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The Billionaire Encounter by Nikki Bloom (1)

1

Alex

My shoes clicked against the linoleum floor as I walked down the mint-green-and-taupe-colored corridor. They looked a little dull from sitting in some locker for five years but the fine Italian leather and intricate craftsmanship were unmistakable. Part of me wanted to tell the guard to my right how much the shoes had cost. Not a penny less than twelve-hundred dollars. That was probably what Corrections Officer Boaz made in a month. Can you imagine risking your life every day housing criminals of every sort for a measly twelve-hundred dollars per month?

Of course, I really had no right to be so smug. Officer Boaz didn’t have the word “felon” after his name. As we walked together we passed one of the cons I’d gotten to know, who was mopping the floor. My hands were still in handcuffs even though they allowed me to slip on the Armani suit I was arrested in. The con was wearing the standard orange jumpsuit with thick white socks and slip-on flip-flops that were as thin as paper. Tattoos snaked up his neck and the two teardrops he had tattooed underneath his left eye crinkled when he smiled at me. Before Officer Boaz could notice he looked down at the floor.

“Good luck, Lexy,” he muttered.

“Thanks, Jose. I’ll keep an eye out for hose B.” It was a terrible joke but I saw Jose’s shoulders shake as he laughed, his eyes still on the task at hand.

“Those kind of jokes won’t go over very well on the outside,” Officer Boaz said as soon as we passed the con. “You’ll find yourself either back in here or in the hospital. Or worse.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I muttered. “I won’t be hanging around guys like Jose on the outside.”

There was never a truer statement made. Jose Trujillo was doing seventeen years for kidnapping and attempted murder. He’d decided that one of his baby’s mama’s was spending too much time working, going to school, visiting her mother, going to rehab. She wasn’t making enough time for him. The nerve of her. So, when he decided to surprise her at her apartment and found another guy there he beat the man within an inch of his life and took her on a long road trip where he pointed out several desolate locations where he could bury her body and no one would ever find her. Nope. I wouldn’t be hanging around guys like Jose.

Seventeen years behind bars all because he got jealous. There isn’t a woman on the planet worth giving up seventeen years of my freedom for. There isn’t a woman worth giving up five years of my life for. But in my case, I had no choice.

“I’ll bet you won’t,” Officer Boaz replied.

We came to a set of bars where the officer had to insert a key to press a button. A buzzer went off and then there was a loud clang of the internal locks releasing the door so we could pass through. Another guard stood on the other side. I hadn’t seen him before. He was scrawny and tried to look tough as he looked me over. He wasn’t like Boaz. Officer Theodore Boaz stood about six feet tall, my height, but bald as a cue ball and built like a bulldog walking upright. His neck had to be twenty inches around and his arms were so thick with muscle that all his shirtsleeves were torn at the seams. He strutted with the confidence of a man who’d survived more than one assault attempt from an inmate. There were scars on his arms from homemade shanks. DIYs for the inmates crafting hobbies. He also had the names Amber and Skyler tattooed on his steely forearms. I’m guessing those were the names of his daughters. They sounded like the kinds of names a guy like Officer Boaz would like. He probably had their mother’s name tattooed on his massive chest, over his heart, of course in an over-the-top loopy and curly-cued lettering style. It read Crystal or Shannon.

The scrawny fellow had some crazy tattoo on his neck just over his uniform collar. I didn’t try to figure out what it was. That would require I stare at him. Even though I was in my suit and just a couple hallways away from freedom, until I stepped over that threshold I was still property of the Joliet Corrections Facility.

So, I lowered my eyes.

“What are you going to do on your first day?” Officer Boaz asked as he slipped one meat hook hand under my arm and escorted me through another door, pointing down to a red line of tape. “Stand here.”

“I’m not out yet,” I replied. “So I haven’t given it much thought.”

“What?” Officer Boaz chuckled as he stood behind me. “You gotta have a woman you’re going to see. A guy like you? Maybe two or three.”

He pointed to the man behind the bulletproof glass and chicken wire counter indicating I was to focus there for the moment. The officer there looked like a bank teller from some old movie. His jowls hung down in a permanent frown and his eyebrows were thick, white bushes that stood out at least an inch from his forehead.

“Number,” the older officer grumbled.

I rattled off my inmate identification number for the last time.

“Ramsey, Alex. Step forward,” the old man ordered as he pulled two large manila envelopes from a plastic bin. Officer Boaz hovered close behind me. There were a few other officers in the room sipping coffee and working on the endless stream of paperwork that comes with every desk job. This was where security was the lowest.

The guys in this particular office, aside from Officer Boaz, were counting the days to retirement and those sweet pensions they’d been paying into for who knew how many decades. Their guts and gray hairs told the whole story.

“One Rolex watch.” He checked off a list and handed it to me. “One leather wallet. One set of car keys, six keys. One pocket notepad. One gold pen. One tie clip. One necktie.”

I put all the items back in my pockets where they had been five years ago when I found myself in this place. Funny, but after walking around without anything jingling or hanging in any pockets, I felt as if I had a boat anchor holding me down.

The old officer pulled out the other bag and reached inside.

“Five-thousand-eight-hundred and twenty-two dollars cash. Count it,” he ordered.

“I trust you,” I replied.

“Count,” he grumbled again. A stickler for the rules.

As he rattled off my credit cards I counted out my cash. Frankly, I was surprised it was all there. I wasn’t worried even if they had taken my money. What was a little over five grand to a guy like me? Had they had any sense, or any criminal tendencies, these guards could have taken those keys downtown to the Bank of Shanghai. The tiny key at the end opened a safety deposit box that held five-hundred-thousand dollars. My rainy day fund. And the only reason it was held at the Bank of Shanghai was because no one in my social circles would ever think I had an account there.

“Sign here,” the old officer croaked, slipping a pen and the very edge of the document he was reading from under a tiny slit in the glass.

I scribbled my name and slipped the pen back to him.

“How many days until your sentence is over?” I asked him, smirking.

“Thirty-seven days.” The men around the room all chimed in, teasing the old guard about having a heart attack or a riot breaking out just before he signs his papers and walks out the door. He chuckled without looking at me.

“Good luck, son,” he added.

“You too.” I turned and offered my cuffed hands to Officer Boaz. He pulled his key ring, which was attached to a retractable wire on his utility belt, and slipped the tiny handcuff key into the locks. The teeth loosened and I pulled my hands out, instinctively rubbing my wrists.

Officer Boaz escorted me down another hallway. This one didn’t have any locks or barred gates to buzz through. There was a camera in the corner. I looked directly into it knowing I was being watched by at least four guards as burly as Boaz who were waiting to see if I tried anything funny before I left. At the end of the corridor there was a solid metal green door.

I wondered how many times a guy released on parole threw it all away to sucker punch a guard. Stupid.

With another key from his ring, Officer Boaz slipped a bigger key into one solitary lock on the ugly green door, gave it a firm turn and yanked the door open. Bright sunshine poured in.

“Good luck, Lexy. I hope I never see you again.” Officer Boaz grinned and extended his hand. Of course, I accepted it. He wasn’t a bad guy. I was the bad guy. At least that was what everyone thought. Why else would I be in jail, right?

All I could do was nod my head and smirk. I stepped outside into the sun a free man. There was one more gate to go through. A younger officer I knew as Henderson was standing there. The gate was a chain link with razor wire across the top. He unlocked the door and held it open for me.

“Your ride is here,” he muttered, nodding to a shiny black limousine idling in the small parking lot.

“That’s mine, all right,” I replied. “Take care, Henderson.”

“You too, Alex.”

Those were the last words I spoke on Joliet Corrections Facility property. I stepped over the threshold and walked toward the limo. From the driver’s side a familiar face appeared.

“Sir.”

“Carl,” I said as I embraced the man who had been my driver for almost fifteen years since I was a spoiled, snot-nosed teenager. “I wasn’t sure if you were going to stay on. I’m glad you did. How’s Mom?”

Carl cleared his throat and pulled away from me, looking down at the ground. “She’s all right, I suppose. I don’t see her much, sir. She’s gotten a new driver. ” Carl’s gray temples stood out against his dark brown skin. Even though he’d aged five years he was still a good-looking guy.

“Let me guess. He personally picked her new driver,” I hissed.

“Yes, sir,” Carl said sadly.

“Let’s go home.”

“Right away, sir. But, I think you should know before you get there that the penthouse has had many of the furnishings…removed.”

“Of course.” I shook my head. Carl pulled the door open for me and I climbed in. The smell of clean leather was comforting. The minibar was stocked. Good on you, Carl. He knew the finer things in life were not Rolex watches or Italian shoes. Those things were nice but what made a man feel like a man was money in his pocket and a halfway decent glass of scotch. I fixed myself just that.

I looked at the glass as the limo started to move, catching a glimpse of my worn-out face. I still held that chiseled look, my forlorn, ice-blue eyes searching my own face as if it were a stranger’s, but my jet-black hair needed a proper cut. I cracked the lightly tinted window so the cool fall air would blow inside. The sound of the ice against the glass, the bitter smell of the alcohol, its rich auburn color were as welcoming to me as Crystal probably was to Officer Boaz after a couple of Budweisers. Then, the sip.

“Five years I’ve been waiting just to taste a scotch again,” I mumbled as I savored the burn it left down my throat. Yes, money in my pocket and a scotch in my hand did make me feel like a man again. But those were just things. Revenge really made a man. Revenge.

The scenery outside zoomed past. It was mostly cornfields until we got on the expressway. Then billboards for casinos and jewelers and used car lots popped up polluting the landscape. More cars merged with us and semi-trucks barreled past at break-neck speeds.

The houses on the outskirts of the city had their own bars on the doors and windows. Bad neighborhoods had these telltale signs. Every third or fourth house was boarded up with plywood with a crude address spray-painted on it. Grass grew in random patches in the yards.

But even these faded out as the industrial parks and train yards took over. Diggers and dump trucks moved along muddy roads. Empty boxcars covered with vibrant graffiti lined up on tracks for miles. Weird wholesale shops for plumbers or restaurants lined the streets with a couple of random non-denominational churches sprinkled in between. Bars with grates over their windows and a neon sign that read Cerveza Fria, looking more like creepy community centers than drinking taverns could also be spotted as we sped past. The bars didn’t have names. Just the sign Cerveza Fria.

Finally, we exited at Balboa Street. There was Columbia College with its brick façade and grungy looking students loitering around the entrance smoking cigarettes or staring at their phones. With a right down State Street I saw all the familiar logos for Macy’s and Bloomingdales, the Apple Store that was packed to the rafters, and what seemed to be the last Barnes & Noble bookstore in the entire Midwest.

There were people everywhere, but I barely saw them. I was looking for one face in particular. His face. The one who was responsible for me being in prison. The one I took the fall for.

I guess I really wasn’t much different from guys like Jose. Although I’d never get thrown in jail for abusing a woman, I went to jail to save a woman. A woman who couldn’t even find the time to meet me the day I was released. I hadn’t realized it but the ice cubes had melted in my scotch, severely watering it down. I grabbed the bottle from the minibar and gave myself another splash. That sip wasn’t as good as the first but was still pretty damn good.

It was the memory of her face as she watched the police come into my office and read me my rights that made my blood boil. She just stood there. Then he came and put his arm around her, looking at me knowing all along it was his crime, his mess that I was being forced to clean up.

But now I was out. An eight-year stint knocked down to five for good behavior. There would be a lot of catching up to do. A lot of preparation. As much as I wanted to storm the castle, the castle was going to have to wait. It wasn’t going anywhere.

Finally, Carl pulled up in front of 333 North Lake Shore Drive.

“You’re home, sir,” he rolled down the divider and said. “Tina has been managing the daily routines and I’m sure she’s anticipated your immediate needs.”

“I’m sure she has. Thank you, Carl,” I said as I stepped out and pulled off my tie that had only been hanging around my neck like a snake. It felt good to be home but I didn’t recognize the doorman who held the front door open to me. Nor did I see a familiar face among the people at the front desk. A waify, blonde woman and an equally waify, red-headed man looked up at me with half-hearted smiles as I strolled past.

I said nothing. What did they think, that I was going to clear it with them before I went to my home?

The private elevator was at the end of the bank. My key still fit allowing me to press the button to call it down. It was there in a matter of seconds. The doors swished open revealing black and white marbled tile with frosted mirrors on every side of the elevator car. I stepped in, used my key again and within seconds stopped to a halt at the fortieth floor. Home.

When I stepped out there was a small note stuck over the lock of the double oak doors.

Welcome home, Mister Ramsey. It had a smiley face and some flowers on it plus a little heart with the name Tina below it. As much as I wanted to continue feeding on my anger and resentment I had to smile. I slipped the key into the lock, turned it, relishing the thick sound of the mechanism opening the lock, and turned the doorknob.

“Home.” I stepped inside and let the door slam shut behind me.

“Mr. Ramsey?” came the sultry voice of Tina. “Is that you?”

“Yes, Tina,” I shouted back, unable to hold back the smirk that spread across my lips. “Where are you?”

“I’m in the bedroom!” She giggled.

“Of course you are.” I walked through my home feeling like it really wasn’t my home anymore. The paintings I’d collected over the years had been removed from the walls. The only sculptures that remained were cheap knick-knacks picked up on vacations. Some of my furniture was still there, including the dining room table and a chaise lounge, but my specialty pieces were gone.

“He got his hands on everything. All of it,” I muttered as I clenched my teeth.

“Mr. Ramsey?”

“Coming.” I took a deep breath and walked through the dining room to a winding staircase that lead to the second floor that was my bedroom. When I reached the top I found Tina.

“I tried to find a few things to give you at least the basic comforts.” She stood at the foot of the bed. It was the only thing in the room besides one tall dresser I’d bought at an Amish farm. “They even took your sheets the day after you…went away.”

Tina was about two-hundred pounds of attitude stuffed into a four-foot-nine body. She’d been my housekeeper and friend as long as Carl had.

“I see your sense of style hasn’t changed,” I said as I stepped up on the landing. Tina wore skin-tight stretch pants and a leopard-printed shirt underneath her apron. She looked like links of sausage strung together. “And you still have that smile that could launch a thousand ships.”

“I’m glad you’re home, Mr. Ramsey.” She walked up to me and gave me a hug, which required I stoop down to pat her on the back. “I would have written to you but…I didn’t know what to say. If I told you what was going on you wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. I thought that would be crueler than saying nothing.”

“You’re a keeper, Tina.” After letting her go I took off my jacket and dropped it on the bed. “Tell me, did you take care of those books I asked you to.”

“They’re safe. Like I promised,” she replied with a wink. “Do you want me to get them for you? It’ll just take a couple of hours.”

“Not yet. I’m hoping I won’t have to use them,” I mumbled. “I gotta take a shower and wash the Joliet Correctional Facility off me.”

“It’ll be nice being able to take a shower without worrying,” Tina said.

“Worrying about what?”

“You know. Dropping the soap,” she said in a whisper. “I stocked the kitchen. I’ll make you something to eat.”

Before I could tell her I wasn’t very hungry she had waddled to the steps and began her slow descent.

It was obvious that Tina had restocked all of my toiletries. Those things must have been cleared out too when they ransacked my place. For spite, I’m sure. I didn’t even think to ask if I had any clothes left. Everything should still fit since I kept in shape. That was one thing about prison: it was not a place you’d get soft in.

While I was alone in the shower everything came crashing down on me. Maybe it was the scotch on an almost empty stomach. Maybe it was just the overwhelming sensation of being “out.” But as the hot water came from six jets around me and I could smell the scent of the soap Tina had bought while my feet were massaged by the natural stones I had placed on the floor, my heart began to break.

I clenched my fists and bit my tongue. The pain surfaced in my eyes as the coppery taste of my own blood seeped over my taste buds. For five years I didn’t shed a tear. At the trial while she sat staring at me like I was guilty, when they led me away in cuffs, my God, when I went through the humiliation of a body search and being suited for that orange jumper. Never once did I shed a tear. But now alone in my shower I cried.

“Mother.” I wept, clenching my teeth, digging my nails into my palms. “What have you done?”

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