Hot Stuff: A Novel288
Hot Stuff: A Novel288
Lacking confidence in the police to solve the murder, Chef Jean Bouvier seeks a quicker solution. He hires private eyes James Lessor and Skip Moore to go undercover and discreetly investigate his restaurant staff.
But their investigation turns up far more than they bargained for. Skip’s charming girlfriend, Emily, confesses that the murder victim and she had been close friends at one point in their lives and had shared a very dark secret.
But Emily refuses to elaborate, building a wall of defense between herself and the two young detectives. The more Skip and James investigate the background of the victim and the people she knew, the more they are convinced that this shared secret has far-reaching implications that may lead to the motive for the murder.
The closer they get to the answer, the more desperate someone is to stop them.
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|Series:||The Stuff Series , #6|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 3.10(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Don Bruns
Oceanview PublishingCopyright © 2012 Don Bruns
All rights reserved.
Two hours ago I hadn't even known what a sous chef was, but there she was, blood seeping from the wounds in her abdomen as she lay faceup in the alley behind L'Elfe, the famous French restaurant on Bayshore Drive in Miami.
You've heard of L'Elfe. It was featured on all the cooking channels, and the owner is Jean Bouvier. He and his wife, Sophia, own at least five restaurants. He's written ten cookbooks, owns lines of spices, pots and pans, cutlery, and you name it. This little guy, about five foot one, and his burly wife, had become a money machine, and my partner hated them.
James, my business associate, was a culinary major in college and now works for a fast-food chain in Carol City, just outside of Miami. He dreams of becoming a millionaire and is put off by anyone who has figured out how to actually become a business tycoon. So far the best we've been able to do is start a private investigating company. Which is one of the reasons why I was in the back alley of L'Elfe. Em dragged me back there, saying we had to find out who killed the girl, someone who had once been a good friend of hers.
You see, my girlfriend, Emily, was treating me to dinner this night. She'd landed a major construction deal for her employer, her father, and we were celebrating. Sous chef Amanda Wright had been a good friend of Em's all through high school. Em had even fixed her up with my roommate, James, for a couple of dates recently, and Em wanted to show her friend support by eating at L'Elfe. It seemed like a good idea at the time. And, I was getting a free meal at one of the hottest eateries in Miami. Now, staring at Amanda Wright's blood-drained face, I was having second thoughts.
"Jesus, Skip." The rescue squad had been called, but the pale body grotesquely sprawled on the concrete alley proved that there would be no rescue. "It's Amanda. I mean, it's really Amanda." She grabbed my hand and squeezed tight. "She was a friend. Someone I could count on." Em was trembling, her eyes focused on the corpse and the pool of blood that surrounded it.
I didn't know the girl that well, but looking at the pale, dark-haired young woman who seemed to have a brilliant future brought tears to my eyes. No one deserved to die at this age and be left to bleed to death in this dirty, vermin-infested, smelly alley with black vinyl trash bags lining the curb.
"What happened? We were talking to her just, what? An hour ago?" Over drinks and some type of scallops with seaweed.
I squeezed Em's hand back, sirens wailing in the distance, and the morbid curiosity seekers easing through the doorway from the kitchen. I was certain no one was left in the dining area. When our waiter ran into the restaurant screaming that there was a dead body in the alley, the place had cleared out quickly. Uneaten meals, unpaid bills, and undrunk drinks littered the tables as patrons hurried from their seats.
"Em, she's probably in a better place." The dumbest thing I could have said. She was about to be head chef at a South Beach restaurant. That was the place she should have been.
"She was so happy. An hour ago." Em was shaking. Not crying yet, but shaking as she buried her head in my shoulder. "She was so excited about the promotion. I've never seen her that happy."
Amanda Wright had stopped at our table, speaking a mile a minute about her new assignment. Hands waving in the air, she informed us that Bouvier had asked her to become executive chef at a brand-new restaurant he was opening on South Beach. La Plage. The Beach. An unbelievable achievement for someone of her age and background. Executive chef.
"It was her dream, her goal. Skip, she had so much to live for." I glanced at Em and tears were streaming down her face. I blinked, released her hand, and hugged her as purple lights swirled against the white building. Blue-and-red spinners from the police cars cast an eerie pattern down the narrow pavement, bathing everyone and everything in an unhealthy glow.
"Stand back." A uniformed officer stepped from the first vehicle, obviously ready to take charge as a white ambulance pulled up behind him. Two paramedics leaped from the white unit and rushed to the body, one carrying a black medical bag. I was reminded of a phrase my mother often used to describe our basic living conditions. "A day late and a dollar short."
"Em, they're going to get to the bottom of this."
She shook her head. "She's dead, Skip. Bad things like this can't happen to good people. They just can't."
"It's Amanda. She stood up for me when my whole world was coming apart." Em was shaking, quivering, and I wanted it to stop. "Skip, we've got to find out what happened. I owe her. I owe her, Skip."
I'd known Em a long time, and she was the most put together person I'd ever met.
"Skip, I never told you." The sobs were breaking up her speech. I held her tighter, wishing her some peace.
"Told me what?"
Em cleared her throat, taking some deep breaths as we stepped back from the crime scene. In hushed tones she spoke.
"During high school, before you and I started dating, I was charged with grand theft. Amanda and I —" she paused, trying to gain her composure.
My eyes shot open and I stared at her. Em was the most moral, decent person I knew. Grand theft?
"Explain that. Grand theft is a major charge." It was a whole lot more than a misdemeanor. "What could you possibly have —"
"I shouldn't have told you. It's just that —" She paused and stared back down at the body. "I don't want to get into it right now, but Amanda was there for me. I owe her, Skip. Please understand that."
"Grand theft? A felony? Em, what the hell did you —"
"I'm not going there, Skip."
Not going there? "You brought it up." Sometimes my girlfriend defied common sense.
The two young men in white jackets stood up, shaking their heads, walking slowly back to the ambulance as two police officers strung yellow tape around the area where the body lay, tying the ends off on a fire hydrant and a green Dumpster. A gruesome barricade bordered by alley fixtures.
"No one is to leave the scene." A potbellied, middle-aged uniformed cop with a squawking bullhorn shouted to the assembled. "We will want to talk to every one of you, and only after you're cleared can you leave."
"And Amanda stood up for you?"
Em looked into my eyes. "She did more than that."
"She confessed to the crime."
"She committed the felony?"
I was more confused by the minute.
"She stood up for you, admitted to the crime so you could go free, and you're saying what?"
"She didn't do it." Em shuddered. "She confessed to get me off the hook."CHAPTER 2
It was after one in the morning when I finally got home and explained to James the evening's events.
"Dude, Em was charged with a felony?"
He'd known her almost as long as I had. My best friend and my girlfriend were long time acquaintances. Not always on the best of terms, but they knew each other pretty well.
"When? How long ago? I can't believe it. Em?"
He sat straight up on the old green sofa, his eyes wide open.
"I tell you that there's a dead woman in the alley behind L'Elfe, Amanda Wright, a dead woman you recently dated, and I tell you that Jean Bouvier is opening a new restaurant on South Beach called La Plage. I just explained that Amanda had been appointed executive chef at that restaurant, and I share with you that we spent an hour waiting to be interviewed by the cops and this is your only surprise? That Emily was charged with a felony in her past?"
He looked somewhat chagrined. "Skip, it's a scary story. I'm a little shook up, yeah. But, look, I don't know Bouvier. I can't afford to eat in his restaurants. And I feel really bad about Amanda. My God, no one should go out like that. I mean it was months ago, and she was a nice girl, but I don't really have any feelings about her, you know? I mean she was —" He paused, searching for the right word, "She was out there, a little weird, a little clingy. Emotional, needy. Yes, I'm a little bummed. But then you tell me about Em? I know the lady. Emily being charged is hard to get my head around. That's big news, pal. What was the felony?"
"She didn't say."
I hadn't pushed it any harder. She sounded very protective about that part of her life.
"Actually, she wouldn't say. Once she gave me the outline of the story, she shut down."
"Well, it's a big revelation. She's starting to share the dark side of her life, amigo. Maybe a ring is in order?" He gave me a big-toothed nervous smile and brushed the hair from his face. Charming as ever.
I walked across the room to our small refrigerator and pulled out two bottles of Yuengling. Tossing one to James, I threw myself into the threadbare recliner with the broken handle. The chair remained permanently frozen in the reclining position.
"Amanda Wright." I took a long swallow of the cold beer. "She was good friends with Em, yet —"
"Yet you didn't know much about her."
James and I could sometimes finish each other's sentences. We probably spent way too much time together.
"Well, I knew a little about her. I mean Em would say Amanda this, Amanda that, but —"
She'd been a good friend. Been being the operative word. I think that they'd had a parting of the ways sometime back, some argument, disagreement, or something, but recently she'd fixed James up with the girl, and judging by what had happened tonight, Em still had feelings for Amanda. Apparently, very strong feelings. When she dropped me off at my crappy apartment in Carol City, before she drove back to her twenty-third story condo overlooking Biscayne Bay, she'd once again warned me against bringing up the felony charges.
"Pretend I never mentioned it, Skip." Giving me a cold, hard look, she peeled away in her sleek sports car, without so much as a goodnight kiss.
"Dude," James was concentrating on the murder. "I haven't seen Amanda in a couple or three months. Hell, when was the last time we went out. I seriously can't remember. Didn't even know she was working at L'Elfe. You know, I picked her up, and we went to a movie the first time. She was a knockout, great face, body, but all she wanted to do was hold hands all through the flick. I mean, I believe in intimacy but," he paused for a moment as if the brutality of the crime had just hit him. "Stabbed, you said?"
"Multiple times in the stomach and lower abdomen."
"Somebody didn't like the beef bourguignon."
I didn't know if he was trying to be funny or mask his shock.
"At least we are out of it, James. The cops talked to everyone there, and I'm sure they're going to have some leads. They were very thorough. And, James, what exactly is a sous chef?"
"Come on, you should know that. You've watched enough of The Food Channel with me. A sous chef is a backup. Some guy — in this case some girl — who takes over when the executive chef isn't there. A sous chef is the first in line after the executive chef. They know the entire routine. They may be responsible for a menu. Maybe they come up with a special dish or sauce. Next step up, just like Em's friend, would be executive chef." James nodded smugly.
"Executive chef, right? Executive chef at L'Elfe? Wouldn't that be Bouvier?" The title threw me.
"Nah. Bouvier is the chef de cuisine. He owns the franchise. He has the vision, conceives the menu, and gives the restaurant its personality. Bouvier, just like Paul Prudhomme at K-Paul's restaurant in New Orleans. Bobby Flay at Bar Americain in New York. They don't really spend time in those kitchens. They're busy running a food empire." I could see that elusive dream in his eyes.
James often talked about some of the famous restaurants that he'd studied in school. I had a passing knowledge of Prudhomme and his blackened redfish. James even made the New Orleans delicacy in our tiny kitchen. If memory serves, it was very good. And my roommate made smoked chicken and black bean quesadillas from a Bobby Flay recipe. James really is a good cook.
"Chef de cuisine really doesn't have much to do with the kitchen anymore. He'd have a executive chef and two or three sous chefs. And my thought is that he has somebody, maybe his wife, who probably runs the business side." He thought for a moment. "Somebody like Bouvier, he's the big-picture guy. Coming up with the next move, the next wave of his business. And his wife, Sophia, she's maybe the enforcer. She gets it done."
Too many titles, almost like royalty. Duke, duchess, countess. "So who would have become the next sous chef?"
"At L'Elfe? As I said, he probably has two or three of them. The fancy places usually have multiples. That restaurant puts out a lot of food, pardner. They need some serious supervision in the kitchen."
"Maybe it was somebody who didn't like Amanda's management style," I said. "What if it was —"
"Let's drop it, Skip. We're out of it. Not our problem. The cops can take this one and run with it."
Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." blared from my pocket and I pulled out the cell phone. Two a.m. It could only be Em.
"Skip, I'm a little freaked out."
"Hey, I understand. I didn't know Amanda that well, but —"
"Listen to me. I got a voice mail. I turned the phone off in the restaurant and forgot to turn it on until I got home."
"Jeez, Skip, it's very weird. The call was from Amanda."
"It came in around seven thirty."
"We'd already talked to her by then. We were still in the dining room. What could she have wanted? I mean, she could have come out and —"
"She couldn't. She said she was under a lot of pressure and someone was watching her. She wasn't supposed to be using her cell phone. She wanted me to meet her after work."
"No mention of what the pressure was? I mean, she was upbeat when we saw her. I thought she was on top of the world."
"On my cell phone it didn't come off like that."
"What else did she say?"
"The creepiest part of all, Skip."
"Someone had asked her to meet them in the alley. She didn't say who, but this person said it was a matter of life and death."CHAPTER 3
We were both quiet for a moment. James was staring at the TV, oblivious to the drama being played out on the phone.
"There's something else. I called Amanda's mother."
Pausing, I wondered how that conversation would have gone. Not a very pleasant thought.
"How's she doing?"
"Not well, Skip. Not well at all."
I took a deep breath. James lost his father when he was fairly young. I couldn't imagine how it would feel to lose a child.
"Jean Bouvier called her. She said he was very consoling, very concerned. Talked about how Amanda was almost a daughter to him."
"Glad to hear it." It showed there was some compassion in the little guy. Worried about the mother. "How are you holding up? Especially after the phone call."
"God, Skip, I didn't tell her about that. I'm not sure I should tell anyone. But when I talked to her mother, we could barely keep it together. Both of us tearing up. Gloria, her mom, she and I were pretty tight when I was younger. We shared some stories and," her voice tightened, "it wasn't easy."
She was quiet for a moment, both of us picturing the grisly scene in the alley just hours ago.
"There have been several conversations back and forth between Mrs. Wright, Gloria, and Jean Bouvier."
"And with me."
"Tonight, this morning. I've had some conversations with Bouvier and Amanda's mother. Simply put, the chef doesn't trust the police to find the killer. He's very passionate about this. He wants to investigate the murder on his own."
That sounded like James. He never trusted the police. It went back to the arrest of his father. He avoided cops at all costs.
"It just happened, Em. How is he going to barge in and do an investigation? He's got to give the cops a chance to start the process."
"I thought the same thing, Skip. But he feels this has to be brought under control immediately so that his reputation isn't hurt. Obviously some of it is damage control. Apparently his wife has been pressing him to go around the cops on this. Do some investigating on his own. He says that she has encouraged him to use an outside source. Bouvier says that he wants to know if anyone on his staff was responsible."
Excerpted from Hot Stuff by Don Bruns. Copyright © 2012 Don Bruns. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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