Welcome to Sucky Story Sunday, where my goal is to prove Ray Bradbury wrong and write 52 bad stories.
This week’s prompts:
An unlikely secret agent
Runs into an ex
The Damn Dam
Another school bus pulled into the drop-off lane in front of the elementary school. Brad readjusted his white chef’s coat and watched as the passengers got off the bus. Not all were school children. Adults and families, all soaking wet and shivering, moved slowly from the bus to the school. A couple of Red Cross volunteers guided them into the building.
“Count is probably 380 with this load,” Warren, the head of the emergency management team, said. “I think, though, you should plan on cooking for 500. There are going to be more. We will max out soon.” He turned and offered a dark hand to Brad. “Sure appreciate you doing this. I think the school cafeteria team is seriously overwhelmed.”
Brad nodded. “What else would I do? I’m stuck here like everyone else.” His house, car, and restaurant were most likely all underwater. “Henry is with the cafeteria manager, seeing what is available. We will get something together for dinner around 5?”
“5 would be great. There are a lot of families with young children, so if you can make something most people eat and not one of your fancy chef meals….” Warren wagged his finger.
“All depends on what is here.” Brad turned to go into the school.
“We should be getting some food and supplies via helicopter soon. Government commodities, and things like that.
Brad went into the school and walked down the hall to the cafeteria. Just a few hours ago, this place was empty; it was the last place anyone would want to be on a bright summer day, even if it was air-conditioned. The normally shiny floors were covered with mud and water. Footprints of all sizes led the way to the gymnasium. There were also wheel marks, where carts from the Red Cross filled with cots and sleeping bags were pushed in. Brad wasn’t sure 500 people would fit in the gym, but Warren had mentioned that some would get to sleep in some of the bigger classrooms as well. There were a few cots set up in the dry storage for the cafeteria staff, along with Bran and his prep cook, Henry, as well.
There were raised voices coming from the kitchen. One of them was Henry’s. Great. Brad walked into the kitchen where Henry was towering over a petite Latina.
“What do you mean, the fucking braiser doesn’t work?” Henry pounded a pastry cart and sent it rolling over to Brad.
“We don’t cook here. We heat up the pans from the main kitchen. I told you, all we use is the oven and the microwave. They work.”
“The main kitchen is under 12 feet of water, like everything else in the fucking town. A lot of good that will do us.”
Brad put his hand on Henry’s shoulder. “You’re not totally wrong. But I dare say it’s not Miss….” He looked at the woman, who had taken a couple of steps back from Henry. A piece of her hair had gotten out of her bun, and she tucked it behind her ear, and it popped right back to her face.
“Maisie. Maisie Rodriguez.”
“It’s not Miss Rodriguez’s fault.” He nodded at her. “Let’s try to do something useful. Maybe fix the braiser? We need to be able to serve dinner at five today.”
Henry walked in a circle. “Serve? Serve what? Fried cockroaches? No, wait. All we have is an oven. Baked roaches.”
“My kitchen is clean – you will not find roaches here, you..” Maisie stepped up to Henry, fists balled up at her side.
Brad put his arms out. “Look, we are not going to get anywhere fighting. Warren said the Red Cross has some commodities coming. Is there anything in the cooler, freezer, or dry storage?”
Maisie took a deep breath. “There is flour. Some peanut butter, but we never use it because of allergies.”
Brad clapped his hands together. “Great start, we can start making bread.”
“Um, yeast? Salt?” Henry asked.
Brad looked at Maisie, who shook her head. “We should have salt, but….”
“Ok. All right then.” Brad looked around the kitchen. “There are some houses around the school. Maybe someone has a few packets of yeast. I can go ask Warren to send some people around to ask.” Brad didn’t think it would help, but at least it was something to do, right?
An hour later, a tall brunette walked in, holding a Costco-sized container of yeast above her head like one of those wrestling belts. “Do I win a prize?” She was smiling until she turned and saw Brad.
Brad could only stare. How many years has it been? Eight? Nine? “Elena, I didn’t know you were here in town.” He looked around. Henry and Maisie were out canvassing the neighbors and weren’t back yet. He was glad they were alone.
She didn’t move any closer. Brad wished she would hug him. She had always been a hugger. He inhaled, trying to smell if she still wore that same perfume, Clinique Happy. He knew the name because he bought her a bottle for her birthday,
“Just a few months. I made it right on time for all this fun, right?” She smiled again. “I am working on the bank audit.”
“Still working for the government, then?” Brad tried to remember. After they graduated, she had gone on to get an MBA at Georgetown and then immediately got a federal job, accounting for some agency.
“Yes. I know it isn’t exciting, like being an executive chef, but it’s a living.”
“Executive chef in a podunk Texas town.” Brad rubbed his nose.”Got tired of Austin and the big city. There is such a thing as too much excitement.”
“Such as what, a dam failure?”
“Exactly.” Brad wanted to ask her about her life. Did she sleep alone? Did she still have that dog? How were her parents? Any children? But Henry and Maisie came in the back door. They were obviously getting along better.
“Big load of something just dropped in. FEMA, the box said.” Henry pointed up at the ceiling.
“Warren said that they would be dropping supplies. We should go check it out and see what we can do with it.” Brad looked at his little team. “Henry, if you can see if you can get the brasier going, and Maisie, we have yeast, so if you can get some bread going, that would be great. Do you need a recipe?”
“I may have some cookbooks in the office.” Maisie started walking to the office at the side of the dishwashing station.
“I saw food for fifty in there, that could have something,” Brad called after her. He held his hand out to Elena. “Why don’t you come with me to check the FEMA delivery. I need someone who can count.”
Elena shook her head but followed him.
Warren was standing next to the container. It looked like one of those PODS that people got to keep their furniture in while the house was being renovated. Warren had already unlocked the door and had it opened. He handed Brad a flashlight. “I hope this is useful.”
“Right now, all we have is bread and water, so yeah, I think it will help.” Brad walked into the pod and Elena was right behind him.
“Ugh, what IS this?” Elena handed Brad a silver can. It had no paper label, but a black cow was printed on the side.
“I think I would guess it is some kind of beef.”
“Duh,” Elena said, “But really, they expect us to eat canned cow?”
Brad reached into a box and pulled out some canned tomatoes. “It will put some protein in the spaghetti sauce.”
“You’d have to be a magician to make this stuff taste good.” She was surrounded by packages labeled, Butter, Cheddar Cheese, Peanut Butter, Pasta, and of course, Cow.
“Believe it or not, I learned a few things at the CIA.” He emptied a box and started refilling it with the things needed to make spaghetti. Depending on the spices available, he thought he could come up with some comfort food.
Elena was quiet. She was just staring at him.
“What? What did I do?” She used to do that back when they were dating in college. She would just stare and wait for him to say something.
“I just didn’t know you were with the CIA also.” Her eyebrows were arched. “How long?”
Brad was just as surprised. He had no idea that Elena would have gone to the Institute. “I went right after my bachelor’s. I realized that I loved cooking more than crunching numbers in an office.”
Elena stared at him. “Cooking?”
“Yeah. CIA – The Culinary Institute of America. What other CIA is there?” He paused, “I mean besides the spies?”
Elena looked down at the canned cow. She ran her fingers along the top of the row of cans.
“Wait, you work for THAT CIA? So are you in town on a mission or something?”
“Lower your voice!” Elena said in a loud whisper.
“Right, if you tell me, you’ll have to kill me, won’t you?” Brad smiled, hoping he really was just kidding.
“No, but you could put you, me, and everyone at this shelter in danger.” Elena went to the entrance of the pod and pulled the doors shut.
Brad stared at her. “What does the CIA have to do in this little town? Are there Russian spies in the carpool line?” Elena was a bit dramatic in college, one of the things that initially drew him to her. It was also one of the reasons they ended it a month after graduation.
“I’m a forensic accountant, auditing the Second State Bank. You joke, but ever wonder how that little, independently owned bank has so much money to finance things like your restaurant, the little boutique next door, and that chocolate shop?”
“It’s called investments, Elena. We took that class together.”
“All of those businesses are losing money. Even your precious Chez Françoise. God, that has got to be the most pretentious name for a restaurant.”
Brad shook his head. “I suppose you think the town would flock to Brad’s Place?”
“Make a good chicken-fried steak, and yeah, this town would.” She kept looking at the door.
“No one is spying on us, Elena. We need to get this food to the kitchen. We can play James Bond later after the dishes are washed.” He picked up the box with the canned beef and tomatoes. “Get the spaghetti, will you? I don’t think money laundering is an issue anymore. Everything downtown, including my restaurant, the bank, and the county office, is under twelve feet of water.”
Elena picked up a couple of cases of spaghetti. “And why is that? You don’t see any coincidences that the dam would just completely fail like that and flood the entire town.”
Brad pushed the pod door open and started walking to the school. Drama Queen. She always was. And it always revolved around her. Of course she would be a secret agent at the CIA and her life was in danger. She lived for that shit. He opened the door to the school with his foot, and leaned on it, holding it for her as she passed by with the pasta. “So, are you armed?”
She sighed. “I’m a forensic accountant. They give me a calculator and a laptop with Microsoft Excel.”
“Great, if something bad happens, you can parse it?” He watched her walk in front of him.
“I find Pivot Charts are best.” She tossed that over her shoulder.
He did miss the banter.
By the time they got back to the kitchen, Henry had somehow managed to fix the brazier and Maisie had pans of bread dough all over one of the tables trying to rise. Progress. Brad and Henry immediately started getting the meal together. After years of working together, they moved like a team of ice dancers – moves coordinated and well-timed. By the time they were to serve, the kitchen smelled of garlic and olive oil, grilled meat, and freshly baked bread. Brad glanced over at Elena, who was slicing bread and dashed to her side.
“Are you trying to lose all your fingers?” He took the sharp knife away from her. Since the cafeteria staff did not really cook, it hadn’t taken Brad but a minute to get the knives sharp. He grabbed a loaf and put it on the cutting board. He put his left hand on the bread and tucked his fingers back, resting his knuckles against the side of the blade. “If you had gone to the right CIA, you would know how to slice bread.”
Elena glared at him. “Shut up. Don’t say anything about that.”
Henry had been passing by, carrying pans of meat sauce to the serving line. “Is there another CIA? Surely you can’t have gone to Johnson and Wales. That’s like telling a Longhorn you went to A&M around here.”
“Henry is not here to assassinate you,” Brad whispered. “He has been my prep cook since school. He’s my best friend.”
She didn’t make eye contact with him. “Until the cell phone services or landline phone service is restored, I am alone, with no backup, no support. We have no way of knowing yet if the dam failed on its own or if there was help.”
“Elena, no one caused a dam failure to get to you.” Drama queen, even now.
“Not to get to me. To hide what they are doing. Do you realize that paper records at the bank are now destroyed? As well as the county court, the city hall, the title company?”
“Important things are online, in the cloud. Welcome to the 2020’s”
“Look at where you are. These people don’t trust the cloud, they can’t see it. This is a paper records kind of place. That’s why it was chosen as the bank of choice. An independent, paper-based bank is perfect for money laundering. Much easier to keep a double set of books and make ‘corrections’ to documents.”
“Tell you what. Let’s get these good people dinner, and let them eat some comfort food, and after we are all cleaned up and fed ourselves, you can tell me what backwater losers they are?” These were the people who came to Brad’s restaurant for the big events in their lives – weddings, birthdays, engagements, proms, graduations. And now it looked like most of them have lost everything. Just like him. Did Elena think he was a backwater loser as well? Did she think she dodged a bullet when they broke up after college?
Three hours later, they were finally done serving, eating, and cleaning up. Maisie had likened it to the loaves and the fishes in the Bible – Everyone had plenty to eat, and there were now pans of leftovers in one of the coolers.
Brad was already planning for the next meal. “We could do pancakes. They are quick and easy and kids like them.” He still their faces in his mind as the families had passed through the cafeteria line. It was one thing to lose everything to a disaster like this at his age, 38. It was totally different to lose everything at 8. He had watched Maisie, serving the spaghetti. She did hold up the line, visiting with the families, asking them if they had someplace to go next, sneaking kids a little extra spaghetti. Elena, who was next to her scooping the sauce, would tap her spoon on the metal pans, not hiding her impatience. She never could hide her emotions, how in the world did she get a job where she was supposedly undercover. Brad didn’t remember her ever lying to him about big things, but he was starting to have some doubts about her CIA story.
First of all, if she was undercover, would she be using her real name? Or did he blow her cover by being her ex and calling her by her real name? On the other hand, her utter disconnect from the situation at hand, her lack of empathy for these families, ate at Brad. Did he really date someone this cold for two years? How had he not seen this in college?
“Your college girlfriend, eh?” Henry asked as he slung a 50-pound sack of flour on the work table. “Not quite someone that I would picture you with.”
“What makes you say that?”
Henry tilted his head to the back door of the kitchen, where Elena was messing with her phone. She was typing madly. “Just the vibe. She doesn’t like people very much.”
Brad glanced at his iPhone. He did not have service yet. Maybe the CIA gave her a satellite phone? “We met in freshman accounting. She always did better with numbers than people.”
“Damn, if I was a spreadsheet, I would be afraid of her too.” Henry laughed. “So, should I go ahead and get the dry ingredients all set for the morning? I think future us will appreciate it in the morning” Henry slapped the bag of flour.
“Good thinking. I will go check with Warren to see what time he wants us to have breakfast ready. Hopefully, we can have a longer serve time. Some people may need to sleep in later. Then we can figure out tomorrow.”
Henry nodded.”There’s enough stuff to make tomato soup and grilled cheese with a fruit salad. Just need to deal with bread.”
“Maybe Warren can do that as well.” Brad clapped Henry on the shoulder. “Let me go find Warren.”
It wasn’t hard to find Warren. He was standing outside, alone, staring at the clear starry night. In the distance, water was lapping at the end of a neighborhood street.
Brad walked up slowly. “Beautiful night. Think anyone will sleep?”
Warren turned to him. “No, not really. It’s pretty traumatizing. FEMA is talking about counselors.”
“At this point, a few hundred loaves of bread would help more.”
Warren smiled. “I think so too. But I am not FEMA.” He pulled out a phone. “Got a call from Marty earlier. There is video. It was her.”
Brad nodded. Helping the mob launder money at a big New York Bank was one thing. But moving to this little town when the Feds were getting close was not what anyone expected of Elena. “Did he have a game plan?”
Warren was staring at his phone. “Marty is sending a team in to get her in the morning. Money laundering is small potatoes compared to domestic terrorism. We don’t know how many bodies are underwater. People will want to see justice.”
Brad could only nod.
“Marty did say that since the restaurant was destroyed, it would make it easier to extract you and Henry from the operation. You two are a good team. Who would have thought the FBI would recruit from a chef school and it work so well?”