Alex, Approximately: Chapter 9


“You’re a good man, sister.”

—Humphrey Bogart, The Maltese Falcon (1941)


I’m standing behind the Hotbox with Grace and Mr. Pangborn. He lost his key. We’re holding our register tills, waiting for Porter to come back from the cash-out room and unlock the door. I’m not even sure if Porter’s made it through the lobby yet, escorting the other ticketing agents we’re supposed to be replacing. Heck, I don’t even know if Porter knows we’re locked out. I do know that it’s a few minutes past noon and the line is pretty long. Freddy, the guy in charge of taking tickets at the turnstile, keeps peeping around the corner at us, the look on his face progressing from Antsy to Dismayed.

Mr. Pangborn sniffles and rubs his nose. “We’ll give him another minute to make it to cash-out before I buzz him. No sense in making him panic. He’s got to get the tills to the room first.”

Grace and I look at each other, shrug, and both make he’s got a point faces. What are we going to do? There’s no one at the information desk right now. The lady who’s supposed to be stationed there, who also has a key to ticketing, is outside in the parking lot, schmoozing with a tour party. Mr. Cavadini is on an extended lunch break with the shift supervisor. Besides, Mr. Pangborn doesn’t like to bother him, and who am I to argue?

He leans back against the booth’s door, a little breathless, and crosses one ankle over the other, revealing a pair of white-and-black striped socks. I sort of love them. And I sort of love Pangborn, even though his eyes are slits and he reeks of weed. Grace says she caught him vaping up in his car before work yesterday. He’s got to be in his seventies. Let the guy have a few bad habits, I say.

“Next month will be my fortieth anniversary working at the museum,” he muses in a soft voice. He’s got a gentle way about him that makes you want to listen to what he has to say. I’m not sure why Porter gets so frustrated with him. He’s just an old man. Have a heart.

Grace’s lips pucker. “That’s nuts.”

“You must like it if you’ve stuck with it this long,” I say.

“Eh, I like talking to people. And I don’t have any college or training, so what else am I supposed to do? This is all I know.” He scratches his head and his crazy white hair sticks up in different directions. “They tried to make me retire about ten years ago, but I didn’t really have anything to do at home. I never married. I’ve got a dog, Daisy, but she gets tired of seeing me all day. So even though they didn’t pay me, I just kept showing up for work.”

“What?” Grace says, unable to hide her disbelief. “For how long?”

“Oh, about three months or so. Mr. Cavadini finally got sick of telling me to go home, so he officially rehired me and put me back on the schedule.” He smiles, big and wide, lifting his shoulders. “And here I stand. It hasn’t killed me yet. I think Porter should be in the cash-out room by now. Cover your ears, ladies. He’s not going to be happy.”

Grace knocks shoulders with me while Pangborn radios Porter. “Glad we’re finally scheduled together again.”

“Me too,” I say, genuinely meaning it. “Team Grailey, taking care of business.”

“Team Baice, dropping the hammer.”

We both laugh until Freddy peeps around the turnstiles again and Grace makes a hissing sound at him. He leaves us alone now. “Got plans this weekend?” she asks me.

“I don’t know. Why?”

“There’s a bonfire on Saturday after work. Party on the beach.”

I grip my till harder, thinking of Porter’s friend Davy. “Is this the one at the Bone Garden?”

“Yeah. You’ve heard about it?”

“Only in passing.”

“The core of it is a surfer crowd, but other people show up, too. They’re usually every Saturday night in the summer. Sometimes they’re boring, sometimes they’re fun, but I thought it might be a good place to meet people from Brightsea, since you’re new. I can introduce you.”

The evader in me cowers, readying an excuse to turn her down, but the weird thing is, I think I want to go. Especially with Grace. So I say, “Sure, why not?” And before I know it, I’m telling her where my dad lives, and we’re making plans for her to pick me up in her car. What do you know? I guess I’m a social butterfly. Must be all this fresh air and sunshine.

Or maybe it’s just that I’m feeling more hopeful about life in general after finding out my dad has a new girlfriend. A kickass cop girlfriend. “We’re just friends. Taking things slow,” he assured me on the ride home yesterday. That was all he offered, so that’s where we left it. As long as he’s happy and there’s no weirdness, I’m fine with it.

And speaking of fine, there’s the other more important thing buzzing around in my brain: bumping into Patrick at the Pancake Shack. Patrick, and only Patrick, I remind myself for the millionth time, who may or may not be Alex. But I decided last night that I’m going to muster up the gumption to go talk to him again. I’ve been daydreaming about it off and on for hours. Epic sigh.

A rush of cool museum air blows across my arm, and my daydreaming is cut short when I have to step to the side to avoid the buffalo that is Porter, charging the ticketing booth.

“I’m going to rip out your large intestines, sew this key to the end of them, and then stuff them back inside your body.”

Porter opens Pangborn’s hand, shoves down a key, and closes the man’s fingers on top of it. “Don’t. Lose it. Again.”

The older security guard smiles. “You’re a good boy, Porter. Thank you.” Pangborn pats him on the shoulder, completely unfazed by Porter’s bad attitude. He’s a better man than most. “Come along, ladies. Freddy’s got ants in his pants. Let’s bust up this line and sell some tickets.”

Team Grailey—I win the name game—kicks butt, per usual, and we do bust up that line, because we are the best. Our shift supervisor remarks on the good work we do, and when Mr. Cavadini drops by to check on us, for once, he even gets our names right. It’s a good day, right up until about four p.m.

Museum foot traffic has slowed. My break’s almost over and I’m nearly ready to power through my last couple of hours, but I’ve still got a few minutes, so I’m strolling through Vivian’s Wing. I’m in the San Francisco Room, which has a Golden Gate Bridge that visitors walk beneath and a fake Chinatown street, where you can peer inside staged storefront windows that look like they did in the late 1800s. As I’m gazing at a Chinese tea shop, I notice two kids, maybe thirteen, fourteen years old, acting a little weird. They’re standing a few yards from me, in the nearby 1940s San Francisco film noir display, eyeing a replica of the Maltese falcon, which is sitting on the desk of famous fictional detective Sam Spade—played by Humphrey Bogart on the big screen. One of them, a blond boy in a white polo shirt and Top-Siders, is experimentally touching the statue, while his friend, a drowsy kid with a backpack, keeps a lethargic lookout.

I can guess what they’re planning. Morons. Don’t they notice the security cameras? The backpack kid does see them, though, and he’s inching around, blocking his Richie Rich friend with his body, looking up at the camera and judging the angle. I don’t know what they hope to accomplish. Everything in the museum is glued, nailed, screwed, or locked down.

Only it’s not.

Polo shirt touches the falcon, and it jiggles. Just a little. But enough.

They’re going to rock it off its mounting. The jerks are planning a heist.

I glance around. Only a few museum guests in this room. I keep my head low and casually walk to the other end of the room, where I know from memorizing the stupid employee map that a call box is hidden in a wall panel. Making sure I’m not seen, I duck behind a potted palm, pop open the panel, and hit the button for security. Porter’s voice booms over the old line.

“Talk to me.” He’s on his radio doohickey. I can tell by the click and static.

“It’s Bailey,” I whisper. “I’m in the San Francisco Room.”

“That’s a long way from ticketing, Rydell. And speak up. I can’t hear you. Or are you trying to come on to me? Is this your sexy voice? I like it.”

I groan and seriously consider hanging up. “Shut up and listen to me. I think some kids are trying to steal.”

“I think you have the wrong number, sir.”

“Porter!” I grind out. “They’re stealing the Maltese falcon.”

“Keep your pants on. I’m two rooms away. I’ll be right there. Don’t take your eyes off them, but don’t approach. They might be dangerous or something. I’m being serious right now, in case you can’t tell.”

The phone goes dead. After closing the panel, I casually step from behind the palm and pretend to be looking at some paintings while keeping an eye on the kids. They’re still rocking the falcon statue. A couple is passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, and the two boys see them, so that halts their thieving for a moment. I disappear behind the potted palm again.

Come on, Porter. I know the falcon’s not actual movie memorabilia, much like most of the rest of the stuff in this place; only two statues were used in the original film, and one was auctioned off for several million dollars. But it’s the principle of the thing, and it makes me mad.

“Where are they now?” Porter’s warm breath grazes the hair around my ear. My neck and shoulder involuntarily clamp together, and for some reason, he finds this amusing. “Ticklish, Rydell?” he whispers.

I ignore that comment and lower a palm branch to show him the boys, who are now rocking the statue again. “There. White polo shirt and backpack.”

“Dirty little pigs,” he mutters incredulously. “The falcon?”

I won’t lie. A little thrill goes through me that Porter’s as mad as I am. I like that we’re on the same page about this. “What are we going to do?” I whisper.

“Rule number one in apprehending thieves and shoplifters according to the Cavern Palace guidelines is that we absolutely do not make a scene. No chasing. No nasty blowups. Nothing that causes the other guests to feel uncomfortable, so that means we’ve got to smoke them out, nice and easy.”

“I don’t follow,” I whisper.

Porter drops his head to speak in a lower voice. “We let them steal it.”

“What?” My face is near his face, so close I can see all the golden flecks in his brown eyes. Did I know they were brown? I never noticed until now. “We can’t do that.”

“We can and we will. Then we’ll follow them to the exit and bust their asses in the parking lot.”

“Oh,” I say, more than a little intrigued by this prospect.

“Now, they might split up. I’ve had this happen once before with a pair of Jay’s cuff links last summer. Bastards got away with a thousand bucks’ worth of gold while my ass got chewed out by Cadaver. So I might need some help. Will you?”

“Me? I don’t know . . . My break’s over.”

“Bawk, bawk,” he whispers back, cawing like a chicken. The tip of his nose touches mine, and we’re so close, I can now see his chest lifting up and down . . . and the jumping pulse of a vein on his neck. Were his shoulders always this broad? Mother of Mary, he seems bigger up close. And instead of wanting to punch him in the stomach, which should be my normal Porter response, I’m starting to want something else that makes my breath come faster. My clothes suddenly feel too tight.

Oh.

God.

So what? He’s attractive and has a certain damaged charm about him. It’s just chemical attraction. Perfectly natural. Means nothing.

And because I’m on my break and it’s cold in the museum, I’m wearing the cardigan, and that covers up the majority of the headlight problem that is now happening in my breast locale. Disaster averted. And the thought of it being a near miss is enough to throw a proverbial bucket of cold water onto the situation. God, this is ridiculous. It’s just dumb old Porter. What am I afraid of? Nothing.

To prove it to myself, I move back and lift my head, meeting his gaze and his challenge. “Radio Grace and tell her I’ll be late.”

His smile could power a lighthouse. He quickly radios Pangborn and briefs him on the situation, giving the older guard a description of the boys and instructions to track them on the security monitors. But before he can notify Grace, our thieving boys are on the move.

The falcon is gone. I didn’t see them take it. But the boys are huddled and the backpack’s being swung from the shorter kid’s shoulder. They’re stashing the bird.

“Porter!” I whisper heatedly, tugging his sleeve.

“I see it,” he says, keeping the palm frond bent to peer into the room. He radios Pangborn again, who saw it too.

“Got it all on tape,” the old stoner confirms, his words coming from the tiny black box on Porter’s shoulder. Apart from losing keys, this is probably more excitement than the two of them have had in months. “Go smoke ’em out, Porter. I’m watching from heaven.”

Heaven. The security room. I wonder if Porter really does watch me from there, or if that’s just him talking big.

The dopey-eyed kid zips up the backpack and slings it over his right shoulder, looks around, and then the two little robbers make their way beneath the bridge, strolling like it’s Sunday and they didn’t just commit a crime. The nerve!

“Time to follow,” Porter says, nudging me out of our hiding place with a tap on my wrist. “We’ll hang back at a safe distance, but not too far. There are a lot of exits, and they likely know that. Main entrance and gift shop are the fastest escape routes, but the easiest for us to track. Fire exits will set off alarms, but they could run and lose us—that’s how the cuff-link bandits beat me last summer. And then there’s the delivery door and the employee entrance.”

“They’re turning right,” I say. “Heading toward the lobby.”

“That kills three of the fire exits. Don’t stare too hard. Just act like we’re having a friendly chat. It’s good that you’re not wearing your vest. You look like you’re asking me for help. Maybe you’re just my girlfriend, visiting me for lunch.”

I nearly choke. “Dream on.”

“What? I’m not good enough for your champagne tastes?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

He snorts. “You prance around here, trying to look like a movie star in your expensive clothes, driving a Vespa, lawyer mom back in Washington, DC—”

His tone is light, almost teasing—not like our usual arguments—but it’s what he’s saying that surprises me. I stop in my tracks, but he pushes me forward. “Do you want to catch these guys? They’re turning into the Egyptian Room. Might have just seen me too. We need to be careful.”

We hang back for a second while Porter glances into the room. As he does, I say, “How did you know my mom’s a lawyer?”

“Gracie told me.”

Oh. “My clothes aren’t expensive, they’re vintage. I can’t help it if your sense of style doesn’t register anything higher than stoner chic and beach bum.”

“Ooaf,” he says, feigning offense. “You wound my tender sensibilities, Rydell.”

“And my dad bought me the Vespa. It’s restored. It’s not like it’s new or anything.”

“That model’s worth more than a new ride. Anyone who knows wheels knows that. The Cove’s a collector’s paradise for scooters. You need to keep that thing locked up at all times.”

“I’m not an idiot,” I tell him.

“Crap!”

“What?” I angle to see around him.

“Polo Shirt definitely spotted me. They’re circling around to the main hallway.” He radios Pangborn again. “You still see them?”

“Yeah, I got ’em on the overheads in the main corridor,” Pangborn’s voice says over the radio. “Looks like they’re heading for the lobby.”

The museum closes at six, and it’s past four, so at this time of day, the main hallways on both wings begin to fill up with guests making their way back out to warm sun and fresh air. Our miscreant boys duck into the crowd and for a few seconds, we lose them in the flow. My pulse speeds as I bounce on the balls of my feet, trying to see over the heads of the slow-moving herd.

“Stop that,” Porter says. “You’re going to blow our cover. I can see them. They’re hugging the south wall, so I don’t think they’ll break for the main gate or the gift shop.”

“Employee hall?”

“Maybe. Or they could head straight to Jay’s wing and try to use a fire exit there.”

Porter’s legs are longer than mine, and it’s hard for me to keep up with him without doubling my pace. “I don’t have champagne tastes. Just because I have style doesn’t mean I’m a snob. And in case you haven’t noticed, I’m not living with my mom anymore; I’m living with my dad. And I’m working this job, probably making a whole heck of a lot less money than you, Mr. I’m Eighteen; I Can Work Full-Time and All My Sexual Activity Is Legal.’ ”

“Unless it’s with someone like you, then it would be illegal, because you’re underage.”

“Right.” Before I can think of a wittier comeback, we’re at the end of the corridor, and our suspects have taken a sharp right. Porter was right: They aren’t headed to the main gate or the gift shop. But they aren’t going to Jay’s wing or the employee hall either.

“What the . . . ,” Porter murmurs. “The brats are going spelunking?”

Sure enough, the two boys stride through the back of the lobby, making a beeline to the gaping mouth of the cave. Why they’d head there, I don’t understand. There’s no exit inside, just a dark, looping path that ends up right back at the mouth of the cave. . . .

“Any cameras in there?” I ask.

“A few. The image quality isn’t great,” Porter admits.

“They’re trying to lose us.”

He thinks about this for a second and swears under his breath. We race to the mouth of the cave, where the boys have jogged down the stone steps and disappeared under the stalactites lit by creepy orange spotlights. Only problem is, the steps go two ways: left and right. The main route snakes through the cliffs, crisscrossing in the center like a pretzel where they open up into the center cavern. And the boys have split up.

“You go left,” Porter tells me. “I’ll go right. Whichever one of them you find, don’t take your eyes off him.”

“Meet you in the center.” I take off down the stairs, cool air drafting up as I jog. It’s dark and creepy down here, and the metal handrail that’s been here since the museum opened has a clammy feel to it that gives me the heebie-jeebies, so I can’t touch it. This makes running difficult, because caves are dark and damp, and the low lights around the walkway might be great for setting a mood, but they don’t provide much in the way of illumination when you’re chasing someone. Luckily, there aren’t too many people lingering in the cave—and even fewer racing through it. I spot White Polo Shirt a few yards ahead, on another landing.

There isn’t much to see in the cave, especially compared to the rest of the jam-packed museum, just a few info plaques with facts about caves in California and animals that live there, and the occasional bench for hot-blooded people to rest and enjoy the dark and gloomy view. I sail past a woman leaning against one of these benches and head around the pretzel turn toward the red-and-green glow of the main cavern.

Rocky walls lined with organically formed crevices and holes separate the cave into multiple chambers. It’s a great place for hiding, and those little bastards know it. Several people mingle around the main plaque, marking the spot where Jay and Vivian found their pirate gold. A cheesy chest overflowing with carnival doubloons sits atop a flat rock. It’s ridiculous. I’m embarrassed for everyone who has to gaze upon it, including myself.

But more than that, I’m embarrassed that I’ve lost the stupid kid I’m supposed to be trailing. I finally spot Porter, and he acknowledges me with a chin nod, but I can tell by the angle of his brow that he can’t find the backpack kid either. How could this be? I glance around one more time, and out of the corner of my eye, I spot something: two white sneakers slipping through one of the larger hole formations in the rocky cave walls. Not Polo, but the backpack kid. Sneaky little monkey is doubling back up the stairs.

Porter’s attention is elsewhere, and I’m not losing this kid again, so I take off after him. Up I go, back the way I came, twice as fast, pounding the stone steps.

The backpack kid tosses me a glance over his shoulder. He knows I’m chasing him, and he’s not stopping. Too bad. Neither am I.

When he reaches the mouth of the cave, he hesitates long enough to spot his cohort, slamming up the steps on the other side. Then they’re off, racing together through the lobby.

Porter said not to make a scene, but what about now? Do I just let these jerks get away? I quickly decide: No, I don’t.

I book it as fast as I can go, giving chase. They nearly bowl over an entire family, who startle like ducks on a pond, jumping out of their way.

“Someone stop them!” I yell.

No one does.

I think about Porter surrounded by people that horrible day on the beach years ago, when no one would help him save his dad from the shark. If strangers won’t help when someone is dying, they’re definitely not going to stop two kids from running out of a museum.

Pulse swishing in my temples, I race around the information booth, pumping my arms, and watch them split up again. Polo is heading for the easy way out: the main exit, where there’s (1) only a set of doors to go through, and (2) Hector, the laziest employee on staff.

But Backpack is headed for the ticketing booth and the connecting turnstiles. Freddy should be there, but no one’s entering the museum, so he’s instead chatting it up with Hector. The turnstiles are unmanned.

Like a pro hustler who’s never paid a subway fare, Backpack hurdles over the turnstiles in one leap. Impressive. Or it would have been, had his backpack not slipped off his shoulder and the strap not caught on one of the turnstile arms. While he struggles to free it, I take the easier route and make for the wheelchair access gate.

I unhitch the latch.

He frees the strap.

I slip through the gate, and just as he’s turning to run, I lurch forward and—

I jump on his back.

We hit the ground together. The air whooshes out of my lungs and my knee slams into tile. He cries out. I don’t.

I freaking got him.

“Get off me, you crazy bitch!” He squirms below me, elbowing me in the ribs. I clamp my hand over his arm to hold it down. A breathless, evil laugh comes out of me in fits. I can’t even say anything; I’m too winded.

“Oh no you don’t,” a triumphant male voice says nearby.

I twist to the side and spit hair out of my mouth. Porter is dragging Polo by the arm. He doesn’t look half as winded as I feel. Stupid surfer genes. But now Freddy and Hector are coming—to gawk, I guess. And here’s Grace, too; finally, someone with sense.

“What in the world is going on?” she asks.

“Watch him,” Porter tells the three of them as he parks Polo on the ground. Then he pulls me off Backpack.

“She’s crazy,” the boy repeats. “I think she broke my leg.”

“Whatever. She’s got the strength of a tater tot,” Porter says, pulling the boy to his feet, who protests and hobbles, but manages okay.

“Oww,” he whines.

“Shut the hell up, you thieving-ass rat.” Porter grabs the boy by his shirt, wrenches the backpack off his arm, tosses it to me. “Check it.”

I unzip the pack. Nested in a wadded-up hoodie is the statue. I hold it up like a trophy.

The boy groans and tries to wriggle out of Porter’s grip. “Nuh-uh,” Porter says, urging him down next to Polo and pressing the button on his sleeve. “You and your punk-ass friend aren’t going anywhere right now. We’re going to sit tight while my buddy Mr. Pangborn makes a little phone call to our friends at the CCPD. Got that, Pangborn?” he asks into his radio.

“Got it,” Pangborn’s voice answers.

While the boys exchange panicked looks, a small crowd is forming. I brush off my skirt and notice that a small trail of blood runs from a nasty scrape on my knee. I don’t even care. I’m still on an oh-so-sweet adrenaline high.

Porter grins, eyebrows high. “Damn, Bailey. You took him downtown. Full-on atomic drop body slam. I had no idea you had it in you.”

Me neither, to be honest. “No one steals from Sam Spade and gets away with it,” I say.

He holds his hand up, and I slap it, but instead of it being a simple high five, he laces his fingers between mine, squeezing. It’s probably only for a second, but it feels longer. When he releases my hand, I’m a ball of chaos: fingers tingling from where his just were, mind trying to make sense of it. Is he just being friendly, or is this maybe some sort of surfer handshake?

Now he’s crouching in front of me, inspecting my knee. “Ouch,” he says. Gentle fingers prod the skin around my wound. “You busted that up pretty good.”

“Yeah, stop poking it,” I say, but I’m not mad.

“You okay?” he asks in a softer voice.

“It’s fine.”

He nods and stands, then gestures for the falcon, gimme-gimme. When I hand it over, he turns to the two punks.

“You know this thing is worthless, right? If you ding-dongs would’ve just hustled a little faster, I suspect all you’d get for it on eBay would be ten lousy dollars, and we’d just order a new one online the next day. But now you’re going to start your teenage lives with criminal records.”

“Screw you,” Polo Shirt says. “My dad’s a lawyer. A hundred bucks says he’ll get you and the bitch fired.”

Porter laughs and tugs a thumb in my direction as Mr. Cavadini rushes toward us through the gift-shop exit. “Nice try. Her mom’s a lawyer too.”

Uh, divorce lawyer living all the way across the country, but who cares? We both share a secret smile. Who knew that my archnemesis could make such a good partner? A crime-solving partner—that’s all. No other kind of partner. I really need to wipe all those other thoughts out of my head, especially the confusing lusty thing that happened before we chased down these two kids. And the hand-holding. And the secret smiling.

Ugh.

Must rectify this tangled mess quickly, and I think I know how.

LUMIÈRE FILM FANATICS COMMUNITY PRIVATE MESSAGES>ALEX>NEW!

@mink: I have a horoscope for you.

@alex: Do you? Lay it on me, because I’ve had a REALLY confusing day, and I need some guidance.

@mink: Okay, here it is: If life suddenly gives you a choice to say yes to a new experience, you should accept.

@alex: What if that experience might be a pain in the ass?

@mink: Why would you assume that?

@alex: Instinct. I’ve been burned before, remember?

@mink: Instinct is no match for reason.

@alex: At this point, I’m not even sure I’ve got either one of them on my side.

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