Dusk cast its amber glow across the sliver of overcast sky peering between the city’s concrete shoulders. Laina’s knee-high boot clanged over a sidewalk grate as a plume of sulphurous steam burned into her nostrils. She grimaced and shook her head, hustling to the cafe door.
Jayme rose from the corner booth and beckoned with a manicured hand. Laina summoned a grin as she strode across the art-deco tiles toward her cousin. They embraced in a jangle of charm bracelets.
“So glad you made it out of your office before seven today. I thought I’d be waiting forever again. ” Jayme resumed her seat. Tucking a golden curl behind her ear, she raised a brow. “And I’ve got news.”
Laina folded her scarf and jacket over the chair. “Bet yours is better than mine.”
A figure appeared at her left. Laina recoiled and caught her breath.
The ponytailed young man adjusted his hipster glasses and asked, “Can I get an order for you?”
Laina cleared her throat and sank onto the vinyl seat. “Pumpkin spice latte, please. Extra whip. And one of those ham-and-cheese pastries.”
“I’ll have another minted mocha and the special.” Jayme patted the table, an elaborate ring glinting from her finger. “You’re jumpy today. You okay?”
“You have to go first.” Laina leaned forward and smirked. She lifted her cousin’s hand to inspect the marquis gem set in scrolled white gold. “So, this is your news?”
Jayme’s grin dimpled her peach complexion. “Saturday night. First we had dinner at Angelo’s . . .”
Laina stifled a yawn as details prattled on past ten minutes. Her eyelid sagged with sleep deprivation and the weight of a ten hour workday. Fifteen minutes. She glanced over her shoulder at the buzz of activity surrounding the stainless espresso machine, offering silent pleas for coffee. The waiter headed their direction, as if her wish held supernatural influence.
Laina thanked him as he settled the foamy cup before her. Spicy aromas bloomed to revive her senses. “Knowing you, the date’s already set. What are the plans?”
Jayme pointed at her with a wink. “You do know me. We’re getting married first of the year.”
“Can I have your apartment?” She gulped a scalding, creamy mouthful and grimaced.
“Well, that’d be awkward.” Jayme raised a forkful of chicken. “His apartment is company property and his perk is ending. We’re moving into my flat.”
A gritty expletive blasted through her lips before she could catch it. “I–I mean, congratulations, of course. I am really happy for you.”
“What’s going on with you?” Jayme set down her cup and tilted her head. “Don’t tell me there was another murder in your building.”
She slumped.”Okay, if you don’t want me to tell you.”
“Oh, Laina. Wish I did have an apartment to give you. That’s like the third–”
“Fourth. Cops said I could move.” She framed the air with finger-quotes. “Or get some protection. Whatever that looks like.”
Jayme peeled off a bracelet with a horseshoe charm dangling between a myriad of new-age symbols. “I met Dave three days after I bought this.”
Yeasty cheese rolled past blisters to land flavor on a few spots of her tongue. She shielded her lips and mumbled between chews. “I thought Dave was kinda religious. What does he think of your superstition?”
“He doesn’t believe it. He thinks God brought us together.” She shrugged. “Maybe he’ll convince me. He is Prince Charming, after all.”
“Ah, so you snagged the one good guy at the end of every girl’s storybook. Now the good ones have officially been taken.” Laina laid her napkin over the half-eaten pastry.
Jaime clattered the charm bracelet onto the center of the table. “Here. Maybe it’ll bring you luck, too.”
Laina pushed it away, then leaned back and folded her arms. “I don’t need that kind of luck. Thanks.”
“Every guy isn’t a creep, you know. Just because the last three you dated–”
She shook her head. “We’re not going there, okay. I’m not in the market for a prince. I need protection.”
“Wouldn’t be able to help much there, I’m afraid. You know I don’t do guns.”
“Never liked them much either.” A yawn overcame her will and stretched her jaws until threatening to crack them apart. “Not sleeping’s getting old. I’m desperate enough to try almost anything.”
“I’m so sorry, Laina.” Jayme’s phone buzzed. After glancing at it, she stood. “I gotta get going. Dave’s parents are coming by.”
Laina rose and donned her jacket. “Congratulations, again. I didn’t mean to rain on your moment.”
“You didn’t, sweetie. Don’t even think like that.” Jayme gave her hand a quick squeeze. “If I think of anything, I’ll let you know.”
“Thanks. Potions, charms, alarm systems–whatever.” Laina extended her cash and tab to the girl at the register.
Jayme glanced up from fishing in her purse. “Hey, have you seen that new shop on Third Street? I’ve been meaning to go in there. They might have some interesting artifacts.”
“It’s on my way home. Maybe I’ll check it out. What harm could it do?”
As Laina yanked open the door, a chilling gust whirled litter and ashes past her face into the cafe. It reeked of soured wood and oily swamp water, of smells older than the city block’s paved crust.
* * * * * * to be continued * * * * * *
“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes . . . do not fret—it leads only to evil” (Psalm 36:7-8).