13.Time to Talk
Sheriff Hollabird hummed a little, thumbs jammed into well-worn belt loops, working the minted toothpick absently from one side of his mouth to the other. Bad pennies kept turning up, and he had no doubt that the crunch of gravel outside was more of the same.
Mr. Alan Brightman had been nothing but trouble since he had shown up. Brightman. The man had mentioned lawyer and lawsuits from the minute he had walked into the station that morning. Hollabird assumed that if he was some big city Sheriff, that that would be some sort of a threat. It hadn’t added up, however.
Not that Brightman was really in a place to threaten anyone anyway. Nobody wanted the Sheriff’s job, and the locals had a way of making it pretty clear if they didn’t want you around. As Sheriff, he preferred to stay out of people’s way; live and let live. That was how it was done out here.
Brightman claimed that Toretto had assaulted him the night before. Most people would have pressed charges right away, probably from the hospital, if they tangled with Toretto at that time of the night. But no, Brightman had gone home, coming back in the morning in a suit, shouting about lawyers.
Cleaned up, calmed down too most likely. Brightman had spun some tale of concern about his wife, ex-wife apparently, but the concern hadn’t rung true. Why go out at that time of the night and why not press charges then and there? Something was off. Way off. Hollabird could let a lot slide, that was the job sometimes; it didn’t make him blind. Or stupid.
Getting out to the Toretto garage had sketched in the details a little more. It was clear that an assault had in fact taken place. Crystal clear. Toretto had beaten the hell out of Brightman, that much was obvious, but Hollabird had made a point of going through the mechanic’s sheet when Toretto had first bought the garage. What happened to Brightman could have been a whole lot worse. Maybe it should have been, if the girl’s face was anything to go by.
Charging Toretto would have meant charging the ex-wife as well, if Brightman’s claims about Amber attacking him with a baseball bat were to be believed. Sure enough, he could also charge Brightman, but it wouldn’t hold; it never did with guys like him. He would lawyer up in a hurry. Hollabird doubted that either Toretto or the ex-wife, Amber, could come close to that. They would both end up doing some sort of time, with Toretto going back to prison. Didn’t seem right. Not at all.
The FBI agent, Eddie Masters, had made his decision all the easier, but that raised some questions too. Hollabird hoped that Toretto was watching his back.
Added to all that, he had just gotten off the phone with a guy named Brian Spilner, Mia’s husband and a security consultant with Security Enterprises. Nice generic sounding name that piqued Hollabird’s interest; it had spook written all over it. Or at least former spook. That was two spooks so far and it wasn’t even noon.
Spilner had filled him in on the domestic abuse that Brightman had inflicted on his ex-wife. There was no official record, but Hollabird didn’t need it, not after seeing Amber with his own eyes. There was a big difference between what was known and what could be proven, of course. Hollabird couldn’t charge Brightman for things that he hadn’t seen happen. Charge would lead to counter-charge. They talked in speculation.
Hollabird had listened and had assured Spilner that neither Toretto nor Amber would have to worry about being charged. The Sheriff knew that Brightman would have a hard time getting anyone else to believe his claims. If Brightman brought any other law into the matter, it would come across the Sheriff’s desk. He’d see that it never went any farther. Which didn’t mean that Brightman was done causing trouble, Hollabird knew.
So the Sheriff was pretty sure that the rough looking guy walking across the parking lot was more of the same. “Even down to the get-up.” Black pants, white shirt, black jacket over the arm. Hollabird shook his head and walked back to his desk, resting his boots on the edge, and got comfortable.
Little could be heard in the small Sheriff’s office as Mike closed the door behind him. The small bell jangled above the door but the torpid heat of the day appeared to weigh heavily on it; the sound was muffled and stilled quickly.
It could have been a sheriff’s office in any small town anywhere across the US. Painted in several layers of utilitarian colors, chipped in places so that the years could be seen, like the rings of a tree. Divided in half by an information desk. There was even a small brass plated bell that would tinkle; Mike imagined that its bell wouldn’t hold up any better than the one above the door had. There was a desk for a secretary, and he assumed for a deputy; neither of which could be seen. Jail cell bars could be seen clearly through an open door ahead. Things were quiet all over.
There was a wilted houseplant on the counter gamely hanging on. Beyond the counter, there was a closed off office where Mike knew the Sheriff’s office would be. The frosted glass door with Sheriff. J. Hollabird completed the stereotype.
Mike’s hand hovered over the small bell on the counter. He needn’t have bothered; it was as though the mere action of moving towards the bell had caused the secretary to materialize from nowhere. She bustled from the direction of the door which led through to the jail cells, stern and conservative. Mike had the image of her as a schoolteacher, and pulled his hand back from the bell, as though he feared having a ruler brought down hard across his knuckles. A thought that had him smile; that fear never left, no matter how old he got.
Brusque and efficient, the elderly woman moved behind the counter to address him, getting down to business immediately. “What can we do for you today?”
Mike offered her a rakish smile which had absolutely no effect on her, and pointed to the closed Sheriff’s door behind her. “I’d like to talk to the Sheriff, ma’am.”
She pulled out a pad of paper and unhooked the fountain pen that she carried on a chain around her neck. “Can I ask what…”
“Let the man in, Marsha,” the Sheriff called out from behind the closed office door. Marsha’s lips thinned into a hard line but she stepped to the side, motioning to a swinging door at the end of the counter that led into the back where the Sheriff’s offices were. Mike followed the tiny old woman and thanked her as she held open the door to the Sheriff’s office, closing it behind her.
The inner office had a few more personal touches than the outer, but not many, and they were generic. Someone else might have looked around the office and simply assumed that the Sheriff didn’t have many hobbies, maybe not a sports fan. Maybe he didn’t like to read too much or maybe he just wasn’t married. It was Mike’s business to observe, to read people by what they hid, as much as by what they showed.
Sheriff Hollabird kept his cards close to his chest and let people believe the quick assumptions they likely made about him. Mike could relate to that but he still didn’t know which way the Sheriff would jump. It made him uneasy; then again, Mike didn’t like what he was there for in the first place. Getting involved with the law had always come back to bite him in the ass in the past. Too late to walk out now.
The Sheriff swiveled slightly in his chair, an old fashioned wooden deal with a squeak. Mike could easily see the Sheriff looking for the chair, the finishing touches on a disguise. Boots still on the desk and fingers interlaced over a large belly, the Sheriff waited, a quiet, friendly sort of smile on his face. “What can I help you with, son?”
Mike smiled back at the slow, disarming drawl. Not buying it for a second, Mike leaned across the desk, his hand out, “Mike Anderson, PI.”
Sheriff Hollabird quirked up an eyebrow but otherwise showed nothing. Law wasn’t known for its love of private investigators, something Mike knew going in, which is why he made a point to not need this kind of help. Most of the time, he didn’t. Hollabird said nothing, just waited; it hadn’t escaped Mike that the Sheriff didn’t look at all surprised to see a PI in his office.
“Guess I don’t need to say I’m not here officially.” Mike knew that he could dance around his reasons for being in the sheriff’s office all day. Might as well get down to it. “Alan Brightman hired me to find his wife,” he stated simply.
That got the Sheriff’s full attention; he showed it through a subtle cock of the head, looking out the window. Where he had watched Mike walk in before. Hollabird looked like a man that had all the time in the world to let things play out. Maybe he did, but Mike didn’t think so.
“Needless to say, I soon doubted the sincerity of Mr. Brightman regarding his wife’s well-being.” Hollabird eased his boots off the desk, lazily swiveling in the chair to face Mike. Nothing lazy about it at all.
The drawl was still there, but it was harder, meaner, the sound a guy would hear on the side of the road as the local law worked him over with a baton. “And did you do that, give Brightman his wife’s address?”
Instantly, Mike was sure that something had happened. He was also pretty sure that getting it out of the Sheriff would be like pulling eye teeth. He also knew that if he the answer he came up with wasn’t to the Sheriff’s liking, that he could be spending some very unpleasant time in one of those cells in the back. “I found her address, but I didn’t hand it over. Brightman got the drop on me, cold-cocked me in my office.”
Mike didn’t wait for an offer, but pulled out the chair on his side of the desk, shaking out a cigarette from the pack in his pocket. Waited half a heartbeat for Hollabird to speak up, which he didn’t; he motioned for Mike to continue. It was one of the reasons that Mike hated to get involved with the law; they held all the cards at the end of the day. Mike thought of Brightman’s box of trinkets, trophies. No, the law didn’t hold all the cards this time but Mike couldn’t afford to play footsie with the Sheriff; the odds were too high.
Mike pressed. “I take it you’ve had dealings with Brightman already.”
It was a matter of seconds, a breath. Assessments and decisions made quickly. Sheriff Hollabird had about as much time for PI’s as he did for wife-beating sons of bitches but for the moment, Mike Anderson was the lesser of evils. Did he believe the PI? It didn’t matter in the scheme of things. “It’s been a Brightman sort of morning, as long as you’re asking.”
They sat across from each other, wondering where to push. In the end, what Mike had was too important to not have someone know about it. “Are we off the record here?” The Sheriff leaned back and nodded. Mike watched him carefully as he did it, watching to see if he engaged any listening devices. Of course he could have done so before Mike had even entered the office; there was no way to know for sure.
The Sheriff nodded, leaning back casually, his head pressed back into interlaced fingers. The good old boy act was chipped and worn through in places; the Sheriff was all ears, despite the act. Mike sighed and ran through the bare basics of his break and enter of Brightman’s apartment. Which is one of the reasons why he had insisted that the talk be off the record. Mike kept Brightman’s first wife to himself, at least for now; it would muddy the waters so much that it would get pretty hard to see anything at all. Hollabird nailed the point succinctly.
“Always the problem when you go in without a warrant. Can’t use a damned thing against him,” Hollabird barked out. Not hard to hear the condemnation in his voice.
“You didn’t have much to charge him on anyway, and no reason for a warrant that would have got you into his apartment to find it, provided you even knew what to look for.” Mike came back just as quickly. Stalemate.
The Sheriff mulled that over. “True.” It’s not as though the Sheriff stayed hard and true to the line of the law; in fact, just that morning he had chosen to not charge one guy with assault, another guy with assaulting his ex-wife. That he couldn’t prove anyway. Add to that, he didn’t charge Amber with assaulting her ex-husband either. He was a veritable paragon of law and order.
“So. Our hands are tied,” Mike stated simply. Mike’s hands weren’t tied; he would continue, no matter what the Sheriff offered, but he wanted to see how far the Sheriff was willing to step across the line. If he could be teased across once, it would be easier the next time.
It was turning into a Brightman afternoon. Hollabird thought of his talk with Spilner just before the PI showed up and offered an equally concise rundown of his own morning, leaving out a few details of his own. Like Eddie Masters, the friendly neighborhood FBI agent. “Not exactly.” Hollabird pushed a pad of paper and a pen across the desk towards Mike. “I’d like a number where you can be reached.”
Mike drummed the pen tip on the pad of paper before quickly jotting down his office number. Looking up at the Sheriff one last time as he stood from his chair, gathering up his jacket. Hollabird’s place by his office door was a clear signal that it was time to go. Maybe on another day, Mike wouldn’t have pushed. “This little chat isn’t all I came in for, Sheriff.”
“Do go on, Mr. Anderson,” the Sheriff offered solicitously.
Mike nearly smiled. He’d have to remember and do so after he left. “Amber’s place. Will you keep an eye on her?”
Hollabird eyed Mike shrewdly. The Sheriff had half expected the PI to ask for some personal favor, like additional information on Brightman that only the law could provide. Or that the law could provide a little easier. Just one more occasion to be surprised. “Will do, son. And you? I’m of the opinion you’re not exactly willing to wash your hands of this whole mess?”
“Not exactly.” Mike handed over the slip of paper with his phone number on it. “As for the ex-wife. I’d say the mechanic next door can probably do more good for her than both of us put together.”
The Sheriff nodded absently, as though they were talking about the weather. “Most likely so. Didn’t answer my question though.”
“No, I didn’t. Some things it’s better not to know. Or at least not to know on the record.” Maybe the Sheriff would jump over the line. Maybe he wouldn’t. Mike was pretty sure that he was a good ways over that line already.
Pocketing the slip of paper, Hollabird held the door open for Mike. “I’ll have someone call you. He might. Might not. You’re going to be waiting either way.”
“Comes with the job.” They both grinned at that.
Brian stepped down off the ladder and both he and Dom walked back across the driveway, looking back at the house. They walked back and forth in front of the porch, examining the house from all angles. To the casual eye, there was no trace of the surveillance equipment that had been installed. Climbing the ladder once more, Brian made a last, final, adjustment, and considered it done.
The cameras would never be seen from the road. Only an experienced eye, one aware that there was a surveillance system at all, would know where to look. Cameras swept the entire area at the front and side of the house. All the wires were tucked up under the eaves. It was a good job.
Dom had insisted on the whole lot being wired up to his room above the garage; there was no way that he would allow a repeat of what had happened to Amber to occur again.
“She’s going to be safe?” Dom asked quietly, looking over at the back door of the diner, where Mia and Amber had disappeared a while ago.
Brian looked sideways over at Dom, but Dom’s attention was elsewhere. Guilty. He still feels guilty. With the image of Amber’s battered face and body burned clear in his mind, Brian could understand that. If someone had done that to Mia, and he had been right next door? Yeah, he knew that he’d feel guilty about it.
Brian lied. A little. “No one’s going to hurt her anymore.” There was no way to guarantee such a thing; no way to know what would happen. Amber’s husband was dangerous. Beyond dangerous, in ways that Brian knew he couldn’t tell Dom. If he did, Brian knew that Dom would be in his car, hunting down Brightman. Probably end up back in prison for it.
After Brian had spoken to Mia, and before he had driven out to the diner, he had called the Sheriff. A Brightman afternoon. The Sheriff had picked up the phone nearly immediately, and they had spoken at length about Brightman. After the Sheriff had assured Brian that Dom wouldn’t be charged, the Sheriff had told him that he would keep an ear to the ground, giving him a heads up if it looked like trouble was about to blow Dom’s way. Hollabird couldn’t be sure why he did it; it wasn’t out of any great love for Dominic Toretto.
The chirp of his cellphone had Brian balancing a surveillance camera while he pressed the cellphone to his ear. It hadn’t been a long conversation, and definitely hadn’t been official. Sheriff Hollabird gave him a number. A name, the scantest of details. “Better not to know,” he had said, when Brian had pressed him for more information. He didn’t say who it was better for. If the Sheriff knew, then as a lawman he would have to act on what he knew. If he didn’t know, things were easier.
Brian had played phone tag, leaving a message with the answering service of one Mike Anderson, private detective. The detective had messaged him back with a time and place for a meeting.
So Brian lied, a little. Amber would be as safe as she could be. She lived next door to Dom, and Brian knew that Dom would not make the same mistake twice. There were more people involved in making sure that she was safe. Or at least safer. “It’s the best we can do, under the circumstances.”
Dom spun on his heel, a little pissed at that. Pissed at what exactly, he couldn’t say. Biting back a hard remark that Brian didn’t have coming, Dom deflated, rubbing a hand over his face. “I should have been paying more attention. Fuck…”
Wiping his hands on his pants, Brian waited, saying nothing. Dom had something to get off his chest. It was the same every time. He got quiet, his expression thoughtful, the skin bunched up between his eyebrows. Dom would talk when he was ready.
Frustrated, Dom ran a hand over his stubble. “I was out in the garage. With Heather. Didn’t hear a fucking thing. If I had…”
“If you had heard, you would have been there a little sooner. If you hadn’t been out there,” Brian jerked a thumb in the direction of the garage, “with Heather, you might not have heard anything at all. You stopped it, man.”
Dom huffed. He could have been in the diner, or fast asleep, drunk and snoring in bed. He could have gone out for the night, or had the stereo in the garage blaring. Any number of reasons. Excuses. That he had been in the garage fucking some other woman while Amber was getting hurt, attacked, that’s what stuck with him.
“Not gonna happen again.” Hard determination crept into his voice, pushing the guilt aside; he could make this right.
No argument there.
Amber made a mean sandwich. True, it was all she did over lunch, make sandwiches, but she really started to like it. After a while, she didn’t even need Mia to call them out to her, but would read the orders and make them herself. Maybe that was a small thing, a ‘so what?’ moment. It was hers though and that was something.
By the end of the busiest part of lunch, both Amber and Mia were laughing as they worked. They had even had a tomato slice fight. Mia rested a hip against the counter, pulling tomato seeds out of her hair as Amber finished up the sandwiches she had made for everyone, arranging them on a plate. Stashing the containers of sandwich spread and condiments under the counters.
It felt good to smile, to laugh. Just to feel good about what she was doing, really good. Amber thought of Shirley and Stephens, of the job she had before. She had called Shirley in the morning yesterday, about a part time job that she had accepted doing computer work at home. It seemed very far away now. Looking down at her comfortable clothes and cook’s apron, it all seemed like someone else’s life.
Heather had come in for her shift right before lunch. She was well over an hour late. Mia didn’t care, hadn’t even mentioned it. Maybe Heather wanted to make some sort of a point, or to create some sort of a fight. It didn’t matter, Mia didn’t bite; she didn’t give a damn how pissed off Heather was. There were a few days left in the pay period; after that, Mia would get rid of her. Mia didn’t think Dom would give her much grief about it; if Brian had picked up on that guilt, it was even more apparent for Mia. Not that Mia could say for sure and she wasn’t about to ask, but she knew that Heather factored in to some of that guilt.
Wincing at her cut lip, Amber covered her mouth as she yawned. Mia knew it would hurt for a while; there was no way that it couldn’t. “Will you come back tomorrow?” Mia asked casually, as she took off her apron and hung it on a nail just outside the kitchen. The diner would be quiet for a bit.
The grin looked a little ghoulish and Amber got a hand over her lip before it split again. It was weird to be so happy about making sandwiches in some tiny roadside diner in the middle of nowhere. “Yeah, I will. I like this.” She did too; it felt real in a way that everything that she had done before couldn’t come close to.
Amber picked up the round platter of sandwiches but Mia was right there at her side, taking it from her. Her arms were sore from falling on her arm in the driveway, to say nothing from swinging the bat. Mia held her hand against Amber’s back, the two women leaning together briefly as Mia took the sandwiches. “That’s enough lifting for you today. Dinner is usually busier, and louder, and..well…” Mia looked back over her shoulder at the diner. Heather.
“Is that going to be a big huge problem?” Amber hated work politics. Something told her it would be a nastier affair outside of the executive offices she was used to working in.
Down the steps at the back of the diner, Amber followed Mia out to the picnic table where they had eaten before. It was a little cooler, but not much; the breeze gusted hot desert air across the driveway, sending up small dust devils. “It’s going to be huge pain in the ass,” Mia said with a laugh, putting down the food and taking a seat beside her.
“I…”Amber gasped a little, the apology almost out before she stopped herself. Looking quizzical and amused all at once, she huffed and leaned in to pick up a sandwich, ravenous all of a sudden. “No, I’m not sorry, not one bit.” Amber had parried Heather’s jibes all morning. Mia had wanted to step in, but Amber said she was fine. She was too. After what had happened the night before, it would take more than one snotty waitress to rattle her anymore.
“Good.” Mia stated, taking a sandwich as well, taking a look around for the others.
Brian leaned across the hood of his car, closing the flaps on a box of equipment before he put it inside on the seat. Jim balanced the bottom of Amber’s door on the toe of his boot, Eddie holding the weight off, as Jim edged it into place, setting the pins into the hinges. It surprised Mia a little; she hadn’t thought Eddie could stay decent all day, but he had. A day’s grace; tomorrow he would likely be twice as much of a prick just to make up for it. Dom walked around the back side of Amber’s house, walking easily under her bedroom window. He broke into a grin at seeing the two women seated at the picnic table.
“Grace. Starving. Mmm…” Dom muttered a sort of a grace, sort of a greeting before he sat down. The hand without a sandwich in it got waved at the other men. Amongst guys, get it before it’s gone. “Shit, this is good! What did you put in this?”
Mia grinned around the bite she had in her mouth, covering up with the back of her hand. “Mmff.,” Mia muttered, her mouth full, pointing at Amber.
Finishing what he had in his mouth, Dom stretched back, just as Brian, Eddie and Jim pulled up to the table. Hands, dinged and gritty, reached in to snatch up sandwiches. Looking between Mia and Dom as they shared their conversation, Amber wondered how often they did that, have conversations around this table, or one like it. It made her smile a little more.
“You made this? Not bad.” Dom smiled at Amber, breaking into a broad grin as she smiled back at him. Even in the state she was in, that made him happy to see it. Turning to Mia, he joked. “We’re keeping her, right?”
Mia looked over at Amber, blushing now. She would have teased; she liked seeing the playful side of her big brother, it didn’t come out all that often, especially not lately. There was no way to know how Amber would take being teased though. “Definitely staying.” The sincerity was reinforced as Mia slipped an arm around Amber’s shoulder.
Leaving a tomato slice coated in thousand island dressing stuck on Amber’s shirt. Amber didn’t notice, at least not at first. Eddie kept his head down. Jim and Brian broke into grins. Blinking, Dom looked from Amber to Mia and back again, before putting the remains of his sandwich down. Unable to keep a straight face, Mia began to giggle, leaning in to hug Amber one last time. Amber looked around, down at her plate, at the faces of the others at the table. Finally, she caught sight of the tomato slice and burst out laughing, flicking up the tomato slice and firing it at Mia.
Amber froze at the ensuing silence, worry crossing her face. There was no need for worry, as Mia swatted the now mushy tomato slice off her cheek, laughing loudly.
“Don’t even think about it.” Dom growled, pointing a finger at Mia. It was a little hard to take his warning seriously when he was laughing. “Damned kids,” he muttered under his breath, reaching for another sandwich.
It felt wonderful. Amber grinned hugely, looking around the picnic table. At her friends. Mia put a friendly arm around her again, without leaving any tomatoes behind this time. It made Dom grin too. Mia had always made him happy; all she had to do was smile and he felt lighter, he’d give her anything. Looking at Amber, he was surprised that he felt much the same when he looked at her. At how much it pleased him just to see her happy, to hear her laugh. There was no doubt that she deserved it, but that wasn’t the whole of it. He looked down at his plate when he realized that he had been staring at her.
Copyright © october 2007, xxxevilgrinxxx