Read Spoiled Rotten Online

Authors: Mary Jackman

Spoiled Rotten (9 page)

chapter seven

I
landed at Pearson Airport around noon the next day and took a taxi home. I refreshed myself with a shower and a nap, washed a stack of crusty dishes that my son conveniently managed to overlook, and drove back downtown. The sun was setting when I rolled into the car park across the street from Walker's Way.

Rick was standing out front on the sidewalk, having an animated discussion with Marlene, one of our waitresses. She was waving a cheque at a person being lifted by paramedics into the back of a waiting ambulance. I ran across the street.

“Marlene, stop it please,” Rick was pleading. “The guy has an oxygen mask on his face. What do you want him to do? Tell them to wait while he pays his bill?”

“Well, I'll tell ya, that's one way of skipping out on a bill. He stiffed me, too,” she complained.

“Gee, maybe he was too busy dying to think about leaving a tip.”

“I hope you don't expect me to pay for his dinner. It's not my fault, ya know. He didn't mention having any allergies.”

As conscientious operators, we did our best to scrutinize all the labels on the dry goods for derivatives of nuts and dairy lurking in the ingredients, but some of the more exotic foods were too vague or the English translation too poor for us to decipher. I hoped the restaurant wasn't liable.

Rick's face was turning bright red. I jumped in. “Don't worry about it,” I said, plucking the bill out of her hand.

The computer print-out indicated that our hastily departed guest had the New York sirloin entree. The potatoes were hand-cut fries and the pepper steak was served with fresh garden vegetables, roasted with garlic. Nothing on that plate contained nuts or dairy.

I was getting a strange feeling in my stomach. Like fruit flies in a beer bottle. “What else did the man have, Marlene? Bread and butter, cream with his coffee, what?”

“He had the herbed foccacia before his dinner, no butter or oil with it, and a black coffee afterwards. He seemed fine, when all of sudden he started vomiting and blacked out.” I looked through the front window and realized the remaining customers needed quick attention. They were wandering around like they had lost their mommy.

“All right, Marlene, back to work. You won't have to cover his bill and have an extra glass of wine on me later as a treat.” She ambled toward the bar and I had the feeling she planned on drinking her wine before quitting time. I felt sorry for her tables. She was the slowest waiter on the planet and this episode wasn't going to help them any. Rick comped drinks at all the tables and business returned to normal.

Women customers usually forgave Marlene for her inept service because she was quite young and probably reminded them of their daughters. The men cut her slack because she was quite sexy and reminded them of something else.

She was nobody's fool, though. A customer sitting on the patio, disappointed when he couldn't get her telephone number after asking for repeated coffee refills, complained loudly for all to hear that his saucer was dirty and needed to be replaced immediately. Marlene, having a full section at the time and naturally behind in her orders, walked over to him and picked up the offending saucer. Holding it high in the air, she looked at it in the sun and said, “Ya know, you're right, it is dirty,” and flung it over the patio wall into the street. “There,” she said, “now it's broken, too.”

I chuckled at the memory and walked through the restaurant to the only seat available, the last booth in the back, number nine. Rick slid in opposite me. He told me that Philip, the new chef, was breaking in nicely. Hurray, that was one thing I didn't have to worry about. I felt like having a simple lunch and chose a watercress and roasted pine-nut salad accompanied with a cool glass of sauvignon blanc. Rick and I discussed menu changes for a while and were contemplating going upstairs to the office to do some paperwork when Marlene came over to the booth and whispered, “We might have to close.”

“No, no. The customers have settled down,” Rick answered. “I bought a round of drinks. Everyone is happy.”

Bending closer so that he was forced to look down her shirt, his one eye caught me watching, and he shrugged. Marlene stood up straight, and with arms folded across her chest, she said pointedly, “That's the problem. The chef thought he was entitled to a few drinks, too.”

Rick and I floored it into the kitchen, neglecting to use the magic word “IN” and collided with the dishwasher carrying a stack of plates on the other side of the swinging door. Rick caught the plates in mid-air, all except one, which crashed to the floor. He handed them back to the dishwasher, who hurried through the door, yelling, “OUT!”

I scanned the room. “Where is he?”

“Down here,” answered Manuel. The salad maker popped his head around the island and signalled with his thumb at the floor. Rick found Philip lying on his back, wedged in between the two Garlands.

“Wake up you syphilitic piece of shit!” Rick hissed and dragged the chef by his feet safely away from the hot oven door and over to the sinks where he dumped a pot of cold water on his head. Clutching his impressive knife pouch tightly against his chest, the bobble-headed chef was escorted out the back door by Manuel. His briefcase was tossed out a few seconds later. Rick finished the standing orders on deck, but things weren't going well. The fruit flies in my stomach were starting to multiply.

Rick was taking stock of the damage Philip had left behind when Marlene came rushing through the door with trouble spelt across her face.

“What could possibly be wrong now?” I shrieked.

“The health inspector is here.”

I was not in the mood to grovel. I turned on my heel and slipped out the back door, mouthing the words, “Good luck, Rick.” He got paid good money and so far this week all I got was misery.

At home, I waited for Winn to return my call. He didn't, and I fell asleep with all my clothes on.

Usually, about now, a late afternoon lunch crowd would be settling their tab, either returning to the office or heading home. Not today. The dining room was empty. The chairs were stacked upside down atop a row of bare tables with sudsy rings from a recent mopping encompassing the bases below. Back in the kitchen, Rick and a couple of the prep boys were busy emptying the refrigerators.

“Here give us a hand. We're transferring everything to the freezers.”

“Are we out of business?”

“No. We've been shut down. The health department gave us a red yesterday.”

“Why didn't you call?”

“What could you do? You looked beat. The boys and I are taking care of the perishables.”

“Was the inspector unhappy about the leak in the men's washroom?”

“No. He was unhappy about the old guy that was wheeled out of here yesterday.”

“That was fast.”

“The hospital filed a report as soon as the ambulance took him into emergency. He wasn't allergic to anything and he didn't have a heart attack but he was suffering from a severe case of food poisoning, possibly E. coli, but they're not sure. Unfortunately, this means until the bug and the source can be determined, we can't reopen. Ever since Walkerton, they won't risk an outbreak. They'll get in touch as soon as the lab has finished its analysis.” Rick held out a box of thawed shrimp to me and I shook my head no, too much cholesterol.

“I'll take it,” Manuel piped up.

Rick handed him the box. “Happy shrimp fest.”

I sniffed the air. “What's that smell?”

“The putrid stench of insolvency in the air?”

“Sooo not funny, Rick.”

He ran his fingers through his eighty-dollar haircut. “I don't know what it is. I think it's coming from the men's washroom. The urinal is plugged again.”

“Man, it just gets worse by the second, doesn't it?”

“This business with the health department doesn't bode well, Liz. Tied in with Mr. Tony's murder and our chef's disappearance, everything seems to be pointing at us.”

In Ontario, all restaurants are subject to rigorous health inspections that make me weak in the knees. I swear some of the inspectors are bipolar, intent on working out obsessive-compulsive germ issues and making ridiculous recommendations even hospitals would have trouble fulfilling. Restaurants spend a small fortune keeping up with the demands. Small laminated signs in three different colours: green representing a pass; yellow, a conditional pass; and red, take a pass, are to be displayed in a prominent place for all patrons to see. I came through the front door without noticing the red sign, but that didn't mean our eagle-eyed customers would miss it.

“There are two boxes full of goods that can't be saved,” Rick continued. “I told the staff they could divvy it up between them if that's okay with you. Plus, there's nearly full pan of tiramisu we need to get rid of. I've eaten so much of the stuff I can't even look at it.” He asked me if I wanted to take some home. Secretly, I still loved the creamy dessert and if he and Manuel hadn't been staring at me, I would have plunged in my face and licked the pan clean. Instead, I gave a thumbs-up to give it to the salad boys.

Rick wore a long rubber apron over his clothes. Always neatly turned out, he wouldn't want to spoil his fine clothes while sorting through the kitchen goods. Since we were closed, he chose to dress down in a pin-striped cotton shirt, a V-neck black cashmere sweater, and pressed blue jeans. He had his own bizarre idea of casual dress apparel. When acting as maitre'd, he preferred wearing a dark Armani suit with a fresh rose in his lapel. He adhered to the theory that a first impression is a lasting impression. I thought he looked overdressed for a casual style bistro like Walker's, but nothing would sway him. As I often commented about Rick, he was oddly consistent and consistently odd.

Rick had a quirky sense of devotion to the restaurant; one that scared me a little. He was personally scarred by a poor review or slow week of business. “It's the beginning of the end,” he would announce repeatedly until the customers started to roll in. And heaven help the inconsiderate nincompoop who made a large reservation and didn't show up.

Rick kept a table for twenty reserved on a busy Friday evening, turning away potential customers only to realize too late that the reserved party wasn't coming. After particularly slow nights and a year later, he still calls the inconsiderate party's telephone number to inform them their table is ready and then hangs up. I told him he better be careful they didn't call the police for harassment and have the calls traced back to him.

“Impossible,” he explained. “I buy disposable cellphones from the drug dealer on the corner.”

It was around four in the afternoon when Rick came up to the office to inform me that he was leaving for the day, the kitchen was clean, and the food was stored. He removed the apron when he entered the office, letting it hang from his fingers. The sight of the apron dangling in front of me sparked a memory in the back of my mind.

Gazing at me with his disturbingly blue-violet eyes, Rick decided to tell me I looked tired. I thanked him for the compliment and like most smart men, he realized he'd committed an innocent but treacherous faux pas and duly headed for the office door. I asked him to leave the apron behind. Rick was finished with the cleanup and probably wanted to get home to take a shower. Kitchen grease has a way of attaching itself to your skin; the lingering smell becomes a sour taste in your mouth.

I recognized the heavy-duty apron and realized it was Daniel's. I borrowed it once to scrape sticky residue off the bathroom wall. I'd hated to think what it might be, and, using a sharp blade, poked a hole in it by mistake. Daniel wasn't upset and we patched it with glue. It was a small puncture and no one else would have noticed, but I knew where to look.

Daniel kept it in the kitchen, hanging beside the stove. He relied on it regularly. It proved to be invaluable protection when working with toxic grease removers. The acid-based chemicals he used had to be powerful enough to clean the oven walls coated with carbon as hard as a diamonds.

Tony's butchers wore them, too. I recalled shuddering the first time I walked into the cutting room at Superior Meats. I'd had a special order for a small party and the chef had ordered me to pick up twenty pieces of oxtail precisely the same weight and size. If you have ever seen a whole oxtail you know that, like most tails, they start off wide at one end and narrow to a point at the other. Consequently, there are a lot of odd sizes. The butcher asked me to come inside to the cutting room to choose the tail size I needed. I had never been beyond the sacred corded rope that separated the public area from the private.

Fluorescent light bounced off the enameled tiled walls. The white room was immaculate, a surreal environment of glistening stainless steel with tell-tale nests of sawdust in the corners. The piercing screams from metal hitting bone forced me to cover my ears. The men stopped sawing and turned to watch me. I was out of my depth and they knew it, all sly smiles and winks behind my back.

Safety regulations made it mandatory for the butchers to wear the aprons in the cutting room. A heavy rubber surface applied to a thick woven backing made the protective garment impregnable to blood and burns. Covering the upper chest area to the underarms, the apron hung below the knees almost to the ankles, a chain-mail vest underneath it prevented flying bones and blades from maiming them. Still, I was pretty certain there wasn't one amongst them who wasn't missing digit or two. Two of the younger men who were operating industrial grinders removed yellow Plexiglas goggles, letting them dangle around their necks. Neither one of them allowed a
soupçon
of decency or self-consciousness to stop them from looking me over from top to bottom. I felt nude and trussed, ready to be flipped onto a table. Screw the oxtails. I got out of there fast.

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