220 CHICAGO QUARTERLY REVIEW
DELIA C. PITTS 221
Delia C. Pitts
A ROSS AGENCY MYSTERY STORY
At eight fifteen, the sawed-off man burst through the restaurant door. Other men had finished their breakfasts and cleared out, headed for work or mischief in the late-August humidity. That left me and Burt at the counter of the Dominion Country Diner. Burt wiped the stainless surface, then pointed at my empty mug. Before I nodded, he filled it with coffee for the third time.
The little man took a stool at the counter, five seats to my right. He glanced at the laminated menu, which added “Melba’s” to the name of the diner. “You do eggs over easy?” No greeting, no small talk, no smile. New York style straight up. Burt blinked, but the customer was always right. “Yes, sir. Sure do. They come with home fries. You want coffee?” Burt slid a mug toward the new man and poured without waiting for an answer. “Your pick of toast or buttermilk biscuits comes with ’em.”
“No toast. No biscuits.” The man sipped coffee, scrunching his nose at the smoky bite. “I’m in a hurry.”
Burt yelled the order to George, the cook, in the kitchen, who barked a reply, “I heard ya.” Same answer he’d given when Burt bellowed my scrambled eggs order fifteen minutes earlier. “Keep yer wig on.”
I pushed the cold fries to the edge of my plate. Dragging the last half slice of rye, I corralled another lump of egg and pitched it into my mouth. At least the air conditioner worked. And the coffee was decent.
The sawed-off man had a story I needed to hear.
* * *
This was my second, quieter, visit to Melba’s Dominion Country Diner.
The previous evening, I’d had two cranky women and a toddler in tow. Sabrina Ross was my girlfriend and the owner of the Harlem detective agency where I worked. She was my boss, but on this road trip, Brina played sidekick with natural flair. The other woman was Crystal Figueroa, leader of a mob murder squad and mother of a two-year-old girl. My job was to drive Crystal and her daughter, JoJo, from New York to Tampa. They were running from rival gangsters, collateral victims of a festering war in the criminal underworld. My job was keeping Crystal and JoJo alive until we reached her relatives in Florida. Driving was the easy part.
Our first day on the road, we’d driven past Petersburg. Pushing to the Virginia/North Carolina line made sense, but Crystal insisted we take an early break. Her baby was cross, she was jumpy, Brina was fed up. No use pressing the argument until we all exploded. The Dominion Country Diner was on the main street of the little town. Easy access on and off the interstate. The restaurant was a narrow railroad car set above street level on a concrete platform fronted with blond bricks. Four steps up to the aluminum-framed glass door. Turquoise panels of peeling wood flanked the entrance.
In the shallow room, still sunbaked at seven, blue-and-white linoleum tiles encouraged JoJo to scamper beside the booths. There were five cus- tomers in the diner. Entering a new space, the racial calculations came naturally: two white couples shared a booth; a lone black man perched on a stool at the counter. The two women smiled as JoJo’s giggling play carried her past their table. All three men kept their eyes on the pork chops and pot roast cradled in their platters. Our noisy arrival altered the racial balance for everyone in the diner: three black adult strangers and a brown-skinned baby girl tipped the scales. No way to predict how the locals would feel about us.