In Which We Meet...Who?
We ate something, headed back to our hotel, gathered our luggage, checked out, and finally ended up back in the Mizunos’ basement. It was past five by then, and they were loading their stuff into the back of a dinged-up van. Jason waved at us. “Follow us, girls.”
Vic drove, and the van led us to a restaurant on “the Avenue” (a long road in the city’s center lined with brick buildings) called The Rose. Vic, Thalia, and I settled into a booth up by the small stage in the back.
My phone buzzed. It was a text message from Holly. We R here! Haven’t been able reach you? L + F worried sick.
Oh, good. So they’d arrived. I felt a weight lift off my shoulders as I texted back, Sorry, hotel reception was awful. We’re fine.
A second later, my phone rang. It was Holly, again. “Where’d you say you were?”
“At the Rose. It’s a restaurant downtown.”
“Oh, I saw that place! I think I remember where it is. Mind if I check in?”
“Uh, sure. Where are you guys?”
“Your boyfriend found us a safe place to hang for a while. You know a guy named Logan Hewitt?”
“Nope. Never heard of him.”
“You gotta meet him. He’s great. A bit, what’s the polite way to say this, eccentric, but great. He and Fred seem to go back a ways. Well, see you in a sec. Or several. Bye.”
“Bye.” I hung up right when the set began. Francis screamed out an introduction, and they launched straight into a string of cover songs. Her voice and Jason’s worked beautifully together, and the seventies/eighties-style music accompanied them well. They had real potential, this band.
About three songs in, Holly showed up, pulling a chair up to our booth. She looked exactly as she had the previous night, rumpled American Idiot t-shirt, thick glasses and all. “Heya.”
Holly’s eyes flew to the stage, fixated. “Who’s that girl?” she asked.
“Her name’s Francis Byrd, and now you know as much about her as I do.”
“I know that she’s really, really beautiful,” she said, eyes still glued to the stage. “Like...holy crap. She’s gorgeous. Have you ever seen anyone with eyes that green?”
“Talk to her, then. The show’ll be over soon.”
“Are you kidding me? No.”
“You try so hard to get me dates, and then you can’t even say hello to a girl you find attractive.”
“That was different,” she protested. “I just broke up, after all. Also we are in Nashville, and we don’t know how long we’ll be here, and I don’t really want to get attached in that situation --” She broke off. “Anyway, totally different.”
“You keep telling yourself that.”
“Plus you totally don’t need my help finding a boyfriend. You’ve got Fred. You’ve always had Fred.”
I groaned. “He’s not my boyfriend, not really. Not officially.”
“Screw official...ness, he’s your boyfriend,” Holly said insistently. “You’re all he ever talks about, Hailee. It’d take an idiot or an android not to see he’s in love with you.”
Thankfully, this conversation was ended by a round of applause from the Rose’s patrons. After the Fall took a series of clumsy bows and turned their attention to taking down all the band equipment.
Vic stood. “What do you say we head out for a walk?” she said. “I need some air.”
Thalia and I both agreed. If they were thinking what I was thinking, it wasn’t air at all Vic wanted, but rather a chance to look around the area, and that was something I also wanted. So, we headed out the front. Holly opted to stay behind, for obvious reasons.
Once we were outside and out of earshot, Vic quietly said, “I know this place.”
“All of it. The Avenue, the entire downtown area.” She pointed up the road. “The Defenders have a holding center not far from here.”
I’d be lying if I said my blood didn’t run a bit chilly at that. “So, not a good place for lycans, then.”
“Actually, I’ve met several who hang around down here, on the fringes. Most are a bit further west, but they want to stay close to the so-called hunters’ territory. A proverbial middle finger of sorts, I suppose. We’re in just the right place, but we’re also in just the wrong place.”
“Well, that’s just outstanding.” Outstanding, it might not be, but at least we were in the wolfpack’s territory. Unfortunately, we were also in an area the Paranormal Defenders of America claimed as theirs. “Can you show us around a bit?”
Vic was walking a few steps ahead of us, swinging her tags around her finger, wind blowing her hair in all directions. Maybe this, and the fact that she turned around to look at us, was what kept her from seeing where she was going. It kept her from seeing the well-dressed couple walking out of a bar, Everman’s pub, which, Vic was telling us, was frequented by hunters. Maybe her talking kept her from hearing their argument, something about going to stay with the man’s mother over Christmas. Something kept both Vic and this suited, Manila folder-carrying man occupied, and they collided head-on, smack!, on the sidewalk.
I’ll never forget what happened next.
The Manila folder’s contents went flying every which way. Vic jumped back to her feet, catching papers and picking them up off the ground, muttering “Sorry, sorry.”
“It was my fault,” the man assured her. He picked up her dog tags, which had slipped from her hand when she slammed into him. “Here, you dropped these, Ms....” He glanced at the tags, assuming they were Vic’s and bore her name...and his face paled. He met her eyes, and she looked equally distressed. She snatched the tags back and hung them around her neck, staring. “It can’t be,” the man murmured.
She stepped back. “No.”
The suited man matched her step, reaching out to brush the hair from her face. By now his wife was staring too, with a hand over her mouth.
She broke away from him. “Get away. Get away from me! I’m done with you!” Vic turned and ran, ran straight past us and across the road.
I tried calling after her. “Vic! Vic, hold up!” I had no idea what was wrong, but she was clearly extremely upset by it. “Go back to the Rose and wait for Jason,” I instructed Thalia. “I’m going after her.”
I found Vic in a tiny cafe about a block away, sipping from a glass of tap water. She had her hood pulled up, and I just barely noticed her through the window. I sat across from her. “Hey, Victoria,” I said gently, “what’s going on?”
She looked up at me, and I saw her eyes were red, still glistening. “You...you wouldn’t get it, Hailee.” I noticed she was clutching the right shoulder of her jacket extra tightly -- the place that bore the scars.
“Maybe not,” I admitted. “But you seemed very, very upset out there. I thought you might want to get it off your chest, that’s all.”
“I do,” she said, and almost started to cry again.
I waited patiently as she collected herself, waited until she was ready to talk. When she was, she took a deep breath and spoke clearly. “Hailee, do you know how I know where the containment center is?”
“I was there. Let this sink in: the Defenders were okay with sending a goddam thirteen-year-old to that hellhouse, and the man you saw was the one put in charge of me.” She paused.
I fully understood her distress now. I certainly didn’t have fond memories of my time in a containment center, and Vic had been even younger than me. But there was something more than that, I could tell, something deeper and more personal....
Suddenly, it hit me. The tender way he touched her face, as if she were a fragile thing. The river-blue eyes I realized he shared with her. The almost frightened way he said her name. “There’s more to it, isn’t there?”
She nodded, tearing up again. “Yes, there is. There is.”
“Victoria?” he said, “Victoria,” like he knew her, like he was looking for her....
“He’s my father.”