Like many of the world's super rich, Richard Wilkins III fancied himself a stylish man. He wore the best bespoke tailoring Saville Row could offer, had his shoes hand-made at Salvatore Ferragamo's Florence workshop and perfected the fine art of never asking for the price while at the same time knowing which was the most expensive item. He didn't travel first class: he had his own fleet of jets, yachts and helicopters. He dined with tycoons, stars and ex-presidents. He owned property in New York, Connecticut, Southern California and on the Caribbean island of St Barts, among others.
When it came to his ultra exclusive nightclub in Manhattan, he chose only the best. Best location, best entertainment and best décor. KCA International designed the interior of the world's only seven star hotel, the Burj-al Arab in Dubai, and he spared no expense in securing their talents. The interior of Fur regularly made the pages of lifestyle magazines and architectural digests.
Unlike many of his peers, he recognized that although packaging was important, infrastructure was a detail just as essential. Even the door knobs and sealant joints of the building's plumbing had to be the best.
And because of the need to protect the identity of his clientèle, not to mention the amount of cash and jewelry that was regularly onsite, so was the security system. He had the best whiz-kids in the IT industry working for him in deals that did not always follow the straight and narrow. How better to ensure that his system wasn't hacked by getting it secured and maintained by the hackers themselves?
Fortunately, as Tara keyed in the code that led to the office side of the penthouse suite, she had access to the security codes. She had done this thousands of times and there was nothing to fear. Willow's words echoed in her mind. What was she doing there? Why did she have this much access? What exactly was her job? Wilkins had assembled an able, if self-serving, team around him -- Lilah took care of legal matters, Alan was publicity & marketing, Dalton did the accounting, Mr Trick the strategic planning and Faith was security. He had been including Tara in meetings and seemed to be grooming her for -- she stopped short. On the surface he was grooming her as his successor, was she being unfair to him by jumping to the conclusion that he was crooked? Or was she part of meetings so that if she was hauled before a court or tribunal she couldn't protest her innocence?
She rubbed her temples at the onset of a headache.
The elevator behind her opened with a whoosh causing her to jump. She hadn't expected anyone else to come up.
The girl was immaculately dressed and made-up. She was glancing nervously from side to side, and was as shocked as Tara to see her. Tara's heart dropped. She knew what Lily was doing here, and the girl's anxiety level suggested it was her first time.
"Tara. I didn't know you'd be here. Isn't it your day off?" Lily asked, but not suspiciously.
Tara tried to sound nonchalant. "Oh, I needed something from the office." She nodded to the suite side of the floor. "Um, are you due inside?"
Lily gulped and nodded. Tara wanted to warn her, to pull her away and put her back inside the elevator. But what good would that do? "Are you sure about this?"
For an instant, Lily brightened up. "Yes. It's a honor to come up to the Suite, everyone wants it," she said almost by rote.
"Be careful, and don't feel obliged to say yes if you want to say no. You won't get into trouble." That was as much as Tara could say.
"I have a good idea what will happen behind that door. It's what I want too," Lily said bravely.
He never forced himself on anyone. Not since ... her. She had to be consoled with that. She patted Lily on the arm and gave the girl her most reassuring smile. "Check in with me tomorrow? I want to know you're okay," she said.
She watched Lily press the bell on the other side of the hallway and enter through the ornate double doors. Then she got back to the task at hand and quickly found her way to the office. Lily being summoned up meant the Mayor was on the same floor.
It was almost 4am when she finally stretched to loosen her neck joints. Rifling through paper files and searching through computer records was hard slog. She found original paperwork for the incorporation of several of the shell companies Willow mentioned. The first time she saw her own signature on the documentation a numbing chill passed through her. They either had a first class forger or she actually signed these innocently. How could I be so naïve?
She couldn't find much information relating to the transfers to offshore accounts that were supposed to be in her name. They were probably hidden deeper in the filing process. She would have to look tomorrow, since she was practically asleep on her feet.
She called Willow on her cellphone -- they had talked intermittently while she was searching and Willow insisted on staying up to wait for Tara.
"I'm done for the night, sweetie. I'll save what I have and come back tomorrow," Tara said, stifling a yawn.
"Be careful, baby. Come home soon," Willow's voice was so sweet.
The street was dark and deserted but she was used to it. She straightened her jacket and walked briskly toward the main street where taxis generally congregated. She didn't see the shadowy figure leaning against the outside wall of the next building, just out of reach of the faint light from the street lamps.
Her first thought, when she was grabbed by the shoulder and kicked in the knees, was that she needed to change her life insurance beneficiary to Willow. Then it was searing pain as her head hit the sidewalk and a sickening crack as her arm landed at a twisted angle, trapped between her body and the hard concrete.
Blood started trickling into her eyes, she tried to blink it out but her vision was becoming foggy. She caught sight of oddly familiar black boots coming at her head and reacted just in time to deflect the kick to her chin. She tried to push her assailant away with her remaining good arm but she was too weak. She tried to push herself up to an upright position but the pain in her broken arm made her cry out instead.
The kicks were aimed at her midriff now and she remembered just in time to curl into a fetal position, feebly protecting her head and neck with one arm. Each kick pushed her backwards until her back was against a wall, the hard brick surface biting into her back. But it means it's protected against his kicks.
During one gap in the assault, she managed to grab one boot and pull it toward her, unbalancing her assailant. She kicked out, and was rewarded by a grunt as the other person staggered back. Adrenaline pumped through her and provided her with enough energy to push herself up and run.
Each step was excruciatingly painful and she fought to breathe. She knew her attacker had already gotten up and was right behind her. There were things she should be doing, but all she could remember from her self-defense lessons was to cross her arms above her head to deflect an overhead knife attack. Not very useful for her current predicament.
Then it came back. "Fire!!! Fire!!!" she shouted. "Police! Fire!" Her instructor told her that people were more likely to respond to alarms of fire than shouts for help since potentially their own property was at risk. It was the sad fact of human selfishness.
Her assailant was upon her again, but she tried this time to stay on her feet. He held her from behind, one hand jerking her hair back and the other hand trying to circle around her throat. She pushed with both hands and bit down on exposed flesh.
Her ears were ringing with blood loss and fright but she heard a distinctively female voice cry out. "Shit!" That was when she stopped struggling forward; instead she leaned back and stomped on her attacker's feet as hard as she could. The grip on her hair loosened and she followed up with an elbow jab. It didn't connect very well but by then voices could be heard, of people roused by her call for help.
She could sense her attacker's hesitation and tried to kick back again. She didn't have the strength to turn defense into attack, but her life depended on how long she could hold the other person off until other people arrived on the scene. Shouts of alarm were beginning to come closer. This time the attacker jumped out of the way but instead of further attacks, ran away into the darkness.
Tara caught a glimpse of a figure in black clothing and ski mask before collapsing on the sidewalk. Pain was everywhere, but she needed the strength to do one last thing. She managed to pull her cellphone out from her pocket and hit redial before the pain turned into darkness and her world went black.