Authors: Mary Jackman
She had been a good student, graduating with honours from elementary school and gliding effortlessly through secondary school. Her father was very proud of his youngest daughter, although she had come along later in life than he would have liked and eventually the stress of raising three daughters in a new country and a new wife's demands took its toll. When he had to cut back on his shifts at the local foundry, money grew scarce and Maria knew she would have to quit school and find a job. Her stepmother mentioned a meat company she used to work for was hiring. Then, as Maria dragged her heels, an application form miraculously appeared in the all saint's alcove at the foot of the stairs. The new Mrs. D'Agnole said she could still pull a few strings.
That was years ago, Roberto's bride had pulled up stakes long ago for a more ambitious younger man. True to tradition, Maria, the last unmarried daughter, moved back into the empty house to care for the broken man he had become.
“She was eighteen,” Said Winn, interrupting my reverie.
“What?” I said, startled.
“I questioned Ms. D'Agnole the following day,” said Winn. “She was eighteen years old when she started at Superior Meats.”
The detective removed his leather jacket, exposing a side arm tucked against his side. He wrapped the jacket around the back of his chair and glanced over at the espresso machine. “How about that coffee? I think it's done.”
“I totally forgot, sorry.” I jumped up from the desk, teetered a little, and brushed his arm as I moved to get the coffee. The subtle aroma of masculinity jolted my olfactory memory bank. I inwardly groaned.
“Did you say something?”
Well, I thought it was inward. “I was wondering how you take your coffee.”
“Black is fine, thanks.”
Black was how I liked mine, too. We should get married. I handed him a cup.
“You were saying about Maria?”
“I just told you, beyond chatting a few times, we never spoke. Why do you find that so hard to believe?”
“It looked like you were thinking of something a minute ago. Want to tell me about it?”
I told the detective what I knew about Maria's past and said that was pretty much it.
“She was far more fascinated in my business. She'd ask me all kinds of questions about my staff, their qualifications, or where they were from, and how I found them. I thought perhaps she was interested in starting her own place. She also wanted to know what it was like watching people eat all day long.”
He laughed. “What is it like?”
“It's like having a giant dinner party. People are usually happier when they eat. I know I am.” I giggled and stupidly patted my tummy to prove it. I quickly added, “Business is business, but the perks in this one are great.”
Winn looked around him again and I was pretty sure he wasn't thinking that my office was one of them. The couch against the wall had stuffing leaking from its seams, the ceiling's century-old plaster trim was breaking off in chunks and the original antique porcelain fireplace had a fake electric log in its grate that Rick turned on whenever I got depressed. It was on now.
“Nice fire,” he said sarcastically.
“Thanks,” I shot back. “It really warms up the place, don't you think?”
Winn answered that with an uncertain nod and asked, “How did you get into the food business?”
“Is that what you came to talk about?”
“I just wondered. Is that all right?” He turned on a smile that knocked my socks off. I cleared my throat a couple of times and tried to explain.
“Well it wasn't a lifelong fantasy, nothing as romantic as that. More like sheer desperation. I was struggling at school and agonizing over an intended career course. During my university years, I was lucky to get a part-time job as a waiter in a small but established Italian restaurant. The owners were an older couple, the epitome of sophistication. They knew everyone in town, politicians, gangsters, professors, and hookers, united under the same roof, peacefully consuming gallons of red wine and shovelling plates of Spaghetti Carbonara down their throats.”
Winn chuckled faintly in response to the picture I was painting.
I continued, “Reggie and Betty, the owners, insisted that the staff call them by their first names, allowed us to eat one free meal per shift. The younger employees, especially the students, were always broke. We really appreciated being fed and the food was to die for. Not like undercooked chicken wings with half the feathers still on them.”
“You ate that?” Winn asked.
“No, that was the whole point. The owners went away one week end and the chef, who was an ornery old misogynist, decided that was all a bunch of sluts, his pet name for the waitresses, deserved.”
“I take it there's a happy ending to this story?”
“Reggie came back earlier than intended and saw us trying to eat the measly wings, feathers and all. He literally threw the chef out the door. You know, life has a funny way of biting you in the ass. My mother always says, âBe careful of the seeds you sow.' It's true. When I opened my restaurant, years later, the same man came in and applied for a position as head cook. Boy, was he surprised to see me. I told him there was a position as a dishwasher available and he called me a slut. Anyhoo, before that I never ate in a fancy restaurant. I guess without knowing it I kind of absorbed their lifestyle and eventually fulfilled the fantasy.”
“I never ate out before I left home either,” said Winn. “Good old-fashioned home-cooked meals and apples for dessert. I remember longing for the chance to eat fast food and now that's all I ever eat. Be careful what you wish for too, I suppose.”
“Don't feel bad. I thought McDonald's was heaven.”
Detective Winn smiled and my heart skipped a beat. However, besotted as I was, I didn't believe for a second he was playing nice because he was interested in me. He was as about as relaxed as a coiled spring. Maybe he knew where Daniel was and he was stringing me along to see what I knew. “Who do you think killed Mr. Tony? Could it really have been Maria? Because I know it wasn't Daniel.”
“So you say, but I can't discuss it with you. I can tell you that Ms. D'Agnole was very upset after her unfortunate discovery. She didn't give us any information at the time because she was incoherent with shock. It's hard to fake that. When I suggested that I come to her house for an interview, she insisted on coming to the station instead. Her father had just suffered a massive heart attack and she thought it might upset him. I thought it was a reasonable request.”
“That was noble of you,” I said.
“Is that sarcasm?” he asked.
“No, I'm serious. I didn't think the police gave a â¦ well, never mind. That was nice of you.” I smiled.
“I respect Maria's dedication to her father. In fact, she made me feel guilty enough to call my own mother. I'm going to drive up to see her this weekend.”
“Where do they live?” The way this conversation was going, you'd think we were on a date. I figured he was used to manipulating conversations and let it fly.
“My mother lives just outside of the city. She's all alone now â my father passed away this summer.”
“Sorry, mine died last spring, too.”
“Sorry. I guess they were getting too old.”
“I guess we're getting old.”
He smiled and said, “You look all right.” He sheepishly touched his hand to his thinning hair before continuing, “My father died barbequing steaks in ninety-degree weather. My mother looked through the kitchen window and wondered why there was a stream of black smoke rising from the grill. The same evening she called me at midnight from the emergency ward.”
Again, I told him I was sorry and meant it. The moments ticked by and then Winn shifted gears so fast I almost fell out of my chair. He stood up and placed both hands flat on the desk.
“What were you really doing at the exhibition last Friday?” He was all business again.
I pressed my back against the chair, recoiling from him. “I wanted to find Daniel.”
“Did you know he was working there?”
“I figured it out when I saw the box of steaks in his trunk marked C.N.E. I had no idea until then. I may not share your level of expertise in such matters, but I had a hunch.”
“Do you have âa hunch' as to where he is now?”
“Nope. I haven't seen or heard from him.”
“He is wanted as a murder suspect. If you know anything at all, you'd better co-operate.”
He was trying to bully me. A futile attempt considering mine was traditionally a male-dominated business and I got tired of taking crap a long time ago for not belonging to the club. I held my hands in the air for the international sign â
. “If you're insinuating that I'm keeping something from you, then you are sorely mistaken. I didn't see Daniel at the exhibition. I just thought I heard his voice. The next thing I knew I was waking up in the hospital.”
Winn backed off. “The situation has worsened for Daniel, Ms. Walker. He's in serious trouble.”
His warning was real, but how could I help? “I heard there was a case of food poisoning reported at the convention hall that morning. You think he's responsible for that, too?” I asked.
Winn straightened up and held out his card to me. “If you hear anything that will help us with our investigation, Ms. Walker, I want you to notify me immediately, otherwise you can be charged with obstruction.”
I jumped out of my chair. He had pushed my buttons. I pushed back.
“First you act all friendly with me, Winn, then you tell me I'm in danger and threaten me. I want to know what's going on.”
“That's Detective Winn, Ms. Walker. And I was not acting. I was actually relaxing for a moment. I don't know what came over me.”
“Gee, thanks.” I sneered.
“I'm not compelled to share police information with you, although you did hear right. The same morning you were knocked on the head at the exhibition, two people suffered severe food poisoning. I believe your attack is connected to theirs, but until I find out why, I'm concerned about your safety. The names of the poisoning victims will be released tonight. Since you seem to be in danger of having a nervous breakdown, I may as well tell you now.”
“Don't patronize me.”
“Do you want the names or not?” he asked.
Defeated, I nodded my head. He spieled off the names, “Councillor Stephen Albright and Cecilia Vieira.”
“I remember waiting on the councillor at Reggie and Betty's restaurant. He was a regular with the rest of the politicos.”
“What was your impression of him?”
“A little short on integrity. I saw him grab a tip off a table once and pocket it. But who's Cecilia Vieira?”
“She's the wife of the late Mr. Tony, a.k.a. Anthony Vieira.” He looked at me squarely. “You see how things may be connected.” He consulted his little notebook again. “She and the councillor were poisoned while attending a breakfast affair welcoming the show's participants in the executive dining room of the new convention building. Shortly after eating his breakfast of steak and eggs, Councillor Albright complained of a pain in his stomach, stood up and toppled over.” He raised his eyes momentarily to get my reaction and continued to read from the page, “After first vomiting on the table in front of her, Mrs. Vieira followed suit. They were rushed to the hospital and prematurely diagnosed with a case of botulism â that's a serious form of food poisoning.”
“I think I know what botulism is by now.”
“Yes, I guess you would.”
My head snapped up to see if he was intentionally insulting me.
“Relax, I didn't mean anything by that. If you will allow me to continue, this case has turned out to be a lot more sinister than a fatal reaction to food poisoning. Mr. Albright died last night and further investigation by the coroner has determined the meat was spiked with rat poison. We are looking at another murder.” He snapped the book closed.
I sat down hard, nearly falling out of the chair when it spun around, and using my feet as brakes, I choked out, “How about Tony's wife? Is she going to die, too?”
“Probably not, she's hanging in there. We don't think she was the intended victim. She ordered scrambled eggs with toast. Apparently she doesn't like red meat after all the years in the business with her husband.”
“I know how she feels. I used to love cheesecake and now I can't stand the sight of it. Sorry, not really relevant is it.”
The detective gave me a weak smile. “The good councillor convinced Mrs. Vieira to try a piece of his steak, said it would make a good impression, given the theme of the show and her husband's business involvement. A newspaper reporter has given us a publicity photograph he took of her sharing a bite. Good thing she didn't have more.”
He finished off the dregs of his coffee, put the cup down, and launched into the final round of badgering. “Now, are you ready to please tell me what were you doing at the Exhibition grounds, Ms. Walker?”
“Read my lips. I went looking for my chef.”
“Why? Were you in love with him?”
“Don't be ridiculous.”
“Come on, Ms. Walker. He's a pretty good-looking guy. Admit it, were you having an affair with your chef?”
“You thought Daniel was having an affair with Maria a few minutes ago.”
“Everyone is under suspicion. Answer the question.”
“No, of course not. I will admit Daniel and I were on pretty good terms, but not that good. You have no idea how hard it is find a chef of his calibre.”
“It doesn't bother that you that he may be a cold-blooded killer.”
“That's ludicrous. He's not a killer. To be honest, I don't care anymore. Rick has already hired someone else.”
“I hope that means you'll stay out of my investigation. Two serious crimes have been committed and most likely, given the circumstances, were committed by the same person or persons. You realize I'm serious when I say that you could still be in danger. Someone hit you on the head for a reason. Someone called and saved your life for a reason. And all you're telling me is that you went looking for your chef, hard to believe considering we found you in a Dumpster behind the cattle building.”