Copyright© 2013 by Refusenik
The building in Levall felt empty as Scott scrolled through his digital music catalog. The selector landed on Alison Krauss. He'd been a big fan since Mr. Piotrowski had introduced him to her music. She had a remarkable voice and it filled the air around him. The tones were rich and acoustically perfect, but he expected nothing less from the stereo system and speakers networked across three floors. Music had always been a refuge, but it couldn't replace the empty gaps in his life.
He put the pad down and turned his attention to the bed. On his last day in Fort Stockton, he'd gone to the bank and cleaned out his safe-deposit box. The contents of that box, a collection of exotic watches still in original packaging, gold coins, and cash covered the foot of the bed.
He removed each watch from its box, some for the first time and admired their mechanical complexity. A collector of fine objects might keep them in the boxes, forever. As someone who enjoyed watches, he took the other approach. They were to be worn and enjoyed. He took a polished wood box from a drawer. It had a glass top and spaces inside for multiple watches. He fit the watches into the spaces and closed the lid. The box went next to the tray that held his keys and spare change.
A small magnetic key placed against a specific point on shelving in the middle of the wall released a lock. The entire six-foot panel swung out of the way on silent bearings. Behind the panel was a refrigerator sized safe with a digital pad and handle. A specially bonded crew had installed the safe, and a larger double unit on the ground floor, weeks earlier.
The gold coins and cash went on a shelf in the safe above his pistols. The bottom space held the box marked 'Property of San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.'
The safe closed with a solid thump, and the wall panel swung back into place. There were no visible seams or hinges.
The last item on the bed was a present from Janie, a picture frame she'd told him to unwrap later. They'd spent a lot of time talking, trying to figure out their relationship and how it would proceed. College was going to keep Scott in Levall for the next two years. Finishing a degree was important to him, and she understood. For Janie, the break from school was a chance to reevaluate her priorities, and he supported the decision.
Scott unwrapped the picture and looked at it in surprise. The picture was an old one, taken in the driveway of the Mendoza's old rental home.
He'd been sixteen and Janie fourteen. In the picture, he was letting her sit on his motorcycle, holding the bike as she pretended to ride. The picture taker had called their names, and they were turned to face the camera. A perfect moment in time captured on film. He thought about the pictures stored in his phone. Maybe he should have prints made. It was something to consider.
Scott walked to the office and placed the frame next to the picture of his parents on the desk.
Janie wanted regular phone calls between them, which he was fine with, and video calls which he wasn't. He didn't know how video was going to work since she had no idea about the true nature of his living quarters.
No use worrying about it, he told himself. He killed the music and grabbed his jacket. It was time to check on his other project.
He had mail in the box at the street-side entryway, but what pissed him off were the fliers plastered all over the front glass. He tore them down and contemplated what an automated turret cannon would cost him.
The Black Horse was doing brisk business with a full house. Scott found Shirl in the stockroom having a discussion with one of the prep cooks.
"You're back," she said.
She dismissed the prep cook and told him to get back to work, counseling session over.
"Good Christmas?" he asked.
"It was. Yours?"
"Good," he replied.
"You wouldn't be checking on our latest hire now would you?"
"I thought I'd see how my business partner was doing first, then check on her."
"Shhhh," Shirl put a finger to her lips. "I don't want that getting out."
"You don't want the employees knowing that you have a stake in ownership? Why not?"
"Because," Shirl said, "if I have to enact some draconian policy, I want to blame ownership for it."
Scott laughed. "You could blame the majority owner. I hear he's an asshole."
Shirl shook her head. "Workers and management have disagreements, and there's workers and management versus ownership. If I'm ownership then I'm one of you, and not one of them."
"But you are one of ... us," Scott worked through the construction of that in his head. "You're underestimating your staff. They respect you. Don't get silly about this."
"Silly? Like pretending you don't own this place when the whole bar knows you do?"
"I don't advertise it."
"Whatever you say, boss man."
"So, changing the subject, how's she doing?"
"Shows up on time," Shirl said. "That's a big plus in my book. Listens and follows instructions. She's eager. I think she'll be a good one. Find me five more like her, and I'll be eternally grateful."
"I think one's my limit. Is she working tonight?"
"Would it be too disruptive if I got a table upstairs?"
"Not at all," Shirl said. "I don't think you've ever sat for a meal upstairs have you?"
"I thought not. The staff will get a kick out of seeing you."
"They won't think I'm playing favorites if I talk to her?"
"Everybody has favorites. Maybe it will keep them on their toes, and it couldn't hurt her confidence."
"Thank you, boss."
Scott followed an older couple up the stairs to the restaurant space above. Other than a few inspections during construction, Shirl was right, he hadn't spent any time there, and certainly not as a customer. Slipping in and out of the downstairs bar had always been much easier.
The subdued lighting for the evening crowd gave the dining room an intimate feel. White tablecloths and a mixture of tables and booths on different tiers made the space more formal than the initial design proposal, but it worked. He was going to have to come back on a comedy night and see how they arranged things.
The hostess, one he didn't recognize, returned from seating the couple.
"Good evening, sir. I'm Candice, how many in your party?"
"Just me I'm afraid, could you seat me in Star's section?"
"Taylor? She's new."
"Of course, sir. Right this way."
The hostess showed him to a table along a wall. She handed him a menu and told him the server would be right with him.
It didn't take long before he spotted Taylor. She was wearing a white oxford shirt, black skirt, and black hose. She faltered when she saw him, but recovered smoothly.
The hostess scurried over, "Excuse me, Mr. MacIntyre?"
"I'm sorry, I didn't know who you were."
"That's fine, I didn't tell you and I wasn't expecting you to know." He smiled to let her know it really was okay. Besides, Shirl was wrong, they didn't all know.
"Would you like a better spot, or we could set a chef's table for you in the kitchen."
"No, really, I'm fine. I'm here to eat dinner and chat with my friend. That's all. No fuss required."
"If you're sure?"
"Please enjoy your meal." Candice smiled nervously and backed away.
Taylor waited until the hostess was out of sight and stepped to the table. "Good evening, sir. I'm Taylor and I'll be your server tonight. Would you like to order a drink, or see our wine list?"
"Water's good. How are you?"
"I'm great. You've really got them spun up in the back."
"Sorry about that. Back to your given name?"
"I decided Taylor was more professional."
"I like it."
"Are you going to eat something?" she asked. "Or are you only checking up on me?"
"I'm hungry and I did say I'd be checking on you. I want to know how you're doing."
Taylor brushed the sides of her skirt with her fingers. "Do you know what you want?"
"I usually get a steak sandwich," he said, "but what do you suggest?"
"What do you like?"
"I'm pretty flexible."
"Did you know I get to eat samples of each item on the menu so I know what they taste like?"
"I didn't. That sounds neat."
"It is, so far," Taylor said. "You like Chicken Marsala?"
"I think so."
"Think your floor manager would let you take a break to sit with me while I eat? I hate eating alone."
"I'll ask," Taylor said, and she added in a whisper. "But you're a big fat liar."
"You eat alone all the time, and you own this place. That job interview was a setup."
"Hey, Shirl does the hiring and the firing. I got you an interview and maybe a good reference, what happens after is on you. She says you're good at this, by the way."
"Well," Taylor said, "okay then. I'll be back with your bread. It comes free with your meal."
She turned and almost skipped to the kitchen.
If she could harness all her energy and personality in one focused direction, he figured she was going to be unstoppable.
Taylor was back with a breadbasket and informed him that she could take a short break for dinner. He nibbled on the bread and ignored the curious faces that peeked out of the kitchen to sneak looks at him. The dining crowd interested him. They were a healthy mix of young and old, which surprised him. Most of the college crowd wouldn't be back until after the break.
Taylor arrived with his main course, glanced around, and sat opposite of him.