Saturday, August 24, 2013

28. Dine and Dash

Jake make a right onto 18th Street and headed for the south side of Zenith, a tough area and one he would have preferred to avoid. Still, if there was any chance the voice on the phone could be trusted, the meeting would be worth the visit.

Four blocks down the street and into the south side, he instinctively checked that his gun was in his shoulder holster. As his fingers grazed the gun, a blue sedan lurched out of a side alley. Jake had to jerk the steering wheel hard to avoid the car. His own car leapt onto the sidewalk and caught a light pole, spinning it around. Jake tensed as his car did a 180 degree turn into the thankfully empty cross street and rocked to a stop.

A quit inventory of bone and sinew proved there was no permanent damage to Jake, but he could see clearly that the right front of his car was pretty well smashed. He was going to need a tow. As his head cleared, he saw the blue sedan returning to the scene of the crime, carrying two grim looking characters that had their stared fixed on him. This was no accident. Jake felt woozy as he reached for the handle to get out of the car and look for cover, but as he did he saw a red-faced cop running up the street in his side mirror. The men in the sedan saw the cop as well, and moved on.

Jake tumbled out of the car, a couple gents in the crowd that formed helped him to sit down as the cop arrived. As the cop looked for answers, the crowd erupted with them, and it took some time to clear things up. Fortunately for Jake, a few witnesses saw the blue sedan nearly run him off the road, and it turned out the cop knew his pal Curly. As the cop got on his call box to call for a tow, Jake, feeling steadier, hoofed it across the road to a diner. He was dry, and hadn't had a bite since breakfast.

The diner was clean, even if not entirely inviting. The diners were all black, and they gave Jake a hard stare as he entered, a mix of trepidation and wonder, as most of them had witnessed the accident. The waitress behind the counter was a bit friendlier, as they usually are. She poured him a cup of coffee and Jake picked up a menu.

"What's the special today," he asked as nonchalantly as he could, eyes on the menu.

"Roast beef," shot back the waitress, a touch of nervousness in her voice.

"Yeah, that'll do fine. Thanks."

Jake put down the menu and pulled his notebook and pencil out to jot down his impression of the two men in the sedan. As he scratched away, he heard somebody behind him say, "What the hell are you doing here?"

Not wanting any trouble, he kept his eyes on his notebook. Could be two old friends or enemies. No need to get involved.

"Don't ignore me whitey."

Okay, maybe Jake was already involved. He slowly turned around on his stool to see a black man with a thin mustache in a crumpled white shirt, the sleeves rolled up, a fedora askance on his head, beads of sweat on his forehead.

"I just came in for a bite to eat. Don't want any trouble," returned Jake, fixing his eyes on the man in a hard stare. He became conscious of his gun in the shoulder holster, but didn't dare make a move for it. It was a dicey situation. Jake couldn't afford to make the first move, for it would probably bring four or five other men down on him. In a street fight, though, if you don't make the first move, you lose. He wanted to look at the faces of the other folks in the diner, read them. Was he as outnumbered as he felt? Was this guy a well-known blowhard? His hand itched to grab his gun, but his reason got the better of his fear.

The man continued to stare. He wanted a fight. Maybe he just lost his wife, maybe his job, maybe both. Maybe the last few years of his life had been a string of failures and set backs. Whatever it was, he wanted a fight and Jake was a likely target. A sitting duck on the south side. Jake concentrated on the man's eyes and on his own breathing. It finally occurred to him that the gun might get him out of trouble without leaving the holster. He slowly let his left hand drop to his side. He took the hem of his jacket between finger and thumb and drew it back, just enough to let the holster peek out.

The gun registered on the man's face immediately, and Jake could see him doing the calculus. Could I get to him before he drew the gun? Was it worth it? If he'd had a couple friends nearby, Jake would have seen him motion to them with those eyes, but they stayed on Jake, steady and ever more fearful.

"Just see that you don't make any trouble."

That was it. The man withdrew to a booth near the jukebox and Jake turned around. He hated to turn his back on the man, but he was lucky to get out of the situation as it was and didn't want to push his luck any further.

In 10 minutes, the roast beef was eaten. It was good. In five more a cab was called, and five minutes after that it arrived. Jake made a hasty retreat from the south side, little the worse for wear but exhausted and frustrated. He gave the cabby directions to his sister's house in the suburbs and leaned back, wiping his forehead with a hanky that was overdue for a rinse.