New Skin

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “New Skin.”

They were sitting at a table by the terrace’s edge. She had promised to come with him, to lend him moral support and social legitimacy. She supplied neither as she lit her fourth cigarette of the hour. He stopped babbling for a moment to take in the full splendor of her face; her eyes met his with steely resolve.

“It won’t change anything,” the model said. Her face was slack with disgust. She took a deep drag from her cigarette.

“I disagree,” he said. She shot him a withering look.

“Things change,” he said, “people just get used to them. Either that, or they don’t know how to handle the changes.” She rolled her eyes and looked away.

“Well,” she said, “I tried. You might as well find out for yourself.” She got up, with her wine glass in one hand and the cigarette in the other, and walked away without looking at him.

He watched the people around him. They were mostly ugly, but tonight they were happy and filled with a sense of possibility. In a few hours, they would all be young again, with completely new faces, houses, spouses, and even new minds. They were finally getting the lives they had always dreamed of. His model friend was too jaded to appreciate her good fortune.

“The Businessman doesn’t make deals with just anyone, you know,” she told him six months ago. She wasn’t a model back then; she couldn’t be one, not yet. He thought she was beautiful before her metamorphosis, even with her crooked nose and her two front teeth overlapping. Those little things kept her off the covers of magazines, but they made her more memorable. Now she was just a face among faces. Her smile no longer reached her eyes.

He never learned how she met the Businessman. To meet him, you needed an introduction, an appointment, and something of value to offer. His office was at the topmost floor of the Sulgane Building, a tower of delicately arched steel beams and large panels of pink glass. Transients were always muttering to themselves by the entrance, unsettling the tourists trying to take pictures.

She wangled him an appointment by “calling in a lot of favors.” “Don’t be late,” she’d warned him; he wasn’t. As soon as he arrived at the Sulgane, an elegant young woman ushered him into an elevator. She placed a key in the elevator’s control station; it rocketed to the top of the building. By the time he caught his breath, he was standing in the middle of an office, facing a man sitting behind a desk.

The room was bathed in a soft pink light. It was without ornament or ostentation, not that he would have noticed;  upon staring into the Businessman’s eyes, our protagonist felt an irresistible impulse to devote himself to the handsome, pale face that stared back at him.

“Mr. Barnes,” the Businessman said. “Thank you for coming to see me today.” His voice, a smooth and cultured baritone, washed over his visitor like a wave. He smiled at his visitor, an engaging, intimate smile.

“Do sit down.”

Mr. Barnes sat in a chair that he hadn’t seen when he first came into the room. He was suddenly very close and very far from the Businessman; all the world vanished except for those eyes.

“How may I assist you today?”

Mr. Barnes stammered something about getting an appointment through a friend, an aspiring model, but the Businessman waved this away.

“I know all about Milena,” he said dismissively. “I want to know about you. My time is worth a lot. Please don’t waste it.”

“Milena told me that you can give people entirely new lives,” Mr. Barnes began. “You make them rich when they’re poor. You make them pretty when they’re ugly. You make a million people fall in love with a man, even if his own mother can’t stand him. You give them glamor and power when they don’t have a right to either. And the price is…well, she said it was ‘modest.'”

The Businessman’s smile didn’t reach his eyes.

“I see my reputation precedes me,” he chuckled. “Milena is right, of course–I can, and do, make incredible things happen. But I’m afraid she may have misled you. The price is not modest,” he said, spitting out the last word like an olive pit. “I don’t believe in charging less than I’m due. And a service like this has no equal, just as its price has no equal.”

The Businessman got up and walked toward the window. He stretched his body into a parenthesis, leaning back while resting his weight on the balls of his feet.

“Only a few people can truly pay for what I give them,” he continued. “Not because of any failure on my part. I have faith in every soul who crosses my threshold, but not all of them have faith in themselves.” He turned back to Mr. Barnes and locked eyes with him.

“I canot do a thing for a man who won’t allow himself to be served,” he said. “It sounds silly, but it’s true. If you will put yourself in my hands, Mr. Barnes, I can open worlds for you, vistas of experience and pleasure beyond your powers of imagination. I can make anything happen for you that you desire. But I cannot lift a finger without your permission. If I am to assist you, you must believe in yourself, and trust in me.”

Mr. Barnes did not quite follow this line of argument. He nodded anyway. An enormous smile broke over the businessman’s face, hiding his eyes behind a thousand wrinkles. He strode to Mr. Barnes and shook his hand.

“Wonderful,” he said. “I’m delighted to have you with me. Go home now–someone will call you with instructions very soon. When these instructions come, you must follow them to the letter, or I am powerless to give you what you desire.”

Someone called Mr. Barnes the instant he came home, cordially inviting him to a party on Pierce Street. That was how it started. He’d spent the past six months going to parties, soirees, salons, luncheons and other events where he felt enormously out of place. He’d woken up in penthouses, mansions, hotel suites, even private jets; he rarely slept alone. There were long stretches of time that passed without his knowing. He didn’t worry about them, even when he woke up in a sweat, unable or unwilling to remember his dreams.

Everyone was at these parties––everyone––all of them united by a common purpose. Their work for the Businessman drew them together, gave their lives meaning, gave them hope for a brighter future. Their hope infected Mr. Barnes. The Businessman, he felt, would not let him until his great task was accomplished. He had never been happier.

In the meantime, Milena became a model. She graced the covers of magazines around the world. She became the latest muse of a fashion designer. Objectively, she was one of the most perfect women he’d ever seen in the flesh. She looked like a walking Photoshop. And yet…he remembered the old Milena, the crooked nose and overlapping teeth, the light in her eyes, and her laugh, bubbly and infectious. He had not seen her laugh once since her metamorphosis.

No matter. In a few minutes, a man would tap him on the shoulder and usher him into a small room. The Businessman was waiting there, waiting to help our protagonist design his new life. He’d puzzled over it for months now. How muscular did he want to be? How much money was too much? He wanted ten cars, but which ten? Any more was just overkill…and there were so many mansions to choose from, so many women dying to become his companions…

Of course there was a price, but it was a reasonable one. He didn’t think about it much. Soon he would have a new life and everything would change. If he was lucky, he would never get used to it.

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