Copyright 2009 Hannah Savino
Innocence in the Underworld
Cora rolled out of the car onto the wet pavement and, somehow managing to get her feet under her, ran. She moved shakily in borrowed high heels, smacking through puddles. Her speed was good, considering the state of her head. One minute she was being helped into the car, giggling at her clumsiness and the numb feeling of her skin. Something about the night and the man's cologne—rich and too strong—had made her head swirl away. Next her body slammed onto the car seat (she was disturbed by the way she fell as if she was made of lead) and the pain of the seatbelt buckle digging up into her back. Then a slight sound: the zip of a zipper.
She did know how she flung herself out of the car so quickly, or why her body felt slow, as if she was pushing through water. In reality she was moving as fast as she could, driven by the angry shouts and footsteps behind her. She was outrunning him though, dashing through the wet streets in a city she didn't know. Glancing at signs and tearing air by gasps into her body, Cora let adrenaline carry her. It was raining, she could sense that much. The cold cleared her head.
"Cora!" came the rough call, from somewhere down the street. "Cora, you have to come back!" He was still following. Why? Who was he? She stood shivering, tucked in the shadows of a building. She waited, listening to his curses at the wet street. "Cora," he called again, and his voice was angry. Violent. He was getting closer.
It couldn't have been alcohol—she hated the stuff. She had agreed to go to the bar for the dancing alone, ordering water when all her friends got drinks. Yet, as the night and the dancing had gone on, things had gotten fuzzier and fuzzier. Until the guy with the dark hair, dancing a little too close, and then helping her out of the club when her friends were strangely gone. Until the hand pushing her down onto the back seat of a car she didn't know. Until the streaking rain on her face, blinding her and waking her at the same time.
She paused on one of the street corners, gasping with fear and adrenaline, shaking wet hair from her face. She didn't know which way to go; everyway was a nightmare, more dark pavement and cold, wet night. The streetlights washing the sidewalk blurred.
"Cora!" The next call blasted from somewhere nearer. She shot from the shadows, flying across the street to a sloop of steps leading to a door below street level. Flinging herself down them, she tried frantically to open the door— hearing the guy behind her— and rushed in.
Her refuge was a bar or club of some sort, probably private, judging from the subdued lighting and mahogany wood that filled the place with shadows. Dimly she could make out an empty bar, and booths lit by small lamps. Trying to quiet her breathing, she slipped to the wall on her left, hugging the darkness. She passed a doorman's stool and a coatroom, steeling herself for the appearance of a bouncer. There seemed to be no one there, though. When she paused and listened very hard, all she heard was the pounding of her heart, and a few subdued voices in the back. The place was closed for the night, or very, very exclusive. If she moved quietly enough she might be able to find a back door, and leave unnoticed.
Her plan held for a few seconds, and then the door behind her burst open. She bit back a scream, cringing in the shadows and slipping away. The arrival of her pursuer caught more than her attention, though. From the far left came a shout. The bouncer. He gave a challenge, coming to see what was going on. Cora didn't wait to see what would happen. She blindly felt along the wall until she nearly fell into a corridor.
"Hey, man, you can't come in here." The bouncer had found her pursuer. Cora waited in the hall, listening.
"I was with my girl— I just need to see if she came in here…" Even scared as she was, something in Cora protested: I'm not his girl; I'd never met him before tonight. The bouncer was also arguing with him, telling him the place was private.
"If you remain here, Mr. Ubeli ain't gonna be happy with you," the man's voice was unnaturally deep, and Cora imagined a huge man with a shaved head, a brute in a suit. "You need to leave."
"No, I'm telling you, she ran this way…" The seconds ticked by, and Cora realized that he wasn't going to leave. Then there were sounds of movement, a shout—"Hey, you can't go in there!" In fear Cora backed deeper into the hallway. Then she turned and grabbed the closest door knob she could find. It was locked. Frantic, she moved down to the next one. The voices were getting closer.
The door opened. Blindly, she rushed through and closed it, cutting off the shouts.
Inside were more subdued light and mahogany shades. Cora stood with her back to the door, and gasped as soon as her eyes adjusted to the light. In front of her, beyond an expanse of rich red carpet, was a desk. Behind the desk, was a man. She froze. Her mind, which had been racing forward from the night's first threat, now turned sluggishly to this new problem. Interrupting this man, with his imposing office in a very private club, would probably lead to trouble. Yet, she would rather face him than go back out there.
So she stood, barely daring to breathe, water dripping from her hem onto the beautiful rug. The man was working by desk light, in a room as covered in shadow as the club. For a second Cora thought that he hadn't seen her, absorbed as he was in the papers in front of him. Then, in a calm movement, he raised his head and looked at her. Cora moved back against the door. Shadows rested on much of the man's face, especially under his eyes. These he moved over her, taking in her too short dress, her garish heels, her wet hair. Her terror-filled eyes. Cora, heart racing painfully from running, stood frozen. No one said anything.
Slowly the man rose, a question forming on his lips. Cora also stepped forward, mind racing with possible explanations. But she met the man's eyes, dark with grey circles under them, accented by the brooding light, and all her answers melted away.
Behind her, a knock sounded sharply against the door. Cora shot backwards, her arms wrapped around herself. Her face, pale with cold, was stained suddenly with a blush of fear.
"Mr. Ubeli?" someone called.
"Yes?" the man before Cora answered the caller without taking his eyes from her. The door opened slightly, and Cora shrank back, but the speaker didn't enter the room and she was completely hidden behind the door.
"We got a guy out here, says he's lost some lamb he's lookin'
out for. You hear?"
"I hear, Sharo," said the man called Mr. Ubeli, "Get rid of him."
Cora felt her whole body relax. Her breath escaped silently, even as Sharo said, "You got it boss. Do you want me to dump him?"
"No, just turn him away. Smack him a bit if he means trouble." Mr. Ubeli glanced down at his desk, shifting some papers as he called out orders, "Let me know when you've done the job."
"Yeah, Mr. Ubeli. Will do."
With a nod, Sharo was dismissed. The door closed, leaving Cora exposed again, alone with Mr. Ubeli. For a moment, the man studied his surprise guest with narrowed eyes.
"Was that guy giving you trouble?" he asked, moving out from behind his desk.
"Yes," Cora whispered. "Thank you." Hunching her shoulders, she shivered, and Mr. Ubeli came forward carefully, as if approaching a wild animal that might run. She shrank away, but he walked past her, going to the coat rack beside the door and lifting a coat from it. Returning, he held it out, shaking the sleeve toward her arm. For a second Cora didn't move. She stared up at the man, into the deep, shadowed eyes. Then, turning, she put her arm through the sleeve, and let him help her into the coat. Once it was on, she realized it was a suit jacket, gray and too big for her, hanging slightly over her hands. Shaking now with relief more than fear or cold, she let the man guide her one of the chairs before the desk. She sank into it, hoping her wet body wouldn't ruin the red leather, and blinked stupidly when the man handed her a shot glass full of some liquid.
"Drink it," he said, and, for some reason, she did. Perhaps she was tired of the shocked rabbit fear her body had been reacting to, and she was ready to be told what to do. The liquid was cool and heavy and burned all the way down to her stomach, where it spread in a bloom of warmth. She felt her head clear even more.
"I'm in trouble," she began, her voice somewhat stable. The man had moved behind the desk again. She was ready to say more when a knock sounded on the door. Her body shot up again, face white, eyes turned to her savior, Please help me. The man put out his hand in a gesture to steady her, while he called, "Yes?"
This time the door didn't open. "Mr. Ubeli, we got him out."
"Alright, Sharo. If he comes around again, make sure he knows he's not wanted."
It wasn't until Sharo had been gone several minutes that Cora relaxed again. In the meantime, Mr. Ubeli had casually gone to his bar and poured himself a drink. "He won't be out there anymore," he assured her. "Sharo will have taken care of him."
"Yeah," Cora breathed shakily, "Thank you."
"No problem," he said almost immediately, pouring some liquid into a glass. "I don't like to see lost lambs get cooked. He do that?" A nod of the black head to her dress, where she saw the fabric was torn a little, probably from when she was thrown on the seat by too eager hands.
"Yeah," Cora said again, gulping back a sob. She drew her arms around herself, gratefully for the extra skin of the suit jacket around her.
"Hey," said Ubeli, coming to her and leaning back on his desk, looking down at her, "It's going to be all right now. Dicks like that don't last very long on these streets."
Unsure what he meant, but softening to his tone, Cora swallowed her tears and gave a nod. The next question caught her off guard.
"You're his girl?"
"No," Cora said violently, shaking her head and shuddering, "No. I didn't know him before tonight."
"And wouldn't have if it hadn't been for the clear stuff."
"No," Cora said again, confused, looking up into the dark eyes. "No, I didn't drink anything."
"The clear stuff goes into water," Mr Ubeli said, setting his own drink on the desk. "Did you drink any water?"
Cora nodded miserably, looking down. The weight of the night was starting to fall on her.
"Hey," he said again, softly. "It's not your fault. The way a dick behaves—" the man shook his head, holding her eyes as he said slowly, "It wasn't your fault."
Cora let herself look at her rescuer, taking in the planes of his face— grey with an old shave's shadow, but framed with clean cut black hair. He was wearing a dress shirt and pants; she was probably wearing his suit jacket, she realized. His suit looked well made, if not tailored. Looking up at him, she realized he was studying her as she had been studying him.
"What's your name, kid?" he asked.
"Cora," she said uncertainly, not sure if she should tell him.
"Cora, my name is Marcus. Marcus Ubeli."
"Nice to meet you," she said, trying not to sound nervous. He looked at her a little longer, then gave a nod and left her side, moving to the door. She turned to watch, but he only opened the door, spoke to someone waiting outside, and shut it again.
"Yeah," he said, "yeah. Have the car ready." Looking back at her, he asked, "Do you have a ride home?"
She shook her head.
"How 'bout I take you to a place to stay— somewhere safe— to sleep a little, and then take you home?"
"Yes, I mean… I don't know where I'm staying," she said, twisting the fabric of the jacket between her hands. Marcus's eyes flickered down, noticing this nervous gesture, and then back up to her face. Cora continued, "I mean, I was staying with friends. I'm new in the city; I don't have a place to live."
"Do these friends have a phone?"
"Yeah," she shrugged. "But I don't know the number." She was reluctant to look up at him. "For awhile I was with my aunt in the suburbs. I know where she lives … at least, I think I can find it. I don't know, though. I've only been there in the daylight."
Through her speech Marcus's face never altered. He waited until she was done, nodding slowly. "Tell you what," he said. "I'll find you a hotel room tonight." He waited to see if that was okay before continuing, "In the morning we'll look up your aunt."
Cora nodded, relieved. The plan was better than anything she could think up. "Alright," she agreed, and stood. Marcus moved to the door, opened it, and waited. "After you," he said in his smooth voice.
Cora moved back through the corridor she had come down only a half hour ago, pausing only to let Mr. Ubeli escort her through his club. A large man in a suit, Sharo, was at the door.
"Your car is ready, Mr. Ubeli." He had the deep voice of the bouncer she had heard before, but he was younger, and more trim than the man she had imagined.
"Thanks, Sharo. Is that dick gone?"
"We shipped him off to Westside. Even if he makes it through the night alive, he won't find his way back here. If he comes again, we'll be ready." At this point, Sharo's eyes flickered to Cora, but his face didn't betray any surprise that his boss had a girl with him. They left by another door from the one Cora had entered, and, although she knew her hunter was gone, she couldn't help but scan the street before stepping out of the door and into the waiting car.
"Don't worry," Marcus said, sliding in next to her. "That guy's long gone." The car pulled away from the curb, starting down the rainy street. Cora sat with her ankles crossed and looked out of the dark window. She gulped hard, without realizing it. Marcus sat beside her, watching her pale face and throat work against fear. In a sudden move, he put his hand against her cheek, drawing her gaze away from the empty city blocks. Cora stilled, but his hand was warm and confident, cupping her chin gently.
"Hey, kid," he said tenderly, "don't be afraid. I'm going to take care of you."
And it was just that kindness that broke her. Cora shut her eyes and let the tears squeeze out, and then let them pour out, streaking her face as the sobs shuddered through her. Marcus moved towards her and she clung to him, sobbing on his shirt as the car rolled smoothly on through dark, dangerous streets.
When she was finished crying, a patch of Marcus' shirt was damp and his arms were around her, cradling her body.
"You done, kid?" he asked, and she nodded, and he withdrew his arms carefully.
"I'm sorry," she said stuffily, because her face was puffy from crying. "Your shirt."
Marcus gave a little laugh, and moved back onto his side of the car seat. "Kid, my shirt is the least of your problems. But don't worry," he looked back at her and said firmly. "I'm going to take care of you." The planes of his face, so sharp and shadowed, softened into a slight smile. Cora weakly answered it with one of her own, leaning back on the seat with a tired slump.
The car had pulled up to a high rise, and Marcus himself helped her out of the car. For a second he left her to give instructions to the driver, and she waited on the sidewalk, washed in the light of a marquee.
"Sure thing, Mr. Ubeli," the driver said. The car door slammed, and her host was back at her side.
"This way, kid," With one hand at her back, he led her past the doormen, through the fine lobby to an elevator in the back. The only one who approached them was a man in a suit, certainly one of the hotel staff.
"Welcome, Mr. Ubeli," he murmured, and bowed a little. For moment his gaze flickered to her face, but he immediately averted his eyes. Cora was too tired to pay attention. As they rode in the elevator, she leaned a little against her guide. Marcus Ubeli slipped an arm around her.
"Almost there," he said, and then they were. Taking the key out of his pocket, he said, "I keep this room for emergencies," and opened the door. Inside was dark and warm, a massive room stretching out against the windows, which covered one whole wall and let in the light of the city.
A penthouse, Cora thought with exhausted awe. I'm spending the night in a penthouse.
Without turning on any lights Marcus went from her towards an enclosed space. She peered after him, thinking she saw a kitchen, and he was browsing in a cabinet. There was a clink of glass and then he was back, guiding her to the bedroom were he let her get in bed before holding a glass to her lips.
"Drink," he said. "It will help you sleep."
Eyes fighting to keep open, she tried to take the glass. In the end, Marcus tipped the red liquid past her lips. When she finally lay back he covered her with blankets.
"You okay, kid?" he said from the door, just before she fell asleep. Cora mumbled something, tasting the sweet heaviness on her lips, and, feeling the warmth spread, fell asleep.
When Cora woke up, she remembered the drink—the red, liquid jewel-like in the glass. She startled awake, ready to run again, before she noticed that she was not in the backseat of a car, but in the very dark room of a hotel penthouse. There was no one with her, and even though her head felt heavy from its long rest in the clinging pillow, she was safe. Slowly, she started remember the night before. The club, her friends, the man she danced with, the backseat of the car. The undone belt and zipper. And then wet pavement as she ran away, down the streets until she found the basement stairs, and the door, and everything that lay behind it. That part seemed like a dream, and she would deny it happened, except she was lying between the smooth sheets, the velvety soft pillow of a five-star hotel bed.
As she got up, she noticed the bedside table. There was a glass still there, with a few ruby drops clinging to it. And she realized that last night, in the club, she had accepted one drink—red and rich. The guy who gave to her had said it was cranberry juice.
"Oh, no," she groaned, and sat up groggily. She put a hand to her head: it felt thick and swollen, with her hair mussed over it. Looking for a clock, she wondered how long she had slept. When she ventured out of bed, moving carefully as if she was made of glass, she found a bathroom adjacent to the room. There the cool marble stung her tender feet. Squinting over the two sinks— both made out of a striking black marble— she saw the color had returned to her cheeks. She must have slept long, and well.
There was a new toothbrush and tube of toothpaste at the sink, and towels—black and cream colored to match the marble— all there as if they were waiting for her. After she had showered, she found that someone had left a shopping bag on a chair near the door. The skirt and top she found inside were her size. She dressed, wondering if she was alone or if the one who had brought these things was still there, waiting for her to wake.
Leaving the bedroom, she squinted, expecting a blast of morning light. But the long wall of windows was covered with sleek Venetian blinds, and the only light that got through was grey. There were no lights on in the living room, either. She ventured forward, wondering if she was alone.
"How did you sleep?" The voice came from the darkness. There, in an armchair in the sitting area down by the bar, was Marcus Ubeli.
"Fine," she said, clutching her body with her arms. She moved down towards him, looking around. The room stretched out in shadow, massive against the long wall of windows. The penthouse must take up one whole side of the hotel building, she realized. There was a kitchen and bar, sunken areas for lounging, TVs and, in one corner, a baby grand piano. Everything was in grey or black, with touches of cream.
"Do you like the place?" Marcus Ubeli asked. He was sitting like a king among the expensive furnishings, drink in hand. The shadows were grey on his face and under his eyes as he watched her move through the room.
She shrugged. "It's nice." To get into the lowered seating area, she passed a statue, a contorted figure in white marble.
"That's mine," he commented, and she paused politely to stare at it. "The hotel lets me furnish this place to my tastes."
The statue was of a woman, a body and thin cloth all finely sculpted. It looked Greek, and well done, but the figure's face unsettled her—a sweet youth's features twisted as if in some horror or fear. She moved on, descending into the sunken area where her host was sitting. "Is this where you live?" Cora asked.
Marcus Ubeli chuckled. "No, I just keep it in case I want to get away."
Drawing in her breath, she nodded as if this was normal. But she couldn't imagine what a place like this would cost. Whatever it was, Mr. Ubeli was a man of means.
"Would you like a drink?" He stood abruptly, and she shrank away from his dark and tall figure, suddenly imposing. But he only turned and went up the steps to the bar.
"No, thank you." she shook her head, feeling the wooziness still clinging there. At the bar, glass clinked and then he was back. "How long did I sleep?"
Again, a small chuckle. It wasn't unkind, but it made her feel like she missed the joke. "I just watched the sunset."
Suddenly horrified, she went to the window, Pulling at the slats of the blinds, she peered out into a city, bright with rows of light, artificial and multicolored against a very dark night sky. "Oh, no," she said again, for the second time since waking. She turned back to her host, who was standing, his figure cut half through with black, half in grey.
"Forgive me," he said, and she was startled again. He didn't look like a man who would apologize. "I let you sleep as long as you could." His face was in darkness; she couldn't make out any expression beyond that which was in his voice. "I made sure you were okay; someone stayed here, just in case you woke. But when I returned you hadn't woken." His voice dropped, became softer. "I figured you needed it."
"It's okay," Cora said, although she felt weak. She'd slept a whole day! And someone had stayed with her—she wondered who, and hoped it wasn't the muscular bouncer she had seen in the club. She had so many questions, but she bit them back, feeling the dark eyes on her.
"My aunt," she said awkwardly, "my aunt will be wondering where I am."
Marcus Ubeli nodded, and set down his drink. "And we should get you to her." He gestured smoothly to the door, and held out his hand. "Are you ready to go?"
When they left the elevator to go through the lobby, she was now aware of covert glances the hotel staff was giving her. Biting her lip, she lowered her eyes so she wouldn't have to meet them. The new clothes she wore, though less skimpy than the dress, were still quite form fitting; the skirt a tad too short. The only shoes she had were the tall heels, so she wasn't surprised when she tripped a little. Mr. Ubeli had her arm, so she made it out of the hotel and into the waiting car without a fall.
"Take us east, Sharo," he ordered. "Out of the city," At the wheel, Sharo nodded without turning around. Cora saw his face in the rearview mirror, expressionless. He wore a suit, and around his shaved head was a headset. Every so often, he cocked his head and touched a hand to it, as if receiving its messages. Then a glass divider rose between the two seats, and Cora could no longer see the bald head through the tinted glass. Mr. Ubeli took his hand from the button, and leaned back with a smile.
"Just relax, kid. It'll take a while."
The trek out of the city was long, but Cora let it pass in silence. The lights of the city slid over the gleaming black car, and the high rises fell away, replaced by long lines of drab houses. At one point, she covertly studied her host. Marcus Ubeli was sleek in a grey suit and silk tie, his black hair shining even in the dark. His temples held a little grey, but he was a young man still, she could tell. His dark eyes didn't miss much, and when he caught her looking at him, he gave her a study of his own, so intense that she blushed and looked away. His features, sharpened by the shadows on his face, held no smile, but she felt he was enjoying himself, somehow. Curling away from him, she wrapped her arms around herself and looked out the window for the rest of the way.
When they reached the neighborhood of her aunt the divider between the seats went down again, so she could give the driver directions. After an awkward time of twisting down streets, following fragments of Cora's memory, they finally turned onto a road that she recognized. The houses were particularly run down, but it was still with relief that Cora pointed to a middle one and said, "There. That's the one."
The car stayed as she ran up the path to the house. After ringing the bell twice, a sinking feeling replaced elation. The houses on either side were alive with light and noise, but her aunt's was silent, its windows curtained and grey. Without signs of life, the place seemed eerie and deserted. She knocked again, loudly, and called a few times. In the end, she had to turn around, face the car and the two watching faces, and shrug helplessly. After a moment, Sharo got out and opened the back door again. Inside, she knew, Marcus Ubeli was waiting for her. Before her was an invitation, a glorious city swelling with people and night lights. Behind her was nothing: no aunt, no way to get in, and no prospect of a homey, warm welcome. But it was still with dragging steps that she walked back to the car and got in.
Weeks later, Cora walked down the street in the big city, . Her skirt and shoes were her own—the ones her friends had lent her were returned, with little thanks. When she had finally found them again, they had professed worry about the night they left her at the club. But any guilt was short-lived compared to their curiosity towards Cora's new life. She had found an apartment, thanks to Mr. Ubeli. It was not close to her friends, but soon after Cora started dating Marcus and faced their sharpened curiosity of her dark and mysterious knight, she grew tired of them. Declining all invitations to go clubbing again, she lost touch with her old friends.
Watching her reflection in the glass windows of the shops she passed, she realized she had no regrets. The young woman looking back at her was a big city girl. Her apartment was only a walk away from the boutique where she worked and the neighborhood was a better one than she would have been able to afford. But seeing as it was let out by a relation of Marcus Ubeli, and he was willing to put in a good word for her, she got it for astonishingly little, furnished, with no down payment required. When she asked who owned it, he said it was his cousin.
Standing now in front of her door, picking up her mail, she threw a glance at the door to the other apartment. Whoever this cousin was, she was rarely at home in the adjacent apartment, where Marcus claimed she lived. At least it was quiet.
Cora turned the key and stepped into the darkness with a smile. She breathed deeply the smell of lemony cleaner and florist flowers. She knew before she flicked on the lights the apartment was spotless and picture perfect. The housekeeping, which was included, always happened Cora was out; often she returned home to crisp new sheets and cabinets stocked with food, drink, toiletries. And Marcus always left her a bouquet of flowers.
Marcus was a perfect gentleman, she told herself an hour later, as she put in her earrings in front of the foyer mirror, waiting for Sharo to knock on the door. Sometimes Marcus sent his employee to pick her up; he got caught up in meetings sometimes but didn't like to be late for their outings. Sharo was a decent stand in, taking her to a restaurant, where they would serve her a glass of wine, and Marcus would always arrive soon after, smiling and full of compliments to her beauty.
A perfect gentleman, she thought again. He hadn't even tried to kiss her, just put his arm around her to keep her warm whenever they went on long drives through the park, or to his favored private club on the edge of the city. And when he took her to more dangerous parts of town, in order to show her a friend's restaurant, he would loop her arm through his as they walked from the car into the building, and stay at her side all night. She felt safe with him.
He was generous, too. The roses in the foyer were a gift from him. The dress and necklace she wore were other gifts. She always blushed when she got a gift—it seemed too much.
Once, telling her that he had to miss a date because of business, he told her to go into a shop and try on some of the wares. Sharo had followed, a silent shadow who saw everything, and said nothing. Everything she touched, whether she liked in or not, arrived in large shopping bags at her apartment the next day.
She certainly lacked for nothing. Indeed, sometimes it seemed that she was given too much attention. Once in a while, returning home from work in the evening, she would be coming down the street and get the feeling that she was being watched. She'd look over quickly, and there would be the sleek tip of a car, just turning out of an alley, or parked on the street. Its windows were tinted, but she could just imagine the smooth head of Sharo, waiting patiently and following her movements with a steady stare.
It's just a coincidence, Cora thought to herself as she got ready for her evening out. You're making up something to be worried about, things are so perfect. Standing in the small room that served as a foyer in front of the door, she faced the mirror one last time. Tonight was important. Marcus had been busy lately, working early and late and all hours in between, so that she barely saw him for weeks unless he was worn out. Their last date had been three nights ago, at a new restaurant called The Styx. His car had met her after work and taken her straight to the place, despite her protests that she wasn't dressed for the occasion. The night started with champagne in the car, and ended with them both on the top of the building, looking down over the world while the band played softly for the few late customers.
"This is beautiful," she said.
"You're beautiful," Marcus wasn't looking at the city. "I think I like you in your work clothes."
She half-frowned. "You owe me for this, Marcus Ubeli." She rarely spoke so freely to him, but tonight she was relaxed. His mouth quirked—the closest thing to a laugh he had—and she went on. "Dragging me to this fancy restaurant, plying me with champagne… I'm barely fit to ride on public transport in these clothes."
"I'll make it up to you," he had said. "I'll buy you a dress."
She had blushed; she always did. And his face, usually so serious under the dark hair, had held a little half smile. "I'd buy you all this if I could." He swept his hand over the city, glittering below them like a box of jewels. Cora had giggled. She knew he was teasing.
"You mean you can't?" she smiled back. "Mr. Ubeli, what will we do with you? You've been working so hard." She had looked up at his dark features, at the slates under his eyes, evidence of long, long nights.
"I've missed you, kid." He said. Two fingers came to stroke her cheek. "I can't believe I have someone like you."
Then they both stared at each other. These words were like nothing they had ever spoken to each other, and stunned them both. For a moment they were silent, looking down at the city. Then Cora spoke up, haltingly.
"You've been great too. You're kind, more than generous. You've treated me like a princess. I came to the city with such big dreams, but… every girl dreams of a life like this. You've made it come true." She looked up at him there, knowing that her cheeks were alive with the heat of the moment and the cold of the wind. His fingers were still there against them, but still as if any movement more than breathing would shatter it all.
"Cora," he whispered, and she strained to hear, for the wind nearly took his words. "I want…"
"What?" she had whispered back, but there was no answer. In the silence she had shivered a little, and then he was there, folding her into his chest, suit jacket and satin handkerchief pressing into her cheek. And he had been warm, so strong, and nothing could take her away from his shelter, or his heat.
"I want to keep you safe," he had said. "I want to hold you, like this…"
"Shh…" she had said, and closed her eyes. They had stayed that way for a long time, till after the band stopped playing, and the waiters swept up, and finally they went back down to where Sharo sat yawning in the car, and she had kept her head on his shoulder all the way home, as the light on the car window softened with dawn.
Cora looked up again to the mirror in the foyer. He had kept his promise. The dress had arrived that afternoon, with a note: Wear it, and we'll call it even. She had grown used to opening gifts in the weeks that he had been preoccupied with work, but this one made her gasp as she lifted it from the tissue—it was luminous grey and covered over with clear beads that glinted like city lights. A small box accompanied it. It opened and there was a necklace. The setting was shaped like tear, two diamonds and another stone, a large red one she could not recognize.
So she found herself standing in the dim light of the little foyer, allowing herself one last look in the mirror before her escort knocked on the door and whisked her away to Marcus. The dress was lovely, soft and grey, like the stuff of clouds. The tiny beads twinkled, even though the only light in her dark apartment came from the cityscape outside her windows. She had turned out the lights in preparation to go out, and now saw her reflection in stark shadow and dulled light. Still, her eyes were shining, and the jewels at her ears and neck flashed in the light of the city. She smiled. A happy, but pale face smiled back. She touched her cheek with cold fingers. So white, as if she'd been frightened. Patting them sharply to give them some color, she breathed in the scent of the roses…
A knock sounded behind her, and she jumped out of her skin. Grabbing her clutch, she turned to the door and checked through the peep hole, as Marcus had instructed her. City instinct, he had said. Don't trust you know what's beyond your own front door.
The head outside the door was bent. Frowning, she waited for it to straighten so she could see a face. It certainly wasn't Sharo; his head was shaved. The one she was looking at had a full head of hair, brown and a bit tousled, though wet as though it was raining on the streets.
Finally, the head raised. She went cold. It was the face from the night at the dive, the night that ended with her on her back for brief seconds in a car, and then a brief chase through the streets, and, finally, the empty club where she had met Marcus.
She backed away from the door, fright closing her throat, and though she knew he hadn't seen her, she still wanted to run to her bedroom and hide, like a child, under the bed. Instead, she retreated to the kitchen, grabbed the phone, and went into the bathroom, closing the door. Shaking, she dialed. It was a number Marcus had given her if she needed to reach him. No one ever picked up, but she had never left a message before without Marcus or Sharo getting the information.
"Hello," she whispered in the bathroom, "this is Cora." Her voice was probably shaking, but she gave every detail as carefully as she could, speaking slowly, like a small child. Then she hung up and waited.
Twenty minutes later, she thought she could hear another knock on the door. Phone in hand, she didn't move. Again, a knock. Then the phone rang, breaking the silence and nearly causing her to scream. She answered it with a half-strangled, "Hello?"
Sharo was at the door. It took three tries for her shaking self to undo the lock, and when she did, he came in before she asked him, ushering her to a couch with a strong hand, flipping on lights as he did. He poured her a drink and assured her Marcus was on his way. Darting out again, she heard voices in her foyer, and looked up in fear. But it must have been one of Sharo's acquaintances, because he was back with her quickly, a certain look on his face that told her that he was cautiously pleased with something.
"You okay?" In his deep voice and dark eyes, there was something of concern.
"Yes," she said. "I think so."
"Two of my men was outside the apartment, and I think he may have spotted him. They think he may have spotted them, and dived down into city transport. They're still on the trail." There it was again, a look of quiet smugness that suggested Sharo was sure he'd have his hands on the man soon. "We'll make sure you never see him again."
"He didn't do anything," she said. "Just scared me, that's all. How— how did he find me?"
But Sharo's face was now impassive, and he was suddenly no longer willing to speak. A few minutes later, Marcus arrived, and she was comforted, complimented and even cradled again. All the while Sharo watched, and Cora felt the silent, knowing glances between the man and his boss. "Why don't we stay in tonight, babe. Go order Greek; Sharo will pick it up for us." She left the room reluctantly, feeling the eyes of two men on her. When she returned, they were standing close to one another, both faces were hard and strained, though she had heard no raised voices. As quiet as she was creeping back, she only heard Marcus mutter, "Don't let it happen again," before he turned back to her, a cold but gracious host.
"Give Sharo the number so he can get the food." As the bald man left the room, Marcus added, "I don't want any delivery boy knowing where she lives." The quiet fury on his face made her pause where she was, even when he put out his hand to offer her a seat on the couch. She remained where she was.
"Marcus," she asked when Sharo had gone, "who is this guy?"
"I told you, kid. Just some dick off the streets who saw a goddess he can never touch and can't get wise." With a sigh he seated himself on the couch, staring off into nowhere, his face turned to stone. Finally he relaxed, started breathing again.
"Come here," he said, and held out his hand. Slowly she moved forward, took it, allowed him to pull her down onto the couch. He cradled her as he had when they had first met, arm around her, her head against his suit jacket. "I don't want you scared," he whispered, his lips right near her face, "Don't think you aren't safe. Nobody, I mean nobody," she felt him tense up, angry, "touches my girl."
They sat in silence for a time after this, and as the clock ticked the tension left his body. Cora could feel his breathing soften. She held herself very still, like a moth trapped against a lamp; feeling the danger, unable to break away. "You'll be okay," she heard him murmur, "I won't let you out of my sight."
Looking back, she didn't know why it happened, but suddenly she saw the gleam of the black car, the shaved head of Sharo. "You already don't," she said sleepily, lulled by the rise and fall of the chest underneath her. Eyes almost closed, she was drifting when a sharp word pulled her awake.
"What?" His voice mixed with the doorbell; she pulled away.
"It's okay," Marcus said, his hands steadying her, "it's only Sharo." He mistook her anxiety and she let him, body still taut and held away from him, even though she was still so close her hair spilled over his suit. "Cora," he repeated, and she relaxed. He seemed to have forgotten her foolish, whispered words, or dismissed them as naïve. And this shocked her more than the fact he was having her followed. As he went to answer the door, her eyes followed, her heart pounding with something like anger. He thought she was clueless! He didn't think she knew.
Moving to one corner of the couch and tucking her legs under her, she listened hard. Voices in the foyer—Marcus and another, no, two other men. Sharo? Or the other two, the ones who had been so conveniently close to her apartment? Why was he watching her?
"You okay?" Ubeli asked when he returned with a paper sack of food. Cora smiled and nodded, but it was a different girl Marcus found waiting for him on that couch. They set out the food, and before they tucked in, he asked again, "You sure you're okay?"
"Yes," the answer was shaky, but sure. And the eyes she turned on him saw differently, now. Marcus didn't notice.
"I told you, babe," he said, "I'm going to take care of you."
"I'd like to try to visit my aunt," Cora said.
"I thought she'd moved." Marcus was preoccupied, looking out at the cars they were creeping past.
"She did," Cora took a deep breath, "but I'd like to find her. It's not like her to just disappear. She practically raised me when I was younger, before my mom took me out to the Mid West."
"Nowheresville. I thought you were a country girl, through and through."
"Not quite," she found it in herself to smile. Marcus liked to tease her about this. "I was born near the city, in sight of the high rises."
"Well, well," this was enough to turn his head away from the passing traffic. He looked her up and down, "You're a city girl, turns out."
"Too bad," he looked back out at traffic, but his hand was busy around her neck, "I kinda like pig tails."
"And overalls," she reminded him.
"Oh yeah, overalls." He let out a whistle. "Sexy."
They were still laughing, Cora's aunt forgotten, when Sharo pulled up to the club's entrance. Marcus was nearest the door, so Cora didn't see what was happening when her boyfriend stopped short, half way out of the car, and started swearing at someone outside of it.
"Mr. Ubeli, Mr. Ubeli," she heard someone shouting, and then the world turned white. Stunned and half blinded, she sat back, hearing the combined voices of both Sharo and Marcus rising over the hubbub, but unable to catch what was being said. It wasn't until Marcus was back in the seat, the door slamming beside him, that she saw what had caused the fuss.
"Unbelievable," Marcus said, along with a few more of his choice expressions. The front door slammed; Sharo had returned, and the car squealed away from the curb, leaving the curious crowd behind.
"Photographers?" she asked, confused. Marcus had curbed his cursing, but his lips were white as if only great control kept him from bursting out profanity. She looked back to the sidewalk flooded with light from the marquis. Sure enough, there were crowds of waiting press, some with microphones, others with cameras.
Marcus' lips tightened. He jerked forward and hit the intercom button. "Get Royal on the phone," he ordered. Cora hoped Royal was a lawyer. "I want to know how sidewalk trash knows where I'm going to be."
Cora sat silent. She had only seen Marcus like this the night the strange man had knocked on her apartment door. Somehow, even though it had nothing to do with her, this was worse. She dared not speak.
Suddenly, he turned on her, "Did you tell anyone?" he asked, his face so twisted she didn't recognize him.
Mutely, she shook her head, but it wasn't good enough for him.
"Did any of those rag writers ask you were I was going to be?"
"Marcus, no," her voice came out a frightened cry. "I didn't tell anyone I had a date tonight. You didn't tell me where we were going—you just said it was some new place."
Marcus breathed out hard, through his nostrils. Silently, Sharo drove on through the streets of the city. In the alternating light and shadow, the planes of Marcus' cheeks seemed cut from black marble.
"Go back to the apartment," he ordered. "Get her home." Sharo made the next right turn.
"I'll see you tomorrow," he said when they pulled to the curb. He jumped out to open her door himself, as if he couldn't wait for her to be gone. She went, biting her lip, wondering if she should say anything.
"I'm sorry," he made a stiff attempt to salvage the mood. "I'll get you early from work. We'll try another club."
"Can it be later?" she asked. "I'm volunteering at the animal rescue tomorrow."
If it was possible, Marcus' face turned a shade darker. "I thought you were going to stop doing that. We decided it wasn't a good idea for you to return home so late."
"I wouldn't be walking home. You could pick me up there," she pleaded, hoping he could hear her over his anger. "Please."
He stared at her so long she was sure he wasn't seeing her anymore. Finally he jerked his head: a nod. "Tomorrow night, then. Seven." He ordered before the car door slammed. "Wait for Sharo; don't walk home."
"Have to get off early tonight," Cora called to the back.
"Okay," the cry came, "just start at the end and get as far as you can, cleaning. The bucket is in the closet, sponges and soap by the sink."
She passed two hours in silence, cleaning cages the animals slept in. It was hard, dirty work. Somehow, though, she felt cleaner after doing it. Scrubbing reminded her of being a child, in a little rancher out west with her parents were life was simple and full of honest, hard work. At the age of ten, it had been her job to scrub the floors of the house and the dairy. The city is another world compared to home on the farm, she thought. She leaned forward and a bracelet slid down her arm. The stone set into the silver caught the light and blazed. The jewelry was new; she had forgotten to remove it before working. It was a simple piece, a silver chain that thickened into a setting for a fine, red stone. She had never seen anything so fine or delicate before, much less worn it unthinkingly on her arm.
Suddenly, she felt very homesick. She had spoken before to Marcus about visiting her aunt. He said all the right things about making arrangements, but nothing had come of it. He doesn't want to let me go, she thought suddenly. The thought, which would have been quietly pleasing a week ago, was now unsettling.
A long time later, Maeve, the volunteer coordinator, found Cora sitting in one of the cages surrounded by cleaning supplies, one rubber glove on and the other off. "Cora," Maeve called, and the young woman seemed to come awake. The hand without the glove was on her other arm, rubbing it as if the work had given her a rash.
"There's a man out here, looking for you."
Cora looked up at the clock. Seven o'clock. "Oh," she found a curse coming to her lips. Maeve's eyes widened. Shocked at herself, Cora brought her hand up to her lips to keep the word in. Maeve saw what she had been fiddling with—a small chain that encircled her left arm.
"Yes, I'm just late, I better go."
Maeve hesitated, "Are you sure? He's kinda rough looking; I nearly sent him away. Are you sure you want to see him?"
"Yeah," Cora mumbled, stripping off her apron.
Maeve looked at her critically. "Careful," she finally said. "You're a sweet girl, Cora. I hope you know how to take care of yourself." She moved so Cora could get hang up her apron, but went on chatting. "This city is as dangerous as it ever was. I mean, look at this—" she held up a newspaper, the top one on the stack they'd be using to line the cages. "Known crime boss surfaces at club. The Underworld Emerges. Can you believe this? Mob men, right on 35th street! This was at the club that's just opened, what's the name?"
"Olympia," Cora whispered. She had gone all still. She recognized the marquis in the picture splashed across the front page. Silently, Maeve handed her the newspaper so she could get a closer look. The photographer took the picture just as a black car was pulled right in front, and a familiar dark head was emerging from it into the marquis lights.
Maeve was watching her. "Take care of yourself," she said gently.
Without asking what the woman meant, Cora turned away, "I have to go."
Thoughts buzzing, Cora readied herself to meet Sharo, smoothing her hair with her fingers nervously. She would have to ask for a few extra minutes time to change out of her work clothes. Marcus wouldn't be happy. Marcus didn't like to be kept waiting. Marcus—
She took a deep breath, almost dizzy. Waiting until she had steadied, she opened the door.
The front of the rescue was a little shop for pet goods. Cora come out, an apology ready and on her lips even before she saw who it was that waited between the aisles of dog food. Rounding the corner, she stopped dead. The hair on the head of the waiting man was curly, brown. His back was to her, but at her voice he turned around.
Cora gasped. Instead of stepping back, she stepped forward in pity. "What happened to you?"
The man's face was misshapen, bruises covering his face in mulit-colored patchwork. It was the man from the club, from her first night out in the city. She should run, or speed-dial Marcus on the cell phone he insisted she carry. But he wasn't making any move to come closer, so she stayed.
"Did Sharo do this?" She asked, her heart beating hard.
"Yeah," the man's words were a mouthful of pain, spoken through all the bruises and swelling. "Boss don't like it when a man oversteps his bounds."
"What?" she whispered.
"I came to warn you," he said. "Boss won't like it, but you've got to get wise. That way, you'll be ready."
"Ready for what?"
The man shook his head, looking down. He squeezed his eyes shut as if this movement brought the pain to a head. Cora, heart soft from an afternoon of solitude, forgot about her plight. "Are you okay? You look like you might need to see a doctor."
"No," the man gasped. "Boss takes care of his own. I went there that night, I didn't mean to—"
"Hurt me," Cora finished his sentence, nodding soothingly. "I understand. I was just scared. I overreacted. What they did to you is my fault. I'm so sorry."
This silenced him. He stared at her in disbelief.
"When I saw you outside my apartment," she went on, but he shook his head. "No, not that time. The first time."
She fell silent, but he didn't bring himself to say more, so she continued, crossing her arms in front of her, "The night at the club, when we danced and then you drugged my drink and then tried to rape me. Look, thank you for coming," she dismissed him, not unkindly, aware that her last actions had caused a man to suffer. "But you need to go. Really, Sharo is coming to pick me up and he won't like—"
"No— don't go with him. Don't trust them."
Cora just stared at him. "Don't trust my boyfriend? Why not? And why should I trust you?"
"Your aunt," he started, and then the word caught in his mouth and he choked.
"My aunt? You mean you've spoken to her?" Cora waited as the man stopped coughing. He truly sounded horrible. She wondered if his injuries were all visible.
"Yeah. Saw her two days ago."
"Where is she now?"
"She's safe. A little worried for you. She asked me to tell you that she'll go to the cops if you don't come back. If he doesn't let you go."
"What? What do you mean?" Cora shook her head in confusion. Was this man sick from the blows to his head? "Who wouldn't let me go?"
But the man was going through another bout of coughing. "Boss don't like it when girls get away. He won't let them go. That's why, that first night—"
"The first night? The night we first…" she stumbled around for a better word, "met? When you drugged me."
"Didn't want to. Boss gave orders."
"Wait," she struggled to understand, "You took me to the car. You were going to—" She broke off because her informant/stalker/ former-would-be-rapist was shaking his head vigorously.
"There was a plan. Boss wanted you drugged, scared up, and brought to him. He would kill anyone who touched you." The wheezing around his words was cruel. "He didn't think you'd run. But it still turned out, all according to plan."
"Plan," she said carefully, still holding on to disbelief. She looked up at the man for something dishonest, untrustworthy. All she saw there was a quiet pity, directed towards her.
"Thank you," she said, and stepped backwards. The newspaper was still in her hands, she held it between them like a shield.
"Believe me," the man said, looking worried.
Cora nodded but didn't answer. The man wasn't satisfied.
"He's dangerous. Don't trust him. Don't say yes. Once you're in, you're in forever."
"You should go," she said, looking at the storefront. A long, black car had just pulled up to the curb. "The boss is here." She turned back, but the man had gone. The door to the back was swinging back closed.
Sharo found her there, still clutching the newspaper among the aisles of dog food. "Ready to go?" he asked, looking her up and down.
"I need to change," she said, fighting the urge to back away. He seemed to sense this, and stayed close, hovering, protective.
"You can do that at the club." He turned, stiffening, when the
back door opened, but it was only Maeve, wide-eyed.
"You nearly forgot this," she said, breathless, handing over Cora's rucksack. Sharo held out a hand for it, and Maeve held back, looking nervous but firm. "I beg your pardon, sir."
"It's okay, Maeve," Cora said. "I trust him." She blinked suddenly, surprised at how quickly she said those words, realizing how they were all lies. Maeve looked at her with an unhappy expression, but gave Sharo the pack. Cora turned to go, but the man stopped her. He had seen the paper Cora still held.
"I wouldn't, if I were you," he said, and looked at her, black eyes glinting. "He won't like it. Boss has been looking at it all day."
Cora survived the drive in silence. She was still thinking about what the man had said. Warn me? She felt numb, stunned. When Sharo guided her down the steps to the club where she had run to, that night long ago, she did not struggle. A minute later she was alone with a man in his office. Marcus. Mr. Ubeli. The shadows still cut across his face among the mahogany and rich carpet. From the first night nothing had changed. No, everything had.
"Hey, babe," he said, and leaned back in his chair with a sigh. With one hand he scrubbed his hair out of his face; the other reached out, calling her towards him. She had planned to be strong, but something in the way he pushed the dark spikes of his hair away from his eyes reminded her of a little boy, up past his bed time. She went to him.
"Long day?" She asked, and he didn't reply, simply put his hands on her hips and pushed her back so that she was leaning on the desk. His fingers stroked her arms, wrists, hands, and finally, the fine silver chain on her left arm, pushing it and pulling it back. And she let him, remaining still, heart hardly daring to beat, as if even a breath might break the moment.
"I should have done this a long time ago," he murmured.
"What?" she started to say, and leaned forward to hear the answer, but at that moment he looked up, and caught her mouth on his, and then it was all over. Every thought went out of her head, all but Marcus, Marcus, and he was standing now with his arms around her and body pressing hers over the desk—
"Marcus," she gasped, when he let her lips. He was still standing close, however, and his arms still held her.
"It shouldn't have taken me so long. With no other girl, would it have taken me so long,"
"So long to do what?" she asked, her thoughts still swirling.
"This," he said, and kissed her again. Now she came alive, responding, and her hand came up to stop him but, no, it simply took the plane of his cheek as if she would hold him to her, and then her fingers raked through his hair, her breath coming out in a shudder now that he had let her go again—
"Hey, kid," he said softly, his hand on her cheek, "you're crying."
She was. Her sobs were such that her body was shaking. He folded her into himself, almost lifting her onto his lap, lips still hovering close, him crooning, "hey, hey." The sobs left her, and they kissed again. Then he held her quiet, her head against his chest. She listened for his heart beat again, and soon, realized he was speaking, telling his love to her over and over again.
"I'll keep you safe, babe, you know it. You won't ever need a thing, or have to get wise. You're my goddess, and I won't let you go—"
"Marcus," she sat up, her whole body shuddering in the aftermath of the sobs. He let her lean away from him, to get some distance so she could face him. "I don't know. I'm not sure of anything."
"Shhh, shhh. I'm with you. You don't have to be."
"I know you're scared, babe." The dark eyes never left hers. "But you're with me. You're going to be okay. I know that dick turned up again," his face grew sober. "Sharo saw him in the shop. But babe," his voice was reassuring, "he won't ever bother you again."
Cora could feel the shudders starting to come back; her whole sanity was slipping away. "He won't?" she whispered.
"No." Marcus' face, cut from the dark, held a smile. "Don't worry, babe. I told you I'd take care of you."
They rode through the streets to the restaurant. Marcus had his arm around her; he held her close as if afraid of losing her. But she had already escaped, her mind swirling with thoughts—of newspapers with Marcus, of her aunt, of the man who stalked her, of that first long night. She had been drugged, scared, and completely alone. Perhaps she still was.
Once she said, "Marcus—"
"Yeah, kid?" his fingers paused where they were, playing with the strap of her dress and her hair.
"What was happening last night—at the club?"
"You don't want to know," he said. She took a deep breath and turned to look at him, forcing herself to wait for an answer even though she could see a glint of anger in his eyes. He took his arm from around her, and she became frightened. After a moment, something like a smile quirked in his mouth, though the coldness didn't leave his face. "But you're my girl, and you're beautiful, so I'll tell you."
She submitted to his kiss, then listened without comment.
"Couple of weeks back six pals of mine decided to go in on a club. They bought the old Olympus theater, renamed it, set it up real nice. But rumors were circling—you know, people talk. Someone thinks something's up, and the press hooks on it like it's the only story in town. There were stories going around even before the place opened. Then last night," a large sigh, "the press showed up."
She waited a moment after he stopped, then said, "And?"
"They took pictures. And, because they can print whatever trash they want, we got smeared on the front page. All my friends wanted to do was open a club. Who's business is it how they run it? And the stuff they said—drug and dirty money—none of that's been proven. Those accusations belong in court. To slap it on a front page to sell papers—that's what's illegal."
From where she felt, Cora could feel him getting angrier, though his voice never rose. She could feel it through the small distance between them, waves of cold fury, kept tightly clenched under the suit and silken tie.
The car glided through the streets. The windows were thick, keeping out sound, so it seemed silent outside and in. Cora studied Marcus' face, afraid of what she saw there. He was distant, cold. Without thinking, she shivered, and with a murmur—"you, okay, babe?"—he put his arm around her, and she rode on with the heavy weight across her shoulders. And, though the questions screamed inside her— who are you? Are the stories true?— she found she couldn't say any more.
So deep was the silence, it took them both a moment to realize the car had stopped.
Then Sharo opened the door and she found herself looking up at a tall building, with many stairs leading up to its large doors.
"Go on," Marcus pushed her gently, and she dutifully she climbed out.
"Is this the restaurant?" she asked, teeth chattering with the sudden cold wind. Marcus, having stopped to speak with Sharo, came and took her under his arm and coat jacket, ushering her forward.
"Babe, you don't know the half of it." Her questions seemed to be forgotten, but he still hovered close. They went up the steps, she close to being carried, it seemed. She could barely see beyond his sheltering arms. Then they were inside.
The humid heat rolled over Cora, lapping at her arms and face like an ocean wave. She relaxed; stopped resisting, walking into the darkness without being afraid. Marcus held back, a smile on his face as he watched her.
"What is this place?" She breathed. A flashlight switched on, and the beam danced: over palms and fern, flowers and green—a whole host of growing things, sheltered in the building of glass.
"A green house!" she said, and he laughed as he came forward to show her around. They traipsed the narrow paths, feeling the beckoning, soft branches, and finding their way through the dark with only a single flashlight.
"I see something up ahead," she pressed forward, he obligingly following with the light, until they pushed past one great frond and found it: a little table and some wine, lit by a small, flickering candle. Going around her, he pulled out one of the chairs.
"Welcome to paradise, kid."
Speechless, she sat quiet while he poured the champagne, and took a glass without a word.
"A toast," he said, "To our favorite place."
"What?" she asked. But he drank first. She was still waiting, wide eyed, when he finished. He toyed with his glass before placing it down decisively.
"I told you, babe, I should have done this a long time ago."
"Done what?" she asked, feeling stupid. He came over to her, and she looked up at him, afraid. He might kiss her again; she wouldn't know how to tell him to stop, or worse, she would like it.
"When I first saw you, Cora," he said, "I knew we would be together. Forever."
Cora was mute. He came near her and cupped her cheek. "So lovely, so innocent. I need you, Cora." He knelt down before her. "You're the only woman who's made me feel this way." He reached into his pocket, keeping his eyes on hers.
"Marcus?" she started to ask, but then he opened the jewelry box, and she found she couldn't speak. It was a ring to match the jewelry she already wore.
"Marry me," he said. He was smiling at her shock.
"Oh, Marcus," she said, and then her breath was gone; she was mute. Instead, she reached forward to touch the ring. The metal was silver colored, but she knew it would be white gold. There were tiny diamonds, cut to sparkle. But the main gem was red. Mesmerized, she realized he was speaking.
"I almost get you a diamond, a real nice rock. But you look so great with red." He looked at her suddenly in such a way that she blushed. She leaned back in her chair, away from both him and the ring, hoping she could hide the fear that had pierced through her.
"So?" He prompted, after a moment of silence.
"What if I'm not ready?" She didn't know where the words came from. Dark fire flashed through Marcus' eyes, but otherwise he hid his anger well.
"I think you're ready," and he stood up, towering over her, until he drew her to her feet. He moved his face close, as if he would kiss her, and she was frozen, watching his lips, "I think you want to say yes." And he did kiss her, "Say yes," and whispered while his lips played over her skin, "Say yes."
It was difficult to breathe. "I need … time."
"You have as long as you want." Marcus' dark eyes were unfathomable. But his lips murmured against her skin, "Just don't make me wait too long."
Dawn found Cora still awake, standing at her window. When Marcus had dropped her off, she had gone straight to the window, and stayed there all night, without turning on the lights. When the light started to come in, she moved back, staying in darkness. She didn't want the men watching to see her face, tired after keeping vigil through the night.
Though she had stood there for hours, her thoughts were no clearer than they were. The moment Marcus asked her to be with him—forever—she had felt her world tilting, spinning, changing. It was as if he had swooped her up, spun her around in some fun and frightening whirlwind ride. But when she looked at the new path of her life, it seemed to lead inevitably down.
Staring at the city all night had afforded no answers. Now, with the sun encroaching on her living room, she still felt lost. Stiffly she began to move, her body miserable and lifeless at the start of a new day. The apartment around her was bleak, cold, silent as a tomb. The thought fluttered into her mind—What am I going to tell Marcus? Immediately she stopped, almost paralyzed again, feeling desperate, alone, scared. She did not know what to make of these feelings. She did not know what she was going to do.
Below, in the street, a dark car pulled up. Two suits got out of the back seat, and crossed to an alley way. In another minute, two suits left, walking wearily and rubbing sleep from their faces—not the same men. A rare view of the changing of the guard. As the two got into the car, one of them looked up at her apartment, to the window where she stood. She pulled back, but not before her breath frosted the cold glass.
I'm trapped. She realized. The mere thought propelled her back into her apartment. Pulling on a coat, she hurried out the door. No one should stop me from taking a walk. She flew down the stairs and then hesitated before turning from the front door. And why would it be strange for me to take the back hall to the basement door instead?
I need a break, she told herself as she wove through the back alley ways, glancing back between the trash cans. I can be alone for awhile. It might be a while before they catch on, unless, of course, the back door is watched. She hurried into the city, past the sleeping neighborhoods and shut up shops. I just want some space. It isn't that life isn't good. Marcus is great. Every thing is fine, fine, fine. With each step she took her thoughts turned over and over. When the city came awake and alive with noise and traffic, Cora barely looked up.
At one bright corner, she did pause. The fruit sellers were out in droves, the sun was high enough to give the jewel colored wares glorious setting. Cora tried to buy something; she passed her hand over the mounds of grapefruit, lemons, oranges of every shade. Further on were the more exotic: papaya and pineapple, kiwi and starfruit. The old fruit seller appeared before her, offering a free sample. It was a red fruit, duller than an apple, but inside filled with glistening seeds. Obediently, she tried a few of the juicy pips. Smiling, the seller pressed her to eat more. Cora stretched out her hand, saw the red jewel on her finger, and began to tremble. Throwing a bill to the old man, she fled.
Morning overtook her. With beautiful dress and high heels peeking out from below the long coat, she walked on, ducking down quieter streets. There were houses, homes of white stone with iron gates to keep them safe. She paused in every garden square, seeing the flowers, remembering the jungle greenhouse Marcus had taken her to.
Though noon was high over her, she shivered. When the sun set, she knew she would have to go back. Finally realizing her legs were aching, she went into a donation shop to swap her fine clothes in for faded jeans and a grey sweater.
"Long night, honey?" the woman behind the counter asked. Cora nodded, and left her discarded dress and heels along with the change. At the nearest café, she sat and breathed deeply with her legs tucked up under her. It had taken some presence of mind at the goodwill shop not remove the jewelry. It would be so easy to slip away…but where to go? Cora considered. She had left her friends, her old home out west. Her aunt, her closest relative, had disappeared.
All I have is Marcus—him and everything he's given me. He is my world.
She realized she was twisting her ring. The night before, she had asked for time. Before they parted, after one last kiss, Marcus had slipped the ring onto her finger. "Keep it," he had said. "I want you, no matter if you say yes." Rather than press it back onto him and see the pain in his eyes, she had looked down, nodded. Now she wondered. What had made him so confident? Her hand moved down from her finger to her wrist to pluck at the silver chain. No matter what I say or do, he knows I'm his.
"Miss, do you want to order something? Coffee, or…"
Cora looked up at the waiter and shook her head, "No. I mean, I'll pay to sit here, but I only want water." She couldn't possibly eat.
Still, the man stood waiting expectantly.
"Here," she fumbled with her wallet, drawing out a bill. From some hidden fold, a larger one fell out on the table. There was a slight gasp from the wait staff at the digits on the second bill.
"Oh," she mumbled, smoothing out the second bill. Marcus must have slipped it in her wallet; his idea of a joke—she still had a job and Marcus never let her pay for anything. "Well, just take it," she offered, but the man was drawing back nervously. He went to whisper to a manager.
Meanwhile, a young mother came in, pushing a stroller with another toddling behind. She used the stroller to prop the door, help the child through, and was losing the battle to keep the door open when Cora stepped in.
"Thank you," the young woman said, and Cora felt a rush of warmth. She watched the toddler move back to his place clinging to his mother's pocket, other hand in mouth. Perhaps she should ask Marcus if he ever wanted children.
When she returned to her table, the café help had filled her table with plates of pastries, fruit and a whole coffee service. Cora shook her head but they left it all, adding three bottles of designer mineral water. The other customers were staring.
Sighing, she grabbed a paper. This day was hers to waste in walks and bury in papers, if she chose. She skimmed the fashion pages, grew quickly bored, and flipped to the news columns.
Rise in violence, streets unsafe. The headlinecaught her eye. Police helpless in war between crime lords. Criminals must choose sides. Man found dead, multiple stab wounds—most likely gang violence. The cold print rolled on down the page. The opinion column on the next one was headed Unrest in Underworld, and full of theories about crime families, changing leadership and black market business takeovers that left hustlers, thugs and kingpins alike dead at the scene. "Now even murderers need protection," was the writer's attempt at black humor. Below was a picture of the man, the war's most recent victim. Once glance at the marred face and Cora got up so suddenly her chair fell over.
"May I help, miss?" the manager and waiter rushed to her side, but she had already righted her chair, mumbling to herself.
"Everything okay?" the young mother was nearby with toddler and stroller in tow. For now Cora was shuffling the newspaper, a pathetic attempt to reorder them, to hide the face of the man who had come to her that night to warn her.
"Yes, I'm fine. Here," Cora gave up with the paper and gestured to the table laden with food. "You can have this. I didn't touch it." The young mother looked startled. "She can have it all," Cora told the manager and waiter, and, while they stared, picked up her purse and fled.
As she left the café, she noticed a white van parked near the café, somehow out of place. Even in her distress, Cora paused to think what seemed wrong about it: the butcher the van might have been making deliveries to was on the opposite side of the street. There was a man standing by it, taking a smoke break. Or maybe that was what it was supposed to look like— the cigarette wasn't lit and he never brought it to his mouth. Instead, the delivery man, if that's who he was, was watching her. Shrugging deeper into her coat and flipping up the coat collar, she turned and hurried down the nearest alley.
The journey back home somehow seemed even longer. In the day's declining hours, she made her way back across the city by a few landmarks. Tiredness was taking over, but she was sure that the white van was following her. Occasionally she caught a glimpse of it around a corner or at a stoplight. At some point, the white van disappeared and a black car took over, cruising slowly enough to be noticed. She ignored it. If Sharo was coming to pick her up, let him make the first move and stop the pretending. She would play the game as well as they did. When she finally hit familiar roads, she hailed a taxi. Arriving at her apartment at dusk, Cora showered and dressed. The second-hand clothes, so dingy beside her other wardrobe, went in a bottom drawer for later. The cell phone Marcus had given her—left behind for the day—was blinking with messages. As if he didn't have other ways of finding out where she was. She chewed her lip for a moment. All this attention, was it flattering or creepy? When did love cross a line?
She would find out. Tucking her wet hair behind her ears, she turned on all the lights. Then she sat on the couch, and waited.
Not five minutes later the doorbell rang. She closed her eyes, suddenly too tired to move. A second knock, a pause and then the jingling of keys. He let himself in and came to her on noiseless shoes.
She looked up at him. Dressed as usual in grey suit and tie, he stood with his hands in his pockets and looked her over. She waited, but he had no questions. There was expectancy on his handsome face.
She could play the game. "How was your day?"
"Business as usual. Yours?"
Tiredness overtook resolve. "I was out," she admitted. "All day. I just needed some time to think…Last night, I couldn't sleep. I thought I could get tired walking."
He waited to see if that was all. Cora felt pathetic. Marcus was looking down at her like a parent with a disobedient child.
But he didn't chastise her. Taking a seat next to her on the couch, he leaned forward with hands clasped, studying the floor.
"Last night was…a dream come true. I wanted to sweep you off your feet, this great crescendo up to the ring, right up to when you said yes." He was twisting a ring he wore on his finger, not looking at her. "I've done everything I know to do for you, Cora. I've never felt this way with any girl. And, last night, I guess…" he paused. "I just got carried away. I wanted it to be perfect."
"It was perfect," Cora said in a soft voice. Marcus finally looked at her.
"I want you. I…love you. When I look at my life without…" he trailed away.
Cora looked into his dark eyes, searching them. She found nothing but sincerity. Emboldened by her gaze, Marcus took her hands. "I'm telling you sorry for pushing. Life with you, babe, it's just gonna be so good."
"Marcus, I—" the words caught in her throat. "I forgive you."
Raising her hands to his lips, Marcus kissed them. His eyes were fixed on hers; she couldn't hold the gaze any longer. His moves were too good; she couldn't win. When he opened his arms, she leaned into him. Exhausted, she again closed her eyes, pretended she was home.
Held in the light of the fire, Cora dozed as Marcus stroked her arm, his lips at her temple. Second by second, she would fade into sleep, only to wake and see him watching her.
"Hi," she murmured lazily, smiling.
"Hey, kid," he lowered his lips to hers.
She was still smiling when he pulled away, but he looked more serious. "How have you been sleeping?"
"Okay," she said. It had been a week since the long day of walking. "I'll sleep well tonight," she added, so his frown would not deepen.
"I bet you will," another kiss. "But I want you to be happy."
"I am happy," she said. "It's just…" she couldn't find the words, and sighed. She watched the firelight for a moment, trying to think what might possibly be wrong with her life. Over the course of a week, so much had changed. She hadn't said yes to the proposal, but Marcus had been sweeter than ever. Of the suits, there had been no sign. I can play this game. That afternoon, he had picked her up from her apartment, driven her himself to a spa in the hills. Dinner was waiting in front of the fireplace, and, after the final course of strawberries and champagne, Marcus drew her into his arms on the thick hearth rug.
"I just don't know," Cora finished, embarrassed at her non-answer. She started to pull away from Marcus to get up, but he said, "No, no, don't go," and held her more tightly. She let him, content to be trapped against his chest.
"I think I know what it is," he murmured, "You're bored."
"Oh really," Cora snorted.
"No, no, hear me out," she could hear Marcus' smile, "You came to the big city for stimulation…opportunity, parties, work and all that. A little country girl dazzled by the lights."
The kick in Cora's stomach was a laugh. Marcus' hand went to her stomach; he stroked it and she almost stopped breathing.
"You found me," he purred, "but, when I'm not around..."
Struggling to keep her thoughts, Cora teased, "I might as well just shrivel up and die."
"Took the words right out of my mouth, kid." A few more minutes went by with him tracing unreadable words out on her skin. Cora closed her eyes and drifted away on pleasure. Hours may have passed before she heard him murmur something more.
"I said, what if I got you a car?"
"Marcus, you can't buy me a car."
"Can't I?" he growled, and suddenly Cora found herself rolled onto her back. Marcus was suspended over her, holding his weight on his arms so their bodies were not quite touching. She came awake immediately, wide-eyed under him. But he only lowered himself close enough to whisper, "I can do anything I want. I can give you the world."
"Okay, then," Cora found her voice, "a car."
"That's better," Marcus raised himself a little and grinned, the cat who had trapped a live mouse. "What sort?"
"I don't know, you pick," her voice came in little gasps. His close physical presence was distracting. When she rolled her eyes to the left and right, her view was blocked by Marcus' arms, which bulged with sudden strength. He did not seem in any hurry to release himself the pose. Or her. Trapped, she looked up at him.
"A nice Aston Martin. You liked the way it hugged those curves coming up the mountain?"
"Uh," Cora's brain was too scrambled to remember the drive up only four hours previous. "I don't know. Was that an Aston Martin?"
With an annoyed growl, Marcus rolled away from her.
"It was grey, right?" Cora tried again, hoping her boyfriend was only kidding. She was relieved when he returned to lie next to her on his side, his head propped on an arm. From this slight vantage he could look down on her where she lay, still on her back. "Sorry," she giggled.
"You break my heart," years seemed to come off his face as he teased her. "For that, you're going to pay."
"Oh, no," she laughed.
"I'm serious," he warned, "You're going to have to do something for me."
Her heart leaped, but she rolled her eyes, "Alright, I'll drive the Aston Marie or whatever. The grey one."
His eyes narrowed, "Cora…"
"You said you wanted to buy me a car! Something to keep me preoccupied, I don't know, street racing. You could just buy me a dog."
"Great," Marcus pretended disgust, "Some little pooch I accidentally kick every time I walk into your place."
Cora made an indignant noise. "You are so bad. Behavior like that, you won't be allowed at the animal rescue anymore."
"Oh, really? And how will they find out about my abusing little Fluffy?"
"I would not name a dog Fluffy," Cora laughed.
"Alright. So I kicked poor little Soccer—"
"Marcus!" Cora shrieked.
"—what do you expect? You name a dog Soccer and it's going to get kicked. Fact of life. How's the rescue going to find out?"
"I would report you," Cora put on her most holier-than-thou tone.
"Hmmm," Marcus leaned in to kiss her, "Traitor. All's I wanted was to get you interested in something, for fun. Get you out of the house, get you something to do. Guess we're going to have to go to plan A."
"Aston Martin…you little…" Marcus put hands on either side of
her body again, but did not shift himself over the full length of
her. With his torso twisted, he leaned down to kiss her.
"You...are…in trouble," he punctuated each word with a kiss.
The last one went on for sometime. "You owe me."
"Okay," she said dreamily.
A few minutes later, drunk with one another, Marcus told her the plan, "A friend of mine is starting up a new fashion line. He is looking for a certain type of girl to show the stuff. Are you interested in being a model?"
"They had me do that sometimes, at the shop. That's why I quit," she said. "I was sick of just putting on the clothes and walking around. They never let me do any work."
"Work, volunteer. You're such a farm girl…always doing chores."
"It's the way I was raised."
"Please, Cora," he said. "This will be much more intense than the shop. Promise."
"Do you want me to do it?" Cora asked.
"I do. I want the whole world to see this goddess of mine. Share the beauty," he was back to nuzzling her throat. "But only for a little while."
"Mmmm," she said. "Okay."
He pulled back to grin at her, and she smiled, too. The game they played was still going, and she was becoming a better adversary. For a week she had kept close to home, so as not to alarm him. With the sweet way he'd been treating her, apparently he already had been. He seemed determined not to let her get away.
"Could I have some more wine?" As he poured her a half glass, she wondered when the cards would slip from her hands. Every time he looked at her, she wondered if there were layers to what he was thinking.
He handed her the glass, but immediately took possession of her lips. She let him. In moments like these, close to the Marcus she loved, she wondered if the game was worth it.
The fire died down low.
"Alright," Marcus finally said, nuzzling at her throat and then slowly rising, "it's time for bed."
Reluctantly, Cora rose as well. Marcus had ordered separate rooms—"I know you're sweet and innocent. And you haven't said yes to me…"
She went to the door and paused there, looking back at him. I know I can play this game.
"See you in the morning," he said.
"See you." Cora watched until he disappeared behind his door. But which one is he playing?
"Babe, babe, come on, move!" Cora turned and was blinded by the lights. She took a step to the side, uncertain, and then noticed the camera man trying to pass her.
"I beg your pardon," she said as she stepped aside. He went by with a nice smile. She stood unsure, until a make-up artist rescued her.
"Come on, dear," he said, leading her by the arm to a chair in front of the mirrors. A flick of the switch, and she was blinded again. "Let's see what we have here," in the blurred shapes beyond Cora's vision, she could see the man was studying her. "Good bone structure, classic cheekbones," some heat came onto her face and she realized the man had pulled a light close to examine more closely. She kept her eyes closed throughout the scrutiny, "Great skin.
An hour later, Cora was covered in violet shaded white powder, with an iridescence to the skin of her face. There was striking purple and black makeup around her eyes.
"Perfect," the artist said, and spun her out of the chair. "Let's get you to costuming."
Marcus, you owe me for this, she thought as she wove through racks of clothes to the designer's assistants. 10 Aston Martins, at least.
She was still imagining the line of new cars—a dog in the front seat of each—while being dressed. The garments were cool, long, draping fabrics sheer as clouds and falling like water. With a pleased sound she turned in them and watched the material float.
The assistant was less happy. With a string of curses, he stepped in to pin something, and stuck Cora's flesh. Startled, she jumped. The curses were directed to her. Cora froze and gritted her teeth, waiting for more abuse, more pins. But another one of the assistants turned from the rack of clothes and pulled the second away. He spoke in an urgent whisper.
"Mr. Ubeli," were the only words Cora caught as she waited, trying to keep a brave face. The first assistant returned and finished his work, silent and stiff. The second disappeared, and reappeared with a bottle of water.
"The lights can be hot," he explained. Cora noticed none of the other models being given water, but accepted it. She was directed off to another room to wait for their call, and went. With her clothing draped like a Greek statue and water bottle in hand, she felt like the Statue of Liberty.
The room she had been sent to wait in was quiet and calmer than the rush of people and lights just without. Cora wandered the long racks of fabric, touching bolts of fabric sheer and crisp and many colored. Alone, she relaxed.
She turned with a swirl of gorgeous material. "I'm ready! Is it my turn?" The words stopped on her tongue as a man approached her, tall and slim, wearing a suit. Somehow, he didn't look like a designer or an assistant. Cora regarded him, instantly wary.
"I'm not here for the designer wear, if that's what you're wondering," he said.
"Then you probably shouldn't be back here."
He put up his hands at her defensiveness. "Don't be alarmed, ma'am. I'm not going to be here long. I came to see you."
Cora stepped away, looking down at some set props for the shoot—false flowers, faux marble columns.
"I'll be brief. We've been watching you for sometime, and think that you might need some help. Someone to talk to."
"Did Marcus send you?" She cut him off.
To her surprise, he almost laughed, "Marcus Ubeli? No. Quite the opposite, in fact." He still seemed to think what she said was funny.
Cora's face was a mask.
"No, ma'am, I'm not with your boyfriend. But I'm acquainted
with him, you might say. My people have been watching him for some
Now she felt a little kick of fear. The man was not laughing now, as he held out his ID and badge. "We're very interested in asking you some questions."
"What sort of questions?" she whispered.
"We can get to that later," he said now with in a lighter tone. "For now, enjoy the photo op. There will be information waiting for you afterwards. Once you get it, we'll expect you to rendez-vous with us soon." He showed her a small white square. "My card."
"I don't have any pockets," she said.
"Don't worry, Ms. Cora," a flash of his white smile and the card had disappeared. "We'll be discreet. The last thing we want to do is put you in any danger."
Cora felt like she had turned to wood. Now a stature, she couldn't breathe.
"Oh, and Cora," the man said, just before ducking out between the large bolts of fabric, "your aunt says hi. We have her, too. She's safe."
For a moment after he left, Cora stood still, facing a sheath of gauzy maroon. Then, followed by a train of whispering silk, she floated from the closet room and back out into the chaos.
"Babe, there you are—" a photographer waved at her, "You're next."
Cora nodded without really hearing. Another model, being unpinned from her clothes, turned her head. "Wow," she remarked on Cora's get up, "you look really cool. Who are you supposed to be?"
"Uh…I don't know." Cora stood a side as two men pushing a huge mirror came through. The things stood six feet tall, and was still higher on its wheeled mount and gilt frame. They stopped in front of her, cutting off the other model's conversation. Into the reflected surface, Cora stared at the striking woman in robes. Coal-darkened eyes stared back. Her hair was pulled up and back simply, so that nothing distracted from the sheen of her skin—luminous violet.
"Well, well, if it isn't a goddess."
She turned around and saw a familiar grin. The room around them, chaos only a second ago, seemed to clear of everyone. Stepping back to see beyond the mirror, she could see the model's bare back, the assistant helping her with the bottom half of her costume as they both hurried away. Cora looked back into the mirror at the man who approached with the smile of a hunter. "Marcus," she said.
He was looking her up and down.
She realized then how see-through the garment she had on was. Caught between Marcus and his gaze in the mirror, she crossed her arms in front of her. "I didn't know you were going to be here."
"Do I make you nervous?" his lazy smile told her he wouldn't mind if that were true. A few steps and he had crossed the distance between them. She gazed at him in the mirror. The woman there looked almost frightened, swallowed by his dark eyes. Cora was thinking, the agent who was here—what if Marcus had seen him?
"I'm here to get you into the part, give you confidence," From the mirror, she watched as Marcus took hold of the woman. Cora twisted her head back to him as he leaned in to her lips.
She startled out of her spell just in time, "No, you'll smudge my makeup."
Accepting this, he detoured downward, pressing feather kisses along the line of her collar, blowing lightly up her shoulder and neck. Cora watched him in the mirror, then closed her eyes.
"You are a goddess," he said breathed.
"You shouldn't call me that…" she sighed.
Marcus turned her to him, "Look at me."
She couldn't bear to obey, so she stared at his shirt. It was grey, a color he often wore. He wasn't wearing a jacket, and the shirt's smoothness could not hide his musculature.
When he raised her chin to look at him, she was able to follow the sculpted line of his neck up to the jaw, and then to the strong features of his face. He said, "Perfect body, pale skin…How could you not be a goddess?"
"You're just saying that—" she started.
"No, beautiful one. In a second, you're going to walk out there, and everyone—and the camera's—are going to be letting the world know."
Her eyes darted away.
"Look at me," he took her in his arms, not letting her get away. After a long pause, "Beautiful," he pronounced.
She laughed nervously. Marcus smiled, tightened his hold around her, "I told my friend he owed me big for this. Not just one—three or four favors. I'm the luckiest guy around, because when it's all over, you're coming back to me."
Cora looked at the couple in the mirror, unsure what to think. The woman there had her lips parted slightly too, while the man let his eyes browse along her bare shoulders and neck. When he raised his head, his look was cool, but his eyes smoldered. They consumed her.
They were a beautiful couple, she realized. The mirror's portrait showed Marcus drawing her closer, arms framing her. The cool glow of her skin was set off perfectly by his grey shirt—the color he always wore.
"Goddess," the man whispered to the woman. "My own."
"Queen of the Dead, we're ready for you—" a woman with a clip board came out, saw the two of them and took a step back. "Oh…"
"No, no," Marcus called back, "She's ready."
Cora flowed away from him, accompanied only by a silent train. "Queen of the Dead?" she paused to ask the woman with the clipboard. "Do you mean me?"
The woman nodded.
"Come find me at the after party," Marcus called. "After the
show. I'll be waiting."
Without looking back, Cora crossed through the door, into the lights.
Afterwards, her eyes remained dazzled by cameras. She went from one end of the after party to the other, on the arm of the designer, who spoke excitedly. When at last he abandoned her, Marcus was ready to pull her to a private corner.
"I told you," he said, wrapping her in his gaze. She relaxed a little in his arms, only to hear him murmur, "Now everyone will know the most beautiful woman in the world is my girl."
"Marcus," she drew back, her mouth working. But she only said, "I'm tired."
"Go change," he said. "I'll wait for you out back."
When she approached him next, in jeans and a plain white t, he did a double take, "I almost didn't recognize you. That was a lot of makeup."
She nodded, feeling drained.
Marcus frowned. "He owes me big for this." He turned his glare up the street, "the car should be here."
While Marcus called someone on his phone, Cora leaned on him. But once the car slipped up the curb, seconds after Marcus had phoned in his a few curt orders, Cora paused.
"Ready?" Marcus waited with the door open.
Cora stood there, waiting for her heart to start beating again. She had just slipped her hand into her pocket, felt the little square card there.
"I'm ready," she said. "Please take me home."
The next day, Cora went early to the animal shelter to volunteer. Since leaving her job, she spent more and more time at the charity, filling her days with animals. They helped her forget. When Cora asked herself what she needed to forget, her brain's answer was vague as a grey sky, until even the question floated away and was forgotten.
This morning, Cora arrived to the animal rescue before the front doors were unlocked. She shivered as she waited, wearing only a t-shirt and jeans she had been wearing the night before. When she slipped her hands into her pockets to warm them, Cora felt the card the agent had given her the day before. Its corner's were sharp, unforgettable. Last night, Marcus had lulled her to sleep on red wine and a few light kisses. Cora had forgotten all about the card, and the man who had given it to her.
"Cora!" came the sound, muffled through glass. Cora looked up guiltily, about to draw the card out. But it was only Maeve, the volunteer coordinator, surprised to see her so early. As Maeve worked on unlocking the door, Cora caught, in the glass reflection of the door, a white van parked just outside an alley way close by. Then the door flashed open and Cora went in.
"I didn't know we'd see you today," Maeve trilled. The woman had a newspaper behind her back, and she brought it out with a flourish, "I didn't think such a fashion queen would be so eager to descend from her throne."
The older woman was smiling, but Cora's face was sober as she took the paper and stared down at the media coverage of the fashion line's debut. Sure enough, there on the style page was her picture, with the caption Queen of the Dead under the frozen image floating in ephemeral dress.
Heat touched Cora's cheeks. "Oh," she said, embarrassed, "I didn't know it get publicized this quickly."
Maeve pooh-poohed Cora's humility, "Of course it would. You look beautiful, dear."
Standing with the newspaper in hand, looking askance at her other self, Cora still did look beautiful, if a frightened.
"What's wrong?" The older woman asked Cora, when the newly minted model sighed.
Cora shook her head. "It's nothing."
But, not thirty minutes later, Maeve came to the kennel were Cora was. "A visitor for you," Maeve said with a frowning face.
"I'll be back," Cora told the old black lab that was due a bath. The dog looked relieved when Cora stripped off the rubber gloves, though it whined as the young woman left. "Who is it, Maeve?"
From the tight-lipped look on Maeve's face, Cora could guess. "Muscle Man," said Maeve, using her code for Sharo. "He's in my office. I'll let you show him out." The older woman bustled off, leaving Cora with the warm feeling that Maeve was a friend. Maeve had never altogether approved of Marcus Ubeli, but, being too reserved to say anything of this to Cora, took out her prejudice on Sharo instead. The older woman had a touch of motherly concern for all the shelter's volunteers.
Tall, bald, impeccable in his dark suit, Sharo was rooted just outside Maeve's office door. Muscle man he was. Cora wondered, not for the first time, why Marcus would need such a strong, imposing man as a personal assistant. She took a deep breath and approached.
"Is everything okay, Sharo?"
"Mr. Ubeli asked me to check on you."
"What?" Flame touched Cora's cheeks again; the jerk of anger was unfamiliar, but unmistakable. "Why?"
"Have you seen this?" the man held a newspaper out, folded to the Style section.
"The publicity should be good for designer, right?" Cora looked up from the picture of her other self and met Sharo's impassive look.
"Mr. Ubeli is concerned. He doesn't like having pictures of you all over town," Sharo said.
Shrugging, Sharo didn't say any more.
"Why did Marcus want me to do the photo shoot if he didn't want my picture publicized? I'm mean, that's sort of the point of the debut. Not that my face is anything special," Cora felt a little heat in her cheeks, talking about herself and modeling in the same sentence, "But there was always the chance it might happen." Even as she studied Sharo's face, waiting for the poker face to crack, Cora heard the echo of Marcus' voice, For this, my friend's gonna owe me favors.
Even after a minute of Cora staring at him over the picture of Queen of the Dead, Sharo didn't answer any more questions. Cora wondered if he had held up under sterner questioning than she could give. If the game required players keep secrets, Sharo, as Marcus' right hand man, was in league with the best.
"Is this the only place you're going to be today?" Sharo asked.
"Yes," Cora said. "Why do you want to know?"
Sharo ignored the question. "How late are you volunteering here?"
Cora shrugged. "Until the work is done, or until I'm tired and ready to go home."
"Mr. Ubeli asked me to drive you around today. Anywhere you go, I'm to be there."
Cora gave a slight gasp, "But why?"
"Protection? Why? Just because my face is suddenly splashed around town doesn't mean I need." Cora could see Sharo's mouth clamping shut, so she went on wondering for herself, "I'm not anyone special. Even after this photo shoot. I can't understand who would want to hurt me."
Sharo did clear his throat. "Not just you. Him. Mr. Ubeli."
Cora stared. If anything happened to you, she could almost hear Marcus saying, ending the sentence with a dark shake of his head. "Hurting me would hurt Mr. Ubeli," Cora said.
Sharo didn't respond to this. Cora stared at him, but her mind was whirring with other thoughts. In her jean pocket, the card the agent had given her was smoothly outlined. Cora found her hand was stroking it, and stopped. Her guilty look must have signaled acquiescence to Sharo, for he said, "I'll pick you up at seven tonight."
"The rescue closes at nine."
"Mr. Ubeli doesn't want you out late too long after dark." Sharo moved closer, looming over her. His chiseled features would make him a good candidate for a photo shoot, too. The dark circles under his eyes reminded Cora of Marcus. "He wants to make sure you're safe."
Feeling like a child, Cora wilted into obedience, "Seven thirty, then. I'll come out to you."
When he was gone, Maeve found her young volunteer still outside the office, staring at nothing.
"Cora? Is something wrong?"
"Maeve," Cora croaked. "I—" Her sentence ended with her courage.
The older woman was quick, "Sweetheart, you look like you need a break. Come on in."
Cora let the older woman draw her into the office. The room was cluttered, papers and files sharing space with cheerful frames filled with pictures of dogs—past "guests", as Maeve liked to call them. A tea pot on a heating pad sat on one stack. Maeve pushed the on button and bustled to get two mugs. Then she sat down across from Cora.
"Nothing tea and a talk won't solve. Well?"
"I think I'm in trouble," Cora said haltingly.
"Mmmm?" Maeve's expectant look made Cora shake her head.
"No, it's not that I'm pregnant or anything. And I'm not in any danger, at least…" Cora thought of Sharo's troubling words. "I don't think I am."
"Is this about your boyfriend?" Maeve got up when the kettle dinged done, and returned with two mugs.
"Yes," Cora hesitated, then, fortified with the warmth of her mug, explained. "Marcus is great—really he is. He proposed—" Cora blushed as Maeve examined the ring solemnly.
"You said yes?"
"Not quite," Cora said. "I'm wearing the ring but I need some time to think about marriage. About life with…" A man like Marcus. Dark. Secretive. Who might have enemies. "a husband. In the meantime, something hasn't been quite right." This time, Cora's pause was so long, Maeve had time to finish her drink.
"Dear, if you can't give me details, don't bother. Just keep it vague and we'll see how much that helps. More tea?"
"Okay," Cora said, and when she got her mug back she continued, "Okay. Marcus doesn't tell me a lot of things. I know he works a lot, but I don't know exactly what he does. He has properties, somewhere. And a lot of people working for him. Anyway. Yesterday a man came to see me about Marcus…an official looking somebody. This agent wants to meet with me and ask questions about Marcus' business."
"Ah," said Maeve, "that sort of trouble. Go on."
"Well. There's not much more to say," Cora stared at her tea.
"Did you meet with him?"
Cora shook her head.
"But you're concerned."
"I want to meet with him. He said that he can put me in touch with my aunt; she came to him looking for me."
"So meet with him."
"I would," Cora said, "but I don't know…Marcus…"
"Are you afraid Marcus will find out and be mad?"
Cora shrugged, "Maybe. It's not only that, though."
Maeve peered at Cora's face, looking for signs of feelings in the marble cheeks and mouth. "Are you afraid this man will tell you things about Marcus you'd rather not know? The truth, perhaps?"
Miserable, Cora nodded.
"Do you want to know the truth?"
"Yes," Cora said.
Satisfied, Maeve sat back, only to watch Cora's face grow more shadowed. "But?" Maeve prompted for Cora's thoughts.
The young woman did not answer for a time. Then Cora whispered "But I love him."
Two hours later, Cora sat in a diner near the animal rescue. Her heart thumped every time the door opened, but she gripped the edge of the table. Hang on. When the agent did arrive, she did not notice until he was at her elbow. Business attire and a bland face made him fade into a crowd. Cora chided herself for expecting a tuxedo and dark glasses as the agent slid into a seat and smoothed his tie. A pause, and then Cora put the agent's card—now worn—on the table top. The agent opened his badge for her to study. When she was done, she gave a nod and he flipped the badge quickly shut.
"Ma'am, thank you for meeting me. I wasn't sure my offer was well received."
"You said that my aunt contacted you," Cora's voice wobbled. "I want to know how she is."
"In a little bit," the agent inclined his head as if to say, We'll take this at my pace. "First I'd like to ask you a few questions."
A waitress arrived for their order. "Two coffees, that's all," said the man across from Cora. He didn't take his eyes from Cora's face. But he didn't ask any questions, not until the mugs were placed in front of them. If he's trying to make me nervous, he's doing a good job, thought Cora, and then jumped when the agent said, "How long have you known Marcus Ubeli?"
Cora thought back to the night she had gone to the club with her friends, "About six months."
"And you've been in a relationship that long?"
With a blush, Cora said, "Yes. About that long." Her hands met under the table so she could play with her ring.
"How would you describe your relationship with…your boyfriend? Are you close?"
When I first saw you…I knew we would be together. Forever. "Yes, we're close."
The agent squinted at her, making her wonder if he needed glasses, "How well do you know Mr. Ubeli?"
Cora shrugged, "We spend time together, when he isn't working. We eat dinner, go to restaurants or clubs his friends own."
"You have dates mostly at night?"
"Or some mornings or afternoons he has off. He works long hours." She had an image of herself waiting for Marcus at a restaurant table, a glass of wine her only companion. Marcus would arrive only to be interrupted halfway through the appetizer course by a call from a business partner. "He always tries to make time for me."
"Has he ever spoken of business or what he does at work?"
"No," Cora said. "But I think he's an investor."
"Any particular idea of what he's investing in?"
"Restaurants, maybe. Clubs—like his friends." Memory rose to Cora's mind: a marquis blotted out by brighter flashes from cameras.
"So you don't know what he does for a living," the agent stated.
"No." Cora felt very small in her seat. "I never asked him. He…" she hesitated. The agent waited. "He sometimes seems upset about his business. So I don't ask him to talk about it. I try to take his mind off of it." She blushed again at the agent's stare. "It's just the way our relationship is."
The agent stared. Cora could hear his question now: Are you telling me that you've dated this man six months and you don't know his profession? If he asked her this, she would be forced to admit the truth: she didn't know her would-be fiancé very well at all. He loved her; that was enough. At least, it had been enough, until lately.
But the agent said, "Let's talk about your aunt."
Cora sat up eagerly. "Do you know where she is?"
"You haven't been in contact?"
"No, we haven't been able to find her." A raised eyebrow from the agent made Cora explain, "Marcus and I have been looking for her ever since the morning after we first met. We went to her house; I thought I could stay with her. But she had moved. I don't know where she could have gone." The agent was frowning, and Cora trailed off, "Marcus has been trying to find her."
"I see," The agent said after a pause.
"Do you know where she is? Where she's been?"
"Cora, your aunt contacted us a few weeks ago. She told us that you'd disappeared a months ago. Said she would have tracked you down if she hadn't felt she was in danger."
"She told us she was being followed. That a few men had showed up at her house one night and told her she would have to move—something about the landlord needing the place cleared for maintenance."
"But…why didn't she leave a forwarding address?" Something inside Cora was twisting, as if her gut knew the truth even if her mind refused to believe.
"Your aunt did leave one. It must have slipped the super's mind when your boyfriend's men came looking for it. Either that or…"
"Do you think Marcus hasn't been looking?" Cora's voice rose defensively, even as her stomach gave a lurch.
"Miss Cora, your aunt's townhouse—where she lived until she was told to move—was one of Ubeli's."
A slight hiccup exploded in the back of Cora's throat, threatening more to come. "Oh," she said and half rose.
"Is everything okay?" The agent rose, hovered.
"I'm fine," Cora was bent over the table, hand on her belly. "I just…need a moment." She rushed from the table, taking sanctuary in the diner's restroom. There, in front of a dusty mirror, she wiped sweat from her face and shuddered. The tension was too much—in her gut, in her head. What's wrong with me? She asked her reflection, avoiding her eyes. Her face held a marble pallor, no longer a child's face. Oh, Marcus, she thought, and her stomach near heaved. She was still trying to dupe herself, and her body was protesting.
Turning on the tap, she ran cold water over her hands. When she looked up at the mirror again, her face was cool and beautiful. A woman's knowing look had surfaced, harder and more resolute.
When she walked back to the table, graceful with a model's gate, she turned heads.
"Are you able to continue?" the agent asked.
Cora was composed. "Please, go on. It just…took me by surprise."
The waitress chose that moment to interrupt. Cora kept her eyes down, using the pause to gather strength. The agent, annoyed, sent the waitress away all too soon with a wave of his hand.
"I understand that Mr. Ubeli must have hidden things from you," the agent said. "I am sorry you have to hear of it this way."
"Will you please tell my aunt that I am safe, and that I'd like to see her?"
The man nodded. "She would like that. She is living in a secure location where she feels safe." He paused, looking at her frozen profile. "Are you sure you can go on?"
"I'll need to be back to the rescue soon."
"One more item, then. There's the matter of this man." The agent slid a photograph across the table to her. Even with muscles tightened to hold her in calm, Cora jerked back a little in her seat. The picture was blurry, but the face could be recognized as the man who had drugged, near raped her, then followed her to her apartment and workplace.
"Why…why are you showing this to me?"
"He's an average joe, does a bit of business on the street. He sells things like watches, purses, wallets—a mini outlet store right on the sidewalk. We picked him up once or twice, and he always tells us a few things we need to know. Turns out he was in Mr. Ubeli's pay, at one point."
"A lot of people work for Marcus."
"True. They tend to have interesting jobs. Ask the bald strongman what he does when he's not playing chauffeur to the boss's girl." The agent studied Cora, and she felt he could see, below her surface, the layers and layers of fear. "The man in this photograph was involved in an interesting plot, too. He was told to go to a club, pick up a certain girl, get her wasted or whatever—"
Cora gripped the table edge, holding on to its flat surface as her world tilted.
"And then bring her to his boss." The agent cocked his head at Cora. "Do you know this man?"
"I need to go," Cora mumbled. She looked around for her purse.
"Did this man ever approach you at a club?"
"Cora, how did you come to meet Mr. Ubeli?"
That night—she had been running, drugged, unable to see clearly. How long was the road beyond the club? Had she been driven down a street with no outlet, straight down the steps to the underworld?
Purse in hand, she paused in her exit. "I don't know. I'm sorry. It was so long ago, and I…." She hesitated. "I was drugged. He," she pointed to the picture, "did it to me."
"Do you think you're the girl he was supposed to target."
Cora shook her head. "I was new to the city, just a visitor, few friends. There's no way he could have known…" She didn't know whether he was the man in the photograph or Marcus.
"He might have seen you, when you were staying with your aunt."
Cora nodded. There was no doubt now which he the agent spoke of—Marcus. Marcus had done it all, arranged everything.
"Do you know what happened to this man?" The agent tapped the picture.
"He's been missing for some days. He was supposed to go into witness protection a week ago, but we haven't seen him since."
The memory of Marcus's angry voice came to Cora. No one touches my girl. Breaking her poise, Cora put a hand to her head. Don't worry, babe.
"Miss Cora? Do you know where he might be?"
"No…I…no." She looked up, her eyes unfocused. "I should get going, though. Back to the rescue." She groped for her purse and found its strap was already wound around her arm.
The agent rose when she did. "I know this has been hard, but your involvement will help us get down the truth. People's lives are at stake. We need your help."
"Oh, right," Cora murmured anything that would move the agent from her path.
"Think about it. If you like, I'll be here a week from now, same contact place and time." the agent said.
"Okay," Cora nodded. Apparently she said the right thing, for the man stepped to the side.
As he allowed her to pass, he spoke to reassure—or warn. "And don't worry. We'll be watching."
That night, when Sharo picked Cora up from the shelter, silence sat like a wall between them. Cora's gaze slid over the city streets, recognizing few of them. She was still a little country girl, lost and alone. But for Marcus. The car finally stopped in an alley way. Focusing, Cora finally recognized it. She sought Sharo's face in the mirror.
"We're not at the town house."
"Mr. Ubeli asked that you meet him at his office. He has a project running that he'd like to attend to."
"I'm not clean or dressed…" Cora fretted. Suddenly, her whole world seemed held together only by her beauty and clothes.
"There's a shower here. Mr. Ubeli uses it some mornings after a night's work. I also brought a change of clothes," Sharo held up the shopping bags in the front seat.
Cora got out of the car. While Sharo was collecting things from the front seat, she walked a little ways down the alley.
She rounded the corner and stopped. There was the street with the marquis sign for the club her friends had brought her to the night she first met Marcus. Looking around, Cora did the calculations. If the car was parked there I would have run down here. The way was long, but unbroken by any exit besides a small alleyway blocked with trash cans. Anyone being chased would be driven straight down towards the intersection where she now stood. Moving to one corner, she entered the shadows of the brick building where she might have waited, heart pounding, for her pursuer to find her. I was drugged; he wouldn't have expected me to get so far. He thought he would catch up before I came out onto the street. Then he could drag me to Marcus. Closing her eyes, Cora remembered the shout breaking the darkness. She had run across the street at an angle, and down the steps to the only haven she could find. The dark steps of the club, leading straight to Mr. Ubeli.
"Cora?" Sharo stood waiting for her, bags in hand.
"I'm coming," she returned to the steps of the club, following Sharo down the way she had taken six months ago.
Later, dressing in the gorgeous bathroom, Cora recounted the rest of that first night. Marcus had seemed like a hero. He offered me a place to stay, she thought as she applied a soft layer of lipstick. He gave me something to drink. Cora frowned at the mirror, then smoothed her features. The clothes Sharo had purchased fit very well. The fabric of the skirt and blouse was silky and fine, if a bit light for colder weather. Marcus liked it when she was cold, though. He would see the prickles on her skin and offer her his coat. Such a move marked her as his own.
And as she walked down the hall to Marcus' office, Cora remembered the night the fairy tale had begun. The next morning, he brought me clothes in my size.Standing in her new dress, light and grey as a cloud, Cora's fingers froze on the doorknob. Then she pushed it open.
"There's my girl," Marcus said, looking up from his accounts. Without answering, she walked to him; his eyes devoured her form. "Come to me," he begged and she did. She leant towards him only to kiss him, but, swiveling his chair to face her, he tugged her into his lap.
"It's so good to see you," he purred.
"You too, Marcus," she whispered.
He captured her lips with his. She submitted, but sighed when the kiss was done. It was a sigh of fatigue, not passion, and he could tell. Instead of impatience, though, he leaned back in his seat with a thoughtful look on his face.
"Mmmm," she nodded. Her head sank down; her eyes felt heavy, as if the warmth of Marcus' den was pulling her into sleep.
"Tired, too? You're not getting sick, are you?" Marcus put a hand to her forehead. Finding no heat there, he stroked her hair instead. Cora's heart beat faster. Marcus' hands moved downward; Cora's body rippled with another sigh, then straightened as the searching hands found her hips. There the hands cradled her gently, further trespass confined to a small area under his thumbs. Just the slight stroking of the skin stretched across her pelvic bones, however, was enough to madden her. She was awake, now. And Marcus was smiling with the knowledge that he had brought her quickly to life.
"You're getting thin," he said. His thumbs slipped across her skin, the fragile bones.
"Models usually are," she said, alternately arching her back to escape, and leaning in to find his lips. He eluded her, but she felt his breath on her face as he gave a chuckle.
"It's not right that you're not eating enough…after all the restaurants I take you to."
"Marcus," was all she could say, feeble protest against the interminable movement of his thumbs.
"You'll have to promise to eat tonight. I'm taking you to 6th street—Santonio's place. You remember old Santa?"
Memory and thought eluded Cora. Her body could not draw breath.
"Good dinner, good wine, a little chat with Santonio…then I'll take you home."
"Take me home," Cora echoed. She was breathing again, all in a rush.
"That's right." Marcus leaned in and gave her a soft kiss on the temple. The movement of the thumbs abruptly stopped. Cora drooped, her head coming to rest on her lover's shoulders. Under the new clothes Sharo had bought her, Cora was faintly damp with sweat. Marcus pulled her further too him, sliding his arms around her in ultimate embrace. He rocked her slightly, whispering, "Cora, my love. My own."
She closed her eyes and wished that life was only this.
Cora met the agent at the diner again. This time, their booth was deep in the corner, and the waitress had strict instructions not to disturb them.
"Can you tell us of your boyfriend's movements, Miss Cora?"
"I don't know. He goes to work and then visits me, or calls to
say he's working late and will see me another day. Lately, he has
worked late two days in a row. Is that what mean?"
The agent nodded. "Do you know where he has been?"
"No, he doesn't tell me. What is this about?"
Instead of answering her, the agent countered with a question. "How were you selected to be in the fashion debut last week?"
"Uh…Marcus told me about it. He set it up; he was friends with the designer."
The agent's eyes swept over her and Cora felt strangely bare. The man's eyes rested on the jewel on her finger, the red tear. Cora knew that look. In this man's eyes, she was as good as bought and paid for.
"What's this about?" Cora asked again.
"We have reason to believe that Ubeli's whole purpose in attending was to conduct business with Santonio." The agent slid a picture of an older gentleman towards Cora. "Do you recognize this man?"
She almost laughed. "Papa Santa? He's one of Marcus' old friends. I think their fathers went to school together."
The agent was not laughing, his fingers still on the photograph. "You know him?"
"Every so often Marcus takes me to his restaurant. Santa always comes around and says hi." The agent's eyes bored into her, so she said, "Everybody calls him Santa. At least…" her voice died under the agent's stare, "that's what he said..."
For a moment the agent said nothing, studying Cora as if trying to see if she was real. Then, in an abrupt movement, the agent slid the picture away. "Miss, I'd like to take you in for more questioning."
Panic rose. "Take me in? Like, to the station?"
"No, not the police. My partner is in a mobile operating station nearby. We can debrief you there and give you what you need to continue surveillance of Mr. Ubeli."
"I don't know…."
The agent leaned in towards her. "I think that you have information that could do a great deal of good towards our line of investigation. But that's only if you want to help us."
"But if Marcus found out…" Cora was still fretting.
The agent shifted in his suit and straightened his tie. "Ma'am, we're going to do everything in our power to keep your involvement from his knowledge. Our concern is for your safety." He rose and waited until she slid out of the booth after him. "This way."
Keeping her head down and hoping no black cars were sneaking around corners, Cora followed him out of the café. The agent led her into the street, then down an alley way, heading straight towards a white van. When he reached it, the side door slid open. With some hesitation, Cora stepped into the van.
Inside was a dark cave of surveillance equipment. Stooping until offered a corner seat at a little table, Cora absorbed the scene slowly. Bulky black monitors lined the van's walls; further down were screens a second agent was watching intently.
"This is my partner," the first one introduced the man, but he barely took his eyes from the screen. Seated so far away, Cora couldn't see more than dim grey shapes flickering on the boxy eye. She wondered if her image ever had walked across the screen, on the way to a shop or home.
"We've been following Mr. Ubeli's operation for some time. His presence has been linked to some murders in Styx."
Cora could barely comprehend what the agent was telling her. The agent interpreted her stare as confusion about something else, "The Styx is the south section of the city. A really rough area."
"Very hot with crime," the second agent finally swiveled his chair and took his gaze away from the computer screen. He blinked at Cora, as if surprised to see her, even though she'd just been introduced to him. "Very hot," he repeated, looking her over. Cora crossed her arms lightly in front of her, looking away.
The first agent noticed her discomfort. "Forgive my partner," he said smoothly, "He doesn't get out of this van very often."
"You've been…doing surveillance a long time?" Cora asked.
"We've been investigating activities in this area for a long time now," The first agent said.
"You're boyfriend has been a long time player in the city's underworld," said the second.
Disbelief played across Cora's face, though in the back of her mind a voice whispered, You knew this, you always wondered… "Just what has he done?" she appealed.
The second agent snorted, "Just about anything. Smuggling in illegals—weapons and goods, drug rings, heists small and large, money laundring, petty theft."
"We can't prove he's directly involved, yet," the first said cautiously. "We're building a case."
"But we're pretty sure he's had his fingers in all of this and more. Violence, murder, prostitution. He's the kingpin. He's the boss."
"I…I can't believe…" Cora said.
"We're not asking you to believe us, ma'am. We just want you to let us know if you hear or sense anything suspicious," The first agent had a look of grave concern and the second one mirrored it. "To be honest, we're concerned for your safety as well. When there's crime involved, the people around tend to get hurt. Even if they aren't aware of what's going on around them." The agent glanced at his partner and said, as if to emphasize his point, "She called Santonio 'Papa Santa.'"
The second agent looked shocked. "Sell-em-by-Santonio? The man who owns half the blue light district?" He leaned towards Cora as if passing secrets, "They call him that because some of his workers have ended up in snuff films. Like they have a sell by date. He likes them young."
Cora looked from one agent to the other, unsure if the nightmare was real.
"I bet he told you himself to call him 'Papa Santa.' You're just his type…" the second agent remarked.
Blood flooded Cora's cheeks, and the first agent cleared his throat.
"So you see, you could be in considerable danger," the first took the role of counselor. "Any information you give us on these people will save a lot of lives."
"I don't know…" Cora murmured. She felt nauseous, trapped in a cave. "I don't know what I can do."
"Recent surveillance has uncovered a deal between Marcus Ubeli, your boyfriend, and Mr. Santonio. Evidence suggest some arrangements were made before and during the after-party of a designer's debut."
It took Cora a moment to understand this, "What…the photo shoot?"
"That's right," one agent held her eyes while the other shuffled through a file. A picture was produced—Marcus with Santonio, both holding glasses of champagne. "We think that the two men met and agreed on date and price. Their excuse to come together so publicly was their mutual friend." The agent snapped a second towards Cora: the Queen of the Dead, on the arm of the designer. The shot was grey and blurry. "Santonio often befriends young designers. We think he hires new models for photo shoots of his own."
Again, the nausea clenched her stomach. Cora didn't flinch. I can do this. I can play the game. Only it wasn't a game, anymore.
Agent #1: "Now there are shipments arriving at your boyfriend's warehouses."
"Shipments of what?"Cora asked.
Agent #1: "We're not sure yet."
"So, it could be anything…"Cora wanted to reason out of their bleak world.
Agent #2 snorted. "Anything. As long as it's Underworld business." His eyes went to the screen and stayed there, even when Cora stared at him.
Agent #1 cleared his throat softly. He was a thin man, wearing a suit and tie. He looked…bland, plain. Utterly nondescript. Cora realized she could have seen him on the street a thousand times, and never remembered. But she had seen the white van outside the cafe that day she went walking. If she had been approached that day and asked about Marcus, she would have spilled everything suspicious: the cars that followed her, the private club where Marcus spent days "doing business", the friends of his who studied the world shrewdly behind ranks and ranks of bodyguards. Dating Marcus Ubeli, Cora felt like an ocean diver plunged into new depths, able only to stare silently at a strange new world.
A month ago, she would have told them all of this. She wouldn't have been able to help it. But now, she wasn't so sure. Swallowing hard, she asked, "What exactly do you want me to do?"
"We need to establish who Marcus' business partners are, and what the nature of the transaction was. Any info would be useful."
Sensing her uncertainty, Agent #2 pitched in, "Could you ask him
about his designer friend? Maybe if he had any business during the
Cora recoiled instantly, "Marcus doesn't like me asking about business."
"Did you ever wonder why?"
There was a long pause, during which Cora twisted and twisted the ring on her finger. She was unaware she was doing it, but both men noticed and exchanged glances filled with quiet victory.
"Miss Cora," Agent #1 said soberly, "do you know what men on the street call your boyfriend?"
Mute, she shook her head.
Agent #2: "Lord of the Underworld."
"What?" Cora whispered.
"We've had him under surveillance for years. Crime in the this city used to be controlled by three families. The first moved. Now it's all Ubeli. And while your Marcus isn't the head of the family, we suspect he's at the bottom of every deal the family does."
The second agent tapped his head. "Business sense. Of all his brothers, Marcus has the most…" He trailed off when the first agent shot him a warning glance. "I'm just saying," the second agent mumbled, swiveling around in his chair to face the computer screen again, "In all these years of survelliance, not once has the Lord of the Underworld lost a deal. Marcus Ubeli always gets what he wants."
"This all is too much," Cora blurted. Her eyes darted around the tight space of the van, looking for escape. "Survelliance and crime…I'm just someone he's dating. I'm not involved in any of this."
"You were involved as soon as Marcus saw you, and decided to go after you," the first agent said quietly, looking at her ring. Cora stared at the red gem and shining noose around her third finger.
"It doesn't make sense…" she protested, even as her thoughts traced the path from the thug in the bar, the drug slipped into her drink, the alley way and steps leading down…her aunt scared off, and finally, a job, apartment and relationship with no escape. Marcus Ubeli always gets what he wants.
"Lord of the Underworld," the second agent was tapping on his computer keyboard.
Cora roused herself from grim thoughts. "But, why all that trouble? What would he want with me?"
The agents exchanged glances, but didn't answer.
"Cora," one finally said. "We can help you escape. Your aunt is waiting; she's safe. You can be, too. Believe us, you'll need our help to get out. You can't get away from the Ubeli's alone."
Cold at the core, Cora remembered her long, fruitless walk.
"We're willing to give you a way out," the first agent spelled out carefully, "in exchange for information. Just a few private sessions of Marcus Ubeli can be very instructive." Focusing a direct stare into her eyes, the man spoke in slow staccato. "Are you willing to help us?"
"Okay," Cora said at last, "I'll do what I can."
"Excellent." The van became filled with activity. The first agent took down equipment from the wall; the other swiveled to his computer and typed furiously.
"We'll need to act fast," the first said.
"Roger," said the second. "Watchman number one is on his way back for her. The bald guy. Always in suits. He drives you everywhere," Agent #2 added Sharo's description to clarify for Cora. "We call him Watchman. And we always watch him."
"He's Ubeli's right hand man. The most trusted that we can tell. Every time there's a sensitive job, you'll find Watchman. Lately he's been paying a lot of attention to you," Agent #2 gave Cora a weighing look of his own. In her seat, Cora shifted and tightened her arms around her body. Closing her eyes, she hummed until everything went away—the agent's voices fading into dull, electronic bleeps, one with their equipment. Marcus' face rose up before her, handsome and shadowed. He was telling her it would all be okay.
"We're almost ready." Agent #1 touched Cora's arm, jolting her out of reverie. She stared up at the bland face, mediocre features swimming together to make the personality of a plain, white wall. In the van's electronic glow, the agent's face seemed more sinister than Marcus', and just as shadowed. "Lift your shirt a little."
Cora blinked in shock as Agent #2 approached with device in his hand.
"I'm not wearing that," she said.
Agent #1 was still looking down at her, willing her to speak again.
Cora shook her head. "Marcus trusts me. I…I can't do this to him."
There was a pause, to test her. "Ma'am…" Agent #1 sighed, glancing back at his partner.
Agent #2, to Cora: "We'll get him anyway."
Agent #1: "You must know this is the right thing to do. We need your help."
"I'll help you anyway I can, but I'm not going to wear that—"
"A wire tap is our best chance," Agent #1 said, as Agent #2 held up the thin, black thread.
"I said no." Cora's arms were crossed, but her lip trembled.
A pause. Then #1 turned to his partner. "Looks like we just lost our best in. We'll have to get him another way."
Agent #2 made a frustrated sound. "Listen. I've watched this guy go on the hook for things before with no way of knowing what we were going to ask him. He's tight. He has a reason, every single time. Every single time." In his passion, he slipped into street talk, and, switching the gadgets to one hand, slammed the side of the van.
"Cora," said Agent #1, ignoring his partner's fury and squatting down to meet her downcast eyes, "You can trust us with this. We're not sending you into any danger, not more than you already are whether you believe it or not. We want to help you."
"You said I could see my aunt," Cora's voice was small, a child's.
"We will get you to her straight away. Just do this one thing for us. For her."
"Just this once. Part of the deal," Agent #2 echoed.
"What do I have to do?" Cora asked.
"Go to him to dinner, get him relaxed. Then ask him about the guy who disappeared."
"I don't know." The green light of the equipment cast shadows under Cora's eyes as she whispered, "What if I really do love him?"
Agent #1 straightened, looked at his partner, who shrugged back at him. The electronic wire was strung between his fingers like the single strand of a spider web.
"Then, kid, you have to make a choice. Do you want to help us or not?"
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