This wasn’t particularly wise of me, or enlightening, at least as far as I was concerned. But hearing it, Layla exhaled, then leaned her head on my shoulder, closing her eyes. I tried so hard, so often, to say just the right thing, only to come up short. It felt good to get it right for once, even if it was by accident.
* * *
“Okay,” Mac said as I climbed back into the truck. “Work your magic.”
I looked down at the order in my hand. Four fettuccine alfredos, four salads. “Someone’s pretending they’re cooking dinner. Five dollars says they already have serving dishes ready to dump this stuff into.”
“You’re on,” he said, cranking the engine.
Usually, I was confident enough about my predictions that they were accompanied by trash talk. Today, though, I just wasn’t in the mood. Between knowing I’d have to tell Mac (who’d have to tell Eric, who would be crushed) about the studio being a no-go and Layla’s confession earlier (which she’d sworn me to secrecy about), there was a lot I was having to keep in. That this meant holding back from Mac just made it worse.
When the door at the house was answered by a young woman in a dress and pearls and heavy makeup, wearing a shiny diamond ring and a new-looking gold band, I could barely muster a pat on my own back. Even though it was pretty cool.
“Oh, thank goodness,” she said, untying the apron she was wearing, which said KISS THE COOK (still sporting crease marks—its first use, I guessed). “My in-laws will be here in twenty minutes.”
“Enjoy your meal,” I told her, handing off the food. She gave me a grateful look and a big tip before shutting the door.
Mac, who had been watching from the truck, just looked at me as I returned. “Okay, I used to think this was impressive. Now it’s getting sort of creepy.”
I managed a smile as I got in the cab. “Leave me alone. I have few talents.”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s true,” he replied, shifting into reverse. “You manage to get Layla to talk to you.”
I knew he’d been waiting for me to tell him what had upset her at lunch. Because I’d made a promise, though, I only said, “That’s relationship stuff. All girls have a knack for that. It’s part of our genetic code.”
It was obvious I was dodging the issue, but thankfully, he let it go, instead handing over the next order. “Good luck with this. It’s a real doozy.”
I took it, glancing at the ticket. “Two large cheeses, four garlic knots? What’s complicated about that?”
“Read what it says at the bottom.”
“ALLCOUP?” I asked. The word was underlined. Twice. “What does that mean?”
He put on his turn signal, switching lanes as we approached a light. “All coupon. That means they have enough discounts that it’s free.”
“Free?” I looked at the ticket again. “How is that possible?”
“It’s not supposed to be,” he told me. “We run a special on Thursdays. The ad’s supposed to say if you buy a cheese pizza and knots, you get a pizza and order of knots for free. But about a year ago, the copy for the ad got messed up. Badly.”
“Meaning,” he continued, turning onto a side road, “they left off the first part and only printed the second.”
I had to think for a minute. “So it said you could get a large pizza and a side of knots for free? No purchase required?”
That was a lot of dough. Literally and figuratively. “How many were given out?”
“They were sent in the mail,” he replied. “To every listed address in city limits.”
“Oh, my God,” I said. “Your dad must have been freaking.”
“He was.” He sat back, running a hand over the wheel. “Most people would have just copped to the error and not accepted them. But he’s not like that, so he still honors them. Although it makes him really grumpy.”
That explained why the underlining for ALLCOUP was several shades darker than the word above it. “So this has been going on for a year?”
“We don’t get many anymore. But there are a few people who, once they realized the error, made a point of collecting as many as they could get their hands on.”
“And they fit a type,” I said, finally getting it.
He nodded. Then he waited.
I thought for a moment. “They’re smart. Resourceful. Plus, they had time to collect coupons and could keep them organized. That’s a lot to do for free pizza, though, so they’re either broke or young. Most likely both.”
We were approaching a street of apartment complexes now. “Anything else?” Mac asked me.
“Boys,” I told him.
“What’s your reasoning there?”
“I don’t have any. It’s just a hunch.”
My second of the day, so far. But this one I felt less confident about than guessing the source of Layla’s issue. When Mac got out with me, I assumed it was not only because this was an apartment, to which we always went together, but also because he wanted to see me get one wrong for once.
We walked up two flights to a door with music thumping behind it, and he knocked. A moment later it was opened by a skinny guy, a college student most likely, wearing a plaid shirt, jeans, and a headset.
“Seaside Pizza,” Mac said, his voice flat. “You placed an order?”
“We did,” the guy said. He glanced over his shoulder to the room behind him, where I could see two other guys on a couch, also in headsets, video game controllers in their hands. “And what was the total on that?”