Trouble In Tampa (Page 4)

Trouble In Tampa (Great Exploitations #3)(4)
Author: Nicole Williams

“A personal life?” Henry took a sip of his beer then a longer one. “What I have outside of work seems to grow smaller and smaller by the day, and well . . . it’s called a personal life for a reason.” Henry shrugged, giving me some combination of an apologetic and sad look.

I wasn’t sure what irritated me more: that he hadn’t outright lied or that he’d gone all vague when I needed him to be anything but. Either way, I was irritated. That might have been why I said what I did next. “And how many of those personal lives are you living?”

Bitter bitch, get back into your cell before I send you to the electric chair.

If Henry flinched, I missed it. Probably because I was busy administering some good ol’ self-flagellation.

“What about you? What’s your personal life like these days?” he asked quietly.

My reply wasn’t so quiet. “They call it personal for a reason.”

Instead of taking my comment as cutting, Henry smiled. Actually, he grinned right before he laughed. “I should have known better than to show up in a suit and tie for a meeting with you, Eve. Next time I’m strapping on the full-body armor.”

Damn it if I didn’t try to hold it in, but a traitor smile broke on my face. “And next time, I’m bringing the grenade launcher. Let’s see how your body armor holds up to that.”

Henry lifted his beer and held it my direction. “Eve, you could bring nothing but that sad smile of yours, and it would blast through the most impenetrable suit of armor I could find every time.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I clinked my glass against his. “I’m not sure if that was deserving of a Cheers, but why the hell not.”

Right before we both took a drink, Henry said, “Against everything I’d always thought, here you are. Sitting across from me, sipping a beer instead of launching it in my face. I’d say that’s deserving of a Cheers.”

That wasn’t what I’d been referring to, not by a long shot, but as was becoming a pattern with Henry and me, he seemed to be talking about one thing and I was talking about something else.

The Meet

YESTERDAY I WAS in California, sharing not one but two pints of Guinness with Henry Callahan as we finished my employment paperwork. Today I was in Tampa, exchanging the dry, hot air of California for wet, hotter air. I wasn’t a big Florida fan, but I spent plenty of time there. Lots of cheating, wealthy husbands in that state.

Henry got a call toward the end of our lunch “meeting” that he was needed urgently at one of his sister companies in Korea. I knew Henry traveled a lot and I’d be working other Errands when he was gone. While I had been okay with juggling a busy schedule, it was only because G promised I wouldn’t jet-set across the country every other week. Yet there I was, flying a few thousand miles for a measly Seven.

I’d been about to complain to G when she’d informed me of the new Errand . . . but then she said the magic words. The ones she knew would make me travel to the most remote part of the Arctic: wife beater.

Very little surprised me. I’d seen it all, lived it all, and worked it all. There wasn’t a vice scratching the underbelly of humanity that hadn’t gotten my hands dirty, but that kind of vermin—the wife beaters—gave a whole new meaning to why I did what I did. Every wife we Eves dealt with was looking for freedom, some just needed it more than others. Their lives depended on it. I wouldn’t ascribe the word noble to my work, but it sure as shit wasn’t something to be ashamed of either. That kind of Errand, with that kind of Client, had a succinct way of reminding me.

G hadn’t needed to ask twice if I’d take the Errand. Henry was out of the country for a week, and a wife beater needed a beating of his own.

It was only late afternoon when I slipped into my rental car outside the Tampa airport, but I’d passed the fatigue point several hours earlier. I was used to a crazy schedule, where sleep was an afterthought, but even though my mind had adapted to exhaustion, my body hadn’t. With my thirtieth birthday looming a few short candles away, I was reminded how, with every Errand I worked, I was that much older, that much more susceptible to wear and tear, and that much more in need of my exit plan. Closing the Callahan Errand would make my exit plan a reality. I’d be out of the game before I blew out those thirty candles. Hopefully, long out.

That was what was on my mind as I sped toward the Meet with Mrs. Tucker, my Client. The address I was heading for was a private residence . . . as in the Tucker’s home private residence. That was a first. I’d never met a Client at their home. It was too personal, for them and for me. They didn’t want me to see pictures of their smiling family any more than I did.

Mrs. Tucker, however, had requested we meet at her home because she didn’t drive. No, Mrs. Tucker wasn’t crippled or temporarily incapacitated or had her license revoked. Mrs. Tucker didn’t drive for a far more tragic reason: she was a victim of domestic violence. At its origin, domestic violence was about asserting control. It might start out as him occasionally checking his girlfriend’s or wife’s call list on her cell phone. Then casually checking turns into routinely, turns into taking away the phone, so on and so forth.

Domestic violence is about control, whether that manifests physically or mentally. That Mrs. Tucker didn’t drive any longer was a ginormous red flag that Mr. Tucker had some serious steel hooks deep into her.

When I stopped in front of 415 Brambleberry Drive, one thing stood out: it was immaculate. The house was only a couple rooms shy of being a mansion. The windows sparkled in the late afternoon sun. The flowers lining the walkway were so perfect they could have been silk, and if there was a speck of dirt out of place in the rest of the landscape, I was about to be elected the president of the local P.T.A.

The place gave off the vibe of being ideal in every way, which meant that was exactly what wasn’t happening on the other side of those glimmering windows. Plus, the eight-foot, wrought-iron fence around the perimeter didn’t exactly give off a friendly, welcoming vibe.

I was about to pull up to the gate and page Mrs. Tucker when a woman in the shadows of the ivy stepped out of her hiding spot. I didn’t need to have seen the photo in her file to know the woman was her. That vacantness in her eyes, paired with the way she moved like a feral cat, screamed that she was a woman who’d seen more fists than open arms in her marriage.

My blood heated.

My passenger-side window was rolled down before she took another step in my direction. “Mrs. Tucker, are we still on for the Meet?” I tried making eye contact with her, but her eyes went nowhere but the sidewalk.

She nodded. “Yes, but just in case my husband shows up earlier than expected, I thought we could meet across the street at the park. You know . . . if that’s all right with you, of course.”

I smiled sadly. Like her home, Mrs. Tucker was immaculate. There wasn’t a wrinkle in her linen pant suit, nor a hair out of place on her head. She was beautiful in an understated, unaware kind of way, and her few touches of makeup couldn’t hide the grapefruit-sized bruise mottling her cheek. “Of course it’s all right.” And probably a good idea.

While I wasn’t worried about what would happen to me if Mr. Tucker arrived home early to find a strange woman in the house, I was concerned for what might happen to Mrs. Tucker. The job was a balance of every shade of discreet, for every kind of reason imaginable.

“Do you want to hop in and I’ll drive you over?” I asked. The park was literally across the road, but it felt odd to just drive off and leave the woman alone.

“No, I’ll walk. Just in case any of my neighbors are watching.” As if being reminded of them, she scanned the block. “I’ll meet you at the bench in front of the duck pond.” Without another word, Mrs. Tucker gave one more frantic scan of the block before hustling across the street and disappearing into the park.

I sighed before easing the car into a parking spot. That Errand would be tough—not because of the Target, but because of the Client. Whether I saw a sliver of myself in Mrs. Tucker or she’d already found my heartstrings and started tugging, or whether I was just one woman standing up for another woman who’d forgotten how to hold her shoulders high long ago, let alone her head . . . the Errand was already too personal. And I had yet to make it through the Meet.

Despite whatever I was feeling, I couldn’t lose sight of one thing: I had to wrap the Errand up within the week. It was either wrap it up in a week and get back to California or I’d have to abandon it. I didn’t need G screaming through the phone at me that we wouldn’t allow a Seven to get in the way of our coveted Ten.

I wouldn’t abandon the Errand for my own pride, and I sure wouldn’t do that to Mrs. Tucker. It didn’t take an expert to assess that she was at the end of her rope.

After parking, I grabbed my briefcase and followed the path that I hoped would lead to the duck pond. I hadn’t thought to ask just how far in the pond was—given Mrs. Tucker’s paranoia, it could have been a state away—but once I crested the first hill, I saw it. The park wasn’t large, and it was surprisingly quiet for a mild day. I suppose when every house surrounding the park had its own park-like landscape, it wasn’t anything special.

I made sure to make plenty of noise as I approached Mrs. Tucker. She was clearly anxious, and I wasn’t sure if that was because of our clandestine task or if that was her steady state.

“Mrs. Tucker?” I called when I was still a good ten feet back.

She still jolted, but at least she didn’t bolt. “I’ve got all of the information you need.” Her voice wobbled and her hands shook as she pulled a manila envelope from her oversized purse. “Everything you need should be in here.”

I was faced with two options. I could grab the envelope, give her the do-this-or-else lecture, the phone, and take off and try to forget the bruised woman on a park bench in Florida. That was the easy road. The hard road was the one I went with because . . . why the hell not? Life wasn’t a cakewalk, so why start down easy street that late in the game?

“How long’s he been hitting you?” I asked as I sat next to her. I could have gone with a smoother introduction, but talking about the weather seemed like a crime when Mrs. Tucker was clearly in need of help. If she’d called us, we were the last card in her Rolodex.

Her hands twisted in her lap. “Such a lovely day, isn’t it? I might go for a walk later—”

“Mrs. Tucker.” I covered her hands with one of mine. Hers were cold despite the warm weather. “I’m not your friends at the country club, or your family who wants to keep up the blind-eye act, or a meddling neighbor. I’m the person here to help you.”

Her eyes closed. “How can knowing how long my husband has beaten me help you help me?” Her tone matched her expression—hopeless.

I waited for her to open her eyes. When she finally did, I waited until she looked me in the eye. “Motivation,” I stated, lifting a brow. “The more motivation I have to close an Errand, the faster I get it closed.”