It was a little after midnight out of San Pedro when I pulled into a roadhouse. I was hungry and in need of a cup of coffee or two. It was a standard place, a couple of trucks outside, a few cars, and two working street lights. The neon sign said Big Johns, no astrophe. Experience tells me that a couple of semis is no guarantee the food is any good and the half dozen cars informed me that this roadhouse , while not exactly popular had a regular clientele. Popular is good, regular means watch your back. I eased into the place and found an unoccupied table close to the exit. It took a while before the waitress discovered she had another paying customer who might actually leave a tip. The name on the tag said Sally. She was a bottle blonde pushing forty five while trying to look twenty years younger. She wasn’t having much success. “Hi Hun, the kitchen’s almost closed and all we got is ham and eggs. How you want your eggs?” Her voice implied a fake perkiness for strangers.
“Over easy and a cup of coffee.” I relayed that information with out much conviction, something told me the food here wasn’t for connoisseurs nor folks just looking for a decent meal.
“You want cream and sugar, Hon?
“No.” was all I said in my best flat tone.
“You sure are talkative, aren’t you. We had a guy like you in here last night. You two might have been brothers.” She turned and retreated to the kitchen. A few minutes later she brought back a mug with a steaming liquid in it. Any DA would never have been able to indict that liquid as coffee. She stood there for a few minutes while I scanned the bar. Little over a dozen and a half souls stood about in clusters of threes and fours talking in low tones and sometimes glancing over in my direction. “Well, ain’t you going to drink your coffee?”
“Yes, I was just lost in thought for a moment.” Too bad I didn’t say yes to cream. I took a sip and tried to look pleased with the mystery liquid. Apparently I failed.
“If you don’t like it you don’t have to drink it, you know.” The sound of her voice rasped across my ears like a belt sander with 20 grit. A bell rang and she dutifully trotted back to the kitchen. I was saved but only for the moment. She brought back a plate with two pieces of rubber whose only faint resemblance was that a spot of yellow was centered in a circle of white. The ham was blackened like a sacrifice to the pig god. I knew I would have to stab the eggs repeatedly to have any chance at indigestion. Fortunately someone called from the bar. “Sally, get your tail over here!” She quickly got her tail over to where the sound emanated.
A little man had sidled over to my table and sat opposite me. “Say, mister, you leaving soon? Which way you heading?”
I looked up from the third round of a scheduled ten round event with the ham, it was favored to win. “Yes, I will be leaving soon and no, which way I’m headed is my business.” His face was round and puffy while the dark eyes looked set to explode off his face. His hair was thin and scraggly. Puffy lips completed the picture of another horror movie character.
“Look, mister, you got to help me. I ain’t got a car and I need to get to Del Mar tonight. It’s a matter of life and death, you might say. You got a fast car, I know cause I saw you come in the parking lot.”
“Sorry, mister, er, whatever your name is…” The little man interrupted with impatience.
“Nussman, Edgar Nussman. Look, I know you’re headed south. I can make it worth your while. See, I go five hundred bills with me. You just got to get me to Del Ray tonight.”
“Hey, boys! Look, Edgar is trying to con that guy over there for a ride, ain’t you Edgar? Don’t listen to him mister, we don’t want him going anywhere. Mario wants to talk to him once he finds out what Little Edgar’s been up to. Isn’t that right Edgar?”
“Stay away from me Ben. Just stay away from me. And the rest of you too. I’m warning all of you. Just stay away from me.” A couple of men took a couple of steps towards the table and Edgar pulled out an automatic, it was pointed at the one who had done the talking. “You’ll be the first one I kill, Ben. Better think about it.” Everyone went back to the bar and a couple of them ordered another round. Edgar’s hands looked a little shaky.
“Better put the safety on or put it in your pocket. Your nerves look shot.” My voice was calm and reasonable, I was trying to inspire a little trust in me from Edgar.
Edgar looked me in the eye for a moment and then put the automatic in his pocket. “You got to get me out of here. They want to keep me here and watch Mario kill me. You just got to help me.”
I held up my hand and the little man stopped talking. “Why does Mario want to kill you? What’s this all about?”
“He thinks I got his sister pregnant. She died from a miscarriage and now he blames me for it. He swore to everyone that he was going to kill me tonight. That’s why you got to get me to Del Rio tonight.”
“Won’t Mario track you to Del Rio? He’s bound to find you.”
“No. if I get to Del Rio his uncle will listen to me, he owes me a favor. He’ll stop Mario, maybe make him listen.”
By now the men at the bar were greatly interested in whether I would help the little man. The tall thin man they called Ben came about halfway over and spoke in a loud voice. “Mister, don’t get involved with this bum. Mario won’t like it and he’ll kill you too, just for helping.”
“Just who is this Mario that I should be so afraid?”
“Mario Valente. I’m telling not to get involved.”
Word on the street this Mario Valente was a punk. He’d never take you on face to face unless he was sure of beating you. But he was a back stabber always looking for the angle that would let him win. I was about to answer Ben when the door opened. Mario and two of his boys walked in. The little man’s was as white as chalk on a blackboard. At first mario looked towards the bar but Ben nodded in our direction. Edgar had pulled his automatic out of his pocket, his hand shaking slightly. I could see that this would not end well for Edgar and I might be caught in the crossfire. I had slipped my own automatic into my hand unnoticed.
A smile crossed Mario’s face. “Boys, look at him, he’s shaking with fear. Johnny, let me have your pistol. I’m going to plug him in his balls first. Then I’m going to gut shot him and watch him died in pain.” Mario’s arm moved towards one of the to men. Edgar let loose several shots but only one hit the three men. It was Johnny who howled in pained surprise while grabbing his right shoulder. The other man next to Johnny had pulled his own weapon out and shot Edgar in the knee. I shot the other man in his right chest which put him down on the floor in a lot of pain, a slug from a 45 usually does. Mario looked upon the scene with great surprise and fear.
I yelled out with as much authority as I could muster, “Stop firing, now!” Edgar lay on the floor, his automatic just out of reach. Mario quickly took the three steps he needed to reach the weapon and picked it up. Quickly he fired three rounds into the little man on the floor. I put one round from my weapon into Mario’s chest, right through the heart. Then I threw a ten on the table while looking at the two men who came in with Mario. “I think you boys better take a powder.” I left through the door and hopped into my car. In an hour I’d be at the airport and rid of the rental car.