As he rounded a bend in the two-lane rural highway, Charles Redcliffe spotted the sign he’d been looking for. PLEASANT VIEW EATS.
Odd location for a diner. Across the street from a graveyard.
PLEASANT VIEW. Someone had a sense of humor.
He swung into the parking lot and nosed the BMW into a space where it would remain in full view from within. It was an expensive car, one worth keeping an eye on. The diner itself was an eyeful: tarnished chrome with orange trim shaped—appropriately, given its location—more like a coffin than the traditional trolley car; a half-hearted attempt at ornamental vegetation defeated by the recent drought, the handful of shrubs to have survived, streaked with brown, shriveling in the August heat; red neon sign, the N missing, sputtering the word OPE. For no particular reason a line from Dante’s Inferno flashed through his mind: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Who’re you kidding? he chided himself as he stepped inside. There’s a particular reason for The Inferno coming to mind: Harry.
The place was deserted, except for two drunks in a booth contemplating empty glasses lined up before them, and a bored-looking woman standing idly behind the counter. Redcliffe studied her without seeming to. She was young, in her mid twenties. Slatternly. Slightly overweight. Blonde hair, obviously dyed. Not bad looking, if your tastes drifted toward hard liquor and easy women.
The kind of female that Harry found appealing.
Had found appealing.
She directed a predatory stare at Redcliffe as he sank into the booth across from the drunks.
She took her time prying herself loose from the counter before sauntering over.
In the meantime Redcliffe was entertained by his neighbors across the aisle. One of them—middle-aged, fat, bald, with a double-chin and a complexion the color of a skinned rabbit—began telling a joke. Redcliffe realized the joke was being told for his benefit. During the recitation the man kept glancing his way, as if to assure himself of an audience. An audience who, finding the joke hilarious, might out of bonhomie and a spirit of camaraderie stand a round of drinks.
The man’s sad-faced companion sat across the table staring, as if looking into the past, he found only blank spaces where his life’s story should have been. Thin, sallow, with an emaciated look to match the shrubs outside, he listened indifferently, as if he’d heard the joke before. Maybe a dozen times.
“Guy’s wife just left him,” the blowzy man said. “He goes into a greasy spoon, just like this joint”—double chin quivers with mirth—“sits at the counter, waitress brings him coffee, asks, ‘What’ll you have?’ Guy looks at her, says, ‘Two eggs and a kind word.’ Waitress shrugs, walks away, comes back five minutes later with his eggs.”
Pause for dramatic effect. “She sets the eggs in front of him, turns and walks away. Guy says, ‘Thanks for the eggs, but where’s the kind word?’ She stops, looks at him and says, ‘Don’t eat the eggs.’ ” At the punch line, Double Chin slapped his palm onto the table with uncontrolled glee. “ ‘Don’t eat the eggs,’ she says. That’s the kind word. ‘Don’t eat the eggs.’ ” He turned to Redcliffe for approval.
Redcliffe feigned a laugh and nodded. When the woman reached his table to take his order she handed him a menu. The clear plastic that encased the menu looked as though a squadron of bluebottles had targeted it as a latrine. Repeatedly.
Without glancing at the menu he said, “Bring these gentlemen another round of whatever it is they’re drinking. For myself, I’ll have a cold Narragansett, with a chilled glass, if you can manage it. And get yourself a drink. I’ll decide in a minute or two what I want to eat. What’s your name, by the way?”
“Liz.” She ran her eyes over him, took in the absence of a wedding ring. They paused briefly at the Rolex. “What’s yours?”
“That your car out there, Charlie? Nice wheels.” With a flounce she walked away. Halfway to the counter she remembered to sway her hips. The effect only served to emphasize the flab developing along her waistline.