A CHANCE ENCOUNTER
Part One of Two
I had come to an impasse in my life. The path I was on had become problematic and I had accumulated some baggage along the way. I needed a change – didn’t want one, but needed one. Fortunately, an opportunity had presented itself. But, as flawed as my current existence was, it was what I knew. And it centered around my occupation, which for many years – 15 to be exact, had been rewarding and had come to define me. That said, I was seriously considering leaving my old life behind for a new, uncertain future. I’m not a real introspective guy by nature, but this is where I now found myself, pondering my future.
Eight years into my career, my wife and I divorced, and my work played a key role in that. But, stubbornly perhaps, I didn’t give up my career – not sure I could have at the time. Now, at this juncture, I didn’t want to choose wrong. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get another opportunity in life to make a change like this. I didn’t want to screw it up.
My best friend, and longtime coworker-sometimes partner, had made this very decision just over two years ago. He had changed his life dramatically, his occupation, his location, lifestyle, everything – except for his wife; he was still married to the same wonderful woman. And the change had worked for him. For the last year, he had been after me to join him, as a partner in his new venture.
And, over the last year, I went from just thinking about his offer, to seriously considering it. That’s where this story begins. I took some of my ample, accumulated vacation time, left the east coast and headed to the west coast to check things out. Along the way, a chance encounter changed things, changed how I would decide my future.
I’m Quinn. I’m 40. I’m kind of a big guy – 6′-4″ and a solid 240 pounds. I keep in top shape, which is starting to take a little more work – as in more gym and road time. I have dark brown hair, worn business-cut short, still thick with just a hint of graying coming in at the temples. I have blue-gray eyes my ex called ‘steel-blue’. I have one of those beards, that no matter how close I shave, I still have a ‘five-o’clock’ shadow. Overall, I guess I’m not bad looking, but Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise aren’t looking over their shoulders. I’m not being humble or self-deprecating. I don’t have that particular trait. Just making an honest observation. However, I apparently have some kind of appeal beyond my average looks, because I frequently manage to attract women who are definitely ‘out of my league’.
My ex-wife is a perfect example. I met her in college, and there wasn’t a guy with a heartbeat that didn’t have a thing for her, but she chose me, pursued me. She actually came on to me after a football game – yeah, I played football – surprise. We met at a postgame party, and though I was seeing someone else at the time, she made certain I ended up with her. And I would still be married to her but for things about my job and how it interfered in our lives – in ways she couldn’t handle. And, no, I never remarried. Mostly, I just got comfortable being single, but not a monk by any stretch. I keep female company on a regular basis, and have had a few ‘serious’ relationships, but was never tempted to tie the knot again.
I. THE CHANCE ENCOUNTER
It was getting late. The sun was setting and currently shining directly in my eyes, just below the reach of the visor. I was tired and just wanted to get to Albuquerque, eat and find a bed. I’d been on the road since seven a.m. and was beat. I’d passed through Santa Rosa just under an hour ago and figured I only had forty-plus minutes to go. I like the high desert, but at this time of evening on I-40, tired, with the sun in my eyes, I wasn’t taking in the scenery; I was just focused on keeping my truck between the zipper and the fog line, willing the white dashes to march by faster.
With the glare from the sun, I almost didn’t see the person next to the car, which was not nearly far enough over on the shoulder, and I was in the process of edging into the fast lane to pass by when I saw her. She was bundled up, arms tight around her chest and obviously cold. In the space of a split second, I realized she wouldn’t be standing outside her car, practically in the travel lane, in the cold, if something wasn’t wrong. Crap, I had to stop. Don’t get me wrong. I am always ready to lend a hand, but I was tired, I was hungry, and it was cold out – mid-30’s according to the car’s gauge.
I got hard on the brakes and pulled to the shoulder, managing to stop a couple hundred feet past her car, then backed up to within about twenty feet and stopped. I exited my truck, pulling my coat on, and headed back to see what was up. The wind coming out of the west was icy. As I approached the woman, she didn’t greet me with a smile or expression of thanks for stopping. She just stood there eyeing me warily, and shivering. I was aware I looked a little intimidating. With my size and three-days of dark stubble, I understood her apprehension. I tried a smile and a soft voice.
“Hi, I assume you’re having car trouble. I’ll help if I can.”
No response, except for her chattering teeth, and a barely audible clearing of her throat.
“Ma’am? Um, I’m not going to hurt you, just want to see if I can help.”
“Yes, I’m sorry, I…my car quit. I don’t know what’s wrong,” she answered, voice quavering as she shivered. “It just died and I was barely able to steer it off the road…Nobody has stopped…and my phone isn’t working.”
“Yeah, people are leery these days, and cell service can be spotty out here. It’s okay. I’ll check it out. See what’s up. Key in the car?”
She unfolded her arms and held out her hand, which was clutching a key fob. Her hand was visibly shaking and looked frozen.
“I left my truck running; why don’t you go get warm while I check this out. It could take a minute.”
She hesitated, eyes darting from her car to me, to my truck, and back.
“Okay, thank you,” she stuttered and stepped past me, dropping the fob in my outstretched hand.
I nodded, took it and immediately opened the driver door and went to get in, but caught myself, and reached down and ran the seat back so I would fit. The late model Volvo had a push button start, so after closing the door, I hit it. Nothing. The instrument lights were on, so it wasn’t dead, but either wasn’t getting enough juice to crank over, or something else was wrong. I got out and went to my truck to get a flashlight. When I opened my door, the lady lurched up, startled.
“Sorry, need a flashlight; I have to look under the hood.”
“No, I’m sorry. I’m just jumpy,” she offered, distrust and uncertainty obviously still playing on her.
“Everything’s going to be okay. Give me a minute,” I tried to reassure her.
I found the latch, popped the hood, and played the light over the engine, touched the heater hose and manifold – they were barely warm. She had been here a while. I found no loose wires or connections. I checked the fuse panels I could find – all in order. There was nothing more to do. I headed back to the truck. I tapped on the door before opening it. I didn’t want to scrape her off my headliner.
“Ma’am, I can find nothing obvious, like a loose wire or a bad fuse. You’ll have to get the car towed to a shop in Albuquerque. I’ll take you into town, and when we get cell service, we can call for a tow.”
“Can’t I just wait here for them?”
“Ma’am, it might take a while, if they even come tonight, and then, they would just be taking it to their yard until a shop opens in the morning. Then, no telling how long to fix it. Could be quick, could take all day. Either way, you can’t stay here. It’s too cold and it’s not safe.”
“I’m sorry, you’re right. And thank you for stopping. And forgive me for being…I’m just…I was…”
“I understand. Alone in the middle of nowhere, relying on a stranger. I’m Quinn, and I promise you’re safe with me. Sorry, if I look a little rough…”
“No, Quinn. My apologies. It was starting to get dark and my imagination was working overtime, and then, you’re, um, a pretty large man…my fears kicked in. Too many movies…” she gave a nervous smile and reached a hand across, “I’m Danielle, and thank you so much for stopping.”
“Of course. I’m going to lock your car up, but we need to get whatever valuables you have. You don’t want to leave anything. Then we’ll head to town.”
“I just have a suitcase, a valise and my purse. I locked everything in the trunk,” she said as she started to get out.
“You stay here. You look like you’re just starting to thaw out. I’ll be right back.”
I got her belongings and put them on my rear seat and handed her purse to her as I crawled in the driver’s seat. Danielle had loosened her jacket and had obviously relaxed a little. I hadn’t paid much attention, until now, but as I handed her purse over, I took a look at her face, softly lit in the fading rays of the sun. She was an attractive woman, early to mid-thirties, slender face, long, dark-blonde hair. I only glanced. I didn’t want to stare. She was jumpy enough as it was. After checking traffic, I pulled out and mashed the accelerator down. The sun had just dropped behind the mountains and the high clouds on the horizon began coloring from pink to red. Periodically, I checked my cell phone on my dash for signal, and after about ten minutes, a couple bars appeared.
I hit a button on my steering wheel, “Call Triple A,” I said to the air. I hate automation, but it is handy.
I got an agent and explained the situation. It took them a while to get back to me. I’d forgot it was Saturday night. They called back and informed us that we could go to the tow company office in the morning and sign paperwork and give them the key. They would take it from there and get the car to the Volvo dealership on Monday morning. That was the best that could be done. Next, I called a hotel I’d stayed at before and reserved two rooms and explained it would be a late check-in. By that time, we were coming down the grade into Albuquerque and the sparkling lights of the city were a welcome sight. It was after eight and I was starving.
“Danielle, I’m famished. What about you; and do you have any preferences?”
“Oh yes, and whatever you would like. I’m pretty flexible.”
“Okay, well, given my druthers, I’d go for Mexican. Albuquerque has some pretty good places for that. But if that doesn’t suit you, I know a couple good steakhouses.”
“I’ve never had Mexican food. It’s pretty spicy, isn’t it?”
“Depends on what you get and what salsas you use. Maybe we better go with a steakhouse.”
“No, I’m fine with trying Mexican,” she smiled.
“Muy bien,” I replied, smiling back.
I took the Carlisle Boulevard exit and made the short drive to Padilla’s, which was the place closest to freeway access that I knew, and was very good the couple times I had been there. Being a Saturday night, the place was still pretty busy at 8:30, but we were seated immediately, and our waiter brought menus right away. After quizzing Dannie on what she usually liked to eat, I suggested steak fajitas as a safe bet, and I ordered my usual chile relleno dinner, double portion. Hey, I’m a big guy.
While we waited for our food, I casually asked Danielle what brought her this way.
She hesitated a moment, but then explained, “I’m trying to get to San Diego by Monday morning…um, for a meeting. I guess I’ll have to rent a car and come back for mine, afterwards.”
“I’m headed to just north of San Diego. I can get you where you need to go, no problem.”
“Thank you. You’ve been so helpful, but I don’t want to be any more trouble.”
“It’s no trouble, and you may not even be able to get a rental car, tomorrow being Sunday. And, with stops, it’s a good twelve hours to San Diego. That’s a lot of driving for one person in one day. But for two, splitting the driving duties, not so bad. We can have you there tomorrow night, without you taking the risk of driving overtired.”
“Well, you have a good point. I didn’t really have enough time to start with. This came up kind of suddenly.”
“You couldn’t fly?” I asked.
“Oh, um, well, I have to bring some things back that couldn’t be managed on a plane.”
I sensed she wasn’t being on the level, but answered, “Oh, okay. Anyway, it’s settled. I’ll get you there tomorrow. Oh, good, the food’s here,” I remarked as I saw the waiter coming.
Danielle’s eyes got big when the huge, sizzling plate of fajitas was set in front of her.
“Oh, my goodness, this is amazing, and it smells delicious.”
“It is, and you can enjoy it with or without salsa. I’ll get us a couple different ones, and you can sample them to see what you prefer.”
I turned to the waiter, “Por favor, me gusteria salsa tomatillo, salsa verde, y mas salsa roja.”
“Si, Senor,” he politely returned, accommodating my clumsy Spanish.
I knew he spoke perfect English, but I learned to speak some passable Spanish growing up, and I like using it. Mexican restaurants are about the only time I get to, and occasionally in my job.
The waiter hustled off and I turned back to Danielle. She was staring at me.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized as she dropped her eyes momentarily, then looked up, “I was just looking at you and realizing, you don’t look anything like what my first impression was, what with my hysteria filter in place,” she chuckled, nervously.
I laughed, “It was getting dark, you were alone, and were already seeing boogeymen; then this big, rough-looking character shows up…”
“Oh, you’re not that ‘rough-looking’, actually rather handsome in a rugged…I’m sorry, that was supposed to be a compliment, but I may have messed it up…”
“No, no. Thank you. I’ll take that – ruggedly handsome; that’s what it says on my i.d. And right back at ya…minus the ‘rugged’, um, and the handsome; I mean you’re pretty…talk about messing it up. I mean, you turned out to be very attractive once your skin went from blue to pink.”
She laughed, “I was about frozen. I didn’t think the desert would get so cold.”
“Where are you from? There’s a touch of ‘southern’ in your accent, but not from the ‘south’ south; South Carolina or…”
“Virginia. I live in Fairfax, Virginia, though I grew up in eastern North Carolina.”
“Right. And I guess you haven’t been out west, before?”
“No, this is my first time west of the Mississippi, but I take it, not yours.”
I chuckled, “No, not by a long shot. I grew up out here. Didn’t go east until college. So, business brings you this way?”
“Oh, um, it’s a long story, but yes, business stuff,” she replied, her voice trailing off.
I knew that was an evasive answer; and I didn’t buy the thing about the airlines, either; but I let it be – none of my business.
“What about you? Why are you headed to San Diego?” she asked.
“Well, business, of sorts. My longtime friend and former coworker has a company based in Del Mar, a community north of San Diego, that he started a couple years ago. He’s been after me for over a year to join him. The business really took off and he needs a partner.”
“That sounds exciting. What kind of business, if it’s alright to ask?”
“Of course. It’s a private investigations agency.”
“So, you will be a private investigator?”
“Do you have experience in that?”
“Yes, I am a detective with the police department; been with the force for almost fifteen years…”
“You’re a cop? Why didn’t you tell me when you stopped? I would have…”
“You would have thought I was lying, and mistrusted me even more.”
“Hmm, you’re probably right.”
After finishing a bite of food, she shook her head and waved her fork, “These fajitas are amazing. Thank you for suggesting Mexican food.”
“You’re quite welcome.” As we were almost finished eating, I asked if she would like dessert or an after-dinner drink.
“Oh, no. I couldn’t eat another bite, but I guess a drink might be nice.”
“Margarita okay, or would you like a beer or something else?”
“I’ve never tried a margarita,” she smiled and nodded.
I ordered two ‘top-shelfs’ on the rocks.
After her first sip, she exclaimed, “Fantastic, perfect after the spicy food.”
“They do go together.”
II. THE TRUTH
It was getting late and we needed to start early, so after we finished our drinks, we beat it to the hotel and checked in.
When the desk clerk asked for cards, Danielle said she would be paying cash. The clerk informed her they had to have a card for security and incidentals. She had apparently been able to get away with a cash deposit at her last hotel, explaining that her cards had been compromised, but this clerk was balking.
I handed a card to the desk clerk, “I’ve got this.”
Danielle quickly tried to give me the cash for the room.
“Hey, no worries. We’ll settle up tomorrow. So, your credit was compromised?”
“Oh, um, yes, and thank you,” she answered as she tried to put her money back in her wallet and get it back in her purse. Her hands were shaking.
She quickly turned away from me. I could see she was getting emotional. I grabbed our key cards with my free hand, hefted my backpack on one shoulder, thanked the clerk and put a hand lightly on the back of Danielle’s shoulders, directing her towards the elevators.
As we entered the elevator, I studied her face, her posture.
“I think we should talk,” I gently suggested. She imperceptibly nodded.
Both our rooms were on the fourth floor, three doors apart. I sorted out the keycards, gave her one and walked her to her door.
“I’ll put my stuff away and be right back, okay?”
She nodded, still not looking up. I left her there as soon as her door clicked, and headed to my room.
The moment I entered, I threw my stuff down and beat it to the bathroom for some long overdue relief. Then I checked myself in the mirror. Ugh. With the dark stubble on my face, I looked like an axe murderer. Unlike some of the Hollywood hunks that make the three-day shadow look sexy, on me, it just looks like three days of dark stubble, and makes me look brooding and sinister. I headed to Danielle’s room. She was in some kind of trouble, and I didn’t need fifteen years of police experience to tell me that.
I knocked and said my name, and she answered right away. She looked small and vulnerable, like whatever was troubling her, had caused her to collapse in on herself. Danielle was not diminutive, probably 5′-10″ – tall and slender, but not skinny at all – okay, actually quite shapely – near as I could tell, and around 140 pounds. But right now, she seemed smaller, fragile.
She glanced up at me with a fleeting smile as she let me in. I noticed she automatically set both security locks when she closed the door. I was sure it was done unconsciously – she was afraid of something.
“Why don’t we sit,” I suggested as I guided her to the office chair by the desk. I took a seat on the foot of the bed opposite her.
“You need to tell me what’s going on…Maybe I can help.” Then I sat quietly and waited. I knew she would talk when she was ready.
It took her a couple minutes, “I’m trusting you…not to…”
“Of course,” I nodded, gently urging her to continue. Once she started, it all came out in a rush.
“My husband is a partner in a company that has contracts with the government; I know some of it is military related, and a lot of it involves classified stuff. I’m not sure exactly what all is involved, but it has been very lucrative. I know we have a large sum of money in investments; and those are just the ones he lets me see. I’m pretty sure he has other investments that he doesn’t share information about. And he keeps a couple hundred thousand in our various personal bank accounts. The business has always been demanding, but over time, it has become even more so. He’s been working longer and longer hours, and having to take more out-of-town trips. About four months ago, he started coming home seeming agitated, more distracted than usual. When I would ask, he was vague, would complain about bureaucrats and red tape, but say nothing was wrong, just ‘the usual’. Of course, he’s never talked about his business – classified and all.