The man in the black suit sat alone at the end of the bar, his hair glowing orange under the neon light of the “OPEN” sign. He stared down fixedly at his files, the papers spread out across the table. His cup of coffee sat off to one side, carefully placed away from the papers to avoid any accidental stains.
Behind the counter, I shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. I couldn’t wait for the end of my shift, when I could sit down, take a load off my feet and relax. There were no other customers; you couldn’t call the little diner busy at the best of times, and just about no one passing through a dinky little rest stop on the highway after sundown would bother stopping. But the man in the dark suit was always here.
He was a lawyer. I was pretty sure of that fact. I had once dared to ask, while stopping by his table with his customary cup of coffee. He hadn’t given me a straight answer, I don’t think, but he had sighed deeply. Spreading his hand out to take in the files and papers, he had said something about always having too many cases. I had laughed, I think. I didn’t know if it was a joke, but I laughed nonetheless.
I glanced up at the clock. Just past 11:30 PM. Closing time was still a half hour away. Shifting uncomfortably, I reached back and picked up the pot of coffee, circling around the counter to head along the diner’s narrow aisle.
He always took the booth at the end of the diner. By now, I knew his routine like clockwork. He would arrive shortly after nine, just after the sun had finally given up and dropped below the horizon. His time varied slightly, probably due to traffic, but he would always arrive, shed his long black coat, and sit at his table at the end. No one was ever in his seat.
One time, when the diner was empty, I had decided to rest my legs, dropping into the nearest booth. It wasn’t until I was seated that I realized I was in the lawyer’s booth. But after I had sat, I knew it immediately. It felt wrong, somehow; I couldn’t shake the feeling that somewhere, just beyond the edge of hearing, somebody was dragging their fingernails down a chalkboard. As soon as I stood up, the feeling vanished. It was probably nothing.
Coffee pot in hand, I approached the last booth. Still several feet away, I could see that he still had a half cup, but there was nothing else to do. He had probably already heard the click of my shoes on the cheap linoleum.
I stepped up to the table. “More coffee, sir?” I asked politely, managing to muster up a small smile.
Lowering the sheaf of paper he had been perusing, the lawyer gave me a smile in return. I felt my own expression wilt slightly. I held back from looking over my shoulder at the kitchen, wishing hopelessly that Cookie would manage to rise from his drunken slumber. I knew that the lawyer wasn’t going to cause trouble, but I was still scared about basically being alone in this diner, miles from any other towns.
The man shook his head slightly. “No thanks,” he said. I thought I could hear the slightest hint of a Southern drawl in his voice. “I think this will last me up until close, dear.”
The lawyer always stayed up until we closed, at midnight. I gave the man a wordless nod, backing away slightly. I had turned to return back to the relative safety of the counter, but the man spoke once more.
“I’ve got your file here, too,” he commented, his voice sounding calm. I turned, to see him holding up a thin sheet of paper. “Not much substance to it, though. Not really worth my time to consider, at this moment.”
I should have said something. I should have confronted the man, asked him what he was talking about, demanded to see that single sheet of paper. But I didn’t. I retreated back, escaping to the other end of the diner, waiting for my shift to end so I could leave, as if I wouldn’t see the man again the next night.
As I walked away, I risked a single glance back. The man was still sitting in his booth, his face half turned so one eye could follow me. A thin smile played about his lips. After a long look, he returned to sorting his files, sitting alone, beneath the glow of the neon sign.