Again, I'm grateful for all comments! It's a work in progress....
“Sydney is toxic and we’re dumping her.”
Gabby makes the declaration twenty minutes into our dinner together at the local bar. She’s downed about half of her strawberry margarita, but I don’t know if this is an alcohol-fueled decision. She’s been complaining about Sydney for months now, and the fact that she was a no-show to our meal tonight is apparently the last straw.
“I’m sure she has a good excuse,” I say, even though I’m actually sure of exactly the opposite. Sydney never has a good excuse. Ever. Maybe somebody she liked better asked her to dinner. Maybe she just plum forgot. But she always says it like it’s an excellent excuse. Of course I forgot! How could you actually expect me to remember our plans together?
“I even texted her this morning to remind her!” Gabby points at her iPhone as apparent evidence. “And she texted me back. She confirmed, Brooke!”
I lean back in my seat and sigh. When Gabby gets an idea in her head, it’s hard to talk her out of it. I’ve known her for seven years now—she’s the first friend I made in New York—and I know she’s relentless when she wants to be. If she wants to cut Sydney out of our lives, she’s not going to give in until she convinces me.
“What’s your evidence that Sydney is toxic?” I say.
Gabby’s round face lights up like she was waiting for the question. “I read an article just this morning on toxic friendships,” she says, picking up her phone from the table. She’s no doubt got the article bookmarked so that she could pull it up for this very conversation. “Okay, here we go. Warning signs that you’re in a toxic friendship…”
This should be good.
“Your friend is a freeloader,” Gabby reads off the screen. She looks up at me triumphantly. “When is the last time Syd picked up a check? Do you ever notice she always has to go to the bathroom just when the check appears?”
Okay, now that she mentions it…
“Your friend is always criticizing you,” she continues. She nods emphatically at me. “Remember when you were first dating Brian? She was always talking about what a jerk he was.”
I wince at the mention of my most recent ex-boyfriend. The pain of that relationship is still less than a month old. “He was a jerk.”
“Well, yes,” Gabby admits. “But she shouldn’t have said so.”
“You said it.”
“Well, not off the bat, at least,” she backpedals. “Not till you said it first. And remember when I got that pixie cut, she told me I wasn’t able to pull it off?”
I keep my mouth shut. The truth is that Gabby can’t pull off her pixie cut. When she got her admittedly frizzy brown hair chopped off a few months ago, I almost had a heart attack. Really, I’ve been meaning to say something to her about it, but it’s a difficult conversation. What am I supposed to say? Gabby, I love you, but you look like the Keebler Elf.
I secretly think one thing Gabby doesn’t like about Sydney is how attractive she is. I mean, I’m not someone who walked into a wall or anything, but Syd is on a whole other level. She’s taller than my five feet four by several inches, and she towers over Gabby’s five foot one buxom frame. She’s slender but with nice boobs, and she’s got long, flowing blond hair. Yes, I said “flowing.” Her hair flows. It’s like a river.
Suffice to say that going out for drinks with Sydney guarantees Gabby and I won’t get a second glance. I’ve gotten used to it in the two years that we’ve been hanging out with her, and I honestly find the attention she attracts more fascinating than anything. One time a guy on the street was staring at her so intently that he literally walked into a mailbox. Syd and I nearly died laughing.
Gabby looks back down at her phone. “Okay, how about this one: your friend is untrustworthy. Meaning she says she’s going to show up for dinner, then the two of us are sitting here waiting for her like a couple of idiots.”
“Don’t pitch a dying duck, Gabby,” I say drily.
That’s Sydney’s favorite expression. Pitch a dying duck. She’s so New York chic, but she’s originally from the South, and that’s the one expression she’s retained and uses liberally to tell me to calm the hell down. Don’t pitch a dying duck, Brooke. I’ve heard her say it a million times. And no matter how upset I am, it always makes me smile.
I check my own phone again to see if Sydney responded to my text asking where the hell she was. She hasn’t.
“And if she does show up, she’s always late,” Gabby adds. “Like our time isn’t as important as hers? Like we have absolutely nothing better to do than just sit there, waiting for her to show up?”
I don’t want to admit that Gabby’s arguments are starting to sway me. Everything she’s saying about Sydney Lancaster is absolutely true. Sydney is cheap, she’s mean, and she keeps us waiting all the time. But she’s also really funny, and the most fun person I know to go drinking with—and that includes Gabby.
“She’s probably with that new boyfriend of hers,” I say.
Gabby rolls her eyes. “Oh yes, the elusive boyfriend. That super handsome guy she’s been seeing the last few months, but she won’t tell us anything about him. Do you even know his name?”
“Um…” I think for a moment. “John?”
“I thought it was Alex?”
I shake my head. “No, that’s not right. I don’t know. Didn’t she tell us what letter it started with…H, right?”
“Why so secretive?” She takes another sip of margarita, although it’s actually more like a swig. “He’s probably a huge loser. He’s probably bald and fat and lives at home with his parents.”
“That’s not a very nice thing to say,” I tease her. “Maybe you’re the toxic friend?”
She laughs. “Of course I’m a toxic friend. Too bad you’re stuck with me.”
I take a sip of my own drink—a Sam Adams. “If Syd got a date tonight with Mr. Perfect, I don’t know if I blame her for ditching us. I’d be tempted to do the same.”
Gabby swipes some of the salt from the edge of her margarita glass and licks it. “Me too. God, it’s been a long time since I’ve been out with a decent guy.” She sighs. “Actually, sometimes I wonder if I’ve ever been out with a decent guy.”
“Right, but at least you’ve got decent guy options,” she says. “Nice guys ask you out—you just turn them down.”
I want to tell her she’s wrong but I can’t when she’s so clearly right. I’ve got a penchant for men who are too good-looking for their own good and who correspondingly treat me like crap. It’s why I’m nearly thirty years old without even a hint of a relationship. I’m sure Sydney would take this opportunity to point out my impending birthday, but Gabby (apparently the less toxic of the two) thankfully keeps silent.
“We’re not really going to stop being friends with Sydney, are we?” I ask. Not that it’s up to Gabby who I’m friends with, but… well, it’s hard to say no to that girl.
“No, we’re not,” she sighs. “But next time we agree to meet up, you and I are going to show up ten… no, twenty minutes late!”
I check my phone again to confirm that Sydney hasn’t sent out a text. I hope whatever she’s doing, she’s having a good time.
My apartment building is closer than Gabby’s, so she walks me home from the bar while we continue to grumble about Sydney’s toxic friendship. To be honest, I’m surprised she no-showed without so much as a word. Toxic or not, it isn’t like Sydney.
Out of the dusk, I see a familiar figure approaching the building just as we get there—it’s Jamie Kramer, my downstairs neighbor. Jamie has lived two flights down from me for the past three years, and in that time, we’ve become really good friends. Aside from Gabby, he might be my best friend.
Jamie waves when he sees us, and Gabby nudges me not-so-subtly because she firmly believes I should try to start something up with Jamie. She thinks he’s one of those decent guys that I could go out with if I had any common sense. Jamie is actually very nice-looking, maybe in his early thirties with light brown hair and clear blue eyes that crinkle adorably when he smiles at me. He wears rimless glasses, which actually really work for him—he’s got that cute nerd thing going on for him. He has some job in computers that I don’t quite understand, and he’s essentially made himself on call 24-hours-a-day for my chronic computer issues because he’s just that great a friend.
“Having a girls’ night out on the town?” Jamie asks us when we get within earshot. “Lots of alcohol and casual sex?”
“Oh yeah,” I confirm. “I’m having sex right now. As we speak. Can’t you tell? Oh, baby.”
He grins. “I thought there was something different about you.”
“Actually, it was a completely pathetic night,” Gabby says miserably. “We didn’t get even one free drink the whole night.”
“That’s hard to believe,” Jamie says. “Two gorgeous girls like you? Those guys must have been nuts.”
Jamie grabs the railing of the stairs three stairs leading to the front of our building, and lifts his cane onto the first step. That’s one thing that’s different about Jamie than most other guys—he uses a cane to help him walk. And not the kind of cool cane that one might use in a tap dancing routine or whatever dance number might require a cane. He’s got a hardcore cane that he clearly badly needs. It’s got four prongs at the end that rest solidly on the ground during each step, and he leans on it heavily when he walks, the tight muscles in his left arm flexing with each step.
When I first met him, I thought maybe he had an injury and the cane was only a temporary thing—but it wasn’t a temporary thing. It’s a forever thing.
I hardly notice the cane or his pronounced limp anymore. But I wonder if it’s at least part of the reason a great guy like him is still single.
“How about you, Jamie?” I ask him as I follow him up the steps in a fraction of the time it took him to get to the top. He’s readjusting his grip on his cane, trying to regain his balance post-stairs. “Did you have a hot date tonight?”
He hesitates. “I had a date…”
“Not a hot date?” I press him.
“Well…” He shrugs as he opens the door for me and Gabby, even though it’s tricky for him to balance while holding the door—I’ve tried to get the door for him in the past, and he always looks at me like I slapped him in the face. “It’s not even ten o’clock and it’s over. So… no, not too hot.”
“Was the girl hot?” I say.
He raises an eyebrow. “Why so curious, Brooke?”
Gabby nudges me hard enough to throw me off-balance. “Yeah, why so curious?”
My eyes meet Jamie’s, and his cheeks color and he looks away. Jamie and I are really good friends, but there are times when I wonder what his true feelings for me are. Gabby insists he’s madly in love with me, but I don’t see it. Maybe he liked me when we first met, but now we’re completely immersed in the Friend Zone. We don’t think of each other that way.
Sometimes I wish something would have happened with Jamie before we got stuck in the Zone. After all, he’s exactly the sort of boyfriend I should have—the quintessential nice guy. He doesn’t have a drinking or drug problem, he doesn’t borrow money from me because he’s lost his job or spent it all at the racetrack, and he’s been nothing but kind to me in all the years I’ve known him. And on top of all that, he’s hot. Mostly he’s got the boy-next-door kind of good looks, but when he’s got his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows, I can see all the lean muscles in his forearms and it gives me an involuntary tingle.
But it wasn’t in the cards for us.
“Maybe we should hit up another bar,” I mumble to Gabby. “Maybe we’ll have better luck.”
She shrugs. “Okay, sure, not like I’ve got anything better to do.”
“Want to come, Jamie?” I ask him. “The night’s still young, right?”
I see him considering it. He looks tired—the effort of walking for him is probably about three or four times what someone else his age would have to expend—but he almost never says no to me.
“If we go,” he says, “we’ve got to go to the west side. The police are still crawling all over Gramercy Park.”
“Police?” Gabby’s eyes widen. “Why are there police?”
Jamie raises his eyebrows. “You didn’t see them? I think some girl was, like, found murdered there.”
Murdered? A sudden sick feeling comes over me. I look at Gabby and I can tell she’s thinking the same thing.
Sydney no-showed. She didn’t answer multiple text messages and one actual phone call. She would have had to pass by Gramercy Park to get to the bar from her apartment. Is it possible that…?
“What was her name?” Gabby asks Jamie.
Gabby looks like she wants to shake him. “The girl who got murdered. Did you hear her name?”
“Oh.” He scratches at his light brown hair with his free hand. “Um, no. Honestly, I got away from there as fast as I could. The crowds…” He looks down at his cane, which I’ve witnessed firsthand is a tripping hazard when there are a lot of people around. “Why?”
Gabby looks at me, her eyes panicked. “Brooke, what if it’s her?”
“I’m sure it isn’t,” I murmur.
“I called her toxic!” she moans. “Our best friend was probably being murdered to death while I was calling her toxic!”
Jamie frowns at me. “Is Gabby okay?”
Gabby whips out her phone and starts typing. I look over her shoulder and see the words “Gramercy Park,” “woman,” “murdered,” and then “Sydney Lancaster.”
“Nothing’s coming up,” Gabby says. “That’s… good? Is it good? Oh my God, I’m freaking out here.”
I glance over at Jamie, who has his eyebrows scrunched together. He looks really sexy right now. “Our friend Sydney didn’t show up for dinner tonight,” I explain to him. “Gabby thinks it’s possible Sydney might be the one who…”
“Oh!” Jamie’s blue eyes widen. “Oh, shit. But… well, that’s not very likely, is it? I mean, how many people live in this area? What are the chances it’s your friend?”
That’s another good thing about Jamie. He’s logical.
“You’re right,” I say. “I’m sure it’s not really her.”
“No, it’s her!” Gabby insists. Her round face has turned very pink. “I’m certain of it.”
“Look,” I say, “why don’t we go over to Gramercy Park? I’m sure we can ask around and figure out the name of the victim.”
Gabby shakes her head emphatically. “No. Way. I’m not going to the scene of a murder. No chance.”
I bite my lip. I don’t want to admit it, but I’m not too excited about going to the scene of a murder all by myself either. Yes, I know the cops are there. But don’t they say that murderers hang around the scene of a crime? And what if it turns out to be Sydney? I don’t want to be there alone.
As if reading my mind, Jamie says, “I’ll go with you, Brooke.”
I look at him in surprise. “Yeah, but… the crowds…”
“You shouldn’t go by yourself.”
I don’t want to admit how grateful I am for his offer, especially since the victim is almost certainly not Sydney and we’re just being silly and overreacting. But at this point, I have to know. I have to go there myself and verify that my friend is not lying dead in Gramercy Park.
Gabby heads home, extracting a promise that I’ll text her the minute I verify the identity of the murder victim, while Jamie and I head out in the direction of the park. He walks slow, leading with his cane, then leaning heavily on it, dragging his left leg more than his right with each step. I never got the full story out of him—why walking is such a struggle for someone otherwise very fit—but he once mumbled something about a car accident when he was in high school in which he broke his back. It’s something I’ve gotten used to: the fact that when I’m with Jamie, I have to walk slower than I usually do.
I like it, actually. Everyone in this city walks so goddamn fast—it’s nice to have an excuse to slow down for a change.
“It’s not her,” Jamie assures me for the second time. “The chances of it being her are astronomical.”
“Yeah,” I mumble. “Astronomical.”
“Really,” he insists. “There are eight million people in this city, so the chances of it being her are about one in eight million.”
“That’s definitely not true,” I retort. “Because only half of those eight million are women. And probably like a third of them are elderly or children. So it’s probably more like one in three million.”
“One in three million? Well, that’s almost a guarantee, isn’t it?” He rolls his eyes as he swerves to use a curb cut.
I know he’s being sarcastic, but right now, it feels like there’s no chance it could be anyone but Sydney. “Can we talk about something else?”
He nods. “Sure. What do you want to talk about?”
“I don’t know.” I chew on my lip. “Tell me about this girl you went out with tonight.”
He groans. “No, let’s not talk about that.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” He pauses for a moment, catching his balance and readjusting his grip on his cane. “It was just… not good, okay? It was one of those blind date things.”
“Oh no. How did you allow that to happen to you?”
“Because,” he says, “one of my friends pointed out that it’s been six months since I’ve been out with a girl. And even longer since I’ve been… uh…”
I lower my voice and whisper, “Sexually active?”
He smiles crookedly. “Yeah, that. Thanks, Brooke. I love talking about this, by the way.”
“I can tell.” I poke him in the arm, briefly feeling his firm biceps through his rolled-up flannel shirt. Ooh, nice. “So what was so awful about it exactly?”
“No chemistry.” He shrugs. “We met at the restaurant, and I think the second we looked at each other, we both thought, ‘No, not for me.’ But by that point, we were in too deep. We had to go through with it.”
“I had no idea you were so superficial, Jamie!” I gasp. “What was so objectionable about the way she looked?”
He thinks for a minute. “What got me, I guess, was that she had on way too much makeup. I mean, so much. I felt like if I kissed her, it would all wipe off on me and I’d go home looking like one of those punk singers who wears mascara.”
I laugh. “And what did she find objectionable about you? I’d say you’re not hideously ugly. I mean, you don’t have any gross deformities that I can see.”
Jamie makes a face at me. “Gee, thanks. Let’s just say I don’t think she was charmed when I tripped and nearly fell on my ass while walking over to say hello to her. You should have seen the look on her face.”
I bat my eyelashes at him. “I would be charmed.”
“Well, you’re one in a million.”
“Good thing I’m not one in three million, or else I’d be murdered.”
We’re about a block away from Gramercy Park and I can tell Jamie is getting tired. He’s leaning more heavily on his cane, and I can see the muscles in his arm straining. He doesn’t look like he can make it much farther. Just as we’re starting to see the cop cars, he stops and collapses onto the bench for a bus stop.
“Give me fifteen seconds,” he says as he releases his grip on the cane and rubs his left forearm.
“You can have thirty,” I say. I crinkle my nose at an unpleasant smell that clings to the bus stop. “But you may need to get a hepatitis vaccine after sitting on that bench. Ew.”
While Jamie is resting for a second (well, thirty seconds), I look over and see the crowd accumulating around the park. I see the yellow police tape, the flashing lights, and then dozens of pedestrians that the police are doing their best to herd in the opposite direction. It looks like we’re not the only ones who came here to see what happened.
Even though I know Jamie is right that the chances of Sydney being the victim are remote, my stomach flips. I reach into my purse and pull out my phone to see if she texted me. Nothing.
I send Syd a quick message: If you get this, please text me. Seriously! Some girl’s been murdered in Gramercy Park and if you don’t text me back, I’m going to tell everyone on Facebook that it’s you!
There. That should get her attention.
Jamie struggles back to his feet, but he doesn’t look enthused about the idea of diving into the crowd surrounding the park. Gramercy Park is a small park that spans a few short city blocks, and is restricted to the general public by metal bars. You actually need to be a resident of the area to get inside, which Sydney happens to be. Another reason why the chances are better than one in three million that she’s lying dead in the park.
“All right.” He sets his jaw. “Let’s do this.”
We cross the street, but it’s quickly obvious we’re not going to get very close. And it’s clear the cops aren’t answering questions for random curious civilians. I crane my neck, trying to see if I recognize anyone, but I don’t. Maybe it’s not Sydney.
“Step back, everyone!” a cop yells at the crowd. “You’re going to have to step back right now!”
I’m looking at all the yellow tape and the crowds, and I start to get… the weirdest feeling. It’s hard to even describe. It’s this prickling sensation on the back of my neck like little needles poking me. I feel a chill go down my spine.
Somebody is watching me.
It’s such an odd thing to think. There are dozens of people standing around here—it’s not like I’m alone in my bedroom. Yet, I have this sudden feeling of absolute certainty that there is someone out there who is watching me—just me.
They are waiting for me.
“Maybe we should go,” I murmur to Jamie. “I think you’re right. It probably wasn’t her.”
“Seriously?” He frowns. “We just got here.”
“I know, but…” I grab his arm with more force than I meant to, which causes him to tighten his grip on his cane, trying to maintain his tenuous balance. I shouldn’t have done that, but I’m starting to freak out. “I just want to go home.”
His brow creases. He gets it. “Yeah, okay. Sure. Let’s go then.”
My heart is pounding and all I can think about his getting back to my building. That prickling in the back of my neck won’t go away. I need to get inside—somewhere I can’t be seen.
“Brooke!” I hear a tearful voice behind me. It takes me a second to place the voice and when I do, I realize that I’m not going anywhere. Not right now. This night has only just begun. “Brooke! Oh my God, isn’t it awful?”
I glance at Jamie, whose blue eyes widen. I steel myself for what’s about to happen and whirl around to face Tracy Miller. Tracy is an equally gorgeous albeit dark-haired version of Sydney. If Sydney were a Barbie doll, Tracy would be the brunette Barbie. Tracy worked with Sydney at the fashion magazine, and I know her from a few chance encounters at bars near where Sydney works. Tracy’s leaky mascara and bloodshot eyes aren’t a good sign.
“Was it…?” I can’t even say the words.
Tracy’s eyes fill with tears. “They found Sydney in the bushes with… with her throat slashed.”
No. Not Sydney. Jesus…
I cover my mouth, feeling my knees go weak under me. So much for one in three-million. “Do… do they know who did it?”
Tracy shakes her head. “Not that I know of. But… she was dating that guy, right? The tall, dark, and handsome one?”
I frown. “Do you know his name?”
Tracy shakes her head again. “I already talked to the detective. She was so secretive about him…”
I feel the tears pricking at my eyes. I can’t believe this just happened. My friend Sydney was murdered in a park five blocks away from where I live. I’ll never see her again, except maybe in a coffin if they can get her presentable enough for a viewing. I’ll never again get to be kept waiting twenty minutes for her to show up for dinner. I’ll never get to laugh at her raunchy jokes again. I’ll never be told not to pitch a dying duck again.
“I need to sit down,” I whisper to Jamie.
He nods, and uses his free hand to steer me away from the crowd, back to the smelly bus stop where he’d rested a minute earlier, back when we were still joking about the whole thing. I wish I’d turned around and gone home back then. I could have waited till the morning to hear this.
I nearly collapse onto the bench and Jamie plops down next to me. He doesn’t say much, just keeps me company, rubbing my back gently while I cry. I drop my face into my hands, sobbing as I think about how unfair the whole thing is.
And the whole time, the sensation never leaves me that someone is watching me.
To be continued.....