“I do like my kit,” Kee posed in the mirror with her hands at her hips, fingers at fake gunpoint.
Tess was still suiting up. On her way back to the hotel, she had made a few phone calls. First to Kee, to con her into flying up. Then to her boss, Bill, to get a few days off. And finally to her ex-boyfriend, Jason. He was now happily married with 2.4 kids, living in the suburbs and running his dad’s behemoth nationwide home security company. At first she’d just wanted to borrow some gear, but he had a better idea. Well, ‘better’ might be a stretch. At least it saved them on car rentals. After a long shower, some room service and twelve comatose hours in her big white hotel bed, she was ready to put the plan in action.
“It’s not the worst disguise, all things considered. The bar is surrounded by strip clubs. They all have bouncers.”
“Scrawny blonde birds from…Blink Home Security?” Kee said, straining to read the patch on her shirt.
“Whatever. They’re just going to see we’re not cops and ignore us. And you’ll be in a residential area anyway. You’ll fit right in.”
“Operation No Means No is a go!” Kee breathed into her walkie-talkie.
After a protracted route negotiation involving step-by-step Google Map satellite views and a pinky swear from Kee that under no circumstances would she go Bullitt on the operation, they took off in their respective patrol cars. The plan was that Kee would watch the front door of Neal’s building, while Tess kept an eye on 15 Romolo. They would maintain contact via walkie-talkie, not because iPhones were insufficient, but because Kee insisted on authenticity as a term of her involvement.
Broadway was quiet. Tess decided the best vantage point for surveillance was the residential area at the top of the hill. Nobody approached the bar from up there, so her extremely conspicuous car would be as inconspicuous as possible. She found a spot right on the corner, two alleys up, with an unobstructed view of the door. She cranked the wheel, pulled the parking break and pressed the button on her radio.
“Barmaid paging Housekeeping, over.”
“I can’t believe you get to be the Barmaid, dude. We both know I’m the Barmaid.”
“Housekeeping, are you in position?”
“Yes and it’s bloody uncomfortable. Ford Focus was the best he could do? I thought he was totally in love with you in college. And what happens if I need to pee?”
“Dude, do you have the car parked?”
“Yes I have the car parked. But apart from a few bums sleeping off their benders, nothing’s happening down here. By the way, I hadn’t noticed how dodgy this neighborhood is. I thought you said his apartment was all lux…”
“HOUSEKEEPING! Is there anything else you want to share with the Blink Home Security network?”
“Oh. No that’s it.”
“Good. I’m here if you need me.”
“Ditto that, Roger 10-4 Good Buddy.”
Tess tried to settle in. The bar opened for lunch at 1 pm, and closed for the night at 2 am. It was going to be a long day. And she had never been very good at waiting.
Stakeouts last forever, so vote for as many of these as you want. Or better yet, add your own ideas.
Really, ALL of the texts were amazing. Jean, the threat of not returning the shirt was diabolical. And Ken, the next time I need a ghost writer for my own social media repartee, I’m calling you, Dude.
Thanks to everybody for a great week of novel-writing. If not for you, I would be on my second Bloody Mary by now.
She stared at her phone, chasing confusion with booze and coffee.
She was too proud to plead with him. Too mad to be nice. And too invested to let it go.
She hit send before she had time to second-guess herself.
“Brian, I’m gonna need another shot.”
“No problem.” He refilled their glasses, this time from a bottle on the top shelf. “Slainte.”
“Slainte.” Whatever it was, it burned like holy hell.
“I hope I’m not prying or anything, but how did you meet Neal?” Brian asked.
“Um, let’s just say Santa Monica.”
“Huh. And when was that?”
“About three weeks ago.” She registered his surprise. “How long have you known him?”
“Oh, maybe six months. He comes in a lot. Always really nice. I think he works around here.”
His office! She hadn’t thought of it. “But you don’t know where, exactly?”
“Does he come in alone?”
“Nah, he’s usually with these two Russian guys.”
“Sorry, didn’t mean to go all Law and Order on you.” she said, catching herself.
“It’s okay. I totally understand.” He wiped down the bar for the fourth time. Tess sensed an answer she had to know but wasn’t sure she wanted to hear.
He kept his head down. “There’s a woman. Also Russian, I think. Very tall, bright red hair and…beautiful.” He paused, then added. “Not very nice.”
The room was buzzing now, as if someone had turned up the volume. “When’s the last time they were here?”
He started rearranging glasses. “Maybe Thursday?”
“Oh.” The day before she had arrived. “And are they…together?”
He paused again. “I don’t think he’s into it. She’s doing all the work.”
Tess plied herself with rational thoughts. They’d only been on a few dates. It’s not like they had agreed to be exclusive yet. But the facts didn’t line up with her feelings.
“Thanks Brian. I hope you don’t feel like you sold out your friend.”
“Not at all, actually. After what you’ve been through, he’s lucky you still care.”
“Can I ask you one last favor? If you see Neal, or this woman, or those two Russian dudes, will you text me?” She scribbled her number on a napkin and handed it to him.
“Sure. No problem.”
“And…don’t tell him.”
“Tell him what?” Brian smiled.
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’.