Bethany put down the canvas and mutely left the room. She didn’t look back. She didn’t answer Edison. Terry had another, smaller office built into his, attached by two cherry doors; she headed there, and with a tug, slid those doors open. As they shut behind her, she was left inside a darkened space ruled by a darker veneer. A polished table for eight and matching, high-backed chairs sat below the golden chandelier. It nearly seemed too large for the ceiling, but it gracefully sighed under what light slipped in through the three, arched, captivating windows. As a side note she felt deserving of special mention, Beth was ten seconds from puking and passing out in the juice.
This was a looooot of money. Like, a lot of it, and she had to hide here until she got her mind around the three thousand dollars. She’d been holding her breath for five hundred, yet there Terry was, outside and counting it in cold, hard cash – pardon her, counting in American cash, since that was what Edison brought for his trip. Whatever – American, USD, the exchange rate? Those grossly pale green bills may have sworn they were worth three grand, but here, that was closer to infinity billion. She needed to puke, she promised to puke, she absolutely would puke, last night’s bender so was not helping, but holy moly, Terry had earned his commission.
“– might just hold off on that arm-chopping business.” The doors slid open and shut, but this time, in swept the man of her glorious hour. He glided to her side, catching her hands in his, and while he gazed into her eyes, did so sweetly suggest, “When Edison asks, you’re a manic depressive gone into shock from the loss of her unicorns, and the only thing that can pull you off the edge of severing a limb is that therapeutic sound of twenty Mr. Franklins. Clear?”
Beth could have kissed him. She would have kissed him, but with the whole ‘puke’ thing and her hangover, she whispered instead, “You beautiful, British bastard.” While he fluttered his eyes at that, she crunched the rest of his math. “Did you say ‘twenty’?” Times a hundred, so adding two zeroes. “That’s not three thousand.”
“Well. Netted.” Yeeeah, no. She took her hands back. “Oh – come on, Beth! You only had one the job, and that was to hold the bloody things.”
“You told me to!”
For the record, it hadn’t only been holding. She’d lifted the canvases, lowered them, angled them, turned them, found the perfect strike of light, all for those stupid horse paintings, and all without even once complaining about sore forearms. Those lonely years of Bop It! had finally paid off, and if she didn’t have his ‘Second Favourite Artist’ spot already clinched forever – first place was a pipe dream; Terry’s favourite artist was Terry – she knew for a fact he would have stuck it to her head then with a shiny, gold star. This, she distilled into a single frown. Funny how fast his tune changed.
“If it hurries you up, we’ll go two thousand two,” he said. “You aren’t the only one paying bills.”
Awww. Someone dropped their caviar in the Porsche again, and that someone’s brow twitched like he’d heard her mispronouncing it. ‘Por-sha’, not ‘porsh’.
“All right. Two thousand and two.” Porsh. Porsh, porsh. She held out her hand. “And I get your tie clip.”
“Done.” Off it went, quickly replaced by another one. The man kept – like, six in his vest pocket. She used to laugh, but those little things were handy. “Bringing your total to a staggering two thousand two thirty-five. Are we happy?”
Two thousand dollars, and he’d put the money in her hand? This was cloud fifteen, which was exactly what she wasn’t going to say.
“Ah! The old ‘I guess’. Nothing makes this all so worth it quite like that uninspiring flatness. Thank you. For it. Again.” He smoothed out his tie, ego safely checked and creeping definition of commission rates back in line. “Right – now I’m heading out, and I’ll need you to count to eighty. When you’ve finished, you’ll emerge as a prostrated spirit, wounded by her art’s commodification, but having come to terms with it in time for our next sale.” His grooming paused. “What’s this one again?”
Primed and Tuned? The piece he had to gush about like he’d loved it for years?
“Whatever you think is best, Ter. I trust you.”
“Good answer.” Terry actually sounded impressed. Maybe first place wasn’t such a pipe dream. “No smiling. Prostrated spirit.”
“Better.” As his hair commercial’s big finale, he ran his fingers through every tress. His head sparkled more than the light fixtures. “I might just be buying you that brunch, Keeler, if this goes as I expect.”
Was somebody outside?
“You say ‘might’ like it’s a maybe.”
In her same breath, she peeked off to his side. Beth had caught a hint of something; not to wander from the critical discussion of her meals, but there were only three people meant to be here, and they…
“Well –” That was Alex outside! “– it may be a free dinner –” Alex was outside and walking. “– provided you behave yourself.” Alex was outside, and walking, and leaving! “Damn. Nearly said that with a straight face.”
He didn’t see her. Nobody saw anyone; Alex had his head down and his shoulders hunched, and Terry’s back was slightly angled more towards the windows than away. For her part, Beth put the carefully tie-clipped cash down her overalls, and took her boss-slash-friend-slash-trigger-happy-thumb-on-the-alarm by his elbow. She never felt more Zen than she did leading his ass to the main office’s doors – but like a high-speed version of Zen, where the only thing she could do less than standing up the neighbour she so wanted to believe wasn’t the crazy half was letting Terry sic his cloud of private security on the poor bastard.
“Oh, you,” she chittered, utterly missing the line for ‘too loud’. “You’re funny – and you’re going to be great! Get on out there and make me proud.”
She tipped him a British bum pat and pulled him a couple of steps. By the third, he had morphed into Heels-y McGee.
“What did you do,” Terry drew out.
“Nothing.” Why did he always ask? “I simply think we shouldn’t keep Eddy waiting.” Oof! Too far. His eyebrow twitched. “‘Eddy’. Ol’ Ed. What’s in a name? We just bonded so much over art. All right – go, go!”
The arm she’d been hanging onto swung to spin her in front of him. She took very little solace from how it kept his back still turned to Alex, à la Scooby-Doo, since it also left her with a full view of how fast her sort-of-date was clearing the windows – and they were big windows.
“Beth,” Terry sang, trilling her name through the air, “you wouldn’t be planning anything tricksy?”
She tried not to peek.
“And you’re sure?”
Well, gee, Ter. Big thanks for the trust.
“Yes,” she answered.
“Good.” He returned the bum pat. “We’re back to two thousand.”
He already had it in his hand! Hers went to her pocket; son of a bitch, Ter! Those bum pats were sacred.
“You’ll get this back –” Terry rolled her two hundred into his vest. “– after you don’t ring every steakhouse asking how many lobsters they’ll pile on filet mignon.” She didn’t have time to flounder over how she had only done that once, since he whisked past and headed for the doors. “Still pick someplace nice.”
“Oh, may I, sir?”
“Within the limits of your wardrobe. Lord knows none of this will go towards a decent dress.” He had to turn his head for that foppish snark, but only at last his syllable did she notice his gaze flicking off to the window. It took every tendon in her neck seizing to not check it out, too. “Eighty, Beth.”
He wasn’t screaming about Alex. That was… good? Bad? Bad.
“Hmm – yes. Eighty. Gotcha.” Terry hadn’t moved. She glared at him. “One. Two. Six. Fourteen.”
“That’s charming,” he said, sliding the doors apart. “Arthur! Wonderful news: she’s not chopping off a thing today.”
She waited until the doors shut, and then she whipped around. No Alex. Shit!
Her next move was grabbing an overweight chair, scraping it over to the glass, jumping on, pushing open the panel that topped the arch, and jamming her chin in the mesh that clearly hadn’t been cleaned to yell, “Alex! Alex – wait, please, don’t go!”
Pathetic, Beth. The word had already had a definition, but she just repainted it to this.
So that was that. Here she stood, and then sat, and then sort of fumbled over the windowsill, and then sat for real, stuck in this place with a geezer and an ex, counting until she went home and picked up the dead bird nailed to her welcome mat, the first of many I-hold-a-grudge gifts. It was a little of that column A and a good scoop of column B that she screamed.
“Beth? Beth, are –”
“Dammit-Terry-go-away!” She jumped up, hiding Alex’s face, which had freaking reappeared beside her. “Go! Go outside! Go sell things!” Terry switched his look of panic to a withering frown, but left without adding to it. Once again, she waited for the doors to close. “Coast clear.” She climbed the chair to re-reach the mesh. “Alex! There you are.”
It was to judge how he’d been doing with all the signs that affirmed how he did not, in fact, require more caffeine. His face looked red, bringing out his caramel hues – and the hues of all his bruises – while his hand scratched at his arm. Alex seemed anxious, not angry, since for any second of eye contact, he spent five scanning the front parking lot.
“I have to go,” he said.
“Right! With me to Pequods.”
“No, I…” His itching arm jerked. He pinned it with his other hand. “I mean, yes, but I have to go. Can I have your keys?”
“As in, ‘will I drive you places’? Like Pequods? Sure!”
“No – I…” Alex stopped and rolled his eyes. He put on the fakest smile this side of pure ham. “Pretty please, might I get the keys?”
All right. Now she was frowning. She worked her ‘staring down at him’ vantage to help get the point across.
“No? Because it’s my car. I’m not going to give you the keys to my – whoa, wait!” He’d started walking. “Wait! You’re leaving?”
“I said I was.”
“Well – yeah, but –” Use words, Beth! “Then what? You’re walking home?”
“I was planning to stick with driving.”
Like he had to spell it out for her.
“But – wait! Seriously!” She needed to mash her face into a lot of dust-laden fibres to ‘go after’ him, but he stopped. “You don’t have keys.”
“Don’t need ‘em. I was being polite.” What?! “Hey, was that dick stain parked out front? Cancer Guy? Is that his car? I’m taking it.”
Terry was going to murder her in a million different pieces, and if this was really happening and not a dream, she had no way to explain why he shouldn’t.
“Let me drive you,” she blurted. “I promise – I’ll drive you, but give me a second to come out. Please.”
He tilted his head. What had looked so much like a puppy-dog last night now more closely resembled the lizard from Jurassic Park, the one that had busted out a fringe and spat up acid in a guy’s mouth.
She felt immediately apprehensive. Alex had gone from carjacker to model citizen in less than a second.
“Sure,” he said again, shrugging. “But if I were you, I’d hurry. I gotta get my Pequods on, and you people have got to stop getting in the way of that.”
Off he marched, growing her urge to vomit beyond a simple night of binge drinking. Also: craaaap.
She ran. Terry’s voice hit as soon as she opened the doors. The man didn’t even blink, only casually beckoned to her during his speech.
“It isn’t simply the brashness of the skeins. It’s their urgency. That the piece is unique amongst its series as the only canvas gone unprimed speaks to a thirst for the subjects’ misfortune. By endorsing it as art, we’ve lauded its brutality, and yet in that lies our truest nature: for so long as we’re allowed the fruits of our neighbours’ pain, we are content to let them endure in silence.”
All of which was Standard Terry Bullshit, and kept them distracted enough for her to sneak to the exit.
“Amazing.” Applause. “Here I thought it was all splattered crap.”
Thanks, Eddy. Enjoy the dumb horse.
“When we refuse what’s beneath the surface, we… Beth.” No, no – shit. Terry spotted her. She froze, less than three feet from escaping. “Are you planning to join us?”
Please, brain, work.
Yes! Good excuse. At least she thought so until Terry’s back gently straightened.
“What about the bathroom, my dear?”
“Have to use it.” She felt for the hallway door. “To – ah… wash the tears I shed for this tragedy.” A billion pieces. A billion and one murdered shards. “Bye!”
Nope, bye! She flew out and down the hall, forever grateful she had the floorplan burned into her mind – except for those pallets that rammed her hip since this place was as dark as a butthole. The rush of golden light flowing from the lobby’s round expanse served as her hope that she may have made it in time, and the relief she felt as her hand knocked against the main entrance also very nearly won out over her need to kill the next person who spoke.
“Not fucking now,” she screeched at… whoever – some old guy dressed as a painter, an interior painter, a different kind of painter, who she doubted should even be here, but oh sweet mercy, not now. She ripped the entrance doors open and leapt outside, calling, “Alex! Alex, if you even touched his car…!”
But Alex wasn’t listening. Alex was busy cutting his arms through somebody’s neck.
“‘Cause ohhh, no. You can’t stay dead. You have to go and make some friends – who usually explode by now, so boy-oh-boy, you sure do look like our fucking source. I’m gonna break your favourite throat today. You deserve this.”
“Looooo,” the other person was wheezing. His eyes bulged from his sockets. “Looooo.”
“Just make a noise if you want it counter-clockwise. I know it’s a little rougher, but you get a better sound out of it. Regular-wise? Hey, it’s messy, but this is your execution, and I’ll be damned if I don’t grant a bitch their last request.”
Beth… backed away…
“Counter-clock? You got it, bud!”
The sound that followed was not a neck.
To be perfectly honest, she didn’t know how a breaking neck would sound, but her confidence in stating it wasn’t that came from a bare awareness of the sweet burning fire hose of piss, someone shot her.
Her hands patted at her belly. Feeling nothing but speed, she craned to look back inside the lobby. There, holding a gun – a red gun, like a toy – and running in sluggish strides towards her, was the old painter. His eyes went wide and rolled in on themselves, and she watched as he slowly started to fall. Her blink took hours to pass, dryly scraping her cornea. They shut to the wet echoes of a sharp crack and a long, “Looookrrhhhk.”
There was one last voice as the ground sailed to greet her.
“Dude, shut up about the latté. Get her keys.”