The Grim Assistant
Jodi Hutchins © 2019
All Rights Reserved
The planks of the boardwalk were hot against Samantha Diaz’s feet as she bounded up the stairs, surfboard tucked beneath her arm, water trickling over her shoulders. The calm waters and equally serene beach left her with only the early morning anglers standing out at the ocean’s edge, casting their lines along the jetty.
“Same time on Friday?” her best friend, Josh Keller, asked as he ambled up the stairs after her, his bushy blond hair stuck to his face and neck. A trill from a bicycle bell filled the air, coalescing with the call of a flock of seagulls harassing a group of teens munching on breakfast. The oily aroma of freshly fried doughnuts mixed with the scent of crisp saltwater as Sam took a deep breath.
She smiled broadly. “Absolutely.” Beads of seawater dripped down her dark brows, and she swept her hand across her forehead in a feeble attempt to dry it. The pair crossed the boardwalk, heading down the long ramp to the parking lot.
Reaching her Jeep, Sam tossed her board in the back and grabbed a towel, drying her face and ruffling her unruly crop of black hair. People flooded the tall staircase, beach tags fastened to their large bags overflowing with colorful shovels and towels. She grabbed a dry shirt, pulling it over her head to cover her bikini top before putting her wallet in the damp pocket of her board shorts. Josh stood staring at her. “Damn, what I would do to get a tan like yours,” he mumbled sheepishly.
Sam chuckled, noting the red tinge forming along his pale, freckled shoulders, and then glanced at her own tanned skin. “I don’t know, man, I’ll always be jealous of your freckles,” she joked, elbowing him in the arm. “You want to grab some breakfast?”
“Sure, why not?”
Sam and Josh followed the influx of people. She was determined she would get herself a fresh bagel before heading home for a shower and babysitting her nephew. Cyclists pedaled down the bicycle lane on the wood, and early morning joggers were swiftly being replaced by excited children heading to the beach or the waterpark. The tiny hole-in-the-wall bagel shop Sam frequented was set back beside one of two amusement parks on the boardwalk, and she stepped into the short line. Depending on what time she had to be in to work, Sam’s summer mornings always started the same if Josh was available. She didn’t surf without him by her side unless there were lifeguards present. The last thing she wanted was to get caught in a riptide and end up miles offshore.
The two moved into the queue of people, and Josh turned to her. “How’s it going with Katie?”
Sam’s stomach sank at the mention of her older sister, and she shrugged. “I don’t know. The divorce is official, but now it’s all parenting plan crap and custody issues. She’s stressed out.”
Josh gave her a sympathetic grimace, causing her to wonder if he regretted asking her the question. “Yikes.”
“Yeah. They had a meeting with her ex’s lawyer, and I don’t know how it went yet.”
“Hey, Sam,” a voice called from behind her. Sam whipped around as her friend, Lauren Brennan, stepped into the line where Sam was already standing in wait. Lauren’s long chestnut hair hung over her shoulders, her wide smile reaching her vibrant green eyes.
“Lauren.” Sam’s tone came out a lot more breathless than she intended. Josh must’ve noted the change in her demeanor, so he nudged her in the back with his elbow.
“They have the best pork roll egg and cheese sandwiches,” Lauren said, curling her lips upward, a delicate dimple surfacing as she smiled.
Sam nearly sighed with longing, her heart rate quickening, and she swallowed back her feelings. The blue sundress Lauren wore hugged her body, the color accentuating her lovely summer tan. She’s off limits.
“They sure do. Order anything good lately?” Sam agreed.
Nodding enthusiastically, Lauren said, “Actually, I did! I ordered this new lesson kit online and a few other things for the classroom.” Sam had been delivering Lauren’s mail since the science teacher moved to Ocean City from New Brunswick two years prior. “And a few new books. Speaking of books, how’d you like the one you borrowed?”
“I absolutely loved it. Is it just me or is my taste in books rubbing off on you?” Sam said. Josh sighed indignantly. Sam held in a retort while she waited for Lauren to reply. Lauren blushed, and the sight had Sam nearly swooning. “I have to say your taste has rubbed off on me. My true love will always be gritty literary fiction, but you’ve got me hooked on those dark fantasies now.”
“Hey, I forgot about that thing I have to do,” Josh interjected. When Sam gave him a puzzled smile, he continued, “You know, the thing? I’ll see you Friday.”
“Oh, all right. Aren’t you going to get breakfast?” Sam asked. He shook his head and waggled his eyebrows, head jerking toward Lauren. His gesture wasn’t as discreet as Sam preferred, but she didn’t believe Lauren noticed. She knew he was leaving because of her interaction with Lauren. Before she could say more, Josh moved out of the line and hurried toward the ramp leading to the sidewalk.
She moved forward in line, ordering her food and stepping aside while Lauren ordered hers. While they waited, Sam leaned against the railing. “I’ve got a new one I know you’d love,” she said.
“A dark fantasy? You’d better bring it by the next time you work. I ordered a bunch of stuff, so I should be seeing you sometime next week,” Lauren added, pulling her purse strap over her shoulder.
“Okay, I will. Maybe Boo will let me pet her this time,” Sam chuckled, referring to Lauren’s skittish cat. In the last two years, the cat only let Sam touch her four or five times.
“Don’t take it personally because she doesn’t even let Bethany pet her.” Yep, there was the pesky reminder of her unavailability. Sam laughed regardless of her feelings toward Lauren’s girlfriend. It wasn’t as though she didn’t like her for the sole reason of being with Lauren; Bethany and Sam had known each other in high school and the memories were anything but fond.
“Boo’s such a cutie. Maybe I’ll start bringing some cat treats again,” Sam offered. The young man behind the counter caught Sam’s attention and handed her the pork roll she ordered. “Thanks.” She grinned at Lauren, continuing their conversation. “That’s how I got Boo to let me close at first.”
“School starts on Wednesday, but you should come by one night and have a drink with us, maybe play some cards. I always try to plan a game night once a month, especially when school is back in session.” Lauren took her food from the man, then faced Sam as they moved out of the way of other customers.
“I’d love to,” Sam said honestly. Sam enjoyed Lauren’s friendship, despite having to tolerate Bethany in small doses. She and Bethany may have had their differences, but they were adults now.
“What about, say, next Saturday night? I’m heading to Newark this weekend for a family barbeque, but I’ll be home Tuesday.”
“Yeah, sounds perfect.”
They stood staring at each other for longer than etiquette warranted, triggering Sam to wonder if Lauren felt the same attraction as she did. She hastily dispelled the fleeting thought and smiled. She’s simply a friend and can’t be more. “Well, I’ll let you get on with your day. I’ve got babysitting duty with my nephew, anyway.”
“I’ll see you later this week, I’m sure. Don’t forget the book,” Lauren said. She turned, heading down the boardwalk. Lauren left, the sway of her hips causing her skirt to swish back and forth with each step, and once Lauren disappeared in the flowing crowd, Sam headed to her Jeep.
The drive back to her house was quick and she was fortunate she missed the tourist traffic. Although Ocean City, New Jersey, was a busy tourist spot during the summer, Sam couldn’t see herself living anywhere else. The tiny seaside town was home to her and her sister, the beach and the community far too important to leave behind and live in a larger city.
She parked her car on the side of the road, finding a spot relatively close to her sister’s little condo, and she ambled up the stairs, leaving her surfboard in the back of her Jeep. The steps leading to the porch creaked beneath her feet, the white paint peeling off the railing and the stucco face of the home. The three-bedroom condo was large enough for her sister and nephew to live in comfortably. Sam had been staying with Katie for a few weeks at a time to help with her nephew and to covertly keep an eye out for her sister’s mental health. The divorce was taking its toll on Katie, but Sam knew her sister would never ask for help.
“I’m glad you’re here. I’ve got to run and get gas before I head over to work,” Katie said as she bustled around the living room, grabbing a laundry basket full of clothing from the couch and tossing it on the kitchen counter. Already clad in blue scrubs, her black hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, Sam figured Katie must’ve been anxiously waiting for her to get there.
“Sorry. I stopped to grab some breakfast. Is the little man awake yet?”
Without glancing up from her task, Katie shook her head. Sam stopped, placing her keys on the island in the kitchen leading off the living room, and she really took in her sister’s appearance: red-rimmed eyes, wrinkled scrubs, head lowered.
“Katie.” Her sister finally met her gaze. “How’d the hearing go yesterday?”
Katie drew a breath and straightened. “Like crap. I don’t think we’re ever going to work out a parenting plan.”
“He didn’t agree to your terms?”
Katie scoffed, and her shoulders visibly slumped. “No. His lawyer told us he wanted more time on different days. Evidently, his schedule doesn’t work with what I offered,” she said, shaking her head and touching her fingers to her forehead. “At this rate, it’s going to go on into the new year.”
“He’s lucky you don’t fight for full custody, the fucking asshat.” Sam loathed her ex-brother-in-law for how he treated his sister and wasn’t shy about speaking her feelings toward him now the divorce was official.
Her sister shot her a reproachful glance before she headed to the refrigerator. Katie’s voice was low when she said, “Just because he and I didn’t work out doesn’t mean he’s a bad father. Ben has every right to know him and I don’t want to take his father away from him because John was unfaithful.” She threw a yogurt into her purse along with a package of granola before grabbing her keys from the counter. “I’ll see you tonight,” she said as she stepped out the front door.
Sam lounged on the couch, kicking her feet up on the coffee table as she closed her eyes. Her muscles were sore from surfing, and all she wanted was to rest her head before her nephew woke.
“Auntie Sam, Mama gone?” a little voice cut off her thoughts. Her five-year-old nephew came wandering down the hall, his little stuffed animal pig tucked under his arm, his free hand rubbing his face.
“Yeah, Mama had to go off to work. Do you want some breakfast?” Sam asked.
Ben eagerly bobbed his head.
Lauren Brennan fiddled with the wrapper around a soy sauce bottle in her hands, grumbling when the plastic wouldn’t budge. “Here, let me help,” Bethany said, taking the container from her and removing the cap with ease.
“You did that way too easily,” Lauren remarked, turning away from her girlfriend as she poured the contents into a measuring cup. “My grandma wants us to bring those little chocolate wafers, so we can make the cake you brought last time we went together.”
“I forgot to tell you I won’t be able to make this weekend,” Bethany said.
She whipped around. “What do you mean? I already told them you were coming.” She scrunched her eyebrows as she shook the sauté pan, garlic-scented steam wafting into her face as she peered at Bethany. Bethany shrugged, a sheepish smile on her lips.
“I’m sorry, babe. I promised James I’d get the research for this case done over the weekend.”
For the second time in a row, Bethany was backing out of a planned visit to Lauren’s grandparents’ house. “But you said the same thing last time.”
Bethany rose from her perch at the small kitchen table, her blue eyes glimmering in the bright lights of the kitchen as she crossed the room. The closer she got to Lauren, the broader her smile became, and the more her blonde locks dangled into her face. “I swear I’ll make it up to you,” she said, placing a palm on the counter as she sidled up beside Lauren. The aroma of her cologne swirled around Lauren. As charming and beautiful as she found her girlfriend, Lauren was seeing a pattern, one which started two months before.
“You can’t take a little time off?”
Bethany sighed as she retreated from the counter, easing herself into a barstool at the high end of the island. “I wouldn’t be very good company if I did because I’d still be working the whole weekend.” Since Lauren had told Bethany she loved her during a weekend getaway two months prior, her avoidance was becoming the new normal for their relationship. The silent response Lauren received the evening she spoke those three words hung over them like a dense fog, periodically stoking Lauren’s insecurities. The situation was exacerbated further by her grandmother’s insistence on asking Bethany an inventory of questions each time they visited her.
Lauren gently stirred the contents of the pan then turned with purpose, knitting her brows in concern. “I know my grandparents can be a little overbearing and I’m sorry.”
“Lauren, don’t apologize,” Bethany began, shaking her head. “I have to prove myself to James, and that’s all this is about. If it weren’t for trying to squirm my way up the ladder, I wouldn’t have to stay behind.”
“Okay. I know you’re trying to get in his good graces, but he seems like he’s pushing you a lot lately.”
Bethany chuckled. “Well, of course, he is. He’s trying to see how far he can push me until I crack, but I’m not going to.” As if on cue, Bethany’s business phone began to ring, the noise cutting into their conversation as it did frequently. Bethany glanced at the phone in her hand, grimacing. “Why don’t you take Jackie with you? I’m sure she’d be better company than me, anyway.” Bethany’s work phone continued to ring.
“She’s got her monthly art class she does for free in Philly this weekend, or I would,” Lauren explained. Her best friend would join her if she’d asked, but Lauren wanted Bethany to go with her. She wanted to feel the semblance of the normalcy they had before the night things shifted dramatically when a swift disconnect insinuated itself between them.
“I’ve got to take this. I won’t be long,” Bethany said as she answered the call. She rushed through the kitchen to the back door, her voice raising an octave as she began in what sounded like a heated argument.
Lauren sighed, turning away from where she could see Bethany’s form. The soft drone of Bethany’s voice drifted in from the backyard through the open window facing the alleyway. A buzzing across the dining room table caught Lauren’s attention. She peered over the kitchen counter and her cell phone glowed from beneath a sheet of paper. Lauren crossed the room and grabbed it, swiping her finger over the screen to open the device. When a keypad opened for Lauren to put a password in, she realized with horror the device wasn’t her phone but Bethany’s. On the lock screen, a confusing text appeared.
We’re still on for this weekend, right? I can’t wait to see you again.
A kissing face sat beside the words on the screen.
Lauren chewed her lip and reread the text message once again before the screen dimmed. Bethany reentered the kitchen from outside, causing Lauren to put the phone back where it was. Lauren’s heart pounded in her chest as Bethany came in, sighing and tossing her work phone on the table. “Everything okay?” Lauren ventured, trying to reign in her anxiety with a smile. What did the text message mean, and who was Mistie?
Bethany shrugged. “Yes, and no. I’m sorry but I have to run to the office.” She sifted through the papers on the table, gathering them into a pile before grabbing her personal cell phone where Lauren stuck it.
“Right now?” Lauren asked incredulously. Bethany nodded, gathering her bag along with her cell phone from the table.
Lauren touched Bethany’s shoulder. “It’s okay, I understand.”
Bethany leaned forward and kissed Lauren softly on her lips. “I probably won’t be home until late,” she whispered.
All alone, Lauren dished herself some of the stir-fry she had cooked for them and sank onto the couch. Her thoughts went to the text message. Lauren had gone into the relationship with Bethany knowing full well she didn’t intend to partake in commitment. However, the closer they became, the stronger Lauren’s aversion to sharing became. After six months of dating, they became exclusive, with Lauren finally disclosing her painful past and subsequent trust issues. They were reaching their year and a half mark, and Lauren trusted her.
Lauren placed the plate of food on the coffee table, barren of any appetite as she recalled the text message. Was Mistie another lawyer, or was she something else entirely? Lauren didn’t want to fathom Bethany cheating on her after knowing Lauren’s history. There’s no way she’d cheat on me. Mistie is probably a coworker. But if this woman was another lawyer, why hadn’t she contacted Bethany through her business phone rather than her personal one? Lauren crossed the room, located her phone on the table where she’d left it, and sent her best friend a text message.
I just made some stir-fry. Want to come over?
Hell, yeah, was the swift reply.
Twenty minutes later, Lauren’s best friend and colleague, Jackie Hayes, walked through the front door without knocking. “Holy crap, dinner smells good,” she said as she strolled into the kitchen. She immediately snagged a bowl from the cabinet without looking at Lauren. Her long black dreadlocks were tugged together in a hair tie, the strands running down her back, cascading over her shoulders.
“Nice to see you, too, Jackie.” Lauren laughed as she stood to reheat her food. Her friend turned with a large grin, and Lauren noted with amusement that splotches of paint were scattered over Jackie’s loose-fitting T-shirt.
“Excited for school to start?” Jackie leaned her hip against the counter before digging into her bowl.
Lauren placed her plate in the microwave and pressed the start button before replying, “I am, actually. I hope the kids haven’t lost much knowledge over the summer from too much junk food and television.”
Nodding in agreement, Jackie shoveled more food in her mouth. After finishing her bite, she said, “Well, I for one always love the start of a fresh year. The first day makes me feel so invigorated and ready to get things done. Some of the kids are easier, but you can’t win them all.”
They chatted about school for a few minutes, both finishing their food before moving to the living room, where they sat on opposite couches. Jackie peered around. “Where’s Bethany?”
“At the office,” Lauren said without making eye contact.
“Hm, I swear she doesn’t stop working for anything. I thought she’d lighten up a bit after she moved in, but I bet even if the zombie apocalypse hit us, she’d be too busy working on a case to notice.”
“Yeah.” Lauren had the same notion when Bethany first moved in four months prior, but if anything, she worked more after the move, as she was much closer to her office. Bethany’s old condo was located on the mainland, which made for a fifty-minute commute, and when her lease came to an end, Lauren invited her to move in.
Lauren lifted the remote control, flipping through channels as she debated with herself about the text message. Though she held strong trust in her friend’s judgment, Lauren didn’t want to make it seem a bigger deal than it was. On the same level, she also didn’t want her friend confirming her suspicions, Jackie having helped pick up the pieces after her last abysmal breakup.
“How’re things going between you two?” Jackie asked after a bout of silence. A few months before, Lauren had been hesitant whether to tell Jackie about the night she professed her love to Bethany. The evening had been embarrassing, and the rejection nearly kept her from disclosing the incident to her best friend. At first, Jackie neglected to shield her irritation with Bethany, however, she convinced Lauren the lack of a response didn’t mark the end of their relationship. Maybe you scared her, Jackie had suggested.
Lauren tensed. “Things could be better.”
Jackie sat forward. “Okay, what’s up with you?”
“Nothing,” Lauren lied. Jackie pursed her lips, lifting a dark eyebrow almost to her hairline. “I guess you could say I came across something that made me a little uncomfortable, and I don’t know if I should be worried about it or not.”
“You know how Bethany and I have similar phones?” When Jackie nodded, Lauren continued. “Hers vibrated with a text, and I thought it was mine. When I picked it up, I happened to see a text message from someone named Mistie.”
Jackie held up her hand, halting Lauren’s words. “Hold on, you looked at Bethany’s phone behind her back? I know I don’t date, so I really can’t be handing out relationship advice, and I know you have trust issues, but you shouldn’t have looked at her phone.”
“I didn’t look at her phone to pry, I thought it was mine. Anyway, the text said something along the lines of ‘I can’t wait to see you again’ and making sure they were still on for this weekend with a little kissy face emoji. The thing is, Bethany bailed out on going with me to Newark for the weekend. She claims it’s because of work.” Her cheeks burned.
“Oh.” For the first time in their six-year friendship, Jackie was speechless. Lauren waited for her to speak but the silence stretched on, her discomfort expanding. Jackie avoided her stare, apprehension clear on her face as she fingered the gem on her necklace, the purple stone glimmering in the sunlight filtering in through the window. Amethyst, Jackie called the crystal. To Lauren, the object was just a pretty rock but to Jackie, the piece of jewelry was an appendage. Her best friend’s faith in the otherworldly had never bothered her, though she wondered what she received from her beliefs. Would having faith in something help Lauren through her dismal bout of relationship busts?
“Say something,” Lauren pleaded. Jackie glanced at the television. “Jackie?”
Jackie sighed, turning back to Lauren. “I don’t know what to say. Did you ask her about the text?”
“No, I didn’t really get a chance because she had to leave for the office. Please tell me I’m making a big deal over nothing.”
Jackie’s obsidian gaze peered up at the ceiling, and she pursed her lips, the actions sparking more doubt within Lauren. “You two live together now, and you need to talk, and I mean really talk. It’s been two months since your trip to Cape May, and you two still haven’t discussed what happened; am I right?”
“This is a problem. You expressed your feelings, and she said nothing, not even a simple rejection. Anything is better than silence, Lauren. As for the text, for your sanity, you need to ask her.”
Lauren shifted uncomfortably, wishing she hadn’t accidentally picked up Bethany’s phone in the first place.