Welcome to our first installment of Get A Clue!
So Said the Cook
by Sadie Amelia Hofmeester
Set far back from the main road was an extravagant home owned by one Mr. Greene. Lined by tall trees, the winding drive up to the property transported the driver from a rather banal country highway to a faraway land. Once one turned onto that near hidden drive, the evergreens seemed to swallow all sounds from the road and make them feel so very far away.
Resplendent with turrets and stonework, Greene’s massive home domineered the grounds — though those spilled near endlessly beyond the mansion’s backdoors. Even though the highway couldn’t be more than a 10 minute drive away, the only noise that drifted on the fir-scented air was jazz music.
Though no one seemed able to decipher how (or when exactly) Mr. Greene had accumulated his incalculable wealth, he did have rich taste in music. Anytime someone entered his foyer, a soulful jazz danced about the room. And tonight, one of his renowned soirées, was no exception.
Though Greene himself was nowhere to be seen, his guests enjoyed the jazz band situated in the music room. As Miss Scarlett swirled past the grand foyer in her crimson gown, the music seemed to follow her, folding into near every corner of the house. In the grand hall, Professor Plum pontificated about the moral quandaries of “proper” English between bites of smoked salmon canapés. Mrs. Peacock, appearing utterly enchanted by the music and some new pharmaceutical of her choosing, swayed to and fro, touching every suit pocket and dress front she could. Enamored with the textures, she lurched past the stoney faced policeman no one knew who had invited, and limpet-ed herself onto the unfortunate Mr. Wadsworth, Greene’s head butler. Especially delighted with Wadsworth’s jacket lapels, much to his chagrin, she began languorously rubbing herself on him as he precariously balanced a tray of lobster parmesan croquettes.
As the jazz quartet played tirelessly, other servers floated around the first floor with plates of the night’s delights: smoked salmon mousse canapés, Beluga Sturgeon caviar on crispy cornmeal blinis, bacon-wrapped scallops with a light lemon aioli, and the like. As with all of Mr. Greene’s many parties, this evening followed a culinary theme — tonight’s was Jewels of the Deep. As he kept a ridiculously small staff for such a large home, Greene always brought in the same catering company and gave them free rein over his kitchen, pantries, and wine cellar. He didn’t believe in food prepped in any place other than his own home, wine brought up from anywhere but his own cellar. Odd…but given his immense wealth and gregarious nature, Greene was permitted this particular flavor of eccentricity.
The music didn’t quite reach the back rooms nearest the kitchen. And the clamor within the kitchen would have outplayed a 12-piece orchestra even if it played from the stovetop. The usual hustle and bustle of a kitchen in the midst of lavish party service was accented by Colonel Mustard’s yelling. He had been in the kitchen loudly arguing with his head chef (though everyone in Greene’s house steadfastly called her the cook) for the last twenty minutes. Though her creations helped keep his catering service afloat, she could have a tongue on her — and Mustard did not take kindly to any molecule of sass.
“Sir,” she began.
“Colonel,” Mustard immediately corrected — even though no one had ever seen actual evidence to corroborate his claims of military greatness.
“Sir, I —”
“Colonel!” he shouted, slamming his fist on the counter, his performative glass of red spilling, the fine vessel shattering on the floor.
Startled, Lana began to kneel down — before something fiery stopped her. No, she would not kneel to clean this fucker’s mess! He is an arrogant pig, she thought angrily, walks throwing things around. But her stop-stutter was only momentary. She needed this job, needed this job cooking for silly people more than she needed to yell at one stupid man. So, Lana knelt to the ground and with her head bowed began picking shards of glass off of the kitchen floor.
Peering down at her from above, Mustard sputtered for a moment, apparently insulted by the mess he had just made. Eyes cast accusingly downward, Mustard declared that they (meaning her) best get a new, “better,” wine for dessert — though she had cases of aged Rutherglen Muscat set in the wine fridge hours ago to come to temperature with enough time to pour. With a huff and a grumbled, “Fix this,” Colonel Mustard indignantly stomped out of the kitchen.
Fine, she thought, why waste this glorious, rather ingenious if she said so herself, pairing of the sweet wine and enriched profiteroles on someone who wouldn’t enjoy it? In the back of Mr. Greene’s immense wine cellar, there were some ancient bottles of reject wine — bottles deemed off-putting or past their prime by Mr. Greene and his guests. She had been saving them…but perhaps she’d make the Colonel his own special drink of the evening. Let the less rude guests enjoy the sumptuous pairing — despite the fact that the wine was something she could afford. She understood that quality didn’t always mean the highest price tag — though it so often did.
Eyes smiling at the thought of the Colonel’s new “signature” cocktail, Lana prepped the eager line cook Maisley on the ganache for the profiteroles and drifted to the back of the kitchen.
Before he had interrupted her, Lana had just finished a beautiful base for her yeasted profiteroles, a glorious twist on the classic choux. The Colonel wouldn’t sample them — of course not. Why sample your own catering company’s food? But he would still claim they were terribly hard to choke down. That the dough was just wrong. And that she should really redirect her life’s goal. Hah! As if this company was her end-all be-all. She wondered if he knew who he employed (no). She wondered if he even knew her name (not likely). Or her deadly allergy to shellfish, or more accurately, the phylum mollusca (definitely not).
The music of the party and the ever-present kitchen clang faded as she neared the entry to the wine cellar through the labyrinthian back passageways. In the burgeoning quiet, Lana permitted a commiseration of sorts down memory lane.
Her life-threatening allergy to mollusca, most damningly her beloved class gastropoda, had long ago killed a child’s dream. All throughout childhood, limacology was her greatest passion: all the bright colorful poisonous things ebbing and flowing on land and sea. God, she wanted to travel the world, identify, discover, and study all the most deadly creatures: snails and slugs. She had been told all her life, a scientist can’t be surrounded by what will kill her. Even the banal Cornu aspersum, the garden snail, could do her in, let alone a conidae. Oh she could only image what a cone snail could do to her…but over and over she was discouraged, and she could admit, her parents, teachers, and advisors did have a point. She knew she would evenly crack under the pressure, snuggle one of her darlings close without the endless veneer of latex to protect her. And it would kill her. So her aspirations evolved. Early into her college career, she had settled for mycology. But oh how she bloomed! She had no regrets, though from time to time she did fantasize about what she could have done.
Her allergy had long ago stopped one dream, but it wouldn’t stop her from doing her job: pleasing the unbearable. As she began her walk down the cool cellar steps, Lana conceded that this at times insufferable job did have its perks: access. To high profile people and subsequently, even higher quality ingredients. True rare specimens. If she told the silly Colonel that some spice or herb was newly circulating the culinary market, he’d scuff and sputter, bluster about something or other they both knew held no real effect — but bags would arrive at her station the next day (or dependent on shipping, in spurts over the next few weeks). Lana hid her real desires amongst such varied meats and vegetables that she doubted Mustard of all people would catch on — especially given he knew not one lick about cooking.
But, it was he who owned the business, who knows why, that helped fund, and often directly foster, her life’s true work. She couldn’t judge him too harshly; this job was her cash cow, not her love. This paid the bills with some interesting quirks, that was all. Quirks like these never-ending series of bizarre parties at Mr. Greene’s in his house that seemed to go on forever. Unsettling quirks like seemingly innumerable rooms. She often wondered what he hid in his rooms.
Nearing the final bend of the stair, she thought, quirks like this unnecessarily winding staircase to a cellar of all places. She chuckled to herself in the damp air: not for the first time she wondered if his eccentricity was madness. And madness was charming.
She smelt the blood before she saw it. Thicker than the red wine Colonel Mustard had spilled but crawling ever outward so similarly. But her first thought was not concerning the suited body nor the blood itself. Her first thought? Slime molds. The blood pool inched along like slime molds, the very ones she studied so closely before helping publish the work that classified them as amoebas. Base saprophytic organisms, the try-hards. Protists not fungi.
When the blood crept ever closer to her shoe, she knew she had to walk away. Proceed as usual. She could not be tied to this body. So no special cocktail for the Colonel — at least not tonight. No one else should be down in the cellar for at least the rest of the evening, the soirée’s pre-approved and paired wines prepped and already waiting in the kitchen, some chilling while yet others breathed in the warmth of the bustle — in their air-filtered wine alcove, of course. Greene would never want his guests to taste unauthorized “aromas” in the wine. Especially not on a seafood night.
Her mind filled with wine and blood, Lana carefully inched backwards. Checking to make sure she hadn’t left any overtly discernible marks, she walked away from the crumpled body and climbed back up the stairs. She knew her fingerprints were in the cellar, but that was to be expected considering how many of Greene’s parties she catered (she often thought that Greene was the only reason the Colonel’s business stayed afloat).
Adrenaline pumping, Lana sealed the wine cellar with steady hands and proceeded to the pantry (the second one that is). The smell seemed to linger in her nose though the temperature controlled vault-like doors to the cellar made that impossible. Perhaps that was what made her just a bit breathless — it wasn’t the dead body. No, the death didn’t bother her, not in the slightest…it was just this house, this night, this body.
She couldn’t be tied to this body. Taking a deep breath in the long hallway, she properly schooled her face, smoothed several flyaways, and grabbed a new package of rubber gloves.
Mustard wouldn’t bother checking if she had retrieved the “right” new wine. He likely wouldn’t even partake a single sip. He would simply assume she had got it wrong. And besides, he had a terrible nose for wine. He couldn’t tell the difference between a Chilean Carménère and a premier Chateau Lafleur Bordeaux if the tannins bit him right on that florid nose.
Lana returned to the kitchen, slid on a fresh pair of gloves, and starting cleaning any remaining scallops. The clean slice and stable shuck would steady her racing heart though any line cook could ready the bivalve and the bacon wrapped scallops had left the kitchen an hour ago.
Maisley would finish off dessert. Luckily, as head chief — if that could be her title at such an organization as Colonel Mustard’s Culinary, a company whose very name lacked grammatical sense but somehow never lacked for high society friends — Lana had stopped cleaning dishes years ago. She appreciated how it saved her hands. And her time.
Nodding to Wadsworth (who had disentangled himself from Mrs. Peacock) and raising an eyebrow at the odd man with the motorcycle helmet still on his head at 11:00 PM (and partying near the servants’ quarters for some unknown reason) Lana left through the side door. Sighing in the cool night, she untied her apron, folded it while on the gravel walk, and stuck it in the back of her beat-up truck, the wheels covered in mud and the bed severely rusted. She wondered if anyone else knew as she drove out of Mr. Greene’s winding drive and headed due South.
When most people got off work, they grab a beer or go straight home. Lana goes to the nearest swamp. Or at least the closest one she hadn’t archived yet — and any surrounding the Greene mansion she had catalogued long ago. She had a great collection of places to investigate saved in her phone. The name of the Google Maps pin folder? Fun.
Some nights, skin alight with racking shivers, she would strip down to lay on the moist ground — awash with the immense connections, the webbing like neural networks in the soil. But those were special nights. Most other times, like tonight, she simply walked through the wet in her waders: cataloguing, examining, and collecting specimens.
When most people get home, they kick off their shoes and take off their jacket in some order or another. Lana always removed her shoes first, walking barefoot from the car to the front door while carrying her work shoes and wadders. The work shoes were always thrown to the side (she’d straighten them in the morning) while the waders were carefully placed in a hyper-oxygenated chamber to help initiate growing. Mini forests that is. Microcosmic woods originating from beautiful debris and spores collected on her nightly walks. Fungi really rule the forests anyway — she was never really one for the trees. Each morning, the beautiful retrieval and restoration ritual commenced: any viable fungi transferred to the nursery and the boots restored to their rightful place in the truck cab. It truly was lovely in the soft morning light, alone with her children and the birds and the breeze. She then replaces her coat with a hazmat suit, always hung neatly on the wall, and opens the mudroom door.
After her bachelor’s, Lana put all her savings into a run-down little house with black mold. Beautiful black mold…the market really undersold it, but she made a killing! And she made that little house into her sanctum.
The main entry to the house she entirely remodeled herself (minus base plumbing and electrical). The rest she left to the mushrooms (and the molds, toadstools, glomeromycota, blastoadiomycota, chytridiomycota, and microsporidia of course).
Directly off of the mudroom was a small series of narrow corridors and airtight doors with the washroom on your first right. The washroom was the only place fungus was not permitted (or actively encouraged) to grow. Outfitted with medical grade washing sinks and eye cleaning units, it had its own plumbing system. Picking the right plumber had been hard. They needed to be just the right age. And composition.
Regardless, their work paid off and laid the important foundations she built upon. She had become quite handy the past few years — no one had been granted entry into her humble abode in over six years. See, although she rarely did, people around Lana got sick. Asthmatics first. Even outside of her home, something about her presence (perhaps the spores imbedded in her hair) turned certain immunosuppressant individuals green — if someone else were to visit, who knew what would happen. Somehow, even with the precautions, her lovely children always traveled with her. But she liked always being with her little babies — her children would always be her babies no matter how much they grew. How they interacted with others rarely fazed her.
It was all fine by her. Lana didn’t need visitors, and no living eyes but her own had ever seen beyond what she considered to be the frontmatter to her home. Beyond the front door, entryway with its mudroom, oddly shaped corridors, and washroom lay the world’s largest (and only) live terrarium, unregistered as the best things are of course. Fungi covered the house. Years of decay and decomposition left various heights of rich soil on the floors (really the ground). Beetles and larvae abounded; scores lived, bred, and died in this house alone. Just last year, Lana had catalogued three new subspecies of ladybird beetle endemic to her home only. Small vegetation grew to satisfy the glomeromycota, a phylum of about 230 species of fungi that live in and amongst the root networks of trees and plants, thriving under specialized lights. The kitchen provided the hothouse to her more persnickety molds (she donated the room to the molds long ago…she did most of her edible cooking at work anyway). While the kitchen was almost all molds, the rest of the floor was unregulated (but tenderly cared for) perfection. Various phylums and species tumbled from one room into the next.
The stairs were reinforced with 3d printed honeycomb steel as the wood had rotted long ago. Because Lana couldn’t bear to deny her beautiful babies anything they yearned for, she invented the honeycomb steel design to allow for plentiful homes for her smallest of children, various microfungi and some of the microscopic fungi imperfecti. She didn’t bother patenting the design for the honeycombed steel. She had no taste for such things. Her love lay rooted in her home (and likely, her heart).
Upstairs, she had several climate controlled rooms to accommodate various biome specific fungi and the crown jewel of her humble home: the nursery. If fire erupted and was consuming all she cared about and Lana was forced to choose, the nursery would draw her attention first. The nursery was outfitted with cribs of her favorite brand: Fischer Glassware. She even had some bespoke temperature gauges and custom colored dark umber toned terrariums to resist light access. Her little babies. It was here that she crossbred the world’s most poisonous mushrooms and coaxed rare subspecies into existence:
A ghostly sect of Amanita phalloides, commonly known as Death Caps, dominated one corner of the room, the proud parents of many a bouncing baby bomb.
One of her second generation studs, a Cortinarius rubellus-orellanus cross, sired a particularly promising delayed-reaction newborn with an Autumn Skullcap dame.
Her latest Conocybe filaris and Podostroma cornu-damae (courtesy of Colonel Mustard Catering all the way from Japan) cross was nearly surpassing the toxicity of botulinum toxin — and only in infancy! Could any parent be prouder? While she loved her deadly molds (no true mother would declare a favorite child) there was something about the ascomycota and basidiomycota’s fruiting bodies that called to her (no mother would deny the unique charms amongst her different children).
Off of the nursery was her bedroom, where some of her less ambitious (deadly) children roamed. As Lana settled in for the evening, a nagging thought persisted. Even hours later, after she had brushed her teeth and finished her nightly toilette in the wetroom off of the washroom, it troubled her. As she lay on her bed of moss and thriving children that night, she wondered who had murdered the man at the party. It certainly wasn’t her.