Tuesday, June 11, 2013

"The Waterline: Chapter 2"

Author's notes:

Sorry for the massive delay. As always, I'm delving into way too many projects for my own good.

I suppose I shouldn't be terribly surprised to find that trying to retroactively write a story is difficult. Sometimes the plot lines don't connect as well as I'd like. Also, trying to rewrite a story that was pretty much one endless day in a game that now has weather (and hideous "full moon lighting") has been a challenge in and of itself. Bah.

... but anyway, here's chapter two, and future chapters will come faster. 

... I hope.

~ splad

Part Two: "Off the Beaten Path"

Grant woke up terribly early considering that he had gone to bed at 2 a.m. The sun had just cleared the treetops, and the warmth was drying up all the dew. It was going to be a beautiful day. Shame that he had to waste it on work. He loitered by his rumpled bed, procrastinating. But he had to do something practical, since the intelligence that he was being fed was completely useless.

He ate a quick breakfast while listening to some loudmouth on the radio.  Apparently today there was a festival happening at Glenwood Park, and as it was summertime, said festival would mean large quantities of fresh seafood. If nothing else, that meant a pretty-good sized crowd would come and give him at least one opportunity to scout around for his quarry. It was the very definition of a "slim lead," but at this point he was clutching at straws. Upsetting Ms. Strauss was bad for his digestion. And he couldn't afford to lose any weight.
He had to walk to Glenwood. Whatever this festival was, it had drawn in traffic from other towns. The streets were clogged, both with cars and pedestrians. He bought a bracelet pass and a cold beer and sat on a bench to people-watch for a while.

The swarm of people attracted by the steamy seafood pots was nearly overwhelming. Grant watched casually from his perch, beer in hand. Just one more sleepy old man, lying in the sun.

His eyes stayed focused beneath the brim of his hat, watching for the offending agent. People in his line of work carried themselves differently in a crowd. Even more than the average American, they refused to be touched. They were wary, if not paranoid. In a mosh like this, someone that jumpy would stand out.

But the longer he watched, the more convinced he became that she wasn't here, either. On the whole, the people who had come out were in groups. The single women that he observed didn't fit the bill, either. Another strikeout. Damn.
Think, dummy. If I needed to hide in plain sight, what would I do?

… I'd be somewhere inconspicuous, blending in. 

He set down his empty bottle with a thump and went back home. 
His phone was buzzing in his pants, but he ignored it for the moment while happily tossing clothes from the hamper to the floor. If the bus boy hadn't called him yet, the boss wouldn't have any better information. Chances were she was just calling to nag. He sighed as the buzzing continued. Finally, he fished around for his discarded shorts and retrieved his phone.

"Grant, why the hell have I had to call you four times?"

"Because I'm naked," he quipped. There was silence for several moments. 

"… are you?"

"Just about, I'm headed to the laundromat."
 "Wonderful. Yet more images I didn't need or want in my head! I want you back at the bistro tonight, from happy hour to closing. Drink a whole damn bottle of scotch if you have to, you just be there."

"Famous last words," Grant murmured.

"Be there, Thurgood. And be on your A-game."

"Am I off it?" He said it in jest, but Ms. Strauss fell into thoughtful silence. 
 "… no," she finally said. "But this case … is wrong, somehow. It's not going to be a slam-dunk. It's a problem, Thurgood. I can feel it." 

"Can you tell me anything at all about why the agent took off?"

"I don't know what to tell you, Grant. She wasn't my direct employee. All I know is that a superior manager to me ordered me to have her brought in. What she does—what she used to do—isn't exactly public intel, so I'm honestly just as in the dark as you are. I just know they want her returned. Badly."

The earnestness in Ms. Strauss's voice made Grant respond in kind. "I'll do my job, ma'am."

The call ended there.


The laundromat was shady and cool. Grant lounged on a bench and watched the clothes spin. This assignment was quickly turning into some kind of washout. Still, no need to bitch about it. They had to pay him whether he caught the agent or no, and he needed clean clothes. 

From the other end of the laundry room, he heard a plaintive whine. “What the hell? How is this damn thing always out of quarters?”
 Grant lazily opened one eye. A woman stood before the vending machine, irritably stuffing money back into the back pocket of her jean shorts. He soon had both eyes open. Nice butt.

Apparently she felt his gaze. When she turned to look at him, she was frowning slightly. She managed to force a small smile, though, and ask him if he had change for a $10.   

“Think so … ah, geez, I must have spent it all. Maybe the place next door can help you out?”

“Oh yeah … they’re a bar, aren’t they? Thanks.” She turned to go, but turned back to him just as abruptly. “Sorry, didn’t introduce myself, did I.” She extended her hand. “Dania.”

“Luke.” The pseudonym left his lips easily. He never gave out his real name on assignment; it was just asking for trouble.

“Nice to meet you,” they both barked at the same time, and laughed.

He bought her a beer. They chatted quietly and nibbled from a snack bowl as the bartender made her change. When she went next door again to begin her laundry, he accompanied her to retrieve his own. “Nice to meet you,” they simultaneously said again as they parted ways, and laughed at the blunder.
 Grant went fishing that evening, thinking over what little he knew and could glean from his boss’s scant information. An agent abruptly left the company, and the company wanted her back, to the extent that they were pursuing her with federal approval. There were no details available about what the agent may have done, or why it was so urgent to recover her. She simply had to be recovered in the next seventy-two hours, hell or high water. 

Grant frowned a bit. Ms. Strauss had a good deal of faith in him to do his job efficiently and discreetly, and rightfully so. He had an excellent closer rating, primarily because he did his work with a minimum of questions or even interest, beyond resolving a case. 
Still, there were a few lines that he didn’t like to cross. One of those lines was working on any case that involved internal affairs. There were always too many unknowns, and the definition of a “need-to-know basis” seemed to boil down to “shut your goddamn mouth and do what the hell we said.” A perfectly normal response from middle managers in government work—except when the whistle was finally blown and Congress stepped in, they always seemed to be able to wash their hands of any responsibility, leaving their underlings to take the fall for them. And lately it wasn’t a question of if the shit would hit the fan, but when.

He looked at the large trout dangling at the end of his line and smiled, a little. He didn’t really need to be worrying about it, did he? As Ms. Strauss often reminded him, worrying about the ramifications of his actions was above his pay grade. He had a spot to fish in, and a spot to grow plants in. And he had a job to do. He’d do it. 


For all of his good self-advice, Grant woke up the next day still puzzling over the conundrum. He carefully sorted through his garden, harvesting the fruit and vegetables before another storm set in. The sky was so overcast, it was probably going to be a long rain.

It didn’t take long before the heavens opened up. This rain was no sprinkle, either—it became torrential in a matter of two minutes. He quickly took cover in his small car and turned on the heat for a few minutes, trying to dry his clothes and wondering what to do between now and his evening appointment at the bistro. 

Eventually he decided to hit up a karaoke bar on the west side of town. It was shabby, popular amongst locals and college kids, and usually crowded, more so on days like this. He could people-watch there all day long and never look out of place. Besides, he was hungry. 

His timing couldn‘t have been better. Thanks to the unexpected storm, the bar was packed. The proprietor had turned on the karaoke machine, and various brave souls were taking turns singing to the audience.  The current on-stage performers were horrible, and the crowd wasn’t particularly shy about letting them know it. They sang on, undeterred. Brave, drunk or oblivious—some combination of the three.  
“Hey there, can I get you a menu?”

He looked up. Half-smiled in recognition. “Hey there, Ms. Dania.”

“Hey there, Mr. Luke.” She set a glass of water down next to his hand. “You want anything stronger?”

“Scotch would be nice. But I think I'll just have a beer for now.”

“You got it.” She whipped the cap off in a smooth motion and handed him the bottle before glancing at the stage. The bad singers hadn't taken the hint yet, and the audience was growing impatient. 
Dania shook her head and chuckled. “Jeez louise. Installing that karaoke machine was the worst decision the owner's made yet, and lemme tell ya he's made some real stinkers. All it does is attract people who don’t know when to quit. You just having a beer today, or you want some food to go along with it?”

“Food would be great.” 

Grant finished his meal in under twenty minutes, but he lingered on at the bar for another two hours, laughing and joking with Ms. Dania. He listened in as other, less cautious bar patrons asked her personal questions.  The chatty older ladies wanted to know where she was from (“Jacksonville, Florida”) and the muscleheads wanted to know if she was dating (“Yup, six years”). Her answers were perfectly friendly, but something in the quickness of the responses felt more like deflection than bantering.

… could she …

… no, he was just projecting.

… wasn’t he?
“So what time do you get off?” he found himself asking. Dania gave him a sly smile. Probably remembering that just yesterday, he was not-so-discreetly ogling her from behind.

“Tonight one of the bartenders called in and the other girl is too new to leave behind the bar alone, so I’m technicially on a double. Which Is too bad, because if I don’t have to work at night, I usually head over to Bistro Nagali for their happy hour.”

“Bistro Nagali is the one across from the supermarket?”

“Yep, right across from the Everyday Gourmet.”

“Tell you what,” he said. “Even if you can’t make it for happy hour, maybe you could meet me there anyway and hang out? I’ll buy, no problem.”

“Chivalry isn’t dead,” she said dryly as she reached for his empty beer bottle. “Thanks, but I don’t think my guy would like that much.”

“Bring him along, we’ll make a whole night of it.”

Now her look became a bit more appraising, and Grant noticed the immediate change in her demeanor. He was trained to read faces, and hers was in flux. Her lips kept forming the word ‘no,’ but she kept stopping herself from saying it. Interesting. Was she unwilling to come and embarrassed to turn him down, or unable to think of a good enough excuse to avoid him?

His phone was buzzing. He quickly excused himself and headed upstairs to a quiet corner.
“… yes, ma’am?”

“What the hell are you doing, Grant?”

“Working an angle.”

“An angle? It sounds to me like you’re setting up for a date.”

“I’m not,” he protested quickly. “Look, I know you have confidence in me, but if you want me to get something useable in the next three days I have to be more proactive. That might mean going through an unapproved channel. Your guy’s intel didn’t exactly pan out.”

“… acknowledged, but I still don’t like the way this is heading. And did I hear wrong, or is this lady already taken?”

“You heard right. You also heard me invite her old man along, so spare me the lecture on the agency’s morality code.”

“Alright, enough sass. Whatever I hear tonight better pertain to you and your job, and not you and your libido. You got me?”

The line clicked dead abruptly. Grant snorted. Even though the boss clearly didn’t agree with him, at least she hadn’t completely forbidden him to try this angle. Not that it would have really mattered if she had. She obviously still felt indecisive as far as the case itself was concerned, and he had a knack for changing her mind. Sometimes she didn’t even realize he’d done it. 

By the time he came back downstairs, Dania wasn't there anymore—she had gone on break and left the building, the server informed him. "But she left this for you," the guy continued, and handed over a receipt with a number scrawled on the back.

Probably isn't even hers. Clever.

"Thanks," Grant murmured, and took his leave into the humid night. He found himself looking around for her once he stepped outside, but she was nowhere to be seen.
Why he expected to find her waiting around for him was a question that he didn't bother to answer. But he couldn't shake the distinct feeling that he was being watched just as carefully as he had watched earlier tonight. And for him, that was more revealing than any official memo.  

1 comment:

  1. Gee, the third time I try to write a comment on this second part of The Waterline... It was a nice surprise to find it today. You know I love this story and I admire and love your writing style.