Crystal had a good feeling about this job. Boss Man called her just three hours ago. Told her to get herself pretty, said he’d send a car for her. She told him she couldn’t make it. She didn’t have a sitter for her daughter. Besides, Nyla’s birthday was tomorrow and the soon-to-be four-year-old was too wired to pawn off on some babysitter uninitiated to how headstrong the girl could be when she was this excited.
“Don’t you worry about a thing,” Boss Man promised her. “Sitter’s on me. Make sure you’re ready to have a good time.”
“Look,” Crystal tried again. “I’m dead tired. I’ve been working double shifts all week.” She chose her next words carefully; she knew his temper. “Besides, you’ve had me out three times this month. Have somebody else take this one.” She held the phone away from her ear and braced herself for an angry tirade. Instead she heard his soft chuckle.
“You sure you want me to do that?”
Crystal brought the phone closer. “Why wouldn’t I want a night with my baby the day before her party? Especially as tired as I am.”
Boss Man’s voice was full of sugar. “Don’t I always take care of you? This job came up. Big bucks.” He waited a moment; his voice lowered to a near whisper when he continued. “Man’s in town with his director. Scouting scenes for a new movie he’s about to start. Word is they’ve still got a couple of bit parts to fill. Naturally, I thought of you.”
Crystal glanced over to the small play table in the corner of the efficiency apartment she called home. Nyla was busy drawing princesses. To Crystal they all looked like circles and sticks, but Nyla had a name and story for each one.
“If he’s such a hotshot, why’s he need you? Tell him to go down to the hotel bar and crook his finger at any girl sipping happy hour away. Won’t cost him a cent.”
Boss Man didn’t whisper this time. “Guys like this don’t pay the girl to show. They pay her to leave when it’s time to get some shut-eye. He’s expecting you. Now get yourself cleaned up and plant a big smile on that pretty face. The car will be there at seven o’clock. With a babysitter in the backseat.”
“Mama!” Nyla held up her paper. It was filled with purple blotches and squiggles. “Princess Puppy Dog! She have birfday too!” The little girl smiled wide, bounced her head of golden curls, and started singing a fractured version of the birthday song.
Crystal heaved a sigh into the phone. “Look, I can’t.”
“If that’s the way you want it. But there’s one thing you should know before you blow this guy off.”
The voice on the other end of the line was pure silk. “This could be your way out.”
Crystal shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “I’m listening.”
“Now, I’m not going to lie to you, Crystal. This guy’s into some quirky kink. Nothing you can’t handle, though. And he’s Hollywood. Those guys don’t pop a zit without a camera rolling, so you can expect some of that. Don’t be surprised if there’s another person invited to play along, either.”
“So far you’re making a night of tea parties and paper dolls sound pretty good.”
“Tea party!” Nyla sang out.
“Like I said,” Boss Man continued. “This guy tells me what he’s looking for, and him being Tinseltown connected and all, I know he’s got the bankroll to back it up. So I negotiate for you like I’m Mark F***ing Cuban in the middle of the shark tank.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“How’s this?” Boss Man asked. “You do tonight . . . make nice with Hollywood . . . and you’re clear.”
Crystal pushed down a stir of hope tugging in her chest. “Specifics?”
“You’re all paid up, honey. No more principal. No more interest. You wake up tomorrow morning with your debt marked ‘paid in full.’”
Crystal reminded herself to breathe. She looked over to Nyla and imagined an endless string of evenings with her girl. If she could get clear of what she owed Boss Man, maybe she could even cut back on overtime at the store.
“You’re not playing with me?”
Boss Man chuckled again. “Tell you what, I’ll leave an envelope with the guy. I’ll have all your paperwork inside. Big red stamp across the front showing it paid. Everything legit as the pope. If that’s not enough for you, turn around and walk out.”
Crystal closed her eyes and stole a moment to dream. She’d be done. She and Nyla could be together like a real family. No more shame. No more fear. Just her and her baby girl.
“This sitter, she good?”
“I use her for my own kids. That is, when I can find the time to take the wife out. Now, what do you say? Don’t let all my negotiating go for nothing.”
The car arrived at seven o’clock sharp. As promised, Jennifer, a skinny teen with a shy smile, got out, arms filled with coloring books and stickers. Nyla pouted at first, but within five minutes Jennifer had her smiling and waving goodbye to Mommy. Crystal greeted the driver, settled into the backseat, and pretended she was Cinderella being whisked off to an enchanted ball where her prince awaited her . . . not with a slipper, but with an envelope that promised freedom.
The car climbed the Seattle hills, finally stopping at the iron gates of a large estate. The driver announced himself into a small mounted speaker and the gates slid open. Crystal took in the manicured lawns, the well-tended beds of rhododendrons and azaleas, and thought about how much Nyla would enjoy this place. Spring was her daughter’s favorite time of year.
The driver stopped in front of the house. He got out, opened Crystal’s door, and held his hand out for support. Crystal shifted her right leg out of the car slowly, allowing the champagne silk of her dress to separate, showing a subtle tease of thigh. You never knew who might be looking.
“I’ll be back tomorrow morning at seven thirty.” The driver smiled. “You’ll find a change of day clothes waiting for you inside. Have a lovely evening.”
Crystal climbed four stone steps. The front door opened before she had a chance to ring the bell. She put on her best “Glad to meet you” smile and stepped into a foyer larger than her entire apartment.
“My, my.” The man who opened the door stepped back and scanned the length of her body. “You’re even lovelier than promised. And so young. I trust you’re over eighteen.”
Crystal assumed the role of seductress. She held his gaze and answered in her best throaty whisper. “I am. Unless you need me to be something else.”
The man clapped in delight. He was handsome. Older than she typically found attractive but still drop-dead gorgeous. His rugged good looks could have him starring in some blockbuster action flick. Or maybe one of those romantic comedies where the starlet hates him at first but ends up wearing his shirt, locked in his bathroom, and crying over the phone to her fat best friend about how drunk she got last night. Boss Man said the guy had Hollywood connections, but Crystal didn’t recognize him. Then again, for the past three years she’d been to only four movies . . . and they were all animated joy rides designed to enthrall Nyla and her friends.
“I’m Troy, by the way.” His smile signaled an impish game. “What shall I call you?”
Crystal reached her hand behind her neck and shook her long blonde hair in a way she knew caught men’s attention. “You tell me.”
Troy stepped back and nodded. He walked a slow circle around her. He leaned so close she felt his breath as he inhaled her scent.
“If I were to name you, there’d be no other fit but Angel.”
Crystal widened her blue eyes. “Well then, you’re in luck. That’s my name.”
He took her hand in his. His touch was like a kiss from velvet lips. He nodded to a room off to the left. “Shall we begin?”
Crystal liked the way his eyes softened when he looked at her. She was glad Boss Man had talked her into this. “I believe you have something for me? An envelope?”
Troy’s face blanched in embarrassment. “Forgive me, my dear Angel. I was so captivated I’ve forgotten my manners.” He reached into the front pocket of his tuxedo jacket and handed her a white business envelope. “The paperwork is from our mutual acquaintance. The other is from me.”
Crystal looked inside. As promised, Boss Man had included her original contract, now marked “paid in full.” Behind the papers was a half-inch stack of crisp hundred-dollar bills. She’d count them later but knew it was likely to exceed the amount Boss Man typically credited to her account.
Her now closed-and-paid-in-full account. Crystal felt nearly giddy. She was finally free and wanted to celebrate.
“I don’t suppose you have champagne?”
Troy’s words were pure seduction. “Angel, I have everything you could ever hope for in the next room.” He held out his hand.
She followed him across the marble foyer into the living room. Crystal had seen a room like this only in magazines. The hardwood floor was so polished she could see the reflection of her high-heeled shoes. A fireplace dominated one wall, faced from floor to ceiling in gleaming stainless steel. While Troy poured the champagne, Crystal ran a hand across a cocoa-colored sofa so soft she checked her fingers to see if she’d wiped the leather away.
Troy handed her a glass and clinked his own against it. Crystal liked the elegant sound.
“To an evening neither of us will forget,” Troy offered.
“To meeting remarkable people in the most unusual ways,” Crystal responded. This guy was a charmer. She took a small sip of the champagne and enjoyed the pleasant warmth it traced down her throat.
“Come, my Angel.” Troy sat on a love seat facing a large abstract painting Crystal was sure belonged somewhere people would have to pay to see it. “Tell me all about your life.”
She settled next to him and took another sip of the marvelous champagne. “You seem to know me so well.”
Crystal understood the dance. “See if you can tell me who I am.”
Troy placed his champagne flute on the side table. He caressed the side of her face, allowing his fingers to feather through her hair. His eyes held hers as he nodded for her to take another sip. He slid his fingers down, tracing her throat and collarbone. His hand lingered on her left breast and Crystal let his warmth soothe her. He lowered his hand to her lap and she opened her knees slightly.
“Tut-tut,” he whispered. “We’re in no hurry. Enjoy your champagne.”
Crystal took another sip.
“You are a woman of substance,” he said. “Born into a safe and secure station in life. All the finest advantages handed to you.”
Crystal took another drink to stifle her smirk. She wondered what her alcoholic mother and over-the-road truck driver father would think of Troy’s story. But her job was to provide him his fantasy.
“But plush comforts hold no interest for you, do they, Angel?”
She followed his lead. She held his gaze and slowly shook her head. “It’s like you’re reading my soul.”
Troy’s nod was barely perceptible. “You crave the exotic. Maybe even a bit of danger.”
Troy’s voice sounded far away. Crystal blinked her focus clear. “Yes. That’s what I need.”
He took her empty champagne glass and leaned forward. His tongue played with the soft spot at the base of her throat. She leaned her head back against the sofa, hoping to anchor herself against the spinning room. She felt his hand sneak up the inside of her thigh.
“And this, my Angel? Is this what you need as well?”
Crystal blinked hard. He’d asked her something. She couldn’t make it out clearly. But she knew a word every man wanted to hear.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes.”
Crystal felt herself being lifted to her feet. She leaned against him. He smelled so good. She tried to place what that wonderful cologne was but decided it was unnecessary. It’s what money smells like.
She forced her attention to her legs, wanting them to move gracefully as he led her to another room, but they felt oddly disconnected from her body. Troy was there, a steady hand around her waist. He’s such a gentleman. So kind.
This room was smaller than the living room but every bit as lovely. Crystal saw a long narrow table in front of a hanging fabric. That’s a tapestry. Like the one in the museum I took Nyla to. They told her it was a way to tell stories back when people couldn’t read.
Crystal turned toward Troy. She wanted to ask him what story this tapestry told, but she couldn’t move her mouth. Her tongue felt large and dry. She looked past his shoulder and saw the camera pointing her way, its tiny red light winking at her.
Boss Man said this was coming. Hollywood folks can’t . . . they can’t . . . what did Boss Man say Hollywood folks couldn’t do without a camera?
Crystal took a deep breath, but instead of clearing her head, the breath seemed to push her mind even further toward whatever cloud it was chasing.
Angels float on clouds.
She felt herself being lifted, then lowered onto the table. She turned to smile at Troy’s face, so close to hers.
I want him to kiss me.
Her head rolled to the side. A brief surge of adrenaline fired when she saw the array of knives and scalpels laid out on the tray beside her, but it wasn’t enough to make her muscles move. A vision of Nyla singing “Happy Birthday” to her Princess Puppy flashed across her consciousness.
Then there was nothing but terror, and she couldn’t even scream.