I suppose that’s just semantics BUT STILL.
Tess moved through her morning routine as best she could, grateful for Kee’s presence. They didn’t bother to check out at the hotel, not knowing what to say at the front desk and figuring it was Neal’s problem anyway. Now, after an aimless cab ride Tess had hardly registered, they were pulling up at departures. She ached for home.
They lugged their bags through the doors and scanned the screen for their flight. Delayed.
“Damn!” Kee muttered. “Listen, I’ve got to go to the loo. Are you okay waiting here with our bags? Won’t be a mo.” Tess nodded. She watched as Kee sprinted off, disappearing behind a bank of check-in terminals.
People-watching at airports had always been a favorite pastime for Tess. Her mental camera caught frame after frame: the mother and daughter in brilliant saris, dragging twice their body weight in duffel bags; the graduates, fresh from their commencement ceremonies, being smothered by teary-eyed moms; the Air France employees, scarves perfectly knotted at their throats, gossiping shamelessly.
But today everything felt out of focus. She cradled her head in her hands, rubbing her eyes and temples in an attempt to reset her mind.
Wait a second. Why had the Etro twins broken into Neal’s apartment? She was staring intently now, forgetting her poker face, when one of them caught her gaze. She didn’t wait for an introduction. She just walked away, leaving her bags behind.
She didn’t need to look back to know she was being followed. Like a cat, she sought refuge above, climbing every set of escalators she came across. Taking the final flight two steps at a time, she ducked inside the closing doors of a tram and watched as one of the twins faltered on the other side of the glass.
The relief was temporary. Now they knew exactly where she was going.
The challenge here is that I want the chase to be eventful but believable. Dear God if you have a better idea of how to get her out of the airport (but not out of trouble!), please share it:
The elevator doors slid closed.
Fucking hell, Neal thought to himself, relief swiftly ceding to regret. He was thankful for the security camera, as it saved him from attempting to explain. Or worse, wrapping his arms around her.
How in God’s name had Tess found this place? Had someone tipped her off? It was impressive, really. Her tenacity was one of the things he loved about her. Love. The impossible word. At least now she would give up on him.
The doors opened. One last show for the cameras and he could get her out of here. He dragged her brusquely to his car, hoping she would hear the caring in his voice, “How did you get here?”
“My friend, she…” she trailed off. Shock was setting in. He picked up the pace.
He admonished himself for having been so careless with her, selfish. Sensing his approach, the gull wing doors slid open. He placed her gently in the passenger seat. Kneeling, he tucked her hair behind her ear and stared, just for a millisecond, into her blue-green eyes. She returned his gaze. He straightened. Enough, he told himself. Get in the car.
“Is your friend still here?” he asked, trying to reinforce his words with steel. They felt like sand.
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Call her please, and tell her to follow us.” He flipped the sensors and initiated the agency frequency.
Tess didn’t respond. He looked over at her. She was already far away.
He touched her arm. “Can I have your phone?”
She handed it over without looking at him. “Kee,” she said.
He didn’t bother to introduce himself. “It’s not safe here. Follow me up the hill.” The woman tried to interject, her words frantic. This must be her English friend. Not the introduction he’d hoped for. He hung up.
The car nearly drove itself along the windy path to the tower. Having a fully surveilled national monument a few blocks away had proved useful more than once on this assignment. Neal swung the gull into a center spot, overlooking the inky depths of the Bay. The parking lot was empty; it was past the hour for young lovers.
He took her hand, willing her to hear his thoughts. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. She didn’t pull away. They stayed like that, still and silent, until a Rent-a-Cop car careened into the spot beside them. A woman he assumed was Kee came out with guns blazing. “What in fucking hell have you done to her, you asshole!”
Neal carefully lifted Tess out of the car and handed her over. “Please get her home safely. As soon as possible. And make sure she never contacts me again.”
“You can be bloody well sure about that!” Kee spat.
Neal climbed back into his car and forced himself to put it in gear. He made the slow crawl back down the hill without looking back.
(Official Acknowledgments to follow next week.)
Why this works: Tess has seen the crowd who frequents Neal’s place of business. She doesn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb, but she needs to feel confident in her clothes. This outfit is sexy but still posh – still very much her. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of outfit an LA girl would bring to SF in the summer.
And most importantly, it’s easily removed. Which is paramount, as you’re about to witness.
Thanks to everybody who offered their mad steeze! I love collaborating with you – you open me up to possibilities I couldn’t (and didn’t) fathom on my own. I hope you’ll keep on keepin’ on with me!
And now, on with the plot…and the voting.
The scene before her was a mid-century marvel, taking up the entire footprint of the building, with a winding staircase that led to a second story. At the far end of the room was a wall of glass revealing a wide terrace and the expanse of Bay beyond it.
The drugs she had expected sat atop round mirrors, placed evenly on tables Tess identified as original Noguchi, Saarinen and Wegner. The crowd was mixed. There were buttoned-up businessmen like the assholes in the elevator. There were nervous-looking hipsters – older versions of the guys she might see at her neighborhood bar in Santa Monica. And there were foreign men – some Asian, some European – identifiable by their bizarre footwear and tacky if pricey adornment. Each group kept to itself. And each group was surrounded by willowy, mostly undressed Victoria’s Secret look-a-likes. Some were swaying to the music, others sitting on laps. Still others were cutting lines for their suitors.
“I think you’re the hottest piece in this room,” said her elevator companion, his Jaegermeister breath far too close to her ear.
“Can I help you, Friends?” offered the redhead in a thick Russian accent. It was the first time Tess had seen her up close. Creamy, almost translucent skin covering pillowy cheekbones. Pale blue eyes, sharp and piercing like a wolf, surrounded by meticulously applied eyeliner. Her lips, overdrawn to give her mouth more prominence, were glossy and plump. And all of it topped with that shocking pile of ripe Bing Cherry hair. She was beautiful and terrifying.
“You three are here together, looking for a second date? We don’t normally allow ladies from another establishment,” she said in what might as well have been Russian for all Tess could comprehend. She was about to piece together some sort of question or clarification when Neal appeared out of nowhere. Pulling Tess roughshod out of the banker’s grip, he said “I believe these two have made a mistake. This is the new girl from Mazilu. I’ll take care of her.” With that, he dragged Tess upstairs.
“What in God’s name are you doing here?” he demanded, his words barely audible and hot with anger. “Don’t answer. Don’t say a damn word. There are cameras everywhere. You do not know me. Do you understand?”
Tess was too confused to do anything but follow. As they reached the second floor landing, a man stumbled out of one of the bedrooms, nearly plowing into her. Tess scanned the room as they rushed past. The blonde girl from the night before was sitting at the edge of the bed, arms folded across her bare chest. Seeing her at close range, it was clear the girl couldn’t be older than 15.
Understanding hit her then, flash-freezing her veins. Neal wasn’t a drug dealer. Her worse-case scenario hadn’t even come close.
Neal flung her onto the enormous silk-strewn bed at the end of the hall and shut the door. He turned to face her, his back to the camera situated above the door. “Listen very carefully to what I’m about to tell you,” he said so quietly that she had to strain to hear him. “If you don’t do as I say, we could both end up dead.”
A tsunami rolled across her body, releasing a torrent of hot tears, blurring her vision.
“Do not speak. Do not ask questions. It will not be pleasant. But it’s the only option we have.” At this he grabbed the neck of her sweater and ripped it off her shoulder. She flinched and tried to shriek.
“You do not speak English. Oksenya thinks you are a newly minted prostitute just arrived from Ukraine.”
“They will expect me to have sex with you as part of your breaking in.” He had her sweater half over her head now, slipping his hand under her bra, exposing a breast. Tess howled in protest and tried to wriggle from his grasp.
“Good. Fight me. As hard as you can.” He pushed her onto her back and pried open the waistband of her shorts. Self-preservation and years of cardio kick-boxing sprung to the surface. She swung her leg up and out, knee bent, and smacked him in the jaw with the profile of her stiletto. It was enough to send him back a step. “Harder next time,” he breathed quickly, then lunged at her again, using the cuff of her shorts to pull her to the edge of the bed. She kneed him in the balls at half force, caught between the terror of her circumstances and an automatic reluctance to cause pain. He groaned but stayed put, heaving himself on top of her. Her fight response took complete control then. She scratched at his neck, aiming for his eye. Sighing in a way that could pass for desire, he pinned her arms above her head with one hand and used the other to unbutton his pants. She screamed at the top of her lungs. In her ear, he whispered, “I’m so sorry Tess.”
“Too fucking late for that,” she whispered back, and spat in his face.
He yelled something at her then in Russian. With all four of their arms above their heads, she freed one knee and this time clocked him as hard as she possibly could between the legs. With another, heavier groan, he slid off the bed and onto the shag carpeting. She popped up and tried to run for the door, but he grabbed her ankle and wrestled her to the floor. He slapped her hard across the left cheek, sending her reeling. Through the haze, she could see his face was pained. “Good girl,” he whispered. “I’m going to get you out of here now.” He yanked her to her feet and dragged her down the stairs.
The room was a blur. They sailed toward the front door in broad strokes, not bothering to stop even for Oksenya. Neal simply said in passing “This one’s not broken yet. I’m taking her back to the dungeon.”
He shoved her into the elevator and stepped in after her. As they turned around, Tess recognized Vic’s date from the night before standing in the middle of the apartment. He was staring right at her. The door slid closed.
This is the Nancy Reagan red I was talking about. And by the by, that baby running away from old Nance is Paris Hilton. What a delightful harbinger of the future!
If only Paris had Just Said No. Imagine how different the world might be.
Speaking of which, I think we can safely Just Say No to this outfit.
Reader Lisa Kitto sent over some awesome looks via FB that I’ve just posted to the Unreliable Pinterest Board. Check ‘em out!
Remember, the winning stylist earns an Official Unreliable Acknowledgment!
But is it overkill for this sort of confrontation?
Minus the badge, of course. Nobody likes a narc in a drug den.
I rather appreciate the simplicity of this one. You?
If she decides to try to blend in with the crowd, perhaps she could ask herself WWJWOWWW*?
Or even just pick up something from her clothing line…
What do you think?
I am 100% certain you can come up with a better option.
*What Would JWOWW Wear
Back at the hotel, Tess explained the whole story to Kee and Rob, this time without leaving out any of the details: how Vic had reacted so strangely that day at the book store, almost like a jealous rival; how the bartender at Romolo had told her about her real rival, the woman with the red hair; how Tess had seen the bright red head on Broadway that night and decided to follow her. The parade of random men and skanky women coming in and out of the building. Neal’s arrival. But she kept the blonde girl to herself. To keep her a secret was as close as she could get to protecting her.
“So…what do you think is going on?” Kee asked, hesitant in the way friends can be when they are worried your lapse in judgment will continue even in the face of indisputable evidence.
“I think he’s a drug dealer. And the redhead is his business partner.”
Kee exhaled but abstained from comment, clearly relieved to see Tess thinking the worst for once.
“That’s some heavy shit,” Rob observed.
Tess reviewed the facts as she saw them. “It’s the only thing that makes sense. He’s in ‘import/export’ but he’s shady on the details. He just got back from Thailand. He’s got a flashy car, and a flashy apartment, and flashy clothes, and he’s surrounded by all this … sketchiness. ”
“Whatever he is, can we finally agree that he’s not worth your time and go home?”
Now Tess was the one who hesitated. “Not yet.”
Kee groaned and tipped back the bottle of champagne they’d ordered from room service. Tess’s check-out date had come and gone, and yet no one downstairs had said a word. Since Neal was footing the bill, Kee considered it her duty to rack it up as thoroughly as possible.
Before Kee could swallow the bubbles, Tess jumped in to make her case. “I know this won’t make sense to you, but I need to know if I’m right. Up until two days ago, I thought this guy was The One.” Kee groaned again. “If he really is a drug dealer–”
“I think he’s more of a drug lord,” Rob offered.
“Fine, drug lord. If he really is a drug lord, then my judgment is seriously fucked. I need to know if I’m right. For myself. For closure.”
“So you’ll just call him up and inquire about the current market rate of an eight ball?” Kee chided.
“I’m going to go see him,” Tess said quietly.
“Oh my god dude, no you’re not! Are you insane?”
“I’ll be fine. Neal may not want to date me, but he won’t let anything happen to me. I’m sure of it.”
Kee didn’t say a word, but the concern in her eyes was argument enough.
“I know. But you know me better than anybody. I have to see this for myself.”
It might sound trivial to some of you (i.e. dudes) but ladies, put yourself in Tess’s position for a moment. You suspect that the guy you’re waaaay into is a motherfucking druuuuug dealer. You are going to show up to his place of business – uninvited and unannounced – in hopes of having your suspicions confirmed. Or in the better case scenario, diffused.
What in God’s name do you wear on such an occasion?
Do you consider it an undercover operation and dress like the clientele?
Do you wear your favorite outfit to steel your confidence?
Do you head straight for Neiman Marcus?
Do you get your hands on a Hillary Clinton pantsuit?
Or better yet, do you go all red Bill Blass Nancy Reagan ‘Just Say No’ on his ass?
Post your outfit ideas to Facebook. Or Twitter (@unreliabletwit). Or just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The winning outfit will be written into the book and posted to the Unreliable Novelist Pinterest board. And of course, the winning stylist will be showered with gratitude on the Acknowledgments page along with a donation made in his/her name to 826 National.
I’m sure you’re as sick of the stakeout as I am at this point. Let’s hit the fast-forward button! I need another week before I can get us to a new spot in the plot (ah the perils of writing beginning-to-end).
In the meantime, a little suspense…
Tess has finally spotted Neal outside 15 Romolo – along with someone she didn’t expect. She’s sending Kee in for the recon.
Tess’s project manager mode was in full effect. “There are two people I want you to keep an eye on in there. The first is obviously Neal. You’ll recognize him from the picture. He’s with two enormous dudes wearing awful Etro shirts. You won’t miss them.”
“Right. Who’s the second one?”
“A small, bitch-eyed woman with a sleek dark bob, red lipstick and a tattoo of birds flying across her shoulder. Strapless black dress. She looks sort of like Jennifer Aniston if she was a Marilyn Manson fan.”
“And what am I supposed to be watching for?” Tess was suprised to see Kee taking not just mental, but actual, notes.
“Sit as close to Neal as you can. Eavesdrop like hell. I want to know who he’s talking to, about what and where he’s going. As for Vic - that’s Goth Aniston - I want to know if she’s spending any time with Neal. And if she’s not, then what is she doing? Is she watching him? Or is she just on a regular old date and I’ve turned into a paranoid lunatic?”
“I have some of my own answers to those questions, but I will let the evidence speak for me.”
“Very funny. Now get down there.”
Tess punched the seek button for the hundredth time. Nothing but auto-tuned songs she’d never heard before and threadbare hits she never needed to hear again. She felt sorry for anyone who had to listen to this crap. Between Kee’s label releases and Sirius in her car, the soundtrack of her life was preprogrammed.
A welcome riff popped up somewhere near the middle of the dial. In an instant she was lying on the floor in her teenage bedroom, a beached starfish letting the weight of Beck’s maudlin lyrics press down on her. It was May, and she was certain she was the Lost Cause. Barbara’s knock was barely audible over the speakers. Tess registered the swish of air as her mother opened the door and quietly starfished herself beside her.
“It’s going to be okay, you know. Your father and I didn’t go to Ivy Leagues, and it hasn’t made us any less successful.”
“I just worked so hard. For nothing.”
“Oh but it wasn’t for nothing, Honey. What do we always say? Hard work…”
“…is its own reward. But it isn’t! It didn’t work! And now my plans are ruined.”
“Oh Tess, Sweetie. Plans can’t protect you from disappointment. In fact, most of the time they’ll guarantee it.”
“So what am I supposed to do then? Not plan? Fine. I’ll just be like, whatever, all the time forever.” Even she could hear how teenage she sounded.
Her mother’s eyes were soft. “There’s a happy medium. Making plans is important. But you have to be ready to adapt when things don’t go your way.”
“So like, have a Plan B?”
Barbara smiled at her daughter, tucking a defiant blonde lock behind her ear. “Something like that.”
The memory resurfaced again and again. Was it was because she had learned something important, or because her mother, for once, had been motherly? Where Tess made plans, her mother clung to beliefs. Barbara’s endless theory and rhetoric created an intellectual forcefield between them, one she used to deflect reality when it didn’t suit her.
She would shit if she could see Tess now. Barbara had never approved of Plan A (meet guy, fall in love, get married, live happily ever after), and a Plan B that included the additional steps of spying and what? begging? did not constitute persuasive selling points.
Tess had told herself that she just wanted to see Neal in the flesh, to know for sure that he was okay. But now reality presented itself like the giant sinkhole it was. What would she say to him? “Hi! I was just staking out your favorite bar, incognito, so we could talk about our relationship”? Or “Hey, um, that was sorta lame how you text dumped me”? Or wait! How about “That break-in at your apartment inspired a new career in home security”?
If she had climbed into a time machine and gone back even three days to alert Recent Past Tess that her Near Future self was about to beg a man for a second chance, there was no way RPT would have believed it.
Ah, Tone. You sticky widget you. I started this novel with ‘lighthearted romp’ in mind, but many of the ideas and situations (esp those forthcoming) have turned out more substantive than originally planned. Basically, even a lighthearted romp, when written by me, is going to contain some heavy thinking. Since I trust your opinion, tell me please:
Tess has been text-dumped by Neal under mysterious circumstances.
She refuses to accept this ending, recruits Kee to fly up to SF for a stakeout.
They are wearing borrowed uniforms and driving home security patrol cars.
Kee is stationed outside Neal’s apartment in SOMA.
Meanwhile, Tess is outside 15 Romolo, Neal’s local watering hole.
Unsure what else should go down during a stakeout, I proposed some options.
“One of them is approached with an unrelated security emergency and chooses to rise to the occasion.”
Et (three weeks later) Voilá!
Kee’s voice punctured the silence. “Dude, requesting backup! Emergency!”
“What?! Is there a sighting?”
“No time to explain! Just get your arse over here!”
“Housekeeping, tell me what’s going on! Housekeeping?” Tess could hear the rapid fire of Kee’s impractical footwear on concrete.
“Don’t worry, Darling! I’ll get him!” Kee responded.
The same mishmash of emotions Tess had been chewing all morning caught in her throat. They’d found Neal! Now what? But then Kee’s tone gave her a double take. Flirtation seemed to ooze out of every syllable.
“Get who? Kee? Kee! You’re supposed to stay in the car!”
No response. The heels continued their clattering pursuit.
Tess glanced at the door, considering her options. It didn’t surprise her that Kee had ignored protocol – to invite her anywhere was to invite a certain amount of chaos. But this was the first time she’d been handed the attire and weaponry to do official damage. And if it was Neal she was chasing, Tess sure as hell wanted to be there for the capture. She turned over the ignition and sped toward her friend.
Meanwhile, the running had stopped short. “Hold it, Turkey!” Kee announced, triumph in her voice.
“Kee! What the fuck is going on?” Again, no response. Was the button on her walkie-talkie stuck? Tess tried to imagine, while launching her Ford Focus over the crest of a very steep hill, exactly what kind of scenario could merit such Charlie’s Angels conviction.
Kee was panting fairly heavily now and mumbling to herself. “You’ve messed with the wrong cop, Bub!”
“You are not a cop!” Tess yelled back, crisscrossing lanes through an intersection. Oh god, just don’t pull out the stun gun, she pleaded telepathically.
A high-pitched “EEEEEEEEE!” was followed by the thud of body weight hitting pavement. Grunts and rustling. Then the same reedy voice screaming “Get orffa me, Lady!” If that was the Turkey, it definitely wasn’t Neal. Tess breathed a sigh of relief. Who was it then? Man? Woman? Clown? Muppet? In the good news category, Kee seemed to have the upper hand.
“Give…me…the…PANTS!” heaved a very out-of-breath Kee. The closer Tess got to the scene, the farther away she was from understanding the crime. Pants theft would be bizarre enough. But when Kee said pants, she meant British pants. As in underwear.
“They’re mine!” he shrieked. It was definitely a man, Tess decided, and he was definitely drunk.
“They are not! I saw you nick them!” accused Kee as Tess crossed Market Street.
“I was doing my laundry!” he replied, marbles in his mouth.
“Liar! I’ve been watching that laundromat for six hours and you only just appeared!”
Tess zoomed around a corner, narrowly avoiding a MUNI bus.
“Why have you been watching the laundromat for six hours?” came a deeper voice, this one clearly male, sober and confused. And also not Neal.
“Oh! Well, I was handling some official, erm, police business…” Kee’s syrupy flirtation had reappeared, but this time it flowed more like molasses. Another thud landed very near the speaker, then more rustling. “Hey! Get back here!”
Now several sets of feet were off and running. “I got you once…” Kee declared. “I’ll get you…
A single pair of non-stilettoed feet sped off. Then silence.
“Kee!” Tess yelled in vain.
The signal cut out for a terrifying three seconds. Then Kee spoke to her. “Barmaid, I hope you’re on your way, because I can’t carry this body by myself.”
Tess turned the corner just in time to see what she meant. Kee was standing over a disheveled-looking bearded man lying flat on his back on the sidewalk, stun gun in her hand.
Tess screeched to a halt and ran around the car. What she had assumed at first glance to be a homeless dude was in fact a blue-eyed, flannel-clad hipster. And there wasn’t a pair of underpants in sight.
“This is the Turkey?”
“No, it’s Rob. How do you know about the Turkey?”
“Your walkie-talkie transmitted the ahem, altercation, in its entirety.”
“Oh,” she said, staring at the device. “Well in that case, the Turkey got away. We were in pursuit, and I nearly nabbed him! But then I, erm, accidentally zapped the victim instead.”
Ten minutes later, “Rob” was slumped against the backseat of Tess’s patrol car, parked behind its twin in the alley across from Neal’s apartment – and opposite the laundromat where Kee had witnessed the theft of “Rob’s” “pants” from a dryer. She hadn’t actually met him, but after watching him expertly separate whites from colors, lovingly fold his boxer briefs and stare come-hitheringly at his laptop between cycles, she had decided not only that his name was Rob, but that he would be her next conquest.
“Well then maybe you stunned the right guy after all,” Tess suggested through a mouthful of gummy bears.
“Oh yes you’re a right laugh, aren’t you,” Kee mumbled while Googling the average recovery time from a 5.8 million volt stun gun.
While fun to write, this scene’s a bit too Lucy and Ethel for me. What do you think?
“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’.
Tess scurried into the bedroom and hit the floor. Cheek to carpet, iPhone clutched against the other ear, she scanned furiously for the piece of paper that would make everything okay.
Nothing. She imagined how pathetic she must look at that moment, a giant, flailing filet of sole.
“No note.” She sighed. “I’m an idiot.”
“Get dressed. Break something expensive. And get back to your hotel. Call me when you get there, and we’ll make a plan to get you home.”
“Okay okay. I’ll call you later.”
“Good.” Kee hung up.
She didn’t bother to move the phone from her ear. She couldn’t seem to move at all, in fact. She was pinned down by self-pity.
And then she saw it. Just past the far end of the bed, near the pile of clothes they had been so eager to separate themselves from the night before. His wallet.
Tess pulled herself to her feet, circled the bed and dropped cross-legged in front of it. She half expected an alarm to sound when she picked it up.
Russian driver’s license. Slightly different hair cut, but otherwise a good likeness. Amex Black card. Didn’t realize he was rolling like that. San Francisco Public Library card. Cute. About, wow, a thousand dollars in $100 bills. And a business card, but not the one he had given her. This was in Russian, with a different phone number. She slipped it into her shirt pocket.
Just then, Tess heard what sounded like a window being pushed open in the living room.
Wait, why would Neal come through the fire escape of his own apartment?
All her instincts fired at once. She grabbed the pile of clothes in front of her and flung herself under the bed.
Two pairs of nondescript black leather shoes stepped into the bedroom. One pair walked to the dresser and started rifling through drawers.
Tess didn’t so much as breathe.
The other man walked out as quickly as he had entered. An eternity (or a minute?) later, he yelled something she couldn’t understand from the other room.
His cohort carefully closed the drawers and slipped out.
Click Click Click their heels across the concrete floor of the living room.
The window opening, and then a few moments later, the sound of it sliding back in place.
Her phone rang. A new wave of panic seized. What if they were still in earshot? Move, Tess! She scrambled to her feet, threw on her jeans and heels, grabbed her bag, and ran out the door.
It wasn’t until she was halfway down the block that she realized she could have been followed. She looked behind her. The street was deserted. She strode into a restaurant around the corner, slipped into a booth in the back and called Kee.
“You’re not going to believe…”
“He slayed a dragon? Bought you a matching Benz? Revealed his power of invisibility?”
“Shut UP and listen! Two men just broke into his apartment. They were looking for something.”
“WOT? Where were you?”
“Hiding under the bed.”
“What the fuck! Are you okay?”
“I think he might be in trouble.”
“Damn right he’s in trouble. I’m going to kill him.”
“No Kee, I mean it. He wouldn’t have left me like that. Not after last night. Something is wrong.”