Be careful what you wish for
‘WE’RE OUT OF GAS,’ she said.
Diego leaned over. Stared at the needle buried deep in the red.
‘Jesus Christ. Why didn’t you fill up before?’
‘I forgot. Okay?’
He had the sense to not say anything else. People thought he was an idiot but he wasn’t that stupid. He pulled out his phone, called the guys in the white Ford Mustang following behind them.
‘We’re stopping for gas.’
She heard the word puta on the other end of the line. It only made her smile to herself all the more.
There was a gas station a half mile ahead on the right. She flicked on the turn signal to give the pendejo in the Mustang behind plenty of warning. The driver of the matt black Silverado truck sitting at the curb saw it too, started the engine.
Diego turned to look at it as they drove past.
‘Will you look at that truck.’ He laughed as he took in the massive oversized wheels, the all-terrain tires, the suspension lift kit, the fancy mesh grille behind the bull bars, the whole thing designed to intimidate other drivers on the road. ‘No wonder he’s got tinted windows. That’s a guy with a really small pecker.’
‘You want me to stop?’ she said, her face deadpan. ‘You could make him an offer on it.’
If she was hoping to piss him off, it didn’t work. He gave her leg a spiteful squeeze.
‘We both know that’s not true.’
She pulled into the gas station, drove through to the far pump. The Mustang followed her in, parked tight up behind her.
‘Give me the key,’ Diego said as he opened the passenger door.
‘You haven’t needed a key for the filler cap for ten years.’
His hand stayed where it was. Palm up, extended towards her.
‘You don’t trust me. Right.’
She pulled it from the ignition. Dropped it into his palm. He gave her a tight little smile. Thanks. Up yours, she mouthed to his back as he got out.
She watched him in the mirror as he walked around behind the car, waving to Angel in the passenger seat of the Mustang. Angel got out, took the key.
‘I’m going to the men’s room,’ Diego told him.
She wished she could have put money on that. Come to think of it, she had. Just not with a bookie. She watched him swagger towards the store, disappear inside it. The only thing that surprised her was he hadn’t pulled his comb out of his back pocket before he got halfway there.
She heard the rattle of the nozzle, felt the slight settling of the car as the gas pumped in. Glanced in the mirror, her heartbeat quickening. The oily smell of gas flowing through the open window made her feel sick, her palms sweaty on the wheel. She reached around for her bag on the back seat. Pulled out the spare key, slipped it into the ignition.
Glanced in the mirror again. The Mustang driver’s door was open now. Antonio standing half in, half out of the car. His eyes behind the dark shades sweeping the parking lot for the first sign of trouble, hand hidden in his jacket pocket.
But they were the only two vehicles in the whole gas station.
Then suddenly they weren’t.
There was the deep-throated roar of a 350 V8 engine accelerating hard. The black Silverado swung in off the street, massive tires eating up the blacktop, careened into the parking lot. Surging towards the Mustang, coming at it at forty-five degrees, aiming at the rear fender.
She turned the ignition, jammed it into gear.
Diego came out of the store and froze.
She stomped on the gas, spinning her wheels.
The Silverado slammed into the Mustang, bull bars crushing the fender like a tin can, catapulting the car across the asphalt. The edge of the roof hit Antonio in the chest, threw his arms backwards, gun sailing through the air.
Her tires bit. The car started moving.
Angel jumped backwards as the gas nozzle was yanked out of the filler neck. Right into the path of the Mustang. It caught him on the hip, spun him, the hose wrapping around his legs.
The Silverado driver goosed the gas. Plowed into the Mustang. Black smoke filled the air, the squeal of rubber spinning on asphalt as the Silverado bumped the Mustang sideways.
It kept on going, pushing, shoving, engine screaming in competition with the tires. Bulldozed the Mustang into the fuel pump. Still didn’t stop. Antonio dragged along with it, one leg in the footwell, one under the car, hanging onto the top of the door.
Then different sounds adding to the cacophony. Metal shrieking, buckling. The sharp crack of concrete splintering. And one nobody wanted to hear. A cross between a hiss and a whoosh as the fuel pump ripped out of the ground.
Gasoline went everywhere. Angel, still tangled in the hose, on his back as it soaked into his clothes.
She was doing thirty by the time she hit the exit. Thirty-five by the time she’d thrown it into a hard right. Out onto the street. Never looking. Caring less. Stomping on the gas, pedal to the metal, disappearing down the street in a cloud of smoke.
The Silverado backed up. Wheel hard left. Tore after her.
Angel and Antonio turned and ran. Splashing through the spilled gasoline, Diego on their tail. Nobody gave a thought to giving chase or giving a damn.
Not after the rube in the battered old station wagon pulled in, an arm like an extension of the wood trim hanging out the window, a lighted cigarette clamped between his thick fingers.
EVAN BUCKLEY GOT BACK from putting Miranda Lambert’s Mama’s Broken Heart on the jukebox to find a woman sitting on his stool at the bar. She was running her finger through the condensation beading his beer glass. Looking as if she was about to drink it.
‘I can get you one of your own, if you like,’ he said to her blond ponytail, ‘or we can share mine.’
She jumped. Twisted in his seat, a hint of a smile on her cushiony lips.
‘Hello Evan. I see your lines haven’t improved any in the last five years.’
There was a moment’s stunned silence.
‘Jesus Christ.’ He gave her an awkward, mismatched hug. ‘Carly?’
He pulled over another stool. Squeezed in next to her. The other drinkers shifted along to make room. He stared at her a few beats. She didn’t look as good as she used to. Still good enough for the other guys to look her up and down as if she were hanging naked in a butcher’s window.
She noticed what was playing on the jukebox, smiled.
‘How’s that working out for you?’
She flicked her head upwards. His face creased into a frown.
‘I numbed the pain at the expense of my liver,’ she sang.
‘I never listen to the words.’
Neither of them believed that for a minute.
‘What are you doing here?’ he said.
‘I called in at your office. The guy downstairs said I’d find you here.’
She picked up his drink and sipped it. Pulled a face as if it was Drano. Her lips left a smear of lipstick on the glass.
‘Ugh. I don’t know how you drink that. I’ll have a vodka rocks.’
He turned the glass so the lipstick was on the far side. If he’d paid more attention to it, he’d have saved himself a lot of trouble down the road.
She leaned forward, forearms on the bar, her cleavage leveraged against her arms, breasts pushed upward. He knew the display wasn’t for his benefit and it wasn’t for the other drinkers along the bar, but that didn’t stop them all staring.
The bartender put her drink in front of her. She didn’t touch it, just stirred the ice. Stared down into the glass. A slight tremor shook her hand. She swallowed nervously.
It was like being on a first date. The sort where there isn’t going to be a second one.
‘How long’s it been?’ he said. ‘Five, six years? What are you up to these—’
‘I’m in trouble,’ she blurted out. ‘I need your help.’
He liked a woman who cut to the chase.
‘There’s someone I want you to find for me.’
‘What sort of trouble?’
She shook her head, not now.
‘It’s too complicated. I don’t want to go into it.’
‘Why do you need me to find him—it is a him isn’t it?’
She picked up a coaster, put it down again.
‘You’re right, it’s a guy.’
‘But you can’t tell me what it’s about?’
‘Can’t you just say yes without asking a ton of questions?’
She tried another smile. It got about a third of the way to her eyes.
It was like being in a time machine. He’d been whisked back five or six years, back to the same old manipulative Carly. She probably couldn’t remember the last time the world didn’t work out for her. At least she hadn’t said for old times’ sake.
She put her hand on his arm. He laughed silently to himself.
Here it comes. The emotional blackmail.
‘I know we didn’t always see eye to eye,’ she said, surprising him with her unexpected honesty, ‘but I really do need your help. I’m in serious trouble.’
‘And you don’t think it would help if you told me about it? You know, a problem shared is a problem halved.’
She dropped her head, shook it. He wouldn’t have been surprised to see a crocodile tear or two land on the bar. A few stray strands of hair fell forward, partially obscuring her face. He leaned in towards her. She wouldn’t meet his eyes.
‘Why me? After five years of nothing. How did you even know what I do?’
‘Because I didn’t have anyone else to turn to.’
It was a lie.
It was just when you searched for soft touch on Google, his number was top of the results.
‘That’s worked out well then. And putting those investigative skills to work right now—’
She glanced up at him now, as if he was about to deliver the answer to her problems from behind the bar.
‘—makes me think there’s something important you’re not telling me.’
He waited for confirmation, got an irritated glare instead—don’t be ridiculous!
‘Like it’s dangerous.’
She held his gaze. Shook her head.
His brain did the translation on autopilot—Yes, very.
They sat staring at each other without talking for a long moment. He finished his beer and ordered another. She still hadn’t made a dent in her drink.
She broke the silence first, cleared her throat.
‘There is another reason I came to you.’
He allowed himself a small smile as she inched her way cautiously towards the truth. Not that she’d ever get all the way, but a little closer would be nice.
‘You’re right. I could have gone to any PI and asked them to do it. But there’s something I can do for you in return. Something that would only be of interest to you.’
She sat back in her seat. Finally took a big gulp of her drink. Waited for him to bite.
But if she thought he was that easy to hook, she was mistaken. She didn’t have anything he wanted. Then she leaned in towards him and the smug, sneering glint in her eyes—the one that said you have absolutely no idea what is going on—told him before the words were out of her mouth that he was wrong.
That he could not have been more wrong.
‘I can help you find Sarah.’
THE BACK OF HIS NECK went cold. The glass slipped out of his slick palm, hit the bar top with a thud. Had he heard her correctly? He was vaguely aware that she was still talking. Her mouth was moving, vocal cords twanging away tirelessly. He couldn’t hear a thing apart from a roaring silence, his blood a steady pounding of fists against his ears.
His head slowly cleared. It felt as if it had expanded and snapped back into place like a rubber band. Carly was saying something to him.
‘Evan! Have you heard a word I’m saying?’ She took hold of his arm. Shook him.
‘I’m not sure I heard you right.’
It came out more like a croak than his voice, hollow behind the blood in his ears.
‘I said I can’t guarantee anything. But I can help.’
He grabbed hold of her arm more roughly than he meant to, squeezed without realizing.
‘Where is she?’
Five years’ worth of pain and hurt crammed into three little words. She slapped at his hand.
‘You’re hurting me.’
He let go. Slumped down into his seat.
‘You have to help me first.’
It took a moment for her words to sink in. He stared at her open-mouthed, words beyond him. Did she think it was some kind of game? And he’d pulled the short straw so she got to go first.
‘If I tell you what I know now, you’ll be out that door faster than a scalded cat. Probably without opening it first.’ Then she gave his arm a patronizing squeeze, one that told him something really nasty was on its way. ‘Also . . . and there isn’t any nice way to put this, but you’ve been waiting five years already. Another day or two won’t make any difference.’
It was as if he’d been slapped.
Had she really just said that? You’ve been waiting five years already.
‘I need help right now. If you don’t help me, I won’t be around in five days’ time, forget about five years.’
He stared at his reflection in the mirror, eyes never blinking, sucking air up from the floor. Forced himself to calm down.
He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, his jaw clenched. An unwelcome thought intruded into his mind. Did she really know something? Or was she pulling his chain, pushing the right button to make him help her? He knew there was only one way to find out, hated himself for being so easy to manipulate.
‘What’s this guy’s name?’
There was a quick flash of triumph in her eyes. Eyes that deserved a sharp poke.
He pulled a face.
‘No, his real name is Joseph Delacroix. Everybody calls him Dixie.’
‘Why? Is he from down South?’
‘I don’t know. It doesn’t matter anyway. I know he spends time in a bar called Kelly’s Tavern. That’d be a good place to start.’
He knew the place. Everybody knew the place—so they could avoid it. It was the roughest dive for miles.
No danger, my ass.
‘What do you want me to say to him if I find him?’
‘Tell him I have a proposition for him.’
‘That’s it? What kind of proposition?’
She shook her head.
‘You don’t need to know.’
‘What if he wants to know. I might be prepared to do everything you ask without a word of explanation, but not everybody’s so amenable. Some people want a reason before they hop to it.’
She ignored the jibe, the smug confidence in her voice irritating the hell out of him.
‘He won’t. Trust me.’
‘You got a picture?’
She fished in her bag, pulled out half a photograph. It had started out as a whole photograph of two people but one of them had been cut out. It had been taken somewhere hot and sunny. Dixie was wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt. All that was visible of the woman who’d been cut out was a bare arm. He glanced at Carly’s arm but she was wearing long sleeves.
‘Is that you who’s been cut out?’
‘Do you know who it is?’
She shook her head. Not no, sorry, just no.
‘There’s no risk of me drowning in a sea of facts then. Does he always wear shirts like that?’
‘I’ve never seen him wear anything else. Maybe that’ll make your job easier.’
She climbed off her stool, picked her bag up off the bar, ready to go. That suited him fine. He gave her his number. She punched it into her phone as if he’d given her the number for dial-a-cockroach.
Then she stuck out her hand. It was a strangely formal thing to do. But that suited him just fine too. There’d never been any relationship between them. And he sure as hell didn’t feel like hugging her again after the things she’d said. He took her hand. It was like holding a warm, angry crab.
He watched her in the mirror behind the bar as she walked back towards the door. A number of the other guys were watching her too. All sitting in a row at the bar like grinning idiots. One of them picked up his beer bottle and blew a hollow toot with it. You couldn’t blame them.
He ordered another beer and sat staring into the distance, his mind reeling, her words echoing in his head.
That would require the kind of faith religions were founded on—because how likely was it that a person would wait five years before telling her best friend’s husband what she knew about her disappearance?