The cop car had the scent of men. Not unpleasant, just musky and sharp. The car didn't seem to have been used to transport prisoners, at least not recently, because there wasn't the fear acid smell I associated with criminals. I'd had a few brushes with such things over the years and knew the odor never quite left. It's like fears and anger soaked into furniture and leather like a sponge absorbed water. I probably smelled like fear to a vampire because I was pretty much terrified. The detective was puzzled by the findings at my house, but not vested in me, so it didn't mean anything to him.
Keeping my thoughts to myself, I didn't know if I should be nervous or relieved that good old Detective Michael Stockwell was human. For all I knew he was associated with the California vampires. I often wondered how the Hagen family avoided fanging into that trend. But then they never believed vampires existed despite all that had happened.
"Alanna!" he said my name abruptly. It dawned on me I had ignored his first few quieter words. My brain replayed what I hadn't 'heard' his softer 'Miss Gilliam' while I was thinking about stray vampires and horrible humans.
"What?" I watched the gate sensor activate and slide back to allow us to leave my gated compound. Too soon we were out of the compound. It was bothering me that I hadn't seen my dogs but I figured they would remember Peter. Making a mental note to check on them later, admittedly some of my fears were left temporarily at the gate. There were other things to worry about now.
"I asked where'd you want to go?" he headed back towards the main highway without consulting a map or me. Since the roads were ill marked I found that noteworthy. Rachel's directions had obviously been extremely detailed. Another twist in the road mirrored by the anxiety that tweaked my nerves.
"There's a diner about a dozen or so miles down the highway, it that's okay with you," he suggested after my continued silence. I had been musing and trying to push my worries down, instead of dealing with the here and now. Whatever was going to happen would happen -- I had to deal with what was in front of my face.
"Yeah, sure. That's fine." I replied, still distracted. I needed to clear something up before I got too much further down the road with this strange man.
"Why were you assigned to telling me?" Rapidly I fired out at him catching him off guard.
"Oh, that." He took a deep breath and asked me a question, "Did you little computer's data profile mention I was on a temporary loan from the West Coast?"
I shrugged, not remembering just at that moment where it had said he was assigned. Basically I was checking for patterns of realism. Hackers could duplicate files but there was a way files looked that gave them substance. My security system verified the touch points for real information versus planted or faked. I hadn't been reading the fine print at that point. I certainly would check out the whole file if I ever got the time. How the cop asked was more telling than the monitor's facts. He had made a huge screw up somewhere and I found that interesting.
He continued, "My boss, Captain Hartley, called me out to the primary investigation at the Hagens house because I had worked five years out of LA homicide and the local Indio connection had come up during the initial report. As luck would have it, I was over in the city for a meeting and Hartley contacted me to come back and handle this end of the investigation."
My brain tabulated the coincidences as they began to stack up. I wasn't big on karma and other related fuzzy mystic happenings but damn if I didn't see the flow. This poor cop was being yanked into my world, and he didn't have a clue what it entailed.
He cleared his throat and added, "The fact that you were possibly in danger he felt it was natural to send me in case there had been any activity." He looked at me apologetically.
"So homicide is called 'activity' nowadays? That's a new one on me," I replied flippantly.
"He felt it would save time. Look -- I know all of this is upsetting, but we understood from Rachel Hagen there was a strong chance of foul play," he never let his eyes stray from the dry highway.
I laughed at the irony of the statement.
"Still I fail to understand why Rachel sent you. Given the timing of the correspondence it appears I was expected to find out all of this. Damn it, I hate games. All of this was supposed to be over!" I bit out angrily.
Somewhere in the distance
Why she thought I'd never find her puzzled me for a whole -- oh -- second. The stupid bitch always underestimated the situations. Her reactions were priceless. The cop certainly flustered her, the way they shot out of her precious little 'compound' was hilarious, like her tail was on fire. Oh, so many more surprises ahead for dear old Alanna!
At least her stupid dogs were friendly. They were too weak-minded to even be afraid of me. They ate the sedative laden raw meat from my fingertips after chasing the rabbits I had used to get them over the fence. I like animals -- you know immediately what they think of you. It's an old wives tale that animals sense danger. No matter what I do they always come running to me. Given my nature, they should be terrified of me and howl and carry on like they were being murdered. Nope, the dopey dogs licked at me and sought my attentions and treats. Hell, maybe I should just take these dogs home with me -- nah -- not this visit. Ooops, better get going, the good detective is nearly out of sight.
Damn it, I lost her. I hate having to follow her like a pet dog. After all I'm smarter that that bitch will ever be. Now I have to call in a few favors to find out where she lands. I didn't have time to tag the car. I have all hers bugged with lovely electronic markers but the cop's car wasn't there long enough and the desert heat does restrict my movements. No matter, she won't be lost to me for long. Peter's little secretary Marlene will know how to find them. Besides I like Marlene. Hope I won't have to hurt her. Oh, so little time -- so many things to do.
Detective Stockwell slowed the car and pulled into a café. The aged black and white sign claiming, 'Mom's Eats and Bar' thus dispelling any expectation of ambiance. It fit my current mood. We probably would go relatively unnoticed by the clientele. It had the air of a spot time had forgotten and harkened back to the old days of cruising around old highway and byways long before the freeways came and decimated small towns and minor cities. The ill-paved parking lot was filled with ruts and craters between which there were a surprisingly large number of dusty pick-up trucks and four-by-four jeeps littering the area for only mid-day.
I also observed quite a number of gun racks in the back of the truck windows and cowboy bumper stickers peeling off, giving me a rather large clue to the types of patrons who frequented the establishment. We stretched and walked to the door. My fears were confirmed when Detective Stockwell opened the grimy door and a blast of country music smacked us brutally in the face. He lifted his eyebrow and asked, "Is this okay?"
With a brisk thought of what I was facing, I pushed down a grin and replied, "Actually perfect. No way will any Hagens ever step foot inside such a place. With what has been going on, I think we need to talk without the possibility of interested eavesdroppers in the crowd."
The crowd quieted as we walked inside. A clank of glasses behind the bar could be heard with the beat of an old Clint Black song coming out of the battered juke box in the corner. I hadn't realized anyone still had them. Granted there weren't records rendering the tunes but cds ... nevertheless it was still odd to me. In this age of personal music and elaborate sound systems it was weird to see a juke box.
The building was a large oversize room with a bar countertop in the back left side of the room and a luncheon counter with kitchen behind on the right side of the room. Double half doors stretched between the counters. The cook was visible working over his steaming grill. Scattered around the room there were clusters of tables and booths.
I often thought that the desert created a strange environment in which people gathered to socialize. The air conditioner was on a lukewarm, greasy kitchen smoke or stale setting depending on your point of reference. At the doorway we still could benefit from the desert's fresh warm breeze on our backs. The room was surprisingly well lit. A hostess in a gauze peasant blouse and a tight black denim skirt greeted us.
"Hi ya, bar or food?" She chewed on a wad of pink bubble gum with snappy little noises she used to punctuate her words.
"Bar," from me.
"Food," from him.
She laughed with me at our simultaneous conflicting answers. Taking us at our word she led us to the smack dab middle of the room.
"I hear that a lot, but usually the guy says bar not the gal," she pointed to a clean table and handed each of us a plastic menu card.
"Special today is beef stew -- so Joey claims. Personally I'd steer clear of it, looks kinda funny to me. The burgers are okay," she said while walking off. I guess she wasn't our waitress.
"Don't you just love 'atmosphere'?" innocently I asked.
He chuckled and nodded while looking over the menu. Front and back filled with typical diner fare. Nothing remarkable jumped out at me. The people seated at the surrounding tables had determined we were apparently no threat to their enjoyment and resumed their various conversations or fights. The murmuring was basic restaurant noise, nothing out of the ordinary. Nobody seemed to be paying us any more attention.
After glancing at the menu, I decided to take the recommendation of the woman who'd seated us and have a hamburger. After the day I'd been having, a walk on the wild side wasn't in order and from the sounds of the stew it seemed the like the least likely to deliver food poisoning. Mentally I also figured I'd have it well done to be on the safe side.
Casually I glanced around the room to see if there were any recognizable faces. Seeing nobody I knew, I continued to look around and marveled at the cross-section of ages here. Most were men but there were a few women scattered at the tables. The desert was a place where most men and some women came to out of desperation, escape or a keen desire for isolation. Men socialized in small clusters typically no more than three men per table. The few men in the room were either waiting tables or waiting for men to finish their beer or conversation. To my disgust, I could hear no female voices in the conversational murmurs and arguments.
The silence of these women hurt. I had lived here four years and still wasn't accustomed to the lack of women's liberation. The waitresses delivered the food and beer steadily with a conservation of movement in the draining heat. Their faces were expressionless and I knew all too well that was the safest way to be in such a macho environment.