He was probably in his late twenties, maybe a little older, and always wore jeans that were too tight and too low, trying to make the best of a package that even at that age I didn’t think was very impressive. He liked to call me pretty girlie, and if he was there when I came home from school, he’d try to touch me and ask me to bring him things. I kicked him once, right in the balls, and he cursed and chased me into the house, but he tripped over the stag in the entryway and Gran ripped him a new one for making too much noise during her soaps.
After that, I hung out at the gas station a few blocks over until I saw his truck drive past.
“And your parents never questioned your well-being?” He knows it’s a stupid question, but it’s already out of his mouth, and he nods even as her mouth twists.
“My parents never came to see me, never called, never sent cards or gifts or anything. Mom sent checks for the first three months, Dad for the first five, but then those stopped too. I never saw my parents or heard from them again after I went to Gran’s. I honestly don’t even know if they’re still alive.”
They’ve been at this all day, the birthday cake the first thing he’d had since last night’s dinner. He can feel his stomach complaining, knows she must be at least as hungry. It’s been almost twenty-four hours since the FBI arrived at the Garden. They’ve both been awake longer than that.
“Inara, I’m willing to let you tell things in your own way, but I need you to give me a straightforward answer to one question: should we have child services in here?”
“No,” she says immediately. “And that’s the truth.”
“How close is that truth to a lie?”
It’s actually a smile this time, crooked and wry, but even so small a smile as that softens her entire face. “I turned eighteen yesterday. Happy birthday to me.”
“You were fourteen when you got to New York?” Eddison demands.
“What the hell?”
“Gran died.” She shrugs, reaching for the water bottle. “I came home from school and she was dead in the chair with burns on her fingers where the cigarette burned all the way down. I’m kind of amazed the whole damn place wasn’t on fire from the whiskey fumes. I think her heart gave out or something.”
“Did you report it?”
“No. The lawn guy or the grocery boy would find her when they went to get paid, and I didn’t want anyone arguing about what to do with me. Maybe they would have tracked down one of my parents and I’d be forced to go with them, or they’d just dump me into the system. Or maybe they would have tracked down one of those uncles or aunts on my dad’s side and shoved me off onto yet another relative who didn’t want me. I didn’t like those options.”
“So what did you do?”
“I packed a suitcase and a duffel, then raided Gran’s stash.”
Victor’s not sure if he’s going to regret the answer, but he has to ask. “Stash?”
“Of cash. Gran only sort of trusted banks, so any time she got a check, she cashed it and hid half of it up the German shepherd’s ass. The tail was on a hinge, so you could reach under and pull out the money.” She takes a sip, then purses her lips and presses them against the mouth of the bottle, letting the water soak against the chapped cracks. “There was almost ten grand in there,” she continues when she pulls the bottle away. “I hid it away in my suitcase and duffel, spent the night at the house, and in the morning I woke up and walked down to the bus station rather than school, and bought a ticket to New York.”
“You spent the night in the house with your dead grandmother.”
“She wasn’t stuffed yet, but otherwise what was the difference than any other night?”
He’s grateful for the static in his ear. “We ordered food for the three of you,” Yvonne reports from the observation room. “Couple more minutes on it. And Ramirez called. A few of the girls have started talking. Not much yet; they seem more concerned with the dead ones than themselves. Senator Kingsley is on her way from Massachusetts.”
Well, it started out as good news. It’s probably too much to hope that the senator will be forced to make an early landing somewhere due to bad weather.
Victor shakes his head and leans back in his chair. The senator isn’t here yet; they’ll deal with her once she is. “We’re going to take a break soon so we can all eat, but one more question before that.”
“Tell us about how you came to the Garden.”
“That isn’t a question.”
Eddison slaps his thigh impatiently, but it’s still Victor who speaks. “How did you come to the Garden?”
“I was kidnapped.”
Three teenage daughters and he can practically hear the unspoken “duh” at the end of it. “Inara.”
“You’re really good at that.”
She sighs and brings her feet up onto the edge of the chair, wrapping her bandaged hands around her ankles.
Evening Star was a pretty nice restaurant. Reservation only, unless it was a slow night, but the prices were high enough that most people wouldn’t just walk off the street for a meal. On normal nights, the waiters wore tuxedos and the waitresses black strapless gowns with stand-alone collars and cuffs like the tuxes. We even had black bow ties that were a bitch and a half to get right—we weren’t allowed clip-ons.
Guilian knew how to cater to the stupidly rich, though, so you could actually rent out the entire restaurant for special occasions and put the waitstaff in costumes. There were a few basic rules—he drew the line at indecency—but within a fairly broad range of options, you could provide the costumes and we would wear them for the event, and then got to keep them. He always gave us warnings about the costumes so we could trade shifts if we didn’t think we could deal with it.
Two weeks before my sixteenth birthday—or as far as the girls knew, my twenty-first—the restaurant got rented out by someone doing a fundraiser for one of the theatres. Their first show was going to be a production of Madame Butterfly, so we were dressed accordingly. Only girls were allowed to work this one, by request of the client, and we were all given black dresses that came high around a pair of huge wire and silk wings that stayed on with spirit gum and latex—fuck, what a process that was—and we all had to wear our hair completely up.
We all agreed it was better than the shepherdess fetish costumes or the Civil War–themed wedding rehearsal dinner that stuck us all with hoopskirts that we’d finally converted to Christmas light chandeliers when we got sick of them taking up an entire corner of the apartment. Even if it meant getting to work hours early so we could put the damn wings on, the rest of it wasn’t that bad, and we could all use the dresses again. Trying to wait tables with large wings behind you was a clusterfuck, though, and by the time the main course had been served, and we could retreat to the kitchen during the fundraising presentation, most of us didn’t know whether to swear or laugh. A number of us were doing both.
Rebekah, our lead hostess, sighed and sank down on a stool, propping her feet up on a sideways crate. Her pregnancy had finally made high heels impossible, and had also spared her from having to bear the indignity of wings. “This thing needs to come out of me now,” she groaned.
I squeezed behind the stool as best I could with the wings and started massaging her tight shoulders and back.
Hope peeked out through a gap in the swinging doorway. “Anyone else think the guy in charge is totally fuckable for an old man?”
“He’s not that old, and watch your mouth,” Whitney retorted. There were certain words Guilian preferred we didn’t use at work, even in the kitchens, and fuck was one of them.
“Well, his son looks older than me, so he is an old man.”
“Then ogle the son.”
“No, thanks. He’s hot, but there’s something wrong with him.”
“He isn’t looking at you?”
“He’s looking a lot, at a bunch of us. He’s just wrong. I’d rather eye-fuck the old man.”
We stayed in the kitchen, chatting and making up gossip about the guests, until the presentation’s intermission, when we circulated with refills and bottles of wine and dessert trays. At the host’s table, I got a good look at Hope’s old man and his son. Right away I knew what she meant about the son. He was handsome, well-muscled and good-featured, with dark brown eyes and his father’s dark blond hair, which looked good against his tanned skin.