Part One by Angela Amman
Grass and green apple lingered on her palette, a manicured finger stroking the base of her wine glass. Air conditioning obliterated the oppressive humidity from the space around the gleaming bar. Condensation threatened to drop onto the cream cocktail napkin. For now, she could afford the Didier Dagueneau Sauvignon Blanc, herbs and fruit perfectly balanced in the crisp, chilled varietal. An envelope of cash rested in the lining of her expensive leather bag, money she’d earned only in the oldest sense of the word.
She’d drifted out of Henry’s suite at the Ritz-Carlton around dawn. He slumbered naked and tangled in Egyptian cotton sateen, his debit card in her purse and the pre-paid cell phone she’d used for months on the nightstand. Emptying his checking account while he snored until noon allowed her the freedom of flying far from the Golden Gate Bridge and living comfortably until something promising caught her discerning eye. Henry’s shifty eyes and groping, sweaty fingers had told her long ago that he’d rather lie about the sudden emptiness of his substantial bank account than confess his ill-advised tryst to his wife.
Even his lawyers wouldn’t know how to begin to locate her.
She was again firmly ensconced in a suite with a view. Henry was barely an uncomfortable memory. New La Perla nestled in the tiny dresser so even bits of mesh and lace couldn’t tease any recollection of his overpowering Ralph Lauren cologne or underperforming lovemaking. Slight wardrobe changes were a charming hazard of her geographical rootlessness, her non-cataloged life.
Platinum hair shimmered around her cheekbones in the low light of the bar, catching and reflecting the candlelight. The color was new and indulgent and contrived, chosen to simultaneously attract and intimidate. Deliberating about the gamble had kept her from venturing out until this Thursday, when the trendy hotel bar bubbled over with tired businessmen, desperate for anything but a monotonous meeting in a stuffy conference room.
Years before, in another bar in another city, a drunk accountant had accused her of being an escort. His face had flushed more with each drink and even more with each tug on his safely striped tie. She’d miscalculated his bank account and his intentions, a rare professional misstep. Bleary eyes crawled down her cleavage as he spit out his judgment, fingers wound tightly around her wrist. An impossibly sharp stiletto dug into the tender flesh between Achilles and anklebone, her smile beatific when she murmured, “If only my occupation were so easily classified,” before walking away, his sneer twisted into a grimace of pain.
Now she swiveled on the high-backed barstool, cooling appraising the selection of men. Soft lips parted slightly as she automatically crossed her toned legs. Practiced ennui relaxed her shoulders, though she secretly wanted to steal another glance at the gorgeous new Stuart Weitzman heels wrapped around her ankles. She swiveled back, not seeing anything to her liking.
The bartender set another glass of wine in front of her without a word, dimples and shocking green eyes traveling down her body in a wave of heat. Brody, she recalled, testing the gloss of her lips with the tip of her tongue. A brief nod of his head indicated the patron she would need to thank with a perfunctory smile. She was already resigned to another night alone.
The heat started by Brody’s effortless attractiveness swelled, and she felt dampness bloom between her thighs.
She could smell the money on him from across the bar. An expertly tailored suit and an impeccably veneered smile exuded confidence, but she could smell the other thing, too – the ugly core of cruelty that forced him to use his money and passable looks to draw people into his sphere.
Tossing hair in lustrous waves over her shoulder, she slid across the floor to caress his exposed wrist.
“Thank you. So very much,” she practically whispered, forcing his ear closer to her glossed lips.
“Of course. I’m Nathan.” His smile spread like oil.
She wasn’t, but it would do.
He was perfect.
Part Two by Rachel of State of Joy
Alone except for the company of her reflection, the image in the glass elevator does not belie her consummate guise as she types. Entice me.
For all the luxuries Nathan’s wealth allows her to afford, veracity is not among them. Ascending to the near top of Macau’s Banyan Tree Hotel, the source of those practiced countenances would soon unlock the Sky Villa—the itinerary, an artifice, a girls’ weekend with friends that existed as much as her affection for the man she’d made a show of tearing herself away from.
Safely on the other side of the International Dateline, Nathan’s phone would chime against a winter’s night draining into morning. Bourbon nightcap still clouding his breath and his cognition, he would begrudgingly swipe for his phone, then perch, his features glowing in the tantalizing contents of the video he’d never seen. Eager to place a buffer between himself and his slumbering billionaire heiress wife, his sickly pale feet would pad across the Persian tapestry. Beguiled by the arc of his mistress’s back, his hands guiding her onto him, he would linger in the memory, allowing it to trigger the swell of tension he craved. Suddenly processing her implied threat, new, horrifying tremors would surge.
Before she could be made weightless in the lift of the tempered water of her in-room relaxation pool, she would know if he was willing to play.
They always were.
Illuminated only by fading sun and glimmering skyline, her lambskin roller bags await. Within them, mountains of cash she’s turned into clothes: the wardrobe of war. The day’s outfit finally at her feet, she coquettishly salutes the mirror. The veteran, uniformed in exiguous lace and exaggerated heels, salutes back.
A decade on, her deceit has ventured varying depths: A 40-year bottle of scotch here. A heavy ruby necklace there. (A Ducati only once.)
Heading the long line of men from whom she’d eased money, was Wesley.
Liquor fueled most of her indiscretions back then. Her Tri-Delt sisters knew nothing of the scores of credit card statements she’d surreptitiously added to the bottom of the house’s recycling pile. What they did know: their girl had a penchant for attracting men eager to pick up their not insubstantial bar tabs. The co-eds assumed her bracelets and cashmere had come from similar sources. They had not. Eventually, they would.
Slinging a watch this wink to her friends, she’d slipped out of her first-class seat, into the empty space beside the stranger. What she’d hoped to reap from the gesture, she could not remember, perhaps a few post-flight drinks or a lift in a limo to the cabin the girls had booked only the night before. Gloriously, it was more than that—an invitation to a ski chalet that competed handily with the peaks surrounding it. The financial consequences of their impromptu trip had been wiped away with the magic wand of money.
Wes showed ebullient willingness to play the role of rescuer. In no time, those bulldog bill collectors had been satisfied, her creditworthiness restored.
Triumph had a lurid, expectant glow.
When, during a night of false vulnerability on her part, Wes earnestly volunteered the information about a daughter he’d institutionalized, she knew she couldn’t allow herself to be welded to such a legacy, whatever the gain. Still, his confession, that glorious reversal of fortune, meant she could assume at least part of his wealth without being snared in the net of marriage. Wounding him restored her.
Her friendships though, lost to equal parts jealously and repugnance, could not be salvaged. The cost of luxury—being tethered to leathered skin and more than whispers gray hair —did not appeal to them, nor did anyone who could be so easily bought.
Below, the details of pedestrians dim and sharpen as they step into and beyond the reach of lamp posts. She’s stalked the shadows long enough. Her cell delivers a gentle nudge; a message awaits. If Nathan reacts as his predecessors, by tomorrow she’ll be able to explore Macau without her usual armor of anonymity. For now, though, she lowers herself into the water. Her feet rest on the cool marble platform, the stilettos crossed like swords.
Part Three by Carrie of Views from Nature
A subtle ping brings her out of a half-conscious state. Lifting her phone into view she taps the screen, opening the new message. The text is simple:
A smile curves along her full lips as she quickly types in a 13 digit number to an easily recognizable offshore account. A space and the words “Six Zeros” are added before she hits send. She doesn’t need to wait long for the answering ping. Her smile widens at the message from her bank announcing a recent deposit of 1 million.
A child-like giggle escapes her throat and she lifts her feet off the floor of the pool allowing her head to duck under. As she emerges, her face reveals an emotion long forgotten: pure, unadulterated joy.
For the first time in years she can relax and enjoy her spoils. She pulls herself out of the water and glides over to the window, the setting sun reflecting a golden glow upon her skin.
The elevator doors slide open soundlessly and she steps out, her new silver Louboutin’s shimmering in the light of the lobby chandelier. An imperceptible motion to the hotel’s doorman results in the prompt arrival of the stretch limousine available for guests. She gives the driver direction, settles back into the plush seats, and contemplates the evening ahead of her.
She has no immediate plans to locate another mark, Nathan’s generosity saw to that, but one couldn’t visit Macau without entering a casino at least once. And casinos meant potential opportunities.
The limo pulls to a stop outside the front entrance of Casino Lisboa. She presses her hand into the driver’s ensuring he will remain until she is ready to return to the hotel. A quick flick of his eyes to his palm and a ghost of a smile are the only response to her generosity. He tips his hat and disappears into the night.
The glittering lights and sounds pull her in. She keeps her expression blank as she navigates the confines of the gaming floor. Play stops momentarily as looks of admiration are directed towards her but she only has eyes for the gleaming glass bar stretched along one wall. Securing the attention of the bartender takes no more than the lift of an impeccably sculptured brow and an order spoken through softly parted lips. The martini slips down her throat as she gazes around the room.
This section of the casino is a mixture of tables: blackjack, baccarat, and poker with a corner of the room to the left roped off for the high stakes tables. While the majority of the casino is a chaotic blend of conversations, screams of excitement and dinging slot machines the high roller tables are calm, cool and collected. Voices are low and cultured. She takes another sip and notices a man standing at the end of the bar watching her. His smooth hands caress the glass before him, a glint of gold on his wrist revealing a Rolex. She scans his lean frame, taking in the tailored dove grey Armani suit and Gucci tie. His eyes meet hers and she feels her pulse begin to race. He exudes sex appeal.
His look smolders as it runs along each curve of her body, the heat of it making her feel naked. Another martini appears at her side. She pops the olives into her mouth and slowly pulls them off the toothpick, the corner of her lips lifting in a smile. She watches as he moves past the people clustered around the bar, each step making the throbbing between her thighs more pronounced. His eyes lock into hers.
“I wish I was an olive.” His voice, smooth and seductive, lingers in her ear. She lays a finger on his wrist, subtly checking for his pulse, surprised to discover it beating regularly. Her own is pounding, the blood rushing through her veins bringing a flush to her skin.
She leans closer. “That can be arranged.” Her tongue darts out to give his lobe a quick flick. To her satisfaction his pulse jumps. She tosses back the rest of the martini and slips an arm through his.
His penthouse suite in the hotel adjoining the casino has a view to rival hers. She stands at the full length window watching the lights of the casino’s marquee flicker and dance in the night. He passes her a snifter of cognac; a single whiff reveals it to be Louis XIII. She sips, reveling in the smoothness as it trickles down her throat.
“You never told me your name.” He leans against the edge of the window, his profile masked in shadows.
“Does it matter?” At his impassive expression she continues. “Madelyn.”
“Really? You strike me as more of a…Rebecca…or a Charlotte…” His dark eyes capture hers. “Or an Eleanor.”
As he lists previous aliases she tenses. When he says her real name she freezes. In a blink he is beside her, his arm around her neck, the sharp edge of a blade pressed upon her throat.
“Did you think you’d never be found?”
Part Four by Michael Webb
Her head spun briefly, trying to remember where she had slipped up. She thought about locations she had stayed, identities she had changed like earrings. Miami, Denver, Dublin, Panama City, Johannesburg, Prague. Rebecca, Eleanor, Charlotte, Lisa, Wendy, Katharine, Emily. Where had her plans fallen through? She always took precautions so that she would never be caught- false names, false addresses, fake passports. Everything anonymous, and she paid a hefty fee to a hacker in South Korea to keep it that way. She was invisible, a ghost
in the machine, a woman without a country, on nobody’s lists, untraceable, unwatchable, unfindable. So how had she been found?
She struggles in his grasp, but quickly stops moving when she feels his iron grip. He’s not letting her go, and every movement causes his grip to tighten. She can feel tingling on one of her palms as he cuts off her blood supply. She wobbles slightly in his grasp, her ankles betraying her as she stares into the night. Far below, a pair of figures walk away from the building. From their casual dress, she assumes they are casino or food service workers. One of them turns to the other, laughing at a joke she cannot hear. The two disappear into the darkness, arm in arm. She silently wishes she were behind them, walking to a car that would bring her to a plane that would take her somewhere, anywhere, else. The glass is very cold when her bare knee brushes it.
“Who are you?,” she finally stammers.
“It doesn’t matter, does it?,” he says, all the seduction gone from his voice. “I found you. You’re a blank spot, and now you’re filled in.”
“Blank spot?,” she says. “What do you mean?”
“Shut up,” he said softly. Saying it that way made it sound ten times more menacing. She shifted her weight one way, then the other, her heels suddenly painful and awkward. She took pride in being able to think on her feet. to lie convincingly and casually, but he was disinterested in even talking. He didn’t move the blade, but she could feel the coldness of it on her skin, and he wasn’t loosening his grip one iota.
“What do you want from me?,” she said.
“Nothing. Well, nothing we can do with clothes on,” he said with a trace of a snicker.
“I have money,” she suggested.
“I’m paid very well,” he said flatly. “One thing about people like you, you understand the power of money, but you misunderstand the fact that there is always someone who has more money. Or more power. Or both.” She pictured Kenny, the college student she met online, sitting in his wretched little apartment outside of Seoul, this hulking, chiseled man holding a blade to his throat. Or something more tawdry, just handing him twice as much money to betray her. Her anger flared. That little prick, she thought.
“Who has more money and more power?”
He half snickered again. “Me, for one thing. And my boss.”
“Who is your boss?”
“Do you remember Stephane?” She thought back. His face came to her suddenly. Unusually handsome, a fellow American in Paris, taking her into a luxury suite at the George V, and being very tender, almost bashful. She shivered with the memory, thinking of his kindness, and his taut, firm body, the way she let herself feel for a minute or two, thrashing around under him.
“Of course,” she said.
“Well he now goes by Steven. Senator Steven Wells. You may have heard of him?” He was the junior senator from Maine, the “Damariscotta Hottie”, the widowed heartthrob that every woman from 15-50 wanted to pin to their bed. “I work for him. I’m a problem solver. I take care of problems.” She thought about Harvey Keitel’s role in Pulp Fiction, The Wolf, cleaning up the messes of others, and she shivered again, less pleasantly.
He didn’t move, and her ankles wobbled again. She had a sudden memory of riding home from school, her father driving their station wagon, blood soaking the front of a white dress. She had fought with a classmate who had called her mother fat. “You have only two advantages in every fight, sweetheart. Two. The first one is who gets to move first. And the second one is that you’re a girl, and few people expect a girl to fight dirty. If you ever get in another fight, you better
remember those things.”
She moved. She picked up her right foot and drove it straight back into his leg, the heel snapping off at the base, his right knee buckling and his grip, finally, loosening for a moment. She grabbed his wrist with both hands, forcing it down and away from her neck, and then turning, bringing her elbow up and back, hard against his nose. His hands went up to his face, and she took a half step forward. She swung and pivoted, bringing her other heel forward like she was taking a free kick as the soccer star she used to be, and driving her foot forward and up into the gap between his legs. He brought his hands down then, crumpling at her feet, blood gushing into a crimson pool on the deep, thick carpet. He started moaning, low, sad animal sounds, coughing as the blood backed up into his throat.
She moved quickly. She gathered up her personal affairs, stepping around the pool of blood to wash her arms and feet in the bathroom. She discarded the broken shoe, then took off its good mate, then walked around the pool of blood again to the door, thinking only of her own room and changing documents and taking flight. Could she trust any of her documents now that Kenny had sold her out? Would this one be waiting for her in some other city? Or someone else,
maybe someone with a gun who wouldn’t wait for explanations?
She had to chance it, she thought, looking around the room for a final time before padding into the hallway barefoot and shutting the door. She walked down to the elevator.
Damn, I hate to waste a good pair of heels, she thought.