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Murder on the Gravy Train
by Phyllis Richman
HarperCollins, 2000

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Chapter One
"Just coffee, please. A decaf espresso." I wasn't going to spend unnecessary calories on this encounter. Nor was I going to risk losing sleep.

"I'll have the tiramisu," said my companion-- I use the term reluctantly. I should have guessed that this sallow, twitching guy with a frayed collar and happy-face tie would order tiramisu in a deli.

Ottavio Rossi, despite the poetry of his name, was about as Italian as SpaghettiOs. I speculated on whether a man could be sued for false advertising in a personals ad. This "freshly divorced, optimistic, and glad-to-be-alive architect, recently moved to Washington, seeking company on walking tours of new city and new life" was actually a depressed-looking waiter whose feet hurt. And he wasn't much of a talker. I wondered-- not for the first time-- how I, nearly fifty years old, could have been so crazy as to answer an ISO and arrange a meeting with a strange man just because he sounded funny and wise in his forty-three paid words.

Anger and curiosity make a dangerous stew.

For three weeks I'd been simmering, since I told my boyfriend, Dave-- by now, my ex-boyfriend-- that we needed to take a breather from our relationship until he was ready to pay it more respect.

What's made the breakup more complicated is that we both work at the same place, the Washington Examiner. I'm the restaurant critic, and Dave is-- or was-- the star investigative reporter. In the past year, his star began dimming in favor of a newer, younger-- and female-- reporter, who uncannily scooped him at every turn. Understandably, he'd grown irritable. What's worse, he was increasingly uncommunicative.

My usual view is that relationship problems should be solved within the relationship, but that wasn't happening.

"I've got to work this out myself," Dave would answer when I tried to get him to talk. Mr. Independent Go-It-Alone. Bob Woodward without Deep Throat.

He didn't even try to argue when I suggested a trial separation. He just stopped calling, started treating me like a stranger in the office, and immersed himself in his work. Then he wangled an out-of-town assignment to cover a long-running trial in San Francisco.

So I decided to pretend this breakup was an opportunity-- a time to satisfy my curiosity about those ISO ads my office mates and I often read to each other. At the moment, though, adventurousness seemed like an astonishingly bad idea.

Here I was, Chas Wheatley, a restaurant critic ever ready to mince a chef's ego to a duxelles, in this case too cowardly to make an excuse and dump Ottavio Rossi. I couldn't hurt the poor guy's feelings, even though he had virtually lied in describing himself and had almost nothing to say.

I'd been careful to arrange our meeting in a place that was public, but one where I was unlikely to cross paths with anyone I knew. I suggested we meet for coffee, which seemed like a safely limited encounter. And I'd never told him a name he might recognize, just introduced myself as Charlotte Sue, which is my real name but one that nobody ever uses.

The really frustrating part was that although I'd scrupulously avoided the ads of any men who might be connected with the restaurant business, and assigned Ottavio extra points because he was new in town and we were unlikely to have acquaintances in common, now he told me he'd just made a career change. No sooner had he placed the personals ad in the newspaper, he said, than he'd lost his job. He was afraid of falling behind in his child-support payments, so he'd turned to the emergency income source of countless out-of-work actors and downsized corporation lawyers. He'd immediately-- after telling a few lies about his experience, I suspected-- snagged a position as a waiter "in a big-time restaurant," he bragged, one where his Italian name had been "a major plus."

It got worse. Ottavio hadn't had an ordinary mainstream architecture job when he came to Washington. He was a kitchen designer. For restaurants.

I sat over my undrinkable bitter espresso and tried to make the best of a bad situation. Maybe I could learn some worthwhile restaurant gossip. I quaked at the idea of Ottavio regaling his fellow waiters with having met a restaurant critic through a personals ad, but since he hadn't asked a single thing about me yet, I hoped I might get away without his knowing who I really am.

Silently willing him to hurry up with his tiramisu, which he hadn't touched yet, I asked him where he was working.

"It's a pretty weird place, Charlotte.... May I call you Charlotte?"

What else could he call me, since that was the only name I'd given him? I nodded and smiled, assuming he would elaborate, but he didn't.

"How is it weird?" I prodded.

"Just weird. If only people knew what restaurants get out of them, they'd sure watch their backs."

Ottavio's eyes were riveted on his coffee and he silently stirred it. I began to count the intertwined boomerangs on the Formica table. Just as I was about to try again to pry a detail or two from him, he blurted, "I couldn't believe they'd fire me because of one single mistake. They had it in for me. I'm sure of it."

"Who? At the restaurant?"

"No, my design firm. Kitchen Works. Just one drawing, that did it. I got the scale wrong on one drawing, and they fired me. You'd think that since I was the only CAD..."

"What's that?"

"Computer-aided design operator," he answered, and went on as if there'd been no interruption. "Since I was the only CAD who knew how to get the most out of the new custom-designed range suites..."

"Range suites?"

"Yeah, that was my specialty. I knew more than anybody about those pricey French stoves that all the top chefs are installing now. The ones that look like miniature luxury liners and come with everything-- broiler, hot plate, fryer, induction top, electric and gas burners-- in one unit. I've designed kitchens where the range suite alone cost a quarter of a million dollars."

I knew a little about such stoves, but wanted to hear more. "A quarter of a million dollars?"

"Oh, sure. You ever hear of the Inn at Little Washington? The chef there installed a green-and-black one to match the restaurant's colors, and it was a prototype but in its final form is bound to cost that much. The Culinary Institute of America at Grey-stone in Napa Valley has a bunch of them in a kind of deep burgundy. Jean-Louis Palladin installed a bright blue one at the Watergate, though his wasn't the most extravagant. Charlie Trotter has one in Chicago, Gray Kunz at Lespinasse in New York. In the old days, the big guys had to have a duck press. Now it's a six-digit stove."

This conversation was actually getting to be interesting. In fact, as Ottavio began to talk about his former job, his face took on more color and he stopped twitching. He was even starting to look good to me. I'd have to be careful, though, not to betray my restaurant expertise and blow my cover.

"You must have gotten to work with some pretty good chefs," I prodded.

"Pretty good? Not with these stoves. I'd say none less than great. So far, I've done the drawings for two French restaurants, a fantastic Italian trattoria, and a Vietnamese restaurant that's making a run for the big time."

Ottavio had shed his dreary expression. His darting washed-out eyes had settled on my face and looked a little more blue. He'd totally ignored his fluffy brown-and-white dessert and was using his hands to gesture rather than twitch or pick at his napkin. Whereas at first I'd have called him gaunt, now I saw him as slim. He did, after all, know how to smile, however tentatively. Most surprising, his gaze seemed less concentrated inside himself; he was giving me the once-over.

He even asked me a question: "So, what do you do, Charlotte?"

Oops. How was I going to handle this one? Now that I knew he was in the restaurant business, I wanted to be more sure of his interest and discretion before I gave him my full name or told him I was a critic. I could just imagine the knee-slapping guffawing in his restaurant when he spread the word that Chas Wheatley was searching for love in the classified section.

"I'm sort of..."

My pause gave him the opportunity to sneak a peek at his watch. Ottavio leapt to his feet, upturning his cup and sloshing coffee on his shirt cuff. "Omigod," he said, grabbing a napkin. "It's late. I've got to put more money in the parking meter." He lunged out of the room. I noted the clock on the wall: 3:20.

His sudden departure gave me time to think of how I was going to answer his question. I'd try to return the focus to him while I sized him up better. He had me confused. Was he the schlemiel he first seemed to be, or had I underestimated him? He actually was kind of attractive, once he loosened up.

What was I thinking? I couldn't date a waiter. That was a total conflict of interest. Besides, what kind of jerk parks at a twenty-minute meter when he meets a woman for coffee? When he comes back, I told myself, I'll just have to politely deflect personal questions and extricate myself as soon as I can. I could only hope he'd never spot me in a restaurant and make the connection. Before I left, I'd have to find out the name of the place where he was a waiter.

He must have parked some distance away. He was taking too long. Way too long. And I wasn't the only one who thought so. The waiter approached Ottavio's chair and swept a towel across the spilled coffee. "You want me to clear this stuff, lady?" I looked up at the clock: 3:40. I looked at the waiter's face: a half smile.

My cheeks burned. I wasn't going to give in to that smirk. "My friend forgot he had an appointment, so just take his cup." He nodded curtly, but the look remained. I took another swipe at him. "I'll have another espresso. This one's grown cold."

After the waiter turned away with a shrug, I reacted exactly the way rejected women have throughout history: I reached across the table and slid the tiramisu to my side. It looked more like marshmallow than mascarpone cream. Barely any chocolate or espresso, tiramisu aimed at the lowest common denominator. Hating myself as I did it, I forked up the metallic white fluff as if it could soak up my frustration.

Why did I have to save face before that turnip of a waiter? I turned over the check that had been sitting on the table, added the price of my second espresso, and calculated a stingy 10-percent tip-- before tax. I straightened to my full five-foot-four inches and swept out the door. I'd never felt so old before. My toe caught on a napkin that lay crumpled on the sidewalk. I started to pick it up, then just kicked it into the gutter.

I felt at my worst, but Washington was having a glorious day. Spring had come early, and the cherry blossoms were in full bloom well before their annual festival, which meant that we who lived here got to enjoy them privately before the busloads of tourists arrived. I decided to bypass my office and walk to the Jefferson Memorial. Walking is my drug, my solace, my addiction. I crave a walk the way other addicts grow desperate for a drink or a smoke. And on a day like today I surely needed to take advantage of every morsel of good fortune that blew my way.

To have a man dump me was humiliating enough. Being rejected by a man I found only barely tolerable made me feel I'd had my feathers plucked one by one and my carcass left bare.

Years ago I'd come to terms with being overweight. Now I felt fat.

I'd never minded growing older, figuring that wiser came along to compensate. Today I felt as if I'd begun to decay.

My long, gray-streaked blonde hair looked to me like drought-seared corn silk, the breeze whipping it into my eyes. My normally loose gait felt stiff, as if I, the inveterate hiker, were unused to walking. Somewhere behind my eyes I ached, the way I'd felt as a child after I'd been crying for a long time.

As soon as I swept my hair from my face, the wind picked up again and tossed pink petals, like big, soft flakes of rosy-hued snow, into my eyes. They drifted down my nose, into my mouth. Warm, silken snow, never to melt. I was in a forest of cherry trees, the air filled with blossoms shimmering pink and white, beyond them the calm sparkle of the Tidal Basin. I slowed to a standstill, breathing deeply to fill my head with the fragrance.

A Japanese couple approached me with an embarrassed giggle, offering their Polaroid camera and asking me with gestures to take their picture. They stood barely touching, stiff and smiling while I aimed the lens. As soon as I snapped the picture, they rushed to me and pulled the square of film from the camera, shifting their gaze affectionately between the paper and each other as the image blossomed. I edged away, ready to leave, but then the wife swooped to my side to show me the photo, bowing in excessive gratitude for such a meager favor. I signaled my thanks for her thanks and again started to go, but the husband caught up with me, waving a second photo. This was of his wife and me. She looked like a doll in the long slim silk shirtdress that she somehow wore as if it were a kimono. Next to her, I saw myself as a teddy bear, round and lumpy. My pained smile was saying, "I want to get out of here."

So I did. I bowed, they bowed, and I backed away, waving the photo like a handkerchief until I bumped into a tree and automatically apologized to it. I turned to make a more rapid retreat. As I waited impatiently for a walk light on Pennsylvania Avenue, I took one last look at the photo, then dropped it in a trash can, where it settled on a blob of ketchup, and was thus glued to a thicket of limp french fries. restaurant critic drowns in ketchup, I imagined the headline.

My life was a bloody mess.

I was in no mood to face the newsroom, so I gave up and went home. Maybe in my beloved Seventh Street loft I could pull myself together before I had to review tonight's restaurant.

I rooted through drawers until I found just the CD I needed, folk-bluegrass-gospel in Gillian Welch's plaintive voice. An hour in my old red plush platform rocker, my bare feet tucked under me, and a corduroy pillow behind my head, lulled me to a slow rhythm of dozing and waking. As I watched puffy white clouds, like the flowery caps of cherry trees, drift past the Washington Monument, I tried to lecture myself out of my misery.

Couldn't life be beautiful without my being beautiful?

On the street at last, I didn't know whether to scream or sob. By sheer will, I escaped without doing either.

Copyright © 2000 by Phyllis Richman. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted With Permission.

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