Authors: Mary Jackman
By now I thought someone from the trailer would come out and retrieve the cone. But nobody was around, probably at lunch. LUNCH! I quickly called the restaurant. One of my favorite waiters picked up the phone.
“Walker's Way, Marshall here, how may I be of service?” His singsong voice held just the right amount of ingratiating professionalism.
“Marshall, it's Liz, I need to talk to Rick. How's he doing?”
“As well as can be expected under the circumstances, I'll get him for you.”
The phone was put down on the marble bar top, which clearly transmitted the sounds coming from the kitchen. I could hear Rick in the background, vitriolic comments pouring out of his mouth.
“WHAT?” he roared into the mouthpiece.
“Rick, I'm at Daniel's place and the cops are here. You wouldn't believe what I found in the trunk of his car.”
“You better tell me you found chef in it because if he isn't dead I'm going to kill him myself. I've got a table of miserable fucking architects who don't feel like eating chicken today, three burned cheesecakes, and a pot full of soggy pasta, thanks to Ceymore, the great incompetent.”
Rick doesn't use birth names for our chefs, just “Chef.” After ten years he gave up trying to remember their names. Only a few are ever memorable. Those are the ones we pay homage to, dance around, lick their boots. I actually thought Rick liked Daniel. I heard him use his real name once.
“Listen, I don't know what's going on, but it definitely involves Daniel. The cops are breaking into his house now. I'm hiding in my car, watching them.”
“So you're in your car relaxing and I'm up to my eyeballs in orders I can't fill.”
“I'm not relaxing. I'm on a stakeout.”
“Please tell me you didn't just say the word âstakeout.'”
“Rick, something weird is happening, I've got to go.” I could hear Rick telling me not to hang up while I did precisely that.
The police broke into Daniel's house. After a few minutes, they came stomping back out. Winn snapped a few orders to the policemen, then took off in his unmarked sedan. The house must have been empty inside. Everyone left except for one cop to stand guard.
The truth was, I half-expected to discover Daniel's body in his car trunk. After what happened at Superior Meats, I thought there might be a serial killer on the loose. I certainly didn't expect to see a thousand dollars' worth of rotting steak in his trunk, which I knew didn't belong to me. I never buy more meat than I can sell in three days because pawning off beef stew as the daily special for a week gets mighty boring, not to mention a little dicey.
I decided to leave, but I didn't want to head back to the restaurant just yet. Rick would make me feel guilty and I'd wind up doing the dishes or washing lettuce, an equally hideous job. The lunch rush would be over by the time I returned, so why poke my head in a hornet's nest? I drove along Eastern Avenue for a few minutes, went south down Carlaw Avenue, and turned right on to Lake Shore Drive.
During the horse-and-buggy days, the “Lake Shore” route may have been considered a scenic drive around Lake Ontario and still could be, except that the marshlands were filled over sixty years ago to accommodate industrial plants, warehouses, and garbage depots that have remained, changed, and multiplied over the decades. A story that my eighty-year-old neighbour, Mr. Mullen, shared with me years ago haunts me every time I drive past the spot on my way downtown.
Mr. Mullen was born in the house across the street from mine in 1925. His story relies on his memory, which appears to be sharp as a tack. The trains still continue to speed by daily on the railroad tracks that lay behind his now fenced-in backyard. In his youth, there was a brick quarry on the other side of those tracks where he and the other children used to swim, until there was a terrible tragedy. A child drowned in the deep, muddy waters. The quarry was drained and pronounced unsafe and shortly afterwards it was commissioned for use as a city garbage dump. To make way for the new subway garage that fills the acre pit site today, the garbage was hauled out years later and buried underground. Undisturbed landfill slowly decomposes under lakeside fields covered with mature maple trees and flocks of Canadian geese. Contained by barbed-wire fencing, the grassy mounds appear to be abundantly fertile, ditto the geese.
I continued driving west on Lakeshore Drive past unused acreage that remains between the road and the canal front that joins the Don River. A burgeoning homeless resort made up of tarps and tents that squatted on the empty land was eventually bulldozed. The irony that the property belonged to a mega department store, selling do- it-yourself home-improvement materials, wasn't wasted on the good people of Toronto.
Ducking under the Gardiner Expressway overpass, I ignored the small armies of isolated men working to repair the struts and spans that allowed run off rainwater to shower the cars below. Aiming directly for one of these waterfalls, I slowed down and got a mini car wash. It wasn't clean water, but a shower is a shower and adequate enough to remove the anonymously scribbled messages from the car's rear window. “SUCK ME” was the latest in a series of rude suggestions. Others are too foul to repeat aloud.
As I rounded the lake, a tip of a wing appeared first, then the rest of her majestic figure loomed into sight. High atop a colossal arch, an angel fanned alabaster wings across two wrought-iron sentry gates flanking both sides of her perch. The theme song “Let's all go to the Ex” cued automatically in my mind.
The “Ex” or “C.N.E.,” short for Canadian National Exhibition, opened in 1880. When the summer fair is on during the last three weeks of August, you can't get near the place. You have to park two miles away and walk in the blistering heat to the gate entrance. I remembered begging my parents to carry me, crying shamelessly until they did.
The ticket booths surrounding the entrance to the grounds had been removed, the massive gates opened wide to allow traffic through. I looked up at the angel as I drove under her wings. Still a thrill!
Cars parked bumper to bumper along the empty midway filled the massive void left by carnival rides and game booths. Except for white lines painted like hopscotch patterns fading on the tarmac, it was hard to believe that less than a month ago the grounds were swarming with thousands of visitors.
A steady stream of trucks and vans passed me on both sides of the main avenue of the grounds. Following the line of traffic to the convention centre, I passed a newly erected grey box of a building contrasting starkly with its historic neighbour, the impressive horse pavilion. A noticeable group of cable television trucks and a news van were on the sidewalk. More noticeably, two police cars and one unmarked beige cruiser idled beside them. I slowed down and recognized Detective Winn climbing the front steps of the hall. I parked in an illegal space that miraculously opened up, and then I joined a small crowd filing determinedly through a side door near the rear of the building. I didn't want to bump into the detective if I could help it.
I stepped behind the others into a small, utilitarian lobby from which several hallways sprouted in different directions. No one was lingering. Most likely they were responding to a call for an important staff meeting. I hesitated, trying to decide which group to follow, when a voice in the fast-moving crowd behind me sounded familiar.
“Liz Walker, are you taking tables tonight?” I turned, recognizing Martin Wright, a former waiter of mine, and jostling shoulders affectionately, we walked together, keeping pace with the others.
“Marty, how are you?” I exclaimed. “How's the band? I saw you in that beer commercial,” I rattled on while taking in his new look. “You were fabulous, dahhling.”
Martin had let his hair, once a closely shorn crew cut, grow out into a mass of blond curls, which I actually thought suited him better, and, without wanting to stare, picked up on a hint of eyeliner.
“Thanks, Liz, we made a few bucks, but the band broke up. We argued all the time. Stardom didn't suit us, I guess. That's why I'm here, I'm pulling a double. I need the money. What are you doing here?”
“I'm trying to find someone,” I answered truthfully. “I know you usually work the big winter fair in November, but I didn't know there was a show in April, too.”
“This is strictly a cattle show, kind of a prelim to the winter fair. First one, very United Nations, you know.”
“Is that being held here? I thought it would be somewhere ritzy like the Sutton Place.”
“Not if you want to bring your prize bulls with you, baby. Hey, one of your chefs is working the show.”
I knew it. Daniel was moonlighting and standing me up at the same time. I could feel my temper rising and realized Martin was asking me something.
“He's adorable. Is he single?”
“No, Martin. He's AWOL.”
“Sorry, Liz. What happened?”
“He didn't show up for work and Rick is covering for him.”
“Uh-oh, that can't be good. Glad I'm not working there anymore.”
“I know, he's in a terrible mood. I need to talk to Daniel. Where's the kitchen?”
“They won't let you in without a pass. A couple of guests got food poisoning.”
Those are words people in my business never want to hear. I gasped. “You're kidding?”
“No, I'm not, and it's hush-hush. Nobody wants the press to make a big deal out of it. Bad image for the first day of the show.”
“Are they going to be okay?” I asked.
“Who knows? Two people were rushed to the hospital after the eating a breakfast of steak and eggs.”
“When did that happen?”
“This morning at a private press-release ceremony,” replied Martin.
There seemed to be an awful lot of bad meat floating around these days, which reminded me why I was there. I had trouble believing that Daniel would be stupid enough to blow us off for another gig. Sooner or later, a chef's reputation catches up with them. And Daniel was no exception. A phone call to one of the restaurants listed on his resumÃ© hinted he was trouble, but the owner revealed nothing. The man refused to discuss Daniel's history in detail. I wasn't concerned. Most follow-up references were a waste of time. Recommending a lousy chef to another restaurant was a dirty joke to play on your competition, but it's happened to me more times than I care to remember.
A year ago after a brief telephone conversation with a highly respected chef of a chic uptown hot spot, and entirely on his say-so, I hired a previous cook of his who had listed him as a reference. I knew we were in trouble when on his first day our new chef was visited by three burly thugs with deep foreign accents. As a precautionary rule, no one is allowed in the kitchen during service except staff, so you can imagine my surprise when one of the waiters complained that the kitchen door was blocked on the inside by a customer.
I managed to squeeze through the door, demanding with great authority that they leave at once. One of the men, who was licking his fingers and looking at me as if he would like to use me for a toothpick, said, “Nice place you got here, lady.” I bought them a round of vodka shooters and they left without incident. Not surprisingly, the new chef didn't come in the next day.
The labour board doesn't allow character assass-ination that would purposely damage an employee's chances for a job elsewhere. Admittedly, Daniel's former employer said he could cook, which was all Rick wanted to hear. You know the saying, “Too many chefs, not enough cooks.” Rick liked to say, “Too many chefs and none can cook.” We were so hungry for talent that we didn't care if Daniel was an axe murderer. A conceit I was starting to regret.
Over the years, a few of our former chefs made it to the big time, but via the restaurant grapevine, we were often saddened to hear many had lost the battle to booze and pills, divorce, or anonymity.
Until now, Daniel hadn't caused us any problems, making me suspect it was merely a case of sour grapes between him and his former employer.
“Listen, Liz, I have to run,” Martin said. “I'll drop into the restaurant soon and have a drink with you.”
This last part was added as he quickened his pace down a service hall. He opened a door for the men's change room and whispered, “The kitchen is up ahead. Keep going and follow your nose.” He blew me a kiss over his shoulder and disappeared inside.
I already felt better. At least I'd have my one-on-one with Daniel and ask for an explanation. I was ready to forgive him and offer him more money if that's what it took to get him back. On second thought, I didn't want to get ahead of myself. I'd try begging on my hands and knees first.
Similar to the Rogers Centre, the myriad doors, tunnels, and ramps making up the hall were a labyrinth of confusion. I never go to the washroom during a baseball game. I missed a whole inning once trying to find my way back to my seat. I thought I was lost when a door opened beyond me and I heard the distinct
ing sound of a commercial dishwasher. This was likely an exterior work area where the dishes would be circulated and garbage hauled up those long ramps out to the recycling bins.
I got a whiff of grilled red peppers with a hint of rosemary thrown in, or someone was smoking marijuana: the two odours smell remarkably the same to me. The kitchens were definitely here. The door locked shut before I could get to it, but I was confident there would be more doors up ahead. I hoped Daniel was behind one of them. Rounding the bend in the hall, I bumped into a gigantic security guard. He wore a black uniform and a high-tech head set.
“Sorry, miss, this area is closed.”
“Hi, I own Walker's Way Bistro and was hoping to have a few words with my chef. He's helping with the event and I'd like to speak to him for a second.”
“What's his name?”
His eyes grew wary. He spoke into a black-tipped metal tube, the thickness of a pencil, which ran from his mouth to his ear and consulted a list of names on a clipboard. His hand was pressed to his ear, obviously listening to a response from the other end. I thought he was stalling, but when he looked up, he seemed relieved.