A redhead with bandages on her wrists sits down across the table from me. I stop reading my newspaper. I smile. She doesn’t smile back. She doesn’t even look in my direction. I take a sip of my coffee.
Her age is hard to read. She was attractive once, but not anymore. Her red hair isn’t natural. She’s skinny like she doesn’t get enough to eat. Her face is burned and weathered, drawn down with deep wrinkles. She looks fifty, but she could be twenty-five. She doesn’t have to tell me that life is hard.
“Good morning,” I say to her.
“Morning,” she says, no adjective attached. We still haven’t made eye contact because she’s staring out the window at the parking lot.
I have no idea who this woman is or why she’s sitting in my booth at the diner. There are empty booths where she could have sat to look out the window. Why is she sitting with me? I start to ask if she’s waiting for someone, but she obviously has no interest in small talk, and I have a newspaper. I go back to reading and leave her to monitor the parking lot. A minute later, I’m surprised to hear her speak.
“There,” she says.
I look out the window, but I don’t see anything new.
“You can count it if you want,” she says.
I crumple the newspaper in my lap and look down at the table. A white business envelope has appeared in front of me. I look at the woman, but she is still turned toward the window. I smooth the newspaper, fold it, and put it on the table next to the envelope. I pick up the envelope and look inside. Money. Benjamin Franklin five times. Five hundred dollars. I put the envelope back on the table.
The woman is still looking at the parking lot, but she knows I have counted the money. She says, “Half now and half after, right?”
My waitress comes to the table. She says to my companion, “Did you need to see a menu?”
“No,” she says without looking away from the parking lot.
“You know what you’ll have, then?”
I say to the waitress, “Can I get my check?”
The waitress looks relieved. She tears a page from her pad, puts it on the table, and retreats.
The woman across the table still hasn’t looked me in the eye. Does she know what I look like? Maybe not. I pick up the newspaper, unfold it, get behind it.
I say, “Change of plans. I need the full amount now.” It can’t hurt to ask, right?
I hear her shift on the vinyl seat. She might be looking toward me now, but she’s seeing the newspaper.
She says, “We had an agreement.”
“But now I’ve done my homework,” I say. “You’re a flight risk. I might do it and find you gone.”
“No!” she says, and then lowers her voice: “No. You know I can’t run. If I run, they’ll know I did it, and they’ll come after me. The only way I can get away with it is if I stay.”
Okay, then. Time to choose. Do I take the five hundred dollars and go, or do I push the bluff? Pushing the bluff will probably mean giving her a good look at me. It’s tempting, but a bird in the hand and all that.
“Okay,” I say. I reach around the newspaper and take the envelope.
“Good,” she says. “My alibi’s all set for Friday night.”
“Good,” I say.
Now I just have to get out of here. I fold the newspaper again. You couldn’t pay this woman to look at me. She’s found the most interesting parking lot in the world. I stuff the envelope into my back pocket. I’ve just got to pay my check and go.
“We’ll meet here the day after?” she says. “Same time on Saturday?”
“Sure,” I say.
I’m reaching for the check when a customer sits in the booth behind the woman. He and I are facing each other, and we’re both wearing red baseball caps. He’s not paying me any attention, but I’m looking right at him. Trying to seem nonchalant about it, I take off my red cap and hold it under the table.
I glance at the clock hanging behind the counter. 2:05. So the man in the red cap must be five minutes late. Does he know what she looks like? How long will he sit there alone before he catches on to my accidental impersonation? If I get out of here fast enough, maybe the answers won’t matter.
I’m reaching for the check again when the woman jumps in her seat and looks away from the window. For the first time, she looks right at me. She shifts her body so the window is behind her.
“He’s here,” she says.
My response is involuntary: “Who?”
“Tony. He’s here. Walking across the parking lot. I thought he might be following me, and now he’s here.”
I glance at the man in the red cap, who is looking at his watch. If he heard the name Tony, if the name Tony means anything to him, he isn’t showing it. He probably didn’t hear. But will he know Tony if Tony walks inside? If so, how will he react? Am I supposed to know Tony? Have I just accepted half payment for killing Tony? Now it’s really time for me to get out of here.
“Go,” she says. “He can’t see us together.”
She doesn’t have to tell me twice. The envelope is in my back pocket. My newspaper and cap are in my hand. I grab the check and go to pay.
But as I’m leaving the table, the man in the other booth finally catches on. He sees the red cap in my hand. He glances at the back of the woman’s head. He looks at me. He knows.
But how much can he know at this point? Will he go to the woman, or will he come straight for me? I try to pay him no mind, but my heart pounds so hard that it vibrates my tongue. I go to the counter, and I hand over the check along with $100 from the envelope. I had meant to take cash from my wallet, but I’m a little bit distracted.
I hear the man in the red cap say to the woman, “Helen?”
For a moment, she freezes. Then she says, “Leo?”
The woman behind the counter says, “I can’t change this. Do you have anything smaller?”
“Keep it,” I say, and I head for the door.
I reach the door the same time as Tony. I let him enter the diner, and then I go outside. Holding the door open between us, I say his name. Tony stops and turns.
His look is part surprise, part challenge. “Yeah?” he says. His face shows thoughts processing. I was in there with Helen, and I know his name. Those are strikes against me. But would I talk to him if I were up to no good?
I say, “Sorry to bother you. I know it’s none of my business, but Helen is in there meeting a man in a red baseball cap. His name is Leo, and I overhead her hire him to kill you.”
Before Tony can think what to say, I release the door and let it close between us. Without looking back, I walk to my car and climb inside. I am putting my key into the ignition when I hear the gunfire start.