Molly, still done up all girlie and sweet, sat on a divan with Sylvia. George – no, wait, Arnie – took a wingback facing him.
A door he hadn’t noticed opened above the bookcases and a woman stepped in. The door and the staircase leading down were the same shell color as the wall, so she seemed to float along the wall down into the library. Her gauzy gown flowed around her. She appeared somewhat older, her thin face pinched as it pointed at him. “I told you he wouldn’t recognize me,” she announced to the others. Recognize her?
Michelle went to the older woman, perhaps a handful of years older than Rich. The woman stroked Michelle’s cheek tenderly. “You’ve done all you promised and then some. Such service will not go unrewarded, my dear.” Michelle seemed to tip her head slightly and step away. The woman came toward Rich and stood out of reach. Close enough for him to examine her features.
He went still. “Pamela?” he whispered.
The woman’s eyebrows shot up. “So you do remember me. Do you remember what you did to me?”
Memories, hidden from his awareness all these years, buffeted Rich’s mind. Pamela, darling and so pliable as his girlfriend at Ithaca College. He knew she was looking for an MRS degree, her goal being marriage rather than an education. School was merely an excuse. He filled the bill, but only to a point. Her family was reasonably comfortable, but not the high and mighty he wanted. Still, her grandfather and father attended Dartmouth Law, his dream. It didn’t take much to convince her father to write a glowing recommendation for the clean cut, devoted boyfriend. He even gave Rich his Dartmouth ring with his blessings. Rich realized absently he was twisting that ring around his finger.
“Pamela Lightner?” He shook his head. “Wait, how are you Miss Stemple?”
Pamela sighed theatrically. “You paid close attention, didn’t you? Stemple was my mother’s maiden name, Rich.” Her eyes narrowed. “My middle name.” She turned away from him, her gown fluttering, to address the assembled. Her conspirators. “Oh yes, he paid attention. Paid attention to my father’s Dartmouth connections, to my good name, even to my future. When he proposed – that’s right, he proposed to marry me – I gave him everything.”
She closed her eyes and went very quiet, not moving but for the shaking of her hands, barely visible in the folds of her dress. “Rich pulled away quickly once accepted at Dartmouth.” He separated his hands, letting go of the ring, and rested them in his lap. “My sorority sisters shunned me after he dumped me. After all, I was tarnished. They at least married their lovers. Oh, I’ve been invited to all the balls and charity events. At least, my checkbook has.” Pamela hissed. “Acceptance into their society, though? Never. Sacrificed on the altar of Richard Brandt’s ambition.” When she turned back to Rich, her lip curled.
A vague memory niggled at him. Quietly, he spoke in her silence. “I was sorry to hear about your parents, Pamela.”
Her eyes widened and she paled. “How dare you? Even now, you use everything you can against me? Where was your sympathy when they were killed? Did you so much as call after their accident?” Abruptly, tears trailed down her cheeks and she sobbed briefly, one hand covering her eyes. “Of course not. You were busy with your goals: a career, a rich wife.” She dropped her hand and bent toward him, tears highlighting the crazy in her gaze. “Poor Pamela, too lowly for Richard Brandt. Used and discarded.” She whirled away, dismissing him.
In a sudden change of tone, she laughed. “Too lowly. Joke’s on you, Richard. Daddy invested well, taking a chance on some tech industries early on. Microsoft ring a bell? Apple? He made sure I had the best of everything, including stock market advice. There is more money than even you ever dreamed of having. My life became a gilded prison.” Rich shut his eyes. So close. He had been so close.
“May I, Pamela?” Michelle asked, raising a hand.
“By all means, darling.” Pamela touched Michelle’s fingers lightly as though handing off in a game. She draped herself in a vacant loveseat, crossing her legs and peering at him with a vicious smile.
Michelle came to him. Bracing herself with hands on the arms of his chair, she lowered her face to his. Her breath misted against his ear as she spoke against his cheek. “You had your fun, didn’t you, Rich? With Miss Stemple. With me. Now it’s our turn. You’re getting screwed royally.” When she laughed lightly, Rich lost it. He grabbed her by the waist and surged out of the chair, throwing her to the Persian rug. In seconds, he was smashed back into his chair, meaty hands on his chest. George’s dumpiness turned out to be Arnie’s protective brawn. Rich gasped for air while Michelle rose, laughing.
As she told the tale, Rich envisioned it clearly. Pamela sat at a juice bar at the club. Straining to listen to whispers about her, she overheard a former sorority sister. “The Vengeance Vixen did it all. Cost a bit, but got me everything. Prenup? What prenup?” The woman and her friend laughed as they left, unaware of the seed planted. Ironically, Pamela’s research for this vixen used the same technology which raised her beyond Rich’s league.
“I knew Miss Stemple was searching for me, but I was working a project,” continued Michelle.
Pamela interrupted. “When I opened the envelope and found the card with Michelle’s name on it, I knew immediately who she was. No mention of her nickname, just her name and no number. An elegant introduction, don’t you think?” She nodded to Sylvia. “Your turn, I believe.” Michelle raised her chin slightly, but yielded the floor.
Sylvia cleared her throat and sat up straight. “You’re an asshole, Rich.” She laughed with everyone but Rich. “So good to get that out finally!” Apparently, according to Sylvia, she was an assistant and not a secretary. “Do this, fetch that. You were supposed to be teaching me, mentoring me for advancement, not treating me like some girl Friday. I was the joke of the company.”
“Why didn’t you talk with me, Sylvia?” Rich asked, surprised at how calm his voice sounded.
“Like that would have done any good. No, Miss Stemple’s stipend and promise of retribution kept me with you.” She leaned forward as she explained. Rich leaned back, taking it in. Sylvia was with him for several years.
He looked to Pamela, then to Michelle. Pamela was the crazy, but Michelle was the source. “How long?”
She grinned. “Oh, at least three years. Long before you quit smoking.” Her eyes shone merrily.
Before he… oh no. No. The enormity of this plot finally began to sink in. His head dropped wearily.
Michelle rose and stalked toward him. “Miss Stemple was too lowly for you? You’ve no idea how lowly you are now. Not yet, anyway.” He saw the pointy tips of her boots near his Italian loafers. “Raise your head and look at me, Richard Brandt!”
When he met her eyes, he knew he was lost. They were dark and flat, a menace within them he’d never seen in her, in anyone. A shiver passed through him and he looked away, looked at Molly. Michelle followed his gaze. “Oh, Molly? Yes, she’s been your attorney for what, two years now?”
“About that,” Molly piped up, grinning. “Right about the time your previous attorney at that firm retired early.” Rich nodded, remembering vaguely how jealous he had been. “With a nudge from Miss Stemple, the partners gave me his clients. I led you to Arnie’s accounting more easily than expected, too.”
With an exaggerated and so-fake tone, “George” drawled, “Oh man, you handed over the keys to your groovy kingdom. I had so much fun with your stock portfolio, duuuude.” He chuckled.
Rich all but spat, “You obviously already destroyed me with all this. Why go so far as corporate espionage with the fire, for God’s sake?” Rich rose and began to stalk the room. Michelle stilled Arnie with a headshake when he made to put Rich in his chair again.
Michelle’s words brought Rich up short. Quietly, she said with a shrug, “Why not? The espionage would just put you in a country club for a prison. How long do you think you’ll last in a real one?”
Chill tendrils trailed down Rich’s spine. “You’re all mad!” he cried.
“Angry perhaps, but not quite mad,” Arnie put in.
Vengeance Vixen, she was called. Years of plotting, who knows how much spent on his destruction? He slumped. “You maneuvered well, even holding my bail,” he conceded.
“Miss Stemple is the proud owner of your freedom on that count.” He looked over at Pamela, whose eyes glittered with hatred.
“Are you thinking of running away, Rich?” she asked acidly. “I suppose you could try, but how would you get away from here?” She was right. Even if he could get out the door, he had no transportation and the location was remote. He had no money, either. They’d seen to that. His legs were shaky when he returned to his chair and dropped his head into his hands for a moment.
Looking up, looking around at them, he felt lost. “What now?” Only then did he see Pamela fondling a small plastic bag with several cigarette butts in it. His eyes widened, hands tingling. “You … you can’t be serious. Haven’t you done enough?”
There was general laughter, but Pamela’s was a crazed cackle. She handed the baggie to Michelle, who strode back to him and dangled it before him just out of reach. “We’re not monsters, Rich. We decided to put you out of your misery.”
She waved her hand and they rose. Molly and Sylvia murmured a goodbye as they passed him. Arnie actually patted his shoulder and said, “It’s been groovy, man,” and then laughed as he left.
Pamela stopped before him. Her voice was cutting. “You earned this, Richard. Your legacy will be shameful, heartless, and selfish. You will be remembered as the bastard you are.” Turning, she said in a sweet tone, “He’s all yours, Michelle.” Without so much as a farewell, she left.
He couldn’t see exactly what Michelle was doing as she crouched near the fireplace. He boggled at what she left behind as she came to him. A wicker tray with the cigarette butts smoldered on a metal frame above a bowl of some sort of liquid. He saw other butts scattered near the back of the stone fireplace. She stroked his cheek with a gentleness not reflected in her gaze. “Take care, Rich. We’ll watch for a bit, so don’t do anything stupid, okay? There’s a good boy.”
He stared at the fire when the wicker caught, listening to her heels click on the parquet foyer floor before the big door slammed shut.