As the Chicago city bus lurched into motion, every passenger swayed in unison, except for the very tall man sitting all the way in the back. Rissa noticed that right away.
With both hands folded neatly in his lap, the stranger seemed to defy the laws of physics by not moving in the slightest as the lumbering bus sharply banked around a tight corner.
Must be a yoga master, Clarissa Harmond guessed, settling back into the worn plastic seat. Highlights of silver in his dark hair proclaimed that the rather handsome fellow was rapidly approaching middle age, yet he seemed to radiate an aura of physical strength the same way a blast furnace did heat. She could literally feel his presence from yards away.
Unbidden, there flashed in her mind what such a man might be like in bed. The strength of youth combined with the experience of maturity was a tantalizing possibility. Lost in dreamy reflection, Rissa could almost see him standing unadorned in her bedroom, every firm muscle gleaming in the golden candlelight ...
Just then, the bus jounced through a pothole.
With a gasp, Rissa grabbed her throat, flushed with embarrassment. Get a hold of yourself, Harmond! Clearly, she was starting to lose her mind from not having anybody else in her bed except that coppertop bunny. He had wonderful stamina, but she sure missed cuddling.
Turning away from the dapper giant, Rissa banished the burgeoning erotic fantasy. Out of sight, out of mind! Hopefully, anyway. When did this damn bus become so warm?
Looking out the dirty window at the passing streams of honking cars, Rissa pulled a battered iPod from her purse, tucked in the earbuds, and thumbed the dial for a much-needed distraction. Crooning the world-famous intro to a classic MGM musical,
the amazing Gene Kelly began singing about seriously inclement weather, and Rissa felt herself gradually relax. Sing, you magnificent bastard, sing!
Ever since the invasion of those damn red boxes forced the closing of her video rental store, Rissa had been doggedly searching for a new job that was in some way connected to movies, her chosen field of expertise. Today, her diligence had been rewarded with an offer from the local cable company to be in charge of their film library. Yippee! Back in show business!
The money wasn't great, but the chance to run amok through their huge catalogue was nearly irresistible. Rissa adored movies, and collected them the way yuppies did fine wines. The classics, the turkeys, the weird, and the wonderful, Rissa watched everything, but only a select few films ever went into the big bookcase standing alongside her old television. A situation sadly similar to her personal life: lots of first dates, but very few overnight guests. Or at least, none that she'd like to introduce to friends in the light of day. As the old saying went, sometimes even cowgirls get the blues.
Unfortunately, while the new job sounded exciting, the two-hour commute every day would be brutal, and moving from the suburbs to downtown meant a change in her lifestyle that required some serious thinking.
Crossing her arms, Rissa snorted. Okay, that was an outright lie. She had already decided to accept the job, and simply wanted to stall for a while and prolong the illusion that she was not about to leave her comfort zone to create a whole new life in a distant world. A stranger in a strange land? Hell, it was more like Alice in Wonderland. Scary stuff.
As the joyful music dramatically swelled into full orchestration, somebody nearby loudly coughed. Then did it twice more. "Excuse me, miss?"
Rissa opened an eye. It was the yoga master. She removed an earbud. "Yes?"
Chagrined, the man displayed a bare wrist. "Do you have the correct time, please?"
"Sure, no problem," Rissa relented, thumbing to a different screen. "It is ... nine fifteen."
"Thank you," he sighed in relief, then blinked and pointed. "Good lord, wherever
did you get that delightful relic?"
Glancing downward, Rissa was startled to see her grandmother's amber pendant dangling on the outside of her white blouse once more. How weird. She could have sworn it had been tucked into her bra as usual before leaving the cable network skyscraper. That was Survival 101 for any big city dweller: Hide Your Valuables! Crackheads were like magpies; they'd steal anything shiny, whether it was valuable or not.
Taking a moment, Rissa studied the smiling middle-aged man. He seemed harmless enough, freshly shaved with clean fingernails-always a plus. He was wearing a tailored Hugo Boss suit and Italian shoes that probably cost more than her first, second, and third cars combined. Clearly, it's good to be the king of ... whatever he does for a living.
"Relic?" Rissa repeated, arching an eyebrow.
"Please, I meant no offense," he chuckled, raising an apologetic hand. "I was merely curious since that pendant is very old, and extremely valuable."
"Is it?" she asked, fingering the pendant. Etched into the cracked amber was the design of a Chinese dragon chasing its own tail. The eyes were chipped glass of the deepest blue, and the wings sparkled with tiny crystals. It was very Art Deco, or Art Nouveau-she always got those two confused. The inside was covered with curious geometric shapes that almost appeared to be some sort of a language.
"I've always assumed it was costume jewelry," Rissa continued. "Or something from a lodge: the Freemasons, or perhaps the Elks."
"Costume jewelry?" the man gasped, swinging his legs around to face her directly. "Good heavens, no! That is a classic example of Chinese metallurgy from the early Hung Dynasty, circa 400 BC, and of the very highest quality!"
Skeptically, Rissa shuffled slightly further away in her seat, and tightened the grip on her purse.
"Oh-no-no-no! You misunderstand, dear lady. I am an antiques dealer," he said in a rush of words. "A specialist in exotic jewelry." Then he splayed both hands.
Keeping her distance, Rissa was somewhat mollified to see that he had a golden ring on every finger but one. It was a staggering lot of jewelry for any man to be
wearing, gay or straight, and a rainbow spectrum of multicolored gems glittering in the sunlight streaming through the windows. Several of the rings had a design similar to the amber pendant she was wearing, a dragon chasing its own tail. But none of his golden rings were as large, or as finely detailed.
"Wherever did you find it?" he asked again, leaning forward. "An estate sale, perhaps? eBay?"
Swerving through a sea of honking traffic, the bus reached the center lane, and began to steadily accelerate.
"The pendant is a gift from my father. It weighs a ton, and keeps catching on my sweaters, but still ..." Rissa shrugged.
"Family, yes, I understand," he said with a nod, then gave a hopeful grin. "Any chance that you might consider selling ..." He frowned. "No, of course not. It was a gift from a relative. Please excuse the avarice of an old collector."
Oddly, nobody else on the bus seemed to take any notice of their conversation, almost as if it were somehow private.
"Please take my card," he said, holding out a slim leather case. He pressed an embossed insignia on top with his thumb and a stiff white card slid out the front like the blade of a switchblade knife. "This has the name and address of my store in Los Angeles, along with my cell phone number. If you ever change your mind, I can offer you a substantial price, miss ..." Politely, he waited.
"Harmond, Rissa Harmond," she said, accepting the card.
"Harmond," he said with a satisfied smile, sitting back in the plastic chair as if having accomplished a great task.
"And you are ...?" Rissa asked, glancing at the business card. But there was nothing on it.
Turning the card over to the other side, she was puzzled to find that also blank. Confused, she flipped the card several times just to make sure that she was not missing something, a subtle watermark, perhaps.
"I'm going to need another," she began with a chuckle. "This one is ..." But the seat across the aisle was empty.
Looking about the rattling bus, Rissa only saw the usual handful of regular commuters, but nobody else. Then a motion outside the window caught her attention.
A cold shiver surged down her spine at the sight of the well-dressed stranger waving goodbye from the sidewalk ... three lanes of traffic away. Rissa tried to speak, and nothing came out but a high-pitched squeak.