Chapter One
Paranoia

She was a waitress near Reno when death came for her, in the form of an angrily hurled, badly aimed spatula. She had never expected to die at the hands of the fry cook at her humble place of employment, but no one really expects to die in a greasy diner with half a name off Highway 395. No one really expects to die of cyanide poisoning twenty thousand feet above the Atlantic Ocean, either, but her father had. She should have guessed that death would not announce itself to her in quite so courteous a fashion as it did for those people unfortunate enough to die of heart attacks and gunshot wounds. Her father's father had suffered the same misfortune, and she herself suffered a notable lack of brothers upon whom she could bestow this familial tendency.

The diner in question had, once upon a time, been called Skinny's. The irony had escaped few people who knew Buck Fisher, the original cook, whose prodigious weight of nearly four hundred pounds was entirely the result of delectably fattening food. Fortunately, not many who ventured through the wide doors of the aluminum trailer that housed the establishment were privy to that bit of information. To them, Skinny's was just another meal on the way to whatever end they were creating for themselves.

It was old, to be sure, but well kept enough that renovations weren't strictly necessary. The linoleum floor, while faded and worn, was intact. The counters were chipped at the edges and corners, a bit, but were short of run down. Even the original tin siding was in relatively good condition. The waitress had a certain affection for the place, in all its antiquity.

The neon sign had weathered badly through the many years it had welcomed travelers weary of the highway into the diner's fluorescently illuminated interior. Only three letters and the apostrophe remained intact. The last S sometimes flickered to life before particularly vicious thunderstorms, deeming the would-be rust bucket diner "S in 's." She thought it was a good enough name for the place, after spending nearly three years of her relatively young life waiting the Formica tables and plastic booths. Truckers and loners and stoners came through with big dreams and small realities, happy to spend the night with a slim, decent looking waitress. She had never been among the righteously inclined, and the men were mostly harmless. It was a bearable life.

Lou Baker and his wife had just left, after socializing over two mugs of black, steaming coffee. The waitress mostly stayed out of the conversation, but she listened to the tidbits of gossip regarding Mabel Kerlick and the question of whether she was sleeping with Kurt Hughes. Personally, the waitress found it unlikely. Maybe she just didn't want to consider the possibility of two people, a widow and widower, respectively, having sex at an age when many of their peers were dead. In any case, she kept her mouth shut until after the Bakers had paid their tab and hobbled out. They, too, were getting along in years.

"Do you really think Mabel and Kurt…" she asked Bernie, who shook his head and winked.

"Annie Baker doesn't know a thing, sweetheart, but it's easier to let her talk. Smile and nod, eventually she'll pay up and leave. I can't afford to be running motor mouths out of here, as much business as we get." A slow day for the diner was a good day, but somehow it always managed to turn, if not a profit, enough to live on.

The booths were now empty, the tables had been wiped down with a not quite clean rag, and Bernie, the cook in question, was moments from shutting down the griddle for the night when the cheap jingle bells tied with frayed ribbon to the front door clamored halfheartedly. The late July heat was brutally draining, and even the desert seemed to have a tired complexion to it. The bells had long lost their holiday luster, but never had they rung so hollowly. Ironically, they reminded her of death.

A sweat stained maroon work shirt proclaimed the latecomer's name to be Buck, though he conjured no reminder of the diner's founder. His dirty blonde hair was unattractively streaked with gray, heavily in places, and a toothbrush mustache gave him a distinctly unkempt impression. Gray-brown eyes did nothing to liven up his face. Bernie grumbled about closing hours before the man was in earshot, but the waitress immediately felt her nerves grate on edge. Something inexplicable about his gruffness threatened her, and he hadn't even said a word.

"Watch him for me, will you, Bernie?" she asked in her sweet Southwestern drawl. Bernie nodded in acknowledgement, nonchalantly picking up one of the knives arrayed across the cutting board, cleaned and waiting to have their edges honed. He glided the blade against a sharpening stone, producing a metallic rasp that intensified the chill the waitress felt creeping down the back of her neck. The stranger seemed unfazed.

He sat down heavily on one of the cracked wooden stools that waited crookedly under the bar, the legs scuttling across the linoleum with an almost insectile chatter. Both of his meaty hands found the countertop and rested there lazily, as if waiting for something to strangle. She tried not to look at his hands as she fought down the feeling of unease that was sitting quite solidly in her throat. She failed miserably, but later she would console herself in the fact that she tried.

"The lights go off in ten minutes, buddy," Bernie said, knife and sharpening stone held at ease in his comparatively small hands. She had always thought that Bernie could stand up to anyone who might pass through the diner, but doubts were niggling their way to the front of her mind as she compared the two large men. Bernie worked in a diner, after all, and his mass was soft and slow. He was a sedentary man, whereas this newcomer was vaguely muscular and seemingly comfortable with his size.

She was slender, in a way that implied a naturally quick metabolism rather than any aspirations of fitness. Buck, who was currently picking at his teeth with a splinter of wood he had produced out of his shirt pocket, could probably snap her spine like a broom handle. She shuddered at the mental image as she swept the floor, testing the resiliency of the wood between strokes.

"Got any liquor in this dump?" Buck asked, his voice as deep and rough as she had expected. She bristled at his choice of words. Skinny's was by no means a dump. Outdated and more than a bit worn around the edges, perhaps, but it was clean enough. She had never heard anyone complain. Her sweeping picked up a little more fervor as she noticed the dark smudges of dirt between the linoleum floor tiles. They refused to come loose.

"Nothin' harder than tap water," Bernie replied archly. "If you're lookin' to get boozed, there's a truck stop down the way."

"I'm not looking for anything," Buck answered coolly, "least of all trouble. Nothing more than a question, friend."

"Five minutes." She could hear the restraint tugging at Bernie's voice.

"I guess I'll have some of that tap water, then." His accent was subtle and generic, probably faded from spending so much time between places. Many of the truckers shared that trait, a confused regional identity forged of too many nights passed too close to highways.

Bernie pulled a glass from under the counter and filled it from the kitchen sink. The water sloshed as he set the glass on the Formica, leaving a ring when Buck picked it up and glugged heavily. Bernie dragged a damp, stained towel across the puddle, spreading the mess more than cleaning it. Buck set the empty glass back down on the streaked counter and stood up. The stool creaked in appreciation, sliding a few inches backwards to accommodate his shifting weight.

"I can see that you folks are eager to be out of this excuse for a swinging joint. I'll be on my way for the night, I suppose, if you'll tell me what I owe ya." His prodigious fists clenched and relaxed repeatedly, as if he were nervous about something. She noticed only because her eyes kept straying to his hands, and she reminded herself several times that he wasn't posing any viable threat to her.

"Doesn't seem right to charge you for a glass of water," Bernie told him, setting down the knife and stone he had reclaimed after drawing the water. He looked wearier than she had ever seen him, and she suspected that he was eager just to get this disconcerting man out of his diner so that he could go home to his empty trailer. She wanted much the same thing tonight.

"Much obliged," Buck said, nodding his thanks to Bernie, then to her. His muddy eyes had a hard gleam that suggested a history of malice, but she knew she was probably imagining it. She had lived too long among those fleeing life, and looked for the potential for hurt in everyone. She herself was fleeing life, in a way, so it didn't surprise her that a little paranoia had found its way into her emotionally barren existence.

The door swung shut with as much grace as a wounded cow, bells jangling off tempo. She put the broom away and untied her apron, looking to Bernie for approval. "Do you want me to stay for anything?" she asked.

"Everything's packed up and wiped down, I don't see why you'd need to stick around. Have a nice night, honey. Get some sleep, for God's sake. If you come in tomorrow looking that tired, I'll send you straight home and call Ethel to come in. Thursdays are slow, I'm sure she could handle it." Ethel was Bernie's sister, who also called everyone below the age of forty "honey". She had waited tables at Skinny's up until the day a seventeen year old girl from Crawford, Colorado had showed up on the morning bus, asking for a job.

She felt bad, some days, for taking Ethel's job, but the older woman had given it up in an instant. That had been three years ago, and Ethel still came in to wait tables whenever she was needed. She was sixty-seven now, Bernie's senior by fourteen years, but she was still spry.

"I'll try," she promised him, slipping her apron over her head and stuffing it under the counter. "See you bright and early."

"I don't know about bright, but it'll definitely be early."

"Goodnight, Bernie."

"Goodnight."

She closed the door behind her slowly, bells barely stirring.