Victor’s pulse was turbocharged. He froze. The acid rose. He fought the urge to vomit. He reached for his fresh water.
“Sorry?” said the voice.
“I KNOW YOU!”
Victor turned his head to look over at Hunter.
“I’m sorry, I think you’re mistaken,” said the man, who was in the process of sitting down at the table near Hunter’s.
“Uh-uh,” said Hunter. “’Bout two years ago. Flat tyre. Just off the I-35.”
The man looked startled.
“How is your pretty wife, by the way?”
The man got up and walked towards the door. Marina crossed his path, looking apologetic. The man started running. He made for the door and ran into the car park.
Hunter laughed and shovelled eggs into his cavernous, scruffily whiskered mouth.
Perhaps that man suffered more than I did, thought Victor. Hell, I wonder what Hunter did to him? To his wife? Christ.
Outside, the man who just left was busy getting into his car. He managed to start it and drive away. Fast.
Victor tried to sit still. All the shock had drained him and his system was shot. He was thinking again of what happened on the long country lane. Just him and Hunter. Hunter intimidating him into accepting help. His own kind of help, designed to cause fear. The help that causes you to hand over two hundred and fifty dollars because you’re desperate. The smile, but not with the eyes; the grimace delivered while the hand wields a tyre iron, gripped by clenched rough digits powered by bolstered sinew. The casual conversation that makes you feel he’s the only other person in the world at that moment: your ticket to survival. The threat to walk to the truck and drive away. The reminder that theft of services is theft: seventy dollars won’t get you out of this mess you’re in. Who else is gonna help you, boy? Who can you call out here? Got any signal on that phone? The trip to the ATM. The polite “thank you” when you hand the money over. Money gone. A payment that means you’d better not have any other emergencies this month.
Hunter’s phone rang.
He was in full flow. Another friend of his – if he had any true friends.
Victor, feeling sure Hunter wouldn’t notice him, got up and walked to the counter. He handed Marina a twenty dollar bill and told her to keep the change.
The door opened. A state trooper walked in.
“Anyone own a tow truck here?”
Hunter broke off his conversation and turned around. “Yeah, me. Why?”
“Parking violation and expired tags,” said the trooper. “Get it moved and get those tags renewed or I’ll issue you with a fine for both.”
“Good morning, Mr. Somerset,” said Marina.
“Good morning to you, ma’am,” said the trooper. “And please – call me Austin.”
“OK, Austin,” said Marina.
They both smiled.
“Usual?” said Marina.