The neon lights advertising the Bed and Breakfast to the motorway flickered constantly, a weird pink and blue disco lighting an empty parking lot. It used to distract Joan constantly, but she’d been working at the diner for a year now, and after a year the flashing lights were just another thing that she’d stopped noticing. She’d stopped noticing that there were never any customers, she’d stopped noticing the way that the linoleum was cracked and split all through the shitty kitchen, stopped noticing the creaking of the fluorescent lights that swung over the reception in the slightest breeze, the streaks on the bathroom mirror, the way all the food tasted of rubber, and the way the coffee kind of tasted like dirt.
Honestly, even when she did notice, she’d kind of stopped caring. She’d run off in the middle of med school, exasperated by the stresses of not only the work, but her mother’s insistence that she complete it all in one go, when there was really no harm in taking a gap year. So Joan had left. She’d taken her crappy second hand car (a high school graduation present), and driven down the interstate until she got hungry and needed a place to sleep. At three in the morning she’d pulled up outside highway 221’s B&B, and seeing the help wanted sign in the window, made a split second decision on what she was going to do with herself. Just for a month or two, she’d said then.
A year later (to the hour, almost) Joan sat on a wooden stool, that she was sure was about to fall apart, behind the counter, a cup of terrible coffee steaming in front of her, with her nose buried in a book, when a car pulled up. She’d never stopped noticing cars that actually entered the parking lot, their tyres crunching on the gravel, headlights shining in through dirty windows (nobody ever pulled up during the day, they could see the way the farmhouse was crumbling). This car was small and silver, and out of it climbed a woman no older than 21 (The same age, incidentally, as Joan) with silver-blonde hair and clothes that were probably worth a month of Joan’s pay. The woman climbed the porch stairs with grace, despite the way they creaked and buckled under her, and pushed her way through the glass-windowed door with minimal effort. Her stiletto heels clicked as she approached reception, and Joan closed her book, sitting up a little straighter on her stool, tempted even, to stand. There was something about this woman, the grace she walked with, perhaps, or the cold glint in her eye that told everyone in the room that she held power. Whatever it was, it was both terrifying, and kind of alluring.
“One room, for Mary Morstan, and I expect there to be tea with my breakfast, none of the dirt you Americans call coffee.” Her voice was clipped, with an English accent that sounded firm, but as if it could be soft if the woman, Mary, were pleased with you. Joan wasn’t sure why, but she wanted to hear this Ms Morstan’s voice soften. (Part of her mind was whispering that it was because the other woman was pretty fucking hot, but she told that part to shut up in no uncertain terms)
“Of course” Joan answered, in her best customer service voice, writing down the name next to an empty room number. “And what time would you like your breakfast?”
“What’s the time now?”
“Then I’ll have my breakfast at 11. And I expect it to be brought to my room, understand?”
“We’re happy to provide that service” Joan recited, thinking to herself that maybe this woman wasn’t so great after all. At least, that was until her red lips curved upwards in possibly the most attractive smirk that has ever graced this good earth.
“Thank you.” She said, with a nod of her head, and Joan’s hand definitely did not shake as she handed Ms Morstan the key that read “4”
“This is your room key. Up the stairs and right to the end of the corridor. Most of our rooms are empty right now, so I’ve given you the one farthest from the diner, so the noise doesn’t wake you.”
“You’re very kind, for customer service at two in the morning.”
“Honestly, I was bored before. Like I said, not many customers tonight.”
“Well, thank you.“ The blonde turned and walked away, and it took Joan that long to realise that she had a soft backpack hanging from one shoulder, with rolls of paper sticking from it like they were posters.
For the rest of that night, everything that Joan had forgotten about her workplace came back to her. She closed the blinds in an attempt to block out the incessant flickering of the sign on the highway, and pulled a face when she took a sip of her coffee and it tasted like dirt. It was like she hadn’t been there for a year, ignoring the flicker and drinking the terrible coffee. Her leg jittered on the crappy wooden stool, and she started doodling in the margins of the checkout book. Maybe it was time to move on again. And if what she was doodling was a mass of wavy blonde hair and a smirk that could slay giants, then that was a coincidence.
- - - - - - - - -
Rubbing her eyes and running a hand through her hair, Joan walked into the diner after her shift finished. The diner was a modern add on to the old farm building that made up the bed part of the Bed and Breakfast. She didn’t have to order, she’d been there so long, just sat down as the cook called a greeting and gave a chesty laugh at her half hearted attempt at a wave. The sun had been up for about five hours already, and Joan was definitely ready to curl up into bed until her next shift. Or at least she was until the double doors connecting the diner to the rest of the building swung open violently and the blonde woman from that night came storming through them, heels clicking viciously on the linoleum, eyes narrowed and mouth in a thin, tight line. She walked up to the counter and slammed down the tray in her hands, sending scrambled eggs flying all over the plastic tray, and coffee slosh out of the cup and over her hand.
“You call this a breakfast service?” Her voice was low, unfurling and growling threateningly, and Joan shuddered. Anyone else probably would have yelled, and it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as frightening. She had a point though, the default breakfast was absolutely abysmal.
“Look miss, you didn’t put in an actual order, so I gave you the default.” The cook was a middle aged man, port and greasy. Good natured enough, but not really much of a cook.
“I would have assumed that your default meal would actually be edible.”
“If it’s that bad, I’ll make you something else.” Cook sighed, sliding a plastic laminated sheet over the counter, and taking the tray out the back with a shout to his son who washed dishes on the weekends. The woman rolled her eyes and picked up the menu with a look of disdain. She gave it a cursory glance before calling back to the cook.
“Your menu is as terrible as your food! Just give me what the receptionist has ordered, she’s probably found the only good thing on the menu by now!” Her hair flicked over her shoulder as she turned and walked towards Joan, who was definitely not panicking at all, nope. (And if she was panicking it definitely wasn’t because the woman striding toward her was in full make up, a tight skirt and a well tailored blouse.)
“Sorry, I don’t actually know your name, or I would have used it.” She held out a perfectly slim and dainty hand to shake.
“Joan.” Her name came out as a kind of surprised squeak as she took the blonde’s hand, and if she could have melted into the floor right then, she would have.
“Mary, as I said last night. Is the food always this bad here?” She sat down next to Joan at the counter.
“The toast isn’t that bad, because it’s hard to fuck up toast. That’s what I ordered, by the way.. toast and tea.”
“The coffee is literal dirt, and they just give me a the ingredients to make my own tea.”
“I see your logic.” Mary laughed, and turned to look at Joan more closely. “But I wonder why a young woman, who is clearly quite intelligent, is working at a terrible Bed and Breakfast in the middle of nowhere, Georgia.”
“Even a terrible Bed and Breakfast falls pretty soundly under the category ‘anything but med school’. I had to take some time out.”
“And now you’ve been here a year, and you’ve realised that you’re not going back to college.”
“How did you- “
“That’s a boring question, let’s try a more interesting one. How far through med school did you get?”
“I was one year off finishing, actually… what do you mean a boring question?”
“Not important.” Mary twisted her mouth thoughtfully. “Yes, I think you’ll be useful. How would you like a much better job? Just for the summer, and you can go drop out of college or go back to college or whatever when it’s done.”
“This entire conversation is incredibly presumptuous.”
“I can pay. And well.”
“You’re asking me to drop everyt
hing and just go on what, a road trip?”
“One hundred thousand dollars.”Joan’s mouth may have actually dropped open.
“Are you serious right now?”
“One hundred thousand dollars. Plus expenses.” Mary’s tone didn’t change at all, but one corner of her mouth curved in a knowing smile.
“Alright, I think you may have me convinced, at that price. But I need some evidence that you can actually pay it.”
“The youth of today have no faith.” The blonde reached under the table and pulled a yellow envelope out of a large black handbag before sliding it over the table towards Joan. Opening it, Joan held in a gasp. It was packed with hundred dollar bills. Briefly, her common sense fought with her sense of adventure. It lost.
“Alright. Consider me in.” She paused for a moment. “But I’m pretty sure I’m older than you.”
“Probably. Irrelevant. I make more money than you.”
“Tea and toast! Hope you fucking enjoy.” The cook dumped a tray of food with more force than necessary and walked off. Mary looked sour as she regarded the singed toast.
“I may make an exception for this fucker.” She muttered under her breath.
“An exception?” Joan questioned, but Mary just grinned like nothing had happened.
“Nothing really. What do you say we leave –“ she looked at her watch. “Now?”
“So we can hit up the IHOP. I’m not eating this bullshit.” She pushed back from the table with both hands and stood up with her body across the table, and her face dangerously close to Joan’s. “So, shall we?” (Joan watched her red lips moving as she spoke and the rational part of her brain shrank to the size of a pea.)
“I’ll get my things.” She murmured, and Mary laughed.
“No need, we’ll buy some when we reach the next town. Trust me, money is no object this summer. “
Joan couldn’t really argue with that (she’d left all the sentimental stuff in New York), so when Mary stood the rest of the way up and walked out of the room without a backwards glance, she followed.