A modern-day noir featuring a twisty cat-and-mouse chase, this dark debut thriller tells the story of a woman who makes a living taking down terrible men...then finds herself in over her head and with blood on her hands. The only way out? Pull off one final con.
Jo's job is blackmailing the most lecherous men in Los Angeleshandsy Hollywood producers, adulterous actors, corrupt cops. Sure, she likes the money she's making, which comes in handy for the debt she is paying off, but it's also a chance to take back power for the women of the city. Eager to prove herself to her coworker Lou and their enigmatic boss, known only as the Lady Upstairs, Jo takes on bigger and riskier jobs.
When one of her targets is murdered, both the Lady Upstairs and the LAPD have Jo in their sights. Desperate to escape the consequences of her failed job, she decides to take on just one more stingbringing down a rising political star. It's her biggest con yetand she will do it behind the Lady's back, freeing both herself and Lou. But Jo soon learns that Lou and the Lady have secrets of their own, and that no woman is safe when there is a life-changing payout on the line.
A delicious debut thriller crackling with wit and an unforgettable feminist voice, The Lady Upstairs is a chilling and endlessly surprising take on female revenge.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)|
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I'd picked the hotel for the sting because the bar had one hell of a happy hour-if you liked your drinks cheap and strong, the glasses washed maybe once in the last week. It was down the street from the studios, the right type of place to entice a movie man to meet an obliging blonde for a quick afternoon pick-me-up.
And not the least of my calculations: the St. Leo let me have my choice of adjoining rooms whenever I checked in, and didn't mind early arrangements or a quick redecoration, for the right price.
By my second drink, the apricot-tinted windows were purpling with twilight-happening so early these days-turning the light in the bar a good soft color for sloppy bad decisions. I was waiting on my third when I saw Ellen escorting the mark through the lobby to the elevator.
She stayed cool, didn't toss me so much as a backward glance. It was harder to do than it looked. But Ellen kept her eyes firmly on the mark's face, fingers curled around the patched elbow of his tweed blazer-a gift from one of his grandkids, no doubt, or one of the grown children benefitting from his production company's rampant nepotism. When I'd researched him for Lou and our shadowy employer, the Lady Upstairs, it had been one of the things that sold me: he kept his grabby sons on set, even after numerous complaints had been filed. I'd read that and thought: This one's perfect.
He looked at me-a swoop of terror in my stomach, but it was no more than the passing glance of a man surveying the room. I met his eyes and looked away without smiling, letting my gaze go through him.
Once they got upstairs: showtime.
Even on a Saturday afternoon, prime drinking hours, the bar was nearly empty. It was big business when a young couple sat down by the windows, and I watched them as I waited for the mark to reappear. Distracting myself. Her long honey-brown hair was ironed straight and scissored over her face, while his fingers plucked at the neck of his sweat-splotched shirt. They ignored each other and the fact that neither one of them was having any fun. She'd ordered something clear-vodka soda, I bet, unfussy and low-calorie, See how low maintenance I am?-and watched it melt all over her napkin.
They hadn't slept together yet, I was positive. Perhaps tonight was the night. Another bet: between the heat and the poor hotel accommodations and the fact that they were working hard to ignore each other, it wouldn't be a night to remember.
Making up stories about strangers is not usually in my nature.
"Relax, Jo, would ya?" Robert Jackal had said that morning, buttoning his shirt collar and studying himself in my bathroom mirror. Eyelashes longer than any woman's, but that was the only thing womanly at all about that carved handsome face, eyes pure no-hazel green, dark hair in disarray like a sleepy boy's, crunchy between my fingers. "It's not like you to be nervous."
Even before the sun was up, my walls sweated little beads of condensation. I was enjoying the coolness of the pillow against my cheek, starfishing my limbs and trying to find some chill in the spot he'd left. I didn't answer him.
"By the time I'm done, we'll have so much footage we won't know what to do with it all," he said, then bent down to kiss me on the forehead, reaching down to tap his fingers against the bracelet he'd given me as a birthday present a few years back, a mistake he hadn't repeated since. I'd slapped his face away.
As I waited, I piled my fleshless lime rinds into dimpled green pyramids. Keeping the trash to mark time, how many drinks I'd had, keeping my fingers busy so I wouldn't start doing algebra about Klein's net worth on the bar top. Three hundred twenty-six million meant he'd pay how much for photographs of his nasty predilections? What about for a video? Six blockbusters scheduled to come out in the next year meant a reputation was worth how much exactly? Fifty grand? More? My 20 percent of fifty grand would just about do it.
Calm down, I told myself. In less than an hour, you'll have the prints. And this time tomorrow, or the day after, say, you'll have what you owe to the Lady Upstairs.
Every three minutes, I allowed myself one long swallow of gin.
I let the couple distract me as I waited out Ellen's seduction. The girl's purse had crept from the floor to her lap, and now she clutched it tight between her knees like a chastity belt.
There are women who can spend time with men and manage to keep smiles on their faces no matter what. She wasn't one of them and I liked her for it.
The man said something, too low for me to catch, leaning in close and intimate. I leaned forward, too. The girl tilted her head. He placed both hands flat on the table and repeated it again, louder, slower. As though the problem was with her hearing. The girl rocketed backward, a blush throttling her neck, and then, slowly, deliberately, she tipped the three-quarters-full beer he'd been nursing into his lap. He jumped up and flapped his hands at his crotch, squawking. I laughed out loud.
And then there was the flare of the elevator as it opened on a familiar face-the mark, the object of every stakeout I'd sat through for the last three months, first me alone and then later, when I'd recruited her, with Ellen. He looked flustered. Pissed. I snuck a quick peak around the lobby. Luckily, most patrons were still tracking the beer-foam bath, and no one seemed to notice one of the wealthiest men in the city barreling for the door.
My pulse jumping, I reached for my purse steadily, measuring my movements in slow seconds, thankful for the commotion. I signaled to the bartender, slipping out a credit card and the room key in one motion, the number 345 scribbled in thick black strokes on an attached Post-it, being very careful not to turn and look at Hiram Klein.
Behind me, I heard someone from the bar call out, "Hey, aren't you that movie guy-" and I turned my head, but the mark, Hiram Klein, billionaire movie producer and launcher of a thousand careers, was hustling out of the lobby. The bar patron sat back down, not enticed enough to chase after that movie guy. The bartender handed me my check, and I smiled, cozying up to him across the bar top, skin buzzing, trying to imagine what celluloid gold Jackal must have gotten if Klein was that fired up.
"Was that a celebrity?" I asked him, testing the waters. I have a reckless streak sometimes.
"Not much of one," he said and passed me my receipt.
The door to 345 opened with a smooth click. The bathroom was barely bigger than a closet, and I could hear the erratic drip of a leaky faucet. The room was 90 percent bed-no use wasting space. The only art on the walls was something Lou had picked out, a shamelessly tacky Thomas Kinkade wannabeÕs whale scene Jackal had mounted before Ellen and Klein arrived. The eye of the whale could take up to sixty minutes of video, but the Moby-Dick we were chasing hadn't needed it-he'd finished within thirty-five flat. The bedside alarm clock housed a speaker that Jackal monitored from the next room, magnifying everything said or whispered or moaned in that bed to a mountaintop yodel when you played it back.
In the center of the bed in question, legs butterflied, sheet dripping down her chest, was my girl Ellen. Her fluffy blonde hair was a nimbus around her head, and a few strands of it had been tugged out and dangled across the grayish-white pillowcases. A black-and-orange duvet was crumpled on the floor, like it had been yanked off. Ellen's big black eyes were glassy-a little bit thrilled, a little bit tearful-and one bright red mark clawed across her face. I could see the outline of two fingers forming on her cheek.
So he'd used an open hand this time.
"How'd it go?"
Ellen shrugged. "Same as before," she said. "A few slaps, during. A bit harder today for the video. I told him to prove he was a real man." Ellen rubbed her jaw and a little squeak came out of her. I hissed in sympathy-it was easy to be kind with the chorus of mon-ey, mon-ey, mon-ey galloping through my veins. I tapped on the adjoining door, eager for Jackal's playback.
I had a bad feeling. I tried to ignore it. Maybe he was in the bathroom. I looked over my shoulder at Ellen, who was slowly combing her fingers through her pillow-fluffed hair. "Was the room already set up when you got here?"
She nodded. I tested the door for myself and it opened. I pushed at its mirror twin to reveal a bed and a bathroom. No light on. No sign of anyone. Not Robert Jackal, not the recording equipment he should've set up to catch Mr. Casting Couch in flagrante delicto, not even a note.
I didn't bother to close the door before I climbed up on the dresser, grappling the Kinkade down from the wall. I threw it on the bed, narrowly missing Ellen, who shrieked. The whale's eye was empty. Just an eye.
I let fly a string of expletives that came out of me twisted and nonsensical-"Fuck, fuck, fuck, that asshole!" A perfect goddamn opportunity and Jackal had wasted it.
"What's wrong?" Ellen asked. "He didn't get it?" Her voice took on a slight hysterical edge. "That was all for nothing?"
I ignored her and looked more closely around the room. Klein hadn't left anything behind, not a watch or a button, nothing to prove he'd ever been there.
Goddammit, Jackal. Eleven thousand dollars. That was all I needed. Eleven grand, and he'd fucked me out of it. There were two options I could think of as to why-another woman, a poker table-and neither was a good excuse for fucking me out of the last bit of the money I needed to pay off my debt to our boss.
I pressed my knuckles into my eyes until little comets pinged around my lids. Think, Jo. It was a setback, sure, but as long as Ellen hadn't blown it with Klein, we still had him on the hook. What was another week when I'd been waiting nearly three years to be clear of the Lady? It was nothing. Absolutely nothing.
As long as I still had Ellen on my side.
I pasted a sympathetic smile on my face and turned toward Ellen on the bed. "You okay?" I asked, my voice sweet enough to maraschino an onion.
"Yeah," she said, still working her jaw. "Sometimes I almost like it." She smiled for me, maybe putting on a brave face, maybe not. She'd been a good pick for this particular job.
"That's good, Ellen. I'm really happy to hear that. Because I'm going to need you to tough it out for me a little longer."
Ellen's face froze, and she tugged the sheet up to her chin. "I thought you said this was the last week."
"Plans change. It's the nature of the job."
Ellen's face reddened, and she sat all the way up, the sheet falling to her waist. If she thought I'd be impressed with the view, she was mistaken. "I can't do this another week!"
On the best of days, patience was not my strong suit, and this was no longer the best of days. "You have a better acting gig on the books?" I snapped. "You have any other producers breaking down your door?"
Ellen glared at me from behind her puffy thatch of blonde hair. "It's not exactly empowering to be acting like his mistress all the time."
I bit my tongue. Loose tempers weren't what I needed; what I needed was a compliant Ellen, still on my side. I sat down on the bed. I didn't touch her, but I let my hand get close so she knew I was making the effort to respect her space. The mark on her cheek would fade soon, I thought, but those slaps would've cracked like gunshots in the bedside mic. Goddamn.
"Ellen," I said-a person's name is usually their most comforting sound, which is also true for dogs-"Ellen, I'm really sorry. An emergency must've kept Jackal today, but I promise you, we won't miss it again. I need you to do this one little favor for me, and then it'll all be over. You'll have your money and you'll never have to see him again. And guess what? I bet he'll never smack another girl again in his life. He'll be too scared of what you could do to him."
I wasn't sure that was true, but I was certain he wouldn't guide another extra to the casting couch without thinking twice, that was for damn sure. And Ellen would know that she'd done that, she'd been the one to change him. I could see her turn it over. She furrowed her brow and stared into her lap, hard. Not a yes, not a no.
A week earlier, that little speech would have been enough. But now, she hesitated, which meant she doubted me. Which meant she was more dangerous than she'd been thirty minutes ago. Jackal, you have fucked me now.
"Please, Ellen." I hated myself. I hated her for making me beg. "One more time, for me."
"That's all? You promise?" Ellen sniffled and wiped her nose.
I hid my smile. "That's it."
Ellen nodded, but she didn't look happy. "Why did he storm out of here?" I asked to change the subject, reaching for her shirt on the floor. I tossed it behind me and let her have a few moments of privacy. I poked my head into the bathroom. The trash can was empty. Klein was so paranoid that if he'd used a condom, he'd flushed it. Or taken it with him.
"Oh," Ellen said, her tone light. Too light. Without looking at her I knew she was about to lie to me. I hoped Klein didn't find her so easy to read. "I asked what his wife would think if she knew he was here with me."
"That was enough to send him running?" I turned to stare at her.
There was a faint pink glow to Ellen's face now, and she was chewing on a thumbnail. "Hy is touchy about his wife," she said, trying for worldly. An ingénue on the make.