Okay – we’re back to fiction. This one’s a stand-alone story from my dark side.
“Your girlfriend’s here.”
Miguel grinned over the counter as he passed Frank two lunch specials. Frank turned his head and saw Angie slide into her booth in the back corner of Oak Street Diner.
“She’s not my girlfriend, Miguel.”
“Keep it up and I’ll start letting people know you’re the owner.”
“You’re not that crazy,” Miguel quipped.
Miguel liked cooking. The first thing he did when he bought the place was hire Frank to run the front end of the restaurant. People assumed Frank was the new owner and they valued his personal attention. Miguel knew that service was as important as good food to build a solid customer base, so he gave Frank a percentage of the net on top of his salary and tips.
Miguel went back to the grill and Frank carried the specials to the lawyers at table five. They were embroiled in a discussion that didn’t stop as each in turn leaned back to let Frank put a plate in front of them. He could have mixed up the order and they wouldn’t have noticed. It wasn’t always about talking to people; sometimes it was about knowing how to serve without interrupting.
He picked up a menu out of habit as he walked back to Angie, but he knew she always ordered tea and a toasted cheese sandwich—the cheapest items they offered.
“How are you, Angie?” Frank asked as he handed her the plastic folder.
“It’s gone to the jury,” she replied tensely. “They’ll find him guilty, won’t they?”
Angie needed someone to listen to her. She’d appeared the first day of the trial and had eaten lunch at the diner every court day since.
He smiled. “You’re the expert, the one watching the proceedings.”
“Oh, no. I just hear them talking when they come out.” Her hushed tone was apologetic for the misunderstanding.
“I thought you said you were doing research for a writing class. Shouldn’t you be in the courtroom?”
“I can’t. That man is evil.” She seemed to shrink as she said it.
Frank had read the headline stories when it happened, before Angie ever set foot in the restaurant. Neighbors had called 911 because they heard the young mother screaming. The police response was slow. When they arrived the victim was alone in the house; she’d been bludgeoned to death. Her infant was nowhere to be found.
It was that missing baby that made a common fatality of domestic abuse become the focus of news for months. It was also what left some doubt in Frank’s mind about the boyfriend’s guilt.
“They still haven’t found the kid, have they?” he asked.
“No.” Angie was blinking back tears. “He killed that baby, too.”
“I’ll bet her ex- killed her and took off with his kid.” Frank knew from the papers that the defense was offering that explanation.
“You can’t believe that!” Angie glared at him in shock.
Frank held back his response – did she prefer believing the child was dead? That was worse than her obsession with this drama that had nothing to do with her. Well, if the jury was out, this was probably her last day in the restaurant. He continued pleasantly professional.
“You having the usual?”
Angie nodded and politely handed him the unopened menu.
“I’ll go get your order started.”
Miguel already had the sandwich and tea ready.
“What if she’d chosen something different today?” Frank asked.
“You know she wouldn’t. I put extra cheese into it. I swear she’s skinnier than she was when we first saw her. You like a woman with some curves, don’t you?”
“She’s just a customer.”
“Why do you always talk with her so much, then?”
“That’s what she’s here for, not the food… It’s a good thing you like your kitchen. This place would fold in a month if you were out front.”
“You should show more respect for the man who signs your check.” Miguel grinned and shoved the plate and metal teapot across the counter.
Frank took them back to Angie.
“Here you go.”
He turned her cup right side up and poured some tea while she adjusted her plate in front of her.
“He is guilty,” she whispered. “It’s not the first time.”
“I didn’t know that,” Frank apologized. “With that kind of testimony, of course they’ll find him guilty.”
He saw a brief flash of terror cross her face before she looked down at her plate and mumbled a thank you. His skin prickled; he wondered if she had mental problems. There was probably a clinical term for getting so wrapped up in someone else’s tragedy, something more specific than obsession.
“Is there anything else I can get you?” he asked.
She shook her head without looking up. He thought about sitting down for a few minutes, starting a chat about something innocuous to distract her, but the door chimed the presence of a new customer. Hopefully she wouldn’t have a major breakdown during the lunch rush.
Frank didn’t have a chance to talk to Angie again until he took her the check. She had cash ready.
“Here,” she said. “Keep the change. I need to get back in case they come in with a verdict quickly.”
“We’ll miss you.”
It was important to be polite to every customer, even one you’d gratefully never see again.
Angie headed to the restroom and Frank deposited the cash. His next customer was at the table by the door. Mike McCarthy, who covered the courthouse beat, had his computer out, ready to use their Wi-Fi. He waved away the menu Frank offered.
“What’s today’s soup?” he asked.
“I’ll have a bowl. No, make that a cup.”
“Not today.” McCarthy grimaced. “My appetite’s off. The jury came in, not guilty.”
“You think they were wrong?” asked Frank.
“I interviewed the neighbors. There was another girlfriend with a baby before this one. That girl told them he got so angry when the baby cried that it scared her. They said she made it sound like it was her fault for letting the baby disturb him – typical abused spouse crap.”
“What did she tell the cops?”
“They couldn’t find her. A year before he killed this one, she disappeared with her kid and no one’s seen her since. So all they had was hearsay from the neighbors.”
Frank saw Angie coming from the restroom. He owed her an apology.
“Angie, this is Mike McCarthy, a reporter. He says you were probably right, that the guy’s previous girlfriend disappeared with her kid.”
“All the publicity this got, she’d have come forward, if she could,” McCarthy added. “Until someone else is lucky enough to get away from him alive, that prick’s free to go do it again.”
They both turned at Angie’s primal wail. “No! He got off?”
The men nodded. Tears flooded her terrified face as she sucked in a breath painfully.
“Did you know…” McCarthy started as Angie ran out the door.
McCarthy closed his computer and started after her. Frank was going to follow them, but a touch at his sleeve stopped him.
“Excuse me,” said the customer. “I need my check. I have a meeting…”
“Come back to the register and I’ll ring that up for you,” Frank said automatically.
He was reaching for the ticket when tires squealed, there was a heavy thud, then the blare of a horn stuck on.
The regular closest to the window stood with his cell phone in hand, shouting, “An ambulance! Send an ambulance! In front of the courthouse! Someone got hit by a car!”
His stomach in a knot, Frank took care of the customer’s ticket.