Friday, January 04, 2013

Fiction Friday: Terms & Conditions

Part 5  Part 6 Part 7

8. Contact With The Enemy

           When I came back from the payphone, the shabby green sedan from the gas station had arrived and was parked outside the restaurant.
           “Dammit.” Michael let the blinds fall and took one more stab at the remains of the pancake, then pushed the half-empty plate away. “I didn’t think they’d follow us.”
           I risked a peek out the window to confirm and felt my own appetite wither. “This is seriously not kosher.”
           The envelope had been pushed to one side when the food arrived, and it had stayed jammed up against the condiment rack while we ate. Now Michael pulled it to him and flipped it face-up so he could reread the instructions. “Do you know what’s in here?”
           I shook my head. “No. Do you?”
           “No.” He weighed it in his hand, frowned and checked out the window again. “But I have a pretty good idea what’s in mine.” Something settled in his expression, a floating idea that put down roots and became a decision. He didn’t seem happy about it. “Okay, okay. Confession time. I didn’t -- ” He paused and took a sip of coffee to fill the space, then studied the tabletop between us. “I didn’t actually have a job for you to do when I picked you up this morning.”
           I thought of my warm bed and my neglected cat at home and almost dumped my own coffee over his head. “I beg your pardon?”
           “You heard me. I lied. There isn’t -- wasn’t -- anything the company wanted you for.” The admission came with both a cringe of embarrassment and a slump of relief. “I’m sorry. I honestly didn’t think they’d give you something for real. And I certainly didn’t expect him to show up in person.”
           “Huh.” I sat back in the booth, considering whether this revelation was worth my getting angry again. “So why bring me at all, then?”
           “I’ve been on the road for almost a month now -- most of that in a crappy rental car -- and I was in the area, and I thought some company would be nice.” He was suddenly very focused on cleaning his glasses with the edge of his shirt. “Your company.”
           “Oh, for -- couldn’t you have gotten Ben? He’s still active and he’s in this area.”
           Michael shook his head, looking irritated and a little scared. “Ben’s been AWOL for the better part of three weeks.”
           “He’s -- three weeks?!” I was suddenly aware of the large window to my right, and of the open space and clear lines of sight beyond it. Heads went up around the restaurant and turned toward me, and I lowered my voice. “Should I be worried?”
           “No.” Michael shook his head again. “I don’t think so. And we’ve got more pressing matters to deal with, anyway.”
           The green sedan lurked at the corner of my vision. I decided that yes, I was still angry after all. “So what do we do now?”
          Michael set down his glasses and picked up my envelope. “I’ll take the assignment, for one thing,” he said, studying the instructions. “I’d offer to run you home beforehand, but there’s no time. They want it done by noon.”
           I crossed my arms and looked away. “Plus there’s the matter of that other assignment.”
           “That too.” Michael put his glasses back on and looked over his shoulder, then leaned in. “Okay, listen,” he said quietly. “How much cash do you have on you?”
           “Not a lot. I’ve got my debit card with me -- ”
           “That’ll work. Here’s the deal: I’m going to go up front and pay the check. Wait for me to finish, then go in the women’s restroom and count to forty. I’ll go out to the van and ‘notice’ Parker and White -- ”
           That brought me out of my seat. “What? No!”
           “ -- and you sneak out through the back and lay low somewhere. Once I’ve gotten rid of them, I’ll come back around to get you, and then I’ll take you to the bus station or the airport or wherever you need to go. Sound good?”
           “Mike -- !”
           “Rachel, I made a promise to you: No more RED jobs, not even as a ride-along. I intend to keep that promise. I don’t care who’s giving the orders now.” He stood up and stuffed the envelope inside his jacket. “Ready?”
           I stared at him. “Holy cow, you’re serious. You really don’t care.” I drained my coffee and nodded. “Ready.”
           I didn’t often leave the van to do leg work, but the few times it happened, I kept my eyes open and I learned a lot. One lesson was that a purposeful gait and a determined expression are often all you need to access areas normally off-limits to the general public. Just walking quickly and saying “Sorry, can’t talk now” once got Rosemarie and me backstage at a major music festival, and a “borrowed” badge and a clipboard got us into a headliners’ tour bus. The job was either to recover or to plant photos of a semi-famous young woman in a state of undress on the bassist’s phone. Given the parties involved, it could have gone either way. But none of that is my point. My point is that compared to bluffing event security, an understaffed restaurant kitchen at the start of the breakfast rush was a piece of cake.
           Right up until I stuck my head out the back door and saw Parker waiting for me.
           He stood by the dumpster in his damned immaculate suit, inspecting his damned immaculate fingernails and humming a soft, tuneless melody. I pushed the door all the way open, my hand splayed flat against the painted metal, and he looked up, smiling a little like he was pleasantly surprised to see me.
           Flying elbow right to that smug mouth, then run like hell. I stood in the doorway for what had to be close to a minute, wondering if I really had it in me to beat someone’s face out of shape with just my fists and maybe the heel of my shoe. Then Parker shifted his weight onto his toes, patent leather wingtips creaking, and tapped the face of his watch. “You’re on the clock, H-- ”
           I slammed the door shut before he could finish. “Not your clock,” I muttered. “Not again. Not ever again.” I counted my breaths until my hands stopped shaking and went to find Michael.

(To be continued)  

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