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Max Biaggi Jr. paced the waiting area of New York University Medical Center, his booze buzz long gone. Nothing like the adrenaline of white-hot fear to kick in instant sobriety.
He was the son of Hollywood's hottest action star, Miami's most celebrated party promoter, and, at seventeen, already had a list of sexual conquests approaching that triple-digit figure with a one and two zeros. But right now he was just an older brother, praying for God to spare the life of his baby sister.
A soft touch grazed his arm. "I'm going to get a cup of coffee. Can I get you some?"
Max looked at Bethany with a savage intensity. She was a girl he'd met at the Tar Beach rooftop party practically five minutes ago. They were supposed to be in his hotel suite having sex, not in a hospital lobby sweating out life-or-death news.
"I don't need coffee, bitch. I just need to know that my sister's going to make it." And then Max sank down into a chair and began nervously chewing on the nail of his index finger.
For a long moment, Bethany just stood there, speechless, her face a masterpiece of hurt and embarrassment.
Max ignored her.
Finally, she walked away.
He would never see her again. Like he gave a shit. Bethany was just some party skank he wanted to nail. And suddenly she wanted an upgrade to instant girlfriend who provides emotional support in a moment of crisis? Thanks, but no thanks, baby.
Once more, Max put his Sidekick II to work calling his friends -- Vanity, Dante, Pippa, and Christina. And once again, not one of them answered.
Max was alone. He was scared as hell, too. "Come on, Sho," he murmured. "Don't go out like this. That would make me an orphan."
A young Asian woman in surgical scrubs approached, her expression severe and disapproving. "You brought in Shoshanna Biaggi?"
Max stood quickly, nodding as he took in the badge that announced her as Dr. Elizabeth Tang. "I'm her brother. Is she -- "
"Are you the one who gave her the drugs?"
"N-no...of course not," Max stammered.
"So -- what?" Dr. Tang countered in a caustic tone. "You just stood there and watched her take them?"
Max knew that his expression was almost pleading. "No, like I told the paramedics...she was hanging with this guy who makes his own chem shit. He swears he didn't give her anything, but I know he's lying -- "
Dr. Tang raised an impatient hand to silence him. "She was given -- or rather she took -- something. At this point, my best guess is a dangerously high dose of PCP, but it'll take a few days for the toxicology report to come back. And it might not reveal much."
"How is she?" Max asked.
Dr. Tang betrayed no emotion. "Your sister's in a coma." One beat. "I suggest you call your parents. They need to get here as soon as possible."
Max's mind got stuck on the last bit. "Are you saying she's going to die?" The question croaked out faintly, no more than a whisper.
"The next few hours are critical," Dr. Tang said gravely. "And it could go either way. So like I said -- call your parents."
Max watched her disappear, struggling to maintain his composure as he glanced around. He hated the democracy of hospital emergency rooms -- rich, poor, gorgeous, ugly, brilliant, uneducated. The same care and effort went into saving all of them. For once, all of his Hollywood name dropping and trust-fund power didn't mean a goddamn thing.
The guilt began to gnaw away at him like a flesh-eating virus. If only he had told Shoshanna no. If only he had listened to that instinct deep inside telling him that making a mark on the Manhattan party scene and watching over his sister was an impossible spring break agenda. But Max had convinced himself that he could do it, rationalizing that his sister was more likely to find trouble alone in Miami than with her brother in New York. He felt a stab of self-loathing: Great call, Superboy.
Shoshanna was a true wild child -- fifteen going on twenty-one. She showcased her breast implants to eye-popping effect, always assumed a provocative, vampish fashion style, and frequently put herself in the path of older guys who wanted only one thing from her. The girl was an impossible princess. But Max loved that openly defiant, potty-mouthed bitch-brat like no one else in the world.
Call your parents.
Max stared down at his Sidekick, dreading the task. He dialed his father first. It started to ring. "Pick up the phone, you son of a bitch..."
I don't kiss whores...
Pippa Keith was lost in a foggy tableau, vaguely aware of the horror, yet still feeling like it was happening to someone else. A total free fall from fairy tale to nightmare. How could it be? In answer to the confusion, her body was in a strange state of paralysis.
Just minutes ago she had been living the almost perfect fantasy. A private date on a private plane with Max Biaggi, the ultimate Hollywood superstar -- handsome, charismatic, sexy...and megarich.
Max the son was a boy, but Max the father was a man. And that difference had been incredible enough for her to play the dangerous game, of keeping her job a secret from her best mate and keeping her true identity a secret from her future husband.
It was a double life. By day she was Pippa, the new girl from England who dominated the theater department at the Miami Academy for Creative and Performing Arts. By night she was Star Baby, the refreshingly classy, talented dancer who ruled the stage at Cheetah, the strip club that provided the setting to make mountains of money and entertain men of means in an upstairs VIP room called "The Lair."
One of those men had been Max Biaggi, and Pippa had fallen hard, fast, and blindly for him, mistaking their many private sessions for a real relationship. Oh God, how could a girl be so wrong? Her presence tonight had nothing to do with an actual date and everything to do with a crude transaction. It was between Max Biaggi, Cheetah's top patron, and Vinnie Rossetti, Cheetah's tough manager. A simple cash deal.
I own you, Star Baby.
Max Biaggi's voice ricocheted inside Pippa's mind as he pinned her down. She was facedown on the stateroom bed as the private jet flew to some destination unknown.
Vinnie charged me top dollar for you, and I expect to get my money's worth.
The replay of the cruel words blistered and burned as Pippa lay there, emotionally wrecked, prepared to submit to any humiliation, if only to bring this nightmare to a faster end.
What a bloody fool she was...to believe even for a moment that she was anything more to this bastard than a commodity of flesh -- a private dance to buy, a private date to broker. And to think that only minutes ago Pippa had been building castles in the air, imagining a future, a marriage, a life together...with him.
Pippa could feel Max Biaggi's hands pushing up the Gucci wrap dress. It was past her waist now. She shut her eyes, recoiling from his touch as hot tears rolled down her cheeks.
"Just think, Star Baby, after this you'll be an official member of the Mile High Club." His voice was thick with lust, his breathing uneven.
Pippa grimaced as she heard the distinct sound of a zipper going down...and after that, the crinkling of a Mylar-wrapped condom being ripped open. "Please...don't..."
"I thought a whore like you would be begging for it." He hissed into her ear, then darted his tongue in and out before giving her lobe a playful bite, his teeth crunching slightly on her H. Stern chandelier earrings.
Pippa struggled to shift her body from underneath him, but Max Biaggi's hold was too firm. Even her strongest effort proved futile.
"Why'd you get so dressed up, Star Baby? Did you think I was going to take you out and show you off?" He started to laugh as his hand began peeling down her underwear. "I've got an image to protect. Cheetah girls are just a dirty little secret." He slapped the right cheek of her butt with the palm of his hand.
Pippa experienced the loud pop and the sharp sting simultaneously, and the humiliation triggered a quiet, simmering rage. Once more, she fought to get free.
But Max Biaggi tightened his grip. "What do I have here -- another Hellcat? Do you want to wrestle? Is that what you want? Or do you just like it a little rough?" He gave her hair a vicious tug.
Pippa winced in pain. This date was supposed to be her night of romance. This man was supposed to be her dream guy. It seemed impossible that everything had gone so wrong. Yet here she was, living out loud the horrifying reality.
Max Biaggi had straddled her and locked Pippa's body between his knees in a vise-tight hold. But the strongest part of her remained free...her legs. Yes. Her long, lean dancer's legs. Miss Bill, MACPA's musical theater director, had been relentless, grinding her through Broadway boot camp to get her ready for the challenging choreography of Sweet Charity. That, coupled with her pole routines at Cheetah, had built up impressive leg strength and also made her incredibly limber.
Pippa bucked in protest as Max Biaggi roughly finger probed the forbidden part of her.
All of a sudden, the voice of Hellcat roamed around Pippa's mind like a wolf in the woods.
Don't be surprised if he only gives it to you in the ass. He says that saves him from she's-having-my-baby scams. Trust me, I've been where you're going tonight.
Pippa shut her eyes as the vile truth became painfully clear. She had considered herself so far above Hellcat, also a stripper at Cheetah and her most ferocious rival, yet they were living the same sordid life, even suffering the same cruel treatment at the hands of a Hollywood hero.
"Are you ready for me, Star Baby?" Max Biaggi breathed.
"Please stop!" Pippa cried, her voice shaking with emotion.
Max Biaggi laughed. "Do you really mean that? Because I don't think that you do."
Pippa could feel his arousal, right there at her opening. Beneath him she squirmed violently, trying desperately to break free.
"I think you want it. I think you want it bad. You're a whore. I'm a movie star. This is the best thing that'll ever happen to you. So just relax and enjoy it."
Pippa's emotions ran up and down the scale. But a sudden ferocious anger seemed more powerful than all of her other feelings combined.
She shot out her right leg -- foot arched to deliver the Manolo Blahnik spike heel first -- kicking back, up, and then in toward her body.
Pippa felt and heard the stiletto heel make direct contact with Max Biaggi's skull.
The sick bastard grunted in agony.
Again, Pippa fought to get out from under him, and this time she won the battle, twisting, squirming, and rolling until free. Her feet were on the cabin floor now.
She could make a run for it...
Christina Perez experienced the most placid calm as she went down, falling from the rooftop ledge, sailing midair to the death that would soon belong to her.
I would rather you commit suicide than live that life.
The words of her mother, Paulina Perez, a right-wing conservative and a politician with a bloodlust for the power of a Senate seat, echoed in Christina's mind. Instead of allowing her to be honest about her sexual orientation and live openly as a lesbian, the woman who gave birth to Christina would rather she drop dead.
Congratulations, Mommy. I am, she thought.
Christina's body felt limp and weightless, as if nothing but a mere rag doll. It had been dulled to zombielike inertia from too many hits of the vodka bong. Scenes from the party flashed in her mind. Tar Beach. Max's big New York rooftop bash. And the kiss...that wonderful, terrible kiss.
Vanity St. John, the gorgeous, famous-for-being-famous teen celebutante, the headline queen who relegated Paris Hilton to media irrelevancy, the girl Christina loved from afar, had kissed her. And not just a platonic girl-to-girl peck. It had been a real kiss, a lover's kiss, full of passion and desire. And it had also been a joke. The cackling laughter that followed was proof of that, as had been the words, so cavalier, so unintentionally mean...
God, I'm so drunk! You're a good kisser, though. One day you'll make some girl very happy.
An easy sentiment to slur. But an impossible one to fathom. For Christina, the notion of "some girl" did not exist. There was only "a girl"...Vanity. The evidence of her dedication was on display in Christina's art, Harmony Girl, the manga she had slavishly created in tribute to Vanity, every illustration, every panel, every scripted word fueled by her crush. To have that depth of feeling thoughtlessly dismissed and toyed with...well, the only cruelty to compare it to was her mother's.
Everything seemed to be happening in frame-by-frame slow motion. It was only seconds ago that Christina had been standing on the building's ledge, peering down, contemplating a jump, a way out of her miseries, in only the slightest hypothetical sense.
But it happened anyway. The danger of a single slip combined with her alcohol-induced slow reflexes had seen to that. And now she was falling...down...to the end that would be her body hitting the concrete below.
Suddenly, Christina experienced a violent jolt, her left leg absorbing most of the impact as she slammed shoulderfirst against the brick building.
The shock of the moment countervailed the pain.
Christina swung this way and that way, like a pendulum. She glanced up to see the string from the Christmas lights wrapped noose-tight around the ankle and heel of her boot. And then all motion stopped. She just hung there, precariously suspended over a death drop.
She screamed her throat raw, desperate to compensate for the party music and the sounds of the city night. Would anyone hear her? And how long could the electrical wire hold without breaking?
Dante Medina stared at the message painted in blood that defaced Vanity's hotel bathroom mirror.
He just shook his head, overcome with incredulity. A short time ago Dante and Vanity had been arguing at Max's Tar Beach rooftop party. But maybe that was the wrong word for it. Vanity was drunk and lashing out. Dante had been reacting.
That's all he ever did in relation to Vanity. React to being the son of a maid in the presence of the famous rich girl. React to being kicked out of her speedboat and left to drown. React to being screwed over by her father's recording label. Shit. When it came down to reacting, Dante Medina had reached his goddamn limit.
So he had switched to offensive mode, determined to announce his feelings, no matter how jumbled they were. Because in spite of everything, he actually loved that beautiful, mixed-up girl.
Dante had followed her back to the hotel, only to find Vanity missing. Her door was ajar. The place was trashed. Hotel security had been his first call. Two men turned up with accusations disguised as questions. Apparently, Vanity had caused a scene at the downstairs bar when refused a drink. They clearly thought all of this was the work of an angry drunk.
But not that. He touched the mirror again, then inspected the blood on his finger. This discovery in the bathroom changed everything. It upgraded a cause for concern into a red-alert emergency.
Dante pivoted, stepping back into the main room to address the W Hotel's assistant manager and security guard. "Look at this."
They followed Dante's lead, trading blank stares after taking in the disturbing image.
And then Dante launched into a rant. "This isn't some crazy drunk girl acting out. Something happened here. Something bad. If you believe that she's still on the property, then I want every room in this hotel searched. I want security videos reviewed. I want -- "
"Young man -- "
"Don't patronize me with your 'young man' bullshit," Dante fumed, cutting off the assistant manager two words into his lame-ass spiel. "Anything less than treating this like the emergency that it is will mean instant PR problems for you, dude. Her publicist will get this joint in the headlines. But not for reasons that'll make corporate proud."
Dante picked up on the alarm in the manager's eyes the moment the word "publicist" dropped. And then he decided to motivate him even more. "She's famous, she's beautiful, and she's seventeen. Do the headline math."
The manager turned to the security guard. "Call nine-one-one."
Slowly, Vanity came up from the deep, unconsciousness lifting like a fog. She experienced the vague sensation of being alert. And then a wave of nausea hit. Worse than any hangover.
Her body lurched violently. On reflex, she attempted to cover her mouth with her hand. But the movement met with painful resistance.
Oh God! Both arms were tied to the bed frame with thick rope that burned her wrists when she tugged for freedom. Her feet were tied down, too. She was spread-eagled. Immobilized. Vulnerable. Defenseless.
Shock and confusion overrode her physical urge to vomit. Terror ruled, leeching the heat from her body. She began to shiver and fought to reclaim the memory of the lost hours.
Where was she? How long had she been here? Who had done this? What was going to happen to her?
Vanity worked herself into such a state of distress that a film of sweat slicked her from head to toe. Tears rolled down her cheeks. Why couldn't she remember?
She screamed. And not just any scream. It was a wail of despair and frustration, a plea for release, a begging for mercy.
Suddenly, she heard music. Loud music. The thrash-metal assault drowned out her cries and ramped up her fears.
Megadeth's "Symphony of Destruction." The song choice was a dead giveaway. Vanity's heart pounded in a stutter beat as one thing became clear: who had done this to her.
It was no longer a question. Because now she knew the answer.
Copyright © 2006 by Jon Salem