Fiction

The menaced assassin

SOPHIE STANDS IN front of the painting, flexing her toes. She pushes one heel off the ground and then the other, as though she were a sprinter about to crouch into blocks. Museum walking is harder than other kinds of walking – why is that? Her feet are still a little swollen from the plane. Sydney, LAX, JFK, and the interminable bus into Manhattan that Paul booked.

Today is the middle day of their holiday. There will be two more full ones after this, then a truncated morning they won’t know what to do with. Yes, it was a long way to come for such a short stay. Sophie was on the fence – she has to shoot again next week – but Paul was insistent. Now she knows why.

‘Let’s throw caution to the wind,’ he said. ‘Let’s live.’ But when she told her friend Candace about the trip, the first thing Candace said was, ‘Oh my god, he’s going to propose.’

Sophie laughed and shook her head. Jesus. They had only been living together for a year. It wasn’t like that, not yet.

‘It’s 100 per cent like that,’ Candace said, eyes looming behind her thick glasses. ‘The spontaneous trip, the fact that he wants to organise everything. Plus, Paul’s old. He’s probably gagging to have a hot young wife.’

Sophie had met Paul shooting a commercial for a real-estate company. They’d been cast as a married couple, she at twenty-five and he at thirty-six. There were no lines – they just had to run hand in hand from the porch of their new dream home onto their immaculate new front lawn, then Paul had to lift and spin her as they stared into each other’s eyes. Sophie barely had to act. She had never before met someone she felt so immediately attracted to. She wanted him, and knew, somehow, that she could have him.

The museum is still only half-full, but already there are little congregations around the more famous works, including this one. Behind Sophie someone’s soles screech on the hard, smooth floor. Paul is staring at the picture. She loves him in profile. She watches the smooth curve of his jaw, his holiday stubble, the slightly bolder hairs that grow from the mole on his cheek. She knows the grain of him. This morning, in their Airbnb bed, she ran her lips as lightly as she could from his chin towards his ear, veering across the best of his roughness until it ended, perfectly, at his cheekbone. There was something geological about his body; it had a set of rules and processes too complex to understand but somehow simple and harmonious when taken together. Her body felt overstrung, always waiting for something. She had closed her eyes while she kissed him awake, but through her lips she felt him smile, and then his hands touched her from behind. He ran one palm up her spine to her hair while the other pressed hard against her bottom. He clamped her, really, though it wasn’t unpleasant. She knows he dislikes passivity. She is more omnivorous. She likes watching tracks colour his back after her nails have passed over, likes that as much as going limp in his arms, the sensation of him holding her lifeless weight. One shouldn’t have to choose.

Now he is staring at the picture, unaware that she is watching him. His parted lips frame a speck of white gallery wall. He is going to ask me to marry him, she thinks. Probably it will happen today, certainly before they leave New York. He has been holding her in public in a way he didn’t before, as though he were afraid she might fall into the flow of a busy sidewalk and drift away for good. He has been saying things he hasn’t said since they were first together. He has always been affectionate, but he’s become specific in his adoration – it is her eyes he adores, or her way with words, or the ease with which she can memorise lines, even his own. Now he has gone back to praising her totality, the way he used to in the months after they met. This morning, as she was brushing her teeth, he stood behind her and said, ‘You’re wonderful, you know.’ Their eyes met in the mirror and she wanted to savour the word, to prolong the moment of being wonderful, but her mouth was full of toothpaste and what she managed in response was a sort of animal cry that could have sounded mocking. He laughed, picked up his deodorant and walked out. When she came back into the bedroom he was on the edge of the bed, leaning to tie his shoes. She felt suddenly tense and erect, standing there in the doorway looking down at him as he looped the grimy laces. Their suitcases lay open on the floor, two piles of clothes bleeding into each other. Slivers of pale scalp were beginning to show through Paul’s hair.

 

OF COURSE SHE has imagined him proposing. Sometimes she has wanted it with an intensity that surprises her, as if she were staring down another Sophie who had cocked an eyebrow and said, ‘Really? Him?’ More than once she has had a kind of fantasy, more like a nightmare, in which she says no and has to watch his face collapse. But most of the time, the idea of being engaged has seemed distant and unreal, something that would only take form once she had ceased to be the person she was and had become somebody else. Has that happened without her consenting, or even noticing? She presses the balls of her feet into the museum floor. It is coming towards her at speed. And her swollen feet, the mouth full of toothpaste, this painting, her foreknowledge – all these things will become part of the story of their engagement. In that sense it has already begun.

A woman wearing heels and a gold lamé top partially blocks Sophie’s view. Paul’s eyes flick across the woman’s glittering shoulders and hoop earrings as he reaches for Sophie’s hand.

‘I like this,’ Paul says. Sophie’s body moves towards his until they touch at the hip and she is able to see past the lamé top. She can hear boisterous New York teenagers in the next room, a school group; their guide is trying to quieten them with the tone of his voice: What are… What are some… What are some of the things that hit you when you look at this work?

‘It’s a bit like a film still,’ Sophie tells Paul, which is the first thing that comes to her. She expects him to embark on an explanation, but he only nods, and they are silent again, looking.

There are six men in the picture, and one woman. In the foreground, two of the men are hiding on either side of a doorway. One holds a club; the other, a net. They are lying in wait for a third man, who is in the room beyond the doorway, calmly listening to a gramophone. The third man does not know what is about to happen to him, that at any moment he will be set upon, netted and clubbed. In the background is a balcony, and beyond that are the heads of the other three men, who stare back through the room with skewed eyes. (Sophie isn’t sure what they are supposed to be staring at – the other people in the painting, or her, the viewer?) The woman lies on a chaise longue, naked and bleeding from the mouth. She has apparently been murdered by the man listening to the gramophone.

Sophie cannot help thinking of the woman in the picture as Kathy. ‘Kathy the Asian femme fatale’, as one producer has started calling her. That is what the writers of Alibis are making her: calculating, seductive, amoral. Sophie was called in for a meeting and found the showrunner, two producers and the head writer all there. She thought for a moment she was getting fired, that Kathy was about to be written out of the show.

‘I’m proud of the diversity of this cast,’ the showrunner said. ‘But we want to take it a step further. To really zero in on Kathy, make her more central to things.’

‘She’s ambitious,’ the head writer said, ‘and maybe she’s too ambitious. There’s something Icarus-like about her.’ One of the producers said he didn’t get the reference. ‘Flying too close to the sun,’ the head writer said. ‘That’s something we can explore. We want to watch her rise, and maybe watch her fall as well.’

A week later Sophie’s agent sent her a glowing email with the new contract attached. More filming days, more time on-screen, more story, more money. Sophie knew what it all meant. It meant Kathy was going to sleep her way to the top, or at least try to. Kathy was the kind of character who could die in a season finale: it would be shocking, but nothing the viewers wouldn’t get over. And what did Sophie care? Let the writers live out their fantasies or reinforce their narrow ideas or exorcise their suppressed hatred or whatever it was. It was just as narrow-minded of Paul to expect her to be the one to object.

‘I just don’t think they’d do that if your character was white,’ he said.

‘Do what?’

‘Make her a slut.’

‘And what have you got against sluts?’ she asked.

He laughed.

‘I’m serious,’ she said. ‘What do you think all the male leads who fuck nameless women are?’

The argument had surprised her, and she wondered if Paul was jealous of her career. Neither of them could deny that it was going better than his. But soon afterwards he changed his tone and suggested they do something to celebrate. He wanted to take her to New York. He would plan everything – she just needed to tell him when she had some time off.

To be honest, Sophie would have preferred LA. She plans to move there one day. But Paul has a thing for New York. He’s been here before, when he was in drama school and Sophie was in Year 6, playing Dorothy in her school’s production of The Wizard of Oz. He wanted to come back and see the city again, to show it to her. She suspects his first visit involved a romance of some kind, though she hasn’t asked him. She told Candace that – wouldn’t it be weird for him to propose in a place where he’d had some fling? Candace said he probably wanted Sophie to supplant all his previous romantic associations. Doing it here would be a way of killing the other woman off, proving to himself that he had no ghosts in his closet. Candace had an answer for everything.

 

THEY MOVE ON to the Duchamp with the wheel. There is a beautiful Seurat. Her arm is around his waist; his fingers rest lightly at the back of her neck. When she says she is going to the bathroom, he tells her he will wait among the impressionists. She walks into the stall and listens to the smooth metallic sound of the lock. The seat looks clean, and as it’s early in the day she trusts it, letting her thighs rest against the cool plastic. She exhales as she urinates – from the lightness of it, the weight no longer on her feet. Maybe she is also relieved to be in a small, manageable space. The question she has been afraid to ask herself has not followed her in here. She takes her time washing her hands as other women move around her, mixes hot and cold until she gets the temperature right. She soaps and lathers, letting her ringless fingers lock into one another, then release. As she reapplies her lipstick she senses a girl next to her, a teenager with messy, mousy hair, watching her in the mirror. For a moment she thinks she has been recognised, but Alibis is only on in Australia.

Perhaps Paul chose New York so he could propose to her in a place where she isn’t ‘famous’, where they’re on more equal footing. After this they are going to walk through Central Park – she wants to see Strawberry Fields. Paul has twice mentioned hiring a rowboat. They have booked a table for dinner in Brooklyn, somewhere one of Sophie’s friends recommended, but Paul would never propose at dinner, in a restaurant full of strangers who might do something horrible like applaud. Would he? She knows him better than anyone, but suddenly she can’t be sure he isn’t the type of person who would propose in a restaurant. There are rules and conventions to proposing; it doesn’t belong to individuals but to tradition, the long story of men asking women to be theirs. It’s too much determined by what you tell your friends afterwards, or in Sophie’s case the story she might tell in interviews. A photo she may or may not share with her 28,000 followers. Paul has brought his satchel with him, even though she offered to put his camera in her bag. There may be a small box in the satchel. Don’t let it be in a box, she thinks.

She knows that there would be nothing to stop her from proposing to him, like her friend Rebecca did to her sweet Norwegian. Was that a thing with Nordic men, though? That they were passive in that way? Paul wouldn’t mind, although he might feel the prick of having been beaten to it. Anyway. She knows she could and knows she won’t – there’s no solving that particular riddle right now. She loves Paul. She wants him. But it’s so big a thing when viewed up close like this. Just don’t let him get down on one knee and flip open one of those boxes covered in felt. She remembers the jewellery chain called Pandora. Didn’t anyone think of the connotation? But then, there’s also a jewellery shop near where she and Paul live called Verne Jewels – she shouldn’t go looking for meaning in the names of jewellery shops.

When she comes out into the corridor she sees that there are two entrances to the bathrooms. To her right is the room where she left Paul, to her left another part of the gallery they’ve not been through yet. On the far wall is a blue three-dimensional thing, like a ship’s propeller trying to force its way through a membrane. It bulges into the room. She puts her hands in her back pockets and walks towards it.

It was only a few months after she met Paul that she was cast in Alibis, ‘Australia’s answer to The Sopranos’. It wasn’t a big role, until now. Now everything is about to change. Even if Kathy gets killed off after a season, at the very least she’ll get Sophie a lead in a feature. Maybe even something here, in America.

The blue sculpture is hideous, she decides. She should go and find Paul. He has taken a job doing Shakespeare in schools. He wants to do more theatre, he says, and no more ads like the one for printer paper where he presses the lever on his office chair and it shoots him up through the ceiling and all the way into space. Paul’s troupe performs all over the country, often going on tour for three or four nights at a time. A couple of months ago he was playing Mark Antony for teenagers in Bathurst, and Sophie went to the Ivy with Candace. That was where she met Dirk. He told her he was a financial correspondent for Sky and kept saying he should go home because he had the early shift the next day. He kept saying it but not going, so she started teasing him about it. She offered him some coke and he tried to kiss her in a unisex bathroom stall. Then they were sneaking away from the others to make out. Then Candace cottoned on to what was happening, came up to Sophie with hands on hips and made her call an Uber.

Sophie walks past the school group from earlier, a dozen wiry girls and boys, hormonal and jostling. It’s not that they’re uninterested in the art, but they’re using it to aid their primary purpose of flirtation. She watches a girl pull a red-faced boy across the room by his sleeve. Their friends are pointing and laughing. God knows how Dirk got through his shift that next day. He couldn’t have had much sleep. When she got home she passed out for a couple of hours, then woke with the shock of what she had done. Turning the television on felt somehow like what she deserved. There he was, smiling in front of a fluctuating graphic of the stock market as though nothing had happened. Even through her guilt, it was arousing.

In conference with Candace, she decided that a confession would be pointless. It was the Ivy, there were drugs, and she and Dirk hadn’t even had sex. What she hasn’t told Candace, or anyone, is that Dirk messaged her two days later and that she messaged him back three days after that. They have now slept together four times while Paul was away, and once when he wasn’t. They’ve even been out to dinner, though she was careful not to let him touch her in public.

Sophie realises she is wandering, getting further from the impressionists. She comes to a balcony looking down three floors into the atrium. There is a line of people showing their bags to the guards, queues now visible through the windows. For a moment she rests her arms on the cool railing, letting it take some of her weight. Below her is a work they saw when they first came in, an enormous rectangular field of yellow made entirely of pollen. There was a video of the German artist lining up jars of yellow dust, then slowly pouring them through a sieve onto the gallery floor. She read on the card that he had spent decades collecting it, walking through the hills around his village each spring, plundering every hazelnut tree. The amount of time it took is what makes it art, she supposes. The commitment to an idea, even a simple one.

She senses someone behind her and thinks how perfect Paul’s timing is, how glad she is that he has found her. But when she turns she sees the teenage girl, the one who stood next to her in the bathroom.

‘Are you Sophie Tran?’ the girl says. She has an Australian accent.

Sophie smiles, a practised smile. She’s pleased the girl knows her name. Usually it’s Are you that chick from the TV? and once even Wait, aren’t you famous?

‘I am,’ she says. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Amy. Holy crap. Alibis is like my favourite show. Could I get a selfie?’

A few metres away is the girl’s family, parents keeping a respectful distance and a brother pretending to look bored. Amy holds her phone out and Sophie puts an arm around her.

‘Tag me if you post it, yeah?’ Sophie says, as Amy grins down at her screen.

‘Oh my god, of course!’ Amy glances towards her parents and brother. Then she says, ‘Can you tell me what’s going to happen on the show?’

‘We only find out a little while before we film each episode. The writers keep changing their minds.’ This is the standard line. It’s in her contract not to divulge storylines. But there is something about the girl and the situation that seems fateful, part of the story she will be telling years from now. ‘Actually,’ Sophie says, ‘I shouldn’t say this, but something pretty big is going on with Kathy. She’s going to get into a fair bit of trouble.’

Amy is looking at her with wide eyes. ‘That’s so cool,’ she says.

‘So are you on holiday, Amy?’

‘Yeah. With my family.’ She makes a face.

‘Me too,’ says Sophie. ‘Well, I’m with my boyfriend.’ She makes the same face and Amy laughs.

‘Wow, you’re so nice! He’s totally hot, though.’ Amy looks quickly at the floor. ‘Sorry, that’s really creepy. But there’s this Alibis subreddit. I don’t go on there much but somebody was posting about you guys the other day. He’s on TV too, right?’

‘Sometimes, yeah.’ Sophie smiles. More than that, she swells. Paul is better known than she gave him credit for. It must be the ABC drama he did last year, though she wouldn’t have thought that was something teenagers would care about. ‘He’s way more talented than me,’ she tells Amy. ‘He does Shakespeare and stuff.’

‘Oh, like acting?’

‘I should go and find him – he’s around here somewhere.’ Sophie looks towards the impressionists, willing Paul to appear. Being recognised would make him so happy. And she wants to make him happy. Whatever his trajectory is, she can fit it to hers. Or she can simply lift him up and take him with her. Even to LA, if that’s where she ends up.

Amy’s family has begun to drift away, looking back as though to hurry her up. Sophie turns to say goodbye and sees that a question has settled across the girl’s face. They are about the same height, but Sophie has the impression that her fan is looking down at her. Like acting? The words unravel, and a moment later the answer comes, uncomfortable but not yet urgent. Amy seems to be concentrating extremely hard on something. Then Paul calls Sophie’s name. He is walking towards them from the impressionists, smiling. He doesn’t seem annoyed that she wandered off. He is happy to see her.

‘There you are,’ he says, and Sophie feels his hand on the back of her neck. ‘Have you met a fan?’ She can feel her pulse underneath the hand. She flexes her toes and tries hard not to think of internet forums or gossip columns or Dirk.

‘Yeah,’ Sophie says, still looking at Amy. ‘This is Amy, she loves Alibis. Amy, this is my boyfriend, Paul.’

‘How’s it going?’ Paul says.

Sophie thinks she could stare all day at Amy, at her messy hair, at the bit of pink acne on her forehead, at that open, unspeaking mouth. The girl could be one of the passive figures from the paintings. But the question on Amy’s face resolves, and she reaches into her pocket.

‘Let me get a picture of you both?’ Amy speaks it as a question, but the phone is already out and pointing.

Paul pulls Sophie closer.

‘Sure thing, right Soph?’ he says. Amy’s eyes show cold concentration as she aims the camera. Perhaps there is malice in the look; Sophie cannot be sure. Her thoughts begin to spread uncontrolled, seeping into the past and the future. Just in time, before the artificial shutter clicks, she forces herself to stop thinking, to angle her body towards Paul’s and pose.

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