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Texas in February wasn't supposed to be this cold.
Rick shivered as he crossed the parking lot, dodging the occasional puddle as he did so. The wind's icy breath pressed on his coat and whipped the Texas flag that flew from the flagpole near the restaurant's entrance. A wisp of smoke rose behind the building. The scent of mesquite drifted in his direction.
He paused before going inside and glanced at the assortment of pickup trucks in the parking lot. Tamarind would probably flip if she knew he was here and that he didn't tell her he was coming. It was easier this way, his explanation kept for the right time. Not on the phone, or e-mail. In person.
She had a nice place. A carefully screen-printed sign in lettering that looked much like brown logs tied together with rope to form the letters, The Pit, with a subtitle in flowing script: Barbecue and More. The script was a little bit of sass along with the rustic words. The contrast made him smile.
Rick pulled open the glass door, which stuck a little. The last of the breakfast aromas inside struck himham, eggs, toast, with the unmistakable underlying notes of freshly brewed coffee.
The other diners looked up. Rick nodded an apology for the swirl of cold air that followed him inside. The main dining area was a combination of the typical vinyl booths at the perimeter of the room with blocks of tables filling the center.
Too bad Tamarind's prize money wasn't enough to replace her old cushioned, vinyl-upholstered booths. Rick knew the pressure of keeping costs down and customers coming into the restaurant. His restaurants might be nearly sixteen hundred miles away, but he faced the same obstacles. Yet business was good for him, even in the tough economy.
"Seat yourself wherever you can find a spot," called out a cheerful server from where she stood at the cash register, not ten paces away.
"Thanks." He ignored the curious looks and found a spot in a corner booth. As he sat down, he ran his right hand across the surface of the table. Clean. His stomach rumbled. Patience. You'll be full soon enough and then some. He looked at his phone before setting it on the table. Just after eleven. Early enough to get some lunch. Or brunch, if he wanted to get technical about it.
Rick pulled a menu from the holder. The front displayed the same logo from the sign outside. He was tempted to order breakfast, but he really wanted to get to the barbecue.
"Coffee?" The pert server, her name tag reading Suzie, wore a simple navy-blue polo shirt over black pants.
"Yes, please. Ice water, too."
"Do you know what you'd like to order?" He smiled at the twang in her voice. "I need a few minutes."
"Sure enough. I'll be right back." She turned on her heel and sashayed off.
Rick looked back down at the menu in simple black and white. He'd start with the pork barbecue sandwich, Kansas City styleor so the menu proclaimed. "Cleo's special recipe," it also said. A side order of sweet potato fries would go nicely, at a dollar more instead of regular steak frieshand cut.
Suzie returned with his coffee in a simple brown ceramic mug, the ice water in an opaque plastic glass.
"The Kansas City pork barbecue sandwich and a side of sweet potato fries, to start."
She wrote it down. "To start, huh?"
"I brought my appetite." He smiled at her.
She giggled. "Good thing. This place is the best. I'll go put this right in." Off she went toward the kitchen, pulling a ticket off her order pad.
So Tamarind's place wasn't electronic. Not a good way to track costs and sales history. She'd have to be extra careful with her budget. Not having a good tracking system could cost her thousands. If things went well between them, maybe he'd convince her to upgrade. That's if things went well, of course. Rick took a sip of the coffee. Not bad.
He studied the dining room, and his gaze connected with an older woman at a booth diagonally across the room from him. Her red hair was blown into a style his mother would love. Lydia Mantovani had hers set and styled every week and was probably about this lady's age. The redhead's eyes narrowed ever so slightly. Then she glanced at the older, balding gentleman sitting across from her and started talking.
Tamarind had told him once that where she lived in Texas was different than most Texas towns. Close to the Fort Hood military base, Starlight and its neighboring towns drew people from all over the world. They were used to strangers. So what was with this lady's expression, if that was true?
Never mind. He opened his notepad and starting making notes about the menu. For one thing, Tamarind had thirtyno, thirty-fivelunch and supper items. Rick forced himself to quit thinking about ways to "fix" Tamarind's restaurant and on his own reasons for being here. He looked at his phone. Ten minutes now since the server had left with his order. A couple entered the restaurant and did as he'd done a few moments ago, scanning the room for a free spot.
At least three tables had been vacated since he'd entered, and they still held plates, silverware, cups, and soiled napkins. His server emerged from another area of the restaurant, lugging a gray plastic tub. She started clearing the closest table.
Rick took that to mean his meal wasn't up yet. He studied the well-used vinyl booths, the sturdy yet old tile floor. The walls were a cheerful shade of terra-cotta.
Prints from the Texas countryside alternated with vintage kitchen utensils on the walls.
His server disappeared with the full bucket of dishes after wiping down the now-empty tables. Rick glanced across the dining room again. The redhead was eyeballing him again. This time, the man sharing her booth glanced in his direction.
Did they know him? He couldn't imagine how.
Here came the server, carrying a simple melamine plate that held Rick's sandwich and fries. "Sorry about the wait. We're a little shorthanded this morning." She set the plate in front of him and placed the paper ticket facedown at the edge of the table.
"No problem." Rick's mouth watered as he inhaled the aroma rising from the fresh pulled-pork sandwich.
"Need any hot sauce?"
He shook his head. "This is fine. But hold on. While I've got you here, I'd like half an order of your baby back ribs, a quarter-pound of your slow-smoked beef brisket."
Her eyes widened, and she started a new ticket. "All righty." She left him to take his first bite.
Rick opened his mouth and chomped down on the pork sandwich. Tender, meaty. The pork's texture was soft enough that it melted, but not mushy. He let the spices and sauce slide across his palate. Tangy, with a little heat. Cleo's specialty, huh? That would be Tamarind's dad, a towering wall of an African American with graying hair and a booming voice that reminded Rick of the actor Michael Clark Duncan. He'd met Cleo Brown, once. Tried not to squirm like a kid when they'd shaken hands at a barbecue competition somewhere in East Texas.
He should have ordered all this food to go so he could sample and taste and take notes in the privacy of his own duplex apartment. He could have sworn there was cinnamon in the sauce. Or was that pungent spice cloves instead? Rick wrote Cloves? on his notepad.