Dom raised an eyebrow, the scowl sharpening as he looked over the top of the dull black Chevy. Brian rested his elbows on the roof, handing over the small radio so that Dom could fasten it to his visor. “For what exactly?”
Ducking down to sit on his haunches, Brian wiped a hand over his face, watching as Dom sat in the driver’s seat, adjusting the clip to hold the radio to the visor, running the thin wire down the side of the front windshield. “I didn’t know she was there or I wouldn’t have knocked.”
Dom shot a quick glance at Brian and leaned back against the seat, reaching out to make sure that he could reach the radio. “No way for you to know,” he said simply. “Every other morning it’s been cool.” It had been too, until recently; the women that Dom brought home didn’t spend the night and it was a common occurrence for Brian or Mia to knock on Dom’s door in the morning to wake him if he wasn’t already up.
Looking out across the hood, tapping the dash lazily, Brian spoke without looking over at Dom. “I’m guessing I should maybe knock from now on.”
It was a question and it wasn’t. Even if Mia hadn’t talked almost non-stop about her brother and Amber when she got home, Brian had watched them with his own eyes. Dom was affectionate to Mia, but Brian had never seen him that way with others, with other women. He wasn’t affectionate with Letty, at least as far as Brian could tell. It might have been a different matter in private but somehow Brian doubted it.
It was the little things that always struck Brian. In so many ways Dom was the same as he had ever been, but it was in the small things, the deeper things, that he had changed. Changed was the wrong word as Dom hadn’t really changed, he wasn’t a different man; it was simply that Dom didn’t care who saw the things that he had kept private for so long. Like his clear affection for Amber.
The reticence hadn’t changed however. “Probably be for the best,” was all Dom said, leaning forward, making final adjustments to the equipment.
The truth of it was that Dom didn’t have an easy answer; he and Amber hadn’t exactly talked about sleeping arrangements. Or any sort of arrangements for that matter. What had happened had happened simply, comfortably, and Dom didn’t know where it was going, only that he liked it.
Settling back once more, Dom’s brow furrowed and he rubbed his hands over his eyes. Thinking about whatever sort of relationship he had with Amber would only make leaving even harder. What he wanted to do was get out of the car, slam the door and walk right back into the diner and talk to her.
Not that he was a guy that wanted to sit down and talk about relationships all day long, but it pulled at him all the same. It wasn’t like Heather and it sure as hell wasn’t like Letty. It was in no way casual, like his other relationships with women had been and Dom didn’t know where he stood, where Amber stood, and he really wanted to know. Leaving without knowing felt like running.
Women were one thing; what to do when it really mattered to him was another thing altogether. Sighing, he held the wheel in his hands, white knuckled, and changed the topic. Sort of. “I had something I wanted to ask you.” Succinctly, Dom ran through the conversation that he had with Amber the night before; it had bothered him all night, the idea that she was in some sort of danger that he couldn’t even see. To say nothing of how he was supposed to protect her from them. “So why would the company she works for keep her on?”
Brian listened carefully to all that Dom said, answering after a moment of silence while he processed the answer. “I’d have to say that it’s probably for the same reason I’m a security consultant at a place with heavy FBI ties. I know it doesn’t look like it after I lost my job, but there’s loyalty there too. They would take care of her.”
That didn’t put Dom at ease and he got angry as he spoke, the pitch of his voice falling, deepening where in a lot of people it would have risen. “Taking care of her? They’re keeping her out of loyalty? To who exactly? Her or that fucker Brightman?”
The anger wasn’t lost on Brian, but he wondered what pissed him off more; Dom’s confusion about the intentions of the company Amber worked for, or mention of Amber’s ex-husband. He settled on both. Even in anger, Brian knew that Dom rarely lost his head, so he knew that he would listen to reason.
“They don’t have much reason to be loyal to Brightman, going by everything that’s happened. They got rid of him, cut him loose. They didn’t just fire him, they cut him loose,” Brian stressed.
“That’s no small thing, to be cut off like that,” he continued. “They can say anything they want about you, leave you out in the cold. Say your record is legit instead of something made up to get you in somewhere, and there isn’t a soul to say it isn’t so. And with the people Brightman’s been running with, being cut out of the loop gets real. Fast.”
Brian knew exactly what he was talking about. When he had let Dom go, he had been faced with that; he didn’t think Dom would ever know the depth, the cost, of the freedom he was granted. That it could have cost Brian his life, his freedom.
A hard look and then Dom was out of car, walking up front to lift the hood; he needed to do something other than just talk or he knew that he would hit something. Looking over the engine made it easier to keep his thoughts in order. “You think they’d just kill him?” That didn’t make Dom feel any easier, not while he didn’t know how that would affect Amber.
Leaning against the open door of the car, Brian ‘s head tilted to the side, thinking that maybe Dom got exactly what he had given up if he was thinking the company might kill to clean up its affairs. “I think that’s the plan, yeah. Think about it; they could stop him on this side of the border any time they wanted. They could also keep Amber from getting the numbers on that truck; that’d be even easier. I’d say they’re waiting to see if someone else cleans up the mess for them and giving up the tools to do it. But if they do it, they’ll wait till he gets out of the country; there’s no way they’ll risk it here. They want him dead and don’t care who does it, as long as it doesn’t end up in court.” Both Dom and Brian thought of Vince then.
“Amber’s a loose end too,” Dom muttered, knuckles pressed against the hood after he had slammed it closed.
“I don’t think it works that way.” Brian lacked certainty and Dom picked up on it immediately, glaring across at him. Back where he began, Brian rested his elbows across the roof, looking across at Dom. “There is loyalty here. I think International Trade is protecting Amber because she’s clean. They’re hanging Brightman out to dry because he’s not.”
Quieter, more insistent, he continued. “They’re after Brightman. I don’t think they’re going to hurt her at all; in fact, it looks like they’ve been watching out for her or why would they hire her somewhere else?” Brian wished that he could sound more convincing but the simple fact was that they were both flying blind at this point. All they had was the need to stop the truck before Vince got it out of the country, probably saving his life into the bargain.
“They fired her.” Dom pointed across the hood at Brian, before turning and wiping the grease off his hands.
“FBI fired me too,” Brian shot back, still leaning on the door of Dom’s car. “Right before they hired me back as a consultant.” At Dom’s snort, Brian continued. “It doesn’t matter what it says on the front door, it’s still FBI. It’s no different for Amber; they hired her back at another company, but they’re still watching out for her. That’s how it works.” Usually.
“How’d you think they’d take it if she didn’t work for them anymore.” That Amber didn’t like where she worked was clear but Dom knew that he was crossing a line, one he had no business, no right to cross. Which didn’t stop him.
Depends how clean she is, Brian thought; there was no way that he would say that aloud, not while Dom felt protective and volatile. It wouldn’t help. “The one person that’s a danger to her is on his way to Lakeside, looking for a way out of the country.”
Back in the driver’s seat, Dom fingered the keyring hanging from the ignition, looking back at the diner. The muscles in his jaw and along his forearms worked in frustration and Brian knew that he didn’t want to leave; knew why he needed to stay. “I’m not exactly happy about leaving Mia here either.”
The black look bored a hole right through Brian as Dom turned to glare at him but Brian didn’t drop it, holding Dom’s murderous expression. Calm, cold and familiar; Brian had seen that look on only a few occasions but it froze him every time. “Nothing is going to happen to either one of them, trust me, Dom. This is what I know.”
“You better know,” he ground out. “If anything happens to either one of them,” Dom stopped and sucked in a sharp breath, fighting for control. “If anything happens to either of them…fuck. They’re all I have.”
The emptiness, the hurt in Dom hit Brian hard. Brian loved Mia and had done so since the very beginning; seducing Mia hadn’t been a part of the job, no matter what his superiors thought, and Brian knew what Mia was to Dom, what family was to him. And Dom had just put Amber on the same level as Mia, or damned close to it. As family. As someone that he loved.
“We get this over and done and we’re back here. It’ll be over, for good.” This time, Brian was absolutely certain; it would be over. The FBI wouldn’t be looking at Dom anymore, Brian would pull out all the stops, use every lever to see to it; Dom would finally be left in peace.
“Let’s get this the fuck over with then.” Determination and disgust were evident as Dom gunned the engine. “Have you seen Jim this morning?” Dom had expected to see Jim out in the garage but the old mechanic was nowhere to be found. It unsettled him; like Vince, Leon and Jesse, Jim had become a member of his team. That he didn’t have a team anymore didn’t make a difference.
Standing up suddenly by the open passenger door, Brian looked around the yard one last time, not really expecting to see Jim. Not knowing what he expected to see. Sighing, he turned back to Dom. “Haven’t seen him yet. But if he said he’s in, he’s in.”
It made Brian uneasy as well. The original truck thefts had gone off the way they had because the team knew where everyone was at every second; they didn’t need to worry about when, or if, someone would show up. If they were going to stop the current thefts, they would need at least that level of dedication.
“We meet up with Eddie in Yuma,” Brian added; almost an afterthought as he slammed the Chevy’s heavy door closed. The engine revved sharply and Brian didn’t need to look at Dom’s face to know that he was pissed, but there was nothing to do for it.
Even more than Jim’s absence, Eddie, everything about Eddie, bothered Brian. That Brian had been an FBI agent didn’t mean that he and Eddie were on the same side, just that Brian understood some of Eddie’s methods. Methods and intent were entirely different things however and Brian didn’t know if he’d be worried or relieved if the agent showed up.
Knocking once on the hood of the Chevy, Brian trotted back to his blue Supra and smoothly pulled out into the street. Not needing to look, just knowing that Dom was right on his tail. They both idled on the street outside the diner, looking back at what they were leaving. They didn’t stay long, knowing that if they had, they wouldn’t be able to leave at all.
Brian pulled ahead first, with Dom a car’s length behind, and both continued in silence until they needed gas.
The scent of Dom was still in Amber’s clothes; every once in a while she would stop what she was doing. Eventually Mia came up behind her, laughing quietly. “He got you, didn’t he?”
Paling visibly, Amber turned to face Mia and then turned beet red as the idea of just what had been got floated through her head. Gaping, she put her hands on the counter so that she wouldn’t cover her face with them. “I…yeah,” she laughed, quietly at first. “Yeah, you could definitely say he got me.”
Comfortably, Mia bumped Amber with her hip, making a space and hopping up to sit on the stainless steel counter; Amber joined her. It’s not like they were busy; the last customer had left over half an hour ago. They stayed in the kitchen out of habit and because it made it easier than going out back and dealing with the fact that the men in their lives had gone.
“You got to him too, you know. No one’s ever stayed over before. I’m here first thing in the morning; I’d know. ” Any women that stayed late were gone long before dawn, Mia knew, so Amber would be the first, probably since Letty, that had spent the night with her brother.
They both sat together, their legs swinging lazily against the steel fridges below, quiet and thinking. What Mia had said jumbled up in Amber’s head as she mulled it over. Of course she had no way to know if it was so or not, but it felt right. Nothing in Dom’s room had the look of another woman; it was a completely male room.
When Mia slipped an arm around her waist, Amber rested her head on her shoulder, eyes closed. “You probably don’t need to hear this, considering he’s your brother and all, but I haven’t felt that good in a long time.” Amber could feel Mia’s shoulder shake with quiet laughter against her cheek. Blinking away happy tears, Amber pressed her cheek a little harder. Good was hardly the word for it; she felt fantastic. A little sore but fantastic.
Living in a house with a bunch of mechanics, there wasn’t much that Mia hadn’t heard. That Dom threatened to beat the shit out of Vince or Leon for their language around his little sister at least once or twice a week didn’t hold much water when Dom was far worse than everyone else put together. Worse, and louder. Or at least Letty was louder.
“I’m guessing you didn’t have to hear that,” snorting, Mia dropped her voice to a false rumble in imitation of her brother, “‘I live my life ten seconds at a time’ thing then.”
Amber did cover her face with her hands then, the laughter wild, unexpected, bubbling up out of her at Mia’s hidden meaning. “Don’t think I’d look this dopey eyed if I had.” Both women dissolved into much needed laughter. It hadn’t exactly been tense in the kitchen but Dom, and the fact that Amber had spent the night with him, was a presence.
Not having men to cook for, the meal that they made for themselves was smaller, a shared chicken burger with fries picked out of the bowl from lunch, a couple of beers, sitting out on the small patio under the umbrellas. Amber stared out over the desert, completely content as she listened to Mia tell her about her children and life with Brian. At first Mia hadn’t wanted to; it hadn’t seemed right with the mess that Amber’s marriage had become, but Amber insisted. Something good and normal.
“I need to make some calls, are you going to be okay?” Mia stood and piled the plates together, leaving the bowl of half eaten fries on the table. Still wanting to hug Amber, Mia stood behind Amber’s chair and rested her hands on her shoulders, pleased that Amber didn’t jump.
Tilting her head back, Amber looked up at her and smiled at the upside down face above her. “Yeah, I am,” she said, meaning it. “Just going to sit out here for a little bit. Is it something you needed help with?”
“Call the sitter. Order some stuff. I think I should call Heather and make sure that she’s okay.” Trailing off at the last, Mia felt cold. Heather was a hard person to like and that was putting it kindly but there was a time to put it aside.
“Can’t really make that call when the guys are around.” Taking a last few fries, Amber got out of the chair, waving away Mia’s attempts to get her to sit back down. “I can’t not know and Dom won’t say a thing about her, if she’s okay. I have to know.” A short while ago, Amber would be taking the blame for the attack, feeling responsible. A lot of things had changed, but Amber couldn’t deny that she felt something when she heard about what had happened to Heather. Exhilarated about what Heather had done to Alan, yes, but worried nonetheless; she knew what Alan was capable of.
Of course Mia knew that her brother wasn’t going to talk about Heather; he didn’t often talk about women anyway and Mia couldn’t imagine Dom opening up about Heather of all people. It was cruel but Heather didn’t matter and she definitely didn’t matter the way that Amber mattered. It was sad but it didn’t change that Mia needed to call her, so she knew why Amber needed to know.
Taking a number off the wall by her tiny office, Mia sat out on the back stairs of the diner, punching in Heather’s cell number. When Heather picked up, Mia thought that it was the first time that voice had made her smile. Feeling guilty for the uncharitable thought, Mia jumped ahead to what she wanted to ask. “I just needed to know that you’re okay.”
Caught off guard, Heather stammered; a call from Mia was the last thing that she had expected, especially after everything that had happened. It didn’t melt her heart or make her a better person, just caught her off guard. “Um…yeah. I’m staying with a friend for a few days.” She paused, and awkward silence bled out over the line before she spoke again. “Is Amber okay?”
How sincere the question was was up for debate, but Mia pushed it into the background as she answered, making some stilted small talk with Heather. It was something that even Mia’s pleasant nature couldn’t fix but it was done.
“Thanks for calling me, Mia. I appreciate it,” Heather said quietly at the end, right before she hung up.
Chin on her knees, Amber looked over as Mia clicked the phone closed. “She’s okay?”
“Women like Heather are always okay.” That might not have been charitable either but it didn’t make it any less true. “I’m going to close up tonight; I don’t really like the idea of being here without at least Dom around, at least until this is all over. You’re coming home with me.”
“No, you couldn’t and you won’t. You know what kind of grief Dom would give me? Leaving his girl out here all by herself?”
Blushing at being called Dom’s girl, Amber was at a loss for words.
“Marsha!” Sheriff Hollabird bellowed out into the office but the ringing of the small bell out in the reception area continued. Finally with a hard sigh, he pushed back from his desk, letting his boots slam down hard on the wooden floor. Siesta was a time honored tradition in the desert; that it wasn’t the height of summer didn’t matter, it was a good habit to keep.
A young man in a brown UPS uniform stood at the desk, fanning his face with his hat, a clipboard balanced on top of a box a little over a foot and a half square. Marsha, his secretary, was nowhere to be found. She’s probably asleep too. Hollabird couldn’t blame her; it wasn’t like the station was ever all that busy.
“You know what it is, son?” Hollabird poked the box with the tip of a pen he took from his pocket; he wasn’t expecting a package and there was no such thing as too careful.
The UPS guy pushed the box forward, turning it so that the Sheriff could see the printed address label on the front. “I don’t know, sir. I just get paid to deliver it,” he said without rancor. It was a common question, one he got every day, and his answer never wavered.
“I need you to sign here,” the UPS guy said as he put the clipboard down on the counter, turning that towards the Sheriff.
There were X marks on the sheet where he was to sign but Hollabird took an extra second looking at the form anyway, playing dumb. The package had been sent from El Centro, that much was clear. Taking his time, the Sheriff leaned down and carefully signed, looking around for a stamp the office used for receiving deliveries. “They got you working all day in the heat, son?”
The snort was as well worn as the answer about who had sent the package. “All day, every day. You have a nice day, sir.”
Only when the office was quiet did Hollabird take the package back into his office, setting it down on his desk after pushing everything else aside. When he spotted El Centro on the address label, he thought of Mike Anderson, the private detective and, considering what they had spoken about the first time the detective sat in the Sheriff’s office, that made it serious. Brian Spilner had filled him in when Anderson had left for El Centro. The why as well as the where.
Rummaging through a drawer in his desk, Hollabird pulled out a pair of latex gloves and pulled them on before he took a seat once more. With the tip of his penknife, he cleanly and carefully sliced through the tape on the side of the box. Even in a sleepy Arizona town far away from the rest of the world, it was a serious affair, and Hollabird treated it as such.
Inside was another, smaller, box, swathed in bubble wrap, with an envelope on top. Taking this out first, Hollabird placed the envelope on the desk, handling it just as carefully as he had handled the box. ‘C/O Sheriff Hollabird’ was written in a neat block script that he recognized. Mike Anderson had written down his contact information before he left the office.
Not lifting the inner box out, the Sheriff instead slit two sides of the package, removing the bubble wrap and easing the smaller box out onto the desk. The box inside was about the size of a box for packaging boots, and older, with scuffed dirty sides.
Holding his breath, Hollabird raised the hinged lid with the tip of his penknife, not really expecting it to blow up but you could never be too sure. The breath came out again in a hard sigh as he saw the crusted, dark stained fabric inside. It looked like a woman’s top. The rest was blood., old blood by the look of it. Something was ready to blow up, just not what he had originally thought.
A bloody piece of clothing didn’t account for the weight, or that he had heard something solid knock against the side when he had set it down on his desk. Moving carefully so as not to disturb the evidence, which is quite clearly what it was, Hollabird moved a blood encrusted sleeve out of the way to reveal a cruel looking buck knife. Like the clothing, the blood on the weapon was dry, soaked into the wooden hilt and rusting the blade. It was all that the box contained.
It was going to be a long day.
“Marsha!” he hollered back out into the reception area once more, sharper this time. Marsha was not a gentle woman when she woke, so Hollabird leaned back in his chair to wait. In the meantime he treated the envelope with the same care that he had the box, slitting it open rather than tearing it. It was in all likelihood unnecessary as he knew exactly who had written the note but like so many of the habits that Hollabird had acquired during his life, it was nurtured for a reason. There was playing dumb and then there was being dumb.
Clear and concise, Mike Anderson’s letter was written in the same block script, the style deliberate and dry, laid out like a witness statement. Which is exactly what it was, Hollabird realized; Anderson wasn’t coming back from wherever he had gone and had left this letter, and what evidence that he had, in his stead. “Stupid bastard.”
Dropping the letter on the desk, Hollabird looked up, startled; he hadn’t heard Marsha come into his office. Marsha was, in her own words, a ‘God fearing woman’, and didn’t take kindly to the language. Under normal circumstances he would have apologized but this time he just waved her off before he barked off a string of orders.
It was clearly a very cold case, one that Mike Anderson wasn’t entirely sure had been properly handled by the small town law where Janet Arlington had been killed. It would require some very careful handling given that it was an out of state case. It was going to be a mess. At some point El Centro’s local law would have to be contacted but Hollabird wasn’t about to show his hand so quickly.
There was also a pretty good chance that the FBI field office in San Diego would have to be contacted. Making it even more of a mess, no matter what happened; that was always the way things went when more than one state, more than one agency, was involved. Which is why Hollabird had Marsha take notes, setting out who would get called and in what order. But not yet. At the moment it was still just a cold case, one that no one but a select few had an interest in, and the longer it was kept that way, the more he would have to go on when the time came.
“I need you to sit on that for a bit, no need getting everybody’s feathers all ruffled if this doesn’t pan out.” Marsha nodded as he spoke, her mind already clearing after her short nap. It would pan out, the Sheriff knew; the private eye was too serious, too driven, for it to be anything else. “No need going off half-cocked ’till we know what’s what.”
This time he grinned sheepishly at her hard glare. “Language, language, I know.” Adjusting his holster and taking his hat off his desk, Hollabird got to his feet, closing the box up again and securing it in his office safe. “If I ever do make it into heaven, it’ll be all your doing, Marsha.” That would please her, he knew, placing a kiss on the top of her head as he walked by on his way out of the office.
The air was strange and quiet as Amber walked across the empty driveway. No cars, no customers. No clanging, swearing, talking from the garage. No music. No Dom. Beneath the wide open sky she felt small but not alone and, looking out at the desert beyond, she made her way back from her tiny house towards Mia with couple of things in a bag.
On the back steps of the diner, Mia stood with a hand hooding her eyes, looking out over the horizon with a hard look on her face. Turning, Amber followed as Mia pointed down the road, watching a plume of dust approach.
Copyright © February 2008 xxxevilgrinxxx