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The bell above the diner door let out a cheerful jingle, like it was personally welcoming me into the chaos of another day. Six months before, I’d blown into Jasper, Georgia like a leaf on the wind, a runaway from a past I’d rather not chat about, looking for a soft place to land. And land I did, smack dab in the middle of BJ’s Diner, a place so far from my old life it might as well have been on another planet.

I gave the place a once-over, pushing back a rebellious blonde strand that never did stay put. BJ’s wasn’t exactly the Ritz, more like a place one didn’t worry about using a fork. Heck, if you even found a matching set of cutleries, it was your lucky day. But it was where predictability had hung its hat, and Lord knew I hadn’t seen much of that since Mama had gotten sick. Life had been a whirlwind of chaos since she passed, but BJ’s? BJ’s had been a haven from the storm, the eye of the hurricane that had become my life ever since Mama got sick and left me all on my lonesome.

The usual suspects were already there, filling the air with laughter and the kind of gossip that could fuel a soap opera for months. BJ’s was like a living room, if your living room served coffee that could resurrect the dead and pancakes that could make you see God. Yes, they were that good. 

I stepped in, and the aroma of those infamous pancakes slapped me with a dose of hunger so strong, I nearly teared up.  Billy Joe Sosbee, the diner’s heart and soul was visible in the kitchen from the counter, busy flipping pancakes like they were going out of style, his burly frame belying the delicate touch he had with his culinary creations.

Billy Joe himself was a mountain of a man, his rough exterior hiding a talent for the most delicate of pastries and a heart as big and soft as his bear hugs.

Betty Lou Washington, with her ever-present cigarette and a glare that could strip paint, was the first to greet me. “Well, if it ain’t Sarah Dunmore, looking like she’s been dragged backward through a bush.” Her Southern twang wrapped around each word, as she’d once said, like molasses. Her cigarette threatened to drop ashes on the magazine she was pretending to read. "You keep burning the candle at both ends, girl. But remember, even Jesus took a day off."

“I hear you, my friend.” 

Betty Lou was as much a part of the diner as the chipped bar stools and the faded checkered tiles, and though she pretended not to like anyone, she’d defend them with her life. 

I chuckled, tying on my apron, and getting my section ready. “And good morning to you too, Betty Lou. You’re looking especially radiant today.”  

She smirked, tapping ashes into a tray. “Got me a new lipstick today. ‘Desire’s Fire,’ they call it. Supposed to make the men swoon. I’m just hoping it’ll make ‘em tip better.”

“If it does, I’m buying it in bulk,” I shot back, and we shared a conspiratorial giggle.

The diner was a cross-section of Jasper itself, a place where everyone’s business was everyone else’s and where the coffee and gossip flowed in equal measure. Farmers debated the going rate for corn, local moms hashed out plans for the school bake sale, and a couple of tourists had wandered in, lured by the promise of the best pancakes in Georgia.

Just then, Dolly Rae had pranced in, a walking, talking Southern belle fashion show. She was all chiffon and charm, hair stacked to the heavens. She was a sight, Dolly Rae, and her entrance had never failed to stir up a few chuckles.

"Y'all wouldn't believe what Mavis tried to pawn off on me at the yard sale," she had announced, not waiting for any sort of invitation. "A gently used wig! Can you imagine?"

The diner had erupted in laughter, the sound mixing with the sizzle of bacon and the clink of coffee cups. It was just another day in Jasper, a small town with a big heart and secrets tucked in every corner.

Hal Bennett, one of the regulars settled into his favorite spot at table seven. He was a staple around the diner, usually lost in a book or scribbling away in his journal. But that day, Hal seemed off. There was a restlessness about him that set my nerves on edge.

I made my way over, pouring him a cup of coffee. “Everything alright today, Hal?” 

His eyes, usually so focused, flitted around the diner like a spooked deer. “Right as rain, Sarah.” 

“What can I get you?” 

“Just the usual. Oh, and keep the coffee coming,” he muttered, not meeting my eye.

“You got it, Hal,” I replied, worry nibbling at the edge of my mind. I jotted down his daily order, then ripped off the ticket and walked it over to the counter where I placed it on a board for Billy Joe. 

The diner’s familiar rhythm soothed me, as a moved from table to table, filling coffees, chatting about the open mic night at Rocco’s, and about the rumor that a new Publix was coming to town. All of it felt like balm to the chaos that still whispered from my past.

Betty Lou leaned in as I passed the counter again, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “What’s got into Hal today? He’s jumpier than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”

“You noticed it too?” I murmured back. 

“Hard not to. Man hasn’t smiled since he slithered through the door.” 

“Maybe he had a rough morning,” I said. “I’ll give him one of Billy Joe’s pastries to take home. Might cheer him up.” 

The morning rush swept me along with it, the clatter of dishes and murmur of voices a comforting cacophony. But Hal’s odd behavior stayed with me, a nagging thought I couldn’t shake.

Betty Lou walked up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. “You see that?” 

“See what?” 

“Hal’s gone, and he left something under the table.” 

I turned to look, and she was right. Hal had vanished, leaving behind only a small bag. I hurried over and saw he’d also left a hastily scribbled note with my name on it. The sight of it sent a cold shiver down my spine, my heart thudding uncomfortably in my chest.

“What’s in the bag?” she asked. 

I hesitated, my past mistakes clawing at the edges of my thoughts. “I guess there’s only one way to find out,” I said, my voice barely above a whisper as I reached for the bag. The diner’s usual hustle and bustle faded into the background as I braced myself, knowing it was likely that opening the bag would reveal secrets I didn’t want to know. 

Inside, I found a reminder of the life I’d fled in Atlanta, a life filled with choices I would have given anything to forget. The note in my hand felt like a crossroads, a warning of the decisions that lay ahead, whispering of roads both taken and forsaken. Trouble with a capital t. 

“Well, lookie here,” she said. “Never thought I’d see that much cash in one place.” 

“Shh,” I said. “I don’t want anyone to know about this.” I glanced around the diner, the faces of Jasper’s residents fading into a blur. The laughter of a nearby table pierced the heavy air around me, a sound so full of life and devoid of the shadows that haunted me, I almost forgot about what I’d found. It was a reminder of why I was there, in the diner, in that town—searching for redemption, for a new beginning.

“What’s the note say?” 

“Keep this safe for me,” I said. 

“That’s a mighty big tip,” she said. 

Billy Joe tapped the bell near the kitchen’s window. “Order up!” 

With a deep breath, I tucked the note back into the bag, hiding it and the stacks of hundred-dollar bills from view. My past might be a shadow, but there, in Jasper’s Diner, I had found a sliver of light, and I didn’t want a bag of money to dim it. I just had to figure out what Hal’s mysterious message meant—and how it would fit into the new life I was desperately trying to build.


USA Today Bestselling Author Carolyn Ridder Aspenson writes contemporary cozy mysteries, paranormal cozy mysteries, thrillers, and paranormal women's fiction featuring strong and snarky female leads.
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