(Official Acknowledgments to follow next week.)
Why this works: Tess has seen the crowd who frequents Neal’s place of business. She doesn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb, but she needs to feel confident in her clothes. This outfit is sexy but still posh – still very much her. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of outfit an LA girl would bring to SF in the summer.
And most importantly, it’s easily removed. Which is paramount, as you’re about to witness.
Thanks to everybody who offered their mad steeze! I love collaborating with you – you open me up to possibilities I couldn’t (and didn’t) fathom on my own. I hope you’ll keep on keepin’ on with me!
And now, on with the plot…and the voting.
The scene before her was a mid-century marvel, taking up the entire footprint of the building, with a winding staircase that led to a second story. At the far end of the room was a wall of glass revealing a wide terrace and the expanse of Bay beyond it.
The drugs she had expected sat atop round mirrors, placed evenly on tables Tess identified as original Noguchi, Saarinen and Wegner. The crowd was mixed. There were buttoned-up businessmen like the assholes in the elevator. There were nervous-looking hipsters – older versions of the guys she might see at her neighborhood bar in Santa Monica. And there were foreign men – some Asian, some European – identifiable by their bizarre footwear and tacky if pricey adornment. Each group kept to itself. And each group was surrounded by willowy, mostly undressed Victoria’s Secret look-a-likes. Some were swaying to the music, others sitting on laps. Still others were cutting lines for their suitors.
“I think you’re the hottest piece in this room,” said her elevator companion, his Jaegermeister breath far too close to her ear.
“Can I help you, Friends?” offered the redhead in a thick Russian accent. It was the first time Tess had seen her up close. Creamy, almost translucent skin covering pillowy cheekbones. Pale blue eyes, sharp and piercing like a wolf, surrounded by meticulously applied eyeliner. Her lips, overdrawn to give her mouth more prominence, were glossy and plump. And all of it topped with that shocking pile of ripe Bing Cherry hair. She was beautiful and terrifying.
“You three are here together, looking for a second date? We don’t normally allow ladies from another establishment,” she said in what might as well have been Russian for all Tess could comprehend. She was about to piece together some sort of question or clarification when Neal appeared out of nowhere. Pulling Tess roughshod out of the banker’s grip, he said “I believe these two have made a mistake. This is the new girl from Mazilu. I’ll take care of her.” With that, he dragged Tess upstairs.
“What in God’s name are you doing here?” he demanded, his words barely audible and hot with anger. “Don’t answer. Don’t say a damn word. There are cameras everywhere. You do not know me. Do you understand?”
Tess was too confused to do anything but follow. As they reached the second floor landing, a man stumbled out of one of the bedrooms, nearly plowing into her. Tess scanned the room as they rushed past. The blonde girl from the night before was sitting at the edge of the bed, arms folded across her bare chest. Seeing her at close range, it was clear the girl couldn’t be older than 15.
Understanding hit her then, flash-freezing her veins. Neal wasn’t a drug dealer. Her worse-case scenario hadn’t even come close.
Neal flung her onto the enormous silk-strewn bed at the end of the hall and shut the door. He turned to face her, his back to the camera situated above the door. “Listen very carefully to what I’m about to tell you,” he said so quietly that she had to strain to hear him. “If you don’t do as I say, we could both end up dead.”
A tsunami rolled across her body, releasing a torrent of hot tears, blurring her vision.
“Do not speak. Do not ask questions. It will not be pleasant. But it’s the only option we have.” At this he grabbed the neck of her sweater and ripped it off her shoulder. She flinched and tried to shriek.
“You do not speak English. Oksenya thinks you are a newly minted prostitute just arrived from Ukraine.”
“They will expect me to have sex with you as part of your breaking in.” He had her sweater half over her head now, slipping his hand under her bra, exposing a breast. Tess howled in protest and tried to wriggle from his grasp.
“Good. Fight me. As hard as you can.” He pushed her onto her back and pried open the waistband of her shorts. Self-preservation and years of cardio kick-boxing sprung to the surface. She swung her leg up and out, knee bent, and smacked him in the jaw with the profile of her stiletto. It was enough to send him back a step. “Harder next time,” he breathed quickly, then lunged at her again, using the cuff of her shorts to pull her to the edge of the bed. She kneed him in the balls at half force, caught between the terror of her circumstances and an automatic reluctance to cause pain. He groaned but stayed put, heaving himself on top of her. Her fight response took complete control then. She scratched at his neck, aiming for his eye. Sighing in a way that could pass for desire, he pinned her arms above her head with one hand and used the other to unbutton his pants. She screamed at the top of her lungs. In her ear, he whispered, “I’m so sorry Tess.”
“Too fucking late for that,” she whispered back, and spat in his face.
He yelled something at her then in Russian. With all four of their arms above their heads, she freed one knee and this time clocked him as hard as she possibly could between the legs. With another, heavier groan, he slid off the bed and onto the shag carpeting. She popped up and tried to run for the door, but he grabbed her ankle and wrestled her to the floor. He slapped her hard across the left cheek, sending her reeling. Through the haze, she could see his face was pained. “Good girl,” he whispered. “I’m going to get you out of here now.” He yanked her to her feet and dragged her down the stairs.
The room was a blur. They sailed toward the front door in broad strokes, not bothering to stop even for Oksenya. Neal simply said in passing “This one’s not broken yet. I’m taking her back to the dungeon.”
He shoved her into the elevator and stepped in after her. As they turned around, Tess recognized Vic’s date from the night before standing in the middle of the apartment. He was staring right at her. The door slid closed.