Cupping her hands around her coffee mug, Margie gazed out the diner’s window. The office building across the street loomed in shades of sandstone, columns and molding tinted ochre in the setting sun. A haze from lumbering Cadillacs and Fords, as well as the steady stream of suited pedestrians making their way to the train for the commute home, blurred the building’s rotating front entrance, the one she had walked through every morning for the past four months.
Adding a pour of sugar to her iced tea, Betty stirred her beverage. “Staring is not going to get you rehired.”
“I know.” Margie drifted her gaze to the linoleum table between them, her shoulders drooping.
The clink of silverware on porcelain, low murmurs of conversation, and the bustling from the kitchen trapped behind the counter, filled the quiet in their booth. Taking her spoon, Margie swirled through her sweetened coffee.
“Here,” said Betty, “I nabbed this from the break room on my way out.” She set a crinkled newspaper onto the table, want-ads face up.
Margie shook her head. “You don’t think anyone’s going to hire me, do you? After what I did?”
“I think this town needs as many phone operators and secretaries as they can handle.” Betty tapped her manicured finger onto one of the half dozen encircled in blue ink. “Why not try them.”
Margie glanced at the advertisement, and crinkled her nose. “I don’t want to work for some construction company.”
“Think of the discounts on paint or lumber.” Betty’s smile spread. “Or at least the burly co-workers.”
Rolling her eyes, Margie sipped her drink. “Even they’re going to ask for a recommendation. Mr. Jenkins isn’t going to be flattering.”
Betty sighed. “You didn’t have to tell him.”
“What do you mean?” Margie leaned against the booth’s avocado green cushions, the leather groaning against her polyester dress. “I’m sure those two on the line were talking about murder. I couldn’t just hear it and not say anything.”
Shrugging, Betty clamped her lips around her straw.
Margie spun her cup, finding a warmer spot on the porcelain to press against her palms. “Do you think he told the police?”
Betty snorted. “I think he fired you for listening into a private conversation, and then forgot about it.”
Margie winced, and ran her finger around her mug’s rim. The diner’s rhythm captured her pulse, and she let her thoughts latch onto interpreting the slang of orders, and the banter of those in the neighboring booths. Her eye caught their blonde waitress, delivering a steak and onions dinner as well as a plate of meatloaf and mash potatoes, to an adjacent table.
The waitress stuck a hand on her hip. “Anything else, fellas?”
“No, thanks Reeda,” said the meatloaf order.
Reeda winked, and placed the bill onto the table before sauntering to the counter. Taking the coffee pot, she started with the customers on the stools, and then the booths.
Margie gulped down half her drink, and set the nearly empty mug by the table’s lip.
Reeda stopped, and poured. “Do you ladies need anything else?”
“Not right now,” said Margie, “but thanks.”
Chomping her gum, Reeda laid down their tab and moseyed to the steak and meatloaf table, where a pile of bills now lay upon their receipt. Reeda scooped up the tab, crisp dollars crinkling, and coins tinkling like broken glass.
“Keep the change,” said the steak-eater, smiling.
Reeda grinned. “Thanks.”
Margie winced, and averted her gaze to her steaming, but free, refill. “What am I going to do? I’ve got rent to pay at the end of the month.”
“You’ll figure something out.” Betty spun the newspaper, so the ads faced her right side up. Gliding her finger down the columns, she grimaced before shoving the paper to the windowsill. “I’ve got a little saved if you get into a tight spot.”
“I don’t want to take your money, Betty. You’re as strapped as I am.”
“Yeah, but I’ve got a job and I’ve got Mark.” Her wicked grin returned. “He’s good for something you know.”
Margie sagged over her cup. “I guess I wouldn’t.”
“You could always find yourself a man rather than a job.”
Chuckling, Margie absently patted her immaculate curls, marred by the dent of her now distant headset. “I think I’d have more trouble with a man than I did with Mr. Jenkins.”
“Doesn’t hurt to keep your eyes open.”
“Where, here?” Margie flicked her gaze around the diner.
Fedoras rested on table tops beside elbows as their owners leaned over steaming plates. In most booths, like where the steak and meatloaf orders ate, mirror images resided in the facing chairs. A rare few had a blushing date nibbling daintily on a French fry or sucking malt through a straw. Margie shook her head, and returned to her cup.
“Well, don’t look now,” said Betty, her whisper aimed at the tabletop. “But someone’s looking your way.”
Margie frowned. “What?”
Betty giggled, but tossed her focus out the window. “He’s at a stool at the end of the counter, by the rest rooms. Tall, I’d say six foot at least. Black suit and tie over a shirt that looks freshly pressed. Square jaw. Nice hair and shoulders. Take a look. He certainly is.”
Gulping a flurry of butterflies, Margie pivoted her head, and traced her finger along her jaw line. Betty’s target, however, captured her nonchalant glance, and Margie froze. The intent stranger rose from the diner’s stool, and plucked his hat from the counter. He laid down a handful of change, and neared.
“Nicely done,” said Betty, her admiration captured in her rushed murmur. The last of her iced tea vanished with a gurgling from her straw, and she slid to the edge of the cushioned seat.
Margie glared at her. “Where are you going?”
“I don’t want to miss my bus,” said Betty, giving a wink, and retrieving a quarter for her drink. “Let me know how it goes.”
Margie gaped as Betty swirled away with a flutter from her pinstriped skirt. On her clunky navy heels, she strode from their table and outside, where she vanished into the evening throng.
A cough, from the figure now standing at her elbow, drew Margie back.
“Excuse me,” said the stranger, “but you’re Ms. Margaret Jones, aren’t you?”
Margie tightened her grip on her coffee, before gazing up. As he had across the room, the stranger snared her in a steady pair of cobalt eyes.
“Yes.” A trip of logic made her frown. “How did you know my name?”
The stranger reached into his suit coat, and retrieved a leather wallet. The flap opened, revealing a shield and identification card with bold letters stating FBI above the name Gordon Niles. “We have our ways, Ms. Jones. May I have a seat?”
Margie straightened like a startled cat. She pulled her cup closer, as if to make him more room. “Of course.”
Gordon tipped his hat before taking Betty’s place across the table, and stowing his fedora beside him. “I heard you were fired today.”
“Mind telling me why?”
Margie bristled. “I’m not sure it’s any of your business.”
Gordon grinned, and lowered his voice to hide beneath the diner’s ambient noise. “I have a feeling you might have some useful information.”
Margie covered her mouth. “Then Mr. Jenkins did report it.”
“But he didn’t provide any real details, besides one particular phone number.”
Gordon nodded, his smile turning grim. “I’m investigating their activities against Candidate Barnet.”
Margie’s heart drummed against her ribs, as if to escape his stare, and the voices speaking from her memory, through a film of static and telephone wire. “I see.”
Taking a sip of coffee, Margie wet her lips and then set the cup down with both hands. “I was fired because I overheard a conversation today. That’s against the rules you see. Operators aren’t supposed to eavesdrop.”
“What did you hear?”
Margie cast a furtive glance around the diner, before returning to Gordon. “I think someone’s planning on assassinating Victor Barnet.”
“Do you know who?”
“No, the two men didn’t use their names, at least not while I was listening.” She leaned over the table. “Do you think it was the Lurtons?”
A grimace flashed on Gordon’s face, and he glanced out the window, eyes flicking over the street. He bobbed his head, in agreement with some unspoken thought, and looked back. Margie withdrew into the safety of the booth’s leather, but Gordon drifted forward, his tone conspiratorially low.
“Do you think you’d recognize the voices if you heard them again?”
Chewing on her lower lip, Margie rewound the conversation, taking note of the cigar-husky pitch of one speaker, the nasal drawl of the other. “Probably.”
“Good. I’d like to hire you as an expert informant.”
Gordon ground his teeth, as if gnawing on an unpleasant morsel. “I need your help, Ms Jones. If you can confirm the voices you heard, we’ll have justification for arresting the suspects. At very least we might be able to thwart a threat to Barnet at this weekend’s convention.”
“Oh. You want me to volunteer?”
“No.” Gordon grinned. “We pay well.”
The presence of the diner’s bill, waiting at the table’s edge, urged her on. “All right,” said Margie. “What do I have to do?”
Gordon stood, and offered his hand to help her from her seat. “Listen, and keep your head down.”
Margie gulped, and stared at his palm. Calluses, and scars, mottled his skin.
“I’m not so sure about this,” said Margie.
“Don’t let them get away, Ms. Jones. You lost your job because of these men, because you stood up against them. For the good of an innocent man’s life, do it again.”
Lifting her chin, Margie met his gaze. Gordon stared back, his eyes steady and sure. Gathering her nerves and her purse, Margie slid her hand into his, and rose from the booth. “Call me Margie.”
Gordon smirked, and donned his hat with a tip of his brim. “Margie, then. Ready?”
She draped her purse strap over her chest, making way for her angled collar, and adjusted her skirt with a shake of her hips. Adding her last two dimes to Betty’s quarter, Margie squared her shoulders with a nod. “Let’s get them.”