Emilio sits on the sofa across from me, smirking, still hopeful that something he does or says will eventually mean more than shit to me. And then just when that thought crosses my mind, he manages to find something after all. He looks at Izabel with intent in his eyes—and he holds it, making sure that I make note of it. All right, Emilio, you have my attention now; be really fucking careful because if you touch her I’ll beat you to death.
“I will give you a fair price,” Francesca assures me.
Moments later the elevator is climbing the metal again, almost soundlessly; the top comes into view and then the faces of Miz Ghita and the servant girl from earlier who Nora tripped. The glass doors slide open and Miz Ghita, holding onto the girl’s elbow, walks her forward and toward Emilio.
Emilio stands from the sofa, straightens his jacket, a devilish grin twists his mouth. He reaches for ‘Ela’, but his hand stops midair when he hears Francesca’s voice behind him.
“I will punish her,” she says, and for the briefest of moments even Emilio appears uncomfortable.
He drops his arm back at his side and then steps to the left, gesturing with his hand out, palm up, so Ela will approach Francesca on the dais. I think Emilio had something else in mind for punishment, maybe another beating like Nora had, and that he be the one to carry it out, but the turn of events even has him tense; there’s something unfamiliar hidden in his eyes, something I didn’t expect Emilio would possess: uneasiness. But he hides it well. Unlike their mother who stands behind the sofa across from me, looking at no one, but instead at anything inanimate. I get the distinct feeling that she doesn’t want to be here.
Then she looks up at her daughter sitting on her throne and says with as much courage as she can muster, “I’ll go wait downstairs for the girls,” and she starts to walk away.
“No, Mother, I’d like for you to stay here a moment.”
Miz Ghita inhales a breath, mouth open slightly; she clasps her hands on her backside and goes back to staring at anything without eyes.
Izabel is sitting upright now; I can feel her body tense next to mine—she knows as much as anyone that something fucked up is about to happen.
Nora is…still the emotionless, unmoving, most unaffected-by-anything person I’ve ever seen. I think maybe she’s better at my job than I am.
“Come here, Ela,” Francesca says, curling her finger toward her.
The girl doesn’t hesitate, but she walks with rapid breath and tight shoulders, and she ascends the marble steps on legs so shaky I’m surprised she can walk on them at all.
Izabel’s leg presses against mine, but I don’t think she notices. No Izzy…don’t break character. Please don’t fucking break character.
The girl named Ela; soft, innocent, scared, gets on her knees in front of Francesca’s throne and bows her head low, all the way to the floor where she presses her forehead, her arms stretched out above her head, palms flat against the marble. My stomach flip-flops when the girl standing beside the makeup tray places a small pair of garden shears into Francesca’s hand. No Niklas…don’t fucking break character.
Emilio watches from below the dais, his hands also folded on his backside; his shoulders are tight, drawn up slightly; I see his jaw flexing as if he’s nervously grinding his teeth. Every other servant girl in the room stands perfectly still; no one is breathing, no one is blinking, but everyone including me wishes we were somewhere else.
“Sit up and give me your hand, Ela.” Francesca reaches out for it, and she waits.
Ela raises herself up and moves closer, offers her hand to the fiend on the white throne.
“Since the two of them are so much alike,” Francesca says about Ela and Nora, taking Ela’s hand, “then they will share deformities as well.”
Ela’s bloodcurdling scream sets my teeth on edge and every muscle in my body stiffens when the razor-sharp garden shears slice through flesh and tendon and bone. I can hear the metal on bone in my head, crunching, grating, cutting through to my subconscious where Augustin is trying his damndest to tame Fleischer, keep him under control in this pivotal moment. Dark red liquid sprays Francesca’s elegant white robe, pours from the detaching finger as she works the shears in her hand, cutting and cutting until the pinky finger is completely detached. Izabel’s fingers are digging into my thigh, and if it weren’t for my pants, her fingernails would be in my skin. She looks only at the floor. How did my hand get on her waist? I squeeze her gently, hoping to soothe her, and though I know it won’t, I do it anyway.
Nora, you’re one soulless bitch.
Flashes of Mexico blind me; all the blood…all the blood, all those girls, drowning in it; Lydia bleeding on the desert floor. Izel and the scissors. Izel and the knives and the guns and the chain she used to beat a girl to death in front of my eyes. That’s what this woman is—Izel four-point-oh. I want to kill her. She doesn’t deserve to live and I want her to die. If the client doesn’t kill this maniacal bitch, I’m coming back for her myself. And the rest of her family too, whether or not they’re just like her. They allow it; they stand by and let it happen and that makes them just as guilty.
But…then all of us are guilty, every single person in this room, including us—goddammit! Why can’t we do something?
I close my eyes and try to calm my breathing, to slow my racing heart one beat at a time, like everyone else seems to be doing.
Except for Nora.
How can she stand it? How can she sit there on the floor without so much as a tensed muscle, or a clenched jaw, or a vein twitching in her neck, or a few white knuckles? The girl’s finger is being cut off—just like yours was, Nora; the girl is being tortured because of something you did! But she feels nothing.
I look down—I don’t think I ever looked back up—and see Niklas’s long fingers clutching my waist; at least he feels something. But he’s still guilty. We’re all guilty. Fear (and some kind of sick, sadistic love) of this woman is what keeps most of them quiet. But not for us; not for me or Niklas or Nora. The sake of a job and of another girl’s life is what binds us. Keep quiet and still—don’t break character!—or a lot more than a finger will be lost here today, I keep telling myself. Over and over again.
The girl crumples to her knees on the dais floor; blood stains her clothes, the crimson bright against the stark white of her dress. Blood glistens on the white marble beneath her, on Francesca Moretti’s lavish white robe. I don’t even recall when I lifted my head to see these things—now I can’t turn away. The girl’s cries carry through the room and for a long time it’s the only thing I hear; whimpers ominously amplified by the violent pumping of blood through my head.
“Now, Mother, you can leave. Take Ela with you and have the doctor tend to her wound.”
Tend to her wound? She makes it sound like the poor girl fell and skinned her goddamned knee.
“Is something wrong with your girl?” I hear Francesca say, but her voice sounds so far off; I’m not thinking straight. All I see is red, red, red, red. Blood and rage, blood and rage.
Wait—is she talking to Niklas?
“Naomi?” comes Niklas’s far-off voice.
I blink once, like flipping on a light switch, and the reality of the moment comes rushing back into my eyes like a flood of blinding light. I realize I’m barely sitting on the edge of the cushion now; my teeth are pressed together abrasively, visibly as though I’d been baring them the whole time like a rabid dog. I glance down at my hands, one digging into Niklas’s thigh, the other into the leather couch cushion. Slowly my fingers loosen and I pull my hands away, placing them into my lap. My face and my posture eases and melts back into calm. I swallow and lick my dry, chapped lips desperate for moisture.
“I-I apologize, Madam,” I say with the shaky, timid voice of Naomi. “I’m fine. The sight of blood has always made me uncomfortable.”
Niklas smooths the palm of his hand over the back of my head and down what’s left of the length of my botched hair, pretending to soothe his little pet. Or is he trying to soothe Izzy? After that…kiss, one that felt like something so much more than a role, after that I’m not sure I can tell the difference anymore. I’m unsure of a lot of things…
“She gets a little squeamish sometimes,” Niklas tells Francesca, still smoothing my hair, and oddly enough it does comfort me somewhat.
Emilio is looking at me again with that unnerving grin of his—he’s planning something. Bring it on, asshole. Whatever it is, I’m ready for you.
I look away from Emilio just as Miz Ghita is walking past with the girl on her arm. Tears stream down her face; she walks hunched over with her mutilated hand pressed to her chest by the other one; the front of her dress is drenched in blood. The elevator closes them off inside its glass walls and takes them down and out of our sight.
How the hell are we going to find Olivia Bram in all this? I bet Niklas never anticipated that Francesca would have ‘a few’ of her cyprians brought here for him to look at; it’s doubtful Olivia Bram will be one of them. This could take forever—literally. We’re not going to find that girl the way things are going. Something tells me—or reminds me—that bringing Olivia Bram home to her father was never going to happen. I hate more than anyone here to think that giving up on her is the only option, and that we should focus on kidnapping Francesca. But that’s what I’m beginning to feel. She’s no longer here. Or maybe she was never here. Olivia Bram is dead.