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The first time I meet Patrick Braddock, I’m wearing his wife’s lipstick. The color is exactly wrong for me. Deep, ripe plum, nearly purple, the type of harsh shade that beautiful women wear to prove they can get away with anything. Against my ordinary features, the lipstick is as severe as a bloodstain. I feel like a misbehaving child trying on her mother’s makeup.
In the photo of Sylvia Braddock that lies on my bedroom floor, the lipstick looks perfect.
Most of my clients send only a handful of images: yearbook head shots, studio portraits against amorphous fabric backdrops. I prefer the candids slipped in as afterthoughts. Ordinary, tender images with tilted frames, red pupils, murky lighting. Unstaged photos offer less space to hide. I make note of the strata of clutter on a living room floor, the prickling distance between a husband and a wife when they don’t realize anyone is watching, and I know everything I need to know about these strangers’ lives.
Mr. Braddock has sent dozens of photos, enough to retrace the full six years of his marriage to Sylvia. Their wedding day, sun-washed beaches, landmarks scattered across the continents; work events with careful smiles, parties with blurred laughs. Nobody is more present in the chronology of Sylvia’s life than her husband. At my job, I order the world into patterns with the incurious efficiency of a machine, and the Braddocks’ pattern is a simple one. They’re in love. A showy love, drawing attention to itself without necessarily meaning to.
Sylvia only wears this exact shade of lipstick in a single image. I’ve checked and checked again, struck by its absence. In the photo, she’s naked. She lies on a bed, unsmiling, propping herself on her elbows. Against the deep plum of the bedspread, her body is so pale it seems lit from within. Details stand out with startling clarity. Her areolas, precisely delineated as the cheeks painted on a doll. The winged origami of her hip bones. The lipstick.
I arrive early at work before our encounter, the tube clutched warm in my palm. Mr. Braddock is my first client of the day. He’s scheduled his encounter on a Thursday. It’s the middle of March, a time when the Elysian Society traditionally experiences a slow period. No sentimental holidays, no blooming flowers or first snows to breed guilt and nostalgia. Just the unbroken lull of late winter.
Opening the door, I assess Room 12 with a practiced gaze. The suites at the Elysian Society hint at familiarity without fully resembling anyone’s home. Dark hardwood floors; a framed painting of water lilies floating on gem-bright water. Two low-slung, armless chairs face each other in the center of the room.
Anything that could disturb this impression lies hidden in plain view. For instance: the small white pill in its crimped paper cup and the larger paper cup of room-temperature water, both arranged on the end table. These designate the chair I’ll take.