Chapter 1: Falling Under Plum’s Spell.
I don’t recall the exact moment that my obsession with Plum began. It must have been seconds after we met. I was drawn to Plum because of the things she appeared to represent. Plum exuded charm, grace, sensuality and power. It was the quiet strength of someone in control of herself and everyone around her.
Plum sat across from me in a crowded coffee house, bringing a cloud of intoxicating perfume that seemed to waft from her pores. She smiled and an uncontrollable longing welled up inside of me. What was it like to be her?
I must have been staring because Plum held out a gleaming case of cigarettes. Didn’t ask if I minded the smoke, just pulled one out of the case and lit it with a gold, engraved lighter. I watched her long, manicured nails flash each time she took a drag. The polish was a deep, almost black hue with a metallic, purple sheen. Her lips were painted the same color, in stark contrast to porcelain skin.
I was in awe of her and she knew it with the certainty that all beautiful people know they are adored. The longing became a terrible ache. I wanted to know everything about her. Maybe if I could lose myself in those amazing almond-shaped eyes, I’d escape my empty existence. Just being near her made me feel special.
People at nearby tables cast appreciative glances in Plum’s direction. I could feel their eyes alight on me before flitting back to her. They probably wondered what such a wretched specimen like me was doing in the company of such magnificence.
At that moment, I knew I would abandon my life to be with Plum. Maybe some of her charm and grace would rub off on me. The intensity of my emotions was alarming. I couldn’t seem to stop being melodramatic. It was Sunday night and I had just missed the last bus home. The threat of resuming the daily grind of my job in a matter of hours was looming over my head.
I was so depressed that I felt damn near suicidal. In other words, it was a night like any other night for me. I always work myself up into a lather dreading the return to work. Around midnight, resignation always sets in and I crawl into bed in a futile attempt to get some rest. It seems like my entire adult life has been spent either at work or dreading the return to work.
It’s not the actual work that bothers me. I have never been lazy. It’s the people. I just don’t seem to fit in anywhere. That might seem trivial to you but then the majority of your co-workers probably like you. I’ll wager you even have one or two co-workers with whom you are friends. I have never been able to connect with people that way.
Something about me seems to make people uneasy. I’m not good at social nuances. You know, the meaningless exchanges around the office, on the elevator and in the halls. I’m never quite sure how many times I should say hello or how long to hold the I’m-fine-how-are-you grin or where to rest my eyes while chatting.
Eye contact seems to make people uneasy. They prefer to keep up a friendly façade rather than allowing people to see how they really feel about them. I don’t like most of the things I see swimming around in people’s eyes. I’ve always been sensitive that way. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always been a bit reclusive. The things I sense about people are rarely pleasant.
Unfortunately, my face is like an open book. Any uneasiness is clearly spelled out in my expression. I’ve never been skilled at hiding my feelings. I just can’t get the hang of the chirpiness that people seem to crave. It’s very draining to be around other people. I’m an introvert and people want to you to talk nonstop.
I’m always on guard. My gentle nature causes me no end of trouble. Sooner or later, people succumb to the seemingly overwhelming urge to take advantage of me. I’ve come to believe in the law of nature; the strong feeding off of the weak.
In the beginning, that’s what drew me to Plum. I felt completely at ease with her. She seemed genuine and that was refreshing. I didn’t have to rack my brain for conversation. It flowed naturally. I didn’t feel the need to weigh each word I said. There was no strained politeness between us. You know, the way someone nods and offers an occasional “uh huh” at appropriate intervals. All the while, it’s obvious their mind is a million miles away.
Surprisingly, her beauty did not intimidate me in the least. On the contrary, I sat back and admired her. My eyes greedily drank in every detail about her whenever she looked away. I was attempting to commit each second to memory.
Plum had a model’s petite figure sheathed in an expensive beige pantsuit. Gold flashed around her neck, dotted her delicate ears and encrusted her long, slender fingers. I looked down at my own rumpled shirt and my ever-present spectacles slid down my nose. I couldn’t help chuckling. Someone like her would never befriend a loser like me.
She was obviously being polite because she’d had to sit at my table. All of the other seats were taken. We may as well have been from different planets. I had to get out of there before I got my feelings hurt. Plum smiled again and I forgot about leaving. She leaned across the table speaking in conspiratorial tones and my misery halted.
I don’t even remember what she said, probably some offhanded comment about the weather. Her next words did not register either. I was too busy grinning like an idiot. Plum smiled indulgently and pointed at my hand.
“You don’t have to sell that you know,” she repeated.
I started guiltily. My hand reflexively closed around the gold locket in my palm. Suddenly, I couldn’t meet her level gaze. It was my grandmother’s locket. I had inherited it. The dread of pawning it and not being able to get it back before some stranger bought it had kept me glued to my seat all night drinking cup after cup of bad coffee.
“What makes you think that I’m planning on selling anything,” I mumbled.
“Just the fact that you keep looking over my shoulder at the pawn shop across the street. You’ve been turning that locket around in your hand the entire time I’ve been sitting here.”
I had spent the past year convincing my family that going into real estate sales had been a wise decision. My letters home were regular public relations pieces. I guess I started believing that no one could see through the propaganda.
Having a perfect stranger quickly appraise me and glean the truth was a little unnerving. After all, if a complete stranger could size me up that quickly then perhaps my parents suspected the truth as well. I was embarrassed. The urge to get up and flee was overwhelming.
My opportunity to impress Plum had just been eliminated with surgical precision. I felt foolish for even entertaining the idea of friendship. I had forgotten my place in the natural order of things. A bottom feeder like me had no business aspiring above my station in the food chain.
I was sure that, she would make some snide remark or start making fun of me. That’s how my interactions with other people had been ending since grade school. People seem to find creative ways to stick it to me when I least expect it. I’ll be having a pleasant conversation with someone and out of the blue, he or she will say something mean spirited while innocently gazing into my face. Their hard glittery eyes bore into mine, waiting to feast on the pain welling up behind my stunned eyes.
To my surprise, Plum didn’t look down her nose at me. On the contrary, her expression softened and one of her manicured hands momentarily rested on my hand which clenched around my locket. I must have looked foolish goggling at her hand. She had caught me completely off guard; it was such a tender gesture for a stranger to make. Our eyes met and she murmured.
“You don’t have to be ashamed. Everyone has needed a few extra bucks at one time or another. I was just going to say that I have a friend who may be able to supply a little money. It just doesn’t seem right to sell such a beautiful locket.”
“I-I don’t own anything valuable enough to use as collateral for a loan. Do you think he would be willing to accept the necklace and hold onto it until I can pay him back?”
“That won’t be necessary. Kenji is a businessman. I’m sure he would find an exchange of services acceptable. That way, you won’t owe him any money. He would simply be paying you for services rendered.”
“I don’t understand. What exactly do you mean by an exchange of services?”
“You’re a real estate broker aren’t you? Kenji is looking to expand his business enterprises. You can offer him a good deal on a piece of real estate can’t you?”
“How did you know I sell real estate?”
“The pin on your lapel.”
I was flattered that Plum would notice such a small thing. Of course looking back on it now, I realize that she knew who I was before she even sat down. It’s amazing how many glaring signs you pick up after the fact. Plum was completely out of place in that coffee house. Why would someone as rich as her even walk past such a dump, let alone walk in and take a seat?
That should have been the first red flag for me. We weren’t in one of those trendy coffee shops frequented by the well to do. It was several steps down from that; the kind of place where you feel compelled to take a napkin and wipe off a greasy, scarred plastic seat before you sit down.
I wouldn’t even have been sitting in there after dark myself if I hadn’t missed my bus. No, she made a special trip that evening to meet me. I’m not patting myself on the back. Plum needed something illegal done and I just happened to be the schmuck in the right position to get the job done.