She growled. “Don’t make fun of my inventive swearing, damn your eyes. A custom Dior gown? Do you have any idea how much—”
“Layla, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” Harris glanced at me over his shoulder and circled his index finger, meaning he was about to engage the rotors. “Listen, I’ve gotta go. But…I’m okay. This is…I’m gonna go with this, Layla. It could be…good. Really good. He’s interesting.”
“What’s he look like? What’s his name?”
“I don’t know what he looks like yet. And I probably shouldn’t tell you much more. He’s…very private.”
“But you’ve met him?”
“Yet you don’t know what he looks like?”
I sighed. “Layla, it’s…complicated. I’ll tell you what I can, when I can. For now, just…don’t worry about me. I’m good.”
“Okay, babes. Just be careful. Rich guys are weird.” She made a kissing sound. “Go, then. I wouldn’t want to keep you from your fancy helicopter ride to your fancy dinner and fancy opera, Miss Fancy.”
“Shut up, Layla. Don’t be an idiot.”
“Can’t help it, I learned from you.”
“Sure you did,” I laughed. “’Bye.”
I ended the call, put my phone on vibrate, and tucked it back into my clutch. “Sorry, Harris. I’m ready now.”
“It’s all right, Miss St. Claire. You were very circumspect with your friend. That’s good. He’ll appreciate that.” He flipped a switch, and the rotors overhead began whirring. He gestured at a pair of headphones with a microphone boom hanging nearby. “Put those on.” I carefully slid the headset on, mindful of my hair, and the noise of the engines and rotors faded. I could hear Harris clearly as he said, “Buckle up as well, please.”
I buckled up, and then had to grip the armrest as the helicopter lifted off the ground, making my stomach fall away. Up, up, and up, and then we banked, tilting to the left, giving me an incredible bird’s-eye view of Manhattan through the window beside me. “Holy shit. The city looks so different from this perspective.”
“Indeed it does,” Harris responded, his voice clear through the headset.
“I didn’t know you were a pilot as well, Harris.”
He let out a single chuckle. “There are many, many things you don’t know about me, Miss St. Claire.”
He didn’t answer right away, instead touching a button and rattling off some kind of official flight-plan information on a different radio channel. When he was finished he returned to my channel and spoke. “Such as…I’m licensed to fly helicopters as well as airplanes, everything from single-engine prop planes to military heavy lifters like C-130s. I’ve flown tens of thousands of hours as both a civilian and in the military.”
“I thought you seemed like you’d been in the military,” I remarked.
He nodded. “Yes, ma’am. U.S. Army Rangers, retired.”
“And how long have you worked for Mr. Roth?”
He turned to glance at me. “He gave you his name?” He sounded surprised.
“Just that much.”
“That’s impressive. I’ve worked for Mr. Roth directly for five years, and for his company for eight. Meaning, I’ve worked for him for a total of eight years, five of which I’ve spent as his driver and pilot.”
“And bodyguard, and private investigator.”
“Yes, and those things.” He banked again, and then resumed speaking. “I worked directly for Mr. Roth for almost a year before he even gave me that much of his name. And here you spend less than forty-eight hours with him, and you’ve gotten his name from him. Pretty impressive.”
“All I did was ask,” I said.
Harris laughed. “I asked, too. A month and a half in. Know what he said? He said, ‘Ask me any more personal questions, Harris, and you’ll end up shoveling elephant dung for the circus.’”
“He actually used the word ‘dung’?”
Harris nodded. “Yes, ma’am. He doesn’t like swearing under most circumstances. If he does, you know he’s serious as a goddamn heart attack.” He gave me another glance, this one inquisitive, curious. “When I showed him what I’d found out about your…boyfriend…Steven…he was more upset than I’ve ever seen him, before or since. He said, and I quote, ‘Make sure that vile piece of shit doesn’t lay a finger on her, Harris. Make sure he knows who she belongs to. If he resists…fucking bury him.’”
I shivered. “Obviously Steven listened,” I said.
Harris’s voice was cold and terrifying. “I didn’t leave him much choice.”
“I don’t want to know what that means, do I?”
“No. Probably not.”
Silence extended between us. I tried not to think about Steven, or what I’d seen in that file. I wanted to enjoy tonight, this experience. I focused on the view outside my window, Manhattan beneath me, bathed in the golden light of early evening. Harris banked the helicopter a third time, and then I felt us going lower, watched as we approached a high-rise with a helipad on the roof. Soon the building was out my view, and we descended straight down. A gentle bump, and we landed safely.
“Wait a moment for the rotors to stop,” Harris said. “Don’t want the wash to mess up your hair.” He flipped a switch, and the engine’s roar turned to a receding whine, the rotors slowing to a stop.
He stepped out and opened my door, placed his hands on my waist, and lifted me down. He gestured at the nearest door. “This way, please.”
I followed him through the doorway, which led us into a small foyer area and a single elevator. He pushed the call button and stood beside me, hands clasped behind his back, a distinctly military at-ease posture that seemed second nature. The elevator doors opened, and he gestured for me to go first. Then he stepped on and pushed a button for a few floors down. My heart was starting to beat a little harder, knowing I was about to meet Roth once more. The elevator doors opened, and I stepped off into a small, dark room. It was lit by dim red lights hidden behind thick stands of bamboo planted directly into the floor on either side of the room.
Opposite the elevator was a set of double doors, black lacquer, thick and heavy-looking, banded with hammered black iron, the handles wrist-thick rings.