17. In Time of Need
Fluorescent light filtered down through greased car parts. To a lot of people, lying on their backs underneath a car was one of the more unpleasant things to have to do but for Dom, there was no better place to be. Outside of a race track that was. He could get lost, working for long hours without end. Jim’s wreck looked nothing at all like it had when he had first towed it in.
It was a good place to think; he could shut off the part of his brain that dealt with everything and everyone else and be alone with his own thoughts. Like racing, it too was a form of freedom, all too brief. Jim understood. Whether Jim thought of it that way or in those terms, Dom didn’t know, he hadn’t asked. He didn’t need to ask; it was enough to know that Jim understood. He worked the same way.
Eddie was another matter altogether. When Dom pushed aside that Eddie was an FBI agent out to bust his ass and cause a world of trouble, he could accept that Eddie was a natural when it came to an engine. He talked a lot of shit but that was part of what he was there to do though, and had nothing to do with the skills he had.
Eddie didn’t much care that neither he nor Jim answered him outside of the occasional grunt or snort either. From being with a team, from being in prison. From having to listen to a teenaged Mia go on for hours about some kid she thought was gorgeous at the time, Dom was accustomed to drowning out other people. Eddie was mostly white noise. At least when he wasn’t going out of his way to deliberately provoke.
Apparently Jim had a harder time shutting it out and, slapping his tools back in the tray he had balanced on the fender, Dom listened to the hard clip of his boot heels walk out of the garage. He would go out to the diner for coffee and talk with Mia for a bit, and then he would be back. Eddie hadn’t gone anywhere, but he wasn’t talking anymore.
Dom sighed, looking over at Eddie’s boots from under the car. Crossed at the ankles, Eddie had clearly put down whatever it was that he had been working on and now leaned against the back counter. Waiting. To Eddie’s credit, he appeared to be careful about choosing his time wisely. Dom knew that Eddie wasn’t pushing only because he wanted something from him.
Dom closed his eyes and ran his hand over the metal. The hard lights caught a lot, but not everything; sometimes touch was all there was. After a couple of minutes he dropped his hands again, giving up. Every time he closed his eyes he saw Amber; there was nothing wrong with that but it made it hard to concentrate. That, and Amber was something he needed more time to think about, and he knew he wasn’t going to get that luxury. Ignoring Eddie wasn’t going to work either, although it did give Dom a bit of joy to have Eddie twist in the wind for a few minutes longer.
Gracefully, Dom pushed out from underneath the car and got to his feet. Making a point not to take notice of Eddie, he wiped all traces of grease off his hands and placed his tools on a cloth spread out on the hood. Still Eddie said nothing, just waited until Dom was finished.
Only when Dom subconsciously mirrored Eddie’s pose, ankles and arms crossed as he leaned against the fender, did Eddie finally speak, taking up where he had left off the day before. “The game plan’s changed.”
Blunt. It was clear to Dom that Eddie wasn’t asking. He would if he had to, Dom knew that too, but for now, he would see what he could get through pressure. Dom would have smiled. It was strange to think that it was in prison that he had learned to truly play this game. Outside he would have solved problems with violence, quickly and brutally. Inside, being around so many men that were bigger, more inured to violence and pain, Dom had learned to negotiate. Talk didn’t cost anything. What could be learned was even more valuable. His answer was just as blunt as Eddie’s. “So I gathered. What do you want, Eddie.” Not so much a legitimate question as getting down to terms.
That’s what this was, a matter of terms; Eddie knew that too. About to speak, Eddie froze, looking up, past Dom’s shoulder out into the driveway beyond. They had both been so intent on each other that they hadn’t noticed Brian’s car pull up. Any other day, Brian would pull up close to the back door of the diner and run up the stairs, dropping in on Mia during the slow part of lunch. Today, he continued on, the nose of his car just at the edge of the garage.
Conspiratorial, both Eddie and Dom went quiet, like they had been overheard or caught. Brian got out of the car and slammed his door closed, not even glancing at the diner. Eyes cutting from Dom to Eddie, Brian took in the scene. The tension was palpable; no one was yelling. Yet. But it felt like it was close.
Brian didn’t have the time to play games. He had stretched out on the couch after he had dropped Mia off in the morning but sleep had eluded him. It wasn’t to be. His thoughts kept coming back to the trucks. To Eddie, and lastly, to what Eddie wanted with Dom. Looking at a pissed off Dom, arms crossed over his chest, it was as though no time at all had passed since Brian had worked the case. Then, as now, the very stance demanded that answers be given, that there were serious consequences for not answering, but it was directed at Eddie this time.
“Drop it.” There was no time. “Whatever the fuck is between you two, just drop it.” Dom’s stance didn’t change; he just tilted his head, taking in the change of events and waiting for the fallout. This was another of those things that he had learned in prison; events could change, and often did. Eddie put up his hands, placating, but Brian wasn’t buying it, waving him off.
Curious, Dom pulled off the side of the car, making room for Brian to come into the small circle formed by the three of them. “Drop what exactly.”
Like a straw vote with life or death in the balance, Dom and Brian turned to Eddie, who clearly had the short straw as he pressed back against the counter, hands still up. Unease wasn’t something he was accustomed to, even in his line of work. Usually he held the cards; maybe not all of them, but usually enough that he had the upper hand. He always held more than the people he was investigating, so this was new. Brian knew something, and Eddie wasn’t entirely sure what it was. Of course Eddie had done his homework and knew that Brian was no longer with the bureau but that didn’t mean he was cut off.
The garage took on the feel of an interrogation room, with Eddie in the chair. So far, Dom appeared to be played good cop, or at least quiet cop. In other circumstances, Eddie would have smiled, now he waited.
“I followed you this morning,” Brian stated simply.
Dom looked from Brian to Eddie, waiting for the inevitable explanation. He knew that he would get one, from either Eddie or Brian; someone would cough up. Eddie didn’t bother with a denial. He didn’t waste thought on what exactly Brian knew, just fitted in the new facts with what he had and moved on. Dom didn’t know however, and Eddie took a little pleasure in his being in the dark, even if it was short lived.
“Really.” Eddie went with amused interest.
Annoyance radiated off Dom, despite his desire to hide it. “Okay, what the fuck are you both talking about?”
Brian took a look at Eddie, who just tilted his head and said nothing, waiting for Brian to spill what he had seen, wanting to see what kind of game he could still play. Turning to Dom, Brian dropped his hands. In other circumstances, Dom would have smirked; Brian had picked up that habit from Mia. Talking with his hands. Pointing at Eddie, Brian quickly filled Dom in on the surveillance that he had carried out early in the morning. Dom’s stance didn’t change but he paid close attention as Brian spelled out what he saw; the similarities to the thefts he had taken part in weren’t lost on him.
Leaning once more against the fender, Dom turned his head to look at Eddie. “S’at true?”
In response, Eddie just nodded, turning back to Brian. “And?” He knew that there was an and, or he would have simply spoken to Dom; there had to be something else. Eddie was pretty sure that his bosses weren’t telling him the whole story either; if he could learn something from Brian, he was willing to listen.
“I did some checking.” Brian crossed his arms over his chest again, his expression set in stone. “So whatever the fuck is between you two, you need to put it aside right now.”
Dom and Eddie shared a distrustful sidelong glance before they both turned towards Brian. “Checking on what?” Eddie asked.
Brian didn’t buy Eddie’s nonchalance; the spark of intelligence was too bright. He had Eddie’s complete attention, despite the posture. The same could be said for Dom. Both men listened intently. “Did you know what all those trucks were carrying?”
“You look happy, what’s up?” Mia leaned her elbows on the counter beside Amber, looking through the pass through at the near empty diner.
Lunch had gone as smoothly as breakfast. Amber played with the spike where all the bills were pinned; it looked like a hell of a lot and she supposed that it was. It hadn’t felt too scary though. Somewhere during lunch, Mia had her on the grill, where she had made her first hamburger. Ever. She had set fire to her apron strings, much to Mia’s great amusement.
She was happy. Content, fulfilled. “My friend Shirley is coming to see me today.” Amber had talked about Shirley before, and also about Stephens. For most people it would have been strange to realize that they only had two friends. ‘Well, two until now that is.’ Before she had left Alan, she hadn’t even had those two; she had been afraid to make that sort of connection with others.
Pointing down at the counter, Mia turned towards Amber. “Here?”
Amber gaped, all of a sudden unsure what the answer should be; she hadn’t asked Mia beforehand. Hadn’t wanted to hear no, even if it was silly to think that Mia would refuse. “I…I could take her next door inst….”
Snorting, Mia turned back out towards the diner. “Don’t you dare.” Mia smiled easily and put her arm around Amber’s shoulder as she peeked further out into the diner to the table where she had sat with Dom earlier. Pointing at the big booth at the back, Mia continued. “We can all sit out there. Do you know what she’d like for dinner?”
Swallowing past the lump in her throat, Amber looked down, unsure how to answer what should be a simple question. Shirley was her friend, one of her only friends, but she didn’t know the answer to that, what she would like. “I’m not sure. I’ve never had dinner with her before. No idea.”
Perceptively, Mia turned to look up at Amber, seeing her discomfort. Grinning, she rubbed Amber’s back once before she stood up. “We’ll think of something. Everybody likes barbecue, right?”
Amber had no way to know whether that would do or not, but she had the feeling that Shirley would never say a bad word about it, no matter what. “I know I do,” her belly rumbled its approval; she hadn’t thought about eating at all until that moment.
Mia had walked across the kitchen and down the corridor, opening a walk in fridge. “Does she know where she’s going?” Mia called out over her shoulder, as she pulled out a big slab of ribs that had been marinated to perfection.
“I told her that if I wasn’t at home, I’d be here, to just walk right in.”
At that, Mia peeked back around the corner, mischievous eyes on Amber. “You said she was a hottie, right?”
Amber laughed a little; she hadn’t exactly put it in those terms, but it did fit. Shirley might be a little old for most people to call her a hottie, that was a term for younger people, but Shirley was stunning, beautiful, and several other words, none of which really described her well. “Yeah, you could definitely say that.”
Mia’s grin grew a little wider, as she rejoined Amber at the counter, the hotel pan of marinating ribs in front of her, making Amber’s belly growl a little louder. Tilting her head in the direction of the pass through, Mia looked back out into the diner, and Amber followed her lead. “Wonder how she’ll take that.”
They both watched as Heather leaned over a table, pouring a cup of coffee for a pair of truckers, her cleavage exposed. Mia had seen enough of Heather to know that the waitress was in the habit of measuring up women that came into the diner. As most of the diner’s customers were men from the surrounding area or, like the truckers, just passing through, Heather didn’t have an awful lot of competition. And that’s how Heather saw it, Mia knew. As competition.
“She’s not going to say anything nasty to her, do you think?” Amber twisted a rag between her clenched fists as she asked. Mia turned back to look at Amber’s hissed intake of breath and then down at Amber’s clenched fists.
No longer leaning casually on the counter, Mia stood fully, all her attention on Amber, not that Amber would have noticed. All her attention was out front, on Heather. Mia couldn’t help but feel protective of Amber; she would with any woman, any person, that had been hurt that way. So it surprised her to see Amber so angry. Not over something that was done to her, but over something directed at someone else.
It was a revelation of sorts. Amber would put herself between others and harm, even when she didn’t have to, even when she was terrified. Several times. Helping stop the fight between Dom and Eddie, offering to speak with the Sheriff after the whole Brightman mess. Even fighting to defend her house. And now when she thought that Heather might insult her friend.
Physically, Amber wasn’t in the least her brother’s type, but Mia could understand what he saw in her, why he could be attracted to her. They were alike in that way. Dom would go to hell and back for a friend, for family. The loyalty, the willingness to stand up when it was right, would get under Dom’s skin, she knew.
Mia wasn’t entirely sure that Heather wouldn’t say anything but she didn’t think Heather would openly insult a customer. She could be catty but that still seemed like a line she kept. “Don’t think she’d dare.” Mia had her arm around Amber’s shoulders again; the muscles in Ambers back and shoulders bunched and tightened as she wrung the cloth between her hands until Mia took it from her. “From what you’ve said about Shirley, I think she could chew up Heather and spit her out anyway, don’t you?”
Shoulders collapsing forward a little as she relaxed, Amber got her hands up over her mouth before she laughed aloud. “Yeah, she would.”
It made Mia smile to see her laugh like that, the spark of humor back in her eyes. She handed the ribs off to Amber after telling her what to do with them and turned to get the rest of dinner ready. They worked well together and it didn’t take long before the warmer oven was loaded with prepared dishes. In any other circumstances, it would have looked like far too much food, but Mia knew that Dom liked to eat.
That, and he would often visit the diner late at night after she had already gone home, to get something to eat. For the past couple of nights he hadn’t done that though, Mia thought as she cast a sidelong glance at Amber. That her brother had been lonely for quite some time hadn’t escaped Mia. Sure, he could have just about any woman he set his sights on, but that wasn’t the same thing. Not by a long shot.
Amber bounced subtly in place and Mia didn’t have to see her face to know that she was smiling. “She here?” Mia asked, turning, taking a stack of large platters across the kitchen to put them under the heat lamps. Eyes sparkling, Amber beamed at Mia, who laughed and shooed her out of the kitchen. “Go, go! I’ll go get Dom and anyone else that’s interested in getting fed.”
Leaving her apron on the counter, Amber took a quick look at how she was dressed, swatting at some crumbs of something on her shirt. From the hallway, Mia hollered, “You look fine!”
Heather stood at the entrance to the kitchen, a coffee pot in her hand, her mouth open, but she didn’t get a chance to say what she was going to say. Given that Shirley stood a short way away from Heather, Amber supposed that Heather was announcing her presence, not that she had to. “I know, I heard her come in,” Amber got out, a big smile on her face as she edged past Heather, dismissing her the moment that she had passed.
The muttered damns and other words of appreciation had greeted Shirley as soon as she opened the door to the diner. They were muted but like any good alarm clock, it was all that Amber needed to know that Shirley had arrived. Amber had moved past Heather and so missed the venomous look that Heather shot at her and Shirley both, but Shirley caught it fully. Not that it bothered her; she’d dealt with women like Heather for longer than Heather had been alive.
Her smile radiant, Shirley called out to Amber, arms outstretched to pull her into a hug. “Sugar! Come here and give me some love!”
Amber faltered, worried about making a mess of Shirley, who was, as always, resplendent in a rich colored red dress that made her pale skin look like milk. To say that she looked out of place in the diner was an understatement, but Shirley didn’t seem to take notice, didn’t care, and pulled Amber tightly to her, rubbing her back.
Shirley pulled back a little, taking Amber’s still-bruised face between her hands. “Sweetheart, what did that bastard do to you?” The answer was obvious, but it had been a rhetorical question anyway. Shirley kissed her good cheek and then hugged her tightly again.
Coughing, Heather came up behind Amber, nudging her shoulder. “Should I tell Mia that you’re busy?” How she managed to make something so innocuous sound nasty, Amber had no idea, but like Shirley, she had dealt with people far worse than Heather.
“Mia already knows, she sent me out here.” Amber turned back to Shirley and their eyes met, a flash of understanding and then Amber turned back to Heather. “I should probably help bring out the dinner though.”
Shirley watched the whole interchange, smiling quietly at the subtle changes that she saw in Amber since the last time that she had seen her. Looking at the coffee pot that Heather still carried, her hand trailing on Amber’s shoulder as she left. “Maybe you could get me a cup of that delicious coffee, hun?” Dismissing Heather quickly, Shirley looked over the waitresses shoulder, stopping Amber before she hit the swinging doors into the kitchen. “Where are we sitting?”
Turning back and grinning, Amber pointed to the big table in the back of the diner. “In the corner, Shirley. I’ll be back out in a minute.”
When Amber had slipped back into the kitchen, Shirley smiled at Heather, before turning and walking across the diner to sit in the booth at the back. Heather’s knuckles turned white as every head in the diner turned to watch Shirley’s passage. It pissed her off. Of course she had heard the gossip about Dom and Amber, had even watched it first hand. She could write that off as a strange infatuation of Dom’s, that he would surely get over soon. Shirley was a whole other animal and Heather felt out of her depth; she felt ugly and awkward. What was worse, she knew that Shirley knew, and Shirley had dismissed her as though she was nothing.
“Hmmff.” Heather went back to the coffee station and pulled out a bunch of cups for service; she did it by rote, setting them up on a tray without thought. She took her sweet time.
“No, you go sit down.” Mia shooed Amber out of the kitchen as she expertly balanced a stack of plates on one arm and a basket of bread on the other. “I’ll get Dom to carry the rest of this stuff out.”
Amber ducked her head and grinned, remembering Dom from the night before, with his arms laden with plates. Except maybe two plates didn’t really count as ‘laden’. With the backdrop of the diner, the image could only get more surreal. Dom trailed behind Mia, and Jim trailed behind him, dipping a finger into the BBQ sauce when Mia wasn’t looking. Eddie and Brian had already left.
Shirley pushed back her untouched cup of coffee and rose gracefully. A very physical person, she hugged Amber again, leaving a hand on Amber’s arm as she turned, urging Amber into the booth. “Don’t want you getting up and thinking you have to do anything.”
Amber opened her mouth to protest and then smirked, thinking better of it and scooted into the booth, sitting against the window. The coffee smelled wonderful. A carafe sat on the end of the table, along with heavy diner cups, cream and spoons. Amber reached out for a cup but Shirley stopped her, a deep sultry laugh turning all the heads that weren’t watching her already. “I definitely wouldn’t recommend that.” Shirley had taken a small sip of the coffee that Heather had poured for her; maybe the coffee hadn’t sat there all day, but there was something wrong with it. She was smart enough not to bother.
Automatically, Amber took a quick glance up at Heather, who glared defiantly back at her, daring her to say anything. “It’ll only take me a second to m….”
Laughing again, Shirley leaned in towards Amber, affectionately. “I already told you, sugar. That’s why you’re there and I’m here.”
Mia put the warm plates on the end of the table, nudging a few things aside to put the basket of bread in the middle. “Wow, I don’t know if everything’s going to fit,” she said with a laugh. “Hi, you must be Shirley.” Mia had her hand outstretched; there was that spark, something Amber had seen before. Shirley had that effect on people; she was overwhelming, larger than life. “I’ve heard so much about you.” Amber quickly introduced Mia, as Mia climbed into the booth, moving to the end.
“Likewise. Amber’s said wonderful things about you.” Both Amber and Mia blushed at that, grinning.
Mia reached out for the coffee carafe and, at the same time, both Shirley and Amber shook their heads at her. Her expression hardened as she shot a look at Heather. “Don’t worry, I’ll go make some fresh.”
“If I have to stay, so do you.” With a laugh, Amber tugged on Mia’s arm, pulling her back into the bench seat.
Mia called out across the diner to Heather to make a fresh pot of coffee and reluctantly, Heather finished up what she had been saying to the table of two truckers and set about making a fresh pot.
A few minutes later, Dom brought out the sizzling pan of BBQ ribs, followed by Jim, who brought out corn and a couple of other dishes. Heather chose that moment to return with a new carafe of coffee and stood at the end of the table, directly across from Mia. It made Mia uneasy, and her hands clenched beneath the table; she had told Amber that she was pretty sure that Heather wouldn’t do anything, but she wasn’t entirely sure that was the case.
Shirley leaned forward against the table, her beautifully manicured hand extended towards Dom first. “You must be Dom. That’s short for Dominic, isn’t it?”
Blinking, Dom reached out and took Shirley’s hand gently. It wasn’t often in his life that he was at a loss for words. There were times when he simply chose not to say anything, but that was different than not being sure about what would come out of your mouth if you opened it.
Amber put her head down, a little confused about how she felt, looking over at Mia as Mia’s hand covered hers under the table. Just a quick squeeze and then it was gone.
Heather seethed; she had taken about all she could take.“Haven’t you got your hands full already, Dom?” Leaning in a little towards Dom, she spat out, slamming the carafe on the table. It wasn’t a satisfying splash of coffee, but the thought was there. Amber sucked in a breath, Mia’s hands fisted beneath the table and her jaw clenched hard.
Shirley’s eyes sparkled at Dom with good humor, cutting over to take in Jim, offering an even wider smile that was clearly infectious, at least for Jim. “Well now, sugar, is that so?”
Dom still hadn’t let go of Shirley’s hand; if not for Heather’s caustic comment, he likely would have held it as long as Shirley held it out there. Like a splash of cold water, his head cleared and he looked up at Heather. “Don’t see what business that is of yours.”
Eyes narrowed, Heather’s lips thinned to a hard slash. “It was my business when it was me you were fucking.”
“Heather!” Mia stood with so much force that the dishes slid and clinked against each other. Both Jim and Amber, who had their hands free, reached out to keep the dishes on the table. Jim grabbed the hot pan of ribs, dipping his thumb into the sauce. He hissed and quickly popped his thumb into his mouth, nodding in appreciation at the taste. “Get your stuff and get the hell out!”
“Get. Out.” Mia ground out, her tightly closed fists rested on the edge of the table. Dom had never seen his sister in a real fight before; there were times when it had been close, like when she slapped Eddie out in the driveway, but he had never seen her really go off on anyone. That looked like it might change.
Letting go of Shirley’s hand, he reached across the table towards Mia, just as Heather snapped a hand out and slapped him hard across the face. “Bastard!”
Both Amber and Jim, on either side of Mia, held Mia by the arms, keeping her from leaping over the table. The diner was silent as Heather spun on her heel and stamped out of the diner, letting the door slam closed behind her.
“Guess I had that coming,” Dom muttered as he rubbed his cheek, a large red hand print coming up there.
Shirley let out a rich laugh, “Oh, I really doubt that, sweetheart.”
“Well now, that was exciting. What’re we going to do for dessert?” Jim said with a laugh. When he was sure that Mia wasn’t going to chase Heather out of the diner anyway, he reached across the table and took Shirley’s hand, bringing it to his lips briefly before he dished out the barbecued ribs.
Brian thought best when he drove, so when he got home, he paid the babysitter, loaded up the kids into the car, and went for a drive. The mess of his thoughts evened out as the miles slipped past. The kids, quickly appeased with something from the drive through, dozed in the back seat. When he was sure that they were asleep, he reached out and snapped off the radio, to drive in silence, nothing but the sound of the road.
Dom had raised his voice only once, to demand that they keep their voices down; he didn’t want Mia involved. Brian knew that Dom had always tried to keep Mia out of whatever dealings he had. That hadn’t always worked but even by Dom’s standards, the truck thefts were pretty serious. Even Eddie had gone quiet; apparently he hadn’t been told the whole story either. Snorting quietly as he stopped at a red light, Brian wondered if Eddie’s superiors had even thought much about what had been stolen.
He knew that was uncharitable, that someone likely had those same thoughts, but they clearly, if Eddie was being honest, hadn’t passed that information on. Eddie was being kept in the dark as well. Then again, given the nature of the cargo, maybe someone at the FBI wanted to keep it quiet. The press would have a field day with it.
Taken one job at a time, taken by itself, a single load might not raise too many alarm bells. It was only when Brian had managed to find out, spending all day getting a piece here and a piece there from every contact he had at his disposal, what made up some of that cargo that alarm bells had started to go off.
At first, the trucks that had been hijacked were laden with run of the mill stuff that could go through any fence. Exclusive car parts and electronics bound for Japan and Europe. After a while though, the loads had gotten a little more interesting.
By itself, completely innocent. Taken as a whole, with the fact that it was being taken out of the country to be fenced who knew where, it became a completely different matter. From working Dom’s case, Brian had managed to learn a little about where a thief would go to fence a truck full of stolen goods. In the US, it tended to be a little more low key, but south of the border, it was a whole other matter. For what was in those trucks, there were arms supermarkets that did nothing but move stolen equipment overseas, laundering the proceeds.
He had held back one piece of information, only one, but he knew that if he told Dom, not only the name but it’s relevance, that there would be no way to hold him back.
Several of the shipments had belonged to International Trade, the import/export company that Brightman had worked for.
It didn’t much matter when Mike started out, not when it was raining. He knew where he was going, the route he took didn’t matter; there weren’t that many roads to take, at least not at first. It was one of those things about living in Desolation. One road only, at first. Later on it would diverge; he would make his way to Route 8 and follow it where he needed to go.
A lot of America was like that, something that he had discovered in the years when he had first been spat out by the military. Shiftless, rootless, he had traversed the country at least once. Pick a direction and take it as far as it would go. In the beginning he had hitched where he could, and then there was the Greyhound. Like some automotive version of evolution he had bought a car, driving from New Orleans to end up in Yuma, where he stopped.
A grimy military-issue duffel bag had been exchanged for a dark gym bag somewhere along the way but packing hadn’t changed much. His shirts cost a lot more and he didn’t pack for sleeping in the car, but there was still that minimalism. To survive solely on the few things that he had managed to bring, and know that he could. Every time he packed to leave, it was like he would never come back.
The last thing that he had carefully folded and left tucked in the sunvisor was a map for Southern California and Arizona. Not that he thought he would need it. It got packed for the same reason that he packed extra clips and ammunition; better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.
Brian had asked him where he would be, when Mike had called him earlier that morning. He had given a rough idea, and a cell phone number where he could be reached. The cell phone was another of those new touches. Leaving the paper cup of coffee on his hood, he lit up a cigarette and accepted simply that he was stalling. Knew it and accepted it, and knew that no matter what his conscience told him, there was no choice but to leave. Amber would be taken care of. Brightman would not, and it was Brightman he was concerned about.
The lone road outside of the truck stop took him in two directions. One would take him back to Toretto’s garage, to drive, once more, past Amber’s house. Mike turned towards California instead, easy enough once he had decided. All he had to do was drive and not stop. Fuel up when he hit Route 8 and continue. He stayed away from Yuma, knowing that if he entered the city, he would find a reason, an excuse, to stop and hunt for Brightman.
Instead he ran a line alongside the Mexico/US border, an expanse of scrub that went as far as he could see on the American side. On the Mexican side, modest homes dotted the landscape, blending in against the backdrop of high desert.
If he wanted to, Mike knew that he could easily drive across the border. The highway on the Mexican side was wider, the route more direct. He could shave long hours from the drive, but he didn’t pull off the road. Mexico whispered things to him that he could handle only if he stayed on his side of the fence. A man could get lost there, especially a man with a past, a man with needs.
If he crossed that line, he would hit Mexicali first, and then Tijuana. If he survived the first two weeks he would head further south and disappear but he knew that he’d never survive. Maybe the idea of dying in some Tijuana shithole with a needle in his arm made the long drive on the American side easier. When Route 8 came, there was no question. He turned towards El Centro, where a young girl named Janet Arlington had grown up, gone to school, gotten married. Where she had likely died.
It was miserable, dark and raining when Mike hit the outskirts of El Centro’s industrial district. There was no guarantee it would look any better at another time. Desperation. Mike thought of the two pictures of Janet Arlington that he had unearthed. One a bent snapshot in Brightman’s box of trophies and the other what looked to be a high school yearbook photo attached to a few inches in the back of the local paper when the wedding had been announced. She had been hopeful, not because she saw a wonderful life ahead of her, but because anything had to be better than what she had.
Drifting, but not aimless, Mike made his way to the one solid last location that he had for Janet Arlington, where the high school photo had been taken. Central High was as generic a name as any other; it might as well have been Municipal Building Number Five. It would be more fitting if it was simply a number.
This late at night, on this kind of a night, there was no one at the school so Mike idled across the street. Nothing to see, nothing to learn. That was often the case; much of the time, surveillance consisted of doing what he was doing at that moment. Getting a feel for a place, letting it get under his skin until he could see what he needed to see, with the right eyes.
There was a kiss and go spot in front of the school, where parents would drop their kids off, pick them up afterwards. Mike didn’t see that being used an awful lot; getting dropped off at high school by your parents wasn’t any cooler now that it had been when he had been a kid. It was one of those amenities that a school had to have, but it was like an appendix; unnecessary but persistent. There was no designated spot for a school bus.
Janet Arlington would have walked to school, which put her home at the time in roughly a two mile radius from the school. She would have walked past warehouses and used car lots, or past tract housing and dreary strip malls. Mike wondered what, if anything, had changed in the past fifteen years. The school had a ramp for people in wheelchairs; that would have been new, and there was a coffee place a few blocks away that wouldn’t have been in business at the time.
It wouldn’t have changed much; it had the feel of a place frozen in time. Hope and desperation. It wasn’t a place that people came to; it was somewhere people left, that young people especially did anything they could to leave. A young woman marrying someone that she thought could get her out wasn’t unheard of; Mike couldn’t blame a girl for that.
He wondered if Brightman would have gone to the same school, or if she would have met him elsewhere; it was hard to picture Brightman in this setting, but everyone had to start somewhere. A lot could change in fifteen years; maybe Brightman had wanted out too. Mike lit up another cigarette and eased gracefully back into the street, as though he had never been there at all.
Pulling back the tinfoil, Dom pulled the meat off a rib, popping it in his mouth and licking his fingers clean. For a while, after everyone had went home, he went back to the garage and, underneath the car that he and Jim had been working on, he tried to push into the background everything that had happened.
What Brian had told him had been bad enough, but there was that one look, when Eddie had asked about who could be responsible for hijacking the trucks. Just one quick look, a look that said to be quiet, which told Dom all that he needed to know. It wasn’t something he really wanted to think about.
It was true that a lot of people could be responsible, but when Brian described the scene with the trucks, the number of cars, what he thought had gone down, Dom immediately thought of his old team. Automatically, he sought to toss the idea aside and then realized that was pride talking; he didn’t want to accept that his team would be working without him.
They weren’t his team anymore, he knew that, but it still hit him hard. It did make Eddie’s presence in his life make some sense. The FBI had thought that he was running his old team, even from prison; why would they simply take his word that it wasn’t the case? It didn’t make Dom like Eddie, but it put things in perspective.
Vince. It had to be Vince. Dom mulled over who else Vince would have in his crew, until he realized just how pissed off he was getting.
The business with Heather didn’t bother him overly much; it wasn’t the first time that a woman had slapped him and, despite what Shirley had said, he knew that he had deserved it. Maybe no one else deserved to have been there when it happened, but Dom knew that he had deserved it.
Shirley and Jim had hit it off. That wasn’t too surprising, given their similarity in age. It had made Mia happy to see it; she kicked him under the table, her eyes sparkling, a small grin pulling up the corner of her mouth. She had kicked him again, later, when she had caught him staring at Amber. It was hard not to; Shirley brought out the best in her. Made her laugh.
He had lain under the car for fifteen minutes, doing nothing. Nothing but think of Amber. That’s when he had got up and went back into the diner, raiding the fridge. He picked at a few more bones absently, but his heart wasn’t in it. It wasn’t food that he wanted, or beer. Closing his eyes, he lowered his head, resting his forehead on the cool lip of the beer bottle, sighing. What he wanted was company. He wanted Amber.
The rest of the beer went down the sink, everything else went back in the fridge and he locked up, wandering slowly back across the driveway. Her living room light had been on when he first walked out. It was off now, the soft pink light of her bedroom on instead.
Sitting on the edge of his bed, he looked out of his window, across the driveway to Amber’s bedroom window. She had already changed into her pajamas and was walking around her bed, flipping the comforter back. He noticed that the baseball bat, with its silly red bow, was back by the side of her bed. As Dom watched, she crossed the window once more and her light went out.
Sighing, Dom looked down at his hands, feeling stupid. Not that it stopped him. When he looked up again, Amber stood by her window, one of the sheer curtains in her hands. She was looking back at him. Not just out the window but at him. Dom caught her eyes and held them for a second; he had held her as she slept for two nights now, to look at her across so much distance felt strange. Amber dropped her eyes once, and then looked up again, her cheeks reddening, but she didn’t look away this time.
The alarm clock beside his bed ticked over a few times and then Dom laid back, closing his eyes. A deep breath, exhaled slowly, and he opened his eyes again, looking up at his grey ceiling.
Dom was knocking on her door less than a minute later; he still felt stupid but he didn’t give a shit anymore. Maybe if he was younger it would have mattered to him. He would have waited until she came to see him and, if she didn’t, he would move on to something else, something easier.
Her eyes were wide when she opened the door, her cheeks still pink. She hadn’t turned any of the lights on and that made him feel good, knowing that she felt safe enough to walk through her house in the dark, to open the door. Amber didn’t say anything, and Dom didn’t ask, she just swallowed and turned around, walking back through her house to her bedroom.
His hand shook as he locked her door, turning to follow her back down the hall to her bedroom. Under the covers already, Dom could hear her heart race, her shoulders trembling slightly. His feeling stupid faded into the background a little, as he tiptoed across to her bed, not sure why he felt the need to be so quiet.
Amber stiffened as Dom’s arm went around her waist, pulling her back to his chest. Dom wanted to say something but couldn’t; he didn’t know what he would say anyway. Instead, he buried his nose into the soft skin at her nape; so close he could feel her pulse pound against his lips. Slowly, her body relaxed, her racing heart slowed. When she fell asleep, her hand covered his, pulling it to her chest.
“Be quiet, baby. I don’t want that asshole coming out and hurting you.”
Heather turned and looked back at him; she had him shut off the interior light, not wanting to draw attention when she went back to the diner. Being fired, the way it had happened, had hit a sore spot. Amber was bad enough, but then Shirley, a woman easily twice her age. “Nobody’s going to say shit. I just forgot a few things here.”
Heather hadn’t forgotten anything when she left; she wasn’t known for forgetting. Anything. Silently, she tiptoed across the driveway, pulling the bag of sugar out only when she reached Amber’s car. It took some work to get the gas cap off, but Heather was determined. The bag of sugar had a built in spout, which made her job easier. That Dom could fix what was wrong didn’t change it for her; that sexual thrill she got from hurting Amber, from hurting someone that took what should be hers. Closing the gas cap, Heather crept back across the driveway and got back into the car. That was another thing that she took from Amber.
“Let’s go, Alan.”
Copyright © December 2007 xxxevilgrinxxx