Since I started blogging, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with many fascinating people and, in doing so, post some very interesting interviews. I’ll do that again next week when I share my conversation with “snarky, un-cozy, un-culinary” mystery author EM Kaplan. This week, however, I venture into uncharted waters when, for the first time, I post some original content that is not my own. Ms. Kaplan’s latest novel is titled Dim Sum, Dead Someand she’s graciously provided the first chapter for our entertainment. Enjoy. And check back in in a week to learn more about Kaplan and her work.
“I need you to talk me down from a ledge.” Holding her cell phone to her ear, Josie stood on the sidewalk on Beach Street with her back to the San Francisco wharf. Above her, the bright Ghirardelli lights winked at her in the dusky twilight, seducing her. The sign beckoned to her like a lover, a lactose lothario, a casein casanova.
She shivered even though the temperature was nearly twenty degrees warmer than at home in Boston. Here, the sun was just now setting, night cloaking the bay in darkness, the lights shining on the water. She could hear the occasional squawk from an ocean bird, the low bellow of a boat horn on the bay. The air smelled like ocean and fish, and Italian food. She wasn’t far from North Beach, and the wind was blowing the aroma of garlic straight to her nose. She sniffed again. Maybe someone nearby was simmering clams in white wine—San Francisco was an olfactory paradise for a food critic. Especially one who couldn’t eat.
Josie’s hooded sweater and denim jacket were doing a good job of keeping out the wind and helping her to blend in with the smattering of tourists trying to be hipsters with their hands in the holes of their sweaters, just like the song. She was seeing a whole lot of funky, knitted caps and ferocious “statement” beards walking around the wharf this evening as she stood blinking at the Ghirardelli sign. She shivered again, not from the cold, but from the fact that she was about to do something very, very bad to her stomach.
On the other end of her phone, her boyfriend Drew said, “Are you anywhere near the Golden Gate Bridge?” His boyfriend status was a recent development for them. They had been long-time friends, college buddies who had recently discovered that they were better off dating. Much, much better off, she thought, her insides doing an unnatural happy wiggle from top to toe. Grouchiness was her natural state, but Josie and Drew were two flavors that perfectly complemented each other. Peaches and cream. Peanut butter and lemon grass. Bacon and beetroot. Bacon and, well, anything.
“Noooo,” she said, not able to keep the rise out of her voice, which made it sound like a question. She noted with amusement that he didn’t sound too worried. He didn’t believe for a second that she would intentionally harm herself. Should she be worried that he wasn’t worried? Maybe it was better not to overthink that one.
“You’re not by the Bay Bridge?” he continued, “Or any other body of water or tall building—nothing you could fall off? Coit Tower? You’re not cutting in line at the deli counter at Whole Foods? Nowhere you could get hurt?” Although he was joking, he knew about her propensity for getting into bad situations, ones in which she ended up with fractured bones.
She let out a long breath, which lifted the hair on her forehead. “I’m standing in front of Ghirardelli Square,” she said with false bravado. The part about getting hurt was debatable if she wanted to include further injury to her testy gut. She was struggling to sort out her recent food intolerance issues. Not a good thing for a food critic. Not at all.
The phone rattled as Drew switched ears. She could suddenly hear him better, as if he’d left the noisy cafeteria of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston where he was doing doctor’s rounds and had entered an office or a janitorial closet or something. “Don’t do it, Josie,” he said, crystal-clear and serious. He was inordinately concerned about the well-being of her stomach. Which was understandable, considering he was her physician as well as her boyfriend; she could barely even think the word without smiling like a dope.
She elaborated, throwing in a little extra drama to push her point. “Ghirardelli is an internationally famous ice cream shop and chocolatier. They’re known world-wide. As in, around the entire globe. There’s probably someone far away, in some place like Bora Bora, who is thinking about Ghirardelli chocolate right this very minute,” she said. “I’m standing here, within touching distance. Yesterday, I was in Boston, three thousand miles away from this temptation and now here I am. Standing in front of it. I mean, right in front of it.” She deliberately blinked a couple of times to make the sign wink at her in a flirtatious manner.
“Okay, listen to me, Josie,” Drew said, his deep voice sounding a little hassled, all scratchy and irritable, which made her insides warm up. She wished she could touch him, especially that soft patch of skin right below his ear that… He interrupted her thoughts, admonishing her. “Don’t think of The Now, think of The Later. If you eat that stuff, you’re going to be in a world of pain.” His unspoken meaning was that he wouldn’t be nearby to help her with the aftermath as he had been before on occasion.
He had a fair point. They were on opposite sides of the country this week. She needed to behave responsibly. Not only would she be alone, moaning on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night with him thousands of miles away, but her entire career as a food critic relied on her stomach’s well-being. She needed to let it heal, to baby it, to treat it right. Who knew how lenient Julieanne, her boss at the Daily News, would be if she ever discovered the current extent of Josie’s diet limitations. Josie could no longer eat dairy. Spicy foods and gluten were on the chopping block next if her gastric problems didn’t clear up soon. She could fool her editor only so long without feeling like the world’s biggest phony, the most massive liar on the planet, especially after Julieanne had agreed to convert her column to blog format and to keep her on the payroll even though print subscriptions were dwindling more and more each day. True, the ad sales from Josie’s blog alone were keeping their department afloat, but Josie didn’t like being dishonest. At least about the little things.
Telling Julieanne she’d felt great hadn’t been a lie the last time Josie had spoken with her. Right after the adventure in Arizona that led to Josie’s broken ribs and concussion, her stomach had been as good as new. Back home in Boston, she’d been able to eat whatever she’d wanted. Creamy New England clam chowder. Cheese-filled blintzes. Pizzeria Uno and Due—she would have eaten Tre, too, if that existed. Take that, mysterious malaise. Sayonara, stomach upset. Adios, anxiety. But now in March, a few months later—so recent from her last tussle with bad guys that she was still afraid to sneeze for fear of hurting her ribs—her stomach was acting up again. Yes, her digestion was a cruel, capricious mistress.
“Talk to me, Josie, what are you thinking?” Drew demanded, still on the line while she’d been wool-gathering. She liked this bossy side of him; it gave her something to rebel against. Plus…it was kind of hot.
“You’re absolutely right,” she told him. “I’ll fight it. I’ll be in control. I’ll be responsible.”
“That’s right, babe,” he said. “Stay strong. You don’t need it. Resist that triple chocolate ice cream soda.”
She fell silent, drool suddenly pooling in her mouth.
“I shouldn’t have mentioned that last part,” he said, sighing. She could almost see him running a hand through his dark, thick hair. Torturing his scalp was his go-to frustration move, and she saw it often.
“I’ll call you later,” she said, and touched the red button on her phone’s screen, still hearing his parting groan of frustration. She stared at the tiny photo of Drew’s handsome face on her phone’s screen. She wanted to touch the thumbnail, as if she were petting him, but putting her fingertip on it would call him back. So she refrained.
Then with a certain, self-aware fatalism, she stepped toward the bright, sparkly Ghirardelli lights.
A week earlier, Josie had been sitting on the ratty couch in her apartment in Boston not too far from the Green Monster at Fenway, proofreading her latest blog entry aloud to her dog Bert, when her cell phone vibrated. It took her several seconds to identify the buzzing sound—her cell phone was a recent acquisition due to the trouble she’d had out in Arizona—and then it took another couple of seconds to figure out which button to press to answer the call. There it was. The green one. Duh. Tech expert, she could never claim to be.
Her caller ID failed her. The phone screen said only “Private Caller,” but she recognized Greta Williams’s steely voice immediately by its cool greeting, which was just one word: “Josie.”
Josie patted Bert’s broad, bony head—part Labrador, part army tank—and countered with, “I’m a little disturbed by the Svengali role you’ve assumed with me.” Was Greta Williams a Svengali, the evil person who dominated and controlled her, yet mesmerized her at the same time? Yeah, kinda. Maybe Josie’s delivery had been a little rude, but it was the truth. Of course, she meant it. Josie always meant what she said. It wasn’t her fault that other people refused to believe she wasn’t a people person. They always thought her grumpiness was cute…as if she would joke about a thing like that.
Greta wasn’t fazed by Josie’s bluntness. Instead, she said, “I have another business proposition for you.”
Words Josie both dreaded and craved. How sick was that? It was because of Greta and her horrible offspring that Josie had nearly bitten the dust—literally—in Arizona just a few months ago in autumn. It was because of the Williams family that Josie had bad dreams about weddings, wedding dresses, wedding shoes, and matching handbags. Being “almost-killed” changed a person’s outlook on life—it had made Josie less prone to wasting time, more likely to cut right to the point. In the past couple of months, she had taken stock of the most important things in her life: friends, family, and food. The three Fs. True, she’d done a lot of philosophizing from the comfort—and safety—of her couch, but she had decided that if she saw something she wanted in life, she was going to speak up about it. At least, that was the plan.
Yet, she had missed hearing from Greta Williams, the old battle-axe, during the last few weeks. They’d come to a certain understanding and while they weren’t kindred spirits necessarily, they had a healthy respect for each other. All Josie’s medical bills had been paid in full and, because of her brush with evil, her friends were more precious to her now than ever. So, no harm done, right? Except Greta, it appeared, had Josie’s new unlisted cell phone number. On speed dial, no doubt.
“What can I do for you?” Josie had said, compulsively saving her work to her navy blue mini flash drive with its broken lanyard loop. She pushed aside her feeble laptop with her latest blog entry because she needed her full attention for this chat with Greta, and if her laptop fell asleep, there was no guarantee it would wake up. After all their time together, her Dell deserved to die peacefully in its sleep, so Josie was trying to mentally and emotionally prepare herself for that day. And to remember to back up her work as compulsively as an OCD person reaching for antibacterial hand soap.
What could Greta Williams want now? Chances were, Josie would be able to do a quick errand for her Beacon Hill benefactor and possibly earn enough cash for a new laptop and a new piece of costume jewelry for her mother who had dementia—something shiny for Mama to look at since she was in a nursing home. Josie hadn’t gotten very good interaction during their visits in the past few months, but her mother had cooed over the crystal light catcher Josie had hung in her window the last time. So yes, Josie was a little mercenary when it came to running other people’s errands, but her heart was in the right place. That should count for something, right?
With her patented formality, ever a testament to her Boston blue blood, Greta said, “I would like you to go to San Francisco for me.”
Well. So much for a quick errand.
“And why is that?” Josie asked, making bug-eyes at Bert. He had as much of a chance of guessing Greta’s agenda as Josie did. Her dog—part pony, possibly—thumped his tail a couple times, and then heaved his big brown body onto Josie’s slipper, jabbing her on the top of the foot with his bony elbow. Did dogs even have elbows? His knee-bow or whatever…
“I’m interested in investing a second round of funding into a small start-up software business that is based in the Bay Area. The company is called Applied Apps.” Greta paused while that salient bit of information traveled the input pipe to Josie’s brain.
Applied Apps? Despite being a generic and altogether forgettable moniker for any company with aspirations, the name was ringing a bell. A faint little chime that got louder and louder. Josie wracked her brain. Did she know any small businesses like that? Why would a little start-up software company in Northern California sound so familiar? Josie had only ever been as far north as Santa Cruz that one time in high school she’d stolen her uncle’s Chevy truck and…Aha. Susan’s boyfriend. Of course.
Josie’s best friend Susan had a Silicon Valley sweetheart named James whom she had been dating long-distance for almost a year. Which was bizarre, because Susan was so Golden-Age-of-Hollywood beautiful, so Veronica Lake lovely with her porcelain skin, loose blonde curls, high cheekbones and natural elegance, it was almost impossible to think of any guy dating her and not wanting to see her, to be near her daily. When Susan walked into a coffee shop, people of both genders dropped their cups. Crumbs fell out of open mouths. Throats gulped. Next to her, Josie always felt like Kato—the Green Hornet’s Asian sidekick, only female and crazy—though she would never admit it out loud. This modern couple, however, Skyped and Face-Timed often, so maybe seeing pixelated versions of each other over broadband was enough for them.
Josie, obviously, still didn’t get it. When she was with Drew, she liked holding his hand, seeing his little frown of concentration when he was reading a book or a medical journal, and feeling the warmth of his leg when he sat close to her on the sofa—the little wordless moments between them. The internet was great and all, but skin-to-skin contact with the person she wanted to be with, the guy she had the hots for, was the best thing ever. Dopey smile alert. Again.
Susan and James had met online many years ago. They had met posting on a message board, so they had a long-term virtual friendship that had started even before internet dating was a legitimate thing. It was before all that matesforlife.com, datemydog.com, and whatnot. Another mental shrug from Josie, because how could James have seen how gorgeous Susan was from just a little profile picture? Or maybe that was the point for Susan—with James, she would always know he had chosen her for her personality and not her looks. Hmm. That was one to ponder.
Josie had learned that by day, James Yu worked for a very large and established operating system company in Cupertino—not Apple, but one of its many robust, long-lived competitors that was probably not even a blip on the Apple radar. Nevertheless, James’s company employed thousands of people and had been in operation for several decades, one of those staples of the software industry that kept plodding along, dot-com bust or not. His day-job company was probably buoyed up by government contracts or, even better, the banking industry…which in turn was bailed out by the government. Josie pictured the whole cycle as a modern-day fiscal Ouroborous, that mythical creature that grew only because it ate its own tail.
Outside the nine-to-five, James and a fellow-coworker named Ivan had started a business venture on their own, making…Josie had no clue. Something else software-y. Here was where her brain fuzzed out whenever Susan went into details. It was definitely something to do with the internet, and that was about as specific as Josie could get. From what Greta Williams was telling her now, maybe she should have paid more attention.
“…I invested twenty thousand dollars with them three months ago,” Greta was saying. “And another twenty upon delivery.”
“Let me get this straight,” Josie said as her brain plugged back into the conversation. She’d missed the first figure Greta had mentioned, but the rest added up to forty thousand. Even to a woman with pockets as deep as Greta’s, losing that much had to be irritating. She wouldn’t quite be reduced to parking the Bentley on the corner lot with a For Sale sign taped inside the windshield, but the loss had to smart. Especially the hit on her ego. Greta had a large one, which Josie admired and held in awe, more so than if it were a eight-carat diamond on a starlet’s finger. She figured she could never have too many role models.
Josie continued, “You gave James and Ivan a round of funding based on their proof of concept for their…project.” Here, she fudged, obviously, because she had no clue what their company did. “And now you want a demonstration of their product or a show of progress before you give them the final round?”
“Correct,” Greta said.
“And you know that my friend Susan is dating James?”
“Yes,” Greta confirmed.
“And you want me to go out there to surreptitiously observe and determine whether you’re making a sound investment?”
“Yes,” Greta said again.
Josie said it again, just to be clear and maybe to press a few of Greta’s buttons, “You want to know if you have given a lot of cash to a couple of irresponsible bozos and you want me to snoop around and see if you’ll ever see your money again?”
After a pause and a little click, which might have been Greta’s teeth snapping together, the older woman said, “Precisely.”
Josie thought for a minute. Obviously, this was no coincidence. Greta was extended her far-reaching tentacles not only into Josie’s life, but into her friends’ lives. Rather than feeling outraged or ready to launch into a lecture on boundaries and personal space, Josie felt…warm inside? Someone cared for her enough to snoop into her life.
In addition, here was a chance to scope out James on someone else’s dime. Susan was one of only a small handful of people on this little green marble called earth for whom Josie cared, deeply, and it mattered to Josie very much whether James was worthy of her friend. Susan’s parents were disengaged, self-absorbed with their retiree lifestyle in Savannah. Who else was there to look out for her, to have her back? Who other than Josie had been with Susan loyally these last ten years? Josie barely had to think about it.