4. Trust but Verify
Dom handed over a cup of hot coffee that he had brought with him from the diner. “Morning, Jim.” Dom had heard Jim’s tow truck pull into the driveway of the garage when he was still in the kitchen talking with Mia, and just grabbed a coffee for him as well.
Jim accepted the cup silently, took a pull of his coffee, and then went about lowering the wreck that he had brought in with him, the hard muscles of his arms corded and wiry but lacking none of their strength, despite his age. He leaned against the side of his battered tow truck, thanked Dom monosyllabically and slowly drank his coffee.
When Dom had first bought the garage, he hadn’t intended to hire anyone, and he hadn’t. Jim Carpenter had just arrived one day; there was a problem with his tow truck, and he didn’t have access to a lift to fix it himself. Dom had been uneasy about the arrangement at first, but he wasn’t about to throw a fifty year old man out on his ear. Jim had paid him out of his own pocket, pulling singles out of an ancient leather wallet and putting them down on the hood of Dom’s car. He hadn’t asked anything of Dom other than lift time; he hadn’t even asked for tools, but brought his own.
He hadn’t come back to the garage for a while, but he returned regularly to the diner. Apparently, he had been a regular there for years, and didn’t stop just because the owners had changed. When Mia had taken over the diner, she inherited Jim as a regular, to the point where it felt odd if the old man wasn’t at the garage nearly every day.
Jim spoke slowly and with precision, a lazy drawl hiding a voice like iron that made you listen, even if you had to wait until he was done. He never rushed anything, and never did anything in a hurry. Dom had come to appreciate that around the garage, and without anyone being asked, without any offer being made, Jim became a regular around the garage as well.
“Mornin’. The sign’s gone next door.” The real estate agent had taken the sign down on the afternoon that Amber had moved in. It had been there the entire time that Dom had owned the garage and had gotten to the point that he hardly even saw the battered for sale sign any more.
Dom nodded and walked back to look over the wreck that Jim had brought in; it was going to need a lot of work, but Dom knew that Jim would have looked over the engine and the body, and that they would both be sound, even if very little else was. He had an eye for those sorts of details.
“New owner moved in last night.” Dom, having spent so much time around Jim, couldn’t help but speak in the older man’s clipped, sparse sentences. It wasn’t mimicry; they had just come to know each other so well that long conversations weren’t necessary, so they spoke in the shorthand of male friends that had known each other all their lives.
Jim’s grey eyes narrowed as he looked back at the house, as though he could see the intent of the occupants by glaring alone. Dom had told him about his legal problems when the feds had started to send him ‘mechanics’; he didn’t want the old man getting in over his head or getting hassled. Dom wouldn’t have held it against him if Jim left and had in fact expected him to do just that. But he hadn’t. Dom had never asked why he hadn’t; it was simply accepted.
“Has he made a move yet?” Jim swallowed the last of his coffee in one draught, straightening and pulling away from the side of the truck. If Dom was about to march up to the house and kick the door in, he knew that Jim would be right there with him and, old man or not, he would take the boots to anyone they found inside if that’s what was called for.
“She.” Dom broke into a grin at the surprised look on Jim’s face; that hadn’t been expected.
Jim knew about the women that the feds had sent as well; he had even warned Dom about a few of them. “Fuckers are playin’ hardball, moving one in right next door.” Breaking into a grin, Jim slapped Dom’s back as he passed. “But maybe whoever it is will be so tied up in a catfight with Heather that you get left alone for a spell.”
Resting his elbows on the truck, Dom looked across at the house, thinking about Amber. “I don’t know about this one, Jim. It doesn’t feel like the others, and Mia doesn’t think so either.” Dom avoided talking about Heather, which wasn’t lost on Jim.
That held a lot of weight with Jim; he treated Mia like a daughter and Dom couldn’t miss the smile at the sound of his sister’s name. “Mia thinks so too?”
Dom filled Jim in on meeting Amber, if briefly, and what little he had found out about her. And what Mia thought of it all. Jim, true to form, listened in silence, taking it all in. He would mull it over, and come to a decision about it in his own good time.
They both tore their eyes away from the house next door at the crunch of gravel. “Right on time,” Jim muttered as he pulled away from the side of the tow truck.
It wasn’t necessary to check the time, but Dom glanced down at his watch anyway. Nine o’clock, right on the nose. “Even keeps a fed’s hours.” Neither Dom nor Jim went out of their way to greet the newcomer, a young dark-haired man dressed casually in jeans and a tee shirt, as he got out of his truck and walked over to look at the wreck that Jim had brought in.
Eddie Masters was the last of the ‘mechanics’ that the feds had sent. It was the last only because Dom had gotten fed up with finding out that whoever was sent turned out to be a fed. That usually took less than an hour. Not that it mattered, because another was always sent, and another. Dom knew that if he got rid of Eddie, they would just send someone else, probably someone even worse. So he had opted to keep Eddie around.
The kid looked so clean cut that, even if Dom didn’t have trouble with feds trying to set him up, he would have pegged Eddie as some sort of government. It didn’t matter that Eddie dressed in dirty jeans and ratty tee shirts; it always came off as some sort of prop that he put on in the morning. He was just too clean.
At least he knew his way around an engine, which was probably the only reason that the feds had sent him on this assignment in the first place. That, and he was young and ambitious. Overly ambitious. Dom could never be sure if Eddie was sent partly to get him out of the hair of a more senior agent. Not that it mattered too much.
Dom had learned a lot, both as a matter of time, and as a matter of survival in prison, and had chosen to do what he could with the situation. Through Eddie, he managed to keep a pretty good eye on what the agents had in store for him next. If Eddie came to the garage in a good mood, Dom knew to keep a sharp watch out for whatever might be coming down the pike.
Eddie had nearly bounced out of the cab of his truck, beaming, clapping his hands together as he walked up to Jim and Dom, oblivious to their cold eyes. “So, the house next door got sold.”
Dom looked up, crossed his arms and hummed out a noncommittal answer. He didn’t like the smug, satisfied look on Eddie’s face, not one bit, and didn’t need to look over at Jim to know that he felt the same.
Everything Eddie said came out as a dare, as a shove, like he couldn’t help but push you to see what you would do. In the beginning, Eddie had managed to push nearly every one of Dom’s buttons. It had almost come to bloodshed, until Jim had come between them and, with a strength that surprised Dom a little, pulled Dom out into the dry scrub behind the garage.
Where he told Dom to smarten the hell up before he walked right into a set up. What couldn’t be achieved by framing him up on a street racing charge could just as easily be done through an assault on a federal agent charge. Since then, Dom had stayed ice cold where Eddie was concerned, and he watched the kid like a hawk.
Eddie walked towards the ‘fence’ that separated the garage’s property from the house, and Dom felt his hackles rise as Eddie got closer to the house, peering shamelessly in through Amber’s windows.
Eddie turned and his steps faltered, as Dom came up behind him, Jim a step behind, tugging on Dom’s elbow. Eddie’s grin widened a little, and he pushed a little more. Turning back to look directly through Amber’s bedroom window, he asked Dom, “Have you met her yet?” Eddie had spotted the lamp, with its telltale pink scarf and so knew that the new neighbor was a woman.
Dom bit his lip, hard; his hands in tight fists briefly before he forced himself to relax. He still didn’t know anything at all about Amber. For all he knew, Amber and Eddie were in on the surveillance of his garage together, and this was just one more way to fuck with him.
That didn’t have the ring of truth to Dom, but it did cool his anger considerably. What had really pissed him off about the idea of Eddie having anything to do with Amber was that Amber was likely to get hurt in the mess. That, and he didn’t really want Eddie, or maybe some fed, calling up Amber one day and making her afraid of him.
The idea that the feds might start watching her too didn’t sit right with him either, and Dom hissed a breath out through his nose, thinking that he might have to sit down and talk to Amber much as he had with Jim. It wasn’t something he looked forward to.
Jim squeezed his arm hard and then let go, once he realized that Dom probably wasn’t going to beat the hell out of Eddie. The tension was so thick in the early morning air that it could be cut. Eddie’s smile grew a little wider. Anyone else would have looked at that boyish face, tousled brown hair and blue eyes and thought of innocent, good-natured and wholesome, but to Dom, it was like looking at a reptile with nothing but time to wait.
Eddie let out a fake-sincere laugh and Dom turned away, back towards the garage, not wanting to hear anything else that Eddie was going to add. Not that it stopped Eddie, who followed behind and continued to push what he had correctly perceived as a weakness. Dom could have kicked himself for allowing that anger to show.
Seemingly changing directions, Eddie continued to push against the sore spot that he had discovered. He hated the assignment, and wanted it over, the sooner the better. There was no doubt that Dom knew that he was an agent, but his bosses insisted that he stay. And push. So he did. “That’ll be sweet, then you’ll have someone right next door for the days Heather has off.”
Dom’s vision went red but he wouldn’t show it outwardly. Heather had been a mistake, he knew that now. He knew it then too, but at the time, he didn’t care; his cock was doing the thinking, it usually did around her. Heather was a tall, brassy blonde with curves in all the places that spoke to a man. Dom hadn’t exactly regretted the decision, and he had, all at the same time. It was just so easy, maybe because she was right there, or maybe because, after prison, he hadn’t been with a woman in a while, and didn’t care to be choosy.
Or particularly discreet. Discretion hadn’t been one of his virtues in the past, but he was starting to wish that it was now. It bothered him now that he was older, and what he would have blown off when he was younger was coming back to bite him in the ass.
“Thinking about that, I’m going for a quick cup of coffee, start without me.” Eddie waved and casually walked towards the front of the diner, apparently without a care in the world.
“Don’t let it show, son.” Jim spoke quietly, but Dom heard him clearly anyway; the authority in that voice was unmistakable. No one else could get away with calling Dom ‘son’ either.
“I really fucked that one up, didn’t I.” Dom ran a hand over his head as he turned back towards Jim, who was setting out some tools and preparing the lift for the wreck that was still out in the yard in front of the garage.
Jim laughed hard enough that Dom caught a glint of gold off his back teeth, but there was no mean in it. “You definitely stepped in it, but with any luck, Eddie’s about to do the same, if he hasn’t already.”
Dom started to laugh, thinking about Eddie with Heather. “She’s gonna eat him alive.”
“We can hope.”
Eddie came back out of the diner with a cup of coffee, his face furrowed in a frown at the sight of the two men laughing hard.
Mia scraped and shut down the grill as the morning rush died down; there wouldn’t be much business until later, when workers would drive out from Desolation and surrounding towns after work. Even then, it would be too hot to eat, so it would be mostly beer that would be sold.
Which meant that she had the time now to look into Amber’s background. Mia had spent the entire morning thinking about Amber, and about why she was hiding. That she was hiding wasn’t in doubt in Mia’s mind; it was clear that she was, or Dom would have easily been able to pull her information off the real estate agent’s files.
There was always the off chance that the reason Dom didn’t find anything was that Amber was yet another in a series of women sent to entrap Dom, and that she didn’t exist in fact anywhere. That was dismissed quickly in Mia’s mind; she knew that anyone they sent would have some sort of a story cooked up to cover any such glaring holes. That was true for Eddie, and it was what had happened with Brian, after all.
Mia went back to the tiny office space in the back of the diner and, like Dom had done earlier, did a little checking into the realtor that had sold the house next door. Not looking to see if she could find anything that Dom may have missed, but just to find an address.
Mia took a last look out into the diner, and waved a quick goodbye to Heather, who barely turned away from the man she was flirting with. Heather had sort of come with the diner when she had taken it over from the previous owners. For the moment, that suited Mia just fine, at least for the meanwhile. She’d fire her, if she could find any other woman that wanted to work all the way out in the middle of nowhere for next to no money but tips.
Which of course had Mia think of Amber, as she fished her keys out of her pocket. That thought was dismissed just as quickly; it was out of the question while Mia and Dom knew next to nothing about her. Heather might be a lot of things but her life was an open book. Very open.
Mia pulled up in front of the tiny office building in the center of town. It was all on one floor and housed everything that passed for business, and law, in Desolation. Mia waved at the sheriff, half-asleep leaning back in his chair, almost a caricature, on her way to a small office near the back.
As Mia had expected, the real estate agent wasn’t in. When Dom had first looked into buying the garage, he had to arrange ahead of time to make an appointment, or drive to Yuma, where the main office was located. There was a secretary however, and this is what Mia had counted on.
The secretary, Marge, a woman who had been out to the diner before, was deeply engrossed in a book when Mia came in, but she was more than glad to drop whatever she was reading, to come talk to Mia up at the counter. The two women greeted each other and chatted back and forth about husbands and children for a few moments, before Mia put the small stack of papers that she had brought with her onto the counter.
Keeping her pen at the ready, Mia began. “What I need, is to get a look at the blueprints for the diner and garage. We were thinking of moving those two old pumps out front, maybe putting them right in front of the diner.”
Marge nodded, picturing it in her head. Mia felt a twinge of guilt at lying to the woman, but hid it behind a smile; no one was going to get hurt, not Marge and definitely not Amber. “That would look really nice in front of the diner, wouldn’t it?” Marge chattered on for a little longer and to her credit, the idea sounded really good by the time she was done.
Which made it easier for Mia to continue; at least now she could say that she really was interested in the idea; she took notes while Marge talked.
Marge’s brow furrowed a little as Mia talked. “Hmmm, I don’t know if the blueprints would show where those old tanks were located or not. Let me see…” Marge sat before her computer terminal and punched a few keys.
Mia kept her smile neutral as she leaned a little over the counter to look at the screen. As it was something they had just been talking about, Marge didn’t feel any trepidation about letting Mia look at what she was working on. The land that the diner, garage and house were on came up, with small inset boxes beneath that could be maximized, showing more information.
Mia wrote something down, scratching out a rough diagram on the back of a piece of paper, drawing a few lines, and then scratching again. “Damn. Could I look at the paper blueprints anyway? I can’t really see it in my head from a computer screen, you know? It’s not the same as the real thing.”
Marge got up and tapped her book. “I know exactly what you mean. If it’s not on paper, I can’t make much sense of it either. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Mia felt almost bad, and swore that she really would look into moving those gas pumps, to appease her conscience if nothing else. When Marge had gone into the tiny storeroom in the back of the office to look for the original blueprints, Mia leaned over the counter and moved the mouse over the small inset box on the right side of the screen, where information for the house was located.
She wasn’t entirely sure that she would find anything at all, and had in fact planned on just asking Marge outright about the new neighbor, but she didn’t have to. There wasn’t much, but there was a name, listed for census purposes, which was all that Mia needed.
Amber Lynn Johnston.
When Marge came back with the blueprints, everything was as it had been. Mia could have left, but she stayed for an extra half hour, looking over the blueprints. She even had the secretary make a quick copy, so that Dom could take a look. Perhaps he and Jim could safely move those antique pumps, once they knew what not to hit. Marge had even given her a list of plants that would bloom, to plant around the pumps.
Mia felt more than a little guilty when she left and sat in her car for a minute. “Dom needs to be sure,” was what she whispered in the still air, to ease her conscience.
Returning to the diner, Mia began a new search on Amber, using her full name, but the only reference to an Amber Lynn Johnston was from around twelve years ago. That struck Mia as being a little odd, and she leaned back away from the computer, thinking about that for a moment.
Working on a hunch, she looked for a marriage date, and came up with Amber Lynn Brightman. It went from bad to worse at that point and, without a second thought, she reached out for the phone by the computer and called Brian.
Copyright © aug 7/2007 xxxevilgrinxxx