8. Hell of a Day
Outside, in the cool night air, Mike coughed; the sudden movement made him feel dizzy. He knew it would pass. He also knew that by tomorrow morning, his head would feel like an overripe tomato, ready to burst his brains out the side at the first move. Knew that, and knew what would come afterwards. Days of guilt, when the thought of drinking again would be almost unbearable. He would make it, or he wouldn’t; Mike wasn’t entirely sure that he cared too much which way that went.
Noise from the bar tinkled and faded in the background as people left and went on to the rest of their lives, such as they were. A woman’s laugh, the sound of a guy getting sick around the corner. Cars pulled out and left in clouds of fine dust until there was no one left and he stood alone in the quiet desert air.
Mike lit up his cigarette, looking down at the solid reality of the ground beneath him, leaning not quite casually against the wooden siding of the bar, for the cab to come. His car was just ahead, under the cold orange glare of a streetlight, but he had called a cab anyway; he’d come back for it in the morning if he was still able to move. Driving drunk didn’t suit him; he’d killed enough people on purpose without doing it by accident.
If he stayed still, he could get past the fuzziness, and the world settled into larger shapes, their edges lining up like the world’s crappiest kaleidoscope. He remembered clearly what had driven him out here, to drown slowly in this shitty dive bar.
Following Amber had been easy, and he had kept an eye on her comings and goings for a few days. He changed his position every day, and had driven past her house late at night when there was no one else on the road. No one spotted him; if Mike knew anything, it was how to be low key.
He couldn’t say why he did it. Why he didn’t hand the information over to Brightman. He could have done that on the first day; he had found Brightman’s wife, knew where she worked, where she lived. That’s what he was supposed to find, what he had been paid to find, but he hadn’t handed it over.
Hadn’t cashed the check either. Not that he hadn’t wanted to, in fact he had thought about that long and hard and even got so far as to stand in front of the bank before he turned around. About how easy it would be to just endorse the back, deposit it, and hand over the information that he had found. Had been paid to find.
Mike doubted that Amber knew anything about the first Mrs. Brightman, a young, pretty brunette woman named Janet Arlington that Brightman married right out of high school. Less than a year later she was gone. Brightman claimed that she had left him one night, and he had no idea where she went, but she hadn’t been seen since. The local authorities had apparently looked into it, which didn’t impress Mike all that much. He doubted that they had looked that hard.
He didn’t have much more than that. A quiet reference deep in Brightman’s past, and that quiet voice in the back of his head that told him when a guy was lying, told when a client wouldn’t pay, or when someone was desperate enough to do something stupid.
Sometimes Mike had listened, and sometimes he hadn’t, but when he ignored that voice, he paid a pretty heavy price for it. A twinge in his shoulder radiated a soft glow of pain, as though to remind him of the consequences of forgetting. He had gotten arrogant, and shut out the voice then, the result was a gunshot wound to the shoulder and a painkiller habit that had been hard to kick.
This time it might not be him that took the hit, if he chose not to listen to that voice. Brightman was dangerous, his concerned husband act to the contrary. So he hadn’t cashed the check, and he hadn’t handed over the information. Brightman’s demands had increased, the act slipping a little with every call.
Getting into the back of the cab when it showed up, Mike pressed his head into the seat, looking out through the window at the desert moonscape floating by. It wasn’t as though Brightman was the first shitheel husband that he had come across, but that missing first wife gnawed at him.
The cabbie dropped him off on the street right outside his office and Mike paid him, turning back to the building. The street was quiet, deserted. Normally, Mike would stagger up the steps and collapse on the couch in his office, whether he had been drinking or not, waking up feeling like death the next day, but that same quiet voice whispered to him.
Something was off. One last sweep of the street to ensure that he was alone and Mike pulled the 9mm from its holster, keeping it low and out of sight. Briefly, he thought that he should just call the cops, but his relations with the men in blue weren’t that great; having them come out and find him drunk outside his building, armed, and it turn out to be nothing was more than his credibility could bear. Such as it was.
The front door wasn’t locked. This in itself wasn’t a big thing; it wasn’t as if he was the only tenant in the office building, although he was pretty sure that he was the only one that slept in his office. Any one of the other tenants could have simply left that night and forgot to lock up as they went home. Sure, he guessed it was possible. Didn’t believe it though.
His office was the one on the end. Everyone else had gone home; the building should be empty, but he didn’t think it was. It was a little too late to regret getting drunk, and too late to creep back down the hallway and call the cops.
There was no light on in his office and the door was slightly ajar, resting just against the deadbolt. He moved on instinct, but it was dulled, like moving through deep water. Toeing the door open, he dropped a little and edged forward into the room, sweeping to either side.
There was a dull, purple-tinged flare of pain at the back of his head. It should have put him out cold immediately, it probably did, but it felt like forever as he sank to the floor and his world went black.
Amber blinked back furious tears as she pulled into her driveway, her vision fracturing and blurring before she could angrily swipe at her tears. She didn’t dare pull up into the carport; she could hardly see straight. Getting home was hard enough, wiping out a part of her new house would just put a cherry on top of the day.
“Damn it!” Slamming her fist against the steering wheel, she yelled in her car until her voice broke, and then she slammed a hand over her mouth before she fell apart. She kept getting pushed right up to the line, and when she thought it couldn’t get any worse, there was another line.
What she had expected, she didn’t know. Her life had settled into a sort of routine over the past couple of days. She went to work. Stephens met her in the carpark and walked her back to her car again when the day was done. A different route home every night; at least as much as she was able, there weren’t many ways for her to get home once she hit the roads to Desolation.
Then she would get changed out of her monkey suit into something comfortable, and set about trying to make her house a home, her home. Again she was thankful that she didn’t have much furniture to push around; that got done pretty quickly. Unpacking. Hanging a few pictures. Putting things away where she liked them.
At night she lay in silence, grown accustomed to the sounds of the house, of the desert beyond. Instead she listened for other sounds, sounds that didn’t fit in. Occasionally a car would go by; its headlight beams tracing a pool of light out of place in the dark of the desert, and then it would be gone. She never went back to sleep until she was sure that it was gone.
Some mornings she would wake up to find that she had slept with the baseball bat in her bed, still clutched in her hands like some demented version of a teddy bear. The red bow started to look a little ragged, but Amber left it on. The whimsy of it appealed to a small part inside her that she thought was all but gone.
Dom would wave to her at night, from his bedroom to hers. It was offhand and casual but it still made her breath catch a little when he did it, because he did it every night, without fail. Stephens had asked if she had anyone nearby, in case she needed help, and she had told him about Dom. But she hadn’t mentioned that, about the window. A lot of people would probably find that creepy, having some guy watch them that way. It didn’t feel creepy to her though; it felt completely genuine.
This morning had been no different. She woke and got ready for work, moving the bat to its place right beside her bed. Waving to Mia as she unlocked the diner, before she drove on to work. Meeting Stephens. Her day flew by.
That was when it had all gone to hell. Rather than meeting her downstairs after work, Stephens had come up to her office and he looked upset. Head down, he had walked her back down the hall towards the building’s security center. The last time that she had been there was when she had gone through her third and final interview for the position. Security clearances had been all that was left.
Stephens had stopped right before he opened the door to a small, glass-enclosed office. “I’m sorry, Amber. I want you to know, I don’t buy this at all. I just can’t do anything about it. You still have my cell phone number?”
Dom stepped out of the shadows of the garage; he had spotted Amber’s car pull in and noted that she hadn’t pulled up, but stayed out in the middle of her driveway. Yelling in her car about something. Mia came down the steps from the diner, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. Mia looked back at Dom, and then quickly crossed the driveway to stand beside Amber’s window, Dom not that far behind.
Amber braced her arms against the steering wheel again, biting her lip hard, feeling it bleed white beneath the pressure. Blinking her tears back, she took a ragged breath; she had cried enough.
Mia reached out for Amber as she stepped out of her car. “What happened? Dom said that you got followed? Did it happen again? Did you…” Words tumbled out in a flood, only to be cut off when Mia got a good look at Amber’s face. She had seen Amber scared, upset, shy, and demure. She had never seen her angry. Amber’s features pulled down, her lips thinning into a hard line, her jaw set, her brows pulled together. “Amber?”
Amber’s vision blurred again, but she refused to give in, at least not out here in front of everyone. Defiantly, she crossed her arms in front of her chest, fighting the urge to scream; she didn’t know where to start, who to blame. Her voice filled with rage when she finally set eyes on Dom. Near-spitting with a rage she was completely unfamiliar with, Amber took a step towards Dom and shouted up at him. “I lost my job, because of you!”
“What the fuck!?”
Both Mia and Dom burst out at the same time. Normally, when confronted with anger, Amber would have pulled back, to appease and console, to escape, but she was far too angry, she had been pushed too far. Quivering with rage, she took a step towards Dom and glared up at him, holding her tears back with an act of will. “Someone from the FBI contacted my boss, and now my security clearance has been pulled.”
Dom froze, his eyes widening, anger a blood rush in his ears, making Amber’s next words drown in a fog. Mia’s jaw dropped, and she looked from Amber to Dom, and then back at the garage as Jim and Eddie walked out of the shade to see what all the shouting was about.
Amber wasn’t quite done, however. Her voice hitched and she fought for control as she continued, speaking fast to get it all out before she broke. “I thought it was my husband, that he had pulled some stunt, but my boss felt bad, and told me what had happened. He said that an FBI agent was asking all about me, and what I knew about some trucks going missing…” She didn’t get out the rest.
Amber was still furious, but she was confused as well, and frightened, in a way that made her feel sick to her stomach. She had been so furious about losing her job that it had momentarily pushed that fear out of the way. Now it came slamming back, the terror back with it. Dom had loomed over her, his eyes nearly black, and she blinked slowly, thinking that she might faint. Terrified that he might hit her.
“I’ll fuckin’ KILL him!” With that, Dom spun on his heel, back towards the garage. Towards Eddie, who was halfway across the driveway; he didn’t look like he was about to stop either.
“Dom!” Mia screamed as she went after Dom, hanging onto his arm in a futile effort to stop him from reaching Eddie. Amber’s jaw still hung loosely, her eyes huge; she didn’t understand what had just happened. In a second that stretched out for an eternity, she thought that Dom would hit her, but he hadn’t. He had been angry, but not at her; the confusion deepened.
Now Jim had come forward as well, his forearms pressing against Dom’s chest, his boots digging up clouds of dust in the driveway. “Don’t give him what he wants, son.”
Amber took a shaky step forward towards Dom, who pressed forward towards Eddie. Mia and Jim continued to try to stop him, Mia pulling and Jim pushing, both of them trying to talk him out of killing Eddie.
“Do it, Dom.” Eddie pushed back, as he got closer to Dom, trying to escalate the situation even more.
Amber’s eyes darted from Dom to Mia to Jim, and finally to Eddie, the only person that looked happy about what was happening. The muscles of Dom’s bicep jumped against her hand; she had reached to pull him back, without really realizing exactly how she had made it across the yard. She should have run the other way, but her feet had brought her right into the middle of it.
“Dom?” Her voice was so much smaller than the others as she tugged on his arm. “Please, Dom?”
“It wasn’t bad enough to try to set me up, you have to hurt everyone around me?” Dom roared, pressing forward. “Did it ever fuckin’ occur to you that I’m clean?” Mia stumbled and caught her footing as Dom pointed back to where he thought Amber still stood. “What the FUCK did you hope to get out of hurting her?”
Jim now had one hand on Eddie’s chest and, with the other, he tried to hold back Dom. Mia’s feet lifted off the ground as Dom strained forward. Eddie continued to test the limits.
“You know full well what I’m here for. Just looking to get the fucking job done.” Eddie seethed back. In fact, it HAD occurred to Eddie that Dom was clean; he had made that clear to his superiors often enough. He was stuck in the same meat grinder that Dom was. These were the cards that he had to play. And it was hot, and he was tired, and a fight with Dom would put an end to all of this. Dom could be brought in, and he could get out of the desert.
Amber pulled on Dom’s arm, unable to hold her tears back any more, she wanted to run, but couldn’t. She didn’t want him to fight. For her. Because that was what it sounded like, at least from Dom’s part, that he was about to fight for her.
Everything happened at once. Mia let go of Dom, lunging at Eddie, screaming at him. “You son of a bitch!” which quickly became a stream of Spanish curses. Mia’s hand came back and snapped out just as quickly, striking Eddie’s cheek so hard that he spun and staggered back.
Dom strained forward with a roar as Eddie came back with his fists up. “No!” Amber screamed, a sound of despair, a scenario that had played out far too often, only now she had to watch.
Dom was screaming mad by this point and flung his left arm back, sending Amber flying across the driveway. Jim dug the heels of his boots in, his full weight pushing hard against Dom, shouting at Dom to back off.
Eddie put a hand to his cheek and took a step back. Fighting Dom was one thing, that was something he’d wanted for a while, but not like this. “Some other time, Dom. It’s not like you can get rid of me, they’ll send someone worse, we both know it.” Eddie pointed behind Dom, at Amber. “Way to go, hotshot.”
Dom deflated, all the fight gone out of him, when he turned and looked at Amber. “Fuck.” Amber had landed on her left hip, her elbow and knee also taking some of the fall. Gravel had ripped through the sleeve of her blouse and blood spattered across the white fabric, making Dom feel sick to his stomach. Especially after what Brian had told him. The last thing Amber needed was to be hurt. Again.
Dom turned back to Eddie, his jaw muscles working, his voice low and dangerous. “Go home, Eddie. If you’re smart, you’ll find some other fuckin’ way to end your fuckin’ assignment.” With that, Dom pulled Mia out of the way, far more gently than he had with Amber, but with equal authority. Leaving Eddie to Jim. Who hauled back and dropped Eddie to the gravel with a well aimed right to the jaw.
It didn’t matter how many times you had been hurt. It still hurt. Amber’s hip jangled and shouted at her, as she scooted backwards, until she bumped into the side of her car, still parked in the middle of her driveway. Gravel dug in and stung in a broad swatch down the side of her knee and on her elbow, the blood beading up where her skin had been scraped off.
She wanted to run, but wasn’t sure that her legs would hold her, at least not the one that she had landed on. It had all happened so fast. Blinking, and a little confused, she turned towards Mia, who had run up and now knelt at her side, holding her injured arm. Amber just blinked at whatever it was that Mia was saying, not really understanding. Then Mia patted her arm and darted off to the back door of the diner.
Dom swallowed as he stepped forward; he hadn’t intended to hurt her, he hadn’t even known that she was behind him. All he could see was Eddie. It was hard to look at all that blood on a woman and know that it was his fault, that he had pushed her down and hurt her. The frightened look in her eyes nearly killed him.
He crouched down at eye level. “Amber?” Dom moved a little closer, his movements slow; he didn’t want to scare her any more than she already was. Amber pressed back into the car, her eyes darting to the side, looking for escape.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you.” Dom wondered if she had been told that before, and thought that she must have, from the distrustful look that she gave him, her hazel eyes scanning his face for signs of deceit. “It was an accident, I’m sorry.” With every sentence, Dom felt more and more like shit, unable to keep from comparing himself to the man that had hurt her on purpose, probably saying the same shit afterwards that he was saying now.
Dropping his head a little and huffing out a painful sigh, he walked forward on his knees until he was close enough to reach out and touch her face; it was wet, streaked with tears and dirt from her fall. He didn’t know how to make her understand that he hadn’t meant it, or even if it mattered that he hadn’t meant it, when she was already hurt. “I’m…” he huffed again. He could say sorry all night, it would never make him feel better, and he didn’t think it would make Amber feel better either. “I’m not like him, Amber. I’m not.”
Mia came back and sat on Amber’s other side, wrapping a wet cloth around her arm which made Amber wince. “He’s not. He’d never hurt a woman, Amber.”
Amber looked into Mia’s dark brown eyes, and then into Dom’s, and then rested her head back into the side of her car, the weight of her day settling over her. She brought a hand to her face to wipe at the tears, but it had been cut by the gravel as well, and was covered in blood and dirt.
Reaching up to cup her face, Dom wiped her face clean with his thumbs first, before Mia handed him the damp bar cloth that she had brought with her.
“I’m sorry I shouted at you, it’s just…” Amber’s voice broke and her chin dimpled.
Dom cut her off. “It’s been a hell of a fucking day. Probably should have said something sooner about Eddie; warned you…that’s my fault.”
Amber gave him a puzzled look, one that said ‘why?’ without saying anything at all.
“It’s a long story. Eddie’s FBI. It’s something in my past I’m not too proud of.” Dom was bone tired all of a sudden and sighed again. The sound of crunching tires had them all look up, as Eddie pulled out of the driveway.
The dust settled a little, Jim walked across to where the three were crouched by the car and joined them, settling easily onto his haunches. “Don’t think even Eddie wanted that to happen.” It was said simply, an irrefutable fact as obvious as sunrise.
Amber nodded once, her eyes closing again. Sighing, she tried to get up by herself, but didn’t get the chance. Dom gently took one arm and pulled her up, Mia took the other. It was probably just as well, as Amber went over on her heel. Her broken heel. “Oh, that just tops off the whole god damned day.”
Mia let go as Amber bent down and picked up her busted high heel, the broken bit dangling, taunting her. Dom and Jim looked at each other; Jim smirked and stepped back, but Dom wasn’t quite willing to let Amber go just yet.
Amber bent down and took off her good heel, and stood out in the gravel yard in her stocking feet, holding up both shoes. Her arm came back, and she fired the busted shoe as far as she could out into the desert beyond. They all watched it land in a little cloud of dust. The matching shoe followed, not flying as well. It hit the edge of the road and flopped over on its side.
It was so absurd that Mia giggled, jamming a hand over her mouth; giggling didn’t feel right. But it was too late, and Amber giggled as well, a weird, unwitting sound, caught off guard by her own sense of humour. “It’s not like I needed them anymore, right?” She was crying again at the end, crying and laughing at the same time, which went along with the confused way that she felt.
“’Bout that. Mia, you were saying something a little while ago about looking for someone else for the diner.” Jim scuffed his heel against the gravel, sending a small puff of dust into the air. Mia looked at Amber, and then at Dom and at Jim. Amber didn’t know what was going on, and looked from face to face, hoping for an explanation before she settled on Mia again.
Mia ran a hand through her hair, scratching her head. “I…I don’t know if that’s even something you want to do, I mean…” Mia motioned with her free hand to Amber’s not so neat professional black and white skirt and blouse. It lacked some of the effect, because she was dirty, and messy. And now bloody. That, and her shoes were on the other side of the road somewhere. But Amber didn’t really look like the type of person to work in a diner. “I don’t know, is this something you really want to do?”
Amber swallowed past the lump in her throat. She had just been the cause of a near-fight right in the front yard, and now she was being offered a job. Shirley had been furious when she found out what had happened, and raced down through the carpark to stop Amber before she could leave; she had made a few calls. Amber could do some work from home; not for the same company, but work was work. Work was work.
“I don’t know how much good I’ll be, but yeah.” Amber swatted at a tear, her eyes locked on Mia’s. “I’d like that.” The tears fell faster and she got her hand over her mouth to stifle the sob. “I’m a mess, I just…need…”
Mia never let go, just put her arm around Amber’s shoulder and walked towards the diner with her.
Copyright © September 1 2007 xxxevilgrinxxx