The thundering engine grew louder between the walls as Peter backed the sixty-seven Fairlane into the drive beside the restaurant. Stopping near the loading dock, he spotted Crank standing near the open door to the kitchen. He cut the engine and doused the lights. The car smelled like leather-care moisturizer mixed with lavender. Old cars came with baggage, the spirits of former owners and all the love or hate that went into the vehicle. This car felt loved.
The background noise of the city crept inside.
Popping open the glove box, he found a pocket-sized pad of paper and two keys on a ring. Ripped edges marked missing pages from the pad. One of the keys was a spare for the car, and the smaller one appeared like a luggage key. He pushed the keys into his pocket and returned the pad to the glove box.
He grabbed the sack holding the framed company picture from the front seat, and climbed out of the car.
“Cool car,” said Crank. He wiggled his cigarette at the Fairlane. “Did you jack it?”
Watching Crank jump back against the wall, Peter realized he glared at the young man. Before making things worse, he hurried inside. The kitchen buzzed with noises as Boris prepared dinner plates full of steamed vegetables and chicken. Avoiding the chef, Peter wound around the back of shelves and out into the dining area heading to the podium where Nine stood explaining the organic selections to a couple.
Slipping the frame out of the sack, Peter hung the photograph on the waiting hook. He looked at the picture of the entire crew noticing how exhausted everyone appeared. Only two smiles, and Nine grinning at Peter instead of the camera.
Nine put a hand on his arm, and looked at the photograph.
“You can barely tell there’s a coffin in the background,” said Nine. She released his arm and turned around giving the restaurant a look over. “Laura is having a bad day. You should talk to her.”
Peter found Laura clearing a table on the second floor, and asked her up to the office. She appeared exhausted with puffy eyes. Her white shirt in disarray, necktie stuffed crookedly between buttons, she looked a mess. As she slumped into the chair, tears flooded her eyes.
“Peter, I can’t do this,” said Laura. She wiped her nose. “I’m really trying, but I’m sorry I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
“Take your time, Laura,” said Peter. He knelt beside her. “It’s Friday night which means you can sleep in tomorrow. Next week I’ll have another waitress hired, and you’ll be working your regular hours.”
Laura nodded. Tears continued racing down her cheeks.
He stood, taking a deep breath, and said, “I’ll cover for you until you get back.”
Laura leaped out of the chair. “Peter, you totally suck at waiting on tables.”
The comment coming from a sixteen year-old with no prior work experience hit him like a hard right hook in the jaw, but he couldn’t argue. He had no business waiting on tables. Running a restaurant was beginning to look like an uphill battle requiring rope and pitons. And a friend. His sister, Tara, had the smarts, but her bitchy attitude could scare away what little help he had.
“Laura, I mean Nine will cover your tables. I promise.”
She agreed to a second break. Slowly, she shuffled out of the office and into the break room.
As he slipped out of his jacket, Peter heard his name called. It sounded like Tara’s voice coming from down the hall. His sister wasn’t supposed to be here tonight, so it had to be someone else. He dropped his jacket on his chair and left the office.
Passing the break room, he glanced in spotting Laura slouched on the sofa and tugging at her necktie. At the end of the hall on the stairs, a shadow wavered and slipped up the steps.
“Hello?” said Peter.
No one should be on the fourth floor. All the old hotel rooms up there were vacant. The room beside the break room had a bed in case he needed to stay late, but he had only used it once for nap before opening day. Passing the next doorway, he glanced in spotting the coffin resting near the far wall. On the opposite side of the hall, the bathroom door stood open and it was dark inside. Reaching the stairs, he paused to listen.
He heard the din from the dining room, and the rumble of the dishwasher from two floors beneath his feet. Nothing moved at the top of the stairs within the glow of the exit sign.
On his toes, Peter padded up the stairs. A creak gave him away, but he continued sneaking to the top. His shadow stretched down the hall. He called out and listened.
As he descended the stairs, he heard his name again. The voice sounded very much like it belonged to his sister, and it came from the restroom. Inside the bathroom, he flipped the light switch bathing the room in bright blue-tinted light. Still appearing much like a shared bathroom for an hotel, it had a tub, toilet, sink, and not much room for more.
The old building made plenty of strange sounds, but it had never called his name before.
Footsteps pounded up the stairs.
Peter turned out the light stepped out of the bathroom.
Appearing at the other end of the hall, Beth huffed. Her scowl hit hard. “Are you going to let the new girl work dressed like that?” she asked.
Recalling Tigris sitting naked behind the desk at Steve Reynolds’s office, he leaped into motion. The last thing he needed was a bad review. He hurried downstairs zipping around Nine and spotted Tiger behind the bar pouring an older gentleman a whisky.
Tiger had on some sort of sleeveless, low-cut blouse nearly resembling a vest with diamond-like buttons. A black bow-tie hugged her bare neck, and a matching ribbon held her hair back. Her black skirt was better than nothing even if it left her legs bare down to her black anklets and Mary Janes. Moving to the beat, Tiger danced like magic as she prepared drinks. Not dancing to the music, not really, Tiger became part of the music.
Everyone loved it. Half the tables were abandoned. Patrons lined up at the bar ordering drinks or chatting with friends, all of them getting into the music in their own way, heads nodding, feet tapping. Tiger infected everyone.
Shoulder bumped, Peter turned meeting Nine’s grin.
“I already told her she’s hired,” said Nine.
At that point, Peter didn’t care how Tiger dressed, and she appeared nice enough in a quirky, elegant way. The old man would never approve of Tiger’s interpretation of the rules, but this wasn’t the old man’s restaurant.
“Tigris knows every drink in the book,” said Nine. She patted him on the shoulder. “Oh, and a nice gentleman from Red’s left a bottle of sparkling wine to welcome us to the neighborhood.”
“Red’s. Isn’t that the club two blocks over?”
“Girls, girls, girls,” said Nine, wiggling her eyebrows with a big smile. “According to the sign, anyway.”
Tiger bounced over, her smile fading as she drew closer. “I have it right, don’t I? White top with black tie.”
“Perfect,” said Peter.
Bouncing on toes, Tiger clapped like a giddy girl. Hand over mouth, Nine held back a laugh. Falling back into sexy mode, Tigris slinked to the bar where two men eagerly waited with credit cards out. Sputtering through her fingers, Nine lost her battle and laughed.
“Tigris is weird,” said Nine, “but she rocks.”
The car hanging on his mind, Peter asked Nine if she had time to take a look. Her face lighting up, she agreed. She squeezed his arm, firmer this time as if she was sizing up his muscles. On the way to the kitchen door, he spotted Beth shooting Tiger a heated scowl from across the room.
In the kitchen, Boris and Crank argued about the proper sauté methods or some such. Whatever it was about, Crank had his serious face on. It didn’t matter. Boris won every cooking argument. Opening the door let in a rush of cold air sending hanging spoons into a jingling chorus. Shaking, Peter folded his arms and let the door slam closed behind him.
“Oh my, God,” said Nine. She nodded at the sixty-seven Ford Fairlane parked in the narrow loading area. “Is this your car?”
“Apparently it’s another gift,” said Peter.
He opened the driver’s side door, and she peeked inside.
“Beautiful,” said Nine, “I never thought I’d see the interior of a car older than Dad’s hearse.”
Deciding to give the car a look over, Peter popped the trunk open and lifted the lid. Inside, he found baggage. A guitar case and briefcase rested on a large suitcase. The briefcase was locked.
“Who’s luggage?” asked Nine. Folding her arms, she shivered.
The suitcase appeared to be locked, too.
Spotting Nine shaking, her teeth on the verge of chattering, Peter reached around and pulled her close, rubbing her shoulder. It felt unusually cold for November in Roseland, and the misting made it worse. Nine pressed in close, and Peter felt her breasts against his side. She felt like she belonged in his arm.
Rising up on her toes, she kissed him on the cheek, and slipped down. Her expression darkened, and she looked down at the luggage in the trunk. In a whisper, she apologized, but she continued holding him.
Without letting Nine go, Peter fished the keys out of his pocket and, together, they leaned into the trunk. The small key from the glove box fit the briefcase, and the latch popped open. Peter lifted the lid finding a dark foam interior with six form-fitting cradles holding two pistols facing each other and four ammunition magazines.
“Peter,” said Nine, “please tell me you didn’t buy guns for the restaurant.”
“Must belong to the former owner,” said Peter. He closed the case. Imagining more weapons in the suitcase, he didn’t feel like opening it.