Courtney E. Webb – See more stories in the Kindle Vella platform.
Randall Pagalla was at work early. His white chef smock was clean and buttoned to the top. The black chef pants had been cleaned and pressed by his wife. His black clogs gleamed and shone from his personal elbow-grease.
He set out ingredients in the expansive school kitchen. The sturdy metal shakers, in military lines, stood ready for duty. He loved the kitchen, especially early in the day before anyone else showed up. The stainless-steel countertops, still clean before the day’s work started. The white tiles of the room gleamed in the bright florescent lights. Early morning sunshine came through the bay windows, bounced off metal pots and pans hanging and stacked around the room.
He put out the eggs. He liked to let them come to room temperature before baking. Like patient soldiers, bags of flour, sugar, salt and baking powder were lined up in a row. The huge jar of oil was next to a bag of pudding. Measuring spoons and spatulas waited on the counter like surgical tools on a tray.
Even after all these years of cooking, Randy still carefully measured his ingredients. Especially the salt and the baking powder. God forbid you got too much or too little of either, the recipe would be ruined.
He plugged in the mixer and started to crack eggs in a small glass bowl. With a large spoon in hand, he examined the eggs to check for specks of eggshell. Seeing a couple of errant bits, he carefully scooped them out. He poured the eggs into the mixing bowl and turned the mixer on medium to get the eggs well beaten. Sometimes he would turn the motor up to high just to pull in some air for fluffiness.
Next was the oil and the water. He let them mix well before adding the pudding. This kept the cupcakes moist. The big oven was turned on and heating. He started to sift the flour with other dry ingredients. Using a big metal spoon, he rotated the spoon in circles, the flour falling lightly through the mesh of the round metal sifter. He contemplated the coming day.
“Randy.” A voice from behind made him jump.
He turned. Brandon Bain, the head teacher was right behind him.
“Oh, sorry, Randy. Did I startle you?” Brandon grinned like an eighth grader who had thought of something clever.
“No, Brandon, I’m okay,” Randy lied. “Just didn’t hear you come in.”
“Oh, I know. That aging process is such a bummer. Might want to get that hearing checked.”
Randy could feel himself grinding his teeth but still managed a smile.
“Can I help you with something, Brandon?” He found himself gripping a spatula with his left hand, keeping his face passive.
“Well, let’s see. Yes, here it is. It’s some student satisfaction reports. Two girls – here” Brandon’s pudgy finger pressed down on the paper, “reported they thought you were too hard on them in class.” He held the papers up in front of Randy’s nose. “Can you read that without your glasses, Randy?” Brandon’s face was sympathetic.
Randy held up his hand to the papers and with a little yank, pulled them free. He had his contacts in, so he could read them fine. Two names were circled in red.
“Ok, Sue Ellen and Misty. In pastry class. Yes, let me think. Right. They were on their cell phones in class several times when I have told all students, no cell phones in class. It’s not sanitary for one thing.”
Brandon frowned and held his hand out for the papers. Randy gave him back the sheets.
“As you no doubt know, Brandon, studies have shown that not only are cell phones germy, they sometimes carry particles of fecal matter.”
Brandon stared at Randy, his small blue eyes pinched together under a thick wrinkled brow.
“Is that a thing?”
“Okay, cell phone usage. Well, of course, that shouldn’t be happening. Naturally, and I will make a note of that.” He yanked out a thick gold/black Monte-Blanc pen and placed a couple of squiggles in the margin.
“However, Randy, please,” he emphasized the last word, “Keep in mind how important student satisfaction is at Info-Tech College. We need those tuition payments coming in. You understand.”
Randy nodded slightly.
“You do understand what I am saying, don’t you?” Brandon arched an eyebrow at Randy and stuck his chin out. The small eyes peered at him from between rolls of fat.
“Yes, yes. Student satisfaction. Absolutely. Got it, Brandon.”
“Great.” Brandon replied. “And I will take it upon myself to personally address the complaints of these young women and see if anything can be done about this, this…situation.” He dotted the paper with another swirl. “So, carry on, Randy. Another busy day in culinary, right?”
“Absolutely, Brandon. Another busy day.”
Brandon turned on his heel with the pen and papers gripped in one hand. He left the kitchen and Randy could see him shaking his head to himself and mumbling something. With his other hand, he was tamping down his sprayed, short blond hair.
“Jesus,” Randy said in a low voice and blew out a breath. Looking down he was startled to see that he had bent the plastic spatula almost in half. He quickly looked around to see if anyone was looking, threw it in the trash and got out another one. He washed his hands again.
“Fucking A, that guy.” He shook his head to clear his brain and rechecked the recipe to see where he was.
Randy paused to remember the past year. He and his wife Susan had taken some inheritance money and used it to fulfill his lifelong dream of owning his own restaurant. They had opened the restaurant in a cute little section of Old Town amidst local fanfare. It had been an immediate success.
They served tea, scones and other teahouse confections. They became the favorite of the older set and families. They served breakfast, brunch and lunch. Randy and staff got constant compliments on the food and service.
However, the cost of running the restaurant, even with good help was getting to Randy. He was working sixty to eighty hours a week and they were barely making a profit. He came home exhausted every night.
Finally, Susan stated the inevitable.
He sat slumped on the sofa, too tired to argue. She was right. Heart attacks ran in his family, and he wasn’t getting any younger. Finally, they closed up shop against a chorus of sad goodbyes. Randy counted himself lucky to have gotten this full-time teaching job on the culinary staff at Info-Tech College. It wasn’t his own place, but it was a regular paycheck with weekends off.
Randy sighed and refocused. Thankful for his old habit of putting away items as soon as he added them to the recipe; he was certain he hadn’t forgotten any ingredients. He wanted to forget Brandon Bain, but that was another story.
It was 10 am, break time at Info-Tech and students and teachers were outside the building grabbing smokes. Randy Pagalla loosened his smock and was having his second cigarette of the day.
Paul, the Sommelier teacher, came up to him with an aggravated look on his face. Paul turned his back to the students.
“Bum a smoke?”
Randy pulled out the pack of Marlboro 100’s, and Paul yanked one out. Randy got the Bic out of his shirt pocket and handed it to Paul.
Paul lit up and took several deep breaths. He blew out smoke and seemed to calm down.
“Son of a bitch,” Paul spat out. “That fucking son of a bitch.” He sucked the cigarette some more.
“Brandon, Bain in my ass, is who. God that guy!”
“What this time?” Randy puffed on his own cigarette.
“The little prick comes in my class for an ‘observation’ with no notice, no warning.”
“Then he does this bullshit evaluation. Tells me I have to stop teaching about French wines.”
“Why?” Randy squinted against the smoke.
“Apparently, it’s offensive to the California wine growers, and we have to support ‘local grown’. God what a dick. I wish he’d stay out of my class.” Paul took some more angry puffs.
“I hear that,” Randy agreed. He didn’t feel like repeating that morning’s conversation. “I’m curious, since I’m new here. Did Brandon ever actually teach?”
“Yeah, nutrition. The students hated him.”
“How did he ever get promoted?”
“He’s really good at one thing,” Paul replied with a grim smile.
Back in the kitchen, the cupcakes were out of the oven. Randy had taken a knife and swirled it around the cups, so the cakes came out clean. They were now in pans lined up in straight rows, awaiting the next class. The aroma of baked goods filled the air.
Students filed in, dropped their books and bags and went to wash their hands.
“Okay, students. Today we are going to do frostings. Work in pairs. You will get bags of powdered sugar, milk and a copy of the recipe. Also, a grater and two oranges. We will do white frosting with orange zest. Okay, get your supplies.”
Students went over to the workstations and began dragging out cups, bowls, spoons, and cartons of milk. Pairs of students got copies of the recipe and began reading.
“Alright, you can read the instructions on the sugar and milk. Mostly, you don’t just dump the milk in; you add it slowly so that the frosting is not too wet. Also, I will demonstrate using the grater for the zest.”
“I have washed the orange and dried it. I pull off the little green stem and use the small gauge grater to make a fine zest. We don’t want chunks of orange peel in the frosting. Just a little bit for taste.”
He grated a little pile of zest and pointed. “You’ll want about that much for one recipe. Let’s get started.”
Students put their heads down and began industriously grating. An occasional orange would flip away from its owner and land on the floor. Randy chuckled as he heard low curses from students bent low, chasing oranges across the linoleum floor.
“Remember students, we are going to have our big Luau this Friday. We will freeze the cupcakes and pull them out then.”
Randy went back to his office to check emails. He could still see the class through a large glass window. There were the usual correspondences from students with excuses for absences and late assignments. He scrolled down.
“URGENT!” was marked with a little red flag. From Brandon Bain, “Teachers, don’t forget the Luau is this Friday. Submit a list of what your class will be contributing for my final approval. Also, attendance for this event is required. Let’s be sure our students know we appreciate them!”
“Ha!” Randy half laughed to himself. As though we need constant reminders of that, he thought to himself. He must think we have never supervised people or taught before. He shook his head.
At lunch that day, Randy met up with Paul and Smitty, the meat chef. Randy was steamed.
“What up?” Paul asked him as they put cafeteria food on their trays.
“The boss doesn’t want the two hundred cupcakes the students just finished. It’s not ‘Island’ enough and I have to come up with something else. Jesus.” he rubbed a hand through his dark, curly hair. “I’ll be up all night trying to find the right thing for him. Crap. And here I thought there wouldn’t be overtime on this job.” He plunked a salad on his tray.
“Don’t bitch to me,” replied Smitty. “I was going to do something easy like barbequed ribs. No, no. The master wants an authentic pig. ‘Let’s celebrate native Hawaiian culture the way they would.’” he mimicked.
“Can you do that?” Randy asked.
“Sure, no problem,” Smitty replied. “It just takes about three times as much work is all. That asshole has absolutely no idea.” He banged some dishes on his tray. “I’d like to skewer him on a roaster,” he muttered darkly.
Randy did a double take. This guy is really pissed.
Randy scoured his cookbooks that night. Susan suggested mimosas. He found a recipe and sent that to the boss.
Randy checked his email and saw the curt reply.
‘Randall, proceed. B’
This guy was something. He had told one of his student assistants to come in early. They were going to need different supplies. He started going over the list with the kid. They were would have to make a run to Restaurant Supply.
An hour later Randy was pulling goods out of his SUV. He could see Smitty in the quad yelling at the students setting up the barbecue pit. He and the assistant got the goods inside. He needed to run to the office and make copies of the new recipe. He left the kid to set up class.
The copier was in the Admin building. Randy got to the machine and punched buttons to warm it up. He waited for the familiar hum.
The copier was close to Brandon’s office and he could see Allison at her desk. She was the department ‘aide’. The title of secretary was long-forgotten.
“Allison did you get the flyers distributed for the Hawaiian Luau?” Brandon leaned out of his door.
“Yes, Mr. Bain,” she nodded vigorously.
She looked puzzled for a minute.
“Well, one hundred I think we said…”
“I specifically said two hundred. Please get that done and the banner too.”
Her face flushed a deep red and she slowly got up and walked stiffly down the hall, her skinny arms held ridgely at her sides. Randy retrieved his copies and was about to go back to class when the phone rang in Brandon’s office.
His tone instantly changed. “I told you to stop calling me at work.” Some unseen monkey of mischief made Randy stop to listen.
There was a short silence.
“It’s over, Gary. I need someone with brains and brawn. Why don’t you go help one of your so-called clients? And stop calling!”
Randy’s eyebrows shot up. Who was Gary? He left on silent feet.
Later that afternoon, he ambled over to the luau pit to see how it was going. He puffed on a smoke. Smitty was there staring into the pit. The wood logs were in place and burning. Randy could see the pig strapped to a metal rotisserie rod. The rod was attached to a motor, which kept it turning.
“Wow, Smitty! Engineering brilliance this.” Randy was impressed. There was a little makeshift bamboo hut around the pit. Smitty stepped away. He looked haggard.
“Smitty?” He asked.
The man started to cry and wiped his eyes with a rag.
“What is it?”
“It’s my five-year- review.”
“What about it?”
“Bain has said, well, not said exactly …. that he….” The man paused.
Randy looked at him.
“He’s not sure he is going to be able to give me a passing review.”
“What does that mean?” Randy asked, amazed.
“The school can’t renew my contract unless I have at least a passing score. I’ll lose my job. I’ve been here thirteen years, Randy. Thirteen years. He can’t do this to me!” His voice started to rise as he continued to wipe his eyes.
Randy patted his arm. “Come on, Smitty. We can talk to the Dean if you want. I can’t believe it will be that bad. Hey. You have a good reputation here. Students love your class.”
“Randy,” the man stared at him with wild eyes and grabbed his arm. “He told me if this was getting to be too much, maybe I should consider retiring. Retiring!”
“I’m sixty-three years old, man. No one will take me and I’m too young for Social Security. What am I going to do? Sit at home and watch game shows? I hate game shows.” He waved a skinny arm around expansively. “This school, this job…is my life.”
Randy shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t know what else to say.
Smitty nodded and blew his nose on his handkerchief. “You’re right. I need to talk to the Dean.”
“I got to get going, the wife, you know.”
He left Smitty still staring at the pit and walked to his vehicle. He finished his cigarette. The Dean had promised Randy a long career at this place. At forty-eight years of age, Randy was having doubts.
Randy was satisfied that the Indian mimosas were well underway. They should have enough for the luau. His assistant was lining them up in neat, symmetrical rows. He went out for a smoke and coffee at break. He saw Smitty.
“So, I can smell that pig roasting. It smells good.”
Smitty gave him a wan smile.
“You talking to the Dean?” Randy felt a little like a nagging Dutch uncle.
“Yeah, at the end of the day. I got an appointment ‘wit him.”
“Okay, well that sounds good. Tell me how it goes, ‘kay?”
Smitty nodded and Randy went to mingle with some students.
Later that day, Brandon Bain knocked on Dean Holmes’ door.
The Dean put down his pen and got up. He still had that college lad look; tall, thin, blue eyes. And, the somewhat longish blond hair that went a long way, especially, with the ladies.
“Welcome, Brandon. Please come in.”
He waved Brandon in. He made note of the man’s new short-sleeved Izod polo shirt that exactly matched the color of his crisp chinos. Tassel loafers completed the ensemble.
A long way from the black t-shirts and jeans he was wearing when he got here, not so long ago, the Dean thought… The Dean didn’t particularly like Brandon, but he certainly knew how useful he could be.
“Thank you for coming,” the Dean smiled and resumed his chair, sitting casually.
“No problem, Dean, anytime.” Brandon smiled and flashed tiny teeth.
“Ah, yes. Well, it’s about Smitty. You know, the meats instructor.”
Brandon nodded. “Of course.”
“Well,” the Dean laughed a little, “he tells me you said he should retire because of his age.” The Dean’s eyebrows arched up.
“What?” Brandon looked shocked. “His age?” His face was a picture of bafflement.
“So, you didn’t say anything to him like that?”
“Well, we had a talk about his performance. But, his age…?” Brandon spread his hands out wide and shook his head, mystified.
“Well, good, because of course, that would be…”
“Age discrimination. Exactly, Dean, absolutely not. I mean the man was upset when I was trying to go over some numbers with him. But… no, no. Never.”
“Okay, well good. Because I have to talk to him this afternoon. I just want your assurances.”
Brandon continued to shake his head, contrition written on every feature.
“Ah,” the Dean pondered a moment, “was anyone else there, with you when you had this conversation…. about numbers?”
“No, we were in my office and the door was closed.”
Dean Holmes privately breathed a sigh of relief.
“Okay, then, well…”
“However, Dean…there was one thing I wanted to show you.” Brandon whipped out a slim-line black binder. “I have recently done a Survey Monkey study with our students.” He pulled out the green and white form. “We have a very culturally diverse group of students.”
The Dean nodded. Of course he knew, he was responsible for much of that.
“And additionally, their average ages are 22 to 26 years.”
The Dean knew that too. He offered a thin, tight smile.
“This Survey asks the students questions about whether or not they feel like they can relate to and identify with their instructors.”
The Dean waited patiently.
“Many students don’t feel that they can either identify or related to old…older white guys. They would be happier with instructors who were younger, and more like themselves. “
The Dean shifted, a little uncomfortable. He was on the verge of becoming one of those older white guys himself.
“So, your point, Brandon?”
“We should definitely encourage and recruit a younger, more culturally diverse staff, sir.”
The Dean stared at the man a moment. What the hell did he think they had been doing? Why did he think he had gotten promoted so soon? He kept his thoughts to himself.
“Well, okay, Brandon. Point certainly taken. Thank you for your input.”
“It’s all about numbers, Sir.”
“Yes, certainly. Okay. I will speak to Smitty and see if we can put his mind at rest. Other than that, we’ll see you at the Luau.”
“Absolutely, Sir. We have the Luau well in hand.”
Dean Holmes closed his door after Brandon left and sat down with a plunk on his chair. He had to wipe his forehead with a handkerchief. He wondered, not for the first time, if he had made the right decision promoting this guy so soon. He shook his head and went back to work.
Later that day, Randy was packing up and saw Smitty standing out by the luau pit. The smell of the roasting pig was delicious. He walked over. The pig was still on the metal rod, turning slowly. Smitty was staring at it, not moving.
“Smells great. Can’t wait to have some,” Randy said jovially. The man nodded without looking at him.
“So, how did it go with Holmes?”
Smitty slowly came out of his reverie and turned to look at Randy. Thin, sinewy arms folded across his chest, his eyes, dark orbs. An old red bandana tied around thin hair.
“He says that he is not going to interfere. He hired Brandon to do a job and he’s going to let him do that job.”
“What about all those comments about your age?”
“Brandon denies everything. Says I misheard because I was upset.”
“Nope, we were in his office, door was closed.”
“Wow, Smitty. I’m sorry. That’s not so good.”
Smitty let out a sigh. “I don’t know. Suppose I knew this was coming. When they promoted that little prick, it was just a matter of time. I might think about going to live with my sister in Idaho. It’s pretty up there.”
Randy was at a loss for words. He gave Smitty a tentative pat on the shoulder. “I’ll always write you a letter if you want…and Dean Holmes, I’m sure.”
Smitty picked up a long-handled fork with sharp tines. He poked at the pig.
“I just hope that little bastard gets his before it’s all over,” he said with a low growl.
There was not much else to say. Randy backed up.
“See you tomorrow, Smitty.” There was no answer. Smitty just kept staring into the fire.
Randy pulled into the school parking lot. Info-Tech was a series of low buildings sitting in a large grassy park. There were flowers and trees sprinkled around the grounds. Huge banners across the front of the buildings announced, “Cuisine Classes taught here! Sign up for pastry and other cooking classes!”
There was a picture of him on one of the posters. He was dressed in the usual white cooking smock. The photographer had talked him into wearing a fluffy white chef’s hat. He laughed. It was a cheerful campus. He liked it here. Students scuttled from class to class even at this early hour.
He wanted to get in and check that everything was ready to go. The Luau was to start promptly at 11:00 am.
He corralled some of the early bird students to help him carry big trays out to the tables. He was supervising the trays and sniffed the air.
Funny, he thought. He could smell the roasting pig and that smell he recognized but there was some other smell. Can’t quite place it, sort of sweet?
It was then he heard the screams. They seemed to go on and on. A female student, dressed in her server’s uniform, was standing by the luau pit, screaming a scream that seemed to go on forever.
Randy snapped into action and ran over to the girl. She was shaking. He ran up to her, she pointed, and he looked.
In the pit, the pig was still there but pushed aside. Brandon Bain was there, in its place, on the metal rod, eyes closed with an apple stuck in his mouth. He was obviously dead, and his skin looked pinkish and burned.
Randy pulled the girl away forcibly and called 911. Within minutes, sirens could be heard rushing to the school.
The school was closed by the police. They created a crime scene with tape around the body. Several cops shooed all students and personnel away from the quad and asked them to return to their classes.
A quick situation room was set up in the teacher’s lounge.
“I don’t understand why you didn’t call me first,” an irritated Dean Holmes hissed in Randy’s ear. “This could have been handled so differently.” As he leaned against the wall in the lounge hallway, to all appearances, he was as calm and unruffled as ever.
“Sorry, Dean Holmes. It was a reflex action. The girl was freaking out, other students were running up. It was turning into a mob scene. I did what came naturally.”
The Dean scowled and crossed his arms over his chest. Despite his very best efforts to have the interview room moved to his office, the police desisted and choose this lounge as their base. One by one, teachers and staffers were called in.
Randy had to wonder if this was the longest time the Dean had been made to stand on his feet in a while. Probably. He was trying to sneak a cigarette, but Holmes scowled at him, so he stuck it back in his pocket.
“…had to call the President. He has to drive in from vacation. They can’t find Smitty….”
“They can’t find Smitty?”
“No!” The Dean turned when he heard his name. Randy was thoughtful.
Twenty minutes later, his name was called, and he went in. Two beefy cops in dark blue uniforms with an abundance of gear around the waist were sitting at one of the long tables.
He nodded. “
“You called it in?”
“Tell us what you know.”
“Anything and everything.” They were taking notes in small black notebooks.
When he was done and said, “I understand you can’t find Smitty. Mr. Smith.”
They shook their heads no.
“He was talking last night about a sister. In Idaho. Might go and live with her.”
“I don’t know. But, Dean Holmes can get the name from personnel.”
They both nodded. One cop got up and made a phone call from his cell phone. He moved away from them.
“Anything else, Mr. Pagalla, since you’re being so helpful.” The cop was straight faced but a smile lurked at corners of his mouth.
“Ah, yes. There was a phone call. I was making copies…”
“Yes, yes…” The cop waved a hand with impatience. “What?”
Randy told him about the phone call and Gary. The cop nodded, wrote down more notes.
“Thank you, Sir. We’ll be in touch.”
Randy got up to leave. All classes had been cancelled. He decided to go home.
When he got home, Susan was surprised.
“Home early? “she looked concerned.
“Well, you won’t believe what happened in cooking class today,” he grabbed a coke out of the fridge and flopped on the sofa.
A week later the cops were back at the school. Randy saw them go into and out of the Admin building. When they came out they stopped a student. The girl pointed to his building. Through the bay windows, he could see them approaching.
As luck would have it, he had a free period, so the kitchen was empty except for him and two dozen cupcakes.
“Yes, officers, come on in? Coffee, cupcakes?”
The two men accepted the coffee and eyed the cupcakes.
The lead guy, Sanchez said, “We wanted to thank you for the two leads. One on Smith and the other on Gary.”
“Yes?” Curiosity killing him.
“We were able to verify Smith got very drunk the night of the incident at his local bar. The next morning, he took off for his sister’s place and we were able to catch up with him there.”
Randy looked worried.
“His story checked out. “
The other cop, Rawlings inched closer to the cupcakes.
Sanchez continued. “Tell the man about the phone, Rawley.”
“Oh, yes.” Rawlings pulled his eyes away from the white frosted cakes. “We found the cell phone of the deceased, undamaged. There were many texts from a Gary, who is a local sports trainer.”
Sanchez continued. “We picked him up at the gym and took him in. He blabbed. Apparently, he and the deceased had been quite an item for some time until Bain broke it off. Seems Gary didn’t take rejection well.”
“Did you think it was Smith?” Randy asked.
“He certainly had motive. It looked very much like he was about to lose his job of thirteen years and Bain was the moving force. However…”
“However?” Randy asked.
“However, it had to be someone strong enough to strangle the victim, then hoist him up, impale him on a metal rod and place the whole contraption over the luau pit. We really couldn’t see Smith doing that.”
“Wow, Chef, these are great! Is that your picture out front on the poster?”
“Huh,” the cop added. “My sister wants to learn to cook. I should tell her about this place.”
“Yes, you should.” The officers were leaving. “And,” he had to add, “tell her to stick to pastries. The meats are too heavy.”
They both rolled their eyes and left.
Randy went to grab his smokes.
Check out more of Courtney’s stories at Kindle Vella or Amazon.com/Kindle.