The coffee shop was as busy inside as the street outside, the muffled sounds of cars whizzing by overpowered by the chatter of a long line of customers, each eager for an afternoon snack and coffee to get them over the late afternoon slump.
“I’ll have a large peanut butter cup,” a young woman in a black tank top said after briefly hemming and hawing. “With extra whipped cream, please.”
It took all her willpower not to scratch the small of her back, where her tight shirt was already rubbing off small, colourful scabs. The lingering itchiness – not to mention the initial agony of the tattoo needle carving patterns in her skin – were totally worth it though. Soon it would heal and she could show her boyfriend the design, a symbol of her love for him.
She had resisted the urge to get his name. It was tacky, she thought, and seemed too much like a branding. Instead, she had gotten an image of Lotta’s fountain, where they had met, surrounded by daisies like the one he had jokingly offered her from her own garden on their first date. The flower had grown into a private in-joke between them, and every bouquet of daisies he gave her made her laugh.
“Alright,” the man with her, clad in a soft, brown leather jacket, nodded, “And I’ll take some cheesecake and a coffee.”
The man wondered how slowly he could make the food and drink last. He couldn’t take that long – it would seem odd if he let the coffee grow cold even as he sipped it. But he needed to kill at least an hour.
From the last text he’d gotten, his best friend was just now picking up the huge supply of daisies he’d ordered. It would take him at least half an hour to let himself into the apartment the couple shared and start bringing the hundreds of flowers upstairs. By the time the couple returned, there would be daisies strewn across every surface of their small home, the perfect setting in which to propose.
“Alright, why don’t you guys take a seat,” the store’s manager offered. “We’ll have that right out for you.”
The couple walked away, already having mentally selected a small table next to the window. Another couple standing behind them approached the counter.
“Hi,” the barista at the till, Susan, a woman with curly red hair, chirped. “How ya doin’? What would you like?”
The man didn’t even get off his cell phone, only turning an eighth of his attention to the barista. “Can I get a bagel with a peanut butter cup?” he asked.
“Keep acting completely normal,” the digitally disguised voice on the phone commanded after the man had repeated the food order that he’d been given, word for word. “You will be given further instructions soon. Do anything to attract any attention and your daughter dies.”
The man tried to shake off the sinking feeling he got from the words on the other end of the line. An hour ago, when he’d first gotten the call, he’d panicked. Now, despite his fear, he was beginning to accept the feeling. He had to. If he wasn’t calm, if he couldn’t cope…
No. That was unthinkable. He had to be strong. He had to save his little girl.
“Great,” Susan smiled, “Sure!”
“I’m going to get a slice of cheesecake and a bottle of water,” the woman with him requested, her hair tied back in a long, flowing ponytail.
She wasn’t sure why the man next to her was so important to the plan. She didn’t even know what the plan was, really. She only knew her part. Keep him in line. Monitor him. Make sure he couldn’t sneak a message or communicate his distress to anyone.
Years spent organising coups in South America, the woman thought with amusement, and all along the real money was in babysitting.
“Yeah, sounds good,” the store manager nodded. “Why don’t you take a seat and we’ll have that right out for you.”
“Oh, hi, Susan,” Johnny said as he strolled up to the counter, a folder in hand, Mark just behind him.
“Well, hi, Johnny,” Susan greeted him. “How are ya? Good to see ya. What would you like?”
“Hot chocolate, please,” Johnny requested.
“What size you having?” the store manager asked.
Johnny shook the long hair out of his eyes. “Medium.”
“How ‘bout you?” Susan asked, turning to Mark.
“I’ll have a mint tea,” Mark smiled.
“Go sit down,” Susan said, she and her co-worker finally leaving the till to start preparing some of the orders. “We’ll be right there.”
Johnny and Mark turned and found a seat, right between the two couples who had been in line ahead of them.
“I’m so tired of girls’ games,” Mark sighed.
His face full of concern, Johnny delicately laid the folder on the table in front of him. “What happened now, Mark?”
Mark shook his head. “Relationships never work, you know?” he started. “Why waste my time?”
“What makes you say that?”
His blue eyes downcast, Mark studied the table. “It’s not that easy, Johnny,” he replied, not really answering his best friend’s question.
“Well, you should be happy, Mark,” Johnny urged.
“Yeah, I know,” he conceded, rolling his eyes. “Life is too short.”
Just then, their conversation was interrupted by two paper cups, decorated with a cow-hide pattern, placed on the table in front of them. The warm scent of chocolate, mingled with peppermint from the tea, swirled up out of the two cups enticingly.
“Oh, thank you, Susan,” Johnny said gratefully.
“You’re welcome,” Susan nearly sang. “How ‘bout somethin’ like cheesecake?” she suggested.
“Nah,” Johnny declined.
“Not today,” Mark added.
“It’s real good,” Susan tempted before leaving.
Mark and Johnny both took deep drinks from their cups, ignoring the heat. “How was work today?” Mark asked.
“Oh, pretty good,” Johnny nodded. “We got a new client at the bank. We’ll make a lot of money.”
The words client and money made Mark’s ears perk, and he practically stood at attention. He’d just gotten Donahue to start paying attention to his suspicions, and now Johnny was practically gift-wrapping a new lead. “What client?” he asked, hoping his eagerness could be mistaken for casual curiosity, and knowing it wasn’t.
“I cannot tell you,” Johnny shot. “It’s confidential.”
If Johnny were merely a humble banker as he claimed, Mark considered, he would have good reason not to give out the names of clients. Mark knew he wouldn’t get a name, but he hoped to get some kind of reaction. It was a long shot – Johnny had gone under the radar for this long, and obviously wouldn’t be easy to unnerve.
“Aw, come on,” Mark tried again. “Why not?”
“No, I can’t,” Johnny told him, taking another sip of hot chocolate. “Anyway, how is your sex life?”
Shrugging, Mark pursed his lips. “Can’t talk about it,” he said with a teasing smile.
Susan placed the bill on the table between the two men before telling them, “Take your time.”
“Oh, God, I have to run,” Johnny excused himself, checking his watch. He drained the rest of the hot chocolate and gathered up the folder in front of him.
“Already?” Mark asked, confused. Was this the reaction he’d hoped for? Should he follow Johnny?
“Yeah, I’m sorry.”
“Alright,” Mark said, grabbing the bill, “It’s on me.”
“Yeah, see you.” Johnny rose to his feet. “See you, Mark.” He held up his hand.
“Are you going jogging?” Mark asked as their palms clapped together in a gesture somewhere between a high five and a hand shake. “Golden Gate Park?”
“Yeah, sure,” Johnny agreed. “What time?”
“Golden Gate Park,” Mark said again as he and Johnny gave each other props. “Six thirty. Alright?”
“Okey-dokey,” Johnny answered as he picked up his empty paper cup and left.
Their hands clasped tightly together, Lisa led Mark up the spiral staircase, into the bedroom. She turned around to face him, guiding his hands onto her hips.
“What’s going on here?” Mark demanded.
Lisa smiled seductively. “I like you very much, Mark,” she told him, running a hand over his chest, feeling the bulge of his muscles.
“Come on,” Mark censured her, “Johnny’s my best friend.”
“Just one more time,” Lisa pleaded, pressing closer. Her green eyes looked up at Mark, sparkling in the candlelight. Her hands worked their way under his shirt, caressing his abs as they tugged at the material. Finally, Mark acquiesced by raising his arms above his head, allowing Lisa to lift his shirt and cast it off, onto the couch, exposing his bare chest. Her warm hand held the back of his neck, pulling him closer as they kissed.
All his resolve, all his will, all his protestations disappeared as Lisa giggled and pushed Mark onto the bed she shared with her future husband. Hungrily, she crawled onto the bed after him, lying beside him and stroking his wrist. Mark’s fingers worked their way through her hair, bunching the soft locks in his hand. Lisa guided his hand down from her head, to her neck, to her shoulder, and finally to the meager strap of her black dress. As Mark pulled the strap away, Lisa wriggled out of the material, sitting up to let it fall from her body.
Free from the dress, Lisa embraced Mark. They pressed together, tangled in each other and the deep crimson sheets of Johnny and Lisa’s bed, murmuring to each other as they got as close as two people can be.
As he drove through Golden Gate Park, Johnny saw Mark, sitting against a tree. He pulled his small white car into a vacant spot next to his best friend and got out.
“Hey,” he greeted Mark brightly.
“Hey, Johnny, how’s it going?” Mark rose to his feet. He reached out and slapped hands with Johnny, his bare skin against Johnny’s work-out glove, as they strolled off together towards one of the large green expanses of the park. With a flick of his wrist, Mark threw the football in his hands to Johnny, who caught it as he began running. Matching his speed, Mark asked, “What’s going on, Johnny?”
Johnny tossed the ball back as they jogged slightly apart, the distance between them growing with each step. “Not much,” he replied, returning the football.
Their words were tossed back and forth to match the ball as they jogged around the park. After a few minutes, they settled on a spot, standing about ten yards apart as they played catch. The football spiralled in the air between them in graceful arcs.
Finally, Johnny tossed the football at Mark and then came hurtling after it. He tackled his best friend and they tumbled to the ground. The ball was knocked out of Mark’s hands as he and Johnny wrestled in the grass, laughing as they each tried to pin the other.