by Riley Cannon
Written for the HT100 Flash Fic Challenege #7 - Lit Up.
Portions of this actually incorporate some material from what I had in mind for Rowan's "The Plot Thickens" challenge, and include this as a visual ref for a locale employed: http://www.interestingideas.com/roadside/motels/carlos.jpg
Beta'd by Mav (any goofs are entirely my own), who also supplied the title.
So, it's a June evening in 1997, and fate steps in to give things a kick a butt...
~Shaken, Not Stirred~
It's an amazing thing, a martini. Slosh a precious few ounces of gin and vermouth together, chill to perfection, pour the sparkling liquid out into a glass and drop an olive down inside, and you hold in your hand a swift ticket to paradise.
I took a sip and tasted bliss, holding it in my mouth to let the taste saturate my senses before I swallowed it on down. Hey, I may be a bust as a husband and father, I may be a disappointment as a son, I may have just fucked up a case that would have scored the firm a sweet little bundle -- but I know my martinis. That could be my true calling , in fact; maybe I could write a book about it -- A Boozehound's Guide to Life, scarier than anything by Stephen King.
I took another sip, and watched with idle curiosity as another member of this gathering made his way toward me. He was tall and dark and beautiful, and I could always blame the martinis for the way I took note of the snug fit of his blue jeans. A white t-shirt was equally form-fitting underneath a brown leather jacket that you could tell had earned its signs of distress. He moved like a big cat or a wolf, all muscle and stealth, gliding through the cigarette haze and desperate laughter, a predator among a flock of pie-eyed sheep, to slide onto the richly padded bench across from me in the booth.
"Excuse me," I said as he set down his bottle of beer, "but I don't recall asking you to join me." Not that I was necessarily averse to the company, but appearances have to be maintained you understand.
He flashed a cocky smile at me, showing strong white teeth that reinforced that image of a big bad wolf. "A gross oversight on your part, I'm sure" he said, easy and confident as could be. "Ask me now."
What the hell, wasn't like I was in any rush to get home. "Will you join me?"
"Glad to. Name's Chris," he said, holding out his hand across the table.
"Toby," I said, grasping that hand, finding the grip strong and warm and slow to withdraw. And I wondered if it was something in the martini that made my skin tingle as his long fingers stroked mine before fully releasing my hand. "Come here often?" I asked, failing to see why that should make him smile some more.
"Dropped in a time or two." He raised the bottle, the brown glass beaded with water, and tilted his head back for a drink. For a moment his neck was exposed, strong and vulnerable all at once, and a wholly unexpected prickle of excitement shot through me. Of course it was just the martinis.
Finished with the current one, I signaled for another to keep that alibi going. "I haven't seen you around before."
He shrugged that off, comfortably slouched down. I didn't buy the pose. I've watched cats do that, sprawl out like they're half-asleep and all the while they're just waiting for the juicy fat chipmunk to come a little bit closer. "Probably keep different hours," he said as the waitress brought my drink over.
"What business are you in?"
One corner of his mouth twitched upward. "I do some construction."
And maybe I didn't quite believe that but it would do for now. "And what do you build?"
His smile grew a shade more enigmatic. "Whatever I'm paid to, Toby."
Two martinis earlier, I might have heard an ominous undercurrent there. But it still might not have made any difference.
"You gotta wear those?" he asked out of the blue, nodding his chin at my glasses.
I pushed them up, shrugged. "Only if I want the world in focus." I took a drink, thought about it, and slipped them off, tucked away in my breast pocket.
"Yeah, that's better," he said, gaze sharp and intense, appraising me and making me feel like he really did like what he was looking at. "Why're you blushing?"
"I'm not," I insisted, feeling the burn in my cheeks get worse. "It's just ... warm in here." The mercury had been climbing ever since he sat down.
"Want to get some air?"
That sounded good, yes, and I stood up, glad to feel fairly steady on my feet. Before I could get my wallet out he had dropped enough bills on the table to cover our drinks and a good tip. "You don't have to do that, Chris."
"Not a problem."
Ordinarily, no -- but I had to wonder how he'd want to be repaid.
"Can't say as I have, Toby. Have you?"
"Once. Even made a wish."
"Ever come true?"
I met his thoughtful gaze and shook my head. "Not so far."
"Might still be time."
I nodded, but didn't really believe that, not deep down. I was thirty-two years old and already felt like my life was over and this was all it would ever be. And I couldn't even say why it wasn't enough.
"Give me your keys."
Startled by the order, I shot him my best yeah, I don't think so, bud look. He didn't appear fazed. "Run that by me again."
He leaned back against my Lexus, arms folded over his chest. "It's that or you call a cab and I wait to make sure it picks you up."
I let out an exasperated breath. "I am perfectly able to drive."
"Not on four martinis you're not."
"I've done it before." And sure, I had been picked up on DUI a couple of times, but the cops made way too big a deal out of it.
"You ain't gonna do it tonight, Toby."
"Well who the fuck died and made you my guardian angel?" I demanded, digging the keys out of my pocket and slapping them down in his palm.
"Just doin' my civic duty," he said with a wink, holding the passenger door for me.
I got in, slammed it shut and watched him slip behind the wheel. "Must eat up a lot of time, being a Good Samaritan."
He started the car, checked in the mirror, and eased away from the curb before he flashed another of those megawatt smiles. "Gotta say, I been called a lotta things in my time, Toby, but that's a first."
Somehow I could believe that. It was probably ungracious to resent his concern; that was just spillover from my generally fucked up feeling today. I gave him my address and relaxed in the comfortable seat, trying to fight the drowsy feeling that began to set in ... Losing it for a little bit at some point because suddenly I was looking at a fairly deserted stretch of road, the other side of the world from where we ought to be.
"Chris, this isn't the way to Bryant Park."
"Wow," it was full dark now and I couldn't get the full impact of his smile this time, "nothing gets past you, huh? Must be why you went to Harvard."
The nap had cleared my head some, enough for me to ask him, "How did you know I went to Harvard?" Because, you know, I was fairly sure that hadn't actually come up in our conversation.
A street-lamp illuminated the interior of the car as he shrugged. "Just taking a wild guess. I mean, you got that Ivy League look, right?"
Yes, probably, but still ... I was in the middle of nowhere with a complete stranger, and now that the martinis were wearing off it was crossing my mind there might be some slight cause for concern here. "Where are we?" I said as we headed deeper into the boondocks.
"Just headed for a little place I know about."
Uh-huh. Well, that explained everything and put my mind completely at rest. Jesus fucking Christ, what the hell had I got myself into this time? "Are you going to murder me?" Might as well be upfront and all, right?
"For fuck's sake," he grumbled, really sounding put out by my question. "Why the hell would I do that?"
I huffed back at him, pretty sure I had dibs on being the offended party in these circumstances. "How the hell do I know?"
"Look, Toby, I done a lotta things in my time, I won't deny that, but I never whacked anyone." His resentment felt and sounded genuine, and I had to remind myself he was probably really good at coming across legit.
I tried my door, wondered if I could get it open and tumble out fast enough to lose him in the night. "Could you whack someone?" I said, trying to sound conversational about it.
"Maybe." He sounded like was thinking it over, confronting some scenarios he would rather not encounter. "If I had to. But I don't see that being in the cards at the moment."
Oh, well, that made me feel sooooooo much better.
I was still debating trying to jump out of the car when I caught a glimpse of neon coming up, a sign proclaiming Vacancy, as he pulled the Lexus into the courtyard of a motel whose glory days had been a few decades back.
"What's this?" I turned my head to look back at the office, dark and deserted, as he pulled into a parking space.
"What's it look like?" Hands resting on the steering wheel, he let out a deep breath and shook himself like he was getting rid of something. "Look, I thought we could use some privacy, that's all."
He looked at me, his face illuminated by the light from the walkway. He looked pensive, not quite as smooth and in control as back at the bar. "I guess that'll be up to you, Toby." He opened his door and got out, waiting for me to follow.
After a moment, I got out, my footsteps crunching on the gravel. I could make a clean break for it now -- and he knew that. He walked over to the stairs leading to the second story and started up, leaving me to follow or not as I chose. I could call for help, I could start walking ... I let out a deep breath and began climbing the stairs.
He was waiting for me outside the door and gave me a curious look as he unlocked the door.
I gave him what I hoped was my best poker face. "You've got my car keys."
One corner of his mouth lifted. "You got your phone," he returned, going in first.
That was true; that could go down as one item in his favor.
"So don't say I twisted your arm," he added and flipped on the lights.
Anticipating something fairly squalid, the room wasn't so bad in actuality. Could have used a fresh coat of paint to brighten it up, but it was clean and comfortable, and the most lurid thing in sight was a biker mag left open on the bed. "Is this where you live?"
"At the moment." Chris took off his jacket and slung it over the back of a chair, stretching so sensually that my dick gave a twitch even though a small part of me still believed I was going to finish the night dead in a ditch. "John's through there if you need to use it."
"Thanks." I went in and shut the door, leaning back against it and pulling down a few deep breaths. It didn't help much and I went over to the sink, running the cold water and cupping some in my hands to splash my face. As I patted my face dry, I studied the guy in the mirror but didn't get a lot of help there. At least I didn't quite have the deer-caught-in-the-headlights look that I had expected to see, that made me feel better.
Finished, I went out and found myself alone in the room. The door leading to the balcony was open, though, and I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke on the breeze. Following that, I spotted Chris leaning against the wooden rail, gazing into the night. A lighted cigarette was in one hand but he didn't seem that interested in smoking it. I joined him, took it from his fingers and brought it to my lips, taking a long, deep drag and exhaling with satisfaction.
"Did you know I smoked?"
He canted a look at me, shook his head.
I took another drag before dropping it to the deck, crushing it out with my toe. "Quit when Genevieve got pregnant. Doctor said it would be bad for the baby."
"That'd be your oldest, right, Gary?"
I nodded, squinted into the darkness. "So how much do you know about me?"
I nodded again and indulged my curiosity: pushing the sleeve of his t-shirt up so I could see all of the black ink decorating his upper arm. "Did you get that to feel humble?"
He turned to face me, smiled. "Not exactly. Toby..."
"So what's the scam?"
He sighed, like this was a relief and he was glad it had come around. "I'm supposed to kidnap you, hit up your old man for money."
"And six months later hikers find my body in the woods?"
An aggravated look crossed his face. "For Christ's sake, will you knock it off with the being dumped dead somewhere?"
"You said you could kill if you had to."
"Yeah, well, that ain't part of my plan."
The emphasis was so slight; if it hadn't been so quiet out here, if I hadn't been completely tuned into him, I might have missed it. "Is this a solo operation?"
He shook his head. "No, I ... got some associates."
"Do they know you're spilling the beans to me?"
"Nope." A resigned and wistful smile touched his lips. "Ain't gonna be too happy about it either," he added, brows drawn toward each other as he let that sink in all the way. "Might be hikers find my body in the woods a few months from now."
Why did I care about that? I should be pissed off; I should be calling the cops. "Why are you telling me this? Why should I believe you?"
His expression stayed wistful and I didn't flinch away as he reached over to run the back of his hand along my face. "No reason in the world, Toby. And ... " He shook his head, an air of hopeless defeat around him, and walked along to another stretch of the railing. "And it don't matter why I told you."
"I still want to know." I followed him, turned him to face me. "Are you my guardian angel?"
That made him smile, a softer and more intimate version of that powerhouse grin, sadness lingering in his eyes. "I wish." He touched my face again, that easy familiarity feeling so natural in a way I couldn't explain. "Toby," his brow furrowed as he tried to work it out, "this don't make a lick of sense."
No, not a bit. This whole night felt off kilter, like something else had been set up to happen and had been narrowly missed, and I shivered suddenly, like someone had just walked over my grave. To banish that, to ground myself in something real, something right here, I curved my hand around the back of his neck and drew him in for a kiss. He gave a start as our lips touched. So did I -- but when he came back for more I met him, opening my mouth to him, welcoming his embrace and feeling so much more alive than I had in years.
We separated, staying close, and he rubbed my back, murmuring, "This is nuts."
Crazy as it comes, no question.
He stepped back, fixing me with that intent and searching gaze again, like he was making up his mind to something. Another second and he took my keys out of his pocket, pressed them into my hand and closed my fingers over them. "You can walk away, Toby."
I nodded. Yes, I could. The stairs to the parking lot were right there. I could leave and call the police, forget this blue-eyed stranger and carry on with the life that was killing me day by day.
I looked at him, touched his face ... and walked back into the motel room.
He followed me inside a few seconds later and closed the door.