I was never so glad to wipe off the last counter and get the last dish put away as I was that night. The waitress who'd taken me to the Falchani's table shot sympathetic glances in my direction now and then. I was glad when she turned in her count for the evening and left with the other waitstaff. Silmor had left a message for me, asking for a marinade to be put together for the steaks stored in one of the meat keepers. I put the marinade together and set the meat soaking in it, going over and over my embarrassment. Did I say I liked Falchani? Right then, I didn't.
"Riding the bus?" Oris grinned.
"No. I'll walk," I said. And I would. Right to the nearest dark and secluded spot. I'd skip to my cube from there. My temporary home was across town, in the lower middle-class portion of Targis. It was the best I could afford.
"Be careful, then. We heard there are girls coming up missing. Three, just last week," Danis said. "And with you so, well, not tall," he wasn't sure if he were insulting me or not.
"Don't worry. I should be fine," I reassured him. Three girls were missing? When had that happened? Of course, I'd been buried in meal planning and such, but that was no excuse. I'd have to be better than this.
We set the alarm and locked up the restaurant, my assistants going one way while I went the other. I skipped as quickly as I could.
Later, I sat with a cup of tea at my elbow while I read through the ASD records of the three missing girls. These girls hadn't been taken together-that was the only thing different. They'd disappeared on three consecutive days, too. Were the Ra'Ak attempting to steer us away from their trail by changing tactics? Hunching my shoulders and then relaxing them, I worked to get the kinks out. They ached. Not just from the work but from tension and embarrassment. My face went warm every time I thought about my invitation to the Falchani customer. I'd never do that again. Never. Ever.
My eyes were almost closed when I pulled up information on fifteen other worlds, all having to do with child disappearances. All recent. "Fuck," I mumbled. I was too tired to keep looking. I had to sleep.
"Tell me why." Gavril sounded hurt. He had photographs in front of him, taken by Dee's restaurant buyer, Teira. All the photographs Dee handed to Gavril were of Reah. Dee owned all sorts of businesses, restaurants being one branch of them. Kifirin had come to him with this project, just as he'd come to him fifty years before, bringing Gavril to him to raise and teach.
"Kifirin," Dee stated flatly. "So I built this. For her. He says not to go rushing in. She needs to settle and get comfortable. Make friends. I hired the best I could-ones who will treat her carefully. You'll get regular updates. Share these images with the others, with the same warning. Step back for now. We'll woo her. Slowly. Build her trust, if we can."
"And did Kifirin say why we shouldn't go rushing in?"
"He says that makes her run. So don't. Make offers, instead. Tell her that you'll be waiting, if she needs or wants anything. Or just to talk. She's renting one of those minuscule cubes on the eastern edge of Targis. You own a luxury apartment building on the west side, not far from the restaurant."
"You do, now. You can offer one of those apartments as a place to live. Rent free."
"Of course rent free," Gavril growled. Dee recognized that growl. His Teeg was frustrated.
"It's either this or go looking for her again," Dee said.
A thick, cream-colored envelope waited on my tiny kitchen table when I got back from doing my grocery shopping on First-Day. Worried, I opened it while placing perishables into the keeper.
Dearest Reah, we know where you are. The first line of the letter made me draw a shaky breath. We will not push or demand-we realize now that this would be a mistake. There is no need to run; we will not approach you unless you wish it. All of us will be available if you need or want anything, including sitting down to talk. Wylend wants you to know that Garek worries that you misinterpreted his words-he only meant that you would be less of a target if someone wished to get to Wylend by harming you. He would never use you as a shield-he wishes to protect you instead. Lendill worries that you will not tell him if you need supplies or information such as he can give. Torevik sends his love and his sincerest apologies. Aurelius sends his love, as do I. I also wish you to consider this-I own the Crown Apartments on the west side of Targis. It would please all of us if you'd consider moving into one of them-we would worry less if you would do so. Unit # 927 is available; all you have to do is ask the concierge for the keys. Your clothing and any other belongings we could gather are already there. We make no demands, Reah. The choices are yours to make.
My love forever-Chash.
I was weeping helplessly at the end. And later, when my face didn't look such a mess, I skipped to the west side of Targis, searching for the Crown Apartments.
"Your keys, lady." I thought the man was going to bow or something when he handed them over. He led me to the lift and rode up with me. Luxury? I'd be wallowing in it. Real estate was at a premium on Targis' west side. Addah lived in this part of town, now-I'd checked. The apartment had expensive tiles laid, with rich, handmade rugs, beautiful artwork, a sumptuous master suite with a huge bed, two more bedrooms and the kitchen of my dreams. The cabinets were already stocked with dishes, pots and pans. Exactly what I would buy for myself, if I could afford it. I wanted to weep again. I may have brushed away a tear or two while the concierge showed me through the place.
"Will you be moving in right away?" he asked. I could only nod.
"You won't get the rent back," the clerk said when I turned in the keys to my cube later. It had taken two trips to get everything out of it.
"I know." I walked away from him and my tiny cube with no regrets.
My next surprise came when I went to put my clothing away in the new apartment-another envelope waited in a lingerie drawer.
Reah, use this. It will be funded by all of us. Love, Chash. It was a credit chip, strung on a chain. And then, when I walked into the huge closet-it was as big as my cube, perhaps larger, even-there were notes attached to some of the clothing.
Reah, it was a wrench allowing this to leave my closet. I had hopes of seeing you inside my suite at times, searching for something suitable to wear-Lendill.
Reah, I kept some of your things-they bear your scent and I couldn't part with them-Chash.
Reah, this is my favorite dress. You wore it when you graced my arm at the harvest ball, remember? I love you-Wylend.
Reah, come and skip rocks with me. Please?-Tory. That note was on a pair of faded jeans. I recalled the first time we'd done that-Tory, Rylend, Gavril and I. More tears came.
My love, you are my treasure. You know that-Aurelius. "I know that, Auri." I sat on the floor and wept, even when there shouldn't have been any tears left to fall.
I used my codes to get into the local constabulary's records on the three disappearances in Targis. Very little evidence had been collected-I found vid images where all three girls had last been seen. I was forcing myself to work at this-I'd almost succumbed to huddling inside my new apartment instead. The notes-they'd been so loving. There'd been no demands from Teeg, and that's what I was used to from him. I wanted to talk to him. Ask him about Farzi and Nenzi. Ask to speak with them, tell them I was all right. Would he settle for talking or would he be as he was, only waiting for me to make the first move and then pounce like a cat, playing with a mouse but never truly letting it go? I shook my head, hunched into my knee-length wool coat against the cold wind and skipped to the location where the first girl disappeared.
Dusk was settling in so I would have to hurry if I expected to see anything. Only a few fibers from the girl's jacket had been left behind for the authorities to collect, and those had been caught on the brick of a building near a street corner. She'd been walking home from a friend's house; they'd spent the afternoon together. The girl was fourteen and taller than I, according to the records.
Bending over, I examined the brick carefully-I could see where it had been scraped for possible DNA samples.
"Lose something?" I whirled to see Mr. I prefer taller women with dark hair.
"I lost nothing," I snapped. "But some parents lost their daughter. I was looking to see if the authorities missed anything."
"As if you'd know," he said.
"Wait, is that sarcasm? I thought you were the master of the flat and uninflected."
"Do you treat all your customers this way?"
"No." My voice was sullen, now. "Do you treat all cooks this way?" I went back to studying the brick, wondering what he was doing there. I moved down toward the corner-the brick that held the fibers was several feet from there. Reaching the corner, I turned, going down the narrow alley between buildings. Nearly fifteen feet down, I found it. More fibers. They'd missed this.
"Fuck." His voice was right behind me. He'd seen it too, shortly after I'd found it.
"They dragged her around the corner and into this alley," I muttered, looking around. Seven days had passed since the abduction, but I pulled the small, ultra-bright penlight from my pocket and searched the alley anyway. Tulgalan doesn't use paper anything, so there was very little litter. The Falchani was breathing over my shoulder the entire time. Wanting to give him an elbow in the ribs, I chose silence instead.
"What's this?" I pulled a collapsible metal wand from my pocket and lifted the piece. It looked to be a few links from a chain. Metal bracelets were popular among young men on Tulgalan at the moment. The Falchani was staring at the evidence, too, before hauling out a comp-vid and tapping out a rapid message. The alley was swarming with local police in no time.
"And just who are you?" A detective leaned over me. Mr. Falchani had pulled out a badge-he was a private investigator. Go figure. I-for the moment, anyway, was just a cook for Dee's restaurant.