They changed the name of my favorite coffee house about six months after I left my job as an investigator with the Missouri Highway Patrol and stopped frequenting the drive through. What used to be Das Bru-Haus was now Mean Beans with its attendant logo, though the angry cartoon mascot looked more like a mango than a coffee bean.
The interior hadn’t changed much, with its open ceiling ductwork, mix-n-match furniture, and halogen lights plunging down above each table like super-spies on thin black cords.
Inside the glass entry, two steps away from the roaring, red coffee roaster, was my date for Monday morning: A gal with neon blue hair and oversized, red rimmed glasses.
I’d never seen her this early in the day, but she looked as put together as ever.
Marti and I were more than friends but less than lovers.
She worked behind the counter at Spalding’s Groove—my vintage record store in Ozark City—and we’d recently been catching a bite together after hours more and more often.
Which may or may not be a good idea.
Time will tell.
This meet was 100 percent professional. It had nothing to do with classic vinyl or our relationship, and everything to do with my previous career.
Marti had said she had a private security job for me.
Spalding’s Groove needed the money.
“I don’t think they’ve cleaned this place since they built it,” I told her in greeting.
“Shush,” she said, shoving her glasses closer to her forehead, her eyes glancing sideways at a short, Italian guy in a red apron turning a crank on the roaster. “You might hurt Leo’s feelings.”
I watched a hairy dust bunny drift down from a big, round, aluminum air duct that was diagonally traversing the ceiling. Wafting down like a big snowflake, or the pin-feather from some exotic bird, it circled the roaster’s shiny, vertical exhaust tube before landing on the slick, tile floor, proving my point.
“He can’t hear me above his daily grind.”
Marti made a sour face at the joke.
Leo didn’t notice.
He was a good-looking kid. Lanky, but graceful, he moved around the coffee roasting machine, turning knobs and stirring the beans with expert competence. He had curls of blonde hair that hung past his shoulders, and clear blue eyes.
Marti’s a few years younger than me, but a few years older than Leo, and she took classes with him in the evening at the local college.
“Mean Beans is Dr. Cooper’s favorite coffee shop,” Marti said. “And not just because Leo works here. He suggested meeting here.”
Once Leo had noticed us, he came over and offered a lopsided grin along with his hand.
“Hey, bro. You’re Dan?”
“Dan Spalding,” I said, returning his firm handshake.
“You’re bigger than I expected.”
“Really?” I shot Marti a look.
“Marti said her boss ran a record store. Figured you for an old hippy.”
At six two, tipping the scale at two ten, with close cropped hair the color of rusty iron, and a perpetual stubble field on my cheeks that sets off airport metal detectors, I’ve never once been mistaken for an old hippy.
I unzipped my black, leather jacket and hooked a thumb in the pocket of my jeans.
“Old biker?” he said, with raised eyebrows.
“Maybe just drop the old part,” I said. “Nice to meet you, Leo.”
“You too. Maybe I’ll stop by your store sometime.”
“That would be swell.”
He moved behind the cash register. “What can I get you?”
I turned to Marti and blew air from my cheeks. “A couple of coffees?”
“You bring your AARP card?”
She met my scowl with a squinty-eyed, smart-aleck smile.
“I’ll have a tall French roast,” I said.
“Oh, come on. Live a little. How about a chai latte?” she said, and slid her handbag from her shoulder. “My treat?”
“How can I say no?”
Marti stepped up to the counter and I took in the room with a deep breath.
Roasting coffee, with hints of chocolate and spice; bagels warming in the summer sun.
Almost paradise. Especially if this job panned out. Private security isn’t my favorite side-hustle, but, from what Marti had described, this one wouldn’t be too involved. Seems one of her profs at the college had been getting some bush-league threats. Things had intensified during the past week and Marti wanted me to look into it. Since it was only a week until the professor scooted off on a six-month sabbatical to points unknown, I’d agreed.
I knew of several estates with large vinyl collections coming up for sale, and at my regular daily rate, seven days would buy a nice chunk of inventory for the store.
And there was the promise of free coffee all week long.
I could almost ignore the thin film of dust on some of the fixtures.
At least the tables seemed clean and recently bussed.
There were twelve of them: Nondescript Formica platforms balanced on central, steel pillars sitting on big, iron saucers, with chairs of every make and model. Some seats featured frayed padding, others were simple wooden stools. A notable few were plastic, the kind of chair I remembered from high school.
Around two dozen customers sipped coffee or tea, laughed with friends, chattered about business, or scrolled through social media on their phones, and generally appeared to be enjoying the summer morning.
No better place than a coffee shop to do a little people watching.
A few feet away, an elderly guy with a Cardinals ball cap chewed a pencil and crumpled up a sheet of notebook paper.
Beside him, but with her back turned, an African-American woman sipped an icy Frappuccino from a tall, glass tumbler, and paged through a magazine.
At the far wall, under a map of the world highlighting free trade nations, a woman dressed in black with an American flag lapel pin sat scrolling through an electronic tablet. Her red hair caught the sun and seemed to glow with an inner, amber light, capturing her high cheekbones and slightly upturned nose in a picture-perfect pose.
Like a renaissance sculpture.
For an instant she looked up, caught me staring at her, then lowered her eyes with a curious half smile.
Whew. Be still my heart.
“’Scuse me,” a blonde farm boy wearing jeans and a flannel shirt bumped my arm. He edged past, hauling a baby in a pumpkin seat on his hip, and joined a girl who was sitting nearby, fingers laced across her beachball tummy.
Too young for that much responsibility.
I chewed my lip. Argued for their side.
When I was that age I was humping across the arid, vast landscape of the Middle East, ordering my team into a lot worse places than dusty coffee shops.
I caught myself staring at the redhead again, then smelled the warm comfort of the chai latte as Marti spoke. “Let’s sit up front so Dr. Cooper can see us.”
I picked out an empty table for four and sat on an oak stool, facing the door, my back turned reluctantly to the redhead. Marti sat perpendicular to me on a Naugahyde covered office chair.
Over her shoulder, I watched the old guy with the pencil jot notes on a fresh piece of paper.
Marti looked at her phone.
“He’s only a few minutes late.”
“What’s your professor’s name?”
We sat quietly, enjoying the time together and I watched a series of birds fly past.
“Nice morning to be out,” I said, just to make conversation.
That’s when the heavy guy with the blue coveralls kicked in the door and started shouting.