Celebrated crime novelist Richard Castle embarks on an overseas tour to promote the newest title in his bestselling Nikki Heat series. He leaves his detective agency in the capable hands of his 21-year-old daughter Alexis. Even as Castle jets toward Australia on the first leg of his tour, Alexis is seated behind his desk speaking with a new client. Financier Owen Heathfield has concerns his son and heir Damon has fallen under the influence of a mysterious organization calling itself SFAD. "They claim to be all about self-empowerment," says Heathfield, "but based on what little I've learned it's set up more like a cult. Here's my overriding concern, Ms. Castle. My son has already tapped into his trust fund at the request of the group's founder, a shady character named Evan Raintree. He's given away thousands of dollars to this con man, thousands! I'm not in the best of health, in fact--please keep this between us--I have to undergo chemo starting Tuesday of next week."
"Sir, I'm truly sorry to hear that," says Alexis.
"My dear, I'm seventy-one and accept that my time has come. However, the prospect of Damon signing his inheritance over to these people is deeply troubling to me. All my instincts tell me they're up to no good. I've come to you in hopes you and your father can expose these scam artists so the appropriate authorities can get involved and shut them down for good."
"Mr. Heathfield, I really ought to make you aware my dad won't be back from his book tour until later this month," Alexis cautions.
"Is there nothing you can do in the meantime? Look here, this Raintree's holding an open house for prospective members at his place in the Hamptons this weekend. He's quite selective as to who he invites to join, but I'm told it helps to be an attractive young woman."
Alexis laughs uncertainly. "Are you suggesting I go undercover?"
"I'm prepared to make it worth your while," says Heathfield, sliding a checkbook from inside his suit jacket. "Say, a five thousand dollar retainer?"
"I'll have to take this under advisement," Alexis hedges. "Under advisement" means discussing it over Chinese takeout with Detective Kate Beckett of the NYPD's 12th Precinct, her father's live-in girlfriend and the inspiration for Nikki Heat. With Martha spending the week at the Cape Code home of Broadway producer Jed Mosburg and his wife, Alexis and Kate have the loft to themselves. Kate lights up at the first mention of Evan Raintree.
"I have a professional interest in him," she informs Alexis. "A young woman defected from this sleazy SFAD outfit recently and was beaten into a coma. We've attempted to interview Raintree but his lawyers won't make him available. Nor can we obtain a search warrant for his home. I can't get the Department to commit the resources needed for a thorough investigation." A smile flickers on her lips. "But if the two of us were to visit his house this weekend on the pretext of wanting to join..."
"I'm in," Alexis says. "Next question: do we tell Dad?"
"We're going to leave him out of the loop for the same reason I'm leaving Captain Gates at the precinct out of the loop."
Alexis grins. "Easier to ask forgiveness after the fact than get permission in advance?"
"Precisely. Now let's decide on cover names."
Late Saturday morning Kate and Alexis collect Castle's leased Mercedes sedan from his private garage and set out for the Hamptons. Both are alluringly costumed in clingy backless sundresses and strappy sandals, not so much a concession to the August heat and humidity as a shameless ploy to gain the attention of their host. They arrive at Raintree's hacienda overlooking Long Island Sound shortly before 2:30 PM. After entrusting the Benz to a parking valet, they give the armed security guards at the gate their assumed names of Antonia (Alexis) and Cassidy (Kate). To their dismay the guards confiscate their cellphones before admitting them. "Orders from Mr. Raintree," explains the younger guard, garbed like his partner in navy blue polo shirt, cargo pants and ballistic nylon duty belt. From a distance they could easily be mistaken for cops. "He doesn't allow recording devices of any sort on the grounds."
Kate and Alexis enter the compound with some trepidation, keenly aware they are being tracked by a video camera on the gatehouse roof. The surveillance, cellphone ban and private police force answering to Raintree is consistent with Mr. Heathfield's description of SFAD as a cult. They are equally disconcerted to discover the open house is more in the nature of a pool party. This poses a problem in that neither thought to bring swimwear. At which point they are approached by an arrestingly beautiful blonde woman attired in a crisp white blouse open two buttons deeper than necessary for comfort, black skirt slit daringly to the hip, and three-inch heels. She introduces herself as Raintree's executive assistant, Vanessa Traynor. "Not to worry, I'm sure we have something that fits you," she assures them, and within minutes a bikini-clad Alexis Castle and Kate Beckett emerge from a dressing room ready to mingle with the other invitees.
It appears their gambit has paid off when Vanessa intercepts them even before they reach poolside. "You've already caught the eye of Mr. Raintree," she says. "He wishes to interview you personally. Consider yourselves fortunate, you're almost guaranteed immediate induction."
"Shouldn't we change first?" ventures Kate. The sea green string bikini she's laced into is far more revealing than she'd counted on. Alexis too is showing plenty of skin.
"One of the first lessons you'll learn as a disciple of SFAD is to lose your inhibitions," Vanessa responds. "Now please come with me." Her use of the word "disciple" further unsettles Kate and Alexis, but this opportunity to learn more about Raintree and his secretive group may never present itself again. They follow Vanessa away from the pool area and down a stairwell to the rear of the house.
"His office is in the basement?" Alexis wonders aloud.
"A converted fallout shelter," explains Vanessa. "The original homeowner--keep in mind he built the house in the early Sixties--was determined to ride out a nuclear war if it ever came." The stairs end at a windowless steel door suitable for a bank vault. Vanessa enters a five-digit passcode on a wall-mounted keypad. The door opens with a pneumatic hiss.
This is a bridge too far for Kate Beckett, no longer able to ignore the muted though persistent alarms in her back brain. "I'm frankly uncomfortable with this," she says. "If Mr. Raintree wants to see us that badly, I'd rather we do it upstairs."
"That won't be possible," Vanessa counters. "This is where he works."
"Do you know who else works out of their basements?" asks Alexis. "Serial killers, that's who. No way in hell I'm going through that door."
Vanessa's sensual mouth forms a sinister smile. "Sadly for you, Ms. Castle, you and Detective Beckett no longer have a choice." Alexis and Kate's hearts misfire in unison as they realize far too late their cover is blown. Before either can react, the armed guards from the front gate appear on the stairs behind them, this time with SIG Sauer pistols drawn. They train their weapons in deadly earnest on the severely underdressed duo.
"I'd advise you to rethink this," Kate warns in the most authoritative tone she can manage given that she's outnumbered two guns to none and nearly naked. She raises her hands anyway; Alexis resignedly follows suit. They are swiftly herded through the doorway at gunpoint. No sooner have they cleared the threshold than the door shuts automatically and seals itself behind them. Hearing the bolts slam home, Kate and Alexis trade distraught glances in heartsick certainty they no longer have an avenue of escape or hope of rescue.
"Rolf and Gunnar, your timing is exquisite," Vanessa purrs. "You came prepared, I see."
"Of course," says one of the gunmen. He frees a neatly coiled bundle of braided jute rope from a carabiner on his belt and tosses it to her.
"Very good. A police detective and private investigator flying under false colors, as it were. How long would you have carried on this charade had we not unmasked you? No matter. You're about to enjoy the rare privilege of a private audience with our esteemed founder Evan Raintree." Vanessa holds up the coiled rope. "As soon as I'm done tying you up, that is. Would it interest you at all to learn I have a side gig as a bondage rigger?"
Shortly afterward, Kate and Alexis lie facing each other on the raw concrete floor of the repurposed fallout shelter's pantry, bound hand and foot and lashed together at the waist courtesy of Vanessa. It is their cruel misfortune to be in a hands of a woman with a West Texas trailhand's roping and tying skills and a seaman's mastery of knots. Their bonds are inescapably tight, the self-locking knots escape proof. Evan Raintree, a craggy-featured man dressed casually yet tastefully in Abercrombie & Fitch finery, stands gloating over the hapless pair.
"All trussed up and nowhere to go," he muses. "You bitches disappoint me. I wouldn't have expected the daughter and girlfriend of Richard Castle to be so maladroit at undercover work."
"Celebrity is such a double-edged sword," coos Vanessa Traynor. "Your faces are splashed all over Page Six of the tabloids every time Castle's publisher throws a book launch party. Did it not cross your minds one or both of you would be recognized?"
Kate wrenches vigorously but in vain at her ropes. "Castle knows we're here, so does the NYPD. It's even money as to who comes looking for us first." A desperate bluff, best she can do given that she and Alexis are tied up in their bikinis and entirely at the mercy of this conniving asshole and his sadistic blonde girlfriend.
"Nice try," sneers Raintree. "Castle would never condone such a ludicrous attempt to infiltrate my organization, nor would NYPD authorize it. I can reasonably assume you're operating without the knowledge of either. No one's arriving in the nick of time to save your sweet asses, meaning I can do with you as I please."
"You evil sack of shit," seethes Kate, her last utterance before Vanessa kneels alongside and deftly straps a ball gag between her teeth. In short order Alexis too is gagged.
SFAD is a front for a global human trafficking operation," continues Raintree. "That's right, we're in the nasty business of selling delectable pieces of ass like you to our clientele abroad on the Dark Net. You'll be flattered to learn we've had inquiries from certain of our regular customers eager to acquire you for their very own. The cachet of owning the real-life Nikki Heat and the daughter of the man who created her is irresistible to them. You're familiar with the concept of serendipity, are you not? I never dreamed you would be so obliging as to ensnare yourselves in my web, but now that you have I intend to take full advantage of this unexpected stroke of luck. Even now arrangements are being are being made to auction you off, preferably as a matched set. I daresay you'll command a price well into seven figures, so that's where we'll start the bidding. Since Vanessa and I invested next to nothing in your capture, we stand to make an exorbitant profit off you."
"NNNNGH!" Kate and Alexis mewl through their gags.
"The sooner you adjust yourselves to the reality your lives as you knew them are over, that you've drawn your last breath as free women, the better. Rolf and Gunnar will be back to prep you for transport once the party winds down. We'll see each other again before you're shipped overseas, but for now my girlfriend and I have guests to entertain."
Raintree and Vanessa withdraw from the pantry, closing and bolting the door behind them, leaving Kate Beckett and Alexis Castle to writhe hopelessly in their bondage as they contemplate a fate that in this case is indisputably worse than death.
To Be Continued