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Authors: Christina Dodd

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The Listener

BOOK: The Listener
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The Listener
Christina Dodd

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THE LISTENER

Welcome to Virtue Falls
Founded 1902
Your Vacation Destination on the Washington Coast
Home of the World Famous Virtue Falls Canyon
Population 2487

At two-thirty
P.M.
on a Thursday afternoon, Coast Guard Commander Kateri Kwinault shoved open the door to the Oceanview Café, stalked inside, seated herself on a stool at the lunch counter, and slapped her palm flat on the surface. “I’ll take a beer.”

Rainbow finished wiping off a table, balanced the dirty dishes on one arm, and strolled over to the wall behind the counter. She dumped the dishes in one plastic pan, the silverware in another. In a tone of colorless courtesy, she said, “I’m sorry, we here at the Oceanview Café don’t have a beer license.”

Kateri slapped the counter again. “I’ll take a bourbon on the rocks.”

“I’m sorry, we here at the Oceanview Café don’t have a liquor license.”

“I’ll take a puff of weed.”

Rainbow put her fists on her ample hips. “I’m sorry, we here at the Oceanview Café don’t have a marijuana license.”

Kateri sighed. “I’ll take a full-fat, full-sugar, half-caff latte with two pumps of vanilla.”

“That I can do.” Rainbow Breezewing, waitress and all-round Virtue Falls busybody, hustled to the coffee machine and programmed it then, before she punched
go
, she returned, leaned down, and looked deep into Kateri’s eyes. “Real cow’s milk? Because you know what that does to your digestion.”

“I
truly
need full-fat cow’s milk,” Kateri said.

“Do you
want
to spend the afternoon being gassy?” Rainbow leaned closer.

Kateri backed up. “Fine. Soy milk. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s hanging with someone who saw me grow up.”

“You could go to the Halfway Bar.” Rainbow put the latte in front of Kateri.

“Yes, because that’s a classy place for a single woman to hang out.” And for all her joking, Kateri didn’t drink. For most Native Americans, liquor created results even more dire than cow’s milk. “Besides, I’m on duty.”

“So you took a break?”

“No use being the station commander if I can’t give myself some time off when I need it. I took the new kid out for a trial run up the coast.” Kateri took a sip and grimaced. “I hate soy milk.”

Rainbow leaned her elbows against the counter and propped her chin in her hands. “He didn’t work out?”

“He compared the Pacific Ocean with New York Harbor.”

Rainbow cackled like a hen.

“Precisely.” Kateri took another sip and put the cup down.

“What’s his name again?”

“Lt. J. G. Landon Adams. His uncle was a senator. His uncle got voted out, so Landon … Landlubber”—Kateri laughed, and realized she’d just found his nickname —“lost his job in the civilized world and had to come out here.”

“Bit of a culture shock?”

“He asked about the music scene.” Kateri met Rainbow’s gaze straight on. “Ensign Sanchez told him the high-school version of
Oklahoma
was quite good.”

Both women started laughing so hard Kateri had to hide her face in a napkin, and the four retired men in the corner turned indignant faces in their direction.

“Oh-oh.” Rainbow grabbed the coffeepot. “I’d better go warm up their cups or they’ll stop complaining about the government and start complaining about me.”

“Can’t have that.” While Rainbow was cajoling the old guys into a better humor, Kateri looked around the diner.

Rainbow liked to say the Oceanview Café was inspired by the fifties. In fact, the corner diner was built in the fifties and the only stuff that wasn’t original was anything that had been broken and replaced. The white-topped tables and red-seated chairs had chrome legs. The floor was tiny black-and-white tiles with stained white grout. Despite its name, the diner’s windows looked out not on the ocean, but on the two streets leading into the Virtue Falls town square.

Virtue Falls was located on a bypass off Highway 101 on the Washington State Olympic Peninsula, and sooner or later, everyone in the area showed up at the Oceanview Café. Tourists wandered in for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner, and once they tried the pie, they always came back. Locals came in to eat, gossip, and use the free Wi-Fi. Cops and truckers came in for fresh donuts and coffee. The whole west coast population came in to tell Rainbow their joys and troubles.

Now two tourists came in and seated themselves at the far end of the counter. That meant the whale-watching vessel was back in port and the diner’s afternoon rush had started.

Rainbow got them water, took their order, clipped it up for Dax, the owner and cook, then headed back toward Kateri.

A timer beeped in Rainbow’s pocket, redirecting her. She walked to the refrigerator, pulled out the whole milk, poured a glass, and put it in the microwave for fifty-three seconds. While it was heating, she got the pie, measured a width of crust, cut the piece at precisely the right angle, put it on a plate, got a fork and wrapped it in a napkin, and with a roll of the eyes toward Kateri, she headed toward the middle table where Cornelia Markum worked.

As she walked up, Cornelia’s computer pinged.

Rainbow put down the pie and the milk. “Here you go, hon. The milk is exactly 140 degrees. The pie is two inches at the crust. It’s blackberry today.”

Cornelia looked at the pie and the milk, then up at Rainbow. She raised her eyebrows.

Rainbow nodded. “You’re welcome,” she said, and headed back for the counter.

In a low voice, Kateri asked, “Has she ever said
Thank you?

Rainbow laughed. “God, no. But I wait anyway, thinking someday a smidgeon of human behavior will leak through the weirdness.”

Kateri turned on the stool to stare at Cornelia. She knew it didn’t matter if she stared. Cornelia was oblivious to everything but placing the napkin in her lap, sliding two bites of the pie into the glass, stirring it until the milk turned purple, then pouring one quarter cup of the milk into the plate. She waited precisely a minute, then began to eat.

“That’s quite a ritual.” Kateri turned back to the counter. “I never could decide whether she was autistic or a dysfunctional genius.”

“For sure the genius. Maybe autistic. But you have to admit, having your mother skip out when you’re twelve is going to do some damage.”

“I went to school with Cornelia. You know, when I lived here before. She was always … odd. Smarter than the rest of us. Our third-grade teacher had an Apple Macintosh, one of the early models, and it was her prize possession. That woman humiliated Cornelia for being
too gifted
in math class, told her if she didn’t stop acting so intelligent, she’d never catch a boy.”

“Was that Mrs. Noble?”

“Yep.”

“What a bitch
.

“So Cornelia programmed the Macintosh to make a farting sound every time Mrs. Noble moved the mouse. Took that woman about a hundred phone calls to Apple before she found the speaker Cornelia had installed into the computer.”

Rainbow cackled. “Good for Cornelia. That old harridan has been making children miserable for forty years.”

“Tell me about it.” Kateri had a white cowboy father and a Native American mother with a drinking problem. From the moment she was born, someone had been looking sideways at her, making fun of her, or picking a fight. Which was why she’d gone to the Coast Guard Academy. The fire that melts the candle forges the steel, and Kateri had been born in a furnace. Now she was an adult, back in Virtue Falls after a ten-year absence, commander of the local Coast Guard station and master of her own destiny. She, by God, intended to sail along with no more trouble. She nodded toward her former classmate. “That’s spooky. Why is Cornelia smiling?”

Rainbow filled the napkin holders. “I
think
that when she takes her pie break, she also takes a break from her work.”

“Which is … ?”

“Shit if I know. It’s top secret. Spy stuff. And she gets paid one helluva a lot for doing it.” Rainbow’s tone clearly expressed her opinion of anyone who worked for the U.S. Government.

“What does she ever spend her money on?”

“She doesn’t have to spend it. That’s what her husband’s for.”

Kateri cackled. “Oh, yeah. I forgot about Mason Markum. In fourth grade, I broke my heart over that guy. He was so cute.”

“Order up!” Dax slid a chicken strips and fries and a hummus plate with fresh vegetables and pita wedges across the worktop from the kitchen.

“He still is cute.” Rainbow picked up the plates. “Nice guy. Don’t get me wrong. He married her and hasn’t worked a day since. But he’s good to Cornelia, every summer he teaches kids how to swim, and he helps old ladies across the street.”

“So he’s a Boy Scout.” Kateri looked at Cornelia again. Cornelia, with her untrimmed brown hair, her hands and feet that looked too big for her body, her nearsighted brown eyes that blinked cluelessly behind her sturdy black glasses. “I’ll never understand how she caught him.”

“I think they caught each other. He was looking for a meal ticket and she fell in love with him.” Rainbow started around the counter.

“She loves him?” Kateri couldn’t believe it.

“Yes. What passes for love for her, anyway.” Rainbow stopped and studied Cornelia. “Sometimes that smile makes me uneasy, like she’s pointing a camera up my skirt to see what I’ve got up there.”

“Anything exciting?” Kateri asked.

“So I’ve been told.” With an exaggerated sway, Rainbow headed for the table of whale-watching tourists.

Kateri grinned. Rainbow had an excellent ego, and many men—and a few women—had lovingly tended it. Rainbow, middle-aged, liberal, independent, and hearty, was the glue that held Virtue Falls together.

***

Cornelia’s mother had told Cornelia many times that she needed to listen when other people talked.

Cornelia had tried that. She didn’t see the sense in it. People talked about their health, the weather, and the road work in front of their house. They never told the truth about what they thought. They seldom even told the truth about their health. They talked and they talked, and they never said anything. One day when Cornelia was twelve, her mother had lied and said she was coming home that evening. She never did, leaving Cornelia alone with a surly father and two humiliated older sisters. That had finished Cornelia for verbal communication, and for trying to please her mother.

Now Cornelia considered herself an observer of human behavior. She knew most people in Virtue Falls didn’t consider her an observer—most of them treated her like a bug who had crawled into their fresh green salad of life—but that was because they used their eyes and their ears to observe. Cornelia stepped back and used her computer skills to eavesdrop.

It was easy. At first, to amuse herself, she had hacked into e-mail accounts. She had quickly discovered that people revealed more of themselves over time, in writing, than they ever did with their verbiage. Unfortunately, most of her neighbors were still consumed with the minutia of life, and wading through the reams of e-mail babble made Cornelia sleepy. She was looking for entertainment, not boredom.

Then she discovered texting.

Texting—short, brief, abbreviated shots of contact between (usually) two humans that included appointment reminders, screaming hatreds, professions of deepest love, breakups, assignations, witty quips, copious complaining, nagging, tears, drunk texting, announcements of marriage, divorce, and births. Texting was human contact in its most distilled form. Cornelia could randomly hack into the thousands of texts sent in Virtue Falls every day. Best of all, it was like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: She never knew what she was going to get, or who was sending it.

She supposed, if she really hacked at it, she could discover who was sending which message. But to her, that was part of the game. Find a really juicy conversation, follow it for a while and, using her knowledge of her hometown, figure out who it was. Then, if she got the chance, she mentioned something about the conversation to one or both of the participants.

Sometimes it was too easy. Almost everybody in town came into the Oceanview Café occasionally, and some of them came every day to drink coffee, use the free Wi-Fi, gossip about their neighbors, and eat. Pie, usually. Dax made great pies.

Cornelia finished her pie, drank half of her milk, packed up her gear, went to the ladies’ room, and used the toilet. She washed her hands with soap for as long as it took to kill germs—the amount of time it took to twice sing “Happy Birthday to You.” She brushed her teeth, flossed, and returned to her table.

BOOK: The Listener
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