by Anthony Lukas
part 1 of 2
Jennifer was sitting at the end of the counter, watching the guy behind it. The diner was pretty empty this time of day, a couple at a table and a couple of singles further down the counter. She toyed with her salad, taking as long as possible so she could watch him.
She had been to the diner before, a couple of times, not too close together in time, and had sat at tables, not the counter, so as not to be noticed. She had spotted it the first time in, but, “You know protocol requires repeated observations over a specified period of time, Jennifer,” Linda had said. So here she was again.
He seemed like a nice guy, Jennifer thought, from the way he spoke to customers and the other employees. Nice, but with just a tinge of sadness? Patient, quiet-spoken, didn’t rush anyone with their orders. She had watched him with a couple of older ladies the other day, who kept changing their sandwich orders, getting confused about what they had ordered to drink and taking just way too much time. But he had just waited, even maybe with a small smile on his lips.
He seemed just a bit older than she and she idly thought about the possibilities, glancing at herself in the big mirror behind the counter. She was pretty, she thought, not beautiful, but definitely pretty. Big hazel eyes, long auburn hair, nice figure. Some guys were attracted to her, she mused.
She was startled by a metallic clang. She cursed herself for being distracted and saw that he had dropped a small cream pitcher to the floor. He was already picking it up and sopping the spilled milk with a towel.
He had dropped two other things while she had been watching today: a plastic cup used to hold the soda straws and a bundle of napkins. She had caught the first with her camera and hoped she had pictures of the creamer incident. She picked up her camera from the counter top where she had left it pointing down the counter in his direction and now he was coming up to her with his brown eyes, asking, “Need a box for that?”
“Please. It is so good, but I can’t finish it.”
“We pride ourselves on giving generous portions” — he smiled — “and keep a large stock of ‘to go’ boxes at the ready.” He reached under the counter and she heard what sounded like paper cartons tumble to the floor.
She saw him pause for just a second, take a breath, then do something, and then stand up with an empty takeout box. “Sorry about that. Some of the empty boxes decided to head for the floor there. Anything else today?” At Jennifer’s “No, thank you,” he pulled off her bill from his pad and left it on the counter. “Whenever you’re ready, no hurry.” He went off to check on the others farther down the lunch counter.
She watched him walking away and smiled slightly. Looks good coming and going, she thought, then sternly reminded herself that this was business and that Linda would not approve of such daydreaming on the job. She left money for her meal, perhaps with just a slightly over-generous tip, and headed out the door and toward downtown to the Foundation offices.
* * *
Into the elderly office building, up in the ornate elevators, down the echoing hallway to the Foundation’s office doors. She smiled at Ken at the reception desk and headed down the quiet corridor to her office. Her takeout box on her desk, coat on the rack, she plugged her camera into her computer and sat for a moment waiting for it to boot up.
Not for the first time she marveled at being where she was. Just out of college, approached by Linda for reasons that Jennifer still did not know or understand; a year or so of training and study and here she was with her own little office and her first solo case. She shook her head, thinking how things had seemingly just fallen into place and how it just seemed natural that she be here. Her laptop beeped it was ready, and she started reviewing the scenes taken at the diner.
Straw holder incident: The straw he’s pulling out doesn’t quite clear the side of the holder. Hmm, thought Jennifer, looks legit. Just an accident.
Coffee creamer: He’s putting it down on the counter and... it looks okay... and wait! Jennifer went back and looked frame by frame. Creamer put on counter, on the edge but at rest and then... there! The creamer jumps toward the edge and onto the floor. Aha!
Back to a couple of days ago: a fork is on the side of a dish that he’s turning to serve; it slides off the plate but in the wrong direction relative to the movement of the plate; another “Aha!”
Some more incidents: He takes a napkin from the top of a pile, and the pile slips to the floor. He shifts a stack of cups to get to something else and the stack falls over. And several more probable accidents, but also several “Aha’s!”
Besides the diner she had scenes of the counter guy in other places, having discretely followed him at the college he attended and the neighborhood where he lived. She hadn’t been enthusiastic about following him around, but as Linda had said, “We need positive observations from multiple locations, Jennifer. Otherwise how could be we be sure the problem is attached to him, and not site-specific to the diner? I am afraid you must ‘get your stealth on’, as they say.” Of course she was right, as usual, darn her, although Jennifer had wondered who ‘they’ were and did they really say “get your stealth on”?
Now Jennifer reviewed scenes of him in the market, in common areas of his college, in a coffee shop and other places, meeting with friends. And, Jennifer noted idly, no sign of a steady girlfriend. And there had been a couple of positives.
Jennifer went through the rest of the material, deciding on ten positives, typed her report, attached the relevant footage, and sent it to Linda. She leaned back in her chair, stretching her arms over her head, then got up and took her coffee mug to the lounge and poured a cup.
She walked back into her office and diminutive Linda was sitting there. “Looks good,” Linda said. Linda, the head of the Foundation, stood — when she was standing — about five feet tall. She had a face that had seen many an experience, but still managed a smile most of the time. As she did now.
“You’ve read it already?”
Linda shrugged. “Pretty straightforward. At least fifteen or so positives, plus your initial observations. Looks like a prima facie case to me. Undoubtedly warrants further inquiry. How do you think we should proceed?”
Fifteen? thought Jennifer, then realized Linda had asked her what they should do next and was sitting, smiling and waiting for an answer. “Ah... well. I was thinking the Butigan Stone,” and held her breath.
Linda nodded. “A good choice. I agree. You can breathe now.” Jennifer did. “Tell me, what can you tell me about our subject, other than that he is kind of cute?”
Jennifer felt herself blushing. “Uh, he’s a graduate student at the university, working on a master’s degree in biology. He’s been working at the diner for a couple of years, largely supporting himself through college. He seems a quiet sort, very patient.”
Linda was nodding.
“When he had his accidents, mostly he just went on, not showing impatience. Although sometimes. when something was knocked over, I saw him pause for just a second, kinda take a breath and then move on. He was obviously frustrated some of the time.”
“And given your observations, do you have an opinion as to how long this has been going on?”
Jennifer thought hard. How long? She’d never thought to think about that. She shook her head.
Linda said, “To me his mannerisms show a longstanding affliction. He has learned to cope with his problems by slowing down, not hurrying his work, and this has led to his exhibition of patience with people. It is most interesting how situations like this often lead to positives in people’s lives.”
Linda looked thoughtful. “It will be interesting to see how he reacts when the properties of the Butigan Stone are brought to bear.” She nodded thoughtfully and then asked Jennifer, “When will you go and will you just Entrap or do a Reveal?”
Jennifer hesitated. “I’m not sure, yet.”
Linda rose and headed for the door. “Hmm, yes, there are number of considerations in this case... not all technical,” she said, looking back at Jennifer with her smile. “I will leave the decision to your sound discretion, Miss O’Connell. Keep me informed.”
Jennifer sat thinking after she had left. Linda had let her do the investigation, agreed to her plan of action and now was leaving the decision of the ‘when’ and ‘how’ to her. She felt a flush of pride. She bit her lower lip in thought and said, “Tomorrow,” grabbed her leftovers and headed home.
* * *
Early next afternoon, she headed out of her office and down the hall to the dispensary with a smile on her face. Always a pleasure to see Ms. Puddin, she thought. She pushed open the swinging doors and saw the elderly, round-faced women perched on a stool behind the big wooden counter. She was examining a large glass ashtray and muttering to herself, “Holiday Inn? Now when the heck was I at the Holiday Inn... Oh, yeah, sure.”
And then looked up and noticed Jennifer. “Ah, hello, Jennifer,” she said, dumping the ashtray into a voluminous purse on the counter. “What can I do for you?”
“I need a few things, Ms. P. A trap and the Butigan Stone.”
“Ah, revealer of truths. Let’s see...” She turned to a keyboard and began tapping away. “Hmm, yes, there we are. Came back in yesterday. Hold on.” She eased down from her stool and headed back into the stacks, humming what sounded like “Hello Dolly” as she went.
Jennifer fidgeted, listening to the tune decrease as Ms. Puddin headed back into the stacks, then get louder as she came back to the counter. She was holding a metallic cube and a small, dark wood box. “Here you go. Check it out before you check it out.”
Jennifer politely smiled at Ms. Puddin’s joke, just as she had all the other times she had heard it. Unhooking the latch on the box, Jennifer looked inside at a pink cut stone and two pairs of tinted glasses.
“All there?” asked Ms. Puddin and at Jennifer’s nod she pushed a pad toward her. “Sign here please, Miss.” After Jennifer had signed it, Ms. Puddin smiled. “Good luck, Kiddo.” She returned to rummaging in her bag. “Acapulco? When was...” And the door swung closed on the rest.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Anthony Lukas