Blueberries

This was in response to a writing prompt for The Forge.

Image result for i'm concerned about the blueberries

Note – I do not own rights to this picture. 

“I’m telling you, I can’t do this anymore.” Amanda prided herself on working with difficult characters, but Jake was proving too much, even for her expertise.

“He can’t be that bad.” Brian shifted in his seat across from her, leaning back and folding his arms. “Remember the Venetian job? You handled that Saudi like a pro.”

“I am a pro! The Venetian job was a cakewalk compared to this guy! I admit, if he was a job, I could handle it. But a member of the team? He’s –” She noticed Brian waiting for her to calm down before he responded, so she dropped her voice to a whisper to finish her thought. “Please. I’m begging you. Assign him to someone else.”

Brian gave her a pitying smile. “You know the terms of the agreement.” Jake had caught them in the middle of the job, but instead of compromising the operation – or worse, telling the police – Jake had wanted to join. Amanda’s team members were experts at ditching people, but abandoning their current identities meant abandoning the job. And the 1.6 million dollars with it. “Three more weeks. You can handle him for that long.”

“He called me eleven times this morning. Before six A-M.”

“Would you rather Charles take him?” Ha! The burly member of the their team would squash the nuisance if Jake tried to pull any of this with him.

Amanda turned her head as if considering. “At this point…”

“Amanda.”

She looked at him again.

Everyone is my superior in some way… and in that way I can learn from him, the mantra went.

“I don’t think I can learn anything form him,” Amanda countered, stubborn.

“Then he’ll teach you patience.” Or test it, anyway. “This score is too big to walk away from.”

Her phone buzzed in that moment. She pulled it out – No Caller ID. Had to be a member of their team, so she had to answer it. Perhaps if Brian realized how annoying Jake was, she could convince him to make him someone else’s responsibility.

Amanda answered, hitting the speakerphone button as she put it in the center of the table. “052879.” Their code, identifying themselves by their birthdays. Give the wrong number, or a standard greeting, and it told the agent on the other side about the answering member’s company.

“113061,” Brian chimed in, letting the caller know he was on speakerphone and with whom.

“Blueberry,” came the dramatic whisper from the other side. Jake.

Amanda gave Brian an I-told-you-so look.

In turn, Brian nodded to her and pointed to the phone. Your call. Your man. You correct him.

Whatever Jake’s reason for calling, Amanda prayed it was important. “First of all, you’re supposed to give your six digit number. Second, blueberry is the code word for our target clients, not a greeting. Third, you’re supposed to wait for me to call you, remember?”

There was significant background noise on his end. “I know, but –”

“Are you in a public place?” Even he couldn’t be that stupid, could he?

“So?”

“So go somewhere where people won’t overhear you!”

After a moment, the noise dimmed some, followed by a click of a door. Better, anyway. “It’s been two days already! I’m bored! I want to do something.” He pushed and pulled at the words like an understimulated seven-year-old. “Puh-lease!”

Amanda glanced back at Brian. See what I mean?

He moved his hand, palm up, over the phone between them. You know how to handle this.

“If you don’t stop calling me about noting, I swear I’m going to block your calls.”

Brian gave her a hard look, but they both knew she wasn’t allowed to follow through on the threat. Much as she wanted to.

“You can’t,” Jake answered smugly. “My caller ID is blocked.” At least he didn’t threaten to go to the police with their operation.

The thought gave her an idea, though. If he actually participated in something illegal, he’d be as guilty as Amanda and her team. He wouldn’t be able to go to the cops without incriminating himself. “Tell you what – why don’t we run a little side gig?” After she spoke, she considered Brian might disapprove, but a little nod told her he was on board with the concept.

“You mean it?” Jake sounded sincerely thrilled.

“Sure. Just something small to pass the time.”

“Thank you!”

Amanda had to stop herself from rolling her eyes. Instead, she let her training kick in, forming a plan as she spoke. “There’s an Italian coffee shop on 4th–”

“I know the place,” he interrupted.

“Good. Meet me there in two hours. Dress sharp.”

“I guess I’d better shave then?”

Duh. “Definitely. Goodbye,” she hinted.

“Bye! Nice talking to you! Thanks again for –”

Amanda hung up on him.

Brian leaned back in his chair, flicking his hands out at the table between them. “See? That wasn’t so hard.”

But that afternoon’s adventure might be. “I’m not allowed to kill him, right?” She actually did have the contacts for that, though she knew what Brian’s answer would be before he gave it.

“A trail of bodies is what gets us caught,” he reminded her.

She knew that, too. “I’m going to get a cup of coffee. Want one?”

Brian shrugged, then nodded. “No whiskey in mine, thanks.”

Amanda grinned at his implication that Jake had driven her to day drinking. Then again, the day wasn’t over yet.

Amanda sat alone on the patio outside the coffee shop, a fine Italian espresso in her hand and a fence between her and the rest of the world. A slight breeze picked up at her back, carrying sounds of children playing and the slightest scent of a distant rain. Blue skies here, though. Too cool for misters to be called for. Maybe a sprinkler?

She took another sip of the espresso, rolling the coffee around her mouth so that it made contact with every portion of her tongue. Smooth; smoky in the front, notes of wine in the back, and hints of some kind of nut in between. Interesting.

The cup of coffee she’d shared with Brian now hours ago was all very well, but it had been consumed for its caffeine value. Purely utilitarian.

The small porcelain cup in her hand now was purely pleasure.

“Hiya!” a new voice shouted at her form behind.

Startled, Amanda pulled the cup away from her lips, dangerously close to spilling it on her ivory silk blouse. She was forced to swallow that next sip without fully appreciating it. “Hello, Jake.”

He hopped the short wrought-iron fence into the patio area and stood in front of her, fingers waving at his sides like some vaudeville dancer. “How do I look?”

Surprisingly decent, actually. “It’ll do.” He just might be able to pull this off.

Jake plopped into the chair opposite her, threatening to wrinkle his suit. “Italian silk,” he boasted. “I figured Italian coffee, Italian suit–”

“That’s nice.” She couldn’t care less.

He set his phone and portfolio binder down on the table. “Who’s the target? What’s first?” he asked as he unzipped his binder and uncapped his fountain pen.

She reached over and closed the binder on his hand. “First step – no notes.” She didn’t need his carelessness leaving evidence anywhere, especially for such a small take. “Second – go get a drink. They only allow patrons on the patio.” A fact she cherished about this place.

“Right.” He immediately stood, tugging at his suit jacket once to straighten it, then headed inside.

Quiet settled on the patio again. Amanda was left face-to-face with an empty chair again, a fact for which she was rather grateful.

Not empty. He’d left his unused portfolio, yes, but had also left something far more valuable: his phone. In the wrong hands, it could be all the evidence the cops needed to put the whole team away fro a very long time.

In her hands, she could shut him up, at least for a while. At first, she considered revealing the phone number so she could block it, but as she unlocked his phone, she got a better idea.

She changed the password.

He could still answer calls when the phone was locked, but wouldn’t be able to make any. She’d finally be allowed to sleep past sunrise.

Amanda replaced the device precisely where she’d plucked it from with plenty of time to spare.

“Eighteen dollars!” Jake practically shouted, announcing his presence on the patio again. “Eighteen dollars for this tiny-ass cup of coffee!” He’d gotten the same thing she’d ordered.

“Worth every penny,” Amanda responded, sipping the little left in her cup.

“Why do I feel like the one who’s gotten scammed?” He threw it back like a frat boy taking a shot. Just like that, the potentially pleasant experience was gone in a single gulp.

Add that to the ever-growing list of reasons she wanted to slap him.

“So I was following the clients –”

She gave him a look.

“Uh, blueberries?”

Not what she meant. “You followed them?”

“Relax, they didn’t see me.”

He didn’t see them see him, Amanda wanted to correct. She bit her tongue. “Learn anything?” she asked instead.

“Yeah. They have a kid with cancer. They can’t be all bad.” Because bad luck automatically made everyone a good person? That was logical.

But the team already knew that. Whatever their motivation, they’d stolen from the wrong people. Amanda and her team had been hired to get the designs back, by whatever means possible.

None of that was Jake’s concern. “How did you pay for your coffee?” she asked.

“Cash,” he responded as if it was obvious. Good. Harder to trace them back to the scene of the crime they were about to commit.

“And the parking meter?”

He hesitated.

She spoke before he could get and move it. “After we finish here.”

He nodded. “So who’s the target? The coffee shop?”

Heavens no! She liked this place, and wanted to return. “The art gallery,” she answered, indicating down the block some. “Did you bring your business cards?”

“They’re in the car.”

“Good. Bring them.”

“Do you have a fence for the art?” Jake asked eagerly.

She did have a person for that, but that was irrelevant. “The target isn’t the art.”

He could do this.

Jake wandered into the art gallery ahead of Amanda, tasked with finding a target.

An old woman, she’d advised. Older people are both more gullible and more wealthy. And if a man sees a younger, well-dressed man, he’ll get defensive. Intimidated, Jake was sure she meant. And in this suit, who could blame him? With the right suit, women can be charmed.

Jake pretended to be looking at the abstract sculpture in the foyer as he scanned the room. It was fairly busy, with one group of hipsters who clearly didn’t belong, but the rest elegantly dressed, even if a few were out of fashion. Old people were like that. The single curator of the gallery was flitting about between potential customers, efficient but unhurried.

Jake imagined himself like a lion on the Savannah, picking from his buffet of prey. The flock of twittering hipsters here, a hyena over there, a cougar not far. But he wanted a gazelle.

Then he spotted her: shorter than the rest, but boasting a ring too heavy for her withering finger.

Oh, and make sure she’s single, Amanda had advised.

Jake rotated around the sculpture to get a better angle on his prey. As he did, an older gentleman – who reminded Jake of Alfred from Batman – came and put his hand on hers.

Nope. No longer his gazelle.

“Hello there,” came a velvety voice from behind him.

Play it cool. Play it cool. Jake turned to see a matronly woman standing near him, looking his direction. “Hello yourself,” he commented. She wasn’t as old as his first gazelle, but definitely older than him. Nearing retirement, if he had to guess, but with a timeless air about her.

“I’ve been watching you,” she confessed, getting close to him. “You’re looking at the people, not the art.”

Had he been caught? No. He didn’t think so, anyway. “And why would you notice?” he asked, offering a smile. He felt like James Bond. He’d have to be careful not to slip into a British accent.

She put her hand on his briefly. It was warm, and there was no ring. Necklace was pretty ornate, though, which told him she came from money. “I’m afraid I have terrible taste in art,” she confessed. “The people’s reactions tell more about what’s interesting than the art itself.” She leaned into him, smile as warm as her touch. “What’s your secret?”

A little goes a long way when lying to someone. Have the story complete in your head, but don’t give it all away at once.

“My date was supposed to meet me here twenty minutes ago,” Jake lied. “But I don’t see her.”

The woman put her arm around his elbow, clearly delighted. “Good thing we met, then! You can show me around the gallery and tell me what’s good, and I can be your date.”

Old? Check.

Woman? Check.

Single? Check.

Next step: earn her trust. Jake was pretty sure he was already halfway there. At least.

He let her parade him around the room a minute before stopping at a busy painting. “What do you think?”

Find an expensive piece. But not too expensive. Like seventy grand. This one was about fifteen thousand dollars, and for what looked to him like it had been done by a kindergartner. A close look at the tag told him it was a “Self Portrait by an Elephant.”

“It’s definitely a conversation piece,” Jake told her.

“But?”

But the price was too low. “But do you really want to have to explain it to everyone who enters your home? Sounds exhausting.”

“Hm. I suppose you’re right.”

She pulled him around to four other pieces before they landed on one in his target range. It was a pair of ancient Roman urns, side by side.

The plaque on the wall behind and between them was easy to read. “Romulus and Remus. c. AD 60. $68,000.”

“Perfect,” Jake muttered before realizing he had voiced the thought at all.

“You like it?” She’d heard him?

Oops. “Definitely. Classy, sophisticated,” right price point, “conversational but can stand on its own. Great with this lighting, too.”

Her hand left his elbow to rest near her parted lips. “I don’t know.” She peered at the vase closer to her. “I suppose I could get the lighting guy back.” She glanced to him. “Unless you want it first, of course.”

Him? Jake fumbled, looking for a possible but fashionable excuse.

“You did come here to purchase something, did you not?” she pressed.

“This is a little out of my price range, I’m afraid.”

“Oh?” She was sultry, but in a forward manner befitting someone half her age. “What is your price range?”

The tiny cup of coffee was far closer than these ancient artifacts in front of him. “About thirty grand,” he lied.

“I have a wonderful solution, then! Let’s split it! Then we’ll always have this moment – and each other – with us. You pay what you can, and I’ll cover the rest. We can each take one home.

Jake made a sound more befitting a dog swallowing a treat than a conversation at a classy art gallery. How did he get out of this one?

Get her to write you the check, not the gallery.

Jake glanced around to see Amanda had filled her part by occupying the curator, presumably by haggling over a price. “We can’t purchase it now anyway, and I’m afraid I’m almost out of time.”

She wrapped her arm in his, pulling him close as she looked at the urns. “It’d be a shame to let Remus and Romulus go,” she mourned.

Then Jake got an idea. He might be able to save this mission after all! “I could come back tomorrow,” he offered. “Purchase it then. If you want to give me your half of the money now, I could get them both.” Taking advantage of her flirtatious nature, he pulled her close. “I could even deliver it, if you like. To your house.”

Shave gave him a broad grin. “I would like.” She leveled her gaze at him, though still playful. “But how do I know you won’t just take my money and run?”

Like exactly how he planned? “I promise?”

She faced him fully, tugging outwardly at the shoulders of his suit coat. “Not good enough.” Then she seemed to get an idea. “How about you write me a check too? I won’t cash it unless you fail to deliver.”

“And what guarantee do I have you won’t cash it and run?” he asked, hoping for a particular answer.

“I promise.” She paused, letting the joke sink in before falling face first into his trap. “You’ll have my check and I’ll have yours.” His to an empty account.

“Deal.” Part of him hoped Amanda was watching; Jake was damned good at this! A natural, if he could say so himself.

They exchanged checks, going their separate ways with the other’s. The one in her possession was worthless, of course, but the one in his hard was worth thirty-eight thousand dollars. And it’d be days before the old hag even realized it.

He couldn’t wait to deposit it – a sign of his first victory as a real con man. As quickly as he could, Jake punched in the appropriate numbers on the ATM, tapping the side of the screen like a crack addict waiting for a fix as the machine processed. Why was it taking so long?

A little box popped up on the screen. Error. Could not process transaction. Insufficient funds.

What? No! He was transferring to his account, not from it. Jake tried again.

Insufficient funds.

No. No, no! That was the message she was supposed to be seeing, not him!

Had he been the one conned?

Peace. Four beautiful mornings passed without a single wake-up call from Jake. Her plan had worked.

Amanda rested her head against the seat back without letting her hands leave the steering wheel. The client had taken a little longer to contact them than she expected, but she wasn’t in any hurry anymore. When the memo had gone out that the client wanted to meet at his home office in the next town over, she could only smile. That was fine; she liked to drive.

Then something interrupted that peaceful morning drive. Not a phone call – she had taken care of that – but a message from Jake nonetheless. As she hurtled forward on the freeway, closer to it, the words seemed to rise in the sky, though it was really stationary.

Jake had found a way to reach out to her anyway. On a billboard.

I’m concerned about the blueberries.

She was going to kill him.

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