Story Excerpt

Homework

by Rebecca Cantrell

Homework_Ally-HodgesArt by Ally Hodges


Flames licked the ceiling.

“Damn dog is up on a ladder.” Ada didn’t move from her position leaning against the wall because she didn’t want to wrinkle her dress. She had to take it back when this performance was over.

“It’s from the peanut butter sandwich.” Silas grabbed the Irish setter by her elegant hindquarters and lifted her back down to the floor. “Bad girl, Flames!”

Flames licked her lips and looked back at the ceiling.

Silas folded the ladder up and stuck it next to the fridge. Peanut butter glistened on the top step, and he wiped it off.

“What about the ceiling?” Ada asked. “That’s the kind of memorable detail we’re trying to avoid.”

Ada snapped her fingers, and Flames trotted over. She wiped the dog’s muzzle with a wet wipe. Burgundy-red dog hair and peanut butter. “Who’s my favorite circus freak?”

Flames flopped down on the floor and gave her a mournful look. Mournful was her best look. It meant guilty or hungry or sad or clever. It was a multipurpose look.

Silas set the ladder back up, clambered to the top, and wiped a smear of peanut butter off the acoustic tiles.

“Jasper didn’t like the plan?” Ada pointed to the wet spot on the ceiling. Jasper threw things when he got angry, like a toddler.

“He never likes the plan.” Silas climbed back down the ladder and put it away. Then he took a jar of peanut butter off the top of the fridge and dug out a spoonful.

“It’s a terrible plan.” A man in a rust-red jacket came into the dinky kitchen. “They always are.”

“But the performances always work,” Ada reminded him.

“Smash and grab,” Jasper said. “In and out in less than a minute. Wear a mask. Simple. No plan needed. You’re turning this into work.”

Ada twirled a diamond ring around on her thumb. Good quality, worth more than a new car. “I should really get this resized, wear it on my ring finger like a real married lady.”

“Which you’re not,” Silas said. “Not even close.”

Jasper shot his brother a warning glance.

“Maybe I ought to train Flames to work for the circus,” she said. “She can climb up the ladder to a trapeze and hang on by her teeth. One of us ought to break into show business.”

“Maybe we ought to stick to this plan,” Silas said.

“It’s not even her best trick.” She straightened the ring. She was the only woman she knew whose only piece of jewelry was a thumb ring.

“We’re coming up on three o’clock when everyone’s tired and dopey.” Silas came to stand next to her, and Flames perked up. Silas held the spoon down near the floor where Flames licked at it.

“Peanut butter isn’t good for dogs.” Jasper kicked at the spoon, but Silas pulled it away. “It can kill them.”

“That’s chocolate,” Ada said. This was why she was still single. The cute one didn’t know anything.

“Chocolate has theobromine.” Silas moved the spoon back into Flames’s licking range. “Dogs can’t metabolize it like we do.”

And the other one only knew useless stuff and got on her nerves.

“It’s almost three.” Ada stood and straightened her skirt. Both of the men took a long look at her ass. That’s what the dress was designed for, so it was good to see it working. “You have the fake Blanchett?”

Jasper patted his pants pocket.

“Here I thought you were happy to see me,” she said.

“Hey!” he said. “My real jewels are much bigger.”

“I’m guessing one carat. Maybe two,” Ada said.

Silas laughed.

Ada fluffed her wig and headed toward the door. She wasn’t going to miss this dumpy apartment. It smelled like peanut butter and testosterone and everything was beige, as if the good colors had fled.

The men fell in behind her, like they were supposed to do. Flames walked next to Silas. Silas was the planner—he had the connections and did the research. She trained the dog. All three of them put on the performance, four if you counted Flames.

Nobody said anything on the way to Tiffany’s. Silas and Flames got out of the car a block away. In the rearview mirror she watched Flames pee on a stroller, and a young woman in a floppy purple hat waved her arms at him. Another memorable moment.

“I’ll park around the corner,” Jasper said. “The surveillance camera there doesn’t work.”

She slipped on a pair of oversized sunglasses. They made her look like Audrey Hepburn. Red lips, giant sunglasses, and a round ass. In Los Angeles, that described everyone. “How do you know it doesn’t work?”

“It’s not hooked up to anything. It’s just stuck on there. It’s not real.”

“Like fake boobs.”

“Those are real enough for me.” Jasper tucked their black SUV in between two other black SUVs. Triplets.

She flipped down the visor, fluffed her black wig, and put on another layer of Dior 999. The color popped against her pale skin. If she pouted those red lips, nobody’d remember what her face looked like even without the glasses.

Jasper had a chocolate-brown shirt on under his jacket, teamed up with ridiculous facial hair he’d grown for the occasion and a set of round hipster glasses. He looked like a producer. Handsome, fit, and hungry.

Ada wriggled out of the car, straightened her dress, punched Jasper on the shoulder for ogling, and walked back to Tiffany’s.

“How’s that song go?” she asked. “The one about the store?”

“What about ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’” Jasper sang the title. He’d caught the tune, and she took hold of his arm. Good muscle tone under the shirt.

“Do they even serve breakfast?” he asked.

“They do not.” She dug her fingernails a little into his arm. “That’s the point of the movie.”

“There’s a movie to go with the song?”

“The movie came first, then the song came along thirty years later.” A little more than thirty years. Silas would know exactly, but he had the dog.

“You’re telling me we won’t get breakfast?”

“Ha-ha.” She pushed him a little ahead of her.

He opened the door with a flourish. “Your majesty.”

She pouted her lips and sashayed inside. Chilled to a refined temperature and rich with the scent of eau de parfum, five minutes in here was better than breakfast. Jasper closed the door, and all the street noise dropped away. The kind of silence only money can buy filled the space.

“We’re here to get my mother’s ring resized,” she told Jasper with a flirtatious smile. “Nothing else.”

“Maybe,” he said with an impish smile she hadn’t seen before but decided she quite liked. “Maybe not.”

She minced up to the counter and bent over a glass case to better flaunt her nice round assets. The man behind the counter looked where he was supposed to. Jasper fidgeted with his pocket, and she wanted to slap him.

“May I help you?” The man sounded as British as Mary Poppins holding a bag of scones. “My name is Nigel.”

“I’m Tiffany,” she said. “Like your store.”

Then she let out a high-pitched giggle she’d been working on.

Nigel smiled. He had perfect teeth, which wasn’t supposed to be a British trait, although Julie Andrews had great teeth.

“I came to get this resized to my finger,” she said. “My mother left it to me.”

Jasper touched her arm gently, like he was sad about her fictional dead mother. Her real mother wasn’t dead, just dead to her, which frankly ought to entitle her to more sympathy.

“If it’s a Tiffany’s product, we’d love to help you.” Nigel’s friendly smile had been replaced by an I’m-so-sorry-for-your-loss-and-hopefully-I-can-make-money-off-it expression. It was a pretty common expression in Los Angeles.

“My mother always told me my father bought it here when I was just a twinkle in my father’s eye. Like this diamond.” She held out the ring in the palm of her hand, and the man’s eyes went right for it.

He took it and examined it with a little jeweler’s loupe he stuck in his eye like a monocle. “It’s a fine stone, but I’m sure you know that.”

“I surely do, Nigel.” She gave Jasper a meaningful look. “My father would never get my mother anything less than the best.”

“Maybe we should get you something to match it,” Jasper said. “Something from me.”

Nigel tamped down a quick smile. They did look like easy pickings.

“The ring is not from Tiffany’s.” Nigel smiled. “But we could make an exception for you.”

“Could you?” She pouted again and took the ring and put it back on her thumb. “First let’s see what my honey wants me to have.”

Jasper pointed to the most expensive piece on display. A necklace dripped with lines of diamonds.

“That’s a very expensive piece, sir.” Nigel didn’t take it out.

People weren’t trusting these days. It must be the economy.

Jasper pulled out a black American Express card and set it down on the glass right above the necklace. It wasn’t real, but Nigel didn’t know, and his smile kicked up a megawatt.

Nigel unlocked the cabinet and took out the necklace with hands as reverent as if he were touching the Holy Grail.

Jasper took the necklace from him and fastened it around Ada’s neck. It felt ice-cold against her warm skin. She turned her head from side to side, watching rainbows spark out of the necklace.

“It’s nice,” she said. If she’d brought gum, she would have blown a bubble to show how bored she was.

“Do you have anything from a movie?” Jasper said. “Or something that’s been on TV?”

She took a deep breath and stroked a line of diamonds with one finger, pulling the finger down her chest and ending the movement between her breasts. She had to keep Nigel off guard because Jasper was rushing. It should be a seduction, with the reveal of one slow piece at a time.

“We do have a ring worn by Cate Blanchett at the Oscars.” Nigel jumped right to the climax. Probably a premature ejaculator too.

“A ring?” She looked over at Jasper, as if challenging him. Was their imaginary relationship ready for a ring? Nigel fidgeted, waiting for Jasper’s answer.

“Maybe a friendship ring,” Jasper said.

“I’d love to see it.” She put a little throaty longing into her voice. “But just to look at.”

Jasper slid the glittery necklace off and gave it back. The heat of her skin had already warmed it, and she was sorry to see it go. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” ran through her head. The song was about a breakup. Or maybe an almost-breakup.

Nigel took the necklace and carefully locked it up again, then disappeared in the back of the store. They kept Blanchett’s ring stored in a safe there. Silas had researched it carefully after they took the commission.

Tilting his face away from the camera, Jasper leaned in close and kissed the side of her neck. Her skin tingled under his lips.

“Slow it down,” she whispered. “You’re too eager.”

“I’m always eager.”

She tilted her neck to let him kiss it again because it wouldn’t do to have a fight with a man ready to buy her such an expensive ring. Then another kiss because the last two felt so good and there was nothing wrong with enjoying your job. It gave the act a veneer of realism. Jasper moved around toward her lips, and she closed her eyes in anticipation.

Nigel cleared his throat. He stood in front of them with Cate Blanchett’s ring. The piece was valued at over four million dollars. They’d only get a quarter to split three ways, but her breath still caught in her throat when Jasper slipped it on her ring finger. It was a little loose, as Silas had predicted.

“It suits you,” Jasper said. “Beautiful and elegant.”

The diamond reached from the base of her finger up to her first knuckle. It was an emerald cut and rectangular like a movie screen. Silas had said the glittering diamond was twenty carats. Divided into wedding rings, it would create one for every girl in her graduating class. But put together it made a glittering treasure fit for a queen of Hollywood. The kind of ring she’d always hoped to wear for real one day.

Like Cate Blanchett, she stepped onto her mark and played her role. She held her hand up in the air like the Pope, and Jasper took her hand in his and kissed her knuckle. She giggled and shrugged her shoulders together to draw attention to her cleavage and keep Nigel distracted.

The door opened and brought with it the sound of traffic and the click of a dog’s toenails against marble. She wouldn’t have minded if Silas had waited another few minutes. After all her rehearsal, this was her big scene. . . .

 

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Copyright © 2018. Homework by Rebecca Cantrell