by Jeff Archer Black
The first two months of living together brought an array of sometimes shocking surprises about each other in the small upstairs house apartment on Chicago's near-north side. Summer reigned and even though it was nearing eleven p.m., the window fans still blew full blast to no avail.
Joey asked Jeanine, "Are you mad at me?"
She said, "No. I'm just curious what you're making," peering over his shoulder as he turned up the flame under the pot of water on the stove. "You got that look on your face."
He said, "You'll find out soon enough."
"I take it this is something you're experimenting on for work?"
"You could say that."
Teezee's, voted the best lunch in the city by the Sun Times three times in as many months was proud to have Joey Skoli, the only one of the chefs that never ceased to surprise everyone with outrageous luncheon specials throughout the week. Array of Fillet, a combination plate of fillet mignon and whitefish strips started the streak of edible oddities. From there came Dog Du Jour, something with hot dogs and an unidentifiable sauce in it and Poultry Provencale, a scrumptious dish of fricasseed chicken, tomatoes, garlic, onions and his special herbs. Needless to say his imagination always delighted the traders, clerks and other suited individuals at the corner of LaSalle and Van Buren by the Chicago Board of Options Exchange and the Board of Trade in the heart of the loop. They always seemed to leave with a slightly bigger smile on than when they came in.
Jeanine modestly paced the bar at the Jeunesse Doree Sports Bar at the corner of Armitage and Lincoln Avenue. The college scene there did her heart good since she past up her chance at college due to the last and only live-in boyfriend she knew other than Joey. She had been in love with Joey since the day they shared the last available seat on the Ravenswood El. After two months, he only made her question his sincerity once, or twice. Until that night.
Resting her chin on his shoulder, she said, "You guys do have some strange stuff on the menu there."
Joey glanced over with blue and red eyes through Jeanine's wild black hair and into her curious brown eyes. After a quick, silent smile, he went back to cooking.
She softly said, "I don't know of any recipe that calls for melted peanut butter, honey and ground beef."
He wiped his free hand on the towel hanging from the front of his jeans and shoved his straight brown hair out of his still boyishly shaped face for twenty-eight, tucking it behind his ears. He said, "It's an experiment. You'll see."
Giving up, she playfully stomped out of the kitchen, saying, "Okay, if that's the way you're gonna be. . ."
From the dining room table, facing the hallway leading back to the kitchen, a reflection of the stove and sink could clearly be seen in the giant old windows on the back wall of the apartment. Jeanine sat for a few moments watching Joey's reflection in the windows, planning her next plot to get him to tell her what he was making. She noticed he never touched the salt shaker, Tabasco or Worcestershire sauces - his secret ingredients. Again she went over the concept of peanut butter, honey, ground beef and sugar. What the hell could it be?
Joey went to turn up the portable radio on top of the refrigerator and spotted her down the hall sitting at the table. He smiled at her. She stuck her tongue out at him. He went back to cooking.
Again in the windows she watched him stir the pot of stuff and stare at it. Twice, he glanced toward the hall, as if anticipating her entrance.
Jeanine didn't move.
After she saw him look to the hall the third time, he zipped in front of the sink, opened the cabinet beneath it and to her astonishment pulled out the furniture polish, window cleaner and the muriatic acid he used to unclog the sink and proceeded to dump a good amount of each into the pot on the stove then quickly put them all away and went back to nonchalant stirring.
Cupping her hand over her mouth, she thought, did I really see what I think I just saw?
The picnic soared in success. Everything worked just as they had planned. Her friends drank the beer they brought and even a few of the neighbors came by to see what all the commotion was about. Joey stood over the smoking grill, flipping the burgers. Ketchup, special mustard and onions were liberally spread and jaws chewed and complimented the chef's culmination of flavors. Suddenly, hands clutched throats and vomit and crossed eyes filled the tiny fenced in back yard. "Joey! What have you done!? I knew I should've said something!"
Jeanine's eyes ripped wide open in the dark. Joey laid, lightly snoring next to her in their bed. She'd fallen asleep before mustering the guts to confront him about what he put in the stuff on the stove. Without hesitation, she popped out of bed and tip-toed out to the refrigerator.
There it sat on the top shelf. A plate of tiny meatballs covered with cellophane - thirty or forty of them.
Jeanine sat down at the kitchen table in the dark and thought, why? Is he going to serve them to me? He must think I don't know what he did to them. Oh my God I'm living with a psychopath. He's going to try to kill me. She spent most the rest of the night on the couch, worrying.
Sunlight ripped through the living room windows and Jeanine shot straight off the couch to the bedroom to find Joey already gone. She went to the refrigerator, opened it and found the meatballs, gone. Work, she thought. He took them to work. He's going to serve them to the people at work. Why would he do that? Those traders, she quickly remembered. He was mad as hell at two of the traders that came into the restaurant the day before. He was furious. They didn't like what he prepared for lunch and made it a point to have the waitress tell him about it in detail - expletives and all.
She had not known Joey to have a mean streak - maybe a born joker - but he'd never kill anyone. She hoped.
Eleven o'clock came too fast. Jeanine put herself on high speed. The bar opened at noon and she was going to be late, again. She promised herself she'd call Joey and confront him as soon as she got to work while the hissing of the shower echoed through the big empty apartment.
The traffic on Lincoln put her further behind. Arriving at the bar twenty minutes after twelve made teeth the gritting fear double in density. The last warning about being late from her boss came just three days earlier and he looked fed up with her altogether as he abruptly stopped doing her set-up work, sat down on the stool at the end of the bar and unfolded the sports page.
As Jeanine walked around him, she said, "Tony, I'm sorry I'm late."
Tony, who looked far too young to own his own bar, who was even carded once by one of his former employees, said to Jeanine, "You know, I've only been late once in my whole life."
She pulled a can of Budweiser from the old sliding top cooler and slid it in front of "Harold the Noon Man," so he called himself, who smiled and went back to doodling minuscule clown faces on the white cardboard coaster in front of his permanently squinted eyes.
Tony, from behind the sports page, asked, "Would you like to know when that one time was, Jeanine?"
She felt that she had to take it from him and said, "Yes."
Harold the Noon Man spoke up loudly with, "When he was born!"
Tony lowered the sports page and glared at the old man then said to Jeanine, "Yes, when I was born. I was supposed to be born on the fourth of July. I was late. Born on the ninth."
With convincingly feigned empathy, she said, "I'm sorry to hear that."
"Looking back I remember being mad at my mother because I wanted to tell the kids in school, the ones who I thought would be stupid enough to believe it anyway, that the fireworks on the Fourth of July were all for me."
"That's too bad," she replied. "The closest holiday to my birthday is Veterans Day. Of course I don't think I would want to tell my friends that all those guys went to war and died for me."
He knew she nailed him with that one, so he said, "Last warning, Jeanine."
"It won't happen again. It's just that me and Joey had a. . ."
Tony asked, "Doesn't he work at that place in the Loop?"
"Oh, I just heard on the radio that there was a guy that just flat out dropped dead there about eleven o'clock this morning. Heart attack or something."
Jeanine's mind went triple freaked out haywire. She said, "I've gotta use the phone."
"Do you have to?" Tony asked, heading back into his paper.
"I'm gonna use the one in your office, okay?"
"Make it real quick."
She knew confronting Joey directly about it now would be a mistake, so she racked her brain to remember his managers name as she dialed the number. All that came to mind about the manager from the one time she had met him was, shady character, shady character.
"Teezee's. . ."
"Yes, may I speak with the manager please?"
The young female voice on the phone said, "He's on another line. Can I take a message?"
"No. This is very important."
"Hold on then."
Jeanine could hear her heartbeat pounding and echoing in the silence of the hold line. She tried to ponder what to say, what to say, what to say?
Click. "This is Nobee. Can I help you?"
"Nobee. This is Joey Skoli's girlfriend, Jeanine."
"Well, hi Jeanine. What do I owe this pleasure to?"
She rapidly said, "This is probably going to sound crazy, but I know why that guy died there today."
"Oh, you do, do ya?"
"He was poisoned."
"Poisoned?" he asked with apparent mock surprise. "By what?"
Nobee then laughed. "Oh, Jeanine. Joey's told me you were a kidder. I'd love to play along with you but I'm really busy here today, you know, police reports and all."
"Nobee. I'm not kidding."
"I'll tell Joey you called. I'm sure he'll get a kick out of it too. Good bye, Jeanine." Click.
Then, in the silent office, she began believing Nobee was in on it, too.
Pulling her purse from underneath the bar she said, "Tony, I have to leave."
He leaped out from behind the sports page with, "What!?"
"You heard me."
He calmly folded the paper, dropped it on the corner of the bar, strolled to the cash register and said, "Don't bother coming back today. Or, better yet, at all." And she was gone.
Business as usual seemed to be taking place at Teezee's when Jeanine walked in. No panicked looks. No police or body bags. She spotted Nobee. He saw her and slipped into the kitchen. A young, blonde hostess immediately approached Jeanine and asked, "Just one?"
"No. I'm here on business. I need to see Nobee."
"May I tell him who you are?"
Jeanine, crossing her arms said, "He knows who I am and the fact that I'm here."
The hostess said, "Just a moment," and sauntered off straight to the kitchen.
Still, no one in the restaurant acted indifferently to the fact that someone died in the place just two hours earlier. She thought, Nobee must have covered his ass pretty well. The thought about how to get Joey out of her apartment flew past her eyes too.
Nobee, overweight and sweaty, stood in front of her before she knew it, giving her a start. He said, "Jeanine, what are you doing here?"
She quickly pulled herself together and said, "Let's talk."
He shook his head in condescending disappointment in her and finally told her, "Okay. Let's go to my office."
She followed him to find Joey already sitting in one of the chairs in front of Nobee's desk sporting a huge grin.
Nobee said, "Have a seat, Jeanine."
She sat. Joey still smiled. His smile now making her skin creep up to her head knowing what he did.
Nobee plopped in his high back office chair and said, "I take it this visit involves your phone call?"
She looked at him, then at Joey, both obviously amused by her, then said, "You two are in on this together, aren't you?"
Nobee said, "You mean about the guy who had a heart attack here today?"
"That's exactly what I mean."
"Well, we were both involved in trying to save his life, so I guess you're right about that."
Jeanine stared him down.
He smiled and said, "I told Joey what you said about the food."
Joey spoke up, "And, I have something to show you."
She raised her voice and said, "Do you think I didn't see what you did to the meatballs? Joey, I saw what you put in them."
Getting up, he said, "Sweetheart, come with me."
He led her out of Nobee's office, into the kitchen and straight to the back door away from the other three cooks who were trying their best to keep up without his help. "Here's how it is baby," he told her. "Nobee's too cheap to pay for an exterminator, so he asked me if I could get rid of some undesirables that come into his restaurant."
She got all excited because she thought he was about to confess, which was exactly what she wanted. Instead, he bent down under the utensil shelf next to the back door and pointed for her to look. "See?"
She looked in the corner on the floor to see one of his meatballs sitting alone. He pointed further along the line of the wall toward the kitchen. There laid another meatball on the floor. Neither of them said a word as he led her through the entire kitchen pointing at the little meatballs randomly strewn on the floor.
When he finished, she put her hands on her hips and asked, "What are they for?"
She then lifted her hands to the sides of her head and said, "You mean. . ."
"I mean, I put the stuff in them to kill the rats. And so far it's worked rather well." With a giant smile, he added, "Got one rat already this morning."
Nodding with a childish smile, she said, "Boy, do I feel stupid. I'm sorry Joey. I thought. . ."
"That I was a murderer?"
"Yeah." She looked at her feet and said, "I lost my job."
Joey raised an eyebrow and asked, "Because you left for this?"
"Now, that's not right. Go on back to work and have your boss call me if he has a problem, okay? I'll talk to him."
She kissed him and told him she loved him.
Home Improvement, Joey's favorite TV show had just started as Jeanine and he sipped beers and kicked back in the living room lazily digesting a giant supper and a rather wild day. As the first commercial came on, the front door bell buzzed in the hallway getting a curious look from the both of them.
Jeanine said, "Who could that be?"
"Hell if I know."
She asked him to answer it.
He got up mumbling about how it better be important, or else. As Joey thumped down the hall stairs to the front door, she turned the sound on the television down and listened.
The unfamiliar voice at the door said, "Are you Joey Skoli?"
"Yeah. Whaddya need?"
Jeanine moved closer to the top of the stairs to hear what was being said better.
"I'm Sergeant MacLauren, Chicago Police, Investigation. I'd like to ask you a few questions."
Joey said nothing.
"Are you employed at Teezee's Food Emporium?"
"Do you know who Thomas Harkowitz is?"
"Isn't that the guy that had the heart attack today?"
"Yes it is. Do you also know Nobee Armand?"
"Yeah. My boss."
"Were you aware that Mister Armand was under surveillance for alleged drug activity taking place in his restaurant?"
The officer said, "Well, that leads me to why I'm here tonight. Nobee Armand is presently in our custody, having given a complete confession, and the autopsy report on Mister Harkowitz came in about a half hour ago. It tested positive for a number of toxic chemicals commonly found in the household."
"So, what does that have to do with me?" Joey asked.
"I suppose you also didn't know that Mister Harkowitz, the man you say had a heart attack today, was actually an undercover investigator working under my orders."
"No, I didn't."
"Mister Skoli, did you prepare the dish called Meatball Masquerade which was served at the restaurant today?"
The officer, apparently talking to someone else outside said, "There it is." The metal zipping sound of handcuffs echoed up the stairwell. "Joey Skoli, I'm placing you under arrest on the charge of accomplice to first degree murder. You have the right to remain silent. . ."
Copyright 2006 Jeff Archer Black
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