~ The letter was unexpected, delivered one gloomy morning with a pile of bills. It was handwritten, which was unusual, and the envelope was heavy, creamy, air mail.
Sören opened the bills first, put them aside, mentally calculating. The money he had received from the four paintings he had displayed and sold two years ago was depleted, almost gone. Justin never failed to chide him on his lack of financial acumen even though he had been the one who ‘borrowed’ the money. He had promised to change after their months-long break-up but, once they got back together again, it had not taken long for him to revert. Except now there was no money.
There had been a few short weeks of reconciliation that were not too bad, yet Sören was still wary. More than wary, if he were honest. When he woke, those noons when the grey London light seeped, grey and lifeless as day-old dishwater through his curtains, feeling used but not satisfied, he wondered why he had permitted Justin back into his life. Justin would never openly live with him, even acknowledge he was gay. There were a handful of top sports personalities that had the courage to come out, and Justin Roberts was not one of them. Sören was not even sure he was gay, more bisexual, as he occasionally ogled girls. But if that was so, he wasn’t admitting it.
Sören was the secret he hid, as he hid many other things: his violence, his lashing temper, his bigotry and racism.
Sören felt trapped. He knew few people in London and Justin had been part of his life for over a year. But a fun — if not passionate — relationship had deteriorated quickly: there had been the snapping temper, the forcible sex and the constant denigration that slow as the drip of poison onto a wound, had undermined his confidence in his work.
Then had come the violence, what amounted to rape. It was enough. More than enough. When Justin was away for two days training, Sören had left, taking his few belongs (most of which was his art). The one friend he had made in London, Frankie, had helped him find this flat, but nothing in London was inexpensive, and poor though it was, Sören doubted he could continue to afford it unless more anonymous buyers turned up. And they wouldn’t — he was not painting. He had lost the fire, the vision and the drive and he felt the loss like a kind of death.
Justin had done this. Sören curled away from his constant derision and sneering like a frost-bitten rose. After he left Justin there was a bleak few months until Christmas which had been lonely. Frankie had met a girl whose family had invited them both to Liverpool for Christmas and New Year.
Which was why, when Justin came sniffing around again, Sören had accepted him back. It was a mistake, and he knew it, but there was no-one else.
He opened the letter, thinking it was one of those circulations offering gold coins or investment, in which case it had come to him by accident. But there was one single sheet of expensive, deckle-edged paper inside, written in a vivid dark script:
You are invited to a masked ball at the Villa Fiorini, Lake Como, on the 19th May.
Please present yourself at Terminal 4, Heathrow airport, on the 18th May at 2.30 p.m. You will be met and flown to Italy and conducted to the villa.
This invitation extends only to yourself. Hoping to see you there.
Sören snorted, raised his brows. He turned the paper, thinking to see some small print, some sign that the letter had been printed out with a thousand
others, but there was nothing. To him, it did look as if the writing had been made by a fountain pen on virgin paper.
At least it was something else to think about. He opened his laptop, typed in the signed name. There was nothing much, but what there was caused his brows to go up again. Lucien Steele, owner of Apollyon Enterprises, which Sören had never heard of, although it was up there with all the Fortune 500 companies. Its owner was a multi-billionaire. There was not even a picture of him.
There was a picture of the Villa Fiorini; at least of the gates, and Sören found it on Google Earth, but it was not close, showing a great building in beautiful grounds.
It was clearly a scam. There would be some small print somewhere, as when people were invited to purchase something expensive and probably useless, travelling miles for the privilege, some dry sandwiches and cheap fizz.
Sören couldn’t quite bring himself to tear the letter in half and throw it in the bin. There was, like a scent from far away, the tantalising reminder that there was more than this life.
But not for him.
Justin never spoke to him about his profession, but he brought it to the flat with him in anger, bitterness and violence. On this particular day, the 11th May, it had exploded in brutality. Sören was left breathless with an asthma attack and weeping at the destruction of his latest painting. It had taken months for him to produce anything and now it was ruined. Like many men who live wholly through their physical senses and only on the surface, Justin did not understand creativity.
And then had come the warning, before Justin flung out of the flat: ‘I’ll be back later, and you’d better be fucking waiting for me, you frigid little shit.’
That was a reference to Sören’s withdrawal from him. He needed affection, but Justin’s sex did nothing for him, it was all for Justin, no-one else, and he had no finesse, gave no tenderness. It was sex and when it was not, it was only just shy of rape. Justin did not see it that was, naturally, but simply as taking something that was his. And Sören had made it easy for him. Lack of confidence, lack of anything really, according to Justin, who, Sören knew, had no real capacity for love, but a deep need of someone to bully. He knew it, knew it and sometimes a whirl of disbelief flooded his mind that he had allowed himself to fall into this pit
Sören didn’t know when he had fallen asleep, save that it had been late. Justin had not come back. The flat was quiet.
He reached for his phone. No messages. For a moment, he just lay and relished the peace, though no doubt Justin would turn up soon, foul-humoured or saccharine-sweet with apologies, although that latter happened more rarely. He did not drink much, as a rising football star he could not afford to, but Sören suspected he indulged in drugs. Not often, there were blood tests to check for such things, but at times.
The knock at the door came at four o. clock, (still no Justin) when Sören had finished clearing up and was sitting at the kitchen table. Justin had a key — had insisted on a key — and Sören received few visitors. He went to the door to find a woman standing there. She might have been any age from fifty to seventy, runway thin, a long red coat, hair dyed black and cut in a severe bob. She wore dark glasses, a lot of gold showed at neck and fingers. Red lipstick tinted a firm, thin mouth and her perfume was subtle, expensive. A Louis Vuitton purse hung from one shoulder. There was a general appearance of extreme affluence, absolute confidence and style that somehow declared the woman was French.
‘Sören Sigurdsson?’ The accent was indeed French. ‘I am Héloïse Gauthier. I have purchased, through an intermediary, some of your paintings. May I come in?’
Sören, aware that his mouth was open, swallowed, and nodded, opening the door wider. Héloïse Gauthier stepped in on high heels, glanced around the flat. Sören cringed. He had tried to brighten the place up, but it was rented and redecorating was not in the lease. It was top-floor shabby, and Justin sneered at it. His own flat, which Sören had never seen, was in a far better location. Sören felt, sometimes, like a sex-worker that Justin kept on the quiet, save there was no money involved.
Héloïse removed her glasses, revealing brilliant black eyes expertly shadowed and mascarred. There were lines around them and her mouth, but her skin was still firm. There was a fine, thin noise, faintly aquiline and though she would never have been classed as beautiful she possessed something: a charisma and fierce intelligence that was somehow more arresting.
‘Would you like some coffee?’ Sören asked. ‘Tea?’
‘Merci. Coffee. Black. No sugar.’ She sat down where he indicated, on the rather battered sofa, as he brought in two mugs. She took a polite sip.
‘Monsieur Sigurdsson, perhaps you wonder why I have visited you. Well I own two of your paintings and have been hoping very much you would be exhibiting — last year and this. Yet nothing.’ She gestured. ‘As I was in London, I decided to come and ask you why such a talent is not being shown. And now I am here —‘ She glanced around the room. ‘I find it incroyable that one of the great artists of this age is living in what is almost a garret. That is rude,’ she admitted. ‘And one might expect artists to struggle, no? But I see no necessity for it.’
At these incroyable words from a stranger Sören found himself staring, and blinked. He said at last: ‘You have some of my paintings, you said?’
‘Bien sûr. I am no collector, but I do appreciate good art. In one of my houses, you take pride of place even over the Rembrandt my first husband purchased.’ She made a moue. ‘I am not a great fan of the Old Masters. Your art, well...is quite something other.’
‘I — thank you.’ Sören fought an uprush of tears that came with the gratitude. Whatever Justin might say, did say, here was this clearly wealthy and intelligent woman telling him she rated him above Rembrandt. He wished Justin were here to listen, even if this was simply flattery. Where the hell was he, anyhow?
‘But no more?’ She arched pencilled brows. ‘One must ask: why.’
Sören fidgeted, stood up, and walked about the room. ‘Sometimes the...muse isn’t there, Madam Gauthier.’ He shrugged, picked up a pile of letters to give his hands something to do.
‘Ah? The artistic temperament?’ But there was no mockery in the words and none, when he looked at her sharply, her face. She sipped her coffee, met his eyes over the rim of the mug.
‘Exactly so.’ He thought of the ruined painting he had placed in the bin earlier.
‘One understands,’ she assured him. ‘But you have people waiting eagerly for anything you produce. I am only one of them.’
‘I don’t know,’ he flicked through the letters nervously. ‘I just don’t know when I’ll be able to paint anything again.’
‘Quel dommage!’ She flung up both hands. ‘Because this is not you, Monsieur Sigurdsson. This life. This place.’
‘Isn’t it?’ he said a little defensively. He had been relatively comfortable after his paintings sold, but then Justin, complaining that upcoming footballers were paid nothing like the Premier League stars, had coaxed (at first) then later bullied the money from him. (‘If you loved me you would...’) The car he was driving now represented one painting’s price, and then there were the designer clothes, the dental work, the permanent tans, the hairdresser, the gym...From a privileged background, Justin believed he deserved these things without having to earn them. He was quite content to let Sören pay and live in this — yes it was a garret, while he shone in the sunlight.
‘Non,’ she said decisively. ‘There is far more for you than this.’
He remembered a time when he wished he could think this, could imagine it. A smile wavered on his mouth, but it turned into a grimace.
‘Poverty is nothing to be ashamed of,’ he said steadily.
‘Ah, that is true enough, but with your talent, your gift there is no height to which you cannot rise.’ Her head cocked like an inquisitive raptor. ‘You are quite the find, Monsieur Sigurdsson. I find myself wondering what has killed the passion in you.’
He jumped. Letters slipped, spilled from his hand and he cursed in Icelandic. One of them settled near Héloïse’s beautifully shod foot and she leaned down to pick it up.
‘Ah,’ she exclaimed and cast him a look of considerable respect. ‘An invitation to the ball. It does not surprise me, however.’
The cryptic statement effectively banished all emotion save confusion. He looked at the letter.
‘That?’ He shook his head in bewilderment. ‘I thought it was some sort of scam.’
Her lips creased in amusement. ‘You are very young, are you not? And very remote from this world? All artists are, I suspect.’
‘No, Madam, I know a great deal about this world, I can assure you.’ He snapped it.
She propped her chin on one delicate hand. ‘But only the bad, I suspect, and art is an escape, no?’
He nodded. It had certainly begun that way.
‘Sören Sigurdsson, even royalty would give their right arm to be invited to the ball. And are they? Non.’ She laughed, looking mischievous as a girl. ‘Mr Lucien Steele only invites those he deems worthy.’
Intrigued, Sören sat down again. ‘So this is real, not some...joke?’
Héloïse sobered abruptly.
‘A joke, you would say? One must assume you have googled him?’
He flushed. ‘Yes,’ he admitted then dryly: For what it’s worth. There’s practically nothing about him.’
She shrugged, elegantly Gallic. ‘Of course not. Mr Steele values his privacy. I have known him, oh! many years.’
< br />
Sören was beginning to build a mental image of the mysterious Lucien Steele. Old, paunchy, going bald, fabulously rich, some illegality in his past. Now, settled into retirement, he effected a certain benevolent eccentricity.
‘I can’t go, of course,’ he said. ‘But why would he invite me?’
‘He has some of your work as well. So. Why can you not go?’
‘I...’ He frowned. ‘I don’t know him, and flying to another country? The costume? It’s just a little crazy.’
‘Others will be going,’ she said. ‘Others much like yourself. And I will certainly be there. I am fortunate enough to be invited every year, and it is quite the sight, the Villa en fêtê. The costumes rival that of the Venice Carnevale.’
‘Then they’d cost a fortune to hire,’ Sören said flatly.
‘But no, they are provided by Lucien for the evening. And after, well, you may spend a few days there, and be flown back.’
‘What’s it like, the villa Fiorini?’ Sören was conscious of curiosity, a desire to step out of his world for a while and see what life was like for the mega-rich. Really, he wanted to know what Lucien Steele was like but could not quite bring himself to be that blunt.
‘C’est magnifique! Very beautiful, lovely grounds, almost on the lake itself. Most romantic.’
It sounded idyllic and a far cry from here. ‘Who else is going from the UK?’ he asked. ‘Is this like those charities that send deprived kids to Disneyworld?’
‘Lucien would not consider it charity,’ the woman corrected. ‘But something of a giving back, something that is well-deserved. As to whom?’ She pursed her lips. ‘Excusez-moi.’ She withdrew a phone from her purse and rose. ‘Lucien, mon chéri.’ A laugh. ‘Oui.’ Then a flood of French that Sören could not follow, with more laughter and a definite teasing by the tone. ‘Á bientôt!’ she ended.
‘There are just four from the UK, including you,’ she said, her eyes still brilliant with the effects of the brief conversation. Sören thought: Lucien Steele might be old, but was clearly a charmer. There was some history between the two. ‘All told there will be about thirty or so guests, not so many. And he said to tell you that in May it is not unbearably hot at the lake.’
‘How the fu—hell would he know about that?’ Sören demanded. ‘That I’m uncomfortable in the heat?’
The woman shrugged. ‘No doubt you mentioned it to someone, a buyer, perhaps.’
It was possible, Sören supposed, although he was uncomfortable with the fact that whoever had heard it had passed it on, as if gathering information about him.
‘I’m sorry, it just seems very odd and not...’ He gestured. ‘Really safe. Flying off to a billionaire’s villa, maybe never coming back. Okay, I may watch too many films but at the least, I can’t afford to be stranded in Italy if anything goes tits up.’
Hélöise put down her mug. ‘Sören Sigurdsson, I have seen faces like yours before: people who have been wounded and are fragile inside. The damage does not heal so easily, never in fact. Are you familiar with the Japanese technique of...’ she waved her fingers. ‘Bah! the name escapes me.’
‘Kintsugi?’ Sören questioned. ‘Gold repair?’
‘Yes. You see, the damage is not all of you.’ She gathered her bag from the floor. ‘You cannot be forced to go, and Lucien would never do so, but you would not regret it if you did, je vous assure.’ She opened a purse and extracted a card. It was dull gold and black with simply her name, in italics and a number. ‘I remain in London until the 16th. If you change your mind, we can fly out together. I am going straight to the villa.’
Sören was left feeling unsettled. The flat seemed more than drab with the lingering scent of the woman’s expensive perfume; it felt empty. Her personality, her air of knowing absolutely who and what she was, had been large. It took up space, stamped itself on the surroundings. Such utter confidence was completely alien to Sören. He had been impressed by her, but did not like the fact that both she and the mysterious Mr. Steele seemed to know things about him that were certainly not in the public domain. Perhaps wealthy people were like that: they might buy art and think they owned the artist. That was a discomfiting thought.
The 18th...just a week away.
Sören tucked the card in his back pocket and decided to think no more about it.
Justin came back in the evening, walked in as if he owned the place, with no explanation. It was the beginning of six days of escalating temper. Justin could be pleased by nothing: Sören not painting, (although he was shit, so Justin was at least spared that) and then Sören tying hopelessly to pain. The food was shit, the flat was shit, Justin didn’t know why he bothered coming here when Sören could do nothing for him.
Sören, snapping at last, shouted at him why did he not just leave, then?
‘Right, right, so you can go to the tabloids and make money telling them Justin Robinson likes a piece of ass now and then? I don’t think so. You’re a little bitch, but you’re my bitch, remember that.’ He gripped Sören’s jaw hard, painfully and a completely uncontrolled jolt of will flared from Sören’s mind, so that Justin swore and released him, his own jaw clenched.
‘What the fuck?’ he yelled, wringing his hand. The ring he always wore, his ‘lucky’ ring, seemed to burn on his finger. It was plain as a wedding band, but worn on the right ring finger, rather than the left. Sören took little note of it usually, but — if the thought were not crazy — now it seemed to radiate a poisonous kind of light — . Then the thought was lost as Justin savagely backhanded him, grabbed him and pushed him onto the couch.
This was more than ‘unwilling’ sex, it was rape. Some people professed scepticism that when women were raped, they didn’t struggle and fight, but froze. And that was exactly what Sören did. He was tall and slim, but Justin was a professional football player, and he used that strength and fitness now, to hurt. The pain, in fact was shocking, but Justin’s arm choked his airway so that the pain was drowned in dancing spots, a darkening circle about his eyes. He thought he would die, and was not sure he cared and then, very suddenly it was over, and he was groaning, dragging in air, face half-buried in a cushion. He concentrated on the fabric smell, as he struggled for breath, heard Justin moving away, then his steps into the bedroom. They came back and Sören tensed.
‘I’ll be back in a while, little bitch. And if you’re thinking of reporting this, think again. Who’d believe you? And if anyone did, I have friends who could make life very hard for you. And very short.’
Not long after the front door slammed. Sören might have laughed at the exaggerated menace, but he was hollowed out and shocked and could not. He recognised the feeling from other times. His passage felt scoured raw, and he knew he was bleeding, his whole body - and soul — felt bruised. And yet, he could not cry. Not yet.
Before he went to the shower, he nicked the deadbolt on the door, used his inhaler, and then washed — and washed, scrubbing his skin until its paleness flushed dark pink. He walked gingerly to his bedroom, pulled on a loose pair of pyjamas and only then gave way to angry, bitter tears.
There was no way he could sleep. He made himself a hot drink, turned on all the lights, which only illuminated the bare gloom of the rooms. He went back into the small lounge as one returns to a crime scene where one was the victim. It was. He was the victim. The sofa had been pushed back by Justin’s violence, and something glinted on the floor. He bent stiffly, picked it up.
It looked liked a compact, or the kind of mirror a women might carry in their purse, to flick open and touch up their lipstick. It was heavy, and decorated like a Tiffany lamp. Turning it over, he saw the old gold hallmark worn into the metal and he remembered Héloïse Gauthier placing her Vuitton bag on the floor. It must have fallen out then.
In his current mood, he thought that it would really be typical if the wealthy Héloïse reported it as missing and named him as the thief. He still had her card — if she was still in the UK. He glanced at his phone. Yes, she was supposed to be leaving tomorrow.
Suddenly, he saw an escape route open to him, if he dared to take it. He had told Justin nothing about the invitation to the ball, or the woman’s visit. He knew he was running on adrenaline, on anger, on pure shock and pain, but he really believed, at this dark nadir, with the rain beginning outside, in this shabby little room, that Justin could control him if he stayed here, that he would become no more than those poor girls trafficked into the UK and imprisoned in houses for sex, beaten and drugged into terrified obedience. He tried to tell himself that was ridiculous. He did have family, scattered though they were, and at least one friend in London. Justin Roberts was a dangerous asshole, but not a criminal — or he was, he was a rapist, but as he had said, who would believe that he, a rising star who could get anyone he wanted, would force sex on a man?
He wiped his face, picked up his phone.
‘ Oui, allo?’
Sören cleared his throat. ‘Ah, is this Héloïse Gauthier? This is Sören Sigurdsson. Sorry to bother you, but I was tidying up and found a mirror compact under the sofa. It’s gold and —’
‘Ah, Sören, so good of you to call. Yes, the mirror. I can pick it up on my way to the airport. About an hour.’
‘That’ll be fine.’ He swallowed.
Héloïse arrived in a deceptively casual pant-suit, a long silk scarf and an air of being pleasantly rushed. As if she were greeting an old acquaintance, she kissed both his cheeks, and then stood back. Her brows snapped together.
‘But what is wrong?’ She almost hustled him inside. ‘You are hurt, you have been crying. Oh, do not look away. Je sais, je comprends.. Come, mon bébé.’
‘It’s nothing,’ he insisted. ‘I had an argument with my partner...’ His voice became suspended.
The woman’s black eyes became oddly bleak, cold and hard. ‘Justin Roberts. Yes, it is known he would keep you like a dirty little secret.’ Sören’s eyes widened. ‘Money, my dear boy, buys information, but do not think of this as spying on you, but from interest and care. It is Roberts who holds the dirty secret. Ah, he is of the canaille, that one. No soul. No heart. Scélérat! You are too good for him. You are meant to burn.’
Sören shivered at that, as if a fire had indeed scorched itself up from somewhere deeper than his core, and flashed through his veins, risen into his flesh. Even his cheeks burned. The day was cool for May, but he felt feverish, suddenly. Héloïse nodded as if he had said something in agreement.
‘Now,’ she continued. ‘This is what we will do. You will come with me to Italy and to the ball. Just bring what is necessary, we can always pick up clothes later. Your medications, you must have those. We will deal with Justin Roberts after.’
She even knew about his medication. He shook his head in bewilderment.
‘Don’t you see I can’t?’
‘Are you telling me that when you phoned me you were not hoping for escape?’ she asked shrewdly. ‘Sören Sigurdsson, have you heard the story of the man who was a devout Christian and who, when a great flood came, climbed on the roof of his house. A boat came by and the man told him to climb into it. He said non, he trusted in god to save him. Later, another came by and again he refused and still the water crept higher, to the very roof. At last a rescue helicopter flew overhead and would have lifted him to safety, but he called that god would save him. And still the water rose and night came and the man, still praying for god to save him, drowned in the dark. When he arrived in heaven he asked his god why his prayers went unanswered and his god said: “I did answer them. I sent two boats and a helicopter.”’ Sören had to smile at that. ‘I have little truck with most gods.’ Hëlóise flicked her fingers disdainfully. ‘But I have reason to believe that they sometimes act through people.’ She put out her thin, heavily-ringed hand. ‘You are offered an escape, Sören, before it is too late.’
The heat vanished as if in an icy draught. He remembered the horrific, blank look in Justin’s eyes, the toxic light that seemed to shine on his ‘lucky’ ring, or from it. Sören knew he could defend himself by use of the Force, but deliberately did not. He didn’t think he could control it, for one thing, and if Justin was found dead here, he would be charged with manslaughter at the least. The thought of prison, of being shut away horrified him. He felt a panic attack rising in his throat, dizzying his head. But he said:
‘I don’t know you. Not well enough to trust you, I’m sorry.’
‘Bah! How well have you known any of your lovers before allowing them intimacy? This is not you speaking, but fear. But this I promise, and I promise for Lucien as one who knows him well: There is nothing to fear. Quite the opposite.’
Sören’s phone flashed up a message. Back in 15 minutes, hope you’re ready for me.
Bile came up in his throat. He reacted like a horse under the spur, fighting a desire to throw the phone on the floor and stamp on it.
‘I’ll come,’ he said, feeling sick.