The tuxedo-uniformed waiter sidled unobtrusively over to the maitre d’. An elegant sign at the maitre’s desk announced that this was Chez Pierre, and the furnishings announced that it was expensive. The waiter jerked his chin toward a table at the side of the restaurant. The maitre nodded back and strode cat-footed over to the table where a diner sitting by himself was beginning to show signs of some distress.
“Monsieur Farkis?” The maitre d’ bowed ever-so-slightly, gesturing over the dishes on the table. “I trust all is well with your grouse?”
There was no reply other than a grunt from the large, swarthy man. Then he shook his head, grunted again and a look of nausea passed over his prominent features.
The maitre d’ looked around quickly, then summoned a busboy with one lifted finger. Before the busboy, a smallish man with slicked back hair and white gloves, could arrive at the table, the diner – Farkis – shoved back from it hastily and fled for the back of the room, entering the door that said “Messieurs”.
“Follow him,” hissed the maitre to the busbody. “See that he is well, and report to me if he is not. At once!”
With an apprehensive look, the busboy headed for the men’s room.
The same busboy rode inside an ambulance, siren wailing and speed evident by the lights flashing past outside. The swarthy diner groaned and sweated on the gurney beside the busboy, then made loud retching noises.
The busboy wiped sweat away from his own forehead and glanced around the ambulance with an expression of heavy anxiety. Looking back briefly at the sick man, he closed his eyes briefly as if in prayer, muttering, “Oh, Hardcastle, you better believe me.”
McCormick took a package from the fridge and placed it on the counter. Looking down at it, he said slowly, “Don’t we ever have anything but ground beef any more?”
“Huh?” Hardcastle didn’t raise his eyes from the notepad in his hand. Leaning an elbow on the kitchen table, he shook his head in perplexity. “What about ground beef?”
“Are you listening to me?” McCormick prodded the plastic-wrapped beef with a forefinger. “All we have is hamburgers. Or chili. Or meatloaf. Why don’t we ever have a chicken casserole or some kinda fish?”
The judge nodded absently, then tapped the notepad with his forefinger. “What’s this word? Yoohoo?”
Mark peered at the page, then nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I thought he said. He was kinda whispering, y’know? It was hard to make out. Why doncha just go ahead and call him and find out what it’s all about. Or would he be working the tables now? Hey,” his whole face lightened suddenly, “we could go down there and grab a bite instead of having . . .” A gesture indicated the despised ground beef.
“Chez Pierre? For dinner?” Hardcastle looked up at the younger man leaning against the counter. “Do you know how expensive that joint is? And we’ve already got some perfectly good hamburger sitting right there.”
“Yeah, but in the cause of justice, huh, Judge? C’mon, I’ll go saddle up the Coyote and we’ll mosey on into the Pierre Saloon to find out what Fingers wants and grab us some vittles at the same time. Now go put on a sport coat and I’ll put this back in the fridge for tomorrow.” Mark suited his actions to his words and was out the back door while Hardcastle was still expostulating that a simple phone call might work.
Joe Fingers, pickpocket extraordinaire, was indeed on duty at Chez Pierre, bussing tables in his elegant white gloves, but he cocked an eyebrow at the judge as he followed the maitre d’ into the main dining salon. The judge and Mark were shown to a small table at the side and the slightly-built and apprehensive-looking busboy immediately appeared to pour glasses of water for them.
“What’re you doing here?” he hissed out of the side of his mouth.
“Thank you,” said Hardcastle politely, taking a sip of his water. “I got your message, but it didn’t make any sense.”
Fingers fairly dithered with agitation, then topped up Hardcastle’s glass and muttered, “My break’s in forty-five minutes. Meet me in the alley out back.” Pasting a false smile on, he bowed slightly and made way for the waiter to take the gentlemen’s order.
McCormick looked up at the waiter with a grin. “I’ll have the New York cut with French fries.”
The waiter looked back at him with a slight air of disdain. “I regret to say that we do not serve steaks here,” he said with a frosty air. “Nor do we serve–” he shuddered a bit, “French fries.”
“Since when?” demanded the judge. “When did Harry stop doing steaks for his old customers?”
“Chef Rusterman retired last month,” was the response. “This is no longer Chez Petite. It is now Chez Pierre, named after our famous chef, Pierre Couteux. Would the gentlemen care to peruse the menu for a few moments?”
McCormick looked at Hardcastle, who looked back for a moment, then they both sighed. “Yeah, give us a few minutes,” muttered the judge.
“So I think what I had was some kinda chicken.” Mark was scrutinizing the alley, being careful where he stepped. “The patty shells were okay, and the green beans were pretty good. How was your trout?”
Hardcastle wrinkled his nose and peered around an aromatic dumpster. “Kinda fishy, just like this whole situation.”
The rear door to Chez Pierre opened just a bit and a narrow face peered out. Seeing the twosome waiting for him, Fingers sidled through the door, closed it and ushered them back down the alley.
“Listen,” he whispered, “I don’t know what to do, but I’m not gonna take the rap for any funny business going on here. Just ‘cause I got a record, they think they can pin it on me.”
The judge eyed him darkly. “You might wanna back up and start at the beginning, Joe. And hey, how come Harry retired? I thought he was a part-owner here.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Joe Fingers shuffled a bit and glanced back over his shoulder at the restaurant door. “Harry left a few weeks ago, forced out, I think. Pierre – the owner, Pierre Mon D'Or – told him he had a new chef who wanted to learn from Harry, but the new guy – Jacques Couteux – kept changing stuff and making Harry crazy. Different entrees, different desserts, he even brought in some new maitre d’ who doesn’t know his elbow from a hole in the ground. We were all going nuts for a couple of weeks, Judge. Customers leaving, dishes being sent back to the kitchen ‘cause they were overdone or underdone or just plain awful.”
Joe stopped talking and looked at the other two sideways. “How were your dinners? Not that great, right? You shoulda had the Perdrix en Casserole. All the food’s gone downhill since Harry left, but at least the partridge is usually okay. I don’t know what’s going on, but there’s something really wrong here now.”
McCormick held up a hand to stem the flow a bit. “Look, it’s too bad about the food, but there’s not a lot we can do for you in that area, Joe. I mean, when the Lone Ranger rides the range, it’s the open range, not the kitchen range.”
Fingers shook his head and shot another look behind him, sidling nervously. “You haven’t heard the worst of it. Two nights ago, we had a guy get poisoned! Right here! Now he’s claiming it was intentional, and you know who’s going to be get pointed at when he brings the cops around – me!”
“Hold on, Joe.” Now it was Hardcastle putting a palm up. “One of your customers was poisoned? By the food here?”
“Yeah! He was just looking at the dessert menu when he started shaking and he turned pale and ran into the Gents to heave. Henri, the new maitre d’, sent me in after him to see if was all right, and he sure wasn’t! We called for an ambulance and Henri told me to go with him to make sure he was okay, but the docs pumped his stomach and said he could’ve died from eating yew berries and that we were real lucky to get him there in time.” Fingers spread his hands and look at the judge imploringly. “So you tell me who’s going to be suspected of putting yew berries on his plate as a garnish. Huh? Who else but yours truly!”
“Yew berries, not yoohoo,” murmured McCormick.
The judge waved him to silence, then asked Fingers, “Well, who is this guy? The victim, I mean. Does he have any history with anybody here? And who served him his food?”
“Bernard did,” Joe answered the last question first. “He had roasted grouse fed on wild blueberries with wild rice stuffing and morel mushrooms in a cream reduction. None of that has ever made him sick before.”
Mark cocked an eyebrow at that. “So he’s eaten here before?”
“Oh, yeah. Three or four times a week. The guy’s famous for being a gourmet. You must have heard of Ross Z. Farkas, right?”
Hardcastle frowned. “That guy who writes the monthly restaurant review in the paper; ‘Phooeys and Fanfares’? He’s the one who got sick?”
Fingers nodded emphatically. “Yeah, him. And nobody ever put yew berries on anything, Judge. But he ate three of them with the grouse. And Bernard’s almost as worried as I am, ‘cause he served Farkas.”
“There any way he could have a motive for it?” The judge rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Is there anybody here that knows Farkas and would have a reason to poison him?”
“Well, Farkas never leaves more than a twelve percent tip, which is really chintzy for a place like this. And he’s very picky about his food. He sends a dish back every three or four meals he has and that sets everybody’s back up.”
“Listen, Judge,” Mark plucked at Hardcastle’s sleeve to get his attention. “Joe’s break’s gotta be up and we don’t want him attracting attention, right? So let’s set a time and place to meet up again tomorrow.”
“Good idea, McCormick.” The judge raised a finger to him in salutation. “Joe, can you bring Bernard with you out to the Santa Monica pier at noon tomorrow? I’ve got some questions for him and more for you and by then, maybe I can get some research done on this new owner and new cook and everything else. Whaddya say?”
Joe Fingers shrugged, nodded, said “Sure thing, Judge. I’ll talk to Bernard tonight when we close up and we’ll be there noon tomorrow.” He paused, scuffed a foot on the ground briefly, then added, “You think you can help? I mean, I know it’s a favor and all and I’ll pay you back someday, but this job’s all I got and I’m lucky to have it, you know?”
“I know, Joe. Don’t worry about it. I’ll handle it.” Hardcastle patted him on the shoulder then motioned for McCormick to lead the way back up the alley to where the Coyote was parked as Joe Fingers sneaked back down the alley toward the restaurant door..
“You got any ideas, Judge?” Mark lowered himself into the driver’s seat and reach for the seat belt.
With a grunt, the retired jurist also settled himself and belted in. “Yeah, I got a coupla ideas, need to make a few phone calls and check some stuff. One idea I got, you’re not gonna be crazy about, but it’s quick and easy and you might even make a few bucks off it. Sound interesting?” He raised his brows hopefully.
McCormick snorted and shook his head. “No. Nope, never, not again, no more hauntings au naturel, okay?”
“That’s not the idea. Naw, this one’s a lot classier and high-toned. And you get to doll yourself up in fancy clothes and pretend you know something about fine food and wine. Now how bad could that be?”