“Not really. He told me Mercer kidnapped you as leverage because your father was one of Mercer’s business rivals,” I explained.
“Oh yeah, big-time rival in weapons smuggling. Like, nemesis-level rival.” Priyanka pulled her legs up onto the seat and wrapped her arms around them. “Have you ever heard of Parth Acharya?”
“That rings a bell….”
She picked up the burner phone and switched over to the browser. The New York Times article was already pulled up. The image of a handsome, gray-haired Indian man filled the screen below the headline ACHARYA ESCAPES INDICTMENT.
She gave a faint laugh. “I can’t help myself sometimes. I search his name at least once a week. I tell myself it’s because I want to know if he’s still alive, but I think it’s just a different kind of morbid curiosity. When I was a little younger, I used to pretend that he was trying to secretly communicate with me through photos in the newspaper and online, to send me signals. He was such a big figure in my mind—like an emperor—I assumed there had to be a reason why he was always getting busted and tried for this crime or that. Turns out, it was just Mercer constantly leaking information about him to the government. No one could ever pin anything serious on him, though. Seems like they still can’t.”
“And your father…he just…let Mercer keep you?”
“Not exactly.” Priyanka let out a soft breath. “I wasn’t born here. My mother—her name was Chandni. She and I lived in Delhi for the first seven years of my life. My father had gone to America to establish himself there—one day he was a driver, the next, some crime boss’s driver, and the next, the new crime boss himself. It didn’t happen quite that fast, but it was only a year before he sent a private plane back for us. It was a whole thing, because commercial flights to and from the States had been stopped owing to IAAN and how they thought it could spread.
“A few days before it was set to arrive,” Priyanka continued, “my mom was killed by a car as she was crossing our street. So, I went alone. I lived in his massive, echoing marble mansion in Jersey and watched the constant stream of henchmen and overheard a thousand whispered conversations, and that became my new baseline for normal. If he was ever scared of me catching IAAN, my father never showed it. And then about a year after I arrived, a day before Christmas—because, yes, he’s that asshole—Mercer sent someone to kidnap me. He offered a choice to my father: get out of the guns business, or he’d send me back to him in pieces.”
“Jesus,” I breathed out.
“Oh wait, it gets better.” Priyanka shifted in her seat. “The deadline fell on the same day my father was due in court for racketeering charges. Instead of responding to the message, or trying to renegotiate those terms, Mercer and I both watched on the news as my father walked up the steps of the courthouse in lower Manhattan in head-to-toe white. When one of the reporters asked him why, he explained that his beloved daughter Priyanka had died from IAAN the night before and he was in mourning.”
It actually took me a moment to remember how to speak. “What?”
“Oh yes. That’s how strong his sense of pride is. He refused to admit that Mercer had kidnapped his daughter, that Mercer had won and put him in a position of weakness, so he chalked me up as a loss and moved on. I was a problem to him, which meant I no longer had value. For him, I wasn’t enough.”
“That is disgusting,” I said.
“At the time, the bigger issue was what Mercer would do to me. I remember it so clearly—Mercer looked down at me and said, ‘Well, how are you going to be useful to me now?’ So I asked to join the other kids.”
I gasped. “Priya…”
She shrugged, clearing her throat. “Mercer is a sick son of a bitch, but my father is a coldhearted bastard. That’s the difference between them in the end. Lana isn’t wrong. Mercer did take care of us, in a way. When he turned his attention on you, it was like warm honey. It wasn’t until I was older that I saw how manipulative he is.”
“God,” I breathed out. “What about your mom’s family? Could you go back to them?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I keep up my Hindi so I’ll be able to communicate with them to some degree one day, but it’s not like I’ve really tried to get in touch with them, even after we left Blue Star. Every time I think about it, something stops me. I tell myself that it’s because I don’t want Mercer to go after them, to use them to hurt me, but it’s more than that. I’m not even sure how to explain it….”
“Just try,” I said.
“One of the worst things about all of this is that I feel this strange disconnect with my wider family and culture. I still have my faith, my deep passion for malpua, and all these golden memories of living in Delhi with my mom, but…it feels like I got plucked out of my real life midstream. Does that make sense?”
“It does.” She’d put into words a feeling I’d never been able to articulate myself. When we’d gone to the camps, it wasn’t just our lives that had been interrupted, but our sense of self. It changed the trajectory of our worlds. For so long, our focus had to be on survival, and survival alone.
But that wasn’t living.
“I think that about sums it up,” Priyanka said. “I feel lucky in some ways, because Lana and Roman are more family to me than my father ever was. I never would have met them otherwise.”
She turned her wrist up, pushing the sleeve of her blouse back until it revealed the blue star tattooed on it. “I don’t know why I kept this. Roman burned his off a few nights after we escaped, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Roman said he hated feeling like he’d been marked as someone’s possession, but I never saw it that way—to me, it was always more of a unifying symbol. A sign that we were family. Now it’s a reminder that nothing is all good or all bad.”
My heart was exhausted. It just couldn’t handle any more. I pressed my hand to my eyes.
“Don’t start crying,” Priyanka said. “Otherwise I’ll start and won’t be able to stop.”
I cleared my throat. “I’m sorry. Sometimes it just feels like it’s too much, you know? I always thought the world would feel easier as I got older, but I’ve only gotten more practice at pretending it is.”
“It’s hard for people like us,” Priyanka said, leaning over the console to rest her head on my shoulder. I let mine fall against hers. “We feel everything.”
Outside, Roman appeared along the road again, his dark hair damp and shining in the sun.
“I’m sorry about Lana,” I told her. “It must be unbearable to see her like this.”
“It’ll only be unbearable when I give up hope of ever getting her back,” she said. “And I won’t. Not ever. My heart is a wheel. It breaks all the damn time, but, most days, it just rolls on.”
I UNFOLDED THE MAP AND smoothed it across the steering wheel again, looking between the X Roman had marked on it and the building across the street. We’d used the burner’s limited GPS capabilities to search for the Baton Rouge address, but there must have been some glitch in the satellite feed, or he’d made a mistake in transferring the information over onto the paper. This couldn’t be it.
“I think this is right,” Roman said, shielding his eyes from the glare of sunlight to get a better look at the building. “Unfortunately.”
“It’s like I can hear the screams of ghost children from here,” Priyanka said, shuddering. “Tell me Ruby loves roller-skating so much she’d drive across multiple state lines and risk capture by the government for a fun day out.”
Riverside Rink was just outside of Baton Rouge proper, on a street yet to be touched by that magic reinvigoration we’d seen in other places. The flow of money and government-sponsored work had apparently stopped at the city’s center.
We parked across the street, behind a shuttered McDonald’s, and ate our lunch of vending-machine food on a faded rainbow play set. Roman insisted on keeping watch to see if anyone was coming or going. So far, nothing. No one.
“I don’t think she’s
here,” I said, tossing the M&M’s wrapper into the restaurant’s overflowing trash can. A swarm of flies immediately descended on it. “I don’t think anyone’s been here in a good decade.”
Half the letters on the rink’s fluorescent sign were missing, plundered by neglect or thieves, I wasn’t sure. Its parking lot was empty, all of its lines faded. The windows, like all the other buildings’ in the neighborhood, were boarded up and spray-painted with warnings against trespassers.
“Well, we’re here. At least we’ll see what she found so intriguing about this place,” Priyanka said. “You good?”
Roman checked that there was a bullet in the chamber of his gun, then nodded.
The roller rink was completely locked down, and the front door had been chained for good measure. It made finding the back door open that much stranger.
“Stating for the record that I don’t like this,” Priyanka said.
“There is no record,” Roman whispered.
She gave him a look. He gave her one right back.
“Should I go first?” I suggested.
We kept our backs to the brick wall, facing the mountain of trash piled high in the nearby dumpsters. The smell was bad enough that I lifted the collar of my shirt over my nose and mouth.
Roman led us inside, sweeping his gun back and forth as he searched what once had been the rink’s kitchen. There was still a grill, but all the other machines had been taken, leaving behind only a congealed bit of orange cheese on the tile floor as a relic. The light filtering in from outside faded the farther we moved into the building. I pulled the flashlight out of my back pocket and switched it on.
Roman had stepped into the main rink area, only to whirl toward us again, the back of his hand pressed hard to his mouth.
“Don’t—” he started to say as I passed him.
Too late. I smelled it, too. The sickly sweet stench of rotting food had blended with the unmistakable reek of human waste and…something else. Something like death.
The flashlight’s thin beam illuminated the skating rink in slices of horror. Cubbies of roller skates, left untouched. Garbage and buckets were scattered haphazardly across the rink.
The girl was curled on her side, facing away from us, hugging her knees to her chest. A long dark braid stretched out on the floor behind her, the end buried beneath a stray wrapper. Her plaid shirt was a deep red, shot through with black. She wasn’t moving.
She wasn’t breathing.
My feet slowed.