>They chose a diner not too far from the University, a place that had the stone-ground grits that Merri remembered from her college days. Every country restaurant in Athens had grits, but these were creamy and slow-cooked and flecked with gold bits of corn. When they were seated at the little booth in the corner, Merri picked up the menu and tucked her pentacle into her blouse.
Dwayne leaned forward. “You know you don’t have to hide that around me,” he said. “I don’t care what kind of jewelry you like.”
Merri didn’t take her eyes off the menu. “I’m not sure the waitress is so open-minded.”
“So what if she isn’t? We’re not in Sweetwater. Don’t nobody know us here.”
Merri cocked her chin at his pocket. “You’re one to talk — you tucked that badge away right fast, before we even got out of the car.”
“I’m not on duty.”
“And I’m not in circle.”
Dwayne crooked his mouth at her this slow drawl of a smile. She resisted the urge to smile back. She was serious about this thing.
“Fine,” he said. “On the count of three.”
Merri put her hands to the pentacle. Dwayne reached under the table to where his shield was pinned to his belt.
“One. Two. Three.”
Merri untucked the silver pentacle and let it swing free. Dwayne clipped the badge to the top of his shirt pocket. Not a single person glanced in their direction, not even the waitress, who brought their sweet teas without a glance at either of them.
Dwayne got a hamburger platter with grits instead of fries. Merri got a salad and a bowl of grits topped with red-eye gravy. Dwayne laughed at the bizarre combination — she ignored him as best she could. He was hard to ignore sometimes, with that deep rich laugh that spread in a circle around him, catching people’s ears. Grits and salad was what she wanted, though, and she’d eat it if he cackled at her all night.
“So why don’t you want people to know you’re a cop?” she asked.
“People start acting funny,” Dwayne replied. “They do things like ride over with casseroles in their mama’s car, then ask me impertinent questions.”
Merri wiped her mouth. “Ah. Wondered when we’d get to that.”
“You say that like you’re surprised, like I’m the one with the agenda. You were the one suggested dinner out of town. I’m just being a gentleman.”
“How do you reckon that?”
Dwayne looked at her like he hadn’t expected the word “reckon” to fall out of her mouth. She knew he though her somewhat high-falutin’, to use her mama’s term. But such opinions were always buffered with a genuine concern for her and her family, and a gentleness that she’d always found . . . not surprising, that wasn’t it. Just gruff. A gruff, bearish kindness. She knew that was the reason he’d become a detective — so he could deliver that kindness part and parcel with truth and justice and all those other silver dollar ideals.
He sipped at his sweet tea. “I reckon I’m being gentlemanly ’cause I’m not telling you to mind your own sweet business about this whole mess.”
Merri stiffened. Had she been thinking he was kind? He was obviously as rude as . . . as . . . She seethed as her metaphors failed her. In her mind, pictures flashed of surly busboys and banty roosters and that guy on Red Level Road who’d pulled his tractor in front of her and gone ten miles an hour . . .
“What?” she snapped.
“Kidding,” he replied. “Sort of. Stop staring at me like that — you look like a wet cat. What I’m trying to say is this — Meema thinks what Meema will think, and it’s my duty as her grandson to listen.”
“What about your duty as an officer of the law?”
Dwayne signed. “You know that’s ninety-five percent of my job. Listening. People just want to be heard, and Meema is no exception. Now, if I hear something that makes me think I need to start asking questions, then that’s what I do. But until then, I just listen.”
Merri shook her head. “I got all that, I really do. But my question for you is this — are you listening to her as her good-boy grandson? Or are you listening to her as the law?”
He examined her, his jaw working, not replying right away. It was a good sign, because it meant he was taking her seriously. But then he frowned.
Not a good sign.
He pulled out his cell phone, and after a quick glance at the readout, answered it immediately. Also not a good sign. Dwayne was too well-mannered to chat on his phone at the table. But this was no chat, just a terse series of “yes” and “no” and “ah hell,” which was as salty as his language got around a woman, even his high falutin’ girl cousin who swore like a sailor.
Merri cocked an eyebrow at him. He snapped the phone shut.
“Forget the grits,” he said. “You’re coming with me.”