The Girl Who Broke Free: A gripping crime thriller
A missing girl. A menacing family secret. A betrayal of the worst kind.
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐Goodreads Reviewer: “Riveting! The plot is dark and engrossing. The danger and intrigue kept me on the edge of my seat; a definite page-turner!”
The day her bakery gets an order for a seven-thousand-dollar cake for the most swanky birthday party in town, Asha is sure she's made it.
The luxury affair is in Manhattan's most exclusive neighborhood. Asha is about to enter the secret domain of celebrities, diplomats and VIP dignitaries.
But five days before the party, the birthday girl goes missing.
All that girl had wanted was a sweet sixteenth birthday party, but someone in her family had other plans for that night.
Can anyone in this family be trusted?
Can Asha unscramble the lies to find the girl in time?
The truth will shock you.
If you enjoy gripping thrillers with flawed but gutsy heroines, vigilante action and suspenseful twists that get your pulse pounding, you'll love this crime series by award-winning Canadian novelist, Tikiri Herath.
Get this page-turner now!
“I have never been this attached to a book before. I don't think I am ever going to be the same again.” ~Advanced Reader.
The Girl Who Broke Free is the fourth novel in the addictive Red Heeled Rebels international mystery & crime series.
Release date: May 31, 2020
Publisher: Nefertiti Press
Print pages: 396
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The Girl Who Broke Free: A gripping crime thriller
It was the shrill scream of a terrified woman.
The sound reverberated through the house, sending a shiver down my back.
I whipped around, my heart racing.
My best friend, Katy, had been strolling around the room, admiring the murals on the walls—the ones with dark men in white robes riding Arabian horses across golden dunes. She was standing next to a display of scimitars now, those ancient curved weapons of the desert, and was staring at me with a horrified expression on her face.
“Did you hear that?” she whispered.
“I think so,” I said, unsure myself.
We remained motionless, heads tilted, waiting to see if we’d hear the cry again, wondering if we’d imagined it.
We were alone in the dining hall that morning, one of the many rooms in this luxurious apartment in downtown Manhattan.
This room was unlike any dining hall I’d been in. That was what the ambassador’s head of staff had called it when she’d ushered us in an hour ago. I thought it was more like a mini-museum dedicated to the Orient, not a room where they served you meals.
Until that strange cry, I’d been sitting deep in thought, reviewing the official papers the head of staff had left on the antique dining table.
I still couldn't believe I was holding this contract in my hands.
I’d been waiting for this moment my entire life. A jolt of pride went through me when I spotted our new logo on top of the document. I’d pointed it out to Katy.
“Check this baby out,” I’d said with a grin.
“We’ve made it!” she said, giving me a high five.
It was our brand new Red Heeled Rebels logo. It had been Katy’s idea. To make us official, she’d said. And now, next to the Saudi Arabian Embassy’s formal insignia, it made us look distinctly professional.
Katy was right. We’d made it. Finally.
This was my foot in the door to my dream career and good money. Respectable money. Made legally, for a change.
But I couldn’t ignore the eerie feeling I got every time I stepped into the ambassador’s sprawling residence in the sky. Even Katy said this place gave her the heebie-jeebies.
Something didn’t feel right.
Neither of us could pinpoint what it was. But I felt a warning tingle on my back whenever I walked out of the fancy elevators and in through the front doors of this apartment. Every time, it felt like I was entering a time machine and taken back to a medieval world where I’d get trapped. Never to escape.
But that was ridiculous. We were in a modern apartment, in a modern city.
This luxury penthouse was eighty-five floors high in an exclusive residential skyscraper in midtown New York.
In this house, multi-million-dollar sculptures that looked like they’d been loaned from MoMA sat awkwardly next to antiquated Bedouin furniture right out of Lawrence of Arabia. They bunched together everything wherever they found space. Whoever decorated this place had been more concerned with showing off their possessions than creating a pleasant interior.
Then, there was the sickly smell of expensive men’s cologne that pervaded every inch of this home. Maybe that was what made the house claustrophobic. All this opulence sucked the oxygen right out.
I looked at the contract in front of me again. The offer on the table was good. It was so good I was forcing myself to ignore my instincts.
This time, I didn’t imagine it.
It was a girl’s cry. With a distinct Arabic accent.
“I heard that!” said Katy, looking around nervously. “That was real.”
I swiveled around to check the door.
It was still closed. The head of staff had shut it behind her. I’d thought it was to give us privacy while we looked over the contract, but now, I wasn’t so sure.
Katy and I stared at each other, wondering what we’d got into this time.
I pushed my chair back and stood up. Reading my mind, Katy followed me to the door. I was halfway there when the door banged open.
We jumped back in alarm.
“Bibi!” Katy and I cried out at the same time.
Without acknowledging us, Bibi whirled around, closed the door firmly behind her and turned the bolt, locking us in.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
She looked like she’d seen a ghost.
“You okay?” asked Katy, concern on her face.
“They’re coming,” Bibi hissed.
“Who?” I asked.
“Those bad men,” she replied, wiping her nose with her sleeve.
“When they come, act normal.”
“Normal?” I asked. “But you just…locked us in here.”
She averted her eyes. I noticed the sweat running down her face, ruining the cheap goth makeup she insisted on wearing. Yes, even to our diplomatic client visits.
“Bibi, hun,” I said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “It wasn’t you that screamed just now, was it?”
“No,” she said and gave a furtive glance behind her. “But we need to get out of here.”
“Why?” Katy asked. “And who are these men?”
Bibi’s face scrunched like she was about to cry. “Bad people. Can we go now?”
Bibi was multilingual, English being her fourth language, which she’d only learned recently. But something besides language had her tongue-tied.
Her past gave her ample reasons to not trust anyone. Even us. She’d gone through more in her seventeen years than most adults did in a lifetime. Even now, I’d forget she was just a teen, unpredictable at times, struggling to adjust to a normal life.
“Hey, you can tell us what happened,” I said. “Do you know who screamed? Is someone in trouble?”
Bibi’s eyes darted from side to side.
“It’s like I’m back home. This is a bad place.” She sniffed and looked away. “Can we go now?”
Katy and I glanced at each other.
I was supposed to get back to the head of staff with a signed contract in half an hour. We were invited guests at the Saudi Arabian ambassador’s house. We couldn’t just walk away. Or lock ourselves in our hosts’ dining room. That just wasn’t done.
“Why don’t you two stay here,” I said. “I’ll go talk to the head of staff and ask her what’s going on, okay?”
“No!” Bibi said, clutching at my arm. “They’ll come and get us too.”
“Sweetie,” said Katy, “we’re in New York. No one can hurt you here anymore.”
A scraping sound on the door made us turn around. Someone was trying to open it.
Bibi slipped behind Katy and hunkered down. “It’s them!” she whispered.
I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
The door handle depressed slowly. It didn’t sound like a bunch of scary men trying to swarm in. It was more like someone was trying to slip in. Stealthily.
My mind raced. It was my turn to overreact.
Katy and I had stopped carrying our weapons to business meetings after we moved to New York. Not because it was illegal, but because we never had a reason to. But Bibi’s reactions had unnerved me.
David kept a small Japanese tanto-style knife in our vehicle’s glove compartment and a handgun in the overhead bin. “Just in case,” he’d said when he’d tucked them there months ago. But our car was now eighty-six floors down in the underground parking garage.
I crossed the room and pulled a small dagger from the open scimitar display. I touched the blade with my finger and pulled away quickly. The knife was ancient, but it had been sharpened recently.
“Better than nothing,” I whispered to Katy. “Just in case.”
I stepped up to the door.
I reached for the door handle, holding the dagger behind my back.
Part of me felt silly. We’re here to sign a catering contract, for heaven’s sake. But I wasn’t a little girl anymore. I’d seen enough in my twenty-one years of running around the world, escaping people who only meant harm. Being paranoid, for me, meant staying alive.
I turned the bolt.
The person on the other side depressed the handle.
The wooden door creaked open.
I stepped back, gripping the knife tighter. I could feel Katy and Bibi behind me, holding their breaths.
The door opened wider and a solitary, petite figure appeared on the threshold.
I let out a sigh of relief. It was the young Indonesian maid. Part of the kitchen staff. She was carrying a silver tray laden with a Moroccan teapot and gold-rimmed teacups.
“Good afternoon, mademoiselle.” She gave me a confused look. “Everything okay?”
“Ye…yes,” I stammered, feeling my face go warm. “Sorry, must have, er, locked the door by mistake.”
“Your tea, mademoiselle.”
I opened the door fully for her.
“Thank you,” she said in a soft voice.
“No, thank you,” I muttered. My hand holding the knife was all sweaty now. I clutched it tighter, so it wouldn’t slip.
The girl stepped out of the shadows and into the room.
I’d seen her before, scuttling around the house, cleaning, and serving, bowing low whenever she encountered a family member or a guest. She had good reason to fear the family. The only person in this household who was nice to her was the ambassador himself.
I remembered how on our first day here, Sarah, one of the many daughters in this multi-family Arab household, had barked at her.
“Stop being lazy and get me my soda, you useless thing,” Sarah had screeched. “Do your job. I want it now!”
The servant girl had stumbled into the kitchen and brought her mistress her precious soda bottle, all the while keeping her head bent low, showing her deference. Sarah had snatched the bottle without a word of thanks. She hadn’t even noticed Katy and me cringing at the scene from our corner of the room. I’d wanted to say something, but I’d held my tongue.
The girl was treading softly toward the dining table now.
After a quick glance at my friends who were still hovering by the doorway, I followed the girl and slipped back into my chair at the table. Katy came over and sat next to me. With a wary glance behind her, Bibi joined us reluctantly.
Without making eye contact, the girl placed the cups in front of us and poured the tea. The smell of fresh mint wafted to my nose.
I couldn’t help wondering if she knew anything about that hair-raising scream we heard just a few minutes ago. Or if she knew the men Bibi had mentioned.
If we ask her, will she answer? Or will she get scared like Bibi?
The only reason I’d asked Bibi to come on this client visit with us was because she spoke Arabic. She was one of two in our team who did, but David was teaching a Krav Maga class at the martial arts dojo that day. So, Bibi it was.
Over the years and through her travels, Bibi had picked up Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, English, French and a smattering of Spanish. She had a natural talent for languages. In a different life, she’d have ended up as a translator at the United Nations or some other international organization.
But now, her multilingual skills came in handy whenever I dealt with the diplomatic households of New York, courtesy of my partnership with Chef Pierre, the world-renowned celebrity baker. Katy and I frequently asked Bibi to translate client emails and documents from various embassy staff. Sometimes, though rarely, she even sat with us at client meetings.
I was still puzzled why she’d run out of her “secret spot” in the kitchen where she usually liked to lurk alone, engrossed in her phone, unless we needed her. But Bibi was too freaked out for us to ask her anything now.
With a sigh, I reached to pick up my cup. I needed a tea badly.
That was when I noticed there were three cups on the table. They hadn’t known Bibi was with us. Or had they?
“Is Madame joining us for tea?” I asked the girl, wondering if the ambassador’s wife had changed her mind.
“She very busy,” she answered, still not looking up.
I noticed a tremble in the girl’s hand. There was a strange tension in the room like both Bibi and she knew something important. Something urgent. Something unpleasant.
Bibi was ignoring us now, playing nervously with the tablecloth with one hand, holding her phone in the other. And the girl from the kitchen had been trained too well. Making eye contact with her master’s family or guests was forbidden. Speaking anything more than necessary was also not permitted.
She looks scared, I thought. One sideways word and she’d scurry off in a heartbeat.
After pouring the tea, she slipped her hand inside her apron pocket and rummaged for something. She pulled out a white index card and set it next to my cup.
“For you, mademoiselle,” she said.
I picked it up.
A handwritten note.
I read it silently.
Girls, you wait in room. I will join to discuss contract soon. Madame is very busy. Not disturb us right now. - head of staff, Saudi Arabia Embassy Household.
I flipped the card around. There was no further explanation or even a please or a thank you. But I was used to that now.
The head of staff wasn’t the most gracious person I’d met. She was cold, curt and had little time for people lesser than her. As a senior staff member in the ambassador’s household, I suspected she considered herself above us mere caterers. At least, that was the impression I got.
But Chef Pierre had been clear.
I had to ignore all cultural idiosyncrasies. If I satisfied this household’s special event needs, it would lead to bigger and more lucrative catering contracts with the other embassies in town. Foreign diplomats talked to each other and paid well. Supremely well, he’d told me. Like him, I didn’t want to lose this once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a splash on this side of the Atlantic.
This was why Katy and I were in our smart black dresses with matching jackets, our signature red heels, and briefcases embossed with our logo. The Red Heeled Rebels were an official partner to the most famous baker in Europe and we had to look the part. Especially in front of our wealthiest clients.
Katy and I always found it fun to put away our baker’s aprons and dress up for client meetings. But Bibi refused to wear any formal attire. She’d spent her entire life suffocating under the head-to-toe veil her family had coerced on her. The scars on her face were still visible under that heavy goth makeup, a testament to how they’d treated her. The last thing any of us wanted was to enforce another dress code on her. Or any code, for that matter.
In the beginning, I worried how our upscale customers would react to a plaid-kilted girl with spiky hair, nose ring, and bright red Doc Martens. But Bibi had flown under the radar. She’d stayed quietly in the back kitchens, playing on her phone in a corner, unless we called on her to translate a word or two.
I looked up at the servant girl who was waiting for me to reply.
“Thank you so much,” I said. “It’s super nice of you to bring our tea. You can tell the head of staff we’ll be right here waiting for her.”
I also wanted to ask her what the heck was going on in this house. I wanted to ask if she was okay. But she kept her eyes averted and her lips tight. She picked up her tray and gave us a low bow.
“Aw, come on!”
Katy had had enough.
She reached over and touched the girl’s arm. The girl flinched as if Katy had tried to hit her.
“Sorry, honey, didn’t mean to startle you,” Katy said with a friendly smile. “You’re in America now. You don’t have to bow down to us or anyone like this.”
The girl didn’t smile back. She gave that sideways head nod I’d seen so often in India, the one my Aunty Shilpa used to give. I wasn’t sure if that meant a yes or a no. But the girl didn’t linger. She slipped out of the room as silently as she’d come in.
The door closed behind her with a click.
I passed the note to Katy.
“Look at this.”
She read it out loud. “Not disturb us right now?” She frowned. “Why? Are they trying to hide something?”
“That girl who screamed,” whispered Bibi.
Bibi reached over to take the card from Katy when my phone buzzed.
I pulled it out of my purse and frowned at the screen.
How did Sarah get my number?
Then I remembered.
I’d left a handful of business cards on the kitchen counter on our first day so anyone could call me with questions. I was eager to please the entire family and get this contract in the bag. With such a large household I didn’t know who had sway, whose words meant more than the others, and I didn’t want to take a chance.
I accepted the call and punched the speakerphone button so the others could hear the conversation.
“Can you come up?”
“Pardon me?” I said.
“Come to my room.”
“May I ask what this is about?”
“So we can talk about my birthday cake. I wanna see what it looks like.”
My first task, once we’d agreed to and signed the contract, was to cater to Sarah’s sixteenth birthday party. It was coming up in a week. But nothing had been arranged. I hadn’t even thought of the menu yet.
“I’d love to, Sarah, but I’m meeting your head of staff in a few—”
“I want to see you in my room now!”
An infuriated snort came from Katy’s direction.
I bit my tongue.
This girl was as nasty as her older, obnoxious brother. For a second, I wondered what would happen after I signed the contract, how quickly we’d go from coveted caterers to mere household help. Maybe the transition had already begun.
On our first day, the head of staff had taken Katy and me upstairs to meet one of the ambassador’s wives in the women’s quarters. When we’d passed by Sarah’s open door, she’d called out and demanded to know why she hadn’t got her lunch yet. Sarah lived in her bedroom, spending her days binge-watching Netflix, gorging on chips, cakes, and soda and commanding her servants on a whim.
I let out an inaudible sigh. Isn’t there an easier way to make money in this city?
“I’m so sorry, Sarah, but your head of staff asked us to stay—”
“She works for me!” snapped Sarah. “I give you orders, not her.”
“Orders?” This time, I didn’t mask the distaste in my voice. “Really?”
“Manners.” I heard Katy hiss under her breath. Sarah probably couldn’t even spell that word.
The girl’s voice dipped a notch. “It’s super important. Can you come to my room, please? Please?”
Now she sounded like a sniveling child. She was trying, at least.
Sarah could be as haughty and bossy as the rest of her family. The only reason they didn’t treat us as badly as they did their servants was because we had Chef Pierre’s name behind us. I wondered how long that would last.
“Alone,” Sarah was saying, “I want you to come alone.”
Before I could reply, she hung up.
I stared at the phone.
“Wow,” Katy said. “What a hysterical brat.”
Bibi glanced around quickly, as if to check if anyone had come into the room while we weren’t looking.
“This is not a good place,” she said. “I told you so.”
We turned to her.
“What happened in the kitchen, sweetie?” asked Katy. “What made you run up?”
“These two men came and asked the head staff woman if the girl was ready,” replied Bibi, lowering her voice.
“The girl?” I asked.
“They didn’t see me ’coz I was in the back, near the pantry, but I heard them. They were talking in the corner. One man was carrying a rope.”
“A rope?” Katy asked, her eyebrows shooting up.
Bibi nodded. “And they had these huge black sports bags.”
“Duffle bags?” I said. “Sounds like the ambassador’s security detail.”
Bibi shook her head. “No, they were new men. They didn’t look like the other men.” She paused. “They looked like really bad people who do bad things.”
Katy shot me a warning look across the table.
I knew what was going through her mind.
Maybe it was wishful thinking, but I’d hoped we’d put these kinds of things behind us. We couldn’t live a normal life if we kept jumping to crazy conclusions every time something out of the ordinary occurred. Our pasts were behind us. This was a fresh new life we were building, a life of running a prestigious business in one of the best cities in the world.
“But, we don’t know that for sure, do we?” I said, gently.
Bibi scrunched her face as if she was ready to cry. “They looked like those men who used to work with Zero. They looked…..” She paused. “I know what bad men look like.”
I looked away, feeling slightly nauseous.
Bibi’s brothel-running brother, Zero, had made her life a living hell. I could only imagine the men she was talking about.
Thank goodness that man was dead. My only regret was I hadn’t been there to watch him get his just deserts. Tetyana told us he’d screamed to the high heavens. Or to the low hells, in his case. She did a good job. She always did.
Katy leaned over and squeezed Bibi’s arm. “Hey, maybe they were going to drive one of the wives to the doctor or something.”
But fear had clouded Bibi’s face. She shook her head. “I think they’re coming for us.”
Katy and I exchanged another glance.
“Why would they do that?” I said. “We’re here on official business, under Chef Pierre’s name. There’s no reason for them to do anything bad to us.”
“The head staff woman saw me in the back listening and she got real mad,” said Bibi, looking down. “I thought she was going to hit me.”
“What?” I said.
“She shouted at me. She told me I’m not supposed to be in the house. Then she told me to get out. She told me to wait in the garage until you were done.”
My heart fell. “Oh, no. I’m so sorry, Bibi. That shouldn’t have happened.”
“What a nasty piece of a woman,” said Katy, frowning. “What a crazy house.”
“I told you,” said Bibi. “When she went back to talk to the men, I came upstairs to find you.” She gave me a pleading look. “Can we go home now?”
“There’s a real weird vibe in this house,” said Katy. “Even without Sarah’s creepy brother around.”
Though I’d been pretending otherwise, I’d felt it too. This was the last straw. Paranoia or not, it was time to leave.
From all the contracts I’d worked on under Chef Pierre’s umbrella, this had to be the most bizarre.
In this house, the women’s quarters were separated from the men’s. The women wore traditional black garb that covered them from head to toe while the men wandered freely in comfortable modern attire.
Here, the wives mostly stayed cloistered at home while the men traipsed to the glitzy diplomatic events of New York, openly flirting with other women.
Here, the women didn’t dare make eye contact with the men, and the servants didn’t dare make eye contact with anyone lest they got yelled at, grabbed at, hit or worse. This was a place where everybody played a strict role in a draconian hierarchy.
Besides, the idea of multiple wives per man was revolting and unjustly one-sided. Cultural idiosyncrasies or not, there were serious issues in this household. Boys, even as young as ten, had more freedom than their own mothers.
I remembered how Sarah’s disgusting brother had groped Katy the first day we came for the interview. His ogling and leering had made me want to go home and take a shower.
Every time I’d walked in, I’d felt like I’d been transported back to the Middle Ages. But we were in modern-day New York. Inside a six-thousand-square foot, three-story apartment in Manhattan.
The catering contract in front of me was mouth-watering, and the money was more than I’d made before. If only I could stomach this unpleasant place.
The strange thing was, out of all the people in the house, it was the ambassador who was the most normal and the nicest. Why can’t the others take his lead? I wondered.
My phone rang again.
I turned it on.
Sarah’s voice came loud and clear.
“Are you coming?” she shrieked. “I asked you ages ago! I need your help!”
“Sarah,” I said. “Please be patient—”
“Come now! Please! Help—!”
Something or someone cut her off.
We stared at the phone.
Bibi’s face had gone paler.
“That was freaky,” I said. “Something’s wrong.”
“Sounded like she’s having a panic attack,” said Katy. “I’d normally say a bitch attack, but this was just…weird.”
I slipped the phone in my pocket, gave one last glance at the contract on the table and pushed it away.
“Let me check up on her quickly and we can get the heck out of here.”
Bibi turned and clutched my arm. “But…”
“You two wait for me here,” I said. “Someone needs to go check on that girl.”
“Want me to come with you?” asked Katy.
I shook my head. “I’ve pushed you both enough.”
“Take this,” Katy said, passing me the dagger I’d placed on the table earlier.
“No,” I said, pushing my chair back and getting up. “This shouldn’t take ten minutes. Wait here in case the head of staff comes. Let’s be nice and then I’ll go ask Chef Pierre for another contract.”
“That’s too bad,” said Katy, glancing wistfully at the contract. “That’s good cash.”
“Yes, but we can’t let them treat us like this.”
I looked at my friends sitting at the table with apprehension on their faces.
“If I’m not back in fifteen, call Tetyana, will you?”
What are they doing to her?
I peeked from behind the pillar in the corridor.
It was the sound of male voices in Sarah’s room that had stopped me in my tracks. Hushed, low voices. Strange. It was rare to see men in the women’s quarters in this house.
I’d stopped just in time and slipped behind the nearest pillar.
From where I was, I could see a part of Sarah’s bedroom. The curtains were drawn, but I made out two silhouettes. There were two men in there, working urgently and silently. They were searching for something, bending down and pulling up bedcovers, opening and shutting cabinet drawers, pushing papers off the nightstand.
What’s going on in there?
It had taken me a while to get through the winding corridors of this mansion in the sky. I hadn’t met a single soul on my way up, unusual for this busy household.
The sickly sweet smell of frankincense oil cloyed the air and the sound of soft Arabic flute music echoed from the home sound system. I’d muddled around, peering into every open doorway, half expecting to see troupes of belly dancers inside, but it had been deadly quiet. Then I remembered. It was a Friday afternoon, so everyone, including the servants, was at their prayers.
Except for these two men in Sarah’s bedroom.
One of them turned on a table light and started rooting through a drawer.
Where’s Sarah? Didn’t she just call me from her room? Like five minutes ago?
I checked my phone to see if I’d missed a call or text from her. Maybe she’d wanted to meet elsewhere. Maybe I’d misheard her. But there were no recent calls or texts. I turned the ringer off quickly. Something told me the two men would not be happy to find me here.
From behind the pillar, I peered into the room again.
It was a nauseatingly gaudy room made for a teenage princess obsessed with glitzy pink. Exactly the room you’d expect Sarah to have.
Enormous posters of Middle Eastern pop stars adorned the walls, oversized stuffed teddy bears sat on the bed, and pink cushions were strewn across the floor in between half-eaten plates and overturned cups. It was a mess, even without the men throwing things around.
The second man turned on a flashlight and pointed it across the room. The light crossed the bed. I nearly gasped and pulled back.
There was a shapeless body on the bed.
I leaned in to get a better look.
I was sure of it. She was a big girl for her age. I was positive it was her lying motionless on the coverlet.
My mind swirled with questions.
What did they do to her? Was it Sarah who screamed earlier? But didn’t she call me after we heard that cry?
Something had happened between that last call and now.
The two men continued to work hurriedly, like they didn’t have much time.
Every bone in my body screamed at me to get out.
Whatever was going on here wasn’t my business. Sarah’s family wasn’t the most charming to deal with, and I was already practicing my future conversation with Chef Pierre where I’d tell him I was pulling out of this contract.
Sometimes, it felt like the only goal of New York’s high society was to outdo each other’s parties. Foreign delegations were no different. In fact, they were worse. Everyone clamored to be on Chef Pierre’s list, even if it meant they’d have to make do with his partner, me, to cater his signature cakes. All to take pictures, put them on social media and brag about it.
The Saudi ambassador’s head of staff had called me a week ago for an introductory meeting. The impending birth of a son and a series of lesser birthdays were coming up, on top of a national day and religious festivals, all for which they wanted the best “Western cakes”—Chef Pierre’s cakes.
That was the day I’d met the full family.
Katy and I had arrived alone and had been ushered into the dining room to meet everyone. It was there we’d first been introduced to the ambassador’s four wives. All four, or so we were told, wanted to outdo each other and were ready to fight tooth and nail for the most impressive cakes at their personal events.
Chef Pierre’s instructions had been simple: Do your best each time and stay diplomatic. Easy for him to say. I was the one on the front line.
The first family member to walk into the dining room that day was Ahmed, the ambassador’s pudgy twenty-something son, who looked like he had an even bigger sweet tooth than Sarah. He’d come into the room by mistake, looking for his father. But then he spotted Katy.
He came over with a big grin on his face. Katy had politely offered him her hand to shake. Instead of shaking her hand, he rudely pulled her toward him and slid his hand down her back to grope her bum.
Katy pulled away in shock, but his lecherous grin told us he’d got what he’d wanted. He’d laughed a crude laugh. The head of staff had been too engrossed in her phone to notice. Even if she had, I doubted she’d have cared.
I’d stood frozen, mouth open, feeling sick to my stomach. I knew I had to say something. This is wrong. It was a relief when one of the staff members popped in to say his father needed him in the upstairs office immediately.
That was when I should have walked away from this place and never looked back.
But I hadn’t.
I’d chickened out.
Instead of confronting the ambassador’s son right there, instead of calling Chef Pierre to say this job wasn’t for us, instead of doing the right thing, I’d stayed quiet. Like a coward. I’d let the size of the contract color my thinking.
Katy had told me it was nothing. It’s fine, she’d said. But it wasn’t fine.
It was soon after that we’d met Sarah. She’d walked into the room, loudly slurping a can of soda.
With an icy look my way, she’d turned to her mother and declared she didn’t want Indian people at her party. It was the mother who’d reminded her that having Chef Pierre’s coat of arms on her cake would make all her friends jealous. Not to mention their extended family, who’d be looking up their party pictures on social media from the Middle East.
Katy had turned to me in shock. I’d given her a look that said, let it pass. We need this contract.
I shuddered at the memory. I cringed at how I’d sacrificed my team for the sake of money.
The Red Heeled Rebels were a mixed bunch.
Katy was the redheaded Irish Canadian and Tetyana was the Ukrainian brunette. Peace and Chanda were from Tanzania, Bibi was from Pakistan, and Win was from Laos. David was a refugee from Yemen, Luc was French, and I was half-Sri Lankan, half-Indian.
We were a ragtag group of misfits, survivors, discarded by our own. But we were a family now. We may not always agree with each other, but we treated each other with love and kindness. At least, we did our best.
And here I was, trying to do the impossible: cater to the birthday party of an over-privileged daughter of a sour, dour family who cared not an iota how they treated each other, let alone those who worked for them.
I’d made a mistake. I just hadn’t realized how big of a mistake I’d made.
I leaned in to get a better look inside Sarah’s bedroom.
The girl on the bed hadn’t budged.
The men were still bustling around, moving things, then wiping things down. Seeing the silhouettes of these two thugs in that pink-washed bedroom gave me the chills. If I’d have been more paranoid, I’d have suspected they were covering up a crime scene. A murder? A rape?
Suddenly one of them pulled the curtains closed, darkening the room even more. The second man walked over to the bed and crouched next to the girl on the bed.
Is that a needle in his hands?
He touched Sarah’s wrist like he was checking her pulse. Then he checked the syringe.
I watched, frozen.
Something’s wrong here. Very wrong. Sarah’s either drugged. Or dead.
“What you doing here?”
I spun around.
It was Ahmed, the ambassador’s son.
I hadn’t heard him sneak up.
He stood ten feet from me, arms crossed over his flabby stomach, an ugly scowl on his face.
“What you doing here?” he growled. “You not allowed here.”
I swallowed. I remembered how he groped Katy on our first day here, but here I was, feeling like I was the one who’d been caught doing something wrong.
“Your sister asked to see me,” I said in the calmest voice I could muster. “She wanted to talk about her birthday cake.”
“This place off-limits!” barked Ahmed. “Servants not allowed here!”
I pulled myself to my full five feet and looked him in the eye. I couldn’t stand him. He was the type of man who thought petite Asian women made easy targets. I wasn’t going to humor him.
I squared my shoulders, lifted my chin and kept my voice steady. “Look, I was only responding to your sister’s call—”
We turned to look.
She was stepping out of the elevator.
“You forgot this in the dining room.”
In her outstretched hand was my tablet, which contained photographs of the desserts we made at the bakery. But something told me she didn’t pop up to just bring me cake designs.
Behind me, in Sarah’s bedroom, someone bumped against the door. I heard shuffling inside. The men were moving something heavy. Then a cry. A low, feeble cry.
A chill went up my spine.
I turned to the ambassador’s son. It was my turn to ask questions.
“What’s going on in there?”
He gave me a startled look.
“What are they doing to Sarah?” I couldn’t help myself. “Is she okay?”
“Get out!” he yelled. “Or I will teach you good lesson. You belong in kitchen, kafir!”
I flinched, but I didn’t look away.
“Your sister called me just now. She called for help. Shouldn’t someone be checking up on her?”
A curious mixture of emotions went through his face—anxiety, shame, rage.
He took a menacing step toward me.
I stood my ground, frozen more from terror than anything else.
“If you ever tell what you saw,” he said, in a low, guttural voice, “remember, I come from very, very important family.”
His dark eyes bored into mine.
My legs felt like jelly, ready to give way any moment, but I didn’t budge. I didn’t break eye contact. My mind swirled with questions. Why would a girl’s own brother not care she was lying limp on her bed with two thugs inside her room?
“Oh, is that so?” I asked between clenched teeth. “What does that have to do with what’s happening to your sister right now?”
“You stupid girl!” he bellowed. “Do I need to beat it into you?”
Beat it into me?
I knew what bothered him. I wasn’t cowering or breaking into a blathering mess in front of him, which was what he probably expected all women to do.
I clenched my fists involuntarily.
A long time ago, I learned the Indian half of me had given me a gift. The gift of Kali. Maybe it was all in my imagination. Maybe it was a story I’d conjured up as a kid. But I knew that goddess of doom and destruction lived inside of me and could come out at the most unexpected of times. This man would have to work harder than that to rattle me.
“Are you threatening me?” My eyes flashed angrily. “How dare you?”
That didn’t faze him. “I’ll beat you and your friend to pulp!” he shouted, frothing at the mouth, furious I hadn’t succumbed to his anger.
I glanced over at Katy.
Her red hair was a fiery mane now. Katy always reminded me of a lioness when we were in danger. She was standing strong, only a few feet behind him. I’d seen what happened to anyone who pushed this Irish-blooded redhead to the extreme. The ambassador’s son didn’t know who he was messing with.
He may have got away with pushing us around the first time, but….
I stopped, feeling a cold shiver go through me, realizing something I should have figured out a while back. With diplomatic immunity, Ahmed could get away with anything.
I took a deep breath to settle myself.
This wasn’t our fight. Plus, we had a bigger war to wage. It was time to go.
I looked the man in the eye. “We’re leaving,” I said. “There’s absolutely no need to shout at us, grope us or threaten us. For the record, that’s illegal in this country.”
His face turned purple, like he was about to implode.
“You dumb woman! Bow down in front of me now! I teach you to talk to me properly!”
“That’s enough,” I said, and turned away. “I said, we’re leaving.”
“Asha!” Katy called out in warning.
That was when I saw his fist come toward my head.
My instincts kicked in. I ducked. Just in time. He missed me by an inch, and his hand hit the cement of the pillar.
His roar almost deafened me. But he wasn’t done. He turned and hurtled toward me like a rabid dog.
I felt the adrenaline rush through my veins. I stepped to the side, thrust my forearm up to deflect his punch and slammed my other hand, palm up, to the soft part of his nostrils. Before he could figure out what had happened, I smashed my red heel on his foot, grinding his toes.
I’d practiced this maneuver so many times on Bob, the Rubber Man, back at David’s dojo that it came naturally to me.
Ahmed screamed and staggered back, clutching his face. Red liquid spluttered from his nose.
I wasn’t sure if he was howling in rage, pain, or shame. But I didn’t wait to find out.
I ran toward Katy, suppressing the urge to look behind me.
Katy was already jabbing at the elevator button.
Behind us, Ahmed was screeching in Arabic. A door banged open. Someone bellowed.
“Get in!” Katy shouted as the elevator doors slid open.
We jumped inside.
I jabbed the down button and the doors began to close.
But my relief was short-lived.
A split second before the doors touched, a hand slammed through.
To be continued….
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