Today's Reading

Pepi's was a long, low building made out of curved aluminum siding with a mirrorlike finish, the metal and the water that flowed down it reflecting the multicolored wonder of the neon sign. The walls were ridged like a trailer, although as far as I could tell the building wasn't built to move. It had a red roof that wasn't quite flat and big red double doors and windows all around three sides which were also big and also framed in red. There was an awning stretched out along the whole front of the joint. The awning bounced in the wind and the rain sprayed back up into the air in a mist so thick that when the neon sign flashed red it looked like Pepi had set his grill too high and lit the place afire.

I checked my watch and then I checked my internal chronometer just to be sure. They both told me it was coming up nine in the evening. But despite the hour and despite the weather the place was doing steady business. From my position behind the wheel I could see into Pepi's pretty well, the rain so heavy it ran what was effectively a single, solid sheet down the windshield, which did nothing to my view except to make it ripple a little.

Inside the restaurant were five occupied tables, three by the front windows and two farther back, and I could see three waitresses moving around in red-and-white uniforms. There was a young man in white busy behind the main counter and behind him there was another man working the grill. My view was so good I could even read the menus that hung over the counter if I zoomed in a little.

The three tables at the front were booths. The one nearest the restaurant's doors was occupied by a trio, two teenage girls dressed like cheerleaders and one teenage boy dressed like a jock. He had red hair and one of the girls was a blonde and the other a brunette and they laughed and drank their milkshakes and all was right with the world.

In the next booth along sat an older couple. She was blond and wore a dress almost the same color as her hair. What hair the man had left was mouse brown and he wore glasses and they were both more interested in their chicken salads than each other.

The next booth was empty. The one after that had, until a minute ago, been home to just one man. He was wearing a black suit with black tie and white shirt. I'd gotten into position after he had come in, but I assumed the long, wet, black coat hanging on the chromium hook by the doors was his, as was the black hat with black band that sat on the table in front of him. He'd been there a while, and despite the persuasive nature of Pepi's servers, he had yet to order anything and any conversation he'd had with the staff had been short and to the point, but on a night like this Pepi and his staff were clearly pleased enough to have some company so the black-suited customer had been permitted to stay without giving the place his custom.

A couple of times the man in the booth had looked out of the windows and he had looked straight at me, but I knew I was safe. The lights inside the restaurant were bright and white, and while the parking lot was lit in moving reds and yellows and blues by Pepi's magical neon sign, that helped me a great deal, given I was sitting inside a dark car behind a windshield slick with water. I didn't need to breathe, on account of the fact that I was a wonder of electronic wizardry and mechanical genius, so none of the windows were in any danger of fogging up. If the guy at the booth had been looking at me all he would have seen was the shape of a largish car like all the other largish cars in the lot and the mirrored shapes of the big neon letters reflected back at him from the windshield.

The man had piloted his booth solo for a good half hour when he was joined by someone, although it wasn't that someone that had got my attention. It was the reaction of everyone else in the restaurant when he walked through the doors.

He'd driven into the lot in a small, low car with a sharp front and big wheels and no backseat to speak of. He'd parked close to the main doors, not in a slot allocated for vehicles but at an angle that suggested he either owned the place or thought he did. That left him only a few yards to swim to the entrance, which he did with a beige trench coat pulled up and over his head. That coat made it onto the chromium hook alongside the black coat, and that's when people started getting excited.

It was the teenagers first. The two girls had their backs toward the door and their eyes locked on the jock, and when I zoomed in I could see the disappointed confusion scudding across their faces as the jock's eyes went up, followed by his chin, followed by his athletic behind as he lifted himself up, just a few inches, to get a better look at the newcomer. Of the two girls, the blond one turned first, and then almost as quickly her hand shot out and she grabbed the shoulder of her friend and pulled her around too. Their milkshake nearly went over but the trio had suddenly lost all interest in it.

The object of their attention walked across the length of the diner, from my right to my left. As he passed the booth of kids I zoomed out, my optics skipping as they tried to get a focus on the newcomer's jacket. It was plaid, yellow and white and black, and there was some red too and maybe some green and it played merry havoc with my vertical hold. No wonder the kids were mesmerized by him. The CIA could use the pattern of the fabric to brainwash a foreign agent.

There was something about him that I couldn't quite put a finger on. As I watched I reached for the yellow legal pad on the passenger seat next to me and with a mechanical pencil I made a note or two.

Memory like mine, I found it paid to take notes.

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