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Braking carefully, Katherine drove cautiously through the huge metal gates standing open on their heavy iron hinges, a large ‘Rome Trucking’ sign wired into the right hand gate. The dusty gravel stretched across the big yard, several buildings dotting the barren landscape, weeds sprouting along the fence line. An old grey stucco-clad bungalow stood to one side on what looked like its original foundation, with eight or ten vehicles, mostly pickups, parked in a staggered line near the doorway.
She was surprised how many vehicles were on site already. She checked her watch. They must start work very early. She parked carefully at the end of the line of vehicles, leaving lots of space between the nearest pickup and the unprotected side of her little car. Her car may be older but it was reliable and she was still making payments on it. Unsnapping the seatbelt, she gathered her business-like folder and purse, stepping out onto the gravel drive.
Katy drew a deep breath, straightened her shoulders and glanced curiously around. Bruno had talked about this yard, how enormous it was, how dusty, how busy and vital. It was certainly large enough, she guessed it had once been three or four city lots. Several older dump trucks were parked farther back against the fence on the other side, their behemoth shapes hulking, casting low early morning shadows across the ground. A huge metal-clad workshop ranged across the back of the property and the sound of hammer ringing on metal rose from its dim interior.
She glanced toward the house, where the front door stood open to the crisp morning air, one gnarled tree, ancient and gnarled, leaning protectively over it. That must be the office. She stood straighter, took a firmer grip on her folder, mentally braced herself and started forward. This shouldn’t be too difficult, she could do it. She could.
As she climbed the wooden steps, standing out sharply new against the exterior of the old chipped and faded stucco on the walls of the house, she could hear strident masculine voices coming from within. She paused, clutching the banister nervously in her fingers as the shouting escalated in volume. Goodness, maybe this was bad timing on her part. Should she have phoned first, made an appointment with the owner? She hovered, uncertain whether to go forward or retreat, one foot on the top step.
But Bruno had assured her it was a very informal kind of business, that people just dropped in to talk to the owner and order up work. No one made an appointment, they just arrived, talked with Mr. Rome or one of his staff, made their arrangements and got the job done. Bruno mentioned he had been here quite a few times, discussing things with Mr. Rome and finding out more about the business. He said it was casual, he would just walk in and when Mr. Rome was free, he would discuss his plans with him. Surely it would be the same for her.
She cautiously moved forward across the top step, peering around the cracked doorframe. She could see straight into what must have once been the living room of a modest family home. There were the remains of an old kitchen at one end, the dated cabinets still clinging to the walls, a line of countertop and cabinets beneath. There were ancient pieces of furniture, a small kitchen table, a few wooden chairs, a sofa and matching upholstered chair marking off one end of the large room. The rest of the main area held a couple of desks, one with a curious set of speakers on it, the other with a mishmash of papers strewn across its surface. And beyond that, a door into what was obviously now a separate office. She could see two figures standing in the doorway to the office.
That must be Mr. Rome, she thought. That had to be him. He was a shorter man, dressed in khaki pants and shirt neatly tucked in, heavy shouldered and thick with muscle, gone to fat a bit in the middle, maybe in his late fifties. He looked neatly put together and business-like in a rough sort of way. He stood squarely in his bulky steel-toed boots, his head thrust forward aggressively, his salt and pepper hair clipped short and brushed straight back from his strong featured face. He was speaking to a second taller man in the doorway who had his back to Katy. Rome held a stub of cigar in his hand, and as he spoke he jabbed it forward for emphasis.
‘We’re going to keep calm, now’, he said in a gravel voice. ‘No point in flying off the handle, I’ve told you that before. This will work out, these things always do.’ He gazed keen-eyed up at his companion. ‘You have to hold onto your temper, or we won’t be able to pull it together. You know that.’
The second man stood even straighter if possible, his large shoulders blocking the interior of the room from Katy’s gaze, his head nearly grazing the top of the door frame. He was dressed in a black tee shirt, ripped at the neck, sagging cargo shorts hanging low on his hips. His feet were thrust into a pair of heavy leather boots, scuffed and marked, the laces dragging on the floor. His head jerked back as if he’d been slapped and his voice started at a growl, rising steadily until it hit a roar. ‘I’m going to fucking kill him! Broke his leg, you say? I’ll break his other fucking leg for him. By God, I will! I told him, I told them all!’
Just then, Mr. Rome caught sight of Katy and turned his head slightly. ‘Who are you?’ he said. ‘What can I do for you?’ His manner was deceptively mild given the tone of the conversation she’d just heard. Katy was amazed. She wouldn’t have thought he would let one of his own employees talk to him like that and just take it, just keep his temper.
‘I don’t mean to interrupt, Mr. Rome’, she said. ‘I’ve come to see you about a matter of business, but I can wait until you’re free’. She cast a slightly disparaging look at his companion’s back, and folded her arms to indicate she was willing to be patient. He looked at her for a minute, then back at the other man, a slight smile now marking his face. ‘Mr. Rome?’ he said. Then he looked back at Katy. He indicated with his cold cigar, gesturing at the other, younger man. ‘This is Mr. Rome’.
The second man turned impatiently to look at her. His face was heavily flushed in anger, his jaw tight, muscles bulging in his thick neck. His arms flexed as he braced his hands low on his hips and glared in her direction. Glared with his good eye, that is. The other eye was black, with a gash above it running across his eyebrow, up his forehead. She could see a doctor’s stitches crawling along the cut like a caterpillar, the plastic ends bristling. The eye itself was blood red and badly bruised. His full mouth was discoloured and swollen on one side, the lip split.
Katy stared. Her mouth fell open and she took an involuntary horrified step backward, steadying herself shakily against the battered metal desk behind her. This was Mr. Rome? This was the man Bruno the rainmaker, Bruno the deal arranger, Bruno her friend, had loaned all her money to?