The hanging road sign for Denton Real Estate offered a constant chirping against an intermittent wind. It was a small and familiar voice to Burk as he approached Seeley’s Surfside Diner. The murmur of tires on passing cars was dampened by the new snow. With the hood of his parka pulled tight against the cold, most other sounds were obliterated by the rub of fabric against his ears and he had to keep an eye out for the car lights through breath-fogged glasses as he made his way from his apartment.
The blaze of neon from Seeley’s was not comforting against the black and white of snow and night ahead. It never was. Even on a hot evening in the summer it was joyless. Tonight, it cut through the falling snow more pink than red. Burk had thought before that it was an odd thing, how the color in the sign seemed to change depending on the weather. He had mentioned it once to Pat, but the observation was shrugged at. Ignored.
Burk stopped in the glass box of the vestibule to the diner, stomped the snow from his boots, and unzipped his parka. Then, as he did almost every night when the weather was cold, he wiped his glasses with a tissue from his pocket. With the glasses clear, he briefly tested them by scanning the community notices taped to the glass around him. He cleared his throat. He used the tissue a second time to blow his nose and then slipped it back in his pocket. Then he pulled the quarters from his pocket and slipped them into the slot in the newspaper box and grabbed a paper. Finally he ran his fingers back through his hair and opened the inner door to the moist warmth and thick smells within.
Pat smiled at him from behind the counter. The exact same smile she offered to every other person entering the diner. The same smile she had offered him for over two years. Burk nodded and went to the stool at the end furthest from the bathrooms.
Burk knew she was not beautiful. Neither was he for that matter. She was a near blond except for the darker dye still visible at the ends of her hair bundled by a rubber band at her neck. But she was smart. She did her own plumbing. She could fix a toaster. She had some personality. And somehow, over the last couple of years he had grown attached to her…Maybe not. Maybe it was simple lust. She had a great body.
“What’ll it be?”
He heard the words before they were spoken. The exact same words every night. He answered with a small variation on his common request.
“Bowl of chowder. Extra crackers. Coffee. Apple pie.”
He did not look up to deliver his order. He knew she was not looking in his direction in any case.
In the summer, when the tourists were thicker than the flies, he liked to watch her as she moved back and forth over the black rubber mats in a near continuous waltz. She often stopped to flirt with the male customers then. They didn’t realize just how much body language she put into the effort because she wore a full apron. But from the end of the counter he could see her backside, her bare legs, and her butt in the tight shorts. She wiggled that butt mercilessly as she spoke to the young guys. The top of her apron buckled with the sway of her breasts beneath the fabric. They saw that, of course. But they didn’t see her butt.
He looked up now as she pushed his bowl of chowder onto the counter in front of him.
He said, “Thanks.”
She didn’t answer. She seldom did. Her lips turned inward briefly, as if to withhold the courtesy.
He would have assumed long ago that she disliked him personally if he had not seen the same service given to nearly all the regulars. She was never rude. Never gave cause to think she was being rude. It was the service of someone too busy to offer more than was necessary. Or someone who hated their job, not necessarily the people they served.
He unfolded the paper and began to read the news with no more expectation of something extraordinary than what played out in front of him day to day.
He lowered the top of the newspaper. Beyond the six or seven heads in the booths between, George Parker, a mechanic at the Sunoco station, stared back at him from the far end.
“You hear anything about Dick Johnson?”
Del Parker, his wife, turned around in her booth-seat across from George to look back at Burk. “You heard he took a head-on collision down Route 6 yesterday, didn’t you? The Medevac took him out in a helicopter all the way to Boston. No one has heard if he’s dead or alive.”
Dick Johnson sold wine at the Eastham Market. A good fellow for a story and a laugh.
Burk asked, “What happened to the person he hit?”
George answered with a shake of his head, “Nobody knows. Car was empty when the police got there. Odd thing. I thought it might be in your paper there.”
Theresa, the red head from the barbershop who often filled in at the diner when business was better, had followed the conversation back and forth from the booth closest to the door.
“It had just started to snow, you know. They sent out a search party. But they couldn’t find a thing. Nobody. They think whoever it was might have had some sort of concussion and be in a daze. You know. But they never found them.”
Burk answered back, “Nobody came in the shop today. Exactly nobody. So I never heard. Everyone’s hunkered down with the weather I guess. I cataloged every piece of copper pipe in the place. Pete’s going to hate me.”
Several people laughed. It was a small joke. Pete never used copper anymore. Burk snuck a look at Pat. She was busy scraping her griddle.
In the beginning, when he had first arrived, after completing his six year hitch in the Army, she had flirted with him as well. He had learned a bit about her then—what she was willing to tell.
She once said, “It’s a small place here. A narrow place. You can find out too much about people way too quickly. Good and bad.”
He could not remember his answer to that. But he remembered the look on her face. Her eyes were gray and conveyed her sadness as easily as a smile.
Another time, soon after seeing her cleaning the griddle late one night as he passed, he had asked her if she ever went out with friends.
She had said, “Most people around here are just visiting. You don’t want to find out more about them than you need to. The rest are retired.”
That wasn’t completely true of course. She knew that. She was simply putting him off.
He had persisted. He told her something about himself. She seemed interested in his writing at first. Not to read it, he thought, but in the fact that he did it even though there was no realistic chance he would ever be paid for it. She had never gone to college herself. She did not read novels.
“What’s the point. It’s all made up. It’s not the truth about anything. It’s just the way someone wants it to be or the way they’re afraid it really is.”
She never told him what she did when she wasn’t working. He had discovered that by accident.
Her small interest in Burk had lasted a month or two at most. Then, as the summer wore on, her conversations had shortened. By the autumn of that first year he had already fallen into the pattern that continued to the present. He had changed jobs that September so that he could stay on the Cape, leaving the kitchen at Arnold’s to work the counter at Pete’s Plumbing. But he had not done it for her. No. He had done it just because he needed the job. Mostly. His father had been a plumber, and Burk knew enough to get along there on his own.
Besides, his boss was a decent sort. Most days Peter was gone, off repairing pipes in the cottages that were not properly shut off for the winter, or drains clogged with sand. Burk had the store to himself. Between customers he could read his books. He lived in the front apartment above, facing the traffic of Route 6, with a small slice of Town Cove visible from the bathroom window if he raised himself up on tip-toes. The back apartment was the seasonal rental. In the winter that was empty. Life was quiet.
In all other matters, his life was pretty good. He was saving his money. The Army had paid off his college loan. He had plenty of time to write, which had been his objective in staying on the Cape from the beginning. In better weather he ran five miles on the beach three times a week, plus the three miles from here to there. In bad weather he walked the distance. His health was good. He had recovered as completely from the accident as he could hope. The pain at the center of his leg would be with him to the end now the doctor said. Pinched nerve. That was that.
‘That was that’. Who said that so often? It was Pat, of course. He could even remember that first time he had heard her say it. Or a version of it.
He had asked her once why the place was called ‘Seeley’s Surfside’, given that the surf was at least three miles away.
She had leveled her standard stare at him and answered with a question. That was another of her habits. “What side of the road is this?”
He had said “Ah.”
She had said, “So that’s that.”
Such responses were the reason he seldom attempted small talk with her. He had never been glib. The right words did not often come to mind until well after the need.
The morning at the beach when he discovered her secret, he had not spoken to her. He had known it was Pat from a quarter mile away, just by the way she stood. Because she was concentrating, she saw him only as he came close. She was facing the inner bay over the marshes, where the water was silvered beneath a steel sky. She was wearing a broad hat, tied beneath her chin. The plain cloth coat she wore was scared by smears of old paint. Stunned and wordless he had approached further to see the small canvas but she shook her head at him and said, “No. Please. Go away.”
He remembered that face too well. He had disturbed her in some way far beyond mere interruption.
And he had never mentioned it to her again.
Burk looked up from his newspaper at the thought. Pat was at the register, oddly dancing from foot to foot as she punched at buttons and a customer waited. Even with long pants on, her butt was worth a peek.
The register suddenly tilted forward at her as if alive. The open drawer sloshed loose change at her apron as Pat fell backward to the floor. Stiff-armed, the man across the counter held out a small black pistol.
The gun cracked. Contained in the narrow room of the diner, the sound was not much different than a larger firecracker. The glass front to the pie display shattered and collapsed around Pat’s head. The man in front of the counter pulled the cash register back to him with his free hand before it also fell. The cash drawer gaped.
“What the fuck? I told you to keep quiet and keep still. Now, get me the money!”
Someone said, “What’s happening?”
The gunman spun around now, looking at the half dozen faces that stared back at him. “Y’all stay in your seats. I got no business with you.” Then he turned back to Pat. “Stand up bitch. Get the money.”
Pat shook the shards of glass away and stood uncertainly, while using one hand to reach into the open drawer. Burk could see only half her face, but he knew the whole. He had seen her kick rowdies out the door during the summer. She could look fierce enough. She held her other arm at her side, as if it were hurt.
The man with the gun was at least six feet tall. Overweight. Or something was stuffed beneath his parka. He had a thick black mustache and black hair that had the look of tar protruding from beneath a baseball cap. The parka was dark green with the hood down and Burk could see that the inside of the parka was maroon. The man’s skin was oddly yellowed as if he had used the liquid tanning lotion tourists sometimes tried in the early weeks of the summer. All of these details Burk cataloged one by one as if calculating a sales slip at Pete’s plumbing.
Pat set the loose bills from the drawer down on the counter and the man swept them up in one grab and stuffed them in his jacket.
“Where’s the rest?”
Pat said, “What rest?”
With that the man pushed the register forward again and it nearly struck Pat’s feet as she danced away.
The man’s voice jumped to the level a scream. “The bank, BITCH. What you keep aside. I want all of it.”
Pat turned to the collection of packaged teas in various boxes that filled the high shelves beside the ruined pie display. At that moment, George Parker came out from the bathrooms. He was headed toward the corner booth, asking his wife why she had the funny look on her face. He never saw the shot that killed him. The wallop of sound gone in an instant. Del Parker screamed and collapsed to the floor beside her fallen husband. The man with the gun took careful aim and shot again directly at her head. Burk did not understand the action until it was too late. The sound of the second shot made more stunning for being watched.
The gunman said, “SHUT UP. All of you!” and turned back to Pat. “Give me the money!”
Pat’s face had gone slack and expressionless. She handed him a box of green tea. The gunman slammed it to the counter, breaking it apart and grabbed the bundled bills with his free hand, and stuffed them into his pocket with the others.
Headlights scanned the ceiling of the diner as a car turned in from the road.
The gunman looked back at Pat. “Do you want to die?”
He said it with his jaw thrusting forward. Pat shook her head. Her hair had broken loose from its clasp and hid her face from Burk. He imagined how she might look. She would not be scared. She would be angry. But she would hide that now.
The car had pulled up. Even through the glare and blush of moisture on the glass, Burk could see that it was an Orleans police cruiser. The headlights went off. The two officers got out causally and stepped toward the door. They could not know what was going on behind the fogged glass.
Burk realized that the situation was about to get worse. Behind him he knew there were wooden highchairs stacked to be moved to the booths for children as necessary. He had never really looked at them closely but he imagined they were heavy enough. He would have to lift a chair with one motion or else the moment would be lost. He was going to get shot. He would have to survive that the best he could.
The chairs were stacked too tightly. The top chair did not come away easily from the rest. It was three chairs he flung at the window and it took all of his strength to elevate them above the near booth. He felt the bullet before he heard the crack of the gun. The glass shattered outward as he lost the strength to keep his balance and he folded to the floor. His head hit the black and white tiles first.
Burk awoke to a room hazy and half dark. His glasses had fallen loose somewhere. The sounds he heard were not what he was used to. Only the small fluorescent at the top of the pie display still shone over the room inside.
With his cheek hard against the tile, he could turn an eye to see one corner of the broken window above. Cold air flowed down at him in a steady stream along with flakes of snow. Outside it appeared to be daylight….No. Those were bright lights directed at the diner. Beyond a dark pool of liquid that trailed forward from his own body, Burk followed the lines of the tile along the floor until they blurred to gray. He could make out the shadow of a leg protruding from the opening at the center of the counter. It moved. Someone was sitting there, backed up against the griddle. No one else was visible. No one else but the darkened bodies of George and Del Parker where they lay at the far end.
The blue strobe of another police cruiser grew brighter and halted somewhere close.
Burk’s right hand was caught beneath his body in a cold pool of blood. He knew that much. His left hand felt numb, but it moved. Thinking through this all hurt. He had a headache.
There was a whimper.
The leg on the floor at center moved slightly with the shout. “Shut up!”
Burk reconsidered the situation.
Given his position, Burk was not visible to the man who was sitting there on the floor. In the time Burk had been unconscious, the other people in the diner, those still alive, must have been corralled behind the counter, probably so they could be watched by the man with the gun.
The sound of expanding metal popped. An odd sound. The sound of a radiator perhaps. No. It was the stove. The griddle was on full blast. The gunman was keeping warm.
Burk tried to move a leg. He was unsure if there had been a reaction. He wiggled a toe. He felt nothing.
As it was, he would probably be dead fairly soon. Just from loss of blood alone. His options were limited.
A voice came from outside, magnified electronically by a loudspeaker.
“You in there. Why don’t you come out? You are not going to be able to leave on your own. You know that. Just throw your gun out and we’ll take you into custody with no more harm done.”
The gunman pulled his legs beneath him and crouched forward. Burk could see his face now. The mustache was gone, along with the baseball cap and wig.
He yelled, “I tell you what. If you put any of that fuckin’ tear gas in here I’m going to shoot these people dead, one by one, before you can get through the door. Do you hear me?”
There was silence.
The gunman leaned even further with the scream in his next words. “Do you hear me?”
The answer came, “Roger that. We hear you.”
Burk closed his eyes. He was sure he felt the man’s eyes on him. He heard the thump of the man’s knees on the tile as he moved in Burk’s direction. When he parted his eyelids again, he was looking up at the back of the man rising on his haunches to peek from the broken window.
Burk checked off the possibilities again. What would be his best move? If his legs did not operate, moving at all would be folly. But then, he would just die a bit faster. Whatever he did, it ought to be effective. He shouldn’t waste the chance.
Before he completed the thought, the gunman shifted away. He cackled. Burk could not remember ever hearing a man cackle before who was not on television.
Still on his knees the gunman lunged back inside the counter. Then his hand rose above and pulled a tin pie plate, covered with the gleam of plastic, out from the shattered display. It was a lemon meringue pie and it shimmered in the light of the display as he brought in down. A whimper followed. Burk thought it was from Therese. He had heard no sound from Pat.
Burk pushed through the pain in his mind. Where was it coming from–exactly? He concentrated on shifting each part of his body. He began to faint. Fought that. Concentrated on controlling his breathing first. Clearly his key problem, other than loss of blood, was his right lung. Every breath was excruciating. That must be where the bullet had entered. Close to his sternum. He had faced the gunman in that instant after he released the chairs at the window. The continued turning of his body had saved him for that moment. The gunman was an excellent shot. He had fired at Burk’s heart and missed because of the turning of his body by a couple of inches.
The pain of Burk’s effort to move took his senses away for an instant.
Another voice broke through his daze. It was Pat’s voice voice, and it was steady.
“It’s cold over here. Everyone is cold.”
Then the gunman, “Shut up.”
During those first summer months Burk had actually learned a great deal about her. He had always liked to watch people and he had gotten to know most of Pat’s ready expressions and a few of those faces she reserved for unexpected moments. He got to know what it meant when she stood a certain way. He had learned the tones of that voice. All of it unbidden. She had never really teased him with possibilities beyond the counter at the diner. Her flirting was always just that.
He remembered one big fellow now, a lifeguard from Marconi Beach. She had chatted with him several times before. Then one evening he came in from his jeep without his tee-shirt on. The sign on the door could not be missed. She told him to leave. He thought she was kidding. A major mistake. The police station was only four blocks away.
Burk tried once more to move his left leg. After a delay that seemed surreal, it shifted forward. He moved it back in place and then tried his right leg again. It buckled at the knee. He twisted his ankle. It moved side to side.
Once, when she was still making the effort to chat with him—that was the first August wasn’t it—he had foolishly asked about her father. The picture on the wall by the entry was of her mother, father, and herself as a girl of eight or nine. It was taken the day the diner opened. Her mother worked the morning shift from 5 am to 1 pm. Pat came in at noon and worked till 9 each night. Fred and Albert, two short order cooks came in five days a week when they were sober. That was the entire staff. He had seen Pat through the windows mopping floors after hours. Her mother was in every morning by four to bake up the dough that Pat set aside to let the yeast do its work.
Stupidly, that day in August, Burk had said, “What happened to your dad?” Just that much. He had gotten a cold stone stare. No answer. That might have been the start of when things changed between them. Certainly when the flirting had stopped.
A broadcast voice broke the silence.
“Tell us what you what? What is it you want? Talk to us. We’ll see what we can do.”
The gunman came forward from his place behind the counter. Back and forth he looked for odd shadows against the glass of the windows. Burk closed his eyelids just enough to see the figure of the man as he moved.
The diner was raised about three feet off the ground. That made the windowsills at least seven feet high. But this spot was well chosen at a turn in the road and slightly higher than anything close by. Across the street the land fell away to trees in a lot that was nearly a swamp. The tree limbs were bare and neatly outlined by a topping of white, offering little concealment. The only taller building nearby was Denton Real Estate. From where he lay on the floor, Burk could just make out the roofline of Denton’s faux Cape through the glass. He knew there was no second floor there. Just the gray blur of an air vent.
The gunman moved in Burk’s direction, waddling back and forth, this time in a crouch. When he reached the booth below the opening of jagged glass, he rose a bit to see what was there before he spoke.
“I want a truck. Get me a pick-up. Four-wheel drive. Gas tank full. I want some pizza. Put a hot pizza in there. Leave it in one of those delivery packs. I want it hot. And a bottle of Coke. A big one. And money. What you can get. No. I want ten thousand dollars. You can get that. I know it. And I want it all in half an hour.”
The loudspeaker voice began to answer quickly
“I’m not sure we can—“
The gunman screamed, “Shut up. Shut up! Listen to me! I’m gonna shoot the waitress if you’re a minute late. Two minutes, I’m going to shoot the one who whimpers. I’ll shoot’em all and then you can come and get me. I know my chances here. No games.”
The gunman made his way back to his space behind the counter before Burk had steadied his breathing enough to try to move. The trick was to keep the breaths shallow to avoid significant pain as well as to avoid being noticed.
Burk shifted his left leg again. It responded quickly this time. That was his good leg now.
Funny thing. He had left the Army after jumping out of moving trucks and helicopters, and repelling down fifty-foot cliffs over and over again until he could do it in the dark by feel alone, and after nine months in Afghanistan where no two feet of ground were the same height, and two years at Fort Benning Georgia where he used to do the obstacle course just to keep himself in shape, he had come home and jumped a rain puddle in Allston one night after drinking a few too many after the Patriots won the Superbowl and ruined his right knee. That was the way life was. He had gone to his local diner for some chowder and gotten himself killed. What a pain.
Burk shifted his right leg. That leg seemed to be good enough, but it was that knee he had damaged and it had never really been a sure thing since.
He moved his left arm. It was the most visible part of his body so he had to be careful that it was not seen. He brought his hand up to his face where he could see the skin clearly. It looked pale, even in the small and distant light of the florescent from the pie display.
About a foot in front of him on the tile beneath the table of the near booth was an angled piece of what appeared to be ice. But that could not be. It was an angle of window glass. But if he reached for it, his hand might be seen. If he dropped it, it might be heard. He waited.
After a moment the gunman stretched up toward the pie shelves again. What he grabbed this time was Burk’s piece of apple pie. It was the last one in the case, and Burk had taken note of it as he came in. It seemed life was going to make this experience as painful as possible. His killer was going to eat Burk’s piece of apple pie. Burk took the chance then and grabbed at the shard of glass. He grasped hard enough to feel the sharp edges of it bite his fingers to be sure he didn’t drop it. Then he pulled it back and manipulated the largest end into his palm.
Something odd had changed in the moments since he had last looked across to the end of the room toward the window that faced Denton Real Estate. A small dark triangle had opened at the peak of the roof. Blurred as it was, Burk was sure it had not been visible before. The air vent had been opened.
He felt woozy. He had to keep his head. Burk had no idea of how much time had passed before the loudspeaker squawked again and the voice became intelligible.
“Trucks here. Tank is full. Pizza is in the cab. Ten thousand is in a paper sack on top of the pizza. Ready to go. Twenty-five minutes.”
The gunman yelped as if outraged as he shifted across the floor toward Burk.
“The Coke. You forgot the Coke!”
“No, No, the Coke is there too.”
“Now? Now I’m coming out for my pizza. I’m going to have the one that whimpers at my back. I’m going to have the waitress in front of me. You want them alive, you keep me alive.”
On the gunman’s last words, the glass high on the window at the far end of the diner changed to a gauze of fine gray cracks. The gunman grunted with the impact of the first bullet. The glass shattered as a second bullet came through.
The gunman screamed. In one furious movement he leapt back toward the counter screaming, “They’re dead! They’re all dead!”
Burk rose up directly behind him. Without the use of his right arm he used the weight of his body to bring the gunman down, just as a large iron chowder pot swung out from the opening against the man’s head. The gunman’s hand flexed against the trigger as Burk rammed the shard of glass into the gunman’s neck. The shot, muffled beneath the man’s body but so close from the awkwardly bent arm, was deafening. Through the haze and the intense ringing of Burk’s ears that followed, he saw Pat’s face. She was standing close above him. But he had never seen exactly that face before.