Written / Cooking On High


Chapter 44

Barbra’s head felt like it had been put through a meat grinder. The rest of her didn’t feel much better. That was definitely the last time she let Chilli get her into a drinking contest. Maybe she’d feel better if Sonny hadn’t too. She was glad that French had given the crew a short day.

She entered the kitchen to look for the chef and get her marching orders. She was greeted by a starched and all too awake French who grinned at her. Barbra began to feel nervous, that grin looked familiar. Yeah, as in Alice in Wonderland, and the Cheshire cat familiar. Barbra had always had an uneasy feeling about that cat.

“Good morning!” French walked over and boomed in her ear. Barbra thought that the chef’s jacket French had on must have gotten extra bleach, it was too damned bright. “So glad you were able to join us!” She got a hearty slap on the back to emphasize the chef’s cheer. Barbra realized that this might be French’s idea of a payback. She wasn’t enjoying it.

“Why don’t you take your good mood out on someone else?”

“Barbra, I’m hurt. I went to the trouble of fixing you an eye opener and this is the thanks I get?” French pouted, but made sure her voice never dropped from a painful register.

Barbra got more nervous. French never fixed anything for any employee but Fry. Only she was privy to French’s generosity, and Barbra had been suspicious of that all along. “I’m fine, really. No need to worry about me chef. I’ll just be getting to it, right?”

“Wrong.” French stepped behind her station and grabbed something from her reach-in. She returned to Barbra with a glass filled with a dubiously colored liquid. “Drink.”

Barbra was no slouch, she had a spine. Only, with her hangover and French looking so determined, all six feet of her, Barbra caved and drank. She spit the first mouthful halfway down the line. Sonny yelled in surprise as he was nearly sprayed with the green liquid.

“Auck! Are you trying to kill me?! What the hell is this?”

“Something the natives use in Australia to get themselves going after a long night. Finish it.”

“Are you nuts? No, don’t answer that. No need.” Barbra held out the glass to French, but she didn’t take it.

“You won’t regret it if you drink it. Hold your nose. Those people know more about this stuff than you do, believe me.”

“Leave it to you to find a sadistic eye opener. Couldn’t you give me an aspirin and some water?”

“Do you know how many times I let you call me ‘chicken’ last night? We could find another way to even the score...”

“Fine.” Barbra could see that in French’s eyes she was getting off easy. She held her breath and drank it down.

Fry walked up looking chipper as ever, which was too damn chipper for Barbra’s taste, so she got her instructions and beat it out of crazy central. Not that being out in the dining room made any more sense. French was having them rearrange everything to make it a suitable venue for what looked to be a very intimate dining experience. Barbra made a beeline for the bar to get something that would clear the corrosive flavor from her mouth.

Miguel was having a fit. Everything was being moved around. He took two extra doses of his medication, but it didn’t help. He hated change on that scale. It was so unsettling. And why did Barbra have to look so, so... untidy. As if his nerves hadn’t already suffered enough.

They went about their assigned tasks, setting up to French’s specification.

Fry stopped by French’s station on a linen run to ask, “Why don’t you have it upstairs? Then you wouldn’t have to move everything around.”

“Did I ask you for advice? I don’t recall asking you for advice. Was it in my sleep last night? Because if I’d asked you while I was awake... well, I’d have noticed.”

Fry felt awkward. She’d obviously overstepped a boundary at work, but she’d just been curious really. “It was a question more than a suggestion.”

“Ah, I should have known.” French hated when Fry looked hurt. But it was the big time here tonight and she didn’t have time to be thinking about Fry’s oversensitive nervous system. Then it occurred to her that maybe that was just it, maybe Fry was still nervous. She leaned over and said quietly, “I thought we took care of your butterflies this morning?”

Fry looked confused for a second then gave French a shove. “Stop! You’re so bad.”

“That’s nothing, wait ‘til you see what I do to the crab later. And it’s a better setup downstairs, I thought I told you that already.”

“No, you said you’d get everyone in the dining room and see what happened when the shit hit the fan. You weren’t big on detail.” Fry said.

“There’s a certain science to the subtle arts of blackmail and coercion. But that about sums it up.”

“Like I’ve said, I don’t feel comfortable using the box to get them here, but if it helps find Louisa’s killer, then I guess it’s a worthy cause.”

“Sure it is.” French hadn’t mentioned to Fry that she intended to use the contents of the box a little more than that, but hey, she was a busy woman, you couldn’t expect her to do everything.

Fry wanted to ask why French was going to all of that trouble for people whose appetites she planned to spoil. But she thought better of it and got back to work.

If she’d asked, her answer would have been a brief and possibly loud lecture on style and grace under pressure. How that separated a professional from a hack. In reality, French felt that if you wanted to do anything really well, it ought to involve a lot of cooking. She was at her sharpest when she was planning a menu or preparing a meal. And that night she would have to be very, very sharp.

It was mid afternoon and everything was shaping up nicely. Fry had been avoiding the kitchen again, because she was really nervous. As French prepared she grew more distant. It wasn’t that Fry couldn’t understand her focus, it was a big moment. It’s what followed the moment that Fry couldn’t help wondering about.

The questions were mounting in her brain. It was another response to the tense situation. She was worried that after that day, if all went well, French wouldn’t need her anymore. Not that French had admitted to needing her at all, but Fry knew better. French hadn’t shown an interest in anyone else yet, but she’d been preoccupied with people chasing her, trying to blow up her restaurant and generally being rude. If all of that was cleared up, then what? Would French become bored with her? Move on to something new and different?

She knew she had to accept whatever came, but she didn’t have to like it. Not knowing was creating havoc in her intestines.

“Look at your tie!” Miguel scolded her. “Why don’t you go in there and have the chef fix it for you?”

A month ago, Fry would have taken that comment differently. Today, she saw it as a sweet, although patronizing attempt, to lighten the mood. “She’s kind of busy right now. I’ll go play with it.”

“Come here. I wasn’t trying to get you more nervous.” Miguel undid her tie and began to retie it in crisp, surgical movements. It was like being pecked at by an effeminate rooster.

French, with impeccable timing, chose that moment to walk into the dining room and see Miguel rearranging her favorite waitress’ uniform. “What’s going on here?”

“Just fixing the Frylette’s tie.” Miguel stood back to inspect his handiwork. If he could get the tie’s stripe to meet up with the knot at the right angle he’d feel that much better. He reached forward to readjust it. His hands were seized before attaining their goal.

“I don’t think so, fussy man. That’s my tie. I’ll take care of it.” French intervened.

“But the stripe...” He made a judicious decision to withdraw when he noted that French was serious.

“I’ll fix the stripe. Beat it.”

Fry didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Miguel looked like he was going to burst. She sympathized. She put out a hand to reassure him before he took off.

“You don’t think he was making a move on your tie do you?” Fry asked.

“You can never be too careful with Miguel. He’s an artist.”

“What does that mean?”

“Basically, it means he’s a pain in the ass, but exceptionally good at what he does. Which is why people put up with him being such a pain in the ass in the first place.” French patted the tie and stepped back. She stepped forward and readjusted Fry’s vest.

“How is it that you can organize an entire neighborhood of people to help you build and fund a community center? Something no one thought they wanted, but you can’t tie a proper knot in your own tie?”

Fry stared at French. She wondered who’d told her about the Center. “It’s a different set of skills.”

“Remind me to show you this set later.”

“Miguel’s already given up. I doubt you’ll have much luck.”

“Miguel doesn’t know how to motivate you as well as I do.”

Fry smiled. “It’s true what they say. You’re relentless when you want something.”

French did the eyebrow thing and shoved her off. “Move it or you’ll give Miguel an aneurism. Let him get a good look at that stripe. I don’t want him O.D.ing on his meds this afternoon, we’ll need him later.”

Miguel and Andre were the only other employees that would be on hand for the big show. The rest were being let off beforehand. French didn’t want anyone else involved if she could help it. The contents of the box made discretion an important element of putting her guests at ease. Not that she gave a damn about their feelings, it just might help to calm overzealous tempers and restless minds. Until she had her hands around the killer’s throat that is.

What the hell do you do with a killer once you’ve got one? This wasn’t a question French had ever had to consider. There was the turning them over to Dil and his mates option. There was the accidental drowning option. She didn’t have a clue. Before now she would have judiciously sidestepped the issue and gone back to work. It’s not like she hadn’t worked for and alongside her share of people who’d done the deed. She felt hypocritical turning the tables on someone like this. Who was she to go tracking down killers and messing up people’s financial schemes?

She was French, that’s who. And as long as this person had seen fit to mess up her summer, they deserved it. Crisis over, problem solved. She thought she might be getting a handle on this not being evil stuff.


Punctuality is a virtue in the restaurant business. Her guests seemed well aware of that fact. Of course, they were also well motivated.

Miguel met them at the door and seated them at a round table they’d prepared as French had asked. They all knew one another and weren’t at all pleased to find themselves sharing a meal.

He had no idea what French had planned for her guests, one of whom had not arrived yet.

Miguel didn’t need to look for subtle clues to see that Mitchell and Julia shared a comfortable antipathy for one another. They sat as far back in their chairs as they could, smiled at one another and began a quiet conversation. Portia, a woman with no equal in her own mind, looked more affronted than usual at being seated at a table with mere mortals. She sent the occasional glare around the table, but ignored her companions as much as she could manage. Nigel looked calm enough, if only he could have kept the sweat from beading on his brow, no one would have noticed his extreme discomfort.

Mitchell and Julia’s strained and stilted conversation sounded more and more like the scheming of reluctant partners to Miguel. He’d heard that tone before as he’d served corporate CEO’s discussing takeovers and merger deals. It was the sound of powerful people maneuvering for advantage - it was the sound of sharks circling in the water.

French appeared in the dining room doorway and was immediately aware of the empty seat next to Julia. She greeted her guests. Never before had she seen such strained politeness. What a picture these people made. She leaned down and asked Julia to join her in the hallway.

“Where’s Jay?”

“He says he’s very sorry, but he has the most terrible headache and he wasn’t able to make it. I’m solo. But don’t worry, this makes your seating plan so much less awkward.”

“I told him that attendance wasn’t optional. Call him and get him down here, now.”

“Darling, I didn’t want to have to tell you this, I know how sensitive you are to other people’s feelings, but Jay isn’t well. He’s very ill and I think it would be best if you’d let me handle your little bomb on my lonesome. I’ll fill him in later Sweet. I really will.” Julia patted French’s cheek and returned to the table.

French’s mind went into overdrive. She wanted Jay there whether Julia did or not. Those two could take care of each other on their own time. She wouldn’t settle for it on hers. Jay was going to join her little party if Fry had to haul him out of a deathbed. She spun and headed for the kitchen.

She walked in and readied herself for a fight. She knew Fry wasn’t going to look favorably at being asked to leave the scene of the crime, so to speak. “I need you to go over to Julia’s and bring the Senator back with you. Take Andre.”

“Doesn’t he have a ride?” Fry asked.

“No, and he may not be expecting one either. I want you to go over there and use your esteemed powers of persuasion to get him over here. In as little time as you can. And if he shows signs of reluctance, have Andre convince him.”

“We can’t go intimidating a Senator! I’m sure he’s got a good reason for not coming.”

“I don’t care what his reason is! It’s not in the plan and I want him here. The little pissant better not be dead.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it had occurred to me that the last couple of times I’ve seen him he hasn’t been all that well. Like maybe he’s ill sure, or maybe someone’s poisoning him. I don’t know which and I don’t care, just get him. End of discussion. Go!”

“But...” Fry’s words were cut off as French lifted her over her shoulder and began to half walk, half jog to the back. “Andre, get her there and back. Don’t take any shit from anyone and there’s a bonus in it for you.”

During his tenure in kitchens Andre had been asked to do many things. This was certainly up there in the “original moments” category. But he didn’t hesitate. French may have been mad, she may have been many things, but she was also his chef and he would do what she asked. Besides, he couldn’t let the little Fry go by herself.

Fry hadn’t stopped protesting the entire trip, even for the moment that she’d propped herself up and rolled her eyes at Andre who was following close behind.

French dumped Fry off outside her office door. “Now go.”

As French spun to return to her guests Fry grabbed her sleeve. French turned back with a look that might have been murder in her eye. Fry jumped forward and gave her a peck on the cheek. “See you soon good lookin’. Good luck.”

French couldn’t resist. She grabbed Fry and kissed her a good one. She knew it was probably positive reinforcement for annoying behavior, but hell, she wanted to. “Beat it.”

Continued in Chapter 45

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