“You going to be ok?” Simone’s spacey blue eyes were all concern.
“Seriously? You’re the one who needs protecting, little Miss Simone from Paris, remember?” I told her.
“Still, though.” She lingered, looking over the chrome of the back-kitchen top and sink, as if willing another crumb on the spotless, just-scrubbed surface. “I could stay an extra thirty to help you finish up.”
“What – and not get paid for it?” I shook my head. “Don’t bother. Besides, Walter hasn’t been that bad lately.”
As she frowned at me, I mustered up a valiant smile. “Worse comes to worst, I can always make more whale of about him.”
Simone giggled. “I swear, you really could sell those. You should” – she grabbed my hand, squeezed it – “Come with me to Artist’s and Flea’s Chelsea market; set up a little table.”
“When is it again?”
“This Saturday. So you’ll go?”
“I’ll see. I don’t know if I really have anything ready.”
“C’mon Britt!” Simone’s tone was exasperated, but her French accent made it more cute than convincing. “Stop waiting on tomorrows!”
“Speaking of…” – I took a pointed glance at the clock – “If you want to make your bus, you have about three minutes to leave.”
Simone glared at me, staying put, crossing her thin arms over her bony chest.
“Simone honey,” Walter’s low crooning voice came over from the front. “You know I’m whaley not paying you a cent if you stick around past your shift to gossip with Britt.”
“Whaley,” Simone muttered.
I shook my head darkly. “And to think, I’d thought we’d actually had a day where Walter wasn’t cracking lame whale puns.”
Simone glided to the back door, her apron still on. “Good luck. And if any bullshit goes down – text me.”
“Got it,” I told her.
Though we both knew I was merely humoring her. I’d been on my own for years now, growing up in the wild merry-go-round of the foster care system. Working under a pervy whale-joke obsessed boss was nothing I couldn’t handle.
“Looks like it’s just us now.”
At the hot feel of his breath on my neck, I steeled myself. I turned to give him a ‘fuck-you’ smile and strode to the front. “And then there were two.”
The thing with Walter, and most pervy guys who pushed the envelope, was that they were piranhas, plain and simple. You just couldn’t show them the slightest cut.
In the front, I busied myself with the last of cleaning up – dumping the coffee grounds, scrubbing down the whale-carved counter. As I worked, my gaze strayed irresistibly to the walls. Nestled amidst whale sculptures, whale clocks, whale paintings and whale figurines, was the art.
Sweeping greens and yellows played into a tree-sitting finch while brushes of red and purple formed a fox. Then, over to the left, was where my art should be.
“So, Walter, I was thinking,” I said, instead of, Walter, I’ve been painstakingly planning this out for the past two months since you hired me, and this is, really, the only reason I wanted this job in the first place and stayed here amidst your creepiness.
He moved with a pantherlike grace, lounging with his arm on the countertop. His eyebrows raised. “What a coincidence, I’ve been thinking too.”
“About my sketches – do you think I could bring some in and show you, maybe have a spot for next month?”
Walter pursed his mouth, ran a finger over his moustache, nodding. “Alright, okay, we could see about that.”
His gaze was an actual stroke, his smile a warning he never intended. “Yeah.”
As the whale cuckoo-clock chimed, I burst into the back. Past the empty half-lit kitchen, away from Walter’s “Hey, what’s the rush?”
I grabbed my purse, ripped it open so I could shove in my tip envelope. Whirling around, I run straight into Walter, who was wearing a look like he’s actually expecting an answer.
“What,” he said in an unconvincing jokey tone. “Running off to your boyfriend, is that it?”
“The bus actually,” I said, rushing past him.
Outside, in the fresh air, he called something after me, but I didn’t hear him.
Out, thank God, I was out. Away from that creepy asswipe. Although…
Looking around, I groaned. Seriously Britt?
By the looks of it, in my haste to leave, I’d sped-walked straight out the sketchy way – down the alley that I didn’t even dare venture down in the brightest hour of a Manhattan noon sun.
“Shit,” I muttered, grabbing my zipper.
Yep, that 12-hour shift was really taking its toll on my brain cells. I’d wandered into the sketchy alley with my purse actually open. Why don’t I wear a ‘mug me, I don’t have pepper spray’ sign while I’m at it?
As if conjured by my thoughts, someone stepped in behind me.
“Don’t scream,” the twiggish man said, pressing me to the wall. I tasted brick, inhaled unfamiliar sweat.
“I have money,” I said immediately, forcing the tremble out of my voice.
Don’t panic. Just breathe. Your odds are best that way.
He twisted me around, the point of a blade digging into my neck.
His breath smelled wonky, his eyes shifting like the eclipse. This ghostly-skinned guy had to be all kinds of fucked-up to think that scruffy-shoed me would be worth mugging.
“Here.” I held up my purse, and he rifled through it.
“The money’s in the side pocket,” I added.
His roving glare hesitated on me, then he unzipped the pocket. He took the wad of bills, flipping through it with sloppily.
A crunch of other footsteps, then a bland reasonable-sounding voice, “What’s going on?”
Out of the gloom emerged an officer, his gun raised.
The twig man bolted, chucking the wad of bills away. Damn, he must’ve really been coked out.
In the gloom, I made out another officer. This one was taller and broader than the other and wasn’t wearing glasses how he was.
While his partner picked up the bills, Officer Glasses was looking at me. “What exactly was-”
“He stole my money,” I said.
They eyed me uncertainly, and for a moment, I reflected how this must’ve looked. Some coked-out crackhead against the word of a pink-haired girl who looked ready to keel over herself.
I pointed back the way I’d come. “It’s tip money. Just got off work. You can ask my boss, if you want.”
Though I’d really rather you not.
“The Whale?” the taller officer asked, and I nodded. “I wait tables.”
He cracked a grin. “We hope you have a whaley-”
“Good day,” I said, dead-pan.
I was way, way, way too tired to feign anything otherwise in the face of another goddamn whale joke.
“Obviously, I would like my money back,” I said, indicating the wad of bills that the officer was holding. “That’s this month’s rent.”
Tall Cop scrutinized me for a minute. I stared back at him defiantly. Let him look all he wanted – I was scrutinizing him too.
High cheekbones, proud straight nose, cleft chin, kind eyes, he had Handsome Cop down to a T.
Uh, earth to Britt, look away before you start drooling.
As he handed over the bills, he asked, “You ok?”
“Yep,” I said. “Just glad you guys came in time.”
“Yeah, we always do a patrol of Sketch Alley when we’re patrolling these parts,” Officer Glasses said.
He took a good long look around at our no-lit, grimy, garbage ridden surroundings, and I bristled.
“I don’t usually come this way.”
“Yeah, definitely wouldn’t recommend doing it again,” Tall Cop – who nameplate read Bradley said.
“Thanks for the help,” I said.
They exchanged a look, not budging.
“Where, exactly were you headed?” The cop whose nameplate read Wyatt asked. His messy dark hair and soulful green eyes made him ultra fine to look at.
“Home,” I said. “So, if there’s nothing else you need from me, I can still make the Q46 if I hurry.”
They regarded me, nonplussed.
“You’re bleeding,” Bradley said, reaching into his pocket.
Reaching my fingers to my neck, I was surprised to have them come away red. With all of the adrenaline pumping through my system, I hadn’t realized that the asshole had actually drawn blood.
“Here,” he said, starting to reach for it with his handkerchief.
“Thanks,” I said, grabbing it and putting it on myself. “Again, for saving me. I have to get moving if I’m gonna make my bus.”
And then I hurried away. Forcing what had happened out of my mind was no use. As I left, I could feel their gazes on me, sending an excited artillery of goosebumps up and down my arms. Two hot cops watching me go.
Whatever, it didn’t matter. That was the last I’d see of them.
Or so I thought.