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One Foot in the Gravy
By Delia Rosen
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Jeff Rovin
All right reserved.
Chapter One"The Creeping Leeches?" Thomasina said as she approached the van. "Lawfy, what kinda sick, disgustin' name is that?"
I folded a stick of gum in my mouth as I eyed the logo painted emphatically on the side. Although Thom's reading of it wasn't entirely correct, her reaction was understandable. I had worries of my own that the realistic painted leeches forming the letters might kill people's appetites. But transportation was transportation and we couldn't afford to be choosy.
Thom should have known making a fuss wouldn't help. Then again, when had knowing better ever stopped her from complaining? Under any circumstances?
Luke frowned down at her from the driver's seat. Moments earlier, he'd swung into the alley between my restaurant and the country-western nightclub next door, braking loudly in front of the service entrance. An unlit cigarette hung from his mouth—he was trying to gratify his oral fixation while once-and-for-all, no-I-really-mean-it quitting the habit cold-turkey—and his orphan's don't-give-me-crap attitude hung from his brow.
I'd been waiting there on a somewhat muggy afternoon with my manager for about fifteen minutes. We were both a little grumpy.
"Before you criticize, Thom, you oughta try 'n read it right," Luke said through his lowered passenger window. "Ain't no 'the' in it. And it's writ CreepLeeches—one word—for a reason."
"And what might that reason be?" she demanded, turning away.
"Reason's the rockabilly group that owns the van ought to know how they want their name spelled. And you're lookin' at their official tour vehicle."
"I'm all a-tingle."
"You should be," Luke said. "And stickin' to the point, you should show some respect. A name's a name's a name. Like mine's Luke. Like yours is Thomasina Jackson. And like Nash here's, well, y'know ..."
Luke scratched under his ear, realizing I wasn't the best example he could have chosen. See, it's a little tricky. Nash is short for Nashville Katz, my full nickname. The "Nashville" part refers to the location of my restaurant—Murray's—which happens to be the first and only Jewish deli in Music City. The "Katz" comes from my real name, Gwen Katz. And the whole thing is a play on the title of an old Lovin' Spoonful song that without question could have been written about my late Uncle Murray, from whom I'd inherited the place right before my messy, humiliating New York divorce from the Pied Piper of Stripper-land was finalized.
Told you it was tricky, didn't I?
"Okay, forget Nash," Luke said. He was still looking at Thom. "I want to hear where you figure we'd be if the CreepLeeches hadn't loaned us their ride."
"Inside, where we belong, preparin' for dinner," she said, still looking away. "And if you don't stop repeatin' that godawful name, I'm gonna puke! I didn't sign up to be no deliverywoman for some rich old crackpot."
I checked my watch and decided it was time to interrupt. As much as they enjoyed squabbling with each other, we had to get cracking. "Easy, Thom, that's unfair," I said. "Lolo Baker's a good customer."
Thom "phewed." "Glad you didn't say 'nice lady,'" she said. "'Cause she's a snob, one who's got nothin' better to do with her nights than playact with her friends. God, I wish I had the time to be eccentric and stuff."
"Don't change the subject. We were talking about her dinner party—"
"Murder party," Thom interrupted. "You can at least be truthful about what it is while tryin' to persuade me she ain't batty."
"Okay, fine. If you stop being so obnoxious," I said.
Thom's brow furrowed under her bob of silver hair. "How'm I being obnoxious?"
I sighed. "Because it's ridiculous for us to argue about this. First and foremost, it's a paying gig. Second, audience-participation dinner shows are mega-popular everywhere. Third, Lolo's into reading murder mysteries. I don't see a problem here."
"I think throwing a mystery-themed dinner is a fun idea," Luke tossed in.
Thomasina shot him a sneer, saw the logo again, and looked away. "Well, I think it's silly. She can get half-naked men in Spartacus costumes to serve her food for all I care."
"Then—I'm not getting what your problem is," I told her.
"It's since when are we in the caterin' business?"
I shrugged. "Since Lolo offered to pay us big-time."
"Then you admit this is about her havin' oodles of money."
"Who cares? Did I ever tell you it hurt? You know how much we're taking in for the party. Businesses have to grow—"
"Says who?" Thom frowned disapprovingly. "In all the years he owned the deli, Murray never mentioned a word about growin'—"
"Maybe that's true," I said. "But things change."
"How, why, and who said so? Why should anything be different besides you bein' in charge nowadays? Oh, and because of that fact, your boyfriend Royce Sinclair wantin' to buy us out."
I looked at her. "That isn't fair. It's been six months since Royce approached us. And he isn't my boyfriend."
"Oh, no?" Her tone went from critical to knowing as smooth—and cutting—as a meat slicer. "Then what you gonna call him, sugar?"
The phrase unstoppable turbocharged sex dynamo jumped into my head, but I wasn't sure that would help make my case. I was starting to feel woozy. Maybe it was yet another debate with my staff. Or maybe it was the van's gas fumes pooling in the alley. Whatever, it was time to break this up.
"Listen, if you want to argue, count me out," I replied. "I shouldn't have to remind you, but I will, that our insurance premiums doubled after the flood. We can use some added revenue. And special events planning is just an extension of what we already do. It's honorable. It's smart."
"Smart," Thom repeated. She stood there scowling at me a few seconds. Then she nodded back toward the van. "Might I ask how rollin' up to Belle Meade in that eyesore's gonna make us look? Or you really think Lolo's a fan 'a the Slime Bugs?"
"CreepLeeches!" Luke shouted. "I suggest you get that straight, because the band's got itself a huge followin'."
"Yeah? In what swamp?"
"You ain't the slightest bit funny." Luke shook his head. "People do us a favor, we ought to be grateful. My cousin Zach and his boys were even kind enough to remove their instruments—"
"Your cousin? The one with the wishbone nose ring? He's a Creeping Leech?"
"CreepLeeches! Yes, the son of the aunt and uncle who raised me, and who was kind enough to clear the van—except for a drum kit and some cables—so we'd have plenty of room for food."
"Speaking of which," I said, tapping my watch, "we'd better get ready to roll."
Thom looked at me. "So you really intend to go through with this deal, batty biddy, bloodsucking bugs, and all?"
"Right you are, Thom. We're professionals, and whatever you might think, this job's important to us. It'll open doors. I have absolutely no intention of blowing it."
She opened her mouth to answer, then seemed to change her mind. It was almost two o'clock on a Saturday afternoon and the murder mystery dinner was set for seven p.m. Moreover, we'd booked it several weeks before. Her grumbling aside, Thomasina really was as professional as they came. She would have never backed out—or expected me to back out—at this late stage. Complaining was just her way of venting. She hadn't made it the fine art my own family had, but then her folks weren't Old World.
Losing the sour puss was another story, of course, and I got a serious eyeful of it from her when the service door swung open and twenty-two-year-old college dropout Newt—that's short for Newton Trout, nothing complicated there—poked his head into the alley. He was wearing his cook's cap and apron and had wrapped his bushy brown whiskers in a beard net.
"Hope ya'll are good 'n' ready," he said. "Everything's about set to go."
I faced him and started ticking off items on my mental checklist. "The turkey—?"
"The corned beef and pastrami?"
"Laid out on platters."
"Packed in a hot food carrier," Newt said. "Same for the stuffed cabbage and meatballs."
"Knishes, kugel, latkes, kasha, varnishkes ..."
"Got them too. Plus plenty of supper rolls."
"Sours, half-sours, you name it."
"And the sides?"
"I just got the lid down on a six-pound tub of coleslaw. It was so chock full, I practically had to stomp it shut with my foot."
"Let's make sure to tell that to Lolo," Thomasina said.
"Jimmy crammed another one with potato salad and we got a smaller one for some of your uncle's special bean stew."
"What about the garlic eggplant canapés? The ones we're supposed to serve to just one guest?"
"Present and accounted for."
"Do we know who that is yet?" Thom asked.
"No," I told her. "Lolo will let us know. She said there will be other instructions and not to worry about them now."
I was feeling pretty good when panic struck. "The Sterno! Oh, crap, I forgot to order the—"
"Watch your foul mouth!" Thomasina interrupted. "Girl, when you gonna learn better'n to be vulgar?"
"Right, sorry, let's try this again," I said. "Oh Lawfy, Newt, this is a real bitch-stinker of a screwup. What in goddamned hell are we going to do now?"
I deliberately avoided looking in Thom's direction. But I could feel her disapproval wash over me like the heat of an open oven on broil.
"Don't fret," Newt said heroically. "A.J. stopped by our wholesaler on her way into work, bought a whole carton of Canned Heat."
"Goin' up the country ..." Luke sang foolishly, entertaining only himself.
"Has anyone seen her yet?" I asked.
"She's waitin' in that fancy new convertible of hers." Newt jerked his chin toward the outdoor parking lot at our rear. "Oh, and I asked one of the busboys to dig the warmin' trays outta the storeroom. He's gonna put them in her backseat so she can drive them over to the party."
Relieved, I exhaled through my mouth, my gum almost shooting from it like a dart from a blowgun. "What about Medina and Vernon?"
"They already started out in Vern's rust bucket."
I nodded. That would leave us seriously undermanned at the restaurant and force Raylene Sue Chappell, one of my best waitresses, to work the cash register. But I didn't see an alternative. Lolo was plugged in to Nashville high society in a major way, and some of the city's most influential people would be among her guests that night. If word of mouth on our first catering gig was positive, there would be many more. If not, we'd be deader than the fake corpse at her soiree.
"All right, Newt, I think we've covered everything," I said. "As long as you're okay holding the fort tonight...."
"Don't you worry," he said. "We'll be fi—"
He broke off all at once, gawking at the van with his mouth wide open. I realized he had just noticed the logo on its side.
"Whoa! Is it my imagination or are those letters supposed to look like slugs?"
"Worms," Thomasina said.
"Leeches!" Luke moaned. His arm was hanging out the window and he slapped the door in frustration. "Can't any of you folks read?"
Newt stared at him, his brow crinkling in disgust. "I stand corrected," he said. "I mean, leeches. They're gonna look a lot less nauseatin' when they roll in with our food, now won't they?"
Luke made a bulldog face. It was time to go.
Four hours later, Thom and I were in the immense dining hall of Lola Baker's restored antebellum plantation house, giving our buffet tables a final inspection. All pillars, porticoes, porches, gables and hanging eaves, the estate was set on three acres of farmland that had been in Lola's family for generations—well, technically, in her late husband Colton's family for generations. It had been years, if not decades, since crops had grown in its fields, but Lola didn't need their production in order to stay rolling in ripe green stacks of moolah. Thanks to Colton making some successful high-yield investments back in the freewheeling 1990s, she could afford to sit back and let the value of her financial shares grow ... and grow and grow and grow. No watering, fertilizer, or plows required. As a retired accountant, I appreciated his foresight almost as much as she did.
"Well, now, it seems to me everybody's here," Thom said, looking up from a tray of beef goulash. The room's mahogany pocket doors had been slid back into the wall, giving us a wide-open view of the parlor where Lola's guests were having cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. "Another few minutes and they can come fill their faces before the stupidity begins ... though I suspect some of the men might stay behind to get better acquainted with A.J.'s bra."
I didn't say anything. Once we'd hit the road, Thom had gone from griping about the party itself to the outfits we'd worn. I had prepared my defense in advance, figuring I was bound to hear her squawk about it at some point on the way out to Belle Meade. And same as when I'd seen the band logo on the van, I frankly understood her exasperation—although I wasn't about to let her know that.
Uncle Murray had wanted the atmosphere at the deli to be what he'd always called Western casual. As long as the staff dressed neatly, he was satisfied. But it was easy to distinguish diners from servers in a restaurant, where the customers stayed put at tables while the waiters and waitresses came around and took their orders. At special events, it was different. Because partygoers moved around and circulated, they had to be able to identify the servers in a crowd. That meant uniforms.
I'd opted for basic black. Shirts and trousers for the guys, skirts and blouses for Thom, A.J., and me, pairing them respectively with honey gold silk neckties and feminine scarves of the same color and material. I told everybody they were free to choose their own footwear and tweak their outfits with whatever jazzy personal touches they chose, as long as they didn't stray from the color combo.
It still didn't go over well with the staff. Forget what I said about personal touches. They'd responded like I was forcing them into Sunday school outfits. And I admit their unhappiness surprised me. I didn't see what was wrong with wearing black. In fact, I thought it was kind of cool. Johnny Cash wore it. The E Street Band. Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
Anyway, after seeing how disgruntled they were, I'd decided to set a positive leadership model in catering couture. Besides adding a wide retro patent-leather belt to my getup, I'd squeezed into a pair of black sky-high heels that made my feet look sexy, my legs longer and my hips swingier ... not to mention adding four or five sylphlike inches to my height. So what if they bunched my toes together and left them swollen red radishes? I'd had confidence in my ability to keep from screaming in pain till I got home and took them off. And bear in mind, I was trying to prevent a full-scale staff mutiny.
Unfortunately, A.J. had pushed—or maybe I ought to say pushed up—the bounds of professional attire a little too far south of the modesty line, wearing her blouse half unbuttoned from the top, getting plenty of lift from the alluded-to bra, and guiding the eye down the Major Cleavage Expressway with a string tie straight out of a Dallas Cowgirl pinup.
One thing, though. With the party barely under way, my tootsies were already sore from rubbing together. And since that probably wasn't true of A.J.'s twin peaks, I felt it was just plain stupid of me to stand in judgment of their exposure level. Or even to stand, period.
I looked through the entry into the wainscoted parlor, where A.J. was offering hors d'oeuvres to the guests, including a short, roly-poly man who was taking in a choice view of her personal scenery.
"The girl doesn't watch herself, she's gonna spill out into his food," Thom said. "That's got to violate some health code or other, Nash. Don'tcha think?"
I kept quiet. At first, it was because I didn't want to spur her on. But then I realized I knew the man.
"Hey," I said. "That guy over there's Hoppy!"
"Sure does seem to be," Thomasina said. "Could a fella take any more time reachin' for his weenie-wrap?"
Excerpted from One Foot in the Gravy by Delia Rosen Copyright © 2011 by Jeff Rovin. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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