18. Someone To Watch Over Me
It wasn’t a smoking room.
Mike reached out and flicked ashes into a heavy diner cup that sat on the cheap pasteboard nightstand between the two beds. The inch or so of cold coffee sizzled briefly when he dropped another butt in. There were at least four of them in there already. He was getting old; every year it got a little harder to sleep rough. That was perhaps an odd realization considering that he slept on a couch in his office.
Outside the single pane window with its hideous orange curtain, the rain fell in a depressing drizzle; it was roughly eight in the morning but it felt a lot later. He wasn’t about to brave the hotel’s diner again, no matter how hungry he was. Somewhere along the way he had developed some standards which surprised him. Better shirts, better food.
Humor was always easy. Not always honest. It was thoughts of Janet Arlington, a young girl barely out of her teen years, that haunted him and made sleep uneasy. Up at dawn, he got cleaned up and laid back on the dubious coverlet, ankles crossed, staring at the watermarks in the ceiling. Even without her picture, Mike could see her face clearly, and he wondered if it was the place, the surroundings. Or if he had just gone soft, maudlin finally, in his old age.
Still, a young woman had died. Not an old soldier or some other fucker that had it coming. Just a young girl desperate to get out of a hopeless situation. Mike had seen enough of the former to be pained by the latter. It was naive to think that some people didn’t deserve to die but it didn’t change what he felt.
Without thought, he had reached the dead end of another cigarette and dropped it into the coffee cup, getting up and swinging his legs over the side of the bed. For lack of sleep, he should have been off his game, but he wasn’t. He felt sharp, possessed of a crystal clarity that he hadn’t felt in a long time. The hunt was on and it felt right. This wasn’t a seedy divorce case. It wasn’t some picayune theft from a company where the amounts didn’t matter in the grander scheme of things. He wasn’t sitting in a hide waiting to put a bullet in some guy’s head either, but the intensity was there. Maybe more so. Because this mattered more, at least to him.
A stale muffin got washed down with a stale cup of coffee while he waited for the local library to open. Drab and utilitarian, the place had the look of a warehouse, a bomb shelter. It wasn’t a surprise to see the small plaque beside the main doors that listed the library as an emergency destination. Inside, it wasn’t much different, a style best described as Late Soviet.
The librarian smiled, but it was distrustful, her eyes flitting uneasily from his face to his white shirt and dark tie, the side of his hip and the dark jacket draped over his arm. Avoiding eye contact. It was something Mike had encountered before; she thought he was a fed. For him it was more a matter of style, but he was willing to use it while it was there.
Keeping his voice pleasant, yet clipped and businesslike, Mike played the part. “Good morning, Ma’am. I’m wondering if you could help me.” Mike waited for the nod, he knew that he was likely to get one of two responses; gushing, or silence. Apparently the librarian had settled for silence. “I need a little help with a case I’m working on. Can you show me where you keep your archived school yearbooks?”
The librarian dipped her head, nodding, bustling forward to comply. She stopped at the end of a dreary corner with grey stacks, as though she feared to follow Mike there. What she thought he might do to her, Mike wasn’t sure but, like her belief that he was a fed, it served its purpose.
Mike waited until she was gone, occasionally looking up to find her watching him; she would hurriedly look away. Looking around, he found a step stool on casters and pulled it close to the stacks; he could be there a while.
There was a small stack of yearbooks on the floor at his feet by the time Mike found what he was looking for. Janet Arlington’s picture had been easier for him to find; the only picture he had of her had come from this very yearbook. She was voted most likely to leave El Centro and go on to bigger and better things. If Mike was younger, he would have laughed at that but it didn’t seem all that funny now.
Balancing the open yearbook across his knee, Mike looked back a couple of years. He went back too far and had to put the books down, going back to look more carefully. Eventually he found it. Brightman’s face was a little thinner, his hair a little longer; it was the eighties after all. The anger in his eyes hadn’t changed though; he could imagine that a young girl might find that attractive, dangerous.
Brightman was a known however. It was Janet that interested him, so he went back to the yearbook where he had found her picture, to look through the names of those that had been in her year. In his coil notebook, he started to write down several names. Gender, clothes, hair color, styles. School never really changed; a series of cliques into which people were sorted. Mike went with those that were dressed similarly to Janet Arlington. After all this time, it was as good a place to start as any.
When he was done, he neatly put the yearbooks back in the exact order that he found them, so that it would be difficult to tell what he had been trying to uncover just by looking at what he had left out. His back popped when he finally stood; he had sat on the stool for nearly an hour.
Directories were on the other side of the library, near the front. The librarian eyed him from her desk but didn’t offer her aid this time. Mike smiled at her nonetheless. Picking up the most recent telephone book, he scanned through, checking the names in his coiled notebook and making more notes. There were three names that matched. He honestly hadn’t expected to find any. Women got married, they moved away. Names changed. It was a crapshoot that never would have played out anywhere except a tiny place that you had to leave when you were young enough to avoid its inevitable gravity. Once a certain amount of time had passed, it became impossible to leave, a point of no return.
Mike wondered if Janet had tried to do that. Tried to leave. Not that Mike really needed to ask. Brightman had hired him to find his wife and later, he had gone on to attack his wife. That it hadn’t gone as planned didn’t change the intention. If Janet tried to leave him, would Brightman kill her for it? Mike believed that’s exactly what happened.
‘Emily Jorgenson’ was the first name on his list. Closing the telephone book, he smoothed his tie as he turned around to face the librarian again. A caught look flitted across her face and she looked away; Mike didn’t mind that she was watching him. He walked across to her desk and politely gestured to a chair that sat in front of it. “May I?” Officiousness paid off but manners never hurt either; it likely fed into the librarian’s image of what he was already.
“Yes, please,” she gestured back at the chair and he sat. “How can I help you?”
Behind her desk, some of her authority was back, but not all, she was still eager to please. And curious about what juicy gossip the federal agent, likely FBI, had come into her library for. “I’m conducting a background check,” Mike placated her, smiling inwardly at the way her eyes lit up with excitement. “Nothing serious, ma’am, it’s just routine, but I was wondering if you could tell me where I would find…” he looked down at his coil notebook, although he certainly didn’t have to. “A Ms. Emily Jorgenson?”
Mike wouldn’t ask her about the other two on his list unless she had no information about the first. If he had to, he would ask Emily about one of the other two women and carry on like that. There was no need.
“Em?” The librarian’s quick genuine smile was ordered into a serious face again, caught off guard by familiarity. Mike put that away for further use. Em Jorgenson it was. “She works down to the diner, by the bus station, what’s the FBI…”
Cutting her off politely, Mike stood and extended his hand to her, which she took. “Thank you for all your help, ma’am.” He wouldn’t say where he worked, that way there was no claim of being something that he wasn’t; people always believed what they wanted to believe.
A diner by the bus station. His belly growled at him; might as well kill two birds with one stone.
Dom really had to take a piss, but he held it. It wasn’t easy though; it was one of those ones that made his gut hurt and he was probably risking his health holding it in. Amber’s bedroom was cooler than his, or her blankets weren’t as warm. It didn’t help that he had spent another night on top of them rather than under them. Something like that, he thought that maybe he’d have to have Jim take a look at the insulation or whatever it was. Jim would know what to do about it.
Shifting slightly, Dom stretched and flexed the arm that he lay on; it had fallen asleep a short while ago. Pins and needles had him tense up, which only intensified the pressure in his low belly. Again he lay still and quiet behind her, his arm across her chest.
“I’m awake.” Amber’s voice rose barely above a whisper and she lay as still as Dom, as if moving would break something.
Exhaling audibly, Dom pressed his forehead against the back of her head. “How long?”
Her head shifted a little as she pulled her head out of the pillow and looked out the window. “Maybe a half hour or so. I didn’t want to…”
“Yeah.” Dom knew why she hadn’t said anything because he had done the same thing. Stayed in bed and held her because he could, because he wanted to. That she wanted the same thing shouldn’t have surprised him. Except that surprise wasn’t the right word for it. It touched him. Of course he’d had women that wanted affection from him, but it wasn’t something he really liked to give. Or maybe it was their wanting it so badly that turned him off the idea. Amber hadn’t made any demands, she hadn’t expected it either. But she did accept it quietly.
“Can’t really stay here all morning.” Amber knew that at some point she would need to get up. Mia would be expecting her and she didn’t look forward to a repeat of yesterday morning, even if she doubted that there would be a repeat.
Dom said nothing, just shook his head no; his nose brushing through her hair as he did so. His belly fluttered at the thought and he pulled back a little, which made Amber sigh softly. Wrapping his arm a little tighter around her chest, Dom pulled her back a little when she made a move to get out of bed and she landed back on the bed with a soft whump.
On her back, she looked up at him, a little startled. A little afraid. Dom held his breath as he watched the storm of differing emotions cross her face. She didn’t move and when she finally took in a shaky breath, she looked up at him. Waiting, for something or nothing, and not sure what she wanted more, or if she wanted anything at all.
It was still hard for him to look at the bruise on her face. The swelling had gone down, but it was still dark; the split in her lip was mostly healed. Where she had fallen back on the bed, her face was mere inches from his and he pulled back a little, braced on the bent elbow that had fallen asleep earlier.
Thinking he was pulling back from her, Amber’s eyelashes fluttered half closed, as she looked down. If she hadn’t been lying on the bed, she would have backed away physically. Dom moved his hand from her waist to the side of her face, not touching her just yet. A breath taken before he threaded his fingers into her hair, skimming over her ear.
Surprised, her eyes shot open, wide and startled again; she didn’t flinch back from the touch, but froze. Dom watched the pulse pound at the side of her neck. Looking at his shoulder and then up at his face, at his eyes and then down again. Getting her attention, Dom tapped her cheekbone with his thumb before he swept it back, to rest at her temple; her pulse pounded there too, quicker.
She had two extremes. When Amber smiled, her face filled with a simple goodness that was infectious. Dom looked down at the other extreme, her expression serious, bright and intelligent; he studied her too. She was nothing like any other woman he had been with, nothing like any other woman he had even wanted to be with. There was nothing frivolous in her face, nothing overtly sensual. Under other circumstances, it never would have interested him. His ego spoke, that she was lucky to have him, but he pushed that back; it was stupid and old and not what he felt at all.
Eyes half closed, he leaned in and kissed her softly, not on the forehead like before but on the lips, mindful of where it was split. It wasn’t a prelude to anything else, just a kiss. Her eyes widened and her lips parted, but it was surprise, not desire. Dom pulled back just enough to break contact, to look at her again.
Subtle changes. Her cheeks flushed a pretty pink and her eyes lightened, the hazel shifting to a green-gold. She didn’t smile or giggle or throw herself at him like another woman might have done, just tilted her head up and kissed him back as softly as he had done with her. It was innocent. Not meaningless, just innocent; he didn’t want to push for something more. Not exactly true; he had a raging hardon to go with his need to pee, but he knew that he wasn’t going to push and that was something.
He pulled his hand back, only to thread it through her hair again, almost regretfully. If he stayed beside her, he would do something stupid to fuck it up. Leaning back down, he kissed her again, not on the mouth but at the hard line between her eyebrows, resting his lips there after. Sighing, he spoke against her skin. “Mornin’. Don’t want to get up but I have to.”
“Yeah, if I don’t get out of this bed, I’m going to explode.” She felt dizzy and light headed, but like Dom, she really needed to pee.
Hugging her tightly for a second, Dom put his head back and laughed hard. “Me first.” He swung his feet over the side and was in the bathroom before Amber had even got out of bed. Sitting to pee, he ran a hand over his face, trying to get his breathing under control.
“Fuck.” Dom muttered under his breath as he sat on his haunches at the side of Amber’s car.
“Is it going to be okay?…” Amber’s voice trailed away, worry as evident in her voice as it was on her face. Amber didn’t know a damned thing about cars, but from the sick sounds that her car had made, she knew that something was terribly wrong. Of all the things that she had tried to plan ahead for, her car wasn’t one of them. It was a good car for her, reliable to a fault. This was the first time that anything had ever gone wrong.
Dropping his hand, Dom ran his fingertips through the course grains right below the gas cap. They had soaked up some of the moisture in the air but there was no mistaking what it was. Sugar. If not for the carport, it would have washed away in the rain. Dom knew that he would have found the cause quickly anyway, but finding the sugar just made it easier.
There was no way to know if the sugar was the end of it though and he didn’t want to give Amber more to panic about by looking under her car. By explaining why he was doing it. To see if any of her lines were cut. Except that he didn’t need to look under her car and give her something to panic about; he could simply look at the surveillance footage; the hidden cameras would have captured everything that went on in Amber’s carport.
His knuckles clenched and bled white but he hid the anger well. It pissed him off that someone had gotten that close to them while they had slept. Scuffing the sugar with the sole of his boot, kicking it under the car, he stood and leaned against the side of her car, looking at her across the roof.
“It’s probably nothing much. I can run you into town to drop the stuff off, if you’d like.” He had started out pissed off, but it surprised him just how much he wanted her to say yes, that he’d like to take her. That he would have asked her even if no one had sugared her car.
Not all the work that Amber did online for the company Shirley had set her up with could be sent in over the internet; some of it had to be packaged into sealed envelopes and brought to the offices of Cowling, Rowland and Howe, in Yuma. She had hoped to drop them off and get back before Mia arrived at the diner but it was too late for that now, as Brian’s car pulled in. “Probably have to wait till after lunch though.”
Looking out as Mia leaned over and kissed Brian, Amber felt self-conscious. “I don’t want you….”
Dom leaned across the roof and touched Amber’s hands with his fingertips, getting her attention. “If it was a problem, I’d never have asked. Just got to wait till after lunch.” Dom looked back out at Brian, hoping to catch his eyes, with no luck. “Just wait here for a second, okay?”
With that, Dom stepped away from the side of Amber’s car, wanting to run but still not wanting to scare her. He settled for long strides that quickly closed the distance, knocking on the hood of the car to get Brian’s full attention.
“Is everything…oh…” Mia got one look at Dom’s face and lost whatever words she had. It wasn’t often that that happened but Dom was in no mood to enjoy it. Brian got out of the driver’s side and took one look at Dom, slamming the car door closed without a word.
His expression grim, Dom held Mia by the arm so that she would have to look at him and see how serious he was. “Just take her inside, okay?” That Mia wasn’t to scare Amber any further went unspoken.
It was a little late, Amber had picked up on the tension. It was one of the things that had kept her alive for years and she knew instinctively that something was wrong. Dom leaned across the hood of Brian’s car and whispered something to him, as Mia walked across the driveway towards her.
“Mia? Please, what’s wrong?” Amber pushed back the quiet voice in her head, the traitorous voice in her head, that insisted that she had done something wrong.
“Oh, it’s…” Mia felt like an asshole the moment that she started. It wasn’t hard to see how frightened Amber was, that she had no idea what was going on. It didn’t mean that she didn’t suspect that something pretty serious had happened. Given Amber’s history, it wasn’t all that difficult to put together that Amber felt she was at the bottom of it. That she would blame herself.
Mia stepped closer and slipped her arm around Amber’s waist, much as she liked to do with Dom, and guided her away from the side of her car in the direction of the diner. Amber was tense and uneasy but went with Mia anyway. Only when the door at the back of the diner was closed did Mia let Amber go and the two women faced each other in the back hallway.
Amber’s anxiety had only increased, certain that something was really seriously wrong but that she might also be the cause. “If something’s wrong…”
“They haven’t told me what’s wrong, but yeah, it has to be something.” Dom would likely be pissed at her for saying it but Mia was more concerned about Amber being hurt than her being scared. She was already scared and treating her like she was stupid into the bargain wouldn’t help matters any.
Her mouth open to say something, Amber turned towards the back door of the diner and deflated; she hadn’t the slightest idea where she would begin anyway. Letting out a sigh, she turned back to Mia. “You know, they could tell me in detail everything that was wrong with my car and I’d have no idea what they were talking about anyway.”
It was uncharitable, but Mia was relieved to learn that it was just a car problem; she had thought for a moment that her brother had done something stupid to hurt Amber. She knew that it was unkind, but she didn’t feel guilty for thinking it.
“What happened to your car?” Mia wanted to ask where Amber had to go as well, but didn’t want to badger her. It was hard for Amber to describe what had happened, but Mia listened to everything that Amber said, nodding as understanding dawned. There was no way that Mia could spend so much time around her brother and his friends without picking up a thing or two about the cars. And she was her father’s daughter as well; cars ran in her blood as much as Dom’s. Sugar in the gas tank, and Dom hadn’t told Amber; there had to be a reason for that.
“I need to ask a favor of you.” Mia knew that Dom would tell her what was going on. Eventually. But he had to have a really good reason to keep it quiet. She waited until Amber nodded, and then continued. “Dom’s got to have a good reason to stay quiet on this.”
“Because he’s worried about me.” Amber interjected quietly. Not mad, but worried.
Leaning backwards against the wall, Mia gave her a closed mouth smile, exhaling sharply through her nose; her bad temper wouldn’t help. “Might as well start breakfast. Dom’s a sucker for french toast, but you didn’t hear that from me.”
“Think it’ll get him to talk?” Amber followed Mia down the corridor to the kitchen, pulling a clean apron from the hook and pulling it over her head.
Mia just grinned back at her. “Every time.”
“There was sugar underneath her gas cap,” was the only explanation Dom gave as he walked back to the garage, Brian a step behind the entire way.
Brian thought of Alan Brightman the moment that Dom said it. “You think it’s…”
“Don’t know, but the cameras should clear that up.” The sugar in the gas tank was pretty cut and dried, but it was learning about anything else that might have been done at the same time that really interested Dom.
There was only one chair in Dom’s room. Throwing the clothes on the bed, he pulled it to the table in front of the window and booted up the computer. Brian took a seat on the edge of Dom’s bed and leaned in, watching over Dom’s shoulder.
A few seconds later, Dom accessed the feed from the two security cameras that had begun recording the moment they had detected motion. First in the driveway and then in Amber’s carport. They both watched as the car coasted to a stop just inside the driveway, its lights off. Watched as someone crept across the driveway. Features couldn’t be picked out on the first camera, but were clearly picked up by the second.
“Fucking bitch!” Dom ground out in a hoarse whisper, his knuckles white, as the second camera in the carport made identification easier. Heather.
The chair in Dom’s room took more abuse as it was kicked across the room for the second time in less than a week, as Dom got to his feet and walked away from the computer screen. “Easy.” It was half-hearted. Brian watched as Dom rubbed his hands over his face before he laced them behind his head, starting to pace angrily across the room.
Brian crossed the room to retrieve the chair, keeping an eye on Dom as he crossed back and sat in front of the computer. At least Dom hadn’t stormed out of the room, to hunt down Heather and confront her. Which is why Brian’s ‘easy’ was half-hearted. Dom was pissed off, but he hadn’t lost it yet; it was another of those things that had changed after Dom came out of prison the second time.
Other than the sugar in the gas tank, it didn’t look like Heather had done anything else to Amber’s car; Brian had rerun that section of the tape several times to be sure. At some point, Dom stopped his pacing and came to stand behind Brian’s chair, watching as Brian tried to enhance the footage of the car that had pulled into the driveway.
Considering Heather, it could be any guy that dropped her off so that she could engage in a little vandalism, but the whole thing just sat in Brian’s gut like a rock.
“I fucking might have guessed.” Dom spat out as he leaned over Brian’s shoulder to get a closer look at the screen. The footage wasn’t clear at that distance, but as Heather got back into the car afterwards, the driver turned towards her. For less than a second, Brightman’s face appeared on the screen. Not clearly, nothing that would hold up in any court anywhere, but enough for Dom to be sure. The moment he had seen them both in the yard at the same time, he had known there was something wrong.
“Not much we can do about it.” Brian saved the footage anyway, not that he thought it was any use. It was habit more than anything else.
“Nothing legal anyway.”
“Dom…” Brian warned.
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Dom brushed it off; he knew it was just talk the moment that he had said it. He was over a barrel; the Sheriff, with Eddie’s pushing, was willing to overlook the assault on Brightman. There was absolutely no guarantee that he wouldn’t end up arrested if there was a repeat performance. “Fuck.”
Dom knew that he wasn’t responsible for the Brightman mess; Brightman might have done it even if Dom hadn’t beat the hell out of him, but Heather was all his. Dom knew that part was his responsibility; that Heather had chosen to take it out on Amber instead of him didn’t change it. Heather wouldn’t have done anything if he hadn’t have fucked up the situation.
Brian had turned the chair around, facing Dom, who had started to pace again. Five long strides in one direction, pivot, five strides in the opposite direction. The room was a little bigger but from the distance, Brian could easily picture Dom doing the exact same thing in prison. The span of a prison cell. “That’s not all, we’ve got something else we need to get out.”
“That shit with the trucks, yeah, I know.” Dom hadn’t forgotten about that either. He stopped pacing and sat on the edge of the bed, a hand running absently over his stubble. It was a nervous habit, Brian knew, something he only did when something was really bothering him. “I’ve been thinking about that. It has to be Vince.”
Brian nodded; he had also fleetingly though of Letty, but kept that to himself. Vince was more than capable of pulling off the heists, but Brian wasn’t sure that he had enough venom in him, if he hated Dom enough, to have implicated Dom in the heists by imitating so many traits from the first jobs. He wasn’t sure how Dom would take it either, if Dom would believe it if he said it. “You can’t contact him, you know that.”
That had been one of the things that Dom had agreed to in order to get parole, so he knew; it didn’t make it any easier, and it couldn’t make him like it. “He’s going to get nailed, do hard time. ‘Specially if he’s stealing what you think he’s stealing.”
Brian looked up but Dom wouldn’t hold eye contact If Vince got caught with dual-use weaponry, that would be bad enough. If he got caught taking it across an international border and selling it, he was done for. “Leave it to me.” It was out of Brian’s mouth before he had much time to think about it.
It didn’t sit too well with Dom. Vince had been his friend, his family, for a hell of a long time. The thefts were bad enough but smuggling weapons out of the country was a whole other matter. In simpler times, Dom would have kicked the shit out of the man he he had looked to as a brother and told him to smarten up. Vince would have dropped whatever he was doing. Things weren’t that simple anymore, and they weren’t kids. Spinning on his heel, Dom slammed open the door before he stalked out into the yard. “Fine.”
Brian knew that it wasn’t fine, but he also knew that there wasn’t a hell of a lot he could do about it.
Copyright © December 2007 xxxevilgrinxxx