliness and formality that has little to do with me – at least as far as today goes. The chairs are mahogany, with intricate floral designs carved into their backs, and the light fixtures resplendent.
Holly must force herself to take the first step into the Lounge. Her thighs lock up and she is hardly breathing at all. She sees Dante seated at the bar, drinking one of his Bourbon & Cokes as he chats with the barmaid, Patricia. They joke and laugh with a familiarity Holly recognises as inappropriate.
It is a momentary distraction, but enough to offer some respite. Holly stops and tells herself to calm down. She can still imagine Mr Hermes here, but everywhere now, as if scarred into the room and permeating the very air she is struggling to breathe. She closes her eyes, wanting to face the fear, expecting it to stab at her the way a traumatic memory would. But there is nothing but quiet and that is worse, because it is laden with the dread of expectation.
She opens her eyes. Mr Hermes’s booth is directly opposite her. Seated at it is Constance. Her blonde hair is as bouffant as ever, but she wears a beige double-breasted suit and a simple white blouse. Whereas Mr Hermes was such a vacuum of darkness, Constance is bright and lively, although some shadow still hangs over her. Holly does not know if that shadow is the past, some guilt that Constance carries with her, or the memory of Mr Hermes.
Constance sees her and smiles. She is beautiful – unnaturally, some might (still) say. But it’s also majestic. It has little to do with her physical appearance, but with the confidence she carries herself. Holly feels she can trust her. This is a woman she can speak to, can confide in, and can take counsel from. The impression arises inexplicably – it was not there that night – but it feels right to Holly, and she is more and more learning to rely on her instincts.
Holly walks over and – upon Constance’s invitation, gesturing to a position opposite her – slides into the booth. The two measure one another up – they have never spoken, despite the experience they shared. A waiter breaks the tension, arriving with two cocktails, which he slides onto the table between them – a Manhattan for Constance, a Tequila Sunrise for Holly. Holly has not ordered a drink, and can’t imagine how they know the Tequila Sunrise is her drink of choice, or that she would end her tour in here.
‘I really shouldn’t,’ she says.
‘One won’t hurt,’ Constance says.
Holly stirs the drink with its straw until the sunrise has become pink. She sips at it.
‘I didn’t think we’d be seeing you,’ Constance says.
‘I … just had to see it,’ Holly says.
‘I don’t know what happened that night,’ Holly says. ‘Just everything unravelled. I mean, even before the fire and everything with … with … Mr Hermes.’ She shakes. ‘I needed to come back.’
‘And now that you have?’
‘I’ve been anxious about this, wondering how I’d face it. Now that I have, I understand some things are better left in the past. I’m just trying to understand what exactly. Something did happen, didn’t it? Beyond the fire, I mean.’
‘There are always opportunities,’ Constance says. ‘That’s what Prudence – and life – gives us. Opportunities of love, lust, career, friendship, and all those relationships we nurture in the in-betweens. But opportunity always comes at a price. That night, you were going to commit a terrible act – admittedly, it would’ve served my needs. But it would have been at a terrible cost to yourself.’
‘You don’t know why, though.’
‘It doesn’t matter. You’re fortunate. You’re aware you can just walk away.’
‘I don’t know what that means for me.’
‘But you’ll search inside yourself. Most never do that.’
‘What if I don’t like what I find?’
‘That’s something you have to answer for yourself.’
Noah approaches them, dressed in a leather jacket and jeans. ‘Hey,’ he says.
‘You’re looking well,’ Constance says.
Noah has found himself. His dreams were always huge – befitting his family. That night has taught him that is the last thing he wants – or needs. He is studying writing, and bartending at a small bar to make ends meet. If his life remains small and unobtrusive, he will be just fine with that.
He holds his hand out to Holly. She takes it, and slides out of the booth.
‘So what’re you two up to tonight?’ Constance asks.
‘Dinner,’ Holly says.
‘So you’re leaving already?’
Holly takes one last look around the Blue Lounge, then nods. ‘I’m glad this worked out for you.’
‘Thanks. I imagine we won’t be seeing you again.’
‘No. I don’t think so.’
‘Have a good life.’
Constance leans back in the booth. ‘I’ll try.’
Noah puts an arm around Holly’s back and guides her from the Blue Lounge.
Now it does come.
Mr Hermes is all around her, clawing at her, not wanting to let her go. She’s sure if she turns back to the booth, he’ll be seated there. But then another image arises: it won’t be him. She’ll be seated there – the murderous version of herself frozen in that instant of hate and rage. Holly wants to check, just to be sure, but also doesn’t want to give in to the temptation.
She hurries on, catching a glimpse of Dante still at the bar laughing with Patricia; and when she’s out in the juncture, it’s Flavia chatting with LeBeau. Flavia sees her and lifts a hand in acknowledgement. Holly nods back. The cool night air filters from the lobby and splashes across her face.
Holly pushes against the crowd and sees the doors of the lobby, sure they’ll slam shut and trap her in here. People bump against her, slowing her progress. Others block her way. I don’t want to let anybody go. At least that’s what she’s thinking. And part of Holly wants her to stay, to let go, to surrender herself to unknowns that are dark and seductive and pleasurable.
Her wrist is grabbed and she is spun back – Noah.
‘You okay?’ he asks.
Holly nods. The crowd around them thins. The doors are unimpeded.
‘Let’s go, huh?’ she says.
Noah nods and escorts her out into the night.