Tamani pushed his sunglasses up on his head as he entered the gelato shop. It was eleven in the morning; other than the brunette on the other side of the counter eyeing him, the shop was empty.
“Hi,” Tamani said with a winning smile as he approached the counter. “How are you today?”
“Good. What’ll you have?”
He paused, scanning the array of pastel-colored gelato. “What do you suggest?” he asked. He didn’t really care–it wasn’t like he could actually eat it.
“Well,” the girl said, pushing back from the counter to walk behind the tubs on display, “are you a chocolate person or a fruit person?”
At least he could answer that one honestly. “Fruit.”
“Tart or sweet?”
“Um . . . tart?”
“Then I’d suggest the lemon, or maybe the cranberry.”
“Why don’t you give me some of each,” Tamani said, not even glancing at the dessert.Look them in the eye; everyone had stressed that. “I trust you,” he added, widening his smile.
“Okay,” the girl said, glancing from him to the gelato as she scooped it into a small bowl. “That’ll be two pounds fifty.”
“Well worth it,” Tamani said, peeling a five-pound note out of his pocket. “Good dessert and better company.”
The girl tittered as she opened the cash register.
“Where are you from?” Tamani asked, leaning on one elbow as she handed him his change.
“Um, just around here,” the girl said.
“And what do you like to do in your spare time?”
Her smile seemed a little hesitant now, and she grabbed a wet cloth and began wiping down the counter. “Haven’t got much of that these days.”
“Do you, like, party?”
Her face froze and for some reason she glanced around the store before answering him. “Not really, no.”
“Oh, I don’t blame you,” Tamani said, grasping for common ground. “What about rock and roll? You like rock and roll?” Apparently it was very popular these days.
“Um, I guess so. Anyway, I better, ah, clean this,” she said, turning to a counter on the opposite side of her work space–and giving her back to Tamani.
Undeterred, Tamani leaned a little closer over the counter. I can do this. “I’m new about town,” he said. “I’m staying a few kilometers west of here.”
“Uh-huh,” the girl said, not turning around.
“I’ll be here for a couple more months,” he added. “I’d love to find someone I could socialize with.”
The girl said nothing.
“So how about it? Would you like to get together and do . . .” He realized he didn’t have a suggestion. But he turned his smile sultry and finished with, “whatever it is you do around here for fun?”
At last she turned to face him again, but her expression was doubtful. She didn’t trust him; he’d have to figure out what he’d said to cause that. Or maybe he’d just forgotten something?
Oh–of course! Stupid. Humans were so funny about names. Always so skittish, wanting a proper introduction. Sometimes Tamani wondered if the superstition was written in their DNA.
“I’m Tam. Tam Collins.” He thrust one hand out at her.
She flinched back half a step. “That’s . . . great,” she said, ignoring Tamani’s outstretched hand and edging toward a door that led deeper into the shop. “Enjoy your gelato, sir.”
And then she was gone.
The sour taste of failure burned at the back of Tamani’s throat. He looked down at his multicolored mound of gelato, liquefying around the edges of the cup. “Thanks,” he whispered to himself, hoping he didn’t sound too disheartened. “I can’t actually eat it anyway.”
He stepped out into the bright spring sunlight. “That could have gone better,” he muttered. He put his sunglasses back over his eyes and sneaked a glance through the window of the gelato shop. The girl had reappeared, joined by an older man; she was showing him the abandoned cup of gelato. He was shaking his head and looked troubled.
Well, he didn’t have to get everything right on his first try. No one could win all the time. But the girl had seemed almost afraid of him at the end. He would need to figure out what he’d done wrong and avoid doing it in the future. He walked down the sunny street, looking for a new target.
He spotted two teenage girls–late teens, Tamani predicted–at one of the white tables shaded beneath the red awnings of Café Tabou. Perfect. They had drinks in front of them, but no food. Likely they were “hanging out” rather than having an intimate meal, which was probably to his advantage. Tamani took a deep breath, adjusted his hat, tucked his hands into his pockets, and strode toward them as casually as he could.
“Greetings,” he said when he reached their table.
The girls looked up with suspicious expressions that melted away when they saw him. Being attractive had its advantages.
“Hi,” one of them said, leaning back against her chair and crossing her legs.
“Do you mind if I join you?” Tamani asked. Then, with a flirtatious smile, he gestured to the nearly empty patio. “All of the other seats seem to be taken.”
The girls exchanged a quick look, then the one with short brown hair laughed and patted the seat next to her. “Sure,” she purred. “I’m Moira; this is Jamey.”
“Tam,” Tamani said. “I’m here on . . .” Tamani thought quickly. “Holiday,” he finished, remembering the word as he settled himself into the chair. A waiter hurried over. “Sparkling water,” Tamani said, without taking the proffered menu. Something he could drink. No more leaving purchased food behind. That was apparently a bad thing to do.
“So you’re on holiday,” Moira said, lifting her own glass, and eyeing him over the edge of it as she sipped. “From where?”
“All over,” Tamani said elusively.
“Where’d you grow up? I can’t quite place your accent.”
No doubt, Tamani thought ruefully. “Oh, up north,” Tamani said dismissively, “but I spent the last few years in America. Hope the damage isn’t permanent. And you two? From here?”
“Our whole lives, both of us,” Jamey said. “But we’re going abroad after sixth year. For university.”
Tamani knew almost nothing about Scottish education, but he didn’t find it too hard to puzzle together Jamey’s meaning. That was good–it meant he was improving. The waiter returned to set a bottle and glass in front of Tamani. He poured himself some of the bubbly water and took a sip.
Moira took over, leaning forward, her chin resting on her hands. “We both wanted to cop out early, but our parents said we’d do better in the long run if we pushed through. I was so mad; I’m already the oldest in the form.” She looked up at him, her lips making a practiced pout.
She was flirting with him now; Tamani was quite certain. That was good. He supposed he should just encourage her to continue talking. And this gave him an opportunity to use some of the technology vocabulary he’d been studying. “So,” he said cheerily, “do you two like to surf over the internet?”
The girls exchanged a quick look. “I guess,” Moira said, looking a little confused.
“How about the Facebook?” Tamani asked, leaning closer and smiling. “Do you have a profile there? That’s always fun.”
“Facebook’s okay,” Jamey said after a brief pause. “It’s getting a little crowded, though.”
“Oh lord, my gran is on Facebook now, did I tell you?” Moira said. “My gran! Did you see what she said to Tommy about that video? I wanted to die.”
That got Jamey laughing. “That was nothing. You should have heard my mum lose it when Dad got her an iPod. ‘Oh, it can’t play my cassettes, what good is it?'”
Tamani was completely lost. Cassettes? At least he knew the word iPod. “Oh yes, iPods. I have an iPod on my”–what did they call it here?–“mobile,” he finished, pulling out his iPhone. “That Rod Stewart, he’s pretty hoppin’, eh?”
They both flat-out stared at him now. Tamani was starting to sense he’d said something wrong again.
“Um, I guess,” Jamey said. “If you’re like, forty.”
“Ah, well, you know . . .” Tamani muttered. Were the intelligence reports outdated? Or was he just acting too mature? And if he couldn’t pinpoint his mistakes, how could he possibly correct them in time?
“Hey, vintage is cool,” Moira said, shrugging. Tamani wasn’t sure what she meant, but she seemed to be rescuing him from her friend. Tamani decided it was probably a good idea to agree with her.
“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “Vintages are my favorite.”
But even Moira’s smile fell at that. “Are you okay?” she asked hesitantly.
“Never better,” Tamani said, raising his glass with a smile. “Can I get you two another?” he asked, gesturing to their mostly empty glasses. “I’m enjoying this chat ever so much.”
“Thanks,” Jamey said, and Tamani noticed her subtly pinch her friend’s arm. “But I actually have to go. We both do. You know how sixth year is. Homework.”
Now there was something he could talk about! Even in Avalon, home work was unavoidable. “Oh yes,” he said. “Damned home work. My mum used to make me dust for hours. But you don’t want to rush back home to that,” he said, trailing his fingers over her arm. “Stay.”
“Sorry,” Jamey said, her voice firm as she pulled her arm away from Tamani. “Come on, Mor, we’ve got to go now.” She pulled on her friend’s arm, but Moira was already halfway out of her seat.
Tamani glanced at his newly acquired watch. Seven minutes. That hardly counted as a real conversation. “Can I walk with you?” Tamani asked, rising and tossing a few pounds onto the table. “Or perhaps I could give you a ride. My vehicle’s just over there,” he added, gesturing across the street to the decrepit Volkswagen van he’d driven from the Manor.
Jamey looked up at the van and her eyes widened, then narrowed. “Listen, creep,” she said, pushing one sharp finger into his chest. “We’re not stupid. We’re leaving. You take one step in our direction and I’ll scream. And I am very, very loud. Got it?”
Tamani nodded numbly. What had he done? “I–” he began.
But Jamey and Moira were already scurrying away, Jamey occasionally looking over her shoulder to glare at him. The waiter was out on the patio now too, watching Tamani with concern in his eyes.
Don’t draw attention to yourself, Sym had said. Just blend in.
He was obviously failing at that. Tamani ducked his head and dug his keys out of his pocket. He felt eyes on his back as he hurried across the street to the van. He should have listened when Sym told him he wasn’t ready.
Cursing under his breath, he jammed his keys into the ignition and turned them viciously, the engine starting up with a satisfying roar. Glancing at the nearly empty road, Tamani barely remembered to turn on his blinking signal as he let his foot off the clutch.
A little too fast.
The van stalled and lurched forward, slamming into the rear bumper of the car in front of him. The high-pitched whine of a car alarm began sounding and everyone within hearing distance turned toward him.
Including, of course, Moira and Jamey.
Tamani let his head fall against the steering wheel. This was never going to work.