A Cup of Pending — Novel Excerpt

The first two chapters from my recently released second novel. It’s available from Amazon in both Kindle format and paperback. Click here for more info, or to purchase.

Chapter 1

Oliver Crews knew killing a man for delaying his morning coffee fix was illegal, but he didn’t think the law, that law at least, ought to apply to him. As the line inched forward, Oliver shoved his briefcase forward on the floor with his foot. He kept his arms folded across his chest and scowled at the patrons in front of him. He was in no mood for this foolishness. He was already late getting to the office, not technically, since the office didn’t open for another hour and he was, after all, the boss, but later than he wanted to be.

Oliver ran a middling private-equity hedge fund out of a glass office tower on Brickle Avenue facing Biscayne Bay. He liked to be the first one in and the last to leave. He used the extra time to stay ahead of his competition, which was fierce.

He would check the Nikkei closings of the previous day and the opening activity in the London markets to get an idea where the opportunities of the day were lurking. He never took advantage of those opportunities. He was a different kind of investor. But knowing what they were and how they traded gave him something legitimate to discuss over lunch or dinner, or at his club, where such things were held in high regard.

Oliver’s fund, indeed Oliver himself, was heavily invested in sketchier and therefore much more profitable enterprises than the ones listed on the exchanges. Oliver, through a rat’s nest of interlocking shell companies, owned a collection of lenders of last resort.

Oliver’s firms preyed on desperate small businesses, and used a kind of semantic arbitrage to skirt established usury laws. An annual effective interest rate of 270 percent, the kind of vig that would make a loan shark blush, would be characterized as a management fee coupled with lease payments on credit card processing equipment. The fees and lease payments were automatic and became the first fruits of all subsequent transactions of the borrowers. Collections were virtually assured and therefore very attractive to investors who would be insulated from any risk and any legal fallout.

Oliver had found his niche. He was on a roll. He’d plastered a veneer of legitimacy on what was effectively a criminal enterprise and watched the cash roll in as certain and relentless as the tide. There would be no stopping him. Of this he was sure. There was occasionally something that slowed him down, however, and this was the source of his current annoyance.

A tiny black man in a fatigue jacket, dreadlocks, and enormous sneakers was at the front of the line trying to get a cup of ‘pending’ coffee. Pending coffees were an insult to Oliver’s values. Some liberal sap would prepay a few cups of coffee in case some homeless people wandered in needing a caffeine fix. What a stupid waste of time!

What the hell did homeless people need with caffeine? Did they need to stay alert while they were waiting for their food stamps? Did they need a jolt of energy to lunge off the curb with their filthy, spit-soaked rags to smear Oliver’s windshield at stoplights? Oliver didn’t think so.

He thought they ought at least to wait until people like him — people with jobs and places to be, people who counted — had got their coffee before they queued up for the freebies. They ought not to be allowed to impede the progress of productive society. It just galled Oliver that they could.

Oliver Crews was a fully realized megalomaniac. This was no accident. He had been groomed for it from birth. The idea that he was somehow better, more worthy, and deserving of every good thing that came his way had taken root in fertile soil. The corollary idea that every bad thing that came his way was the fault of someone else had also rooted there, and the two notions sprouted in natural symbiosis, grew intertwined in the nurturing environs of privilege and entitlement, and thrived.

The natural result was Oliver had become an individual with skewed sensibilities. For instance, Oliver’s idea of charity was to give money to the exclusive boarding schools he had attended as a youth, institutions that did not need or deserve his largess and would use the money to perpetuate the development of Oliver’s ideological clones.

Their graduates would one day become titans of industry and finance, mavens of society, arbiters of class and taste. They would be the kind of people Ayn Rand, were she still alive, would write books about, but who, by virtue of the same enlightened self-interest and objectivity she embraced, would be loathe to give Ayn Rand the time of day.

Oliver’s pride of accomplishment lay, not in what he had achieved, since he believed success was his natural due, but rather in the trappings of success he had managed to accumulate. He was proud of his waterfront manse on Sunset Islands, his stable of expensive cars, his brutish off-shore speedboat, his beautiful, bubble-headed soon-to-be ex-wife with her plastic tits and her waxed, bleached, and be-sparkled nether parts, and his assortment of interchangeable girlfriends who were collectively more available and less expensive than the Mrs.

Oliver’s idea of loyalty was to occasionally stand for drinks at his country club after a round of golf where he had been careful to look the other way while one of his companions forgot to record all their strokes or used an errant foot to improve their lie behind the cover of a conveniently parked cart.

Oliver was never plagued by a nagging sense of inadequacy. It had never occurred to him that the reality of the person he’d made of himself might not reconcile with the person he had crafted for public consumption. He did not think he might be a fraud. He did not fear that one day he would be found out and called to account for the deception. In Oliver’s mind there was no apologizing for or improving upon the Oliver he had become.

The bum at the head of the line got his coffee and turned to leave. Oliver stared at him, taking in everything about the man’s appearance that assaulted Oliver’s values. A Rastafarian of indeterminate age with a raggedy goatee and tufts of hair jutting like frayed yarn from beneath a striped knit tam. His fatigue jacket hung open to reveal a yellowed tee-shirt with a sagging elastic neckband and a large marijuana leaf emblazoned on its front. His shorts were too long, too loose, and so soiled their original color was lost to history. Only his sneakers, apparently new acquisitions by whatever means, had escaped the ravages of carelessness and indolence. Bright white and pristine, they were enormous in relation to the rest of him. Oliver concluded he must have stolen them from a much larger man.

As the bum passed, Oliver nudged the brief case into his path. He tripped over it and went sprawling. The coffee splashed and puddled under a table occupied by a woman in a dark suit. She looked up from her newspaper, took in the scene without registering any real notice, and returned to reading.

Oliver bent to retrieve his valise. The bum seemed not to realize what had happened to him at first. He picked up his empty cup and stared at the coffee under the woman’s table. He shook his head slowly and ambled out the door.

“I used to be like you,” a voice behind Oliver said.

Oliver turned to see who had spoken. It was another vagrant from the looks of it, this one clean shaven and more presentable but with the same unmistakable demeanor of the useless, the same slack-jawed expression of those who have never taken responsibility for their own trifling existence, the same obvious lack of … well, quality — fashions by Goodwill, hygiene practiced, if at all, in public restrooms and by the clandestine use of unattended garden hoses, abiding dishevelment, terminal indolence.

“What did you say?” Oliver asked. His mouth twisted into a lopsided sneer of contempt.

“I used to be like you.”

Oliver looked into intense gray-green eyes that refused to flinch.

“You were never like me, asshole,” he said, “and you never will be.”

***

Just outside the coffee shop, a lustrous Miami morning bathed the street in a munificent glow. Tommy Williams lamented his lost cuppa and contemplated the injury to his pride. It was not a deep or painful wound, his pride having long since been sandblasted to a faded patina. This did not mean he was immune to the violence that had been done to him, only that he was by now hardened to it and tried not to let it fester in his soul where it might prevent him from making the best use of his days.

He removed his fatigue jacket, rolled it into a fat tube, and placed it on the sidewalk against the front of the building. He rummaged through his backpack until he found a ballpoint pen and a small spiral-bound notebook. He waited.

The self-entitled fop who had tripped him emerged soon enough, fancy espresso beverage in one hand and pricey leather attache in the other, He climbed into a cream colored Porsche parked in a loading zone. Tommy made careful note of his physical appearance and the tag number on the car as it sped away.

Tommy could have stuck a foot into the swell’s path, returning the favor and achieving justice, but he knew such a move would not end well for him. He would trade a moment’s satisfaction for a week in jail, and he would never have another chance to tie the score. It just wouldn’t be worth the effort.

While he was thus occupied, his friend Cliff, who had been behind him in line, came out with two steaming Cubanos and handed him one. Tommy took a sip through the tiny hole in the plastic lid, closed his eyes, and savored the warmth of another day in paradise. Nothing like strong, sweet coffee and tropical sun to reset a foul mood.

“Get what you needed?” Cliff asked, nodding at the still open notebook in Tommy’s hand.

“I did.”

“Any idea how you’re going to deal with it?”

“I don’t know yet, but I’m sure it will come to me soon enough. You know what they say.”

“Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord?”

“They do say that. I’m not a believer though. If you wait for God to deliver the karma you want, you’ll never find your equilibrium. I was thinking more of revenge being a dish best served cold.”

“Ah,” Cliff said. “I’ve heard that one as well.”

Cliff waited while Tommy gathered his things, and the two of them headed down the street toward the medical complex surrounding Jackson Memorial Hospital. Their next stop of the morning was to sell some blood and see if they couldn’t get themselves into a clinical trial in exchange for a little walking-around money. ‘Checking their traps,’ Cliff called it. They might turn something up, and they might not. You never knew until you tried.

Cliff and Tommy were technically homeless because they didn’t have a proper address. They did share a place to live, however, just off U.S. 1 on the northwest edge of Coconut Grove. Tommy had a job there as afternoon attendant at a self-storage facility called StorMor. He’d rented an air-conditioned unit just behind the office using an alias and paying cash. All the relevant transactions had occurred during Tommy’s shift so, the paperwork was complete and would pass scrutiny and the fact that Tommy was both leasing agent and lessee had not come to anyone’s attention.

It was a beautiful arrangement for a pair of rootless travelers. No one ever saw them come or go. They used the office bathroom, conveniently outfitted with a shower, and slept in hammocks strung from the steel support beams in the unit. In addition to the a/c, an opulent amenity in the homeless community, they had electricity, a gate with key-card access, and security cameras. There was WIFI if they needed it — they never did — and access to the office landline during Tommy’s shift. It beat hell out of the local shelters and back alleys and made it possible for them, when necessary, to pass for regular citizens. All they had to do was clean up a bit and wear presentable clothes.

Of the two, Cliff was the one people would normally think of as down on his luck. He’d lost a good job in the Great Recession. Then, before he’d found other employment he’d gotten sick with a rare squamous cell cancer in his sinuses. The disease had cost him his savings, his possessions, his home, and eventually, when his wife decided she was getting less than she’d signed up for, his family.

Now he sat, like the Biblical Job, on the smoldering refuse heap of his former life, unable or unwilling anymore to listen to those well-meaning souls who seemed determined to tell him how to return to some semblance of what he once had been.

Tommy, on the other hand, was living off-the-grid. He was homeless by choice, having divested himself of all his possessions and reduced his digital footprint to absolute zero.

The little that could be found concerning Tommy’s existence was recorded in one of several names he had collected from tombstones in the course of his travels. Tommy Williams, the name on the social security card he’d presented to get his job at the StorMor, and the name by which Cliff and the rest of his homeless acquaintances knew him, was only one.

Tommy’s real name was Jamal, but he hadn’t used it in such a long time he doubted he would even answer to it in the unlikely event someone were to call it out. He was not a Rastafarian. He’d never been to Jamaica. He’d never smoked a joint. He did not know the first thing about Haile Selassie or the Lion of Judah. Tommy had merely adopted a look to throw people off any scent that might lead back to Jamal. The look had served him so well that no one even thought to question his lack of Jamaican Patois. They looked at him, assumed Rasta Man, and filed him away with other things they had seen of no consequence.

Like Cliff, Tommy felt he had been betrayed by his former life. The difference between them was, where Cliff had bottomed out to get where he was, Tommy had left abruptly at the top of his game.

Tommy was a computer wizard from the ghetto streets of LA. Small in stature and ill-equipped by fate to excel at any sport, he had been driven by a purposeful father to excel at academia instead. He gravitated to computer science and programming because it was the kind of thing most easily practiced in the vacuum left by a lack of friends.

Tommy’s contemporaries who, like him, lacked the physical talent to escape their circumstances through basketball or football were into other things, progressively more dangerous things, like drugs and gangs. Tommy threw himself, instead, into coding. He earned a scholarship to MIT, did graduate work at Stanford, and went to work in Silicon Valley where his natural aloofness and disciplined self-direction got him into systems design work for a firm under contract to NSA and DoD.

He made pretty good money, provided for his aging and sickly father, and didn’t bother much to assess the morality of the code he wrote … until his father was targeted by the very agencies for which Tommy did his work.

Tommy’s dad had been politically active in his own youth, something that had landed him on a half-forgotten watch list. When Tommy provided some internet access for his father to ease his life with Parkinson’s, he had inadvertently made him visible. This triggered scrutiny through the programs that Tommy had developed, and one of the shadowy acronyms spinning a web under the umbrella of national security had frozen his father’s meager assets.

Events accelerated from there. His dad was too proud to complain so he went without medication. His symptoms worsened. He took a serious fall in his home, and eventually died from his injuries.

When Tommy understood what had happened, that his work had made it possible for the agencies who were supposed to safeguard the homeland to effectively end his father’s life, he pulled up stakes and went deep underground.

This turned out to be an enterprise best accomplished by voluntary homelessness. There was a surprising amount of information available on line about how to do it, and Tommy, because of his native genius and experience in manipulating digital evidence, knew how to extract it without calling attention to himself.

When Cliff and Tommy first met, a natural affinity sprang up between them. They both understood this to be a rare thing among the homeless where guarded suspicion is the order of the day. They began to spend their days together and eventually entered into a partnership that seemed to each of them to provide benefits that outweighed any cost.

The things Tommy brought to this partnership were vastly more practical than the things that came from Cliff, but Tommy’s long-suffered absence of friends and familial contact made Cliff’s natural affability and social ease as needful to Tommy as a place to sleep and bathe might be to Cliff. Between them, they had skills and tools to stay connected, to anticipate trends, and to change their circumstances, however slightly, almost at will. They had synergy.

Cliff took comfort in their routines. They plied homelessness like a trade. While there were many things they might wish to do that they could not, they almost never had to do anything they didn’t want to do. This was vastly different from Cliff’s experience when he was still working.

When he was working, Cliff had frequently been expected to do things he loathed at the expense of things that made sense to him. When he’d graduated from college, full of hope and vision, he’d been naive as a sheltered child. He’d chosen to study accounting because it seemed objective, logical, and scientific. He loved the precision. When you got to the end of a worksheet, you knew that it footed and cross-footed because you’d been checking your sums along the way. You double underscored the result because you knew it was correct. There wasn’t a better answer than the right answer. There was only correct or incorrect because underlying all the tools and processes of the discipline was a love of the truth. Truth was eternal and immutable. Truth was satisfying.

Then he went to work. The more experience he accumulated, the more frequently he was expected to use his skills to bend the truth in favor of the people for whom he worked — often at the expense of people further down the food chain. This was an appalling development, but a gradual one. By the time his new reality had registered on his consciousness, he was already too mired in it to escape. So he trudged on, loyal to a fault, faithful to a system that would never return the consideration, until the day they cut him loose.

Now, shunted into a situation he would never have chosen, Cliff had a very different, still shifting, perspective. He was resigned, but wary. He was philosophical, but angry. Betrayal stings, but it is always instructive. He was too smart to be bitter on the days when he wasn’t too bitter to be smart.

Cliff counted himself lucky to have run into Tommy when he had. The stability afforded by Tommy’s innovative approach to getting by without leaving evidence gave Cliff the ability to center his thoughts in relative spiritual luxury. Theirs was a Zen existence, tempered by technological sophistication, and leaving no footprints.

Chapter 2

The Golden Gryphon Hotel sits in the middle of the populous barrier island that is Miami Beach, equidistant from the ocean to the East and the bay to the West. It is a gaudy structure, false in almost every regard, from its plasticized stucco walls, painted in garish shades of azure, turquoise, and fuchsia, to the stylized fiberglass gryphons standing guard on either side of its tiled entryway. Its style is meant to mimic the art deco structures it neighbors, those celebrated hotels of the Twenties and Thirties that became icons of South Beach when they were discovered to photograph so beautifully on the hit TV series, Miami Vice.

Inside the hotel, in a converted suite, Heather Crews was going over her lines. A slight brown man in a tight v-neck tee shirt was applying her makeup, chatting her up, and stealing surreptitious glances at her bosom.

The man called himself Armand, although the name on his birth certificate was Herbert. He was, in spite of his predilection for the pastel palette, fringed scarves, and the over-dramatization of certain words, like ‘FAB-u-lusss,’ a raging heterosexual who found it expedient to feign being gay in order to be taken seriously in his current occupation.

Heather, who was aware, if only vaguely, of the furtive looks and occasional brushes of knuckle or fingertip against intimate bits of her anatomy, excused the familiarity as being motivated by professional necessity or even harmless curiosity. The man was gay after all. He posed no threat. His good-natured groping was no different than familiarities that might be taken by sisters or girlfriends. Had Heather known Armand was a fraud, she might have been more wary of his hands-on approach to makeup artistry, but, since she had her own existential deceptions in play, she was not likely to be too upset.

Heather, by most accounts the breakout star of hit reality TV program, South Beach Divorcées, was neither divorced nor even officially separated from her husband, Oliver. This was all about to change, but, initially at least, their imminent divorce had been a ruse to land Heather the role she now occupied.

The show had come to town looking for youngish, attractive, well-heeled women who were either recently divorced or about to become so. Heather, who fit three of the four requirements, was just ambitious enough to fake the last to jump start a career she’d always wanted — celebrity hottie.

She was thirty years old and could pass for twenty-five. She had plenty of money to spend on frivolities thanks to her husband’s penchant for finding high yield investments, even if they weren’t always strictly legal. And, she had been blessed on a number of fronts with the kind of good looks that came alive on a high-def TV screen.

A fractional Seminole forebear on her father’s side had given her flawless tawny skin. Her mother, mostly Castilian by way of Cuba, had given her full, lush hair in a neutral shade of light brown, to which she happily added blond highlights for $225 per month, plus tip. Her mother had also given her wide-set hazel eyes and high, chiseled cheekbones. A skilled surgeon had formed perfect breasts and planed a niggling bump from the middle of her nose. The rest was achieved with hard work, self-denial, and expensive professional help she’d found in studios, spas, salons and boutiques from Coconut Grove to Boca Raton.

Heather Crews was a rare, exotic beauty, full of ambition — a self-absorbed, and self-entitled young woman with patrician sensibilities. She was tailor made for television stardom, and, at the time they were casting her show, had lacked only a legal separation from her husband to leverage her attributes into a recurring role in this particular program.

Her husband had been happy to go along with the plan, especially when she explained to him he would have to move into a high-rise condo on South Pointe and start entertaining a collection of women to whom he was not married in order to carry off the subterfuge.

In just a few short days Oliver had shown Heather the keys to a furnished showcase apartment in one of the Spectrum Towers and a photo of himself with a pair of former Dolphins cheerleaders in a SoBe nightclub. Heather was pleasantly surprised by the speed with which Oliver had accomplished these things, and Oliver, noting her pleasure, had not bothered to explain that he’d had the apartment for two years already or that he’d been seeing the cheerleaders for months.

Heather retained a pricey divorce lawyer with a reputation for being a barracuda and instructed her to proceed as slowly as possible against Oliver since his assets seemed to be multiplying at a satisfying clip and it would be a shame to settle up before his fortunes had peaked.

With all the pieces in place, Heather had sailed through the initial interview, an audition, and several call-backs to be offered a recurring role on the show as, if not herself exactly, someone who would be recognized as herself in all the places and by all the people who counted.

Now, a full season into the show’s run, Heather had come to the realization that most of Oliver’s on-screen failings as a husband were too real to ignore any longer. She would have to divorce him, although she had yet to let him know. The timing would depend on the show. Some added drama at a propitious moment would create a bump in ratings and add to her star appeal, which had already exceeded her initial expectations.

South Beach Divorcées had done well in its time slot. It continued to pick up viewers in the off-season, and the first episode of its new season had captured a .91 rating among the 18–49 audience with nearly 2.5 million viewers to become a genuine hit.

Much credit for the show’s success was being given to Heather. The Miami Herald’s TV critic had called her a ‘natural stunner with grace and moxie.’ Variety had called her an ‘unaffected beauty with broad appeal among the target demographic.’ The target demographic was, ironically, young women who aspired to the same natural and unaffected beauty and could thus be easily persuaded to buy armloads of beauty products in order to achieve it.

Heather worked hard to cultivate and maintain her star status. She was not one of those girls who had had things handed to her her entire life because she was pretty. Her mother, a Marielita, had worked hard herself to carve out a life in Miami after the boat lift, made sure Heather never took her beauty or her circumstances for granted.

Heather had discovered in high school she could get almost anything she wanted with her looks, but by the time she’d made that discovery, she already knew whatever good things came her way would last longer and provide more satisfaction if she did something to earn them.

If this was true of anything, it was certainly true of the fleeting status of television stardom. To this end then, Heather applied herself to deserve it to the best of her ability. She showed up on time and ready to work. She took direction with interest and humility. She stayed fit and sober. She was friendly to the crew. She rehearsed her lines and her positioning, and she sought feedback.

Notwithstanding South Beach Divorcées was supposed to be a reality program, there was a script of sorts. It wasn’t an official one. It couldn’t be because an official script would require writers, and writers, who would be members of the Screen Writers’ Guild, would have to be paid for their work.

The unofficial script was a list of suggested dialog compiled by interns who worked for experience and contacts rather than money. The suggestions originated with the producers, and were tweaked by the interns into something entertaining.

The suggestions may or may not have been followed by the cast, but Heather had found that following the suggestions very closely got her more screen time and better dramatic interactions than making stuff up as she went along. Following the producers’ suggestions was good for her career, and so, while Armand put the finishing touches on her hair and makeup so she would appear natural and unaffected on camera, Heather memorized, polished, and rehearsed her lines so she would also seem to be smart, good-natured, and, above all, natural to her fans.

Today’s scenes were to be shot in Oliver’s apartment. After the morning cast meeting, everyone in the shoot loaded into SUVs and drove down to Spectrum Towers where management had roped off reserved parking. They had to carry all their gear up to Oliver’s place, which seemed suddenly cramped even though it was quite large by condominium standards.

As usual, Oliver had not attended the meeting or gotten much guidance as to what was supposed to happen. Heather tried to fill him in.

“I’m supposed to confront you today about your girlfriend, Grace,” she told him. “She is here, isn’t she?”

“Of course she’s here. We already talked about this yesterday.” Oliver looked aggrieved … convincingly so.

They hadn’t talked about it at all, of course, and Heather found herself wishing Oliver could conjure up that level of credibility when they were filming. She was about to remark on this to him when Grace came out of the bedroom wearing only a towel, feigned surprise, and scampered back behind the door, giving everyone a nice view of her little cheerleader butt.

Heather didn’t like Grace much. Oliver was still trying to act as if his infatuation with the girl was just for show, even though Heather was sure he had already installed her in his apartment. Heather wasn’t jealous. She’d moved beyond that in the first season. She had other reservations concerning Grace — ones that had more to do with plot continuity than fidelity.

First of all, she didn’t like the name Grace. Heather thought the girl would be better named Tammi with an ‘I’ or Nikki with two ‘Ks’ and an ‘I’, except they already had a Tammi and a Nikki in the cast and more than enough ‘Is’ to go around. Heather thought Grace was too refined and mature a name to attach to a bimbo who was going to end up the cause of a very public and expensive divorce.

Secondly, Heather didn’t care for Grace because she seemed always to be around, even when she wasn’t needed, according to the producers’ suggestions, for a particular day’s filming. Why was she always hanging around when she was just in the way?

And then, today, for crying out loud, even worse. Admittedly, she was on the story board for today’s shoot, but not in a towel. What in the world was she doing in Oliver’s bedroom in a towel when the crew and cast showed up to work?

Heather thought Grace was trying to pyramid her attachment to Oliver into a slice of Heather’s stardom. As a mere girlfriend, this was something to which Grace would not be entitled. This was a problem for Heather, and she did not want to deal with it.

She was thus engaged in uncharitable thoughts about Grace when it occurred to her she had just had two pretty good ideas about the action today. She should try to get them into the segment. She wandered off to find the woman who was running today’s scenes. Maggie was her name.

“I had a couple of ideas about today’s scenes,” she said.

She’d dealt with Maggie before. Maggie could be agreeable if you didn’t push her buttons. You didn’t really have to make it seem like changes were her idea like you did with some of the other producers — the ones who thought they were God’s gift to television. Maggie understood that TV, especially reality TV, was a collaborative effort, and that a good idea is a good idea, no matter where it comes from.

“Really? What did you have in mind, Heather?”

“I think I could do a riff on Grace’s name, you know, like an aside, like an interview after the action, where I’m giving my opinion on Grace. I mean I’m not supposed to like her anyway, so I’m thinking, I go off a little bit on her name, Grace, being too refined a name for a has-been cheerleader who’s trying to steal my husband. She ought to have a name that sounds more like a stripper than a princess. That’s the first one.”

“Not bad, really. You don’t want to go too far though. A lot of your fans like the fact you manage to stay nice even though you’re being cheated on. We’ll film it and see where it goes. What else?”

“That thing Grace just did coming out of the bedroom in nothing but a towel. I think that would make a great scene. I’m here trying to get Oliver to listen to reason, and Grace steps out of the bedroom practically naked, like she didn’t know I was here. She could even drop the towel when she turns around, give us all a little show.”

“Well, Heather, that’s a good idea too, although I have to tell you, you’re not the first one to have it.”

“Really? Who else?”

“It was Grace actually. She called me with it last night. The thing she did this morning was a dry run to show us what it might look like. Pretty good, I think. How about you?”

Heather wasn’t so sure now. She thought it had been a better idea when it was hers. If it was Grace’s idea first, if Grace was pitching it and giving the producers a little demo, then Grace was making a play for more camera time. The little bitch!

“Yeah, well, it did kind of take me by surprise,” she said. “That’s what made me think it would work. On the other hand, this is supposed to be a big scene for me. If Grace flashes her backside, nobody’s going to remember I was even there.”

“Oh, Heather, Honey,” Maggie cooed, “you’ve got real presence on screen. I don’t think you need to worry about being remembered. Besides, if it’s a problem, we’ll fix it in post.”

Heather wasn’t so sure. When they fixed stuff in post, it usually wasn’t to make sure someone was memorable. It was for ratings. If they let Grace flash her ass, then Heather was going to have to flash hers as well — and it would have to be better than Grace’s. That would mean extra sets of lunges at the fitness center for the foreseeable future. It sure wasn’t easy, staying on top of a career in the limelight.

***

By the time they’d wrapped up the day’s shooting, Oliver was way past ready for everyone to leave. Letting his women have a taste of celebrity was fine. They seemed to enjoy it and showed their appreciation in gratifying ways, as Grace was attempting just now even though he had already made it clear to her he had work to do.

He was trying to talk on the phone, and Grace was sitting in his lap in her towel and nibbling on his ear, the one without the Bluetooth earpiece. There was a line between gratifying and annoying, and neither Heather nor Grace, nor any of his other women for that matter, seemed to know where that line was.

Oliver thought it ought to be about 10:00 pm, unless he had an overseas call after that. Now here was Grace, all full of herself because she got to steal a scene from Heather, wanting to extend the good feelings she was having by getting physical. They’d already been physical earlier in the day. Now it was time to do some business so he could continue to pay for the lavish lifestyle she seemed to enjoy so much.

He finished his call, prematurely to his thinking, but at least he got his point across without it being obvious to the investor on the other end that he had an over-stimulated blond squirming around on his lap.

“Goddammit, Grace, I’m trying to conduct business here.”

“Come on, Oliver,” she said, working to loosen his tie. “You’re always conducting business. I need some attention too, you know.”

“You got plenty of attention from the cameras just now. Don’t tell me you didn’t notice. That’s going to have to be enough for a while. I got things to do. Important things. And I already gave up a whole morning to making this TV show so you and Heather can be celebrities. So go be a celebrity and leave me alone.”

“Honestly, Oliver. . .”

She stuck out her lower lip. Had she had her lips plumped? It sure looked like it.

“I don’t know where I ever got the idea you could be fun,” she said.

She slipped off his lap and sashayed back into the bedroom, dragging her towel behind her. Oliver watched. He might have been annoyed, but her charms were not without effect. He would get back to her later, after ten — probably. Meanwhile he had another call to make.

“Gold Coast Counties Interdiction Task Force,” the crisp voice answered. “How may I direct your call?”

Oliver wondered what the voice looked like in person. Probably a uniformed hard case with thick ankles, he decided. Besides he already had enough women in his stable.

“Oliver Crews for Captain Rutledge,” he said, pitching his voice half an octave lower because, who knows, maybe she had really fine ankles after all. “I’m returning his call.”

The line clicked.

“Crews.” The voice was emphatic, full of purpose. “Rutledge here. Wondering if you’ve got your pieces in place to accept our first wire transfer. We want to do a trial run with a smaller amount. Make sure everything works as advertised.”

“We’re all ready, Captain. When and for how much?”

“First thing tomorrow morning for a hundred.”

“A hundred dollars?”

Rutledge chuckled. “Thousand, Crews. A hundred thousand.”

Oliver was thinking to himself, that’s a smaller amount? That’s what they send to make sure everything works? Holy shit!

He poured himself a tumbler of pricey single malt, and carried it over to the floor-to-ceiling window looking over an endless expanse of Atlantic Ocean. He took a sip of the whiskey, and pondered how great it was turning out to be Oliver Crews today. This little venture with the task force was looking like it was going to be very lucrative indeed. He didn’t like to count his chickens before they hatched, but he didn’t see a problem with making a few preliminary estimates.

The more he thought about it the better he felt about the probability of getting together with Grace at ten. What the hell … might even be before ten. He got himself another tumbler of scotch and a short time later he was sound asleep in his chair.