I squinted at my latest painting as the light faded from the room due to the sunset. My phone was ringing incessantly, and I wondered who kept trying to call me while I was working. I tended to forget my environment and the world when I was painting, and most people in my phone book knew that. I looked around, wondering where my phone was lying and got to it just before it went to voicemail.
“Hello, Amanda Coven—” I answered, but was cut short by my mother’s tense voice.
“Where did you leave your phone, Amanda? I’ve been ringing for over an hour now,” my mom sighed. “Have you heard from your stepfather? He was supposed to call me about the finalities of our planned vacation, but I still haven’t heard from him.”
“I haven’t been paying attention to my phone, but let me check my messages and call history before getting back to you. Or better still I’ll come over now. You sound upset,” I replied, already gathering my things.
“Oh, you don’t need to come over. You must be busy with work and I don’t want to bother you with my silly marital problems, plus—”
I cut my mom short before she tried convincing me not to come. She sounded tense and worried. “I already stopped painting and you know you’re not a burden to me at all, Mom. So, stop trying to stop me. You don’t sound good. I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” I told her, then rushed to the exit of the studio where I did most of my work. A pang of sadness hit my gut when my mother’s sad voice replayed in the back of my mind. I knew all too well what was happening.
Was I the only one who had any love left in them in this family?
I bolted through traffic to get to my mom and stepfather’s stately mansion. As I identified myself and passed through the electronic gates, I couldn’t help feeling bad for my mom. She was lonely and tired and if only Michael, my stepfather could give her the love and attention she deserved and needed, Mom wouldn’t be in such bad shape. My dad died during the war and Mom tried her best to raise me on her own. That took up most of her time, and when she finally met Michael I thought she would be happy and have someone to love her; but he treated her like a trophy wife. All he cared about was how much money the next contract could bring in, or where next to invest. That had been the main cause of him going through four wives already and now my mom was going to be ex-wife number five if something didn’t change him. He could be kind, considering how well he treated me, but he didn’t create time for that anymore, either. I sighed as I reached the door and Norton quickly opened it.
“Good evening, Norton,” I greeted.
“Good evening, Miss Amanda, your mother is in her room. I’m worried about her. She hasn’t had lunch and hasn’t touched the tray I carried up to her just this evening.”
“I’ll go talk to her, bring up another tray with something hearty. I’ll make sure she eats,” I instructed Norton as I climbed up the stairs to my mom’s room. It was such a long walk. So many things went through my mind. Each concern made every step up the stairs last an eternity. Now she wasn’t eating? No, I had to do something about this. Mom was on the path of self-destruction.
But what could I do?
I didn’t bother looking around much as I was already used to the beauty of the house, and the view had kind of grown old with all the problems as of late. At one point, Mom had tried to change the house and make it homier, but elegant, and the house was impressive and filled with warmth, but lonely all the same. Michael was rarely ever home and hadn’t seemed to want any children, so Mom was virtually a housewife. I knocked once and entered my mom’s room. She was lying down, and I went over to the huge king-sized four-poster bed. I looked down at her and frowned.
She wasn’t that old. She should’ve been up and running around with Michael tucked to her side. A loving couple roaming the city and making things happen.
Not this. Not sitting in the bed, waiting to wither away. No, she was already withering away.
Her face was red and puffy, so unlike my beautiful mother who at forty-six looked trim, beautiful, and perfect with a figure that a twenty-five-year-old would die for. She was curvy and full in the perfect places, but right now her bright green eyes that were always full of laughter looked dead and red from crying. I hated seeing her this way and it had been a while since she was this upset.
“Mom…?” I sat beside her on the bed and gently carded my fingers through her hair. “What’s got you so upset? You know I hate seeing you this way. You need some fresh air. Come on, want to walk in the garden?”
She sniffled and glanced up at me, and her lips fought to form a smile for me. But it was shaky around the edges, and she gave up with a heavy sigh as her body seemed to wilt into the bed.
“It’s Michael, darling.” I knew it. “We were supposed to go on a vacation to spend some time together. It’s been a long time since we had time for just us, but he left this afternoon with his work team and didn’t even call to notify me about the change of plans. I’ve been so patient with him, hoping he would change at least, but I get disappointed every time. I’ve really tried.”
“Have you tried calling him and asking him to explain? Maybe he just forgot, or he had a good reason?” Though I doubted it. He likely just thought of himself and his money, deliberately forgetting my mom entirely. “He hasn’t called or messaged me today, either.”
“I did, but he is avoiding my calls. His assistant keeps saying he’s in a meeting. This kind of neglect explains why he’s been through four wives already, although he can afford alimony,” Mom told me sadly, her face still buried in the pillows.
“I would have asked you to leave already, Mom, but I know you love him and believe this can work, or that he can change.” I sighed heavily, rubbing my forehead. “But I can’t see him changing anytime soon. He’s stubborn and…” On many occasions I almost just told her to leave. But I loved Michael as he’d been the only male parental figure in my life, and I thought he cared for us, plus he treated Mom well, when he remembered to. So, there was a sliver of promise there. That small little light that gave me a glimpse of hope. There had to be something to remind him… “Let me ring him and find out what happened.” I pulled out my phone to call, really pissed off at the state I found my mother in.
He answered on the second ring. “Mandy, how have you been?” his gruff voice said over the phone. My first reaction was to smile, but then it hit me that he wasn’t being the best he could truly be, and that brought out the small bitch in me.
“I’m okay, it’s been a while since we spoke,” I said, tapping my finger on my thigh, wondering what I could say on the phone to shake him back into shape.
“Yes, but I have been busy and I’m busy now. So why are you calling, sweetheart?” he asked, the impatience evident in his voice. His work was really getting in the way.
“I thought you and Mom were going to Tuscany for your vacation, but I’m surprised to see her home. So why isn’t she with you?” I hissed, biting my lip after I asked him.
Who was I kidding? Like he was going to act like he cared…
I heard him sigh impatiently over the phone before saying, “An important meeting with some executives came up. It’s in Tuscany, but I just couldn’t wait. Your mother and I will go some other time.”
“You can’t keep ignoring her,” I snapped. “You promised to spend more time together and need to keep to your promise. She’s flying over to join you tomorrow,” I asserted.
“Not possible, my dear, it will be no environment for a woman and I will be busy. Tell her to stay home. I’m hanging up now. I have another important business call. Will call you later.”
Before I could protest more, he’d cut off the call, and I pulled my phone away from my ear to gape at it, then glare, as if, if I glared hard enough, he would feel it, even with the call cut off. I nearly threw my phone across the room in anger. Something had to be done to get Michael’s attention.
“What did he say, honey?” Mom asked me, looking at me with hopeful eyes. Like, somehow, I’d managed to turn him around. Huh, it’d take more than a conversation to do that…
“He said a business meeting came up and the environment was no place for a woman. Can you imagine? And then he hung up saying he had a business call coming in.” I sat down by my mom as Norton knocked on the door and came in with the tray of food.
“Mom, go clean up. I have an idea I want us to discuss after you eat.”
She waved a tired hand at me. “I really don’t feel like eating. Just go ahead and eat while I wash my face. You must be hungry.”
“I’m not eating if you’re not, and my good idea is off the table too.” I smiled and plucked a grape to eat as I spoke.
She was still for a moment, but then she sighed. “I’ll try, give me ten minutes.”
As I waited for her to come back, ideas started running through my mind and I hit the internet to do some research. Mom walked back in as I was writing down an address in my phone book.
“What are you writing down?” she asked.
“The details of my idea.”
“So, what is this brilliant plan?” Mom asked as she sat down to eat.
“I have the perfect way to get Michael’s attention. We can play on his love for me to make him spend more time with us and focus less on money,” I explained, excitement growing. “We need to pull a convincing prank to teach him a lesson.” I rubbed my hands together, the satisfaction of thinking about this made me tickled. Michael was hard to get to come around. If I broke his routine somehow, then maybe finally he’d see what he was taking advantage of.
“What kind of prank?” Mom asked, a bit puzzled.
“Ransoming, or robbery or kidnapping. Any of the above. The prank should involve him losing a lot of money or one of us.”
“Isn’t that dangerous and risky? What if he finds out, or if something bad happens?” Mom was worried, but I went on to explain the details. “Who could I trust to make sure we would be okay? This sounds too terribly dangerous…”
“All we need is to get in contact with an assassin or kidnapper and plan everything with him. We will pay him well. So, do you have any ideas?”
I looked hard for that speck of hope in her eyes. It was coming, I just had to ignite it some more.
“Hmmm, that sounds interesting. We can get a boat to hide on with the kidnapper and make videos, but how do we get a good kidnapper?” she asked. “Amanda, you know I love you too much to just dangle either one of our lives with dangerous people. Maybe this is a little too far-fetched.”
I raised the paper with the website address on it. “This is our ticket. I found an underground website online that links you to contacts in the black web. I’ll gather more details and contact info of the right guy to hire for the job, then we can make the call. But first we need to plan. I love the idea of the boat, but we don’t have one and I can’t use one of Michael’s. So what do we do?”
“I have some savings and I’ve always wanted a boat. So, we can purchase one. What do you think?”
“I’m game, Mom.” I smiled. “This will be fun, I need a break from work before our next big launch at the gallery, anyway. Plus, it’ll be fun getting kidnapped by myself.”
“What?” My mother’s eyes widened, and her hand dropped from her chest as if I had shot her. “What do you mean, go this alone?”
“Because, if I go missing, Michael will have to consult you and stick by your side for support. If not, then what’s the point?”
Mom gave it serious thought, almost forming a bead of sweat on her forehead. Pursing her lips and staring out the window, she sighed, then laughed, and I felt some relief to see her smiling once more.
“Fine. But it must be by someone I approve of. I wouldn’t be able to live knowing something happened to you,” Mom said, reaching over to give me a hug. It was nice to see a little life back in her.
“I’ll spend the night here, so we can finalize the details in the morning. Let’s talk about something else.”
Mom smiled and asked me, “What are you doing home tonight? You need to be out there with some young man. You’re so buried in your art that you barely take care of yourself. Just look at how you’re dressed!” she opined.
I pulled a pillow and covered my face, screaming into it. I hated talking about myself and men. I had always been clumsy around men and more focused on my art. At least art was easy to relate to, to at least express myself, but I couldn’t figure men out at all. I sighed and looked at my mom miserably. “Mom, I have no time for dating right now. I’m busy with work and other commitments.”
Mom folded her arms and shook her head. “You’re just stubborn, not busy, darling. I met this handsome guy the other day at the gym and I took his contact. I think I’ll organize a blind date between you two after this prank of ours. What do you say?”
“I say no, I have no interest in dating right now.” Changing the topic quickly, I said, “I’m going to call the number on the website or try to leave a message.”
I read out the instructions on the site, which required changing your VPN first, then texting the code Housekeeping. I would be given a secure link and an address for a video call scheduled two weeks from the time of contact. That gave me and Mom enough time to prepare and plan all the details before hiring the eraser.
Mom and I went to bed that night full of nervous energy and excitement. Michael Coventry had no idea what was coming and by the time I was done with him, he would hate ever leaving home without me and my mother. Hopefully, at the end, we’d be a strong family.
Then maybe years later I’d tell him the truth? Nah, maybe not. Didn’t want a risk of him falling back into the same bad pattern.
After a while of just lying down in my bed, I determined that I couldn’t sleep. I sighed and got up to turn the lights back on. Then I went back to sit on the edge of my bed, and my eyes immediately caught the picture I kept on my nightstand. It was one of the few family photos we’d had, and I focused on the only male in the frame.
My stepfather, Michael Coventry, was a tall, chubby, middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair, gray eyes, and a tendency to dress in expensive suits that never quite seemed to fit him. He was fifty-two years old, and some people would say he was a cold-blooded, greedy finance billionaire who went through wives like some men went through cars.
But I didn’t see him like that. He married my mom, adopted me, and showed me love in his own way. He was just driven, probably because of his background. He was poor and from the streets and had worked his way to where he was today.
And for a second, I thought his absence was partly due to the fear of facing that part of life again. Though, being a billionaire would make that very hard to do.
I just thought he understood what it meant to go without food, clothes, or shelter, and made money in excess so he’d never go through that again. So he spoilt his wives with whatever they wanted, but didn’t bother to be around as an emotional pillar or even spare them his time. My mother, Jane, was his fifth wife, and the one who had been most patient with him. Of course, he was wealthy enough that he could pay alimony to a dozen exes without even noticing it was gone.
Money was his primary goal: its acquisition, its investment, and its use. He had always neglected his wives and families in favor of his precious gold. He was capable of kindness and generosity, but severely underestimated the emotional needs of those around him, as most of his emotions were invested in chasing wealth. It was an unsavory addiction.
There were even worse rumors of him sleeping around, but those were the ones that I felt merited any thought, because as much as I didn’t like it, I hoped they were wrong. But the more he treated my mom the way he did, the less I hoped.
I sighed and put the photo back down, turned off the lights, and tucked myself into bed.
I really hoped this ‘kidnapping’ thing was a good enough wake-up call for him to see that he could lose the people he cared about at any given time, and money was a sloppy second necessity.
Fuck, I had to fix these damn gadgets or else I wouldn’t be able to take on a new gig for a while. I sat nestled in my underground tech lab neatly hidden in my basement. It had all the specs and not even FBI could get in here if they wanted to.
Not that I’d have been that fucking sloppy to get their attention.
“Damn it, these cells aren’t working,” I hissed, picking up another small silver disk to insert into a pair of night vision goggles I was repairing. I had used them in an overseas mission during which I’d helped a jewel thief recover a diamond from a rival. It was an intense assignment but hadn’t held my interest.
The thrill, the rush of doing what I did was wearing down. Now I found myself searching on the black web database for more endangering missions.
That wasn’t healthy. And at my age, I really should’ve had more to look forward to. But maybe all this was the frustration with fixing these goggles talking.
I finally slipped the right cell into the goggles and green lights blinked to life to tell me it was working. It was about damn time. It had taken about a week to get the cells ordered. And that wasn’t even the half of it.
To dodge any suspicion, I had to go through so many third parties and drop so much cash to make myself invisible. These cells weren’t an everyday thing ordered through the mail.
“Finally,” I sighed, throwing them back into the metal briefcase they came in.
I hopped into my leather chair, booted up the black web, and went into the database that had gigs and jobs that were up my alley.
My VPNs were all straight, so I had the utmost comfort surfing this part of the web. Every so often I would see the advertisement of a woman for sale, and it wrenched my gut. If I didn’t care for my own life, I’d have found them and set them free. But there were many things involved in brothels. Much too messy for me to get involved.
The jobs on here were waning recently. From regular theft and watching people, to weird porn jobs that involved… bodily fluids.
“What the hell are people getting into these days?” I asked myself aloud.
It used to be that the mafia had jobs on here all the time. Now regular people got wind of this and placed the dumbest shit up here. Irritation wasn’t the word that could even touch the anger I felt.
My second computer screen lit up and a jingle played. I knew all too well who it was on the other side.
“Hey, Ming. What’s up?” I greeted, taking his video call.
“I’m good, Jace, how about you? Find any good jobs lately?” he asked, leaning over in his gaming chair and staring into the screen with his Coke-bottle glasses.
Ming was Asian, but his ass was the best hacker on the planet. He helped code my tech lab and the security around it.
“Nah, you know how it is. This particular season is usually really slow.”
“That’s not fun to hear.” He frowned, moving his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose some more. “But that’s why I went and did you a huge favor.”
I cocked an eyebrow and laughed. “Favor? I didn’t ask for a—”
“No, listen. I had to take this job off the market. It was screaming Jason.”
Ming did have good taste on which gigs to pick up. So, my curiosity was only heightened some more.
“Alright, tell me. What’s the job?” I leaned back in my chair and rocked, crossing my legs and threading my fingers.
Ming grinned wide and changed his screen. “This right here.”
The screen showed a small description about a kidnapping. Evidently there was a chick in need of someone kidnapping… her?
“Wow, from a female, right?” I asked, double checking.
“Yeah, I know your reservations about—”
I shook my head and rubbed my chin. This wasn’t good. Any time females had gigs of this caliber offered, things went wrong.
And it wasn’t just bad luck either. There was something so unwieldly about females when it came to business like this. They were often too flighty and unreliable. I wasn’t in the market for getting my ass arrested.
If any of my past clients got wind of me in a jail cell, they’d have me offed out of fear that I’d have to snitch on them. I had way too much shit on my back to take such a risk.
“Ming. I’m sorry, I can’t—”
“Listen. I have a good vibe about this. It’s a red level gig. So, it’s going to be a big score. I feel good about this. Just… at least meet the lady on video chat tomorrow. Feel it out for yourself. Okay?”
Trust my gut, or trust Ming? Both had good odds, and it was hard to pick. Though… there was one thing that stuck out to me; this was labeled as a red level job.
That meant good pay.
Very fucking good pay. And a good payday like that was hard to come by unless the Capo di Capo of a mob family needed your services.
I gnashed my teeth and gave in to the temptation of a fuck load of cash.
“Fine. I’ll do the interview tomorrow. I’m not saying yes right now. But we’ll see.”
Ming’s screen switched back to his face and he leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms as if he had won this argument.
“Great! I know you’re gonna take it. Let me know if you need anything, okay?” Ming said, pumping a thumbs up.
His screen went black and I returned to my other monitor.
Shit, Ming was telling the truth. This was a good catch with the current season being so dry. That, and the fact that bills needed to be paid soon.
There was nothing like a surplus of cash.
The words red level kept echoing in my head.
Then my future passed before my eyes.
Was I gonna do this for my entire life? Of course, there were some older people in my field.
But… Someday I’d like to retire.
Maybe this could even be the last gig. There were things I wanted to invest in.
The thrill I loved. The kill I loved. The constant adrenaline that pumped through my veins made me feel alive.
But things got old. And old habits die hard.
“Ugh, why am I thinking about this so much?” I scolded myself.
Right now, all I knew was that there was a high-paying gig involving a female that may or may not go well. After I met her, then I could be in a better frame of mind.
“What the fuck?” I hissed, swiveling around in my chair to see that one of the black gunmetal tasers I was charging had exploded from being overcharged. Well, there went a three-thousand-dollar weapon. At least it wasn’t the destruction of one of my beloved machine guns. That would’ve torn me to pieces.
My tasers were for more mild assignments. Something I took with me often on gigs. The heavy artillery was usually for gigs that involved crime bosses and heists.
Hmm, a heist. I was in the mood for a good heist.
I went over and picked up the pieces off the floor and turned the charger off to the other devices. There was no more business for me down here, even though this small part of my home felt the most welcoming. It was dark, lighted by the flickering of modems, computer towers, and various electronic weapons. This was my sanctuary.
There was ringing at my door, and I saw through the security monitor that it was a delivery.
“Shit, almost forgot that was coming today.”
I sprinted out of my basement and ran upstairs. When I got to the door, the delivery man was just about to tack on an ‘I must’ve missed you’ notice.
“Hey, I’m here!” I said, swinging the door open.
“Good, here we go!” The delivery guy heaved the box up and dumped it into my arms. I signed the receipt of delivery and closed the door.
I sighed, stared at the heavily taped cardboard box and slowly began to kick it into my living room. Inside were all kinds of different disguises.
I never wore the same outfit once during my gigs.
That was an easy way to be identified. Caught. Or even killed. When people in my profession got killed…
It wasn’t pretty.