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A Taste of the Nightlife — Chapter One

“Charlotte!  He left me!”

The kitchen door banged open and a blur of color hurtled past the hot line.

“The wedding’s in ten days!” The intruder — whose name, incidentally, was Felicity Garnett — shouted over the the hyperactive drumbeat of thudding chef’s knives.  “Ten days and he left me alone!”

Being grabbed and shaken by a hysterical woman in a designer pants suit is never a good thing.  Just then it was particularly bad.  For starters, I had a fish knife in my hand and a lovely fillet of sushi-grade tuna on my board that needed my attention.  It also happened to be five o’clock on Thursday afternoon, I was heading up the dinner prep for my restaurant Nightlife.

The door from the dining room banged open again.  “I’m so sorry, Chef Caine…”  Robert Kemp, my white-haired, English maitre d’ rushed in, looking as mortified as I’ve ever seen him, but pulled up short when he saw our intruder had me in a death grip.

Felicity ignored him.  “You can’t say no.”  She shook me for emphasis.  “You’re not going to say no!  If you say no, it’s over!”

Now, it’s one thing when random passers-by have hysterics on the street.  I mean, that’s just New York City.  It’s totally different when those hysterics erupt in a confined space full of knives, fire and massive pots of simmering stock.  My crew was busy at their stations; chopping mise en place, seasoning soups, checking the temperature of the ovens and making sure the containers of fresh ingredients and garnishes were in place for when we opened at eight.  I had to get Felicity out of the middle of the hot, fragrant, noisy, frenetic action before somebody and their new spring Donna Karan pumps got hurt.

Knotting my fingers into her jacket collar, I spun Felicity around to face the door.

“No!” she wailed.  “You can’t!  He left…”

“You.  Yes.  Got that.  Zoe, Reese, keep it moving in here.”

“Yes, Chef,” replied Zoe, my petite, eagle-eyed executive sous, calmly from the dessert station.

Reese, on the other hand, is an ex-drill sergeant with a manic Spongebob laugh that would have given Alfred Hitchcock goosebumps.  “Hear that, slackers?” he boomed.  “You’re mine, now!”

“It’s…!” Felicity began again.

Robert held the door allowing me to shove Felicity bodily out of the bright kitchen into Nightlife’s dim, cool, and much, much less hazardous dining room.

“But…!”

“Felicity!” I spun her back around, put my hand under her pointy chin, and pushed her jaw closed.  “Cut it out!”

Felicity’s tears shut off like she’d thrown a switch somewhere, and her wide, wild amber eyes narrowed in raccoon-masked fury.

“Cut.  It.  Out.”  I said again, to make sure she fully understood the nuances of the phrase.  “Are you going to cut it out?”

Felicity’s chin trembled against my palm, but she nodded.

“Okay.”  I let her go.  Felicity drew in a deep, shuddering breath and I had my hand ready again, just in case.  She held up her own palm in answer.  I nodded, and waved back Robert , who was hovering just out of Felicity’s field of vision.

Of all the professional acquaintances I might suspect capable of total disintegration during dinner prep, Felicity Garnett was not one of them.  Far from being a bride left at the altar, Felicity was one of the highest of the high-end event coordinators in Manhattan.  She regularly stage managed the Big Day for discerning daughters of Fortune One Hundred families.  I had personally seen her face down a bride who had been slipped an extra caffeine dose in her triple-mocha latte, gotten hold of the cake knife and threatened to carve up the room unless the flowers were switched from golden dawn peonies to summer azure delphiniums right now.

We’d sort of lost touch since she shot up the ladder in her chosen profession, and I…stalled.  Well, maybe not stalled, but there had been a few setbacks.  The biggest had come last fall when my restaurant, Nightlife, experienced a murder on the premises, a take-over attempt that could charitably be described as hostile, and the departure of my vampire brother who had been part owner of the establishment.  All little things, of course, but they did raise eyebrows in certain circles.

“I’m sorry, Charlotte.”  Felicity brushed at her black jacket and tried to adjust the collar of the plum silk blouse underneath.  “But he…”

“He walked out on you.  You said.  You want to tell me who ‘he’ is?”

“Oscar Simmons.”

The name hit me with a dull thud.  What Felicity was to event planners, Oscar Simmons was to executive chefs, except Oscar got way more time on the morning talk shows and the foodie networks.  Oscar and I also had what gets called “history.”  Unfortunately, it was the kind of history that involves barbarian hordes and burning cities. “Felicity, do not tell me you hired Oscar for a high-pressure event.”

“I know, I know.  But he’s one of the most talked about chefs in Manhattan…”

“There’s a reason for that.”

“And he just won the Epicurean award…”

“He was sleeping with a judge.”

“Saucer of cream with that attitude, Charlotte?”  Felicity’s eyes glimmered as anger waded back through her private swamp of desperation.

“That attitude is why I’m not the one running around on a Thursday evening like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off.”

“Maybe we should just go back in the kitchen so you can have one of your cooks rub extra salt in the wound.”  Felicity pushed a lock of hair copper-highlighted hair off her cheek and her fragile confidence wavered again.  “Oh, God.  It’s all over.”

Now it was my turn for the deep breath.  Starting round the bend of another weepy conversational circle was not going to get the story out of Felicity, especially not before opening time.  Intervention was clearly necessary.

“Want a drink?”

Felicity looked at me like I was an angel descending from on high.  “Please.  Coffee.  Black.”

If I hadn’t known things were serious before, I did now.  Felicity was strictly a skinny half-caf cappuccino kind of woman.  I pulled two mugs of coffee from the industrial-sized urn we keep hot for the staff and gestured Felicity over to table nineteen.  Around us, Nightlife’s long, narrow dining room held the hushed anticipation of a stage before the curtain goes up.  We open a little later than most dinner places, because Nightlife’s specialty is haut noir cusine — that is we cater to both human and paranormal customers and tastes.  This is a big job in Manhattan where the magically-oriented minorities are growing faster than scandals around a reality show star, and finding a place where a mixed party can share a meal without anybody getting hurt can still be a challenge.  At the moment, the warm golden track lighting was turned down low, bringing out the highlights in the antique oak bar that runs along the wall.  Our tables were perfectly laid out with gold under cloth, white over cloth and settings of pristine white dishes.  Clatter and bustle drifted non-stop out from the kitchen, but it sounded thin and far away.

“What kind of wedding has got you this wound up?”  I asked Felicity as I handed across the coffee.

“Vampires versus Witches, to the tune of five hundred thousand dollars.”

I allowed a moment of respectful silence for the dollar figure.  That alone was worth getting dramatic over.  Even with this level of promised payoff, though, coordinating a wedding between vampires and witches took guts.  There’s a lot of fuss made about the supposed rivalry between vampires and werewolves, but the deepest hatreds run between vampires and witches.  And for heaven’s sake, don’t get either side started on how this came about.  It’s worse than a bar fight between Red Sox and Yankees fans.  Most people think it started with the Five Points Riot in the eighties, but some feuds go back centuries.  If they involve one of the big witch clans, like the Maddoxes or the Coreys, they can rack up serious body counts and gallons of, you should excuse the expression, bad blood.

Felicity gulped down hot coffee like it was ice water.  I watched, eyebrows raised.

“You’ll get a stomachache.”

“Too late.”  She gasped.  “Give me a Tums and I can tell you what vintage it is.”

“Join the club.  Felicity, I’m glad you like the coffee, but if you want my help for something, you need to get a move on.”  My front-of-house staff would be arriving soon.  We had family meal to serve, prep to finish, and, based on the reservations list Robert had shown me, a decent-sized dinner crowd on the way.

“Okay, okay.  Back in November I got a call from Adrienne Alden.”  Felicity paused and looked at me.

“Adrienne Alden!” I exclaimed.

The corners of Felicity’s mouth flickered upwards.  “You’ve got no idea who she is, do you?”

“Robert,” I called over to my maitre d’, who was busy with the computer at the host station.  “Who’s Adrienne Alden?”

“Mrs. Adrienne Alden, married to Scott Alden,” replied Robert without hesitation, or even looking back at me.  He has a social register in his brain that is the envy of restauranteurs throughout Manhattan.  “Scott Alden is CEO of North Island Holdings and oldest son of the very prominent Alden family.  Mrs. Alden is on the board of several important charities and galleries, and lunches with a highly exclusive group of similarly connected ladies.”

I turned back to Felicity and translated this into my own terms.  “Adrienne Alden gets a good table on Saturday night, and possibly a complimentary appetizer.”

“She’s also got a daughter named Deanna,” said Felicity.  “Last year, Deanna Alden got engaged to Gabriel Renault, a nightblood originally from Paris, or so he says.”  “Nightbloods,” — that is, vampires — have been known to get a little cagey about where they’re actually from.  It’s way more romantic to be Nightblood Victor from “Paree” than plain old Vampire Vic from Hoboken.

“So, groom’s the vamp, and the bride’s the witch?”

Felicity frowned.  “Well, the mother’s a witch.  I’m not entirely clear on the daughter.”

This, clearly, was one of those times when discretion was the better part of sarcasm.

“Anyway,” Felicity took another swallow of coffee.  “Mrs. Alden decided Deanna and Gabriel were going to have the wedding of the decade.”  She paused.  “I would have called you to do the catering right away, you know.” Felicity seasoned her earnestness with that special blend of tension that comes when you realize you may have already screwed up.  “But back in November things…weren’t going so well for you.”

“You mean back in November I was standing in front of a jury while recovering from smoke inhalation, trying to explain that I shouldn’t be sent to jail for burning down a vampire bar.”  A situation that resulted directly from a clash between the aforementioned Maddox witch clan and some vampires, one of whom happened to be my brother, Chet.

“That qualifies as things not going so well.”

“They did get better.”  Kind of.  Mostly.  Except for some little hold-over issues, like how the fact that I was now sort-of-kind-of-yeah-okay dating Brendan Maddox had not endeared me to some of the the more hard-line members of that particular magically-oriented family.

Focus, Charlotte.  “So, you called Oscar Simmons, even though you know he’s the restaurant world’s biggest prima donna.  A title for which there is hefty competition, may I add.  What were you thinking, again?”

“The society page of the New York Times,” said Felicity to what was left of her coffee.  “And did I mention five hundred thousand dollars?”

“You’ve seen both before.”

“I know, I know.”  Felicity wilted down until her chin was in danger of dipping into her mug.

A very unpleasant idea settled into my brain.  “You’re not sleeping with Oscar, were you?”

“What do you take me for?  I don’t sleep with chefs.  No offense.”

“You’re not my type.”

“Besides, he’s with somebody else right now.”

“Oscar’s always with somebody else.  Being unavailable is supposedly part of his charm.”  This is to me one of life’s great mysteries.  What is attractive about a guy who is ready and willing to walk out on his current relationship at the drop of a toque?  Especially if you stop and think for just one second that the same guy could just as easily walk out on you.

“So, if it wasn’t personal, what pushed Oscar over the edge?”

“That’s the problem.  I don’t know.  I spent hours on the phone with him yesterday.  I went over to Perception and camped out on his doorstep.  All he’ll say is he’s pulling out of the Alden-Renault wedding, and he’s stopped returning my calls.”

“Sounds like he’s trying to up his fee.”

“He returned his fee.”

“Oh.”  I sipped coffee while the gears in my head ground hard to keep up with this new conversational turn.  Part of the reason Oscar was so successful was that he was an Olympic-level penny pincher.  “What about his staff?  He must have a sous who…”

“He told them he’d fire them all if they took over the job.”

This was hardly reasonable, but at least it sounded like the Oscar Simmons I knew.  “And you’ve really got no idea what brought this on?”

“I swear, Charlotte.  I’ve tried to find out, but no one will tell me anything.”  Felicity leaned toward me and I realized at some point in our conversation she’d stopped blinking.  “This was supposed to be the biggest paranormal event since the vampires came out of the coffin.  Now, the client’s talking about postponing, the bride’s talking about eloping, I’ve got no caterer and only ten days until the zero hour.  You have got to help me.”

“Felicity, I don’t know.  Nightlife’s on shaky ground, and I haven’t got a full staff…”

“Did I mention the hundred thousand dollars?”

“That’s the food budget?”

“That’s your fee.”

It was a long moment before I could answer, because I had to concentrate all my energies on not leaping to my feet, or starting to drool.  Felicity clearly found hope in my hesitation.  She was blinking again, and color returned to her ravaged face.  She was also jumping to conclusions, probably fueled by rapid caffeine intake.  Something was missing in her story.  It poked at me like a pin bone under my fingertips.

“Felicity, tell me what this job entails.  Exactly.”

“Wedding day catering includes breakfast and lunch buffets, hors d’oeuvres, sit down five course dinner, plated dessert, plus the cake.  Besides that, you come out to the house and act as personal chef for the family and guests until the wedding.”

I let all this sink in next to the internal spreadsheet all executive chefs carry deep within them.

“One hundred thousand,” said Felicity again.  “Over and above the budget for food and staff.  Pure profit after taxes.  You can plow it all straight into Nightlife.”

I took a deep breath.  “Felicity?”

She leaned forward.  “Yes?”

“Two hundred thousand.”

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