Lucas Welby, round and ridiculous, was one of the very few daily customers the Chens had…a fact of which they were all acutely aware. It is what enabled the stoic Chens to ignore his slavish, hulking, sneaky ways. It is what emboldened Lucas to demand things re-cooked and to leave small tips, handfuls of change like autumn leaves on the yellow Formica tabletops. The Chens viewed Lucas as insurance. A pain in the ass, but necessary if times got rough. Lucas viewed the Chens as something to depend on, too. They were his very best, and only, friends.
Joe Café opened in 1969 with no fanfare. It was a small-fronted diner. The kind of place that looks old for no discernible reason, dirty though it is impeccably clean. The kind of place where you can get an excellent burger or a good beef stew. Chow Mein or Broccoli with beef. It was an alternative to the greasy diners in the business district. It was what Millersville needed and the town absorbed it and the Chens with astonishing willingness. Partly, it was everyone’s preoccupation with the occupation. There were more important things to think about. Vietnam. Boys leaving every day. It is one of the many ironies of war…children, who, in peacetime, would look much more like adults, look almost silly dressed up in green with their fresh, gaunt faces. But it is something no one wants to think about. They are trained. Then they are shipped out to places with strange names. Those who stay behind must shake their heads and wonder…and they will never understand. There was some resistance to the war, but Millersville was a town that accepted the inevitable. This worked well during the war years, and it made things much easier for the Chens. Joe Café merely appeared and, within a week, it was as if it had always been there.
It was a small, cozy diner. Most people ordered the standard diner fare, but those in the know were able to stumble across wonders they had never imagined. Duck cooked with exotic, deceptive spices that slithered over the tongue. Vegetables presented in bold, dramatic ways. Both of the Chens were excellent cooks. And their children would become excellent cooks as well, on their way to greatness. The food was cheap, and the Chens worked night and day. The restaurant never closed, but somehow they managed to avoid hiring cooks, waitresses, or janitors. They rarely slept. And, even while they cooked, they listened to tapes and the croaking, dusty TV, and they forced English into their mouths until they were nearly fluent. They had known the sign out front should be changed since the first few weeks, but Mr. Chen was too proud to change it. Years and years passed and the little diner sent the two kids to college. Harvard and USC. Joe Café had become an institution. And like many institutions, it was something that no one in Millersville appreciated quite enough. It was the kind of place where long haul truckers stopped. A place they talked about on the CB when the road got boring. “Holy crap do they got a chink diner out in Millersville…just ask them for the special and hold on.” To the citizens of the town, Joe Café was like a family member, loved and taken for granted.
On the night in question, a Thursday, there were four people in Joe Café. The Chens in their long white aprons, Lucas with his awkward glances and demands, and a young woman none of them had seen before. She was small and wrapped in sweaters and scarves. Her hair was fiercely red. Her face was the kind of sprightly, freckled extravagance that could make you wish you were Irish. She ordered a grilled cheese and pulled out a Chemistry textbook. She was so quiet it was almost as if she didn’t exist.
When it actually happened there was already stasis in the restaurant. Lucas was stolidly eating the meatloaf special and picking at the red upholstery of his booth. Catherine was reading while nibbling at her sandwich and playing with her beautiful hair. Mr. Chen was in back, leaning against the cutting board that ran the length of the kitchen. He was drinking very strong coffee and rubbing his gray whiskers. Mrs. Chen was humming to herself and folding napkins, her hair, as always, parted in an impossibly, mathematically precise line down the center of her well-shaped head.
When the police arrived they found this: a small diner filled with thick, new blood and four bodies, frozen in time. A young girl, clutching a book, shot in the face. A fat man crumpled in the corner of the room shot three times in the chest. A dead Chinese man in the kitchen who had been beaten with something heavy. His face was a swollen, broken mess. He had also been shot in the stomach. The Chinese woman was even more disturbing. She was lying on her back like a funeral corpse, clutching at a white napkin. There was a small, neat hole in her forehead, perfectly in line with her precise part line. Michael Butler stood, disbelieving, clutching his mop of brown hair and shaking his head while cops and troopers he recognized from social functions drifted in and out. It was an ugly scene. A big city scene. It was out of place.
Chet Mooney had stopped at Joe Café because it was the only place still open in a town he used to know. All he’d wanted was coffee, but there was something about the lighting. Something about that chink with the fucking apron. He forgot the coffee and decided, on further reflection, that he wanted money, and then that fat fucker was crying and that girl was screaming and, before he knew it, he was slipping through puddling pools of blood carrying a small safe. He’d started driving soon thereafter…still dark…and figured he was a good seven or eight hours of easy driving ahead of anyone who would know anything about Joe Café . Busting the safe open was easy and there had been over $3,000 inside. Now, the money was bulging out of the top of Chet’s backpack and he was laughing like marathon runner.
What a bunch of stupid assholes. Fucking weak pieces of shit. That girl. Please don’t kill me, please…please…I’ll do anything. Then bang. It always amazed Chet, the cartoonish bang and then the person collapsing like an abandoned puppet.
The fat guy, too. Big stupid fuck. Take my money…like he wasn’t gonna do that anyway. He had squirmed in the corner like a fucking octopus. It was like he was fucking the wall. It made Chet think of the pictures his Dad used to get in the mail. Women tied to fences. Women having sex with farm animals…horses….dogs…pigs. Women surrounded by men, filled up with them. Chet took them to school because no one believed him. How could a woman have sex with a horse? But it was possible, and he had photographic evidence. The women were always ugly, and the horse’s cock was a monstrosity. But he showed them, and then they believed.
Just like that fat fuck believed it when he saw the girl was dead. When he was staring down the barrel of the nine-millimeter with Chet taunting him. Get up fat man. Fight. He was a fat, crying ball of mucus and tears. The gun shut him up pretty quick.
He’d ripped out the phone first…luckily the chinks didn’t have cell phones. He hadn’t thought of that. Better to plan these things out, but sometimes spontaneity and luck work together. The woman stood still. Didn’t blink. He respected this, so he shot her clean. But the old man. The fucking old man. Didn’t want to give up the money. Didn’t want to be smart. Spit in Chet’s fucking face. The dark curtain descended, and when Chet blinked his way back into the now the man’s face was a disgusting mess of broken bone and blood. He was still talking through a mouth filled with blood and broken teeth. Fuck you. Coward. Fuck you. All with that chinky accent. Chet could hear the tremor in his voice when he told him: “you’re gonna die slow, gook.” The shot to the stomach stopped the talking. He shrugged off the tremor.
Chet looked around himself. Looked outside of himself. This had happened before. You get caught up in the drama of the situation. You go into the zone. Time slows down and you wish you could live forever in this slow-motion world where you are king and God all rolled into one. But when it’s over, things start to speed up again. Everything is still. No sound. Blood smell. It took a few minutes to find the safe. He emptied the wallets and got eleven bucks. Thank god for the safe. The stupid chink probably hadn’t been to the bank in months. Served him right.
Michael Butler had been a cop so long it seemed as if it was always so. He couldn’t remember anything else. He’d lived in Millersville all his life. He knew everyone, and they knew him. And, even as a boy, he was the one they looked to. He broke up fights and settled disputes. There was a calm about him. A silent power that came from God knows where. Michael’s old man was a drunk and showed up sporadically. His mom worked as a bartender at a rib joint by the tracks. But Michael was born with something, and it seemed fitting to his neighbors and friends when he started wearing a police uniform.
Michael was sitting in his office and his face was gray. He’d known everyone except the girl. The Chens were good people. He had eaten at Joe Café his whole life. The guy, he’d recognized. Never really knew him, but had seen him around. He was a silent type. A hermit. But he never hurt anyone. The girl? He didn’t know about the girl, but she sure didn’t look like a criminal. Fuck. He kept seeing it in his head. The blood. Mr. Chen’s face. He’d seen dead bodies before, but dead from a car accident or a heart attack is a lot different than dead from a fucking massacre. That’s what it was. A massacre. Millersville was not a massacre town. There hadn’t been a murder in the last century. It was a good town for a Cop. Domestic disturbances, small-scale drug operations, and larceny were about as deep as things got. Now this. Four people. Four dead people fallen from a nightmare. He still had to call the Chen’s kids. God, what was he going to say?
Michael took a sip from the coffee mug that sat on his cluttered desk. His office was comprised of a desk covered with papers and two chairs. One behind the desk and one in front. No decorations. A filing cabinet. A gun case. It never seemed to Michael like the kind of place that should be decorated. It was a room where serious things happened. It was not a place for posters or mounted fish.
Janet had come in an hour earlier and turned in her badge. She couldn’t stop crying. Michael did not try to dissuade her. She’d been pretty shook up. Since there were only two cops in the department, things were pretty quiet as Michael sipped his coffee. The state police had come and gone. Taken pictures. He stared at the computer screen and his image glowered back. Michael never thought much about the way he looked. Slightly goofy, but earnest. Big ears. Curly hair that did whatever it wanted. Stubble, maybe three days worth. Michael hated to shave. At thirty-five he was in decent enough shape. 6’2”, 200 lbs. He had a small gut that seemed to look right in uniform, but he was strong and still jogged at least a few times a week.
He scratched his head and forced himself to look at the crime scene pictures again. Jesus Christ. Who could have done this? And why? The safe was gone, but there seemed to be more at play here. You can rob people without killing them. Or even if you do have to kill them, you don’t have to beat a man’s face to mush. You don’t have to open a dead girl’s shirt. Her shirt and bra were torn. It must have been someone passing through on the way to the city. It must have. The thought that it could be a local, one of the guys from his softball team, Tom from the bank, a teenager who got some bad meth…the thought that it could be someone he knew filled Michael with complete and utter dread. It made his skin crawl. It made him sick. He pulled the trashcan from under his desk and gagged and choked. Michael was scared. And he was on his own. And he knew this was only the beginning...
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