From her position behind the cash register, Meghan Price stared through the rain-smeared window at a dreary downtown. She didn’t want to be here. Helping Mom out at the diner had been fine when she was in high school, and even during college vacations, but she’d imagined a different life for herself far away from this damp little burgh with its shuttered shops and fading factories.
Graduating into the teeth of a pandemic had put a crimp in her plans. She’d parlayed her English degree into a poorly paid job as communications director for a Seattle non-profit that lasted a year. After that she bounced from a P.R. position (she wasn’t cut out for it) to helping a boyfriend with a start-up that fizzled about the same time as the relationship did. When her mother called, she was back to waitressing, but in an upscale Belltown bistro where the tips were double the average check at the Excelsior Diner, and the portions half as big. She had no real excuse to refuse her mother’s request.
“I have to go away for a few days—a week or so—and I need you to take over here.” Mom was evasive about where she was going. “Gran can carry on doing the ordering and the books, but you know she can’t handle the day-to-day.” Meghan’s grandmother, known to all as Phyllis, was the original proprietor of the Excelsior. She was crippled with arthritis, but still kept an iron grip and a steely eye on the operation.
“I suppose I could get a week off, but what’s the urgency, Mom? I don’t understand.”
“It’s complicated. Something’s come up I have to sort out. I don’t want your grandmother to worry—or you. I’ll be back in no time.”
That had been three weeks ago.
Ted McGuire shoved his coffee cup across the counter for a refill. He’d been a regular at the diner for more than a decade, sitting on the same red vinyl stool which, over the years, had acquired the contours of his ample rear. Retired sanitation worker and lifelong bachelor, Ted cultivated a grumpy old man persona which effectively kept the world at bay, and hid what Meghan suspected was a heart of gold. She filled his mug and wiped down the counter.
“No news, then?” Ted grunted.
“Nope.” Meghan sighed. “You’re sure she didn’t say anything to you before she disappeared?”
“Me? Christ, no! I don’t get involved.”
“Oh, Ted, come on. You and Amy are pals. Can’t believe she didn’t say something,” Flora Perez piped up. She was another counter stool habitué. Tiny and dark-haired, she taught a morning aerobics class at the senior center and dropped in at the Excelsior afterwards for a Californian omelet. She might be anywhere between forty years old and sixty. “Meghan, dear, you look worn out. Are you drinking enough water? Exercising? Why not come for a run with me after you close up this afternoon.”
Meghan laughed. “I couldn’t keep up with you! Anyway, I have to report to Phyllis when I finish here. I’ll be in trouble if I don’t give my grandmother a complete account of the day’s business.”
“Order up!” called Jerome, the cook, as he slid two laden plates onto the shelf that separated the kitchen from front-of-house. Jerome was new to the Excelsior, and a definite improvement on his predecessor who had finally succumbed to his wife’s demands that they move somewhere warmer. The menu now included innovations like Flora’s Californian omelet, as well as gluten-free options and a daily vegetarian special. Although Jerome was always pleasant, he wasn’t talkative. Meghan had found out little about his background, how he’d become a cook, or where he’d worked before. She wanted to ask him if he was married but hadn’t dared in case he thought she was coming on to him. He was good-looking though.
Meghan grabbed the plates and turned to hand them to Bilan, the waitress, on the other side of the counter. Bilan was another welcome innovation. A Somali refugee, tall and slim, she glided between the booths with the elegance and disdainful frown of a Paris runway model. In spite of her limited English, her beauty and efficiency had won over the regular clientele, and, along with Jerome’s menu additions, had attracted new customers. The Excelsior was in danger of becoming retro chic.
The breakfast rush was over, and Meghan’s thoughts drifted back to the mystery of her missing mother. Growing up, she had taken Amy for granted: always there at soccer games and parent-teacher evenings. She realized now she hadn’t appreciated the struggles of a single mom with a business to run, and an increasingly frail mother to care for. Meghan’s infrequent visits from Seattle were on her own schedule, not her mother’s. Often, she was ashamed to admit, they were to beg for rent money—“Just a loan!”—or even just for the comfort of a home-cooked meal. Had she closed her eyes to Amy’s life beyond the family and the diner? “It’s complicated,” she’d said. Meghan hadn’t the faintest idea what that meant.
Last orders were at two p.m. but it was close to four when Meghan arrived home. With Jerome, she’d made up the list of supplies for Phyllis to order, and mopped the floor while Bilan cleaned the booths and tables. The lad who came in at nine to load the dishwasher and clean the pans left promptly at two, but Jerome kept a sparkling clean kitchen and finished his work as Bilan finished hers. They left together. Meghan then took care of a few tasks to prepare for the next morning’s opening, totaled the receipts, and deposited them in the safe.
She inserted her key in the front door of the Craftsman bungalow where she—and her mother—had grown up. Phyllis and her husband Joe had bought the house shortly after they were married. They’d moved to the town for Joe to take a good-paying job at the paper mill. The good times didn’t last, however. The mill was already slated for closure when Joe was diagnosed with cancer. He died three months later, leaving Phyllis the house, ten-year-old Amy to raise, and just enough insurance money to launch the Excelsior.
Without the money or time to do more than essential maintenance, the house was beginning to look shabby. “Lived in,” was what Amy had called it; Meghan found the worn rugs and scuffed furniture were soothing in their familiarity. She shed her coat and walked through to the kitchen. That room was the heart of this home, and, although the appliances had been updated, it still had an old-fashioned feel with a scrubbed oak table and the original light fixtures.
Phyllis was sitting at the table, gnarled hands gripping a cup of coffee. Meghan dropped a kiss on her grandmother’s silver-haired head.
“Did she call?” Meghan asked instead of a greeting.
“No,” the old lady replied. “How was business today?”
Meghan pulled a folder out of her shoulder bag and slid it towards Phyllis. She headed for the coffee pot, then changed her mind and opened the refrigerator to draw out a bottle of wine. As she poured a glass, she nodded toward the folder. “Receipts weren’t bad for a rainy Tuesday.”
Her grandmother sighed. “If rain kept people home, we’d never have a customer. You’d better make a deposit at the bank tomorrow.” She perused the list of supplies needed, the second item in the folder.
Meghan looked over her shoulder. “You know, Gran, Jerome could do the ordering. He’s perfectly capable.”
“But the suppliers don’t know him!” Phyllis reared back. “Nor do we. What’s to stop him from taking a cut?”
Meghan knew her grandmother’s reaction sprung from a fear of losing any of her remaining control of the diner. “Come on, Gran! He’s been at the diner for over four months, and he’s been great! Anyway, I can’t believe Mom would have hired him without checking his references out carefully. Speaking of, I was looking for the personnel files. I wanted to get to know the new employees’ backgrounds. But I couldn’t find them at the diner.”
“Maybe Amy brought them home, you know, for security: prying eyes and all that. You should check in the basement. There’s a file cabinet down there.” Phyllis paused. “Mind you, Amy kept a lot of things on that little laptop of hers. Maybe the personnel records are there.”
“And where’s the laptop?” Meghan didn’t need an answer. Her grandmother’s frown confirmed what she had guessed as soon as the question left her mouth: Mom had taken the laptop with her.
Later, after they had eaten and moved into the living room, Phyllis turned on the TV to watch her favorite British crime series. Meghan was trying to read a novel, but her thoughts kept wandering back to her mother. Why had she left? Where was she? Would she ever come back?
She shut the book with a clap. “We need to contact the police.”
She suspected her gran’s thoughts had been drifting in the same direction because she turned at once to Meghan. “I hate to get the police poking around in our affairs. Surely, we’d have heard if something bad had happened?”
“Maybe not. What if Mom is lying in a coma in a hospital? What if she’s suffered amnesia?”
“Aren’t you being a little melodramatic?”
“But the police could trace her through her credit cards, the car, her phone. Surely it would be better to know where she is?”
“I’m not sure the police would investigate. Your mother’s a grown woman. She told us she was going away for a while and made arrangements for her absence. It doesn’t qualify as a missing person case.” Meghan started to disagree, and Phyllis held her hand up for silence. “Your mother has spent her whole adult life devoted to you, me, and the diner. She never goes on vacation. If she’s finally taking some time for herself, I can’t blame her, although I wish she’d explained beforehand.”
They lapsed into silence, Meghan digesting this new theory about Amy’s absence. The television program ended and Phyllis clicked off the set. She stood up slowly using the arms of her chair for support but didn’t move toward the door.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about why your mother left. This is a longshot, but what if it has something to do with your father?”
“But he’s dead!” Meghan blurted. Amy had told her that she was very much in love with Jeff. When Amy got pregnant, they’d planned to marry. Jeff was on his way back to Missouri to tell his folks about Amy and the baby when he was killed in a multi-car accident on the interstate.
“Did you get in touch with his parents?” Meghan had asked, and Amy had told her she was so distraught at the time she couldn’t think straight. “After you were born five months later, I tried, but I didn’t have an address or phone number, Smith’s such a common last name…”
When she was younger, Meghan had peppered her mom with questions. What did Dad look like? What were his interests? Did Meghan resemble him? But it clearly pained Amy to talk about him, so by the time she was a cynical teenager, Meghan had dropped the subject, consigning her father to the minor role of sperm donor. She hadn’t thought about him for years.
Phyllis picked up her cane and shuffled toward the door. Over her shoulder, she said, “Dead? Are you quite certain about that?”