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Protection for HireA Novel
By Camy Tang
ZondervanCopyright © 2011 Camy Tang
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe young woman was as out of place here as a Ferrari in a used car lot.
The first thing Tessa Lancaster noticed about the mother watching the kids in the game of Simon Says were her expensive shoes, gold and pearl colored heels with a dark gold rose over the peek-a-boo toe, which sank into the grass of the tiny backyard.
The second thing Tessa noticed about her was the gigantic black eye swelling the entire left side of her face.
She must be new at the San Francisco domestic violence shelter, because when she noticed Tessa looking at her, she smiled instead of turning away with a nervous glance.
With shoes like that, she didn't quite look like she belonged. Then again, the shelter was for any abused woman needing a place to stay, and who said rich women didn't get knocked around the same as prostitutes or waitresses?
Tessa raised her voice above the boisterous throng of children. "Simon Says ... jump on one foot while patting your head and rubbing your tummy and turning in a circle!" Tessa bounced around in front of them, her hair flying out of its ponytail and hitting her in the face, while the kids giggled and screamed and twirled in circles. They loved her. They didn't care who she'd been or what she'd done. They only cared that she would play with them for her entire volunteer shift at the shelter.
"Snack time!" Evangeline, one of the shelter volunteers and one of Tessa's only friends, called to the children from the doorway behind Tessa which led back into the main building. Like a gigantic blob, the kids raced into the shelter from the building's tiny backyard, still screaming, and some still whirling around from the Simon Says game.
One tow-headed boy ran toward the woman with the expensive shoes, clasping her around her knees and laughing up at her. She smiled as she reached down to pick him up, but he squirmed to be let go. He scurried after the other kids.
"He hasn't laughed in so long," she said wistfully as Tessa walked up to her. Her accent was like maple syrup. Southern. She could have been Scarlett O'Hara in the flesh — flashing eyes, graceful hands, svelte figure.
Tessa squelched a sigh of envy. "What's his name?"
The sight of the woman's black, yellow, and purple mark in the distinct shape of a fist made a dark, growling blaze burn in Tessa's gut. She tried to keep her voice light. "He's made friends quickly. One of the little girls was already flirting with him."
"He's just like his fa ..." Her smile faded as her voice caught on the word.
The boy's father? "Is he the one who gave you that shiner?" The words burst out of Tessa's mouth before she could think to temper them.
Oh, no. She looked away from the woman's shocked face and breathed in deep through her nose, trying to calm her temper. The one thing she'd battled the most since giving her life to Jesus three years ago, and it still rose like a gladiator in her soul. "I'm sorry, that wasn't very sensitive of me."
A beat of silence. Then Tessa asked, "So, where are you from?"
"I grew up in Louisiana, but I've been in San Francisco for five years. Daniel was born here."
"Oh. What do you, uh, do?"
The woman gave Tessa a small smile. "I can shop like nobody's business."
Tessa laughed. It seemed like that's what she wanted her to do. But someone affluent like this ... "How'd you find the shelter?" Wings Shelter wasn't exactly in the Presidio area of San Francisco.
Tears gathered like jewels on her long, dark lashes. "I was at the San Carlos Motel, but we had to leave."
She didn't have to say it, but Tessa knew her story, the same story as many other women here. She'd probably left her home and checked into a hotel under a false name, but the man who abused her found them there.
"A man on the street saw us. He led us to the shelter."
Wow, how likely was that? God really had led this woman here. An otherworldly stirring in Tessa's heart made her suddenly feel both small and huge at the same time.
"Tessa!" Evangeline called to her from the shelter doorway. "I know your shift is over, but Mina wants to see you."
Ooh, good news? She couldn't think of any other reason the shelter's employment coordinator would want to talk to her. "It was nice chatting with you."
"I better make sure Daniel doesn't get into trouble." The woman smiled at Tessa and then headed into the shelter.
She didn't even know the woman's name. But it didn't matter — the other women here would eventually tell her who Tessa was — or specifically, who her uncle was — and then the woman would delicately avoid Tessa the next time she saw her.
The thought made her feel like a thin glass ornament. She should be used to it — now that she'd been out of prison for three months, women still feared her just as they had seven years ago when she'd been an enforcer for her mob boss uncle and her dangerous reputation on the streets had been slightly exaggerated.
Now they feared her because they weren't quite sure what she was doing here at Wings.
Tessa took the stairs of the old Victorian house two at a time, each step punctuated by a creak. The second floor landing opened up into a long narrow hallway, and she remembered to skid to a stop and knock on the office door before entering.
Tessa had to wiggle between two of the three desks crammed in the small office — once a bedroom — to plop herself in front of Mina's desk. "You wanted to see me?"
Mina's light brown eyes clued her in — not the joyful, we-found-you-a-job look, but a sad, these-employers-are-idiots look.
"Oh." Tessa sagged a bit in the narrow folding chair. "What happened?"
"Well, I've been the one taking calls from employers because you put the shelter down as a reference."
Tessa wasn't supposed to know that. She straightened at the information. Why would Mina break the rules by telling her?
"There's a, um ... theme to the questions they ask."
"They almost all want to know if you're the Tessa Lancaster. The niece of Teruo Ota. The head of the San Francisco yakuza."
"Seriously?" Tessa closed her eyes, leaned forward, and bonked her forehead on Mina's desk a few times. She just couldn't get away from her past with the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Would she ever be able to?
She suddenly sat up again. "They're not journalists, are they?"
"No, although I had a few of those. I always check the caller name and company with the list you give us each week of where you've applied for jobs. If the person isn't on the list, I tell them to go away."
Whew. The last thing she needed was some rabid dog reporter with grandiose dreams of using Tessa to somehow take down the entire San Francisco Japanese mafia. Or worse, some gossip mag wanting the scoop on why one of the yakuza's unofficial strong-arms was now volunteering at a battered women's shelter and applying for a janitor position at Target.
Tessa bit her lip. "You, uh ... tell them the truth?"
Mina's eyebrows raised. "Of course I do. Well ..." Her eyes slipped away from Tessa's gaze. "I'll admit after the third one of the day, I'm always tempted to tell them you're Amish."
Tessa giggled, then sighed. "I wouldn't want you to lie. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that I have to take the consequences."
"It's just unfair, because you really have changed, but they don't believe it."
"No, it's more like they don't want to get involved." Tessa had known it for a few weeks now, but hadn't wanted to admit it to herself. She seemed to have acquired a highly developed ostrich mentality lately. "They don't know why I'm applying for these minimum wage jobs, if I have an ulterior motive or if I've had a falling out with my uncle. They're not stupid — they're not going to hire someone who might cause problems for them, and they're not going to hire me if it's going to make my uncle mad."
Mina pitched her voice low and leaned in to ask, "What exactly did you do for your uncle? You didn't ... kill anyone, did you?"
"No, never. Aunty Kayoko saw to that."
"My Aunt Kayoko. Uncle Teruo's wife." More of a mother to her than her own mother. An ache blossomed under her breastbone, and she rubbed at it. "She protected me. She dissuaded Uncle from giving me any job that crossed some invisible line she had in her head. She was closer to me than my own mother, in some ways."
"She died last year." And Tessa had cried in her cell all day the day of her funeral, wanting to go but not allowed to. If Tessa had been released a year early, she'd have been able to say goodbye.
Mina cleared her throat. "So, you roughed people up?"
"I did whatever my uncle asked me to do." Tessa looked down at her hands. "It's probably best I not talk about it."
"Oh, of course. I was just thinking ..." Mina flipped through a stack of file folders on her desk, then grabbed one and skimmed through the pages. "You can ... basically take care of yourself, right?"
"Uh ... yeah. I studied Muay Thai from when I was in grade school, and I also studied Brazilian jiu-jitsu, tae kwan do, and a little Capoeira." And basic no-holds-barred street fighting too, with a reputation among her cousins and her uncle's kobuns for having a streak of creative ruthlessness.
Mina's eyes widened at the list, but they also shone with excitement. "So how about a bouncer?"
Tessa wasn't sure what to think about that. "You really think someone would hire me as a bouncer?"
Mina made a face at Tessa's job applications folder. "They obviously won't hire you as a janitor, a burger flipper, a cashier, or a stock boy. Why not a bouncer?"
Why not? "I guess ... although I don't know if I'd be comfortable working for a particularly shady nightclub. I've known the girls who work there, and sometimes it's only a step above slavery."
"It might be a step toward doing bodyguard work." Mina was on a roll. "You'd be perfect for that. Your own private company, you can pick and choose what clients you'll take, and you can more than take care of yourself."
Wow. That would be really cool. "Yeah. Okay, got any leads on bouncer jobs?"
"Uh ... no."
"Oh, right. Battered woman not at the top of the bouncer qualifications list. I'll look online." Tessa rose and held out her hand to Mina. "Thanks for the idea."
"I'm sorry about those other jobs. I thought for sure that Fat Burger would hire you, but ..."
Yeah, but was she really surprised? Aside from the fact she was an ex-convict, being an ex-yakuza didn't place her high on anybody's hiring priorities.
She walked down the stairs much slower than she'd gone up, and she headed to the quaint living room on the first floor, situated near the back of the house. A fire might be lit in the antique fireplace, and she loved the crackling sound and the smell. As she entered the room, she spotted the Southern woman's glossy dark head next to a couple other women at the shelter. They all glanced at her with identical Oh-my-gosh-there-she-is-stop-talking-about-her expressions.
Tessa looked away, just in case they could see the sting in her heart reflected in her eyes. She didn't want to be feared anymore. She wanted to have friends who didn't know how to shoot an automatic weapon or boost a car. She wanted somewhere she belonged ... but where would that be? She was drifting in between the world of the yakuza and the world of normal, and she wasn't in either one. She didn't want to belong to the yakuza world, but she was starting to think she'd never belong to the normal world either.
A stampede of footsteps. Tessa expected to see a rampaging gang of suspiciously quiet kindergartners come to attack their favorite playmate. Instead, the woman's perky head popped up in front of her.
"Tessa? Hi, I didn't introduce myself earlier, I'm Elizabeth St. Amant."
Tessa took the smooth, manicured hand. "Uh, hi." She glanced at the women Elizabeth had been talking to, and they had alarmed looks in their eyes.
"Oh, don't mind those cats," Elizabeth said. "They thought they were warning me off of you, but as soon as they talked about your unsavory past, I just knew you were perfect."
"Even though they don't believe you've changed, why, as soon as I saw you with those children, I knew that you'd done a 180 like a flapjack on a griddle."
Flapjacks? Elizabeth had a way of talking really fast and draaaawlingatthesaaaametiiiiime that made it hard for Tessa to follow her. "What exactly did they tell you?" Tessa asked carefully.
Elizabeth actually started ticking them off on her fingers. "Let's see. First, you used to do some nasty things for your uncle, who's some sort of head for the yuck ... yak ..."
"Yakuza. Japanese mafia."
"Second, you've been in prison for murder."
"Manslaughter," Tessa automatically corrected. Not that it made that much difference, since she hadn't done it in the first place.
"Third, the only reason you're volunteering at this shelter is because Evangeline, who used to be your cellmate, stayed here a few months ago because of an abusive boyfriend, but then she started volunteering here, and she vouched for you when you wanted to volunteer here too."
The problem was that some of the women here didn't trust Tessa because she wasn't really one of them. Tessa had never been abused, had never been a mother. In fact, because of her background, she had never been afraid for her own life.
"Fourth, you've been going to the church here at Wings. And after hearing that, and seeing you with my Daniel, I knew you must be trying to turn your life around. You're exactly the kind of person I need."
"What do you need?" The woman didn't seem too loco, so Tessa wouldn't mind helping her. She guessed.
"My husband is trying to kill me," Elizabeth announced, "so I want to hire you as my bodyguard."
Chapter TwoHeaven must smell like homemade ramen noodle soup.
Tessa stood in the doorway of the Japanese restaurant and breathed deep, closing her eyes and picking out Jerry's signature spices in his ramen broth. She was drooling and she didn't care.
Well, it had been seven loooooooooooong years. Considering she'd eaten Jerry's ramen once a week up until then, she ought to be excused an excessive Pavlovian reaction. Since she'd gotten out of prison, she'd moved into Mom's house and began looking for a job, so she hadn't had time to come here to get her fix.
"Can I help you?"
The young, perky voice interrupted her olfactory cloud of ecstasy and made Tessa open her eyes.
The restaurant hostess, a young woman with long, glossy black hair, stood in front of the wooden hostess podium just inside the restaurant's glass doors. She had a plastic smile and her eyes were just a little wary of the crazy lady smelling the restaurant. Tessa realized she knew her — Karissa Hoshiwara, one of Jerry's granddaughters. Of course she wouldn't remember Tessa, she'd only been a high school freshman when it all happened.
"I'm a friend of Jerry's. Is it okay if I go in back to see him?" The politeness sounded stiff on Tessa's tongue, but after so many years, she didn't really have the right to barge into Jerry's overheated kingdom unannounced.
"Oh." Karissa's smile lost its edge, as if being her grandfather's friend explained all sorts of you-ought-to-be-in-therapy behavior. "Sure, go ahead."
As Tessa turned to head back to the kitchen, Karissa suddenly asked, "Do I know you?"
Tessa turned to meet curious eyes. Innocent. My eyes were never that innocent.
No, she had to remember that she was a new creation in Christ! With copious exclamation points! She had to act like it! "Yeah, actually, your mom is friends with my mom."
"Oh." Karissa's brow wrinkled faintly, marring the perfect skin of a young twenty-something. "What's your name?"
"Tessa Lancaster." She couldn't help the tension in the back of her neck, waiting for the reaction.
Karissa's dark eyes blinked. Then widened. And then she smiled. "Oh! You're that Tessa."
She'd provoked a lot of reactions in her life, but never one like this. "Excuse me?"
"I saw your picture from that old newspaper clipping."
So did everyone. Still didn't explain the one-step-below-rock-star glow in the girl's eyes. Tessa wasn't sure what to say, so she smiled weakly. She probably looked like a sick pig.
"Evangeline showed me the clipping," Karissa added.
"Evangeline?" The name made Tessa's smile widen. "How do you know her?"
"I, uh ... I met her at Wings." Karissa's cheeks were faintly pink.
"You went to Wings?" Karissa didn't look old enough to be married, let alone at a domestic violence shelter.
Excerpted from Protection for Hire by Camy Tang Copyright © 2011 by Camy Tang. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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