Peter had his eye on the guy in the leather bomber jacket. Tall, handsome, but with an ugly expression, the man swaggered down the dark alley with an air of authority. He wore Levi’s and, despite the summer heat, carried a hockey bag. He didn’t look at Peter, too busy was he muttering down his cell phone in Russian and securing the hockey bag in the back of his big black SUV.
Peter shifted slightly, careful to make no sound. He didn’t think the Russian would be happy to find him here, hiding between the bushes and the dumpster, snapping photos of the comings and goings at Pierogi Tea Café.
Or maybe he should spell it cummings and goings when he wrote the article.
If he had been a writer for the Bellingham Herald, they’d never let him get away with it, but the one benefit of writing for a weekly independent was the freedom to be vulgar.
In his mind, he composed a few lines of his exposé.
Who hasn’t wandered by the Pierogi Tea Café and wondered how it stays in business? Perpetually empty, yet also perpetually open, the café has been a cipher in the mind of many a downtown resident. The few bold souls who get drunk enough to venture into the dining room are treated with scowls, bad service, and the worst pierogi ever made.
And there is no tea.
So what, you might ask, does Pierogi Tea Café really sell? That’s what I was crouched in a stinking alley between Pierogi Tea Café and the Vitamilk Building trying to figure out.
A big Russian came by. He had a fine ass. Bubble-style. Meaty…
Peter mentally scratched that last line out. He didn’t want to incline his readers toward sympathy for a guy who was obviously in the Mafia and probably a pimp.
After the Russian’s taillights had faded, Peter carefully stood, keeping his eye on the café’s back door. The next few seconds would be the scary ones, the seconds when someone in the upper floor of the café might see him emerge from hiding and walk back toward his car, parked in front of the Vitamilk Building.
The night’s silence was unbroken, save for the squeals of angry skunks fighting in the vacant lot next to the café.
Not that he could see the skunks in the predawn darkness. But he hardly needed to see skunks to know they were there.
The Vitamilk Building got its name from the enormous 1930s advertisement painted on its side. A happy, smiling milk carton, two stories high, sauntered across the 1920s brickwork exhorting the fishermen in the marina across the street to “Drink Milk!” presumably with the idea that they would acquire the same jaunty demeanor.
Vitamilk, as a product and a company, no longer existed. The building had been converted into a gallery with artist studio spaces on the second floor, but the building’s name had lingered on.
Although it was four thirty in the morning, several of the studios’ lights still burned, including the corner studio belonging to John O’Donnell, Peter’s informant.
Just the idea that he had something as romantic as an informant filled Peter with fierce journalistic pride. What did it matter that John was more of a tipster than an informant? He’d led Peter to an actual story to investigate. In Bellingham!
The informant was just one of the tools of Peter’s trade. In the living room at home, he had a bookcase crammed with style guides and dog-eared trades like Kristof and WuDunn’s China Wakes
and Sperber’s Murrow: His Life and Times
. It was next to an antique desk and chair set made from solid mahogany -- suitable for the likes of Daddy Warbucks -- acquired from a bachelor uncle who’d had a particular liking for Peter. On the desk’s glass top sat a flat-screen monitor and a wireless keyboard -- and nothing else. Peter forced himself to sit at that desk for three hours every day, whether he could make himself write or not. “No wind favors a ship with no destination,” that’s what his uncle had said to him. And Peter had a destination: journalistic greatness.
But, the City of Subdued Excitement was not widely thought of as a breeding ground for Pulitzer- -- or even Tom Renner- -- winning journalists. The biggest things to come out of the city in years were Death Cab for Cutie and Baker’s Breakfast Cookies.
He could have used a cookie right about then and wondered if he had one in his glove compartment. He’d very briefly dated one of the bakers at the breakfast cookie facility and for a couple of weeks he’d been ankle-deep in the things. He still found stashes of them here and there.
He opened his glove compartment and found a slightly smashed Vegan Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk.
Yeah, Robert had been a vegan, hadn’t he? No wonder it hadn’t worked out.
He tore open the wrapper anyway, crammed half a cookie into his mouth, and washed it down with the cold coffee sitting in his cup rest.
He was too excited to sleep but too cautious to risk going back into the alley so close to daybreak. His roommate, Evangeline, had a studio in the building. That was her window directly above the milk carton. Maybe she was still up. He walked around the side to look. Dark.
The window next to hers was lit, though, the one belonging to Nick Olson, painter, recluse, Peter’s current crush. Nick was the only artist who didn’t open his studio for gallery walks and never kept his door open when he was painting. Evangeline claimed to have seen a few of his canvases once, but she’d failed to describe them as anything other than “abstract expressionist landscapes,” which communicated nothing to Peter. He’d spoken to Nick only once, at a reception at the Weydert-Harri gallery.
Nick had looked great, wearing a merino wool sweater, jeans, and two days’ worth of stubble. His hair was brown and his eyes very light blue. He had a scar just above his left eyebrow and wore small gold hoop earrings. His face closely resembled J.C. Leyendecker’s Arrow Shirt Man, if the Arrow Shirt Man had been allowed to get really scruffy and walk around in worn denim and paint-spattered steel-toed boots.
Not that Peter had been drawing Nick’s visage in the sketchbook of his heart or anything.