Mark spotted Fingers and Bernard at the end of the pier and waved at them from the hot dog stand. “You want sauerkraut on yours?” he yelled to them.
Bernard looked at Joe Fingers, who shrugged at him then nodded to McCormick.
Hardcastle waved from the table he’d picked out. “I got napkins and everything, guys. Lunch is my treat today.”
The two restaurant employees seated themselves as McCormick brought over four heavily-laden hot dogs in little paper boats.
Bernard sniffed delicately at the dog in front of him, then said, “Similar to choucroute garnie, yes?”
“Yeah, whatever.” Hardcastle nodded at his own dog. “You talk about your classic dishes – this is one of the all-time best. Dig in. Joe, you can take the gloves off for the time being.” The judge demonstrated digging in and there was a short pause while everyone sampled their choucroutes, then Hardcastle swiped at his mouth with a napkin, cleared his throat and spoke. “Bernie, I’m gonna assume Joe here filled you in on how we got involved here.”
The French waiter used his own napkin and nodded. “This sausage is surprisingly juicy and flavorful. The texture is like . . . a type of paté Some caraway seeds in the sauerkraut, a little sour cream and it would be like my grandmother’s in Alsace.” He looked out across the pier and took a deep breath. “I would hope, Monsieur Hardcastle, Monsieur McCormick, that our little . . . contretemps in the past is forgotten?”
Mark, mouth full, nodded.
Hardcastle waved a hand, saying, “Sure, that’s all history now. We’re in this case together, mon ami.”
Bernard smiled at the judge’s French accent, but said only, “Merci du grace.”
“I told him I called you and that we met up last night.” Joe set his hot dog down and wiped mustard from his fingers. “We gotta find out who’s responsible for those yew berries. We’ve had the cops around for two days now, checking out the suppliers and digging into our backgrounds. That Farkas guy is out for blood.”
Hardcastle brushed a few crumbs from the table to the deck for the seagulls. “I made some calls last night and talked to a cop I know – Lieutenant Harper. He’s gonna see what he can find out on the police side of things, but we do know that Farkas is trying to file a criminal complaint against person or persons unknown for attempted murder.
Fingers and Bernard looked at each other uneasily. “Not an accident?” queried the waiter.
“It doesn’t look like it, since nobody else ever got any yew berries with their grouse, just Farkas.” A final swipe with the napkin and the judge leaned his brawny arms on the table and clasped his hands. “Now your job’s gonna be the inside part. I’ve got some feelers out on some of the people involved, but I want the three of you–” he pointed a finger sequentially at the other diners, “to be my inside guys. Bernie, is there some way McCormick can work at the restaurant for a coupla nights?”
Mark looked up, surprised. “Me?”
Bernard frowned a bit, then nodded. “We have a waiter who has quit because of the . . .” he paused and furrowed his brow, “run downhill of the restaurant?” As the others nodded, he continued, “I could perhaps train Monsieur McCormick to pose as a waiter. It would not be easy, you understand, but enough to pretend for one night or two.”
McCormick balled up his napkin and tossed it into the paper boat. “Well, I guess it’s better than wearing a towel.”
“Most of the stuff we’ve gotten so far is just hearsay and rumor.” Lieutenant Harper looked up at the judge from underneath his brows. “Restaurant staff, customers, suppliers, even a coupla gossip columns.”
Hardcastle grunted. “Gossip columns? Who’s glitzy enough to end up in one of those?”
“The head cook, Couteux and his glamorous wife. And the guy that ate the berries, Farkas. He’s pretty well-known in the ritzy circles these days. Lots of money, lots of publicity.” Harper wrinkled his nose. “You ever read his food column, ‘Phooeys and Fanfares’? It doesn’t surprise me he’s got some enemies the way he pans places.”
“Speaking of that, you got a line yet on where the berries came from? Yew berries are a new one on me.”
“Hah,” the lieutenant said sourly. “Turns out the arboretum has two dozen yew trees, all of ‘em loaded with berries. And they’re real popular with gardeners and landscapers, too, so they’re scattered all over in the upper crust estates. The person who came up with this idea had lots of opportunities to get the intended murder weapon. Here,” Harper pulled open the top drawer of his desk and reached inside. “The guys brought me some. They look okay, kinda pretty, and this guy Farkas was known to eat just about anything on a plate.” Harper rubbed the top of his head and sighed. “The problem we have now is how did they get on his plate. The chef swears his garnish was rosemary and orange, and the waiter–”
“Bernard,” interjected Hardcastle, reaching out a finger to roll one of the small red berries around on the desk.
“Yeah, Bernard, swears he didn’t add a thing to the dish. We talked to the whole staff there, and nobody saw anything and they all swear they love Farkas like a brother. What a set-up,” he finished disgustedly.
The judge leaned back in the chair at the end of Harper’s desk. “You’ll get there. It had to be intentional, so you’ll crack it somehow. You had anybody checking into why the place turned over recently? Might be something in that. Or there’ll be something in Farkas’ background.”
Harper nodded. “Yeah, we’ve got the routine going, digging into everybody connected with it, ‘specially since Farkas is making so much noise now. I don’t think he expected to be included in the investigation. You know the type.”
“All high horse and looking down his nose at ya,” said Hardcastle with a grin.
“You got it. But he’s clean so far. The only thing we’ve even got a sniff of is that he’s got a real eye for the ladies. Some of them with husbands.” The lieutenant threw up his hands. “Like half the people in the restaurant biz, I swear.”
“Well, I’d appreciate anything you can come up with.” Hardcastle stood up and shook down his pants legs.. “As soon as McCormick starts working at Chez Pierre, we’ll let you in on anything he finds out.”
“Mark as a waiter?” Harper grinned. “Remind me to eat at my desk for the next few nights.”
The judge flipped a hand. “Ah, he might do okay. He’s got a good tutor.”
In an empty room off to the side of the main dining salon, Bernard continued his demonstrations. “You must be correct at all times. Not too friendly,” Bernard shook a minatory finger. “Polite, pleasant, but you are not to be the ‘chum’ to the customer. You are the server, and you must be knowledgeable and discreet in your service. Now try it once more.”
McCormick, standing beside a table set with gleaming cutlery and fine china, cleared his throat, smiled slightly, bent forward just a trifle and spoke. “Good evening, madam, sir. My name is Mark and I will be your server tonight. Have you made your selections for dinner, or may I bring you an aperitif?”
Bernard smiled at him. “Much better. Now for the service itself. Always from the left side, except when the diners are seated at a banquette. Place this napkin, so, over your forearm and watch as I lift the plate.”
Mark sighed, took a deep breath and adorned his arm with a napkin.
“Milt, are you sure this is a good idea? I mean,” Mattie Groves whispered, “Mark might be nervous. We might upset his whole investigation.”
Hardcastle waved a hand at her. “Naw, he’ll be fine. We’re just customers like any other.” Then he smiled wickedly.
The maitre d’ approached them with a murmured, “For two? Right this way, please.”
As he led them to a table off to one side, Hardcastle peered left and right at the waitstaff. He saw Joe Fingers carrying dessert plates toward the kitchen and winked at him.
“A waiter will be right with you,” said the maitre d’ quietly as he held the chair for Mattie to be seated, then flipped a napkin across her lap. “Enjoy your meals.”
Mattie frowned a bit at the slight man as he left. “I don’t like people who help me that much. And he has beady little eyes, too. Milt,” she turned to her escort, “I’m still not sure about this.”
He shushed her and aimed a thumb to his left.
A tall, curly-haired waiter approached their table and bowed slightly. “Good evening,” he said decorously. “My name is Mark and I’ll be serving you tonight. Here is our menu,” he presented one to each diner, “and our special tonight is Canard a l’Orange. Do you require a few minutes to make your selections?”
“Ah, can you tell me what this dish is?” asked Mattie, pointing with a finger at Supremes de Volailles de Versailles.
“No, madam,” said Mark definitely, but with a polite smile.
“Well,” Hardcastle cleared his throat commandingly. “I’m having the Tournedos Beauharnais. What wine would you recommend with that?”
McCormick smiled again, benignly. “For you, sir, something special. Something with, say . . . a screw cap.”
Mattie had a sudden coughing fit, covered by her napkin, while the judge wiped a palm ferociously across the lower half of his reddening face.
“I’ll have the special,” said Mattie quickly, handing back her menu. “And we’ll have a bottle of 1978 Souverain Zinfandel.”
“Indeed, madam,” Mark nodded and smiled frostily. “An excellent choice.” He shot a look of disdain at Hardcastle and departed with unimpaired dignity.
The door into the office opened, slowly, cautiously, then McCormick slipped inside, quickly closing the door behind him and reaching into his back pocket for skin-tight black gloves. Donning the gloves, he moved silently over to the desk and riffled through several papers lying there. Shaking his head slightly, he began opening drawers, stopping when he found one jammed with file folders. Running a finger through them, he selected one headed “Accounts Payable” and pulled it out.
The folder was over an inch thick, stuffed with bills and letters from creditors. Mark paused at one from a famous Los Angeles jeweler and whistled soundlessly. A sudden noise from the room next door made him jerk up his head, then hastily replace the file folder. He crept over to the connecting door marked “Supplies” and listened closely to a dialogue which rapidly degenerated into a shouting match. As the yelling intensified, he sidled back to the door he’d used to enter, and eased it open again. With a quick look up and down the hallway, he stepped into the hall, pulling off his gloves and replacing them in his pocket. As the sound of heels echoed down the hallway toward him, he straightened his jacket and sauntered past the door behind which two men were screaming insults in French.
An elegant and expensively-dressed woman strode past, casting him a flirtatious glance as they passed. Her emerald earrings glittered coldly as she kept her eyes on him right up to the moment that she opened the door on the argument.
“Jacques, sweetheart,” she cooed, “if you and Mr. Mon D'Or are through here, the sous-chef wants to talk to you about the truffles.”
The two men glared at each other in hatred, then chef Couteaux sniffed and turned to escort his wife out. Mon D'Or growled under his breath and slammed the door after the couple.
“Cochon,” he muttered ferociously. “Salaud.”