Right now she had a piña colada on the patio table, cold enough the tropical humidity condensed to droplets on the outside of the pear-shaped glass. An ocean breeze rustled the queen palms above her head, while yesterday it was a frigid Washington wind laced with ice pellets. So, despite the threat of death, maybe things were looking up for Pearl Armbruster, the young girl with the old woman’s name.
It was eponymous. Pearl Armbruster was the name of her maternal great-grandma—a depression-era Kentucky farm woman who, along with great-grandpappy and a shed full of firearms, ran a moonshine bush-still and supplied her local county with the spirits it needed. A feisty woman by legend, and, though times weren’t as tough, Pearl’s mother had the streak, too, and always praised it when it shone in her daughter.
And look where it got me…
Not here. Here was nice. She was sitting in the sunshine with a twelve-dollar cocktail that better be mostly rum. Not here physically, here situationally.
On the run from a dangerous man. On the run from one of the world’s richest men. And most handsome. All because of her plucky nature.
A photograph was all she’d wanted. Innocent enough. Well, not that innocent; she did have to hide in the bushes for three days, sleeping in her clothes while she stalked her target. But one crafty picture could pay her college tuition for a year, and she was a feisty Armbruster after all.
“Ho, ho, boy,” she moaned to herself and ran her hands over her hair, gathering it behind her neck and letting it bunch in the hood of her sweatshirt. Eighty-five degrees and she wore a hoody, but the need to put it up in an emergency made it worthwhile. The man pursuing her had resources, resources that would buy eyes and ears, and shady thugs who might bop her over the head with a sock full of nickels and then put her in cement shoes—one short cigarette boat ride out into the Caribbean and she would be permanent fish food, her stupid body wavering at the bottom of the ocean like one of those inflatable men you see out front of used car lots fluttering their arms overhead.
The big mistake was confronting this wealthy man.
Why did she do that?
For money, honey.
Not to talk to him?—no, not one bit at all…
Not to look directly in those live-wire eyes and to hear the vibration of his deep voice near your ear? No… Who knew he wouldn’t take it so well?
Uh, because it was blackmail, Pearl, baby. You basically committed a felony and now the guy doesn’t want to turn you in to the cops, he wants you sleeping with the fishes.
She drew deep on the straw, got a reward of high-octane pineapple-coconut till one eye squinted shut with brain freeze. Through one good eye, she checked the time on her phone.
The dude should be here by now.
And who was her savior?—some Navy SEAL who would put an end to this torment with muscles and karate? Nope, couldn’t afford one. Could barely afford the guy who was coming (though she’d been assured he could do the job).
When you deal with a high-power demon like Julian Mann, you deal with lawyers. Only Mr. Mann would most likely have a platoon of spit-polish Ivy Leaguers.
The man she was expecting, sitting here on the sunny patio of the Cayman Mystique motel, was one Bernie Shackelford, Esq. Hired and recommended by the same two women who got her on a plane ride to the island. When this crazy story went down, there was only one person who believed her—and then later, that person’s mother. Her roommate Marly had seen firsthand what Julian Mann—or his men—had done to their dorm room. Marly saw the message he left.
Under cover of night, she met Marly and Marly’s mother in her mother’s LeSabre in the parking lot of a Denny’s. Marly’s mom was shown the picture, was told the sequence of events, and thankfully believed Pearl. Marly’s mother was a flight attendant for American Airlines and used her pull to score a private off-the-books ticket. Asked where she wanted to go to hide, Pearl had said somewhere warm.
Now here she was, a sophomore college student, hiding out at the cheapest motel on the island. Sitting at a glass table for two underneath a sun-bleached canvas umbrella, she watched the patio’s main entrance.
Lo and behold, here came a man who had to be her hired lawyer. He was tall and thin, kind of handsome, wearing a crumpled tan suit, chambray shirt, and striped club tie. Clutched to his chest was a brown leather briefcase. His head oscillated, shoulders hunched up nervously, eyes going over the gathered sunbathers around the Mystique’s swimming pool.
She raised a hand to her shoulder and gave a timid wave. The man nodded, looked around again like he wanted to assure himself he’d not been followed. Now he made his way toward her table, glancing again around the hotel’s grounds. They were surrounded on all sides by four-story stucco blocks where the rooms looked down on the pool. The Mystique was not oceanside.
At the side of her table, the man stopped, said, “Were you expecting company?” His voice was calm, cultured, his tone careful.
She removed her sunglasses, eyeing the tan-suited man, setting them on the table next to her drink. Hands folded together now, she said, “Please tell me you’re my lawyer.”
The guest at her table was indeed Bernie Shackelford, Esq., and despite the apparent nervousness expressed on his arrival, now the man wanted to get right to business. He shook hands—good, firm shake—sat across from her, and moved away all the detritus on the table; the balled-up napkins, the shredded bits of paper she’d peeled from the menu out of boredom and anxiousness, her empty cocktail glasses.
Briefcase unlatched, he withdrew a notebook, a pen, reading glasses, and a manila folder fattened by sheets of paper inside, then set the case at his feet. He clicked the pen a few times, then tested the nib on a blank page in his notebook. The glasses were unfolded and propped on his nose. Prepared now, he leaned forward with his arms on the table and studied her.
He said, “I expected a redhead.”
“Spycraft. I read novels. I also wore sunglasses and I have a hood. Julian Mann’s looking for a redhead too.”
“And your hair is black now.”
“You got it.”
“You don’t look suspicious at all,” he said dryly and reached across the table to touch her cheek with the back of his fingers. She flinched, but when he withdrew his hand, he showed her black smudges on his skin from her impromptu hair dye.
“It’s really hot here,” she said, grimaced and plucked at the front of her sweatshirt to fan air in her face. She could use a shower. Her sweat smelled like fear.
“Tell me what brings us together today, Miss Armbruster, in the far-off locale of the Caribbean.”
“A man wants to kill me.”
“That’s what I’ve been told.”
“You spoke to Marly and her mom? They told you what I’m up against?”
“They did. Now tell me in your own words.”
“What I’m up against?”
He nodded, clicked the pen again a few times.
“They tell you it’s Julian Mann?—Like, the Julian Mann, one of the world’s prominent tech billionaires, recluses, philanthropists, and psychopaths…”
“I’ve never read that he’s psychopathic.”
She scoffed, laughed, exhaled. “Yeah, just you wait.”
“You’re claiming he threatened to kill you.”
“Claiming? Yeah, how about he put it in writing.”
Shackelford thought that was interesting, furrowing his brow and leaning closer. “He threatened you in writing?”
“Sure did. I have the note, too. Even though I almost lost it falling out of my dorm room window. I twisted my wrist when I—”
“Wait,” he said, raising his palms as if to slow her. “This was in your dorm room? So, after you presented him with the incriminating photo.”
“It wasn’t what I’d call incriminating.”
“We’ll get to the photo,” he said. “You returned to your campus, to your dorm, and this is where you found the threatening missive?”
“Right, and as soon as I read it, that’s when shit got super real, and I’ve been on the run ever since.”
“Uh—yeah,” she said, nodding her head earnestly and eye-locking him, “that’s when the men came to get me.”
“I read the note, then as soon as I do, there’s like a commotion in the dorm hall and I hear all these boots coming, and Marly’s like whoa, who’s that?—and the hall goes quiet, and usually it’s loud ‘cause everybody’s in their rooms in the afternoon, and so when it goes quiet—”
“Who were the boots coming?”
“Yeah, so, before I even see them, Marly is like taking me to the window, opening it, you know?”
“Right, but I’m waiting to see, we’re watching the door, both of us, our mouths are hanging open…”
“Who was it?”
“Julian Mann sent the campus police?”
“I guess. Why else were they there?”
“Did they hear your room was ransacked? Maybe that’s why they were coming.”
“Maybe, but why were they running then? They got a busy schedule?”
“It’s not proof…”
“They tried to apprehend me.”
Now his brow lowered, getting a detail he could work with.
She continued, “They didn’t even pause, four of them all jammed up in the doorway and trying to get at me. I’m just glad they didn’t have guns…”
“You think they would have shot you?”
“You didn’t see the look on their faces. That’s what I’m telling you: they were there to ap-pre-hend me.”
“So what happened?”
“They come barging through the door, I’m half out the window, Marly is shoving me…”
“What floor are you on?”
“Then I fell out the window. But I had the note, I have the photo, and I just bolt, I mean, I’ve never run like that in my life. I was running for my life…”
“And you’ve been hiding ever since.”
“Julian Mann is after me.”
“Okay,” Shackelford said, jotting something down. “What did the note say?”
She hugged her arms, cleared her throat, told him clearly and slowly, “I’m coming to get you.”
“If you have it, I’d like to see it.”
She glanced around, saw only sunbathers, no one paying them any mind at all. The note was in the pouch of her sweatshirt, and she stuck a hand in, brought it out and presented it to her lawyer. It was a folded-over piece of red construction paper, and Shackelford looked at it, puzzled.
He unfolded it, said, “It’s shaped like a heart.”
Shackelford shook his head. “He didn’t sign it or anything?” Now he opened it, and she watched him frown as he read the message, then darted his head closer. He said, “Whoever left it put a smiley face at the bottom.”
“It’s menacing. The smiley face is menacing.”
Thumb jabbing her chest, she said, “To me.” Wasn’t it obvious?
The lawyer shrugged as if he didn’t see it that way.
She said, “Julian did it like that on purpose so I seem crazy…”
He smirked and cocked his head at her.
She said, “Hey, I’m not crazy—but he’s smart, signs it with a stupid smiley face and now no one believes it’s real…”
“It could have been anybody that left this.” He tucked it into his manila folder.
“He’s not going to sign his name on it… You had to see him when I confronted him to get the context.”
“Tell me about that.”
“Wait. Show me the photo.”
This made her smile, and she gave the lawyer a nod and held an index finger up, indicating wait till you see this… From her sweatshirt pouch, she withdrew her phone—her replacement phone—and swiped it open. She located the photo that had caused all this trouble, then turned the phone so Shackelford could see it, four fingers of her other hand covering the lower portion of the image.
“What are you doing? Why are you blocking part of it?”
“It’s… provocative. You can see—” Now she looked to the side to make sure they weren’t overheard, then leaned closer and whispered, “You can see his penis.”
“That’s fine,” he said, somewhat irritated, “just let me see the whole photo, please.” He made a fanning gesture with his fingers like he wanted to brush her covering hand aside.
“Excuse me,” she said sarcastically and moved her fingers away.
Shackelford leaned closer, looked at the picture, saw Julian Mann’s dong. His eyebrows rose, and he nodded with a small measure of appreciation.
Tell me about it.
He sat back, said, “Is this the only copy of the photo you have?”
“Did you transfer it to another device, upload it to the cloud?”
“Yeah. Of course.”
“Did you show it to anyone else?”
“Uh-huh,” she nodded. “All my friends.”
He wrote down Marly on his pad of paper. “Did you give a copy of the picture to any of your friends?”
“What?—no way. I love them and all, but thirty grand for a picture? One of those bitches would stab me in the back, turn the pic in, and collect the prize for themselves. I’m the only one who has them.”
She turned the phone to face her, admired her photographic skills and Julian Mann’s naked body. “I have more photos; this is just the best one.”
Shackelford nodded, clicking his pen and watching her. “So tell me how it started. Begin at the beginning, if you please.”
“All right. My uncle passed away, he was my dad’s brother, so I hardly knew him—my dad’s not always been in the picture, if you know what I’m saying… So my uncle was a photographer, and he left some of his stuff to his nieces and nephews. Now I have no need for camera equipment, and I do need money, but Marly and I were going through the things he left me and Marly said instead of pawning it, why don’t you use it to make money…”
Shackelford scratched his forehead while scribbling in his notepad, trying to keep up with her. “This is where you got the idea to spy on Mr. Mann?”
“Right. But not spy. I’m a paparazzo.”
“Do you have a license?”
“You don’t need one. Just a camera. And like a telephoto lens.”
“Which your uncle bequeathed you?”
“You got it. So Marly tells me she heard some of these guys can get like thirty grand for a juicy photo. I’m twenty-one, living on dorm food for the last three years, and I have to be honest, I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to afford my last year of tuition…”
“You were motivated.”
He jotted that down too, underlining motivated.
Now he set his pen down and twined his fingers together over his notebook. Leaning closer, he watched over his reading glasses. “This is why you blackmailed Julian Mann…”
“Is it blackmail?”
“I think it is.”
“But is it?” she asked again, her pitch higher, eyes squinted.
Shackelford removed his glasses, pinched the bridge of his nose. Now with his fingers laced together again, he asked, “Please, Miss Armbruster, tell me what happened when you met with Mr. Mann.”
She inhaled, held it, exhaled. Right to the point now, she said, “Everyone wants a picture of Julian Mann since he turned into a recluse.”
“I figured if I want to pay my tuition, that’s the picture I need. A picture of Julian Mann.”
“So you trespassed on his property…”
“I did,” she admitted. “I had four days off from class for the holidays and I went to his house in Seattle.”
“How did you know he’d be at that house?”
It was something to consider. While the offices of WaavvTek were in Seattle, Julian wasn’t there day-to-day anymore. And with homes all across the world, he could have been anywhere. “I didn’t know. Just a guess. He’s from Seattle, it’s the holidays. Some people get nostalgic during the holidays, even big shot psychopaths like Julian Mann.”
“You got lucky.”
“Lucky? Hardly. You know I hid in his trees for three days?”
He was incredulous, head jittering with disbelief. “Three days? How? Where did you sleep? Where did you go to the bathroom? What about water?”
“Sitting upright in the crook of an evergreen tree. Sleeping, I mean. I brought food and water in a backpack.”
“You’re joking,” he said, not writing this information down.
“You need to know: I am tenacious.”
Shackelford sighed, clicked his pen, began writing again. “What happened next?”
“I got the shot I’d been waiting for.”
She admired her photograph again. There’d been a series of shots done in burst mode from her tree. One shot was clear and focused and the obvious winner. Julian Mann and this other woman coming up from the metal trellis stairs that led from the back of his house down the rocky cliff face that dropped to a private beach. They’d only been visible for a moment, but she caught them. The girl, pretty, with long brown stick legs, her hair wet, wearing a white terry robe; Julian coming behind her, hair slicked back, wearing a robe the same as the woman’s, flapping open in the early morning breeze, showing off that body…
Shackelford was saying something.
“I said do you know who the woman is?”
She shook her head no. “I don’t know, some bimbo… Is she an actress or something?”
He wrote that down. “What did you do next?”
“Well, I knew I had my shot. You know, the money shot, as they say. So, I went home—I mean, back to the dorm—I show Marly my photo and we laugh our butts off. I have a shower”—she met his gaze to make sure he heard that—“then we went out, Marly and I and some of the girls, and we whooped it up. I knew I’d make money off it. I knew it. Somewhere around two in the morning one of us—shoot, it might’ve been me—gets the idea…” She waited for the lawyer’s scribbling to catch up with her.
“What was the idea?” he asked her, almost done writing, head still down.
“I’d queried three gossip rags, and they came back low five figures.”
“You sent them the picture?”
“No, I’m not stupid. Proof shots. Shots that show I was there on his property.”
“But then I say to the girls, if that’s what they’ll pay, what will Julian Mann pay, he’s got to be worth more than all of those rags combined, right?”
“Possibly. When did you go see him?”
“That morning, like five hours later. Didn’t even sleep. Wanted to do it before I lost my nerve.” Or came to my senses.
“You went to his office…”
“Yep. It’s hard to get to him, believe me; he goes from his mansion—more like a fortress—straight to the facility in a blacked-out, bulletproof limo. But I go in to the front desk. You should see the place, it’s legit like out of a sci-fi movie. So I tell reception to send him a message. They say no, of course. I say, tell him someone wants to know how his swim with his lady friend went this morning.”
“We’re here, aren’t we? They get the message to him, me and the receptionists wait, they’re staring at me… Next thing, two big guys in suits come escort me to his super-private office.”
“Rumor is,” Shackelford said, “no one visits his office. It’s like his Fortress of Solitude.”
“I was there. Place is like a museum. Like, literally a museum, with ancient artifacts, and huge ass artwork, like paintings from the Renaissance. Everything is black marble, walls, floor, columns, the ceilings are, I don’t know, thirty feet high. I’m standing there staring at a beautiful painting of a battlefield with horses and swords and fluttering pennants. It had to be ten feet tall, and I’m thinking this thing here is worth more than ten times what I’ll make in my lifetime and here it is tucked in his secret office where no one will see it alongside hundreds of other antiquities no one will ever see now that he’s got it.”
“He’s got a lot of money.”
“I’ll say,” she said, heart racing now she was getting to the scary part.
With the tips of her fingers on the base of the glass, she dragged her piña colada closer and put her mouth on the straw. A couple of long icy drags and she could imagine the rum doing its magic. She coughed, pressing a knuckle to her temple to chase away another brain freeze. “So, ow, that’s when I hear the door go boom, and then footsteps… I can’t see him yet, but wherever the footsteps were coming from, they were getting closer. The whole place is hard square edges and everything echoes like crazy. I get freaked out, start backing up—boom, walk right into him. He grabs me, rough, spins me around.”
“Did he leave any marks on you?”
“Like bruises?—on my arms? No, but take my word, it was rough. The guy is strong.”
“He wrestled at prep school, and at Yale.”
“I bet. He’s holding my arms and I’m looking up into the coldest gray eyes I’ve ever seen. He says ‘What do you know about my swim?’ I tell him to let me go. He does, but now he’s literally looking at me like I’m dog shit on his shoe. His lips curl up. Now I’m scared—this office is like a maze, we’re the only ones there, he’s super rich and powerful, he could literally strangle me and no one would ever find my body.”
“You think he’d murder you?”
“Listen, I tell him I have the photo, show it to him on my phone—dude takes my phone, drops it to the floor, puts his heel on it and grinds.” Now she leaned forward and scowled at the lawyer, imitating Julian Mann’s expression. With pronged fingers pointing back and forth between both their eyes, she indicated the intense stare that psycho had been giving her. “Whole time he’s destroying my phone he’s boring hate-holes into me with his eyes. I swear he was growling.”
“What did you do?”
“Punched him. Not hard, just once on his chest trying to get him to stop destroying my phone. Hurt my wrist. It was like punching a piece of furniture. He grabbed my wrists and almost lifted me off the floor. I swear my arms were going to break, I’m up on my tiptoes and I’m so scared I can’t breathe…”
She had to take a break. The lawyer was patient, waiting for her while she drank more rum. Time for some honesty. “Mr. Shackelford, I swear I didn’t want trouble. It was just a photo of him naked. What’s the big deal? Guy’s got a super-hot body, and his ding-dong is—now, I’m no expert, but it looks pretty huge. I figure I’m kind of doing him a favor if it gets out to the public.”
“He didn’t see it that way?”
“He did not. Definitely did not.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“He’s got my wrists, he’s saying all sorts of mean things, I don’t remember… Like insolent bitch, worthless scum, things like that. But he’s in control the whole time…”
She trailed off. The whole time Julian Mann had scared her like that, the worst thing was he wasn’t losing his shit. He was so calm and controlled she’d started to believe she was an insolent bitch. She’d had bad boyfriends before, and Julian Mann wasn’t like that. It wasn’t like she was worried he’d snap and haul off and hit her. It was more like he was convinced she was garbage and he was going to prove it to her, and he was going to take his time doing it.
“How did you get away?”
She sighed, feeling exhausted now. What she’d done was bad and now she was paying for it. Or more accurately, trying to get out of paying for it. “I screamed,” she said in a hollow voice that betrayed the bottomless terror she’d felt in that moment. Truth was she’d screamed and bellowed and kicked. And cried.
“He dropped me. I fell on the floor. I started walking backward on my elbows and bum. He says to me I better run. He says I better run and get those pictures destroyed before he does. Then he says…” She exhaled till she was empty.
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘You think you can own me? You know what I’m worth, and that’s why you’re here. You’re worth nothing and I will own you like this…’” She snapped her fingers.
Shackelford asked, “He snapped his fingers?”
“He did. And it like echoed a thousand times.”
“But he let you go?”
“Yeah. I ran around his stupid office maze bouncing off million-dollar paintings for a while but I found my way out. I must have looked like a crazy person running through the WaavvTek compound but, you know, eventually I found a bus stop and I made my way back to the campus.”
“And that’s when you discovered your dorm room had been ransacked.”
“Exactly. Like he knew who I was and where I lived and had whoever go out and turn my place upside down—all in forty-five minutes or less. The guy is scary.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Sure, shoot. That’s why you’re here.”
“What did you ask for when you showed Mr. Mann the photo of him with the woman?”
“What did I ask for? Well, money. I said, Hey, TMZ offered thirty Gs for this picture, think you can do better?”
“The implication being you would sell it to them otherwise.”
“Yeah, but not really, right? I never said or else…”
“It’s blackmail, Miss Armbruster,” he said again, eyes turned down as he pushed all his papers into the manila envelope and used the elastic string to wrap it closed.
“Yeah, but you’re my lawyer…”
Now he closed his notebook and tucked it into the satchel at his feet. He slid her phone toward him, tossed it in as well.
“What are you doing? You’re leaving?”
The guy was ignoring her, showing her the side of his face as he closed the buckles on his bag and hooped the shoulder strap over his head.
“Seriously, this is it? It’s not blackmail, Mr. Shackelford. And give me back my phone.” She stood when he did. Still he ignored her.
When he turned on his heel and began to leave, she pushed her chair back and followed.
“What kind of lawyer abandons his client like this?”
No answer still, she kept pace behind him and his pace quickened. The pool area was a courtyard with three exits through archways. They both headed to the archway that would lead to the front parking lot and reception.
That was when she saw the island cop lurking in the shade of the arched passageway. Six-four, two-hundred-plus pounds, he wore the uniform of the local constabulary: crisp white dress shirt with black epaulets, black Bermuda shorts and black knee socks, red stripes everywhere. He smiled.
She skidded to a stop. Shackelford bustled through the shade, past the cop and out to his rental car.
“Oh, no,” she sighed. Now she shouted, “It’s not blackmail, Shackelford!” The lawyer started his car and looked over his shoulder to back out of his spot.
The island cop drew out a baton and twirled it by its leather thong. She backed up three steps, turned and ran—skidded to a stop again.
Emerging from the shade of the other two archways were two more island cops. The first cop loomed close behind her. She darted left, turned and darted right. His arms lashed out to encircle her, and she ducked, scrambling now on her hands and feet.
The other sunbathers jumped up, heads whipping around, trying to determine the commotion. The other two cops came around the pool on either side. She ran straight, hopped on the diving board—one jumping step and she was bouncing off the lip then slicing through the water.
When she came up for air, she was blind. Her eyes stung like they’d been spritzed with acid. She paddled and kicked, dug the heels of her hands into her eye sockets. Deep, baritone laughter bellowed around her.
The black in her hair. It was in her eyes.
Underwater, she scrubbed at her face, panicking, opening her eyelids—the sting of chlorine was better than the dye.
When she surfaced, she was surrounded. A big cop on all the compass points of the pool, some with hands in pockets, the first one still twirling his baton. Black, inky water swirled around her where she doggy-paddled. She winked and blinked, snorted water out her nose, the top of her brain stung with pool chemicals.
“I’m not coming out,” she shouted.
Baton cop, still smiling, rested his foot up on the diving board and draped a forearm over his knee. He looked at his watch.
Still she paddled, cursing Shackelford, knowing she wasn’t getting out of this, wishing if she was going to be abducted that she’d stayed in America where at least she’d have had some semblance of rights. Although, who could tell when you were up against someone like Julian Mann. Money like his bought a lot of power.
A huge whomp came behind her followed by a splash that showered her as something large dumped in the water. She didn’t even look. She just started a frantic side stroke.
A powerful hand grabbed her ankle, pulled her under the water. The man wrestled with her, tugged on her shorts, and dug strong fingers in her flesh. Big arms went around her, forced her to stay under the water. The man grabbed her sweatshirt hood and pulled it over her head. She drew in water and freaked out. Her legs kicked, and she scratched at him, yelling and shouting under the water as he tightened her strings and closed the hood over her face. They were going to drown her in a swimming pool…
Now the guy’s feet were on the shallow end floor and he hoisted her over his shoulder, marching through the water. She vomited a cascading lungful of water down the back of his uniform. The cops on the deck laughed in a roar of sadistic humor. The man spanked her ass, and it squirted water out both legs of her shorts. That brought more laughter from the men.
She was handed up to another cop who helped her to stand, her hood still closed over her face. She hunched over, roaring and coughing, trying to get fresh air in her scorching lungs. Arms twisted behind her back, they ran zip ties around her wrists and yanked them till they dug into her flesh.
They fucking had her now…