Monday, 25 October 2010
AT THE NORMAL CAFE - part 7 - CLOSING TIME By Chris Allinotte
At the Normal Café – Part 7 – Closing Time
Tom needs you.
Judith checked the text message one more time, then threw her smartphone onto the seat beside her. She smacked the steering wheel with the flat of her palm. Damn it Tom, she thought, what the hell have you done? The light changed, and Judith hit the gas.
She pushed in the cigarette lighter, and dipped a hand into her coat pocket for a smoke. After ten years clean, it was her last vice, and she defended it jealously to anyone who challenged her.
A sudden, loud squawk from the dashboard made her jump. The police scanner mounted there reported shots fired at the corner of Lake Street and Dean Avenue. Judith grabbed her phone back and, flicking her attention back and forth between the road and the touch screen, thumbed for the app that would show all her "friends" locations. Since it had become available, she'd insisted all her “clients” allow the program to track and display their location. It had come in handy more than once. Right now, a small, white letter "T" appeared on the GPS map – at the corner of Lake Street and Dean Avenue.
It was what she’d expected, but seeing the proof still made her uneasy. The lighter popped out, and Judith lit her smoke; taking a long first drag. It calmed her down, and she began to consider the situation more rationally.
Of all the criminals the halfway house had sent to her, Tom was the most challenging. He'd passed all the examinations needed to for his release, but Judith could feel that something was still off with him. Despite her recommendations to the board, he'd been “properly” medicated and released.
And now, tonight, Judith felt like her own unorthodox methods were finally biting her in the ass. Until now, she'd never met with a client in person. It was her feeling that, by making the sponsorship too personal, it created dependence, and that would make the rehabilitation process take much longer. Because of that belief, Judith communicated with her clients by phone, instant messager, e-mail – hell, even by Facebook in a couple of cases – anything but an actual in-person meeting, and her success rate had been phenomenal. Within a few weeks of being released, each of Judith’s last twelve assignments had found meaningful work. Tom was the exception. Tom ... who still heard voices.
The "T" was just two blocks away. From the scanner came an official sounding voice, confirming that unit 328 was on route to Lake and Dean. Judith sped up. Hopefully she had time to get there before the cops. She cursed herself again for having forgotten her phone in the car earlier this evening. As soon as she'd seen Tom's text message, she’d started driving; trying, unsuccessfully, to call him on the way.
Tom had never "needed" her before – he hated her.
Multiple attempts to confront him about his "other voice" had been met with resistance and even outright hostility. Conversations with Tom were long and exhausting affairs: after everything Judith said, there would be a pause, during which Tom seemed to argue with himself about how to respond. How the doctors had seen fit to release him was totally beyond comprehension. Ironically, she had recently decided to arrange a meeting with Tom in person, as they had made no progress the usual way.
The diner appeared up ahead. To her relief, the police hadn't showed up yet, but there were, at most, two minutes before they arrived. Judith cut her headlights; Tom would be agitated. She didn't want to drive up close with two huge, shining targets for him to shoot at. Turning into the parking lot, she saw the "Open" sign swinging back and forth, right where the window should be. Oh God, she thought. How much blood is on his hands? How much on mine, for not stopping him?
As Judith walked toward the broken picture window, her boots crunched on large chunks of glass. She could smell blood coming from inside - blood, and the cordite smell of a fired gun. Crushing her cigarette on the ground, she inched forward, until she could see in. How much time did she have before the police arrived?
Judith looked in, and was surprised to see a scrawny looking guy kneeling beside Tom, stabbing him in the leg with what looked to be a fork. It had to be Tom; she recognized him from the case file.
Despite any problems the man might have, he was still her responsibility, and seeing him attacked while defenseless spurred her into action.
The first instinct was to just rush in. However, the little guy was probably wound up pretty tight, and would be just as likely to take a swing at her - or worse, grab the revolver that still lay next to Tom on the floor. Judith proceeded calmly, aware that the minutes were aggressively against her.
She went in the front door. The little guy didn't look up. From here she could see a woman's body, dressed in a polyester uniform, lying sprawled in front of the counter in a pool of blood. Up the aisle from Tom lay another woman, with short blonde hair, and blood on her right cheek. There was no one else here that she could see.
Judith stepped in and addressed the little guy.
"Stop that," she said, "He's unconscious."
The man with the fork looked up and replied, "Who are you? Are you with the police?"
"No," replied Judith, "I'm a friend." She motioned to Tom with her foot, and added, "of his."
At that moment, Tom started to come around. The first thing he did was to touch a large bruise on his forehead. Wincing, he turned his attention to the leg the little man had recently been stabbing; and finally, he looked up at Judith.
"What... who?" he seemed to be having trouble getting the thoughts out. Judith gave him the answer.
"It's me, Tom. Judith." she said.
"Judith?" he repeated, then paused, as if willing his brain to make the connection. "Judith??"
"That's right, Tom," she replied, then held up a hand, before he could reply, "There's not a lot of time. The police will be here soon. We need to talk."
Tom nodded, "Yeah. Yeah, talk."
Judith heard something in his tone she didn't like. He wasn't all the way back.
"Listen," she said. "I'm going to help you when the police get here, but you've got to listen to me. Okay?"
"Okay," Tom replied, but the corners of his mouth turned down. Judith saw it, and wondered what his "other" voice was telling him. Meanwhile, the little guy was still looking up at her, eyes wide, not saying anything.
"Tom. Please focus," said Judith. Turning to the short guy, she said, "hey, what's your name?"
"Lenny," he replied, but his voice was flat, as if still trying to believe that all of this was a dream.
"Hand me the gun, Lenny," said Judith.
That got through to him. "What? Hey - no way, Miss... my fingerprints ..."
"Grab it with a napkin then," she snapped. "It's not going to matter one way or the other, Tom is going to give himself up."
Tom sat bolt upright. "What? Judith ... I ..."
"Shh. Tom. It's the only way you're getting out of this alive. Lenny, give me the gun, now."
Lenny reached over to where he'd been sitting, and grabbed a napkin that was spotty with syrup. He gingerly picked up the gun by the butt as if it were a dead rat. The revolver swayed slightly in his grip.
A change was coming over Tom. He was blinking hard, and rocking a little, side to side, saying "No ... no ... no ... I can't" to himself. Time, short to begin with, had run out.
There was a short, piercing squelch outside. Blue and red light began to strobe on the walls. Lenny stopped short, transfixed, and still out of Judith's reach. Suddenly, from the back booths of the cafe, there was a flurry of movement. A young woman burst out from under the table and made a run for the door.
At that moment Tom, who had continued rocking back and forth, came back to life. He snatched the gun away from Lenny, who squealed in terror and backed away. In his rush, he slipped in the waitress' blood and fell hard on his rear. Skidding like a dog on a hardwood floor, he scrabbled to his feet and ran behind the counter. This all happened in the space of seconds. Tom's attention never wavered. He was totally focused on the escaping girl, and, before she could reach the door, he fired. Judith, seeing only the gun coming around, dove to the ground. Red mist exploded from the girl's hip just as she reached the door. She screamed and fell heavily forward. Her momentum carried her into the door, and through it, dumping her onto the concrete outside.
The cops came running.
"Drop your fucking gun!" shouted the young, muscular looking cop in the lead.
Two other officers had reached the girl and half-carried-half-dragged her out of sight of the door.
Judith's eyes flicked back to Tom. The gun was pointed at her, its barrel trembling. His eyes were bulging. He was going to shoot her. The cops weren't going to get through to him. If anyone was going to be able to talk over whatever it was that was telling him to do this - it was her ... and she'd still likely end up dead. It wasn’t fair. In that instant, all the pity Judith felt for Tom turned into anger. Judith still had her own weakness. Faced with her own death, Tom had shown it to her, and she hated him for it.
Looking back later, it was at this moment that she made the decision that would come back to haunt her for the rest of her life. At the time though, there was no thinking about anything. She used her intimate knowledge of Tom against him.
"Tom," she said, as calmly as she could. "Tom. I know you can hear me. Can you hear me?"
For a long second he did nothing; then - slowly - the slightest of nods. The gun didn't move.
The cop at the door didn't say anything else. Judith could hear him moving around, probably looking for a clear shot at Tom.
"Tom," said Judith, "Tom, I apologize; I was wrong. I don't want you to give yourself up. Nod your head if you understand."
The nod came.
"Good. That's good. I'm going to get you out of this. That hasn't changed. Okay?"
"Okay, Tom. Good. That's good." Judith's mind was racing. "Keep the gun pointed this way, Tom. There's a policeman behind me."
As if to confirm the fact, the cop said, "What are you telling him, miss? We've got a negotiator coming. Don't make this worse." His voice was tense. Judith could practically sense the cop trying to aim his gun around her.
"It's alright," she said, "I'm his counsellor."
"Shut up," said Tom. He wasn't speaking to her.
"Tom," she said, speaking slightly louder. "Listen to my voice. Don't listen to any other voice, tune it out. I'm here. We're here. Together."
His eyes were still unfocused, but he stopped muttering. Judith took that as a good sign, and continued.
"The other voice won't save you now Tom. All it knows how to do is hurt. Do you understand?"
Tom didn't say anything. He started blinking hard again. Judith pressed on.
"Tom, the police are here. They're going to shoot you if you give them a reason – any reason. So let's not give them the reason, okay?"
He gave her the briefest of nods in reply. It wasn't enough.
"Will you give me the gun?" she asked.
He shook his head.
Judith sighed. Any doubts she'd had about what she was going to do were gone. Steeling herself, she went on, "Tom. Do you want my help?"
A nod. Outside more police cars and an ambulance pulled up. EMT workers were shouting orders and, probably, dealing with the young woman that had escaped.
"The voice makes you angry, doesn't it?" she asked. "The voice makes you hurt people."
He didn't respond.
Behind Judith someone new spoke, "Miss? I'd like to speak to him, please. Can I speak to you, sir?" It was a deep voice, but sounded warm, full of patience.
Tom’s reaction was immediate. He leaned to his left and fired at the newcomer. The bullet went wide, but, as Judith turned, she saw a tall, heavy-set man withdrawing quickly to the cover of the police cars. She looked back at her client.
"That's just what I'm talking about," she said sternly. "We need to stop the voice, Tom. We've tried talking it away, but it hasn't worked. The only way other people are going to be safe is if we can stop the voice from telling you things."
Still sighting down the gun, Tom's arm began to shake. He took a trembling breath. He blinked his eyes hard, and stared at her; his eyes which, in these too brief moments of clarity, were quite beautiful.
"I...I want to stop," he said. "It's too strong."
"There's one way to make it stop," said Judith, and let her eyes flick to the gun.
"But ..." Tom started to say, "but then I'd be ..."
"...free," Judith finished for him. "Free from the awful things it makes you do. You don't have to be afraid anymore." She heard the words coming out of her mouth, and felt sick, but looked at the dead waitress, and went on. "It's what's right, Tom."
He nodded one last time, and put the barrel of the gun in his mouth. Judith took his hand, and squeezed it. "It's going to be okay," she said.
One last time, Tom pulled the trigger.
"You're a monster," said Lenny, coming out from behind the counter.
"You're alive," replied Judith. She realized she was still holding Tom's hand, and let go. Her own hand wouldn't stop shaking.
Lenny turned his attention instead to the blonde, who was snoring lightly. He directed the EMT's to two others at the back of the diner who were either unconscious, or dead - Judith couldn't tell. Right now, she didn't care either.
The cops lead her away from the body of the man who had once been under her care. They arrested her for her interference. That was alright too because, at the back of her mind, a small voice had begun to speak, calling her a murderer. Judith listened.
It had a point.
Copyright 2010 Chris Allinotte