I’m Crystal Banks, and I’m about to give you no-holds-barred access to the deepest, darkest secrets of my mind. I can’t guarantee that you’ll like everything you read in the pages to come, but just know that it’s the truth . . . every last word of it. I’ve been privy to some pretty weird and mysterious stuff in my short twenty-five years on this planet: the types of encounters that give you nightmares and make you purchase fancy security systems. But before I start yammering on about haunted woods and monsters, I think it’s best to hit the rewind button and take you back to the beginning.
Well, not quite that far because I’m sure my childhood would only bore you, and none of you want to read about my first kiss because it was nothing but a bunch of awkward nose bumping. Instead, I’m going to start with the seriously crappy weekend that changed my life forever. It all began when I walked in on my boyfriend doing the nasty with the valedictorian from my grad class. I guess the whole bit about men not liking intelligent women is a lie, at least so long as those brains are paired with a big enough rack. I honestly don’t understand what he saw in her other than the fact that she was blonde and busty. Personally, I refused to bleach my hair just because being a brunette wasn’t popular.
I have long dark brown hair with blunt bangs that generally feel like they’re stuck to my eyelashes. This can get annoying fast. I’m five-ten, so maybe I was just too tall for Bryce the Cheater, otherwise known as the man I would never sleep with again under any circumstances, not even in the classic last-man-on-earth scenario.
The height-sensitive loser had always complained when I wore heels. But essentially, it didn’t matter why he had gone out and cheated on me. Whether he was looking for bigger boobs or a shorter and thinner figure was of no concern to me because I wasn’t willing to change a damn thing about myself. Well, at least not for that two-timing S.O.B. I wasn’t ready to rule out all men at this point— just one.
There were so many lovely questions lolling about in my angry mind. Was that the first time he’d been unfaithful? Had there been other women? And why, oh why, oh why did he have to do it on our sheets? I felt dirty, and if I discovered that I had an STD because of him I was determined to knife him in the balls. Quite frankly, I was sure that any jury would side with me! I made the stabbing motion with my right hand and smiled darkly at the thought.
When it was over, I realized that I’d never loved Bryce, but even so I knew I’d never, ever have done something so despicable to him. I was just the faithful type, I guess. If I was being honest, there was something that upset me far more than the fact that he’d sought some action on the side: I was homeless.
I may have purchased those incredible hotel thread count sheets, but the apartment had been his. Well, actually it belonged to his parents, but any way you looked at it he got to keep it and I was out on my ass. None of this would have mattered if I had tons of money at my disposal, but I’d barely made it through school and I was up to my ears in debt. Trust me, I looked into it and you can’t turn your master’s degree in for a refund.
But there was no use crying over spilled milk because none of that would matter soon. I was determined not to sleep until I landed a new job. Thanks to a somewhat aggressive email campaign, I’d managed to finagle back-to-back interviews with several of the publishing firms in town, so all I had to do was dazzle them. I felt like I’d spent my whole life in school, mainly because I had spent my whole life in school.
I should have quit years before, you know, back when I was only fifty grand in debt. I suppose it’s my own fault because I didn’t feel that a bachelor’s degree would be enough to land me a good job. I’d added on two more years of debt, a.k.a. schooling, in order to pursue my master’s in English. By this point I’d racked up so much school and credit card debt that I wondered if I’d ever be able to pay it all off before I got old and died. To add insult to injury, I’d maxed out my last credit card in order to buy the hideous outfit I was wearing for my interviews.
The navy suit-dress looked even worse on me than it had on the hanger. I felt like a total dork, not to mention unfashionable. But this is the type of crap people have to wear when they’re trying to get a job that pays more than minimum wage. It was not like I wasn’t willing to flip burgers or anything, it just didn’t pay enough to keep my lovely lenders off my back.
Maybe I’d have felt differently if the ugly garment hadn’t cost me two-hundred and fifty bucks, even though it was marked down on the clearance rack. I couldn’t believe other women paid $750 for these things; it didn’t seem possible. Regardless, I was trying to consider it a sound investment into future earnings, but that didn’t mean I didn’t resent the expense. Apparently it was now legal to commit highway robbery; they just used price scanners instead of guns in these more “civilized” times.
I had somewhat nefarious hopes of returning the thing and had sneakily tucked the tag up under my jacket in the back where you couldn’t see it. I typically try not to be superstitious, but I definitely had my fingers crossed that the tag would stay put and I wouldn’t spill anything on my “lovely” and hopefully temporary purchase. If I didn’t land a job, I was totally and utterly screwed because I was out of money. I didn’t even have any credit left at this point!
My student worker position at the school had ended two weeks before graduation, and it hadn’t made any sense to look for a filler job because once I had my degree in hand I would be able to seek far more fulfilling employment in the “real world” of publishing. But I hadn’t factored being homeless into any of this. I wasn’t ready to waltz my way down the aisle yet, but I certainly wasn’t planning to break up with Bryce in the near future.
I had no money, no job, and my student loan payment was the size of an inflated house mortgage. At least I’d have a few months before I had to start making payments on that beast. All of this was Bryce’s fault! Every time I thought about my ex, I wanted to kick something and scream, but apparently that’s not acceptable public behavior.
Taking the subway is far from glamorous, but that’s what you do when you live in a big city and you can’t afford a cab. I tried not to make eye contact with any of the crazies and as tempting as that molded plastic seat looked, I didn’t sit down because the last thing I needed was gum on my ass. I was extra careful not to break a heel on the escalator during my ride back up to street level.
All of this would have been easier if I’d had a full night of sleep, but instead it had been filled with nothing but fitful tossing and turning. I hadn’t suffered from nightmares since I was a young girl, but something had shifted in me since the breakup and now they haunted me each time my head hit the pillow. They were crazy dreams, though most of what happened left me by the time I woke up, except for one detail . . . there were always bears. I’m not talking about cute Winnie the Pooh cartoons here, I’m talking about “rip-your-face-off-and-tear-your-throat-out-while-you-go-for-a-walk-in-the-woods” monsters. I’d literally resisted adding honey to my tea the other day because my subconscious feared that it would attract a bear or something. Right! Like there are bears in the city.
It was a short walk from the subway exit to the high-rise office building where my first interview was so I took my time and tried to focus my mind on more positive thoughts; basically anything but bears would have sufficed. I took a deep breath and tried to think confident things like “I’m so getting this job!” as I rode the elevator up.
I don’t do stairs—not in heels. Stairs are for crazy people who enjoy exercise . . . you know, masochists. I may look thin on the outside, but that doesn’t mean I’m healthy. I’m about as lazy as it gets. Maybe I should be ashamed of this, but I believe in accepting who you truly are. The elevator doors dinged as they opened to the level occupied by the publishing firm. I screwed a hopeful smile onto my face as I approached the lobby. I checked in with the receptionist and waited patiently until they led me back for my interview.
Five minutes in I knew something was up. The woman kept checking her email and she refused to make direct eye contact with me the whole time. Instead of the usual “we’ll get back with you” song and dance routine, she cut right to the chase and told me that I wouldn’t be a good fit. I was disappointed, but this wasn’t the only firm in town so I checked my pride and thanked her for her time.
Did I mention I’d been having a rough week? Well, apparently it wasn’t getting any better. It actually took me three more appointments to figure out what was really going on.
“Bryce called you, didn’t he?” I accused the man who’d just “interviewed” me and then promptly explained that I wasn’t a good fit for their company. He’d already been trying to show me to the door when I’d had my big eureka moment and put the last piece of the puzzle in place.
The telltale look of guilt on the man’s face told me everything I needed to know. My rat bastard of an ex had called around and somehow blacklisted me in the entire publishing community. Bryce’s family owned the largest firm in town, so I suppose it wasn’t that hard for him to pull a few strings in order to abuse his power and lay me low. The whole thing seemed unusually cruel. It wasn’t like I’d been unfaithful to him. He was the cheater! What right did he have to pull such a nasty stunt when he’d already screwed me over, literally?
Did he think I’d come crawling back to him like a beaten down puppy? Did he think I’d forgive him for being a lying, cheating, not to mention short prick? Was he so conceited that he couldn’t see how messed up this whole situation was? I was so furious that I felt like my blood was boiling beneath my cheap-to-the-world-yet-expensive-to-me suit-dress. I imagined burning those sheets he’d tainted, and in several of my fantasies he was still in the bed when I dropped the match.
I wasn’t completely ready to throw in the towel, so I went through the motions of my last two interviews. Big surprise, the results were very much the same as they’d been with all the other firms. I couldn’t help but wonder exactly what he’d told them about me. It must have been seriously awful. I checked my reflection in my compact, wondering if horns had suddenly sprouted from my hair, because the last woman had looked at me as though I were evil incarnate.
I walked back outside and stood on the street corner waiting for inspiration to strike, but I was plumb out of life-altering, decision-making capabilities for the day. Quite frankly, I was feeling beyond disenchanted. Too bad I didn’t have any other close friends. Between work and school, I’d only had time for Bryce. So, as far as relationships went I was batting zero. No one was going to offer me their couch.
Just when I was trying to figure out a way to land myself another one of those handy dandy store loyalty credit cards I noticed a line of well-dressed men and women curving halfway around the block. They were all dressed similarly to me, only their suits looked a hell of a lot nicer.
“What’s going on?” I asked the last woman in line.
She handed me a computer printout so that I could read for myself. It was a surprisingly long ad. I quickly scanned the text. “Seeking personal assistant . . . Must be willing to relocate . . . blah blah blah . . . middle of nowhere.”
If I’d had deeper relationships with people, moving might have been a deal breaker, but I was more than ready for a fresh start. In fact, it seemed like a unique opportunity. Not only was the minimum salary more than generous, the position also included free room and board. The thought of being able to free myself from the shackles of debt was definitely tempting.
In some ways it seemed as though the job posting had been tailored specifically to me, but no doubt everyone else waiting in line felt that way too; otherwise they wouldn’t still be standing in their uncomfortable formal-wear and heels while they sweated off all their pretty makeup. Needless to say, I was intrigued by this point. Being as I wasn’t faced with any better alternatives, I stepped into line behind the other applicants to try my luck at a job that seemed a little too good to be true. I couldn’t help but compare the whole situation to the lottery. Only one person would walk away with the jackpot, but we were all excited to buy our tickets . . . or at least wait our turn for an interview.
Surprisingly enough, no one else sidled in after me, so I retained my dead last position. I wondered if possibly this might give me an advantage because I would be the last face they saw after a long day. I refused to dwell on the fact that it was far more likely they would be totally zoned out by the time I got my shot. That was loser talk and I already had enough negative crap going on in my head without feeding it more. Let’s hear it for blind optimism—the true friend of desperation.
Eventually I made it inside the building and the A/C wafted over me in a big welcoming gush. I sighed as the chilled air worked to cool my overheated skin. The odds of being able to return the ugly suit were diminishing more by the second. I was getting that hot skin smell that happens when you spend too much time outside. It’s different than a B.O. smell, but still not altogether pleasant. However, I wasn’t ready to completely let go of the notion of getting back my money yet, at least not until I’d landed a job.
I began to chant inside my head, “This job is mine,” hoping that perhaps the universe would hear and take pity on me. Normally I try to avoid silly activities like this and focus on concrete actions I can actually control, but my ex and the universe had shown me that I was no longer the governor of my circumstances. By this point, I was sufficiently willing to plead with God if that’s what it took to improve my financial prospects.
Being inside was soooo much nicer than baking outside in the heat. The A/C helped to revitalize my tired body and I began to stand straighter again where before I’d been wilting and drooping. My eyes scanned the walls which were covered extensively with framed oil paintings. It was like moving through a museum at a snail’s pace, so it took me awhile before I realized that all of the paintings had a similar subject matter . . . bears. What the what? Why did I feel like I’d just walked inside one of my creepy dreams? If it hadn’t been for my unrelenting loop of nightmares, I wouldn’t have given the paintings’ themes a second thought, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the two were somehow connected.
If I’d been a superstitious person I would have turned on my heel and proceeded at warp speed until the building was no longer visible, but I liked to consider myself a logical person and I was desperate for employment. I stopped staring at the walls and focused on the progress of the line itself. There were still a crap ton of people ahead of me, but at least we were moving at a reasonably steady pace.
I hadn’t been inside for more than thirty minutes when the secretary received a phone call. Mine were not the only eyes trained on the woman with avid interest. Two seconds after the headset met the cradle of the receiver she stood and addressed the line of waiting candidates.
“I regret to inform you that Mr. Steel won’t be conducting any more interviews today. Please leave a copy of your résumé with me if you’d still like to be considered for the position. We’d appreciate it if you could show yourselves out of the building.”
I stared at the woman in fish-mouthed disbelief. More than a few of the other job seekers were muttering under their breaths as they stormed out of the office. Most hadn’t bothered to leave a copy of their résumés behind, which showed a general lack of confidence that it would make any difference. It was obvious that the position had already been filled, which meant that I should have just turned around and followed the rest of the disappointed candidates in their dejected, feet-dragging stroll towards the exit.
Yup. That would have been the logical thing to do. But sane Crystal had vacated the premises about five interviews ago. Not getting a chance to interview after all that waiting? Well that was just the straw that broke the tired and thirsty camel’s back. The thought of accepting one more bit of rejection today failed to compute. I wasn’t ready to seize a weapon and do bodily harm to my fellow humans or anything, but I was totally up for a screaming match, if necessary.
Everyone has a limit, a point where they just can’t take anymore and they crack. Apparently I’d reached my breaking point. Like I said, I’d had a rough weekend. My slimy boyfriend had cheated on me and I’d been cruelly blacklisted from the publishing community I had worked tirelessly to become a part of for years. At this point, I’d have to leave town in order to find work in my chosen field of expertise. Adding insult to injury, given how hot it had been outside, I probably had pit stains which meant there was no way I could return my pricey discount rack suit and I wasn’t even going to have a job to show for it!
Perhaps my stomach was to blame. Maybe it was the fact that I hadn’t eaten anything since my hurried, free continental breakfast from the cheap motel where I was staying. All of the PMS hormones raging through my body could also have triggered my crazy outburst, I really don’t know for sure what to blame. The tight hold I normally keep on my wayward tongue wrenched free as I strode determinedly over to the secretary’s desk. My heels tapped sharp staccato notes on the marble floor, loudly marking each step of my fool’s journey. I tried not to let the rage enter my voice as I spoke and I carefully schooled my features into a look of respectful insistence.
“I’m not leaving until I see Mr. Steel.” Ok, so there was a little more anger in my voice than I’d hoped for. Naughty tongue. Bad inflection.
“I’m afraid that’s not possible. Mr. Steel won’t be conducting any more interviews today. You are more than welcome to leave me a copy of your résumé and I’ll see that he gets it.” She repeated her statement from before like a senseless robot. She was the type of woman who would never alter the script she’d been given. She’d continue to parrot the same information over and over again, right up until the point she called for security. Obviously I wasn’t going to get anywhere with her, so it was time to try a different tactic. No more arguing.
I stared the woman down, sizing her up. She was petite, barely pushing five feet even with the help of her five inch heels. She didn’t appear to be overly muscular, which was good because I wasn’t into weights either. My legs were miles longer, which was a definite boon. Secure in the knowledge that I could best her in a race, I turned and made a mad dash towards Mr. Steel’s office. I’d seen countless applicants traipsing in and out of his door all day long. Everyone else had been given a chance to interview with the hotshot billionaire and that’s all I wanted: a chance.
It wasn’t that I didn’t recognize that I was acting totally bat-shit crazy, but I chose to press forward anyway. In the back of my mind I was aware that the man would pretty much have to be a lunatic to hire me after I’d exhibited such rash and unprofessional behavior, which is why most of those other people had just walked away. But I wasn’t most people. I was Crystal freaking Banks, and I was done taking no for an answer. Sure I probably wouldn’t be getting the job. All I knew was that I was getting my interview, and that it would be an interview not sabotaged by my ex.
Adrenaline coursed through my veins as I ran. My arms pumped wildly and an uncontrollable grin contorted my face as I sped across the lobby. The woman shouted furiously after me to STOP, but I ignored her. Security would probably arrive any second now. On the plus side, if I got arrested I’d at least be entitled to a hot meal for a night or two. “Al---ways look on the bright si---ide of life----,” I hummed to myself under my breath.
The knob turned easily in my hand as I burst into the room. The office was ridiculously lavish and it screamed money. The secretary was hot on my heels, demanding for me to CEASE, but I just ignored her and focused my attention on the people occupying the office space. There were two of them: a gorgeous, well-dressed woman with stylish blonde hair and a tall, brooding Adonis who really had no business being so good looking and rich at the same time. It really wasn’t fair. He probably had an ego the size of a football field to go with it. Why did all attractive men have to be such complete narcissists?
Mr. Sexy was wearing a suit that looked like it was custom tailored to his deliciously trim, muscular body. Beards aren’t normally my thing, but his carefully sculpted facial hair looked so good that I was itching to run my fingers through it. His chocolate brown eyes were drawing me in like a tractor beam and I had to press my hand against the doorframe in order to resist taking another step eagerly towards him. I felt compelled to squeeze his arms to see if he was as muscular as I was hoping. It was hard to tell with the cut of his suit jacket, but I really hoped it wasn’t just padding. I was easing my thoughts into a deliciously naughty fantasy about stripping off his jacket and undoing the buttons on his crisply ironed shirt one by one, not stopping until I hit skin . . . and then he had to go and ruin the moment by speaking.
“The interviews are closed,” Steel stated coolly as he stared me down.
Thanks to his height advantage, I felt even less his social equal. He made me feel like he resented the fact that our lungs were presently filling up from a shared airstream. Oh, those eyes! The way he was looking at me made me feel as lovely as a big pile of stinky garbage that the janitor had failed to remove. So much for my delusional fantasies that he might possibly be as attracted to me as I was to him. Whatever. I wasn’t here to hunt for a new boyfriend. What I needed was a job that paid well. At the moment, this was my one and only prospect and I refused to let it go easily.
No, I would not go gentle into that good-night. Okay, I know that was cheesy, just remember that I read like way too much and cut me a little slack already. I was done with gentle and I was so ready to rage, rage against the dying of the light. If it weren’t for the fact that he was already dead, I’m pretty sure that Dylan Thomas would have rolled his eyes at me big time for ripping off his uber famous poem. Man, I hated how much I needed this job. I was supposed to be working in publishing. That’s where I really belonged.
“I tried to stop her, Mr. Steel,” the secretary panted behind me, out of shape and out of breath.
I bet she takes the elevator every day too, I thought snidely. Her hand locked down hard on my arm as she prepared to drag me out of the office forcibly. All of that typing and phone answering had given her super strong fingers and I had to bite back a strong expletive about what she could do with her Superman grip. I really couldn’t decide what my next course of action was. I was in a bit of a pickle, to say the least.
“Let her stay.”
The attractive blonde behind the desk spoke loudly and with authority. I wasn’t sure why she’d chosen to come to my rescue, but I wasn’t about to complain. Maybe not all blondes are mean. Come to think of it, it didn’t seem fair to blame all blonde women for the fact that a certain fair-haired valedictorian had danced a horizontal salsa with my ex. I decided to judge the woman on the merit of her actions, hair color be damned.
“Are you sure?” Steel questioned gruffly. For a moment he looked like a petulant little boy who’d just been told by his mother that there would be no dessert after dinner.
The blonde nodded decisively and Steel waved the secretary out of the room. She shut the door behind me so hard and so fast that it almost took my arm off. Thankfully, I managed to whisk my fingers out of the way just in time, keeping all of my digits blessedly intact. The blonde behind the desk laughed, but Steel didn’t appear to be amused in the slightest. Well, come to think of it I didn’t find almost losing a hand all that funny either. I wondered what I should say next, but I hadn’t really given much thought to my plan of attack beyond forcing my way into the room. He glared at me and held out his hand expectantly.
“I assume you have a résumé?” he asked imperiously.
“Oh, um, of course,” I stammered pawing through my leather bound portfolio. Okay so I lied. It’s not really leather at all. It’s some sort of plasticky pleather, but it still looks nice and professional and it’s not like I had plans to use it all the time anyway! I retrieved a copy and handed it to him. I’d printed it on “classy” paper that looked like high-end stationary, or at least that’s what the sales clerk had assured me when I’d purchased it.
“It seems like you would be better suited to a job in publishing,” he said aloud after he’d scanned the contents. The first words to pop up in my head were “no shit, Sherlock” but I wisely kept them to myself. I’d already done enough damage for one day, possibly enough for a lifetime.
“I’ve already made a terrible first impression,” I said bluntly, looking him boldly in the eye. “So I’m going to be frank and admit that I would have greatly preferred to land a job in the publishing community today. But unfortunately my slimy toad of an ex has ruined ALL chances of that for me. I need a job, today! I’m a fast learner and a hard worker. You won’t regret hiring me. Seriously.”
He ignored my eager rant and moved forward with his intense interrogation tactics. His unwavering eye contact was beyond intimidating. “You understand that this job requires you to reside full time at my estate, and that my home is very remote. I keep odd hours and it may be necessary at times to travel with little to no notice.”
“I’m currently living in a motel that I can’t afford so that won’t be a problem.”
“What is your family situation?” he asked bluntly.
“Are you asking if I’m pregnant?” I asked densely.
“No, but are you?”
“Thank God, no.”
“Extended family?” he asked, frustration weighing heavily in his voice.
“I don’t have any family.”
“She’s lying,” the blonde announced crisply, and I had to resist glaring at my so-called “ally.”
“I don’t speak to any of them. I’ve intentionally burned all my bridges and they may as well not exist. They are not a part of my life in any way. Just because you share a few branches on a family tree doesn’t mean you have to let someone be a part of your life,” I explained.
The blonde nodded at Steel, like she was his own personal lie detector or something. What I would have given to hear what was going on beneath her bleached platinum roots, but “alas poor Yorick,” I can’t read minds. She closed her eyes like she was meditating or something; it was beyond annoying but apparently I’d managed to pass the family hurdle because after a tense pause she opened her eyes and nodded affirmatively at Steel.
This was more than good, it was fantastic, because as far as I was concerned that discussion was over and done with, as in put a period at the end of the sentence we’re not talking about this topic anymore. I wasn’t about to go spilling my family history to a couple of people I’d just met. That shit was personal. Everyone is entitled to a few secrets, and some skeletons are just better left in the freaking closet under five layers of Christmas decorations and a bunch of crap that you don’t even remember buying in the first place.
“She’s the one, Eric,” the woman stated confidently and I couldn’t help but admire what good taste she had. Of course I’m the one. I’m all that and a bag of freaking chips!
“I told you I didn’t want a woman,” he argued, glaring at the blonde. “They question everything and have an annoying tendency to fall in love with me.”
Wow, that was highly offensive. I couldn’t resist snorting before I responded disdainfully, “I assure you that so long as your checks don’t bounce, I can keep my HEART firmly under control.” On the plus side, I was becoming less attracted to the man by the second, which would certainly make working for him easier. Every time he spoke his hotness meter plunged another number. He’d started off at a ten and by the end of the interview he’d be lucky to be a two.
The blonde let loose a throaty laugh but Mr. Steel was woefully unamused. He groaned as he turned, meeting my eyes in an unnervingly direct way. I almost felt like I should apologize or something, but I bit my lip to keep in the words. He was the rude one and I didn’t want to set some sort of precedent of always having to say sorry for crap that wasn’t even my fault. I was already mentally preparing myself for the final job rejection of the day, so his next statement surprised me big time.
“How soon can you pack and be ready to go? I’d like to leave this infernal city as soon as possible.” His tone was clipped, begrudging, and rude, but none of that registered.
Holy crap, he actually offered me the job! How on earth I’d managed to land this position was totally beyond me. I’d officially broken every rule in the book, and I was still walking away with the prize. I decided to just keep being myself at this point because the whole transparency thing was obviously working for me.
“Pay for my cab fare and I can be back here in less than an hour,” I replied bluntly.
He pulled a hundred dollar bill out of his wallet and handed it to me. “My helicopter is on the roof of this building. I’m leaving in exactly one hour . . . with or without you, Miss Banks.”
“Understood,” I replied bobbing my head up and down like an idiot. I thanked him for the job and then I took off as fast as I could out of the office. I waited until I reached the lobby to take off my heels so he wouldn’t see me in such an “undignified” posture. Then I ran barefoot across the dirty city sidewalks and hailed down the first taxi I saw. I couldn’t believe it, but somehow I’d landed the job, even after my insane stunt of forcing my way into the man’s office. This was shaping up to be one of the strangest days of my life.
There was no stopping the big stupid grin that threatened to split my face in two. Maybe my future wasn’t destined to be so awful after all. I’d managed to land a job with a smoking hot billionaire with the bonus of the free room and board. Take that, school debt! Prepare to be toast. I would happily have continued to daydream in the back seat of the cab, but there was no ignoring the fact that the taxi was traveling at a snail’s pace.
I hadn’t factored in the rush hour traffic, so even with the cab I would be cutting it close. When we reached my motel, I told the man to wait and that I would be right back. He tried to holler after me, demanding his payment, but I knew if I paid him I’d only have a fifty-fifty shot of him sticking around like I wanted. I couldn’t risk the time it would take to get another taxi, so I had to be a little slimy. I wondered if I could repair the damage to my Karma by giving the man a nice tip.
It took me less than ten minutes to pack up my stuff. What can I say; I’ve never been big on material possessions. Call me a minimalist if you will, but I was really just too cheap to spend my own money on anything but the bare essentials. I was usually more than happy to make do with everyone else’s furniture and such. All I cared about was my clothes and I rarely had enough funds to splurge on those. I didn’t want to risk missing my deadline, so I kept the ugly suit on, even though the reflection I caught in the mirror on the way out frightened me. The man had made it quite clear that he wasn’t interested in my body, and vanity could well cost me my position before I’d even started.
“Fugly is so hot right now,” I intoned in my best fashion designer voice as I rode the elevator down to the lobby and sprinted back to the cab. The driver raised his eyebrows when I gave him the address back to where he’d just brought me, but I’m sure he processed far stranger requests on a daily basis.
The traffic was even worse on the way back. I’m not really a religious person, but that doesn’t mean that I’m above praying when I really need something. I kept up a near constant litany of “God please get these stupid cars out of my way so I don’t lose this job” on the way back to the office building. I shoved the hundred dollar bill at the man when we arrived. I didn’t have time to wait for the change, no matter how desperately I wanted to, and I still felt a little guilty about making him wait to get paid the first time around.
I looped multiple bags over my arms and I was already panting and out of breath by the time I reached the elevator. When I saw the “Temporarily Out of Order” sign taped on the steel doors, I felt as though I’d been slapped in the face. Was the universe just screwing with me here? I dropped a box containing feminine hygiene products and makeup on the ground as I headed for the stairwell. All of that stuff could be easily replaced.
Then I kicked off my high heels, abandoning them on the ground where they fell. My bags weighed me down heavily as I climbed one staircase after another. I don’t even know how many stories there were because at some point I lost count. “Climb, bitch, climb,” I chanted as I focused all of my energy on the ascent.
I was five seconds away from a full-on cardiac arrest when I breached the landing to the top floor. I shoved open the door and shouldered my way outside. The helicopter blades were already whirling about, but the chopper was still firmly planted on the ground. The air currents the machine was throwing off were fierce, but I hadn’t come this far to give up. I started running towards the aircraft, doing my best to keep my head low so that I didn’t get decapitated. Steel pushed open the door and glared at me as I threw my luggage into the cramped space behind the seats. I couldn’t help but feel like he’d been secretly hoping to leave before I’d made it back.
“You’re late,” he said.
I didn’t bother to defend myself, doubting he’d care about mundane things like traffic and malfunctioning elevators. Not deigning to speak I focused instead on buckling myself into the complicated harness system. I hoped he wouldn’t notice how nervous I looked. I’m not a huge fan of planes to begin with, and the smaller the aircraft the more nervous I got. This here was a two-seater, so I wouldn’t have been surprised if I was visibly shaking. I regretted ever watching that Buddy Holly documentary; it was what had fueled my belief that small aircraft were nothing better than death traps.
“Are you sure you know how to fly this thing?” I asked, hating the pathetic tremor in my voice.
“I am,” he shot back tersely.
After that point I gave up trying to carry on a conversation with the world’s most boorish man. The helicopter was too loud for talking anyway. I tried to enjoy the flight; after all, the small world below looked quite beautiful from this height. Much to my surprise I relaxed enough to doze off at some point. I woke up to a sharp nudge in the arm.
At first I wanted to upbraid him for poking me, but when I saw the lush countryside laid out beneath us I was actually glad he’d woken me. I was used to the harsh grays and neons of the concrete jungle, but here everything was laid out in verdant shades of green. I could almost see why he chose to risk flying about in his little chopper of death.
As we approached his estate I couldn’t get over how vast it was. There was an enormous stone fence surrounding the main grounds around the house, but I had no doubt that he owned a ton of the surrounding acreage as well. The surrounding forest called to me, demanding that I acknowledge its magnificence, and I did everything but drool in appreciation.
I’d never seen trees quite so big. They must have been hundreds of years old. The forest seemed almost magical, and I would have loved to drop everything to explore it right then and there, but somehow I doubted my new employer would have sanctioned such a frivolous waste of time. He wasn’t the type of man to be swayed by whimsy. From what I could see he was a man of few passions. I was willing to bet that he sat around counting his money. Maybe he even swam in it like Scrooge McDuck.
Steel landed the chopper on his own personal helipad. I waited until he’d killed the engine before undoing my harness. I wondered if they occasionally filmed Jane Austin movies here because the impressive edifice looked like it belonged somewhere in England instead of smack dab in the USA. There was a large, circular fountain set into the cobbled drive in front of the house, and the edifice itself was constructed out of a lovely amber-colored brick. I gave up trying to count all the windows after I realized that Steel was already a good ways ahead of me.
I wouldn’t have put it past him to lock the door in my face and leave me twiddling my thumbs in the yard with no means of contacting the outside world for help. He was one cold cookie. I’d gone from feeling like I was going to wind up homeless and sleeping on a park bench to moving into a mansion in less than twenty-four hours. It was a lot to process. Steel didn’t offer to help with my bags, but I hadn’t really expected him to. After all, he’d hired me to assist him, not the other way around.
As I struggled to pull my bags out of the chopper a scary thought popped into my head. I still had no idea what this job would entail. Whatever it was I was all chips in at this point. I didn’t have a plan B.
“Please don’t be a murdering psychopath,” I muttered under my breath as I snuck a glance at his retreating form.