Valentine’s Day, 2010
Pierre, the maître d at La Folie, wrung his hands when Josie walked through the front door of the cute little bistro. His mustaches, which Josie suspected were fake, twitched with dismay. “Oh, Ms. Tucker, We did not know you would be dining with us this evening.”
“No worries,” Josie said, discretely pulling down the northward-creeping hem of her little black dress. “I didn’t know I was coming until the last minute. This visit is purely for pleasure.”
Ha. Pleasure. That was a good one. How much fun could a blind date be?
She was here under duress. Also, she was now almost broke thanks to the cost of her dress. She’d bought it this afternoon not to look smokin’ hot—as her friend Susan insisted she did, and weren’t BFFs great?—but because she didn’t own any other dresses. Not hard to believe for people who knew her. Likewise, the strappy high-heeled shoes torturing her toes were also new. She’d bought them at a second-hand shop, which was disgusting for shoes, but she couldn’t afford a new pair for just one date.
Her beloved Chuck Taylor’s were waiting for her at home on her bedroom floor.
Josie’s assurances to Pierre that she was not there to critique the evening’s meal for her newish column at The Daily News failed to assuage the petite man’s fears. The expert maître d would no doubt fawn over her the whole meal, which was so not what she needed right now.
She hadn’t chosen the bistro; her date had. Reservations were impossible to come by, especially on the dreaded Day of Hearts and Flowers, which was why when date-jaded Susan had cancelled, he’d asked her if she had any available friends who could take her place last minute. A real Romeo, this guy.
“Will you be dining alone this evening?”
Pierre’s face lit up when she said, hedging, “Ah…no.”
She looked around for Jason Dowd, a guy who was blond and big in the shoulders and just her friend’s type. Susan had given her a 60-second window sticker of his specs—accountant, educated at Northeastern, addicted to CrossFit—as if she expected Josie to drive him off the lot. Not frickin’ likely. Even though Josie was chronically single, her status was by choice. And though the guy she wanted was not available to her, it didn’t mean she was moving on.
Whatever. Josie was here as a favor for her friend. On a blind date. On Valentine’s Day.
Pierre showed her to a table. At this early hour on a Tuesday, she had not expected many other diners, but she’d been mistaken. The table in the back corner had one patron, a white-haired woman wearing a dark purple cloche hat, bell-shaped and quaintly vintage, like the woman herself. She had ordered tea and appeared to be…knitting.
At the bar, a man with a chiseled jawline was removing his trench coat and…fedora? Tonight was the night for interesting hats. He ordered a scotch in a gravel-scraped tenor just as she walked by. A New York accent marked him as being an out-of-towner. He carried an umbrella, which he propped against the stool next to him, though it hadn’t rained for days.
Most of the other tables had single patrons at each. An older Chinese man with a striking goatee, wearing a lovely tan dinner jacket, read a newspaper at the table adjacent to hers. He gave her no acknowledgment other than a flick of his almond-shaped eyes.
Yeah, two could play that inscrutable Asian game, mister, she thought, tempted to roll her half-Thai eyes at him.
At the last table sat a couple, possibly gay, judging from their complementary appearances. One was stout and mustached, very dapper; the other wiry and…well, wired-looking as if he’d been on a three-day caffeine bender, his eyes darting around the room, barely hesitating on her before flitting away. She got the feeling, however, that nothing escaped him. When he picked up his U-shaped tobacco pipe, his companion scowled at him until he slipped it back into his coat pocket.
Ah, unspoken communication, the hallmark of a tried-and-true relationship.
She sat for some time, drumming her closely chewed, but recently filed fingernails on the tablecloth. How long was she required to wait for a blind date if he was late? Fifteen minutes, like a professor, she decided.
Pierre brought her a bottle of mineral water and made a great show of unfurling her napkin and drawing it across her lap.
“Would mademoiselle care to see the selections for this evening’s faire?”
Although La Folie had a fresh menu each evening that Gérard, the chef, set in the morning based on what he found during his morning market excursions, they still printed the menu on thick sheets of creamy handmade paper.
“Absolutely,” she said. Even if the date was a flop, she could still enjoy her meal.
Pierre glanced toward the kitchen and tipped his chin at the young woman standing in the hallway next to the kitchen to indicate that she might approach.
“This is Bernadette. She will assist me in waiting upon you this evening.”
Josie nodded at the girl, whom she’d never met before in her many dinners at La Folie. Bernadette wore a white dress shirt and an elegantly cut black pencil skirt. Her brown hair had been done in shiny finger waves and her thin eyebrows were severe in their arches.
They brought her the menu and she skimmed it. Normally, she would have studied it with care, but she was distracted wondering where her date was. Exercising patience was not one of her strong suits, even under the best of circumstances.
“And how is Gérard this evening?” she asked Pierre.
Josie had spoken with the renown chef once or twice before. He was a small-town boy from Concord who had studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. She suspected his real name wasn’t Gérard.
Pierre gave a Gaelic shrug. “As good as can be expected.” He leaned in closer. “Since the divorce from Cécile, he has been somewhat sick at heart. She was his heart and soul. It has been very rough for him. Instead, he throws his heart into his cooking.”
“I see,” Josie said. Too much information, pal.
Over in the corner, the knitting lady put down the skein she’d been winding when Bernadette approached from her right to offer a selection of teas. One of the lady’s knitting needles clattered to the floor. Bernadette set down the tea caddy and rushed to retrieve it for her as it rolled away.
“While Miss Tucker is waiting for her guest to arrive, perhaps she would like a small snack?” Pierre said, making it sound like snek.
Her stomach growled.
“Yes, she would,” she told him.
“Very good. Chef has some delightful amuse-bouche.”
He disappeared into the kitchen, and Josie was tempted to slip her cellphone out of her tiny clutch purse and text Susan to tell her what a bust the evening was. Instead, she reached for her water glass.
She choked on her sip when a scream ripped through the air.
The whole of the restaurant rose to its feet and tramped into the kitchen from where the shout had sounded. Josie pushed her way through the crowd to find Bernadette standing over a face-down form of a man in a white chef’s coat, flannel Boston Red Sox pajama bottoms, and one rubber clog, the other of which was missing.
“Oh my God, Gerry’s dead,” the girl shrieked, in pure middle-American, unaccented English.
Protruding from the back of the corpse was a shiny, blue knitting needle.
“Oh, dear,” the older woman in the purple hat said. “I believe that’s mine.”
Before anyone could stop her, she grasped the needle and yanked it out. Josie wondered who would be receiving a scarf from her for Christmas.
“Hold it right there!”
A man burst through the door from the back alley into the kitchen. Blond hair. Big shoulders. White evening jacket. Gun drawn and pointed at them. Her date had arrived at last.
Purple-hatted grandma issued a faint shriek and dropped her knitting needle, raising her hands sky-high.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Josie told him. “Lower your weapon there, Mr. Bond. No need for firearms.”
“You.” He gestured toward Pierre. “Call the police. And you,” at Bernadette, as he stooped to check for a pulse at the body’s neck area, “tell me what happened.”
“You’re not an accountant, are you?” Josie said with her hands on her hips.
Bernadette said, “I came into the kitchen for the amuse-bouche for her.” She pointed at Josie.
“You weren’t going to wait for me to eat?” Jason Dowd asked her with more accusation than she felt he had a right to.
Bernadette continued, her French accent returning. “I stepped around the counter and saw Gérard lying there.”
“Did you notice anything unusual earlier?”
“No. We had a normal afternoon learning the dishes and prepping. He cooked for the staff as usual. We ate dinner together and then got ready for the evening dinner service.”
“What did you have for supper?” Josie asked, earning a condescending nose wrinkle from Jason Dowd.
“Chef made brochettes de crevettes grillées. That is, shrimp skewers,” Bernadette said without hesitation. “Delicious. It was to be part of tonight’s service. Before this happened.” Distressed, she waved a slender hand at the body.
Josie leaned a little closer to Gérard and tilted her head, catching the glint of a bracelet on his wrist. She didn’t want to touch him, she just wanted to see if…
Another shriek ripped through the room, and Josie, teetering on her strappy high heels on the slick kitchen floor, flinched and wobbled, only to go down on her knees, her palm slapping the ice cold cheek of the dead man as she flailed and tried to brace herself.
“Oh my God!” She wrenched her hand away.
“Oh my God, Gérard!” A small athletic woman flew across the kitchen, the ashy odor of cigarettes trailing in her wake. She wailed his name over and over as she tried to fight past Jason Dowd’s grasp to get to the body.
“Nice catch,” Josie said, levering herself off the floor, trying to spring away from the corpse as quickly as she could. She maneuvered through the crowd of diners to the sink. “Excuse me. Just need to. Wash my hands. A lot. Very much. Excuse me.”
As she scrubbed herself in the pristine stainless steel sink, Pierre returned.
“The police are on their way. I also called—oh, yes, there you are, Cécile,” he said to the newly arrived woman.
Gérard’s ex-wife fell into Pierre’s arms, wailing into the little man’s neck. They spoke in a torrent of French to one another, none of which Josie understood.
The gay couple stood to one side, watching avidly.
“What’s he saying, John? I can’t hear a thing.”
“You know I don’t speak French, Sherman. You do. But I’m guessing she’s the wife of the dead fellow. And that’s her lover.”
Josie squinted. Surely someone here spoke French. Why did she even live in the city in the first place if she couldn’t rely on others to be cosmopolitan?
“Frère means brother,” she said at last having caught one word that she knew from the kids’ song. “I think Pierre and Gérard’s ex-wife might be siblings.” Maybe his mustache was real after all. She’d thought it had been a cheesy French stereotype all this time.
“I am still Gérard’s wife,” Cécile declared. “We are not officially divorced.”
So far, the man in the trench coat had been utterly silent, his sharp jawline clenching as he watched the rest of them. Why was he still carrying his umbrella, she wondered as she noticed the thing hooked over his forearm.
“I’m not surprised he’s dead,” the Chinese man said, speaking up all of a sudden, his crisp English accent startling Josie. “He never paid his rent.”
“Is debt a death sentence these days?” Josie asked and pressed her lips together, hoping she wasn’t going to be assassinated in the near future by a Chinatown tong for her smart-assery.
“The reason he doesn’t pay his rent to me on time is because he owes money to one of the Five Families in Brooklyn.” He paused and turned around. “Isn’t that right, sir?”
They all turned just in time to see the man in the trench coat sidling toward the door.
He cleared his gravelly throat. “I’m not here to enforce. Merely to collect what’s owed.”
“If that’s so,” the Chinese man said, “then you won’t mind handing over your umbrella.”
The man in the trench coat abruptly spun on his heel and fled through the door.
“Was that an umbrella submachine gun?” the purple-hatted grandma asked. “I saw one of those during World War II in France once while I was seducing a Nazi.”
Josie had slipped off her shoes, ready to run after the guy in her bare feet. Hey, at least she had better odds of catching him that way. Not the best, but a slight chance at least.
“Let him go,” Jason Dowd told her. “Gérard hasn’t been shot. He’s been strangled.”
On closer inspection, Josie could see the purplish lines in the deep crease of Gérard’s neck and the more gruesome aftereffects on his face.
“I’m pretty sure trench coat guy was plenty capable of strangling him, too.”
He blinked. “But look at this.”
When he gestured for her to approach, the whole room took a step forward toward the body. Except her. She’d gotten close enough already, thank you.
In the center of Gérard’s back on his white chef’s coat was the faint impression of not one shoe, but two large shoes, side by side.
“What the heck…” Josie said, but the pieces of the puzzle were beginning to assemble and form a picture in her mind.
She exchanged glances with Jason Dowd.
“Exactly,” he said. She wondered if he could read her mind. If so, he was probably inundated with images of food. She was starving.
“The attacker stomped on his back? I thought you said he was strangled.” The purple-clad granny said, skepticism rife in her tone, her lips pinched in a thin line that implied she may have scolded second graders in her past in addition to seducing Nazis.
If Josie was right, and she thought she was, she needed to get them out of the restaurant because their lives might be in danger. The killer was still among them.
Sirens blared, and the alley door once more slammed open. A police officer charged in and shouted at them not to move. Another entered from the front of the house, the dining area.
They patted everyone down and removed Jason Dowd’s gun from his side holster, as well as a small pistol from one of the gay couple’s legs by the top of his argyle sock. From the Chinese man, they confiscated a lethal-looking butterfly knife.
“Do any of you people have licenses for these weapons?” the officer asked, gritting his teeth.
Jason Dowd flashed some kind of badge at him, which Josie didn’t see closely, but it was enough for him to get his weapon returned to him.
“This wasn’t a date,” she said, accusing him. “This was a stakeout. You knew this was going to happen all along.”
He shrugged his big, dumb shoulders. Just wait until she told Susan about this dud of a date.
“Did anyone touch the deceased?” one of the officers asked.
“She slapped him,” Bernadette said and pointed an accusing finger at Josie.
“Ma’am, why would you do that?”
“It was an accident.”
“I took this out of his back,” the granny said, brandishing her knitting needle.
“Evidence,” the officer barked, and another official looking uniformed person took the knitting needle away in a plastic bag.
“Oh, dear. Will you need the other one as well? They’re better as a set. No good separately.”
The officer sighed. “Does anyone know what happened here?”
Jason Dowd began, “First—”
“I’m not talking to you,” the officer said. “This isn’t your jurisdiction. I don’t like you. I don’t like your agency and I don’t have to cooperate with you if I don’t want to. And I can get that in writing.”
“I know exactly what happened,” Josie said. “And I can prove it.”
Everyone stared at her, and she pulled down her hem because it had been creeping up again.
“First of all,” she said. “Gérard has been dead for some time. He didn’t prepare dinner. He would never touch shrimp because of his severe allergy. Check his wrist.”
She had noticed his emergency medical alert bracelet when she’d gotten up close and personal with him. Ew. And oops.
“And I’m no coroner, but his body is ice cold. Never mind that no blood flowed from where the knitting needle stabbed him.”
They looked at the body, then slowly turned to look at the industrial walk-in refrigerator. Yeah, she was never eating here again.
She continued, “If you check the fridge, I’m sure you will find Gérard’s other shoe.”
The officer walked to the fridge and yanked it open. There, on the floor, was the chef’s other slip-on shoe. Light blue and rubber, an unfortunate but comfortable fashion choice.
“Notice the crate near the shoe,” she said. “That’s where the killer stood while she strangled him.”
“She,” Cécile said with a gasp. “I knew it.”
Gérard’s wife released her brother, Pierre, and attempted to lunge at Bernadette, who cowered behind Jason Dowd.
“Why would the waitress murder the chef?” the granny wanted to know.
“She’s not a waitress at all,” Josie stated. “She served tea from the right. An item which needs to be selected by the diner should always be served from the left. Gérard would have insisted she be trained properly. And so would have Pierre.”
They turned to look at the maître d who now began cursing in French at the hapless Bernadette.
“Listen, Frenchie, I don’t understand what you and your so-called sister are always jabbering about, but leave me out of it,” Bernadette shouted. She ripped off her apron and threw it on the floor.
“So they’re not siblings!” Sherman exclaimed.
“I really thought they were, too,” the Chinese man said, nodding in commiseration.
“My bad,” Josie said. “I don’t speak French.”
“But I didn’t kill him,” Bernadette said as she struggled to get away from Jason Dowd. He grasped her arm firmly and didn’t let go even when she popped him in the eye with her fist.
“No,” Josie said in agreement. “You didn’t kill him.”
“Then who did?” the granny asked.
“You did,” Josie said.
Jason Dowd’s nose wrinkled again. If he did it a third time, she was going to kick him in the shins.
“Oh dear,” the granny said. “I’m afraid you’ve gone off the deep end.”
“Really?” Josie said. “You’re wearing a cloche and you’re dressed like Miss. Marple. You’re not even old enough to have been around in World War II, lady. Even if you were a 15 year-old Nazi seducer, that would make you about 83 years old. You’re in your late 60s, tops.”
“I have…good genes,” the granny said.
“Yeah, good enough that you look exactly like Bernadette here. What are you, her mother or her grandmother?”
“For your information, I’m her aunt,” the granny said, removing her hat. And yes, as she stood up straighter, it was more apparent to the observer that she was younger than she originally appeared.
“But she couldn’t have killed him,” the stouter man of the gay couple said. “She was at her table the entire time.”
“Aha, but remember,” his partner said. “Gérard was killed earlier in the day.”
“And why was he stabbed with the knitting needle if he was already dead?”
“That was just for spite,” Bernadette admitted. “I hated the loser, but I didn’t kill him.”
“Conspiracy to commit murder,” Josie told her.
“Semantics,” the girl shrugged. “I’m under eighteen. I’ll go to juvie and have my record expunged later.”
“Good luck with that,” Josie said, rolling her eyes. She nodded to the officer, who stepped forward and cuffed the girl.
Another officer clicked the handcuffs on the granny, who was spitting mad now.
“He owed me money, too. He said he would never pay it back. And I was going to get it, one way or another. I wanted my money and I was going to collect it, even if it had to be paid in blood.”
“Do we really want to know why he owed her money?” the Chinese man asked, shaking his head.
“Oh, yes! I do,” Sherman said.
“I have the finest stable of girls in all of New England,” the granny shouted. “Mark my words. I’ll be out of jail by morning. No cell can hold me. No judge can convict me. If you knew the things I knew about this city…”
They all eyed Bernadette.
“Don’t look at me,” she said. “I’m not a call girl. She’s my actual aunt. Like, by blood. Seriously, have some respect for yourselves, girls.”
“Oh thank God.” Cécile sobbed as they carted away the two women. “I thought we would never be free of them. They wanted the money, and we didn’t have it. They kept threatening and threatening. It was horrible.”
“Enjoy your freedom while it lasts,” Josie told her. “You’re going to jail for strangling your husband.”
Cécile shrieked and tried to get away, but Jason Dowd, eye swollen shut now, had been relieved of restraining Bernadette and could now put his iron grip on the murderous widow’s arm.
“I thought the old lady did it,” Sherman said. He’d taken his pipe out of his pocket and was chewing on the end.
“She commissioned the crime. She tightened the screws on Cécile until Cécile agreed to kill him.”
“Those are man’s shoe prints on his back,” the Chinese man protested.
“Gérard always changed from street shoes into his clogs when he came into the restaurant,” Josie said. “You can find his shoes by the door behind you. And you’ll find that the prints on his back match his shoes exactly.”
“But she’s so much smaller than Gérard,” Sherman said.
Josie led them over to the walk-in fridge, this time catching a faint whiff of Cécile’s stale cigarette breath. “That’s why she stood on a crate and planted both feet in the center of his back, strangling him until he died.”
Collectively, they all shuddered.
She continued, “He and Cécile were not only at the mercy of mob debt collectors, but at…er…Madam Marple’s as well. Judging by the fact that Cécile and Pierre are lovers and that Gérard was broken up by the pending divorce, I suspect she agreed to kill her husband in order for the debt to be erased. She would collect on what is probably a substantial amount of life insurance, and also to be with her lover without a divorce.
“That small part is true,” Cécile admitted over her shoulder as she was being led away, alongside her lover and co-conspirator, Pierre, who had been, actually, a very fine maître d. “I’m Catholic. I don’t believe in divorce.”
“Only murder,” Josie said, rolling her eyes again. She turned to the Chinese man and the gay couple, as they were exchanging phone numbers so they could meet for a gallery opening in the coming week. “The butler doesn’t always do it. It’s more often the spouse.”
“I never expected dinner and a show,” the taller, more wiry man of the gay couple exclaimed, throwing an arm across his partner’s shoulder.
“We need to switch you to decaf, Sherman. A man is dead.”
Josie searched the kitchen and found her strappy second-hand shoes on the floor by the sink. The last officer had rolled off in his patrol car. Only technicians were left, processing the scene. Jason Dowd, Mr. Secret Agent Man or whoever he was, had disappeared. So much for an instant love connection. She’d been used as a mere prop in the whole escapade.
“At least he didn’t stick me with the check,” she muttered, as she called a cab. Her stomach growled. “Italian food it is, then.”
I hope you enjoyed this farcical folly and my parade of pioneer fictional detectives–Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, and Charlie Chan.
Happy Hearts and Flowers Day.
Other free Josie Tucker short stories on my blog:
Mama Mia (present day)
Day of the Dead Chick (high school)
Slay Bells Ring (college)