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Maybe it was as a result of the full moon hanging prominently over the ink-dark night, but the moment Steve Barrett strode in, he sensed there was something off about the truck stop. The crowded place, usually rocking with loud chatter, and blasting country and western music, was much too quiet, and the waitresses, normally brusque and rushed, were far too obsequious.
He'd been on the road high up in the unaccustomed cab of an eighteen-wheeler the last couple of hours, travelling along the Montana Hi-Line, a six-hundred-and-fifty-mile stretch of road of pure solitude and in the daylight hours, of scenic beauty. Unusually, his lower spine hurt and he needed to stretch his legs. The borrowed truck wasn't handling as well as his own, but he had to get his load to Los Angeles in the next forty-eight hours. If he didn't, he'd lose the contract from the new company with whom he'd bargained long and hard. The CEO, a rather fancy term for a stout man sporting a paunch, had been adamant he'd write out the lading bill himself, and gave Steve ten percent of the final pay up front for hauling the load as long as he asked no questions. With the economic crisis following close on his heels, and threatening his livelihood, Steve hadn't had too many options. He'd agreed but he had a bad feeling in his gut. There'd been an unusual air about the CEO, and the strange way he handled business. But the agreed-upon sum for driving the truck from Detroit to Los Angeles hadn't been one to sneer at either.
Steve seated himself at the counter and surveyed the diner. It was hardly nine p.m., yet the place was quieter than a derelict ghost town in winter. Usually the restaurant was overflowing and the noise level was astronomically high. A graceful waitress strolled up to him. She was pretty, auburn-haired and fresh-faced, a combination he'd learned didn't last long in the truck stops. He hazarded a guess that some trucker would make an unwanted sexual pass at them, and afraid, the women would quit and find new jobs where they wouldn’t need to deal with the continual groping.
Her nametag read 'Annie'. She couldn't have been more than nineteen or a flirty twenty, kept glancing over her shoulder at the swinging kitchen doors as if some fiend would shortly appear. Her provocative uniform consisting of an almost see-through white blouse, and an extremely short black skirt, was much too tight across her large breasts and her flat belly. He gritted his teeth. He'd been far too long without rolling in the hay with a pretty woman if he was ogling her for a second longer than was polite. He had to get going. In the unnerving silence, he hadn't heard burgers, bacon sizzling or the usual kitchen sounds. He noticed the absence since the smell usually nauseated him. Abruptly, he just wanted a drink and maybe a light sandwich.
“Annie,” Steve said, his voice whisper quiet. If it had been any louder, his words would have echoed across the diner to the other occupants. “Everything all right here?” There was a part of him that didn't want to know, yet another that wanted to assist if there was the need. He hadn't lived for innumerable years without developing that sixth sense of looming trouble.
Her shoulders remained relaxed, and her pretty bow lips turned upwards in the slightest of smiles. “Sure. Everything's great. What can I get for you?” she asked in a voice that reminded him of smooth velvet.
The fine hairs on the back of his neck prickled. He sensed she wasn't telling the truth. Everything was not all right. “Are you certain?” he asked, pushing for verbalised information or for confirmation that his bullshit radar was correct and he wasn't over-reacting to what amounted to nothing.
Her light brown eyes darted from him to a place over his shoulder and back to his face again. Uneasiness began to eat away at him. She was far too eye-catching to work in a restaurant that catered to lonely men who were often absent from home for weeks at a time. Maybe he should have just kept going and passed the stop. His stomach rumbled again.
“Sure. Why do you ask?”