Kelly looked down over the banister onto the large atrium, where the bulk of the party was taking place. How long had she been wandering upstairs for? There were still plenty of people on the first floor, enough to constitute a successful party, but the amount of people crammed into the one living room downstairs was astounding. Small gaps here and there revealed its three-dimensionality, but at a first glance one could easily have thought a large, multi-coloured quilt had been spread out over the entire room and was swaying gently to and fro.
The man next to her was also staring down into the room, although his was not a look of amazement – it was his party, after all. His left hand was clutching Kelly’s wrist. Not quite digging into it, but it was a grip that told her there was no escaping him. He was wearing a pair of light grey chinos and a white shirt, the sleeves still all the way down despite the heat, and no visible sweat patches on it despite the brilliant shine on his face. His neck looked as strong as the grip he had on her and his jaw was lined with determination. It was the look on his eyes that drew her attention, though. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen that look on him.
Her mind went back a few weeks, when she’d been perusing his profile pictures on the dating site. The pictures were all quite similar to one another: impeccable lighting, as if a troupe of professional photographers followed him around all day, making sure everyone was able to admire him; a glass of something high-brow and expensive in his hand, the bottle’s label never too shy for the camera; a suit or some other smart-looking attire; and a smile, or rather the smile, for it was the only one you ever saw, picture after picture, some kind of macabre watermark imprinted on his face. What did change was the look on his eyes. She could discern a wide array of emotions in the man’s eyes – exhaustion, indifference, anger, hate even –, but never happiness. Except for the eerie picture. There was one picture where she thought there was a hint of true happiness in his smile, but it was hidden underneath an expression of what she could only describe as predatory. Despite the miles of internet cable separating them, something in those grey eyes had made her want to run away and hide.
It was that same look she was seeing now as they watched the mass of people below.
Like an eagle soaring the skies who has honed in on an unsuspecting rabbit grazing far below, his eyes stopped searching and the smile on his face, one very similar to the one she’d seen countless times on his profile, vanished into thin air in less than a second, making way for a smile that gave her goosebumps. A smile that matched the menacing stare.
He turned towards the stairs and yanked her behind him. Her body told her to pull away from him, to wrestle free, but she knew that was the wrong move, that it would only incite him further on into whatever this was leading to, so she strode behind him with as much composure as she could manage, her high heels digging painfully into her feet.
As she plunged into the throng, the hubbub from the crowd took on a loud yet somehow muffled tone, her ears latching onto snippets of conversation here and there as they squirmed through the mass, leaving her wondering at the incomplete stories.
“… it’s at the bar down on St. Luke’s, the one with the…”
“… fired with no warning. We were stunned, of course, but not really surprised...”
“… not a trace! It was incredible! And the best part is that they only…”
“… most gorgeous lake you’ve ever seen…”
“… wasn’t actually dead! Six months it had been, but there he was, with his…”
“… Lana! Lana! Lana!”
She was starting to wonder who this Lana was that someone kept shouting for again and again when she remembered. Lana. that was the name she had given him. That was the name he was shouting out repeatedly. She turned to look at him and saw that she was no longer the only woman he was holding onto. With his free hand he had managed to grip someone else’s wrist, someone whose body language told her she felt as comfortable with him clawing at her arm as Kelly did. Before she could register the person’s face, though, he was already introducing one to another.
“Lana, this is Sasha!” he roared, spittle flying uncontrollably out of his excited jaw. He looked at the other woman and nodded towards Kelly. “Sasha, this is Lana!” Before either of them could decide how they should react, he pulled them together until their hands were touching in an awkward handshake.
The first step of his plan completed, he let go of them both and frowned at them.
“Drinks!” he shouted. They looked at him questioningly. “Where are your drinks?!” They both raised their arms to show two pairs of empty hands. “No, no, this isn’t right!” He extended his arms out in an arcing bear hug that ensnared them both, squeezing all three of them closer until their faces were mere inches away from each other. The vodka fumes that emanated from his canine panting lodged themselves in Kelly’s taste buds, making her stomach contract into a marble-sized ball, something Sasha seemed to be experiencing too. “I’m going to go fetch some drinks,”, he growled in a half-whisper, “while you two get to know each other a bit more. When I come back, we’ll get the real party started, and when this party is over…” he said, nodding at the people around him. His palm, which had been resting between Kelly’s shoulder blades, began to creep down her back with very obvious intentions. “… you don’t need to leave.”
The sight of his tongue sliding along the tip of his teeth replaced the tang of vodka in Kelly’s mouth with the taste of bile. Before she could pull away, though, Sasha had already broken free from his hold and slapped him across the face, her other hand rubbing her lower back in much the same way Kelly realised she was rubbing her own, as if trying to erase the presence of his hand only seconds before. The woman was petrified, her eyes wide open at what she had just done, an angry, confused uncertainty in her expression. This, Kelly realised, was a feeling she could easily relate to, having felt like that only a few minutes earlier.
Up on the first floor, Kelly had been staring at a painting that hung casually on the wall over a small side table. She knew she was supposed to be seeing the artist’s emotions screaming out at her, the rage, the incomprehension, the desperation, the sense of injustice, of being trodden on or, worse, ignored. She was meant to see it in the lines, the colours, the different textures coming from the canvas and the paint, the different brushstrokes that were embedded into it. All she saw, however, were some wild shapes and clashing colours.
Contemporary art had never been her cup of tea.
As she looked at the painting, focused more on not getting dragged into any of the conversations going on in the room than on the work of art itself, a hand had slithered its way along her lower back before resting over her hip. She suppressed a grimace, knowing well who it was but not wanting to show her true colours – quite the opposite of the painting before them. Instead, she produced the coyest smile she could manage as she thought of the thin layer of her satin dress as the only thing separating her bare skin from his encroaching touch. She’d managed to avoid him so far, taking advantage of his responsibilities as a host towards the guests that kept pouring in to slink away to the furthest corner of the house, where she had found the painting. The din of the party around them, however, combined with the incongruous mix of jazz and dance tracks he had blaring throughout the entire house, had been loud enough to cover up his approach, giving her no chance to sneak away. Now, side by side, he leaned towards her, his breath scorching her neck as he whispered into her ear.
“There you are,” he said, a hint of a slur in his voice. “I’ve been looking for you all over. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were avoiding me.”
Thank God you really don’t know better. “I could say the same thing, Mister. You invited me to this party where I don’t know a single person and you leave me to wander around with nobody to talk to and staring at paintings no one in their right mind would buy, let alone hang on their wall.”
He turned his head and squinted at the work of art, as if trying to pry out some secret from it. “I don’t know, I kind of like it. Something in it speaks to me. You know, I bought it from some penniless artist for a hundred pounds a few years ago. Probably not worth half that, but I don’t really care, I like it anyway.”
They stared at the painting in silence for another minute. His arm began to uncoil from around her, but didn’t fully make it’s way back to him. Instead, it paused midway before changing direction, going lower and lower as he pressed on her thin dress.
Instinctively, she stepped sideways, distancing herself, then turned to face him and slapped him.
Shit, Kelly, shit. This fucking temper of yours again. She stared at him, unable to come up with an explanation that might calm him down. Around them, the party continued; the loud chatter and free-flowing alcohol was keeping everyone too busy to notice something as trivial as their host getting sonorously slapped in the face.
As she was about to walk away in defeat, though, she realised he was in fact laughing, laughing silently, his shoulders shaking, a lecherous look of mischief on his face that would have made her hairs stand on end had she not waxed them off earlier in the day. Finally, his shoulders were still again and he looked her straight in the eyes.
“You’re a feisty one,” he grinned. “I like it.” He held out his hand, palm up, inviting her to grab it. “Come on, I want you to meet someone.”
Confused and uncertain, she took the invitation, not wanting to waste the opportunity her blunder had provided her.
A few minutes later, as he’d tried to grope two women at once, the man had been slapped for the second time that night – at least the second time Kelly knew of, but she wouldn’t have been surprised if someone had told her it was the third or fourth time.
“Ye-e-e-e-ssss!” he screamed, barely containing his excitement. “Another feisty one! I love it!” Without another word, he turned around, slipped into the crowd and disappeared before either of the two women could blink.
“Shit, Lisa,” said Kelly, letting out a deep breath, “I thought he was onto us when I realised who he was introducing me to. Also, Sasha?” she smirked.
“You’re one to talk, Lana. I was also confused by that, but I’m more confused about what just happened. I slapped him and he just… he got excited?”
Kelly rolled her eyes. “I think it’s some kind of kink of his. I slapped him not five minutes ago upstairs and his reaction was to bring me down to meet you.”
Lisa shuddered. “Creep. And that look in his eyes, it’s like-”
“That picture from his profile – yeah, I know. Did you notice the smile, though?”
Lisa nodded silently.
“I’ve located the painting. It’s upstairs.” Lisa looked at her eagerly. “It’s the real deal, but he hasn’t got a clue of it’s real worth. He thinks it’s some cheap painting he happens to like.”
Lisa chuckled. “Ah, it’s so ironic that an idiot like him would have the capacity to identify a good painting like that. Pity about the rapacious lewdness of his.”
“Actually,” ventured Kelly, “aren’t you kind of glad this is what he’s like?”
Lisa looked at her in disbelief, a look that had the words Are you crazy? Written all over.
“Look,” explained Kelly, “this is not the first valuable we pilfer and I know we’re way past certain moral qualms that I – we – may have had, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling a bit bad for some of the people we’ve gone after. I mean, think of that kid down on the coast from last month, Jacob. He must’ve been, what? Twenty-two? Twenty-three? We both thought he was going to be your classic haughty rich brat who believed every woman was his oyster or whatever, but when I got to know him a bit better – and don’t look at me like that, we both agreed there would be no jealousy or competition or any of that crap between us – he was quite sweet, quite the gentleman. And yeah, I know, that didn’t stop me from taking those antique maps from him, but when I looked down at his limp body as he lay unconscious on his bed, I felt a slight pang of guilt. Hell, who knows, maybe that experience will affect him hard enough to want to hit back at women in general, enough to turn him into the asshole we had originally assumed he was.”
Lisa, who hadn’t opened her mouth during Kelly’s tirade, was just smiling at her, a gentle, loving smile.
“What I mean is that I won’t care how this creep feels whenever he wakes up from his blackout tomorrow morning and sees his painting gone. In fact, I hope it pisses him off, although I don’t think he’ll ever realise what he’s really lost. Actually, he’ll probably just be disappointed that he didn’t even get get his worth from us in exchange, or whatever he thinks of us as.”
Lisa reached over towards Kelly’s ear with her hand and pulled Kelly’s own hand back down to her side. In her usual distractedness, as she’d worked herself up, Kelly had once again been tugging at her earring. Thankfully, Lisa seemed to have stopped her before she’d drawn blood this time. If it weren’t for her, Kelly was certain she’d have lost half her ear years ago.
“I’m glad you’re finding a way to make this easier for you,” replied Lisa, lifting her hand back up and tenderly cupping Kelly’s cheek in it. “Just make sure you don’t drink much tonight. We don’t want you falling down the stairs as we carry the painting away. You’re too precious for that.”
Lisa kissed her in the lips, one of those kissed she knew made Kelly tingle all over.
They stopped kissing and turned in unison to see he had come back just at the worst possible moment. He was holding an unopened bottle of expensive vodka in one hand and three stacked glasses of whiskey in the other. Kelly wasn’t sure what repulsed her more, the fine line of drool that had oozed onto his shirt or the dense white froth that had gathered in the corners of his mouth.
Kelly and Lisa looked at each other. As conspicuously as she could, Kelly patted her bra to ensure the pouch of crushed sleeping pills was still secure, feeling a comfort in the little bag of powder.
Lana and Sasha looked back at him, sly smiles on their lips.