Love at First Sight
I hopped off the bus and trudged through the cold drizzle toward my apartment, gloved hands stuffed into my pockets. And there he was again—the man on the bus had followed me, matching my steps like he was my shadow. I sighted him in the side mirror of a parked car—a handsome dark-haired man in an overcoat with the collar flipped up, a smile on his face.
I deliberately made a wrong turn onto a side street littered with cheap restaurants. Plainly visible on a window’s reflection, the main in the coat caught a lamppost with his arm, twirled around it, and strolled in my direction yet again. I stuffed my hand into my coat, clutching the knife I had in the pocket of my slacks. The street bore a few other pedestrians, but only two or three in my line of sight. No one wanted to be outside in weather like this. Especially me.
I wanted to turn and rush at this guy. Who the fuck did he think he was, tailing me in public? If he was a predator, he was a fuck-stupid one, or so arrogant that he thought he could come after me with witnesses around. That thought riled me up even more, and I clenched the knife, prepared to draw it out. But then I relaxed my grip, let the knife go, and drew out my cell phone instead. I glanced back and gave the man a pointed look as I dialed 9-1-1, then held the phone to my ear.
The man in the coat seemed to realize, as if out of the fucking blue, that he looked like a creep. He smiled, held up his hands in a show of peace, and trotted toward me. I reached for my knife with my spare hand, eying him up. Black shoes, black slacks, black coat, black hair. The man looked like a funeral attendee, except for that stupid smile of his.
“I figured I was just walking,” the man said. “Just minding my own business. Didn’t mean to freak you out or nothin’.”
“Well, you did,” I said. “So here we are. Can I help you with someone, or are you gonna keep skulking around and being a dickhead?”
The man chuckled. “If you’d like, I could walk in front of you. Just so long as you don’t start stalkin’ me instead.”
“What?” I said. I took two steps his way, then stopped and jabbed my finger instead. “Look, just back off, asshole. I’m not keen to take any more strays home with me.”
The man stuffed his hands into his pockets. “Hm. You a dog person? No, cats, definitely. But I think we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot, so let’s try again. Hi there!” The man stuck his hand out toward me. “I’m Dick. I run a few bars in town, one of which, nicely enough, is just a few minutes’ walk from here. The Blue Jay. Ever been?”
“No,” I said, glaring at his outstretched hand. “Dick what?”
“Dick Garrett,” Dick said. “And you?”
I looked him in the eyes, standing a bit taller. “Petty Officer Second Class Barbara Lenton, US Navy.” That was usually enough to scare off anyone too feisty; Dick didn’t blink. I caught myself and cleared my throat. “Former US Navy. Just discharged last month.” When Dick held my gaze, I sighed, shut my phone, and shook his hand. His grip was as bold and strong as mine.
“Interesting!” Dick said. “My father was in the Navy, a lieutenant.” Dick took a couple of steps my way, and I held my ground as he walked past me. “What’d you do in the Navy, Barbara?”
Rolling my eyes, I began to walk alongside him. “I was a shipboard navigation specialist,” I said. “Finished my tour, came home.”
“Happy to see the states again?” Dick said.
“I guess,” I said. “Happy to be off that goddamn boat, more like.”
Dick’s smile brightened a few watts. He said, “Hearing Pop, you’d think the carrier was his first love. He’d have whisked us away to live on the sea if Mom had let him. I could never see the appeal.” We came to a corner, and this time I steered us in the correct direction toward my apartment. My doubts had diminished, but I was still relieved to see other passersby on the street ahead. Dick strolled at my side like an old friend.
“Well, to each his own,” I said. I already felt sore bringing up my service again, dredging up those memories from their shallow grave.
“So I’ll bet you’re looking for work, huh?” Dick said. I flinched, and he laughed and patted my shoulder just once. “If I’m out of line, just tell me.”
Dick was out of line, but I wanted to keep talking. I never got the chance to talk about myself. “It’s fine. Yeah, I’m looking. I just left an interview, as a matter of fact. Thought I’d get my old job back, but that call center is nothing but new faces now.” I felt a smile come upon my lips, the first of the day. “The interviewer was a bitch. I’m pretty sure I’m not getting the job.”
Dick said, “You don’t bend for people, do you.” His face had inclined toward me, and the smile was gone. “I’ll bet you were a riot in training. Ever bump heads with the officers?”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “Never took well to bullshit. Too mouthy to stay out of trouble, too. But human bullshit is inescapable, military or not.” There I was, running my mouth, but I hadn’t gotten to complain much lately and this felt like a rare treat. “The Navy, that’s a different world. Everyone’s so much softer here. People call me stubborn, and sometimes they’re right, but I’d say I’m just tough when no one else is.”
“I could use someone like you,” Dick said. I glanced at him and found him regarding me more keenly than before. “Someone who’s tough enough for PT, someone who doesn’t take shit from people less than them.” Dick stopped in place halfway down the street, and I faced him, standing in the light rain with my arms crossed. “There’s a place for a lady like you in my organization.”
“Just what is it you do, again?” I said.
“Here. You ought to find out for yourself.” Dick planted something angular in my hand, a black business card. RICHARD GARRETT, INGRAM REAL ESTATE, it said, with a number printed beneath.
Dick said, “Go home, look me up. You can think about it then. If you’re interested, call the number, okay?” He started walking in the direction we’d come from. Over his shoulder, he said, “Hope I get to see you soon.”
“Alright,” I said. “See you around.” I stared at the card, then at his receding back. I stuffed the card into my pocket. I’d just come into town, that man had looked more closely at me than anyone had in my adult life. He’d offered me a job, too. Fantastic, if it weren’t so damned suspicious.
Dick waved without looking back, but after a few steps he stopped and turned to me, taking one last look. I could see his smile even in the haze. He turned back without a word, then kept walking until he rounded a corner and went out of sight. Had he been following me? Like, really following me, like he’d scouted me out and looked for an opportunity to introduce himself? I wondered what he saw in me. More than what most people saw, certainly. I took another look at the card. Now I had to find out more.
Driving past the Blue Jay’s burnt remains, I could smell pungent ash in the air even with the AC on. Workers were clearing away the rubble and a lane was closed for their safety, so I got a long look at the mess as traffic crawled by. Every wall had fallen in somewhere, and the dilapidated former bar stood out among the undamaged businesses like a rotted tooth. I’d done well last night.
The traffic inched forward, and I drummed my fingers on the wheel. Chevy Silverado, 2002. My college car, cared for by a few friends until my discharge. The truck had survived two accidents with mere tents on the bumper, but the truck bed hadn’t seen any hauling action until I started working for Dick and carrying around a few objects useful in my line of work. Like, say, an extra-large gas can hidden under the lid.
Another ten minutes on the road took me to Dick’s new base of operations. Dick owned property, and he owned people who owned property, so he had to tell us which of his innumerable sites would hold our next meeting. Our new “lair” was one of a dozen hotels on this side of town, and I saw its signboard as I pulled into the lot. The Sunshine Inn, with a gaudy sun wearing a freakish smile.
Along the front of the building, several reserved parking spaces stood out with streaks of fresh paint. “Don’t mind if I do,” I muttered as I pulled into one. Count on Dick to make things convenient for his flunkies. If the spaces were for someone else, well, they could fuck right off.
I strolled past reception and took the elevator to the third floor. Room 321 was on the right at the end of the hall; I found the door and knocked without hesitation.
Dick, already smiling, opened the door for me. “Hey there, Barb,” he said. “Come on in.”
“Not a bad place you have here,” I said, though I don’t think I’d noticed a single aesthetic feature about the hotel—no, the reserved spaces were marked in white paint. I had noticed that. “Does this place belong to you or someone who owes you?”
“Me,” Dick said, and he held out his arm in welcome. I stepped past him into a spacious room crowded with well-dressed guys, guys wearing plain clothes, a guy dressed like a wino, and two ladies. One of the girls had a business suit with a skirt, and the other was dressed like a whore. I made eye contact with a few of them, searching for familiar faces and finding only three. But one suited guy gave me a nod and moved aside to give me a space by the dresser. The rest gave me stares that were more wary than welcoming. These were Dick’s crew, hardened criminals all. Just like me, I told myself with a smile.
All eyes returned to Dick as he sat on the bed and gave a long sigh. Then he flopped back, splayed his arms over the covers, and made a noise like a contented cat. “Ah. A new base, a room filled with my dear friends…” Dick lifted his head and swept his eyes over the lot of us. “And clean sheets. Good to be in business. Now, what’s new!?”
The flaps of Dick’s jacket fluttered as he sat up and sat back on the heels of his hands. “Mr. Timm, how’s the investigation on my the Blue Jay going?”
A guy in a brown suit spoke up. “The police have ruled the fire an accident. The investigation failed to find anything pointing to arson.”
“Ah well,” Dick said, wiping his eye as if brushing away a tear. “If only Ingram’s Finest could find out what happened to my beloved bar.” He gave a long, wistful sigh, then switched to a sly smile. “Especially since they were fixing to raid it in the first place! But that’s no longer a problem, and we have Barb to thank for it.” Dick waved toward me and I raised my chin, unsure of what else to do with so many people staring at me. “She’s going to be working with us from now on. Everyone say hi Barb.”
A few voices muttered out greetings; the man dressed like a wino said “Hi Barb!” I rolled my eyes and Dick laughed.
“Alright, cut the fuckin chatter. Wes, what’s new on the streets?” Dick said.
Wes was near the door, in a flannel shirt and blue jeans. “Cocaine,” he said in a drawl. “Pulled a couple boys off the streets selling on a corner. You ask me, I think they belong to Silvers, but they aren’t talking.”
“Huh,” Dick said. “Big news. You couldn’ta told me that before we got everyone in the same room?”
Shrugging, Wes said, “I found out literally ten minutes ago. Sorry.”
“Sure. Okay.” Dick ran a hand through his locks, tugging them to the side. I thought I saw a vein in his hand throb. “How old are the kids?”
“Sixteen, seventeen,” Wes said. “Old enough to smoke.”
“We’ll work that shit out after the meeting,” Dick said. “Next.” Dick looked across the room toward the girl with a painted face wearing next to nothing. “Viola, how’s Officer Mahone doing?”
Viola smiled, stretching her red lips. “Singing a different tune now. I got photos of him with a lady of the night.” She mimed peering through a camera’s viewfinder, looking proud of herself.
One of the suits said, “His wife won’t like that.”
Viola added, “You’ll have him under your thumb pretty soon.”
“Sounds like fun,” Dick said. “That’ll cheer me up, I bet. Next! Bollocks?”
“Bollocks” was a black man shorter than me with a shaved head wearing glasses and a tie, no suit. I stared at the man, wondering what in god’s name he’d done to deserve a name like that. Bollocks said, “Construction on the 8th Street lot is slow since the flooding last week. The shirt factory is up and running again. Nothing to report on shipping. Baxter’s trial date has been set. Your retirement package is looking nice.”
“Good to hear,” Dick said, showing a sunny grin which Bollocks did not return. Then Dick turned to the massive man with his arms crossed, the officer I’d seen smoking at the Blue Jay last night. “James. Has anyone tried to fuck with me in the last day?”
“No sir,” James said. “No one watching your car, house, or the hotel. No cops poking around. All is well.”
“It really is, isn’t it?” Dick said. He dropped back onto the bed and lay back, arms folded behind his head. “Oh, I’ll sleep well tonight. Good boy, James.” James snorted, and Dick sat up again, clapping his hands together. “Okay! Good work, people. David, take your boys and go talk to Other James about his debt. Viola, let the lieutenant in on what we know about him.”
“Sure,” said Viola.
“Yes sir,” said David, though I failed to pick him out from the crowd.
“Wes, hold those kids until after dinner,” Dick said. “Learn what you can. I’ll call and we can work out a solution then.”
“Yessir,” Wes said.
“James, Barbara, stay here for a bit. The rest of you, good talk, good work. Get on outta here.”
People began shuffling out of the room, most without a glance my way. James stood beside the bed like a knight at attention, a wary look frozen on his blocky features. I realized he was staring at me, and I glared right back.
Dick said, “Barb, come here for me.” He sat on the edge of the bed and I marched up to him, happy at last to have a reason to be there. I plainly hadn’t come to meet his other employees, so what was the point? And come to think of it, why’d he stick all of his people into one room? I could imagine few things more suspicious than seeing dozens of ex-convicts and suspected criminals leaving one building at once. It seemed stupid. I was about to voice my concern when Dick said, “Did you like torching that bar?”
“What?” I said.
“The fire last night,” Dick said. “I’m asking if you enjoyed setting it or if you regret it.” Something in his eyes kept me from turning away. It was that cold, penetrating look he gave me the day we first met. “The cigarettes, the booze, the heat and exploding windows. That was fun for you, right?”
I realized I’d let myself go too much last night. He’d seen my delight plain as day. I could feel James’s stare upon me, and I had a sudden paranoia that they’d find out what kind of “fun” I got up to in the Navy, back in the bad old days. For last night, though, the cat was plainly out of the bag. “Yes sir,” I said. “I enjoyed it immensely.”
“Good!” Dick said. “Because I want you to do it again.” He wore that obnoxious grin again. Maybe he caught a flash of excitement across my face, or maybe he just liked to bare his teeth. Probably both. “If you were listening, you heard me send a guy after a debtor of mine, Other James. Now who’d I send?”
“David,” I muttered. I had a good memory for names.
Dick smiled and shook his fist. “Atta girl. Now, Other James—James Blanton—is not a very good customer. He’s got himself on the hook for thirty K, which he’ll probably never be able to pay off unless he robs a bank or has a very good weekend in Vegas some time this month. But that’s David’s business, not yours.” Dick clapped his hands. “Now, there’s another guy named Ben McGavin who owes even more, prospects dimmer still. In fact, they’re not dim. Just dark. Pitch black, empty, hopeless… Dark. He’s not even trying. So I want you to burn his house down.”
“Oh, wow,” I said. “Um, okay. You want me to burn his house down. What’s the neighborhood?”
“A classy suburb in south Ingram. Outside my normal reach, or so McGavin thinks,” Dick said. “You’ll be a nice surprise for him. See if he still gives me bullshit after his pool is full of his roof.”
I doubted it was part of my job to ask the reasoning behind my assignments. I liked to burn things. Dick paid me to burn things. “I can do that,” I said with more confidence than I felt. “Anything special you want done? Does it need to look like an accident?”
“Not really,” Dick said. “Best McGavin gets the message. Do it your own way—accellerant, grenades, a flamethrower—whatever floats your boat so long as it doesn’t lead back to you or us. Have fun with it. Anything you want to add, James?”
Even with his eyes pinned on me, James said, “She ought to set it from a distance, or get out quick. McGavin might actually be on the lookout.”
“There you go,” Dick said. “Be careful and quick, but get it done your way.” Then Dick’s eyes narrowed. “One more thing. I want you to do it when his wife and kids are in. That’ll make the message clear.”
“Why?” I said. Dick arched his eyebrows, and James squared his shoulders, suddenly as tense as me. “Why the fuck would you want to involve his family in that?”
“Well, because I don’t like the asshole, do I?” Dick said. “Is there some reason you’re raising your voice to me? Is there a problem?”
“Of course there is,” I said. This is the guy I signed up to work with? “I’m not bringing a roof down over an innocent lady and her kids. Find someone else to do it.”
My fists were clenched at my sides. James was close enough to reach my throat. Dick’s eyes peered into mine. Then he smiled. “Good to hear,” Dick said. James relaxed a bit, and Dick stood up from the bed. I moved back to give him space, my mind reeling. “I figured you’d stand your ground. I’m not disappointed.”
I could think of nothing to say. Dick filled in the silence. “So how about this. Scope out McGavin’s neighborhood your way, on your terms. Set the blaze whenever you want. McGavin can be out of town for all I care. Just have it done in the next two weeks.” Dick stuck his hand, offering it to me. “Do this and you make five K, more if I like your style. Do we have a deal?”
I’ll admit I’m not the quickest thinker. I stared at Dick’s hand for too long, probably looking like a confused idiot for the both of them. But I made my decision, took it, and shook.
“Good to hear. I expect good things from you, Barb,” Dick said. Then he dropped himself back onto the bed. “Why don’t you get outta here. Go get some sleep, huh? James and I have a bit to discuss.”
“Alright,” I said. “See you.” I wobbled toward the exit, and James even opened the door for me. I could feel his and Dick’s gaze on my back as I shuffled down the hall. I was back in my car before I managed to get my thoughts in order.
What the fuck was that about?