There was no place like LA in the wintertime. Jade had always found it ridiculous. From November first to the end of December, grown women went out dressed as Santa’s elves. Fake snow spilled from store displays, and Christmas carols . . . The Christmas carols never stopped.
Bluewater Nightclub leaned into the Hawaiian Christmas theme. The potted palms dazzled with tinsel and twinkle lights, and the twelve-foot tree that stood on the roof was decorated with pink hibiscus.
Even in December, the uniform was pleather: short skirt, skimpy top, and thigh-high black boots. Jade hated every hour of every shift, but it was a job that paid in cash.
Most of the clientele at Bluewater were harmless — wannabe models, washed-up actors, rich kids rolling on E. But occasionally the drinking and the drugs got out of hand. The club had to install an eight-foot glass wall around the rooftop bar after a guy jumped to his death two summers before.
As a waitress, Jade had learned to be on her guard. Some guys got handsy — that was typical. But occasionally a man would flirt all night and then wait around for her to get off. She never left the club alone.
At last call, Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” started to play over the sound system, and Jade waited for the desperate dance to begin. Last call was always when the drunks cast around like people looking for a life raft. They were searching for someone they might get to fuck. Jade found it incredibly sad.
After she and the other girls cleared the deck, they started rounding up glasses, straws, and trash. It was filthy work best done fast, all of them hoping not to find puke.
By five thirty she was in the locker room. She peeled off her tall black boots and stuck them in her locker. Her pay for the night was rolled up in a wad.
Operating in cash was difficult but not impossible. The sketchiest part was getting it home. Jade kept another pair of shoes in her locker for that very purpose. They’d been part of her uniform when she worked at Dime — so cheap that the wedge heel was hollow.
Rolling back the worn-out insole, she slid the wad of cash into the heel and pulled on the shoes over her nylons. She’d been mugged more than once in this part of town and had learned not to keep cash in her purse.
She clacked out on the worn-out shoes just twenty minutes before six. The air was chilly for California, and she hugged her long coat tighter around her.
It was three blocks to the bus stop and another four home. By the time she finally staggered in the door, she could see sunlight on the horizon.
Jade rented a shitty studio apartment on the second floor of a building with sun-faded linoleum and sliding glass doors. Her patio was just large enough for two people to stand on and faced another building.
When she got inside, she kicked off her shoes and savored the sweet relief. She stretched her arches with a sigh, rolling back her toes. She’d been on her feet for ten hours straight in four-inch wedge heels. Her top was plastered to her skin with sweat, and the first thing she did was step into the shower.
The water was cold, but she didn’t care. The landlord refused to buy a new hot-water heater, and Jade was used to cold showers by then. It wasn’t the only thing that needed fixing. There were often cockroaches in her kitchen, and the laundry machines ate quarters. Housing choices were slim when you lived on the run, and Jade was always on the run.
Once she’d washed the fruity sugar water off her body and banished the lingering stench of alcohol, she got out and wrapped herself in a towel. She padded over to the kitchen counter, wrapped her cash in tin foil, and stuck it in the freezer. If anyone ever broke into the apartment, that would be the last place they looked.
She grabbed a frozen dinner while she was at it and shoved it in the microwave. The microwave hummed to life with a lurch and a groan, and she reached up to ease a box of penne off the shelf. She hadn’t touched the pasta in more than a year. The box was just a decoy.
She opened it and fished around on the bottom until she found what she was looking for. It was a lime-green flash drive that held fifteen terabytes. A girl could never be too careful.
As her ravioli was heating up, she cracked the top off a beer and sat down at her desktop. The flash drive contained all data of consequence — anything she didn’t want the authorities to find.
She’d spent months painstakingly tracking Mordecai’s movements. He was the man who had hijacked her organization — the man who had ruined her life.
Mordecai had turned her into a terrorist. It was because of him that she spent her Friday nights getting groped in the dark. He was the reason she lived in this place.
Staying off the grid was a painstaking exercise — a lifestyle all of its own. Jade didn’t have a bank account in a traditional sense. All her assets had been frozen.
She used cash to buy prepaid credit cards and bought new burners every other week. She’d gotten her desktop secondhand from a third-party seller and routed all her traffic through Tor.
The second she turned on her desktop, the trending news stories scrolled across her feed. Benjamin Blum was dead at seventy-eight. Topfold had already published ten stories.
Suddenly, Jade felt the world shift on its axis. This was the moment she’d been waiting for.
Benjamin Blum was Mordecai’s father — a tech icon and a legend. He’d influenced countless young businesspeople, and his products would soon be ubiquitous.
And yet the news stories all said the same thing: Mr. Blum would have a private funeral. Jade’s heart beat faster.
For the past two years, Mordecai Blum had been untouchable. He’d been living and working abroad in Russia, and Jade could not get on a plane. Now that Benjamin Blum was dead, Mordecai would have to come back home.
Jade would have her chance.
Benjamin Blum made his home in Atherton — one of the most expensive zip codes anywhere. And yet it was only a five-hour drive up the California coast. Soon Mordecai would be within reach.
Jade’s mind was racing. She’d have to borrow a co-worker’s car. That would be easy to arrange. She rented her apartment month to month. At most, she’d be out last-month’s rent. She had no real friends, no family, no cat . . . There was no one who would miss her.
She would drive up to Atherton the very next day and keep an ear to the ground. The service wouldn’t be hard to find. She’d just need to stake out the most expensive funeral homes and wait for Mordecai to appear.
Once he surfaced, she’d take him out — regardless of the consequences.
Everything she needed was already packed. She kept a getaway bag in her closet. The pistol she’d stolen from a club bouncer’s car was buried in the courtyard.
There was just one thing left to do, and she had to do it now.
Dragging in a deep breath, she opened her closet doors. The accordion doors creaked and wobbled on their track, revealing a dozen sleazy outfits. She had just one nice thing to wear — an outfit she’d kept from better times.
The wine-colored A-line dress had cost half her paycheck. It hugged all her curves and plunged low down her back. She wore it with her mother’s gold earrings and velvet burgundy shoes.
She’d worn this dress the night he proposed, and it still made her feel like royalty. She slid on the emerald solitaire ring, watching it sparkle in the light. She never wore this ring to work. It just lay there in the drawer.
Standing in front of her full-length mirror, she wasn’t sure she had it in her. The dress and the ring brought it all rushing back — the memories she’d tried to forget. She thought reliving them just might kill her, which was why she kept the dress in the closet.
But ten minutes later she was applying her lipstick as the sun peeked in through the blinds. The dress and the lipstick were odd for the daytime, but this was how she wanted him to see her.
Checking her reflection one last time, she grabbed her coat off the chair. She emerged into the crisp winter sunshine with a buoyancy contained by protective dread.
She took the bus back to her old place — the two-bedroom midcentury she and Dameon once shared. It was situated in a nice older neighborhood with repainted breeze blocks, yuccas, and cacti.
Her heart skipped a beat as she walked from the bus stop, past the homes of her nosy neighbors. She hoped that none of them would be out and about, but she wouldn’t let their stares spoil her mood.
They all knew the girl who’d lived next door and how she’d broken Dameon’s heart. They would remember the police cruisers and FBI vans, but they would not remember her.
People quickly forgot their neighborly impressions when a neighbor was accused of terrorism. They would not see the Jade who gardened and cooked. They would see a thug — a cold-hearted bitch.
It was eight thirty by the time Jade reached the end of the block where she and Dameon had lived. Cars were parked along the side of the curb, most of them older American models. She stopped just short, gathering her courage — wondering what she would say.
She was not there to win Dameon back. She had come to say goodbye.
Mordecai Blum was the son of a legend. His murder would not go unnoticed. There was at least a slim chance that she would get caught, and then she’d be hauled off to prison.
She didn’t care about her reputation as a killer. Her reputation was long destroyed. She just didn’t want him to see her like that — not without talking to him first. She wanted him to remember who she had been before she had gone on the run.
She’d had a good job and had made a good living. She’d had a dog and a Honda Civic. She and Dameon traveled, cooked, and made love. They fought on occasion, but they were well matched. He put a damper on her raging inner fire.
But when Mordecai started killing people as part of the Bureau, Jade became a hunted woman. She changed addresses and saw Dameon in secret, thinking things would die down.
But the authorities had not given them a rest. They hounded Dameon day and night. He had to change jobs. He changed gyms. He changed cars. And still the FBI showed up.
After eighteen long months of suspicion and threats, Dameon had ended things for good. He’d asked Jade not to call — not to visit — and Jade’s heart split in two.
Standing on the sidewalk outside their house, the feeling was almost surreal. She’d honored his wishes. She hadn’t been back. But in that moment it was as though she’d never left.
Taking a deep breath, Jade approached the house, and her heart leapt to her throat. She could see the porch furniture that she’d picked out and a faded umbrella peeking out from the courtyard.
Jade sensed movement on the other side of the blinds. Dameon was awake.
She heard a low rush of a sliding glass door and saw a familiar shape emerge. Hulking shoulders in a plain white tee shone through the breeze-block wall. She caught a whiff of coffee, and her heart shuddered with emotion.
Dameon loved his coffee. So did she. It was something they’d bickered about constantly. But Jade had sometimes liked to surprise him with his favorite roast. She’d bring home a Tanzanian peaberry just to see him smile, even though she hated the stuff.
Her whole body called out to him, and she took a step forward. She couldn’t seem to help herself. Then the sliding glass door opened again, and a musical laugh broke the air.
Jade’s heart sank as another figure emerged wearing an oversized robe. The woman said something about making breakfast, and everything inside Jade recoiled.
She stood there frozen on the sidewalk and listened to the scrape of a chair. The woman sat and laid down her coffee, still chattering in a breathless sort of way.
Feeling the heat of tears sting her eyes, Jade whipped around the corner. She was moved by madness — she wasn’t all there — as she clacked up the porch steps in her best dress.
He’d never hear her. You couldn’t hear from the back. But he would know she’d been there.
Tugging and twisting to free herself from the ring, Jade shoved it in the mail slot. Her knuckle throbbed where she’d yanked it off, and she felt her tears spill over.
Holding her coat tightly around her, she started to stumble down the sidewalk. She didn’t know how long it would be until the next bus came. She might still be sitting there when that woman drove past. She had to find another stop, though she didn’t know where that was.
Halfway down the block, her heels started to bleed as they rubbed up against the backs of her shoes. She never wore these if she had to walk, and the pain was what finally stopped her.
She came to a dead stop, reeling with horror. That ring was all she had.
She’d considered giving it back or pawning it for cash, but she’d never been able to do it. Dameon might have broken her heart, but it was better than the alternative.
Those times with him had been the best of her life, and that ring was her only reminder.
Choking down sobs, she turned back and ran — not caring which neighbors saw her. Heart in her throat, feet still bleeding, she clacked back up the porch.
She bent down in her dress, hand on the knob, and pushed the door half open. She’d expected to see the ring just lying there, but there was nothing except cold tile.
The voice was abrupt, like a shot to the heart, and Jade felt her face catch fire. She looked up, filled with dread, and saw Dameon looming over her, blocking the woman from view.
His face was the same — same scruffy half beard. Same stupid Raiders shirt. He was staring down at her with a perplexed expression, but his eyebrows gave him away.
Dameon was angry that she was there. Shouldn’t he be ashamed? Shouldn’t he be begging her for forgiveness? For turning her away?
As she knelt on the ground looking for the ring, she realized things were the other way around. Dameon wasn’t ever going to apologize, and he wasn’t ashamed. It was she who’d wronged him. He felt good that he’d moved on. Dameon wasn’t trying to hide his other woman; he was protecting her from Jade.
A swell of tears rose up in her throat, and Jade felt her insides shatter. This was worse than she’d ever imagined. It was the thing that would finally break her.
Dameon was holding something in his hand — no doubt the emerald ring.
“I’d like that back,” said Jade in a rumble, thrusting out her hand.
She glared up at him through her heavy tears, her mouth hard with defiance.
No. She would not be broken, even if she cracked. She would not run away in shame.
Dameon held her gaze with sad dark eyes before dropping the ring in her hand. She felt its weight, felt Dameon’s warmth, as he closed the door between them.
Jade turned on her heel, tears still in her throat, and walked quickly toward the road. She didn’t have a destination in mind — at least not anymore.