Previously: Batya gets a little tour of Hawthorne’s underwater headquarters, including the recreational corner and the cry closet. Then she gets some hard news: she has to share a room with her sister. This is only tolerable because the bathroom is so goddamn gorgeous.
— 20 —
Up at the Crab House, Sal is prepping for the breakfast rush. He looks a little frazzled, working three or four skillets at once, but takes a moment to greet the Hull sisters. “Well lookie here,” he says around his cigarette. “Two blinding suns right here in my restaurant, stinging my eyes with their beauty!”
“Aw stop it, Sal,” Batya says. “And then start again!”
“I shall!” When he smiles his face crinkles like a bunched-up shirt. “But first, a gift.” He picks up a stack of Hawthorne job forms that are dangerously close to his burners.
Mina snatches the sheets, licks the tip of her middle finger (a vile habit she got from her mother) and skims through them.
“Anything good?” Bat asks. “By which I mean anything that pays big.”
“I know what you mean,” Mina says. “Let’s see, we got what looks like a mako. This one’s a horseflesh, I guess. And an eidolon. Ooh, this job’s over at the Khamsin, sounds expensive.”
“That one’s the priority,” Sal says.
She reads the client note: “A momentous legal document is to be hand-delivered to the recipient who is landed gentry and very important and also a hateful human being who will not want to accept said document.”
“Into it,” Bat says, keyed up.
“A baroness,” Sal says, handing Mina an inter-department delivery envelope, the kind you tie shut with a length of red floss. “Baroness of what, I don’t know. The archivists said she’s not from around here.”
Bat excitedly grabs her sister’s shoulder and chomps on it. “When do we get our paaaaaychecks.”
“We’ll settle up with Agnes after,” Mina says, smacking her away.
“Agnes our accountant. And bartender. Rough old nana, you’ll like her. And our checks are more like bloodstained rolls of bills.”
Sal shakes his head. “I still think she should do payroll proper. Cut legit paper to keep our ledger tip-top, just in case anyone comes sniffing around.”
Bat hops over the counter—actually pretty impressive—to check out what he’s got going on the grill. “What do you know about all that, Sal?”
“He knows everything about all that,” Mina says.
Sal started out as Irving Percy, senior accountant at a vigorously unscrupulous company here in town called Glenndenning Global. He was caught misappropriating a quarter million dollars into his (nonexistent) daughter’s college fund, but instead of pressing charges, James Glenndenning himself showed Irv the thick file of evidence and asked that he maybe perhaps consider using his know-how to help the organization instead of hurting it, understand?
So Irving became Global’s money launderer, setting up shell companies and trusts, sending a fleet of schooners out to sea and registering them as offshore banks, and—his favorite—secretly taking controlling interest in cash-intensive businesses like bodegas and burlesque clubs and pachinko parlors.
Time passed, seasons changed, clouds raced along the sky, and one day Global’s Vice President sat James Glenndenning down and proposed creating an in-house team of couriers. A crew they could trust to move Irving’s money between its various interests. A crew she would run.
Glenndenning said hell no, questioning this VP’s motives in very vivid and hurtful language. And this VP, who happened to be our friend Margaret Feddema, responded by quitting—explosively—and taking a number of valued employees with her to start up her own private courier service, including Irving Percy to handle the finances. Oddly enough, that thick file of evidence went missing around the same time.
Margaret had already picked up an abandoned undersea marine biology lab for a song (thanks to it being filled with toxic fumes and ghosts) which she intended to use as a secure base of operations. She tapped Irving to find a cheap way to convert its conspicuous surface entrance at the end of a pier into something sneakier. And Irv, giddy with freedom, got ambitious and built an entire fake seafood shack.
At first, “Sal’s Crab House” only existed as a name on paperwork and a sign that hung above a door that was always locked. But then Fort Hook was hit by the dinoflagellate panic, with hundreds laid up at Capstan Mercy thanks to food poisoning. Health inspectors started shaking down every seafood emporium in town and Sal’s was on their hit list.
Margaret proposed just changing the name to Sal’s Boot Repair or Sal’s Medical Supply, but Irving—suddenly, thrillingly—had a dream for the first time in his life.
And so, over the course of a long weekend, he created a living, breathing crab restaurant from thin air. He raided one of the diners he used to run for Glenndenning, pilfering tables and stools and cookware. He picked up a freezer and a grill and a giant terrifying plastic crab at an auction. He studied up on the fundamentals of the fishing industry, getting down the economics, the biology, the technology, the politics. He ate a great deal of crab, of course. And he got a working knowledge of salmonella, vibrio parahaemolyticus, ciguatera poisoning, scombroid poisoning, you name it.
When the health inspectors showed up, throwing their weight around, playing it tough, Irv responded by delivering a monologue so impassioned—
Listen. My pappy ran a crab shack, just like his pappy before him, and you know what he said to me on his death bed? “Son,” he said. “You love the crab. You are tender with the crab, you respect the crab, and that is good because they are a mighty animal and deserve that respect. But never forget that the animal you must respect above all others is [phlegmy cough] is man. So if my dead soul down in the Locker ever hears tell that you’ve allowed even one single microbe of hateful bacteria into this place, causing gastrointestinal distress to even one single customer, believe me when I say I shall reach up and smite the skeleton from your body.” [long pause] And I did believe him. And that’s why Sal’s Crab House is the most pristine seafood establishment—no, the most pristine dining establishment on the promenade. And always will be.
—that the inspectors saluted him and refused to move until he returned their salute.
Because say what you will about Irving Percy, the guy really loses himself in the fiction he creates. To the point where he can pass polygraphs because he no longer recognizes lies as lies. Look behind the counter at the Crab House and you’ll see a framed photograph of that nonexistent daughter. (The picture came with the frame.) Watch as he touches his kissed fingers to her forehead each morning. There is genuine emotion there.
Anyway, after he got an A++ health rating (a grade the inspectors made up just for him), Sal—he would no longer respond to “Irving”—abandoned accounting for cooking. The fake restaurant became a real restaurant and has become a hot ticket thanks to an innovation he calls the Triple Pinch. It goes like this: He catches a crab, chops off one claw to cook, then pitches the maimed crab back in the sea. Then, after a spell, he catches that same crab with its newly grown-back claw. (Sal is maybe the friendliest proprietor I know in Fort Hook, but let me tell you he gets very squirrelly if you ask him how he finds that crab again.) And that second-generation claw is where the real flavor is, seeing as it’s done so much more living.
The critics went ape and tables started filling up and Margaret was tickled by this unexpected source of income, especially one snatched away from her nemesis James Glenndenning. (Who even now is setting up his own competing courier company.) She hired a new accountant (Agnes the rough old nana) and put Sal in charge of dispatch but mostly leaves him to his own profitable devices.
These days, Sal is on the docks at four o’clock every morning, shooting the shit with his suppliers, then ambling into the restaurant where he inspects the arrivals, props up his featured selections, makes some phone calls, updates the big board with the specials. He doles out jobs to the couriers and then gets to cooking for the rest of the day. He jaws with the clientele, makes recommendations, remembers what you got last time, asks after your kids.
And when he finally trudges down to HQ at the end of the day, Sal sleeps big.
Mina peers out the front window, gauging how cold it is out there. “Thanks, Sal. We’ll get out of your hair.”
“Wish I had some for you to get out of,” he says, tearing a sheet of butcher paper off a giant roll. “Here, I made sandwiches for the road.”
“For me?” Mina says.
“You and this delicate petunia,” he says, pointing a meat tenderizer at Bat.
“What!” Bat starts doing an awful approximation of the can-can. “I bet I know what kind.”
“You don’t know everything, missy,” Sal says. “It’s PB&J.”
“What! You’re branching out.”
“Well, peanut butter and crab jam.”
“Stop yelling what,” Mina says, already out the door.
“And the peanut butter is made from crab.”
This has been Chapter 20 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.
Next up: Plumber’s Serpent