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Authors: Mary Jackman

Spoiled Rotten

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SPOILED ROTTEN

A Liz Walker Mystery

Mary Jackman

Dedication

Dedicated to Larry Guest, my business partner and good friend for over thirty years

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

chapter one

A
t 8:00 a.m. my day was well under way. I hated serving breakfast. There's not much money in it and the staff often quit. Sleep-deprived waiters argued about sections while all-night revellers and decamped tourists from the local hotels fought over the booths. The bartender was muttering under his breath, the chef was nowhere in sight, and the substitute line cook was “in the weeds.” I only hoped if the Eggs Benny were runny enough that someone might come back for dinner to spend some real cash. An unlikely scenario if there ever was one.

The noise in the room was deafening. As I tilted my head toward the speakers to hear what was playing, a woman screamed at the top of her lungs.

“A MOUSE!” Everyone froze.

Soft jazz filled the silence, all heads turned, and a little grey mouse scampered around the dining room floor until Kitty, our cat, pounced out of nowhere and stuffed it in her mouth.

“CHEQUE!” shouted someone else from the crowd.

With lightning speed I sprinted around the end of the bar, swept up the duo with one hand, and, smiling reassuringly to everyone, strode confidently out the restaurant's front door. Hired on as vermin-controller, Kitty had become the queen of stealth, much more effective than the bucket of death, and not nearly as messy. She was a battle-scarred cat with patches of missing fur, half a tail, and a permanently bent ear that made the other ear look fully cocked as if she found human conversation absolutely titillating. When we reached the alley, I tapped her nose. The mouse cannon-balled to the ground and slithered down a hole. Kitty, however, punished me with a venomous glare and then sidled off at a forty-five degree angle, her tailless bum held high in the air.

One thing a wily restaurateur learns after fifteen years is when to make a run for it. Trusting that the staff would calm things down faster without my intervention, I headed for the side door of the century-old building where my second-floor office was located. I brushed past a panhandler counting change in the stairwell, and, ignoring an uncontrollable urge to give him all my money, dropped a buck in his hat instead.

I climbed the paint-worn stairs to a shadowy corridor with fifteen-foot ceilings and burned-out fixtures overhead. Fortunately for me and the nefarious creatures who roamed the building at all hours, the exit signs cast just enough light to guide the way. Promising to change the light bulbs the minute my suction cups arrived in the mail, I headed toward the heavy metal door covered in multiple locks at the end of the hall. I stepped inside. Two men looked at me. Then one of them leaned back in his chair and waved his hand in a grand gesture as if addressing a crowd.

“On behalf of the entire room, I'd like to be the first to say, ‘Welcome!'” Richard Best was my general manager. I tended to ignore the “welcomes” because I got one every time I walked through the door. He possessed a goofy sense of humor tinged by genius and borderline insanity. I couldn't live without him.

When I first opened Walker's Way Bistro fifteen years ago, Rick applied for a job as a waiter. During the interview, I acknowledged the long history of degrees accredited from various top quality universities and asked if he was playing some kind of game.

“No game. I liked school and stayed as long as humanly possible.”

“You have a Ph.D. in psychology.”

“I had an office for six months and found out I didn't like talking to strangers about their problems.”

“Some of our customers might have problems.”

“I'll deal with it. Am I hired or not?”

He stared across the tabletop, deliberately trying to rankle, his intense blue eyes waiting for a reaction. I got the impression he was secretly diagnosing me and wondered what he'd make of my recurring naked-at-the-gas-pump dream. His knowledge of the human condition would be a handy tool to have as a waiter, not to mention as someone on my payroll. I hired him immediately.

Rick was perfect for the job and within weeks I promoted him to general manager. He was a natural as a host, able to size up a customer's mood with a single glance, which was an admirable gift to possess as a purveyor of fine food and alcohol. He knew when to keep his distance, or to turn on the charm. Rick was perennially thin and dapper as James Bond, and could whip up a martini blindfolded while defending dipsomania to the newly initiated, and was capable of enduring the haughtiest clients and the most intolerable boors. He gave back what he got and they swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.

I tried to hook up with him once. I was trashed and suffering from a broken marriage and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Rick sent me home in a cab, alone and unhanded, and although I've tried not to think about it over the past years, I know he has. I pretend not to notice. We're close and we're friends, a difficult relationship to maintain in any business, especially one as transient as ours.

A young man in a grease-covered grey uniform was holding a small metal box with coloured wires protruding from it. He had snake tattoos winding around his lower arms and a miniature radio with the sound quality of a kazoo stuck permanently in his shirt pocket.

“Hi, Ms. Walker, nice to see you again,” he said, turning the volume down.

Bill had slightly stooped shoulders, caused, no doubt, from climbing around tiny crawl spaces filled with dripping pipes and broken machinery all day long.

“Hi, Bill, good to see you, too,” I replied. Then I looked at Rick. “It got awfully quiet in here when I came in. What were you two talking about?”

“We're talking about parts,” Rick answered.

“Female parts?” I asked, trying to be one of the boys. It never worked.

“Ha, ha, ha, if only that were funny,” Rick mocked. “Refrigerator parts.”

“You know we can't afford any more repairs. The hood fan just got fixed. I'm not made of money.” I could hear my voice rising. “What could possibly be broken now?”

Rick continued to lean back in the chair, gazed up at the ceiling and said dryly, “Things haven't been this bad since the Spanish Inquisition.”

“How do you mean?” I asked cautiously. Rick had a knack for derailing my tantrums with cryptic statements that might lead me into a verbal trap.

“What's with the third degree, Liz? The old salad bar reach-in needs a new compressor.” I relaxed. He wasn't baiting me.

“Again…?”

“That was over six years ago.”

Rick made the decisions about equipment replace-ment and general repairs. He loved to tinker and considered himself to be an ace mechanic. The basement was full of broken chairs, torn patio umbrellas, burned-out motors, and a mountain of other odds and ends that he refused to throw out, but seldom fixed. Occasionally I forced him to hire outside help.

Bill was an expert on compressors. We had three double-door refrigerated reach-in units, two standing singles, and a deep freezer in the kitchen. A massive, room-size walk-in dominated one of the basement walls and a glass-fronted beer cooler stood behind the dining-room bar. Since each refrigerator had its own compressor, Bill was around a lot more than we liked.

Rick was looking sideways at me while Bill pretended to examine the box more closely by holding it up to one eye. I waited for someone to break the silence and realized that would have to be me.

“Sorry, guys, my nerves are shot. The cat caught a mouse in the dining room. The chef hasn't shown up for lunch yet and the place is packed.”

“Who's cooking?” Rick demanded.

“Ceymore.”

“Ceymore!” he cried. He lifted his feet off the desk, thumping his soft Gucci loafers on the ancient floorboards. “Lord of the dingalings? He thinks
el dente
is Spanish for ‘dentist.' I better get down there before he sets the place on fire.” The chair went into a lopsided swivel as he jumped to his feet. “Come on, Bill. Let's see if we can get that old compressor going again.”

I smiled affectionately after them and turned to look out the office bay window. An enameled sign on the corner lamppost read, FASHION DISTRICT. One of the day-pass patients from a neighbouring mental institution was modelling pajamas at the crosswalk below. He seemed to be mingling nicely with the crowd.

I was worried about our new chef. Things had been running amazingly well in the kitchen since Daniel Chapin had joined the team. His food was fantastic and news of his talent was creating a media buzz all over town. The food channel, something I didn't watch because I was actually “living the dream,” had approached me about doing a cooking show. Not that I would of course, but it's nice to be asked. Business had doubled and I was catching up on overdue bills. Now, without any of the typical warning signs — moodiness or the cutting of shifts — our star was two hours late and nowhere to be found. I should have known better to think it would last.

A chef knows that ample preparation is half the battle to flawless execution in the pit. A collective effort always, one person short in the kitchen puts the entire operation out of sync. The food takes longer to deliver, the plates are hastily presented, and the flavors are inferior. Owing to the large table we had booked for lunch today and without Daniel in attendance, my impulse to fire him quickly evaporated.

The chance of finding a good chef in a city where a new restaurant opens every day was as slim as finding a pearl in an oyster shell and can someone please explain to me how a stint as a pizza maker qualifies a response to an “experienced chefs only” advertisement? Just because you can make a five-topping pizza and maybe a calzone to boot does not authorize you to ask what the hours would be. No hours, okay. Plus, there's an awful lot of sexism going on out there. How often have I wanted to reach through the phone and pull a guy's tonsils out when, for the third time, I have to tell him that he
is
speaking to the boss?

I'd do anything to get Daniel back. I picked up the phone and dialled his number. No answer. I slammed it back down again. As soon as I got back from grocery shopping, I'd hunt him down if it killed me.

The telephone rang.
Please, please
, I prayed,
let it be Daniel
.

“Haven't you left yet?” Rick demanded. “The meat order still hasn't come in. You better pick it up in the market while you're there and get three more lemongrass.”

Rick liked bossing me around. I suggested he buy me out and I work for him, then he could yell at me with impunity. His response was if he wanted to lose a lot of money he'd go to Las Vegas. Despite his cavalier attitude, he was doing his best to prep the kitchen for lunch and I had to help.

I shopped for produce, bakery, and specialty items on a day-to-day basis while the large orders consisting of dairy, fish, and meat were delivered by truck to the restaurant two or three times a week. It was getting late and since the meat order hadn't arrived, I'd better hurry.

I grabbed some cash from the safe sitting in a corner of the office. Small as a breadbox and heavy as lead, the fifty-year-old safe was formerly housed in the restaurant, but thieves kept stealing it and abandoning it in the alleyway. The staff would find it and haul it back in along with a few additional dents to the thick armored sides. Not much cash in the safe these days, mostly credit card vouchers or debit receipts, and definitely no diamonds in little black bags.

For a king's ransom, Rick and I were allowed “in and out” privileges in the busy car park across the street. I passed Rick's luxury minivan with its shiny, waxed exterior and pristine interior, and, looking through the window of my rusty old sedan with inches of festering clutter on the floor, knew a stomach-turning unidentifiable odour from the back seat would be waiting for me when I slid inside. Rick refused to ride in my car without a wetsuit, saying that he was too afraid something would attach itself to his leg. Seriously, I told him, try lugging around raw meat and fish every day and see what his car smelled like.

Kensington Market, one of the oldest and most diverse shopping areas in Toronto, was situated between two major thoroughfares: Spadina Avenue and Bathurst Street. The criss-crossing mesh of narrow streets could confuse the most seasoned traveller. Hundreds of storefronts, converted from traditional family homes into individual market spaces, competed with one another for the few straggling shoppers to buy their goods.

Worn down and neglected, the market was coming to ruin. No wrought-iron benches on which to stop or rest a heavy bag, and forget about festive Christmas lights in December or flower baskets hanging from streetlamps in the summer. Instead, the word “pussy” had been scribbled across several of the boarded storefronts. One empty building lot had become repository for stained mattresses and rotting garbage. Not enough parking for busy days; except there haven't been any in a long time and many of the old store owners were growing weary waiting for the city to remember and the crowds to return.

Personally, I wouldn't shop anywhere else. I like to see what I'm buying. The produce was always fresh and handpicked by me. Rather than be delivered by large commercial trucks and dropped off at the back door — a case of rotting lettuce could screw up the entire day. There was nothing quite as prickly as a chef with bad greens on his hands. Plus, the cheese was mercifully affordable and not wrapped in sheets of plastic, which is akin to cheese homicide and should be punishable by death.

Buckets of homegrown flowers and containers of fruit and vegetables sat outdoors under brightly coloured awnings. Music piped out to the street allowed shoppers to stride along in gaited rhythm while roasted coffee and heady incense mingled in the air with the faintest hint of urine just to keep you on your toes.

Traffic was gridlocked on Spadina Avenue. Cars were making U-turns, bouncing dangerously over the streetcar tracks in an attempt to avoid the congestion up ahead. I swerved right, fishtailing through an oily puddle onto a short service lane marked NO EXIT, and, ignoring the warning, drove along a series of narrow alleyways leading me into the heart of Chinatown and eventually out above the traffic jam. The street I needed to turn on to was blocked by a black police cruiser with rotating blue-and-red lights.

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