The CastleBy: Skye Warren
I deal with dangerous men every day. Criminals. Lowlifes lurking in the darkest corners of the city, without ever flinching. Bruised knuckles and bare tits. That’s what I know.
It’s this gilt and glamour that makes me itch.
Men in tuxes. Women in glossy gowns. An enemy who greets me with a handshake.
Hair on the back of my neck rises.
Geoffrey James is a businessman with a lot of influence in Tanglewood. He has a reputation for being honest, despite his family legacy. Generous, despite his wealth.
The skin around his eyes wrinkles as he smiles. “Gabriel. Or do you go by Gabe?”
“Gabriel will be fine,” I say smoothly.
“Of course.” A jovial laugh. Does he practice that? “I wouldn’t want to call you Miller. That’s more your father’s thing. The formality.”
Formality. That’s one word to describe my father’s penchant for violence.
In contrast to this glittering estate, we lived in a goddamn hovel. Such very different social spheres. So very similar, once you get beneath the surface. The James family fortune was built on the backs of whores and drug addicts.
That part is common knowledge if you’re connected to the Tanglewood underworld. What isn’t common knowledge is that his construction company is a front for the Russian mafia.
“My father is no longer”—I pause, savoring the words—“in business.”
For a brief moment James appears nervous, his wide forehead slick with sweat. He pulls a handkerchief from his jacket, wiping hastily. I do him the favor of averting my eyes. I have no plans to break him.
Normally I don’t enjoy the pretense of fancy things—diamonds and gold. Pretty wrapping on dark cruelty. Though I have to admit this estate is tastefully done, the lawns a demure rolling green, the front of the house in an old manor style. A rich moss scent saturates the night air. Fireflies dance in the distance.
The wide front door opens, revealing yellow light and sparkling laughter.
“Built it for my wife,” he says, gesturing to the house with his damp handkerchief.
I vaguely recall that he’s widowed. “My condolences.”
“A long time ago now, but thank you. It’s just me and my little girl these days.”
As we watch, a Bentley pulls up into the curved drive. A young valet sprints around the car to catch keys worth more than he’ll make in a lifetime. Another glittering old couple ascends the staircase.
A young woman steps onto the front portico to greet them, her smile bright enough to light the entire mansion. Her pale pink dress ruffles in the summer breeze. In a world of falsehoods, she looks completely genuine as she greets the newcomers, giving them warm hugs.
Even from ten yards away I can tell she squeezes them.
What would it feel like to be held in her slender arms, her body lithe and pale beneath that floaty fabric? It would tear beneath my hands. The dress. Her skin. I would ruin her.
The couple and the woman go inside, leaving me to catch my breath.
I manage to look sideways and catch the glint of pride on James’s face. Good Lord, that’s his little girl? He would probably have a stroke if he knew all the ways I want to defile her.
“It’s her graduation party,” he says.
Then she’s eighteen years old. Legal. I should probably be ashamed for thinking of her in sexual terms, but shame was beaten out of me years ago. “Give her my congratulations.”
“Of course,” he says, lying through his teeth. The girl will never know I was here. Never know my name at all. “Shall we go inside? I keep the good brandy in my study.”
What we have to discuss is best done in private anyway.
Wouldn’t want to spoil the party by talking about dirty money. Wouldn’t want to ruin little Ms. James’s celebration by exposing her father for a fraud. I’m sure she worked very hard at her expensive prep school, wearing plaid skirts and dark green cardigans and curl-tipped pigtails.
At least that’s how she looks in my imagination.
James isn’t lying about the brandy. A thousand dollars a bottle, I think, breathing in the cherry notes. I take a sip and amend my evaluation. Two thousand, at least. Delicious, I’ll give him that. If only he had spent that money on his debts instead of fine liquor.
He settles across from a chess set, and I wonder whether he actually uses it. It doesn’t look dusty, but good housekeepers can fix that. I pick up a wooden pawn, running my thumb over the ridges. The beige wood doesn’t have a single visible knot, every imperfection whittled away before being allowed in a place like this.
His gaze tracks my movements, clearly displeased. I guess he knows I’ve seen the books. He’s at a disadvantage, enough to let me do what I want. With this chess set, at least.
With his daughter? That would take more work.
I sit down on the white side, making myself comfortable.
“I’ve been looking over the records,” I say because we’ve done enough pretending. Enough gold. Enough diamonds. “My father’s records. A lot of it’s missing. A lot of blank pages.”
He looks relieved, so I set the pawn on the board—not in its starting position. I set it down two spaces forward. An opening move. He needs to understand that we’re playing.
And that I play to win.
He meets my gaze, his dark eyes wary. “Much of our negotiations were verbal, you understand. Agreements between gentlemen.”
I once saw my father piss on a prostitute’s back because she had cried too much when a customer whipped her. Gentleman? Hardly. “Although, the numbers I do have don’t add up.”
“Well, like I said. Verbal agreements. I can’t control what your father wrote down. Can’t control what kind of records he kept. But I can assure you that our dealings were always the utmost aboveboard.” He’s talking too fast, nervous and revealing.
“You traded on flesh and weapons,” I say, unable to hold back the venom in my voice.
Not because I’m above them. No, I’m taking over the family business like a good son, the monster my father raised me to be. But I won’t pretend to be something else, won’t smile as a photographer from the society section flashes his camera.
His expression hardens. This is the face of a man that buys and sells a girl his daughter’s age without remorse. “Whatever your father told you, I never cheated him. We were even at the time of his… disappearance.”
“Interesting that you think he told me anything about you. At the time of his disappearance, as you put it, he had more pressing matters to consider.” Like my knife at his throat, my knee on his back.
I’ve committed many sins in my life, but his was the first life I took. It saved the life of a woman, but I can’t claim any noble purpose. His death was long deserved. And extremely profitable for me. I’ve spent the past two weeks taking over every arm of his business.
James sputters, heat rising to his ruddy cheeks. “This is a rough business. I’m sure you know that. No matter how much I want to give the benefit of the doubt, I have to protect my interests.”
“I’ve found it’s the dishonest who are most paranoid about other people lying.”
He stands abruptly. “How dare you accuse me of stealing from your father.”
I follow more leisurely, standing and straightening my suit jacket. The truth is, the penguin suit is growing on me. As is the velvet brandy on my tongue. As is the pretty girl I saw outside. All the money in the world doesn’t matter if you don’t have anything to buy. Cars. Drugs. Women. None of it interests me, but suddenly I know exactly what I want—everything he has.
“Stealing?” I say, tasting the word. “I didn’t say anything about stealing. Is that what you did?”
James takes a step forward, apparently trying to be menacing. His physical body doesn’t offer any threat to me. I managed angry customers twice as strong when I was half as old. “Look here,” he says, almost snarling. “How dare you come into my house, throwing around accusations. That’s not the way business is done, and if you want to challenge me, go right ahead. You’ll find I have a lot of friends in this city.”
“Friends can be bought, the same way you acquired them.”
“You don’t know anything about me, boy.”
Boy. It’s meant as an insult, but it amuses me. It’s been a long time since I felt young or innocent. Actually I’ve never felt that way. Thirty years is long enough to see every form of depravity in this city, most more than once.
“Relax, old man. I have no issue with you or whatever deals you made with my father. You have a clean slate with me.”
Relief wars with anger on his puffy face. He wants to stay pissed at me for my insinuations, for the old man comment. But he owes too much money to my father not to take the gift.
“Of course,” he finally manages. “Naturally that’s the state of things. Good to hear you agree. Then we can complete the final shipment as planned.”
I give him a hard smile. “I look forward to doing business with you.”
And I won’t accept any underhanded bullshit. That’s the point of this little visit.
Except I can see by the glimmer of greed in his eyes that he doesn’t accept the warning. Christ. It’s a miracle he’s stayed alive this long. Paying off the right people can do wonders. That’s the lesson I’m taking away from this.