“My name is Andre Knox, and I’m alone and unarmed,” he said, politely but with some urgency. “If you want to frisk me, I’ll let you, but you got to hurry because there’s a lot of me and we don’t got much time. And don’t be alarmed if I get aroused.”
Zoey made no move to do this, so instead the man opened his jacket, showed there were no guns dangling in holsters, then lifted the tail and gave a twirl, to show no weaponry was stuck down his pants. The interior of his suit jacket was the same garish purple silk as his tie. He faced Zoey again and looked past her, at the nervous men standing behind her. He nodded and splayed his hands, as if to confirm that everyone agreed he was unarmed.
He straightened his lapel and said, “Now, I know that assurances mean nothing from a stranger, even one with as honest a face as mine, but I got reason on my side. You do know why we need you, right?”
“The thing with the vault. It has to scan my head to unlock.”
“That’s right. And it only works if you’re alive, it will not unlock for a dead brain, by design. That means that my associates and I care more about keeping you alive than perhaps anyone on earth, aside from you and your momma. As far as assurances go, that’s about as good as you’re gonna get in this town.”
Zoey met the huge, brown eyes of the man, then glanced back at Rico and his crew.
She said, “I’ll go along on one condition. I want it made official that the guy behind me caught me and brought me in. His name is Rico Hierra. I want him to get the bounty.”
“The five million, I mean.” “Done. Come on.”
Rico started to voice a nervous objection behind her, but she was already moving, Andre ushering her along toward an elegant black sedan.
He opened the passenger-side door for her and she plopped into a leather seat that immediately conformed to her lower back and butt, like sitting in a punchbowl full of jello. Without her touching a thing, the seat raised her up and forward two inches. The dashboard lights blinked on and a navigation overlay on the windshield made it look like the road in front of her was glowing yellow, tracing the route they would take. Zoey nervously looked behind her—through the rear window she saw headlights bouncing across the construction site, headed right toward them. The van of the heavily armed freelancers who called themselves the League of Badass was coming to collect the bounty that would make their careers.
Andre glanced back at them and said, “You mind if we lose them first?”
“I . . . guess not?”
“Hold on.” Andre picked up a coffee cup from the console and sipped it, then said to the car, “Bentley, lose these guys.”
The Bentley was way, way better at car chases than Zoey’s half-dead Toyota had been. The sedan launched itself down the dirt lane wrapping around the rear of the toppled building. They were rolling across ruts and gravel and debris, but no bumps or even noises made it into the interior of the car. Floating along, a bubble of luxury isolated from the world. One of the crazies behind them leaned out of the van and fired a machine gun, little gleaming brass shells twirling away into the night. Zoey yelped but Andre just sighed and sipped his coffee. A spray of bullets left a row of little spiderweb marks on the rear window. As Zoey watched, the wounds in the glass healed themselves, the circular cracks shrinking to white pinpricks before disappearing completely. The Bentley found the street along the park and merged into traffic, dodging in and out of taxis and scooters and garish custom vans.
Andre sniffed and said, “What’s that smell? That your cat?”
“He has some kind of skin problem.”
“You don’t look hurt, but I should’ve asked you anyway. Are you hurt?” She shook her head. Andre continued, “Now, this is perfectly understandable, but I’m thinkin’ you misconstrued what occurred on the train. Will is the best negotiator I’ve ever known, and you got to understand that to have any chance, he needed to get on the scumbag’s side.”
“Right. Just like you’re trying to get on my side now.”
The Bentley smoothly took a corner at top speed, the rear wheels sliding, then regaining traction and launching them forward again. Andre had to momentarily pause his coffee drinking.
Behind them, the van tried to take the same curve and flipped over, smashing through a storefront. Zoey was disappointed that the van didn’t explode into a fireball like in old action movies, but that was one of the downsides of electric car technology. Andre glanced back, satisfied at the outcome, then settled back into his seat and rubbed his Whopper head.
He said, “My point is, none of that stuff on the train was supposed to happen. We sent a car, like we told you on the phone. We couldn’t come up with a limo, but we sent a nice sedan. Not as nice as this one but still a better ride than the train. Car showed up, you weren’t there.”
She shrugged. “I didn’t know if I could trust you. Still don’t. I wanted to find my own way.”
“I guess there’s no point in tellin’ you why we didn’t want you to do that? Seems pretty apparent now, right?”
“Because you offered every violent nutjob in America a huge pile of money to find me?”
“Well, in fairness to us, the moment word got out about the vault situation, some of the city’s shadier characters put out a contract to bring you in. Our contract was simply us tryin’ to outbid them. We were telling the truth, though. The city really is the safest place for you. You saw for yourself, the bad guys own cars and maps and your daddy’s place has a hell of a lot better locks than your trailer.”
“Why not leave me out of it completely? Why couldn’t that man just leave me alone?”
“The only one who could answer that question is no longer with us. And his passing, well, it has thrown things into turmoil. More than you know, even. If on the day of the Lord’s judgment you want to find your daddy and punch him in the gut, I’ll hold his arms back while you do it.”
“So this vault has, what? All his money in it?”
“Rich people don’t actually have big physical piles of cash they keep around. Especially somebody like your daddy. He’s got stocks, bonds, commodities, and land on top of land, far as the eye can see. Plus there’s offshore accounts, shell corporations, Lord knows what else. And I mean literally, only the Lord knows. What’s in the vault are . . . other assets. That’s probably all I should say.”
“So it is criminal stuff.”
“You really didn’t keep up with news about your daddy at all? He was a pretty famous dude.”
“No, I avoided all mention of him like the plague.”
“Well, he wasn’t as bad as you think. Mostly he just owned land. Got in on the ground floor of Tabula Rasa, he owns a lot of them towers downtown, half the casinos, all of them housing developments out east— we’re talkin’ land that doubles in value every six months. And it’s all legit. He was kind of the Bugsy Siegel of Tabula Rasa.”
“I don’t know who that is, but don’t bother trying to sugarcoat Arthur Livingston. I know he ran prostitutes. It’s how he met my mom. I know he skated on prosecution over and over because the witnesses disappeared.”
“All that was true in his youth, I don’t deny it. But he was tryin’ to get out of all that. He was a big political donor, ran a bunch of charities. We’re mostly just the real estate now.” There was a pause, and Andre sipped his coffee. “Mostly.”
“So you get enough dirty money and you can just spend yourself clean?”
“Well . . . yeah. This suit is Hugo Boss. That’s not just the name of a brand, it’s the name of a dude—a German dude who got his start making uniforms for the Nazis. Ferdinand Porsche—as in, the fancy sports cars— same thing. I could take you back home to South Carolina and show you the fancy homes of rich folk who got rich six generations ago off slave labor. And guess what—they’re still rich.”
“It’s weird how you think those examples are supposed to make me feel better.”
“System don’t care how you feel about it. It is what it is. Bentley, take us home.”
The car confidently followed the glowing path in the windshield and soon the city gave way to suburbs and the suburbs gave way to the rich people enclave of Beaver Heights, which featured a golf course and palatial mansions with sprawling lawns and imposing fences. They followed a winding road designed to prevent anyone from driving faster than fifteen miles an hour, until they arrived at a massive wrought-iron gate set into stone pillars carved into the shape of dragons.
The moment they rolled to a stop, a holographic woman in stripper garb appeared outside Andre’s door. Ornate glowing letters appeared across the gate that read “CASA DE ASS-A.”
Andre rolled down his window and the holographic stripper said, “Welcome, visitor! I’m Candi! Sorry I’m not decent, I accidentally locked myself out of the house wearing nothing but this tiny thong. Mr. Livingston says he wants to know who’s here, and what size kimono you wear.”
To Zoey, Andre said, “It’s a recording.” To the stripper he said, “Andre Knox with Zoey Livingston.”
“Sorry. Zoey Ashe.”
A moment’s pause. The stripper looked into the air as if she was hearing instructions, and then said, “Arthur says he will see you now. And he wants to see all of you, if you know what I mean. Please leave your inhibitions at the door.”
The stripper vanished and the gate slid open. Zoey said, “This is going to seem like kind of an odd question, but was Arthur Livingston thirteen years old?”
Andre grinned and said, “Take a look around the world, girl. Men don’t never grow up. Get a bunch of us together with no ladies around and it’s all boner jokes and headlocks. Your daddy just had enough money that he didn’t have to hide it like the rest of us.”
The Bentley drove itself through the gates and instantly a million points of colored light exploded into view. The cobblestone drive wound through a sprawl of manicured landscaping that at the moment was nothing but a support system for a constellation of Christmas lights. Every twenty feet or so along the path was a statue of a knight holding a sword, each wearing a red Santa Claus hat. The path was circling around a sprawling enclosure housing two white Siberian tigers, one gnawing on some huge hunk of meat that Zoey hoped was not a human being. As they neared the end, they passed a life-sized Christmas nativity scene in which the traditional figures had been replaced with characters from Die Hard. Finally the Bentley floated to a stop in front of a huge, dignified mansion that had clearly been designed and built by someone other than Zoey’s father, a sprawling Gothic thing that would be referred to as Something Manor in one of those old movies about English aristocrats.
“This house is a hundred years old, but has only been sitting on this plot of land for five. It was originally on the north shore of Long Island, the Gold Coast. Arthur had it shipped across the country and reassembled here, brick by brick.”
Andre led the way up to a pair of massive charcoal gray metal doors that were decorated with an etching depicting a tangle of nude women.
“Those doors are solid bronze. They weigh seven tons. Each.”
The huge doors swung squeakily open for them as they approached, Zoey following Andre and cradling Stench Machine. Standing at the door was a terrifyingly thin, balding man in butler clothes who look about two hundred years old.
“Welcome back, Andre. A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Ashe.” Andre nodded toward the man and said, “Zoey, this is Carlton.” They entered a cavernous foyer, at the center of which was a Christmas tree easily four times as tall as Zoey. Carlton led them around the tree, shoes clicking on the marble tile, toward a dual grand staircase that split off to opposite wings of the mansion. On the landing at the top of the stairs they were suddenly accosted by a ghost, rising from the floor in an eerie bluish glow. Zoey almost tumbled backward down the stairs, and Stench Machine thrashed in her arms. The ghost was a hologram of Jacob Marley from A Christmas Carol, clanging his chains together and saying “Scrooooooge!!! I wear the chain I forged in life . . . I made it link by link, and yard by yarrrrd . . .”
Andre said, “I’m gonna apologize right now, your daddy had a thing for holograms. He knew they were tacky, but said they made him feel like he was living in the future.”
Carlton the Butler led them up the stairs and to the left. The house smelled of pine and varnish and floor wax. They reached an open door and passed into a room full of rich, brown leather furniture arranged in front of a fireplace large enough to roast a horse. Above the mantel was a gigantic stuffed and mounted buffalo head, wearing a Santa hat and a white fake beard.
Carlton stopped at the doorway and said, “Ms. Ashe has arrived.”
Up until that night, Zoey had no experience being either famous or infamous, and as such, she was unfamiliar with the feeling of meeting a group of people who didn’t know her and yet hated her. In this alien realm that seemed to have been entirely handcrafted in rich wood and leather, she was greeted by dismissive eyes, condescending smirks, and sideways glances that said, This ought to be good. It was clear that no matter what she did or said, everyone in this room intended to laugh about it later.
Zoey was suddenly aware that her nose was running. She sniffed. The sound was deafening.
There were three of them in the room, besides Zoey and Andre, all of whom were already standing when she entered. She spotted the silver suit and lacquered black hair of Will Blackwater right away, holding a glass of scotch because, of course, he was that kind of man.
Next to him was the beautiful but annoyed-looking Chinese woman Zoey had seen on the platform with him earlier, wearing a pitch-black outfit that straddled the line between smart business suit and business- themed sex fetish costume. Hair pulled back to show off her neck. Pearls, brazenly short skirt, calf muscles, heels.
Leaning against the far corner with an empty scotch glass was the guy who earlier Zoey thought looked like he’d stepped out of a cartoon— jowly face with grin lines between a white cowboy hat and a suit that had been tailored to not fit quite right. His body language said that corner was his leaning spot, that he’d spent many a long meeting or brainstorming session there, always with a glass in his hand. A spot where he could see the whole room and take it in, while listening to the fireplace crackle and pop to his left.
Zoey, on the other hand, had arrived there wearing a pair of muddy tennis shoes, the left one ruined by wet cement that was rapidly drying to a crust. She wore too-long jeans that were frayed at the bottom, which were also too tight in the hips even though they hadn’t been when she had bought them last summer. She was carrying her denim jacket and wearing a black cardigan she inherited from her mother over an orange T-shirt bearing the logo for a band called Awesome Possum. A gray wool stocking cap was hiding a rats’ nest of black and blue hair. She was clutching an angry, smelly cat and was wearing half a pound of its shed fur all over her torso. Fortunately, no one in the room knew she was also wearing a pair of pink underwear that said “BUTT SHIRT” across the back.
The moment Andre stepped through the door, soft music faded in— a wokka-wokka guitar that Zoey somehow recognized as the theme from Shaft. Like it was Andre’s personal theme song.
Will looked annoyed and waited for the music to fade before he said, “Zoey, glad you could make it. This here is Echo Ling, in the corner back there is Budd Billingsley. You’ve met Andre. We all worked closely with your father and— I’m sorry, please have a seat.”
Zoey let Stench Machine down and shuffled over to sit in a vast leather armchair that probably claimed the lives of twenty cows in its creation. But no one else sat, so she was now seated with her hands knotted in her lap like a nervous little girl, while the four suits loomed over her. She saw Andre had acquired a scotch on the rocks. She wondered if there was a chute somewhere that just fired them into your hand the moment you walked in. She stared down at her ruined tennis shoes. These were the only shoes she had brought and, in fact, were the only tennis shoes she owned. Her nose started dripping again and she sniffed and wished everyone would turn their backs so she could wipe it.
The butler, Carlton, said, “Can I get you anything, Ms. Ashe?”
“Could you get me a new pair of shoes?” She tried to laugh but everyone just pursed their lips and shared their quick sidelong glances. In the distance, a wolf howled.
Finally Carlton asked, “Is there anything else?”
“No, I’m fine. Or, maybe some water.” She felt like she needed to ask for something, and that was the only thing that occurred to her.
Carlton exited. Zoey tried to remind herself to breathe.
Andre said, “Look, we made a terrible first impression. Specifically, Will made a terrible first impression. We all owe you an apology, your departed daddy included. So let me say it, for everybody here—it was good of you to come down and help us take care of this, and we’ll make sure you’re compensated for every terrible thing that has happened today. More than compensated. Right, Will?”
“Nobody should have to go through what you went through back in Fort Drayton, and on the train earlier—”
“What was that? Who was that guy? I mean, I know he was after me because of, well, all this, but what was he? He could . . . summon electricity or something.”
More glances. A silent decision was made to let Will explain. Or rather, to decide what not to explain.
“We don’t know. That’s actually the issue at hand. Would you mind if we asked you some questions about that?”
“I doubt I know anything useful.”
“Did you see any kind of device hidden on him? Even something small, like something that could fit on his belt?” “No, I don’t think so.”
“How many times would you say he did it? Made the electrical current arc between his fingers like that?”
“I don’t know. He liked to do it, to show it off. I’d say at least five times.”
He shot a glance at the Chinese woman, Echo. This was important, apparently.
“So?” Zoey asked. “Who was he? What was he?”
“Just a man, with some kind of gadget, a weapon, we think he had it augmented into his hand.” He shrugged, as if this was an unimportant oddity that was worth no further thought. “All of that—don’t concern yourself with it. He’s certainly not going to bother you anymore, and this room, right now, is the safest spot in the city for you. Maybe the safest spot in the whole world. Your father had enemies, as you know, but he spared no expense in protecting his home. The moment a foot bends a blade of grass anywhere on the grounds, a dozen armed guards spring into action. You will not be disturbed.”
Carlton emerged from behind her and placed onto an end table a sterling silver tray on which was arranged a pitcher of ice water, a glass, a bowl of lemon wedges, some sprigs of mint, a candy cane, and a box of Kleenex. He poured her a glass of water. The ice cubes were perfect spheres.
Will continued, “So, you know what you’re here to do.” “There’s a vault and only I can open it. It scans my brain or something.”
“That’s correct. There is no way to fake it, it has to be you.”
“And once I open the vault, it’s all over, right? All the contracts and bounties and stuff disappear? I’m just a regular person again?”
There was a pause—ever so slight—from Will before he said,
He was lying.
Zoey knew she wasn’t going to get the truth by just asking, so instead she said, “And we have no idea why he designated my brain as the key instead of yours, or hers, or ... literally anyone else's? ?”
Will shook his head and said, “Trust me, no one is more surprised than we are. In fact, as far as we know this is your first visit, so we’re not even clear how the vault can be set with your brain’s imprint if he never brought you in to let it scan you.”
Zoey started to say, “I have no idea . . .” but trailed off halfway through, when a memory suddenly popped into her head. “In the fall my mom made a doctor’s appointment for me, she said it was something they had to do for the life insurance. But it was weird, they put me in something like an MRI machine and I was in there for a solid hour. They told me they were checking for early Alzheimer’s or something, but . . . I don’t know. It seemed fishy. Like they wouldn’t answer direct questions. Could Arthur have arranged that?”
Echo glanced at Will and said, “Well, there’s one mystery solved.” Will asked, “And how long ago was this?”
“September, early October, around there.”
Glances. Traces of confusion and alarm. This was a bombshell, apparently. Zoey tried to think of why, then it occurred to her that this meant she wasn’t here due to some drunken last-minute decision or a mix up with the vault’s programming. Her father had planned all of this months in advance—in other words, he had known he was going to die. Or at least, he was making preparations for the eventuality. And no one in this room had known.
Echo shook her head and muttered to Will, “I keep imagining him up there, laughing at us while we scrambled around the country trying to figure out exactly which trailer park he spilled his DNA in.”
Budd adjusted his cowboy hat and said, “ ‘Up there’? Echo, I don’t know exactly what religion you believe in that has Arthur Livingston makin’ it to Heaven, but I reckon I wanna join.”
Andre said, “Eh, probably just bribed his way in.”
Will, raising his voice to cut off the banter, said, “It doesn’t matter. The daughter’s here, let’s get this over with.”
The daughter. Zoey realized he had already forgotten her name. She sniffed, wiped her nose with her sleeve and took a drink from her water glass. She glanced around the room—a wreath on every wall. The stuffed and mounted buffalo, wearing its stupid Santa hat and beard. Yet another Christmas tree in the corner. Zoey and her mom had a plastic artificial tree they put together every year. It had a bare spot where two of the branches had broken off, so they had to keep that part facing the corner. Her estranged father, she observed, apparently had a real tree in every room. Zoey suddenly realized that her yearly salary would not even pay to decorate this place for Christmas, and that her entire trailer wasn’t big enough to serve as off-season storage for all of the ornaments, lights, and holiday tchotchkes that encrusted the walls of this place.
Once, as a teenager, she had spent all of Thanksgiving and Christmas with a cracked tooth. She endured the throbbing molar for six weeks, due to the wait list to get into a dentist that accepted Medicaid. Every day at work with this pain stabbing like a shard of glass when she bit down on anything harder than pudding. The cost of one bottle of whatever scotch these people were drinking would have paid for her appointment. And now, here were Arthur Livingston’s people, in suits that could probably put her through college, looking at her like she was a muddy dog running through their wedding reception. Her ears were getting hot. She pulled off her cap and shook her bangs out of her eyes.
Zoey let out a breath and said, “And then what?”
Will answered, “Then for us begins a very long and tedious task of sorting out the contents of the vault, whatever they are. But that’s our problem, not yours. We will release the fifty thousand dollars from escrow, and send you back home in whatever mode of transportation you prefer. Hell, we’ll rent you a private plane. Or let you take the company helicopter, if you like. After that, we will never bother you again.”
“And what if I see something in that vault I’m not supposed to see?”
Glances. Will clenched his jaw a little tighter. Echo pressed her lips together. The oilman in the corner—Budd—grabbed a bottle from a nearby cart and poured himself another glass of single malt or bourbon or whatever it was. He seemed to be trying to suppress a laugh.
Will, who was trying very hard to hide the fact that he clearly wanted to strangle Zoey, said, “ ‘See something’? Like what?”
“Arthur Livingston was a mob boss. You’re the mob. Maybe the rumors were right. Maybe there’s bodies in there, or stolen stuff, or drugs. Maybe just knowing the vault is here is dangerous information.”
“Don’t let your imagination get away from—”
“Bzzzt! Stop. Don’t play the ‘hysterical woman’ card here. I’ve been through three attempted kidnappings in the last five hours. I mean, I’m the vault key, right? Well, why are you any different from all the other crazies that keep coming after me? Because you’re wearing Armani?
Maybe you don’t want the key to your vault just walking around out there.”
Andre said, “Come on, now. It’s not like that . . .”
“And despite the fact that you people all supposedly worked with my father, I still can’t get over the fact that he didn’t make any of you the key. Why not, if you’re so trustworthy? Hey, for all I know, you’re the ones he was specifically trying to keep out of the vault. For all I know, you’re the ones who had him killed.”
She wanted to see what Will’s reaction would be to this. The reaction was barely suppressed rage.
“Maybe,” said Will, “all of this is the result of nothing more than the fact that your father, despite extreme wealth and power, had a history of making terrible decisions.”
Echo smirked at the inference that Will was in fact looking at one of Arthur’s terrible decisions right now. Zoey literally bit her tongue, and took a moment to gather herself.
“So,” she said, evenly, “my question is, how do I know that after I’m done, the sedan I climb into isn’t going to take me out in the woods where Tex over there will pull out a little gun and shoot me in the back of the head? See, I know for a fact you won’t do that right now, because I haven’t opened your vault yet, and as you said, it doesn’t open for a corpse. As long as it stays closed and you want what’s inside, I’m safe. But the moment it opens, the value of my life drops to zero. And I, unlike you, care nothing whatsoever about what’s in there. So. Mr. Blackwater. I need you to sit down and explain to Arthur Livingston’s bad decision how you’re going to make it worth my while to open that vault for you, and how you can guarantee my safety after.”
Silence. Something popped in the fireplace.
In the corner, Budd laughed from around his drink and said, “I like her!”
Echo Ling, on the other hand, made an expression that could suck the laughter out of a child’s birthday party. She turned on her heels and said, “Well, she’s definitely Arthur’s daughter.”
Zoey stared into Echo’s back and said, “If I hear anybody say that again, I’m never opening that vault.”
Zoey grabbed a tissue from the tray and loudly blew her nose.
Will gathered himself and said, “I understand your concerns completely—”
“I said I want you to sit down and explain it to me. Stop looming over me. It’s rude.”
Will took a breath and seemed to count to ten in his head, then took a seat on the leather sofa in front of her. Probably a hundred cows murdered for that one.
“Let’s just approach this logically. What you’re asking is impossible—you want me to negotiate with you while you maintain the assumption that I’m operating in bad faith. After all, if we were the kind of people you just accused us of being, then my role would be to say whatever it takes to placate you, knowing we’d never have to follow through on whatever offer is made. So instead, how about you tell me what you want in the way of assurances, and I’ll see what I can do to accommodate you? But keep in mind, time is very short.”
“Why is time short? I don’t have to be back at work until Monday.” “You don’t under—”
“No. Listen. Everything you said is right—the problem isn’t what you’re offering or failing to offer me. The problem is you. I don’t trust you. So before I can even begin to think about this, I need to convince myself that you’re on the level.”
“All right. And . . . how will we go about doing that, precisely?”
“I don’t know. But it’s late. And I’m tired. Is there a spare bed in one of the thousand rooms of this house?”
“We were really hoping to have this resolved tonight.”
“Well, to get over this disappointment, you’ll just have to console yourself with the fact that you have absolutely everything else you want in life.”
Will started to speak again, but Andre put a hand on his shoulder and said, “How about you don’t piss her off, eh? The world will still be here when the sun comes up tomorrow.” He turned toward the doorway, where Carlton had materialized at some point, and said, “Can you get a room ready for Zoey?”
“It is already done, sir. Her suitcase is up there as well.”
“Of course it is. See? It’s all good. Zoey, we even retrieved your bag—you left it on the train platform when you set that dude’s dick on fire. So get a good night’s rest, have Carlton make you some waffles in the morning, and we’ll figure this all out tomorrow while I nurse the hangover I’m about to cause.”
Andre smoothed his lapel and walked out, while Zoey silently planned how she was going to escape this terrible place.