It was a stormy night at the Steamy Beans cafe. Crackled jazz played from faulty speakers. Nikki cleaned the register glass shielding leftover sandwiches. Steve pretended not to watch her from a back table, shuffling student papers while staring at his smartphone. He’d finished grading papers an hour ago, but didn’t have anywhere to go. His entire life revolved around being a professor.
Steve snuck another glimpse of Nikki from the corner of his eye. She leaned over the table, her slender arm stretched over to the tip jar. She collected the few lone singles Steve bequeathed on his first, second, and third round of pumpkin spice latte. She looked up at Steve. Their eyes met and she smiled. Steve beamed widely, resting his hand on his arm, and promptly knocking over his coffee. His graded papers drank up the river of pumpkin spice. Steve hurried for dispenser’s napkins, dabbed up the spill, then looked back at Nikki. She was tying up garbage bags.
Steve sighed. He dragged his fingers under his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. After another deep breath, he hid his face back behind the news column on his phone. It was a slow story day. The University announced a new wing sponsored by another alumnus. The basketball team lost the third game in a row. Then a new article uploaded onto his feed. It was a fresh piece addressing the missing students. Steve clicked the article. It was an interview with the Director of Campus Security.
The article was brief. The first paragraphs were a summary of the incidents. Campus was on the edge of one of the Top Five Trending Little Cities, where missing persons happened from time to time. No one cared when the first people vanished; a registered pedophile and car thief. When homeless evaporated, and soon after, a late-night office employee, locals whispered a frightening word — killer. It came to a boil when two students disappeared along campus grounds. The first undergraduate never came home from a weekend party, and the second was returning home from an evening study session at the quad’s library. Neither made it home.
The Director of Security’s interview insisted the issue would be resolved, and local police were aiding. Until then, they advised students to walk in groups and be indoors before curfew. Steve wondered if there was anything he could do. He lived in housing on the shores of campus where school buildings faded into city storefronts like the Steamy Beans cafe. Maybe I could start a watch, Steve considered, or create a database of suspicious persons in the area.
“I have to help somehow,” Steve muttered to himself.
“What’s that?” Nikki smiled, three bags of garbage slung over her perfect shoulder. Steve stiffened in his chair.
“Oh, uh, nothing. I’m just reading this stupid article.”
“It’s Steve, right?”
“Uh, yeah.” Steve’s heart beat three extra times. “Or Steve-O, Stevie, Professor Stephen, whatever.” Steve wanted to run out into the rainy street and wait for a speeding car.
“Steve, I’ll be right back. I’m going to cut the music, lock the office and take out garbage. Can you keep an eye on the register?”
“Uh, yeah. I’ll do you one better. I’ll keep two eyes on it.”
Nikki snickered. She adjusted the bags, then headed to the back of the building.
“Two eyes, Steve?” he mumbled and lifted his smartphone, “You freaking loser.”
The music went mute. Steve scrolled through more news. Distant thunder boomed. Then, as the rumble subsided, the cafe’s entrance bells jingled. The smell of street rain wafted into the cafe, a mix of dank soil and wet street tar. A cold, humid gale cooled the heated shop. Steve lowered his phone and looked to the entrance, now ajar. Small wet footprints trailed to the food glass.
Standing at the register was a girl no older than seven. She wore a banana yellow rain slicker with its hood up, galoshes and ripped stockings. She squeezed the handle of a bent umbrella decorated with cartoon monsters. She was pale and trembling. She stood tall on her tiptoes, scanning behind the register. When her knees buckled, she sobbed.
“You okay?” Steve cleared his throat from the back table.
The girl spun around, her pale blue eyes wide. Strands of wet blonde hair dripped from her hood. She chewed her bright rose lips framed by pudgy cheeks before backing away to the entrance.
“Wait, I’m sorry,” Steve put down his phone and stood up slowly, hands up as if approaching a wild animal. “I won’t hurt you. I promise. I’m Steve or Steve-O.” Steve rolled his eyes before forcing a smile. “Are you lost?”
The girl took another step backward.
“Wait,” Steve inched closer. “Are you looking for Nikki? She’s taking out the garbage. She’ll be right back. Do you know her?”
The girl’s gaze hopped from the register, to the rainy streets, then to Steve-O. In a single solid motion, she slipped through the cracked door, shut it and ran down Alberta Street. Had she taken a left, she’d go near campus, but the girl took a right. Steve watched her wade through drowning sidewalks towards the sketchier part of town. Lightning crashed before she was out of view from the cafe’s large storefront window. Steve wrung his hands. He couldn’t let a little girl run through the streets alone. There was a killer out there. Steve raked his fingers through his hair, took a deep breath, and hurried out the front door.
The frigid deluge sent a wave of electricity down Steve’s body. Steve winced while hurrying down the flooded cement walkway. A sedan’s red taillights colored his path in crimson as it rolled to a stop near the curb. Steve hoped it was the girl’s parents and waved. His hopes were quickly crushed when the vehicle, driven by what looked like a pair of older teens, made a u-turn, splashing a puddle of slop onto Steve’s pants.
“You better not be in one of my classes,” Steve swore futilely. Steve turned his focus back down Alberta. He spotted the banana yellow jacket under a streetlight a block away. Steve picked up his pace. He fought through a crowd of tie and skirt donned passengers exiting a bus. He leapt over broken glass bottles in a narrow alley and hurried to the corner of 33rd Avenue. It was as Steve feared. His eyes followed the girl as she crossed the road and retreated into a rougher part of town. Steve had to be on guard. He looked both ways, then huffed across the crosswalk. The girl in the yellow jacket grew closer. She was in shouting distance now. Steve, out of breath, took a desperate gulp of air.
“Please wait,” he shouted, “little girl, I can help you find your parents.”