Author's note: This story is 58,943 words long and is Book #2 of The House of Scarlet series. It deals with BDSM, domination, blood, fire, and martial arts.
Detective Steven Howell opened the door to the small tattoo parlor. As he entered the shop, a woman, barely more than a girl, briefly looked up before looking back down to continue on the tattoo she was doing for a beefy biker type. They were seated together in a small cubicle, him on a reclining chair, her on a wheeled stool with a small rolling tool chest nearby. Power cords, bottles, and several shiny hand sized machines were on the top of the tool chest. From the looks of it, the chest was where she kept the tools of her trade.
"Be with you in a minute." The girl called out to Howell as she concentrated on her color application to the nearly finished tattoo. The buzz of her tattoo gun resuming as she returned to work.
Howell wandered about the shop looking at the images on the walls. Flash was what the pictures were called. He remembered that from his visits to other similar shops over the years. Well, similar in the fact that they all were tattoo parlors. This one, however, was different. There were green plants in ceramic pots while the walls were painted in soft colors. A beige leather sofa created a small waiting area near the front window which, wonder of wonders, didn't have paint covering it up.
There was even a small half round table with a coffee urn on top. Nearby was a sign that said 'Help Yourself.' Styrofoam cups, a low crystal bowl of non-dairy creamers, and a box of plastic spoons were nearby. All in all, the shop was light and airy. Well lit with both artificial and natural light. It definitely didn't have that seedy feel that most tattoo parlors had. It was more like an artist's studio or gallery than the tattoo parlors he was familiar with. Neutral to attract both men and women but bordering on feminine. Very pleasant.
Howell poured himself a small cup of the coffee adding a single creamer to it before taking a seat on the leather couch to wait.
After some time, the buzzing of the tattoo gun stopped. Both the man and the girl walked to the rear of the shop. Howell heard a cash register beep. The two talked for a few more moments before the man left. The girl followed him to where Howell was seated on the sofa. Howell took in her appearance as she came near. Asian. Small boned. Thin but fit. A definite exercise buff. Her face was framed in a pixy haircut. She probably wore it that way to keep it out of the way when she was working. It did frame her face nicely. The short dark hair really set off her eyes and cheekbones. Eyes that were intense while seeming to miss very little of what was going on around her.
"Callie M." The girl introduced herself. "What can I do for you officer?"
Howell stood up from the couch offering his hand. "It's Detective. How did you know I was a cop?"
The girl, Callie M., shook his hand briefly before dropping it. "We see a lot of officials. Health inspectors, fire marshals, city inspectors, license bureau, uniformed police, undercover Narc's, we get a good exposure to official types who are here on business. You learn how they look real fast. Mostly they don't look like they are into this lifestyle. Too out of place. Uncomfortable. Too Vanilla."
"It's an expression. It means plain or ordinary. Not kinky or living an alternative lifestyle."
"Oh. Well, I'm here because I'm working on a murder case. I'm hoping you might have information for me. The victim had a distinctive tattoo, at least I think it's distinctive, I'm trying to find someone who can identify the tattoo. Maybe that way we can get a name for the victim. Right now he's just a John Doe."
Howell handed the girl a close up picture of the tattoo he was talking about.
"Decent line work. Not great, but decent. Shading and color seem off some too. That may be an effect from the lighting though.
"Don't know the artist. Which isn't that unusual since almost anyone can get a tattoo anywhere in the world. Sorry."
"Well, it was worth a try. I'm going to go ask some other shops, but you were recommended for me to try first. Apparently you have a reputation as someone who is very good at tattooing."
Callie smiled but didn't comment. She knew her art. She was a specialist in lines and shading with gray. She did color work too, like on the guy who just left. However, her real talent was black and gray. There were very few in the area who could match her in design, ability, and execution. None who were better than she. She knew it. She could say it without arrogance, no one was better.
"Can I make a copy of this? I can ask around. I can also show it to the other artists here. Might get something. Probably won't though, so don't get your hopes up."
"There are other artists here? I thought you were the only one?"
"There are three of us. I'm covering the shop while they're at lunch today."
"Oh. Making a copy is fine if you want."
"Great." Callie walked to the back of the shop. In an alcove no bigger than a double closet, Howell saw a small color copier and other office equipment along with the cash register he'd heard earlier. Callie put the photo face down on the glass plate of the copier before pushing the button. Shortly after some machinery humming, the copier spit out a color copy of the photo.
"I'll show this around. Maybe I'll get lucky for you. Don't bet on it." Callie handed him the photo back.
"Well, if you come up with anything, please give me a call." Howell stuck the photo inside his jacket then pulled out a silver plated business card case from his shirt pocket opening it one handed. On one side was clipped a red card with gold numbers on it. That card was dog eared and worn. Pulling a card from the other side of the case he handed it to her.
"What's that?" She indicated the red card even as she put his card in her pocket.
"Why? Have you seen something like that before?"
"Well, it looks interesting. The red really catches your eye. Pretty. With only the numbers on it, you either know who it's from or you don't need to know. It's like a secret." A short laugh of apology. "Sorry. I'm into mysteries, reading them that is. That card looks like something from that sort of thing."
Howell handed the card to her. "It's from the same case. It was in the victim's wallet."
Callie ran her fingers over the embossed numbers. "Hmm, that's real gold leaf. Somebody has money if they can spend it on something like this."
"Why do you say that?"
"The card is a throwaway. It has no value other than the number on it. Otherwise it's really just wastebasket fodder. It takes some big money to make something with real gold on it for others to potentially just throw it away. I just had a bunch of cards printed for the shop here, so I pretty much know the current price for business cards. This is expensive. Top level expensive."
She looked up at him. "Did you call the number?"
Howell didn't know why, but he was intrigued with the tattoo artist who was obviously more than she appeared. Intrigued enough to give out information. Anything that would lead to solving this murder would be a help. He was almost at a dead end.
"Yeah. Someone answered but said nothing. I started to introduce myself. As soon as I did, whoever was on the other end disconnected. I tried calling back. The number came up as not in service."
"Yeah. I had it traced. Nothing. Number not assigned. Which is crazy since I know someone was on the other end of the line at that number."
Howell's frustration came through with that statement. Callie grinned at him. "Well, it wasn't me," she said as she handed back the red card.
Howell apologized. "Sorry."
Noise assaulted them as the front door opened. Two girls and a younger man walked into the shop. All three were wearing jeans and T-shirts.
"Ok, Callie, you can go to lunch now." One of the girls called out to them as she walked over to the first tattoo cubicle. The young man followed her to sit in the reclining chair.
The other girl came all the way to where they were standing. Short and thin, with medium length glossy straight black hair, she had a strong resemblance to Callie. She looked first at Callie, then Howell. A quizzical expression appeared on her face.
Callie rolled her eyes. "He's not a date. Stop trying to fix me up."
"Mama's going to be on your case for grandkids if you don't get it together." The girl scolded her. "This one looks nice. In a suit even. I like men in suits. Yummy."
"He's a cop. He's looking for help to solve a murder. Stop drooling over him."
Howell looked from one to the other as the byplay went on as if he wasn't there. "Excuse me, who are you?"
"T Rose. I'm her sister."
The girl grimaced. "Yeah. Mama, our mama, is an artist. She likes flowers. Paints them on canvas, wood, walls, you name it. She gets commissions for them. She likes flowers so much she named her kids after them. Tea Rose for me. Calla lily for her. T, just the letter, Rose for short for me. Callie for her." T Rose curled around him hooking her arm in his.
Callie rolled her eyes again before grabbing her sister pulling her away from Howell. "He's not interested. He's here on a case."
"So, the only thing he's interested in right now is a tattoo. He has a picture of it. He came in hoping I'd seen it before. It's on a dead guy."
"A tattoo? On a dead body? Ewww."
"It's just a picture of the tattoo. Not the whole dead guy." Callie told her sister.
"Ok, let me see the picture." T Rose held out her hand after a moments thought.
Callie handed her the color copy. T Rose looked at the copy turning the paper clockwise in ninety degree intervals.
"I've seen this."
Howell was instantly alert. "You have?"
"Yeah. Let me think." T Rose stared at the paper without seeing the image there. "Someplace. Recently."
Snapping into a walk T Rose began to pace holding the photocopy in front of her. She was not seeing the image on the page. Instead, she was looking at images in her mind.. Callie pushed Howell out of the way placing her finger in front of her lips for silence.
After a few repetitions pacing the length of the shop, T Rose stopped pacing. She confronted Howell.
"It's on the wall of a shop down on second street. It's next to a club called 'The Pit'. It's a picture of someone who has the tattoo. Not flash. I don't know the person in the picture but the shop owner probably does."
"How do you know that?" Howell was suspicious. This was too easy.
T Rose shrugged. "I remember things. Lots of things."
"Photographic memory." Callie explained. "Especially when it comes to art."
"We all have it." T Rose smirked. We all get it from mama."
"Oh, we have 2 more sisters and a brother."
"Are you all tattoo artists?" Howell was still suspicious.
Both girls laughed. "Poppy is only eleven. Tulip is fourteen. They're too young to do anything except go to school. Henry is the oldest. He's a hair stylist."
"Wait. I thought you said your mother named you all after flowers. How did your brother get to be named Henry?"
"Dad put his foot down. He told mama while girls might be flowers in their mother's eyes; sons were not. Son's have to grow up to be men. Not flowers kept in the house or garden."
"Speaking of Henry, I have to go." Callie reminded her sister. "He's cutting my hair today. He also says he is going to doing something else as a surprise. He won't tell me what. If I don't get going I'm probably going to be late. Don't forget, I have my class this afternoon too. I probably won't be back."
Rose nodded that she remembered.
"I teach Karate." Callie said in an aside to Howell as he looked on. "I have a class two days per week at a friend's dojo. Mostly little old ladies who want to learn to defend themselves against purse snatchers."
"Ok. See you later then." T Rose talked right over her sister's explanation. She waved a languid good bye at Callie before hooking her arm through Howells elbow again.
"Why don't we see if we can find something you'd like for a tattoo? I'm sure we can find something you'd like to have on your body."
Callie tore her sister away from Howell. "You don't have time for that. You have to finish last months bookkeeping before it becomes this month's bookkeeping. Besides, the Detective probably needs to go talk to someone about his case." Callie pushed Howell behind her, waving at him to leave while she dealt with her sister.
"Spoilsport. You're the one who knows about that stuff. Not me."
Callie stuck her tongue out pointing to a closed door at the back of the shop. "You can thank mama for that later. Right now, you're the one who needs to learn it. So get learning!"
Howell left as the two girls were arguing. He was sitting in his car at the curb considering his next move when the girl, Callie, came out of the tattoo shop. She was buckling a helmet onto her head as she headed toward a pink Vespa parked in front of the tattoo studio. Inserting a key she started the scooter, checked traffic before quickly zooming off. Probably to her hair salon appointment, Howell thought to himself.
The picture she made as she zipped away on the scooter was cute. Tight. Rigid. Sitting on the scooter's saddle with perfect posture in her spine. Straight up vertical. She disappeared in the traffic as she motored down the street. Putting her out of his mind, Howell went back to thinking about what to do next.
Henry chattered as he usually did while cutting Callie's hair. He liked to talk about all the things he saw, the people he met, while working at the day spa he owned. Situated in the center of the GreenWood mall he had a lot of foot traffic go past his door. Exclusive shops meant that the potential clientele were well heeled. Client's who, more likely than not, wanted and could afford a trip to a day spa to make themselves feel pretty.
Henry did all right for himself Callie thought for the millionth time. Hopefully her little shop would eventually turn out to be a good investment too.
"There's this woman whose hair is like liquid silver. I swear. It is." Henry stopped snipping. He placed his hand on his chest to show he wasn't pulling her leg as Callie looked at him in the mirror.
"Honest. Most platinum blondes are more in the pewter range. But, she's really silver. With natural waves and soft ringlets. She's really, really beautiful. She also works for the company that owns the mall."
"So? Are you trying to date her or something?"
"Oh no. She's married. She comes in weekly to the spa. I like her. Very nice. She's very sophisticated. She seems to be really happy all the time. Smiles and laughs a lot. Though I do think something bad happened to her recently. She didn't used to, but now she has two bodyguards who follow her everywhere. Even into the back. I think she got some serious death threats or something. They're super scary. Even you might have a problem with just one of them let alone both.
"They wanted to be in the room with her while she got a bikini waxing. I put my foot down about that. They might be in charge of guarding her body; that doesn't mean they get to ogle it. Strangely, she didn't seem to care if they saw her naked. I care though. I made them wait outside. I would have preferred that they wait in the lounge. They insisted, and she agreed, that they be in the hallway outside the door as the furthest distance away from her. Which tells me something really bad happened to her. I don't know what."
"She won't tell you?"
"I'm not going to ask. I told you, those guys are super scary."
"I bet. Being a body guard is probably really hard. Probably boring too. I don't know that I'd want to do that."
"I don't know that I'd want my little sister doing it either. From what I've seen, they have to be hard as nails. Mean. Really mean. Look at Miss Karen.. She lives in a bubble. No one gets within 10 feet of her. Even out there in the mall, people cringe to get out of the way.
"When she walks in, there's this empty space around her. Everyone gets quiet. No one even wants to look at her. The way the guards stare at you is really unnerving."
"Oh, she's the woman I was talking about. The one with the silver hair."
"You said she was married. How can she be married and still be a Miss?"
"I don't know. That's what everyone calls her. I mean everyone."
"There, all done." Henry finished working on her hair. He whisked off the apron covering her before Callie could ask any more questions.
"Oh." Callie was surprised. The dark blue color wash that Henry had almost forced on her made her highlights shine blue instead of reddish gold.
"I told you. It's perfect for you. Just like I said it would be. Different enough for you to be noticed but not so different that you look like you're making a statement of rebellion."
Callie laughed. "Mama would kill both of us."
Henry grinned companionably. "Yep. You can say thank you now."
"Oh, thank you big brother. Thank you, thank you, thank you." Callie's laughter didn't quite cover the rumble from her stomach.
"I heard that. Have you eaten? Today, I mean. Since breakfast?"
"Hey, it was my turn to watch the shop over lunch. This cop came in. I had to deal with him. He was asking questions about a dead guy with a tattoo. So, no I haven't had anything. No time."
"Well, you are going to eat now."
"I have a class."
"So? Eat now, teach later. It's easy. I'll even pay. Let's go to the food court to grab something. I need a break anyway."
They went arm in arm to the food court. Standing in line arguing about what to eat, they made their choices. Henry opened his wallet to grab a twenty. Callie caught a flash of red.
"Henry? What is that?" Callie snatched the card from her brother's wallet. A red card with only a number embossed in gold on it. Turning to show to him she lowered her voice to almost a quiet hiss. "Do you know what this is? Where did you get it? Who gave this to you?"
"Whoa. Easy. I thought this was lunch not the inquisition." Henry finished paying for the food. Lifting the tray, he held it between them as Callie advanced on him.
"If you want to beat me up then you'll have to buy your own food from now on. Give me that back."
Henry held the tray one-handed swiping with the other to try to retrieve the card. Callie twitched it away before he could grab it.
"I want to know."
"Why?" Henry gave up trying to get the card while holding the tray. He walked to a nearby table putting the tray down before he sat. "It's just a card."
"It's not just a card. The cop who came to my shop today had one just like it." Callie sat down opposite her brother.
"It's just a card. A red one. Maybe the one you say that the cop had just looks like this one."
Callie narrowed her eyes at him giving him a look. She silently pointed from herself to him and back again.
"Ok, Ok. Sorry. It was the same. I believe you. Now give it back."
Callie handed the card over. She watched as Henry put it back in his wallet.
"I want to know. Where did you get it? Who gave it to you?"
"No one 'gave' it to me. I found it in the shop."
"I had a customer. Before she came in, it wasn't there. After she left it was. I don't know that she left it. Anyone could have. It was just there on my counter where I keep my scissors. Anything else you want to know that I can't tell you?"
Callie knew her brother wouldn't say anything more. Once he got that crabby look on his face, no one was getting anything out of him. Giving up for now about who gave him the card, she grabbed her burrito off of the tray.
"Well, there's always the big bang theory in physics. If you don't know anything about that I'm willing to at least listen while you make up stuff." Callie shoved the burrito into her mouth as her brother shook his head and sighed.
That night Callie couldn't sleep. The red cards bothered her. The fact that her brother had one really bothered her. The fact that the only other red card she knew of was from a dead guy that no one recognized bothered her. Not even the cops knew who he was. You'd think that they'd at least be able to get his name from his fingerprints. If he had fingers. Howell didn't say if the body was mutilated or not. The tattoo picture was a close up. No details other than the ink. The whole thing stressed her out.
Callie tossed and turned until she'd twisted her pajamas so tightly around her body she almost couldn't breathe. Eventually she gave in. Turning on the light on her bedside table she sat up on the edge of her bed. She looked at the phone on the table. She sighed softly to herself.
Straightening her PJ's first, she took the phone off the cradle. She dialed the number from the card. It was easy. With her memory she would always know that number by heart.
The number rang once. A click sounded once. Dead silence on the other end after that. Callie took a deep breath and plunged.
"My name is Callie Mee. I found a red card with this number on it."
"Yes?" The voice on the other end was soft.
"My brother has another card like the one I found. I want to know if he is in trouble. I need to know if he is ok. That he isn't going to go to jail. Or be killed. Or worse. Please tell me he's not in any trouble."
"Did you find a card? Or were you shown a card?"
Callies mind froze. They knew.
"By the police?" The soft voice on the phone unraveled her lie.
There was no help for it now. "Yes. The police showed it to me. They got it from someone who died. I don't know how he died. The police don't know who he is. Please, please. Tell me my brother isn't going to die too. Please."
There was no answer. The line went dead shortly thereafter. When Callie tried to call back she got the 'no longer in service' recording. Just like Howell.
Putting the phone back on it's cradle Callie drew up her knees leaning against the headboard of her bed. Hugging her pillow she stared unseeing into the darkness over what she had just done.
The next morning Callie went to her studio. T Rose took one look at her, alarm flashing across her face.
"What happened to you?"
"Nothing. I just didn't sleep well last night. I'm fine."
"You do not look fine. You look horrible. What happened?"
"I told you. Nothing. I left yesterday, Henry did my hair, I taught my class, I went home, ate dinner, went to bed. You'd have known that if you'd been home instead of being out all night. I just couldn't sleep."
"That's it? You're not lying?" T Rose skipped the whole 'all night' issue. Callie knew that Rose dated. A lot.
"That's it. The truth."
"Well, you don't have anything scheduled for today. At least we don't have to call anyone to tell them not to come in. You're not doing any walk-ins though. You look like hell. You'd scare the customers away."
"I told you. I'm fine. I just didn't sleep well."
T Rose turned Callie toward the mirror on the wall. "Sis. Take a look. Tell me you're fine."
Callie didn't need to look at her image in the mirror. She already knew what she'd see. Rose was right. She did look like hell. Worry about Henry and the red cards had drained her. The loss of sleep had taken her physical and mental reserves with it. Even her normally steady hands were trembling. Whether from fatigue or nerves she didn't know, she just knew that she was a wreck. She also hadn't realized how easily her sister would see it.
"So, stop lying. Tell me what happened. Was it a cute guy? Mom would like it if it was a cute guy."
"It's not a cute guy. There is no guy. There isn't ever going to be any guy. I keep telling you! You don't ever listen!"
Rose stepped back at the force in her sister's voice, raising her hands in surrender. "Ok, ok. I got it. I got it. No guys for you. So, tell me what happened."
"It started with the cop who was here. He had this red business card with a phone number on it."
"It was the dead guys card. After the cop left I went to see Henry for my haircut. While I was there I saw that Henry had a card like the one the cop had."
"So, I asked Henry where he got the card. He wouldn't tell me. Said something about finding it on his desk and not knowing who left it."
"That doesn't sound like Henry."
"Which is why I kept after him about it until he got mad."
"At which point he clammed up and you learned nothing."
"Typical big brother. Protect the little girls from the big bad wolf by keeping them in the dark unprepared for disaster. Did you pound him?"
Callie shook her head. "We were at the mall. He bought my lunch.. I restrained myself."
"Ok, so if beating Henry to a pulp didn't keep you up all night, what did? Oh no. You didn't." T Rose stood up to hug her sister. "You idiot. You called the number didn't you?"
"I told them my name. I said I found a red card. But, they knew. They knew the police had talked to me. I asked if Henry was in trouble. They didn't answer me. They just hung up. When I called again the number was disconnected."
"So? What's next?"
"I don't know. I mean that cop told me he's already called the number. The only thing I could tell him is that I called it too. Unlike him, I actually spoke to someone. They didn't tell me who they were which is no help. The cop said he'd already traced the number. It came up as not assigned. I don't know if he can get more information or not. If not, then what happened isn't going to help him any."
"Well, I'm not a cop. Which means I have no idea what to do. What would the super sleuth hero in one of your books do next?"
Callie grinned. "He'd probably take a vacation trip to some South American jungle where he'd find a clue that leads him to a gum wrapper buried in a landfill in Africa. At that point he'd discover the gum wrapper had a secret hieroglyph in a dead language printed on it. A dead language that only he, and one other person in the whole world, speak fluently. Which, of course, unravels the whole mystery."
"Well, we can't afford for you to take a trip to Ecuador or someplace like that to look for gum wrappers. I guess that means that this is one mystery that isn't going to get solved."
"At least not by me." Callie laughed with her sister.
The day turned miserable. Callie kept an eye on the clouds that shrouded the sky in gray. The rain that had been forecast with only a low possibility started mid-morning with a light drizzle. Stupid weather guys. Computer models, electronic sensors along with other gizmo's, up to the second Doppler radar technology and they still can't get it right.
As soon as she saw the pavement getting wet she brought her scooter around to the alley pushing it into the shop through the back door they kept locked otherwise. The rain was the only thing that happened all morning.
The only other break in their routine was when a guy came in late that afternoon. His raincoat was dripping on her tile floor making little puddles she'd have to wipe up. When he came in, Callie was drawing a new flash design. Rose was in the back working on the bookkeeping she still hadn't finished. The guy was holding a piece of paper in his hand asking for directions. He looked totally lost.
Of course, T Rose had to come out front to hang all over him while she told him how to find the address a few doors down the block. The place he was looking for was not easy to find as it only had a single door on the street to the upstairs offices. A door that wasn't very visible from the street or sidewalk. It wasn't the first time that someone had come in asking them how to get to that address. You'd think those businesses would want their address visible so their customers could find them, but, you never could tell some people anything.
Callie couldn't bear to watch after the first thirty seconds while T Rose continued to drape herself on the poor schmuck . It was typical behavior for her sister. Any guy, attached, dating, not interested, whatever, she was always on the lookout for anyone with testosterone in his bloodstream.
"You know, you're going to get a reputation as being cheap," Callie told her after the guy left with a just a thanks for their help.
"Cheap? I am not cheap! Easy maybe, but never cheap." Rosie struck a pose with her hands on her waist thrusting her hip sideways. In dark colored skin tight leggings and her T-shirt with the shop logo 'Asia' on it knotted at her stomach, she looked sexy as all get out. The fat little pink and blue cartoon dragon tattoo on her left side peeked its nose out from under the T-shirt. T Rose had designed it when she was fifteen. Callie had helped her to refine it, tattooing the dragon onto her sister herself.
Callie giggled at her sister's pose.
"At least I date. Not like you."
"Hey, I date."
"So? You can have my share of the guys. It's not like you don't chase them all anyway."
"Oh, thank you sister dear. I'll take 'em. All of 'em."
"Well, there you go then. My gift to you. Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday. Forever."
Callie went back to her drawing. A tiger. Jumping over a pit with sharp stakes. Not her usual style. It wasn't turning out very well.
Giving up on the design she crumpled the paper tossing it at the trash can. Most of her drawings ended up there as she refined and worked on them until she had something she was satisfied with. Something she would be proud to tattoo onto someone's body.
The long day finally ended. The rain continued to come down. They locked the shop with Callies scooter still inside. T Rose drove them both home. Once there, Callie went out to the garage where she kept a heavy training bag and other martial arts gear. Donning protective gloves and pads, she warmed up. She began kicking the bag repeatedly. Her frustration over the slow day and T Rose's dating comments lending her strength and endurance.
A quiet rustling sound made her turn. "Poppy! What do you want?" Callie dropped to her knees in front of her youngest sister.
"Rosie says to come in for dinner."
"Ok. You go tell her I'll be right in."
Poppy nodded. Callie began to strip off the pads. The little girl didn't move.
"You ok? Is something wrong?" Callie asked her youngest sister.
Poppy just looked at her older sister with big eyes. "Can you teach me?"
Callie stopped pulling the pads off to sit cross legged on the mat in front of her tiny sister. "Why? Is someone bothering you? Hurting you?"
"There's a boy at school. He keeps pushing me. Today he pushed me into a mud puddle. I ripped my pants. I liked those pants! Please, Callie, teach me how to punch him."
Callie's mind instantly seethed with anger. Taking a deep breath she calmed herself and carefully asked; "Did you tell anyone?"
"I told my teacher but he didn't do nothing."
"Why didn't you go to the office?"
"My teacher wouldn't give me a hall pass."
"Did you go later? At recess?"
"They said they couldn't do nothing because it'd been too long."
"How about I go talk to your principal tomorrow. Ok? I can show you some things you can do if he pushes you again too."
"Not now." Callie laughed rumpling Poppy's hair. "We can start this weekend. Right now it's time for dinner."
The next morning Callie caught another ride with T Rose to the shop after sending Poppy and Tulip off to school. Poppy had looked at her with worried eyes until she knelt down giving her youngest sib a hug.
"Don't worry. I didn't forget. I will talk to your principal today. I promise. Now it's time for you to go to school."
Poppy allowed Tulip to tow her to the bus stop. She only looked behind twice before they mixed with the other kids standing there waiting. Several mom's, standing with their kids watching to ensure that everyone was safe, waved at Callie and T Rose as the little girls arrived. Callie waved back before she and T Rose got into Rose's car to drive to work.
Though it was overcast again, at least the streets were dry. Callie rode her scooter to her appointment with Poppy's principal. At the school Callie parked her scooter next to the empty bicycle rack. Removing her helmet, she fluffed her hair. Grabbing her messenger bag of paperwork she went inside.
"I'm sorry Miss Mee. But, as I told you over the phone, you're not her parent. I can't discuss anything with you."
The principal was trying to stonewall her again. Taking some paperwork out of the messenger bag she placed it on the counter in front of the obstinate man.
"I heard you. You apparently aren't hearing me. This is the paperwork that my parents and I signed at the beginning of the school year giving me guardianship of Poppy and Tulip in the event that my parents are not available. I can tell you that a copy of this paperwork is in both of their school files.
"My parents are out of town at an art exhibit honoring my mother this week. They are not available which means that I am the legal guardian of my sisters this week. This means I have the legal right to talk to you. I have the right to demand answers to why my sister is being bullied. And ask you why you aren't doing anything about it."
"Ma'am, you can't come in here and make threats . . ."
Callie had had enough! Lowering her voice she looked the principal in the eye. "I'm not making any threats. However, I am making a complaint about the bullying of one of your students at this school. I'm not aware that I even need to be a parent to make that complaint. I expect you to do something about it."
"We have procedures that we have to follow. I can't tell you anything." The principal backed away from the counter. "Now, if you don't leave I'll call the police. You have no right to be here."
The principal pointed at the door. Callie knew enough about human nature that she was positive that the man wasn't going to call the police. She also knew he wouldn't do anything about the bullying either. He was a tool. But, he effectively won this round since she had no other recourse available to her at the school. She'd made her complaint. Or tried to. Now to wait and see what happens.
Riding back to the shop she made a left on Second Street. As she zoomed along she realized that she was only a couple of blocks from the shop where T Rose had said there is a picture on the wall of the dead guy with the tattoo. Quickly changing lanes she pulled in next to a cluster of big Harley's that had taken space at the curb together. Backing her scooter in next to theirs, she stopped the engine while rocking the little pink bike up onto it's kickstand.
She looked around, spotting a place that had to be the one Rose described. It was only a few doors away from the block building with 'The Pit" painted in dark blue and black on the front of the otherwise tan colored building. The words were right over the midnight blue doors. Several ratty looking guys loitering in front of the windowless building watched her as she stepped up onto the sidewalk.
Looking at the bikes she'd parked next to, she paused a moment. Digging into her bag she pulled out a bundle of her new business cards. Carefully, she placed a card on the seat of each one of the bikes. Stowing the rest, she walked toward the place with the dead guy's picture on the wall.
"Jingle-ling!" The bells over the door announced her entry into the dark storefront. Along with the strong odor of pot, she could almost smell the stench of the pain that got inflicted on the customers of the place. It was a pain palace. The exact opposite of what she was trying to set up in her space. Everything inside was black. The tiles on the floor, the partitions between the tattoo couches, the wall, the ceiling tiles. Everything. It was like a freaking crypt.
Wondering how anyone could work in near total darkness and expect to do good work, she stepped further inside. As her eyes adjusted she saw two men leaning on a counter near the back talking to a guy on the other side of the counter. The two in front had on suits and shiny shoes. The guy behind the counter had a shaved head, a full beard and wore a faded T-shirt. His arms were fully tattooed down to his knuckles. Full sleeves on both arms. Callie could see more tattoos around his neck above the collar of the shirt. Huge ring loops were set into his ear lobes making holes she could stick her finger through.
Stepping off to the side to look at the flash and pictures hung on the wall, in black picture frames no less, she heard them resume their conversation.
"Look man. Like I said. I don't know the guy in the picture. I ain't never seen him before."
"You're positive?" The guy who spoke looked over his plastic shades at the guy behind the counter. Callie almost snorted. Shades. Inside the darkest hole on the entire block. What a moron.
"Look man. I don't want no trouble. I told you I don't know nothing."
The other guy produced a card dropping it on the counter. "If you remember anything, give us a call."
"I will man. But, I told you everything already."
Callie turned slowly in place watching as the two men walked past her from the counter to the door and left. The jingle of the door bells covering the slam as they closed it behind them.
"What was that all about?" She asked the guy behind the counter.
"Cops. Wanted to know about some guy in one of the pictures. Asked me if I knew him."
"Oh. Do you?"
"No. He's just a guy who hangs out with a couple of other guys I know. Tries to hustle drugs sometimes. Mostly he only comes around for the club next door. Damn weirdo's."
"Weirdo's? Who, the cops?"
The man snorted. "Sister, you're funny. No, I mean the club next door. It's some kinda kink place where they tie everyone up to get whipped and stuff."
"You're kidding, right?"
"Nope. Whatever floats yer boat I guess, but it's not for me. Anyway sister, what can I do for you? You want a tattoo?"
"Oh. No, I'm Callie M. I just opened a shop over on Eleventh. I'm kinda going around introducing myself to other shops in town."
"I know you. Or, I should say I know about you. I've seen some of your stuff. Damn good line work."
"Thank you. I try. It's not easy sometimes."
"Sister, art is never easy. I'm Whiskers." The guy held out his hand for her.
"Pleased to meet you." Callie shook his hand. The smell of pot was stronger as she got closer to Whiskers, along with an odor of stale beer.
"Can I leave some cards with you? Some of your customers might know someone who wants to get work done, but, who won't come down here. I'll take a few of yours if you'd like to swap."
"Sure. I got no cards though. I will put one of yours under the glass here on the counter if you want. I know a couple of ladies who might be interested in something different than what I do. I'll let them know the next time I see them. If they're interested, I'll send them your way."
"Appreciate that. I really do." Callie handed him a card from the bunch in her messenger bag.
"Hey, no problem. I remember when I was just starting. Trade's hard to come by. But if you're good, and you are, it'll happen. You'll see."
"Ok. Thanks Whiskers. I gotta go. There's a couple more places I want to stop at before I head on in to work."
"Sure thing sister. You be careful out there. The neighborhood's been worse than usual for some reason these last few months. Some of them guys who hang around out front ain't so nice as they once was."
"I'll be careful. Thanks again."
Callie left the tattoo parlor swinging toward her scooter. Getting closer she could see all the business cards she'd left on the bigger bikes stacked up on the seat of her scooter. A wet rock held them down.
Looking at the wall leaners, she pointed at the cards.
"Not nice to mess with a man's ride." One of the grungiest called out.
"You do this?" She asked grungy guy.
"Me? Nope. Not my ride. Not my business."
Callie thought a moment. Digging into her bag she pulled out a tube of lip balm. Picking up the cards while dropping the stone into the gutter, she applied a big lump of balm to a mirror on each bike sticking her card into the blob. The sticky balm acting like glue to hold the cards in place.
Smiling in satisfaction when she finished she looked at grungy. "You gonna do anything about this?"
"Nope. Not my ride. Not my business."
"Good for you." Callie buckled her helmet on. She rode away laughing evilly while reminding herself she'd better stop by the drug store. She was almost out of lip balm. The thought made her laugh even more.
Callie stood in front of her closet considering what to wear. What did one wear to a kink club? Trying her best to imagine herself as kinky, she pulled out a long sleeved red silk blouse and black leather pants. A pair of spiked heels along with a belt of linked silver rings were next. Combined with dark eye shadow and red nail polish on fingers and toes, her ensemble was complete.
Once dressed she stepped into the main room of the house. Tulip saw her. She squealed.
"Callie's got a da-ate. Callie's got a da-ate." Poppy joined in. The noise from the two little girls was almost deafening. As soon as they began singing and dancing T Rose whipped her head around.
"Whoa. Don't you look hot."
"Can I borrow your car? I promise I'll put gas in it." Callie strode over to her sister and held out her hand.
"Sure. Going out with anyone I know?"
Callie just looked at her and waggled her palm for the keys.
"Sorry. Can't blame a girl for asking." T Rose rooted through her pocket then dropped the key into Callie's hand.
On the way to the club Callie stopped to put ten bucks worth of gas into the tank. Down on Second Street she found a place to park not too far from the club door. She wedged the compact into a space at the curb with only a little overhang of the front bumper into the painted red space for the fire hydrant. She stepped out of the car, punching the button on the remote. Checking her clothes before heading for the door of The Pit, she wasn't entirely sure of what she'd find when she got there.
She walked as casually as she could manage, given her stomach tension over the unknown, Callie saw at least her leather pants wouldn't be low fashion. Leather clothing was everywhere. If you considered 1 inch wide strips of leather or plastic straps to be clothing. Some of the girls wore nothing but crisscrossing straps. Most often they wore a collar along with a leash to go with the straps.
At the door she saw that it wasn't only the girls who were wearing leashes. Two bouncers were at the door checking ID. They were giving out plastic wristbands. One of the bouncers was a blond haired guy with green tips dyed into his hair. He had a collar with a short chain leash dangling from it down the front of his bare chest. The other was a woman with black dyed hair dressed in a red leather catsuit. She was brisk and efficient repeating the same question over and over.
"Here to watch or join in?"
Those who answered that they were there to watch got a wristband. The watchers were charged an entry fee. They were directed to a door to the left of the entrance. Those who were joining in, whatever that meant, went through a door to the right without paying a fee.
Callie walked up while the woman eyed her carefully.
"Yowza there little kitty." The red clad woman looked at her licking her lips. "I bet I could make you purr."
Callie smiled the smile she used in competition. It was beautiful. In a deranged, razor edged, shattered glass crazy sort of way. "I know I could make you scream. Real loud. For a long time. Wanna play?"
The woman stepped back. "Easy sugar. I'm not serious. My stable is full. You here to play or just look?"
"I'm looking for a guy. Not interested in anything else tonight. Just need to find this guy and talk to him."
"You been to my dungeon before?"
"No. My first time. But, I'm only here to find someone. Nothing else."
"Ok. Well, here's a wrist band. You can take it off if you change your mind. If you leave it on no one will bother you. You looking for a specific guy? Or, do you mean that generically? As in any guy will do?"
"A specific guy. Wears a sun tattoo on his arm with a skull in the center. He's real proud of it."
"Oh. That's Leon. Leon Hartley. He hasn't been around lately. I dunno why. You could ask his friends. Lyle and Randy. They're over by the paddle rack. They might know where he is."
The what? Callie looked where the woman was pointing. She saw two men, a chunky man with brown hair and a taller more slender black haired man, standing by a rack of . . . paddles. All kinds of paddles.
"Thanks, uh . . ."
"Callie. If you change your mind let me know. I'm dying to hear how long you can scream."
"Like I said, my stable is full; Callista."
Callie didn't correct Andrea about her name. Why bother. Heading through the door to the left, she made her way toward her new targets.
OH MY GOD! The noise and smell assaulted her as soon as she went through the short tunnel beyond the door. Women screaming and crying. The smell of intense sweat, sex and pain. Lots of pain. There was the sound of whips hitting flesh repeatedly, the humming whine from high speed electric motors and some odd muffled noises she couldn't identify.
That is, until she passed a low barrier to catch sight of a woman on her knees in front of a line of men. Blindfolded with her hands tied behind her back, she was the one making the noise as the guy in the front of the line pumped his manhood repeatedly into her mouth. A leash from a collar on her neck was held by a bored looking woman in black latex. Callie saw that every man in the line was ready for his turn. Several men and women with wristbands stood around watching the action. Someone else was videotaping the whole scene.
Over there, a woman was bound upside down to an X-frame. She was being whipped by a man in a gray coverall. She was also being stimulated by a huge vibrator held by another coverall clad man. Both of the men wore hoods and couldn't be identified. Screaming and writhing the woman's eyes were rolled back in her head until only the whites showed.
Slow movement caught her eye. A man was crawling behind a woman in black spandex who had her hand fisted in his hair. He was naked except for a clear plastic cage fastened around his flaccid penis. The cage came complete with a tiny padlock. Another woman was hanging by her arms from a rope tied around her wrists. More rope was wrapped very tightly around her large breasts. From the blue color of the woman's skin Callie could see that the blood flow had been severely restricted. A lit candle, coming what Callie felt was dangerously close to the woman's face and hair, dripped hot wax on the woman's breasts. All the while she moaned in pleasure at the heat and pain. Over there a man pulled large bore syringe needles out of new packages. Brilliant red blood spurted to run in thin rivulets down white skin as he stuck the needles . . .
Callie refused to see any more of that! She turned her eyes resolutely toward the two men she was heading for.
"Hey there babe. You interested in partying?" The black haired member of the pair of men she was seeking began talking to her as she approached. "Me 'n Lyle, we got some fine stuff if you're interested."
"Like what?" Callie decided to play along to get as much information as she could.
"Well, we have weed."
"Lame." Callie waved that away.
"Ok. How's about some blow? We can maybe find you some good crack if you wanna wait."
"Nah. I'm really looking for Leon."
"He owes me money. I'm here to collect or bury his ass."
The men looked at each other and then began to laugh. "You're a little late for that babe. No one's gonna be collecting anything from Leon's ever again."
"What do you mean? He left town?"
"Nah. He's talking to God now." The brown haired member of the duo broke in. "They found him in an alley last week. Of course we ain't saying who put him in the alley are we Lyle?"
Lyle laughed miming with his fists as if punching Randy in the ribs. "Nope. Not us. We wasn't there. Didn't see nothing. Don't know nothing neither."
"Well, shit! I was hoping . . ." Callie didn't have to feign disappointment.
"Nope. He's gone. Anything he owed you has evap'rated."
"Crap! Well, I guess that's it for me. I'm outta here."
"Hey, hey sweetie. Stick around." This from black haired Lyle again. "The party's just getting started. We got some really good shit coming in later tonight."
"Not for me. I'm done. Later."
Callie immediately started walking back toward the door. The red suited woman, Andrea, looked at her with a question in her eyes. Callie shook her head and walked out.
As soon as she got down the sidewalk half way to the car she knew something was wrong. Three guys were leaning on the car smoking. Callie pulled the key ring from her pocket. She punched the remote. The flash of lights along with the chirp chirp as the car unlocked made the guys jump.
"I'm pulling out guys." Callie called to them as she walked closer.
One of the three began a low wolf whistle. The other two fanned out to try to flank her. The lead guy began a running commentary on bitches, whores, and how lucky she was that they could take care of her.
"Not in the mood. In fact I'm a bit cranky. So, why don't we just stop before we start? That way nobody gets hurt." Callie stuffed the keys back into her pocket to free her hands.
"Now, now. Is that any way to talk to us? We just wanna have some fun." The guy in the center seemed to be the leader.
"Go have fun with someone else. I'm busy."
The two flankers moved further to her sides. Callie stepped out of her heels.
"Last time I'm asking. Slut."
"Last warning asshole. Time to run away."
"Or else what? Bitch."
At the word Bitch, the two flankers closed in. Callie took three running steps before launching a spinning high kick at the leader. Connecting, she let momentum torque her around to drop into a leg sweep for flanker number one. He landed flat on his back, his head hammering into the pavement. Flanker number two was a little slower to arrive. For his tardiness he got two fists to the jaw as Callie braced using the power in her legs to drive her fists upwards just as he bent down to grab her. A click of teeth as his head snapped back before he went down like a felled tree rewarded her efforts.
It took fifteen seconds from start to finish.
Callie walked over and picked up her shoes. A repeating slow clapping sounded loud in the night. Looking at the source, Callie saw Andrea clapping her hands in Callie's direction.
Well done. Andrea mouthed to her.
My pleasure. Callie mouthed back as she opened the car door.
Callie arrived back home while the girls were still awake. They were playing video games. Something with a pink unicorn and stars but Callie wasn't sure. T Rose looked at her speculatively as she took back her car keys.
"I put ten dollars worth in the tank." Callie stretched as she walked to her room to get out of the leather pants. The fight had made her sweat a bit so her pants were sticking to her legs. She was going to have to peel them off. She definitely wanted a shower after what she saw at that club. She felt contaminated.
"Ok. So what happened? He wasn't interested?"
Callie stopped and rounded on her sister.
"I told you there isn't any guy. There won't ever be any guy. Will you stop hassling me about it already?"
Poppy and Tulip stopped their game staring at her with big scared eyes as she lost her temper.
"Geez, Callie. No need to bite my head off." T Rose grumped.
"Sorry." Callie fought to get her temper under control. "I just had to bust some heads. I'm still wired from it I guess."
"What happened? You get jumped?"
"Sorta. I went to that club down on Second. Some guys thought I was an easy mark. I had to teach them to leave me alone."
"That club I told that cop about? The Pit? Why the hell would you want to go there?"
"I went there to find out who the dead guy's friends in the picture are. You know, the picture at the tattoo shop near there."
"Oh no. Callie tell me you didn't go there too? Why are you even getting involved in this? How is it any of your business? Our business?"
"I don't know. I just thought I could help or something." Callie continued toward her room. She really needed that shower.
T Rose followed her in to sit on the edge of the bed as Callie undressed. "Sis. This isn't one of your books. This is for real. You don't need to do this. You don't need to get involved."
"I know. But I couldn't help myself. Something is going on. Henry's in the middle of it I think."
"Henry? How's he involved? He doesn't go that club does he?"
"I don't know. Probably not. He does have one of those red cards in his wallet though. Somehow he's connected to whatever is happening. I just want to know what's going on. Callie stepped into her bathroom. She started the water running in the shower.
"I'm afraid the card is the equivalent of a dead fish wrapped in newspaper. A death notice."
Callie adjusted the temperature of the shower before stepping in. Sliding the curtain closed she wet her hair before replying.
"Because the dead guy had a card and he's dead now. Henry has a card and he doesn't know where it came from. How could Henry get the card and not know where it came from? Unless it was left for him as a warning or something."
T Rose leaned against the door jam of the bathroom so she could talk to her sister while Callie was in the shower.
"It's possible I guess. I mean there is a dead guy. You don't know if the people who gave him the card are the one's who did it or not. They could be the bad guys."
"Rose, what am I going to do? I'm really worried."
"I think you need to talk to that cop. Maybe he'll know what to do next."
"You think so?"
"It's what I'd do. Well, I wouldn't have gotten involved in the first place. But in your case I think you should tell him."
"Ok. I'll call when I'm done here."
"Uh, sis. It's late. He's probably gone home."
"So? I'm pretty sure cops have voicemail like everyone else these days. I'll leave a message telling him what I found out. That way he can't get mad at me for getting involved since I'm not a cop."
"Stool pigeon." T Rose mocked her. "Cluck cluck."
"I pretty sure pigeons go coo coo." Callie rinsed the last of the soap away before shutting off the water.
"Coo coo is right. You're crazy."
In the end, Callie didn't leave a message. After toweling off, she put on a fuzzy red bathrobe over white satin pajamas. Picking up the phone, she dialed the number. On the third ring it was answered by a gruff voice.
Expecting to get the voicemail system Callie was momentarily at a loss for words.
"Uh, this is Callie M. You talked to me. You showed me a picture of a tattoo a couple of days ago. I found out some information about the guy with the tattoo."
"What? Who are you?"
"I told you. I'm Callie M. I'm a tattoo artist you showed a picture too. My sister gave you a tip that the guy was in the photo on a wall in a place on Second Street."
"Sorry. I showed that picture to a lot of people. You're that girl who rides the pink motor scooter?"
"That's me." Callie made a face. Imagine being remembered for her scooter instead of her skills. Some people just didn't get it.
"What do you have for me? What did you find out?"
"The guy with the tattoo is, was, someone named Leon Hartley. He hangs around with, or used to hang around with, two guys named Lyle and Randy. I don't know their last names."
"How did you get this information?"
"I asked Whiskers. He told me."
"Whiskers? Is he the guy at the other tattoo shop?"
"He told my partners he didn't know anything."
Callie laughed. "Listen, if your partners think, talk, and act like this is some cheezy cops and robbers TV show then they're never going to get anyone in real life to tell them anything. They went down there trying to fake some kind of intimidation routine. I'll tell you, you can't fake being a hard ass to a real hard ass and get away with it. Your boys are laughing stocks."
"But someone told you. That make you a hard ass?"
"Nope. But people know me. They don't know, or trust, cops."
"Ok. Whatever. You got anything else for me?"
"Well, there's a woman named Andrea who hangs out at The Pit. She might know more about Lyle and Randy. You could ask her anyway. Don't send anyone. Go yourself to talk to her. She doesn't know you're coming but she might talk to you. If you're polite." Callie laughed. "Tell her Callista sent you as a peace offering."
"That mean something I don't know about?"
"Nope." Callie chuckled at the thought of Andrea talking to the police about Callista.
"Ok. Anything else?"
"Well, there might be something to do with drugs. Lyle and Randy were pushing them at me pretty hard."
"What kind of drugs? Hard stuff or marijuana?"
"They talked about coke, meth, and heroin. I don't know if they were just bragging or if they were serious."
"They mention anyone named Rusk?"
Callie's heart stabbed her with a frozen spear of pain. Oh, Joanna! Taking a breath that hurt worse than frostbite in her lungs, she forced herself to speak.
"No. No one mentioned any other names."
"Ok. Got anything else for me?"
"Ok. I'll have someone look into this. Thanks." Howell disconnected.
Callie pulled the phone away from her ear as the dial tone hummed. Idiot! Worse, Callie didn't know if she meant Howell or herself.
Sitting on her bed nestled in her comforter, she let her memories run. Memories of a freckle faced brunette kissing her way up the inside of Callie's thigh. Laughing between each soft kiss until she reached the apex where Callie's soaked panties begged her for just another little kiss. Just one! Please! Right there!
Another memory where the brunette scolded her trying to cajole her into trying drugs. C'mon Cal. Just a small sniff. It'll make you happy. It makes me happy. Try it.
Another. The brunette snarling at her. You never loved me. You don't love anyone except yourself. You're just a user out to take whatever you can no matter how much you hurt other people. Well, guess what? I don't need you!
Callie's grief and loneliness stabbed daggers into her soul. TeaRose didn't understand why she looked at other girls. Girls can't give you what guys can. Guys have all those wonderful muscles too. Mmmmmm.
Mama didn't understand either. She thought it was somehow her fault that her daughter wanted to be some kind of Geisha, not that mama really even knew what a Geisha was. Really. Both of her parents were so straight she could use them for a ruler. Neither of them had any idea of what it meant for her to be like she was. They had some kind of idea that if they only disapproved of her attraction to other girls strongly enough she'd change.
Callie snorted softly to herself. As if that was ever going to happen.
On top of that, there was no freaking way she was going to try to talk to her dad or Henry about it. Henry might at least listen. Her dad would definitely go ballistic. Henry never could keep a secret from the rest of the family. Talking to him would be like standing in the living room and shouting. There were much less embarrassing ways to wreck her life than talk to either of them about how lonely she was.
No. There was no one who understood that she wasn't like the rest of them. She wasn't normal like they were. There was no one. No one for her. Empty. Alone.
Hours later she realized that she'd been sitting in the dark. Her body was stiff. Still cradling the phone in her lap too. The line was dead after beeping the 'off the hook' signal before automatically being disconnected by the phone company. She hadn't even heard it when it happened.
Punching the button she was rewarded by the dial tone coming back. Stretching sideways to set the phone on it's base she paused then sat back up. Should she?
Why the heck not. Mentally shrugging she dialed the number.
A single ring. A click. Then nothing. Just like last time.
"I have some information." Callie spoke to the silence. "I'd like to trade it for an assurance that my brother will be ok. A promise you'll leave him alone."
Nothing except a barely audible hiss in the background. Callie gathered her courage.
"I know three names. Three names that you want to know. Three names. I will give those names to you if you promise to leave me and my family alone."
Without waiting for an answer she hung up.
Alone in her studio Callie stared at the empty space on the wall beside the beige leather couch. Maybe she should bring some of her trophies down. She could, maybe, put them there on glass shelves. It'd be an interesting display. Might get some of the students in other martial arts schools interested in her skills.
It's not like martial artists don't get tattoos.
As she stood there undecided her phone rang. Walking to the rear of the shop she grabbed it, sweetly announcing her business.
Shrugging, she set the phone down. Crazy people.
A moment later her front door opened. A hugely pregnant redhead walked in. Puffing in short breaths she got as far as the couch before she stopped and sat down.
"Sorry. It's hard to walk very far."
"Can I help you?" Callie moved the front of the shop. At this rate she'd wear a rut in the tile. Which she had no money to fix.
"You do tattoos here?"
"Yes. But, I won't give you a tattoo"
The woman looked surprised. "Why not?"
"Because you're pregnant. Even though we autoclave the equipment to sterilize everything and use new needles, there's still a slight risk of infection. It's small, but it's still there. I won't work on you and risk the possibility of infecting you. Or, maybe harming your baby. You'll have to wait until after the baby is born. After you're done nursing too."
"Even if I offered to pay more?"
"Even then. I care too much to risk your health."
"You'd care about me? You don't even know me."
"I care about everyone who comes in here asking for my help. They're my responsibility. I owe it to them to give them the best art I can under the best conditions possible. I owe it to them to keep them safe from harm."
"Huh. Well, I've gone this long without a tattoo. I guess I can wait some more." The redhead winced. "Can I use your bathroom? He's kicking my bladder again."
"Sure. It's back here. Let me help you."
Callie reached down helping the woman get to her feet. Wow, she was really small. Her belly was probably almost half her body weight. She wasn't a dwarf either. More like a fairy. Small bones and delicate. Walking slowly with her to the back of the shop Callie pointed out the bathroom, waiting while the woman went inside and closed the door.
A rumble of big motorcycle engines out front drew her attention. Oh! Maybe Whiskers sent some of his friends like he said he might. She could really use some business if she wanted to make rent this month without tapping into her savings again. There weren't too many times she could continue to do that. Her money was running out. Fast.
The rumble of the big bore engines stopped. Shortly afterward the front door opened again. Three hairy guys in worn jeans and leather vests came in. The odor of stale sweat and tobacco wafted through the shop to assault her nose.
"Can I help you?" Callie walked to meet them halfway.
"You the slut who stuck them cards to our rides thinkin' it was funny?"
"Some crazy bitch stuck business cards all over our rides with some kinda glue. Business cards with your shop name on them. Somebody owes us for it."
"I'm sorry. I have no idea what you're talking about."
"That your scooter?" He pointed a huge finger out her front window.
Callie didn't bother to look where the finger pointed. "Why?"
"The guys said the bitch who fucked with our bikes rode that scooter."
"Well, I don't know anything about gluing business cards all over your bikes. I do know I placed some cards on a few motorcycles as advertising. I was actually very nice about leaving the cards on the seats. While I was elsewhere, some jerk piled them on my scooter and stuck a muddy wet rock on my seat. Was that you?"
"You put them cards on our bikes. You owe me for some paint and chrome work."
"Really? How do you think you're going to get me to pay for something I didn't do?"
"How about we wreck your place unless you pay up?" As he talked the other two fanned out behind him. One of them moving over to the front tattoo couch, fingering the toolbox of equipment there.
The sound of her toilet flushing and a door opening made the guy in front of Callie pause to look over her shoulder. Callie turned slightly while keeping her eye on the potential troublemaker.
The redhead shuffled her way between Callie and the biker guy. Stopping she smiled at Callie.
"Thank you sweetie." She stood on her tiptoes to give Callie a quick kiss on her cheek.
The big guy interrupted. "Listen ho, you maybe wanna get out of here now. Otherwise I ain't gonna be 'sponsible if you get hurt in what's gonna be going down."
The redhead looked at him with her big green eyes.
"Maybe you're the one who needs to leave. I do believe you're not welcome here any longer."
"I got business here. I ain't leavin' when I got business to take care of. You think you can make me leave slut?"
"I'm not going to do anything. Those gentlemen, however, might." The redhead pointed a tiny finger past the thug's shoulder at two massively built men in business suits who had somehow come into the shop without anyone noticing.
"You all right Miss Violet?" The man on the left asked softly.
"Dude," the thug announced. "You might wanna leave before you get fucked up. Ya know what I mean?"
"I still need to sit down and visit. I was just going to ask for a cup of tea when these gentlemen came in an threatened us."
When the woman named Miss Violet said the word 'threatened' the bigger of the two men looked down, adjusting his cuffs in his sleeves. Callie noticed that he was wearing gold cufflinks instead of having button cuffs. The cufflinks were tiny handcuffs with little chains dangling from them. Cuffs adjusted he looked at the man in front of Callie through lowered brows.
His voice was soft. Holding a menace in it which hadn't been there a second ago. The sound of that menace made Callie shiver as what felt like little feet made of pure adrenaline ran down her spine.
As the big man spoke, the other suit moved to the side to give each of them some room to maneuver. Callie saw it. She knew that these two had worked with each other developing tactics to use when fighting in enclosed spaces. The loudmouth in front of her had no idea he faced a trained fighting pair of enforcers who would wipe the floor with them. Of course her shop would be destroyed, but loudmouth and his pals would be the ones bleeding in the end.
"Or what? You're outnumbered dumbass. You think you two turds can take all three of us? You think you can stop me from fuckin' up your little whore here from way over there?"
Loudmouth pulled out a knife, flicking the blade open with his thumb. Once it was open he pointed it at the redhead who stood between him and Callie.
Callie moved. A block, followed by a quick grasp and pull with a slap to the elbow, let her apply a wrist lock. The blowhard, whining in pain, dropped the knife. Callie levered the wrist lock and pushed.
"Easy. Easy. Just go down. That's it. On your knees. All the way down." Callie kept pressure on the wrist lock, forcing him down and back.
"That's it. On your knees. Good boy. Now spread em. Wider. Wider. Good." Callie toed his crotch. Just enough to get his attention and realize that he was totally helpless if she wanted to kick him where it would hurt the most.
"Pay attention. You came here to try to take something that wasn't yours. By force. I don't like to be forced. I especially don't like it when people like you come into my space and threaten my people." Callie applied a bit more pressure. "That makes me really angry. When I get angry scum like you gets hurt. Bad. You understand?"
The thug nodded quickly as Callie applied some more pressure to the wrist lock.
"Good. Remember this lesson. Next time I won't be so nice. It will be more painful. I promise you, it will be very painful. Now, I'm going to let you up. We're going to walk out the door. Once we're outside, I'll let you go. I don't ever want to see you again. Got that?"
"Yes! Yes! Anything you want!"
"All right. Get up. Slowly! That's it. Easy. Now, let's walk to the door. Gentlemen, would one of you open the door for us please?" Callie directed her request to the suits. They smiled. The suit on the right opened the door for her.
"Out!" Callie jerked her chin at the other two wannabe's. They shuffled through the doorway ahead of her. Neither even looked at the two men in suits. Callie followed with their wristlocked companion. Once on the sidewalk she released his arm and pushed. He stumbled forward a few steps before he caught his balance.
"You're in trouble now slut." The brute told her as he cradled his injured arm. "You done fucked with the wrong people."
Callie took a step in his direction. "You ever come back here again I'll hurt you. I'll hurt you every day for the rest of your very short life."
"If she doesn't, I will." The bass growl was a surprise. A quick sidestepping half turn to see the bigger suit had followed her out the door. The other suit was standing in the doorway blocking the tiny redhead from coming outside. He nodded at his partner's statement of violent intent.
Loudmouth and his two buddies mounted their bikes and took off down the block. They cast glances over their shoulders as they rode away, their exhaust pipes roaring and echoing off the buildings. Callie watched a bit longer. When she was satisfied that they were gone, she headed back inside her shop. The suit who'd come out with her walked in front of her as they headed toward the door. Inside, both men stood on either side of the redhead. Who was once again seated on the leather couch. The men gave Callie a half bow. In unison.
What the heck is that all about? She wondered to herself.
The tiny readhead patted the couch next to her indicating that she wanted Callie to sit. When Callie just looked at her, she patted the cushion again.
"Come sit with me. Maybe some tea?" The redhead asked hopefully.
"Uh, sorry. I don't have any tea. I have some spiced cider. It's warm. Would that do?" Callie indicated the stainless steel coffee urn on the small table near the couch.
"Oh. That would be wonderful!" Turning to suit number one she looked at him then at the urn. "Just a small cup though."
The suit poured cider from the spout into a paper cup on the table. Half full, he handed the cup to the redhead.
"Thank you Paul."
"My pleasure Miss Violet."
The woman patted the couch again. "Please. I want to talk to you."
Callie eased over to sit on the edge of her own couch like a schoolgirl about to be scolded. "Who are you?"
"Oh. Sorry. My name is Violet. A couple of friends of mine would really like to meet you. So they asked me if I would come down here to visit with you. To see if you'd like to meet them."
Violet set her cider cup down on the low table in front of the couch. She pulled a red rectangle from her bag handing it to Callie.
Callie took the card. It had nothing on either side. She gave Violet a quizzical look.
"If you are the person I believe you are; you already know what's usually printed on there. If you aren't, you don't need to know."
Callie looked down at the card in her hands. "I know what it says."
"Good. My friends would very much like to see you. Please. If you're ok with that, call the number. Any time." Violet paused. "Please say yes. You can set the time and place if you want."
"And if I don't? Want to meet your friends I mean."
"Just don't call the number. Simple."
Callie thought a minute then nodded her head. She gave the card back to Violet.
"Anything else you want to know? I warn you, I can't tell you much more than I have. I've been forbidden to do that. Paul here would stuff a gag in my mouth if I tried to disobey that order. Wouldn't you Paul?"
"Never, Miss Violet. You know that's a House hard limit."
"Spoilsport." Violet stuck her tongue out at Paul then returned to seriousness again. "Well? Is there anything else you want to know?"
"Can I take your picture?" Callie held out her cell phone. "I have two little sisters who are not going to believe I met a fairy princess unless I have a picture to prove it."
Violet laughingly agreed. Callie took six pictures. The tiny woman was gorgeous. As they were leaving, Paul stopped to speak to her in a low voice.
"You have any trouble with them, sister, you call and ask for me. I'll come help you deal however you need."
"Why? I don't know you. It isn't your fight."
"It is our fight. You did our job for us. We owe you." Paul placed his huge hand gently on her shoulder. "Call. I'll be here. If you need them, I have some friends who will help."
"Paul!" Violet called as she was about to get into the long black limo parked at the curb. "Hurry up. You can ask for a date later."
"Coming Miss Violet." Paul started moving toward the car. "Call," he told Callie over his shoulder. "Don't forget."
Callie swept the shop just before she was going to lock up to go home. No one had come in after everyone else had left. Locking up Callie patted her pocket to be sure she had her cell phone with the pictures on it.
Her plan was to stop at the art store on the way home to pick up some gold metallic powder. A few pinches of that twisted up in some colored tissue paper would make good imitation fairy dust. Tulip was getting to the point where she was old enough to disbelieve. Hopefully, the pictures would make her hesitate to say it was all fake and ruin it for Poppy. Hopefully.
Callie needn't have worried. When she got home Poppy and Tulip were doing homework on the kitchen table. Callie dropped a small folded paper packet of gold powder in front of each of them. The girls looked up at her.
"It's fairy dust. I swept it up off the floor after a fairy princess came by work today." At the skeptical looks she indicated their paper packages. "Open it and see. I wouldn't lie to you about a fairy princess."
T Rose came in from the living room. "Fairy dust? This I gotta see."
Callie handed her the last of the three packets she'd made up at the art store. T rose ripped hers open, the gold powder inside the paper going airborne. Glittering in the bright lights of the kitchen it hung twinkling in the air.
"Oooo." Poppy was impressed. Tulip looked skeptical but stayed silent.
"I even have pictures to prove it was a real fairy princess." Callie pulled out her phone opening her picture gallery to the images of Violet. "See?"
Everybody crowded around as she flipped through the images.
"She's tiny." Poppy commented as Callie stopped at the picture of Violet and Callie together on the couch.
"She's bigger than Tinkerbell." Tulip was still skeptical.
Poppy looked at her sister with scorn. "Tinkerbell's a cartoon."
Callie headed off the impending argument. "Her name is Violet. She's named after a flower just like us. Isn't she pretty? She's going to have a little baby fairy soon. She wanted a tattoo but I wouldn't do it."
"Why not?" Poppy wanted to know.
"Because I didn't want to hurt her or the baby. If she got hurt she might get mad at me and do things with her magic. I don't think I'd like being a frog. Ribbet. Ribbet." Callie faked a shocked look. "Oh dear. Maybe I should have, Ribbet, given her a tattoo after all. Ribbet."
T Rose burst out laughing. That set off the younger girls. Callie smiled, leaning over and tickling each of them until she had them squirming.
The doorbell sounded, both girls jumped up to run into the other room shouting at the top of their lungs.
"Pizza's here. Pizza's here."
Callie looked at T Rose who just shrugged. "I didn't feel like cooking."
"Well, save me a couple of slices. I'm going to go clean up."
Callie undressed to take a quick shower. Stepping out of the bathroom she saw T Rose sitting on her bed with Callie's phone in her hand. She was looking at the pictures of the fairy queen. A plate with two slices of pizza and a paper towel was on Callie's night table.
"So, who is she really?" T Rose didn't look up when Callie came out of the bathroom. "What's her real name?"
"Well, I think that Violet is probably her real name. That's what the two guys who were with her called her. Miss Violet."
"What did she want?" T Rose indicated the pictures. "You and I both know she wasn't there for a tattoo. Anyone with skin that flawless isn't into body art."
Callie sat down next to her sister making the bed bounce. As she picked up her dinner plate from the bedside table she considered how much to tell Rose.
"She came in to give me an invitation."
"A meeting. With some friends of hers."
"I don't know. She didn't say."
"Ok. I'm not getting this."
Callie explained. "She came in. Asked if I would have a meeting with some friends of hers. She gave me a red card."
"A red card? Like the one Henry has?"
"Well, this one was blank. She said that if I was the person she was looking for, I'd know what was supposed to be on the card."
"I told her I knew."
"Callie! Are you stupid or something?" T Rose sounded exasperated.
Picking up the phone Callie shrugged. "Probably."
"Why are you getting involved? It's not your problem!"
"Henry is involved. I'm the only one who can do anything about it if he's in trouble. Me. No one else. That makes it my problem."
"So, you're going to the meeting?"
Weighing the phone in her hand Callie was silent. Making up her mind she dialed the number for the third time. As before, only a single ring, a click, then just the barely audible background hiss.
"Yes." She said succinctly.
There was a moment before a woman's voice came on the line. "Thank you. Do you have a preference for when or where?"
"That's fine. Where are we meeting?"
"I will send a car to pick you up. If that is acceptable."
"Yes. Send Paul. That way I'll know."
"Very well. Until tomorrow."
The line went dead.
"You know you're an idiot. Right?" T Rose looked first at her sister then at the phone in
Callie just nodded.
Up early the next morning Callie started digging through her closet for some paints and brushes. The water based paints were perfect for face art. Holding the box she went into the kitchen to set up.
When Poppy came in for breakfast Callie held her finger up in front of her lips so Poppy would be quiet. Pointing, she sat her little sister in the chair before beginning to apply the paint. Quickly she painted a pink and white kitty face with long black whiskers on Poppy's face. Meow, she mouthed silently to Poppy and winked.
Callie finished and packed her supplies away. Poppy sat in the chair swinging her short legs back and forth while Callie went into her room, setting the box of paint supplies on her bed. She brought back a mirror for Poppy to see herself.
Poppy started to squeal but Callie quickly put her fingers on Poppy's mouth to silence her. Confused, she looked at Callie. Callie just winked again.
Hearing her other sisters start to come into the kitchen for breakfast Callie went to the refrigerator pulling out the milk jug. Setting it on the table she reached for bowls and spoons. She also retrieved a box of cereal, placing it on the table with the bowls and spoons. Poppy scooted her chair around waiting patiently while Callie poured some cereal in her bowl for her. Callie added milk to it before Poppy dug into her breakfast.
Tulip came in sitting in her usual spot at the table next to Poppy. Reaching for the cereal box she caught Poppy's new face in the corner of her eye. Her eyes darted to Callie.
Tulip pointed at Poppy's face.
"Oh. I think she got too much fairy dust on her last night. She was closest when Rose opened hers."
T Rose wandered in as Callie was explaining. Looking at Poppy she smirked from where she was getting a cup of coffee from the drip machine.
"Callie; when did we get a kitten? You didn't tell me you brought home a kitten yesterday." T Rose set her cup on the table before pulling out a chair to sit down. "Isn't Poppy up yet?"
Poppy started laughing. "It's me Rosie."
"Oh look, it talks. It must be a special kind of kitty. Though it does need to learn not to talk with it's mouth full."
Poppy quickly closed her mouth, pointedly swallowing before she spooned up more of her breakfast.
Tulip looked at each of them. "You guys are weird."
Callie dropped a kiss on Tulip's crown before she sat down to join her sisters for breakfast.
"It's genetic. Welcome to the family. We await the exposition of your weirdness."
After breakfast Callie's piled her sisters into Rose's car, along with a box of her competition trophies, they all headed off to spend Saturday together at work. On the way they stopped at the home supply store for some glass shelves to put up on the wall for the trophy display. Poppy held on to Callie's hand as they wandered down the aisles. Her face paint drawing smiles and comments as she skipped along.
Finished shopping they headed on to the tattoo parlor where Callie's world crashed and burned. Literally.
There were fire trucks, firemen, and police everywhere. The flames had long been doused. Mop up operations were well underway. All that remained was a charred, burnt ruin of her life. Her time, energy and savings had been tied to her shop. All of it was gone. All of it. Destroyed.
The morning's gaiety spilling away as fast as the water which ran in the gutter, she walked up to the tape barrier that kept the gawkers away from the scene. Her three sisters quiet as they accompanied her. Callie was stunned silent.
"What happened?" Tulip's anxious question brought Callie back to her senses.
Callie, letting go of Poppy's hand, ducked underneath the plastic tape barrier. A uniformed officer saw her. He started their way to head her off.
"Ma'am. You have to stay behind the barrier."
Callie's eyes flicked back and forth. The front window with it's beautiful design and gold leaf lettering was shattered. Blackened from the smoke of the fire. Her front door was smashed open. She could see the word BITCH spray painted on it. Inside she could see that everything was either charred, burnt, or waterlogged. Everything was ruined. Nothing looked remotely salvageable. The firemen were finishing up and she had to move out of the way as one fire engine left to go back to it's station. The men riding inside were smoke covered and grimy.
"Ma'am. You're supposed to say back." The uniformed cop caught up with her.
"It's my shop. I'm the proprietor." Callie pointed at the carnage.
"Oh. Sorry. Could you follow me? I'll take you to the person who's in charge."
Callie nodded numbly. She walked across the slick pavement behind him toward a man in a trench coat. The man was poking through the ashes inside the building while jotting notes on a clipboard.
In less than a half hour, the last fireman and fire engine left the scene. Callie talked with the arson investigator answering questions. Rose, Tulip and Poppy had been allowed to join her once everyone else had gone.
"I told you. I don't have much insurance. Just enough to cover any damages to the building. I'm going to lose everything from this." Callie was distraught at the implication that she had set the fire to collect the insurance money. Stupid pig. This wasn't an insurance fire. This was her life and it was gone! The money she'd borrowed from her parents along with most of her own meager savings. Lost. Now what was she going to do?
"Well, from what I can tell, it was definitely arson. Accelerants were used to fuel the fire until it caught on the structure. It was deliberately set."
"Well, I didn't do it. Maybe you should find who did and go arrest them."
"Do you know who would do this to you? Ex husband? Boyfriend?"
Callie shook her head. "Not married. No boyfriend. Just family and this place."
"The fact that someone took the time to spray paint the door makes me believe this was done by someone who wanted to hurt you specifically. Is there anyone you can think of who would fit that description?"
Again, Callie shook her head. "No. No one. I just opened the shop. I don't even have many customers yet."
"Any of your customers unhappy with the work you did for them?"
"No. I don't know who did this. I don't know who could have done this. I don't know."
Poppy had come up to hold Callie's hand while she talked to the arson investigator. Now she tugged Callie's arm to get her to bend down.
"The flower fairy." Poppy whispered into Callie's ear.
"What?" Callie was caught of balance by all that had happened. Flower fairy?
"The flower fairy. She's here." Poppy pointed.
Callie looked where Poppy indicated. Parked at the curb across the street was a long black limo with tinted windows. Nearby stood Violet and her two suited nursemaids. As Callie looked, Paul slid his sunglasses down his nose to look over them at her. Fingering them back into place he gave her a nod hello.
"I have to go. I have an appointment today. It can't wait." Callie told the investigator.
"I'm not done."
"I don't care. I have to go. You can stay as long as you like. I'm leaving."
The investigator quickly fished a white card out of his shirt pocket. "Here's my card. Call me if you think of anything I should know. I also can recommend a company to board up the windows and doors to keep looters out."
Callie glanced at the card before tossing it into the char on the floor. Walking away she indicated the mess. "There's nothing of any value left here to take. If anyone wants to steal it, let them. If the landlord wants it boarded up, he can pay for it. Rose, Tulip, let's go."
Callie didn't even look as she crossed the street. The way she felt right now, any traffic would just have to get out of her way instead of she getting out of theirs.
"Oh, Callie, I'm so sorry." Violet was sincere as the four girls met up with them. "Do you know what happened?"
"Arson. I suspect our friends from yesterday gave me a midnight visit."
"What friends from yesterday? You never mentioned anything like that." T Rose was upset that Callie had been holding out on them.
"Some guys came in to try a shakedown. I tossed them out. They left. Nothing to talk about."
Paul cleared his throat. Callie looked over at him.
"I don't know. I suspect it was them because the arson guy said that somebody poured flammable liquids everywhere and lit them. I didn't say anything because I can't prove anything. It's a total loss. Everything is destroyed. I'm out of business." Callie's voice caught.
"There was so much original art in there. Some of the flash was unique. Some stuff I can't reproduce. It's lost forever. I put my heart and soul into trying to make this happen. It's gone because some asswipe thought it was a good idea to burn it all."
Tulip gave her big sister a hug. "It's ok Callie. We'll get it figured out. Something good will happen. Just wait. You'll see. We can talk to mom and dad about it too. I know they'll understand."
"Are you really a fairy princess?" Poppy's little voice was quiet, catching them all by surprise.
Violet looked startled.
Callie sniffed and hardened her heart. She gave Poppy's hair a caress before addressing Violet.
"Sorry. I told them you were a fairy princess named Violet. I showed them some fairy dust I said I swept up from the floor after you left yesterday. I showed them the pictures too."
"If you're really a fairy princess, can't you wave your magic wand and make this all better? Callie's really really sad even if she doesn't say so."
Callie choked a bit then bent down so her eyes were level with Poppy's. "Sweetie. It was a story I told you to make you happy. She's not really a fairy princess. It was just a story."
"Is she still named after a flower? Like us?"
Violet laughed softly. She used her finger to push a stray hair out of Poppy's face. "Yes. My name really is Violet. I really am named after a flower. Just like you are."
Violet gave Poppy a smile that was even more beautiful than the one in the picture from yesterday. Poppy gave her a small shy smile in return.
"At least your name is pretty. I don't like mine."
Callie was shocked speechless. This was coming from where exactly? Violet looked just as shocked, but recovered faster.
"Why not? I think it's pretty."
"B'cuz everybody makes fun of me. My name. They say it's ugly and stupid."
Light dawned on Callie. Straightening she told Violet. "She's been having some problems with a bully at school. I've tried to get the school to do something but they're blowing me off because I'm not her parent. I have guardianship rights while our parents are out of town, but they won't even let me make a complaint. I didn't know it was this bad. She didn't tell me. I don't think she's told anyone."
Violet looked at Paul. He nodded.
Turning back to Poppy Violet continued. "Well, I wouldn't make fun of your name. Not even because I'm named after a flower too. Do you know there is a place in California where people go every year just to look at the poppies? Do you know where California is?"
Poppy nodded though Callie wasn't sure that she did.
"Thousands and thousands of people take vacations just to go see them. They drive a long way just to look at poppies. If poppies were ugly and stupid they wouldn't do that. So poppies can't be ugly or stupid.
"And, now that I've met you, I know you aren't either. You are adorable. I wish I could take you home with me. But, your parents and sisters would get lonely for you. It would make them sad. So, I can't. It will make me sad too. I'll have to settle for remembering you."
"I could visit you. So, you wouldn't be so sad."
"You are such a good girl. However, I think that is better left up to your mom and dad." Violet smiled her beautiful smile once more. Poppy smiled shyly back at her again.
"Would you like to come with us? Callie has an appointment with some friends of mine. You and your other sisters could come too if you want."
"Violet, I'm not sure that's a good idea." Callie tried to interrupt, stopping as Violet held up a hand.
"Callie, it's obvious that someone is out to get you. I'm sure that you'd prefer, and I'd prefer, to know that your family is safe while you have your meeting with my friends. So, let them come along. My friends won't mind. I'm sure of that. If necessary we can go get some snacks or something while you have your meeting. Please?"
T Rose broke in. "What? Are we like hostages now?"
"Excuse me? I don't understand."
"Hostages. You know; do what we tell you or else . . ."
Violet laughed. "These are my friends not the mafia. Honestly, if you'd rather not, then that's fine. I just offered because you all look really stressed. If you come with us, I promise you'll be perfectly safe."
Paul's quick nod of agreement caught the corner of her eye. Still, the girls were her responsibility. Not Violet's.
A trio of black cars slid into sight. A limo and two SUV's. All three parked quietly at the curb in front of the burnt remains of her dream. The doors on both SUV's popped open, disgorging several men in suits. They fanned out in a perimeter around the new limo. Violet looked up at Paul lifting an eyebrow.
Paul shrugged. Holding his hands out in an I dunno gesture.
Violet gave a huge sigh as the driver opened the rear door to the limo. Once the door was open, the most beautiful woman Callie had ever seen exited the car. She stood on the curb looking in their direction. Everything stopped. People on both sides of the street paused. Just to look, or stare, at the woman standing quietly on the sidewalk next to the limo. Nothing moved. There was no sound. Just her.
"Really?" Violet called across the intervening distance. "You couldn't wait?"
"You're late and it was taking too long to get updates. We decided someone needed to come to you to find out why." The silver haired woman called back as she began to walk in their direction. Her perimeter guards, and Callie did not make any mistake in her assessment of them - they were obviously guards, stopped traffic so the silver haired woman could cross unimpeded.
"So you came? Have both of you gone crazy?" Violet's stunned questions carried clearly. Callie tore her eyes away from the gorgeous woman walking carelessly across the street to look at Violet. As she watched, Poppy gently slid her hand into Violet's. Holding on as her mouth opened at the sight of the silver haired woman.
"A princess! A really real princess!" Callie heard her littlest sister's awe filled whisper and didn't know if she was right or wrong.
She wore blue and gold and the sun rose every day to shine just for her. When she walked, the world stopped just so there would be no chance she'd misstep. She was, beyond any doubt, a Goddess come to earth. The penultimate vison of beauty by which all other beautiful things were measured, coming up short at the comparison. And, she was heading in their direction.
An eager noise from Tulip had Callie glance over at her sister. Violet placed her free hand on Tulip's shoulder while keeping her eyes on the woman crossing the street toward them.
"Every woman I know has tried to imitate that walk. No one has done it yet. She says it's because her bones do the walking while she just goes along for the ride. If you want, someday I could, maybe, introduce you to someone who might know how to explain it better."
"Bones?" Tulip reluctantly tore her eyes away to look at Violet.
"I don't understand it either. If I did, I could walk that way too. Believe me, I tried. I failed. Just like everyone else."
"Bones." Tulip said again softly to herself as she studied the woman coming toward them with narrowed eyes and a pensive expression.
The silver haired woman reached them. She stepped onto the sidewalk to stand in front of Callie. Violet's escort pair bobbed their heads at the woman. She nodded back distractedly. Her attention was centered directly on Callie. Only on Callie. The intensity of her gaze made Callie harden her eyes to hold her visual ground. She let a hint of her competition smile hover at the corners of her mouth.
"I hate you, you know." Violet's bald statement was shocking. Both of them broke off their stares to look at the statement's author.
"You do not." The silver haired woman's voice was low and melodic. It carried hint of humor as well. She gave Violet an intense smile, more beautiful than any smile Callie had ever witnessed, before leaning over giving Violet a gentle kiss on the mouth.
'I Love You' was built into that kiss from the ground up. Violet's response sent a return message just as strong. There was no doubt both of them loved the other with their entire being.
"I do." Violet obviously lied as she broke off the kiss. "I try hard to be pretty. I dress up. I wear makeup. I wear high heels. Well, usually. I've even got that glow that pregnant women have. You know, the one that everyone raves about. You show up wearing a burlap sack and all anyone can do is stare at you. Everyone forgets me completely."
The woman laughed. "Violet, you are the prettiest woman I will ever know."
"Truth. And, you know it. Now, will you please introduce me before I forget my manners again?"
Violet looked at them all. She waved the hand not captured by Poppy. "Miss Calla Lily Mee. Along with mistresses Tea Rose Mee and Tulip Mee." Lifting her other hand she indicated Poppy. "This adorable bundle of cuteness is currently under a fairy spell that only makes her look like a talking kitten. In reality she is just as adorable. This is Poppy Mee, Calla Lily's youngest sister. Ladies, please meet my friend Karen Harper."
At her introduction Poppy flashed Violet a toothy smile that rivaled the silver haired woman's in wattage if nothing else. "I think you're prettier too."
Violet wrinkled her nose at Poppy. "That's just silly."
"It is not!"
"It is too. Who would ever believe anything a talking kitten says anyway."
The silver haired woman, Karen, laughed. "Out of the mouths of babes."
"Four minutes." One of Karen's guards behind Callie called softly. Karen nodded
"Understood. I've been here too long. Miss Calla Lily Mee, would you please accompany me in my car? There is another person I'd like you to meet before we can talk about the information you want to share with us."
Callie turned a curious gaze at Violet.
"If she stays anywhere outside too long crowds tend to gather. Crowds tend to cause her escorts to get a bit nervous. To prevent that as much as possible, they have a policy where she only stays in one place for no more than five minutes at a time. She really does need to get moving or there will be a riot here. I'm not kidding either."
Callie looked at her sisters.
"Like I said, they can ride with me if they'd like. Or not. But, you guys need to get going. If you don't her guards are going to go into panic mode."
Callie could see the crowd swelling. Some of the people were holding up phones to capture the silver haired woman's image. Flash from built in cameras began to go off.
"Great. Another Karen sighting." Violet grumbled almost to herself as she saw how huge the crowd was getting. "For someone who tries to be anonymous, she sure gets a lot of public attention."
Shaking herself, she looked at Callie. "Your sisters should ride with me. They aren't going to get through that crowd without being caught and questioned about who she is. Believe me, I've seen that happen too many times to want your sisters to get trampled by a mob. So, you should go with her while they come with me. We can pick up your car later. For now, you guys need to get moving. Go!"
Callie could see that Karen's guards were getting nervous. They had opened the door to the limo across the street. One guard stood there along with the car's driver. Even Paul had opened the door on Violet's car in case they needed to use it instead of the car across the street.
"Come." Karen beckoned Callie.
Callie looked at Paul.
"I will keep them safe and bring them back without harm. My word of honor, sister."
"Sister?" Karen's question hung in the air as she focused her suddenly blazing eyes on Paul.
"Time!" The guard's call stopped Paul from responding.
"We must go. Now." Karen tamped down the fire in her eyes, holding out her hand to Callie at the same time. "Please?"
"By the Domna's standing order; If we have to carry you, we will." The guard spoke to Karen again. Domna? What's a Domna?
Karen nodded. She dropped her outstretched hand. "I am sorry. I have no more time I can spend here to convince you. You must choose to come or not. I can not, and will not, force you. However, I must leave. They have orders to literally pick me up and put me into the car if I don't. It's an experience I don't care to repeat." Karen apologized to Callie. Karen took three backward steps before she turned to begin walking back to her car.
T Rose quickly hugged Callie. "Go. I can feel the tension here. We'll be fine."
"Are you sure?"
"Just go already."
Callie saw Poppy grip Violet's hand tighter as she looked at the crowd that was now only barely being restrained by the perimeter guards. It would take an argument to get her away from Violet now. There wasn't any time for that!
"Go." Violet told Callie. "We can just get in my car. We'll be fine if you go. Otherwise things are going to get ugly fast."
Making up her mind Callie trotted after Karen, who stopped when she heard Callie's footsteps come up behind her. Callie grasped Karen's outstretched hand. Together they walked toward the limo.
The guard at the door stepped out of the way when Karen stopped. Calmly she looked at Callie. Callie took the hint. She ducked into the interior of the limo. Seating herself in a rear facing jump seat, Callie watched as the guard started to enter the car. In a flash Karen stepped between him and the car interior.
The single word was so softly spoken that Callie wasn't sure it was vocalized at all. It might have been Karen's body posture. Whichever it was, it was enough to cause the door guard to backpedal. Fast.
It looked to Callie as if he almost went down on his knees as he stumbled backward. Before she could be sure, Karen ducked into the car, primly seated herself across from Callie. Karen smoothed her dress while the driver gently closed the door sealing them inside.
Callie looked out the heavily tinted windows. She watched Violet herding her sisters into the back of the other limousine. The perimeter guards stepped backward until the perimeter grew small enough that every other guard was able to break off to head for the front SUV. They all piled into the car in what looked like a haphazard way though Callie was positive it wasn't. It went too smoothly to be haphazard.
Once everyone was inside, the doors on the SUV slammed closed. The SUV began pulling away from the curb; their car smoothly following. Callie's last look out the window showed Violet's limo pulling away in the other direction while the rest of the guards trotted toward the remaining SUV.
"Where are we going?" Callie was surprised to hear that her voice sounded calm despite the whirlwind of events.
"GreenWood Country Club. I have an office there. My other friend is waiting there for us also."
The mall? "And my sisters? Will they be there too?"
"Of course. I'm pretty sure that Violet is going to stop at an ice cream parlor first. She had that look in her eye. She's good with kids and is going to make a great mom. Can I ask you a question?"
"Sure." Callie refocused her attention to the woman across from her.
"When did Paul first call you sister?"
"Yesterday. After three guys tried to wreck my shop. Why?"
"Because he left that tidbit out of the report."
Report? What report? "Huh?" Callie's response showed her confusion.
"Any time our security staff have an incident they write a report. They give it to my other friend. The one we're going to meet with. She gives it to me to read so I know what's going on."
"And? Why does it matter if he left that out of the report? I get called sister by lots of people. It's just a label."
"It's not just a label. It means something to us."
"What's it mean?"
"It means someone is going to spend two hours a day for the next week cleaning trash cans. On his knees. With a toilet brush and a bucket of soapy water. Cold soapy water!"
"I don't understand."
"Don't worry. It's an internal matter and discipline is part of my job description."
When they arrived at the mall, the driver turned off onto a gated graveled path that lead to an underground garage. The car stopped in front of a pair of elevator doors. Their driver got out to open the car door for them. Karen lead Callie by the hand into the elevator punching the button for the second floor.
After the ride up, they exited the elevator. Karen towed Callie into the second floor lobby turning left immediately outside the elevator doors. A cross corridor appeared where they turned right. The corridor ended at a single door with chairs set on either side. As they approached the door, the pair of guards, who had met them at the elevator lobby, split off to sit in the chairs. Karen twisted the door knob opening the door. Callie, hand still clasped in Karen's, had no choice but to follow her inside.
An elderly woman sat at a desk taking quietly on the telephone in a very well appointed room. A mountain of files and paperwork on the corner of her desk threatened to fall onto the floor at any moment. On the other side of the room a matching desk stood currently empty. From the looks of it, no one used that desk at all. On the wall behind the empty desk was a painting that Callie recognized. It was one of her mother's. Scarlet Bridges. The elderly woman looked up as the door opened pausing in what she was saying on the phone.
"She's with a petitioner. Blue petition." The woman directed her statement to Karen while holding her palm over the mouthpiece of the phone.
"Oh. Callie would you mind waiting here for a moment please? It could get messy in there while we deal with this. It won't take long. I'll come back out and get you when we're ready. Ok?"
"Sure." Callie shrugged turning toward the painting on the wall. It had sold about six months ago at a gallery in Santa Fe. The buyer had been anonymous. He'd paid nearly eight-five thousand dollars for it. Considering that it had hung on the wall of her bedroom until her mother needed something to fill space at the gallery, seeing it again was like meeting an old friend you hadn't realized that you missed with every fiber of your being.
"Do you like it?" The elderly woman had hung up her phone. Jotting notes on a pad, she directed her question to Callie. "The painting?"
"My mother painted it." Callie told her. "It's me."
"Yes. It's a Mee. Wait, Ohiro Mee is your mother?"
"Yes. But, the painting is me." Callie pointed at her chest. "My mother painted it after I was born. All the flowers are red Calla Lilies. My mother said that she saw the painting in her mind when she first looked at me when I was born. It's me. On canvas in paint."
"And she SOLD IT?" The woman bumped her desk as she suddenly stood up. The mountain of files began to slide off the desk. Callie quickly grabbed at the pile. It fell onto the floor before she could get control of it.
"Sorry." Callie told the woman. "Let me help."
"It's ok. Just leave them. I just need to get them organized and put away is all." The woman pointed at a filing cabinet in the corner.
"I can do that. I'm not doing anything anyway. Just waiting." Callie knelt to gather up the files on the floor. Placing them on the empty desk she pulled open a drawer in the tan cabinet. "Alphabetically right?" Callie asked without pausing as she began to stuff files into the cabinet without hardly looking at them.
The elderly woman just looked at her as she worked. Callie shrugged but kept putting the files in order in the cabinet.
"So, why did your mother sell the painting?" The woman was curious as she watched Callie stowing the files.
"It wasn't supposed to sell. There was space that needed to be filled at a gallery showing so she took the painting. It was marked not for sale. Someone kept coming back in every day offering her more money for it. The other artists got mad because they thought she was just pumping the price up. They complained to the gallery owner who told her that if she kept trying to artificially inflate her prices they'd pull her from the exhibition. She named a huge price thinking that the buyer wouldn't pay that much. He paid on the spot with a credit card. My mother was heartbroken."
Callie caressed the frame of the painting. "I never thought I'd see it again."
"Well, you can always come in a look at it any time you want. I won't mind." The elderly woman smiled at Callie.
"Yes. After that remarkable story how could anyone refuse such a small concession to you?" Karen's voice came from behind Callie.
Callie dropped into a long defensive stance before she realized what she'd done. Embarrassed she straightened as Karen came further into the reception area.
"Lainey. How nice to see your desk again." Karen looked at the older woman who just pointed to Callie.
"What can I say. It's a gift. I also do windows, mop floors and draw idiotic cartoon animals in my spare time. Something I think I'm going to have a lot of in the near future."
Lainey looked abashed but Karen just ignored the sarcasm.
"I'm really sorry, but that other thing is taking more time than I thought it would. I need Lainey to run and get a file for me. Would you mind waiting a bit more?
"I don't mind. I'm here with no where else to go anyway. Besides, my sisters should be getting here soon. They'll expect me to be here instead of being someplace else."
Karen looked sympathetic. She quietly told her receptionist what she needed. Lainey looked at Callie before leaving the office. Karen went back inside her inner office leaving Callie alone at the empty desk.
Within a minute the phone rang. Callie expected it to be picked up by Karen since she probably knew that Lainey wasn't back yet. The phone kept ringing. Fed up with the noise, she picked up the receiver.
"Lainey, I got those measurements you wanted." The voice on the phone was filled with static. "You ready?"
"Who is this?"
"Callie M. I'm filling in for Lainey while she does some errands. Can I help you?"
"Listen, Lainey called me about some measurements. I have them. Get something to write them down on. Ready?"
"Go ahead." Callie just rolled her eyes.
The static filled voice on the line gave her a list of numbers that made no sense to Callie. Dutifully she jotted them down in her mind so that she could repeat them to Lainey when she returned.
"That's the list." The voice told her.
"Who are you? So I can tell her who gave me this information?" Callie questioned the voice.
"Tell her Tim. She'll know who I am."
"Ok. Will do."
"My pleasure." Callie hung up the phone and sat back in the chair. Still no Lainey or Karen. Honestly, if she'd tried to run her little tattoo shop like this, she'd be in trouble in no time.
Twenty minutes later still no Lainey or Karen. Half a dozen phone calls where she explained each time that she was just helping out while Lainey was out of the office before each caller would give her any information. She had just hung up again when the door opened spilling her sisters into the room. They were followed by Violet.
"Here we are!" Violet announced to the girls as she shut the door behind her.
"Callie!" Poppy called gayly as she climbed into Callie's lap. "Aunt Violet took us for ice cream."
"Aunt Violet?" Callie looked at the little girl in her lap. The face paint was wearing off and she definitely had the remains of chocolate ice cream on her cheeks.
"It was easier to explain them that way. I hope you don't mind."
Callie shook her head as the phone rang. "Hello?"
"Yes. Callie M. I'm filling in for Lainey while she's out of the office temporarily. Is there something I can do for you?"
As Callie talked on the phone Violet turned to look upward at the black plastic bubble on the ceiling.
"How long have you been answering the phone?" Violet asked when Callie finished with the latest call. "Where is everyone else?"
"Oh, maybe half an hour. Karen asked Lainey to run an errand. I don't think it was supposed to take this long. She's not back yet."
"So, why are you answering the phone?"
"I got tired of it ringing. I can take messages and give them to Lainey when she gets back. Was that wrong?"
"You're not writing anything down."
"Oh. I don't need to. I can just tell Lainey what each caller said."
"She has perfect recall." T Rose told Violet.
"We all have it." Tulip chimed in.
"Even me!" Poppy proclaimed proudly just before she screamed in Callie's ear. "Callie! We found you! You're on the wall!" Poppy climbed to her feet pointing at the wall behind Callie. Jumping up and down on Callie's lap she stepped onto the desk continuing to dance around. "Poppy Mee! You get off the furniture or I will spank you! You hear me? This instant! Where are your manners?"
Poppy stopped her squealing jumping off the desk to land on the floor. "I'm sorry Callie."
"Don't apologize to me. Apologize to Violet. It's her furniture."
"I'm sorry Aunt Violet." Poppy's eyes brimmed with tears as she looked at the floor. "Please don't hate me."
Callie saw the emotion that caused Violet to choke for a moment before she got herself under control. Something serious must have happened to Violet in the past to cause that strong of a reaction. With a small grunt Violet knelt down on the floor in front of Poppy.
"Sweety. I'm not mad at you. I could never hate you. Never ever ever. Ok?"
Poppy nodded but kept looking at the floor.
"Hey. Don't I get a hug?" Violet tipped Poppy's face up to look at her. "The best 'I'm sorry's' always come with a hug at the end."
Poppy threw her arms around Violet. Violet gave her a kiss on her grimy cheek.
"Ugh. I think that fairy spell is wearing off. You taste like chocolate ice cream. Let's go see if we can wash off the spell. Girls? Anyone else for the bathroom?"
Violet levered herself off the floor, grasping Poppy's hand once she was erect. Tulip nodded in response to Violet's question.
"Well, then let's go. It's right down the hall. Now, what's all this about Callie being on the wall that made Poppy dance on the desk?"
Violet's voice faded as the door closed behind them. T Rose sighed as she sat on the corner of the desk.
"Who are these people? I mean, I like Violet. She's sweet and lovely and you can tell she's totally honest. Karen is, you know, knock you dead gorgeous. Tulip is absolutely bewitched by that strut she does. But, I don't know who these people are."
"I don't know either. I don't even know how we got involved with them."
"You did it. You're the one who made those two phone calls."
"Three calls? Callie, you're even dumber than I thought."
Violet came back with Poppy and Tulip while Callie was on the phone yet again.
"Really? Still? How extraordinary." Violet looked at the black camera bulb again. "Let me go in and see what's going on. She may have forgotten about you if things have gotten this hectic.
"There's a tablet in the desk drawer. If you use the memo function to write down all the messages, Lainey can sync it to hers when she gets back. That way, if you're not here, she gets them anyway."
"I didn't look in the desk. I didn't want to snoop. Sorry."
"It's ok. I'll go see what the holdup is. I'll be right back. I promise." Violet opened the inner door disappearing inside. Callie opened the desk drawer immediately finding the electronic tablet. Poppy kicked her feet as she sat in the chair nearest the door looking at Callie's painting on the wall.
True to her word, Violet came back out of Karen's office almost immediately. Karen was right behind her. Violet explained that the meeting with Callie was going to take longer than they thought it would. Since it was getting late, she should take the other girls home. They could stop on the way to pick up T Rose's car. T Rose looked at Callie who nodded her agreement.
Violet shepherded the girls out. Once they were gone, Karen reached over picking up the tablet from in front of Callie. Tossing it carelessly onto the top of Lainey's desk she pulled Callie to her feet. Callie was once again towed along by her hand as Karen lead her into the inner room.
"Welcome to my office." Karen sighed after letting go of Callie's hand.
Callie calmly looked around, noting all the details of her surroundings. The office decor was even more richly appointed than the reception area. Callie moved further into Karen's office. The huge window in the wall had an excellent view over what looked like parkland except for the tiny people walking or driving little white carts on it. That must be the golf course.
Karen's desk was set sideways. Neither facing out, nor facing in away from the window, it was set so that Karen would be facing a blank interior wall. Except there was no interior wall. Callie goggled as she realized that what passed for the interior wall was made of very thick glass. For some reason it was placed to cross lengthwise over the center of an oval sand and rock Zen garden. A garden set in a low depression in the floor. On the other side of the glass partition, seated at a matching desk, was another elegantly clad woman who looked to be slightly older than Karen appeared to be.
Callie caught movement out of the corner of her eye. She watched as Karen touched a sculpture on her desk. It was a white bronze sculpture that Callie knew was titled 'Silent Submission'. A pair of forearms and hands in supplication. Wrists crossed, palms upturned, rising from a base.
A soft chiming hum made the woman on the other side of the glass wall look up from her absorbed study of her computer screen. A wonderful smile appeared on her lips. A quick look showed Callie an answering smile on Karen's face. Each smile was full of love and devotion for the other. Callie's heart squeezed in remembered pain at the loving smiles passing between the pair of elegantly clad women.
The unknown woman reached out to touch an identical sculpture which sat on her desk on the other side of the wall. As soon as she touched the sculpture, the chime stopped as the center section of the glass wall began to tip. Sliding downward until it came to rest, filling the low depression in the floor over the Zen Garden. Level with the rest of the floor it made a bridge over the sand and rocks. Apparently the sculptures were touch sensitive keys to open the drawbridge. The whole effect was pretty remarkable.
"I see you found her." The older woman said as soon as the glass wall stopped moving settling into position.
"Hah, she found me. I hope." Karen replied as she swiftly walked across the bridge.
Callie looked down at her feet as a pair of identical smiles were sent her way.
"Truly?" Wolfe's question made no sense to Callie.
"I hope," Karen said again as she wrapped one arm around behind the other woman embracing her. Her actions made Callie think that these women made love together.
"May I present Calla Lily Mee." Karen announced her with her real name. "Callie, I am pleased to introduce you to Maria Wolfe. CEO of GreenWood Investment Enterprises, Inc."
"Pleased to meet you Callie. Would you please come in and sit down?"
Wolfe's voice was similar to Karens but richer with more depth. As she spoke, a tingle buzzed up Callie's spine. She sent a piercing look toward Wolfe.
"Yes, I am the one who spoke to you." Wolfe assured her. "I was the one who asked Karen here to go talk to you." She caressed Karen's cheek with her last statement.
"Are you lovers?" Callie was aghast at her boldness to these strangers. She instantly covered her mouth with her hands. "Oops."
Karen laughed. "No. I'm married to a wonderful man. I also have an eight year old son. Maria and I have a; a shared bond, I guess you'd call it. It is love. But, not a love like what you're thinking. I would give my very life for her."
"And, I would return the gift unasked for." Wolfe's reply was just as powerful as it was evocative. "It is trust we have for, and with, each other. Not a tryst. Ours is not so lightly discarded."
"Oh. So, what do you want from me? Why am I really here?"
"Sit. Please." Wolfe gestured to one of the chairs. Karen sat delicately in a comfortable looking wing back chair next to Wolfe's desk looking at Callie once she was seated. Taking the hint, Callie perched herself in one of the low chairs in front of the desk. When she was seated, Wolfe also took her chair. Wolfe looked directly at Callie.
"Calla Lily Mee. Eldest daughter of Ohiro and Daniel Mee. Twenty two years old with four siblings. One older Brother, Henry Mee, three younger sisters, Tea Rose, Tulip, and Poppy. High school graduate. No college education. Recently the joint proprietress, along with your sister Tea Rose, of a new art studio named 'Asia'. Which I am just informed was destroyed in an arson related fire last night. My condolences for that misfortune. No known boyfriend or fiancé. Currently also a Martial Arts instructor in your spare time. Quite advanced. Or so I am lead to believe."
As Wolfe ran down the highlights of her life without even looking at anything to reference from, Callie became more and more tense. Her hands, running up and down her thighs, displaying her nervousness by her fidgeting.
"Who are you people? What do you want from me?" Callie's tension transmitted itself in her voice as she interrupted Wolfe.
Karen choked. She turned her head to the side covering her mouth with her fist. Wolfe touched Karen's arm gently. "Easy. She's just confused. That's making her feel scared. No reason for you to worry or get upset."
Turning back to Callie, Wolfe continued. "You are safe here. I promise this to you on my word and seal. No harm will come to you here."
"What do you want?"
"I, we, would like you to tell us what you discovered that made you call us. That's all."
"Why all the secrecy? Why investigate me?"
Wolfe laughed. "No secrets. Well, some secrets. But, that's just business related. Not consequential. As for the report, we had one made about you hoping we would know you better. Maybe that way, what you have to tell us will make more sense. You see, the number you called is known to only a very few people. It's my private number. Usually it's guarded very carefully. When you called it was a complete shock to everyone. Would you tell us how you found out about it? Please?"
"Oh. That makes sense. Ok." Callie began by relating the visit by Howell. When she mentioned Howell's name both women looked at each other.
"What?" She asked, stopping her narrative before she really even got started.
Wolfe waved her hand. "It's nothing. Please go on."
Callie looked at each of them in turn before continuing her story. She told them about the photograph of the tattoo. About seeing the red card in Howell's card case. After that she mentioned her sister had seen a picture of the tattoo at another place near some ratty club called "The Pit." So, they sent the cop there. He left, she went to get her hair cut. She saw that her brother, Henry, had another card just like the one the cop had.
"Just like? How did you know that?" Wolfe interrupted her narrative.
"I have perfect recall. Just like my sisters. Henry's not as good, but he's pretty close to perfect too. Every once in awhile he'll make a mistake, or forget something. We never do."
"Yes. Just from seeing the number on the card I have it memorized. I was so worried about Henry having a card like the dead guy's card that I got afraid. I called the number. I'm sorry. I didn't know it was private."
"No, no. It's fine. Good that you did. Go on."
Continuing to explain, Callie told them about how she had gone to the other tattoo shop. What she learned there had lead to her night time visit at 'The Pit'. Talking about that nearly made her feel contaminated again at the memory. Blech! She gave them the names she'd discovered. She didn't tell them about the fight with the three idiots by the car. That wasn't anything she needed to mention.
She almost skipped over the three wannabe toughs who threatened her while Violet was at her now destroyed tattoo studio. She included it because it involved Violet. Who had undoubtedly told them about it already.
"Paul told me if I needed any help he would be there. He said he had some friends who would be more than willing to come along if I wanted, or needed, them." Callie finished her story.
"Paul called her sister. In my presence." Karen told Wolfe calmly filling in the minor detail which Callie had left out.
"Marcus!" Wolfe's suddenly raised voice cracked like a whip making Callie flinch. There was authority in that voice.
A voice spoke from the intercom built in to the phone on the desk. "Yes Domna?"
That word again.
"Did you know Paul called Callie sister yesterday?" Wolfe seemed upset. Why? Callie had no idea.
"No Domna. I did not know. I would have reported it to you."
"Thank you. Please tell Paul he is on trash duty for the next three days beginning tomorrow. Two hours daily at the end of first shift."
"Yes Domna. I will also see if the report needs any other revisions."
"Marcus?" Karen followed up Wolfe's thanks with a question of her own. "How many people are in this room?"
"Uh, three?" The voice on the intercom was cautious.
Karen waited without speaking.
"Yes ma'am. I understand. My apologies for my failure. I will join Paul on trash duty. I will see if there is any other information you need to know."
Karen narrowed her eyes. Her next words were a low growl. "Would you like to try for collars and leashes?"
"Ma'am?" Marcus' voice was dismayed.
"We do not get reports filled with information you think we need to know. We get reports with ALL the information available. There is a distinction. One is an absolute failure of security which will require my personal attention to correct. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Dom...Ma'am. I hear and obey."
"Trash duty for two additional days Marcus. Dismissed."
The phone flashed a soft blue light. Karen reached over to pick it up even though it was Wolfe's desk rather than her own.
"Yes?" Karen asked softly into the mouthpiece. "All of them? Perfect? Yes, thank you Lainey."
Karen set the receiver back into its cradle. "Lainey says no errors or omissions. She double checked."
Wolfe smiled. "Knowing Lainey, she probably double checked her double check."
Karen gave her a matching smile. "Probably."
Callie sat still while this was going on. The insight into the world of movers and shakers was fascinating. It was obvious to her that the two women before her were definitely in that category. As an outsider, she had very little idea of what was happening. But, it was definitely fascinating.
Wolfe tapped a few keys on her keyboard. Karen looked on over Wolfe's shoulder. Both of them seemed to have forgotten Callie was there.
"Ok. We need to schedule that. Let me get my calendar." Karen walked out of the room to the other desk. Grabbing a flat book from the top of her desk she turned before she noticed Callie was still sitting in the chair opposite Wolfe. She looked appalled.
"Callie! I forgot you were here. Again. I am an idiot today. Please, forgive me. I am so sorry."
At her apology Wolfe quickly looked up also. "Please. Accept apologies from both of us. Today has been totally out of control. You've probably noticed we are short staffed right now. Neither of us intended to ignore you."
"No problem." Callie smoothly told them as she stood while Karen returned to the office. "I can show myself out. Henry can probably take me home from here."
"Oh no! You came at our invitation. We must deliver you home again. It is the least we can do for you." Karen set her book on the desk where it flopped open. Callie automatically glanced down. The book had all of Karen's appointments for the next week blocked out. It was none of her business. Quickly she averted her eyes.
Wolfe agreed with Karen. "Marcus, please have a car made available downstairs for Miss Callie's use. Wolfe seemed to be talking to thin air. Only Callie's recent experience with the disembodied voice over the intercom kept her from thinking it was weird. The only part that was weird was that there was no response. Nor did Wolfe or Karen seem to expect one.
The ride home was uneventful. Which was a miracle considering how the day had gone. Callie kept expecting to have to tell the driver where to turn but the car made the journey as if the driver had traveled the route many times before.
Pulling to a stop at the curb in front of the house, the driver once again opened the door for her.
"Thank you. I don't know your name, but thank you."
"It's Erik, Miss Callie." The driver bobbed his head at her.
"Well, thank you Erik. I appreciate it." Callie smiled at him.
"You're welcome Miss Callie. It was my pleasure to drive you."
Callie stood on the curb watching as the car pulled away. T Rose came out of the house to walk up behind her sister. Resting her chin over Callie's shoulder she gave Callie a big hug.
"Mama and Dad called. They'll be home next week. I told them everything is fine here. I didn't want them to worry about the fire."
Callie nodded distractedly. The limousine braked at the end of the block before turning to head back to GreenWood. For some reason she felt like running after the car yelling Come back! Come back! Please, come back! She didn't know why she felt that way either. It was confusing.
The next morning, Callie was washing the breakfast dishes when she glanced out the window. A long black car was parked at the curb with a man standing by the car looking at the house. Drying her hands on the front of her bathrobe Callie walked outside.
"Erik? What are you doing here?"
"Good morning Miss Callie. I was told to come collect you this morning."
"I don't know Miss Callie. I was just told to come collect you."
"Well, no one told me anything about it. Who told you to come get me?"
"It was on my trip assignment sheet when I reported for work this morning. My first trip of the day."
"You didn't make the mistake of using yesterday's trip sheet for today did you?"
"No Ma'am. I get a new one each morning. I'm supposed to collect you whenever you are ready. I'm supposed to deliver you to Miss Karen's office."
"Oh. Well, obviously I'm not dressed yet. It may take a bit before I'm ready to leave."
"I can wait Miss Callie. It's no problem." Erik was unfazed at her appearance and confusion.
"Would you like to come inside?" Callie gestured to the house. "I can get you some coffee or something."
"Thank you ma'am; I'm fine. I'll just stay with the car until you are ready to leave."
"All right. I'll be as quick as I can."
"Whenever you're ready Miss Callie, I'll be here."
Callie's sisters were waiting just outside the door to the house. She gave them an exaggerated shrug as she walked back up the driveway.
"He was told to come pick me up. He doesn't know why. I don't either."
"Are you going to go with him? Just like that?"
"No. I'm going to call Lainey. Maybe she knows what's going on." Callie dialed the phone with the number in Lainey's office. She'd looked at the phone so many times yesterday that she knew that one by heart already.
"Greenwood Investments." Lainey's voice over the phone was cool.
"Hi Lainey. It's Callie Mee."
"Good morning Miss Callie. Is there something I can help you with?"
"Um, Erik, my driver from yesterday is here. He says he's to pick me up this morning. No one told me anything yesterday. I thought I'd check with you about it."
"Oh those two!" Lainey's voice was exasperated. "I swear, sometimes they'd forget themselves if we didn't look out for them. Anyway, some new information came in overnight. Miss Karen and Maria would like to talk with you some more. If you would please, could you come to the office today? That is, unless you have other things that you need to do. If so we can set something up for later."
"I'll need to get dressed first My shop burned down yesterday so I have nothing to do anyway. I'll come in as soon as I can."
"I'm so sorry to hear that. However, I'll tell Miss Karen and Maria to expect you. Anything else?"
"No, I think that's it."
"Very well. I'll see you shortly then."
"Thank you Lainey."
"My pleasure Miss Callie." Lainey disconnected leaving Callie holding the phone with the dial tone humming in her ear.
Callie set the phone down before turning to her sisters. "Apparently something has come up and no one thought to ask me before sending a car. I'll have to meet with them again."
"Are you sure? It seems kinda dodgy to me." T Rose was skeptical.
Callie shrugged. "What choice do I have really? Lainey said it's legit. I'm the one who called them, remember? I'm sort of obligated to give them any help I can."
Callie took a quick shower. Once again she considered the clothes in her closet. Normally she'd wear jeans and a T shirt. Being around Violet, Karen and Maria yesterday had shown her that high society didn't wear jeans and T shirts to the office. Even Lainey wore nice outfits.
She didn't have anything except jeans to wear. Her leather pants would be so faux pas. Shorts were out of the question. But, she did have a pretty blue blouse she could wear. It would compliment the blue color wash Henry had done to her hair. Nor was it so dressy that it would look wrong with jeans.
If that wasn't good enough, then any snooty bitches could just take the lumps she'd give them if they said anything. She certainly wasn't wealthy enough to afford nicer clothes. Especially now that she owed her parents a ton of money she couldn't repay. Nor did she have any real reason to buy or wear stuff like that anyway. They'd just have to take her as she was.
A quick minimal application of makeup on her face finished her preparations. She grabbed her messenger bag before heading out the door. Erik was standing at the open door to the back of the limo waiting for her just like he said he would be. She gave him a sunny smile before she seated herself in the car.
Like yesterday, the car stopped to let her into the elevator from the underground garage. As the lift stopped on the second floor the doors opened. Callie stepped into the upstairs lobby. Going left, she walked down the corridor, turned right and stopped. The chairs outside Karen's office were empty. Looking over her shoulder she doubled checked her memory to be sure that she was in the right place. Everything matched the images in her mind from yesterday. Except the door guards being gone. Shrugging she opened the door to step inside. If she was in the wrong place someone would let her know.
Lainey was on the phone again. Her desk was piled with more files and papers. She waggled her fingers in welcome to Callie. A couple of moments later Lainey hung up the phone.
"Miss Callie, I'm sorry. An emergency came up at a construction project we're involved with. Both Miss Karen and Maria were needed on site. They left just after you called. They said they'd be back as soon as they could. Miss Karen asked me to ask you to please wait for them. They really do need to talk to you."
"Do you know what it's about?"
"No. Sorry. I don't always get told everything. You can see they both are very busy. I'm sorry that you had to come all this way for nothing."
"Oh Lainey, I'm more than happy to visit with you."
Lainey glanced at her desk as her phone chirped for her attention. "Oh, this is a call I've been waiting for. Excuse me."
Callie sat at the other desk watching Lainey handle the calls that came in seemingly rapid fire. As she watched, she noticed that a stack of papers on the desk had a note that said 'scan and file' on it. Looking she saw a copier/scanner in a small alcove. Checking she saw that she could scan the papers, then, push a few buttons to send them to Lainey's desktop.
Grabbing the stack of papers she inserted them into the feed hopper of the copier to begin to scan them. Lainey was horrified.
"Oh hush. You're busy. I'm not doing anything anyway. If someone doesn't help you, you're going to get buried under a mountain of paper. No one will ever see you again."
"But . . ."
"No buts. Honestly, I want to help out. You guys really need to find someone to help you though."
Lainey sighed. "We try but no one's interested or they aren't capable. The job is harder than it looks."
"This isn't hard."
"That isn't. There are other aspects which are much more difficult. Things which require a certain degree of tact and ability. Not everyone can do it. If they can't it tends to make the clients and vendors upset. Which costs us."
Before Callie could reply, Lainey's phone rang again. "Greenwood Investments!"
While Lainey talked on the phone jotting notes on her pad, Callie finished with the scans. She hit the buttons that sent them to Lainey's computer. Placing the papers into a file folder she set the folder in the wire basket labeled 'Outgoing' on Lainey's desk. Task completed. Seating herself at the other desk she swivelled the chair to look at her painting on the wall.
Before Lainey's call ended the phone rang again. Lainey covered the mouthpiece on her receiver. "Can you get that? It's probably just someone with a message like yesterday. Please? It's Miss Karen's line."
"Sure." Callie lifted the receiver stabbing at the lighted button. "Greenwood Investments!" Callie mimicked Lainey's phone greeting. It sounded better than her simple 'Hello' from yesterday.
"No, sorry. She's not in the office. No. She's not available at all. May I take a message for her? I'm sure that she'll get back to you. Excuse me, can you hold one moment please?"
Callie hit the hold button. "It's a Mr. Holmesman. He wants to make an appointment to see Karen."
"Oh! I can't take it. I'm on long distance. She's been waiting for him to call. It's a multi-million dollar contract." Lainey quickly told Callie before returning to her own telephone conversation.
"Ok. I know her schedule. Do you want me to set something when she's open?"
"Are you sure? You can always ask to call him back. He might agree to that."
"No. I'm sure. She's got an opening on Thursday at four."
"Yes. I accidentally saw her day planner yesterday. If I'm wrong she can always reschedule him or move someone else. If it's that important..."
"It's really important. Go ahead if you're positive."
Callie nodded that she was certain. She returned to the call. "Mr. Holmesman? Yes. I just checked her schedule. She's got an opening on Thursday at four pm. If you'd like to schedule a meeting for that time I can add it to her calendar. No, there's nothing earlier. She's just not available this week before Thursday.
"Ok. I'll schedule for then. I'll send a confirming email if you give me an email address. Thank you. See you Thursday at four pm." Callie hung up. She started jotting notes on the tablet in the drawer.
"Oh. Don't do that. It takes too long. Here, let me set you up a user profile on the system. You can just enter it into her schedule yourself." Lainey was adamant as she hit a few keys sending an application to the tablet over their internal network.
"Just enter a password where it tells you. The app will open automatically. You can access the server once it does."
"Lainey. You don't any have authorization for that. You'll get in trouble."
"Oh posh. You're helping me. The least I can do is make it easier. No one will mind. Any help that speeds things up will be appreciated. Trust me."
"Ok. If you say so." Callie concentrated on entering the data onto the tablet. She didn't see Lainey's lips quirk momentarily in satisfaction.
Callie's stomach rumbled causing Lainey to look up. "Oh my goodness! Look at the time. I can't believe you've been waiting all this while."
Callie rubbed her temples. "I haven't actually been waiting."
"Oh. I am so ashamed of myself. Please, excuse me for taking advantage of you. I appreciate your help so much. It's just that..."
"...we work together really well." Callie finished Lainey's sentence for her and grinned. Lainey smiled back.
"Honestly Lainey, I didn't, and don't, mind. It's kinda been fun." Callie's stomach rumbled again.
"Sorry." Callie apologized as she put her hand on her stomach in response to the growling.
The outer door opened. A delivery man came into their little office area.
"Excuse me, I have a delivery for GreenWood. They sent me here." The delivery man looked around the office curiously.
"Who sent you here?" Lainey's question was quick.
"The guys on the loading dock. Around back. I have a delivery. He looked down at the clipboard he was carrying. For GreenWood Housekeeping from Showtime Apparel."
"Oh. The dresses are finally here!" Lainey jumped up. "Yes, yes, bring them in. Callie, there's a closet in the office right behind the door." Lainey pointed at Karen's inner door. "We can put the dresses there."
The delivery driver pulled a wheeled rack into the office. Hanging on the rack were several dresses on hangers, everything was covered in plastic wrap. There were a couple of dozen dresses in all colors and styles. Callie opened the door, automatically stopping the delivery man from entering Karen's private domain.
"The rack's not going to fit. Let me take them. I can hang them up." Callie held up her hands.
"You sure?" The driver asked her carefully. "I'm pretty sure I can get the rack inside."
"No. It'll be easier if I just take them, I can hang them in the closet. Lainey can sign off on the delivery while I do that. It won't take but a moment."
Callie lifted several dresses from the rack. Opening Karen's door she walked into the office. Closing the door she saw the closet Lainey mentioned. Inside the closet door she was astounded to find several more dresses on hangars there. Pushing them aside, she hung the ones she carried next to the others. Two more armfuls was all it took before the driver was pushing his rolling rack out the door. Callie carefully hung the last of the clothes. Lainey came in behind her catching her caressing one beautiful silk gown in pale yellow. The cloth was woven with a Jacard pattern of delicate flowers interspersed with paisley swirls.
"It's beautiful." Lainey said as she came up behind Callie. She began to rub Callie's upper arms companionably. "They do fantastic work."
"Why are there so many?" Callie indicated the now overstuffed closet.
"Well, some of these are Miss Karen's. She has to look the part when she has meetings or her other appointments. We keep a stock of clothes on hand for her so she always looks fresh. Those are the ones on the right there. Maria has some for herself in a closet in her office too."
"Who are the others for?"
"Sometimes one of the guests, at the Inn, needs something special to wear to a party or event. They ask the concierge, who sends them one of these. Or a suit. It's part of the service they get as Club Members."
"The GreenWood Country Club. We're the holding company that manages the club for them and a few others. It's what we do here. You know that already after this morning."
"Oh!" Callie made the connection. "That's what most of the calls were about."
"Yes. They have us manage their clubs because we're really good at doing that. From conception through implementation to functional management. In exchange we get a slice of their pie. A very big slice." Lainey grinned wickedly.
Callie sighed fingering the dress. Some lucky woman was going to wear it someday. It was so pretty. Lainey reached to take the dress down from the rod. She held it in front of Callie.
"You'd look good in this. The color and cut are fine enough for you. It's a size six. You look like a size six. Try it on. Let's see how it looks on you."
"Lainey, I can't! They're for the members."
"Oh Posh! No one is going to know you're not a member. Let's see what you look like in it. It'll be fun! Change. Come out when you're ready. I'll be at my desk." Lainey shoved the dress into Callie's arms. She quickly left, closing the door behind her with a soft bump.
Callie stood there with the dress in her arms. This couldn't be happening. People didn't just tell you to get dressed in clothes that weren't yours. Right? Especially not clothes like the dress she was holding. It was very surreal.
"I'm waiting." Lainey's voice carried through the door. Callie could hear the smile in her happy tones. Making up her mind Callie kicked off her shoes before she began to slide out of her pants.
Callie modeled the dress for Lainey in the outer office. Lainey wasn't satisfied with the yellow. She said it was too large in the bust. Callie sort of agreed because it was cut for someone with a larger cup size than she had. But, it was so beautiful she didn't want to take it off.
Callie closed her eyes, making a big wish. Opening them she looked down. Nope, not happening. There is no justice in the world. So much for wishes.
Lainey grabbed her hand marching them both back into Karen's office. Lainey sorted through the remaining dresses on the rack.
"There should be a five-six in here. Oh, here it is." Lainey held up a dress that could only be described as The little black dress of little black dresses. "Take that off and try this one on. Come on."
Lainey gestured with the dress. Suddenly, Callie felt shy. She blushed over her uncertainty of what was happening or wanted of her.
"Deary, I'm old enough to be your granny." Lainey was sweetly caring about Callie's embarrassment. "I've seen it, done it, and forgotten about most of it. So come on, let's get you changed. I think this one will fit you better."
"Lainey, maybe I'd better just get dressed again."
"What? You want to look like a tomboy? Don't you like the dress?"
"Oh no. The dress is beautiful. It's just . . ."
"Just what? It's new. It's supposed to be worn. It'll fit you, I'm sure. What's the problem?"
"It's not mine."
"That again? I told you. These belong to the company. I can decide who wears them. I decided today you get to be the lucky girl. So, take that one off and try this one on."
"You're sure?" Callie really wanted to try on the dress, but was reluctant to cause trouble.
"Sweety, I've never been so sure of anything in my entire life. Let's get to it."
Callie stepped out of the yellow dress to stand in her underwear. Lainey slid the black one over her head. It too was silk. Rather than being smooth like the yellow Jacard, it had a nubbly texture. Sleeveless, it had a small diamond shaped keyhole neckline below a single button closing the mandarin collar. The hem was slash cut across her thighs. Higher on the right at mid thigh it barely touched the outside of her knee on the left. It was accented with a dark blue braid sewn along every edge. It fit like it was tailored for her.
"Oh, that's much better. Wait here, it still needs something. I'll be right back." Lainey swept out of the inner office. Callie caressed the fabric, feeling the tiny irregular bumps under her hands. Lainey came back in with a velvet box. In the box were rows of tiny pearl earrings.
"Here. Try these." She held up a pair. Callie stepped backwards as Lainey reached for her.
"Lainey . . ."
"Stand still." Lainey mumbled around the earring back she'd placed between her lips. She reached for Callie's ear. Gently pinching Callie's ear Lainey pushed the stud of the earring through the pierced lobe then fastening the back in place. Bending she quickly did the other side, stepping back to look at her handiwork when finished.
"There! Oh my goodness! Don't you look pretty? There's no mirror in here. Come on out into the front office. I'll take your picture so you can see yourself. Wait! Shoes! Shoes. You need shoes."
Lainey bent to begin rooting through the floor of the closet. Straightening, she held up two pairs of black shoes. One in shiny patent leather with 4 inch heels. The other in a soft comfy looking nubuck leather with slightly lower heels. Holding up first one pair then the other Lainey squinted her eyes and considered.
"These I think." She held out the nubuck pair. Callie just looked at her. Lainey wiggled them expectantly while giving Callie a look. Sighing to herself, Callie took the shoes, slipping them on her feet.
"Perfect. Come, let's get a picture so you can see yourself." Lainey grabbed her hand before towing her into the outer office.
Callie was beginning to feel like a caboose as Lainey dragged her around the office and reception area. She posed Callie in front of her painting taking several pictures of her with it in the background.
"Oh, these are fantastic. Here, see?"
Callie looked at the images. "Wow! That's what I look like?" Callie looked down at herself wiggling her toes in the new shoes.
"Honey, them pictures aren't even close to the real thing. You want me to text them to you? You can show them to your sisters."
"You'd better. Otherwise they won't believe it." Callie's stomach rumbled again. Louder.
Lainey fussed with her cell phone a moment. "There! That did it. Now, I distinctly heard that someone sounds really hungry. Let's go get some lunch." At Callie's embarrassed look she added; "My treat. Please? Humor me. I don't get to visit with tattoo artists that often. In fact, I think you're the first one I've ever met. You can tell me all about it."
Lainey grabbed her hand again. Yep. Definitely a caboose.
Lunch was the equivalent of a roller coaster ride, beginning when Lainey took Callie downstairs to the GreenWood Country Club restaurant. They were seated in a private area which Lainey told her was the employee section. They were given menus by a girl in a red jacket who smiled at Callie. She called Lainey by name.
Callie looked, but there were no prices on the menu.
"Uh, Lainey." Callie began.
"Don't worry dear. It's on the company. It's a benefit that comes with the job. Just order what you want."
"I'm not really hungry. Water is fine." Callie's stomach rumbled again in contradiction of her claim.
Lainey put down her menu, squinting her eyes at Callie. "I heard that. I heard it the other times too. Do not tell me you aren't hungry."
"Lainey, I can't. I don't have any money. I lost everything in the fire. I'm broke." Callie was so mortified she couldn't lift her eyes from the table.
"Callie? Honey? Look at me." Lainey's voice was soft. "Please?"
Callie looked up, her eyes burning from her embarrassment.
"I told you, the company is paying. You worked this morning. You earned this. It's not charity. I know you're hungry too. So, order something. Please?"
"I was just helping you. I didn't expect anything for doing that. I'm not an employee. I'm not entitled to company benefits."
"Hmm. Let me see." Lainey began ticking items off on her fingers. "You worked with me all morning. You have unlimited access to Miss Karen's private office. You can be in her and Maria's presence without her escort also being present. You have a company computer tablet. You are logged on with full user privileges on the company server network. You know Miss Karen's appointment schedule by heart. You set appointments for her without consulting her. Security knows who you are, they passed you into the building without challenge. You are a nice person to be around. Maria and I both like you. Finally, you're even wearing company provided clothes.
"From where I'm sitting, it sure looks and sounds like you're an employee. So, if it walks like a duck, sounds like a duck, and looks like, well a swan in your case, it must be a duck."
"But, it's not real. I'm not an employee. You know that. These aren't my clothes. They belong to the concierge, whoever that is. There wasn't a job interview. I didn't apply for anything. No one hired me. I'm not qualified for any position here anyway. Except being a bathroom attendant. Maybe not even that. Karen doesn't need any help from someone like me. I'm a nobody."
Lainey looked over Callie's shoulder. "Are you sure about that? Because I'm positive you're wrong. So is she."
Callie froze as a hand rested gently on her shoulder.
"There was an application, you applied three times. There was an interview, you were found acceptable as a candidate. There were tests to see if you were willing. To see if you wanted something strongly enough to reach for it without waiting to see if it would be given to you. To see if you were trustworthy. To see if you would respect the things you were entrusted with. To see if you would reveal the secrets you discovered. You did not fail any of these tests. And, to me, you are not a nobody. You are special."
Callie looked up to see Karen standing above her.
"There is one more test." Karen tugged at Callie's arm to get her to rise.
Callie stood before slowly turning around. As she did so, Karen stepped away. Callie immediately saw Karen was unaccompanied by her escort of guards. Which was weird given her ultra security paranoia.
"This is Master Young." Karen told Callie while pointing at a man in a gray coverall standing at the next table. He was carrying a baseball bat.
Raising her voice Karen addressed the man in the coverall. "Master Young. This is my arm." Karen held out her bare arm.
"By my Word and Seal, you have two minutes to break it, starting from when I say begin."
Callie gasped. "Karen . . ."
Master Young swung the bat.
Callie moved without thinking. She kicked to block the swinging bat. Ow! The impact with her foot told her that Master Young wasn't pulling his swings at all. He wasn't stopping with one swing either!
Callie blocked and blocked and blocked. Each swing she kept away from Karen jarred her legs and arms. Master Young was still coming at them.
"If you don't stop him, he is going to hurt me." Karen's voice was soft in her ears.
"Then run away!" Callie growled at her as she continued to block each swing of the bat.
"I cannot. I will not. You must stop him. No one else can."
"Karen," Callie gasped between blocks. "Run!"
"No. You must stop him. You. There is no one else."
The next swing nearly got through her defense. The one after that did get through. Slamming into her shoulder before she could deflect it upwards where it barely missed her face. She was getting tired. Her breathing was just a gasp. Her heart was hammering from the exertion and adrenaline overload. And now her arm was injured, putting her at a huge disadvantage in the fight.
Besides sucking a big one, a purely defensive strategy is a losing strategy in the long run anyway. That's enough of this shit. Callie told herself, immediately launching her attack.
As a woman, Callie's most powerful muscle were in her legs. As a trained fighter, Callie knew how to best use her strength against an opponent. She was more than willing to do that if necessary. Her competition trophies proved it. Though this wasn't any sort of competition. This was about as real as real could get!
Blocking the next swing she stepped inside the arc, hammering her heel into Master Young's thigh. The look of shock on his face as the spiked heel of her borrowed shoe punched it's way into his thigh like a knife was unexpected. The sucking sound as she pulled her foot back made her feel sick.
Ewww. She was going to need new shoes after this. No matter. She wasn't going to let her queasiness stop her from protecting Karen. Levering another kick she slammed her foot into the side of his knee causing it to buckle. Another kick to his ribs as he raised the bat one more time. Callie felt ribs crack under her foot. How's that for a little payback, eh?
Callie hammered at Master Young. Punching and kicking, she forced Master Young to drop the bat. Empty handed, he lunged at Karen. Callie swept his feet out from under him. She dropped and rolled to come up with the bat ready to swing. She was between Young and Karen. Her lips peeled back to show her teeth. Now who has the advantage?
"Stop!" Karen's voice rang out.
At the command Master Young rolled onto his back on the carpeting. He was holding his ribs with both arms. His leg was bleeding where Callie's heel had spiked it. The puncture wound looked deep. He would need some medical attention for it. His knee and ribs too. Callie grinned nastily at that thought.
Breathing in heavy rasps, she continued to stand ready with the bat until Karen's hand touched her on the shoulder. Callie sucked in a quick shallow breath at the pain from the crushed muscles under Karen's hand. No matter, she held her stance. Ready.
"Thank you Callie. The test is over. You can put the bat down now."
Callie indicated Young. "He can still get up."
Young started to laugh. He gasped as his ribs objected. "Little sister, I would not get up again even if the world was ending. I surrender. Can I get a little help here somebody?"
Gray coverall clad attendants materialized out of thin air. At least that's what it looked like to Callie. As they swarmed over Master Young, Callie let the bat droop and glanced around. Lainey still sat at the table. Her eyes were huge at what she had just witnessed.
Callie continued to turn until she met Karen's eyes. "Why?"
"Because I needed to know and there was no other way. Had you not stopped him, my arm would be shattered. Possibly I may have been hurt even worse than that."
"But WHY?" Callie's voice was a snarl. "You could have run. You should have run. I don't understand. Why did you just stand there? In danger. He would have hit you. Hurt you. I couldn't let him do that. I would not let him do that. Not to you. So why?"
"Because trust goes both ways." Karen's eyes were locked on Callie's as she held out her hand.
"Calla Lily Mee, I swear by my word and seal that I will protect you from harm from within and without. To care for your welfare to the fullest extent of my power and authority. I swear to never abuse you, harm you, or unfaithfully or uncaringly cast you aside. I swear to do this regardless of the personal cost or pain I must bear to uphold this promise.
"In return, I ask only that you use your skills to keep me from harm. To protect what is mine. To keep safe those I love and cherish. To keep my secrets. To answer only to me and no other. Will you accept me?"
Callie looked at Karen's outstretched hand. Did she know what she was asking for from Callie. Because it certainly sounded like servitude. Or did it? Thinking about it, it actually sounded more like Karen was offering herself instead of asking Callie to submit to some kind of weird slavery thing. It was almost like the pledge Callie had made to her sensei so long ago. Almost, except it seemed backward somehow.
"Who are you? What do you want from me?" Callie remembered asking Karen that very question just the day before.
"She is someone who needs you. Someone who has the right and authority to order anyone here to try to kill her in the hope that you will care enough about her to prevent that from happening." Violet drifted into view just to Karen's left.
Callie flicked her eyes to Violet and then back to Karen. There was something in Karen's face. Something familiar in the way she just looked at Callie. Waiting. Not asking. Not demanding. Not anything. Just waiting. For Callie to choose? Choose what? When?
It hit her. Her sensei had said something when she was making her first vows to karate. That choices never lasted or something like that. His face had looked just like Karen's did now. That calm waiting. Because not only was the choice of yes or no Callie's decision alone; not choosing could also be her choice. And, he would respect that decision as well, though any offer he made to her would be withdrawn. Possibly forever.
"Please say yes." Violet's soft whisper carried a lot of hope in it. "I don't know if I could take it if you said no. The suspense is giving me stomach cramps. Uh." Violet bent over cradling her belly. "See?"
"Violet, those aren't cramps, you're in labor!" Karen dropped her outstretched hand. She whirled to grab at Violet.
"Oh. Is that what it is? I think I need to sit down or something." Violet began to sit down when a gush of water flowed onto the floor from between her legs. "Oh no! The baby is coming too soon." Violet began panting quickly.
"It's ok love. There's an ambulance standing by. Would someone have them come up here please? The rest of you need to get out before they get here." Karen soothed Violet while giving orders.
It was pandemonium. Master Young's ribs were broken. He couldn't walk because of his knee and thigh. He couldn't even be carried until his ribs were at least taped up. The attendants working on him were focused on getting his bleeding thigh bandaged first. Once they had that done they had him carefully sit in a chair at another table while they wrapped his ribs with a roll of pink self stick bandage. They were still wrapping when the ambulance crew got there.
Confused they stopped.
"Uh, we're supposed to be here for a pregnant woman?"
"I'm over here." Violet waved at them. "My water broke already."
The two EMT's changed course heading toward Violet.
"What about him?" The one in the rear asked while looking at Master Young.
"He slipped and hit the edge of the planter there. I'm in charge of the restaurant floor in this area. I was coming over to see what happened. I guess I ran too quickly to get here. That caused me to go into labor." Violet explained.
"You want me to look at him?"
"We got it." The attendants who were taping Young's ribs waved him off. "We'll take him to the hospital. It's an industrial accident."
Violet groaned distracting the ambulance crew. Quickly they transferred her from the chair onto the gurney where they took her vital signs. They hooked her up to a machine that monitored her heartbeat. Done, they began to wheel her to their waiting ambulance.
"Wait!" Callie ran up to the gurney. Leaning over she looked into Violet's eyes to whisper.
Violet's sudden beaming smile was cut off by another contraction. It flashed back on instantly after the pain subsided. Callie patted her hand nodding to the attendants that she was finished. The attendants began to roll Violet away once again. Callie watched them until they were out of sight.
Karen walked over and stood next to Callie.
"What did you tell her?"
"I said yes."
"You did?" Karen was suddenly delighted. Laughing she hugged Callie, kissing her repeatedly. "You mean it? Really? Hah! I finally found you. Finally! Mine!" She crowed and laughed.
"I'm not going to sleep with you." Callie managed to get that out past all the kisses.
Karen laughed some more. "No. No. I'm not a lesbian. You don't have to sleep with me. I promise."
"Good." Callie grunted out past more hugs before shoving Karen back to the end of her arms. "And, if you ever disobey me when I tell you run again I will personally spank you until your butt is so sore you won't sit down for three days. Understand?"
"Oooo, so scary." Karen ran a careful fingertip across Callie's lips.
"I'll do it." Callie promised her.
Callie grinned and kissed her. "Every freaking day."
Karen laughed again. "I promise to love you, to care for you, to be there if you need me. I promise. Because you are mine."
"I promise to love you, to care for you, to be there even if you don't need me. Because you are mine to cherish and protect." Callie bumped her forehead into Karen's as they stood with their arms intertwined. "I promise."
Callie and Karen decided to wait in Karen's office for news from the hospital that Violet had delivered her baby. Both of them hoped she and the baby would be ok. Karen called Dominick, Violet's husband. He rushed to the delivery room to be with Violet during her labor.
Going back upstairs with Karen, Callie had begun to sit at what she felt was her desk. Karen stopped in the middle of opening the door to her office. She looked over her shoulder at Callie.
"Your place is with me. Anywhere I go, you go. If I need privacy for a special reason, I will tell you. Unless I do, you and I are together. Always."
Karen held out her hand to Callie as she spoke. Callie twined her fingers with Karen's. Wolfe briefly looked up as they entered noticing their interlocked fingers. She went back to tapping keys and staring at her computer screen without speaking. Though she did smile to herself.
Inside the office Karen gave Callie a file to read while she began to study her computer screen. Callie sat in a wingback chair next to the desk flipping through the file quickly. The name on the file was Los Perros.
Reading the contents of the file folder, Callie suddenly laughed.
"The Dogs? They named their club The Dogs? What a bunch of morons. No wonder they were so stupid when they came to the shop. All bark no bite, until after I left to go home. Then they came back in the middle of the night just to crap in my yard. Assholes."
Karen drew a small frown for Callie's benefit to let her know that profanity wasn't de rigeur.
"So, what now?" Callie asked giving the file back. She did not miss the frown.
"For now, we watch. We wait. We attend to business. Speaking of such, Your dress is torn."
Callie looked down at her dress. Aghast she saw that one side seam had torn several inches up from the bottom at the hemline. It was probably ripped during the fight. Fingering the tear she nodded.
Karen chuckled. "Don't be. It can be fixed. We will have to make sure that your other clothing allows you to move without tearing it." Picking up a gold rectangle from her desk Karen continued. "We may as well take care of that detail now."
Karen lead Callie out of the office. They went downstairs to the mall. As they walked along the pedestrian concourse, most of the people did what Violet had called the stare-at-Karen-thing. A bold few ventured to say or nod hello. Karen smiled hello's back then suddenly crowed in happiness.
"You have no idea how much I missed being able to do this!" Karen opened her arms pirouetting in a circle as they walked.
"Do what?" Callie noted that several nearby men in suits instantly froze to watch Karen intently when she raised her arms. They only resumed what they had been doing when Karen did nothing except pirouette. Weird.
"Just to be able to walk around in public. Be in public. Without causing a scene or making people run away." Karen grabbed Callie's hand bumping Callie's shoulder with her own. Giggling like a school girl she whispered. "Thank you Callie."
"For coming into my life. For setting me free again."
"It was my pleasure." Callie grinned back at Karen. "I'm still not going to sleep with you."
"Silly goose." At that Karen had walked ahead leaving Callie behind.
Callie watched Karen walk. She tried to imitate her. Callie stretched her legs trying to swing her hips like Karen did, but within a few steps she knew that it was wasn't working. Quitting, she tried again in a different way. She failed that way too. Her body just didn't move the way Karen's did comfortably. Giving up, for now, she skipped ahead to lock elbows with Karen.
"Where are we going?"
"To Marco's." Karen held up the golden rectangle. "I have been summoned for a fitting for a new outfit."
Karen lead Callie into a women's fashion store next to Henry's day spa. Callie hadn't ever been in the store because she knew from looking in the widow she'd never be able to afford anything in there. When Karen opened the door Callie hesitated slightly. Karen clamped their elbows together to pull her inside.
Leading the way between the racks of expensive clothes, Karen opened a door marked 'Employees Only'. She went in as if she owned the place. Callie was dragged in behind her before the door closed on its own.
"Marco!" Karen called out loudly while dropping the golden rectangle on the large flat cutting table that took up most of the room.
Letting go of Callie's arm, Karen toed off her shoes before stepping up onto a low round platform in the middle of the room. Reaching behind she unzipped her dress, shrugging it off of her shoulders to push it down past her hips. Stepping out of the dress she folded it, holding it out to Callie.
Callie was stunned! Karen's body was beautiful. Oh, so, beautiful. And naked. Completely, totally, naked as she held out her clothes for Callie to take.
"Be a dear and hang this for me?" Karen nodded toward a rack and gestured with the folded dress she'd just taken off.
"Karen!" Callie reached for the dress trying to push it back to Karen. "What are you doing?"
"I told you, I'm here for a fitting." Raising her voice again Karen called a second time. "Marco! Where are you?"
"Coming, coming." A bald man backed through another door into the room. He was carrying a bulky looking white shrouded bundle in his arms. Callie tried to shield Karen from his view with both the dress and her body when he came in. Karen pushed her away pointing to the dress rack for Callie to hang her clothes on.
The man saw Callie when he turned around. He stopped and asked; "Who are you?"
"She's my new assistant." Karen told him. When she spoke, the man transferred his attention from Callie to Karen, who pointed at the bundle in the man's arms. "Is that for me?"
"Oh. Yes." The man went to the long table placing the bundle on it.
"Callie, this is Marco. He is my couture designer." Karen introduced them to each other. "Or, I am his model. I'm not sure which. I'm not even sure he knows which either."
"Karen! You're naked!"
Karen laughed a low chuff. "Silly, he makes my clothes. How can I try them on if I'm wearing clothes already?"
"But, he's a man. And, you're naked. You don't even have any underwear on."
Karen just grinned while she held out her arms for the dress Marco had pulled out of the white enshrouding muslin that had protected it.
"Step in." Marco told her.
Taking the dress, Karen held it low to step into it. She let Marco help her into the lacy looking sleeves. Marco pulled the rest of the outfit up over Karen's body.
"Fat cow. Fatter than even last month." Marco lightly patted Karen's butt. "Eat less. Exercise more."
Callie felt insulted for Karen's sake. She was not fat. Or a cow. And, if that man slapped her on her ass again, Callie would slap him back if Karen didn't.
"I am sorry Marco. I've gained a whole pound this month. I try to do as you say. You know how it is when a woman gets older and her metabolism slows down." Karen's voice sounded plaintive over her practically nonexistent weight gain.
"Humph. I may have to let out all seams. So fits proper." Marco moved Karen's hair out of the way, zipping up the back of the dress.
As the zipper went up, Karen breathed in lifting her chest. The cloth of the dress shaped itself as her breasts fitted into the built in cups of the bodice. The zipper went all the way up her spine to her neck.
It was beautiful. The majority of the dress was dark green with pastel green lace sleeves and shoulders above the bust line. It fitted Karen's form like it was made for her. Which it obviously was. The colors highlighted Karen's silver hair. Enhancing her already beautiful face and figure. The length barely touched the tops of her knees. It was very conservatively cut. Very business-ish.
Karen looked down at herself. "Can you add a slit for me?"
Marco looked up at her from where he was sticking pins in the back of the dress.
"I'm going to start wearing my ball again."
Marco nodded going back to his pinning. "Do you want change to others you have?"
"No. I just think I'd like to have this one with a slit. That's all. If that's ok with you."
"I think about."
Contrary to what he said about letting the seams out, Marco continued to tuck fabric behind pins to pull the dress tighter. He pushed up on the fabric of the top. He pressed on Karens bust repeatedly with his hands and fingers. Callie could see that Karen was not upset by his handling of her body, nor did either of them seem to be getting excited or turned on.
Marco had Karen bend and reach. He adjusted some of the pins before having her repeat the movements. When he was satisfied, he lifted a padded stool onto the platform to have her sit. Karen primly lowered herself onto the stool.
"No, no, no. How many times I tell you; no flop down or rip seams out. Then, I have to fix. Already too much work to spend time fixing. Stand up now."
Karen turned her face toward Callie. She winked as she stood up from the stool. Marco moved a few pins before telling her to sit again.
"No collapse like empty sack." Marco's warning came with a glare.
Karen smiled while silkily pulling her hair out from behind her neck. She let it lay across her shoulder and breast while she sat slowly onto the stool keeping her back ramrod straight. Smoothing her hair one last time, she settled her hands in her lap to slowly rotate her head until she faced Marco.
"Better. If you practice might learn sit properly. Eventually. Maybe."
"Yes Marco. I will try. Very hard." Karen bowed her head as if chastised.
"Good. Now, off." Marco gestured.
Karen stood to let Marco unzip her. She presented each arm to him. He pulled the tight sleeves off her arms before she stepped out of the dress. Karen handed it back to him, once again completely nude.
Callie was surprised at how nonchalant Karen was about her nudity in front of a man who had just seemingly mauled her body. Giving Karen the dress she'd been wearing when they arrived Callie wondered if Karen had always been like that, or, maybe she liked being fondled in public.
"Oh, Marco." Karen spoke as Callie zipped her up. "Callie's dress needs modified. Callie dear, step up here so Marco can see you."
Karen pulled Callie up onto the small stage with her. Karen lifted the hem of Callie's dress to show Marco the torn seam. Marco looked at the tear, then up at Karen.
"She tore it fighting. It doesn't fit correctly. Or, let her move properly. She must be able to move, and fight, without restriction in her clothes."
"I not make clothes for gymnastics." Marco's voice was flat.
"I know Marco. Think of the challenge. She needs this to protect me."
Marco humphed again. He had Callie demonstrate some of the extensions she would be making if she were fighting. When she did a high kick he asked her to do it so many times she was soon breathing hard unable to jump.
"Is too fast. I cannot see."
"I can hold full extension if someone will hold my foot." Callie offered as she panted.
"I can do that." Karen volunteered.
Callie positioned Karen's hands up higher than her head. "I will kick at you. Don't worry I won't be putting any power into it, but, it might still sting. Just hold your hands steady. When my foot touches you, just stay in contact to balance me. Ok?"
Karen nodded. Callie kicked just hard enough to leverage her leg upward to full extension. Karen caught her foot. Holding it while Callie balanced herself on one leg. Marco walked around looking at Callie's positioning. Thoughtfully he poked at her while lifting her skirt. Callie squeaked. She tried to jump back pulling her foot out of Karen's hands. Marco threw up his arms in disgust.
"Callie! NO!" Karen scolded her.
"But... He... It's just... I mean..." Callie was unable to complete her sentences.
"No! He needs to touch you. To see what he needs to do to make your clothes better."
"Is not clothes. I need see her." Marco gestured to Callie's hips and legs. "Is better off."
"Off?" Karen asked. Marco nodded.
"Ok. Callie, strip."
"What?" Callie stepped back.
"Take off the dress. He needs to see your body."
"No." Callie's voice was flat. Her brown eyes became edged in brittle looking glass.
"Callie, he needs to be able to see your body so he can correct the design." Karen explained carefully while Marco nodded in agreement.
Karen sighed. "Callie, if I can stand here with absolutely nothing on while he calls me a fat cow, slaps my butt, and fondles me repeatedly while not thinking or doing anything about it; you can certainly stand there in your underwear while he looks at your positioning to take measurements."
"But..." Callie wavered from her total denial.
"Callie, no one is going to hurt you here. No one is going to take advantage of you here. No one is going to force you to do anything you don't want to do here. Nothing is going on here that is not proper.
"Marco is a dressmaker. Nothing more than that except that he is a very close friend, very talented, and a very nice person. So, let's let him see how you move without the dress being in the way." Karen moved forward to lightly touch Callie's shoulders to undo the button below her collar.
Callie immediately brushed Karen's hands away. The brittle look returned to her eyes.
Karen stopped. She blinked a couple of times. "Oh crap! How could I be so stupid? Are you a virgin? It's ok if you are. Really. We can find some other way if that's the problem. I just didn't think."
Callie hung her head shaking it no.
"Well then... Come on. If that's not the problem, then let's get this off of you so he can see how to make you even more wonderful than you are."
Callie shyly let Karen unbutton and slide the dress off. Once undressed Callie couldn't stop herself. Once more she blushed over her nakedness. The red flush from her embarrassment completely covering her face and chest while she stood there in just her white cotton underwear and bra. Her hands shielding her private parts she stood in place looking at the floor.
Karen noticed her blush. Tipping Callie's face up with a gentle finger Karen intentionally did not lean in to kiss Callie. Nor did she make any move that could be misconstrued as an advance, sexual or otherwise, toward Callie in her embarrassment.
"My first time, somebody threatened me with a whip if I didn't obey her to strip and stand still. She wasn't kidding either. If I hadn't undressed she'd have left welts I'd probably still feel today. I won't do that to you. All I can tell you, is that it's nothing. It's never been anything more than nothing. Not even the girls locker room compares to how nothing it is. It's totally nothing. You must trust me in this. Must. No one will hurt you here. I promise."
"So, come kick me again." Karen moved back positioning her hands above her head like Callie had shown her. "I deserve it you know. Look at how mean I am to you."
Callie was stymied. She'd worn the black dress home yesterday after dropping Karen off at her condo last night. Karen had dragged Callie upstairs to meet the family. Introducing Callie to her husband Mitchell and their son Scott, explaining that Callie was her new bodyguard as well as personal assistant. Callie would be dropping Karen off at night, picking her up in the morning. No more security goons scaring the neighbors or the home owners association.
Scott looked a bit crestfallen at the loss of the security team and the badass vibes they gave off. On the other hand, Karen's husband look overjoyed at that bit of news. Callie supposed he would be a bit intimidated by Karen's full security team. The neighbors probably even more so.
Later, Erik had driven Callie straight home in the limo. She'd been so tired she'd left everything at Karen's office, wearing just the black dress home. Now, the next morning, she was stumped. What was she going to wear? She couldn't wear the black dress. It was ripped. Plus, she'd worn it the day before. It needed to be cleaned and repaired.
What she should have done was bring home another one of the concierge dresses in Karen's closet. To late for that now. Maybe she could wear her leather pants? Maybe she could find something in the closet to change into? If Lainey could get the concierge to authorize it.
"Callie! Your ride is here." T Rose shouted at her from the kitchen.
Shoot! Maybe jeans would be better? They'd be easier to get out of. Whereas the leather pants would need to be peeled off. She could wear a T shirt instead of the red blouse. Which was the only good blouse she had left.
"Callie!" T Rose shouted again.
"I heard you. I'm coming." Calle groused as she tried to decide.
"You need to come quick. Like right now."
Callie heard a trunk slam closed just before the chirp chirp of a car alarm being set filtered into her room from outside. Tightening the belt on her robe she hurried into the living room.
"Your driver left some boxes of stuff on the porch and went back for more. He's coming up the driveway now with what looks like the last of it." T Rose showed Callie the boxes she'd already brought inside. Callie looked out the window, Erik was coming up the driveway carrying several garment bags. She opened the door. A twitch in the window blinds of the Garcia's across the street told her Mrs. Garcia was being her usual busybody self.
Erik stepped onto the porch holding up the garment bags. "Good morning Miss Callie. I was instructed to bring these for you this morning."
"What are they Erik?"
"Clothes Miss Callie. For you. Miss Karen said this one for today, please." Erik held out one of the bags.
Callie took the proffered bag. "And the others?"
Erik indicated the rest of the garment bags. "More clothes for you. The boxes have your things you left in the office yesterday. There are also shoes in the large box. The small box has more things for you. If you don't mind I can hang these if you will show me where to put them." Erik hefted the garment bags to show they were what he meant.
T Rose held out her arms. "I can take them Erik. I know where to put them."
"Thank you Miss Rose." Erik transferred the garment bags by draping them across Rose's arms. Rose gave him her come-on smile at the same time. Callie rolled her eyes. Erik's face remained respectful and impassive as he turned back to Callie.
"I will wait in the car until you are ready Miss Callie. Your personal bag and things are in the car as well."
Callie nodded. "Thank you Erik. I won't be long."
Erik nodded in return before heading back to the car.
"Really? Isn't it a bit early for that?" Callie raised an eyebrow at her sister.
Rose shrugged. "You never know. He might be the morning type. So, what kind of goodies are in these?" Rose lead the way into Callie's room hooking the bags over Callie's closet rod.
"I have no idea."
"Let's see." Rose reached out, unzipping the bag Callie still held.
As the zipper went down, the dress inside the bag was revealed to be the yellow Jacard that Callie had tried on the day before.
"Oh my God!" Rose was surprised at the sight of the dress. She looked at her sister. "They gave this to you?"
"I think it still belongs to the company." Callie looked at the tag inside the dress. The tag was embroidered 'Property of Scarlet' in little red letters. Callie wondered why it said Scarlet since the dresses yesterday were from Showtime Apparel.
"What's in the boxes?" T Rose pushed the dress into Callie's arms. She left the room to immediately return with the rest of the boxes stacked in her hands. Setting them on Callie's bed she opened the biggest one first.
"Shoes. Like Erik said. Lots of shoes."
Opening the second box Rose set it aside with a short 'your clothes' comment before opening the third flat box.
"Oh my God!" T Rose said for the second time as she held up some underwear from inside the box. Lacy black underwear. A quick dip of a finger into the box let T Rose hold up a matching bra.
Callie looked into the box. There were several more pairs of underthings including hose and dress socks. There was also a familiar looking box. Opening the box she saw that she was correct. It was the same box. It held pearl earrings as she'd expected.
But, it also held several pairs of gemstone earrings. And, pearl necklaces. And, gemstone necklaces. And, rings. The box held a veritable treasure chest's worth of what looked like Sapphires, Rubies, Emeralds. To Callie's uneducated eye, there was also what appeared to be Topaz shining a hard bright gold in the box too. Blue, red, green and gold glittered inside the box. There was even a tennis bracelet with what looked like diamonds on it along with a pair of matching stud earrings. Callie looked at T Rose in shock.
"Oh my God." T Rose said for the third time.
It took several minutes for the shock to wear off. When it finally did, Callie pulled the yellow dress out of the bag fully. Tossing her robe on the bed, she undressed donning the new underwear. At least it wasn't a thong. The new underwear was the type that wouldn't show panty lines, covering her butt fully and hiding invisibly underneath her clothes. Once Callie had the matching bra on, she pulled the dress over her head.
Expecting it to fit the same as it had once before, she was surprised to find that it now fit her perfectly. She looked down as her chest. Nope, still no miracle there. Someone had tailored the dress to fit her overnight. They'd done a good job in getting the size right without her being there. Callie wondered if it was Marco who did it.
There were other touches and changes to the dress. Now a flat expansion pleat on each side of the skirt would allow her full extension if she needed it while still keeping the straight lines of the dress. It was also a bit shorter in length which showed more of her legs. But, that also meant the pleat didn't need to be very large. There was nothing wrong with showing her legs either.
Callie turned around. Rose was holding a pair of pale yellow heels that obviously were meant to be worn with the yellow jacard dress.
"Geez, Callie, if I liked girls I'd be all over you right now. Like, seriously all over you. And trust me, being your sister wouldn't stop me. You advertise ultra sexy in that getup. Do you think this is some kind of hint by her? That she wants you for a lover?"
Callie laughed. "No. She told me already that she's not a lesbian. I met her family yesterday too. She's about as vanilla as anyone gets."
"So why all of this?"
"I think it's so I don't look out of place when we are together. You know how she looks. Drop dead out of this world gorgeous. If I'm her assistant I can't be wearing jeans and a T shirt. No one would take me, or her, seriously. I found out yesterday that the company does these million dollar deals. So, she has to look the part of being ultra successful. That means I do too. I think."
"Oh. What about the jewelry?"
"I don't know. Lainey gave me the pearls yesterday. Those are something else." Callie indicated the box.
"Are you going to wear them?" T Rose opened the box again looking inside. It wasn't merely desire that showed on her face over the contents. It was pure lust.
"No. Or at least I don't think so. I'll just wear the pearls from yesterday until I know more." Callie took the box, closing it to place it on the shelf in her closet. She pointed a finger uttering a quick humorous "Stay!" directed toward the inanimate box.
"I'd listen to her if I was you, box." T Rose stood up from the bed. Heading from the bedroom toward the living area of the house, she added. "She gets mean if you don't do what she wants."
Callie, following her, nearly ran into Rose as she stopped abruptly.
"Rose . . ." Callie began but stopped when T Rose stepped to one side. In the living room, sitting on the worn, but comfy, couch with Poppy on her lap, was Karen.
Karen wore black tailored slacks along with a fine gauge knit sweater. Also in black. A satin collar and hints of cuffs under the edges of her sleeves told Callie that she also wore a contrasting white blouse under the sweater. Her shoes matched her outfit perfectly. The whole thing was complimented by a single strand of pearls worn outside the sweater.
"What are you doing here?" Callie was suddenly angry. "You are supposed to wait for me to come pick you up. Not go running around without an escort or anything. That's what you said. That's what is safest for you."
"Watch out box, this is what happens when you don't do what she wants you to do." T Rose's attempt at humor failed when no one paid her any attention.
"Well, someone had to bring you your new clothes. Plus the accessories that go with them. That someone was me because there isn't anyone else who could do it. Although I think Maria would have done it if I'd asked. But, you are mine! My responsibility." Karen's explanation sounded convincing. On the surface.
"Are you crazy?" Callie stalked over to stand in front of Karen. "It's too dangerous for you to be going around out there by yourself."
"I wasn't alone. Erik was with me. Besides, I remained in the car the whole time." Karen told Callie smoothly.
"Why don't I believe that? Oh wait, I know. Maybe it's because someone had to go to the office to pick out the clothes that were just brought to me. And, someone had to also pick out the accessories to go with those clothes. Someone who knew my size so the accessories would fit me. Then, someone had to open the safe to get the jewelry that goes with the clothes and accessories. I suspect that the someone who did all of that was you. Which means you didn't stay in the car. Which also means you just lied to me."
Callie shifted her position slightly. Pressing Karen with just her anger.
"I will tell you now. Between us, I don't do lies. I don't do little white lies. I don't do misstatements, misdirections or omissions. If you ever lie to me again I will leave you."
Karen pushed Poppy off her lap. She stood up looking shocked. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to. I don't know why I did. I won't lie to you again. I promise. I just wanted to surprise you."
"I owe you a spanking. I will remember I owe you a spanking. I will give it to you when the time is appropriate." Callie told Karen in a low growling voice.
Karen stepped closer to Callie until their bodies touched from knees to breasts. She caressed Callie face. Running a teasing finger across Callie's lips.
"So strong. So fierce. You don't have to show me how strong you are to make me love you. I already do."
"Don't try to distract me by telling me that you love me in the hopes I will forget that I owe you a spanking. I won't forget. I will spank you for this." Callie was still angry.
Karen, leaning forward, kissed Callie on the mouth.
"Eww, that's icky." Poppy's protest caused them to break off the kiss.
"I thought you said she wasn't a lesbian." T Rose spoke to the air in general.
Karen laughed. "I'm not a lesbian. My profile is one hundred percent hetero."
"It sure doesn't look that way from where I'm standing. Or from where you're standing either."
"You have to admit that your sister is scrumptious looking right now. I guess I just couldn't help myself. She's beautiful." Karen smiled at Callie from very close range. Callie narrowed her eyes at Karen to let her know she was not forgiven. Karen caressed Callie's lips with a finger again.
"Well, maybe she might make it to pretty one of these days." T Rose mocked her sister while ignoring the byplay between Callie and Karen. "That is, if she ever stops being a tomboy."
Callie, releasing Karen, launched a half-hearted blow toward her sister.
"See that box? Pay attention. That's what happens when she gets mad at you."
Callie and Karen left the house with their arms around one another. Callie saw the curtains twitch once again across the street. Busybody Garcia in action. Callie grinned, tipping her head to rest on Karen's shoulder. Karen kissed the top of Callie's head. There! Let Mrs. Busybody Garcia get an eyeful of that!
Erik got out of the car to open the door for them when they approached. Callie waited for Karen to enter the car first. Karen sighed before ducking through the door. Callie waited a beat then slid in next to her. From now on, Karen would be first in, last out, of the car.
They didn't go directly to the office. Instead, Erik drove them to a construction site where a high rise building was being erected. Bouncing in over the ruts into a dirt yard around the site, Erik stopped the car. Coming around to the side away from the workers, he opened the door for them. As Callie, then Karen, got out of the car, wolf whistles and cat calls from the workers sprang up. Karen, at the noise, began looking frightened while drawing in on herself.
"Does this happen every time?" Callie asked Karen over the whistles while watching the workers stop what they were doing completely. Some of the men made obscene and rude gestures in their direction.
Karen gave a quick jerking nod in response to Callie's question. Her eyes showed that she was scared and upset even though they were on the side of the car away from the workers. The car was between them and the harassment yet Karen looked ready to bolt back inside.
Callie looked over at her. "Stay here. If something happens, get into the car. Erik, if she doesn't immediately get into the car, pick her up and put her in the car. Then, drive away. Do not wait. Do not ask for permission. Put her in the car and drive away. You will leave me behind. If anyone tries to get in the way to stop you, drive over them and keep going. Understand?"
Erik looked impassive as usual though Callie could see his determination to do just as she asked. Seeing that both Karen and Erik understood, Callie marched to where the biggest group of workers were gathered. They were the loudest and most vulgar in their gestures.
"Shut up." Callie told them when she got within easy earshot of the group. "We are not whores or tramps. You will show us some respect."
"Or what? You'll cry?" A huge bear of a man in the group mocked her.
Callie didn't bother to answer. She just slapped the oaf as hard as she could knocking him back a few steps.
"You BITCH!." The big oaf swore at her. "You'll be sorry you did that. I'll kick your ass, girl or not."
Callie gave him her best crazy competition smile while hooking her thumb at Karen. "She is your boss. She runs this project. If you don't shut up and get to work, she is going to dock your paycheck a full day."
"She'd try." Apparently he just wouldn't let it rest.
Callie leaned into his space and poked her finger into the big oaf's chest. "Get this. You have five seconds to GET BACK TO WORK! If you don't, I'm going to fire your ass. You hear me?"
One of the other guys grabbed the loudmouthed oaf by the arm. "Frank, let it go. She's crazy. We got work to do anyway."
"I ain't gonna let nobody disrespect me." Frank shook off the restraining hand.
"Respect goes both ways. Finish the day. Don't bother to come back tomorrow. You're fired as of the end of your shift today. I will let the paymaster know. He will have your final check waiting for you at five. The rest of you, get moving. The goof off break is over. The one scheduled for tomorrow is permanently cancelled. Get back to work or join your friend on the unemployment line."
Callie turned and walked away. She put every ounce of sex on a stick strut into her walk that she possibly could. The silence was deafening. Karen's smile went nova.
It took less than an hour for the job site attitude to change. Karen's knowledge of construction, as well as the plans and job requirements, was surprising to Callie. Not so much to the supervising engineer. He, apparently, was familiar with Karen and her knowledge base. Interestingly enough, whenever Karen said she didn't understand something, the engineer patiently explained it to her, in detail, without hesitation. She thanked him for doing that every time it was necessary before going on with the review.
To Callie it was obvious they'd worked together before and trusted each other. Karen called him Edward and he called her Mrs. Harper. Callie was left on her own to try to figure out what they were talking about. She only understood one out of every four words and had no clue what the rest meant or how it involved Karen. The diagrams were incomprehensible to her. She resolved to learn.
As the news that Karen wasn't just a pretty face trickled down to the workers, a vague sort of respect began to show up in the way they acted. Of course it could just have been admiration of how sexy Karen looked in her black outfit and little white construction helmet with her hair tucked up underneath. Somehow, Callie didn't think so. Not after word about that morning's ass chewing made the rounds and they saw how she was being treated by the supervising engineer.
Callie did manage to see Frank slink off the job before they were finished at the site. No matter. He'd still get his full day's pay even if he didn't work the whole shift. It was just one more nail. He'd never work for another GreenWood project. Tough cookies buster.
They were on their way back to the office when Callie's cell phone buzzed in her messenger bag. Callie dug it out punching the answer button.
"Callie?" Her mom's voice came out of the speaker in the phone.
"Hi Mama. What's up? Are you and dad ok?"
"Callie, I just got a very strange call from Mrs. Garcia. Is everything ok with you? Your shop is ok?"
"Mama, I'm fine. I didn't want to tell you or dad while you were gone, but, my shop burned down. Everyone is ok, the fire happened at night. I lost everything."
"Oh Callie, I'm sorry. But, you know you don't have to be a call girl to pay us back. We'll think of something."
"Be a WHAT? Who told you that I was a call girl?"
"Well, Mrs Garcia says you and some woman she's never seen before have started some sort of call girl business. She says you're running it out of the house. She says it's obvious by the number of people who've been coming over in fancy cars. She says you've started wearing skimpy clothes. She says you're seeing men in the house all the time too."
Callie laughed. "Mama, I got a job after my shop burned down. I'm a personal assistant to a CEO of a major company. No one is coming to the house. No one is going into the house, except my boss one time this morning."
"She said that some man in a big fancy car is showing up every day. Is that right? A strange man shows up at the house every day?"
"Oh. That's Erik. He's my driver for the company. He picks me up in the limousine. From there we go pick up my boss."
"You have a limousine? How can you afford a limousine?"
"The company has a limousine. Not me."
"Callie, I don't understand. You don't have to be a call girl to get the money to pay us back. We'll get by without that you know. We really never expected you to pay us back anyway. It was a gift."
"Mama, I am not a call girl. I work in an office. For a business management company." Callie was hanging on to her temper by a thread. Karen's muffled snorts of laughter weren't helping any either.
"Calla Lily Mee, I spoke to your sister today just before I called you. She told me that you've changed. Rose told me you have some very fancy clothes that aren't the usual type you wear. She also said you were just given a gift of a lot of expensive jewelry from someone she wouldn't tell me anything about. And, Poppy said she saw you kissing someone in the living room. So, you don't have to lie about it."
"Mama, I am not lying! I am not a call girl. Honest."
"Well, your father and I are leaving Santa Fe early. We're coming home today. We will get this all straightened out when we get home. Until then, I expect that you will not continue doing whatever you are doing in front of your sisters." A sigh came clearly through the speaker. "I do not know where I went wrong with you. Why couldn't you have turned out more like Tea Rose. She, at least, is a good girl." Callie's mother almost wailed in her misunderstanding.
"Mama, I . . . , never mind. Call me when you get home. I will see if I can get off from work early to come home. I can explain everything."
"Your father and I expected better of you, you know."
"Mama, just call me when you get home. I am at work now. I have to go. I love you."
"We love you too Callie. Remember, no matter how difficult you think things are, we will always love you."
Callie rolled her eyes as she disconnected. Karen's muffled snickers turned into screaming peals of laughter as she rocked in her seat while holding her ribs tightly.
"Oh, oh, it hurts. A call girl. Somebody, please. I'm going to pee. Oh."
Callie just crossed her arms while staring out the window. She was going to murder T Rose when she got home. Maybe Karen even before that, if she didn't stop giggling.
They didn't make it back to the office before Karen's own phone rang. It was Dominick, Violet's husband, calling to let Karen know that Violet had finally delivered the baby very early that morning. It was a boy. They'd named him Daniel. He told Karen that Daniel and Violet were doing fine. Dominick's pride and relief were evident in his voice over the phone.
Karen immediately burst into tears.
Hours later Callie still didn't know if her parents had arrived home. Occasionally Karen would giggle whenever Callie's pacing or fuming broke her concentration.
"You're wearing out the carpeting you know."
"I am not." Callie growled.
"Well, I have an errand for you. Go down to the spa to set up a visit for me. I need waxing so make it a full treatment."
"You can just call the spa for that. Or have Lainey call."
"I could. But, that's your job. Remember?" Karen was gentle in her reminder but her words also carried a lash.
Callie stopped pacing abruptly and hung her head. "Yes Ma'am. I remember. I'm sorry. I'll take care of it. Immediately." She turned to head for the door.
"Callie. Can you wait just a moment?" Maria's voice was soft but it carried. "Please?"
Karen looked at Maria in puzzlement as Callie halted mid-step halfway to the door.
"I would not normally intrude. However, I feel I need to in this particular instance." Maria came across the glass drawbridge into Karen's office. "Callie, please come here."
Callie walked over to stand in front of Wolfe while looking at the floor. "Yes Ma'am? Is there something I can help you with?"
Wolfe pulled the wingback chair over next to Karen's. Setting them side by side.
"Please, Callie, sit down." Wolfe patted the back of the wingback chair.
"Yes Ma'am." Callie sat on the edge of the chair while still looking at the floor.
Wolfe tipped Callie's head up to look in her eyes. Callie averted her gaze at first but Wolfe just turned Callie's head until Callie gave in, looking up at her.
"I do not know what happened this morning that was both funny for Karen and upsetting for you. I do not care. I do know that something else just happened that is wrong. For both of you."
Wolfe reached out without looking toward Karen. Karen immediately put her hand in Wolfe's without hesitation. Wolfe next held out the hand that she'd used to turn Callie's head and waited. Callie dropped her eyes again. Wolfe tipped Callie's face back up. She returned to waiting with her hand out.
Callie sighed before putting her hand in Wolfe's. Wolfe brought Callie's and Karen's hands together. Placing them one on top of the other while continuing to hold them both.
"I expected better of you. She is not your property. You are not her owner. You may not force her unwilling obedience." Wolfe told Karen harshly. "You know you cannot abuse her like that. You know that it is wrong. Scarlet does not do this."
Karen looked appalled.
"You," Wolfe told Callie with a little shake of their combined hands. "Are not her slave. You do not have to debase yourself to please her, me, or anyone. You do not.
"You will learn that her job is a lot more difficult that it seems. It's not all fortune and fame. It's stressful and pushes her in directions she should not ever go. Directions that can hurt her physically and mentally. Your job is to not let that happen.
"She needs you. Needs your strength and steadiness. Your willingness to be her absolute confidant. Keeper of all of her secrets. And, there are secrets here. Many, many secrets."
Wolfe released their hands. She looked first at Karen, then at Callie.
"You are still new to each other. You still need to find some sort of balance between yourselves. It may sometimes hurt one, or the other, or both of you. It is inevitable. You both must understand this will happen and that saying you're sorry doesn't always make the hurt go away."
Maria faced Karen directly. "If you need to set up an appointment, for now you should do so yourself. Let her know what you did, and why, until she learns what she needs to do."
Wolfe looked at Callie next. "You should pay attention to subtle clues and details. Subtlety is the key to understanding her and her needs. You will know when you are doing it right. Do not doubt that. You will absolutely know. If you don't know, or if it feels wrong, it is. Trust your feelings. Trust her."
Wolfe walked back into her office. With a touch on the sculpture on her desk, she raised the glass wall to give them privacy. Another touch made the glass turn a frosty looking opaque. Nothing could be seen beyond the wall.
"I'm sorry." Karen's voice, coming a few moments later, was soft.
Callie just sat there. Her hand was limp as it rested in Karen's. She had dropped her eyes to return to looking at the floor.
"I looked so hard to find someone. You found me instead. Now, I don't want you to leave me. Please. Say you'll stay with me. Please?"
"You don't need to beg." Callie's voice was expressionless. "You know I don't have any other choice except to stay."
Karen laced her fingers through Callie's as she slid to the floor. Resting her cheek on Callie's thigh she began to cry.
"I would give you anything. To keep my freedom."
"I would not take anything. Because I would lose mine."
Karen pressed her face deeper into Callie's leg. "I really am sorry."
A long time later Callie was the first to move. She took the phone from Karen's desk, dialing the number to the spa from memory.
"Hello? I would like to make an appointment. Yes. It's for my boss. She needs a full treatment including a waxing. Sorry, I'm new at this so I don't know how long she normally takes for her visits. Karen Harper. Yes, Miss Karen. Oh. Ok, she has two hours available on Friday afternoon beginning at one. Yes, I will schedule for then. She will be there. Thank you."
Callie hung up the phone. "Spa for you on Friday at one," she told Karen who still sat on the floor. Caressing Karen's hair she lightly admonished her boss in an effort to lift her spirits.
"You're leaking into my shoe you know. It's the only pair I have that go with this dress."
Karen wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "I'll buy you a hundred pairs of shoes and a thousand dresses if you want."
"I don't want shoes or dresses. Stop wiping your eyes, you're ruining your makeup."
"Damn my makeup. What do you want so you will stay? I'll give you anything. Anything."
Callie felt the pain and longing in Karen's voice. She personally knew what that was like. What it meant. She closed her eyes against her own pain. And, plunged.
"I'll settle for seeing one very special person be happy again. How's that?"
"I don't know. Can this special person you mention ever be happy again?"
"Maybe. If I stay and help her."
"Will you? Stay? And help?"
"Yes. For now." Callie caressed Karen's hair as Karen tipped her face into Callie's thigh again. "Now you're smearing your makeup on my leg. If anyone sees us, they'll think I beat you."
"Let them. I don't care." Karen paused. "Thank you Callie."
Both of them sat quietly. There were no calls or other interruptions. Wolfe made sure of that. For Karen, Wolfe would do much more than take her calls and handle the daily business needs. Scarlet's needs could wait. Wait until they were sure about Callie. Until they were sure she was truly going to stay.
Lainey stuck her head into the office to let them know that she was leaving. Karen shifted on the floor, groaning before she got up. Holding on to Callie's hand, Karen pulled Callie to her feet as well. On her way up, Callie grabbed the box of tissues off of the credenza behind the desk. Dabbing at Karen's face with a tissue, she tried to erase some of the tracks from the mascara on Karen's cheeks.
"It's ok. It won't be the first time I've gone home looking like a wreck." Karen tried to fend off Callie's ministrations.
"I don't care. I don't like you looking like this." Callie wet the tissue with her tongue trying to wipe more of the mascara tracks away.
"Please, Callie, you can't fix it with a tissue. I'll need to wash my face completely. Don't worry about it."
"I am not letting you go out in public looking like this. Not if I can help it." Callie turned back to the desk. She dialed her brother's number on Karen's phone.
"Henry? It's Callie. Are you still at work? Oh, good. Listen, I'm upstairs at GreenWood. Can I bring Miss Karen down to get her makeup repaired." Callie gave no explanation for the ruined makeup. "Is there someone who can fix it for me? I mean her? Ok, we'll be right there." Callie hung up the phone before beginning to tow Karen toward the door.
"I'm sorry Karen. We're going to have to go through the mall to get there. It'll probably be embarrassing."
"We can go the back way." Karen, dragging her feet, pointing over her shoulder at the glass wall between hers and Wolfe's office. "There's a door that comes out next to the spa we can use."
Callie stopped hauling on Karen's arm. "A door?"
"A secret door. In Maria's office."
"A secret door? Why didn't you tell me?"
Karen giggled. "Well, it's a secret. Or was. Come on, I'll show you."
When they'd first gone into Wolfe's office, Callie had expected to see Wolfe still at her desk. The office had been empty.
"She's already gone home." Karen explained as she lead Callie through a narrow door that opened in the wall. The door matched the wall perfectly when it was closed.
"I didn't see her leave." Callie was confused.
"She left before Lainey did. She went this way so she wouldn't disturb us. She's actually very nice like that. A beautiful person inside."
"On the outside too." Callie was truthful.
"You can tell her that if you want. She doesn't hear it often enough."
"Good. Now, this door opens to the mall, the spa is just to the right. There's another way, but we'll save that one for another time. Ready?" Karen asked as she pushed open the door.
It was only a few steps from the door to the spa entrance. Karen and Callie dashed into the spa to be met by a startled Henry at the front counter.
"Cal, you ok?"
"I'm fine. Like I said, Karen needs her makeup repaired." Callie gestured toward Karen.
Henry looked askance at Callie who shrugged but didn't comment further. At her shrug, Henry opened the inner door ushering Karen through. "You know where to go?" Henry asked Karen yet pointed none the less.
Karen nodded, letting go of Callie's hand. Callie stepped forward to take Karen's hand again.
"Where you go, I go. Remember?"
Karen paused for a fraction of a second before throwing herself into Callie in a full-on whole body hug. As Karen's arms wrapped tightly around her body, Callie understood what Wolfe had meant when she'd said Callie would know when she was doing her job right. Right now, she knew. She'd done it right. It was unmistakable. This was what Karen needed her for. She didn't need a secretary to answer her phone and schedule appointments. That was unimportant. Karen was the important part.
Callie had a choice. Was she willing to do this for Karen? Could she do this for Karen? Choose someone else's needs over her own? Whatever those needs were? Regardless of whether she got anything in return or not?
The choice was a no-brainer. Callie hugged Karen back. "Yes. I promise. It won't be easy. We'll probably have more days like today. But, I'll stay with you if you want me to."
Karen nodded into Callie's shoulder without letting go. A suspicious sniff made Callie alarmed.
"Hey, you're not crying and leaking mascara onto my new dress are you? You'd better not. It's not mine. I only borrowed it. If it gets ruined I'm going to have to pay for it. Maybe. I think. I don't know what it costs either. I don't know if I can afford to pay for it."
Karen sniffed again. She wiped her eyes with her hands, smearing her mascara worse than it already was. "You can afford it. Now. Besides, I'm sure that the company that owns it will understand. It's one of the cheaper ones anyway."
"Wait, you gave me a cheap dress to wear? Wow, what a blow to my ego. Here I thought I was special to you." Callie bumped her forehead with the back of her wrist holding the pose for a second.
"You are. I'd give you nicer clothes to wear but you have this thing about standing around in your underwear while letting a strange man ogle you."
"Oh, as opposed to you letting that same man ogle you?" Callie's retort came out before she could stop it.
"Callie, you know I don't stand around in my underwear. It's ridiculous of you to say such a shocking thing. Honestly, the things you say sometimes." Karen sounded haughty as she verbally misdirected Callie's gaff.
Callie faked a very real sounding laugh. Karen didn't wear underwear so she couldn't stand around in it. Let alone get ogled in it. She also caught the trick of telling the truth in a way that made it seem different than it was. A way of keeping secrets by revealing nothing out of the ordinary.
Henry kept the surprise off of his face while his sister and Miss Karen talked girl talk. He was used to that sort of thing. He business was a day spa after all. That sort of thing happened all the time, though never before for his sister. Which was why he was surprised.
When neither continued after Callie laughed, he motioned them onward toward the only room with the lights on inside. While Karen sat in the chair for the makeup artist, Henry pulled Callie aside to stand just outside the door to the room where they could have a bit of privacy.
"Uh, Cal? Can you tell me what's going on? Lately I mean?" Henry's voice was soft so they wouldn't be overheard.
"Did Mama call you?" Callie shifted so she could keep one eye on Karen and talk to Henry at the same time.
"Yeah. She was pretty weirded out. I didn't understand half of what she was talking about. Except the part where she and dad are coming home early. What's going on?"
"Well, I needed a job after my shop got burned down. I started working for her as her personal assistant." Callie pointed to Karen.
"Wait. Your shop. It burned down?"
"Yeah, just a couple of days ago."
"You didn't think to tell me?"
"Hey, I was busy. I thought Rose would tell you. You talk to her more than to me anyway."
"I haven't talked to Rose in a week. What caused the fire? Do you know?"
"The inspector says arson. I don't know who did it. I lost everything. I have no money and I can't pay mama and dad back for the loan they gave me. I might even have to sell my scooter."
"Oh Cal, I'm sorry."
"Yeah, it sucks. But, I have a different gig now."
"You're really working for Miss Karen?"
"Yep. As her personal assistant. I started yesterday."
"Wow. So, you're her secretary?"
"She is my personal assistant. Not secretary." Karen's voice intruded into their conversation as she joined them, her makeup repaired. Callie laced her fingers with Karen's. Karen smiled fondly back at her. Henry's disapproving face showed he probably thought his sister was having a fling with Karen.
"So, what's this about Mama thinking you're a hooker or something?"
Karen snickered until Callie lightly bumped their shoulders together telling her to stop.
"Mrs. Garcia called her. Somehow she got the impression I'm running a call girl business out of the house. I have no idea where that came from. Do I look like a call girl to you?"
"Well, not especially. But, you're my sister."
"Will you talk to Mama? If you tell her, maybe she'll stop with the call girl thing."
"Sure. If she calls me. Otherwise I'm not getting involved. Been there, done that. Have the emotional scars to show for it. A few physical ones too."
Callie snapped her teeth at her brother. One of the scars was a bite mark. She'd given it to him when she was six. He had been sitting on her trying to make her eat a worm at the time.
"Yep. That's one I remember. I may be dumber than all the rest of you, but I'm not stupid."
There wasn't much Callie could say to that.
On the drive home both of them were pretty silent. Karen continued to hold Callie's hand, occasionally stroking Callie's arm gently. Which made Callie shiver involuntarily every once in awhile.
"Who is Scarlet?" Callie asked in the quiet of the car's cabin as Erik drove them toward Karen's condo.
"Where did you hear that?" Karen stroked Callie's arm again.
"Maria mentioned her when she was yelling at us."
"Oh. I must have missed that. I guess I was so upset at what I'd done I wasn't paying attention to every detail at the time. Sorry."
"So, who is she?"
"She, is me."
"I am Scarlet." At Callie's blank look she continued. "Scarlet isn't a who. It's a what. For me, it's a title. Like being the CEO of GreenWood. It's more important than being CEO however. A great deal more important. A great many people count on it being kept a secret. More people than you would think there are."
"A secret? Why?"
"Remember the red card?" At Karen's question, Callie nodded that she remembered. "That's a secret. The number is the number to Scarlet. Scarlet is an even bigger secret."
"I thought the number was a private line for Maria."
"It is, and, it isn't. At one time Maria was Scarlet. Now I am. But, we kept the organization as it was, since I'm not really part of Scarlet."
At Callie's confused look Karen smiled. "It's complicated. Extremely complicated. If you stay with me, you may one day figure it all out. We just know it works."
"I don't understand."
Karen patted then stroked Callie's arm again. "Don't worry. Like I said, it's complicated. I'll show you some things tomorrow that might help. You can talk to Violet too.
"But, you can't say anything in public. Ever. No hints. No sly suggestions. No accidental overheard comments. No anything. Unless you know that someone already knows about Scarlet, Scarlet does not exist. You will lie to protect the secret. This is now a condition of you staying with me. I will not forgive you if you reveal this secret."
Callie twisted in her seat to look squarely at Karen. "I said I'd keep your secrets. I will. I promise."
Karen smiled at her.
Callie smiled back, leaning over to rest her cheek on Karen's shoulder. Neither of them spoke again for the rest of the trip. Even when Callie delivered Karen to her door. Not even to say good night.
Once Mitchell opened the door, Callie slipped her hand out of Karen's. Waiting until Karen stepped inside, Callie turned and walked away as Karen hugged her husband. She still had to go home to face her parents. Everything else which had happened today would be nothing compared to that.
The next morning Callie was awakened by Poppy's chatter in the kitchen.
"And, there was the flower fairy. And, I met a princess. And, I was turned into a talking kitty by magic fairy dust."
"Who is the flower fairy?" Callie's mother asked Poppy.
"Oh, that's Auntie Violet. She gave Callie the magic fairy dust. And, she gave us ice cream too." Poppy's answers were enthusiastic.
Callie sat bolt upright in bed, throwing off the covers. Scrambling into her robe, not bothering to put on her slippers, she heard T Rose explaining that Violet was a friend of Callie's boss. Callie had taken her picture and told Poppy she was a fairy. The fairy dust was some gold metal powder Callie said she'd bought at the store.
"What about the ice cream?" Callie's mother's voice was as frozen as the freezer that held said ice cream.
"Violet gave us a ride over to Callie's new job to meet everyone. We stopped on the way for the ice cream. Honest Mama, I was there the whole time. Nothing weird was going on."
Callie finally stumbled into the kitchen to be greeted by a disapproving frown from her mother.
"Callie! I don't know what's really happening, but I thought I could trust you to take care of your sisters for a week."
"Mama! Nothing is going on. I swear!"
Poppy suddenly squealed. "Princess Karen! It's princess Karen! She's here! She's here!"
Callie looked out the window. Sure enough, Karen stood on the sidewalk next to the black limo. Erik stood nearby holding the rear door open. Callie dashed out the door.
"Didn't we have this conversation yesterday?" She yelled at Karen as she stomped down the driveway toward the car heedless of the small stones hurting her feet.
Karen flicked a finger up, then pointed with it. Callie shifted her gaze to see Paul standing near the front of the car. Callie threw on the brakes stopping dead in her tracks.
"Oh. Good morning Paul."
"Good morning Miss Callie."
Wolfe chose that moment to step out of the car to stand by Karen.
"Both of you?" Callie whispered in shock before recovering to yell again. "Both of you? Are you crazy?" Callie's hands flew up into her hair. "Are you trying to give me a heart attack? Gaaaaah! Somebody shoot me. Please!"
"Callie, calm down." Karen tried to sooth Callie.
"Calm down? Calm down? How can I calm down when you're here? I'm in the middle of trying to explain to my parents about how you are the two most important people in the world to me right now and you both show up unexpectedly at my door. How the hell, heck, am I going to explain this? To them? What are the neighbors going to think?"
"They're going to think you've lost your mind if you don't stop screaming at the top of your lungs." T Rose spoke from behind Callie before greeting the new arrivals.
"Good morning Karen." Rose nodded to the other woman with Karen. "You must be Maria, Violet showed us your picture. Would you like to meet our parents? We can leave Callie out here if you want. Until her brain starts working again anyway. Hopefully before the guys in the white coats show up to haul her away to the nuthouse."
Callie yanked her hands out of her hair to press them against her face as she turned away from all of them. A moment later she dropped her hands turning back around in control of herself once again.
"Forgive me. Good morning Karen. Good morning Maria. Maria, you look very beautiful today."
Wolfe flashed a genuine smile. "Why, thank you Callie. What a lovely thing to say. Even if you don't really mean it."
Callie held out her hand to Wolfe who clasped it briefly.
"Believe me, I mean it. I would not lie about that. You are beautiful."
Karen beamed in delight at the expression on Wolfe's face.
Callie pulled in a huge breath. "Well, let's get the fiasco started. The sooner we start; the quicker I can begin looking for a new place to live after they kick me out of the house."
"It won't come to that." Karen was sure.
"It might." Callie countered. T Rose nodded in agreement.
"It won't. However, if it does, we will take care of you." Wolfe was calm as she walked next to Callie and T Rose up the driveway.
They stopped a few feet from the porch. Callie's parents stood there with her dad holding on to Poppy's hand. Tulip stood off to one side. Her eyes were fluttering in the way she had that showed she was processing internally.
All of them did something when they were using their photographic memory to pull up and compare information. Tulip fluttered her eyes. T Rose paced. Poppy sang softly to herself with meaningless nonsense words. Callie had been told she counted randomly on her fingers.
She wasn't aware of it when she did. None of them were aware of what they did while it was happening. From the looks of it though, Tulip was processing hard.
"Callie? Who are these people?" Callie's mother asked sternly.
"That's Princess Karen." Poppy spilled out the words before Callie could answer. "And that's Mama Wolf."
Wolfe laughed. "Who told you that?"
"Auntie Violet. She said it was a secret. That you really are a mama wolf. Not like me. I was only under a fairy spell. That wore off."
Wolfe mock whispered at Callie's littlest sister behind her open hand. "I don't think it all wore off. I think I can still see a little bit of kitten still."
Poppy grinned her toothy smile in return.
"Callie?" Her mom's voice was even stiffer and colder.
Callie drew in another huge breath. "These two aren't supposed to be here. But, since they are, I will introduce you. Mama, Dad; this is Karen Harper and Maria Wolfe. They are the joint CEO's of GreenWood Investment Enterprises, Incorporated. They are my employers. You can see Erik, the driver, by the car. Standing over there is Paul. Paul is an executive protection escort for them because they are very important people."
"Executive protection escort?" Callie's dad spoke the question.
"He's a bodyguard." Callie's answer was flat as she looked at Karen. "Usually there are several more of them. There's supposed to be more of them. I will be having some words with the person responsible for them not being here."
"That would be me." Wolfe waved Callie's anger aside. "Given the misunderstanding that has come up between you and your parents, we thought we could help explain your position with the company. There should be less misunderstanding this way."
"I doubt it." Callie grumbled to herself before outlining a plan to her parents. "Listen, can we go inside? I still need to get dressed. You guys can talk and get this straightened out. You don't need me now that Karen and Maria are here. You can ask them directly what's really going on. You'll get the truth. Not some fantasy cooked up by a crazy busybody who lives across the street."
Karen and Wolfe looked at Callie's parents. Callie's mom looked at her dad who drew in a deep breath. Easy to see where Callie got that habit from.
"Please, come in. There are a lot of things we would like to know which probably shouldn't be discussed on our doorstep." Callie's father tried to be gracious.
"Of course. Thank you." Wolfe was the picture of elegance as she entered the house with Karen a step behind.
"Oh, Callie. Before you go, I wouldn't normally ask you to wear something specific, but please wear the red outfit today." Karen's voice was soft.
"Ok. If that's what you want. I'll be as quick as I can."
"Not too quickly. We would like to assure your parents of how much we cherish you and to get to know them better."
"Yes ma'am. I'll be ready shortly. If you'll excuse me?"
Callie toweled off after a quick shower. Going to her closet she unzipped one garment bag after another to find the red outfit. The closest was made of very loose fitting pale cream slacks and a vivid red top cut long in an Asian fashion. It resembled a Shalwar Kameeze tunic with an overlapping front with slits up the sides. It was heavily embroidered in gold. The slacks were cut loose and flowing. She found some red leather low heeled flats in one of the shoe boxes.
Callie walked from her room into the living room where her parents were talking quietly with Karen and Maria. As Callie entered the room, all talk stopped as everyone turned to look at her.
"Callie!" Her mother's mouth dropped open.
Karen stood up twirling her finger for Callie to turn in place. Callie slowly rotated to let Karen see her all the way around.
"Good. The effect is well done. I must remember to congratulate Marco for it. Except for the earrings. The pearls are wrong for this outfit. Please put on the topaz studs. And, a ring. Not too large."
"But . . ." Callie objected.
"No. The pearls are wrong. The outfit needs gold to be complete. It is why the topaz was part of the set given to you."
Callie left to swap out her pearl earrings with the golden topaz in the box on her closet shelf. She left her door open so she could hear what was being said in the living room.
"How many of those outfits does she have?" Her mom asked.
"I believe that Erik brought a dozen different outfits for her yesterday. Along with accessories." Wolfe spoke to Callie's parents in an easy familiar tone.
"A dozen? That's a lot of money. What does she do for you that you can buy a thousand dollars worth of clothes for her?"
"She is my personal assistant. Her job is to be with me. To take care of me. Regardless of what it takes, or costs. That is her job. Wherever I go, she will go." Karen explained Callie's job simply. She is my shadow. Wherever I am, she is allowed to be. Will be."
"But, the cost of the clothes? That's expensive. For just a personal secretary?"
"She is not a secretary. She is my personal assistant. She is much, much more than a secretary. The company values her beyond compare."
"So much you'd spend that kind of money on her? For clothes?"
"The clothes and jewelry and accessories are merely uniforms. The company has a large uniform allowance for higher level employees. There are approximately twenty five people in the company above that level. Callie's position qualifies her for the same benefits. The few thousands we've spent on Callie so far are nothing in comparison to the overall allowance."
Callie was coming back into the room when Karen said this. She stopped in her tracks, one earring only partially through her earlobe. Callie turned her eyes to them.
"Thousands of dollars? I thought you said yesterday these were cheap clothes."
Karen smiled at her, coming over to finish putting in her earring. "Callie, the dress that Marco is making for me, the one that I was fitted for yesterday, will cost more than all of the outfits you've been given so far. That one dress.
"The clothing is actually less than half the cost. The jewelry is the biggest expense." Karen finished fastening the earring back. "You are worth every dime, and much more, to me."
Callie's parents were speechless.
Karen slid her arm around Callie to usher her toward the door. Wolfe began to step in behind them before stopping abruptly. Producing a white business card she handed it to Callie's father.
"Please. If you would like, join us for lunch today. You can see more of the company and the people who work with us. If you decide to accept, please call. My receptionist, Lainey, will send a car to pick you up. Invite your son if you'd like. The girls are more than welcome to come along."
"Are you sure?" Callie's mom was wavering.
"Absolutely. Come up to the office first. There are some things you should see there before lunch. Tea Rose knows the way. For now, we really must go. Please, call. If not today, soon."
Callie leaned over and kissed her mother. "Bye Mama. I should be home early. I have my class this afternoon."
"So, don't I look beautiful today too?" Karen asked sotto voce as they walked down the driveway toward the car.
Callie rigidly faced straight ahead while she sketched her words in the air with her hands. Intentionally sounding impartial and uninterested.
"Karen, you are so beautiful you eclipse the sun. The way you walk could teach a tiger the real meaning of beauty, grace, and power. The merest sound of your voice makes every love song ever written no better than the rasping croak of a bullfrog. On the day you were born every star in the universe became jealous of the light that shines in your eyes. You are the most beautiful and precious thing the world has ever seen. And, I love you with all my heart."
Leaning close to Karen's ear she stage whispered. "You know it's true."
A soft kiss landed on Karen's cheek. "You fat cow."
Wolfe choked on her laughter.
Callie sat in the jump seat across from Karen and Wolfe watching a video on an electronic tablet. The video was of Karen. Callie re-ran some parts of it several times. The tiny earbud buzzed with the sounds of the video. When the video ended Callie took the earbud out of her ear.
"Now, the other one." Karen directed her without seeming to look at anything other than out the window of the car as it sped down the road.
Obediently Callie tapped the icon on the screen of the tablet. The new video opened immediately beginning to play. Callie flinched when the video showed Karen being slammed into the wall by her attacker. Callie's eyes flamed. How dare anyone hit Karen!
"Callie!" Karen's voice overrode the anger. "I am fine. He cannot hurt me anymore. It's just a video. It's not happening. Just a video."
Karen continued to calmly speak to Callie as she unbuckled her seatbelt. Karen slid across the limo floor to kneel at Callie's feet. Callie's eyes scanned Karen's face looking for signs of injury. Her fingers flew across Karen's skin touching, caressing, feeling. She turned Karen's head to the side to peer closely at her face. Her fingers were gentle as they pushed Karen's hair out of the way to softly touch the ear where her earring in the video had been ripped away.
"I'm fine." Karen told her. "It was a long time ago. I'm fine. But, you need to be calm to watch the rest of the video."
"It gets worse." Wolfe told her. "Much, much worse. You must master yourself. To be calm enough to understand why you are being asked to watch that horror.
"What you need to see is at the end. But, you won't understand unless you watch the beginning first, even though it is hard to watch. We know how hard it is to see what happened. We lived through it so we know."
"We?" Callie's voice was forced as she glanced between the two of them.
"Both of us were there. You need to watch to know what happened. And why."
"But calmly." Wolfe told her.
Callie looked at Karen and blew out a breath. Karen placed the tablet back into her hand from where Callie had thrown it onto the floor.
"Watch the video. The answer is there. Without the video it makes no sense to just tell you the answer. You will still need to watch to understand. So watch." Wolfe patted the seat next to her to let Karen know to get up off the floor. "We are here. We are fine. We survived."
Callie sat back in her seat. Restarting the video, she let it run a bit, stopped the playback, then looked up at them scanning their bodies. She'd watch a bit more, stop, repeat her visual scans. When she got to the frames where Karen had raised the baton to face the security teams that had finally gotten there to help, she stopped the video.
Callie ran the frames back and forth several times. Tears leaked down her cheeks as she raised her face to look squarely at Karen. She gave Karen a deep slow bow of her head.
"What is it about that picture?" Karen asked the universe at large.
Wolfe just patted Karen's hand. They'd wait for Callie to finish.
When Callie finished watching the video she put down the tablet. Her eyes traveled to Wolfe. Wolfe wordlessly unbuttoned her sleeve to show Callie the scar on her wrist where the break had been surgically repaired. Once Callie had run her eyes over the scar, Wolfe unbuttoned the front of her blouse. She folded it open to display the other surgical scars on her shoulder.
Those scars were ugly. Any woman who was even the least bit vain about her appearance would never again wear anything sleeveless in public if she had those scars.
"What did you learn?" Wolfe asked as she rebuttoned her blouse.
"I know why you are always so close to each other. Where your bond comes from. If I had been there with either of you, I would love you forever. Absolutely without question. Forever."
Wolfe smiled at her. Only three other people, of the more than a few who had watched that video, had said something similar. Violet, Dominick, and Karen's husband Mitchell. Now there was a fourth. The question was whether she could continue to love them both once she knew all the information the video contained.
"And the others?" Wolfe's question gave no trace of her concerns.
"I don't know. Can you explain why they all knelt down like that? And, what does Domna mean?"
"Domna is an old latin term. It means 'lady' or 'mistress'. It's the approximate equivalent of 'master' when spoken by a slave."
"And the kneeling? What does that mean?"
"It means that they submit to my will. To my authority over them." Karen told her. "They made me Scarlet. Gave me the ultimate control over their lives and futures. Right then. In that room, when I was bloody, scared for Maria, and out of my mind. I don't know why, but, they did."
"I do. What I don't know is what is Scarlet. You tried to explain, but I'm still confused."
"Scarlet is a club. It is a fetish club. It was started so that some very rich playboys could indulge in their fetishes together. Without being afraid of being ostracized or prosecuted if they did."
"What kind of fetishes? Kids?" Callie recoiled from the thought.
"No! Not children. Ever!" Karen's and Wolfe's voices were in tandem in the denial. "It's just BDSM. Bondage, Domination, Sadism, and Masochism."
BDSM meant things like whipping, bondage, torture, and stuff like that. Like at The Pit.
"What else?" Callie's voice became remote.
"Through the years, the club has evolved. What started as a private estate in the country morphed into what you know as the GreenWood Country Club today."
"What does that have to do with Scarlet?"
"Scarlet is the true club. GreenWood is a shell. It is a shield to give respectability to the members of the club. GreenWood is privately owned and controlled by the members of Scarlet. It exists for the purpose of protecting Scarlet from public notice and scandal. As I told you, I am the head of the club. My title is Scarlet."
Callie looked at Karen. Her flawless complexion. Her strength and loving heart that would never allow anyone to be hurt. Or let them hurt her.
"I don't believe you." She told them flatly while looking at Karen. "I know you. You would not do those things. You would not let someone do those things to you. You would not."
"I told you before that it's complicated. This is the part that makes it complicated." Karen explained. "What you don't know is that I was attacked when I was fourteen. I was sexually assaulted by a bunch of boys who were going to gang rape me because of the way I look. Because I'm so pretty. It messed up my head. Very badly. I had to have therapy. Years of therapy.
"Even with therapy, I was still always afraid. I wasn't able to function in public very well. I still have some issues I have to deal with occasionally. I always will.
"At the time," Karen gave a nod toward the tablet. "My therapist was urging me to get out of the house. She wanted me to do something constructive with others in a social or work setting. I decided to join the GreenWood Country Club for the social interaction. GreenWood, not Scarlet. I didn't know about Scarlet. I didn't know that something like that existed. Could exist.
"I saw Violet at the mall when I went in to apply to the Country Club. I've already told you that she's a member of Scarlet. However, I didn't know it at the time. We were just two girlfriends having lunch in the private club members section when it happened again." Karen's expression went blank as she closed down emotionally.
Wolfe took up the explanation. "She was attacked while a guest of Scarlet. That is the first video. Since I was Scarlet at the time, I was the one who was responsible for her being hurt. Scarlet owed her for that. Owed her enough to give her whatever she needed to become whole again." Wolfe nodded sharply with each data point she spoke.
"They let me join the club. Not because I have a fetish. They let me join because I needed the closeness, the love, the members have for one another. I needed the shelter and a different type of therapy, in order to try to heal." Karen looked down momentarily as she remembered how bad it used to be for her.
"That's past. It's not like that any longer." Wolfe gripped Karen's arm in sympathy and support. "We are here with you. I am here with you. Always. Together."
Karen nodded once. She looked up at Callie. Callie marveled as she watched Karen pull in what felt like a truckload of emotional strength. The strength of will to go onward. To never give up. Never quit. Never let The Bastards win. Indomitable.
It came from somewhere. Where, Callie had no idea. A quick glance at the tablet, at the image on the screen there, hinted at it. The intensity contained in the images told her there was a lot more of it available than the comparatively tiny amount Karen drew in. A lot more. With that reservoir to power her spirit, Karen truly was unconquerable. She could never be forced to yield. She'd die first.
Wolfe released Karen's arm. Now that Karen was herself again, Wolfe looked . . . happy? Pleased? No, she looked content. No, that's not right. Callie decided Wolfe didn't just look content; she was content. Because of Karen?
"Anyway," Karen began talking again as if the interruption hadn't happened. "They taught me about their fetishes and their way of life. About the personal discipline and control that's required to live that way. It's not just tying someone up then whipping them while they scream. Or beating and dragging each other around before having violent sex with them. Even if it sometimes looks like that to an outsider.
"There are rules and limits and the gift of ultimate trust in each other. There are all kinds of other things they have to have as well. So no one gets hurt. Everyone must be safe all the time. Not just feel safe. BE safe. Safety and security are must haves that cannot be skimped on.
"I learned a lot about alternative lifestyles and the people who live them. I made some really good friends. Strengthened some other bonds too. My marriage is stronger now because of all of that. Mitchell loves me just as deeply, or more, than before. I can show how much I love him in return. Which is something I couldn't do before. Most of all, I learned that having a fetish like BDSM didn't make anyone a freak, or weird, or psychotic, or dangerous. It just made them different. They are still people. Still my friends. I still love them."
"But, you don't . . ."
"I don't. I'm not like them. Well, maybe a little since I'm classed as a dominant. You are too by the way. But, I don't have their fetishes. I just needed someplace safe where I could be me. Without being afraid of being raped again. They let me in. Let me stay even though I didn't really belong. What they gave me was acceptance. Of me. Of all of me. Broken, hurting and needing. It was a huge gift made even greater because it was given so freely by so many, who didn't have to do anything. They just did it."
"And the second time?" Callie wasn't sure where this was all headed.
"The second time, in the video, was in my old office where I helped Violet. Violet's position is, was, liaison between Scarlet members and Maria. Maria had to work very hard to make GreenWood Investments legitimate. It had to earn enough money to pay for the things that Scarlet needed. It had to actually be a legitimate business in its own right to be able to do that.
"So, two worlds come together in GreenWood. One public and visible. One private and secret. Maria was handling both tasks by herself. It was wearing her out." Karen looked at Wolfe with love clearly visible in her eyes. "Violet and I helped her by weeding out the trivial whenever possible."
"After the attack I was unable to be there because of my injuries. I couldn't do the things necessary to keep GreenWood operating. Scarlet was rudderless. Karen stepped in to take over without anyone asking her to." Wolfe purred her satisfaction of Karen's accomplishments.
"She proved she was the most capable successor. She proved it by empowering herself to take control. To make it work. No one gave anything to her. No one asked her to try. She made her place. She took it and ran with it. She is one who controls GreenWood." Wolfe caressed Karen's arm again.
"She does it very well too. Better than I ever did. GreenWood's profits are double this year over last year. We have more potential clients asking about our services and management possibilities. All because of her."
"They gave me the keys to the kingdom. Literally." Karen said simply. "They gave me full access and control of everything. The money, millions. Mega-millions. The power, absolutely unlimited. The authority, beyond question. I answer to no one directly. I can do anything I want. And they will obey me if I tell them to.
"However, it is more give than take. I am responsible to, and for, all of them. If they are exposed, it's my fault. If they need something and don't get it, it's my fault. If I screw up and do something stupid; if someone gets hurt or harmed, accidentally or in any way at all, it's my fault. My fault! Mine. The obligation that goes with all of that is scary. It keeps me up at night sometimes."
"And you?" Callie asked Wolfe.
"I still run Scarlet in the day to day operations. But, I am no longer Scarlet. She is. If Scarlet needs something, she must do it. I may act in her name for most things, but she is really the one who orders it done. She is the one that they trust to protect them. To provide for them. To hide them. To take care of them."
"And do you . . .?"
"No. I am too powerful. To far up the hierarchy. I run Scarlet. I can't be a member of Scarlet myself. Who could stop me, or discipline me if I lost control?"
Callie flicked her eyes to Karen.
"No, I could not. It would be like flaying myself. If I had to dismiss or expel her it would be like removing my own heart. I could not do it. So, neither of us is a member of Scarlet. Me, because I am not like that."
"And I, because I am alone." Maria's voice was firm.
"You are not alone." Karen touched Wolfe's arm. "Never alone so long as I live. And love."
Callie picked up the tablet to watch the video again. That video. Her eyes glinted. She smiled evilly when Karen used the shoelace from her hair to foil the attempted rape. Stopping the recording she arranged her fingers simulating the shoelace and it's preparation. Nodding as she understood how it was done. When she got to the scene where Karen challenged the security teams, she stopped the playback one more time and enlarged the image again. Marveled at how intense Karen looked as she radiated the strength inside of her.
"Gah! What is it about that picture?" Karen threw up her hands.
"So, where does this leave me?" Callie asked quietly.
"For Scarlet? No change. You don't even have to interact with anyone if you don't want to. You only needed to be given this information because it is a part of what I do. Who I am. You would have been exposed to this eventually. That was inevitable.
"Emergencies are pretty common with Scarlet. We've been lucky the past couple of days in avoiding any problems directly. A couple of things have happened but we've been pretty deft in keeping this quiet until we could talk to you. We couldn't do that unless we were sure you were someone we could trust with this secret."
"And, for you? Personally?"
"I would really like you to stay. Very much. You know that. I can't force you, but I'd like you to stay. I . . ." Karen choked up unable to continue.
"What she will not say is that she needs you. But, the choice must be yours." Wolfe spoke gently. "She will not attempt to bind you through your heart. That would be wrong.
"If you cannot stand the thought of what Scarlet is; if the idea is repugnant to you; you are free to leave us behind. We will not stop you. We will not think less of you. We will even smile and say hello if we meet accidentally somewhere.
"If you need, we will find a safe place for you somewhere outside of GreenWood and Scarlet. So you are not left alone without support after your hardships with your family and business. We are not cruel or unfeeling."
"I promised I would not use you then discard you." Karen told her huskily. "I promised. I meant it. I meant it yesterday. I mean it today. I will still mean it tomorrow. I keep my promises. I will keep this one if it kills me! Or worse, even if it doesn't."
Callie looked out the window. She was thinking about what she'd seen. What she thought Karen wanted her to do. This was a lot different than what she expected they'd want her to do for them. Silently she tapped her fingers together.
"Can we stop the car? I need to get out." Callie told Karen suddenly. "I need to think. I can't think in here. Please?"
Wolfe pushed the button that let her talk to their driver. "Erik? Can we stop someplace nearby? Quickly?"
Erik changed lanes. Within a block he turned the car into the parking area of a commercial building. As the car came to a stop, Callie bolted from the back, running away for several yards through the wet grass surrounding the tall building. Looking back, she watched as both Wolfe and Karen exited the car to stand looking at her.
Karen took one step forward toward her holding out her hand. Callie took a step backward. Karen dropped her arm to her side turning to go back into the car. Her shoulders drooped in disappointment. Wolfe touched her gently.
"Wait." She told Karen softly. "Just wait. Better yet, sit down on the curb and don't get up. No matter what, do not get up. Trust me."
"What do you want from me?" Callie shouted at them as Karen sat down with her back toward Callie.
Wolfe took one step. When Callie did not retreat, she continued to take one slow step after another toward the younger woman.
"We, she, wants nothing more than what you are willing to give. That's all." Wolfe's voice sounded normal. "What is it that is distressing you so much? Can you tell me?"
Callie took another step backward as Wolfe came within fifteen feet of where she was standing. Wolfe stopped instantly.
"Callie? I cannot help you if you don't tell me what the problem is."
"Are you? Helping me? Or do you want to hurt me? Or use me to hurt other people?"
Wolfe closed her eyes momentarily. "We do not want to hurt you. She promised she would not do that. Remember? She promised. I promise too. No one gets hurt. No one."
"I can't do those things. The Scarlet things you want me to do. I made vows. Promises. To not do those things. To not hurt people. I can't use my skills and training to hurt innocent people. I can't be cruel. I can't like giving pain. I can't do what you want me to do! I promised! With my own blood and sworn oaths, I promised I would NEVER do those things! EVER!"
"No one wants you to do any of those things. Have we asked you to do any of that? No. We haven't and we will not." Wolfe asked and answered her own question.
"What I want you to do is love Karen. Protect Karen. That's all." Wolfe tried to project calm as she explained. "You are not like them. We do not want you to be like them. We do not want you to do those things. To anyone."
"But, what about that?" Callie tossed a quick gesture at the car to indicate the videos she'd just watched. The explanation she'd just been given about Scarlet.
"That has nothing to do with you. You are not being asked to join Scarlet. We do not want you to join Scarlet. If you ask, Karen will forbid you from joining. She will deny your application if you try. She will expel any member who attempts to make you join by force or coercion."
"Why? To keep even more secrets from me?"
"No. It's because Karen needs someone who is not a member. Someone who will not try to use her because of her position and power in either GreenWood or Scarlet. She needs someone to take care of her because that person wants to. Not because they are told to, or are afraid that they'll be punished if they refuse. She needs someone who can refuse to do the things they think are wrong. She needs someone exactly like you."
"How do I know that you're telling me the truth?"
"You saw the videos. You know. I don't have to convince you. You already know."
"I don't know anything. All I know is what you've told me. It's all lies. Nothing has been the truth."
"The videos are truth. You've seen them. You've seen our scars. Those are also the truth. How can you disbelieve your own eyes and senses?"
"But, I can't do what you want me to do. I can't!" Callie nearly wailed her distress.
"What we want is for you to prevent what you've seen from ever happening again." Wolfe's voice was smooth.
"Callie, Karen needs you to protect her. From those who would try to rape her again. Do you know she's almost been raped three times? Three times, Callie. How long do you think her luck will continue? Will you condemn her to that fate? It's going to happen again. You only need to look at her to know it will happen again. Is that what you want? Are you going to tell me that you can't be cruel and yet you will let it happen? That you don't care if it happens?"
Callie looked over at Karen who still sat with her back toward them, a picture of dejection. She waited for Wolfe. Her posture showed that she knew that Callie would not be coming back with Wolfe.
"Callie, you know her. You know what and who she really is. Inside where it counts. Not on the outside where everyone thinks they see all there is to see. You've touched her. Held her. You know her." Wolfe continued to try to convince Callie that what they wanted was not what she thought.
"I don't know anything."
"Then, why don't you go over there and talk to her? Or do you want to talk to someone else? There are several people whom you already know who are members of Scarlet. You can talk to any of them."
"So that they can tell me what you've coached them to say?"
"Gah!" Wolfe threw up her hands. "Now you're being ridiculous. If you don't want to be with us, just say so. Tell me goodbye. Then, go over there and tell her that you don't love her. That you can't stand the thought of being with her. Tell her you hate her and everything she is, or stands for. It will hurt her. But, it will be cleaner and quicker than the slow cruel torture you're doing to her now. Look at her! Do you see what you're doing to her?"
Callie looked at Karen. She looked at Wolfe. Wolfe waited as patiently as her namesake. Callie would choose.
"I . . ."
"Callie, just yesterday I told you that you would know when you were doing your job right. You know what happened. You gave her what she needed. You did what we want you to do. Need you to do. You did it perfectly yesterday. You know you did. I don't have to tell you that, you know it."
Wolfe gestured to Karen. "Right now, does this look, or feel, like you are doing your job right? Does it?"
Callie looked at her feet. She shook her head. Finally, she looked up at Karen again. Slowly she walked away from Wolfe. Stopping halfway to the car, and Karen, she looked back at Wolfe. Took another step. Paused and wavered. Another step. A pause to look back quickly, then at Karen again. Three steps. She was behind Karen. A quick slide and she was sitting on the curb next to the blonde woman.
"Erik," Callie called softly as her shoulder bumped into Karen lightly. "Can you tell me about Scarlet?"
Callie listened as Erik, after a glance at Karen, talked about how Scarlet was his family. That, as family, they accepted each other and looked out for one another. That was the point of Scarlet. That everyone was there because they belonged there. They were safe there. They knew that no one would hurt them there. Miss Karen, Domna Karen, Scarlet made sure of that.
While Erik talked, Karen sat very still. About midway through Erik's explanation, Paul tossed in some of his own comments. Paul told Callie that he was Bi Sexual. Part of the LGBT community as well as Scarlet.
He told her how usually LGBT's were often thought of as diseased or dirty because of fear of catching AIDS or something communicable just by knowing them. To some people they were considered to be perverts trying to indoctrinate children into their perversion.
It got even worse if you added in a sexual fetish like BDSM into the mix. No one wanted to associate with them. Not even family most of the time.
Scarlet didn't care about any of that. They all knew better. They were better than that. None of that was true. None!
As he and Erik talked, Wolfe walked quietly up to stand behind them. She saw Callie reach out to hold Karen's hand. Wolfe wasn't sure Callie even knew what she'd done, but it was obvious it wasn't Karen who was going to let go first. Wolfe reached down, caressing Callie's hair with a fingertip. Silently she listened with them.
Their morning schedule blown to pieces by the delay, Callie asked if she could talk with Violet about Scarlet. Karen dialed Violet's phone but it only rang without being picked up. Chagrined, they all got into the car for Erik to drive them to the hospital. Violet was scheduled to be discharged to go home, but they hoped that she was still there. If not, they could go visit her at home. Karen sat in the jumpseat and did not try to touch Callie. Callie kept her hands between her knees and didn't speak. Wolfe watched both of them with her concern clearly showing in her eyes.
They found Violet sitting in her hospital bed waiting to be discharged. When they'd first shown up, Violet had taken one look at Callie before turning to scold both Wolfe and Karen.
"What did you do to her?"
"Nothing." Karen's denial was overridden by Wolfe.
"We showed her the videos."
"So you told her? Everything?"
"She had to know."
"All at once? You had to tell her all at once? I swear, sometimes you two . . ." Violet drew a breath visibly calming herself before turning to talk to Callie. To answer Callie's questions. About Scarlet, and herself.
By talking about her own needs, Violet had gotten Callie, for the most part, to understand Scarlet from Violet's point of view. Her fetish wasn't something she wanted displayed to the public at large. Not because she was ashamed of herself, but because the public couldn't understand why she let that happen. Why she wanted that to happen. Why she begged for it. Why she needed it.
Instead, with Scarlet she had a place where she could have her pleasures. She knew that she'd be protected from scorn and derision by people who had no clue about her or what she needed. She was safe there from people who would try to abuse her. Or use her for themselves.
Callie skirted around LGBT's being members as if she wanted to be sure about what she was hearing. Violet had done her best to explain that even LGBT community members had a place. As long as they accepted the other members, they were accepted and acceptable. They were not anathema because they were Gay, or Bi, or whatever label society needed to put on them in their collective ignorance.
"Do you have a problem with girls loving girls?" Violet asked at one point as Callie danced her way around the issue yet again. "I mean, look at Karen and Maria. They love each other and they're both girls. Is that somehow bad? Dirty? Is that the problem?"
"No. Girls are ok. I like Girls. Karen's a good kisser." Callie looked at the floor when she spoke and licked her lips. "She tastes good."
Callie's revelation was a shock. No one had even considered she might be lesbian during their investigation of her background. Even when they hadn't uncovered a boyfriend in Callie's history they hadn't suspected it. Violet recovered from the surprise first. She pulled Callie down to whisper in her ear.
"I like the way she tastes too. But, don't tell her I told you that."
"I won't. I promise." Callie whispered back while blushing furiously.
Eventually, an orderly came to wheel Violet downstairs in a wheelchair with baby Daniel in her arms. All of them, Violet, Dominick, Callie, Karen and Wolfe had gone down together to the patient loading area in front of the hospital to see Violet and Dominick off. Dominick strapping baby Daniel into a new car seat. Callie took several pictures of Violet and little Daniel to show the rest of her family.
"Do you have any of those prints of Karen left? I'd like one if that's possible." Callie whispered to Violet as she kissed her goodbye.
"They're in my desk drawer in my office." Violet whispered back. "Under the folders. Top Secret hiding place so don't tell anyone."
Callie stepped out of the way so the others could say their goodbyes. Walking back to the limo Callie twined her fingers through both Karen's and Wolfe's. When Karen looked at her, she just smiled.
Once at the car, Callie lightly caressed Karen's cheek before transferring her gaze to Wolfe. She stepped close to the taller brunette.
"I will love you always. As long as I live you will not be alone." Callie told her sincerely then kissed her full on the mouth. "For what you did. For her. So I could find you both."
Looking once more into Karen's beautiful blue eyes she made her vow. "I choose you. All of you. Yes. As long as I am wanted, as long as there is a place for me with you, I will be here. I promise. Forever."
Karen let go of Maria and slid into Callie's arms. Her face tucked into Callie's shoulder she held on tightly while her shoulders shook. Callie hugged Karen just as tightly in return. Karen's mascara left a black smear on her shoulder.
"You know you're ruining my outfit again. That's two in two days. On top of the one that got ripped. My boss is going to get mad at me if this doesn't stop."
"Screw your boss. You are mine!" Karen's voice cracked as she laughed and cried at the same time.
"Sorry, she doesn't like girls." Callie released one arm from around Karen holding it out to Wolfe to make a three way embrace. "Or so she tells me."
Once they were back in the car heading to the office, Callie seated next to Wolfe as Karen fixed her smeared makeup while sitting across from them in the jump seat, Karen's phone rang.
"Yes Lainey?" Callie recognized the number while punching the speaker function on the phone.
"Miss Callie, your parents called to confirm they will be attending a luncheon today with Miss Karen and Maria."
"Did they say how many?"
"I believe they told me everyone was attending. Do you know how many and who?"
"Yes. There will be six of them. My parents, three sisters, and my brother."
"Very good. Would tier one be ok? We can reconfigure it for a banquet table setting."
Callie looked at Wolfe.
"That's fine Lainey." Wolfe said. "We're heading back to the office now. Could you please call Andrea to reschedule our appointment? Something unexpected happened this morning so we were not able to make it today."
"Do both of you still want to be there?" Lainey asked.
Karen nodded yes as she carefully applied eye shadow in the moving car.
Callie spoke up. "Yes. Karen's schedule is open on Wednesday. All day unless something else has come up I don't know about yet."
There was some conferring about Wolfe's schedule before Lainey told them she'd let them know the results when they got back to the office.
"Thank you Lainey." Wolfe was gracious as always.
"My pleasure ma'am." Lainey said as she ended the call.
When they finally got back to the office, Callie escorted both of them into the reception area. She excused herself saying she'd be back in a moment. Both Karen and Maria looked at her, but, she shooed them inside.
"Lainey," she whispered quickly. "Where is Violet's old office?"
Lainey pointed. "Three doors that way down the other hall on the other side." She whispered back.
Callie blew her a kiss before vanishing out the door.
Callie found Violet's office and carefully opened the door. Seeing no one inside, she quickly started pulling open the drawers in the desk. In the lower drawer she found the prints she was looking for under a stack of file folders. Top Secret hiding place indeed. Pulling six she put them on the top of the desk to hold them in place with a finger.
"Marcus. Respond please." Callie whispered softly.
"Yes?" The responding whisper from the hidden speaker above the desk was startling.
Callie indicated the prints under her finger. "A luncheon with Karen is scheduled for today on tier one. Is it possible that each of the six guests receive a copy of this inside their menus? Without Karen or Maria knowing about it? Only the guests?"
"Yes." The disembodied sibilant whisper was spooky in the empty office.
"Can you please make that happen for me? I can leave the prints here but I must get back now."
There was no response.
"Thank you Marcus." Callie left the prints on the desk hurrying back to Karen's office.
"Sorry." Callie apologized as she entered Karen's inner office.
"No need to be sorry. Come over here and tell me what you think of these."
Callie walked around Karen's desk to look at the computer screen. "What am I looking at?"
"If I got one of these, could you teach me to use it?" Karen asked her.
Callie froze. Bastinados filled the screen. A whole assortment of different weights and lengths.
"No. I will not teach you." Her response was almost wooden.
Wolfe laughed from her own office. "I told you so."
Karen stuck out her tongue at her.
"I saw that."
Karen made a rude noise while sticking out her tongue again. Wolfe laughed even harder.
Sighing Karen waved at the screen. "Why not?"
"Because it would change the dynamics of our relationship. Confuse who is who and what roles we have. You are my boss. I would have to be your sensei master to teach you. I cannot be the master of my boss. It is not possible. Not even part time because the role switching for training cannot be maintained in real life. Either both of us would try to be in command or both would be waiting for instruction on what to do. Either is a lethal failure in an emergency."
"So, we can have someone else teach me."
Wolfe laughed again. "I told you that too."
Callie leaned over to turn off the screen. "Karen, your role is to protect Scarlet. My role is to protect you and Maria. I cannot protect you if you are fighting in front of me in my place. The answer is no."
"So, I'm supposed to be helpless and defenseless?"
Callie chuckled. "You are not helpless. I've seen the video remember? You are everything but helpless."
Karen sulked. Callie put her arms around Karen's neck. She kissed her gently.
"You are mine. Forever. I will not let you put yourself in harms way as long as I am alive."
"Even if I order you to?"
"You can punish me after I disobey that order. But, you still won't get what you want because the answer is still no."
"I hate you."
"Liar." Callie hugged her. "You are always lying to me. About everything. You're terrible at it too. You should stop."
Karen sighed. "I know."
"I will buy you a stun gun if you want."
"I have pepper spray."
"Pepper spray is a distance weapon. Distance weapons are good because you can use them to keep the enemy away from you. However, pepper spray is also bad because it contaminates and affects everyone in the area if you use it too close or the wind is wrong.
"Plus, you can't really use it indoors. You can disable yourself, and me, with it. Yet the enemy can still get to us in some instances. So for you, a stun gun is better. You can't accidentally hit me with it, and if someone gets past me, you can use it without affecting any of us."
"However, you will still run away if I tell you to. That is your first line of defense. Leave me and get away."
"I will not leave you. Ever!" Karen's voice was fierce as her eyes flashed.
"Karen, if I tell you to run, you will run away as fast as you can. I will not argue with you about this. This is the rule. This is the limit. You will obey me in this. This one thing. Refuse and I will spank you. Hard. Until you cry."
"I am Scarlet, you have to obey me."
"I am not a member of Scarlet. I am your personal assistant. I will do whatever I think is necessary to assist and protect you and Maria. Whatever is necessary, including spanking you until you listen to me when I tell you to run away."
Wolfe laughed again. "That's three. You owe me twenty bucks."
Karen made the rude noise again.
Callie was in the front office reception area having Lainey explain how to purchase things through her new account with GreenWood. The amount of funds available was staggering. She was sure that it was wrong, though Lainey said it wasn't. Callie resolved to talk to Karen about it. She didn't think her job was supposed to pay that much. Really? That much? It was almost embarrassing considering what her job really entailed.
While she and Lainey discussed the infant sleeper Callie had picked out as a baby shower gift from all of them to Violet, the outer office door opened. Callie's family trooped in. At Callie's co-employers invitation, her family was there to get to know the company. And, the two very powerful women Callie now found herself working for.
When Lainey saw who it was, she took the tablet from Callie with a murmured; "I'll take care of this."
"Callie!" Poppy, bounced over to hug Callie. Then, it was Tulip's turn for a hug. Her mom and dad were next though, a bit more reserved than either Poppy or Tulip. T Rose came in last because she was the one holding the door open for everyone else.
"Callie, this is a very nice place." Her mother began as she looked around the reception area. She stopped dead while her hands flew up pointing to the wall behind the spare desk. At the painting there.
"Oh, Callie, you're on the wall."
"I know. They were the anonymous buyer. I was just as surprised to see it here as you are."
Callie grinned at her mother's surprise at seeing the painting hanging on the wall in the office. The painting of red Calla Lilies arcing across a narrow streamlet. The water reflecting the scarlet red of the blooms above. The painting which Callie's artist mother had seen in her mind when Callie was born. The painting which she believed was the true essence, and an omen, of her very first daughter. The painting named Scarlet Bridges.
"I'm sorry about letting it go. I really should have refused. I feel so bad about selling your painting." She caressed the frame.
"Don't be sorry. It's serendipity. Your daughter should be where her painting is." Karen stood in the open door to her inner office. "We are extremely lucky that both of your best works are here. Please, come inside."
"Both?" T Rose asked Karen.
"Yes. The painting, and Callie herself."
"What am I, chopped liver?" T Rose groused as she walked into Karen's office greeting Wolfe with a casual wave.
"Tea Rose, you are unique and have your own skills. There is a place for you somewhere. All you need to do is see where you will be most useful; then apply yourself and your skills to the tasks that await you." Maria's voice was quiet.
"You sound like Callie's karate sensei. Follow the path little lotus flower and you will find enlightenment. Or, some other mystical nonsense like that. Except no one ever tells you where the path is."
"That's because no one really can." Karen finished letting everyone else inside the inner office. "You must look, and see it, with your own eyes. Not someone else's. But, enough mysticism. Welcome everyone. Please, be seated."
Karen walked across her office and sat in her chair behind her desk. Wolfe sat in the wingback chair next to Karen. Callie stood to one side so that everyone else would have someplace to sit. She brought the extra chairs across the glass drawbridge, passing through the glass interior wall which linked Karen and Maria's twin offices. Everyone marveled at the engineering required to build the glass wall. Karen demonstrated the center section that comprised the draw bridge by raising it, then letting slide downward to rest level with the floor again.
"This is a very nice office. We had no idea that there were offices above the mall." Callie's dad started off with small talk once the demonstration was over.
"GreenWood actually owns the property including the mall and the surrounding acreage. We also own the private country club and golf course. It was the first property in our portfolio."
Karen went on to explain what GreenWood did and the extent of their holdings as a property management and investment firm. It wasn't long before both of her parents were looking askance at Callie. She knew they were both wondering how she fit into the company hierarchy. What did their tattoo artist daughter do for a multi-million dollar corporation?
Lainey came inside. "They are ready for you Ma'am." Looking to Callie's parents she continued. "Is your son going to join you? If not I can tell the staff so they are not waiting unnecessarily."
"Oh, no. Or, I mean yes. Henry said he'd join us. He wanted us to call and let him know when everything was ready. He said he had client appointments this morning he couldn't reschedule. Which is why he isn't here with us. I don't know where we're having lunch though." Callie's dad apologized.
"I'll take care of it." Callie walked over to Karen's desk. Picking up Karen's phone she dialed Henry's number.
"Henry. Lunch time. Meet us at the entrance to the Club restaurant in the mall, ok? We're leaving the office upstairs now so we'll be there shortly. Ok. Bye."
"All fixed." She told Karen as she hung up the phone.
Karen stood up. "Then, shall we go?"
It was fun walking through the mall with her family and Karen and Wolfe. They created a huge traffic jam by the size of their mob. Poppy skipped along beside Wolfe happily while holding hands. Wolfe was smiling fondly at her while talking and pointing out various things. Callie's father kept a wary eye on the way the woman treated his youngest child. She was an unknown quantity still. Even though she seemed to be ok and appeared to be trustworthy.
Callie took Karen's hand, fitting their fingers together. She would not lose Karen in the crush of people that way. Callie's dad missed it, but her mom saw her do it. Callie caught her mother's frown of displeasure at seeing the display of affection between her daughter and Karen. Once again, she was getting the wrong impression about Callie and her job.
Callie rolled her eyes, though she was careful to not let her parents see her do it. Karen had explained it to her. If a man is successful, everyone assumes he is powerful and intelligent. If a beautiful woman is successful, everyone assumes it's because she slept with someone. Or lots of someones.
Karen pointed out that she was positive that Callie hadn't slept with anyone to become a martial arts champion. Even though Callie was very pretty, beauty had nothing to do with skill and ability. Callie agreed with her. Yet, her parents didn't seem to notice they were treating their own daughter that way.
As they walked, Callie kept an eye on everyone so no one got lost. T Rose and Tulip walked together behind them. Tulip's eyelids were fluttering. T Rose kept her hand on Tulip's arm to help guide her through the pedestrian traffic. This was not unusual for any of the family. Everyone constantly helped whoever was processing information whenever they needed it. It never lasted very long and all of them did it at one time or another. It was just one of the drawbacks of their style of memory processing.
Henry was outside the restaurant entrance. He waved at them when he saw them coming. An attendant in a red jacket, waiting for them at the entrance to the restaurant, unhooked the rope barrier to let them inside. Karen and Callie were in front as they all played follow-the-leader up the sloping ramp to their table in the private member's only area.
Callie glanced around before looking silently at Karen.
"Yes. It was here." She nodded back at Callie.
Curious, T Rose glanced at Callie. Callie didn't respond to the unspoken question in her sister's eyes.
The table was set for them all. Complete with flower arrangements in the center, there were little white placards at each place setting. Each placard hand written in calligraphy with one of their names. Karen sat on the end, Wolfe at her right hand. Callie sat at her left, nearest the aisle. Callie's parents sat at the other end. Callie's sisters and Henry arranged down the sides. Poppy was seated next to her mother on the same side of the table as Callie.
Their server also wore a red jacket like the attendant at the entrance. Callie watched as she gave each of them a menu. Leaving hers on the table she watched her family. Each of them quickly looked up at her with shocked faces. When they had all seen what was inside she nodded.
"It's real. It really happened." Callie tapped at her menu with a single finger. "Absolute truth."
Callie's dad looked again at the printed image that had been inserted in his menu. Karen. Karen at her worst yet most beautiful.
Her hair was a tangled mess. Matted with brilliant contrasting red streaks of blood. Her makeup was smeared. Her lipstick a red slash from her mouth over and across the side of her badly bruised face. More blood trailed down the front of her torn clothes. Her eyes were wild, showing the whites around pupils that were fully dilated. Her lips were pulled back in a snarl that displayed her canines. The image perfectly captured every line of tension in her body as she screamed her rage and defiance while standing protectively over Maria's prone broken body on the floor behind her. She would never yield to the men forcing their way through the open doorway toward her. Or to anyone else. No one who saw that image would ever doubt it.
Callie's father closed his menu. He stood up. Her mother followed immediately. As did the rest of her family. Even Poppy, though she wasn't that certain why she should. They each folded their hands together, bowing in respect to Karen. Poppy only a breath behind everyone else.
"I have no more questions about why my daughter works for you." Callie's father told Karen and Wolfe. "I am satisfied."
"As am I." Her mother echoed him. "Our daughter is safe here. With you."
"Every freaking time." Karen grumbled to herself. "What is it about that picture?"
Surprisingly, Poppy walked down the table to climb into Maria's lap. Giving her a hug before returning to her seat. Wolfe blinked and sniffed a couple of times after getting the hug. Poppy grinned at her from the other end of the table. Wolfe smiled back and wrinkled her nose. Callie held onto Karen's hand in support.
For Callie, the meal ended up being a bit stressful. It was interrupted by three things after everyone had ordered.
The first was when Callie looked up to say thank you to the server as she placed Callie's dish on the table for her. Callie's heart stopped. Her breath caught. She froze. At T Rose's cough she croaked out a half strangled thank you.
"My pleasure." The server told her with a tiny captivating smile and a tiny wink.
Callie's was transfixed. Her eyes followed the girl as she finished serving everyone before picking up her serving tray. Callie, ignoring everyone and everything else, watched until the red jacketed woman walked out of sight into the service tunnel where, presumably, the kitchen was located. T Rose rolled her eyes when Callie finally looked around in befuddlement after she disappeared. Her mother frowned at her. Again. Karen only looked amused.
The second interruption was when Callie mentioned that Violet had delivered her baby. She pulled out her phone to show everyone the pictures of Poppy's flower fairy. Callie's parents were impressed at how beautiful she was. The pictures of baby Daniel had all the women smiling together. Even her dad grinned when they told him the baby had the same name he did. Only Henry was left out of the general happiness. He said he didn't mind because he wasn't interested in babies anyway.
The third interruption alarmed Callie. Tulip, without any warning, suddenly looked intently at Karen.
"I know your secret." Tulip announced without preamble into a momentary lull in the conversation.
"Tulip. . ." Callie began before she was cut off by a wave from Karen. Karen's secrets were not something to be discussed at the table with their parents present. Very definitely not general lunch conversation.
"What secret is that?" Karen asked Tulip calmly. Karen's hand was fully relaxed while Callie's tensed.
"Your secret. About how you walk the way you do."
Karen's sleepy, sensual, strut had every woman who saw it try to imitate it. Even Callie had tried, in secret, to imitate Karen's walk. Karen knew it drove everyone crazy, but would only say that her bones did the walking, not her. She only went along for the ride.
"Although I don't know the whole thing exactly." Tulip went on. "There's a part I can't know. No one can. Unless you tell them yourself."
"Really? So what is the secret? The part you do know." Karen's body posture was still calm and relaxed though everyone else went rigid with attention. Even Henry wanted to know how Karen did it.
"It's two parts really. Maybe three. You use the structure of your body in motion. That's the first part. The part everyone sees and tries to imitate. Tulip was almost clinical in her analysis.
"The second part is that you hesitate for a fraction of a second before you begin to move. A very, very tiny fraction of a second. It happens every time. You basically pause while you think of something before you begin to move. I don't know what you think of. Obviously.
"The maybe third part is that you somehow apply what you're thinking about to the way you walk. I don't know how because I don't know what it is that you're thinking about."
"Would you like to know?" Karen's offer surprised both Callie and Wolfe. T Rose leaned forward eagerly.
"Yes. Very much." Tulip was nearly begging as she replied to Karen's offer. "Please?"
Karen looked at everyone at the table. "Excuse us for a moment."
Karen got up from her seat holding out her hand for Tulip to grasp. Callie started to rise to go with them.
"No. Callie, I need privacy for this. Please stay here with your family and Maria. I will be right back."
Callie made a small noise and stood anyway. Her job was to be with Karen. Always. Where Karen went, she went.
"I will be right over there. In sight the whole time." Karen pointed to another smaller table in an alcove not that far away. "I promise I won't go anywhere else."
Callie didn't look happy but sat back down. She turned her chair slightly so she could see the other table area without twisting.
Karen held Tulip's hand as they walked to the other table. Everyone watched as Karen talked very quietly to Tulip. Tulip's eyes were on Karen's face. Karen explained whatever it was that Tulip thought was Karen's secret, Karen indicating her body with her hands. Tulip nodded each time as Karen gestured to herself.
Karen talked some more. She gracefully waved her hands. Once she raised a lazy finger, making a looping motion with it before placing her hand over her heart.
When she finished talking, Tulip nodded once sharply. Karen placed her hand flat on Tulip's chest and held it there. Tulip closed her eyes. In a few moments Karen removed her hand. She waited. Tulip opened her eyes. She said a single word.
Whatever it was that Tulip said, the observers around the table couldn't hear. Karen nodded smoothly. Tulip's face lit with satisfaction and understanding at Karen's affirmation. For her, the mystery was solved. Holding hands again, they returned to the table. Tulip gave Karen a gentle hug before they parted to reseat themselves.
"Well?" T Rose was unable to contain herself. If only she knew how Karen did it . . .
"She lets her bones do the walking and she just goes along with them." Tulip used the same explanation that Karen usually used.
T Rose glared at her sister. "Did she just tell you to say that?"
"It's the truth. It's what she does. I'm not lying."
"That doesn't mean anything. It's nonsense."
"Well, I can't help it if you don't look at what's in front of your face, can I?"
"Girls!" Callie's mom clapped her hands together. "Manners!"
"Yes mama." The girls chorused though Callie could see T Rose plotting to get Tulip alone when they got home again.
Karen seated herself again while reaching out to touch Callie. Callie shifted her chair back to the table, fitting her hand into Karen's when she was done.
"All of your daughters are very remarkable. Very special." Karen told Callie's parents.
"Well, some of them are." Callie's mother had her eye on T Rose who squirmed in her seat.
Several days later Karen caught Callie unaware as she was thumbing through pictures on her tablet. She was sitting sideways in the wingback chair with her feet drawn up. She was quickly flicking each image away with her finger to show the next one.
"What are you looking for?" Karen asked over Callie's shoulder
Callie startled, quickly dumping the tablet face down onto the low table at her chairside. "Nothing. Just window shopping. Is there something you need?"
Karen picked up the tablet touching the screen to activate it. The last image that Callie had been looking at was still on the screen. Karen used her finger to flick that image away to look at the previous one. Another flick for the one before that.
"Window shopping? Indeed. Who are you looking for?"
Karen looked through her eyelashes at Callie. "Try again."
Callie squirmed. Blushing a flaming red in embarrassment.
"Ah." Karen handed the tablet back to Callie. "Her name is April. You will find her under Smith. Be warned. She is fickle and not particularly faithful. She has had many lovers in the time I've known her. She is a heartbreaker. She enjoys being that way."
"You don't mind?" Callie was flabbergasted Everyone else thought she was weird. Even her own family thought she was weird. They disapproved. Strongly.
"Callie, I am Scarlet. There are aspects of who I am that you still don't understand or know about. In comparison to those things, who you choose to sleep with does not offend me or bother me at all. It is who you are. I accept you as you are. Every bit of you. I love you for yourself even if I do not share the same desires in a life companion.
"What I do ask is that you be true to yourself always. Remember your promises. When she breaks your heart, remember that I will always love you."
"She'll still tell you 'I told you so'." Wolfe came out of her office across the glass drawbridge. She looked tired.
Karen made a small noise in her throat before striding over to her. "You are being bad again." She told Wolfe sternly. "I warned you."
"I'm fine." Wolfe pushed her away.
"No you're not. I am going to invoke that promise I made to you if you don't do it yourself. This week."
"Karen . . ."
"No!" Karen stomped her foot. "Maria Arraceli Wolfe, you will obey me in this! You have two days to get your things together and be completely absent from Scarlet. You will not call. You will not text. You will not email. To anyone regarding your service to Scarlet while you are absent."
"And if I don't?" Wolfe sounded stubborn.
"I will have several big strong men put you on a plane. In chains if necessary!"
"Karen, you know . . ."
"No!" Karen dragged Wolfe over to Karen's desk pointing at her own chair. "Sit! Now!"
Wolfe stared in defiance for a moment. Without warning, she suddenly capitulated to sit in Karen's chair.
"Good." Karen punched a button on her phone. "Lainey! Implement Plan Alpha."
"Miss Karen?" Lainey's voice was startled.
"Now Lainey. Plan Alpha."
Within a minute four men in black uniforms entered Karen's office. They were holding chains and shackles. Callie jumped to her feet moving between them and Karen.
"Callie, stop! Stand down." Karen told her sternly before motioning the men forward.
"Maria Wolfe. Scarlet has given you a direct order. You will comply. If you do not, I will have these men bind you, strip you naked, punish you severely, then take you away immediately. Your consent to this is on record. You can not refuse. You can not disobey. Do you understand?"
"You would really do this to me?" Wolfe was shocked.
"Maria. I do this for you. I will have them take you away. After you are gone I will resign and leave Scarlet forever. I cannot do this without breaking my own heart. Please. Even doing just this much hurts so badly I can barely stand it. Please?" Karen was pleading.
Lainey's voice came over the speaker again. "Hotel reservations for four in Rio De Janeiro, confirmed. Round trip Air fare for four, confirmed. Boarding passes are printing now. Passports are en route. Personnel are standing by."
Wolfe looked at Karen. "Seriously?"
Karen nodded. Opening Wolfe's hand she kissed her on her palm before closing her fingers over the kiss. She turned away stiffly. Staring out the window, hands fisted at her sides she was rigid. Holding herself together against the pain she was feeling inside. She closed her eyes so she would not see Maria's reflection in the glass as she made her pronouncement.
"I resign. I quit. My last order as Scarlet; take her. Punish her and ensure that she leaves on her flight. She is not to return for three weeks minimum. If she returns before that time, punish her again and return her to her destination. By my word and seal as . . ."
"NO!" Callie shouted as the four men in black began to move forward. Callie stepped between them and Wolfe. "No! You will NOT!"
Lainey came running into the office at Callie's shout. Slamming the door open, she skidded to a stop. Her eyes were wide with fear.
"Leave. Or I will hurt you. I promise." Callie told the four men in black. Looking at Lainey she continued. "No one comes in. No one! Leave! NOW!"
Setting herself, Callie began to advance on them. She would force them to leave if she had to. With each step Callie took forward, the four men took one back until Lainey finally found her voice telling them to go. As they fell over themselves trying to get through the door. Callie was left wondering what to do next.
It was almost like when Callie and her brother had gotten into a screaming match over some stupid toy when they were kids. It had been Callie's toy and Henry had wanted it. Their mother had come in during the screaming and kicking. She had slapped . . . Callie.
"This is your fault she'd told Callie. You did this. Because you are selfish. It would not hurt you to let him play with it."
Then, she had turned to Henry and scolded him. "You know it is not yours. Yet you demanded it as if you were entitled to it. Family does not do this to each other."
In slow motion as if it were happening to someone else and she just an observer, Callie walked over to Wolfe, pulling her to her feet. Callie dragged Wolfe, stumbling, around to stop in front of Karen. Wolfe protesting and trying to get free the whole time Callie was manhandling her.
"I am sorry. Please remember that I love you." Callie told Wolfe before she hit her. The blow sending Wolfe tumbling into Karen.
Both of them were knocked backwards. Callie, stepping up, slapped Wolfe across the face. Shouting at her.
"This is your fault! Not hers. Yours! You make her pay for your selfishness. You know better. You did this. Your fault!"
Turning her anger on Karen she continued. "You! You caused this. You demanded when you should have asked. You forced when you should have coaxed. You pushed when you should have waited. Love does not do this. You do not do this to each other. I will not allow it.
"Now get off the floor. Both of you. Sit there and shut up." Callie continued to berate them as she walked back and forth in front of them. Wolfe, holding her face, tried to speak.
"I said SHUT UP! You've said more than enough for one day. No more. I will not allow it. If you don't be quiet I will beat you some more."
"Callie," Karen's voice was rough.
"No! You be quiet too! I've had enough! She is not a slave for you to order around just because you know she can't refuse. She is your friend. You love her. You don't get to treat her like this."
Red faced from anger, Callie went on with her tirade. Wolfe bore the brunt of it.
"She is not someone you can hurt because you don't want to do something that's good for you. You know how much it would hurt her to have to force you to go away. You know that! But you don't want to do it. Because you are stubborn. So instead, you hurt her. Intentionally. Because you are selfish!
"You are both very bad girls. I am very angry with both of you. I don't even know if I love either one of you right now.
"So, here's what you're going to do. You're going to sit there and be quiet. I don't want to hear a peep out of either one of you. Not a peep. Understand? Or so help me I will spank both of you. Until you can't sit down for a month! After that I'll send you both to Rio. In your underwear."
Callie stopped pacing. She leaned over so that both Karen and Wolfe got a good look at her face. "Understand?" She growled softly before striding for the door to Lainey's reception area.
"Lainey! I need a paddle." Callie called out as she opened the door. "A big thick wooden one."
As Callie slammed the door behind her, Wolfe and Karen looked at each other. Karen opened her mouth to speak. Callie jerked the door open.
"I told you to BE QUIET!" She shouted at them before slamming the door closed again.
In the outer office Lainey looked at Callie with huge eyes. She was trembling with fright and confusion. Callie winked at her before turning to her painting on the wall. Kissing her fingertips she touched the frame of the painting. Turning to Lainey she asked quietly.
"Can you change the dates on those tickets and reservations? For two days from now?"
Lainey nodded yes.
"Thank you. Please do that for me ok?"
Lainey nodded again. Callie picked up the phone to dial home. When the phone rang on the other end of the line her mother picked it up.
"Callie! Are you all right?"
"You don't sound all right."
"I'm fine. I just wanted to say thank you."
"For being my mom."
"Silly." Callie's mother chided her.
"Really. I love you."
"I love you back. Do you need something?"
"Is Rose there? I need to see if she'll do me a favor."
"Hang on. ROSE! Callie's on the phone for you."
A click sounded as T Rose came on the extension.
"What? You need money or something?"
"No. It's possible that someone I know might need a house sitter in a couple of days. You up for it if she does?"
"If this goes down, I'll let you know. Otherwise I can't say. Ok?"
"I guess. For how long?"
"I don't exactly know. A while I think."
"Yeah? What's it pay?" T Rose was mercenary when it came to money.
"We'll work something out. I just needed to know if you were interested."
"Yeah. I guess am. I got nothing better to do right now anyway."
"Ok. I'll let you know. Thanks Rose."
Callie went back into the office after an hour. She was carrying two steaming cups of tea. One was chamomile with honey for Karen. The hot sweet drink would be soothing. The other was a strong black that Callie knew that Wolfe especially liked. As she entered she saw that they had rearranged the chairs. They could sit side-by-side looking out the window. They were holding hands.
Callie set Wolfe's tea on the desk going around to face Karen. She handed the tea to her in silence.
"Callie." Karen's voice was scratchy. As if she'd been screaming.
Callie placed her finger over Karen's lips. "Shh."
Removing her finger she kissed Karen very gently on the mouth. I love you, she mouthed silently.
Slipping sideways she knelt down, karate style, facing Wolfe. She leaned forward with her hands on her thighs, elbows out. Her head almost touched Wolfe's knees.
"You hit me." Wolfe talked slowly to avoid stressing her jaw.
"I'm sorry. But, I promised and you were hurting her. I didn't know what else to do. " Callie's voice was very quiet in the stillness of the office.
"I don't know if I can forgive you for that."
Karen made a move to sit up but Wolfe just gripped her hand tighter. Callie nodded her understanding. Her acceptance. She no longer had a place there. Her place with Karen was gone forever. Because she'd done what she'd promised to do. Protect Karen. Even when she knew doing just that was going to cost her everything.
"I asked Lainey to change the dates of the reservations. She changed them to two days from today. I asked my sister T Rose if she would be interested in house sitting for you. I didn't tell her it was for you in case you don't want her to. She said she'd do it. If that's ok, you can call her to set it up."
Callie got to her feet retrieving the black tea for Wolfe. Handing the cup to Wolfe she bowed deeply. Respectfully. "I am sorry. Please forgive me. I didn't want to hurt you."
Callie turned and addressed Karen. "I really do love you."
She bowed again before beginning to leave the office. As she got to the door Karen croaked a short question at her.
"Where are you going?"
"I don't know." Callie said as she shut the door behind her.
"Goodbye," she told Lainey with a hitch in her voice. Leaving the office she began to run down the hall. Skipping the elevator, Callie took the stairs. She jumped from each landing to the next in her haste to get away. To try to outrun her broken heart.
Callie ran for hours. When she couldn't run any more, she walked until she caught her breath enough to run again. As she ran she cried. Sometimes she screamed out her loneliness, sorrow and pain. Once, a patrol car tried to stop her. She ducked down an alley sprinting between two buildings. She hopped over a fence before the cops caught sight of her again. They lost her. Night fell. Still she ran or walked.
Eventually she stumbled from sheer exhaustion. Tripping, she fell, scraping her knees and lacerating her palms on rough pavement. She was in the middle of the street on her hands and knees panting. She needed to rest.
Another few blocks went by. She sank down in the tiny entrance alcove between the sidewalk and the front door to the Dojo where she practiced her karate. In all her running to try to get away, she had instinctively circled back to the one place she felt she belonged.
Curling up in the corner between the door and the alcove wall she began to shiver. Clamping her arms around her knees to try to keep warm she waited. She whimpered at the pain in her heart. She was alone. Again. Except, this time she was the one who was in the wrong. She was a liar. An oathbreaker. She deserved to die. Wanted to die. For the pain she'd caused. For hurting someone. For breaking her promises, her oaths. Please! Please, let me die! It hurts so much. Please!
A tapping on the glass behind her head woke her up. A muffled voice was telling her that they weren't open. She had to go home. Callie lifted her head. The tapping and the voice stopped. The door security bolts rattled as someone tried to open the door.
"Callie?" A voice called as the door opened. "Is that you? Are you all right? What happened?"
Callie looked up and started to cry. "Master, I broke my promises. I broke my oath. I'm sorry. I had to. I had to. I had no choice!"
Callie's Sensei Master looked down at one of his best and brightest students. He saw the pitiful wreck she was. Kneeling down he gathered her into his arms. She was freezing with cold. Not knowing what else to do he carried Callie inside, placing her into his lone office chair. He dialed Callie's phone number. It rang a half ring before it was answered.
"Hello. This is Takeshi Himura."
"Oh, Master Himura. Callie can't come to the phone right now. Can I take a message?" T Rose was talking very quickly.
"Callie, is here." Himura told T Rose.
"She's there? You found her? Oh my God!" T Rose squealed. She began to talk to someone else. "She's there! She's at her karate place!"
Some fumbling noises and a voice he didn't recognize came on.
"Hello? Is Callie ok? Is she hurt?" The woman asking the questions was anxious.
"Who are you?" Himura asked the voice.
"I'm a friend. We're really worried about Callie. She disappeared yesterday. Is she ok?"
"She's here but she's not ok. She looks like she's been run over by a herd of elephants to tell the truth."
"A fight? Is she hurt from a fight? Is she injured?"
"Not that I can see. It looks like she's exhausted. Maybe she fell down a couple of times. She keeps mumbling that she's sorry and that she broke her promise."
"Ok, I understand. We'll come to get her. We're almost there. Maybe twenty minutes."
The unknown voice abruptly ended the connection.Himura was trying to get Callie to drink some water when there was a tapping on the door of the studio. Callie, once again, spit the water her Master had been trying to get her to drink down the front of her clothes. As the tapping continued, Himura looked across the open training area in the front of the studio. He saw a huge black woman in a yellow sundress with big white daisy's printed on it. She was tapping on the glass of the door with a fingernail. She wore a large brimmed straw hat with tiny daisy's embroidered on the hat band.
Walking over he began to say that the studio wasn't open. Before he got the first words out of his mouth the woman pointed at the office.
Himura opened the door waving the black woman inside.
"She is in here," he motioned to his office. "She needs a doctor."
"I'm a doctor. I'm here because you told us she was hurt."
"What happened? Do you know?"
The huge black woman walked into the office to assess Callie's condition. "She had a fight. She hit someone she loves very much. She hurt her."
"She hit someone? Unprovoked? I don't believe that. Not from her." Himura was steadfast in his belief that Callie would never harm someone without a reason. He knew the depth of her belief. He knew how strongly she valued her oath.
"She did. I've seen the injury. Treated it. She hit her friend twice. Without warning."
"Why? She knows better. I can't believe it. She knows better. She swore to never do that kind of thing. She swore it. Why would she do such a thing?"
"I don't know why she did it. I just know she did."
"How many bones are broken?" Himura was amazed that Callie would hit someone who was not a threat to her.
"No broken bones. Just some bruising and a sore jaw."
"Then, she did not intend to hurt her friend. Had she intended to injure, she'd have broken bones. She is easily capable of breaking bone with one hit. If she didn't, she pulled her strike. She knew exactly what she was doing if that's what happened."
Finishing with her examination of Callie, the black woman scooped Callie from the chair into her arms. Powerful muscles in her legs allowed her to stand up while cradling Callie against her chest.
"I don't know why she hit her friend, but she did. For now, it looks like she's just suffering from exhaustion and overexertion. She needs warmth, rest, and fluids. I'll take care of her." With a nod she walked out the door. Himura was amazed at the strength he'd just seen displayed so casually.
Chasandra hadn't told Himura everything. It was obvious Callie had suffered some sort of trauma emotionally because of what she'd done, or had been forced to do. Chasandra needed to know why in order to bring Callie back to herself. Callie could tell her eventually. Chasandra was positive about that.
In the meantime, if she was taken home, her family would be noisy and intrusive in their desire to see Callie well again. Not ideal. Callie needed quiet. Security. A place of refuge. A place of safety. A place to heal from the hurt and pain of what she'd done. Excessive noise and fussing would interfere with her healing and recovery. She could not go home. Not yet. Not soon.
The office was out of the question. As was any place associated with the office such as the GreenWood Inn. Really, there was only one place which might be suitable. Wolfe's apartment. It was quiet. No one else would be there once Wolfe left for Rio. It had no memories at all for Callie since she'd never visited there. It was a place where they could be without anyone asking questions or intruding. A place where Callie could get the care she needed and could accept.
Quietly, while holding Callie in her arms, Chasandra told her driver to take them there.
* * * * *
For the first time in her life, Callie's memories were unclear and uncertain. She had impressions of someone huge and dark taking her to the bathroom. She was placed onto the toilet seat, told what to do, cleaned up afterward. She was washed and dried. Her injuries were tended. She slept in a bed that wasn't hers. In pajama's that weren't hers. In a room that wasn't hers. In a house that wasn't home.
There was someone else in the bed with her. Always. When she realized she wasn't alone it was because she recognized the tiny snore from behind her. T Rose. Callie didn't even have to look to know it was T Rose in bed with her. Arms around Callie, snuggled up to her back, T Rose snored like a purring kitten.
There were more impressions of other people sleeping with her. Once, she was sure her mother was there by the feel and warmth. When she finally opened her eyes a tiny slit, Poppy was sitting on the bed doing homework singing her nonsense song. Poppy had one finger inside Callie's clenched fist as she concentrated on her Math assignment.
Other impressions. Her father sitting in a chair. Someone carrying her to the bathroom. Someone feeding her by hand. Forcing her to drink. Feeling hot and sick. Vomiting a seemingly endless number of times. Lost and empty and alone. The feeling that she was off balance and falling. And always, the tears and a tearing pain in her heart.
She opened her eyes to darkness. There was the smell of Karen's perfume. A bare shoulder in front of her. The unmistakable silver hair told her that Karen was the one sleeping with her. Callie snuggled against Karen's body until she was wedged tight against Karen's back. Callie very gently kissed the bare shoulder in front of her where it met Karen's neck. She drifted back to sleep. In the darkness a low voice spoke.
"Scarlet calls you home." Chasandra held the phone up to her ear for a moment longer then hit the button to end the call.
When Callie was next aware, she realized that her pajamas had been changed. Now she wore blue instead of the green that had replaced the white. The sheets were a silvery gray instead of white so the bed linens had to have been changed too. Callie had no memory of those events.
Warmth at her back told her she was still not alone in the big bed. A slim arm trailed from behind her on top of the covers to hang over Callie's side. Callie was holding the hand at the end of that arm in hers. As she looked she saw that the arm was tanned a deep brown. The nails were polished and well manicured. The only flaw was the white scar on the wrist.
Callie let go of the hand. Pushing at the arm. Her heart clenched in remembered pain. Remembered rejection. She wasn't wanted here. Wasn't allowed here. Wasn't accepted here. She tried to breathe but couldn't. Her scream emerged as a whimper from her clogged throat.
"L'v-'ou". The words were soft and mumbled. The arm across Calllie's body snaked to catch her fingers. Pulling Callie tight, a warm breath tickled the back of Callie's neck stirring the fine downy hairs there. Wolfe mumbled again as she drifted back to sleep with Callie in her arms. "Awys. F'revr."
The scent of perfume once again tickled Callie's nose as a white body slid under the covers. Wiggling backwards until it was tight against Callie's front. Karen pulled Callie's and Wolfe's linked hands forward. As Karen locked her own hand around both of theirs, Callie's rapid panicky panting eased. She placed her cheek against Karen's back. Chasandra left the room for the first time in weeks.
When Callie woke up again she had the impression she'd been looking at Karen's sleepy face and tousled hair while Karen tenderly traced Callie's forehead with a finger. But, no one was there. Instead, she was alone for the first time she could remember since that day. Clinking, splashing noises sounded like someone was washing dishes somewhere.
Callie sat up, holding onto the headboard as her head swam with dizziness. Her brain felt swollen. Standing up, she tried to walk. She was so weak she could barely make herself shuffle. Staggering from the bed, to the dresser, to the door jam, she made it far enough to look out of the bedroom she was in.
She could see the corner of a leather couch from where she drunkenly clutched the door frame. It wasn't too far. She could do that. Staggering some more she made it to the couch, bracing her arms on the leather covered back. Dizzily she looked around.
Rose was hand washing dishes with her back to Callie. Callie began to stagger in her direction. She didn't quite make it to the glass topped table before she started to fall. Something made T Rose turn around as Callie swayed, grabbing at the table for support.
"Oh, no! You're supposed to stay in bed." Rose ran over to grab Callie in a bear hug around the middle. Lifting as Callie began to sink to the floor.
"C'mon Callie, you gotta help. If you fall down I'll never get you back up again. C'mon. Up! Atta girl. Push!"
Rose used one hand to pull a chair out from the table maneuvering Callie into it. Callie drooped. Her arms were limp on the table top. She let her face rest against the cool glass, unaware Rose had left her until after Rose returned with a glass of orange colored liquid.
"Here. It's orange juice." Rose squatted in front of Callie putting the straw that was in the glass near Callie's lips. Callie sipped a small amount.
"Where are we?" Calliie's voice sounded rough from disuse.
"Maria's apartment. You and I are staying here together. You've been sick. Really sick. For weeks."
"Apartment?" Callie didn't know Rose had an apartment. She lived at home still. Why did she need an apartment?
"Maria's apartment. She let us use it while she was gone. Isn't it nice?" Rose sighed. "I wish I could live someplace like this permanently. I don't know how I'd pay the rent though. I need to find a job or something."
"Gone?" Callie still didn't seem to be processing information very well.
"Maria's been gone. To Rio. For nearly a month. Since you got sick. Don't you remember?"
Callie didn't want to remember. Remembering hurt. Remembering brought back the ache. The loneliness. The emptiness. She shook her head as it lay on the table top.
"That's all right. You will eventually." T Rose patted Callie's arm. "Can I ask you something?"
Callie lifted her head briefly to look at her sister.
"What's it like to be a lesbian? Karen explained to us about how you're a lesbian. When she told us about your club. You were raving about it when you were feverish. She had to tell us about your club because we didn't understand what you were saying."
"Club?" Callie's mind was reeling with fatigue.
"The scarlet club, thing, whatever. That you're a member of."
Callie rocked her head in denial. "I don't . . . I'm not . . . No club."
"Listen, I'm not doing this right. You're still sick. We need to get you back into bed. You can tell me when you get better. Ok? So, c'mon party girl, it's bed time. Arm around my shoulders. That's it. Let's stand up together. Ready? Up!"
"Party girl?" Callie swayed as they tottered together toward the bedroom.
"Hey, you're the only girl I know whose mother oK'd you sleeping with her boss. And, anybody else who fit in the bed too. It's been quite a parade between your sheets lately. We almost had to have everyone take a number."
"Not sleeping with her."
"Sweety, you've been sleeping with your boss for nearly a month. Both of them now. I'd say that qualifies."
T Rose got Callie into bed. By the time she returned with the glass of orange juice Callie was asleep again. Tenderly, Rose brushed stray hair off of her sister's sleeping face.
More misty feverish dreams. Nightmares really. She kept dreaming of the smoky smell of burning incense. The room shrouded in gloom as candles burned, casting a flickering yellow light from the flames dancing on their wicks.
Nearby a shadow knelt on the floor looking directly at her. A black and silver Japanese short sword was positioned in front of the shadow. A Wakizashi. Often used for ritual Seppuku.
"There are two possibilities." The shadow caressed the sword. The blade shivered in the wavering light. "But, only one solution. One answer. The choice is yours."
Callie shook her head in denial. No. The pain is too great.
"There is only one solution." The shadow intoned again as it raised the Wakizashi. "Only one choice. Pain doesn't matter. Random chance decides if you refuse. For you? For another? For all? Random chance decides. Unless you choose."
"No. I choose. I choose!" Callie shakily lifted the covers in a silent invitation. "Please? I choose."
It was the only possible solution. The only possible answer. The only one she could honorably give. The one she'd sworn she would do. Protect those who needed her. Accept the pain regardless of the cost to herself.
The shadow flowed up from the floor. Silently it slipped under the covers into her heart. The pain was intense. As if she'd stabbed herself repeatedly with the short sword until she'd cut away everything she'd stood for. Everything she was. Everything she wanted. All that was left was the pain and loss and sorrow.
Yet, she could not let go. Could not let the shadow win. If the shadow won, Maria and Karen would share in their loss of Callie. Callie could not, would not, let that happen.
Slowly, she began to rebuild herself. To step away from the darkness that beckoned her. Karen's beautiful face haunted her with it's images of tears and sorrow. Maria's voice, silenced. Their warmth, their love, their bond; ended for all time. Her failure meant tragedy for the ones she cared for.
Callie screamed and raged at the darkness which tried to swallow her forever. She fought with every nuance of her soul. The pain seemed eternal as she beat back the shadows. To live. To love. Again.
Callie's convalescence was not easy. Her fever and malnourishment from her refusal to eat cost her dearly in muscle mass and weight. Her food had to be specially prepared until she had gained enough of a head start before she could begin to eat regular meals again. After that, she was put into a slow exercise regimen beginning with isometrics and stretching. It was boring even though she still slept a lot.
T Rose and her mother were there most often during the day. Sometimes Karen would be there in the afternoons. She would often stay overnight to sleep with Callie cuddled next to her. Mostly, Callie slept with Wolfe, or Rose. Wolfe was still shyly hesitant with her. Callie took to placing her hand flat over Wolfe's heart in reassurance that as long as her heart beat, Callie would be there. It was enough. For now.
This morning, Callie had been allowed to get up. She was dressed in sweats and slippers instead of pajamas. Karen had kissed her before she and Wolfe had left for the office. There were a lot of things at GreenWood, and Scarlet, that they'd left unattended because of Callie. Things which needed to be done. Things which required both of them. Callie closed her eyes as they shut the door so she wouldn't see them leave her behind.
Rose sat at the table with the newspaper going through the help wanted section. She was determined, almost fixated, on finding a job so she could afford an apartment of her own like Wolfe's. She showed Callie an ad for a graphic designer.
"I'd apply, but I don't have anything to wear if they gave me an interview. Not that they would because I don't have any experience or certifications. Which I need for a high class job like that. Jeans and T shirts won't do it. Any job where I can wear stuff like that won't pay enough."
"You can wear anything in my closet. You know that." Callie told her from where she sat on the couch with her feet up.
"Not your good clothes! Those are for you."
Callie waved her hand over her body in explanation that she wasn't needing them right now. "Like they'd fit? Go ahead. No one will mind. I'll buy you some stuff if you find someplace to work."
"You? With what? You're just as broke as I am."
Callie looked at her sister. "I have money. I get paid for working for Karen."
"You do? I mean, I just thought that you . . . that . . . you know."
"You know, what?"
"That you were lovers. That's why you are together."
"I told you. I don't sleep with her. Or anyone else," she added as Rose looked meaningfully at the bedroom. "That is not why I work for her. My job is to be her companion. Not her bed partner."
"So, it's not a lesbian thing?"
Callie rolled her eyes. "I already told you, she's straight vanilla."
Rose lifted her eyebrows. She made kissy faces while pointing at the bedroom. Callie sighed.
"She has emotional issues. Both of them do. Because of what happened. I showed you the picture. It really did happen."
"So she needs to be reassured that the people around her aren't going to try to rape her or beat her half to death again. She limits who she's alone with to only those people she can trust. Most of them are her bodyguards. You saw them. They kept her in a bubble. She talked to no one. Touched no one. Was alone with no one. Even her family was intimidated. Just because there are scumbags who only want her for her body. Bastards who will hurt her to get her to let them use her.
"So she touches and kisses the people she trusts to get emotional support. She does it a lot because she remembers what happened a lot. There's a video. Raw doesn't even begin to cover it. It was bad. The picture is from the video. It's the third time she's been attacked by someone trying to rape her. So she's a little insecure. For good reason I think."
"So, if it's not that, then your job is . . .?"
"To be there. To be someone she can talk to. About anything. Someone to have coffee with. Window shop at the mall with. Laugh over stupid jokes with. Run errands for when she's too busy. Stuff like that."
"That's all? Not sleeping with her, sex I mean?"
"No. I told you, she's straight. I just do things for her. Like, I bought this cute sleeper outfit for Violet's little Daniel as a gift. I sent it to her with a card from Karen. I had Karen put on some really ruby red lipstick and kiss the card." Callie giggled.
"We had to practice to get the impression right. Karen was kissing card paper for nearly ten minutes. She'd sign her name and kiss the paper. She got chapped lips. There's even a contract in the files that has her signature and a lipstick kiss on it 'cause she forgot after we got Violet's card finished. She kissed the paperwork after she signed it. It was funny."
"And Maria? What's up between you and her? Or shouldn't I ask?"
Callie's chest got tight. It was really too soon for her to talk about it, but Rose had a right to know. She'd been there while Callie needed her. She'd seen it. Been part of it.
"I . . . we . . . they . . . had a problem. Some things were said and done that neither she nor Karen meant. They hurt each other because of it. I . . ." Callie couldn't continue past the pain in her chest. She wrapped her arms around herself to try to hold it inside where Rose couldn't see how much it hurt.
T Rose quickly got up to sit next to her sister on the couch. Hugging Callie tightly she began to talk to her.
"Hey, hey. It's all right. I'm here. You're ok. Everything is fine. I love you."
It wasn't enough. It HURT!
* * * * *
"What do you mean she ran away again?" Karen's voice hitched with fear as she collapsed into her chair.
"She's gone! She was on the couch. I got her a pillow after she had this crying fit but she seemed fine once she stopped. I went in to go to the bathroom. When I came out, she was just gone! I looked everywhere. She's not here. She's not in the hallway outside. Or the stairs. Or the elevator. Or the lobby." Rose's voice was ragged.
"I ran down the block in each direction screaming her name. Everyone thought I was crazy. I didn't see her. I asked people. No one saw her."
"Did you call the police?" Wolfe asked in a flat tone as she held herself rigid. Suppressing the shock and fear that they might lose Callie all over again.
"Yes. They said they won't do anything until she's been missing for twenty four hours. Just like last time."
"Ok. We'll be right there. Maybe we can find her somehow. Maybe we can get lucky again."
Karen stared out the window as the car moved along the roadway. Urging Erik to drive faster wasn't going to help find Callie any quicker. Even though she really wanted to scream at him for driving too slowly.
Another stoplight made them wait. It seemed like they'd hit every stoplight in town so far as they tried to hurry back to Wolfe's apartment building so that they could start searching the area nearby. It was frustrating. Karen wanted to scream at the stoplights too.
The light turned green for them and the car started to roll forward. Karen looked out the window once more. Half hidden on the bus stop bench across the street was a dark haired girl in pink holding a pillow. She looked like she was heading to a slumber party. It was cute. Karen turned her head to look at her as they began picking up speed again.
"Stop the car!" Karen suddenly yelled as she unbuckled her seatbelt. "Stop! STOP! ERIK, STOP THE DAMN CAR!"
Erik slammed on the brakes nearly causing the car behind them to rearend them. Karen opened her door, tumbling out of the car before it came to a full stop. Cars in the next lane swerved to avoid hitting her. Running across the traffic lanes Karen started screaming at the top of her lungs.
"CALLIE! Oh my God! CALLIE!"
Bouncing off of one car, slamming her hands onto the hood of another as both drivers skidded to a stop to avoid running her down, she dashed across the boulevard toward the bus stop. Karen sank to her knees in front of the bench. Callie was hugging the pillow. She had her eyes closed.
"Callie?" Karen placed her trembling hand on Callie's knee.
Callie opened her eyes. She smiled sleepily as she recognized Karen. "Hi."
"What are you doing here?" Karen asked gently with her heart in her eyes.
"Going to work. Where you go, I go. Remember? I got tired."
Karen drew a shuddering sobbing breath in relief. Wolfe appeared on the bench next to Callie. Callie looked over at her.
"Missed you." Callie placed her hand over Wolfe's heart.
They had Erik carry Callie back to the car. Traffic wasn't happy about the snarl from the big limo being parked in the street blocking the lane. Nor were other drivers very understanding when two women, and a man carrying another woman, walked across three traffic lanes without looking to see if the crosswalk signal said they could or not. There was a lot of shouting, horn honking, and a few rude gestures to match. Karen whacked one car with a particularly aggressive driver across the car's hood with the pillow. Yelling back at him as he shouted at them to get out of the street.
After Erik deposited Callie into a seat, he looked at Karen. "Where to Ma'am?"
Karen thought a moment. "Back to the office. She's safe enough with us."
At the office, they had Erik bring Callie upstairs. He put her into the wingback chair. Wolfe dialed her apartment. T Rose answered.
"She's here. She's fine."
"What happened?" Rose's voice cracked as it came through the phone speaker.
"She wanted to be with us. She said she missed us. She tried walking but didn't make it the whole way. We found her sleeping on a bus bench on Broadway."
"She's ok? Really?"
"She's fine. Just tired. We'll bring her home tonight."
They could hear Rose blow out a huge breath. "God! I don't know that I can take much more of this."
"Rose. She's fine. Relax."
"You don't understand. Callie's perfect. She's never been in trouble. Never needed anything. We never had to worry about her. For anything. Ever. Now she's like, I don't know, some kind of dependent adult you can't let out of your sight."
"Rose." Karen said the name gently. "Callie needs everything you do. She just doesn't know how to ask for it. Because she's different in the way she expresses herself, you didn't pick up the signals.
"That doesn't mean she didn't, or doesn't, need the same things you do. She just needs them in a different way. Like someone likes strawberries and someone else prefers chili peppers. It's just a preference. Right now, she's a little bit beyond what preferences she can hide from everyone."
"I don't understand. She doesn't have to hide anything from us. We're her family."
"Rose, she's a lesbian. She doesn't just like girls, she wants to find someone to love. Someone who will love her back the same way she loves. Someone female. No one in your family seems to understand that. She doesn't believe she's accepted for who she really is. So, she suppresses everything. And, I mean everything. Right now she's not strong enough to do that again. That's all. As her physical and emotional strengths return she will go back to being the same as she's always been."
"How do you know that?"
"Trust me. I have years and years of therapy to rely on. She'll be the same. It'll just take time."
"I'm positive. She'll be fine." Karen tried to reassure T Rose as she looked over at Callie sleeping in the chair. Callie's hair was tousled, but she was just sleeping. Not like when she was feverish and thrashing. Karen ran a gentle hand through Callie's hair before caressing her face lovingly.
"She'll be perfect again. I promise."