A/N: This was an episode for virtual Season Four. Thanks to L.M. Lewis for the plot bunny!

TOO MANY CROOKS

by

Owlcroft

ACT I:

The tuxedo-uniformed waiter sidled unobtrusively over to the maitre d'. An elegant sign at the maitre's desk announced that this was Chez Pierre, and the furnishings announced that it was expensive. The waiter jerked his chin toward a table at the side of the restaurant. The maitre nodded back and strode cat-footed over to the table where a diner sitting by himself was beginning to show signs of some distress.

"Monsieur Farkas?" The maitre d' bowed ever-so-slightly, gesturing over the dishes on the table. "I trust all is well with your grouse?"

There was no reply other than a grunt from the large, swarthy man. Then he shook his head, grunted again and a look of nausea passed over his prominent features.

The maitre d' looked around quickly, then summoned a busboy with one lifted finger. Before the busboy, a smallish man with slicked back hair and white gloves, could arrive at the table, the diner – Farkas – shoved back from it hastily and fled for the back of the room, entering the door that said "Messieurs".

"Follow him," hissed the maitre to the busboy. "See that he is well, and report to me if he is not. At once!"

With an apprehensive look, the busboy headed for the men's room.

ooooo

The same busboy rode inside an ambulance, siren wailing and speed evident by the lights flashing past outside. The swarthy diner groaned and sweated on the gurney beside the busboy, then made loud retching noises.

The busboy wiped sweat away from his own forehead and glanced around the ambulance with an expression of heavy anxiety. Looking back briefly at the sick man, he closed his eyes briefly as if in prayer, muttering, "Oh, Hardcastle, you better believe me."

ooooo

McCormick took a package from the fridge and placed it on the counter. Looking down at it, he said slowly, "Don't we ever have anything but ground beef any more?"

"Huh?" Hardcastle didn't raise his eyes from the notepad in his hand. Leaning an elbow on the kitchen table, he shook his head in perplexity. "What about ground beef?"

"Are you listening to me?" McCormick prodded the plastic-wrapped beef with a forefinger. "All we have is hamburgers. Or chili. Or meatloaf. Why don't we ever have a chicken casserole or some kinda fish?"

The judge nodded absently, then tapped the notepad with his forefinger. "What's this word? Yoohoo?"

Mark peered at the page, then nodded. "Yeah, that's what I thought he said. He was kinda whispering, y'know? It was hard to make out. Why doncha just go ahead and call him and find out what it's all about. Or would he be working the tables now? Hey," his whole face lightened suddenly, "we could go down there and grab a bite instead of having . . ." A gesture indicated the despised ground beef.

"Chez Pierre? For dinner?" Hardcastle looked up at the younger man leaning against the counter. "Do you know how expensive that joint is? And we've already got some perfectly good hamburger sitting right there."

"Yeah, but in the cause of justice, huh, Judge? C'mon, I'll go saddle up the Coyote and we'll mosey on into the Pierre Saloon to find out what Fingers wants and grab us some vittles at the same time. Now go put on a sport coat and I'll put this back in the fridge for tomorrow." Mark suited his actions to his words and was out the back door while Hardcastle was still expostulating that a simple phone call might work.

ooooo

Joe Fingers, pickpocket extraordinaire, was indeed on duty at Chez Pierre, bussing tables in his elegant white gloves, but he cocked an eyebrow at the judge as he followed the maitre d' into the main dining salon. The judge and Mark were shown to a small table at the side and the slightly-built and apprehensive-looking busboy immediately appeared to pour glasses of water for them.

"What're you doing here?" he hissed out of the side of his mouth.

"Thank you," said Hardcastle politely, taking a sip of his water. "I got your message, but it didn't make any sense."

Fingers fairly dithered with agitation, then topped up Hardcastle's glass and muttered, "My break's in forty-five minutes. Meet me in the alley out back." Pasting a false smile on, he bowed slightly and made way for the waiter to take the gentlemen's order.

McCormick looked up at the waiter with a grin. "I'll have the New York cut with French fries."

The waiter looked back at him with a slight air of disdain. "I regret to say that we do not serve steaks here," he said with a frosty air. "Nor do we serve–" he shuddered a bit, "French fries."

"Since when?" demanded the judge. "When did Harry stop doing steaks for his old customers?"

"Chef Rusterman retired last month," was the response. "This is no longer Chez Petite. It is now Chez Pierre, named after our famous chef, Pierre Couteux. Would the gentlemen care to peruse the menu for a few moments?"

McCormick looked at Hardcastle, who looked back for a moment, then they both sighed. "Yeah, give us a few minutes," muttered the judge.

ooooo

"So I think what I had was some kinda chicken." Mark was scrutinizing the alley, being careful where he stepped. "The patty shells were okay, and the green beans were pretty good. How was your trout?"

Hardcastle wrinkled his nose and peered around an aromatic dumpster. "Kinda fishy, just like this whole situation."

The rear door to Chez Pierre opened just a bit and a narrow face peered out. Seeing the twosome waiting for him, Fingers sidled through the door, closed it and ushered them back down the alley.

"Listen," he whispered, "I don't know what to do, but I'm not gonna take the rap for any funny business going on here. Just 'cause I got a record, they think they can pin it on me."

The judge eyed him darkly. "You might wanna back up and start at the beginning, Joe. And hey, how come Harry retired? I thought he was a part-owner here."

"Yeah, yeah." Joe Fingers shuffled a bit and glanced back over his shoulder at the restaurant door. "Harry left a few weeks ago, forced out, I think. Jacques – the owner, Jacques Mon D'Or – told him he had a new chef who wanted to learn from Harry, but the new guy – Pierre Couteux – kept changing stuff and making Harry crazy. Different entrees, different desserts, he even brought in some new maitre d' who doesn't know his elbow from a hole in the ground. We were all going nuts for a couple of weeks, Judge. Customers leaving, dishes being sent back to the kitchen 'cause they were overdone or underdone or just plain awful."

Joe stopped talking and looked at the other two sideways. "How were your dinners? Not that great, right? You shoulda had the Perdrix en Casserole. All the food's gone downhill since Harry left, but at least the partridge is usually okay. I don't know what's going on, but there's something really wrong here now."

McCormick held up a hand to stem the flow a bit. "Look, it's too bad about the food, but there's not a lot we can do for you in that area, Joe. I mean, when the Lone Ranger rides the range, it's the open range, not the kitchen range."

Fingers shook his head and shot another look behind him, sidling nervously. "You haven't heard the worst of it. Two nights ago, we had a guy get poisoned! Right here! Now he's claiming it was intentional, and you know who's going to be get pointed at when he brings the cops around – me!"

"Hold on, Joe." Now it was Hardcastle putting a palm up. "One of your customers was poisoned? By the food here?"

"Yeah! He was just looking at the dessert menu when he started shaking and he turned pale and ran into the Gents to heave. Henri, the new maitre d', sent me in after him to see if was all right, and he sure wasn't! We called for an ambulance and Henri told me to go with him to make sure he was okay, but the docs pumped his stomach and said he could've died from eating yew berries and that we were real lucky to get him there in time." Fingers spread his hands and look at the judge imploringly. "So you tell me who's going to be suspected of putting yew berries on his plate as a garnish. Huh? Who else but yours truly!"

"Yew berries, not yoohoo," murmured McCormick.

The judge waved him to silence, then asked Fingers, "Well, who is this guy? The victim, I mean. Does he have any history with anybody here? And who served him his food?"

"Bernard did," Joe answered the last question first. "He had roasted grouse fed on wild blueberries with wild rice stuffing and morel mushrooms in a cream reduction. None of that has ever made him sick before."

Mark cocked an eyebrow at that. "So he's eaten here before?"

"Oh, yeah. Three or four times a week. The guy's famous for being a gourmet. You must have heard of Ross Z. Farkas, right?"

Hardcastle frowned. "That guy who writes the monthly restaurant review in the paper; 'Phooeys and Fanfares'? He's the one who got sick?"

Fingers nodded emphatically. "Yeah, him. And nobody ever put yew berries on anything, Judge. But he ate three of them with the grouse. And Bernard's almost as worried as I am, 'cause he served Farkas."

"There any way he could have a motive for it?" The judge rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Is there anybody here that knows Farkas and would have a reason to poison him?"

"Well, Farkas never leaves more than a twelve percent tip, which is really chintzy for a place like this. And he's very picky about his food. He sends a dish back every three or four meals he has and that sets everybody's back up."

"Listen, Judge," Mark plucked at Hardcastle's sleeve to get his attention. "Joe's break's gotta be up and we don't want him attracting attention, right? So let's set a time and place to meet up again tomorrow."

"Good idea, McCormick." The judge raised a finger to him in salutation. "Joe, can you bring Bernard with you out to the Santa Monica pier at noon tomorrow? I've got some questions for him and more for you and by then, maybe I can get some research done on this new owner and new cook and everything else. Whaddya say?"

Joe Fingers shrugged, nodded, said "Sure thing, Judge. I'll talk to Bernard tonight when we close up and we'll be there noon tomorrow." He paused, scuffed a foot on the ground briefly, then added, "You think you can help? I mean, I know it's a favor and all and I'll pay you back someday, but this job's all I got and I'm lucky to have it, you know?"

"I know, Joe. Don't worry about it. I'll handle it." Hardcastle patted him on the shoulder then motioned for McCormick to lead the way back up the alley to where the Coyote was parked as Joe Fingers sneaked back toward toward the restaurant door.

"You got any ideas, Judge?" Mark lowered himself into the driver's seat and reach for the seat belt.

With a grunt, the retired jurist also settled himself and belted in. "Yeah, I got a coupla ideas, need to make a few phone calls and check some stuff. One idea I got, you're not gonna be crazy about, but it's quick and easy and you might even make a few bucks off it. Sound interesting?" He raised his brows hopefully.

McCormick snorted and shook his head. "No. Nope, never, not again, no more hauntings au naturelle, okay?"

"That's not the idea. Naw, this one's a lot classier and high-toned. And you get to doll yourself up in fancy clothes and pretend you know something about fine food and wine. Now how bad could that be?"

ACT II:

Mark spotted Fingers and Bernard at the end of the pier and waved at them from the hot dog stand. "You want sauerkraut on yours?" he yelled to them.

Bernard looked at Joe Fingers, who shrugged at him then nodded to McCormick.

Hardcastle waved from the table he'd picked out. "I got napkins and everything, guys. Lunch is my treat today."

The two restaurant employees seated themselves as McCormick brought over four heavily-laden hot dogs in little paper boats.

Bernard sniffed delicately at the dog in front of him, then said, "Similar to choucroute garnie, yes?"

"Yeah, whatever." Hardcastle nodded at his own dog. "You talk about your classic dishes – this is one of the all-time best. Dig in. Joe, you can take the gloves off for the time being." The judge demonstrated digging in and there was a short pause while everyone sampled their choucroutes, then Hardcastle swiped at his mouth with a napkin, cleared his throat and spoke. "Bernie, I'm gonna assume Joe here filled you in on how we got involved here."

The French waiter used his own napkin and nodded. "This sausage is surprisingly juicy and flavorful. The texture is like . . . a type of paté. Some caraway seeds in the sauerkraut, a little sour cream and it would be like my grandmother's in Alsace." He looked out across the pier and took a deep breath. "I would hope, Monsieur Hardcastle, Monsieur McCormick, that our little . . . contretemps in the past it is forgotten?"

Mark, mouth full, nodded.

Hardcastle waved a hand, saying, "Sure, that's all history now. We're in this case together, mon ami."

Bernard smiled at the judge's French accent, but said only, "Merci du grace."

"I told him I called you and that we met up last night." Joe set his hot dog down and wiped mustard from his fingers. "We gotta find out who's responsible for those yew berries. We've had the cops around for two days now, checking out the suppliers and digging into our backgrounds. That Farkas guy is out for blood."

Hardcastle brushed a few crumbs from the table to the deck for the seagulls. "I made some calls last night and talked to a cop I know – Lieutenant Harper. He's gonna see what he can find out on the police side of things, but we do know that Farkas is trying to file a criminal complaint against person or persons unknown for attempted murder.

Fingers and Bernard looked at each other uneasily. "Not an accident?" queried the waiter.

"It doesn't look like it, since nobody else ever got any yew berries with their grouse, just Farkas." A final swipe with the napkin and the judge leaned his brawny arms on the table and clasped his hands. "Now your job's gonna be the inside part. I've got some feelers out on some of the people involved, but I want the three of you–" he pointed a finger sequentially at the other diners, "to be my inside guys. Bernie, is there some way McCormick can work at the restaurant for a coupla nights?"

Mark looked up, surprised. "Me?"

Bernard frowned a bit, then nodded. "We have a waiter who has quit because of the . . ." he paused and furrowed his brow, "run downhill of the restaurant?" As the others nodded, he continued, "I could perhaps train Monsieur McCormick to pose as a waiter. It would not be easy, you understand, but enough to pretend for one night or two."

McCormick sighed, then balled up his napkin and tossed it into the paper boat. "Well, I guess it's better than wearing a towel."

ooooo

"Most of the stuff we've gotten so far is just hearsay and rumor." Lieutenant Harper looked up at the judge from underneath his brows. "Restaurant staff, customers, suppliers, even a coupla gossip columns."

Hardcastle grunted. "Gossip columns? Who's glitzy enough to end up in one of those?"

"The head cook, Couteux and his glamorous wife. And the guy that ate the berries, Farkas. He's pretty well-known in the ritzy circles these days. Lots of money, lots of publicity." Harper wrinkled his nose. "You ever read his food column, 'Phooeys and Fanfares'? It doesn't surprise me he's got some enemies the way he pans places."

"Speaking of that, you got a line yet on where the berries came from? Yew berries are a new one on me."

"Hah," the lieutenant said sourly. "Turns out the arboretum has two dozen yew trees, all of 'em loaded with berries. And they're real popular with gardeners and landscapers, too, so they're scattered all over in the upper crust estates. The person who came up with this idea had lots of opportunities to get the intended murder weapon. Here," Harper pulled open the top drawer of his desk and reached inside. "The guys brought me some. They look okay, kinda pretty, and this guy Farkas was known to eat just about anything on a plate." Harper rubbed the top of his head and sighed. "The problem we have now is how did they get on his plate. The chef swears his garnish was rosemary and orange, and the waiter–"

"Bernard," interjected Hardcastle, reaching out a finger to roll one of the small red berries around on the desk.

"Yeah, Bernard, swears he didn't add a thing to the dish. We talked to the whole staff there, and nobody saw anything and they all swear they love Farkas like a brother. What a set-up," he finished in a disgusted tone.

The judge leaned back in the chair at the end of Harper's desk. "You'll get there. It had to be intentional, so you'll crack it somehow. You had anybody checking into why the place turned over recently? Might be something in that. Or there'll be something in Farkas' background."

Harper nodded. "Yeah, we've got the routine going, digging into everybody connected with it, 'specially since Farkas is making so much noise now. I don't think he expected to be included in the investigation. You know the type." He raised his eyebrows and tilted his head.

"All high horse and looking down his nose at ya," said Hardcastle with a grin.

"You got it. But he's clean so far. The only thing we've even got a sniff of is that he's got a real eye for the ladies. Some of them with husbands." The lieutenant threw up his hands. "Like half the people in the restaurant biz, I swear."

"Well, I'd appreciate anything you can come up with." Hardcastle stood up and shook down his pants legs. "As soon as McCormick starts working at Chez Pierre, we'll let you in on anything he finds out."

"Mark as a waiter?" Harper grinned. "Remind me to eat at my desk for the next few nights."

The judge flipped a hand. "Ah, he might do okay. He's got a good tutor."

ooooo

In an empty room off to the side of the main dining salon, Bernard continued his demonstrations. "You must be correct at all times. Not too friendly," Bernard shook a minatory finger. "Polite, pleasant, but you are not to be the 'chum' to the customer. You are the server, and you must be knowledgeable and discreet in your service. Now try it once more."

McCormick, standing beside a table set with gleaming cutlery and fine china, cleared his throat, smiled slightly, bent forward just a trifle and spoke. "Good evening, madam, sir. My name is Mark and I will be your server tonight. Have you made your selections for dinner, or may I bring you an aperitif?"

Bernard smiled at him. "Much better. Now for the service itself. Always from the left side, except when the diners are seated at a banquette. Place this napkin, so, over your forearm and watch as I lift the plate."

Mark sighed, took a deep breath and adorned his arm with a napkin.

ooooo

"Milt, are you sure this is a good idea? I mean," Mattie Groves whispered, "Mark might be nervous. We might upset his whole investigation."

Hardcastle waved a hand at her. "Naw, he'll be fine. We're just customers like any other." Then he smiled wickedly.

The maitre d' approached them with a murmured, "For two? Right this way, please."

As he led them to a table off to one side, Hardcastle peered left and right at the waitstaff. He saw Joe Fingers carrying dessert plates toward the kitchen and winked at him.

"A waiter will be right with you," said the maitre d' quietly as he held the chair for Mattie to be seated, then flipped a napkin across her lap. "Enjoy your meals."

Mattie frowned a bit at the slight man as he left. "I don't like people who help me that much. And he has beady little eyes, too. Milt," she turned to her escort, "I'm still not sure about this."

He shushed her and aimed a thumb to his left.

A tall, curly-haired waiter approached their table and bowed slightly. "Good evening," he said decorously. "My name is Mark and I'll be serving you tonight. Here is our menu," he presented one to each diner, "and our special tonight is Canard a l'Orange. Do you require a few minutes to make your selections?"

"Ah, can you tell me what this dish is?" asked Mattie, pointing with a finger at Supremes de Volailles de Versailles.

"No, madam," said Mark definitely, but with a polite smile.

"Well," Hardcastle cleared his throat commandingly. "I'm having the Tournedos Beauharnais. What wine would you recommend with that?"

McCormick smiled again, benignly. "For you, sir, something special. Something with, say . . . a screw cap."

Mattie had a sudden coughing fit, covered by her napkin, while the judge wiped a palm ferociously across the lower half of his reddening face.

"I'll have the special," said Mattie quickly, handing back her menu. "And we'll have a bottle of 1978 Souverain Zinfandel."

"Indeed, madam," Mark nodded and smiled frostily. "An excellent choice." He shot a look of disdain at Hardcastle and departed with unimpaired dignity.

ooooo

The door into the office opened, slowly, cautiously, then McCormick slipped inside, quickly closing the door behind him and reaching into his back pocket for skin-tight black gloves. Donning the gloves, he moved silently over to the desk and riffled through several papers lying there. Shaking his head slightly, he began opening drawers, stopping when he found one jammed with file folders. Running a finger through them, he selected one headed "Accounts Payable" and pulled it out.

The folder was over an inch thick, stuffed with bills and letters from creditors. Mark paused at one from a famous Los Angeles jeweler and whistled soundlessly. A sudden noise from the room next door made him jerk up his head, then hastily replace the file folder. He crept over to the connecting door marked "Supplies" and listened closely to a dialogue which rapidly degenerated into a shouting match. As the yelling intensified, he sidled back to the door he'd used to enter, and eased it open again. With a quick look up and down the hallway, he stepped into the hall, pulling off his gloves and replacing them in his pocket. As the sound of heels echoed down the hallway toward him, he straightened his jacket and sauntered past the door behind which two men were screaming insults in French.

An elegant and expensively-dressed woman strode past, casting him a flirtatious glance as they passed. Her emerald earrings glittered coldly as she kept her eyes on him right up to the moment that she opened the door on the argument.

"Pierre, sweetheart," she cooed, "if you and Mr. Mon D'Or are through here, the sous-chef wants to talk to you about the truffles."

The two men glared at each other in hatred, then chef Couteaux sniffed and turned to escort his wife out. Mon D'Or growled under his breath and slammed the door after the couple.

"Cochon," he muttered ferociously. "Salaud."

ACT III:

"So how'd Mattie like the duck?" Mark took a beer from the fridge and plopped into a chair at the kitchen table.

The judge looked up from his notes. "Hey, get me one, too, willya?"

Mark grinned at him. "What? You think I'm your waiter or something?" He snickered as he rose and opened the fridge again.

"She said the duck was okay. I had a taste and it was kinda dry and the sauce wasn't a big deal. My steaks were all right, but kinda small and a little tough. Bernard was right. The place has had a 'downhill run' since the new owner took over. Thanks," as he accepted the can of beer.

"Well, I found out a coupla things tonight. Besides what a Supreme de Volailles is." McCormick sipped at his beer and raised his eyebrows. "Somebody's fooling around with the accounts. I think it has to be the head chef, Couteux, and I heard him yelling at the owner, who was yelling right back." He shook his head. "Wish I spoke French."

Hardcastle looked at him inquiringly.

"Mon femme." Mark sipped more beer. "I heard that a couple of times from Couteux and that means 'my wife'. But I couldn't get anything else out of it."

"Howja know that much?" asked a surprised judge. "You never took French."

McCormick smiled in a superior fashion. "We serve Capon Bonne Femme at our restaurant, Judge. Bonne femme means 'good wife' and means it's cooked with mushrooms."

"Huh." Hardcastle thought for a moment. "But you couldn't make out anything else?"

"Just that they sounded mad enough to start throwing yew berries at each other." He drank a little more beer, slowly. "Then Couteux's wife showed up." He cradled the beer can between his hands for a moment, then added, "And she was wearing four grand worth of emerald earrings."

The judge cocked his head. "When did you get to be a jewelry appraiser?"

"I saw the invoice in Couteux's office. And the check that he'd written for them that bounced. The weird thing, though, is that it was a restaurant check. I mean, it was drawn on the restaurant account, and that can't be right."

Hardcastle shook his head. "It's grounds for the owner to yell at him. But he was yelling right back at Mon D'Or about his wife, huh? I think we'll talk to Frank about all this and see what he's come up with." He pushed back from the table, beer can in hand. "Hey, you hungry? We got some leftover ham for sandwiches."

Mark held up a palm. "I'm full of lobster quenelles and shad roe au Creole."

"Well," muttered Hardcastle, "I always knew you were full of something."

ooooo

McCormick surreptitiously stretched his back and shifted his feet to try to ease the pain in them. He quickly scanned his three tables and saw that he could take a moment to relax behind one of the potted palms before any of his diners started looking around for him.

Joe Fingers sidled up next to him and whispered out of the corner of his mouth. "Watch yourself. Couteux's on the warpath again."

Mark rolled his eyes and sighed. "What was it this time? A sauce that curdled or the wrong kind of kumquats?"

"I heard it was something that came out in the paper today." Fingers rocked from foot to foot, nervously tightening his tie. "Maybe a restaurant review? Hey–" he broke off and stared intently at one of the tables. "Look at Henri."

McCormick focused on the maitre d' at one of the tables. "He's just asking them how things are going, right? He does that with every table at some point."

"Yeah, but you remember you asked me how hard it would be to swap those yew berries onto somebody's plate while they were eating?" Fingers jerked his chin toward Henri. "Watch him at the next table. When he asks them how everything is, they look up at him and he waves his right hand toward one of the plates. Check it out."

Mark did. And Fingers was right. The customers uniformly would look up at the maitre d', away from their plates. Henri would gesture widely toward their food and it would have been simple for him to drop a few extra garnishes onto a bread plate or even the entree itself.

"Joe," murmured McCormick, "we need to have a little talk with Henri. But first, let me check with Hardcastle and see if the cops have found out anything about anybody." He noticed one of his patrons lifting a finger, and quickly added, "Thanks. Keep your eyes open.

ooooo

Meanwhile, the kitchen staff cowered in silence as the chef du cuisine raged. Fortunately for them, most of the comments were in French, but the noise of pans being flung against a wall and the shattering of glass condiment dishes more than made up for their linguistic lack.

In the midst of the tirade, owner Jacques Mon D'Or appeared at the door leading from the kitchen to the offices and a sudden silence fell.

Couteux stared at Mon D'Or, then walked slowly toward him, hands spasmodically clenching and unclenching.

The owner spoke to him in an undertone, then waved at the staff to continue their work, as he pulled Couteux into the hallway behind him and closed the door to the kitchen.

ooooo

"Frank says they've checked into just about everybody who was there the night Farkas got poisoned, and this is all they've come up with." The judge dropped a thin manila folder onto his desk. "Henri might've been able to do it physically, and he could've gotten the berries, but that's just opportunity and means. There's no motive for him. In fact, there's no discernable motive for anybody who worked there except for Couteux and, just possibly, Mon D'or and neither of them were anywhere near Farkas when the berries were put on the plate." He shook his head disgustedly. "We hafta be missing something."

McCormick sighed and relaxed even further into his wing chair at the end of the desk. "I dunno what it is, but I do know I'm about done with the restaurant biz. Do you have any idea how much my feet hurt?" He closed his eyes and a silence fell on the den.

"Wait a minute," said Mark, sitting up straight suddenly. "You remember when we were talking about that TV show, 'Team Improbable', and how you were crabbing that their investigations never took accomplices into account?"

Hardcastle rubbed his chin, brow wrinkled. "Umm, I think so. That the one where they always get the guy with a fast car chase at the end when they coulda just had him quietly arrested instead?"

"Yeah, yeah," Mark patted the air excitedly. "You went on for a long time about real detection and how cops and private investigators always looked for links to people in a crime. Well, how about Henri? What if he was working with one of the others, somebody who had a grudge of some kind against Farkas?"

The judge was already thumbing through the file and pulled out a pair of sheets that had been paper-clipped together. "Yeah, yeah! You look at motive and there's lots of people it coulda been. Couteux's wife was photographed with Farkas at a charity dinner somewhere and there's been a rumor going around for a while that they were more than just 'good friends', if ya know what I mean." Hardcastle lifted his eyebrows in an exaggerated leer. "And there were two produce suppliers for Chez Pierre that had run-ins with Farkas when he insulted the quality of their food. And there was a sous-chef–" he broke off. "What's a sous-chef do? Is he in charge of 'sous'?"

"I'll tell ya later," Mark said, pointing at the file. "What about him?"

"He was fired a few weeks ago, when Farkas complained that there was a hair in his vichysoisse. The guy took it personally, came out into the dining room and yelled at Farkas who yelled right back. According to this, it got real ugly, with threats flying and the guy was fired the next day by Mon D'Or, who'd just taken over the place." Hardcastle looked up from the papers. "I think we oughtta have Frank get into Henri's connection with some of these people."

McCormick nodded, pulling gently at his lower lip. "But you realize that the most obvious connection is at the restaurant right now, Couteux. And he's got some real problems these days. In fact," he frowned unhappily, "I can't see Henri doing him any favors. Couteux threatened to fire him yesterday in one his daily fits. In fact, he threatened to fire just about everybody, so who'd want to help him out with his wandering wife?"

Hardcastle blew out a puff of air. "That's what Frank is for. We let him nose around and see what dirt he can dig up, then we think some more. And it wouldn't hurt for you to have a little chat with Henri tomorrow. See what you can find out that maybe he wouldn't've told the cops."

"Okay," yawned Mark. "But we better get this case finished up soon. I've gained three pounds!"

ACT IV:

"No, no, I insist," said Bernard firmly. "Henri will 'throw his guts' to me. We have twenty minutes until the dinner service begins, so now is an excellent time to speak to him. Come with me."

McCormick followed the waiter to the front of Chez Pierre, where Henri was carefully inspecting napkins.

Bernard stood at attention and cleared his throat. When the maitre d' turned to him, he spoke. "Henri, it is time for you to wash up. We have discovered that you are the one who placed the berries on the plate of Monsieur Farkas and you must now tell us all."

Henri turned pale, grabbed the back of a chair and shut his eyes firmly. "Non, non," he murmured. "Ce n'était pas moi." He wobbled visibly, gripping the chair even tighter.

Carefully, McCormick told hold of Henri and lowered him into the chair. "It's okay, Henri. We just want you to tell us about it."

"It was Couteux," the maitre d' exclaimed, eyes still firmly shut. "He has made my life," he risked a glance at them, "all our lives so miserable with his rages and his . . . his jalousie."

Mark looked at Bernard. "I think even I understood that one."

"So come, mon vieux," Bernard encouraged the frightened maitre d', "you must tell us. Why did you help Couteux to poison that silly Farkas if he has made you so miserable?"

Henri opened both eyes widely and stared at the two men in front of him. "But I did not help that Couteux, that crazy man! I wanted to help Monsieur Farkas! He has been, ah . . . how shall I say, paying his attentions to Madame Couteux and I knew that they were to meet that night. I thought only to help Monsieur Farkas in his badinage dans l'amour, his capacité. You see?"

McCormick and Bernard stared at each other. "You mean," asked Mark hesitantly, "that you thought the berries were, um . . . an aphrodisiac?"

"Yes! An aphrodisiaque, exactly! That," Henri clasped his hands pleadingly, "is what Monsieur Mon D'Or told me. You do . . . you do believe me, hein?" he quavered.

The other two looked at each other, then Mark spoke.

"Yeah, we believe you, but why didn't you tell the cops about Mon D'Or giving you the berries? They'd've believed you, too."

Henri shrugged elaborately. "The police? Monsieur Mon D'Or has told me he will say to them that I am the guilty one. That Monsieur Farkas has blamed me for the inferior dishes he has received and I have paid to him revenge."

"I gotta call the judge," was McCormick's response, "He's over at the cop shop right now and they'll have an idea of where Mon D'Or is. Hah, this'll show him that TV shows are good for something!"

"Be easy, Henri," soothed Bernard. "We do indeed believe you and now everything will be right."

ooooo

Hardcastle took the call from McCormick in Harper's office. "Yeah, got it. We'll get over there as soon as we can find out where Mon D'Or is." From the corner of his eye, the judge caught the lieutenant waving at him.

"Mon D'Or's on his way to Chez Pierre." Harper stopped waving and started beckoning Hardcastle to follow him out the door. "If he gets there before we do, tell Mark to keep him there."

Hardcastle relayed the message. "Mon D'Or's coming over to the restaurant. We're on our way, but make sure he stays there, okay? And hey!" he added urgently as Harper tugged on his sleeve. "We just found out Farkas' paper ran a phooey review on the place yesterday and he was dumb enough to tell Mon D'Or all about it when he wrote it up last week!"

Frank took the phone from his grasp, hung it up with a bang, and pulled him from the office.

ooooo

Bernard and Joe Fingers peered around the front door of Chez Pierre, then hastily ducked back inside.

"He's just parked his Jaguar out front," relayed Joe. "You guys keep him busy for a few minutes, okay?"

He and Bernard sped toward the back of the restaurant as Mon D'Or walked into the tastefully-decorated antechamber of Chez Pierre to find a committee of two awaiting him.

"And what is this?" said Mon D'Or gruffly. "You do not have jobs to attend to, that you should be waiting for me? Or perhaps some new atrocity has been committed by one of you? An insect in the rice, perhaps."

McCormick stepped forward, tugging Henri behind him. "We need to have a word with you, Mon D'Or. Maybe we could go to your office, you know, keep it kinda private?"

Mon D'Or look at them suspiciously, then spread his hands and spoke suavely. "But of course, If there is something to discuss, we can speak together in my office. Henri, are you quite well? You look," he peered at the maitre d' closely, "rather pale."

Henri, lightly perspiring, gulped and sent a piteous look at McCormick as he said, "Monsieur, it is nothing. I am . . . there is . . ."

Mark patted Henri on the back, and gestured for Mon D'Or to precede them to the rear of the restaurant. "He just had some bad frog legs for lunch. We really do need to talk to you, though, so –"

Mon D'Or took one more piercing glance at Henri, then turned and raced out the front door just in time to see the judge and Lieutenant Harper striding up the sidewalk toward Chez Pierre. Mon D'Or leapt into his Jaguar convertible as Hardcastle yelled "Get him!" to McCormick.

Mark looked frantically down the street where he'd parked the Coyote and ran instead to the door of the Jaguar just as Mon D'Or turned the key and the engine roared into life . . . then immediately sputtered and died.

A stream of French invective was only slightly impeded by the police hauling Mon D'Or from the Jaguar and cuffing him. Harper stood close by and made sure the suspect's rights were read from the card, then he and Hardcastle joined McCormick, Fingers, and Bernard on the sidewalk. Henri was conspicuously absent.

"Well," commented the judge to McCormick, "you got lucky, sport. He woulda gotten away if his engine hadn't given out on him."

"Given out? Huh!" Fingers nudged Bernard slyly and winked at Hardcastle. "We took care of that while Mark kept him busy inside."

"It is my own recipe for Pomme Frites Tuyère," said Bernard proudly.

"He means," said Fingers with a sly grin, "that we shoved a potato into his tailpipe."

EPILOGUE

"C'mon, McCormick," the judge bellowed from the dining room. "Where's this wonderful meal you learned at the restaurant?"

A shout came from the kitchen, "Just a sec! Almost done. I gotta do the garnish, okay?"

"Better be good's all I gotta say," grumbled Hardcastle. He grabbed up his knife and fork and was preparing to pound them on the table when the swinging door suddenly burst inward and his server for the evening appeared.

McCormick proudly placed a plate of the best china in front of the judge. "As promised, one of the spécialités of the maison." With a flourish, he removed the cover and gestured broadly. "Steak tartare."

Hardcastle stared at the raw beef patty for a long moment, then nodded, slapped his palms on his knees, and pushed back from the table. "Right. Fine. I'll go start up the grill."

finis