Cantina Surprise

The hydraulic doors eased themselves open, inviting commuters from miles away into the soupy mist that was falling upon the platform before me. As I stepped onto the cement island that looked out onto the 101, I cast a glance towards the shove of fellow passengers descending the stairs that led to the way out. Their heads were bents, focused on the impending day's work. It was a procession of minions headed towards punishment, and I was glad to not be a part of it.

I made my way down and through the tunnel that emptied into the main terminal of Union Station, an art deco monument to the golden days of a once impressive network that carried people off to all points desired or dreamed of. Now this once glorious station was merely a hub for the trains carrying suburban businessmen carrying them to their corporate prison cells, its mosaic floors wasted on the shuffle of a million Italian leather shoes. A glance upward to the wooden ceiling revealed restoration work in progress to give the old girl back some of her former glory. Lord only knows why they even bothered, given that the folks passiong through her halls had their eye focused solely on the bagel shop. Or the bar.

I passed by the lines of suits demanding their lattes. The working moms hauling their spawn to on-site day care. The transients looking for a way home. I passed the requisite indie film crew, setting up for their Next Big Shot. Then I passed through the giant doors and into the foggy morning proper. I looked both ways before crossing Alameda because you never know who's running late. It was a short walk to Olvera Street, the not-so historical marketplace of the original Angelenos. All was silent at 7:30 in the morning, just the way I liked it.

I was supposed to meet Marisa by the fountain at the West end of the street. She was one of the few college friends that I managed to keep in touch with over the years. I suppose it helps that we're in the same business. Had to give her credit for picking this spot, though. It's one of those places I really enjoy coming to, but never find the time to do so. Man, are there plenty of those in this town.

I sat on the edge of the fountain's circular stone base, casually admiring the intricate patterns on the hand painted tiles that adorned its center spire. The sound of approaching footsteps caught the barest wisp of my attention as I followed the lines of color. Heels. Someone in heels was nearing, but there wasn't any hurry to their gait. I looked up to see Marisa Garcia slowly appear through the shadows of mist that hung in the cobblestone street. Her long auburn hair materialized first, then her angular jaw and dark brown eyes as she came upon my studying gaze.

I stood up. "You've lost weight."

"So have you," she replied, embracing me close, but briefly. "Have you been eating well?"

"Yeah. But I also smoke more than I used to. More than I should."

"You've got that right." She shook her head. "C'mon, let's take a walk. There's something I want to show you."

"Your new book?"

"I only wish. No, this is better." She turned away, which I took as my cue to follow.

"A story idea. For me this time," I chided as we made our way back in the direction of Alameda.

"Perhaps. you're better with this stuff than I am."

"What stuff?"

"You know, weird shit. I just write mystery novels. You're the one who's into...strange."

"Well are you going to tell me where we're going, mystery lady? Or do I have to wait till the last chapter?"

Marisa smiled. "How's Peter?"

"He's fine. Cooking up a storm and keeping me on my gym routine. He still sleeps with the windows open and the heater on. Drives me crazy. And don't change the subject." We came to Alameda and turned right. "Though I dare say I have a hunch as to where we're headed."

"I can't go breaking tradition. That's all I'm saying."

"You and suspense! Jeez."

We turned West at Caeasr Chavez. "It's funny. Did you notice that I never penned a thriller during our time in school?"

"And now you're on the Times list every time you publish. Are you surprised that I haven't hunted you down and murdered you for your talent yet?"

"Like you do so bad. Didn't your last one stay on there for what, eight weeks?"

"Yup," I nodded. "Three spots down from yours, bitch. I bet our professors are alcoholics by now."

"If they weren't already," she mused. "Or have gone and shot themselves out of embarassment. We turn left here." Marisa pointed at the corner up ahead, Hill Street. "And speaking of professors, I saw Ray a few weeks ago."

"Really? Where'd you run into him, the Rusty Pelican?"

"A book signing, smart-ass. Mine. Down in Costa Mesa. He showed up, said he really liked my last one, and walked away with the sequel. Signed 'To the best damn writing professor this side of the 20th century,' of course. Gotta show respect, you know."

"Of course," I replied. "Say, are we going somewhere that serves breakfast?"

"If you're on a liquid diet, yeah. By the way, dear ol' professor Ray asked about you. Said he loved Painting Death."

"Serious? How did I come up at your book signing?"

"I mentioned we keep in touch in a professional rivals kind of way. Little did I know that it would unleash a torrential Joe Sullivan love-in. Apparently he's using one of your books in class these days. So in the grand scheme of things, I think you win." Marisa glanced around. "Almost there, I think."

The neighborhood was looking familiar. We passed the Civic Center and continued South into the heart of downtown. "So why doesn't he show up to my book signings to tell me this himself? Why go to you instead? It's not like I'm hiding from the world or anything."

Marisa stopped and faced me with a confused expression spread across her face. "You know, that's a very good question. Maybe he didn't know you were in town right now. Or maybe he just knew I could get in touch with you fast, if necessary. Or maybe he just wanted to make me jealous. He does have a fondness for quarreling writers, you know."

"He thinks it inspires them, I'm sure. So wait, does this little meeting of ours concern Ray?"

Marisa started walking again. "It does, a little. But mostly it's something else entirely. Ah, there we are." Marisa pointed across Third Street, where we were waiting for the light to change. "Recognize it?"

Did I ever. La Cita. The tackiest, most beautiful Mexican cantina ever. "Of course." I smiled at her. "Very nice. You chose wisely. And by the sound of things, I'm going to want a margarita in the next ten minutes."

"You very well might," she said as the light changed and we strode across Third. "I know I will."

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