The Death of a Billionaire

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Chapter 5

“Coming, coming,” Annabelle muttered under her breath, rushing to answer the door. Her hair bounced around her shoulders, tickling the skin as it moved, like silk when it moved together, but single hairs felt like insect legs. She preferred to think of the multitude of ways her hair could feel on her skin than about whatever the people at the door wanted. Everything became about her father’s death lately, but her mother said after dinner that she felt unwell, and not to disturb her unless the house caught fire. If someone else wanted to talk about the death.... “Oh, Blake, it’s just you.”

Her friend stood in the entryway nervously, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, still wearing his uniform. The bags under his eyes looked worse every day, and Annabelle thought he might be growing thinner, the way his cheekbones were starting to define his face.

“Sorry,” he said sheepishly. “Did I come at a bad time?”

“No, not at all,” Annabelle said, brightening a little, although she felt exhausted from her day at the beach with Adyson. All her sister ever wanted was to eat and run, eat and run, swim and eat and run. “We were just relaxing by the pool with Aunt Rose. Would you like to join us?”

“Oh, sure,” he said, turning slightly red. “I wanted a quick word with your aunt, anyway. If that’s all right.”

“Of course it is,” she said, not really caring either way. Blake trailed along after her out back to the patio, pool, and gardens. He’d been out back enough times, familiar as he was with the house, but it still felt like he heeled like a well-trained dog. “Auntie Rose, Blake’s here to see you.”

Rose set down her book in her lap, sat up slightly, peered at Blake with interest. Annabelle pulled off her robe and tossed herself into the pool, where Adyson still swam her laps. Annabelle rolled onto her back, feeling the strange resistance of the water through her fingers as she floated, staring up at the vibrant sky with just a wispy hint of cloud. Wet hair felt even stranger on skin, floating around under the water like a plant swaying in the current.

“No, no, nothing about the case exactly. No, I hoped to...to chat with you, more just...as a fan.”

Annabelle rolled her eyes. Blake had been a fan of one thing or another obsessively for as long as she could remember. Pokémon, Digimon, Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft. He’d even started buying Mopar in an attempt to bridge the gap between his interests and hers because she refused to play his nerd games, but when she tried to explain to him the difference between a turbocharger and a supercharger, he quit. He possessed a love of reading, though, and when not reading Harry Potter or Eragon, he read her Aunt Rose’s books.

She let her head sink under the water before rolling over and gliding through a few laps of breast stroke to avoid listening to Blake’s passionate, obsessive speech. Hopefully he didn’t freak out Aunt Rose. When Annabelle lifted her head, however, treading water in the middle of the pool, she heard him saying, “She hasn’t showed you? But she’s brilliant!”

And she had a sinking feeling she knew exactly what he was discussing. Before she could duck back under the water where she could not listen, Aunt Rose must have noticed she’d come back up and she said, “Annabelle, you write?”

Buying time by wiping away a bit of hair stuck to her face, she nodded.

“It’s nothing, really, just a hobby,” she said. “Julia and I wrote a comic strip in junior high, then I started writing stories about our summer mischief, the four of us.”

Adyson surfaced at some point, as well, because she gasped and said, “Oh my god, you kept those? Those were so much fun!” She giggled, a tendril of her blonde hair sticking out from her cap, and Annabelle rolled her eyes again. “She started them when we were, what, fourteen? And she wrote about four a year. Mother always tried to convince her to write something more literary and serious and build a career out of it. But you know Mother, always trying to turn us into career women, as if she isn’t the biggest hypocrite of all time.”

“You could, you know,” Blake said, a little proudly. “They were brilliant. And she composed these free verse poems for about a year, and our English teacher in high school actually tried to talk her into entering a competition, but then she stopped writing them, refused to enter, wouldn’t show him any more work.”

“I’d never seen Mr. Stewart more upset,” Adyson sighed. “Did he retire?”

“As soon as we left,” Blake said with a sad nod. “I always thought you broke his heart, Annabelle, not letting him push you into a glittering career.”

Annabelle splashed the water around her slightly and said, “Well, has anyone thought maybe I don’t want a glittering career? Nobody even asked me!”

She swam a quick freestyle to the edge of the pool, pulled herself out of the water with a great splash, and quickly toweled off, pulling on her robe while Blake and Adyson protested, but she wasn’t listening. She stormed into the house again, up the back staircase, and up to her bedroom on the second floor.

Unlike the guest room Aunt Rose slept in, Annabelle’s room had been decorated to her specifications, although her parent gave her guidance so it would match the rest of the architecture and not mess with the house value. Her father chose the seventeenth-century style ceilings, of course, and the finish of the hardwood floors. But Annabelle chose the velvet-topped mahogany coffee table, the baby blue diamond field area rug, the wrought-iron Swarovski crystal chandelier, the antique cream settee and black walnut spindle-back chairs with blue silk upholstery, and the oil paintings for her sitting room. She’d personally selected her mahogany sink chest, Egyptian cotton towels, cast iron claw-foot tub, and the landscape tile mural in her attached bath. And she and her mother fought tooth and nail over the bedroom area itself, but her father ensured she ended up with what she wanted, all in antique cherry wood, with baby blue silk everywhere, right down to the silk wallpaper and the 13-piece silk fleur-de-lis bed set, all lit with two European crystal chandeliers. The only thing she’d been forced to concede was the Italian elm nightstand her mother begged her to use for her room, a gift from some distant relative Annabelle never met, but her father talked her into it, in the end.

The décor was not the typical fare of a fourteen-year-old girl redecorating her room, but the older she became, the more Annabelle secretly thanked her mother and father for not letting her plaster her walls with posters of boy bands or paint her ceiling bubblegum pink. She had the Lamborghinis in her closet – enough for her.

She had just shed her robe and moved to run a bath when she heard a knock at the outer door.

“Annabelle?” Aunt Rose said through the door. “May I come in?”

“One second.”

Annabelle quickly peeled off her bathing suit and dashed into her bedroom, selecting a sundress out of her closet and pulling it on. She could bathe and change when Aunt Rose left. She tossed the soaking suit and robe into the bathroom and opened the door to her aunt.

“Come in,” she said, motioning into the sitting room.

As always when entering a new room of the house, Aunt Rose’s sharp blue eyes darted around at every detail as she soaked it up, with child-like amazement. She traced her fingers along the floral pattern of the hand-carved maple mantelpiece over the fake fireplace before sitting in one of the chairs. Annabelle draped herself across the settee.

“Blake worried he upset you down at the pool,” Aunt Rose said softly. “I know writing can be a very sensitive topic. It took me years to show my work to anyone. I didn’t think anyone would be interested. I wasted a lot of time, when I could have lived off what I loved much sooner.”

Annabelle smiled, letting her fingers trace the silk pillow squished against her side.

“Aunt Rose, I don’t need anything to live off of. Surely you know about my trust. I never need to work.”

Her aunt laughed and shook her head.

“Everyone needs a hobby, though, Annabelle, even if you don’t want a career in it. Adyson has her tennis. What about you?”

Annabelle licked her lips, thinking of the Lamborghini posters in her closet. As much as she loved her cars, she didn’t think she would work on them again. It was something she’d done with her father, and the driving something she’d done with Julia. She still wanted to drive fast, pretty cars, but she didn’t want to pick up tools and fix them again.

“Everything I wrote had Julia in it,” Annabelle said softly, still tracing her fingers against the silk. “I’ve showed it to a couple of people, but publishing? And don’t misunderstand, Auntie Rose, I know I could publish. Even if only with some vanity publisher. Daddy would have arranged it if I’d wanted. But it wouldn’t have felt right, especially not after Julia died. I’ve never written anything that wasn’t...personal.”

Rose watched her for a minute, and Annabelle smoothed the skirt of the cotton dress over her slightly damp legs.

Julia wanted her to publish, or to at least read her poems somewhere. She’d said it over and over before she went abroad. Annabelle resisted back then because she felt self-conscious about the pressure. She resisted once Julia died because it hadn’t been her dream in the first place, but Blake picked up the crusade, even tried to acquire one of her poems to send out without her permission, just to prove interest.

“May I see some of your work?” Aunt Rose asked gently.

She didn’t see why not, so Annabelle fetched a file folder at the bottom of her sock drawer that housed some of the more recent stories she’d done, from just before Julia left. She handed them to her aunt and said she’d be in the bath, and would be out in a minute or two.

“Need to wash the chlorine off my skin.”

Of course, the added bonus of not being in the room with someone reading her work she appreciated as well. Annabelle hummed to herself as she filled the cast iron bathtub, tossing in a little bit of peppermint oil as it filled to the halfway point. She sank into the tub and tilted her head back, letting her hair sink and sway into the warm water, breathing in the scent of peppermint. Adyson bought her a whole set of essential oils for baths two years back, but the only one Annabelle used with any frequency was the peppermint. She loved the way it felt cooling and clearing as it hit her nostrils, the way it clung to her skin long after she’d left the bath.

She conditioned her hair without washing it, and when she finally pulled herself out of the tub and dried off, she slathered a bit of coconut oil on her skin, and in her hair as well, for added moisture to combat the chlorine. She tried not to spend too long in the pool, as sensitive as she was to the chemical cleaner.

When she’d dressed again and combed her hair out, Annabelle returned to her sitting room, where Aunt Rose still pored over her stories, reading glasses perched on her nose. Annabelle sat on the rug, not wanting to drip on any of her silk upholstery. She wrapped her hair carefully in one of her towels.

“Childish, right?” she asked as Aunt Rose set the file down again.

“Perhaps in content,” Aunt Rose said, taking off her glasses and smiling. “But the writing is incredibly sophisticated, Annabelle. Blake’s right. You’re very talented.”

Annabelle looked down at her toes. Her nail polish looked patchy. She didn’t like the navy blue, either. She’d use chrome or black or something next time. Maybe that evening.

“Nobody would read what I wrote about,” she said, absently picking at her chipped nail polish with her thumb. “And I don’t have anything to write about that anyone would care to read. That’s half the battle, right? You need a story. And I don’t have any stories at all. Not anymore.”

Aunt Rose surprised Annabelle by sitting on the rug beside her. She placed a tender, spotted, veiny, but incredibly soft hand on Annabelle’s arm and said, “We all have stories. The key is looking at our lives and finding them. Stories exist everywhere. They’re life. We just need to shape them into scenes and plots and craft them into something the world will find interesting. You’re an heiress, Annabelle. You drive fast cars at the speed limit. Your sister is an internationally ranked amateur tennis player. I’ll even bet your mother’s charity event gossip could lead to a story if you look at it from the right angle.” She leaned her back against a leg of the settee. “I’m not saying you need to write, but if you don’t, it should be because it doesn’t bring you pleasure, because all I’m hearing from you sounds like excuses. I’m not your mother. I don’t care if you make a living, because you’re absolutely right, you can support yourself. But in those stories I saw care and attention and passion that tell me writing them gave you quite a lot of pleasure. And I would hate to see you give up something like that, because it’s hard enough to find joy in this world.”

Annabelle nodded, still looking down at her toenails. Maybe she’d go with something pastel. Lavender, or an ice blue. Her toenails needn’t be in mourning, unlike the rest of her.

“Oh, and could you drive me into town tomorrow morning, if that’s not an inconvenience?”

“Of course it’s not,” Annabelle said, looking up and smiling. “I made a lunch date with Sonia, but I can take you anywhere you want to go otherwise.”

“Well, I wanted to go to the man in charge of your locks and security system,” Aunt Rose said. “And I’m meeting Blake for lunch. He said he wanted to talk to me more about my books, and tell me a bit more about the police investigation.”

Annabelle agreed to chauffeur her aunt, as the lunch times matched up well enough and the two restaurants spanned only a single block. Her aunt could easily walk from her errands to the lunch date. Aunt Rose kissed Annabelle goodnight on the cheek and pulled herself to her feet, leaving the girl sitting alone on the floor. Annabelle stared at the carpet for a long moment before standing, picking up the file, and running her fingertips across the pictures she and Julia Scotch-taped to the front of it, all strips of photo-booth pictures with the two of them, and one strip in the middle with Blake and Adyson as well, all from high school.

Julia’s heart-shaped face resembled close enough the shape of Annabelle’s that the girls would ask for haircuts done in the same way. It never looked right on Julia, whose hair was much thinner, but the stylist worked everything short of miracles to keep the blonde locks draping Julia’s face from falling flat. Hair grew for a while after death. How long would Julia’s be in the grave?

She wiped away a single tear – or maybe just a drip from a stray tendril of hair – and returned to her room, stashing the folder in her sock drawer once more and readying for bed.

The following morning, Annabelle slipped heels onto her newly ice-blue-painted toes and hurried down the stairs while slipping on her driving gloves. A servant handed over the keys to her Aston Martin Rapide like she’d asked, and she opened the front door to look at the sleek, gray car. She felt in the mood for the sound of a V12 that morning.

“That’s a lovely car,” Aunt Rose said, clutching her satchel as she came up quietly behind Annabelle. Her eyes looked a little bit tired, but she was otherwise remarkably chirpy. “Another Aston Martin?”

“Call me a collector,” Annabelle said after a quick laugh. She helped her aunt into the car and climbed into the driver’s side, putting on her seatbelt. “I own six Astons, only five Lambos. Daddy meant to buy me a sixth, but.... Well, he never ended the deal.”

They drove down to the bottom of the driveway and Annabelle could feel her hand twitching slightly on the flappy paddle Touchtronic. Sometimes she missed the rawness of a proper gearshift, but she became very skilled with the flappy paddles in the last year or so. Crisp changes remained the only joy she afforded herself anymore, when driving.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” Aunt Rose said, “how much did this one cost?”

“About two hundred.”

“Thousand?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

Aunt Rose’s eyes grew wide as saucers as they pulled onto the main street, parking in front of the optometrist.

“The next block down is the man you’re looking for,” Annabelle said, locking the car after her aunt closed the passenger side. “He’s usually open by now, so—”

“Annabelle Benton?”

The innocent question didn’t fool Annabelle. She knew the odious voice anywhere, and she slowly turned and scowled at its owner, a rustic, suave-looking man leaning against a tree as if he thought such a pose appeared cool and impressive. She would have thought he was a teenaged boy by the behavior, but the lines on his face belied him as what she knew to be a man in his fifties.

“Aunt Rose,” she said stiffly, “this is Luke Hatfield. Luke, this is my mother’s cousin, Rose McFarland.”

“I’ve heard all about you,” he said, kissing Aunt Rose’s hand. She didn’t look impressed, but he didn’t appear to notice. “Annabelle, tell Evelyn to return my calls, would you? I’ve important things to discuss with her.”

“Hardly see her,” Annabelle said loftily, not entirely lying. “She’s been picking up extra hours at the office. If you want to talk to her, call Chloe.”

“Chloe never puts me through,” he said, annoyed, running a finger along the curve of the Aston Martin. “Pretty thing.”

“It’s prettier without fingerprints all over it,” she snapped.

“You employ people to wash it.”

“And you can keep your hands to yourself.”

He just chuckled at her like she was a child too naïve to know what she was talking about. Of course, she wouldn’t be driving a car worth a house if she didn’t know what she was talking about.

“I heard you’re selling off some of the stock.”

Annabelle stiffened.

“Just the one,” she said, thinking about the Ferrari already taken off her hands.

“Pity,” he sighed. “If you feel like dumping the Koenigsegg or the Alpha, let me know.”

“What for?” she snorted. “I think you’re a bit old for track days. Wouldn’t you throw your back out?”

She knew she’d struck a bit of a low blow, but she enjoyed his face tightening a little, and his smile changed to more of a grimace before he turned to Aunt Rose and said, “Lovely seeing you ladies. Give Evelyn my message, Annabelle.”

He walked off to his car, a Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet she noted with grim satisfaction. A mid-life crisis on wheels, no class at all compared with her vehicles. When he drove off, Annabelle began leading her aunt across the street.

“Not a very pleasant man, is he?” Aunt Rose remarked, looking over her shoulder at the fast-shrinking Porsche.

“Oh, Auntie Rose, I’m not even sure he qualifies as a man most days,” Annabelle said with a lofty sigh. “I usually go with certified scumbag.”

She focused on the sound of her heels clicking on the pavement at a steady, brisk pace and pushed Luke out of her mind.

Sell her Koenigsegg CCX, indeed.

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