As is usual in the high desert, it came with a gentle westerly breeze. It started as a drizzle in the valley and a light rain along the Sandia Crest. But the volume and velocity of the raindrops steadily increased. That too was not out of the ordinary.
But the rain itself was far from ordinary.
The fourth casualty was Officer Rafael Sanchez.
* * *
At 3:15 he pulled into the Owl Parking lot.
He shifted his cruiser into park, then waited for a moment, listening.
The engine raced, refusing to back down. He punched and release the gas pedal lightly, and the engine dropped back into a gentle idle.
He made a mental note. When he got off at 7, he’d try to catch the captain coming in and let him know.
Sometimes the captain was a little late. If that happened today— well, he’d wait around.
He didn’t know enough about engines. Maybe the sticky throttle was a warning. Maybe it was indicative of a larger problem. He didn’t want to be in a situation where an unresponsive car might dull his chances of survival.
And probably it was a quick fix anyway. Probably the guys down at Hayes Automotive would make the adjustment and have the car back before his next shift.
He switched off the engine, opened the door and got out.
But he’d forgotten to call in.
He checked to be sure the door was locked, a habit. And as he walked across the parking lot, he reached up to key the mic on his shoulder. “Two-seven, PD.”
“Go ahead 27.”
“I’ll be 10-6 at the Owl with a burger.”
Light laughter crackled over the radio. “Tell Rosie hello from me. Personally.”
Rafael grinned. Miranda was such a flirt. She always called herself his number one fan, and she was jealous of Rosalie Gonzales. “Ten-four. Out.”
The smile still on his face, he opened the front door of the café and waved to the manager. “Hey Burt.”
“Rafael. Imagine seeing you here.” He grinned, then glanced at his watch. “You’re a little late tonight.” Then he gestured with one hand. “Back corner, main dining room.”
Rafael nodded. He already knew which section of the restaurant Rosie would be serving tonight.
He’d been coming here every morning for a burger and fries. In the topsy-turvy world of graveyard shift, 3 a.m. was his lunch time.
The place was almost empty. At this time of the morning, most of the citizens were home in bed. Of those hangers-on who barhopped the night away, most stopped into the lesser-known cafés off the main drag. Either that or they hit the drive-through joints.
But three places in the main dining room were occupied. Two tables and a booth.
At one, two kids in jeans, t-shirts and baseball caps were talking quietly. Air Force boys from Kirtland, the nearby base, from the looks of it. Each had a beer in his left hand. Bud Light and Coors Light. They were young, and they had trim physiques and conservative haircuts.
After four years in the Marine Corps—Rafael jokingly called it his civilian-appreciation course—he found it easy to recognize military types.
At the booth, a man and woman were leaning across the table, arguing. Well, he was arguing. He was dressed like a mechanic or maybe a carpenter. Jeans and heavy boots, a grey work shirt hanging open over a white t-shirt. He wore a ball cap too, tipped back on his head. The Albuquerque Isotopes.
She wore dingy white shorts halfway to her knees, a loose blouse and a harangued look.
He hoped they’d keep it civil. Or civil enough, at least, so he could enjoy his burger.
The last occupied table was also the last table short of Rosie’s section.
A Mexican man, dressed much like the man in the booth, was dining with two younger ones. Probably his sons.
Maria, the other waitress on the floor, stood over him. Her ticket book was in her left hand, her pen poised for action in her right. “How do you want your eggs?”
“Shprise me, baby.”
Maria leaned forward. “Boo! Now how would you like your eggs?”
The man leaned back in his chair and laughed. Obnoxiously. “Hey, that wash purty good. Joo ought’a be a comeed- comeed— Joo ought’a be down at the improv.”
Maria nodded. “Uh huh. I’ll probably have to if you don’t tell me how you want your eggs.”
He wagged one hand, an exaggerated motion. “Ah, jus’ make ‘em over eashy.”
As she started writing, one of the boys said, “Papá, the whites are runny in those.”
The man raised his hand again. “I mean, make ‘em over medimum.”
She started writing again, and he said, “Ah hell, just scramble ‘em.”
“Scrambled. Yes sir.” Then she quickly turned away and walked into Rafael.
He looked down and grinned. “Maria, how’s it going?”
“Grr,” she said quietly, and headed toward the counter to place the order.
The older man at the table noticed Rafael and raised one hand. “Howdy, offisher.”
Rafael nodded. “Howdy. How’re you guys doing tonight?”
“We ain’t doin’ nothin’ wrong, offisher. We’re jus’ gettin’ some breakfas’.”
“I heard.” He turned to the younger ones. “You guys doing okay?”
The one who had warned his father off the over-easy eggs glanced at his brother, then looked up. “Yes sir.” A bit more quietly, he said, “I’m eighteen and I only had one beer tonight. I’ll be driving when we leave here.”
Rafael nodded. “Smart man. Be safe, all right?”
He headed for the corner table, his usual when Rosie had the back section.
She came bustling out of the kitchen, a grin on her face. At five-four and in the neighborhood of 125 pounds, she was dynamite with a very short fuse. And it seemed always lit.
Her black, floor-length skirt swayed around her as she swiveled past tables and chairs. Her perfect breasts pressed against her white blouse. The wide mother-of-pearl comb in her raven hair completed the ensemble. He’d never seen her shoes.
“Hey Rafael. What’s shakin’?”
“Quiet night, Rosie. The way I like it.”
“What’ll you have, officer?”
He frowned. “You got a menu in this place?”
She laughed. “One burger and fries, comin’ up. Actually it’s already cooking. I saw you talkin’ on the radio on your way in.”
He nodded. “Miranda said to say hi.”
“You know you’re gonna have to bed her down, right?”
“Not in this lifetime.”
“Well, get it done before you ask me to elope. I don’t wanna start a new life with a stalker chasin’ my man.”
He laughed. “Will do, Rosie. And I am gonna ask you, y’know.”
She cocked her head. “Yeah? Well you better make it quick.” She gestured down along herself with both hands. “Hey, all this won’t be on the market much longer.” She laughed.
She wagged one hand at him. “Your burger ought’a be close to ready. Back in a minute.”
She turned away.
He watched as she headed to the kitchen, maintaining as straight a line as possible, despite having to swivel here and there to get around a table. She slowed only twice, both times to reposition a chair under a table.
Girl works all the time. But she was a pleasure to watch, working or otherwise. Of course, a man could always do much worse than Rosie Gonzales.
She disappeared through the right side of the swinging doors into the kitchen.
Had she ever picked up his burger at the window? He didn’t think so. He wouldn’t be surprised to find out she was cooking it herself. Despite the manager, she pretty much ran the place. That was her personality.
A moment later she was back. She set his platter on the table, heaped with the burger and a mound of well-done French fries. Next to it she put a small bowl with his personal mixture of catsup and Tabasco sauce. Next to that she placed a tall glass filled with ice and a bottled Diet Dr. Pepper.
She stepped back, put her hands on her hips and smiled. “Anything else?” More quietly, she said, “Dessert maybe?”
“Depends. Hard for me to eat dessert right after the main course. How about 7:30 at my place. Will you still be awake?’
“You’ll bring the whipped cream?”
He shook his head and grinned. “I’m lactose intolerant, Rosie.”
“Aw. That’s too bad, Rafael. You don’t know what you’re missin’.”
Then she laughed, turned and headed for the kitchen.
Good ol’ Rosie.
With minor variations, the routine was the same pretty much every night.
And he’d yet to enjoy dessert.
When he was halfway through his burger, the drunk man and his two sons got up and headed toward the cash register.
The old man was swaying pretty hard, but the boys, one on either side, seemed to have control of the situation.
They made it to the cash register, where Maria met them.
Rafael was too far away to hear the conversation, but he watched as Maria talked with them. Then she smiled and wagged one finger at the old man. Probably telling him to behave himself.
She glanced at Rafael and nodded slightly, signaling him that the men seemed all right to her. She didn’t want a dead drunk on her conscience anymore than he did.
Then the men headed toward the door and Maria went to check on her other two tables of customers.
The Air Force boys nodded and smiled as she came up, then seemed to be discussing whether to order ice cream off the menu. At least that’s the part of the menu where one of them was pointing.
While they were deciding, Maria moved to the booth.
The man had stopped yelling even under his voice. He’d moved into the contrite stage.
His wife was leaned forward over the table, holding his right shoulder with her left hand. She appeared to be telling him it was all right. Whatever ‘it’ was.
Didn’t matter. Probably it was a different ‘it’ every time they went out.
Suddenly the front door burst open and the other son, not the one who had reminded his father about the eggs, burst through the door. He threw his hands to his face and screamed. “Please help! Please!” Then he collapsed.
Rafael got up so fast his chair fell over behind him.
The kitchen door to his left squeaked as Rosie came through it into his periphery.
He jerked his left arm up, palm out and yelled, “Rosie, stay there!” as he ran toward the figure near the door.
Maria reached the man before he did, so he ran past and out the door, his 9mm Glock drawn.
The old man and his son were on the ground. Both were face down.
A shooter? But he hadn’t heard any shots.
He ran toward them, quickly scanning the area. Nobody else was around, armed or otherwise.
The gentle rain was still falling, albeit a little harder.
He holstered his Glock and knelt next to the younger man. He yelled, “Are you okay?”
The rain beat a pattern on his head. He’d left his hat inside. His captain would have his ass if he knew.
He grabbed the boy’s shoulders and rolled him over, then gasped. “Son of a bitch!”
Dark half-circles were under the boy’s eyes, and they grew darker as he watched. Around the edges of those, the boy’s skin was turning green.
He leaned forward, grabbed the older man and lifted his shoulder. Same thing.
He pressed two fingers against the boy’s carotid artery.
Just like that. Whatever the hell’s going on, I have to warn the others. Then I’ll call it in.
He started to rise, but a wave of dizziness washed over him. He staggered and sat down hard.
Behind him, the door to the restaurant opened.
He swiveled around and looked back.
It was Rosie.
He raised both arms as if to shove her away. He yelled, “No! Stay inside, Rosie! Stay—”
And a surge of nausea came, then another.
Something lodged in his throat, then filled his nose.
He fell onto his left side. His squad car was right there. No. He had a radio on his shoulder. He reached for it and keyed the mic with his thumb.
But his arm never moved.
And Rosie was kneeling next to him. “Rafael?”
She faded into vision, then back out.
Her voice got louder. “Rafael? Rafael!”
She’s screeching. Why is she mad at me?
She faded back in, but blurred.
And she slipped into the darkness.
* * * * * * *