WHEN HE HAD FINISHED ASKING HIS QUESTION, HE put one elbow on the table, rested his chin in his hand, and waited for me to speak. He was old enough that such a gesture pushed the skin up on one side of his face, cocking one of his superbly graying eyebrows into an inquisitive angle.
I didn't answer right away. Instead, I distracted myself by trying to calculate his age. Fifty? Fifty-five? Certainly the progress of at least that many years lay about him, imbuing his pleasant looks and rangy build with a comforting gravity.
He added cream--without stirring--to the coffee the waiter had just brought him and raised it to his lips, pretending to find great interest in this short view of the universe. Swirling steam. Black and white churning slowly into brown. He took a careful sip, and, content with its temperature, followed with a long, satisfied draw of the acrid brew.
The rich scent of coffee rose from my own cup, too. I stared at him gape-mouthed. He worked as an undercover agent for the FBI. I didn't know his name. And if I understood him correctly, he had just offered me a job. Sort of.
I glanced away, hoping to see Ray returning from the men's room. Seconds passed, half a minute. Feeling the agent's eyes on me again, I squirmed, realizing that he was too confident in his work, and too calmly intelligent to be deterred by silence. "What's your real name?" I asked, trying next to avert the subject of the job by getting off the hot seat and offering it to him. "On the phone you said Tom Latimer, but that's not your name, right? I mean, that was just the name you were using on the dinosaur job, right?"
"You help me with this job and I'll tell you my real, honest-to-gosh, no kidding name," he said, beginning to smile.
I wondered if trout see smiles like that on the faces offishermen who feel their hooks sink home. I tried not to thrash, but hooked fish have no dignity. Shifting uncomfortably in my chair, I wondered why he had waited until Ray left the table to ask his question.
With proper flourishes, the maitre d' seated a couple at the table to my left, arranging their heavy cloth napkins on their laps as if American culture had a place for such groveling displays of class consciousness. I watched, playing for time. The man searched around for a place to hang his cream-colored Stetson, and wound up resting it on the tablecloth. He kept a hand on it, fiddling nervously with the grosgrain ribbon at the edge of the brim.
Ignoring the waiter and the menus he artfully placed before them, the couple fell into a tense minuet of banal conversation and missed eye contact. The young blond woman said to the remarkably jit gray-haired man, "Well, like, I've known him like two months, but it's like, so real when we're together." She shifted her slender torso constantly as she spoke, and twisted a ring set with a huge stone, trying in vain to make it a casual motion. "I mean, we can, like, talk about anything. It's really a great relationship. I'm really, really thinking this is something special this time, you know?"
The man drew his elbows up onto the table, folding his hands over his mouth so that his face was less readable. He bobbed his head a little, distractedly indicating that he had heard her.
Discomforted by his minimal response, she said, "I like, love to sit up late with him. It's okay with him if all we do is talk. You know? But of course, I suppose you wouldn't have anything to talk about with him, because you're all, like, into the environment."
The man's hand tightened on the brim of his hat.
The FBI agent took a noisy sip of his coffee, retrieving my attention from the other table. "So Em, was this a bad time to ask?" he inquired.
I switched my gaze from the couple to him, and caught an impish glint in his eyes. I hadn't seen this side of him before, and I didn't like it. Where was Ray? Just how long could ittake a man to pee? "Well, um, I'd have to think about it," I answered lamely. There, it was out: the preliminary put-off. The stall. The What-in-hell-am-l-doing-with-myself-anyway? pit gaping open at my feet.
The man who was not named Tom Latimer set down his cup and leaned toward me, bringing his salt-and-pepper crew cut within twelve inches of my own first threads of gray. "So, Em," he said, keeping his voice down to a murmur so that no one would hear over the clatter and clash of restaurant noise, "you've been in Salt Lake a week now. I was thinking you might be getting bored. You don't have anything pressing back in Denver. You've been laid off yet another job with this latest 'consolidation' in the oil business, and considering how many thousands of petroleum geologists are out of jobs this time, you have little hope of finding another. You keep telling yourself you're a geologist, not a detective, but when you get down to it, the only real difference is in the time scale, right? I break a sweat over fresh evidence of crimes that happened yesterday and you think fragmental evidence for events four and a half billion years past are a walk in the park."
I began to fiddle with my napkin. He was right, geologists are just a kind of detective, but his flattery was finding a disquietingly easy way to its mark.
He continued. "It's been a while since you helped us with the George Dishey murder. Almost a year. All those months sitting behind a desk, then standing in line for your unemployment check. Ray's been over to Denver four times courting you, and you just didn't know what else to do with yourself, so you came here. If I understand you at all, you're itchy for a break from the ordinary."
I shot him a warning look. How did he know so much about my doings in the past months?
He went in for the kill. "About now I'll bet you're wondering what you're doing being a polite guest at his mother's house when what you really want to do is--"
"That's enough!" I snapped. It was nobody's business but Ray's and mine if Ray wanted to stay true to his Mormonupbringing and not bed me outside of wedlock.
He leaned back. "You're right. That's getting a little personal. I apologize. But I've been keeping an eye on you. And don't get paranoid; I've only been talking to your pal Carlos Ortega. Nice guy, Carlos. Good cop."
I glanced into his gray eyes for a moment, then once again regarded the tablecloth.
I set to work corralling stray bread crumbs with a pinkie. As always, I had dropped at least five times as many crumbs as anyone else at the table. It seemed to be a special talent of mine. I wondered longingly if somewhere on Earth it was considered good manners or perhaps a subtle clue to a superior intelligence.
The blonde at the next table continued her dissertation on her new boyfriend as she scanned the menu, her spine straight as a ballerina's. "It's like we've known each other forever," she informed her companion.
I clenched my teeth, fighting the urge to say out loud, Oh come on, honey, you can come up with a better line than that!
"So tell me how you met him," her companion asked. I glanced over toward him. He looked bored. No; blank. I wondered what their relationship was. May-December lovers? No, if that were the case then he would not be suffering to hear about her new swain as calmly as he was.
"Well," the blonde said, lifting her chin with trumped-up dignity, "I was at a concert. I met him at the bar during intermission. He had flown in just for that day in his jet; like, he flew it himself. And, well, we were drinking the same brand of Chablis. It turns out he knows a lot about wine. Quite a lot." She asserted this last with a horizontal chopping motion of her left hand.
She's a southpaw, I thought abstractly, then cursed myself for automatically collecting data about a total stranger.
"What do you see?" the man across from me asked softly. "You're a good observer, Em."
Their waiter appeared and asked, "Are you ready to order?"
The agent tapped my hand. "Em, I need your help."
Silence hadn't worked. Changing the subject hadn't worked. Sulking hadn't worked. I tried skirting the issue. "For an endangered species case?" I said. "I mean, what's that got to do with me? I'm a geologist, not a biologist. You remember those major divisions they taught you in science class? Animal, vegetable, mineral? Biologists do the first and second parts. I do the third."
He leaned forward again and dropped his voice so low that I had to strain to hear him. "Sure, there's a biologist on staff who could do the little fuzzies. It's the setting. Gold mining, out in the middle of nowhere. Geologist's heaven, eh?"
"You got that one straight," I said nervously, trying to cover just how little I wanted to consider options just now. "The only place I like better than the middle of nowhere is the back of nowhere." I rolled my eyes at the fancy appointments of the splendid urban restaurant in which we were seated, all dripping with coordinated colors and restrained centerpieces. The chow was fine, and the coffee was terrific, but sitting on the ground eating straight out of the cook-pot with a stick suited me even better.
Where was Ray? And what good was a boyfriend if he didn't come and save me from uncomfortable moments like this? After all, half the reason that I was uncomfortable was the fact that he had butted his way into this meeting, asserting his presence as an unspoken reminder that he had a proprietary interest in how I spent my time.
I stared at my hands, recalling our conversation earlier that day. "I'm having an early dinner with that guy from the FBI," I'd told him. "I'll be done about when you said you'd pick me up to go to the reservoir."
Being economical in his use of spoken language, Ray had said nothing, but his eyes had grown dark with sudden annoyance.
"Not a big deal," I'd added defensively. "He just kinda called me up and said how are you, and suggested that we get together."
Ray had come back with, "And just how do you think he got your phone number?" Leave it to Ray to grab the oneloose thread in my thinking and give it a yank. And he had insisted on joining us.
The FBI agent now jerked my attention back to the present moment, saying, "Here comes Ray."
I swiveled my head, searching the crowd for him. There he was, just outside the hallway that led back to the bathrooms. Some bald man I'd never seen before had stopped him, and was talking with his hands swinging so wildly that he looked like he was polishing the air. Ray stood straight and gorgeous, his lithe, muscular build the perfect foil for the dark blue uniform he wore as one of Salt Lake City's finest. It took a trained eye to know that he was jumping with nerves.
"You can come along on a recon," the FBI agent whispered conspiratorially. "We'll catch a hop out there tomorrow, meet with one of the other operatives. It's just an hour or two's flight into Nevada by light plane ... ."
I squeezed my eyes shut. I loved flying. He knew that. What was so urgent about this case that he needed to seduce me into it? Or does the seduction lie in another vein?
When I opened my eyes again, Ray had turned a shoulder toward the man who'd buttonholed him and was storming toward the table. The bald man followed in his wake, still talking. The FBI agent across the table from me said, "Here he comes. What'll it be?"
"Why are you doing this outside his hearing?"
The agent shrugged. Smiled. Feigned innocence.
My pulse quickened.
Ray reached the table. Looked at his watch. Looked pointedly at me.
You possessive so-and-so, I thought irritably.
Ray's lips tightened. He had read my face. I stared at my hands; thought, I should never play poker.
The FBI agent introduced the bald man who had detained Ray. "Em Hansen," he said. "This is Tom Latimer. Ray, I see you two have already met."
The bald man gave the FBI agent an inquisitive look,shrugged his shoulders, stuck out a hand to me, and said, "Glad ta meecha."
I glared at the man across the table from me. "Very funny," I told him. Then I shook the bald man's hand and said, "Amelia Earhart. Glad ta meecha yourself."
Ray took my jacket off the back of my chair and held it for me. I stood up and put it on. The bald man slipped into my place. The FBI agent told him, "I'll be right back," rose, and followed us toward the front door. On the way, he caught my elbow as we shuffled through the maze of tables, artfully setting up eddies in the flow of human traffic until I was walking a distance behind Ray. He murmured, "What was your take on the couple at the next table?"
"He's her father," I answered, falling too easily into the game of analyzing miscellaneous data. "He and her mother split when she was a toddler. She's seen very little of him since. She wants him to make it all up to her, just as soon as she's done turning him on a spit. But he's just a shallow, self-obsessed old pretty boy." When the agent smiled, I added, "And she's inherited his shallowness. Why?"
"And you know this how?"
"They look alike. Same nose, same angles to the face. At least fifty percent Scandinavian blood; they stay baby-faced and fit past ninety, but his thatch is gray. She craves emotional intimacy, but because she hasn't known him all these years and because she's deep down extremely pissed at being abandoned, she throws it all in his face by offering it on a channel most daughters don't use on their fathers. Ha-ha daddy, I'm all grown up and you missed it. I talk about sex right to your face. He's stunned that he's even in the same room with her, and hasn't a clue how to behave, except to be about as available as he ever has been, which is not at all."
The FBI agent grinned. "Like I said, you're a natural."
I threw him a sideways glance. Ray had reached the door and was holding it open, his lips drawn into a straight line. I said, "Why do you ask?"
He replied, "Because it bears on the case. The only thing you missed is the possible connection between the boyfriendand daddy, but I haven't yet proven there is one."
"Oh, sure," I said sarcastically. "We're in a restaurant, and the people you want to observe just happen to sit at the next table. How'd you do that, Houdini?"
He gave my elbow a squeeze and smiled more broadly. "Prior planning and agreeable maitre d's. If you want to avoid suspicion, you find out where and when your quarry's eating, and make your reservation just ahead of them. The man who's now sitting in your chair, looking ever-so-casually like some big witless slob ordering creme brulee and another cup of coffee while he listens intently to their conversation, works with me. Cheap tricks. You'll pick them up quickly."
I could hear Ray tapping his ring against the handle of the door. The ring his deceased wife had placed on his finger. Tap, tap, tap. Hurry up, Em.
I wanted to spit. "My truck's in the shop," I said. "I'd need--"
"I know," said the agent. "I'll pick you up about a quarter to six tomorrow morning. Don't worry about breakfast. I'll have doughnuts and coffee with me. You take yours black."
I glanced at Ray. He was glaring at me. "I'm particularly fond of those cream-filled guys with the chocolate on top," I said.
"A good choice. Wear hard-toed boots," the FBI agent replied. "Where we're going, the Mining Safety and Health Administration rules the road. And tell Ray to calm down. I'll have you back in time for dinner."
Copyright © 2000 by Sarah Andrews Brown.