It was close to midnight, and Zhang Guo Xing was thinking of going home. He was in a club on Fuzhou Road, twenty-four floors up, the Shanghai skyline in the window. There were private tables sealed off with scarlet ropes, and bottles of champagne in silver buckets. The DJ had been flown in from Brazil. Zhang’s guests were the usual European businessmen. Most of them were middle-aged, and most were drunk. They would try to pick up the go-go dancers, aloof and graceful on their cubes, or the Russian models who were in town for photo shoots or runway shows, but they would almost certainly be unsuccessful. They would take taxis back to their hotels. Wake up jet-lagged, dehydrated, and alone. Excusing himself, Zhang stood up and left the table.
The walls in the bathroom were black, and the lighting was so dim that an attendant had to guide him to the urinal. Afterwards, as he washed his hands, a small man appeared beside him. The man was wearing a pale blue suit and white patent leather shoes. The suitcase he had with him was also pale blue. Looking straight ahead, into the smoked-glass mirror, he began to talk.
“You think you have everything under control,” he said, “but then something happens. Something you didn’t see coming.”
Zhang looked sidelong at the man but didn’t speak.
“Suddenly, you’re in a whole new world,” the man went on. “Things have a different smell, a different taste.” He bent close to the mirror and picked at his teeth, then smoothed his oily hair down flat. “All the familiar parameters are gone. You lose your bearings.” He paused. “Fear rushes through you, like a gust of wind.”
Zhang was still looking at the man. His voice, so eerily objective and detached. His head thrust forward, like a turtle’s. The suitcase on the floor next to his leg.
“Did you just arrive,” Zhang asked, “or are you about to leave?”
The man chuckled and nodded, as if this was exactly the question he had been expecting.
Zhang took a towel from the attendant and dried his hands. When he glanced round, the man with the suitcase had disappeared. Dropping the towel into a basket, Zhang left the bathroom. Out in the corridor again, he looked both ways. There was no sign of the man. He shrugged, then moved back towards the main part of the club.
His guests had forgotten all about him. Many were on the dance floor, their jackets undone or tossed aside, their faces wide and loose with alcohol. The music was louder than before, a constant pulse that pushed up through the soles of his shoes. He stood still, watching people dance. It was then that he noticed her, over by the bar. A light round her, a kind of shimmer. Something he could feel rather than see. He walked up to the bar and asked for a cognac. Now he was beside her, the effect was even stronger. Like standing beneath a pylon, or next to an electric fence. The angle of her head had altered, and her eyes drifted across his face. He felt her intensity, and her indifference.
Though she looked European, he decided to speak to her in his own language. “What kind of person brings a suitcase to a nightclub?”
“You saw him too?” Her Chinese was unfaltering, and almost without accent.
“In the men’s room. He spoke to me.”
“What did he say?”
“It was strange. He was talking about the way your life can change, in unexpected ways.”
“You don’t actually know him, though.”
“What else did he say?”
“Something about change being scary.”
“It was his suit that was scary.”
When he first walked up to her, she’d had her back to the bar, the points of both elbows resting on its gold surface. Now, though, she turned towards him. Her eyes were dark, almost black, but her hair was like a fall of light.
“Your Chinese is excellent,” he said.
“Have you been in Shanghai long?”
“I like learning languages. I’ve always been good at them.”
“How old are you?”
“How old do you think?”
He looked at her for several long seconds, and she met his gaze, unblinking.
“Twenty-four.” He hesitated. “An old twenty-four, though.”
“Meaning what?” Her look had tightened. He had said something that interested her.
“You were born old. It’s there in your face. How do they put it in English? An old soul.”
“And you?” she said. “How old are you?”
“Are you married?”
“But your wife lives in another city, and you hardly ever see her.”
He smiled, then glanced at his phone. Three new messages, but nothing that couldn’t wait. “Are you with
“No,” she said. “What about you?”
“I came here with some business colleagues. They wanted to see Shanghai at night—the bars, the girls...”
She was watching him, amused. Her teeth were white and even.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he asked.
“Let’s go somewhere else,” she said. “This place is getting loud.”
He finished his cognac, then followed her through the crowd. Black leather jacket, short black skirt. Black ankle boots with chunky heels. Everything she wore seemed a setting for the blonde hair that fell in gleaming tangles to her shoulders. She turned down a narrow passageway. The left-hand wall was lined with floor-to-ceiling fish tanks, and small sharks swam this way and that, their sinuous gray bodies gliding through the brightly lit blue water.
“Your colleagues won’t miss you?” she said.
“They’ve been drinking all evening,” he told her. “They won’t even realize I’ve gone.”
They took a lift to the ground floor. Out on the narrow street it was dark and warm and clammy, and the air smelled of cabbage that had been boiling for hours. September in Shanghai was still a kind of summer. As they crossed the pavement, a white Lamborghini pulled up outside the club. Its doors lifted like insect wings, and three Chinese girls in knee-length boots and miniskirts got out. She glanced at him. He kept his face expressionless. Upstairs, in the air-conditioned air, the whites of their eyes glowing in the ultraviolet, it had almost felt as if they had met before. As if they knew each other. Down here, in the murk and steam, they were strangers.
“Should we get a taxi?” she said.
He took out his phone. “I have a car.”
He called Lu Chun Tao, his driver. Seconds later, the black Jaguar drew level. Chun Tao was twenty-six,
with a pearl stud in his left ear and hair that was shaved at the sides and swept back on top, and he had been in Zhang’s employ for almost a year. So far, he had proved himself reliable. They climbed into the back, and Zhang gave Chun Tao an address. He looked out of his window, and she
looked out of hers, but the gap between them was so charged that it seemed they were already touching.
The city slid past, the molded concrete sides of flyovers floodlit by pale green or lilac neon, the hundred-story buildings topped with horns or spikes or balls. She didn’t appear to be impressed by any of the usual things—or even by Shanghai itself. His chauffeured Jaguar would not be enough, nor would his $2,000 Prada suit. No, it would be something else, something he did not intend. A phrase he used. A gesture. Some look that came and went in his eyes. He had been stripped of all his advantages, but it didn’t bother him. He liked having to rely on chance and intuition. He liked the not-knowing. He shouldn’t talk too much, though. He should make her talk.
“Did you go to the club by yourself?” he asked.
“I was there with a friend,” she said. “He left early. He met someone.”
Her face was still angled away from him, and he could only see the bright gold hair, one cheekbone. The edge of her mouth.
“But you stayed on,” he said.
“It didn’t worry you, to be alone?”
She gave a little shrug. “Shanghai’s safe enough.”
“Even so. Men can be annoying.”
She turned to him, and as they held each other’s gaze mauve light washed through the car’s interior. The whites of her eyes seemed silver then.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Somewhere quiet,” he said.
The car eased down off the Yan’an elevated highway and into the dark tree-lined streets of the French Concession. She opened the window. Stagnant air flowed in.
“Do you mind?” she said. “The city smells so good at night.”
“If you like drains,” he said.
The chatter of cicadas came in waves, louder and louder, like something that might explode.
The Jaguar dipped down a steep concrete slope and into an underground car park, where the shiny dark green floor was slick with water. The car’s tires squealed as Chun Tao turned right, past a pillar.
“This is where you live?”
For the first time, she sounded wary, and Zhang felt he should reassure her.
“No,” he said. “This is a private members’ club.”
Private members’ clubs were places where politicians and entrepreneurs could meet discreetly, without being interrupted or observed, places where gifts could be exchanged and deals could be done. There was no entrance as such, only an unmarked lift. Zhang asked Chun Tao to wait. He didn’t say how long they would be.
“I thought private members’ clubs were only for men,” she said as they stood by the lift.
He nodded. “Usually.”
Once upstairs, they were shown to a room that was at the end of a long, hushed corridor. There were vases of fresh lilies and cedarwood armchairs upholstered in gold brocade. Traditional lute music tinkled out of hidden speakers. A picture window framed a little spotlit forest of bamboo and a wall of rough brown bricks with water running down it. At the foot of the wall was a rectangular pond filled with carp. He sat down on one of the chairs and watched her move towards the window.
“This is perfect,” she said.
“Not too quiet?”
Two glasses of Hennessy X.O arrived. As she stood with her back to him, looking out, he once again sensed the force field that surrounded her, invisible, magnetic. He asked what her name was.
“Naemi,” she said.
“Where are you from?” He was aware of the need to keep his questions simple. His unpredictability would come from somewhere else.
“I’m Finnish,” she said. “My mother was Sami.”
Zhang wasn’t familiar with the word.
“The Sami are nomads,” she told him. “They can be found in the northernmost parts of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, and also on the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia. Sami people used to make a living from herding and hunting reindeer. From fishing too. They were believed to be skilled in the art of magic. Laplanders, they’re sometimes called.”
Zhang tasted his cognac. “But you grew up in Finland?”
“I’ve never met anyone from Finland,” he said. “What are Finnish people like?”
“We’re supposed to be undemonstrative. Reserved. There’s a myth about us—the myth of the silent Finn.”
“But it’s not true?”
“I don’t think you can generalize.” She turned from the window. “Are Chinese people really inscrutable?”
“And your family?” he said. “Are they still there, in Finland?”
She shook her head. “My parents are both dead.”
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“You’re alone,” Zhang said. “I’m sorry.”
She was suddenly next to his chair and leaning over him. The heat of her mouth came as a surprise, almost as if she had a temperature. She didn’t seem ill, though, not in the least. His heart speeding up, he put his hands under her jacket and drew her closer. Later, she moved back to the window and looked out into the garden.
“I like the wall with the water running down it,” she said. “I grew up near the water.”
He joined her at the window. She used to swim in a river, she told him, about half an hour’s walk from her parents’ house. The river was cold, even in the summer. The shock of it tightened your skin against your bones. But afterwards you felt so alert, so alive. They had lived in the country—the middle of nowhere, really. Her eyes lost their focus, and she seemed to swallow.
“You were a child, then,” he said.
She nodded slowly. “Yes.”
There was a stillness, and he thought he could hear water trickling, like the sound you make when you run your tongue over your teeth without opening your mouth. He couldn’t have, though. The window was closed. And anyway, soft music was being piped into the room.
“I should go,” she said.
“I have to be up early, for work.”
He touched her cheek with his fingertips. “I didn’t see you as everyone.”
She was standing so close that he could feel her breath against his face. There was a single faint line at the edge of her left eye. Otherwise, her skin was unblemished, clear. He moved his hand to the back of her neck, beneath her hair. Then they were kissing. Once again, he noticed the heat of her mouth. Once again, the wild racing of his heart.
As they took the lift to the basement, they stood against opposing walls, looking at each other, the space between them charged and tingling, just as it had been earlier, in the car.
Everything they hadn’t done as yet.
Everything they might still do.
When the door opened and the car park lay before them, vast and warm and windowless, he asked if she wanted a lift back to where she lived.
“I’ll take a taxi,” she said. “It’s not so far.”
His car was waiting, engine running, but he turned his back on it and walked her up to the street.
“I’d like to see you again.” He reached into his jacket pocket. “Can I give you my card?”
“No need,” she said.
“How will you find me? You know nothing about me—” He bit his lip. He hadn’t meant to say so much.
“I found you tonight,” she said. “I’ll find you again.”
In a city of more than twenty million, he thought. How was that possible?
A green light appeared. He waved the taxi down and opened the door for her. She climbed in. One hand on the top of the door, he gazed at her. The night smelled of cordite and sulfur, as if people had been letting off fireworks. As if there had been a wedding.
“Was I right when I said you were twenty-four?” he asked.
“In a way,” she said.
“You like riddles, don’t you.”
“It’s not a matter of liking them. We live with them.” She looked up at him, her lips black in the yellow light of the streetlamps. “We’re all riddles, aren’t we, even to ourselves.”
He closed the door. As he watched the taxi pull away, he felt oddly torn between regret and relief, and had no idea why.
It was years since something like this had happened. How many, she couldn’t have said. She leaned against a pillar in her living room, all the lights still off. A glow from the streetlamps fell across the varnished fl oorboards, the burnt orange broken into blocks by thin black lines. Cool air closing round her. The smell of rich dark earth.
Zhang Guo Xing.
She had seen him first, standing at the edge of the dance floor in his dark suit and his crisp, open-necked white shirt. He watched people dancing the way you might watch cars passing on a road, his face relaxed, attentive. She wanted him immediately. Even before he noticed her, she wanted him.
When he approached her, as she had felt he might, he underwent a kind of change. It was subtle, like the lights dimming in a fancy restaurant. His expression became more subdued, more intimate. He hadn’t imagined he would meet anyone that evening—that wasn’t why he had come out—but he adjusted to her presence in an instant. The unexpected didn’t trouble him. Then he did something that took her by surprise. He spoke to her in his own language. In that moment, he appeared to know things about her that he shouldn’t have known. Things he shouldn’t even have been able to guess.
She pushed away from the pillar. Moving across the living room and on into the small room she used as a study, she opened her laptop. She typed Zhang’s name into Baidu, the main Chinese search engine, and was able, in the space of an hour and a half, to assemble a rough outline of his life. Born into a privileged family in Beijing—his father was a high-ranking Party member—he had studied economics at the university. After graduating, he relocated to Vancouver, where he took a master’s degree in business. On his return, he worked for various financial institutions in Hong Kong. In 1998, his mother had a severe stroke that left her incapacitated, and the family put her in a nursing home. At the age of twenty-nine, Zhang moved to Shanghai. At present, he was the senior vice president of a Chinese-owned private equity firm that was based in Pudong. He was married, with one son.
She clicked Sleep and sat back in her chair. It was almost five in the morning. The rain on the window blurred the city skyline, one shade of neon bleeding into another. If only I wasn’t attracted to anyone, she thought. If only there was no such thing as desire. But she got lonely. She was only human. She smiled to herself. A wistful smile, not much humor in it. Still, she felt reassured by the information she had unearthed. It would be normal for a Chinese man of Zhang’s wealth and privilege to have lovers. He would understand the rules, namely that affairs should be clandestine, finite. He would be adept at dividing his life into self-contained compartments, accustomed to the subterfuge involved. Perhaps, after all, she could afford to take the risk.
In the bathroom, she removed her photochromic lenses. She knew how her irises must look, the green so pale it was almost colorless. Over the years, her eyes had become more light-sensitive, and there had been a time—decades, in fact—when she’d had no choice but to live at night. Recent developments in science had liberated her, though. Opening the mirror door on the cabinet above the sink, she placed the contact lenses in a small plastic receptacle. Slowly, she closed the door again. The mirror stayed blank as it swung back into position in front of her. She liked the fact that she did not appear. It was a virtue, not a lack or a deficiency. Other people seemed to need the validation a reflection brings, even if that validation was deceptive, illusory, but she wasn’t in any need of proof that she existed.
She took off her clothes, then walked into the living room and used a remote to drop the blackout blinds. Back in the bedroom, she lay down on the bed of earth that she had shipped at great expense from North Karelia.
The earth of her homeland.
Turning onto her left side, the side where her heart was still beating, even after six or seven lifetimes, she slowed her breathing. Let her eyelids close.
During the week that followed, it rained every morning, from dawn until midday. In the afternoons, the sun came out. The city steamed. Zhang worked late every night. Shanghai’s economy was booming, with foreign direct investment up 21 percent year-over-year and annual growth in the double digits. There were business opportunities everywhere you looked. Sitting in his office with his chair turned to face some of the tallest buildings in the world, he realized he was waiting for Naemi to contact him, but the days went by and he heard nothing. I found you tonight. I’ll find you again. How would she do that exactly?
When he called Beijing on Wednesday and spoke to Xuan Xuan, his wife, she asked if something was wrong. He told her he was fi ne. He was just calling to see how she was. But she insisted that he sounded different.
“Different?” he said. “How?”
“Impatient,” she said. “Like you’re standing in a queue and it’s not moving.”
On Thursday he spoke to a friend of his father’s, a man who happened to be the director of the Shanghai Museum. He asked if a brief after-hours visit could be arranged.
“Twice in a month,” the director said. “You’re addicted.”
“There are worse addictions,” Zhang said.
The director laughed. “That’s true.”
It was just after six in the evening when Zhang’s Jaguar stopped on the south side of People’s Square. He told Chun Tao he would be about forty-five minutes, then he walked round to the side entrance of the museum and pressed the bell. A security guard buzzed him in. The deserted interior had an air of peace and dignity it never had during the day, when it was crowded with schoolchildren and tour parties. It was as if the whole building had breathed a huge sigh of relief. His footsteps echoed as he climbed the marble stairs to the second floor. Otherwise, the only sound was the deep, hushed roar of the climate control.
He was drawn, time and again, by the Yue ceramics that had been made during the T’ang dynasty. Some of them were celebrated for their moon-white glaze, which experts likened to snow or silver. Others were a grayish shade of green known as “celadon,” a color whose secret had died with the craftsmen working in the Gangyao kilns at Shanglinhu. To stand before a white Yue vase, with its simple lines, its smooth texture, and its calm but eerie lack of pigment, was to be taken far away from yourself. It was like looking at a blank face, and yet he always felt there was something to be learned. The emptiness seemed charged with wisdom. The director was right. He was addicted. Though created by men, the ceramics existed in a realm beyond man’s understanding. He might, if he spent long enough in contemplation, be afforded some small epiphany, but he would never fool himself into thinking it wasn’t limited or partial. There were other layers, hidden meanings. Infinite possibilities. The fact that the mystery couldn’t be exhausted was a source of comfort to him. Not everything could be known.
For almost a quarter of an hour he gazed at a white oblate pot with a subtle or veiled design, two delicate handles protruding from the neck, and when he left the museum his mind felt depthless, unencumbered. Those moments on the second floor had given him sufficient equilibrium, he felt, to last for days. As he crossed the paved area in front of the museum, a gust of wind lifted his jacket away from his body, as if to search him, and it was then that he became aware of someone standing to the west of the main entrance, under the trees. Naemi. He knew her by the darkness of her clothes, and by her air of attentiveness, as if she was listening to music she had heard before but couldn’t quite identify. He knew her by the gold of her hair, that twisted and gleaming gold—like happiness, if happiness were visible. Strange thoughts. She was just a girl he had run into in a club, a girl he had taken for a drink . . .
As he continued to look at her, she moved towards him slowly, haltingly, as if the distance between them was hard to negotiate, or perilous. Time spilled sideways, like a river that had burst its banks, the flow no longer linear, but vague, diffuse. It took her two minutes to close the gap from fifty feet to five, then half a second to close it to nothing. Suddenly she was up against him, and her mouth was on his mouth, even before a word was spoken, her hands under his jacket, pulling him against her, the black trees above their heads, the dull brown sky.
“I wondered how long it would take,” he murmured.
“How long what would take?” She spoke in the same low register.
“For you to find me.”
“I could have done it quicker.” Her phone rang, but she ignored it. “I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. Even now, I’m not sure.”
“But you’re here.”
“Perhaps it was a mistake.” She leaned back and looked at him, her face all ivory and shadows, like the moon. She was more beautiful than he remembered.
“It doesn’t feel like a mistake,” he said.
“Where’s your car?”
“Over there.” He moved his eyes beyond her, to the row of parked cars on the south side of the square.
“Can we go somewhere?”
“Not right now. I have a dinner.”
“You can’t cancel it?”
“No. But I could meet you later.” The wind circled them, and the dark trees stirred, a sound that was like someone with a hosepipe watering a lawn. “Shall I tell you where,” he said, “or do you already know?”
She curled a strand of hair behind her ear, the faintest of smiles at one corner of her mouth.
“The bar in the Park Hyatt,” he said. “Ten o’clock.”
He didn’t kiss her again, though he wanted to. Instead, he touched the side of her face, once, gently, then turned and walked away. The calmness was still with him, the calmness of all that ancient porcelain. Only when he was in the Jaguar did he look back. She was standing where he had left her, and she was looking in his direction. She wouldn’t be able to see him, though, not through the tinted windows.
Chun Tao glanced at him in the rearview mirror. “Straight to the restaurant, Mr. Zhang?”
He was scheduled to meet two commodity brokers from London, and he would have to drink more wine than he was used to, but at least there was the thought of Naemi at the end of it.
If she turned up, that is.
At a quarter to ten, Zhang’s Jaguar pulled up at the foot of the Shanghai World Financial Center, also known as the “Vertical Complex City.” The Park Hyatt, which was the highest hotel in the world, occupied floors 79 to 93. The cloud cover had lowered, and the sheer, curving facade of the building, edged in light that was electric blue, seemed to sink bladelike into the soft mass of the sky. Chun Tao asked if he should wait.
Zhang shook his head. “You can go.”
“Go home. Get some sleep.”
“What time tomorrow?”
“I’ll text you.”
Zhang stepped out of the car. The rain was fine and weightless, like face mist, and the air smelled of mustard seeds and soy sauce. Opening an umbrella, a valet hurried over and accompanied him to the hotel entrance.
Walking into the lobby, with its towering ceiling, its blind turnings, and its unadorned dark brown walls, he felt he was passing through some kind of portal, entering a new dimension. The lighting was dim, the atmosphere mysterious, subversive. By the lifts was a Gao Xiao Wu sculpture of three old men standing side by side, and leaning out from the wall, as if to offer a service or a favor. Made from a shiny white ceramic, they were the size of children, with eyes that looked sightless and expressions that were obsequious or craven. As he placed a hand on top of one of their smooth bald heads, a lift arrived, its door sliding open to reveal the deceptively affable, pockmarked face of Wang Jun Wei.
“Guo Xing!” A smile bubbled under Jun Wei’s skin, like soup under a lid. “Still as handsome as ever.”
Zhang smiled back. “My brother.”The two men shook hands.
“Nice suit,” Zhang said.
Jun Wei’s eyes widened, as if Zhang had just insulted him, then he grinned. “I’m off to a new KTV place. Like to join me?”
“I can’t. I’m meeting someone.”
“A woman, I suppose.”
Zhang held Jun Wei’s gaze, but said nothing.
“All right.” Jun Wei looked off to one side, then back again. “Call me tomorrow. There’s something I need your help with.”
Zhang stepped into a waiting lift and pressed 87.
On reaching the hotel’s reception desk, he picked up a key to the suite he had reserved, then he transferred to the lift that would take him to the bar. A jazz band was playing when he walked in. The singer was a young black woman in a yellow dress. He scanned the people sitting at the tables. Naemi had not arrived as yet. In his mind he saw her passing Wang Jun Wei in the dim, clandestine lobby, ninety-two floors down.
He found a table for two and ordered a glass of champagne. There’s something I need your help with. He knew what that meant. Jun Wei wanted to rope him into some business deal or other. At school, they had been in the same class. Jun Wei was lazy and delinquent, and Zhang used to help him with his homework. When Jun Wei was suspected of cheating, Zhang had vouched for him. Without Zhang, Jun Wei would never have graduated. Brothers, Jun Wei had said at the time, draping one heavy arm round Zhang’s shoulders. Brothers for life. Even back then, Zhang wondered what he had let himself in for. When he went to Canada to study, he lost touch with Jun Wei. In the early 2000s, though, after a gap of many years, the two men met up again in Shanghai. Now a wealthy and successful property developer, Jun Wei had consulted Zhang on various construction projects that he was pushing through. These days, he was in charge of a whole platform of companies, not all of which were necessarily legitimate, and Zhang had been careful to minimize his involvement.
“Have you been waiting long?”
Zhang glanced up.
Naemi was standing in front of him. She had changed, though she was still dressed in black. On her feet she wore a pair of chrome-colored Converse All Stars.
“I just arrived.” He gestured at his drink, which he had yet to touch. “Have a seat. What can I get you?”
“Whatever you’re having.”
He stopped a passing waitress and ordered another glass of champagne. Turning back to Naemi, he watched her slip her phone into her pocket. He found that he couldn’t conceive of who her contacts might be, or what her browsing history might look like. When he imagined accessing her phone, it was empty, blank. Nothing there at all. That was a quality she seemed to have, of being brand-new, as if she had come into being at that very moment, fully formed.
“How was dinner?” she asked.
“It was just business,” he told her. “If I hadn’t known I was meeting you afterwards, I might never have got through it.”
Her champagne arrived, and they touched glasses.
“You don’t seem like the kind of man who would go in for compliments,” she said.
She shook her head.
“What kind of man am I, then, do you think?”
“You’re asking me to guess?”
She put down her glass. “I detect a sense of entitlement,” she said. “As if you were—how do you say it in Chinese?—born with a golden key in your mouth.”
He smiled. “Very good.”
“You’re used to getting what you want,” she went on. “You’re not spoiled, though.” Sitting back, she looked at him steadily. “Your job doesn’t fulfill you. There’s more to you than that.”
“I didn’t realize I was so transparent.” He drank a little champagne. “I have something for you.” Taking out the key to the hotel suite, he placed it on the table in front of her.
“What’s that?” she said.
“Who knows? Maybe it’s the golden key.”
Still watching him, she reached for her drink again.
“I booked you a room,” he said. “I thought you might find it relaxing. It might make a change—from where you live.”
“You don’t know where I live.”
He cast a light, theatrical look around the bar. “Is it like this?”
“I didn’t bring my toothbrush,” she said.
“Call room service,” he said. “Housekeeping.”
Leaving the key where it was, she looked away from him. For a while, she watched the band, who were playing a cover of the Sarah Vaughan classic “Whatever Lola Wants.” When the song ended, she turned back to him.
“You were in the museum,” she said, “even though it was closed.”
“You don’t work there, do you?”
He laughed. “No. But I might be more fulfilled, as you put it, if I did.”
“So what were you doing?”
“I can’t tell you.” He finished his champagne. “I’ve never told anyone. Secrets lose their power if you share them.”
In that moment, there was a dark and oddly covetous aspect to the look she gave him. Perhaps, without knowing it, he had passed some sort of test. She reached for the key.
“It’s not a room, actually,” he said. “It’s a suite.”
“Would you show me?”
“Of course.” He signaled for the check.
Once he had paid, he followed her between the tables. Her black skirt clung to her hips. Her legs were bare. Something fizzed and crackled through him, a fork of lightning that zigzagged from his heart down to his belly. The set had ended, and everyone was clapping.
Near the lifts that were reserved for hotel guests was a wall of soft white lights, like snowflakes trapped under glass. She stood against it, backlit and in shadow, her hands behind her.
“I’m so glad you came,” he said.
She looked down and smiled, her hair falling across her face. She used the spread fingers of one hand to push it back.
Once inside the lift, he pressed 88. He was aware of the shaft beneath them—the tall column of dark air, the smell of oil and warm dust, the long drop to the ground.
The lift door opened.
Excerpted from NVK by Temple Drake © 2019 Other Press.