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A Dinner Best Served Cold
by Richard Harter

It was a fine spring evening when M. Rouge and M. Noir dined at my café for the last time. It was a Tuesday evening. Of course it was a Tuesday evening. They always dined together on Tuesday evening. It was famous that although they hated each other they dined together every Tuesday evening with the greatest appearance of civility. Once they had been fast friends and dined every Tuesday in friendship. When they had their terrible quarrel they continued to dine on Tuesday. People marveled that they continued their tradition after their quarrel. Me, I think it was simple; their rituals were more important to these fine literary gentlemen than their principles.

I seated them myself and set out their first course. It was a point with them that they were important and required special treatment. Lesser men would have received their wine from the wine steward. Lesser men would have been waited on by their waiter. Not them. They were literary lions, immortals. For them there must be the private room. For them Marie herself must set out their soup and bring them their wine. It was thus that these fine literary gentlemen confirmed for themselves how important they were.

I greeted them. I gushed over them. I showed them to their table. I brought out their chilled bottle of wine. I brought them their first course of cold soup. Do not imagine that I wasted any time in serving them, in fetching them their wine and soup. All was prepared in advance. A few steps to the kitchen and they were served. While Marie is playing dog for them Pierre, their waiter, stands impassively waiting. He will tend to them during their dinner but first Marie must tend to them personally so that they may know how important they are.

They were particular in their habits, these fine literary gentlemen. M. Rouge insisted that he and he alone will pour the wine. M. Noir despised a touch of chives in his consommé whereas M. Rouge insisted on chives with his. M. Noir insisted that and he alone will grind the pepper and season the soup.

I set out the wine. Just as I was about to set down the soup M. Noir made a crude remark. Me, I am not easily embarrassed, but M. Noir was a man of talent. It was a mark of his talent that he could find a way to hurt you, no matter how great your savoir-faire. I confess it; I was hurt and angry. I set down the soup and rushed to the kitchen. He cackled as I dashed away.

I was there but a moment or two refreshing my wits and putting on my smile when I heard a great commotion in their parlor. I rushed back in. There was Pierre standing like a great dummy. And these two fine gentlemen? They were fallen, their faces in the table, each with an arm stretched out, pointing to the other. Very shaken, Pierre said to me, “Madame, they are dead.”

I go to their table and see for myself. Yes they are dead. Never have I had a patron die at my tables, let alone two, but I know what to do. I call the police. Naturally they do not move quickly until they know who is dead. When they hear that it is these oh so important gentlemen that lie dead in my parlor they proceed with great rapidity. Having called the police I return to Pierre. I warn him to touch nothing and ask him what happened. I impress upon him that the police will want to know everything and will want him to recall every detail. Pierre stumbles out his story.

“When you left, madame, M. Noir switched the soup bowls and then he seasoned them. M. Rouge, he poured wine for each of them. They sat there for a bit, sipping their soup and tasting their wine. Then M. Noir turns very red and chokes. He reaches out to M. Rouge and falls forward. While he is doing this M. Rouge, too, turns very red and chokes. He too reaches out and falls forward. It all happened very fast. I rushed to them but by the time I got to them, oh Madame, they were already dead.”

“Now Pierre, this is very important. Why did M. Noir switch the soup bowls?”

“It seems, Madame, that you placed the wrong bowl in front of M. Noir. You put his bowl in front of M. Rouge and M. Rouge’s bowl in front of M. Noir.”

I thought for a moment. Yes, that was possible. I had been embarrassed. I had been angry. I had just set the bowls down without looking and had rushed away.

“Now Pierre, are you sure about the gestures. Are you sure that they reached out. Were they not, perhaps, pointing?”

“Now that you mention it Madame, they may have been pointing at each other.”

“Good, good, the Police will want to know that. Remember that when you talk to them. And what did they say? The Police will want to know that too. Try to recall everything that they said.”

“They didn’t say much, Madame. When you left M. Noir said, forgive me Madame, he said ‘Ha. The old cow can’t even serve the soup correctly.’ Then M. Rouge poured the wine and M. Noir thanked him. That was it.”

I didn’t appreciate “old cow” but I did not remark on it. It was important that Pierre get his story straight.

“What about when they were dying. You said they choked, each of them. Did they say anything? Did they try to say anything?”

“I’m not sure, Madame. It seemed as though they were saying something but I wasn’t sure what it was.”

“Could have it been ‘you’? Could they have been pointing and saying ‘you’?”

Pierre brightened. “Yes Madame. Now that you mention it, they could have been.”

“Very good. You must remember all of this for the police. They will want to know everything, where you stood, where you moved, and what everybody said and did.”

I had no sooner finished rehearsing Pierre when the police arrived with their ambulances and their little cars with the flashing lights. Inspector Fournier was with them. I was not surprised. This was an important matter. Inspector Fournier is a pig but he is a very important pig and he is always there for important matters.

The doctor, he looks at the dead men and listens to what happened. He sniffs the wine glasses and the soup bowls. He scowls. He says in a very official tone, “These men were poisoned.” Me, I am not surprised. Men do not fall dead at their dinner table just like that. Maybe one, yes, but not two at a time.

Things happened very fast then. Policemen were rushing every where, taking samples of every thing. My poor patrons, their dinners were ruined. My chef, he was in tears. The bodies were packed away. Policemen took notes. Pierre and I, we must tell our stories over and over. It was all very terrible. I knew that I would be ruined. Who would come to a restaurant where the patrons are poisoned?

Inspector Fournier pulled me aside. “Marie,” he said, “this is very bad. The doctor is certain that they were poisoned. I must tell you that every one is under suspicion, even you. If there is anything you know, anything you suspect, you must tell me now.”

I say to him, “Inspector, there is something you should know. Many years ago, when I was first come to Paris, I was a waitress in a sidewalk café. I was there when M. Rouge and M. Noir had their famous quarrel. And I tell you it was twenty years ago to this very day.”

“And how do you know that, Marie?”

“The date, it is engraved in my mind. I had been at the café for exactly one year and Claude was having a little party for me. It was to be a happy moment and all was ruined when M. Rouge and M. Noir had their quarrel. Never do I forget that quarrel. They scream and they shout. Each swears the other has offered the mortal insult.”

“And so?”

“Inspector, I know these gentlemen. They are fine, they are civilized, but they do not forgive and forget. They have long memories, these gentlemen. And now I tell you something. M. Rouge, he has lunch with me last Friday and he says to me, ‘Always remember, Marie, vengeance is a dinner best served cold.’ And then M. Noir, he has lunch with me Monday, and he too says ‘vengeance is a dinner best served cold.’ Me, I do not know what they were talking about but now maybe I think I do.”

Inspector Fournier looked startled. “Are you suggesting?”

“Me, I suggest nothing. I am not a policeman. I know nothing of these matters. But I thought you ought to know.”

Inspector Fournier looked very thoughtful. I knew what he was thinking. Many years ago he worked with the great Belgian detective. The inspector, he thinks that he too is a great detective, a master of the psychology. He is a great one for identifying the psychological moment. After thinking for a bit he goes over with me very carefully how the soup got switched. I tell him that M. Noir makes his crude remark just at the wrong time so that when I set the bowls down they are in the wrong place. The inspector, he makes the long face at this and writes many notes in his little notebook.

In the end they all go away, the doctor, the police, and even the inspector. And my patrons. I worry. Will I ever see them again? I tell the staff that we shall be closed for a week. Who can work, who can serve a fine dinner when one is worrying about the police? Besides, who will dine in such a place where people are poisoned? My staff, I worry about them. What are the police thinking? And me, even I am under suspicion. This, the inspector has told me. I put up the sign saying “Closed due to a death”. No need to say whose death.

Three days go by and then four. The inspector, he comes to see me. “Marie,” he says, “you may stop worrying. The case is solved.” I can see that he is proud of himself, that he wants to explain, so I ask him to explain.

“This is the strangest case I have ever worked on. I have to tell you, Marie, that at first I suspected either you or your chef. Who, after all, had access to the food besides you two? It was only after you spoke to me that I realized that there two other people who had access to the food, the victims themselves. It seemed unlikely that they had killed themselves but a good detective must consider every possibility.

Naturally we made inquiries about the character and habits of you and Claude. Both of you, I must say, have impeccable characters. Your dossiers are clean with no indication of mental instability. There is no record of either of you having a relationship with the victims outside of the restaurant. You were not cleared of suspicion but it was necessary to consider other possibilities. Had one of them poisoned the other and then inadvertently poisoned himself? Had an outsider introduced poison into the facilities, perhaps in the wine?

To answer these questions I needed the toxicology reports. These told me something quite remarkable. The soup in the kitchen was not poisoned nor was the bottle of wine. No, M. Noir’s glass of wine was poisoned but not M. Rouge’s. Likewise M. Rouge’s soup was poisoned and not M. Noir’s.

The truly remarkable thing, however, was that each was poisoned with a different poison! Both poisons are medicines that one can obtain from a chemist on prescription. They have similar effects but they are slightly different. And both were in the form of powders that one can dissolve in a liquid such as wine or soup.

This was the puzzle I had to solve. How could such a thing be? Clearly the victims themselves must have been involved; there was no way you could have poisoned their wine. What is more, it was patent that there were two different murderers here. We know this because two different poisons were used. A single killer would have used a single poison.

But how could this be? Could they have poisoned each other? Fortunately I had taken very careful notes and it was possible to make a precise reconstruction of the fatal events. Here, Marie, you were very helpful to me. This is what happened:

You seated the two gentlemen. Each has secreted on his person a packet of poison. I am sorry to say this but M. Noir manipulated you very cleverly. Just as you were about to set down the soup he made the remarked that infuriated you. This he knew how to do. He did it just at a moment when the bowls would be in the wrong places. He was very clever, this M. Noir, a master of the psychological moment. However I, Inspector Fournier, am also a master of the psychological moment and I comprehend his trick. You sat the bowls done and rushed away. This gives occasion to switch the bowls. While he is doing this he slips the fatal powder into the soup. Little does he know that M. Rouge is slipping poison into his glass as the wine is being poured.

They taste their soup and sip their wine. The poison affects M. Noir first. He realizes that he has been poisoned. He knows that M. Rouge has done it. He points and gets out one word of accusation and then dies. M. Rouge is very pleased with himself for a moment and then realizes that he, too, has been poisoned. He too points the finger of accusation and then dies.

This was my reconstruction. Was it possible? So it seemed, but a good detective does not depend on theory alone; he demands evidence. Did I have that evidence? Yes, I did!

Two packets were found under the table, each containing traces of poison. My men located the chemist who sold them the poisons. The chemist identified the two men who bought the poisons. They were M. Rouge and M. Noir.

And so I knew what happened. But what was the motive for this strange double murder? It was revenge, revenge most cold. It was the anniversary of their quarrel that set the date. Both were literary men. It suited their sense of irony that their revenge was to have indeed been achieved in a dinner served cold, one using the cold wine and the other the cold soup.”

I thank him and he pats my hand. He is a great one for patting females. It was good to know the truth, good to know that none of my staff were murderers. I called my staff and reopened. I was afraid that business would be slow but it was not the case. All my old patrons were curious. They all wanted to gossip about the sensational double murder. I make a little museum of my parlor and fools come to see. And so it all ended well.

Inspector Fournier is a fool. As the great Belgian said, never does he ask the right question. He does not reflect that this double murder is most improbable. He does not think that it is only my word that these conversations ever took place. He does not think that the glass could have been poisoned before wine was poured into it. He does not think that anyone could have placed those packets at the table. He does not think that it is I who chose to be insulted and run away, knowing that M. Noir always makes crude remarks. He does not think to check who is the mistress of the chemist who says he sold the poisons. Above all he does not ask about a young girl, fresh in Paris, who is seduced by first one literary gentleman and then another, who is callously discarded by each, a young girl who is a waitress in a sidewalk café where aspiring literary gentlemen dine, a young girl who rises to own her own restaurant, a young girl who does not forgive and forget. No, he does not ask. And so I am well satisfied.

Vengeance is a dinner best served cold.

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This page was last updated March 12, 1998.
Copyright © 1998 by Richard Harter