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Death Au Gratin by Charles Ardai

Death Au Gratin

The bound galleys arrived two minutes before noon on the hottest day of the year. Never before had Tobias MacGregor felt less like proofreading his own work. It was bad enough that he had to write it, it was bad enough that people were suckered into buying it by the cleavage Mark Tintoretto put in the cover paintings, but for MacGregor to have to read it was just too much.

He grabbed a pad from under his telephone and dashed off a note to Monica Naughton, his editor: “Looks good. Note change on p.92. Can’t wait to see Mark’s cover. Love, Mac.” Then he opened the galleys to page ninety-two, read for a second, and penciled through the word “Stendhal” in the sentence, “Dorothy looked as though she had just stepped out of a Stendhal novel.”

Let her wonder about that, MacGregor thought. The book was too damn literate anyway.

MacGregor slapped the galleys closed, paperclipped his note to the cover, and threw Death au Gratin on his coffee table.

Death au Gratin was the seventeenth Tobias MacGregor paperback original, with no end in sight for the series. Death Under Glass had started it all; he’d been writing two a year ever since. Death on the Half-Shell, Southern-Fried Death, Death du Jour, Mu Shu Death… MacGregor had tried something different with number nine, Murder on the Menu, but sales had plunged and Monica had convinced him to go back to the formula with number ten: Death Lorraine.

Other TD&F books by the same author: Death on the Rocks, Death Chops, Death on a Bed of Wild Rice, Death Marinara… Death, death, death. Calories, calories, calories.

How he longed to write something else! Something with blue skies and puppy dogs, maybe, or stern fathers and baseball. Something about picking daisies and whistling by the train tracks. Something about happy people, for God’s sake. Something with no Zoltan Brust, cordon bleu chef and part-time secret agent; no Dorrie Brinker, well-endowed but romantically unavailable sous chef; no poison in the broccoli, no plots against the King of Denmark, no coded messages in the pasta bin, no killing, no fighting, no nothing.

But these were dreams. There was no getting out of Zoltan’s kitchen, not if MacGregor wanted to keep living in his Manhattan apartment and eating a couple of times a day. Zoltan paid the bills, there was no doubt about that — and at the same time, he didn’t pay them well enough that MacGregor would ever be able to kill him off and be done with it. Maybe if that movie deal came through…but it wouldn’t, not now that Stallone had backed out.

Good for Stallone, MacGregor thought. He knows a flop when he sees one.

MacGregor grabbed the galleys, stuffed them in their mailer, sealed them up tight and tossed them in a plastic tray marked “Out.” Time enough to mail them later, when a walk to the post office wouldn’t feel so much like a trek through downtown Tunisia. Time enough after finishing the next chapter of his latest masterpiece-in-progress, Death a la Mode.

The bad guy’s hidden in Dorrie’s closet, see, and she’s in the shower, see, and now this guy’s coming up the stairs, see, and Zoltan’s on his way but he’s stuck in traffic…

Lord, what crap.

MacGregor stood up, stretched his legs and back and ambled over to his writing table. Posted above his typewriter was his creed, his mantra. Monica had torn it from one magazine or another and sent it to him. It said, “Crap Sells.”

Thank you, Monica Naughton, Patron Saint of Crap, MacGregor thought. Thank you, Tobias MacGregor, First Apostle. Thank you, Devoted Followers in diaspora across the globe. Thank you all very much. Amen.

MacGregor switched on his machine, rolled in a sheet of paper from a pack he had lifted from the photocopier at Tayler Durham & Fish, and plunged into his work.

#

“Oh, Zoltan,” Dorrie breathed, her chest heaving, her eyes brimming with tears. “Thank goodness you arrived!”

“Not at all, my dear,” Zoltan replied, wiping away her tears with a corner of his handkerchief. “Not at all. I’m just sorry he died before I could question him.”

Zoltan kicked at the corpse that lay sprawled across the bathroom floor. “He was working for Champignon, I’m certain of it. And Champignon’s tied into HAVOC.” Zoltan began to pace. “That means…” He stopped suddenly. “That means HAVOC’s infiltrated the mushroom business! My God! We could all be in great danger!”

“Oh, Zoltan,” Dorrie breathed.

#

Sticky, that’s what he was. Sticky. Everything MacGregor touched stuck to him: his shirt, his package, his briefcase, his hair, his underwear. And he had three more blocks to go.

All around him, up and down Lexington Avenue, victims of midday heatstroke staggered along: little boys valiantly trying to eat their ice cream cones before they melted onto the concrete (the cones, not the kids, though in this heat nothing was impossible); old women sticking to their copies of Playbill magazine as they schlepped back to their hotels after air-conditioned matinees; businessmen wearing suits and ties and expressions that said, “I’m not hot, and I’ll deck anyone who says I am.” The cars in the street moved slowly, the people on the sidewalk moved slowly, the clouds in the sky moved slowly; only Tobias MacGregor wanted to move quickly, and he was having the damnedest time doing it.

“Excuse me…excuse me…” MacGregor weaved among the pedestrians, who padded along like Dante’s tormented souls. It wasn’t that MacGregor liked running in the heat — he didn’t. It was just that the faster he got around, the sooner he’d be out of the heat. Which made sense to him, even if everyone else thought he was bucking for a heart attack.

MacGregor dashed up to and through the revolving doors of the post office, ran down to window fourteen, tossed Death au Gratin into a handy slot and dashed out again.

The post office wasn’t air-conditioned. Not a chance.

He sprinted the remaining blocks to the offices of Rimstapler and Pig, sighing an ecstatic sigh as he crossed the powerfully air-conditioned lobby and fell into the elevator. On the way to the fortieth floor, MacGregor tidied up a bit. By the time the doors opened, his shirt was tucked in and he had caught his breath. More or less.

Rimstapler and Pig, as the lettering on the door outside the reception area cheerfully informed you, was the world’s leading publisher of ‘adult’ magazines, releasing in excess of thirty titles monthly (‘excess’ being the operative word). One title differed little from another — indeed, one issue of any title differed little from the next — except in the case of a little digest called, simply, Naked People.

Naked People contained photos of exactly what its name suggested, but so did every other Rimstapler and Pig publication. What made this magazine different was that it ran fiction: each issue contained a new installment in the serial adventures of Dick Dare, child-of-the-streets-turned-virile-gun-for-hire. The serial was authored by M. Gregor Tobias, and each episode was accompanied by an unsigned Mark Tintoretto illustration showing a whole lot more than cleavage. So far, no one had caught on, not even Monica.

Dick Dare was MacGregor’s second largest source of income, steadily inching up on Zoltan, mostly because here the movie deal had gone through — had done quite well, in fact. MacGregor had rented the first Dick Dare film on video and hadn’t been impressed: they had done even less with the plot than he had, which he hadn’t though possible. But they had picked quite a looker to play Dick’s companion-cum-assistant, Darla. And any creative misgivings he entertained flew out the window whenever a check flew into his mailbox.

Gee, Mom! MacGregor thought. Who would have thought it? I’m forty-seven, balding, and making a killing in adult movies. Only in America.

MacGregor pushed through the doors, unzipped his briefcase and dug out the latest Dick Dare episode, then asked the receptionist (older, conservatively dressed, must keep up appearances, you know) to tell Randolph Pig that Mr. Tobias was here to see him.

#

“Oh, Dick,” Darla breathed, her bare chest heaving mightily, her eyes brimming with passion. “I’m so glad you’re here…”

“Yeah,” Dick said. He was a man of few words.

“I only wish you hadn’t killed him…right when you did.” Darla pushed at the corpse that lay sprawled across the bed.

“Yeah,” Dick said. He turned the corpse over, revealing a huge and spreading bloodstain on the mattress. “Sorry about that.”

#

Randy Pig forced a crescent-shaped wedge open between his nose and his chin. It was an approximation of a smile, lacking only any pleasure, mirth, or practice to back it up.

“Greg,” Randy said, “I have to say, you’ve done a great job. The last few installments have been the best yet. Really, I mean that. You’ve got a great character there, and you’re doing great things with him.”

Great. “I’m glad you like it,” MacGregor said. “I think it’s good too.” He spoke quickly. He wanted to get out before Randy could say something MacGregor didn’t want to hear. Which MacGregor had a bad feeling is what he was about to do. “Here’s the new–”

“Greg,” Randy said, shaking his head from side to side. He wagged his hand to refuse the manuscript MacGregor was offering. “Greg, let me tell you a story.”

“No, don’t tell me a story, Randy. Give me my check, take my manuscript, publish it, just like last month. I don’t want to hear a story. I don’t like your stories.”

“It’s a story about a little boy who wanted to do something different,” Randy went on. MacGregor shook his head but Randy wasn’t stopping. “There’s this boy. He’s in the fourth grade, and his teacher tells him he has to write a book report every week. So the first week he decides he’ll write about Superman. And he writes a great report, just a great report. Top-notch. But the teacher marks him down because it’s a comic book. She wants a ‘real book,’ she says. A ‘good book.’

“The next week he writes about Captain Marvel, and he writes a report that’s even better than the first one, and this time the teacher fails him. Because it’s a comic book, see. So the boy gets angry and he goes to the comic store and looks through all the racks, and he finds four comic books: The Wizard of Oz is one of them, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Odyssey are two more, and you know what the fourth is? Bible Stories. She wants a good book — this is the Good Book. And the boy writes all four book reports in one week. They are very good book reports. And the teacher fails every one of them. Because they are comic books.” Randy leaned forward. “So what do you think the boy does the next week?”

MacGregor shrugged.

“The next week the boy writes about Harriet the Spy. ‘It was a very good book, Mrs. Hammerstein, about this girl who spies on people and has a lot of adventures. Parts of it were funny and parts of it were sad. I liked it very much, even though it was about a girl.’ She gives the boy an A, and on top of the ‘A’ she draws a smiley face. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

“No,” MacGregor said.

“I’m telling you sometimes it just doesn’t pay to be different. People buy our magazines to see other people naked. They don’t want to read. For a year we’ve been trying to make them read. They’re not going for it. Now, either we want to make a statement and we keep running Dick Dare like we have been, or we do what our readers want. Fact is, I’d be willing to go either way. It’s nice to have something else to edit besides ‘Paula likes building sand castles on the beach, and look at those turrets!’ On the other hand, we don’t do what the readers want and maybe Naked People folds. And maybe Mr. Rimstapler says to himself, ‘Randy must be getting soft after all these years. Maybe he’s burned out.’”

“Mr. Rimstapler is senile,” MacGregor said.

“Yes, he is,” Randy said, darting his eyes as though afraid his office was bugged. “But he’s also the publisher. And if he says ‘you’re fired,’ it doesn’t matter that he drools enough each day to fill a couple of bathtubs.”

“So you’re pulling the plug on Dick Dare.”

“No, no,” Randy said. He smoothed back his thinning hair. “We’re not pulling the plug. You might say we’re testing a new approach.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look, maybe this won’t work either, but–”

“Maybe what won’t work?” MacGregor’s sinking feeling had just passed the Titanic and was still going down.

“People want something visual. And people do like Dick Dare on video. So here’s Mark’s idea: why not do it as a comic strip? Mark can do a page or two for us every month, still a serial format, and maybe it’ll catch on. The idea is, it would be pictures, not just–”

“This was Mark’s idea?”

“Yeah, we were talking about how popular his illos are, and he just came out with this. And you know, it sounds pretty good to me. More important, it sounded good to Mr. Rimstapler. So it’s pretty much a done deal.”

“What are you talking about, a done deal? It’s my character!”

“Yeah, so? You’ll get a credit line, and we’ll pay you to use the character. And you’ll still get from the films. Come on, Greg. You know I like working with you. We’re great together. But this is business. Mark’s art will sell magazines. Your stuff, on the other hand…” He shook his head.

“I can’t believe it,” MacGregor said. “You’re still hung up on your goddamn comic books.”

“Maybe,” Randy said, “but now I’m the one who decides what goes.”

“So what you’re saying is that I shouldn’t bother writing any more Dick Dares because you’re taking the series out of my hands?”

“That’s it exactly,” Randy said. “You got it.”

MacGregor left Randy’s office. But before he went, he took his cigarette lighter from his pocket, set fire to his manuscript and dropped it on the slide sheets for the next issue’s centerfold. By the time Randy put the fire out, Paula and her sandcastles had been reduced to slag.

#

This time, MacGregor fell in line with the other damned souls. It was later, so the sun was lower, but New York’s buildings trapped and reflected heat so efficiently that it was no cooler than it had been earlier.

But what was a little heat? Why should he rush? There was no place MacGregor especially wanted to be.

MacGregor opened two buttons on his shirt, rolled his sleeves up to above his elbows and slowed his pace to a dead march.

Why are you upset? he asked himself. You hated Dick Dare. You had nothing but contempt for the character. All you liked was the money, and you’ll still get some, and without doing any work. You’re better off without the monthly chore of having to churn out another twenty pages of subliterate, two-fisted, macho posturing. Let Mark have it — why the hell not?

Why not, indeed. How about because Dick Dare is my creation? How about because Mark Tintoretto is more of a hack than I am?

MacGregor felt like screaming.

He managed to restrain himself until he reached his building. But when his doorman caught him by the arm on the way into the elevator, MacGregor exploded.

“What is it?” he shouted at the doorman.

“You have a visitor,” the doorman said.

“Oh, I do!”

“It’s Mr. Tintoretto,” the doorman said.

“Oh, it is!”

“I let him up, like you said I should,” the doorman said.

“Oh, you did!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, next time,” MacGregor screamed, “don’t!”

“Yes, sir.”

The elevator door closed. MacGregor paced, like an animal in a cage. Mark had the nerve to show up at his apartment. After stabbing him in the back with Randy, no less. Unbelievable.

MacGregor opened the door to his apartment noisily, slamming it behind him. He slapped his briefcase down on a table in the hall. “Tintoretto, you gonif!” he shouted. “Get your ass out here!”

There was no answer.

“Tintoretto!”

Nothing.

MacGregor pictured Mark trying to climb out a window to get away. Or hiding behind the living room curtains. It was possible, MacGregor realized, that Mark had come here not realizing that he would be talking to Randy today.

MacGregor stormed through his apartment, looking into each room as he passed it. Mark wasn’t in any of them. MacGregor started to think that maybe the doorman had been wrong, that the idiot had sent someone else to some other apartment. But before he could settle on that conclusion, MacGregor had to check the last room, his office.

And when he did, Mark was there. He was lying dead on the floor, stabbed in the chest with a huge kitchen knife, but he was there. So at least the doorman had been right.

Small comfort.

All of MacGregor’s anger drained out of him and he had to sit down. Blood was pooling and thickening under Mark’s body, soaking into the wall-to-wall carpeting. A few manuscript pages had fluttered to the floor and these, too, were soaking up blood. Not being an expert on such matters it was hard for MacGregor to judge the time of death — but it had to have happened after he had left to see Randy, obviously. That meant…what? That Mark had arrived some time in the past hour, that someone had killed him while MacGregor was getting the boot from Randy Pig.

MacGregor jumped up and ran to the house phone. He kept his thumb on the Call button until the doorman finally picked up. “Yes, Mr. MacGregor?” the voice said.

“Teddy,” MacGregor said, “you let Mark up today.”

“Yes, sir. In the future I won’t.”

No, MacGregor thought, in the future you won’t. “Did you let anyone else up?”

“No, sir.”

“So there was no one with Mark when he arrived.”

“No, sir.”

“And no one came up before or after?”

“No, sir. Is anything the matter?”

MacGregor just buzzed off and went back to his office. The knife sticking out of Mark Tintoretto’s chest was one MacGregor knew well: it was an award he had been given by the Culinary Society of America for the Zoltan Brust novels. The blade was silver plate, engraved with his name and some insipid adulatory message. The message was embedded in Mark’s body, but you could read MacGregor’s name clear as day, sticking out of the bloody wound. The pair of hooks on the wall from which this knife usually hung were empty. Not much of a mystery as to what had happened: the murderer, whoever that had been, had grabbed the knife off the wall and put it to a use the Culinary Society probably wouldn’t have endorsed.

But who would have done that? Who could have? MacGregor had no idea.

A phone call to the police brought a pair of squad cars to the apartment inside of ten minutes

 

Charles Ardai is the Edgar- and Shamus Award-winning author of four novels, numerous short stories, and several hundred thousand words of non-fiction for publications ranging from The New York Daily News and The New York Observer to Electronic Fun With Computers And Games. He is also the co-founder and editor of Hard Case Crime (www.HardCaseCrime.com), a line of paperback crime novels reviving the pulp style of the 1940s and 50s, in which capacity he’s edited the work of Stephen King, Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain, Donald E. Westlake, and numerous others, garnering five Edgar nominations in five years for the line’s books.