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Authors: Mary Jackman

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BOOK: Spoiled Rotten
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The tavern ran the whole length of the first floor. The guest rooms were located above on the upper three floors. Except for the tavern floor, the building looked empty. A second later, a light went on in one of the rooms. Andy noticed it, too, and explained, “We're having the hotel renovated. That's the painter's room. He was having dinner in the bar. He goes to bed early and gets up at dawn so he can get the maximum amount of daylight hours to paint.”

We climbed a wide expanse of cedar stairs to a large deck on the second-floor level and continued to a smaller platform at the third. Still going, Andy headed for a metal fire escape that led up to the dormered fourth floor or — if you prefer via wild stretch of the imagination — the penthouse.

“Excuse me. I'm not staying up there, am I?”

“Only floor that's not being painted tomorrow.” Andy looked back at me encouragingly. “Don't worry. It's quaint up here and very private. Since no one else is booked tonight, you have the whole floor to yourself.”

The Elvis impersonator drew out a ring loaded with keys, unlocked the door and held it open for me. I passed five closed doors on both sides of the long hall, which led into a large panelled sitting room with a timbered arch ceiling and heavily curtained windows. Two table lamps were turned on, leaving dim shadows huddled in the corners.

“Where shall I put your luggage, miss?”

“Ah, you tell me. I don't know which room is mine.”

“You can have any room you like, but they're all basically the same, not locked, either, so look them over.”

Looking around, I wished I had kept driving. My nerves were on edge enough and this place would have given me the willies even in broad daylight.

“Ah, Andy, is it? How much farther is the town of Portsmith from here? On the map it looks like it might only be about one more hour along the major highway. I was getting tired, but maybe I should have kept going?”

“No, you did the right thing. Eventually you have to get off the highway and follow the coastal road. It's a dangerous drive at this time of night — lots of twists and turns. Besides, the fog makes it a blind drive. Things just pop up out of nowhere.”

I recalled the deer behind the parking lot; a flash of hooves on the windshield.

“There's not much in Portsmith. Are you visiting relatives? ” he asked.

“Something along those lines,” I answered vaguely. I wasn't telling a complete stranger that my chef was a suspect in a homicide and was thought to be holed up there.

“Your food should be ready by now. I shall return presently.”

I chose a room with an ocean view beyond the treetops and a washroom next door. I was unpacking my nightgown and storing my toothbrush in a glass by the bathroom sink when Andy returned wielding a tray of high-cholesterol delights and placed it on a coffee table in the main room. The food smelled so good I became light-headed and began fumbling around in my purse for a tip, but before I could fish it out Andy handed me a key from the ring.

“Lock the door after me,” he said, scurrying back down the hall. The fire escape door closed behind him with pneumatic hesitation.

With a burger in one hand and a beer in the other, I looked around the large brooding room. I calculated this must be the attic of the old school, used formerly either as a dormitory or a teacher's residence. Some of the furniture was authentically antique, the musty brocaded drapes certainly hinted at it. The tiny bedrooms located in the attached wing must be used for spillover in the summer when the roads are busy again with whale-watching tourists.

I wandered over to a bamboo screen, similar to one I bought years ago in Toronto's Chinatown, standing at the far end of the room. It was weathered with mouse-eaten edges and a faded floral motif that hinted at pink lotus blossoms. A metal door was concealed behind the screen. Knowing I wouldn't sleep unless I checked that it was locked, I turned the handle. The door opened easily onto a well-lit landing with stairs leading down to the lower floors. I looked over the railing and started down. Curiosity was going to be the death of me yet.

The third- and second-floor landings also had metal doors with small inset windows. Both doors were locked and the windows were dark. The tavern floor had two sets of regulation double-hung fire doors on either side of the ground-level foyer. One set flush without handles, no doubt leading to the tavern were sealed tight, and when I pushed down the bar handle on the opposite doors marked
EXIT
, moist salt air hit my face. I pulled it shut again.

Well, all floors had a fire escape. That was good. The doors opened in an emergency, but locked automatically from behind to prevent access. That was good, too. I didn't need any drunken sailors visiting the penthouse after last call in the tavern. Glad now that I had the wherewithal to jam the empty beer can in the door jamb, I headed back up.

My skin prickled at the second landing. I had an uneasy feeling someone was watching me and glanced toward the window in the door. A figure flitted by on the other side. I raced back up to the fourth floor two steps at a time, kicked out the can, slammed the door, and pushed a chair against the door handle. Couldn't be too sure, I've seen horror movies.

I poured myself a stiff one from the bottle of Scotch I brought in from the car and belted it down. My resolve was crumbling and I sincerely hoped Daniel was worth all this trouble. I spread out the newspaper on the coffee table. The headlines on the second page were hard to miss.

POLICE CONTINUE SEARCH FOR MISSING CHEF

Wanted in Connection with the Brutal Death of Anthony Vieira:

Daniel Chapin, rising star of well known eatery, Walker's Way Bistro, disappeared without a trace. Police are asking anyone with information regarding his whereabouts to call the Hotline number — 416-391-HELP.

At this time, it is unknown as to the extent of his involvement in the mysterious slaying of long-time store owner Anthony Vieira of Superior Meats, a landmark shopping destination in Kensington Market …

It was a smaller article repeating the top story published in yesterday's evening news and didn't give any more detail of the murder, pending investigation. It did mention that his wife was left behind, he had no children, and that a closed funeral service would be held tomorrow. The store was closed until further notice.

I searched for information regarding the councillor and Mrs. Vieira and found nothing more titillating than a piece about an ongoing police investigation into the suspicious death of Councillor Stephen Albright. Considering they were dealing with a potentially scandalous situation, I assumed the police were keeping a lid on the facts. Albright had been highly visible in the political arena and I was sure they were warned to get the story right before it was presented to the press.

I still didn't know how Mr. Tony was murdered, but I knew it was committed Friday morning in the wee hours before Maria discovered his body and that the poisoning incidents at the convention centre took place hours later, sometime during breakfast.

I rolled the newspaper into a ball and threw it across the room. When Winn discovered I'd done a disappearing act same as my chef, he'd be furious. He'd find me before long. It's not like I used an alias when I boarded the plane.

One drink led to another and I was half in the bag before I decided to go to bed. I pushed up the windows in my room, and the night sea air entered, cooling my flushed skin. The bed was so soft I instantly fell to sleep.

An hour later, I woke up with the room filled with smoke. I couldn't see a thing but when my eyes adjusted I could see it billowing in steady puffs through the dormered windows. I wondered why the smoke was coming in from the outside. A clammy mist enveloped the bed, cold and wet.

Fog! It was tangible enough to dampen my hair. I forced myself to get out of the warm bed, and, wrapping a bed blanket around my shoulders, tiptoed across the cold hardwood floors to shut the window. I heard a faint click. I should have closed the door to my room, but Andy said the other rooms were supposed to be vacant. I peered into the dark hall. Brain on full alert, ears practically twitching, I listened.

Another click, this time I placed it to the fire door located behind the screen. I had been sure it was locked. Instinctively, I threw the covers over my pillows, arranging them into a body shape, and peeked into the hall again. The chair I had pushed against the door as an extra measure of security was being scraped slowly across the floor. I ran down the hall past the empty rooms toward the same back door I came through hours ago with Andy.

Car beams from the parking lot swept the building, cutting through the fog like searchlights. A man was outlined against the frosted glass window of the fire-escape door and someone was moving through the main room toward me. I was trapped in between.

The light arced away quickly, leaving me swathed in darkness again. I groped my way along the wall and felt an open doorway to one of the vacant rooms. I slipped in and closed the door softly. A faint glow of moonlight filtered through the window, casting a shadow across the floor. To my surprise, it turned out to be another washroom.

Stepping into the shower stall, I wrapped the curtain around me and began shaking like a ninny. Why was I so afraid? I've beaten raging chefs to the ground with wooden spoons and learned enough martial arts to bounce martini drunks out the front door with suitable decorum. This was different. This might be the same guy who tried to stop me once before. I still wore the head bandage to prove it.

I heard a creak in the floorboards and a loud curse from the hall. Once the pillows in the bed were discovered, they'd start hunting. I unwrapped myself and stepped out of the stall. There were sounds of a scuffle in the hallway and I heard heavy grunting. I bolted for the window. Standing on the toilet seat, I could just reach the latch to slide it open.

I started climbing over the windowsill, but before I got my last leg up, a hand clamped onto my ankle. I tried to kick out, but the grip was too strong. I twisted around and took a full swing at the head behind me.

“OW!” Right on the money!

The hand dropped, letting me scurry through the window. The light went on in the tiny bathroom.

“Where are you going, Ms. Walker?”

I recognized that baritone immediately and climbed back in.

chapter five

T
he luxury car rounded the suicide curves with grace and agility. I have been known to drive like a menace, but this time I was really flooring it. Andy sat, arms crossed, staring straight ahead at the road.

“Come on Andy, I'm sorry I kicked you, but if you're not going to talk to me, why did you come?”

“Somebody had to help you, you're a nervous wreck.”

“Let's not get carried away. I appreciate you coming to my aid last night, but I would have been fine.”

“Is that why you were climbing out the bathroom window?”

“I didn't know it was you, did I?”

Andy shook his head.

Exhausted and coping with a doozy of a headache, I had pleaded with him to sleep in the adjoining room to mine until morning. I needed the company and I didn't have to ask him twice. I guessed he was used to bunking down in the hotel wherever and whenever he liked.

“I don't understand why you were up there at that time of night. You were in a pretty big hurry to say goodbye to me after you brought up the food. I figured you had the night off.”

“I wish,” he said. “I take over the bar for Evelyn on Monday nights. She visits her mother in the county hospital down in Baysville. The kitchen is closed, but we serve booze until one in the morning.” The careful diction had vanished. “I was finishing up for the night, later than usual because one of the old cronies refused to take last call. While I was pulling out of the driveway, my car's headlights picked out a man on the fire-escape stairs. I thought I better check it out. I pulled around to the front of the schoolhouse and went up the fire-escape stairs, through the tavern door exit. I unlocked the door to your floor to do a security check, but it was blocked. By the time I could get it open you were missing from your room, and, just so you know, the pillows in the bed didn't fool me for a second. When I went into the hall I could hear someone running his hands along the wall for guidance. I crouched down and when he got close to me, I tackled him.

“It could have been me.” I protested. His grin faded.

“I knew it wasn't. The light from the fire-escape window outlined a man's figure. My eyes had already adjusted to the light, giving me the advantage; he couldn't see me in the dark. Only problem was, the guy kicked me in the head when he toppled over me and by the time I regained my senses, he was headed back down the fire escape. I turned on the lights and checked the rooms to see if you were hurt, that's when I saw you climbing out the bathroom window.”

I thought about that. “After I heard the chair being pushed across the floor, I ran toward the fire escape. Someone's headlights swept the building. If everyone else was gone, and you were already in the stairwell, then who was in the parking lot?”

“That was Evelyn pulling in. The painter called her at home earlier in the evening and left a message warning her that something funny was going on upstairs. She drove back to the hotel as fast as she could, but by the time she got back, it was too late. The painter was locked in his room for the night and since he had to get up early, she didn't want to disturb him.”

“I didn't see her downstairs this morning. Where was she?”

“Trying to plead with the painter not to leave.”

Andy was right about the road. Deceptively calm bays showed evidence of violent transformation. Timbers dried pale as bone and lobster traps loathed by the sea lay hurled and broken against the rocks. I would have died on this road last night; the fog was impassable this close to the shore.

Portsmith was a tiny picturesque seaside village with streets running north and south of the highway. The speed limit dropped to a crawl and I appreciatively noticed the care and preservation of the old naval buildings. At the general store we asked for directions to Macdonald Street. We were informed it was south of the highway, close, but not right on the ocean. Dazzled by the morning sun glinting off the water's surface, we almost missed the turn for Daniel's sister's street. Farther along at the bottom of the hill, the once-mighty ship-repair docks were busy hauling recreational crafts from the water for winter storage.

Daniel's sister lived in a white clapboard bungalow with blue shuttered windows. Typical of east coast fashion, the postwar house was missing its front veranda. The proliferation of wooden butterflies I understood to a degree, but the lack of front porches across the land had me baffled.

I parked a few houses down the road, leaving Andy sulking in the car. Daniel wouldn't know who he was and I didn't want to frighten him with a stranger the size of a prize fighter. Without a porch to stand on, I had to get on the tips of my toes to ring the bell. The button was still beyond my reach. I knocked rapidly at the bottom of the wooden storm door. I was about to leave when the inside door opened. A woman who could be Daniels's double, except with wild red hair, peered down at me through the storm door glass. With one finger she motioned me around to the back of the house.

Rows of glass bottles strung together composed a fence around the side of the house. As I walked past the bottles, I realized they were kitchen stock bottles in every size and shape, mostly olive oil and exotic vinegars, with a few wine bottles thrown in, a uniquely inventive use of recycling.

Daniel's sister Meriel had the best red hair I'd ever seen. Mine always faded after five washes and I told her so.

“It isn't dyed. I just touch up the grey with henna now and then,” she said curtly.

“Sorry, I don't want to start off on the wrong foot. I appreciate you seeing me. May I come in?” I asked.

Meriel moved back from the door and I stepped into a rear storage area off the kitchen. The family resemblance was overwhelming. She had the same sinewy build and heavy-lidded eyes as her brother. It made Daniel look sexy; it made her look tired.

“Must be pretty important for you to come all the way out here to see Daniel,” she said and then her hand flew to her mouth as if to stop the words.

“So he is here. I must talk to him,” I said urgently.

I heard a noise come from the front of the house. I pushed past her, but by the time I made it out there all I saw was Daniel's back disappearing through the front door and jumping out of sight. I reached the door in four steps, ready to plunge after him, but Daniel hadn't hit the ground. Cradled in Andy's arms, he was wiggling around trying to get loose.

“Nice catch, Andy.”

“Not much bigger than an ocean tuna,” he boasted. “I've caught bigger fish than him before.”

“Yeah, well catch this!” yelled Daniel and stuck his finger in the big boy's eye.

Andy dropped him like a hot potato and was about to pull one of the bottles from the homemade fence, when I stepped in between.

“That's enough, you two. Get up, Daniel, and tell me exactly what's going on?”

Before Daniel could utter a word, his sister Meriel, standing at the porch less doorway, announced blithely, “Come on in everybody. Soup's on.”

A round table made from burnished oak and set with four brightly woven placemats faced an open window overlooking two neighbours' yards and the distant sea. Minutes later, I was oblivious to the view, happily slurping soup from a white porcelain bowl. “This is the best lobster bisque I've ever eaten,” I exclaimed. “Is this where you get all your great recipes from, Daniel?”

Meriel beamed from ear to ear. “Actually, we learned how to cook from our mother,” she confessed. “She had a small diner in Halifax for a few years and our father was a fisherman. He supplied fresh fish and my mother made heavenly seafood dishes. Her specialties were bisques of every imaginable kind. This is my favourite, a shrimp and lobster combo. Guess what she called the diner?”

I shrugged my shoulders, too busy soaking up juicy chunks of lobster with thick slices of homemade bread.

“The Sea Biscuit,” she announced with a smile.

I was about to fake a gagging sound, but remembered I'd already insulted her hair.

“That's so cute,” I said, meaning really corny, but who was I to judge. The chowder was amazing. The mood had lightened and I wanted to keep it that way. Mind you, Daniel and Andy had a few grievances to work out. They were staring at each other like Zulu warlords.

I explained how I met Andy while staying at Browns Hotel the night before and how he had kindly volunteered to drive along to help navigate the coastal road. Nobody questioned his motives. Either this was a friendly custom in these here parts, or both had something else to occupy their minds. Meriel recalled staying at the hotel years ago with their parents to attend a family reunion. It was a fine old hotel that she recalled with fond memories. I was plenty sure I was never going to use the word “fond” to describe my stay. This wasn't a social call and after lunch I told them about the brutal murder of Anthony Vieira. The part about the neat butchering of his body parts made his sister blanch, but Daniel didn't flinch.

“The police want to talk to you, Daniel. You were the last person to talk to Mr. Tony alive. The store's answering machine recorded you saying ‘Tony' before it shut off. They think you murdered him. Your fingerprints were all over the place.”

“I didn't kill him. I found him like that.”

“Why take a runner, then? It makes you look guilty.”

“Guilty of what? I couldn't do that to someone! It was disgusting. I ran out of there and called my sister. She told me to come home immediately.”

I stole a glance at Meriel. She bowed her head and explained, “I know my little brother and he was terrified. I couldn't fly out to Toronto right away, so I told him to come home.”

“You should have called the police first, Daniel. And what about the rotting meat I found in your car trunk?”

“I was going to come back to dispose of it in a few days. It was cool outside so I left the garage door open, hoping the smell would filter away. I didn't want the neighbours complaining.”

“Your neighbours are the last people you should be worried about. The police were with me when we found the meat.”

Daniel put his head in his hands and closed his eyes.

“Martin, the waiter from the convention, gave me the message that you wanted to talk to me. I flew out here as soon as I could. I hope you appreciate it more than you're acting. If you turned yourself in voluntarily maybe you could come back to work.” I touched his arm gently. “Why did you try to run away from me just now?”

He lifted his head, gave Andy a dirty look, and said defensively, “I was keeping watch out the window. When you drove by, I saw you weren't alone. I figured you brought the police.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because you think I killed Tony, don't you?”

“I don't know what to think. First Mr. Tony was murdered and the next morning his wife was poisoned. A city councillor by the name of Stephen Albright was with her at the convention centre and he was poisoned, too. I was attacked while searching for you and I'm not the only one who thinks it's an awfully big coincidence that you were working there as head chef and then suddenly quit.”

“I quit the day before. I only went back to get my knives and then heard about the food poisoning that morning. I don't know why you were attacked, but I'm glad you're okay. I don't know who's responsible. Why am I a suspect?”

“Because you keep popping up where dead people are concerned …”

“Dead…?”

“The councillor wasn't as lucky as Mrs. Vieira. Albright died last night. They think it was from the same batch of meat they found in your trunk.”

“That's impossible. I called Tony at Superior Meats after I closed Walker's kitchen. I was supposed to meet him, but his machine picked up and before I could say anything except his name, the line disconnected. I figured he hung up on me so I went over there.”

“What time was this?”

“Around midnight, when I pulled down the alley, the bay door was open. Several cardboard cartons marked for the C.N.E were stacked in the doorway and one whiff told me they were the steaks I was supposed to deliver to the show in the morning. I loaded my trunk as fast as I could. I wanted to hide them from Tony. I hadn't figured out how I was going to tell him I couldn't go through with the plan.”

“Whoa, what plan?” Andy blurted out. My eyes told him to be careful.

“It was Tony's idea. He wanted to give food poisoning to the guests of the new Spring Fair.”

“Food poisoning!” Andy cried. “You got to be kidding me. That's the dumbest plan I've ever heard of.”

I kicked him hard under the table.

Daniel ignored the outburst. “I thought Tony was kidding. He was the boss, after all, so I went along with the joke. I was putting in a lot of hours, late at night, setting up menus for the various events and it wasn't unusual for him to hang around and have a few drinks. Then one night he showed up roaring drunk. He kept repeating that he would ‘get even.' And, if I helped him, he'd pay double what he owed me.”

“What did he want you to do, exactly?”

“Serve tainted meat at the opening ceremonial brunch.”

“Wouldn't someone notice?”

“Not if you marinated the steaks overnight in garlic and wine. There might be a hint of an odd taste, but nothing more. By the time the cases in the trunk were found though, they would have been too far gone to mask the smell. ”

“That's why you went over to the store.”

“Yes.”

“You didn't see Mr. Tony?”

“Not exactly. Listen, I wasn't going through with it, I was just pretending to. My reputation would be on the line if I was caught and I'd never work in the industry again. Tony didn't care. He was hell-bent on it and I never saw him like that before. I don't know what got into him, but I was throwing the steaks out and if he tried to stop me I was prepared to fight. Only he didn't come back out of the store, which was strange, especially with his rear cargo doors open and considering he was already mugged in the alley years ago.”

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