Two hours later the work was going much as Alison had predicted, Kyle was getting tired of standing, and he still hadn’t quite worked out how his equipment was supposed to operate. All he had was a spoon, but it was a surprisingly complex device – for a spoon. There were all the usual spoony bits – a handle and a scoop. However, set inside the scoop, there was an integrated scraper thing operated by a thumb lever next to the handle.
Presumably the operational theory of the device was its wielder would dip up some food, hold it out over a plate, and then press the lever to flip the food off the scoop. The potatoes Kyle had been working with had not been let in on this plan. Sometimes they refused to stick to the scoop well enough to wait for the scraper to release them. This could lead to embarrassing incidents where potatoes ended up in someone’s green beans or meatloaf. Alternately, they ignored the scraper entirely and stubbornly clung to the scoop until Kyle shook them loose. This also lead to embarrassing incidents where potatoes ended up in green beans or meatloaf only with more foolish looking spoon shaking on Kyle’s part.
There was, he had decided, some perfect level of packing when the potatoes were initially loaded, combined with just the correct crisp lever operation that would make things work out correctly every time. He hadn’t mastered either step, and it only all went off well about one time in five. He was starting to worry that the other volunteers might move him to the front of the food cart so plates would be empty when he dished up the potatoes. That would let them work around his misfires.
It would also be humiliating. This was surely a problem James Bond had never faced.
There had also been a couple of people through the line that Kyle had been inclined to watch closely. There’d been a man who carried on a conversation with the UN Secretary-General as he moved through the line, and a couple of people who were twitchy enough it seemed like they could bounce in an unpredictable direction. On the whole, though, the crowd was docile. He got the impression they weren’t morning people and life wasn’t pumping them full of energy.
As such, the woman who shuffled in the door near the end of the lunch shift didn’t make a big impression at first. But then Alison caught Fern’s eye, Fern signaled another volunteer to take her place, and both women crossed to the newcomer. Then Kyle paused to assess her.
Kyle really couldn’t have guessed the woman’s age. Her clothes made her seem younger. Like everyone else eating at the shelter what she wore was worn and dirty, and she seemed overdressed for the season. But her outfit still seemed to have been assembled with a sense of fashion that would have been fit for someone in their twenties or even a teen. She had jeans that were too big, a large canvas jacket with some aftermarket decorations, an over-sized knit cap with matching fingerless gloves, canvas high tops trailing their laces, and a nose ring.
The woman’s body appeared older than the clothes it was wrapped in. Where her skin showed, which was mostly on her face, it was weather-beaten and sun-baked. The hair that poked out of the cap was wiry and dry. Taking in just those features Kyle might have guessed her for a forty year old. Her bent back and shuffling walk wouldn’t have been out-of-place in a nursing home.
She didn’t make it to the line. Alison intercepted her before she could pick up one of the paper plates the volunteers were filling. They were too far away for Kyle to hear anything anyone said, but Alison’s body language said she knew the homeless woman. Alison touched her on the shoulder then leaned in a bit to speak. The woman didn’t respond for a moment. Instead she took the contact in a listless and disconnected fashion almost as though she hadn’t noticed Alison at all. Alison seemed to say something else. Whatever it was, the woman acknowledged it with a small nod and then let Alison guide her to a slightly less trafficked corner of the room.
Perhaps they were trying for privacy, or perhaps they just wanted to get out of the flow of traffic. Either way, there was nowhere truly private in the open space of the cafeteria. Kyle continued to watch the women, partly because it was his job, mostly because he was being nosey.
They talked some more. The homeless woman grew more animated, but that wasn’t saying much. She looked up, nodded a couple of times, and said something. However, her hands remained limp at her side and she stood unmoving while she talked. Alison in contrast gestured rather forcefully a couple of times. It looked like Alison was excited or perhaps trying to talk the homeless woman into something.
And that seemed suspicious.