There were security barriers in the foyer, thick glass turnstiles that fell open when you stuck the right card in the slots. The receptionists, however, were the real security. "Can I help you?" rang out across the lobby from behind the desk like "Who goes there?" from a battlement. It was a surprise, therefore, to find Jessica sitting in my black leather chair, waiting for me to return from the basement gym where I had spent a cathartic lunch break pummeling my personal trainer, sweating out the last drops of the previous night's whiskey. I knew from the way she looked at me, tilting her head forward and peering out from under her blond bangs while she gave me a lopsided smile, that she had lied her way in. Her expression was just as I remembered it when we'd gotten away with something, and it pulled me back into the past with the force of a scent. At thirty-two she was already losing her looks. They were not going gracefully, with the haunting quality that briefly heightens doomed beauty. She had bags under her eyes and a spot on her chin where her makeup had formed a beige scab. I took no pleasure in this, but I did take pleasure from the fact that I didn't care. Indifference, not feigned but genuinely felt, was a hard-won victory, and I prized it.
She was playing with the objects on my desk. My pens were scattered over the blotting paper.
"How can I help?" I asked.
"Don't you want to know how I got in? I pretended to be from London Underground. I read about the deal you're doing, turning public services private. I'm your two thirty." She grinned. "You look nice. And you look rich." She leaned across the desk and lifted one of the silver balls on my Newton's Cradle, letting it go to hit its fellow with a gentle click.
As I looked at her, I tried to gauge her financial situation. It seemed the quickest way to divining what she wanted. Her platinum hair had been recently cut and highlighted. Her fingernails were salon neat and unpainted, but shined. She wore a simple, scuffed Tiffany silver pendant. Her black suit could have been tailored, but Jessica had always had a body that made cheap clothes look expensive. In the days when I had known her well, she had practiced a policy of sartorial simplicity designed to exhibit her natural gifts and I think to embarrass the girls who dressed up. I could not tell whether this policy had survived the passing of her beauty. I thought on the whole that choice had given way to necessity. There was no ring on her finger.
Jessica sat back in her chair and met my eye as if to ask, "And what has become of you?"
"So, you're my two thirty. I bill at two hundred and fifty pounds an hour. What can I do for you?"
"You can give me a discount, for starters."
We looked at each other with fixed smiles, our gazes headlights speeding toward each other in the dark. She relented first. "I need a place to stay for a few days. I don't want to go to a hotel. I don't want to go to friends. I don't want to be found."
She rose from my seat. Her movements still had the light accent of childhood ballet. Born of parental ambition, undone by a teenage growth spurt, a graceful precision was the last legacy of repetition and bleeding toes. To my displeasure, I noticed that behind the chair sat a briefcase and a piece of fake Louis Vuitton luggage, its beige midriff distended with packing. Jessica knew the difference that social leverage could make, and it would be that much more awkward to dismiss her if she had all the practical necessities already at hand. I wondered what the receptionists downstairs would think of my attractive female client arriving prepared for an overnight stay. It was typical of Jessica to cause disruption simply by virtue of her presence. The air was still filled with the faint metallic click of the toy she had set in motion on my desk. With an air of unimpeachable honesty, she addressed me eye to eye.
Copyright © 2007 by Ivo Stourton
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