COFFEE & CRIME
By Anita Rodgers
Waitress and budding chef Scotti Fitzgerald is six weeks away from realizing her dream - buying her own diner. And everything was going according to plan until her investor stopped returning her calls.
After five years of working my ass off to buy Manny’s diner I was hurtling down the home stretch. Then, six weeks from closing the deal, my investor George died under questionable circumstances. Suddenly, I was scrambling to find $60,000 that I didn't have and nobody wanted to lend me. When I learned that a secret buyer was romancing Manny to get the diner away from me, I knew I had to act fast. Or lose everything.
My only option was to solve George's murder and collect the reward money his widow offered. Piece of cake. I was a waitress and a pastry chef; crime solving was definitely in my wheelhouse, right? But I couldn’t ignore George’s message from the grave or Zelda, who convinced me we could do it. Ignoring the insanity of our plan, we jumped into a world of deceit, back stabbing, and murder. Who could we trust? Would we make it out alive? That was anybody’s guess. Buying a diner can be murder.
Life is a conspiracy of crazy, illogical, and unfair outcomes. And real life is stranger than fiction — so much so that if you wrote a book and told the absolute truth nobody'd believe it. To this day, there are people who don't believe my story though it's the God honest truth. And I'm not somebody who throws God's name around like he's a personal friend.
My name is Scotti Fitzgerald and after eighteen years of foster care and ten years of stumbling around, I've learned that life conspires to make you look like a lunatic and a liar whenever possible. And that most people are too busy in their little bubbles to give you the sniff test, much less determine your trustworthiness. That winter was the ultimate in sniff tests, and I'm not sure I came out smelling like a rose.
Just when we thought we'd slide into spring with nary a crappy day, winter hit. Winter in California means rain. And the skies opened up and poured that Friday morning at Manny the Cuban's. It was a madhouse. The place was jammed with regulars and first timers looking for an authentic experience. Though authentic might be stretching it. Manny's was a hair above being a hole in the wall and had as much ambience as Mean Mike's cardboard house in Sunland Park. The beat-up booths, old chairs and tables, gaudy posters and bad paint job didn't exactly draw the celebrity crowd — but we did okay.
The place was an orchestra of clanging silverware, mumbled voices, sizzling meat, and Cuban music. The drumming rain on the roof provided a nice backbeat and kept the adrenaline dialed on high. Between dodging other waitresses, customers, and random umbrellas hanging off the backs of chairs, it was one death-defying act after another. But to me, it was as much fun as a day at Disneyland.
After ten years of waiting tables, I can navigate around bodies, bus trays, briefcases, and pocket books with my eyes closed, and that morning was no different. I was cranked on adrenaline and coffee, and my pockets already bulged with tips. The rain was good news to me, because people get hungry when the weather sucks — and they just kept coming. I zipped around the tiny dining room, arms loaded with breakfast plates and more waiting in the pass-through.
Manny banged on the bell. "Come on mamsitas! Pick up! Pick up!"
I glanced over my shoulder at his big face sticking out of the pass-through like a crazy bobble head. Orders were stacked up under the heat lamps waiting for waitresses to claim them and he was having his usual tantrum. It didn't matter if it was one plate or twenty — anything waiting in the pass-through made Manny's blood boil and turned his face a scary shade of red.
I dipped, scooted, and sidestepped my way back to the pass-through to pick up more orders. "Take it easy, Manny — we're on it." While I stacked plates of eggs, French toast, and empanadas on my left arm, I scanned for anything else that belonged to me.
He rolled his eyes at the other waitresses on the floor. "Maybe you Scotti, but them?"
"You worry too much." I grabbed a coffee pot with my free hand and headed back out to the hungry masses. Manny worried too much about the small stuff in life. Silly of him because six weeks into the future the diner would belong to me. Plates sitting under heat lamps would soon be my problem. I was counting down the days until Manny stopped whining and went back to Miami. Let them deal with him.
I zoomed around the dining room and fantasized about the changes I'd make once it was mine. New tables, new paint, nice artwork, and a new menu. The L.A. Times would write me up in their food column. And a few A-list food bloggers would post rave reviews online. I just knew I could make the place a serious contender in the L.A. food scene and was damned determined to try.
I’d spent the last five years working to buy the diner from Manny. Scrimping and saving. Pulling extra shifts. Catering on the side. And I’d paid my dues — I handled the scheduling, ordering, and kept the waitresses in line. After all my hard work, God would have to reward me, right? I'd be a real chef. And finally be somebody. I only had to get through the next six weeks.
After I dropped off my orders, I ducked outside for a break. I'd been going non-stop since breakfast and needed a few gulps of fresh air — even if it was soggy.
When I walked out the side door, I saw Zelda had gotten there ahead of me. She stood under the awning that sheltered the recycling bin and kicked back against the wall with her eyes closed. Like she was meditating.
Zelda wore her usual uniform of black jeans, a rumpled white shirt, stained apron, and the oldest pair of black Rockport's on record. Her thick black hair pulled back in her version of a ponytail — like a dagger made of hair. The tail whipped her in the face when she bobbed her head in my direction. "What kept you?"
"How do you always get out here first?" I stepped under the awning and took up the spot on the wall next to her. The rain had slowed to a drizzle, but it was still cold, and I hugged myself, shivering.
Zelda shrugged. "Can I help it if you lack my skill and speed?"
I snorted. "Maybe I had more customers than you."
Zelda's smile skimmed her face and twinkled her dark eyes. "And maybe you're full of crap."
I wagged a finger. "When I'm the boss you'll have to treat me with more respect, young lady."
"Or I'll quit and join the circus." Zelda mimed juggling.
I cracked the door and checked the dining room. "Yeah, yeah."
Zelda peered over my shoulder. "All clear?"
I let go of the door and it hissed closed on pneumatic hinges. I stepped back to the wall and pushed my shoulders against it, to work out the knots. "Nothing to do until the tables turn and the next wave hits."
Zelda nodded and went back to her daydreaming under the awning.
I met Zelda when I was eight and surrounded by bullies in the backyard of the Harmony House foster care facility. Suffice it to say, there was little harmony there, and Zelda saved me from a sure beating. We've been best friends since. We share a small guesthouse that has a big kitchen and tiny bedrooms but is a palace compared to the foster homes we grew up in.
I checked my phone and frowned when I saw there were no messages.
"George still giving you the silent treatment?"
I shook my head. "He's not giving me the silent treatment. He just hasn't called me back yet." I checked the phone again, but nothing had changed in the last ten seconds. "I don't get it, he never blows me off."
Zelda went to the door, checked the dining room, then turned back to me "There's always a first time."
"Even if he were blowing me off, I still have his briefcase. He'd call about that, at least."
Zelda raised an eyebrow. "Why do you have his briefcase?"
"He gave it to me last week and told me to hang onto it until I saw him again. But he hasn't come back for it. Plus we're supposed to sign the final papers for the diner."
"Maybe he changed his mind."
I gave Zelda a little shove. "Shut up. Never say stuff like that out loud." I pointed to the angry sky overhead. "The universe is listening."
Zelda grunted and took up her spot on the wall again. "Oh yeah, the universe." She glanced at me. "George hasn't been in, and he’s not returning calls. But the universe is the problem?"
I stared at my ketchup-stained Nikes. "Don't start with the negative crap. I don't want to hear it."
Zelda stuck her face in mine. "Scotti, I'm serious. Things ain't right here." Her dark eyes were usually filled with mischief but not this time.
I slinked away from Zelda and opened the door. "Better get back to work before Manny busts a vein."
The diner emptied out around three, and we collapsed into seats at the counter. While we counted our tips, we munched on greasy French fries with lots of Thousand Island dressing. From the cashier stand, Manny watched us like a hawk honed in on a field mouse and whistled. "Made the big bucks today, eh chicas?"
Between fries, we counted out our ones and put them in stacks of twenty. "Can we cash in our ones or don't you need them?" I asked.
Manny opened the cash register and wiggled his fingers. "Bring it." We scooped up our stacks and brought them to the cashier stand. Manny took his time counting because he loved to needle us like that.
I plopped back down at the counter to finish our fries, while Zelda made us hot chocolates.
Manny squinted at me. "You tip the busboy?"
Zelda placed the hot chocolates on the counter and sat next to me. "Did you wear clean underwear today?"
Manny's eyes bugged out. "What's the matter with you, asking those kinda questions?" He shook his head and muttered in Spanish.
"We always tip the busboys," Zelda retorted. "What's the matter with you asking those kinda questions?" Zelda did an excellent impression of Manny.
Manny pulled a white hanky out of his back pocket and wiped his face, then pretended a smile. "Oh you're so funny. Make the jokes at Manny's expense. You like to laugh? I got something gonna make you laugh. I got another buyer wants this place."
I choked and spewed hot chocolate across the counter.
Zelda smacked me hard on the back. "Don't listen to him. He's screwing with you. Are you okay?"
I recovered and nodded. "Yeah, I'm okay." I pushed her away. "Stop smacking me on the back, you big goon."
Manny snorted and put his beefy hands on his hips. "Ain't no shit. You got competition." He grinned at me and made the wide eyes. "I got an official muy abudante offer, chica."
Manny crossed his arms over his chest. "I don't gotta prove nothing."
I jumped out of my seat and backed him up against the counter. "You're lying."
Manny raised his eyebrows and taunted me with a sly smile. "You think so, chica?"
Looking up at the big jerk, I jabbed him in the chest with my finger. "Did you forget that we've got an agreement? You can't sell it to anyone else." I smiled too. "I have it in writing. Signed and notarized."
Manny looked down at me. "We'll see."
I wanted to slug him with the coffee pot, but I held my temper. "Plus, you gave me your word. You saying your word ain't worth a shit now?"
Manny pushed past me and waved his arms around the diner. "My word is my gold, chica. I keep my word, but you gotta keep yours too."
I didn't get the shift in Manny's attitude. He always liked yanking my chain, but this was different. Something had changed and dread snaked in my gut.
He bobbed around like an amateur boxer. "Funny, I don't see your investor guy around lately. What's the matter, he don't like the food no more? He found another chica to give his money to?"
Zelda threw a cream pitcher at Manny. "Bastardo."
He ducked; the pitcher hit the wall, then spattered the stainless counter with little white cream boogers. Manny shook a fist at her. "You better clean that up, Zelda."
"Asshole! You don't have another buyer, and all you do is talk shit. When Scotti gets this place, it's going to be a freaking holiday. You know why? Because she's a real chef. She actually knows how to cook. Customers will stand on line all day for a table when word gets out that they can get great food instead of your slop."
Manny's nostrils flared. "I don't know, Zelda, the people they come, and they eat. Every day. Every week. Somebody likes Manny's slop. You like the tips you get from people who eat Manny's slop?"
Zelda glared at him but said nothing.
Manny shrugged and sang to himself as he did a little salsa into the kitchen.
Once I was sure he was out of earshot, I grabbed Zelda's arm and squeezed. "Another buyer? What the hell does he mean?"
Zelda pried my fingers off her arm. "Jeez Scotti, take a breath. He's messing with you." She flicked a hand toward the kitchen. "Probably thinks if he screws with you enough, you'll pay him more money. It's a bunch of macho bullshit."
She frowned at the spray of hot chocolate and cream on the counter. She reached for a towel then said, "Screw it. Let him clean it up."
I took off my apron, grabbed my purse from the counter, and put on my jacket. "I hope you're right about Manny, but I don't want to take any chances. I want to get that check now and pay him before something blows up in my face. I have to go see George."
Zelda threw on her jacket, grabbed her backpack, and was right behind me. "Good thinking, let's go."
I turned back to her. "No, no, no, you're not coming with me."
Zelda put her hands on her hips. "Oh yes, I am."
"I appreciate the moral support, but I need to see him alone." I nudged Zelda. "This is a business deal — I can't drag my best friend with me every time I hit a snag. Otherwise nobody’s going to take me seriously. Right?"
Zelda smirked. "But who's going to drive you?"
"I can drive myself."
"Fine." Zelda stomped to the door, held it open, and pointed outside. "Have fun taking the bus home in the rain, to pick up your car. Hopefully, it'll start." She made a ta-da gesture, pulled up her hood, and walked out.
"Damn it, damn it, damn it!" I ran after Zelda and caught up to her in the parking lot. "Okay, okay, you can come with me. But you have to promise to stay in the car."
Zelda stared at me over the hood of her beat-up jeep. "What am I, the family dog?"
I raked my hands through my hair. "It's not professional. This is business. Zelda, be reasonable."
Zelda scorched me with a stare.
I huffed and yanked open the passenger door. "Can you at least get me there in one piece? And try not to interrupt me when I'm talking?"
Zelda unlocked the jeep and got in. She turned the ignition, and the engine rumbled to life. Smiling, she patted the passenger seat. I climbed in, belted up, and sighed loudly.
Zelda gunned the engine. "I knew you'd see things my way."
I mimed choking her. "Can we go?"
"What's in George's briefcase?"
"What? I don't know."
"You didn't open it?"
"It’s not my briefcase to open." I waved my hand at the street. "Time's a-wasting."
Zelda backed out of the parking space and nosed toward the exit. "But maybe whatever is in the briefcase will tell you why he’s out of touch."
"Or I could talk to George and ask him why he’s been out of touch." I raked my mop of hair out of my eyes. "Besides we're past that. I need that damn check today. We can talk about hurt feelings another time."
Zelda nodded, pulled into traffic, and headed for Pasadena. Neither of us knowing how hard it would be to talk to George.
Copyright Anita Rodgers all rights reserved
Link to book page: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B014LR48OG