"Why can't I come along?" Lewis was using his anxious voice. The one which usually got him his way where Nita was concerned.
"Because," Nita replied, "I really need time to focus." She wasn't having any of his guilt-trip tactics this time.
Nita's was the kind of room that left one with a feeling that just another couple of feet in one dimension or another would make it work. It wasn't cramped, exactly, but it wasn't quite big enough, either—especially for two people to share. There was a queen-sized bed, a tall dresser, a bookshelf and a very old desk and chair. None of this furniture matched. The state-of-the-art flat-screen TV on top of the dresser certainly looked out of place, as did the pychedellic paint job and the posters featuring bands from the 1960s and '70s.
"I can be quiet. I'll just sit," he said. "And be quiet."
"No, you won't." Nita had had far too much experience with Lewis to believe him. "I know you'll mean to, Honey, but I don't think you're actually capable." She could tell he was about to get into one of his down moods. She really couldn't afford to babysit him tonight, though—she had far too much work to do.
"Listen, Lewis," she interjected, before he could really get going. "This is really important to me. Besides which, I want you to do me a special favor."
"Wait." Lewis was a bit surprised by this development. "What sort of favor?"
Nita stood up off the bed where they were sitting and walked across the threadbare light-brown shag carpet. She pulled a rucksack out from under her desk and started packing it with books, pens and her laptop.
"I need you to keep Mary company," she said.
"You're kidding, right?" Lewis arched an eyebrow and twisted his mouth in that way that Nita found so annoyingly adorable. "Mary can hardly stand to be around me. You know that, right?"
"Oh, honey, that's not true."
"Sure it is. Mary can barely even look at me on those rare occasions when she even bothers to acknowledge my existence."
"You're just paranoid. Mary doesn't dislike you. She just hasn't had the chance to get to know you."
"She doesn't seem to be interested in getting to know me."
"You haven't exactly been eager to let her, though, have you?" Nita knew that Lewis was a little intimidated by Mary. Sometimes she thought he was even intimidated by her, though she wasn't entirely sure why. "Tonight will be just the right opportunity."
"You think so?" He stood and walked over to where she was zipping up the bag, and put his arms around her. "What do we have to talk about? And what makes you think she even wants company?"
"Actually," responded Nita, "I'm quite sure she does not."
"Then why would you ask me to—" he began. "Oh, I see. You think she's in need of company, whether she wants it or not."
"But why me?"
"You know anyone else available?"
"Well, no, I guess not." He frowned. "But if she doesn't want company in general, she's surely not going to want mine in particular."
"That's where you're wrong."
"OK," he said, and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. "Let's hear your theory."
"Well, she's been in an odd mood since yesterday."
"Please." Nita frowned. "You can't be as oblivious as all that!"
"How am I supposed to know what's strange when it comes to Mary? She's always a little peculiar, isn't she?"
"Point taken." Nita soldiered on. "But I know her well enough to know that something is most definitely bothering her."
"What is it, do you think?"
"Finding that out is part of what I want you to do."
"Ah!" Lewis narrowed his eyes. "I'm getting a whiff of mission creep here."
"Yes, well, mostly I don't want her to be alone," she admitted. "But it would be nice if you could get her to open up to you a little bit, as well. Let's call it a side quest."
"Side quest." He chuckled. "All right, then. But, how on Earth do you expect me to get her to open up?"
"With this," Nita reached into a desk-drawer and produced a bottle of Scotch whisky. "A few glasses of this and she'll be your best friend—as long as you don't seem too pushy, or threatening in any way. Watch out for that."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, if she thinks you're just being friendly, a few drinks will get her talking. If, on the other hand, she thinks you're prying or have any kind of ulterior motive … her paranoia switch will tick over and then you will be in for the tongue-lashing of a lifetime."
"So, she's a cantankerous drunk?"
"No, she's generally a very friendly drunk—unless she drinks too much," Nita smiled. "Or if you rub her the wrong way. You do that, and you'd better look out!"
"I don't know," said Lewis.
"Trust me, you'll do fine," Nita reassured him. "Just turn on your infamous charm."
Lewis let out a sardonic laugh.
"Stop that," Nita ordered. "Don't doubt for a minute that you can be charming … when you've a mind to, that is."
"So you say," Lewis replied. "I still don't know what you're doing with a guy like me."
"Don't start." She put a finger over his lips, then stepped back, tilted her head and sized him up. "You'll do fine. So what do you say? Will you do this favor for me?"
"Of course I will. You know I can't refuse you anything."
If only that were true. Instead of voicing the thought, though, she stood up on her tiptoes and gave him a kiss.
He smiled and took the bottle from her as she opened the door.
As he followed her down the stairs he asked her, "How late do you expect to be?"
"Not too late," she replied. "No later than ten, I should think."
She was glad to have him on the cheery side of his usual mood swings. If he were on the other end of the spectrum at present she would never leave him alone with Mary. For a moment there, she would have sworn he would refuse and start sulking over not coming along with her tonight, but she had suspected giving him a job to do just might provide the necessary bulwark against the wave of self-pity that often threatened to engulf him. It seems she had been right. She made a mental note to try something like this again the next time he was about to collapse on her, and then immediately hated herself for the cynical nature of the thought.
When they arrived downstairs they found Mary napping on the couch in front the television. There was a football game on. It seemed the Browns were actually winning a game for a change—not that Nita cared. For the life of her, she could never understand how Mary could stand to watch football.
"Should I wake her up?" Lewis asked.
"No," Nita said. "Don't do that. Just … wait."
Sitting in the bookstore/café, Nita found herself wishing Mary hadn't lost that damn book. She'd hoped to find a copy here, but no dice. She started to think maybe she'd just have to order a new copy online—not to mention pay the library fees. Oddly enough, Mary had agreed to pay the fees, since no one at the BMV had found the book.
She also wished the loudmouth and his Russian girlfriend at the table behind her would tone it down a bit. This place was usually pretty quiet, owing to the fact that it was kind of out-of-the-way. The bigger cafés were always too noisy and crowded to get anything done, so she came here often. She never brought Lewis here, though—he would absolutely ruin the atmosphere—this was her alone-time retreat.
The man at the other table was tall, had light-brown hair with blondish highlights and a patch of beard under his lip. He wore a dark-grey and black ringer tee and black jeans. He was going on about covert surveillance of game consoles and government operations or some such silliness. He's just the sort of oddball I should be studying Nita thought.
The woman sitting with him was directly behind Nita. She spoke with a fairly thick Eastern-European-sounding accent, probably Russian or maybe Polish. She was quite attractive, with raven-black hair and long legs. She looked rather tall and fit and wore what looked like a tennis outfit, of all things. This woman seemed to be fascinated by the man's conversation, and only spoke enough to prod him into speaking further. It may be that her grasp of English wasn't substantial enough to hold up her end of the conversation. Not that it needed much help, as the fellow across from her didn't seem likely to stop talking soon—with or without the woman's prodding.
Nita did her best to keep from eavesdropping on the couple. They were very distracting, and as a result, she was getting very little work done. She was just considering leaving and finding another place to work—a library, perhaps—when a cell phone rang—the Russian woman excused herself and answered.
"Yes, Gavrilo," she said. "No. Never you mind ziss. It eez mine own beezniss." There was a pause, during which Nita heard the woman mutter the name "Celia Wright" under her breath.
This caught Nita's attention, and she began listening in earnest. Surely there's no way this random woman could be talking about Lewis' ex-wife!
"O yes, Gavrilo. 'Seattle', you say? Eez zhere any-sing else? Could you fax me zees papervork, plees? Stop laughing, zees eez serious." There was another pause before she said, "Sank you." and disconnected the call.
Nita changed her mind about leaving.