Sunday

Sample Sunday: "Cold Reading" by David Wisehart — Chapter Four

Cold Reading
A Nick Shaw Mystery

by David Wisehart

Private detective Nick Shaw is hired by a Hollywood theater producer to find a missing actress.

[Chapter One] [Chapter Two] [Chapter Three]

Chapter Four

The restaurant was empty. It was ten after five, and Dante's Den had just re-opened for dinner. I saw no patrons. I saw no staff. Somewhere in the kitchen a glass fell to the floor and shattered, but for all I knew it was suicide.

From the speakers in the ceiling Frank Sinatra sang the blues. I kept him company, but it didn't improve his mood. It was just me and Frank for several minutes, until a well-dressed young woman arrived from the kitchen with a new-fangled cell phone and an old-country smile. She kept the phone to her ear, listening to someone on the other end, nodding in response as if they were in the room, and said to me, "Just one today?"

She was a dark-haired, olive-skinned, Italian girl with more chest than her shirt knew what to do with. I had some ideas, but kept them to myself.

"Is the manager in?" I asked.

"Looking for a job?"

"This is my job. I'm looking for the manager."

"Huh," she remarked, and turned away, nodding at the voice in her ear.

As I waited, I studied the paintings on the wall. I'd only glanced at them before, on dinner dates. The murals depicted scenes from Dante's Divine Comedy. The images were based on Gustave Doré's old black-and-white sketches, which I'd seen in books. These murals, though, were new and brightly colored. Reds and oranges for hell. Blues and greens for purgatory. Silver and gold for heaven. I'd read Dante's Inferno three or four times, but could never get to Paradise. I have an aversion to allegory and a fascination with monsters.

I was studying Geryon, the flying dragon with a human face, when the restaurant manager stepped out of the back. He appeared to be in his mid-forties, short with a bald head and a neat triangle of black hair on his chin. Bristles protruded from his nose like dark vines searching for sunlight. It made him hard to talk to.

"Welcome! Welcome!" he bellowed. "We are open, yes. Please, have a seat, my friend."

He made a big swoop with his arms, as if the wind might carry me to a table.

I stood my ground. "Is Stella here tonight?"

He wrinkled his face at me. "Stella? No, not tonight, not tonight. Antonio is here tonight. Antonio, yes. He will serve you. Antonio! Customer! Antonio!" Then softer, "Please, please, this way."

The manager turned for me to follow.

I watched him waddle away, then got tired of it and spoke to his back. "I'm looking for Stella Burke."

He stopped and turned. When he saw me standing at the door, his mouth made a little "O" of surprise. He waddled back. "Stella works...Friday? Yes, Friday. But the food is here tonight. Come, come, you eat."

"When was the last time you saw her?"

"Only Fridays."

"Did you see her last Friday?"

"Nicco is here every night." The name tag on his shirt told me he was speaking of himself. "Tonight, tomorrow night, Friday night. Always, always. I've seen you, I think. You've been here before, yes?"

"Did Stella say anything to you before she left?"

Nicco thought about it a long time. He put a hand to his chin. His eyes squinted and his mouth puckered. Black bristles fluttered in his nose. After all that build-up, what he said was, "No."

"Did she get paid last Friday?"

Again with the chin and the bristles. "Yes."

"What was she doing, last time you saw her?"

His eyes went wide. He released his chin and raised a finger. "Eating."

"Anything else?"

As if recalling his purpose, he said emphatically, "Eat, please, you should eat."

"Was she with anyone?" I asked. "On Friday, I mean."

He shook his head. "Alone, eating, in the kitchen. Like they all do. Eating when they should be working." He smiled like a proud father. "But who can blame them? It's the spaghetti. Oh, mama mia! You should try the spaghetti. Everyone, they love the spaghetti."

"Was there anything unusual about Stella's behavior that night?"

"Yes."

"What's that?"

"She prefers the ravioli."

A young man's face appeared behind the window in the kitchen door, looking out at us. He had a thin nose and curly black hair. Tall, maybe, from the downward angle of his face behind the glass. He caught me looking at him, and ducked out of sight. The manager turned, but not in time to see the eavesdropper.

"Antonio!" he yelled. "Bring some bruschetta!" Nicco turned back to me. "You like bruschetta?"

"I like answers."

"Then you'll love the bruschetta."

I said, "Have you heard from Stella since Friday? Did she call in sick, perhaps?"

"No, no. Our waiters, never sick."

Antonio coughed as he entered from the kitchen carrying a serving plate of bruschetta. He had to duck through the door. Despite his height, he looked weak and nervous. His walk was an apology hoping for forgiveness.

Nicco grabbed the platter from Antonio and slapped him hard on the back of the head. The manager had to get on his toes to do it, but he looked like he'd had some practice. "What's the matter with you? We have a customer!"

He thrust the plate at me. It was filled with bite-sized bruschetta, small round pieces of toast covered in diced tomatoes, garlic, basil, and dripping with olive oil. I love bruschetta. It's a weakness of mine. I knew if I took one bite, I'd never get out alive.

"Try one," Nicco said, like the devil looking for a soul.

I'd already lost mine, so I answered, "No thanks. Some other time."

I turned to leave and had my hand on the door when the waiter called out to me. "Sir, you dropped this."

Glancing back, I saw Antonio pick something up from the floor where I was standing. A business card. He handed it to me and stared me straight in the eye. There was a message in that look, but I couldn't read it. I glanced at the card and saw handwriting on the back.

"Thanks," I said, and left.

On my way to the car I read the message: "Meet me out back in five minutes."

PREVIOUS:  Chapter Three

NEXT: Chapter Five

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