Friday, December 6, 2013

Oliver's by Parnell Stultz

Oliver Wren's dream of running his own restaurant is soured by his scheming ex-wife - and events escalate when he meets ambitious and devious chef Carl; by Parnell Stultz.

On the day the President of the United States met an untimely end, Oliver Wren woke with the kind of food-hangover only a chef could manage. He shifted under his thin blanket, aware that each little movement exacerbated the delicate balance keeping his gorge from rising beyond the point of no return. A stale, almost charred smell lingered in the still air around his bed; it was more than he could stomach.

As he stumbled to the bathroom, Oliver kept one hand over his mouth, and the other cupped delicately beneath his chin. The bathroom floor imparted a cold absence of sympathy as he knelt before the commode, expelling the remnants of a surprise birthday dinner the night before in which his partner and relatively new head-chef, Carl, had been in charge of both the menu and the cocktails.

The charred smell renewed its assault on his senses as he stepped from the bathroom. He'd showered quickly, wanting only to get the day started so it could be over as soon as possible. Steam billowed above his head, its reassuring, soapy aroma clashing instantly with what Oliver now recognized as evidence of his ground floor neighbor's affection for deep-fried cuisine, and her inability to tell the difference between well done and prematurely fossilized. He slipped into fraying khaki slacks and a clean white t-shirt, reflecting that his neighbor, Mrs. Able, would probably think nothing of deep-frying cereal before adding milk.

He could easily imagine the conflicts awaiting him over the course of his day. First there was Mrs. Able, who, in all fairness, was not deliberately trying to annoy him; then Carl, and just how many more changes would Carl make to the business which had once been Oliver's baby? Maybe Sara would pop by, at some point, to complain that his last alimony check had bounced (it shouldn't have, he was fairly certain).

He took care to lock his door as he left, and the last image Oliver saw, as he turned the corner onto Concord Avenue, was Mrs. Able, leaning out of her kitchen window and depositing the morning's spent grease behind a very unhealthy looking camellia bush.

As he walked, Oliver tried not to think about his divorce or its many consequences. Irreconcilable differences? As far as he knew the only differences Sara had not been able to reconcile were the many instances when Oliver would not knuckle-under to her every whim as far as his restaurant was concerned. He also strongly suspected she was banging her plastic surgeon, and had filed for divorce before he could do more than entertain a suspicion of it.

The Douglas fir trees which marked his lot stood in the distance. It made him smile to remember how Sara had gone on and on about how ugly they were and how, if he were smart, he would chop them down. They were easily the tallest feature of the terrain for miles, and were continually employed as visual aids for those restaurant-goers who found themselves confused by San Francisco's landscape. Sara wanted him to replace the stately evergreens with cold hardy palms and tropical plants. Oliver drew near to his lot and allowed himself sigh of relief for not giving in to her.

He passed under his restaurant's modest sign, looking up as he did: Oliver's. It was simple and tasteful, and not at all what Sara had wanted. Long nights of drab business calculation, and many arguments with Sara - who would be the head chef - produced a menu that would not rebuke a daring proletarian, yet still have the allure of regality to attract the upper class. The restaurant had been a success despite Sara's best efforts to over complicate it.

It had been a success, at least, until the cold reality of divorce came home to him. Thanks to California's many absurd laws, he'd been forced to shed every last bit of property - his house, his car, even his golf clubs - to retain ownership of his business. He was forced to take a fifty percent mortgage out on the restaurant in order to make the payments to his lawyer and stay afloat. Naturally, with the divorce came the resignation of the restaurant's head chef. His transition from owner/commis to running the kitchen was the worst kind of temporary fix. He'd been fortunate that his sous-chef, Evan, was reliable enough to handle the expediting, and allow Oliver to concentrate on not screwing up everything that came through his station. He knew he could cook, that was never the issue, but the business model had been based around him as the owner and someone else in charge of the kitchen. Business flagged, and Oliver quickly found himself in the desperate position of either mortgaging the rest of his property, or filing for Chapter Eleven. It was during this crucial period that Carl turned up with a third option.

Oliver had been in a tavern - that he couldn't remember which was an unwelcome reminder of his state of mind at the time - drowning his woes with gin, when a tall, waspishly thin young man with heavy, black rimmed glasses and an easy smile sat down beside him and offered to buy his next drink. Thinking back, the whole scenario was far too convenient to have been a casual accident. Though he probably would never find out who had led Carlton Thorn to that bar, or filled him in on all of Oliver's financial problems, the set-up worked.

Carl could schmooze with the best of them - Oliver had to give him that much. Carl confided his problems with his employer at the time, Chez Panisse, saying offhandedly that Oliver's was a far better restaurant in the fundamentals. His rant became a little commercial about how the name Carlton Thorn coupled with a fast rising new restaurant could only bring good things. He'd laughed at his own charisma, admitted he'd been running away with himself, and began at once to fume about San Francisco's real-estate prices.

It still stung that it had been he, Oliver, who suggested the partnership. Perhaps an excess of gin allowed him to ignore how easily things fit together. It turned out that Carl had just enough money saved to buy out the fifty percent Oliver owed to his lender (actually it was Carlton Thorn senior who would foot the bill, but Oliver would not find that out until much later). Though the deal saved him from bankruptcy, and provided a viable replacement head-chef, it was one he would quickly grow to regret.

As he strolled through his property, along the path that eschewed the parking lot and led to the rear entrance of the restaurant, his expression darkened at the unkempt state of his lot. In only three short weeks since the deportation of Pedro - his dutiful, dedicated groundsman - the overall shine of the landscaping had dimmed with neglect. Piles of yellowing pine needles clogged the gutters and mixed with heaps of soggy live-oak leaves, a collaboration which obscured the flagstone path beneath his feet. Here and there, encouraged by the returning rain and without the indomitable Pedro to see to their removal, patches of fungus crowded together in those recesses where moisture could collect easily.

Oliver let himself in through the massive metal door at the rear of the building, and frowned at the black space that met him. Shouldn't Evan or Leslie or - God forbid - Carl, have turned up by now to get the restaurant machine chugging away? He switched on the lights, prepared to find a minor catastrophe lurking in the cool darkness, but was mistaken. It pleased him to see that, even though they'd partied well into the morning hours the night before, the kitchen gleamed with cleanliness, and every table within view through the huge slab of glass separating the kitchen from the dining area was a picture of work not put off.

"Had to be Evan," said Oliver in a whisper. "That kid can have Carl's job when I finally find a way to get rid of him."

After rummaging in his desk drawer, Oliver found a single tablet of Alka-Seltzer in a battered sleeve and a bottle of Tylenol with a few capsules left to rattle within. Oliver leaned back in his chair, rubbing his eyes, the thinning salt and pepper hair at his temples, and concluded with a delicate probe of his pate to see if those follicles, entrenched on the front lines of his scalp, had given way to the great retreat that had been underway since his divorce. Hmm, thought Oliver, hard to tell without a mirror. His eyes lingered for a moment on the schedule taped to the wall next to his desk, and though something seemed wrong with it, an eruption of noise from out in the parking lot prevented him from identifying the anomaly.

Oliver had not unlocked the front door of his own restaurant since its opening, nearly four years before, and he was momentarily distracted from the industrial crashing and banging when his momentum collided with the unyielding barrier. A few moments of grumbling, and a few more of locating the right key, finally led him to a scene he would later wish he'd avoided.

Several people stood near the base a cherry picker, watching as a gruff man unbolted the regally unassuming Oliver's sign from its hold. It was on the tip of Oliver's tongue to start shouting at them to stop when he recognized Carl among the throng. In his hesitation, Oliver had another few seconds of ignorance before he realized the woman standing nearby - with her cosmetically refined derrière clasped in the grip of Carl's right hand - was his ex-wife. The shock receded slowly, and the combination of Alka-Seltzer and Tylenol progressively assumed a sinister weight in his belly.

One moment found him back in the familiar position, kneeling before the toilet, and the next found him standing at the mirror, splashing water onto his pale face. Again and again, his gaze danced around the room only to return to itself; the glaring dusty green of each iris asked a question and seemed to get an answer.

A plan occurred to him in a rush as if his subconscious had been working on it for months. His only concern was that no one would ever find Carl's body. Oliver went over the inventory of needed tools with a numb attention to detail: the long filet, and butcher's knives, the sausage grinder and pate press, the butchers block located conveniently above a floor drain that conveyed every drop of legitimate restaurant blood into the San Francisco sewers, even the butcher paper for wrapping the meat and little yellow stickers that announced: "Fresh Ground - Extra Lean," with no intended irony.

"Carl is a lean one... mm-hmm!" said Oliver with a smile.

His final elation came when, reclining at ease in his office chair, his eyes returned to the work schedule, and he remembered: Sunday. At Carl's behest, Oliver had finally agreed to keep the restaurant closed on Sundays. For one reason or another it seemed to be the slowest day for business, and the point could not be argued that closing for one day a week would save money. Pearly white teeth appeared between Oliver's smiling lips.

"Now that was a brilliant idea, Carl. Yes indeed."

"Brilliant? Me?"

The abrupt presence at Oliver's office door was so unexpected that he nearly fell out of his chair.

"Whoa, take it easy, partner. I didn't mean to startle you," said Carl as he removed his spectacles and started cleaning the lenses with his shirt in a studious way. What had Carl heard? Oliver couldn't even remember what he'd been thinking, let alone what he'd said out loud. Carl finished with his glasses. "So let's hear some more about how brilliant I am, never get tired of hearing it."

"Brilliant?" asked Oliver, casting back, looking for a thread of memory to tug on. "Oh, yea uh, the schedule was what I meant. A good idea to close today, though I completely forgot about it." Oliver shrugged and tried to look casual before he remembered that nothing had happened which wasn't hidden safely away in his head.

"Yea," said Carl, now cleaning grit from under his fingernails, "I saw the light was still on, and I came to shut it off. I never expected you'd be here."

Oliver could find no response, and the silence began to drag uncomfortably before Carl said, "So the new sign should be ready to go in an hour. It's pretty much how I described it last night."

Another pain in Oliver's gut wrenched the left side of his face into a grimace. Carl did not miss a beat.

"It's what we agreed on, and I really think the name will grow on you."

Carl was forever doing this, and Oliver concealed his irritation with an effort.

"I seem to recall that I agreed to a new sign, eventually. That you would look into it and get back to me, and if I decided I didn't like the new name, we'd come up with something else." Oliver's voice was low, but the monotone timbre was unmistakable in its implication. Carl bristled, but obviously had his spiel ready to go.

"Yea, but you should see this sign. It's beautiful, really classy. And I decided to foot the bill, myself. I figured it was my idea, so why should it have to come out of the restaurant funds? Besides, if you really hate it, we can always replace it."

Oliver imagined ramming a filet knife down Carl's throat every time his mouth popped open. Carl's argument was absurd. Imagine a gigolo raping a woman, who in response to the pleas of his victim says, "Yes but I'm just about the best lay in town, and after all I'm not going to charge you, am I? Besides, if you decide you don't like it, I won't rape you again."

Oliver's earlier fantasy of offing his partner by way of the "Fried Green Tomatoes" method of a country stew special became suddenly too real. The fury bubbling up in his stomach made it real; made him really want to do it. He couldn't butcher a person, not even one he loathed as much as the egomaniac standing five feet away, grinning at him. Also, he'd never enjoyed anything as much as owning a restaurant, and the tiniest little slip up - as he would be more than likely to commit - would lose him his life's work, and get him sent to prison. Oliver sighed, relieved to find that the temptation of homicide seemed to have passed.

"Are you okay? You're looking a little green." The concern in Carl's voice did not reach his eyes.

"Just a little hang-over. I think I'll whip myself up something to eat and head home."

Carl appeared to struggle with some internal turmoil before he said, "Hey, how's about this for a brilliant idea? I'll go see the folks outside. When the sign's up and ready to go, I'll come back and whip us up some brunch. When you're feeling better, we can go take a gander at the new sign and see what you think. If you don't like it, we can have it down first thing tomorrow morning. What do you say?"

"I say, I'd like to know what's on the menu."

Both Oliver's tone and expression were friendly, and now that his murderous plans were maturing from reckless fantasy into cold relief, he had never felt like such a traitor to himself.

"I was thinking omelets: cheese, sausage, mushrooms - the works! We have to finish off the last of those straw mushrooms. The vendor said they probably wouldn't last long."

A blurry memory from the night before prompted Oliver to ask, "Are those the same ones you used for the stuffed mushrooms, last night?"

Emotion finally touched Carl's eyes. "Yea, coconut crab, quick flambé on the baby leeks with some of that Solera-aged Sherry Brandy I brought back from Spain. Few herbs here and there - and presto! Those straw mushrooms take delicate handling, but I think I've..."

Oliver was used to tuning Carl out when he started gassing about his own greatness, and did it now effortlessly. The list of ingredients, techniques, and historical back-story would fill the next few minutes with self-important patter. Oliver loved the coconut crab, and suspected that Carl had used the roe as well, but those mushrooms were not as wonderful as Carl made them out to be. It was a constant clash between them that Carl tended to cram three or four obscure ingredients into a dish which only seemed to cater to the ego-eaters out there; people whose reaction to straw mushrooms was more of an attempt to continually start culinary revolutions, rather than to simply make something taste good. Oliver was not in favor of stagnation - think of the happy accident of blue cheese for example - but probably only a handful of people had ever bothered trying to cook with straw mushrooms, and, after tasting them, Oliver hoped it would stay that way.

"...the moisture gets locked into the mushrooms flesh. Mushroom liquor they call it!"

Oliver came back into the conversation, as he usually did, when it seemed that Carl was ebbing. "Sounds great, Carl. Just don't say liquor right now, okay? Kinda makes me feel a little queasy."

Carl was already moving towards the door, saying, "Hey, you're the boss." Then he was gone.

The office chair creaked anew as Oliver sat back into its familiar embrace. He could imagine his partner racing down to warn Sara that she needed to make herself scarce. Some of the anger began to bloom again in his belly, sending wafts of that particular primordial vapor to his brain that had always been the ether of foolish action. He was in no hurry as he retraced his steps and propped the heavy metal door open with a piece of wood. He moved among the live oaks, catching glimpses of the people down by the street as he went. Carl had just joined the group, and he immediately leaned in to whisper in Sara's ear. She gestured toward the restaurant, and when Carl nodded, she turned, walked across the street, and was lost to view.

The sight of her sudden, panicked departure was a single stray crystal in the bubbling caramel of his mind; now all was a solid block of geometric certainty. His eyes stung as the truth dawned on him: Sara was still trying to take every last thing he owned before she was through with him. This time the middleman wasn't her lawyer - she had a different shield to hide behind. Oliver could envision his hand clenching a butcher's cleaver, slamming the instrument into Carl's face until everything above the conniving bastard's neck was nothing but damp ribbon and shards of bone.

Hiding his tears with his hands, as if he were self-conscious of the surrounding trees, Oliver knelt in the wet leaves. The plastic, helpless sensation of impotence stole over him like plaster gone suddenly rigid in a mold. He just didn't have what it took to do such things. Even though he had been a chef for many years, he'd always managed to have someone else throw the live lobsters into the steamer. Once upon a time, when he'd been a simple prep-cook in his uncle's kitchen, there had been a month when Uncle Alston decided to buy a supply of live poultry and butcher it himself to save money. Oliver lost his breakfast after the first stroke of his uncle's hand left a white-feathered head squirming, wild eyed, at his feet. That had been in 1980, and not much more than the name of the restaurant had changed since.

It had been his own decisions which landed him in this trap. Worst of all was the knowledge that, rather than taking some desperate measure to improve his situation, he would be slinking back into what had once been his own kitchen to share a brunch with his own personal Antichrist. He wiped the tears away from his face, collected the rancid saliva awash in his mouth, and spat. When the arch of his phlegm came to rest amid the small clump of mushrooms, Oliver knew his slinking days would soon be over.

Pedro had warned him about the many mushroom patches growing helter-skelter around the property. Oliver crouched to inspect the ivory fungus growing just off the path and recalled the day, not long before, when he'd first seen Pedro spraying, and asked him what he was up to. Pedro responded simply that he was, "Keeling dayth caps, senior." When Oliver asked, with honest ignorance, if the death caps were poisonous, Pedro had laughed and gone on to explain that not only were the mushrooms deadly, but also, like most poisonous mushrooms, were also very hard to distinguish from their more benign cousins.

"Almost eny mushroom can make you sick if you eat too much," Pedro declared. "But see how the old caps look like dull, white metal? These kind, they keel you for sure!"

Oliver stood enough to see that, with the apparent absence of Sara, all the people who'd been down by the sign were still there. With trembling hands, he gently tugged the fungus from its purchase in the soft, black earth. Another glance down to the street assured his privacy. He did his best to smooth over the soil before making his way, crouching, back into the restaurant.

It was necessary to keep telling himself that he hadn't committed to anything yet. He would compare the death caps in his hands to the straw mushrooms in the fridge. If there was any possible way of telling one from another then the death caps would go straight into the garbage.

Oliver placed his burden on the prep counter, but was hesitant to turn his back even long enough to cross the six feet separating the counter from the lowboy fridge. The bowl of straw mushrooms was where it should have been. He stood for a moment, comparing one fungal fruit to another, and tried not to admit that, despite his revulsion, it pleased him to see just how close the resemblance actually was. The possibility that Carl might walk in any moment loomed over him like the shadow of a high gliding predator on a cloudless day. He cleaned off the dirt and trimmed away the root-like mass at the base of each mushroom. He tipped the leavings into the trash, and was about to do the same with what was left of the straw mushrooms, when Oliver felt a cold chill. In the bottom of the pristine black trash bag lay the kind of evidence that would led police investigators to start cracking there knuckles and rolling their eyes.

He had been careful not to smear the death caps with his fingers - not at all sure if it was even possible to leave fingerprints behind - but to simply dump the trimmings in an otherwise empty trash bag was inexcusable. He did his best to scoop out each little chunk and drop them, along with the straw mushrooms, into the garbage disposal. It took only a moment more to restore the wrapping on the bowl, and return it to the lowboy refrigerator.

Oliver chuckled nervously as he walked back to the office. He'd been so meticulous about keeping his fingerprints off of everything: the bowl, the mushrooms - it had even occurred to him to use a handkerchief to open the fridge door. He laughed again, feeling an odd lethargy steeling over him. After all, this was his restaurant. His fingerprints were supposed to be everywhere and they probably were, no way to get around it. The creak of his office chair was an invitation to close his eyes. As the minutes passed, his breathing took on the deliberate, rolling-egg rhythm, preceding sleep.

Nearly half an hour later the phone clamored suddenly to life. Oliver was more than mildly disoriented and the irritation was apparent in his voice when he snatched the receiver up and said, "Yes?"

The pause on the other end of the line gave him the impression that someone was about to try and sell him something. Oliver's hand poised just above the cradle, ready to end the call, when a youthful voice chirped in his ear. "Hello, this is Adrian Messenger, personal assistant to..."

Oliver interrupted, "Look kid, if you want to prank a restaurant try Chez Panisse."

The adolescent whit apparently had more to say, but the words became so-many-loose-vowels-in-a-row as Oliver returned the receiver to the cradle. He hit the scroll button and watched as an anonymous phone number lit up the small LCD display. Hmm, thought Oliver, not a local number. I wonder what he was selling?

For a few minutes Oliver sat in silence, trying to remember something that seemed important. He'd been dreaming - at least it seemed he had - and he was a whisper away from recalling the ephemeral something that nagged at him when the phone shattered his concentration once again. He checked the scroll, and was a little surprised to see the same number. The tiny numerals swam as his vision suddenly wavered. Abruptly, Oliver stood and walked out of his office, muting the sound of the ringing phone down to a murmur as he shut the door behind him.

"What? We're not answering the phone anymore?"

Carl stood at the large counter with all the fixings for an omelet ready for preparation: eggs, bacon, sausage, cheese, onions, and - mushrooms.

Oliver remembered. What had he done? This time his vision did more than waver. A snowstorm seemed to envelope him as his knees buckled. A moment later he was blearily aware that Carl had an arm around his chest and was walking him over to the nearest chair.

There had to be some way of getting out of this. Oliver's mind raced, but his thoughts became entangled in the throb of his heart which seemed to be pulsing in his head rather than his chest. Fortunately, Carl provided the way of escape.

"Hey, maybe we should skip the omelets? I think you need to be in bed. You're not looking too good."

Oliver nodded.

"How 'bout I call you a cab?"

Another nod.

"Great. You stay here, and I won't be a second."

Oliver had the impression Carl was just as relieved as he was to avoid the impromptu brunch. His partner whistled a tune as he walked away. Silly, Oliver thought, you're relieved that your stupidity isn't going to kill anyone - the coffee pot would probably seem relieved right now if you bothered to look.

Moments later Carl was back, "They say it'll be about fifteen minutes. Apparently, traffic is kinda messed up right now. I bet it's because of..." Carl's ebullience died abruptly as he stammered, "Uh, actually I have no idea why, but it'll be here soon. I'm just gonna clear up the omelet fixings. Too bad about those mushrooms - I suppose I'll have to trash them."

"Yes," Oliver agreed. "Too bad."

As Carl cleaned up the kitchen, Oliver went to one of the cozy four-top booths and reclined against the wall. Soon he would be back in his apartment, in bed, getting over this hang-over with 7up and split pea soup - well, maybe not the soup. All was not well, but all could be worse.

An abrupt rapping at the front door left a pulsating silence in its wake. The sound of whining fridge doors and clattering metal coming from the kitchen ceased. Carl appeared, wiping his hands on what looked like Evan's apron. Oliver followed in his wake as they both walked past the small bar and rounded the corner to the door. Two men stood behind the smoked glass, one slightly behind the other. The man in front, attired as a businessman in a navy colored suit and red tie, grinned politely with one hand extended to knock again. The man behind was dressed in somber contrast to his companion and looked like a mafia hit man.

Carl opened the door, and the man in front started forward, his had outstretched. "Adrian Messenger. Mr. Thorn?"

Carl took the offered hand, casting a swift glance in Oliver's direction as he nodded. Messenger wasted no time in offering his hand to Oliver in turn. "Adrian Messenger. Mr.?"

Oliver took the hand, but it was Carl who spoke. "Wren, Oliver Wren. Co-owner of the restaurant."

Messenger nodded, stepping into the foyer and aside to let his companion move past him. "Oh," he said, still addressing Oliver, "I'm glad to see you're feeling better Mr. Wren. This cuddly gentleman with me is Agent Monroe. I apologize for the miscommunication earlier, but our plans have changed and we will have to head back to Washington sooner than planned. Since we have less time than anticipated, I have brought the President and First Lady's orders with me. I'm sure you understand."

Oliver did not understand. Perhaps it was his hangover, or perhaps he was actually getting sick, but the whole scene was far too surreal to sink into his feverish mind. The President? He couldn't mean the President. In the minutes that followed, there were many opportunities for Oliver to ask the questions that would later plague his sleep. All he could manage, however, was to stand in silence and grow increasingly dumbfounded.

Messenger spoke while referring to a small notebook he'd plucked from his breast pocket.

"...requested to have lunch at Chisel's Café. A little research on my part led to the discovery that Chisel's Café closed in 2008, upon the demise of Alston Chisel. Mr. Chisel willed the property to one Oliver Wren, a nephew, who subsequently reopened the restaurant, Oliver's, in 2009." Messenger returned the notebook to his pocket.

"I explained the situation to the President, but he was adamant that no other locale would do. Apparently, some time ago, the President and the First Lady attended your uncle's restaurant, and - pardon the pun - they continue to relish the experience. They..."

Despite his deteriorated state, Oliver could smell the familiar stench of Carl's connivance. Only last week, Carl had insisted the restaurant be closed on Sundays. Last night, he broached the subject of a new sign. Today the sign was ready to go, and the President of the United States just happened to have a reservation in need of being moved up?

He must have missed something because, after a moment, he became aware that both Messenger and Carl had turned towards him with expectant looks in their eyes.

Oliver blinked. "I'm sorry. What was that?"

"I asked if it were possible to get two orders of Chisel's Fried Chicken ready in the next half an hour or so. Mr. Thorn has just informed me it has been off the menu for a while."

Oliver looked from Messenger to his partner and back again. Messenger's boyish face contained a no-nonsense expression imploring a straight, yes-or-no answer. Carl, on the other hand, looked desperate for some answer in particular. Oliver thought he could guess the answer Carl wanted him to give, and chose the opposite.

"Of course!" he said brightly, feeling a surge of relief at the stricken look on Carl's face. "Though my partner might not know my uncle's recipe, I worked here for years. I was probably the one who cooked the meal they remember."

He still felt ill, still weak in the knees, and stuck in a preposterously surreal situation, but now that he had his feet back under him, Oliver knew he could make this situation work for him. Carl had tried to pull a fast one, and they both knew it. More importantly, Carl knew he knew. This sudden leverage was something solid to cling to, and it gave Oliver's constitution a boost.

Messenger smiled. "I'm glad to hear it!" he said, and turned to Agent Monroe who hadn't moved during the conversation. "How long before you and Agent Scott can complete the security sweep, Frank?"

The dour agent's lips barely parted as he said, "Give it fifteen minutes, sir."

"Can you folks manage about forty-five minutes of cooking time? I apologize for the rush." Messenger leaned towards the two chefs, his expression confidential. "It's a grind for them to do their schedule and enjoy themselves. The First Lady is really looking forward to this, you understand."

They all nodded in turn, even the stolid agent Monroe gave a curt little flex of his neck as if putting his stamp on the end of the exchange.

"Well," said Oliver, "let's get to it, Carl."
vOliver would eventually speak to Carl about his chicanery; nothing nasty, but he would confront the situation head-on, and he looked forward to watching the expressions on Carl's face as he did so.

His fantasy of smearing the cunning little bastard with his own stain was quickly conceived during Messenger's rundown of the simple meal requests, and just as quickly dissolved the moment Oliver entered the kitchen and spied the bowl of mushrooms sitting on the prep counter.

"This is an unacceptable security risk, you know?" said a sharp voice.

He had taken a step towards the bowl - nothing to lose by simply chucking them in the garbage and going on about his business - but he froze at the rigid sound of unseen authority.
v"You can move, you know. It is your kitchen. Breathing is ok too." The voice softened with the addition of feminine amusement.
vCould he move? Oliver was not so sure. He tested the idea by turning his head just enough to glimpse the perpetrator of this intrusion.

Agent Scott might have been attractive without the pallbearer attire. She wore her black hair pulled back in a severe little bun that stretched the skin at her temples. She was nearly as tall as he, with a slender figure that advertised diet and exercise rather than rhinoplasty and liposuction. Under less trying circumstances, he might have been moved to wonder how she might look in a dress.

"It's a really bad idea to leave this door open," she said as she kicked the small block of wood free of the jam and watched the large metal door swing closed. "Hello," she said, turning back to them. "I'm Regina Scott."

Oliver held out his hand. Her grip was firm, but not overly aggressive. In his office, the phone suddenly clattered to life and demanded attention. Both she and Carl stood watching, waiting for him to do the obvious. As Oliver moved away, Carl extended his own hand to her, but was rebuffed when she held a finger to her ear and said, "Yes sir, I'll be right there. Please excuse me gentlemen."

There was no way to casually throw the mushrooms away until after the phone call had been dealt with. His first idea was to simply raise and lower the receiver, then take it off the hook, but Messenger and Agent Monroe had also heard the phone, and had stopped him long enough to warn him that the President's impending visit was not appropriate subject matter for conversation until after the visit's conclusion. They all stood in a clump just outside Oliver's door. There was no question they were eavesdropping to keep him from saying anything stupid.

"Oliver's."

"Hiya there. This is William Marsh from the San Francisco Tribune. I'm trying to get in touch with Carl Thorn? He placed an ad in the upcoming edition, and..." the voice paused chuckled, then said, "Actually it's the spelling in the ad that's the problem. This Sil-pee-on Grove, thingy, was written down by my assistant, and I just wanted to verify before..."

"Mr. Thorn is not available at the moment and we're closed today so please call back some other time. Good bye."

The air swam around him as Oliver headed back toward the kitchen. He could feel the sweat on his neck threatening to drop down his back like the trace of an icy finger. This had to be more than hangover. This was the flu, or something like it.

Messenger stopped him en-route, and had a few words with him about proper etiquette with the Presidential couple. He asked Oliver to send Carl in for a similar lecture when there was time for it. When he entered the kitchen, Carl was well into his gourmet style coleslaw, having been obliged to shock the cabbage so it would taste as if it had been allowed time to cure. Oliver looked over the regiment of ingredients on the counter: one whole chicken already butchered, a large vat of stock, a few of the obvious spices, buttermilk, and dry goods were all arranged neatly, ready for his contribution of Chisel's Fried Chicken and country biscuits - but no bowl of mushrooms. He made a round of the kitchen as casually as he could, and was delighted to find the bowl in the sink, empty but for a few little bits of fungus.

They worked in silence. Oliver had not made biscuits in some time, but managed a good consistency despite the overall ache that was his body. Carl put the finishing touches on the requested potatoes, and announced that a smoke break would do him some good. Oliver forgot to relay Messenger's request and remembered only when the President's assistant stuck his head into the kitchen to let Oliver know a cab had arrived, but that he, Messenger, had taken care of the misunderstanding, and sent it on its way.

There had been a remnant of Chisel's Fried Chicken on the menu when Carl started his occupancy, but it was deconstructed from the classic, and nowhere near as heavy as the original dish. Oliver knew his uncle's recipe and it was bound to have been what made such an impression on the Presidential-couple-to-be. Though Carl had provided the obvious spices, the last and most necessary ingredient was in the back of the cabinet, almost at arm's length. Oliver pulled the tiny, unadorned glass jar out and examined it. Within lay a small brown glob - almost tacky enough to cling to the glass when he turned it in the light. In no time at all, Oliver finished the batter and the chicken, parboiled in chicken stock and ground celery seed, lay steaming on the counter. Once the peanut oil in the deep-fryer started emitting slight wisps of smoke, Oliver opened the anonymous jar he'd retrieved from the depths of the spice cabinet, and used a butter knife to extract a tiny amount of the brown substance which he eased into the hot oil.

He'd tried to hold his breath, but as soon as he uncapped the jar the smell permeated the room. The combination of its rancid, rotten assault, and the clinging presence of hot oil turned to vapor, caused an uncomfortable flashback to Mrs. Able and her olfactory intrusion on his morning. His gag reflex made another cameo, then another. Finally, despite himself, Oliver wretched, but thankfully was able to control of himself with a few splashes of cold water on his face.

Suddenly, agents Monroe and Scott entered the kitchen, followed closely by Messenger. Both agents had a hand inside their black sport coats and took immediate positions on either side of Oliver to prevent any thought of escape. Messenger's face was ashen as he strode over to the counter, picked up the little jar, and sniffed.

"Just what the hell do you think you're doing, Mr. Wren?" he asked, barely able to mask his revulsion at the stench. He did not wait for an answer. "Getting arrested, that's what you're doing!" He waved the jar in Oliver's face. "Do you think you can sneak this - filth - into the President's food and get away with it?"

Even agent Monroe winced slightly as the unwholesome fragrance reached his nostrils.

"Mr. Messenger, you've made a mistake. It's just..."

"The hell I have! You've been caught on camera!" He turned and pointed at a tiny spy camera about the size of halved pencil, positioned to afford a view of the main cooking area. "We have you recorded, and we have this!" He waved the jar in the air.

"No, please," Oliver pleaded. "It's a spice. It's supposed to..."

"Then eat it!" barked Messenger. "You can eat this now, or I'll have you up on charges before the day is out!"

"No, you can't just eat it." Oliver tried to laugh good-naturedly and instantly wished he hadn't. "I'll eat some chicken when it's done but..."

"This is not funny, sir!" Messenger's face had gradually bloomed into a single scarlet blotch save for two peculiar white crescents of flesh beneath his eyes.

"What's going on here?" Carl, now finished with his cigarette, entered just in time to witness Adrian Messenger's outburst. "Mr. Messenger, please tell me what this is all about."

"Your partner was attempting to spike the President's food with... with feces! See for yourself!" He thrust the jar into Carl's hands.

Carl blinked, genuinely surprised, and lifted the jar to his nose. Though he obviously found the smell distasteful, everyone but Oliver was shocked when he laughed.

"What? What, the... hell?" Messenger sputtered incoherently.

Carl held up a silencing hand, still laughing.

"You're half right. Our dear Mr. Wren was indeed spiking the President's food with dung. The problem is that it's the Devil's Dung!"

Messenger continued to emit vaguely feral noises in his agitation.

"Mr. Messenger, please relax. There is nothing sinister going on here. This is one example of dung that belongs in food."

At last, Messenger found his voice. "But he refused to eat it!"

"Yes," responded Carl, "and I can't say I blame him. This stuff is easily the most potent spice that you could find in a chef's cabinet, and most of us don't ever use it. It's called asafetida; gives a mellow flavor of garlic or onions - but not really like either - when a small amount is heated in oil."

Carl set the jar aside and sniffed his fingers, wincing slightly.

"It's called the Devil's Dung for reasons that must seem obvious. Go smell the oil if you like. I guarantee, had Oliver just dumped a turd into that oil, it would not smell like garlic in here right now." He turned to Oliver with a grin. "Quite the unique addition to fried chicken; I'll have to keep it in mind given the restaurant's new name."

Messenger did indeed take a sniff near the oil, then, jar in hand, he strode from the room, pulling his cell phone out of his pocket as he went. He was absent for less than three minutes while everyone stood in place. The agents resolutely refused to meet Carl or Oliver's gaze. When the boyish assistant returned, his expression was cold, but contrite.

"Gentlemen, I hope you understand it's our job not to take chances. I've been able to confirm your story, but I will be keeping this, asa-fetida, just to make sure. It will be returned in the fullness of time. Please accept my apology."

"No, I understand," said Oliver. "I'll bet if I had a look at the recording the whole thing would look pretty bad."

Messenger accepted the entreaty as gracefully as an embarrassed man could be expected to, reminding them of the short amount of time left to finish. Oliver busied himself with the last stages of his task. Gradually, the familiar though long absent smell of Chisel's Fried Chicken permeated throughout the room, nudging all other less confident smells into abeyance.

Carl strode into the kitchen holding a long white garment which he shoved into Oliver's hands. "They're here. If you wanna' make yourself presentable, I'll put this chicken in the oven. Unless you have any more secret ingredients that need to be added?"

Oliver shook his head. "Check my biscuits," he said, striding into his office.

Once he was behind the closed door, Oliver leaned against the cool, stone wall. He did not move until it occurred to him that he was probably being watched by another security camera. He glanced around and, sure enough, there it was, clinging to the underside of his lamp like a sleek technological tumor. He put on his chef's whites and left the door open behind him.

The clamor that met his ears had the military feel of controlled chaos: many feet thumping, doors opening, but not a single word uttered. Messenger stepped forward, looking him up and down with approval, but he frowned upon reaching Oliver's pale, sweating face. When he moved toward the foyer, he gestured for Oliver to follow.

The expected security escort of dark-suit-and-dark-glasses clones preceded the President and The First Lady. Oliver found, even with his mounting illness, he was excited, and couldn't help leaning slightly this way and that to get a glimpse.

He had seen the both of them on television, but the President seemed shorter, more pallid, and thinner in the shoulders than Oliver recalled ever seeing him represented. His wife beamed and glanced, without self-consciousness, around the room with a look of pleasure in her eyes. She approached Oliver directly and clasped his proffered hand in both of hers.

"Mr. Wren, I'm so grateful that you have gone out of your way for us today. I'm so sorry to hear about your uncle."

He thanked her for her kindness, saying he was honored, all the while feeling a little light-headed and disoriented. The President waited politely for the end of the pleasantries. When he shook hands, his grip was firm and dry - a politician's handshake honed with years of practice. When he spoke, his slight country drawl had the effect of putting Oliver at ease.

"You may not believe it, Mr. Wren," said the President, "but, even with as much time as we've spent in the South, The First Lady and I still compare good home-style cooking to Chisel's Café." He paused, a measured silence that seemed to be a practiced amount of time for the compliment to sink in. "We're sorry to rush in and out like this," he said, nodding at his assistant, "but duty calls."

Messenger stepped forward to herd them all to the chosen table.

"It's our pleasure, Mr. President. May I get you both something to drink?"

Oliver felt a pang of irritation when they both asked for iced tea. Tea and coffee were staples of restaurant libation, and he should have had both going before starting on the food.

He returned to the kitchen with Agent Scott trailing silently behind. Carl had the biscuits cooling upside down on a rack, and was busy tearing open several bags black tea which he then crammed into a French press. He looked up and rolled his eyes.

"Yea, I heard."

It amused Oliver to see his partner's obvious distress; the day just wasn't going as Carl had planned. Carl mashed the tea until it bore a dark amber hue then added it to two glasses of ice. With lemon wedges in place, he turned, nearly running into Agent Scott as he did, and only just managed to avoid spilling the fresh tea down the front of his absurdly embroidered chef's whites.

"It's not a good idea to stand right behind a chef," said Oliver.

A sneer curled Carl's lip, but he managed to sound normal as he said, "It's okay, just give me a few more feet in the future, if you please, Agent Scott." The glasses of tea jiggled as Carl's anger caused his arms to shake. Oliver plucked the tray out of his grip before Carl could protest. "I'll play waiter while you get the plates ready," he said, already striding out of the kitchen.

As Oliver placed the tea on the table, he realized it had been nearly twenty years since the last time he's performed the duties of a waiter - back when the sign had said: Chisel's Café, and Uncle Al had been the boss.

He was returning to the kitchen when Carl, a covered plate in hand, strode jauntily into the dining room. Ignoring Oliver's questioning look, Carl swept up to the table, whipped off the tray's cover with a flourish, and said, "May I offer you an appetizer? A Silphion Grove specialty!"

Messenger stepped up to make the introductions, "May I introduce Carlton Thorn, head chef here at Oliv... uh, the Silphion Grove, and Mr. Wren's partner."

Oliver stood transfixed by the sight of the lovingly prepared stuffed mushrooms. No emotion in his life could compare with the blind panic that enveloped him. He couldn't move, couldn't breathe - thinking was out of the question. All he could do was stare like a captive audience as the President made his compliments and started eating. The First Lady declined, saying something to the effect that she had only budgeted the fried chicken into her diet, though it was clear she didn't care for mushrooms.

Carl returned the empty plate to the tray and sauntered off, returning moments later with the main course. Oliver stood a discreet distance away, trying to avoid the gaze of the secret service agents, but they were everywhere; a whole room full of intrusive, relentlessly observant eyes, bearing, as a group, the hallucinogenic quality of an Alfredo Arreguin painting. Oliver had no idea how long the poison would take to start working. It did not seem unlikely for the President to start frothing and gasping before he'd finished his meal.
He didn't watch, but only listened to the discreet sounds of consumption - waiting. Carl stood nearby, speaking in low tones to the President's assistant, though Oliver did not - could not - follow the conversation. Time was liquid and strange, and it seemed like only moments later when Carl gathered the empty plates and glasses, schmoozing at every opportunity, and invited the prestigious couple to return the next time they were in San Francisco.

Oliver accepted the praise given to him as cold sweat dripped from his armpits and pooled around his waist. Later he would wonder if his demure attitude would be considered suspicious, and could only hope they had thought he was acting modest in contrast to Carl's enthusiasm.

As the restaurant deflated of both agents and politicians, Messenger waited, murmuring his thanks, clearly ready to get on the move. He handed Oliver a check, and was gone.

That evening the country learned on the Nightly News that the President had taken ill; nothing to worry about, just a common flu bug, or so said the report. Oliver's own health did not benefit from the vice of tension which was almost as debilitating as the ache in his bones. Within twenty-four hours the announcement was made to a shocked American populace: the President had expired.

The investigation was not as straightforward as Oliver might have expected. It turned out the President had ordered several meals which included mushrooms - two of the potential restaurants were in San Francisco, and one in Sacramento - all within a twenty-four hour period. Oliver had scarcely crept from his bed since he'd left the restaurant, when investigators arrived at his apartment to question him. They found him nearly delirious. His only recollection afterwards was of being caught in a snowstorm centered on his bed. The investigation came to an end before he'd been released from the hospital.

The two prime suspects were Carlton Thorn and Ahmed Zhyfur, a sous-chef at the restaurant the Presidential couple had attended in Sacramento. Zhyfur, a Muslim, seemed gift wrapped for the investigators until Carlton Thorn's mushroom vendor proved impossible to locate. Polygraph tests were administered, Zhyfur passed with flying colors. Carl's test was inconclusive and another was ordered. They released Carl to go home - his father more than likely had pulled a few strings - and he took his own life a few hours later by way of a bottle of very expensive Spanish Brandy and a shotgun. Though he left no note, his father told investigators his son had been despondent, saying no one would ever trust his food again, no matter how well things might turn out.

The following day, the doctors diagnosed Oliver's illness as methanol poisoning, though, by then, most of America had decided on Carl as the assassin, and didn't really need the extra grist for the rumor mill. A thorough ransacking of the restaurant and Oliver's apartment turned up nothing - he didn't even keep isoprophal-alcohol in his medicine cabinet. However, a search of Carlton Thorn's home kitchen produced not only a small quantity of pure methanol, but also several other industrial solvents which he had apparently used in his experiments with molecular gastronomy. It was surmised that Carl had spiked his partner's wine with a very small amount of methanol during Oliver's birthday party as a method of keeping him away from the attempt to poison the President. His suicide was as good as a confession though it did not stop every major news station in the country from building up and destroying both Carl and Ahmed's personalities over the next few weeks. With the death of the primary suspect, the nation moved into mourning the loss of their fallen leader rather than lynching the guilty.

Oliver's name came up, of course, but always in association with Carl and the Silphion Grove restaurant (which no one in San Francisco had ever heard of). He declined lengthy interviews, saying only, "I am very disappointed with Mr. Thorn's decisions," which could not have been more true. It took several weeks for the journalists to stop calling. Oliver was always polite, lightly defending Carl to point out that no one really knew anything for sure, and he did not want to cast blame unduly, despite what had happened. All the while he kept the pathway to suspicion pointed directly at his former partner. He reminded them that several restaurants were under suspicion, and undue speculation would only further erode any chance that his business would recover from the tragedy. All of the footage shot at the restaurant mostly included the sign - Silphion Grove - with a dour faced reporter giving his spiel in the foreground and the background obscured by large fir trees. When it seemed the tide of attention had finally receded, Oliver replaced Carl's sign. Gradually, business began to return.

The winter passed with a very tight margin, but as spring returned, so did the patrons who were almost universally delighted to find Oliver's had reverted to its original menu. The spring brought another returnee to the restaurant one rainy March day when Evan knocked upon Oliver's office door and ushered in a former employee. Pedro had returned to the States after much effort and was asking after his old job. It was not until Evan excused himself that Pedro became grave and pulled out an old copy of the San Francisco Tribune.

"It says in here that, you say you know nothing of mushrooms." He paused, found the correct line, and read verbatim, "Only enough to feed my patrons. Carl was the one who handled all the fancy stuff."

Oliver had in no way been prepared for this insinuation, and he felt himself growing pale under the old man's gaze.

Pedro waved his hand dismissively, and smiled, "Do not worry. Your secret is safe with me... Partner."

2 comments:

  1. very good story with, for me, a completely unexpected twist at the end,
    which in a way seemed to even things out.
    well done

    Michael McCarthy

    ReplyDelete
  2. Nothing like a good twist at the end to top off a nice story!

    ReplyDelete