A knife load of butter, three fingers of chopped onion, a fistful of sliced potatoes, turned twice, and then pushed to the edge of the grill, away from the main heat.
Four pieces of toast, six fried eggs sunny-side-up arranged like a cyclops board meeting. Ham at the side, bacon across the front; toast popped, buttered, eggs over, a wave of garlic and onion powders, then a splash of parsley flakes. Two plates, a couple scoops , Henderson pirouetted and Hank the plumber and Eugene had their breakfasts, ham for Eugene, bacon for Hank.
“You might see some extra trade this week,” Hank said, his mouth full. “Folks down the road at the new place gonna be shut up for a few days while I replace most of their plumbing, the hot water heater and a furnace. I told them when they moved in two years ago that all them systems was set to fail and they should try to replace one piece at a time to avoid the disruption.” He shook his head is disgust. “Big city New Yorkers. Didn’t want to hear it from some backwoods plumber. But the plumbing goes back to when old man Megan ran a machine shop outta there. He just patched the leaks. There’s three water heaters stacked down there and the furnace is probably forty years old. Amazed it worked at all.” He piled in another load of eggs and washed it down with coffee.
“And what were you doing down in their cellar to start with?” Eugene asked, knowing the answer. “Wasn’t because you’re the town’s plumbing inspector, was it?”
Hank laughed. “Well, of course it was. But that didn’t make them fixtures any better.”
Henderson absorbed the news with a curious, wrinkled face. Since Bagels & Brews opened two years ago, his business had actually increased. A couple dozen more cars in Mount Jensen every day was good for everyone, he figured.
Still, he thought, maybe I’ll have Dan Wilson drop off a load of bagels, just in case.
“That’ll cost ‘em,” he replied to Hank.
“I ain’t complaining,” Hank smiled back. “The plumber comes for us all.”
“Who comes for the plumber?” Eugene asked, grinning.
“The man in black,” Tender whispered from the corner. Which just took the humor right out of the air.
“Thanks for cheering us up, there Tender,” Henderson said shaking his head.
“Just the truth,” Tender replied.
“What’s the man in black need?” Henderson asked.
“More coffee,” Tender said. “And a side of toast.”
Hank swiped the last of the egg yolk off his plate with a crust of toast, and nodded.
“You know, Henderson, they’re giving cooking classes down there.”
Eugene slapped Hank’s back. “Well, you’re just full of news today, ain’t ya?”
“Just saying. It’s mostly stuff on their dinner menu. Baked bass with a wine sauce, lemon poached trout with leeks and capers, bunch of fancy sauces.”
Henderson laughed. “What am I supposed to teach? Greasy homefries by the bucket? Cheeseburger specials?” He winked at Eugene.
Hank blushed and stammered. “Omelets. Country omelets.”
Henderson grinned. “Okay.” He reached for stainless bowl. There was a little egg yolk on the edge. He wiped it off with his apron.
“Consider the egg. Or as the French say, an ooff.”
“I think that’s urf, o-e-u-f,” Tender interrupted.
“How do you get urf out of o-e-u-f, there Tender? No ‘r” so it’s ooff. More than one are ooffs. We’ll use three ooffs for our omelet.”
He held out the bowl and cracked an egg one handed on the lip.
“Ain’t you supposed’ta crack ‘em on a flat surface?” Tender asked.
Henderson sighed. “Not if that flat surface is dirtier than the edge of the bowl,” he growled, grinning. “That’s what cooking’s for. So, three ooffs, a little salt and pepper, whisk vigorously,” — he did so with wide eyes and a crazy grin – “slab of butter on the grill, pour on the ooffs, add ham, onion and peppers, cheese if you have a mind. Flip and roll. Voila, a three-ooff omelet. Serve with toast.”
The men at the counter applauded.
“Thank you, thank you,” Henderson bowed and spread his arms in mock tribute.
Hank chimed in. “What if I want a heart-healthy omelet?”
“Eat oatmeal,” Eugene replied.
“You want a heart-healthy omelet?” Henderson asked. “That’s egg whites, air with a little color, Merage without the sugar, the caramelization and the lemon filling. There ain’t enough stuff in the kitchen to make egg whites taste like food.”
Work called, and the diner emptied, all but Tender.
“You could be a good cook, if you wanted to,” he said, voice like a ghost.
Henderson smiled, then sighed. “Maybe.” To himself: Did I give up that idea? He settled into the silence with a cup of coffee.
The door bell chimed. Henderson glanced up and recognized the way-too-yellow blazer and smiling round, Boy Scout face of the real estate agent whose face was attached to the door hanger left on the diner’s entrance. Dan Coates. Golden Mile Realty.
“Still serving?” Dan Coates asked.
Henderson finished his coffee and wiped the counter. “Sure. What’d ya have in mind?”
Dan Coates removed the too-yellow jacket and draped it over an open space on the counter, unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled up each sleeve with exquisite care, each roll precise so that it did not wrinkle the linen shirt. His short brown hair didn’t move.
Then he sat. If he noticed the still messy grill and pile of pans on the side of the stove, he said nothing.
“Could you make eggs benedict, with a green tea?”
“I got Earl Grey. I don’t have a lot of tea drinkers as regulars,” Henderson replied, placing a napkin, knife spoon and fork in front of Dan Coates. He placed a tea cup and saucer, a tea bag and a pot of hot water on the counter. Tender was unsure when he had last seen a pot of tea water at Henderson’s diner; tea was usually served with a cup of hot water and a maybe a napkin and Henderson would toss the tea bag to the customer. But there was a game here, he understood. He had seen Dan Coates’ door hanger declaring, “I have many interested buyers for your property!!” Property in Mount Jensen moved slowly; families stayed. The last sale of any consequence was Megan’s old shop that became the new diner, and that was three years ago. Before that it could have been eight or nine years, maybe the Schmidt’s farm on West Hill Road, Tender guessed.
“I have to make the hollandaise,” Henderson said. “Be a couple of minutes.”
He pulled out a square baking pan and filled it with water, lit a fire under it and placed two small glass bowls in the water for a bain marie. He put an English muffin in the toaster and slipped four thin slices of ham on the grill. “Local ham okay?” Dan Coates nodded and sipped his tea.
Henderson then pulled out three eggs, separated the yolks, split a lemon and placed a few ounces of water in a stainless pot and set it to boil. With the bain marie boiling he dropped the flame and placed an egg in each bowl.
He combined the water, egg yolks, lemon juice and some butter and slowly whipped the sauce, then placed it in the bain marie, Muffins buttered, then ham, the perfectly poached eggs, then the sauce, golden and warm.
He presented the meal to Dan Coates. “Eggs benedict. More water for your tea?”
Dan Coates smiled and said, “Thank you, please.” He cut into the eggs and the yolks spilled out over the ham and the muffin. Perfect, Henderson thought.
“Seem pretty interested in Mount Jenson,” Tender said as he raised an eyebrow to Henderson. “Usually pretty slow here.”
Between bites, Dan Coates, said, “Interest is picking up. This is excellent, the sauce sublime,” he nodded to his eggs. “Bank rates are low, buyers looking to invest, retire. And lake front property? Great combination.”
Henderson asked. “How eager are these buyers?”
Dan Coates sensed the probing tension. Small towners, protective of their little lots and homes. “They have reserve of cash. They are ready to move.”
He finished his breakfast and stood. He dropped a twenty on the counter. Flatly: “Keep it.” Then he slipped his arms into his too-yellow jacket, smiled and walked to the door. “Oh, who owns that old hotel. Great place to start. I see condos.”
Henderson coughed out a smile. “No one knows. Been vacant for years. Do you always ask questions that you know the answers to?”
Dan Coates paused half in his jacket, his soft face bright red.
“You seem to know something about that place,” Henderson said.
Dan Coates’ face lost the cuteness. “I’m in real estate. I try to stay ahead of the completion.” He turned.
“Hey, Mr. Coates,” Tender called out. “Your buyers local?”
Dan Coates’ lips formed a thin, dark smile. “They have interest, and they have money. That’s all I need to know. Thank you, gentlemen.”
Henderson watched Dan Coates open the door to his black Mercedes, nod once, slip behind the wheel and pull out, kicking up dust.
Henderson shook his head, pocketed the twenty and removed the dishes. He glanced at Tender. “Oswald told me that someone has been at the county tax office poking around the old Jensen properties. Think we just saw the snooper.”
He scooped up a fingerful of the hollandaise. Not bad, he thought.
Please consider the Frank Nagler Mysteries:
Reviewer: “I highly recommend this read and the full series. Kudos to the author.”
The Nagler books are available in ebook and paperback at:
An anthology edition, containing all three Nagler books and a bonus short story, “Who Shot the Smart Guy at the Blackboard?” is available in ebook, paperback and hardcover at:
An audio version of “The Swamps of Jersey” is available at: https://www.amazon.com/The-Swamps-of-Jersey/dp/B07BT8WHM3/ref=tmm_aud_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=