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The diner on the corner was doing a brisk business but Alice and I found a booth and settled in across from each other. Rita was working, as always. While the city bustled and changed all around this place, nothing ever changed in here. When the Dutch settlers purchased Manhattan from the wrong natives they celebrated here over meat loaf and mashed potatoes, and Rita took their order. As we sat Rita didn’t even bother walking over to the table, she just looked over her hornrims at us and called out, “The usual?” I nodded. She had seen those first Europeans coming though the forest and had already decided what their “usuals” would be by the time they reached the door. I don’t think I ever heard anyone order in that place.
“Can I please have a malt with mine?” Alice asked.
Rita pursed her lips. She wanted to say no. “You want your coffee too or just the malt?”
“No coffee, thanks.”
Rita scowled and scribbled the order on her pad to pass back to the kitchen and turned to greet some other customers. Alice was toying with her silverware, looking at her hands. After a minute or so she said, “I know what you’re going to tell me.”
I hadn’t been aware I’d been planning to tell her anything, but I assumed she was right. She knew a lot more about me than I did. Once I thought about it, it was pretty obvious, though. After I paid for this meal, there would be no money left. The pay phone by the washroom door started to ring. No one paid it any attention. “Look,” I said. “You know better than I do that business is sour.” My mouth was sour as well. All the cheap booze I’d had that day was wearing me down. I thought back to the fine, earthy scotch I’d had at Jake’s, only a few hours ago.
“I can work for free for a while, ’till things get better.”
The phone hadn’t stopped ringing; it was starting to bug me. My nerves were delicate as the last of the barbarian rye faded, leaving behind a temple in shambles. “You know it’s no good, Doll. Things aren’t turning around. Not now. You need to find yourself a real job, so you can take care of your mother.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone moving toward the phone and sighed in relief. Alice was getting ready to blubber again. Twice in one day. That was good even for me. Next time I could afford a secretary I’d get her tear glands removed first. The pretty ones were the worst, and Alice was certainly one of those.
A man I didn’t know was standing by our table. Alice managed to stay buttoned up and I turned a red eye toward the visitor. “You Charles Lowell?” he asked. I didn’t answer; I just kept my eye on his hands, and I was ready to go for the gun I had in the holster under my coat. An afternoon like the one I’d just had would make anyone cautious. “Phone’s for you,” the man said, gesturing toward the corner. Alice looked up from her hands with surprise and hope. I was ready to tell the man shove off until I saw that look. I sighed and got slowly to my feet. “Try answering yourself next time,” the man muttered. I let it pass.
I was going to have to change my eating habits. I was getting far too easy to find by people I didn’t want to know. I tried not to guess who would be ruining my night. I picked up the reciever. “Lowell,” I said.
There was a pause on the other end and a sharp intake of breath. I could almost smell the wildflowers over the phone. “Mr. Lowell?” Her voice was more tentative this time, with a little more Kentucky in it. “I need to see you right away.”
“Listen, I told you before—” I cut myself off as I turned to look back at Alice. The food had arrived and she was working on her malt. She was watching me. I could hang up the phone right then, just walk away from all of them while I still had legs to walk with. If I did that, I’d never get another job in this town, or this country for that matter. Cello would see to that. If I hung up I’d be saying goodbye to Alice when I got back to the table. She was in a bad way.
“Please, Mr. Lowell. Just hear me out. I’ll pay you for your time.”
“Someone was shooting a gun outside Jake’s earlier. I don’t like loud noises.”
“I’ll pay an extra fee to compensate you for the risk.”
No amount of money was going to matter when I was feeding the eels at the bottom of the river. Alice was watching me still, hope giving way to concern. Concern for me. “All right,” I said.
She let out her breath. “A cab will be outside in five minutes,” she said. “Be waiting on the corner. He will ask if you are Mr. Jones. He knows where to bring you.”
“Can I at least tell my secretary where she can reach me?”
“I would rather not say over the phone.”
Her voice seemed to relax a little. “Mr. Lowell. Charles. Thank you. You don’t know what this means to me.”
“I’ll see you soon, Mrs. Fanutti.” I hung up and returned to the table.
“Who was it?” Alice asked.
I put the last of our money down on the table. “I’ve got to go,” I said. “I’ll see you in the office tomorrow.” I would if I was still alive by then.
Tune in next time for: Blood of the Saint!