3. The Search
Amber took another swig of tequila. She had passed her safe limit several ounces and two stacks of cookies ago. There were no disapproving glares, or other less subtle warnings here, in her own house. If she wanted to get smashed and eat most of a bag of Oreos to herself, that was her choice.
Holding the bottle up one last time, she gave it a wry look, shuddering and putting the cap back on. She would definitely pay for the indulgence the next day but for the moment, she felt great. Better than she had in years, in fact.
Peering down, she spied a couple of stray cookies and fumbled around trying to get them back into the bag. In the end, she settled for cramming two into her mouth, licking the crumbs off her fingers and leaving the cookies where they lay.
Amber locked her door and made her way carefully back to the kitchen. Both cookies and booze went into the fridge. It was only with the fridge door closed that she realized how odd that was, but she wasn’t sure which she should take back out. Her brain had already moved on before she figured it out.
The bedroom called to her; even after nightfall, it was still cooler inside the house, and Amber could just imagine how good her bed would feel after the day that she had. There was of course that dresser sitting out in the hallway. And her lamp. All the things that made the place really hers, that cemented her here in this place, in this house.
It wasn’t a place that she shared with anyone else. It wasn’t somewhere that she had a key to. Without much thought or effort on her part, the house had become hers and she wanted to make her stamp on it.
But first, she had to wrestle with the dresser. Licking her lips, she leaned over the dresser and gave a shove. Before long, she was sweating hard, at first pushing and then pulling the dresser into her bedroom.
There was no nightstand beside her bed so, after taking a rest bent over with her hands on her thighs, she put her back against the dresser and dug in her heels for the final stretch. When it was finally up against the wall, next to her side of the bed, Amber slumped down, her legs out in front of her as she panted and caught her breath. As a secretary, she didn’t have to push things around or carry them, and Alan didn’t like her to go to the gym; something about muscles not being attractive on a woman.
It just fit. “Perfectly.” Maybe a matter of inches between the dresser and the wall, and the same between the dresser and the bed. The tequila definitely made the effort easier; if she had been sober, she would have second-guessed it.
A quick glass of water, and then another, and Amber headed back to the living room for the lamp. Her lamp. The Lamp, capitalized. It was ugly and didn’t fit, but she set it up on her dresser anyway, because she could. Laughing a little, she rummaged around in another box, tossing some clothes on the floor until she found what she needed; a gauzy pink scarf that she draped over the lamp, casting its hard light in a soft pink glow.
Back in her living room, Amber poked at a few large black garbage bags, nudging and pulling until she found the one that contained her bedding. Ignoring the comforter and blankets, she grabbed a couple of sheets and her pillow and made her way back towards the bedroom.
The prospect of sleep added exhaustion to inebriation and she half-staggered down the hall. She lost the fight with the bottom sheet; pulling one elasticized side only tugged it off the opposite side. Leaving it with just three corners made, she tossed the pillow onto the bed and, grabbing a hold of the sheet, Amber flopped down onto the cool mattress, sighing audibly.
“Of course, now I can’t sleep…and I’m still talking to myself.”
Amber’s brain whirred at a million miles a minute, unable to rest despite, or maybe because of, the tequila. She was pretty sure that all the cookies didn’t help either. It was so quiet. No cars. No shouted, drunken conversations out on the streets from people passing by. No neighbor’s television or slammed doors. Nothing.
The wind sighed around the corner of her roof, a small metal rattle. Amber lay stiff and frozen in the middle of her bed, clutching her sheet, listening to sounds that had probably washed over this house from the day it had been built.
Closing her eyes, she just listened, pulling out the sounds of the fridge, the wind across the eaves, the singsong yipping of coyotes that echoed strangely across the desert. She hadn’t been able to get a signal on her cellphone earlier and it lay useless by the side of her bed now. The phone company was supposed to wire up her house tomorrow.
For not the first time that day, she wondered how smart it was to move out into the middle of nowhere. How long would it take to get help if she needed it? Again, she remembered how alone she was, and what a security nightmare her new home was. One rattly lock on the front door. None of the windows had locks. She hadn’t even checked her back door, or even knew if there was one.
“Get a grip of yourself, for crying out loud,” she muttered as she tried to relax, pressing her head back into the pillow.
What was there to do anyway? Stay up all night, terrified, waiting for something to happen? She had left because she was tired of being afraid. Tomorrow would come and she would go back to work. If she couldn’t live here, what was she going to do? Go back? That was unthinkable.
The sound of a door closing next door. She wasn’t entirely alone; there was the mechanic. Amber didn’t know if he, Dom, she reminded herself of his name, stayed overnight at the garage or not. Some of the cars and tools had to be expensive, not that she knew much about things like that. She couldn’t imagine leaving them out in the middle of nowhere alone. Maybe he stayed in the garage; the diner looked a little small.
So she wasn’t entirely alone, it seemed. There was no way to know if he would be any help if she got into trouble, however. He hadn’t seemed all that friendly.
Her breathing had deepened. Just the thought that there was someone next door made her feel a little better. A few minutes later, she was fast asleep.
Dom hunched over the keyboard, waiting for the computer to power up. He remembered once, what felt like a lifetime ago, saying that anything could be found over the internet. It wasn’t an entirely honest statement. Jesse could find anything over the internet; there was nothing he couldn’t get his hands on.
But Dom hadn’t really paid that much attention; it was enough to say what he wanted, sometimes just to leave a scribble of paper taped to the monitor, to have Jesse work his magic.
It was something that he had taken for granted at the time, not realizing the creative leaps of intuition that a decent search entailed. Not that Dom was stupid, far from it. It’s just that he thought in different ways, in a logical pattern. Then again, no one thought like Jesse. There was nothing to be done for it, Jesse was gone forever.
He would have asked Mia, but she had left for home already, so he was on his own with it. As Amber had guessed already, the house was originally attached to the garage’s property, so he started out by looking through his own records, finding the realtor that had originally sold him the garage. It was a leap, but he went with the assumption that maybe the realtor had handled the sale of the house next door as well; it wasn’t like real estate agents were falling all over themselves regarding Desolation property. Maybe it was slim, but he didn’t have much to go on.
Looking out the window, he watched Amber bent over, shoving the dresser across the room. The muscles in his thighs tensed up as the automatic response kicked in; to go help her, before he settled back into the chair again. He didn’t know anything about her, which was the problem.
Looking at the screen again, he felt a little ridiculous. Trying so hard to get a name from a realtor that he wasn’t sure knew anything in the first place, when all he had to do was walk next door and ask her name.
Then again, he wasn’t sure that he was going to get a real name anyway, which was also a big part of the problem. Sure, he could go knock on the door, ask her name, ask all about her. Maybe she would tell him a story, or maybe she wouldn’t. Either way it would be awkward.
The thought tugged at the back of his mind that she was legitimate; after all, she didn’t appear to be anything at all like the others that had been sent. He didn’t want to disrespect her, but he needed to be sure. When he had answers of his own, then he could start to ask her questions, only then would he know if she lied to him.
Across from him, Amber had moved the dresser and left the room, coming back with a lamp, her room softened to a pale pink glow. The screen beeped at him, and Dom focused once more on the task at hand. He punched a few more keys; it wasn’t a difficult system to hack, and Dom had managed to pick up a thing or two while he had watched Jesse working.
“Hmmf, what the fuck?”
While Dom could find his own basic information listed on the realtor’s private files, he could find none for the house next door, other than the date that the sale had occurred. Unlike his own purchase, which had taken a couple of weeks while he had inspectors check out the property, the sale of the house had happened over the space of a single afternoon.
Reaching out, he shut the computer down absently, looking out his window at nothing in particular. The woman next door really hadn’t looked like bait; she hadn’t looked or behaved like the others at all. Nothing about her being there made sense.
He quickly stripped off the rest of his clothes and walked back to the bathroom off the back of the garage. Mia was better at it than he was; he’d have Mia check it out in the morning.
Early the next morning, Dom walked out of the back of the diner with a large cup of steaming coffee in time to see Amber walking out to her car. He had noticed her earlier, as she had stumbled out, most likely hungover, to clear the rest of her stuff out of the car from the move. She had gone back inside, getting changed into simple clothes, a plain black skirt and white blouse like she had worn the day before, and he hadn’t said anything then either.
He turned at the sound of a snort from the back door of the diner. Mia stood there in a neat black apron, her hair up in a knotted horsetail and her arms crossed over her chest. After he had told Mia about the woman that had moved in next door, Mia had wanted to see the woman for herself.
That used to annoy him, but he had to admit that Mia’s instincts regarding women were a lot sharper than his. Not that he was ever going to tell her that, but he didn’t need to; she knew it already.
He had woken up at dawn, when Brian had dropped Mia off at the diner, and went to go talk to her, explaining all his impressions of the woman, and what little he had found out when he had tried to pull up some information about her.
“Why didn’t you just go ask her, Dom?” she had asked as she turned on the grill.
He didn’t say anything, because it was the very question that he had asked the night before, and he still didn’t have an answer for it. At least not one he was happy with. Whatever flattery could be gained from the situation, at being the object of such scrutiny, had gone stale quite some time ago.
The lack of an answer hadn’t fazed his little sister in the least. She stood across the kitchen from him, in a way a perfect mirror of his attitude, her arms crossed over her chest just like his. That deadpan look on her face he recognized as well. If it weren’t so serious, he would have laughed; it was like facing a smaller, feminine version of him, and there was no intimidating Mia with his stoic silence.
He shouldn’t have been surprised. After their dad had died, Dom had gone to work, so that he could raise Mia and keep the family together. Mia had been protected from a lot of things growing up, because of who her brother was, but she had also been exposed to a lot. When he had gone to prison, Mia had been left on her own.
When he had gone in, she was still a young girl, a kid, his little sister. That wasn’t true, of course, but he had kept that illusion alive in his head. It was hard, when he was inside, to picture her with Brian, pregnant, married. She was still his little sister when he had gotten out, that much would never change, but she wasn’t a kid anymore, she wasn’t a little girl.
Dom had a hard time remembering his mom, what she looked like, but when he saw Mia standing across from him, her arms crossed and that ‘look’ on her face, it made him think of his mom.
Mia was practical. “If she’s moved next door, it’s not like she’s going anywhere anytime soon, Dom.”
“What, I should walk next door with a bundt cake or something, like the welcome wagon?”
Mia looked at him coolly, chewing the inside if her lip so that she wouldn’t burst out laughing. It was a hard image to get out of her head, once it was in there. Turning around, she flicked a couple of drops of water on the grill. It gave her an excuse to smile. “It wouldn’t kill you to be pleasant, you said yourself, she’s not like any of the others that have been sent. Has it occurred to you that she might have just bought the house next door and it has nothing to do with you?”
Dom refilled his coffee, turning around as a few regulars made their way into the diner. Mia pulled some eggs and diced peppers out from the refrigerator under the counter, setting them up in easy to reach wells.
“I’ll look into it after the morning rush, Dom,” she turned around to face him again, spatula in hand. “But I’ll tell you right now, this doesn’t feel like the others.”
Dom spotted Heather, a hard-faced, blonde, brassy waitress that he was all too familiar with, and stepped back from the kitchen’s pass through. Which wasn’t lost on Mia either. “Okay, but if she’s here for legitimate reasons, why all the secrecy?”
Mia turned and looked at a small white chit that Heather had clipped up on the wheel by the pass through, and started on the order. Her back again turned to Dom, her features hardened into another expression that Dom would have recognized. “There are a lot of reasons why a woman wouldn’t want people to know where she is, Dom.”
Her voice was harder than Dom had ever heard it before and he regarded her carefully. His first thought was to get angry, and ask who had hurt her, if it was Brian. Except that he knew that Brian wouldn’t dare. Not because he was afraid of Dom, but because he knew that Brian would never hurt Mia. He wondered if someone had hurt Amber.
“You think she’s hiding?”
“Give me until this rush is over, and I’ll look into it. Just try to be nice to her, Dom, at least until you’re sure, okay?”
Dom stepped forward and hugged her quickly, wanting to get out of the kitchen before he got cornered by Heather. “Fair enough.”
“Oh, Dom…” Mia waited until he was almost at the door before she piped up, humor in her voice. “If you do decide to bake a cake…”
It made her smile to hear him laugh; he didn’t do it nearly enough anymore. She returned back to the breakfast, setting the plate up on the pass through and ringing the bell for Heather, her thoughts returning to Amber and why she would be hiding.
Amber was a little nervous as she drove back into the city. Her ex-husband knew where she worked; he knew when she worked, and what routes she took. It was one of the things that Amber hadn’t been able to change. Her stomach clenched at every sleek black car until she thought that she would throw up, but she didn’t dare stop. She didn’t dare roll down her window, and there was no way that she would get out of her car, not until she got to work, where the security guard would greet her at the door.
She hated having people know how bad it had gotten, how afraid she was. There was also the fear that if she told anyone what she intended to do before it was done, that somehow it would get back to Alan. Not that she thought there was anyone in the office that would do that, but the fear and uncertainty was something that she had become so accustomed to; it was hard to stop.
Taking one last look at the people and cars outside of the building, she pulled into the underground car park. This is something that had frightened her the most. Sure, there were cameras and security, but just the idea of being underground, in the dark, scared the hell out of her.
She parked as close as she could to the door that led to the elevators and shut off her engine, keeping her keys clutched in her hand, her heart hammering so loudly that she thought it would burst through her chest. Nearly at a run, she darted through the metal door into the building, pushing it closed behind her, and then down the cold cement corridor and through another set of doors to the main lobby, where she finally let her breath out, trying to still the pounding of her heart.
The security guard came out from behind his desk, his eyes cutting behind her before they swept the rest of the lobby. Amber took a deep breath, feeling a little foolish. She had told the guard about her situation the night before, just before she left work. It had been very awkward for her, and she half expected him to brush her off, or say she was being ridiculous or unreasonable, but he hadn’t.
“You should have called first, Ms. Johnston.”
Amber looked up at him and smiled widely, a little surprised. He hadn’t called her ‘Ms. Brightman’, as he had every other day that she had showed up at work; it felt good to have someone that she knew refer to her by her own name, like a validation of sorts. “I was okay once I was in the building.”
The security guard, Stephens, sharpened his expression a little more. “You don’t look okay.” It was said quietly, but there was a tone that meant business underneath as he continued. “Did you see anything outside, were you followed?”
The concern in his voice scared her a little, because if he was concerned, then she should be, even more than she already was. Seeing her distress, Stephens took a step closer, touching her arm lightly, so that she wouldn’t startle. “Next time, you call me as you’re coming in and a guard will be there to meet you. The same goes for when you leave, okay?”
He waited for her to nod, and then continued, letting her arm go. “Shirley came in just ahead of you; I think she has a present for you.” He grinned as he said it, his attention already turning to other employees coming in through the large glass front doors.
Stephens just nodded and, after a last look at her to make sure she was okay, he headed back towards his desk. “Make sure you get me before you leave, ma’am.” He had said it politely enough, but Amber knew that it was an order. It didn’t make her feel bad in the least, it just made her feel safer.
There was a package on her desk when she reached her office. For a moment, it made her nervous. It was something that Alan was known to do. Send her ‘presents’, or flowers, at work. He always made a public display of it, and made sure that they were put on her desk, displayed prominently.
He did it every time he had hit her. Usually though, he waited until around lunch to have whatever it was delivered, so that it would make a show as it was brought to her office. It should have made her happy, and other secretaries always told her how lucky she was, and what a wonderful husband Alan was.
Amber remembered something that her divorce lawyer had said, when she had mentioned it as an aside. It had nothing to do with remorse, or any notion of kindness. It had everything to do with control. That Amber felt that she couldn’t tell anyone about what her husband did to her proved that out; she didn’t know who would believe her, and she feared that others would side with ‘kind, thoughtful’ Alan.
It wasn’t noon though, and it wasn’t big showy flowers that took up a big chunk of her desk. It was a simple wrapped package that leaned against the side, out of view of most of the rest of the office.
“Well, what are you waitin’ for, sweetheart? Go on an’ open it.”
Amber jumped in fright as Shirley came up behind her, and Shirley’s arm went around her shoulders, squeezing lightly before she sashayed into the office. Shirley was the only woman that Amber would ever use the word ‘sashay’ in regards to, it just seemed to fit her perfectly.
“You… you got me a gift?” Amber was a little confused. She had worked with Shirley, Shirley Dufresne, for about a year, but hadn’t really spoken to the woman. To be honest, Amber felt more than a little intimidated by the older woman and she likely wasn’t the only one.
Shirley was notorious, if even a fraction of the office gossip was to be believed. The redhead was supposed to have been an exotic dancer during the heyday in New Orleans, and she still had that air of sexual power. She had never made mention of her age, but had to be pushing fifty, and still drew every male eye in the office, and more than a few women’s as well.
None of which explained why Shirley had brought her a present, or why she remained, her hip balanced against the edge of Amber’s desk.
“Consider it more of a house-warmin’, sugar. Can’t go movin’ out into a house all your own and not have a little house-warmin’” Shirley’s sexy drawl sweetened the air in the office, and Amber grinned in spite of herself.
Amber crossed the office, picking the package up off the floor and putting it on the desk, tugging on the ribbon. “I…thank you…I didn’t know anyone else knew, I had mentioned it to…”
“…Stephens, I know. And Stephens told me. You looked all rattled when you left here yesterday, and I just had to find out why.”
Amber looked at Shirley again, blinking back tears at the unexpected kind words. She had feared that people would despise her, once they found out, which is why she had only told the security guard, because he was the one person that she knew she had to tell. “Thank you.” Her voice caught at the end.
“You hush right now.” Shirley walked behind Amber and rested her hands on her shoulders, as Amber finished unwrapping her housewarming gift.
“Oh…” Amber’s eyes widened as it became clear what her ‘house-warming’ gift was.
Shirley patted Amber’s shoulder once more, her voice softer as she circled back around the desk towards the door. “What? You didn’t think you were the first woman to get rid of a right asshole, did you? Keep it by the bed, and remember this, honey. If you use it, you just make sure that you nail that son of a bitch inside your house.”
With that, Shirley left her to begin her work. Amber tried, and failed, to blink back her tears, as she picked up the baseball bat that Shirley had given her.
Copyright © july 2007 xxxevilgrinxxx