For the first time, a month after her twenty-second birthday, Maria, shadowed by her mother, greeted guests arriving at their seaside residential compound. Year in, year out, this was the most exclusive New Year’s Eve party on Earth. Yet one so shrouded in secrecy, that whispers had never once reached the gossip columnists’ ears.
Maria was dressed outrageously; if her glamourous little black outfit hadn’t been the most expensive frock on the planet, her father would have immediately replaced it with the dress that was.
No one at the party would ever have been considered an everyday man or woman or, in this day and age, non-binary. Yet with touching whimsy, while the most important party-goer of all welcomed guests clad in a who’s who of haute couture, she recalled her teenage dream. To slip through the bars of her gilded cage and transmogrify into a regular girl; nondescript Vans, blue jeans, and red hoodies forevermore.
Maria’s yearning for the regular had remained unrequited. No hoodie, no matter its colour, had ever graced her wardrobe, jam-packed as it was with Escada and Versace jackets. Jeans, well she had precisely two pairs, clearly not Levi’s, for daddy didn’t do that mall crap. Rather designer jeans, mail-ordered, of course, from one of the world’s most exclusive French boutiques at a mere five hundred a pair.
At long last, the final guest to arrive shook her hand. He didn’t offer a name, just introducing himself as the Magician. He was, Maria judgementally decided, instantly forgettable. Yet two hours later, watching the midnight fireworks explode in the sky, their sparkling fluoresces reflected in the ocean, she found herself brooding on what Selena had just told her.
Of course, she knew that everyone at the party had a reputation, but mysteriously the Magician’s standing was known by just a few. That he operated on legality’s boundary wasn’t surprising, given he was obviously acquainted with daddy-dearest, the man who’d surveyed much of the landscape on the other side of lawfulness’s fence. But apparently, his name reflected his status as the world’s premier shape-shifter, new identities his speciality.
Maria’s plan had been to slip away unnoticed after the fireworks and hang out with Selena. But she was intrigued by this mysterious man. So instead, giggling on seeing Selena’s knowing smirk, she circulated, chit-chatting inconsequentially to guests until she could manoeuvre herself into a quiet spot on the terrace next to the Magician.
The Magician’s nervousness as he chatted to the Godfather’s daughter was palpable. But he had no alternative, it would have been disrespectful, totally career limiting, to one of the world’s most powerful men not to indulge the curiosity of his only child.
Yet that nervousness was nothing compared to his shock when that polite conversation had a follow-up. Maria just turned up at his cabin in the woods a few months later; travelling light in her muscle car, a small case for clothes and access to ten million smacks.
He’d instantly known he was a dead man walking. For her daddy was the wealthiest man in the world, though he’d never appear on the world’s richest person list. And everyone that mattered knew that papa had no boundaries when it came to his beloved daughter. Perfectly capable of wreaking vengeance on anyone remotely suspected of helping her to flee the coop.
Of course, with death his only other choice the Magician was incentivized for success. He hadn’t argued, just worked his magic; his only small mercy being the promised Bitcoin which would facilitate his own disappearance.
Brunette became blond, her nose less Roman, the boobs bigger, the rebellious tattoos faded away. Altering the surface was one thing, walking and talking differently were something else. But he was a good teacher, knew people, and she a good student, so they’d got her reboot done.
They eventually torched the muscle car and his cabin in the woods and left in different directions. And as Tamara, Maria finally got to gambol in normality’s Elysian fields.
Mornings she’d been a barista, afternoons she’d surfed. She loved it; awakening every morning as just someone, not anyone special. Customers were even occasionally short-tempered with her. She smiled the first-time cranky Bill told her to get a move on with his coffee. Only the second person after Selena with the courage to say precisely what they thought around her.
Her other big regret was leaving her horses behind, for she’d quickly discovered that a regular girl’s income didn’t extend to buying a horse let alone two Arabian thoroughbreds. But she hiked and went out dancing, just enjoying the atmosphere of clubs, surrounded by people but not once thinking about taking someone home.
Normal, that word had teased her all her life and she loved making her dream come true. But now, most nights, she’d cursed her naivety.
While never once regretting her decision, the idea she’d swapped a gilded cage for a tarnished cage affronted her. It was her own fault, of course, she’d felt shadowy ripples in the fabric of her universe, someone seemingly knew where she kept her remaining money. And she recognised that for what it was, her father’s net closing in on her.
So, she’d ventured down south into the greater anonymity of the Badlands, where she’d learnt that normality has a downside. For no-one had noticed a regular foreign girl being seized by the local drug baron. From the frying pan into the fire so understated her dilemma. Yet even there brewing a good coffee was an appreciated skill.
She had adapted, built up her friendships, helped out, kept herself alive; after all, in breaking out of her gilded cage she’d shown just how intelligent and resourceful she was.
Then, unexpectedly, the irony of ironies, she found herself serving coffee at the preliminaries before her father and the rogue who effectively held her hostage, negotiated some business transaction. She’d heard whispers that the Godfather wanted the drug baron to help secure the southern boundary of the turf her father considered his.
It was the greatest test of the prowess of her shape-shifter. And the Magician passed; he’d done such a good job that in her perfect ordinariness she was unrecognised by the man who was her father. And unseen by his henchmen and the occasional woman like Selena, under whose protection and indulgence she had grown up.
Though she wouldn’t have thanked anyone for the observation, she was her father’s daughter and had been working her way through an escape plan. She knew, like no one else, her captor’s Achilles heel, for it was the same vulnerability her father had. When all you do is illegal, well best keep your money secret. And Bitcoin did that, though woe betide you if your security system was compromised or passed into unfriendly hands.
In preparing for her visit to the Magician, Maria had made it her business to know more about Bitcoin than almost anyone on the planet. Her father had happily indulged her, thinking she was learning the family business. But she had been playing another game, one that enabled her to run away with a little pocket money, namely ten million worth of daddy’s stash.
Mind you she was now reluctant to touch what was left, for she suspected it was his weasel of a consigliere who’d got wind of how she’d nicked daddy’s cash and was now monitoring the account she’d created. But that was, she immediately realized, looking across at the weasel whispering in her father’s ear, suddenly the opposite of her Achilles heel.
Coffee served, she slipped down the corridor, past one of the three green hoodies, the women so trusted by the drug baron that they were allowed to eschew the red hoodies of his other captives, and into his office, where she’d been working on administration tasks completely beneath her.
And there she did the unthinkable, she transferred all his Bitcoin into her account. Of course, she knew that the drug baron would work out that thievery’s digital footprint pointed to her. But, even so, that gave her an hour or more.
When she got back to the meeting room, she noticed the weasel slip his phone back into his pocket, looking momentarily stunned. But he hadn’t gotten where he was by being transparent and that look immediately passed. So, she offered him a second expresso, saying, “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost. I find coffee helps.”
His eyes locked on her, staring intently, which didn’t surprise her, after all a good consigliere doesn’t believe in coincidence. Then after a while, he whispered, “Thanks, it can do. And what is your name, my dear?”
“Tamara. Though that’s not what my parents named me.”
For the second time he looked stunned, but that too quickly passed, replaced with a sly smile. And Maria wondered what the ripples from the stone Tamara had just cast into the murky pool that was daddy’s business world would bring.
The consigliere stepped forward, bumping the coffee cup in Tamara’s outstretched hand. It splashed over his white shirt.
“You’re a stupid girl. I need to change,” he loudly said, causing eyes to turn to them.
“Give me a few minutes,” he said to the Godfather, and frog-marched Tamara out into the courtyard and along to the room that the drug baron had set aside for his visitors.
“Clean?” the consigliere asked.
“No listening devices in there, boss,” Carlos, their cyber security specialist, replied.
“Get Selena to bring me a fresh shirt. Stand guard at the door, no one but Selena gets in here.”
Once Carlos had left, the Consigliere, taking off his shirt, ordered Tamara to strip down to her bra and panties. And when Selena arrived with a clean shirt, her eyes were immediately drawn to the one tattoo Maria had refused to let the Magician change, the letter S inside a heart tattooed below Tamara’s left breast.
“You’re coming home?”
Maria nodded, as the consigliere said, “Pleasantries can wait, Selena. I want Tamara in your clothes.”
“Tamara, seriously? Okay, boss.”
Having dressed Tamara as one of them, Carlos was ordered to take Maria to the Godfather’s car and to wait, talking to no one.
While Selena messaged Andreas, the smallest man on the Consigliere’s staff to bring some spare clothes, the consigliere activated the most secret of his contingency plans. On his orders, everyone remaining in the family’s compound rushed into their bunker. A small bomb was triggered and part of the compound destroyed. Though the impact deliberately avoided the family residence and Maria’s horses.
By the time he got back to the meeting, the Godfather was as white as a sheet, explaining to the drug baron that the meeting would have to be postponed as he had to get back to deal with what he described as a terrorist attack on his home.
The drug baron expressed the sympathy of a man who saw a business weakness that would eventually lead to a carcass which he would relish; carrion like, he’d pick the flesh off the old man’s bones.
The Godfather and the consigliere rushed to the first car, while Selena and Andreas, during the frantic activity, nonchalantly strode to the second. The cars quickly filled and the convoy sped out of the drug baron’s compound.
Maria sat opposite her father and the consigliere in the back of the first limousine watching them drum fingernails on their briefcases. At the consigliere’s direction, Carlos was now monitoring all the criminal world’s dark web activity.
“Would you like to tell me what is going on?” the Godfather asked.
“I ordered the compound attack. Everyone including your wife and mine is safe.”
“I had to get Tamara out of here.”
The consigliere almost smiled, in four decades he had never seen the Godfather look so stunned.
“Maria!” he said, looking intently at a woman he would have sworn on a stack of bibles was not his daughter.
“Yes dad, I made a few cosmetic changes.”
“You don’t say. Your mother has been worried sick.”
“I know. But at the time there didn’t seem to be an alternative.”
“What happens next?” her father muttered after they’d sped past the drug baron’s arc of immediate retaliation.
The consigliere waited to see if Maria would break the silence. She didn’t, so he spoke carefully. “Maria needed to test the waters. In dabbling Tamara’s toes in another pond, they almost got bitten off.”
“Her mother and I have given her everything.”
“She wasn’t rebelling against you. She was, as the younger generation is wont to say, finding herself.”
The older man wearily shook his head. “I now realize that you knew more about Maria’s disappearance than you’ve revealed to her mother and me. Only because your loyalty goes back decades will I indulge you in this.”
“Maria went to find out if a more normal life was for her.”
“Did you know she was with that drug baron asshole?”
“No. Today was serendipity.”
“Not something you believe in.”
“Perhaps not. Do you know what Maria found out down here, Godfather?”
“You haven’t spoken to her for two years.”
“Maria is coming back because she realized she’s her father’s daughter.”
“How in God’s name do you think you know that?”
“An hour ago, Maria transferred the drug baron’s bitcoin into her account. The account she seeded with ten million of family money.”
“A little under a billion dollars. I don’t think the Guinness Book of Records has a list of history’s largest heists, but if they did, this one would be on it.”
For the first time since he’d received his terminal cancer diagnosis a year ago, the older man visibly relaxed. Just maybe the family legacy would be safe. “Serendipity’s just another word for old fashioned luck.”
“Even with luck, you have to play the cards right. Maria and I did that today.”
“God I should argue with you, but time is too short. What happens next?”
“Maria needs to make peace with her mother. And then you two need to talk one on one. Deep down, I think both of you know what happens next.”
Late that evening, the consigliere knocked on the door to Maria’s bedroom suite, the family residence having been unaffected by the explosion. “Any advice?” she said, as he closed the door behind him.
“Not as much as you might imagine. You’ll need to find your own way. I will help you get the right people around you.”
“Tell me, Consigliere, what’s in this for you?”
“In this business, you’re either on top or dead. Your father’s cancer is also my death sentence.”
“So, finding his daughter underwrites a pleasant retirement.”
He laughed; the first time Maria had heard that from the most serious man she knew. “Maybe; maybe not. But, probably; you’re too nice to have me killed. Do I have to help you manage that weakness?”
Maria smiled. “Selena is on my case.”
“Mind your own business.”
The consigliere took her hands, his eyes intently locking with hers. “No Maria. With a consigliere, there are no secrets, not even family ones. Remember the first day of July, four years ago?”
“Of course. To do what I have to do, I have to know everything. That includes who the boss’s daughter sleeps with.”
“And you approve?”
“Does it matter? I’m not your parent, my approval is irrelevant. Love is love in my view, but that personal rebellion against Church orthodoxy doesn’t affect my decision making. The only relevant consideration is would Selena damage the family business.”
“And does she?”
“She’s still on my staff, Maria. Close to me, because she’s actually like me in many ways. One of which is wanting you to return.”
“She thinks you always knew I was thinking about a reboot.”
“Of course, I did.”
“Then why didn’t you stop me?”
“Your success or failure is our future. You weren’t ready to accept that. We all needed a way for you to discover if you wanted to be what you were called to be.”
“And if not?”
“You would have lived a different life. And I would have headed for the New Zealand wilderness.”
“Yeah, that’s why I invited the Magician to our New Year’s Eve party. To give you an opportunity to discover yourself.”
“True. But your wish came true; you found what is your normal. As Tamara, you would have been a great barista, passable surfer.”
“Passable surfer; screw you! Did you know where I was?”
“Yes, then. But I overplayed my hand and spooked you. I lost you when you headed into the Badlands.”
“I wanted Selena to join me. But I decided I couldn’t risk it and headed south on my own. My mistake.”
“Not necessarily. For that was where you embraced your destiny to lead the family business.”
“I need Selena even more now.”
The consigliere brought her hand to his lips and kissed the finger on which would soon reside the ring that had been her father’s, her grandfather’s, and her great-grandfather’s. “You do. And I will be here for you, till the end of my days.”
“You mean until the day Selena wants you killed.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
Maria laughed. “Not going to happen. Thank you for everything.”
“You are welcome. Now your first decision. I would like the penthouse apartment.”
“That means living above me. What will people think?”
“A young lesbian thief leading the world’s richest family. I don’t think anyone will notice that your living arrangements don’t include the top apartment.”
“Honestly, tell me. Did you think I’d end up choosing to follow in my father’s footsteps?”
“I didn’t know. That was always your decision. All I did was allow you to explore the alternative.”
“He is well. Though I’m not sure he or I would be quite so well if your father ever discovered I’d known you were with him. But I’ll pass on your regards.”
The bedroom door burst open. “We’ve trapped the drug baron and minions,” Selena said.
“The Godfather wants you to make the call.”
“What do you think, Selena?”
“He’s an asshole; revenge will forever be on his mind.”
“No Maria; if I have a view, I will tell Selena. Even in private I will never cut across her advice to you.”
“He hasn’t told me he disagrees, darling!”
Maria giggled. “Do I need to do this to show strength?”
“No,” the Consigliere replied, “The rumour is starting to spread; you nicking his bitcoin will become the stuff of legends.”
“So, what do you recommend, Selena?”
“He’s too risky to the family business. Eliminate. Unless being with him for nearly two years gives you a reason not to.”
“None, my love; do it. Spare the women though. Except for the green hoodies.”
The next day, following the consigliere’s suggestion, Selena made a few calls. The government’s war on drugs was grateful and indeed totally reenergized. In their rush to claim the credit, the issue of what had happened to the drug baron’s money totally escaped their attention.