Gossip Grill: A Mike Dodge Nosh

Written in response to: Your character is known as the town gossip. One day, it comes back to bite them.... view prompt



WARNING: Oh my, language.

 “Tonight, seven hometown food trucks will serve up street-side treats and gourmet gossip to compete for a state-of-the-art mobile kitchen and $50,000 to help make their culinary dreams come true…”

“I thought you hated reality shows,” Sarah commented, and I jumped, half out of surprise, half from shame.

“I despise them – the bane of modern pop culture,” I responded, defensively. “But this is a food thing.”

Sarah yawned and shook her head. “Of course it is. Crank it down a little – I could hear it over the sound machine. And don’t stay up half the night. Love.”

“Love,” I called as she disappeared once again into the darkness beyond the family room. I felt around for the remote, nestled back, and cranked.

“Who will serve up the hottest dish on the local food scene? Who will turn up the heat and fire up…the Gossip Grill? Meet Chef Addison, a farm-to-table guru and championship surfer who hopes to release a tidal wave of taste on the streets of Fresno…”

“Ooookay,” I sighed, leaping to Bob’s Burgers. I realized the Millington episode would never see air, but I was curious to see how things literally panned out when there was no homicide on the menu. What had God and Bobby Flay wrought?


The royalty of Millington mobile cuisine was assembled on the Old Courthouse steps when I caught up to Curtis, flanked by cameras and lights and booms and a thick mob of native lookie-loos who’d likely have been looking for an orphanage fire or a multi-car pileup on the beltway if Sir Gerard Ramstell and the crew from Gossip Grill weren’t holding court. The Courthouse Square was Alamoed by a fleet of vans and trailers festooned with outsized tacos and pigzillas and drippy fiberglass sangwiches big as a Serta California King and equipped with flattops, fryers, woks, smokers, and, in one case, a virtual molecular chemistry lab.

Sir Gerard looked like some old boxer who’d been a bit too sporting with Rocky Graziano back when your grandpa had an RCA the size of a Volkswagen but who’d walked away with a $500 haircut and a spanking gold-trimmed tailored chef’s tunic. His brawling, bawling, belittling brand, from Commando Kitchen to Celebrity Commando Kitchen to Commando Kids’ Kitchen and, for all I knew, Commando Kitchen Corgi Edition.

 “A Little Bite of Soul,” Gerard announced, pacing before the five chefs standing motionless before him. Curtis beamed up at his nephew Anton, who was suppressing a grin. “Pastor Luis’ Tropical Taco Wagon. Pho From Heaven. Kabab Qajar. You four have survived the first round, and are now pretenders to the throne of Central Illinois street cuisine. Three of you shall drive off into the sunset at the end of the day. One of you will battle with the Best of the Midwest for a shot at the title of America’s Top Truck. But first…”

Because the Commando franchise had graduated from second-tier cable to the network, Commando Kitchen Subtitle Gossip Grill was a sort of hybrid cooking competition/TMZ-style trash-talk reality blitz. Beyond rustling up dazzling curbside grub and hustling pedestrian window traffic, gourmet gladiators from cities across the continental were expected to diss and dish on their rivals, share (ideally humiliating) insights on their local food scene, and just generally add a soupcon of swagger to the proceedings.

The second-season spotlight was a big deal for Millington, whose last IMDB credits were an SNL parody of the city’s tentpole Fortune 50 employer and a documentary on Midwest hate groups. Making chefs sob keyed in on the community’s vibrant sense of schadenfreude. The Chamber’d resurrected its pre-COVID Eat Local campaign, and Prairie Pilsner Brewhouse and Distillery down by the Home Depot was stocking all the trucks and its owner, Cassidy Klements, had released a new commemorative cranberry and juniper summer shandy, (whatever a shandy was) that sounded to my Boones Farm palate like a Thanksgiving-themed tub and tile cleaner. 

Curtis clearly had an agenda, but I do not argue with rib tips or smoked brisket, especially when someone else is footing the tab. Nonetheless, while I was Team Anton all the way, I examined the competition. Pastor Luis, in his guayabera and graying goatee, served a mean al pastor and tripa taco – I’d had a brace of both at the county fair last summer. I’d been to Mahan and C.J. Azar’s Middle Eastern restaurant near the mall, which had previously been a wing joint that had succeeded a cupcake emporium in the still-recognizable abandoned Pizza Hut that now housed a title loan office. I’d met C.J., a cheerful little blonde who’d once brought me a platter of harpooned meats and rice before COVID closed their base operation, but all I’d known of her burly husband was a disembodied voice in the kitchen humbly acknowledging my compliments.

Rounding out the group was Lap Minh, who’d unsuccessfully experimented with drive-through pho and banh mi sandwiches by the West Side DMV before driving the pho to the people, sans sandwiches. Vietnamese noodle soup proved a big draw for university kids sick of ramen, East Side millennials watching their everything, and the Southeast Asian community at large. I’d done the drive-through, and what hadn’t wound up on my floor mat was delightful.


That shit might fly on cable, but not on the network, and I looked up at the amplified voice. Sir Gerard stopped in his five-foot track and glanced, annoyed, at his crew and then the crowd.

“FUCK…THE…TRUCK! FUCK…THE…TRUCK!” It was a solitary chant on a cheap megaphone, and I quickly spotted the cheap megaphone at the corner of the courthouse, stage right, attached to a thin, balding man in a black T-shirt that consistent with his theme read “FUCK THE TRUCK.” Wondered who took that print order, and if they wondered what the sad-looking dude had against the Teamsters.

“Somebody!” Sir Gerard bellowed, as if to a sous-chef who’d put Parkay in the Chicken Kiev. “Somebody grab that fucking wanker!!” The crowd did a Wimbledon head-pivot toward the protestor, who’d climbed atop a wrought-iron bench. Bronze Abe Lincoln continued to meditate next to him, arm draped over the bench back, while Det. Curtis Mead swam against the tide of largely obese Midwest bodies.

“FUCK THE TRAAAAAAA,” the baldy man managed before two big guys in Gossip Grill tees took him down. And that was that.          


“This nutmeg in the mac?” I inquired. 

As Curtis had effused following Sir Gerard’s break, Anton did his grandpa Cyrus proud. Until Cyrus Mead’s pancreatic death roughly a decade ago, Mead’s BBQ was a legend among anyone willing to grow a set and venture into the cinder block cube next to the West Side tracks with the unintentionally Dali-esque rib mural.

Before I could coerce Chef Anton’s secret recipe, my tips, brisket, drumstick, slaw, cornbread, and mac went flying under the weight of the man who flopped onto the table. 

The man’s lack of hair revealed a little more exposed brain matter than normally pleases me. As the man struggled to raise himself on one wobbly arm, I could read the pithy legend “FUCK THE” on his bloody T-shirt.

The dying dude turned to me, then to Curtis.

“Plate,” he rasped. And that was really that.


“Rod Wencel,” the lanky Anton grunted, sliding a platter on the picnic table before me. “Had that place other side of the Courthouse, The Ballroom.”

“Oh, yeah,” I murmured. “Sue and I used to go there Sunday mornings. They kept sending out those two-for-one coupons.”

“Uh huh, they were gettin’ kinda thirsty by that time. And the food wasn’t half bad. Hit the Sunday brunch buffet few times myself — Wencel had a great kitchen, best alfredo in town, omelet bar rocked, least for awhile. But, you know, Ballroom used to be an old department store. Grandma told me. Shut down in the ‘70s, that Peoria dude finally bought it, tried to make a go as a dance club.”

“‘Til they found the small pharmacy behind the DJ stage, and by small I mean like an Iowa Walgreen’s,” Curtis mused, waving a bone. “Anonymous tip. Then, about maybe a week after the raid, Wencel and his partners — couple of local orthodontists — grab up the property for about nothing.”

After Wencel’s protest ended with a thud, Curtis had apprised him of his conditional good fortune, disarmed his megaphone, and sent him sulking off toward the other side of the square.

Anton shook his head, somewhat sympathetically. “Man’s eyes were bigger than his belly. Utilities on that barn had to be a killer, and the menu was all over the place, which is great for an all-you can-eat, but he put too much weight on getting the Justice Center crowd and the boojie downtown store owners to do white linen, dinner-price lunch. Shoulda kept to nights and weekends, but Wencel thought he was some kinda Bobby Flay or that horndog ponytail dude, Mario whatever.

“Then, the trucks start rolling out, and Wencel just loses his shit. He goes to the Council, knocks down the food truck park the guys wanted where that co-op store burnt down, tries to get us banned downtown altogether. Backfired on the mother-, the gentleman — city limited us to the Courthouse Square, right across the street. Pissed the man off more – started spreading rumors about truck sanitation, said the owners were dumping waste grease down storm sewers. Even started a ‘joke’ around about what kinda meat Mr. Minh was using in his pho.”


“Amen. I was still at school then, but I can imagine what he’d have said about me. And it wasn’t just the trucks, either – Wencel was talking smack about Burrito Gigante next door, the Clover Bakery around the corner, Mickey’s Saloon on the corner. Anonymous calls to the Health Department, cops called out to the downtown bars every Friday night. The orthodontists’d pulled out after the Minh shit and the burrito-bashing – know what they say, it’s all pink inside.“

“Not normally in a dental context,” Curtis chided mildly, shaking a few drops of Frank’s on his fries.

“So when COVID broke out, Wencel went crazier than a run-over dog. With Mr. 5150 in the White House yelling conspiracy, he started trying to draw the batshit crowd. Sign in the front window about big government and citizen rights, free apps or dessert you traded in your mask, and just ignored the city when things went Code Red. You remember, Wencel and a bunch of the redneck bar owners almost got shut down by the city. When he got his state rep to blast the city and Doc Fauci and the governor on the radio, that was it. City moved in on every code violation they could find, half the staff left over the rightwing shit and Arturo the omelet guy winding up on a respirator and Wencel threatening anybody who called in sick. Joint’s been closed about a year now, but Wencel’s still on a rant about the food trucks ‘exploiting’ the mom-and-pops. He got no mom.”


Despite being two blocks from the Law and Justice Complex, it was about an hour before the coroner bussed Rod Wencel, then another hour before Curtis released the scene under mayoral pressure. Sir Gerard was coaxed from his trailer and a new set of tables installed in front of the A Little Bite of Soul trailer, and the kind and accommodating folks of Millington forgot about the battered guy who’d come staggering out between the BBQ and grilled cheese trucks.

It was a delegation that dropped a flag on Sir Gerard’s play about a half-hour later.

“I know this probably seems pretty trivial compared with, you know,” Pastor Luis told Curtis. “But there’s been another crime. Well, crimes. My caldeo – my favorite stock pot, got stolen while you guys were questioning us.”

“And the samovar,” Mahan Azar added quietly. “For the tea.”

“It was his granddad’s, from the old country,” C.J. stressed, squeezing her husband’s muscular arm.

“Somebody’s trying to fuck with us,” Minh argued. “My pho pot. I got two, but I need both if I want to win this thing.”

“Yeah, Uncle Curtis,” Anton murmured apologetically. “You know that big cast-iron skillet Grandpa Cyrus used to fry the chicken at the old place? Denise noticed it was gone after you got done talking to us. Don’t wanna bother you while you’re dealing with Mr. Wencel’s murder and all, but...”

Curtis wiped his face, then blinked at his nephew. “That all that got stolen? Nothing like a platter or dishes or—“

“A plate?” I supplied. “Something big, heavy, good for bashing somebody’s skull in.”

“Just the skillet,” Anton said. “You guys?”

Mahan, C.J., Minh, and Luis exchanged looks. The four shrugged as one, then warily appeared to reconsider each other and what the latest crime wave might mean.

An engine revved, and I jumped. A Millington P.D. cruiser slowly negotiated the parting sea of people.

“Oh, shit,” I breathed. “But first, I need some nutrition. I’m starving.”


“There really was only one answer,” I told the cop and the producer and the five chefs around the picnic table. “Wencel’s last word was ‘plate.’ Little confusing at a food fest, right?”

“We have only bowls,” noted Minh.

“Not my point. How’s the word ‘plate’ ID a killer when you have a half-dozen food trucks serving tacos and ribs and burgers and kabob, and hundreds of hangry Midwesterners gorging themselves on all the above? Don’t overthink it. What’s the simplest explanation?”

Curtis thumped the table once with a self-deprecatory bark, rattling a half-dozen beer bottles and my beef pho, and his nephew regarded him curiously. Then Anton laughed, as well.

“License plate,” he nodded, tipping his own brew. He frowned. “But hold up a second. So Dead Dude was gonna give you his killer’s license plate number?”

“But he didn’t,” Pastor Luis protested. “So that dying clue or whatever you call it’s kinda worthless.”

“Now, is it, though?” I posed. “Let’s break it down. Wencel was killed onsite, we agreed? Too little time between his little speech and the murder. And Main’s blocked off for three blocks around for the network crew.”

“That was the agreement,” Gerard Ramstell drawled frostily. “So, Mr. Dodge, you’re saying one of my contestants is the killer? Or far worse, one of my people?”

“Counting the three contestants eliminated in the first round, we have seven licensed food trucks on the premises. Seven stationary trucks surrounded by tables, trash receptacles, and signage and all that. Giant taco, giant weiner, spray-painted hogs and ribs and noodles and anthropomorphic veggies. And all the chefs and their crews are wearing ID badges. If Wencel couldn’t see his killer’s badge, couldn’t he have simply IDed ‘the taco guy’ or ‘the barbecue guy’ or ‘the kabab koobideh guy.’

“And as for your network crew, you have a bus, an equipment van, and your personal trailer one street over, in the First Second Lakeshore Commerce Bank lot. So like I said, there’s an extremely narrow suspect list. My guess is Wencel was lurking, as Wencel was wont to do, and saw something that forced the killer to cave his skull in. Killer panicked, realizing the cops might easily figure out the blunt object that did the caving, and decided to confuse things a bit. He was the one person at the festival with easy access to nearly every food truck and one of the few with an on-site vehicle permit.”

“The health inspector murdered Wencel?” C.J. piped.

I smirked. “Minh’s pho pot, Mahan’s samovar, Luis’ caldeo, and one of Anton’s skillets went missing after the murder. If I know who the killer is, then I know what he probably conked Wencel with. And I also think I know what Wencel saw that got him killed. Still can’t guess?”

I could tell Curtis had, but he understands seniors need to keep their brains and meager egos stimulated. I reached over and plucked Pastor Luis’ bottle from the wood. The Cranberry Juniper Shandy, to be precise. A blonde nymph romped across what presumably was a New England forest through a shower of tart red berries.

“Local food, local beer. Supplied and stocked by Prairie Pilsner Distillery. I see Cassidy Klements’ SUV over by the Turkey & Waffle Exchange right now, Detective.” Mead strolled several yards away, communed with his phone, and returned. I watched as one of Millington’s finest – or at least one assigned to monitor a food festival , whatever that indicated – tapped the brewmeister’s shoulder and walked him back to the white Explorer with the stein-and-cornstalk emblem on the driver’s door. Cassidy telegraphed clenched body language a block away as the uniform peered into the back hatch. The cop looked up and signaled Curtis. Curtis again engaged Verizon.

“One problem,” Mahan Azar said. “We don’t sell alcohol, not even beer. My family’s insistent.”

“I realized that. Klements hasn’t had time to dispose of any evidence. I’m sure Detective Mead and his guys will find the missing cookware as well as the keg or growler Klements used to brain Wencel in that SUV. But he had no access to your truck, so he had to have an accomplice steal your samovar.” I tapped the label of Luis’ ale. “The accomplice Wencel caught him getting cozy with in some hidden corner or doorway, the one who like him couldn’t afford to have this contest turn into a Povich-level scandal. The accomplice he named his clean, crisp new brew for. Cranberry Juniper – C.J.”

Mahan turned abruptly to his petite wife, then pushed roughly to his feet and stalked back toward his truck. Curtis meanwhile dropped back in.

“I don’t suppose,” Sir Gerard posed, “you might like to reprise your synopsis on camera? It is Gossip Grill, and your logic was quite brilliant.”

Under Curtis’ menacing eye, I shook my head. “Nah, it was one of the basics of classic detection.”

“Nope,” Curtis warned.

“The bottler did it.”

I ate the rest of my pho in solitude.

June 03, 2023 00:47

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Russell Mickler
02:26 Jun 10, 2023

Hi Martin - Okay that was incredible. I really like how you build off of a theme like food in this one, and then dig into spinning off puns and clever prose using that idea. I also like your take on millennials. Sir Gerard Ramstell ... Gordon Ramsay? Grin ... I'm always astounded by your dialogue. How you're able to just pluck personalities out of the air. I mean, read three or four of my stuff and everyone starts sounding the same. Your stories always has unique voices and clever ideas. Loved the allusions to Trump :) Ha - the omelet guy o...


Martin Ross
04:25 Jun 10, 2023

Once you are in the Dodgeverse, there is no escape excepting litigation. Both Trump and Ramsay make me want to punch them in the schnoz — I love cooking shows (and food trucks), but Ramsay has cheapened the whole thing. Wencel’s backstory was a conglomeration of several real local jags. The real omelet chef moved to Chicago to be with family, so do not weep for him. Carlisle sounds great! Hope she had a wonderful time! Thanks, Russell!


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Mary Bendickson
00:43 Jun 04, 2023

Worth reading again.


Martin Ross
01:24 Jun 04, 2023

Thanks, Mary!


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Lily Finch
20:07 Jun 03, 2023

Martin, what a story! I thought your diction and descriptions were bang on. Mysteries are my favourite stories to read but this one was wild. Lots of names and lots of action. Thanks for the good read. LF6


Martin Ross
20:31 Jun 03, 2023

Thanks, Lily!


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Aoi Yamato
01:12 Aug 01, 2023

very good.


Martin Ross
03:17 Aug 01, 2023

Thanks, Aoi!


Aoi Yamato
00:58 Aug 02, 2023



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Drizzt Donovan
13:18 Aug 07, 2023

Another great mystery. Don’t suppose I can request a fantasy mystery with an original character that uses fantasy tropes like enchanted swords and armour? Maybe a collaboration with Russell Mickler? A few elves and hobbits are never a bad thing!


Martin Ross
14:21 Aug 07, 2023

OMG, I should see how Russell and I could do that! Thanks!


Drizzt Donovan
22:50 Aug 12, 2023

You’re welcome and please do. Can’t wait to read it.


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