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Wrapped in the remnants of a dream, Michelle Tilson opens her eyes and smiles at the ceiling until she remembers the monster looming in the Gulf. She reaches for Parker, but the spot where he should be lying is empty and cold. She pushes herself up, the satin sheets puddling at her waist, and looks into the bathroom, which is empty.
But a single red rose lies on Parker's pillow.
Of coursehe's gone to the office. He said he might not be here when she woke.
Groaning, Michelle falls onto his pillow and breathes in the sweet scent of the flower. Typical Parker, the disappearing man. Here for a night, gone for a week. Most women would resent his inconsistency, but she's become accustomed to his vanishing act.
She props her pillow against the headboard and leans back, surprised she can feel so relaxed on a Saturday morning. Weekends usually depress her, but despite the hurricane warning she floats in a curious contentment, as though the previous night's love and laughter have splashed over a levee and flooded the normally arid weekend.
Parker is good for her. The man knows when it's time to work and when it's time to play, a lesson she's been struggling to learn.
She reaches for the remote on the nightstand and powers on the television, still tuned to the Weather Channel. A somber-faced young man appears before a map on which a swirling bull's-eye is moving straight toward Florida's west coast. Hurricane Felix, already a category four, has left Mexico and is churning toward Tampa Bay.
Michelle squints as her mind stamps the map with an icon representing her condo at Century Towers. Nothing changed overnight; she's still in the hurricane's path.
At least she's well insured. Parker's made sure of that.
She turns down the volume on the television, then drops the remote and considers closing her heavy eyelids. She could easily sleep another hour, but Parker might call and she wants to be alert if he does. He's already told her he plans to ride out the hurricane at his house, but who knows? This could be the weekend he'll realize she ought to meet his children
She eases out from under the comforter and reaches for the computer on her nightstand. The laptop is always online, maintaining a quiet vigil as it files incoming e-mail and prowls the Web for prospective clients.
Michelle slides her glasses on, then clicks on her e-mail program and checks the in-box: three inquiries from her Web site, www.Tilsonheadhunter.com, a note from her administrative assistant, four ads for fake Rolex watches, three for cheap (and undoubtedly illegal) pharmaceuticals.
The spam gets deleted without a second look, but Michelle smiles as she opens the Web mail. The first inquiry is from Don Moss, a Houston CFO who has recently lost his job with an oil company. He's looking for a management position in the four hundred thousand to five hundred thousand dollar range and he's willing to relocate.
The second is from a local woman with a newly minted MBA and "a strong desire to succeed."
The third e-mail is from a school principal who needs to move west due to his wife's severe allergies. Can Tilson Corporate Careers help him find a university position?
Michelle clicks her nails against the keyboard as she considers the requests. The CFO will get her full attention; he's probably good for a fifteen-thousand-dollar fee. One of her associates can coach the girl with the MBA on how to create a résumé and urge her to attend industry conferences. She'll not bring in much money, but she should find a job within a few months. The principal might be tough to place, but since he's probably been in education a few years, he's bound to know someone who knows someone in Arizona or New Mexico. He'll land a job
eventually. Tilson Corporate will simply have to make sure he exhausts all his resources.
She moves all three messages into her Action folder, then opens the message from Reggie. She sighs when she reads that he's taking his wife and new baby to Georgia to escape the storm.
I'll keep an eye on the news, he promises, and you can call if you need me. I'll be at my sister's house in Marietta.
BTWlast week one of the counselors took an application from a young guy who's looking for a management position. Nothing unusual in the app, but I saw him through the window and recognized himhe's a columnist for the Tampa Tribune and he belongs to the gym where my wife works. Long story short, Marcy chatted him up and found out he's doing a story on employment agencies who don't meet their contractual obligations. Looks like we're at the top of his hit list.
I pulled his file and left it on my deskhe's using the name Marshall Owens, but he writes his column under a Greg Owens byline. You might want to look him up.
Michelle swallows hard as her stomach tightens. Her agency does find jobs for clients, though not as often as their brochure claims. And while their advertising states that they typically place people in positions with salaries ranging from seventy thousand dollars to seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars, she can't remember the last time they referred a prospect to a situation worth more than eighty grand.
If she doesn't find an appropriate position for this columnist, he'll be all over Tilson Corporate Careers. If any of their procedures arouse his suspicions, he might dig deeper and investigate her.
Reporters ask questions; they verify facts and check entries on résumés. If she doesn't find Owens a job, he could crucify her.
She presses her hands to her eyes as dread whirls inside her stomach. Only one thing to do, thenfind the fake applicant a real job, and pretend to be surprised when he doesn't take it.
That part, at least, will be easy. She's been pretending all her life.
Isabel Suarez drives the vacuum across the carpet, her hips working to a disco beat as Donna Summer sings in her ears. She maneuvers the machine around a desk chair that has rolled off its plastic mat, then stops to flip the power switch. A candy wrapper has drifted beneath the file drawer, out of the vacuum's reach.
Unlike the others in this tidy office, this employee Waveney Forester, according to the nameplateobviously enjoys eating on the job.
Isabel crouches and pulls the crinkled wrapper from its hiding place, then yelps when someone yanks the earbuds from her ears. Her forearms pebble in the sudden silence, but when she peers over the edge of the desk, she finds she is still alone.
The speaker cord has caught on a drawer handle.
Exhaling, Isabel releases the cord, then dumps the employee's trash into the receptacle attached to her cleaning cart. A load of printed forms, typed pages and soft-drink cans tumble into the bin, followed by a rainbow of cellophane squaresthe secretary's guilty secret. Every Tuesday and Friday night Isabel finds dozens of candy wrappers shoved to the bottom of Waveney Forester's trash. The sight never fails to make her smile.
Isabel returns the trash can to its hiding place in the desk's kneehole, then lifts her gaze to the wide windows along the east wall. A sprinkling of lights still sparkles in the skyscrapers of Tampa's downtown district, a waste of electricity no one seems to mind. The sun has begun to rise, but only a glimmer of light penetrates the cloudy eastern horizon. Carlos warned her to be careful on the way home because a storm is on its way, a huracán.
Because her fellow custodians like to complain about the weather, Isabel knows Florida has suffered many hurricanes in the last few years, along with states called Mis-sis-sip-pi and Lou-i-si-ana. She doesn't know anyone in those places, but the people she knows in Florida are rich beyond imagining. They complain if their roof leaks ¿por qué? At least they have a roof. And homes. And a government that hands out money and food to anyone who asks for it.
She presses her hand to the cool window and feels a shiver run down her spine. America. Home of the blessed and the free. Home to runaways and castoffs and so full of people a girl could get lost forever
if she has reason to hide.
A flag on a nearby rooftop snaps in the rising wind, but Isabel can't feel even a breeze in this fortress of steel and glass. At this daybreak hour, in this towering perch, she can't help feeling safe. No one from México can touch her here. Even if her enemy manages to track her to Tampa, she will not surrender. She has Carlos and Rafael now, and she would rather die than lose them.
She catches sight of her mirrored reflection, gives herself a relieved smile, and nudges the earbuds back into her ears. Leaving the vista of Tampa behind, she powers on the machine and hums along with Donna Summer as she vacuums her way toward the executive's inner office.
Tucked into the corner of a wing chair, Gina Rossman lifts her swollen eyelids and stares at her unrumpled bed. The report, in a manila envelope, still rests on Sonny's pillow. She spent the night in this chair for nothing.
So much for dramatic gestures.
She lifts her head and glances at the clock, then frowns at the view outside the bedroom window. The sun is usually brighter by seven-twenty
but how could she forget Felix? Destructive hurricanes are nothing new for Florida; in the past three months Hillsborough County residents have anxiously monitored the paths of Alberto, Chris and Debby. The local weathercasters, who would probably lash themselves to a wavering flagpole if the stunt would get them national airtime, are positively giddy about the latest patch of weather heading directly toward Florida's central west coast.
Sonny will blame his absence on the storm, of course. He'll claim he didn't come home because he had to singlehandedly prepare for the hurricane. He sent his employees home Thursday afternoon, he'd remind her, because he wanted to give them time to leave the state. His act of generosity left him with a stack of declaration pages that had to be faxed to frantic clients who needed to know the limits of their coverage. Besidesand at this point he would give her an easy, relaxed smile with a great deal of confidence behind ithe hadn't built a Fortune 500 company by limiting himself to a forty-hour workweek.
She used to accept his excuses, used to be proud of him for putting in more hours than the average husband. But no longer.
Now she knows where he's been working overtime.
She pulls herself out of the comfortable depths of the wing chair and smooths her slacks. She wanted Sonny to find her awake and still dressed when he came through the door, but if he didn't come home last night, he won't show up this morning. He'll be at the office, feeding papers into the fax machine.
An alarming thought skitters across her brain. What if he doesn't come home at all? He might want to protect that woman, so he could be planning to ride out the hurricane in whatever rathole she calls home. Later, when the weather has passed, he'll claim he was slaving at the office until the power went out and he had to evacuate to the nearest shelter.
Last year, she might have believed his lies. This year, she has rebuttal evidence waiting in the manila envelope, along with a private investigator's report. A list of places, dates and times; eyewitness accounts of intimate dinners and lunches; even a receipt Sonny dropped outside Foster's Jewelers.
The amount on the receipt nearly buckled Gina's knees: forty-three thousand dollars for a diamond bracelet. Forty-three thousand that must have been siphoned off the company books. Forty-three thousandmoney that should be part of her children's inheritancehas been wasted on baubles for some tart's wrist.
How much of his children's future has Sonny squandered?
A flash of grief rips through her, one of many that has seared her heart in the last twenty-four hours. How could her husband turn his back on the wife who's loved him faithfully for more than two decades? How could he neglect his precious children? Matthew is supposed to take over the business in a few years, but at the rate Sonny is spending, how much of the business will remain? These are lean days for insurance companies, especially in Florida. The bad weather of the past has devastated the industry.
The investigator included a photograph of Sonny walking down Ashley Street with the woman on his arm, her head brushing his shoulder. Sonny's face, visible at an angle, is marked by an expression of extraordinary tenderness. The object of his inappropriate attention is not facing the camera, but the photo reveals a tall, lean creature with a striking sense of style, a floppy hat, and a youthful body that has not borne three children and invested its best years in Sonny's dreams.
Gina moves to the bed, plucks the envelope from her husband's pillow and stares out the window while she taps the package against her fingertips. A maelstrom is swirling in the Gulf beyond; a killer storm. Before the sun rises tomorrow, its merciless winds and rain will sweep over Tampa and destroy anything that hasn't been properly secured.
Her husband's office is in the Lark Tower, Tampa's oldest skyscraper. His suite is on the uppermost floor, where the intense wind and rain will have unfettered freedom to do their worst. Downtown Tampa is under an evacuation order, but everyone knows Sonny Rossman is a stubborn workaholic.
What might happen if he decides to remain in his office as the hurricane blows in?
Michelle returns the laptop to her dresser, then curls back under the covers to think. SoMarshall Owens is a plant, a test of her company's legitimacy. Owens has probably noticed the ads she places in the employment section of every Sunday newspaper, ads that suggest her expert counselors will market clients through exclusive insider channels and help applicants obtain interviews with top executives at major firms.
She pounds her pillow, then slides her hand under her cheek. Her agency won't be the first vetted by an ambitious reporter. She's read articles that condemn companies like hers, using words like fraudulent and scam. They promise to network and investigate for you, the typical exposé reports, and charge thousands of dollars for services you can perform yourself using free materials and the Internet.
If finding an executive position is so easy, why does she have so many clients? So what if on occasion she does little more than polish a CEO's résumé? Most administrators haven't evaluated their biographical materials in years. They wouldn't begin to know how to portray their skills in the light of an ever-changing employment market.