So Gabriel's no angel," Syd says.
"Far from it." I stare at her image, which appears on one side of my computer screen, while Zahra's image appears on the other. I've called an emergency Skype videoconference to bring my friends up to speed. "I can't believe I fell for his act."
"Sounds like the guy was pretty convincing," Syd says. Her hair is pulled back with a thick hair band, the red lipstick is gone, and she's wearing a ratty UT sweatshirt that belonged to her dad when he was in college. Apparently, it's her lucky study charm.
Zahra's study style features a grey hoodie and pajamas covered in a cookie print. "Jesse Sheridan knows how to charm a girl," she says. "If he's giving tips to his pals, it's not surprising you fell for Gabriel."
"What if they aren't pals?" Syd asks. Her shoulder is moving and she keeps looking down, so I can tell she's sketching. "What if Jesse sold his tips to Gabriel?"
"I considered that," I say. "Especially since he knows that we sell dating advice. But like Z said, we've experienced Jesse in action and Gabriel's approach was different. Yes, Jesse's charming, but he comes on strong and you know you're being charmed. Gabriel was far more subtle and I really thought we were connecting. He'd taken the time to plan a date I'd enjoy based on our conversations. He asked all kinds of questions, and made me feel like I was someone special. It worked so well that I was let down when he suggested ending the date after two hours." I sigh. "I even liked the stupid nickname he gave me. How pathetic is that?"
Syd and Zahra both look thunderstruck.
"Keep it short," Zahra says. "Think quality not quantity, and you'll always leave her wanting more."
Syd picks up from there. "Always have a plan," she says. "Putting thought into a date shows you care."
"Listen," Zahra adds. "Ask questions and find common interests."
Stunned, I finish the list. "Identify one unique quality about the girl you like. A nickname will create a connection and make her feel special. Oh my god, it's The Kali Method! Do you guys know what this means?"
"Yeah," Syd says, pointing a pencil at her camera. "You've been seducing yourself."
I cover my face with my hands and groan. "I need a shower."
Pulling a damp wad of paper out of her pocket, she hands it to me, and says, "I found this in the bathroom at my school and figured it might be yours."
It's a copy of The Kali Method: Flirting Made Easy. Only now it's called Flirting for Action. In the top right corner, our Love, Inc. logo has been replaced with a symbol in the shape of a fish.
Promising to give Phil some advice when our work is done, I send her back to the van to collect items we don't even need. When she's gone, I show Syd and Zahra what Phil gave me. "Our Love, Inc. material is circulating for free," I say. The thought makes me feel sick. I spent a lot of time and effort developing that guide. It's not just course material, it's a reflection of who I am. I've only shared it with a few trusted clients, always with the explanation that it's Love, Inc. property. That someone would share our trade secrets is a complete violation.
"This could explain the recent drop in business," I say. After a busy couple of months, May has brought few new clients. Worse, one existing client dumped us with no explanation.
"But why would a client share information she paid good money for?" Syd asks. "It doesn't make sense."
Zahra, as always, puts a positive spin on it. "Someone probably left it behind by accident."
"Not when our company logo's been erased and replaced," I point out. "That's no accident. It looks like someone is stealing our business."
"So you are running a business," Philomena says.
Pushing my hood back, I give her look. "We give advice from time to time. It's more of a community service."
"Hi Dieter," Zahra says, her voice give-away loud.
Tipping back his umbrella, Dieter says, "Why are you here so early, Phil?"
"She's trying to make friends," I say. "So we invited her to hang with us on Saturday."
Dieter's eyebrows rise. We aren't the type of friends he had in mind for his niece.
Syd doesn't look thrilled, either. Saturday is the fundraiser for the veterinary hospital that saved Banksy's life. But I believe in the old saying, Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Helping Philomena is the best way to keep her on our side. And if someone is ripping off our materials and passing them off as their own, we already have a big enough enemy.
© Yvonne Collins & Sandy Rideout