Forty minutes later, I was sprinting along the other end of Broadway, determined to reach Becca and her not-so-mysterious companion before they finished dinner and went home without me. Without slowing down, I triple-wrapped my burgundy chenille scarf around my neck. If my crazy dreams were about to send me on another life-consuming investigation, I should probably do whatever I could to avoid coming down with strep throat.
I picked up speed when I saw the sign for West 109th Street and made a sharp right at the corner. A posse of wannabe tough guys was leaning against the side of a building, smoking cigarettes and waiting for the night to start.
"Damn!" one of them called after me, stretching the word into two syllables. "Shorty be in a hurry!"
I used to hate it when random guys called me Shorty. It wasn't exactly like I needed reminding of my Smurf-like physique. But now that Andy had begun using the term for me, it seemed endearing, and I smiled inwardly.
I'd take whatever I could get. In the month since Andy and I had started seeing each other, we hadn't actually seen that much of each other at all. Last semester had been a wild goose chase that eventually turned out to have a point to it. Somehow I'd tracked down the person whose job it was to bring down the Shuttleworth family plane--and the Shuttleworth family. At the end of the big whodunit, Andy and I had shared an amazing kiss in Riverside Park, but then he pulled back a little. My grandmother Kiki had promised me that taking things slow was perfectly normal--after all, Andy needed a little time to digest the fact that the key accomplice had been none other than his girlfriend Rye.
And, to be honest, I needed some time to come down from the whirlwind too. In the three months since Kiki had given me my magic black-and-white cameo necklace, my lifelong habit of seeing weird, random visions in my head had transformed into something much weirder. Now that I was wearing the necklace, I was having black-and-white dreams that actually led me somewhere. As long as I could figure out what the clues in my dreams were trying to tell me--no easy task, not by a long shot--I could be useful. Finally.
That Thanksgiving vacation, right after I'd proven that Rye was dangerous, was the happiest I'd ever been. And so it was disappointing that the crazy black-and-white dreams and bouts of next-day exhaustion had pretty much stopped. In the past six weeks, I'd had only a couple of weird dreams, and half-baked ones at that--more like images than actual scenes. Only Kiki and I knew about the necklace's powers. She'd figured my recent dreams, which were less action-packed than the ones I was having before, were just brain twitches and I should be grateful. "If you don't take a brief respite from the Lady Inspector shenanigans, you'll run yourself ragged," she'd said. But I begged to differ. It seemed unfair to have to let go of something that I was just starting to get good at. Or rather, I was happy to run myself ragged if it meant more fun.
Ludo's Supper Club was so trendy I almost walked by it. Old New York to the core, Becca tends to pick restaurants that have been in business since the American Revolution. As for this place, it was so new I could practically smell the construction fumes. The sidewalk spillover included a bullfrog of a bouncer and a reality television crew to document the beautiful people shivering on line. It was so not Becca, but it was also the only Ludo's in sight. I rose to my tiptoes and peered into the window.
"Looking for something?" Andy was standing in the shadows of the doorway. He was staring at me like I was something beautiful and I felt a kick in the heart.
"Hi." My voice came out scratchier than a Brillo pad. I'd almost forgotten how cute he was since the last time I'd seen him and I was feeling jumbled up.
Between Andy's finals and our holiday obligations and the more-than-slightly-uncomfortable fact that he was my best friend's brother and neither of us had the courage to tell Becca we were hanging out in a non-G-rated context, we'd only gotten together twice in the last month: first for a walk through the Brooklyn Navy Yard and, more recently, cheeseburgers at the Ear Inn and a good-night kiss in the Washington View Village courtyard. The kiss had been perfect--that is, until Sheila Vird, my neighbor and ex-best friend and now mortal enemy, caught sight of us and took it upon herself to blast "Easy Lover" by Phil Collins out of her window.
Andy's eyes flickered over me and I felt my cheeks flush.
"So you decided to come after all," came Becca's voice. She was at Andy's side, looking every bit his kid sister with her wavy brown hair and distinctive nose. Even in the dark lighting I could make out their tans--they'd just come back from a family trip to Hawaii. She reached her arms around me and pulled me in for a hug. "I missed you, C. What a terrible way to spend a week."
Nine days, but who's counting?
"I missed you too," I told her.
"That's quite an outfit you've got there." Andy was scoping out the blinding leg wear I'd been too distracted to replace at H&M.
Just my luck.
"Ignore him," Becca said, hugging me tighter before letting go. The figgy scent of her perfume triggered forgotten memories of happy times and I was beaming as I followed her right past the line and into the restaurant. The lighting was minimal, and a DJ was spinning some sort of electro-gypsy music. There was definitely some handbook everyone but me had read--the crowd was all dressed the same, the girls in silky camisole tops and hammered gold necklaces, the guys in navy cashmere blazers with popped collars. Even Andy, whose regular uniform is jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, was wearing a freshly ironed button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up.
On him, though, it looked all right.
"You've been here before?" Andy screamed over the din as Becca led us to the back of the room.
I shook my head emptily. "What is this place?"
"It was recommended by a friend of Andy's," Becca offered, stopping short to let a waitress whir by.
Andy ran his hand over his fuzzy head the way he does when he's mulling something over. "I hope they didn't give our table away. I kind of lied and said you were already here a while ago."
I looked at them both. "I'm sorry...I got held up with..."
I got held up not buying a pair of tights and following a girl around who was not buying lingerie.
I started over, "I was at this store, and there was a girl shoplifting and they wouldn't let us leave for a little while."
All true...well, true enough.
"Sounds like the beginning of a made-for-Lifetime movie," Becca said.
More like the start of one of my real-life thrillers.
I dug my hand under my scarf and fingered my pendant, wondering if this semester was going to be any smoother than last. I never seem to find the clues from my black-and-white dreams in my waking life in the same order that I see them in my sleep. And to make matters more confusing, even when I'm on a roll and start seeing clues all over the place, it takes me a while to figure out which ones are worth chasing and what, exactly, they're trying to tell me. Most of the time I'm running around like an untrained puppy with attention deficit disorder.
Take last semester, for instance. It had been insane. Because of my strange dreams, I was paying special attention to all sorts of random stuff, like a striped duffel bag and a colossal clock. It took me ages to realize it was all pointing me to Rye, and even when I did, it wasn't immediately clear that while she was going out with Andy, she was secretly dating Andy's archrival Otto Soyle, this pinheaded loser whose father is Becca and Andy's father's mortal enemy. Rye had been instructed to tamper with the navigational computer on Andy's family's prized plane. (Yes, a plane. The Shuttleworths are the closest thing we have to royalty in America, thanks to their centuries-old ketchup empire.)
Luckily, I unraveled my dreams just in time to avert disaster. Had the engine started up with anyone in the plane, there's no telling what would have happened. Well, there was, but I preferred not to think about it.
I can see how it might sound fun, but this special talent, or whatever you want to call it, is kind of stressful. For starters, it's distracting having to constantly be on the lookout. And not being able to tell Becca everything--about my dreams on top of the stuff about her brother--has certainly taken a toll on our friendship. Still, I wouldn't give the cameo back. If I can use my special powers to help people I care about, it's worth the awkwardness and confusion.
Like now. It was one of my strange black-and-white dreams that had led me to tail the crazy rip-off artist at H&M. But who was that girl and what did she have to do with me?
I must have been spacing out pretty hard. A redhead at a table that had more cell phones on top of it than people seated around it was flickering her eyes in vexation at me. As if able to sense my discomfort, Andy reached back for my hand.
Our fingers were barely brushing, but it didn't matter. Sometimes all you need is the slightest contact for every cell in your body to heat up.
I pulled away right before we reached our table, which was a good thing. Becca was already sitting down, her arms crossed over her pale blue V-neck sweater. She was rolling her eyes and puffing out her cheeks like a blowfish. I realized why as I heard a teenage girl at a nearby table groaning, "When is my manager going to realize she's not my agent?"
"Probably around the same time she realizes you're a complete jackelope," Andy mumbled as he settled into his seat.
Becca laughed and she studied the menu. "This is just great. Not only is the house specialty dunderbrains," she said, tilting her head in the direction of our neighboring table, "but they don't even speak English here."
I looked at my menu and saw what she was talking about. The two options--mixed salad and individual pizzas--were offered in a language that looked vaguely Italian.
"This place was Andy's choice." Becca eyed her brother tauntingly.
"Yeah, but only because this guy I used to know in mid--"
"What are you hiding back here for?" The guy standing over us looked like he was eighteen going on thirty-five, with his floppy hair and bruise-dark under-eye circles.
Andy jerked back and put on a smile. "Hey, man, speak of the devil."
The guy must have known Becca also, because he greeted her with a kiss, then squinted at me, unable to cover up his surprise at seeing a girl like me in such esteemed company. "Oliver Verner."
"I'm Claire." Tilting my head to the side to accept Oliver's second kiss, I shot Becca a look. Even my father, a French professor whose natural reflex is to exclaim things like "C'est top!" and "Zut alors!" knows when to put a lid on his Euro affectations.
Kisses obtained, Oliver popped back up. "Is this place nuts or what?"
"Quite the scene," Becca murmured, clearly unimpressed. She unfolded her napkin and let it parachute onto her lap.
While Andy and Oliver caught up, I stopped paying attention to what they were saying and gawked at the engraving on Oliver's pinkie ring. Was it an elaborate calligraphic "I" or an iguana? And hadn't I recently seen a black-and-white reptile in the middle of the night? The rest of the real world faded away as I stared at the piece of jewelry.
I know, I know, I have the attention span of a hoverfly. Welcome to my brain.
Maybe one day I'll be able to casually comb the world for details out of the corner of my eye while keeping up with whatever situation I'm supposed to be an active participant of, but for now my dreams are still confusing enough to keep me on my toes--and out of the real-world loop.
"Claire." Becca was kicking me under the table. "Oliver's asking you something."
I slid my gaze over to Oliver and smiled cluelessly.
"What's your take?" Oliver was scoping out the room. "Pretty ridiculous, huh?"
Maybe this guy wasn't so bad after all, if he was making fun of our obnoxious environment.
"Ridiculous doesn't even begin to describe it," I said, and Oliver laughed appreciatively. "Seriously, what's the thinking behind this place? That there aren't enough pretentious pseudo nightclubs already?"
Andy shook his head and looked at me, his eyes filling with amusement. "This is Oliver's spot," he said. "He and his brother opened it last month."
And it all clicked into place. Oliver had meant good ridiculous. Andy had been shaking his head in disbelief at me.
I felt sweat pricking the back of my neck as I spluttered an apology.
"No, no, don't worry about it," Oliver said, sounding all professional. "Enjoy your meal. Later."
"Can't take you anywhere, can I?" Andy broke the silence after Oliver had loped off. His tone was playful, but I knew I'd screwed up.
"I think your friend hates me." Andy's look didn't contradict what I was saying, and I slunk deeper into my seat. "Don't mind me while I disappear."
"Sounds like a plan." Becca rose to her feet and motioned for us to join her. "Last one to the door has to come back here every night for a week."
We ended up taking a cab up to Sylvia's, a soul food restaurant in Harlem. It was the opposite of the fake restaurant we'd just visited, with many diners who fell outside of the sixteen-to-twenty age range and lighting that made it possible to actually locate your fork. The walls were covered with photographs of celebrities who'd eaten there, and there wasn't a single patron who didn't appear to be having the time of their life. It was anything but a "see and be seen" kind of place.
Becca had been there before so she took care of the ordering: fried chicken, ribs, candied yams, corn bread, and some vegetable I'd never heard of. I was intimidated by the quantity of it all, but when the chicken arrived at the table and the buttery aroma enveloped us, my stomach capacity instantly quadrupled.
From the Hardcover edition.