As magical as technology had become, phone calls never seemed to change: whether over physical wires or invisible signals darting through the sky, tinny and alien voices still endured. “Bernard, I’m sorry, but we can’t have you alone at home right now,” she said. Behind the distortion, perhaps she was sympathetic, perhaps condescending. The poor connection made anything possible.
Bernard clutched his own phone tighter and muttered. “What is this babysitter bullshit?”
A sigh that should’ve been directed at a recalcitrant toddler echoed in his ear. The likely judgment tipped, and not in his favor. “Do you really want me to say it?”
Steam curled up and out of Bernard’s chipped coffee mug. “Yes.”
Her tone turned clipped. “Fine. We can’t have you drunk at an ethics hearing. Just stay at the cafe until two, show up to the hearing sober, and then you can do whatever you goddamn please.”
In another era, a decisive slam of handset to receiver would have captured her opinion of him. Instead, the line just went quiet.
Bernard pocketed his phone with precision. Outside the smudged front window, a beat cop pretended not to keep an eye on him. A rookie, thumbs in his belt loops, shoulders back, impersonating the thousand yard stare of a British palace guard instead of actually watching the people around him.
A kid in a 49ers jersey at least two sizes too big wended his way past the cop and through the front door, and stood in front of Bernard. “Can I pet your dog?”
Bernard squinted. “I don’t have a dog.”
“Isn’t that one yours?” The kid stepped aside, and a spaniel’s liquid brown eyes filled Bernard’s vision from across the sidewalk.
“Kid, do I look like a guy who owns a dog?”
The kid scowled at him, judgment blazing, and Bernard was abruptly grateful that, whatever sins they committed in their marriage, at least he and his ex had never had children.
Before a debate over the merits of canines could break out, a woman pushed past the kid, who disappeared as if he’d never been. She froze, silhouetted on the threshold of the cafe, but the wet ends of her hair continued ahead of her impatiently, arcing cold beads of water toward Bernard. He stared down at his t-shirt, at dark spots on gray fabric. It was very nearly artistic.
“Has anyone seen my bag?” she asked an indifferent room.
The silence lengthened beyond what could plausibly be considered a pause, and she ducked down with a sigh, looking first under one table, then a second. She quizzed the cafe’s scant occupants.
A teenager in earbuds who should probably have been in school. A young woman nearly hidden behind a pile of textbooks. Two old men bickering in the corner.
Her shoulders slumped further with every conversation.
Soon she approached Bernard, with just a sliver of hope in her eyes.
Bernard imagined: her leaving the shower, getting dressed for work, and realizing she left her bag down at the cafe twenty minutes before. Was the realization slow and dawning, or sharp and fast?
A part of him itched to straighten his nonexistent tie, speak in those low, reassuring tones, ask a few pointed questions, and produce her bag out of thin air. Perhaps collar a suspect or two. But those days were over, now.
He eyed her diamond ring, her carefully manicured nails.
She’d be fine.
He cleared his throat. “Well, a kid did come in here a minute ago, asking about my dog. Saw him holding a red bag. Was that yours?”
“What, really? Where’d he go?”
Bernard pointed a thumb over his shoulder, north on Guerrero. “That way, I think.”
“Fine. Dammit.” The woman spun on her heel, disappearing out the front door as quickly as she’d appeared.
She nearly collided with the cop outside, who startled as much as she did, the idiot. Through the window they spoke in silent pantomime, her gestures growing more and more agitated until they both finally took off down the street.
Bernard shifted in his chair, waiting for the beat of his heart to steady. After long moments, he carefully let out a breath. He pressed the back of his heel against her bag, wedging it just a bit more securely behind the potted plant next to him.
They’d probably blame it on the flask in his pocket, nearly empty, now. But the truth was, he never could resist a golden opportunity, especially if it might turn into cash. No denomination was too small: fresh from the bank or crumpled and sweaty, it all smelled the same. A bit like wet ink and cigar smoke. Like his father’s old wool sport coat caught in the rain. Come to think of it, that’s where he’d found his first ill-gotten gains. Not that the bastard didn’t deserve it.
Well, his babysitter was off following wild geese. Now who was free to do whatever he damn well pleased? He had until two o’clock. He might as well make the most of it.