FIFTY-SEVEN, 2.0

“You should tell us, Lenny.”

“Tell us now: what’s the secret ingredient?”

“You trying to break a record in asking the same question?”

“Tell us-”

“Seriously, you’re insane. Insanity.”

“If you don’t tell us, we’re going to take you to court.”

“I’m shaking.” Then, Nichols slammed the frying pan into my kneecap. His was a different kind of courtroom.

At that hard slam, I saw white stars, like they do in the cartoons. That’s what this situation felt like, a cartoon. The absurdity of it was not lost on me, and I’m sure it wasn’t lost on Nichols, either. Or on his wife.

Claudia was my new boss, and she was a lady worth every double-take she could garner, and then some. But even when she smiled, her eyes filled with a haze, a smoky disposition that let you know you could see her now, but she would make you forget about her in a moment’s notice if she chose.

She walked in from the shadows of the kitchen, holding a cigarette. I thought about whispering something about fire code violations, but never knew her to have a sense of humor.

“Lenny, just tell us the secret ingredient. It’s just a recipe for sauce. The worst that can happen is you’ll make it again some day, years from now, on the other side of the country, and someone will think it tastes familiar.”

“It’s not that I’m worried about.” I hesitated, trying to be careful not to say to much. I took my time, spit out the gum I’d been chewing since they walked in. “Can I have some ice?”

Nichols replied, “I don’t know, can ya?”

Since when could a moron be a grammar Nazi?  Claudia surprised us both by snatching a frozen chicken breast from the refrigerator and tossed it over to me, for which I was grateful but a little on edge that she was playing good cop to Nichols’s bad.

“Then what is it, Lenny?” She smiled a bit, then, as though to reassure me. It did.

“I’m not worried someone’ll start cooking like me. I’m worried someone will use up all that’s left this final ingredient, see?”

“Exactly how rare is this ingredient?”

“I’m sure you’re not as familiar with it as you think you might be, since it’s not something you can see or touch. Only taste.”

“Don’t give me any spiritual mumbo-jumbo.”

I laughed. Everyone always thinks mumbo-jumbo when it comes to magic, but they don’t apply the same term to what I’ve got. I said as much to Claudia, and she stood staring at me until Nichols himself broke the silence. “Enough of this crap.”

He slammed the pan onto my other knee, and I heard my own screams echo for a few minutes. The guy is bigger than a bear, so his hits really hurt if you know what I ‘m saying.

“Lenny… I won’t laugh, just tell me.”

I said I’d show her instead, that it was easier and better and she’d understand it better that way. Thankfully, she agreed.

When I brought her into the office I whispered the “secret ingredient”, which I’d only just made up while I was seeing stars when Nichols hit my knee. Claudia laughed herself silly, and Nichols just shook his head and turned to leave, which gave me the window I needed to pull the gun from the drawer and shoot them both.

As Claudia struggled to breathe on the floor, I leaned over her. I showed her my gun. “This is your mumbo-jumo right here.”

Then I put the barrel to her head. “And you’re gonna be my next big secret.”

I pulled the trigger, then carried the bodies to my truck. I used her cigarette to light a fire and burn the place down, also leaving behind her head to make it sell better.

I know, not the best way to convince the cops, but smooth it over with some free meals and a small pile of cash, the next restaurant was up in no time. The next week, at my backup dive in Queens, my sauce tasted better than ever, and Claudia and Nichols would never know it.

Boy, they were delicious.

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