8

When I return the dining room is empty.


Except for the cat who sits and watches me with judgment in her grey eyes. Does she smell Bea’s desire in the air? Does she smell mine? Of course she does she’s a cat. Why do I care? I can’t help but want her to like me this scared little girl with razor-sharp claws.


I peek into the bedroom but the white sheets are neat and tidy. I’m half tempted to check behind the dresser as if Bea might have shoved herself into a corner.


And then the music starts.


Like the kind that came streaming over the internet but far better than anything the tiny speakers in my phone could have reproduced. The sound draws me back through the living room to the other end of the penthouse.


I pause at the doorway uncertain of my welcome.


Notes filter through the cracked doorway. More than anyone I know that true privacy comes not from the body but from the mind. She might not want me in the room.


In the end it’s my own need that decides me. I need to see her to feel her. To make sure she’s okay. We didn’t do anything particularly traumatic. A dry humping session is practically adolescent but I find myself strangely protective of her. Protective even from myself.


The door is silent as I push it open revealing a room with a grand piano in the middle lighting and video equipment all around the edges. There’s a large black rectangle in the corner with a hundred silver switches on it as if she’s going to fly to the moon.


Bea sits at the piano her eyes closed as her fingers dance over the keys.


The music stops.


Her eyes light up as she sees me and I can finally take a deep breath.


“There you are” she says a little playful.


I like her like this relaxed. It’s the music that makes her this way but I like to think that it was me too. Her orgasm the one she wrung from my body.


“Here I am” I say wandering into the room careful not to step on any wires. “This is quite an elaborate setup. Do you know what all these machines do?”


A smile flickers at the edges of her lips. “It was either that or get a filming crew every day.”


“You post every day?” I already know that I’ll be checking her channel from home a level of connection I’ve never had with any client before never wanted.


“Most days.”


“Do the other musicians mind? When you play their songs?”


“Some.” A small shrug. “Now it’s a big enough business that I can license the songs that I want to show. And before that…”


She plays a little song. It takes me a moment to realize it’s the refrain from Baby One More Time by Britney Spears. Considering why I’m here I can’t help the smile that spreads. She’s a dangerous woman this one. Already beautiful and smart and shy. And now funny?


Dangerous.


“Before that?”


“Before that I was lucky. This really huge artist saw one of my videos and she reposted it. Then it happened again with someone else. Next thing I knew I had these big PR firms contacting me wanting me to do one of their client’s songs as soon as it comes out.”


I lean one hip against the piano looking down at her. I’m the one above her but she’s still the goddess on her glossy black bench. Lucky? That wasn’t luck. That was her incredible talent and what must be serious business intelligence. “And if you don’t like the song?”


“Then I don’t play it. But that’s not really the test. It’s more about whether I think I can add something to the song something to make it my own. I wouldn’t just play the song as written. So if I don’t feel it… on the inside you know? If I don’t have something to add I won’t take the deal.”


“That’s incredible” I tell her. “That you’ve built this empire in your spare bedroom. You can pick and choose what you play. Make it your own. I’m in awe of you.”


A breathy little laugh that I feel all the way in my soul. “It feels like me alone in a room most days. Which is the only reason I can do it.”


So much isolation. Does it cost her something? I think it does even if she doesn’t know it. “Would you ever play in front of an audience?’


“Oh no” she says immediately. “I could never. Not only because I wouldn’t leave but… playing is private. The cameras aren’t real people. They’re just recording. Not watching.”


An interesting distinction but I’m not convinced. There are thousands of people watching those videos. Bea may tell herself she’s alone that she prefers it that way but it hurts her. And for some reason I think I can help with this problem. A foolish idea probably.


You’re falling for her asshole.


“Has it always been like this for you? Creating new songs from what you hear?”


She shakes her head. “I mean I always heard the music in my head. I thought that was normal. My mom was the same way. She was a concert pianist.” I hear the pride in her voice. “She played in Carnegie Hall.”


“That’s incredible.”


A shaky breath moves her. “She died I always heard the music in my head. I thought that was normal. My mom was the same way. She was a concert pianist.” I hear the pride in her voice. “She played in Carnegie Hall.”


“That’s incredible.”


A shaky breath moves her. “She died when I was ten. My dad too.”


Everything inside me goes still. This is huge. An earthquake in the middle of afternoon tea. What she’s revealing to me splits her world apart. It’s splitting mine.


“It was…pirates actually.” This time her laugh is pained. Bitter. The kind that slices through my defenses. How many people has she told this to? Not many. Maybe no one. “They were on a yacht. A party with a hundred people but the pirates only took them.”


“Why?” I breathe but I already know the answer. It’s folded around us. Money.


“They wanted a ransom. At least that’s what they usually did but something must have gone wrong. They usually would have only taken my mom made my dad pay the ransom. But for whatever reason that day they took them both.”


And they didn’t come back. “Bea. You don’t have to continue.”


Her eyes are mournful. “But I do because you do something to me. Make me feel open and vulnerable. Scared but like I want to keep feeling it. How do you do that?”


You do that to me too. I don’t say it.


“They never found out exactly what happened on that boat. Probably my dad fought them. There was a struggle and both of them died that day before they even asked for anything.”


“I’m sorry Bea.” More sorry than I can put into words. More sorry than I thought I could feel for someone. On the streets of Tangier I saw more tragedy than should exist but it moves me beyond bearing her suffering.


She gives a little shake of her head. “Most of the time I don’t think of it.”


“Why now?” I ask softly.


She scrunches her nose. “This is embarrassing but I guess it’s talking to you. I mean using words. I go downstairs and chat with people but it’s always on the surface. Anything deep anything important it happens through music.”


“It’s beautiful” I tell her when what I mean is you’re beautiful.


“When they died I stopped speaking.”


“You mean… entirely?”


“For a couple years yeah. There were therapists and doctors. I could make a sound if I was startled or scared. But I didn’t form words. I already played piano before that but after that it was the only way I would communicate. Anything I wanted to express it happened here.”


I understand that she means more than the piano. She means this room.


God.


Chords of longing and loneliness fill the air her expression dark.


“Hotel California” I say softly.


Then her eyes brighten. “For you.”


This one I recognize immediately. Castle on a Cloud. It’s a song that’s part of the Les Misérables musical. My face turns to stone but inside there’s a clamor.


The notes slow and then stop.


“Sorry. Was that weird? Because your name is Hugo. And the author was Victor Hugo.” She looks crestfallen. “Of course that was dumb.”


I force myself to speak through the chaos inside me. “Not dumb.”


“Then why do you look like you’re going to throw up.”


Moving stiffly I manage to sit next to her on the bench. She scoots to the side to make room for me. “I’m sorry” I say.


“No don’t. I’m the one who can’t interact with regular people.”


“I hope you aren’t categorizing me as regular” I tell her managing to find some wry humor in this situation. I want to shut down to push her away but she opened herself up too far for that. “The truth is that my mother named me for that author.”


Green eyes widen. “Did she?”


“I’m not sure why I’m named Hugo instead of Victor. Perhaps because it was easier to spell.” Then I admit something that always pained Mama. “She couldn’t read.”


She couldn’t read so she never knew the irony of a book about a man starved enough to steal bread and a revolution he wouldn’t need. About a whore who sacrificed for her daughter and a grand love she would never know.


“But she liked the story?” Bea asks too innocent to realize that there was no one else on our street who could read either. No one knew the story but Mama kept the large book as a sad little tribute to our French heritage. Only when I moved to America did I learn what it was about.


“She liked that it was long and important.” Perhaps she thought it would help me become important instead of an illiterate maid. I never knew what my father did for a living. My skin is darker than Mama’s my hair a rich black. So my father was probably native to Morocco one of the transient workers who appeared and disappeared like ghosts haunting the harbor.


“I’m named after an author too” Bea says. “But her books were less long. Less important too.”


“Who?”


“Beatrix Potter.” At my look of bemusement she explains. “She wrote Peter Rabbit. It’s a children’s book about a rabbit who gets into trouble.”


“It sounds less tragic at least.”


She laughs a little but sadly. “That’s true. Will you come back next week Hugo?”


I have the feeling this question is about more than money but that’s the only way I know how to answer. “Of course darling. Call the agency and get on my schedule.”

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