In a Dingy Diner at 1 am

Shaun walked into the diner where Honey had been waitressing and glanced around.

He wasn’t exactly a fan of her working, but he was a fan of staying in not-abandoned places that had reliable electricity and heat, and anyway Honey needed food so that was that. Turned out getting jobs under the table was easier than he thought, anyway, as long as you knew where to look. Some mom and pop diner that didn’t even appear to have a name was a good place to start.

He let the door close behind him, making the bell above tinkle, and then walked to the counter.

Honey had sat him down after her shift the night before, still in her uniform. He knew something was coming because she was controlling her heart rate and she only ever did that when something was going on. It was still strange. She had sat down with her lips drawn into a straight line and her hands gripping the sides of her skirt, obviously nervous, but her heart calmly went about its business at sixty-five beats. She couldn’t tell him how they’d taught her to do that, because she didn’t really know.

“I found one for you,” was all she said. At first, Shaun didn’t know what the hell she was talking about.

And then he did.

“Honey, I told you-”

She’d held up her hands and quickly talked over him. “Just let me explain before you get all weird about it.”

“…I don’t get weird…”

“You do.”

They’d sat in silence long enough for Shaun to stew about being ‘weird’ and Honey to make sure Shaun was going to let her talk.

“Now, I know you told me you didn’t want me…helping with this. But I didn’t go looking for one. I just…sort of found one, so I figured this didn’t count. And you don’t have to do anything you don’t want, I haven’t said or done anything about it. And I won’t. You will.”

“I will?”

Honey nodded. “You’re coming to the diner tomorrow night. Around one o’clock. You are going to go and sit at the counter, and you are going to talk to Layla.”

Shaun had groaned. “That’s too close.”

“It’s not Layla. It’s someone she knows. When Layla and I work together I take the tables and she takes the counter, so that’s where you’re going to sit there. And we’re just going to pretend we don’t know each other from Adam and Eve. All I’m asking is that you talk to her.”

“What am I even looking for?”

“You’ll figure it out pretty fast. I think. You can be smart when you want to.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Just come. Please? Best case scenario, you find one. Worse case, you sit in a dingy diner for an hour.”

Honey may have been weird (Honey was the weird one. Honey. Not him), but in the few months they’d known each other she’d proven to have good instincts, so here Shaun was, sitting at a diner that truly was dingy at one in the morning. A couple of tables were full, wait staff from the restaurant down the street. As he sat, another man put a ten on the counter next to his empty plate and left. The lights above were at half power, giving the place a smokey feeling despite the No Smoking Allowed sign on the wall. Every single breakfast and lunch smell Shaun could think of was mingling together in the air. Honey came out from the back with a tray but kept her eyes on the tables. And then there was Layla.

Around Honey’s age, that made her mid-twenties. Curly blonde hair pulled into a tight bun. Heavy makeup, all red cheeks and pink eyelids and lipstick. Some sort of wrist brace on her right arm. She had been leaning against the counter, watching a rerun on the TV mounted high above the window to the kitchen. She smiled as she went for the coffee pot.

Something’s wrong.

But he couldn’t tell what. Not yet.

“Coffee?” she asked, holding the pot up like maybe he hadn’t noticed it yet.

“Yeah, thanks.”

After his mug was filled up with the smell of something bitter and burnt she put a thing of creamer and a container of sugar packets in front of him, and then presented him with a menu.

“I haven’t seen you before. You passing through?”

Usually Shaun would have preferred stepping into heavy traffic over engaging in small talk, but Honey was somewhere behind him and he’d promised to talk. So he would.

He’d try, anyway.

“Uh, yeah, actually.”

“Long haul?”

“Sure,” Shaun said, not knowing what that meant.

But she smiled knowingly at him. “Got a cousin who does that. Tough work.”

“Um…yes.”

She said she’d give him time with the menu and went back to watching the television. He opened the large, plastic covered sheets but instead studied her. There was nothing about her that made Shaun pause. Well, something about her face. The makeup was perfect…too perfect? Something about it…

Otherwise there wasn’t anything to make of the woman. What was he supposed to do, start grilling her for information? Miss, is there anyone in your life you’d want-

“Layla,” Honey said from a little ways down the counter, expertly ignoring him. “Can you get me one of those ice cream glasses from up top?”

“Sure thing, hon.”

There was a shelf next to the TV running the length of the wall, stocked with boxes of straws and napkins and tall, curvy glasses. It wasn’t too high that Layla couldn’t reach it. But high enough that she had to stretch. And just when she had her hand all the way over her head and had stepped up a bit, she stopped and stepped back like she’d been punched. Her hands went to a spot on her right side, just under her breast.

Bruised ribs.

He glanced again at the brace on her right wrist.

“Pick something?” she asked after handing Honey the glass.

“Oh, uh…pancakes?”

“Short stack?”

“Sure.”

“Side of bacon?”

“Why not?” He wasn’t going to eat any of it, anyway.

“I’ll put it in,” she said with a wink.

“I noticed you wince there, when you were reaching,” he said as soon as she turned back. He pointed to where she had held herself. “Bruised ribs?”

Her face turned red from embarrassment, but she forced a smile and nodded. “Oh. Yeah. How did you know?”

“Done it myself,” he said. “Got in a stupid fist fight a few years back, took a blow right there. I’m guessing that’s not how you got yours?”

She laughed a terrible, ugly, small laugh that told Shaun a fist was exactly how she had gotten her ribs bruised.

“Oh, no no no. Of course not. It’s….Oh, my god, it’s so stupid. We have one of those doors, see, at the house that split in two? And the top half was open and the bottom was closed and I just wasn’t looking…”

Holy shit, is she actually trying to tell me she walked into a door?

He kept from glancing at her wrist again, no matter how much he wanted to. Finally, he saw it.

Her makeup was fine. It was what was under that was off. The left side of her face. Puffy. Slightly unmoving. She’d covered up a black eye.

Shaun opened his mouth before realizing asking who had done that to her shortly before that person turned up dead was a bad call.

We’re not necessarily doing this yet. I don’t know anything about who’s hurting her. Maybe they’re not so bad. Not bad enough to die, anyway.

This was exactly why he hadn’t wanted Honey to help with this. Well, part of the reason, anyway. The primary reason was she shouldn’t have been involved in getting people killed, no matter how terrible they were. But this, too. Now he was in a predicament. If someone was beating her that was definitely a reason to follow up, but he’d have to do more research. Find whoever it was. Follow them around. See-

The tinkling of the bell above the door cut off his thoughts. He turned to find two gruff looking men in blue uniforms walking in.

Cops.

One of them headed to the bathroom. The other made a beeline for Layla.

Her heart was already racing.

“Hey, baby,” he said, leaning on the counter.

“Hey, Ray” she said back, giving him a smile. She pecked him on the cheek, and then began to pull away.

He grabbed her wrist. The one in the brace.

“That’s all I get?” he asked, ignoring her wince.

She leaned back over the counter – fulling putting weight on her bruised ribs – and gave him a deeper kiss.

Or, at least, let him give her a deeper kiss. Her eyes strayed to Shaun, and darted away again.

Not before he saw the look in them.

Trapped animal.

“Get me pancakes and bacon. Oh, look, it’s like you knew!”

The cook in the back had put Shaun’s pancakes and bacon on the silver serving counter. Layla glanced at the food, then at Shaun, and then back at her husband.

“That’s not for you. I have to put a ticket in.”

“You knew I was coming, why didn’t you put something in?”

It was like someone flipped a switch, and now a live wire was running through him. The muscles in his neck were taut. He was leaning further on the counter, on his toes now, looming over her. The grip on her wrist had tightened.

“I didn’t…I didn’t know if you’d come…I can tell Leon to-”

Ray let her go and pushed her slightly. “On a first name basis, huh?”

“Ray, I work with him, is all.” She was rubbing her arm below her wrist.

Ray, master of detective work, finally noticed Shaun was watching. He only grunted at him, leaning on the counter towards him. Apparently, all of his best work was done leaning.

“What the hell are you looking at?”

Shaun sat up and put money on the counter. “Go ahead and give him that shortstack, miss. Something’s come up and I’ve got to run. Officer.”

He could feel the man glaring at him as he walked out the front, but he knew he wouldn’t come after him. Not with Layla there.

Honey came back to the apartment four hours later. Shaun was sitting at the little table in the kitchenette, nursing a jar of blood. The last jar in the fridge. She locked the door behind her and leaned against it. The smells of the diner had followed her.

“Pegged it the first time I met her,” she said. “That look you get in that situation…you never forget it. I teased some of it out of her slowly. Her family lives two states away. His, twenty minutes, and he’s their golden boy. Can do no wrong. The rest…well, you saw. He shows up every night about the same time. I didn’t even have to ask.”

“You never asked her directly about her husband?”

Honey slowly shook her head. “She thinks she’s hiding it.”

Shaun looked again at the last jar. Half empty. There was a reason the vigilante type usually didn’t last long. Hard to find people the world wouldn’t miss.

“You got their address?”


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