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July 04, 2022

The Gourmet's Deadly Dish

By John Mara

Listen, readers, and you will hear
Of the murderous ride of a Paul Revere


My first formal dinner at the elbow of Astor Fulbright, the gourmet chef, would be my last. The dead stop, though, had more to do with Paul Revere than it did with Astor.

In his airbrushed MeetMe.com photo, Astor's aquiline nose pointed to his square bulwark of a chin. And those penetrating brown eyes. Why, they raised goose bumps! But, in person, his nose hooked like a bird of prey. And those leering dark eyes. Why, they were cleavage-seeking laser beams slicing through the glimmer of the candelabrum! I yanked on the spaghetti straps of a borrowed silk cocktail dress to hide my beet-red décolletage.

The dinner in Astor's Beacon Hill brownstone was as much a tutorial on how to properly pronounce boeuf bourguignonne and affect 'Chi-aaaa-nti' with the right nasal lilt. Heck, in South Boston where I still lived with Mom, the bourguignonne was Irish beef stew. I'd made sweet Irish soda bread to serve next for dessert, but the lasers registered their preference for a pair of Choux crème puffs. Yes, I'd be stepping back to corned beef cuisine before a tongue cramp set in.

A serving plate bussed to the kitchen was my ticket to create space. Instead, I was transported all the way back to the workshop of Paul Revere in the North End. On an antique oak table was an orderly display of polished American Revolution silver -- a teapot, sugar urn, creamer, and soup bowl. I was assessing a silver tankard when the reflection of Astor filled it to the brim.

Back stiffened at the sink, he rinsed the sediment from a wine decanter. "Let's leave your cute soda bread for now, Fiona," he oozed and stripped me of the tankard. "We're bound to return for dessert." One of the laser beams winked.

In the elevator, Astor tossed back my auburn hair and hooked a finger under a dress strap. "Mmmm, Fiona, I'd like to kiss every Irish freckle on this slender shoulder." When puckered lips circled for a landing, the bruschetta appetizer made a return appearance in my throat. Astor found himself a stiff-arm away for the rest of the descent.

In what seemed a lifetime, I breathed again when the elevator door opened. Astor paraded his latest arm candy past the appreciative doorman, and then we bent our steps toward the Beantown Martini Bar, there to sip -- ahem, phonate -- late night Dubonnet.

Eyes closed, I pictured a pint of Guinness -- pulled into a silver tankard.

***

Outside Astor's apartment, a brooding cloud lurked over Hancock Street. It veiled the moon in a scowl and gave the May air a taste of rain. A navy sports jacket and white turtleneck kept Astor plenty warm; I rubbed goose bumps out of my bare arms.

A light breeze ushered us down to the Esplanade walkway along the Charles River, where the wind grew to an angry bluster. I clutched my rippling, skimpy dress at the knees. Then a westerly squall charged up the river, raising whitecaps. The passing shower drove us down under the Longfellow Footbridge for cover.

What we found underneath changed three lives -- and ended one.

Under the footbridge sat a woman huddled knee-to-chin in a filthy blanket. The red hair that touched her shoulders was the texture of straw, but -- in some expression of human dignity -- was neatly combed. Her face was sunken and gaunt, and had enough orange freckles to make Ireland proud. I started when her green eyes met mine; the young woman was the image of me, except with the spark of life squeezed from her.

A bony finger emerged from a hole in the tattered blanket and pointed to two overturned milk crates. Astor and I sat; the shelter under the footbridge was dry at least, and cut the cold, swirling wind.

Behind the woman, a man chopped wood scraps and fed kindling into a crackling fire. The dancing blaze revealed a man dressed like a scarecrow long forgotten, a tangled mess of greasy gray hair its topper. A foul cigar, half-smoked, half-eaten, adorned the middle of his bristled face, and the cigar rotated as the man's beady, red-rimmed eyes conquered Astor's open-mouthed stare. When the man's cracked lips drew back from his gleaming yellow teeth in a snarl, Astor swallowed hard.

Then, Fate struck Astor like a lightning bolt. Knuckles white, he was bunching the knees of his tailored gray slacks into an anxious, wrinkled mess. That's when a dancing flame illuminated, like a museum spotlight, the most beautiful piece of silver craftsmanship my art curator's eye had ever seen. It was a wide Colonial wrist bracelet, intricately etched with the revolutionary Battle of Concord.

Before it went back to hiding, the silver bracelet caught the darting eye of the wolfish fireman. His menacing gaze stayed fixed on Astor's beefy wrist, and the assault on the firewood grew more vicious. Leaning in, Astor's trembling hand pointed to my muddy high heels. "Take those things off, Fiona," Astor whispered. "I-I'll run this way. Y-you run that. Meet at my apartment."

When the fireman turned for more wood, Astor scaled the embankment like the Minutemen did at Concord Bridge. The fireman's snarl curved into a triumphant, sideways grin. A few moments later, the pokey old man dropped a bundle of wood and set aside the gnarly cigar butt. He limped off with the gait of an ancient, three-legged turtle that would never catch a frightened rabbit.

A prisoner furloughed, I rubbed my thin hands raw to defrost over the fire before going to meet Astor -- or maybe straight home. "What's your name?"

The blanket rocked back and forth. "Brigid's me name, ma'am. Brigid O'Hegarty," came from the depths of the bundle.

"Where are ye from?"

Brigid's blank eyes were someplace else, an ocean away. "'Tis Killarney I'm recently from, ma'am. Over in --"

"I know Killarney well. My name's Fiona." A corner of the blanket found its way onto my legs.

We talked about home for a while, until I realized what else took a walk: the fireman's hatchet. My pounding heart sounded an alarm. I left poor Brigid rocking and clambered up the slippery bank. The rain had stopped and the night was calm, but that dark cloud loitered to shroud the midnight moon.

I re-traced the path along the Esplanade back toward our meeting place. Though I was muddy and shivering, deep swallows of the fresh breeze tasted like freedom. I looked across the Charles to bask in the silhouette of Harvard and my degree there in Art History. Then the bile of Astor's dinner pushed out the cool breath in my throat. Bobbing in the Charles was a man bedraggled. Wearing a blue blazer.

I waded into the water, and the oozing muck grabbed my ankles with a sucking sound on every step. Beneath a fake hairpiece gone wrong, a laser beam cast its final wink and then rolled for good into its socket. Astor's mouth drooped open next and wheezed a rattling sound. Air bubbles surfaced, borne of the fetid odor of death.

Hyperventilating, I pulled the corpse onto shore, Astor's bulk on top of me hiking the cocktail dress on high. Two cold, limp hands were draped over my shoulders when -- oh, the horror -- one hand came off. Terror gripped me, undiluted. I sprung up like a ninja, my mouth an O of fright I'd never known. I tried to scream but was silent. Tried to run but stood frozen.

The dreadful appendage, butchered clean at the forearm, gripped my trembling shoulder. The hand hung there by an icy finger hooked to my strap. But this time, I couldn't stiff-arm Astor away. The dead weight pulled down my dress and the last of its blood ran between my breasts. An elevator in my stomach jerked up ten floors. I couldn't -- no, wouldn't -- touch the cadaverous thing. It wriggled when my chest heaved, so I held my breath. It moved when I did, so I moved nothing. That is, until my bladder emptied its store of Chianti.

The grisly wrist was ringed in red where something it held had gone missing: the tight silver bracelet.

A midnight jogger heard a scream that cleaved the crisp night air before I fainted dead away.

***

Soon after, smelling salts jolted me awake in the Back Bay police station, where I told a Sergeant Seamus the nightmarish tale of my date from hell. Before sunrise, Seamus delivered what was left of me back to Mom's Southie three-decker. Shadow-cast eyes betrayed a sleepless night, but I cleaned up, re-strung my nerves, and caffeine-charged my empty battery enough to face the day.

I had just sunk my aching body into the den recliner when a booming knock on the front door rattled Mom's apartment. And me.

Mom -- who thought I witnessed a fender bender -- was home from Mass at Saint Patrick's and making Sunday breakfast. "Where ye from laddie? Might it be Killarney, like Fiona here, me eligible homebody daughter?" she said to the handsome, well-carved Sergeant Seamus, who was back to 'tie up loose ends.' More eater than talker, he sat, nodded politely at Mom, and inhaled a 'full Irish.'

A second helping of the rashers and black pudding joined us in the den, where I told Seamus what I knew about the Revere bracelet. Maybe it was the pork sausages wrapped to go, but later I was back riding shotgun in a Boston Police cruiser to pay a call on Abigail Revere, the last stop on the Revere family line.

It was in Abigail Revere's den that I last admired that silver bracelet. As Curator of Colonial Crafts at the Museum of Fine Arts, I negotiated -- hard -- to acquire that masterpiece and the large collection of Revere silver that surrounded it. "No way, no how, Fiona," was Abigail's final offer six months ago when she slammed the door of her Back Bay penthouse suite.

On that warm, sunny afternoon with Seamus, though, Abigail was more receptive. She condescended to a handshake at the door. "Hello again, Mrs. Rev --" That's when I saw the silver bracelet dangling on her broomstick of a wrist. The sight of the Revere bracelet -- and flashback to the hideous arm it came from -- sent a jolt along my spine. Head cocked, I stood with mouth agape.

Then my head cocked the other way, and my jaw somehow found another notch. From the pantry emerged the shiny, newly-scrubbed form of Brigid O'Hegarty. A black maid's uniform hung on her frame as though on a coat rack. Her glassy eyes were vacant, but I detected a nascent spark in them along with the hint of a smile.

The sight of the emaciated Brigid set off the contrite Abigail. "Fiona, I've changed my mind. You can have aaall the silver for your MFA," Abigail blubbered. Her arm -- bracelet shimmering -- swept across a mother lode of tarnished Paul Revere silver, stacked in bunches on tables and crowded into glass cabinets.

"Ohhh, a gourmet chef -- Astor was his name -- cooked for me once a week. He stole much of the silver!"

Then Abigail followed my eyes to Brigid. "That chef blamed my maid here. I fired the poor girl two months ago," Abigail sniffled. "But Brigid knocked on my door this morning at her old starting time and returned this stolen bracelet." Abigail handed me the Revere bracelet like it was a piece of dime-store jewelry. "Here Fiona, take it, too, for your MFA."

An hour later, Brigid collected four empty teacups onto a silver Revere platter. On our way out, Brigid handed me a paper bag, her eyes meeting mine squarely.

On the cruiser ride home, I pulled from the bag my high-heel shoes, cleaned and polished. Next out of the grab bag came a silver tankard with a warm 'thank you' note signed by Abigail. A few blocks later, in Mom's kitchen, a cold pour of the Guinness replaced that warm note in the tankard.

The day's events -- and the weight of the Guinness -- pulled my face onto the table. Later, Mom said Seamus watched me drool and snore as he gobbled two of her corned beef sandwiches -- no candelabrum required.

***

That was five months ago.

Today, on a cool autumn morning, beams of light creep across our king-size bed like a sun dial marking a new day. "Wake up, sleepy head," I say with a butterfly kiss to the nose. "My big day starts in an hour."

Stretches and yawns sweep us both into the kitchenette of our Huntington Ave apartment -- don't tell Mom yet -- to steep tea and eat Irish soda bread. After breakfast, we'll walk the two blocks to the Museum of Fine Arts for the grand opening of the Paul Revere: Master Silversmith exhibit. Head of museum security, Seamus's tight-fitting uniform sculpts him sooo much better than that blue drape of a BPD uniform, don't you think?

As we're about to leave, the door of the second bedroom opens and our roommate emerges, wide awake. Already combed out, her red hair glistens. She's dressed in tight designer jeans and a peasant top. "Early date, Brigid?" I say. "There's tea brewed, and soda bread. One slice." She's looking a wee chubby these days.

Outside the front door, Seamus bumps into a man dressed in a white baker's coat. "Oh, excusez moi," he lilts with a honey-coated baritone voice, and then shifts a French pastry box labeled 'Crepes Suzette' to study directions. "I thought Brigid O'Hegarty lives here. Pardonne." Pierre here turns to leave. "Oh she does. She does indeed!" I say. A breeze steals the baker's directions when I nearly yank his arm off.

Seamus and I pause at the chilling sound of our door buzzer. With a green wink over the baker's shoulder, Brigid takes his arm to pull all of him inside.

Suddenly, a threatening breeze rises and corrals me inside its tame funnel. Brow furrowed, I snatch the baker's directions that swirl round and round as though Fate's latest decree is circling to land. Ice water fills my ventricles. Through trembling hands, nine foreboding letters in a bold Gothic font jump from the top of the page: MeetMe.com.






Article © John Mara. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-11-01
Image(s) are public domain.
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