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A Dish Served Cold

Jeffery Deaver

  A Dish Served Cold

  Jeffery Deaver

  I love nothing better than surprising the readers of my short stories with a big twist in the end. They think the story is going in one direction and, bang, it ends up some place else. This is true of A Dish Served Cold, a crime short story set in Arizona. If any readers can guess the ending, I'd love to hear from them (through my website)!

  Jeffery Deaver

  A Dish Served Cold

  A Dish Served Cold

  " We have reason to believe there's a man who wants to cause you some harm, sir." Standing on the hot sidewalk in front of his office building, compact, muscular Stephen York rocked back and forth on his Bally shoes.

  Cause you some harm.

  The hell's that supposed to mean?

  York set down his gym bag. The fifty-one-year-old investment banker looked from the Scottsdale Police Department senior detective who'd delivered this news to the man's younger partner. The cops were easy to tell apart. Older, blond Bill Lampert was pale as milk, as if he'd come to Scottsdale via Minnesota – a migration that happened pretty frequently, York had learned. The other cop, Juan Alvarado, undoubtedly had roots in the vicinity.

  "Who?" York asked.

  "His name's Raymond Trotter."

  York thought about it, then shook his head. "Never heard of him." He peered at the picture the cop held out. From DMV, it seemed. "Doesn't look familiar. Who is he?"

  "Lives here in town. Runs a landscaping company."

  "Wait, I know the place. Out off the interstate?" York thought Carole had shopped there.

  "Yeah, the big one." Lampert wiped his forehead.

  "He's got a problem with me? What sort?" York pulled his Armani shades on. The three p.m. sun in Arizona was like a blowtorch.

  "We don't know."

  "Well, what do you know?"

  Alvarado explained. "We arrested a day laborer for drugs. An illegal. Hector Diaz. He wanted to cut a deal on the charge and he told us he had some information about a possible crime. Seems he's worked for this Trotter off and on. A few days ago Trotter comes to him and offers him a thousand dollars to stop by your house and see if you needed yard work done. While he was there he was supposed to check out your alarm system."

  "You're kidding."


  What was all this about? Despite the temperature hovering at 105 degrees York felt a chill run through him. "Alarms? Why?"

  "All Trotter told Diaz was he was interested in payback for something you did."

  "Payback?" York shook his head in frustration. "Jesus, you come and tell me this crap, somebody's going to quote cause me some harm – and you don't have any idea what it's about?"

  "No, sir. We were hoping you could tell us."

  "Well, I can't."

  "Okay, we'll check this Trotter out. But we'd recommend you keep an eye out for anything odd."

  "Why don't you arrest him?"

  "He hasn't committed a crime," Lampert said. "I'm afraid that without evidence of an overt act, there's nothing we can do."

  Cause some harm.…

  Evidence of an overt act…

  Maybe if they stopped talking like sociology professors they'd do some real goddamn police work. York came close to telling them this but he guessed the disgusted look on his face was message enough.

  Trying to put the encounter with the cops out of his thoughts, York drove to the gym. Man, he needed some muscle time. He'd just come through a grind of a negotiation with two men who owned a small manufacturing company he was trying to buy. The old guys'd been a lot wilier than he'd expected. They'd made some savvy demands that were going to cost York big money. He'd looked them over, real condescending, and stormed out of their lawyer's office. Let 'em stew for a day or two before. He'd probably concede but he wasn't going to let them think they'd bullied him.

  He parked in the health club lot. Climbed out of the car and walked through the fierce sun to the front door.

  "Hi, Mr. York. You're early today."

  A nod to the daytime desk manager, Gavin.

  "Yeah, snuck out when nobody was looking."

  York changed clothes and headed for the aerobics room, empty at the moment. He flopped down on the mats to stretch. After ten minutes of limbering up, he headed off to the machines, pushing hard, doing his regular circuit of twenty reps on each before moving on, ending up with crunches; his job as one of the three partners in a major Scottsdale venture capital firm had him doing a lot of entertaining and spending serious time at his desk; his belly had been testing the waistband of his slacks lately.

  He didn't like flabby. Neither did women, whatever they told you. A platinum Amex card lets you get away with a lot but when it's bedtime the dolls love solid abs. After the crunches he hopped on the treadmill for his run.

  Mile one, mile two, three…

  Trying to push the difficult business deal out of his head – goddamn it, what was with those decrepit farts? How could they be so sharp? They oughta be in an old folks' home.

  Running, running…

  Mile five…

  And who was this Raymond Trotter?


  He scanned his memory again but could come up with no hits on the name.

  He fell into the rhythm of his pounding feet. At seven miles he slowed to a walk, cooled off and shut the treadmill down. York pulled a towel over his neck and, ignoring a flirtatious glance from a woman who was pretty but a few years past being worth the risk, returned to the locker room. There he stripped and grabbed a clean towel then headed for the sauna.

  York liked this part of the club because it was out of the way and very few members came here at this time of day. Now it was completely deserted. York wandered down the tile corridor. He heard a noise from around the corner. A click, then what sounded like footsteps, though he couldn't tell for sure. Was somebody here? He got to the junction and looked. No, the hallway was empty. But he paused. Something was different. What? He realized the place was unusually dark. He glanced up at the light fixtures. Several bulbs were missing. Four thousand bucks a year for membership and they couldn't replace the bulbs? Man, he'd give Gavin some crap for that. The murkiness, along with a faint, snaky hiss from the ventilation, made the place eerie.

  He continued to the door of the redwood sauna, hanging his towel on a hook and turning the temperature selector to high. He'd just started inside when a sharp pain shot through into his foot.

  "Hell!' he shouted and danced back, lifting his sole to see what had stabbed him. A wooden splinter was sticking out of the ball of his foot. He pulled it out and pressed his hand against the tiny, bleeding wound. He squinted at the floor where he'd stepped and noted several other splinters.

  Oh, Gavin was going to get an earful today. But York 's anger faded as he glanced down and found what he supposed was the source of the splinters: two slim wooden shims, hand carved, it looked like, lying on the floor near the doorway. They were like door stops, except that the only door here – to the sauna – was at the top of a two-step stairway. The door couldn't be wedged open.

  But the shims could be used to wedge the door closed if somebody pounded them into the jamb when the door was shut. They'd fit perfectly. But it'd be crazy to do that. Somebody trapped inside would have no way of turning down the temperature or calling for help; there were no controls inside the unit. And heat in a sauna could kill; York and his wife had just seen a local TV story about a Phoenix woman who'd died in her sauna after she'd fainted.

  Holding the shims, staring down at them, a sudden click from nearby made him jump. York turned and saw a shadow against the wall, like that of a person pausing. Then it vanished.

  "Hello?" York called.


nbsp; York walked into the hallway. He could see nobody. Then he glanced at the emergency exit door, which didn't seem to be closed all the way. He looked out. The alley was empty. Turning back, he noticed something on the edge of the door. Somebody had taped the latch down so he could get inside without being seen from anyone in the lobby.

  Cause you some harm…

  Five minutes later, showerless, York was hurrying out of the club, not bothering to give Gavin the lecture he deserved. The businessman was carrying the shims and bit of duct tape, wrapped in paper towels. He was careful. Like everybody who watched TV nowadays he knew all about the art of preserving fingerprints.

  "They're in here."

  Stephen York handed the paper towel to pale-skinned Detective Bill Lampert. "I didn't touch them – I used tissues."

  "At your health club, you said?" asked the detective, looking over the shims and the tape.

  "That's right." York couldn't resist adding the name of the exclusive place.

  Lampert didn't seem impressed. He stepped to the doorway and handed the evidence to Alvarado. "Prints, toolmarks, stat." The young officer vanished.

  Turning back to York. "But nobody actually tried to detain you in the sauna?"

  Detain? York asked himself wryly. You mean: Lock me inside to roast me to death.

  "No." He pulled out a cigar. "You mind?"

  "There's no smoking in the building," Lampert replied.

  "Maybe not technically, but…"

  "There's no smoking in the building."

  York put the stogie away. "The way I read it, Trotter found out my routine. He got into the club and taped the back door open so he could get in without anybody seeing him from the lobby."

  "How'd he do that? He a member?"

  "I don't know."

  Lampert held up a finger. He called the club and had a brief conversation. "No record of him as a member or a guest in the last month."

  "Then he had a fake ID or something to try a guest membership."

  "Fake ID? That's a little… complicated, isn't it?"

  "Well, somehow, the asshole got inside. He was going to seal me inside but I think I surprised him and he ditched the shims and took off."

  Alvarado walked into his boss's office. "No prints. Toolmarks aren't distinctive but if we find a plane or chisel we might make a match."

  York laughed. "No prints? That's proof of something right there, isn't it?"

  Lampert ignored him. He lifted a sheet of paper from his desk and looked it over. "Well, we've looked into this Trotter fellow. Seems like any normal guy. No police record except for a few traffic tickets. But there is something. I talked to the Veterans' Administration in Phoenix. Turns out they have a file on him. He was in Kuwait, the first Gulf War. His unit got hit hard. Half his men were killed and he was badly wounded. After he got discharged he moved here, spent a year in counseling. The file has his shrink's notes in it. That's all privileged – doctor-patient – and we're not supposed to see it, but I've got a buddy in the VA and he gave me the gist. Apparently after Trotter got out of the service he ended up hanging with a bad crowd here and in Albuquerque. Did some strong-arm stuff. For hire. That was a while ago, and he was never arrested but still…"

  "Christ… So maybe somebody hired him?"

  "Who've you pissed off bad enough they'd go to this kind of trouble to get even?"

  "I don't know. I'd have to think about it."

  Alvarado said, "You know that expression, 'Revenge is a dish best served cold?'"

  "Yeah, I think I heard of that."

  "Might be somebody from your distant past. Think way back."

  A dish served cold…

  "Okay. But what're we going to do in the meantime?" York asked, wiping his sweating palms on his pants.

  "Let's go have a talk with him. See what he has to say." The detective picked up the phone and placed a call.

  "Mr. Trotter please… I see. Could you tell me when?… Thanks. No message." He hung up. "He just left for Tucson. He'll be back tomorrow morning."

  "Aren't you going to stop him?"


  "Maybe he's trying to escape, go to Mexico.”

  Lampert shrugged and opened a file from another case. "Then I guess you're off the hook."

  Pulling up to their five-million-dollar mini-mansion on the edge of the desert, York climbed out of his Mercedes, locked the doors and looked around to make sure he hadn't been followed. No sign of anyone. Still, when he walked inside he double-locked the door behind him.

  "Hey, honey." Carole joined him in the entryway, wearing her workout Spandex. His third wife was frosted blonde and beautiful. ("You guys give good visuals," an associate once said.) They'd been together three years. A former secretary turned personal trainer, Carole had just the right mix of what York called being-on-the-ball and not-getting-it. Meaning she could carry on a conversation and not be embarrassing but she kept quiet when she knew she was supposed to – and didn't ask too many questions about where he'd been when he came home late or went on last-minute business trips.

  She glanced at the door. "What's with that?" They never used the deadbolt.

  He had to be careful. Carole needed things explained to her in simple terms and if she didn't understand what he told her, she'd freak. And her brand of hysteria could get ugly. He'd found that out about stupid people, how they lost it when confronted with something they didn't understand.

  So he lied. "Somebody up the street got broken into yesterday."

  "I didn't hear about it."

  "Well, they did."


  "I don't remember."

  A faint giggle – a habit of hers he found either irritating or sexy, depending on his mood.

  "You don't know who? That's weird." Today's was an irritating giggle.

  "Somebody told me. I forgot. I got a lot on my mind."

  "Can we go to the club for dinner?"

  "I'm wasted, baby. I'll barbecue tonight. How's that?"

  "Okay, sure."

  He could tell she was disappointed but York knew how to bail out sinking ships; he mixed cocktails fast – doubles – and steered her to the pool, where he put on a Yanni CD. In twenty minutes the liquor and music had dulled her disappointment and she was babbling on about wanting to go visit her family in Los Angeles in a couple of weeks, would he mind baching it?

  "Whatever." He gave it a minute and then, sounding casual, said, "I'm thinking of getting some plants for the office."

  "You want me to help?"

  "No, Marge is handling it. You ever buy anything from that landscaper out by the highway? Trotter's?"

  "I don't know. I think so. A while ago."

  "They ever deliver anything here?"

  "No, I just bought some houseplants and brought ' em home. Why?"

  "Wondering if they have good service."

  "Now you're into decorating. That's wild." Another giggle.

  He grunted and headed into the kitchen, pulled open the fridge.

  Smoking a Macanudo and drinking his vodka and tonic, York grilled some steaks and made a salad and they ate in silence. After she'd cleared the dishes, they moved into the den and watched some TV. Carole got cuddly. Normally this meant it was time for the hot tub, or bed – or sometimes the floor – but tonight he said, "You head on upstairs, doll. I've got a few numbers to look over."

  "Aw." Another pout.

  "I'll be up soon."

  "Oh, okay." She sighed, picked up a book and climbed the stairs.

  When he heard the door click shut he walked into his study, shut the lights out and peered out at the dark sweep of moonlit desert behind the house. Shadows, rocks, cacti, stars… This was a vista he loved. It changed constantly. He remained here for five minutes, then, pouring a tall scotch, he kicked his shoes off and stretched out on the couch.

  A sip of smoky liquor. Another.


  And Stephen York began a trip through his past, looking for some reason that Trotter, or an
yone, wanted him dead.

  Because he had ditsy Carole on his mind, he thought first of the women who'd been in his life. He considered his ex-wives. York had been the one who'd ended each of the marriages. The first wife, Vicky, had gone off the deep end when he'd told her he was leaving. The little mouse had cried and begged him to stay even though she knew about the affair he'd been having with his secretary. But he was adamant about the divorce and soon he cut off all contact with her, except for financial matters involving their son, Randy.

  But would she actually hire a killer to get even with him?

  No way, he decided: Vicky's reaction to the breakup was to play victim, not vengeful ex. Besides, York had done right by her. He'd paid alimony and child support promptly and, a few years later, hadn't contested the custody order that took away his rights to see their son.

  York and his second wife were together only two years. She'd proved too brittle for him, too liberal, too NPR. That breakup was Holyfield-Tyson, pure combat. Susan, a high-powered commercial real estate lawyer, walked away with a lot of money, more than enough to salve her injured pride (York left her for a woman sixteen years younger and twenty pounds slimmer). She also took her career too seriously to risk it by doing anything illegal to him. She had remarried – a military consultant and former army colonel she'd met negotiating a contract with the government for her client – and York was sure he'd fallen off her radar screen.

  Ex-girlfriends? The usual suspects… But, brother, where to start? Almost too many to count. He'd broken up badly with some of them, used some, lied. Of course, York himself had been used and lied to by women. On the whole it evened out, he figured. That was how the game worked; nobody sane would hire a hitman to kill a lover just because he'd dumped you.

  Who else could it be?

  Most likely, he decided, it was somebody he'd had business dealings with.

  But there were a lot of fish in that sea too. Dozens came to mind. When he'd been a salesman for a pharmaceutical company, he'd reported one of his fellow detail men for cheating on his expense account (York turned him in not out of company loyalty but to pillage the guy's territory). The man was fired and vowed to get even.