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The Secret Humankind – Chapter 1
I’m so busted!
The DART bus came to a stop and opened its doors, its familiar squeal and whoosh propelling me to my feet. I hustled out into the baking Texas sun, oppressively aware I was late for my shift. But rather than break into a run to make up time, I paused and looked around nervously, my hands and feet feeling twitchy.
What I was searching for, I had no idea. But what my friend Laurel had dubbed my ‘spidey sense’ had been blaring for the last couple of days, on and off. It didn’t help that I’d had the nagging feeling I was being followed and watched since I’d left the apartment that morning. As ridiculous as it sounded, my hunches were rarely wrong about this type of thing. I just didn’t have a clue what was setting them off.
The sun continued to glare down at me, waves of heat from the sidewalk making the air ripple. I could feel sweat already gathering in my armpits and lower back.
No one was around, unless you counted the old tom cat licking his furry leg and acting like I wasn’t even there. The doors huffed shut behind me and the bus clattered away, spouting clouds of foul-smelling exhaust.
I took another look around and slipped one hand into my pocket to grip Stitch, my five-and-a-half-inch folding switchblade. If trouble arrived, I would be ready to prove it had made a bad decision in coming after me.
Still spotting nothing and no one that shouldn’t be there, I finally broke into a jog and headed toward the Golden Corral. The familiar red-and-gold logo soon loomed before me, forcing a change in my mental gears as I approached my daily battlefield.
I opened the door and faltered for a moment, the sudden slap of cold air robbing me of breath.
“Harry, she’s here!” Melody’s sing-song mockery blared through the restaurant.
I cringed, and turned to spot my coworker at the double register near the entrance. Melody had just heralded my arrival to the one person I’d hoped to avoid. A smug look and a small inflating gum bubble met my glare.
“Julia! You’re late.” The heavyset shift supervisor rolled into view like an approaching train about to go off the rails.
“I know, I know. Sorry! The buses were off schedule. Some big wreck on I-35.” I avoided making eye contact. If Harry got going, he’d keep me from clocking in for another half hour. Losing the cash and being dressed down in front of customers wasn’t my idea of a good start to the day, which had been lousy enough already. I hurried past him to the employee area in the back of the restaurant.
Melody’s giggled snort followed, her bubble gum popping for emphasis, as I scurried away like a coward. I couldn’t afford to lose this job. Not yet.
Ever since I had applied for the third-shift job at Remington Safe and Clean, things had felt ‘off.’ If she’d still been alive, Laurel would have said I was just being paranoid—that these were only feelings brought on by the scary prospect of the awesome possibilities that would open up for me if I got the higher-paying job.
Even though I knew what she would have said, I still wished I could talk to her. I missed Laurel terribly, and felt a flicker of anger at her for dying. Yes, I was well aware she hadn’t wanted to die—but being a tiny bit mad about it was easier than giving in to the bottomless despair I felt at her loss.
Laurel Caine… Just thinking her name made me sad. She had been more than my caseworker—she had been my only real and constant friend during my formative years. And Laurel had believed in my ‘spidey sense’ even more than I did. It had caused me some problems when I was very young, but Laurel taught me to see it as a good thing. She’d always been a glass-half-full type of person. As a social worker, it was pretty much a requirement if you wanted to survive the job.
My spidey sense was a skill I had developed while growing up in foster care. Some would call it hyperawareness or hypervigilance, even though sometimes there was nothing around to trigger it. All I knew was that I trusted it, even if I didn’t always understand it. Laurel’s curiosity about it had never waned. She’d wanted to find a way to bottle it and share it with some of her other clients—a few who needed more help or common sense than she could give.
Once I’d turned eighteen and been turned loose by the system, Laurel had made sure we stayed in touch; we’d meet every two weeks or so. To me, she was family—my only family. I was seven years old when I met Laurel, and for fifteen years the woman had been the only unchanging thing in my life. But that had ended twelve months ago, when a brain aneurysm had unexpectedly taken her life. I never even got a chance to say goodbye before she passed, though I did still visit my friend occasionally at the cemetery.
I changed into my work clothes, pushing the depressing thoughts away. I stashed my shoulder bag in the locker, but pulled out my prepaid cell before locking the door. Wondering why I even bothered, I slipped the phone into my apron pocket. The people at RSC wouldn’t be calling me back—they wouldn’t give me the crime-scene cleaning job. I needed to set my sights lower if I wanted to escape from this place.
The realization was as bitter now as when I’d left the posh RSC offices in downtown Dallas a few days ago. It’d made it twice as hard to get moving this morning, to choose to willingly come to my dead-end job and put up with the endless aggravations. But I had to eat, and I had to pay rent. So that was that.
I checked that my mousy straight brown hair was still neat and tied back, that my plain face was clean, and that the company shirt and apron were on straight. There was no point in giving Harry more to complain about. At least Melody was stuck at the register. That was for the best, even though I knew she’d end up making a mess of the till. But working the register would keep her from coming over to my assigned area, sniffing around for things to tattle on me about. If only Melody would pay as much attention to her work as she paid to finding fault with others! But her thick, shining, blond tresses and protruding double-Ds kept the skank employed, much to everyone else’s continued misery. Harry had a type.
My serving area was on the restaurant’s other end, past the grill house and dessert stations. I waved at a couple of the cooks as I walked by. They weren’t close acquaintances, only fellow stalwart soldiers eking out a living in this unfriendly landscape. The scents of roast beef, fried chicken, and other foods mingled in the air. The melted contents of the chocolate fountain were already cascading, filling the air with their cloyingly sweet scent.
The day wore on, the cell phone in my pocket growing heavier by the hour and staying as silent as I had known it would. But at least the paranoid feeling of being watched had gone away.
“Something wrong, Julia?” An older woman leaned out on her cane and looked up at me sideways from behind a pair of rhinestone-studded glasses that matched her dark blue day dress.
“No. Everything’s fine, Mrs. Conrad.”
Mrs. Conrad was one of my regulars. A bit peculiar, but kind and friendly—just how I had always imagined my grandmother would be, if I’d had one. “Just have a few things on my mind today.”
“Come now, call me Roxanne,” she said. “We’ve known each other long enough to not bother with all that.” Her dark eyes were alight. “Could it be boy trouble?” Mrs. Conrad set two quarters on the table, her face hopeful.
“No, no boy trouble. Sorry.”
The wrinkled face sagged a little with disappointment. “You’re such a sweet girl. You should have a boy. If you would only smile more…”
I tried to oblige her, though it wasn’t my thing. This was a topic we had covered before, much like her wanting me to call her Roxanne instead of Mrs. Conrad. The fact that I wasn’t interested in having a relationship with a man, and felt no need to ingratiate myself to others with unfelt smiles, only seemed to encourage the old lady. “I’ll keep it in mind. Promise.”
Mrs. Conrad smiled up at me. “See, such a sweet girl.”
I walked with her as she shuffled along, making sure there were no wet spots or anything that she might trip over. A high shriek warned me of the careening five-year-old running between tables. I used my body to block him and keep him from running into the older woman and send her tumbling to the floor. Someone her age might end up with a broken hip—or something worse.
“Hey, kid! Watch where you’re going, please!” The boy bounced away, never even slowing down. He left three streaks of chocolate on my apron as a parting gift. The little git. His parents never even looked our way, much less ask him to stop running. I fought the urge to sigh.
As we neared the exit, the odd sensation of someone staring hard at me returned. I glanced in Melody’s direction, figuring it must be her this time. But the cashier was talking animatedly with one of the other regulars about the virtues of black light-enhanced nail polish. I half-turned as I opened the door for Mrs. Conrad, but couldn’t spot anyone looking in my direction. Still, the feeling hadn’t gone away.
“Julia!” Harry shouted. “Shut the freakin’ door and quit letting all the A/C out. You think we’re made of money?”
I stepped back inside and let the glass door close. Just my luck—money was the one button I never wanted to push with Harry. I plastered a contrite look on my face. “Sorry.”
“Prove it.” He loomed over me, the heat and stench coming off him worse than what was outside. “Get your ass back to work before I dock your pay.”
The sound of a plastic plate hitting the ground and bouncing around snapped his attention away from me. Harry stomped off to wave his arms around and yell at anyone who looked even one percent responsible.
Melody snorted, enjoying my embarrassment and discomfort. “Why do you waste your time on that old biddy, anyway? She tips for shit.”
Why, indeed? But then again, why not? I would be old, too, someday. Having someone watching out for me in my dotage would be nice.
Besides, I was pretty sure the small tip was more than Mrs. Conrad could afford. She only came twice a month, and ate as much as she could stuff down her gullet. And she always requested more rolls than she ate—but none were ever left behind. Making sure Harry and Melody were none the wiser was one of my few joys in life. I knew what it meant to go hungry, and I wouldn’t wish that gnawing feeling on anyone.
So I returned to my work area, not bothering to answer Melody’s question. She wouldn’t have understood, anyway. Melody stared daggers at my back for ignoring her, but thankfully, hers was the only stare I sensed, and it was one I was quite used to. But enough was enough; I needed to get out of this place pronto.
I went on break a while later, still feeling down and no closer to a solution. I jumped when the phone in my apron pocket rang loudly for attention. My hand dived for it. I could have sworn I set the thing to vibrate. If it had gone off while I was on the floor…
I shook my head and answered the call. “Hello?”
“Is this Miss Julia Xero?” The unfamiliar female voice had an undercurrent of a strange accent and sounded very young. I didn’t recognize it, but she said my last name correctly—the same pronunciation as zero—which was unusual.
“Yes, I’m Julia.”
“This is Dawn Anghelescu from Remington Safe and Clean. You filled out an application with us a few days ago for the open third shift position, I believe? We’d like you to come in for an interview and testing if you’re still interested.”
I blinked twice, sure I had heard her wrong. “Really?”
“Karamel gave you her stamp of approval, and everything else seems to be in order.”
The RSC’s receptionist had been something of a shock. The petite woman behind the boat-sized reception desk had literally squealed in utter delight when she learned I wanted to apply. She had even rushed around the desk to grab my hand. Apparently the office didn’t have many female employees—but the intensity of her reaction had still felt totally weird.
A touch of amusement filled the woman’s voice, almost as if she knew what I was thinking. “I believe you’re what we’re looking for in an employee. But this type of job isn’t for everyone, I’m afraid,” Anghelescu said. “The practical test will prove if you’ll be able to handle it.”
My spidey sense rang out louder than before. I couldn’t think of a reason why it would do that about a job, but I decided it didn’t matter. It wasn’t like it was a done deal, and if by some miracle I did get in, I would deal with any fallout then. Because at the moment, no matter what my gut told me, working anywhere else would be better than here.