Dom stood alone out in the yard after Mia and Brian had left, the dust not quite settled yet. In more ways than one. Heather stood outside on the steps of the diner; he knew that she was waiting for him, her apron off and clutched in her hand.
He was tempted to walk back inside the garage, leaving her out there on the steps, but he knew that it wouldn’t make her leave; this problem wouldn’t resolve itself that easily. She would just follow him back to his room and for once that was the last thing he wanted; he didn’t know if he could say no if she was there.
Dom felt sick, not nauseous, but heartsick. Brian’s career had ended after the whole race wars showdown, but it hadn’t ended his access, at least not fully. Brian had explained it as an odd sort of give and take. A lot of the times, Brian had to fill in the blanks; certain things were kept from him, and Dom figured that was because of him. This time, just the sparse surface information was more than enough.
The first incident had been about a year after they had been married. At least, that was the first incident where she had ended up in the hospital. Brian had explained all the reasons why it wouldn’t have been followed up, but what it all came down to was that the investigating officers ‘didn’t want to interfere between a husband and wife’. The neighbors hadn’t wanted to get involved. That excuse stung.
Amber and her husband had moved shortly after that, and not much had been documented about the state of the marriage. At least for a few years. There were ‘accidents’. Falls down the stairs, accidents on ladders, slipping and falling in the bathroom. Dom saw red as he thought about it. Brian didn’t believe it either. After every major incident where the police, where hospitalization, was involved, there was a move afterwards. Amber had fallen off the radar shortly after the last such episode.
The rest was fairly simple to fill in. At some point, Amber had divorced her husband and had fled to the desert in a bid to stay under his radar. His, Mia’s and finally Brian’s searches had likely put Amber back in his sights again. All because Dom couldn’t walk across and ask her name, or be decent to her. ‘Neighborly’, his parents would have said.
He huffed out an exasperated breath, wiping a hand over his scalp as Heather walked across the driveway towards him. Her hands were on him the moment she was close enough, pulling at his arm, her red nails digging in a little. Normally that would be enough, normally he wouldn’t care, and he would end up fucking Heather wherever they ended up.
For some reason he just couldn’t get interested, he didn’t even want to be interested. Heather narrowed her eyes at him but didn’t step away, just circled around in front of him, stroking her hands over his torso. “You know I’ll make you feel better, sugar.”
Any other day. Dom sighed and brought his hands up to either side of his face to rub his temples; in the process, he dislodged Heather’s arms. Dark pink lips narrowed into a hard, unattractive line, just for a moment and then the wide sexy smile was back, everywhere but the eyes. Dom had never said no to her before. He still hadn’t said it, at least not in so many words, so Heather pushed a little. Hands lowered, she cupped his balls through his jeans, which made her smile falter.
“Not tonight, Heather, I’m not interested.” Any uncertainty that remained left with that statement. Not only was he uninterested, but he was disgusted. Heather’s hands felt greasy, something under her nails from work, and she smelled like fried food. Again, it was something that he had never noticed before, never cared about before.
A hard edge came into Heather’s voice, a whine that was all too familiar, and he could feel a painful pulse start to pound behind his left eye. “So I noticed.” She cupped and squeezed, forcing his body to respond to her. “Let’s fuck, Dom. You know you want me.”
Anger boiled up with the first twitch of his traitorous dick, and he stepped back, away from her. “Not tonight, Heather.” He was pissed off, but unsure where it should be directed.
Even if he hadn’t had such a serious conversation with Brian, he would never have taken his anger out on a woman anyway, but he was angry with Heather. Or wanted to be. He was angrier with himself, for responding, for allowing it in the first place.
Heather could hardly be blamed for her approach; it’s not as if he had ever turned her away in the past. Now she thought it was her due; thought it was something that she was owed. It made him think of Letty, which stilled any arousal within him; he hated being manipulated. Hated being used. That’s what was between him and Heather, and it went both ways. She used him, but he had used her too, and it made him feel like shit.
Whatever it was that they’d had was over, if they had anything at all besides a basic mutual physical need. Heather backed off before he could say anything, not that he really knew where to begin. He was great at picking up women; dumping them was another matter. Usually they just got fed up with his bullshit when he’d pick up someone new and they’d leave. Leaving the door open for a later encounter, she trailed a fingernail over his arm, putting on her sexiest voice. “Okay, sugar. But you call me if you change your mind.”
Heather didn’t run back to her car, it wasn’t the way that she was made, but she didn’t look back even once as she walked to her car, got in and slammed the door. Then she was gone and Dom was alone again in the driveway of the garage.
He didn’t move; just stood there until the dust settled again. Until dark fell. Off in the distance, coyotes yipped, the sound echoing across all the emptiness. Dom pressed the pads of his fingertips into his eyes, taking a deep, painful inhale, feeling his chest hurt. He didn’t ask how everything had gotten so fucked up, because he knew the answer lay right at his feet.
Dom couldn’t change a single thing that he had done in the past, as much as he’d like to. The exhale was harder, and he pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling the start of what would be a hell of a headache. Nothing could be done about the past. He had apologized to those he knew that he had to, that he needed to.
He could change one thing, though. Amber sat out on her porch steps again, in a simple pair of cotton pajamas this time, head raised, eyes closed. Dom knew that she was listening to the coyotes, because he had done the same thing. Walking a little closer to the fence, he realized that she was crying. She didn’t sob or break down, just wept silently, and it tore at him.
There was a cowardly part of him that wanted to turn and walk back to the safety of the garage. He didn’t get involved with people, with women, that he cared too much about. At least that’s what he told himself; maybe it was just easier that way. That grated at him too, that he had chosen something easy. Mia had been the only woman in his life that he had truly cared about, unselfishly, unconditionally.
Resting his elbows on a leaning fence post, he watched her for a couple of minutes. It felt so strange to him that every time he looked at Amber, he thought of Mia. For a moment, he wondered if that should be strange, but it wasn’t like that. It dawned on him that he cared about Amber, in a way. It didn’t make much sense to him, because he shouldn’t have cared. He didn’t want to care. He hadn’t wanted to ‘get involved’.
Amber startled, as she stood up on the porch and realized that she was being watched. She wiped furiously at her tears, turning to make a break for her front door. Not much thought behind it, Dom called out her name and she stopped in her tracks. Not looking entirely sure about it. She stood on the top step, tense, like a startled deer.
“I wanted to make sure you were all right.” It felt stupid the minute that he had said it, but he didn’t know what else to say. If he had planned it, he probably would have said something worse. Amber wasn’t Heather; some stupid pick up line wasn’t going to do it.
Another one of those quick, genuine smiles, and Amber took one step down. Not any closer physically, but still closer. “Yeah, it’s just been a rough day, you know?”
He knew all about rough days. Mia would have come out with some comment about things looking up tomorrow or silver linings. That wasn’t really Dom’s style though. “I’ll be here, if you need me, okay?” He meant every word, completely. It must have come through.
Amber swallowed, and swiped at her eyes again. With equal sincerity, she answered back before she fled up the stairs again and into her house. “Thank you.”
Amber lay back in the bed, not sleeping, her mind racing. Like the first night, she lay and listened to the sounds of the house around her. Unlike the first night, she wasn’t smashed, and she couldn’t tell herself that she was safe, far away from her life out here in the desert.
She had dutifully called Stephens when she got home, but didn’t tell him about the incident with the black car. In the clear dark of the night, it all seemed so unlikely. If it had been Alan, he would have forced her over to the side of the road. The rest she didn’t want to think about, but she knew that Alan wouldn’t have simply drove by, scaring the hell out of her.
The telephone guys had come out and hooked up her phone shortly after she had her conversation with Dom, they had even set up an internet connection, and she felt connected to the world again. Having a phone in her room, the sheriff a phone call away, should have made her sleep come easier. It didn’t. She knew that the sheriff would take ages to get out to her place, and that was only if he got the call.
The baseball bat, with its ridiculous red bow still attached, rested upright against the side of her bed, but that didn’t really make her feel at ease either. It was like a teddy bear to ward off a fear of the dark, and she didn’t know if she could ever hit someone with it anyway. Putting a hand over her eyes, she laughed at the image, but it was a nervous laugh.
Then she looked out of her bedroom window, across the driveway at the square of filtered light that she now knew was Dom’s bedroom. He had some simple sort of curtain, maybe a sheet pinned up over the window. It made a pale triangle shape, pinned back upon itself.
That was what put her at ease, not completely, but it was a start, and she would take what she could get. The slip of paper with his phone number was tucked under the corner of the phone, but it was knowing that if she yelled, there was someone there that would hear her. Someone that she believed would get involved, if she yelled for help. There was no way to know that he wouldn’t be like other neighbors that had pretended not to hear, but he had seemed sincere. Her weight settled heavily into the bed, and she drifted off to sleep.
A few days later, Mike Anderson traced a finger along the edge of a square bar coaster. Warm amber lights from behind the bar reflected off the surface of his drink in a fractured pool of gold. A man could get lost. He had. He might again.
‘Fuck it.’ Smell of peat, warmth and oblivion, the whiskey scorched a trail down his throat. His belly expanded, bringing that brief strange clarity where he felt open to everything, connected to nothing. Responsible for nothing.
The bottom of the old-fashioned glass echoed faintly, its dull click muffled by the slightly damp cardboard coaster. The glass had sat there for a while before he had touched it, the condensation soaking the coaster. He closed his eyes, not looking at the bartender, his elbows resting lightly on the bar. If the bartender refilled his glass, it wouldn’t be because Mike had asked. He wouldn’t be responsible.
In his new heightened awareness, he strained, all of his senses reaching out. Was it relief or sorrow he felt when the metal bar spout tinked once against the lip of his glass, he couldn’t be sure. He began his war with himself again. The first had taken nearly half an hour before he could drink it. This one would take less time, and the one after that would take less. Soon he would stop counting, unable. Unwilling.
The music in the background broke up into easily digestible pieces, rearranged in a fuzzy logic that melded into the next bit of music until nothing stood out, like the rug in a cheap motel.
Brightman had of course known where his wife worked; it was the one thing that she likely wasn’t able to change, at least not quickly. If she had done it before she had gotten divorced, her husband would have caught on. She likely couldn’t do it afterwards, or she wouldn’t have the money to live on. From the looks of the building, they could afford to pay well. Tech support for a defense contractor. Most likely stuffed to the brim with government contracts, with all the security that went with that.
Mike still didn’t know exactly what it was that the former Mrs. Brightman did for the company. Her husband wasn’t forthcoming; in fact he was downright dismissive; some sort of low-level secretary. His wife couldn’t hold an important position because Brightman didn’t believe she was smart enough. Didn’t mean that she wasn’t.
So Mike went with what he had. He had watched the outside of the building the morning after he had spoken to Brightman and waited. Nothing fancy about that, but then again, so much of what he did was pretty old school. People had habits and if you watched them, they revealed everything about themselves.
Dangerous habits. Bad habits. Amber had been a little more aware than some people would be, but Mike guessed that she had more reason to be careful. She had checked the mirrors constantly, and never stopped the car. Not for long anyway. She had her pass at hand when she pulled up to the gates, swiped, and moved forward, barely rolling to a stop. Not as stupid as her husband thought.
It wasn’t hard to tail her though, it was something he was good at, although it was hard to stay hidden, especially in the desolate landscape where she lived. Mike had opted to rattle her badly. It wasn’t nice, but it meant that her recall would be shaky. A generic black car, smoked windows, speed, and her own fear would mean that Mike remained anonymous. If questioned, she would maybe remember the car, the color anyway, but not much more.
So he had found out where she lived. There wasn’t much in the area to choose from; a diner, a garage. Farther away, much farther, was a trailer that had the look of a meth operation, not really a place he could imagine she would stay. That left the small white house beside the garage, the only house for miles around. Didn’t have to be much of a detective to figure that one out.
Mike downed the second shot of whiskey; the burn less, and let the sounds of the room, the room itself, fracture again all around him. Dangerous habits. Bad habits. Everybody had them; people could always be relied on to repeat patterns, even the worst of patterns. Especially the worst of patterns. Most people had a death wish, whether they acknowledged it or not. Most of being a detective was just watching and waiting, for people to do what they always did.
His fingertips slid around the circumference of the glass, slightly slick, the whiskey drying quickly. Amber had probably taken the same route to work, even though she had come from a different direction. She had probably done the same careful actions, at least as long as she had been divorced. The fact that she returned to work at all, instead of just picking up stakes and vanishing off the grid completely, was another of those habits.
Tapping the glass against the dark wood of the bar, he kept his eyes open this time as the bartender poured. Habits. An old one at that, one that he thought he had put behind him. Maybe that was something he just desperately needed to believe; that he could put it behind him when he needed to.
After Mike had tailed Amber and found out where she lived, he had returned to his office and started to look into the husband. He had never met Brian Spilner, but he would have found a lot in common with his methods. Instead of information on Amber however, it was information about Alan Brightman that he sought.
The frequent moves. Hospital bills. Career transfers. These were things that Mike had expected. He hadn’t bought Brightman’s concerned husband routine; it was too smooth, too practiced. With all of the ‘accidents’, it wasn’t hard to put together at all.
Mike looked further back, unable to be anything but what he was. Like a dog with a bone, he had to gnaw at the problem until he was satisfied with it. When he had found the first wedding certificate, Mike had sat back, blinking slowly as he let that sink in. Amber wasn’t Brightman’s first wife; she was his second. And the first was missing.
Copyright © aug 25 xxxevilgrinxxx