If you know anything about me, you know there is nothing more precious to me than the community of beautiful friends I have developed in D.C. Two of those friends help form my writing group, and I could not love it more. Mostly we drink wine and eat tater tots at Olivia’s Diner, but eventually we get around to our writing. It could not be more supportive, fun and loving. This month’s prompt (which, full disclosure, was mine) was a photo that hangs above our booth at Olivia’s. I had forgotten to think of a prompt, and looked up and was inspired (or was lazy and thought oh hey that works). But it’s this cool photo of a very warn down sign in front of a store called Gary’s. Our writing group president, Abby, and I took strangely similar paths on this, both channeling law/noir stuff, but mostly I just like how it turned out. Enjoy! (ps it’s a long one) xox bri
Clarke pulled the faded photograph from the back pocket of her jeans and held it up. Her eyes flicked between it and the building on the other side of the street. The store’s sign had long succumbed to weather or neglect, but it was a match. Gary’s. She flipped the photo over to read the now-familiar scrawl.
I’m waiting. Five days.
She wanted to crumple it in her fist but resisted the urge. It was evidence after all. She shoved it back in her pocket.
She slid gold aviators down over her eyes as she surveyed the street. It was on the outskirts of Sweet Water, Texas, a town that seemed like a place where housewives forced bleached blonde daughters into beauty pageants and beefy sons into football helmets as soon as they could walk.
The only way a joint like Gary’s could survive in a town like Sweet Water was on the periphery, she thought. Right outside the dry county limits, where it lured in the husbands who wanted to numb the boredom with a fifth and the teens who thought they were rebels without a cause. Something told Clarke that Gary didn’t card.
A yellow pick-up slowly drifted by, and the driver in a cowboy hat honked. “Hey sweet thang,” he called out the window as he passed. She ignored him. It wasn’t worth the energy to even flip him the bird. Her younger self might not have been able to show such restraint. Her therapist would be so proud.
He honked again then turned the corner and disappeared from sight. Jack ass, she thought, returning her attention to the street. An old lady in a purple muumuu sat in a beach chair half-way down the block cradling a sawed off shotgun. A standing fan, with a cord running back into the weathered little house, swiveled in a sad, slow arc beside her. Otherwise the street was empty.
Beads of sweat ran down her back collecting above the waistband of her jeans as she crossed over the road to Gary’s. She wished she could strip out of the black leather jacket she wore over her holster, but she didn’t want to draw even more attention than she already was.
She checked the sign one more time, but knew she was in the right place. She swung through the door, which chimed her arrival. The air conditioner was a little window unit with ribbons streaming out of it. It coughed when she walked in, but it seemed to be doing the trick, and she thanked whatever gods there were for the reprieve from the unrelenting sun. She pushed the sunglasses back on top of sweat-matted hair, and eyed the rotund bear manning the cash register.
She wondered if it was Gary, as she started through the aisles of Doritos and Tasty Cakes. She snagged a bag of peanut butter M&Ms, then circled back to the drink section. Gary didn’t have any of the specialty flavored waters she secretly loved. Her options were cheap plain water or expensive plain water. She grabbed the $.99 one and rolled the cool bottle back and forth in the crook of her neck.
She glanced at the six-packs a section over, then closed her eyes. You don’t have time for that shit, she told herself.
She rolled her shoulders in an attempt to relieve the sudden tension that bunched in the muscles there, then took a deep breath and turned to head for the front of the store.
The man – or Gary as he would henceforth be known in her head – only looked up from his girlie magazine when she dropped her items on the counter. He was wearing a dirty white wife beater that didn’t quite cover the beer gut that was making a break for it over the top of his faded jeans. His dark hair was slicked back from a bloated face that’s main attractions were dark beady eyes and a bulbous nose. The capillaries in the skin that stretched over his flared nostrils had been broken from years of alcohol abuse.
She realized he was giving her a similar appraisal, which focused on portions of her body a lot lower than her face, and she shivered in disgust.
“That all?” he drawled at her as he typed the prices into a mid-90s cash register.
“I have a package to pick up as well,” Clarke said, wishing she did not have to engage with the man. She’d met so many like him and they all seemed to want the same thing from her.
“We don’t do packages. Check the post office. Two-fifty,” he said holding out a hand.
Clarke dug for the wadded dollar bills she knew were floating at the bottom of her jacket pocket. “You have a package for Clarke Sinclair,” she said this time, dropping the money into his sweaty palm, avoiding any contact with him.
His eyes grew wide as he straightened away from the counter. He shoved the bills into the register without taking his gaze off her. This time when he looked her up and down she had the sense there was some fear in his eyes. Good, she thought. He should be scared.
“Why didn’t you say so?” he asked as he reached down for a medium-sized brown box wrapped in packaging tape. There was only one thing scrawled across the top in that same haunting handwriting.
TO CLARKE SINCLAIR
Bombs weren’t his style, she told herself, eyeing the box she’d placed on the motel room’s threadbare comforter. Plus he didn’t want to kill her, he wanted her to play his sick little games. He wanted to torture her. She’d kicked off her boots by the door and had stripped down to her olive green tank top and jeans. She paced the length of the room, treading over the faded, worn-down orange carpeting.
On her tenth lap, she nabbed the single chair in the room and swung it around so that she straddled it from the back. She folded her forearms along the top, resting her chin on her stacked wrists. The package had been light, so it probably wasn’t a bomb. If she kept telling herself that she might believe it, she thought with a wry smile.
You aren’t getting x-ray vision anytime soon, Sinclair, she told herself after five minutes of staring it down. You know what’s going to be in there anyway. Grow a pair and make a move.
She dug in her bag for her Swiss Army Knife, flipping open the deceptively sharp blade. She tossed it once in the air, catching it by its handle before approaching the bed as she would a rabid dog.
She sliced through the packaging tape with ease, then pulled back the flaps. She pried loose the photograph that was taped to the bottom. This one was a cabin at the edge of a lake. It had a dock that jutted out in the water with a boat moored at the end of it. “No Worries” was painted on the bow in purple letters. She flipped the photo over.
Tick tock, my dearest. She’s waiting. Four days.
“Goddamn motherfucker,” Clarke threw the knife into the thin wall closest to her. It sunk into the hilt of the small blade. She dropped onto the carpet, her back leaning against the bed. “Goddamn motherfucker,” she said again, quietly this time as she studied the photo for any more details.
She gave up and crawled over to her bag, rummaging through the old receipts and discarded food wrappers to find her cellphone. She didn’t want to make the call but knew she had to. She hit the button.
“Jesus Clarke,” the voice on the other end was partly relieved, partly enraged, she could tell. “You can’t go AWOL on me like that again. Not in the middle of this shit.”
“I had a lead,” she was immediately defensive. Slipping into old, destructive patterns again. She took a deep breath. “You’re right Sam, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”
There was silence and she knew she’d shocked him with her apology. At one point in their time as partners they would have continued to lash out at each other until they were both bleeding on the floor. Emotionally speaking.
Sam sighed. “I was worried about you, kid.”
“We had a hit on the photo from our site in the middle of the night. Some woman wrote in to me that she recognized the store from her hometown,” Clarke told him.
“A note. A text. Is that too hard? I wake up and you’re nowhere to be found,” Sam was getting riled again. She waited, knowing nothing she said could soothe the anger. He had a right to it. If the roles were reversed she wondered if she would have even answered the phone. He took a deep breath. “Alright, it’s done, you’re safe. Where are you?”
She glanced around. “Some shithole motel in Sweet Water, Texas,” she paused. “I found it, Sam.”
“Burying the lead, kid,” Sam’s voice chastised through the phone.
“It was another photo. This time we have four days,” she told him.
“Goddamn motherfucker,” Sam said and Clarke smiled.
“My reaction precisely.”
“Alright, alright, any easier this time?”
“No. A cabin in the woods. Looks Northeastern to my untrained eye. I’ll send you and Della a picture of it, so you guys can start working. Then I’ll get my ass on a plane back to HQ.”
“Took the words out of my mouth,” Sam said. “Any chance he’s there?”
Clarke shook her head before remembering she was on the phone. “No,” she said. “He seems to be sticking with his MO on this. He’ll be at his end location with the girl. The guy at the pick-up location said a messenger dropped it off and was quite … persuasive in his request to let him keep it there.”
“And so the hunt continues,” Sam said.
“A twisted fucking scavenger hunt that we keep fucking losing.”
“Keep your head on straight, kid, don’t let him get in there,” Sam’s calm voice only served to grate on her nerves.
“Yeah. I gotta go,” she said, pulling the phone away from her ear.
“Stay safe, Clarke,” Sam’s voice was tiny through the speaker. She pushed the end call button.
She looked at the photo again and wished she’d bought that six pack.