No text. No email. No electronic communiqué of any kind.
Scowling, ‘Hank’ Jerry—a woman who wore the self-made moniker the way some might armor—jammed her smartphone into the front pocket of her cargo pants and sucked a drag off her first cancer stick of the day, exhaling into the predawn behind her Aunt Henry’s restaurant. The fluorescents overhead cast a harsh glow over this particular piece of real estate in Fiddler’s Elbow, Pennsylvania—a throwback hunky mill town where dial-up was considered high tech and people still lived life one pierogie at a time.
From the shadows behind the dumpster, a man emerged and limped toward her, clutching his side, his chest heaving, clouds of his breath hanging in the April air.
“Hide me!” he gasped.
“What the hell?” Heart pounding, Hank retreated a few steps and threw her cigarette to the ground. Blood, bruises, panic—all of it oozed from this man who’d materialized like smoke. Tires squealed on pavement in the alley running the length of the restaurant and hodge-podge of neighboring buildings.
“Will you?” he ground out.
A dozen fleeting impressions swamped her brain. Muscular. Dirty. Unshaven. Murderer? Crazy? Eyes, wild and green, probing and pleading in the artificial light. In the alley, car doors slammed. Feet pounded gravel and shouts cut through the dark. Two people? More?
They locked eyes. No, said her gut. Not crazy. But maybe she was.
“Damn it!” she sputtered. Seconds, only seconds remained before the pounding, the shouts and God knew what else careened around the corner.
She flung the screen door open and hauled him inside the kitchen. He plowed through despite his limp and, holding his own, plunged headlong into the galley kitchen, hopped up on the adrenaline of the desperate. And maybe the damned.
“Here!” Locking the door behind her, mind racing, she steered him toward the far end of the kitchen, past her attempt at soup du jour. She yanked open the walk-in cooler, dragged him inside, and plunked him down on top of a cardboard produce box. “Have a seat.” The cold would slow whatever bleeding there was, some part of her reasoned.
Breathless, she gave him a quick once over. Bloody nose, bruises, but no bones sticking out anywhere that she could see. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he grunted, his eyes stormy seas of green. He grimaced and rubbed his ankle. “Thank you.”
“Stay here. Don’t move.”
Those unnerving eyes flickered, but he gave a brief nod. Hank darted out and shut the door before he could say anything else.
Heaving a sigh, she pushed her mass of curls off her neck and leaned against the walk-in, collecting herself. The coffee, toast, and eggs she’d fixed herself a short while ago sat half-eaten on the stainless steel prep counter. She’d since lost her appetite.
He couldn’t kill her or rape her, not in this weakened state, she reasoned. Did he need a doctor? The police?
Well, he’d wanted hidden, and now he was hidden. Her Aunt Henry would’ve done the same, she knew. Certainly the roundup of misfits who’d odd-jobbed their way through here over the years bore testament to that. If he needed a doctor, she’d see to it. But the police, and whoever was after him? That was his concern, not hers. Hank wanted no part of it.
He could just park it in the cooler for a few minutes, stay out of sight while the help clocked in, and be on his merry way. She’d make sure of it.
Fists pounded on the door she’d just locked. She jerked to attention, pushing off the cooler. “Pretty sure that ain’t a Jehovah’s witness,” she muttered. Shit! This wasn’t part of the deal. Now what?
The pounding continued. Whoever was on the other side wasn’t going away. If she didn’t answer the door it would only make things worse, most likely for her and ‘Cooler Man.’ Hank forced her feet to move. Act calm. Think calm.
Just in case that didn’t work, she unearthed the Smith & Wesson .32 revolver her aunt kept stashed in one of the utensil drawers, and shoved it in her pants pocket.
Adrenaline and fear pulsed through her, propelling her forward. One foot in front of the other. No big deal. She’d answer the door, see about the fist pounder and then he or she, or they, would leave. Or she could get shot. Yeah, right. No big deal.
While the ancient boom box near the grill blared Johnny Cash lyrics, she made it to the door and reached for the handle. No way was she flat-out opening the damned thing. Leaving the security chain in place, Hank eased it a crack.