We talked the situation over for a while. Travis wanted to get out immediately, but to his chagrin the rest of us decided to keep to the plan and stay overnight. Trav didn’t like it, but realized that if he wanted his share, he would have to lump it. The rest of us had agreed that it would look kind of suspicious if we left all of a sudden. There was no telling what a couple of well-placed phone calls from Chief Hardaway might do.
It was a little after nine o’ clock and my most recent meal had been yesterday, so I decided to find a diner and get something to eat. None of the others wanted to come: Frank and Stan had got into Tony’s poker game (Frank was even winning a few hands) and Travis had given up in disgust and gone to Frank’s room to watch a movie. I wasn’t worried about leaving the money, we’d put our sports bag (containing the money) and Frank’s briefcase (containing the diamonds) into the hotel safe and instructed the manager not to open it unless we were all present. The desk was closed at night, so nobody could try to persuade the guy otherwise on their own. Added to this, I seriously doubted that anybody wanted to draw attention unnecessarily.
I wandered out of the hotel, nodding to the manager at his desk.
“Door gets locked at midnight,” he grunted, without looking up from his magazine.
At least he was getting more articulate, I reflected.
The sun had gone down and with it, mercifully, the temperature. Even though it was only mid-evening, the high street was still deserted. The only sign of life was the faint sounds of music and conversation drifting out of the bar down the road, which was identified as ‘Al’s Pl ce’ by a blue neon sign with the ‘a’ missing. I wondered what it would be like to live in a ghost town like this. One week here would probably be enough to drive me nuts.
According to the flyer pinned to the hotel notice board, the diner was about a mile down the road. Automatically, I reached into my pocket for my car keys, noticing Frank’s black Ford parked alongside mine, but then decided against driving. I thought I could use a walk to work up an appetite. I wasn’t as hungry as I should have been, considering I’d eaten nothing besides a couple of packs of Doritos in the last thirty six hours, but I always get like that whenever I pull a job. It’s been that way even since my small-time days back in Glasgow and London. I can never seem to eat around a robbery. Maybe it’s the concentration, or just nerves - probably both - but I’m used to it now anyway. I’ve found that bank robbery is a great way to lose a few pounds. If Weight Watchers ever found out about it, there could be problems for society in general.
The diner was closer to two miles away, just outside the town itself and perched on the interstate. By the time I got there, I had worked up a pretty damn good appetite. The place was called McGrady’s, with all letters present and correct on the neon sign, which also advertised ‘The best burgers for 50 miles’. A pretty safe bet I hoped, considering that there were no other towns within fifty miles. I pushed the glass door open, hearing a bell chime, and walked in, immediately noticing that I was alone except for a comatose trucker in one of the booths by the window. I headed for the counter and looked through the kitchen doorway, beyond which I could hear the chinking of plates being washed.
“Just a minute,” came a woman’s voice from within.
I looked down at the menu, which was neatly scotch-taped to the counter. Aside from burgers, all-day breakfast and coffee, there didn’t seem to be too much choice.
“Oh, hello again!”
I looked up and, to my pleasant surprise, saw the girl from the hotel bar standing behind the counter holding a Pyrex coffee pot.
“Hey, fancy meeting you here... Midnight, right?” I asked, acting as though there was any doubt in my mind.
“Guess he won’t be needing this after all,” she said, glancing over at the unconscious trucker, who was now snoring quietly, his head resting on his arms. “So what can I get you, Johnny?”
I raised an eyebrow and looked down at the menu, registering that, without me telling her, she had somehow known I was a Johnny, rather than just a John. I’ve noticed that certain people can get the measure of you so quickly that they know how you are addressed by the people who know you. Or perhaps I just look like a Johnny.
“I think I’ll try one of these famous burgers.”
“Oh, you saw the sign,” she said with faint and weary embarrassment. “That’s been there as long as I can remember, they really aren’t that special.
“I’ll risk it,” I said, smiling. “And I’ll even take that coffee off your hands.”
Midnight took a cup from under the counter and put it in front of me, then poured some of the coffee into it. I drank a mouthful. It was pretty good.
“I thought you British guys all drank tea,” she said, walking back into the kitchen.
“I’m atypical,” I called after her. “I don’t like football, either.”
Midnight reappeared a few minutes later with my burger. It was good, not too small, but not sacrificing quality for quantity either. I noticed that I had regained my appetite, reminding me that being able to get a decent hamburger was another reason I liked staying in this country. As I ate, we talked for a while, since there didn’t seem to be any imminent danger of more customers arriving.
It turned out that Midnight’s mother had left her here in Halfway with an aunt when she was a baby and that she’d never really been anywhere else for any length of time. I got the impression she wanted to change that, but had never had a real opportunity to do so. The aunt had owned the diner, and she’d inherited it when the aunt died a couple of years back.
I told her a few more non-specific things about myself, saying that I worked in finance and that I was taking a break with some friends to do some driving and see the country. I could tell that she was actually listening, rather than waiting to speak. And she was certainly easy to talk to, so much so that I occasionally found myself revealing more than I probably should have.
After I finished the hamburger and drank another cup of coffee, I got my wallet out of my back pocket to pay the bill. An idea occurred to me. It was a bad idea: the wrong time and the wrong place. I went with it anyway, because I have an unhealthy habit of following up on my bad ideas.
“Hey, would you like to go for a drink later? I hear Al’s is okay,” I said, going for bust on the casualness.
She looked pleased and slightly surprised at the same time. “Al’s is a dump. That would be nice, but I don’t get off until eleven.”
“That’s okay, I can come back. After all, it’s not like I have much else to...”
A screech of tires outside cut my sentence short. I turned round to look out into the parking lot, but couldn’t see anything. As I turned back, my elbow brushed my empty coffee cup and knocked it onto the floor, where it smashed into five neat little pieces.
“Damn, I’ll get that.”
As I bent down, the plate glass window that fronted the diner exploded, immediately followed by a large chunk of the wall behind where my head had just been. Shotgun. I reacted instantly, vaulting the counter and pulling Midnight down into cover. I reached for my belt, found my .45 tucked into the waistband, and stuck it over the counter, emptying the clip in the general direction of the parking lot. I heard another squeal of tires and the sound of an engine accelerating away. Whoever it was had obviously decided that finishing the job was going to be too much trouble from here on in.
“What the hell’s going on?” yelled Midnight.
“Somebody just tried to redecorate your diner with the contents of my fucking head, that’s what’s going on!” I snapped, checking to see if I had any more clips. I remembered that I did, but they were a couple of miles away in the car. It was a good thing my would-be-assassin had split. I looked at Midnight, who was visibly shaking.
“I’m sorry...” I said, “look, you better come with me, it’s not safe here.”
She looked back at the gaping hole in the wall, exposing the kitchen beyond like a hastily-installed service window, and managed a small laugh: “You think?”
I cautiously made my way over to the door, keeping low, to make sure the coast was clear before I motioned for Midnight to follow me. As we left, I noticed that the trucker was still fast asleep at his table.
We climbed into Midnight’s car, a battered Honda Civic. After we had pulled out of the parking lot, she had regained her composure enough to ask me about what had just happened.
“Why is someone trying to kill you?” she asked. “You’re not really a financial adviser, are you?”
I grimaced, realizing I’d have to tell her the truth. “Not exactly, I’m more involved in... withdrawals.”
She looked at me for a second. “You’re a bank robber?”
I shrugged, thinking this was probably the part where she opened the door and jumped out.
She kept looking at me for a minute. She didn’t jump out. Finally, she said, “I didn’t think you were dull enough to be a financial adviser,” and looked back at the road.
All of a sudden I felt pretty good about myself, for a guy who’d just been shot at.