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Authors: Camy Tang

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BOOK: Protection for Hire
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“I need to establish Tessa’s alibi so the police will release her.”

“We didn’t leave the house. Poor Daniel’s getting a little stir crazy, but Tessa didn’t want to risk allowing them to go out. She said she almost had everything ready for them to leave.” Mama sighed. “I don’t want them to go.”

“It’s not safe for them here.”

“I know, it’s just …” She paused in the middle of filling another cannoli. “The UPS man.”

“Huh?”

“I ordered a propane torch —”

“What?”

“It’s a special one for making crème brulee. Anyway, the UPS man delivered it yesterday. Since Tessa answered the door, she signed for it.”

UPS had online tracking. “You ordered it online? Do you have the shipping notification email?”

“The what?”

Charles headed to the living room, where the laptop that Mama used was sitting on the desk in the corner. He logged into her mail program — he should get her to change her password, it was too easy to hack — and searched through her email. There, the notice from the online cooking supply website with the UPS tracking number.

Delivered yesterday at 4:47 p.m. Augustine had been seen alive by his secretary at 4:15 p.m., and found dead by the same secretary at 5:45 p.m. Without traffic, from Charles’s house it would take a minimum of forty-five minutes to get to Augustine’s law office, but 5:00 was peak rush hour. Even if Tessa had hopped into a car and driven to the law office right after signing for the package, she wouldn’t have had enough time to kill him before his secretary found him.

Tessa really hadn’t done it. Someone was trying to set her up.

And they’d be after Charles next.

Chapter 21

T
he look her mom gave her could have spoiled the fish at the sushi bar.

“So,” Mom said as Tessa entered Oyasumi, her uncle’s Japanese restaurant, “you’re out of jail.”

Tessa approached the reception desk. “They dropped the charges. I had an alibi.”

Charles made sure the police interviewed the UPS driver who delivered the package to Vivian, and the driver easily identified Tessa as the one who signed for the package. Further proof was her scrawl on the electronic signature pad.

Praise God for Vivian’s love of flammable cooking supplies that required signature delivery.

Another hostess at the restaurant passed by carrying a tray of drinks. She paused to titter at Mom in Japanese, “So this is your younger daughter, Ayumi? How happy you must be that she’s out of jail.” She minced off.

Tessa’s head flamed as she glared at the woman’s back. “What’s that about?”

“Do you know how embarrassing it is for me every time you get arrested?” Mom scowled.

“It’s only happened twice.”

“Most mothers would prefer it never happened.”

She had a point.

Mom frowned at the seating chart. “Maybe it’ll be better after this job is over and you move out.”

She hadn’t expected it, but a pang twisted in her chest at her mom’s words. Tessa originally had been firing her engine in anticipation of getting out of her Close-Encounters-of-the-Mom-Kind living situation, but for the past few months she’d begun to wonder if Mom didn’t want her to move after all. And Tessa had begun to think it wasn’t so bad to live at home. To maybe show her mom that this “religion thing” had made a difference in her daughter.

She must have misunderstood her mother. Mom’s
tatami zori
slippers were itching to give Tessa the boot.

“What do you need?” Mom said. “One of my best customers has a reservation tonight and should be arriving soon.” As a hostess at this particular Japanese restaurant, Mom was required to take care of any and all needs for the customers, usually being prompt with drink refills or getting cigarettes or cigars for them. Certain customers preferred her over the other hostesses — Mom could be charming when she wanted — and she always made sure she was available. It kept the customers coming back to Uncle’s restaurant.

“I have a problem —”

“I don’t want to hear about it.” Mom stuck up a hand, her voice strident. “I don’t want to know.”

“No, not that kind of problem. It doesn’t involve anything
illegal
.”

Mom raised an eyebrow. “Considering what you used to do, you can’t blame me for assuming.”

“It’s for Elizabeth.”

Her face lit up. “Oh. She is so sweet. Is she doing okay? So what do you need for her?” she asked.

Really? Tessa knew there was a huge difference between jailbird daughter and charming Southern belle, but
really?
“Charles hired a private investigator to poke into Elizabeth’s husband’s company, to find out what they’re up to. He hasn’t come up with much yet, but he found out that the company is giving a cocktail party in a few days. It’s for investors. I want to try to get hired as one of the wait staff. Do you know how I can do that? How do those kinds of functions hire people?”

Before her eyes, Mom transformed. Suddenly she wasn’t the petulant mother Tessa was used to — she was a restaurant professional, talking about her field of expertise. Her shoulders settled back, her chin went up confidently, and she seemed almost pleased to be giving advice. “Most of the time, one-time events like that hire wait staff through a staffing agency, or maybe through an event planning agency, or through the bartending service they hire for serving drinks. The agency decides who’s hired for the night — or sometimes they’re scrambling to find enough people to staff the event.”

“So I need to find out what agency was contracted for the party. How do I do that?”

“You should talk to the Mouse.”

“Who?”

Mom gestured toward the back of the restaurant with her head. “You know, Nez.”

“The manager? He’d know about the cocktail party?”

“His brother owns a large event planning agency in San Jose, but they have lots of connections with other smaller agencies in
San Francisco. Sometimes he even gets hired for San Francisco events.”

“So he might have been hired by Stillwater Group?”

“Maybe, although that’s a bit of a long shot. But he would definitely know or be able to find out who was hired.”

“Great. Is he back there now?”

Wariness tightened the edges of Mom’s eyes. “Yes, but …” She glanced toward the area near the back of the restaurant that was filled with small rooms, separated by
shoji
sliding doors, which was often used for private parties. There was a raucous one tonight using the largest room. “Your cousin Fred is here.”

A greasy fist squeezed Tessa’s innards. “In that room?” While it was walled off with
shoji
doors, one door stood wide open so that the customers could flag down waitresses and hostesses. And Tessa would have to pass that door in order to get to the offices in the back.

“I’ll run interference for you,” said her mother, the 49ers football fan. “Let’s go.”

They made their way toward the back of the restaurant. Mom went straight to the open
shoji
door, pulling it slightly shut with one hand as she stood in the doorway. “Fred,” she shouted above the rowdy laughter, “did you get that order of
gyoza
you ordered?”

While Mom blocked the view from the doorway, Tessa darted past, her head down in case Fred could see above her diminutive mother’s head. She didn’t breathe again until she was well past the room and heading toward the door marked “Employees only” in the alcove in the far corner.

But then the men’s restroom door opened just as she was breezing past it, and Yuuto, one of Fred’s friends, caught sight of her.

“Tessa!” he said loudly, possibly to deliberately call Fred’s attention to her, but more likely because he was drunker than a skunk. “Long time no see!”

There was a slight lull in the banter in the room, then a hand shoved her mom out of the way and Fred’s head appeared. “Tessa!” If possible, he was drunker than Yuuto. “Come here to see your mommy?” His slur against Mom went no further, because his father wouldn’t stand for disrespect of his aunt.

Cousins, on the other hand, were fair game. Especially ones he hated because he was indebted to them.

She considered playing the submissive Japanese girl card and trying to slink away when he was done having fun with her, but more likely any un-Tessa-like responses would make him suspicious, and he’d try to figure out what she really needed here so he could do his best to prevent her.

The problem was that her normal response to Fred was to compare him to creatures that had higher IQs than he did, like slugs. Which only made him mad and bullish.

“Come to try to work here now?” he taunted. “No other place will hire you?”

“Of course,” Tessa said, chin lowered and eyes blazing. “Why wouldn’t they hire me if this is the only restaurant that’ll stand the likes of you?”

Fred’s face darkened. “You watch it. I own this restaurant.”

His friends, sensing the insult to their banana leader, left their places at the table and crowded around Fred in the open doorway. Several climbed out of the room to stand a few feet from Tessa. Some recognized her from seven years ago — some were men she had often worked with when her uncle asked her to do jobs for him — but they didn’t hesitate in puffing out their chests and donning fierce expressions.

No one insulted yakuza. Especially not a woman.

Except she wasn’t just any woman. “Your daddy owns it, not you.”

A triumphant leer slid onto Fred’s face. “I own it now. Signed the papers today.” Hence the celebration with his friends.

“Oh, did Freddy-weddy finally learn to count to ten?” The insult shot out of her mouth before she could think. While she hadn’t wanted to be un-Tessa, she also hadn’t intended to insult him so condescendingly in front of his friends, requiring Fred to get ugly or lose face.

And Fred never willingly lost face.

His lips drew back, exposing his teeth. “You apologize or your mom loses her job.”

Tessa glanced to her mom’s white face, visible a few feet from the crowd of men. “Your father would skin you alive.”

“Do you see my father here?” He gestured wildly. Fred couldn’t think wisely or long-term if he tried. What mattered to him was the now — Tessa’s insult, the chance to show his power by either forcing his cousin to grovel or humiliating Tessa’s mom in front of her customers and the rest of the restaurant staff.

This was the enraged pride that had killed Laura Starling.

Seven years ago — no, three years ago, she wouldn’t have cared. Would have rather fought them all and broken every rib in her body, along with some of theirs, than be submissive. Would have cared more about her own pride and reputation with the yakuza than the embarrassment and problems caused to her mom.

But she wasn’t that Tessa anymore.

With her jaw so tight that it ground a headache behind her eyes, she said, “I’m sorry, Fred.”

He gave a toothy smile that Hannibal Lector would have sported with pride. “What? What’s that?”

“I’m sorry, Fred.”

Fred hooted, as did some of his friends. Some of the men she knew and had worked with stared at her with disgust in their eyes. Behind them all, Mom had her fist to her mouth. Her eyes implored Tessa, and she shook her head. Tessa didn’t know what she meant by that head-shake — no, don’t apologize, or no, don’t make trouble.

“Now, Tessa, I want you to dance like a geisha
.
” Fred struck a girly pose and almost fell over, but recovered his balance by grabbing onto an equally drunk friend.

Every muscle in Tessa’s body swelled and tightened, as if they were going to explode off of her bones in her rage. She bit her tongue to prevent the retort that rose to her lips, and she tasted salty blood in her mouth.

“Go on. Dance like a geisha.” Fred brayed like a donkey.

Several of the men had evil gleams in their eyes. Tessa, who used to win bar fights, reduced to being Fred’s puppet. Tessa, the woman whose fighting abilities were tolerated only because she was the boss’s niece, now in the proper role of a subservient Japanese woman.

“Dance, geisha, dance.” Fred strode to her and grabbed her arm. “Dance —”

Tessa drew back her fist to punch him in the nose, but a low voice cut through the jeers and laughter.

“Fred, that’s enough.”

From the front of the restaurant, Kenta approached them, striding through the crowd of men. Some immediately swept back in deference. Others who were dumb like Fred — or simply
too sloshed to know better — paused in their catcalling and stared at him with glazed eyes.

“Fred, let go of her.”

Fred pouted, but dropped his hand from Tessa’s arm. Fred might be his father’s son, but Kenta was his father’s captain. “It’s my restaurant and she dared to insult —”

“Then she can apologize.”

There was a pause, then someone said grudgingly, “She did.”

“Then she can leave.” Kenta looked at her then, with eyes hard and jaw tight.

“I wanted to say hello to Nez,” she said.

“Come back another time.”

“No, she can’t,” Fred snapped. “If she does, she’ll be thrown out.” He leaned close to glare at her. “I’ll be happy to do the throwing.”

Tessa said softly, so no one else could hear, “Touch me again, and I’ll flip you over my hip and dislocate your shoulder.”

Fred sneered at her, but he couldn’t hide the widening of his eyes and the creases of fear at their corners.

“Tessa.” Kenta leveled her a commanding gaze.
Leave, now.

No, they were not her family. She should never have assumed they were. She was a girl. They were yakuza.

“Ayumi-san, take the rest of the night off,” Kenta told her mom.

Mom’s eyes were wide and her breathing rapid, but she nodded and followed Tessa.

“Hope you find a job,” Fred called after her. “The only job you’ll find is as a call girl.” He laughed, and a few of his friends laughed with him.

Call girl.

What had Layla said to her? Some businesses used her models as hostesses for high-end parties.

Once outside the restaurant, Mom stood rock still, like a Buddha, but with a turbulent expression rather than one of transcendent peace.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” Tessa said.

“Why’d you have to antagonize him?” she said in an anguished voice.

“If I had been submissive from the start, would he have been any less difficult?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.” Mom turned away from her, her chin trembling, but not crying. She never cried, not even the morning Dad had left. In that way, she resembled her stoic brother.

“Are you okay? Do you want me to drive you home?”

“I can drive,” she said snippily. Then in a different voice, “I can try to talk to Nez tomorrow —”

“No, don’t get in trouble, Mom.”

“I won’t.” A bullish expression settled over her face. “You know what? I won’t stand for that kind of disrespect to my face. I’m not his mother, but Teruo is my brother. If Fred thought his father wouldn’t hear about this …”

“Uncle Teruo would only say I shouldn’t have insulted his only son.”

“His only son should never have insulted his aunt,” she snapped.

Tessa was a bit surprised Mom was angry enough to demand action from Uncle Teruo, but it meant Fred would wish he had the brains of a cricket rather than the considerable amount less that he had. And after Uncle made Fred regret ever mixing thinking with drinking, Fred would take his anger, frustration, and humiliation out on Tessa rather than Mom, so that would be okay.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t help you,” Mom said. “Actually, Mom, you did help.” “I did?”

“Or rather … Fred did.”

“He did?” Mom shrugged. “At least the pile of rotting fish brains is good for something.”

Tessa smiled at her Mom. “Nice.” Mom preened. “I learned from the best.”

BOOK: Protection for Hire
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