"What does your sister do?" MM wanted to know.
"She sings, she dances. She can even play a little guitar," I said, making it all up.
MM asked me to sit down, but there were no available chairs. After a moment of awkwardness, MM scolded one of the men to get up so I could sit.
I smiled at the man who relinquished his seat and took it, placing my purse on the table and crossing my left leg over my right. Travis and Brick remained behind me, standing.
MM explained to me how this worked.
Shortly-maybe even within 24 hours, I'd be able to get an audience with Dowd himself. I was to bring with me some semblance of a portfolio of my sister (not sure how I was going to do that, but I guessed we'd worry about that later), and it would be at that point that Dowd would go over his terms and conditions-and ask for a non-refundable deposit.
I listened and nodded. When he was done, I said, huskily, "So how much is this 'non-refundable' deposit?" Only, I didn't make air quotes-I emphasized the words with a slight pause and voice inflection.
MM shrugged. "That's up to Mr. Dowd."
None of the other men said a word, but they didn't have to. Their eyes and facial expressions betrayed them. They seemed impressed with me-both physically and by what I was saying. My confidence was growing.
We chatted a few more minutes, me asking MM what the success rate generally is when one contacts Mr. Dowd in matters such as these.
"Depends," was his one-word answer, and I was a smart enough girl to know that I best not push it any further. I wasn't going to get much out of MM beyond what he already had shared.
The conversation kind of petered out, so Travis stepped in and told MM that "it was a pleasure" and "I'm sure we'll be in touch."
Travis tapped me on the shoulder, which was my cue. I stood, nodded a thanks in MM's direction, bade farewell to the other men, turned on my heel and followed Travis and Brick out of the room. I felt the 12 eyes on me until I disappeared from their sight.
When we were safely out of earshot, I asked Travis how I did.
"Not bad," was his brief reply, which disappointed me. I was actually expecting glowing words and Travis and Brick were supposed to be falling over themselves praising me.
But I took the two-word compliment as being high praise from Travis, who was demonstrating to me, ever since this ordeal began, that he could say a lot with very few words.
I was escorted back into the van, nobody really saying much the whole way.
"Well? What's next, boss?" I said as I plopped back into the backseat. It was nice not to be cuffed into it this time.
Travis started the engine.
"You mean, for Dowd to contact me?"
Travis used to be so talkative and such a conversationalist with me during our dating days, which ended less than 72 hours ago. Now he was like so many other men-grunting brief replies, not starting any conversations, just responding to a woman's attempts at them.
Brick didn't look like he was much in the mood for talking, either.
I sighed and stared out the window as we drove.
After several minutes of silence, I couldn't take it any more. I wanted conversation! Didn't Travis understand that after spending almost the entire weekend gagged, a girl had some pent up words?
"I had fun in there," I said, not really expecting an answer.
After a pregnant pause, Travis said, "I could tell."
"You could?" I said, both with genuine curiosity and the excitement of perhaps getting into a conversation with him.
"You did good," he said, and I blushed and gushed.
"Really and truly? You don't think they suspect we're playing them?"
This time Brick spoke.
"If Travis thought you were doing a bad job, he'd have made up an excuse to get us out of there."
While I absorbed that, Travis added, "You didn't see me hurrying us out of there, did you?"
I grinned. "No, I guess not! Yay! I did good then!"
The men exchanged smirks and continued driving.
Back at the motel, the mood was much more relaxed-mainly because I was no longer being held, bound and gagged.
Not that the men weren't still keeping an eye on me. And I noticed that one of them was always keeping himself between me and the door. But I chose not to dwell on that and instead just enjoyed my freedom from bondage.
I was breezily flipping through a magazine on the bed, sitting with my legs extended, shoes off, when Travis offered me a bottled water from the mini-fridge. I smiled and accepted it.
"Thank you!" I said, cheerfully.
He sat on the edge of the bed, near my thighs.
"Did you do acting in your previous life?" he asked.
I shrugged. "Just a few plays in high school. Why?"
He shrugged. "Because you're a good actress. You almost had ME believing your sister was an aspiring entertainer."
I giggled. "Really? I just got caught up in the moment. Kind of on 'auto pilot', I guess. Once I knew those guys weren't going to harm me, I relaxed."
He nodded and sipped water. I continued.
"What about Sasha? Don't you guys want me to lure her to you, too?"
Travis shook his head.
"No, not now. Dowd is a bigger fish. Let's focus on him."
I nodded and said, "Travis?"
"What would you guys have done if I didn't do this thing for you with Dowd? And do you admit now that it's a good idea Brick and I had?"
He looked at me; I smirked.
"Well, first off, the game plan was that everything would happen from your house. We didn't count on Battey going on the move. That threw us for a bit of a loop."
After a pause, he added, "And yes-it looks like it's a good plan. But we're not out of the woods yet."
"I understand," I said. "But what if I hadn't done this?"
He smirked. "You fishing for compliments?"
I chuckled. "Maybe. I'm just curious-what would you have done instead?"
His eyes narrowed at me before saying, "We would have come up with something. But this might have accelerated things, we'll see."
Satisfied, I smiled and went back to my magazine.
It was dinner time. Travis had let me call my mom and assure her that I was OK. Same with Holly, who chatted my ear off. But Travis didn't panic; he let me carry on with her so as not to raise any suspicion.
We went out to eat-nothing fancy, just a family restaurant down the street from the motel. Before dinner, Travis and Brick made some phone calls, to verify that Battey was still holed up at whatever location he was previously, which he was.
At dinner, the men said that Dowd's people would likely contact me that evening, and that Travis's people were working on preparing a fake portfolio of my pretend sister to bring with me.
Between mouthfuls of spaghetti, I said, "I get all that, but all I have to do is give it to him, pay the deposit and that's it?"
Travis said, "Not exactly. We'll need to monitor you. Maybe fix you with a wire."
My eyes widened.
"Easy," he said. "Just sending you in there to give Dowd and/or Battey himself your sister's portfolio isn't good enough. That's only part of the job. The other part is to find out what he's up to and what he plans to do."
I had stopped eating, a fork of spaghetti dangling before my mouth.
"Once inside, you can get us invaluable information," he said, and my stomach was starting to feel queasy.
Brick said, "We'll take every precaution."
I put the fork down, wiped my mouth with my napkin.
"Listen," I said, "this is sounding like I'm bait, working without a net. And I'm not cool with that."
Travis said in a hushed tone, "You're not bait. You're not leading anybody to us. You're just helping us gather information."
"So, you're going to wire me and record my conversations?" I asked, and that was alright, I guessed, as long as the bad guys didn't actually SEE my wire.
There was still a $64,000 question that hadn't been asked, and I was the only one who was going to ask it-so I did.
"What if they find out I'm wired?" I said with a dry mouth.
The men looked at each other, and whenever they did that, I got uneasy.
Finally, Travis said, "They won't."
I should have liked that answer. But I didn't.
We finished dinner, again mostly in silence. Travis's promise of "They won't" sat on my brain like a sumo wrestler. Several times I wanted to ask him to elaborate, but I figured that: a) he wouldn't; or b) he wouldn't.
On the way back to the motel, my phone rang. Travis still possessed it, so it was he who looked at the caller ID.
"Your phone doesn't know who this is," he said. "I'm letting it go to voice mail."
I rolled my eyes.
"Maybe it's Dowd's people," I offered, slightly annoyed.
I was continually amazed at how a man could have been so affable and talkative for two months with me as my boyfriend, then turn into a monosyllabic caveman, just like that.
OK, so Travis wasn't exactly who he said he was, but did that mean a 180-degree change in personality, too?
I guess it did.
A few moments later, my phone made that little noise it makes when a new voice mail arrives.
Travis handed me the phone and said, "Retrieve the message."
Mr. Warmth, I tell you.
I sighed, took the handset, and punched in my password for voice mail.
I was right-it was Dowd's people.
"Ms. Harrison (I had requested an alias, which Travis agreed to), this is David, from earlier," the message began, and I recognized the voice as Mustache Man. "We're having a pool party tomorrow afternoon, and would be thrilled if you could join us. Bring your sister's portfolio with you-and a swimsuit."
He also left a phone number where he could be reached.
As Brick drove, Travis's eyes widened in anticipation the longer I was listening to the message. Served him right to be on pins and needles, I reasoned.
I snapped the phone shut.
"WELL?" Travis said, bothered.
"I was right," I said, proudly and equally as bothered. "It was Dowd's people."
I purposely dragged this out by stopping right there.
He sighed, exasperated, and said, "AND?""
I said, "They invited me to a pool party. They want me to bring my sister's portfolio."
"A pool party?" Travis said, clearly surprised.
"Yeah. You know…where people swim and stuff. This IS summertime, Travis."
"I wonder if it's at Dowd's," he said. "He likely has a big, honking in-ground pool."
"He left a number for me to call," I said.
Travis said I'd be calling the number when we got back to the motel, which was about 10 minutes from then.
In the motel room, Travis instructed me to be seated at the table. I kicked off my flip-flops and complied. I folded my arms and arched an eyebrow, daring him to speak first.
"He wants you to wear a swimsuit?" Travis blurted, and the idea seemed to give him consternation.
"Well, I assume that when he said, 'Bring one,' he didn't mean for me to leave it in my shoulder bag," I said, trying not to sound too sassy.
He sighed. "OK, smart ass, but if you're wearing a swimsuit, how the fuck are we going to wire you?"
My eyes widened at his blue language.
"Travis! There are ladies present!" I said, smirking.
He wasn't amused.
"I'm SERIOUS, Lauren. I mean really-a swimsuit?"
I tossed my hands in the air and said, "What do you want me to do, Travis? It's a POOL PARTY."
Travis placed his hands on his hips and paced, muttering. I looked at Brick, who just shrugged his shoulders in a, "What do you want ME to do?" fashion.
"OK," Travis said, turning to look at me. "We're just going to have to do this the hard way, I suppose."
I put my hand up to stop him.
"Whoa. Wait a minute. Hard way-for WHO?"
"Whom," Brick said.
"It would be 'Hard way for whom," he said.
I looked at him like he had suddenly grown a third eye.
"You don't say two words since forever, and then you correct my grammar?" I said, befuddled.
Travis said, "Hey, let's get things back on track here. I get what she's asking, Brickster, grammatically correct or not."
"Well? Which is it?" I said, "Hard way for you, or for me?"
"Both," Travis said.
I stood up and waved my hand at him. "OK, that's it. I'm not going to do this if it's going to mean I'm in any danger."
"Sit down," Travis said, sternly.
I looked incredulously at both men, one on either side of me.
"So how do you figure we pull this off if I don't wear your precious wire?"
They looked at each other again. I hated when they did that.
Travis explained that, sans wire, I'd simply have to turn into a human tape recorder, essentially. I'd have to ask specific, scripted questions, and retain the answers from memory. All while purporting to be a woman at a pool party, having fun while trying to get my sister a big break in the entertainment business.
Travis's hard part was that, without the benefit of listening to what was being said, he'd have to somehow monitor me, without drawing suspicion.
The good news was that, since Travis and Brick accompanied me to the dry cleaners meeting, it wouldn't look unusual for them to escort me to the pool party, too.
Only, they wouldn't be allowed to hold my hand or stay with me every minute I was there. THAT would look suspicious.
So I'd be on my own, but not really. It was painted as a compromise, but I still felt like I was being put in danger without the wire. With the wire, my conversation could be more casual, more fluid. Without it, I was afraid my words would sound forced, unnatural-suspicious.
But this was still my best option to be rid of Travis as quickly as possible, so I went along with it.
The evening in the motel room was, for lack of a better word, boring. Travis screened my e-mails and Facebook page, as usual, and wouldn't let me use my phone without permission.
But all I wanted to do was call Holly and my mom, as I'd been doing for the past couple of days, so it was no big deal, But had I wanted to reach out to anyone else, Travis wouldn't have allowed it.
I guess I still was sort of his captive, after all, even though I wasn't being restrained or gagged.
And the men still kept an eye on me, I could tell. I didn't do anything more exciting than watch TV or read or go pee, but whenever I moved about I could sense them flinching ever so slightly, as if ready to pounce should I make any sudden move.
I had no doubt that they'd indeed pounce, and since I was in no mood to be grappled with and overpowered, I made sure my moves were definitely un-sudden.