“Something’s wrong with Chef Guy,” Millicent said, introducing me to the first one as I handed her my Borsalino.
“Any idea what?”
She shook her head. “No, but he has Currie and Emsworth skulking around the dining room like a couple of spies pretending to be inconspicuous.”
On my way to the kitchen, I encountered Stephanie Naman, who was looking puzzled. “Hey,” she said, “have you seen Chloe?”
“Chloe Carstairs? No. She supposed to meet you here?”
“Yeah, she texted me and said she had a clue and she’d followed it to the Cobalt Club.”
It was my turn to look puzzled. “A clue? About what?”
Stephanie shrugged. “No idea. If you see her, tell her I’m in the bar?”
“Sure,” I agreed, wondering what this new mystery meant as I proceeded to the kitchen. There I found Chef Guy leaning against the sub-zero and munching a Slim Jim. Things were worse than Millicent realized.
I’d never seen Guy so nervous. Forget Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis, and Gordon Ramsay. Nobody has more confidence in the kitchen than Guy, and I’d lay odds on him in a cook-off against anybody this side of Fritz Brenner. But his usually-sharp eyes were shifty and unfocused, and his rock-steady hands were shaky.
He swallowed beef, pork, and mechanically separated chicken, looking back and forth as if afraid his reply might be overheard. He conspiratorially cupped his hand to his mouth and whispered, “I believe the Restaurant Raider is here.”
So that was it. The Birmingham Restaurant Raider, the shadowy urban legend of an anonymous restaurant critic. No one knows where the Raider will appear next, so who knows how Guy got it into his mind that he or she was in the club that night.
It was an effort to restore his confidence and get him back to work, which didn’t happen until I had the idea of calling in Currie and Emsworth to report that the Restaurant Raider was not on the premises. So, having been presented with the chef’s half-eaten meat snack, not to mention my fill of mysteries for one night, I decided to grab a table in the lounge and listen to some tunes.
My timing was good, as singer-songwriter Peyton Lang and her guitar had just ascended a stool on stage. She had performed with Trey Lewis, Michael Warren, and Meghan Elliott on a show in the Storytellers series at Pale Eddie’s Pour House a week or so before, and this was her first gig at the Cobalt Club.
“You play the old stuff well,” I told her after a set of Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, and Beatles covers, including a slow but effective arrangement of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” She was sharing a table with her mom and stepdad, Dede and David Markle.
“Old stuff is good stuff,” the modest and reserved 18-year-old said. “Lennon and McCartney, Stevie Nicks, Johnny Cash…they wrote songs about things that really matter.”
“The songwriting process has always fascinated me, probably because it’s a skill I don’t have,” I said. “Can you just sit yourself down and say, ‘I’m going to write a song,’ or does it just come to you?”
“I can make myself write, but it doesn’t sound good. It either comes out depressing or it sounds like it belongs in a Disney movie. Sometimes songs come to me in the middle of the night. I do some of my best work at 4 a.m.”
“Let me give you a quote I once heard a songwriter say,” I prompted, “and you tell me if you agree with it or not. ‘You can’t lie when you try to sing. It betrays you every time.'”
Peyton was silent for a moment. “That’s deep.” She was quiet again, then nodded. “I absolutely agree with that. If I don’t believe what I’m singing, how am I supposed to make other people believe me?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said with a smile. “I was nervous. Very nervous. It took a lot of convincing.”
“It was like pushing a billy goat uphill,” David said.
Dede laughed in agreement. “It was. I’d talk to the wall, but Peyton is so shy, and she doesn’t realize how good she really is.”
Peyton brushed off her mother’s compliment. “I finally told myself, ‘If you want to do this, you’ve got to get over feeling shy and nervous.’ And I really wanted to do this. I still get nervous, but I don’t have the butterflies I used to get. I’ve learned to like being nervous. I feel like if I’m not nervous, what’s the point of doing it? There’s no fun in that.”
“Being nervous is fun?” I asked.
“Yeah, it gives you a rush. I could get paid doing something else if it’s just for the money. The rush is what makes it fun.”
“How would you describe your sound?”
She was thoughtful again. “I guess I’d say a singer-songwriter alternative sound with some pop.” Another pause. “I don’t know. I don’t really have a genre that I fit into. I’m me. I’m not really like anybody else.”
“That’s for sure,” Dede agreed.
“What instruments do you play?” I asked.
“Electric and acoustic guitar, ukulele, and piano,” Peyton said.
“Which is your favorite?”
As I contemplated that unlikely yet undoubtedly fun sound, Currie appeared at my elbow, a folded slip of paper in his hand.
“Baxter asked me to deliver this to you, sir,” he said. “He said a charming young lady left it for you at the bar.”
I unfolded it and read the flowing cursive script: “Always enjoy visiting the club! See you soon! Stay fabulous! (signed) The VIP.”
I sighed. It had been quite a night. First, the Restaurant Raider may or may not have been in the house. Then Chloe gets a clue Stephanie knows nothing about. Now the club receives another visit from the enigmatic VIP.
Had Amelia Earhart and D.B. Cooper walked in at that moment, I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised.