Complicit

Issue 22 by Jessica McEntee

Complicit
Summary

Beginning at age nine when she charms a potential investor to help stabilize the family business, MARINKA LUCK seeks to ingratiate herself to her elusive father, RONALD, through numerous acts of self-sacrifice. Although her loyalty to him is largely one-sided, Marinka perseveres, besting her mother and both of her brothers as she becomes Ronald’s most trusted ally. However, finding himself once again desperate to raise capital, Ronald disappears on an extended trip with his mistress. A sidelined Marinka attempts to reestablish Ronald’s faith in her by appealing to his deepest motivators: money and fame.

Chapter One

“Marinka. You—oh blonde one. Get down ‘ere,” Papa said as he called to me from the head of our dining room table. It was a sultry night in July of 1989, and we’d just finished an hours-long business dinner at our Greenwich estate. I replayed Papa’s voice in my head to make sure I’d heard it correctly. He sounded gruff, but I detected an undercurrent of curiosity in his tone, however momentary. Papa wanted me, for one of the first times in my nine years as his daughter. I blinked three, four times, before it occurred to me to stand from my chair.

Looking down, I cringed to see my white patent leather flats, which I’d chosen under the assumption that Papa would ignore me as usual. Not only were these shoes scuffed along the vamps, but they looked like they belonged to one of my dolls, like something to be forced onto stuffed approximations of feet. My stomach tightened, gripped by an invisible fist. Hadn’t I overheard Papa only that spring, pontificating about how presentation was everything for a female? A contestant in one of his beauty pageants had broken three toes backstage, and she elected to go barefoot during the bathing suit segment. Although she jiggled and glimmered, her many curves anointed with baby oil, there were strict competition standards to uphold; the judges had no choice but to slash her scores. In fact, in continuing as a near-cripple, she made a mockery of the grand tradition that Papa labored to sustain, and therefore, she—and nearly everyone involved, from the emcee to the sound crew to the ticket sellers—was out to get him. As he spoke about this coordinated betrayal, Papa's voice sounded as dark as midnight, and the trap door of his mood closed. I shut my eyes and inhaled, praying I wouldn’t elicit the same reaction in him now.

***

The dining room in that house was thirteen hundred square feet, I’d heard Papa boast to guests, though I doubt he ever measured it to be certain. On the walls, a gilded mural of an arboretum shimmered against a peacock blue background, and three Murano chandeliers hung over our heads, with crystals that alternated from transparent to red. In my reckoning, they were diamonds and globs of blood, dangling side by side. The pièce de résistance was an oversized mahogany table, which Papa had commissioned in the style of the furniture at Versailles, but he ordered its legs carved with references to the military and to mythological figures. I usually sat just above a phoenix that had been rendered with such care, I could almost hear the beating of its wings as it broke free from its past.

Once a reporter from Vanity Fair wrote an editorial about how all of our residences were filled with copies like this table, “tacky facsimiles for a self-crowned royal family.” But Papa never saw the point of purchasing antiques when you could seize older designs for yourself, thereby producing something that was both grander and unmarred by previous use. What’s more, he had no interest in sharing in someone else’s history. Papa’s approach to decorating conserved capital and reinforced his sense of himself, for he trusted in his instincts. Why should he rely upon decorators or art advisors, contemptuous elites who paraded their supposed knowledge over everyone? As Papa invariably pointed out, “I didn’t see them in the hallways of the world’s most prestigious business school when I went there.”

***

I crept towards Papa, who sat on a special, oversized chair with a cushion covered in a rare Fortuny textile. He sported an off-white linen sports coat and a pink shirt the same shade as his long silken tie, and the fine skin of his brow gleamed, calling to mind a conch shell, all gloss and reflected light. Papa kept his blonde hair long on the sides those days, gelled into a hair-wave that he tossed habitually. Men the world over copied Papa’s various hairstyles, all while he fretted that his mane was thinning. No one else saw this, and in any event, the larger symbolic value eclipsed a more minor detail like reality. Papa provided guidance for how to be not only rich but decadent; he gave a contemporary form to this timeless virtue.

Standing three chairs away from him, I squeezed my hands into rosebuds. My mother, a Czech immigrant whom we called Mat, sat at Papa’s side with her bare feet curled beneath her. She wore a sequined Versace dress in bronze that featured a broad bow beneath her cleavage, making her breasts look like two gifts, and her hair was wound into her signature bouffant, an updated take on the beehive. But although we were inside with the air conditioning running a marathon, the humid air had melted some of Mat’s hairspray, liberating a few curls. I felt a rush of jealousy to see how she shone even while a little undone, and I bit into the inside of my mouth, yanking at the skin with two incisors and savaging it. My tongue flooded with the taste of copper.

Mat removed her rings and bracelets, which were substantial enough to double as weapons, I often shuddered, and she laid them one by one in a line bisecting the gold placemat—emeralds, amethysts and rubies—all while holding my eye. I leaned my weight on the balls of my feet for closer inspection and wondered whether I’d possess such treasures one day. In our limited interactions before that night, Papa had hinted that my future would hold bountiful luxuries, assuming I added glory to our already-sacred family name. “I’ll take care of you, at least your basic needs,” he said one night weeks before. “You know, long as you stay in line. And perform.” His mouth twisted into a smirk at the final two syllables.

Now Papa beckoned me to move towards him. “C’mon, get real. I won’t hurt you,” he scoffed, pointing a finger at me. He caught Mat’s eye, and she mirrored his reaction. Bah, preposterous child, I imagined her thinking. She said, “Marinka, you approach your Papa.” A hard look crossed her face, as if to ask why I was playing mouse and therefore making innocent Papa a cat.

I planted myself within striking distance of my parents. A germaphobe, Papa went to great lengths to avoid touching most people, darting around men’s embraces and handshakes and blowing air kisses to ladies. In the past, he'd offered me an occasional back pat, especially when a camera was there to capture the exchange, and I'd long since learned not to expect much more. But something in his softened face told me that he no longer considered me a mobile petri dish, suddenly.

“Aren’t you the fetching one,” he cooed. “Christ. I can't believe I made you.” Drawing my hand into his, Papa lifted my right arm. He rotated me around in a pirouette, and his blue eyes appeared black in the low lighting. I was shocked to feel his skin, to discover how much softer it was than I’d imagined it in my countless, private hours of speculation, prior. In my bedroom closet hide-out, I'd curated a stash of magazine cut-outs featuring Papa in various poses, and I often conversed with one photo and then another. They were my version of dress-up dolls: Papa looking windblown in his Burberry trench as he sailed into the Russian Tea Room; Papa in a double-breasted cashmere topcoat, slicing the gold ribbon to inaugurate yet another jaw-dropping skyscraper; a tuxedo-clad Papa at a gala, twirling Mat so that her peach-colored gown fanned out and filled the entirety of the frame.

“Papa, Mrs. Jackson wouldn't let me have an extra turn at feeding Pickles the class hamster today,” I'd whisper through tears as I ran a finger across the printed image of his jawline. I convinced myself that these conferences acted as ESP, allowing me to plant my secrets directly into his brain, and I applied a similar logic to my journal. Let other kids address their entries “Dear Diary”; I wrote “Dear Papa.”

Now here in person, he groped the hem of my frock, and his knuckles brushed against my kneecaps. I shivered, finding myself breathless with nerves. Raising the fabric, Papa flashed my pink cotton panties before he tested the firmness of my right thigh, squeezing gently and then harder, almost mercilessly, but only for a few breaths. Gritting my teeth together, I refused to flinch. Instead, I flicked my pin-straight hair over my shoulders in a cool manner that I’d learned from spying on Mat. Papa and Mat were both partial to hissy fits when they felt slighted, but her face showed no sign that she recognized my appropriation of her gesture as she watched Papa and me.

“Hmm,” he said with a smile, raising his eyebrows and tenting his fingertips together beneath his chin. Pride glowed like a light within Papa, for I could tell he was pleased with my toughness. I leaned even farther towards him, filling my nostrils with his smell of amber and musk.

***

At this point, my brothers had both fallen asleep in their chairs with the pinks of their lips mashed against the carved flourishes of the spindles. Ron, oily, dark-haired and heavy at age twelve, emitted a massive snore that shook his entire body and threatened to send him smashing upon the floor, while six-year-old Aaron was so blonde and slight that he appeared weightless. Our nannies at the time, Ida and Rebekah, tiptoed in, desperate to stay invisible as they hustled the boys upstairs for a proper bedtime.

Aaron rose upon thin legs and staggered toward the door, his arms clinging to Ida’s waist with parasitical neediness, but Ron resisted Rebekah, instinctively. Thumping his fists against the table, he raised his blotchy countenance and let out a low moan. His first reaction in nearly any given situation was rebellion, followed with a burst of violence. Rebekah stiffened, bracing herself now for the blow that we all knew was coming. She yelped and crumpled forward as his fist met her stomach. Before she could right herself, Ron laid a second punch on her upper thigh, and he finally skulked off.

Papa rolled his eyes. My brother's antics grated upon him, but he felt that giving attention to Ron's misdeeds would only prompt him to continue. It might even compel Ron to become more depraved.

***

After the boys had been cleared, Papa rolled his shoulders against the back of the chair as if he could finally relax. He turned his focus back on me, humming as he ran his gaze up and down. At last, he said, “This dress, it’s so… little girl. Am I right, Mat?”

Looking indulgent, Mat nodded, but she muttered, “Well, yes. No woman would wear such a piece of clothing, except maybe if she is demented or blind.” Papa seemed not to hear her.

The garment that he complimented was, in fact, precious to me, an ivory linen sheath with ice blue ricrac along the bodice that my former nanny, Arianne, had sent to me upon returning to her native Normandy. Right before last Christmas, Papa and Mat had left her alone for a weekend with Ron, and she fled our house for good not twenty-four hours after they returned.

Hours prior, Mat had protested that this dress was far too simple a style for me to wear to an important dinner, but, in a rare display of insubordination, I’d insisted upon it. Now I caught her eye, unable to squelch a grin. Mat sniffed, turning her gaze to the trompe l'oeil murals on the walls, which had been completed by a team of artists earlier that month at great expense. The color scheme of deep blue and gold matched the gown she’d tried to coerce me into choosing, a full-length concoction that swarmed around me and made me feel frozen. Like a fish, trapped in a winter pond’s frigid embrace.

Mat raised her eyebrows at me for a beat. I could imagine what she was thinking but wouldn’t say: “You may have won a battle, but you'll lose the war.”

***

Papa had spent the week in Atlantic City. “The shining jewel of New Jersey, least when I'm done developing it,” he liked to say of this latest site of conquest. However, a nervous flyer, Papa found his fears stoked when the helicopter pilot hit some unexpectedly rough air during the journey home—and really, the pilot should’ve been more careful. The moment they landed, Papa fired him.

Returning home agitated, Papa had been forced to thrust himself immediately into this dinner, which had been planned by Mat against his wishes, but they were running out of other options for financing their latest venture, I'd gathered from my constant eavesdropping. Thus, against his will, Papa entertained a potential investor from Paris, a wheat-stalk thin man named Monsieur Paul, who’d since ensconced himself in the library to phone his partner about the proposition Papa was offering them: an exclusive partnership, with all of its attendant perks. “Hitch your wagon to mine,” Papa had said repeatedly. Each time, Paul looked straight in my direction, raising his wobbly silver eyebrows as if I were the one to whom he wanted to be hitched.

***

As we waited for Paul now, Papa regarded me in front of him, clicking his tongue and murmuring my name. “You realize you assisted me tonight? Papa’s greatest helper, you won over that frog,” he said. “Monsieur Paul liked your dress, too; he commented on that specifically.” Papa tilted his head, inspecting me from a new angle.

In fact, Paul had teased me, “Enleves ta robe,” which I knew from Arianne meant “Take off your dress.” She repeated these words to me nightly in a sing-song voice, running her fingers through my hair to release any tangles and then applying a special French cream to my shoulders. It smelled of crushed lavender. Mat had purchased it for me, but I often caught Arianne rubbing little dribs along her clavicle and the upper ridges of her breasts.

Mat had gasped at Paul's words, but Papa, who was no linguist, clapped. “I love that dress, too; it’s beautiful, so beautiful. I tell Marinka that, all the time. We’re a close family, you see; the closest.” A moment later, he added a final, “For certain.” If you repeat the same idea enough times, it makes itself come true, he often said. He added an offhand remark, “You know, Marinka loves to sing French songs when she thinks she’s alone.” I nearly fell off of my chair. Papa knew something about me?

***

Paul’s eyes had stayed upon me throughout the meal, even as he and Papa discussed the terms of their potential alliance, both of them gesturing back and forth and displaying their toughest looking poker faces. I glanced down at Paul with tiny smiles of encouragement in between each bite, as if to say, Won’t you please make Papa happy, for this was truly my most pressing desire in life, running through me like a current through a lightbulb. But then the conversation stalled.

Though I thought of myself as shy, it occurred to me that I could jump in and provide entertainment. Before I even knew what I was doing, I warbled out a favorite Gallic lullaby while everybody else spooned the palate cleanser of boysenberry sorbet. I felt so self-conscious about hearing my own voice that the tips of my ears burned infernally, and my brothers scowled at me as if issuing a joint order to cease and desist. However, determined to charm Paul and therefore Papa, I pressed myself to continue. Both men’s attention remained fixated upon my lips for the first song, the second—even through the sixth—and Paul's mustache twitched merrily as he called “Encore, encore!”

A cloud of embarrassment descended upon me, and I stopped after Clare de Lune. The puddle of my sorbet was a sickening, octopus-purple, but I told myself it was a worthy sacrifice—and, in fact, a mark of pride and distinction. Though his military career had been thwarted because of bone spurs, Papa always emphasized this lesson for us children: no victory had ever been forged without suffering and direct physical engagement. People who spoke about diplomacy and appeasement did so only because they were too weak to fight.

An agonizing silence quickly set in. Papa must’ve assumed that we’d collectively wooed Paul by then, but the elder man appeared inclined to sit for hours more; he gave no hint of capitulation. Papa screwed his mouth to the left. He didn’t bother trying to initiate any banter; he simply flicked a finger against his crystal water goblet, making a hollow pinging sound. I feared that I’d gone on for too long—I’d soaked up too much attention for myself and thus deprived Papa of his fair due, his opportunity to spur Paul into action with more information about his brilliant business plan. My hands shook, and I strangled my gold napkin. How could I remedy this disaster? My eyes raced over to Mat, looking for assistance, but she only sighed, avoiding my gaze.

Someone had to act quickly; Papa wouldn’t sit in place quietly for much longer. He was liable to throw a tantrum if Paul continued slurping away at his sorbet and all but ignoring Papa in his own mansion. A man of action, Papa could only stay in suspense for short bursts, even if there were millions of dollars at stake. What's more, as a rule, he despised protracted meals. Papa traveled all the time, and therefore he ate solo almost all of the time. Even on rare nights when he found himself at home, he allowed us children the pleasure of dining with our nannies while he took a hamburger up to bed. I wouldn’t be surprised if he occasionally entertained the idea of holding a negotiation up there. Papa enjoyed subverting expectations of decorum, playing his enemies’ agitation to his advantage. It was their fault for harboring bourgeois expectations, for being coddled by niceties—for being soft.

Paul produced a toothpick from his pocket, and he worried it back and forth between his upper teeth. As I watched him idle, I shuddered on his behalf.

***

At last, after a good seven minutes of near silence—I must’ve breathed five times in total, regret boiling within me as I snuck glances at the minute hand on my fluorescent yellow Swatch watch—Papa looked up and smiled at us all. Nothing had been amiss, he seemed to suggest, and he turned to Paul, saying, “Seeing as it’s nearly midnight, Paul, I’m assuming you wanna use my phone down the hall in the library. You know, you gotta make this deal happen, pronto.” Papa’s voice was low and even, with a hypnotic cadence. Though it was only dawn back in France, Papa could induce anyone to act quickly. But still, Paul remained in place, sucking in his cheeks so that the skin looked as gray as a winter sky. Why was he still resisting?

“I'm gonna level with you, Paul. I almost died, getting home tonight—quite literally. I took the shit helicopter and I almost paid the ultimate price. Christ, the lengths I’ll go, to close a deal—you’ll never know.” Papa shook his head, and he looked genuinely sheepish.

“So. Frankly, I'm feeling like, seize the day. Does that translate to your tongue? Marinka? Ah, never mind. Look, this message needs no translation: you pass this up, you kill your goddamned life. I mean—exclusive partnership, with the Lucks? This is a tremendous gift like you’ve never been given before, and to be perfectly translucent, I’m letting you eat my lunch on this one.” Papa flinched as if the idea physically pained him.

“My offer, it's like a Trojan Horse. You know, from mythology.” The tip of Papa’s nose glowed red, the only sign of any anxiety, amazingly enough.

“Perhaps, but….” Paul replied, and then he yawned.

Papa kept his voice steady as he said, “I can tell a fellow visionary. Someone who wants to make a true mark upon the world, who wants to leave a legacy, no? I tell you what. No answer necessary tonight. Just get me a tit-a-tit with your partner. I’ll fire up my plane and meet him in, I don't know. Prague?” Papa could easily go to Paris in his jet, but he likely didn't want to appear too eager. “Maybe even dodge death again, in the process,” he added darkly.

Giving a little wink, Papa’s outward confidence remained unwavering, but Paul only scrunched his red-stained mouth, evidently enjoying the last sips of his wine, an expensive cabernet franc. Earlier in the meal, Mat had lied and said it came from the Luck family vineyard in Napa. His wineglass now emptied, Paul brushed lint from his jacket sleeve and then fiddled with an enamel cufflink, at last resuming his tooth excavation. We all watched his every movement, and I thought my lungs might burst from tension.

“How 'bout you tell me... what in the hell's the problem here?”

Paul laid down his demolished toothpick. “My partner does not typically conduct business with… men who find themselves in the newspaper columns.” He grimaced. “We are discreet people. European, you understand.”

Papa guffawed. “False reporting,” he said. “It’s, it’s…”

“Faux,” I said from my spot across the room, even though Paul’s English seemed entirely up to speed.

“Faux!” Papa bellowed; he was losing his composure, I feared. Mat tried to interject, saying, “The United States media treats us unfairly, you see, on account of supreme importance in this count—” but Papa interrupted her, saying, “I love the black people tenants. No one loves those people more than I do. Jesus, I must have four—maybe five? Six of ‘em on the payroll. I pay them so much, I practically own them. They're like modern-day, er, slaves.” I did a mental tally, coming up short. One of our servers often overapplied a fake tanning solution, but otherwise, our households looked like Norway.

“Truthfully, I want this to be a lasting partnership,” Papa said. “We would welcome you here, Paul, like a member of our own family. My girl Marinka, she has many more songs for you.”

Paul nodded to himself, scrunching his face as if deciding on a response. At last he turned and fastened his eyes on me, allowing a smile. Capitalizing on the moment, Papa drove his water glass upwards.

“A toast to Paul,” Papa proclaimed. “A fellow man of instinct. Someone who sees how the Taj is gonna be the biggest, most beautiful casino the world has ever known, an instant sensation. A leh-gend….” Papa tossed his famous hair, looking just like a bucking horse with its defiant beauty—and then he caught my eye and held it. My stomach filled with sparks, and I bowed my head in his direction. “To Paul. A true lover of beauty!” Papa exclaimed.

Paul rose, smoothing the legs of his navy pinstriped pants. He pointed to the exit. “Eh, how many doorways, did you say? To the bibliothèque.” He winked as if expecting me—me!?—to join him there.

About the Author

Jessica McEntee

Jessica McEntee is a fiction instructor at Westport Writers' Workshop in Connecticut, and her work has appeared in Ragazine. Her debut chapbook of poetry is set to be published in June. She has also worked as an editor at Wiley and as a fiction reader for The Common.