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“Well, if you’re watching this, Chuck, that means I’m fucking dead,” Darren Pryce chuckled from the television screen. The man loosened his tie and continued, “Which basically means that all of that vegan, jogging, meditation horseshit is a waste of time and we should all stick to the basics. You know, Scotch, good blow and porterhouse steaks.” That was a real laugh, almost a howl. It was literally a knee slapper as the blonde man on the screen slapped his knee and threw his head back; and what a glorious head of hair it was. It was thick and blonde and his highlights twinkled in what Charles could only imagine must be professional lighting. The DVD was most likely shot by an actual film director because Darren Pryce, at least to Charles’ knowledge, had never done anything half-assed.
“No seriously, Chuck,” the man tugged the Windsor knot down another inch or two on his crisp, white button down. It was a move that Charles knew was meant to make him seem more personable, more the guy who lived next door, the guy who sat in the barstool next to you. That was the biggest con of all because Darren Pryce was anything but ordinary. He continued, “The stress man, the fucking unbelievable stress. You know why it’s lonely at the top? Because of all the motherfuckers you had to kill to get there. There’s nobody left.” Although that should have been a joke, Darren looked dead serious that time. His cold, blue eyes stared straight at the camera and he looked more like a gangster then than the head of the Christ Baptist Temple.
Charles scratched his head and stretched in the leather club chair. It wasn’t easy to get comfortable here in the law offices of Bradford Miller. He imagined that he wasn’t supposed to actually enjoy being here, considering that they charged six hundred an hour for facetime . It was more like McDonald’s: grab your food and get the hell out. Charles had never really known what to believe about his client Darren Pryce. For all he knew, the killing motherfuckers reference could just be one more line in the salesman schtick or he really could have murdered some folks to get where he was. It was hard to say. Charles felt as if he were a fairly astute judge of character. In his line of work as a financial advisor, he’d been privy to some of the wealthy’s dearest, darkest secrets but even in death, Charles had no read on Darren.
“Anyway,” Darren shrugged, “let’s get on with it. I know this is probably going to come as a surprise, but goddammit Chuck, I have recently come to understand that I’ve surrounded myself with vipers.” This sounded like the beginning of a sermon and it seriously wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Darren pulled out a few actual vipers and did a whole snake handling routine. “Fucking unfortunate, man, that’s what it is,” Darren shook his head. “Behold, I send you out as sheep amongst the wolves,” the TV preacher said with theatrical flair. Darren held out both hands, as if he felt the spirit move him. “That’s the god’s honest truth. So here I am, dead and all,” he smiled again and flashed two rows of brilliant, white caps. “And I’ve got no one, nobody in this whole fucked up world that I actually trust to watch out for my baby girl.”
Charles squinted and tried to remember her. It had been a long time ago and he seemed to remember a girl in a dress and wondered if that was the daughter. She hadn’t said a word while Charles and Darren signed the paperwork for one of many investment accounts. Her details had escaped his memory but he recalled the tap of her feet on the hardwood floor as she turned the chair in a half circle. Back and forth, back and forth, Charles had never asked who she was and Darren had never offered.
Charles had never asked him many questions because he’d rather not make Mr. Pryce lie more than necessary. Darren got the benefit of the doubt because he had always said that he was going to be a billionaire, “With a B.” And at least that part wound up being true.
Darren continued. His hands were folded behind his head and he leaned back in his chair, as if they were shooting the shit over lunch instead of having a one way conversation. “So I’ve got to ask you, buddy, if you’ll save my ass one more time? I mean, I’ve really got no one else that I trust with my heart, you know what I’m saying?” The drawl had crept back into Darren’s speech but Charles knew that was just part of the showmanship. The Texans that made up his in-person congregation liked that he was a “down home” boy, one of theirs. It only took two minutes on Google to discover that he’d been born and raised in Eureka, Oregon. “I’m appointing you trustor over the trust, Chuck and asking that you be a guardian for my daughter. I know, I know, she’s of legal age and all that nonsense. That would be okay if she had been raised like me. Hell,” he guffawed once more at his own jive, “if she had been raised like me, she’d probably be living in the goddamn trailer park already. But she wasn’t raised like that, Chuck. She’s been sheltered, extremely sheltered.” Darren leaned in and choked up a little and Charles wondered if Küçükköy escort bayan the preacher could make himself cry on cue for the camera, “I’m scared for her, Chuck.”
Maybe it was genuine, the man actually sounded scared.
There were creases across Darren’s forehead, white lines in his made for TV tan, as he pleaded, “Please, watch out for my baby girl, Chuck. Keep her safe for me.”
The DVD stopped and the television screen turned to static. The lawyer who had sat in the shadows at the back of the room all this time cleared his throat, and reminded Charles that he was still there. He asked, “Do you have any questions for me at this time, Mr. Nelson?” Charles couldn’t remember the man’s name and he’d said it with such an air of importance that Charles knew it would be bad form to ask now.
Did he have any questions?
Only about a million and most of them started with “What the fuck?” Darren had been a client. He had come to Charles for financial advice and later on, as his fortune grew, to set up tax shelters. The church, being the original tax write off should have been enough but Christ Baptist Temple was hardly a non profit enterprise. Darren had been an unscrupulously greedy man. Everything was for sale. Redemption could be had for the right price; or Pryce, as the case may be. So how did he go from being trusted financial advisor to guardian of someone else’s daughter?
And what would happen to her if he said no?
And what did that say about the supposed man of god, the most widely watched television preacher since Jim Baker, that he had to ask a virtual stranger to take care of his heir?
Charles exhaled deeply and that meant, “Yes, I have questions but I don’t even know where to begin.” The lawyer made enough money to explain it to him so Charles just said, “Tell me how this works.”
The stack of documents looked formidable and the lawyer gestured at the file. “Shall I explain as we go along?” It was obviously a rhetorical question because the man with the mystery last name clicked a pen and handed it over to Charles. “Might as well get started,” he said in a tone that meant, “only an idiot would say no.”
He spent the next fifteen scrawling his illegible signature along yellow highlighted lines. Charles thought that he might as well get right to the point, he was pretty blunt by nature.
“So how much is this girl worth?”
“You mean right now?” The lawyer asked as he pushed his readers up on his nose. “In dollars?”
Charles nodded politely, he didn’t need down to the penny, he just wanted an idea.
“Approximately five billion,” the lawyer said as he turned the page and pointed out another highlighted line.
Charles couldn’t help but let out a low whistle, “God is good.”
The lawyer added, “Thanks in no small part to your ingenuity, Mr. Nelson.” He smiled although it wasn’t a happy gesture, more just to be polite, “let’s protect it, shall we?”
Charles noticed that he used the word “it” and not “her” and wondered what this was really all about.
Charles looked through the stack of dry-cleaning and wondered if he should bring more shirts. He had no idea what to bring because he had no idea how long he’d be at the Pryce family compound.
The word “compound” gave him a chill and brought to mind all sorts of nefarious activities. Who the fuck had a compound? Drug dealers and cult leaders, that’s who and for all Charles knew, Darren could have been both. Charles always felt that the preacher gig was just a front but for what, he’d never wanted to ask.
Charles had wrapped things up at his own practice so that he could devote his waking hours to his new gig; being Anastasia Pryce’s guardian and the administrator of her many billions. Of course it was for a fee, a very handsome one at that. It wasn’t the money that made Charles hesitate, it was Darren.
He’d first met Darren Pryce almost twenty years ago. Someone had recommended Charles to him. In the beginning, Darren couldn’t actually afford his services. The young man had worn cowboy boots, red and black ones at that, and a cheap suit to their first meeting. Charles had felt a twinge in his gut, something strange that had kept him from kicking Pryce out. Sure, he had been full of shit but that didn’t mean that he hadn’t had the potential to do everything that he claimed. Darren had told Charles that day that he was about to be very rich.
Charles could remember his reaction, the chuckle under his breath as he had folded his arms over his chest. “Inheritance?” he’d asked Darren. Frankly Darren hadn’t looked like he was the sort that had a rich uncle. He had looked more like he’d grown up in a trailer park.
“No sir,” Darren had told him with a lazy smile that, back then, had been two rows of stained, crooked teeth. “Sales. Best damn sales job ever.”
“What are you selling, Mr. Pryce?” Charles had asked politely.
“Jesus.” Darren had said it with a smug voice and a nod that seemed to say that there was nothing else to say. He had Escort Mecidiyeköy listened to Darren go on for the better part of an hour and Charles had actually believed him too. Or rather, he had believed that Darren believed in his own abilities so much that the young man might just be able to walk on water.
Charles zipped up the garment bag after he’d stuffed another suit in it. So now he was locked in. Twenty years later and he’d helped Darren keep most of the wealth that had poured in.
Who knew that Jesus would be so profitable?
Or that there was such a fucking market for wholesomeness. Charles still couldn’t believe that part of the non-disclosure document that he’d signed. There was a bonus for keeping up the “whole virgin thing.”
He had lingered over that paragraph and asked the lawyer, “what’s the virgin thing?”
The man scowled at the writing. “Mr. Pryce was instrumental in the abstinence movement that has become popular lately. He was the first one to market the purity rings. It’s very important that Miss Pryce continue her father’s work.”
For a man who liked to get straight to the truth, the legalese was frustrating. Charles asked him straight out, “so what you’re saying is that I get an additional 500k if this girl doesn’t have sex until she’s married.”
“That’s what the agreement says, yes Mr. Nelson.”
“How exactly do I do that?”
Charles’ mind was blank. It might have been forty years ago but he still remembered. There was nothing, definitely not the fear of god could have stopped that urge when it rose it’s head. Hell, even at fifty eight, he felt the call sometimes in his lizard brain.
The urge had no age.
The lawyer had just clicked the pen. He was ready to move on and clearly didn’t give a good goddamn about the girl, just the bottom line.
“That’s what the money’s for, Mr. Nelson.”
Charles also got a bonus if the girl finished college before she got married. If she stepped into a leadership role at Christ Baptist Temple after getting a divinity degree at Dallas Christian College, Charles could retire. Retire as in go away and never come back. Bye bye Chicago winters, hello private beach.
It wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops though.
Something about signing the papers had made him a little sick inside. It surprised Charles that all of that money hadn’t excited him one bit. Maybe Darren had finally discovered that in the last days of what wound up being a fairly short life.
Before he left, Charles thought he should call Julie, his ex-wife. She still had the best instincts of anyone he’d ever met. Except of course, the whole marrying him thing. It was early but she was probably just getting back from the gym.
“Kinda early, isn’t it?” she answered on the first ring.
“Since when do you sleep in?” he would be shocked to find out that Julie ever got up after five.
“I meant for you,” she laughed. “I just finished my CrossFit class, I’ve been up since four.”
Of course she had, Charles thought. Julie probably sweat the most and did the most pushups too, or whatever the hell you did at CrossFit. “I just wanted to check in, I’ll be gone for work for a while but I’ll always have my cell on me.”
His ex snorted, “And why would you tell me?” It had a bit of the nasty tone, the hardened, sarcastic voice that she’d used with him for most of the last two years of their marriage. Charles sighed and shook his head. It hadn’t always been that way. In fact, he could remember a couple of nights rather recently when a bottle of wine and a shoulder rub had been enough to bring the softer girl of yesteryear back.
“No reason in particular,” he said, although since he’d watched Darren’s death DVD, Charles had been contemplating who he had in his life that he’d want watching his last will and testament. “I just wanted you to know I wasn’t around but I’m fine,” he told her and wanted to add, “in case you stopped by one night with no panties on.”
He didn’t though.
He kept it professional which had been easy when she hated him but now that he had the picture in his mind once more of her, it seemed cold and sad to act like this with someone he’d thought he’d loved once upon a time. Julie, with her chin length, thick black hair and her tan arms and her legs that went for days. They were perfectly sculpted legs and turning fifty hadn’t softened her body one bit, or her attitude.
“Why is a financial advisor going out of town for work?”
She was always like a bloodhound, which was great since she was actually a detective. “It’s weird. Remember my client, Darren Pryce?”
“The Jesus freak?”
“Well he wasn’t really a Jesus freak but yes the Jesus guy. He died and he wanted me to take care of some stuff with the estate.”
“Why you though?”
“Because he said I’m the only person he could trust.” Charles purposely left out the thing about the girl and the purity movement. Something like that would piss Julie off until his ear rang with her shrill voice.
“Yeah, I can Merter escort totally see that,” Julie answered.
“You can?” he was surprised. So all of that stuff about him being a selfish bastard during the breakup was just nonsense?
“Of course Charlie,” she told him in the voice that was reminiscent of the girl that he’d fallen for pretty hard a long time ago. “You’re probably the most decent person I’ve ever known.”
Hardly anything to make him a chick magnet, he thought . Sure, he made decent money, maybe he was even rich depending on how you looked at it. He had his hair although it was almost entirely gray. Charles thought he needed something better than decent considering that he was staring at 60 and wasn’t sure if he was ready to embrace the curmudgeon lifestyle permanently. “Decent, huh?”
Julie laughed, “Yeah don’t let it go to your head. You’re still a complete pain in the ass.”
At least they could joke with each other again, Charles thought. He’d missed that during those years when it had all been curt text messages or notes written in red marker and taped to his mailbox. “Yeah, you too,” he told her before he hung up.
The limo driver was a Pryce employee and Charles wondered if the man hadn’t been told to keep his mouth shut. On the thirty minute drive from the Dallas airport to Southlake, the man had only said, “Good afternoon, Mr. Nelson.” Then he’d taken Charles’ luggage and set it all very tidily in the trunk. Once he was back in the driver’s seat, he nodded in the rear view mirror at Charles before he raised the partition.
The limo turned at a road marker and what Charles initially thought was a quiet, tree lined country road was actually the driveway of the Pryce compound. The driver stopped at the gate and a brawny man who wore aviator sunglasses peered into the car. He took a long, suspicious look in the front seat and acted as if the driver were a stranger too until he nodded at him and said, “Yuri.”
“Hey Todd, I’ve got Mr. Nelson here,” Yuri, the driver said as the two men pumped fists.
Did everyone know that he was arriving? Charles felt the fingers of heat trickle under his collar and wondered if the temperature had gone up or if that was just nerves.
The man known as Todd nodded and tapped on Charles’ dark tinted window. “Sir, put the window down, please.”
Charles did as he was told even if this wasn’t the reception that he’d planned.
“Can I see some identification?” Todd stuck his head in the window and scanned back and forth.
“Is there a problem?”
“No problem,” Todd told him with a joyless smile, “as long as you show me your ID.”
Fucking wannabe cops.
Charles fished his Illinois driver’s license out of his wallet and handed it over. Todd took it without a thank you and strolled toward the gate where another guard typed quickly on a keyboard. What the hell were these guys looking for? What exactly was Charles getting into? All of the reasons why he wanted to insist that he could serve as the girl’s guardian from the comfort of home reared up again. Darren must have created all this paranoia.
Todd strolled back to the car and gave the license back. “Here you go. Standard procedure Mr. Nelson. You wouldn’t believe how many crazies try to get in here to see Mr. Pryce.”
“But Mr. Pryce is dead,” Charles muttered as he shoved his ID back in the allotted wallet slot.
“That’s what they say.”
The guard motioned the limo to pull up and the massive 10 foot tall gate rolled open. The driver slowly resumed the journey up to the compound. The road twisted and wound through beautiful countryside. Everything was lush and green and there was even small, cobblestone and wrought iron bridge over a stream but the beauty was lost on Charles.
That’s what they say? What the fuck did that mean?
On the left there was a building that looked to be stables and a little further up, maybe a few hundred yards on the right, were tennis courts. Buildings sprung up on both sides and Charles was impressed by the formal landscapes and fountains. There were a series of small concrete row houses that could have been bunkers or classrooms. There was a pool and cabanas and what might be guest houses surrounded by palm trees.
Everything was dwarfed when compared to the massive structure that Charles could see rising in the distance. Once they got closer, it looked more like a fortress. The limo circled onto the driveway and Charles loosened his tie.
The limo driver was pulled over by a young man wearing a headset and a whistle around his neck. “This is Mr. Nelson?” he asked the driver and before anyone could explain, the young man pointed, “we’re crazy here today Mr. Nelson. These goddamn cops don’t care that I’ve got a schedule to keep. You go in the front door and a young lady will take you to Mr. Lanaghan’s office.”
“What about my luggage?”
The whistle boy had already walked away, “We’ll get it taken care of.”
Charles exited the limo and was engulfed in chaos. There were delivery men with dollies that rushed back and forth. They carried flowers, plants, a filing cabinet and furniture. People with laminated cards on strings around their necks scurried. The place was a zoo. Running a mega church must be a 24 hour a day job, Charles thought, but what had whistle boy said about cops? What were they doing here?
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