A fleshy man next to me wolfs down two mountainous plates of wings, intently clicking away at his laptop. To the uninitiated, he might be a chair salesman from Toledo, reporting another day of meager orders to the home office as he drowns his sorrows in chicken.
But I know better. I'm a reporter.
Underneath the innocuous veneer is the money man for the Medellin Cartel. The signs are obvious: No true patriot could be that into wings.
To my left are three women, pretending to be single professionals. But they're drinking wine. That's from Europe. Russia's part of Europe, I'm pretty sure. Which can mean only one thing: They're KGB assassins.
At a large table behind me, it appears the purchasing department from KeyBank is holding its NFL fantasy draft. But my reporter's instinct says otherwise. One guy orders fettuccini. You know what that means: They're Mafiosi divvying up the West Side vending machine business.
Since the July 4th shootout on West Sixth, people have been afraid to come to this street, this rogues' gallery of crime and depravity. That's why I'm here.
"Kotz!" my editor barked. "We gotta get to the bottom of this West Sixth thing! I wanna expose the underbelly!" Then he went back to slurping like a dog from a Tupperware container full of whiskey.
I knew why he'd chosen me. I'd spent my storied career covering war zones from Avon Lake to the Randall Park Mall. Danger is my business. But this would be my toughest assignment yet.
The street I was preparing to visit was home to beatings and brawls, leggy dames with a jones for sin, and bad, bad men who could barf on your shoes after just three Miller Lites. They had driven away the suburban clientele, turning this once trendy boulevard into a bazaar of vice and violence.
But I'm a reporter, damn it. Peril is my mother's milk. So I jumped in the minivan and headed downtown. I was courageously going in empty-handed. I couldn't find my gun. Never should've lent it to my kid for show-and-tell.
Fortunately, I'd hired a bodyguard. He was only four feet tall, but he owned a Ph.D. in Street from Bowling Green. Claimed he could kill a man with just a blow-dryer and a pack of sweet-and-sour sauce.
We saddled up to the Blind Pig bar. I ordered a Reuben. He volunteered to eat it for me just in case it was poisoned. So I went outside for a smoke.
Two Mafiosi were lingering on the street. They glared at me like blasts from a sawed-off. I whimpered and ran back inside.
A doe-eyed beauty was behind the bar. She was wearing a short skirt and more curves than a mountain road. "Sweetheart," I said. "What's a nice broad like you doing in a rough joint like this?"
She smiled, the way grandmothers look at retarded kids. "Actually, it's been really quiet around here."
Then it struck me: She was a brunette. People in Israel are brunettes. It was obvious: She was an agent for Mossad.
Just then the KGB assassins began to laugh. I'd read enough Tom Clancy to know what it meant. Laughing is Russian for "let's kill every living thing in the room so we don't have to expense our bar bill."
I leapt to the floor and crawled on all fours to the door, towing my bodyguard behind me. When we got outside, he punched me in the face. I'd just saved his life. Some gratitude.
Word on the street was that two rival bachelorette parties from Solon were going to end their beef here, tonight. I didn't want to catch the business end of Brittany's Glock. So I sprinted across West Sixth, hoping to find refuge in the Tequila Ranch. Large posters in the windows showed a woman arching her back with exactly 16 cents worth of cloth covering her chest. She was probably a lifeguard. Safe haven.
But the doors were locked. Then it hit me: This was a cowboy joint. Cowboys are into meth. A big shipment was arriving that night. No need for prying eyes. Word of my investigation was on the street.
We crawled to another joint. Also closed. The bad guys had gone underground.
So we slithered up to Panini's. Paydirt. An Asian guy in a black shirt was nursing a beer. And black means Taliban.
The bartendress was disguised as a moonlighting sociology major, but she suspiciously provided a napkin with the Taliban's beer. I peered over to intercept the message. Foiled. It was written in invisible ink.
I ordered my usual, a cherry bomb, to show that I meant business. But my bodyguard insisted on drinking it. He's ex-Navy Seal. Said he'd gotten an injection that made him immune to poison.
But now he was talking to the couple beside us, a blonde with gams meant for danger, and a well-dressed man in a tailored suit.
I suddenly put it all together. She was Hamas. He was a South African arms dealer. No straight American ever dresses that well. And my bodyguard had set me up, the traitorous bastard.
I made like I was heading out for a smoke. When I was sure they weren't following, I took off in a dead sprint. But I'd recklessly parked in an underground garage. That's where the ambush would take place.
Damn, I'll never let my kid take the gun to school again.
So I hid behind a dumpster in an alley. I'd wait till daybreak, then make a run for the minivan. It was the only way I'd ever get off of West Sixth alive.