The sound of drums and horns blasted Christopher Reign as he passed several cigarette smokers outside the door. The club was called Parker’s, and Reign had to wonder if it was named for the owner or the legendary jazz saxophone player Charlie “Bird” Parker. He hadn’t picked the meeting place.
Reign paid an elderly African American man to get in. The man flipped through the bills with gnarled fingers, indicating rheumatoid arthritis, or rheumatoid disease as many experts were now calling it. Clearly, he wasn’t there to function as a bouncer.
Inside, the walls were black. The lighting was soft. People chattered loudly in between songs. There were lots of small tables that could seat up to four people.
On stage was a six-piece band fronted by a rail-thin, middle-aged crooner in a tuxedo. His voice sounded like he’d smoked at least a pack a day since age twelve.
There were about a hundred people in the room, all of whom were well-dressed. He saw black faces, white faces, and Latino faces, but he guessed he was the only East Asian person there. He doubted that would be a problem for her. Given how little information he’d included in his profile, it was safe to assume she liked his picture.
For her profile picture, she posed like a bodybuilder on a mountain somewhere in the southwest. She wore a pink sports bra, black shorts, and a light blue bike helmet. The sun set behind her.
He spotted her from across the room. She sat at a table set for two, tapping her toe. She had on a black dress. It was the kind of thing girls half her age wore to nightclubs, and she looked amazing in it. Despite the chill in the air, her jacket hung from the back of her chair. She held a glass of wine.
Her hair was straight and brown. Her lips were full. It was a beautiful face that had to have been gorgeous ten years earlier.
What was she expecting? Was he the type of man she wanted? Assuming she read his profile, she knew he was a forty-two-year-old private investigator who’d never been married. His only hobby listed was collecting comic books. He didn’t drink, but said he was okay with women who did. Clearly she did, at least in moderation.
She probably just liked his picture. That had to be the reason she’d agreed to meet him. Previous women had gotten rather candid about his prominent cheekbones and thick eyebrows. However, he didn’t enjoy those compliments.
He felt like he already knew how things were going to work out. She wasn’t going to like him once she got to know him. He would point out something obvious, and she would be shocked. Then he would explain, and she would agree he was right and say she’d never really thought about it. This would repeat until she lost all enthusiasm. The night would end with a polite goodbye. She would pretend like she didn’t see him if they crossed paths on the sidewalk.
As he walked up to her, he tried to push the thoughts out of his mind. He told himself finding love was a numbers game. He was overdue to win the jackpot.
“Sally?” he asked
“Yes,” she said, giving him a come-hither smile. “Chris?”
“Christopher. Please don’t ever call me Chris.”
“Christopher is too formal,” she said with a laugh.
“I like formality,” he said, and she leaned back slightly, eyes widening. He hadn’t been aware of his tone. For a split-second, he considered apologizing, but decided against it. He regretted scaring her, but that was a boundary he needed to set.
“So, is this your first face-to-face with someone you met on a dating website?” she asked, her jaw tight and eyes still wide.
“It’s a first for me,” she said, turning just a bit pink.
He thought for a moment, realizing he needed to show her some kind of vulnerability in order to comfort her, to disarm the situation his earlier tone had created. He cleared his throat. Rattling his voice slightly and looking down, he said, “I’ve done this more than I’d like to admit.” He then gave her an awkward smile, and she smiled with her lips together and the angle of her face lowered. She probably thought he was on the autistic spectrum, though in truth, he was not.
“I have an icebreaker question,” she said.
“Shoot,” he said.
“When you were a little kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?”
He gave the awkward smile again. “I wanted to be a superhero.” He pushed his lips together.
She smiled while holding in a laugh. “Did you have a cape?”
“I had a towel until my mother made me put it back.”
She snorted. “And when did you give up on your life of crime fighting?”
“It wasn’t really one painful lesson so much as one painful lesson after another after another. I had to sort of put my hand on the hot stove repeatedly before I realized I should probably stop.”
“If you want to know why I initially gave it up, at least for a little while, well, when I was a little kid, there was this bully. His name was Trent Harris.”
“Did he make you cry?”
“No,” he said, raising a finger. “He was way bigger than me, but I actually beat up Trent to protect the ones he bullied. I thought they were my friends. But, really, they only saw me for what I could do for them. In time, they took me for granted while also being jealous of me. So, one day, a few of them teamed up with Trent, lured me into a trap, and tried to beat the shit out of me. But this was a little kid fight. So, for most of them, as soon as they fell down and scraped their elbows, they were ready to call it quits. After that, I stopped protecting them, and Trent went back to his old ways. I watched as one of them cried and begged for me to do something. He crawled toward me on his belly, reaching toward me like something out of an over-acted movie, and Trent just punched him in the back over and over again. I didn’t do a damn thing.”
“You were a dark little kid,” she said with a laugh. “What happened next?”
“Trent said he wanted to be my friend. He wanted to kind of rule together, said nobody would dare oppose us. But I was disgusted by the proposal. I was like, ‘We’re not friends. And, if you give me a reason, I will go right back to beating you up.’”
“I always love how it only takes one incident with a few assholes to change someone’s opinion of humanity,” she said, shaking her head.
“I thought I made it clear, that isn’t the only story like that,” he said, looking at her. His voice was soft and somewhat disappointed. “It was a lot more than just a few assholes, a lot more.” He shook his head, about ready to say something that never came out.
She fidgeted in her chair. “Sorry, I just thought that since you remembered the guy’s name and all…”
“Yeah, I understand,” he said quickly and apologetically. He paused without taking his eyes off the table. “I’m just someone who tends to remember everything.” He patted the table nervously. “Don’t read too much into the fact that I know details.” He put his hand over his face. After a long moment, he looked up, smiled widely, and asked, “So, what did you want to be when you were a little kid?”
“A secretary?” he asked, lowering his eyebrows.
“A secretary,” she repeated, laughing.
“Setting the bar really high there.”
“My mother was a secretary, and I really looked up to her when I was little,” she said.
“Oh,” he said.
“What was your mother like?” she asked.
He winced for a brief moment, then laughed. “I’d rather not talk about her.”
“You know, I was always told that if you want to know how a man will treat you, look at his relationship with his mother.”
He breathed in as if preparing to speak, took a long pause, put his hands together in front of him as if he was praying, and then finally said, “I’d really rather not talk about her.”
“Sensitive topic?” she said.
“Yeah,” he said, forcing himself to smile.
“So, what do you want in life?”
He shrugged and smiled. “I just kind of want what the average person wants, marriage, a family.”
“That’s what I want, too.” Sally looked down for a moment. Things were quiet and then she asked, “So, what do you do for fun?”
“I read comic books.” His eyes pointed down. “I guess I…uh…never completely got over superheroes.”
“Your profile said you’re a private investigator.”
“Yes.” He looked down again and placed his hand on his brow.
“That must be exciting.”
“No. I spend most of my time trying to figure out who the spouses of the rich are sleeping with.”
“Come on,” she said, bringing back that come-hither smile. “Show me some Sherlock Holmes action? I bet you can.”
“Trust me, you don’t want to get me started.”
“Come on. Please. There’s nothing sexier than a man who pays attention.”
“Alright.” He motioned toward the band. “The singer is a recovering alcoholic and a heavy smoker.”
“You’re just stereotyping jazz singers.” She leaned forward, chuckling, as if she thought he was full of crap.
“Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed his voice?” He felt a little bit of warmth come into his face.
“Okay, it’s pretty raspy, but anyone can pick up on that.”
“Well, in addition to that, he has a scar on the side of his throat, a slight bulge in his abdomen despite being so thin, a bottle of club soda by the base of his mic stand, and what appears to be a pack of cigarettes poking out of his jacket pocket.”
Sally laughed. “What does any of that mean? I mean, aside from the cigarettes.”
“He most likely had throat surgery, his liver is larger or more rigid than normal, and he likes club soda, or more likely has an emotional attachment to it, despite the fact almost no one drinks club soda without alcohol, except for those who really, really don’t want to drink alcohol.”
“What about that couple over there?” she asked, pointing to a handsome, red-haired man leaning against the bar. He spoke to a baby-faced, blonde girl who smiled at him with her hands on her hips.
“They’re not a couple, and she’s not interested in him.”
“Why do you say that?”
“She’s got her hand on her hips, which means, ‘No.’”
“She’s crossing her arms now, what does that mean?”
“It means she’s cold,” he said with a deadpan expression, he realized a moment too late was probably funny.
Sally laughed. “Okay, but what else does it mean?
“That’s all it means, but when a woman is feeling attraction or sexual arousal, it makes her feel warmer than she is, so it’s a bad sign for him if she’s feeling cold. I predict next she will cross her hands over her crotch in a kind of literal cock-block.”
“Women don’t do that…”
Just then, the girl crossed her hands over her crotch, just as he’d predicted. The red-haired man would not be getting lucky with her tonight.
Sally’s mouth gaped and her eyes got big. “Oh my God. What do you see when you look at me?”
“Maybe later,” he said with a slight laugh. “Let’s just listen to the band.”
“Come on. You got me worried.”
“I see a very attractive woman.”
“No, seriously, what do you see?”
“No.” He shook his head, and the awkward smile returned.
“Not on a first date.”
“I offend people,” he said, looking away from her.
“I won’t get offended.” Her voice was soft and confident.
“You’re highly intelligent. You care greatly about other people.” He still wasn’t looking at her.
“No, none of this flattering stuff. Just tell me one thing very specific to me, and I’ll leave you alone.”
“You’re very proud of your arms,” he said, spreading his hands and giggling. “You decided not to wear your jacket so I’d be sure to see them when I first saw you. It’s a little vain, but, you know, you should be proud of them. You worked hard for them.”
She shook her head. “That’s not what you were trying so hard to avoid saying. You’re still holding back on me.”
“Just drop it.” He rolled his eyes.
“And that confirms you’re holding back. There’s still something.”
“Why are you being like this?” he said, dropping his hand onto the table.
“Just tell me.”
His voice trembled slightly. “You have something very unpleasant in your past.”
She laughed while shaking her head. “That’s not very specific, and everyone has something very unpleasant in their past.”
“I don’t want to say it.” He looked toward his own lap.
“Then I’m going to have to keep pestering you,” she said with a dangerous grin.
“Fine,” he said quickly.
“I’m not going to respect you if you don’t say it. In fact, the longer you go without saying it, the less respect I have.”
His lips pressed together. “You know there is something in your past you don’t want to talk about, and I don’t want to talk about it, either. You may think I can’t possibly know about it but…” His voice lowered to almost a whisper. “The clues are there.”
She inhaled sharply through her nose. “Now, I’m starting to think you’re full of crap.”
“This is a no-win situation for me,” he said just a little too loudly.
She pretended her fingers were legs and walked them across the table. “Tell me or I might just walk.”
“You’re not going to let this go,” he said. He took a long pause and frowned. He nodded. “I think you were raped five or more years ago.”
Sally’s mouth dropped open in shock.
“There are about ten clues.”
Her eyebrows lowered. Her jaw tightened. Her face turned red. “Like what?” she demanded.
“I’m sorry,” he said, sweat forming on his brow.
“Don’t be sorry, you’re right. But do tell me why you think I have a metaphorical billboard above my head.”
He lifted his hands like she had a gun pointed at him, and they shook slightly. “I’m sorry, and you have nothing to be ashamed of. Can we talk about something else?”
“You said ten clues, and you’re going to tell me what they are.”
“Well, you have small scars in between your fingers.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
He touched his face. “My guess is you put your keys between your fingers and attempted to fight someone off. The keys tore your skin, and the wounds got infected.”
“There could be a lot of explanations for these scars. I-I could’ve gotten them gardening.”
“True, but the distribution of the scars is more consistent with keys. And, in full context…” he said with a casual motion of his hand. She was never going to want to talk to him again. There was no point in trying anymore. “Your profile said you’re an atheist, but you have a Saint Maria Goretti medal sticking out of your purse. It’s the kind of thing you get at certain support groups. She’s the patron saint of youth, purity, and—”
“Rape victims,” she said, glancing at the black leather bag next to her high heels. “I know. Continue.”
“Not to rely too much on stereotypes, but my guess is, since it happened, you started training in one or more forms of self-defense, and in your jacket pocket is a rather expensive, highly durable, metal pen that most people would keep in the little wooden case it comes in and only use for special occasions. I think you’d use that in place of a dagger in some sort of knife-fighting style. In addition to that, your musculature and the calluses on your knuckles indicate to me that you participate in some form of striking style.”
“Keep going,” she said, grinding her teeth.
“You work for a non-profit charity that has you traveling to developing countries which, in the absence of a religion, tends to indicate something tragic in your past. You retain fluid in your legs indicating you’ve most likely been pregnant, but your profile said no children. Then…”
“Stop!” She held out her hand, extending the palm toward his face and downed her glass of wine with the other hand.
Reign looked down in embarrassment. “Can we start over?”
Reign left the restaurant feeling exactly the way he’d expected to feel. Yet, from experience, he knew that knowing something was going to happen did not soften the blow of it. Maybe he shouldn’t have expected it, but it was hard not to think that way when he’d seen so many things go wrong so many times.
He looked into the sky. He was about to ask God why he hadn’t made him a little more, or a little less, intelligent, when he noticed a massive series of rainbow-colored lights overpowering the stars. It looked as ominous as a flying saucer but was just transparent enough he could see the moon and clouds on the other side of it. The lights somewhat resembled the aurora borealis, but he was too far south for that.
People in the apartment building to his left stepped out onto their balconies and pointed at the light, speculating as to what it was.
Then the light came down, and they were all bathed in it as if they’d stepped into a dance club. However, this light was something no disco ball could recreate. It was as if there was some kind of invisible vapor the lights reflected off. Interestingly, the light did not cast shadows. It was like the air glowed. Under different circumstances, he would’ve suspected he’d been slipped LSD.
After a moment, Reign started walking again. The light was pretty and mysterious, but he didn’t feel anything standing in it. Aside from the fact it had no obvious source, it was just light. Furthermore, if the light were something malignant, he didn’t want to stay out in it. He guessed it was the result of charged particles hitting the atmosphere, but that was only a guess.
Hopefully, it was harmless. He’d probably see a report on it on the ten o’clock news. However, when he got home, he didn’t watch the news, instead, took a quick shower and went straight to bed.
The next morning, he awoke hating life but got up with the same machine-like movements he did every day. He went to his office and waited for his first meeting behind the piles of clutter at his desk. At exactly ten a.m., a knock sounded at the door.
“Come in,” Reign said.
Mrs. Armstrong entered in a red pants suit and a pearl necklace. It was the kind of ugly yet expensive thing wealthy WASP women over sixty wore proudly.
“Ah, Mrs. Armstrong, here are the pictures I told you about over the phone.” Reign handed her a folder.
She opened it and gasped. “That bastard really is cheating on me. Well, I’ll show him. We’ve been married for over thirty years. No prenup.”
“Yes, as for the matter of your bill.”
“Thirty grand, was it? My word, you’re overpriced.”
“Oh really? I’m the fourth P.I. you’ve hired, and the only one who managed to obtain proof your husband is banging interns. Granted, the others were incompetent.”
“Interns? Plural? I only see one girl.” She flipped through the pictures rapidly.
His mouth smiled widely below eyes that were almost all the way open. “By my count, he’s been sleeping with at least six women. Present company excluded. Each of them seems to think he’s going to leave you for her. One is married, but they are all the type of nice, young Christian girls a man who campaigned on family-values could be proud to take as his mistress.”
“Where are the pictures of the other girls?”
“If you want them, it’s an extra twenty-five grand.”
“You bastard! That’s extortion.” She looked at her purse then seemed to change her mind. “Go ahead, publish them.”
“I don’t think you get it. If I go public with my story, I destroy the reputation of your entire family. And isn’t your oldest thinking about running for the senate?”
Her face looked dizzy with worry. She pulled out a checkbook and wrote a check for fifty-five thousand dollars. “What about the confidentiality agreement?”
“We never signed a contract.”
“But isn't it just implied?”
“I think we've moved past that.”
“How is it that you came so highly recommended?”
“Do you know what a white elephant is?”
“It’s an unwanted gift. What of it?” she snapped.
“It is a term for an unwanted gift, but it also refers to literal white elephants. You see, the white elephant is considered sacred. You can’t refuse it as a gift, nor can you kill it or put it to work once you have it. Rich men used to send them to their enemies in order to bankrupt them.”
“My friends wouldn’t do that to me.”
“I can see why you’d be so sure of that,” he said, nodding vigorously while making an intentionally dopey face. “After all, no one ever just pretends to be nice to rich people with political connections. What would be the point in that?”
She handed him the check. Her jaw clenched. “You’ve been paid, now where are they?”
Reign pulled a key from a desk drawer. “Your copies are in a safe deposit box.”
She took the key, turned around, and glanced at the pictures again. With her back to him, she said, “Hope that moron was at least smart enough to wear a condom.”
Reign laughed, and she turned around to face him.
“If you ever need my services again, just call,” he said.
“You think this is funny?” she said.
“You can’t make a remark like you just did and not expect people to laugh.”
“I didn’t say anything funny,” she said, exiting the room.
“Idiot,” Reign said as soon as he was sure she couldn’t hear. “The whole thing is going to leak out as soon as you leave him, anyway.”
Over the noon hour, Reign headed up the sidewalk towards the coffee shop on the corner. He paused for a moment of self-hatred as he saw his reflection in a store window. He made considerable money exploiting the rich. There was a certain thrill in watching them squirm, but he felt bad about it afterwards.
Some of those unhappy clients had even tried to kill him, but he didn’t have any good stories from those experiences. He reached the coffee shop, entered, and ordered a French roast, which he drank slowly off in an isolated corner.
A few steps away from him, a television sat with its screen black. After about twenty minutes someone turned it on to a news report.
“Scientists are as yet unable to explain the strange lights witnessed last night…”
Reign took his eye off the television as a waitress came over to him. She was a pretty blonde, and Reign hadn’t seen her before. He estimated her age at around twenty. There was a black and purple tattoo of a treble clef on her ankle. It resembled a bruise and made him suspect she wasn’t the type of person to think things through. It might also indicate a musician, though he’d seen similar tattoos among people who were not musicians.
There was an ichthys pendent around her neck, which was much a more telling sign of a Christian than a cross. There was also some kind of dry paint on her fingers. He thought it was most likely house paint because it was white and also present just above her right ankle, next to the tattoo, but he couldn’t be sure.
Reign looked away, hoping she hadn’t noticed him analyzing her.
She took a breath before speaking. “Would you like me to refill your cup?”
“No, thank you,” Reign said without looking up.
“He looks so lonely.”
“What did you just say?” Reign asked, looking up at her.
“I asked if you wanted me to refill your coffee.”
Reign looked around and saw no one else near him. Embarrassed, he said, “Oh sorry, I thought I heard you say something. Must have been the TV or something.”
“Happens to everybody,” she said, but then she went on, “That was weird,” and her lips didn’t move as she said it.
“How did you do that?”
“Do what?” she said, her smile looking quite forced now.
“You just said, ‘That was weird,’ but your lips didn’t move.”
“No, I didn't,” she said, but then she said, “No wonder this guy is alone,” again with her lips not moving.
“Is this some kind of joke?” he asked, looking around to see if anyone else was watching.
“Weirdo,” she said without moving her lips. She kept glancing away from him as if preparing to bolt.
Reign thought he might be going crazy, but he said, “Pick a number between one and ten.”
“Three,” she said with a blank expression and without opening her mouth. “Why?” she asked, opening her mouth.
“Was it three?”
“You're too weird.” She shook her head.
“I’ll give you five dollars if you tell me.”
“What's with this guy?” she asked with a closed mouth, and then she said aloud, “Yeah, it was three.”
“I’ll make it twenty dollars if you’ll pick a number between one and infinity with at least four digits.”
“One thousand,” she said without opening her mouth.
“Not one thousand,” Reign said.
“You’re freaking me out here. Are you the one playing a joke on me?”
Reign fished a twenty dollar bill out of his wallet. “I’m serious, I will pay you. All I’m asking for is a number between one and infinity with at least four digits.”
“Three million, one-hundred-thousand, and ninety-eight,” Reign heard her reply without speaking.
“Was it three million, one-hundred-thousand, and ninety-eight?”
“Yeah,” she said, astonished.
“Who is this guy?” he heard her think.
Reign handed her the twenty he’d promised. “Thank you.”
Leaving his coffee behind, Reign hurried out the door. He was hearing people think. Or was he? What the hell was happening? Was he going insane? He didn’t believe in psychic phenomenon. A real psychic would make money cheating at gambling, not telling peoples’ fortunes for a few dollars a reading.
Suddenly, he realized how quickly he was moving up the sidewalk and slowed his pace. The busy walk was like a crowded room with people trying to talk over each other. How many of those people were actually talking and how many were just thinking?
He paid attention to which lips weren’t moving and zeroed in on a woman reciting a grocery list. A man’s comment about the ass of the woman in front of him seemed practically screamed. The man made no attempt to hide where his eyes were pointed. Then there was a young woman in a gray blazer rehearsing a speech to her boss, ready to demand a raise.
“What the hell?” Reign said to himself, feeling dizzy.
A tall, intimidating man walked by him, and Reign heard the man singing bubblegum-pop music in his head. Amazingly, even in this man’s own head, it was halfhearted and off-key, probably in the man’s own voice. He couldn’t help but give the man a skeptical look.
The intimidating man stared back. “What?” he barked.
“Nothing,” Reign said in a practiced mixture of “I don’t give a fuck” and “I’m no threat,” and the intimidating man walked away.
Then Reign’s head felt like it was ready to explode. He put his hand over his ear, halfway expecting to have been stabbed there or to find a cockroach digging its way in. This was nerve pain, except it was his entire head. Was he having his first migraine?
His vision blurred. After a moment, a briefcase caught his eye. It had a transparent side. He could see right into the papers. It was a stupid design. His pain passed as suddenly as it came. Then the side of the briefcase wasn’t transparent.
Reign knew what was happening. Again, he thought he might be crazy. Did he have X-ray vision? He turned and looked into the office building beside him. He could see the activities going on inside. He looked at his hand, peering through the skin, then to the muscles, then to the bones, then all the way through his hand.
Two gorgeous women passed him in sun dresses. They looked like they were naked in front of him. The blonde girl was lean and athletic. Her pubic hair was black, despite her being passable as a natural blonde. The Latina woman had studs pierced through her nipples, and a butterfly tattoo on her left ass cheek.
“Well, if I’m going crazy, at least it’s the fun kind of crazy,” Reign said to himself. But there was the problem. Was he going crazy? How could he test himself?
Walking into a nearby convenience store, he bought himself an assortment of scratch-off lottery tickets. Each was a winner as he knew they would be. Then he thought more about it. What he really needed to do, what his two powers seemed specifically designed to accommodate, was poker.
But did he really have powers? Was he really predicting events or just rewriting his story as he went along to make it seem that way? He kept testing himself and passing, and then questioning himself again. He went back and forth on the issue for days before finally entering a poker tournament. When he won the first game, weight came off his shoulders.
Over the course of a few months, he rose quickly to the top of the professional circuit. In the beginning, he had an easily exploitable weakness. While he could read his opponents, they could read him, too. With practice, he was soon able to win almost every hand. His eyes told him what the next card would be and what everyone else held. Most importantly, he always knew what his opponents were thinking. The challenge became how to win only so much as to not raise suspicions.
Where to go next? What to do next?
Reign sat across the table from Blaire, a thirty-five-year-old PHD candidate in chemistry. She was also a part-time yoga instructor in a tight brown dress. Her eyes were green. Her hair was shoulder length and a color somewhere in between blonde and brunette.
“I have a fetish for East-Asian men,” her thoughts said. It wasn’t exactly something Reign enjoyed hearing, but it was nowhere near the worst thing he’d heard in a woman’s mind.
“So, what do you do for a living?” she asked.
“I’m a professional poker player.”
“Really?” Her eyes widened. “So, if I were to try to lie to you, you’d know right away?” While her face was excited, her thoughts indicated she was actually nervous.
“Yeah, but please don’t try to test me. Once people get you doing party tricks, it’s hard for them to see you as anything else.”
“I understand,” she said, and her thoughts indicated relief. “So, how long have you been playing poker?”
“Not as long as you’d think. A year ago, I’d only played a couple of times in my life.”
“Wow. You went pro after seriously playing for less than a year. I can’t really relate to that. I’ve never had anything come that naturally to me.”
“Well, the skills didn’t just come out of nowhere. I’ve always been exceptionally good at reading people and good at math.” He smiled awkwardly. “In grade school, my teachers got really frustrated by the fact I was always doing math in my head. They insisted I needed to write things down even though I was getting the right answers faster than the rest of the class.”
“But for poker, you also have to be really good at hiding your thoughts,” she said. Her smile seemed natural, but her thoughts were uncomfortable. She didn’t know if she could trust him.
“Yeah, I am really good at that, too, but I don’t like to do it when I don’t have to. It’s emotionally draining to do it with people you actually have a relationship with. I mean, I want the people closest to me to be able to read me. I mean, that’s the evolutionary point of why people cry. It’s supposed to trigger others to act sympathetically, at least in theory.”
“So, what’s it like being able to read people like that?”
Reign shook his head. “Usually, it’s kind of like watching politics on TV.”
She laughed. “What does that mean?”
“You know what’s going on, but your vote is just one among millions, and the more you try to sway opinions using facts and logic, the more it becomes like arguing with people on the internet. People double down and get angry. Sure, you could lie to people, manipulate them but—”
“Wow, that’s depressing,” she interjected.
Reign laughed. “I’m not one to sugarcoat.”
“You ever think maybe the reason people don’t always listen to you is because you’re not always right?”
Reign smiled awkwardly. “That’s exactly what I would ask in your position.”
“That’s not a real answer,” she said.
“Think me arrogant if you have to, but I’m not exactly wrong very often.”
Suddenly, her head tilted, and she looked around him. Though he knew what she was looking at, Reign turned around to see a tall woman walking towards them. She had thick, black glasses, and a bob haircut with hair that was obviously dyed red.
“Christopher, this is my good friend, Tiffany. Tiffany, this is Christopher.”
“Hi,” Tiffany said.
“Hi,” Reign said, shaking her hand.
A moment later, a short man in a dark blue suit joined them. His hair was brown and curly. His nose was long and beak-like. He looked at Tiffany with an affection that should’ve been obvious to anyone.
“This is my boyfriend, Arnold,” Tiffany said. The corners of her smiling mouth pulled slightly higher one side than the other, but her eyes did not change.
“How do you do?” Arnold said, shaking Reign’s hand. His hands were sweaty. He nodded nervously.
Tiffany’s gaze lingered on Reign for a fraction of a second too long. “We’ve got to get going. You guys enjoy your meal. The eggplant parmesan is excellent.”
Arnold nodded, smiling widely. He was waiting for his turn to talk, but he had nothing to say. After a moment, he said, “Nice meeting you,” and followed Tiffany out.
“I really think those two are going to get married,” Blaire said.
Reign let out a sigh and looked away.
“What was that?”
“I’d rather not say.”
“What?” she said.
Reign shook his head.
“What?” she said again with a small laugh.
“I don’t think you really want to know.” He was sure his face looked as if he was having a toothache, but the damage was already done.
“If you don’t want me to ask, don’t go…” She finished by doing an impersonation of Reign’s sigh.
“That’s a fair point. I shouldn’t have done that.”
There was a long silence, and then she said, “Come on, just tell me.”
“Arnold has something the size and shape of a small jewelry box in his jacket pocket, mostly likely for earrings or a ring.”
“You mean, you think he’s getting ready to… Wow, that’s amazing.” She looked down. “I mean, they haven’t been dating for very long, but still…” She paused. “Do you really think so?”
“Yeah,” Reign said, gazing over toward the kitchen door.
“You don’t look happy about it.”
“I’m not one to sugarcoat.”
“Go on,” she said.
“I wish I’d hid my emotions,” Reign said softly.
“Listen, I don’t want someone who’s going to sugarcoat. I mean, if there’s a problem with your health, you wouldn’t want your doctor to sugarcoat. You want to know what’s wrong so you can take action.”
Reign sighed again. Then he laughed while shaking his head and squeezing his eyes shut tight. In a calm, matter-of-fact tone, he said, “Poor Arnold thinks she’s the one, but she thinks he’s disgusting, and she’s only dating him for his money.”
“She’s just using him.”
“That’s not true,” she said, shaking her head. “You misread her badly. She’s a good person.”
“I’m sorry, but no, I haven’t misread her. You have. And Arnold has.”
“That’s my good friend,” Blaire said, anger rising in her voice. “You may be very good at poker, but…” Instead of finishing her sentence, she pulled the napkin off her lap and threw it onto the table.
As her chair slid back from the table, Reign said, “She isn’t your friend.”
“What?” Blaire said. “How can you say that?”
“She’s the type of person who uses people. To her, you’re just convenient.”
“How arrogant are you that you meet someone for two seconds and think you know everything about them?”
“How long have you known Tiffany?”
“What’s her occupation?”
“Grade school teacher.”
“Have you ever seen her around kids?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“I can tell you she’s not too fond of them. She never wanted to actually have to work as a teacher.”
Blaire shook her head. She sputtered the word you for three seconds before finally saying, “You don’t know her.”
Reign sighed. “I know what fake smiles look like. I know what disgust looks like, even when people are trying to hide it. I know stereotypes are sometimes true, and some women really do go into teaching just because they think they can trick a man into thinking they’d be a good mommy.”
“So, you’re a sexist, too?”
“No, I think most people are fucked up, men just as much as women, women just as much as men.”
“Men like you say things like that, but you only ever pick on women.”
“Arnold’s a plastic surgeon with wealthy parents, right?”
“How’d you know that?”
“You set them up on their first date, right?”
Blaire looked at him through squinted eyes over a gaping mouth.
“But it was Tiffany’s idea. In fact, I’m betting she found out you and Arnold were cousins about the same time you and her started to become good friends. She started by asking you for little favors. Then she took you out drinking. She barely touched alcohol that night, which isn’t like her, but she encouraged you to drink, which isn’t like you. She told the bartender to make your drinks strong. She said that right in front of you, but you didn’t read into it because she didn’t try to hide. She even paid for some those drinks.
“Then she made sure you got home safe, and you were actually thankful after what an idiot you’d made out of yourself. You blamed yourself for how much you drank, the things you did and said. Sure, she pressured you, she coached you, but she didn’t actually make you so, in your mind, you can’t blame her.” He laughed as she stared into his face. “Don’t feel too bad. You’re still a good person even if you are an easy mark.”
“What the hell?” Blaire whispered in near-silent terror. “No one could know that. Are you stalking me or something?”
“I’m not stalking you,” Reign said, sighing and getting up. “I’ve just heard this story before lots of times. In the male version of this story, it often involves shoving the drunk friend from behind so he gets into a fight.” He smiled awkwardly. “Maybe it’s better if we never see each other again.” He got up, walked to the door, and kept going.
“Fuck!” he grunted half a block away from the restaurant. He wiped his brow, and then covered his eyes. They squinted but no tears came out. “What’s the point? What’s the fucking point?”