Read Chapter One

Earlier that night found me racing around my little studio apartment, cell phone pressed to an ear with one hand, the other rustling through the closet. I find the dress I’m looking for and rip it off its hanger.

“Elise, I’m almost ready. I’ll see you there in twenty minutes at the most.”

“I can’t believe you’re not here already, Skylar,” Elise said teasingly. “I’m here all alone at the bar staring at Reid.”

“Twenty minutes,” I insist, ending the call, throwing the phone in the general direction of the handbag sitting on the edge of the Murphy bed. My studio is so snug that it has one of those beds that pulls out of the wall and can be folded up and stowed away when it’s not in use.

My mind drifts and I picture Reid and I hanging out on it sometime, maybe even later tonight, and laugh quietly. Reid is our hot bartender friend, much in demand by the ladies who hang out in the bar where Elise is right now, the place where I’m headed. Friends since undergrad, Elise and I spent a lot of time at Reid’s bar the last two years — it was one of the things that got me through graduate school.

Wriggling into the black knit dress, I pull it down over the skinny jeans I wear underneath, and fluff my long brown hair out of the neckline. Here in San Francisco the temperature always hovers around sixty degrees, even with summer just around the corner. At night when the fog rolls in, the freezing wind can make it too intense for bare legs, so you have to layer. I step into my loafers, slip into a vintage khaki trench with plaid lining, and grab my handbag and phone.

As I turn to lock my apartment, I shudder as I look back at the sight. The state of the place is that books and magazines are stacked high in every corner. Junk spills into the tiny amount of space available to walk between the combined bedroom and living area and the miniature kitchen. Though small, the kitchen is meticulously clean, at least.

I love finally having my own apartment after years of sharing during undergrad and then grad school. It’s just going to take a few weeks to get the place organized and decorated, I think optimistically. Librarians excel at finding and organizing things, so it shouldn’t take too long.

Going through the large, empty lobby area of the apartment building, I admire the ornate cornices that decorate the space and the gilt-edged mirror, beautiful even though slightly burnished. The building is over one hundred years old, constructed a few years after the big hit of the earthquake of 1906. It started a fire that entirely burnt down Nob Hill, my new neighborhood, along with much of the city.

I step outside and over the tracks of the cable car, which buzz incessantly from the mechanics underground that pull them. The bar where I’m meeting Elise is only eight short blocks away, up and over the hill, crossing down to Lower Nob.

And I’m not late, not really. Elise knows that after sending out dozens of resumes I finally landed an interview at a small private library downtown. The meeting, which I just returned from, went well, and I enjoyed talking with all the staff members. We had some great conversations, which is a good sign. I took a gamble when I signed the lease on my new apartment, betting that I would be able to find work as a librarian nearby, and soon.

A little short of breath as I cross the crest of the hill, I start the descent to the bar. I quickly roll down the other side, eager to get there. Gazing at Reid is one of my favorite things about hanging out at the bar. I’ve had a crush on Reid forever, for almost all of the two years that I was in school to be a librarian. And now I’d graduated.

The fitness studios and cafes blur as I speed along, propelled toward the bar by the downhill momentum. I gaze upwards as I stand at the corner waiting for the light to turn. A mixture of clouds and fog move rapidly across the sky, and I wrap the coat around me tighter, a shield against the wind. I grew up in this mystical, fog-covered city, and after twenty-three years I’m almost used to it. My mom and dad live near Noe Valley, a part of the city that’s warmed by just a little bit more sunshine. Even with the different micro-climate, I’m glad I moved out.

The chill makes me practically run across the street down to the middle of the block where the bar is. It’s located next to the art school, and a motley bunch of students mill around outside, smoking. Ignoring them, I enter the bar, a little cave of a place decorated like a bordello.

I don’t immediately see Elise, but Reid’s behind the bar. I slide up to his end and sit down while his back is turned. After several long seconds of staring at him, I realize he still hasn’t seen me, but Elise has.

“Hi,” she breathes as she comes up to me, kissing me first on one cheek, then the other. Tall, blonde and enviously confident, ever since Elise studied abroad in France junior year she’s been slightly affected. “I was in the ladies’ doing my lips.”

I take in her blood red pout, blotted to matte perfection, and look around the bar. “Who have you seen?” I ask her. For Elise to take such an interest in the perfection of her lips means only one thing.

She sits onto the stool next to me and places her bejeweled clutch handbag on the bar. “Over there,” she says quietly, her head nodding towards a velvet couch. I glance over discreetly and see a couple of guys in jeans and button downs drinking two fingers of amber colored liquid over ice.

“You’re too much,” I kid her playfully. “Let’s order something.”

“Okay,” Elise agrees. She reaches for the little cocktail menu sitting on the bar. “Hey Reid,” she calls out. “What are you making us tonight?”

Reid finally turns to us, the tattoos running the length of his inner forearm flashing as he bends his biceps to pick up a steaming crate of clean pint glasses. “Hello Skylar, Elise,” he says, nodding at us. He places the glasses gently on the rear counter, where the bar back can put them away, and comes over.

I smile at him, noticing how cute his dark hair looks now that it’s cut shorter. A strand falls into his eyes, and he casually brushes it away.

“Concoct something special for me,” I tell him.

Reid grins and leans forward on the bar towards me. He always tries to be aloof, but there is no denying the attraction crackling between us. It’s electric. A pull I feel from miles away, across city blocks.

“Sure,” he says, taking out two martini glasses from beneath the bar. New cocktail inventions are his specialty. “What are you up to tonight?”

I’m here to stare at you all night, I think. When I don’t say anything, Reid blushes a little. For some reason, Reid is very modest about how gorgeous he is. He has the rugged good looks of a soccer or lacrosse player or something. Try telling this to him, though.

“Skylar had her first interview today, and we’re just celebrating a little,” Elise tells him.

“The wait to see whether or not I get the job is going to be agonizing,” I add. “Digital reference librarian job searches are usually done nationwide, so competition is fierce.”

Reid mixes our martinis in a frosty shaker full of ice, then pours one serving each into the glasses in front of us.

Elise picks one up in a toast. “I’m sure you’ll get it, you sexy librarian you.”

Reid and I both laugh.

“Thanks for the encouragement,” I tell Elise, shaking my head at the stereotype, even though it’s one I love. I quickly take a sip from my overflowing drink then reach over to clink her glass.

“Anytime,” she says mischievously, eyebrows raised in Reid’s direction. “I’m sure tons of guys will come in to check you out.”

I laugh. Elise is always trying to get me to adopt sexy librarian pick up lines. She even emails them to me, seriously.

Reid hovers by our side for a moment, rinsing out the martini shaker then wiping down the bar. When I don’t say anything else, Elise continues.

“Reid, who decorated this place? It’s so whorehouse chic. The owners need to hire someone to redo it.” Elise works as a realtor and considers herself an expert on interior design.

Instead of answering, Reid just rolls his eyes at Elise’s assessment of the place. Meaning to mend any misunderstanding over what was probably another clichéd observation, I feel a need to comment. “Yeah, it does feel like something illicit is gonna happen,” then gulp down a little more of my drink.

“I wish,” Reid said. “About the most criminal thing that happens in here is the students from the art school next door sneak in with their fake IDs, drink too much and throw up. Then I have to clean it up.”

“Gross,” Elise says, putting down her drink.

Reid shrugs, then moves down the bar to wait on a group of pretty girls. He sure seems grumpy tonight.

“Elise, I think you scared him off,” I venture.

“That’s ridiculous,” she retorts.

“I’ve liked him for a long time. I need your help, not you pissing him off.” My love life was in no condition at the moment to take chances. It had been a long time since I had been in a relationship. The last few years were spent surviving a string of immature, mostly crazy fun relationships, a habit going back to my teens.

“Okay, when he comes back I’ll patch things up for you,” Elise promises.

We watch for a moment as Reid slings beverages towards a few disenfranchised stockbroker types forced to slum it and belly up to the bar. I wish he would take me seriously. He works as a bartender to support himself as an artist, his true passion. We could be together, following our dreams. Mutual support like that isn’t cheap.

I can tell Elise is weighing her options — the stockbrokers or the two guys on the sofa. The choice is made for us when the group of pretty girls nearby engulfs the stockbrokers.

“Come on,” Elise sighs audibly into her martini. “Let’s have a change of scenery.” She grabs her handbag and smoothly walks over to the sofa. I watch her as she gestures first to herself, then back to me, introducing us. The guys smile, and I guess they invite us to hang out, because a minute later Elise waves me over. I gather my coat and join them.

“Skylar, this is Tim and Dave,” Elise says by way of introduction.

“Hi.” I manage a small smile as I sit down next to Elise on the adjacent sofa.

“So Elise tells us that you’re a sexy librarian,” Tim starts.

“Yes,” I tell him. “You should come check me out!”

Tim and Dave laugh and Elise gives me an approving smile, but it feels so unnatural to drop shit like that. “Skylar and I were just saying that this place needs redecorated. It looks too much like a brothel, which can give some people the wrong idea, don’t you think?”

The guys laugh again and Elise keeps on talking, dominating the conversation with her witticisms. I laugh along with them, kind of tuning out when Elise announces her plan to redecorate the lounge in black and white. My gaze keeps drifting back to the bar where Reid’s serving drinks to a steady stream of customers. With Reid, I feel I can always be myself.

I’m distracted by a couple sitting near us, in the secluded cluster of chairs paired on the other side of the sofas. The woman just returned from a trip to the ladies’ room, I guessed. As she sits down and crosses her legs, I notice she’s wearing the most fantastic red and white spectator pumps I’ve ever seen. Then I watch the man she’s with give her drink a stir before handing it to her. He stares intently at the woman as she drinks.

“Or maybe some bright Pop art,” I hear Elise continue. “What do you think, Skylar?”

“Noir,” I say distractedly. “San Francisco needs more noir bars.”

As Elise and the guys chatter on, I watch out of the corner of my eye as the man leads the woman out of the bar. She’s not wearing a jacket, just a sleeveless dress, and the way he grips her upper arm seems like it would hurt. It occurs to me that she might be too wasted to feel it.

It’s so early, though, for someone to have had that much to drink.

I look at the clock hanging over the bar. The hands read just after 8 pm.

“I’ll be right back,” I say to Elise and the guys.

I walk up to the bar and wave to get Reid’s attention. He’s between customers and able to come right over.

“Hey, did you see that man and woman sitting together over in those chairs?”

“Yeah, he was drinking bourbon and she had a gimlet.” Reid looks towards the chairs and notices the couple’s vanishing act, although the drinks are barely touched. “They paid for the drinks, though, even if they didn’t drink them,” he shrugs again.

I follow his gaze with a furrowed brow. “Something’s going on.”

Without saying another word I leave the bar. Outside the fog-shrouded night allows for little light. Following my instincts, I turn left and walk the block to the corner. There I go left again, moving downhill.

I cross my arms in front of me against the cold. In my haste, I left my trenchcoat behind in the bar. My penny loafers squeak satisfyingly in hasty pursuit. At least I had worn them instead of sandals. It was usually too cold at night in San Francisco to wear sandals. I peek into every entryway on the block and don’t see them. The sidewalk is empty.

When I reach Post St. the couple is still nowhere in sight. I decide to cross and go down one more block. The hundred-year old Victorian architecture is no longer a blur in the darkness. Bay windows loom overhead, not all with a view.

Walking even more slowly, I happen to see a small light flicker inside a basement apartment. Gazing through the round window, I see a sight that chills me to the bone, never mind that I’m already freezing. A naked woman, half her clothes off her body, is being stabbed. I’m horrified, now completely frozen to the spot and I look more closely. It’s definitely the couple from the bar — I recognize the woman’s shoes. Then the room goes dark.

I turn and run.

+++   ++   +++

Readers: What do you think is going on?! What will happen next? Leave a comment below and receive a tip to the next clue.