He walked into Bennett’s Market looking like anybody else in search of gas and junk food. I was disappointed. I thought he’d stand out, thought he’d be the kind of person that makes you hesitate and forget for a moment what you were doing. But he was any guy, tall, gaunt and unshaven in worn out jeans with a split across one knee that gaped when he walked, like a mouth gasping for air. The sleeves of his faded flannel shirt were rolled to his elbows. I recognized the Jesus Saves tattoo on his forearm from the file I’d seen on Isaac Bennett at the St. Bart police station. He walked toward me and nodded. I slipped a bag of Cheetos beneath my poncho, into the waistband of my pants, and nodded back. A hint of a smile appeared in his eyes.
I glanced at my partner, Griff Cole, standing on the other side of the store, flipping through the pages of Popular Mechanic, a shiny, red car on the cover. Griff looked like a tourist in his gray wool sport jacket, jeans and square-toed Buckaroos. This time of year, most Mainers were in their winter uniforms, flannel shirts, down vests and LL Bean boots. A spray of black hair fell over his forehead. He raked it back with his free hand, taking in Bennett. His eyes grazed mine before dropping back to the magazine in his hand.
“Cigs,” Bennett said to the girl behind the counter nodding to the overhead rack. “And twenty bucks on number 3.”
The clerk punched some numbers into the register. “Cigarettes are out back still boxed. I have to go get them, but your gas is all set.” No cash or plastic crossed the counter.
“Back in a minute, then,” he said.
I stood in front of the candy rack and stuffed a Snickers bar in with the Cheetos, timing it so he’d see me do it as he turned from the counter.
“Hungry?” he whispered sharing a conspiratorial wink.
I stepped away from him fast and tried to look scared, which wasn’t entirely untrue.
“Hey lady, you need help or something?” The clerk asked.
“Just looking,” I said.
“Well, hurry it up. This ain’t a hangout.” She raised her arms over her head, split her ratty ponytail in half between fisted hands and pulled it tight.
“Ahh, leave her alone, Ruth,” Bennett said, smiling at me. “It’s a big decision.”
Ruth, disappeared in search of his cigarettes and I watched him walk out the door and over to his truck. There was a hitch in his step that suggested, despite his lean frame, he wasn’t in his prime. I’d put my money on early forties. The seat of his jeans hung low off his bony hips and he looked in need of a meal. Standing alongside his pick-up, he shoved the gas nozzle into the tank of the F-150 and kept his eyes on the storefront.
I looked at Griff again. He nodded.
At the cooler against the wall, I took out an ice tea then reached back in and knocked a bottle of root beer onto the tiled floor. It shattered, creating a bubbling, brown puddle of soda and glass.
Ruth reappeared from the back of the store. “What the…?” She started toward me holding a carton of Marlboros in her hand.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll clean it up. Have you got a mop?” I reached my arm toward her and with my other hand beneath my poncho, released the candy and Cheetos, letting them fall into the puddle at my feet.
Ruth looked at me then at the parking lot where Bennett was fiddling with the gas tank and back to me again. “I’ll clean it. You get the hell out of here,” she said, her tone more anxious than angry.
“No really…” I started, but she cut me off.
“Get the hell out, now,” she said, her eyes shifting toward the door.
The bells above the entrance jingled as Bennett stepped inside. “You mind your mouth.” He pointed a long, nicotine, stained finger at Ruth. What’s going on?”
Her eyes bore into me, conveying something I couldn’t discern then she turned toward Bennett. “She’s got a bunch of stuff under her shirt and making a friggin’ mess too.” The irritation was back in her voice.
“I said, watch your mouth.” He turned to me. “You really are hungry.”
I didn’t speak and started to move away from him, but he grabbed my wrist.
“It’s okay. You can have those.” He bent and lifted my candy and Cheetos out of the puddle of root beer, wiped them on his jeans and handed them back to me. He fished in his pocket, pulled out a five-dollar bill and handed it to Ruth. “That’ll cover her food. Clean this up.”
She took the money, dropped her hand to her side and stood for a moment looking at the floor.
“Mop,” Bennett barked.
Without a word, Ruth turned toward the back of the store.
Bennett watched her go then looked at me. You need a ride?”
Before following him out the door, I glanced at Griff one last time. Holding his eyes for a second, I tried to convey success, but it was fear and uncertainty I saw looking back. My going undercover to investigate Bennett was an argument Griff had lost. But this case had opportunity written all over it, personal and professional. I hadn’t given up until I got what I wanted. I’d been so fixated on my chance to shine that I’d dismissed the unknowns of the case as insignificant… a rookie mistake.
The door of Bennett’s beat to hell pick-up whined as he opened it. “Hop in, sweetheart,” he said. His eyes moved from my sneakered feet to my cropped black hair and back.
My heart beat a hole in my chest as I settled on the passenger seat and closed the door. We pulled onto the road, fishtailing through slushy snow left over from last night’s storm. I stared straight ahead and tried to breathe telling myself that I could do this, I really could. At least I was pretty sure that I could.
“You got anyplace to be?” he asked.
I shook my head. “No.” My voice cracked and the word came out in a whisper.
“I got somewhere you can rest and get something to eat. Sound good?”
I looked at him and nodded, even tried to smile.
He palmed my head and shook it beneath his hand. “What’s with the haircut? You tryin’ to pass for a boy?”
“It’s easy to take care of.”
“Don’t think there’s much chance of you bein’ mistaken for the opposite sex anyway.” His eyes fell to my breasts and he gave me a knowing grin.
I loosened my poncho, folded my arms beneath it and turned away from him watching the pine trees sail past. We swerved and skidded over the road, avoiding frost heaves and potholes characteristic of Maine’s winter. Griff would be on his way back to Portland by now. Mission accomplished.
“Where were you heading?” he asked with a sidelong glance.
I shrugged. “No place in particular.”
“Nobody looking for a pretty girl like you?”
I shook my head and my stomach tightened.
He smiled looking pleased with himself, like he’d just lured a fish into his net.
“Why are you helping me?”
“We’re all God’s children. I like to help Him out when I can. But don’t think of this as a hand out. It’s food and a bed in exchange for labor.”
“Where you from?”
“What’re you doing this far north?”
“My mother lived in Bangor.”
“Lived as in… not anymore?”
“She died last month.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
I shrugged. In truth, my mother was probably alone in the shadows of our non-descript colonial, conversing with a bottle of vodka. That is if she hadn’t passed out yet. Not that I cared. Dead or incoherent, it was all the same to me.
“Don’t know him.” That was mostly the truth too. My dad spent so much time with his college students (the female ones) that I really didn’t know much about him except for what my mother had told me. By her standard, he was a no-good son-of-a bitch. At this point in my life I was well beyond caring what he was.
“I haven’t lived anywhere long enough to make any.”
“Well you’ll make some now.” He squeezed my hand.
I forced myself not to pull away. I needed Isaac Bennett to like me because I had something to prove and four days to do it.