Death on a Platter - Chapter 1

Elaine Viets: A mystery for every mood


Chapter 1

“You want me to eat brains? Do I look like a zombie?” Josie Marcus asked.

“Not raw brains,” Harry the Horrible said. “Or people brains. These are cow brains. I want you to eat fried brain sandwiches. You’re supposed to mystery-shop restaurants for a food tour. Brains are real St. Louis food.”

“They’re disgusting,” Josie said.

So was Harry, Josie’s boss and the head of Suttin Services in St. Louis. Harry loved to give Josie awful mystery-shopping assignments. He never forgave her for reporting a rude saleswoman who turned out to be Harry’s niece.

Rudeness seemed to run in the family. Harry was barely visible over the mound of yellowing papers on his desk. More papers were piled on his guest chair. He didn’t move them.

Outside, it was a golden September day where autumn leaves danced in a playful breeze. Inside, Harry’s office was a frosty February where dust motes circled in the dead air. Harry kept his cave chilly.

“Brains are a delicacy.” Harry bared his teeth in a smile that made Josie want to back away. “You only have to go to one brain sandwich place. And look at all the other good food you get to eat – toasted ravioli, St. Louis pizza.”

“I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the brains,” Josie said. “Did you ever eat brain sandwiches?”

“Sure,” Harry said. “If you cover them with ketchup, they’re not half bad.”

That wasn’t reassuring. Harry would eat Alpo with ketchup. The wastebasket beside his desk looked like a culinary crime scene heaped with red-spattered takeout bags.

Harry looked like a case for the fashion police. Bunches of coarse brown hair sprouted from his fingers, ears, nostrils and at the base of his dingy collar – everywhere but his scalp. Mother Nature had had a sense of humor when she’d made Harry. His mother had cooperated when she gave him a name that was both a description and a joke.

Harry switched gears from gloating to righteous. “Last time, you complained when I asked you to mystery-shop a salad restaurant. Now you’re upset because I want you to eat good old St. Louis grease. Choke down the brains and then enjoy the rest.”

Choke was right, Josie thought. “Why do I have to eat brains? St. Louis has so many good restaurants. We’re a city of foodies, a mini-San Francisco. St. Louisans love to go out to dinner. Our restaurants are known for their menus. They serve organic and locally-grown food.”

“So what did you have for dinner last night, Miz Foodie?” Harry asked.

“Macaroni and cheese,” Josie said.

“Made from specially aged cheddar?” Harry asked. “And that macaroni? Did you whip it up in your kitchen from organic wheat?”

“Kraft makes a quality product,” Josie said.

“I thought so. Josie, this is a big deal for the city. This is a TAG Tour – that’s Travel America Guided Tours, the biggie out of New York City. TAG Tours are designed for sophisticated travelers who want to explore cities beyond the usual tourist sites. St. Louis has been selected as one of ten cities for a TAG Tour. Their New York scouts identified toasted ravioli, pizza, pig ear sandwiches, and brain sandwiches as the exotic local dishes.”

“Pig ears, too?” Josie’s stomach fell like an elevator with snapped cables.

“That’s a specialty in African-American neighborhoods,” Harry said. “When touring celebrities, including actors, rap singers and big-league basketball players, come to St. Louis, they drive up in limos to eat pig ear sandwiches. White-bread America needs to discover them. TAG is asking you to eat at these restaurants. If you give the okay, you only have to visit one. If their first choice fails, you’ll have to eat at two places. Do you want the job or not?”

Josie had to worry about her own weekly food tour at the supermarket. She had to support Amelia, her eleven-year-old daughter. This was supposed to be a cold winter. Josie had barely been able to pay her air-conditioning bill during the record-breaking hot summer. The heating bills would devour the last scraps of her bank account.

Josie had no rich relatives or a wealthy husband to rescue her. She was a single mom and barely made a living as a mystery shopper. She could afford housing in a good neighborhood, thanks to her mother. Jane rented Josie and Amelia the first floor of her two-family flat and never raised the rent. But Josie’s mom wasn’t rich, either. Jane made do with a small bank pension and Social Security.

Mystery-shopping jobs were growing scarcer as businesses died in the ailing economy. Josie couldn’t afford the luxury of refusing any job, no matter how distasteful. She’d close her eyes, pour ketchup on the brain sandwich and eat her way to the good stuff. Josie thought toasted ravioli was worth a special trip to St. Louis and the city’s pizza was like no other in the country.

“I’ll do it,” Josie said. She wondered if her daughter would appreciate this sacrifice on her behalf.

“Good girl.” Harry bared his teeth again. He pulled a paper out of the printer near his desk and said, “Here’s the list. Make one visit at the specified time, either for lunch or dinner. If TAG likes your report, they may ask you go back there again. The restaurants that make the cut will be on the tour. That guarantees them anywhere from fifty to two hundred prepaid meals once a week. Twice a week, during the peak tour season.”

Josie felt a surge of pride – and power. Thanks to her, visitors from around the world would be dining in selected local restaurants. She thought St. Louis was an underrated city and wanted to show it off to strangers. As a mystery shopper, she could dole out fat rewards to the restaurants who met TAG’s standards.

She studied the list and recognized most of the names as small, family-owned businesses. A guaranteed clientele would be a big perk for them. They could use the cash infusion and notoriety from a TAG Tour.

“You can bring one other person,” Harry said.

“Can I take my friend Alyce?” Josie asked.

“No age or gender restrictions,” Harry said. “You can take a friend – or an enemy, for all I care.”

Josie figured Alyce would enjoy the toasted ravioli and pizza. Her generous proportions reflected her personality. Josie could see her blond friend tucking into toasted ravioli and pizza. Alyce was addicted to cooking, so she would give Josie accurate details about ingredients and preparation.

Their friendship was unusual. Alyce was a stay-at-home mom married to a lawyer. Her suburban mansion looked perfect but Josie always felt at home there. Alyce planned the dinner parties that advanced Jake’s career and belonged to the committees that helped him. She didn’t need a job outside the home, but mystery-shopping with Josie gave Alyce the feeling she walked on the wild side.

Some of the places on Josie’s list might be a little too wild. She couldn’t see Alyce in a city bar or a cafe in a marginal neighborhood. Ted Scottsmeyer, Josie’s vet boyfriend, would enjoy those assignments. He’d definitely like the brain sandwiches and probably the pig ears. The last four names on the TAG list looked out of place. “Why is a bakery here?” Josie asked. “And a chocolate maker?”

“Didn’t I tell you?” Harry said. “You can have to eat our chocolate. And gooey butter cake, too. It’s another St. Louis specialty.”

“Sweet,” Josie said, then realized she sounded like her daughter.