Chapter 11: Human Nature
The Serpents & Sirens party was that following Saturday, so we had exactly one week to get a full-fledged, foolproof operation together. First things first, I knew that if we were going to get ourselves completely free and clear, I had to give up my entire client base, and if that meant saving the lives of all the people I brought into this situation, I was more than willing to do it. So, to cover our basis, I had all of my staff man the phones and call every single one of our customers.
Secondly, in lieu of offering them a complimentary gift basket for their missed appointments, I told my boys and girls to offer them company gift cards. Of course, because it wasn’t something that I usually did, they were leery … which called for the third step of my plan.
“Tell them that you were recently invited to an exclusive party and you would love for them to be your special guest,” I instructed before retreating back to my office. I could hear Chloe’s laughter following behind me.
“Haze, you are ruthless right now!”
“I know it. And Lo, while they are wrapping up their phone calls, we need to figure out how we’re going to hide these wires and whatnot … because we can’t use the basket tactic.”
“You’re right. And we can’t put it on their bodies because nobody wants to see sweaty privates.”
“Uh-huh. Geez. Okay. Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. We can … we can give them gifts.”
“Yeah, like, since we’re having the staff invite the clients as their special guests, they can give them gifts to make them feel … I don’t know, even more special,” I brainstormed as she laughed. “And then, and then, we can put the bugs and hidden cameras in the gifts!”
“What kind of gifts can we give them that will hide my equipment?”
“Wrist watches. Uh, cell phones.”
“Cell phones? Girl, are you crazy? Can’t you just see me asking my supervisor if he can okay the funding of God knows how many cell phones?”
“At least you know that they’ll have them on their person at all times! That way you can hear and see everything that goes on with them. Isn’t that what you want?”
“What about a pen, or some glasses, or a key chain, or something a little bit cheaper?”
“Like the federal government is pressed for money.”
“We have one week, Lo. One week to get this all together, and if you guys want the dirt on the human trafficking and whatever else it is that you’re looking for, you’re going to need to do your part. Hell, we’re doing ours,” I shrugged as she huffed in anger.
“Fine. I’ll make the call. But we need to be in agreement on two things: I have to be able to monitor from the outside, and I will need to have a team of agents with me.”
“Okay, as long as Talia and Andreas get to stay out there with you and your agents. They’ve never been in the field and I’m not having them start now.”
“I thought you said you needed everybody for this.”
“Well, there are some exceptions.”
“Exceptions, huh? Are you one of them?”
“No. I think it’s important for me to be on the inside to keep an eye out.”
“Mmm-hmm. Tell me something: why do I feel like there’s something more that you’re not telling me, baby cousin?”
“I don’t know what you …”
“And how did you get the invite into the Serpents & Sirens in the first place?”
“Jade, remember? She mentioned it first.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, but she mentioned that Martin Hillard invited her. Not the whole squad for everyone’s enjoyment, just her for his own. Now, last I checked, the Serpents & Sirens party was an invitation-only kind of thing. So, I’ll ask you again: how did you manage to get invitations to cover all nineteen of your employees and yourself?”
My sigh told a tale I wouldn’t allow my words to reveal. She took notice. “I can’t tell you that, Lo.”
“The last time you couldn’t tell me something, you got involved with a secret society that wants to control our moves and kill us if we don’t move the way that they want.”
“I can’t …”
“Is it Andreas or Talia? Is that the real reason you want them to sit this one out?”
“It’s like I told you, neither of them have been in the field, and starting them now would be suicide to the entire plan. They’re not equip to handle what could happen in there.”
“Like what, Talia laying still while somebody pumps on top of her, or Andreas penetrating some rich hussy like Lorenzo did?”
My eyes evilly narrowed on hers. “Are you trying to upset me?”
“I’m trying to get you to tell me the truth.”
“And I told you, those are my conditions. Plain and simple. You even said not being in the field is one of your conditions. I don’t see you advocating for yourself in this whole everybody has to be involved campaign you’re on right now.”
“Because I’m a federal agent!”
“Even more reason why you should be in there, or was laying still while somebody like Judd Payton pumped on top of you – as you so eloquently put it – too much to handle?”
A knock at the door didn’t interrupt our intense stare down, but for whatever reason, I still told the person on the other side to come in.
“We’re done with our calls. We pushed everybody off until the Serpents & Sirens party next Saturday. They all seemed very happy with that arrangement. Is there anything else you need us to do or should we head home?”
“No, I’ll be out in a minute. Please shut the door,” I instructed before hearing it close ever so lightly. “Lo, you need to have a little more respect for my staff and our line of work, especially since it’s our line of work that is helping you and your co-workers do your damn jobs. And if you want to get promoted in that little job of yours, I suggest you go to whoever your superior is, and put in that request for the disguised gifts we discussed.”
“So you can prep them on the ins and outs of this party while I’m gone? You think I won’t find out who your connect is?”
“You won’t be finding out today,” I held firm. “Safe travels, Lo. We’ll see you when you get back.”
“It’s going to come out, Haze. And when it does, that person, and anyone else involved, will be added to my hit list. I promise you that,” she growled prior to storming out of the shop. I gradually trailed behind her in enough time to watch her slam my front door while everyone stared in awe.
“What are y’all going through now?” Jasper raised curiously. “I swear, you two argue like sisters rather than cousins.”
“Truer words have never been spoken. All right! Now that we’ve handled the clients, we have to take care of ourselves. Andreas, do you want to take the floor?”
“Sure thing, Mrs. Donato,” he smiled before standing as I sat with the team, eyes wide with anticipation. “Is everyone ready to get creative?”
“Creative? What for?”
“In order to get into a Serpents & Sirens party, you need two things: the password, and a proper costume.”
“Costume? You can’t be serious.”
“Is this a Halloween party?”
“If Halloween parties were large orgies, yes.”
“Uh, excuse me, Andreas? How do you know so much about Serpents & Sirens parties?” Talia asked as he looked to me with a calm gleam in his eye.
“I had the pleasure of attending one once, but I got kicked out when they realized I was a minor.”
“What was it like?” Darius naively asked.
“It’s heaven on earth, and if you can handle it, heaven can get a little wild. Especially when grown men are dressed like villains and women are dressed like sex kittens.”
“That is … extremely disturbing,” Yasamina groaned.
“It’s not the prettiest picture, I know, but it is the place to be next weekend … and we most definitely need to be there.”
“So what, am I supposed to walk up in there looking like V for Vendetta or Deadpool?” Zane laughed as others joined in.
“You can, or you can dress like an actual serpent.”
“And what about us?” Autumn cooed. “What do you wear to look like a sex kitten?”
I silently snickered as I watched Ana’s eyes roll up to the ceiling. “Girl, if you weren’t a natural red head, I’d swear you were a blond.”
“Sorry, Amy. Look, we’re professional escorts. Just dress like we normally do when we have an appointment!”
“Or,” Andreas hastily stepped in, “you can wear a mermaid costume, like a siren of the sea. Or … or a Greek muse. Or … Lolita. Or a vampire.”
“That kind of goes both ways, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, it does. The point is that you can have fun with it, but you have to make sure you play your part and play it well, or they will notice that you don’t belong and kick you out. Mrs. Donato, is there anything else?”
“Well, if it’ll make things any easier, I can assign everyone a costume based on your personality or appearance and bring them in for all of you to try on. Would that be better?”
“It would certainly take the pressure off,” Novia admitted while the others agreed.
“All right then. When we have all the costumes and spy gear ready, we’ll call y’all back in for an emergency meeting to prep for the party before Saturday.”
“Uh, what are we supposed to do until then?”
“Rest up, and treat it like a vacation. If this goes as smooth as we think it will, you’re going to need all of your strength.”
As much as I wanted to spend another night in Andreas’s arms, I told him to go home. It was bad enough that he had been away from his own bed two times because of me, and I didn’t want his mother to get suspicious. Especially now knowing that the woman was not only the leader of an underground society that controlled the most dominant men in the planet, but a respected figure in the industry that I was working in.
My chest rose and fell with a distressed annoyance. “What a life.”
I heard the door of the shop open and close with an unexpected force. When I got up from my desk to see who was coming in after closing time, I was both relieved and nervous to view Chloe. Her face was riddled with upset, and I had a feeling I knew why.
“Is there something you want to tell me about your experience with Judd Payton? Did you have a similar encounter as Chenoa did?”
But my question fell against her disturbing silence. She stared at me like I had five heads as I waited for her answer … until I lost my patience.
“Lo, I need to know what my people are getting ready to get into!”
“All right, Haze! Damn! Do you ever let up?”
“Not when it comes to the people I care about. Now what happened to you?”
“Nothing that I couldn’t handle, but nothing that I would care to ever deal with again either.”
“Is that why you took yourself out of the field?”
“I wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place, Haze.”
“Yeah, but you volunteered. You said Judd was a prime suspect. You said you needed this bust.”
“I know what I said, Haze. Damn.”
“Then explain to me why all the sudden all that mattered a couple of days ago is no longer relevant?”
“I didn’t say that!”
“Then what are you saying?”
“There is no way I’m letting the piece of shit that killed my brother touch me again!” she cried as I froze with shock. Chloe was brash, straight-forward, and had a tendency to be rude as all get out, but one thing she was not … was emotional. “I’m in a unique position right now that I’m normally careful to never put myself in.”
“What’s going on?”
“I’ve written a check my ass can’t cash, and I can’t afford to take any loans out on this one.”
I didn’t understand why everyone was so keen on speaking to me in riddles when I asked them very simple questions that required nothing more than a simple answer. “What the hell does that mean? Did something happen to you when you were with Judd or not?”
Her nod was eerie, and the melancholy expression on her face made my heart sink to the soles of my feet. When she showed me a reddened spot on her lower back that was bubbled with inflammation, my eyes stretched with horror. So many emotions were circling within my core as one unfortunate fact rang like a gong in my mind.
That flaming sore on her skin could only mean one thing.
“The good thing is … I was right. Judd Payton is involved in the human trafficking ring like I thought, and you needed to send him a girl that could handle herself. The bad thing is … I handled myself so well that he got embarrassed, and I think …” she paused to sigh. My breath hitched as her voice cracked. “I think Frank got to feel the rage of his wrath.”
“No. No, Lo, you can’t …”
“Do the math, Haze! Frank’s session with Daisy was at noon, and my session with Judd was at 1:15. We ended early around 1:40 when I promptly whooped his ass when he set fire to his ring and branded my back while he was hitting it from the back, and 911 got the call about Frank an hour later from a neighboring room.”
“But that doesn’t mean …”
“Frank and I were in the same hotel, Haze, and I overheard Judd take a phone call when he left! Somebody tipped him off about his wife being with Frank, at the same hotel he was in, and he rushed out! I didn’t follow him because I didn’t know. God, I didn’t know! But I wish I would have followed him. Maybe I could have saved my brother. But that’s okay. I’m going to get whoever did this. Whoever tipped Judd off is just as responsible for Frank’s death as he is.”
“Wait, how do you know what time all the calls came in?”
“Because the agents who were listening in on the plants in the baskets told me. They’re the ones who called me and said that Frank was in the hospital.”
“You mean you guys already had the camera placed in the room that fast?” I asked as she nodded with a confident smirk.
“Our agents are quick and efficient.”
“What the hell? How could they just sit there and watch that?”
“They didn’t, Haze. We can only keep an eye out for criminal activity; we can’t sit there and watch people have sex! What do you think we are, perverts? By the time they tuned back in to see what was going on, the local police and ambulance had been called.”
“But y’all are the federal government! Aren’t you higher up than the local police?”
“Haze, when other departments get involved, there are certain procedures we have to follow. We can’t just take over.”
“They should have handcuffed Judd then and there! That bastard should be buried under the jail right now!”
“And he will be, but I have a bigger problem on my hands.”
“What’s bigger than Frankie right now?”
“The fact that somebody sold him down the river, somebody that is either keeping a close eye on Judd Payton’s wife for whatever reason, or somebody who knows your business.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“I thought about what you said last night, about the Diamond Secret Society. If you’re right, if there are members of this secret society in the government agencies that Frank and I work for who are covering up his murder to appease whatever intentions they have for Judd Payton, that means there’s either corruption in my office or Frank’s, and I need to figure out who those people are. I’m going to find out who those people are, and bust their asses. That’s why we still need to go to the party.”
“What, you think the Diamond Secret Society sisters will be there?”
“I think that if the who’s who of Hollywood’s underworld are going to this party, and they’re as discreet and connected as you say they are, then yeah. They’ll be there. Even better, if their husbands are clients of yours, and they walk in there to see the wives they thought were sitting at home or occupied with work are sexing other men, it’ll be a Bombs Over Baghdad situation that our agents can intercept anyway. That’s how I presented it to my supervisor, so he’s going to have some of my co-workers dressed up like local police.”
“He’s calling all cars on this one, which is great news for you by the way.”
My face fell with skepticism. In the midst of all this chaos, and the high possibility of somebody else getting killed if they were caught being informants at the party, I was failing to see the positivity in any of it. “How?”
“With a bust like this – exposing a human trafficking ring, taking down corrupt agents, and avenging Frank’s death – you’ll be free of this life for sure. As a matter of a fact, any wish you make to the FBI or CIA will not only be our command, but our absolute pleasure. I can promise you that.”
I felt my face light up with hope. The picture she painted made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. It made me wonder …
What would it be like to finally exist outside of the double life I had been leading?
To walk away and leave all this behind.
To live my dream.
I sighed and smiled with contentment.