Hal’s Diner was a rundown little joint, good for strong coffee and small talk. They were the only two things Hal made fresh everyday. That’s how the man was able to pick up what was being put down. Even if it was only a couple of coins on the counter.
I sat down at the counter and waited for Hal to come out of the back. I spun a quarter and tried to stop it with my index finger. I caught it at an angle and the thing fell flat. I looked up to see if anyone noticed. There was a young kid doing dishes behind the counter. Scrubbing and rinsing and stacking. Every couple minutes he’d twitch and almost drop the plate or glass in his hand. No doubt an older Exo. It had been a human’s job once. A being with flesh and bone. A thing you could talk to with thoughts and emotion . . . With soul . . . The Exos were cheaper than the real article. You didn’t have to pay them and they never recited poetry to the customers . . . Something was terribly wrong with the whole scene.
I put the quarter in my pocket. Leaned over the counter.
“Are you a happy fly, if you live, or if you die?”
The kid’s eyes flickered and stared dully back at me. Then he went back to work, scrubbing and rinsing and stacking. The earlier models lacked a realism. They were clumsy. Programmed for one task and that’s all they ever did until they were retired.
Hal came out from the back and saw me. He walked over, large and lopsided in a greasy apron.
Hal brought my coffee.
“Why don’t you hire some real help, Hal?” I said nodding in the direction of the kid.
“Whaaa? Him? Ah, he’s okay. A bit of a spaz, but he gets the job done.”
Just then the kid did a little dance with a stack of plates and almost sent the tower tumbling.Hal smirked and shrugged his shoulders.
“So how’s the P.I. world?”
“It’s full of fish.”
I drank my coffee. It was strong and hot.
“Catch anything lately?”
“Working on it . . . What do you know about Snyder and Welles?”
“The energy company?”
“That’s the one.”
“I know Roger Snyder is a mean son-of-a-bitch. Born with a silver spoon up his ass. He comes from a long line of oil tycoons in the South somewheres. He’s red-blooded through and through.”
“And what about Welles?”
“Not much. I know he keeps to himself. Snyder is the face of the place, but Welles is the brain. Some say he’s kind of a nut.”
“I’m beginning to think so myself.”
“This don’t seem like no small fish, Ahab.”
“I’m throwing out lines, Hal. Thought I’d start with you.”
“I’m the only place to start!”
Hal refilled my cup.
“Have you heard the one about the guy who stuck his nose where it don’t belong?”
“Refresh my memory.”
“Let’s just say he don’t smell the roses no more.”
“Good thing I prefer the sound of music.”
“Listen, Frank. It’s none of my business. I know. But there’s plenty of fish in the sea. Certain things should be left to the professionals. Let the boys in blue take care of it. There’s no use getting caught up in something as big as this sounds. Everybody knows how it ends when you go up against the whale. Anybody who’s somebody becomes a nobody real quick.”
I could tell Hal was concerned. He’d been a real pal over the years. Slipped me some intel when I needed it. Covered my ass from time to time. The man was as genuine as they came. He kept his nose clean with a dirty rag. And that’s more than you can say about most of them.
“It’s the nobody’s you gotta watch out for, Hal.”
I finished off my coffee and put some silver down on the counter. I’d let Hal dangle out there for a couple days. Sooner or later he’d get something on the line.
As I was headed out the door I heard a loud crash. I turned to see Hal shaking his head at the kid who was picking up pieces of plate off the floor with his bare hands. I shook my head, too. A newer model would’ve used a broom.
The day was almost done. I went back to the office and decided to get drunk to clear my head. Start fresh the next day.
I poured a tall one. Threw it back.
Up until that point I felt like my life had been an old hag at a slot machine, waiting years for the damn thing to hit big. Well, now was my chance. I could see the headlines: Chewed Gum Sticks It To The Big Shoe. I liked the sound of that. Roses be damned. I preferred the smell of an old book, anyway.