Not too long ago, in a town like most other towns, there was an atrociously terrible restaurant. The food was bland, usually undercooked or overcooked (whichever you liked least), and served in messy heaps on stained dishes. But they had good coffee.
It just so happened that a secret agent was assigned to watch this restaurant. Suspicious activity had been reported.
Trina—a good, unassuming name for a perfectly normal young woman—threw a glance over the streaky windows and crooked sign that identified this as “Sue’s Place”. She tugged on the hem of her good, unassuming hoodie and tucked her perfectly normal auburn hair behind her ears, then pushed open the door.
A bell rang as she walked into the restaurant. She blinked and waited for her eyes to adjust. One lightbulb in the corner was flickering, and a few were completely out. There was no music playing.
The tables were crooked. Some had only three chairs even though the table had four sides. Near the left wall, two tables were shoved together, and all the extra chairs were crowded around them until it looked like the aftermath of Christmas dinner with a side of politics.
The door behind the counter opened, and for a moment the warm sounds and smells of a kitchen reached Trina as a little old lady bustled out. She was wearing a stained apron and huge shoes and a sweet smile. She called Trina “dearie” and told her to take a seat, then went back into the kitchen without taking her order. Trina sat and waited.
While she did this very important part of detective work, two boys came in. They were very raggedy-looking, with raggedy clothes and raggedy hair and raggedy shoes. They didn’t sit at a table or go to the counter; instead, one boy grabbed a broom from the corner and stared sweeping. The other boy helped him by moving the chairs and tables out of the way.
Trina watched them carefully. They seemed to be paying special attention to the corner with the flickering light switch. The boy moving the chairs crouched down to hold the dustpan, but he seemed to be having an issue with the pocket of his raggedy jeans.
Then the little old lady came back through the door with a full plate and cup in her hand. She bustled over to Trina’s table and put them down, then wiped her hands on her stained apron and gave her another sweet smile.
Trina frowned a little at the greyish pile on the plate in front of her. “I…I didn’t order yet.”
“Oh, that’s all right, dearie. I mixed this up for you right quickly.” The little old lady pulled out the chair across from Trina and looked her up and down, inspecting her good, unassuming hoodie and perfectly normal auburn hair.
Trina took a forkful of the grey stuff in her plate. It tasted like cold mashed potatoes with overcooked tuna, and she took a drink of water to wash it down. The little old lady was still talking, asking where she was from. She was just about to invent an elaborate lie when the door bell rang. The raggedy cleanup crew was leaving.
The little old lady—who had introduced herself as the famous Sue—noticed her glance at the closing door. “I tell you, there’s no such thing as good help nowadays. They would probably say I don’t pay them enough to sweep the whole floor. Now, you’ve cleaned out your plate! Would you like some more?”
“No! I mean, um, no, that was enough. I’m full. Thank you.”
Sue took her plate and cup. “Where are you heading off to?”
Trina patted her bag. “Actually, I’ve brought my laptop. I was hoping to get some work done. If you don’t mind me in your space, that is.”
“Of course not, dearie! In fact, I’ll bring you a coffee.”
No protesting could defer Sue from her purpose, and she bustled back to the kitchen. Just before she got there, though, the bell rang again, and a skinny girl with tangled hair walked in. Right behind her was a big, burly man. The girl looked scared, and Trina tensed.
Sue smiled sweetly at them. “Lindsay! Right on time for your shift. Thanks for dropping her off, Mark!”
The burly man dubbed Mark nodded and left. The girl wrapped her skinny arms around herself, and Sue ushered her into the kitchen. Trina shot a text to Gary—one of her outside guys—to watch the back door. Something wasn’t right. But then the kitchen door opened, and the skinny girl brought over her coffee. Her hand shook and her tangled hair was hanging in her face, so Trina wasn’t surprised at all when some of the coffee spilled onto the table. The girl didn’t even apologize, just ran back to the kitchen.
The coffee that stayed in the cup was actually really good. Gary said the back door hadn’t moved. Supper time came around, and Trina finally had some company. Two men and three woman dragged enough chairs to one table and sat together. They talked quietly. Trina put her earbuds in but didn’t play anything, and eventually they got louder.
“There by seven o’clock, no later,” the shorter man was saying. “Cassie said his routine is the same every night. He doesn’t suspect a thing.”
The group didn’t stay very long, and Trina left behind them. She followed them at a distance. Gary was left to watch the restaurant.
Trina watched the cars pull up quietly beside the road, and she drove past and parked a block away before sneaking back on foot. Whispers met her ears as she rounded the neighbouring house and peeked over the bushes.
Then they started to sing. She poked her head out further and saw the whole group from the restaurant, as well as others she had never seen before. They were singing a hymn! An old man came to the door and smiled and started crying.
Trina shook her head, annoyed, and tiptoed around the back of the house. Everything looked fine in the backyard; no one else was sneaking around. Then her phone rang.
She fumbled for it—Gary was calling—and shut it off, but not soon enough. The singing halted. She bolted. A few people followed her, and she dashed through a few backyards and leaped a couple fences before scaling a tree. Her pursuers abandoned the search while she texted Gary.
Apparently, a van had pulled up to Sue’s place. The girl had been escorted inside, and he was following them.
She let herself down from the tree and ran for her car. She recognized Gary’s car as the van in front of him pulled into a nice-looking house.
A middle-aged man and women got out of the van first. Then the skinny girl stepped out, but she was no longer shaking. She was wearing enough clothes now, and her hair was shiny and smooth in the porch light. Trina saw her give the couple a little smile as they invited her inside.
She drove back slowly, planning on driving past the restaurant, but the lights were still on. She parked and went inside, planning to pretend she had lost something and was looking for it here.
The sound that greeted her was like an “Oh!” and her eyes adjusted in time to see Sue straightening up from the same place the raggedy boys had been sweeping.
“What are you doing?” Trina demanded. Her good, unassuming hoodie was dirty and had a tear in the sleeve, and her perfectly normal auburn hair had leaves in it, and nothing had gone right all day.
The little old lady smiled sweetly and asked if she had come back for more coffee.
The honest answer was yes, but Trina lied and said no. “What are you doing?”
Sue wrung her hands on her stained apron, but the pocket jingled, and Trina pushed past her and knelt to the floor. She pried up the loose board to find a collection of coins.
“Where did this come from? Do those boys get it for you?”
“Oh, no.” The little old lady transformed into a terrifying spectre, frowning and shaking her finger. “Don’t you dare tell a soul. It's for their sister.”
“Where do they get it from? Are they stealing?”
“Goodness, no! They work odd jobs for people, and some money they find in the street.”
“So they keep it here, and you get your cut?”
“Young lady, you are on my premises without a search warrant. I suggest you leave.”
Trina huffed. “What are you doing here? Your food is terrible. Your cleanup crew are raggedy little urchins. Your employees are skinny street girls that get smuggled away. Your only customers are a couple of church people that don't look like church people. How are you still in business?”
The little old lady shook her head. “People don’t come here for the food; so please, if you don’t want coffee, I want to head to bed.”
The failed detective headed out the door and sat in her car. Through the streaky windows, she watched Sue get back down on the floor, pry up the board, and empty her apron pocket into it.
Since Trina had blown her cover, Gary watched the restaurant alone for a few more days. The raggedy boys came back almost every day. One day, they seemed more excited than usual, and he followed them to a mall. They picked out a pretty blue dress and disappeared down an alleyway.
Sue’s place continued to operate for another ten years, but then the little old lady died. A retired detective bought the restaurant. She kept the name and the quality of cooking—the food was truly atrocious—but she made good coffee.