It’s too soon to be back to work, I thought to myself when I walked into the building. Vacations have a habit of quickly becoming the norm, leaving things like work and responsibilities to become abstract concepts. Yet, here I was waving hello to co-workers, breathing in the smells of coffee and stress while walking to my boss’ office.
I knocked lightly, halfway hoping he didn’t hear me.
“Come in,” he called. I could tell from his tone that he was irritated. Quietly, I closed the door behind me and took in the scene in front of me. “I told you I wanted that story done yesterday.”
“I…I…I’m,” stuttered the young man. He stood timidly in front of the mahogany desk.
“Is it done, now?”
“Speak, man,” the man behind the desk demanded of the one that stood in front of him.
“No, sir,” the young man shook his head first before turning his eyes to the ground in shame.
“Xavier, I know you can do the work. You have the potential to be a great investigator, but potential won’t pay the bills unless you can meet the deadline,” his tone softened a little, but not enough to ease the tension that built in the room. “You have one more day. If your assignment is not turned in by noon tomorrow, you won’t have a job at 12:01pm.”
“Yes, sir,” he said. Xavier walked out of the office quickly. I hoped the defeat in his voice wouldn’t affect his ability to complete his work. My father was always toughest on family and my cousin, Xavier, was learning first hand that being a Williams was not a free ticket to sit back and earn something for doing nothing.
“I hope I wasn’t too hard on him,” my father sighed.
“No, you weren’t too hard on him,” I said. Going around his desk, I kissed his balding head and pat him on the back.
“Ready for your next assignment?” he asked.
“Um, no. I just got back from vacation. I’d like to ease back into work.”
“Ease, huh?” he chuckled.
“Yes,” I answered. “Why? What did you have in mind?”
“I took the liberty of starting it without you. Most of the prelim work is already done.”
“Daddy, what did you do?” I asked looking at his mischievous expression.
“Nothing, Zee. Like I said, I had your secretary delegate most of the work.”
“Why do I have this suspicion I’m not going to like it?”
“I don’t know.”
He wouldn’t give me anymore details. I left his office with an anxious confused energy that I didn’t anticipate so soon after relaxing on the beaches of Maui. Leave it to my father to welcome me home with a mystery assignment.
“Good morning, Miss Williams,” she said getting up from her desk to prepare my morning tea.
“Good morning, Gayle.” I walked past her desk and entered my office. Choosing to sit down on the couch, I was unwilling to take a seat at my desk just yet. “Thank you.”
She set my cup in front of me and nodded her head. “Your messages are organized on the desk. The audio you sent me last week is transcribed and the file is on your computer desktop. Is there anything else you need?”
“No, I’m just… My father said you started the preliminaries for an assignment for me.”
“Well tell me.”
“I think I should show you,” she insisted. Gayle scurried out of the office and returned with her tablet. She took a moment to pull up the screen and handed it to me.
The mental double take lasted only a second, but the grumble continued for at least ten more.
“Your father said you would enjoy it,” she spoke and I could tell my expression caused her to become apprehensive about what to say next.
“And you believed him?”
“I took the liberty of sending another investigator to learn his routine. The most likely place for you to “run into him” would be the coffee shop he frequents during the weekday. Then perhaps you could “happen” to be at the bookstore he visits on Thursdays to check out their new editions on antiques and music history. It’s not very far from the coffee shop.”
“Would you like to know what he’s ordered at the coffee shop?”
“No, I want it to be more natural when we meet for the first time. I know it has to be planned, but the least I could do is be genuinely surprised by his order.”
“From the brief I received, he’s suspected of cheating our client out of several millions of dollars. Your objective is to establish a relationship with him, determine if he did steal the money, and determine if the funds are recoverable. I’ve selected the devices you might need to record your interactions and I’ve already selected the photographer to take pictures while you’re on dates. He specializes in long range photography so you won’t even know he’s there. You just text him the time and place and he’ll forward the pictures by the following business day.”
“I don’t know about all this.”
I went home after I read the profile of the suspect. My father had been assigning me outlandish investigative projects since I was six. He said I was the only one that could take the assignments seriously. I enjoyed the challenge more times than not, but this time, I wasn’t sure.
My love life was already struggling after I found my last boyfriend “borrowing” my black card to buy me gifts. His excuse: nothing he could afford would have been good enough for me. It would have been a point I could accept. My income intimidated many potential suitors. I could have accepted his excuse, except his purchases were all in a size I hadn’t been able to fit since high school.
The man I thought loved me called me every name except the one my parents gave me when his deception was exposed. He continued for several minutes, but one threat to press charges and he quickly hushed. He choose to mumble his discontent as he collected the few items he had at my place. Security escorted him to the lobby and I added his name to my growing list of mistakes.
Sipping a glass of something I brought back from my vacation, I began to type a summary of my research. The guy I learned about in my background search didn’t match up to the profile of one that would steal millions of dollars from someone. Perplexed, I just wanted to take a bath before I went to bed.
In the morning, I put on my usual clothing selections – jeans and a button-down shirt. Nothing too tight, but enough for someone to notice I had a figure. Apparently, I needed to form a relationship with him to accomplish my assignment. I didn’t want to look like a woman on the hunt, but that’s exactly what I was. My decision was to take the natural approach first, I could modify it later. He walked in at his usual time and I was right behind him. There were two more people in front of us in the line.
“Excuse me,” I said before I touched his arm to get his attention. He turned around and faced me. The photographs didn’t capture what was before me very well. I had to look away for a moment. “Umm, have you been here before?” I raised my eyebrows to add to the effect which was real. I had never been to this particular brand of coffee shop before. They never appealed to me. In fact, I preferred to get my liquid refreshment from somewhere else.
“Uh, yes,” he answered hesitantly. I wasn’t sure why he seemed so shy, but it was endearing to say the least.
“Anything you recommend?”
“I normally just get a coffee.”
“I don’t really drink coffee.”
“And yet you’re here…in a coffee shop.” I suppose it was funny that I was in a place that specialized in the caffeinated beverage only to say I don’t drink the stuff. I smiled at the irony he discovered.
“I know, but I guess I just wanted to see if they had anything else to offer.”
“Um, my sister likes the smoothies.”
“Great idea. The berry one looks delicious.”
“I think I might try that one next time I come.” His turn had come and he walked to the counter to order his usual coffee. The girl behind the register was mesmerized by him, but it seemed as if he barely noticed. She was crushing hard and he was oblivious to the effect he had on her. It was cute, but I wasn’t here to observe cuteness. I had a job to do.
My turn came and I ordered the smoothie. The cashier barely heard me with her eyes still on her previous customer. When my order was paid for, I moved to the side to wait for the finished product.
“Thanks for your help,” I said when I stood next to him at the pickup counter.
He left before I did. I could tell he wanted to say something more, but he seemed hesitant.
“My mom said there’s a great bookstore nearby, but I haven’t been able to find anyone that knows about it. You wouldn’t happen to know where it is, would you?” I found him standing outside by the newsstand next to the coffee shop. I spoke as I walked toward him taking in the smile that started at the corners of his mouth before consuming his face. He wore the expression effortlessly.
“Actually, there’s one two blocks down this way. I’m on my way there.”
“Really?! So I could just follow you?”
“Or you could just walk with me.”
“True. It would be kind of weird to follow you there. I wouldn’t want you to get the idea that I’m stalking you.”
“I don’t think I would mind, but if we walked together, I might find the courage to ask what’s your name.”
“It’s Zee,” I answered.
“Your name is a letter of the alphabet?”
“No, that’s my nickname. My name is Zerlene, but most just call me Zee. You?”
We strolled to the bookstore. Our pace was slower than my normal gait, but I could tell he wanted to take our time getting there. I’m sure the photographer was somewhere capturing this moment. We talked about the type of book I was “looking” for. Randomly, I thought of art. It was for my mother so I didn’t have to pretend to know anything. The conversation flowed easily and I almost didn’t want it to end, but we had arrived at our destination and he said something about receiving a text saying he had to go.
“I hope you don’t think I’m being too forward, but I would love to take you to dinner sometime.”
“I think I would like that too.”
We planned for a date in two weeks after he returned from a business trip. He offered to pick me up, but I declined. Despite my extensive research and criminal background checks, I felt better about meeting him there.
As the date approached, I grew more anxious. We talked everyday and after every conversation I quickly took notes like he was a suspect instead of a prospect for a relationship. I objectified him, he was part of my investigation.
At least he was supposed to be. But sometime before our date, my anxiety level peaked and I knew that he changed from being solely an object for my investigation to someone I began to care about. I thrived on his morning phone calls before I went to work. His voice lingered on my ears well after I hung up the phone.
“This is just an assignment, Zee. This is just an assignment.” I smoothed my dress and checked myself in the mirror before returning to the barstool I had been warming for the last ten minutes.
“You look even better than I remembered,” a familiar voice said behind me. I turned around and took in the one that I waited for. His tall frame towered over me, but his smile was all I could focus on.
“Hi,” I cooed. I could feel all the resolve I had to keep this a professional encounter leave and a teenage school girl mentality had taken its place. His arms surrounded me and I caught myself before I let out the moan that started in my throat. He looked like a dream and smelled like heaven.
Four weeks, several dates, and a hundred phone calls later, my professionalism took several seats during the month. Each morning I woke up and told myself, he was just an assignment. The serious face I’d worn in the morning since forever always cracked into a smile when Andrew’s caller ID popped up.
“Good morning,” I said after I pressed the green button to accept his call.
“Good morning, beautiful.” His voice was unbelievably deep this morning. Besides the smile, he was causing more reactions than I needed this early in the morning.
“You sound like you’re still in bed.”
“I am. I decided to take the day off.”
“Oooo, that sounds nice.”
“You should take the day off with me, Zee.”
“Ummm, I don’t know. I have a meeting with my boss in an hour and…”
“And…nothing except work.”
“Which you could do at my place.”
“Your place, huh?”
“I think you could find it.” He paused for a moment and I didn’t have anything to fill the silence. My mind was arguing with my heart which leapt at the mention of spending more time together. “How about this? I’m leaving to go to the store soon. I’ll send you the address. If you come through, that would be amazing. If not, call me when you get off, maybe we can go to dinner. Okay?”
We hung up the phone and I took a moment to sit in my parked car and collect myself. So far this man had managed to start a war in my brain, raise my body temperature, and elevate my blood pressure.
“Gayle, clear my schedule for the remainder of the day after the meeting with my father,” I called out to my assistant. Sitting at my desk, looking around my office, I decided I wanted to take up Andrew’s offer.
“Yes, ma’am,” she said as she placed my usual cup of tea in front of me. “There’s a package on your desk. It was delivered yesterday after you left.”
“Thank you,” I said absently.
She left, closing the door behind her. I had an hour to prepare for my meeting. It was more of a presentation on how my investigation was coming along.
“Hi, daddy,” I said kissing him on his cheek. I sat down on the couch next to him.
“Hi, baby girl. I’ve been looking at your notes and pictures. It looks like you should be wrapping up this investigation soon.”
“Um-hmm,” I nodded.
“Have you been able to find out if he stole the money from our client?”
“Umm, no, not yet.”
He paused to look through a few more pictures. “…If I didn’t know any better I would believe you really like him.”
I bit my lip at the end of his statement. I looked at the pictures he held in his hands from our third date. It was the first time he touched me.
He offered his arm whenever we walked somewhere and gave me a hug to begin and end our dates, but that was the extent of our contact. That night he placed his hand on my back. Higher and I would have thought he was pushing me along. Lower and he would have been slapped. He placed it just right and I felt the sensation you get when the roller coaster goes down. He continued to talk about whatever it was he was talking about, but I stopped paying attention. I’m sure if the lighting had been sufficient he would have seen the flush in my cheeks. He literally singlehandedly robbed me of any coolness I had before that moment.
“Zee, Zerlene, you okay, baby?” my father’s increasing volume brought me back to the present.
“Umm, I think so. I was going to take the rest of the day off.”
“It’s a little early, but maybe you should go home and rest.”
I left the office and followed the directions my phone gave me to get to Andrew’s place. I looked for the door to what looked like a very old building. The first floor was an antique store. Confident that I arrived at the correct address, I knew it was only a matter of finding the door to the second floor.
“It’s a secret entrance,” I heard behind me. I turned and smiled at the man carrying bags of groceries.
“Please, lead the way.” Andrew passed me a bag and walked to the side where he opened a door I’m not sure I would have identified without him. “This is a nice store here.”
“My father runs it for me. Antiques have always been his passion. So I told myself when I had enough money, I was going to give him a store to run. He does pretty well for not having any previous customer service experience.”
“That was nice of you.”
“What can I say? I’m a pretty nice guy,” he smiled. “I’m nice in the kitchen too. I hope you’re hungry.”
“I could eat.”
“Good, but you’ll have to do a little work before you eat.”
“I just took off work.”
“Yeah, but it’ll be worth it.”
He made me chop, mince, and shred different ingredients, but in the end it was worth it.
“I didn’t know you could cook like this.”
“My mother taught me how to handle myself in the kitchen. My brothers would tease me when I put on an apron, but wouldn’t have a word to say at the dinner table.”
“This loft is amazing,” I said walking around. The decor was simple, but elegant.
“My sister helped me decorate. She wants to be an interior designer so I gave her my place as her first assignment.”
“I might need her number,” I said half-serious. My phone rang and I searched my bag for it. Taking out almost everything to get to the bottom, I missed the call in the end. It was my ex. I’m glad I didn’t catch it in time.
“My ex just called.” I started to put my things back in my purse when he started to walk over to me. He used his thumb to smooth the creases that formed on my forehead.
“Let those thoughts go,” he said softly. He took my hand and we sat on the couch. Something fell, but my mind was on kissing his lips. His eyes left mine and traveled to the floor. “Zee?”
“Why do you have pictures of us?” He picked up the package I just received from the photographer today. I opened it in the car to skim through a few, but I must have forgotten to close it. “Who’s been taking pictures of us? What is this?”
“Andrew, I…we need to talk,” I started. His mouth closed and he sat silent while I explained the assignment my father gave me to find out if he was a thief. “I didn’t know I would fall for you like I did. I started looking at these pictures in the car, and…I’m just trying to find a way to tell my father I can’t do this anymore.”
He sat there for a few minutes. His expression was anything, but blank. If I judged correctly, I saw hurt, disgust, anger, sadness, and countless others I hoped would end with how he felt about me just a few moments ago.
“I’m trying to wrap my brain around how it’s possible that one can deceive someone so perfectly and still have hope that just because the deception is exposed it’s going to be just fine.”
It was my turn to be silent, but I couldn’t. I could hear the beginnings of my heart breaking and I had to do everything possible to stop the cracks from spreading.
“Don’t say another word.” He took his hands and rubbed his face before he pat his thighs and stood up. “I didn’t steal anything. If you had asked me, I could have told you about how my grandfather passed away several years ago leaving me a huge amount of money that I couldn’t touch until I turned 25. Your client is just upset that I left her after finding out she was cheating on me. Most likely she took the money, but no one ever thinks to look at the one pointing the finger. I think it’s time for you to go.”
I picked up my purse and walked out. Later, I would remember that I left the pictures behind, but that would be days later. For now, I could only trace the internal cracks that continued to form until my heart was in pieces. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. He was supposed to overlook my deception. He was supposed to forgive me and realize that despite everything, what we had was real. He was supposed to stop me from walking out the door and kiss me, telling me he didn’t care how we found each other, what we had was real. He was supposed to run out to the car, yelling for me to come back; he just let his emotions get in the way for a moment, but now he can see that he’s the only one for me and I’m the only one for me. He was supposed to follow me home, and, when I opened the door, make love to me, and tell me he’s in love with me as much if not more than I’m in love with him. He’s supposed to call me and say we need to talk, and we work through the difficult reality of what happened, but eventually we end up right where we’re supposed to be…together.
Instead, I sat in my bed nursing my second glass of wine as the stream of tears that started in the car became an avalanche and the hollowness in my chest spread throughout the rest of my body. I was amazed how the absence of one person could leave me feeling so empty and helpless.
I must have called him a hundred times and sent a thousand text messages, but he must have blocked my number. It was two weeks before I could go through my day and not breakdown at the thought of him. A month, for me to say more than just ‘hello’ to any guy that had been checking me out since I walked into a place. I knew who I wanted, I was just waiting for him to realize I was who he wanted.
I saw him once, but I don’t think he saw me. He looked happy with some girl sitting next to him in a booth eating pizza. I was tempted to approach him, but I couldn’t take another rejection. I still hadn’t found all the pieces to my shattered heart, and I wasn’t confident in the glue that held together the ones I did find.
My father sent an apology to Andrew after I proved that the client had wrongfully accused him of theft. It wasn’t something he did normally, but because I told Andrew about the investigation, my father thought it was necessary. My father was already selecting a new assignment for me. He could tell something was off, but I discouraged his probing.
I found myself taking walks in the park more often than before. The mindless motion of placing one foot in front of the other along a path that would bring me back to where I started allowed me to clear my mind. I passed a newspaper stand that displayed headlines of a scandal in a well known family and decided to sit on one of the benches instead.
“I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do?” Andrew sat down next to me still looking forward. His voice cut through the craziness in my mind. I wanted to reach out to touch him, but I knew he’d probably turn me away. Instead, I reached out with my voice.
“Us.” We sat for a moment as people walked by. The silence was uncomfortable and his presence made it unbearable.
“I saw you the other day eating pizza with some girl. I figured you moved on.”
He smiled, “I thought I saw you. That girl was my sister.” He paused and It seemed like an eternity before he spoke again. “I was mad for a really long time, Zee.”
“I’m sorry.” I could feel the tears that stopped a couple weeks ago build up pressure. “I just…”
“I talked to your father the other day. He thought I came in for compensation, but I just wanted to talk.” He took a deep breath. “I guess I just wanted to know this wasn’t a game to you. I’ve been hurt too many times before and…”
“I guess what I’m trying to say is, I don’t want to continue our relationship. It started in deception and I…”
“I understand,” I stood up and started towards the office.
“Zee, I want to start over.” I stopped. “I…can I get your number?”
“Can you get my number?” I repeated unsure that I heard him correctly.
“I’m sorry. I’ve never had much game, so, I wasn’t sure which pick up line to use. My brothers always told me what they used, but I could never see myself saying those things.” He looked down and smiled to himself. When he looked up, the smile was still on his face. “So what do you say? Can I call you?”
I took a piece of paper out of my purse and wrote my number. He took it from my hand and smiled.
“Now is this really your number or am I going to be calling some random person?” The number was different from the number he had before. Of course, that phone was a disposable number used for investigations. This time I wrote down my personal number.
“It’s my number.”
I walked back into my office, sat at my desk, and smiled. I placed my hands on my chest and breathed. It was the first breath in a long time I took that didn’t feel an ache. The start of my ringtone made me jump out of my moment. When I looked at the caller ID, I smiled and pressed the green button.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t wait to call you.”
by Angelique Grey
notes: this story was formally known as “The Investigator” – if anyone has read this before, I am the author.