"Waiter! There's a Clue in My Soup!"

A Happy Diner Puzzle Mystery

by Camille LaGuire

Lt. Sophie Trent called to the waiter for a BLT on wheat and found herself a seat in the nearly empty back corner of the deli. The only other customer was a balding man who was deeply involved with his chicken salad sandwich. Sophie often saw him at the deli, and he was always so pleasantly intent on what he was eating. She smiled and wished she could be as oblivious and happy with her own sandwich. But it wasn't to be. This was a working lunch.

Detective LaRue arrived, and sat across from her, his brow furrowed.

"Bad news, lieutenant," he said. "She was poisoned, with arsenic, but they didn't find...."

"Wait a minute," said Sophie. "I've been out of the loop. Catch me up on all of it."

"Yes, ma'am," said LaRue. He paused to call for a pastrami on rye and then turned back to her. He didn't refer to his notes, but LaRue never had to. "The victim, Ada Maxwell, died of arsenic poisoning. M.E. and witness accounts puts the ingestion around dinner time. She'd had dinner in her hotel room with five friends--three local, and two staying at the same hotel. They were organizers for a class reunion this weekend. They got the food at a local Chinese restaurant, the Golden Noodle. She and a guy named Robert Thompson got the food and brought it back."

"Chinese food. Did they share it?"

"Some did, some didn't. You don't want me to go through that, do you? Because it's tricky and it doesn't...."

"Just give me the story, and then your conclusions."

"Okay. Everybody shared the entrees but Thompson, who didn't like Mu Shu Pork or Szechwan Chicken, so he had the Beef Chop Suey all to himself. A woman named Tina Low picked out the peanuts in the chicken, and Moira Tagget didn't eat the eggrolls. Joe Lathen ate Tagget's eggroll, and the other guy, Hank Vorlach, didn't order soup. Other than him, they each had their own soup, and they each had their own eggroll. The eggrolls and soup were only things the victim ate that the others didn't share."

"The soup sounds more likely," she said.

"Yeah, you'd think so." He paused, and she realized that there was a twist to this. Maybe she should have let him get to his conclusion in the first place. He took a breath and went on with his report. "Especially since she only ate about half of her hot and sour soup. As a matter of fact my first thought was she had an allergy to the mushrooms because she'd left most of them. They were those funny frilly ones. Look like a boxer's ear."

"Tree ears?"

"Yeah."

"But she was poisoned with arsenic."

"Yeah, no sign of allergy or any exotic poison from a mushroom, just plain old arsenic."

"And from your odd hesitation, I take it there was no arsenic in the soup?"

"Not a trace. Not an atom." He sighed and sat forward. "Not anywhere in the room. Not in the soup, not on the eggrolls or packages, not in the little packets of sauce in the trash, or on any containers or spoons. Not on the drinking glasses or the ice bucket. There was a tiny touch on one pair of chopsticks, like maybe there was a trace of it in her mouth when she was eating, but not like she picked up poisoned food with them."

"The eggrolls then. They're self-contained."

He made a face. "And hard to slip poison into. The food was in plain sight of several witnesses, so unless they were all in collusion, it would have been too hard to get it inside the eggroll. On the surface, maybe, or in the sauce or mustard, but then it would have left traces on the napkins and the paper plates."

"Could someone have brought one already prepared, and switched them?"

"Thought of that," said LaRue. "Especially with Lathan and Tagget swapping them around. But all six of them were at a meeting all afternoon, and so if somebody smuggled in an eggroll, it was stale, and apparently the victim had commented on how hot and fresh the eggrolls were."

"Okay, we leave the food. How else could she have ingested it?"

"There weren't any other consumables in the place. I'd say somebody convinced her to take a pill, but everybody left together. She said she didn't feel well as they were leaving. It sounds like the symptoms had already started."

"Poisoned antacids?"

"Nothing in the room. Not even aspirin. Her friends said that she didn't like pills, so it wasn't unusual. And the M. E. thinks the timing would put the poisoning during or shortly before dinner, and all of the witnesses were together at some sort of pre-party meeting, and she had answered questions for two hours, so she didn't have the chance to eat anything before dinner."

"It's odd that there's nothing in the room with traces of arsenic," she said. "Maybe the perp came back later...."

"...and took the evidence with him," said LaRue, and he nodded. "Yeah, I thought of that, and maybe it's so, but nobody saw anyone come back later, and we can't figure out what is missing. There are the right number of containers, spoons, forks, chopsticks, mustard and sweet and sour packets in the trash. When we get a lead on what it was, we'll follow it. Right now we're tracking motives, and there seems to be enough to go around there."

Their sandwiches arrived, and Sophie bit into her BLT, while mentally chewing on LaRue's report.

"Maybe...," said Sophie, pausing to put down her sandwich. "Maybe it wasn't any of them."

"Suicide?"

"Or maybe the guy who made that eggroll."

"At the restaurant? He'd have no way of knowing who ate it."

"Product tampering. It's been done before. An employee out to get the boss. Some passive aggressive psychopath who just wants to read about it in the papers."

"Don't those guys usually poison a lot of people?"

"Not necessarily. Not all at once."

LaRue nibbled on a pickle and then started to wave it at her, but instead he scowled at something over her shoulder.

"Excuse me," interrupted a quiet voice. The balding guy from the corner was next to their table, his hands clasped in front of him. "If you don't mind...."

"Yes?" said Sophie, wondering what he wanted. He took her word as an invitation, and drew up a chair to sit between them.

"It wasn't Mrs. Pham. She would not poison an eggroll, and she rolls them all herself. The Golden Noodle is strictly a mom and pop joint. They don't have any employees. The Phams are cheap, but they're decent people, and if you order the Vietnamese food, it's really good. I don't see them poisoning a perfectly good eggroll."

He looked at them earnestly. LaRue had his mouth open, ready to send the man on his way, but he had paused, and his eyes met Sophie's.

"You know the people who own the Golden Noodle?" said LaRue.

"Well, yes," he said, and he shrugged and shifted in his chair. "Their pho is pretty good, and you won't find a better Vietnamese crepe anywhere. I'll bet you a plate of ribs from the Old Kentucky Grill that it has nothing to do with the food from the Golden Noodle."

LaRue sighed and glanced at Sophie.

"Do you know them?" he said. "Or do you just like their food?"

"Well, not their Chinese food. They're cheap with it, which is the point," said the man from the corner earnestly.

"What point?"

"You said the hot and sour soup had tree ear fungus in it," he said. "Like a boxer's ear, so it was whole tree ears."

"Yeah. I guess," said LaRue.

"Then it didn't come from the Golden Noodle."

"All the food came from the Golden Noodle," said LaRue. "That's all that was in the room. We checked."

The man shook his head with certainty. "The Golden Noodle uses little shreds of fungus, and not much of those. It's cheap that way. The only place in town that uses whole tree ears right now is Dynasty Garden. Lovely stuff. They use duck broth, with a little hoisin...."

Sophie looked at LaRue, who put a hand to his forehead and screwed his jaw sideways as he saw what it meant too.

"The killer came back with another carton of soup," said Sophie, "and took the poisoned one away, with the spoon and all."

"Exactly," said the man, who stood up. "Now, all you have to do is take a picture of that Mr. Thompson to Dynasty Garden, and I'll bet they recognize him. The woman that works the cash register is very sharp...."

"Thompson? Where did you get that?"

The man blinked at them.

"Isn't it obvious? Anybody else could have gone back to the Golden Noodle. But you said Thompson had just picked up food from there. They would have noticed if he came in twice. He's the only one who had to go someplace else." He sighed, and glanced around, and leaned in. "Besides... you'll think I'm a terrible snob, and I am, but.... Clearly the killer was not a gourmet. He had to eat some of that soup to make it look like she'd eaten it, and he didn't eat the tree ears, which are the best part." He lowered his voice earnestly. "Mr. Thompson doesn't like good food. He ordered...chop suey."

He straightened and nodded a farewell, then called to the waiter for more cole slaw, and returned to his sandwich.

Sophie and LaRue stared at one another for a moment.

"You think he's right?" said Sophie.

"Yeah, he could be" said LaRue, darkly. "Thompson's top of my list."

"Well, obviously," said Sophie. "Anybody who likes chop suey must be a killer."

"Hey, I like chop suey!" LaRue sat up straight.

"Everybody's got their flaws," said Sophie. "Come on, eat up. We've got the real detective work to do."

The End

Zingerman's BLT