Even if the tan looked a little fake.
It was something deeper than that, though, a cruelty that showed through in his otherwise charming smile, the way he watched all of us as we moved through the room. Next to him, his father was simply charming, with an easy smile that thanked us all wordlessly for our efforts. He stopped me with two fingers against my wrist, not too familiar, not threatening. “That’s a lovely tattoo, my dear.”
I glanced down to the slit in my skirt. All of us in the apartment, even Kathryn, had gone out together and gotten matching tattoos a few months before, something we still found absurd and couldn’t quite figure out why we’d done it, except that most of us had been a bit tipsy and Hope nagged us until we gave in. It was on the outside of my right ankle, just above the bone, and it was an elegant thing of sweeping black lines. Hope had picked it out. Sophia, the other sober one, argued against the butterfly, because it was overdone and so damn typical, but Hope didn’t budge. She was a freaking honey badger when she wanted to be; she called it a tribal butterfly. Normally we had to keep tattoos covered up with clothing or make-up for work, but because of the event theme, Guilian had said we could leave them uncovered.
“Thank you.” I poured the sparkling wine into his glass.
“Are you fond of butterflies?”
Not particularly, but that didn’t seem a bright thing to mention given the theme of his party. “They’re beautiful.”
“Yes, but like most beautiful creatures, very short-lived.” His pale green eyes traveled from the tattoo on my ankle up my body until he could smile into my eyes. “It is not just your tattoo that’s lovely.”
I made a note to tell Hope that the old man was as creepy as his son. “Thank you, sir.”
“You seem young to be working in a restaurant like this.”
One thing no one had ever said to me was that I seemed too young for something. I stared at him a moment too long, saw some kind of satisfaction flicker in his pale eyes. “Some of us are older than our years,” I said finally, and promptly cursed myself. The last thing I needed was a wealthy customer convincing Guilian I was lying about my age.
He didn’t say anything when I moved on to the next glass, but I felt his eyes on me all the way back to the kitchen.
During the second half of the presentation, I snuck back to the locker room to dig a tampon out of my purse, but when I turned to leave for the bathroom, the son was standing in the doorway. He was maybe in his mid-twenties, but alone in a small room with him, he definitely gave off a more experienced vibe of menace. I didn’t generally credit Hope with being too perceptive, but she was right, there was something really wrong with this guy.
“I’m sorry, but this is a staff-only area.”
He ignored me, still blocking the doorway as one hand reached out to flick the edge of one of the wings. “My father has exquisite taste, don’t you think?”
“Sir, you need to leave. This is not a customer area.”
“I know you’re supposed to say that.”
“And I say it too.” Kegs, one of the busboys, shouldered him roughly out of the way. “I know the owner would be sorry to make you leave the restaurant, but he’ll do it without regret if you don’t rejoin your party.”
The stranger looked him over, but Kegs was tall and burly and perfectly capable of slinging people around like beer kegs, hence the name. With a scowl, the stranger nodded and stalked away.
Kegs watched him until he turned the corner into the main dining room. “You okay, lovely?”
“I am, thanks.”
We called him “our” busboy, mainly because Guilian always assigned him to our sections and he considered us his girls. Whether he was working that night or not, Kegs always walked the closing girls to the subway and saw us safely onto the train. He was the one person who inexplicably ignored Guilian’s rules about tattoos and piercings. True, he was a busboy, not a waiter, so he wasn’t interacting with the customers, but he was still visible. Guilian never commented on the gauged ears, the pierced eyebrow, lip, and tongue, or the heavy black tribal tattoos that marched all the way down both arms and nearly glowed through his white dress shirt. They peeked out from the cuffs onto the backs of his hands and up on the back of his neck when it wasn’t obscured by his long hair. Sometimes he knotted the hair up and you could see the tattoos climb onto the shaved lower half of his skull.
He kissed my cheek and walked me to the bathroom, standing outside while I took care of things, and then walked me back to the kitchen. “Be careful around the host’s son,” he announced to all the girls.
“I told you,” giggled Hope.
That night Kegs escorted us all the way to the apartment. The next day, Guilian listened to what had happened with a concerned frown, then told us not to worry too much about it, because the clients had returned to Maryland. Or so we thought.
A couple of weeks later, when Noémie and I left the library one afternoon and bumped into two of her classmates, I waved her on with them and told her I could get the rest of the way home by myself.
I managed three blocks before something stabbed me, and before I could even cry out, my legs fell out from under me, and the world turned black.
“In the afternoon on the streets of New York?” Eddison asks skeptically.
“Like I said, most people in New York don’t ask too many questions, and both father and son can be very charming when they want to be. I’m sure they said something that made sense to the people around us.”
“And you woke up in the Garden?”
The door opens to show the female tech analyst with her hip still on the handle, her hands full of drinks and food sacks. She nearly drops them on the table, thanking Victor as he helps her steady the cardboard drink caddy.
“There are hot dogs, hamburgers, and fries,” Yvonne announces. “I wasn’t sure what your tastes are, so I had them put some condiments in on the side.”
It takes the girl a moment to realize that she’s the one being addressed, and then all she says is thank you.
“Anything new from Ramirez?” Eddison asks.
She shrugs. “Nothing big. They’ve got another girl identified, and a couple of them have given their names and addresses, or partial addresses. One girl’s family relocated to Paris, poor thing.”
As he portions out food, Victor watches Inara study the tech. There are questions in her expression, but he can’t make them out. After a moment, she shakes her head and reaches for a packet of ketchup.
“The senator?” asks Eddison.
“Still in the air; they had to detour around a storm front.”
Well, Victor almost got his wish. “Thanks, Yvonne.”
The analyst taps her ear. “Anything interesting, I’ll keep you updated.” She nods to Inara and leaves the room. A few seconds later, the mirror rattles slightly as the door to the observation room closes.
Victor eyes Inara as he squeezes mustard and relish onto his hot dog. He isn’t sure if he should ask the question. He’s never felt uncertain about the power dynamic in a room, not with a victim, but then, she’s not exactly a typical victim, is she? That’s at least half the problem. He frowns at his meal, unwilling to let the girl think the scowl is aimed at her.
Eddison has that covered.
He has to know, though. “You weren’t surprised to hear about Senator Kingsley.”
“Should I have been?”
“So you all know each other’s real names.”
“No.” She squeezes ketchup over the patty and fries, then pops a fry in her mouth.
“Some can’t stop talking about their families. Afraid they’ll forget, I guess. No names, though. Ravenna said her mother was a senator. That was all we knew.”
“Her real name is Patrice,” Eddison says.
Inara just shrugs. “What do you call a Butterfly halfway between the Garden and Outside?”