OCEAN of FEAR
By six-thirty a.m., Baxter Cruise lounged at the corner table of Whitney’s coffee bar, wiping away a frothy milk mustache with his sleeve. He swirled the dregs of a Cappuccino in the ceramic mug while a gangly freshman tried to make time with the surfer-girl barista. She was clearly uninterested. The young man’s frustration passed for entertainment while Baxter waited for Professor Sydney Mantis. Syd usually sent their client’s pitch-list via email, but today, he’d sent a text from a new phone demanding face time.
Instead of wasting a precious morning, Baxter should’ve blasted another 225,000 emails or let his ratware scrape a more addresses from the geezer forums. Either action would have netted him enough cash to cover the cost of the java and maybe some additional credits at UC Santa Cruz. He didn’t plan to get stuck with any student loans to repay.
His fingertips hit the tabletop in rhythmic succession. He should have brought his laptop. Where the hell was Sydney? Didn’t he know? Time was money, man. Time was money.
A petite woman with a UC-logo sweatshirt held the door for an elderly couple shuffling toward the entrance. Her cheeks dimpled as the couple kept pace with the old woman’s walker. When Sydney Mantis jockeyed around all three of them, her smile dropped to a scowl. Sydney’s usual easy charm seemed under pressure. Wearing a Baja hoodie and aviator sunglasses, he looked like the Unabomber.
“Bax, thank God you’re still here.” He withdrew a shaking hand from the pouch pocket and tossed a flash drive onto Baxter’s lap. “I need you to take this to Dr. Bisch. She’ll be in the office by the time you get there. But, don’t leave it on her desk.” His gaze ricocheted around the room, his voiced lowering to a near whisper. “Make sure you hand it to her personally. I need to leave town for a few days.”
Baxter retrieved the flash drive from the folds around his crotch. “What about our new client?”
But Sydney’s attention fixed outside.
A man in harmony with the ‘60s, he dialed to mellow even if it required herbal assistance. Baxter figured he was one toke over his usual line.
“I can’t stay here.” For the first time since arriving, Sydney pulled off his sunglasses to make eye contact. “Will you take care of Gertrude for me?” A thick vein throbbed at his neck, muscles twitched across his face, and his pupils dilated to ripe-olive proportions.
Sydney didn’t look stoned. Simply terrified.
“Trudy?” Baxter always liked Sydney’s Border collie. Sure, I’ll watch her for you.” Baxter didn’t know what else to say.
“Thanks, man.” Sydney wiped an eye. “I’ve got to go.” He put on his sunglasses and returned to the dull gray of the morning fog.
Baxter stared at the front door as if it might open to a parallel universe. The good professor taught computer engineering not theater arts. And while he tilted dramatic, this performance was worthy of a nomination. Ever since Baxter joined his gig nearly five years ago, Sydney’s feet routinely got frostbite, especially lately. But he always found something to return him to calm, usually a bong, a warm hippie chick, or both.
But something had Syd rattled. Perhaps the pitches for the new email campaign contained sensitive stuff. Sure, they were spammers, but they didn’t run just any email pitch. Baxter maintained strict standards: Viagra. Yes. Online Casinos. Yes. Girls from Russia. No. His girlfriend, Natalie, wouldn’t let him keep one anyway. Their butler robot offered enough contention. Baxter squeezed the flash drive in his fist.