A Dark Engine

As the sun set the rain began, an early Spring rain that doubled the dark between the lazy flashes of lightning and rips of thunder, making the neon sign- Ellroy’s Diner, Pizza, Burgers, Beer- all the brighter at the edge of the highway.  The crowd was sparse at the diner, but it wasn’t the rain keeping patrons away. It was never really very busy out here on the ridge at this end of the highway. Ellroy’s had its fair share of travelers and familiar truckers who dined and lingered while passing through on hauls, and it had a few semi-regulars who stopped in to pick up a pizza on a Friday night to carry home to the kids.  Ellroy’s was one of those not-too-out-of-the-way places, just out of the way enough to keep business steady and still retain its charm.

Sophie listened to the busy signal on the other end of the pay-phone.  She slammed the receiver home.

Charlie Ellroy, proprietor and cook, checked the pizza he had in the oven.  “You break it, you repair it.”

Sophie picked the phone up and replaced it gently on the cradle.  “That better?”

“Keep it up, smarty,” Charlie sucked his teeth, waved flour specked finger at her, “and you won’t be waitin’ tables here.  Keep that in mind.”

“Don’t do her any favors,” Carla said.  She was perched on a stool at the end of the counter watching the news.  The local anchor was giving an update to a story of a little girl’s body that had been found.

“You keep your nose out of this.”

“I’m a paying customer,” Carla raised her glass.  “I feel I have a right,” she smiled. “Sisterhood and all.”

“If you were on my payroll I’d have fired you long, long ago,” Charlie said and walked off.

Sophie jumped onto the stool beside Carla.  “Mike has the phone off the hook. He has Christopher for the weekend and I told him I’d call to tell Christopher good night.  So naturally he isn’t letting me. He’s doing this just to piss me off.”

“That’s why ex-husbands exist,” Carla said.

Carla and the elderly couple Oscar and Mona Jancek, who were looking over their menus, were the true fixtures of Ellroy’s.  The Janceks were in like clockwork: Sunday, Monday, and Friday evenings. Carla showed up nearly every night. She was three times divorced and had dated Charlie for quite a while back in the day, which was something neither of them spoke of and no one was allowed to mention.  Carla stopped in with a variety of different men, and if she was by herself there were a few times she didn’t leave alone.

“Hey, order up,” Charlie pulled a fresh pepperoni pizza from the oven.  “Quite yappin’, I don’t pay you by the word.”

Sophie took the order to two young men.  They smiled and eyeballed her as she slid the pizza on the table.  They were dirty and dusty, flaked in cut grass, and bore scratches on their tanned arms.  All part of the landscaping business, Mountain Lawn was painted in large letters on their truck.  A strong odor of sweat and earth accompanied them. “Good on drinks, gentlemen?”

“Yes,” they said, a milkshake and soda still full on the table.  Sophie was sure they nearly broke their necks to watch her walk away.  It was flattering, and not entirely unwanted.

With her order pad she went to the Janceks.  They were in their late seventies and reminded Sophie so much of her own grandparents.  Before she could ask what they wanted, Oscar Jancek said, “I’m gonna change it up tonight.”

“Here we go,” Mona rolled her eyes.

“Well I am,” he said.  He winked at Sophie. “Orange soda and pie.  But pecan pie, tonight.”

Mona rolled her eyes.  “You’re really living dangerously.  Can you handle a change from orange soda and strawberry pie to orange soda and pecan pie?”

“Yes, dear,” he said.

Sophie stifled her laugh to jot down his order.

Mona returned their menus to the wire rack on the table.  “I’ll have my cheeseburger and a beer. Are you working an extra shift tonight?”

“Yes,” Sophie said.  “The new girl quit.”

“What new girl?”

“Exactly.  She lasted half a day.”

“You poor thing,” Oscar said.

“It helps pay the bills, so I can’t complain.  It’s nice to have a little extra.”

Mona cleared her throat.  “It would probably help if some people were better tippers, too.”  She gave a light smack to the back of Oscar’s hands as he was flipping through the artificial sweeteners.  “I’m talking about you tight wad.”

Oscar quit his piddling.  “Yes, dear,” he folded his hands on the table, compliant.

“That,” Mona said, “is the key to a fifty year marriage.”

“Fifty years,” Sophie awed, “that’s amazing.”

“Ain’t it though,” Oscar said.  “I don’t know how she’s tolerated me all this time.  I’m a blessed man.”

Mona arched a brow.  “Almost fifty years. Our anniversary is the third of next month.”  She entwined her hand with his. “There’s still time for me to trade you in for a newer model.”

“Not a chance,” Oscar told Sophie.  “She couldn’t do without me.”

“Well congratulations.  Any special plans?” Sophie asked them.  She caught sight of the man in the corner booth two down from the Janceks.  He was balding, mid-life heavy, his suit looked uncomfortable on him. Irritation flared on his face hearing their conversation.  He stared hard at his newspaper over a half eaten slice of deep dish supreme. He would lightly tap his fingers on his briefcase beside him.

“Just a quiet dinner at home,” Mona said.  “That’s how we celebrate. I make the same dinner every anniversary: meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, and chocolate mousse.”

“That was the first meal we had after we were married, on our wedding night,” Oscar said.

“The first meal I cooked for my dashing new husband,” Mona locked eyes with him.

“That’s so romantic,” said Sophie.  “That’s just the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“He’s worth it,” Mona enthused.

Oscar sighed heavy.  “I certainly am.”

Sophie laughed at them and eased on.  “We’ll have your order right out.” She handed the order off to Charlie and stopped by the irritated man’s booth.  “Everything okay, sir?”

He lowered the newspaper and smiled, briefly.  “Yeah, it’s fine.”

“Anything else I can get you?”

He was already back in the paper.  “Not right now.”

Sophie checked on Milkshake and Soda.  “How are you guys doing?”

They were devouring the pizza.  Milkshake was picking the pepperonis off and eating them first before shoving in the slice.

“Delicious,” Soda mumbled with a full mouth.

“Can I get you anything else?  Drink refills? Dessert?”

Milkshake gave her a dusty, toothy, smile.  “Maybe dessert,” he said. Soda chuckled.

“I’ll bring you the kids menu,” Sophie said as she walked away.

Soda laughed and nearly choked on his pizza.  “She popped that bubble,” Sophie heard him tell Milkshake.

On the television a news report was showing President Reagan.  “He was an actor for Christ’s sake!” Charlie steamed at the wall-mounted set.  “Now he’s a Republican! Of all things. I thought all them Hollywood types were Democrats.”

Carla gave him her empty glass and Charlie refilled her Tab automatically.  “Did you hear his speech after the space shuttle blew up? It was beautiful.  I kinda like him.”

“It was speech writers,” Charlie plunked her glass down.  “Delivered by an actor,” he jabbed his finger at the long gone image.

“Does it really matter?” Sophie asked him.

“It should, the economy is in the garbage.  I may have to lay you off.”

“Just tell me when,” Sophie said.

Carla added, “The economy’s always in the garbage for us.”

The door opened and the bell above it jangled.  The symphony of rain patter crescendoed and then quietened.  The man who came in stood looking out the door, his brown trench coat soaked black.  The man flipped the lock. Sophie was about to ask him what he thought he was doing, tell him he couldn’t do that when the man turned around.  He gripped a pistol. He moved it methodically over everyone in the diner.

The man said, “I want my son.”

Sophie followed the gun as it swung from side to side as if she had left her body.  She thought for a second she was watching a movie.

“I don’t want to hurt anyone, I just want my son.  Just give him back to me.”

I didn’t get to tell Christopher good night.  Mike wouldn’t let me.

Charlie’s voice pulled her from the clouds.  “Hey, listen buddy, there’s no kids here-”

“No!” the man said.  He had his eyes everywhere.  “Anybody else here? Who else is here?  Tell me!” he stepped towards Sophie and Charlie, the gun leading the way, its hammer cocked, ready, rain like sweat on his face.

Sophie shook her head madly.  “No! There’s no one else here!”  She backed onto a stool, hers and Carla’s hands found each other.

“We don’t have your son, mister, but maybe we can help you find him,” Charlie was side stepping down the length of the counter towards the register, little by little.  “If someone’s taken your boy, we can call the cops, okay.”

“Stop!” the man shouted and Charlie froze.  “No police, we can’t call them! They’ll kill him!”  He eyed Milkshake and Soda. “Get over here,” he waved the gun to his left, towards the Jenceks and Irritated Man who all sat frozen.  Mona was twisted around, mouth agape and trembling. Oscar was pale as a sheet. Irritated Man’s eyes bulged from his head.

“You too, all of you,” he told Charlie, Sophie and Carla.  “Everybody where I can see them. Keep your hands where I can see them!”  Charlie held his hands clear in the air.

Milkshake and Soda got out from their booth.  “Easy,” the man said. He kept the gun on them as they came around to the other side.

“If you want money, take what’s in the register,” Charlie told him.  “Just leave us alone, okay.” Charlie hadn’t moved.

Oscar stood up, weaving.

“What are you doing?” the gunman asked and Mona suffocated a scream in her hands.

“I’m gonna sit with my wife, if that’s okay,” Oscar had his hands up.  Tiny beads of sweat glistened his face.

The man nodded approval.  He pointed the pistol to the two landscapers, “On the floor.”

Carla and Sophie were glued to their seats.

Charlie’s eyes were set on something behind the counter.  Sophie caught her breath when she remembered the .38 special strapped to the counter beneath the cash register.

“You okay?” Milkshake asked Sophie and Carla.

“You,” the gunman told Irritated, “on the floor.”

“I got a bad back,” Irritated said, “I can’t really-”

“On the floor,” the gunman ordered him.  To Milkshake and Soda, who were still standing, “Now!”  He steadied the gun with both hands. He told Charlie, “Get over here and keep those hands where I can see them.”

“Just take the cash,” Charlie said.

“I don’t want the money!” the gunman backed down the counter.  “Don’t make me kill anyone.”

“You don’t have to,” Charlie told him.

“Don’t try to be a hero,” the man said.  “There’s no police, there’s nothing. I want my son.”

Milkshake’s boot squeaked as he launched himself in a sprint.

The gunman pivoted.  He squeezed the trigger and his body ate the recoil.

The bullet struck Milkshake’s left shoulder, the top erupted in a shower of blood and flesh spraying Sophie and Carla.  The bullet rocketed into the wall. Milkshake spun in an odd pirouette and fell against the booth backs.

Charlie lunged for his hidden weapon.  The gunman leaned across the counter, a fistful of Charlie’s shirt and the gun in his face.  Charlie could smell the heat before he felt it, his nose hairs curled. Milkshake was leading the screams.

“Don’t make either of us regret anything.  Please,” the man implored.

Charlie knew his gun was in reach.  He just had to stretch out his hand and pull it free.  The barrel pointed between his eyes made him wince. The man thumbed the hammer.  “I won’t,” Charlie said.

Sophie wiped blood off her face with her apron.  Soda was trying to calm Milkshake. “He goddamn shot me!” Milkshake clutched his shoulder trying to keep his blood inside him.  “My shoulder’s gone,” his hands fit in the blast zone.

Charlie kept his hands up and came around the counter.  The man prodded him with the gun barrel. Sophie was trying to calm Milkshake as Charlie took her seat beside a shaking Carla.  He put his arm around her.

Sophie removed her apron, “Relax, keep pressure on it,” and pressed it into the wound, making the young man convulse with a fresh round of screams.  She was sure she saw bone in the mess of smoking burned flesh.

“We need to call an ambulance,” Sophie said.

“As soon as I get my son,” the man said.

“Listen,” Charlie still held Carla in his arm, she nuzzled into him crying.  “We don’t have your kid. Search the place, take our cars apart.”

Irritated Man hunched behind Sophie and Soda.  “He’s gonna bleed to death,” he said. The blood flowed between Sophie’s fingers, soaking her clothes and puddling on the floor.

“I don’t wanna die,” Milkshake said, “please don’t let me die, please-“

The gunman reached a hand in his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper.  He tossed it to Charlie. Some letters were cutouts from magazines, newspapers, books.  Some were obviously traced from other sources. The message was simple and to the point:  “ElLroy’s Diner 8:00 You Get yur son BACK. alone oar he dieS…”

Charlie felt a cold tickle skim down his spine, his fingers wanted to contract but went numb.  “Mister, you gotta believe me, I don’t know nothing about this. You need the police-“

“I’ve already left you the money, just like the first note said,” the man moved the gun over each of them.

“Please believe us,” Sophie said, “nobody here has your son.”

“And killing us won’t help you if we do,” Irritated Man blurted.  His face was green watching the crimson cascade staining Sophie and Soda as they held Milkshake, the pool growing on the floor.

“What do you know about it?” the gunman asked.

“N-Nothing,” Irritated said, “honest-“

“I don’t want to kill anyone, I just want my son!”

“Maybe they aren’t here yet-“

“Stand up!”

“I’m no kidnapper, I’m a Bible salesman,” Irritated protested.

“Do you have my son?”

“God, no-“

“Leave him alone,” Charlie said.

The man swung the gun to Charlie.

Charlie swallowed hard.  “He’s right, listen to him.  If anyone does have your son, if you kill them, how are you going to get him back?  A dead person can’t give you directions.”

The gunman fired, the bullet struck Charlie’s upper arm and he fell over Carla sending them both to the floor, toppling onto Sophie, Soda, and Milkshake.  More screams resounded as the gunman leveled his sight on Irritated who was scrambling backwards to the wall with a trail of strong urine.

“Holy shit!  I don’t have him!  Don’t shoot, don’t shoot, I don’t have no kid,” Irritated begged.

Oscar clutched his chest.  Mona tried to keep him upright.  “No, no, Oscar, honey-” she laid him easy on the cold tiles.

Sophie crawled free, Milkshake clinging to her.  “Don’t leave me.”

“Put your hands here and don’t move, press hard,” she instructed Soda.

“He’s having a heart attack,” Mona cried.  Her hands were a flurry not knowing what to do to help.

Oscar was lying still, hands clutching at his chest.  Sophie felt the inside of his wrist, she couldn’t feel anything for own shaking.  She took a deep breath, tried to calm herself. Her fingertips felt nothing.

“Back off him,” the gunman said.

“They’re both gonna die if we don’t call for help,” Sophie told him over her shoulder.  She felt at Oscar’s carotid. There was a faint, slow pulse.

Charlie sat up with Carla’s help.  The Bible salesman was crying, snot running like a river, with his knees drawn to his chest.

“Please call someone,” Mona said to the gunman.  “Just leave and let us call-“ she tottered on her knees.  Sophie caught her.

“You’re going to kill’em,” Carla yelled.  The gunman whirled the gun to her.

“They’re going to die,” Charlie said.

“I’m okay,” Mona told Sophie.  “Stay with Oscar.”

“Shut up!  Everybody!” the gunman roared.  “Give me my son and you can all do what you want!  You can go to the hospital and everything will be fine!”

Oscar’s breath was rattling in his throat.  His eyes had glazed, fixed on a far off point.

“One of you has my son,” the man said.  “I’m not leaving here without him. Just give him to me, please, and we can end this.”  His eyes searched the frightened crowd.

“I have a little boy, too,” Sophie said, “he’s eight.  I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to him. I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but this isn’t going to help him.  It’s not going to do you or him or anyone else any good.”

“My son is seven,” the man said.  The barrel dipped. “He’s been gone for ten days.”  He tightened his grip and straightened his aim.

“I’m sorry,” Sophie said.  She spotted the kidnapper’s note on the floor speckled in blood.  “I am, I wish I could help you more, but you have to call the cops.  You’re just making things worse.”

The gunman’s breath hitched in his chest.  “I don’t know why they did this,” he deflated.  He slumped on the nearest table, the gun at rest but ready.  “Why would anyone do this?”

“I’m hurting real bad,” Milkshake twisted his head around to Sophie.

Oscar was grey, his head resting in Mona’s lap.  “It’s gonna be okay, don’t worry,” she was telling him, petting him.  The rattle was gone but his breathing was shallow. Sophie checked his pulse again…thump…forever before another beat.

“He’s dying,” Sophie told the gunman.  “He needs help now.”

Charlie had propped himself up.  “You have any idea who took your boy?”

The man’s face went slack.  “No.” The mumble of the television and the tattoo of the rain took the moment.  “We were at the park. I went into the restroom and when I came back, he was gone.  I was in there just a few minutes. I was gonna make him come with me, but he was playing, he wanted to keep on playing on the swings,” he sniffled.  “I looked all over, I asked everybody, but no one…I found a note on my windshield.”

“For the money,” Carla shivered.

“Yes.  Five thousand dollars.  It was just like that one, it said no police.  I was scared. It said they’d kill him if I got the police.  I took the money back to the park, that’s where it had said to take it.  That note waiting for me.” He stood and straightened his back. “I’ve done everything,” he said, “everything!”  He gripped the gun tighter.

“Oh no, oh no,” Mona hunched over Oscar, “he’s not breathing, he stopped breathing!”

Sophie laid Oscar flat.  His pulse was gone. She ripped open his shirt, buttons skittered across the floor.  She laced her fingers together and felt his ribs crack with the first chest compression.

Soda left his friend and readied himself to do mouth-to-mouth on Oscar.

The gunman laid his pistol on the counter.  “All I have is my son.” He sat at a booth and laid his head down.

“Go call,” Charlie ordered Carla.

#

The neon in the rain looked twice as sinister on the news report.  Police cars and ambulances converged on Ellroy’s Diner. The revolving lights were a headache when the camera zoomed in on them then back to the reporter standing under her umbrella.  “…and one hostage suffered a heart attack. The alleged gunman, Holland Flint, told the patrons and staff of the diner he was looking for his young son who had been abducted from a nearby park over a week ago.  Police will be investigating that as well. Mr. Flint is no stranger to authorities. He does have a criminal record for theft and other violations. The suspect is also a former veteran with a history of mental illness.  Flint has also confessed to a string of recent robberies, which the suspect said he used that money to pay the alleged kidnappers. This case is just beginning for investigators. I’m Sheila Hernandez-”

With a push of a button the screen went dead to a white pinprick and left the room dark.  It was a small room, simple. Bed, little table, little chair. There were toys, a few cars, a few stuffed animals, some building blocks and crayons.  The television sat on a chest of drawers in the corner, but he couldn’t reach it even if he tried: the chain from the wall latched to the collar around his neck gave him limited distance.  It was only removed for bathroom breaks, sometimes for meals.

“Get some sleep.  Good night.”

He didn’t return the good night.  He didn’t say anything anymore. The last words he had spoken were to ask for his daddy and the response had been a smack across the face.  Seeing pictures of his dad on the television, knowing his dad was looking for him, gave him a flicker of hope. His dad was looking for him.

“Don’t worry, everything will be okay, you’ll see.  We’ll get this put all behind us and everything will be just fine.  Your father got a little carried away, that happens though. You’re such a special little boy.  Our last child…let’s just say she didn’t make it. Tomorrow we’re going to have a special day.  I’ll bring you a treat, do you like pizza?” That little laugh was chilling. “How silly of me, everybody likes pizza.  It’s going to be a special day, we’ll celebrate. Papa Oscar is coming home from the hospital. Isn’t that wonderful news?”