Story-A-Day May #20: The Maltese Bread

Today’s storyaday.org prompt is simply to write a story inspired by food.

This time, mine features a hard-boiled office worker on the trail of a break room thief.

***

The Maltese Bread

The most difficult case of my career began on a typical gloomy day in this office of saints and sinners, with a hard rain falling sideways against the windows. I assumed. I couldn’t see the windows from my tiny cubicle.

Like usual on a Wednesday, I was trying to appear busy when trouble walked through my door. Or she would have, if my cubicle had one.

She pulled up a chair, crossed her legs, and lit up a cigarette, flaunting both office policy and common sense, considering the sprinklers overhead. “I understand you’re the man to talk to about a missing lunch.”

“Depends on who’s asking.” I clicked my pen and prepared to fill out her name on a form. If she wasn’t from my department, I couldn’t help her.

“Holly Deaver.”

“Is that Miss or Mrs.?”

Her glossy red lips twitched. “Depends on who’s asking.”

I held up the form. “Bureaucracy.”

“Too bad.”

I set the form aside in favor of an old, beat-up notepad. “Why don’t you start at the beginning. What did this lunch look like?”

She quickly puffed her cigarette, looking strangely nervous. “Brown paper bag. HOLLY written on it in black sharpie. Underlined twice. This isn’t the first time I’ve had trouble.”

“But it is the first time you came to me,” I pointed out, scribbling away. What made this occasion different, more important? “What was in the bag?”

“A tuna sandwich, made with Maltese bread.” She put an unusual emphasis on those last two words, like they should mean something to me.

“Never heard of it. What kind of bread are we talking about? Wheat? Rye?”

“Sourdough.”

I gave a low whistle. That wasn’t chicken feed. The culprit knew how to find the good stuff, while ignoring the cheap, easy targets —  Sally’s protein shakes, George’s kale chips, Huey’s notorious peanut butter, jelly, and cheese sandwiches. A man in my business had to learn everyone’s habits.

“Where’s the last place you saw it?” I asked.

Holly exhaled with impatience. “The fridge in the fourth-floor break room, where I left it this morning.”

It all sounded innocent enough, but I’d been around the block a few times. Something smelled rotten. I glanced down at my watch. “It’s 11:35, Miss Deaver. Even if you sprinted straight from the break-room to my cubicle, it would have been 11:30 at the latest when you discovered the theft. Isn’t that an awfully early lunch?”

“I- Yes, of course.” She stubbed out her cigarette on my mousepad and hastily lit up another. “I was concerned someone might have stolen it, so I went to check before lunchtime. As I said, this isn’t the first incident.”

“Should I assume this check took place during unscheduled, unauthorized break time? That won’t sit well with the managers.”

“Assume whatever you like!” she said with exasperation. “My hunch was correct, and it’s your responsibility to catch the thief.”

She had me dead to rights. I was left with no choice but to head down to the fourth floor and begin my investigation.

There were already two anxious-looking office drones in the break room when I arrived — George and Huey. Apparently, word had got around about a missing lunch. I asked them if their own lunches were missing, but they shook their heads like wet dogs. Then why were they so nervous?

I didn’t find any clues around the tables and chairs, the cabinets, or the microwave — except that someone had obviously been heating up fish again, in violation of last month’s office-wide memo. My nose twitched in irritation.

I scoured the fridge from top to bottom. All the usual suspects I’d committed to memory were present: including George’s kale and Huey’s sandwich abominations. All except one. No protein shake. Come to think of it, no sign of Sally, either. Wasn’t she worried about her own lunch? Had it been stolen, too, to wash down the Maltese bread?

All three workers claimed they hadn’t seen Sally since her arrival this morning. She wasn’t in her cubicle, either. By now, sirens were going off in my head, like a three-alarm fire.

Enlisting the three workers to help me, I conducted a full search of the fourth floor. At last, I spied a woman’s body hidden between two photocopiers and called for help.

“Is she dead?” asked Huey, hands to his eyes.

I dabbed my finger in the black puddle spilling from her mug, touched it to my tongue, and shivered. “Sleeping. Someone spiked her coffee with decaf.”

They all gasped, and Holly squeezed my shoulder.

This was an unexpected turn of events. Sally’s poisoning had to be connected to the theft, somehow. What was I missing?

“We need to find that missing paper bag, even if the sandwich is already gone,” I said. “We’ll split into pairs, for safety. Huey, you come with me. George and Holly, search every inch of this place, including the trash cans. Don’t let your partner out of sight.”

Huey and I had barely been at it for five minutes when a scream rang out from the far side of the office. I ran towards it, past rows of lifeless office drones who didn’t seem bothered.

Near some plastic shrubbery, George lay unconscious, with a growing welt on the back of his skull. Holly stood over him, clutching a brown paper bag.

“I found the sandwich hidden behind the potted plant,” she said breathlessly. “But George attacked me, out of nowhere! I only just managed to fend him off. He must have been the thief.”

A tidy story. A little too tidy. I peered closer at the paper bag she held, getting a good look at both sides. It was unmarked. No “Holly” written in sharpie, no underlines. That lunch had belonged to some poor, naive sucker who still believed in the goodness of the human heart, and the trustworthiness of her office mates.

I shook my head, seeing the truth all too clearly. “The Maltese bread was never yours, Holly. It was Sally’s. That’s why she didn’t bring a protein shake today. That’s why you drugged her, so you could steal her lunch without any obstacles. But someone beat you to the punch. Not Huey, not a man with such horrifically bad taste in food. It could only be George. That’s why you came to blows when the sandwich was discovered.”

Holly laughed nervously. “That’s some story. But I’m going to enjoy this artisanal bread now, and no one is going to stop me.” She withdrew the sandwich from the bag and raised it to her lips.

“Stop! I’m warning you, Holly.” I scooped up a rubber band from a nearby desk and stretched it with my fingers in the shape of a gun.

She hesitated, then smirked while batting those big baby blues. “You couldn’t shoot me, Larry. Not after all we’ve been through.”

“Don’t bet on it.”

She opened her mouth for a bite.

The rubber band took her between the eyes.

Holly spun around dramatically, scattering papers everywhere, knocking over cubicle walls and computers. Sparks flew from damaged power cords, and the sprinklers came on.

I stood there in the pouring sprinkler-rain, stoically looking down at the unconscious Holly. Why did it have to end like this?

Meanwhile, workers ran about like headless chickens, trying to clean up a mess that a hundred janitors, and a thousand bottles of bleach, couldn’t scrub out.

The boss finally wandered out of his corner office, looking around in shock and confusion. Always a day late and a dollar short. He picked up the fallen, crusty hunk of bread. “Larry, what is this?”

Wearing a rueful expression, I took the bread from him and nibbled at the corner. Hints of tomato and olive oil. Not bad. “The, uh… stuff that lunches are made of.”

***

Thanks for reading!

2 thoughts on “Story-A-Day May #20: The Maltese Bread

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