Thursday, 11:35 p.m.
He’s gonna kill me.
Standing on the closed lid of the toilet, Jewel looked through the dirty glass on to the dark parking lot of an industrial park. She dug at the dried paint with her fingernail, then tried the lock again. It gave. Gripping the sash, she tugged at the window. It moved a millimeter, the creak of old wood reverberating in the tiny motel bathroom. No! He’d hear. Sweat broke out under her arms. She reached down, flushed the toilet, then leaned over to the sink and turned on the faucet, hoping the running water would cover the sound of her escape.
She turned her attention back to the window. How long does it take the average person to wash her hands? A minute? That’s how much time she had left before he came looking for her. She shoved up the sash, flinching at the volume of the resulting groan. Did he hear that over the sound of the water?
The client knocked on the door. “What are you doing in there?”
“Be out in a sec,” she called. She put her arms through the opening. No time to be quiet now. Just get out. She wiggled her shoulders past the sill. Once she was past her chest, she’d slide out like a newborn baby. Banging echoed in the small room. The doorknob rattled.
“Open the door. Now.” Mick.
Shit. Fear jolted her heart. If he got his hands on her, she was dead.
Her pulse scurried, and her breaths accelerated until tiny points of light dotted her vision. If he caught her, there’d be no going back to undo what she’d done. Some people thought dying was the worst thing that could happen to a person, but Jewel knew better.
Mick had taught her that being alive could hurt enough to make a girl pray for death.
Wood splintered. The door burst open. His brown eyes shrank to a mean, angry glare.
“You little bitch.” Mick lunged for her, his big hands closing around her ankle. Halfway out the window, she flailed, fingers grabbing at the window jamb, her free foot kicking out. Determination and desperation were no match for brute strength. Pain shot through her hand as a nail ripped to the bed. Panic scrambled for a hold in her belly.
He dragged her back down into the bathroom and dropped her. Jewel’s head struck the toilet tank lid, rattling the porcelain. Mick raised a hand across his body. The backhand sent her reeling sideways. She fell into the tub, and the shower curtain tangled around her body. He bore down on her, the need to inflict punishment clear on his lean face.
She kicked with both feet. The sole of her left shoe struck him under the chin. He fell back onto his butt, and Jewel scrambled out of the tub. She climbed onto the toilet lid and dove out the window, shimmying her hips. Sliding through, she landed on her hands on the pavement.
“You’re dead,” Mick shouted through the window. But there was no way his big body would fit through the small opening. He ducked back inside. She heard him arguing with the client as she straightened her shaking legs and ordered them to get moving. He’d be after her.
Jewel got her feet under her body and sprinted across the blacktop. She ducked into the shadow of a Dumpster, her lungs heaving in loud and ragged gasps. She put her back to the rusted metal and covered her mouth with her hand. Her body shook in uncoordinated waves. Quiet. She had to be quiet. He was going to hear her. He was going to find her.
He was going to hurt her.
She peered around the edge of the receptacle. The motel edged an industrial area and shared a parking lot with the surrounding businesses. Most appeared closed, their windows dark, the spots in front of their doors vacant. On the other side of a field of blacktop, rows and rows of cars lined up in front of a lighted warehouse-type building. An overhead billboard adorned with colorful Latin dancers announced “Carnival: Las Vegas’s Premier Dance Club.” There would be people there at all hours.
Jewel felt a presence. Lola, another one of Mick’s girls, came around the corner of the building. Squinting and bending low, she came closer. Jewel pressed against the rusted metal at her back. The other girl’s dark eyes went wide. Jewel mouthed, Come with me. Boots pounded on the blacktop.
“Have you seen her?” he shouted.
Lola pointed at the Dumpster—at her.
Jewel paused, stunned by the other girl’s betrayal for a split second. They weren’t exactly friends, but Jewel had expected Lola to sympathize or at least share Jewel’s desire to escape. Big mistake.
Fear and survival instinct kicked in. Jewel sprinted on fear-loose legs toward the club. She couldn’t let Mick catch her.
A vivid memory clawed its way into her mind. Things he’d done to her when he first snatched her off the street in Toledo. She pushed it away before terror paralyzed her.
But a dozen strides later, she heard boots on the pavement behind her. She glanced over her shoulder. Barely thirty feet away, Mick bore down on her. Her leg muscles burned. Her throat and lungs cried. She felt her steps slowing, no matter how much she wanted them to move faster. The pills Mick supplied his girls helped her get through the days, but they hadn’t made her more fit. She raced across the asphalt. The footsteps behind her quickened. She tried to scream, but her throat squeezed tightly on to her voice, silencing her.
The first row of cars was just ahead, but there were no people in sight. She veered right, toward the entrance to the club, hidden in the shadow of an awning.
Behind her, Mick’s shoes scraped on loose sand. Closer. Closer. Her breath locked in her chest as he closed in.
Fifteen more minutes and she’d be free.
The glass enclosure of the private skybox muffled the din from the club below, but the floor vibrated with bass. Hannah’s gaze swept over the Viva Las Vegas glitter of Carnival, an enormous club off the Strip themed after the Brazilian celebration. The box was outfitted in chrome, disco balls, and leather. Though it was only early November, topiaries in each corner glowed with white Christmas lights. At one end of the room, long tables held an array of appetizers and desserts. A bar flowing with top-end liquor spanned the opposite wall. Waitresses in glittery showgirl costumes served more drinks from shiny silver trays. The firm’s client, club owner Herb Fletcher, knew how to throw a party Vegas-style.
“Ms. Barrett, what do you think of Herb’s club?” British investor Timothy Stark swirled an olive in his martini glass. While the rest of the men had dressed casually for the event in open-collared shirts and sport jackets, Timothy was never less than perfectly presented. At fifty, his fit and trim frame was attired in a custom-tailored charcoal suit, and no amount of desert heat could wilt his French cuffs. “I still can’t believe he owns this establishment.”
He said establishment as if he’d just gotten a whiff of raw sewage.
She bit back a laugh. Timothy was afflicted with a chronic case of tight-ass-itis. Carnival was clearly not his scene.
It wasn’t Hannah’s either. She gazed through the glass over the main floor, fifty thousand square feet of crowded floor space designed to look like a Brazilian street. Lights and music pulsed across glistening skin. Girls danced on stages and in Plexiglas boxes on risers. Jugglers performed on stilts. At midnight, a parade would wind its way through the crowd. Afterward, a nightly samba competition tempted inebriated guests onto the stage. The club touted itself as wilder than the festival in Rio.
A waitress in a rhinestone-and-sequin costume in peacock colors approached and offered them a selection of hors d’oeuvres. Her headdress, a fan of blue speckled tail feathers, waved as she moved.
Hannah took a napkin and selected a piece of grilled meat on a stick. “Herb turned Carnival from a warehouse into a very successful club.”
Though the noise and flash wasn’t Hannah’s style, she appreciated the detail in the design. Every inch of the space pulsed with lights and color. Even the ceiling had been transformed into a starry night sky.
That afternoon, Herb Fletcher and a half dozen foreign investors had signed on a thousand dotted lines, committing to the purchase and refurbishment of the High Roller Casino. The tired casino hotel would be gutted and given a complete renovation to turn it into an exclusive luxury accommodation with another of Herb’s famous themed nightclubs. All parties involved hoped the endeavor would be as successful as Carnival and the other two hotels Herb had refurbished. Everything Herb touched seemed to turn into giant piles of money.
Hannah watched a side stage closest to the box. A drunken woman in a Snookie-tight skirt and sequined halter top climbed onto the platform, bent at the waist, and writhed. Oooh kaaay.
“What is she doing?” Timothy asked.
“I believe that’s twerking.” Hannah’s lips twitched as she suppressed a laugh.
“Tacky. Like everything else about this place.” Timothy plucked the toothpick out of his empty glass and ate the jumbo olive.
“It’s harmless fun. People seem to be enjoying themselves.” A lot. Part of her envied the crowd’s ability to let loose. Tomorrow’s hangovers aside, they were having a grand time. While other people relaxed as they imbibed, Hannah hated the artificial lack of control that came with alcohol consumption. It made her feel blunt instead of sharp, as if she were trying to cut a ripe tomato with a plastic knife. Hannah’s control was her security blanket.
Timothy huffed. “Speaking of tacky, here comes Herb. I know the man can afford a decent suit. Why does he dress like a thug?” His backhanded snootiness irritated her. His willingness to use the other man’s talent with money and simultaneously insult him felt traitorous.
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