So Dear To Wicked Men

Nick and Julia Lambros Mysteries

Takis Iakovou and Judy Iakovou

Minotaur Books

So Dear to Wicked Men
Chapter One
Glenn Bohannon's breakfast was served on a gleaming white platter edged in a geometric pattern of deep, Mediterranean blue. Nick had garnished it with an artfully twisted slice of Valencia orange and a sprig of fresh mint. I set it in front of Glenn, on a blue tablecloth that matched the trim on the platter, and added a side order of homemade biscuits. Murder à la carte.
 
 
If, as the ancients believed, all men are accompanied by daimones, agents of the gods to act out their will in our lives, then surely our daimon must be Epimetheus. Unlike his brother, Prometheus, whose name means foresight, Epimetheus, "Hindsight," has never been celebrated for his good judgment. Witness his disastrous marriage to Pandora, who unleashed all evil upon the world.
It seems to me, now, that we were players on a stage, manipulated by Zeus from a great director's chair. Perhaps he was flanked by the lesser gods, who paused in their feasting and in-fighting to watch us in amusement. They have a cruel streak, these gods, often choosing the most battered and vulnerable of humansto play out their conflicts. Darkly bruised clouds must have rumbled and tumbled under the divine fingertips, gathering finally over our little college town of Delphi. And there, two hapless mortals, clinging to each other and struggling to right our lives, innocently stepped onto the proscenium. But there would be no deus ex machina ending to this drama. The mortals would have to find their own way out.
Had a great tragedian written the script, there might have been dark skies and an ominous roll of foreshadowing thunder. But there was not. In its place, a crackling October sunrise sliced the horizon, and a light wind shook the last crimson leaves from their branches. The crisp air stung my nose. It was a day so fresh and clean, so promising, as to bear the heart away.
There should have been dramatic dialogue, high passion and melodrama, but these elements are difficult to sustain at breakfast, in a crowded cafe, when sunlight splashes through the windows and sparkles on the glassware and cutlery. The dialogue was mundane, and the only passion was a fruit served on the "Tropical Breakfast" plate. Melodrama arrived later in a gray Pontiac.
The playwright's stylus would also have fashioned a chorus to chant the history and predict the downfall of the heroes. They would have intoned the details of a tragic accident on a twisted mountain road four months earlier, and told of the comings and goings of strangers in the shadows of night. They might have sung of wolves and coyotes and helpless sheep.
But Euripides did not pen the script. In fact, when it had all been played out, from the opening ruse to the final bow, Aristophanes might have enjoyed our antics very much. And only now, in the company of Hindsight, have Nick and I begun to understand our own fatal flaw. Naivete, thy name is Lambros.
Ironically, we did have a chorus--a cluster of coffee-drinking cronies, not unlike the groups that plague most restaurants. We called them the Buffaloes, and they were seated on A deck when I arrived.
They huddled around the tables, grazing on the fodder of localgossip. Tammy stood among them, coffeepot in hand, snacking on one of the doughnuts they'd brought in from Dinah's, while Rhonda scurried over B deck. I dropped my purse and the deposit bag at the register. A Tammy Wynette oldies tape throbbed through the sound system. Nick wouldn't like it. He's very particular about that system, claiming it's too delicate to be handled by the crew. I took it down a couple of notches before he could discover it.
To the right of the register was an ever-growing stack of bills. Most of them were making encore appearances but there, on top, was a new one. The return address read Delphi General Hospital. I opened it and staggered against the counter as the Total Due figure leapt off the page. It fluttered out of my hands as I hastily made for the Bunn-o-matic in the wait station, pouring my first cup of coffee with shaky hands and dumping in a couple of creams.
"Come on, maybe we ought to clear out of here and let him cook. Nick, we'll see you at seven. We're at Norm's this week." Read herded several of the Buffaloes out of the kitchen.
"Hey, Julia. Where've you been?" Lee shot Norm a sharp crack in the ribs and turned to me, embarrassed.
"Nice to have you back, Julia." He glanced only briefly at me before turning away. I understood his awkwardness and knew that I would have to deal with it for a while. It was one of the reasons I had stayed away from the cafe for almost a month. I had to come to terms with the loss myself, knowing it would be incumbent upon me to make the others more comfortable with it. They moved on out, shuffling and whispering, glancing back at me from time to time. I peeked through the wait-station door into the kitchen.
Nothing had changed. Steam spiraled over the stove from a pan of bubbling grits. A pair of eggs crackled in the skillet and the oven fan droned, exhaling the dry smell of baking biscuits. A double clump of hash browns sizzled on the grill. Over it all, the radio above the stove blared Gloria Estefan.
Nick was there, his black hair poached into ringlets around theband of his Greek sailor's cap. He had formed a conga line of one, swiveling his hips between the grill and steel tables, lithe and disciplined as a flamenco dancer. I ducked into the kitchen to watch him, conscious, as always, of the buzz that ran down my midline and straight to my knees at the very sight of him. In the six years we'd been married, that hadn't changed, except possibly to grow stronger. He thrust his arms left and right, swirling the pancake shaker to the beat of the music. As the song reached its crescendo, he spun on his toes, poured wide circles of batter onto the sizzling grill and with a trill of his tongue cried, "Arriba! Arriba!"Nick is a morning person. I love him anyway.
I waited until the performance ended, then topped off my coffee and poured him a cup. "It's getting busy out there. What do you need?"
He danced to the stove, flipped the eggs and lined up a platoon of bacon strips in formation. Gloria Estefan had been replaced by Billy Joel. Nick grabbed my waist and cha-chaed me out of the grill into the main kitchen. His breath smelled of mint when he tickled my earlobe with the tip of his tongue.
"You! I need you!" He spun me until my toes scarcely touched the tile floor.
"You're in a good mood this morning."
"I'm just glad you're back." He stopped, looked closely at me. "Are you sure you're okay? Ready to come back to work?"
I nodded. I didn't want him to know how tight my throat was, how hard it was for me to breathe. The last time I had stood in this kitchen, I was almost five months pregnant. Just starting to show. How empty my clothes seemed now.
Still, it was not my own grief that concerned me, but Nick's. It had taken all that we had, my obstetrician, his associate, the nurse and me, to convince Nick that my losing the baby was not his fault. It had nothing whatever to do with the cafe, with the hours on my feet. It was, at the least, an act of nature. More likely, an act of God.
Whatever Nick had felt about the loss itself, he never said. Butthe image stayed with me, the luminous joy on his face when I announced my pregnancy. He had danced then, too. During the busy lunch rush, he had taken to the floor between the decks, moving in the slow, graceful steps of the zembekiko which represent, to all Greeks, the heart and soul of the man. And that was what he had lost. But he never talked about it--only about me.
I had returned to work resolved to put the best face on it, for both our sakes. We would recover from the hurt and disappointment, and maybe, in a year or so, we would try again. Meanwhile, we still had our other baby--the business. It, too, was the fruit of our partnership, an obscurely comforting thought during an otherwise bitter time.
"In fact, I'm really glad to be back." I picked up the dance step, swaying dramatically. Nick pulled me close and brushed my hair with his lips.
"But if you start to get tired, or it gets too hard ..."
"I'll be fine. Besides, it's Monday. We probably won't be that busy."
"Oh, we're going to be busy, all right. Have you looked outside? The weather's porfect."
"Per. Perfect."
"That's what I said. We're going to be packed today."
We continued our dance, back past the dish machine, toward the freezer, cooler, and dry storage. "Oh no!" I stumbled over Nick's feet.
"Step-step, step-step-step," he whispered in my ear.
"I know. Nick, what's Foxy doing here?" I gestured to a stocky, gray-haired man who stood outside the cooler. He was holding a large motor in his hands and shaking his head slowly from side to side.
"Whole compressor's got to be replaced, Nick."
Nick's step flagged and I felt a little droop in his shoulders. "How much?"
Foxy shrugged. "I'll see if I can find you a used one first. If not, I'll call you with the bad news."
"Have you got something on the grill?"
Nick twirled me around and headed me back into the kitchen. "Just Glenn's order. Oh, and pancakes!" We picked up the pace.
"Well, there are probably six tickets in the window by now."
Our hesitation step carried us back into the grill. "Up-ton girl," he sang tunelessly. "That's you." He left me at the worktable and two-stepped on to the grill.
"Mmm. More like midtown, I think. What do you need?"
"Biscuits," he said, flipping a stack of pancakes onto a plate. "I'm gonna need biscuits."
I floured my hands and the rolling pin, mechanically rolling and cutting the biscuits. In a way it was true. Before I met him, I was living in a "white-bread world"--quiet, orderly, focused on my own career. Marrying Nick certainly changed all that. But it was okay. I liked the frenzy of restaurant life--the tension of the unpredictable. I liked the customers and the vendors. Most of the time I even liked the Buffaloes.
And if I liked the business, Nick lived for it--nursed it, coddled it, guided, and occasionally rebuked it like a spoiled child. The Oracle Cafe ranked in his top three, occasionally interchangeable with soccer and me. Until the miscarriage, which propelled me indisputably to the top.
He tapped the bell and Rhonda swooped in to pick up her order.
"Have you got a game tonight?"
Nick nodded. "At Norm's, at seven."
"I don't know what you see in them, Nick."
He shrugged, turned the hash browns a couple of times, scooped them up and tossed them onto a plate with eggs and bacon. "I like to play poker. Besides, they're harmless. Just a bunch of rennecks." He twisted an orange slice, planted a mint leaf on top and slid the plate through the window, giving the bell a perfunctory tap.
"That's rednecks, Nick. Red necks. And it would be nice if, just once in a while, they'd buy breakfast."
"Well, Glenn does, anyway." He scraped the grill and pushed the crumbs into the grease trap. "Biscuits ready?"
I pulled the pan and tossed him a couple of hot ones while he checked over the tickets. He gave the bell a good smack. "Your order's up here, Tammy. Where is she?"
"Probably doing her hair. Nick," I hesitated. "The hospital bill came yesterday. I saw you hadn't opened it. I'm afraid I did."
"Let's talk about it later. No point spoiling the day just yet." He called through the window. "Tammy, pick up this order! It's getting cold!"
"I'll take it, Nick. We're going to have to do something about her."
"I'll talk to her after the rush. That's Glenn's order. Go ahead and take it. I've got things under control now."
I tugged off my apron and grabbed the plate, snagging the side of biscuits, on my way to deliver death.
SO DEAR TO WICKED MEN. Copyright © 1996 by Takis & Judy Iakovou. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.