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The ashtray didn’t surprise me as much as the quality of the throw behind it.
Perhaps when Skye Van Brandt was still in high school, before she was “discovered” and turned into one of People’s Fifty Most Beautiful Faces for two years running, before she’d netted two Oscar nominations and one Golden Globe award, maybe she’d pitched softball or even hardball at some point in her youth. Not that her youth was over: the woman on the other side of the hotel room was only twenty-two.
At least according to her publicist.
Skye was beautiful. Her hair was long and blond, just a shade too dark to be strawberry, and her large eyes were deep and soulful and tailored for close-ups during love scenes. Her lower lip was just a little pudgy and lopsided, and it gave her a perpetual almost-pout that reviewers described with words like “irresistible” and “wanton.” Her dental work was perfect. She was one of those people who remain stunningly beautiful no matter what they’re doing, be it smiling or screaming.
She was screaming at me right now.
“God dammit, Atticus! Take my bags!”
For the third time, I said, “I can’t do that, Miss Van Brandt.”
Skye dropped the suitcase in question and stormed my way, to where I stood just inside the front door. We were in the sitting room of the Presidential Suite at the El Presidente Hotel in El Paso, Texas, which meant that Skye had a lot of ground to cover, and that I had plenty of time to get out of her way. I didn’t bother. To my mind I was doing the job I’d been paid for, doing more than it, in fact. It was now mid-morning of Day Eight on what was supposed to have been a six-day location shoot. I’d been hired to provide Skye’s personal protection while on location, two thousand dollars a day, plus a stipend from the studio. I was, for the time being, Skye Van Brandt’s bodyguard.
Not her valet.
The job, like so many other things in my professional life, was bullshit, for show and nothing more. But it was still a job, and I took it seriously, and there was no way I was going to pick up Skye Van Brandt’s overpriced Téumi luggage and carry it to the lobby at her command.
She stopped three feet from where I was standing, hands on her hips, that wanton lower lip jutting a little more in her fury. For all her grace and beauty and presence on the screen, she was a tiny woman, nearly a full foot shorter than my six feet.
“I’m paying you! You do what I tell you!”
She jabbed in the direction of her bags with an index finger as if gouging at someone’s eye. There were three bags — one garment, one small duffel, and one larger duffel with a shoulder strap. All were black leather, all bulging with clothes, scripts, cosmetics, and the witch’s brew of new-age elixirs and homeopathic medicines Skye used to keep herself fueled.
“Take them downstairs to the car,” she ordered.
“You know I can’t do that,” I said. “I have to keep my hands free. Wait until the bellman — ”
“God dammit! What fucking word don’t you fucking understand? Pick up my fucking bags!”
I waited until she was done and catching her breath. Then I said: “No.”
Skye Van Brandt raised her right hand and I figured she was going to slap me, but then she spun off and stomped away, swearing louder. The way she swore reminded me of my Army days, and I wondered how People might’ve altered their rankings if they heard Skye Van Brandt shrieking things like “shit-eating goatfucker” and “fart-breathed ass-miner.”
When she passed the executive desk with its fax machine and multi-line telephone and leather-bound hotel directory, she grabbed the ashtray on its corner and flung it at me without pause or warning. The ashtray was small, cut glass, and surprisingly aerodynamic. I had just enough time to turn my head, and then it hit and bumped me out of the world for a moment. For an instant I felt like I had been knocked down a well, and I was surrendering to gravity when somehow I managed to arrest myself, leaning back against the wall until I was sure I wouldn’t collapse.
Blood was coming off my forehead as I straightened, blinding my left eye. I felt thick and sluggish, and it took a while to get my hand up and my glasses off to clear my vision. Each time I swiped, more blood came to replace it. I put my glasses back on and tried to focus on my principal.
Skye Van Brandt stood behind the couch, her hands at her sides. There was no repentance or apology in her expression.
“Now,” she said sweetly, “pick up my bags, motherfucker.”
“I quit,” I said.
The doorman hailed me a cab to the airport, and I spent the entire ride with my handkerchief to my forehead. Facial cuts, as any guy can tell you, bleed a lot. I caught a glance of myself in the rearview mirror during the drive and, over the reflection of the hack’s curious gaze, saw the gash above my left eyebrow. It wasn’t deep, but the skin had split and I was probably going to need stitches.
When I hit the terminal I gave the cabbie an extra twenty for a tip — expense money — and then made straight for the monitors inside, trying to find the next departure to any of the New York area airports. There was a flight to Newark that was boarding, another to Kennedy that was leaving in thirty minutes. I got into line and weathered a storm of stares. I couldn’t tell if the stares were because of the wound or because I’d been recognized, and frankly didn’t care.
“You ought to do something about that cut,” the customer rep said in a gentle Texas drawl. He looked sincerely concerned.
“I am doing something about it,” I said. “I’m going home.”
I checked my bag with my weapon inside, and as he was swiping my credit card, my cell phone started ringing. I shut it off, took my boarding pass, and then stopped at the first gift shop I could find on the concourse, where I paid too much for a package of Band-Aids. Then I found a men’s room and examined myself in the mirror. The appraisal didn’t help my mood. Blood had speckled my cheek and the collar of my shirt, though the wound was now content only to ooze. I looked tired and sallow and generally unpleasant, though maybe that was the lighting.
I ran some warm water, cleaned myself off carefully, then used my pocket knife to slice the bandages into makeshift butterfly sutures. It hurt when I applied them, but the wound appeared closed and I guessed I’d earned myself a companion scar to the one on my cheek from when I’d been pistol-whipped a couple years back. I tried to remember a time when I hadn’t had any scars on my face, realized I really was thirty years old, and then ran some more water and cleaned my glasses. I pushed a couple fingers through my hair, straightened the two hoops in my left ear, and made it to the gate as they were closing the door.
My seatmate was white and in his mid-thirties, wearing a blue suit with a green-and-gray-striped tie. A leather laptop case lay by his penny loafers, stowed under the seat in front of him. He had all the marks of a business traveler, and I prayed that meant he’d leave me alone. With some squeezing I made it past him and then folded myself into the window seat, and with additional contorting, managed to assume a position that was merely uncomfortably cramped rather than genuinely painful. We were another forty-three minutes on the tarmac before actually lifting into the air, during which time the headache from the tête-à-ashtray invited a few friends over to throw a really big party.
Then we were rising and I stared out the window, watching as Texas faded away beneath me and wondering how I’d become someone who was expected to carry the bags of the likes of Skye Van Brandt.
The call had come in February, five months earlier. It had been a bleak winter, filled with rain and slushy snow, and a wind with teeth that never seemed to let up, day or night. I’d been cold and often irrationally lonely. My “don’t call me girlfriend” Bridgett Logan had entered rehab just a few weeks prior, and Erika Wyatt, my almost-baby-sister, had started NYU, and moved out of the apartment we’d shared and into student housing. My home, which had never seemed spacious to me before, felt cavernous.
I was stretched out on the sofa in Dale Matsui’s living room, squabbling with Natalie Trent about whether or not we were so desperate we needed to take out ads in some of the less-reputable trade journals. I was on Dale’s couch because we’d been using Dale’s house in Queens as our offices, and I was arguing with Natalie because our company was in serious danger of going belly-up.
“Can you think of another way to get clients?” Natalie asked. “Because without clients, we don’t have a business.”
“Security firms that advertise in the publications you’re considering do not, in my opinion, engender confidence,” I said. “And if we’re protecting someone’s life, I think confidence is kind of important.”
“Don’t be snide. We build confidence by protecting clients. To get clients, I’m suggesting we advertise.”
“No,” I said.
“Well, by all means, then,” I said.
She scowled at me, and I kept my tongue still, knowing that I’d cut too close to the bone. Natalie and I have a confused history that includes things like her dating my best friend, that friend dying, her blaming me for his death, and, eventually, the two of us making up to such an extent we ended up sleeping with one another off and on for almost a year. That the friendship has survived such things is a testament to its quality and our stubbornness.
Even knowing that, though, the crack about Sentinel was probably a cheap shot. Sentinel Guards was the biggest security firm in Manhattan, run by Natalie’s father, Elliot Trent. Our firm — KTMH Security — was founded, in part, due to a falling-out between Natalie and Dear Old Dad, and she and I liked to think of ourselves as an alternative to the old-school protection firms that Sentinel personified. That was still, in my opinion, a worthy goal, and one that I knew Natalie shared.
The problem was that personal protection is an intimate community. Most work comes from referrals, either via former, satisfied, clients or from other agencies. Since we were a new firm we didn’t have any former clients, and the rumor was that Elliot Trent had pretty much blacklisted us from the start, so no firms, from Sentinel on down, were giving us referrals.
I used my elbow to prop myself up and looked at Natalie, who had now turned her scowl to the window that looked out onto Dale’s backyard. Outside, a light sprinkling of snow was twirling down onto the lawn. Dale, in the other chair, was looking at me like a disapproving parent. I’ve actually known Dale longer than I’ve known Natalie — he and I were in the Army together on a couple of the same details. He is, without a doubt, the nicest person I know, genuinely kind.
As a result, his disapproving look is pretty darn devastating.
“You know what I mean,” I said to Natalie.
“I don’t appreciate being compared to my father.”
“That’s not what I was doing, Nat.”
She looked back at me, and her green eyes lost their focus briefly in their contemplation. Natalie is just shy of my age, tall and fine-boned, with red hair that she’d recently had cut into a bob. The new haircut showed off her facial features, the line of her neck and jaw. While the four of us in KTMH — Natalie Trent, Dale Matsui, Corry Herrera, and I — are equals, there is a hierarchy when we’re at work, and Natalie is my strong second-in-command. She’s as good as I am at the job, if not better.
“We’re living on credit right now, you are aware of that, aren’t you?” she asked.
“Painfully aware,” I said.
“And you understand that our credit is almost gone?”
“Yes,” I said.
“So you tell me, Atticus, what are our options? Keep waiting, hoping that the phone is going to ring? Or do we do something proactive, do we take out some ads and see where that gets us?”
“The question may be moot,” Dale said. “We may not have enough money to advertise, at least, to advertise anywhere that’ll do us some good. We need a corporate account.”
“I am not going to just wait for business to come to us,” Natalie said. “We need to do something.”
“I agree,” I said.
“I have no idea.”
She was ratcheting up her glare when the phone rang. Dale moved to answer it, and Natalie let the glare go, went back to frowning at the backyard.
“It’s for you,” Dale said, holding out the phone.
“Who is it?” I asked.
“Sergeant Robert Moore. Of the Two-Two SAS. You remember him?”
I nearly tripped over the coffee table going for the phone. “Robert?”
“Atticus, how’ve you been, mate?” The connection was good, and I couldn’t tell if Moore was calling from England or across the street. “World treating you just?”
“I’ve got complaints, but you don’t want to hear them,” I said. “What’s up?”
“This a bad time? I can ring you later, you like.”
“No, now’s fine.”
“Called your apartment first, got this number off the machine. I’ve left the Regiment, didn’t know if you’d heard.”
“News to me.”