Maggie strolled into the diner and took a seat at the counter. “Coffee.”
“Need a menu?” The waitress adroitly flipped over the cup in front of Maggie and poured until the coffee threatened to overflow.
“Sure, but… What’s good?” Always best to ask for recommendations in a craphole like this. Under the guise of listening to the waitress’ favorite greasy foods, Maggie surreptitiously scanned the diner.
A couple of octogenarians in a back booth arguing over having apple or cherry pie. From the way they spoke to the other waitress, cleaning a nearby table, they were regulars. Two women in hospital scrubs, badges clipped to collars. Both wore the stamp of perpetually-tired professionals.
And then there was Maggie’s target. A lone woman in a corner booth. Back to the wall.
“I’ll have the fish basket,” Maggie told the waitress. It had been the first thing the waitress had mentioned. “Side salad, instead of fries. Ranch on the side.” She turned away from her surveillance. Putting her back to the woman made her nerves itch, but she didn’t want to spook her.
Instead, Maggie grabbed a few napkins from a dispenser on the counter, moving it enough so she could see a blurry reflection of the woman in the polished sterling silver surface.
“Good choice, hon.” The waitress scribbled on her order pad. “That all?”
“For now.” Maggie flashed a hint of dimples. “Might try some of the pie later.” She could see the woman in the napkin dispenser get her order. The clock was ticking. “Where’s your bathroom?”
“Around the corner. Last door on the right.” The waitress pointed with her pen.
Maggie hopped off the stool. “Thanks. Don’t let my coffee grow legs,” she called out as she hurried toward the bathroom. She heard the waitress laugh behind her. Maggie pretended to trip over a raised portion of linoleum flooring as she neared her target. She “caught” herself by grabbing onto the woman’s table. “Jesus! I’m so sorry,” Maggie muttered, not making eye contact as she continued on her way.
Mission accomplished, though. She’d palmed the message from her friend onto the table. Now it was up to the woman to take the next step. Maggie spent several minutes staring at her reflection in the tiny bathroom mirror. Washed her hands. Checked that her gun and badge were out of sight. Then made the return trip to the dining area.
As she passed by the corner booth, the woman flagged her down. “You dropped this,” she said, holding out the card Maggie had left.
Maggie patted her pockets as if checking for something. “I didn’t… Damn. Guess I did. Thanks.” She smiled and took the card. “You’re a lifesaver.” Stuffing the card into her pocket, she turned away.
“You…uh…” The woman cleared her throat and gestured at the empty side of her booth. “You wanna join me?”
This was unexpected. Maggie didn’t have a lot of time to decide unless she wanted to draw attention to them. “Sure. Let me tell the waitress. Thanks.” She flashed a smile and went back to her original seat. “Hey! I’m moving over there.” She pointed.
“No problem, hon. That poor girl looks like she could use a friend. Came in last night looking like someone ran over her dog or something.” The waitress shook her head. “Food should be up in a couple of minutes.”
Last night. That fit with Maggie’s information. She slid into the booth with the coffee she’d taken from the counter.
“I’ve got a gun under the table,” the woman hissed between lips that barely moved. Maggie’s eyes shot up and met a murderous glare. “Keep your hands where I can see them.”
Maggie did as ordered. “Look,” she murmured back. “I’m here to help.”
“Shut up!” Maggie heard the distinctive sound of a gun safety being released. “Not here. When your food shows up, we’re going to ask for boxes. You’re going to leave with me.”
Not good. Maggie had spooked her target. And this wasn’t someone Maggie wanted to go hand to hand with. “Sure. No problem.” Moving slowly, Maggie picked up her coffee and sipped. Long, quiet minutes passed before Maggie’s fish and salad arrived. She pulled an apologetic smile. “I know I’ve been your worst customer, but… Could I get this to go?” She reached across the table and took the woman’s free hand, never breaking eye contact with the waitress.
“Worst customer?” The waitress rolled her eyes. “Unless you paint your name on the floor in ketchup, you’re the least of my problems. I’ll be right back.” She trundled off, and the woman glared at Maggie across the table.
“Put on a happy face, babe. You want to leave? I’m all yours.” Maggie kept her voice low as she leaned forward. “Because when the people you really need to worry about start asking questions in here, we’re just gonna be two dykes who hooked up over lunch.”
The woman’s hand clenched into a fist under Maggie’s before slowly turning and linking their fingers. She even managed a smile, if Maggie discounted the obviously-clenched jaw.
“You two enjoy the rest of your day.” The waitress winked at Maggie as she dropped off several Styrofoam containers and their bills. “Separate? Or together?”
“I’ll take care of both,” Maggie said. She eyed the totals and took a couple of twenty-dollar bills from her wallet. “Keep the change.” Returning the wink, she continued. “I might be back for that pie later.”
Tucking the money into her apron, the waitress laughed. “You do that, hon. The apple’s the best, especially with ice cream. Bring your friend. I’ll save a couple of slices for you.” She hustled off when the bell over the door rang.
“Let me out first,” Maggie said. “That way you know where I am.” And Maggie could watch for the guys Darla had warned her about. “I promise, you don’t need the gun.” She quickly loaded all the food into containers and stuffed them into the plastic bag the waitress had included.
“Go.” Maggie slid out at the terse command. They left with Maggie in front and the woman behind her, one hand resting warningly on her back.
The sun was blinding and hot outside of the cool diner interior. “My truck’s over here.”
“Why would I…” the woman started.
“Listen up, babe. I’m here to help. You’re on the run, and I’m guessing you ditched whatever you were driving and planned to steal something from here.” Slowing slightly, Maggie wrapped her free arm around the woman’s waist. “I bought my POS using cash yesterday in National City with a fake ID. It’s yours once we sit and talk about how to get you to a safehouse.”
Her companion didn’t say anything.
“You’re welcome,” Maggie said anyway. “At least you won’t have Podunk PD chasing you because you swiped a car.” She unlocked the passenger-side door of a blue Ford F-150. “Hop in.”
“You first. Slide all the way across.” The woman was a hard sell.
Maggie dug in her heels this time. “Bucket seats. A little hard to slide.” She turned to face the woman behind her. “Trust me for a few minutes. Once we’re buckled in, you can…” Movement across the lot caught her eye. “Don’t shoot me.”
Two men who moved with military precision and dressed in the best “mercenaries-R-us” black tactical pants and t-shirts headed for the diner. One of them glanced their way as Maggie went up on her toes and pulled her companion into a kiss.
The body pressed against her stiffened, and Maggie grabbed a belt-loop with one hand and a handful of soft, short blonde hair with the other. Too bad this was an act. The woman had the softest lips, and the hands fisted in the back of Maggie’s shirt were strong. Just the way Maggie liked them.
When they pulled away, Maggie stared up into darkened brown eyes before remembering why they’d kissed. The parking lot was empty. “Let’s go. They’re inside.”
Trotting around the front of the truck, Maggie climbed behind the wheel. The woman hopped into the passenger seat, reluctance in every fiber of her being. “Where to?” Maggie asked.
There was no answer.
“Listen,” Maggie put all her cards on the table. “My name is Maggie Sawyer. I’m a detective with NCPD. My ex-girlfriend is a Roltikkon. She gave me some intel about you and your situation. I’m trying to help.”
The words were low but uttered with less obvious tension. “There’s a motel about two miles from here. Take a right out of the lot, and a left at the first light.”
Maggie hit the gas – and went in the opposite direction. “I know the place. Let’s make sure anyone who sees us leave can tell your friends we didn’t go that way.” Maggie took well-used, visible roads to another local motel. She’d rented a room using the same ID she’d used to buy the truck.
She’d asked for a room in the back after scoping out the location. She drove passed the room and out the alley connecting with another road.
“Smooth,” the woman commented.
Maggie grinned. “It’s not my first rodeo.”
“It is mine.” More pensive now, the woman stared out the windshield. “You’re taking a huge risk.”
“Darla thinks you’re worth it,” Maggie responded. “We may not be together now, but I trust her.” She glanced at her companion. “Those guys. They’re too close. You need a new game plan.” Turning into the woman’s motel, she backed into a space between a mini-van and an SUV. “And we need to hurry.”
This time, the woman didn’t argue. Maggie had to run to keep up with the ground-eating strides. “It’s me, Kara, and I’ve got…I’ve got a friend with me,” the woman announced to thin air as they took the stairs to the next floor.
The room was right at the landing. The door opened as soon as they reached the top.
“Who is she?” The other target grabbed Maggie by her shirt collar and lifted her off the ground with a single hand.
Now Maggie understood. The guys at the diner. There had been rumors among her CIs about a group hunting aliens. Darla had even alluded to it one night at the alien bar.
“A detective from NCPD. She’s got a Roltikkon friend who sent her our way.” The other woman patted the hand holding Maggie. “Put her down, Kar. We need to go. CADMUS is only a few minutes behind us.”
Maggie’s feet hit the ground.
“But…” Kara protested. “How do you know we can trust her, Alex?”
“My gut.” Alex was stuffing a duffel with clothes and toiletries. “Stop talking and start packing. You can eat in the truck. I got food to go.”
While they cleared the room, Maggie peered out the window. So far, so good. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a good line of sight to the truck. The longer they took, the better chance those goons found them.
Thankfully, Kara and Alex didn’t have much. In minutes, they were all out the door. Maggie took the lead.
“Wait.” Alex put a hand on Maggie’s shoulder. “Kar, is anyone in the lot?”
Kara moved next to Maggie and…peered at the concrete floor. “No. There are people in several of the rooms.” She frowned in concentration. “Heart rates are in normal range for humans. No one except Maggie’s on edge.”
“Now we move,” Alex said. She brushed passed Maggie, pulling a weapon from the holster at the small of her back.
It took less than two minutes for them to stash the gear and Kara in the back seat of the extended cab and pull out of the lot. This time, Maggie avoided any major road.
“Here, Kar. Eat.” Alex handed the bag full of food to Kara.
Maggie tried to hide her surprise when Kara opened one of the boxes and crammed half of what had to be Alex’s hamburger into her mouth. Through the enormous mouthful, she asked, “Didju ee?”
“Yeah.” It was a lie. Maggie knew it was a lie, but Alex didn’t bat an eyelash.
And that’s when Maggie took a good look at both her passengers. Kara had already finished the burger and fries. She hadn’t slowed her pace as she tore into Maggie’s fish. Her features looked sharp and her clothes… The t-shirt she wore hung off her shoulders.
Alex, though… Maggie nearly cursed out loud. If Kara was underweight, Alex was skin stretched over bone. As if Alex was starving to cover an alien appetite that would be easy to track through abnormally-large food orders.
“Settle in for the ride. I’ve got a safe house lined up a few towns over, courtesy of Darla and a few other friends I’ve made.” Maggie took an unmarked dirt road through a field. “We can stop for more food, too, if you’re still hungry.”
“Thanks.” Kara’s voice was shy. She’d finished eating and had slumped forward against the back of Alex’s bucket seat. Maggie noticed that she’d reached around the seat. Her fingers twined with Alex’s as Alex’s thumb brushed soothingly over the back of Kara’s hand.
“No problem, kid. Just sit back and relax. You’ll be somewhere secure in no time.” Maggie vowed to make that true.