The attractive cashier behind the counter flashed a smile as cheery as her uniform was drab. Her key-shaped nametag had 'Barbara' scratched into it. The contrast of woman and wardrobe only heightened the disconcerting sense of unreality broadcast by the glowing ball-and-chain sign outside, the big plastic window bars, and the waitstaff's sunny yellow prison jumpsuits. "Welcome to the FW Diner," she said. "Table for one, ma'am?"
Claire Fuller didn't usually frequent chain restaurants, preferring instead to encourage independents, but tonight she was on a mission. On the drive over, she'd debated whether to volunteer her identity, but chose instead to let them treat her as any other patron. And that might have happened if the place weren't so crowded, or maybe if she hadn't been distracted by the sight of Fremont-Wayfarer CEO Edward Reese's perverse idea of a family restaurant. She nodded.
"Probably about ten minutes. Your name?"
The last syllable had scarcely passed her lips when she realized what she'd done.
Barbara studied her briefly, her expression tripping past embarrassment and annoyance before settling on a keen curiosity. "Our corporate parole officer?"
Caught. "Yes. I've been meaning to come down and speak with Al off the record." She meant Alizondo Klee. Besides being the night manager, he was also the newly created union's representative on the court-appointed Board of Directors. Claire was its chair. Following the Supreme Court's ruling that legal persons be granted full rights of citizenship, the company had been convicted of stealing from the employees' self-insurance fund, and sentenced to be imprisoned for three-years. Reese, ever the opportunist, had dreamed up a way to capitalize on the severe restrictions the court had imposed. The results spoke for themselves.
"I'm sorry, but Mr. Klee is visiting another store tonight. Is there something I can help you with?"
"Perhaps. Do you have a party room? Someplace where we can talk without disturbing the other customers?
"Sure," the cashier said dubiously, "but the whole point of how the union reframed Reese's makeover of the chain is to involve our customers in discussion, both with us and with one another. Is this something you'd rather not let the community we've stirred up know about?"
Claire glanced around the dining room. The yellow-clad servers were easy to pick out. One 'inmate' was setting out a round of salad, but the rest were engaged in lively chatter with customers, and judging from the fact that none of them was holding a menu, it wasn't about their next course. She turned back to Barbara. "Maybe you're right. I guess I'll wait for a table."
Stepping out of the way of an approaching customer, Claire managed to bump into someone. She reflexively apologized, even before she'd turned around to see a young man wearing a warm-up jacket over a hoody with his hand extended in greeting. "Um," she said unsteadily, "have we met?"
"Not yet. I couldn't help but overhear that you're this company's watchdog, though. I'm John Frachetti. I've been having a bit of a brush-up with some spooks lately, and was hoping you might be able to shed some light on it for me."
By this time, Barbara had finished with her customer. "Ms. Fuller?" she called. "It looks like a table just freed up for you."
"Thanks. It seems I'll be sharing it."
"Hi John!" she said happily. "Welcome back. Have you seen any more of those two goons that followed you here the other day?"
"Unfortunately, yes. I'll fill you in when you have a chance to join us."