New York, September, 2013
He didn’t look like the hotel guests, the business people, or the tourists. He didn’t move like them either.
He brushed past me as I climbed off my Vespa, stilettos in hand, outside the entrance of the Waldorf Astoria. Had he smiled at the radiance of my scarlet ball gown? Or was he amused by my battered Converse sneakers?
As a valet approached to take my scooter and helmet, I spotted my boss, Malcolm, waving hello from the lobby. He was approaching the glass doors that separated us when I noticed a small wooden box on the ground. Two steps later, I had picked it up. Who could have dropped it?
No one was close by, so I turned. The only man who’d passed me was already a half block away, gliding beside the cars that waited for the lights to change at the end of the block. Was it his?
What I knew for sure was that now wasn’t the time to be tracking down the little box’s owner. I should hand it in to reception and concentrate on the evening ahead. For a few seconds, I relaxed as I studied the hotel’s confident, soaring opulence—a world unknown to me before my arrival from Nantucket four years ago. The smooth texture of the box, however, drew my thoughts back to it. Was there something valuable inside? What if it did belong to that man, and he never returned to collect it? I turned the box over—and caught my breath.
“How on earth…?”
Malcolm emerged in front of me. “Hello, darling, you look absolutely—are you okay?”
I thrust my sparkly evening shoes into his hands, and hitched up my shawl. I was about to give chase when a convertible Ferrari lurched to a stop beside me.
“Going my way, babe?” its driver shouted, over the thrum of the engine.
But my dress was redder, and I got the better start.
The Ferrari leapt forward, and the driver middle-fingered a BMW, triggering a duel of blasting horns that ricocheted around the street. I was sprinting now, with Grandma’s trusty evening bag bouncing under my shoulder. I weaved between the oncoming gowns and dark tuxedos that ambled toward the hotel’s art deco entrance, a stride…two strides…three strides ahead of the Ferrari, with my scarlet shawl streaming behind. Surprised glances. Someone called, “Teal Douglas?”
“Sorry—can’t…stop!” I answered, without turning.
The man I was chasing didn’t seem to be hurrying; preoccupied was the word that sprung to mind. But he certainly covered the ground quickly, without apparent effort.
He slipped round the corner onto East 50th Street. The traffic was building, and I could see the evening throng thickening, bolstered by more guests heading my way.
Out of sight now, there was a real danger I’d lose him. Then I realized what a fool I’d look if I caught him and the box wasn’t his! So I glanced at it again, at the scratched writing on its underside. Yes. I hadn’t imagined it.
Rounding the corner, I side-stepped an old lady and without slowing, scanned the street. Ahead, a taxi door slammed. Was that him? In tan chinos, navy dock shoes? Or had he crossed the road and disappeared? Instinct told me he was in the cab, and I went with instinct. But I mistimed a dodge, and the shriek of rending fabric brought me to a sudden stop.
A blushing jogger stepped off the hem of my dress.
“Hey, Lady! Where’s the fire?”
I didn’t dare look because I knew the tear was bad. Looking ahead at the taxi, I called out, “Wait! You dropped this!” with the box held high.
I looped the torn tails of my gown over my arm and rushed on. For twenty strides, the gap closed. Then a delivery van changed lanes, and the cab pulled out.
Another shout and the passenger turned. Yes, it was him! Strange…he heard me over the roar of the traffic? Though low in the sky, the sun threw a band of light across a face with an expression that blended surprise with humor. A face I’d rather like opposite me tonight, at the Annual Musculus Media Awards dinner. But now my dress was torn, my hair messed up. I felt hot too. I mouthed Please stop! but, as if in slow motion, the taxi and its passenger were swept away.
Catching my breath on the street corner, I ignored the staring passersby and fiddled with the torn ends of my once beautiful dress. A window reflection confirmed the bow I’d tied wasn’t bad, in fact, it wasn’t bad at all. Giovanni’s salon masterpiece though—my plaited bun—was a disaster. By jettisoning a few hair pins, I was able to restore some symmetry.
Walking back to collect my heels from a bemused Malcolm (and my thoughts), I noticed the box fitted snugly in my palm. As my finger stroked the well-sanded surface, I ran a nail along its snug join lines. When I shook the box, something rattled, but despite pulling and twisting, it refused to open. Obviously made with skill, it offered little compensation for my disheveled appearance.
Why—tonight of all nights—had I been so impulsive? But deep down I knew the answer: I was a sucker for a mystery, and this strange box with the carved writing was right up there with UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, and relationships that actually worked.
I stopped under the iconic entrance awning beneath the gleaming sign that announced the hotel’s name, and dropped the box in my bag to be inspected later, when I wasn’t in such a rush. Maybe then I’d discover a pressure point, and it would spring open. Mystery solved. I’d have time to fiddle with it over dinner or after the result was announced. The result! I caught my breath as I wondered what awaited me in the hotel ballroom where my colleagues would be collecting, laughing, drinking and discussing…me.
Then I froze as people turned and stared. A Rolls Phantom had sighed up to the curb. I backed against a wall to avoid the surge of the crowd. The praying mantis concierge oozed forward, and the chauffeur skipped round to open the passenger door.
“The media magician’s here,” a man in a tan raincoat beside me said.
“I heard Ronny’s onto the old fox—expect a bloodbath,” his friend answered.
They dropped their cigarettes, and stepped forward. Two dozen more paparazzi jumped to camera-flashing attention. They focused on the older man in the immaculate white tux who slid from the car. Overhead lighting gleamed on patent leather shoes as he applied a three degree correction to his buttonhole rose.
“Basil, look here!”
“Give us a smile!”
“Yo, over here, guy!”
He continued to adjust his cuffs and smile until the camera motor drives fell silent.
He delivered a courteous, “Good evening, gentlemen.” Spotting my buddy Natalie with her Nikon, he arched an eyebrow and added, “Excuse me. Lady and gentlemen.”
A voice carried from the thicket of lenses. “Sir Basil, there’s a story on the grapevine that all’s not quite as it seems at Musculus. Would you care to comment?”
Sir Basil’s eyes leveled on the journalist. “Ronny, isn’t it? My dear fellow, my interest in grapes and for that matter, vines, is limited to First Growth Bordeaux recommendations from my wine merchants.”
“Oh, he’s good!” The man beside me said.
Had I detected a quiver in Sir Basil’s voice? If I had, it was gone when he added, “I’m here for an important annual event, not to give interviews. Now, if you’ll excuse me….” He stepped purposefully towards the hotel’s main doors.
Taking a deep breath, I darted past the pressing crowd and headed inside.
Let the fun begin.
Chapter One, Something in the Water
Copyright Ⓒ 2015 Ben Huxley Starling
Something in the Water, An Ocean Romance is available now at Amazon. This full length novel in the soul-stirring collection from Ben Starling continues the journey begun in Something in the Air, a short story also available on Amazon.
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