Darren emerged from the walk-in closet wearing his one expensive suit coat. He bought the suit for his brief stint as an undercover agent and wore it exactly once. Holding up gold and red neckties, he asked, "Which one?"
Latoya smiled as she sauntered over to him. Her figure made even her business outfits look elegant and sexy. "Neither, silly. You're not playing the evil mind controlling slaver at this dinner." She brushed her hands over his shoulders. "Even this jacket is too fancy for tonight."
Darren sighed. "If there's one thing I miss about being a recluse, it's not having to worry about what clothes to wear. Even when I used to teach, a basic jacket and tie was all I ever needed."
Latoya slid her arms around his neck and pressed her body into his. "You can always go back to your solitude." She kissed him softly, sending tingling sensations throughout his body. "But isn't this worth an occasional business dinner?"
Darren slid his hands up her back. "You are," he whispered.
Latoya patted his chest as she pushed away. "You can wear the jacket, but no tie." She walked back to her dresser and selected her red pearl necklace; it's color providing a subtle accent to both her outfit and her caramel-colored skin. "The adult entertainment industry is very casual, and the people are much more open minded than at a university."
"Really?" Darren folded his arms. "Are you going to tell your sorority sister what we do when I hypnotize you?"
"Maybe," Latoya teased. "Maybe she's already figured it out from the sample CD I sent her."
The hostess smiled. "How may I help you?"
Darren replied. "Latoya Douglas, party of three."
"Ivy made the reservations," Latoya reminded him. "It's probably under her name, Caldwell."
"Yes," the hostess replied. "Miss Caldwell has already arrived. This way please." The hostess led them into the dining area. The restaurant was spacious with soft lighting and clean tablecloths. Fewer than half the tables were occupied, but even the empty tables had napkins and silverware set.
Ivy sat typing on her laptop computer at a table with five place settings. She was a caucasian woman in her late 30s with a healthy California tan and auburn hair falling lightly over her shoulders. She smiled when she saw them approaching, closed her laptop, and rose to greet them.
Latoya hugged her. "It's so good to see you again; been much too long. How've you been?"
"Overworked and under paid just like ninety-nine percent of the country; but I'm good. But you, CEO of a record studio? How did that happen?"
"Right place at the right time." She took Darren's arm and pulled him forward. "This is Darren Braid, the hypnotic storyteller I told you about."
Darren extended his hand, "Nice to meet you."
"Likewise." Ivy shook his hand, then packed away her computer while Darren and Latoya seated themselves. "I listened to that hypnosis demo you sent over. It was amazing how real it all felt. I actually felt like I was at a 60's love-in. How did you do that?"
"Practice, lots of practice."
"So how did you two meet? And how is Sonya? I haven't heard from her in ages."
Latoya hesitated at the mention of her sister, but recovered quickly. She squeezed Darren's hand. "We met online. I was surfing the web looking for something new, and I came across his web site. I listened, we chatted, we found we had a lot in common, and we decided to get together. We've been practically inseparable ever since."
The story was mostly true. But as they agreed, her explanation omitted the fact that Darren had actually came to Los Angeles as part of an FBI sting that sent her employer to jail for human trafficking.
The waiter came to the table. The party ordered drinks and appetizers, and the ladies continued with the small talk, reminiscing, and catching up. After a while, Ivy began glancing towards the entrance and checking her smart phone's clock. By the time the meals arrived, she looked worried.
Darren finally asked, "Expecting someone to join us?"
"Yes, another client. I have an idea for a joint publicity campaign, and I want to present it to you at the same time. Maybe I should call and remind them. Would you excuse me for a moment?" She picked up her phone and rose from the table, but froze when she saw another couple entering the restaurant.
The man looked forty-ish, with thinning blond hair and a waist that was starting to spread. He staggered a little as he walked. The girl looked half his age and seriously undernourished. Her mousy brown hair was straight and flat. She clung to his arm as if she was afraid of being left behind. They both wore large, dark sunglasses, though it was nearly 8pm.
The man rubbed his nose as the hostess escorted him and the girl to the table. Ivy introduced them as Scott Sunderland and Liza Hiller. "Scott is an adult film maker, and Liza is his new discovery."
The couple sat, and Liza pulled her chair close to her companion. Scott whipped out a business card and handed it to Latoya. "Sunderland Productions. Hottest babes under the sun." His eyes rolled over Latoya's body as if he were appraising a car. "You're one hot lady. I could make you a star."
"Baby," Liza clung tighter to him. "You said I was going to be your star."
He patted her hand. "You are babe, you are. But you know a movie needs more than one babe. He wrapped his arm around her. "Liza here is going to be the next big thing. I've just got to line up the right project for her."
Darren's stomach turned. In his teaching days, he had dealt with a few students who abused drugs. But he'd never seen it flaunted so flagrantly. Only Latoya's grip on his thigh kept him from getting up and walking out.
"It's so nice to meet you both," Latoya spoke with her diplomatic business voice. "Ivy, you want to explain your idea now?"
Ivy didn't seem to hear her. She was staring at Liza. "Have you eaten yet? Liza, you look like you haven't eaten all day. Let me order something for you." She waved for the waiter.
"I'm not hungry," her voice barely above a whisper.
"Ivy's right, babe." You need to keep up your strength. Have something to eat." Scott put the bread basket in front of her, but she ignored it. She lowered her head to his shoulder, and, for all anyone could tell, fell asleep.
Behind her, the hostess was seating an athletic blonde woman, FBI agent, Kristen Parker. She smiled at the hostess as she accepted the menu. But her gaze lingered on Liza and Sunderland before she actually looked over the dinner options.
"Ivy," Latoya's voice was full of sympathy for her friend. "Why don't you tell us your publicity idea."
"Right. Scott, you know how the porn industry is suffering. With all the free porn available online now, people aren't as willing to pay for it. But people are still buying fetish material. There's a huge untapped market for femdom and personality transformation videos. Darren can hypnotize Liza and transform her into a strong-willed domme. Scott can film the transformation.
"You release the video at Exxxotica in August and make a big splash. We'll create a media stir around it. Darren, you can release one or two your erotic hypnosis CDs with the video. I'll promote you as a sex educator and visionary; book you together on radio, TV and magazine interviews. We'll put you on the world stage."
"Fantastic!" Scott said. "I love it!"
"I don't. . ." Darren started, but Latoya's squeezed his thigh harder.
"It's a wonderful idea, Ivy. If Liza is willing." Liza didn't respond, but behind her Agent Parker was nodding and mouthing the words "do it".
"I'm not Pygmalion."
Everyone turned confused faces towards Darren. He turned to Latoya, "My Fair Lady?" Her eyes widened in recognition. She glanced at Liza and covered her mouth to stifle a burst of laughter. "Darren, you're an artist, and you're brilliant. But you said it yourself; if you knew anything about marketing, you'd already be a millionaire.
Agent Parker dug a smart phone out of her purse and made a call, which made Darren glad he no longer carried the phone the FBI had issued to him.
"Not that; I'm sure it's a good idea. But I don't. . . "
Latoya put her fingers to his lips. "Trust me. This is the kind of marketing campaign that will make you a household name, and that's what will sell your CDs."
Agent Parker clapped her hand to her face with exaggerated surprise. "Professor Braid?" She practically shouted. "Is that you?" She jumped up and rushed to Darren's side. She gushed with excitement, "What are you doing here in L.A.?" She turned to Sunderland, "I had Prof Braid for Psych 201. He's just the best, you know? He did this demonstration in class where he hypnotized several students. It was so. . . " she shivered with exaggerated excitement. "I so wish I could see more. You know, if you're hypnotizing anyone here in L.A. I'd love to watch. Oh! Maybe I can even help. I hypnotized my roommate once. She gave me the most wonderful lap dance."
"Oh, but I'm interrupting your dinner. I am so, so sorry. I'll just leave you alone. But call me. " She whispered quickly in Darren's ear, "Restrooms." Then she retreated quickly to the back of the restaurant.
Latoya laughed at the spectacle, but Sunderland was drooling. "By all means, invite her to join us."
Darren rolled his eyes, "Excuse me, I have to use the men's room."
Darren went to the back of the restaurant and found Agent Parker waiting. She dropped her act and spoke plainly. "You have to say 'yes', and take me as your assistant."
"You want me to go into business with an unreliable crackhead? Why?"
"We think he's bootlegging DVDs. I want you to get me into his studio so I can look around."
Darren folded his arms over his chest. "Since when does the FBI care about bootlegged videos?"
"Since always. But Congress is considering more than two dozen new anti-piracy laws. So we're conducting some discrete inquiries to estimate the potential costs for enforcing them."
"Okay, but why involve me? Marisa could do porn. It would be nothing compared to what she did to infiltrate the slavery ring."
"Marisa is on leave."
Darren winced with a twinge of gilt. "Post traumatic stress?"
"Yes. How did you. . .?"
"I'm sorry about that."
"It wasn't your fault. You didn't force her to go undercover, and you're certainly not the one who shocked her with the cattle prod."
"I know, but she might not have been as susceptible if I hadn't hypnotized to feel so eager to please."
"You helped us bring down a human trafficking ring. As far as she's concerned, that was worth the cost of a few burns and bruises, and even the nightmares."
Darren nodded. "But the answer is still 'no'. Now I need to get back to this farce of a business dinner."
He turned around, but she darted around him and barred his way. "This will affect you too. You're CDs will be pirated, sold overseas, made available online, and you'll be cheated out of thousands, maybe millions, of dollars." She held his gaze for a moment, then she let him pass.
Darren returned to the table where Sunderland was digging into a basket of cheese covered nachos. Latoya and Ivy had moved their chairs together and were whispering about something. Liza could have been asleep or staring off into space.
As soon as Darren sat down, Ivy leaned in close and whispered, "Please, help me get Liza away from this jerk."
### end of preview ###