“A paramour and a security guard walk into a bar…”
Sophie Morris gave the man walking beside her a sidelong look. She didn’t want to offend him so early in their acquaintance, but his sense of humor sucked.
She curled her fingers around the leather shoulder strap of her satchel and tugged, trying to ease the weight into a more comfortable position. “I’m not a paramour,” she told him. “I’m not even in consideration for the program.”
“I know, I know,” the man said. “I was only trying to lighten things up. You’re lookin’ a little tense.”
Tense. He’d be tense, too, in her position. The director of the training academy she attended had summoned her to Fantasy Heights for a meeting five minutes from now.
Time moved relentlessly forward as Sophie and her companion headed straight for Fantasy Heights’s business office. The sidewalk followed a straight path between enormous performance and lodging venues. Every building featured a wealth of detail in keeping with the resort’s Victorian theme. Add the resort’s well-tended lawns, the shade trees filtering late-afternoon sunshine, and Sophie thought it the perfect, decadent backdrop while guests lived out their sexual fantasies.
Gawking at it all, Sophie struggled to keep up with her escort, Max Crosby. She didn’t know much about Max yet, only that he held a high rank in resort security.
He certainly looked the part. Max stood six-foot-three with hulking shoulders and a solid, stocky body. She figured him for his mid-forties, at least. He had black hair, dark eyes and a perfectly groomed goatee. He reminded her of a bulldog—kind of cute when peaceable, but she would never want to enrage him.
Maybe she should make small talk with him, but he didn’t look the type to enjoy empty, meaningless chat.
Proving it, he asked a loaded, direct question. “How long have you known Fiona Cornell?”
‘Know’ her would be a stretch. Sophie had only met the woman five months ago when Director Cornell showed up, quite out of the blue, to recruit her into the Prescott Institute, a school for security professionals. Most students referred to the director as the ‘Reaper’, but never to her face. No one would dare.
Nor did Sophie dare discuss Cornell so casually, either. She felt as if the sky might open up and smite her.
“It’s all right,” Max said. “I know all about the Prescott Institute and the Reaper thing. Her Royal Slyness wouldn’t send a random plebe to get you settled here. You’re safe to talk to me.”
Oh. Well, maybe Max was an insider, but still Sophie hesitated to respond.
Max relented. “All right, all right. We’ll chitchat about you instead of the Reaper. You’re a student at the Institute, correct?”
“Yes, at Prescott West.”
The Prescott Institute had two campuses. Prescott West, where Sophie studied, trained the run-of-the-mill bodyguard and threat-assessment personnel.
Prescott East trained the elite anti-espionage specialists and long-term plus-ones-for-hire, also known as the paramours. Rumors out west had it that Prescott East also trained spies and professional spouses, though no one could prove as much.
Every single student in Prescott West—including Sophie—wanted to graduate into Prescott East. Students at West turned themselves inside out competing for the one or two promotions granted per year.
Sophie harbored no illusions that this summons to Fantasy Heights meant she might ascend to prestigious Prescott East. In fact, she had no idea why she had drawn this assignment. True, life had taught her some skills that other students had yet to learn, but Sophie knew better than to jump to any conclusions where the director was concerned. Cornell sent students on mysterious assignments all the time with little or no explanation.
No sense wasting time on speculation. The director would go into detail when and if it became necessary. In the meantime, Sophie would have to follow instructions to the letter.
Max said, “I thought only Prescott East students could train at Fantasy Heights.”
“That was my understanding, too. And you can stop fishing—I don’t know the details of my assignment yet, either. There wasn’t time. The director handed me a file about the trouble at Fantasy Heights last year, and told me to study up. Then she told me to pack my bags and prepare to become a performer for a week or two. That’s all.”
“Yeah, she’s never too generous with the info,” Max agreed. “She didn’t tell me much about you, either. Only that I should pick you up at the airport, get you moved into a staff cabin, and prepare to babysit a Prescott Institute protégé.”
She and Max had reached the resort’s business office. The cross-shaped building didn’t look much like an office complex. It looked more like a mansion with its red brick walls and ornate trim.
Max held a heavy oak door open for her. “Okay, so if you don’t know why you’re here, tell me where you came from. Where did the director find you? Were you public or private sector?”
“Neither, really. Cornell recruited me straight out of the police academy.”
“Aren’t you a little old to be just finishing the police academy?”
“I’m only twenty-six, not seventy.”
He held a second door for her separating a cozy lobby from a long hallway. “Yeah, but even with a four-year degree, you’d still be out of the academy by twenty-three at the latest.”
“I didn’t finish school all in one shot like most people. I transferred schools a couple times, and had to take lighter course-loads so I could work.”
“Where did you work? What did you do?”
Nothing like a friendly inquisition to start the day off right. “I did grunt work for a couple detective agencies, mostly. I did a lot of chauffeuring, too.”
Max seemed to mull that over for a moment or two. Then he said, “Good background for a personal protection agent, I guess, but nothing obvious to recommend you for Fantasy Heights. What about all the physical and mental screenings you need to take before you can work here? Did Cornell skip those?”
“No. I did the testing weeks ago. I had no idea why at the time.”
“So she’s been planning this for a while,” Max said. “Reaper drives me crazy with all her secret maneuvers.”
Sophie agreed but kept quiet while they turned a corner in the hallway with its sunny yellow walls and white moldings. Sophie thought the interior looked more like an aristocratic Realtor’s office than the headquarters of a sexual fantasy fulfillment resort. Deserted over the weekend, the place was quiet. Eerily so.
Max staved off the silence, changing the subject. “My turn, now. What did the director tell you about me?”
“She said you’re something high up in resort security. You’ll be my observer, kind of a shadow while I’m on set to remind both my client and myself that there will be consequences for any bad behavior. She also said you’re the only other person besides herself who knows there’s anything different about me. Which means the director trusts you, even if you don’t trust her.”
Max stopped to give her a long, cynical look. “If you’re smart, you won’t trust her, either.”
Sophie speared him with a pained expression to discourage any further comment.
Toward the back of the building, Max stopped before a set of double doors. They stood open. Inside the reception area beyond was an ornate desk with scrolled legs. Here, the walls were a deeper gold, the recesses lit by gilt sconces. The soft, golden light shimmered on a plaque announcing Fiona Cornell, Director.
Posh, Sophie thought, but then pretty much everything associated with the Prescott Institute promoted a culture of luxury and historic importance. The company had been cranking out operatives since the Civil War, catering to those who could afford their services. The Institute maintained an office here since the resort was a key training facility for Prescott East students.
Max drew Sophie’s attention back to the hallway. Nearby was a heavy steel door protected by a complicated-looking security panel.
“That door gets you into and out of the tunnels,” Max said.
“Got it, thanks.” The file Director Cornell had given her about Fantasy Heights contained a keycard that would unlock the tunnels running beneath the resort. Since the trouble last year, the underground areas remained sealed off. Only authorized personnel could use them these days.
Sophie glanced around, wondering if the tunnel-access door’s location was an accident or by design. The door wouldn’t be visible from anywhere except right here, outside Director Cornell’s reception area.
“Come on,” Max said. “She’s probably ready for you by now.”
Sophie’s shoulder and neck muscles went taut. She’d tried to take this surprise assignment in stride, and yes, she was anxious for more details about her duties, but to get them, she would have to survive another unnerving ordeal with the director.
Everyone feared Director Cornell. The woman wasn’t mean or cruel or anything so simplistic. Where most people had hopes and dreams, the director had secrets and ulterior motives. Plus she wielded an unnaturally accurate insight. She could take a person’s measure in a startlingly short time and see things inside them that no one else could detect or predict.
Having experienced the director’s insight for herself, Sophie understood the fear. Hearing the Reaper’s soft, calm voice spell out faults so carefully concealed from the world felt like a stake to the heart. To have someone see so deeply inside her head, uninvited, put Sophie’s back up in an instinctual response to a threat.
Max, unaffected by Sophie’s discomfort, marched her into the reception area. He knocked a couple times at a white door. Without waiting for a response, he let them into the director’s cavernous sanctum.
Sophie was struck with the impression of size and space. Bright sunlight poured in from wide windows filtered through gauzy white drapes. Wood floors glowed richly beneath their feet, and to their right loomed twelve-foot-high bookcases, set at an angle, obscuring the far end of the room.
The director sat before the windows at a boxy oak-wood desk dripping with Victorian foofaraw. Director Cornell was a tiny thing, painfully thin with thick auburn hair and fair skin that had just begun to show signs of age. Older than Max, Sophie thought. Probably in her mid-forties. The director’s hazel eyes were sharp as knifepoints as she looked up at them over the lenses of her ever-present reading glasses.
Max stated the obvious. “Here she is, ma’am.”
Sophie expected a crushing remark about entering without waiting for the go-ahead.
Instead, the director spoke quietly to Max. “Wait outside, please.”
To Sophie, she said, “Do sit down, Morris.”
Sophie had forgotten the director’s habit of referring to everyone by their surname only. The other students complained about the objectifying habit.
On her part, Sophie didn’t mind one way or the other, long as she stayed on the director’s good side.
As Max retreated into the reception area, Sophie took a seat in one of the floral-upholstered wingchairs before the desk. She set her satchel down very carefully next to the chair.
The director said, “I trust your trip was uneventful?”
“Max settled you into the staff cabin?”
“Yes. I’m already unpacked, and ready to begin.”
Director Cornell stared until Sophie felt like a moth tacked to cardboard. After several moments of intense scrutiny, the woman jumped right to the chase. “This assignment works on a week-by-week basis. Satisfy the requirements one week, and you’ll stay on for the next week. Understood?”
“Your duties are as follows. You will perform four or five times per week. In addition, when asked, you will investigate and report on a coworker or client. I want full background reports from both primary threat-assessment perspectives.”
Sophie nodded. That meant she would have to assess her targets as both potential predator and potential prey.
The director added, “All strictly covert, you understand. The Janus outbreak last year shook this place hard. People were scared then, and they’re still scared now. New faces rattle nerves. New faces who ask too many questions will suffer for it. Rouse too much suspicion and you’ll be on the next flight back to Prescott West.”
The director leaned back into her chair, rested her forearms on the arm rests, and peered over her reading glasses again. “I suppose you’re wondering why I brought you here. The only explanation I’m prepared to give at this point is that we need to attack two major deficits in your skill sets. The first should be obvious, given what we do here at Fantasy Heights.”
Sophie knew exactly which deficit the director meant: sexual inexperience. So far in life, she had managed only two relationships serious enough to include sex, and casual sex had never been an option. To Sophie, the prospect involved an insane amount of risk.
Here it would be different. Everyone, clients and staff alike, had to pass rigorous testing, and this resort could afford to turn people away for even the slightest doubt. The resort took safety and security to extremes, and those efforts were the only reason Sophie was able to contemplate this assignment without too many qualms. She would be safe, here, both on the set and off, free to experience everything Fantasy Heights had to offer.
Director Cornell continued. “I’m sure you’re smart enough to realize that this assignment is almost tailor-made to trip your breakers. You’ll have your hands full coping with the sexual education, and you’ll have a hidden agenda that requires you to interact with new faces to gather information. This will be a tall order for you.”
And how. To quote the director in an earlier meeting, it took Sophie a glacial age to feel at ease with new people.
Her interpersonal skills needed work. Giving people her trust without any reason went against everything life had taught her thus far, and throwing sex into the mix would make this assignment all the more challenging. Pent-up curiosity and appetites had pressurized inside like lava. She could easily derail herself with that discovery process if she wasn’t vigilant enough.
But she had to ace this assignment, and demand the right to study at Prescott East. Nothing—especially not inhibition or cowardice—could be allowed to hobble her progress. This goal of making it into Prescott East had become the focus of her existence. Nothing and no one could derail her now.
The director said, “At Prescott West, you’ve rather walled yourself off as a misfit outsider. That can’t happen here. You must find a way to fit into this environment. When I ask you to investigate someone, make not a single wave. Draw no attention to yourself. I want to forget you’re even here until I ask for a report. Otherwise you are just another performer, same as the rest. Understood?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Feeling brave, she said, “I don’t imagine this assignment is strictly for my benefit. Is there another reason you’ve brought me here? Anything I should watch out for?”
The director’s face settled into a mask of stone.
Sophie realized she had overstepped. “Sorry, ma’am.”
Director Cornell sat up and pushed away from her desk. She stood and turned to face the enormous wood cabinet to her right. It looked like a wardrobe, but when the doors opened, Sophie could see five wide drawers inside.
Reaching into her jacket, the director produced a small key ring. She unlocked the center drawer. Files. The wardrobe disguised a filing cabinet.
Out came not a file but a bright red two-inch binder. When the director brought it to the desk, she turned it around so that Sophie could see the eight-by-ten photograph tucked into the binder’s clear plastic cover.
The photograph showed a woman around thirty years of age, an absolute knockout with a glossy red mouth and wide dark eyes. Shining black curls hung down her back. She was cinched into a royal blue corset and short, frilly skirt. She had legs clear up to here, thigh-high black boots and a playful, come-hither smile that made Sophie feel like a pile of dull-as-hell dust in comparison.
“Wow. Who’s that?” Sophie asked.
“That,” the director said, “is Rylie Vaughn. She is a performer, and the first person you will investigate. Because this is your first time, I will give you one big hint. She came to Fantasy Heights through Mercury Milazzo.”
“And Milazzo is the Mafia guy. He represents the syndicate on this oversight committee, the Accord, correct?”
“Is Rylie Vaughn the syndicate’s enforcer here at Fantasy Heights?”
“That was a guess, Morris. Base your investigations on fact rather than supposition, or I will send you straight back to Prescott West.”
“I encourage you to befriend Rylie. She is important to you. Very important.”
The director picked up Rylie’s binder and returned it to the cabinet.
Sophie kept her eyes on her boss, but her thoughts followed the binder. Her investigation could be greatly abbreviated if she could have a peek through that thing.
Already onto the next subject, the director returned to her desk once more to open its center drawer. A folder came out. Blue, this time.
“I have your performance schedule, here. Everyone—the staff and clients—knows you’re new to this line of work. I’ve cherry-picked your clients and fantasies to keep you focused on the most basic function we perform at Fantasy Heights: Please your clients and coworkers. There is no more important skill you can learn right now than to please clients and targets. Pleasing a client is often essential in protecting them.”
Sophie found herself the recipient of another long, piercing stare. She figured this was the director’s not-too-subtle way of saying that she believed Sophie’s priorities were somehow out-of-whack.
Cornell removed her glasses. She folded the frames and set them at the precise center of her blotter. “I’ve seen many people come and go from this place, Morris. There is one trait the most successful performers have in common. They not only know how to give pleasure, but how to receive it. Clients who know they please their performers are the ones who come back over and over again. Allow yourself to enjoy the fantasies. Success starts with that enjoyment.”
Sophie nodded. Please and be pleased.
“Your first performance will fall under the voyeurism department. You’ll be on set with a female client named Quinn Ojala. Her partner will watch from an observation booth. Miss Ojala has been a client for years. She has assured me that she’ll break you in gently.”
Sophie felt herself blush and wondered how long it would take before she could get used to everyone talking so frankly and openly about sex.
Trying to sound smooth and unaffected, she asked, “I don’t start with a male client?”
The question brought a faint smile into Cornell’s eyes. “Around here, gender has very little to do with sexual pleasure. What’s important starting out is selecting fantasies that require next to nothing from you. You’ll be a prop. A warm, responsive body. You have no spoken lines, you won’t initiate anything. You will simply allow the clients and other performers to guide you. Understood?”
“Now,” the director said, “before I send you on your way, I must ask a personal question or two.”
Oh, God. “Anything, ma’am.”
“Have you been sleeping?”
Sophie clenched her back teeth together and drew in a deep breath. She tried to put a positive spin on her answer. “Some nights I sleep like a rock.”
“And other nights?”
She knew what Director Cornell wanted to hear—reassurance that the chance she’d taken drafting Sophie into the Prescott Institute hadn’t been a horrible mistake. She wanted confirmation that her controversial recruit was managing her problems without losing the edge that had drawn the Institute’s interest in the first place.
Sophie said, “Sometimes I struggle.”
“You needn’t worry,” the director said. “After everything you’ve been through, I think I’d be more concerned if you didn’t struggle. Be prepared, because all this upheaval won’t help. I’ve moved you from one side of the country to the other, and landed you quite close to your mother. Have you called the facility? Do you plan to visit?”
Sophie’s stomach did its best inch-worm impression. Sophie had indeed made the inquiries yesterday, only to find that the medical staff shared her qualms. “They can’t guarantee anything. They think my visit could undo all the progress they’ve made. I said I’d think about it and call them later in the week.”
She watched emotion erupt behind Director Cornell’s habitually placid features. She saw anger and sympathy and the pity that made Sophie want to scream until her lungs flew out of her mouth.
Cornell said, “If you wish, I’ll go with you. No one should have to go through that alone.”
“I appreciate the offer, ma’am.”
“But you neither accept nor decline. I understand. I won’t press the matter. What I will press, however, is the importance of this assignment. I know how curious you are, and how badly you want to make a good impression. Do not let the desire for advancement lead you astray. Stay on task. Please your clients. Complete your investigation. Draw no attention to yourself.”
“Really. I hear you saying ‘yes, ma’am’, but I know you better than that. Fantasy Heights spends a fortune on security. Let them do their job. You are not here to police or protect anyone. If something happens, you must not reveal yourself as anything more than the average performer. One slip-up, and I will punt you back to Prescott West with extreme prejudice. Do not let me down, Morris.”
The director gave her another of those long looks. She could not make it any more clear that she didn’t expect her risky recruit to last more than a week at this assignment.
Sophie stifled the urge to frown back at her employer.
Cornell closed their meeting. “It’s time to begin. Max will take you directly to the wardrobe department, and there’s something you should know about the wardrobe director. Kara is her name. She is the soul of this place, a formidable influence with the staff. Respect her power, but don’t kiss up. She hates that.”
The director stood, and Sophie followed suit. She stooped again to pick up her satchel’s shoulder strap.
The older woman said, “I’ll be out west for the next few days, dealing with—”
A sharp, blaring buzzing sound made them both jump. The noise seemed to come from everywhere: from the desk and from the intercom panel next to the office door, from the cavern full of bookcases. The buzz had a steady pulse to it, pitch fluctuating with each beat.
Director Cornell darted from behind her desk and headed for the reception door. As soon as she pulled it open, the sound got even louder. The pulse from the outer office was out of sync with the warble in here. Clashing, chaotic sound felt like someone drum-rolling on Sophie’s skull.
The director hurried away, disappearing out of sight.
Sophie, left alone, glanced at the hidden file cabinet. Cornell would be out of the office a couple days, she had said.
Would she even notice Rylie’s file was gone?
There it sat, undefended.
Keeping one eye on the office door, Sophie sidestepped to the cabinet and opened the middle drawer. It took less than two seconds to spot Rylie’s thick, bright-red binder. She plucked it from the file holding its place. She popped it into her satchel, and closed the drawer.
Heart pounding, feeling very much as if she were carrying a twelve-ton, flashing red neon sign in her bag, she stepped into the outer office.
Max stood waiting, hands over his ears. No sign of the director.
She couldn’t believe she’d actually get out of the office with Rylie’s file. Great for her investigation, but maybe not so bright otherwise. Easy to take the file. Putting it back without getting caught could be trickier.
Max motioned for Sophie to hurry up. She fled with him to the tunnel door. When the steel security door closed behind them, the steady shriek of the alarm cut off to near inaudible.
The stairwell they entered was plain as could be. A single bare bulb lit concrete walls and a metal-mesh stairway going down.
Leading the way down the stairs into an equally unremarkable concrete hallway, Max complained, “I’m getting real tired of that damned system failure. The business office alarms keep going off for no reason. No one can find the problem.”
Sophie gave him a sympathetic look, but her thoughts still chewed on Rylie’s binder. She doubted the director would laugh off the outright ‘borrowing’ of company property. Then again, as long as she protected the file and returned it without incident, Cornell might actually applaud a departure from conventional right-versus-wrong thinking.
Choosing to let herself believe that for now, Sophie took stock. Even after meeting with the director, she still didn’t understand the purpose of this assignment, but she should count her blessings. As far as assignments went, hers was much easier than expected. Performing and investigating people would be a cakewalk compared to the course-load she’d carried during her first term at Prescott West.
The relief gave way to worry a moment later. She shouldn’t assume this assignment would be easy. Her first performance loomed dead ahead. She would be in a room with a female client while another watched them have sex.
This could go sideways. What if the client didn’t like her? She had only had male partners before. What if she messed up or did something embarrassing? She did not doubt for one second that the director would send her packing an instant later.