Take the dark-eyed, bearded guy sitting by himself in booth nine. I tell him about the specials every night, but he orders black coffee, the five-alarm chili and a side of hot peppers.
"I hate hot, spicy food," he says. "And black coffee keeps me up until dawn. But it's good for me to suffer. I deserve it."
"Honey, it's not the coffee." I don't jot down a word because he orders the same thing every night. "You should try the guilt goulash over at Marty's Internal Conflict Corner sometime. It's right up your alley."
I move on to the cute couple who are bickering in booth seven. "Evening, folks."
Neither of them hear me. He's saying, "It's over" and she's saying, "No, it's not" like a couple of kids tussling on a playground. Which, when you think about it, is all they are.
I clear my throat. "We've got type A, O, and a nice B negative chilling in the fridge."
"It's not over until I say it's over," the woman snarls. To me she says, "Do you have any copper-plated butcher knives?"
This one sends me plenty of customers, but she can be a big troublemaker, too. "Burying the hatchet is a metaphor, Alexandra." When her boyfriend smirks, I lean over and whisper to him, "As I recall, Frenchman, you never did tell her what you were doing in Rome seven years ago. You remember, when you got your face beat off?"
Like magic, he quits snickering, and I straighten. "I'll bring you both some B positive," I tell them. "Consider it a hint."
I pick up a small tip from the next table (sweet old Louise; although she's out of work she still always leaves something for me) and go behind the counter to warm up the coffee for the homeless girl who's trying to hide in the corner. While she looks like a dirty bundle of rags, I know she could tear this place apart if she wanted.
"Yours'll be up real soon, honey," I promise her.
All she gives me is a sweet, patient smile. "Thank you, ma'am."
I go in the back to check on the stove, which as usual is crowded; I count seven orders up front and twice as many on the back burner. I make sure things keep simmering instead of boiling over and notice a new delivery sitting by the prep table.
"It's not squid," the delivery girl calls to me as she wheels her handcart out the back.
"It never is." I survey the delivery, a hodge-podge of ingredients shipped from Denver that are spilling out of their frosty containers. "Hey, I didn't order this," I yell after her.
"You never do," she says before the door slams.
I hear the bell chime over the front door, and leave the delivery for later while I go to seat the new customer. He's built like Thor but has dark, Sun Tzu eyes. He also looks like he's been rode hard and put away wet; his expensive coat all tore to hell and showing stitched-up wounds through the slashed fabric. He walks with a cane when he should be in a wheelchair.
I don't need a headache like him tonight, but when he smiles through his golden beard my heart melts a little. "Booth, counter or table, mister?"
"Counter, I think, my dear." He hobbles over to sit beside the homeless girl, who never talks to anyone but starts chatting him up like they're old friends. I have to make another note to remind myself that they do share a very old connection, although neither of them knows it just yet.
I take Thor's order, which is just about everything on the menu and a few things I'll have to improvise, and head back to make room on the stovetop. I don't appreciate seeing the scowling, rangy brunette in the search and rescue gear hovering by my pots, but she just pulls up a stool and watches as I shuffle the orders.
"So what's my deal?" she asks.
I give her a sour look. "You save people."
She looks down at her uniform. "Duh. But why do I save people?"
I think about it. "Because they never saved you." She nods amicably, and I start reeling off a few things. "Car accident. Bad one. Road rage. Hmmm. Jack-knifed semi? Exploding gas tanker?"
"Did the exploding thing twice already," she reminds me.
"You can never have too many explosions," I scold her, although I know she's right. "Okay, no trucks, just a huge chain reaction pile-up on the freeway. Six units respond to the scene, but yours . . . " I smile. "Gets hijacked by the nutcase who caused it all."
She laughs. "You are so mean."
"All part of the job, honey." I turn the burner on low to let things simmer, but have one more thing to add. "By the time you sort that out, you're alone with Thor at your place. That's when you'll realize that you can't take him to the hospital."
"And the only blood I have for the transfusion he needs is the one he's carrying," she adds on. "Or mine."
I grin. "Either way, not a match made in heaven."
We chat a bit more until I have a better feel for her -- she may seem edgy and tough, but she's got a good heart -- and then she wanders out to mix with the regulars. I start the new pot of stew and stop for a minute to have a cup of tea and think about what I'll have to add to the menu for tomorrow night.
"Too much, I daresay." Velvet-gloved hands start rubbing my shoulders and neck. "Have I never told what happened with the cross I left on her grave? You know, the one that had a few of my hairs caught in it. No? Well, it was taken by her killer to Rome, where you know how fanatical they are about preserving mystical bits of wood and bone and such, and then . . . ."