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Why the Butler Did It

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The Professor snapped his plastic fork at the bottom of the Takee-Outtee box, trying hard for the last kernel of shrimp fried rice.

"I'm dreaming of the pan-roasted chicken with Bulgar pilaf at Herbsaint," he sighed. "Or maybe plantains in coconut milk, with a pinch of dark and savory Lamari."

"We got cheese puffs," offered Roach, opening the refrigerator and rooting around. "Hey, here's some leftover soup. I ain't sure what kind. Some kinda soup du jour."

"The trouble with soup du jour is that they change it every damn day," said Jimmy Chimichanga. We all looked at him, but no one could be sure.

"You don't have soup du jour here," asserted the Professor, who'd gone to the fridge to root around. "It's more like soup d'annee. Soup of the year."

"The food's so bad around here," Jimmy informed Roach, "that you oughta say a prayer after the meal."

Still, there is plenty about this layout that is definitely uberRoach. Like the Ethan Allen spider-backed chairs, the overstuffed oak sofa, the Kashgai rugs, the mahogany Hudson River planter box brimming with bromeliads. The Professor, me and Jimmy Chimichanga have been invited to see how well Roach -- a man of no fixed abode -- is doing these golden afternoons.

"What's the story, morning glory?" I ask brightly.

"It was my cousin Leo's idea," Roach began. If he thinks the questions are going to be hard, Roach always begins by asserting things are someone else's idea. It's an old multiple-offender tactic.

"This here's one of them palaces got caught in the middle of a matrimonial mess," continued Roach, flicking his doobie ash into a Victorian diamond-cut crystal rose bowl. "The husband's been ordered out by a judge. The lady of the house is a bigtime mouthpiece, and she gave Cousin Leo a key to deliver a banker's lamp he got some place. And on the way back, he takes the key to Harry's Ace. Duplication is the name of the game."

"A lady with trust: a rare thing these days and soon to be rarer," declared the Professor. "And where is she now?"

"She's away for a coupla weeks, doing some legalities in New York," Roach said happily. "That's her picture on the wall."

Prof ankled over to study the likeness. "She looks like the sort who headed off to college with dreams of being discovered by the best sorority and stayed to marry one of those boys with a Roman numeral after his name," he observed.

Just then a horn blows and we look out the French doors to see Cynthia alighting from a Dubonnet-red El Camino, 1968 vintage. Whatever's the opposite of mint condition is this El Camino.

Even with the tone-on-tone hair coloring, Cynthia still looked pretty good walking up the walk. Nobody who possesses what she possesses ever starved to death. With a high flourish, she pulled a bottle of tequila from her mock-alligator purse. "I don't come empty-handed to addresses like these," she exclaimed.

"Excuse me. I hear Jose Cuervo calling my name. 'Amigo,' he cries," cried Jimmy Chimichanga.

So we all poured a drink and sprawled around on the overstuffed sofa and spider-backed chairs. "OK. So what are you and your scruffy cousin doing in this hotel?" Cynthia lightly demanded.

"They're like unannounced housesitters," said the Prof. "Volunteer work, actually."

We sat and sipped. Nobody talked for a while. Cynthia got up and looked over the picture of the lady of the house. "If I wanted to chill a beer, I'd slip it next to her heart," she guessed.

"Sounds like peroxide envy to me," guessed the Professor.

We all sipped anew. Then Cynthia said, "There are people who live like this every day. Think about it. This is why in them old detective movies, it's always the butler that done it. Why? Because the poor butler had to be around this kinda stuff all day and then go live his own life in the basement or the Y or something."

"Bummer, dude," agreed Roach.

"Why, Cynthia, you are a true social and economic leveler," declared the Professor. "With more like you, communism wouldn't fail as it did."

"There wasn't enough people who got to see the insides of places like this," Cynthia retorted.

"Not everyone's got a Cousin Leo," noted Roach.

"Allah be praised," said the Prof. "What say we all go off in search of the filthy lucre that buys dumps like this?"

"I'm waiting for Leo," Roach said. "We gonna hose out the inside of his Hyundai and put in a claim for storm damage."

"Remind me to stop and get a Pick Six on the way home," I said brightly, swimming in ambition.

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