Circling the Drain
by Fleur Bradley

......Just do her already, Tom Schuyler thought, watching the two silhouetted heads in the car at the far end of the dimly lit parking lot, behind a reeking steak restaurant. It was after ten, downtown Colorado Springs, on a hot summer evening, the kind that makes it hard to keep your head cool.

......As far as Tom could tell, the guy talked, while the woman played with a long strand of hair around her finger, around and around until she lost control of it and the hair flipped free. And then she’d start over, twisting around and around…

......His name was David Miller, Tom knew from the files, owner of a small local supermarket chain. She was Nicole Jones, a checkout girl at one of his stores. Tom had watched their secret meetings the past three weekends. That night, they'd had dinner at a sports bar and now they sat parked in David's car, talking. As he watched from his own minivan, Tom could feel the sexual tension. Mrs. Miller had been feeling that same tension, too. Wives were the better P.I.’s, they could smell the other women a mile away. She’d hired Martin Belize Investigations to follow her husband around to see if he was having an affair. Marty, of course, never did legwork, so he’d farmed out the job to Tom. But then Marty had insisted that Amber, his newest “hire,” accompany Tom. “To break her in,” Marty said.

......“You think he’ll do it?" asked Amber, Marty's newest hire. "Cheat, I mean?” She took a sip from her giant soda. She'd learn that lesson soon enough, Tom thought.

......“Of course,” he answered her. “They always do.”

......“You ever get one that didn’t?” Amber leaned a little closer to him. Tom could see why Marty had hired her. She was that perfect kind of pretty, straight nose, blue eyes and blond hair, nice tits.

......“Nope.” Tom said softly. “This one’s just circling the drain. Sooner or later, they all go down.”

......“Gee, that’s cynical.” Amber sat back in her seat, frowning. “I find it hard to believe all men cheat.”

......How young was she? Tom wondered. “Not all. But by the time the wife suspects--or the husband, we get those too--it’s usually true.” Tom looked behind him in his minivan. His boy was asleep in his car seat, peaceful and trusting. “It’s just human nature.”

......“Marty said you were a downer.” Amber said. “He also said you used to be a cop.”

......For a P.I., Marty sure talked a lot.

......“Another life.” Tom leaned forward, watching the two heads inch closer. He glanced over at Amber. Yeah, she’d already slept with Marty. That probably got her the job in the first place.

......Across the parking lot, the heads moved away from each other again.

......“How come you left?”

......“This pays better,” Tom said with a smile. Truth was, he couldn’t hold onto things anymore once his life fell apart. “And the benefits--didn’t Marty show you all the benefits he gives to his employees?”

......“You’re an ass,” Amber muttered. She leaned her head against the window, the way Julie used to when they were still married and he was driving. It was the only time she got a rest, Julie used to say, between work and taking care of their son Nate.

......The two heads moved closer again and kissed. Tom reached for the camera in his lap. “Come on, man.”

......“He ain’t gonna do it,” Amber said. “He loves his wife.”

......“They all do.” Tom paused. “How much do you want to bet?”

......“Twenty says he won’t.”

......“You’re on.”

......Amber smiled. She looked back in the van, at the car seat behind her. “Smart cover, this, the whole family deal. With the minivan and all.”

......Tom shrugged. He used a similar set-up as a cop when he worked undercover. Worked well on drug and prostitution stings. Car seat in the back, they think you’re a horny dad, or a dad with a drug problem.

......“I have a kid too, you know.” Amber played with her straw, twisted the ice around in the cup. “Leroy, he’s, like, eight right now?”

......“Nate’s two,” Tom said quickly.

......Amber nodded. “Car seats are a bitch to get into your car, aren’t they?” She smiled. “When I finally took mine out you could still see the imprint of the damn thing in the backseat, you know? Never really came out.” She put the straw in her mouth, but didn’t drink any. “Leroy’s with my mom now. I’m gonna get him back.”

......“Sure,” Tom said.

......“I am.” She nodded vigorously, like a child. “I just need to get my life back together, you know.” Amber looked at him for affirmation, but her eyes said she didn’t believe her own words. Her eyes also said she was on something. Tom had seen that haze enough over the years to recognize it. “Get my shit together,” she said to the couple in the car. The heads were facing each other now, and Nicole the checkout girl was no longer playing with her hair. She touched his face, and this time David didn’t lean away.

......“Hope you got that twenty on you,” Tom said to Amber.

......Amber looked at the restaurant, distracted. “I gotta go use the bathroom.”

......“Now? I think this thing might be wrapping up.”

......Amber wiggled the ice in her giant empty soda cup. “Sorry.” She opened the door, got out, and slammed it just a little too loud.

......Tom looked back, worried she’d woken Nate up, but the boy was still peacefully asleep.

......When Tom turned back, David was out of his car, holding Nicole’s door. What a gentleman. According to his file, the girl hadn’t even graduated high school yet.

......Marty never told him much, just names and reasons for the investigation. Mostly, Tom would follow cheating husbands and wives. Better than when he was in vice, safer and with less temptation. He’d slipped up just that one time, but it was enough for Julie to kick him out.

......Tom remembered her throwing the keys to the van at him. It’s yours. I'd never drive it after what you did back there. One time, but she thought it was more. He never thought she'd find out, and he didn't like to think about it now. One slip was enough. Tom knew that even as he rode that girl , pants at his knees, glancing at the back of that car seat.

......David had his hands at her waist now. Nicole was breathing in his ear. Looked like Tom would see that twenty after all.

......“I miss anything?” Amber hopped back into the van, bringing a gust of cold air with her.

......Tom nodded to the couple.

......“The deal is sex," Amber said. "And look!” She pointed out the window. “He’s pulling away.”

......David stepped away from Nicole, and rubbed the back of his head.

......“That’s it,” Tom said and he opened the door.

......“What are you doing?”

......“Making sure I don’t have to come back next weekend. I’m tired of this crap.”

......"No fair," Amber said as Tom slammed the door, thinking of his sleeping son just a little too late.

......“I don’t know,” Tom heard David say as he approached the couple. “I just don’t know anymore.”

......“Excuse me,” Tom said. They looked at him. He smiled to Nicole. “Get in the car, please?”

......Nicole looked confused.

......“Now.” Tom opened the door. He knew his height and muscle was enough to intimidate.

......She looked to David, who just stood there, frozen in fear. A guy used to running away. Nicole rolled her eyes, got in the car and sat with her arms crossed, looking miffed. Tom took a still-perplexed David by the elbow. “You and I gotta talk.”

......“Do I know you?” David looked around for help, scared now.

......“After tonight, you don’t want to know me.”

......Tom sat David down on the hood of the car, David checking over his shoulder. “Take my money if that’s what this is about,” he said in a pitched voice. “Just don’t hurt her.”

......Tom laughed. “I don’t want your money. I just want you to do her already, get it over with, and…” His eyes drifted past Nicole, to the backseat. An infant car seat was strapped in the middle. “You have a baby?”

......"A-a girl. My wife gave birth a few weeks ago.” He rubbed his eyes. “I love her, but she doesn't seem to see me anymore, you know? Nicole, she understands me. She listens to me.”

......Tom just stared at the backseat, the tangle of seatbelts and straps. Those damn straps.

......He’d said that very thing to Julie: You don’t understand me. Bullshit of course, but he only saw that when it was too late. Tom knew now what he’d thrown away on that shitty night, when he’d come home, and Julie just knew with one look at him. There wasn’t even a fight, he just packed some clothes and left. He’d simply taken the car seat from the van and put it in her car, not thinking to strap the damn thing in.

......And Julie had just assumed he had strapped it in. She’d taken that curve too fast the next day, slamming her brakes, sending Nate through the windshield.

......“Here’s what you’re going to do.” Tom took his eyes off the backseat and got close to David's face. He could smell onions on David’s breath. “Forget Nicole. Call her a cab. Then go home. Buy your wife flowers, tell her how much you love her. Kiss your baby girl, you goddamned lucky bastard. And never, ever even think of doing anything like this again.” Tom stepped back. “I’ll know if you do.”

......“Who--?” David looked at Tom, but defiance quickly faded to fear.

......“I told you, you don’t want to know me.” Tom turned and walked back across the parking lot. Behind the glass windshield of his van, he saw his son, strapped in the car seat, waving his little hand, palm-in. Tom waved back, and the boy slowly faded away until the seat was empty. He called out over his shoulder, his voice loud in the stillness of the deserted parking lot. “Check that seat, David. Strap it in good. You really have to put your weight into it, you know.”

......David just stared at him.

......Tom got back in the van and turned the key in the ignition. Without saying a word, he reached in his pocket and handed Amber a twenty.

Copyright (c) 2007 by Fleur Bradley

Fleur Bradley is originally from the Netherlands and moved to the U.S. ten years ago.  Dozens of her short stories have appeared online and in print, and she's written a suspense novel entitled Roots Don't Lie.  Check out her website.

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