Friday September 8 2006
This is so strange, Caitlin thought. She was sitting at a large window table at a little restaurant across the street from Rutherford University, her first college. From her seat, she could see over the line of angle-parked cars at the curb ten yards away, across the quaint two-lane brick street, to the mature trees, lush lawn and granite walks of Byerson Hall. It seems half a lifetime ago that I was here. But nothing's changed. I even recognize some of the students on the lawn.
She was here on a mixed business and pleasure trip, carefully planned. Mr. Lynch, her host, guardian, and benefactor, had purchased something from a local artist, and she'd promised to pick it up while she was here. She was to travel cross-country by bus to Maryland, conduct her business and her guardian's, and rent a car for the trip home, a ten-day round trip. Classes at her school would start a week after she got back.
Then Mr. Lynch had more or less assigned his son Bobby to accompany her. She was touched by the man's concern for her, but a little put off by his choice of companion. If she'd made her own choice, it would have been her sister Roxanne, or Bobby's girlfriend Sarah, or even Mr. Lynch's diminutive but awesomely capable housekeeper Anna. Not that she didn't expect to have some fun; Bobby was good company, and nearly the only boy she could be comfortable with. But two weeks alone with her girlfriend's handsome boyfriend seemed like an unnecessary test of their friendship.
She'd talked to Sarah about it, and been more than a little surprised at her attitude. "He's right, Caitlin, Bobby's perfect. A couple on the road is a lot less prone to trouble than a girl alone, or even a pair of them, believe me. And let's face it, you're a trouble magnet. Mister Rock Solid will have a stabilizing influence on you, which you'll need. You don't want your allure to kick on in a town full of college boys - it might cause a riot."
She'd grimaced at the thought. As if Gen-factor hadn't done enough to complicate their lives, it had given them 'allure', a kind of psychic catnip that kicked on when she felt tense or threatened, and convinced any guy within shouting distance that she was the girl of his dreams. Anna had explained that it was a defensive adaptation that reduced the threat level of nearby males. Caitlin imagined it was a lot more useful to a girl who didn't feel threatened by any male who looked at her for longer than three seconds. Which described nearly any guy whose eye chanced on her, also thanks to the 'gifts' of Gen-factor. "You sure you wouldn't mind?"
"Sisters share, right?" Sarah had grinned. "Besides, I probably need two weeks apart to catch up on my sleep. He can go that long without sharing a pillow." She'd grinned wider at Caitlin's flush. "I'm sure he could do with a rest too. Don't feel obligated to play surrogate."
"As if I would ever."
A feline little smile had been Sarah's only reply.
Mr. Lynch and Sarah had been right. Bobby had begun the trip tired and moody over the separation, and resentful at having to leave without his guitar. But a long nap on the road had transformed him, and his company had made the lengthy bus trip an adventure. They'd planned a sightseeing excursion for the trip home, a real road trip. And the attention that men paid to her at the breaks and on the bus stopped at glances when they saw Bobby.
The main purpose of her trip, however, wasn't to vacation, or to pick up a parcel on the other side of the country. She was here to tie up a loose end. Since the dustup at Westminster Mall and the team's flight to Escondido, International Operations had been alerted that its computer search routines had been subverted and were an untrustworthy means of locating the "Lynch Mob." So the organization had been putting feet on the ground: conducting interviews, tailing people suspected of knowing the team's whereabouts… and making in-person inspections of public records. The effort wasn't as determined as it might have been, thanks to Mr. Lynch's and Anna's diversion, but sooner or later, someone would be coming here to look at the school's records. She needed to see them first, to determine if their hunters might learn anything damaging from them.
She and Bobby had arrived the previous afternoon, too late to visit the records office, so they'd gone to the artist's gallery instead. Looking at the paintings and sculpture on display, she'd seen instantly that this man Kilburn was eccentric but talented. But then, she'd known his work would be good, if Mr. Lynch liked it. He'd told her that the piece was a little pricey, because the man's work was in fashion right now, but he'd seen a piece that he was willing to pay a premium for.
While browsing, they'd met the artist, who was surprisingly young, also surprisingly hormonal. He'd taken one look at her and offered her any piece currently for sale in return for modeling for him… sans clothing, of course. Hiding her embarrassment, she'd told him that previous engagements made it impossible. He'd offered to work from photographs; taking them would only require two or three hours of her time. She'd promised to think about it and give him an answer when she came back the next day to pick up Mr. Lynch's purchase.
He'd upped the ante then, offering her that work free of charge. It had prompted serious consideration. The piece Mr. Lynch had picked out was the best in the collection, and she owed him so much; the idea of presenting it to him as a gift almost tipped the balance. But, again, she'd put Kilburn off until next day.
She and Bobby had shared a room with twin beds, and she'd been surprised at how comfortable they'd both been with that arrangement. Of course, they'd been living under the same roof for years, and she loved Bobby like a brother, but still… She'd had a moment's flashback as Bobby had walked out of the bathroom: Julius Gierling, standing in the bathroom doorway and staring at her with an expression that had strained her ability to keep up her pretense of friendliness. The vision had popped like a soap bubble when Bobby had grinned at her and said in an awful Hispanic accent, "G'nite, Lucy."
She'd parted with Bobby at breakfast. She was to go to Rutherford's records department while he rented a car for the trip home. The town was small and pedestrian-friendly, and the weather good, so she'd decided to walk. Rutherford's class schedule began and ended a month earlier than her present school's, and the college town was fully up and running.
She'd been surprised at how little she knew of the school's layout after a year as a student. She knew how to find her old classrooms, labs, library, and her dorm. The rest of the campus was Indian Territory to her. She'd had too vague an idea where the records office was located, and had made a couple of false starts. Flustered and uncertain, she'd passed a fraternity where several guys had been horsing around with a football on the front lawn. Their stares had been the last bit of stress needed to engage her allure, and they'd come flocking to her, ramping up the effect and drawing frat boys out of the building as well. By the time she'd disengaged herself fifteen minutes later, she had three different sets of directions to the records office, several offers to guide her around campus, and a fistful of phone numbers scribbled on anything handy. She'd also gotten a marriage proposal, and another offer involving a weekend getaway that had got the proposer dogpiled by his outraged buddies before she was entirely certain what he was offering her, and for what.
She'd picked the guy's name and number from the crumpled wad: Brendan Rutherford. Probably some great-great of the school's founder. Certainly no one who would have spoken to her when she was a student, before the change that had added a hundred pounds to her weight, a foot to her height, eight inches to her bust, and about fifty tons to her bench press. And if he had, she'd have been instantly on her guard, suspecting she was being set up for an invitation to a pig party or something. A girl from the wrong side of the social divide might date a guy like Brendan in secret, if she didn't expect more than fun and games from him, but hanging out together on campus or anywhere would be more damaging to his reputation than getting caught with a prostitute.
Something else about Brendan Rutherford bothered her, besides being someone she wouldn't date on a dare. There was something about his name, separate from its identity with the school, that tugged at her memory. It seemed familiar, though she was sure she'd never met him.
She'd found the records office and looked over her paper trail. As she'd suspected, there was nothing in it to link her to her present life. It gave her aunt and uncle's address in Seattle as her residence, and listed their occupations. The record contained her high school transcripts, her extracurricular pursuits, her academic awards, and the hodgepodge of grants and scholarships that she'd put together in a failed attempt at a free ride. She was sure IO already knew everything about her that was in Rutherford's records. The file would be more trouble to steal than it was worth, and its absence would tell her hunters she'd been there. She returned it.
With a little time to kill before she expected Bobby to pick her up, she'd gone for a stroll. Her wandering feet, and perhaps a faint longing, had taken her past Byerson Hall… and Le Mange.
Le Mange was originally a comfortable little diner that had acquired a new owner, shaken off its working-class patrons, and restyled itself as a "bistro" to attract a more affluent clientele. The food was good, and the prices were high enough to make the place the exclusive domain of the moneyed kids at school. The only working-class folk who passed its doors anymore prepared the food and waited on the tables.
When she'd walked past, the familiar smells from the kitchen had enticed her. Her appetite, never long quiet, had awakened and set her stomach rumbling. She told herself that was why she'd turned into the door.
The interior was unchanged, yet different. Everything seemed a bit smaller, of course; she'd got used to that. But there was something more. She was changed, and not just in size. She'd been inside Le Mange almost a hundred times, but never as a customer.
The seating was usually divided by gender. Couples seldom came here. Girls in groups, she remembered, usually picked tables near the large front windows, where they could see and be seen. Boys, on the other hand, usually took seats at the counter in the back, where they could check out the girls and look out the windows as well. At this time of day, though, everyone was in class and the place was deserted. On impulse, she'd picked the round table for four right in front of the window and sat facing the glass, slouching with her legs stretched out underneath.
A girl's voice cut through her musing, quick and breathless. "I'm sorry. I was wrapping silverware in back and I didn't see you come in." The waitress was about her age, slender, and very black; her short hair formed a tightly kinked cap around her head. Her apology was delivered in the tone of someone who knows she's wasting her time but feels obligated to try.
Caitlin smiled up at her. "If you'd been here any sooner, you could have pushed my chair in for me. I've barely had time to settle in."
The girl took another look at Caitlin's expensive clothes, puzzled. "Ah, that's good. Thank you. I'm Ticia, and I'll be your server. Would you like to start with a drink?"
"Just water, please."
"What kind? We've got a big selection. Would you like to see a list?"
So I look like a designer-water girl now? "Tap water's fine, Ticia. By the way, is 'Ticia' short for anything? Leticia, maybe?"
The girl's eyes lighted. "Right. I just use 'Ticia' at work, though."
"Kay, Ticia. I could order now, if you want."
"You don't want to see a menu?"
I could recite it from memory. "No, thanks." She named an appetizer, soup, and entrée.
"You've been here before."
"Not in years."
"That's a really big entrée. People usually share it."
She smiled up at the girl. "What I don't finish, I'll take home."
Three boys walked in as Ticia brought her water. They took seats at the counter and turned their backs to it, facing the front of the bistro and her table. She looked out the window, her back to them. But in the faint reflection of the glass, she could see them staring openly at her and comparing observations. She supposed it was just a matter of time before the boldest of them approached her. She sighed.
"Is something wrong?" Ticia hovered at her shoulder, nervous concern etching her face. Did I look like that, every time one of them hiccupped or drummed her fingers on the table? She noticed the girl had a small scar at the corner of her eye, a two-inch crease between eyebrow and temple. It looked old, the result of a childhood mishap, likely.
She shook her head slightly. "Nothing you can fix. Unless you've got a time machine."
Ticia smiled. "If I did, I'd go back to last week with today's lottery numbers, and you'd never see me again."
"Money isn't everything," Caitlin agreed, "but it's a lot of things."
They shared a brief smile, a genuine one. But Ticia's half of it faded away as she glanced out the window. She stood transfixed as a bird in the gaze of a snake, as an open convertible pulled into the handicap spot directly in front of the window.
Caitlin recognized all three occupants: Jewel Hiderson, Bethany Smith-Rutherford, and the driver, Carrie Chalmers. Carrie hung a handicap placard from the rearview mirror as the top rose and the others got out, looking up and down the street. Carrie exited the car, looking much too fit for a crip slot, especially since it was the only one and the nearest empty regular spot was only four places away.
Ticia was still peering out the window with a look Caitlin thought she recognized, even though she'd never seen it: equal parts of fear, resentment, and longing. Seeing it brought her to a sudden decision.
"Ticia." She pushed her water glass to the side of the table, and she felt a sharp pang as the girl's hand jerked to catch it when it was still inches from the edge. "I've changed my mind. Bring me some bottled and an empty glass."
"You choose. Just make it trendy and expensive, the more pretentious the better. Bring me a glass of tap with my meal."
The waitress's eyebrows rose at the change, but she took the glass and left without comment.
The threesome stood around the car for a moment, chatting like canaries and surveying the street. Then they looked through the window towards her and their smiles disappeared.
For a moment, she wondered if she'd been recognized, but dismissed the idea. Although her facial features were unchanged, her glasses were gone, and she'd been physically changed beyond all likelihood; she'd passed several people in her travels through the school who might have recognized the old Caitlin Fairchild, but instead gave her the same sort of furtive, half-believing stares she'd become accustomed to from strangers.
As the girls moved away from the front of the car towards the bistro's door, the gently swinging placard in the windshield caught her attention again. She wondered how a girl who played tennis three times a week acquired one. Perhaps her family doctor was pliant, or she'd purchased it illegally. They were numbered like licenses and non-transferable, but police seldom checked them against vehicle plates.
She turned her head slightly and saw Carrie looking down at her, flanked by her two girlfriends. The girl smiled. "This is our regular table. Would you mind moving to another one?"
Caitlin returned the smile. "Yes."
A few moments passed before Carrie realized the stranger wasn't getting up. "Yes?"
"Yes, I would mind. This is my regular table too." She gestured to the other three seats. "But you're welcome to join me, if you like."
The three girls swapped glances and took turns appraising her hair, makeup, dress, bag, and shoes, deciding if they dared risk being seen with her. Apparently, she received a passing grade; Carrie reached for a chair back, and the other two followed. Caitlin tucked her legs under her chair and crossed her ankles, sitting up straighter in the seat and drawing startled glances from her companions as they got an inkling of her height. Caitlin let Carrie make unnecessary introductions.
"Caitlin Fairchild." She offered her hand to each in turn for a quick squeeze, wondering if any of them would recognize the name; they'd been freshmen together, after all, and even if they hadn't run in the same circles, they'd shared some classes. And, of course, they'd seen her name in print every other day… But her tablemates gave no sign. Because they've forgotten, or because they never noticed? "You're all students, right?" She made a show of glancing back at the wall clock. "Are classes out so early?"
The girls exchanged amused looks. "We're sort of between classes right now," Jewel said. Light course load, or skipping class. Still holding to that C-plus average, Jewel; showing your parents just enough effort to keep them from pulling the plug and calling you home.
"Love your outfit," Jewel said, "But I can't place it. Where do you shop?"
She smoothed her skirt out. "Oh, this? A little place on the West Coast."
Jewel nodded. "Ah. Rodeo Drive."
"Oh, no. I never shop in the garment district." She tried to make L.A.'s priciest shopping venue sound like a collection of cheesy storefronts. "The good shops aren't all on one street where anybody can find them. You have to be in the know." She gave them a confidential smile. "Estrellita's has all my outfits custom made. I pick out the fabrics and give them an idea what I want, and they work it out with the designers and import them just for me. Those people understand service."
Ticia returned to the table with a fancy bottle and a glass. "Your water, miss," she said, the incipient friendliness gone. Caitlin understood the changed attitude. I seemed all right at first, even though I was in enemy uniform, but now she sees who I run with, and I'm with my clique, and I can't be expected to treat her decently anymore.
She smiled up at her. "Thanks, Ticia. When my appetizer comes up, will you bring four plates?"
The waitress blinked. "Sure thing."
"You're a student too?"
"Um, yes. Electrical engineering, second year."
The girl shrugged. "More or less."
She nodded. "Aha. Academic, not athletic."
Ticia quirked a smile. "I'm about a foot short for basketball. Not that there's a lot of money out there for girl jocks."
"How is it you're not in school now?"
Ticia's eyes focused on the wall. "I, ah, switched about half my classes to nights, so I could work the lunch shift. It's quieter."
Carrie tapped a fingernail on the table. "Hey. Would water be too much to ask for around here?"
Caitlin put her hand around the bottle Ticia had brought her, a fancy glass one with a foil label that looked like it belonged on a champagne bottle, and shoved it over to her. "Take mine, I haven't touched it. Your brand, I'm guessing?"
Ticia turned away suddenly and bent her head for a moment, and then turned back, poker-faced. "Sorry. Thought I was going to sneeze."
Carrie looked at Caitlin, annoyed and a little uneasy. "How did you know?"
"I have a talent. I'm very intuitive."
The girl curled her fingers around the bottle, seeming to draw some composure from it. "Well even if it is, that's not the point. I-"
"The point is, you were interrupting my conversation, and you didn't need anything from her. Unless you're ready to order?"
"We haven't even got menus yet," Bethany said, giving Ticia an accusing look.
"Bethany," Caitlin said, "you've been coming here every other day for three years. You probably choose among the same three or four selections every time. Do you really need one?"
Carrie looked at her, suspicious. "Intuition again?"
"Observation." She flicked a finger towards Bethany's hand. "You're all wearing class rings, which tells me you're at least juniors. People are creatures of habit. And this place is a hangout."
"Scuse," Ticia said, smiling once more. "Your appetizer's up. I'll come back with that, and take orders."
The group worked its way through drinks and appetizers and conversation. Subjects sometimes digressed into gossip a stranger couldn't be expected to know, but Caitlin always steered the topics back to common ground. A couple of times, the girls made sly references to the "other" people who went to classes at Rutherford; she didn't rise to the bait, and they subsided. She realized the three girls were deferring to her as if she was older. Makes sense. They see I'm familiar with things around here, but none of them has seen me before. They figure I graduated before they came on the scene.
"So, what do you do now you're out of school?" Carrie looked her over. "Modeling?"
"I get modeling offers from time to time, but no. You might say I'm self-employed."
"You know, I've never had these. They're not bad." Bethany swallowed the last bite on her plate. "Do you order it all the time?"
"First time ever, actually." First time I've ever eaten here. "But I wasn't taking much of a chance. Everything's good here."
"What year did you graduate?" Carrie's question was casual, but her look wasn't.
"Oh, I didn't graduate from Rutherford." Caitlin slid her appetizer plate aside and reached for her soup. "I only spent my freshman year here, until I could get into a better school."
"'Better.'" Carrie raised an eyebrow.
"Oh, yes. Sophomore year, I enrolled at Darwin."
"I've never heard of it," Jewel said, in a tone that inferred the place therefore had no right to exist.
"I'm not surprised." She blew on her spoon. "Enrollment is by invitation only. It's very exclusive."
Jewel bridled at the implied snub. "Exclusive how?"
Caitlin reached for her coffee and looked down into her cup. "You have to be recommended by a teacher and qualify for Mensa before they'll let you fill out an application. The school won't waste its time on mediocre students." Not like this place, you inbred bitches. The sudden thought shocked her enough to make her put her cup back on the table to keep from spilling. Where did that come from?
Color rose in the girl's cheeks. Carrie tried to change the subject. "So you live on the West Coast?"
"All my life, when I wasn't in school."
"Thought so. I recognized your name."
She looked at Carrie, trying to hide her sudden alarm. "Oh?"
"You're related to the defense contractors, right?"
She shook her head. "No. My father has a government job in Washington." Washington State, that is, counting trees for the DNR. And he's not my real father, just the only one I've ever known.
"He must worry about his job every election, then."
"Hardly." She reached for her coffee again. "No politician would try to put an appointee in the position."
"Is that why you're here? Visiting your dad?"
"No." She returned to her soup; with the appetizers gone, she was the only one still eating. "I was shopping for something to put over the mantel."
"Oh. Aaron Kilburn." Bethany gushed. "He's the best ever. Which one are you buying?"
Maybe the best since you were born, Bethany. Have you never seen a Michelangelo, or a Rodin? "Well," she said cautiously, "he's certainly better than Kinkade. I've got my eye on Port in a Storm, and maybe one other. It depends on the price we negotiate."
"He doesn't negotiate price," Carrie said promptly. "When Brendan took me to the gallery, we spent an hour trying to talk him down on a piece. He wouldn't budge."
Brendan. It hit her then. Brendan Rutherford. Bethany's cousin, and Carrie's beau. She took a quick glance at Carrie's left hand, and saw a rather large rock on the third finger. Correction: fiancé, now.
Ticia returned to clear plates and refill glasses. "There's still time to hold back your meal, if you want to wait for the others."
She shook her head, smiling. "No, bring it early. I may need the head start, if we're going to finish together and share dessert."
The girl smiled back. "Kay."
"Do they still have that banana dish?"
"The one that makes you gain a pound from smelling it?" She smiled wider. "In two sizes now. Too big, and humongous."
When the waitress was two steps from the table, Carrie turned to her. "Why do you keep doing that?"
"Talking up the waitress like she's at the table."
"She is at the table, just not sitting." She cocked her head at the other girl. "She doesn't roll in on tracks from the kitchen, Carrie. You don't want to make her feel like she's invisible to you." Except that's exactly what you want to do. Now it's time to learn something of the consequences of indulging your petty pleasure.
Jewel piped up. "Why would we want to act like she's... with us? She's just a waitress."
Caitlin pretended to study her. "I would have thought you had servants at home."
"We do. But-"
"And no one taught you how to handle them any better than that?" She brought a hand to her mouth that almost covered her smile. "Oh, you poor thing, what you've let yourself in for."
"What are you talking about?" All three girls leaned close.
"You don't acknowledge Ticia's presence while you're here talking to your friends, but I'll bet you don't guard your speech around her either. She can't help overhearing private matters; you've practically got your lips to her ear. But, since you don't make her feel like she's being deliberately taken into your confidence, she has no reason to keep what she hears confidential. After all, if it simply doesn't matter what she hears, it must not matter what she tells."
She shook her head sadly. "I'm sure you've been in here a hundred times together, and you couldn't list the personal topics you've discussed. Girls, I guarantee Ticia knows things about you that you wouldn't ever tell your parents, things you have no idea you've told her while she's clearing the dishes and pouring drinks. She knows your GPAs, which classes you cut, and what you really think of your teachers and classmates. She knows how much money your parents send you, what you tell them you spend it on, and where it really goes." She gave Jewel a penetrating look. "She knows when your period is due, your preferred method of contraception, and what your boyfriends are like in bed."
She slouched in the seat and steepled her fingers. "And it's not just Ticia. You're probably just as indiscreet with your housekeepers, gardeners, doormen, security guards, and parking valets." She raised an eyebrow. "The divide between the social classes here isn't quite the Berlin Wall you think it is; there's some movement back and forth, especially among the boys. And gossip is a rat that finds its way through the smallest opening." She indicated the back of the room with a tilt of her head. "Look at those three back there. They've been watching our table since you sat down. I'll bet they all know something about each of you that would turn your face scarlet if one of them told you."
Ticia returned with an oversized plate. "Careful, it's hot. Your other orders should be up in five. Need anything?"
Caitlin hoisted her cup. "A refill? And some more cream?"
"Sure. Brewing a fresh pot." She dug into the pocket of her apron for a fistful of creamers.
Caitlin looked down into her cup. "Hey, when's Carrie's birthday, do you know?"
"March fifteenth," the girl replied automatically as she set the creamers on the table, then froze. "I'll go check on the coffee." She moved quickly away.
Caitlin sipped her brew. "I don't think she realized she knew." She applied herself to her meal.
Jewel was eying the group at the counter, her imagination running wild; Carrie sat silent and staring after Ticia. But Bethany, the only girl at the table carrying extra weight, had a different interest. "Are you celebrating something? Coming off a diet, or what?"
She looked down at her plate. "This? No, just hungry."
"You won't keep that figure eating like this."
She twirled a spoonful of pasta on her fork. "Actually, I eat like this every day, and I haven't gained a pound since I was seventeen."
"You ever get a tuck or a staple? Your surgeon must be a genius."
Here we go again. "Surgeon?"
Bethany gave her a sly look. "Your cosmetic guy."
The smile she returned was an indulgent one. "I've never gone under a knife, not even for tonsils. What you're looking at comes from genes and self-discipline and nothing else."
Ticia returned with the pot and filled her cup without comment. For once, though, the girl's mind wasn't on her work. She overfilled the cup, sending a runnel of black liquid over the edge of the table into Caitlin's lap. She gasped as Caitlin slid the chair back hastily. "Oh. God. I'm sorry. Send me a bill for it. Please."
"NBD. I'll just see what I can do with it in the bathroom."
Carrie made as if to reach for Caitlin's cup and slide it back from the table. But Caitlin recognized the practiced gesture, and the look in the girl's eye. When Carrie's hand brushed her water glass and sent it over the edge, her look of casual innocence changed to startled amazement as Kat caught it an inch below the table and returned it without spilling a drop. "Feeling a little clumsy today, Carrie? You should take up tennis. Or, better still, martial arts. Unarmed combat training does wonders for your coordination."
She gathered her purse, pushed back the chair, and stood, eliciting another round of startled looks from her tablemates. Sitting upright, it had been clear she was very tall. But her physical transformation at the Genesis Project had made her legs as disproportionate as her mammaries. Everyone else at the table, sitting or standing, craned their heads to look up at her as she turned towards the bathroom.
The reviewers at the counter followed every swing of her legs as she approached on her way to the bathroom. She made eye contact with the one who was staring the most shamelessly and said in a low voice, "The little blonde thinks you're hot." She gave a slight head gesture towards Jewel. "She won't come on to you with her friends here, because they'll call her a slut. But if you see her alone somewhere, pretend you've got a secret to tell her. She loves that."
Inside the locked bathroom, she stripped quickly and ran water over the fabric; it rinsed out good as new. She held the wet material under the hand drier until it was presentable, then put it back on and stepped out into the hall.
Through the open door across the hall was a small storeroom. Just inside, Ticia was sitting bent over on a low stool with her shoes off, rubbing her feet. She looked up, startled.
Caitlin smoothed the front of her dress with her hand to show it was all right, and headed out. As she passed the counter, her cell phone rang. Instead of taking it to the table, she sat at an empty stool at the counter and answered it.
Bobby was on the other end, sounding irritated. "Yo, Kat. I might be late. I can't find a decent car to rent in this whole freaking town."
She was aware of an audience: not only were the guys at the counter examining her surreptitiously, the girls at the table had become aware of her emergence, and had paused over their salads to listen in. "Bobby," she said, putting all the sugar she could muster into her tone. "How sweet. I'm so glad you called."
Bobby's tone changed instantly. "Kat. You okay?"
"I'm in a little place across the street from the campus. I happened across some girls from school, and we're doing lunch."
He digested that for a moment; thinking over what she'd told him about her year here, no doubt. "They used to know you, but they don't recognize you now. You're at that place you talked about. I bet you're ready to bring the walls down on top of them."
She made her voice husky. "Bobby, you know me too well."
"You need some backup? I'll grab the first heap I can get my hands on. I can be there in twenty minutes, maybe."
She crossed her legs and turned slightly, smiling into the phone. "That would be wonderful. I can hardly wait. You're such a sweetheart."
"Keep cool, Kat. I'm on my way. Keep that flametop temper in check."
"Just for you, Bobby. A bientot." She folded up the phone and stood.
At the tiny sink behind the service counter, Ticia was scrubbing her hands briskly. She briefly wondered why the girl hadn't done it in the bathroom instead of coming out here. Ah. She wants to make sure I saw her wash her hands after handling her bare feet. Her stomach knotted at the idea of this girl being afraid of her, afraid that a complaint from her quirky redheaded customer might cost her her job. The girl's fear refreshed her resentment. She put on a cool smile and returned to the table. "It didn't take you long to finish." She eyed the empty salad plates. "Ready for dessert?"
Three sets of lips thinned. "No. the desserts here are a billion calories."
"I know. Don't you just love it?"
Ticia returned to the table to gather dishes. "Any dessert today?"
"Just me, Ticia. I'll have the bananas Foster, humongous size." She looked at the expressions on her companions' faces. "And four plates and spoons, just in case."
"Don't." Carrie shot the waitress a warning look.
"Do." Caitlin met Ticia's eyes. "It's my order. No one's going to force it into their mouths."
Jewel said, too casually, "Got a boyfriend, Caitlin?"
She smiled indulgently. "Well, I know several men who think they are. But it seems such an unliberated concept, letting a man claim you as a prize just for the favor of his company and getting a few promises out of him. Usually, when I want something from a man, I don't have to make promises at all."
Outside, she saw a little electric cart with police markings pull up behind Carrie's convertible. The others were facing her, away from the window, so only Caitlin saw the officer get out and examine the handicap tag in the windshield. He spoke into a handheld radio.
Her phone rang. She checked the ID. "Drat. I suppose I have to take this." She let it ring as she looked at the other three girls. "I think it's rude to answer your phone at the table, and carry on as if your table companions aren't there. Don't you?"
At the first insincere nod of assent, she placed the ringing phone in the center of the table, set it on speaker, and pressed the receive button. "Mr. Kilburn. Hello."
The caller's voice came clearly through the instrument. "Still won't call me Aaron, eh?"
"We have a business relationship, Mr. Kilburn, not a personal one. And by the way, we're not private, just so you know."
"If you don't mind, I certainly don't. Have you considered my offer?" The girls looked at each other with widening eyes.
"I have, but I still haven't decided. I'm very flattered, of course. It's forced me to appraise the value of my modesty. I promise I'll give you an answer when I come to make payment on Port in a Storm."
He blew out heavily. "My accountant will stab himself with a pencil when he hears this, but… Miss Fairchild, this is my final offer. Pose for me for three hours. You can have Port in a Storm, any work presently on the walls, and one of the pieces I do of you."
She raised her eyebrows. "One? How many are you planning?"
"Two at least. Possibly four."
She quirked a smile. "You're planning to hang four pictures of me in your gallery?" I should be blushing like a tomato just from thinking about it. It's like I'm Sarah, all of a sudden. Where's all this edgy self-assurance coming from?
"Believe me. They won't stay on the walls long."
"You're very generous, Mr. Kilburn. But I can't give you an answer until I'm at your studio. You'll be there in half an hour, won't you?"
"I have an appointment, but I'll reschedule. Until then."
"Until then." She closed the phone. "He's very insistent, isn't he? I didn't even know he did nudes."
None of her companions answered, just watched while she finished her meal. The silence lasted until Ticia brought her dessert, just as large as she'd promised, and Kat silently split the gooey treat into four portions on the plates and shoved one in front of each girl. Then she picked up her spoon, took a bite, and rolled her eyes. I imagined it would taste just like this. "My God. If you don't want yours, it won't go to waste. I'll take it back."
Bethany, forever dieting, stared at the plate in front of her, picked up her spoon, and dug in. Jewel glanced from Bethany to Carrie to her, and picked hers up as well. Develop a taste for it. I hope it puts twenty pounds on your thighs before you get back on your diets.
Carrie carefully pushed the plate back towards her. "Thanks anyway."
The policeman removed a device that looked like a large pair of tongs from his cart, and attached it to Carrie's right rear wheel. Then he slid a notice under her wiper, got back in his cart, and sped away.
At her elbow, Ticia said, "One check, I presume?" She set it on the middle of the table where anyone could reach it, but Caitlin's finger was on it as soon as the waitress let go. "I've got it." From her purse, she produced a featureless rectangle of black plastic. "You guys can catch the tip."
There was a sharp intake of breath around the table. Black Cards were affiliated with Visa, and were accepted anywhere a Visa was, as well as many other places that offered products and services too exotic or expensive to be handled with an ordinary credit card. But the cards were issued only by the National Bank of Dubai, one per customer, with a minimum credit limit of a million dollars. With a Black Card in hand, you could rent a yacht or a private jet or a mansion as easily as renting a car. They had become the ultimate status symbol among certain types. Bobby, of course, carried his as if it were a poisonous snake.
Jewel was the first to find her voice. "Your dad lets you take his Black Card?"
She shook her head. "Course not. They're non-transferable." Which proves you don't know anyone who has one; any friend of yours with one of these would talk about it for an hour. "No one but you can use it, and you can only get one with your own credit." Not quite true, at least when Mr. Lynch decides we each need one.
Carrie blinked at it. "Must be some trust fund."
She shook her head. "Personal savings and income. I've been busy since graduation." The lie came easily to her; it had been her favorite fantasy when she'd been a student here. "I started a company. Two years later, I took it public. The IPO made me a millionaire." She looked meaningfully at the check and the card as Ticia gathered them up and headed for the register. "Tip?"
Carrie dug into her purse and produced a ten. She laid it on the table as if she were conferring an inheritance. Caitlin picked it up between thumb and forefinger as if it were a bug. "If you don't have enough for a tip, Carrie, I'll take care of it."
"That's ten dollars," the girl protested.
"The check is over a hundred. She was prompt and courteous and knew the menu well enough to give me advice twice. Your glass never went empty, your food was delivered as soon as it was up, and your dishes didn't sit empty on the table for more than a minute. The service was excellent."
"She already gets paid, for God's sake. What's wrong?"
Caitlin leveled a look at her. "You'd starve on her wages, Carrie. Literally. Minimum wage isn't enough to lift a person above the poverty line. And the government allows the restaurant to pay her much less than that, on the assumption that her customers will kick in a tip equal to at least twelve percent of the bill. If this is your idea of a generous tip, Ticia's been losing money every time she waits your table." She heard movement behind her as she sipped her water, and knew their waitress had returned. She dropped the banknote back on the table. "And she still gives you good service. I suppose she's used to supporting you by now. Kicking in for your meals is small change compared to the way she's been subsidizing your education."
Jewel glanced over Caitlin's shoulder, presumably at Ticia, who stood silently behind her. "Really, now."
Caitlin nodded. "Really. Ticia's an out-of-state student; as such, she pays a forty percent surcharge on her tuition. It doesn't cost any more to teach her, so that's pure profit for the school. Also, as an out-of state student, she's required to live on campus, in school-owned student housing. I don't suppose you've ever been in one of those dorms. Believe me, Ticia's not getting much for her money: she's paying condominium prices for a bedroom she shares with another girl, and use of a bathroom down the hall, shared with a dozen others. They'd be called tenements anywhere else. They're extremely profitable. All in all, Rutherford is getting a ton of extra money from her.
"You three, on the other hand, are children of alumni, and as such are gifted with a thirty percent discount in your tuition. I'm sure your fathers pay your year's tuition with a check and never look at the bill, but I'm equally sure their accountants make sure they get the discount. And I'm sure you're all members of sororities, so you're exempt from the student-housing rule. That amounts to an education at the school's cost. You're placeholders, keeping paying customers out of your seats while you deadhead your way through four years of college. The school has to make up the lack somewhere, so they get it from Ticia. So, in effect, she's working this job to help give you fours years away from your parents, and an education you'll never use."
"Never-" Jewel sputtered, coloring.
"Never," Caitlin agreed, smiling sweetly. "Come on, Jewel. You have a job in your father's firm waiting for you, whether you graduate cum laude or on academic probation. And no matter how bad you are at it, you'll keep it until you're married. You may as well not have been here at all. You'll be some man's trophy wife until your looks fade, and then, when he starts cheating on you, you'll divorce him, and live single and well-off the rest of your days." She looked around the table, including the other two in her assessment. "It's your destiny, and perfectly suited to you."
She took another sip, and followed it with a calming breath, hoping her color wasn't rising. She addressed the speechless girls again. "Ticia, on the other hand, is working like a Hebrew slave, trying to make the most of her four years. She gets up bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and gets through the morning on caffeine. She spends the school day working on a course load that would crush any two of you. Then she changes clothes and reports here, to the best part-time job she can find near campus, and puts in another four to six hours serving snooty parasites who treat her like dirt, who don't know her name after a year even though it's written on her chest in letters two inches high. Then she goes back to her grubby cubby and buries herself in homework until she wakes up with the keyboard pressing into her cheek. She drags herself to bed, and then when the alarm goes off, she does it all over again. She uses weekends to catch up on sleep and schoolwork, so she doesn't have much time to socialize. She'll do this for four solid years. And as a reward for all that sacrifice, when she graduates, she'll have won a chance to beat down the gender barrier, the race barrier, and the social and economic barriers that stand between her and what she wants, armed only with her brain and her determination."
She looked at the ten lying on the table. "She'll make a bigger difference in this world by the time she's thirty than the three of you will your whole lives."
Carrie stood, white-lipped. Her voice was low and breathless. "I'm not listening to another word of this. Who do you think you are?"
She raised her eyebrows, her voice perfectly calm. "I'm only stating facts. If they upset you, perhaps you should stare a little harder next time you check your makeup in the mirror."
Carrie spun and marched out. Jewel and Bethany jumped up. Bethany took off out the door like a deer at the sound of a shot, but Jewel lingered long enough for a parting remark. "You think you know so much. You don't know a thing about us."
Caitlin watched her stalk away. Then she picked up her coffee cup and looked into it. "You'll turn twenty-one on June twenty-third. The first boy who got to second base with you was the gardener's son, and your father fired the man when the boy told."
Ticia set down the charge slip and the card, and carefully picked up the ten. "This is by far the biggest tip I've ever seen from them," she said softly. "They must have been trying to impress you. When they pay by card, they don't add a thing to the slip. And when they pay cash, all they leave is the coins, like they're too much trouble to pick up." She folded the bill. "Lots of times, I just wanted to leave it on the table. But I didn't."
The three-girl procession trooped to the car and opened the doors, never looking back or into the bistro's window. Carrie plucked the notice from under the wiper, glanced at it, and tossed it onto the front seat as she got behind the wheel and dropped the top.
"This is gonna hurt," Ticia observed.
Carrie put the car in gear and gunned the engine, looking back over her shoulder towards the street. The unencumbered rear tire spun, screeching and raising a little puff of smoke. The girl bared her teeth and redlined the engine. The tire screamed, and the car jerked backwards hard enough for the right tire to roll over the boot, which flipped up into the wheel well after crumpling the rocker panel behind the door. The car yawed, almost hitting the vehicle parked next to it, and stalled when Carrie hit the brakes.
Caitlin watched the three of them get out of the car to examine the damage. Carrie saw her looking through the window. Saw her and Ticia looking at her through the window. She shot them a venomous look and leaned into the car to retrieve the ticket. "Never been booted before, I take it."
"No. The tag belongs to her dad's secretary, a fifty-year-old lady with heart trouble. He gave her a designated spot near the door at work, so Carrie decided she didn't need the sticker anymore, and she borrowed it, quote-unquote. Guess she forgot regular people have to buy their own groceries and such."
"And, of course, the lady never asked for it back." Carrie had found a number on the ticket, apparently; she was on the phone, practically spitting into the receiver as she glared at the slip of paper. "I meant to ask earlier. If you don't mind my asking, where'd you get the scar?"
Ticia huffed. "Sorry to disappoint, but it wasn't gang warfare. It was a bratty brother pushing a swing." She gathered the dishes, leaving Carrie's untouched dessert plate. "I'm not from out of state, you know. I've only been working here a month. And my father's a stockbroker. Not that he's putting me through this place without a second mortgage. I just wanted to help all I could. I never ask for running money, at least." The girl looked down at her. "But then, it wasn't my story you were telling them, was it?"
"No." She glanced at her watch for the date, then signed her name to the slip, dotting the second i with the proper Arabic character, as small as she could legibly write it, to ensure the bank would honor the charge; not that they were likely to quibble over anything smaller than an automobile purchase. Then she added the tip and passed it over.
Ticia took the slip, but didn't leave. "If you don't mind my asking, what did your name tag say?"
"'Katie.' I didn't want them calling me by any name my friends used either. Wasted effort, huh?"
A dark hand reached down in front of her. "My friends call me Letty."
She took it. "Kat. So, she still does that thing with the water glass."
"Twice since I started. Just when she thinks I'm getting uppity, so she can watch me get on my knees in front of her."
They said it in unison. "Bitch." Then they laughed out loud.
The officer in the cart had reappeared, and seemed to be patiently listening to Carrie as she gestured to the car and to him. She was speaking rapidly; a faint hint of it made it through the glass. To Caitlin, it sounded like an irate chicken. "Letty," she said, "It took guts to phone that in. But Carrie's not someone who'll learn from one lesson. This time you can blame on me, but she'll use that sticker again. Will you report her a second time?"
"I'll find another job if I have to. Sometime in the past hour, I got tired of letting her think she owns the world."
Apparently the cop had heard enough. With no change to his patient expression, he abruptly reached into Carrie's open car and yanked the tag off the rearview. He waved it at her and started speaking rapidly. Carrie and the other two listened, shock plain on their faces. The cop gestured towards the boot, then the ticket in Carrie's hand. Then he stuck the tag in his shirt pocket, got in his cart, and drove away. The girls looked at each other a moment, then, shaken, dug out their phones and started making calls.
A sharp intake of breath from Letty brought Kat's attention back to the table. "Wait. This is-"
"It's the right amount," she said. "Buy some work shoes, Letty. Two pairs, and alternate them; they'll be more comfortable, and they'll last more than twice as long. You see, when you have a job where you're standing on your feet all the time, your shoes wear from the inside out. You lose all the arch and ankle support way before the tread disappears. That's why your feet hurt." She pulled Carrie's untouched dessert over to her, dug a spoon in, and offered it to the girl. "With the rest, maybe you want to bring some friends here for a meal. I presume there's still no employee discount, and taking extra food home is a firing offense?"
The girl smiled. "Pass. On a diet. Thanks anyway."
The street echoed with the growing sound of an approaching vehicle. The rapid up-and-down revving of the engine as it went through its gears sounded like one of those superbikes that suicidal guys sometimes drove. Instead, an exotic convertible pulled up abruptly across the street, and a horn sounded a cheery note. She saw a blond head in the driver's seat, and pushed her chair back. "My ride, Letty. Good luck."
"Take care, sister."
She stepped off the curb right next to the disabled car. The girls' attention was split between her and the car idling noisily across the street. "Car trouble, I see. I'd offer you a ride, but there's no room. Sorry." She crossed the street.
The car was a two-seat convertible, so rakishly styled it looked ready to go supersonic. She didn't recognize the model, but she did recognize the prancing-bull emblem on the vehicle's pointed nose. She leaned in and said to Bobby in a low voice, "Don't look. There's a Lamborghini under your butt."
"Don't start." He shoved his sunglasses on top of his head. "You can't rent a car in this whole friggin town that sells for less than a hundred grand." He shook his head. "What do people around here eat if they blow their cash on crap like this?"
"Everyone here has plenty of money. At least," she added, "everyone who matters."
"So they spend three hundred large on a car that's meant to do a hundred and sixty, and then drive it around town like it's a parade float. If they only saw how stupid they look."
"Oh, I don't know," she said softly. "On you, it looks good."
Bobby, the team's Bohemian, had changed his look and dressed to blend in. He was wearing slacks and a polo shirt that suited his clean-cut good looks better than his usual jeans and flannel, she thought. She admired the boy's trim waist and muscular thighs and the way his upper arms filled the short knit sleeves, and the flexing of his pecs as he shifted his hands on the wheel. He's been letting his hair grow a little. How could I not notice that? She reached out and brushed at a stray lock that was just long enough to fall down on his forehead. He's usually so particular about his hair. This windblown look is kind of a nice change. Another few strands were just touching his ear, and she started to brush at those, too, when Bobby's voice stopped her.
"Hey. Kat." His beautiful blue eyes were looking up into hers uneasily. She paused with her fingers on the back of his ear and realized what she'd been doing. Before embarrassment could make her blush, suspicion crowded it out. She glanced across the street, looking for confirmation.
The three girls were staring at them, at Bobby, really, as if mesmerized. Bethany wet her lips and left them parted.
She turned back. "Nervous?"
"Understatement. You know I hate riding in pricey cars. This is not my kind of town." He cocked his head. "Got to say, you're looking extra fine right now."
"Stop it, Bobby. I know you're immune."
He smiled. "It's not allure. You're just all charged up. It makes you look hot." He glanced across the street. "Lunch must have been something."
"Are we checked out of the hotel yet?" The huskiness of her voice made her wince. "God. That didn't come out right."
He smiled wider. "It's done. And even if we had to go back there, it'd wear off long before then."
"I feel like I've been playing the closet game at a party, and when we come out, I see I've been making out with my brother."
They both chuckled, and the tension broke, just as Carrie's voice sounded from across the street. "Not looking very liberated right now, Fairchild."
"Kind of boy-toy, even," Jewel added. Bethany said something to her companions that raised nasty smiles.
A dark impulse rose up. It was small and mean, and she was sure she'd be questioning her character over it later. But she wasn't going to put up with another whisper of condescension from these girls, ever. "Stay here," she told Bobby. "I've got to go squash a bug."
She crossed the street, and the smirks faded from the girls' faces as their chins tilted up. Her smile didn't seem to be reassuring them.
She extended a hand to Carrie. "If my manner seemed deliberately rude, girls, I apologize. I had a good time this afternoon. I'd like to think we're parting as friends."
Carrie shrugged and took her hand. As Caitlin squeezed it, she said, "A word of advice from a friend. Put a shorter leash on your boyfriend, or be prepared to dump him." She turned the girl's palm up and dropped the slip with Brendan's name and number into it. "If word gets around he's been offering romantic weekend sailing excursions to strange women who walk by his frat… Well, your reputation will be toast, not his. It's not fair, but it's the way it is."
Carrie stared down at the handwritten slip. Caitlin wondered if the girl recognized her boyfriend's writing. She heard a double gasp, and looked past the girl to her cohorts, who were exchanging a look that was unpleasant to see. I don't think these two are going to keep your secret, Carrie. You're going to find out the hard way what their friendship is worth.
Unsure whether she was acting out of mercy or further vindictiveness, she gathered the two girls' attention by eye and pulled two more slips partway out of her purse. She was gambling; she had no current knowledge of Jewel's and Bethany's boyfriends, and would have been surprised if they'd belonged to Brendan's fraternity. But the bluff worked, judging by the looks on their faces. She put the slips back and closed the purse with a snap. "No one will hear it from us. Right, girls?" Without waiting for an answer, she went on. "But he did it in front of a dozen of his frat brothers. Word will get out in due course. Best to deal with it soon." She turned away. "Off to the gallery. Ta."
The car's passenger door opened as she crossed the street, rotating up instead of swinging out. "Mind your shins, Kat. This thing's more about style than comfort."
As she sped away with Bobby, she said, "Exactly where are we going to put the painting? Does this thing even have a trunk?"
He looked glum. "Every car on the lot was like this. We'll have to drive into the burbs to get something better. Maybe a four year old sedan with a big trunk, or a minivan. Should I drop you off?"
No. I'll call, and tell him I'll be at least another hour. I think he'll wait."
"Sorry. But I thought I'd better get over there pronto."
She smiled. He was still adorable, but then, he always had been. "Your entrance was perfect. I think you impressed them more than my Black Card." She stared through the windshield. "I scared myself today. When I was a student waiting their table, I thought I could never be like them. Today, it was almost too easy. All I needed was the trappings of wealth and an attitude. I talked to them in a way I wouldn't have dreamed of back then."
"You've been living with some seriously assertive people. I guess it's rubbing off."
"More to it than that, Bobby. Sometimes I felt like a stranger in my own head."
Bobby smiled at the windshield. "Dad must have seen it in you. Oldest or not, he wouldn't have made some little mouse our team leader. So, do you have enough nerve to take Kilburn up on his offer?"
"As if. Besides, IO will be here sooner or later. I'm going to chance them coming across a painting of me here?"
Bobby lowered his voice. "Don't think they would have recognized you. Kilburn called the hotel after you left this morning, and we talked a little. I think his first inspiration was to spread a canvas on the floor, cover you in paint, and just have you roll around on it."
"And, now that I think of it, I doubt he was planning to put the paint on you with a brush."
"Say no more." She settled into the seat. "Let's get a car we can go home in, grab the painting, and just drive straight through. Take turns driving and sleeping, get home in a couple days."
"Not the original plan, Kat. What happened to our road trip? We don't get out on our own like this too often. What's wrong?"
I'm feeling very lonely and unsettled right now, and you're way too sweet and sympathetic. I think I'd better get back home – and get you back to Sarah, before I do something stupid. "If it's okay, I'd rather get among familiar surroundings and friendly faces. I just think I've had enough adventure for a while."