Liz was surprised at how nervous she felt, kneeling at the edge of the mat. The knees-squared, feet-flat seiza position was familiar, although it made her knees hurt because she was so out of shape. She hadn’t sat seiza–hell, hadn’t been in an aikido dojo–in years, but here she was. She kept telling herself it was because Andrew had pushed her to go, but she wanted to be here. Concentrating on the class was taking her mind off of the cold sweats she kept breaking out in, and taking her mind off of the desire to stop for a double whiskey on the way home.
The experienced students were already on the mat, practicing before the beginner’s class started at six. Five more minutes. Liz closed her eyes, trying to clear her head and relax. Some part of her was convinced they were going to find some reason to kick her out. “We don’t take recovering alcoholics,” they’d say. It was silly, of course. She tried to put the past few days out of her head, both good and bad.
It was a shame that she’d lost her gi somewhere. Being properly outfitted might be a bit of a confidence boost. Then again, it would also imply that she knew more than she did. Better to wear sweats and a T-shirt and act like a beginner until she knew how much she’d forgotten. Liz looked at the other beginners. There were ten or twelve of them, about evenly split between men and women, mostly her age or younger, with a few fortysomethings sprinkled here and there.
Someone sat on the mat next to her, and she turned to look. It was a man, a few years older than she. He was taller than she was, six-four she guessed, and his dark, neatly trimmed beard was a bit out of fashion but looked good on him. He was broad through the shoulders and chest, naturally big, and he looked like he was dressed for a board meeting rather than an aikido class. Judging by his slightly sheepish grin, he knew it, too.
“Hi,” he said, extending a hand. “I’m Charles.”
She shook. “Liz,” she replied. “And you’d better take your tie off.”
He looked even more embarrassed, tugging hurriedly at the knot. “I’m doing this sort of spur of the moment. In case it didn’t show. I was about to start a class with some friends at home, and then got sent out here for business for a month or two. I was sitting in the room thinking that I was going to be bored, and decided to see what there was to do…”
“I get it,” she replied. “Well, I’d tell you that you’d found a great class if I could, but I can’t. It’s my first night, too. Where’s home?”
“California,” he replied. “San Francisco.”
“That’s funny, my mother owns a restaurant in San Francisco. Ever heard of Bella Midori’s?”
“I’ve never been there, but I hear it’s good.”
“That’s her place. I couldn’t tell you if it’s good or not. I’m biased,” Liz said. She was feeling better about the class already.
It went better than she expected, too. Most of the exercises came back to her quickly (although simple clumsiness and barely-concealed shakes masked her experience somewhat). David, the class teacher, noticed first how quickly she was picking it up, and asked her if she’d taken aikido before. Liz confessed that she had, adding that she was about seven years out of practice. She had no interest in acting as though she knew more than anyone else did. Still, several of the other novices were looking to her for help by the end of the two-hour class. As she was putting her shoes back on, Charles sat next to her and asked if she’d had dinner.
Liz rolled her shoulders, working out a kink. A long, hot shower was definitely in the works. So was a sports bra. “Okay,” she said, even as she wondered why this guy was interested in her. She didn’t think she was even remotely his type. Maybe he thought she could give him personal lessons or something. She wasn’t sure she could remember that much, but some extra pocket change wouldn’t hurt. “Charles, right?”
He nodded. “I’m from out of town,” he said. “You’ll have to suggest a place.”
“There’s a pizza place on campus. Not far from here, and nothing over there closes before eleven. How’s that?”
“Sounds great,” he said with a smile. As they walked out the door, Charles realized with shock that he’d have to explain Katz’ presence in his car, if the private eye was still sitting there. He hadn’t thought of a good story by the time he got there, but he was in luck; the detective had ducked down in the back seat to hide when people began spilling out of the aikido dojo.
“I hope you’re happy,” he said as Charles got in. “I’m freezing my balls off out here.”
“Serves you right,” Charles said with a little smile.
“So what’s the story?”
“Well, I joined an aikido class, learned a few things, aggravated an old football injury, and now I’ve got a late dinner date, with Ms. Bahti.”
“You talked to her? Dammit–“
“I didn’t tell her who I was, Katz, don’t worry.” It was easier not to get angry at Katz now, since his off-the-cuff plan was working. He’d talk to Liz, see where the conversation went, and once he had an idea of who this woman was, then he could ask about Nikki. Or maybe the situation would resolve itself before that. Either way, it was better than stalking her. Charles shook his head as he followed Liz to the pizza place.
“Welcome to Pandora’s Pizza,” the waitress said. She was a sleepy-looking girl who hadn’t combed her dark hair before pulling it into twin ponytails that stuck almost straight out of the sides of her head. She was cheerful enough though; something about her demeanor made Liz smile. “I’m Dori, I’ll be your server, and probably everything else if no one shows up.”
That made Charles look at Liz, see her grin, and smile too. “Is that a bad sign?” he asked the waitress.
“Um, no, it’s just that the manager is new, and one of our delivery drivers didn’t show up, and the other one called in and says he ran into a salt truck or something, so the manager went to deliver some pizzas and he’s been gone for like an hour because he’s from Toledo and doesn’t know where anything is, and the other waitress went home early, and our cook is new, too. Plus he’s sort of stupid,” she added with a joking grin. “But don’t worry, I’ll make your pizza if I have to.”
Liz glanced around the restaurant, which was curiously empty for nine on a weeknight. “Lucky for you the snow is keeping everyone home.”
Dori nodded. “Yeah, if it was busy this would be like the third ring of hell for me. So, um, anyway, did you want to get some drinks while you check out the menu?”
Liz and Charles both asked for Sprites, and the waitress disappeared to fetch them.
“I love college towns,” Charles said. “People haven’t forgotten how to relax in these places, and just go with the flow.”
“San Francisco’s not that bad,” she said, refraining from telling him about how much she disliked Ypsilanti. “But why are you here? And why did you ask me out?”
“I’m a lawyer,” he said. She got a funny look in her eyes, and he added quickly, “This doesn’t have anything to do with that, of course. It’s just the reason I’m in town for a month or two. I’m working on a case, and have several people to interview.” That much was basically true. He was trying to picture his sister hanging out with this tall, bald Asian woman. Her directness was startling, even compared to some female prosecutors he’d met. He suspected Nikki would have liked it.
“I didn’t know lawyers did that. Traveled, I mean. Thought it was just a movie thing.”
“Sometimes it’s best to do the work hands-on. And as to your second question, I’d rather meet people than sit around a rented condominium and watch television every night.”
She smiled. “Did I strike you as a decent enough distraction?” she asked, thinking again that she needed to get a sports bra for the next class. She wasn’t small enough to go without, especially not considering the amount of rolling and tumbling they would be doing. Hopefully that wasn’t the only reason Charles had talked to her.
“Oh, shit! I didn’t mean it that way,” he said, blushing under his beard. “I’m sorry, pardon my French, I actually meant–“
“Don’t worry,” she said, waving it off. “Conversation with someone with whom you have a little bit in common, some real-world socializing. I knew what you meant. It’s a normal human impulse, and I’m familiar with it. I was just pushing your envelope a little. I’ve had a rough week, and I’m a little edgy.”
“Don’t want to talk about it,” she said, looking over his shoulder and out the window.
“Are you sure?”
“I’ve passed on a few loyal confidants already today. It’s not time for me to talk about it yet.” A voice in the back of her head took notice of the fact that Charles might know what to do about that briefcase full of money which was currently at Ted’s house (which she had to go and get, probably tonight because she didn’t trust him not to try to open it), should she ever get to know him well enough to ask for free legal advice. And with luck, that might happen…he had a big teddy-bear sort of look to him that was curiously appealing. Plus it was nice to meet a guy who was significantly taller than her for once.
“Sorry to touch on an unpleasant subject. How do you like aikido class, then?”
“I’ve done it before. It was a welcome ritual for me; I’m tired, but I feel better than I have in weeks. This was my first class in about seven years, but I took aikido for eight years before that.”
If she was Nikki’s age, that meant she’d started when she was five. Liz seemed older than that, though. Charles caught himself noticing her figure for the second or third time, and stopped. This woman was his baby sister’s friend, and he was engaged to boot and here he was letting his eyes stray, just like he’d been unable to help doing in class. Was she wearing a bra? He didn’t think so. There was some sort of tattoo on her back, too; he’d gotten glimpses of it over her collar and at her waistband. Did they connect? He forced himself to stop thinking about it. “What did you think of the teacher, I mean, the sensei?”
Liz shrugged a little. “He’s okay. He could throw me on the floor, I’m sure. I haven’t practiced in so long, I wouldn’t pretend to be good. What did you think?”
“I think I’m going to regret playing football in high school,” Charles said, rotating his left wrist. “I don’t think I’ve done that much stretching in years.”
“Yes, I agree. I feel very, very old right now. All of my joints are screaming at me.”
“Really? You look fine.”
“Looks are deceiving. I’m way out of shape. That hip stretch, where you sit with the soles of your feet together and bend forward? I should be able to put my forehead on the floor when I do that. I could barely bend past forty-five degrees.”
Charles quashed another mental image. “You’re kidding! I don’t think I’d have children if I bent much farther forward than that. That’s really impressive.”
“No. And you’re flirting.” She was teasing him on purpose, accusing him of being raunchy when she was doing it herself. Making him blush had been funny.
Liz grinned. “You apologize too much.”
“My mother always said not to offend a woman who could knock you down.”
That made her laugh. Before the laughter died down, Dori returned with their drinks. Charles offered to introduce Liz to his favorite pizza, and proceeded to order a large chicken-olive-mushroom-double cheese pie.
“We have this garlic-pepper and parmesan crap we brush on the crust for an extra buck,” Dori offered. “It’s really nasty, but I’m supposed to ask if you want it.”
“That’s okay, we’ll keep it ordinary,” Charles replied. After she left, he asked Liz, “Now, you won’t assume I’m just trying to impress you if I leave her a huge tip, will you? I think she needs it.”
“Naah. I was thinking the same thing, actually.”
There followed a tremendous, explosive crash of falling pizza pans from the back of the restaurant, followed by the sound of water spraying, Dori shrieking in outrage, and another man swearing passionately. Charles was mid-swallow, laughed, and coughed violently as a result.
“Jesus,” Liz said. “If we don’t get food poisoning, it’ll be a miracle. I didn’t realize this place was so hairy.”
“I like it,” Charles said when he got his voice back. “Can I ask you what you do for a living?”
“I work in a fish shop. I’ve achieved a lot with my life,” she said sarcastically.
“That doesn’t sound so bad–“
“I lift boxes of fish, Charles. For minimum wage. Don’t blow sunshine up my ass.”
“You’re right, I take it back. That sounds dismally horrible.”
She smiled. “That’s more like it. I like honesty.”
Charles could definitely see what Nikki would have liked about this woman.