Attendance was steadily rising as Memorial Day drew near. On the kick off to Summer Mania, crowds would pour over the island, filling the beaches, shops and restaurants to capacity. In the meantime, French navigated the usual shifts and bumps of the pre-season as she prepared her operation to endure the onslaught.
Shed already dispatched her first staffing problem, otherwise, returning crew and the ringers shed gathered were beginning to find a rhythm.
Brian Gill, her sous chef of two summers was back. An extremely technically proficient, if uniquely unimaginative and unambitious young man. He was easily managed and posed no threat. If there was imagination going on in Frenchs kitchen, shed be the one doing it. Thats the way she liked it. Otherwise, Brian had a knack for reproduction. That ensured a good standard in the product when she wasnt on hand to micromanage the hairs on his head.
Andre Kaznovsky was her grille man. Another return performance. A grizzly bear of a man, with a spanking bald head. In his early forties, he looked something like a svelt professional wrestler. A physique that came in handy in his line of work. He dwarfed the whippet thin Chilli Marx, her Garde Manger, the guy who plated the salads and desserts. He had the fastest hands in town and rarely fell behind even on a busy night. Chilli was enthralled with the idea of being a chef. Even a brief chance to work another station made him ecstatic. He watched the next station up from his like a hawk, not just to learn, but for any weakness in its present occupant that might give him an opportunity to move up. French predicted hed go far. But not through any weakness on Sonny Martinezs part.
Sonny was a line cook, and a damn fine one at that. He not only had speed, but an uncanny knack of timing. Nothing ever burned when Sonny was on, nor was it overdone, it was always perfect. He had the drive and skill to make an excellent sous chef, and maybe one day a chef in his own right. But not in Frenchs kitchen, he was much too ambitious. He was already talking to another place in town about a possible advancement. Not a smart move this time of year and not smarter still to let it get back to her. In the meantime, he was great for keeping costs down and that was good for business.
If anyone needed to keep an eye out it was the other man on the line, Milo Ochoa. Hed been twitchy and distracted on and off since the season began. He kept up alright, but his breaks were longer than they should have been and hed dropped a couple of orders. Hed be fine for a few days, then it would start again. If he was using hed have to keep it under control or shed kick his sorry butt out the door and not look back. She also considered the possibility that something could be making him nervous. She hadnt heard that anything was going on, but she was listening all the same.
Miguel, a necessary evil, was back and would run the floor. Not for lack of trying, French hadnt discovered a viable alternative to waitstaff. Miguel was a specimen of that esoteric and endangered breed, the professional waiter. Shed hired him several summers back and for reasons unknown, hed returned ever since. Shed certainly given him reasons not to, but she wasnt going to argue with fortune. Some people were into pain, that wasnt her problem and she didnt mind benefiting from it.
Miguel, a tall, thirty-something cross between a Spanish noble and a Mayan prince, considered himself an irreplaceable asset to any operation. He may have been right. Youd certainly be hard pressed to find anyone who was as interested in and devoted to the finer points of food service.
On the business front, the summers first casualty had been a neighboring restaurant, The Fishermans Prize. It had gone up in a blaze two nights ago. Damn fryers were dangerous as hell. It was too close for comfort as far as French was concerned, the Prize was two buildings over on the Wharf. They were separated by the Grist Mill, a large stone industrial building that now housed a variety of tourist knick-knack shops and a sail loft. Take a lot of fire to get through that.
While shed keep her eye peeled, she didnt think itd been intentional. Of course, if Hal Mackney, the owner, thought she had anything to do with it, shed have to be on full alert.
Part of Frenchs brilliance running any scale venture was her ability to maintain focus not only in the face of adversity, but in its wake as well. Another part was keeping the adversity from coming up in the first place. Shed have to ask around quietly and make sure she was in the clear with Hal.
Keeping an operation like Bachanal running smoothly required a combination of skills unusual in one person. There were others who managed it, but rarely with such success. Frenchs energy was boundless, her ingenuity unparalleled, her attack relentless. Professional kitchens are known to be places of chaos and cacophony at best during a busy shift, an atmosphere under siege once or twice a day. Not Frenchs kitchen, and not her restaurant. She reserved a portion of her brilliance for the complex dance that was managing a rowdy bunch of personnel through the mayhem, with the right amount of positive reinforcement, in the form of a healthy paycheck and fear.
It had worked wonders for her through the years. She hadnt had too much trouble from uppity sous chefs or line cooks trying to walk off with her recipes or skim profits. She was a paranoid fiend where her recipes were concerned. But anyone with half a brain could see that taking her on wasnt worth the trouble. If the incentives to work for her werent so good, anyone with half a brain might also not risk it. But if you did, and you survived, you could make it anywhere. Even though she was reviled aplenty in the business, few would pass on an employee trained in her place. And then there was the extra buzz you got from the awed looks and free drinks from people looking for another good story about the notorious chef.
She told her staff at the beginning of each season, Its simple, you bust your ass for me, I make sure you leave with a pile of cash. Its a pretty good arrangement. And it was true, Bachanal was the highest earning restaurant on the Island. You worked your tail off and if you didnt spend it on benders in the ongoing summer party, you made a bundle. But French concluded with a warning, This isnt Cheers. Im not looking for friends, just good, professional staff. You pull your weight youre fine, you slack off, youre gone. Like I said, its simple.
Shed already lined up the crew and done the lecture bit. Things were holding steady for her emotionally, tenuously. Until a couple of days before the big show got under way, when Dil Mackenzie, Mac to his friends if hed had any, showed up in her kitchen and started asking questions. Itd gone to pot pretty quickly after that.
Dil Mackenzie was one of the many burned out chefs whod settled on the island. Once their dream job turned on them, theyd pick up a civilian job. Detective Dil Mackenzie wanted to know where shed been last night? Was it true she knew Louisa Millet, and when was the last time shed seen her? When French told him he might want to readjust himself in someone elses kitchen, he indicated that she could answer these questions downtown. She responded with a couple of choice epithets, unnerving Dil. In a show of bravado, he approached her at her cutting board and flicked a piece of parsley in her direction to punctuate his reply. She pretty much lost it, and it took two line cooks, her sous chef and a waitress to pull her off of him. That was assault. She went downtown.
Her wrists were sore and bruised from straining on the handcuffs. Surely she was being punished for every sin shed ever committed, in short order. Not only was she being held in a room the size of a shoe box with no air or windows, but she was being interrogated by the village idiot.
Hed spent five minutes wrestling with the tape recorder trying to get it to work, before shed pointed out that it wasnt plugged in. Thatd been the warm up. The man had been pelting her with inane questions dealing with everything from the weather to her phone number. As he saw it, she was a prime suspect and he was wearing her down before he hit her with the tricky stuff.
So, do you recognize this? Dil held up a large knife in a plastic baggie.
Its a Chicago Cutlery Chefs knife. French rolled her eyes.
HA! So you admit, its your knife!
This knife was found at the scene of the murder, you recognized it without hesititation, do you continue to deny that it is yours?
I wouldnt cut wind with Chicago Cutlery, much less kill someone with it!
AHA! How did you know she was murdered!
You said so, you half-wit! She shouted at him.
But not with the knife! It was found next to the body. So why did you assume shed been stabbed? Dil asked. Then continued after a pause. Note to tape: suspect appears agitated and is struggling again. A clear sign of guilt.
Guilt?! When I get out of these Im going to kick your ass.
It had continued in that fashion until someone realized theyd left Dil alone with the suspect for too long. The Lieutenant had mumbled an apology, but French still had to spend the night in a cell for the assault. Which was probably just as well, shed definitely be in for murder had they let her go then.
Shed failed miserably. The strain on her had been too great and shed lost it. Which was how shed ended up at Phil and Flos Clam Shack the next afternoon. Fully demoralized, beyond her wits end, drowning her beleaguered senses in beer and batter-fried stuff. Phil and Flos had been the first place shed passed leaving the jail that morning. She sat slumped at one of the picnic tables surrounded by tangible evidence of her distress. Crumpled wax paper, piled cardboard containers spotted with grease stains, and several empty pitchers. It wasnt a terrifically busy shift at the Shack. There were a few people at the outside tables and two or three couples inside where she was. But they left her alone with her problems, as she muttered and occasionally groaned, burying her face in her hands.
She wasnt sure how long shed sat there, mired in a stew of dejected emotion. It had all become a blur, an intoxicated and deep fried kind of disoriented blur. But some external irritant began to tug at the edge of her awareness, drawing her out. As if surfacing from an engrossing dream she shifted about in her clouded brain as her consciousness tried to narrow in on the annoyance. It was a grating noise, distracting her from what was surely the more important business of losing her mind. It was the nasal voice of a man, intermingled with something less grating, but equally urgent in its call for attention. Slowly, and with some difficulty at first, she tuned in on the growing altercation a few tables behind her.
Sir, Im sure it was an accident, his hand slipped. As Im sure yours did earlier when you brushed my bottom as I served your meal. French turned and saw a young woman and man standing near a table. She could make out the woman easily enough by the fluorescent green uniform. All of the wait staff wore them, cut off tops with Phil and Flos emblazoned across the chest and matching short shorts to go with. An eyesore, but easy to spot for the momentarily visually challenged. The figure cowering behind her was a busboy, or so she figured from the apron. She squinted to steady her vision and watched. There was an older couple seated at the table. The old codger was the source of the grating voice.
The nerve, young lady! That wetback dropped that glass when he wasnt paying attention. He could have injured my wife!
Hey Violet! A large man called from behind the service window. This mustve been Phil, he had the look of the classic Clam Shack proprietor about him. Shut your trap and move it. Order up for outside.
Its okay, Roman spoke up quietly from behind Violet. Ill get it.
Yo! Skinny, I said, Order up! Phil enthused again.
From the look on her face, Violet was struggling with allegiances. On the one hand, there was the order, on the other, there was this insensitive moron whod insulted Roman, and his ancestry, because hed dropped a greasy glass near the table as he was clearing it. As usual, it wasnt much of a struggle and Violet launched into a steady stream of logic and statistics to counter the offensive, racist invective. Of course, this did nothing to appease Phil, a consummate capitalist who always sided with the customer, whatever his or her views on race and the work ethic.
Somehow, a glass of water was tipped into the old mans lap and all hell broke loose. He jumped from the table in an effort to grab Violet, who had already been grabbed away by an angry Phil. The guy tripped, sending all manner of rubbish all over the floor.
You crazy broad, what the hell do you think youre doing! Phil roared. Look at the mess youve made! He gestured wildly in Violets face. The old mans wife had hopped up and was brushing him off as he sputtered indignantly. She hadnt so much as peeped the whole time.
The mess Ive made! What about him? He insulted Roman, he was going to hit me! If you paid some attention to your staff you might pick up on these things. But then you might also pay a living wage and if you think I dont know that youre paying Roman and the others less than minimum wage, ha!, I do! You cant get away with treating him like that because hes not a naturalized citizen. If you let them pay into a health care pool you might...
Why you little ingrate, I oughta... And it looked like Phil was gonna. He had cranked back his hand to get a good swing going. Eveyone else stood motionless. Roman was trying to disappear into his own skin. The couple, whod finally made it upright, were glued to the altercation, morbidly hoping for the worst. Even Flo, who usually sat nearby at the register sucking on a cigarette and staring into space, was watching.
There was a resounding crash that shook the room.
Phil froze mid swing at the sound of the crash followed by a booming voice.
In her attempt to rise quickly, French had tipped back the bench, then upturned her table and sent its contents clattering about the floor. Unsteady on her feet, she leaned on, then bounced off of, the table behind her as she lurched toward the group several feet away.
Im trying to have a nervous breakdown over there! I was doing a pretty good job of it too, swallowing this swill, until you all started yammerin your mouths nonstop. Is it too much to ask for a little piece and quiet? Do you have to make such noise while polluting the planet with your obnoxious clap trap? Her breath, which was septic after hours of consuming the Shacks finest, only increased the aura of menace that radiated off of her.
How rude! This is none of your business. Who do you think you are? The old man had found his voice again, and was disgruntled by the interruption to what he thought was a just punishment. He didnt recognize unstable when he was looking at it. French turned on him, her eyes wild.
Youre not from around here are you? Im a reputed killer and I eat small-minded tourists like you for lunch. You wouldnt know decent manners if they bit you in the ass. And Id do a lot worse than that if you ever touched the wait staff in my restaurant. From the look on his face, hed realized that he might be in danger. French was pretty sure he was out for the count.
And you! She turned to face Phil, but hed retreated behind Violet. Hed recognized French and she didnt have to look half baked to make him nervous. She glanced down, vaguely registering the obstacle placed in her path. Looking Phil directly in the eye, she gently moved a stunned Violet off to the side.
I know you! She continued, as she poked at his chest. She wasnt even swaying anymore, her adrenaline had kicked in and shed sobered some. You were busted last summer for hiring illegal workers off the mainland, werent ya? Sounds like you dont learn good, Phillip. I wonder if youre up to the same old tricks this year? Should I ring up I.N.S. to check it out? Whaddya say? Phil went a bit pale.
I thought not. She looked over to see the tourist couple scrambling with their belongings in an effort to escape the volatile scene. Better leave a tip!
And youd better rethink your wages. Shed wrapped an arm around Phils shoulder, gave him a squeeze, and made sure to breath directly in his face. It seemed to increase his discomfort. She was beginning to enjoy herself.
Yes, something had shifted. The altercation had cleared the air in her head, jump started her drive. Shed be okay. She beamed a smile at no one in particular, gave the now shaking Phil a hardy slap on the back and followed the couple as they scurried out the door.
She had to make her way through a small group that had assembled. She shook her head, everyone loved a scene.
Someone from the group watched her depart with interest. The onlooker had been surprised by the course of events in the restaurant, and intrigued.
Continued in Chapter 4.