Try a Prompt: Food

Food: What’s for breakfast? Dinner? Lunch? Or maybe you could write a poem about that time you met a friend at a cafe.

When this particular case began, I was sitting in a cafe in the penthouse of the McMahon building. One of those swanky places you don’t get into without knowing someone or being someone yourself, and in my case, it was definitely the former.It was the day before Thanksgiving, and a heavy rain was falling outside. It was so cold that in some places the roads were covered in ice. I’d had to pay the cab driver about double to get here, and I planned to drop some not-so-subtle hints about reimbursement to my client.

Speaking of which, my client was late. I wasn’t sure whether I was feeling more worried about his welfare, or about losing the prospect of paying my light bill for another month. The fact that I could feel the maître d’ burning hot coals of judgment into the back of my skull didn’t help my anxiety either. Usually, I just ignore stuffed shirts like him, but I happened to be wearing his jacket at the moment (or the one he gave me, anyway), so tuning him out became a bit more difficult. The damn thing smelled like cloves.

Shaking out the jacket in a futile attempt to rid it of the offending scent, something rattled to the table, and I recognized it immediately as the newspaper. Maybe the last uncouth patron who borrowed it had stashed it in there. I was bored enough, so I picked it up.

It happened to be the Social (aka Gossip) section. Not my cup of tea, but I’d scoured more than a few case leads from this rag so it was worth skimming through. There was the usual celebrity sighting or two, like one famous actor caught with his “sister” in a secluded romantic spot, but that wasn’t the kind of thing that paid my bills. There were plenty of PI’s who chased cheating hearts, but I tried to stay away from that line of work unless things got pretty desperate.

The featured column, however, was appropriately enough the most interesting part of the section. It was a sort of thesis on the life thus far of Carlton Steiner, easily the wealthiest man in the city and quite possibly up there with the richest in the world, some believed. I’d never met the man, but it was hard to miss that huge mansion overlooking downtown, or all of the businesses with his name on them.

The article didn’t mention much about his early life, suffice to say that he grew up in an orphanage and worked his way up from poverty, preferring instead to jump right to the interesting bits. The article made a point of explaining how Steiner had not only worked his way up from the bottom rung of the ladder in Platt Manufacturing but eventually took over and displaced the family who owned it! Steiner, you see, wasn’t known as a particularly warm man. Not a villain per se, but no one counted him among their circle of friends either. He never gave to charity, never attended benefits, provided his workers with minimal benefits, etc. Sort of a modern-day Scrooge, but if Steiner ever saw ghosts on Christmas Eve, it certainly hadn’t changed anything.

From there, the article launched mostly into speculation about what Steiner did with his spare time and presumably vast sums of money, but by then I had long since lost interest. The world of the rich rarely intersected with mine and my gut took that moment to remind me that I had in fact not eaten for over a day and a half. As I directed my attention toward counting the number of raindrops per second for the eighth time and gulped down my complimentary lemon water, I felt movement in the corner behind me. It was either my client or the maître d’, and either way I was about ready to punch someone. I spun around.

“Hello, Mr. Gannett,” my client said, clearly surprised by my sudden movement. I relaxed my punching arm. With any luck, I’d get a job and maybe some dinner out of this clown, so there’d be no reason to take a swing at him.

“Hello, Mr. Mullins,” I returned. We’d only spoken over the phone or exchanged a telegram before, so this is the first time I’d ever had a chance to size him up. He was of average height, and clearly worked out in his spare time, but wasn’t the type of guy I’d suspect of being a pro ballplayer of any kind. He wore gold-rimmed spectacles like so many bankers do, and to complete that image he had on an immaculate three-piece black dinner suit with cufflinks and a pocket watch. Which he now checked.

“My apologies for being late, sir,” he offered. “The roads out tonight are most disagreeable.”

“Yes indeed,” I nodded. “I meant to talk to you about that. The cabbie who brought me over was most insistent on charging me extra to come out here in this weather.”

He coughed as he sat down, and I did the same, waiting for his reply. He seemed incredibly pale as he took off his hat, and he fiddled with it idly as he answered.

“Of course, sir, I shall make sure you are reimbursed for your trouble, whether you endeavor to help me with my… situation or not. Incidentally, have you taken your supper yet?”

“No, I haven’t. This place any good?”

“You have never dined at the McMahon before, sir? Please allow me to… um… treat you.”

“Well, yeah, that’d be swell. Thanks.”

As Mullins deftly signaled the waiter, I took his appearance in further. There was something incredibly posh about the man that I hadn’t picked up on over the phone. From his choice of vocabulary (including stumbling over the slang “treat you”) to his sort of prim Atlantic dialect that I couldn’t pin down yet, and of course, the suit.

“Mullins, you’re a butler, aren’t you?”

He blanched.

“Well, yes, actually. Although I prefer the term valet. Bit more old-fashioned, I suppose, but I do much more for my employer than dust shelves-”

“All right, valet then,” I cut in. “What would you need a private detective for?”

He held up a hand, telling me to wait until the waiter had taken our orders and left, and I obeyed the silent request.

For himself, Mullins ordered a salad nicoise while I tried in vain to decipher the menu, or at least find something in English. Finally, I realized the waiter was staring at me expectantly, so I decided to wing it.

“All right, gimme a rib eye, medium, with a loaded baked potato and grilled shrimp on the side.”

The waiter looked bemused.

“And your vegetable, sir?”

“Doesn’t matter,” I shrugged. “I don’t expect to eat it anyway. What kind of beer do you have?”

Just as the waiter reached for the wine/spirits list, Mullins gently waved him off.

“Let us discuss our business first, Mr. Gannett.”

I frowned but decided to behave. His treat, his rules. The waiter departed with a nod to Mullins. Maybe they knew each other. In any case, it was up to me to stay on point.

“Fair enough. How can I help you?”

“Well to begin with, just how did you know that I am, as you said, a butler?” Mullins seemed to be wavering between feeling curious and concerned all at once.

“You mean a valet?” I smiled, trying to put him at ease.

“Indeed, sir.”

I leaned back in the chair for a moment, considering. I never got tired of showing off, and would love to do the Sherlock Holmes thing and break down every minute detail that just screams, “This guy’s a butler!” to me, but I decide against it. Better to get down to brass tacks before the food gets here.

“I’m a detective,” I shrugged nonchalantly. “That’s what they pay me for.”

Mullins nodded. “And would it be imprudent if I were to ask if you had references from previous… er… employers?”

I raised an eyebrow. “If I started rattling off the names of all my last clients to you, I wouldn’t look like I’m too good at keeping secrets, would I?”

“Very astute, sir,” Mullins chuckled. “I believe we can work together after all, Mr. Gannett.”

I started to reply, but it was at that moment that a waiter came bearing a steaming dish.

“Wow, they made it that fast?”

“No, Mr. Gannett,” Mullins chuckled, “this is merely the hors d’oeuvres.”

With a flourish, the waiter placed the dish on our table while removing the lid, and withdrew after a slight bow. I found myself fascinated by the display left behind. The dish was populated by about eight roundish objects, obviously fried dough, of an orange-like color.

“Is something the matter, Mr. Gannett?”

“No, not at all,” I shook my head, “but what the heck are these?”

“Well, sir, these are panipuri.”

“Panipuri?”

“Indeed.”

There was a moment’s pause.

“And what the hell is a panipuri? They look like a bunch of overstuffed Cheez Doodles.”

Mullins looked briefly uncomfortable.

“Well, it is an Indian dish, you see. A fried dough filled with pani (a flavored water), chutney, chili, potato…”

“All right, all right, but are they any good?”

Mullins smiled. “Perhaps the best way to find out is to try for yourself, sir.”

I shrugged and took up the challenge, taking up one of the dough spheres, and crammed it into my mouth. The texture went quickly from crisp, to wet, and I found myself momentarily confused by the different flavors. I decided it was all right, and said so to Mullins after washing it down.

“Very good, sir,” he acknowledged. “Will you try another?”

“No thanks. I’d rather get down to business.”

Mullins nodded. “Very well, then. Let me explain why I need your help, and see if you can help my master before something quite disagreeable occurs.”

—END OF PART ONE—

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