Stretched


CHAPTER ONE

“And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men

couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

Her eyes wandered across the room, avoiding making contact with any of the men, but recognizing whether they were regulars or not. The song changed to an even worse one than the previous one, and she had to restrain herself from yelling at the bartender to effing change it to something she could dance to already. As she dipped her hips she was careful not to slip in the spilled beer and she closed her eyes as a husky biker with bad breath stuck a five in her thong above her left butt cheek. She loved this job. There was no sick mother at home. No kids to feed. No excuses. Just her, making a rotten living sacrificing her dignity every week night–she hadn’t yet been able to get a weekend spot when all the real dough came through the place. The door creaked open and she covered her eyes from the blinding daylight with an improvised dance move as she saw a striking silhouette enter. He’s way too well dressed to be in here. Her heart fluttered with anticipation as this out-of-place stranger locked his eyes on her, but not her body, just her eyes, and he strode gently towards her, ignoring the bartender’s inquiry as to what he was thirsty for.

“Diana?” He asked. No one has called me that in years, she thought, her anticipation continuing to swell like a balloon in her chest. The bouncer rushed over.

“Sir, the manager has asked to speak with you. Please come with me.” He rasped.

“Diana Kerr?” Her unconscious nod was unnecessary, he knew he had the right woman.

“Sir,” the bouncer persisted “did you hear me?”

“Hear this,” the stranger quickly replied, “I didn’t come here to speak with your manager.”

“Alright, it’s time for you to go, buddy,” the bouncer gestured.

“Diana, I need to speak with you about something very important. Forgive me for not introducing myself sooner, my name–“

“–I said that’s enough!” The bouncer put himself between Diana and the stranger.

“Very well. I will leave, I don’t want to create a disturbance. But before I go, won’t you allow me to tip the dancer, please?” Before the bouncer could answer, the stranger had thrust a bill toward Diana, which she cautiously took with in her hand. The bouncer went to put his hands on the stranger, but the stranger evaded him and the bouncer stumbled, embarrassed. The stranger strode out, as coolly as he had walked in. Diana worked the rest of her shift, wadding the bill along with the others. By the end of the night, she had nearly forgotten about the bill itself, despite her thoughts being drawn again and again to the stranger through the evening. As she said goodbye to the girls and sat in her car, she unfolded the bill. What was it some kind of Euro? Great, she thought. But something was written on the bill in tiny red cursive. She recognized the area code of the phone number as Cook County.

ELI RAMOS, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR.

She started her car and pulled out of the lot. An ambulance’s siren caused her to pull aside and adjust her rear view mirror. She got lost in her favorite radio show, a wrap-up of the baseball news of the day with guest callers. The rain began to fall about five minutes into her drive. That car’s been behind me a while, she mused, trying to brush it off as paranoia. She couldn’t make out the figures in the car, but there were at least two. She made a left turn and the car stayed behind her. She was only a few blocks from home now. When she was about to turn onto her block, she noticed that her vehicular shadow started signaling even before she did. She didn’t turn. The car didn’t either. She decided to test her paranoid assumption once more when she approached a yellow light. She began to stop, but then, just as she approached the intersection, she floored the accelerator. The car waited for a car to cross, then blazed through it. Her pulse surged. Her hands clamped the steering wheel. My phone better not be dead yet. It was getting late and traffic was thinning out in this part of town. She rerouted to a busier area and thumbed a number into her phone. The dial tone hummed. Again. Again.

“Hello?”

“Ramos speaking.”

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