Yeah, stalwart crime writer Michael Bracken's got a tip for you, all right.
Tips by Michael Bracken
Charlie Walker wrapped his bean burrito in a paper napkin to prevent the contents from gushing out of the end and soiling his new gray pinstripe suit. He’d owned the suit less than an hour, purchasing it off-the-rack at a discount store three blocks south of the Mexican restaurant where he sat. The crisp white shirt and red tie were also new, as were the highly polished black lace-up shoes that were pinching his toes. Only his black socks and the white boxers covered in red hearts that an ex-girlfriend had given him on Valentine’s Day three years earlier were things he had worn out of the motel room that morning.
Charlie bit into the burrito and, as expected, the tortilla burst and its contents erupted into the napkin. He leaned forward, over his paper plate, in case any of the juices soaked through the napkin. After he finished the burrito, Charlie carefully wiped each of his fingers with a fresh paper napkin, placed the napkin on the paper plate, and then pushed everything away from him.
The malnourished waitress with the dark moustache bustled across the dining room to clear Charlie’s table and refill his iced tea. As soon as she finished, the seat opposite Charlie was occupied by a pasty faced young man with unkempt brown hair that hung to his shoulders. He wore faded blue jeans and a black Nine Inch Nails T-shirt stained with motor oil and two days worth of fast food drippings.
“You’re late,” Charlie said.
Charlie raised an eyebrow.
“I swear,” said the young man, holding his right hand up as if preparing to take the witness stand and tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help him God. “Traffic’s a mother. An oil tanker overturned on the highway. Watch the news tonight. You’ll see.”
The waitress brought a glass of water and a salsa-stained menu for Charlie’s guest. Charlie waved her away. “He’s not hungry.”
Charlie leaned forward. “There isn’t time, Stanley. We have to go now.”
Stanley grabbed the water glass and downed half of it before he stood.
After Charlie stood, he reached into his wallet and retrieved three crisp five-dollar bills. He dropped them on the table, grossly over-tipping the waitress, and then followed Stanley out the door. Stanley led him to a black Ford Galaxie.
“This the best you could do?”
“It’s a ’65 XL NASCAR prototype. They only made 500 of these.”
“Won’t the owner notice its absence?”
“That’s the best thing,” Stanley said. “The old guy’s in Spain for the week. We’ll have this back in his garage before he returns.”
Charlie considered the car for a moment.
“Besides,” Stanley lowered his voice and continued, “the trunk’s big enough for two bodies.”
Charlie glared at the younger man. “One of them could be you if you keep on like this.”
Stanley held up both hands, palms forward. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything.”
After both men climbed into the car, Charlie asked, “What else did you get?”
“In the glove box.”
Charlie opened the glove box and found a snub-nosed .38.
Charlie broke open the revolver, assured himself that every chamber was full, and then snapped it closed. He slipped the .38 into his jacket pocket and then patted his breast pocket to confirm that the envelope he’d transferred to his inside jacket pocket after purchasing the suit was still there.
Stanley keyed the ignition, and soon they were headed north on the Interstate, away from the overturned oil tanker that had delayed Stanley’s arrival.
* * *
Ed Gurley sat behind his desk and separated hundred-dollar bills into stacks of ten. When he finished, he had ten stacks and two extra bills. He pocketed the extras, and then he rubber-banded the ten stacks and placed them in his Satin Silver SlimLine Halliburton attaché case.
A moment later a middle-aged blonde whose implants had slipped out of position stepped into Ed’s office. Her form-fitting red cardigan only emphasized the southward trek of her sweater puppies.
Ed tossed his key ring across the room to her. “Start the Porsche for me. I’ll be out in a minute.”
After his wife left the room, Ed retrieved his shoulder rig and 9mm Glock from the bottom desk drawer. He checked the clip, fit the pistol into the shoulder holster, and then strapped on the entire rig. After slipping into his custom-tailored jacket, Ed picked up the attaché case filled with money and walked outside to the idling Porsche 911. He suspected that one day Gail would start his car and both she and the car would disintegrate in a deafening explosion, and he suspected that he would mourn the loss of the car far longer than the loss of his saline-disfigured wife.
Soon Ed was headed south on the Interstate.
* * *
Karl Kleinfelder stood next to the Dumpster and smoked a Marlboro down to the filter before flicking the remains away in the dark. When he heard an 18-wheeler rumble into the parking lot out front, Karl wiped his thick hands on his apron and pushed his way through the rear door. He had spent the greatest part of his adult life sweating in the kitchen of Big Mama’s Grits-N-Go, the only authentic diner within an eighty-seven-mile radius, and didn’t know any other kind of work. By choice, he worked the overnight shift, preparing meals for local barflies headed home after last call and for a steadily decreasing number of weary travelers still willing to venture off the Interstate rather than stop at the Denny’s or the Waffle House right there on the frontage road. At the end of his shift he usually drove two miles to the reservoir, parked at the top of a cliff twenty-five feet above the water, and watched the sun rise while he smoked a Marlboro, drank a beer, and dreaded returning to the two-room apartment he’d called home ever since his ex-wife had kicked him out several years earlier.
Lidia, a chubby, redheaded, never-married high school dropout less than half his age who had a two-year-old son sleeping at home with her unemployed mother, worked the overnight shift with him, waiting tables and acting as cashier for the booze-and-snooze customers. Karl often promised to run away with her to some tropical island where her son could build sand castles while they lounged on the beach and let darkly tanned locals attend to their every desire.
Karl stood at the grill and watched Lidia through the narrow opening between the kitchen and the dining area, waiting for her to return with the truck driver’s order.
“Scrambled eggs, hash browns, and toast,” Lidia said as she clipped the order to the order wheel and spun it around to his side. “Dark toast, no butter.”
Karl dropped two slices of white bread in the toaster, cracked two eggs onto the grill, and slapped a spatula full of shredded potatoes next to the eggs. As the food cooked, he watched Lidia unsuccessfully try to engage the truck driver in conversation.
* * *
Ed Gurley arrived shortly after 3 a.m. and settled into a booth near the restrooms, where he faced the front door and had his back to the wall. He placed the SlimLine Halliburton attaché on the red vinyl seat beside him and ordered coffee and a Danish from the round-faced redhead who waited on him. He drank his coffee, ate his Danish, and paid with one of the hundreds he’d pocketed earlier. When he saw the young woman’s tired eyes light up, he told her to keep the change.
Lidia showed the bill to Karl as she approached the counter, her body blocking their only customer’s view of what was happening. A hundred dollars would buy a lot of diapers at the new Walmart. Lidia pocketed the hundred-dollar bill and used a couple of singles and change she’d received earlier in the evening to pay her generous customer’s bill.
As she closed the cash register, two more men entered the diner, one an overweight, middle-aged man wearing an ill-fitting suit and the other a stringy-haired man in a black Nine Inch Nails T-shirt that reminded Lidia of her son’s rat-bastard father. They walked directly to the last booth and slipped into the empty seat facing the big-tipper.
Lidia hustled to the back booth with two menus, two coffee mugs, and the coffee pot. She poured coffee for the two men and refilled the big-tipper’s mug.
“What can I get you gentleman?”
The greasy-haired one said, “A stack of buttermilk pancakes, side of bacon, and--“
“We’re not hungry,” said the man in the suit. He pushed the other man’s menu closed.
Lidia stood poised with her pencil point still on her order pad. She looked at the greasy-haired man expectantly until he finally said, “Coffee’s good.”
Lidia returned the coffee pot to the counter and then stepped into the kitchen. “They’re not eating.”
Karl glanced into the dining room, saw the three men seated together, and shrugged.
“Something’s wrong,” Lidia continued. “They’re not from around here. The big tipper has a gun under his jacket, the other two seem nervous.”
“I’ll keep an eye on them,” Karl assured her.
* * *
Charlie Walker wished he’d let Stanley slide into the booth first. The snub-nosed .38 was trapped in his jacket pocket and he couldn’t reach it with his right hand without elbowing Stanley out of the way.
“Long drive?” the well-dressed man sitting across from them asked.
“Not bad,” Stanley answered. “I picked up a sweet ride, a ’65 Ford Galaxie, completely restored. What’re you driving? The Porsche?”
Charlie interrupted. “This isn’t shop class, Stanley.”
Stanley started to speak again and then stopped himself.
Charlie used a paper napkin to wipe spots of coffee from his mug before lifting it to his lips and talking a small sip. After swallowing, he asked, “You have the money?”
“Of course,” the well-dressed man said. “You have my photos?”
Charlie patted his chest. “I keep them close to my heart.”
The pudgy waitress returned to refill their coffee mugs. “You sure y’all don’t want anything?”
“You really should try the Danish,” the man said. He smiled at the waitress. “Melts in your mouth.”
Stanley looked expectantly at Charlie, but Charlie said, “We’re still not hungry.”
“Suit yourself, gentlemen.”
When Charlie realized that Stanley was watching the waitress’s bouncing backside as she walked away, he elbowed the younger man.
* * *
The front lot was empty and there were only four cars in the parking lot behind the diner--the stolen Galaxie, Ed’s Porsche 911, Lidia’s Toyota Corolla, and Karl’s Ford Ranger--when the three men finished their coffee and walked out the front door. Karl unscrewed the overhead light bulb in the back hall before opening the rear door and slipping outside behind the Dumpster. He carried a cast iron skillet still greasy from the meals he’d prepared earlier that evening.
As Ed, Charlie, and Stanley walked around the diner to the rear lot, Ed eased the .9 mm Glock out of its holster and held it out of sight of the other two men.
Stanley stepped in front of Ed and opened the Galaxie’s trunk. Ed lifted the Glock and squeezed the trigger. Stanley fell into the Galaxie’s trunk without another thought.
As Ed turned, Charlie pulled out his .38 and blasted away. Ed fell backward, against the Galaxie, before sliding to the ground, losing his grip on the attaché case as he fell. Charlie leaned over to retrieve it.
Karl stepped out from behind the Dumpster. As Charlie straightened up and before he had a chance to turn around, Karl swung the cast iron skillet the way he’d swung baseball bats as a young man, connecting solidly with the side of Charlie’s head. Charlie’s head erupted like a hot burrito, soiling the new suit he had so carefully protected at lunch.
Karl looked at the mess and knew he had to clean it up.
* * *
After he fished wallets and car keys from the pockets of the three dead men, and a thick envelope from Charlie’s inside jacket pocket, Karl hefted Charlie’s and Ed’s bodies into the Galaxie’s trunk on top of Stanley’s body, surprised at the trunk’s spaciousness. After he closed the trunk, he retrieved the attaché case and the cast iron skillet, returned to the diner, screwed in the light bulb, and found Lidia waiting nervously on the stool by the cash register.
No one had entered the diner during Karl’s absence.
He told her what had happened as he thumbed open the envelope and let half a dozen photos spill onto the counter. Each photo featured Ed in a compromising position with the state’s junior senator, a married Republican who had campaigned tirelessly on a Family Values platform less than a year earlier. Then he opened the attaché case with one of the keys he found on Ed’s key ring. After Karl counted the banded hundred dollar bills, he knew what they needed to do.
“Just you and me and your kid,” he told Lidia. “We’re going to that tropical island now.”
After he explained everything, Karl pocketed the photos and pushed the attaché case into his locker. Then they shut down the diner, turned off the lights, and locked the doors. He drove Ed’s Porsche 911 to the reservoir and Lidia followed behind in Karl’s Ranger. He made Lidia stand to the side and guide him while he used his Ranger to push the much smaller car over the edge of a sheer cliff twenty-five feet above the water.
After the 911 disappeared, Karl said, “Now the other car.”
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, Lidia watched as Karl pushed the Galaxie over the edge of the cliff. When the front end tipped over the edge of the cliff, the back end rose, and the Galaxie’s rear bumper caught the front bumper of the Ranger. Karl didn’t realize what had happened until it was too late. Even though he rode the brakes hard, the weight of the Galaxie pulled the Ranger with it into the lake.
Lidia thought she heard Karl screaming and cursing all the way down, and she stood at the edge of the cliff staring at the water until she was certain Karl hadn’t surfaced.
She walked back to Big Mama’s Grits-N-Go, moved the Satin Silver SlimLine Halliburton attaché case from Karl’s locker to the trunk of her Corolla, turned all the restaurant’s lights on and unlocked the doors. She sat on her stool next to the cash register, thinking hard about the money in the attaché case until Brenda and Henry arrived to relieve her.
She explained that Karl had left early and that she had not seen a customer in several hours. Then she drove home, slid the attaché case under her bed, knowing it would be safe there because her mother never cleaned her room, and shook her mother awake.
“Mama,” she said as she showed her mother the hundred-dollar bill Ed Gurley had given her. “Get Rickie ready while I shower. We’re going to Walmart.”