Gunselle turned the key. Nothing. She turned it again. Nothing. Again. Nothing.
Kicking open the Studebaker’s door, she stepped into the lingering mist outside the garage. She looked at her wristwatch. The target would be stopping for his lunch in thirty minutes. No time for a cab. She looked across the street. A man weeded the garden above the sidewalk in front of his house. Shirley Temple peonies were in full bloom. Gunselle trotted toward him on sensible flat soles. She hadn’t primped for today’s job. It wasn’t a cocktail lounge pickup. And the pay was better.
“Hey, Frank,” she said, smiling up at the gardener from the sidewalk. He stood politely, brushing dirt from the knees of his soiled trousers.
“Mrs. Turner. How are you?” Though she wore sunglasses on a gloomy day, and hid her dark hair under a drab headscarf, he clearly remembered her from the time they spoke on the sidewalk when she was at her best in a tight summer dress, blazing like two sunny afternoons.
“Well, now that you mention it, Frank, I need to get to an appointment in half an hour and my car won’t start. I’d call a cab, but I really need to get going right this minute. May borrow your car?”
The man kicked at the dirt.
“I’d be happy to drive you, but my daughter’s birthday party starts right after lunch, and we’re taking the kids to the movies.”
“Just toss me the keys and I’ll have it back in an hour.”
“I don’t know. It’s a brand-new automobile.”
“Fuck you, Frank. I’m an excellent driver,” she said as she turned back toward her house.
Stepping off the curb, she noticed the old man on his corner porch. He was a mean bastard, always yelling at kids and dogs to stay off his half-dead lawn. He’d eyeball her from his rocking chair when she went out for walks in the evening. He lived alone. A rusted pickup waited at the bottom of his steps.
She turned down the middle of the street and headed up to his scruffy porch, watching his eyes grow wider as she approached.
“I need your truck, old man. Right now. What do I have to do?”
He stood with a comic leer, then opened the screen, motioning her into the house. Gunselle brushed past him into the living room.
After five infuriating minutes, she burst out the screen door and spit the mess in her mouth onto the weedy lawn. The old man had pulled off her scarf to run his fingers through her hair, so she grabbed his worn fedora off the knob of the rocking chair. Placing the hat on her head, she noticed Frank watching from across the street. Lifting the keys, she shook them, then raised her shoulders. It was his loss for having children and birthday parties.
At the bottom of the steps, she walked around the old man’s truck, stopping to brush the heavy grime off the license plate. When she was satisfied that the numbers could be read, she climbed in and started it up.
The truck sputtered and backfired all the way to the center of town. Gunselle felt like Ma Kettle bringing eggs to market as she rattled her way through the business district, eventually turning onto a side street. After a few blocks, she spotted the detective’s unmarked cruiser sitting at the curb. Pulling up beside him, she reached across the passenger seat to roll down the window. She made it just in time, as he crumpled the burger wrapper in his hands and tossed it out onto the street.
“Hey, mister. There’s a fine for littering,” she said as she removed the revolver from her bag and shot him in the face. He’d almost finished chewing. A car came to a screeching stop behind the truck as Gunselle squeezed two more rounds into the cruiser for effect. With the roomy hat down over her ears, she slowly puffed and clattered away from the scene.
Standing in the shadows of her open garage, Gunselle watched the activity on the corner while eating a bowl of canned peaches. Five police cruisers were parked at odd angles in front of the old man’s house, men with pistols and shotguns squatting behind open doors. A take-charge fellow with a bullhorn ordered the occupant of the house to step outside with his hands up. The fedora hung on the knob of the rocking chair where Gunselle left it after returning the keys and demanding her scarf. Eventually, the door opened and an angry old man stepped outside, waving a spatula at the line of cops. It wouldn’t have mattered if he raised his hands in surrender. The blood splattered against the front of the house after the smoke cleared explained why it was never a good idea to kill a police detective.
As officers raced to the porch, Gunselle strolled across the street, happily spooning at her peaches, then set the bowl on top of the concrete wall and pulled one of Frank’s peonies down toward her nose. The scent was elusive. Gunselle looked up to see Frank and his wife staring out a large picture window, the heads of five pretty little girls below them in a line, like tulips, taking in the carnage. One of the girls laughed as she silently clapped her hands together. That made Gunselle smile. Frank looked down at her after his wife herded the children away. He glanced at the old man’s house, then back at her.
She put her index finger to her lips, then pointed it at Frank like a pistol.
Frank nodded as Gunselle picked up the empty bowl and started back across the street. It was a pleasant neighborhood. She was finally getting to know her neighbors.
About the author:
Russell Thayer received his BA in English from the University of Washington and worked for decades at large printing companies. He currently lives in Missoula, Montana.
The television studio was bigger than I imagined, and busier than I expected. People scurried in all directions, each seemingly on a life or death mission. I didn’t know why I was there, only that I was looking for Marvin Stone, a producer for Foodie Television who asked the police commissioner for a favor.
A young woman with a clipboard stood by the doorway muttering.
“Excuse me…” She ignored me. I tried another tack. “Police,” I said, bringing up the badge hanging from my neck. She looked up, eyes wide.
“Are you crazy?” a voice asked.
A small, balding man in an immaculately cut suit appeared as if from thin air. His face wore a mixture of dismay and anger. “I asked Brampton to send someone with discretion!”
I cleared my throat. “Marvin Stone?”
“Yes. Detective Smulders?”
“I’m Mark Smulders.”
“Come with me.” He led me to another part of the building. This area was dominated by a raised platform on which there were enough shining chrome ranges and refrigerators for a small army of chefs. Painted on the rear wall of the set was a logo reading KITCHEN PUZZLES. Lying face-down on the floor in the middle of the “kitchen” was a body. It might have been a man who just stumbled and fell, but from long experience I knew it wasn’t.
To one side of the platform, two men and a woman were seated in canvas chairs, looking uncomfortable. Four beefy guys in security uniforms surrounded them, two behind and two in front, ensuring none of the three were going anywhere.
I opened my mouth, but Stone beat me to the punch. “I know, we should have gone through normal channels when we found Chef Roberto’s body, but we can’t afford bad press. I’ve known Commissioner Brampton for years and asked if we could handle this quietly. He said he’d send his best detective and that you’d find the culprit and take them away quietly. What do you need to get started?”
The commissioner was a flamboyant man who knew a lot of media folks and was always getting his face on TV or in magazines. More of a politician than a cop. I wondered what favor he owed Stone.
I mentally sighed. I didn’t like this off-books tit-for-tat stuff. I said, “Give me a rundown on the situation.”
Stone said they were supposed to film the pilot for a new reality-show this afternoon, in which three amateurs attempted to replicate celebrity chef Roberto Orsi’s recipes simply by tasting them. Orsi was well-known for his culinary skills, especially his off the cuff improvisations, and equally for his temper. The network hoped that people would tune in more to see how he dressed down the contestants than how they dressed up their dishes. The pilot’s three contestants were chosen from a cooking competition at a local mall: Michael Moulton, Raphael Flores, and Amelia Carter.
“There’s already been a lot of friction,” Stone admitted. “Roberto resented having anyone in his kitchen, even for the show. The practice runs we’ve done have been volatile, which is what we wanted, but we never thought it would come to this.”
“Anyone butt heads with Roberto more often than the others?”
Stone shook his head. “Unfortunately, Chef Roberto was pretty hard on all of them.”
I sighed aloud this time. “Let me look at the scene.”
The set was a functioning kitchen. The ranges and ovens worked, and the refrigerators were filled with ingredients. There was also a large pantry stocked with dry goods; the door stood open and white powder covered the floor between it and a paper bag clutched in the outstretched hand of Chef Roberto. Nearby was a frying pan, apparently the murder weapon from the dark stains on it.
I studied the tableau for a few minutes before I stepped down to the floor of the soundstage.
“Well?” Stone asked.
“Ask your security guys to hold Mr. Flores while I get a tech-team in to process the scene.” Before Stone could protest, I said, “They’ll be discreet, I promise, but to make this arrest stick, we’ll need evidence and when it comes to due process, there’s no such thing as too many chefs in the kitchen.”
“Wait,” Stone began. “How do you know it was Mr. Flores? I mean…” Words seemed to fail him. I had a feeling it was a new experience.
“I don’t remember much from high-school Spanish, but I do remember that ‘flores’ is flower.” Gesturing towards the sound-stage floor, I added, “Orsi made one last improvisation in the kitchen, trying to cook Mr. Flores’s goose.”
In his canvas chair, Flores squirmed uncomfortably, but he didn’t deny it.
About the author:
Brandon Barrows is the author of several novels, most recently 3rd LAW: Mixed Magical Arts, a YA urban fantasy, as well as nearly one-hundred published stories, mostly crime, mystery, and westerns. He was a 2021 Mustang Award finalist and a 2022 Derringer Award nominee. Find more at http://www.brandonbarrowscomics.com & on Twitter @BrandonBarrows
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