Kelly Simmons is one of 13 local writers contributing to Philadelphia Stories' serial murder mystery "Naked Came the Cheesesteak," which launches online Sunday at philadelphiastories.org. The excerpt that follows was taken from the first chapter, "Angela and Josh."
When my boyfriend, Josh, missed the first course of homemade gnocchi at my mother's party last Saturday night, my first instinct was not to dump him over Twitter. There had to be a perfectly good reason he was late to meet my entire family for the very first time. Like that he was dead, for instance.
I got up from the table abruptly, my black leggings catching the nubs of the white lace tablecloth, threatening to pull over the bowl of red gravy. I said: "He's not answering his texts. I'm gonna go find out what's wrong."
"Can I have his veal chop?" my brother Michael said.
"You can have my hand upside your head," I replied.
"He's probably just caught in traffic," my father said.
"No, he's over an hour late. Something's wrong."
"Maybe the food truck was robbed?" Michael said, his mouth so full of gnocchi I could barely understand him.
Josh owned a food truck called Naked Philly that sold organic salads and sandwiches, and was super-popular on college campuses, especially Drexel, where I had just started my senior year. Thanks to a brilliant Instagram mashup of my cleavage and Josh's cabbage, his truck was popular with the guys. And since many of my sorority sisters eat only kale and chia seeds, he's also popular with the girls. And maybe, just maybe, the fact that Josh looked like a California model helped. I mean mad kitchen skills and a Botticelli angel for a girlfriend can get you only so far.
"There was another truck robbed October 1st," I said. I remembered because it was my father's birthday. Now it was the 15th of October - maybe there had been a rash of burglaries and I'd missed it.
"I'll call you when I know more," I said, then walked outside to hail a cab.
Crime tape wrapped the corner where Josh's truck always sat. It formed a triangle around the traffic light, a no parking sign, and the two folding stairs behind the truck, where Josh and his co-chef, Bernardo, took their breaks. Two police cars and an ambulance blocked the street.
"Josh!" I called out, as if he'd just pop his head through the truck window like any other day. A technician wearing gloves started sweeping the surface of the Naked Philly sign with a brush. The sign featured abstract paintings of nude women, and this dude spent an awful long time dusting the nipples for fingerprints. A uniformed cop sauntered up to one of the folding chairs and sat down with a sigh.
I limboed under the crime tape. "What's going on here?"
"You gotta step off, Miss," the cop said, without getting up. "Crime scene."
"Yeah, I can read, OK? What happened? Where's Josh?"
"The owner of this truck!"
"You a relative of Mr. Whitcomb?"
"Oh, my God," I cried. "Is Josh dead? Was he robbed at gunpoint by some crack addict pretending to want an artisanal pretzel?"
The cop blinked at me several times, as if trying to communicate via some kind of eyelash Morse code. I was familiar with this; I had been communicating this way to my hot professors for years. Then he stood up with a groan, leaned in to his walkie and said, "Simon? Need you out here." Then he turned back to me. "He's not dead, just handcuffed."
"Handcuffed? Well uncuff him! He's not saying anything anyway, not until-"
"I assume from your mode of dress that you are not his lawyer."
I looked down at my leggings and boots, my fitted down jacket and blue scarf that matched the color of my eyes. I really should have Snapchatted this outfit.
"What is that supposed to mean? How do you know what lawyers wear when they go home for dinner, huh?"
I felt a hand on my elbow, and before I knew it, a young black woman in a tan coat was standing by my side, flashing me a badge, and telling me she was Detective Simon, leading the investigation.
"There's been a murder."
"Murder? Josh wouldn't murder anyone. Unless it was Bernardo? Because they work in tight quarters and he is annoying."
"We're conducting an investigation. He's a suspect. He's in custody, and we're waiting for his lawyer to release him. It shouldn't be much longer. But you can't be inside the crime tape, OK?"
A small clutch of people stood near the corner, watching the big nothing that was happening, talking as if something was. I noticed a chalk body outline behind the truck. I'd never seen a real one before; people didn't usually leave bodies on the sidewalk of South Philly. That's what trunks were for.
There was one guy close to my age taking an awful lot of photos with his phone. I sidled up to him.
"Angela Nicholetti. Drexel nursing student. So you know who died?"
"A young guy. Lacrosse player. At least I hope he was a lacrosse player, since he was carrying a stick. Pretty affected otherwise."
"Was he strangled?"
The smile drained from his face. "Why do you ask that?"
"Maybe they cleaned the blood up."
I shrugged. Judging from the butchers at the Italian Market, blood on the sidewalk didn't clean up that easy. You needed to work at it. "So you don't know what happened."
"Actually, I do. Mr. Lacrosse Player was poisoned."
He nodded ruefully. Well, that explained why they thought Josh was involved. A dead man poisoned right behind their truck.
"Yeah, word to the wise: Don't order the vegan cheesesteak."
I shook my head. I had told Josh it was a crazy idea - how could you have a cheesesteak without cheese and without steak? What was left, just some grilled onions on a soft roll from Sarcone's? But he hadn't listened. Named it "The Without," and he was so proud of it. But you don't mess with tradition.
He gave me his business card and turned to leave.
"Hey," I called after him, "you're not like a food writer, are you?"
"No," he said and blinked. "Why?"
"Because you might write a bad review of Josh's cheesesteak."
"You mean, because there was poison in it?"
"You don't know that," I said. "Maybe the last customer before him poisoned the ketchup. Or maybe the poison was on a napkin the guy had in his pocket. Or in his mouthguard. Maybe he was wearing a mouthguard after lacrosse practice."
"You're either a very creative person," he smiled, "or you're a career criminal."
"Thank you," I said, brandishing his card. I smiled and stood a little taller, the way I always do after a compliment. The light shimmered across the Abramson Center down the street, and every time the automatic doors opened, I heard the faint tones of a piano being played in the lobby. They do that to calm people with cancer, but it made me feel a little better too. I walked in the opposite direction. At the stoplight I thought, crap, does this mean I have cancer?
The 12 other contributors to "Naked Came the Cheesesteak" are Diane Ayres, Randall Brown, Mary Anna Evans, Gregory Frost, Shaun Haurin, Victoria Janssen, Merry Jones, Tony Knighton, Don Lafferty, Warren Longmire, Kelly McQuain, and Nathaniel Popkin. Editors are Tori Bond and Mitchell A. Sommers.