Word that West had been hired on at Under Locke & Quiche spread through the town faster than Tina Pope’s cold had the previous spring. Business didn’t immediately pick up though; it took a few brave souls to go in to confirm that he wasn’t serving up flavoured poison and come out, not only alive, but praising his cooking like he was the second coming of Julia Child.
“I don’t know what he puts in that salad dressing but he could pour me a glass and I’d drink it right up!”
“Yes, Mama – you’re still the best cook in town. It’s just that my chicken burger was like really good. Maybe you could ask him for the recipe?”
“Damn, woman! Why doesn’t your soup taste like this?”
Within a week the restaurant was near capacity every night and most lunch hours. A few days after that Will and Leah began to consider setting up a reservation system, which would have made it the first in the town. They ended up discarding the idea as they didn’t want the older clientele thinking the place had grown too upscale but they were still damn pleased by the sudden increase in profits.
Through all of this West remained a solitary figure outside of work – some might have said inside the restaurant as well, if they were certain he wasn’t within a mile of the conversation. He did not attempt to make any friends and he was rarely seen anywhere besides the kitchen and his apartment. Except on Sundays, the one day of the week the Quiche was closed.
Every holy day, as the faithful were gathering to be preached at by Father Nigel, West would be seen driving his convertible down Main Street as he headed out of town. He would return around sundown and seemed to bring nothing back with him. No one knew where he went on his road trips and no one dared to ask. Which, of course, only led to more speculation about Locke’s newest arrival and what sort of evil deeds he got up to instead of attending church.
“This is getting ridiculous,” Will told Leah over dinner one Sunday night. They were eating on the sun-battered picnic table they’d rescued from the dump and had erected in the backyard. “Did you hear Doug Mather tell Terry Givens that he should check West’s odometer before he leaves and after he comes back to see how far he’s going?”
“Everybody just wants to be the one to solve the mystery that is West,” Leah replied as she reached for her glass of lemonade. She pressed it to her forehead, the ice cubes clicking gently against each other, and added, “They don’t mean any harm by it, you know that. As soon as they figure him out they’ll accept him as one of their own and leave him be.”
“You really believe that? I think he’s too different to be accepted by anyone here. Maybe by anyone anywhere. Maybe that’s why he keeps us at a distance, so that he can keep moving from place to place without anything tying him down.”
“Give me five minutes alone with him,” Leah said with a mischievous sparkle in her eyes, “and I’ll have him tied down no problem.”
“Somehow,” Will replied with an amused shake of his head, “I doubt that.”
“Hey, just because you don’t think I’m attractive doesn’t mean the rest of the men on this planet agree with you.”
“Don’t start that again,” Will said with a roll of his eyes. “I know you’re just fishing for compliments.”
“Guilty as charged,” she said with a slight shrug. “So, getting back to Inky.”
“I’m allowed to have a pet name for my prey, alright? Anyway. I think we should make more of an effort to include him in things. If we wait around for him to come to us we might as well expect fish to jump out of the ocean, walk to our kitchen, and flop into the ovens.”
“Maybe not getting mixed up in his affairs is for the best,” he countered, skewering a cube of roasted squash with his fork before bringing it to his mouth. “He may be a great chef but that doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous. The man obviously has a history.”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Leah said as she looked away in disgust. “And who are we to judge a man by his past, especially when we don’t even know what that past is! You’re being as ridiculous as all the old gossips at church.”
“So what do you propose?” Will asked without enthusiasm.
“Let’s have a staff party next Sunday afternoon,” Leah said, resting her elbows on the table as she leaned toward her business partner. “We can celebrate this crazy upswing in business and everybody can get to know each other a little bit. Maybe we can play some of those stupid team building games they taught you in university!”
“I don’t know,” Will said slowly, “I don’t want to drag people into the restaurant on their one day off…”
“That’s why we won’t do it at the Quiche,” Leah said with a triumphant smile. Will knew what was coming next but felt powerless to stop it. “We’ll host it here!”
“Well we can suggest it tomorrow,” Will said, recognizing defeat when he saw it. “But if nobody is interested don’t say I didn’t warn you. Especially West.”
But when Leah announced the event the next day just before the front doors were unlocked to welcome the lunch hour rush, West surprised everyone by not only being the first to agree to come, but by volunteering to bring appetizers as well.
The rest of the staff, after a brief moment of shock, rushed to add their names to the attendee list before the meeting was adjourned. Will suspected that they did so more out of fear of offending their chef rather than a real desire to give up their Sunday afternoon but kept that to himself.
“See?” Leah asked him with a knowing smile after everyone had departed to their posts. “He was just waiting for an invitation – maybe he’s really shy and insecure under all that muscle and ink. This is going to be such a great get together!”
Will didn’t think that West was the kind of man that needed an invite before making himself at home but he tried to be an optimist. After all, he thought bleakly, what was the worst that could happen?