12 June 2012
Roger McAllister glanced at the name tag of the waitress behind the counter, and after taking another look at the patrons seated in the diner he knew he had to ask. His two minutes inside the roadside grease-pit had shown him there was something mighty strange about this place.
“So how’d this town ever get a name like ‘Justice,’ Maureen?” he began, knowing that any salesman worth his spit always started with the familiarities and small talk, then built from there.
The waitress set his coffee and chili before him without the customary courtesy smile, then looked at the lunchtime crowd seated at the counter to gage whether it had settled in enough for her to spare a minute of conversation. She leaned forward as if to share a secret.
“You ain’t the first one to ask that question, mister. You a salesman? That’s the only kind of strangers we usually get comin’ to Justice at lunchtime.”
“Electrical supplies. Roger McAllister at your service,” he answered, dispensing with his usual pitch, but he instinctively held out his card anyway. The woman looked at it while he held it, then took the card and shoved it into her pocket without changing her expression. “Been driving eight hours since morning, and if I hadn’t left the Interstate for some refreshment I’d’ve blown right past this whole town.”
“Most do,” she said, freshening his coffee and watching the man attack his food. “Justice ain’t even on the map. Far as the world knows, there ain’t nothin’ here but more desert. That chili’s hot, mister. ‘Less you plan on makin’ a whole lot more pit stops today, I’d go easier on it.”
A young man took the stool at the far end of the counter and signaled for the waitress’ attention. McAllister noticed the new customer shared something in common with the others in the cafe. This one’s entire left arm was missing, and when the ragged stump peeked through the man’s shirt sleeve, suddenly Maureen’s warning about the chili made a whole lot more sense. The waitress pulled a hidden pencil from behind her ear and took the man’s order.
She pocketed some change from the counter and disappeared into the kitchen three times for her pick-ups. When she returned, McAllister flashed his best balls-out smile at her because the words itched on his tongue. “I can’t help but notice, Maureen, that it seems like everyone in this diner’s got a piece of themselves missing.” Although he mentioned this as casually as if he were discussing the weather, the waitress stared at him like he had just passed wind in church.
“I believe you’ve just hit upon the true meaning of what Justice is all about, mister,” she finally said. “So I might as well fill in some of the details. That man at the end of the counter? That’s Billy Bob Collier, and three years ago he molested little Sally Peters, the preacher’s kid, down in Painted Canyon. But he won’t be doin’ no more molestin’ of young girls ‘long as his arm’s hangin’ on the wall of Sheriff Sweet’s office.”
McAllister stopped chewing on his chili and tried to wash it down with a gulp of coffee. He watched Billy Bob Collier cram a fork full of scrambled eggs into his mouth and felt his appetite leaving him.
“And that woman over there by the window?” Maureen continued. She nodded in the direction of the hag whose face looked like melted cheese, whose only truly discernible features were two dark eyes that peered from behind fleshy folds of skin. “That’s Sissy Weatherspoon. Used to solicit herself to the truckers out by the old highway years before they built the Interstate. The Sheriff’s got a fold of her flesh ‘bout the size of the mornin’ paper that he keeps framed on his wall. He just pealed it right off her face on the day he poured that battery acid over her to show that she ought to mend her ways. Sissy didn’t do no more solicitin’ after that. Must be over twenty years now.”
McAllister felt the chili beginning to back up on him. He pushed the bowl aside and searched the room, noticing the wheelchair alongside the table of a legless man wolfing down the first of two hamburgers. “Then I suppose that man’ s legs are in the sheriff’s office too?” he asked.
“‘Course not!” the waitress answered, and sneered. “Lester lost those ‘bout ten years ago while he was haulin’ produce when his eighteen-wheeler turned over. Burned those legs right off. But before that, he used to slam-bang every skirt this side of Nevada, and the Sheriff don’t take kindly to adulterers. And you don’t want to know what Sweet’s got inside a jar on his desk belongin’ to Lester.”
The waitress snarled a grin that lasted just long enough to show a mouthful of stained yellowed teeth, then turned suddenly serious. “‘Course I’m not the one to talk about these folks, I ‘spose. You see, I used to do a bit of eavesdroppin’ in my day before the sheriff put a stop to that.”
She lifted the stringy blond hair from the side of her face, the opposite side from where she had hidden her pencil. There was a small hole about the size of a quarter where her ear should have been. “As you can see, Mr. McAllister, Sheriff Sweet puts a fairly high price on mindin’ your own business in Justice,” she added, refilling his cup. “You want some pie?”
“I don’ t believe so,” he said, reaching for his money clip. “I think my stomach’s had about enough. And I think I’ve had just about as much of Justice as--”
“‘Scuse me, son,” a voice from behind him interrupted. McAllister turned and saw a huge bear of a man who wore a silver star on his sweat-stained shirt. He was a character right out of one of those old-time westerns, right down to the wide-brimmed Texas Rangers hat and the toothpick sticking out from his mouth. “I’m Sheriff Jasper Sweet, and I believe that’s your vehicle parked out front where it plainly says ‘Loadin’ Zone.’”
McAllister rose to his feet and called forth one of his best shit-eating grins that he kept on file. But as soon as he flashed it at the sheriff he had already felt it begin to wither. “I’m sorry,” he explained, “but I didn’t see any sign that said there was a loading zone there.”
“No, I reckon you didn’t,” the huge man answered, shifting the toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other as he spoke. “But it’s there just as plain as day in yellow paint on the curb. Son, I’d say you got some mighty poor eyesight. Why, I believe one of those eyes of yours is clearly interferin’ with the sight of the other. . .”
In the sheriff’s hand he held a hunting knife.
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