Apparently, neither Nick nor I is clever enough to come up with a legitimate plan in thirty-four minutes. Even the additional seven minutes that it took Nick to successfully parallel park the rental car didn’t help. When the two of us stepped out of the car into the brilliant sunshine washing over downtown Severna Park, we still had no clue how we were going to find Ashley Bass.
“I was kind of hoping that the area would be less busy.” Nick frowned as he looked at the crowds of people going about their business.
“What were you expecting?” I adjusted my baseball cap to better shield my eyes from the sun and peered up into Nick’s disappointed face. “A lone house in the middle of the woods?”
“That would have been nice ...” Nick trailed off in disappointment. “Even a suburban street would have been more manageable. We could have just knocked on every door until we found her.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. I could only imagine the scene that Nick and I would inevitably cause by going door-to-door in the middle of the suburbs. Choosing not to comment, I began to half-heartedly scan the street. We were in an older part of what I assumed was the downtown core. The street was littered with independent stores that were pressed tightly together in a mess of merchandise and colourful signs. Upper apartments occupied the space above the stores and people were milling about in all directions. Finding Ashley was going to be next to impossible.
I was just about to tell Nick that we were better off cutting our losses and getting back in the car when I saw them; two blueberries with gleeful smiles holding hands and skipping. I craned my neck to get a better view of the sign and let out a grunt of disbelief. At the end of the short block, next to a small parkette, was a tiny café – ‘The Dancing Blueberry’.
“You’ve got to be shitting me!” A massive smile overtook Nick’s face as he followed my gaze. “I don’t believe it!”
I continued to stare at the cartoon blueberries; mesmerized by their painted-on smiles and our apparent good fortune. “Do you think she works there? She could have just seen the sign and thought that it was a good idea for a username.”
“Let’s find out.” Nick was already striding confidently towards the café. “I can’t believe that we got this lucky!”
“What do you mean ‘lucky’? We haven’t even found her yet.” I hissed as I followed Nick into the small establishment. “Have you even thought about what you’re going to say to her if we do find her?”
The smell of fresh ground coffee and sugar engulfed us as soon as we stepped inside the door. A large display case housing a variety of lavishly decorated baked goods took up the majority of the space, and my stomach rumbled as I breathed in the mixture of cinnamon and butter cream frosting. Leighanne would berate me for days if she found out that I was even thinking of deviating from my diet.
“What are you thinking?” Nick interrupted my thoughts. He raised his eyebrows in amusement as he caught me eyeing the desserts. “Wifey will never know if you have a cupcake.”
“What’s the plan?” I asked, ignoring both Nick’s comment and the rumbling in my stomach. “Are we just going to ask every woman in here if she’s Ashley?”
There were ten small tables clustered towards the back of the café; nine of which were occupied. I counted seven women sitting at the tables as I tried to inconspicuously check out the patrons. There was also a middle-aged women working behind the counter and two female teenagers standing by the display case and placing their order.
“I suppose.” Nick shrugged. He suddenly looked nervous. “Should we see if she works here first?”
“Sure.” I mimicked Nick’s shrug and stepped up behind the teenage girls who were now paying for their order. “We should probably order something while we’re at it.”
“Like a coffee?” Nick winked. “Or a piece of cake?”
I shot Nick what I hoped was a disparaging look before flashing a friendly smile at the woman behind the counter. Maybe she was Ashley. The thought hit me as I opened my mouth to greet her. I had just assumed that Ashley would be young, but she could just as easily be an older woman.
“What can I get for you boys?” The woman smiled easily back at us. Her expression confirmed that she had no idea who we were.
“We’ll take two large coffees ...”
“And two cupcakes.” Nick interjected. He pushed in front of me and pulled his wallet out of his jeans. “Whatever two flavours are your most popular ... that’s what we want.”
“Sure thing, boys.” The woman maintained her soft, easy smile as she accepted the twenty dollar bill that Nick slid across the counter. She quickly counted back the change and filled two take-out cups with coffee. “Why don’t you two take a seat and I’ll bring the cupcakes over in just a minute. I’ll just check with Ashley to make sure that I bring you our best sellers.” She wiggled her eyebrows in amusement as she pushed the coffee cups towards us.
“You’ll check with Ashley?” Nick’s voice was a full octave higher than normal as he repeated the woman’s statement. His hand was actually shaking as he reached for one of the take-out cups.
“That’s right, dear.” A look of confusion crossed the woman’s face. “Ashley ... the owner ... do you know her?”
“No.” I hastily interrupted before Nick could make the situation any more awkward than it already was. “We’ll just be over there.” I gestured towards the table closest to the counter and practically shoved Nick in that general direction. “Take your time.”
“What do we do now?” Nick threw himself into the chair across from me and took a massive gulp of his coffee, wincing as the hot liquid connected with his tongue. “What do we say to her?”
“I don’t know!” I hissed. “This was your idea, remember?” I dared a quick glance at the counter. The woman who had served us had disappeared into the back. “You better think of something quick. If the owner turns out to be the Ashley that we’re looking for, then she’s going to recognize us right away.”
“This was a bad idea.” Nick’s eyes were darting feverishly between me and the counter. “We’re going to sound like complete ... oh shit!”
I turned as Nick’s eyes widened. A woman in her early-to-mid thirties had just stepped up behind the counter. She was engrossed in a conversation with the older women while simultaneously roping her long brown hair into a messy ponytail. The older woman gestured in our direction and the younger woman turned to face us. Our eyes locked as soon as she turned her head, and it was immediately obvious that she knew exactly who we were. I gave her a small wave, watching intently as her mouth formed a small ‘o’ of surprise.
“Stop staring at her.” Nick whispered. He had dropped his gaze to the well-worn wooden table. “Maybe we should just leave.”
“I’m not staring at her.” I could feel the heat creeping up my neck as I forced myself to look away from Ashley who was now gripping the edge of the counter as if her life depended on it. “We can’t just walk out. She’s seen us!”
“What if she’s the one who’s after us?” Nick voiced this new concern in a hushed whisper. “What if we’ve walked into a trap?”
My stomach lurched at Nick’s suggestion. The notion that the young woman behind the counter wanted to kill us was a long-shot, but it wasn’t impossible. Sure, she looked about as threatening as a puppy with her round eyes and slender figure, but that didn’t mean that she couldn’t be working for someone else; someone bigger and stronger and angrier.
“Are you crazy?” I forced myself to sound confident. “There’s no way that she’s responsible for what’s been happening to us! Look at her!”
“Then how do you explain her story?” Nick continued. “I can’t believe that we came here! Why didn’t you stop me?! She’s probably poisoning our cupcakes as we speak!”
“You’re acting like she somehow knew that you were going to read her story.” I argued. “There’s no way that she could have known that you like to read strange shit about yourself on the Internet.”
“Hi – Sorry – Excuse me?”
Nick and I both started at the sound of her voice. I jerked my head upwards and plastered a smile on my face. Once again, I could feel my neck turning red in embarrassment as I stared into her eyes. This girl was going to think that we were socially inept.
“I brought you some - some cupcakes.” Ashley stammered. She shakily set two plates on the table and took a step backwards. “One chocolate banana and one cookies n’ cream; our most popular flavours.”
“Right. Thanks.” Nick mumbled. He wrapped his fingers around his coffee cup; his knuckles turning white with the effort. “They look ... ummmm ... good.”
“Thanks.” Ashley’s face was also turning red. “Well, ummmm, enjoy.”
“You’re Ashley, right?” The words tumbled out of my mouth. “Ashley Bass? The lady behind the counter said that you’re the owner of this place. That’s pretty impressive.”
Ashley’s eyes were now so wide that I was afraid that they were going to fall out and roll along the floor. “Yeah – Yes – How did you know that? I mean, you are Brian Littrell, right? From the Backstreet Boys?”
“Do you write fan fiction?” Nick blurted. “Under the username ‘Dancing Blueberry’?”
The poor girl looked like she wanted the floor to open up and swallow her whole. Her face was positively flaming in embarrassment, and her expression caused me to shift uncomfortably in my seat. I felt bad for her. Nick really needed to learn how to be more tactful in delicate situations.
“Oh God ...” Ashley squeaked. “How did – I didn’t – Why are you asking me that?”
“Your writing is really good!” I threw out the compliment in the hopes that it would make her feel better. “It’s very – uhhhh – realistic.”
Ashley opened her mouth but the only sound that came out was a cross between a groan of embarrassment and a squeak of disbelief. She still looked absolutely mortified.
“It is you, isn’t it?” Nick prodded. “You’re ‘Dancing Blueberry’.”
“They’re just stories!” Ashley suddenly exploded; her voice shaking. “I’m so sorry! I never thought that you would actually read them! I didn’t mean anything that I wrote. It was just supposed to be for fun.” She swiped hastily at her face and began to back away from the table. “I’ll take the stories down! You guys don’t, like, want to press charges or anything, do you?”
This was not going well. I looked frantically at Nick and then back at Ashley who was still trying to disguise the fact that she was crying. We had clearly approached this in the wrong way.
“Please don’t cry!” I sprang from my seat and thrust a handful of napkins in Ashley’s direction. “We’re not upset. I haven’t even read all of your stories. Well, I’ve read your most recent one, but that’s only because Nick told me to. It’s Nick who likes to read fan fiction.”
Ashley ignored the napkins and blinked at Nick in astonishment. “You like to read fan fiction? I don’t – I don’t understand what’s going on.”
Nick also stood up from the table and took a step towards me and Ashley. The other customers were starting to stare, and he dropped his voice to a whisper. “We need to talk to you about ‘The Chaos Tour’. The stuff that you’ve been writing ...” Nick paused and took another step forward. “... it’s been coming true.”