“We are strangers in a strange land, Mike.” John squinted at the sky. “One day we’re baking like lobsters with Mickey Mouse and then next day, we’ve got this. It’s weird. Definitely not London grey.”
“John, the guidebook says…”
“Who reads guidebooks anymore?!”
“Did we pass the state line back there? It seemed like we passed two.”
“Or paper maps?!”
“The GPS signal is out.”
“Huh. You peckish?”
He frowned. “Maybe we should stop. This sky.”
“How about that exit? 221A?”
“Another Cracker Barrel.” They looked at each other. Then John said, “On second thought, maybe we should just push on. The wind should die down, right?”
“What is that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Thought your mobile wasn’t working.”
“Emergency alert. Tornado warning.”
“THERE! THERE! TORNADO! JOHN! TURN! TURN!”
“HOLY FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!”
“Yeah.” Stamford patted his forehead with a paper napkin. “A tornado.”
“Where. Are. We?”
“Florida? Georgia? Alabama? I don’t know.” Stamford crumpled the map and threw it in the back seat. “I think that was a petrol station.” One building was in splinters; another had roof and walls peeled back in curls.
“Not anymore,” said John grimly. “Looks like there ought to be zombies popping up somewhere.”
“There!” Stamford pointed to the yellow and black awning. “That place is open.”
John turned the wheel sharply; the car swerved across three lanes.
As they bumped into the parking lot, Stamford said, “Next time, John, I drive.”
After seventeen attempts, John wedged the tiny hybrid between two hulking trucks.
“I’m a very good driver!” he insisted as he squeezed out of the driver’s seat.
A string of bells jangled, and a dozen sets of eyes were on them. John swore under his breath.
“John,” said Stamford softly, “just as a precaution, with this many guns in the room—and yours an ocean away—let’s give smart arse a wide berth.”
They nodded and smiled and inched their way through the packed diner; it seemed every chair, booth, stool, and grimy square of parquet was occupied.
When the noise stopped, the room filled with groans and coughs and snorts. Two waitresses zipped through the room, dropping squares of paper beside plates. A loud voice said,
“ALL RIGHT, BOYS, MOTHER NATURE’S OFF THE RAG! LET’S GO CLEAN UP!”
Men were standing up and putting on jackets and dropping money on tables and adjusting and re-adjusting their baseball caps. Two vacated their seats at the counter, and John and Stamford quickly took their places, side-stepping the slow exodus toward the exit.
A waitress scooped up the dirty plates on the counter. A bearded man came up behind her and squeezed her about the shoulders. “Say it, say it,” he urged.
The waitress scowled. “Get your wife to say, ‘Kiss my grits!’ asshole!” She slapped two plastic menus on the counter in front of John and Mike. “Be with you in a minute.”
John studied the pictures. He scratched his head and turned to Mike, “Uh, how about…”
From behind the counter, a floppy-haired man in an apron appeared and pointed his spatula at John. “You will have them scattered, covered, and smothered. And you,” he pointed at Mike, “will have them scattered, smothered, diced, and capped.”
The waitress, still scowling, pushed the man with the spatula aside. “Ignore the freak. He thinks he knows everything. Order what you want.”
“I do know everything, Sally.”
John smiled and said, “You sound like home. What’s a toff like you doing in a place like this?”
“Came here with a friend, and when I say ‘friend’ I mean,” his voice faded as a group of men passed behind John and Mike, “Friend. Things went bad. Spectacularly bad. My brother cut me off so I’m working here until I have enough money to get back to London and re-start my life. The manager owes me a favor. Her husband was just sentenced to death. I was able to help out.”
“You stopped her husband from being executed?” asked John with a surprised laugh.
“Oh no, I ensured it.” The man turned and called out, “Mrs. Hudson! Two of our countrymen at the counter!” Then he pointed to a picture on John’s menu, “You will have this. It’s the closest thing we have to an English fry-up.”
An older lady pushed through the swinging door behind the counter. “Welcome, gentleman! Tea?”
“Uh,” Stamford spoke hesitatingly. “When you say ‘tea’ do you mean…?”
“A proper cuppa. Not iced tea.” She shivered in disgust. “From my own pot in the back.”
John and Stamford looked at each other and smiled. They nodded eagerly.
“Coming right up!” she said cheerily.
The waitress tapped a pen against a pad and huffed, “Come on, fellas. As you can see, we’re kind of busy. What’ll it be?”
“I just told you, Sally—“ said the man, waving his spatula.
“You don’t know anything about them!”
He looked down, as if studying something below the counter, and then nodded. When he looked up, his eyes bore into the waitress with a cold, hard gaze.
“I know that they are two British gentlemen on holiday, that is, in your vernacular, vacation, not lovers, but friends, traveling from Orlando to New Orleans. One is a well-regarded lecturer at a teaching hospital in London and has recently had a nasty divorce; the other is returned from...” He looked at John. “Afghanistan or Iraq?”
John looked at Stamford and then back. “Uh, Afghanistan.”
“Right. That’s enough to be going on, don’t you think, Sally?”
She rolled her eyes and stormed off. “I’m done listening to this shit! You take their order, Molly!” she called to the second waitress, who was on the other side of the diner, dropping dirty plates into a large bin.
John stared, mouth open. “That was amazing!”
“Do you think so?” asked the man.
“Of course, it was. It was extraordinary. Quite extraordinary.”
“That’s not what people normally say.”
“What do they normally say?”
The man’s voice fell to an angry drawl, “Fuck you, Pretty Boy!”
John’s eyebrows rose. “Bit rude. But you are sort of, well, um, that is to say,” he looked at Stamford and then looked down at the menu, “never mind. So scattered, smothered, and…”
“People here are either a bit rude or exceedingly polite or, vexingly, sometimes both, at the same time.”
“Can you do that with anyone?” asked Mike.
“I observe. Everyone.”
“Uh, okay, how about him?” Mike pointed to a customer in the corner.
“Let’s see.” The man came around the counter. After a few seconds, he flew back to his original spot in front of Mike and John. Then he said triumphantly, “That man has the undisguised halitosis of a single man living on his own, the right sleeve of an internet porn addict, and the breathing pattern of an untreated heart condition! He is not, unfortunately, the criminal mastermind that he thinks he is.”
The man in the corner pointed angrily and growled, “Hey, fuck you, Pretty Boy!”
John laughed. “Well done,” he said. “So, Mr. Proper Genius, can you tell us where we are, exactly?”
There was a dark line on the counter running between John and Mike. The man tapped Mike’s side with his spatula. “You are in Florida. You,” he tapped John’s side, “are in Alabama, and the gents,” he pointed down the hall toward the neon sign, “is in Georgia. This auspicious locale straddles three territories, by which I mean, states.” From below the counter he produced a cell phone and flashed it at John and Mike. On the screen was a map, and he tapped, zooming to a single dot.
“Excuse me,” said Mike. “I need to go to Georgia.”
“Hey,” said John, looking at the phone. “How’d you get a signal here?”
The man shrugged. “I pickpocket the sheriff when he’s annoying.”
Just then, there was a jangle of the front door and a shout. “SHERLOCK! Give it back, now!”
“So that’s your name?” asked John. “Sherlock?”
“Yes.” He huffed. “The name is Sherlock Holmes, and this is the Waffle House of exit 221B, Bakerton. Good morning!”
He tossed the phone at the grey-haired man approaching the counter, winked at John, and disappeared through the swinging door.
The older lady re-appeared with two steaming mugs in hand. She set them on the counter in front of John.
“Is he always like that?” asked John.
“Yes and no. Yes, he’s always like that, but no, he’s actually more himself because he hasn’t slept in days! I keep telling him to take a break, but he’s been at the grill for nineteen hours!”
She nodded. “We’ve had tornados for three days. The town’s in such a mess, and this is the only business still open. We’re feeding practically the entire population of Bakerton, plus everyone from outside that’s come to help.”
The waitress came by, grumbling, “Every no-tipping redneck with a chainsaw in the tri-county area is here.”
“It’s true, Mrs. Hudson.” She looked at John and snapped. “Are you ever going to order?!”
“Sally! That’s enough!” admonished Mrs. Hudson.
“Uh, yeah, I’ll have, uh, whatever Sherlock recommends.”
“And so will I,” said Mike, returning.
The waitress rolled her eyes and snatched the menus from them. Then with a heavy bin of plates hoisted on her hip, she pushed through the swinging door, yelling, “Two freak specials!”
Soon John and Mike were surrounded by plates of food: eggs and bacon and toast and tomatoes and in the middle of it all, were two golden brown piles of crinkly strands.
“This is good,” said Mike, chewing.
John hummed in agreement. “So these, uh, hash browns…are…”
“Scattered on the grill, smothered with onions, and covered with cheese,” said Sherlock, pushing through the door. “His are also diced with tomatoes and capped with mushrooms.”
John nodded. “S’good. So the suspense is killing us, how did you know all that? About us?”
“I didn’t know, I saw,” he said to John. “Your haircut and the way you hold yourself says military. You’ve both got very recent sunburns, but you’ve also got an older suntan on your face, hands, and neck, but not above the wrists. So, in the military, and abroad before this holiday, but not sunbathing, that suggests Afghanistan or Iraq.”
He turned to Mike. “Your clothes also tell me a great deal.”
“Caduceus pin on your jacket says doctor. That shirt is definitely a gift from a child. In one pocket, there’s a Bert Bott’s Every Flavour Bean wrapper, which says you went to Harry Potter World in Orlando, but in the other pocket,” he turned his head awkwardly, “there’s an index card of notes, probably a speech. So, taking a family holiday in Orlando, with a friend instead of your family? The divorce was probably recent, going by the tan line on your fourth finger, and nasty.”
Mike nodded and smiled ruefully. “Go on.”
“The make of the car and the license plate say rental, one-way. You’re headed west. And there just happens to be a meeting of the International Association of Medical Educators in New Orleans this weekend and a Doctor Michael Stamford of Barts is receiving an award for excellence in teaching. I had to google the last bit, but that’s not cheating!”
“That’s fantastic!” exclaimed John.
“I’m John Watson, by the way,” John reached out his hand and shook Sherlock’s. “A doctor, too.”
“Army doctor!” said Sherlock testily. “There’s always something!”
Mrs. Hudson appeared. “Sherlock, while things are a little slow, you should take a break.” He shook his head like a stubborn child.
The second waitress slipped behind counter. “Sherlock, would you like to have coffee?” she asked nervously.
“Black, two sugars. I’ll be at the juke box.” He flew to the cash register and hit buttons until the drawer popped out. Then he grabbed a couple of coins and crossed the room.
“Any requests? No ‘God Save the Queen,’ I’m afraid,” he said.
John got up and followed. Tapping the glass, he said, “Uh, how about ‘Welcome to the Waffle House’? Seems appropriate.”
Sherlock dropped the coins in the machine.
“Uh,” John whispered as the song started, “How did you know that he and I weren’t lovers?”
Sherlock smirked. “I didn’t know, I hoped.”
John stared; the waitress butted between them, cup in hand.
“Sherlock, here’s your coffee.”
“Ah, thank you, Molly. You took off your hairnet?”
“Ah yeah, I thought maybe…” She smoothed a hand over her hair.
“A bit unhygienic, but, I’m not the health inspector, am I?” He smiled. Her face fell, and she scurried away.
John retreated to the counter. Sherlock remained at the juke box, sipping the coffee as John and Mike finished eating.
Finally, John threw his napkin on the counter and said, “That was excellent, but if I may say so, you’re wasted as a cook.”
Sherlock smiled and walked back towards them.
“Can you just read people or are you smart about, say, other things?” asked John.
Sherlock raised an eyebrow.
“I mean, cards,” John stammered.
Sherlock nodded. John looked at Mike. “What does your guidebook say about New Orleans?”
Mike grinned. “There’s a casino.”
“Think you can win enough to buy a ticket home?” asked John. “I’m looking for a flatmate.”
Sherlock's eyes lit. “Mrs. Hudson owns property in central London. Together we might be able to afford a flat there. The sheriff says he has a cousin who’s a detective for Scotland Yard. Maybe I could consult with them.”
“Crime-solving? The police don’t consult amateurs!”
Sherlock smiled. “I won’t be an amateur.”
John returned the smile. “You might need an assistant.”
Sherlock and John locked eyes for a long moment.
“One condition,” said Mike, holding out his hand. “I drive.”
John dropped the keys in his palm. Sherlock ripped off his apron and yelled,
“Mrs. Hudson! I’m taking my 15 minute!”