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Rated: 13+ · Fiction · Thriller/Suspense · #2286760
A truck driver finds an empty cafe isn't really empty 1,413 words

“You probably won’t believe this,” Andy Flores tells the cop, “but I’m pretty sure I saw your suspect drive off into the canyon two miles up the road.” They’re standing in front of Andy’s refrigerated truck at 2:30 in the morning, waiting for emergency vehicles to arrive.

“Hold on a minute,” the cop says. He turns away to speak into his shoulder radio, then turns back to Andy. “Why wouldn’t I believe you?” he asks.

“Because you guys always suspect whoever finds the body. But here’s the thing,” he says. “An hour or so ago, about six miles up the road, a motorcycle raced by me heading north. I usually find myself right about here at this time of night on my way to Bakersfield, and I almost always stop for coffee at Pepper’s Diner. I hadn’t decided to stop yet, but as I came closer, I could see that something was wrong.”

“What did you see?” the cop asks, writing busily in his notebook.

“Well, first I noticed that the “Pepper’s Diner” sign wasn’t lit, and then that there were no cars in the lot. It was well after midnight, but I’d never seen it closed before.”

“Tell me why you stopped anyway.”

“I could see the little girl, alone in the diner.”

“How did you know she was alone?” the cop asks, licking the end of his pencil.

“Well, she was standing up in a booth but all the lights were off except that one right over her head. She looked to be about six. From where I pulled over, just off the road, I could see her standing on the seat and staring out the window. I turned the semi around at the next side road and pulled into the lot, and then I just sat there, looking at the place, trying to figure out what was going on.”

While he’d studied the child standing alone in the booth, he had thought about his own son, Jimmy. His child was nine now, a bit older than this little girl, but Andy felt that if Jimmy were alone somewhere in an empty building, he’d love to believe that some compassionate person would come along and watch over him.

Then the idea had come that there might actually be someone else in the diner. Just because he couldn’t see anyone didn’t mean there wasn’t someone just out of view. If so, the child was okay and didn’t need a babysitter. But he really wanted to just go and see if she were actually alone.

On the other hand, he’d stopped himself, there were more than a few cars passing by, and at any moment a patrol car might come along. It was true that the police would be the best babysitters, but when he thought about it, he realized he hadn’t seen a patrol car in quite a while. He decided he should just go and ask her if she was alone.

Andy’s memory replays the earlier scene. The little girl stared beyond him out the wide plate-glass window, sucking on a lollipop. Her long braids hung down her chest, tied at the ends with blue bows that matched her dress. The only light in the diner, just above her, spotlighted her and made her brown hair shine.

He goes on. “I tried to get a look inside, to see if there was anyone else in there but I couldn’t see anyone. So I radioed my dispatcher for a break and swung out of the cab. I walked over to the window and motioned to her to come to the door. She stood there for a minute, looking down the road, and then she shrugged, just like my old lady does when I ask about her day.

“She hopped down to the floor and came over to the door, opening the mail slot to call through it, ‘My mommy ain’t here. We’re closed.’

“‘I can see that, little darlin’,’ I said calmly; I didn’t want to alarm her. 'Why isn’t your mommy here?’

“‘My daddy said he’ll be right back,’ she answered, after a long lick on her sucker.

“‘My name’s Andy, honey. What’s your name?’

“’. . . Shirley.’

“’Where’d your daddy go, Shirley?’ I asked.

“’He took his motorcycle up to get my mommy,’ she said. It’s Mommy’s turn to take me but she’s late opening up, prolly ‘cause of her stupid boyfriend. She prolly slept late.’ She pointed back the way I’d come, and I realized the bike I’d passed must have been her dad’s.

“I said, ‘Can you open the door, Shirley? I don’t like you being in here all alone.’

“She stood there, blinking and licking her sucker, and considered the door. I guess she didn’t know how to unlock it. Suddenly she tilted her head as if she’d heard something in the back of the diner. She turned away from the door and walked through the swinging doors into the kitchen. I relaxed, figuring it must be her mom and the diner would be opening soon. But a moment later I heard a shrill scream, and then I saw her little foot jerked out of the doorway. Then I heard nothing but silence.”

Before Andy can go on, the ambulance arrives and drives around to the back of the café, and another police car pulls into the lot.

The cop nods for Andy to go on. “I didn’t know what to do,” he says, “but finally I ran around the back. The door was standing open and I could see blood everywhere. I started back to the front to call 9-1-1, but then I saw a man sneaking away.”

“What did you do then?” asks the trooper, caught up in the story and forgetting to write in his notebook.

“I just thought I had to stop him; he must have done something to Shirley and I couldn’t let him get away. I chased him and caught him just before he climbed onto a motorcycle parked near the trash bin. I tackled him, but he heaved me off and then turned and kicked me. I guess he was wearing steel-toed boots because I think he broke a rib, but I forced myself back to my feet and turned to go after him again. By then he was on the motorcycle and trying to get it started, and I yanked him off it and tried to grab him around the chest. But he broke my hold and then threw a punch at my face, and I fell. I had trouble getting up again, and by the time I did, he was on the motorcycle and spewing gravel toward the highway.

“When the guy raced off on the motorcycle,” Andy continues, “I jumped into my truck and took off after him. I knew I’d never catch him in my eighteen-wheeler, but figured maybe I could tell you guys which way he went. About two miles up I could see him ‘way out ahead of me, just heading into a curve. I guess he wasn’t that familiar with the bike. I watched him sail off into the canyon, waving his arms as if he was trying to fly.”

He shakes his head and sighs. “I was afraid you guys would suspect me so I thought seriously about not calling 9-1-1 and just leaving, pretending I was never here. But I decided to go ahead and call. Then I found out the little girl was still alive.”

A second patrol car pulls in and a tall cop gets out and saunters toward them.

“It’s a damn good thing you stuck around,” the cop with the notebook says to Andy, then turns to the newcomer.

The second cop shakes hands with Andy and says, “Okay, here’s what we know. When we got to the little girl’s mother’s place, we found two bodies. The new boyfriend evidently killed the child’s mother and then, when the ex showed up, killed him too and took his bike. He must have driven it back here for something, probably money. When the child surprised him, he stabbed her and took off. I guess we never would have found him if it hadn’t been for you."

“And the little girl?” Andy asks anxiously. The EMT’s had been inside the diner for ten minutes now, he knew, and they must know something.

“She’s going to be okay,” the cop says, “thanks to you.”
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