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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Shari Held: A Dish Best Served Cold

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Art by Cynthia Fawcett © 2024

A DISH BEST SERVED COLD

By Shari Held

 

Quinn Elliott couldn’t remember when he’d stopped loving his wife. He’d experienced no great “aha” moment to mark the life-changing event. His marriage had gradually deteriorated like paint peeling off an old barn door. While he’d been oblivious to the decline for years, once aware, he became obsessed with the idea that Lillian had failed him. And failure wasn’t acceptable.  

He’d been the ultimate provider, rising to top management at a prestigious accounting firm. His hard work had procured them a home in a ritzy gated community, paid for a matching set of Mercedes, and garnered them entry into the city’s most exclusive country club.

The only thing Lillian had brought to the marriage was Dolly, her opioid-addicted sister who was always one step away from her final overdose. He’d never forgiven Dolly for crashing his firm’s Christmas party when she was higher than a kite. Her humiliating attempts to seduce every man in sight – including his boss – had nearly earned him a pink slip.

Quinn clenched his jaw. Divorce was out of the question. He wasn’t going to be one of those sad-sack divorcés who lived out of a suitcase in a shabby motel room while their exes wallowed in luxury. He’d seen that happen to several guys at the club. If Lillian were awarded his house, she’d probably share it with her druggie sister.

It was time to act – forge ahead and seize the life he deserved.

Even if it meant Lillian had to die.

But how? He removed his Dior glasses and absentmindedly rubbed the bridge of his nose. He wasn’t a hunter. No gun in their home to “accidently” go off. No swimming pool she could conveniently fall into and drown. No elaborate spiral staircase she could trip on and tumble to her death.

He pursed his lips around one tip of his glasses. He’d have to find another way to dispose of her. One that didn’t implicate him. Preferably something quick and painless. He was a considerate man, after all. But he’d go with whatever means he found.

#

Two weeks later, Quinn stumbled upon the perfect solution. One of his clients, Pan in the Woods, a farm-to-table, upscale restaurant owned by two celebrity chefs, was hosting his firm’s annual management dinner. Quinn had arrived late and was placed at a small out-of-the-way table, near the kitchen office, all by his lonesome.

“Sorry for the inconvenience, Quinn, but the banquet room is packed,” Chef Eldridge, Quinn’s closest friend, said. “They surprised me with an extra ten guests at the last moment.” He nodded at the kitchen office through the arched door. “I’m rehearsing for my latest episode of chef training, but I’ll be done in five minutes – ten tops.” He snapped his fingers and hailed a waiter. “Bring Mr. Elliott a cocktail of his choice, compliments of the chef.” One wink and he was gone.

While Quinn was relishing his sixteen-year-old scotch, the CEO ambled up to the podium, tapped the microphone, arranged his notes, and launched into a rerun of the speech he’d given last year and the year before.

Quinn shifted his attention to the kitchen office and Chef Eldridge.

“Now, look closely,” the chef said as he plucked a mushroom from a red bowl and held it toward his imaginary audience. “This may look like the common puffballs in the blue bowl, but it’s amanita phalloides, or Death Cap. Just one, I repeat, just one cap can snuff out an adult.” He tossed the deadly fungi back into the red bowl. “The Grim Reaper won’t knock at the poor SOB’s door until four to nine days later, but the autopsy will reveal cause of death. . . and the timeline will lead the police to your restaurant. Mistake one for the other in a culinary dish and your reputation as a chef will be as dead as your customer.”

Quinn was mesmerized.

Before he could clean up, Chef Eldridge was called back to the kitchen. For Quinn, the red bowl might as well have worn a sign that said, “take me.” Quick as a cat, he slipped one of the deadly mushrooms in his jacket pocket. For good measure, he helped himself to another.

After the dinner, Quinn stopped at an out-of-the-way grocery store and bought Ancient Grains artisan bread, a Cabot Creamery cheddar, eggs, mushrooms, green pepper, and onion. Everything he’d need to make Lillian’s favorite omelet. When he arrived home, he put away the groceries, placing the two special mushrooms in his desk drawer before going to bed.

The next morning, he sneaked out of bed, being careful not to awaken Lillian, retrieved the mushrooms from his den, and began preparing the fateful breakfast. Carefully he sliced the mushrooms, washing the knife and cutting board in scalding hot water, adding a splash of bleach for good measure.

The omelet was cooking, the bread toasting, and coffee brewing when Lillian walked through the door.

“Good morning, dear. I hope you won’t mind, but I decided to cook breakfast this morning.”

Lillian’s mouth dropped open. A puzzled expression flitted across her face. “No, no, I don’t mind at all. Is that omelet for me?” She looked up at him with her big, blue eyes, a dopey smile on her face.

At that point, he almost caved, but he’d already gone too far to go back. “Yes, it’s your favorite. Just the way I used to make it. I’ve been taking a cooking class from Chef Eldridge. It inspired me to start cooking again. I picked up the ingredients last night.”

 He flipped the omelet onto her plate, buttered the toast, and poured her coffee.

“Aren’t you eating?”

“No, I have a breakfast meeting. But I wanted to make this for you while the ingredients were fresh.”

She bowed her head. “You know, this is very nice. Kind of like the good old days.” She glanced up at him as if she were afraid he might take offence at her words.

He nodded. “You know, maybe we should go to the horse track next weekend. Catch a few races. We used to enjoy that.”

“Really?” She smiled. “A weekend getaway would be wonderful.”

 “Fantastic. It’s set then. I’ll make reservations at a B&B in Louisville.” Who murders their spouse a few days before they’re set to go on a weekend getaway? It’s practically an alibi. Not that I’ll need one.

He watched, fascinated as a spider observing a fly trapped in its web, as she took her first bite.

“How’s your omelet?”

She practically purred. “Mmm. To die for. You can make breakfast for me anytime you want.” She ate the last forkful, patted her lips with the linen napkin, and picked up her coffee mug.  

Lillian appeared happier than she’d been in a long time. Funny, how a person’s body can be dying, and the brain doesn’t yet have a clue, he thought.

Quinn cleared his throat. His part was done. He’d read up on the effects. Within twenty-four hours she would experience severe diarrhea, followed by a pseudo-recovery phase. In four to nine days, she’d be dead. And nothing could tie her death back to him. It would be recorded as an accidental death.

And just like that, he’d be free.

#

When he arrived home, Lillian wasn’t there to greet him at the door.

“Lillian, where are you?”

“Here. In the bedroom.”

Her voice was weak. He approached the bedroom, knowing what he would find. She was in bed, her complexion washed out, misery clouding her eyes.

“Are you okay?”

“No, Quinn, far from it. I’m sorry. I don’t feel well enough to make dinner tonight. I think I’m coming down with the flu. You mustn’t come near.”

For a moment Quinn considered leaving. Then, something, he wasn’t sure what, compelled him to stay. Maybe it was a sense of obligation. He was the reason she felt ill, after all.

“Would you like a cup of hot tea? Maybe a ginger cookie or two?”

“Yes, please.”

Her eyes, shining with gratitude, locked onto his.

“Certainly. I’ll be right back.”

He almost felt guilty.  

#

Everything was progressing according to plan. Lillian recovered the next day, and in the following days he couldn’t detect any telltale signs that something was amiss.

Meanwhile, their interactions were comfortable. Pleasant, even. Much of their conversation centered on the upcoming trip to the B&B. Lillian seemed unduly thrilled.

Too bad she wouldn’t be around to enjoy it.

He joined Lillian in the family room, smiling as he walked into the room. She greeted him by handing him a flute of champagne. “Cheers.” She clicked hers against his and sat on the loveseat. “I thought champagne would go well with one of your favorite dishes – oysters served with a tangy cocktail sauce. The thought of sliding one of those down my throat makes me gag, but I know how you love them.”

Quinn’s eyes lit up. “What’s the occasion?”

“To celebrate our trip.”

“Ah. Cheers.” He doused an oyster with a liberal amount of cocktail sauce and ate it in one bite. “Thank you. I do love these.” He drained his flute, gave a satisfied sigh, and poured more champagne. “This is exactly what I need after the last few days I’ve had.”

 “I thought you’d enjoy it. I’ve had a rough few days myself.”

“Yes, but you’re better now.”

“Am I?”

Quinn didn’t know how to respond to that, so he said nothing.

Lillian continued as if she hadn’t noticed his non-response. “Dolly dropped by today.”

“Really? What’s she up to? Did she ask for a handout?”

“No, although I did give her some cash.”

The frown lines on Quinn’s forehead deepened. “I wish you wouldn’t. It just encourages her.” Thank god, I’ll be rid of that loser soon. She knows better than to try to freeload off me.

Lillian smoothed her skirt, then raised her head and looked him straight in the eyes. “Actually, I invited her for a visit.”

Quinn placed his glass on the coffee table as if it were a priceless treasure and crossed his arms. “I really wish you wouldn’t.”

“This time I wanted to ask something of her.”

Her eyes looked troubled and a little sad, something he wouldn’t have noticed a week ago.

“Well, don’t make a habit of it.” He settled back in his chair and reached for the TV control. “How about if we watch that documentary on Napa Valley we taped last night?”

Instead of answering, Lillian took another sip of her wine. “I forgot to tell you. Chef Eldridge called for you yesterday.” She paused, running a finger around the rim of her glass. “We had an interesting conversation.”

Quinn grabbed his glass, nearly splashing champagne on his shirt. “Oh?”

“Imagine my surprise when I found out he isn’t giving you cooking lessons.”

Quinn practically smiled in relief. Thank goodness he didn’t mention the mushrooms. Not that she’d be devious enough to suspect anything. “I can explain that. It’s been so long since I’ve done anything special for you . . . I know it sounds silly, but I felt as though I needed an excuse. A cooking class is the first thing I thought of.”

She crossed her legs. “I see. Nice save. But I don’t believe you.”

“Now, look here, Lillian. I’m not having an affair, if that’s what you think.” This time he slammed his glass on the table.

“No. That’s not what I think. You see, Chef Eldridge called to ask if you’d seen anyone snitching mushrooms from a bowl on his presentation table the night of the banquet. It seems the mushrooms in this particular bowl were highly poisonous. Death Cap, I think he called them. You were sitting right next to the table. Did you see anything?” Her eyes bored into him. Her lips were a thin, grim line.

“No. He must be mistaken.”

“He’s not. He weighs all his ingredients before putting them away precisely as you told him to do when you analyzed his business practices. He’s sure the bowl weighed less than it did when he put it on the table.”

 “Well, I hope he finds out what happened. That could be serious. But it has nothing to do with me.” Quinn pointed the remote at the TV.

“Wait, I’m not through.” Lillian took another sip of champagne. “Don’t you find it curious the poisonous mushrooms went missing the evening before you made a mushroom omelet for my breakfast? The day before I became violently ill.”

Quinn tried to act surprised. He suspected he instead looked annoyed. Fortunately, Lillian was looking past him.

“I looked up the symptoms, and sure enough, I have them. I’ve kept it from you, but the last couple of days I haven’t felt well.” She straightened her back and placed her hands in her lap. “You poisoned me. Admit it.”

 “You’re letting your imagination get away with you. I bet your junkie sister put that idea in your head.”

“No, Quinn. I told her what I suspected, and she agreed it must have happened that way. That’s the only way I could convince her to grant my request.”

“What request?”

“I asked her for fentanyl. Did you know a lethal dose for an adult is only two milligrams?”

A bead of sweat rolled down Quinn’s forehead and plopped onto the collar of his shirt. “No, why would I? What got you so interested in fentanyl all of a sudden?” He walked over to the table and poured another glass of champagne, his hand shaking.

“You poisoned me,” she repeated. “Admit it.”

He shrugged his shoulders. He had nothing to lose. Might as well fess up. “All right. You want the truth? Yes, I poisoned you.”

“Why? What did I do to deserve this?” Her voice trembled and her head dropped to her chest.

“Because you were a disappointment to me. I wanted better.”

“Don’t you think I wanted better, too?”

Tears were streaming down both her cheeks. He had to do something.

“I’m sorry you found out this way, Lillian. Stand up. You’ll be more comfortable in the bedroom for the next day or two.”

Quinn stretched his arm out to her, then staggered backward, clutching his side, suddenly weak and disoriented. “What the heck? What’s wrong with me?” He sank back into his chair. His mouth opened and closed but no sound emerged.

“It’s the fentanyl. Since Chef Eldridge’s call, I’ve been living with the knowledge that I was dying. Now you, too, will know what it feels like.” She paused. “I wanted justice. Even if you were accused of my murder – and that’s a big if – you’d hire a top-notch attorney with a bag of tricks to create a reasonable doubt. I wasn’t going to take that chance. I wanted my revenge.”

She raised her head and looked him in the eyes again. “You know, it didn’t have to be this way. The last few days have been some of the best we’ve had in a long time.”

 “Yes, they were.” He struggled out of his chair and sat next to her on the loveseat, his thigh touching hers. He leaned toward her and clasped her hand in his. “I guess that’s what I get for underestimating you.” He grimaced. “How long do I have?”

“A couple hours at most.”

Damn. Lillian will outlast me. Everything I’ve worked for will go to her. And within days, it will all go to Dolly.

The irony of it hit him and he laughed until tears rolled down his cheeks. Soon his laughter turned into a coughing spell. Lillian held him tight as the spasms shook his body. Before long, his head slumped, and he was gone.

 “We should have just divorced,” she whispered and laid her head on his shoulder one last time.

THE END

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Art by Cynthia Fawcett © 2024

Shari Held is an award-winning fiction author and journalist who spins tales of mystery/crime, humor, romance, and fantasy. Her short stories have been published in more than three dozen magazines and anthologies, including Yellow Mama, Hoosier Noir, White Cat Publications, Asinine Assassins, and Murder 20/20, for which she served as co-editor. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. When not writing, she cares for feral cats and other wildlife, attends movies, reads avidly, and enjoys watching tennis.

Cynthia Fawcett has been writing for fun or money since she was able to hold a pen. A Jersey Girl at heart, she got her journalism degree at Marquette University in Milwaukee and now writes mostly technical articles about hydraulics and an occasional short story or poem on any other subject.

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications © 2024