Copyright © 2023 Verena Key. All rights reserved. The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author. No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Glancing at a villa behind his back and a swimming pool in front of him, with its row of neat sun loungers, of which one was occupied by a gorgeous young woman sipping a colorful cocktail, Marcus thought he didn’t need to die to end up in hell. He wiped the sweat off his forehead, readjusting his baseball hat and dark glasses. Wet stains spreading on his no longer crisp white T-shirt grated on his sense for tidiness, but there was nothing he could do about it.
“Why don’t you change into swimming trunks and take a dip in the pool?” said the woman. “I won’t mind.”
“I’m fine, ma’am,” Marcus replied. “It’s all part of the job.”
“How many times do I have to tell you?” the woman chided him. “Call me Alessia. Ma’am makes me feel so old. And I’m not old.“
“No, you’re not, ma…” She gave him a warning stare. “Alessia,” Marcus corrected himself.
“Fine. Now be a good boy and come here and help me put on my sunscreen.”
While he rubbed the milky, sweet-smelling fluid into Alessia’s tanned skin, Marcus determinedly ignored the way she writhed and sighed under his hands. He should be on the lookout for intruders. Instead, he sat on the edge of a lounger, pampering his barely legal boss, and trying to avoid touching her any more than strictly necessary.
“It’s so hot,” Alessia breathed and turned, her tiny bikini slipping enough to reveal a firm sideboob.
Tell me about it, thought Marcus. For a moment, he seriously considered taking off his clothes and jumping into the swimming pool, but he feared Alessia would misinterpret it. She probably never considered her behavior towards him as sexual harassment; or, more likely, she couldn’t grasp that someone like him could not desire her.
He had a hard time understanding it himself. She was the perfect product of the entertainment industry, trimmed to satisfy the wildest phantasies of any average male. Marcus considered himself pretty average, but, firstly, he had a strict policy against fraternizing with his employers and, secondly, he didn’t like the music she made. Nor her. She was spoiled, self-centered, and not very smart. Almost ten years younger than him, she was caught in that awful phase every teenage star underwent when they grew older and had to change their image. Someone thought that Alessia should mutate from a cute girl into a sex symbol, and Marcus didn’t care, so long as he was not collateral damage.
“I should get back to work,” he murmured.
“Oh, always so serious,” she complained. “What can happen to me here?”
Not much. Marcus agreed with her on that point, which made him wonder why she had wanted him at her house.
“One can never be too cautious,” he said, attempting to explain it, mostly to himself.
She waved her hand at him, making a couple of golden bracelets tingle. “I’m going inside. I don’t want to overdo the sun.”
Marcus stood up, expecting her to do the same, but she only looked at him expectantly. Right. He offered her his hand as a support, which turned out to be a wise decision because her legs wobbled underneath her as soon as she was up.
“Wow, I hope I didn’t get a sunstroke,” she chuckled and grabbed him tighter. “You best carry me inside. Please?”
She pouted her lips pleadingly. Smelling the alcohol on her breath, Marcus glanced at the empty glass she had left on a side table, and, after a brief consideration, picked her up. Maybe she had a point, and it was safer this way. Still, after a few steps accompanied by her giggles, he thought about quitting. He needed the money, and she was paying more than the regular fee, but there had to be a more dignified way to earn it.
How did this happen to him? How had a guy who wanted to serve his city and help people become this caricature, babysitting a celebrity while she tried to re-enact her own version of the movie “Bodyguard”? He knew the answer, but he didn’t want to go there now. At least she wasn’t very heavy.
After he left Alessia inside in the able hands of a masseuse and a stylist, Marcus walked around and inspected the estate, to get at least an illusion of doing his duty. Just because he wasn’t wearing a blue uniform any longer didn’t mean he could slack on the job. Despite those words of encouragement, his enthusiasm for the current assignment remained at its all-time low.
A garden and trees surrounded the villa, and there were neighbors on both sides. The downside was that one could never count on the houses being inhabited because of the busy lives of their owners. The back portion of the estate also bordered a land mostly covered by trees. Marcus wasn’t sure if someone walking over that strip would be trespassing in the strict sense of the word. Meaning that stalkers and paparazzi—what was the difference anyway—could use it to get closer to Alessia.
He came to the trees growing next to the fence and looked around. They were tall enough that a person sitting on top of one of them would get a good view of the garden and the pool area. A couple of broken branches at the bottom of one trunk made him frown. It was hard to tell if the weather, animals, or something else had damaged them. The fence looked undisturbed, and the tree was too difficult for an untrained human to climb on. No, he was being paranoid. He should stop seeing danger in every insignificant detail.
Throwing one last glance of appraisal at the grove beyond the fence, Marcus turned and went back into the house. Maybe a sun sail or two wouldn’t be such a bad idea. They would hide the pool area from the view and Alessia wouldn’t need so much help with applying the sunscreen.
His room at the villa was decent, if small, and shared a bathroom with the room of another bodyguard, who was currently not on duty. Marcus decided on a quick shower and change of a T-shirt, wondering if he had time for a nap. Alessia had booked him 24/7 for the rest of the month, with a couple of evening parties and nightclub visits included. Too many for anyone’s well-being if you asked him. He would be wise to save his strength. Though with thirty-something he didn’t feel old, he had trouble keeping up with Alessia’s partying. She had trouble keeping up too, only she wasn’t aware of it.
One servant had kindly left a snack for him on a table in the corner. After he finished eating, Marcus took out the gun he kept in a safe in the closet and checked it. His suit, clean and sharp, hung there, ready for the evening. All prepared. Perhaps this wasn’t a life he’d imagined he would lead, but he had to make the most of it. Earn enough money to pay off his debts, get another job, and then maybe start a family with someone willing if he could find such a person. It sounded like a boring plan, but right now, boring was fine.
The trick was to only want things you could achieve. Be humble and prepared to sacrifice, just like his late father. If not… He remembered well what happened when people wanted more than their share and weren’t prepared to work for it.
Marcus sighed, wincing when he lowered himself onto the bed. The tension in his shoulders warned him that some issues couldn’t be reasoned away. And yet, what else could he do? Nothing but soldier on and hope that the time would come when he would be given a chance to clear the air with what he had left of his family.
He had just closed his eyes when a noise startled him. He recognized Alessia’s voice. Somewhere in the house, she was screaming at the top of her lungs.
“I want him dead,” Alessia was shouting. Her long, red summer dress emphasized her flushed face and the puffiness of her eyes.
Marcus was breathing hard after running to her aid with a gun in his hand. He slid the safety on and tucked the weapon back into the holster which was hanging over his shoulder.
The stylist working on Alessia’s hair let out a relieved sigh after the gun disappeared from sight, and Marcus assured her he was the protection, even if he was in a mood that made him want to do the exact opposite.
“What happened?” he said. “Are you all right?”
“No, I’m not all right,” Alessia yelped. “Look at this!”
Marcus took a phone from her and glanced at the screen. He needed a second to figure out what he was looking at, but at last, he recognized the photos in an online tabloid. Oh, so that’s why she was screaming like crazy. He remembered one incident, though he wished he could forget. The other happened when he hadn’t been present. None made Alessia look very good.
“I see,” he murmured.
“Oh, you do?” she mocked him. “I don’t think so. I don’t think you see what a monumental disaster this is. It’s all wrong. This is not who I am.”
Marcus thought about that one evening. Alessia probably couldn’t remember half of it. André, the other bodyguard, had helped her to the car. As usual, Marcus had stayed behind to deal with the guy they had caught groping her when she had been too numb to protest. It was becoming a ritual, almost. Or a bad habit Marcus didn’t know how to shake.
The photo showed Alessia on her knees next to the car, where she had stumbled before André could have prevented it. It looked as if she had been about to give the poor guy a blowjob. Marcus didn’t know what this would do for André’s reputation, but he was glad as hell that it wasn’t him in that photo.
“It’s the same photographer as the last time,” Alessia said.
“How do you know?“
“I just do,” she growled. “It’s like this guy is on a mission to make my life miserable.”
Marcus wanted to remark that she was living a public life. If she didn’t want such photos of her to pop up in the press, she shouldn’t have drugged herself into oblivion. Seeing her expression, however, he reconsidered.
“I want you to find the person behind these photos and beat the shit out of him,” Alessia commanded.
Marcus glanced toward the stylist, who watched them, not daring to leave.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can do that,” he replied.
“Oh, I’m sure you can.” Alessia practically leered. “Use those detective talents of yours. You must still have some buddies in the police who owe you a favor. I’ll double what I pay you.”
“Taking photos of you when you are in public is not illegal. Beating people up is,” he said, hoping she’d get the hint.
“I’ll triple it,” she said. “André would do it for less.”
Marcus held back a sigh. “If that would be all…”
Alessia came closer and grabbed a fistful of his T-shirt. “I want that bastard’s head on a plate,” she said, “or you can forget about this job. Or any other in this town.”
Marcus swallowed his reply, waited until she let go of him, and left. They both knew those were empty threats, but he hated her for them all the same.
He prepared for the evening. André arrived at some point, but Marcus he was still too angry for small talk. His colleague recognized the symptoms and sympathetically helped him with his tie.
“Looking good, Marcus,” he tried to cheer him up.
“I should have become mall security instead,” Marcus murmured.
“It’s never too late for a career change. I might join you.”
“You saw the photos?”
“I saw them.”
“Roof. Tele lens. We couldn’t have done much about it,” André said. “But I’d sure love to get my hands on that paparazzo.”
He went to his room to finish dressing up, leaving Marcus alone. It seemed everyone except Marcus wanted to skin that photographer alive. Celebrity stalking was disgusting and the fact that one could earn so much money from it was equally bad. But Marcus couldn’t hate someone just because they were good at their job. Besides, that was what being famous entailed. If people weren’t ready to put up with being observed all the time, then they should have chosen obscurity. For most of the celebrities, however, such fate was worse than death.
The event at the club was exclusive, mostly upper-tier VIPs and a few wannabes. A crowd of photographers at the entrance called to the rich and famous flocking to the club, hoping to attract their attention and get that perfect shot. Marcus and André walked on each side of their boss, protecting her from the flashlights and curiosity. Was any of the men pushing them in unsuccessful attempts to get to Alessia the one that she wanted pummeled? Marcus memorized a couple of faces, just in case.
Inside, they retreated to the distant part of the room, keeping an eye on Alessia and the group of young celebrities she joined. Marcus rubbed the back of his head. This was going to be a long night. As if reading his thoughts, André winked at him. The guy was pure sunshine. How he could stay in such a good mood while knowing all along how this evening would end was beyond Marcus.
Alessia remembered to send them drinks, and while he sipped on his water, Marcus drifted in thoughts to the past, the future, and then again the past. The dark, oppressive atmosphere of the club and the loud music exacerbated his headache. He hated places like this. Evan, on the side, would have felt like a fish in the water if he could have been here. Which he couldn’t.
Remembering his brother and the reasons for his absence from Marcus’ life didn’t help with the headache. So, as so many times before when he thought about Evan, Marcus suppressed his anger and disappointment and paid attention to his job. He needed something in his life to work out, some sense of accomplishment–even if all he was good for was to watch over the likes of Alessia.
“Where is she going?” Marcus reacted when he saw his boss get up and leave her table.
“Dancing?” proposed André, but they both knew from experience that Alessia was not much of a dancer. Before they could do anything, she noticed they were following her and waved at them to stay where they were.
“I’ll call you if I need you,” she shouted in their direction and disappeared inside a VIP lounge.
Marcus glanced at André and saw the same “feeling stupid” expression on his face as the one he was wearing. Not that he believed anything would happen to Alessia inside the lounge area, at least not anything to which she didn’t agree. But bringing him here was such a waste of time and money. For the rest of the evening, all he could do was stare at the people partying around him and question his life choices. In the name of professionalism, he decided not to do the latter.
“How long should we give her before we barge in and save her from herself?” he asked André.
“You can’t save people from themselves,” replied André philosophically. “But I think we should aim for the sweet spot when she’s numb enough not to protest but still able to walk.”
They hung around the VIP area for an hour and a half longer, avoiding any interaction with the crowd. Some women and men tried to be friendly, but Marcus was not a patron, and neither was he an escort. Perhaps pissing off his potential employers by ignoring them wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but he hoped it might recommend him to the right people. Those who needed a bodyguard who remained focused no matter what.
A nervous look from André and a nod were enough to tell Marcus that Alessia’s time was up by all standards. They could see her silhouette through flimsy curtains that separated the VIP area from the rest of the space. She was standing next to the couch and drinking, while someone hugged her from behind, causing her to lose balance. Prime time for Marcus and André to get involved, except that the bouncer at the entrance to the lounge objected.
Before they could reason with him, loud curses coming from the lounge area announced the approach of Alessia herself. She stomped out, pushing away an older guy following her.
“You promised,” she shrieked at him.
“Come on, baby, you know how these things work. She was there sooner. I’ll get you a spot on the next show.”
“I’m leaving,” she slurred.
“You sure about that? Because I have something for you. Something I know you’ll like.”
The man smiled and Alessia hesitated, but Marcus pushed past the bouncer and stepped between her and the man.
“You heard the lady. Now, if you will excuse us.” He gently touched Alessia’s elbow and, to her credit, she followed him.
“I won’t excuse you. Who the fuck do you think you are?” the man shouted behind them, but Marcus just continued walking, supporting Alessia, who started crying in the meantime.
“Take me home,” she wailed, clutching his hand. “I wanna go home.”
The good thing about such celebrity clubs was that they always had a rear exit. While André organized the car, Marcus took Alessia behind the seating area, through a corridor to the back of the building. He didn’t ask what happened because it wasn’t his business. From her mumbling, he learned enough to understand that she’d been cheated out of a live performance on a late-night show.
“They all want only this,” she said, cupping her breasts and shaking them. “Is that all I’m good for?”
Marcus didn’t know, and even if he did, who was he to tell anyone what to do with their lives?
“But you don’t,” she concluded with a lucidity of a very intoxicated person. “Why? You think I’m ugly?”
This caught Marcus by surprise. Couldn’t she just live with the fact that not all men were after her? Wasn’t that what she had wanted in the first place?
“You’re gay,” she continued. “No, that’s André. Are you two a couple?”
Marcus ignored the question and opened the rear exit, carefully checking the surrounding. The alley was dark and lined by buildings. André was backing into it with the limo. If they were fast enough, maybe Marcus could get Alessia and her smeared makeup into the car before anyone noticed. Or made a photo.
They stepped out, Marcus getting ready to make a run for it when Alessia pulled at his sleeve.
“I am … sick,” she said and barfed.
His reflexes saved him from getting covered in puke, but they were standing exposed in the middle of the alley, which echoed with the sound of Alessia’s retching. André came out of the car.
“Everything OK?” he asked, though the reply was obvious.
Marcus shuffled nervously from foot to foot, wondering if he should hold her head. He decided against it when she delivered another load of her stomach content. Ignoring the smell the best he could, he looked around. Hopefully, they weren’t attracting any unwanted attention.
At the corner of his eye, he caught a movement–above them, at the top of the buildings they had just come out of.
He motioned to André, who came closer, reaching out to steady Alessia.
“Could you take care of her?” Marcus whispered. “There’s something I want to check out.”
André nodded and as Marcus quickly lifted his eyes, he saw it again—a moving shadow, too big for a cat or a bird. Someone was watching them from the roof. Marcus had a bad feeling he knew who that someone might be.
Marcus retreated discreetly to the entrance of the club, trying not to attract the attention of the person who was observing them from the roof. After a knock, the door opened. The bouncer on the other side gave him a questioning look but stepped aside when he recognized him.
“Is there a way to get to the roof without being seen?” Marcus asked. “Someone is there who shouldn’t be there.”
The bouncer nodded after brief consideration and showed him the way. A hidden door led to a narrow staircase with exits to the level above the club and then, to Marcus’ satisfaction, to the roof.
He opened it as quietly as he could. The breath of fresh outside air cooled his sweaty forehead. The roof was dark, the light of the street illumination not reaching this high. He waited for a moment until his eyes adjusted to the gloom and recognized shapes. Next to the parapet of the building, someone was standing.
Marcus saw an athletic figure dressed in dark, bulky clothes leaning on the rail. The guy was bending over and holding an object in his hands. A camera, Marcus recognized, a compact one, but he didn’t doubt it could make good low-light images. Marcus made one careful step. His foot landed on something, a piece of metal or a pipe, which loudly clattered before he could prevent it. The guy at the edge of the building raised his head like a nervous animal. Then, with a speed of lighting, he stashed the camera away, hauled the backpack, and ran.
Marcus cursed and moved. He had to stop the photographer from getting off the roof. The only way out he could take was the fire escape stairs. Marcus didn’t have a clue where they were, but the guy he was chasing probably knew.
Bursting out from a shadowed corner, Marcus tried to cut off his retreat. Too soon. Noticing him, with only a couple of steps, the paparazzo melted seamlessly into the darkness of the roof, his movements swift and silent. Marcus hurried, but only to see his target elegantly leap to the adjoining rooftop, disappearing among chimneys and vent pipes.
He quickened his pace and followed. Soon, he caught sight of the photographer again, aided by the moon that bathed everything in a silvery glow. The guy navigated the obstacles with unexpected grace, making Marcus feel old and clumsy. Damn acrobat, he thought. Despite that, he was catching up. Some good was finally coming out of all those early morning jogs.
As the chase continued and they went further and further away from the club building, Marcus wondered if he knew what he was doing. What would happen if he caught up with the photographer, anyway? He wasn’t about to beat up anyone at the moment, but the agility of the guy provoked him, making him want to at least meet him face to face. Then he would explain that taking photos of unsuspecting drunken singers was not the nicest thing to do. And neither was forcing Marcus to chase him over rooftops so late at night.
The city lights flickered on, while the rhythmic sound of their footfalls echoed into the night. With each twist and turn, the chase grew more intense. Shadows morphed and tricked the eye, creating illusions and false leads. Suddenly and before Marcus saw it coming, the paparazzo made a sharp turn and ran towards the lower roof of the building on their right. He clambered down a ladder and sprinted off, Marcus losing sight of him again.
Once he reached the bottom of the ladder, Marcus paused, catching his breath, and scanning the rooftop that stretched before him. Everything appeared abandoned and empty. There were too many corners where someone could hide. Still, he didn’t even consider giving up. The thrill of the chase was getting the better of reason.
With a grin, Marcus noticed a shadow move close to one of the chimneys. He launched himself in that direction, only to almost collide with a bird. It flattered over his head, scared by the commotion, losing a couple of feathers on the way. Quickly, Marcus turned, watching for any movement, but after the sound of wings beating subsided, everything grew silent again. He almost felt alone … except that his gut feeling told him he wasn’t.
He inched towards the roof’s edge, keeping an eye out for any possible escape routes, and peered into the inky darkness below. There were no stairs on that side, and it was too high to jump. The adjacent roof was some distance away. The photographer could have jumped over to the next building, but Marcus would have heard something. A thump, or a crash. He looked back and then again down, weighing his options.
This had been a wild goose chase from the beginning, he decided. In the end, it had all come to nothing. If the paparazzo had photographed Alessia’s yet another embarrassment, there wasn’t anything Marcus could do about it, even if he found him–unless he forced him to give up his camera, which wasn’t legal. The least he could hope was that this nocturnal chase had scared the guy a bit, and that the next time he would think twice before coming near Alessia.
Coming to this conclusion, Marcus slowly straightened up and wiped the sweat off his forehead. He half turned, but at the same moment, he heard something behind him. The paparazzo. Marcus saw a masked face, hidden behind a black scarf that hid the mouth and the nose, leaving only a pair of shiny eyes visible. Then, before he could react or say anything, he felt a pair of hands on his shoulder and his back, pushing him.
No, he thought, reaching out to grab his opponent and steady himself, but all his flailing arms could hold on to was thin air. His foot slipped and, his eyes widening in disbelief, Marcus fell off the roof.
The fall lasted for a couple of seconds at least, which stretched into an eternity. He was going to die. It was going to hurt. It did hurt when he finally crashed, but not as much as he thought it would, and what he landed on wasn’t the hard ground but something … soft.
His heartbeat was through the roof and his gut was still in a knot of panic, but Marcus jumped to his feet as soon as he was sure that he had survived the landing. Or at least he tried. His feet sank between plastic bags full of trash, judging by the smell. He had ended up in a large trash container and … oh, goodness, what was that sticking to his suit? And was that a cat or a raccoon that scuttled away? Or a rat?
No, no, no, this couldn’t be happening to him. He looked up in disbelief, only to see, with a moonlit sky in the background, the silhouette of the guy he had chased. Marcus couldn’t be sure, but … was the guy laughing at him? After trying to kill him, he laughed?
Determination and a sudden thirst for revenge propelled him to reach the edge of the container and dig himself out of the trash, but it was too late. The roof above him was empty and maybe he imagined, but he thought he heard the tapping of the feet, disappearing in the distance, accompanied by a quiet chuckle.
With his feet finally on the pavement, Marcus staggered through the dirty, dark alley he had ended up in. Two homeless people resting behind the container paid no attention to him. They only murmured something before turning and continuing their sleep. He came to the main street, wincing when he stepped into the light and saw what the wet, mushy thing on his thigh was. Using his sleeve, he tried to wipe it off, but it only made things worse. His poor suit was unsalvageable.
Cursing under his breath, he looked around and started walking toward the club. This late, there were, fortunately, no passersby, but he still kept to the shadows of the buildings. His phone rang and, wiping his hand on the cleanest part of his trousers that he could find, Marcus took it out of his inner pocket and picked up the call.
“We’re all set and ready to go. Where are you?” André’s voice boomed out of the phone speaker.
Marcus explained and, in a few minutes, the limo showed up and came to a stop in front of him.
André sized him up through a rolled-down window. Marcus could see Alessia asleep in the back seat and how André wrinkled his nose when he saw the state he was in.
“Do you mind?” André pointed at his trousers. “Before you stink up the entire car.”
Marcus growled inwardly and took off his trousers. On second thought, he removed his phone and the rest of the content of his pockets and slipped out of his jacket too. He rolled his clothes in a tight package, jogged to a nearby trash bin, and threw it away. Then he came back to the car and took his place in the passenger seat.
“You didn’t catch the guy, I suppose?” said André.
“No,” replied Marcus, frowning. “But I will. It has just become personal.”