The young girl walked into the Waffle House, alone, at 3 a.m. on a Thursday morning. We all looked up from our coffee and cigarettes, waffles, sausage and hash browns. She stood on her tiptoes to take a seat on a counter stool, picked up a menu and held it close to her face, like one of the 6 a.m. retirees without his bifocals.
Sandy, the night shift waitress, looked at me and raised her eyebrows. I knew the look; she gave it to me four or five times a week. It meant, Do you think I should call the cops?
I considered the idea. The girl looked no more than twelve, black, slim, but composed. Her hair was platted so tight I wondered if they tugged at her eyebrows. Her perfume, spicy with a hint of sandalwood, cut through the onion and batter odors of the diner. She wore clean, well-fitted jeans, a pink fuzzy sweater over a lime green top, and new-looking Nikes. Gold chain, oversized plastic watch. Not enough clothes for February.
She displayed no fear or uncertainty, which struck me as odd. Twelve-year-olds are always uncertain around adults.
I turned to look outside. The day manager had finally replaced the broken lights in the lot, so our cars were brightly lit. There were none I didn’t recognize, and I would recognize a new one. I’d been running into the same people at the same hour of the night for almost three years, and had come to know them by their cars, the sound of their nasal congestion, and their bathing habits. We rarely spoke.
“What you doing here this time of morning?” Sandy asked the girl.
“I’m here for the atmosphere,” the girl said, keeping her nose in the menu. The sarcasm in her voice sounded bitter as a fifty-year-old’s.
Sandy looked at me again. This time she was asking me if it would be okay if she dumped a pot of hot coffee on the girl’s head. Sandy’s skin got pretty thin by 3 a.m.
I shook my head. “The lady’s just trying to be friendly,” I said to the girl. “No need to be rude.”
The other regulars stared at their plates and cups, but I could tell their ears were locked in, the same way they had been a couple of weeks before when the place was held up.
“Mind your own business, old man.” The girl pronounced it bidness.
Sandy laughed. She knew the “old man” would piss me off. “I like that, Tim. From now on I’m calling you ‘old man.’”
“You suppose you could take my order?” the girl said to her. Not a hint of a smile to soften her words.
“What’cha want, honey?” Sandy said. “Lucky Charms? Count Chocula?”
“Two waffles, hash browns smothered and covered, coffee with cream, bacon, crisp.” She folded the menu and stuck it back in the chrome holder next to the napkins.
Sandy didn’t write it down. “You got money, honey?”
The girl shook her head in disgust, reached two fingers into her back pocket, pulled out a Visa card, and flashed it toward Sandy like she was trying to blind her with a hand mirror.
Sandy rolled her eyes toward me but turned to the grill. Otilio had gone outside for a cigarette ten minutes ago, but this time of night, it often took him forty-five minutes. His girl, who worked at the Wal-Mart next door, took her break about then as well, and they liked to pooch up in his old Chevy
Foreword • ix
Introduction • xiii
Smothered and Covered • 1
A Fine Mist of Blood • 14
O’NEIL DE NOUX
Misprision of Felony • 29
The Sailor in the Picture • 46
DAVID EDGERLEY GATES
The Devil to Pay • 61
The Street Ends at the Cemetery • 91
Crossing • 126
Remora, IL • 158
Thy Shiny Car in the Night • 172
EMILY ST. JOHN MANDEL
Drifter • 180
The Ring of Kerry • 194
Quarry • 211
JOYCE CAROL OATES
So Near Any Time Always • 225
Light Bulb • 263
Gunpowder Alley • 277
When They Are Done with Us • 300
The Indian • 316
The Don’s Cinnamon • 366
Bullet Number Two • 381
MAURINE DALLAS WATKINS
Bound • 392
Contributors’ Notes • 406
Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2012 • 418