Keyop recited the two words as if it could conjure what he was looking for out of the air, his tongue poking out of the side of his mouth in his concentration as he rifled through the assorted mess that had accumulated on the shelf under the bar.
Napkins, catalogs, old menus, new menus, comic book …
Keyop paused long enough to look at the cover. Excited to see that it was the one he thought he lost, he tossed it up onto the top of the bar and continued his search.
Boxes of pencils, a wadded up old apron, a pad of paper … order pad?
Keyop pulled out the pad and flipped through the written portions of it, slowing when he realized it was in Princess’s handwriting. Then his mouth fell open as he began to read the actual words. A blush dusting his cheeks, he slapped the notebook closed. A few seconds later, he cautiously flipped it open to the first page.
The words were still there.
He snapped the pad shut again and clutched it to his chest, looking around to see who was still in the Snack J.
Should he tell Tiny? He was still sitting at the end of bar, finishing his crossword puzzle. They could have a good laugh over it. But Mark and Jason would be more fun in terms of reactions …
They just had to make sure that Princess never found out, that’s all.
Keyop shoved the notebook in between the pages of his comic book and stuffed it under the crumpled apron. He would wait for Mark and Jason to come in and show them all at once.
* * *
It was torture and every time Keyop thought Princess was finally going to leave, something else happened.
Like the phone ringing …
Like her deciding to double-check the storeroom for hand soap …
Like her seeing a regular patron who wanted to know alllllll about karaoke night …
Keyop sighed and slumped, elbows on bar, head propped up with his hands, waiting, waiting, waiting …
“Okay, I’m really going this time,” Princess said, grabbing for her small purse underneath the counter. Keyop held his breath and hoped that she did not notice the notebook was not in the same spot it had been. He breathed a sigh of relief as she headed for the door, then sat up in consternation when she paused to look back at him.
“If Jill comes back before I do, tell her I’m already on my way to pick up the new centerpieces she wanted and that I’ll pick up some extra soap while I’m at it.”
“Okay … will do …” Keyop replied, with a wave of his hand.
Tiny looked up from his crossword puzzle and frowned. “So what’s gotten into you?”
“What .. do you … mean?” Keyop said casually, picking up an already clean glass and began to wipe it with a cloth. “Nothing’s wrong.”
“I didn’t say anything was wrong,” Tiny argued, “but now I really know something is.”
At his remark, Jason glanced up from the booth he was sitting at, the day’s newspaper spread out on the table in front of him.
Keyop craned his head around, then made a big show of looking around, especially to all the doors. “Mark around?”
“Does it matter?” Jason asked as he slid onto a stool next to Tiny.
“Yeah, actually,” Keyop said, still casting hopeful looks towards the front door. “Something want … to show … all of you together …”
“Well, that’s easily solved,” Jason said, raising his wrist to his mouth. “Skipper, get your ass in here.” At Keyop’s and Tiny’s questioning looks, Jason shrugged. “What? I know for a fact he’s right outside tinkering with his bike’s engine. I could see him from the booth.”
“What gives?” Mark asked the second he walked through the door. “I nearly had the timing on that engine perfect …”
“Worry about that later,” Tiny said, waving a hand at him. “Something’s bothering Keyop here and he wanted all of us together.”
“Oh, sure,” Mark relented, sliding onto a stool next to Jason. He looked at Keyop. “So, what’s on your mind?”
With a sly look and a tentative lick at his lip, Keyop disappeared under the bar and reappeared seconds later with the notebook in hand. “Found this … is Princess’s …”
Mark took the book from Keyop and flipped it open. He began to read.
“Hey, out loud,” Tiny protested as Jason leaned in to read over Mark’s shoulder. As Mark read, his eyes widened and his mouth fell open. He slammed the book shut and held it out to Keyop.
“Go put this back wherever you found it,” Mark ordered. “It’s obviously her private diary, and I’m sure she would be very upset to know that not only did we read it, but that I now know how she truly feels about me …”
“ … about you?” Keyop repeated. Just as he reached to take the book back, Jason snatched it out of Mark’s hands.
“I don’t know about that,” Jason argued, flipping the book back open. “What makes you so sure it’s you?”
Mark straightened his back and ran a hand down his chest. “Well, who else would she be talking about?”
“She could easily be talking about me.”
Mark burst out laughing. “Really, Jase? What in any of that hints that it’s you? She’s clearly writing about me.”
Tiny sighed and pulled the book out of Jason’s hand. Holding it out, he focused his eyes and read aloud.
“‘Whenever he’s around, I can barely think. I feel so safe with him near, but frightened, too, when I realize what he could do to me if he only knew. Every time we stand together, I want to reach out and touch his broad shoulders …’” Tiny looked up and over at Jason and Mark. “Well, I think you’re both wrong. That proves it. ‘His broad shoulders.’ She’s really talking about me.”
Keyop snickered but Jason and Mark both looked at though they just eaten something bitter.
“We all have broad shoulders,” Jason pointed out, snatching the book back.
“Not as broad as mine,” Tiny contended.
“She writes, right here, and I quote … I can feel the heat of his predatory stare, as though he’s undressing me, and I’m torn between wanting to cover myself and wanting him to actually do it …” Jason looked up. “ ‘Predatory stare,’ that’s me.”
“In your dreams,” Mark said, plucking the book out of Jason’s hands. He quickly scanned a few pages. “I can be just as predatory as you.” He cleared his throat as he held up the book and read. “He stands there, just a few feet away, commanding every part of me, drawing me near, yet I dare not …” Mark smirked at Jason. “‘Commanding every part’ … that would be me.”
Jason gave him a flat look and ripped the book out of Mark’s hands. “And you have the nerve to call Cronus arrogant? Says right here … ‘gazing into my eyes with his steely blue gaze’ … that would be mine.”
“I have blue eyes too, you know.”
“Do you?” Jason asked, hooking an arm around the back of the stool. “Guess I never really felt compelled to stare into your eyes for that long to notice.”
“For which we are all grateful,” Tiny muttered under his breath, then sighed as he reached for a bowl of pretzels nearby. He scooped up a handful. “Guess the blue eyes thing leaves us out, huh, Keyop?”
“…never really … in it …” Keyop said.
“Although,” Tiny mused aloud, “she could have written ‘blue’ just as a cover.”
Mark and Jason looked over at him.
“Meaning what?” Jason challenged.
“Meaning that she could have written ‘blue’ when she really meant ‘brown.’ You know, so that if someone were to read it, they wouldn’t necessary place the person with who she’s writing about.”
Mark and Jason looked down at the book. “He’s right, you know,” Mark acknowledged softly, “and she would definitely change details to try to throw people off the trail.”
Tiny grinned happily. “Which would definitely mean I’m still in the running.”
“Really, Tiny, I don’t think ...” Mark began.
Jason snorted. “Actually, Mark, that’s your problem. You think too much.” Jason tapped at the book. “She obviously likes a man who acts, not thinks, regardless of the details.” Jason cleared his throat and began to read. “‘Without a word, without more than a heartbeat passing, he moved, stealthy and quiet, letting his passionate embrace say everything there needed to be. It was, for a perfect moment, if only in my fantasy, just the two of us there, then, holding onto each other as though we held the world together.’”
Jason looked up. “At no point does she mention that they talked things to death.”
“Thought comes before action,” Mark retorted and lunged for the book, but Jason anticipated his movement and swiped the book just out of Mark’s reach.
That was when Keyop happened to glance out of one of the large plate glass windows. “Quick .... coming ... back!”
Jason paused for a split second, just as the front door opened and Princess stepped through, then shoved the slim notebook underneath his thigh. Discreetly, he turned that side ever so slightly towards the bar and hoped that she would not notice. Then he realized that her arms were full of flowers.
* * *
By the time Princess came to the door and reached for the handle, juggling the boxes she held, Jason appeared and opened the door for her.
“Here,” he said with a smile, “let me help you with those.”
“Thanks, Jase,” Princess accepted with a smile, handing over the top two boxes for him to take. “You’re a life saver.”
Jason shot Mark a look of triumph over Princess’s head as he followed her across the dance floor.
“Proves nothing,” Mark groused, turning back to the bar and to face Keyop, who just shrugged.
“Still,” Tiny said, crunching on a pretzel, “she did accept him pretty fast.”
“Who’s side are you on?”
“Is that rhetorical?”
“No, it determines how often you’ll stay behind with the Phoenix,” Mark groused as he quickly grabbed the notebook off the chair and stuck it under his own thigh.
Keyop kept wiping down the same part of the bar in a mindless circle with the cleaning cloth, while Tiny spun the small bowl of pretzels around and around, occasionally taking one out and eating it as they watched as Jason and Princes come in, putting down the boxes that they carried on nearby tables. They were all careful to keep the same blank expressions on their faces as they waited for Jason and Princess to join them.
Then Jason took out one centerpiece and, at Princess’s direction, placed it on a table. When he repeated the action with another one, Mark realized what Jason was up to and left the book with Keyop to grab a box of his own. With Mark’s help, they were able to get the task done in a few minutes.
When they finished, Princess was right behind them as they returned to their seats. She took a deep sigh and put her elbows on the bar.
“I’m glad that’s done,” she said with another sigh. “Now at least we’re ready for tonight.”
“What is going on, anyway?” Mark asked, casually leaning back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. As Jason returned to his own seat, he shot a scowl at Mark when he realized that the notebook was gone. Mark grinned at him in return. Fortunately, Princess did not, or chose not to, notice as she answered him.
“Jill’s having a huge birthday party celebration here tonight for one of the girls in her classes. It’s her twenty-fifth, so Jill and her classmates wanted it to be something special for her.” Princess gave a small smile as her large eyes took on a faraway look. “I think it’s nice when a group of friends can get together like that to do something nice for someone.”
“Uh, yeah,” Tiny said, spinning the bowl again, “that’s real nice of them.”
“Oh, rats,” Princess moaned, her eyes catching sight of the remaining box left on the countertop. “I’d forgotten all about them.” With a sigh, she slid off the box off the countertop. “I’ll just see about the soap in the ladies’ powder room,” she said, brushing off her hands, “and I’ll be right back.”
“Be … right here,” Keyop agreed. He waited a moment, then craned his head around to make sure she had gone into the bathroom. Knowing her, she would find a hundred other things to do before she finally rejoined them.
Keyop dug out the notebook, and, before he could flip it open, found it swiped from his hands.
“Keyop, seriously,” Mark warned, “it’s bad enough that we’ve read what we have. Do you really want to run the risk of her finding out?”
“Want … to find out … who,” Keyop explained. “Thought … maybe, at the end …”
“That’s assuming she’s finished with writing in it,” Jason countered.
“Yeah,” Tiny seconded. “If it’s her journal or something, then she won’t have finished it.”
“But … might have … more clues,” Keyop argued.
“Like what?” Mark asked suspiciously, eyeing the book he held. “I think we’ve read enough.”
“Maybe you have,” Jason said decisively, “but I want to know, too.” Once more, he grabbed the book from Ken.
“She’s going to find out,” Mark insisted. “She’s only in the next room.”
Jason paused in his reading. “You’re right,” he said slowly in agreement. Closing the notebook, he handed it to Keyop. “When she comes out, we’ll keep her busy while you go in the office and copy this.”
“Jason!” Mark gasped, appalled.
“I can’t believe you just said that.”
“Why? This way, she won’t find out and we can read it without worrying. You know you want to know, too, so don’t even try to suggest otherwise ….”
“I didn’t say I didn’t want to know,” Mark said defensively. “I just said we don’t want to get caught.”
“Hence, the copy.”
“Hence, if she finds out what we’re up to, she’ll kill all of us.”
“I’m willing to take the risk,” Jason said with a smirk. “After all, there is one of us she’s writing about, and if that’s how she really feels about me, then I can easily talk her around.”
“And if she’s not writing about you?” Mark countered.
Jason gave him a flat look. “Seriously? You really have to ask? If it isn’t me, and I truly doubt it, then whoever she is writing about can do it.”
“Would that be before or after she ripped out the throat of said person?” Mark asked skeptically.
“You know, Mark, you really have to stop thinking so negatively. Here, Keyop, take this,” Jason said, thrusting the notebook over the counter at Keyop, “and when you see your chance, just do it. We’ll keep Princess busy out here.”
“Right,” Keyop nodded. But just as he reached out for the book, Mark nabbed it and shoved it under his thigh again.
Jason opened his mouth to protest, then realized why Mark had hidden it so fast. Princess was coming right towards them.
* * *
Once the soap dispensers were filled, and Princess had checked the office answering machine, returned what calls she could, and wrote up the remainder for Jill to get to, Princess strolled back into the Snack J proper and smiled.
For a late afternoon, there were quite a number of people already there, including a few she recognized as regulars. Then, her eyes drifted over to the bar.
Though there was nothing odd about Jason, Mark and Tiny sitting there in a row, but Princess did find it strange about how they were positioned. Tiny, slumped with his fisted hands near his ears, Jason, leaning back on the stool, with one hand cupping his chin, his elbow braced with his other hand, and Mark, at the end, rubbing at his forehead as though in deep thought.
Like hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil, she thought, then giggled softly to herself. She would have to remember to write that down.
If she could ever find her notebook again, that is ….
* * *
Princess rejoined the guys at the bar to find that Keyop had cleaned just about every piece of glassware stacked there.
“Well, weren’t you the busy one?” she complimented.
Keyop grinned and shrugged, but carefully avoided looking her directly in the eye. He looked over to Tiny for help.
“Ah ... anyone know a five-letter word for ‘irritated’?” he asked, sliding his crossword puzzle over again.
“Are you still working on that?” Princess asked as she rounded the corner of the bar to stand next to Keyop.
“Yeah, well, you know how it is ....” Tiny bluffed, ducking his head down.
It seemed to Princess as if all four of the guys let out a held breath when the phone rang.
“Snack J’s ... oh, hi ... yeah ... yeah ... I got those ... oh, and I remembered the hand soap ... you’re what? Where? Oh, yeah, sure. I guess I can. Okay. Bye.”
Princess hung up and looked at Keyop. “Will you be okay if I leave you guys for a little bit? Jill is stuck in traffic and asked if I could go pick up some favors for the party tonight.”
“Be ... okay,” Keyop assured him.
“Sure, we’re right here,” Jason backed him up.
“Okay,” Princess said, nodding her head and grabbing up her purse again. “I’ll be right back.”
* * *
“Okay, hand it over,” Jason demanded the second the door shut behind Princess.
Mark gave him a cool, casual look. “Why? It’s not yours. And besides, such a demand proves that you are not the one she’s describing in here.” Mark slid the notebook out from under him and flipped it to the page he had glanced over. “Says right here, that she admires ‘his calm intellect, the way he can analyze things until he’s thought out every possibility, leaving nothing to chance. Perhaps that’s what I find so appealing … so attractive … so sexy about him … that cool, certain way he has of getting what he wants without even so much as having to ask for it. Certainly, whatever he wants from me is his for the taking ….”
“Congratulations,” Jason said dryly, snatching the book back, “you just proved why I am the one she’s writing about. Cool is me, not you.”
“Well, you’re not calm,” Mark countered, reaching for the book.
“And neither are you!” Jason shot back, holding the book out as far as he could to keep it from Mark. Tiny, instead, snared it and began leafing through it.
“Huh,” Tiny snorted, then started coughing. “Uh, guys, have either of you read the last paragraph here?”
“What’s it say?”
Tiny cleared his throat as he began to read. “The moonlight shines down on his bared torso, making the muscles seem to glow and I fight the desire to stroke him. Every inch of him. He thinks I’m not watching but, from where I sit, I can see him dive into the water. Once, I even caught sight of a mole on his ….” Tiny’s eyes went wide, then he looked up at his three teammates. “Well, if you really want to know who’s writing about, that should answer the question,” he said, tossing the book onto the bar, where it slid to rest between Mark and Jason. “Certainly leaves me out.”
“Unless … just wrote … throw off track,” Keyop pointed out again.
Jason beat Mark to the book and opened it to the part Tiny was reading. Together, he and Mark read the section. When they were done, Jason slid a look to Mark.
“You do realize that if you claim to have a mole there, I am going to demand to see it.”
“Not on your life. Besides, I don’t have anything like that,” Mark shot back, horrified at the thought. “Why? You do?”
“No,” Jason countered, “but like Keyop just said, she could have just taken liberties.”
Mark quirked a brow. “Certainly seems like she has. Though I do have a sort of … freckle … there. But it would be hard to just casually see it from a distance.”
Keyop giggled. “Maybe … saw … more than once!”
“Or maybe she just made it bigger than it seems ….” Tiny suggested.
Jason bit his lip and dropped the book onto the bar. “Okay, for the sake of my mental health, we’re still just talking about the freckle, right? And it’s not the same thing as a mole. She definitely states mole here.”
Mark smirked at him. “Which means you got nothing.”
Jason’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t go there, fly boy, or you’ll be flying without wings. It’s not the same, so you got nothing too.”
“I still say it’s the same thing,” Mark insisted.
“What’s the debate about?”
At the sound of the feminine voice behind them, Jason and Mark turned hard on their stools to find Princess standing directly behind them. Her eyes went wide at the sight of her notebook resting on the bar.
“There it is!” she exclaimed happily. “I’ve been looking all over for that notebook. Where did you guys find it?”
“It’s ... uh ....”
Princess blinked a moment and then realized why they all looked so sheepish. “You guys didn’t read it, did you?”
“Well ... we just ... uh ....”
“So what did you think?” she asked, picking up the notebook and casually flipping through the pages. “Does it read okay?”
“What?” Mark asked, not comprehending what was going on here; that she was not angry with them.
“Well, you guys read it, right? Did it sound believable?” Princess went on. “I wasn’t too sure about this one part, though.”
“Wait a sec,” Tiny said, holding up a hand, “so you aren’t angry at us?”
Princess looked up at him and giggled. “Of course not. Why would I be?”
“Because it’s your journal ... isn’t it?” Jason asked, his eyes narrowing at this unexpected turn.
Princess flashed him a warm smile. “Of course not, silly! Remember that party here tonight? I said it was for a classmate of Jill’s? Well, it’s her creative writing class, and I’ve been writing up the assignments with Jill, just for fun.”
“So, all of that is just ....” Mark began then trailed off.
“Writing exercises,” Princess finished with a nod of her head, then went on to explain. “It starts with writing the wildest thought you can think of, and then each assignment builds from there. Did you think it was okay?”
Mark blew out a breath and ran a hand through his hair. “Uh, yeah. It’s great.”
“Totally believable,” Jason added, running his hand back and forth along the bar rail.
“Yeah,” Tiny added, “it held my attention.”
“Had me ... fooled.”
“Aww, aren’t you guys are so nice for saying so,” Princess said with another happy smile. “Well, I better put this in my bike compartment so I don’t forget where it is again. I’ll be right back.”
Quickly, she walked out the door and headed towards the garage. The second the door between the bar kitchen and the garage closed, she slowly leaned over and glanced through the wire-laced narrow glass window set in the door. Princess could see the guys at the bar, Keyop leaning against the counter, comic book in hand, Mark and Jason watching the small television screen, and Tiny hunched over his crossword puzzle.
Princess put her back to the wall next to the door and held the notebook close to her chest with both hands. She pulled in deep breath and shakily released it. As far as she could tell, the guys seemed to buy the creative writing story. She could only hope she successfully pulled it off.
Quickly, she unlocked her bike’s small storage compartment, slid the notebook in, and locked it securely.
The last thing she wanted was for him to find out that that was how she really felt about him.