|"It's disgusting, I'm telling
you. They get four stars in Zagat's and all the restaurant guides, but
if you only knew what goes on there!"
"I don't really --"
"They follow that three--second rule in the kitchen. You know -- if the food drops to the floor and they scoop it up in less than three seconds, it doesn't count. They can serve it to a customer. And if you're nasty to your server, he might spit in your food before he --"
"You know, I think a lot of us who eat in restaurants would rather not --"
"You ought to want to know! Here they are, this fancy, expensive place, supposedly deeply concerned about haute cuisine and high standards, and if you send your order back, of course they're going to serve it to the next customer. If you ate a little, they barely bother to take that bit away. They just put parsley --"
"Look. I don't really want to hear about some stupid place where you worked three years ago, okay? I'm sorry you still have issues, but I actually came here to talk about Roy." "Well, you know. Maybe you could send him there."
John stared at his grinning friend Carter and fought down a wave of annoyance. But he didn't fight hard. "Is that what this is leading up to? I don't want to trick Roy into a lousy meal. I want to friggin' kill the guy!"
"You've said that four times now." Carter sat back on his couch and looked at John. "Is it just hyperbole, or do you mean it literally?"
"I mean it literally! He screwed me out of that account. He screwed me out of the move to the A team, which I have totally earned. My chance is gone now, until God knows when, forever maybe. He trashes me behind my back to Tilden, to everybody, making up all kinds of garbage, and he's so damned stupid, he doesn't even think I know. He thinks that I think he's my buddy. I mean, knock the guy off and the world would be a better place."
"Hmm. Well, then. I'd say -- again -- send him to Fanelli's Garden for dinner, and that's where you can do the deed."
"That's where you can bump Roy off."
John peered at his friend through narrowed eyes. Carter's conversation was becoming dumber and harder to follow by the minute. With an impatient motion of his hand, John indicated the murder mystery paperbacks spilling out of the pile of books on Carter's coffee table. "You're losing me, guy. You're starting to talk like the people in that tripe you read."
Carter smoothed down the cover of a book with a broken spine lying next to him. (If he wanted to show off his new money with this glossy apartment and big words, why didn't Carter invest in some serious books? At least to have lying around?)
"Funny you should mention tripe," Carter said.
"'Cause that's what you could do it with. That's your murder weapon, right there. The dish, I mean -- the purported delicacy." John blinked, utterly bewildered. "You think I should beat him over the head with the lining of a cow's stomach?"
Carter took a sip of his drink and leaned forward. "Naah, you don't get me. Here's what you've got to understand about a restaurant like Fanelli's Garden. They believe their own publicity. They believe their Zagat rating.
"They keep all these pretentious things on the menu that no one would ever order. Sweetbreads. That dry, Sicilian sardine and pasta dish. And the number one thing that nobody ever orders -- is tripe."
"Well, good for them. Would you mind telling me why you are going on, again, about this ridiculous --"
"You go to Fanelli's Garden a half hour early," Carter continued patiently. "You order the tripe. You don't eat it. You dose it with something I give you -- you don't have to know what it is. You send it back. Roy comes in and orders the tripe. You've already left. Who's guilty of murder? You, or the restaurant? Do they take the rap for murder -- or admit that they serve leftovers to patrons? Not your problem, you're gone."
"That's great. Just one problem, though."
"Why the hell would Roy go there and order tripe?"
"That's your department, John. You said the man is hungry for prestige . . .
* * *
John and Roy stood by the water cooler, shooting the breeze.
"I'm telling you," John said. "Tilden thinks it's the best Italian restaurant in the county. That's not, uh, hyperbole or anything. He's tried them all."
"I didn't know he cared about food like that," Roy said uncertainly. He liked to pretend he was close to Tilden -- but, as John knew very well, nobody really got close to Tilden.
"Oh yeah. He's a gourmet. Yeah, he said he was out with this girl there, and he found out she'd never even tried tripe. Wrinkled up her little nose at it. And of course, Fanelli's Garden makes the best tripe outside of Milan. You should have heard the scorn in Tilden's voice when he told this story. I think he broke up with her right there in the restaurant."
* * *
John made his reservation for 7:15. He sat in the outdoor garden -- the restaurant's glory, during summer months. It's a dream, he told himself. A game. He felt too nervous to have an appetizer. But he hit the carafe full of Beaujolais heavily. The older waiter who came to his table registered surprise when he ordered the tripe. But then the man said, "Very good, signior," bowed slightly, and walked off. John drained and refilled his glass once more, and the game seemed that much less real.
Couples were laughing, talking. It was a flashy crowd, out in the garden, loud and knowing and sleek. And some heavyset, older guys had brought sleek young women as ornaments. Not a family place.
The waiter returned with a steaming platter, and made a great show of serving the tripe onto John's plate. It appeared to be stewed with tomatoes and garlic. It smelled all right. But it looked revolting: sheets of milky white material with a rough, honeycombed shag of a surface. John tentatively touched it with his fork. It had a strange, rubbery feel to it. He cut himself a little piece, and felt a wave of nausea wash over him. He could not even go through the charade of trying it and then rejecting it. He could not eat a bite.
The vial full of something vile that Carter had given him -- really just a skinny old caper jar filled with a clear liquid -- bumped against his leg inside his jacket pocket. I control this dream. I can pull the plug on it any time I want to . . .
So, did he want to pull the plug?
He thought about Roy Shaw. He thought about what Tilden Advertising was like before Roy got there. He had told everyone he knew that he finally was comfortable. Finally had a home away from home, a place where he genuinely liked working, where he could build his career. His rapport with Tilden was pretty good. People on the A team complimented him, throughout his first year, on the campaigns he designed for the lower--tier accounts he handled, the slogans he pitched. He was running B team by year two. He had an easy, flirtatious relationship with the secretaries, with Julie, (with Julie things seemed to be heading toward something more) and with Lillian, though she was married. He knew who he was and where he wanted to be.
And then Roy was hired, shaking everyone's hand, smirking like a smarmy little Eddie Haskell. John had tried to welcome him, tried to like him -- and failed. Soon Tilden seemed somehow, mysteriously, less friendly. Critical. Why did John arrive fifteen minutes late on Mondays? Why did he Xerox his personal documents at the office machine? (Because everybody did!) Why did his lunch hours always go ten minutes over?
His slogans were suddenly dubbed "cute" but not "sexy." His pitches were suddenly too "clever," out of touch with Joe Public. Who had planted these ideas in Tilden's mind, and everyone else's?
Roy went out drinking with him one evening. He was sympathetic, concerned, and again John tried to like him. Roy suggested a new approach to the Athleet sneaker account -- the kids in sneakers on the billboards should be riding rockets like skateboards! That would make boys feel like action heroes, and there was that play on words with the words rocket/rock it, and rock and roll would make them feel grown up . . . Roy gave it to John, he said, because it was perfect for the account, and because John was under so much stress.
John fell for it, he pitched it. And got slammed. The rockets were too corny, too Buck Rogers, cute rather than sexy. (How "sexy" do sneakers for kids and 'tweens have to be?!) As John glanced at Roy across the conference table while John was being verbally torn apart, Roy looked down -- except for a quick shared smile with Julie -- and John suddenly understood everything.
He wasn't surprised when the account was taken away from him and given to Roy. He wasn't surprised when Roy replaced him as head of B team, when Roy was invited several times to golf with Tilden and his buddies, when Roy made the A team and Julie was put in charge of B. John wasn't surprised to see Roy use Julie in a quickie affair, and then cast her aside, so that she often looked, in the mornings, like she had been crying, looked vulnerable, looked lost. And John was not surprised that Julie still had no time for him, even after she lost her position heading B team, and was replaced by Roy's latest flunky, that colorless kid Pete, even after Roy got busy busting up Lillian's marriage.
John was surprised by none of these things because he now understood that Roy was evil. He was a smirking, calculating imp from Hell, sent to destroy whatever was good and decent, whatever made life worthwhile. He didn't need to destroy John's life to get ahead. He did it out of malice, for the sheer, spiteful joy of it. He simply lived to poison the lives of those around him.
And one poisoning deserves another . . . John drew the jar of clear liquid out of his pocket. The lid turned easily. He splashed it over the tripe, his movements slow and casual. No one had seen him. It was dark in the garden, people were talking and music poured out of speakers: Dean Martin crooning something syrupy. The fat white candle on John's table sputtered. The large potted plant near him cast long shadows. No, no one had noticed.
I can't control what's happened to my life, but I control this dream, he thought with drunken detachment. I'll stick up for Julie even if she's too stupid to stick up for herself. I'll get that bastard, for everything he's done.
The tripe oozed milky menace in the moonlight. When the officious waiter stopped by to see how John was doing, John did not have to fake his disgust as he said the dish was not what he had thought it would be. No, he did not want anything else, and of course he meant to pay for it, he was leaving . . . The waiter brought the bill and John put his cash on the table, along with a decent tip. He strode out through the columns hung with lanterns at the back of Fanelli's Garden.
* * *
Fifty yards down the road, he detoured into the bushes. It was a dark, steep climb, through brambles and ivy, up the hill above the restaurant. He stood under a tree, and got out his small field glasses. From this shadowy spot, Fanelli's Garden looked well--lit. Strings of tiny white lights were woven into the bushes around the restaurant garden, and through trellises. They shone like Christmas. Faces were sometimes hard to see, but the field glasses let him make the forms of people out.
John saw Roy enter the restaurant alone. He'd said at work that he'd be checking this place out, on John's recommendation, Friday night. John had called, pretending to be him, confirming his reservation. Nine? Oh no, of course, they were right, he had said eight, hadn't he? Yes, it was still fine.
He called back an hour later and made a reservation for himself, at 7:15.
John was glad this grisly scene wouldn't play out in front of Julie or Lillian. Roy probably hadn't wanted a witness to his first reaction to tripe. He was seated one table away from where John had been before. He glanced at his menu and ordered immediately. The soothing sound of Tony Bennett faintly wafted up to John, beneath his tree. The tripe came. John's throat seized up, his head cleared. What had he done? What the hell had he done? Could he run down there in time to prevent the first bite?
But already Roy was manfully tucking into the pale, stewed mess before him. John thought he saw Roy flinch. Just what had been in that bottle? Did Roy know already that he was poisoned? Roy kept grimacing, kept eating, like a contestant on a reality TV show. There was nothing, it seemed, that this man would not do to kiss Tilden's ass. John watched, thinking of days when Julie seemed distracted, distraught, circles under her eyes, her loveliness and freshness gone, and thought: Take that, you bastard. You career--killer. You had it coming. And Roy continued to saw off pieces, and chew the rubbery food.
How long would this take? Would the effects not kick in until later, when he was home alone? Better for John -- it would be even harder to trace, to connect. Who would have thought a used car salesman and occasional drug dealer like Carter would turn out to be John's best friend? Roy was a waste of human life, and once he was gone, the office might once again be a friendly, welcoming place . . .
John's attention was distracted from the grimly chewing Roy. There was a commotion in a far corner of the garden, and he swung his field glasses in that direction. A pretty blond woman, seated at a table, was spasming and twitching. Her date, a tall guy with darkish glasses, had risen from his seat. Conversation around them had halted, and waiters came to help. The woman clutched at her throat. She keeled over, off her chair and onto the floor. Her date became frantic, clutched a waiter's arm, and kneeled over her. He got out his cell phone, presumably to call 911. He made his way to the entrance columns, to look out, perhaps, for an approaching ambulance.
And as he stood there looking, John was able to see his face. It was Carter.
Back at his table, oblivious to the drama playing out nearby, Roy stoically continued to saw, and chew.
* * *
They were back in Carter's living room. Carter again had his legs splayed across his over--stuffed couch. The pulp paperback he had been reading when John stormed in lay creased and open on a couch cushion beside him. John did not sit in the armchair now. He stood, clenching and unclenching his hands in fury.
"How did you do it?"
"How did I know when to come? It was easy, John. I called, pretending to be you, and found out you were coming at 7:15. We arrived at a quarter to eight."
"Who was that . . . lady I killed?"
Carter's boyish grin looked more like a smirk now. He was smirking in triumph, like Roy at his cockiest. "That was no lady, John. That was my wife."
"You don't have a wife."
"Nope. Not anymore."
"You . . ."
"We've lived apart for two years. Now that I'm not a waiter, I've got a little money, she suddenly announces that if I want to get rid of her, she gets half of everything. Can you believe that? And I would have lost it all in court, if I had tried to fight her. Thanks, pal." John was breathing heavily. He was dizzy -- found himself picturing sheets of ghostly pale tripe, glowing and billowing in the moonlight. "You'll be in court anyway. They must have recognized you."
"Oh yeah, right away. I wore shades to try to avoid any encounter with you, if you were still there -- but the staff and I were hanging out. They don't know how I hate the place. And we were talking and joking with the couple at the next table from the moment we got there. There's no way I could have poisoned her food -- everybody saw."
John fought for vocal control. He did not want to sound like he was whimpering. "I thought you were my friend."
"Nobody is anybody's friend, John," Carter told him soothingly. "Cheer up. They probably won't catch you. And she wasn't a nice person -- I know how much you care about people being 'nice.' She was pretty dull, too -- the most interesting thing about her was her odd taste in food. That gave me the premise I've been toying with, actually, for months."
"I'm turning you in. I'll tell them that it was you who gave me that jar."
"And will you also tell them how that stuff got in the food, John?"
Moist, rustling sheets of honeycombed whiteness seemed to be closing in on John, on all sides. "You bastard. You're inhuman. You're as evil as Roy."
Carter shook his head. "Not evil, John. And not even particularly smart. I was surprised -- it didn't take much to pull this off. Just balls, some luck -- and an affinity for tripe."