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Road to Nowhere; or: What Happens in Tahiti

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'Oh, this is intolerable!' She squints at the tiny screen and the even tinier words scrolling across it: no service. 'How can they not have any cellphone coverage?'

 

One of Flynn' s hands extends. 'Chief, look where we are: Nowheresville, U.S.A.'

 

The garage mechanic, rolling a tyre across the dusty forecourt, overhears this and straightens up, delivering a sour look in Flynn's direction. The detective returns it, his face darkening until the other man looks away.

 

'You are not helping,' Brenda hisses.

 

'Well, if you have any practical suggestions about what I can do here exactly...'

 

Her eyes dart sideways and she bites back the words. She drops the phone back into her bag, watches it disappear into the recesses. 'I still cannot believe that you got us into this mess-'

 

He stares at her. 'Me?'

 

She rounds on him. 'You were driving.'

 

'It's your car! What, do you never check the oil? That's all you had to do-'

 

'I don't want to have this conversation!'

 

It had been a simple proposition, on the surface: a drive out to see a witness, ask a few questions of the local sheriff's department. And she had - she really had - meant to delegate it to one of the others but when the time had come... And she would have driven but she still needed to read over the report again, something not necessary for Flynn as he was the one who had written it. And everything had gone well until the journey back.

 

She slips off one of her shoes, flexing her toes; the leather was biting into her skin; she is certain that her feet have swollen to at least two sizes bigger than they ought to be. Half a mile doesn't sound too far to walk until you have walked it, especially along a very dusty, very hot road that offers precious little in the way of shade.

 

But they had made it to the garage and the mechanic had been very obliging, setting them up with two canvas chairs which, he told them laboriously and at great length, had been purchased especially for his next fishing trip and they would have the privilege of breaking them in.

 

It is a privilege she would have sooner forgone.

 

One warm can of soda between them had been offered by way of refreshment and since then they'd been left alone while their car was retrieved, towed back to the garage and examined by the mechanic with the doughy grease-stained face and the eyes that look in two different directions at once.

 

In his allotted camping chair - however fancy - Flynn shifts uncomfortably, trying to find a way of arranging himself that doesn't involve a piece of metal sticking into him. The chairs were designed for a shorter man, he decides; or a woman. Miss Brenda Leigh appears quite comfortable but then she isn't what he'd call tall. On the odd occasion he's seen in her in anything other than high-heels her head has just about cleared his chin. Petite. That's the word that girls seem to prefer as opposed to just plain short.

 

Even in the shade it's too hot. He loosened his tie a while back but his shirt-collar still chafes; a bead of sweat traces a path down his spine and he shifts position again, glares at their surroundings. A city boy both by birth and inclination, he always feels a little uneasy in places that have neither sidewalks nor even rudimentary road markings. You can barely call it a road, really, just a dusty strip of tarmac cutting through the scrub. Los Angeles suddenly feels a long way away, and all points east even further. He rarely longs for it, that place that used to be home - he rarely has the time - but he's hit by a sudden wave of nostalgia that catches his breath. He tries to duck it, dissipate its force, concentrates on the troublesome blonde sitting beside him because she takes all of his concentration at the best of times.

 

She has her head in her bag and when she emerges her hair is sticking out at crazy angles, the curls taking on an unwieldy look, badly in need of smoothing. Another woman and it would be some comment, some joke. He remains silent, ignores the twitch in his fingers.

 

'I thought I had a HoHo in here,' she complains.

 

'You ate it on the way up.'

 

'I thought I had another one.'

 

'You ate that when we got there.'

 

His tone, she thinks petulantly, holds more acid than is warranted. She lifts her head, tilting it back, trying to rise above it all. 'My energy levels are flagging, Lieutenant, I just need a little ... boost.'

 

'Withdrawal's a bitch,' he says, with feeling. It sounds almost within shouting distance of being sympathetic. 'Never mind, Chief, I'll hold your hand when the DTs start.'

 

Her eyes narrow, her lips thinning. She would look more fierce, he thinks, if the wind-whipped hair and slumped shoulders didn't give her the air of a sulky teenager. The bag on her lap gets dropped back to the ground, sending up puffs of dust.

 

'I can't find anything in that anyhow.' Blue and cream canvas, something that her sister-in-law had given her. The woman doesn't know her at all. She misses the familiar comforting contours of her bag, her proper one, with the leather worn so soft and so smooth from the constant wear. It doesn't matter that it's almost worn through in some places or that the stitching is coming away in others. It's something she's so used to it feels like it's part of her.

 

'The strap on my purse broke,' she tells him.

 

'I know, you told me.'

 

He isn't sure whose heart had sunk more with the news: hers for the disarray it sent her into, or his for knowing what she'll be like until she gets it fixed.

 

'I just-' She shakes her head. 'I just can't seem to function properly without it.' Her eyes slip sideways. 'I do function.'

 

His hands spread. 'Chief, I didn't say a word.'

 

'You didn't have to, I know what you were thinking.'

 

'Really.'

 

'Yes, really. So you might as well just come on out and say it, get it off your chest.'

 

The smile that turns the corners of his mouth looks forced. 'I try never to argue with a lady.'

 

'It's never stopped you before.'

 

He catches a breath. 'Okay, that's it.'

 

'What-' He stands before she's fully registered the movement; she stares, disbelieving. 'Where are you going? You- You can't just leave me!' Even to her ears her voice sounds piteous and she despises herself for it. Flynn, however, appears unmoved, if the set of his shoulders and the fact that he hasn't broken stride is anything to go by. He does not head for the open road as she had first thought; rather, he walks towards the shack that passes for a store - and bank, church and town hall for all she knows. Anything seems possible. She watches as he disappears through the doorway.

 

Horrible man, she thinks; horrible, horrible, arrogant man and she's never liked him anyway with his quick wit and smart mouth and dark eyes always dancing, always taking in everything but committing to nothing. But what's behind them is always so steady.

 

The silence is too much. She tries to ignore it, tries to concentrate on her surroundings and sees only the dust eddying upwards when it's caught on the wind. In that silence she hears the faint ping of the cracked bell over the door and sees Flynn come back out and begin the walk back to her.

 

Not to her, she reminds herself, just to the space that they both happen to be occupying.

 

He moves easily, his shoulders rolling with the same controlled swagger he uses in the corridors of Parker Centre. When he reaches her he thrusts a small box at her, drops back into his seat. She stares at the package, raises her gaze slowly and looks at him, questioning.

 

'Sugar lumps?'

 

'Look, it's the best I could do. They don't have any chocolate. I think the last delivery they had around here was probably in about nineteen-fifty-two. They still think Eisenhower is president. Here.' He takes the box from her, opens it, holds his hand out, crystalline white lumps resting in the palm.

 

'I am not a horse.'

 

She thinks that the effort it's taking him not to respond to that must be killing him. And she doesn't want to laugh but she can't stop it bubbling up; when it is released it becomes a living thing, passing between them. He tosses the white cubes over his shoulder, brushes off his hands.

 

'I didn't mean to try and pick a fight.'

 

He sits back in his chair, still uncomfortable. 'That's okay, Chief; it's not like there's anything else to do.' He leans towards her. 'Anyway, just think: it could be worse, you could be stuck here with Captain Raydor.'

 

'Oh, that woman!'

 

A breath of laughter and he sits back again.

 

It could be one of the games that they play at the bar after they've cracked a big case and they're all in a good mood: who in the squad would you not mind being stranded in the desert with?

 

In public she wouldn't answer: Flynn. Not in public.

 

Restlessness. It runs through her. The joints of her body ache with the need to move. She stands, stretches out her arms and feels some of the tension ease out of her spine, takes a few steps.

 

'Don't wander off too far. I'm not fighting off a coyote, even for you.'

 

Brenda glances down at him. With his head tilted back - and she would swear his eyes are completely closed - he looks like he's asleep.

 

'My hero,' she comments. One corner of his mouth turns up in a lazy smile and she leaves him.

 

He watches her move; she walks slower than usual and the sway of her body is more noticeable, a long undulating line. Hypnotic. He watches that and, well yes, her legs, the way the muscles lengthen and soften again with each step. The lowering sun catches at her hair, turning the blonde to gold like at the edge of a flame. She stops at the brow of the hill, staring down at something. There's a recognisable intensity in the way she is looking.

 

'Chief?'

 

She doesn't answer, doesn't even turn, but crouches down to get a closer look at whatever it is. He starts up and feels it, the prickle of unease, and his hand moves unconsciously, covering the gun at his hip.

 

'What have you found, Chief?'

 

His voice sounds unusually strident in the dry air. She stirs then, looks over her shoulder and the fact that she is smiling throws him off completely. Even half-hidden by her sunglasses her face is radiant.

 

'You should see this,' she calls back to him.

 

He follows the path she took up the slope, stops beside her.

 

'What-'

 

He sees it before he finishes the question: a cactus, always the ugliest of plants he's thought, suddenly made beautiful by the single red flower it has produced.

 

Brenda runs one finger gently across the waxy petals. Against the harsh desiccation of the surrounding scrub the bloom is bright, almost garish, but strong. 'It's hard to believe something so prickly can make something so beautiful.'

 

'You haven't been looking in the right places,' he says.

 

She turns her head slightly and can see only his feet; the careful shine of his shoes has been obliterated by a layer of dust. She straightens up.

 

'Fritz was offered a promotion.'

 

'Good for him. That's great. Uh, it doesn't mean that we'll have to join the F.B.I. again, does it?'

 

'No.'

 

'That's a relief.'

 

'The promotion was in Washington.'

 

There is silence and she can feel his gaze on her; it feels hotter than the sun.

 

'I see.' More silence. 'Was?'

 

'He didn't take it.'

 

'Oh.' Soft.

 

'One day they'll offer him something that he'll really want; and all the really big jobs, the good jobs, they aren't here.'

 

'And what will you do?'

 

'I don't know.' Even saying the words doesn't lessen their weight. Brenda stares out across the hills, their contours starting to soften under the late-afternoon light. The desolation holds its own kind of beauty. 'Do you ever want to go? Just start driving and not stop?'

 

'You mean run away?'

 

'I guess.'

 

'You pick the place, I'll get the tickets. Where are we going?'

 

She smiles then, turns to him. The low sun is in his eyes, turning them to gold, tiger eyes, and he squints against the glare.

 

'Acapulco.'

 

He considers it. 'Very popular choice - all the best felons go there.'

 

'We wouldn't be felons.'

 

'You want to hang out with them?'

 

'All right - how about Tahiti?'

 

'Tahiti?' His eyebrows go up, lips pushing out. 'Tahiti. They do a great line in grass skirts. You could get some colour into your legs.'

 

This is familiar - her reproachful, him amused - and it's safe. It should be safe. It depends on how you define safe.

 

'I don't really go in for sunbathing all that much,' she says; she's never really tried: she can never keep still for long enough.

 

He shrugs. 'We could run a Tiki bar in between times-'

 

'And run a P.I. office out of the back room-'

 

'Track down missing cats and stolen bicycles.'

 

'They have cars in Tahiti.'

 

'The excitement never ends.'

 

She pushes her sunglasses up, using them to keep the hair off her face. His fingers still twitch; he wonders if her hair is really as silky as it looks. 'What would we call our Tiki bar?'

 

'Uh...' He smiles. 'The Squad Room - for old time's sake. All the umbrellas in the cocktails could have a pattern of little handcuffs on them.'

 

Facing each other, they laugh and she imagines white sands and azure waters.

 

'Hey!'

 

They still stand.

 

'Hey!' They turn and the mechanic talks at them around a mouthful of gum. 'You folks' car is ready.' He wipes his hands on a rag, ambles back down the slope to the garage.

 

Flynn watches the laughter die out of her face, sees the reserve, the distance, return. The withdrawal is mutual, although not entire. He releases a breath.

 

'Well. It was nice while it lasted.'

 

'Yes.' She shivers slightly; the sun has moved on and the patch of shade that has enveloped them feels cold after the heat.

 

'I guess we should, uh...' He gestures down the hill.

 

'Yes.'

 

Usually he waits for her; this time he's the one who goes first and she's the one who follows.

 

 

ooOoo

 

Evening, some days later, and Brenda sits for a moment with her head in her hands, staring at a familiar patch of floor - or one that would be familiar if she ever actually saw it and not the faces of the victims and villains that perform a perpetual saraband before her eyes.

 

Yet, despite that-

 

She had told herself, and has done in the weeks that have followed, that Fritz had not been serious when he had suggested that she quit. It had just been a symptom of his own frustration. She tells herself this. And she tries not to hear that small insidious voice that tells her that he would be perfectly happy if she did give it up.

 

He might be, but she would not.

 

She does not, will not, hear it - again - and raises her head. Her desk is the usual mess of files and papers but there is one item that she had not noticed when she first sat down. Placed in the eye of the paper-storm it is innocuous, but she notices it. A tiny paper umbrella.

 

She holds it between her fingers, opens it, studies it, and marvels at how perfect it is. The wooden stamens, the delicacy of the paper stretched across the frame. It's the same flame red as the cactus flower.

 

There is no need to look: Brenda can already feel him watching her. She keeps her head lowered but raises her eyes; on the other side of the glass wall she can see him leaning back in his chair, fingers steepled, his head turned towards her.

 

He winks at her.

 

She smiles, lowers her gaze again, twirls the umbrella between her fingers. Then she places it, carefully, in the middle of all her other sweet secret things and closes the drawer.

 

FIN