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Diner by Paul Marandina

Outside the diner at 385 Sixth Avenue, humanity ebbed and flowed. It would often take a brief pause to eat, then continue on in its mysterious way, dressed as life.

Jim Belcher was oblivious to the existence of the diner to start with. Right outside were the stairs to West 4 Street Station. Maybe the subway would become a metaphor for his life; maybe a crossroads of some kind. Not that he could afford to eat out. He owed money--lots of money. A descent into the bottom of a metaphorical barrel that was repeated by others across towns, cities, and states. The problem was he liked a bet. He liked it a little too much. Horses mostly but that eventually gravitated towards boxing then NFL and, the ultimate crack cocaine: online gambling sites.

On a dank day heavy with despair he found an ad in the classifieds:

Loans available by arrangement. Discretion guaranteed. Call Victor 863-277-155.

Jim did. The phone was answered by a man with a low, gravelly voice with an Eastern European accent. Yes, he understood. There was nothing that couldn’t be fixed…on the right terms. They arranged to meet at the steps to the subway near Waverley Restaurant at 9pm. They would talk more then.

The conversation had left Jim feeling uneasy. It was bad enough that he owed so much money without resorting to loan sharks advertising in newspapers. Still…his credit card was maxed out, his checking account overdrawn and a bank loan behind on payments. On top of all that, he owed rent. His landlord was on his case every evening. Action was needed.

The sidewalk outside was often quieter in the evening. The diner, aka Waverley Restaurant, would look out on all manner of existence as it sashayed through its repertoire of burgers, fries, shakes, and coke. Waitresses would hustle and hurry between booths and tables, oblivious to the hookers, pimps, office-types, and junkies that passed by, just going about their business. Suburban New York was a bubbling cauldron of life and death, riches and destitution. Jim had a call to make – stay or go. Logic screamed that he should wait and see what the deal was, but his spider senses were telling him otherwise. The “what if?” question circled like a bi-plane stalking a giant gorilla.

Jim’s resolve faded. Drifting away from the designated meeting spot, he entered the diner instead. A man in a fedora with a feather in the side was scooping stew into his mouth whilst a family of four passed menus between them. A waitress in a white uniform ushered Jim to a window table. The diner was busy. Fumbling in his pocket, the crumpled notes of fifty dollars stood between an impromptu meal and financial oblivion. The order was for just a beer when it came down to it with an addendum that more time was needed to consider the menu.

On the stroke of nine, a tall man in a black overcoat appeared outside. There was no way of knowing for sure if this was Victor but the restless prowling around the steps to the subway suggested the man was there to meet someone. In this half-light, it was hard to see his face clearly. Shadows danced tantalisingly obscuring his features. His deportment was imperious, power radiating from his towering build. Black trousers with sharp creases and shiny brogue shoes presented a gentlemanly image. Jim looked up from time to time trying to appear unobtrusive, ready to dart his eyes away from the stranger in the street if his gaze was returned even for a split second. After ten minutes, the elegant figure took one last look at his watch and left.

Some events can leave a no man’s land of indecision, a desert of inertia to be filled. There was no plan B. He had to decide whether to spend money on food at the diner or move on. There was still a world of hurt waiting for him outside. Procrastination can be as good a strategy as any other. At least, that was the thinking as burger and fries was ordered. It was warm and welcoming on these premises. Life could wait.

It was as Jim was preparing to pay the bill that he noticed something strange. The tall man from earlier was outside once more. Glancing at his mobile phone, it seemed that the money lender belonged to a world where promptness was king; it was 10pm on the dot. Only this time he wasn’t on his own. A shifty-looking middle-aged man with greasy, straight hair and a centre parting was talking to him. Hand gestures indicated a negotiation of some kind. A card machine appeared on the table as the waitress inquired how the bill would be paid. Jim tried not to take his eyes off the scene unfolding by the subway steps as he rummaged in his pocket.

Like a magician’s trick, the two men discussing terms had disappeared. It felt like merely seconds between reaching for cash and looking up again but that seemed to be enough time for the men to have moved on. Jim thanked the waitress and shuffled slowly towards the door. Something caught the corner of his eye. Someone had just turned down an alleyway further on down the street. Stick or twist? Was there really a need to know anymore or was this the time to head home and face the music? Maybe the idea of dealing with this mystery man wasn’t so scary after all. Jim really needed money.

Alleys are desolate places. Flanked by dumpsters on either side, detritus pockmarked a corridor where life was parked for those embraced by its emptiness. The smell of weed permeated the air in invisible tendrils. Jim had decided that he would take a chance and confront the moneylender. The downside of any encounter was trumped by the upside of being solvent again for a while. The only light was from streetlamps on the sidewalk; shadows and silhouettes shifted about in the gloom. Movement came from a nook of trash containers and brick wall. Jim’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness and, with it, came the image of a body falling to the ground. The tall man was standing over it. Turning, his face was a dim revelation of horror. A pasty complexion in an oval face was offset by eyes burning with ire, veins criss-crossing eyeballs in a blood shot sea: mouth agape, fangs either side dripping with crimson. The figure slumped on the ground in a heap was motionless.

It took Jim seconds to register what he saw. The monstrous scene simply served to confirm his fears and more. He turned and fled. As his legs propelled him onwards, arms pumping wildly, there was a sense of someone right behind. Hot breath stung his ears, whispers curled like wisps of smoke around his head. The terror fuelled yet more adrenaline which coursed through his body He was afraid to look behind knowing that, therein, lay madness. The glass door of the diner glowed in the night like a halo. He crashed through it.

His entrance caused a momentary stir. Diners turned in their seats to see what the commotion was. A waitress asked if he was alright as she escorted him to a booth. Jim composed himself, preparing to be asked for his order again. His reserves stood at just ten dollars. Another beer winged its way across the restaurant. Outside, Victor (if that’s what his name was) stood by the steps to the subway station staring in through the plate glass window at Jim. His face was expressionless yet malevolent. It was a look of controlled hatred, eyes fixed on prey.

The head on the beer was subsiding.

“What time does the diner close?” asked Jim in a hesitant voice.

“Oh, we’re open twenty-four hours, sir.”

There was another seven hours or so until sunrise. Jim wondered if he could spin out his remaining money that long.

Outside, life waited dressed as death.

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