The Runaway Cop

 

 

The diner was deserted. Every chair, every stool, every table empty. It was a ghost town of a diner. And that was exactly how Maggie Hogan liked it. Empty meant no customers and no customers meant she was safe.

For the moment.

She wiped down the last booth, including the seats, and straightened, glancing out the row of windows that faced the sidewalk. Beyond the pale strip of light escaping their panes, Blanco Beach was a ghost town, too. It wasn’t much more than a wide spot in the highway to begin with, and that was another thing Maggie liked.  No one ever came to this part of Florida except to fish. They passed through on their way to somewhere else, usually Tallahassee or maybe Panama City Beach, and only then if they’d taken the scenic route. There were faster ways to get almost anywhere than to go through Blanco Beach.

The only thing keeping the diner open until 2 a.m. was the stubbornness of Maggie’s boss, Rose Washington. She and her husband had built Rose’s back in the day and keeping those hours was a tradition. She’d outlasted him, a real estate bust, and the bank. All she had left was the tiny restaurant. Maggie had glided into the parking lot out of gas and out of hope just past midnight one night and Rose had said she needed a waitress. Too exhausted and broke to be anything but grateful, Maggie put on an apron right then and there.  She’d come to suspect there was more pity than need behind the offer. The place was always empty after ten p.m.

The darkness outside wrapped the palm trees in shadows, their fronds moving in the breeze coming off the beach. The wind had picked up since the last time she’d looked out, probably because there was a disturbance in the Gulf. A storm wouldn’t bother her, but wind always brought trouble, she thought uneasily. It had in Texas, that’s for sure.

She buried the thought and told herself everything was fine. She’d stayed in Blanco Beach longer than she’d been anywhere since she’d left, and nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Nothing had happened period. She needed to relax and take it at face value. Fake it ‘til you make it, she told herself. April’s favorite saying made sense but thinking about her best friend wasn’t something Maggie wanted to do, either. 

She moved to the counter that stretched along the right side of the diner and began to scrub its worn Formica as thoroughly as she wished she could her past.

“Leave a little surface on it, please, Maggie. I don’t have enough money for a new top right now.”

Rose stood in the doorway to the kitchen and spoke with a rusty voice. If the two of them exchanged more than a dozen words a shift, it was a big conversation. This would hold them a week.

Maggie nodded curtly and dropped the towel, reaching for the mop she’d leaned against the wall. Before she could make two swipes across the linoleum, the bell over the door rang.

Rose greeted the man standing beside the cash register. Maggie tried to swallow the lump of anxiety that shot into her throat. And failed.

“Morning, Chief. Or should I say ‘Evening?’

“Either one’ll work, Rose. Doesn’t matter to me.”

“Pick a spot. She’ll help you,” she said with a nod toward Maggie. “I’m making pies.” With that, she turned and disappeared once more.

Maggie had waited on the new chief of police before but seeing a man in a uniform was enough to make her mouth go dry. She reined in her reaction and approached his table. He looked weary, she thought, dark circles under his dark eyes, faint lines across his forehead, hair that could use a trim, not to mention a five o’clock shadow way past five o’clock. He couldn’t have been older than her by five or six years at the absolute most, but his stare said he’d seen just about everything there was to see. A twinge of sympathy rippled through her, despite herself.

 

He was too young to feel that way. Then again, so was she.