Hard male hands had set bricks into neat red rows between high granite curbs and hitching posts. Vanilla Boulevard was intended as a place where women of property rode inside fancy carriages. Eighty years later, every house remained substantial, roofs peaked, shutters adorned with carved vines. These were homes built to impress not just visitors and passersby but also those worthy people who lived inside them. Yet all that majesty and enduring success had the unintended effect of making no house special. Numbers painted on a pink curb reminded Quentin where to park. Except for standing on top of a tiny hill, Madam Trent’s mansion was no more spectacular than its neighbors. Sandstone steps led up to a long concrete walk. Someone owned a dog, and nobody had picked up after the dog. Or maybe the two stone lions had shit in the yard. Sitting in front of the porch, perched on matching pillars but not in matching poses, the female lion was tall and regal, while her mate had a lazy, useless expression to his gray face. The pair watched the stranger’s approach, and he smiled at them, one hand patting the lady’s rough ass before the other hand scratched the man's curling mane.
Quentin reached for the bell, but the front door opened first. Madam Trent wore a silk housecoat that cost more than his entire wardrobe, plus enough undergarments to restrain the meaty breasts. The outfit implied that she didn’t know that he was coming. Which was entirely reasonable, since the sun had barely risen. Yet the old dyke summoned up a remarkable early-morning charm.
“Oh, good to see you, Quentin. You look well.”
“Sorry to intrude,” he said.
Stepping back from the door, she said, "Come in."
“Madam Trent,” he began with bow.
“Caltha. Please call me Caltha.”
In slippers, she was barely taller than him. “Caltha.”
“Have you had breakfast?”
She looked at him more closely.
“Farah,” he said.
The woman didn’t react.
Because Farah wasn’t here, he realized. And what if the woman didn’t know where she was, or care to share the knowledge?
“I have to find her,” he said.
“Farah?” She was leading him through the long living room where people got married.
“Home called,” Quentin said. “She needs to call home.”
“I see.” They entered a spacious kitchen. Opening the refrigerator, she said, “I don’t know what you’d like. And I’m no cook, I’m afraid. So I’ll let you graze, and you’re welcome to it all.”
“Farah,” he said again.
She looked at him, with care.
“Caltha,” he added.
“As it happens, the girl is staying here. She’s asleep in my guest bedroom."
“Get her,” he said.
“Her family called?”
“An uncle, yes.”
“She wants nothing to do with her family. From what I understand.”
He didn’t want to deliver this news, not to Farah and certainly not to this woman. And that was his plan right up until his mouth said, “Her parents are dead.”
“Murdered,” he added, his voice breaking at the edges.
Parts of this message were incomprehensible, or everything was. Either way, the woman’s emotions shifted between baffled and dubious and then into some little anger that had the surest voice. “I’m not waking her and telling her that.”
The offer was discounted. With a gesture, she said, “Stay here. I’ll word her.” Then another word offered its services. “Gently. And she can come downstairs, and you can give her the sorry news.”