Authors: Lydia Michaels
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author
InterMix eBook edition / September 2013
Copyright Â© 2013 by Lydia Michaels.
copyright Â© 2013 by Lydia Michaels.
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This book is dedicated to my amazing husband, Michael.
Without you, nothing else matters. You are the other half of my soul, and I thank God every day that I found you. You are my most coveted treasure and my truest friend. You are as depended on and indescribable as the air I breathe. You are the meaning behind my favorite song, the magic of Christmas morning, the sparkle in our daughter's eyes, and the inspiration behind every unwritten romantic thought hidden between the lines. I can accomplish anything, so long as you never let go of my hand. Thank you, Mike, for always supporting my dreams and for sharing that secret part of your soul with me that no one else gets to see.
I love you.
The early morning sky was the color of steel wool, sharp, ominous gray hanging low over the city without a hint of softness, but Scout Keats' trajectory was somewhere brighter. She hustled down Randolph, past the urban district, and into the commercial quarters of Folsom. Only after crossing that invisible divide from the hidden shadows of the impoverished sections of the city to the streets teaming with endless opportunities of prosperity, did she take her full first breath of the day. A sense of possibility invigorated her every time. Scout's lungs filled with hope and her weariness ebbed with each step as the world she coveted awoke and slowly began to flow around her.
Today was a day to be proud. After two weeks of learning her way, mimicking those who had it already figured out, she had done it and would finally see some of the results of all her hard work. Her heart raced each time she imagined clocking out at the end of her shift and being handed her first big fat paycheck.
This was it. This time it would be different. Being a maid at Patras, although nerve-racking, was going to change Scout's life. Like scenting the snow before it fell, she could sense change approaching, and every cell of her being told her that Patras Hotel was the key to her escape.
She couldn't say how she knew, but she knew. Parker had come to simply roll his eyes each time she fell into fanciful ramblings, warning him that her evenings at the shelter were numbered, that one night she simply wouldn't return and when that night came, he should celebrate, in memory of her, Scout Keats, the dragon baby who outran her destiny and made it in the real world.
She was aware of what Parker thought. She knew how they
saw her. While much of the transient population seemed to accept their hand in life with bitter surrender, Scout never would. Their cynicism ran deeper than any still waters could wash, but she refused to let herself drown in their doubts.
Born in a back alley, ripped from her mother's womb by claws sharp enough to make her scream to a point of delirium, she came into this world running. She was chasing the dragon before she could even crawl. Ironically, her mother had been running from it as far back as her memory held.
The dragon killed her daddy before she ever knew him. No pictures to tell her if her silver blue eyes were his or how he wore his hair. All Scout had was a collage of mumblings, broken bits of her mother's jigsaw mind to tell her the kind of man her daddy was. Didn't matter anyway. He was dead before she was born.
Death favored the poor. People of wealth had an astounding ability to not see them. As insignificant as litter, they were merely unfortunate crumbles of trash lining the curbs they hoped would soon blow away, and each night they did, retreating back to the warmest corners of Folsom to barter their scavenged finds of the day, sleep with one eye open and strategize how to outmaneuver their pretend friends the next morning, because in reality, you had no friends when you were homeless. You only had yourself and your only objective was to stay alive.
Parker had been a concession she made at the age of fourteen. She supposed she could call him a friend. He did kick Slim's ass when he kept leering at her that one year, and she sort of liked him then. Not that she needed a hand defending herself. It was nice of Parker to do that, but that wasn't what made him her friend. Scout decided he could be her friend when she found out he could read and he offered to teach her.
But friends were liabilities. Survival was easiest when emotion stayed out of it. She was getting off the streets and she didn't need to be liable for anyone when she already had her mother to worry about.
Pearl had long ago surrendered to a doomed existence that worried Scout sick, but she brought her into this world and no matter how much Scout hated the life her mother chose, she'd seen it enough to know she really didn't choose it at all. She merely flirted with a dragon that swallowed her whole at first chance and traded her soul for the poor excuse of the life it let her slip away with.
The woman who raised her was gone, replaced by a flesh-covered skeleton who whispered gibberish in her momma's voice, but she loved her all the same. Heroin was Pearl's weakness and she was Scout's, and damn Parker for intruding on her meager list of those she cared for, but Scout wouldn't let him hold her back no matter how many words he taught her to read or how many leering creeps he beat the piss out of. Parker was a lifer and she was not.
He often made fun of Scout and her obsession with words. He didn't understand why she had such a fixation with expanding her vocabulary. At this point in her life, it was humiliating not to know how to do such a common thing as read. It wasn't something she shared about herself easily. Words, however, she could memorize.
Anytime she heard a word she didn't know, she'd ask Parker what it meant and he'd tell her. She made it a point to think and speak those words as often as possible. It made her feel educated in a way she knew she was not. Some day it would benefit her, once she moved out of the gutter class and into a more prestigious one.
The black ribbon of road slowly crowded with yellow cabs. That sleeping scent of the city, a little bit bitter with a trace of dewy air, was slowly replaced with the smell of exhaust and early morning eateries opening their doors.
Two sizes too large, her worn black sneakers clopped over the pavement and were slowly humbled by the gentle roar of pedestrians in their finery. The cadence of leather-soled loafers and stilettos built like a distant wave, washing out the unsophisticated rhythm of her steps.
The choking clouds were pushed back as the buildings grew in size, each one an enormous trophy of some self-important man's arrogance and a supplement for his inadequate anatomy.
The buildings pierced the canopy of haze, like beams beneath a heavy circus tent. The analogy made her smile. She was leaving what would be the gypsy caravans squatting in ramshackle functionality and heading for the better-dressed performers of the main event. Like a child smiling over a tuft of cotton candy, she grew excited at the nearing presence of the fancy-dressed ringleaders of the world with their bedazzled accessories and self-pronounced confidence. One day she'd be among the glamorous women who swung high above the rest and were respected for their courage and grace. Scout longed to be a part of the big show and leave her less-appealing brethren behind.
Pushing her fanciful musings aside, she hefted her cumbersome bag over her shoulder as she moved deeper into the congested commercial district. Men of industry, demigods, built these impressive structures, smudging out even the sun until nothing but a slice of sky showed a mile above. On lackluster mornings like this one when the clouds hung low and the rooftops raked through the dull cotton bluffs, she truly understood why they were named skyscrapers.
Her strides doubled when she turned onto Fenton and the great clock showed there were only ten minutes to six. Three blocks to go and she still needed time to clock in and check her cart. In another hour these hollow roads would be clogged with taxis, and the walkways would suffer as civilized a stampede as human nature could produce.
Scout rounded the corner of Gerard and there, like a dove among pigeons, sat Patras Hotel. Its white granite walls with opalescent luster gleamed even under the overcast wedge of sky. Thirty-foot pillars guarded the structure, sweeping the grand marble staircase in a soft glow of controlled lighting where shine boys already waited at their benches with boxes for their wealthy clientele. Velvet roping sectioned off the affluent guests from the covetous passersby. One didn't set foot on that red carpet leading through those eighteen-foot gilded doors unless they were entitled to.
Scout quickly walked past the fringed runner and around the corner of the building. Practically taking up a block on its own, Patras Hotel was the beauty among the motley buildings that neighbored it, and in such a swank section of Folsom that proclaimed it to be the best of the best.
At the back of the building was a subtle awning, pristine enough not to detract from the hotel's beauty, but lacking the pretentiousness of the front enough to be overlooked by those who weren't in the know. She slid her badge through the discrete keycard lock beside the door and waited. When the green light signaled and the lock disengaged with a snick, she pulled the heavy door open and let herself in. The scent of freshly arranged flowers greeted her and mingled with the familiar whispered clatter in the distance of the waitstaff preparing the restaurant for the breakfast crowd.
Traveling in the opposite direction of the lobby, Scout again reached for her badge and slid it through the service elevator's lock. The bell dinged softly and she stepped into the unembellished car. She keyed in for the basement and moments later entered a bustling underground world of service.
The air was heated with the clean scent of detergents and presses. She loved the fragrance of the laundering facilities. Such a luxury, to not only sleep on fresh sheets every day, but to have them pressed as well. Her feet hustled through the corridor and turned into the employee locker room.
Approaching the docking station, she breathed a sigh of relief as she slid her badge through the mechanism clocking her in for the day at 5:58. Perfect.
Turning to her locker, Scout quickly stowed her belongings without making eye contact with any of the other employees. Down here, in the bowels of the hotel, they were all janitorial staff. Good thing, too, because the lobby employees with their fancy blazers and ticked, tuxedo-style pants intimidated the crap out of her.
The maids all wore the same poly-blend shapeless dove gray dress with white Peter Pan collar and cuffed sleeves. They didn't intimidate her one bit. She simply didn't meet their gazes so as not to inadvertently suggest she was interested in making acquaintances. She wasn't. She was there to do a job.
Once her dainty, completely ornamental white apron was tied at her waist, she pinned the small accordion cap in front of her bun. Hoisting the last of her items into the tight metal locker, she tucked the bulge back and forced the door closed, moving her fingers just in time for the latch to catch before her cumbersome belongings could be regurgitated onto the floor. Looking left, then right, she spun the built-in combination lock several times until convinced her possessions were secure. Everything she owned was in that locker.
By the time Scout made it to Tamara's office, other maids were already on the move with their carts. Behind her, some employees were just arriving. Quickening her pace she turned into the office labeled
Housekeeping General Manager
and greeted her GM with a smile.
“Good morning, Tamara.”
“Good morning, Scout.” She smiled, her teeth clean and perfectly straight.
Scout had an odd obsession with hygiene and frequently noticed people's teeth and fingernails as some sort of personal grading system.
“Here's your list for the day. Bridget's out so I put you on the penthouse suites if that's okay,” Tamara said.
Like she'd admit if it wasn't. “That's fine. I'm happy to help.”
“Good and while I have you here, your paperwork was sent back from Human Resources. You forgot to fill in your social when you did it. They're going to need that in order to process your paycheck this afternoon.”
Crap. Parker had done her paperwork. Tamara's curvy frame twisted in her fancy leather chair as she reached into a paper tray. She slid the familiar paperwork across the desk and Scout forced her hand to remain steady as she picked it up.
There was nothing condescending about Tamara. She was in her midthirties and seemed to be one of those pleasantly chubby women who chronically dieted and would never truly recognize the beauty they held within. Scout appreciated her easy pleasantness and genuine candor.
Her eyes raked over the application. Parker's penmanship was neat and bold. Scout admired the confident way his letters stroked in tidy order across the small blank spaces.
“What did you say was missing?”
“Your social security number. See, there, on the top right. Just fill that in and you'll be good to go and I'll have it sent back before payroll cuts the checks this afternoon.”
Tamara wore a floral-scented perfume and Scout couldn't help breathing in the bouquet without a touch of envy. It mixed nicely with the fragrance of her hair and skin.
She found the blank spot she was referring to. Nine little blank lines needing to be filled.
“Why do they need this?”
“For tax purposes mostly.” Her fingernails were painted red. Scout self-consciously tucked her clipped nails into the shelter of her palm.
She didn't have a social security number or if she did she'd never been told what it was. She could've been honest, but honesty in this situation would only delay and complicate things. The key to fitting in was being as low-maintenance as possible.
“Do you have a pen I could use?”
Tamara handed her a pen and Scout squatted low at the corner of the desk. Her fingers deliberately formed the numbers. Scout was very aware of how unpracticed they appeared next to Parker's well-developed words. Quickly, she made up three groups of numbers she could remember in case she had to recall them for something in the future. One-three-six, because it was the number of her locker. Twenty-two for her age. And nineteen hundred because it was the address printed on the awning out back of Patras. If they checked it and realized she made it up, she'd act like it was an honest mistake and figure out what to do when and if that time came.
“Here you go.” She slid the paper back to Tamara.
“Great.” She grinned, slipped the paper back in the tray she pulled it from and handed Scout her assignments for the day.
“You'll need to use your badge to access the penthouse floors. Level thirty's all individual entry, so once you get off the elevator your normal house key will work, but from there you'll have to use the private bank of elevators located just outside of the private ballroom on thirty-one. There're four master penthouses on the thirty-second floor. Three of them are vacant this week so you'll only need to attend Suite C. Each has its own elevator that will deposit you directly in the room. I usually have the girls take only what they need with them. The master suites have a supply closet your general house key will open, where you'll find a sweeper and basic supplies to replenish the amenities. Here's the keycard for Suite C. Make sure you deactivate them at the end of the day.”