In the kitchen, Angus made chaos out of the service. Cooks yelled. Waiters and waitresses piled up at the pass and waited for their plates. Glass crashed to the floor. Gorgette roared at his staff, issued some brusque orders and then left via the back way.
His engine carriage picked him up near the main entrance and then puttered along Hightown Street. His driver and engineer sat forward, steering the vehicle and tending the engine respectively. Gorgette sat in a comfortable compartment in the rear safe from the heat and smoke.
Lazlo Cippolini’s restaurant, The Red Hen, lay deep in the twisted, ancient streets of the Old City. The avenues were narrow and bumpy, the buildings short and squat and painted earthy brown. It was on these streets and in these buildings that the first denizens lived and worked. The neighborhood was considered, by most, to be a treasure.
The carriage driver expertly navigated the maze as Gorgette gazed out his window at the dirty brown walls crushing in from both sides. The chef detested the Old City. It was crowded, smelly, and lacked all the style and convenience of Hightown Street. It was only cheap sentimentality that kept it intact. It should have been torn down and replaced by modern shops and homes years ago. So of course Lazlo Cippolini adored the place, and set up his restaurant in one of its dustiest most decrepit corners.
Normally Gorgette was thankful for that fact. Tucked here behind these useless old relics, the Red Hen attracted far fewer customers than the Imperial. By the charter of the Master Chef Society, Gorgette and Cippolini were supposed to share the city, something Gorgette would never do. But with the Red Hen so secluded, and customers so scarce, Cippolini’s lack of influence and notoriety was only natural.
The engine carriage came to a halt in front of the small, plain building. The only distinguishing mark was the hanging wooden sign. On it was carved a crimson chicken sitting in a nest of straw. Gorgette snorted in disgust. It was like the man was trying to be obscure.
He barged into the full dining room. He recognized several of his regular customers. He gave them a false smile as they called his name. Inwardly he snarled. He would take his revenge the next time these traitors ate at his restaurant. He could prepare them a meal that would make them sick, or worse, leave them devastated with all hope torn from their breasts. But no, he couldn’t do anything to them through his own food. He’d have to think of another way to strike back. But that could wait for later.
He stormed into the kitchen startling the staff. The sous chef was by the big roiling pasta pot.
“Chef Gorgette!” he exclaimed.
“Continue,” Gorgette said as he headed for the back.
The sous chef inserted his small body in Gorgette’s path.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
Gorgette fixed him with his glare and the man shrunk before him.
“Your noodles are overcooking.”
The sous chef got out of his way. The man knew better than to interfere with a Master Chef. Whatever his business, it was between him and Cippolini.
Cippolini’s office was a small room in the back. On the cluttered desk was a portrait of the man. Gorgette snorted. Cippolini even looked insignificant; small in stature, with white hair and a nose like a bulb of garlic.
Gorgette checked papers and books in the office. He found nothing unusual. There was no sign that Cippolini shared what he had discovered.
Gorgette smiled. He would report to the others that there was nothing amiss at the Red Hen, which was true. And then when Cippolini’s body was discovered he would act stunned and saddened.
But then a small object caught his eye.
Gorgette stopped in his tracks and nearly stopped breathing. There on the desk was a small flask. He brought it to his nose and recognized the flowery scent. It was the same concoction he’d given the Prince just a few moments ago.
He slid the flask into his pocket. His mind whirled.
What did it mean this flask? Was it evidence Cippolini had gathered against him? No, because then the others would suspect him already. Was Cippolini a hypocrite who secretly devoured souls at his establishment? It comforted Gorgette to think that his enemy was no better than he. But he knew the sanctimonious Cippolini didn’t have the nerve for such a thing. Besides whose soul in this ossified neighborhood would he swallow? Who would be worth the trouble? Was it something else then?
Maybe the flask wasn’t to be used on another but on Cippolini himself.
But why would he try that?
If he knew that death was imminent, might he use this as an escape. Was this possible? Gorgette himself did not know all the uses of the elixir. It could be possible.
Gorgette had to discover the truth. He searched the office with renewed vigor. He tore aside a bookshelf and found Cippolini’s metal door. He couldn’t open it without Cippolini’s signet ring. He should have that soon. He looked around, but found nothing that gave him answers. His pocket watch chimed again but with a different tune.
Gorgette tidied up the office and pushed his way out of the Red Hen and back to his engine carriage.
His driver and engineer brought him back to Hightown Street and the Imperial. Gorgette dismissed both men then headed for the alley in back.
Even in a street as nice as Hightown there were back alleys were the trash heaps sat and waited to be hauled away.
The chef looked around the piles of old peelings, fish bones, and rotten fruit. He fanned his nose. The stench made his eyes water.
“Chef,” A voice hissed. It came from above his head.
Gorgette looked up and saw a man perched on the side of the wall. His arms and legs and body were thin as flagpoles. His head was covered by a flour sack with one eye hole cut out.
“Hodmedod!” Gorgette cried out.
“At your service.”
The assassin scampered down the wall. His long hands and feet gripped the bricks with ease.
Gorgette pointed at the flour sack on the man’s head.
“Why is that on your head?”
“A bit of camouflage.”
Hodmedod was about to remove it.
“No. No. Leave it on. It’s an improvement.”
The assassin bowed deeply, his long limbs stretched out like the wings of a great vulture.
“It is done then?”
Hodmedod hissed, “It is done. The old man is dead on the coal docks.”
“He wasn’t wearing it and it wasn’t on his person,” the assassin lied.
At that moment in fact, Hodmedod had the lead signet ring he’d taken off Lazlo Cippolini in his pocket. It was nearly the twin of Gorgette’s except this one had the image of a wire whisk and a mixing bowl on it. Hodmedod wasn’t in the habit of lying to his employers unless he suspected them of withholding treasures that were rightfully his. And the master chef was definitely holding something back.
“Search for it. You’ll need it,” Gorgette said.
Hodmedod asked, “Why? The contract is complete. I expect my payment.”
“You’re not done yet. Once you’ve located the ring, bring it to me immediately. While you’re at it, I’ve just been to the Red Hen. I want you to make another search to see if there’s anything I missed.”
“Search for what?”
“Anything related to me. Also, did Cippolini have anything unusual on him?”
“There’s no point in me describing it. You couldn’t possibly fail to notice.”
Gorgette paced around. So close to victory he needed to make sure all details were perfect, that nothing was out of place. The meal was ready to be plated. He couldn’t allow it to be ruined by a lack of garnish.
“Was there anyone with Cippolini before he died?”
“A small boy. A street urchin. But he saw nothing.”
Gorgette wondered. Could some boy from the streets possibly threaten him?
“Before you search the Red Hen, I want you to find this boy.”
“Do you want me to kill him too?”
“Just observe. If he’s unusual in any way-“
“There’s that word again. ‘Unusual.’ Can you not just say what it is I’m looking for?”
Gorgette loudly cleared his throat to show his displeasure. He wasn’t a man to be interrupted.
“If he appears anything other than an ordinary street rat, I want you to bring him here, to me.”
The assassin bristled. This chef had more secrets than any prince he’d ever worked for. But great secrets often lead to great fortune, if one watched for the opportunity.
“As you wish,” Hodmedod replied.