They eluded me again in the descent. At least now I knew there was a passage to the subterranean nightclub. I’d seen them enter by it, seen it swing open for them. I caught a glimpse of a large muscular man attired in evening wear, and behind him a crowd of revelers. The two sisters stepped past the man, and for a moment his eyes caught mine. They were superior, contemptuous.
I heard the faint roar of the subway and the rumble of traffic on the street above. The door slid shut. It might never have been there at all, for now the wall was seamless. A tremendous feat of clandestine engineering had taken place here. To construct beneath a major city a secret playground required cooperation of many parties; my supposition was that it had been constructed in another era, subject to much less public scrutiny than now. A club of privileged individuals brought into the secret in such a way that betrayal was impossible — this was all I could imagine as I stood there, barred from further knowledge, except the knowledge that I was in danger. The eyes of that excellent fellow in the doorway told me that. This was not a club one could crash. Trashy elements did not stagger out of it at dawn; rumors did not surround it. Its existence was unknown to the paparazzi. The tunnel in which I stood was silent; no sound leaked from the club, just as no word of it had ever leaked. It had cost me months of labor and my employer a small fortune to get me this far.The sisters were valuable creatures, whose nighttime subterranean adventures were frowned upon by my employer. They returned compromised, exhausted, useless for the work for which they’ve been contracted. And I’d been contracted to learn where they went and why. And here I was, staring at a seamless wall. I felt it as more than an obstacle; it seemed to mock me. I remained there all night. The sisters must have returned by another passage, hidden from me by some different piece of engineering. My employer, Mr. Stavrinos, informed me of their return, with angry details concerning the state they were in.
“They’re of no use to me or anyone today. Events have been canceled.”
“I’m sorry. It’s going to take more time.”
“I’m aware of that,” he said, surprisingly understanding. “They’ll be immobilized for days, I’m sure. I’ll let you know when they regain their enthusiasm.”
Stavrinos trusted me. I’d gained access to the club. How I’d done it didn’t matter to him, nor was he interested in the location of its several entrances. He knew he’d never receive an invitation.
When the sisters descended again, I was ready. The tuxedoed man greeted me with a smile, as contemptuous as before. He was obviously ex-military. “They’re playing with you. They don’t care if you die here and I certainly don’t.” He brushed a little dust from the tunnel off my shoulder. “You won’t be the first explorer who perished here.”
I was in the great subterranean chamber. The first room was given over to dancing. The floor was like ice, opaque and white and illuminated from below. The crowd was small, youthful, fabulously attired. The music was sensual, recorded male voices uttering short fragments of seduction, over and over, as drums throbbed and synthesizers created surreal textures to weaken inhibition. The tuxedoed man was at my elbow. “We had to figure out how you did it. Now we know. So that’s the end of you.”
I ignored him and searched for the sisters, but they, in fact, found me. Luna stood before me, hardly more than a child, her eyes as heavily made up as a baby raccoon — a beautiful one, to be sure. She was petite, and her voluptuousness was just beginning; her ignorance of life was matched by her disregard for conventional wisdom. The male voices on the sound system intensified her own sensuality. She was like the skin of a drum stretched to a perfect pitch of juvenile allure.
Small lights pulsed in the walls, as if luminous fish were schooling there. In fact, they were gemstones, and the walls were encrusted with them. The stones’ mysterious depths gave off a strange fire, blue mineral flames of sapphire, and the incalculable glint of cat’s eye with its rings of green. These and many other varieties enhanced the subterranean feel of the ballroom, as if we were in a cavern created by gods of the lower orders.
“Dance with me,” said Luna, but I refused. Her petulant mouth expressed a less-studied contempt than the security guard’s. Hers was simple and suited her age. “Crocodile,” she said, as if identifying my species, and turned away.
She was right; compared to her I was prehistoric and encased in armor. Everyone else was light and flowing to the music and I seemed to crawl on webbed claws around the flashing chamber, confused by its brilliance and stubbornly clinging to what I knew, which was a predator’s instinct. I was here to capture the sisters.
A blond-haired young man passed me in the arms of a young woman whose eyes glowed with the same mineral coldness as the walls. They seemed aware of my purpose, or at least that I was there to thwart some pleasure of theirs. I felt certain they’d approve my removal from the room, the club, and life itself should I threaten a half-hour of their happiness.
I moved from the ballroom to the next room, a sort of dim antechamber where couples sat on ornate couches. The walls were stained glass panels, depicting desert scenery through which light shone from behind. I was joined there by Victoria, the other sister, the older one. Her eyes were slightly slanted, an oriental contrast to her blond coloring. She was a rare thing all right.
“You’re lucky,” she said.
“Why is that?” I asked, trying to resist the radiance she projected, seeing her as just another product of my employer, who was famous for manufacturing star power.
“You’re at the most exclusive party on the planet. Nobody gets here.”
“Some seem to have managed it,” I said, indicating the couples in the antechamber.
“But you’re a crasher.”
“I received an invitation, of course.”
“That’s classified,” she said, with a laugh. “So just consider yourself very lucky. This place is the best kept secret there is.”
“I’m only here because of you. Parties don’t interest me.”
“This one should. It’s been going on for years and years. Tremendous celebrities have been here.” She said this with reverence and looked at me, as if expecting me to acknowledge something profound.
“It’s a great privilege to be here,” I agreed.
“It is,” she said, with as much sincerity as such creatures are capable of, for all their radiance shines back on themselves. It was obvious she felt this amazing underground chamber found its true purpose in her presence. This self-absorption was what made her the sought-after commodity she was. She had the presence of a far eastern goddess, expressing an inhuman principle.
“I’ve learned so much by coming here,” she said, as if describing her own ingenuity and congratulating herself at the same time. She circled relentlessly around a perception of her own stardom, deeply deserved in her opinion. I was expected to nourish this view for my own well-being; service to her was deemed natural. All this my employer had inculcated in her, after which she and her sister had been discovered by the rest of the world.
“I’ve had few failures and I don’t want the sisters to ruin my record with this midnight ramble they’re on.” He’d been gazing out the window of his 16th story office, puffing on a Cuban cigar, his head wreathed in expensive smoke. “The little sluts have everything they want, but they have to screw around in some underworld scene. Why?”
“Sometimes I get sick of the music business,” he’d said, and let it go at that.
Naturally he hated these midnight excursions. I couldn’t see the harm. Who in this crowd could affect Victoria? They were all exponents of self-love. Cool disdain in face and form, languid bored beauty rearranging itself for a camera. That’s why she resented Stavrinos. “He thinks he owns us.”
“He does own you.”
“It’s a very fine line.”
She owed everything she was to Stavrinos. But the moment she stepped into fame’s circle, it became her doing and no one else’s.
I looked down the hallway to the next room, where a group of young people sat around a shallow pool lit by submerged lights. Luna was there with other gorgeous creatures of both sexes.
What, after all, could I make of this place? Its purpose must be more than that of a pleasure dome. It seemed to me that the hedonism practiced here was the covering for a far different enterprise. In adjacent rooms, I saw gambling tables but they were more an amusement than a business enterprise. There was a large library with beautifully tooled books, all of them classics, but the only people in there were watching handheld devices. It seemed to me that no book had never been taken down, or else the shelves were kept in perfect order at all times. One of the guests looked up from a phone call he’d just completed and said, “You get remarkably good reception here.”
“That’s good to know,” I said, pretending to be interested in a book. I didn’t want to scare him off.
“Yes,” he said, “considering the depth of the place.” Like the others he was unusually good-looking. His suit was casual, his shirt open without a tie, but his ensemble was cut to his frame and fell perfectly on him. I felt as if I’d stepped into the pages of a fashion magazine with a carefully chosen backdrop for a shot. But there were no cameras, no blazing lights, just a few guests who were ignoring the library’s main purpose.
“It’s nice to have consistently good reception,” he said. “Don’t you think?”
I said, “What brings you here?”
“Family membership,” he answered. “And you?”
“I came with some friends.”
“Very good friends,” he said, with a conspiratorial smile.
“They are. But they haven’t told me much about the place. Do you know its origins?”
“One of the old presidential administrations. A place for R and R. Free from the media’s prying eye. Even more important these days.”
“Are you in government yourself?” I asked.
“Occasional service,” he said, and looked back at his cell phone, on which he now seemed to be playing a game. He’d effectively dismissed me, with the air of one accustomed to ordering inferiors on their way.
I vacated the library and discovered a series of rooms resembling monks’ chambers, each one furnished with a cot, a prayer stand, a candle. I entered one and found not monks but a young woman who glanced up at me. “Do you want to pray?” she asked.
“Certainly,” I said, and knelt beside her.
She prayed fervently for every manner of expensive item, from jewelry to jet planes. “For I am deserving, of this and so much more.” I saw that she was reading from a plaque attached to the wall. When she finished she turned to me. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“I always feel purified here,” she said, with the intimate tone people at a retreat adopt with each other, as if she and I already shared a fundamental understanding of life’s purpose. “The Meridian has made things clear to me.”
“You’re new. You haven’t met him yet. His office is at the end of this hall. It’s always open. Shall we pray again?” She resumed, this time from the second plaque on the wall of her tiny chamber. “There are people who have offended me,” she prayed, “and I wish their lives to be made miserable, for my benefit, that I may contemplate their wretchedness at my leisure, for the greater good.” She glanced at me from beneath lashes lengthened with mascara. “Prayer has to be honest.”
She lay down on the couch and crossed her hands over her breasts. The look in her eyes reminded me of the gaze one finds in medieval religious paintings — of those who know. She closed her eyes, and I left her. I saw several more young people in the little rooms, in prayer, presumably to bring misfortune to those who’d offended them. They seemed deeply at peace. One young man was praying for a large yacht, and included a footnote on the detailing of the state rooms.
The hallway led to the office of the Meridian, who welcomed me with a sweep of the hand. “Come in. I’m happy you found me.” He was a middle-aged man of heavy build, with a salt and pepper mustache. “But I see you’re not here for guidance.”
“I am. I want to know about your order.”
“That’s not guidance.” He wore a dark suit and a cleric’s collar. “No one is held against their will. This is a club and members are under no restraint of any kind. Let me tell you something and this is guidance. You’re meddling with powerful interests.”
“What are they, exactly?”
“This grotto is old, but not as ancient as the power behind it which goes back many centuries. The secret of such places is in their having broken from the accepted order. Here other considerations of the species are given opportunity to flourish.”
“I read your prayer.”
“It’s nonsense, like all prayer.”
“It seemed sensible enough.”
“Then you missed the point.”
“Well, give me guidance.”
“It’s a departure, that’s all. The needs of the soul are simple, as it isn’t a very evolved organ.”
His manner was genial, avuncular. “You’re trying to retrieve the sisters. But they’re here for a special reason, like all the others.”
“And what’s that?”
“We must always have a few silly young ingenues, self-absorbed, spoiled, arrogant, trading on modest talent and unusual beauty. It’s part of an original mix created by our founders for the edification of the other members.”
“What’s so edifying about the sisters?”
“They help to clarify certain tenets of the organization. Though their ability is mediocre, they believe themselves marvelously gifted. They act accordingly, and the public acknowledges that they’re wonderful.”
“You see them clearly.”
“Since you’re here to retrieve them, you must be working with Stavrinos. He’s paying you well, I’m sure. But will you think it’s enough when we — ?” He made a slight motion with his hand, surprisingly expressive, and clearly indicating my life was in the balance. It seemed to trouble him not at all, my execution simply part of his religious office. “You know your way out. I suggest you avail yourself of it.”
My interview was over. I left the Meridian and headed for the exit. To die for the sisters suddenly seemed ridiculous to me. Being the excellent guide he was, the Meridian had shown me how wrong my attitude had been.
But passing the monks’ rooms again, I heard more fervent prayer, this time from a young man. I paused to listen, then noticed a security camera swiveling to focus on me. I should have moved on immediately but I remained in the doorway, listening.
“… I am superior, for divine chance has favored me, and in this I acquiesce.”
The young man intoning the prayer was already in possession of striking good looks; but he was having difficulty reading the prayer, whose words he took as slowly as a schoolboy. He looked up at me and said, “I always knew there had to be something like this.”
“This entire setup. It clarified everything for me.”
“What weren’t you clear on?”
“Why I was born lucky.”
“Some people are.”
“I could have been anyone. But I was me. Me and only me.” He got up from his kneeling bench. “I felt guilty about being me. Can you imagine anything so stupid? I’m going back out to the ballroom now.” He stepped past me into the hall. “It’s all yours,” he said, gesturing into the little cell.
Victoria stepped out from a doorway and stood in front of me. “Everyone knows about you now. We all think you’re in deep trouble.”
“I’m here on business.”
“Are you armed?”
“I don’t work through violent means.”
“What means do you use?”
“Luna and I aren’t reasonable,” she said with a smile, making it obvious that my impending end meant nothing to her.
I said, “I met the Meridian.”
“Luna and I never speak to him. All our prayers have already been answered.”
“Then why do you come here?”
“To meet men we can trust.”
“Sure. All the guys here belong.”
“Bright fortune.” Her face grew more radiant. Her eyes took on that slant which was so bewitching. Contrast was the secret of her beauty, and she moved with a sinuous grace her ten million fans tried to emulate.
“Luna and I have no luck with men up above. We’re too desirable.”
“Too rich, you mean.”
“Too everything. We have bright fortune. That’s what everyone up above wants, but they don’t have it. If they did, they’d be here.”
“Stavrinos has a huge fortune.”
“That’s just money. Bright fortune is something else.”
She lowered her voice, and leaned closer to me, continuing softly. “It’s terrible for those who don’t have it. It makes them act in awful ways.”
Her beauty broke over me in warm waves. It was obvious why she and her sister were cash cows and why Stavrinos couldn’t bear for them to exercise their independence. He was addicted to the sensation of their presence. I was feeling it myself. They must have once been very grateful to him and showered him with attention. She was now so close to me we almost touched. She said, “You have none of the indicators of bright fortune. But I like the fact you’re ready to get yourself killed for me. However, you work for Stavrinos.”
“So do you.”
“Don’t be absurd. He lives off our brightness. He’s a parasite,” she added coldly.
“I don’t think that’s quite fair.”
“You should leave. Right now. Before they kill you.”
I followed her into another gallery. Statues and vases from ancient Greece were displayed, along with jewelry from Chinese and Egyptian tombs. From the end of the gallery came a young woman’s giggling laughter and a young man’s voice, like those of the other young men, infused with the confidence of one firmly entrenched in good health and excellent prospects. His voice and her laughter were like something from the antique vases where painted lovers, freed from every care, enjoyed immortal pleasures. Her laughter struck me then as a kind of music, expected by men, and which Luna, in spite of her fame and wealth, was willing to provide.
“My sister’s found someone suitable for the evening,” said Victoria.
She turned away from me and ran her fingers over the marble bust of a young Roman. His handsome profile mirrored that of the man approaching us with Luna — a perfect nose, charming curls. Luna was still laughing as she and the young man joined us, and I heard how close to childhood she was. “We’re having such a fun time,” she said, then looked at me. “How’s the crocodile?”
“He insists on getting himself killed,” said Victoria.
The young man ignored me. He was looking at the bust that resembled him, and nodded as if in recognition. “We’ll leave you to it.” He walked on with Luna and her laughter resumed.
Victoria led me to another gallery. An ornamental angel stood on a copper table, holding a candelabrum that cast dancing shadows as we disturbed its flames. She said, “I don’t need Stavrinos.”
“You come back from this place exhausted. You miss recording dates, and cause a great many people a lot of of trouble.”
“You have it all wrong,” she said. “This place doesn’t exhaust me. But after I’ve been here the world of Stavrinos is torture. It sucks the energy out of me. I’ve already told you why.” She fixed me with her idol’s eyes. “Because his world preys on my bright fortune.” She circled a reclining statue of Venus. “Naturally this is beyond your understanding.”
“What about your fans? Don’t they deserve consideration?”
“They’re the greatest predators.” She looked at me as if for the last time. “I warned you,” she said, and left.
The Meridian appeared in the doorway, then joined me beside Venus. “The Olympian gods serve as inspiration, the whole scandalous lot of them. Petulant, demanding, but above all blessed.”
He motioned me to follow him. Marble pillars marked the entry to a courtyard. Youthful guests walked together through bands of cool light coming from panels set in the ceiling. Walking with them were older men and women, speaking to them in quiet tones. I saw that these older figures were themselves from the same mold — invariably beautiful. “They provide a few guidelines,” said the Meridian. “Though they’re not wise, by any means. Wisdom isn’t valued here.”
“What do they teach?”
“Selfishness.” The young people in the room greeted us politely but they were absorbed in their instruction. Their mentors were equally polite but without a trace of interest in our presence.
We walked to the other end of the courtyard, and I turned back, looking for the security personnel who must be on the way for me.
The Meridian led me through a flower garden, warmed by heat lamps and graced by a waterfall in the center around which butterflies danced.
“We hatch them here. Their lifespan is several weeks. They haven’t any fear of us. Poor little fools. Something like you.” He removed a butterfly from his hair and sent it flying. “You should be able to identify with them.”
There were benches in the garden, and young people sat there, conversing. They seemed impervious to the beauty that surrounded them. Perhaps they’d grown used to it; or did their own beauty suffice?
He led me from the butterfly garden, to a gallery containing ancient Chinese miniatures in ivory. “This isn’t a museum. These are scenes of Imperial life. They’re the mirror of privilege.”
The next room was a sort of living altar, and enthroned in the center of it was an elderly member of the club, with young people seated around and below her.
She was grotesque; out of her creviced face shone two darkly glittering eyes, alive with scorn and penetrating intelligence. I had no doubt that her long experience of life had taught her to read character at a glance, and typically found it wanting. Few people could stand up to what I saw in that wrinkled face. In appraising her visitors, she measured only weaknesses and by it made her estimation. Probably it served her well. In the presence of a scowling mummy, one doesn’t posture.
“Find something else to do,” she said to those gathered around her. They withdrew to the rear of the inner sanctum, leaving me standing alone before the elderly woman.
“Sit down,” she said, pointing to the chair across from her. Her face might have been carved by one of the Chinese masters of ivory. All expression had been whittled down until only the pure essence of egotism remained. She said, “We can do anything we like with you.”
“I understand that.”
“Intruders are, shall we say, absorbed?” She gazed at me, probing my weaknesses. “The same goes for you.”
“How could I possibly threaten you?”
She didn’t bother to answer. She raised a hand to her hair, smoothing back an already tight chignon. Her fingers were ringed with diamonds in antique settings; one could feel wealth emanating from her, like a natural force. Finally, she said, “The sisters are necessary here. They fit. And you’ve disturbed one of them.”
“Victoria has contracts to fulfill. She signed them. No one forced her to.”
“Bright fortune forced her. It fulfills itself.” She paused. Her diamonds continued releasing their cold allure. She was like them, cold and dazzling, her age eclipsed by that essence I saw, of unblemished egotism. I said, “We would appreciate it if Victoria’s membership here, and Luna’s, was terminated.”
She stood and I stood with her. She stepped close to me. Her lips brushed mine. Unexpectedly soft, moist, with a hint of sensuality still remaining. In fact, a quiver of pleasure ran through me. She stroked the back of my neck and said, “The only thing that’s going to be terminated here is you.”
Strange to say, the shiver of pleasure continued running through me.
“Well,” she said, “I’ve had a look at you.” Her gesture indicated my audience with her was over.
When I retreated from her I found the young members looking at me with a slightly changed attitude. Victoria separated herself from them and came over to me. “I can’t imagine why you’re being shown so much courtesy.”
“It’s only because you showed some interest in me.”
“True.” She accepted this, accustomed to everything happening because of her.
“What are you going to do about your contractual commitments?”
She laughed, and I realized that those commitments didn’t exist for her. They’d been dreamed up by men like Stavrinos. Suddenly I saw something I’d missed — the webs that had been woven around her weren’t capable of holding her. Stavrinos wasn’t a big enough spider, was not a monster of the Amazon, created by extremes of temperature and hunger. He was like those flies who imitate hornets but have no sting of their own. He didn’t compare to Victoria, or to the ivory empress I’d just met.
“Excuse me — ” The Meridian was beside us. “I need another word with our visitor.”
“I’m done with him,” said Victoria.
He took me by the elbow and led me away. He said, “I’ve been given instructions regarding you.”
He led me back to the room where older advisors continued their counsel to the new.
One of the advisors was saying, “So I saw where the advantage lay. I was dealing with people who obeyed the old, ingrained principles. They couldn’t help offering their naked bellies to me.” He smiled, radiantly, like the Amazonian sun, creator of monsters. As with the ivory empress, a thrill of appreciation ran through me and I realized I’d been living in quite another climate altogether, a pale climate incapable of making carnivorous flowers.
“You suddenly know — you’re the only one in the room seeing clearly. It’s as good as being invisible. Self-concern … works… so… well,” he said slowly, to emphasize his words. “You must never yield, not on a single point. Avoid the trap of logic. It’s a tool of weaklings.”
I followed this advisor as he strolled along, a Socrates of self-preservation. One tiny ray of his equatorial sun had penetrated my mind. Dormant ideas, like seeds left in a mummy’s tomb, sprouted. I listened for a long time. I noticed Victoria watching me. She showed no interest in what was being said; other people’s views bored her.
“Respect your own motives,” continued the adviser. “You can’t go around questioning yourself. Look at him — ” He pointed toward me, and I felt how obvious my weakness was. The adviser did not have to elaborate. These privileged beings could see the conditioning I suffered from.
“You must always be right. It’s that simple. Never allow anyone to correct you. Because they’ll be wrong. How could they know what’s best for you? They don’t possess bright fortune.” He paused and his eyes fell on me, then passed on, as if I’d been inanimate. “Remember, the only one who can destroy your bright fortune is someone you allow to meddle with it. That’s all for today. I don’t answer questions.” And he walked away.
The Meridian led me back to the hallway of the meditation cells, and motioned me into one that was empty. He left without another word, closing the door behind him. I heard a key turn in the lock. I sat for a long while. There was nothing to read except the plaques on the wall. I read them several times, then I turned out the light and lay down on the bed. Immediately, a soft male voice came from a speaker embedded in the wall beside my ear.
“For I am deserving, most deeply deserving, of this and so much more…”
Eventually the sound of flowing water covered the words, but I knew they were continuing on a subliminal track, for occasionally a word would surface, which my dreaming mind turned to Imperial Palace fish, long-tailed and golden.
I was awakened next morning by the Meridian.
His avuncular manner hadn’t changed. I ate with him, went on his rounds with him. He showed me things from his perspective, and allowed me to attend certain meetings of which I cannot speak, except to say that people high up in government attended. I studied with the advisers. Victoria and I met often. She explained aspects of bright fortune about which I was unclear. She was an indifferent teacher. Finally she began coming to my cell at night.
I again met with the elderly empress of egotism. “We terminated you,” she said, her cold smile playing over me.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m grateful.”
“Gratitude is out of place here.”
We talked for a long while about my peculiar situation. “You nearly succeeded in destroying your bright fortune.”
A shudder ran through me at the thought. I recalled childhood fevers, accidents, but who can tell where the pernicious influence came from? I’d grown up convinced I was a very ordinary mortal. I acted accordingly. I prided myself on being down-to-earth, modest and practical. My security firm flourished because I devoted myself to devising ways of assisting people I considered superior to me.
“But you found your way here. It’s not surprising. Bright fortune is persistent.”
“Have you seen others like me?”
“You’re the only one.”
When our interview ended, she kissed me, her lips as before startlingly sensuous. I saw her often after that. I fascinated her because my bright fortune had been obscured. Later on, when my membership was ratified, my story fascinated other members as well. Their interest bored me.
When I returned to the surface world, Stavrinous fought me over the sisters, but it was impossible for him to win. I knew all his weaknesses. I showed him deals I had already lined up for the sisters, significantly better deals than Stavrinos could ever make on their behalf.
“You won’t stand in their way, I’m sure,” I said, with complete confidence. “After all, you wish them the best.” My vision for the sisters was clear. Recording companies recognized it. Hollywood recognized it. Stavrinos recognized it. He complained, he threatened, but finally he capitulated. He stared at me across his desk. “You set me up. But it’s my fault for being such a sucker.” I could see the guilt he felt, that vague floating guilt I’d been trained to take advantage of. It was there, it was always there. So easy to see, an open door of opportunity.
He said, “You might have invited me to your wedding. After all, I used to be like a father to Victoria.”
“Not possible, I’m afraid.”
“You’ll get yours someday,” he said.
“I don’t think so,” I said, and left him. Victoria was waiting in the limo. She didn’t bother to ask me how things had gone. I gave orders to the driver and we proceeded on. We had other meetings ahead of us, with media executives eager to participate in our future.
There’s a cloudlike feeling that accompanies bright fortune. We savored it, for bright fortune mustn’t be denied.
“A perfect day,” I said.
“As always,” she said.