Tag Archives: Terry

Thanks, Eddy.

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.

“I guess.”

“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.”

“Sorry.”

“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…

Wait.

Four people.

Noooo!

“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 with 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.

“No?”

“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.”

“What?!”

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?”

Ha!

“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.

Loudly.

“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?”

Uhhhhhhhh, what?

“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.

“Sure.”

“Actually?”

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.

“Bathroom.”

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!”

“Beth –”

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.

“Keeler?”

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…

“Looooo!”

“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.”

[E] “Welcome to Lemonlight Fine Arts.”

Bethany loved this place. She felt more at home within these walls than the ones she paid rent for. If she hadn’t already tried and been found and kicked out, she would live here instead.

The mood was a stoic peace wrapped in white and gold, gently settled by polished floors of crisp pearl. Dust waltzed through the skylight’s round and filtered glow. She watched it spin under the porcelain masks hanging at the highest corners. The masks were hand-carved by their featured artists, and although they hid behind blushing shadows, she sensed their fashioned smiles upon her. A gilded embossment tied the whole effect together, reaching up from behind the curved reception desk to the ceiling as an intricate tree. Its branches arched over the three halls and dark entryways.

Beautiful. Romantic. Sullen. Suave. Resolute. Exquisite. A hundred words and more. She clutched Primed and Tuned, letting its frame steady her. The foyer’s openness and classical design left her free to sail across the room as much as sit and drink this quiet atmosphere. Nowhere else offered that emotion. She sighed, dreamy and full of glee, then turned to face her guest.

“Welcome to Lemonlight Fine Arts,” she declared, “your gateway to the nation’s most inspired collection of homegrown talent. Since 1993, these halls have paid tribute to our unsung masters of style, who challenged the norms of their day to shape a new trend. From painters to sculptors, photographers and models, these artists have thrown caution to the wind and dare you to flourish in their world.”

Alex looked confused.

“Did you practise that?”

Technically.

“I work the front desk most weeks,” she said. “I know that blurb better than I know my name.”

“Which is why it’s such a marvel she never remembers it.” Terry! The man of the hour, always prepped to lend his sardonic tenor to a chat. Today, he wafted in from the East Wing, clipping along the floor with shoes shined to a mirror finish, ironed slacks, a tidy vest – charcoal and pinstriped – and his famous, royal yellow shirt and tie. When he stopped, it was at a respectable two and a half feet. “I see we’ve brought a pack mule.”

“Good morning to you, too,” she greeted. “Where’s my breakfast?”

“Where indeed? I didn’t honestly expect you to arrive on time. Colour me shocked.” Terry tipped his whip-straight nose to Alex. “You have a new friend.”

“So that’s a no on breakfast? Do you want to move it to brunch? Lunch? One of your fifty teatimes?”

“Bethany,” he sang, looking good and uncomfortable under his stylized face scruff. “I can’t introduce myself.”

It was ‘unseemly’.

“I know. I like making you wait.” He gave her a tch. In his native land, which here meant Brighton instead of Jordan where he’d actually been born, the noise meant ‘You utter bitch’. Point: Beth. “Terry, this is Alex. He’s from my building. Alex, this is Terry. He’s the –”

Stop. Stop.” Now the man looked pained. The left of his raised-in-perma-sarcasm brows twitched, but he composed himself and extended a hand – not to shake, but merely gesture. With it, he gathered a breath and leaned into a glorious exhalation. “Alex.” The room savoured the sound, balancing the syllables hovered over them. “Terrance Sheridan. Director of Lemonlight Fine Arts. Co-owner of the estate to which you’ve journeyed this morn. It is a pleasure to meet you, I’m sure.”

“Hey,” Alex said.

They waited.

And they waited.

So it turned out silence hovered, too.

“We’re going to Roasters,” she blabbed, “after this thing with Edison’s done. I brought the stuff!” Beth lifted her canvas. “Fresh off the brush, all for him.” Terry hadn’t shifted his eyes from Alex yet. Alex, who she’d been trying to unwind from the ball of nerves he’d been since she opened her door. He started to freeze at the hawkish attention. Beth to the rescue. “Ter? Money?”

That caught his interest. Terry swiveled to find Primed and Tuned waiting.

“Well, this is manic.” He ran a thumb down its length. Yes, the acrylic was dry, and what he was checking for happened once. “Fresh off the brush, you say. Not ‘tube’?”

There came a faint heat to her cheeks.

“I… may have had to manually adjust some places…”

He recoiled, gasping, “Beth.”

Yeah, hilarious.

“I’m not proud,” she said, “but it’s not like Edison’s going to care. It counts as a part of RAR, and I was showing Alex this morning that if you look at the right angle –”

Once again, Terry cut through, having waved a palm and gone, “Up-up – no. You’ve done your eighth of the work. The rest, you leave to me.” Somehow, Alex got roped back into his line of fire. “So. She showed you this morning. And what did you think?”

Nonchalant, her neighbour answered, “Good.”

“Mm.” To Beth: “Doesn’t talk much, does he?”

“He’s new to this,” she told him. “When we’re done at Roasters, we’re going to wander around here and flesh out his experience. It’ll be an official Lemonlight sightseeing tour.”

“What a treat.” Terry beamed, though his mouth looked a touch too wide and his stare a tad narrow. He’d – for the third time – turned his focus onto her date, who at least seemed more comfortable with it since he pleasantly wide-smiled-narrow-stared right back. Eventually, however, Terry loosed a second ‘Mm’, then motioned to the paintings Alex had tucked underneath his arm. “What are those?”

She braced. Here went nothing.

“My new series! I call it: Pink Beauty, and it requires a very open mind –”

“It’s shit, isn’t it?”

“Wh– no.” Stay positive. “It’s your boulder!” Stay positive, Beth. After all, this was Terry. Ter-bear! Also Terrynx-larynx, for when he needed to fall down a peg. She glued on her ray of sunshine and barrelled through. “You always say you can squeeze pennies from a rock, so… surprise! Here’s your ultimate challenge.”

“Funny,” Terry said. “I can’t recall asking for a challenge.”

Okay, screw positive.

“No, you asked for nine pieces of RAR, and then bumped me to five to fit Jess in since your professional loyalty’s no contest to Edison’s wallet. You completely reneged on your duty to the actual artists slaving to fill this place, so you’re going to take Pink Beauty and cram it down his neck until Edison spits up cash, and you’re going to drop your precious commission because this is your fault to begin with.”

“She’s a bit of a firecracker,” he chirped at Alex.

“Terry!”

“All right, all right – I’ll sell the bloody thing. Inside voices,” he scolded. “Show me already.”

Beth made sure he wasn’t going to change his mind, which he promised via frustrated hand flap at the unicorn trio. Fine. She was holding him to it. Retrieving her latest creation, she arranged the frames in a proper display on the floor.

Terry studied these for the longest time, pressing his fingers into a steeple against his lips. More silence. When she couldn’t keep taking it, she blurted, “Well?”

“Ms. Keeler.” Ugh – he took forever to say her name. Stupid pauses for dramatic effect… “I stand corrected. That.” He pointed by tilting his steeple forward. “That is divine.”

“Aw, shut up.”

“I’m being a thousand times serious. Look at the pony!” Beth would slap him. “It’s fighting a lizard monster! Is this its tongue, by the way?”

“A horn,” Alex popped in, obviously not too unsociable that he would miss a chance to ladle on crap with this jerk. But he grinned at her, coming dangerously close to yesterday’s adorable smirk. “I still like it.”

Then he was still wrong, since Pink Beauty – not lacking a better word – sucked. But… she appreciated the sentiment. She thought he’d been joking before, as expected from everyone else. His sincerity gave her a warm flutter of gratitude.

“Thank you,” she told him.

He did seriously need to learn about art, though. She was not having him compliment the horse if he still couldn’t ‘get’ RAR.

From out of her peripherals, Beth caught Terry’s brow twitching again.

“Good to know she’ll listen to someone,” he noted breezily. “Alex.” Hands clasped, and stepping to the side of her grounded paintings, he wandered closer. “Any last names, or do you only have the one?”

Alex moved his head, dutifully following Terry’s approach.

“It’s just that.”

Did she detect a hint of something? Hostility?

“Ah! Much like Bono. Another man of small mystery.” Terry’s lips quirked. “Cancer.”

“‘Scuse me?”

Definite hostility. She jumped to explain, but not before Terry rammed ahead with, “The crab!” Of course the crab. This was his icebreaker. “Your sign. Astrology. I’ve a talent for reading postures, and yours holds a distinct guardedness across the chest.”

Alex continued staring.

Okay.

Um.

Don’t mind her or anything. She was simply going to tip-toe back on over to the spotlight and ask, “Where’s Edison?”

“Office.” Bethany had had the oddest sensation, as though dear Terry forgot she was here and him saying ‘Office’ marked more of a coincidence than a reply. “Are you?”

To which Alex – not her, since ha, ha, Beth who – said, “Are I what?”

The left brow gave its third twitch, and a lithe wince alighted on Terry’s smile. Never one to let grammar interrupt the theatrics, however, he composed himself and gently prodded, “A Cancer.”

So this was happening? The train had boarded and the ball had already started to roll? Her last attempt at changing the subject involved a cough for their attention and the novel suggestion of, “Maybe we should go to the office.”

“Is that the dragon?”

Alex, according to these four words, hadn’t heard Beth at all, and thus resumed the two men totally ignoring her.

“The dragon is from the Chinese zodiac. We’re focused on the Western set.”

“There’s two?”

“Two –” Terry practically choked. “There’s more than one, as the common knowledge goes.”

She got nothing from either of them.

“Common knowledge. ‘Cause it’s not real knowledge, I guess.”

“Spoken like a Taurus.”

“Is that the dragon?”

Fine! Beth started gathering the canvases her own damn self.

“Let’s go slow,” Terry said, pushing on, “as I do for all the kiddies who don’t quite have it. Taurus is the bull, assigned to late April and May. Not a dragon. Cancer is the crab for late June and July. Not a dragon. I am a Libra. The balanced scales. A refined advocate. Romantic. Not, despite what one might assume, a dragon. Clearer?”

It seemed like Alex was enjoying things after all. Good for him.

“Oh. Those. The goat and the cat and the – right, sure.” He nodded. “I’m in the middle of March. What sign’s that again: the little boy Zeus kidnapped to fetch him booze and bend over, or the half-horse too busy reading to rape as much as the other centaurs? I’m always confused.”

Terry hummed a grim chuckle.

“Pisces. March is a Pisces, with the middle of the month forming an Aries cusp.” His sardonicism cranked to eleven. “Yes, that’d be right.”

“And so relieving! I was worried we weren’t gonna solve this.”

To twelve for Alex.

“It’s the magic of teamwork.” Call the press: Terry’d hit thirteen, and his happy expression pulled tight enough to nearly crack his face in two. “As I said, I’m sure it’s been a pleasure.”

That was her cue. With both series piled snugly atop her wrists, Beth took the chance to get a word in.

“I don’t know about you,” she announced, “but too much male bonding makes my head spin. What do you say we put a pin in this and let Terry get on to bringing my art over for Edison?”

His brow shot so far up his forehead, it was all it could do to not pop off.

“You can’t seriously think you’re not helping me with this,” he barked. Then since everyone waited for his instruction, Terry spun on his heel and glided into the dark hall from whence he came. “Keep up, you.” Snap, snap. “Bring the wares.”

She decided not to move until he vanished. As soon as he had, she was all over apologizing to Alex.

“I am so, so sorry. He’s normally a nice guy –” Well, in public. “– but he’s also sort of my boss and I can’t do as much to help as I want when he’s – ah… less nice.”

Or whatever they wanted to call this tiff. Oh. A tiff! Perfect.

“It’s fine,” Alex assured, casually shifting his weight. That shirt was the best mix of tight and modest. “But for the record, if anything says I’m not paying today, that was it.”

“Right – you’ve got it. For enduring him, the first coffee’s on me.” The wind flew out from her lungs. She hadn’t even noticed she’d been holding it there. “Feel free to wander until I’m done. I’ll come find you.”

She left him and jogged into the shadows alone, following after Terry’s wake, but it wasn’t until she arrived surrounded by a cloak of shade that she realized describing this as such felt entirely too generous. The hall was pitch black, save for white outlines glowing around the curtains at the far end. She walked by squeaking her foot forward and touched for paths with the edges of her outstretched paintings.

Where was he?

“Beth!”

Jesus, Ter –”

Two hands took her by the waist and steered her down the long way to the office. Every time – every time Bethany went somewhere dark and hadn’t adjusted yet, Terry, half-bat, frigging appeared and freaked her ass out.

“What an absolute wanker,” he fumed, doing an excellent job of not walking her into a wall. He did a poorer job of speaking with the inside voice he’d mentioned. It ran straight through her ear while his fancy beard tickled her lobe. “I had him pegged right for it as he walked in. I let him talk, of course, for your sake, before casting my judgement, but now it has been cast. Wanker.”

“Easy, Ter,” she said. “He’s not that bad.”

Too little, too late. Terry started mocking Alex through his teeth.

Two zodiacs? Where’s the dragon? Aren’t the centaurs sexual deviants? Didn’t Zeus bugger Aquarius?” Which sounded like Zeus, but she chose not to point it out. Mandela’s Peace Prize awaited her claim. “Honestly, Bethany. Your heart cannot have been so dashed by our uncoupling that this is what attracts you now. He might look like me –”

Whoooooooa.

“Down, boy,” she told him. “You two do not look alike.”

He squeezed her sides and led her through another blind corridor. Ah, the scenic route, the favoured path of people who weren’t carrying four big, flat pieces on their arms.

“Beth,” the people in question assured her. “I’m flattered. Truly, I am. But I’m not stupid. He’s taller than you, I’m taller than you. He’s well-built, and so am I. He has a bronze complexion…”

“You think you’re bronze now?”

Because outside of his amber, Arabic flush, Terry was as fair-skinned as they came. At her best pre-third degree tan, she managed a shade beiger. Alex’s ‘complexion’, on the other hand, embodied deliciousness, like a medium double-double.

Secondly, well-built? Terry was ten percent body-fat! The skinny ten percent, not the toned fifteen Alex clearly worked with. His admittedly impressive sense of style may have allowed Ter to moonlight as someone svelte-esque, but be serious.

“Same diamond-shaped head, same dazzling smile for occasions like being a prick, and he has the same ebony hair as I. Except I’ve cut mine whilst giving a shit –” He grew it past his chin, oiled it, then tucked the locks behind his ears. “– and he’s used a hacksaw.”

Was he going to mention the long schnoz, down-turned eyes, plucked caterpillars who’d given their lives to emote his pouts, or – again – the tickly jaw fur obsessively trimmed to a fade Alex didn’t have?

“You don’t look alike,” she repeated. “You’re taller by a breathtaking inch.”

“Inch and a half. Please,” he said, before she could call him on using colonial measurements, “let me believe this is your quarter-life crisis, and you’ll run its course without begging to move in with me once the thrill of your fling has lifted and you’ve realized the shame of floorcest.”

“He doesn’t live on my floor. That’s how much you know.”

“Oh! Well. Pardon me, then.” Beth could hear him shaking his head behind her, still simmering from Alex. “I suppose whether he is or isn’t a wanker – although he is, it’s not my place to comment on your affairs.”

“In writing, please,” she crooned.

“And I suppose,” he talked over her, “it could be worse. You haven’t shacked up with your other neighbours yet.”

It took eight steps for the ‘yet’ to register. She’d furrowed her brow by the ninth. On the tenth, a thought occurred to her.

“Terry,” she began. “Are you…?”

He tittered. Nothing good ever came of those.

“I’m simply playing the house,” he swore. “Everyone else bet on how long it’ll be. Big money’s on the New Year, so just keep these –” He tapped her thighs. “– closed until January, yes? Or forever. Amuse yourself with sodding Alex.”

She must have been really drunk still, to misunderstand the situation as obviously as she was. Surely a cluster of assholes wasn’t actually gambling on her sex life, when that was the one thing they agreed was off-limits.

“Ter?”

“Mm-hmm?”

“Who’s ‘everyone else’ that’s betting, exactly?”

After drumming on her overalls, Terry replied, “You remember the group we had over Gina’s pregnancy test.” She remembered losing fifty bucks on a barely there pink line. “Us again! Only it’s about you now.”

“About me shacking up with –”

“No, being murdered by, when you’ve let your guard down after a night of fresh starts and rigorous toi-et-deux-rois. Really, Beth,” he said. “This isn’t my first pari-mutuel. As if I’d allow wagers on something someone could influence.” Oh dear God. “Your private life is your own, unless it makes an airtight case for how the main event unfolds.”

To clarify, she echoed, “The main event being that my neighbours will inevitably kill me.”

“You’ve been on about it since they moved in. At this point, we’ve assumed it’s happening.” Terry was taking extra turns on purpose. The office was not this far away. “We gathered the theory during our creative thinking exercise last week. Missed you at that. Next one’s early November.”

“Don’t hold your breath for my R.S.V.P,” she bit off at him. “I might be inevitably dead by then.”

“Oof. Hard luck on that payout. But I wouldn’t worry; if they left you alone for this long, there’s a good chance they’ve up and killed each other,” he spectacularly failed to allay. “Unless, perhaps, your building hid its drugs long enough to learn English and call the police?”

Her building had called somebody, Beth knew from today, but not a cop.

“No.”

“Then dead it is. Such a shame – RAR was growing on me.” The fingers on her sides tightened for a moment. “What’s your problem?”

“Huh?”

“You’re not as bouncy all of the sudden, which means you have a problem.” He tried actually bouncing her to prove it. “Like a wet sack of cats.” Thank you. “So what’s wrong? Bedded them already? Both? Only one, but twice? As I mentioned, it’s not my place to comment. Though I’ll judge. And tut. Might even wag my finger.”

If anything would be the death of her, it was his sense of humour. She’d worked too hard convincing herself that she didn’t need to spit a trail of forensic DNA to let Terry stick her with another dose of worry. Calmly, collectedly, she said with high hopes that he couldn’t notice the slight wobble in her voice from last-second doubt, “It’s nothing.”

He noticed. He so noticed, in fact, he stopped his blind-sighted power strut and brought her to a halt.

“Bethany,” Terry warned. “What’s happened?”

“Nothing!” For her next trick, she added, “As far as dropping my guard is concerned. I can’t really be caught off of it in a vibrant, bustling, noisy, public place like Roasters, right?”

She literally, figuratively, heard him putting the pieces together. The very instant he had, he whirled her to face him – presumably to stare into her eyes, but hello, still dark – and grabbed her by the shoulders.

“You didn’t.” He rumbled the words. “Beth. You didn’t.”

Her neighbours were the only stories she never had to fluff. Following that novelty, Terry – and tons of others, like regular visitors, fellow artists, maintenance workers, check-out clerks, raccoons, birds, and Jessica, but especially Terry – knew every detail.

“It’s a cup of coffee,” she said, “and a quick tour. I mean, I don’t know… Is it so dangerous?”

“That you’ve just asked whether it was dangerous rather than any other adjective in your vocabulary says more than you most days,” he spelled out at her. “Yes! The answer is yes! It is really fucking dangerous.”

“But,” she shushed, because oh God, be quiet, “he is really cute. And – and – stop it – of the two of them, he’s not crazy. It’s his brother-roommate-friend person. Alex apologized for the noise.” After he stalked her back home, she omitted. “By the way, I have a wonderful vocabulary, you…”

What a lovely time to draw a blank.

Terry’s fingers retightened and relaxed. Then they tightened, relaxed, and held.

“Alex,” he began. “No last name of which we can speak. Allegedly sane – brother indeed – and is aware of where you live.”

“Yes.”

“He has bruises on his jaw. You’re not aware if he’s given as good as he gets. And you have no way of telling if whatever is his problem can become your problem next.”

Those were good points.

“But he’s so cute.”

“Not happening.” Terry whirled her back and marched her on towards the office. “It’s not happening. I’ll not allow it. Let him wait for a while, and then we say there’s been a painting emergency and he’ll have to go home.”

“Um…” Now she was second guessing the second guesses. Alex seemed so nice… and more scared of her than vice versa. “I drove him here –”

“Bus. Cab. Couldn’t care less. Fly, for God’s sake, but he’s leaving.”

Once or twice, she’d fluffed the story for him a bit.

“Maybe you’re overreacting,” she said. “He seems normal.”

This time when he spun her, a muted shine from underneath the nearby at last office door helped her to pick the disappointed frown across his features. Terry looked annoyed by what she’d suggested, and the expression of ‘How have you lived this long without choking to death on your tongue when you sleep’ reminded her how nice it was not to still be dating that.

“We’ll get your things when he’s gone. You’ll stay with me for now. The single ‘probably’ I want to hear is you’ll probably look for a new flat while you’re at it.”

Alex seemed normal.

“Whatever,” she mumbled.

“Not whatever. Yes. I’ve had a trying enough time with you in that hovel,” he shot back. “Now’s an even better occasion to leave it behind. Clear?”

Practised, Beth glued on her frilly sunshine ray again.

“We’re clear.”

“Good.” He released her arms to go into preening mode, straightening his vest. “Right – you know the rules with him. Old Man Misogyny: play dumb, look pleasant, let me be the son he never had, and I’ll have you set for rent at wherever you live next.” Gently, he chuckled to her. “I was largely kidding about the pool. Had I honestly thought you would talk to one of them, I would have placed my bet first.”

She chuckled too, so sweetly, readjusting the canvases as she agreed, “Let’s get this over with.”

Then she was going to Pequods.

No movement, no noise…

Greaaaat. Nicely done, Bethany. Now she and the crazy-after-all guy were best friends. Some of that old blind luck had stuck around, however: he knew what she looked like, but he didn’t know Beth’s name. Fat chance finding her without it. She could be very sneaky.

“Dumb. Door. Open.” This floor had the worst stairwell. A thick pelt of goop was soaked into the push-bar, gluing it closed until she paid the greasy price and launched herself at it. Three times out of ten, the door peeled free, but unfailingly smeared its gummy mucus on her arm. Centuries ago, someone spilled a stew or something else sticky. Nobody acted surprised that management still hadn’t scraped it up. “Open!”

It did after a long slurp. Beth’s shoulder throbbed. She irritably massaged it and padded down the gray stairs. Thank you, couch, for being home to collapse on face-first. Her lungs burned, her eyes stung, her heart hammered and her stomach slowly hemmed and hawed about uncurling from a knot. She essentially spent that conversation holding her breath, but hooray, she talked to him. She checked it off the mental list. She would’ve liked to have done the same with her art, but she appreciated progress nonetheless.

All right, a tiny bit less.

Beth rolled over on her blanketed couch. She studied the tubes taped to her ceiling. No movement, no noise… She guessed it meant he was resting.

Strange person. She felt bad for him. He might’ve been crazy, but that didn’t stop his wonky relationship – the one she’d effectively ignored for as long as he’d lived here – from flecking her paintings with multi-coloured, acrylic drops of moral guilt. He needed help, probably. He didn’t want help, but that went hand-in-hand with these situations. Yet here she lay, hungry and alert for the first twitch of more, selfishly praying they picked up the pace if she planned on delivering nine finished canvasses.

It hurt. Having his bruises and stammered panic to put to the fights she heard upstairs made Beth feel dirty and exploitative. She never expected to be a creep, building her work on the backs of the less fortunate. Technically, she was the less fortunate. Her creditors thought so. Her parents said so. Jessica plainly danced around the subject but gave Beth a delicate smile and paid for lunch. Rage Against the Rooms didn’t finance gold cars or silver toilets. RAR covered bills: her food, utilities, supplies, taxes – real things. It was called ‘life’, but when someone offered their assistance in surviving it, the right answer was a grateful acceptance. Beggars couldn’t afford to slam doors.

Still… she did feel bad. He’d been so jumpy and off-guard. He didn’t know her; she shouldn’t take the rejection this personally when he had no reason to trust that she’d help. After all, why the sudden interest? Couldn’t she have called the cops months ago? Or now? Had he asked her to in his own stupid joke of a way?

Her phone rang. Perfect timing! Leave it to technology to take her mind off social responsibility.

“Hello?”

Beth? It’s Terry. Do you have a minute?

Beth sat up fast enough to pull something in her lower back.

“Terry! I – sure! Absolutely,” she sang. “Anything for my favourite curator!” But, she reminded herself, he shouldn’t want anything except her art and they’d already set an implicit deadline. Two days left. “Ah… everything okay?”

There’s been a bit of an awkward turn, actually.” If memory served, that was British for ‘brace yourself, Beth’. “The exhibition’s fine – no trouble with the venue and the plans are all on schedule.” That translated to ‘I’m about to be your second-favourite curator’. “The artists, meanwhile…” And that was ‘Somebody’s ruining everything, especially RAR’.

Beth swallowed the bile rising against her tongue. It slowed her down in asking him too readily, “Can I help?”

I’m not sure. I hate to cause an inconvenience and I wouldn’t dream of putting you out, but it’s rather pressing.” So began the long-form British for ‘I know damn well how you’re pitching in and your exhibit’s cut unless you do’. “I have to accommodate everyone to the best of what’s available and very little is.

“Terry,” she said, “spill it.”

It’s Edison.” The old man with the moustache made of money. “My great supporter, and the wallet behind the gallery’s bank account.” Terry often also mused ‘a self-stylized eccentric’ when he felt too proper to call the guy ‘a twat’. “He’s done it. He’s bloody gone and done it – that… twat brought in his submission.” Terry did not, apparently, feel too proper right now. “It’s big. Massive! I can’t fit it where I expressly said it had to fit. And I can’t chop the vile thing from the show! Edison will take offence.

“Hobbyists,” she sympathized. “They’re worse when they’re snotty and rich.”

He’s imposing. Even a saint can be a bastard when they’ve got their hands on your crap.” She heard him rub his forehead and groan a mild note of despair. “It’s like you and that neighbour of yours, isn’t it? Beautiful leaves may flow downstream, but so will a torrent of piss.

Sure! Something like that.

“What are you going to do?”

What I am forced to do is clear the area for this alleged model of sexual spirituality,” he explained. “Pop Passion’s been axed. Edison already bought the space from Devan.

Beth choked when Terry gave her the price tag. Devan’s glittery scribbles scored that much? Real estate was a serious market in this industry…

“He wants to buy my spot next,” she realized. “My centre stage.” After she’d starved for it!

No, no. I wouldn’t put the eyesore anywhere near the front. It has its place of glory in the west room. That’s as far as it’ll go.” Oh. Good. Although if Edison paid so much to steal Devan’s cramped corner… “It’s Elated Islands.” Oh God. “Jessica has to go somewhere! She’s said to ring you in case you’re willing to –” Don’t say it, you limey jerk. “– share.

“Ooh. Ah… I dunno.” Beth tsk-tsked. “I’d love to – you know, for Jessica – but I’ve got nine canvasses. They’re a tight fit.” They would be, shortly after she got past the little snag of only having almost seven. “You understand, right?”

Beth, she leapt to help you last summer when Edison trotted up then,” he wheedled. “You said you would pay her back. I heard you. And it would really save my ass, which I might have mentioned is on the line with playing host to a crippled human-half bug statue.” The rest sounded like Terry ranting to himself: “What is he thinking? Why use paper-mâché? The left tit sags!

“I don’t know…”

Bethany,” he wailed, “I’m begging you! Elated Islands is on the bloody pamphlet. I can’t reprint them on this short of notice. You’ll still have the majority wall!

“Nine paintings’ worth?”

Six. Six if the sixth is a small one. Five.

Unbelievable!

“Why,” she demanded, “can’t Edison buy her out?”

Obviously I tried arranging that.” British for ‘I totally didn’t even think of it’. “We both know Jess isn’t in this for the money.

“I am,” Beth seethed.

Yes,” Terry said, “and it’s why she’s suggested compensation for the trouble. Supposedly, I’m off to charm the old fart into buying whichever pieces this shuffle would displace. That’s the shortest end of the stick in this. You’re welcome, not that I’ve been thanked.” Speaking over her huffs, he tacked on, “It’s a fair deal from your side. I’ll add it to your placard: ‘Has already sold to inspired collectors’.

It must have been the accent, since she actually considered this.

“How much?”

From Edison’s hammy fists?” He gave a sour snort. “I didn’t lead with cash for a reason. He’s stingy. Lucky you, because his definition of a pittance is still well above ours. Interested?

She didn’t want to be. Did he ask anyone else? Terry had thirty artists coming, but naturally Beth was the first to get called. For Jessica. Of freaking course.

“I…”

Rrrrrrrrrrr.

What was that?

I don’t mean to hurry you,” her phone crackled, “and while I’d love to listen to silence all evening –

“Terry, no – shh.” Not fighting. Something new. It sounded like… “I have to put you on speaker.” … inspiration. “One second. I need my hands.”

Beth kicked the corner of a half-completed canvas, slamming it away to slap a fresh stretch of fabric into the speckled crime scene’s outline. There it was again, the low rrrrrrrrr! The tubes shuddered in concert from the ceiling. Paint! She had to refill the paint. Where was her chair? Which colours?

Cocoa! A delicately creamy frappe to pair with it. A full-flavoured tate olive because this didn’t call for the harsh shades of anger like before. That noise had to be furniture deliberately organizing. Ooh – ‘organize’! Were they cleaning? She never heard them clean. Tethered Scars? She liked it. Where was her chair?!

I’m not getting in the way, am I? Not bothering you with this trying-to-save-your-exhibit tosh?

“You want me to sell out,” she yelled back. Her phone sat lonely on the couch. “Tell Jess if she’s butting into my space, I decide what she shows. I don’t need her frilly oceans clogging up my desperate wars. I slaved for my series.”

She works hard, too.

“She sells hard,” Beth vented. “She doesn’t create, she doesn’t imagine, and she doesn’t convey. Her paintings might as well be windows for all the point they have in staring at them.”

I like windows! Lots of people do. Ever seen a house go up without them? It’s weird. You get chills.

“Terry,” she warned.

I’ll tell her,” he finally relented. “She’ll be over the moon you said yes to some degree.

Uh-huh.

“How many does she have room on the wall for?”

Nine minus five.

“Three,” Beth decided, setting the pump. It whirred to life and heartily burped its first tan droplets. Rrrrrrrrrr. A drop landed left of the middle. “Stormy, lighthouse, and the gray fog. Nothing other than them. Terry, be implicit.”

Explicit, I think.

“Well, don’t swear at her,” Beth said. “Not if you don’t have to.”

You’re such an artist, love.” That was British for something she divinely chose not to understand. “Then it’s settled. Three of her paintings, five of yours. It’s manageable. You’d like that cheque, would you? From Edison? I’ll have to ring him, too. Bring the rest of your work to the gallery tomorrow – I need this sorted soon.

She choked again.

“Tomorrow?!”

Yes, tomorrow morning. We’d all like to sleep in, but chop, chop.

Her heart threw a fit.

“Um… yeah, but… why tomorrow?”

Because he won’t buy a damn thing unless it’s in front of him,” Terry said. “I’d do it tonight, but he doesn’t know yet that he wants to buy whatever you’re around to pawn off. He’s gone until the exhibition after midday, too.

“Okay! Okay. I’ll come in.” Tomorrow. With four pieces ready for sale. “He’s not the sort of guy who displays everything for millionaire parties, is he?”

Please give her the good news that the final paintings she now had to crappily rush would be buried in the garden.

You might explain the paint fades if it’s not left in shade or a dark hall,” Terry wisely advised. “He must be near-blind anyway. Neon orange, Beth! And spots! See it before you go.

“How can I turn that down?” She returned to her seat and scooped the phone to her ear. “Thanks for the warning. Thanks for the cheque too, Ter.”

Thank him. I wouldn’t pay a dime for your drippy, manic messes. You know me.” Beth always could count on him for that. She smiled anyway, especially as Terry went on. “I’m sorry for this. Plans were unfolding too well, I suppose. Be here early and I’ll buy breakfast. We’ll chortle over the odds of a critic knocking Ashley Brendan’s sculpture to rubble again.

“You’re on,” she told him. Free breakfast! They swapped their goodbyes and hung up for the night. Back alone, Beth’s lip found itself between her teeth. She nibbled. “Damn.”

Four by tomorrow, and the rumbling had stopped. Moving her phone from couch to chair, she hiked her overalls to her knees, then gingerly sat and shook the tubes herself. These were finishing one way or the other, but other took a gamble she didn’t have a night to bet. She’d better get started.