Laura was true to her word, and then some. For the first few hours, she stuck right by me. We drank together, danced together, wandered around together. We had murmured conversations in hallways which would end with me sitting on the floor laughing so hard bourbon went up my nose, while Laura described the sexual prowess of pretty much any passing guy. It was a fair bet with her she had inside knowledge, too, except of her closest friends. “Inner circle’s off limits, least for me,” she said airily, blinking at the wall across from us. “Glen, Peter, Richard – can’t go there. I like to… be able to move on, you know? Hi Rob! Moved on from him a couple of months back. He’s good with his hands, good kisser, you could get some nice action there, but he’s a bit.. unfulfilled in the trouser department, if you know what I mean. What I mean is his cock is quite small. Just in case that wasn’t clear. Wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea.”
She slid to the floor beside me, then we both leaned sideways as someone came down the stairs. “Who’s that? Skinny, dye job, big boots… oh, Justin. Reverse problem. Somewhat sloppy kisser, hung like a fucking ox. However…” She raised one finger to make a telling point, and watched it waver around for a bit. “Doesn’t like to mention that he has a girlfriend. Doesn’t like to mention that he has a girlfriend who likes to punch people he fucks. Think he gets off on it.”
I watched Richard come in at the other end of the hall during a lull in Laura’s monologue. Feeling cheery, I waved, and he worked his way over. “Hey Hera, have you… oh, there you are. Laura, you are going to want to see this. Lynne’s here.”
“Hey!” Laura yelled. “Lynne’s here! How fabulous is that? Let’s go say hi.” She got up, hauling me to my feet, and leaned over to me. She appeared to have suddenly sobered up enormously. “Lynne is Peter’s girlfriend. They met at high school, they’ve been together for years. She’s lovely really. I’ve met her a couple of times at his place, but she never comes here. Also, she doesn’t seem to like me much. By which I mean, she would cross the street to piss on me if I were on fire, but even more so if I weren’t.”
Richard laughed. “Dude, she’s Peter’s girlfriend. It doesn’t matter who she is, she hates your fucking guts. Can you imagine? ‘Hi honey, this is my best friend, the hot chick with the knockout tits’. I’m willing to bet she’s imagined you and Peter fucking even more than you have.”
“Richard, as usual, I don’t know whether to thank you or knee you in the crotch. I’m sure Lynne will be perfectly reasonable. Why else would she be here? Come on Hera, I’ll introduce you.”
She took my hand, and worked her way through the crowd to the kitchen, where Peter was standing awkwardly with a girl who had to be Lynne. She was tall and slim, and wearing a dress so startlingly hideous it was obviously the height of fashion. Next to Laura in her jeans and t-shirt, Lynne looked like a chopstick wrapped in a designer serviette.
Laura let go of me as we got close, took Lynne’s shoulders, and air-kissed her. “Lynne, darling! So nice to see you. And how unusual, for you to be able to make it to one of our parties. You’re usually so terribly busy. Have you come to keep an eye on our Peter?”
Laura was standing opposite Peter and Lynne, which kind of left me to choose sides. I went and joined Laura, which meant I could see the pinched expression on Peter’s face, and the thin veneer of Nice over six fat inches of loathing on Lynne’s. “Hello, Laura. Gosh, don’t you look nice tonight. So simple. No, Peter doesn’t need an eye keeping on him.”
Laura snorted with laughter. “No more than I do. And thank you. That’s quite the dress. I don’t know how you do it. No matter what you wear, you look just as good. Oh how rude. Lynne, this is my friend Hera. Hera, this is Peter’s life partner, Lynne.”
I nodded diffidently, caught Peter’s eye, and grimaced. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Richard come in with a group, their faces shining at the prospect of a cat-fight.
Lynne gave me an icy nod. Her composure was fracturing. “Hello, Hera. Are you Laura’s special little friend for this… week?”
Peter put his hand on her arm. “Lynne, come on…”
Laura grinned. “It’s okay, Peter. No Lynne, Hera doesn’t fuck girls. You really must get your gaydar looked at. She’s a friend. You’re familiar with the concept?”
“Oh yes. I didn’t think you were. Anyway, I’ve just come to pick up Peter. We have a date tonight. My parents are taking us to Carnegie’s.”
Laura’s arm was resting against mine, so I felt her flinch. “Well, isn’t that nice? You two have fun.” She leaned across, and kissed Peter on the cheek. It was just a kiss, but her lips lingered on his face, her fingers on his side. He whispered something to her, just a word, and her face darkened. By the time she pulled back, her expression was back to saccharine. “I’ll see you when you’re done, then, darling. You should be finished there well before we are here.”
As she watched them leave, she took my hand again. “Come on, Hera, I need a smoke.”
I went with Laura out onto the back deck. I didn’t really have any choice, but I didn’t want to leave her alone either. She took out a couple of pre-rolled cigarettes: a blend of her own that was mostly dope, with a little tobacco and catnip. Laura was a big one for what she called ‘natural highs’.
She lit them both, passed one to me, took a deep drag on hers, and fell back on the steps down to the garden. “I fucking hate that woman. Great Gods I hate her.”
I took a cautious puff, watching Laura’s face. You didn’t often see her unguarded, and right now she was miserable. “Because of Peter? I mean, would you hate Peter’s girlfriend no matter who she was?”
“Oh, probably. He’s my best friend. Who’s going to be good enough for him? Not that stupid bitch, anyway. She’s so fucking insipid, I don’t know what he sees in her. I think he’s only still with her because he can’t work out how to get rid of her. She’s moving in with him, you know. Gods… which means I won’t be able to go round to his flat any more. He doesn’t want her to, but he can’t say no to her.”
She flicked ash off the end of her joint, and stared up at the few stars poking through the smog. “It’s not just that, though. I mean, the girl is stupid. Really stupid. And all her friends are the same. Stupid, and rich. ‘Cause it doesn’t matter. She’ll bluff her way through a couple of years of uni, then she’ll get a job in Daddy’s company, or with someone he knows, because that’s what they do. They go to the right schools and they have the right money, which is the sort that comes stuck to lots of other money. It doesn’t matter what she does, the money will take care of her. I hate that.”
She sat up, and leaned towards me, her expression fierce. “That’s part of what I’m doing here. Making a network for the people who don’t have one. Bright, ambitious poor people, from shit families. So we can look out for each other the way those fuckers do. Every one of us that gets up pulls the others with them, much as they can. My mother worked her guts out for me, to make sure I could have this opportunity. Know what Lynne’s mother did? She got bored, so last birthday her husband bought her a boutique jewellery shop. She has a hobby business. And a Merc. Lynne’s always had anything she wants, so she thinks she can have Peter too. Fuck that.”
I was pretty drunk, and a bit stoned. The catnip added a faint but nice minty tang. “Because he’s yours?”
Her lips twisted, her expression really ugly. “Y’know… in a very fundamental way, he is. I can’t talk to you about that, not yet. But yeah, I might not be his girlfriend, but he belongs with me. Lynne doesn’t understand it, but she can sense it. That’s why she hates me so fucking much.”
“That and you’re horrible to her.”
Laura fell back on the steps, laughing. “Oh Hera. Yeah, that too. And I’m never going to stop.”
“Laura Campbell, really, I’ve told you before, that stuff will kill you.”
We turned at the man’s voice, but I’d barely got a look at him before Laura launched herself up off the deck and leapt at him, kissing him soundly. I could see he was tall, kind of stocky, very well dressed. Was he wearing a suit? Surely not.
Laura finally let go and put her feet back on the ground. “Charles! Gods, how long has it been?” Still with her arms wrapped around him, she turned to me. “Charles, Hera. Hera, this is my friend Charles. He’s the one who got me involved in the Carter Club in the first place.”
He fought an arm free of Laura’s embrace and held his hand out for me to shake. His skin was pleasantly soft. He really was wearing a suit. “Pleased to meet you, Hera. That’s quite the name. You must hate it.”
I shrugged. Experience and dope: I didn’t find this conversation as intimidating as I once had. “I’ve had a while to get used to it. It’s grown on me. Or I’ve grown and it’s stayed exactly the same.” He was still looking at me, smiling slightly, making eye contact. It was bloody disconcerting. “So… you discovered Laura?”
She laughed, full of delighted outrage. “Yes, it’s true. I was just out one day, going about my mundane life, walking my dog, and this huge limo pulled up…”
“It wasn’t quite like that,” Charles said, tapping the end of her nose with a finger. “There was no car. And no dog. She was going into the library, I was coming out. But otherwise, yes, I did rescue her from oblivion and destine her for stardom.”
“You are so full of it.” She untangled herself from his arms, kissed him again, and left him standing unaided, which I hadn’t yet seen him do. “I tell you what. I… have to go pee. You look after Hera for me. I promised her I would, but while I’m not here, you’ll just have to do. Dance with her. Tell her ridiculous made-up stories I’ll never live down, and I’ll decide whether or not to deny them.”
“It won’t do you any good. My ridiculous made-up stories are very plausible.”
Laura made a sort of indignant huffing noise, then leaned over and kissed my cheek. “Charles,” she murmured, “will take very good care of you.”
He did, of course. We went and danced for a while, and he even took his jacket off for that. Then he got me a drink and we chatted, and when he kissed me it just seemed perfectly natural. He was a really good kisser: slow and practised and deliberate. His hands were warm and sure, too, and by then I was totally ready for him to be touching me. I’d agonised over what to wear, and now I couldn’t get it all off soon enough.
When I moaned out loud, the bare skin of his chest pressed against mine and the scent of him so close I could taste it, he took me upstairs. I didn’t know whose bed it was or how he knew it was okay to use it, but I also really didn’t care. He wouldn’t let me rush, taking our clothes off. He looked at me, with obvious pleasure, until I couldn’t look him in the face any more. He laid me out and spent more time getting to know my body, savouring it, than all my previous boyfriends put together.
Laura was right, it was like nothing else I’d known. It was like I’d never really had sex before. Other people had just had sex on me. With him, I wanted to do everything I knew, fervently, and I was only sorry I didn’t know more.
Luckily, Charles was an excellent teacher.
Some time in the gray hours of the morning, when I’d finally let him be, I leaned on one arm, looking down at Charles with my hair lying all over him, and said, “What made you pick Laura?”
He gave me a wry smile. “Seriously, you want to talk about Laura now? I didn’t think we needed her for this.”
I squirmed a little, but I didn’t let up. “I’m curious. Humour me.”
“Now why… ah. Because she chose you, didn’t she, and you want to know why. Great gods, you’ve seen her. I took one look at her, walking up those stairs so easy and confident and self-contained, and I thought, there’s my Isis. Not just her colouring, but that air about her. So close and no closer.
“That’s not the right question though. What’s really interesting is why she let me choose her. I stopped her, asked her some ridiculous bland question I can’t remember, and then I said to her, oh, something like… ‘You’re perfect, I need you for something, come with me’. Something like that. ‘Come with me.’ That’s the key, the test. Who says yes to that? Who doesn’t go spare, run away, tell all their friends about the creep who tried to kidnap them? We want the people who’ll take that leap, that risk. The ones who can’t bear not to know what it’s all about, who are sure they can get out if it all goes wrong, or who just don’t care anyway. They tend not to have very strong ties to the lives they’re already living. They need something. Laura needed to be special.”
I ran a fingernail across his chest idly, trying to pretend I had no investment in the next question. “Did you sleep with her?” God, why did I even care?
“Hera, everyone sleeps with Laura. She needed me to be special too, so no. We never have. Not even when she was my Isis, before I found Peter. I thought he was her, you know. And that was before he grew his hair. It was the same thing. ‘Come with me.’ He was even easier to catch than Laura, but then perhaps I was more convincing. I just knew she had to see him. It seemed like a ridiculous mistake that they hadn’t always known each other. You know, I’m a little surprised you asked about her and not him.”
I blushed. Turned out I could still do that, even after the last couple of hours. “Peter… Peter has a girlfriend. And anyway, guys like him don’t… he’s out of my league. Some heart-breaks even I can see coming.”
Charles laughed, and stroked his fingers through my hair, down over my breast. “Peter’s too good for you. But I’m not?”
There was no hurt in his expression: he was only teasing me. Like the rest of them, he didn’t seem to need his ego boosted. “You are the peak my achievements so far.”
He laughed again, hard, and then I made him stop.
Charles had to leave, of course, and I suppose somebody wanted their bedroom back. I saw him off, but I didn’t feel like leaving. I was too… restless and content, happy and drunk and full of wonder.
So I was still there, perched on the deck rail outside, when Peter came back. He looked tired and, for want of a more manly word, cross. “Hey Hera, have you seen Laura?”
There was hardly anyone left: only about half a dozen hangers-on with nowhere else they wanted to go. “Um, not for quite a while, but then I wasn’t… she left, I think. While I was… busy.”
He gave me a long look, then leaned his elbows on the rail, hair falling round his face. “Gods’ sakes, Hera, you’re not at home now. You’re allowed to talk about fucking. That’s brilliant, that is. I piss Lynne off by getting up and coming back, and she’s not even here. She made me come back, and then she couldn’t be arsed hanging around. Fuck!”
I’d never seen Peter angry before. In that state of my mind, it was kind of interesting. “You came back. You came back and pissed Lynne off because Laura’s happiness is more important to you than Lynne’s, right? What does that tell you?”
He turned, looking at me through his hair. Moonlight made his face sharp and shadowed. “It tells me you’re drunk, and I’m pretty sure stoned as well. It tells me you think you know more than you do. Laura’s more difficult to keep happy than Lynne is. I can make things up to Lynne. I know what to do. Laura… how the hell do I make her happy if I piss her off? If I let her down? I can’t…”
“Buy her flowers, or chocolates, or take her out to dinner, or fuck her. Just checking, you can’t fuck her?”
Peter snorted. “Right, yeah. Because what will Laura do for sex if I don’t provide? Here’s a question, Hera. You came down after you were finished whoever you were doing, and Laura wasn’t here. Did it cross your mind, for one second, that she’d gone home alone?”
I laughed so hard I swayed on the rail, and Peter reached out to catch me. His hands were warm. I could feel the warmth on my skin after he’d let go of me. “Okay, no, of course not. That’s not an answer to my question, though.”
“Yes it is, Hera.” He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. It wasn’t often I got to just look at him, knowing he wouldn’t catch me. His beauty was unusual. Heavy brows, strong jaw, nose on the big side: masculine. But he wouldn’t have been so attractive without the woman in his face: long lashes, full lips, sharp-cut cheekbones. I wanted Laura sitting next to him so I could see if she was the same. He kept his eyes shut when he spoke, and I watched the patterns of moonlight and shadow on his skin. “You think I want to be… just another one? Something for Laura to take home at the end of a night? Fuck that. Anyway, she’s my best friend. It’d suck. And I have a girlfriend. That’d suck too.”
He opened his eyes, and met my gaze. He’d known all along I was watching him anyway. “So okay, she’s your friend too. How do I make it up to her?”
I had enough restraint left not to tell him. Just. And of course if Peter dumped Lynne, Laura would feel guilty about being so happy, so it wouldn’t work anyway. “I dunno. She’ll get over it. Just give her time. She’s probably getting over it right now. Did you drive? I could do with a ride home.”
Charles hung around at uni on and off for the next few days. One night he took me back to his hotel room, where there was a briefcase full of actual briefing papers, and more to the point a spa bath. I’d never been anywhere so flash. Every time we walked through the lobby I expected to get stopped and patted down for ashtrays.
That was about when Lynne starting coming by uni, too. She’d come across after classes and just hang around Peter, usually silently. Occasionally someone would try to make an effort with her, but we had nothing in common. She didn’t like reading or movies with plots, but she was keen on shoes and recreational shopping. I was curious about what it was Peter saw in her, but to be honest I wasn’t curious enough to really try. Plus she seemed to have enough hate for Laura for it smear off on to me just by proximity.
There was one afternoon where she’d been around a couple of hours, and finally Peter had taken her back to their flat. Richard took a deep breath, stretched his arms up, folded his hands behind his head, and said, “It’s no good. She’s got to go.”
Darren tutted. “Richard, you shouldn’t say things like that. Also you don’t need to. We all know it’s true. Laura, can’t you get rid of her? You’re good at making people you don’t like go away. Dunno what happens to them. Expect we’ll find the mass grave one day.”
Laura sighed, melodramatic. She ran her hands over her face in an exaggerated despairing gesture, but I was pretty sure she had a real headache underneath it. “I’m sorry, boys. Lynne is my kryptonite. That holds true for all of Peter’s partners, in case that becomes relevant in future, which I hope to all the gods it does. Perhaps they’ll be kind to us, and she’ll have a terrible tragic accident. Or Peter will wake up one morning with amnesia. Or good taste. Or, hey, her father could offer her an exciting new opportunity in the States. She’d love that, they have shoes there. I wonder who could make that happen.”
Glen’s voice was, as usual, quieter and more serious than the others’. “You could try just being nice to her, for Peter’s sake.”
Laura gave him a Look. “Oh Glen, I do love you. And you’re right, she’d really hate that, it’d drive her batfuck. But you’re too devious for me. I don’t have the stomach for it.” She got to her feet and gathered up her stuff. She tended to shed things all over any space she occupied: clothes, shoes, bags, books, jewellery. It was like we all just lived in her bedroom. “No, I’m afraid we’re all just going to have to grit our teeth and see it through to the end. It will end, though, I’m sure of that.”