Code of Silence
Living a lie comes with a price
By Tim Shoemaker
Copyright © 2013 Tim Shoemaker
All right reserved.
Cooper's leering opponent inched closer, fists raised and ready to strike.
"He's moving in for the kill, Coop," Gordy said.
Cooper didn't budge. C'mon, you big moron. He tapped the joystick. One more step.
The muscled fighter advanced. Swinging the control stick, Cooper drummed the punch and kick buttons on the arcade video game.
"Yes!" Gordy thumped Cooper on the back. "Nice move!"
Staggering backwards, the hulking villain wobbled and teetered.
With a whir of the forward control knob, Cooper smacked the buttons in a memorized sequence. "Say bye-bye, big guy." The stunned champion dropped face-down.
"How do you do that?" Gordy said, clamping both hands on Cooper's shoulders and giving him a little shake. "You've got all these secret moves and combinations."
Wiping slick hands on his cargo shorts, Cooper turned to face his cousin and smiled.
"I wish I could do that!" Gordy jumped and casually slapped the "Order Here" sign hanging from the ceiling.
Cooper glanced up at the swinging sign. And I wish I could do that. Dozens of finger smudges bordered the bottom edgebut none of them belonged to Cooper. Not that he hadn't tried when he thought nobody was looking.
Gordy brushed past him and tapped the joystick. "Just once I'd like to drop that thug."
Cooper looked up at him and smiled. "Drop a quarter in the slot, and I'll teach you."
Hiroko Yakimoto stood from the table next to them and closed her English book. "It looks like we won't get back to studying anymore tonight. Time for me to go." She slid her books into her backpack and wiped the table with a napkin. "I don't see why you two love playing that stupid old game every time we come here."
"Stupid?" Cooper stepped over to the table and picked up his monster shake. "The game is a classic."
"Classic waste of time." She smiled slightly and raised one eyebrow. "You're both thirteen years old, right?"
Cooper clutched at his chest. "Ow, owwww, Hiro, that really hurt."
"It's nothing but pointless violence."
Cooper acted like he couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Pointless?" Lifting the plastic lid off the quart-sized cup, Cooper stirred the chocolate shake. "If you'd ever make the effort to check this out, you'd see this game is all about the forces of good fighting the forces of evil in mortal combat." He pulled the straw out, slid it across his tongue, and stuck it back in the cup. "If you think about it, the Bible is full of this kind of stuff."
Hiro tossed her dark braid over one shoulder. "Oh, I get it now. Gee, maybe they should buy a few of these games for church."
Gordy snickered and grabbed a handful of fries.
Frank Mustacci shuffled around the corner from the ordering counter. Something about the owner of Frank 'n Stein's Diner always made Cooper smile. If Frank grew a white beard to match the hair rimming his balding head, he could get a job as a Santa in any mall. "Don't let these boys give you a hard time, Hiro. And tell your mom she can have her old job back any time she wants. I miss her around here."
Hiro smiled and nodded. Sometimes Cooper thought Frank treated Hiro like she was his own granddaughter.
"I ever show you this?" Frank held out a worn 4"x 6" photo with half a dozen tack holes at the top.
A glance confirmed exactly what Cooper expected. The picture taken nearly two years ago at Frank 'n Stein's Halloween party. And yes, he had shown it before.
Frank stood front and center wearing his white apron over a cheap Santa suit. Hiro's mom stood to his right, dressed in a traditional Japanese kimono. Hiro stood in front of Frank, swimming in her dad's leather Chicago Police jacket ... her rich black hair woven into a single braid. Her smile lit up the entire pictureeven though it had been the roughest year of her life.
Gordy stood to Frank's left. His white-blonde hair got washed out by the flash and was way shorter than he wore it now. Cooper stood next to him, hands tucked in his jeans. Both of them too cool for costumes. Except for Cooper's darker hair, they could have passed for brothers. Same lean build. Same height. Dead even. Eye-to-eye.
But that was before Gordy's growth spurt. Cooper was still waiting for his, which is why Cooper wouldn't mind so much if that picture accidentally fell into the fryer someday.
Frank tried to get a group photo at the last Halloween party. Thankfully Cooper avoided getting in the picture by being the designated photographer. He didn't want to look like Gordy's little brother.
"I love that picture, Frank," Hiro said.
"Me too." He slid the picture in his pocket. "You kids stay and finish your game." He held up a ring of keys and shook it like sleigh bells. "I just gotta lock the front door while I clean up."
"Coop." Hiro stepped into Cooper's line of sight. "I think we should leave."
Her playful teasing look had disappeared. Something else seeped into its place. Cooper stared, trying to figure her out. Sometimes her mood could swing faster than a punch from the fighter on the video game.
"Frank needs us out of here," she said. She nodded her head toward the door. Her eyes pleaded.
Frank wiped a greasy handprint off the front door glass. "Nonsense. You won't be in my way. I like a little company. You know that. And I have to put up Halloween decorations anyway." Frank turned the key in the lock and dropped the keys in his pocket. "Mind if I hit some of the lights?" He doused the lights to the eating area without waiting for an answer. "Otherwise somebody's liable to pull up to the drive-thru." He flipped over the CLOSED sign next to the door and nodded toward the windows. "The neon gives plenty of light."
BURGERS, FRIES, HOTDOGS, ITALIAN SAUSAGE & BEEF, and MONSTER SHAKES. Every window featured a different illuminated sign. Together they splashed enough colored light around the room to see clearly.
Frank opened a trash receptacle, pulled out the plastic liner, and twisted its neck as if it were a chicken headed for the broiler. "I'll be cleaning up in the kitchen. Call me when you're ready to go." He grinned at Gordy. "Or if you need more fries." Trash bag in tow, Frank squeezed through a narrow pass-thru in the front counter and lowered the hinged counter top back in place before he disappeared into the kitchen.
Hiro stepped closer. "Can I borrow your cell? Mine's dead."
He didn't have to check his pocket. He knew exactly where he'd left it. "Sorry. It's at home."
Gordy slapped a quarter on the table and slid several fries into his mouth. "I'm ready to learn those secret moves."
Drawing a cool mouthful of the chocolate shake through the straw, Cooper glanced at Hiro.
"Let's go." Hiro looked at Cooper and mouthed the words. "Please." Her eyes added the exclamation point.
Cooper set the cup on the table. "Why the big rush?"
Hiro folded her arms across her chest. "You wouldn't understand."
Gordy laughed and half choked on the fries. Doubling over, he coughed hard to clear his throat.
Hiro glared at him. Her mouth formed into a tiny line so tight her lips nearly disappeared.
Still wheezing a bit, Gordy dipped a fry into the ketchup and used it like a brush, painting a face on a napkin.
Cooper studied Hiro's face in the candied light of the neon signs. "Try me."
Hiro pulled a white sweatshirt over her head. "I got a bad feeling. Like we should go."
"Ahhh," Gordy winked at Cooper. "One of those 'women's intermission' things."
"Intuition, Gordy," Cooper said. "Women's intuition." He felt the hairs prickle on his arms. She'd had feelings like this before. He didn't understand it, but he wasn't about to underestimate it either.
Hiro slung her backpack over one shoulder. She strode to the front door, rattled it, and turned toward the ordering counter. "Frank?"
Gordy straightened up and cleared his throat. "What are you doing?"
"Leaving." Hiro didn't even turn to look his way. "You two can save the world from the forces of evil."
"It seems to me," Gordy flipped his napkin upside-down and carefully peeled back the paper, leaving a twin ketchup face imprint on the surface of the tabletop, "someone is acting like a little kid here."
Hiro glanced at the smiling ketchup face and nodded. "Exactly."
Gordy shrugged, mounted the stool in front of the arcade game, and dropped the quarter in the slot.
"Forget it, Gordy," Cooper said. "I'm not letting her bike home alone in the dark."
"What about my quarter?"
Cooper hustled toward Hiro. "Stay and play if you want. I'll teach you the moves next time."
Hiro glanced up at him, but didn't say a word. Standing directly below a poster-sized picture of Frank 'n' Stein's two owners, Frank Mustacci and Joseph Stein, she rubbed her hands up and down her arms.
"Hey, Frank. We're all done," Cooper called, peering into the fully lit kitchen. A wheeled metal bucket with a mop propped in it stood to one side of the preparation table, the floor all around it glossy with water. The stainless steel flat-top grill, fryer, and steam table gleamed in the overhead lights. From where he stood, Cooper could see through the kitchen to the back stairs leading to the second floor.
Hiro stepped in front of him and played with her braid the way she often did when she was thinking or worried about something. In this case it was probably both.
"Maybe he's up in his office."
Cooper tried to read her face. "How bad of a feeling are we talking here? Like bad bad, or just kind of bad?"
Spooky. He rubbed the goosebumps down on his forearms. For a moment Cooper looked over her head into the lifeless kitchen, listening for any noise from the floor above them.
"Frank," he called. "We're ready to go." Nothing. Like the dead air between stations on the radio dial. No noise, no static. A disconnected silence.
"Where is he?" Hiro's voice dropped to a whisper. Pacing along the counter that separated them from the kitchen, she stopped in front of the eight foot mascotthe legendary Frankenstein monster. Holding a Chicago-style hot dog in one hand and a monster shake in the other, the green-skinned beast sported a goofy grin.
Leaning to one side to get a better view, Cooper scanned the entire length of the kitchen. The back door stood open a crack. A clear plastic bag jammed with garbage sat just inside it with its top tied into a knot. "He must be taking stuff out to the dumpster." Cooper jerked his thumb towards the rear exit. "I'll grab my backpack. We'll slip through the kitchen and"
WHAM! The back door flew open and Frank Mustacci stumbled through like he'd been pushed. He toppled over the bag of garbage and landed on his hands and knees.
"Stay down!" someone shouted.
Two uniformed men burst in from the shadows. One wore a clown maskthe other a slick-haired latex Elvis face. The clown pointed a can of spray paint at the security camera by the back door and blackened the lens.
Instinctively Cooper dropped out of sight behind the counter, pulling Hiro down with him. Adrenalin surged through his body. He glanced over at Gordy who was still sitting wide-eyed in front of the arcade game, like he was bolted in place. He was just out of the line of vision from the kitchen.
"What do I do?" Gordy mouthed the words.
Cooper didn't dare speak, but he shouted with his eyes. Move! Hiro motioned frantically for Gordy to hide. Gordy's eyes, wild with panic, darted around the room looking for some way of escape. Without a sound he slid off the stool and crawled under the nearest table.
Cooper licked dry lips and leaned in close to Hiro. Crouching, Cooper pressed his back against the only barrier between him and the kitchen. Had the men seen them? Cooper's heart punched out a warning in his chest.
The door slammed shut.
"Don't try anything stupid, old man. Do exactly what we say, and you won't get hurt." The man's voice sounded deep and strong. Like a DJ.
Frank groaned. "What do you want?"
Cooper could hear fear in Frank's voice.
"What do you think?" Mr. DJ said. "Empty the register."
A loud thump and another groan.
Cooper flinched, imagining poor Frank doubled over in pain. He heard a faint whimper escape Hiro's lips.
"Okay, okay," Frank gasped. "I'll cooperate. Put the gun away."
A gunand they'd be coming his way. Cooper looked for a way to escape. The windows? They were big enough, but he'd need something solid to break through them. All the chairs and tables were securely attached to the black and white tiled floorexcept the metal stool by the arcade game.
"All right, hotdog man," the other man said, clearly getting closer. His voice sounded permanently hoarse, like he'd been lead vocal for a heavy metal band for too many years. "You heard what the boss said. Keep moving, or I'll boot you again."
Cooper plastered himself against the counter. We're trappedand there's no way out!
Cooper heard shuffling feet on the other side of the counter.
"That's it, old man. Nice and easy."
DJ voice was obviously the one in charge, and he sounded way too close.
Gordy pulled his lanky frame into a ball and stopped moving. Barely a second later, the register drawer clanged open.
The hair on Cooper's arms tingled again. He could almost feel the men on the other side of the counter. For a moment his mind looped frantically. Dear God. Dear God. Dear Godplease!
"We'll take it to go," the man ordered.
"Put the cash in a bag, old man!"
Cooper looked out the window towards Kirchoff Road, hoping a car would pull in the lot and scare the robbers away. He focused on the headlights of an approaching pickup, willing it to turn in. C'mon. Slow down. Maybe a couple of burly construction workers would come byhungry enough to stop and tap on the window. Regular customers knew Frank would open the door. Cooper watched for their turn signal to blink on and silently pleaded. Help us. Please. The truck passed without slowing. If only Cooper had remembered his phone.
No other vehicles were in sight. Cooper scanned the roads, then shifted his attention to the darkening sky, and then, with dawning horror, Cooper noticed their reflections. The front window reflected the scene inside the diner with mirror-like clarity. He could see everything. Cooper shuddered. Three men stood on the other side of the counter. Frank, easily a head shorter than either of the other two, emptied his own register and stuffed the bills into a paper take-out bag. Frank lifted the tray out of the register and fished a couple of bills from underneath. Cooper could see Frank's hands shaking as he set the tray on the counter and handed the bag of money to another man in a clown mask.
Cooper fought to control his breathing keep it shallow. Afraid of making some kind of sound if he shifted his weight, he tried to ignore the cramping in his left calf. He stayed as still as the Frank 'n Stein's mascot grinning stupidly at him from the corner. God, make this be over.
Hiro touched Cooper's arm and nodded her head toward the window. In the deepening shadows at the base of the counter he could see himself and Hiro huddled like they were caught in the crossfire of a commando raid. If the crooks looked closely enough, they could see him and Hiro. Then it really would be over. A trickle of sweat broke free from his maze of blonde curls and crept down his forehead.
"Now. The combination to your safe," the DJ voice growled from behind the Elvis mask.
"Safe?" Frank's voice cracked.
Elvis backhanded him across the face. Staggering backwards, Frank cried out and groped the top of the counter for support. The register tray slid and clattered over the edge, showering coins onto Hiro and Cooper like a silver waterfall.
Hiro squeezed her eyes shut like she expected the coins to betray their fragile hiding spot.
"We know about the safe, old man, and how you don't trust banks."
Coins rolled across the checkered tile floor. Some circled, others spun, but within a few moments every coin lay stillexposed and powerless. Cooper knew the feeling.
"The combination." Elvis pressed in close.
"Nobody outside this store knew about the safe." Frank sounded confused. "Nobody."
"Seventy-four." Frank's voice shook. "Ninety-three." Cooper heard him suck in his breath and stop. "It's him, isn't it?"
"Careful, old man. Give me the last number."
"It has to be," Frank said, as if it suddenly all made sense. "I gave him a chance."
"And this is your last chance." The man raised a pistol in a gloved hand. "The number." He pressed the muzzle against Frank's forehead.
Cooper heard a metallic click. Give it to them, Frank. Give it to them.
Frank hesitated, his reflection in the front window ghostly in his white t-shirt and apron.
Coop forced a dry swallow and silently begged Frank to cooperate. Give him the combination. Please. Play it safe.
"Okay." Frank nodded. "J-just put the gun down. P-please."
Excerpted from Code of Silence by Tim Shoemaker Copyright © 2013 by Tim Shoemaker. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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