The boom of the air conditioner brought a gust of cool air moments later.
“All right, the air’s back on,” Guthrie said. One of the other biker’s had called him that anyway. Yes, the air was back on, but something wasn’t right. Arlene looked over at Dusty who was fidgeting as if bugs were landing on her. She probably needed her drugs again. With these men watching them, she probably couldn’t get to whatever it was she had in her locker. But maybe she was feeling what Arlene was feeling. Something had happened on the roof and Gladys was not all right. Perhaps it was just her imagination, but at the very least, she could divide the men watching them even more and she could begin implementing her plan.
Arlene looked to Todd—yes, that was his name. She’d served him a few times before. He ate the same thing every time he came in, tipped the same too. A cheeseburger with extra pickles, fried potato slices, and a dollar thirty-five—exactly twenty-percent. Todd was slow, but Arlene had always been extra nice to him even with the poor tipping and all. You never know when kindness will pay off, her mother always said. Well, this time Arlene did have an idea.
Todd had an oddly unimposing way of doing things. Much like everyone did with her, she’d underestimated him. He was slouch-shouldered and hung his head low, preferring to shuffle behind other people rather than walk by himself. Even with his poor posture he was a giant. But unlike Arlene, this manner of hiding himself kept people from really noticing him, whereas she was almost always the center of attention whatever room she walked in.
She’d seen just how special he was about a month ago, though. It was raining at the Spoon and Todd’s ride was late. Arlene had never asked exactly who was picking the boy-man up, she’d just assumed it was a parent. He’d just sat there for two hours, not eating, not drinking, not even getting up to use the restroom. When he heard the horn honk from outside, he’d immediately jumped out of his booth to look.
Yes, it had been his ride. He’d been about to bolt for the door when he’d reached skyward. At first, Arlene had assumed something was wrong. The way his long arm dragged slowly up, his fingers widely splayed. The normally slack expression on his face tightened as his back bowed and he made this deep, guttural sound. The first thing she’d thought sitting on her stool and rubbing her aching foot, was that he’d been having a seizure. Arlene had been about to run over to him to help, though she hadn’t a clue how she would have. He was stretched to his full size and she’d guessed he had to have been somewhere north in height of her father who’d been six-foot seven and outweighed him by a good thirty pounds of muscle.
As she’d relaxed, realizing the boy-man was just stretching, her attention had been pulled taut yet again as his shirt lifted, exposing the deepest set of a six-pack she’d ever seen. He’d let his arm fall, but flexed both in front of him, the muscles to either side of his neck popping up as if he were about to sprout a pair of fleshy wings. But before that shirt had come down, she’d seen something else.
The markings had been very distinct and as Todd snatched up his backpack and had run for the door, she’d realized she’d even seen them before. On TV.
Todd was the wrestler, Sinistar.
Billed from parts unknown, he wore a mask and never spoke, leaving all the talking to the little Russian man with the facial hair like pubic shavings. Sinistar had only been on a few months, but he was an instant sensation. He’d tossed around opponents big and small like rag dolls and had defeated all of them with a crippling move called the facecrusher in which he’d palm a downed man’s face and squeeze until he’d submitted.
Of course it was all fake, Arlene had known that since she was eight years old, but upon a Google search a day after a steel cage match, she’d learned that Sinistar had actually broken Jimmy Mambo’s cheekbone. Jimmy’s face didn’t look quite the same after that, even after the mask came off. One of his eyes was always a little more squinty than the other. The big Samoan retired shortly after that. He’d been older and a lot flabbier than the other wrestlers, but Arlene had always suspected it mostly to do with the mauling he’d gotten, literally at the hand of Sinistar.
Arlene never confronted him on it, didn’t want to embarrass him or drive him away. It was odd in the same way that meeting a celebrity was odd. Surreal was probably a better word, but the celebrity in question was Todd. On the one hand he’d never attempted to use his celebrity in any way, never hinted at it. If anything, she thought he’d be ashamed. But the man who climbed in the ring every Saturday night on TV was an unbridled monster. Sure, it was acting, but he was so convincing at it. It had made Arlene believe the wrestler was real and the boy man who sat in the same booth in her section every afternoon, moon-faced and innocent, was the fake.
She would find out the first opportunity she got. Everyone around her, including Guthrie and his group, was treating her with kid gloves as if she were still in shock. Perhaps on a level she was, but her mind had never felt clearer. Arlene didn’t dare speak because she wasn’t ready to reveal herself and perhaps she could work her way over to Todd and once half-forgotten, she could bend his ear and forge a plan with a man who could easily murder just about anyone who had wandered into the spoon, including these would-be kidnappers.
“Okay, so the boys should be down any minute,” Guthrie continued. “Now I wanna hear some ideas about what we do with that.” He pointed outside with a knife about as long as his forearm.
“And why should we help you?” Arnie said. “You’ve given us no assurances that we will all leave here with our lives intact.”
Guthrie turned and looked at him.
“If I was gonna kill you, I wouldda done it already. I wouldda carved your face off to make Freddy boy here talk. You do realize he’s the only one we really want, right?”
“I gathered that. It’s his aunt you want and you need to go through him to get to her. Let’s cut to the chase, what are the odds of our survival if we help you find her?”
“What? I just told you—
“I’m aware of what you said, but if we implicate ourselves in your scheme, then we have all the reason in the world to keep quiet about the whole affair.”
“Arnie!” Dusty said. Arlene’s ears perked and she locked her eyes on him. She was surprised she hadn’t thought of it first and it made perfect sense. If everybody agreed to be part of the crime, then the killers, thieves—whatever they were, had no cause to do anything to them.
Guthrie folded his arms, holding the knife upright and smacking it lightly against his lips as he considered. After a few seconds he shook his head and chuckled.
“You wanna help? Okay, help. You got my word that if everybody pitches in an idea, if everybody has somethin’ to say about how we can get to Freddy-boy’s dear sweet aunt, you all get to go free and clear.” Guthrie spread his arms wide, turning to look at everyone gathered in Arlene’s little section of the Spoon. She noticed him biting his lips, trying to hide a smile. From the glint in his eye, she could suddenly see this was not a dangerous man by nature. That if forced, he’d hurt someone, but even then, there would be no joy in it. How she could tell such a thing, Arlene didn’t have a guess, but the look denoted the smile was not born out of trickery. No, Guthrie had no intent on killing anyone and so far nobody believed him. They thought the smile was one of a liar who had every intention of putting a bullet in every single one of them.
But just because he didn’t want to kill anybody didn’t mean nobody was going to die.
No. Only she could prevent that. But she might have to kill a few people first. Or have somebody kill a few people. Arlene looked at Todd. Innocent, sweet, completely unimposing Todd. He was glancing nervously out the window—no doubt for his ride. If his mentally handicapped act was real—and Arlene was ninety-percent sure it was—then he might not understand anything that had happened—still happening. And he might need a gentle voice to soothe him over.
She slowly stood and caught Guthrie looking from the corner of her eye. “She okay?” he said as she turned and slowly headed toward Todd’s booth.
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Fred said. “Booth seats get hard on your bottom, you sit on ‘em too long. Yeah, see she’s heading to a booth seat. Dusty, why don’t you help her?” Fred pronounced ‘why don’t you’ as one word—whyonchoo. Arlene had heard him say that a thousand times, but suddenly the phrase struck her funny. But then she realized it wasn’t the phrase, it was something else. She was feeling something, but not with her own body. It pulled her attention entirely away from her own actions and completely elsewhere.
“Whoa-whoa-whoa, catch her, catch her, catcher!” somebody shouted and Arlene blinked several times, her eyes slowly focusing on the ceiling. She felt a rough arm draw from underneath her then the hard linoleum floor at her back. The skin at her forehead and chest felt cooler than a minute ago and she realized she’d broken out in sweat.
“Must have been that stool,” someone said.
“Back up, leave her some air.”
“Here’s some water. Don’t worry, nobody’s drunk from it.”
Someone tipped Arlene’s head up and a glass was pushed against her lips. She drank automatically and felt the final dregs of the heat flash or whatever it had been pass like a fire dipped in water. It would have been easy to just let them guide her to where ever they thought best and ride this whole thing out while someone else was in charge.
But shock or no, Arlene was too determined for that. She forced her mind to focus, not her eyes because that would play into what everyone was thinking about her, especially now. Hell, many of them were saying it right out loud.
“Poor thing, she’s still in shock.” That was Mrs. Drury. Her husband, Dr. Edward Drury, retired, was right beside her, a far off look Arlene could only hope to match. He had dementia and was on the rapid decline, though Mrs. Drury kept him in a routine in hopes of retaining as much of the man she’d known and loved for the last thirty-seven years.
Hm. That was odd. Although she’d had the occasional light conversation with Mrs. Drury, they’d never had any such discussion about her husband’s mental health, but Arlene knew all of it to be true. Had she read the old woman’s mind? Was that something she could do now?
“You ready to stand, sweetie?” One of the biker’s wrapped and arm around her shoulder and she saw him clear as day, though her eyes were mostly on the ground. Bill Monk was a substitute teacher and amateur painter. His wife had left him six months ago after a misunderstanding about some pictures she’d found on his laptop. It wasn’t a big deal, he’d just found them. It wasn’t like he’d touched himself when he saw them—only looked. But now that damned Fontleroy and his fucking hackers—
—And just like that it was gone. It was like a phone conversation and the line had dropped out. Arlene looked and saw that Bill Monk was no longer touching her. They were all watching her, like a baby making its first steps as she gingerly slid into the booth seat across from Todd. Arlene thought she understood what just happened and if she did, all the better for her plan. Something had happened. Whether it had something to do with the strange man outside, she didn’t know, but she could read people through contact. Not like a sheet of facts printed on the screen of their minds, but like in a sit down conversation if someone were inclined to tell all about themselves—cups of tea included—except it wasn’t really them they were telling about, but the idea of them. The things they preferred to be and the things they didn’t, conveniently omitted. That was the tricky part of it, though. Most people were liars. They lied about who they were even to themselves. She’d have to be careful about what she listened to when she touched anybody, lest she believe the wrong thing about them. Pressed the wrong button and elicited the wrong response. Perhaps minor contact only gave her surface information. Maybe she could dig deeper, scoop aside the dressed-up stuff people put on when they thought about themselves.
Arlene looked up shyly at all the faces pointed in her direction. Todd fidgeted in her peripheral vision, clearly uncomfortable with all the sudden attention. She reached out and gently grasped the hand nearest her and whispered, “Could use another glass of water. Mighty thirsty.” She felt rather than saw the person nod, not reading him because she wasn’t trying to read, she was trying to write. She realized something else in the brief second her hand covered his: Arlene had also sensed everything he was sensing and feeling at the time. She’d seen herself, looking shaken and weak—why, not even able to lift the knife and fork wrapped in the napkin left on the table next to her. Felt his tongue lick over his upper lip as some foreign thing just below his belt tugged against his pants. She realized it was his hard-on and how he ached to touch it, but resisted because some part of him thought better of it. Instead, he would serve her—yes, give her whatever she asked for until she would give him what he asked for. What he needed. Oh, the things he would do with his tongue if only—
Arlene slipped her hand from his, seated back behind her own eyes. Was this what every man felt when he saw her? She’d known she’d had influence, but to experience firsthand what a man felt when he was overbrimming with lust when he looked at her, it was… intoxicating.
Not that she would ever be interested in the man himself, just the idea that she held that much power. The only thought she’d pushed into his mind was for him to leave and he did, but not before she’d received a significant amount of feedback in precious few seconds.
“Sit back, dear,” Mrs. Kelly said, resting a hand on her back. Arlene flinched from it, not ready to take on another person’s thoughts so quickly. As much as the man had pleased her, adding another person so soon agitated her. But clearly, echoing through her mind as she ripped herself away from the forty-something year old woman who had looked upon her with envy on more than one occasion, came the word ‘cunt’.
Arlene whirled and stared daggers at the woman who had gone wide-eyed, but quickly recovered, slumping her head onto her arm stretched across the table.
“So tired,” Arlene said, letting her hand fall gently on one of Todd’s powerful forearms. At first, there was nothing. No, not nothing, but a sheet of white. Then there was a little boy in a green and white short-sleeved shirt and blue jean shorts yanking the sheet off a clothesline. The little boy had a wide gap where two front teeth were wedging their way through his gumline and blond, mop-top hair. A pale, tall woman with raven-black hair pinned up in a bun stood a few feet away in the shade of a tall tree hanging a shirt. The boy dashed over to her and hugged around her hips, pressing the side of his head into the soft hollow of her stomach. Her hand, still damp from the shirt, fell against the side of his face and stroked his cheek. The boy looked up at her and she down at him—an absolutely perfect moment of love passing between the two of them. Then her face split open and a red thing sprang out at him.
Arlene and Todd both flinched at the same time. He blinked several times and so did she, her head rising from the table. Most of the people had gone back to what they’d been doing a moment before, but there was a commotion over by the kitchen. Someone yelled something, but Arlene couldn’t translate it, despite the words being spoken in English.
“What was that?” she asked Todd. His perfect blue eyes settled on her and at first she saw no sign of recognition. But then he narrowed them, looking her up and down before locking into her eyes.
Todd opened his mouth to speak—
—And someone on the other side of the Spoon shouted, “It’s Gladys!”