“More salmon, Jake!” The American launched a fat arm across the table to grab the only platter of fish, sending a 1980 cabernet hurtling towards his four companions at the luncheon: one English, one Australian, one French and a Japanese. The private dining room was elegantly furnished and enjoyed magnificent views of the harbour. A small but busy kitchen hummed at the other end.
“It’s Jack, not Jake,” said the Australian, mopping the red stain off his moleskins.
“I’m eating Atlantic salmon,” said the American, “so I’m feeling homey. Don’t you like Americans, Jake?”
“When they are sober.”
The American turned on his Japanese neighbour. “How’s the meat, Sushi?”
The man lifted his fork demurely. “Roo,” he said.
“Ryuichi,” said Jack.
“He’s eating what?” said the American.
“His name is Ryuichi,” said Jack.
“Australian kangaroo meat is very tasty,” said Ryuichi.
The American swiped the silver fork from his neighbour’s hand and said, “I thought you guys ate everything raw.”
He ripped the meat off the fork and held it aloft, in an obese mockery of the Statue of Liberty, and said,
“Gentlemen, I give you the future of Australian Gourmet Exports.”
The four international faces stared back at him blankly, as he continued his drawling announcement. “From the great Ossie outback to the plates of New York, Tokyo, Paris and London.”
“Then why aren’t you eating it?” said the silver haired Englishman.
“Doctor’s orders, Eddy.”
“I prefer Edward.”
“Fish is best for cholesterol,” said the American. “That’s why I stick to white wine.”
“For cholesterol?” said Jack.
“Because it’s fish, Jake,” said the American. “White wine pairs with fish. Or hasn’t gourmet food arrived down under?”
The handsome young Frenchman sprang to his feet. “You Americans are outrageous! What do you know about the cuisine?”
“Well, doggone, it’s Pedro,” said the fat man.
“Peter,” said Jack.
“Pierre!” The Frenchman’s roar stilled even the noises in the kitchen, momentarily. “Smell this cork!” He rammed a cork beneath Ryuichi’s nose. “Smell it.” And then under Edward’s. “A gourmand can smell a true wine from even the cork. Australian wine is good, but not like the French.”
“Well, thank you, Pierre,” said Edward, pushing away the cork.
“Tell him who won the war, Eddy,” said the American, and grinned.
“I have some French wines here.” Pierre extracted three dark bottles form the boardroom cabinet behind him. He uncorked one and put it to his nose. “It’s beautiful, non?” The American stole it, and jamming it into his own sweaty nostril, clamoured nasally,
“Ees bootiful, non?”
“Cochon!” shouted Pierre, as American guffaws echoed about the room.
“I’ll give you this, Frenchy,” said the fat man, “you’ve got wine old enough to cork, and none of that screw top crap they serve nowadays, but you still wave a white flag when it comes to the crunch.” He waved his crisp linen napkin in the air.
Jack stood up abruptly.
“Hey, Pierre, mate, how about you sit down, you’ve had a few too many maybe, and Huge -”
“Eugene,” said the American, “seeing as you’re a stickler for names. And I’m not huge, my chest has just slipped.” He laughed uproariously at his own joke.
“You Americans think you won the war,” said Pierre, “but you don’t understand Europe. You need Edward and me to market your kangaroo to the continent. I am no junior partner to this consortium, I could finance this with my own people. So it serves you to be more polite, en futur.”
Eugene slammed his big fist on to the table. The crockery rattled. “I’m financing this little venture, Pedro, don’t you forget: if I pull out, you’re nothing, and there’s plenty more frogs this little prince can kiss. Same goes for you, Eddy boy.”
“Excuse me,” said Ryuichi, “but I have many colleagues in Tokyo who would also like to provide money in this venture, and on more generous terms. Australian meat is very popular in Japan. If you do not want to stay with us…” The sentence lingered in the air. The American chewed on his fish.
“Listen Sushi -”
“Ryuichi,” mumbled Jack, but Eugene overrode him.
“I’ve got first option on Jake here: his farms, his meat, his warehouses, his refrigeration stores, the lot. At any time I could buy him out and ease his bankers’ minds a bit. Then I’d own the stuff you want to sell, and don’t think I’d let Jap money in on the profits. We won in the Pacific too, don’t forget.”
“Huge, you said you’d never -” said the stringy Australian.
The large American turned a stolid stare in his direction.
“It’s Eugene to you, Jake. And take a lesson. Outback kangaroo farms are not a level playing field.” He swung his chubby hand in a demonstrative arc across the plate of half-consumed meals. “The same goes for all of you: don’t forget whose pocket holds the cash, or I’ll end up owning you all.”
Edwards straightened his thin frame. “Gentlemen,” he said, “this is the inaugural Board meeting of the A.G.E.. We shouldn’t be quibbling at this stage. True it is, no-one loves the Americans … more than the Americans themselves, but we each have our shareholders at home to protect and each bring substantial benefits to the table. So, you stick to your fish, Mr Rowls, and we will enjoy the meats of our future wealth.”
A smile hammocked its way across Eugene’s ample jowls. “You’re a swell guy, Eddy. It’s a pity your country is so dead.” He flung a forkful of fish into his mouth and masticated noisily. Edward leapt to his feet.
“Yeah, Huge,” said Jack.
“Aw c’mon guys, ease up, will you?” said Eugene with a rank smile. “Drink your red wine. Sushi, pass me the Chardonnay. Have some more roo, Jake, you shot it. C’mon guys, lighten up.”
The scrape of his knife on his plate as he cut into his salmon perforated the bitter silence.
He scratched his chin and flashed a mouthful of orange flesh as he began to speak. “You know, the last time I had salmon this good was years ago in Florida, cooked by some broad I backed out on.” He waved his fish laden fork towards the Australian. “She was an Ossie too, Jake. Ever have cause to dump a dame? They hate it.” The fork head disappeared into the gaping mouth and remerged clean. “Who’s the chef anyway?” he said.
“I recommended her,” said Pierre.
“Her?” The American winked at Jack and yelled at the kitchen. “Hey chef-woman, you got’ne more salmon?”
Gabrielle McSweeney, apron breasted, and with a shock of raven hair poking out from beneath her toque, appeared in the doorway. She paused for effect, a tight smile marking her arrival.
The fish soiled cavern of Eugene’s mouth swung open and he stared at her dumbstruck. Gabrielle said,
“I knew it was you, by the way you wanted your salmon. Limes, tartare sauce and fennel. Very predictable. Then I heard your voice. Equally predictable.” He was silent. “Cat got your tongue?” she said.
It was Jack who broached the silence. “You know this man?” he said.
“I’m the dame he dumped,” she said. “Ten years ago he left me at the Ritz. He said he’d back a food franchise with me, but he pulled out at the last moment, took all my money I’d invested and disappeared. I lost the lot. Story of my life, men doing me over. I had to go back to the trade in France just to get back on my feet. You aren’t good on keeping promises, are you Eugene?”
Just for a moment the double chin began to quiver. “Gabrielle, baby, please, it was business, you know that. Times have changed since then. I’m good now.”
“Well I hope so, for your partners’ sakes. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.” She leaned against the kitchen entrance. The American dropped his cutlery with a clatter and searched his colleagues’ faces. They stared back at him impassively. He lifted his glass of white wine.
“Fellas,” he said. “A toast. To Gabrielle, for her salmon, and her kangaroo.”
“My kangaroo,” said Gabrielle, and smiled, “with a Davidson plum and mild brandy glaze, macadamia nuts and native thyme.”
“Parfait!” Pierre kissed his fingertips. “A chef extraordinaire. We will use the French wine. He quickly uncorked two of the bottles he had taken from the cabinet. “Apologies, M. Rowls, but I only have red wine. Although it is the best. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.” He filled a glass for each man at the table. “Edward. Jacques. M. Ryuichi. And for Madame Le Chef.” He passed a glass to Gabrielle, who nodded in appreciation.
“White wine, Pierre, white wine,” said Eugene. “My Chardonnay is finished!”
“Huge never really had a palate for reds,” said Gabrielle. “It was always gewurztraminer, even in the Côtes du Rhone. I have a Chablis in the fridge.” But the Frenchman offered his American partner a small glass of white.
“I have squeezed your bottle,” he said. “There is enough for the toast.”
“To Gabrielle,” said Jack, and raised his glass.
But the multi-accented echo was stifled by the big American coughing and spluttering over his meal, clutching is stomach, purple veins bursting on his forehead. There was a nauseating stench as he vomited on to his plate, and then he raised a pink hand as if in protest and fell with a stony thud to the floor, gagging hideously. A viscous foam leached from his wrangled lips.
He twitched once or twice and was still.
* * * * *
Detective Ian Saffron’s rayon covered gut slumped over his belt like a saddle bag on a mule. Three police stood around the room not doing a great deal. A paramedic appeared and spoke in hushed tones to the detective who nodded occasionally. When the paramedic had finished she said in a louder voice that as the body had been loaded they had little else to do. The detective thanked her and she departed.
He then turned to the group in the room: the four men, Gabrielle, and two assistant chefs who looked embarrassed and frightened. Edward sat with his laptop open. Pierre stood staring out of the window at the failing evening light. Gabrielle leant against a cabinet with her two staff and Jack was at the far end of the room running his hand through his hair and talking rapidly on his mobile phone.
“Listen up, folks,” he said. As he spoke he swirled his tongue about his mouth as if he was savouring a particularly flavoursome wine or morsel of food. The group faced him. There was a clap as Edward’s laptop closed.
“Sorry to have kept you for so long,” said Detective Saffron, “but you understand, we’ve got a job to do. And we understand that three hours is a long time for your busy schedules, so we appreciate your patience while we made our initial inquiries.”
He smacked his lips and continued his mouth work for a second or two. Then he said,
“By now you’ll know it’s pretty obvious that Mr Rowls’ … demise … was highly likely occasioned by a dose of a fatally toxic substance. We’ve had his plate taken away for full analysis, and we’ll have official confirmation in due course, but the paramedic was just explaining to me that it was very obvious from the state of the remaining fish on the plate that it was riddled with poison.”
He paused, and let his lips purse and do some more smacking.
“The question of course, is who administered the toxin in question.”
He paused again and eyed each member of his audience. His cheek danced as the tongue inside pursued the far reaches of his upper molars.
“Everyone in this room knew the deceased. Except you two kitchen hands – you wouldn’t know the bloke from blarney. So we’re gonna let you go now. Collect your belongings if you have any and Constable Jansen will show you out.”
The two junior staff looked scurried out of the room followed by one of the police officers.
The detective pursed his lips again then grimaced.
“The rest of you all seem to have a motive. From what I’ve heard, he wasn’t especially liked. He controlled the purse strings of your new enterprise pretty tightly, and stood to ruin your investments. There was past history, maybe even romance, I dunno.”
He turned to face Gabrielle. “There was romance, wasn’t there, in the past?”
Gabrielle pulled back in the chair she was sitting in.
“I make no secret of that,” she said.
“With that repulsive swindler?” said Gabrielle. “Don’t make me sick.”
“But he was a swindler, who swindled you of your hard-earned readies,” said the detective. “Revenge is a motive and a half.”
Gabrielle crossed her arms. “He wasn’t worth it,” she said.
The detective sucked on his teeth and turned a pointed gaze towards Jack. “Was the deceased worth it to you, Mr (he checked his notepad) Smith? He held options over your farms, didn’t he?”
A dark red rose on Jack’s face. “Yes,” he said.
“And he could have, at any time, exercised those options and elbowed you out of the deal, am I right?”
“Be safer if he couldn’t though, yes?” said the detective. “Couldn’t exercise those options I mean.
Jack’s shoulders dropped. “Eugene needed me,” he said. “He didn’t now anything about kangaroo farming.”
“Plenty of others do though,” said Detective Saffron. “Others who are employees and not taking profit share.”
“Look,” said Jack, we had a deal and trusted each other.”
“You trusted the deceased,” said the detective. “He threatened to exclude you. So you had a reason to sever the deal.”
He paused long enough to allow Jack respond if he wanted to, but the Australian remained silent. “I imagine you might often come across pesticides and other nasties on the farm, Mr Smith, am I right?”
“Don’t even go there,” said Jack. “I’m not that sort of bloke.”
“None of us are until pressed,” said the detective. “I’ve seen murders done for less. All you had to do was slip a bit of something in the fish when no one was watching, and hey presto, you’ve got a clean sheet to start over.”
Jack’s hands wave back and forth as he spoke, as if clawing for something to hang on to. “It wasn’t me, detective, I didn’t do it.”
Detective Saffron smacked his lips and smiled, then turned to Pierre.
“Then there’s the European contingent,” he said.
Pierre straightened in the severity of the detective’s gaze.
“I include you in that, Mr Whitbread,” he said to Edward. “He threatened to withdraw his finance and use his own contacts, yeah?”
Pierre straightened the knot of his tie. “Monsieur Detective, if you insinuate that either I or Monsieur Edward would consider that sort of thing …’
“If I did, then what?” said the detective. “You’d come quietly, is that it?”
“I think what my colleague means,” said Edward, as he stepped away from the Frenchman.
“I know what he means,” said the detective with a dry smile. “he’s not exactly speaking a foreign language now, is he?”
Edward looked away ad flicked an ear with a long index finger.
“You both had motive – to get him out of the way to preserve your involvement in the deal, am I right?” He checked each man with a knowing expression. “And, like Jack, you had the chance to slip something into the fish.”
“When?” said Edward.
“Any time, Mr Whitbread, any time. No one would have cared.”
“Preposterous,” said the Englishman and sat down with a snort of disgust and stared back at the detective with a defiant gaze.
The detective stared back, then began chewing on an invisible cud.
“And Mr Iruka,” he said. “you’re especially motivated aren’t you?”
Ryuichi stood up at hearing his name.
“You had contacts ready to take over the finance. Get Mr Rawls out of the equation, and the options that stood in the way of you taking control of the finances would fall away, giving you carte blanche to take the reins. Am I right, or am I right?”
Detective Saffron scratched his balding head while maintaining eye contact with Ryuichi.
Ryuichi remained silent but glared at the detective spitefully.
“Cat got your tongue, Mr Iruka?”
Ryuichi spoke slowly. “I will contact my lawyers.”
“Ring anyone you want,” said Detective Saffron, “it don’t change the truth.”
Ryuichi remained rooted to his spot, unmoving in expression as much as body. The detective turned and opened his arms wide to address the whole ensemble.
“So, we have a method, and you each have a motive. All we need is means. Which of you put the poison on to the fish, hmm?”
He raised himself to a more upright stance than his girth otherwise allowed, and fixed Gabrielle with a stolid gaze.
“And here’s where I look at you, Ms McSweeney.”
“Ms McSweeney,” said Detective Saffron. “I need you to accompany me to the station for a formal statement.”
Gabrielle took a step back. “Why me? I’ve given you my statement.”
The detective’s lips smacked and he said,
“Because you’ve got all the ingredients. You know about the victim’s peculiar culinary demands, which means you can cobble up a special dish just for him, which none of the others are in danger of touching, especially not at a kangaroo consortium launch.” A curt smirk briefly cut his lips. “I know the others could have slipped something into his dish, but really, they all had eyes on the victim, so would have noticed each making their move.”
“Have you checked the glasses?” said Gabrielle.
“Everything he used will be taken for analysis. But he was the only one drinking white, Ms McSweeney. He was the only one who filled it. No-one but him touched his glass.”
“And the bottles?”
“Same as for the glasses. Only he drank white wine. Two chardonnays and a Chablis. Plus the poison was on the fish, Madam.”
Tears welled in Gabrielle’s eyes. “I’m a chef, detective, not a murderer.”
Detective Saffron stared at her blankly. “That’s for someone else to determine,” he said. “I’m just, if you’ll forgive me, bringing in the ‘chef’ suspect.” His belly wobbled as he chuckled at his own little joke.
She looked at the Frenchman.
“Help me, Pierre. They think I did it.”
He held his hand out to her. “Cherie,” he said.
“Pierre, tell them I didn’t.”
Pierre lifted his hands in a gesture of hopelessness. “Je suis désolé. I am sorry. I can do nothing.”
Gabrielle sank despondently into one of the chairs. “Pierre, help me.”
The Frenchman shook his head slowly. “I am sorry, cherie, but I have to go. Ryuichi says we can organise new finance if we act quickly.”
Detective Saffron moved toward Gabrielle. “I don’t know what this is all about, but we need you to cooperate, Madam.”
A police officer stepped forward to assist the detective, but Gabrielle flung her hand up. “Give me five, to compose myself,” she said.
“Five minutes,” said Detective Saffron, and positioned himself behind her.
Gabrielle stared at the table, the breadcrumbs, the red wine stains from when Eugene had knocked over the bottle of red. The other empty bottles, bread and butter plates, the odd utensil, some screwed up napkins. Someone had fastidiously arranged a posse of wine corks into a small regiment on the table. Twelve of them, in podgy formation like a platoon of unhealthy soldiers struggling across the snowfield of the table cloth. Little corks.
She grabbed one and sprang up, holding the muddied knob in the air.
“Detective!” she said.
Detective Saffron eyed her suspiciously. “What of it?’
“Check the reds. You should check the reds!”
“Cuff her lads,” he said to the two constables.
Gabrielle swung around and stared them down. “No! Check the reds!” she grabbed the nearest bottle and splashed its contents on to the linen cover. The red stain bled rapidly into the cloth. She flicked the bottle to the officer who was about to reach for her and poured out another bottle. Red again. She threw it to the other constable who dodged to one side and watched it crash against the polished cabinetry.
“Ms McSweeney!” said Detective Saffron. Gabrielle poured another bottle of red on to the table and flung the bottle at the detective. He fumbled it and it fell to the floor.
“Pierre, give me that bottle!” she said.
Everyone stopped. The Frenchman stood clasping a bottle of expensive French Burgundy to his chest.
“Pour it out,” said Gabrielle.
“Non, it is too good to throw about,” said Pierre.
She lunged at the Frenchman but a constable pulled her away.
“You are insane,” said Pierre.
The constable tried to pull her arms behind her to apply handcuffs, but she wrenched herself free. “Look!” she said. “Look at the corks!”
“What about them?” said Detective Saffron. The gathering waited.
She held up the cork for all to see. “In red wine,” she said, “the underside of the cork is purple because it is stained by the wine as it lies in the rack. When a connoisseur uncorks a bottle properly the corkscrew doesn’t penetrate the purple underside, otherwise you risk tainting the wine in the bottle with the corkscrew. So you only have a single hole in the unstained top.” She held up the cork she was holding. “But this one does, see? There are two holes, one on the top and one in the purple bottom. Why is that detective?”
The man shrugged.
“Because the bottle has been opened before!” She grabbed the last of the bottles on the table. “The contents were poured out and a new wine – a white wine – laced with poison – was put in its place. When you try to put the cork back in, to make it look like you are starting a new bottle, you can’t put the purple end in because it’s swollen with the wine, and too thick to go into the neck of the bottle. So you put the cork in upside down.”
She demonstrated the problem, trying, but failing, to insert the cork in with the stained end downwards, then reversed it, and pushed it into the glass neck. The purple stain was now at the top, with the scar of a small hole at its centre like a tightly shut eye.
“No-one cares if they see a stained cork top,” she said. “That’s just dirt from the cellar. The bottle was opened with a corkscrew again, as if it had never been opened, along with a few other bottles. But it is the only cork pierced at both ends. The only bottle opened twice.”
She set the bottle on the table.
“No-one noticed in the confusion of the toast that a bottle of red actually contained white wine, not when everyone was drunk anyway. The new glass of wine was passed to Eugene, who drank it and died. Like this.”
She picked up the glass that the American had been drinking from and tossed back the dregs.
“Ms McSweeney -” said Detective Saffron, but Gabrielle just smiled.
“Don’t worry, Detective. This is the glass Eugen drank from with his meal. The one he used for the toast is different. It was filled with red wine just after he collapsed, so it wouldn’t be checked by the police. Only the glass he normally drank from would be, yet this was the only glass guaranteed not to contain any poison.” She swept her hand over the other glasses on the table. “It’s in one of these,” she said, “and it’s also in one of the bottles. A bottle that used to contain red wine, but was emptied and refilled with white, and probably a very fine one at that.”
She turned to Pierre who still hugged his bottle to his chest.
“Pour it out, Pierre. Show us your true colours.”
The Frenchman hesitated. “This is madness,” he said. “The salmon, it was covered in the poison.”
“Because he vomited it up,” said Gabrielle. “He vomited up fish and poison and fennel and limes and tartare. And a white wine with them. He might have been an obnoxious American, but he didn’t deserve this.”
Pierre looked about him, from face to face, and to the door. A constable moved to block his path.
“I did it for you, cherie,” he said. “I was incensed that this man had so swindled you all those years ago. You could have had a global franchise by now.”
“For me?” said Gabrielle.
“Oui, for you, my darling.”
“Oh that’s rich. I’m arrested for murder you commit, buy you don’t lift a finger. You’re just another skunk wanting to do me over, to get what you want. To get Eugene out of the way, so you can make more money. You don’t care one bit for me.” She pulled a bottle from the table and flung it at him, hitting him squarely on the forehead. She followed that with a plate, and the candelabra, and was reaching for the floral decoration when a constable stopped her.
“I didn’t mean for you to get arrested,” said her target.
“But you didn’t own up did you, until I forced it out of you, you bastard!” She slumped into a chair. “Men, when they love they use you.”
“I am sorry, cherie,” Pierre said lugubriously.
“It’s Ms McSweeney to you!” She spun around and faced Detective Saffron. “Arrest him, Detective.”
“Cherie, I love you!” Pierre set the bottle to his lips and gulped deeply.
“No!” said the detective.
When the Frenchman fell, contorted and gasping, foaming, the bottle smashed against the table, and spread uncoloured wine on to the white cloth.
* * * * *