My gaze drags from him to the two men seated and then back to Dad. “Ashley and I are going to the Galleria. I just wanted to let you know.”
“Of course. You girls have fun. You remember Police Chief Flynn and Mayor Bernstein, don’t you? You met them at the City Council Christmas Party a couple years ago.”
Police Chief Flynn smiles, though it never reaches his eyes. “Hello, Delphine. So great to see you again.”
“Is this the same Delphine who wore that adorable elf hat for the Santa play?” Mayor Bernstein’s face shines at the memory, his earlier panic gone, taking a few eager steps toward me. “My, how you’ve grown. You’re becoming a beautiful young woman right before our eyes.”
Dad promptly clears his throat, his heavy hand landing on my shoulder, giving it his usual fatherly squeeze. “Delphi, why don’t you treat yourself to something nice at Cliffords? Use my credit. Make sure to be home by eleven.”
I had wandered out of the study in a daze. At the time, I had sensed it was a conversation I wasn’t supposed to overhear. I had picked up on the strange vibe in the air. Other things like Flynn’s cold disposition and Bernstein’s sudden interest. Dad’s protective hand and insistence I leave and even treat myself to something nice.
I had just turned fifteen a couple months earlier. Not much older than Brenda says she was when Bernstein ‘bought’ her.
He was trying to get rid of me, trying to keep me away from Bernstein. He knew.
The disturbing thought leaves me paralyzed to the extent it takes me seconds to notice Brenda and Flynn talking again.
“You’ve been wronged, Liang. There’s no doubting that. We can make it better,” Flynn says, his indignant temper fading. “How about we talk about this elsewhere? Over drinks. I’m betting we can get the Society to make quite the monetary offer for your silence—”
“Ugh,” Brenda says in disgust. “It’s always about money to you people!”
“Enough of this! Why me?” I snap, shifting my focus onto her. “Why have you involved me in what’s going on? I’m not a part of the Neptune Society. I’ve never made any deals or participated in any of whatever twisted things go on in that club!”
“You still don’t get it. You’ve always been involved! We were simply trying to get to you first.”
“You have sixty seconds left to make sense, otherwise I’m having you both arrested.”
“I’ll explain the rest, Delphine.”
I go still at the fourth voice. It’s coming from behind me. Both Brenda and Flynn look beyond my shoulder at whoever it is walking up. I heave a sigh and then join them, glancing over my shoulder.
Chester Bailey approaches, dressed in similar black garb to Brenda’s. He’s witnessed the spectacle unfolding on the passageway and had enough sense to draw his own weapon. He points it back at me, though there’s no malice behind the gesture. It’s more like he’s letting me know he’s armed and willing to use it, but doesn’t intend on it if things can be solved more peacefully.
“Welikeyou, Delphine. Hasn’t that been clear in our messages? We want you to join us. You’re a victim just like us. You’ve been used without even realizing it,” he explains simply, joining Brenda’s side. At the confused knit of my brows, he continues. “We know what happened to you. We know how you’ve been manipulated all this time.”
“Manipulated how? By who?”
“By the Society. You were being initiated. A ritual of humiliation before you earned your membership.”
I make a sound of disgust. “What kind of membership requirement is that?”
“It’s to ensure loyalty and compliance. You are one of the few in the city who actually cares about making a difference. We’ve been watching you for a very long time. You’d do anything to purge the city of its evil… and you have been, even in your off-time.”
I can see the knowing glint in his hazel eyes. He’s aware of my dark secrets.
All of them.
“Start from the beginning,” I growl. I haven’t lowered my Glock, though my hands feel less steady. The sick roiling in my stomach has gone nowhere. “I want it laid out in front of me what the hell is going on.”
“What else is there to say but I was a loser? Always the outcast. You surely remember from our days at Westoria Prep. Who can forget what happened at Salvatore Mancino’s big party? Brett Gannon and his sheep dunking me in the pool. I never got a chance to thank you for what you did—saving me,” he says. “Out of over a hundred classmates, you were the only one with enough of a backbone to try to stop him.”
“I stopped him because it was wrong. That simple.”
“Yes, that conscience of yours is powerful,” he says. “You may not have noticed, but that night wasn’t the last night I was picked on. I was bullied almost every day for the rest of my days at that wretched school. I figured, surely, once I graduate, things would be different. But that was hoping for too much.”
“You’ve been blackmailing everyone because of bullying in high school?”
“You wanted the start of this. I’m telling you. I went out into the real world and realized it’s no better. The same people who were bullies in school went on to become bullies in their adult lives. My family is not exempt. My father is a member of the Neptune Society. It was unsurprising to learn what’s been going on. People like Brett Gannon fit right in.