On a stifling hot Friday afternoon late in the summer of 1938, three factory men at the Worcester Lunch Car Manufacturing Company in Massachusetts were struggling with a six-hundred pound slab of brown-veined marble. The huge hunk of stone, quarried from a pit in Tennesee, was swaying precariously from a wooden block and tackle. Perhaps it was the noise in the cavernous shop or idle thoughts about the approaching weekend, but the weary workmen were not as careful as usual. When the foreman shouted "other way," both of his helpers thought they heard "okay," and let the rough sisal rope slip between their fingers. The massive, polished rock dropped eight inches onto its final resting place. The deep crack that crazed across that counter top is still part of my diner today. At this moment it is filling with blood.
"Jean, Christ! Are you hit?" I said, as I crashed through the kitchen doors and nearly wiped out my head waitress, whose face and white uniform were splattered with blood. She shook her head no and staggered against the counter.
"Carl." I said to my head cook, "Take her out back. Call 911."
I had grabbed my gun and slapped in a clip, but now found no one to point it at. The screaming I'd heard all the way in the back of the diner a moment earlier was over. The diner was dead quiet and though a few of the twenty or so faces met my stare, most were riveted to a body slumped over the counter. He was dead quiet, too.
It took me a moment to realize that, aside from the regulars, most of the customers probably thought I was another crazy guy with a gun.
"Don't go anywhere..." I said to an elderly couple who were edging toward the exit. "Please." The man glanced at my automatic, mouthed a shaky "Okay" and let his hand slide off the door handle.
"They're gone." His wife said, pleading -- almost in a whisper.
The smell of gunpowder was still in the air though, mixed with the sharp odor of burning onions which Carl had left unattended on the grill. I'd been off the force and running the diner for five years now, but my cop instincts had kicked in.
"Everyone, listen to me...I'm Scotty. I own this place. But you've got to stay here. The police will need to talk to you. Just come down to this end of the diner. They'll be here in a minute."
Carl came back out front.
"Jean?" I asked.
He nodded. "Scared shitless, but okay."
"Did you see it?"
"Yea. Couple of guys with hoods and masks. They each took a shot and then pranced out all cool like -- waving their guns around at everyone."
"Get that stuff off the grill, will you." I said, tucking my gun into the back of my belt.
"Probably not a good idea."
"Those aren't just spuds ..."
I looked closer. Amongst the home fries and onions there were small, scrambled bits of gray matter, sizzling and sputtering in the grease.
"What do you think, Scotty?"
"I think it's browning up nicely." Carl didn't blink. He's used to my sense of humor.
"Should I take it off?"
"No, better not to move it. Turn off the burners and just let it cool. That way at least it stays where it landed."
"I‘ve got blood on me. Oh, Jesus, I could get AIDS...."
"We're going to sue, I mean this is ridiculous, this is insane...."
With the imminent threat over, the crowd was passing into the next stage of Kubler-Ross's grief cycle -- litigation consideration.
"Carl, do what you can with them, will you? See if Cindy can help out. At least get them to shut up."
I turned to my right. Halfway down the old marble counter was the dead man -- slouched face first in his last meal.
One of the customers, the chalky-faced woman who was threatening legal action, pointed a chubby finger at me.
"You! You've got to do something!"
Without a word I stared her down, momentarily considered the most appropriate invective for the circumstances, then let it pass.
I walked over to the body and checked the guy out. Two entry wounds near the base of his skull. The media would call it "execution-style" and in this case they wouldn't be wrong. Blood was splattered on the shiny fluted back bar and was dripping off the counter onto the old blue floor tiles, neatly filling in the dirty grout lines. The victim was in his mid-thirties, with curly brown hair cut very short. He had a neatly trimmed beard and blue eyes. The impact of the bullets had thrown him forward onto the counter, where he now balanced improbably.
"This is fucking crazy, Scotty. Those guys could come back, cap someone else! You got no right to keep me here."
A neighborhood regular named Keshawn had pushed to the front of the group.
"All right, K. Take it easy. If you want to go, go ahead." I bluffed. "No, I'm cool. I just want you to know this is fucking crazy."
"No argument there."
I untied my apron and spread it over the body. I knew it was wrong to mess with the crime scene, but didn't much care. Let the CSI techies sort it out later.
A Pittsburgh city cop car wheeled into my front parking lot and skidded to a halt, throwing bits of gravel against the front of the diner's porcelain skin. I could hear the overlapping sirens of other cars not far behind. The uniformed officers came in carefully with their guns drawn, but holstered them when they saw me.
"Christ, Scotty...." It was Bob Duff, a veteran cop and one of my regulars. "What's this?"
"I lost a customer."
"No shit. You see what happened?"
"No. Just heard it."
"Where were you?"
"Walk-in freezer in the back. The shots got my attention."
"I would think so. How long ago?"
"Less than five minutes. You guys got here in a hurry."
"Actually, we were heading over for coffee when we got the call."
Duff's young partner approached the victim and peeled back my apron shroud. He was trying to act nonchalant, but when he spotted the flowing blood and gaping exit wounds, his body betrayed him and his head snapped back.
"Go easy, Phil." Duff said, glancing over at the kid. "We don't need to mess up the freakin' crime scene...anymore than it already has been."
He winked at me.
"Yea, right. I just wanted to confirm he was dead."
"Great. You sure now?"
The kid nodded.
Outside an ambulance pulled up and I could see a crowd forming on the sidewalk across the street.
"So you saw nothing, Scotty? Didn't even see the guys leaving?"
"Not a damn thing."
"I saw it, Bobby."
Jean, not wanting to miss any of the action, had changed out of her uniform and rejoined us out front.
Duff flipped opened his notebook and looked back at her. Jean is fifty-seven years old. Right now every single moment of it showed on her face. Her frosted hair was mussed, tears had smeared her makeup and I could hear a waver in her usually confident tone. She yanked a short yellow pencil from behind her right ear and gestured with it.
"What did you see?" Bobby asked.
"Two guys came in while I'm taking an order," she said. "I see them look around, ya know, like they're trying to find an open seat. But they then they just walk up and shoot this guy."
Her pencil pointed in the direction of the body, but her eyes stayed on Duff.
"Where were you? Exactly."
"Behind the counter, over by the fridge there."
"She was covered with blood, Bobby." I said, "The uniform's out back."
Maybe it was the first time she'd rationally thought about what had happened, but Jean's face blanched and she lost her train of thought.
"Hey....Scotty?" She looked up at me like a sad puppy and then her knees gave out. She sagged against me and I caught her before she hit the floor
"Guys, over here." I called to the paramedics, who carried Jean back through the swinging doors to the kitchen.
"Nobody touched the guy, right Scotty?"
"No. We pride ourselves on cleanliness, but I left it for you guys to mop up."
A uniformed officer with a name tag that read Randall interrupted us.
"Got a partial plate, and a pretty good description of the car. Late model Buick or maybe a Pontiac. Tan. PA tag...BL52-something...the guy thinks."
"Good. It's a start. Call it in while I give the guys a rundown."
Duff was referring to the second wave of crime fighters who were now arriving -- city Police Detectives, in those kind of bland, unmarked cars that everyone knows are cop cars.
I turned to look at the dead guy when a huge hand fell on my shoulder from behind and startled me.
"Sorry, boss." It was Carl.
"What's up? You okay?" I said.
"Me, I'm fine. I'm just wondering about dinner?"
This was classic Carl. In his world, a murder ten feet away was only a minor deviation in the normal routine. He had dinner to make and breakfast to prep and...you get the idea. Carl had faithfully served a 20 year hitch in the Navy and he still found civilian life somewhat perplexing. From his point of view, you didn't stop cooking on an aircraft carrier just because F-16s were flying sorties off the deck.
"Also....Scotty...the girls wanna know what they should do." He said.
"I don't know. Just hang in the kitchen for awhile, I guess. The cops will want statements."
I checked the old stainless steel clock above the kitchen door at the center of the diner. Just after two o'clock.
"As far as dinner goes -- forget it. Just shut everything down and get things cleaned up...except for the grill. I don't think we're going to be on the top of anyone's dining list tonight. And do me a favor. Call the night shift, let them know what happened and that they've got an unexpected evening off...with pay."
"So Scotty, what's this I hear, " a familiar voice boomed behind us, "Your cooking finally kill someone?"
I turned to see the grinning face of Detective Paul Corrado.
"Maybe this guy, " he said, nodding in the direction of the corpse, "Should have had his cholesterol tested before coming into a grease pit like this."
"Maybe you should just get on with it, Paul." I said to my one time partner.
"And," he grinned, glancing at his partner. "Let's not rule out the food poisoning angle here, or a Mob connection -- could be Sal Monella."
He laughed at his lame joke and slapped my back as we shook hands. Then Paul stepped back and got serious.
"Hell of a mess, Scotty."
"How'd it go?"
"Carl and Jean and everyone one else fucking saw it Paul." I said, feeling like I'd been asked the question a dozen times already. "I was out back yanking flank steaks from the Goddamed freezer."
"Yea?" Paul nodded. "Well that sucks."
"Instead of the trained eyes of a master detective, we've got to depend on a bunch of hungry, hysterical people who don't want to get involved?"
"Okay, then. Let me see what we can see."
For the next couple of hours Corrado and his crew went through their paces, pumping the terrified lunch crowd for descriptions and nosing around for the minuscule clues that have turned so much police work into a kind of science project.
"Scotty." Corrado was behind the counter with one of the techs. "We gotta pull this slug out of your fridge and the door's gonna be open for awhile. Anything in there that isn't already spoiled?" He grinned.
"Do what you gotta do, Detective." I said.
"Okay, guys. Dig out that little bugger."
I watched the organized chaos of activity with a sense of detachment. It had a familiar rhythm I was comfortable with. Before buying the diner, I'd done a decade in the trenches, the last five as a Pittsburgh Police Homicide Detective. I knew the drill.
"I bet that someplace in the world, this is a delicacy." Paul said, as a technician plucked a fried morsel of brain off the grill and dropped it into a plastic clear evidence bag. "Just stick a toothpick through it and you've got yourself a nice little appetizer."
"You done yet?"
"The hard part for us." He said, ignoring me. "Is telling the brain matter from some of these gray-ass old potatoes."
I went into the kitchen. Jean stood near the back door waiting for her husband Stan. She had worked at the diner long before I owned it, though she wouldn't admit exactly how long. She'd seen lots of fights and a couple of robberies, both nothing like today.
"Call me...if you want." I said, giving her a quick hug.
She just nodded, holding back tears. When Stan honked twice, she dashed out, saying nothing.
Out front the Coroner did a final scan of the crime scene and nodded his okay. With that, the corpse was zipped into a body bag and hustled away.
"You still got hot coffee, Carl?" Paul asked.
Corrado sat down with me in the booth where I'd settled, pretending to read the paper.
"I don't suppose," he said, gesturing over his shoulder, "that's going to be a very popular stool."
"You're right about that."
"On the other hand, you never know. Might gain some kind of cult status."
"Yea, some skinhead kid with seventeen earrings will be camped out there tomorrow with a stupid look on his face."
"What do you think, Scotty? I mean about the way it went down."
"They knew who they wanted, where he was and how to get him. It wasn't exactly a crime of passion."
"Which will make it tougher."
"Not if I help."
"I thought I saw a gleam in your eyes."
"I guess I'm out of here now boss." said Carl, setting down the coffee in front of Corrado.
"All right Carl. " I said absently, "Everything buttoned up?"
"Yup. Fryers are cooling. All the gas is off."
"So the night's not a total bust," I said, looking at both of them with a mock grin, "I'll save on my gas bill."
"And you're going to get a lot of free advertising, Scotty," Corrado said. "Lots."