As soon as he awoke the following morning, Nick called Stephanie. Her overloaded mailbox rejected his message. After a quick pit stop, he washed his face and then ran upstairs and banged on her door. No answer. He ran downstairs to the parking garage and jogged through all six levels searching for Stephanie’s yellow Volkswagen. Not finding her car, his worry turned to a cold, heavy dread. He returned to his apartment, dressed, and then drove to Ruby’s office.
Stephanie’s desk had been stripped clean. Her silly leopard-print high heeled shoe tape dispenser and cup of purple, fuzzy-topped pens, gone. The freshly polished top held only a computer and a phone.
Nick knocked on Ruby’s door.
“Come in,” Ruby called out.
Nick stormed inside. “Where’s Stephanie?”
Talon stood in front of Ruby, naked. He lay sprawled on the black leather couch on the far side of his office. She puckered her lips and blew a kiss to Nick and then took her time sliding one long leg at a time into a red satin thong.
“I need to talk to you. When you’re done.”
“We’re done. Have a seat, Nick.” Ruby patted the couch cushion. “What’s on your mind?”
Talon adjusted her breasts in the cups of a lacy, red bra. She smiled at Nick as she reached behind her back and fastened it.
“I need to talk to you. Alone,” Nick said.
“Don’t be shy. Or, is this the wrong ratio? Your preference is two females, right?”
Nick grunted and sat on the arm of the sectional across from the two. “Where’s Stephanie?”
“She took a personal day,” Ruby said.
Talon winked at Ruby and giggled. Her tan skin glistened with sweat from the heat in the office. Strolling over to Nick, she ran her long red fingernails through his hair.
He brushed her hand away. “Why did she need a personal day?”
“How should I know?” Ruby shrugged. “That’s why it’s called a personal day. It’s personal.”
Nick swiped Talon’s hand from his thigh and stood. “Why is Steph’s desk empty?”
“Maybe she cleaned it, for once.” Ruby said. “More importantly, something has come up we need to discuss.” Ruby stood and embraced Talon. Even barefoot, she towered over him. “Run along now, my dear. I’ll see you at the press conference.” She paused and patted Nick’s cheek on her way out.
“Stunning, isn’t she?” Ruby walked to his desk. “I can arrange a date with her if you’d like.”
“No, I wouldn’t like. What did you want to talk about?”
Ruby buttoned his shirt and slipped on his tie and suit jacket. “Someone tried to blackmail you.”
“One of the workmen who removed your bedroom ceiling mirror. Seems the mirror had quite a sophisticated video system built into it. Activated by a motion detector and recorded onto a DVD.”
Nick sat down hard in the guest chair, a stunned expression on his face.
Ruby laughed and wagged his long-nailed finger at him. “Trying to remember what took place under the mirror? This might jar your memory.” He aimed a remote at his television. The seventy-two-inch screen burst into a video of Nick and the two models in his bed. The audio of the two women moaning streamed through the speakers mounted around the office.
Nick jumped up. “Turn that down. Turn it off!”
Ruby muted the sound, but left the video playing. “I understand your concern. Your performance is a bit lackluster. I told Ebony drugging you was a bad idea. You appear unconscious. The poor girls had to do all the work.”
“What else is on that DVD?” His stomach churned, knowing the answer.
Ruby nodded as if reading his thoughts. “There’s a lovely segment with Katie.” He fast forwarded. “I must say, you are much more vigorous here, Nick.” Ruby turned his head from side to side as he leered up at the screen. “A shame it’s so dimly lit. Was she opposed to having the lights brighter?”
“Turn that damn thing off!” Nick grabbed for the remote in Ruby’s hand only to find himself knocked back into the chair and unable to move.
“Your Neanderthal displays are getting tiresome. You can’t hurt me.” Ruby smiled up at the video. “Katie is a beautiful girl. If this video got out, she’d be humiliated, don’t you think? Or, perhaps, I could launch a new career for her. The Naughty Nurse, what do you think, Nick?”
Nick strained to move in the chair. “You sonofabitch, that’s my fiancée. Turn it off!”
Ruby paused the video. “The two models expose your lie to Katie. You did lie to her, didn’t you?” His mouth twisted into a wicked grin. “Of course you did. And the segment with Katie, well, it literally exposes Katie. Very nicely, though, I must say. But frankly, as your devoted agent, it’s the last segment that worries me.” Ruby fast forwarded to Nick kneeling over Stephanie, pinning her down on the bed.
“That’s not what it looks like,” Nick said.
“What it looks like is you overpowering a little girl in your bed. How old does she look in this video? Twelve, maybe fourteen?” Ruby left the paused scene on the screen. “This is the kind of thing that destroys careers. Ruins lives. Didn’t they recently find some poor pedophile crushed to death in a garbage truck?” Ruby tsked and shrugged his shoulders. “For some reason, people just detest pedophiles.”
“I am not a fucking pedophile! Go to the end of the video. Nothing happens.”
“Unfortunately, the DVD ran out of space. Right as you’re threatening to tie her to the bed if she tries to run away, I believe.”
“Steph was drunk, I was—”
“So, you plied an underage girl with alcohol, and then raped her when she wouldn’t cooperate?”
“No! I wouldn’t rape anybody. Steph will tell you. Ask her.”
“That’s my dilemma. I already have.” Ruby pressed a button on his phone console. “Bring her in.”
“Who did you call? What’s going on?” He struggled to stand but couldn’t.
“You’ll see. I’ll let you loose but don’t be stupid, Nick. Stay in your seat.”
Ruby’s door opened and an older woman in a business suit entered. Stephanie shuffled in behind her with her head down. Her long, wavy hair obscured her face.
“Come in. Sit.” Ruby pulled his chair to the side of his desk facing Nick. Stephanie sat down.
“Nick, this is Patricia from Human Resources,” Ruby said, motioning to the woman.
Patricia stood behind Stephanie with her hands on the back of the chair and glared at Nick.
“Stephanie, look at me,” Ruby ordered.
Nick gasped as she slowly lifted her head. Ruby pushed back her hair, exposing the left side of her face. Swelling forced her left eye closed. A deep purple bruise surrounded it. Blood seeped from a deep split in her bottom lip. Smaller cuts and red marks covered her cheek. Dark bruises in the shape of finger prints marred both of her arms.
“My God! What happened, Steph? Who did this to you?” Nick slid forward in the chair.
Patricia huffed. “Victor, is this really necessary? Making her face this deviant, after what he did to her?”
“What I did? I didn’t do anything. Steph, tell them.”
Ruby held up his hand motioning for Nick to be quiet. “Stephanie, who did this to you?”
Stephanie dropped her head down and whimpered. Ruby grasped her chin and forced her head up. “Who beat you, Stephanie?” Ruby asked.
Her fingers dug into the ends of the chair arms. “Nick,” she whispered.
“Louder,” Ruby commanded.
Tears flooded down her face. She gulped them back. “Nick.” She met Nick’s shocked stare for an instant and then ducked her head down.
“And what did he do after he beat you?” Ruby asked.
Stephanie stared at the floor shaking her head back and forth. She squirmed sideways in the chair and shielded her face with both hands when Ruby leaned close to her ear. “Answer me,” he hissed.
“H-he raped me.”
“Steph?” The air drained from Nick’s lungs. His body fell limp against the back of the chair.
“You lied about your age to get a job here. How old are you really, Stephanie?” Ruby asked.
“F-fourteen,” she answered in a hoarse whisper.
Ruby walked to the door and opened it. “You may go now.”
Stephanie pushed herself up from the chair with shaking arms. She kept her eyes trained on the floor as Patricia put her arm around her shoulders and led her out of the office.
After shutting the door, Ruby turned to Nick. “So, Nick, do you see my dilemma?”
Jumping to his feet, he jabbed his finger in front of Ruby’s face. “You did this, you bastard! I didn’t beat or rape her. You forced her to lie. How could you hurt Steph? She’s only a kid. You’ve already threatened Katie and my whole family. What the hell more do you want?”
“Easy, Nick, I’m on your side. I’m simply protecting my client. The blackmail threat has been eliminated. The worker took a nasty fall from a ladder. Broke his neck. And Stephanie will go away. The problem is handled.” Ruby held out both arms and flashed his toothy smile.
“Handled? You murdered a man and beat Stephanie! And you have a DVD with my fiancée on it.”
“The video will be kept safely in your file.” Ruby shrugged and then added, “As long as you cooperate. I don’t protect uncooperative clients.”
“What did you mean by Stephanie will go away?”
“Just that. Back to whatever cornfield or haystack she came from. She’s underage, she can’t work here. Especially looking as ugly as she does now. Bad for my business.”
Nick leaned across the desk, his voice shook with rage. “Somehow, I’m going to find a way to kill you. You . . . you fucking piece of shit!”
“Sticks and stones, Nick.” Ruby’s laughter followed Nick as he stalked out the door.
Nick punched the elevator button and paced the hallway while he waited. His anger churned like molten lava fueled by his helplessness to retaliate against Ruby.
The elevator doors opened, and Janis Ford stepped out. “Well, well, picking up a paycheck for feeling up your fans yesterday?”
Her sarcasm ignited Nick’s temper. “You’re the witch who writes all the lies about me. And you’re too much of a coward to answer my calls.” He took a step toward her. “Why were you at my girlfriend’s apartment?”
Janis jerked her head back and blinked. She stepped sideways and pulled a can of pepper spray from her purse. “Back off.” She held it at arm’s length in front of her.
Nick threw his hands in the air. “Yeah, it figures. You need to carry that with all the trash you print about people.”
“Oh, that’s rich, coming from the poster boy of morality,” Janis sneered. She turned and sauntered down the hall toward Ruby’s office.
Nick knocked on Stephanie’s apartment door. “Steph, it’s Nick,” he called, his face pressed close to the door. He thought he heard a sound. “Steph? Open the door, please.”
He turned to go downstairs as the dead bolt clicked. The door opened as far as the secondary chain lock allowed. Stephanie peered out with her right eye. Although red and swollen from crying, the battered left side of her face stayed hidden behind the door.
“I’m so sorry, Nick. Please forgive . . .” Her words disintegrated into ragged sobs.
“Can I come in?”
“Are you going to hit me?”
“No, of course not. I only want to talk to you.”
The door closed and the chain slid in the track. It fell and rattled against the inside of the door. When Stephanie didn’t open the door, Nick turned the knob and pushed it open.
She stood in the living room with her arms wrapped around herself, peering at him through the tangled mat of hair laying across her face. When he closed the door behind him, she backed away.
“Steph, I’m not angry at you. And I’m certainly not going to hurt you.” He walked over and put his hands on her shoulders. Her body trembled. She kept her head down and stared at the floor.
Nick gently lifted her chin with one finger. He winced at the sight of the left side of Stephanie’s swollen and bloodied face. The red marks, bruises and cuts, were emphasized by her milky complexion. Her left eye was still swollen shut, the purplish-black color had deepened and spread, encircling her eyebrow and underneath her eye. Her split lower lip looked more than twice its normal size.
“Don’t look at me.” She turned her head. “I’m so ugly.”
“You’re not ugly. It’s looks bad now, but your face will heal, and you’ll be as pretty as before.”
She hung her head and cried.
Nick walked into the kitchen and rummaged through her freezer. He found a tray of ice, a frozen dinner and a carton of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. “Do you have any bags of frozen veggies or fruit?”
Stephanie ventured to the edge of the kitchen. “No. Are you hungry?”
Nick smiled and shook his head. “Not to eat. To put on your eye. Looks like you don’t cook much.” Bottles of beer and wine lined the otherwise pristine, white refrigerator shelves.
He found a plastic bag and filled it with ice cubes. After tying it closed, he handed it to Stephanie. “Here, hold this on your eye. It’ll bring down the swelling.”
She gingerly put the bag against her face. “Ow.”
“I know, it hurts at first. Keep it on there. The cold will help numb the pain.”
“You’ve had a black eye before?”
“Yeah. A few.”
He took two glasses from a cabinet and an open bottle of wine from the refrigerator.
“C’mon sit down. Try to relax.” He walked into the living room and poured the wine. “Here.” He handed Stephanie a small glass.
The wine inside the glass trembled in her hand. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll get drunk and do something stupid? That’s what started this whole horrible mess.”
“This wasn’t your fault. Besides, it’s only half a glass. If you were older, I’d say you’re entitled to get drunk.” He took a long sip from his glass and looked around the apartment. “What’s with all the boxes?” He hadn’t noticed the stacks of folded, cardboard boxes lining the living room walls when he first entered.
“Ruby fired me. Told me to move out.”
Nick cursed Ruby under his breath. “When?”
“By tomorrow.” She put the ice bag on the coffee table and lightly dabbed at her left eye with a tissue, then wiped her right eye and blew her nose.
“Tomorrow? Shit.” Nick scanned the shelves of electronics, stacks of DVD’s and CD’s, books, stuffed animals and too many other novelty items to count. “Where are you going to go?”
Stephanie shook her head and curled up in the corner of the sofa. Sobs racked her slight frame.
“Steph?” Nick sat and put his arm around her. “Calm down. Sit up.” He placed the ice bag back on her eye. “You have to be out of here by tomorrow?”
She nodded her head and opened her mouth to talk, but only gasps came out. After a deep breath, she blurted, “I-I don’t have anywhere to go.”
“You can stay in my apartment until you find another job. I sleep on the couch anyway. You can have the bedroom.” Under his present circumstances, it probably wasn’t a wise offer, but Stephanie’s sobs wrenched at his gut.
Her uninjured eye widened. “Oh, no. Mr. Ruby ordered me out of his building. If he found out I moved in downstairs . . . he’d . . . he’d kill me.”
“Have you called your family? Can you go back home?” Nick picked up a framed photograph. A woman with wavy, red hair and warm eyes stood with her arm around an athletic-looking man. In front of them, two small children; a young girl with an unruly mop of red hair and a small boy with a crooked, gap-toothed grin. “Cute. Is this you when you were little, or your kid sister?”
Stephanie took the picture from Nick and flipped it over. She pried up the metal clasps on the back of the frame and slid out the thin sheet of printed paper with the frame company’s logo on the back.
“The print came with the frame. I bought it ’cause the woman had the same color hair as mine,” she murmured.
“What about your real family?”
“Don’t have one. I’ve been in foster homes since I can remember. Nine all together, I think.”
“You don’t know who your parents are?”
“When I was ten, I was in a car with one of my foster mothers. She pointed at a skinny red-haired woman standing on a corner. She said, there’s your mother, I went to high school with her. She’s a heroin addict and a whore and she doesn’t even know who your father is.”
“Jesus, Steph, that’s awful. I had no idea.”
Fresh tears dripped from her eyes. “At least I got to see my mom, once.”
Nick squeezed her hand. “Is it true you’re only fourteen?”
“No, Ruby made me say that. I’m sixteen. I’ll be seventeen tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow’s your birthday? Helluva birthday present, getting evicted.”
“He saw my birth date in my personnel file. He laughed and said it was appropriate I get thrown out on my birthday. Said it was just like my real birthday, when my mom . . . threw me away.” Her face crinkled as she broke into more sobs.
“How did Ruby know about your mom?”
She grimaced and covered her neck with her hands. “H-he made me tell him everything.”
Nick stroked the tear-soaked hair away from her face and saw deep red bruises in the shape of finger marks on her neck. “Oh, Steph.”
“How did you get out of foster care if you’re still a minor?”
“I ran away. The last family they placed me with, the father was weird. Came into my bedroom at night and sat on my bed. Stared at me. I stole money from his wife’s purse and bought a bus ticket. I was going to age out in two years anyway.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I didn’t want to get raped.”
He put his arm around her. “Steph, did Ruby do this or did he have someone else beat you up?”
She shook her head hard and whimpered from the pain. “He said I-I can’t tell anyone.”
“You can tell me. It’s okay.”
“Ruby did it,” she whispered. “I hate him so much. Please, Nick, you can’t ever let him know him I told you. He’d kill me.”
“Beating up a girl. Fucking coward.” Nick’s voice softened. “Did he rape you?”
“No. He hit me. Choked me. He said if I didn’t say you beat me and raped me, then. . ..”
She shuddered against him. “He showed me this movie, but it wasn’t a real movie. It just started playing on the wall. Four horrible-looking men in an old van . . .”
“You don’t have to say anymore.”
She gripped Nick’s arm. “I don’t know how he did it. But it was me in the movie. Getting beat up . . . and raped. Over and over. He forced me to watch it. Then they stabbed me and threw my body into a river. Ruby said it would all happen tonight, exactly like the movie . . . unless I lied about you. I’m so sorry, Nick. I didn’t want to say those terrible things about you, but I was so scared.”
“I know, it’s okay. I’ve seen Ruby’s movies.”
Stephanie stared up at him and whispered, “Ruby’s the devil, for real.”
“Yeah, he’s the devil for real, all right. He tortures all of his so-called clients. Cullen. Me. God only knows how many others. And Chris. I wanted to talk to you about Chris, and his suicide note.”
Fresh tears spilled down her cheeks. “Poor Chris, please, I-I can’t deal with that right now.”
Nick handed her a tissue. “Steph, do you know where Ruby keeps his client’s contracts?”
Stephanie bolted upright. “Nick, don’t even think about—”
“You have to tell me where he keeps them.”
She sighed and shook her head. “The big, bottom drawer in his desk. But he never leaves his office unlocked. He’d kill anyone if they tried—”
“Let me worry about that.” Nick stood and looked around the room. “Right now, we need to figure out where you can go. I guess a hotel? I doubt we can get a moving company on such short notice. I’ll help you pack up your stuff. Rent a U-Haul. You can put everything in a storage unit until you find a new place.”
Stephanie stood and paced around the room. “How much is a hotel? And a storage unit?”
“We can check online. Find a hotel with weekly or monthly rates. I don’t know what storage units cost, I’ve never used one.”
She leaned her head against the wall and stared out the front window. Tears dripped from her chin.
“I’m sorry, losing your job and having to move, it all sucks.”
“It’s not that,” she said. “I-I don’t have any money.”
“I thought you said you made good money?”
“I did. Fantastic money. But . . . I spent it all.” She waved her arms around the room. “Clothes, shoes, make-up and all of this stuff. I kept buying things. I’m such an idiot.”
“You’ve got nothing saved up?” He thought of how Katie deposited most of her paycheck in the bank every two weeks like clockwork.
“I have, maybe, three hundred and seventy something dollars. I didn’t get a pay check yesterday, Ruby refused to pay me.”
Stephanie grunted and laid her head back on the wall. “What am I supposed to do, sue the devil?”
“I have money,” Nick said. “Money’s about all I do have, since I signed with Ruby.”
“I can’t let you pay for a hotel room and storage for all this stuff.”
“Why not? What else can you do?”
“I don’t know how long it will take for me to find a job. A good job, that pays enough to afford an apartment in the city. I’m seventeen. Only stupid fast food places would hire me. Ruby burned my fake ID. It cost me a lot of money to get it made.”
Nick poured himself more wine and thought while he sipped it. “Let me talk to my grandmother. I bet she wouldn’t mind if you stayed at my house. It’s a big, two-story apartment. There’s a guest room plus my old room. Maybe you could even work at the restaurant, until you get back on your feet.”
Stephanie walked over to him. “Why are you helping me after the horrible stuff I said about you?”
“Ruby forced you to say it. Probably because he heard me ask you about the contracts. I’m so sorry he hurt you to get back at me.” Nick smiled and wiped a tear from her cheek with his thumb. “You’re my friend, Steph. I’m not gonna leave you stranded.”
He picked up a packing tape dispenser lying near the boxes. “I’ll put these boxes together so we can start packing. I’ll talk to my grandmother and rent a truck tomorrow morning.”