2019 First Place Winner, “Words on Paper” Contest

The Case of the Sinful Chef
By Daina Chamness

It was a friendly neighborhood bistro serving the creations of Alfredo, a former gas station clerk turned chef/owner. Before that, we all knew him as Norman. Norman had never worked in food before opening the restaurant and he was known to cheat his servers, his customers and his suppliers. When anyone crossed him about what they were owed he pretended not to understand English, even though he was born and raised right here in Martinsville, Indiana, just like all the rest of us. So, it wasn’t too surprising when he was found one morning lying in a pool of blood in his walk-in cooler with a chef’s knife decorating the back of his too-tight chef’s coat.

I know how he was found because I’m the one who found him. I’m Jenny, the salad girl. It’s my duty to come in first to prep the fresh vegetables and “other duties as assigned.” I was never assigned to find the owner murdered in the cooler. But there he was, dead as a mackerel and cool as a cucumber.

After I called the police, I stationed myself by the door to let the other employees in as they reported for work. Neveah (that’s Heaven spelled backwards) was the first to arrive. Upon hearing the news, she immediately dropped to her knees at the hostess stand and burst into prayer at the top of her lungs. People in the street could hear her moans and lamentations so I’m sure God heard her.

The Sous Chef, who was known to throw burnt food out in the pan it was stuck to, immediately began to throw things around, clanging pans together and swinging rolling pins. He wasn’t so much mourning our boss as his next paycheck.

Our head server, Ferrell, began to prowl around the restaurant making weird growling noises deep in his throat. Ferrell had triangular tiger striped tattoos on both arms, pointy bright white teeth and frizzy red hair that stuck out all around his head like cat fur. We were all half afraid of him but so far, he hadn’t bitten anyone or scratched them with his pointy black fingernails.

The town police finished up their inspection of the crime scene, shrugged, scratched their heads and left. We stood and watched as the coroner performed a carry out of Alfredo.

With nothing left to be done, the other employees all went home. I stayed to call some suppliers and cancel orders, notify the Board of Health to discern the ramifications of having a dead body in a walk-in cooler, and make a “Closed until further notice” sign for the front door, even though everyone in town would know about it by lunch time.

Then I sat down to think. Who would hate Norman enough to kill him? I ruled out suicide, since his arms weren’t long enough to stab himself in the back. We had all worked late the night before to serve the local Optimist Club for their monthly meeting. But an optimist would never kill a chef. What about staff? Ferrell came to mind but he was just crazy, not murderous. Sous Chef grumbled a lot and was a terrible cook but he was too desperate for a paycheck to kill the golden goose. Neveah would have been too afraid of going to Hell, so I ruled her out.

Just as I was going over my own whereabouts of the night before, a knock came to the locked door. I opened it to see Sheriff Detective Burkett standing there. I was always taken aback by his wavy black hair and bright blue eyes. I really had to focus on what he wanted.

“Morning, Jenny. Wondered if you
might be able to answer some questions for me. Now who is the last person that got mad at Alfredo?”

“The produce guy. Alfredo took a crate of romaine out of the cooler and let it wilt. Then he tried to make them give him a refund on it.”

He scribbled on a note pad and asked, “What’s that worth?”

“Not too much, but he was always trying stuff like that. They lost a lot of money on him before they finally caught on. Also, the meat guy, the laundry guy . . ..”

“Who else had a vested interest in this restaurant?” Burkett asked.

“We all did. After all, he wrote our paychecks. Such as they were.”

Burkett slapped his notebook shut as the radio on his shoulder squawked something only a parrot could understand. “I’ll get back to you, Jenny. Keep your cell phone on.”

I assured him I would and locked the door behind him. I wandered around the empty restaurant, looking at everything but not knowing what I was looking for. Who would stab Alfredo in the back? I chuckled at the irony in that question.

Across the doorway to the office a speed rack lay on its side. I stepped over it to Norman’s desk. On his desktop was a letter of foreclosure from the First National Bank. It was wrinkled, like someone had been holding it in their tightly gripped hand. Next to it was a plane ticket to the Bahamas with Norman’s name on it. The desk chair was tipped over behind his desk as if he had stood up quickly.

So, the Bistro was about to be repossessed by the bank! And was Norman really planning to go to the Bahamas? Somebody had money in the restaurant besides the former gas station clerk, but who?

I followed the path from the office to the cooler. A puddle of flour on the floor at the baking station showed a footprint of a chef shoe. Just beyond the flour print was a little puddle of grease, smeared, as if someone had slipped in it. The imprint at the end of the skid was a smooth-soled shoe, like a man’s dress shoe. My mind began to form a story. Norman was sitting at his desk. Someone confronted him about the foreclosure letter. They gripped it in their hand and shook it furiously in his face. Norman jumped up and ran. Fearing the intruder, he pulled the speed rack over to slow his pursuer down. He ran through the kitchen, trying to reach the cooler to lock himself in. On the way, he stepped in the flour, pointing the direction of his escape. The pursuer was right on his heels but slipped in the grease. He regained his footing and grabbed the chef knife. Just as Norman reached the cooler, the killer caught up with him and stabbed him in the back. Norman lay in the open cooler and bled out while the culprit slipped away.

So, who would want to kill the owner of a soon-to-be-defunct restaurant? Just then I heard a tap at the front door. I was surprised to see Neveah’s father, Reverend Sinnomore. “Hello, pastor, what can I do for you?”

“Neveah told me about the terrible thing that happened last night. She said you stayed behind to tie up some loose ends and I came by to see that you were alright and perhaps would like some prayers.”

“Thank you, Reverend, but I’m fine.” He continued to look around the dining room. It got awkward, then his eyes fell on the letter in my hand.

His eyes narrowed and I realized this was not the same Reverend Sinnomore who preached love and light at the First Sanctimonious Church of the Holy Man. He eyed the letter in my hand and grabbed me by the throat. “Aha!” He proclaimed, “Now you know I’m a silent partner in this dive! Bah! I take a chance on a good-for-nothing gas jockey and he fritters away the money. Thought I’d help a guy out. Well, now he’s gone and lost it! I’m no fool! I’ll bet there’s cash hidden in this restaurant and I’m gonna find it. It’s the devil’s money! But it’s MINE!” His grip got tighter. I could only squeak.

“I didn’t know!” I gurgled, “I just found this. Nothing more.” I waved the letter in the air.

“I am sending you to Hell to be with all the other weasels that have stolen my money!”

Frantic, I raised one knee into the sacred vestibule which sent the old preacher to his knees. I grabbed a tablecloth and threw it over him. As he struggled to get out of it, I dashed into the kitchen and grabbed the first thing at hand, a big iron skillet. I turned to see him coming at me. I didn’t read “Fifty Uses for an Iron Skillet” for nothing. It made a dull thud on the holy cranium and while I’m sure he saw stars and heard angels; the preacher collapsed.

It didn’t take long for the handsome Detective Sheriff Burkett to answer my call. He slapped the cuffs on the old preacher and carted him out the door to judgement.

Now I’m looking for a job. I’m a pretty proficient salad girl.

  About the Author 

Daina Chamness grew up on a farm in Indiana. The first in her family to attend college, she attended Ball State University and graduated from Indiana University. She wanted to be a writer from the time she was ten years old, but was warned she would starve to death with such a lofty pursuit. Adulthood found her as a single mother of two sons and later, after marrying Larry Chamness, she became the mother of five more children. During all this time, she worked at various careers and entrepreneurial ventures, from selling free government services, to running a food truck, making frozen gourmet pot pies, inventing a wine cake mix, and stumping for public broadcasting. When all the children were grown and on their own, Larry and Daina emptied the house of thirty years and took off in their travel trailer to see the country. Now they follow the sun and meet new people every day. The fountain of writing material is endless.

Daina’s greatest joys are in her children and grandchildren. She loves to read, cook, entertain, and meet interesting people. These great loves are reflected in her writing and storytelling. Coming from a rural background, but having lived in so many different environments, she has a unique understanding of the people she meets and collects their stories wherever she goes.

“It is important to meet people right where they are and let them tell you all they want to tell you. That’s where souls touch and God does his work.” Daina Chamness