He’s two steps behind me as we leave the concert hall, pawing at the vulnerable edges of my costume as we climb into his town car. “Leave the dress on,” he had insisted earlier, “Those tits are an appetizer.” I agreed, trying to show my reluctance in a soft, feminine way, and only stopped at the shop to leave my mask and wig. The less of my own things I bring the better. Less to remember later.
The town car is a plush jungle of leather and liquor. There’s a soft sheepskin rug covering the floor. One of his past girls described him coaxing her to kneel on it “for comfort.” A strip of purple lights edges the ceiling. There is a black leather bar stocked with high-class, boutique liquor. Dark tinted windows block outside light and outside viewers from seeing inside. The cab is fully divided from the passenger compartment by what looks like a headboard wrapped in zebra print, or zebra skin. Anything could happen back here and the driver would never know. It’s a hunter’s trophy room, dark, private, and dripping with one kind of masculinity. Who knows how many prizes he’s taken inside this car?
As I arrange the long layers of my skirt, so as not to wrinkle them, and upset the costume designer, he reaches for the bar.
“You want one of these, beautiful?” he asks me, swirling a whisky in a small glass. He looks like he wants to be James Bond, a cliché of male composure. His tuxedo is fitted and starched. His hair is parted carefully and cleanly, giving way only slightly to a natural wave in his hair. He’s handsome and he knows it, which is why he’s so good at what he does. Practiced charisma buries the truth.
“No,” I answer. “I don’t drink. It’s bad for the vocal cords. Dries the throat.”
“Fine,” he grunts. “Wouldn’t want you to harm your precious instrument.”
He drinks his glass in one slug, and leans toward the bar to refill it.
“More for me. I just hope you’ll be comfortable.”
I know what comfortable means in this context. It’s about vulnerability, a cheap seduction. His sarcasm doesn’t surprise me either. It’s not unusual from this kind of man. To him, the opera is a place to be seen. It’s less timeless art, and more a wealthy singles mixer. He wouldn’t know an aria from a musical number. He certainly wouldn’t understand what a Heldensoprano is. What I am. It’s why he hasn’t asked any questions about my performance. It’s why he’s so eager to get me back to the hotel room; far from even neutral turf, to a place where he holds all the cards.
“It’s a nice evening,” I say. “Did you enjoy the view from your balcony suite?”
“The vantage point was spellbinding,” he smirks. His eyes briefly hold mine before dropping, sedately affixed to my exposed cleavage. “Gave me the full picture of what I’d be working with later.”
“The view is spectacular now, too,” he adds, brushing the back of his index finger along my neck.
I sit still, not cooing, but not resisting. A reaction is what he wants. That’s part of the thrill the hunter seeks. He just doesn’t know who’s doing the hunting.
“You’ve got a pretty voice. Matches the rest of you. I like a fuller woman. More to hold onto. More eager to please.”
He continues spouting these short, mindless sentences. They drip from his mouth with confidence. He thinks he knows just what to say.
I lose myself momentarily in the glaring lights lining the avenue. The traffic is dense with orange, red and gold. Crying car horns punctuate the changing of the stoplights. The city is made of music. It’s a performance all its own, overloaded with actors, understudies, heroes and villains. Pedestrians cling to each other, to their own sense of manufactured safety. The pickpockets and drug dealers and rapists stalk about in the shadows, unseen by even the most watchful eyes. These wolves are dangerous, but they hardly compare to the ones masquerading as gentler creatures. The ones that contribute to society, to use a tired phrase, while carefully skimming their stolen rewards are the vilest. They take without asking. They use their influence to cover their darkness. And they rise, spoiled cream, to the top.
Maxwell Blake’s wake overflows with misplaced evidence, out-of-court settlements, disappearances and suicides. He’s a repeat offender, and he’s slippery. He spends more time splashed across the society page than on wanted posters. He hasn’t learned his lesson yet, but that’s because the system fails.
Still, there’s always the chance he could reform.
That’s why I ask the Three Questions.
The three questions are my way of offering a second chance.
They aren’t the same every time. They aren’t always questions, but they take common forms. The first one ascertains if he might actually respect me. The second finds out how he views himself, in relation to his past—he doesn’t know I know the truth. And the third offers a final chance to reconsider.
They really only have to answer one of them right, but even that is rare. I believe in redemption, and I count the few who’ve redeemed themselves through the questions as greater victories than the ones who failed.
For Maxwell Blake, question one already happened, when I asked him about his balcony seat. His answer came coated in innuendo. His eyes, hungrily devouring my breasts, told the story the words only implied. Blake is already off to a weak start.
“I said I’m doing to make you sing later,” he growls. His hand clenches at my knee, rippling the layers of the dress like crumpled paper.
“I’m sure you will,” I answer.
“You like to sing, don’t you, princess?”
“I’ve dedicated my life to it.”
“Well, I like to make women sing, and I’ve never had a performance end without applause.”
“I’m sure you haven’t, Mr. Blake,” I say.
He leans in and nuzzles my neck. Then he lays his tongue against my flesh and slides it up, slowly, to my jawline.
“You taste good, Miss Gilda.”
“Gilda is the name of character I performed,” I reply.
“Sure. I’ll just call you Gilda. That’s easier, and more fun, don’t you think?”
The town car comes to a gentle halt outside the hotel. Blake exits first, tossing back the remains of his drink and dropping the glass onto the car’s floor. He opens my door and extends a gentlemanly hand.
“Welcome to Paradise,” he remarks.
“It certainly is extravagant.”
“I’ll bet you one thousand dollars that you’ll never want to leave.”
“I suppose we’ll see,” I say.
He slaps the back of the town car as if it was a frontier horse, and the vehicle roars off into the night.
My nerves begin to flare. It’s too close now. This is the time when doubt sets in.
Blake leads me past the doorman, into the hotel’s gleaming lobby. He stops us at a simple fountain in its center. Two nude women bear water pitchers, frozen and serene amid the calming burble of the pool.
“I like this one,” Mr. Blake says. “These two know just how much to talk.”
He lays his palm on my lower back and guides me toward the elevator. As we pass through the gilded doors into the small, mirrored compartment, his hand slides down, his fingers chasing the hem of my costume. He grabs hold and pushes the material up, exposing my legs and underwear. His fingers sneak along the line of my panties. He pushes me toward the mirror. I see devious fire in his reflected eyes.
“Not here,” I say, trying to remain calm.
“Come on,” he pleads. “This would make a great story.”
“Not here,” I repeat.
He drops his hand to his side and loosens the pressure pinning me to the mirror.
“Fine. I like the chase better anyway.”
His room is second only to the Presidential Suite. It’s an open place of Romanesque columns, simple tile, and extravagant Arabian rugs. A baby grand piano sits before a large bank of windows that overlook the city. The kitchen is open, marble and stainless steel. Paintings and sculpture cover the walls and sprout from the floors like plant life.
“I keep this place booked, whenever I need a little vacation, but don’t want to leave the city,” he says. “Sometimes a man just needs a place where he can forget about the rest of his life… and just focus on his needs.”
Blake leaves me standing in the center of the room to open a bottle of wine. He removes his jacket and cufflinks and rolls the white sleeves of his tuxedo shirt before digging through the kitchen drawers.
My mouth falls open by accident. The room is impressive. The acoustics should be perfect. It’s a pity I won’t spend more time here, that I won’t be able to do an intimate performance for a crowd of legitimate impresarios. It would be a brilliant venue, better that than a callous love nest. It’s a pity that artists don’t make this kind of money. It’s a pity that all this elegance is wasted on a man like him.
He drapes his arm around me from behind and hangs a heavily poured glass of red in front of my lips.
“I’ll have to insist on this one, Miss Gilda,” he says. “You wouldn’t deny me the right to be a proper host.”
Not wanting a battle, I take the glass.
He grabs my breast with his newly free hand and squeezes it. His steamy breath coats my neck.
“You’re quite bold, aren’t you, Mr. Blake?”
“I didn’t get to where I am by asking for what I want. I see. I want. I take.”
I swirl the wine and smell it, but I do not take a drink. I must protect my voice.
“When was the last time you took ‘no’ for answer, Mr. Blake?”
He spins me around by the shoulders to face him, and clutches the meat of my arms in his hands. A lock of his chestnut hair falls from its perfectly parted position onto his forehead. His eyes are voracious, lost from any tenderness that tending his public image might force on them.
“I’ve never received any complaints,” he replies. “Even the most apprehensive of my guests leaves satisfied.”
That’s Question Two. He’s failing with flying colors.
“I guess I’m just a little worried that I’ll just be another notch in your bedpost, Mr. Blake,” I say. “I fall in love pretty easily, and since my fiancé and I broke up, I haven’t really opened up to a man. I don’t think I could take it if this was just a one night thing.”
The fiancé part isn’t true, but I sincerely want to give him an out. We don’t have to do this. He could turn the car around. If just he wanted.
“C’mon, now, Gilda,” he says. “There’s always a chance that an old tomcat like me could settle down. But I wouldn’t be very smart if I didn’t want to sample the merchandise first. We’re both grown ups, after all.”
That’s Question Three. Another fail.
It’s too bad, really. He could have just as easily told me to leave, save himself the trouble of a potential controversy. He’s too wrapped up in the chase.
Fine. He’ll have it his way. The Three Questions have spoken. Time to turn on the charm.
“Well then, sir, you are in for a treat,” I say.
“Oh? I like the sound of that.”
His hand finds my breast again, but now his fingers sneak into my décolletage.
“You ready for me to make you a member of a very exclusive club?” he asks.
“I thought maybe I’d sing for you first.”
He withdraws his fingers.
“Sing? You mean a private show?”
“Something like that,” I answer. “I wouldn’t be a very good guest if I didn’t offer a song in reply to your… hospitality.”
He grins. “First you’ll sing on your own accord. Then, I’ll do what I do best.”
I walk toward the piano and set my eyes on the skyline unrolling infinitely outside. This view will do nicely. I’d rather look out at the great beauty that humanity has assembled over the years, the art in the buildings, than to stare at Blake when it happens. It isn’t the moment itself that bothers me, but its quiet aftermath. They always look so peaceful, so innocent when it’s done. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. It’s a tragic part of the job. But, it’s a job that needs doing—to protect the ones they’ll go after next.
I remove a handkerchief from my bodice, wad it tightly and lower it into my wine glass, which I set carefully on the floor beside the window.
“Can you play me a middle C, Mr. Blake?”
The man sighs, takes a big swig of his wine, and approaches the piano bench.
“You’re going to make this sexy, though, right? Something like strip opera? Maybe you can sing ’Happy Birthday, Mr. President?”
He taps the key and that C rings out pure and true. The hotel keeps the piano tuned. I’m impressed.
“First, I need to run the scales to warm up,” I say. “And then, Mr. Blake, you will have your song.”
My voice strains slightly, but I keep climbing. It happens in an instant. There is no warning. First, the wine glasses break. His shatters in his hand, spilling wine down his arms. He cries out in surprise. It’s his last utterance, a pathetic yelp of wonder. I mourn him in that instant when he is most like a child. He begins to stand when I hit the note. He’s livid. He doesn’t know what’s happening. How could he?
He doesn’t stiffen or seize. He merely stops. For a moment he is still and suspended, like one of the statues that decorate his secret vacation home. Then he collapses, first to his knees and then he tips, like a freshly fallen tree, and flops to the floor, pulling the piano bench over with him.
I retrieve my wine glass, unbroken, and stuffed with the wine-drenched handkerchief and take it to the kitchen. I rinse the glass and place it back in the cabinet, and then I ring out the kerchief and tuck it carefully in my bodice. I can’t leave a trace. I have to be careful.