Izzy took her regular stroll through Essential Junk, the warehouse of eclectic goods that fronted for her real business. It was Friday, and the place was as busy as usual. She exchanged greetings with familiar faces, strolled the aisles, and bantered with customers, her version of the management walk-around.
“Yo, Manny, whaddup?”
Manny gave her a high five, handshake, and a chest bump. “Hey, Izzy. Just checking comics. A 1962 Amazing Fantasy Spider-Man just sold for 263 grand. Original sales price was twelve cents. Incredible. Gotta get me some of that action.”
“Did you see the box of X-Men? Got the guy’s complete collection. And there’s a good-condition Green Lantern about twenty years old.”
“Yeah, good stuff. I’m pretty focused on Marvel, especially Fantastic Four.”
“I’ll keep my eyes open and will have Essdelen call if we get any.” “Thanks, Izzy.”
Seeing an older man scanning the room, she approached. “Anything I can help you find?”
“Looking for bikes, trikes, and skateboards.” “Let me guess: the grandkids are coming.”
“Lucky guess. I’m especially interested in Radio Flyer. That’s what I grew up with.”
“We have a classic Radio Flyer red wagon. Mint, really. All that stuff is in the back. Just follow the main aisle all the way.”
Hearing Izzy’s advice, a woman in a wheelchair rolled up. “Board games and puzzles? My dog ate our Monopoly set.”
“They’re on the far shelf in Books, and we have a bunch of Monopoly in pretty good condition. What flavor does your dog like?”
“We’ve got it.”
“Thank you.” The woman chuckled and rolled down the aisle toward Books.
Izzy made her way to the front desk to check in with Essdelen, one of her managers.
“Busy today,” Izzy said.
Essdelen replied, “Yeah, the good weather brings them out. Anything going on with you?”
“Heading out in a little bit. Meeting a guy at the soup kitchen.” “A guy?” Essdelen bobbed her eyebrows.
“I wish. Yeah, a guy. Never met him. A mutual friend said we might be able to do some business. I have no idea what that’s about.”
“Hope he’s cute.” Essdelen was invested in finding a guy for Izzy. “Yeah, right. Very romantic, meeting at the soup kitchen.” “Good luck.”
Izzy browsed books, music, clothes, and furniture, stopping to chat with customers. She loved her business and the people it attracted. Dressed in oversize military fatigues, black boots, and a Mack Trucks baseball cap, she fit perfectly in an overstuffed junk store. Her wild black hair poked out in all directions from her cap. The oversized fatigues were intended to disguise her seriously underweight body, but there was really no way to hide the fact that she was short and weighed about a hundred pounds. With no body shape, tiny boobs, and a plain face, she was used to men not paying attention.
Thirty three years of being ignored by men had deadened her desire to even try being attractive. She actually worked it in the opposite direction. If they didn’t care, neither did she. Well, she did care, but she wasn’t going to show it. She’d had a few boyfriends, wasn’t a virgin, but wasn’t actively looking. She’d tried online dating a few times with disastrous results. The looks of disappointment when she walked into the coffee shop were devastating. Then, just the opposite, creepy guys getting aggressive too fast. She wasn’t made for that. If she met a guy, great. If not, she wasn’t going to make her life revolve around men.
She’d actually had more approaches from women, but she wasn’t interested. She was always polite and let them know she was on the other team, and they understood. But she wondered what it was about her that appealed more to women than men. Didn’t matter—she wasn’t going there.
* * *
She made her way to her office in the back corner of the warehouse and checked the time. It was 4:30, and her business appointment was for 5:30 at the soup kitchen, a short walk away. They’d agreed to meet there and walk to dinner. Unless he had a place in mind, she was planning on her favorite hole-in-the-wall Peruvian restaurant. She loved the food, and a margarita was sounding really good. It was Friday night, almost like a date, but most likely a business meeting.
The appointment was unusual. She didn’t know what it was about. But the call had come in on a burner from her most important customer, a New York jeweler. After talking business, Conrad said a young man he did business with was relocating to the Pacific Northwest and wanted to make some contacts. When Izzy asked about his business, Conrad was noncommittal but encouraged Izzy to meet him. After Izzy agreed, she gave Conrad an email address on the deep web. When an email from Ramon Ortiz pinged in, she’d proposed the soup kitchen meet-up and then dinner.
She assumed Conrad was doing two clients a business favor, but something about the conversation made her wonder. Conrad had never recommended she connect with anyone else. In fact, the business relationship between Conrad and Izzy was deeply disguised, only conducted on burner phones, deep web email accounts, and only three times a year in person. So the fact that Conrad had gone out of his way to set this up had Izzy wondering.
She pondered for a very short time what to wear. She had a few changes at the office. But it was not her nature to dress up for guys. She was who she was. She went into the bathroom, freshened up a little and strolled out the door in fatigues, boots, and Mack Trucks baseball cap.
* * *
The soup kitchen was in the industrial district several blocks from Essential Junk and was run by the Portland Homeless Coalition, a nonprofit focused on feeding, clothing, and finding shelter for downtown street people. The kitchen was funded by donors, the largest of which was Essential Junk. A few insiders knew it was essentially Izzy’s project. She founded it, funded it, and kept it going. She’d built partnerships with donors, restaurants, bakeries, grocery stores, and churches.
The kitchen served a one-dish meal seven nights a week to over a hundred street people who were let in at 5:00. Each got a generous bowl of the hot dish of the day with bread and butter. On this Friday, the team from Unity Church had arrived in the afternoon to prepare a giant vat of chili.
When Izzy approached, she walked past the long line waiting to get in. Looking like she was part of the crowd, she visited with some and worked her way to the door, where she let herself in. Volunteers were setting up tables. She walked into the kitchen and tasted the chili.
“Yum. Nice job, team.”
She worked her way around the room. Seeing everything in order and getting the signal from the lead volunteer, she opened the front door and let folks in. She took a place at the end of the serving line, wrapping a paper napkin around a plastic knife and spoon, handing it out with banter. She liked helping people down on their luck.
She lost track of time and didn’t notice the slender young man in his thirties walk in the door and stand off to the side, watching. When a volunteer told her someone was here to see her, she saw her appointment and excused herself from the serving line. Oh my, he was interesting and her age. Was Conrad playing cupid?
She walked up and extended her hand. “You must be Ramon. I’m Izzy Gonzales.”
He took her hand for a firm, professional shake. “Pleased to meet you. What’s going on here?”
“Soup kitchen. We serve a hot meal every night for street people. Tonight is chili.”
“Are we eating here?”
She chuckled. “We could. But it’s Friday night, and I was hoping for a drink.”
“Excellent. What’s the most popular meal with your clientele?”
“Mac and cheese. One of the local churches does it once a week, and they have a great recipe. It’s always our busiest night. But chili is pretty popular too.”
“Are you a volunteer?”
“Tell you about it later. Ready to go?”
* * *
They strolled out into an early Oregon summer evening. They were in an edgy industrial area next to Chinatown, a few blocks from Portland’s downtown. The streets were busy with the after-work crowd.
“I was thinking Peruvian. There’s a great place not far from here. The food is good, but the margaritas are killer. I’ve been thinking about one all day.”
“Let’s do it.”
Izzy led the way. Ramon was interesting. They looked like they could be on a date, and she liked that. Friday night out with a sexy guy. He was slightly shorter than average, lean and muscular, very dark complected, with a pockmarked face, and a crooked nose that likely had been broken. She guessed he had skin problems growing up, and the indented marks made for a rugged masculine look. The skin on his face was taut, but the most prominent features were two heavy scars, one down his left cheek and the other above his right eye. The combination of swarthy skin, scars, crooked nose, wild black hair, and the lean muscular body gave him the tough-guy look. Maybe in a street gang. Maybe a fighter. Someone to be reckoned with.
They walked comfortably together with no words. He moved like a cat, smooth, quiet, loose, but without attitude. He wore jeans, black T-shirt, and a light black leather jacket. The total effect was cool. He was cool. And, despite not being a big guy, he was not someone to mess with. There was a quiet confidence about him. Looked like he knew his way around the streets and could handle himself. Might be packing a knife. Might be packing more. Izzy liked being associated with him. She had a street quality about her too. She felt safe. She wanted to get to know him. Wonder why Conrad was getting them together?
She steered them toward Llama Llama, where they walked in and got the last table in the back. Small and crowded, the place was busy, the smells from the kitchen intoxicating. Izzy loved the ambiance. Her kind of place.
The server arrived immediately and greeted them in Spanish. Ramon responded in fluent Spanish, and Izzy joined the conversation. After conferring, Izzy put in the order for two margaritas and said they’d wait before ordering dinner.
They returned to English when the server left.
“Is Izzy short for Isabel?”
“Isabella. Where’d you get your Spanish?”
“Grew up in Nicaragua. Came to the states with my family when I was eight. How about you?”
“Born and raised in California, but Spanish was spoken at home because my grandparents didn’t speak English. So I grew up bilingual. Our family is from Argentina.”
The server delivered the oversize margaritas. They clinked and silently toasted. She wanted to ask about the scars but decided not yet. She really liked looking at him. She couldn’t see his body, but the tightly drawn skin on his face, wide shoulders, and narrow waist suggested a lean, muscular body, powerful and quick. Perhaps deadly. She wondered why Conrad was putting them together. The margarita hit the spot. She took three short drinks to satisfy her craving, licking the salt off her lips. So good.
“Conrad said you’re relocating to the Northwest.”
“Yeah, not sure for how long. Guess I’m exploring now, but I’m definitely interested. Portland has a great vibe. Good city for young creative types. Amazing food scene. Great alternative music. Progressive. Seems like a decent place to hang for a while. How long you been here?”
“Ten years. Went to Portland State. Opened a small junk store, then expanded. Still here.” The thousand-pound gorilla was sitting on the table: Why was Conrad putting them together? Might as well get to it. “So, what’s your story?”
“My dad is a locksmith, so I grew up working in his shop. Went to Cal Berkeley on a gymnastics scholarship. Majored in electrical engineering, minored in dance.”
She chuckled. “Unusual combination, engineering and dance.”
“The dance goes with gymnastics. My folks started me when I was five, and I stayed with it. Competed at elite levels in high school, and that got me the scholarship to Cal. I thought about being a professional dancer but fell into tumbling, so to speak. After graduation, I traveled with some tumbling troupes. Halftime shows at NBA basketball games, circuses, carnivals,
Cirque du Soleil.”
“Cool. I’m guessing you do a pretty mean somersault.” “It’s in my repertoire.”
“How about your electronics degree?”
“After the tumbling career, I worked for two security companies, designing and installing security systems for businesses and homes.”
Izzy was having a hard time concealing her smile. So obvious. He was a cat burglar. Perhaps a jewel thief. Grew up in his dad’s locksmith shop. Elite climbing skills. Worked for security businesses. Degree in electronics. Could probably break into anything. Had skills for locks, security systems, safes, and anything electrical. Perfect. He must have seen the sly grin making its way across her mouth.
“Oh, just an interesting mix of skills.”
He ignored the comment. “How about you. What’d you study?”
“Got my degree in anthropology. Just because. My dad is a jeweler. So you grew up in a locksmith shop. I grew up in a jewelry studio.”
She saw the concealed grin. She didn’t normally voluntary that information, but he’d profiled himself so she could figure it out. Okay then, she was a jeweler and owned a junk shop. He’d know it was the classic front for a fence. So factoring the referral from Conrad, he’d have her line of work figured out.
“How’s the junk business?”
“Good. I like it.”
“Did Conrad mention why he thought we should get together?” “I have no idea. How about you?” “No idea.”
Both concealed smiles, but the thousand-pound gorilla had climbed off the table.
Ramon raised his glass for a toast: “To junk.” She clinked his glass and said, “To locks.”
Okay then, well, that was pretty much out. He was a cat burglar. She was a fence. The purpose of the meeting was pretty transparent. Jewel thieves sold to fences. But Izzy was very careful about her business. She wasn’t about to talk about it to a guy she’d known for an hour, even if he had been referred by Conrad. She guessed the same about him.
She was pleased with his next change of subject. “Are you single?” “Can’t you tell by looking that I’ve got a million boyfriends? I’m fighting
them off constantly. It’s hard work. I just wish they’d leave me alone.” She felt the blood flowing to her face. She regretted the tacky joke. It was an invitation for an embarrassing compliment.
“That was my first take when I saw you.”
“Stop it.” She giggled. She never giggled. She wasn’t the giggling type. How embarrassing. She sounded like a middle school girl. What was that about? She tried to recover but made it worse. “If I’m so hot, why did every boy in my high school forget to ask me out?”
“Maybe because they weren’t very smart and had terrible taste in women.”
“How about college then? Same there?” “They were too stoned.”
“So what? I was stoned too.” She wanted to end the contrived conversation. “Yes, I’m single. Sorry to make the joke. I’m happy with who I am. How about you?”
“I was in a five-year relationship that ended last year. I’m taking a break. Don’t want to make that mistake again.”
“Five years. Must have been some good parts.”
“Yes, but not the right good parts. I’ve got a better sense of what might work for me.”
“Oh yeah? And what would that look like?” “Strong, independent, unconventional, a little wild.”
Izzy felt her face burning. Too bad he left out short, skinny, plain, with no boobs. “You’ve thought about it. Where’d that come from?”
“Probably my mother.”
“I’d like to meet your mother.”
The server arrived and took orders for a second margarita. They decided to share the ceviche and both ordered the spicy stuffed rellenos on Izzy’s recommendation.
After the server left, Izzy said, “I guess I’ve had enough to drink to ask about your scars.”
With a straight face, he said, “What scars?”
That caught Izzy off balance, light-headed from the drink, and she laughed harder than the joke deserved. It just struck her as funny, and she couldn’t stop laughing. He was looking at her with a straight face with two giant scars, but she could see his eyes twinkling. He’d pulled that joke a few times. She couldn’t stop laughing. Every time she looked at his face, she went into another convulsion. She really liked him. He was flirting with her, and that felt good.
She reached her hand across the table and ran her fingers down the scar on his cheek. “This one.” Then she ran her finger across the scar above his eye. “And this one.”
She was still laughing. Oh my God, she loved touching him. And he’d let her. Didn’t pull back. She felt the jolts in her groin. The strong margarita, touching him, looking at him. She was a mess. It felt so good.
“Cut myself shaving.”
That threw Izzy into more convulsions. She didn’t know why she was laughing so hard, especially about deep scars on a guy’s face. So impolite. But she needed to laugh. And she loved being right where she was. In a favorite restaurant, the smells from the kitchen, loud chatter in Spanish and English, a sexy guy flirting with her.
He sat expressionless, staring back. He was having fun. She felt his eyes burning into hers. Was it possible he liked her? Could it be possible he found her attractive? Was something going on? Was he feeling the same attraction she was?
The second round of margaritas arrived. Izzy took a long deep drink.
God, that was good.
He reached his hand up to the scar over his eye. “A bad gymnastics fall off the rings. My head hit a metal post.”
She recovered. “I’m so sorry. I hope you know I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing because you’re messing with me.”
He ran his fingers down the scar on his cheek. “That’s from a knife fight.” Izzy felt that one in her stomach and instinctively brought her hands to her face, sitting motionless.
“The knife was serrated and tore my cheek open. Took two surgeries to repair it. Lucky it didn’t get my eye.”
The scar, deep and ragged, started about one inch from his right eye and ran to his jaw.
“I’m so sorry I was laughing. How awful.”
“I’m fine with it.” He ran his finger down his crooked nose. “This happened in the same fight but from a different guy.” “Good God. How many guys were you fighting?”
“Three. It was a very unfortunate situation. The nose took a steel bar. Never got it properly repaired. Maybe someday.”
“I hope you don’t. I love everything about your face. It’s perfect.” This time, he chuckled. “Were you dropped on your head as a child?”
“Yes, many times.”
They both laughed. A nice moment, intense eye contact. Izzy was aroused. And that felt good.
“Do I get to hear about the fight?”
“Not tonight. But maybe, if I could get a second date.”
“I don’t know. You look pretty dangerous. What are the chances you might try to take advantage of me?”
“Okay then, you’re on. But only if I get to hear about the fight.”