Beneath This Mask (Beneath #1)

by Meghan March

I stepped off the witness stand feeling like I’d been skinned and gutted, my insides laid out for public viewing. I refused to meet my father’s piercing aqua stare—the same one I saw every time I looked in the mirror. Instead, I focused on the sleeves of his navy pinstripe Armani suit jacket and his gaudy diamond cufflinks winking in the buzzing fluorescent light of the courtroom. My father was a general, flanked by his army of thousand dollar an hour defense attorneys. Not that they could save him. The disgust on the jurors’ faces spoke louder than any convoluted defense they could mount. I slipped through the swinging wooden gate and glanced at my mother, sitting primly, ankles crossed and hands folded, in her favorite Chanel suit and tasteful gold jewelry. Lisette Agoston was the quintessential picture of a woman standing by her man. She expected me to take the seat next to her. The seat I’d vacated hours before, hands sweating and stomach churning, to give my testimony and endure the brutal cross-examination. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t sit down and be the supportive, naïve daughter anymore. So I kept walking. I didn’t look at the gawking members of the press or the scornful sneers of the victims. I pushed open the heavy, carved wooden door and took my first deep breath of air that wasn’t laced with lies.

I was done.

With them.

With this life.

With all of it.

It had all been a meticulously constructed fairy tale, and I’d been too blind and trusting to see through the façade. I was done. Burning shame swamped me. The Assistant U.S. Attorney’s words rang in my ears:

How does it feel to realize your privileged life has been paid for with other people’s dreams?

The objection came too late to prevent the cutting words. But no objection could erase the fact that he was right. My life had been paid for with money diverted from the hard-earned savings of tens of thousands of innocent victims. Move over Bernie Madoff. Alistair Agoston figured out a better way. Exponentially more complex and devastating, because the moment the scheme started to topple, $125 billion disappeared into thin air. Or hundreds of offshore accounts. No one was really sure. My father refused to admit anything, but the dozens of charges leveled by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice would ensure he spent the rest of his life in federal prison.

And after the cross I’d just been subjected to, it was clear the Assistant U.S. Attorney thought I should be joining him in an orange jumpsuit. If trusting your father was a crime, he’d be right about that, too.

I exited the courthouse, running down the marble stairs through the gauntlet of shouting reporters, dodging the microphones and cameras they shoved in my face.

“Charlotte, did you know—”

“Charlotte, where’s the money?”

“Charlotte, are you being charged? Did you cut a deal?”

They battered me with questions until I dove into a waiting cab and slammed the door.

“East 60th and 3rd, please.” My plan was simple: have the cabbie drop me off a couple blocks away from home and sneak into the service entrance of our building without being seen or recognized. My strawberry blonde hair—heavy on the strawberry—was too distinctive. That would be the first thing to go as soon as I got out of this town. I clutched my purse to my chest. My future, a one-way ticket to Atlanta, where I could disappear to my final destination, was tucked inside. I was flying coach for the first time in my life—a fact I wasn’t proud of. I bundled my hair into a low bun and fished a giant pair of sunglasses and a scarf out of my purse. Somewhat disguised, I kept my head down until the car slowed to a stop. Tossing some bills at the cabbie, I slid out of the taxi.

The service elevator trundled its way up fifty-one floors, stopping at the penthouse. My hand shook as I typed in the code required to enter. Pushing the door open, I stepped into the cavernous, ultra-modern space that was my family’s Manhattan home. After the inevitable guilty verdict came down, it’d become the property of the federal government along with the rest of the meager assets that the FBI had managed to find and freeze. To finance my escape, I’d cashed in $20,000 worth of savings bonds I’d found tucked into my First Communion bible. I tried not to dwell on the irony of my salvation being found in the good book.

My one bag was already packed, but a casual observer would never know I had taken anything from my walk-in closet. The racks of designer suits and couture my mother insisted I wear were untouched. The shelves of Manolos and Louboutins were intact. They had no place in my future. I’d never put on another suit and walk into Agoston Investments, or any other reputable company. Never apply to Wharton and get my MBA. I’d naively thought I could somehow atone for the sins of my father by throwing myself into charity work. Put my newly earned finance degree to work for a good cause. I’d been laughed out of every organization I’d visited over the last two months. No one wanted me. And I couldn’t blame them. I wouldn’t trust anyone with my last name either.

After the last rejection, I’d come to a decision: I would never use my degree for my own benefit. Ever. I didn’t deserve it. I might have earned it myself, but how could I profit from it with good conscience? Along with that decision came a stark realization: I had no future in this city, where I’d forever be watched under a cloud of suspicion. So I started planning my escape.

I stripped out of my black Saint Laurent wool blazer and V-neck dress and hung them up in their appropriate places. I pulled on a pair of black skinny jeans, an American Apparel tank and hoody, and the contraband pair of black Chucks I’d kept hidden in the bottom of my closet. This was the new me. This was the me who would never set foot in this penthouse again. After I dressed, I left my cell phone on the dresser, hefted a black duffle bag over my shoulder, and headed through the kitchen to the staff entrance. It seemed fitting. Come in the front door one way and leave out the back a different person.

Juanita, the housekeeper who had been part of my life for all of my twenty-two years, blocked the doorway. She looked pointedly at my attire and the duffle. “And where do you think you’re going, hmmm?”

“Somewhere else.” As much as I wanted to tell her where, I couldn’t. I wanted her to have plausible deniability.

She wrapped me in her soft, familiar arms and hugged me. Lisette Agoston didn’t hug. And she would cringe to see me hugging the help. For the daughter of a plumber from upstate New York, she’d had no problem becoming a classist bitch.