The Baby Contract

By: Barbara Dunlop

One

 Troy Keiser halted his razor midstroke, glancing to the phone on the bathroom counter.

 “Say again?” he asked his business partner, Hugh “Vegas” Fielding, sure he must have misheard.

 “Your sister,” Vegas repeated.

 Troy digested the statement, bringing the cell to his ear, avoiding the remnants of his shaving cream. Sandalwood-scented steam hung in the air, blurring the edges of the mirror.

 “Kassidy is here?”

 His nineteen-year-old half sister, Kassidy Keiser, lived two hundred miles from DC, in Jersey City. She was a free spirit, a struggling nightclub singer, and it had been more than a year since Troy had seen her.

 “She’s standing in reception,” said Vegas. “Seems a little twitchy.”

 Last time Troy had seen Kassidy in person, he was in Greenwich Village. A security job with the UN had brought him to New York City, and the meeting was purely by chance. Kassidy had been playing at a small club, and the diplomat he’d been protecting wanted an after-hours drink.

 Now, he glanced at his watch, noting it was seven forty-five and mentally calculating the drive time to his morning meeting at the Bulgarian embassy. He hoped her problem was straightforward. He needed to solve it and get on with his day.

 “You’d better send her up.”

 He dried his face, put his razor and shaving cream in the cabinet, rinsed the sink, and pulled a white T-shirt over his freshly washed hair, topping a pair of black cargo pants. Then he went directly to the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee, downing it to bring his brain cells back to life.

 His and Vegas’s side-by-side apartments took up the top floor of the Pinion Security Company building in northeast DC. The first two floors housed the company’s reception and meeting areas. Floors three to seven were offices and electronic equipment storage. The computer control center was highly secured, directly below the apartments. The basement and subbasement were used for parking, target practice and storage for a vault of weapons.

 The building was state-of-the-art, built after Troy sold his interest in some innovative security software and Vegas hit it big at a casino on the strip. After that, their company had grown exponentially, and they’d never looked back.

 The buzzer sounded, and he crossed the living room, opening the apartment door to find the six-feet-four, barrel-chested Vegas standing behind his sister, Kassidy, who, even in four-inch heels, seemed barely half the man’s size. Her blond hair was streaked purple, and she wore three earrings in each ear. A colorful tunic-style top flowed to a ragged hem at midthigh over a pair of skintight black pants.

 “Hello, Kassidy.” Troy kept his voice neutral, waiting to ascertain her mood. He couldn’t imagine it was good news that brought her here.

 “Hi, Troy.” She slanted a gaze at Vegas, clearly hinting that he should leave.

 “I’ll be downstairs,” said Vegas.

 Troy gave his partner a short nod of appreciation.

 “Is everything okay?” he asked as Kassidy breezed her way into the penthouse foyer.

 “Not exactly,” she said, hiking up her oversize shoulder bag. “I have a problem. At least I think it’s a problem. I don’t know how big of a problem.”

 Troy curbed his impatience with her roundabout speaking style. He wanted to tell her to spit it out already. But he knew from experience that rushing her only slowed things down.

 “You got any coffee?” she asked.

 “I do.” He cut through the vaulted-ceilinged living room, heading for the kitchen, assuming she’d follow and hoping she’d compose her thoughts along the way.

 Her heels clicked on the parquet floor. “I’ve thought about it and talked about it and I’m really sorry to bother you with it. But it’s kind of getting away from me, you know?”

 No, he didn’t know. “Does ‘it’ have a name?”

 “It’s not a person.”

 He tried and failed to keep the exasperation from his voice. “Kassidy.”

 “What?”

 He rounded the island in the center of the expansive kitchen. “You’ve got to give me something here, maybe a proper noun.”

 She pursed her lips tight together.

 “What happened?” he asked. “What did you do?”

 “I didn’t do anything. See, I told my manager this would happen.”

 “You have a manager?”

 “A business manager.”

 “For your singing career?”

 “Yes.”

 The revelation took Troy by surprise.

 Sure, Kassidy was a sweet singer, but she was really small-time. Who would take her on? Why would they take her on? His mind immediately went to the kinds of scams that exploited starry-eyed young women.

 “What’s the guy’s name?” he asked suspiciously.

 “Don’t be such a chauvinist. Her name is Eileen Renard.”

 Troy found himself feeling slightly relieved. Statistically speaking, females were less likely than males to exploit vulnerable young women in the entertainment business, turning them into strippers, getting them addicted to drugs.

 He gave her face a critical once-over. She looked healthy, if a bit tired. He doubted she was doing any kind of recreational drugs. Thank goodness.

 He retrieved a second white stoneware mug from the orderly row on the first shelf of a cupboard. “Why did you think you needed a manager?”

 “She approached me,” said Kassidy, slipping up onto a maple wood stool at the kitchen island and dropping her bag to the floor with a clunk.

 “Is she asking for money?”

 “No, she’s not asking for money. She likes my singing. She thinks I have potential. Which I do. It was after a show in Miami Beach, and she came backstage. She represents lots of great acts.”

 “What were you doing in Miami Beach?” Last Troy had heard Kassidy could barely afford the subway.

 “I was singing in a club.”

 “How did you get there?”

 “On an airplane, just like everybody else.”

 “That’s a long way from New Jersey.”

 “I’m nineteen years old, Troy.”

 He set a cup of black coffee in front of her. “Last time we talked, you didn’t have any money.”

 “Things have changed since the last time we talked.”

 He searched her expression for signs of remorse. He hoped she hadn’t done anything questionably moral or legal.

 “I’m doing better,” she said.

 He waited for her to elaborate, taking a sip of his coffee.

 “Financially,” she said. “Good, in fact. Great, really.”

 “You don’t need money?” He’d assumed money would be at least part of the solution to her current problem.

 “I don’t need money.”

 That was surprising, but good, though it didn’t explain her presence.

 “Can you tell me the problem?” he asked.

 “I’m trying to tell you the problem. But you’re giving me the third degree.”

 “I’m sorry.” He forced himself to stay quiet.

 She was silent for so long that he almost asked another question. But he told himself to pretend this was a stakeout. He had infinite patience on a stakeout.

 “It’s a few guys,” she said. She reached down for her shoulder bag and dug into it. “At least I assume they’re guys—from what they say, it sounds like they’re guys.” She extracted a handful of papers. “They call themselves fans, but they’re kind of scary.”

 Troy reached for the wrinkled email printouts, noting the trace of anxiety that had come into her expression.

 “What do they say?”

 While waiting for her answer, he began reading the emails.

 They were from six unique email addresses, each with a different nickname and a different writing style. For the most part, they were full of praise, laced with offers of sex and overtones of possessiveness. Nothing was overtly threatening, but any one of them could be the start of something sinister.

 “Do you recognize any of the addresses?” he asked. “Do you know any of the nicknames?”

 She shook her purple hair. “If I’ve met them, I don’t remember. But I meet a lot of people, a lot of people. And hundreds more see me onstage and you know...” She gave her slim shoulders a shrug. “They read my blog, and they think we’re friends.”

 “You write a blog?”

 “All singers write blogs.”

 “They shouldn’t.”

 “Yeah, well, we’re not as paranoid as you.”

 “I’m not paranoid.”

 “You don’t trust people, Troy.”

 “Only because most of them can’t be trusted. I’m going to hand these over to our threat expert and see if there’s anything to worry about.” Troy remembered to glance at his watch. If he wasn’t done soon, Vegas would have to take the Bulgarian meeting.

 He polished off his coffee, hoping Kassidy would do the same.

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