My pulse slammed in my throat as I leaned my body weight into Stan’s considerably solid chest and counted compressions. On the thirtieth compression, I zeroed in on Stan’s mouth, grateful his lips weren’t yet turning blue. For a split moment, the fullness of his bottom lip mesmerized me, the gentle curve at the corners giving him the impression of perpetual good-humor despite his unaware state and the latte foam dripping from the tip of his nose. I chided myself for noticing and pressed my mouth to his to initiate rescue breathing. The pleasant cinnamon scent was definitely coming from him, mixed with something woodsy. In the corner of my vision, the barista—Annie, Stan had called her—paced a tight circle, her slender fingers alternating between twisting in her green apron and tugging at the roots of her pixie haircut.
“What happened to him? Is he breathing? Is he dead? What are you doing to him?” She looked on the verge of a breakdown.
I switched back to chest compressions and gave her my best glare, annoyed when my voice came out breathless and shaky, ruining the effect. “I am trying to save his life. You could help by calling 9-1-1.”
Something in her glassy eyes clicked. She pulled a cell phone from her back pocket and made the emergency call. The operator’s voice carried over the floor, methodically asking questions Annie seemed incapable of answering other than to repeat that Stan had sat at the table with a strange woman and collapsed a few minutes later. Finally, either she or the operator gave up and Annie handed me the phone then slumped into a worn sofa in the corner, looking relieved to have the authorities on their way.
The operator peppered me with questions. How long had I been administering CPR? I glanced at the clock I’d studied earlier when I’d been ready to bolt if Stan had showed up even a minute late. Less than four minutes had elapsed. How was that possible when it felt like four hours? The operator continued her interrogation. No, I didn’t know if he’d taken a sip of his drink, but I hadn’t tasted coffee on his lips. No, I didn’t know if he had a heart condition. Yes, he looked to be in excellent physique to me. No, I didn’t know about allergies or medications. Yes, his color looked ok, but he didn’t seem to be conscious. Had I asked him? Well, no…
I handed the phone back to Annie and leaned in close for another repetition of breathing, then tilted my mouth toward Stan’s ear and yelled. “Can you hear me? Are you okay?”
Stan’s arms and legs jerked once and his eyes flew open, pupils dilated to large black disks ringed by a narrow band of the most beautiful green I’d ever seen. How did I not notice the color of his eyes before? He blinked in confusion for a moment, then recognition dawned. “Sonya.” Those lovely lips tipped up at the edges for a fraction before panic crowded his eyes and his face drained of color. He clutched at me, curling his fingers into the wool pea coat I still wore unbuttoned over my favorite yellow silk blouse. He grappled at my sides, pulling me closer. “Go. You have to go.” His arms fell away with a little shove.
“But, I can’t just leave you—” I shot an anxious glance at Annie for reassurance. I needn’t have bothered. Apparently having recovered her senses, she had her cell phone camera pointed at Stan and was video recording the incident. I glowered at her. Somehow, I doubted he’d appreciate his Internet debut as his near-death experience broadcast on YouTube. The wail of sirens in the near-distance snapped me back to the moment. Stan must be in shock. Conducting a quick scan of the coffee shop and coming up short of anything that could be used as a blanket, I started to shrug free of my coat. A horrified moan from Stan froze me mid-motion. “What is it? Are you hurting?”
He shook his head, then winced at the movement and pinched his eyes shut. “Poisoned…”
Poisoned? Is he saying he thinks he was poisoned? I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and did a quick internal check. Aside from the adrenalin pumping through my veins leaving me a tad light-headed, I felt physically fine. But, I don’t think he’d had even a sip of his coffee, so maybe he meant he’d been poisoned before he got here? I leaned down to ask, but when he opened his eyes again, the raw terror reflected there implored me to listen. His voice was raspy as if it were painful to speak. “Please, Sonya. If you want to help, go now.”
A glimpse at Annie’s blank face told me I’d find no help there. The sirens were gone, but red strobe lights blotted through the dark front window, announcing the arrival of the ambulance. I climbed to my feet, knees aching from the prolonged time against hard tile, and made my way to the front door. The emergency response team squealed to a stop on the slick pavement. With a final glance back at Stan—I swear I saw him smile—I angled away from the shop and ran as fast as my Jell-O-y legs would carry me.
* * *
I willed my hand to stop trembling and traced the unlock pattern on my cell phone for the third time. Finally, the home screen sprang to life, and I punched the button for Mel’s speed dial. One ring, two…please pick up, Mel. I tucked a strand of dripping bangs back behind my ear and pulled my coat tighter over my blouse. The Seattle crowd, I’d come to notice, was not big on the sunshiny end of the color spectrum. If the authorities were looking for me to question in Stan’s poisoning, I’d stick out like a canary among ravens in my current outfit. It was a good thing Stan hadn’t let me cover him with my coat.
Mercifully, Mel picked up on the fifth ring. “Talk to me, darling.”
“Mel. I need to know why you insisted on meeting Stan. Why didn’t you just cancel when the conference came up? Why send me?” I tried to keep my tone even, but now that I was opening up, it squeaked in rapidly rising octaves.
“Sonya? Is that you? You hardly sound like yourself.”
“Well, excuse me, if I sound a little out of sorts. I just watched a man almost die.” Sarcasm was wasted on Mel, who was used to assuming—and getting—the best of everyone, but I couldn’t help myself.
“Oh, dear. I was afraid of that.”
I pulled my phone away from my ear and gaped at it for a beat. “Is that all you have to say? You don’t even sound surprised.” But of course, she wouldn’t. The voodoo thing would have tipped her off.
Mel’s syrupy voice oozed through the phone. “Calm down, Sonya. Where are you now?”
I looked around the Curiosity Shoppe I’d ducked into after running more than four blocks under dim streetlights and over slippery sidewalks. A motley assortment of animal antlers, bones and strange petrified fish hung from wires in the ceiling. A customer who looked like he might be going for a world’s record in facial piercing opened the door to exit and a giant puffer fish hanging in front of me caught the wind, its glossy eyes winking in the overhead light. I suppressed a shudder and forced my gaze down to shop-level. Wire rack displays sold everything from rubber rats and tarot cards to t-shirts and cheap touristy license plates embossed with common names. Mounted on the walls behind them, were shadow boxes of insects and butterflies alternating with low shelves holding terrariums of who-knows-what. On the far back wall, a tall glass case reaching from floor to mid-ceiling framed the mummified body of some primal man in a loincloth. Next to it, an arched doorway covered by a sheer curtain allowed a glimpse of a dark stairwell behind it. An eerie amber light from the overhead lamps cast a sallow glow over the whole place.
“Right now? Trapped in my worst nightmare.”
“Sonya.” Mel used a tone sterner than I’d ever heard from her. It did more to sober me than the morbid surroundings.
“Some sort of tourist shop that sells oddities.”
There was a long pause on the line. “I need you to listen to me, Sonya. They’re calling me to the podium and I don’t have much time—”
Something inside me snapped. I was tired of doing Mel’s bidding, and now it’d gotten me into trouble I had no business being involved with. “No, Mel, you listen to me for once. I need some answers. Who is Stan, how do you know him, and what did your stupid voodoo feeling see that sent me here?” I heard a sharp intake of breath on the other end of the line. Okay, maybe calling her premonitions stupid was crossing the line, but I figured I was entitled to a little hysteria after what I’d been through.
Mel sounded cautious when she spoke again. “I met Stan over the phone when I was booking our Seattle Valentine’s Day tour.”
I wracked my brain. We’d marketed the Valentine’s tour for couples. It paired a scenic champagne cruise on the Sound with a romantic dinner at a swanky Italian restaurant overlooking Elliott Bay. “Stan is a tour boat operator?”
“Stan inherited his stepfather’s restaurant when Angelo died late last year.”
Stan owned Angelo’s? The place was on every one of Seattle’s Best lists I’d ever seen, and I’d scoured through plenty of them trying to find pleasant outings for tourists in the soggy northwest. Given its waterfront location on Elliott Bay, it had to be worth a small fortune. Maybe even a big one.
“Anyway, we got to talking and discovered I went to school with his stepsister, Portia. He seemed nice and since we planned to be in the area, I asked him if he’d meet with me to finalize the package details.”
“Doesn’t he have people who do that?”
“He lost several long-time employees after Angelo died. I guess some of them weren’t enamored with the idea of Stan taking his place. It sounded to me like Stan was rolling up his sleeves to keep the restaurant running. I heard he even cooked for a few weeks when the head-chef walked out. He has a replacement now, of course.”
“And your plans to meet him—that was business, not a romantic blind-date?”
“I kept telling you it wasn’t, remember?”
I let out a deep breath. I guess she had tried to tell me something like that. I toyed with a shrunken head hanging from a rack of key chains and spared a moment to hope it was fake. “Wait, if he’s the heir to a successful business, why couldn’t you find anything about him online?”
“Maybe he likes to keep a low profile. Look, Sonya, I know you’re upset, but I really don’t have much time. Do you want to hear about my vision or not?”
A shiver ran down my spine like it always did when Mel started talking about her visions. Sure, some of them turned out well, but a lot of them didn’t. And when they went bad, they really went bad. I tugged my collar up to cover my ears, even though I was still inside, and stuffed my free hand into my coat pocket since I’d left my gloves with my brochure on the table at Starbucks. The brochure! I may as well have left my calling card. I groaned and fisted my hand in my pocket. Something sharp jabbed into my palm.
Mel continued, “It isn’t complicated, really. I simply saw you saving the man’s life. After that, I couldn’t cancel on him.”
I pulled my hand from my pocket and squinted at the paper I’d withdrawn with it, a ticket for a tour of the Seattle Underground at Pioneer Square. I knew it wasn’t far, though I’d never been on the tour. In 1889, some cabinet-maker had started a fire that burned down thirty-one blocks of early Seattle. They’d rebuilt some of it, placing new ground floors atop the old ones, but most of the merchants used only the street level floors these days, and a lot of the underground was still in ruins. Supposedly, there were sidewalks with dim lighting people could meander through to explore the place, and even a few seedy clubs set up shop there. In short, the whole place sounded nightmarish for someone who loved three-hundred-and-twenty days of desert sunshine year round. The ticket was dated for later this evening, in a half-hour, to be exact. Had Stan intentionally slipped it into my pocket before the ambulance came?
A bell chimed over the door and a jolt of dread sluiced through me. Annie walked in, a khaki-green coat zippered up past her chin. She bee-lined for the register where they were selling packets of herbs and bottles of organic oils. I ducked behind a rack of postcards and held a hand over the phone receiver to muffle Mel’s voice, which seemed to be getting more agitated by the second. Very un-Mel-like.
“I swear to you I never thought you’d be in any danger, Sonya. But then, I had a second vision this afternoon, and I tried to warn you but your cell must have been off.”
Of course it was off. I was on a date—more or less—and as much as I didn’t want to be on said date, it’d be rude to interrupt it with a phone call. What had Mel said about being in danger? I didn’t have time to ask, because Annie appeared again across from where I was crouched. She’d finished her purchase, looking far too chipper for someone who’d almost lost a long-standing customer, and had paused by the door to browse the city tour brochures displayed there. She plucked a brochure for a bar called The Poisoned Pear and turned to leave. Her eyes landed on me and narrowed. “You.”
Mel was practically yelling into the phone now. “Are you listening, Sonya? You have to be careful.”
I took a step back, bumping into the mounted head of a jackalope just as Annie advanced on me. “Quick, Mel. What was the vision?” I managed to ask.
“A man, I couldn’t make out his face—but definitely not someone you’d want to meet in a dark alley—is not happy.”
I eyed Annie’s reddening face. Even the spikes of her hair looked hostile. “Lots of unhappy people in the world. How is that my problem?”
“He’s following you.”