Kiwi by Sandy Alvarez

1

Kiwi

ELEVEN YEARS AGO

The warmth from the rays of the sun as morning light creeps across my plush king-sized bed wakes me from sleep, which is soon followed by a knock on my bedroom door.

As I stretch my arms above my head, Catalina, my father's housekeeper, enters the room. "Mornin'." I scrub my hand down my face, feeling the lingering effects of partying from the night before.

"Your father wishes to speak with you before he leaves this morning," she informs me, her voice neutral, and her Ukrainian accent thick.

What I've gathered from the year I've been in the States, living with Donovan, my birth father, is that Catalina has worked for him for many years. She doesn't speak much. Keeping to herself, she looks around the room for anything that may need tidying up. I'm not one to leave messes, and I damn sure don't expect someone to clean up after me when I'm more than capable of doing it for myself. With nothing to do and no more to say, Catalina quietly walks out of my room, closing the door behind her.

Tossing the bedsheet aside, I rise, swing my legs over the side of the bed where my feet press against the cold wood floor. Inhaling, I gaze out the massive floor to ceiling window that spans the perimeter of the room—one of the perks of having a penthouse suite. Standing, I retrieve the pair of jeans draped across the chair arm beside the bed, stride over to the glass, and open the sliding door leading to the balcony, and step out into the warm Las Vegas air.

A year of living here, and I still can't get used to the heat. Growing up in Raglan, New Zealand, our average highs hover anywhere between forty-nine and seventy-two degrees. I close my eyes and soak in the sun. It's been months since I've seen home. Raglan is a coastal town. I love everything about it: the people and the community. I was born in Auckland, where my mother lived all her life until she met and married Benjamin Cooper, my stepdad. I wasn't quite two when he came into the picture, and never once treated me as anything but like his own flesh and blood. Not long after he and my mom got married, the three of us moved to Raglan.

I start thinking about the rest of my family. After marrying Benjamin, mum couldn't wait to have more kids. Now, nineteen years later, I have three sisters, Frankie, Molly, and Poppy. All three of them look just like my mum with their dark blonde hair and blue eyes.

Making my way inside, I head for the en suite bathroom and turn the water on in the sink. Leaning over and cupping my hands, I splash cold water on my face. Green eyes connect with my reflection in the mirror. I stare at someone who looks nothing like my mum, but the replica of Donovan Black.

As long as I can remember, I was always curious about my birth father. Who was he? What did he look like?

Mum never gave too many details about him. Only his name and where he lived at that time in her life. To be truthful, she didn't know enough about the man herself. What the two of them had wasn't a relationship, but a one-night stand. She had gone on a trip with girlfriends to the States, celebrating her best friend's bachelorette party.

And, as they say, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Only mum left with a consolation prize.

Shortly after my eighteenth birthday, I sat mum down and told her my thoughts and plans on connecting with my birth father. She wasn't sold on the idea of my traveling alone, and she worried he might reject me. The rejection was something I was prepared for but had to face it and find out for myself. I wanted to get answers to all the questions I had swirling around in my head. In the end, it was my stepdad who convinced her I would be fine. The following day Ben sat me down, and handed me an airline ticket, then said, "You're my son. Nothing will ever change that. Your mum and I support everything you do. That's an open-ended ticket. Take as much time as you need." Then he handed me a credit card. "You need more, let me know."

Donovan may be my birth father, but Ben will always be my dad, and never replaceable.

Striding to my closet, I yank a shirt from the hanger and pull it down over my head. It's been almost a solid year since I got on that plane, leaving New Zealand. It took a few days to track Donovan down, but one thing I'm good at is being resourceful and persuasive. Call it what you will, a bullshitter, a smooth talker—people like me. I'm an easy-going guy if you don't piss me off.

A few minutes later, I'm walking through the kitchen, where I find Donovan sitting at the table, staring at the newspaper in his hand. He folds it, then lays it down. Looking at the diamond-encrusted Rolex on his wrist, he says, "I'm hosting a party for a huge client down at the club tonight. Think you can rustle up some eye candy?" His eyes lift to look at me, and I can't help but flashback to the day we first met.

I walk right up to him in his club, where suited men and scantily dressed women surround him. "Who the hell are you?"

"Tai Cooper. Your Son." His poker face never wavered.

"Prove it."

"Shit," one of the suited men laughs, looking between the two of us. "What proof do you need? He could be your twin."

I stare at my birth father, which feels like looking into a mirror: same tanned skinned, dark hair, and green eyes. The only difference being he's older. I could even tell he keeps himself in shape, though his physique is a little more muscular and broader than mine.

"What do you want from me—money?" He reaches into his jacket, pulling out a money clip, then tosses a hundred-dollar bill at my feet. "I'm feeling charitable today. Go buy yourself a burger and some cheap pussy."

Picking the money up off the floor, I tear it up, then throw it at his face. "How about I shove this money right up your arse." Two broad men step into my peripheral vision as I take a step forward.

Donovan raises his hand. "We're good here." He eyes me. "Sit," he orders, but I stand my ground. "The rest of you get your asses out of here," he barks.

It's not until the group he is sitting with disperses that I finally sit down across from him.

We talked for a couple of hours and, as I figured, he wanted a paternity test. Once I convinced him I wasn't looking for money, he eased up a bit, but never let his guard down. Neither did I. Before I knew it, weeks turned into months. Eventually, he offered me a job—a promotional position. I spread the word about his clubs and hustle up business. My mum wasn't entirely sold on the idea. She wanted me to go to college. Not that I was against it, but I was having fun. Donovan was kind of taking me under his wing, showing me another side of what life had to offer. The lights of the Las Vegas Strip are bright as hell. I was drawn to the lifestyle he was offering. Like an addict, I wanted more.

"Tai," Donovan barks, snapping me back from my memories. "I need girls for the mixer. They flock to you like flies on shit." Giving me a little extra incentive, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out the key to his custom Lamborghini. "Here," he tosses the keys in the air, and I catch them. "Use my car to get around town. The party is exclusive. VIP only, so be sure to hand them the black business cards. They won't get in without one." Standing, he lifts his suit jacket from the back of the chair and slips it on. "I want you there tonight. There are a few clients I'd like you to meet."

I stare blankly at him because I usually don't attend his VIP parties. He glances my way before making his way to the foyer but says nothing more about the matter. Shrugging, I turn toward the counter, grab some bread out of the breadbox, and pop a couple of slices in the toaster. Once done, I smear some butter and jam on them. As I'm eating, I realize the date and the fact that my oldest sister has a birthday soon. I smile and pull out my phone. Five minutes later, I have scheduled a flight home due to leave in two days.

Almost four hours later,I've passed out at least thirty VIP cards. Before returning to the penthouse, I decide to do a little shopping, and hopefully find something special to take back home as gifts.

Just as I'm placing my hand on the handle of the car door, I feel someone behind me. As I go to turn, a deep voice says, "Don't fuckin' move." Of course, I had to go and ignore his demand. Throwing my head back, I bash his face with the back of my skull, then quickly duck. Pivoting my body, I come up, throwing my shoulder into the guy's gut, knocking the attacker off his feet, slamming his big arse into the concrete wall behind him. The big son of a bitch clocks me in the side of the head with the weapon in his hand, causing my vision to blur. Another set of hands grasp me from behind as I stumble back a few steps. I raise my head to get a look at the man in front of me, but his face is hidden behind a mask. Struggling to break loose of the hold on me, I lift my feet off the ground, kicking the attacker in front of me in his nuts. I watch him fall to one knee, coughing, just as a thick arm wraps around my neck, restricting my airway.

"Goddamn, you're a wiry shit." The one with a hold on me grunts as I continue to struggle against him. His grip tightens. My vision grows fuzzy around the edges until I fade into darkness.

My lids feel heavy as I blink them open, and my fucking head is throbbing in pain. It takes me an extra second to get my bearings and realize I'm in a darkened room, with a dim light hanging above my head like a spotlight. My body is restricted, tied to a chair, with my hands bound behind me. I flex to gauge the tightness of the ropes, finding no wiggle room.

"You won't get out of here unless I let you go." A different voice from earlier breaks through the silence in the room. The screeching sound of a chair being dragged across the floor causes my skin to crawl. From out of the shadows, a man appears. I keep my eyes fixed on his bearded face as he straddles the seat. "You've got fight in you; I'll give you credit for that. Few have put my brother to his knees." He smirks a little, his accent thick, but I can't place it—southern maybe?

"Motherfucker kicked my dick." A tall black man steps into the light, his arms crossed over his chest.

"Who the fuck are you?" My eyes stay on the man sitting in front of me.

"Let's make this quick because I have shit to do." He opens the manilla folder in his hand, pulling out a stack of paper. He holds them three inches from my face. One by one, he shows images of me, standing and talking with various young women. "Every one of these young ladies went missing not long after these pictures were taken."

I feel all the blood drain from my face. Missing? "What? Listen. I don't have anything to do with those girls' disappearances."

The man looks at me for a few seconds. "I believe you."

I stare at him, then shift my eyes to his friend, who looks uninterested.

The bearded man sighs. "I know all about you, Tai Cooper from Raglan, New Zealand. Mother's name is Kora Cooper. Stepdad is Benjamin Cooper."

I interrupt him. "Dad. Benjamin is and always will be my dad. Not stepdad," I correct him, narrowing my eyes.

He continues, "You have three sisters. Graduated with honors, 4.0 GPA, loves to surf, helps his dad on weekends at his mechanic shop, and is tech-savvy," he pauses. "Should I continue?"

"So, if you know who I am, and know I don't know what happened to those women, then why the fuck am I tied to this chair while you interrogate me?"

Standing, he tosses the photos in his hand on the seat. Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out a cigarette and lights it. "You've unknowingly played a part in their disappearance." He takes a long drag from his cigarette. "Donovan Black is not who you think he is, and all these VIP parties he hosts are nothing more than a way for him to give his clientele what they want. You just so happened to come along, giving him the perfect opportunity and resource to make his entire operation easier."

"He used me, how?

"Good lookin' young man attracts a lot of attention from pretty young women. Convenient for him, wouldn't you say?" I'm doing my best to absorb what he's telling me. "Sorry, kid. You were a pawn. Our intel has your father being one of five men running a major sex trafficking ring."

My gut churns, and I feel like I may throw up. "How many?" I ask. When he doesn't answer, I look him in the eyes. "How many?"

He shakes his head. "You looking for a specific number since you've been in the picture? At least thirty."

His words sink in. How could I have been so fucking stupid? All this time, Donovan used me? What is more messed up is knowing that I have no one to blame but myself. I hang my head. How did I not see any of this? What will my parents think of me once they discover the world I've been living in for months? Corruption and lies. All of it right under my fucking nose, and I had no fucking clue. "What can I do to make things, right?" I ask, straightening my back while looking at both men.

"Helps us."

I don't hesitate. "I'm all in." Then he holds out his hand.

"My name is Riggs," he jerks his head toward his friend standing at his right, "and this is Wick."

"Cops?" My eyes dart between the two. Riggs scoffs, then Wick starts removing my binds, and I rub my wrists once freed.

"We need you to get us into that party tonight," Riggs presses.

"I can do that."

"Good," he scrubs his palm over his face. "He's grown to trust you. That being said, can you gain access to his personal office?"

"He doesn't allow anyone in his office, including me."

"Shit," Riggs grunts.

"We need those files, Prez," Wick blows smoke in the air from the cigarette he just lit.

Shifting in my seat, I lean back, realizing I can help, or at least try. "I need a computer." The two of them eyeball me. "You want my help, right?" Wick moves across the room into the shadows. I briefly hear a rustle before he returns, holding a laptop. Wick holds it out to me. Opening the computer, I get to work. What I'm doing is technically illegal. Back in high school, a buddy of mine taught me how to hack into damn near any computer-operated system. I've never used the knowledge personally, but I'm damn happy now that I paid attention.

"What are you doing?" Riggs asks as I type away.

"Trying to hack dear old dad's files," I inform him, which is proving to be more challenging than I thought. He must have plenty of security measures in place to keep unwanted threats out. I run through every trick in the book before finding a backdoor. My window of opportunity is small, so I act fast. Creating an export point to an encrypted file on the laptop, I download whatever files I can, mostly what looks to be money transfers.

Riggs and Wick stand behind me, looking over my shoulders. "Impressive. I knew you were good with computers but I didn't know you were a hacker."

"I'm not," I pull up the download of the files to the hard drive.

"Sure as shit looks like it to me," Riggs states. He grabs the computer and starts scrolling. "Shit, kid," Riggs says with amazement. "Look, brother," he shows Wick. "Send this shit to Cowboy. Have him comb through everything." A hand clasps my shoulder. "Thanks."

The guilt of everything starts weighing on me, more so than before. I swallow hard, my mouth suddenly dry. The screech of a chair knocks me from my thoughts of regret and turmoil to see Riggs has pulled his chair beside me.

"Listen, after tonight; you'll need a place to lay low for a while."

"I'll go back home," I tell him.

His heavy sigh makes me uneasy. "I strongly advise against it. If shit goes south, hell, even if it doesn't, you could potentially put your family in danger."

I run my hand through my hair. "I have nowhere else to go," I admit. "But, I could definitely use a change of scenery."

"I don't have much, but I can offer you a room and a job," Riggs offers, and I'm shocked.

"Why would you do that for me?"

Riggs shrugs. "You're helping me, so I'm helping you. Plus, I have a good feelin' about you, kid."

"That simple?"

"Yep."

What other choice do I have? Once I help them apprehend Donovan and whoever else he is involved with, I won't have a place to lay my head in Las Vegas. Donovan was the only person tying me to the City. And I'll do whatever it takes to keep my family safe. I won't let Donovan Black or his filth stain any part of their lives.