The Drafter

Page 72

The silence continued to grow as the cart driver took a service road leading to the back of the main building, the cinder block painted a dull yellow and lined with one-way doors probably leading to kitchens and service areas. From the unseen track, a bugle sounded to bring the stragglers in. A rising exhalation from the stands rose into a roar.

If Peri had been trying to get away, it would have been a perfect spot to act—quiet and unobtrusive, and the bodies wouldn’t be found until after the race. But she wasn’t, and the rising adrenaline broke over her with nowhere to go. Her pulse quickened as she got out of the cart.

“Down the hall, through the doors, and up the stairway,” Taf directed, and Peri halted.

“Taf. I’m sorry I said what I did about your mother,” Peri said, and Taf jerked as if slapped. “It was out of place, and none of my business.”

Taf almost smiled, reaching out to give Peri’s elbow a squeeze. “No,” she said softly, leading her forward to the double steel doors. “You’re right. I need to grow a pair.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Peri said. “You’re not a coward. She’s your mother.”

“Exactly.” Taf gestured Peri should go first, and feeling even more unsettled, Peri followed the first security man through the twin service doors. The sound of people laughing grew loud long before she saw them, and Peri balked when they turned a corner and the hall opened onto a huge room overlooking the track.

“That way,” Taf said, pointing out the staircase, and Peri nodded. It was a fabulous southern affair, complete with a woman in full southern belle regalia at the base of it, her accent charming as she checked names on a list before allowing access to the second floor. Two men in servant livery waited to reject any unwanted visitors if needed. Haves were being parted from the have-nots, and Peri’s tension spiked. But the organizer of the event wouldn’t be in the stands.

“Go right on up, Ms. Jacquard,” the woman said, drawling Taf’s name into four syllables.

The noise muted as they rose, and the soft strains of a piano became more obvious. The wood floor was varnished to a hard black. “That’s ours,” Taf said, indicating an elaborate door, and Peri slowed as she entered the sprawling observation room.

The floor-to-ceiling windows were expansive, and the comfortable seating was arranged like a living room, with coffee tables and plush pillows. Older women in bright colors mingled with thin women in tight black who threw their heads back to show off their necks when they laughed, mimicking those downstairs but in a higher tax bracket. The piano was live and the food in tiny portions. Overlooking it all was Fran.

Seeing them, she excused herself from her guests, the group clearly from LA with their cool façades. “Taf, a word,” she said in greeting, then turned to Peri. “You can sit if you want.”

“Why, thank you very much,” Peri said sarcastically, and Fran gave her a double glance, her expression inscrutable. Feeling as if she belonged, Peri eased down into the plush cushions of a chair with its back to the wall, where she could see everything. It was the nicest thing she’d sat in for three days, and she stretched her arms out along the back of it to make the space hers. From across the room, a man smiled and started over, but he jerked to a red-eared halt when the security men who had accompanied them in took up positions to either side of her.

“No sense of adventure,” she said around a sigh, then beamed at the servers offering her hors d’oeuvres. Happy, she heaped a little plate high. Mouth full of foie gras, she beckoned over the man with the champagne. “Thank you very, very much,” she said as she took a glass, and he inclined his head, eyes bright.

“Howard!” she called, seeing him at a window, looking like an awkward wallflower in his new suit and tie. His dreadlocks were pulled back in a ponytail, showing off the elegance of his face but still looking exotic. His face was damp from a quick shave. “You wash up good,” she said as he came over, giving her security a glance before gingerly sitting down in the chair beside her.

“I could say the same for you,” he answered, but his brow was pinched.

“What did you tell her?” she asked, suddenly concerned.

“Nothing you wouldn’t want me to.” His eyes were on Taf arguing with her mother. “I don’t know, Peri. Something doesn’t feel right. There’s too much talk going on.”

“Yeah. I’m smelling what we’re stepping in, too.” Peri settled back to wait, the rich food not sitting well. Everything was achingly, wonderfully familiar, but her intuition was telling her to leave. It was only her need for their help in freeing Silas that kept her unmoving. That, and Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber beside her.

“Taf, enough!” Fran said loudly, then forcibly eased her features into a pleasant expression. Taf, beside her, was pissed.

“They’re posting!” Fran called cheerfully. “Everyone to the windows!”

The excitement rose. Drinks were set down, and the little clusters of chatting people turned into a mob at the windows as personal space vanished in the thrill of the race.

Peri set her drink down, standing up as Fran strode to her. “I’ve got a moment. You, come with me,” Fran said brusquely. “Taf, you and Howard can watch the race.”

“I don’t want to watch the race,” Taf said, arms crossed over her middle.

Howard looked between the two women in unease. “Ah, if it’s all the same to you, ma’am, I’d like to stay with Peri.”

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