Authors: Ellen Hart
Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #General, #Fiction
“We’re comin’ home!” announced Henry Tahtinen, a crackle of noise on his end of the line.
Sophie stood behind a beat-up metal desk in a small room in the subbasement of the Maxfield Plaza, the voices of her maintenance men shouting all around her. A badly rusted pipe had burst a few minutes ago, sending water gushing into a storage area. Already, her shoes were soaked. She had a vision of the water filling the storage room, rushing out the open door into the office where she was standing, covering her feet, then her knees, rising to her waist, and finally her neck. The only way out was a narrow stairway, which would be blocked by floating debris. She would die an ignominious death in the subbasement trying to swim her way up through thousands of rolls of wet toilet paper.
Sophie had an avid imagination. It was one of her more endearing qualities. “Where are you now?” she asked, watching two men carry a heavy trunk to safety.
“Bangkok. The Regent Hotel. We’ve spent the last two months in India and Nepal. Your mother’s become a Buddhist.”
Sophie could hear her mother in the background, protesting the comment. The last time Sophie had heard from her parents, they’d been in Tasmania.
“I had a hell of a time dragging her out of Katmandu,” continued her father. “She couldn’t get enough of the temples. She even learned to meditate. Me, I spent my time studying the vistas. ‘Ah, another vista,’ I’d say. Those Himalayas are hard to beat. While your mom soaked up the culture and lost her religion, I spent my time hiking. I’m in pretty good shape for an old geezer.”
“Dad, you’re not a geezer.”
“Of course I am. My hair’s about three shades grayer than it was when we left two years ago. God, has it been that long since I’ve seen you? How’s everything at the hotel?”
“Fine,” said Sophie, finding no reason to tell him about the pipe.
Before her parents had left on their world tour, they’d formally retired and handed the reins—or more accurately,
the Maxfield Plaza for one dollar—to Sophie and her husband, Bram. Henry wanted to keep the hotel in the family. Rescuing the historic art deco landmark from the wrecking ball and restoring it to its former status as
premier hotel in downtown St. Paul had been his life’s work, his claim to fame in the Twin Cities. Sophie loved the hotel almost as much as he did.
What she hadn’t been thrilled about was the daunting task of taking over a family business that she knew very little about. She’d lived at the Maxfield when she was a teenager, worked the front desk before she left for college, but that didn’t mean she had any real, hands-on experience running a major metropolitan hostelry. Her father insisted that his staff, primarily his general manager, Hildegard O’Malley, could teach her everything she needed to know.
The first year was a crash course. Sophie was constantly terrified that she’d screw up, so she worked like a madwoman, which could have put her marriage in jeopardy. Thankfully, Bram was a patient man. He was already well established in his own career as a talk-show host for a local radio station, so he gave her the time she needed with a minimum of grousing. From the beginning, he made it abundantly clear that he had no interest in running the hotel. He said her parents were kind to include him in the deal, but the Maxfield was
inheritance. She would have to run it.
After Sophie’s parents had taken off for points unknown, Sophie and Bram sold their home in Minneapolis and settled into a beautiful apartment on the top floor of the hotel’s north tower. They quickly discovered that they adored living at the Maxfield, loved all the amenities a hotel could provide. The change in their lives had brought new stresses and strains, but new opportunities as well.
By the second year, Sophie felt much more confident in her position, so confident that she took on the job of restaurant critic for the
Minneapolis Times Register
. This caused another round of grumbling from Bram. He insisted that he needed to make a date just to catch a glimpse of her. The truth was a little less dramatic, but still, all life, including married life, was a negotiation. When he learned that Rudy, Sophie’s son, would be taking over the majority of the duties at the paper and that Sophie’s involvement would have limits, the grousing turned to manageable murmurings.
Bram understood something fundamental about Sophie, and for that she was grateful. Food would always be one of her prime passions. Since she’d done reviews for the paper in the past, the job offer hadn’t come completely out of left field. In a few more years she hoped to bow out gracefully and let her son take over as senior restaurant critic—as long as he promised to allow her an occasional guest review.
“Your mother wants to talk to you,” shouted Henry. The connection was growing worse. “I’ll say good-bye.”
“Bye, Dad,” said Sophie, noticing one of her maintenance men rush past the open door. He was soaking wet from head to toe.
“Hi, honey,” said Pearl, Sophie’s mother. “How’s Bram feeling?”
“Much better,” said Sophie. “He’s lost almost twentyfive pounds since the surgery.”
“Good for him. Give him my love.”
“I will,” said Sophie.
Bram had undergone double bypass surgery last November. That was ten months ago. He was doing much better now, almost back to his normal self. Except, his illness had caused repercussions that Sophie hadn’t entirely expected. Bram had always been so full of zest and selfconfidence. He made no bones about loving the good life—champagne and chocolate cake at midnight when he was in the mood, dancing on the balcony with Sophie in the middle of a snowstorm. He had wit and unpredictability, and Cary Grant good-looks. And yet, lately, he’d turned into Mr. Fitness Center. Mr. Sprouts and fresh greens with low-fat dressing.
Sophie understood his motivation: He didn’t want to die. He was fifty-two years old, several years older than Sophie, with a family history of heart problems. His father had suffered a heart attack when he was fifty-two, and his uncle on his father’s side had died of heart problems at the same age. Bram would be fifty-three soon, so he’d beaten the family curse, but he was still scared. And that fear was on the verge of turning him into a different person.
“We’re heading up to Shanghai tomorrow,” continued Sophie’s mother. “Then on to Tokyo. We should be home soon. We’ll call later and give you all the particulars—the flight number and arrival time.”
“Great,” said Sophie, hearing a crash in the next room.
“Is something wrong? You sound kind of funny.”
“I feel like I’m standing on the deck of the
“What?” said Pearl. “This connection isn’t very good. Sounded like you said you were standing on the deck of the
.” She giggled.
“I’m fine, Mom. We’ll all be so glad to finally have you home again.”
“Honey, your father just walked out of the bathroom. He’s signaling that he wants to talk to you again.”
Henry came on the line. “Soph, here’s the skinny. I want you to call that friend of yours, Elaine . . . whatever her last name is now.”
“She’s gone back to her maiden name,” said Sophie. “Veelund.”
“Whatever. Tell her that when we get back, Pearlie and I are gonna look for some land up on Pokegama Lake. I want that company of hers to build us a log house. We’re done with our jet-setting lifestyle for a while, so I want to have a spot where we can go when we feel like getting out of the city. A place where I can fish, and where your mom can meditate on her new Buddhist leanings.” He laughed, calling, “Pearlie, stop it. I’m an old man. I can’t take that kind of excitement.”
Sophie could only imagine what her mother was doing to him.
“See if you can get me some hard details, Soph. I know they have packages, standard plans, that sort of thing. Find out what you can, okay? I want to move on this right away when I get back.”
“Sure, Dad. I’ll call Elaine tonight.”
“You’re still buddies with her, right?”
“We’re still great friends.”
“Good. Maybe she’ll give us a deal. Never hurts to ask.”
Sophie smiled. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“It’s tomorrow here, you know. Where you are is yesterday.”
“It’s Saturday. Where you are is Friday. And it’s seven A.M. What time is it in St. Paul?”
“Four. In the afternoon.”
“Your mom’s telling me to hang up. Since I
do what your mom says, I better get off the line. Talk to you soon, sweetheart. Over and out from sunny Bangkok.”
The line clicked.
To say her parents were a tad eccentric was an understatement, thought Sophie. Fifty years of marriage and they were still going strong, still having fun together. They were the happiest couple she knew. She wondered what their secret was. Sometimes they acted more like kids playing in the backyard than like an old married couple. She couldn’t help but think of her marriage to Bram, of what their future would hold.
A maintenance man sailed by the office door with a dolly loaded with drenched boxes.
Sophie called after him, “Did you get the water stopped?”
“Yeah,” he hollered back. “But it’s a mess in there. The pipe’s got to be replaced.”
She spent a few minutes surveying the damage, then headed up the narrow stairs to the basement, and from there took the elevator to the lobby. Her shoes squeaked on the marble floors as she made her way as quickly as possible to her office. Several people stared at her feet, but she ignored them, adopting a look of what she hoped was quiet dignity.
Once behind closed doors, she dumped her shoes in the trash. They smelled like sewer gas. She doubted she could ever get the reek of decaying pipe out of them. It was a warm September afternoon, so she wasn’t going to catch pneumonia in bare feet. She took off her nylons and cleaned up in her office bathroom, then sat down behind her desk, not sure what to do next. She had dinner reservations at Chez Sophia at eight. It would be a working dinner, a review for the paper. Rudy was supposed to go with her, but he’d backed out at the last minute. If she didn’t come up with another dinner companion fast, she’d be eating alone.
That’s when an idea struck her. She checked her Rolodex, then picked up the phone and tapped in Elaine’s number. She waited through a couple of rings until a woman’s voice answered, “Veelund Industries.”
“I’d like to speak with Elaine Veelund,” said Sophie.
“May I ask who’s calling?”
“Just a moment.”
Sophie drummed her nails on the desktop for a few seconds. Finally, Elaine’s voice came on the line. “Hey, girlfriend. What’s up?”
“Dinner. Tonight. It’s on me.”
“That new restaurant just outside of Stillwater. Chez Sophia.”
“You doing a review?”
“Yes, so technically, I guess, the dinner would be on the paper.”
“Sounds great to me. Are you planning to bring along that handsome husband of yours? Flaunt your good luck while I drool?”
After a nasty separation, Elaine had divorced her third husband last spring. “He’s playing racquetball with a buddy.”
“Too bad, but I guess his loss is my gain. We need some time to catch up. Woman to woman. What’s it been? Two months?”
“At least. Can I meet you at the restaurant?” Sophie told her the time and gave her the directions.
“It’s a date. And Sophie . . . thanks. This hasn’t been the best week of my life. We’ll talk more tonight.”
Sophie worked in her office for the next couple of hours. Now that her parents were on their way home, she felt a double impetus to make sure everything at the hotel was running smoothly. She was engrossed in the financial figures for August when there was a knock on the door. Glancing at her watch, she saw that it was going on six. She had to get a move on if she was going to make it to the restaurant on time.
Sophie always wore disguises when she visited restaurants for review. Her face was well known by restaurateurs in the Twin Cities, so camouflage was the only way she could get a sense of what the average diner would encounter. Tonight’s disguise would have to be better than usual because the owner and executive chef at Chez Sophia was, to put it politely, an old and intimate friend.
“Come in,” she called, switching off the computer and standing up.
Ben Greenberg, her maintenance foreman, entered carrying a box. As he stepped closer, she saw that it was made of metal, maybe eight inches wide by a foot long, and a good six inches deep. He set it down on her desk, then removed his cap.
“What’s this?” she asked, fingering a rusted padlock that hung from the front.
“One of the plumbers found it in the storage room in the subbasement. It’s got a name stamped on the side there. Eli Salmela. And the date, 1923.” He pointed. “It was on the floor, pushed as far back as it could go under one of the shelves. It looks watertight, but it’s old. I thought you might want to take a look at it—whatever it is.”
“Eli Salmela,” she whispered, touching the top of the box. Eli Salmela was her mother’s uncle. He’d been dead for over forty years. What on earth was a box belonging to him doing in the subbasement of the Maxfield Plaza? “How’s the repair coming on the pipe?”
“We’re still working on it. I’m afraid we lost a lot of paper products. Actually, I need to get back down there.”
“Thanks, Ben. I’ll take care of the box.”
If she’d had more time, she would have pried off the lock to see what was inside, but she had to hustle upstairs to her apartment and don her disguise. A restaurant critic’s job was a dirty one, etcetera, etcetera.
The box would have to wait.
In a specially made Lords of London suit and vest, Sophie stood next to the reception desk at Chez Sophia, waiting for the maître d’ to find the table assignment. Because she was a shrimp—a little over five feet tall—she liked to wear three-inch heels when she dressed as herself. When she was disguised as a man, as she was tonight, her lift shoes—cordovan leather wing tips—gave her added height. A dark brown wig covered her short strawberry blond hair. The addition of a beard lent her male persona a bit of class. Sophie felt she made a rather attractive man, albeit a short one. With an equally short female date on her arm, she might have pulled off the ruse, but standing next to the tall, elegant Elaine Veelund, Sophie felt like a dumpy fraud. Not the best way to start the evening.
“If you’ll follow me?” said the maître d’. He’d been stealing glances at Sophie ever since she and Elaine had walked in. He probably figured Lords of London didn’t do size eight.
Sophie had a round, suitably curvaceous figure, one that tended to overweight, but with a little help from some special undergarments and a good tailor, she hid it all under the jacket. The beard covered her smooth facial skin. It was her hands that were the dead giveaway. At times like this, she tended to keep them in her pockets. She felt the stance was both casual and sophisticated. Except Elaine wasn’t buying it any more than the maître d’ was. Both of them had amused little Mona Lisa smiles on their faces as they walked across the crowded room to the table.
Chez Sophia, the creation of the eminent chef Nathan Buckridge, hadn’t been reviewed since it opened in June. Sophie had been putting it off, which wasn’t very professional of her. She could have made sure the restaurant was covered in a more timely fashion by passing the review on—if not to her son then to a guest reviewer. But that seemed like cowardice and Sophie wasn’t a coward. The truth was, she dreaded the dinner at Chez Sophia, but she was also curious. Just because Nathan Buckridge wanted her to divorce her husband and marry
didn’t seem like a good enough reason to ignore his new establishment. But it also complicated her job. If her experience at the restaurant wasn’t entirely positive, and if the review reflected it, would he take it personally? Or, if the review was glowing, would he perceive it as a meaningless gift, a whitewash, and not a true critique of his skills?
Nathan Buckridge had been Sophie’s high school sweetheart. They’d met when she was sixteen and he was eighteen. It wasn’t love at first sight. It took a couple extra glances before Cupid launched his arrow, but launch it he did. If Sophie hadn’t ended up at that fundamentalist Bible college in California, hadn’t given herself heart and soul to the teachings of the egomaniacal minister Howell A. Purdis, she might very well have married Nathan and lived happily ever after.
In his despair at losing Sophie, Nathan had entered the University of Minnesota to study anthropology. He eventually chucked it all and fled to Europe, where, after a personal epiphany while eating tripe Niçoise at a small French restaurant in Lyon, he earned a degree from the famous Cordon Bleu culinary school in Paris and spent the next fifteen years cooking his way across Europe. A chance reunion a year and a half ago had brought them back together.
Sophie was drawn into his life again because of certain family problems. For a time, Sophie thought Nathan’s mother might be involved in the death of a local restaurant critic. Sophie quickly found herself in way over her head—with both the murder investigation and with Nathan. She loved her husband, that was never in doubt, but she couldn’t ignore her attraction to her old boyfriend. Nathan was like a pink elephant standing in the corner of a room. You might not look at it every second, but you could hardly forget that it was there.
Equally compelling to Sophie was the enigma of just who Nathan Buckridge really was. Great parts of him had always been a mystery to her, and she loved a mystery. Maybe she was the only middle-aged woman on earth who’d ever indulged herself with a fantasy of an old boyfriend returning to her life and still being wildly attracted to her. For Sophie, that fantasy had come true. And it had turned into a nightmare. The guilt she felt after their brief sexual encounter was almost crushing. The question of who Nathan was had turned into the question of who
was. If she could cheat on her husband, what kind of person had she become? It was a mystery she was still trying to solve.
After Bram’s heart attack, Nathan had finally backed off. He wasn’t an insensitive man—anything but. While Bram was in the hospital, Sophie had committed herself to him with her whole heart, and she meant it. Nathan was out of her life for good. That’s the way it had to be. She knew she might cross paths with him every now and then, but she felt they both realized that the past was past. Bram was her present and her future. Nathan would have to find his own.
After they were seated at the table, Elaine ordered a Scotch on the rocks and Sophie a dry martini. While they sipped their drinks, they examined the menu. Elaine had come along on Sophie’s review nights several times in the past year, but Sophie repeated the drill, just to refresh her memory. They would order several appetizers, soups, salads, entrées, and desserts. Sophie would inspect the wine menu to see if it was balanced and offered anything of particular interest. She would also need to taste every dish that arrived at the table.
The first order of business was to choose a wine. Sophie ordered a Borgo Scopeto 1999 Borgonero. It was a Tuscan wine, one she’d heard good things about. For appetizers, they selected a pan-fired soft-shelled crab with asparagus risotto and a lemon beurre blanc; a veal sausage wrapped in phyllo and topped with fresh water-cress and artichoke cream; and a shrimp dish called Scampi Sophia that was served on toasted sourdough tips and drizzled with a buttery wine and garlic sauce. All three were spectacular.
Next came the soup. Sophie ordered the house specialty, a French white bean purée garnished with prosciutto and a fresh arugula pesto, and Elaine tried a lovely cold potato leek. Both were superior, rich but light, all the flavors in perfect balance.
For the pasta course, Elaine settled on the Fusilli alla Puttanesca—fusilli with garlic, anchovies, black olives, capers, parsley, and grated Pecorino cheese. Sophie ordered the Perciatelli with Tomato and Guanciale. The guanciale, a cured pork cheek bacon, was a surprising change from prosciutto, and far more traditionally Italian. Two more bull’s-eyes. Sophie was in heaven. Nathan’s food was glorious. In her estimation, a man who could cook like this was worthy of worship.
Three main courses arrived next. First was an apple-wood roasted quail with chevre and sage sausage stuffing served on crispy polenta and accompanied by a fresh fig relish. Next was a pan-roasted duck breast in a cherry Merlot jus, with goat cheese mashed potatoes and garnished with a fava bean ragout. And finally, a pork tenderloin with Gorgonzola cheese and hazelnut stuffing, whipped sweet potatoes, and braised red cabbage with an orange port glaze. Everything was amazing, from the beautiful way the food was plated, to the harmony of flavor and texture. This review would write itself.
Sophie had learned long ago that, when it came to reviewing, she didn’t need to clean her plate. She tasted a little of this and a little of that and then made notes on a small notebook she kept hidden in her lap. So far, this experience had been perfection. Fine restaurants today were every bit as much about theater as they were about food, so the stage set was a vital piece of the puzzle. The interior of Chez Sophia, an old Cistersian monastery with rough-hewn beams and high vaulted ceilings, was atmospheric without seeming cold. The colors—greens and golds, with just a hint of soft peach—were muted yet alluring. The lighting could almost be called reverent. Nathan had created, in Sophie’s opinion, the finest restaurant experience in the metro area. It was located in the rolling hills just outside Stillwater, an added plus for Twin Citians looking for a chance to get out of the city. But . . . did she dare write such a paean to Chez Sophia? There were people in town who knew about Sophie’s former relationship with Nathan. Would it look fishy? Did Sophie care?
During dinner, Sophie and Elaine brought each other up to speed on their respective lives. In Elaine’s case, she was recovering well from divorce number three. Her track record with men was truly abysmal, but she was already on the lookout for number four. Her quick gray eyes roamed the dining room, lingering on a particularly attractive man. Sophie loved Elaine, as one loved an old, deeply flawed friend who had a constant need for romantic drama in her life. Over the years, Sophie had sat through many tear-filled, late-night phone calls. Elaine’s last husband had gambled away a fortune—his fortune. When he started on hers, she called it quits.
“How’s your mother?” asked Sophie, tapping a napkin to her lips. She was hoping for a neutral subject, not that there was one when it came to Elaine’s family.
“The same. God, it’s been an awful week.”
“Did you know Mom turned seventy-five last Tuesday? She needs to slow down. But she still micromanages the company. Dad always intended for his children to take over the business, but Mom just can’t let go. Between you and me, I think she’s an untreated bipolar control freak with delusions of grandeur.”
“Don’t stifle your opinions, Elaine. It’s not good for you.”
“She thinks she knows
. There’s not much Alex can do except wait—and hope for debilitating infirmity.”
Sophie picked up her wineglass. “That’s kind of cold. But no colder than the untreated bipolar control freak thing.”
Elaine shrugged. “You remember what we used to call her?”
“Mad-dog Millie. Who came up with that?”
“Alex. She’s diabetic and asthmatic, but she’s just like a Timex watch. She keeps on ticking.”
“But Alex is the CEO.”
“As CEO, would
like to run everything past Mommy? She’s still chairman of the board of directors and the board does what Millie Veelund wants.”
Sophie shook her head. She’d heard the refrain before.
“With the recession, business hasn’t been all that great, except for the Log Lodges.”
“It’s made us rich. It’s still in the black, but the rest of the company is pulling it down.”
“You mean the wood-flooring company Alex bought a while back.”
“That and the kitchen company he bought two years ago.”
“He did some pretty fast tap dancing and convinced Mom it was a smart financial move. As part of the deal, we retained the owner to run the division. Alex even put him on the board of directors, against my wishes I might add. KitchenVisions has been a drag on our bottom line ever since. But Mom, in her infinite wisdom, thinks owning a kitchen company is a ‘seemly’ thing for a woman to do.”
“What’s being a woman got to do with it?”
Elaine drew her wineglass in front of her. “You know Mom. She’s a political fascist and a religious crackpot. There’s nothing more frustrating
confusing than a fundamentalist Lutheran.”
Sophie laughed. She remembered now that Millie was Missouri Synod. While that didn’t make her a fundamentalist in the classic sense, it did make her deeply conservative. Sophie also knew that Millie brought her own ideas to the table, some that certainly wouldn’t be sanctioned by the church.
“Mom believes that men should run the business world. Women’s sphere is the home, femininity, beauty, nurturing the children, baking cookies.”
“Your mother is the
nurturing person I’ve ever met.”
“Tell me about it.”
“She doesn’t see any irony in that?”
“Her case is always a special circumstance. Her husband died in the middle of his career. Her children were young and she had to think of their future. She had no choice. She didn’t trust anyone not to swindle her, so she had to take over the business herself.”
“But she has a choice now.”
“Yes, but there’s still the matter of trust.”
“She doesn’t trust her children?”
“Well, I’m a woman, so I’m automatically out of the running. And you know Danny. He’s never shown the slightest interest in running the family business. Besides, Mom doesn’t like his wife. That eliminates him right there.”
“Haven’t I told you about that?”
“Not that I recall.”
“Well, remind me and I will. Another time. But back to my point: When it comes right down to it, Mom doesn’t trust anyone but herself. She grew up poor, so the power of the purse strings means everything to her. She may talk like God ordained men to run the world, but she’s not about to let one run hers.”
Sophie waited for the waiter to pour more coffee. “You said the Log Lodges were still selling well?”
“This was a banner year. Next year may be even better. That division of the company is
, Sophie. It’s fine with me if Alex wants to be CEO of Veelund Industries. He can have his office and his Mercedes and his status. He does a lot of charity work—that’s where his heart really is. He’s a good brother, a kind man, but as hard as he tries, he’s not a
man.” She gazed down into her wineglass. “If they would just cut my division loose, let me take it over completely. I’m the one who developed Veelund Lodges into what it is today. I built it on the foundation my father gave me. I’ve been in charge of R and D from the day I left engineering school. I’ve put sweat and tears into every aspect of that division. By all rights it should be mine.”
“Maybe you should quit. Start your own company.”
“Don’t think I haven’t given it some serious thought. But I don’t have the money to start from the ground up, and besides, I’d be competing against myself, against what I created. When it comes right down to it, I’ve spent twenty years developing the Veelund name, creating new products, new technology. I shouldn’t have to start all over from scratch. I loved my father, Sophie. I want this connection to him. Damn it, I’ve
it. But Mom’s using my division to finance the failure of Alex’s acquisitions. Short of a bullet to the head—
head—I don’t know what to do.”