Chapter 1: It Ain’t Got That Swing
I SHOULD HAVE guessed something was wrong from the way Sexy Beast was behaving. Well, not while we were still outside the restaurant, knocking. After standing there in a fine September drizzle for a couple of minutes wearing out my knuckles, I finally decided to try the door handle. What do you know? Swing had left it unlocked for me.
I experienced a naughty thrill as I pulled open the heavy door with its prominent CLOSED sign and ushered Sexy Beast into the dim interior. Not only was the restaurant closed on Mondays, but it was ten-thirty in the morning, too early to be open in any event. During regular business hours my little apricot poodle wouldn’t be welcome in this fancy eatery—well, unless I bought a tiny “working dog” harness for him and tried to pass him off as a service animal. Yeah, that’s right, I rely on Sexy Beast to keep me from eating more than my daily allotted portion of escargot.
Not that Swing offered anything as predictably French as snails in herb butter at Dewatre, his eponymous four-star restaurant in snooty Crystal Harbor, Long Island. Despite being French himself, he preferred experimenting with, and riffing on, the American culinary traditions. My favorite dish at Dewatre (and Sexy Beast’s favorite leftovers) was Swing’s melt-in-your-mouth Dixie Brisket in sweet-and-sour sauce. All I can say is, this is not your mama’s pot roast.
Once inside the restaurant, Sexy Beast and I made our way through the dining room, now stripped bare of linen and crystal, the chairs upended on tables. The scents of last night’s dinner service lingered in the air, as well as the faint whiff of cleaning products. I wasn’t surprised that Sexy Beast’s sniffer was working nonstop. I was surprised when he began whining. Subtly at first, a barely audible thread of sound from deep in his throat. I ignored it. If I got myself worked up every time that needy little pooch got himself worked up, I’d be a gibbering idiot in no time.
I know you’re wondering how Crystal Harbor’s most renowned chef and restaurateur ended up with the moniker Swing. It’s because of his surname, Dewatre. I suppose in France they give it a Frenchier spin, but on this side of the pond we pronounce it “doo-wat.” Which naturally puts one in mind of Duke Ellington and his whole damn orchestra. After all, “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” Everybody now! “Doo-wat doo-wat, doo-wat doo-wat, doo-wat doo-wat…”
But to get back to Sexy Beast… and listen, you might as well call him SB, everyone does. I take the seven-pound troublemaker almost everywhere. I have a straw tote that he’s turned into a comfy portable nest, complete with an old sweater for a lining and pockets for plastic poop-scooping bags and his favorite snacks. He lets me keep my wallet and keys in there too. Does this mean he’s a purse dog? Or more disturbing still, that I’m one of those ditzes who carries a purse dog everywhere I go?
Okay, you know what? Let’s just drop it.
Anyway, SB wasn’t in his tote as we wove around tables toward the restaurant kitchen, he was on a leash. And it was all right because Swing actually liked my dog. By which I mean he liked to pet my dog and sneak him yummy scraps, not that he liked to imagine my dog arranged on a platter with a nice béarnaise sauce.
Which might seem like a creepy distinction to make if you didn’t know that Swing had a reputation. I’m not sure how the rumor got started, but in this town that’s like saying I’m not sure how the sun rose in the east. If gossip were a marketable commodity, Crystal Harbor would be the wealthiest town on the Island. Instead of, well, one of the wealthiest. Oh, you get my point.
A militant international organization called the Society for Endangered Animal Rights, or SEAR for short, had accused Swing of cooking and serving endangered species. Not to the general public, mind you, but to hand-picked, superwealthy individuals at private dinners during Dewatre’s off hours. It was said that Swing fricasseed black rhinos and pan-seared Sumatran tigers. It was said that people from all over the world paid upwards of a hundred grand a plate for the privilege. It was said that they wore elaborate masks to conceal their identity from one another.
A lot of things were said, and a lot of folks in Crystal Harbor seemed to know someone who knew someone who knew… well, you know how the rest of that goes. But I’d never come across anyone who’d actually claimed to have enjoyed a nice, steaming bowl of loggerhead turtle soup at Dewatre.
Swing never took SEAR or any of his other critics seriously. If anything, he welcomed the publicity. We weren’t best buds, but I’d known the guy for three years and counted him as a friend. Until I had solid evidence otherwise, I was giving him the benefit of the doubt. Plus I had recurring sex dreams about that brisket, and the idea of going cold turkey made me weep a little.
The hairs on my nape prickled as we passed through the dim, quiet dining room, a space I normally associated with activity and conversation, the clink of flatware and crystal, and the heavenly aromas of good food and wine. That alone shouldn’t have creeped me out. It was the dog, I reasoned. SB’s strange whining had ratcheted up in volume and it was beginning to get to me.
“Man up, SB,” I said. “You’re not turning into one of those neurotic little lap dogs, are you?” I said this just to make him feel better about himself. The poor guy had been a neurotic little lap dog from day one. There was no fighting it at this point.
In case you’re wondering what I was doing there during off hours, I had an appointment to discuss a catering job with Swing. Veronica Sheffield’s favorite aunt had just kicked the bucket, and only the best would do for her funeral reception. Veronica was one of my steadiest clients and she had boatloads of money, enough to sway even a world-renowned chef like Swing.
Right now you’re probably thinking I’m some kind of funeral planner—like a wedding planner, only more depressing. And today you’d be right. That’s kind of what I was doing for Veronica, taking care of all the funeral details. Yesterday, however, you would have found me at the Leonard T. Ahearn and Sons Funeral Home overseeing the casting of a death mask on behalf of a grieving widow. What did she intend to do with it? you ask. Why, place it on his pillow, of course, so she could continue to wake up next to him every morning. Yeah, I know, but hey, it’s legal, and trust me, it’s nowhere near the weirdest thing I’ve been hired to do. Tomorrow’s job was a little more normal. I was scheduled to sort through a recently deceased surgeon’s extensive collection of antique medical instruments at the request of his kids, research each piece online, and put them all up on eBay.
What’s that? You sense a theme running through these various assignments? Then give yourself a gold star. My name is Jane Delaney and I’m the Death Diva. If you want something done to, or on behalf of, a dearly departed loved one, I’m your girl. Hey, it’s not such an icky way to make a living. I saw a need and I filled it. The American dream in action.
“Swing?” I called, expecting an answer from the vicinity of the kitchen. Nada.
SB’s whining had taken on a high, keening quality that skewered my cranium and threatened to scramble the contents. If he kept this up, Swing would regret having granted permission for me to bring him. “Come on, little man,” I said, “knock it off. If you behave, you’ll get a Vienna sausage when we get home.”
Not even the promise of his favorite treat had the desired effect. Rather than lead the way in what should have been an intriguing new space, he stuck close to my side as I headed for the double doors to the kitchen. Light shone through the windows set in the doors. That and the unlocked front door told me the chef hadn’t forgotten our meeting.
Not that he’d made a special trip. Swing routinely spent Mondays alone in his kitchen testing new recipes, planning the week’s specials, and deciding which dishes would make the transition to the small screen and the cooking demos he regularly did on the morning news programs and other shows. This was in addition to his participation in those Food Network shows that pit chefs against one another.
I had it on the QT that the network was considering Swing for his own food show, maybe something that involved travel and adventure. And why not? The guy was telegenic, no doubt about it, and he knew how to address the camera so the viewer felt as if Swing were speaking directly to her. Yeah, her. We’re talking serious sex appeal here. As in six-plus feet of craggily handsome, nicely arranged, French-accented USDA prime male on the hoof. I judged him to be in his early forties—his wavy, brown hair was just beginning to sport a few threads of silver at the temples—so he had the possibility of a long, lucrative TV career ahead of him.
I called his name again as I pushed through the double doors into the big commercial kitchen. Utensils and ingredients cluttered the U-shaped central work station. Shallots and parsley. Bottles of olive oil and Madeira. Breaded filets of meat—who knew what kind? I thought again of that stupid rumor. This meat didn’t look like chicken. Veal, probably. Yeah, I was going with veal. I forced the image of an adorable giant panda out of my head and substituted an adorable calf with luxurious eyelashes. Yeah, big improvement.
Maybe my ex-husband, Dom, was on to something with his vegetarianism. He’d always tried to convert me and I’d always dismissed the possibility. I could give it a try. Then I thought of Swing’s Dixie Brisket. Not to mention porterhouse steak, Peking duck, and charred hot dogs fresh off the grill, slathered with gobs of bright yellow French’s mustard. To say nothing of the perennial deal-breaker. Oh, you know the one. It starts with b and it ends with n, and the whole middle part is filled with crispy, smoky a, c, and o.
Yeah, I might give up bacon. Who was I kidding?
And where was Swing, anyway? He must have stepped out to the john. Maybe he was in his office. SB’s whining had increased in volume and he was attempting to climb me. Sighing, I picked him up, then jumped in surprise when music suddenly started. It emanated from the chef’s cell phone lying on a steel counter across the room. I recognized the first few bars of “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and smiled.
I found myself moving around the work station, intending to peek at the screen and see who was trying to phone Swing. As I rounded the far end, I nearly tripped over something on the floor. I looked down. A shoe. The shoe was attached to a foot.
He lay sprawled on his back. One could almost believe he was napping with his eyes open, were it not for the serving platter positioned under his handsome head. And the sprigs of parsley tucked behind his ears. And the great big cooking knife protruding from his white chef’s jacket.
And the blood.
On the tile floor above his head, the initials SEAR had been written in squirts of dark liquid. A squeeze bottle of balsamic syrup lay nearby.
Sexy Beast and I whined in unison as I came face-to-face with what the dog’s turbocharged nose had informed him the instant we’d entered the restaurant.
The phone was still doo-watting its little heart out. Numbly I glanced at the screen and saw a picture of a youngish, redheaded woman and the word Chloe. I slid to the floor, still clutching my dog, and sat staring at the thing that used to be Chef Pierre “Swing” Dewatre.
“They got him,” I whispered. “Those wackos finally got him.”Return to Perforating Pierre