At least I was back on solid pavement when I got the flat tire, only a mile or two from Route 66. Some dolt had tossed a glass bottle out on the road, and I didn't even see it. When I was done fixing the tire, I was warmed up from the effort and my hands were streaked with rust and grime from the tires and tools. I wiped off as best I could and made straight for Jake's place, for a wash and a refill of the Thermos bottle, and in the hope that he had some pie left. I opened the side window to get rid of the alkali dust and found a decent radio station and whizzed along the highway, a free man with an open future, happy that I knew not what lay ahead.
My brain was turned to fudge, my vacation had produced the desired effect, so I didn't notice anything unusual until I got out of the car in the parking lot at the cafe. The gas station across the road was long dark, as usual. But the cafe parking lot floodlights were turned off as was the big pink-and-white neon Wayne's sign, while the diner interior was lit and the blinds were pulled open still. I looked at my wrist watch which told me it was only a quarter to Midnight. At first I figured Jake had decided to close early, the Sunday traffic already past and he was in the back doing something.
But there was no sound of the jukebox. As I walked closer to the diner, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I shivered, and not from the coldness of the night air. I looked all around and saw and heard nothing but the faint thrum of the cicadas. A big-rig zoomed past on Route 66, its exhaust brrrapping as the driver downshifted.
I walked over to the door of the diner. There was no sound or movement inside. I called Jake's name, not too loud, as I opened the screen door and pushed the glass door inward. I called Jake's name again and stepped inside. Shit. I smelled cordite: a gun had been fired inside the diner.
Down below the level of the counter I went, wishing my Marley .32 was under my arm and not in the trunk of the car. Combat mode and no weapon. I peeked behind the counter: no blue gas flame under the grill. I duck-walked along behind the counter, stopping to grab one of Jake's sharp steel knives. Wouldn't stop a bullet, but it felt better to have something heavy and deadly in my hand.
Duck-walk to the back. I popped my head above the counter to make sure there was no one hiding in any of the booths. Nobody shot at me, the place was empty. That left the back. I kicked the swinging door and nothing happened. I stood up. The door stopped swinging. It had a porthole and I looked thru it quickly. Nothing.
Okay. No guts, no glory. I leaped thru the swinging door, landing in a crouch, the knife in my hand ready to use in hand-to-hand combat. I turned to the right and saw Jake sprawled on the floor. The gunshot had hit him below the ribs. Not thru the heart; nor was he gut shot. His eyes were closed and he seemed to be breathing. His white t-shirt and apron front were red with fresh blood, a sight I had seen many times too often.
I yelled "Medic!" before I could stop myself.
Copyright 1999 by Gary Edward Nordell, all rights reserved
'Desert Riff' cover
'Backlot Requiem' excerpt
The Rick Walker Detective Novels Series
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