The guy on the other side of the desk radiated anger. It wasn’t anything new, and the client controlled it well, but Mike Anderson was used to reading people; it’s what he did for a living. Mostly.
“You tell me, Mr. Brightman. Just what exactly do you expect a private detective to do for you?”
It wasn’t that Mike didn’t know exactly why the tightly controlled, angry man on the other side of his desk had sought him out. It was just that things tended to go easier if he had it in the client’s own words. On tape of course, not that the client would know that. If things went wrong, which they sometimes did, it was always good to be able to present a tape in court, for when the clients forgot about the things that they had stood in his tiny downtown office and screamed about. Sometimes they forgot what they hired him for.
Alan Brightman didn’t scream, however. He didn’t yell, didn’t shout. He didn’t even cry, which is what some clients had done. More men than women, Mike observed. Women tended to be more pissed off and wanted to get even when they sat where Brightman sat. Not that men didn’t get pissed off but, at least in Mike’s vast experience, men more often just got broken.
Not all of them, though. Some of them were already broken, but all of the sharp edges stuck out instead of in. Brightman was broken like that. Dangerous, festering with a barely controlled violence just below the surface.
The client’s attempt at a disarming smile didn’t ring true. Brightman leaned in and, in a conspiratorial tone, began a speech that sounded nothing but practiced. Mike wondered how often he had used this same tone, if not the same words.
“I want you to find out where my wife is living. Where she’s working and how she’s doing. Amber’s never really been alone before, and I don’t think she can take care of herself. She’s gullible, and someone will hurt her, one way or another if someone doesn’t keep an eye on her.”
Mike kept his expression deadpan as Brightman went on with his speech. It all sounded very reasonable, but there was still that aura of incredible violence right underneath. There was something just off, like two pieces of something broken that didn’t line up just right. The edges would scrape together, screaming in protest, or there was just that gap. A blank spot where something should have been and wasn’t.
“Her lawyer wouldn’t give me her information, and I can’t seem to get anyone at the place she worked, if she even still works there, to tell me anything about her. No one will tell me a damned thing.”
Mike watched as Brightman sat back, his actions jerky and stiff with restraint; he had nearly bit into his lip at the end. If no one was around, Mike could easily see him screaming and smashing something.
As with the undercurrent of violence, there was an underlying conversation that had very little to do with the words that came out of the client’s mouth. That told Mike far more than anything else could have. Observation. That’s what Mike considered his true skill. Not his willingness to get his hands dirty, or the years of knowledge that had made that possible, but the ability to read that silent dialogue underneath.
Mike would keep those thoughts to himself; the client wasn’t paying good money for some private dick’s observations into his own messed up psyche. But they got filed away, as surely as Mike would drop the tape of the conversation into an envelope and file it away for future reference.
Brightman continued to refer to his ex-wife as his wife. Not past, but current, despite the fact that it was quite clear that he had been divorced, his wife was gone and apparently had gone to some trouble to keep her ex-husband from locating her. There didn’t appear to be any paperwork involved; no restraining orders for example. Then again, that kind of paperwork would require her to have where she lived listed. That was obviously something she had sought to avoid.
Clearly, Brightman had some issues with control, and his wife had committed the cardinal sin, in his mind, of taking that away from him. He was here, in front of him, to try to get that back.
All of these things weren’t really Mike’s problem, however. He was 45, divorced more than a few times over himself, a some-time recovering drug addict and alcoholic with no delusions any more about what the right thing was. The right thing was what got him to tomorrow, and the next day. He hadn’t taken much from those AA meetings, but ‘one day at a time’ worked well for him. Everything else got left behind.
There were very few illusions in Mike’s world. He swiveled in the wooden chair to pull a sheet of paper from the filing cabinet behind him, slapping it on the table in front of Brightman, along with a pen.
Mike leaned back in his chair as the client leaned forward, eying over the short contract, a slip of paper that made no promises, and absolved the detective of any responsibility. If Mike found nothing, it wouldn’t matter. If he found what his client looked for; he wasn’t accountable for his client’s actions.
Brightman signed, eagerly, looking up with a not-smile when he was done. “How soon can I expect to hear back from you, Mr. Anderson?”
He never made promises, ever; life was too unpredictable, and the ones that he had made in his life had always come back to haunt him. Oaths to wives, military and police. Promises didn’t work out too well. So he wouldn’t have promised anyway, but Mike was curious. Brightman needed a nudge, not much of one, but a nudge.
Mike tilted his head to the side, taking in Brightman again, and continuing in the same polite tone as before. “I’ll call you when I’ve found something, Mr. Brightman.” Just a push.
Brightman’s face twisted slightly as he fought for control, fought to keep his expression and his voice even. “I’m paying you very well, I will not…” He stopped here as his fist pounded on the desk, reasserting control. “I don’t want to have my wife out there too long by herself. Without someone watching out for her. A lot could happen.”
Mike stood up behind the desk and walked around, his hand out to shake Brightman’s hand. “I’ll call you when I have what you’re looking for. Until then…” Mike squeezed, his scarred, powerful hand easily swallowing up Brightman’s fist in a not so subtle display of power, as he steered the client towards the door.
He took a few moments after the client had left. Anger still rang off the walls and made it hard to concentrate on the task at hand. Mike half-expected Brightman to rush back into the room, all control stripped away. He waited behind the desk for a short while, within easy reach of the handgun strapped to the underside of his desk for just such an occasion, but the building was silent once more.
Pulling out the pictures that Brightman had given him, and his own notes, Mike arranged them across his desk. A vaguely pretty girl, no knockout, simple and plain. The camera didn’t like her, and she always turned away just enough to show her discomfort at having been caught by its stripping glare.
She looked haunted, her eyes startled and afraid, but her mouth was a hard line of determination. He tapped the last photo, where that determined line had spread to a place between her eyebrows. Less afraid, more angry. It hadn’t been the amenable divorce that Brightman had claimed, although that wasn’t much of a surprise, or it would never have reached him at all. People who parted as ‘friends’ didn’t have need of private detectives.
If Mike was younger, he might have ripped up the sizable cheque, but he didn’t have the luxury of principles anymore. He took the case, but while he was looking into the whereabouts of the former Mrs. Brightman, he intended to keep an eye on the husband as well. That one he would do for free.
Amber felt ridiculous.
During her lunch break, one of the janitors had come by and gotten rid of the box that had contained her present. It wasn’t really a big deal, except that now she had to walk through the building carrying a baseball bat. She wasn’t entirely sure that the red bow on the end put anyone at ease or not, but she couldn’t just leave it in the building.
Stephens grinned when he saw her leave the elevator. She was quite a sight, in her neat black business suit, soft-sided briefcase, swinging a baseball bat in her free hand as though it was the most natural thing in the world. He looked down at the bat in her hand, and back up to her face, catching the corner of her mouth twitch as she tried to fight the smile.
“Shirley?” He held his hand out, guiding Amber towards the corridor that led down to the car park. It had to be Shirley; no one else would have done it.
“Uh huh.” Stephens smiled inwardly at the mirth in her voice; it beat the hell out of her fear that morning. He stayed close to her as he walked her back to her car, in case it returned.
“Thank you, Stephens.” She swallowed against a lump in her throat, as Stephens circled her car, shining his flashlight inside and then over the undercarriage. That was another thing that felt a little ridiculous, except that it wasn’t. It was completely serious, and her hand tightened on the handle of the bat. If not for the last twelve years of her life, it would be ridiculous.
Stephens held his flashlight in the crook of his arm and wrote something down on a slip of paper pulled from his notebook. “I want you to call me when you get home. This is my cell number; I have it with me all the time.” She opened her mouth to protest, to no avail. “Humor me.”
Amber thanked him again and got into the car before she misted up again; this wasn’t what she had expected when she had spoken to Stephens. She hadn’t expected people to understand at all, which is why she had stayed so quiet. Not only about the divorce and the recent developments, but the past twelve years. Waving at Stephens, she pulled out of the car park and made her way back towards Desolation.
The traffic was heavy, as she made her way back through rush hour traffic, thinning as she headed closer to the outskirts, for the road out of town towards Desolation and home. There it was again. Swallowing, her hands became slick on the wheel, as the same dark car moved up behind her again. Not that she could be entirely sure that it was the same car; after all, she wasn’t really paying attention, at least not closely.
It wasn’t Alan’s car, but she supposed that he could get another car. Somehow he had found a way to follow her from work, which shouldn’t have surprised her. Heart pounding in her chest, she was pulled back to the morning run into the building, but this time there would be no security guard to ease her fears.
When she looked again, the black car was gone again, but for some reason this was even more frightening to her. At the next light, she contemplated turning around and going back to the office, and then she caught sight of the baseball bat from the corner of her eye.
In a look that Mike Anderson would have recognized, the lines of her face set in grim determination. The city streets were full of black cars; they doubled and tripled in her fractured vision as tears welled up. Another four black cars went by before the light changed and then she was moving again.
She wouldn’t drive back to the office. If she did, she would just have to leave again at some point, or she would become too afraid to leave, too afraid to move. Fatigue settled over her painfully. She was just so fucking tired.
Cars thinned out as she continued onward, and she swiped angrily at a tear that rolled down her cheek. By the next stoplight, she had pulled the baseball bat, with its ludicrous red bow, into her lap. Strangely enough, it made her feel better, something solid and tangible. No, she wouldn’t turn back, there was no going back.
The road opened up in front of her, disappearing into a small point on the horizon. There were no more stoplights, just a long stretch with the blip of Desolation in the middle, then home. More than anything, she just wanted to be home.
The sky turned that queer warm blue that it only could in the desert, cloudless, with a scattering of stars low against the horizon where it was darkest. Sonoran desert lay in a sienna blanket alongside the road, softened by the falling dark and speed as she drove by until it came a piece of modern art. Two softened lines of ochre and that strange blue. Colors that shouldn’t have belonged together but did.
She should have been paying attention.
It was back. Her heart slammed in her chest and a small, frightened sound fled her throat. The black car was back. There was no traffic now, nothing to make her push her fears into the back of her mind. Too far from the office to turn and run back; even the tiny dot of Desolation was far behind and, to turn back she would have to slow down and turn in the middle of the road, right past the black car.
Jaw clenched so tightly it hurt, she stamped down on the accelerator, obliterating the car behind in a swirl of dust. Briefly. ‘Oh please oh please oh please’ came from thinned lips in a breathless plea; she wasn’t even sure if she said it aloud or if it was only in her head. There was no one there to hear her anyway. No one for miles. No one.
Anger flared briefly; it wasn’t an emotion that she had much experience with, until recently. The divorce lawyer had set her up for a few sessions with a therapist, and she had mentioned something about pushing back, that a point had been reached, and Amber pushed back.
Panting, she sped forward, the black car keeping pace behind. Her shoulders tightened, braced for impact, as the black car swerved out from behind her with a roar and a spattering of road grit along the side of her car. And then it was gone, speeding down the length of road ahead.
If Amber had been watching, she could have watched it wink out of existence, over the horizon. She was too terrified to see anything; her eyes jammed shut, tears streaming down her face in her fright. Gravel crunched underneath as she pulled off the road, fumbling for her cellphone, dropping it once and fumbling on the floor for it.
It rang and rang, as she called the Sheriff. All the while, her hand tightened on the baseball bat. Counting to fifteen, she hung up and called again. An answering machine picked up this time; she didn’t bother to leave a message, just listened to the polite voice on the machine, telling her that the Sheriff knew that her problem was important to him, and that he would get back to her, before clicking the phone shut.
The sky darkened in the time that she remained parked on the side of the road. Slowly she reached down and restarted her car, calmly pulling out onto the road and driving home.
When she pulled into her driveway, she noticed that her mailbox no longer lay in the weeds. At some point while she was gone, someone had come by and righted it. Maybe that was a small thing; it wasn’t as though it was smashed or broken or needed repair. The gesture affected her nonetheless.
Still sitting out in her car, she thought about that, working it out in her head. She remembered getting a Christmas card in July one year, so she didn’t think it was likely that the US Postal Service was in the habit of making repairs.
No one would help her if she needed it, not out here, in the middle of nowhere. Taking her ribbon bedecked baseball bat out of the car with her, she looked over the fence that separated her house from the garage and diner. He scared her, and it scared her to live beside him, uncertain of everything about the man that lived next door. But she was terrified already, what was a little more. At another time, she might have laughed at that, after a fashion.
He scared her, but he was also the closest thing she had to help, if she needed it. Calling the Sheriff had cleared that up for her, crystallizing it into certainty. Letting out a shaky breath, she walked around the fence, towards the dark open doors of the garage.
Standing just outside one of the open bays, she got a little scared and wondered what the hell she thought she was doing. Before she could turn and flee, Dom stepped out of the darkened space behind a pillar, startling her into letting out a short cry which she stifled with a hand over her mouth, realizing that she had brought the ridiculous baseball bat out with her.
Dom didn’t look any friendlier now than he had the first few times that she saw him; if anything, his expression hardened, as he looked from her still tear-streaked face to the bat in her hand. Body language was a wonderful thing; massive arms crossed over his chest, no smile, silent. Waiting for her to get on with it.
Looking down at the ridiculous bat, she looked up at him and gaped, uncertain where to begin, how to explain. And settling for the truth. “House warming gift.” He quirked up an eyebrow at that, but otherwise said nothing, did nothing, just stood there, looking mistrustful and intimidating. She felt like a traveling salesman with a trunkful of vacuum cleaners to sell.
Looking over her shoulder, she licked her bottom lip, tasting salt and damning herself for not going inside to pull herself together first. Except she knew that if she had, then she wouldn’t be here right now.
“Well, I, um…” she stumbled a few more times before taking in a ragged breath and trying to pull herself together. Dom said nothing, but he hadn’t left either, just continued to watch her carefully. A defeated sigh, and then she continued, just wanting to get it out.
“Someone followed me home. Or maybe they didn’t, I don’t really know.” She felt stupid again, it all sounded so stupid when she came out and said it out loud. Looking at her feet, she continued. “I tried to call the Sheriff and got nothing but a busy signal. I wanted, um…”
Her chest hurt, and the exhaustion deepened; her feet hurt, her jaw and shoulders ached with tension. She was just so tired. The loneliest words in the world, when the truth of them hit her fully, and she looked up. If she was going to spill her guts, she would look in that cold expressionless face at least. “I don’t really have anyone else to call, if I need help. Can I call you, if I get into trouble?”
The last came out as a plea, a sound that she hated. A weak sound. But she was weak, that was the problem. Amber looked down again, defeated, and bit her lip hard to keep from crying.
“Come inside, I’ll write the number down for you.” Unceremoniously, he pulled back into the dark of the garage, moving around the hulk of a car towards a counter at the back. It was then that she noticed the two other men there, watching her.
As if she didn’t feel small enough. Alone, with three men in a dark garage in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but a ridiculous baseball bat. Clutching it tightly, she took a step into the garage, her heels clicking on the cement floor, a hollow sound that echoed, making her feel even more self-conscious than she did already.
Two steps in and Dom was back in front of her, a scrap of paper held out in his hand. “Thank you.” A flash of dark brown eyes at the sincerity evident in her voice, and then he was looking away again.
Jerking his thumb over his shoulder, he continued in that deep voice. “Phone’ll ring in the garage, but if you really need help,” he stepped out into the falling dark and she followed behind him to the space between her house and the garage. “My bedroom window is right there, just yell.” He pointed to a dark window on the side of the garage that she had noticed before, right across from her bedroom window.
Her chest felt tight as she turned around to look up at him again. She wanted to say thank you, and she wanted to collapse at his feet in tears. What came out was something in between, and she clapped a hand over her eyes as the tears came, whether she wanted them to or not. She was just so tired. “Thank you.” With that, she spun on her heel and ran.
Dom watched her the entire way, as she nearly fell up her steps, thinking that he probably could have been nicer, that he should have been. She was frightened and hurt, and alone, that much was crystal clear. It wasn’t an act or some play for attention from him. If it was, it was the best that he had ever seen.
He thought of Mia then, on her own, when he was in prison. He wondered if she had ever been that frightened, if she felt that she had no one.
“So that’s the new neighbour.” Jim’s voice pulled Dom out of his thoughts, and he realized that he had stood and watched her house for some time, without really seeing it. He was somewhere else, some when else. Thinking of Mia.
Copyright © august 2007 xxxevilgrinxxx