Read Spoiled Rotten Online

Authors: Mary Jackman

Spoiled Rotten (2 page)

Eddie, short for Eduardo, was waving furiously at me from the street corner.

Normally Eddie would save me a space in front of his grandfather's fruit store where he and his family, the Contraros, have lived, in the same overhead apartment, for three generations. He flagged me over, yelling at the top of his lungs, “Lizzie, Lizzie!”

Eddie's the only person who can call me Lizzie without suffering the dire consequences. Rick said he'd rather nail his testicles to the floor than live through the horror again.

“What's going on, Eddie?” I asked, poking my head out the car window.

“Big accident, big accident,” he shouted some more. He was really excited and between outbursts of giggles, he told me repeatedly that the street was closed — gee, thanks, Eddie I can see that — but that I could park in his grandfather's spot behind the store.

Eddie was somewhere in the age group between eleven and thirty-two. His mind wasn't going to grow any older than a child's, although his body was beginning to show its years. Tiny lines had formed around his dark eyes and a small paunch had grown noticeable. He wore a red nylon jacket done up to his chin, grey sweat pants, and high-top basketball runners with the tongues sticking out. Granted, he may not have been dealt a full hand, but he played his cards cheerfully. I pulled down the cramped alley, leaving my car wedged in between a row of empty wooden apple crates. Emerging from the laneway onto Augusta Street, I was stopped by a young policeman.

“Sorry, miss, you'll have to return to your car. The market is temporarily off limits.”

“I'm picking up my meat order from Superior Meats,” I chirped.

Feet planted firmly apart, hands on hips, he announced, “It's closed for today.”

“That's ridiculous! It's Friday, they're always open Friday.”

“They're closed.”

I leaned around the cop to see what was happening. Except for a few curious shopkeepers, the street was deserted. Yellow caution tape was strung across the road in front of the meat shop. Newspaper covered the store's large expansive windows and a fleet of squad cars lined the street. Two black, unmarked vans were parked near Superior's front door with their rear doors wide open.

Across the street, I noticed that the owner of the Cheese Emporium was watching me and I waved to her.

“Hi, Louise!” I hollered.

“Hey, Blondie!” she hollered back.

“Have you got my order ready to pick up?”

She hesitated for a heartbeat, looked at the cop barring my way, and replied, “It's been ready for an hour, come and get it before I unpack it.”

I smiled sweetly at the young cop, flirtatiously mouthing the word “please?”

“Hurry up,” he warned, apparently inured to my wily ways. “I'm not supposed to let anyone in.” Before he had second thoughts, I charged across the street and through the screen door Louise Kozinski was holding open for me.

Once again, I was brought up short by the sight of towering columns of cheese leaning heavily against one another for support. There were so many varieties it was impossible to remember all the names. A handwritten sign taped to a swizzle stick announced her latest tasty treat was “Drunken Goat Cheese Cheddar.” An end piece had already been cut off the block of cheese, revealing a purple-and-gold checkerboard pattern inside. I took some home for a poker game last week, but the food wimps took a pass.

“Pass the chips, please.”

Shelves running the entire length of the store were loaded with biscotti, shortbread, and sugary wafers. The back wall of the store was stacked from end to end with pasta noodles in every conceivable shape, their bright cellophane wrappers crackling testily when handled. Giant pickles wadded into jars, imported from Hungary and other pickle Meccas from around the world, crowded around the register. Layers of smoked meats and fish, which set off a quivering hunger in me, filled the deep, glass-topped refrigerated chest. I gazed lovingly around the store, deciding I could live there quite comfortably for a very long time.

Louise startled me out of my reverie. “So what about that order?” she demanded.

“So, what's going on?” I snapped back.

“You haven't been in for three weeks and now you want information? Well, it will cost, my friend,” she said, grinning.

Louise knows my name, but I either get called Blondie or “my friend.” Frankly, I prefer Blondie, because everybody who comes in that door is called “my friend” and I figured out a long time ago that it's her secret code word for asshole.

Hello, my friend. What can I get for you, my friend? Would you like another free sample, my friend?
You get the picture.

After taking my order, Louise strolled to the back of the store and opened the door to the enameled reach-in. She lugged out a hefty block of white cheddar and dropped it onto an enormous wood block. Until now, I hadn't realized how hefty she was becoming herself. Wearing a wine-coloured wraparound dress made of clingy jersey and elasticized around the middle, she looked like a two-hundred-pound blood sausage. The neckline of the dress was gaping at the crossover, revealing a cotton white slip like the kind my grandmother used to wear.

Smoothly, as if it were soft ice cream, she sliced a kilo from the chunk of hard cheese and started to wrap it in brown waxed paper. The door opened behind me, jangling the bells hung from its frame. Louise launched into her routine.

“Hello my friend … oh!” she abruptly went silent.

I turned to see a badge held out for us to read; a big man with a wide chest, not heavy or fat, but solid as a brick wall, stood in the doorway behind me.

“Sorry to interrupt you, ladies. I am Detective Winn. If you don't mind answering a few questions, I won't be long.”

I tried to brush past him as if he weren't speaking to me, too, but he stepped directly in front of me, blocking my exit.

“Could I get your name, too, please, ma'am?” he asked.

Ma'am? When did I go from being a miss to a ma'am? Besides, judging by his mildly receding hairline, this guy looked about the same age as me, although something told me he was in way better shape. I'm thin, well, mostly. Lately I've been starting to spread out in various directions. Nevertheless, I gave it the old college try for him. I sucked in my stomach and fluffed my hair. The policeman stared down at his notepad, smirking slightly to himself and suddenly I felt ancient. Some days I looked much younger than my years, others, not so much. Maybe it was the earrings. I never liked these earrings, too big, like miniature crystal balls. I was throwing them out the second I got home. He coughed and I realized he was staring at me.

“My name is Elizabeth Walker, Mr. Winn,” I announced crisply.

The day was warming, causing him to remove his jacket. He slung it casually over one shoulder and rolled up the sleeves of his powder-blue shirt, leaving tan, muscular arms exposed. I was compelled to touch his forearm, but sensibly refrained.

“That's Detective Winn, Ms. Walker. My officer posted at the alleyway entrance tells me that you're picking up an order.”

He stopped, waiting for me to jump in with details. I didn't, but I did have the urge to touch his arm again.

He asked, “Do you live in the area, Ms. Walker?”

“It's Liz, and no, I have a restaurant close by though. It's called Walker's Way.”

The smile faded and his eyes went dark.

“Just a few blocks away from here,” I added. “South of Chinatown,”

“I know where it is,” the stern-faced policeman said flatly. “My wife and I had our last meal there. She told me she was leaving me after the first course. We didn't get to the second.”

I winced. First dates, proposals, fiftieth-anniversary celebrations, and breakup dates. I've seen it all. I wanted to tell him that it could have been worse.

A woman followed her husband to the restaurant one evening and confronted him at his table. She screamed at the lying bastard (her words not mine) for ten minutes while his mistress slunk away and hid in the washroom. The customers, utterly fascinated by the free side show and motivated by the “better him than me” philosophy, continued to drink. Liquor sales soared that night.

Somehow, I didn't think this little anecdote would make him feel any better and kept quiet.

“I understand you buy your meat supplies from Superior Meats. Is that why you're here today?” the detective inquired.

“Yes, our meat order didn't show up this morning. We pick up other supplies on a daily basis so I thought I'd get it while I was here.”

“Does that happen often?”

“What?”

“Your order doesn't get delivered?”

“It happens. A truck breaks down, the order is misplaced or isn't large enough for delivery. And sometimes the chef merely forgets to call it in after a long night.”

“Your chef's name is?” His pen was poised in mid-air.

“Daniel Chapin.”

“How do you spell that?”

“Like the composer only with an
a
.” I started to spell it for him. “C-H-A …”

The detective cut me off. “Thanks. I got the rest of it. Is he at the restaurant now?”

“No. He didn't come into work today.” I wanted to vent, but now probably wasn't a good time.

“According to Superior Meats' office answering machine, someone from your restaurant called last night around midnight. We traced the number. The message was cut off. Do you think he was putting an order in?”

“Probably, although it sounds a bit late, I guess it varies from night to night. I'm not usually there at that time.”

“You must have some idea.”

“Okay, I'd say any time after nine o'clock, after the dinner rush was over. He'd know what we needed for the next day by then.”

“And do you know what time he finished work last night?”

“Not at the moment, but I can look it up on the signout sheet.”

“Thank you, Ms. Walker, just one more question. Were you familiar with Mr. Anthony Vieira, the owner of Superior Meats?”

“Call me Liz, and how do you mean
familiar?

“How well did you know him?”

“I know his employees called him Mr. Tony and I avoided him when I was in the store. He gave me the creeps.”

“That seems to be an opinion expressed by others,” he said. “However, what I meant was did you have more than a business relationship with him?”

“Perhaps, Detective, you should say what you mean and certainly not.” I got the feeling he was being purposely obtuse.

“That's all for now, Ms. Walker, but I would like to ask you a few more questions. I can meet you at your restaurant later this afternoon if that's all right. Would that be convenient?”

I was fairly convinced it didn't matter if it was or not. “Fine by me, but I don't even know what's happened yet.”

“A body was found early this morning by one of Superior Meats' employees. We assume it's the owner of the store, Anthony Vieira.”

“What do you mean,
assume?

“We can't be sure it's him until we get a positive DNA identification. The body was unrecognizable.”

I wasn't sure I wanted to know the answer, but I couldn't help ask the question. “How unrecognizable?”

“He was butchered and his body parts wrapped up in parcels with the initials W.W. on them. Those would be same as your restaurant's, wouldn't they?”

chapter two

I
was dying to tell Rick the news, but when I called him from the market he was too busy to talk. Detective Winn had deliberately tried to shock me with the gory news of Mr. Tony's demise, and then, seeing that I might faint, asked Louise to get me a glass of water. She dragged a stool from behind the counter for me to sit on and hovered over my shoulder. The detective apologized for his bluntness and reminded me he would come to the restaurant later that day for an “ah, more private,” interview. Louise huffed at the suggestion she was being nosy, and, crossing her arms in front of her, didn't budge. The policeman shook his head tiredly and left.

By the time I returned to Walker's, I was spilling over with excitement. Unfortunately, Daniel still hadn't appeared for his shift, making last-minute changes to the menu a priority. Rick left a message for our sous-chef, Michael, to come in as soon as he returned from Montreal visiting “his parents,” a well-known euphemism for “drunken orgy.”

Rick knew the menu; he just didn't like to cook. The more complicated menu items would have to be nixed. There was only so much my manager, an inexperienced line man, and a dishwasher were qualified to do. The waiters would write up a replacement menu offering the dishes we were capable of serving, thus preventing a routine similar to a Monty Python sketch:
Do you have any steak? Yes, but not today
.

I had picked up three boxes of vegetables, a kilo of cheese, two bags of white, a bag of bones, and half a dozen Supremes from the market's main poultry store. Since Superior Meats was closed, I was unable to get our meat order, and, to put it mildly, Rick would not be pleased. I did remember to pick up a ten-pound sack of wood-chip flour, which we needed to burn in our homemade smoker.

Because I was saving all my money to buy a replacement arm for the upright Hobart mixer, it left no room in the budget to purchase a new smoker box. Instead, the chef was required to fabricate a facsimile and each had his own method. Daniel was good at it. He molded a thick sheet of industrial aluminum foil into a two-foot-tall teepee, complete with a chimney and a miniature fire pit. He sprinkled the ground wood chips on the bottom and then lit it.

In order to obtain the smokiest flavor in the salmon and turkey pieces, the correct consistency of sawdust is crucial for burning. If the grains are too fine, the fire won't catch, and if the grains are too large, you'll start a raging bonfire — something to keep in mind when doing this indoors. I learned this the hard way.

In my defense, using the chef's hat to smother the flames seemed like a good idea at the time and I don't know why I'm not allowed to start the fire anymore. Anyway, after a few hours in the smoldering, smoke-filled teepee, the meats are tender and tasty, ready to be served on our very popular open-faced sandwiches.

In less than an hour, twenty hungry architects would be rolling through Walker's front door, looking for lunch. In an attempt to drum up business, I had dropped off a menu to their new offices situated in a converted furrier warehouse less than a half block away. It worked like a charm and their firm was trying us out for the first time today. Unfortunately, the way things were going, it would likely be their last. If diners come in two or three times before you drop the ball, they tend to chalk it up as human error. We needed to build a winning rapport with the architects before I could expect them to be so forgiving.

When I pulled the car up to the back of the restaurant, the kitchen boys burst through the delivery door descending on the supplies like a gang of scavengers. The car's trunk was popped, its doors yanked open, and anything resembling food was whisked away.

Rick was really keyed up and immediately tore into me. “What took so long? Did you go out for dim sum while you were there?”

I liked it better when the chef was in the kitchen. I wouldn't have to race around town picking up last-minute supplies and I wouldn't have to face Rick afterwards. I appreciated his pitching in to save the day, but by the time lunch is over, his sarcasm will have reached a scathing dryness capable of reducing even the most cynical to tears. I've had to rescue many a cowering waiter over the years, not to mention the demoralized prep cook, Ceymore.

Being short-staffed like this, he knew all too well what to expect. I ignored his attitude.

“You wouldn't believe it, Rick, there was a murder in the market. The whole place was cordoned off by the police.”

“Just my luck. What happened?”

“I'm not sure about the details. They think it was Anthony Vieira, the owner of Superior Meats.”

“Good. I didn't like him, anyway. The guy was a pig.” He turned around and I followed him inside.

“That's not a nice thing to say,” I told him.

“I'm not nice.”

“You are to me.”

“Easily rectified …”

“Seriously …”

Rick picked up the bag of sawdust, transferring it to a stainless-steel table shelf, where a sheet of foil waited.

“Everybody knew what a dick he was,” he said, turning around. “He bragged about how beautiful his wife was and then hit on everything that moved. I believe he hit on you, too, didn't he?”

“Yeah, once, a hundred years ago maybe, but for heaven's sake, the police think …”

I realized Rick had stopped listening to me the second he stuck his head in the oven and screamed that the pilot light had gone out again. I made a timely departure, zipping past the mayhem in the kitchen through the swinging door that led into the dining room.

It was love at first sight when I purchased this old diner and it still was. After decades of hard service followed by neglect and abuse — the last owners used it for a late-night craps joint — the place needed a lot of tender loving care to return it to its former glory.

Garish neon lights suspended from bushy frayed cords attached to the ceiling were replaced with the milky glass globes I found buried under forty years of powdery insect dust in the basement. The striated oak-veneered booths were painstakingly stripped by hand and varnished. The walls were patched and painted a rich cream colour. Nothing contrived or carbon copied here, just a lot of elbow grease and wishful thinking. The ceilings were fifteen feet high like they were in the rest of the three-storied building and were covered in pressed tin that would cost a fortune to reproduce today.

The front room was long and narrow. The booths ran down the entire length on one side and a tongue-and groove-counter ran halfway along the other. The countertop was a pockmarked, heavily veined marble whose porous surface had permanently stained over the years. It resembled the same shade of dappled weak tea captured in a fading sepia photograph I discovered in the crowded files of the Historical Board Archives. It was dated 1905 and looked virtually the same.

A row of stools running the length of the bar had been screwed to the floor sometime in the fifties and except for a thousand pieces of old gum stuck to the underside of the chrome tops, they looked genuinely the same. The vinyl clad seats rotated on iron spindles, which, unfortunately because of their age, caused the metal to squeak. While their parents sipped wine, the kids spun the seats around and around until the squealing made my ears bleed.

A pot flew past the kitchen door window. I tried reaching Daniel by phone again, but all I got was his answering machine. I had to find him before the police did, drag him back to Walker's, and persuade him to work. Rick would last a day at the most. There was just enough time before lunch to take a drive out to the city's east end and pay our missing chef a visit. I knew where he lived. A few months ago I had given him a lift home after work when his car was in the shop. I was surprised to discover that he lived fairly close to my house and even more surprised at his suggestion I come inside to unwind. Although extremely tempted, I said no.

It's not that he wasn't attractive. His face had finely chiselled features and dark, thick brows with sultry eyes that languished underneath long lashes. He was barely taller than my five foot nine, but his body was lean and gangly, a natural bad-boy type who had to beat women off with a stick. Proof of why I find it unfathomable that the image of a chef conjures up the fat, jolly, Chef Boyardee stereotype.

Unfortunately, it's also been my experience that most chefs should be institutionalized. They're either insane because of their dependency on addictive stress relievers or intolerable because they don't use any. I claim it's the heat, the smoke, and the barely controlled chaos. The limited time frame to be creative, the pressure for every dish to be perfect, and if not, the shame! It had been a while since my last relationship with a cook, more like a decade, but I knew better than to get involved with Daniel. When the time came for him to disappear, like now for example, I'd end up getting hurt and it wouldn't be the first time.

Daniel lived on the south side of Queen Street East, and I lived on the north. Our neighbourhoods were close to a picturesque residential community situated on the shores of Lake Ontario aptly named the Beaches. With a mile-long boardwalk and high real-estate prices to match, I couldn't afford to buy a house there now.

When I first moved into my neighbourhood, it was dominated by blue-collar workers content with tidy green lawns and plastic ornaments and who were blissfully unaware of current design trends. Several years later, the area was “discovered” and every other house was gutted and reassembled in the best of tastes. Not my house. I bought it after my marriage broke up and have been slowly painting over the yellowing walls ever since. No time for renovation or the inclination, I'm afraid. I got my fill of that at the restaurant.

Daniel lived in a townhouse with a cinder-block garage situated directly under the house. Connecting it to the road was a dangerously steep driveway. It was obvious why his block was being overlooked by the real-estate speculators. On the corner of the street, a service station was stockpiling tires in an enclosed side yard patrolled by a slobbering German Shepherd. As I drew near, the dog leaped onto the chain-link fence, hooked his claws through the metal links, and hung halfway from the top — a clever manoeuvre that allowed it to bark ferociously and simultaneously expose himself as I drove by.

Attached to Daniel's boxy townhouse were four identical others with similar wrought-iron verandahs and corrugated-plastic overhangs. The two remaining original grand homes on the other side of the street were hidden behind overgrown bushes and covered with long, ropy vines, suitable perhaps for ghouls or grow-ops, but not much more.

When I found Daniel's place, I was surprised to see the garage door up and his car parked inside. I walked up the five cement steps and knocked. No answer. I waited a minute and then put my ear up to the door. The house was quiet. Maybe Daniel was sleeping. I knocked harder. Maybe he was sick. I used my fists. Nothing. Giving up on the front door, I walked down the steps into the garage, hoping to find another door to the house.

I had to squeeze around his vehicle, which took up most of the allowable space, when the smell hit me like a brick. You don't need to own a restaurant to recognize the high stench of rotting meat and my nose told me it was coming from Daniel's trunk. I tried to lift it but it wouldn't budge. Spotting a rusty crowbar leaning in a corner, I bent over to pick it up.

“Don't touch that!” Detective Winn yelled, making me jump. I dropped the crowbar, sending it clanking to the ground.

“What are you doing here?” I yelled back in shock.

“That's precisely what I'd like to ask you, Ms. Walker.”

I replied more calmly than I felt. “Call me Liz, and I'm trying to find my chef. This is Daniel's car and whatever's in that trunk smells pretty bad. I think we should take a look.”

Winn stepped between me and the back of Daniel's car. “I'll take it from here, thank you, Ms. Walker and then, if you don't mind, I'd like to talk to you in private.” He issued a command to one of the officers, “Sergeant, escort Ms. Walker to the cruiser and have her wait in the car.”

I gave up telling the detective to call me Liz. All business and no play, this one.

He pointed at another young man. “Constable, put your gloves on. Let's get this trunk open.”

The sergeant and I walked quietly side by side to the curb. I was about to climb in the back seat when another cruiser pulled alongside. The driver waved at the officer, who briefly let go of my arm in order to wave back. I tore out of his grasp and ran back down the driveway, hopping sideways between the car and garage wall. Holding my nose, I looked directly into the trunk.

Six cases of New York sirloins, stinking to high heaven, were marked:

DELIVERY — C.N.E.

Winn slammed the trunk shut, and propelled me by my elbow back to my car.

“I told you this morning I would meet you at the restaurant. What are you doing here? ” His softly rugged facial features had transformed into a harsh, uninviting landscape. He was trying to keep his voice down.

“You better check the house to see if Daniel's in there.” I said, craning my neck around his wide shoulder. “He could be hurt.”

“I want you out of here, now!”

“I thought you wanted to talk to me.”

“Now! Do you understand?” He was yelling again.

I slammed my car door in his face and laid rubber on the pavement. Time to make a hasty retreat, or at least pretend to. I wasn't leaving yet. I drove around the block to Eastern Avenue.

The surrounding area was a mixture of new residential and commercial enterprises taking over defunct industrial warehouses. Film studios had replaced many of the empty factories. I had a look at one of the new condominium lofts and thought the mortgage payments were reasonable until the realtor pointed out that was the monthly maintenance fee.

I parked the car at the end of Daniel's street behind a stage mobile unit with orange cones marked “film” placed around it. I had a clear view of Winn on the phone. I picked up a cone, put it beside my car, and continued to watch. A few minutes later an unmarked van pulled into Daniel's driveway. Two men in white dust suits emerged, nodded at Winn, and went down into the garage, carrying large, green, plastic tote containers. They returned, I assumed, with the load of putrid steaks packed inside. Depositing them into the back of the van, they gave Winn a paper to sign and left.

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