Tense. I didn’t normally feel this tightness in my bones. After so many years of enduring board meetings and other occasions, I’d gotten used to the feel of a suit. They were tailored for me—perfectly fitting and shaped for my body, and yet, in this instance, I didn’t feel at ease.
Doubt tainted all of my thoughts. Would she even like this place? I wondered, looking at the dated décor and the peeling blue wallpaper. The others around me were sparse but spread out throughout the tables. An older crowd—about in their late forties.
I just looked at the dated photos on the walls and thought back to when things were brand new. Looking at everything around me made me feel glad—warm, even, but at the same time, I was worried about what newcomers might think. What Bianca might think.
What’s wrong with me? I wondered as I circled my finger around the rim of my wine glass a few times. The red liquid inside teased me. I refused to take a sip as I waited for Bianca to arrive, but I knew indulging was the only way I could get her off my mind.
I’d made it far enough to get reservations and send the limo to get her, but I still didn’t know what I was going to say. Compassion made me want to tell her everything, but I knew that I couldn’t. The best I could do was pick out my answers—make them look pretty for her.
There was a chance that I could make things right tonight and I had to take it no matter what. Why do I care so much about this? I wondered, my hands fiddling with one of the forks. She’s different. She doesn’t look at me the other ones did and yet…
“Dustin…” I heard Bianca say as she walked past me and sat down across the table.
“Bianca?” I asked in slight awe. “You look…” She was dressed formally in what she would normally wear for a case. The tied back hair, minimal makeup, and suit were enough to convince me she wanted to be professional. Still, she looked damn good. I bit down on my bottom lip subtly. “You look ready to do business. Am I correct in saying so?” I asked with a slight grin. She caught on immediately, noting by nodding.
The waitress came by and gave us some menus. She looked like she had a good temperament. I’d seen her coworkers before but only saw her in passing. Out of the years coming here, I was always surprised at how quickly the staff members changed over the years. I didn’t know whether it was on account of the workers or the owners. No matter who was serving me, however, they never failed at making me feel right at home.
“Hello, I’m Beatrice, and I’ll be your server this evening. Can I get you some drinks to start you off?”
“Already got this wine here from the host, thanks,” I replied.
“I’ll have water, please,” Bianca replied. “I’m not intending on drinking any of that tonight and neither should you, Dustin.”
I shrugged. “Helps loosen the jaw, you know? It’ll get me in more of a talkative mood.” At least that’s what they say.
“Whatever helps you, I suppose,” she replied in a disinterested tone. “So, I’d like to know all of the events leading up to your initial arrest.”
“I’m not sure how knowing this would…”
She held up a finger to silence me. “Just tell me, all right?”
I nodded. “Very well…” After clearing my throat, I went on to say, “For a few months business had slowed down. Stockholders pulled out, there were multiple instances of overproduction leading to our warehouses being over saturated. It was a real mess.”
The waitress came around to set Bianca’s drink down. “Have you decided on your appetizers and meal?” she asked with a wide smile.
“I don’t really…” Bianca started to say, looking at the menu with confusion.
“I’d suggest the cuscuz branco. I always get it here. It’s my favorite.” I turned to the girl and said, “Two, please. No appetizers though.”
“Dustin are you sure that’s…?”
“Trust me, it’ll be great.”
“You got it, sir,” the waitress replied.
As soon as she was gone, Bianca gave me her attention again. “So, as you were saying?”
“Right… Well, I was in the process of getting things back on track. I reorganized everything, took down some places we didn’t need and look at where it got me—caught here. Now I can’t admit to laundering because it didn’t happen. I’m pretty sure what happened was an accounting mishap.” I sipped on the wine a little. The tart, slightly sweet flavors helped me relax a little.
“So, it was your accountant who…?” she asked, leaning forward.
“No, I don’t think so. Stan’s a smart man, he wouldn’t want to pull something like this. But…” How do I put this? “I’ve got to tell you something, Bianca.”
“What is it?”
“It’s about my pop. He was a good man, but he never appreciated the fact that I wouldn’t take his help. Things were kind of rocky for a while when I started building my business… I started making a name for myself and our relationship just…”
“Yeah. If it had to be anyone, they were probably linked to my dad. Doesn’t matter anyway.”
“So, do you have a reliable way of showing that you had no part in this? If we remove you as the prime suspect, then I think this case will be a lot smoother.”
“All right, well…”
As the night went on, we talked about the case in between moments of silence. Once our food arrived, the conversation came to a halt. I wanted to ask her how the food was and invite her to a more casual conversation, but I didn’t want to test her too harshly yet.
Surprisingly, she opened up to me first by saying, “This is actually really good!”
“See? I told you. Been coming here for years. Hasn’t changed at all.” I set my napkin down.
“You sure do know your way around this place…”
“Yeah, well, when you’re in the business I’m in, you shake hands with a lot of people. Coworkers like to take you out for drinks and, well, here we are.” She seems a little less upset with me now. Maybe this would be a good time to ask. “So, Bianca. What is your favorite thing about being a lawyer?”
I leaned forward, intently focused on her answer. The look she gave me in response told me that she hadn’t expected the sort of question. Despite this, she replied, “A few things, but… At the top of my list would be being able to help people, you know? I spent a lot of time helping out in smaller cases even though I knew it didn’t exactly pay the bills.”
A little blander than I imagined, but still nice. I nodded slowly, accepting the answer. “Thanks, I was just curious, I guess. I know your parents pushed you the same way mine did. It’s just one of those things…” What an odd feeling. This…urge to connect. “It’s nice to know where other people’s drives come from.”
“Oh, so what’s your drive then, Dustin?” she asked.
At her question, I had to stop and think for a moment. I dug down deep within myself. There had to be a real answer within me somewhere. After a few moments, I finally found it, but just as I opened my mouth to tell her, something caught my eye.
There was a man seated by himself not far from us. The food on his plate looked as though it hadn’t been touched and his eyes were trained on us. I didn’t want to start anything, but a creeping suspicion worked its way up my spine. Uneasily, I shifted in my seat. Shit. Not here too… I thought, reaching into my pocket for my wallet.
“Hey, Bianca. I’d love to keep talking, but I just remembered something that I have to take care of,” I said hastily, pulling my wallet out and slapping a bill on the table.
Bianca wiped her mouth clean and replied, “I’ll wait here for you to come back then.”
“No… I…” I glanced over at the man again, and his position changed. Instead of facing us, he faced toward a table near the host’s podium. “I’d really prefer if you came with me. Now.” I tried to make my tone sound as discreetly urgent as possible.
Luckily my words got through to Bianca, and she got up from the table. With her behind me, I made my way out of the restaurant, trying not to draw any attention to us. I glanced behind and didn’t see any trace of the mysterious man. Thankful, I let out a sigh of relief.
“Dustin! What the Hell is your problem?” Bianca asked me as soon as we were outside.
“I’m sorry.” What can I even say here? Maybe… “I didn’t want to cause a scene or anything, but I saw a mouse scurry across the floor.”
“A… A mouse? Are you serious?”
I held up my hands in a surrendering gesture. “I know, I know. I’m sorry. They told me the exterminator came by last week and everything. Guess one of them got away, huh?”
“Psh. I can’t believe I actually bothered getting dressed up to go to a place like this…”
“But the food was still great, right? And on top of that, you look…” I hesitated. “You look nice in uniform, Bianca.”
“Not something I’d hear from most guys.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “I thought you’d know by now that I’m not like most guys, Bianca.”
She shied away from me a little, avoiding my eyes. “Right, well… At least I got the information that I wanted. With this, I can start writing up a presentation and…”
“I’m going to guess that you want to go back to your hotel room for that.”
“Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
That guy in there was way too close for comfort. What if they try something else? I can’t take a chance like that. It’ll put me in an even worse spot! Plus, Bianca… She doesn’t deserve that.
“I think you deserve a little better than a hotel room, Bianca.”
“What do you mean by that?” she asked, crossing her arms.
“I’ve been thinking for a while. I wanted a way to surprise you, I guess, but I don’t think there’s a better night to ask this sort of thing. So, did you want to stay the night?”
“Dustin, I told you that this would be strictly about business.”
“I know, I know. But the thing is I’ve got every record you could imagine back at my vacation home. You’ll have everything you could need for this case to work out for you.”
She propped her chin up on her hand and hummed, “Hmmm…”
“See? Wouldn’t you agree that that’s a good business decision?”
“I suppose… You sure do drive a hard bargain, Dustin. Where will I be staying for this occasion?”
I shouldn’t give her the obvious answer. “You can have the guest room that’s kept next to the make-shift library. All the records will only be a few footsteps away.”
Her eyes lit up at my words, and she nearly jumped into the air. “That sounds great! Just take me back to the hotel really quick, and I’ll get some things I need…”
With a quick nod, I pulled my phone out and shot my limo driver a message. “Bring the limo around. We’re taking her home tonight.”