I saw the diner from a distance as I was coming down the highway I’d taken as a shortcut across the desert. It was the first sign of civilization I’d seen since leaving the Interstate, so I decided to stop and grab a bite to eat before moving on.
I should have known better when I saw the Harley parked in the diner’s small parking lot. But I’d had a long drive, I was hungry, and so at first, I didn’t pay that much attention to the sixty-something couple who were sitting in one of the diner’s booths. I went up to the counter. A guy in his late twenties stood behind the cash register, while a young woman who looked like she was fresh out of high school stood next to the grill in the exposed kitchen.
“Whaddya’ want?” the guy asked. I immediately noted his attitude; it was the first thing that made me sense something was wrong. The guy seemed out of place, as if he weren’t used to being there, and his young female companion was fidgeting behind the grill.
“I’ll just have a cheeseburger to go,” I calmly replied. As I lowered my gaze over to the couple in the booth, I instinctively knew that they were out of place, too.
The guy nodded and turned around, motioning at his lady friend. I thought about the .38 I keep with me whenever I travel as an ex-cop. I don’t like to take too many chances this day and age on the open road. I could tell from the guy’s tats that he’d been on the inside and had gang connections. When the girl was done cooking my order, I took it, paid for it without comment, and made as if I were getting ready to leave.
The girl reacted first when she saw my weapon underneath my jacket. She let out a half-scream that sounded like a frightened yelp, and the guy pulled out his own gun, a .45 automatic. I had a split second to decide if I would have time to pull out my own gun before he could fire—but then he did, as I heard a boom that sounded like an explosion. It was clearly a wild shot; the girl screamed louder as the guy’s hands shook. I instinctively ducked and saw what he had been shooting at—the older man in the booth, who had come to tackle the guy as he dropped the gun in a sudden panic. I followed him, and between the two of us we were able to subdue him while his girlfriend tried to run out the back door, which was apparently locked from the outside, trapping her in the kitchen.
I looked over at the older man. He was at least twenty years older than I was, and with no gun of his own. “Never really thought I needed one,” he said, as if reading my thoughts. “Glad to see I still don’t. Guess we’re lucky you had yours, though.”
I looked down at my own gun, which I realized upon reflection I’d never really had to use. “We were both lucky,” I said. “Guess I didn’t need mine, either. Only one who thought he did was this guy, here.” The older man grinned as his wife called 911.
I looked over at the subdued man. He was young, still sullenly defiant, while his lady friend was somewhat more cooperative. They’d both be going to jail, but she might get out before he did, and he had a look in his eyes that said he’d remember me. That didn’t really bother me too much, but it made me wonder what else he might try if he got out.
At least I knew that if I ever came this way again, I’d have backup when he did.
Matthew Spence was born in Cleveland, Ohio. His work has appeared in The Fifth Diand The Martian Wave.