Sal's was a greasy spoon stuck under the el tracks on the near north side, a miserable joint that looked like it had stumbled out of an Edward Hopper painting. Assuming that painting had spent a couple of nights in a dumpster.
A neon promise blinked overhead: Open All Night. There was a bullet hole in the lower right-hand corner of the front window, a valentine from some hopped-up joker with a .22 pistol, a grudge against Sal and too much time on his hands. Sal had been meaning to replace the window for months now. It was on his list of things to do, right after "Polish the brass on the fucking Titanic".
Maggie was working the graveyard shift, the only waitress on duty that night. She was what they used to call "a looker" back in the day, just the other side of thirty, with tiny crow's feet that flocked in the corners of her eyes when she smiled, eyes like moonstones, huge and mercurial, brown one moment, hazel the next, set above cheekbones that could cut glass. She had a figure that could make an hourglass blush, but hid it under a drab skirt and blouse, and a frumpy, pocketed apron. She dressed down to discourage the come-ons, but they came anyway. If she'd had a dime for every time a guy had asked her, 'What's a girl like you doing in the dump like this?', she could have quit working in a dump like this a long time ago.
It was late, quiet, with just a scattering of customers. An old warrior hunched over the counter staring into his coffee cup like it was a crystal ball; and a guy and girl slumped in a booth in the back, two city rats in their early twenties with bad skin, a cluster-fuck of piercings, and ghostly, dead-end stares. Romeo and Juliet as junkies.
Maggie was wiping down the counter with a lot on her mind, not sleepwalking through her shift like she usually did. Her eyes swung to the door. Then to a clock on the wall. It was eleven-forty. Exactly three minutes had passed since the last time she looked, three minutes that felt more like an hour. She hated when it was slow, hating having to look busy when she wasn't. But she never knew when Sal would stop in to check up on her, so she found things to do. She made a fresh pot of coffee. Refilled salt shakers. Consolidated ketchup bottles, balancing them mouth to mouth like circus performers.
The old warrior at the counter suddenly cleared his throat, a great, phlegmy call of the wild, then lifted his cup with arthritic hands, brought it to his lips and slurped down the dregs, lapping the rim with a grey tongue. He misjudged the landing and set the cup down too hard, and the junkies in the rear booth jumped, roused from their stupor, and gawked stupidly at one another.
Was that a gunshot?
They spilled out of the booth with surprising speed and scrambled out the door. The old warrior was next. He spun on his stool and catapulted onto his feet. Surprised to find himself upright, he launched into a drunken tango that brought him to the door. It took all his strength to open it, and then he, too, was gone, and Maggie was alone.
But not for long.
A man slipped inside just before the door swung shut. He was in his late thirties, and wore faded jeans and a charcoal hoodie over a Steely Dan T-shirt. He was tall and wiry with clever eyes, a good-looking guy who didn't care that he was good-looking. He paused and took inventory of the joint. His gaze fell on Maggie and lingered there. There was nothing remarkable about this. Maggie drew stares from men wherever she went, had been doing so since she was a teenager (better known as the Jailbait Years). What was remarkable, was that Maggie was staring back at him. He quickly averted his eyes and slid into the nearest booth.
She swiped up the pot of fresh-brewed java, made her way to his booth and flashed a smile. Not her usual smile, an uninspired upturn of the lips that growled, Don't even go there, pal. This smile wasn't on the menu. This was a smile a guy could fall into. A smile that could convince a guy to open his heart like a canned ham. This smile whispered, You can tell me... anything.
"Coffee?" she asked.
"Yeah. Yes, please," he said in a sharp staccato that reminded her of a summer hailstorm, the kind that shredded the begonias and sent the mercury plunging. He righted one of the two heavy, porcelain cups that sat inverted on the formica table top, and she filled it. A brief silence followed, and she filled that, too, and asked him if he wanted to see a menu. He told her no, shot a quick glance out the window, scanned with restless eyes and whiplashed back. She noticed that his right knee was jackhammering. He noticed her noticing and his knee fell still.
"Can you believe this heat?" she offered up. As though it was the opening line in some pre-arranged, secret greeting.
She lingered, coffee pot in hand, waiting for a response.
She was still waiting when the cop came in.
He was a uniformed beat cop in his late-thirties who had opted to get a head start on middle age by letting himself go to shit a good ten years ahead of schedule. He was breathless, sucking air, his shirt stretched to bursting by his belly, which sagged over his duty belt like a swell of cooled lava. His hair was thin and stringy, combed over his mottled scalp, his face pudgy, his eyes like two marbles pushed into bread dough. A gleaming name tag on his chest identified him as Officer J. Rollins.
The man in the booth stiffened. He wrapped his hands around his coffee cup and looked straight ahead, unblinking.
Officer J. Rollins re-conned, taking in the joint in a single, quick sweep. He got a load of Maggie, and his marble eyes almost shot out of his head. He strutted up, and gave her a cruel once-over that made her want to grab one of those heavy, porcelain coffee cups off the table and beat his doughy face in.
She was a good three inches taller than he was, even in flats, and she pulled her shoulders back and seemed to grow another inch. "Can I help you, officer?"
Feeling small, Rollins turned his attention to the man in the booth. "Let's see some ID," he said.
The man lifted his eyes. "Who, me?" he asked. It was a stab at nonchalance, a piss-poor one, a dismal failure.
"Yeah," Rollins said, "You."
"What did I-"
"Now," Rollins said, cutting him off. He could act like a tough guy all night, this cop, but he would never be a tough guy, and two out of the three people in the room knew it. Still, he was a cop, and if he wanted to act like a hard-on, there wasn't much the man in the booth could do about it.
He reached for his wallet, and Rollins' chubby right hand settled on the grip of his holstered sidearm, a .45 Smith & Wesson. "Slowly," he said.
The man took out his wallet.
"What's going on?" Maggie asked. "What's this all about?"
Rollins didn't answer. His eyes stayed fixed on the man as he removed his license from his wallet and handed it over.
Rollins gave it a look. "Daniel Simms?"
The man, Daniel Simms, nodded.
Rollins turned to Maggie. "How long has he been here?"
Maggie shrugged. "Forty, fifty minutes," she said without missing a beat.
The lie registered with Daniel Simms, just in his eyes. He knew from the way she told it that it wasn't the first lie she ever told.
"You sure about that?" Rollins asked her.
"Might even be longer," Maggie said. "To be honest, I can't get rid of him."
"You want him gone? Say the word," Rollins snarled. Again with the tough-guy routine.
Maggie laughed. "I'm sorry, I'm kidding," she said. Her left hand lit softly on Daniel's shoulder. He flinched at her touch. "Actually," she continued, "He's my boyfriend."
This time, Daniel couldn't hide his surprise. Rollins picked up on it. "Does he know that?" he asked Maggie, nodding at Daniel.
"He's still getting used to the idea," she said, and flashed a hundred-watt smile (fuck those forty-watt energy savers). She tousled Daniel's hair. He went rigid, his lips pressed into an unconvincing smile.
Rollins was skeptical. "Where were you earlier tonight?" he asked Daniel.
"Towne and Sons. Printing factory on Waveland."
"I can check it out..." Rollins said. He meant it as a threat. Some threat.
Daniel shrugged. Go ahead. "Number's 555-9872. Ask for Bill Danvers. He's my supervisor."
Maggie groaned. "He's such a dick. Danvers. Don't get me started." She threw another smile at Rollins.
This one he resisted.
His brow furrowed. His cop brain sifted through Maggie's responses, ran DNA tests on them and waited for the results. He shook his head and his jowls quivered, and it was suddenly, abundantly clear, clear as fucking crystal, that he wasn't buying any of this. He was about to tell her so when his walkie-talkie squawked, an unintelligible jumble of static and police jargon. Maggie made out the words possible suspect, West Addison, all units.
Rollins answered the call, doing his best Jack Webb. He returned Daniel's license, nodded to Maggie, and then he was out the door, almost as suddenly as he had appeared.
Maggie and Daniel stared out the window, not quite accepting that Officer J. Rollins was really gone, and when it finally sunk in that he was, Daniel turned to her. His eyebrows reached for the sky. "Your boyfriend?"
She shrugged. "It just came to me."
"You're a good liar for a waitress," he said.
"Thank you," she said. "I guess."
He gave her his own once-over. This one she didn't seem to mind. "Why'd you do it?" he asked. "Why'd you cover for me?"
"I don't like cops," she said flatly. "They're lousy tippers."
Daniel's radar had pinged. His guard was up. "You want something from me? Or you just like to jerk off cops?" he snarled.
"That's not a very nice thing to say to your alibi," she said.
"And that's not an answer," he replied.
She abruptly set the coffee pot on the table, as though she had just remembered she was still holding it, and slid into the booth opposite him. She spent a good thirty seconds exploring the landscape of his face. The wide, intelligent brow. The eyes narrowed, inscrutable. The mouth flat, lips pursed. The veins like ropes, taut across his temples. The title of the landscape was, I don't trust you as far as I can fucking throw you.
"You don't really work at a printing factory, do you?" she asked.
He took a moment to size her up. "Not that I recall," he said, and cut his eyes to the window again. She could tell he was itching to leave, but there were still signs of police activity outside, and he stayed where he was.
"Why was he after you, that cop? What did you do?" she asked.
"I didn't do anything." Daniel said. He paused, then offered brief elaboration. "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, that's all."
"You have vague down to a science, don't you?" she asked.
Daniel looked puzzled. Her tone indicated that she was annoyed, but her eyes said otherwise. She was the queen of mixed signals, they pulsed off her like sparks. He looked down at his coffee mug, swirled it, watched the waves swell. "I was in a liquor store," he finally said. He sighed, and seemed to age before her eyes. "It's a long story," he added.
"Like the sign says, we're open all night," she issued brightly. "First refill is free..."
She was smiling again, but this smile was different. It seemed to be genuine, and Daniel might have bought it, might have allowed himself to fall into it, had it not been for the the fact that lies had been spilling from her like raw sewage since he walked in the door. "First I need to know why you lied to that cop," he said.
Maggie liked him, this Daniel Simms. Liked lobbing softballs to him, watching as he swatted them deep into left, crisp line drives that uncoiled like rope. He liked her, too, she could tell, she knew the signs, and she decided to trust him. Just a little. "I'm expecting someone," she finally admitted. "Someone I've never met. I thought you might be him."
"Blind date?" he asked.
"Something like that," she said. There was a slight hitch in her voice.
Daniel nodded. A smile broke in, then crept away like a thief in the night. "I take it back," he said. "You're a shitty liar."
"Excuse me?" The color rose in her throat, ruby red, and spread to her cheeks. She felt warm, flushed.
"A blind date? Seriously?" he asked. He seemed to be on the verge of uproarious laughter.
"Is that so hard to believe?" She was getting pissed now.
"Woman like you? Yeah."
" What does that mean? A woman like me?" She was leaning forward, palms flat on the table.
"You know what it means," he said.
She was about to unload on him, let him have it with both barrels. Instead, she deflated and said softly, "Believe what you want. But I am waiting for someone." She paused. "All I know about him is that he's not punctual."
Daniel shrugged, noncommittal, and raised the coffee cup to his lips.
"So, what happened at the liquor store?" she asked.
He gave her a piercing look and lowered the cup without drinking.
"I stuck my neck out for you," she said. "I think I deserve an explanation."
Daniel considered this. Evidently, he agreed, because he said, "Cops think I robbed it."
She was taken aback. "Did you?"
"Like I said, wrong place, wrong time."
"So, we're back to vague again," she replied.
He seemed tired, like she was getting to him, wearing him down. "I went in for a pack of smokes," he said. "Some guy pulled a gun. Cops were there in no time flat. All hell broke loose. I ran..."
"If you didn't do anything, why did you run?"
Daniel sighed. Deeper and deeper, he thought. He weighed his next entry carefully before logging it. "I'm on parole," he finally said.
"You were in prison?" She was startled. Clearly, this had never occurred to her.
"Wyoming State Penitentiary. Two years and change," he said.
"What did you do?" she asked cautiously.
"Robbed a liquor store." He almost smiled when he said it.
"Irony's a bitch, huh?"
"Were you guilty?"
"As charged," Daniel said.
"But not this time?"
"No," he said. "I learned my lesson." No irony here.
Maggie bit her lip. It was a nervous habit with non-specific triggers. She was turning this new information over in her head, doing the mental math, when she noticed that he was wearing a wedding ring. It surprised her. "Are you married?" she asked.
"Separated," he said. He fidgeted with the ring. "Can't seem to get it off." He stopped fidgeting and sat in silence for a moment. "We're trying to work it out," he added. "You know, one step forward, two steps back?" He threw her a sad smile. She threw it back. "How about you?" he asked.
She leaned back. Her hands slid off the edge of the table, fell into her lap and balled into fists. "I was," she said softly, after a long silence.
"Divorced?" he asked.
She flushed, lowered her eyes.
"Hey, it happens," Daniel said. "Nothing to be-"
"My husband was killed three years ago," she said, cutting him off. She paused, and then added, "Murdered."
Two syllables that sucked all the air out of the room.
Daniel didn't know what to say, so he didn't say anything.
She took a long time to get going, and once she did, she couldn't stop herself.
"His name was Billy. We'd only been married a year. He was working nights at Roadway, out on the west side. It was the only shift he could get. No seniority... It got to the point where we only saw each other twice a day for like, an hour. It wasn't exactly quality time. He was always exhausted, I was always in a hurry... I wanted him to look for another job. He said he would, but he kept putting it off... don't know why. Things came to a head one morning. It was a Thursday. It had rained overnight. The street was still wet when I got up. It steamed when the sun hit it, like mist... don't know why I remember that..."
She paused, picturing it, the mist rising off the street, then continued, "We'd never fought before, not really. Not like that, anyway. I was young, I didn't know there were rules. That you don't say things you can't take back. He said some things, too. I was so pissed... I left, drove to work. Part of me wanted to turn around, go back home, tell him I was sorry, but... I couldn't make myself do it. Too proud, I guess... I got over it." This last bit was a whisper, barely audible.
She fell silent for a moment. It was painful to listen to, but Daniel was riveted. He waited, and she finally continued. "A couple hours later, I went on break. I couldn't stand being mad at him, I was about to call him. I had my cell out... and it rang, right in my hand. It made me smile. I thought it was him, that he couldn't stand it, either, knowing that things weren't right between us." She stopped again. Her throat was tight, her lips dry. She licked them and swallowed with difficulty. "It was the police."
Daniel couldn't take his eyes off her. He was right there with her.
"They found Billy in an alley, shot to death," she said. "I guess he couldn't sleep, went for a walk... I don't know... They caught the man who did it. One of the detectives told me they had him 'dead to rights'. But the police were sloppy with the evidence and the case collapsed like a house of cards. It was a nightmare. He got off scot-free and just... went on with his life as though nothing had happened. I lived with it for two years, trying to... not forget it, because how can you? But, I don't know... live with it? Move on? And I finally got to a place where it didn't hurt every single minute of every single day..."
Her fists were clenched so tightly that her fingernails dug into her palms. She didn't even notice. "I took my dog to the park one day," she continued. "This was about a year ago... and he was there. The guy who killed Billy. Playing touch football with a bunch of friends. I hadn't seen him since the trial. I guess it never occurred to me that I might run into him someday... I couldn't move, couldn't take my eyes off him... Somebody made a touchdown or something... all of a sudden they were high-fiving, laughing... I just, I starting running, I..."
Her voice trailed off.
Daniel's head was spinning. Whatever he had expected to find when he ducked into this diner, it certainly wasn't this.
"That's when I knew I had to do something," she said.
Daniel was gripped by a sudden sense of urgency. He leaned toward her, about to speak when her cell phone rang.
She fished her cell out of her pocket and checked the caller ID. She blanched. "Sorry, I have to take this."
Daniel leaned back and nodded. Sure.
She slid out of the booth and hurried over to the counter, turning her back to Daniel as she answered. He could hear her soft whisper, but couldn't make out what she was saying.
He seemed deeply, deeply distressed.
She lowered the phone from her ear, very slowly, and stood there, motionless, head bowed, arm hanging limp at her side, for the longest time. Finally, she slumped onto a stool, her back still to Daniel.
He got up and walked to the counter. She didn't look at him, didn't say anything.
"Bad news?" he asked. It was a stupid thing to say, but he felt that he had to say something.
It took her forever to get the words out. "My blind date cancelled."
Daniel seemed hugely relieved. She was too distracted to notice. "Not our night, is it?" he asked with a kindness he hadn't shown before.
She didn't answer him, just stared at the counter. The silence was crushing. He was trying to think of something more to say when she abruptly turned to him, her eyes huge and liquid and guileless. "Want to be my blind date?" she asked.
The words hit him like a bullet, square in the chest, and knocked the air out of him.
He looked hard at her. "I don't think that's a good idea," he said, trying to throw as much weight behind his words as possible.
"I can make it worth your while," she said. She leaned over the counter and grabbed her purse.
Daniel shot a quick glance at the door. All was quiet outside. The cops were gone. Evidently, they were serving and protecting elsewhere at the moment.
When he turned back, there was a bulky manila envelope on the counter in front of him.
Every muscle in his body seemed to tense at once. He stared at the envelope for several seconds, and then opened the flap, just enough to see that it was filled with cash.
A thick stack of one hundred dollar bills.
He did the math in his head and calculated that there was roughly ten thousand dollars inside. He closed the flap and slid the envelope back to her.
She started to speak. He abruptly put his finger to his lips.
She was surprised, but stayed mute.
Daniel pointed to her order pad. She got his drift, took it out of her apron pocket, then handed it to him, along with a pencil worn to a nub. He wrote something on the pad, handed it back to her. She looked at him for a moment, then glanced at the pad. Her eyes widened in surprise.
There were three words scrawled on the page, underlined and in caps:
I'M A COP
Her mouth fell open. She stared at the words until they lost all meaning. She finally looked at him. He turned the collar of his hoodie inside out and showed her the tiny, wireless microphone clipped there.
She stared at it in disbelief. He nudged the manila envelope and gestured for her to put it away. She picked it up and stuffed it back in her purse. Clumsily, as though she'd never used her hands before.
She felt as though she was swimming through space. "Maybe you're right," she finally said, "Maybe it's not such a good idea." Her voice was small and liquid, light years away.
Daniel tore the top sheet off her pad, the sheet he had written on, and shoved it in the front pocket of his jeans. He returned the pad, which she tucked in her apron pocket.
The landscape of his face had changed. Softened. His lips moved, forming words, entire sentences that remained unspoken. He finally got up and walked to the door. Maggie started to speak, and he stopped and turned to her.
"The last thing I ever said to him, to Billy, was, 'Whatever'. I was mad. It just came out. 'Whatever'. Such a stupid thing to say..."
Daniel had heard enough, too much, and prayed that she was wouldn't say any more. She didn't, and he left.
She watched as the door shut behind him. He paused and glanced in through the glass, and then walked away. She stared out the window, waiting for him to return, but he didn't.
Daniel walked half-way down the block and then jogged across the street to a white, windowless van parked along the curb. He knocked on the back door. It swung open a moment later. He climbed inside and pulled it shut behind him.
The back of the vehicle was filled with electronic equipment. A plainclothes detective sat at a bank of monitors wearing headphones. Office J. Rollins was sitting opposite him. There was another man beside Rollins, a guy in his early thirties, prison tats, a real bad ass. His hands were cuffed behind his back.
Rollins said to Daniel, "What the fuck, man? You had her."
"I didn't have shit," Daniel grumbled. "She's just a lonely, fucked-up broad." He glared at Bad Ass. "This asshole played us."
"Bullshit, motherfucker," Bad Ass said. "We had a deal. I made your phone call. Where's my fuckin' deal?" He was pissed-off, all attitude, and kept yelling over and over, "Where's my fuckin' deal?"
Daniel finally cuffed him upside the head, a sharp blow with the flat of his hand. "Shut the fuck up," he growled.
"Let's wrap it up," the detective said. He took off his headphones and climbed into the front seat. He glanced out the window. "Your ride's here," he said to Rollins.
Rollins slid open the side door, got out of the van and hauled Bad Ass after him. Rollins looked back in at Daniel. "It's been a slice, partner," he said, and slid the door shut.
A moment later, the van lurched into motion.
Daniel stayed in the back, glared at nothing in particular, feeling like shit, worse than shit, like a fraud.
He wished a lot of things.
He wished he could have told Maggie that he was actually Detective First Grade Daniel Simms. That Officer J. Rollins was actually his partner, Detective John Rollins. That the two of them had cooked up this sting operation weeks ago, and that the liquor store robbery/suspect interrogation routine had been a lark, rehearsed over chile and tacos and way too many margaritas last night. That the Bad Ass Maggie had hired to avenge her husband's murder had already been in custody when he called her moments ago. That he, Daniel, had entered the diner intending to coax a confession out of her and haul her off to jail, and left wishing he had listened to his mother and become an architect instead.
He was completely drained by the time he took out his cell phone. He auto-dialed a number, brought the phone to his ear. He fiddled with his wedding ring and listened as the phone rang on the other end.
His wife answered on the fifth ring.
"It's me," Daniel said. "Hope I didn't wake you." He listened for a moment, and then said, "No, nothing's wrong. I just..." His voice cracked. He stopped and composed himself. "I just wanted to say I'm sorry..." he began.
About the Author
Steve Allrich is a former visual artist who turned to screenwriting after a mid-life crisis fueled by caffeine, over-exposure to earth metals, and extensive dream analysis. His second movie is currently in production in Australia.