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The Cursed Table Caper

This week’s blog detours from opinions and personal essays to pure fiction by means of a short story dance with my 1950s Private Eye, Randal Murphy. It’s a two-parter, maybe three, so, please, join me again next week for the conclusion. Enjoy! As always, thanks for stopping by.

The Cursed Table Caper

Hungover like a Shriner after a weekend convention, I stumbled into O’Dell’s All-Nite Diner, the local greasy-spoon and hangover specialists. The deep-fried ambiance lambasted my nostrils. My stomach alley-ooped, then relaxed––familiar territory.

O’Dell’s hash-slinging queen, Hazel Burns, glared from her post behind the counter. Salt-and-pepper hair wilted from beneath her cock-eyed waitress crown. Work-weary lines creased her face. She squinted as smoke curled upward from the Lucky Strike pinched between her lips.

I ached for a spot to park my fanny, but all the stools were occupied. Musta been the season for sad-sacks like me, Randal Murphy, Private Eye.

Scanning the diner, I scuffed toward the only available seat––the corner booth. Padded, glossy-red vinyl beckoned. Head throbbing, I slid onto the cushion, then disappeared under the table, crammed between the bench seats like a baby in a womb.

A shadow darkened my calamity. Hazel crouched beside the table, a cup and saucer in one hand, a steaming decanter in the other. Her grin stretched ear to ear. “Rather I leave this on the floor?”

“Rather you hold on a second.” I took a shallow breath, then blinked twice and stared at a crisp, one-hundred-dollar bill taped to the table’s underside.

“Make it out okay, Murph, or should I call a wrecker?”

I groaned. “Just help me up.”

Hazel set down the coffee collection, then offered a hand. With a long-shoreman’s grip, she yanked me from my predicament and thumped my noggin against the table. Set too near the edge, the cup and saucer nose-dived, bounced off my knee, and crashed onto the linoleum. Attempting to save the china, Hazel let me plop to the floor like a flour sack.

“Sorry, Murph. You all right? I—”

My head and kneecap competed for which hurt worse. I motioned the meatloaf matron to back off, then inched into the opposite side of the booth. “When you replace the cup, bring some aspirin, too.”

“Geez, Murphy, I’m—”

“Java and St. Joseph’s, please. Then I’ll be peachy.”

Hazel spun an about-face like a drill sergeant and hurried towards the counter. She returned with the aspirin in hand, plus a new go-juice goblet.

I asked, “Remember the last person who sat in this booth?”

“Matter of fact I do. A squirrelly lookin’ guy. Didn’t fit with the O’Dell’s crowd–– better-dressed, clean-shaven. Left a healthy tip, too. Looked like that Mr. Peepers on television, with a mustache. Why you ask?”

Hazel poured as I detached the c-note from underneath the table. “’Cause he left this behind.”

The brand new Franklin captured Hazel’s focus. Hot coffee detoured from the cup, singed my knuckles, and flooded the tabletop.

“Ow! Son of a—”

“Oh crap! I did it again.”

My scalded hide nosed ahead of my bruised knee in the pain contest. My pounding brain-bucket retained first place. Shaking my toasty hand to shed the heat, I peered up at Hazel. “Guess I’ll need a cold, wet cloth, too.”

“Murph I’m so—”

Like a traffic cop, I held up my good hand to halt further apologies. The frazzled waitress took the hint and rushed to the kitchen. Moments later, she returned with a bucket and sponge in one hand and a dripping dishrag in the other. Draped over my abused digits, the cold cloth leached the sting from my reddened skin. Hazel sighed and began mopping and wringing.

I choked down a few white pellets, followed by a java chaser, then leaned back in the booth. “So whatta ya mean ‘did it again’?”

Without missing a beat—wipe-wring, wipe-wring—Hazel spoke, “Like I said, the guy that sat here before you didn’t fit. Couldn’t stop starin’ at him and missed his cup entirely. Spilt coffee all over the place.”

“Scald him, too?”

She chuckled. “He was a spry little fella. Slid outa the way.”

“Lucky for him.”

“Yeah. Had to wipe down the whole booth. Used some new-fangled polish on the seats s’posed to make ’em shine slick as glass.”

“I’ll vouch for the slick part. When’d he come in? How long’d he stay?”

“About seven-thirty this morning. Just had coffee an—”

“And a bath?”

Hazel scowled. “Said I was sorry, Murph. Don’t know what got into me. Haven’t messed up like this in years––’specially twice in one day.”

“Must be the table.”

“Ya mean cursed or somethin’?”

“Or somethin’. So the oddball just had coffee and left?”

This time Hazel paused after crushing the moisture from her sponge. “Yep. Sat there same as you while I mopped up. Afterward, just sipped his coffee, real slow.”

“Probly tryin’ to establish the crude oil’s unique bouquet.”

Another scowl. “Doesn’t seem to bother you.”

“My taste buds retired years ago. So then what?”

“Got up, paid his tab, and skedaddled.”

“With a hefty tip to boot.”

“Ten times what he paid for the coffee.”

“A regular money bags. Musta enjoyed the special attention. Question is, why?”

“What? Don’t ya think I’m worth it?”

“Entertainment aside—a two-fifty tip for a twenty-five cent cup—”

“Actually, it was two-seventy-five.”

“No offense, Hazel darlin’, but the food ain’t that special.”

The gritty waitress squinted and glared, but didn’t argue the obvious. “So whatta we do now, Murphy?”

“You can start by bringin’ the hangover special, then go about your normal routine. Soon as I can swap seats, I’ll camp out for a while, let the St. Joseph’s work its magic on my head, and keep an eye peeled for Mr. Money Bags––or whoever’s s’posed to connect with the Ben Franklin.”

Hazel’s typically baggy eyelids stretched wide. “You thinkin’ bookie, Murph?”

“That or a counterfeiter droppin’ off a sample. How ’bout that special?”

“Comin’ right up.”

Thrilled with the idea of a stake-out within her domain, Hazel raced back to the kitchen, right past a java-starved patron with his depleted cup held high. The scruffy old gent tapped his spoon on the counter, but to no avail.

When Hazel reappeared, she carried a tray with my order and a fresh pot of coffee. Once more, the old man at the counter pivoted on his stool and waved his parched cup to a blind eye. Ordinarily, I’d have said something right away on his behalf, but the old guy’s misfortune also presented an opportunity.

Hazel served breakfast, with a side order of questions. “Come up with more ideas why that odd duck left the moolah?”

I nodded toward the neglected customer. “The deprived gent on the end stool has been tryin’ to flag you down for—”

“Carl? He can’t pay for anything. Just mooches coffee and leftovers ’til—”

“Tell ya what.” I pulled a ten-spot from my pocket. “Fill his cup, give him the cash, and tell him I need his perch.”

Puzzlement contorted Hazel’s face. She snatched the ten-dollar bill and stomped over to the downtrodden man. After she topped Carl’s cup, Hazel handed him the money, along with a brief explanation. Drop-jawed and bug-eyed, the old gent stared at the greenback, then at Hazel, back to the ten, and finally at me. I half-smiled and waved off any thoughts of thank yous and conversation. Carl understood, slurped his java, then shuffled through O’Dell’s portal to deep-fried paradise.

I slid from the booth, grabbed the tray, and moseyed to the counter to set up shop.

Hazel’s expression bulged with doubt. “Why, Murph? Carl’s just gonna buy more booze, then stumble in here later beggin’ for more leftovers and coffee.”

“Maybe. At least he can afford better hooch.”

“Or three times as much of the cheap crap.”

“Either way, he’s outa your hair for a while. And who knows…”

“Oh c’mon, Murph, you think Carl’s gonna buy stock in Standard Oil and become another Rockefeller?”

Like Grandma did each time I disappointed her, Hazel glared, hands planted on her hips. If she began wagging her finger and calling me Randal, I’d have to leave. “Okay, okay. Point taken. How ’bout you grab that polish you mentioned and spit-shine this napkin holder so I can blend in and still keep an eye on the cursed table.”

Hazel eyebrows scrunched into a V, but she obliged my request, then scuffed toward the kitchen.

I maintained a vigil throughout the afternoon and into the evening. Nobody parked their fanny in the booth. After convincing myself the human anatomy was never intended to spend more than an hour on a stool—or swallow breakfast, lunch, and dinner at O’Dell’s—I paid the tab and dragged my tortured body back to my office for forty winks.

At seven a.m. next morning, I shuffled through O’Dell’s front door to resume the Cursed Table Caper. The corner booth was vacant. The one next to it was unoccupied, too, so I grabbed it.

Hazel spotted me and hurried from her post behind the counter. “You think Mr. Money Bags’ll show up today?”

“He’d better. Not knowin’ what he’s up to kept me awake most the night.”

Halfway through my breakfast and a third round of java, an out-of-place gent strolled in––Wally Cox with a pencil-thin mustache. If this was Money Bags, Hazel’s Mr. Peepers description was dead-on. He eyeballed the place, then scurried to the corner booth.

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