He was a small, scattered-looking man, maybe fifty, out of place here in this brash, chromed diner. His clothes looked older than he was, hair so dirty it seemed painted on, but I noticed him mainly because his eyes never lifted and his hands – dark and thin and quick – never stopped moving.
As I watched, he pulled a measuring tape out of his top pocket, and used it to take the width and height of the shelves near the register. He shook his head, muttering, as he replaced the tape and fished out a tiny black-covered notebook, wrapped around with a rubber band; then, he found a pencil behind one grimy ear and used it to make a note. Replacing pencil, band and book took only a blink, and then he was off once more, measuring the booths, the register, the width of each floor tile. The staff worked around him, and the customers – regulars – never blinked.
‘What’s going on with the little guy?’ I asked the waitress when she brought my order. She concentrated on placing my dishes down before answering.
‘Walter?’ She didn’t need to look. ‘Comes in a lot since his wife passed. Harmless old coot.’
‘Mm?’ The coffee was as good as their sign outside had promised. The waitress would’ve made the trip worthwhile all by herself, come to that. ‘No kids?’ She didn’t answer, but her eyes softened, and I knew.
‘You all set, hon?’ she asked me, once she’d finished checking my condiments were in order. ‘Anything else I can get you?’
I threw her a hint of a wink and she smiled, a tiny pink point of tongue slipping out between her fine white teeth. Then, she was gone, and all I had to look at was Walter.
Curious, I got up, coffee in hand. Slipping into a booth, I was close enough now to smell the man.
‘Hey,’ I said, in a low tone. ‘Whatcha doin’?’
No reply. Walter didn’t even pause in his work. Measuring, noting, checking, comparing.
‘Walter,’ I said, louder. ‘Hey! What’s up with the tape?’ He flinched, but he didn’t look at me. I could see his eyes hopping like mayflies on a pond.
‘Gotta find it,’ he said. ‘The crack. Where she slipped out. Gotta be here somewheres.’ He sighed and licked his lips, still not meeting my eyes. ‘Gotta follow her.’
‘Who’s ‘she’, Walter?’ I asked, watching him fumble for his notebook.
‘Gotta find her and bring her back, and make sure she ain’t never gon’ leave again. No sir, she ain’t gon’ leave again.’
‘She was took,’ he muttered. ‘Out through a hole in the world. Gotta find it. Gotta save her.’
‘Listen, I heard about your wife -‘ I began, thinking I understood.
‘No, no, no, not her!’ A rime of fear coated his words. ‘My daughter. My little girl.’ He met my eyes, and I drew back from the edge of him. ‘Gotta get her back before she hurts her. Don’t got much time.’
Before I could reply, he dropped his gaze and kept on going.