Unrivaled, page 22
Tommy shrugged and swirled his coffee, watching the light-brown sludge run up and down the sides of his mug. “I told you what I think. My position stands.”
“Well, then.” Detective Larsen tipped back in his seat, his chair rocking precariously. If he was trying to set Tommy off balance, he’d already failed. Tommy couldn’t care less if he crashed and cracked his head. Tommy would make sure to finish his coffee; then maybe he’d consider calling for help. “You seem pretty confident about your position. Makes me think you might know more than you let on. What gives, Tommy? Is there something you haven’t told us? Because if it’s time you’re worried about, I got all night. You keeping Madison alive somewhere?”
Tommy squinted in confusion. Did they honestly believe he was capable of kidnapping Madison Brooks and holding her hostage?
“Did you kiss her?” Larsen slammed the seat forward and leaned so far across the table his face was just inches from Tommy’s. Close enough to take in a constellation of clogged pores and renegade eyebrow hairs.
Tommy winced and edged back in his seat. Larsen’s breath stank of whatever foul thing he’d eaten for lunch, and he hated the way the detective’s eyes went all beady on his. Like he wanted the details not just for the investigation but so he could store the mental image in his personal spank bank. Tommy shook his head, swiped a hand over his face. His body language was all wrong. Too fidgety. Made him look guilty. But he wasn’t guilty. Why couldn’t they see that? Why the hell was he still in this room?
“Did you kiss her? Did you take her to a back room and try to have your way with her?”
“What the fu—” Tommy frowned. “What kind of perverted bullshit is this?” He finally pulled the brakes on his tongue when he saw the way Larsen leered at him with his crinkly eyes and puffed-out cheeks, looking as though Tommy had just given him a beautiful gift, which he had. He’d shown anger—enough to hint at a possible dark side. Cops lived for those moments, and Tommy had walked right into the trap.
“It’s not bullshit,” Larsen said. “So maybe you should get serious and try answering the questions I ask you.”
Tommy took a deep breath and focused on the large rectangular mirror before him, which, according to every cop show he’d ever seen, allowed whoever stood on its other side to study him without being seen. Speaking to that person, whoever they might be, he raised his voice, and said. “Yeah, I kissed her.”
“And . . .”
Larsen’s brows wiggled in a way that made Tommy sick, but determined not to show it, he said, “And . . . nothing.” He’d tried to keep it neutral, but his voice gave him away. He was completely annoyed, and it was starting to show. Still, what he’d experienced with Madison was far more meaningful than some sloppy adolescent grope session. It was . . .
“So tell me about the black wristbands.”
Tommy snapped to attention. How the hell had he known about that?
“You know, I gotta admit, I was a late adapter when it came to the social networks. I mean, who wants to keep up with all the people you couldn’t stand in high school, right?” He looked at Tommy as though waiting for him to agree, and when he didn’t, he went on to say, “And yet, now that I’ve joined the modern world, I find them incredibly useful.” He stared hard at Tommy, purposely pausing for a few awkward beats. “According to Instagram, you have a reputation for looking the other way when it comes to underage drinking.”
Tommy relaxed. Luckily, he’d been smart enough to halt that particular practice just after Layla’s story broke and the cops started snooping around. It was old news. Couldn’t be proved. He had nothing to worry about.
“I’m hardly responsible for the crap people post on the net.” He shrugged like he meant it.
“Maybe so . . . but those black wristbands are specific to the Vesper. Most of those kids taking selfies—is that what you’re calling them—selfies?”
Tommy closed his eyes to keep from rolling them in plain sight. Larsen acted like he was a computer-illiterate octogenarian when he was probably somewhere in his mid-to late thirties. The whole thing was ridiculous.
“Anyway, most of these kids taking selfies with these black wristbands are under twenty-one. And I’m telling you, there are hundreds of these pics, maybe even a thousand. I lost count. What I’m wondering is—were you aware of that?”
Tommy gulped. Surely he hadn’t given away that many—had he? “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He struggled to keep his voice steady, even. He’d revealed too much already.
Larsen shrugged as though the topic was dead, but Tommy knew it was anything but. “Still, it’s interesting how you’ve taken this terrible tragedy involving a girl you claim to care for and made it work for you. I like to keep up on celebrity culture by reading the blogs and the tabloids. Helps me do my job, seeing as most of those folks live in this town. From what I’ve gathered, you’ve managed to give a sizable number of interviews in a short time. You’ve spoken to People, TMZ, and US Weekly, to name a few. You moved to LA to break in as a musician, right?”
Tommy stared at him stone-faced, refusing to confirm or deny.
“Must’ve been disappointing to uproot yourself all the way from Oklahoma only to end up working at Farrington’s Vintage Guitar, and even then you got fired. Luckily, you managed to rebound with this gig for Ira Redman, but really, how long do you expect that to last?”
“Yeah, I get it.” Tommy met his gaze. “You did your homework. You know all about me.”
“Clearly I don’t know all about you. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here, would you? Still, it’s impressive how quickly you’ve managed to position yourself.”
Tommy was seething but kept it under wraps.
“I can tell you’ve done an ace job using your connection to Madison Brooks to lure in big crowds and get a leg up on your competitors. According to your interviews, you knew Madison far better than you let on. You spoke of her in almost lyrical terms, but when asked if you kissed her—what was it you said?” He leaned so close Tommy could feel Larsen’s breath hit his cheek like a slap. “Real men don’t tell.” He pushed away, let out a loud, guttural laugh. “Real men don’t tell.” He slammed the desk, shook his head. “And they say chivalry is dead. I especially liked the way you shot the camera a look that hinted otherwise. Hit it outta the park. The fans, the haters, they can’t get enough. Executed in true Hollywood fashion, wouldn’t you agree?”
Tommy’s shoulders slumped in shame. He’d done all those things, and worse. But what was he supposed to do? He was young and hungry, had no choice but to seize every opportunity. Besides, he’d tried avoiding the press and they only hounded him more. Giving them what they wanted was a win-win. They got the story, and he got the kind of exposure he wouldn’t otherwise be offered. Besides, most of those interviews paid off in fat rolls of cash he was in no position to reject.
“You still pointing the finger at . . .” Larsen pretended to consult his notes, but it was just another tactic in an arsenal of many. “Layla Harrison? You still think she had something to do with Madison’s disappearance?”
Tommy closed his eyes. Did he think Layla did it? Most likely no. Then again, he didn’t know her as well as he’d wanted to, but that was all over now. He’d said it on the phone, back when the cops first called, mostly trying to lessen the heat on himself. Besides, it wasn’t like Layla hesitated to push Tommy onto the proverbial tracks when she’d posted pics of him and Madison. All he knew for sure was that the girl had some unresolved anger issues. And yeah, maybe someone should take a closer look at her.
Tommy opened his eyes, fixed his gaze on Detective Larsen. “When it comes to Layla Harrison—let’s just say I wouldn’t put anything past her.”
SHAKE IT OFF
Aster Amirpour drove straight to the police station, pulled into a parking space, and rested her forehead on the leather-wrapped steering wheel. She was wired, shaky, and the fluttering in her belly when she’d left her house had
She took a series of deep, cleansing breaths, about to check her appearance in the rearview mirror, when her phone chimed with an incoming call and Ira Redman’s name popped onto the screen.
She stared at her phone, unsure what to do. She wasn’t in the habit of receiving calls from Ira, and she feared she might be in trouble for failing to show at the club and missing some meetings. After all he’d done for her, taking care of her after the Madison meltdown, not to mention the cash-filled envelopes—he’d believed in her and she’d let him down. If he was going to fire her, it was probably for the best. With her reputation as a slutty boyfriend stealer, she’d become a liability. The sooner they both put the whole mess behind them, the better.
She closed her eyes and cleared her throat, and then lifting the phone to her ear, she murmured hello.
“Aster, good.” Ira’s voice was hurried and deep, the sound of a busy man about to clear an unpleasant task from a list of things to conquer by noon. “You’re alive. Up until now I was afraid Madison wasn’t the only one who’d disappeared.”
Aster cringed at the reference. “I left you a message,” she murmured, hating how timid she sounded, but Ira always left her feeling nervous.
“Yeah, yeah, I got it.” There was a muffled sound on the other end as he placed his hand over the receiver and spoke to someone in the background before he returned. “Still, that was one message, Aster. Your absence was a bit lengthier than expected.”
She picked at a frayed spot on the jeans she’d bought at the Barneys denim bar. Funny to think how much she’d paid for pants that’d been purposely destroyed. If only she’d had enough foresight to buy a less-damaged pair. With her parents determined to cut off her finances, her shopping spree days were now a thing of the past. “Am I fired?” Her fingers instinctively reached for the hamsa pendant, despite any evidence it worked in her favor.
“What? No!” Ira’s surprised voice boomed in her ear. “Where’d you get that idea?”
“Well, I just figured—”
“Don’t figure. Don’t ever try to second-guess me. You’ll fail every time. I know you’re getting a rough deal in the press and I wanted to check in and— You okay?”
She was crying. She hated herself for it, but she couldn’t help it. She’d been unfairly ridiculed and shamed by both the press and her family. And now, because of it, she was penniless, homeless, and about as far from okay as she could possibly get—only to have Ira Redman, of all people, actually show some concern. It was too much to process in too short a time. And once she’d started crying, she found she couldn’t stop.
“Aster—where are you? Tell me you’re not driving.” He sounded like a father—a concerned and caring father. Like the kind she used to have until she brought shame on her family and her dad could no longer bear to so much as look at her.
“I’m at the police station.” The words were a whisper. She hung her head low, watching the tears spill onto her lap.
“What the hell are you doing there?”
Ira’s alarm snapped her to attention. She peered in the mirror and wiped her hands furiously over each cheek. “They asked me to come down for questioning and—”
“And you decided to oblige them?”
She squirmed when he said it. The judgment in his tone rang loud and clear.
“You with a lawyer?”
She shook her head, and then realizing he couldn’t actually see her, mumbled, “No.”
“You talk to anyone?”
“Not yet.” She looked over her shoulder, watched some cops climb into a squad car, neither of them exhibiting the slightest interest in her. “I’m still in the parking lot.”
“Listen, start your car and get the hell out of there. Now. You hear me?”
A fresh flood of tears sprang to her eyes, and there was nothing she could do to stop the flow. Only this time she wasn’t just crying, she was sobbing, with all the embarrassing snot-clogged sound effects to go with it.
“Aster?” Ira waited a beat, giving her a chance to calm down. “What’s really going on here?”
She peered into the rearview mirror, scowled at her mess of a reflection, and jerked the mirror till it was facing the opposite way. “I have nowhere to go.”
She could hear Ira breathing. And though it only lasted a moment, to Aster it felt like the silence would drag on forever. “Meet me in the lobby of the W in a half hour. It’s on the corner of—”
“I know where it is.”
“Fine. And, Aster—”
She was already starting the car, already starting to recover. Ira had a plan. Ira would take care of her. Or, at the very least, he would help her form a plan so she could take care of herself, which was even better. Either way, if she could think of this moment as rock bottom, then things could only get better.
“Everything’s going to be fine, you hear?”
“I know,” she said, already starting to believe it. “See you soon.”
SHUT UP AND DANCE
Layla moved through the crowded club, the percussive techno beat throbbing in her head, as she took a mental tally of her gets before ultimately losing track and giving up. It was a lot. The most bodies she’d ever pulled in. And it was all thanks to her Beautiful Idols blog.
Not like she could compete with the kind of numbers they were scoring at Night for Night and the Vesper, but that was only because they’d turned into Madison shrines, and Jewel hadn’t played an actual part in the drama, so there were fewer pop culture vultures dropping in. Though she was gaining a sizable list of publicity-starved B- and C-list celebrities. Including Sugar Mills, who Aster had sent over, as though that somehow made up for Ryan Hawthorne. Hardly. But she’d deal with that later.
“Can you even believe this?” she said to Zion, shouting to be heard over the music.
“Oh, like you can’t?” He narrowed his dark eyes on hers, shaking his regal head as he made for his table of models.
Layla looked after him, unsure if the snub was because they were the last two standing at Jewel after Ira cut Karly, along with Taylor at Night for Night, last week, dropping the competitors to just six—because he knew her blog was mostly responsible for the kind of crowds Jewel was pulling in and it made him resent her—or if he was just being a bitch because he was clearly destined to lose and he refused to accept it.
Funny how gullible people were when it came to celebrities. Never realizing that nearly all pics of celebs frolicking at the beach in minuscule bikinis, or doing complicated yoga poses in the wild, were mostly staged by the celebrities themselves. And lately, Layla was so inundated with requests to catch them pretending to act spontaneously, between that and the club she had little time for anything else.
Sometimes she pretended to hate it, but it was mostly for Mateo’s benefit. For someone who’d never fit in, who’d never been part of the popular crowd, she had to admit she actually kind of liked being in demand.
“Looks like you’ve been holding out on me.”
Layla turned to find Heather Rollins standing behind her, gripping a miserable-looking Mateo by the arm.
Layla stared. Blinked. Stared again. Sure her eyes were deceiving her. Mateo had never once stopped by Jewel. He hated clubs. And yet there he was, hanging with Heather.
“Poor thing looked lost, so I figured I’d help him find his way. Where’ve you been hiding him, Layla?” She clutched Mateo’s bicep with both hands, nudging her body against him as she grinned flirtatiously. “All this time I’ve been sharing my secrets, didn’t realize you were still hiding yours.” She pursed her lips and shot Layla a disapproving look.
“Not a secret, just my boyfriend,” she said, watching as Mateo jerked free of Heather’s grip and moved to stand beside her. Aware of the sudden rush of heat rising to her cheeks as she glanced between them, she felt nervous,
“Well, stop hiding him and start bringing him around.” Heather’s gaze lingered on Mateo, as he pressed a hand to the small of Layla’s back and steered her away.
“Who the hell is that?” he asked, sounding as annoyed as Layla felt.
“She’s not so bad,” Layla said, unsure what frustrated her more—having to defend Heather Rollins, or Mateo showing up unannounced.
He looked around the club, seeming agitated, unnerved, totally unlike his usual self. “How do you know her?”
Layla closed her eyes and shook her head. Seriously? This was what he wanted to discuss when they’d barely seen each other all week? She took a steadying breath. “She’s a regular fixture on my blog, which you clearly no longer read or you’d know that.” She sighed, forced a more muted stance. “We hang out sometimes, that’s all.”
Mateo shot her a conflicted look, but Layla moved past it and took his hand in hers. “You can’t blame her for hanging all over you.” She inched closer, ran her fingers over the neck of his T-shirt. “Not when you come in here looking so amazing.”
She cast an appreciative look at his dark jeans, charcoal V-neck tee, and black linen blazer—a far cry from his usual board shorts and wet suits. Clearly he’d made an effort, and she wanted him to know just how much she appreciated the gesture.
“C’mon.” She grabbed hold of his lapels and pulled him closer. “Wanna drink?”
He shook his head.
He squinted. “You don’t dance.”
“I do with you.”
He frowned and looked away. “How many of these kids are messed up on Molly, or worse?”
Layla sighed. It took all her effort not to roll her eyes. “Not sure.” She shrugged. “It’s not like I took a survey.”
“And it doesn’t bother you that they might be?”
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