by Jessie Chandler
Placed on a medical leave of absence from her job as a special agent in the National Protection and Investigation Unit, Mikala Flynn is a woman on the edge—guilt-ridden, depressed, battling war wounds and personal demons. The world and the relationships as she knew them no longer exist. Now, the streets of New York, the bottle, and anonymous sex have become her solace.
In the midst of a fire escape bender, Flynn overhears her crazy-like-a-fox grandmother and her art-world cronies planning a daring theft of a valuable historical document. Eventually Flynn crashes the party and agrees to take on the heist herself. Along the way, Flynn runs into, both literally and figuratively, her estranged best friend, an alluring, mysterious thief who throws multiple wrenches into the works, and the ex-love of her life.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Art heists and “what if” capers from both years ago and today fascinate the hell out of me. From the movies Oceans 11 to The Monuments Men to the historical subplots Clive Cussler connects to the present in almost every novel he’s written, I’m hooked. For maybe the last seven or eight years I’ve played with the idea of writing about an art thief. Someone who steals items that were initially stolen from another and returns them to the rightful owner. Sounded simple enough to me until it wasn’t. I also have a deep interest in the Holocaust and those affected by In Quest for Redemption, I focused specifically on the Roma people, also known as Travelers (or by the pejorative term gypsies) and how they were targeted by Hitler’s killing machine. A lot of research boiled down to not a lot of material that ended up in the book, but out of the ashes came Flynn, Quest’s protagonist, along with her grandmother, Tubs. As an infant, Tubs was smuggled out of a Polish ghetto just before its occupants were moved to Chelmno, a Nazi extermination camp.
Poor Flynn’s got a backstory she doesn’t know the half of. The craziness ranges from who and what Tubs really is, to Flynn’s deceased mother and the possibility her death might not have been an accident, to the reason for her dad’s murder. Then throw in a stolen family heirloom, the conundrum of Kate, Flynn’s maybe-not-so-lost love, a little alcoholism, a lot of guilt, and a paraplegic best friend. Things become real messy real fast. It’ll be a ton of fun sorting this stuff out as the series continues.
I love to read quirky, crazy characters, and I love art and making it (creating mixed media abstracts makes my heart sing) so I mashed it up. We have character chaos in the Art Squad, a group of elders made up of Tubs and six of her art world cronies, all ranging in age from mid-fifties to mid-seventies. Each member has a particular skill: there’s an stuttering artwork conservationist, a Japanese police sketch artist, a walrus-mustachioed art gallery director, a very dramatic special effects makeup artist, a kind and feisty art historian, a very knowledgeable estate appraiser, and an exhibition coordinator/Holocaust expert. I figured these skill sets would come in handy for any art thief.
Then I needed a locale for this tale. Where better to circulate within the art world than New York? My wife Betty is from Newark. We’ve spent some time in Manhattan, so I figured that would be a fun place to set the story. Key West, Florida also plays a part in that Flynn lived there from toddler to teen. Key West is a nod to my beloved aunt and the cherished time we spent through the years at Key West by the Sea.
Quest has been stubborn and soul-searching and difficult and eye-opening to write. When I didn’t think there was coherence, I was shown there was. When I didn’t think I could finish it, I got the kick in the a** I needed. Now my hope is that readers will hop on Flynn’s roller coaster and take the ride."—Jessie Chandler
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“Mikala Ana Flynn, get your caboose in gear. It’s almost five thirty.”
“Coming, Tubs.” I pasted a reluctant smile on my face even though she couldn’t see me through the wall dividing the living room from my bedroom in her apartment.
My grandmother—Tubs to me, Tubby to family, Leah to friends, and Leahlabel Flynn to the rest of the world—was a clock hawk. We were due in an hour to the 2001 Goldsmith Foundation dinner at the Museum of Jewish Heritage near Battery Park. Even if we were Johnny-on-the-spot we were late in her book.
Probably where my father had gotten his sense of punctuality.
Ah, crap. Why did my mind have to go there now? The thought of him dropped me right back into a boatload of morose memories, exactly the state my grandmother was trying to shake me out of. I knew she meant well. And I knew she struggled too. Today was the one-year anniversary of my father’s death. Her son’s death. Death? No. It wasn’t just a death. Call it what it was. Murder, plain and simple. Cold-blooded homicide. And, as yet, unsolved.
Three hundred and sixty-five days ago my fourteen-year-old self walked into the house my father and I had shared in Key West, Florida—the same place we’d lived since I was six.
It looked like a World Wrestling Federation cage match had rolled through the joint. Broken glass. Trashed furniture. And blood. So much blood.
I admit I freaked the hell out when I found my strong, tall, capable father—an Army officer—sprawled on the kitchen floor, bleeding from a gash in his neck. He’d been a West Point grad, then an airman. After that he transferred into Special Forces.
Special Forces, dammit! He trained people to kick ass. How could anyone have gotten the better of him?
Terror had chased itself from the back of my neck down my spine, made my legs weak. Even now, a year later, when I thought too hard about it, that exact feeling shot like liquid lightning through my body, leaving me shaking and spacy.
I’d pulled myself together and called for help, then attempted to stop the unstoppable with a dish towel. I begged my dad to hold on, pleaded with him over and over and over again, until emergency responders dragged me away.
Military police came to the conclusion it’d been a burglary gone bad. The place had been tossed, but only one item had been taken. My secure world was blitzed—demolished. I was confused and pissed. I hurt so much I couldn’t think straight.
My grandmother—my dad’s mom—came to Florida from New York and helped sort everything out. She brought me back home to Brooklyn—to the house in which I’d spent my “formative years” as my dad used to say—from the time I was eighteen months until I turned six. But that history’s another story.
Three hundred sixty-five days is an eon. Yet it’s the blink of an eye. What a paradox. Boy, would my English Lit teacher appreciate that word.
I sighed, rolled off my bed, and tucked a white button-down shirt into a pair of jeans. Under the shirt I wore a white tank top so as soon as this fiasco was over I could lose a layer. Thanks to years in the tropics in not much more than shorts and a T-shirt, I hated constricting clothes. Summers in New York City were almost always hot, but the daylong drizzle that had been falling from battleship gray skies upped the humidity and reminded me of what I’d lost in the Conch Republic.
I trudged into the living room.
Tubs waited by the front door, arms crossed.
She looked me over. “You’re damn lucky this isn’t a black tie affair. Jeans? Honestly. Kids these days. At least your shirt is clean.”
At five-eight and still growing, I could now look her in the eye. With a one-sided smile that took some effort, I said, “And I buttoned my shirt. Besides, it’s not like you’re all dressed up.”
She wore faded black Dockers, a blue blouse with a bunch of flowers on it, and what folks down south might call shit kickers. A pair of reading glasses rested like a permanent growth on top of her head, ready to be whipped off and put to use at a moment’s notice. She devoured three newspapers every morning and read like a bookworm on steroids.
“Is this a Western-themed thing?” I asked.
“No. Figured if the rain came again I could stomp through the puddles with you.”
I laughed. Tubs possessed a great sense of humor, and her mind was always busy calculating this or that. Romani ancestry had bestowed upon her dark skin, deep-chocolate eyes, and salt-and-pepper hair that she always wore in a braided ponytail.
While I’d inherited Tubs’ russet color and bone structure, the added olive tinge beneath my skin came from my Italian mother. Thanks to the two of them, I didn’t burn—a good thing when I’d lived in Florida. The nod my genetics gave to my dad’s half-Irish heritage were his green eyes and a mess of dark-brown hair that glinted red in the sun.
When I looked back, I realized how amazing Tubs was. A child of the Holocaust, she was lucky to have made it out alive. A survivor in so many ways. Before I was born, my granddad was killed in a construction accident while helping to build the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. Tubs had rallied and worked multiple jobs to take care of her only kid. She managed to put herself through college and then grad school. She was nothing if not stubborn, a trait I’d been told numerous times we shared in spades.
All that crazy perseverance of hers led to an appointment to the President’s Commission on the Holocaust back in the 1970s. The commission came to the conclusion that it was high time the US did something to honor victims of the Third Reich. Eventually the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, was built, and when I was a little kid, we visited every year.
After that, she helped get the ball rolling on Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. She still worked there as one of the exhibition coordinators, and that’s where we were headed today.
“Come on then.” She grabbed my arm and manhandled me out the door. “Time’s a-wasting.”
* * *
We exited the subway at Bowling Green. Battery Park was soggy and quiet as we scurried through the rain toward the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The building was ablaze with amber light, sharp edges softened by mist that hung heavy in the air. Clouds pressed low, bringing twilight early, and threatened to dump even more rain on our parade.
I smelled the damp in the air, mixed with scents uniquely New York—an unsettling combo of bus exhaust, food aromas wafting through open café doors, and garbage rotting in the gutter—a world away from the sun and salt water of Key West. Once in a while I had to remind myself that this was my new reality.
“Thank you,” Tubs called to a man who held one of the museum’s huge glass doors open for us.
We scooted into the lobby, better known as the Grand Foyer. This was where Tubs would mingle and I would be bored as hell until we were dispatched up to the Events Hall for dinner. Then I would have to listen to gossip about the Goldsmiths, their foundation, and whatever fancy-schmancy award was being given out.
While she wasn’t Jewish, Tubs’ family name was Lautari. She was Romani—Gypsy, for the ignorant—and her family had made the mistake of settling in Poland near Lodz, about seventy-five miles from Warsaw.
The family was rounded up by Hitler’s war machine, and Tubs had been born in the Lodz ghetto. She was the only one in her family of six to make it out alive. Her father bought off a couple of guards and somehow managed to smuggle Tubs out just before mass deportations to the Chelmno concentration camp began.
Whenever I thought about that, I felt physically sick at how close Tubs came to death and how lucky I was to be able to escort her to these pain-in-my-ass events. My father sure would have gotten a kick out of the fact that his impatient, moody, restless, and sometimes reckless kid would do something so civilized. That thought brought me full circle and I sighed.
Tubs tightened her hand on my arm. “Mikala, would you please find me a beverage?”
“Sure,” I said. “What do you want?”
A woman I recognized from another city museum said, “They’re wandering around with those cute little pink drinks with Hawaiian umbrellas.”
“Music to my ears,” Tubs said. “Mikala, will you please find me a glass of that pink concoction?” She patted my arm, and I put my hand over hers. We’d been through a lot together, and there wasn’t much I wouldn’t do for her, no matter my mood.
I meandered through the sea of overdressed humanity, and the roar of voices grew louder as more people arrived. This was so not my style. It wasn’t Tubs’ style either, but she got a kick out of taking highbrow society down a couple of notches by simply being in attendance.
She always told me never to underestimate the power of place and presentation, and she was right. Thanks to her association with the museum, someone she knew had pulled strings that allowed me to take the entrance exam to Stuyvesant High School late last summer after we’d gotten back from settling my dad’s affairs in Florida. I’d scored okay and the school accepted me. Later I found out how hard the place was to get into. I didn’t understand what the big deal was, but my acceptance made Tubs happy, and that mattered.
Tuxedoed waiters dodged through the crowd with trays of appetizers and flutes filled with champagne. I didn’t see anyone carting around little pink drinks, though.
My stomach rumbled. I snagged a couple apps from a passing attendant and popped one in my mouth. The bite-sized turnover tasted good. I eyed the other, a tiny triangle of bread with a white smear of cream cheese topped by some gelatinous mess that looked like black beads.
I popped it in my mouth, chewed, then swallowed in a hurry. Fish guts on the dock was the first thing that popped into my mind.
I grabbed a glass of bubbly off a waiter’s tray and downed it before he could stop me.
Halfway across the space, I zeroed in on a tray of pink drinks with multicolored paper umbrellas. Bingo. Now I needed to get from here to there before the server’s tray was emptied. I zigzagged around people, weaved through groups of Goldsmith Foundation donors and groups of groupies who liked to hang around groups of Goldsmith Foundation donors.
I was so homed in on the prize that I didn’t see a blond girl in a black dress step backward.
It was too late for me to sidestep and I plowed right into her. She was shorter than me, but solid, which was a good thing or our impact would’ve sent her flying right out of her black high heels.
“I’m so sorry!” I grabbed her arms to steady her. The pink beverages and their umbrellas disappear from view.
“Shit,” I muttered under my breath and refocused on my near-victim. It took a second to realize that I knew this person in the fancy dress. Embarrassment bubbled up from the bottom of my stomach. My cheeks flamed and my ears burned. I’d nearly flattened the daughter of the head of the Goldsmith Foundation. “Kate! Oh, my god. I’m so sorry.”
The corner of her mouth lifted and two dimples creased her cheek.
My stomach did a weird flip-flop, a cross between horror and something else. Kate Goldsmith went to Stuyvesant, too, and was what I wasn’t: one of the popular girls who came from wealthy families. When I first arrived at Stuy, depressed and aching for my dad, I somehow wound up on the radar of an asshat senior and his asshat friends who didn’t like their school tainted by a lowlife military brat. For weeks I tried to be cool about it, put up with being shoved into lockers, having my books knocked out of my hands, ice cold stares, and biting, belittling comments.
Until the day I completely lost it.
I was already pissed at myself for screwing up a midterm in geometry when one of the dickheads hip checked me into a drinking fountain. Thirty seconds later my antagonizer lay sprawled on the brown-and-black-flecked hallway floor, blood oozing from a fat lip and one eye rapidly swelling shut. Kids cheered or jeered, depending on whose side they were on.
Not a good idea to mess with the daughter of a Special Forces soldier. My dad made sure I knew how to fight and how to defend myself when I was a tyke. The moves he taught me worked pretty damn good.
I’d been suspended for a couple days, he transferred somewhere else. However, the endless ridicule had already done its damage. Hateful words had seeped into my blood. I wasn’t one of “them.” My family didn’t jet to Cabo for vacation or run up to Martha’s Vineyard for the weekend. I was only in Stuy because someone took pity on me and my sad situation.
Winter semester trudged into spring. Kate and I wound up in the same Intro to Bio class. She’d sat a desk ahead of me but had a different lab partner, and we hadn’t shared more than a periodic hello and goodbye. Though she wasn’t overly snooty considering her upbringing, she ran with one of the many crowds I steered clear from.
It was all very black and white. She was born into money and I worked for mine. That drew a pretty clear delineation in our social strata.
And now, here she was, peering at me with a sideways look, half-grin still in place. “Mikala, right? From Bio. You ought to slow down. I think the speed limit is thirty in here.”
I laughed. I was so out of my element. Why hadn’t I stayed home in the solitude of my bedroom, safe with my books and Walkman, where it didn’t matter what embarrassing comments might escape my lips? I said, “Call me Flynn. Otherwise you’ll sound like my grandmother.” I glanced around again. “Speaking of whom, she sent me on a mission for one of those obnoxious pink beverages, and I was hot on the trail when I just about took you out. Gotta run.”
She grabbed my elbow. “The ones with the umbrellas?”
“Come on.” She grabbed my hand, gave it a tug. “Let’s go.”
* * *
Fifteen minutes and much giggling later, we’d chased three different wait staff through the crowded Grand Foyer and caught up with one before she’d run out of cocktails. We each nabbed a Jersey Girl—stupidest drink name ever—and found Tubs. She had drifted away from where I’d left her and was chatting with another couple.
Tubs lit up when I handed her the glasses. “Why, it’s a twofer. Thank you, Mikala.” She looked Kate up and down. “Who’s this pretty lady?”
“Kate Goldsmith, meet my grandmother, Leahlabel Flynn. We go to Stuy together.”
“Call me Tubs,” my grandmother said.
Kate shot me a weird look, then said, “Nice to meet you. Tubs.”
“And you.” Tubs beamed. “It’s nice to see Mikala with a friend. It’s a rare occurrence.”
I loved Tubs, but sometimes I wished she’d keep her mouth shut. My ears got hot again.
Kate said, “You’ve got a sweet, smart granddaughter.”
It was my turn to give her a weird look. An entire semester of casual greetings and in fifteen minutes she thought she knew me well enough to call me sweet and smart? Wow.
“I certainly do.” Tubs said. “Since I can’t check my watch without dumping my beverages, Mikala, can you stop gaping long enough to see the time?”
I closed my mouth and did the deed. “A little after seven.”
“Okay. We’ve still got forty-five minutes before they’ll begin seating. Would you mind running down to my office for the Faustian? If it’s not on my desk it should be on the bookshelf under Petropoulous.”
“Yeah, sure.” Perfect excuse to get the hell out of Dodge and enjoy some peace and quiet for three seconds.
Tubs handed me her key card and dove back into whatever she and her friends had been discussing.
I gave Kate a quick shrug and rueful grin. “Sorry to run, but…”
She took my arm again and steered me away from Tubs and company. “What’s the Faustian?”
“It’s about art the Nazis looted in World War II.”
“I’d love to see it. Can I come with you?”
Come with me? The Kate Goldsmith wanted to go somewhere with me? Was the world about to end?
Kate gave my arm a squeeze. “Has anyone ever told you you’re cute when you frown?”
What was happening? “Sure,” popped out before my brain had a chance to catch up to my mouth. “I mean no.” Jesus Christ, Flynn. “Sure, you can come, and no, no one’s ever told me that.”
“They should’ve. Come on, let’s go.”
I’d learned in the last fifteen minutes that Kate not only had a good sense of humor but that she was bossy. Her dad was the head of a multimillion-dollar foundation. Probably had to be bossy to make that work.
Man, I was so out of my league. What was I doing hitching my wagon to a shooting star? I plowed our way through the foyer. As my mind raced, I realized it was more like Kate hitched her shooting star to my wagon. She clung to my belt, plastered against my back so we didn’t get separated. Five hundred people had to be packed in this foyer. The more the space filled, the hotter it became, and the more I wanted out.
The security door at the rear of the Grand Foyer lead to a warren of business offices. By the time I passed Tubs’ card over the black security box, I was sweating. The box beeped and the red light turned green. I wrenched the door open and we slipped inside. The door shut behind us with a thud and I paused to let the cool air and silence swirl over me.
“Whew.” Kate fanned her flushed face with a hand. “I hate these events. We all know Dad appreciates the support, but I’d sure rather be doing anything else.”
“Who’s we all?”
“My brother Will, my mom, and me.”
“Won’t they wonder where you are?”
She lifted a shoulder. “I don’t care. They won’t notice unless I’m not at the table when they seat everyone for dinner. Wily Will snitched a whole bunch of those Jersey Girls and is probably puking in the bathroom, and my mom is probably still talking to the award coordinators. Too many ‘probablys’ for me. I was trying to escape from the awards people when you ran into me.”
“Uh…” I was such an idiot. “Sorry about that.”
“Are you kidding?” Her ice gray eyes bored into me. They reminded me of the storm clouds outside. “You saved me from a slow, painful death. Now, where’s that book?”
I led the way through a maze of hallways and found my grandmother’s office door open. Sure enough, the book she wanted was on her desk. I grabbed it and turned around.
Kate stood at the floor-to-ceiling bookcase that filled one wall and was running a finger along the shelf, reading titles aloud. “Salt Mines and Castles: The Discovery and Restitution of Looted European Art. Nazi Looted Art. Art Treasures and War. Hitler’s Art Thief: Hildebrand Gurlitt, The Nazis, and the Looting of Europe’s Treasures. Wow. What does your grandmother do?”
I had a general idea but no clue about the particulars. “She researches art provenance and coordinates exhibitions.”
“Provenance?” Kate echoed. She slid the Faustian from my hands and turned it around so she could read the cover. “The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany. I knew the Nazis looted art but didn’t realize an entire library on the subject existed.”
I’d been surrounded by the topic my entire life so it wasn’t as foreign to me as it might be to others. “Provenance is the history of a piece of art. Ownership traced back to its origins.”
“Who knew I’d actually learn something tonight.” Kate looked up from the book. Her eyes were so intense I felt like they scorched a hole right through me.
My stomach flipped again. I blinked in an effort to buffer the connection and occupied myself by retrieving the book from her. “Come on, we better get this to Tubs.”
Kate trailed me out of the office. “Why do you call your grandmother that?”
Boy, she asked a lot of questions. “Don’t know. Always have.”
The rest of the short trip back to the Grand Foyer was taken up deliberating nicknames. Once we exited the offices, Kate took off to find her parents and I hunted Tubs down and delivered the book. Before too long, dinner seating began. Hopefully that meant we were at least half done with this fiasco.
* * *
“Thank you,” I said to the server who’d removed my plate amid the clatter of silverware. The chicken hadn’t been too bad, but the mixed vegetables were mushy. Yuck.
I laid my napkin on the table in front of me and wished I could fast-forward time. Although I had to admit, thinking about the time I’d spent with Kate Goldsmith was a pleasant distraction.
Now, dessert still needed to be delivered, and somewhere along the way the awards ceremony would begin with the inevitable speeches by too many people, most of whom thought they were a lot more entertaining than they were.
I blew out a bored sigh.
Tubs paused in her conversation with an art donor to give my leg a pat.
We were seated toward the back of the second floor Events Hall, and that made me happy because when this was over we could make a quick and easy escape. The time it took for five hundred people to filter out after the presentation ended was no fun. I swirled the almost melted ice in my water goblet and willed the freak show to get on the road.
Someone startled me out of my attempted mental telepathy with a poke in the back. The poker poked again, and I twisted in my seat to see if I was somehow in the way.
“There’s that frown I like,” Kate said with a smirk. She settled her hands on my shoulders.
Smack me dead with a feather. Kate Goldsmith was touching me. My brain exploded again. “Hey,” I managed.
“Come on,” she said, “let’s blow this overblown Popsicle stand for awhile. I know just the place we can go.”
Tubs elbowed me. In addition to all of her other tricks, she had a weird ability to hear two conversations at the same time and keep track of both. “Go on,” she said. “Come back before nine thirty so you can escort me home.”
I grinned. “Okay. Thanks, Tubs.” Before I thought too much about it and balked, I followed Kate out of the hall to a set of fire stairs. We descended and went outside to the Garden of Stones, which was my very favorite place in the entire museum.
The garden was finished last year—a memorial to those who perished in the Holocaust and a place of reverence for those who survived. The garden’s creator, Andy Goldsworthy, was a British dude who specialized in combining sculpture with living stuff.
Eighteen boulders were placed in a rectangular area maybe half the size of a basketball court facing the Hudson River. Dwarf oak saplings were planted in holes that had been drilled out of the rocks. The trees were still little, but as time went on, they’d grow tall and strong. They were supposed to merge with the rock. It was a cool idea, a reflection of how life could survive in the most unlivable of places.
I trailed Kate down a series of steps to the crushed gravel that made up the base of the memorial. The rain had stopped. Concrete benches installed along one side of the garden were still puddled with water. A waist-high plexiglass wall hemmed in the far end.
Kate pulled me through the stones and stopped at the wall. “I love this place.”
“Me too. It’s…peaceful, I guess.”
She shifted to lean a hip against the plexi. “You’re interesting.”
Good interesting or bad interesting? “What did you expect?”
She looked across the black expanse of river. The lights of Liberty State Park and Jersey City, with its jagged landscape of skyscrapers, apartment buildings, and row houses, were softened by fog, kind of like an impressionist painting.
“You’re different than the kids I usually hang out with.”
Probably because I didn’t have dollar signs after my name. “How so?” My fingers curled around the drippy handrail attached to the wall.
“You’re not trying to one-up anyone, and you obviously don’t care how you look.”
She caught my expression. “Wait, that didn’t come out right.” She released a frustrated-sounding breath. “What I meant was, you…you do what you want. You don’t follow the crowd. I respect that.”
Well, jeez. That wasn’t so bad. I figured she’d say the difference between her friends and me was that with me she was living on the edge by hanging out with trash from the other side of the river.
“And,” she said, “You’re kinda…cute.”
What the hell? I ripped my gaze from the blurry reflection of lights on the water to peer at her again. My mouth opened, but I couldn’t make anything come out.
“For a girl. You’re cute for a girl, I mean.”
My heart double-timed. Was she coming on to me? Didn’t I remember her dating one of the jock lacrosse players last year? I wasn’t sure myself about which team I batted for, but I knew kissing a guy did nothing except make me want to hurl. Self-conscious, I tucked behind an ear a few strands of hair that had come loose from my ponytail. “Thanks, I think. You’re not so bad yourself in that skimpy dress.”
The darkness muted the power of her eyes, but I felt their weight anyway. Kate released me from her devastating gaze and mirrored my stance, hands resting on the railing. “I suppose we should go.”
We backtracked in silence through the garden and up to the Events Hall. At the entrance, Kate stopped.
Inside someone droned on in the midst of a speech. She said, “You made this night bearable. Thank you.”
I gave her a roguish grin. “Anything for a damsel in distress. Although I think I was the one in distress trying to get my hands on those Jersey Girls. Thank you.”
I inhaled, thought about asking for her phone or pager number. Just to touch base. Before I could open my mouth, she pressed her finger in the divot in my chin, smiled, and spun around to thread her way between tables to her seat.
Tubs glanced at me as I sat and scooted the chair closer to the table. “Have a good time with your girlfriend?”
My stomach flopped again. “She’s not my girlfriend.”
A delighted smile lit Tubs’ face. “Relax. It’s a turn of phrase. That’s how we referred to friends of the same gender back in the last century.” Differentiating between Tubs’ teasing side and her serious side sometimes took more work than I was prepared to deal with.
I bared my teeth in a faux grin and prayed for the night to come to an end.
“Hey, Flynn!” A familiar but unexpected voice startled the crap out of me. The pizza dough I’d been tossing hit the edge of the counter and dropped to the floor with a heavy thud.
“Bombs away!” Joey of Joey’s Pizzeria hollered. “Dough is money, ya know.” He scrunched his red-cheeked, sweaty face up to let me know he was mostly kidding.
Joey was a family friend, a beefy guy, jovial and always shiny from the heat of the huge oven that dominated the tiny boxcar-shaped store. The pizzeria might be small, but we produced some mighty tasty pies when the dough didn’t land on the laminate.
Kate Goldsmith stood by the cash register at the end of a chipped red counter that divided the minute kitchen from the even more minute waiting area.
I’d died when she’d said my name, and now as she looked around at the aged interior of my part-time job, I died again. A black choker was wrapped around her throat, and she was wearing a rhinestone tank top and designer jeans with artful frays that cost more than I made in a whole month. I had 501s that were ripped, but I’d worn them out and didn’t feel the need to buy replacements until school was back in session. A flour-dusted, sauce-speckled apron covered my T-shirt and thighs, and I knew there had to be white smudges of flour on my face. Just the way I wanted someone like Kate to see me.
“Joey,” I said, “can I take five?”
“Yeah, sure, kid.”
I peeled the dough off the floor, tossed it into a garbage can, and approached the girl whose name I hadn’t been able to get out of my mind for the last week. On the way I grabbed a damp rag and wiped my hands off, then rubbed them dry on the inside of my apron.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Good question. I meant to ask you for your number last Saturday. So here I am.”
I leaned against the counter and crossed my arms. Might as well be direct. What’s the worst that could happen? “I was thinking the same thing.” A long, giddy beat hovered between us until I asked, “How’d you find me?”
I wondered if I was being chick-stalked and didn’t even know it. Where was the fun in that?
“My mom talks to your—Tubs, and Tubs talks about you all the time.”
“Awesome.” Oh, brother. “So…”
“So,” she echoed, and for the first time looked somewhat uneasy. “I was um…wondering…if you might be interested in a date—” She slapped a hand over her mouth and I raised my brows. Her next words came out in a rush. “Not exactly a date, I mean…er…wanna hang out sometime?”
Don’t overthink, go with it, Flynn. “I’d like that.”
“When do you get off?”
“Off?” My voice squeaked. “As in today?”
“Why not? I have nothing but time to waste.”
A not-exactly-a-date sounded great after I’d had some time to panic and sweat and worry about what to wear, and in even a less-than-perfect world it wouldn’t be my work duds. But then how often is the world perfect?
I shot a look over my shoulder at Joey, who was working a new batch of dough to replace what I’d fumbled. “Hey, Joe.”
“I’m done in an hour. You care if I bail early?”
“Nah. Go ahead.”
“Thanks, man.” I untied my apron, still stunned Kate stood in front of me. “Give me five and I’ll meet you out front.”
* * *
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