~ Cooking On High ~
by Creme Brulee

Disclaimers: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are so well copyrighted I bet I don't even have to write this disclaimer. But I will, because intellectual property rights are really important and lord knows these guys deserve 'em. I wouldn't knowingly infringe on them, ever. This is an uber-romp, so I've got the copyright to anything that's copyrightable here.

Beyond here there be dragons, less than pretty language, and malevolent prose. People of the same sex get frisky with other people of the same sex. Alcohol happens, what happens when alcohol happens (that's violence, if you're not familiar with the phenomenon). That said, there's nothing too graphic in here. And there's a lot of made up stuff that I didn't have time to research - that's why I'm calling it fiction.

Thanks to the finest beta reader a part-time bard could ask for. She's a rockin' beta gal. And thanks to anyone, anywhere who's had anything to do with getting and keeping the show on the air. It's been a hoot.

Creme Brulee: cremebrulee@myrealbox.com

Part 1

Chapter 1

It couldn't be all bad, could it? She just wasn't sure. While there might have been one, maybe just one damn piece of food at this table that wasn't vegan or industrial whole wheat, or super unsaturated out of any flavor whatsoever, she couldn't find it. She gave up and poured herself another cup of tea.

Why had she come to this party anyway? Oh yeah, Louisa Millet would be here, right. And that meant that she had to be here to grease the wheels of democracy and get that damn zoning bill to pass in her favor. Why of all people did Louisa have to be the Chair of the Zoning committee? She was a die hard dieter and macrobiotic fanatic, thin as a rail with the personality to match. Ugh. And if the mousey woman looked over here again with that sappish expression she was gonna lose it. There was only so much she could do in the name of the business... okay, so she'd done worse, but this was making her skin crawl. She mustered all of her reserves and headed over to the latest victim of her ambition and considerable charm..."Yo, Louisa."

With a start and a cough Louisa Millet turned to see who had slapped her on the back while she'd been swallowing a piece of blanched broccoli dipped in tofu spread. "French, hi!" she squeaked. She wiped her fingers hastily on the crumbled napkin she'd been using as a plate. She grabbed French's hand and shook it a few times before she realized that she hadn't really cleaned any of the spread off. "Oops, sorry."

"No problem. I can't get enough of that stuff myself." French oozed a little more charm while thinking, "Smooth, Louisa. Couldn't you just drool on me instead." She wondered briefly if it wasn't the same difference for a macrobiotic fundamentalist. Freaks, the lot of them.

The talk with Louisa was grueling, but productive. From the looks of it she wasn't the only one courting the bland hostess. Louisa's influential vote on this bill was probably her first and only shot at notoriety. She had seized this opportunity to coerce every person indebted to her, or effected by the bill in any way, to come to an afternoon luncheon. This meant a gathering of odd bedfellows, literally speaking, since French had slept with several of them.

She'd cringed when she'd turned a corner and run into Monica Brastlet, an old friend of Louisa's from high school. And a complicated one night stand for French, several summers ago. This was not a comfortable moment. Luckily French was rarely effected by other people's discomfort. Okay, so maybe she thrived on it a little, whatever.

She walked over to chat with Bernie Glek. He was locked in a perpetual pining pattern for Louisa, the sap. No one had the heart to tell Bernie that he didn't stand a chance with her. But that didn't mean Louisa didn't have uses for him. He was actually a nice guy who owned a moderately sized fishing fleet and talked about little else. Strangely though, his enthusiasm for his subject was contagious, and everyone enjoyed chatting with him.

French talked fish and tides for a while with Bernie. He was a small, gestured with his hands as he spoke and kept giving her excited looks as he described the oncoming season's prospects. But every now and again his eyes would wander the room and settle on Louisa. He would exhale a small, wistful sigh and a hopeful expression would cross his face. Go figure.

Louisa was busy flittering around talking to her guests. She zeroed in on a small unlikely grouping that included Sylvia and Nathan Cummings, owners of Barrett Yachts; Jason Pierce, a junior clerk from the town hall; and Dede Foster, the local florist. Sylvia and Nathan were birds of a particularly conservative feather, decked out in the usual weekend WASP plumage, matching tennis outfits. They looked totally disinterested in their present company, sporting smiles that had gone stale moments after they'd arrived. Jason was wearing his crumpled version of geek chic, pocket protector and all. He was totally oblivious to the fact that the Barrets could care less about processing a 64-1070 building permit, even if it was exceptionally beautiful in it's bureaucratic complexity. And Dede Foster was her usual glum self, wearing what she considered an artful black getup, complete with a small black fez.

French noted several other incongruous groupings around the room. It was as though Louisa had gone out of her way to bring a group of people together who otherwise made a point of not knowing each other. And it wasn't like she was the hostess of the hour, a social magnet, drawing interesting people to herself and creating a buzz. She was conspicuously lacking in buzz type energy. One might go so far as to say she'd kill any buzz that strayed into her immediate vicinity. And yet this diverse crowd had overcome their innate social inhibitions and petty snobberies to appease their hostess. French was reasonably sure they weren't here for the buffet.

She'd had to stifle a groan and a muted curse when she saw Mitchell Redmond come in with his cronies. What an unlikely visage in the restricted confines of Louisa's colonial style, country kitsch decorated home. Mitchell was sophisticated cool to the core. Standing over six feet, wearing tailored slacks and a crisply ironed dress shirt, he carried himself with the confidence of a man who wields great power. And he did, social and otherwise. Which made his presence here notable if not completely unexpected. But French could care less why he was here, she was too busy walking through various rooms of Louisa's warren of a house, looking for another way to leave it.

She exited via the back door, over the rear picket fence, down the alley that ran adjacent to the property, and out onto the next street a block away. Freedom at last. She turned left, heading down Portman Hill toward friendlier territory and away from her final social obligation of the day. Socializing had always been a complex, strategic enterprise for French. And it would only get more complicated now.

As she walked, she considered her conversation with Louisa. French had almost choked on her tea at the proposal the mousy woman had made, with no subtlety and less grace: a favorable vote in exchange for sex. Always keep your eye on the unassuming ones... she should have expected it.

Not unaccustomed to overtures of this kind, French rallied easily. She negotiated with her ace in the hole. A reservation at The Meadow, an exclusive macrobiotic restaurant. You wouldn't think there could be such a thing. It was a small establishment with a select clientele. The likelihood of getting a reservation if you weren't a proffered patron was slim to nonexistent. And French had a reservation for two Saturday night.

It was a feat to have gotten it. People had paid huge sums of money and courted every chic social acquaintance they had, trying to get in. The way French saw it, it always helped to keep in touch with old friends. Okay, that was a stretch, it helped to know who was sleeping with whom and whom else they didn't want to find out. Louisa had agreed so fast and at such a high pitch that French's ears were still ringing. French couldn't make up her mind if she was relieved or slightly offended, having never been passed up for tasteless food before.

Oh goodie, another new experience. This was getting on her nerves. Things had been so much simpler in the past.

She continued walking through the residential section of town. Comstock was a quirky little place. A New England tourist town that had two seasons. One that mattered, and one that didn't. During the one that mattered, the summer, French had found that it was more like a medieval fiefdom than a town in modern America. Rather than finding the right palm to grease, it was a matter of locating the right ring to kiss. During the summer the town was a bizarre mix of the very rich, and everyone else. Perhaps the fact that Comstock was one of only three towns on a relatively small island, served to magnify the disproportionate influence of the wealthier residents.

They arrived each Summer like a fine and rare flock of migratory birds, colorful and extravagant in their luxury cars, yachts, and couture clothes. Their money poured down on the small island's towns, welcomed like rain after a long drought, and as a result - they owned the place. No matter if you lived, worked and voted here your whole life - they owned it. It was smart to know that, and wise to accept it and get on with the finer points of living. As most did. After all, the place looked nice, was kept clean and relatively quiet and of course if the Redmond's youngest son happened to crash his new Jag into your front yard, killing your dog, well...boys will be boys... best to accept it.

Comstock was only a tourist attraction for a few months a year, while the weather was fine. Come fall, when the season turned and the weather chilled, everything of interest got up off that island and went. Leaving the hearty island year rounders to weather the off season in their traditionally grumpy, New England manner. And as French saw it, they were welcome to it. She guessed that they weren't hearty by choice, not being able to afford to leave the bleak Winter climate at will. And their less than pleasant attitudes toward their summer neighbors was more a question of sour grapes than regional attitude.

Her pace increased as she neared her destination. Her prize, her sanctuary, her restaurant. One review had described it as, "An intimate dining experience at the water's edge, blending a light and elegant atmosphere with a deadly serious respect for the palate." Damn straight, and French had really liked the "deadly" part. She was the reputedly ruthless and obsessive chef/owner of Bachanal.

Chapter 2

French was to the culinary world what bad boys were to rock and roll, what prima donna were to opera. She was also worse. A frenetic drive and wild success early on had pumped up her innate self-confidence to titanic proportions, creating a monstrous ego and horrendous sense of self-importance. She was a force of nature, raw, untamed and people were drawn to her, like moths to a flame.

Gifted with a rare combination of talents, she took advantage of every opportunity she created. She'd burned like a comet through the culinary scene. And she knew they all hated her for it. Some had damn good reasons too.

She was tall with an athletic build, had long dark hair, and a profile resembling classical greek statuary. In distinct contrast to her intense, driven personality, her regard was usually placid. To the unassuming eye she appeared casual, laid back, to the point of being bored.

She'd been accused of sleeping her way to the top. This always galled her. They'd all said it with such disdain, as if it weren't an accomplishment in it's own right. As if it was easy. She did what was necessary to the occasion. To her keenly focused mind there were only two goals, complete mastery of her craft and professional success. If there was a new style, she learned it, if there was a hot new recipe, she stole it, if there was a more popular chef... well, let's just say there were ways of staying on top in such a fast paced, competitive business, and they weren't all nice.

But no one had ever accused French of being nice, or anything like it. Many other things, yes, but not that. French wasn't just a little proud of her well earned reputation as a calculating bitch, she revelled in it. Or at least she had, until quite recently.

She had an encyclopedic knowledge of all things culinary. Contemporary and historical. She could set a table for a sixteenth century Italian feast as easily as she could prepare a nouvelle cuisine dinner for two. But why starve your guests? She preferred to reel them in slowly and then overtake and possess their senses before they knew what had taken place. The look of total submission that shone in their eyes afterward, mixed with a fear that she may someday stop... She thrived on it. That was power.

She didn't have the name French because she dabbled in the occultish world of contemporary cuisine. She had been rigorously trained as a French chef and wore her toque with pride. The toque, the tall paper hats french-trained chefs wear, signified her hard fought battles in the trenches of culinary learning. She'd had to do everything short of killing a man to get it. And whoever he was, he'd been a lucky man, because if she'd been called on to kill him, she would have. French was a professional.

In her time as a chef, French had cut a swath through the best kitchens in the States and Europe, partnered several successful large scale ventures, and more recently concentrated her efforts here on Ningunquit Island. She'd discovered the tourist town while visiting Mitchell Redmond early in their acquaintance. It was an ideal location, providing a varied and exclusive clientele during the high season of the summer months. As well as a close proximity to the man she'd begun to feel was a suitable partner in her ever more ambitious ventures. And when the weather turned ugly, she could close up shop and leave with the more exotic migratory element of the island.

During the rest of the year she worked for Mitchell and she travelled. Keeping her skills sharp, spreading her considerable reputation and enhancing her repertoire. She was always in motion, on the lookout for the latest innovation, a new angle, a new twist on an old taste. Those who hesitated or dawdled on the road of culinary enterprise and service had only footprints across their back to show for their troubles. The footprints of fickle patrons on their way to the next star chef's bistro. It was a dog eat dog kind of world, and French had been a top dog for a good long while.

Up to that momentous event three months ago, she'd waged a one woman campaign on the contemporary culinary world and met with considerable success. It all came to a grinding halt however, upon her meeting one man, Hercule LeGrande.

LeGrande, known to friends as "The Big Guy", was the force behind Elysium. The most illustrious restaurant in Manhattan, serving the most select clientele on the planet. He was considered part God, not only by his devoted following, but by most everyone in the business. This, of course, brought him into French's ascendant path.

French had a way of insinuating herself into another chef's restaurant, under the guise of a like-minded colleague, burning to share culinary knowledge. That impression rarely lasted. And as with most of the establishments she'd infiltrated, she'd gotten right to work, destroying LeGrande's operation. First seducing his business partner and getting the lay of the land... so to speak. That'd been easy. Next she went after the internal workings of the restaurant. But somehow it'd all gone wrong, or right, depending on how you looked at it really.

Without her realizing it, Hercule had managed to contain her, and turn her daunting energy on none other than her own, unlikely self. He was good. He knew every trick in the book, and when those ran out, he was able to counter her more devious, home grown attempts.

Machinery she'd sabotaged magically operated during shift. Rumors she started died on the vine. Food she'd spiked, wasn't. And books she'd cooked, weren't. Countering her onslaught seemed effortless on his part. He didn't let on that he knew she was a saboteur for the longest time. She stewed there in a state of frustration entirely alien to her. Out of necessity, she observed the restaurant closer than she had anything ever before, looking for the flaw, the failing that would be this man's downfall.

What she saw was something she'd never expected. Something completely foreign to the kitchens she'd worked in in the past. At least, it was something she thought she hadn't seen in them. Love.

What an odd thing to glimpse in the loud, clatter-hiss of a professional kitchen. But she had, and it had done something to her. Brought her up short where she stood, for one thing. Stopped her cold. And opened a chasm.

As she watched in fascination, she'd seen herself in sharp contrast. And like a rip in the fabric of what held her together and gave her steam, she was undone. She was changed.

She'd missed it at first, in all of her usual haste and narrowly focused determination. The difference of that place. So she stayed on for a short while after, observing anew. Eventually, she realized that she enjoyed being with Hercule and his oddball staff. And having seen the workings of his operation, up close and personal, she respected him. She'd never seen a place run in such a way before. The staff looked out for each other and worked in mutual respect, right down to the dishwashers. And she'd betrayed them all.

She'd felt a growing emptiness, looming and scary. She realized that it was one thing to be changed, and another to stay that way. With trepidation she'd approached Hercule, expecting to be exposed and rebuffed.

It become clear that he'd known from the first, and never been fooled. But he'd admitted that it hadn't been easy containing her damage, undoing her work. She'd given him a challenge he'd been missing, and an opportunity as well. He explained, to her surprise, that in her he'd seen a fire and rage and something unique besides. He knew that she could, given the chance, see the error of her ways, and change to the good. Only it hadn't sounded corny when he'd said it. It sounded like a call. A lovely sound far away that lured her. She just had to start off toward it. Perhaps with a gentle push. French had not encountered such a fiercely gentle shove in her life. She understood. She would try.

Soon after that, she'd walked out on her partnership with Mitchell Redmond and the element that had gathered around their enterprise. These were some of the most high-profile and lucrative ventures of her career, not to mention the most crooked. She didn't want it anymore. It had all turned sour in the time she'd been at Elysium. It was her first step.

Of course, Mitchell didn't share her conviction. Actually, he was pissed. Too bad. She'd had enough of that crap. For now she just wanted to be left alone, working Bachanal and trying to get her life in some kind of order. She knew, given Mitchell's ire and the rest of her past, this was highly unlikely. Walking away from that kind of ugly was never easy, it tended to follow.

She suspected that Mitchell was behind the re-zoning effort on the Sutter's Wharf. The place where her restaurant was and the reason she'd been at Louisa's party. Who knew, maybe it was Mitchell's twisted sense of humor at work. It would be just like him to try to distract her with this kind of bull. Whoever was behind it, was trying to get the place re-zoned for residential occupancy. Hello condo neighbors, hello trouble. No way. Currently Sutters Wharf was zoned for business occupancy only, there were no residential provisions on that land. You could serve food, cut sails, clean boats, sell knick-knack crap, but you couldn't sleep there. And she wanted it to stay that way. There were plenty of places nearby to get a room on the waterfront, plenty of places to provide patrons. She didn't need them breathing down her neck, complaining about the noise, the dumpsters, the late night bustle, and whatever else civilians found unseemly living in close quarters to a prosperous culinary enterprise.

Of course Cezar, of Cezar's Bistro, was a distinct possibility as well. He'd never gotten over the fact that, despite his best efforts, French had managed to thrive in the midst of what he considered his vast culinary empire. Yawn. Not that she didn't have a major bone stuck in her craw about him.

She hated Cezar with a passion she reserved for a select few. French had slept with Cezar years back in an effort to sweeten a merger deal. Her scheme went awry when Cezar shanghai-ed her most experienced staff out from under her nose, effectively crippling her restaurant the day before the big season began. She'd had to travel to Timbuktu and back gathering a new crew together, but had missed a good part of the season in the process. This had been one of the darkest moments of her career.

The accidental fire at Cezar's restaurant the next season cheered her right up. And if there had been any witnesses they would have seen that it was an accident. French had recently taken up smoking, a nasty habit, which she dropped shortly after, right onto a kerosene soaked rag in the trash bin of Cezar's office. It wasn't her fault he'd forgotten to empty the thing and that his office was such a fire trap. Cezar suspected her at once, and never forgave her.

While these things played on her mind, they weren't her main concern. Staying glued together was. It'd been a hard few months since leaving Hercule and the staff at Elysium. She'd been holding herself in check. Vigilant against and distrustful of her natural instincts. The thing with Louisa had been one example of her new efforts at making a go of change. Reigning in her considerable temper was another. That was a real challenge and most likely the main cause of her headaches. That, and Mitchell calling, faxing, and e-mailing her every ten minutes trying to get her to reconsider. What a sap.

And she wished someone would be kind enough to explain why trying to better yourself had the nasty side effect of killing your libido? What the hell was that about? Great motivational technique, not. What did she care anyway? She had enough trouble getting through the day without cracking. Changing was harder than she'd ever thought and she'd just about had it.

The ritual of reopening the restaurant had been comforting to a degree. But as things were starting to roll, the internal pressure spiked. She wasn't sure how much longer she'd be able to cope. Something had to break, she hoped it wouldn't be too messy, and please, not during a dinner rush.

She rounded the corner at the bottom of the hill and took a deep, calming breath. There, at the end of Sutter's Wharf, at the waterfront, she could see Bachanal. It was a three story neo-colonial building. Having withstood many storms it had a weathered, yet distinguished appearance. The inside seemed larger, more open than you'd expect. It's large porch windows, still shuttered against the chill spring air, opened onto a stunning harbor view.

She paused and listened to the stays quietly clanking against the masts of the boats moored nearby. A seagull cried out as it flew overhead. Another gorgeous, by the sea kind of day in Comstock. A fine breeze blew off the water, there was the fresh smell of salt air, and the sun was shining bright. Good for business.

Chapter 3

Attendance was steadily rising as Memorial Day drew near. On the kick off to 'Summer Mania', crowds would pour over the island, filling the beaches, shops and restaurants to capacity. In the meantime, French navigated the usual shifts and bumps of the pre-season as she prepared her operation to endure the onslaught.

She'd already dispatched her first staffing problem, otherwise, returning crew and the ringers she'd gathered were beginning to find a rhythm.

Brian Gill, her sous chef of two summers was back. An extremely technically proficient, if uniquely unimaginative and unambitious young man. He was easily managed and posed no threat. If there was imagination going on in French's kitchen, she'd be the one doing it. That's the way she liked it. Otherwise, Brian had a knack for reproduction. That ensured a good standard in the product when she wasn't on hand to micromanage the hairs on his head.

Andre Kaznovsky was her grille man. Another return performance. A grizzly bear of a man, with a spanking bald head. In his early forties, he looked something like a svelt professional wrestler. A physique that came in handy in his line of work. He dwarfed the whippet thin Chilli Marx, her Garde Manger, the guy who plated the salads and desserts. He had the fastest hands in town and rarely fell behind even on a busy night. Chilli was enthralled with the idea of being a chef. Even a brief chance to work another station made him ecstatic. He watched the next station up from his like a hawk, not just to learn, but for any weakness in it's present occupant that might give him an opportunity to move up. French predicted he'd go far. But not through any weakness on Sonny Martinez's part.

Sonny was a line cook, and a damn fine one at that. He not only had speed, but an uncanny knack of timing. Nothing ever burned when Sonny was on, nor was it overdone, it was always perfect. He had the drive and skill to make an excellent sous chef, and maybe one day a chef in his own right. But not in French's kitchen, he was much too ambitious. He was already talking to another place in town about a possible advancement. Not a smart move this time of year and not smarter still to let it get back to her. In the meantime, he was great for keeping costs down and that was good for business.

If anyone needed to keep an eye out it was the other man on the line, Milo Ochoa. He'd been twitchy and distracted on and off since the season began. He kept up alright, but his breaks were longer than they should have been and he'd dropped a couple of orders. He'd be fine for a few days, then it would start again. If he was using he'd have to keep it under control or she'd kick his sorry butt out the door and not look back. She also considered the possibility that something could be making him nervous. She hadn't heard that anything was going on, but she was listening just the same.

Miguel, a necessary evil, was back and would run the floor. Not for lack of trying, French hadn't discovered a viable alternative to waitstaff. Miguel was a specimen of that esoteric and endangered breed, the professional waiter. She'd hired him several summers back and for reasons unknown, he'd returned ever since. She'd certainly given him reasons not to, but she wasn't going to argue with fortune. Some people were into pain, that wasn't her problem and she didn't mind benefiting from it.

Miguel, a tall, thirty-something cross between a Spanish noble and a Mayan prince, considered himself an irreplaceable asset to any operation. He may have been right. You'd certainly be hard pressed to find anyone who was as interested in and devoted to the finer points of food service.

On the business front, the summer's first casualty had been a neighboring restaurant, The Fisherman's Prize. It had gone up in a blaze two nights ago. Damn fryers were dangerous as hell. It was too close for comfort as far as French was concerned, the Prize was two buildings over on the Wharf. They were separated by the Grist Mill, a large stone industrial building that now housed a variety of tourist knick-knack shops and a sail loft. Take a lot of fire to get through that.

While she'd keep her eye peeled, she didn't think it'd been intentional. Of course, if Hal Mackney, the owner, thought she had anything to do with it, she'd have to be on full alert.

Part of French's brilliance running any scale venture was her ability to maintain focus not only in the face of adversity, but in its wake as well. Another part was keeping the adversity from coming up in the first place. She'd have to ask around quietly and make sure she was in the clear with Hal.

Keeping an operation like Bachanal running smoothly required a combination of skills unusual in one person. There were others who managed it, but rarely with such success. French's energy was boundless, her ingenuity unparalleled, her attack relentless. Professional kitchens are known to be places of chaos and cacophony at best during a busy shift, an atmosphere under siege once or twice a day. Not French's kitchen, and not her restaurant. She reserved a portion of her brilliance for the complex dance that was managing a rowdy bunch of personnel through the mayhem, with just the right amount of positive reinforcement, in the form of a healthy paycheck and fear.

It had worked wonders for her through the years. She hadn't had too much trouble from uppity sous chefs or line cooks trying to walk off with her recipes or skim profits. She was a paranoid fiend where her recipes were concerned. But anyone with half a brain could see that taking her on wasn't worth the trouble. If the incentives to work for her weren't so good, anyone with half a brain might also not risk it. But if you did, and you survived, you could make it anywhere. Even though she was reviled aplenty in the business, few would pass on an employee trained in her place. And then there was the extra buzz you got from the awed looks and free drinks from people looking for another good story about the notorious chef.

She told her staff at the beginning of each season, "It's simple, you bust your ass for me, I make sure you leave with a pile of cash. It's a pretty good arrangement." And it was true, Bachanal was the highest earning restaurant on the Island. You worked your tail off and if you didn't spend it on benders in the ongoing summer party, you made a bundle. But French concluded with a warning, "This isn't Cheers. I'm not looking for friends, just good, professional staff. You pull your weight you're fine, you slack off, you're gone. Like I said, it's simple."

She'd already lined up the crew and done the lecture bit. Things were holding steady for her emotionally, tenuously. Until a couple of days before the big show got under way, when Dil Mackenzie, 'Mac' to his friends if he'd had any, showed up in her kitchen and started asking questions. It'd gone to pot pretty quickly after that.

Dil Mackenzie was one of the many burned out chefs who'd settled on the island. Once their dream job turned on them, they'd pick up a civilian job. Detective Dil Mackenzie wanted to know where she'd been last night? Was it true she knew Louisa Millet, and when was the last time she'd seen her? When French told him he might want to readjust himself in someone else's kitchen, he indicated that she could answer these questions "downtown". She responded with a couple of choice epithets, unnerving Dil. In a show of bravado, he approached her at her cutting board and flicked a piece of parsley in her direction to punctuate his reply. She pretty much lost it, and it took two line cooks, her sous chef and a waitress to pull her off of him. That was assault. She went downtown.

Her wrists were sore and bruised from straining on the handcuffs. Surely she was being punished for every sin she'd ever committed, in short order. Not only was she being held in a room the size of a shoe box with no air or windows, but she was being interrogated by the village idiot.

He'd spent five minutes wrestling with the tape recorder trying to get it to work, before she'd pointed out that it wasn't plugged in. That'd been the warm up. The man had been pelting her with inane questions dealing with everything from the weather to her phone number. As he saw it, she was a prime suspect and he was wearing her down before he hit her with the tricky stuff.

"So, do you recognize this?" Dil held up a large knife in a plastic baggie.

"It's a Chicago Cutlery Chef's knife." French rolled her eyes.

"HA! So you admit, it's your knife!"


"This knife was found at the scene of the murder, you recognized it without hesititation, do you continue to deny that it is yours?"

"I wouldn't cut wind with Chicago Cutlery, much less kill someone with it!"

"AHA! How did you know she was murdered!"

"You just said so, you half-wit!" She shouted at him.

"But not with the knife! It was found next to the body. So why did you assume she'd been stabbed?" Dil asked. Then continued after a pause. "Note to tape: suspect appears agitated and is struggling again. A clear sign of guilt."

"Guilt?! When I get out of these I'm going to kick your ass."

It had continued in that fashion until someone realized they'd left Dil alone with the suspect for too long. The Lieutenant had mumbled an apology, but French still had to spend the night in a cell for the assault. Which was probably just as well, she'd definitely be in for murder had they let her go just then.

She'd failed miserably. The strain on her had been too great and she'd lost it. Which was how she'd ended up at Phil and Flo's Clam Shack the next afternoon. Fully demoralized, beyond her wit's end, drowning her beleaguered senses in beer and batter-fried stuff. Phil and Flo's had been the first place she'd passed leaving the jail that morning. She sat slumped at one of the picnic tables surrounded by tangible evidence of her distress. Crumpled wax paper, piled cardboard containers spotted with grease stains, and several empty pitchers. It wasn't a terrifically busy shift at the Shack. There were a few people at the outside tables and two or three couples inside where she was. But they left her alone with her problems, as she muttered and occasionally groaned, burying her face in her hands.

She wasn't sure how long she'd sat there, mired in a stew of dejected emotion. It had all become a blur, an intoxicated and deep fried kind of disoriented blur. But some external irritant began to tug at the edge of her awareness, drawing her out. As if surfacing from an engrossing dream she shifted about in her clouded brain as her consciousness tried to narrow in on the annoyance. It was a grating noise, distracting her from what was surely the more important business of losing her mind. It was the nasal voice of a man, intermingled with something less grating, but equally urgent in it's call for attention. Slowly, and with some difficulty at first, she tuned in on the growing altercation a few tables behind her.

"Sir, I'm sure it was just an accident, his hand slipped. As I'm sure yours did earlier when you brushed my bottom as I served your meal." French turned and saw a young woman and man standing near a table. She could make out the woman easily enough by the fluorescent green uniform. All of the wait staff wore them, cut off tops with "Phil and Flo's" emblazoned across the chest and matching short shorts to go with. An eyesore, but easy to spot for the momentarily visually challenged. The figure cowering behind her was a busboy, or so she figured from the apron. She squinted to steady her vision and watched. There was an older couple seated at the table. The old codger was the source of the grating voice.

"The nerve, young lady! That wetback dropped that glass when he wasn't paying attention. He could have injured my wife!"

"Hey Violet!" A large man called from behind the service window. This must've been Phil, he had the look of the classic Clam Shack proprietor about him. "Shut your trap and move it. 'Order up' for outside."

"It's okay," Roman spoke up quietly from behind Violet. "I'll get it."

"Yo! Skinny, I said, "Order up!" Phil enthused again.

From the look on her face, Violet was struggling with allegiances. On the one hand, there was the order, on the other, there was this insensitive moron who'd just insulted Roman, and his ancestry, because he'd dropped a greasy glass near the table as he was clearing it. As usual, it wasn't much of a struggle and Violet launched into a steady stream of logic and statistics to counter the offensive, racist invective. Of course, this did nothing to appease Phil, a consummate capitalist who always sided with the customer, whatever his or her views on race and the work ethic.

Somehow, a glass of water was tipped into the old man's lap and all hell broke loose. He jumped from the table in an effort to grab Violet, who had already been grabbed away by an angry Phil. The guy tripped, sending all manner of rubbish all over the floor.

"You crazy broad, what the hell do you think you're doing!" Phil roared. "Look at the mess you've made!" He gestured wildly in Violet's face. The old man's wife had hopped up and was brushing him off as he sputtered indignantly. She hadn't so much as peeped the whole time.

"The mess I've made! What about him? He insulted Roman, he was going to hit me! If you paid some attention to your staff you might pick up on these things. But then you might also pay a living wage and if you think I don't know that you're paying Roman and the others less than minimum wage, ha!, I do! You can't get away with treating him like that because he's not a naturalized citizen. If you let them pay into a health care pool you might..."

"Why you little ingrate, I oughta..." And it looked like Phil was gonna. He had cranked back his hand to get a good swing going. Eveyone else stood motionless. Roman was trying to disappear into his own skin. The couple, who'd finally made it upright, were glued to the altercation, morbidly hoping for the worst. Even Flo, who usually sat nearby at the register sucking on a cigarette and staring into space, was watching.

There was a resounding crash that shook the room.

"Excuse me!"

Phil froze mid swing at the sound of the crash followed by a booming voice.

In her attempt to rise quickly, French had tipped back the bench, then upturned her table and sent its contents clattering about the floor. Unsteady on her feet, she leaned on, then bounced off of, the table behind her as she lurched toward the group several feet away.

"I'm trying to have a nervous breakdown over there! I was doing a pretty good job of it too, swallowing this swill, until you all started yammerin' your mouths nonstop. Is it too much to ask for a little piece and quiet? Do you have to make such noise while polluting the planet with your obnoxious clap trap?" Her breath, which was septic after hours of consuming the Shack's finest, only increased the aura of menace that radiated off of her.

"This is none of your business. How rude! Who do you think you are?" The old man had found his voice again, and wasn't a little displeased at the interruption to what he thought was a just punishment. He didn't recognize unstable when he was looking at it. French turned on him, her eyes wild.

"You're not from around here are you? I'm a reputed killer and I eat small-minded tourists like you for lunch. You wouldn't know decent manners if they bit you in the ass. And I'd do a lot worse than that if you ever touched the wait staff in my restaurant." From the look on his face, he'd realized that he might be in danger. French was pretty sure he was out for the count.

"And you!" She turned to face Phil, but he'd retreated behind Violet. He'd recognized French and she didn't have to look half baked to make him nervous. She glanced down, vaguely registering the obstacle placed in her path. Looking Phil directly in the eye, she gently moved a stunned Violet off to the side.

"I know you!" She continued, as she poked at his chest. She wasn't even swaying anymore, her adrenaline had kicked in and she'd sobered some. "You were busted last summer for hiring illegal workers off the mainland, weren't ya? Sounds like you don't learn good, Phillip. I wonder if you're up to the same old tricks this year? Should I ring up I.N.S., just to check it out? Whaddya say?" Phil went a bit pale.

"I thought not." She looked over to see the tourist couple scrambling with their belongings in an effort to escape the volatile scene. "Better leave a tip!"

"And you'd better rethink your wages." She'd wrapped an arm around Phil's shoulder, gave him a squeeze, and made sure to breath directly in his face. It seemed to increase his discomfort. She was beginning to enjoy herself.

Yes, something had shifted. The altercation had cleared the air in her head, jump started her drive. She'd be okay. She beamed a smile at no one in particular, gave the now shaking Phil a hardy slap on the back and followed the couple as they scurried out the door.

She had to make her way through a small group that had assembled. She shook her head, everyone loved a scene.

Someone from the group watched her depart with interest. The onlooker was more than a little surprised at the course of events in the restaurant, and intrigued.

Chapter 4

French had made it back to Bachanal, and let the staff know she wouldn't be sitting out the season in the Big House. And after a shot of caffeine she'd be kicking into high gear to undo any of the damage they'd caused last night. She saw the disappointment that shone in some eyes, the thoughts of possible advancement and glory extinguished. Vultures.

She'd all but forgotten why Dil Mackenzie had been in her kitchen in the first place. Miguel had reminded her by subtly indicating that if she was in need of an alibi for that night, he was at her service. She could always trust Miguel for a good laugh. He had to be one of the most amoral, cynical people she'd ever met. He probably didn't care if she'd done it.

Louisa Millet seemed to French an unlikely candidate for murder victim. Sure, she was annoying, unethical, greedy and stupid, but no more than average. She'd made this assessment based on a brief acquaintance. And you never knew what lurked beneath the surface of peoples lives. French had made a study of not caring. Unless that person was somehow relevant to her enterprise... Louisa had been, so French knew a few helpful details, but nothing too deep, and nothing that smacked of a malevolent air. That is if you discounted the macrobiotic thing. She couldn't imagine anyone getting that riled up over Louisa. And she certainly hadn't given her more than passing thought herself, even after being accused of the murder.

She was checking over the dining room, on her third cup of coffee, when she noticed someone enter. At first her senses were jarred by the unseemly contrast of that evil green uniform against the serene and elegantly appointed room. She suppressed a shudder, certain she was sober now. She noticed that the waitress was not a girl, but a woman. And while the garish outfit was tacky in the extreme, right down to the frilly ankletts and white Keds, she filled it out admirably. You didn't get a body like that sitting on your ass chasing naval lint.

She had a girlish, fresh faced look to her, but on closer, more sober inspection, she must have been in her mid twenties. Looking a little lost, somewhat apprehensive, and could that other thing be hopeful? Not in this restaurant. French waited for her to speak.

"Hi! Remember me? From Phil's?..." Violet had been pacing out front arguing with herself for ten minutes. She'd never met French, but knew the stories. Who didn't? The thought of the fire and intensity bristling off that enraged figure back at the Shack, well, you might say, it'd inspired her.

French had dispatched those guys with an ease and surety that awed the waitress. That display of electric and focused energy had stunned that room and in retrospect dissolved Violet's reservations. And then there was this place, it was unlike any restaurant she'd ever been in.

She looked at the chef hopefully, but she still had a blank look on her face, as though she hadn't recognized her at all. True, French had seemed a little tipsy back at the Shack, but it hadn't been more than fifteen minutes ago. She was even more arresting now that she was cleaned up a bit, wearing a sparkling clean chef's jacket, her hair in a braid, and a toque atop her head. "Well, I was at Phil and Flo's, until a few minutes ago anyway and I was wondering if you were hiring around here. I've waitressed quite a bit and..."

French had raised her hand, cutting Violet off. "No, not interested." She turned away, resuming her inspection.

Violet was undeterred, "I'm a good worker, you wouldn't regret it..."

French wasn't paying attention anymore.

"I'm never sick. I'm short, but I lift my weight in flatware..."

French considered that it might be a good idea to change the shades in this room. The light was good, but something that filtered more softly might warm it a touch.

"And since you got me fired, it might be nice if you gave me a shot here." Violet was pretty sure that French had registered that remark. Otherwise, she probably wouldn't be standing over her like that, giving her that look.

"What did you just say?" French asked as she towered above the woman.

"You got me fired."

"You've got to be kidding!" French laughed. She had a lot of teeth, Violet noted. Perfect teeth. "You were doing a bang-up job in that department way before I stepped in, Norma Rae! Or did you think Phil was going to appoint you as his labor liaison after your little speech? If you think I'd hire you here and have you trying to organize my staff under my nose, you're cracked, Emma Goldman."

Violet knew it was a long shot trying to get onto this crew, but she just couldn't give up that easily. She was about to fire again, when she saw French's attention had shifted to the door behind her.

"Barbra." French straightened and gave a little nod toward the new arrival. Violet turned to see Barbra Wilkowski, hands crossed over her chest, weight on one foot, regarding the chef. The two of them seemed to be taking stock, sizing each other up.

"French." Barbra nodded back. "Heard you fired Virginia."

The sparring had begun, and damn, she was right. How was French to know that in her current state, an overly amorous hostess was going to be as annoying as dealing with a cat in heat? While French had a high tolerance for heat, she had no patience whatsoever for needy animals. It had been her own fault, she'd hired Virginia out of a fondness for tall redheads with fine assets. And she'd fired Virginia after she'd been cornered by the voracious woman in her office, something else it turned out French had no patience for.

Spilt milk. Here was an opportunity to repair the damage and come out ahead. Barbra Wilkowski was the most sought after Hostess on the island and had been loyally devoted to her employer for five years. That is, until the Fisherman's Prize had burned down the other night and freed her schedule some.

Barbra was a full-time teacher on the island during the off season, and kept working the restaurants long after it had ceased being a necessity. She loved the places, and the opportunity they presented to indulge one of her consuming passions, the study of the human race. Barbra had plenty of offers for work, and she'd actually sworn that she'd never work for that sadist-witch, but she'd witnessed the scene at Phil and Flo's. It had given her pause.

She knew more about French than most, but not from direct personal experience. In the past several years she'd nursed a few friends through some rough times no thanks to the callous and egotistical misadventures of Miss Personality in a chef's jacket. She'd heard stories recently, and now this. She had to admit, she was curious. And hell, it was just a couple of months.

It took them all of five minutes to iron out the details and French thought she'd made a good deal, when Barbra, as if she'd forgotten something inconsequential added, "Oh, and French, if you want me to work here, she stays." She gestured to Violet who French had all but forgotten.

"What?!" French balked. Barbra had seemed sane just a moment before.

"You know I'm worth it. Keep her for a week. If she doesn't work out you can let her go, but if you don't give her a shot, I'm gone."

French pursed her lips in thought. She didn't like this kind of bargain, mainly because she was on the receiving end of it. She weighed the options and given that she could send the fluorescent interloper back to the bush leagues after a week, she made up her mind. Turning to Violet, she said, "Okay Fry, here's the deal..."


"Excuse me?" French was unaccustomed to being interrupted by staff, prospective staff, or anyone else much.

"My name, it's Violet Spark." She offered helpfully.

"Violet..." French cocked her head as if she was considering it, hearing it for the first time. "...Violet...Nope." She fixed Violet with an appraising eye. "You're small, like a Fry," she made an exaggerated sniffing noise. "You sure smell like a Fry...Violet? Nope, it's Fry. Besides, Fry, Vi, what's the difference?"

"Violet is my name, that's the difference." She explained politely, and smiled as her mother had taught her. Did this woman think she enjoyed "Eau de Shack"? Like she wouldn't prefer to smell of flowers and sunshine? As if that was remotely possible when you worked in any proximity to grease and fried anything.

"Well Violet," French pronounced it crisply and pointedly as she leaned over the smaller woman. "Why don't you go home and shower? Then when you get back, wearing a starched white dress shirt, black slacks, service shoes and deodorant, we'll see how much like a Fry you are once that smell's gone? Hmm?"

"Fine." She agreed. Violet was stubborn, not stupid, she wasn't pressing her luck. This woman was a class A loon, a real cranked case. She just had to work for her. She shot Barbra a grateful smile, and scooted out the door.

As French got the ball rolling on the evening's doings, part of her mind drifted. This wasn't a problem, French could follow three or four trains of thought simultaneously, she was funny that way. It was odd because in the hours leading up to a rush, those various trains of thought were usually focused on the upcoming event, or some machination she was involved in. Not a meal she'd had by chance several years before. French's mind had a strong logical bent to it. She wasn't given to moments of nostalgia or dreamy recollection. But here she was, tucked into a corner of her mind, reliving an afternoon a few years back in the French countryside.

She was in the South doing a little research. On her way into Cannes, she'd gotten a flat. The rental didn't have a spare and she was off the main drag, so she'd hiked until she came across a small house. She called out to see if there was anyone around who could help. Finally, she found a little old lady and her husband sitting under an arbor in the back. There was the most extraordinary bright, fresh smell emanating from a platter on the table between them. Ah, fresh cheese. As if she were in a fantastical play or Fellini movie, the couple motioned for her to join them.

It was the height of the afternoon on a hot summer day. She'd sweat through her clothes and her feet were aching from the heat radiating off of the sun-baked asphalt. She'd walked for miles. Taking a load off didn't seem like such a bad idea, and the thought of joining the couple at their snack sealed the deal.

She'd been sampling the region's wines, stopping in on a few places she'd ferreted out of a trusted distributor. But cheese was never something to pass up, not a specimen of this caliber. You couldn't buy this kind of thing on the market. This was the kind of prize you had to pry from the rigid and greedy little hands of ancient french women. They spent years hiding their cherished and strictly secret family recipes. French understood these women, they were kindred spirits. She would take her time, having a deep respect for their suspicious and guarded natures, and court them as the Medicis courted a Michelangelo. And before they knew it, those old French ladies were eating out of the palm of an American's hand and liking it. They couldn't hand over the stuff fast enough.

French understood that when you couldn't appeal to a person's sense of monetary greed, you had to resort to pandering to their pride of practice and inflated ego. This was an eventuality you were much more likely to come across in the countryside and most definitely with an artisan. Those who can't be bought for money are usually cheaper than those what can, that is, if you had the time and patience. When it came to treasures such as this cheese, it was a worthwhile investment.

She sat with the couple, explaining her predicament, and subtly turning the conversation to the origin of the delicious morsel they offered her. They were a cagey pair. Smiling secret little smiles at each other, exchanging knowing looks and giving her a devilish time all around. When they explained that there wasn't a garage for miles and the one a town over was closed for the weekend, French thought she might be able to wrangle an invitation for the evening. That's when the man slipped his aged and gnarled hand into his vest pocket, riffled around and began pulling out odd scraps of paper, some pipe pieces, eventually producing a cell phone. He'd make a call to his nephew, the woman explained, who'd come help French with her car and she'd be on her way in no time.

Those people were good, they'd been playing with her the whole meal. And in time she'd discover it was common for them to lure hapless victims to their table and torture them with the divine cheese and fresh fruits they offered freely, but never shared in bulk. They especially enjoyed matching wits with overzealous restaurateurs, especially the manic Americans, who always seemed obsessed with the idea of obtaining that perfect cheese or wine. French had been an unexpected bonus, not the usual person who had heard of their legendary cheese through the usual culinary channels. What a twisted way of entertaining, French had thought.

So that there were no hard feelings, the old woman wrapped a piece of the cheese and a few figs as well for French to take with her. The nephew showed up, wearing a Nirvana t-shirt and looking like your average American attorney on the weekend. When French tried to ply him for information him he just laughed. "If you want that cheese, you have to put up with them to get it."

That's all he'd say on the matter. He was obviously built of the same stuff as his shrivelled elders, resisting her charms altogether, fixing her car and sending her on her way. French made an effort to see the Grinoise's on her occasional trips to the region. If she liked anyone, and that was questionable, it was these two master dissemblers, Gilbert and Bibette.

It had been a while since she'd taken one of those trips. Bachanal had served as a defense against drowning in the corporate environment of executive chefdom she'd come to inhabit since her involvement with Mitchell. She managed his prize investment, a national chain of high end hotel restaurants. Not to mention a few clandestine enterprises as well. But that was history. Maybe she'd plan a trip through Southern Europe this fall. Get back to the basics.

How long had it been since she'd had a culinary epiphany? How long since she'd created something unique, her own? Been really excited by an ingredient? Wasn't that why she'd started all of this in the first place? That thrill for the cuisine had fuelled her at one time. Bachanal had been her attempt to hold on to her roots. But the only thrill she still really had was for the process, the act of execution, cooking. That was something, but she knew there was so much more.

Even as she daydreamed, she worked her station with an unconscious ease and grace. She was "in the zone". Like an athlete on an endorphin high, the world had clicked into place, all was clear and right. Everything she touched was golden. She coordinated the tools of her trade, working several burners and ovens at once, finishing plates, movin' it out the door. The evening had begun slow and heated to a fever pitch. Orders were flying out, French was barking at Andre to "move that shit off the grill", used pots and pans flew through the air to land in the sinks with a tremendous splash and hiss as the heated metal groaned with the change of temperature. And this was a slow night, a dress rehearsal for the next two nights when the season officially began. She was in her element. Not even close to the euphoria she'd feel on a busy night, when the pace was staggering, the heat unbearable and the orders a relentless stream of papers flowing from the printer.

French's feeling of well-being contrasted sharply with the harried, unstrung feeling Violet was experiencing. If French was enjoying herself "in the zone", Violet was well out of it, completely lost.

When she'd arrived she was issued with the restaurant's version of a uniform, a vest, tie, and three quarter length bistro style apron. She thought she looked like the Little Prince in the long thing, but who was she to judge? Nobody, if her new coworkers were any indication.

Confusion had set in within the first half hour when she was told that she'd be assisting Miguel and Ken, helping plate their tables and getting used to the layout. Sounded easy enough. Miguel seemed to think she was an uncalled for burden, if not an outright insult to his station, and so he ignored her completely. Ken, who seemed nice enough for an airheaded surfer boy, wasn't much help either. Every time Ken would look at her she thought she could hear him thinking, "Hey, who's the new waitress? Oh yeah, the Fry chick, right." Then he'd smile and wander off.

The upshot of their initial lack of enthusiasm and information was that she was completely overwhelmed and disoriented when business picked up later. All of a sudden she was hot property, being ordered here, there, and just about everywhere to carry this, grab that, stuff the other thing and move it, move it, move it. No one was particularly pleasant or helpful.

Barbra had her own problems as she adjusted to the layout, trying her best to make snap decisions based on limited experience of her new environment. She took the holistic approach to hostessing, considering the party to be seated, the present arrangement of the floor, and who was working which tables. Bachanal had two dining rooms and a bar. Barbra greeted patrons just inside the entrance in a foyer-like open space. She might direct them into the bar on the left if there was a wait, or to their table in either the dining room on the first floor, or the second smaller dining room upstairs.

She knew many of the people that came to the waterfront restaurants. She'd worked them her whole adult life. Those she didn't recognize she could size up quickly enough. At thirty-eight, she'd seen most kinds, but was still fascinated by them nonetheless. Barbra had made a study of people in general, and restaurant goers in particular. She had a genuine interest in people's habits and preferences. And from her point of view, she had the perfect job to observe them. For a while she'd toyed with the idea of becoming a therapist, but that would've taken the fun out of it.

She tried to throw Violet a supportive glance or smile when they crossed paths in the busy atmosphere. But it didn't look like the waitress was able to focus beyond the plates being shoved at her, or the quiet commands flying at her from several directions at once. She knew that feeling. Low woman on the totem pole. She didn't know Violet personally, but this was an island. A gossipy little backwater by any standard going, so she knew plenty about her. And she had the feeling that she'd catch on here in a couple of days and then the fun would begin. The Sparks were known on the island for their quirky approach to life in general, and things just seemed to happen when they were around. Barbra was looking forward to it.

Not that she couldn't count on French to provide her with good material. So far, in her brief stops in the kitchen, she'd seen the chef running it in the usual loud and crass manner she'd come to expect in restaurant kitchens. She wasn't the least bit surprised to hear a stream of profanity and obscenity flowing from the intense and beautiful woman's mouth. There weren't many women who survived the overtly sexist and raunchy sexual environment of most professional kitchens unless they were twice as foul mouthed, tough or plain mean.

What was surprising in French's kitchen was the lack of banter returned the chef's way. While there were plenty of the usual noises in there, snappy repartee was not among them. It was eerie to Barbra who was used to a rowdy kitchen crew with a lot of teasing that was rarely kind, but usually funny as hell. It provided a good release valve for the incredible tensions that built up during a busy shift.

The major fear that preyed upon the minds of most kitchen crew was losing the flow. A restaurant kitchen is a place of movement. Everything had to move, move, move. A lot of things conspired against it. It was a constant battle to keep everything in order, and moving out the door to satisfy the hungry public. If a combination of somethings went wrong at the same time, a kitchen could be brought to a grinding halt. There was no way to recover once that happened.

This possibility struck terror into the hearts of otherwise heartless professionals. A little cursing went a long way to diffuse the anxiety that lurked in the back of their minds. That pressure was a lot to deal with, many people cracked under it all of the time. Barbra tucked this observation away for further study and got onto the business at hand.

Violet couldn't remember the last time she'd been so out of sorts. She was dizzy from the nonstop turning and darting about she'd been doing the entire evening. It wasn't like she hadn't worked a busy dining room before, but the two waiters she was helping seemed to be undermining her at every turn. One on purpose, the other by dint of personality. Maybe it was the same difference, she was too tired to tell.

She'd almost died when Miguel had approached her in the kitchen and without a word had snapped a napkin out of thin air, wetted it in some water and removed a spot of sauce from her tie. She saw him flash a smile at French who laughed and continued to juggle equipment at a breakneck pace. She'd wanted to dive down the laundry chute in her embarrassment.

Mercifully the pace slowed at 11:30. Violet, whom everyone in the restaurant had begun to call "Fry", caught her breath. This did nothing to relieve the aching in her feet and back. She'd been up since six that morning. She'd worked the lunch shift at the Shack, before landing this new gig. She was done in and ready to crash, but the fun was just beginning. Clean up was next and she'd bet the crown jewels that the two characters she'd spent the night being jerked between would dematerialize into thin air. At the stoke of midnight, as if they'd read her thoughts, they were nowhere to be found. She heaved a sigh and got to it.

Chapter 5

The weekend arrived and raced on. Boatloads of tourists landed by the minute. From their agitated and desperate behavior at the docks you'd think the ferry ride from the mainland was an Atlantic crossing, without sea rations. They were impatient to start relaxing and having a good time. They fairly bristled with the anticipation of it.

Fry had finally gotten into the swing of things at Bachanal. She'd given up on her birth name at work, even Barbra had slipped up a couple of times before Violet gave in and accepted the nickname.

Miguel's not so silent campaign to undermine her best efforts continued. Why did it seem that he was there every time she had so much as a hair out of place? Didn't the man have tables of his own, darn it! He didn't always say something sharp or judgmental, sometimes he just laughed, sniffed or raised an eyebrow - he was loads of help. He noticed the smallest slip, the slightest misstep and god forbid she misplace an order on a table! With a wicked turn of phrase he would mention her latest faux pas, usually in front of French.

Luckily, no one could deny the good cheer and increased ordering at the tables that Fry waited. A couple of regulars had asked to be seated at her tables if she was on that shift. That kind of thing got noticed.

Barbra told her to ignore Miguel. He was doing what he did best. Being French's lap dog. She said that no one would accept her until she'd earned it under fire, or until there was new meat to tenderize. What was wrong with these people she wondered? Weren't their priorities skewed just a little? They were working a restaurant after all, not doing famine relief or peace keeping duty in some war-torn region.

Few of the staff were natives. For the most part it was a crew of people French had recruited from off of the island or culled from other restaurants who'd done the same thing. Most of the kitchen staff were a mix of European and Central American descent, most of the floor staff were North Easterners. All had had experience in high end restaurants of one flavor or another. Barbra assured her that this would be a tough bunch to crack.

Juan, one of the dishwashers, was the only person other than Barbra who'd talk to her. He responded to her hellos and they'd talked a little about family. It wasn't much comradery to go on in the rushing and hectic environment. Still, there was an energy in this place that Fry picked up on and began to feed off of. A lively, pulsing energy. It seemed to flow throughout the atmosphere, and was concentrated in the kitchen, where it's source worked relentlessly.

Even though Fry tried to fly under the radar whenever she was in the kitchen, she couldn't help watching French on the sly. She'd already determined that getting caught in the whirlwind of energy that surrounded the chef and her crew was a bad idea. Yet they all had to go in to pick up orders, and you had to dash through to get to the breakroom down the back hall. She'd heard French ruin more than one waitperson's shift who'd gotten in the way or who she perceived was guilty of some minor infraction. Terrorizing waitstaff seemed to be a favorite past-time for the caustic chef.

All the same, you couldn't help being awed. The same instinct that told you that a novel was great, a painting timeless, an event historical, screamed that you were in the presence of something special when you watched French work. Her talent shined. And the busier it got, the more focused she became. Every now and again, when all of the stations were going at full tilt and an especially demanding order would come in on top of the mayhem, French would let out a peal of spine chilling laughter, start issuing commands and somehow begin to move even more fluidly and efficiently. Unconsciously aware of her space, her tools, and the all important timing required for each piece of the ever changing puzzle. The quality of the food never seemed to suffer. If the raves of the sated and ecstatic patrons was anything to go by, it was somehow better.

It was never as exciting when Brian, the sous-chef was running the kitchen. An essential spark was missing. All six feet of it.

On the couple of occasions French had made command performances in one of the dining rooms, she'd drawn all attention. She was tall enough without the toque on her head, but wearing it, she seemed giant. Like a social chameleon, her energy softened as she left the kitchen and entered the public arena. While she could be charming, she never fawned or seemed anything less than a visiting dignitary inquiring into the well being of her dearest, foreign friends. She maintained distance, yet gave the impression of intimacy. And the moment she was behind those heavy, leather swinging doors to the kitchen, she was shouting commands and bristling at the demanding and presumptuous public.

Her senses were truly uncanny. Like many a great artist she was given to a dramatic flair and apparent flights of fancy. One afternoon, while waiting for a salad, Fry'd seen French come to a complete standstill at her station. She'd tilted her head as if listening closely to something, though what she could hear over the machinery and bustle was anyone's guess. She'd briskly rounded the island, donned a toque, and swept out the kitchen door. Many of them exchanged confused glances. The experienced crew stepped in to keep the flow going, more accustomed to the quixotic moods of their boss. Fry picked up her salad and made for the dining room. She saw French in the hall talking quietly to Miguel. As she passed she heard French murmur the mysterious phrase 'Code Blue, I love you.' Curiouser and curiouser.

It wasn't until Barbra approached her and explained that Miguel would be taking one of her tables, that she got the story. According to French, who seemed to have a screw loose this afternoon as far as Barbra could tell, the frumpy middle-aged woman Miguel was at that very moment giving the royal treatment to, was none other than Rachel Booth, food critic for the Times of New York. Fry had begun to think that Barbra might be right. French seemed to have this exaggerated paranoiac streak that just wasn't healthy and couldn't be grounded in reality. If someone wasn't out to get her, then they were plotting it and she just hadn't heard about it yet. Fry doubted that anyone could have that many industrious enemies, even the much storied chef.

Weren't they all surprised two days later when an article was found pinned to the kitchen's bulletin board. A stellar review for Bachanal in the Times of New York. Curiouser indeed.

Fry recognized many of the patrons who came through that week. She didn't know them personally, she'd seen them around town, or in the newspaper. It didn't seem that French's little stint in jail had done her restaurant any harm. If anything, it was good for business. Wasn't anyone concerned that there may have been a murder, and that French, while a highly unlikely suspect in this case, may have killed someone? Didn't that usually effect your social standing in some way? Not if the number of requests for the chef in the dinning rooms was any indication.

While Fry wasn't complaining, she did think it odd. As it turned out, Louisa Millet had died of an allergic reaction to something she'd eaten. It was tragic. It was also a natural cause of death. The problem arose with the half-eaten pastry that they'd found. A small chocolate confection like one they served at Bachanal. But why were there cashews in it Fry had wondered? It wasn't an outlandish idea to put them in, but it wasn't the first ingredient you'd reach for to include in something like that. At least she wouldn't. You probably wouldn't suspect they'd be in there if you were allergic. Or if you'd eaten the same thing before. And the fact that they'd only found traces of an extract, not the whole nuts, when they'd analyzed the pastry made the whole thing seem doubly peculiar to Fry. Not to mention the fact that anyone who'd ever been within earshot of Louisa knew that she was allergic to cashews, if they'd lasted through the macrobiotic lecture. The police dismissed the whole affair as a freak accident.

It wouldn't be the first time nasty doings had been brushed under the rug in the interest of tourist dollars. Who wanted to vacation on an island with a murderer on the loose? Best to just forget it, right? Nothing like messing with the almighty dollar. And while she was aware that she may have been prone to jump to conclusions in the past, especially where the police were concerned, she had a feeling in her gut that something wasn't right.

The entirety of French's discourse on the matter had been, "Macrobiotic my ass!"

The chef was preoccupied by something to do with the zoning board. Fry had heard her shout into the phone in her office, "And this leaves me where exactly with the freakin' zoning zombies?" But she needn't have worried, out of respect for Louisa the board would postpone the vote for at least a couple of months. That gave her plenty of time.

Fry was too busy to give anything much more than a passing thought. She was running ragged trying to live up to the impossibly high standards French exacted from all in her company. She'd been hustling to plate an especially large table when French called her over to her station in the kitchen. Fry looked up into those intense and commanding eyes, noticing the clean chiseled features of her face were glistening with a fine layer of sweat. It was about 110 degrees in front of the range where the chef stood. French leaned over and smiled one of her less pleasant smiles. Okay, it was a sneer, and said, "Fry, we don't do the slacker thing here. Go to the break room and look in the mirror. And when you've fixed that little problem, I want you to reflect on something for me. How is it that you walked through that door two hours ago in a pressed shirt and now it looks like you've been wrestling Andre in the walk-in fridge?"

Fry turned and made for the break room. She wanted to run, but a vaguely remembered warning about running from wild animals flitted through her mind. She also wanted to cry, but she wasn't giving anyone the satisfaction. She was tired, this work was hell.

Looking in the mirror, she combed the unruly strands of her blond hair back, fixing her pony tail. She wondered how they did it. How could they keep their clothes so darned neat throughout the shift? And Miguel, he almost looked more pressed at the end of a shift than at the beginning. Where was the sweat, the wrinkles, the dirt? And did French have to yell at her in front of everyone like that? What was her problem anyway? And while Andre was nice enough, he wasn't her type.

She was accustomed to the bawdy remarks that were commonplace in kitchens. Usually, people left her out of it, or teased her less harshly. Most places all it took was a word or a comment and it stopped. Otherwise, she left. She needed money for school, but she'd only put up with so much. She'd have to have a chat with French. She wasn't looking forward to it. She wanted this job bad. If things went well, she could work less during the semester and really focus on her thesis.

The week came to an end. Fry had done a fair job getting through without too many mishaps. French had scheduled her during the day mostly, but had given her a couple of busy night shifts as well. This looked to be her last. The chef had eyed her a few times that night and Fry had gotten a sinking feeling. Still, she busted butt the whole shift, and was still at it through cleanup, when it happened. Carrying a fully loaded tray of crystal, she passed French in the kitchen. The chef was finished for the night and on her way to her office. As French rounded the corner, she was brought up short by a tremendous crashing noise as 38 crystal wine glasses met their maker. The noise was followed by complete silence. She rounded the corner in reverse and saw Fry sprawled on the floor, broken crystal everywhere, employees frozen in place staring at either the waitress, or her. She noticed a slick patch on the floor that ran from near Fry's feet to the space under the dishwasher rack shelving. She looked at the dishwashers Juan and Max, who were turning blue from holding their breath, and motioned for them to help Fry up.

Fry had frozen more from fear of the anticipated outburst, than worry about cuts, or the expensive mistake she'd just made. She was sure French was behind her, the tension in the room was palpable. She heard the quiet words that boded worse than any yell, "Fry, my office, now." She wondered if she should explain that she hadn't seen the empty dish rack in her path until too late. But the fact that it was gone when she'd stood up, and the wide eyed look of terror on Juan's face as she'd turned to go, dismissed the idea.

She entered the small office behind French. Strangely, she missed the imposing woman already. She knew she'd given this place her best shot, and just now, there wasn't any fight left in her. Resigned to her fate, she slumped onto the couch facing French's desk.

French sat opposite Fry and considered the small woman. "You alright?"

"Yeah, look I'm sorry about the crystal, you can take it out of my pay. And I'll come by Thursday to pick it up."

French gave a slight smile and nod. Fry thought, "Figures. I'm toast here so I may as well get in my two cents."

To French she said, "You know, I worked my butt off this week and I thought I did a darn good job. You and this tightly knit group of pirates just can't accept that a townie can hack it in your little fiefdom. I did a straight up job, but you were going to fire me no matter what, weren't you?"

French looked at her a moment. "What if I told you, before the crash, I had considered keeping you on? What if I said, 'Fry, you kicked ass this week. You're the kind of mettle we need in this operation. If it hadn't been for that monumental screw up at the eleventh hour, you had a chance.' What if I said that to you?"

This was just too much. Not only did Fry have to suffer the humiliation of the last week's trial, not to mention falling flat on her face in front of the entire kitchen, there had never been a real chance of getting the job. She could see that. Now she was being taunted, or possibly baited, by the big, albeit fascinating and gorgeous, jerk. "Look, I don't know what you're up to here. If you don't want me on the team, fine, I'm not on. I don't want to play some nasty mind game at midnight, when I'm banged up, exhausted and had it up to here with the twisted behavior that passes for normal in this place. I'm fired, I get the picture!" She stood and turned to leave.

She paused with her hand on the doorknob when French began to speak, "On your way out, would you tell Juan to make sure he pulls that dishrack back out from under the shelves where Max kicked it after you fell? And be in by four thirty tomorrow, Barbra's going to need help getting the upstairs ready for the Bridgman party. It's going to take a while."

Fry had the door open and was halfway through it when the words registered. She turned to look at the chef who was sorting papers on her desk, absorbed in the next order of business. Fry watched her for a second, then slammed the door behind her as she stormed out.

She was exasperated to the core. She wasn't going to put up with this treatment for one more minute, much less the rest of the summer. French could just take her impossible standards, her job, and her unreasonable, demanding self and, well, she could just forget it. Just because she had some talent and ran the place didn't mean she could be so insensitive. Fry was out of here, as of now, as of this very minute. And she may have even meant it if she didn't already have a hopeless crush on the inscrutable woman.

She cringed as she acknowledged the truth. She'd fought it tooth and nail, feeling shallow and hypocritical as she began to lust after the taciturn chef. How could she be attracted to such a remorseless capitalist? Was it just her looks? French was as bad, if not infinitely worse, than others she'd worked for. Fry had harbored some illusion that a woman, no matter how hardened by circumstance, would be more fair running a kitchen. Not so. French expected everyone to work up to exceptionally high standards, in return they got a decent paycheck, true, but no health care, no say in their schedule, and they were expected to work at a breakneck pace with little encouragement and less support. And they did it anyway. There was something in the woman that made you strive for her approval even though it was certain you'd get nothing more than your paycheck in return.

There was something else she'd glimpsed in the chef's curt and exacting manner. Something fleeting, yet magnetic nonetheless. It wasn't just her looks.

Maybe she was so infuriated because, despite everything, she knew she'd be back tomorrow. And French knew it too. Darn her.

French sat staring at the papers on her desk. She hadn't wanted Fry to stay. She'd thought that the trial by fire method would have burned the cheerful, 'we the people', proletariat loving pipsqueak up and out in a couple of days. The staff had followed French's cue and given her the cold shoulder, even though it was clear that most of them liked Fry. She'd hung in, carried her weight and more. In this business, that was what got you "in", earned you stripes. Even once she realized Fry could cut the mustard, she'd tried to dissuade her from staying.

She'd gotten a good look at herself recently. She'd never considered that by changing she'd become a nice person. Not being an evil bitch was more the standard she'd come to embrace. When she thought about some of her more colorful exploits, her less savory moments, she wasn't sure how she was supposed to accomplish this without being a complete hypocrite.

At Phil and Flo's she'd gotten an inkling of how it could be done. How she could prevent herself from imploding and possibly use some of her more aggressive tendencies to do something positive. And most important, move forward. Don't ask her to repeat the performance though, because she wasn't sound on the mechanics of how it had worked, exactly.

She'd gotten an initial thrill off the encounter and settled pretty quickly back into her usual modus opperandi, feeling that she'd earned at least a week off for good behavior. But as the week progressed, something had changed. Something small. Something blonde.

This evening was a case in point. She had tested Fry. She hadn't meant it as a mind game, but she did want to see how she'd react. Knowing how badly Fry desired the job, French wanted to see how she'd explain the accident. She'd been on those two to keep that walkway clear, and had no doubt Fry had run into something that tripped her up. The telltale trail of water had clued her into the dishrack. She'd set up the conversation, given the waitress the perfect opportunity to blame it on someone else. After all someone else did share the blame, right? Sure, it'd been less than nice, but she needed to know if Fry was for real.

She hadn't expected Fry's response would make her feel like a jerk. What's more, Fry had surprised her. Again. This was an uncommon experience for French, who hated surprises on principal and did everything she could to avoid them. She'd observed Fry on several occasions, when she'd pitched in to help surly waitstaff and bus kids, and seen her disarm them with a simple gesture. She might even combine a gentle smile with a light touch or a word or two. It took the turncoat waitron a minute to remember that they were fraternizing with the enemy, the shunned, before they'd retreat to a more comfortable distance and resume a studied aloofness.

Fry was good. Not in the adversarial sense, she was a good person. As in a person who put the well being of others before themselves kind of good. But strangely, she didn't take any shit either. French wasn't completely sure this warmhearted spunk wasn't the result of a deficit in brain power. Fry seemed bright enough though. She remembered her orders, could repeat the specials on first hearing and actually knew what b?chamel was.

Mostly, people sensed that French wasn't the kind of tough boss who respected someone standing up to her. Actually, after they heard her reaction the first time, she figured they were suicidal if they tried it again. But there was Fry, sitting in her office, frazzled, exhausted, telling her where to stick it. Not her words exactly, but the sentiment was clear enough.

From French's vaulted perspective, waitstaff were a mere convenience. Either to carry food, gather intel, or to entertain her baser needs in the stock room. Possibly even to warm her bed. Not to waste actual time paying anything but the scarcest attention to. And certainly not to gain anything so important as an insight from. Oh, how the mighty had fallen. The insult, the chagrin. She had something to learn from a townie waitress. She could hear Hercule snickering all the way from New York. Damn Frenchman.

The idea of keeping Fry on at Bachanal left her with an uneasy feeling. One of those new experiences she'd come to dislike so thoroughly, yet endured like a foul tasting medication. It wasn't exposing Fry to the kitchen environment that disturbed her. Fry wasn't some delicate flower, no shrinking Violet she. It was something about exposing someone who exuded her brand of simple goodness to what French, herself, was capable of, to what she had been, that made her uncomfortable. Was this shame? Was this why she'd tried to shake Fry loose, why she'd given her the cold shoulder? She was just a waitress for christ sakes, why was she so wound up about her? French snorted with disgust. The other problem with changing was the amount of mental chit-chat she had to put up with.

To be continued...

The Athenaeum's Scroll Archive