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Alpha by Jasinda Wilder (1)

1

THE ENVELOPE


“Miss St. Claire. Come in, please.” My boss, Mr. Edwards, waved a hand at the two chairs facing his desk. “Have a seat, Kyrie.” He said it wrong, as always, pronouncing it Kye-ree.

“My name is Keer-ee,” I couldn’t help correcting him for what must have been the eighteen-thousandth time.

Mr. Edwards slid into his modern black leather desk chair and then unbuttoned his suit coat. “Yes. Of course.” He tugged at the cuffs of his pressed white button-down shirt, cleared his throat. “Well, Miss St. Claire, I’ll cut right to the chase. We’re letting you go, I’m afraid. It’s nothing to do with you — it’s simply that we’re streamlining our workflow, and as the newest, and least experienced member of our team…well, your services have become somewhat superfluous.”

I blinked. Twice. Three times. “I’m…what?”

“Superfluous. It means—”

“I know what superfluous means. I just don’t understand why this is happening. Just last week Don said I was next in line for a permanent position—”

Mr. Edwards cut me off with a raised hand. “Don was incorrect, and I do apologize for the misunderstanding. You see, Don had a rather unfortunate habit of making promises he had no authority to make, and no wherewithal to keep them. He, too, has been let go.” A discreet clearing of his throat indicated the subject was closed. He opened a drawer and withdrew an envelope. “Your final paycheck, Miss St. Claire. It includes a two-week severance allowance. You’ll clear out your desk immediately. Should you require a referral, you may submit a request in writing through the appropriate channels.”

I shook my head. “No, please—Mr. Edwards, you can’t do this. I need this job, you don’t even know. I’ve never been late, never failed to do my job better than anyone else in my pool. Please, give me a chance—”

“Miss St. Claire. Begging will not change the facts. The matter is closed. You were assigned to us through a temp agency. Temp, meaning temporary. As I said, this isn’t a punishment. We are not firing you—we are simply letting you go now that your position is no longer necessary. Now, if you don’t mind, I have a conference call in a few moments.” Mr. Edwards arched an eyebrow at me expectantly.

“Fine.” I stood up, smoothing my navy pencil skirt over my hips, turning away. “Prick.”

“Excuse me?” Mr. Edwards rose to his feet, a fist clenched at his side. “What did you say?”

I lifted my chin. “I said, prick.” I used the same condescending tone he so often affected. “It’s a derogatory term meaning penis. Meaning, you…are…a…dick.” I turned away again, and grabbed the doorknob and twisted it.

I was stopped by a hand on my wrist. “Now, now, Miss St. Claire. You don’t want to go name-calling, do you? I can very easily call your temp agency and make sure you never work in their pool again.” His fingers tightened on my wrist, and I felt his breath on my neck. “And…you know, there may be one way you could keep your job. Possibly even get that permanent position you mentioned.”

I felt him press up against me, felt the evidence of what he wanted from me. And, I won’t lie, the thought crossed my mind. Once. Very, very briefly. I needed this job. I was already two months behind on rent, three months behind on my electric bill, barely keeping up with my tuition and my brother’s, plus the ever-mounting costs of caring for Mama. I could do what this doucheknob wanted, and keep my job. It wouldn’t take long. A few unpleasant minutes, if that long. He was old, past sixty, I’d guess. Fit enough for his age, but by no means virile. 

But…no matter how desperate I might be, that would never happen. Not like this. Not with this guy. If he was hot, and I wanted to, maybe. It would be one thing if this were a kick-ass job that really paid the bills. But it was a temp job. Hourly, and a shitty hourly rate at that. Barely enough to cover one bill, much less all the bills I had to pay.

I turned, letting him hold on to my wrist. For the moment. I lifted my eyes to his, putting on my best poker face. “Yeah? Just like that? That easy, huh? Suck you off, and you’ll let me keep my job? Let you fuck me over the desk, and I’ll get the permanent position, too, I bet.”

He missed the dangerous calm in my voice. “Now you’re thinking.” He licked his lips, lifted a finger to touch the apex of my cleavage—the little of it that showed in my conservative work outfit. “You’re a very attractive young lady, Miss St. Claire. I’m sure we could come to an agreeable arrangement.” 

God, I hated the arch, faux-formal way he spoke. An agreeable arrangement. I forced down my revulsion for a few more seconds. “What did you have in mind, Mr. Edwards?”

My spine crawled with disgust as his eyes leered and his tongue flicked out over his thin, pale lips. He made short work of his belt, and I heard the telltale zzzzhhrip of his zipper going down. I didn’t look, didn’t want to see what he’d just pulled out. 

“Well, let’s just see how you do, and we’ll go from there.” He leaned back against the edge of his desk, a greedy smirk on his face. “And…unbutton the blouse a bit.”

I toyed with the button of my shirt, staring into his sludge-brown eyes. “You want a little show, huh, Mr. Edwards?” I freed the top button, which I would’ve done on the elevator anyway. I felt my breasts loosen a bit, no longer quite so constricted. His eyes devoured the expanse of cleavage. “How’s this?”

“Very nice. But…how about a bit more?” 

I nodded, as if this was perfectly reasonable, still refusing to look down at his crotch. And then, without warning, I snapped my head forward, felt my forehead connect with his nose, felt cartilage break. I stepped away as crimson blood sluiced from his nose. “How about fuck you, Mr. Edwards?”

 I left him bleeding, sagging against his desk. I shuddered as I caught an accidental glimpse of his wrinkled, veiny, now-flaccid penis hanging over his zipper. God, I could’ve gone the rest of my life without seeing that.

I opened his door and walked out, glanced down at my shirt, and cursed as I realized I had a few droplets of blood on my blouse. I stopped in the women’s room and dabbed cold water onto the stain, then retrieved my belongings from my desk. I didn’t have much to get, a few granola bars, some spare tampons, and—most importantly—my framed photo of Mom, Dad, my younger brother Cal, and me. It was taken several years ago. Before. Before Dad was murdered. Before Mom got sick. Before I went from innocent, naïve, privileged college girl to primary breadwinner for three people, one of whom didn’t even recognize me most days. Before life went completely down the drain, putting all my dreams out of reach, leaving me desperate, exhausted, stressed, and frustrated. 

I stuffed my things into my purse and walked with as much dignity as I possessed toward the bank of elevators, hiding my mirth as I saw Mr. Edwards being escorted out by security. His pants were buttoned, but not zipped, and his once-impeccable suit was spattered with blood. Two more security staff members were going from cubicle to cubicle, looking for me, I supposed. 

I took the stairs and exited the building. 

Since my temp agency never had any parking spots available, I caught the bus over to their offices, hoping I’d be able to find another job right away. 

My contact, Sheila, tapped on her computer for several minutes, then turned to me with a slight frown. “I’m sorry, Kyrie, but we just don’t have anything else right now.” 

“He sexually assaulted me, Sheila.”

Sheila let out a long breath. “I understand that, Kyrie, and he will be dealt with accordingly, but that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t have any work available at the moment.”

I tried to keep breathing. “Can you check again? I’ll take anything. Literally anything.”

She looked again, and then glanced back up at me with a shrug. “Nothing. I’m so sorry. Maybe try again in a few weeks.”

“I won’t have an apartment in a few weeks.”

“I’m sorry, honey. Things are tight. What can I tell you?” She laid a manicured hand on mine. “Do you need a few bucks? I can spare you—”

I stood up. “No. Thanks.” I did need the money, desperately. I’d skipped lunch today, just to have a bit more cash to go toward the rent. But I wouldn’t take pity charity. “I’ll figure something out.”

Slowly, I walked back to get my car from the parking lot. I started it, and then remembered that, because I’d just been fired, I wouldn’t get my parking slip validated. Shit. There went another fifteen bucks I couldn’t spare. 

The drive home was long in more ways than one. I’d been working in an office downtown, but I lived more than forty-five minutes away in the suburbs north of Detroit. My car was running on fumes by the time I got home, and my stomach was empty, rumbling and growling and gurgling. 

I struggled to hold back the tears as I checked the mail. I was fumbling through the envelopes, muttering “fuck…fuck…fuck” under my breath at each new bill. There was DTE Energy, Consumers, AT&T cable and Internet, water, gas, Cal’s tuition, my tuition, Mom’s hospice bill…and a plain white envelope with no return address, just my name—Kyrie St. Clairehandwritten in neat black script in the center, along with my address. I tucked the other bills into my purse and stuck the envelope between my lips as I inserted my key in the lock. 

That, of course, was when I saw the white notice taped to my apartment door. Eviction Notice: pay rent or quit within 3 days. 

I was still a hundred dollars short on rent. Or rather, short of the one month of rent I could scrounge up. I had been hoping to avoid eviction long enough to be able to catch up on the past due amount. But that wasn’t going to happen now. I’d just been fired. 

Still holding back tears, I opened my door, closed it behind me, and stifled a sob. I let the envelope fall to the floor at my feet and covered my mouth with my fist, tears hot and salty in my eyes. No. No. No tears, no regret, no self-pity. Figure it the fuck out, Kyrie. Figure it out. 

I pushed away from the door, knelt to retrieve the bizarre envelope, and flicked the light switch. 

Nothing. 

Of course the power had been turned off. 

On top of everything, I was starving. I’d had one of my granola bars on the drive home, but I needed something more. The only food I had in the kitchen was one package of ramen, some ketchup, two-week-old Chinese carryout, and a bag of baby carrots. And a single, lonely little cup of black cherry Chobani. 

Thank you, Jesus, and all the Greeks for Chobani. And thank you for the fact that the yogurt was still cold.

I took my yogurt from the dark, still-cool fridge, opened it, grabbed a spoon from the drawer, and stirred it up. I opened my blouse all the way, unzipped my skirt, and perched on the counter, eating my yogurt, relishing every bite. Apart from the meager amount of food, I had one paycheck for not quite eight hundred dollars for two weeks of temp office work, plus my severance pay. That was it.

Finally, I couldn’t hold back the sobs any longer. I gave in and let myself cry for a solid ten minutes. I tore off a piece of paper towel—my last roll—and dabbed at my nose and eyes, making myself stop. I’d figure this out. Somehow. 

The strange envelope caught my eye. It was sitting where I’d left it on top of the microwave. I reached over and grabbed it, slid my index finger under the flap. Inside was…a check? 

Yes, a check. A personal check. 

For ten thousand dollars.

Made out to me.

I took a deep breath, put the check face down on my lap, and blinked several times. Hard. Okay, look again. Yep. It said, Pay to the order of Kyrie St. Claire, in the amount of ten thousand dollars and zero cents. At the top left of the check was the payer: VRI Inc., and a P.O. box address in Manhattan. 

And there, in the bottom left-hand corner, on the single line opposite the illegible signature, was a single word. YOU. All caps, all in the same bold, neat script that appeared on the envelope. I examined the signature again, but it was little more than a squiggly black line. I thought there might be a “V,” and maybe an “R,” but there was no way to be sure. I guess that would make sense, given the fact that the payer was VRI Incorporated. But that didn’t tell me much.

No note, nothing in the envelope except the check. For ten thousand dollars. 

What the hell was I supposed to do? Cash it? Ten thousand dollars would pay current rent due, as well as the past due amount; it would get the electricity turned back on after paying what I owed them…ten thousand dollars would pay all my bills and still leave me enough to get the brakes on my car fixed. 

Ten thousand dollars.

From whom? And why? I knew no one. I had no family other than my mom and brother. I mean, yeah, I had Grandma and Grandpa in Florida, but they were living off Social Security, and were about five minutes from moving into a nursing home…that I couldn’t pay for. They’d asked me for money last year. And I’d given it to them.

What if I cashed this, and it was…like, the Mob? And they’d come for what I owed them, and they’d break my kneecaps. Okay, that was stupid. But, for real, who on earth would send me money at all, much less this much? I had one friend, Layla. And she was almost as desperate as I was. 

Nonetheless, I called her. She answered on the fourth ring. “Hey, bitch. What’s up?”

“Did you—this is going to sound really dumb, but you didn’t mail me a check? Did you? Like, you didn’t secretly win the lottery?” I laughed, like it was joke. “I mean, you didn’t, right?”

Layla guffawed. “Have you been drinking? Why the hell would I mail you a check? I don’t even have checks. And if I did, and if I had money to give you, why would I mail it to you?” 

“Yeah, right. That’s—that’s what I thought.”

Layla caught the tone in my voice. “What’s going on, Key?”

I wasn’t sure what to say. “I. Um. Can I come over? For…a few days?”

“Your electricity got shut off?”

“I also got evicted.”

“No,” she breathed.

“And fired.”

What?” Layla shrieked. “Didn’t you just tell me you were going to get the permanent job?”

“I was sexually propositioned by Mr. Edwards.” 

“Shut the fuck up.”

“He said I could keep my job if I sucked his cock. I mean, he didn’t say it in so many words. But he made it clear…by pulling his dick out.”

“Key. You’ve got to be kidding me.” Layla’s voice was flat, disbelieving.

“Wish I was. I’ll never get that mental image out of my head. Ugh.” I didn’t fake the shudder of revulsion. “Know what I did?”

“What?”

“I head-butted him. Broke his nose.”

“You did not!

I nodded, and then realized I was on the phone. “I did. I totally did.” 

Layla was silent for a minute. Then, “Damn, Kyrie. That’s a hell of a shitty day.” I heard the light bulb go off. “What was that about the check?”

“Can I come over? You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” I had to force my voice to stay calm.

“Of course. Bring your blankie, bitch. Let’s have us a sleepover.” 

Layla would never let me down. I mean, she couldn’t pay my rent for me, but she’d let me stay on her couch until doomsday if I needed to. She lived with her boyfriend, Eric, so we couldn’t be roommates anymore, but she’d always welcomed me. I changed, packed my bags—which didn’t take much time—and left my shitty, third-hand furniture where it was. Either I’d be able to come back for it, or I wouldn’t. Nothing to do about it now. 

At Layla’s, I kicked off my shoes and accepted the Bud Light she handed me. Layla was half-black, half-Italian, all attitude and curves. Long black hair, dark brown eyes, and flawless mocha skin. We’d been best friends since the first day of college, roommates for two years, until she met Eric and got serious enough to move in with him. Eric was…okay. Smart, good-looking, nice…and a small-time pot dealer. I didn’t actively dislike him, but I didn’t get what Layla saw in him. He wasn’t a bad guy, just not my cup of tea. She knew it, and she didn’t care. She liked him, he liked her, and it worked for them. Whatever.

I sat back on her ratty couch, drained half of my beer, and then handed Layla the envelope. Or, as I thought of it, The Envelope. “I got this in the mail today. Just like that. Out of the blue. Open it.”

Layla frowned at me, then examined the outside. “Nice handwriting.” 

“I know. But look inside. And…maybe sit down.” I took another long pull of my beer.

Layla perched her butt on the arm of the couch beside me and withdrew the check. “Holy shit!” She looked at me, her eyes wide. “Key, this is ten thousand dollars. You know what you could do with this?”

 “Yeah. I do. But…where did it come from? Who sent it? Why? And more importantly…do I dare cash it?”

Layla sighed. “I get your point. I mean, part of me says ‘duh, cash that bitch!’, but the untrusting part of me says ‘hold on now, sister.’” 

“Exactly. I’d never be able to pay this back. Not ever.” I finished my beer, and got up to get another one, found a box of old pizza in the fridge. “Can I?” I lifted the box.

Layla shrugged. “Go for it. So what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know, Layla. I wish I did. I—I’m at the end of my rope. If I didn’t have you, I’d be living in my car right now. Daddy’s life insurance policy ran out six months ago. I’m short on rent, and all my other bills are past due. Cal’s tuition needs paying, and so does mine. Fuck, everything is due. And I don’t have a job. I looked for weeks to find even this temp job. I’ll never find another one. And now…right when I need it most, this” —I snatched the check from Layla and shook it— “shows up. I don’t see how I can not cash it. I’ll just have to hope I don’t end up owing, like, Sal the Slicer or something.”

Layla nodded. “That’s a risk. You don’t know who this is.” She taps the check. “Did you Google this VRI Incorporated?”

“No electricity, remember? I couldn’t use my computer. And I’m out of data on my cell phone plan.”

“Oh.” Layla slumped into the chair in front of her PC, which was almost as old as mine. She brought up Google, typed in the name and address, and scrolled through the results. “Nothing. I mean, there are tons of companies with that name, and the fact that it’s a P.O. box means whoever it is doesn’t want to be found.”

“No shit, Sherlock. Short of hiring a fucking P.I. or something, I don’t see how I can find out who this is.”

“So you cash it.”

“So I cash it.” 

We spent the evening drinking. I got blitzed on about eight beers and passed out on the couch, since I didn’t have to be up in the morning. Layla and I both had an afternoon class, so we slept in until almost eleven, which was nice. After breakfast and a shower, Layla and I went together to the bank. I stood in front of the teller, two checks in my hand, shaking like a leaf. Eventually, I managed to hand them to the teller. I asked her to deposit them, and give me back a thousand dollars in cash. 

When that was done, the teller handed me a receipt and an envelope full of the cash she’d counted out to me. I put two hundred dollars in twenties in my purse, and left the other eight hundred in the envelope. I stared at the bank balance on the receipt: $9,658.67. We left the bank, got into my car, and drove to the university. True to form, Layla made no mention of the money, no hints at how many bills she had due, how much she could use even a couple hundred bucks. Couple hundred? Shit, to girls in our situation, even twenty bucks would be a godsend. She wouldn’t ask, not ever, no matter how much money I had. Just like I wouldn’t ask her if the situation were reversed. She’d never ask for anything unless she was in dire straits like I was now. Before we got out and went to class, I put the envelope of cash into Layla’s hand.  

“Here.” I folded her fingers over the edge. “I know you need it.”

Layla stared at me. “Um. No.”

I nodded. “Um, yes. You didn’t think I wouldn’t share with my best friend, did you?”

“Kyrie. You can’t give this to me. You need it.”

I smiled at her. “You do, too. I have enough now. You’re not just my bestie, Layla. You’re…you’re like family. So just take it and say thank you.”

She sniffled. “You’re gonna make me smear my mascara, hookerface.” Layla took a deep breath, blinked, and visibly forced away the tears. “Thank you, Kyrie. You know I love you, right?”

It was a big deal for her to say that. She’d grown up in a tough household. No abuse, just cold and closed off, not the kind of family that exchanged declarations of love on a regular basis. I knew she loved Eric, but I’d never heard her say it. I was very much the same, growing up in a stable and happy home, but not one where everyone was given to frequent hugs or I-love-you’s. Layla and I had been best friends for more than three years. We’d gone through thick and thin together, faced near-starvation, faced asshole boyfriends and dickhole professors and betraying ex-friends, bar fights and cat fights and apartment break-ins. I’d been there for her when she had been sexually assaulted by a jealous ex-boyfriend, and she’d been there for me when Mom had her breakdown, necessitating long-term hospitalization. Yet, for all that, despite the fact that we’d both take a bullet for each other, we didn’t tell each other we loved one another.

My turn to blink back tears. “I love you, too.”

“Now shut up with the girly bullshit. I’ve gotta get to class.” She leaned over and hugged me, and then left my car, clicking across the parking lot in her three-inch heels. 

I sat for a few more minutes. My class was a lecture, so I could easily slip in the back and catch up on what I missed if I needed to. I pulled the bank receipt out of my purse and stared at it, wondering if I’d just made the biggest mistake of my life, taking that money. I mean, I needed it so, so bad. No question about that. I was at the point where I’d have to resort to stripping or hooking pretty soon, and that wasn’t much of an exaggeration. And that’d be just to feed myself, let alone keep a roof over my head. This money was literally a lifesaver. 

But the one lesson in life I’d learned was that nothing was ever free. Someday, someone would come looking for what I owed them. I’d just have to accept that, keep it in mind, and try to not be too surprised when my debtor came knocking.

I tucked the receipt away and went off to class. Afterward, I popped into the tuition office to pay my bill, and then stopped by the rental office on the way home and paid up what I owed, plus next month’s rent. It was an incredible feeling knowing I was caught up through the entire next month. I sent out checks and spent the evening on the phone with utility companies, getting caught up. By the time all my bills were paid, my checkbook ledger said I had a little less than two grand left, including my final paycheck. My brakes would cost a few hundred to replace, which would leave me with a tiny little cushion to live on. 

Thank you, whoever sent me that money. I pushed the thought out into the ether, wondering, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, who was behind the mysterious check. And what he, or she, or they would want in return.  


*   *   *


In the middle of the following month, I was collecting the mail on the way home from work. I’d finally, after weeks of filling out applications for hours every day, found a job. As a hostess at Outback. Yuck. But it paid. Not much, but something. I’d stretched the cushion from that big anonymous check as long as possible, but it was gone already. I was caught up on my bills, and didn’t have to pay rent for another few weeks, but the panic was still there.

So imagine my shock when, tucked between a utility bill and a coupon circular, was The Envelope. Same script, no return address. And inside? Another check for ten grand. 

On the notes line, another single word: belong.

You belong. 

Shit. Not good. Not good. Not good at all. I called Layla, and she agreed that the meaning could be ominous, but she also agreed that since I’d cashed the first one, I might as well cash the second one. I was in deep; I already owed whoever it was more money than I’d ever be able to pay back, so why not dig myself in that much deeper? If they came collecting I’d be just as fucked, so I might as well enjoy it while it lasted, right?

So I cashed it. Paid bills. Fixed the AC on my car, and replaced the long-dead radio. I went behind Layla’s back and paid her rent. Attended class, went to work, begged for extra shifts, begged to be trained as a server. And, eventually, I got the server position, which helped a lot. The month passed, and soon it was the middle of the month again. As the days folded one into the other, I tried to ignore the hope that I’d get another Envelope.

And I did. 

My hands shook, as they always did, when I opened it. This time, there were two words on the notes line: to me.

Ohshit. Shitohshitohfuckohshit.

You belong to me.

Layla was justifiably freaked out, as was I. 

But still, there was no hint as to whom I belonged. 

So, with nothing else to do, I kept on living. Paid my bills, tucked away some extra, helped out Layla. 

I had a free day—a canceled class, and I wasn’t scheduled to work. So I visited Mom. Which I hated. It was my duty as her daughter to visit her every once in a while, but I didn’t see the point most of the time.

I parked outside the nursing home, made my way past the elderly residents as they listlessly watched TV in the rec room, passed open doors with sick, frail humans in mechanical beds, passed closed doors. I stopped outside Mom’s door, which was always closed. I took a deep breath, girded myself with as much strength as I could summon, and pushed in. 

Mom was sitting on her bed, knees drawn up to her chest, hair lank against her skull, unwashed and greasy. She hated showers. They could get to you through the showerhead, Mom claimed. Getting her clean usually took several orderlies and a sedative. 

“Hi, Mama.” I took a hesitant step closer, waiting to see how she’d be today before trying to hug her. 

Some days, the paranoia made it dangerous to get too close to her.

“They’re laughing at me. They’re closer today. Closer. Coming in through the windows. CLOSE THE BLINDS!” she shrieked suddenly, lunging off the bed and tearing at the window with her fingernails, scrabbling for the nonexistent cord. 

I grabbed her wrists and pulled her away. “I’ll close them for you, Mama. It’s okay. Ssshhh. It’s okay.”

She hesitated, peering at me. “Kyrie? Is that you?”

I felt my breath catch. “Yeah—yeah, Mama. It’s me.”

Her eyes narrowed. “How do I know it’s really you? They try to trick me sometimes, you know. They send agents. Lookalikes. Sometimes the nurses in this awful prison you’ve got me in pretend to be you. They dress up like you, and they talk like you. Tell me something only my daughter would know. Tell me!” she hissed, baring her teeth at me.

I tried to stay calm. “I fell off my bike when I was nine, Mama. Remember? I cut my knee open and had to walk four blocks back home. My sock was so full of blood I had to dump my shoe out. You gave me a Popsicle. Grape. Only, I was crying so hard, I dropped the Popsicle into the tub. You made me rinse it off and eat it anyway. Remember that?”

“Maybe it is you. What do you want? Here to cut my rations? Take my privileges?”

I felt my heart crack a little. “I’m just here to see you, Mama. You know this isn’t a prison. It’s a nursing home. They take care of you.”

“They beat me!” She pulled up her sleeve, showed me fingerprint bruises on her arms. 

I’d freaked the fuck out the first time she’d showed me those. She did it to herself, the nurses said. I didn’t believe them at first, but then I’d seen Mom gouging her fingers into her own arm, had seen her hitting herself so hard she had to be sedated. 

“Mama, I know you did that to yourself. They don’t you hurt you here. I promise.”

“You would promise, wouldn’t you? They make me hurt myself. Mind control. It’s in the medicine they give me. Mind control, to make me hurt myself. You’d say anything to get rid of me. You hate me. That’s why you’ve got me in prison. You hate me. You’ve always hated me.” Her lip curled, and her eyes took on a frantic gleam I knew all too well. 

I braced myself for the inevitable.

I feel a tear prick my eye. “No, Mama. I love you. You know I love you.”

“You love me. My daughter would never say that. You’re an impostor! A fake! You’re their agent! Get out! Get away from me!” Mama rushed at me, and I had to back away quickly to avoid her flailing hand. 

I jerked open the door and fell backward through it, felt myself caught by a nurse. 

“We’ve got her, sweetie. She’ll be okay—she’s just having a hard day. She didn’t sleep well last night. She hasn’t had her meds yet, and we’ve got to give her a shower today.” The nurse patted me on the shoulder. “She knows you love her. She was asking for you the other day, you know. Asked if you’d come to visit her soon.”

“She—she did?” I heard my voice break.

“She did.”

“Well, if she asks again, tell her I love her. Tell her—tell her I’ll visit again soon.”

Inside the room, another nurse was talking Mom down. I watched for a moment and then turned away, waving at the nurse. 

I cried on the way home, as I always did after visiting Mama. After Daddy’s murder, she’d gone from bad to worse, and then from worse to impossible. She’d always had mood swings and bouts of paranoia, but it had been manageable, especially as long as she stayed on her meds. But then Daddy was killed, and the schizophrenia had taken over, and no amount of medication could keep her level. Daddy’s life insurance policy had paid the bills for several years, but eventually it ran out, and that left me in a really bad place. I couldn’t bring myself to apply for welfare, and my applications for student loans and grants and scholarships were still processing. And, all the while, Mom got worse and worse. 

My brother Cal had his head in the sand about it all. He went to school in Chicago, never came home, never visited Mama, never called me. He had his life, and as long as I helped him pay for his tuition, he’d be fine. He worked, too, paying for his own room and board, but I’d always promised myself I’d take care of him, no matter what. Growing up, I’d cooked and cleaned for him, gotten him to school, packed his lunches and helped him apply to Columbia College, helped him find an apartment and a job and taught him how to budget. So it wasn’t that he wasn’t thankful to me and for all I had done for him—he just couldn’t handle Mom. I didn’t blame him. 

I sent him some extra money when I got home from visiting Mom, and then dashed off a quick email to him, asking how he was. He’d respond after a day or two, probably.

Meantime, the checks kept coming. One a month, ten grand every time. The notes ended, though, after that short, cryptic, and frightening message. I kept cashing them, kept tucking away as much as I could afford to save. I never stopped wondering who was sending them, but there was never any clue. I tried looking online again, but never made any headway. 

Months turned into a year, and I was a semester away from finishing my bachelor’s in social work. I needed a master’s for what I wanted to do, so I still had a lot of school left. 

And now I owed my mysterious benefactor $120,000.00. 

And then, on the one-year anniversary of the first check arriving in the mail, there was a knock on my apartment door. I’d just gotten out of the shower, so I wrapped a towel around my torso and another around my hair, then slid the security chain in place and cracked open the door.

“Yes? Can I help you?” I asked.

There was a tall, slender man of indeterminate age standing on the other side. He was dressed in a black suit with a white shirt and a black tie. He was holding the kind of hat that limo drivers wore. He also had on a pair of black leather driving gloves, and, if I wasn’t mistaken, there was a bulge at his chest that indicated he was carrying a pistol.

His eyes were pale green, hard, cold, and scarily intelligent.

“Kyrie St. Claire.” It wasn’t a question. His voice was low, smooth, and as cold as wind-scoured steel.

“Yes?”

“Get dressed, please. Wear your nicest clothes.”

“Excuse me?”

“If you own any lingerie, put it on. An evening dress. The blue one.”

I stared at the man through the crack in the door. “What? What are you talking about?”

His face remained impassive. “My name is Harris. I’m here to collect you.”

Collect me?” I spat the word. “What am I, a piece of jewelry?”

“Did you or did you not cash twelve checks, ten thousand dollars each, for a total amount of one hundred and twenty thousand dollars?”

I swallowed hard. “Yes, I did.”

“Do you have the funds available to repay it?”

I shook my head. “I don’t. Not all of it.”

“Then you will comply. Now. Please, dress. Your finest lingerie, the blue evening dress, jewelry. Style your hair. Apply makeup.”

“Why?”

“I am unable to answer any questions.” He stepped closer to the door. “May I come in, please?”

“I’m—I’m not dressed.”

“I am aware of this. I will pack your belongings while you dress.”

“Pack my belongings? Where am I going?” 

He lifted an eyebrow. “Away.”

I swallowed again. “For how long?”

“Indefinitely. Now, no more questions. Will you let me in, please.” It was phrased as a question, but it wasn’t. He could easily break down the door—of that I was certain. And he had a pistol. His eyes pierced mine. “Please, Miss St. Claire. I know this is an unusual situation. But you must understand. I am here not only to collect you, but to protect you. I will not harm you, I swear. I will not attempt to watch you change. I will pack your clothes and other belongings, and I will accompany you on your journey. I cannot answer any more questions.”

“I just—I don’t understand what’s going on.”

Harris blinked at me, and then let out a short breath. “I’m sure you remember the message from the first three checks.”

I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t swallow past the lump of fear in my throat. “‘You belong to me,’” I whispered.

“Yes. That is what’s going on. My employer has sent me to collect what is his.”

“Me.”

“Precisely.”

“What does he want with me? Who is he?”

Harris’s eyes narrowed in irritation. “I told you, Miss St. Claire, I cannot and will not answer any further questions. Now, let me in. That chain is a nuisance, and my job includes removing nuisances. Do not make this difficult, please.”

I closed my eyes, counted to five, and then realized I had no choice. I knew he was armed, and I knew I had no way out of this. He’d promised he wouldn’t hurt me, but that was little consolation. He was a scary-as-fuck man, and I was a girl alone, in a not-so-great apartment in a pretty shady neighborhood. No one but Layla would even miss me if I disappeared.

“Can I call my friend to tell her I’m—going away?”

“After we’re en route.”

“What will you do if refuse to cooperate?” I asked.

Harris lifted a corner of his mouth in a smirk that chilled my blood. “That would be…unwise.”

I held my ground. “What would you do?”

“I could open the door, overpower you, sedate you, and bring you along regardless.”

“What if I called the police?”

Harris sighed. “Miss St. Claire. That is entirely unnecessary. This is not a bad thing that is happening to you. I am not a Mafia enforcer. I’m not going to break your legs. I’m here to bring you to meet my employer, who has so graciously provided for you this past year. He only wishes to arrange…repayment.”

“I don’t have the money to pay him back. I never will.”

“He isn’t interested in money.”

“He. You said he. So he wants…me?”

Harris licked his lips, as if he’d erred. “You will comply willingly. Nothing will be forced on you.”

“But I don’t want to go with you.”

“No?” He lifted an eyebrow. “Surely you must be curious.”

“Not enough to go with you. You scare me.”

“Good. That’s part of my job. But I promise you, I will not harm you, and I will not allow any harm to come to you. You are safe with me. But time is short. If you’re going to refuse, I’ll be forced to go back to my employer and report your recalcitrance. The next step would likely involve forcible methods of retrieval. Just come with me. It will be easier for us all.”

I sighed. “Fine.” I closed the door, unlatched the chain, and let Harris in.

He eyed my apartment with open amusement. “I must say, I would have expected you to find yourself a nicer place with the money you’ve received.”

“Nothing lasts forever. I had no guarantee the checks would keep coming. I can afford this place on my own. Sort of.”

“Wise of you.”

Trying to delay things, I asked. “Can I get you anything to drink?”

Harris blinked at me. “No. Thank you. We don’t have much time. Get dressed, please.”

I went into my bedroom, rifled through my closet until I found the blue dress I’d worn to a fundraiser gala with my last boyfriend. Harris knew I had a blue dress, and that in itself was terrifying. It wasn’t an expensive dress, but it fit me like a glove, showed off my curves and accentuated my skin and hair. I glanced at Harris, who had my two suitcases—Mom and Dad’s old luggage—on my bed and was packing all of my jeans, yoga pants, skirts, blazers, dresses, and blouses with military efficiency. 

I lifted the dress. “Will this do?”

Harris looked up, examined the dress, then nodded once. “Yes.”

I dug the one set of lingerie I owned out of a bottom drawer. It wasn’t expensive, but again, it was perfect for me. Deep crimson lace, the perfect shade to offset my tanned skin and blonde hair. I stepped into the bathroom, locked the door, and dropped the towel. I examined myself in the mirror.

I was medium height, a touch over five-seven, with naturally tanned skin and thick blonde hair. I was curvy enough, on the heavier side of average for my height and build. I saw myself as being pretty on most days, and sexy if I tried hard enough on a good day. Nothing special, but not ugly. 

I put on the lingerie, then set about doing my hair. I did it in loose, spiraling curls, pinning my bangs to one side. I slipped my dress on, zipped it up the back, and then applied my makeup. I didn’t wear much, just some foundation, blush, eye shadow, and lip stain. Nothing heavy or overdone. I put on a pair of teardrop diamond earrings and a matching necklace, a high school graduation gift from Daddy. Finally, after about thirty minutes, I was ready. I looked at myself in the mirror again. 

Not bad, Kyrie. Not too bad. I nodded at my reflection, summoned my nerves, and stepped out.

Harris had my suitcases packed, and was closing the drawers of my dresser. He looked me over. “You’re very beautiful, Miss St. Claire.”

I ducked my head, oddly pleased by his compliment. “Thank you, Harris.”

He nodded. “Now, if you’re ready?”

“Everything is packed?”

“All your clothes and underthings, jewelry, and the phone charger. I assume everything else you need is in your purse.” He lifted the suitcases and moved toward the front door. 

I followed him, then paused as he opened the door. “What about my apartment?”

He set the suitcases in the hallway, waiting for me to exit so he could close the door behind me. “Everything is taken care of.”

“What—what about Cal? And Mom? And—”

“I repeat, Miss St. Claire: Everything is taken care of. All you need to do is follow me.” He watched me, his pale green eyes calm, patient. 

I let out a shaky breath. “All right, then. Let’s go.” I shouldered my purse, shut off the lights, and locked the door. 

I followed Harris outside into the late evening sunlight. There was a low, sleek black Mercedes-Benz parked away from the other cars, angled to take up two spots. He set the cases by the trunk and withdrew a key fob from his pocket. The hatch opened, and then he placed the cases inside. He had all this done before I even had a chance to put a hand on the door. 

Harris opened the back right passenger door, held it for me as I slid in, and then closed it gently. Within seconds, he was in the front seat, and the engine roared to life. 

He drove us to a small airport, passing through a security checkpoint, and then he parked on the tarmac beside a huge private jet. I swallowed hard as I stared out the tinted window at the airplane. Was this really happening? Ohgodohgodohgod. I was nothing short of terrified.

“If you wish to make a phone call, now is the time, Miss St. Claire,” Harris said.

I dug my phone from my purse and called Layla. 

“What’s up, Key? Wanna meet for drinks?” 

I let out a breath. “I—can’t.”

“Why not? What’s up?”

I blinked hard. “I’m going away.”

“Wh-what? What do you mean? Where? Why? For how long?”

“I don’t know, Layla. I don’t know. The checks? All that money? I’m about to meet the man who sent them.”

“Who is it?” Layla demanded.

“I don’t know. I don’t know anything. A man showed up at my door an hour ago and said he was here to collect me. I’ve been collected, Layla.”

“Does he know you’re calling me? Are you, like, in danger?”

I forced myself to breathe calmly. “I don’t—I don’t think so. I don’t really have a choice, but I’m not in danger. Like, I don’t think anyone is going to kill me. I am scared, though. What’s going to happen to me?” I whispered the last part.

“Kyrie…Jesus. This would only happen to you.” I heard her breathe, sounding as shaky as I did. “Where are you?”

“Oakland County International Airport. About to board a fucking massive Gulfstream or something like that. A big private jet. Right now I’m sitting in a Mercedes-Benz.”

“Ohmigod, Kyrie! So whoever this guy is, he’s loaded.”

“Yeah.”

“And you owe him—what, a hundred and twenty grand?”

“Yeah.”

“How are you going to pay him back?” Layla asked.

I blinked hard, fighting tears of fright. “This guy, Harris, he said my benefactor isn’t interested in money.”

Layla sucked in a sharp breath. “He’s interested in you, then. Something tells me you’ll have to put out a hell of a lot to pay back that much money, honey.”

“Layla!” 

“Just sayin’, babe. It’s true.”

“I’m not a whore. I’m not going to use sex to pay him back.” My voice shook.

“You may not have a choice.” 

“I know. That’s why I’m so scared. I mean, I’m no prude. You know that. But…what if he’s, like, eighty? Or some kind of…sultan? You know? Those girls who end up in slavery in Saudi Arabia?”

“I’m scared for you.” 

A knock on the window startled me. Harris opened the car door. “It’s time, Miss St. Claire.”

“I have to go, Layla.”

“Be—be careful, okay? Call me as much as you can, so I know you’re alive.”

“I will.”

“So…I’ll talk to you later, Key.” She tried to sound casual about not saying “goodbye.” I loved her fiercely for that.

“Later, babe.” I used the fake accent that always made her laugh. 

She laughed, and then hung up on me. I sniffed, smiling, feeling somewhat reassured by talking to Layla. 

Harris closed the door behind me, and then gestured to the movable stairway leading up to the door of the jet. “Ready?”

I shook my head. “Not even close.”

“Understandable. There’s champagne and other refreshments on the plane. Shall we?” He touched the small of my back with three fingers, a gentle nudge. 

I ascended the steps on jelly-weak knees, and entered the jet. It was…stunning. Like in a movie. Cream leather seats, flat-screen TVs, thick carpeting, a silver bucket of ice sitting on a special tray near one set of seats, with a bottle of what I assumed was hideously expensive champagne. A flight attendant in a navy blue suit was already on board, ready to wait on me. 

I glanced at Harris in shock. 

“You’re entering a whole new world, Miss St. Claire,” he said. “One with many privileges. Sit, relax, and try to calm yourself. You will not be harmed, you will not be entering into any kind of slavery. You are merely…changing situations.”

I nodded, unable to speak. I sat, buckled in, and held on to the arms of the seat as the jet taxied and took off. When we were airborne, the flight attendant poured me a flute of champagne, which I sipped slowly and carefully. I needed to take the edge off my nerves, but I needed my wits about me for whatever came next. 

The flight was a little over three hours, and then we landed with a gentle bump at a private airfield. I had no idea where we were.

I exited the plane and followed Harris to a waiting car, this one a stretch limousine. He held the door for me, closed it, and then slid into the driver’s seat. He said nothing, only waited as someone else loaded my suitcases into the trunk. 

I’d half expected to see someone sitting in the shadows of the limousine, but there was no one. Only long expanses of black leather, lights, and a radio, and more champagne. I folded my hands on my lap and waited as Harris drove. It was a long journey, and we got closer to what looked to be New York. We went over the Brooklyn Bridge and into Manhattan. We wove through thick traffic, heading uptown. 

After almost an hour of driving, high-rises piercing the night sky all around, Harris pulled the limousine into an underground garage.

My heart was hammering as Harris led me, sans suitcases, to the elevator. The elevator rose quickly, leaving my stomach in my heels. Harris was silent, standing beside me, hands folded behind his back. The elevator stopped, the doors opened, and we stepped out. We were in the foyer outside what I guessed was a penthouse. Thick, dark slate-blue carpeting, navy blue walls, wide mahogany French doors, a flowering tree in one corner, and a floor-to-ceiling window revealing a breathtaking view of New York City.

Harris stopped by the doors and turned to face me. “This is it. As far as I go.” He reached into his suit coat pocket and withdrew a length of white cloth. “If you agree, I will put this blindfold on you. By allowing me to put it on, you are agreeing to willingly follow every instruction given to you without hesitation. If you do not agree, I will take you home, and repayment of the funds will be expected forthwith.” He blinked at me, waiting. “Do you so agree?” His voice was formal. 

I took a deep breath. “I don’t have a choice, do I?”

Harris lifted a shoulder. “There is always a choice.”

I searched myself. Could I do this, knowing what would likely be expected of me? 

I lifted my chin, summoned my courage. “I agree.”

Harris nodded once, and then moved behind me. I felt him place the blindfold over my eyes, the white cloth folded several times so I couldn’t see a thing. He tied it gently but firmly behind my head, and then I felt his hand on my back, the same three fingers he’d used to nudge me onto the jet. I heard a door handle turn and the faint hush of a door sliding across thick carpet.

A push, and I made my feet carry me forward. Two steps, three, four, five. 

“Until the next time, Miss St. Claire,” I heard Harris say behind me, and then the click of the door closing. 

It was a decidedly final sound. 

I stood, shaking, trembling, blindfolded, waiting. 

I heard a footstep off to my left. “Hello?” I asked, my voice tremulous, breathy.

“Kyrie. Welcome.” The voice was deep, smooth, lyrical, hypnotic, rumbling in my bones and thrumming in my ear. 

A finger touched my cheekbone, warm, slightly rough. The fingertip scraped ever so gently across my cheek, up over my ear, brushing a loose tendril of hair away.

“Please, don’t be afraid.” He was close. I could feel the heat emanating from him. I could smell him—spicy, masculine cologne, soap. His voice, God, his voice. It made me shiver. Confident, almost kind, warm. “I have waited a long time for this moment, Kyrie.”

“Who—who are you? Why am I here?”

A pause.

“You don’t need my name just yet. As to why you’re here?” His voice lowered, hushed, a growling murmur that made my stomach clench. “You’re here because I own you, Kyrie.”

“What—what are you going to do to me?” I hated how weak, how afraid I sounded.

“Everything.” His voice was thick with promise. “But nothing you won’t enjoy.”