Whoever coined the adage "any publicity is good publicity" never ran a diner. I didn't need this kind of notoriety, but at six o'clock, the local TV stations made sure I got it anyway.
"An unidentified man was gunned down in cold blood today as he ate his lunch at Scotty's Diner in the East End of Pittsburgh. Police aren't commenting at this point, but indications are that the shooting may have been gang or mob-related."
Intoned with great seriousness and punctuated with a few well-practiced nods of the head, it was the kind of story the local stations live for -- and though the anchorman looked grim and concerned, I knew he could barely contain his glee. "Cool! This is a big, breaking story! Way better than a fire!"
I picked up the TV remote and flipped around.
It was the lead story everywhere. Two stations had set up live feeds across the street from the diner, so that the cream colored porcelain steel with my name in it was framed just behind their reporters. I stopped to watch a perfectly coifed blond woman named Jeni for a moment.
"...That's right, Peter. Channel Eleven has learned that there have been other acts of random violence here in the East End over the past few months, but none quite so blatant as this broad daylight, execution style...."
Bang. There you go. Family-style to execution-style in one day.
I poured an inch of Jameson's into a short glass, clinked in a couple of ice cubes and went out to the back porch to toast the day's events. A moment later the phone rang in the kitchen. I let the machine take it. There had been a swarm of calls from reporters and I just didn't want to talk. After the beep, I heard the squawk of a familiar voice.
"Scotty? You there? I've got some interesting news. Turns out those shooters served up a blue blood special. Give me a call."
It was Corrado. I drained my glass and called him right back.
"Hey, Mr. Meatloaf, you were there! Listen Scotty, I thought you'd like to know this before the TV people do. That guy who bought it today was not some average slob. His name is Kevin McAllister. Father is an old-money-Duquesne Club-politically-well-connected type guy named Robert McAllister. God only knows what he was doing slumming at your joint."
I ignored the slight.
"What's his story?"
"Dad is tapped in everywhere." Paul sniffed, "I've already gotten the word to proceed "carefully" with the investigation."
We both understood the implication.
"He's the darling of Grant Street right now, spending like a drunken sailor on downtown real estate, and nobody wants to say ‘boo' lest the cash dry up."
"And the kid?"
"Don't have much yet. Men are out canvassing. Once they're back in I'll have more. ‘Least I hope so."
"What about the shooters?"
"Yea, well, we found the car ditched in the parking lot of a mall off McKnight Road. Stolen two hours before from a used car place in East Liberty. I'm not hopeful about prints"
"Yea. That would make it too easy, wouldn't it...."
"Gotta run. I'll let you know more when I do."
I splashed some more whiskey in my glass, returned to the back porch and sipped. It felt strange to be on the outside of an investigation, particularly one which hit me where I lived.
When I'd been a cop, I'd learned not to take anything personally -- just deal with each situation and move on. Let it go. But this was different. Different because the diner was my place. And different because I wasn't a cop anymore. Whether Corrado would keep me in the loop remained to be seen.
But I still wanted to know something about the jerks who'd whacked young Mr. McAllister. Who wanted him dead? What had he done....or not done? Why in the middle of the day in such a crowded place? That one bothered me a lot, because tomorrow I was sure it wasn't going to be crowded at all.
When I got in the next morning Carl was already in the kitchen doing something with a cabbage.
I nodded my head. Despite working an early shift for years, I am not a morning person. Talking would have to wait until after my first cup of coffee.
Carl understood. Without looking up from his work he gave me the salient points.
"Morning crew are all coming in about a half hour early to help get things rolling again. Jean called and said she's doing Debbie's shift. Deb's kid is sick or something."
I was glad Carl had thought to bring people in early. It's actually a lot harder to get the place up and running again after a shutdown than it is to just keep it chugging along 24 hours a day.
"And...I'm using the grill back here today."
He didn't have to tell me why.
"Great. Call Pittsburgh Fixture when you can and and find out how much they're going to nick us for a new one."
We reopened around 6:30 when a couple of regulars strolled up and nearly pulled the door off its hinges. They had never found it locked before.
"Scotty, I was afraid they scared you off." said Ben Silver, a black man who works third shift security at a small plant down the street.
"Not me, Ben" I said, managing a smile, "It'll take more than that."
"Those guys come into my place I'd introduce them to my sweet little pets. See how they like that." He laughed.
Ben's pets are a pair of roaming Rotweillers named Grunt and Groove, who join him on his nightly rounds. It strikes me as overkill for a place that manufactures injection molded piggy banks and oversized plastic baseball bats.
"How are the beasts?"
"Hungry, Scotty. Always hungry."
"Which means you could use some more bones?"
"If you got any."
"I'll take a look."
I did my best to stay behind the scenes all morning and avoid the subject of the shooting. Which didn't mean I wasn't thinking about it. Around 9:30 I went to empty the register and caught Jean working the crowd. In her customary style, she'd taken the spotlight -- recalling and embellishing the events of the prior day for anyone within earshot.
"You're bullshitin' me Jean." Said Larry Gayner, a regular. "Come on. I bet you were kissin' the floor when those guys left!"
"Don't believe me, Larry? Fine with me....but then you don't eat, either!"
Jean plucked Larry's full plate off the counter and slid it under the counter into a sloppy bus pan.
"Jesus, Jean. I was just kidding." he said, stunned.
"Sure you were," she said, tucking a pencil behind her ear.
"Come on. You can't do that. I'll be hungry all day!"
"I don't know. You could stand to lose a few pounds, Larry."
"Ow, ow, ow" His buddies at the counter responded to the jab.
"I didn't mean to say that you were lying, Jean."
"Sounded like it to me. You cut me to the quick, Lar. Hurt me deeply." Smiling to his buddies, she walked off in mock despair to take an order at the other end of the counter.
Carl, who'd heard the whole thing, stole two eggs from someone else's order, slid them on another plate, dropped them in front of Larry and headed back to the kitchen. The last time I'd seen them go through the same act was two years ago, with a salesman who couldn't keep his hands to himself.
"Nice job, Jean. You guys going to take that show on the road some day?"
"We open in Harrisburg next week, Scotty."
They got down to work and I sat at the end of the counter. Despite what had happened here less than twenty four hours before, the diner seemed unaffected. People needed to eat -- and I was glad they were eating here.
The only outward sign of change was the missing top to stool number twelve. It had been the last thing I'd taken care of the night before, after spending an hour scrubbing the bloodied counter with every abrasive and noxious cleaner I had. When I finally got the last trace of the stain out, I decided no one would want to sit there for awhile anyway, so I yanked the top off and stashed it in my office.
So now there are 19 operative stools along with eleven booths -- enough seats for 65 hungry souls. The booths are old straight back oak jobs with thin padded seats and backs. The table tops, like the counter, are marble. Each booth sports a shiny Seeburg remote juke box control that's connected to an dusty old unit in the basement. They don't work, but they seem to belong there, so I leave them in. The diner had been in good shape when I took ownership, and I wasn't about to mess with it. Some of the old-timers remember the day it was taken off a nearby rail car, trucked down Penn Avenue and set on its current foundation. In fifty years, the only major alteration has been to the steel porcelain on the outside -- when I changed the name from Curley's to Scotty's.
An hour later I was at my desk in the back going over the previous day's meager receipts when Jean wandered in on her break.
"What's the word from the counter club?"
"Well, it breaks down to two main theories. You've got your random act of violence believers and your drug-mob-gang connection people. Seems split about fifty-fifty. Though there was also one guy who thought it was somehow connected to Richard Mellon Scaife, the Trilateral Commission and the comet Kahoutek."
"What do you think?"
"I don't know. Scotty. I just wish I hadn't seen it. How about you?"
"I'd probably go for the comet...."
"Come on, really."
"Well, I wouldn't rule out any of the brilliant theories you've heard this morning, because you never know. Corrado and I responded to a call once about a wild man in a white coat running down the center of Liberty Avenue screaming and waving knives over his head."
"Christ, who was it, some nutcase?"
"Nope. Just a boisterous culinary school graduate who was overly excited about his soufflgrades."
"Excuse me, Scotty." Frannie, a young black waitress I'd hired a month before, poked her head in. "There's a guy here from one of the TV stations. Wants to talk with you."
"Tell him I'm not here."
"I already told him you were....sorry."
"No problem, Fran. I'll be out in a minute."
Jean followed Frannie out as I reached for the phone. I wanted to see if Corrado had anything new.
"Pittsburgh Police. Sergeant Gryzmkowski." a bored voice answered on the third ring.
"Detective Corrado in homicide."
"He's not available at the moment. Can I say who's calling?"
"Tell him Scotty called." I said, in an equally bored voice and hung up.
For a moment I watched the anxious reporter through the window in the stainless steel kitchen door, framed just like he'd be on TV. Perched on one of the stools and sipping a cup of coffee, he stayed busy smiling and nodding to people who recognized him. He was young, tall and tan, with the lots teeth and hair. A stocky camera guy hung back near the front door, perspiration staining his armpits.
I shouldered my way through the door and introduced myself.
"I'm Scotty." I said, making eye contact with the reporter's contact-enhanced baby blues.
"Ken Powers." he said, cranking up the smile and shaking my hand too firmly. "Channel 2, Eyewitness News."
"Nice to meet you. I have nothing to say."
He pulled a pen and a small pad out of his inside jacket pocket. I couldn't imagine what for. Perhaps just to put quotes around the words "no comment."
"You're sure? I mean we're just trying to help our viewers understand what's going on down here."
"Well, you know what I mean. We want to talk with business owners like yourself, for a follow-up feature piece we're doing. It'll be a look at how crime is hurting business. About how gangs and drugs are affecting Pittsburgh. How things like the shooting here yesterday are increasing at an alarming rate."
Jesus, I thought, he's got the script already written and he hasn't even spoken to anyone yet.
"I'm sure that'll help my lunch trade."
"Well, if you're unwilling..."
"Listen, Kenny. I told you. I don't want to talk about it."
"Are you afraid it might happen again. Are you afraid of the people who did it? Is that why you won't talk?"
Here's a guy who probably slogged through poly-sci in college, but aced Persistence 204: The Art and Science of Being a Major Pain in the Ass.
"...And what about being a former cop?"
He shifted his weight and leaned in closer to me.
"Do you feel like you should have been able to prevent the shooting, or at least been able to identify the assailants when..."
"Kenny. Enjoy your coffee, " I said picking up his check and crumpling it in my fist. "But don't stay for dessert."
I glanced over at the cameraman, who had gathered his gear and started to head out the door. I'm sure I caught him smiling. Kenny's final act was to leave me his card. When he turned his back, I tossed it away with the check.
"Carl, keep an eye on things, will you?"
"Sure, Scotty. Something up?"
"I've just got to do something."
"Can I help?"
"No. Just make sure nobody talks to the reporters -- at least if them come in here. Nothing to do it they want to talk on their own time."
"Nobody will say anything, Scotty."
As I cut through the kitchen and headed out the back door I shed my apron and my diner owner persona. Staying in the background wasn't going to work. No more pretending about that. By the time I crossed the parking lot and jumped in my pickup, I was a back on the job. I jammed the keys into the ignition and twisted them hard.
"Like it or not" I said to myself, "You've got a partner on this one, Corrado."
The truck was a crusty Chevy half-ton I bought a week after acquiring the diner, realizing I'd need a more practical vehicle than the 1967 Triumph TR4a I'd been nursing along for years. Like the TR, the truck was green. Unlike the Triumph, it started every time, ran reliably and had tons of space. But hell, it was still just a truck. I still had the old Triumph under a tarp in my garage.
I swung onto Penn Avenue and headed for East Liberty, where Police Station Number Five was located, and where Corrado held court. I crossed over the train tracks and turned right onto The Circle, a perimeter road of sorts which outlines one immense and utter failure of urban planning -- the crime ridden and poverty stricken East Liberty Mall. I parked in a visitor spot at the station and went in.
"Fourth floor, Scotty. The desk sergeant knew me and waved me by. "In the back."
I found Corrado at an old wooden desk with a huge mug of hot coffee.
"Hey, Scotty. What is this? You come in to give yourself up?"
"Thought it was the right thing to do, Paul."
"Well, here, sit down. I'll go get a stenographer. We don't want to miss a word of this." he said, clearing a thick stack of file folders off a side chair. "You just sit tight."
He came back with a cup of coffee for me.
"Haven't you noticed that it's about 95 degrees out and just about as humid?" I asked, directing his eyes to the steaming coffee cup.
"No, Scotty, you don't get it. Here's the deal; the coffee warms you up, making your body temperature closer to that of the outside."
"And that's good?"
"Yea, ‘cause then you feel cooler."
"Is this your theory?" "Nope. Read it somewhere once."
"Let me guess, it was the Readers Digest, and you were on the can."
"No, I think it was Scientific American.....but yes, I'm sure I was on the can."
He laughed, then spread his hands wide with palms up and said, "Well?"
"I just want to know what's going on here, Paul. With apologies to Sam Spade, I'd say if a guy dies in your diner, it seems like you ought to do something about it."
"No reason you shouldn't, but you aren't a cop anymore, Scotty. You made that choice. Don't you remember?"
"I think I do...." But Corrado wanted to dredge it up again.
"One day you and I were having a bowl of soup at Curley's Diner, and the next thing I know you buy the friggin' place."
"Correction. The next thing I did was punch out Commander Addison. Then I bought the diner."
"And your point is, Paul?"
"My point is, you blew off your career and it ain't that easy too just walk right back in."
"I handed in my tin, I didn't go fucking brain dead." I said, annoyed. "And I do hold a valid P.I.'s license."
"Which is not a license to fuck around in this case....Timothy."
He used the first name like an scolding mother.
"Hey, listen Paul. This happened at my place. Two assholes came in and blew some guys brains into my pancake batter and I want to know why! I'm not going to grovel, but I want in on this. I want to know what you know."
"Okay, okay. Chill, for Christ's sake. I'll give you what I've got, when I can. And I'll stay in touch. But there may be some things I can't part with."
"Fair enough. Just don't bull shit me."
"Not my style, partner." He smiled. And I knew he was right.
With great ceremony Corrado shifted in this chair, carefully took a sip of scalding coffee and opened a file folder on his desk.
"This will come as no big surprise to you, but the early odds say it was a hit."
"No shit. Who would want him dead?"
"That is the question, isn't it?"
"And who would choose to do it in a crowded restaurant, with a couple of dozen potential witnesses?"
"Amateurs. I could get you hit for the price of one hit of meth."
"Could be a gang initiation thing, could be drug-related, could be this guy cut the shooters off in traffic. The concept of why doesn't seem to carry much weight anymore."
"What do you have on the family?"
"Met dear old dad late yesterday. He shows up to ID the body dressed in these God-awful plaid golf pants...with a pink knit shirt. Jesus! The kind of stuff only really rich people and the homeless can get away with wearing. Anyway, we go to the morgue and he stands there shaking his head no, but telling us yes. He was as hard as a rock.
"Businessman, Paul. They learn that in prep school."
"Anyway," Corrado said, ignoring me. "The interesting thing is that Big Mac and the son apparently had a very public problem with each other a few years ago. You might remember this. Had to do with that old mill over in Braddock they were going to fix up or something? The kid was on his payroll then and I guess he soured the deal. I've got somebody pulling all the info if you want to see it later.
"I might," I said, remembering the incident. Centered around a huge old mill site along the Monongahela River, McAllister's development had been promoted as a surefire way to revitalize the struggling Mon Valley, devastated by the collapse of the steel industry. Thousands of strong, proud people were out of work for the first time in their lives and most were just looking for a little hope.
The son's revelations about toxic waste on the site stopped the whole thing as cold as the blast furnaces that it was meant to replace. As far as I know, the plant is still intact and idle, a huge horizontal tombstone marking the death of steel in Pittsburgh.
"As I recall", I said, "Neither the father or son made any friends over that deal."
"That's about it. The workers wanted jobs and the investors wanted some pay back. Neither of them got what they bargained for. There were," Corrado flipped through the folder and picked out a single sheet of yellowed paper, "A number of death threats made against both of the McAllisters at the time. But that was ten years ago."
"You'd have to be a very patient killer."
Corrado returned the sheet to the folder, then stood up and looked at his watch.
"Well, anyway. That's about all I've got now Scotty. I gotta hit the road. If something comes up, I'll give you a call."
We shook hands.
"You're welcome. And I'm still not sure this is a good idea."
Corrado plucked a worn gray sports coat off the back of his chair and grabbed his coffee cup. As we headed for the exit, maneuvering our way through a maze of dull government issue desks and filing cabinets, Paul shouted over his shoulder.
"How was business today?
"Better than I expected. Obviously the smell of death has been overpowered by the smell of grilled onions."
As we clomped down the dingy stairwell, the temperature eased at each landing, where old wooden windows, sash cords long rotted, had been propped open with night sticks. Corrado's coffee cup was still with him when we reached the front door, though he had sloshed about half of it onto the steps on the way down.
"Officer," he said, handing a young uniformed patrolman the mug, "I need you to take this to the evidence room for me right away."
"Yes, sir. How should they tag it?"
Tell ‘em," he shouted over his shoulder as we walked out the door, "It's part of the Juan Valdez investigation".
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