Captain Haines sheds his rain-pressed coat and hat in the entryway of the railcar diner. Laughter from 3 a.m. troublemakers, snores from booth-ridden sleepwalkers, snaps from slow-moving line cooks cut through the smoke-festooned air in the same whirling loops.
Dark-haired, gum-popping Dina points her pen at the large central booth with only two place settings. Haines nods as he retires his trench and cap on the sharp wall hook over a bouquet of tired umbrellas.
“Coffee?” she asks rhetorically, filling the grainy ceramic cup before he settles in.
“Yes, please, Dina.”
“Aye aye, Captain,” she winks.
She begins collecting evidence of a fast meal from the nearby table, unafraid to let the heavy silverware swirl around the eggshell-thin saucers.
It’s ten after the hour. His guest said 3:30 over the phone. Haines twists the thick leather band of his grandfather’s watch around his far thicker wrist. It doesn’t make the time pass faster.
His awaited guest said she would be easy to recognize, but Haines didn’t know what that meant. Plausible trap, certainly. After all, she was the only one who had called the tip line for information on this particular spree.
Three middle-aged, well-loved, upstanding community men. One, a fellow officer. Palms down, limbs spread wide, petrified expressions sticking to the floorboards of their respective homes. Intentional arsenic poisoning. No leads. No evidence. No knowledge of their whereabouts before they collapsed.
“Could I get an ashtray, Dina?” Haines calls over his shoulder.
She swipes the full one from the table nearby, empties it into a bowl of half-eaten soup, and slides it down to him. “There you go.”
He grimaces at the greying broth. “Thanks.” His cuticle-bitten stubs finger past the photographs of the victims in search of his matchbox.
The first exhale billows forward and circles the blushing faces of the young couple at the counter. The boy’s fry-greased finger draws circles on the small of her back while she stares at him from behind the double straws in her soda. Haines traces over the finger circles with his cigarette. He wonders what these kids are doing out so late.
“Careful now, kids,” he mutters to himself. They could be next.
It’s 3:17. He dunks his lips into the boiling cup of coffee and recalls the frothing, ash-laden soup bowl. He can’t decide which one would taste worse.
The middle-aged woman in the opposite corner booth catches Haines’ eyes as she exhales her own smoke through her nostrils. Red-collared shirt, red nails, dark hair pushed to one side and filling out her cavernous collarbones. She seems the type who would run in peculiar circles.
They put out their cigarettes at the same time, and Haines watches her light another. Her fingers trace the rim of a chipped coffee cup. One eye finds Haines.
Dina walks past in time to explain his gaze.
She pivots, taking a moment to pop her gum, and faces him. “Yeah?”
“When did that lady in the corner get here?” Haines nods to the woman in red.
Dina shrugs. “Maybe an hour ago. She’s had about six cups so far. Must be trying to stay up for something.”
“Must be.”
“I don’t think she’s the one you’re looking for,” she dismisses with a wave of her hand.
“What?” Haines sips his coffee, grimacing again.
“I mean, if you were hoping to send her a little something special, I wouldn’t bother. She’s—"
“Oh, no, no, I’m happily married. I was just … I’m waiting for someone. I thought it might be her.”
“Working late tonight, huh, Captain?”
“Bad guys never sleep, so why should I?” He jokes.
Dina returns his laughter. “Can I get you some more coffee?”
“You read my mind.”
His smile fades as she gets farther away. The young couple puts a five under the napkin holder on the counter and shuffles back out into the rain. Steam from the kitchen, smoke from the diners, breath from the others roll on. The quiet grows louder.
It’s 3:25. Haines feels the eyes of the woman in red again. He would chance another peek if he didn’t sense she had the same idea Dina had. But her stare makes him lightheaded.
Haines massages his wrinkle-prone temples and takes in the other half of the tired eatery. Two men, young and tall, sulk into their matching leather jackets as they wait for their food. One has dirty boots. Not unusual, but surprising with the rain coming down so hard tonight. He wonders how long they’ve been occupying the booth.
The bell alerts Haines to the newest member of the sleepy diner club: a woman. Young, yawning, and misty-eyed—he hopes—from the rain. She adds an umbrella to the bunch and seats herself at the far end of the counter.
Haines knew it wasn’t the woman who called anyway. The face did not match the voice. The voice was low, but not raspy, peppered with short, crackling bursts of static obstructing the conversation. The woman who just walked in would have a melodic voice.
Dina rounds the counter with a new pot of steaming coffee and makes a beeline for Haines. He folds his hands in his lap and, with a weak smile, extends his gratitude.
“And here’s some sugar, sugar,” she winks, swapping his clump-ridden dispenser with a full one.
“How sweet!” Haines chuckles.
It’s 3:29. The fresh pot of coffee tastes somehow worse to Haines. He thinks perhaps the acidic late-night air sneaking through the back door is affecting his taste. A touch more sugar helps it go down.
The woman in red chews on her bottom lip and checks her watch. Haines points his raised brows her way and waits for a sign. She merely adjusts the hem of her skirt, yawns, and reaches into her bag. Instinctively, Haines pulls his jacket aside for easy access to the gun sleeping in its holster.
But he recoils at the sight of a pocket watch inside her fishing hand. The face is missing. She yawns at the sight of the time, wedges a few dollars between the salt and pepper shakers, and rises to leave. Haines eyes the hem of her dress as it flicks out the door, smoothed once more by the polka dot umbrella at her side. He finds the dots dizzying.
A light massage of cold fingers to his temples cools his skin but not his nerves. The lights in the diner may or may not be growing brighter. Either way, Haines thinks they’re too bright. He takes tiny sips of the over-sweetened coffee and sucks in a deep breath to help it go down.
The bell tolls again. His head whips to the door to find a young woman drenched from the rain. He immediately notes her lack of an umbrella. In each hand is a brown canvas bag with bulbous protrusions at the bottom. Haines suspects the bags are full of produce, probably apples or something with enough roundness to stretch the canvas.
The woman takes in the whole of the diner, only to retire to the same booth the woman in red had left behind.
Dina calls out to her, “Gimme one minute to wipe down that place for you, hun.”
The woman nods graciously and puts the heavy bags in their respective seats before taking her own. She immediately lights a cigarette with shaking hands and checks her watch.
It’s 3:39. Haines feels certain this is the woman he is meant to meet. Dina clears the table and smiles at Haines on her way back to the kitchen. The woman searches for an ashtray and begins to motion for Dina, but Haines intercepts the call by sliding on the opposite end of the booth with his own ashtray.
“Here, we can share,” he says, slyly.
“Oh, thank you. But I can just have Dina get me one,” she says.
“Nonsense.” He scoots the tray closer to her. She ashes into it, smiling dumbly at Haines.
“Thank you, sir, that’s very kind. But I should tell you I am supposed to be meeting someone here shortly, so I’m afraid I’m going to need that seat.”
“Oh? Who are you meeting?”
Haines reads the growing wrinkles on her forehead, toying with her confusion.
“Well, not that it’s your business, sir, but I’m meeting my ex-husband,” she says with a flick of her cigarette.
Haines smirks. “Is that so?”
“Sir, I don’t know what you’re implying, but I’ll tell you again: I’m meeting someone. I would like you to leave my booth.” Her voice is stern, but yields at the sight of Haines’ badge. Her eyes—which he now notices are an incredible honey color—widen at the glint of the badge.
“Oh, God… has Donnie done something again? Is he not coming? Or—“ she shrieks and grips his wrist from across the wet table “is he dead?”
Haines removes her hand as if it were a thorn, taking time to formulate a response. But the only one he has is petulant: “What?”
“Donnie? My ex? Is he alive?” she asks.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Haines shrugs.
Dina pops her gum on her way over to them, cheerily bobbing a pot of coffee in each hand.
“Ah, you found who you were looking for, huh?” She tips the pot in her left hand to fill the woman’s cup.
“Actually, I … think there’s been a mistake,” he says with a blush.
“Dina, can you please escort this lunatic from my booth?”
Dina chuckles. “Aw, won’t worry about Haines, here. He’s a real salt-of-the-earth fella. Wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Haines blushes harder at the compliment, longing to be back at his own booth.
“Sure, Dina. But Donnie’s joining me any minute now.”
Haines feels certain the lights grew brighter again. He sucks in the air from the back door and exhales an apology to the young woman. “I’m sorry. I had you confused with someone else. Enjoy your night.”
Dina motions to his own booth. “Come on, Captain, let’s give the lady some space.”
He takes his place as Dina reaches her right arm over him to top off his nearly full cup. He’s dreading drinking it. The coffee was only heightening his anxiety tonight.
“You gonna have anything to eat tonight, Captain? Or should I ask you again when your guest arrives?”
Still reeling from embarrassment, Haines had almost forgotten that he was here to meet with someone. He checks the time: 3:46. Where is she?
“No, thank you, Dina.”
Haines turns so that the young woman is just out of sight and lays a hand to his throbbing abdomen. It could be hunger or simply an extension of the uncomfortable encounter he just had. Either way, he leaves the hand over his roundness, furtively lending pressure just below his bellybutton.
The tall young men with dirty boots crumple a stack of ones inside the empty sugar canister and retrieve their coats. Haines can hardly make out their features from this distance because he’s still feeling light-headed.
He pulls out the photos of the victims to test his vision. The background of each photo is a blurry mess, but everybody is distinct in its shape, size, and miserable rigor. He hadn’t known the officer who was killed, but he is drawn to the officer’s photo more than the others. He died with his eyes open and his mouth closed. Something in those reversed features reminds Haines of a painting he saw the one and only time he went to a museum. Not that there was anything necessarily artistic about his face—it was more of a feeling. A feeling which, against all odds of his acupressure, pitted in his stomach.
The rain thrashes harder outside, reminding Haines that he ought to relieve his bladder before his guest arrives.
The cushion grumbles as he clumsily shifts his weight out of it and shuffles to the bathroom. His abdomen pain temporarily subsides as he leans into the urinal.
The bar of hand soap is so stuck to the sink that Haines doesn’t even bother. A good rinse will have to do. He checks his reflection, not to surmise the state of his appearance, but to ensure that he still exists. The eyes of the dead police officer come back to him, gray and urgent.
The lightweight door swings wide at his touch. He’s greeted by a heavy garlic odor soured slightly by the wormy scent of the rain slipping through the cracked back door. Normally, Haines is fond of garlic, but tonight, it reeks not of its distinct odor but of its texture: thick, slick, and viscous.
It’s 3:58. The woman who sat at the end of the counter is leaving. The door blows a rainy gust of wind as it closes behind her, rattling the two stiff dollars she left as evidence of her presence. Dina clears the evidence and catches Haines’ eye.
The gust sends a shock down his spine. Or maybe Dina’s curling smile. But he is not certain she even smiled. The blurring of her face and the plate of half-eaten scrambled eggs she may or may not be holding is maddening. She’s still looking at him. A smile is indeterminate.
His heavy head turns to the young woman he vowed not to look at again. She’s the only other person left in this diner. Her ex has not yet arrived. She picks at a scab on her elbow that Haines prays was not put there by her awaited guest. Her twitchy fingers make Haines feel itchy, so he picks at his arm as if the whole thing were a scab.
Haines suddenly realizes, with an almost violent body tremor, that his guest is not coming. That perhaps she never was. He feels a sudden relief at the prospect of going home.
But he also realizes, with nearly the same body tremor, that he is quickly growing sicker. He now feels a strong acidic bubbling at the base of his throat in preparation of a purge. It’s coupled with a tongue drowning in its own saliva. In a panic, he spits into his coffee cup.
“I don’t think whoever you’re expecting is coming,” Dina coos from behind him. He jumps a bit and wipes the saliva from his mouth.
“No. I mean, yes, I think you’re right …”
“You oughta just leave.”
“Yes, I think I should. I’m feeling rather ill,” he regretfully informs her.
She grabs his coat from the hook and helps him into it with a swift smoothing of his wide pockets.
“Thanks, Dina.”
“Sure thing, Captain.” She pops a few tiny bubbles with her teeth and gives him a smile he can finally decipher.
He digs in his pants pockets with fingers that feel sticky. They pick up the two dollars and few coins left from the bills used to buy his pack of cigarettes. He only has a couple dimes to offer for a tip.
It always seems like his pockets fail him when he comes to this diner. He makes a mental note to give Dina a proper tip next time he stops in.
“See ya next time, Dina,” he says, retrieving his umbrella and hat. She says nothing but gives him a salute.
He takes stock of the smoke, the grit, and the quiet of the diner as he exits. The lone woman bites her top lip as smoke escapes through the spaces between her teeth. A line cook lays his weary head atop the meal window. Dina pours the contents of an old coffee pot down the sink.
The bell reminds him of the gurgle in his throat, and the sudden introduction of the rain brings the fluid forward. He vomits onto the sidewalk just shy of his shoe.
His shoes lurch forward to carry him away from the pile of sick. They seem dizzy, too. His heart pounds for them. He’s hardly able to stand after an eruption in his stomach—he’s certain his liver just exploded.
Another round of purging, and Haines, reduced to nothing but an outpouring of fluids, reaches into his coat pocket in search of a handkerchief to wipe the sick from his mouth. The shift of his arm causes him to fall headfirst into the brick. His feet curl beneath him, still keeping time with his heart.
The sidewalk is cold and wet. Haines isn’t sure if his pants were wet before or after he sat. But in comparison to the velocity of his heart, the prospect of wetting himself is banal.
His saliva pools again, and he barely musters the strength to spit. He dips a shaking hand into his pocket in search of the handkerchief once again. But his tender fingers meet some papery intruder he’s eager to meet.
A napkin. He dangles it closer to his face, forcing his eyes to make sense of the feathery ink blots.
Here’s your tip. You should have returned the favor.
Haines drops the napkin into a puddle, and the ink dissolves. There will be no evidence left behind.
Horns from rage-driven cab drivers, shouts from whiskey-fueled kids, pops from gut-wrenching raindrops whir through the ill-lit streets in the same disconnected tracks. But Haines can’t hear them anymore.

About the Author

Jamie Witherby

Jamie Witherby is an Ohio-bred, Chicago-based short fiction writer with a BA in anthropology. She is currently working as a naturalist and plans to pursue a PhD in sociocultural anthropology. Her work is inspired by natural imagery and how people create meaning in their daily lives. In her spare time, she enjoys a biweekly writing workshop, dance classes, and whispering sweet nothings to her potted plants.

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