ALONG FOR THE RIDE
by Sandy Cody
(Sandra Carey Cody)
Mel was yelling in my ear to get out of there, but I couldn't move - not with Annie's eyes boring holes in my face. I was like a rabbit held captive in a snake's gaze.
The gaze shifted to a spot over my shoulder and the spell broke.
I turned to make my escape - and looked directly into another pair of eyes. What had Mel said? Something about a dark alley? Someone you wouldn't want to meet there? The guy who'd caught Annie's attention definitely fit that bill. I took a couple of side steps to put myself in a direct line with the door.
He sidestepped too. It was like we were dancing. I couldn't see what was happening behind me, but it sounded like Annie was closing in from the rear, turning the dance into a weird threesome.
Mel's voice escalated, "Get out of there!"
"I'm doing my best," I told her before I jammed the phone in my pocket. Instinct was screaming even louder than Mel, telling me I needed both hands free.
Instinct was right. As I rushed past, dance partner number one grabbed my arm. He almost ripped my coat off. I twisted, pulled the coat close, and managed to shake him off with enough force to send him sprawling on his backside. I didn't know exactly how close dance partner number two was and I didn't wait around to find out.
I made a beeline for the door. I heard Annie shout, "Wait!" Did I heed Annie's call? Are you kidding? I pushed the door open. Outside, under the store's awning, a sale table was lined up against the side of the building. I took a few precious seconds to pull the table, filled with rows of tiny multi-colored bottles, in front of the shop entrance. It sounded like an out-of-tune calliope as the bottles tipped against each other, but none of them fell off the table and, more important, exit from the Curiosity Shoppe was blocked, at least for the moment.
I darted an apologetic glance toward the woman huddled in a lawn chair under cover of the awning.
She hopped up and shook her fist like she wanted to beat me to a pulp.
Get in line, Lady.
I dodged around a young couple pushing a stroller and picked up the pace. The light at the end of the block went from orange to red. I ignored it. A chorus of squealing brakes and honking horns followed me into the next block. I cringed but kept going. If this went on much longer, I'd have everybody in Seattle mad at me. I couldn't worry about that now. I slogged on, splashing through the puddles on the sidewalk until I got a hitch in my side. I stopped, leaned against a building, and looked back for the first time since I'd left the shop. No sign of either Annie or the dark alley guy. That seemed a little strange. A good thing, but strange.
Standing still, I was more than ever aware of the rain, a slow, steady drizzle that sent cold rivulets under my collar and down my neck. The people of Seattle didn't seem to mind; they filled the sidewalks, laughing and chatting, happily immune to the weather. Personally, I'd never missed warm, sunny Phoenix quite so much. No time to think about that now. I needed a plan.
There was a Starbucks across the street. It seemed as good a place as any to regroup, so I waited for a break in traffic and sprinted across.
I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the window as I opened the door. Not a pretty sight. My hair was plastered to my head and my clothes looked like that they belonged to a shipwreck victim. That was the least of my worries. I checked the sidewalk again to see if my pursuers were catching up. Still no sign of either of them. Hmmm. I decided to call Mel and see if her voodoo had picked up on their location.
I reached for my phone. All I found was a clump of sodden lint. Ugh. I tried the other pocket. No phone there either. Had it fallen out somewhere along the route of my mad dash? Possibly. Those pea coat pockets weren't very deep. Should I retrace my steps to see if I could find it? That didn't seem like a good idea, but I thought of all the information the phone held. That's when it hit me: the dark alley guy hadn't tried very hard to hold on when he had me by the arm. Come to think of it, he hardly tried at all. Did he have my phone? Is that why he and Annie didn't seem to be following me? Why would they want my phone? Could they use it to track me? I couldn't see how. Mel? Were they looking for a way to track her? Questions buzzed in my head like bees in a jar. I took a deep breath. Don't panic. Relax. Another deep breath. What next? Think. Not easy when you're cold, wet, and miserable.
I located the restroom and dried myself off with paper towels as best I could. I pushed the hair back from my face, scrunched it into a semblance of style, added a touch of lip gloss, and squared my shoulders. Still not pretty, but better. Now, for the plan …
This was clearly an emergency. Everybody knows what that means. An emergency calls for chocolate so I got in line and, when my turn came, ordered a small plain coffee and two chocolate chunk cookies. I spotted an empty chair near the door. From there, I had a good view of the sidewalk and street. I scanned in both directions. Just a bunch of normal-looking pedestrians - if you call people who are out strolling in the rain normal. A lanky guy from half a block away waved. Hmm. Not only could I see, but I could be seen. There was a small table behind a tall plant that looked like it could be a maneater. Maybe it would protect me.
I moved with my coffee and my cookies. Much better. Now I was partially hidden from the street, but with a slight shift to the left, I could watch what was going on outside. I settled in, determined to come up with a plan. First of all, Mel needed an update. And I needed to know if she'd had any more visions. I didn't have a phone so I couldn't call her. Fortunately, I still had my purse. I retrieved the small notepad that I always carry and started a list. When in doubt, make a list. (That's one of the little pearls of wisdom my mother passed along before the car crash took her from me.)
1. Get a phone.
2. Call Mel.
My pen hovered over the page. What next? Call the police? I thought about that. What could I tell them? Would involving the police make the situation worse? How much worse could it get? Probably best not to think about that. Could it put Mel in danger? Was she already in danger? She hadn't said anything about danger to herself, only to me, but I hadn't given her much time. What about Stan? I remembered those amazing green eyes as I tried to arrange the day's events in some kind of a pattern. Everything seemed to start with Stan. He'd called Annie by name when he came into Starbucks and she knew him well enough that she knew what his "usual" was. They were obviously on a pretty friendly basis. Then there had been that little interlude with the mouth to mouth (such a nice mouth - the highlight of my day so far). I hunched over the table and bit into my cookie. The silky richness of dark chocolate flooded my mouth and worked its magic. My soul was soothed; thought was possible.
What had Stan said? Something about poison. So, here was one thing I actually knew: Stan had been poisoned - or at least thought he had.
Whoa! I sat up straight. Mel had been called to the conference to fill in for someone who had gotten sick. Had that really been a ruse to keep her from coming to Seattle? Had the person she was filling in for been poisoned? Was Mel next? Is that what Stan had been trying to tell me? Either way, it seemed reason enough to involve the police. I reached for my phone. Oops … no phone. My fingers found a scrap of paper. The ticket! I'd forgotten about that. I pulled it out and looked at it - soggy, but intact. I'd use the ticket, see if I could figure out why Stan had slipped it into my pocket. Then I'd call the police … maybe. But, first, back to Item 1 - get a phone. I asked the guy behind the cash register if he could recommend a place for me to get a disposable phone to use until I could get home and get a permanent one.
"Radio Shack. Two doors down. Toward the corner. Tell 'em Rudy sent you."
Okay, first hurdle cleared - well, almost cleared.
It didn't take long to get a phone, get it all set up, including listening to Rudy's pal explain in endless detail what the phone could and couldn't do. Somewhere in his ramblings, I remembered Annie using her phone to film Stan as he lay on the floor of the coffee shop. At the time I'd thought it was a morbid obsession with the unusual. Now I wondered if she had another reason. Like what? No idea. None of it made sense. The one concrete thing I had was the ticket. Obviously, a visit to the Underground was number three on my list. First, though, now that I had a phone, I'd call Mel.
No answer. I left a message, telling her to call back as soon as she could, and then, after checking to make sure the coast was clear, set out to use the ticket.
The rain had stopped by the time I reached Pioneer Square. I took that as a sign that the heavens were on my side and approached the Underground with a hopeful spirit. "After all," I told myself, "this is real life, not film noir." My optimism was short-lived. The world became noir-ish again when I saw Annie and the dark alley guy patrolling the area in front of the entrance. I kept my distance and watched them. It struck me that they didn't seem to be together. In fact, everything about their body language suggested that they were hostile to each other. Something to think about later. My concern right now was that there was no way into the Underground without going past them. Should I risk it? I was debating this when I felt a tap on my shoulder - and an ever-so-faint whiff of cinnamon. I turned.
There was Stan, looking remarkably well for someone who'd just had a near-death experience.