"Delia Rosen provides an entertaining deli whodunit." -- Mystery Gazette on One Foot in the Gravy Hitting below the Borscht Belt. . . For ex-Manhattanite Gwen Katz, running Murray's Pastrami Swami, the Jewish deli she inherited from her late uncle in Nashville, Tennessee, makes her feel like a whitefish out of water. To add to the craziness, martial arts teacher Ken Chan has come to sample her kosher delicacies for a black belt ceremony he wants catered. But just as Chan is about to try a matzo ball, bullets shatter the deli's window and Ken Chan is killed as he pushes Gwen to safety. Was Chan the victim of a hit by a crime gang from New York's Chinatown? Was a local hate-group targeting Chan--or maybe even Gwen? With the Nashville Police--and the FBI--baffled, Gwen enlists the help of an eccentric new-age entrepreneur. But more than bad vibes are coming her way as a killer returns. . .and this time it's the deli owner who may be the outgoing order. . . "Will certainly leave the reader hungry for more." -- MysteryLibrarian.com on A Brisket A Casket "A really humorous cozy. . . Readers will thoroughly enjoy this deli tale." -- Once Upon a Romance on One Foot in the Gravy
Release date: July 1, 2014
Print pages: 304
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To Kill a Matzo Ball:
“This one is twenty-two with a bullet or seventeen without a bullet,” she used to say.
I loved that phrase. It sounded so strong, better than anything I could think of, like “twenty-two on an elevator” or “seventeen with a kite tail.”
It was a dramatic expression, though much less so when there was a twist to it. In my case, that twist was a matzo ball.
But I get ahead of myself.
It had been fourteen months and three weeks since I’d left my evaporating clientele on Wall Street to take over Murray’s Deli, the establishment founded by my uncle in Nashville. My estranged father lived with him in a typically irresponsible effort to find himself. He never did that, but without my mother and me, he was free to discover daily diversions. With both my parents gone, there was no one to inherit but me.
Leaving New York for Tennessee was like the migration of my forebears to Palestine at the turn of the last century. When the Next Year in Jerusalem crowd got there and found swamps, malaria, heat, angry Bedouins, and sand, they puzzled over what had seemed like a sterling idea just a few months before. When you leave Manhattan Island you leave a city where you can see a black man ask directions from an Orthodox Jew (and get them), where a mosque and a church can exist on the same block, where clan means your family. And where the first cop you meet doesn’t ask you on a date and become one of your first exes.
I have an ex-husband in New York, but after we split I didn’t see him, except at shindigs of mutual friends. If you run a restaurant in a much smaller city, if you help solve crimes—more on which in a minute—you see people you want to see, don’t want to see, don’t know, don’t want to know, or don’t have the time or energy to know. You have a staff, which fulfills whatever need you have to socialize and wallow in secondhand drama. Nearing the twilight of my thirties, I prefer to experience that kind of stimulation passively, on my TV or in a paperback novel . . . not in my face.
Then there’s crime.
Maybe I carried the New York City rhythm down south with me, distilled and compacted and served up in a trio of murders that eerily found their way into my life. One of them literally dropped in on me, through the ceiling of a party I was catering. Another drove up to my back door when a bread delivery man was murdered in his truck. A third happened down the street, where a customer was killed after eating poisoned herring.
Coincidences? Maybe. When you’re in a service industry where you meet a lot of people, chances are some of them are going to die. Suddenly. Violently. Three in less than a year might seem like lottery-sized odds, but then there are people who win those things. Maybe I’m just unlucky in love, lucky in death. I am not religious, and I’m spiritual only to the extent that if the receipts are bad for a few days I say a quiet, informal prayer or yell at the Almighty—depending on my mood. I don’t believe in karma or that my past misdeeds make me a magnet for crazy people.
But it is just a little weird how many corpses I’ve been introduced to since moving into my uncle’s modest home outside Nashville with my two cats. Remarkably, my loyal little staff did not seem unduly surprised or shaken by the events of the last year-plus. Thomasina, my manager, who was also devoted to my uncle, is my rock. She’s religious, so I guess I get secondhand grace. My kitchen help—Newt cooks, and Luke busses and occasionally cooks—are young in every sense of the word. Luke, an aspiring rock-and-roller, is dating the pierced and tatted young Dani, who is part of my diligent waitstaff. She is my only personal hire, having walked in at the right time on the right day. She is a good if not exceptional waitperson, but she is terrific at managing our Facebook page, something that is way beyond my area of experience or interest. Her coworkers are the older Raylene and A.J., veterans of Uncle Murray. A.J.’s collegiate daughter, A.J. Two, also works for me as a floating waitperson when she is home from college. I could use another me. But even if I could find someone who had my peculiar mix of dedication and masochism—how else would you describe a non-people-person working long hours in a people-oriented business?—I probably couldn’t afford her or him. As my uncle used to say when I came down for one of my rare visits, the store does a comfortable business. That’s Jewish for “a little above break-even.”
I’ve always meant to keep track of how many customers are regulars, how many are tourists, how many try to eat healthy, and how many don’t care. I eyeball it and have a rough idea, but never enough to actually formulate business-building programs—loyalty cards for regulars, discounts for first-timers, healthy menus to steal patrons from the rabbit holes that serve carrots and lettuce. You know: an actual business plan like the ones I urged my clients to have when I worked on Wall Street. Like so many good and necessary intentions in my life, in any life, this one stays in the to-do pile under a paperweight called “responsibilities.” Keeping things running up front, taking inventory, ordering everything from meat to bread to vegetables to coffee filters, chatting with vendors just long enough not to seem rude, hand-holding staff when they’re upset—it’s all time-consuming and tiring. I don’t wear a shmate on my head because it’s stylish: I haven’t had time to see my hairstylist Amanda for weeks. A transplanted New Jerseyite, she’s the farthest-north person I know down here. Everyone else is either local or from somewhere in the South.
It’s a different world than the one in which I grew up.
Incredibly, it’s also a louder one.
Monday-morning breakfast is the busiest time of the week for Murray’s Deli. People down here tend to stay up late on Sunday, sucking the last bit of recreation or barhopping from the weekend. That means Caffeine Mondays. We don’t do deliveries, but we do a lot of takeout so people can eat in their cars, parks, or offices. I import our coffee from a place in Greenwich Village I used to frequent, and, frankly, it’s the best in New York, which makes it the best in Nashville. People literally line up for a super-large cuppa every Monday morning or plop themselves at the counter if there’s an open space. Eat-in refills are free. That was something I swore I’d change after students started coming in and caffeine-ing up while they worked. Then Newt suggested I just kill the wireless service for two minutes. The freeloaders were gone in a flash.
This particular morning, there was a customer at the counter I didn’t recognize. He sat in the far corner, away from the counter where Thomasina controlled the cash register, the seating, the staff, and anything else required of her capable hands. The only time I ever saw her stymied was when we had some witches to deal with . . . but that’s another story. Literally.
I was busy in my usual job as a “floater.” I back up everyone, including Newt on the grill and Luke bussing, even Thomasina, if need be. At the heart of the rush, Thomasina pointed out the guy, who had a bran muffin and coffee and then more coffee and just occupied space after that as he worked on his laptop. In addition to the coffee line, there was a line of people waiting to get in. Weekends were a big tourist time, and we saw a lot of RV types looking to fuel up before they headed home farther south. And laptop-man was holding a valuable piece of real estate.
I walked over, intending to do the usual drill. Even though the check was sitting beside his plate, I was going to ask if he needed anything else.
The customer turned toward me when I was still a few steps away. He had a narrow face with a strong chin. The lines of his cheek, framed by collar-length graying hair, all said fiftysomething. He smiled wryly. It was a gentle smile—not amused, not mocking, just disarming.
“No thanks. I’m good,” he said in a voice as smooth as egg cream, then went back to tippy-typing on his laptop with all ten fingers.
“I’m glad,” I said. Now, it shouldn’t take Kreskin to know why someone in an apron and with her brown hair pulled back and a look of unsympathetic resolve was coming to talk to him. And given that he was well-dressed in a light gray suit and thin red tie, and knew how to type, I guessed he was a professional something. Not stupid. “Thing is, if you’re done we really could use the stool.”
The man turned his pale blue eyes on me. “I’ll buy something else,” he said.
I took my pad from where I wore it like a six-shooter. My hip was cocked, and so was my mouth. I was prepared for, “I’ll have tea” or “Make me a sandwich to go. I’ll sit here till it’s ready” and my brain was already replying with, “There’s a three-buck minimum for counter service” and “Would you mind waiting at the counter?”
The man turned back to his laptop. “Please bring me whatever you care to serve. Thank you.”
I wasn’t expecting that. “Care to give me a food group?”
He thought for a moment. “Yang.”
“Excuse me, that’s dairy or meat,” he smiled. “I forget sometimes.”
Forget what? That you’re among humans? “I assume there’s ‘yin’ food? Greens?”
“Basically, yes,” he replied.
“I’ve got some cottage cheese that’s about to expire . . .”
“. . . and milk I was gonna take home to the cats.”
“Very fine,” he said, almost eagerly.
I pride myself on our menu, but clearly the man wasn’t here for the cuisine. I looked at his laptop. There were graphs and—talk about full circle—they were the kind I remembered seeing in a recording studio Viv once took me to, little green bars bouncing up and down showing audio levels.
“They’re waves,” he said, anticipating my question.
“Astral,” he replied. “Mostly from inside, a few from the street.”
Oh. One of those. “I’ll get your order,” I said and turned.
“Great. I’ll be interested to see how that impacts the readings.”
“Food?” I said. I was no physicist, but I knew that food was pretty inert, unless there was garlic overkill like those schmucks did to everything at The Pesh House down the street. “How do you measure food waves?”
“With my body. Food, and also certain kinds of minerals.”
“I see. They get to the computer program how?”
“I’m my own Wi-Fi,” he replied.
Okay. Now, ninety percent of the people who walk through the doors of the deli I inherited are what you would describe as “normal.” They’re generally pleasant and are pretty courteous. Roughly nine percent are a little wacky. Like the wiccans I mentioned earlier; they had tattoos of body parts on their flesh, and they cast spells. One regular wants the condiments removed from the table, says he doesn’t believe he should add anything that isn’t in the original recipe. Another regular orders breakfast for lunch, dinner for breakfast, that sort of thing. Swears it keeps her digestive tract on its toes. One of our customers puts the plate on his lap and imagines he’s at home watching TV. Says that stimulates his imagination.
They’re all harmless. Maybe this guy was too. But it’s always best to ask a few more questions to see which way the crazy is blowing.
“Is this something you’ve trained yourself to do?” I asked.
“It’s latent in all of us, one of the nine bodily planes,” he answered. “The bars blipped up a little when you came over and we made a connection on the astral plane.”
He hit a button and the graphs scanned backward in fast motion. He was right: as the time stamp went backward a minute, the bars dropped.
“You’re saying I caused that?” I asked.
“We did,” he gently corrected me. “The astral plane is where humans interconnect. Since I’m a trained transmitter, it showed up on the monitor.”
He touched a key, and the bars went back to the present readings. “So—and forgive the interruption—”
“Not at all. It’s fascinating to watch the bars climb a little the longer you’re here.”
“What is so important about you being here?”
“The crowd,” he said. “I go from group gathering to group gathering in cities around the world, seeing how the graph reacts when I connect with people doing different things.” Still intent on his readings, he chuckled, “You should have seen what happened in a gay bar.”
“Should I have?”
“Oh yes. The readings were flatline dead,” he said. “Because I personally shut down there, so nothing got through.”
My radar was working, and I could feel the motion of my staff behind me. Maybe there was something to what the guy was saying: I could also feel their hostility toward me. I needed to get back to work.
“So, cottage cheese and milk. Anything else?”
“The two yang foods are fine,” he said. “It’ll be interesting.”
I didn’t ask what that meant. I wrote out a ticket for his order as I hurried to the kitchen to get it myself.
“Is he staying?” Thomasina called after me.
I nodded and didn’t wait to hear her huff with annoyance as I scooted down the corridor. The kitchen entrance was to the left, and the lavatory was to the right. My office was just beyond the restroom. I had the cordless phone in my apron pocket in case one of our regulars phoned ahead to have an order waiting. After Monday mornings, closing the door to that office was like a mini-vacation.
I went to the industrial refrigerator. The phone rang while I was there getting the cottage cheese. I didn’t recognize the number; the prefix was a cell phone, and the name was May Wong. I took the call anyway, holding the phone between my ear and shoulder while I took out the tub o’ cottage cheese.
“This is Murray’s, Gwen Katz speaking.”
“Hello. Do you cater?”
The voice was gentle, a little clipped, and male. Sure, sure, profiling is frowned on. But he sounded Asian.
“We absolutely cater, with little or no notice,” I said enthusiastically, as I put the container on the worktable. “What are you looking for?”
“We are having a belt promotion at my school tomorrow night,” the caller said. “There will be about twenty-five people.”
“Piece of cake—or latke,” I said. “What are you, a leather-working school?”
The only noise for the next second or so was me getting a soup spoon from a drawer. The other end was silent.
“I do not understand,” the caller said. “This is the Po Kung Fu Academy. I am Sifu Ken Chan. Our students are testing for their belt promotions.”
Talk about missing by a mile. I got the voice all right but missed the heart of the matter. “Sorry. I’m from New York with relatives in the garment district. When you said ‘belt’—”
“I understand. We each connect to our own shadows.”
Oh, good. More esoterica. “We can do it,” I said, getting back to something I knew—pastrami and cole slaw. “Can you call, or I can call you, after the breakfast rush so we can talk about exactly what you want?”
“I will stop by at ten-thirty, if that is all right. You are on the way to my school. A restaurant that is always busy must be a good one.”
“Or cheap,” I said.
“You are not so cheap,” he replied. “I looked up your menu online.”
“Touché, Mr. Chan. See you in a bit.”
I finished ladling the cottage cheese into a soup bowl—I might as well give him a big portion for his yang—then poured his milk in a big beer mug. I wondered if his bones would expand right before my eyes.
Stop it, I told myself. People used to think Jews had horns, too. Some still do. Don’t judge.
Still, it was difficult not to look at the man as a bit of an odd duck: he had his hands cupped on either side of the laptop, facing each other, moving very slightly as if he were sizing up one of my tantas for a bra. Just before I got there, he put his left hand in his lap. I set the bowl and mug on that side—where I’d intended to.
“Thank you very much,” he said, without moving his eyes from the graph.
“Did you know where I was going to put them?” I couldn’t help asking.
“Yes,” he said. “They told me.”
He was unfazed by my obvious sarcasm. “All organic matter has a voice. It just depends on whether or not one chooses to hear it.”
It was a gentle correction, not a put-down. He was nicer than I was.
“I’m Banko, by the way.”
“Gwen,” I said. “Is that your Christian name?”
He looked at me. “Buddhist.”
“I meant—is that your first name, entire name ... ?”
“My last name is Juarez. I was adopted by a Puerto Rican hotelier and his Danish wife. They were Catholic and Lutheran. I chose a different path.”
“Clearly. Well, it was good to meet you.” I tucked the new check under the first. “Enjoy your second course.”
I had been negligent, my duties undone, as the hostile looks of Raylene and A.J. informed me. But part of my job was to make newcomers feel welcome, and except for the part about doubting that food could talk, that’s what I was doing. Even though I was supposed to just get him out of there.
I behaved for the rest of the rush, hustling here and there as if the boss were watching. Which I was, I guess. I didn’t even notice when Banko Juarez headed out, his dairy products untouched, his bills paid with a twenty and a five tucked under an unused spoon. The milk went back in the refrigerator for my cats. Banko did leave a nice tip, though, along with his business card, which I slipped in my apron pocket after glancing at it. I did not recognize the 305 prefix, and there was no address, just a website. I also had no idea what etheric cleansing was, but if it was anything like a high colonic, I did not want to know anything more about it.
I got to grab a mug of coffee, black, and closed my office door a little before ten. My mother used to say it was nice to. . .
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