Special note: though it’s not obvious, I totally followed last week’s consensus.
The Sunday solitude of downtown ceded to the bustling energy of Chinatown. Tess kept her eye on the blue dot on her phone, which made it nearly impossible to navigate the scene in front of her. Tightly packed crowds of women rolling renegade carts full of vegetables, stopping abruptly to haggle over prices. Peking ducks hanging by their necks from steamy windows. Musty-smelling piles of unidentified objects. The overstimulation sent her anxiety into overdrive.
The comparative calm of strip clubs and pizza joints told her she had arrived in North Beach. Finally she turned a corner, and there it was. City Lights.
The same cut-eyed woman was behind the register. Tess nodded at her and mustered a smile that went unacknowledged. Fine, be that way. She continued past her and down the stairs.
The dragon’s lair was deserted. She circled the haphazard stacks, just to be thorough. Had she read something into nothing? She was staring at the bank of history books they’d leaned against the day before, willing it to reveal something – anything – when a voice behind her said,
“Can I help you?”
Despite its lack of sincerity, the offer crumbled the last of Tess’s defenses. “I doubt it. Unless you can tell me where my boyfriend is.”
“You mean Neal?”
Tess perked up. “You know him?”
“He’s in here all the time. One of our best customers.”
“Of course, he said that. I’m Tess. Nice to meet you.”
“Vic. I remember you from yesterday. So he disappeared again, huh?”
“Um yeah. I woke up this morning and he was gone.”
The disinterest was anything but. Tess snapped a mental picture of Vic’s face. If she wasn’t so perpetually pissed off, she might be pretty. Sleek brunette bob, elegant aquiline features and a sinewy body to match. A flock of small birds tattooed on her shoulder. Not a millimeter over 5’3”, but clearly capable of an ass-kicking.
“He told me if I couldn’t find him that I should look here.”
“You’re trying to find him? Sounds like low self-esteem, if you ask me.”
“As a matter of fact, I didn’t,” Tess snapped.
“Good luck.” Vic turned on her heel and walked through a ‘staff only’ door.
Wow. Were a pair of jealous bitches the only breadcrumbs Neal had dropped?
There was only one place left on her list. She trudged up the steep hill to the front door. Closed. Of course. It was 11:30 am. She knocked anyway. To her surprise and relief, it opened.
“Hey Tess!” It was the bartender they’d met last night.
“Good memory! Brian, right?”
“Back atcha. What can I do for you?”
“Well, I can’t seem to find Neal. I wondered if you’d seen him?”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” His concern was genuine. “I haven’t.”
“In that case, I could use a drink.”
Brian smiled. “You mean you could use a gin fizz. I remember. Come on in.”
Grateful for a friendly face, Tess plopped onto a barstool.
Her phone buzzed. A text. From Neal.
This isn’t going to work. I’m sorry. I think it’s better if we don’t see each other anymore.
Pretend you’re Tess for a moment. What do you say in response?
Best answer gets written into the book.
AND a video shout-out.
AND a donation made in your name to 826 National.
AND to sweeten the deal TO HIGH HEAVEN, I will write you a poem.
Like a bespoke poem, just for you, written to your specifications.
I’m really good with rhymes. Just sayin’.