The gates are wrought iron and ten feet high. Shards of broken glass stud the top of the walls on either side.
“It’s like being back in Afghanistan,” I mutter to myself as the sullen old guy in the security booth waves me through and up the long, winding driveway.
Up ahead I catch a glimpse of a house framed by palm trees and fringed with a bright bloom of pink bougainvillea. It’s Spanish style, two floors, with lots of windows and balconies. Though the security might be on a par with an Afghan military base, the house is one hundred percent Beverly Hills.
I pull up beside a fountain that is almost as big as a swimming pool and sits in the middle of a circular driveway in front of the house. My beat-up old Bronco is wildly out of place in such manicured, high-end surroundings. I don’t want to dirty up the view.
I follow the driveway around the side of the house, hoping to find somewhere to park around back, but as I do, a bright yellow Porsche screeches up, spraying gravel in its wake. I slam on my brakes, but this person doesn’t seem to notice that they almost drove into me.
The Porsche pulls up in front of the house. The windows are tinted black, so I can’t see who’s driving and music pounds from inside; a stream of rap that drowns out the jazz track playing on my radio and makes my Bronco vibrate as though King Kong is rocking it. I shake my head and follow the drive around the house, tempted for half a second to reverse and get the hell out of here. I wonder if whoever is driving the car is the person I’m supposed to be interviewing with, and I worry that I’m doing the wrong thing. I don’t want to work for a selfish asshole.
But instead, I pull into a shady parking spot beside a truck filled with gardening equipment and get out, pausing to scan the grounds, noting the team of gardeners grooming the bushes and clipping grass in the distance and a man dredging leaves from a glistening blue pool. My eyes skip over the menagerie of colorful floaties on the surface of the water and land on the perimeter wall, hidden in places by thick stands of eucalyptus and palms. I clock the half dozen cameras camouflaged in the trees and the one above the back door, as well as the touch-pad entry system and the reinforced glass windows. This house has more security than the military base I just spent the last year on, and over there we were facing bomb threats. But maybe that’s normal in this world?
The back door opens as I start walking toward it. A woman in what I’m guessing to be her late twenties, wearing skinny jeans and high heels, stands on the threshold. She frowns at the sight of me, looking me up and down, and I pull off my sunglasses and arrange my face into what I hope resembles a smile. She doesn’t smile back. Instead, her mouth tightens with disapproval. I guess maybe I should have shaved.
She’s wearing stiletto heels and has more jewelry on display than the front window of Tiffany and Co. Diamonds drip from her fingers and ears, and a gold chain that could double as a bike lock hangs around her neck.
“You’re the guy Emma sent?” she asks.
I nod and hold out my hand, forcing the smile to stay fixed on my face, even though she isn’t reciprocating it. “Yes. I’m Will Ward.”
She appears to be frowning, but her brow stays smooth as stretched latex. It’s the pursed lips that give away her consternation. “You’re very young,” she remarks, and I pick up the trace of a Hispanic accent.
“Twenty-three,” I tell her, wondering how old she is. At first glance I took her to be in her late twenties, but now I’m wondering if she’s older, maybe even in her late thirties or early forties, with just really good skin.
“You were in the army?” she asks.
“Marines,” I answer. “Just finished my fourth tour.”
Her eyebrows rise the smallest amount. “Where were you deployed?” she asks.
I squint against the harsh sunlight. “Afghanistan mainly. Helmand Province. Iraq, too, for a while.”
I wonder if this is the actual interview and it’s being conducted here in the doorway. Maybe they don’t let the help inside the house.
There’s a long pause where she seems to be weighing me up before she steps aside and gestures for me to enter the house.
I have to admit I think twice about it. So far, nothing is making me feel like working here will be worth the hassle, but curiosity gets the better of me. I’m here now and I drove all this way, so what’s ten more minutes?
When we walk into the cool interior of the house, my first thought is that it feels like entering a tomb. Despite the sunlight streaming through the windows, there’s something airless about the place. All the windows are sealed tightly shut, killing the summer breeze, and instead of the balmy seventy degrees of outside, it’s as cold as a morgue in here. The tile floors and white walls aren’t helping to dispel that notion either, nor is the huge vase of white calla lilies on the table in the atrium-like hallway.
I hate those flowers and what they signify. The sight of them in their tall black vase takes me instantly back to the four funerals I’ve attended, all for brothers in the Marines who never made it home. I shiver involuntarily, fighting the urge to escape this place and get back outside into the sunshine.
The woman, who has introduced herself as Mrs. Rivera, leads me into a living room filled with giant white sofas and a grand piano. She gestures for me to sit on one of the sofas, and she takes a seat opposite me.
“So,” the woman says to me, straightening the diamond-crusted watch on her wrist. “I take it you know what the job entails.”
I shake my head. “No.”
Emma didn’t tell me much beyond the fact that someone she knew was looking for someone to work security. She said it would be an easy, fun job and that it would pay well. Right now I’m holding out hope that the third of those might still be correct.
The woman’s lips tighten into the smallest pout of displeasure. “My daughter is receiving threats,” she says.
“The threats aren’t public knowledge,” the woman adds hastily. “And this conversation that we’re having is obviously confidential.”
“Of course,” I answer.
“I’ll have our lawyer send you an NDA,” she goes on.
“A nondisclosure agreement?” I interrupt.
“Yes.” She nods. “It’s standard. You don’t have a problem with that, do you?”
“I don’t need to sign an agreement. I just gave you my word.”
She shrugs. “And with respect, I don’t know you, and everyone in Luna’s orbit has to sign one. That’s the deal.”
“With respect,” I say to Luna’s mother, “I was in the military for seven years—I know how to keep a secret.”
Mrs. Rivera eyes me with a jaded expression. “And do you know how many times people have told me to trust them and have then sold my daughter out to the tabloids or gossip sites?”
I stay quiet.
“As I was saying,” she goes on, “my daughter has been receiving threats.”
“What kind of threats?” I ask.
Luna’s mom stands up and walks over to the window. She takes in the view for a few seconds, then turns to me, and for the first time her face expresses an emotion that’s clear to read: one of pure fear. “Death threats.”