Unedited. Subject to change. Release date is not yet determined.
Once Harriet was gone, I went the opposite direction, toward the floor. I needed time to set up the private booth where I’d service Ruby, but I took a moment to check my appearance in the mirror first, to make sure it was just so.
Black shoes, black pants, black logo top, hot pink lip, no jewelry. That was our “uniform” here, and deviation would earn you a demerit at best, and at worst, fired on the spot. We could do whatever we wanted with our hair – were encouraged to do so, actually, the more intricate/interesting the better.
I always had braids.
Now, I pulled them all over one shoulder, taking a bit of comfort in their familiar swing against my hip as I moved to my station. It was fortifying – a concrete feeling to connect to in a moment that was feeling more and more surreal.
My hands were going in Ruby Hartford’s hair today.
I was very, very good at my job – you had to be, in a place like this. Working at a salon in The Apex meant a wage where you could do more than barely keeping yourself alive – another high commodity. As much as the world had changed, the obsession with beauty had not.
But that was no complaint.
Though I’d hated growing up in a salon, spending long days at my mother’s feet inhaling the odors of chemical straighteners and acetone, I was grateful now. I was grateful then too, but as an adult I had a better understanding of why she taught me formulations with painstaking precision, made sure I had an eagle eye for split ends, perfect braiding techniques – everything I could possibly need to know, to wear the title of stylist.
She knew it could keep me alive after she was gone.
I’d watched Harriet’s prep work for Ruby enough times to know exactly what I needed to gather, but I still smiled when I saw the note she’d left.
“Sure of yourself, are you?” I muttered to myself as I grabbed a basket from my station to head to the repository. There, I handed the masked attendant a list of what I needed, and was careful to double-check before I signed the slip to leave with the basket. Back at my station, I took my time arranging everything the way I liked it, and then with one minute to spare before my appointment, I was done.
Ruby Hartford walked in thirty seconds later.
She was flanked on either side by security guards, which wasn’t uncommon for the ultra-wealthy residents of The Apex. Violent crime was virtually nonexistent here, but being able to afford your own security was a status symbol. Not that Ruby needed men in black uniforms and heavy boots for us to understand how wealthy she was.
She oozed it.
Like me, Ruby was dressed in all black. Unlike me, her blacks were all lush, luxury fabrics – skintight black leggings and a cropped tank, topped with a cashmere kimono that she shrugged off, tossing toward one of the security guards in a fluid motion that had to be rehearsed, with how seamlessly he collected it before it hit the floor.
Ruby walked – well, more like glided – up to me, stopping to give me a once-over similar to the one Lori had given earlier. There was no disapproval in her gaze though, just a mild interest that made my cheeks go hot before her eyes, emerald orbs framed by long, delicate lashes came back to my face. Up close, her caramel skin was just as flawless as it seemed from a distance, sprinkled over with dark brown freckles.
“You’re very pretty,” she said, in a way that didn’t exactly feel like a compliment. “Why are you here, instead of working as a Diamond?”
I swallowed, hard, then couldn’t do anything other than shrug. “I… this is what my mother taught me to do,” I answered.
Somehow, that amused her. “Right. Of course. The passing of knowledge. It wouldn’t do for a hairdresser to have taught you to be a whore, would it?”
My eyes went wide. “I… suppose not.”
“Of course you do. You’re the one serving as Harriet’s replacement today.” She wasn’t asking a question – she was telling me, and took the empty seat in my salon chair to deepen the point. “Don’t fuck it up.”
I’d already heard that one.
“Fucking up” wasn’t typically a part of my day, and I had every intention of keeping up that streak. Ruby Hartford had nearly three feet of natural coils, that she expected colored, blow-dried, and styled to perfection, and I did exactly that.
I was the picture of professionalism, bringing her dark roots to match the cinnamon tone of the rest of her hair, then drying and styling it into her signature beachy waves. While I worked, she conducted a few business calls that I very explicitly paid no attention to – I wasn’t even mildly curious about anything except hair when I had a client in front of me. The only thing that registered a bit of interest was a heart-shaped birthmark behind her ear, and even that was quickly pushed from my mind as I curled and combed and laid every strand in exactly the perfect place.
When I was done, Ruby surveyed her appearance in the mirror, accepting the comb I handed her to part through various sections to check the color. When she finished, she sat back, sounded slightly disappointed when she complimented me on a job well done.
My face must have registered confusion, because her lips quirked into a smile. “I haven’t ruined anyone’s life yet today,” she explained. “I was hoping you’d give me a reason, but this is flawless. I may come back to you next time, instead of Harriet.”
“No,” I stammered. “You’re Harriet’s client, I couldn’t possibly—”
“Be telling me no?” Ruby asked, still wearing that smirk that made an insidious feeling creep up my back. “You’re right. You couldn’t possibly be doing that.”
She made a gesture for me to remove the styling cape so I did, keeping my lips pressed closed. I wanted to say something ugly, wanted to chew her out, but the reality was that I couldn’t risk my job – my livelihood – on having the last word with a client.
So I swallowed it.
Once she was back on her feet, towering over me in her heels, she gave me her attention again. “I’d like you to think about what I said earlier,” she told me, as she held out her arms for on of the guards to put that kimono back on her. “Girl like you could make good money – much more than the scraps here. Isn’t that right Alonso?” she asked one of the guards. He remained stone-faced, his presence only made more imposing by the tattoo on his face – a trio of spades, at the corner of his eye.
When he didn’t answer, Ruby laughed, then snapped her fingers. It happened so fast that I couldn’t tell where it came from, but suddenly there was a thick fold of money between her fingers.
She peeled off much more than her service cost and handed it to me, walking off before I could realize the error. I tried to catch her, but the guard who’d taken the position her gave me a look so petrifying that I shut my mouth, stuffing the money in my pocket and considering it a blessing.
They were few and far-between around here.