Ravaged Sample, Chapters 1-2
The club member cinched the restraint tight, then sniffled, slicing through the silence. He hadn’t wanted any music; he preferred to hear me breathe. To drown in the rustle of the restraints against skin, the sharp intake of air when he pulled the straps too tight. And that quiet made me focus on every other sense. The sweat between my fingers, my palms flat against my thighs. The single white hair growing in the middle of his head, a beacon calling to be plucked. The taste of tangerine juice, still lingering on my tongue from breakfast that afternoon. He smelled like the inside of my car after Iris and I binged on fast food. Had he visited a drive-thru restaurant before coming to the Dahlia District? Billionaire businessmen publically preferred gourmet cuisine, but everyone had their guilty pleasures.
“Is this okay?” he asked, sticking a finger in between the strap and my wrists.
“It’s tight, but in a good way,” I said, winking. He grinned in response.
The club wasn’t open yet, but the three-star restaurant was, and Dahlia was always willing to make exceptions for visits to the Terrariums for the ‘right’ club members, as long as they had deep pockets. This club member and his associates were here for work. He was curious about the kink, and since he was being courted for a large business deal, his time with me one-on-one in the private rooms of the Terrariums was paid for by the others. Lucky him, and lucky me.
“Not too tight?” he asked again.
Did he want it to be too tight? I shook my head and gave him a big smile.
“You’re doing great.”
Maybe he had chosen me because I looked normal, like the girl next door you might corrupt. The kind of woman that would be shocked to learn about crops and whips. Maybe he wanted me to react more? But instead of being wide-eyed, I studied the patterns of moles on his bald, shiny head, trying to see if there were any constellations. A shooting star I could wish on. A nebula. A black hole. Being tied up like this wasn’t new to me.
A dark shadow hovered over the frosted window in the door. Then a knock interrupted us.
I bit my lip. I knew, before we even opened the door, that he was here. Call it a premonition. A gut instinct. Or that I had realized that morning that it had been a few months of silence, which meant he was due for a visit.
The club member gave me a questioning look. I nodded towards the door. I couldn’t get it with my hands belted to my sides.
“They’d only interrupt if it’s an emergency,” I said.
He opened the door, and Iris, clad in a slinky black dress and buckled platform boots, towered over the club member. She acknowledged him. “Hi,” she said. He opened his mouth, about to grunt his greeting, when she turned to me, ignoring him. “Your dad is here.”
“Thanks,” I said. She closed the door behind her and I gave the most earnest eyes I could manage. Doe-eyes. Pleading eyes. “I’m sorry about this,” I paused, to give my tone more effect, “but we’ll have to postpone. We can pick up after I meet with my father. Maybe in an hour?” I shifted my shoulders, pressing my breasts forward. “That gives you time to finish dinner with your friends. More energy means more play.”
“I understand,” he said. He unbuckled the first lock. “Family first. Always family first.”
Once I was out of the restraints, I went to the Greenhouse, the attached building that housed the dressing rooms for the off-site servers and the dorm rooms for those of us who lived on-site. I grabbed the oversized shirt and pajama bottoms lying on my twin bed, then threw them over my lingerie. I fingered the harp necklace on my chest for good luck, then went to the kitchen.
Dad said at the round table, the window paned flower field poster above him. His hair was thin and wiry, like dried grass in a sun-beaten meadow. His shoulders were slumped, his elbow resting on the table. Dirt smudged the white table where he had been. The wrinkles on his forehead rippled when he saw me. It was like he had aged decades in the span of months. He looked seventy when he should have been in his early fifties. What would happen when he had no more years left to skip?
His eyes lit up as they fell on me, gaining back some of that youth instantly. There he was. My dad.
“You look wonderful, Tea. Better than wonderful.”
How I looked, and how I truly felt, never quite matched, but I smiled anyway. “How about some lunch?” I asked. It was almost six o’clock in the evening, but that didn’t matter. Dad never lived by regular hours, nor did I.
“Please. Anything you’ve got.”
In the refrigerator, I took the rest of the head of broccoli, some butter, and leftover grilled chicken from my shelf. I took out the box of linguine and a can of mushroom soup out of Iris’s shelf in the pantry. Luckily, no one else was in the kitchen, especially not with a man, my father, taking up space, which meant I had my pick of the pots and pans. Add a bunch of parmesan and freshly ground pepper to those ingredients, and you’d never know that it was basically repurposed leftovers. The most important part was that Dad would have an actual meal inside of him. I never knew what he was surviving on these days.
A server with blond crimped tendrils poked her head into the kitchen, then wrinkled her nose when she saw Dad. She disappeared. He sucked in a cough, then rubbed his forehead. I served him a heaping bowl and sat at the table across from him.
“You’re not eating,” he said.
“I’ll eat later.”
He grunted. “You better not be starving yourself, Tea.”
I blinked. The concern was almost flattering, especially from him. I shrugged. “I’ll eat later,” I said again. It was better to get this over with. The less time we spent sitting around eating, the closer we were to business, when we could both move on with our lives.
“It’s good to see you.” He shoveled a spoonful into his mouth. “You must be—” He stared at me, then ate another bite, pretending like he wouldn’t talk right through it.
“Twenty-five. Just yesterday you were my baby girl.” And to think, a mere seven years ago, he had sold me to the Dahlia District. Correction: he had given my services to Dahlia, because Dahlia, and my father, didn’t believe in terminology that would link then to human trafficking.
But I knew better. My dad did too.
“This is delicious, by the way,” he said.
He slurped down the noodles, and I quietly boxed the rest for him in a take-away container, stealing it from another server’s supply. After I sat back down, he pushed his empty bowl towards me.
“Will you play for me?” he asked. The weak way he said those words got me every time. Usually, he asked after he got the money, as if it would somehow make it less painful if our last few moments were spent with music, our biggest connection beyond the financial one. He was being more roundabout than usual, then.
I put his bowl in the sink, eyeing the You use it, you wash it! above the faucet. Iris would give me a hard time if I left the bowl there, even for an hour, but she’d also understand. It was my dad. Like the club member had said, family came first. Even when it came to Greenhouse rules.
Dad followed me through the Greenhouse, past the dorm rooms and dressing room, out to the mostly-empty Dahlia District. Our footsteps echoed through the main floor. The restaurant portion was lit, dishes clattering from the kitchen, with a few club members still left at a long table, the club member from before sitting amongst them again. With the fluorescent ceiling lights on, the club always looked different during the daytime. More artificial. Less sacred. Like a suddenly sunny haunted house, seeing the hiding places where the creatures hid in the shadows.
We went up the stairs to the stage. I moved my lap harp and bench out of the wings and played All I Ask of You, Dad’s favorite. It was one of the first songs I had played in a real recital, back when I was still a young girl. When I dreamed of studying music in college, when I wasn’t even sure if there was such a school for that. When selling my body and charm for a profit that I gave to Dahlia and my dad wasn’t even a thought in my mind.
When the song ended, a tear was in his eye. Every. Damn. Time.
And still, even after what we had been through, I swelled with pride at seeing the emotion on his face. Even if I couldn’t move anyone else in the world with my music, I could still move Dad.
“Those music lessons really paid off,” he said, sniffling. There it was, his segway into asking for money. “I’m so glad I made you do those.”
“Yeah,” I mumbled. Because it’s not like he was grooming me for slavery. He was simply nurturing my talent.
“Teagen, I—” he paused, grasping his hands together. The full name always started it. Not Tea, but Teagen. “I need a favor.”
“What’s going on?”
“There was a deal that went south for that antique vase I found. Remember, I told you?” By found, he meant stole. But I remembered. I nodded. “I need some money to get it repaired.”
Or, he owed money to some criminal for not finishing the agreement of actually obtaining the antique vase.
I cringed. Though we could charge as much as we wanted per hour for one-on-one entertainment at the Dahlia District, a majority of it went to pay for our debts to Dahlia, including the cost of living on-site. In order to save money, I had to make up excuses for Dahlia about why I needed cash, then stuffed those extra bills inside of my mattress. Because I knew that Dad would need it. And who would I be if I didn’t help my only family?
Back in my dorm room, I made sure no one was following us, then flipped the mattress, pulling out a large plastic grocery bag full of a mix of hundreds, twenties, and tens. I handed it to him.
“Be sure to actually get it repaired this time,” I said. And not gamble it away on some stupid bet.
His eyebrows gathered together and he squeezed his eyes shut, a heavy sigh escaping him. He gestured at my neck.
“Let me have the necklace,” he said. “I’ll bring it back soon.”
A short breath huffed out of my nose, but I undid the clasp and looked at it. He had given me the golden harp necklace as a present right before my first recital. I never took it off, unless he asked for it, which he did every once in a while, disappearing with it for a few days. I never questioned what he did with it.
“I’m no fool,” he said softly, clasping his palm around the tarnished gold. His voice grew quieter, “You deserve better than what I’ve given you.” Pain crowded his eyes. “I’m not a father. Not even a man. I’m a joke.”
A tight pain surfaced in the back of my throat. He had never said anything like that before. He was usually full of hope, talking about repaying my debt so that he could set me free. A reality we both liked to talk about, even though we knew it would never come true.
“It’s fine, Dad,” I said. “You did what you had to do.”
He stared at me, a melancholy look heavy in his eyes. He shook his head and sighed again, the weighty sound cutting through me.
“We both know that’s not true.” He lifted his closed fist, the gold chain hanging out of his hand. “You deserve better.”
I walked him to the door, and he ambled forth, a slight limp to his gait, then he turned around and squeezed my shoulder.
“See you soon, Tea.”
The door swung shut behind him. Iris was leaning on the doorframe to the kitchen. The platform boots were off now, so she was a foot shorter than before. It was part of her persona in the club, but in the Greenhouse, she didn’t need to be taller. Everyone called her Mama Bear no matter how tall or short she was. Especially me, her best friend.
“How much did he need this time?” she asked.
“Five thousand,” I said.
Iris whistled. “Did you give it to him?” I nodded. “I don’t get it. Family seems so damn complicated. He sells you to pay his debt, and somehow, he still needs money. From you.” She groaned. “Shouldn’t you be the one asking him for money?
I shrugged. Iris didn’t understand because she had never felt a connection with her biological parents, and her foster parents hadn’t been much better.
“There’s no one else there for him,” I said.
“So what? He dug his own grave.”
“He needs me.”
She rolled her eyes. “He needs your wallet.”
On most days, especially when I hadn’t seen my dad in a while, I agreed with Iris. I had always been a commodity to him, a show pony to brag about, his talented daughter who could play any instrument, the young woman he could sell into sex slavery. But this time, I couldn’t bring myself to think those thoughts. There had been something different this time, that deep regret lingering in his voice. What had happened? What had changed?
I might never know, but I wouldn’t let myself think those horrible thoughts about him. Not right then, anyway.
“One day, I’m going to save enough so that we can have a normal life,” I said, staring at the only other art on the wall, a painting one of the past servers had created: a desolate ocean, vaster than my heart felt. If I could do that for him, if I could give my dad a peaceful life, then maybe he wouldn’t have to gamble anymore. He wouldn’t need it.
“He doesn’t deserve shit.”
I shrugged. “It’ll be good for him.”
“You are fucking nuts.”
We headed down the hallway of the Greenhouse back to the main floor of the club. We opened the door, peering out together. The same group of businessmen was in the corner of the lounge now. But the club member I had been entertaining before was walking towards the entrance to the private rooms, his arm linked with a thick blond, Kendall. The same server who had poked her head into the kitchen when I was cooking for Dad. The man’s bald head shined as they walked under the lights towards the Terrariums.
“She stole him right out from under you,” Iris said.
I didn’t mind. Really.
“He smelled like a double beef patty,” I said. “Zoo-style.”
Iris cackled. “Gross!”
We watched the two of them disappear behind the black door. “But he was nice,” I offered. “I think he’ll tip her well.”
“Good for Kendall,” Iris said.
“Yeah. Good for her.”
I went to rub my harp necklace but placed a hand on my bare chest instead. Iris motioned back inside. “We can finish getting ready together, then.”
I followed her back to her room and let out a happy sigh. Impact play equipment hung on her walls. She was the only server who specialized in topping the club members. The rest of us preferred bottoming.
“I thought you were meeting with the new club owner?” I asked.
She plopped onto the ottoman and picked up a pencil of black eyeliner. “Little bitch chickened out.”
I raised a brow. “Little bitch?”
She gave a side-smile. “Well, Dahlia had to cancel because of some emergency meeting with the Adlers.”
“The Adlers, huh?” I asked. The Dahlia District was outwardly an elite and private entertainment club for billionaires, but it was a cover for a lot of criminal activity, including the sex trafficking of the servers, like us. But with a high monthly payment, the Adlers made sure that we, the servers—Dahlia’s main asset—never ran away, and that we were protected from abusers and the police. The Adlers were a crime family that had taken hold of Sage City decades ago, but they still protected us here, in the forgotten neighboring town of Cresting Heights.
“Do you think the Adlers are upset about the new owner?” I asked.
“Don’t know. She didn’t tell me anything.” Iris shook her head. “Maybe that’s what it’s about. But I don’t know. She was acting all weird about it. More evasive than usual. It’s probably something else.” She shrugged. “I’ll get it out of her eventually.”
What could they possibly want? I grabbed my curler from Iris’s dresser and started touching up my waves. It was hard to imagine what a crime family might want, especially when it came to a place like the Dahlia District. Anything was possible.
Derek lifted his eyes from the phone and acknowledged that he was still listening. He was texting with one of the other Adlers. Even though we were half-brothers and close to the same age, I didn’t feel any kinship. I was a year older than him, but he held his shoulders like he was the only man in the entire house, as though his father, Gerard Adler, the number one mob boss in all of Sage City, wasn’t under the same roof. As if he wasn’t threatened by my sudden appearance.
Or, perhaps it was the contrary. Perhaps he understood the gravity of what my existence meant. An older Adler. Someone else who could take the role of leader.
We were sitting across from each other around the kitchen island, one of the only places Gerard’s wife had been allowed to renovate. Modern lights dangled above us. Through the windows above the sink, there was a view of the garden and the woods behind it.
“Did you take care of any business in New Mexico?” Derek asked, his movements stiff. By business, he meant hits.
“Besides the one time?” I asked, lifting a brow. Technically, it wasn’t a hit, but it had the same result. “No.”
“Shipments or deliveries?” No, I didn’t move drugs. I shook my head again. “Protection?”
“Just fought,” I said. And for no one but myself.
“Don’t start now. You’re a long way from home.”
I was used to the desert, to dry weather and rock, to hot air balloons rising in the early morning air like broken promises. This coastal city wasn’t home to me. I had years of building up hate for the Adler brothers, the sons Gerard proudly claimed as his own. My mother didn’t have the same resentment, but she told me everything she knew, besides their surname. But I wasn’t stupid. I had figured it out on my own, that I was related—an heir, in some ways—to the famous Sage City Adlers.
Derek and his full brothers had only found out about me recently, when my mother called Gerard to ask for a favor. I didn’t want to be where I wasn’t wanted, but now that I needed protection, working for Gerard was my only option.
“What happened?” Derek asked. He stowed his phone and leaned forward. “You killed your neighbor.”
I shrugged. “Shit happens.”
“It takes a lot of anger to kill a man with your bare hands.”
“I’ve got nothing but anger,” I said, staring into Derek’s eyes, daring him to fuck with me. His eyes were dark brown, almost black, like mine. We had gotten that from Gerard. Strangers wouldn’t question the fact that we were brothers, but they wouldn’t know that I was Gerard’s secret. The baby tossed aside, kept in hiding, an adult now, in his thirties. Gerard’s wife, Clara, knew, but she didn’t tell the sons. That would ruin the dynamic they had established. And Gerard had promised Clara that Derek would be the next boss.
Until I stepped in.
“I take you to be the hands-on kind man,” I said.
Derek’s nostrils flared, but his eyes stayed locked on mine. “Your point?”
“You’ve killed too.”
He breathed through his nose. I hadn’t grown up under this roof, but the rage still filtered through my blood. It was part of being an Adler. Derek rolled his shoulders, acknowledging the shared connection, and moved on.
“And you’ve been at the condo in Vegas since then?” he asked. “Did you talk to anyone?”
“I kept to myself.”
“No gambling? No interaction with anyone else you might have had to take care of?”
“I kept to myself,” I said again, my voice louder.
“Nothing we should be aware of?”
I put my fist down on the kitchen island. “I didn’t kill anyone else if that’s what you mean.”
“Listen,” Derek said. He straightened. “You’ve got to get your shit together. Just because the boss thinks you’re worth the trouble of inviting into the family home, doesn’t mean everyone else is on board.” He said it as if Wil and Axe, the other two brothers, were ready to kick me out too. “Gerard is due to retire, and when that happens, I’ll get the say on whether or not you’re welcome here.”
I sneered. “You forgot one thing,” I said. He furrowed his brows. “I’m older than you.”
He narrowed his eyes for a moment, then ran a hand through his hair. The seniority, even if it was one measly year, put me as the most likely candidate to take over the family business, and he knew it. It complicated things.
“Where are the other two?” I asked.
“Wil is at Jimmy’s. And I imagine Axe is out hunting our next line of business.”
He tilted his head. “Oliver Knox.” He handed me his phone and I glanced at the picture. Thin, scraggly hair on the top of his head. Green eyes. Slightly overweight. Sixties, maybe. I handed the device back.
“What’s his due?”
“He owes us money. A lot of it,” Derek said. He broadened his shoulder. “We can take his daughter as collateral until he pays up. From the Dahlia District.”
“The Dahlia District?”
“An entertainment club for rich men.”
Taking his daughter as payment? A ransom, then. I grit my teeth, but Mom had warned me about this. Human life as payment or leverage wasn’t something the Adlers had invented, but it was a source of power that they took advantage of frequently.
I had my rules. Taking someone as payment for a gambling debt seemed irrational. But it was part of my new life as a true Adler.
“Then let’s go,” I said.
Once Gerard was ready, the three of us headed to the Dahlia District. It was a fair distance to drive. Ivy stretched over the walls surrounding the on-ramp, and when we exited the freeway into Cresting Heights, all open spaces were covered in pine trees. Driving down a winding road, we came upon a parking lot with a few unmarked brick buildings. Orange flowers clung to an overhang. We knocked on the door to a small building off to the side.
A woman with short blond hair answered, her neck a veiny ball of twine.
“Gerard,” she said in a raspy voice, offering her hand.
“Dahlia. As gorgeous as ever,” he said.
They shook hands, while Derek and I stood behind him. “So nice of you to stop by. Please, come in.” We stepped inside. The building was completely white; white walls with white furniture, and paintings that were white with simple streaks of color. We sat at a table next to the kitchen. A box of scotch was resting on the counter, as if waiting for Gerard. Dahlia began opening the container.
“You look even more handsome each time I see you,” Dahlia said to Derek. She stared at me, tapping her chin. “And you must be…”
“Ethan,” I said. I leaned forward and gave her a firm handshake.
She gestured between Derek and me. “You two look as if you could be twins.” Neither of us said a word, and she shifted in her seat, uncomfortable in the silence. “I mean that in a good way. You both have your father’s looks. You must be a brother then?”
“Half-brother,” I said.
“Ah. Well.” She poured the drinks neat and placed the glasses in front of each of us. We clicked glasses and took a sip. “What can I do for you, gentlemen?”
“Oliver Knox’s daughter, Teagen,” Gerard said. He sat up in his chair. “He sold his daughter to you to pay a debt to us.”
“He signed Teagen into a lucrative contract to work at the entertainment club, yes,” Dahlia said. She shrugged her shoulders. “He didn’t literally sell her.”
Derek adjusted his stance, as if he didn’t believe one word of it. Instincts told me that Dahlia was all bullshit. The Dahlia District wasn’t an entertainment club for billionaires; it was a sex trafficking ring.
“Oliver Knox owes us money,” Gerard said.
“Again?” Dahlia said.
“I’m afraid so,” Gerard said. He thumbed through his salt and pepper beard. “The man has an addiction.”
“Quite so,” Dahlia said.
“And as a holding until we get the payment, we’ve come to take his daughter.”
Dahlia’s eyes darted around, anticipating a demon jumping out from the shadows. “I can’t let you do that,” she said. “I made a promise to someone that I would never let harm come to these women ever again.”
“No one said anything about harm,” Derek said. He tilted his head. “Come on, Dahlia. What type of business do you think we run?”
Her hands fidgeted, unable to settle.
“But you do know that your payments have been late,” Gerard said. “And I’ve let that slide. And we’ll forget about the late payments, if you give us his daughter. But if you don’t…” Gerard leaned back and took a sip of the scotch. “I’m afraid we can’t make any promises about the state of the business.”
Dahlia wiped her forehead on the back of her hand, tan makeup streaking her skin. “I sold it to Roland Price,” she said.
Ah, a new angle. “Ma’am, with all due respect,” I said. I bared my teeth in an evil smile. I didn’t care about Dahlia, and I sure as hell didn’t respect a woman who sold others’ bodies like a commodity and lied about it. Threatening Dahlia meant nothing to me. In fact, I enjoyed it. “I would hate for something to happen to the club before the ownership completely transitioned,” I said. “Could make the deal fall through.” I broadened my shoulders. “You’re going to want our protection.”
She swallowed and her spindly fingers tightened around the glass. After a few moments, she finally spoke, her words hoarse, “I can’t let you take her outright, but if you convince her to leave the club in a normal way,” she whispered, her eyes darting around again, “when no one would notice, then I can’t do anything to stop you.”
A pain in the ass, but a fair request. “A silent retrieval,” Derek said.
“We can be quiet for an old friend,” Gerard said, his teeth gleaming.
“Thank you, Gerard,” Dahlia said, letting out a breath.
“And I assume once the deal is finalized with Price, you’ll send him our way?”
“He’s turning it into a nightclub,” Dahlia said.
“Still, I’d like to meet the man,” Gerard said coolly. He stood, and Dahlia met his stance. “As always, it’s a pleasure doing business with you.”
“Likewise,” Dahlia said, the hesitation evident in her voice. She showed us out.
The drive on the way back was silent, each of us contemplating in our own worlds. The Adler house was situated in an older neighborhood, though their property stretched over several acres in the very back. It had been in the family for generations. The Adler brothers all had their own apartments and houses in the city, but much of the business took place here, on the grounds.
As for me, it was my home for the foreseeable future.
“Clara can show you to your room,” Gerard said, glancing around. “She’s probably in the garden.” I turned to wait in the sitting room, but Gerard turned around to face me. “You did good, son,” he said. “You convinced Dahlia.”
I expected Derek to ignore the comment, but he gave an appreciative nod too. “Good work.”
Was it a front to be courteous to me in front of Gerard, to seem like the good, obedient pet? Whatever the reason, it was irritating. It would have been easier to dismiss Derek if he were more protective of his station, but instead, he mimicked his father, owning the assumed position. The little prick.
“The servers know you,” Gerard said to Derek, and Derek nodded. “We’ve been to the club a few times before,” Gerard explained to me, a wide grin on his face. “Which is why you’ll have to secure Teagen.”
Silent retrieval. That’s what Derek had called it. “Secure Teagen?”
“Pretend to be a club member. Take her to the private rooms. Seduce her. Then promise her enough money to retire, so that she’ll leave the club grounds on her of her own volition.”
They wanted me to be the bait to lure the server out of Dahlia’s territory.
“Technically, they’re not allowed to meet club members off property,” Derek explained. “So you may have some trouble.”
“Money tends to persuade them,” Gerard said with a gleam in his eye. No doubt, the Adler family had plenty of that. “I trust you to take care of it.”
“Wil may be jealous,” Derek said, smirking.
Gerard smiled. “Let him be. The servers already know him.”
If a well-known Adler, like Gerard, Derek, or Wil, tried to convince a server to leave, then that would be suspicious. All Adlers had a reputation around them, a deadly one. But because I had no presence in town, I was a decoy. I didn’t like the thought of duping an innocent woman into the trenches of crime, but it was part of the new world I had chosen for myself. If I had never killed back home, I wouldn’t be here right now.
But I had killed someone. And if I played my cards right, this new world would be the best opportunity for me.
In the end, I trusted myself more than my half-brothers to take care of it.
“When do I leave?” I asked.
Gerard answered a text, then looked up from his phone. “Tomorrow night,” he said. “Dahlia says she’s on schedule to perform. She’ll be playing the harp.”