The gray morning light slowly wakes me up. It’s nine a.m. on Sunday, and I’ve been home from my last job for less than twenty-four hours. I move my arms from beneath the warmth of my blanket. I don’t want to get out of bed, but I need a satisfying I’ve-slept-ten-hours-straight kind of stretch. It’s the first time I’ve slept this late in months. Now that the police closed the Michael Cummings case, I have a whole two days to myself before I start my next job. Poking my finger through the blinds, I look out on another typical gray, foggy, and chilly San Francisco morning. Staring at the ceiling again, I debate whether to stay or get up. But I fall victim to the warmth and comfort of my bed.
Okay, maybe five more minutes.
When I finally roll out of bed, my apartment is chilly, and I step into my slippers and robe and shuffle into the bathroom. The face that greets me in the mirror looks more tired than usual, and I feel old for thirty-nine. Faint lines are just beginning to etch their way into the tender skin around my eyes, and those laugh lines are permanent now.
Sarah says I don’t look my age, which I suppose is a good thing. But compared to her, I feel like the ugly step-sister. She’s a slim, fiery redhead, and I blend into the background with my dark eyes, dark hair, and olive skin. She says I’m a Mediterranean beauty, and my mom would love that. I look a lot like her, and I inherited her short stature, with plenty of curves to go with it. Sarah laughs every time I mention it.
I rub my cheeks and notice some new, wiry, gray hairs springing from my temple. The little bastards seem to multiply overnight. Maybe I need to get out of this job. The idea of walking away from Jeff and Cole Security Services scares me. At my age, I don’t have many more years left as a security agent. It’s a hard life that wears on most of us, causing more heart attacks and divorces than an average office job does. Starting over with a new company would mean working my way up from the bottom, which might take more years than I have left as an agent.
Years ago, Jeff promised me a franchise, and it’s finally becoming a reality. The last few contracts have been extremely successful, and we’re growing and hiring new agents. Tim Bennett worked out so well that I left him to handle Mr. Cummings’s security on his own. But Jeff still finds it necessary to micromanage a little too much for my liking. His OCD ways don’t surprise me after twenty years, but they certainly irritate me.
I barely make it into the kitchen when the phone rings, Jeff’s name flashes across the screen.
“Morning Jeff. Checking up on me already?” I laugh into the phone. He knows my sarcastic nature, and after twenty years of friendship, he’s used to it.
“Are you at home?” he asks. He has me on speakerphone, and it sounds like he’s in the car.
“Turn on CNN.” I walk over to the couch and grab the remote. As I switch to the news channel, the anchor is in the midst of describing a breaking news story.
“We have a developing situation near the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. An explosion rocked the neighborhood earlier this morning, totally destroying one home and causing major damage to a number of homes nearby. Nothing is left of the property, which has been leveled down to the foundation. The house is owned by actor Erik Sinclair. You may know him as Axel Reed on the show Lords of the Street. Mr. Sinclair will play Cameron Porter in the Breathless series of films, the first of which is due out next year. Gas and electricity to nearly 300 homes were turned off and police urged people to avoid the area.”
“Holy crap, Jeff. Where is my client?”
“Ah, glad you bothered to ask. He moved into a new place. It’s a ranch out in Santa Clarita. He put the Brentwood house on the market not long ago, but the girlfriend was living there. Well, I should say, his ex-girlfriend.”
Well, this is news.
“Is she accounted for?”
“Yes. From what I understand, no one was in the house. You sure you still want to take this case?” He has that be-careful-what-you-wish-for sort of tone in his voice.
“Yes, I’m fine with it Jeff.” He laughs and brushes off my reassurance.
“Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.” His words raise the hairs on the back of my neck, but I ignore both them and the knot in my gut.
“I have to go. I’m headed to the scene. If there’s anything earth shattering, I’ll update you. See you tomorrow.”
When I return to the kitchen, I set the kettle to boil and then go through my work e-mail. Jeff sent me a message a few weeks back about this job, but at the time, the Michael Cummings case was becoming more dangerous, and I pushed it to the back burner.
From: Jeff Cole
Subject: New Contract
Date: August 15, 2013 13:21
To: Veronica Harper
I took on a new contract with Millennium Pictures/Olympus Television. Your new client is Erik Sinclair. He has been receiving threats since he was named as the lead character in the Holding On: Breathless film.
Before you chew me out, yes, I understand how you feel about L.A. The problem is that I need you here. I have too many contracts and not enough agents right now. I can’t afford to lose this one. Tim Bennett can run things in San Fran in your absence.
Millennium Studios has hired temporary security for Mr. Sinclair and his girlfriend, so the situation is stable until the Michael Cummings case is concluded.
CEO, Cole Security Services
(See that title Ronnie? I DON’T WANT ANY SHIT ABOUT THIS CASE.)
I hadn’t noticed the subtle P.S. love note below the signature line before, and I laugh a little. But still, the e-mail has me intrigued, why can’t we afford to lose this contract?
Jeff certainly knows my distaste for everything Los Angelian. And if it were any other job, or any other boss, I might put up a fight. Even my love of warmth, bright sunshine, and beaches can’t entice me to go back. I hate L.A. and I probably always will. The memories of being abducted, held hostage, drugged, and then raped day after day will always haunt me.
It was Jeff who rescued me, and I’ll always be grateful for the care and understanding he showed afterward. It took months for me to recover from the abuse I suffered at Kincaid’s hands. All these years later, I still get the sense that Jeff feels responsible because he was the person who put me on that job. No matter how many times I tell him that I don’t blame him, I still see that guilt in his eyes.
I shake off the unsettling memories and go through several months of mail Sarah collected for me. I toss the junk and set the bills aside before opening the large Priority Mail envelope. Jeff overnighted me the file on my new client.
I pour a bowl of cereal and take my cup of tea and the file into the living room. CNN is playing in the background, but it’s political white noise.
I flip open the dossier and read the lengthy bio on my client. He’s thirty-one, six-foot-two inches tall, black hair, blue eyes with no identifying marks. He’s British, but he moved to the United States in early 2000. No arrests, no repeat trips to rehab, and no sex tapes. He’s “clean,” which is a rarity in Hollywood.
On the popular television series Lords of the Street, he plays Axel Reed, the charismatic, good-looking underboss of a violent street gang. Until recently, he’d taken roles in smaller, mostly unremarkable Indie flicks. Landing the role of Cameron Porter in Holding On: Breathless is his first stint as a leading man in a major film.
Setting the dossier on the table, I get comfortable on the couch and reach for the remote. Today is the perfect day to binge watch my client’s television show, and I start from the first episode of season one. The opening scene is dramatic and shows four men on Harleys racing down the highway. When another rival gang catches up to them, bullets start flying, and one of the characters lays down his bike, flipping and rolling into the brush. He stands and pulls off his helmet. It’s my client.
Damn. He’s young.
Holy hell he’s hot.
The hours tick by as I watch eight episodes. There are two classic themes to the show: the struggle between father and son and the fight between good and evil. It’s the driving force behind Axel Reed’s desire to take control of the gang, and I’m enthralled watching him. He’s a good actor and manages to cover up his English accent quite successfully. When I finish the last episode of the first season, I’m left shaking my head. It’s the most violent show I’ve ever watched.
I grab my laptop and do a few Internet searches on the show. It has a huge following on social media, and several of the cast members interact with fans during and after each episode. My client, however, does not. He’s not interested in social media, or being accessible to his fans twenty-four hours a day via Facebook or Twitter. He’s guards his private life intensely, but isn’t opposed to signing autographs or taking selfies with fans who wait hours outside the set to catch a glimpse of him. He’s not the Hollywood type, he says in interviews, and he rarely attends industry events, preferring to spend time with a group of close friends. He’s all about the work, he says.
Flipping to the back section of the file, there he is—my insanely gorgeous client. He looks older in this picture compared to the young man I watched on television all day, but it only adds to his beauty. It’s clear to me there’s a bit of American Indian in his blood. The long, jet-black hair along with a strong jaw and cheekbones give it away. His cerulean eyes are stunning, and the bad boy goatee adds to that sexy, dangerous quality.
God, those blue eyes.
I set the laptop down, and continue watching another season of the Lords of the Street. I quickly become immersed in the plot, subplots, and violence. Not to mention, my client.
* * *
I wake up, startled by my phone. As I reach for it, the dossier falls off my chest.
“Hello?” I mutter as Sarah’s over-excited voice thunders through the line, forcing me to hold the phone away from my ear.
“So, are you ready for tonight?” I laugh at her. She’s ready to party. It’s been far too long since we’ve had a girl’s night out.
“Hi Sarah. Yes, I am. I need to get a quick shower, and then I’ll meet you downstairs.”
“Perfect. I’ll see you then.”
Sarah’s friendship has been one of the most important of my life, besides Jeff. She’s more than just my friend and downstairs neighbor—she’s a lifesaver. If it weren’t for her, I might be sitting in a padded room, wearing a straitjacket, and drooling and twitching in the corner. Jeff helped me move out of Los Angeles. He was reluctant to leave me alone, but I assured him I would get help. That help came in the form of a loud, opinionated, and funny redhead named Sarah. Awakened by terrifying screams coming from the apartment upstairs, she came pounding on my door in the middle of the night.
That was one of my more severe nightmares, and when I finally let her in, she stayed with me for hours. She talked me out of the panic and fear that always follows those horrible dreams. Sarah quickly became my savior, and eventually a friend. With her background in clinical psychology, I came to rely on her expertise with PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Even though she’s a professor at the university, she’s a licensed therapist, and if it weren’t for her, I might not be alive today.
I roll off the couch, and retrieve the dossier from the floor. It’s still open to the picture of my client, and I glance at him for a moment, caught up again in all his blue-eyed glory.
Better get a move on, Harper.
I jump into the steaming hot shower and mentally prepare myself for this evening. As much as I like going out with Sarah, being in a crowded club can sometimes trigger anxiety. Thanks to Sarah’s coaching, it’s better than it was but still not completely gone.
I scrub myself down, rinse off, and wrap myself in a towel. After I wipe off the layer of steam from the mirror, I tie up my wet hair. I’m nothing special, and my chestnut brown hair and eyes are boring compared to Sarah. She has a confidence that I lack, and the fashion knowledge to play up her best assets. She knows clothes; I know guns. We’re polar opposites.
I slip into black wool dress slacks and a dark purple dress shirt. The shirt is one of the few fancier pieces I own, and it rarely sees the light of day.
On the way out the door I grab my black trench coat and I slip it on as I step outside into the cold night air. When I reach the bottom of the stairs, Sarah’s door is already open, she’s waiting.
I peek my head inside. “Hey, are you ready?” I ask. But clearly she is. Dressed to the nines and beautiful, she’s wearing a snug emerald green dress and heels.
“So what do you think, Japanese or Italian?” She grabs her purse and keys off the counter and then locks up while I wait.
“Um, Japanese. I don’t want to go dancing after a heavy meal of pasta.”
“But you’re Italian,” she giggles, as we walk across the courtyard to the parking lot.
I roll my eyes, she knows how I love my pasta, and that it’s a rare occasion that I turn it down.
Sarah hops into the seat beside me, and I back out of my parking spot while she fiddles with the radio. There’s a Beyoncé song on, “Single Ladies”. The beat is relentless and thumping, making it a great song for dancing.
“Love her,” she yells over the music. “You need to get a job protecting her!” If she only knew what it was like protecting these egomaniacal celebrities, she might change her mind.
We end up on Market Street. It’s almost deserted on a Sunday night, and I find a parking spot right in front of the restaurant.
Inside Shoji Japanese, Sarah and I sit on the red satin couch, perched just in front of the giant portrait of two Geisha painted on the wall while we wait for a table. As the young hostess guides us through the restaurant, we pass through the maze of shoji-screened booths, all decorated in red and black. Each one lighted with paper lanterns decorated with Japanese Plum tree branches, dotted with bright red blooms. The restaurant is full for a Sunday, and I can hear patrons laughing and clapping as the hibachi chefs perform their tricks. The hostess leaves, and our server arrives to take our drink order. Once he’s gone, Sarah begins questioning me.
“So, what is your new job about?” she asks, getting comfortable in her seat.
“He’s an actor. I have to fly into LAX tomorrow morning.”
She raises her eyebrows, wide eyed and concerned. “Are you prepared for this?”
The waiter returns with two glasses of water and menus. “I’ll give you ladies a few minutes.” He runs off again, and I’m left with Sarah’s question.
“Yes and no. The nightmares have started again.”
She nods. “Anything you want to talk about?”
“No. It’s nothing new, just the same thing I dream about all the time.”
She takes a sip of her water and continues to look over the menu. The waiter reappears with her white wine and my soda, takes our orders, and disappears again.
“So what’s the client’s name? Anyone I’d know?” She doesn’t look up from her menu, and I hesitate. I don’t usually tell friends who my clients are, especially when it’s a celebrity, but I trust Sarah.
“Ah…his name is Erik Sinclair.” The menu flops down on the table, nearly overturning her glass of water. Her smile and her eyes are huge.
“You mean Erik Sinclair as in Lords of the Street—Erik Sinclair?” I nod.
“No freaking way!” Her voice gets a little louder, and I scan the room nervously. She retrieves her phone and immediately Google searches his name and hands it to me.
“This Erik Sinclair?”
The picture is an artful black-and-white shot highlighting his stunning torso. His broad shoulders and well-defined chest are in perfect proportion to his narrow waist. His chest is bare, and there is a smattering of hair just below his navel. His well-oiled, silky looking skin reminds me of the flawless white marble of Michelangelo’s David. He’s ripped, brooding, and magnificent.
The man is sex on legs.
She snatches the phone back from me and coos. “Ooh, here’s another nice picture.” She flips the phone around to show me yet another shirtless photo, this time in color. He’s wearing a large Gothic cross suspended from a chain around his neck, hanging almost down to his navel. She’s practically salivating. “Oh my. Now that’s a very happy trail!”
Her naughty sense of humor makes me laugh, and I nearly choke on my soda. But I play it off and shrug my shoulders.
“Oh, come on! He’s smoking hot!” Sarah stares at me, exasperated by my lukewarm response. Apparently, four years of therapy has not made me any more agreeable to the idea of a relationship with a man. Even a super-hot one. But my reticence is more than just my past getting in my way, I can’t protect someone I’m lusting after.
Forget those blue eyes.
Returning her attention to the phone, she swipes through a few more pictures before slipping it into her purse.
“So how are things with Jeff?”
“Alright, I suppose.”
“You suppose? What’s going on Ronnie?” She takes a bite of her entrée that the waiter just placed on the table. She stares at me for a moment, and I’m not sure what to say.
“I don’t know, Sarah. He’s been very irritable. I’m not sure what’s going on.” I sip on my soda.
“Have you asked him?”
I nod. “Yes. But he says everything is fine. I’m worried about him.”
Right now, I feel tense and helpless. My best friend of twenty years is going through something, and I can’t help him with it. I can’t even get him to talk about it.
“So when are you going to try dating again? Don’t you think it’s been long enough?” Her blunt question leaves me speechless. It’s the ninety-ninth time she’s asked me, and every time my answers are the same: I don’t have time for dating. I’m never home. My job has become my whole life, and my crutch. The long hours and jobs far away from home make it easy for me to avoid the whole problem of men and relationships. Giving up the protective shield of my job would force me to admit the truth. I’m still afraid.
“Listen, you’ve been telling me that for five years. It’s time to get out there honey! Now, what about your client? He’s super-hot!” I drop my chopsticks and stare at her.
“Okay, you’ve officially lost your mind! I can’t go fucking my client, no matter how cute he is!”
She covers her mouth and laughs at my indignation. “I knew it! You think he’s hot, admit it!” She points a finger at me.
I should know better than to hide things from Sarah.
* * *
Monday mornings at San Francisco International always seem to bring out a rush of business travelers. The airport is jammed with them, all pressed and neatly coiffed in their business suits and tight pencil skirts. My flight is in an hour, and I have some time to kill.
Finding a newsstand, I walk inside and browse the various offerings. The shelves are lined with souvenirs, t-shirts, and a plethora of snacks and drinks. It’s food that I’m after. Last night’s excursion with Sarah had us rolling in the door at two a.m., and the last thing my stomach can handle is overpriced, greasy airport food. I should have known better. Sarah starts slow, but once the music takes over, she can pound back the shots like a salty sailor.
Spying some trail mix on a shelf, I grab a bag and head toward the cooler for a drink. With my food in hand, I turn and see it—Holding On: Breathless.
Almost one whole corner of the store is devoted to the three novels, lined up neatly in rows from the ceiling to the floor. The monochrome covers catch my eye, and I wander over to the wall. Just as I pick up a book with red flogger on it, an overly eager female employee approaches me.
“Have you read the first one?” She is young and obviously well acquainted with the material. I shake my head, and I am a little embarrassed to admit I’m the one person on the planet who hasn’t read this.
“Then you should start with this one. It’s the first of three.” She reaches for a book with the bed on the front and hands it to me. Finding a quiet spot in the corner, I flip through a few pages. Bianca Wright is the heroine, she’s young and naïve, and Cameron Porter, he’s rich, spoiled, and reckless. Seems like the standard, formulaic romance novel—which doesn’t really interest me—but I take it anyway. I might as well find out what all the hysteria is about.
I pay for my items and head toward the gate, trying to maneuver in the fast moving crowd. When I find a seat, I pull open the book, and read a bit more, but the obnoxious businessman next to me is distracting. I pull out my phone to listen to some music. I need something upbeat, and “Up All Night” by Alex Clare is at the top of my list. My choice of music is ironic considering last night.
Within a few minutes, the attendants call for VIP boarding, and I gather my belongings and head down the Jetway. I make my way to business class, and as I’m stuffing my carry-on in the overhead bin, I hear a voice behind me.
“Excuse me ma’am, I’m in seat A.” I turn to find a young man in a suit waiting with his ticket in hand. He’s young, probably fresh out of college with an MBA. I’m relieved when he pulls a slim laptop from his carry-on. He’ll spend the flight typing away on some new business plan or a project outline instead of talking my ear off.
I slump heavily into my seat, stuffing the bag with my book into the seat pocket. My bag of trail mix crinkles loudly, catching his attention. He eyes the back of the seat for long seconds and then smiles at me. I see what he’s reacting to when he shifts his gaze. The top of the novel is visible, the title clearly displayed for all to see. Pervert.
As the flight attendants prepare for boarding, I pull out the dossier and read up on my client:
Millennium Studios has selected Mr. Sinclair to play the lead role of a spoiled playboy with a fetish for BDSM in the movie Holding on: Breathless. Fans of the best-selling book disagree with the choice of Sinclair for the lead. Within days, several Internet petitions (see: change.org) have sprung up demanding other actors be considered for the part. Mr. Sinclair has received virtual threats through Social media, as well as physical threats left at his home and work. Millennium Studios, backer of Holding On: Breathless, has hired temporary security for Mr. Sinclair and his live-in girlfriend, Miss. Catriona O’Neill. The threats consist mostly of letters mailed to the home of Mr. Sinclair, with some arriving in boxes containing lingerie. One box containing a threatening letter was left at the Lords of the Street set on September 10, 2013 [See enclosed pictures].
The pictures of the evidence are interesting indeed. At best, they look like a kindergarten project. Words and letters cut out of magazines to form sentences, glued to paper. Amateurs do this.
The text of the first two letters is typical, saying things like, he should drop out if he knows what’s good for him, and if he doesn’t want to see his girlfriend hurt. The third letter, however, is a bit more disturbing and unique, making explicit reference to BDSM:
You have no business aspiring to play a BDSM Dominant. You’re just a paltry substitute for the real thing. One must learn to submit before they can dominate. One must experience the pain before they can inflict it. Are you prepared to experience the pain of losing everything?
At the bottom of the note is a picture, of a woman shackled to a Saint Andrews Cross, her back is raw and bloody from a severe whipping. The memories come back in a bitter torrent, and I flip the page, trying to stem the rising panic. The next page is more pictures of evidence, mainly the boxes of shredded lingerie that arrived with the notes. The pieces appear to be high end, and not the type of thing the average over eager fan would spend money on only to shred and leave on someone’s doorstep. Whoever bought these is serious. Someone wants to be noticed.