THE waiter with the wine tray approached, and Rafe Chastain snagged two glasses for himself. He downed one immediately and set the empty glass back on the tray. That’s when he noticed two familiar faces in the room.
“Roman. Neville,” he said, nodding in their general directions. Then he ran his fingers through his short, iron-gray hair, showing off the tattoos on his gangly forearms. Finally, he sniffed the air.
“Yum-yum. Something smells good.”
Frowning, Neville Perry glanced at his watch again. “I hope the food hasn’t gone cold. It’s been so long.”
Chastain smirked at the dig but held back his reply when he saw an older Asian woman bowing graciously before us.
“I’m Mrs. Weng. Welcome to my house.”
“Quiet, kids. The show’s starting,” Chastain loudly whispered.
“Tonight you will experience the cuisine of Chef Moon Pac,” Mrs. Weng continued. “Born in Chonju, South Korea, Moon Pac first learned to cook beside his Malaysian mother. The chef moved from there to some of the finest kitchens in Asia. He apprenticed at Jeolla Hoigwan, then went to Hong Kong and cooked at the Hoi Tin Garden -”
“I’m impressed,” Chastain interrupted before draining his second glass.
“Now he’s here,” the woman added, “and Chef Pac is ready to bring his unique fusion of Eastern cuisine to America. Please be seated.”
Chastain snatched another glass of wine from the waiter’s tray and suddenly hooked my arm. “Clare, wasn’t it? Come sit beside me, honey.”
“But I was speaking with Neville-”
“Yeah, Rafe, hands off,” Perry said. “I saw her first.”
“Gentlemen,” Roman interrupted. “Clare accompanied me to the ball.”
Chastain shrugged but failed to release me. “Fine. Then you two Flying Monkeys can sit next to us.”
Roman sniffed. “That’s Mr. Flying Monkey to you!”
Chastain took the seat at the far end of the table, near the house’s back patio door, and plopped me down beside him. I quickly offered Neville Perry the seat to my right. Roman settled into the chair across the table. Then the waiters streamed in with the first course.
“Malaysian hotcakes with curry dipping sauce,” our hostess announced.
A platter with a pile of hot, sticky dough, thin as tissue paper, sat beside a bowl containing a breast portion of chicken in a curry-colored sauce.
“Do they have to serve it with the bones?” asked a woman at the other end of the table.
Chef Chastain smirked. “The bones are where the flavor is, baby. They make the sauce rich and savory.” He tore into the thin pancake and plunged it into the bowl of hot sauce.
“This roti is the best Malaysian flatbread I’ve ever tasted,” Perry declared, his mouth still full.
“The sauce is piquant,” Roman noted. “It’s reminiscent of murgh makhani-classic Indian butter chicken-but without the tomato base.”
“Mmmmm. Besides the ginger, I taste garlic, coriander, cumin, and white pepper,” Chastain said. “Too much white pepper.”
“A few too many sprigs of lemongrass, as well,” Roman said.
Neville Perry caught my eye. “And a few too many critics. Don’t you think, Clare?”
I couldn’t argue. The crepelike pancake was so moist and delicious it almost tasted fried. And the dipping sauce was luxuriously succulent-buttery smooth yet spicy with the faintest kiss of heat. But I wasn’t here for the food. As I chewed and swallowed, I considered my next step with Perry.
Just go for it, Clare. Reel him in, pull the rug out, and see how he reacts.
I waited for the next course to come, ipol poh piah, a steamed Malaysian spring roll stuffed with white turnip, egg, onions, minced dried shrimp, and a salty fish paste. Roman and Chastain began discussing the benefits of dried versus fresh herbs and spices, and I laid my hand on Neville’s.
Time to get down to business.
“You’re a pretty popular guy among my employees,” I said, summoning a warm (hopefully trustworthy) smile. “In fact, one of my baristas swore you were near our coffeehouse the other night. Or maybe it was last night?”
“The Village Blend?” Neville shrugged. “Could be. I hang in the Village a lot, when I’m not downtown.”
“Is that where you live?” I leaned toward him. “Downtown?”
He smiled flirtatiously. “I can give you my number if you like. See, I’m transitioning. I had to move out of my old place; now I’m checking different neighborhoods to see what suits me.”
“You should try the Village,” I said. “Someplace historic. Or are you more interested in the modern amenities? The apartments in the Time Warner Center are luxurious. I was there today, at Trend’s offices, visiting my friend Breanne Summour…”
That did it. Neville had been fine conversing with Roman earlier. At the first mention of Breanne’s name, the freshness of Neville’s smile expired. I saw his reaction and decided to up the pressure.
“I read that piece on your site. You know, the one about ‘serving’ Breanne? A little too Hannibal Lecter, don’t you think? Or is it just that you don’t like my friend very much?”
Neville dropped his flat bread. “What I don’t like, Clare, are bullies. Especially so-called trendsetters who wield their huge circulation and massive advertising base like a sword over everyone’s head. A sword that’s always ready to chop you off at the knees.”
Head? Knees? Brother, this guy was into chopping body parts. Now he just needs to say the right words, threaten Breanne with harm, violence, something specific. Come on, Neville…
Reaching for his napkin, Neville sat back in his chair. “Anyway, your friend Breanne is big enough to take my insults. Believe me, she has them coming. That’s why I started my blog. Thanks to the Internet, magazines and newspapers no longer have a lock on taste or opinion. In my blog, everyone out there can hear what I have to say. The other side of the story-”
“Wow,” Roman interrupted. “There’s another side to serving up expired poultry, seafood, and produce to your customers? Please, Neville. Let’s hear it.”
Neville narrowed his pale-green eyes. “For one thing, Brio, those products weren’t expired. They were frozen and thawed, not that I’d expect Ms. Summour to tell the truth. Okay, not the freshest ingredients, maybe. But at that point the restaurant was in trouble. I had to cut corners to keep the dream alive and protect the livelihood of my employees.”
“If you cared so much for your staff, why did you gouge their tips?” Roman demanded, all playfulness gone from his tone. (I’d almost forgotten how he’d started out in this town-as a lowly waiter, dependent on tips to make the rent.)
Neville met Roman’s accusing gaze, leaned forward, and pounded his fist on the table hard enough to shake the wine-glasses. Conversations stopped, and the other diners looked his way.
“Just because your boss published that crap, doesn’t make it true. I was cleared by the arbitration board. I’m still waiting for Summour to print a retraction-”
Okay, here we go. Threaten Breanne now, buddy, get it out…
“And I’ll tell you one more thing-”
“Jesus Christ!” Chef Chastain spat. “Will you give it a rest. Some of us are here for a relaxing evening!” He lowered his voice. “I’d like to digest.”
Perry’s flushed face glanced around. “Sorry,” he said and sat back in his chair.
Damn! Chastain’s outburst effectively doused Perry’s rage. I was annoyed at first-he’d been so close to a real threat-but then I thought it over.
Would an adolescent mind close to homicidal rage really be able to control his temper so fast?
“Ikan bakar,” the hostess announced.
“How delightful,” Roman said, his own fury dissipating in the tempting aromatics of the newly arrived dish.
“What is it?” I asked quietly.
He leaned toward me. “It’s a Malaysian dish of seafood grilled using fragrant charcoal.”
“Is that all you’ve got for her, Brio?” Chastain drained another glass of wine and turned toward me. “Ikan bakar means ‘burnt fish’ in Malay, honey. The seafood is marinated in a slew of spices and a chili and fermented shrimp paste called sambal belacan.”
The tight space filled with a charcoal aroma as the plates were served. Each dish contained three strips of seared white flesh with blackened edges and visible grill marks, served on a banana leaf.
“Man, Chef Moon Pac really went all out on the presentation.” Perry’s genial mask was obviously back in place (if it was a mask).
Chastain signaled to his waiter. “Is this sotong?”
“That’s squid for you civilians,” Roman said.
The waiter shook his head. “Stingray.”
As I considered my next line of questioning, I watched the waiters place three large white bowls on the table. Each contained a mashed chili paste that resembled a thick salsa. Beside each was a plate of bamboo skewers.
“This is sambal belacan, very hot,” the hostess said. “It contains a chili pepper called bhut jolokia-”
“Christ, are you kidding me?” Chastain squawked. “That stuff’s like an 800,000 on the Scoville scale!”
“The what scale?” asked a man at the end of the table.
Roman rolled his eyes. “The Scoville heat unit is used to assess the chemical heat given off by capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers.”
“Please use the skewers to dip the seafood into the sauce. Don’t get any on your hands, or touch your eyes,” the hostess warned. “When we handle these peppers in the kitchen, we wear rubber gloves.”
As an added precaution, the waitstaff set small plates of black-speckled salt beside the volcanic sauce. Curious, I tasted some with my finger. It was salty, of course, but with the added licorice taste of five-spice powder. (I didn’t know a lot about Asian cooking, but I did know five-spice powder was used extensively in Chinese dishes and consisted of equal parts cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, star anise, and Szechuan peppercorns.)
“If the fire is too much, use the salt to cleanse your palate,” the hostess warned. “Wine, water, or tea will only make the peppers burn longer.”
Rafe Chastain boldly skewered a strip of stingray and dipped it into the sauce. As he chewed, we all waited to see if he’d keel over or run screaming from the room.
“Wow,” he said, face flushed. “That’s a real mouth peeler. But tasty.”
Intrigued, I followed his lead, touching the corner of my fish into the potent sauce. When I bit into the stingray, nothing happened at first. Then the inside of my nose began to burn, and I blinked back tears. When the heat reached my throat, I was certain I’d swallowed fire. But as the burn subsided, other layers of flavor surfaced. I coughed, tasting a sweet and tangy smokiness.
Unable to stand the burn, I took a quick spoonful of salt, which made me cough some more. I felt a bead of perspiration roll down my back. The experience was capped by a rush of pleasure that must have resembled a drug high.
“Whoa…” I croaked. “That clears your sinuses.”
“Feeling good, Clare?” Chastain grinned big as he took another look down my blouse. “Pleasure chemicals are releasing now in that hot and tasty little body of yours to counteract the capsaicin. Endorphins are a real aphrodisiac, by the way. It ain’t opium, but it’s legal.”
Good Lord, Chastain’s getting drunker by the dish. But I’m not cutting him any slack. One more look down my blouse, and I’m pouring that hot sauce down his pants!
Neville Perry opened his mouth and waved air into it. “I’d serve this-if I still had a restaurant.”
The tone was dry again. Perry was back to self-deprecation. He even shot me a wink. Clearly, my friendship with the hated Breanne wasn’t that serious of an issue to him.
Maybe if I poke the wound a little…
“But, Neville, your restaurant was ruined. Your reputation shredded. Don’t you miss running your own business?”
Perry shook his head. “Truthfully, Clare, I have no regrets. In the end, having the Wicked Witch of Style criticize my restaurant was a stroke of luck.”
“Luck?” I blinked. “You’re being ironic, right?”
I was waiting for the rage, the obscenities, the verbal threats to Breanne that he’d naturally want me to convey to her. But Perry remained relaxed, authentically, it appeared.
“Honestly, running that place was wearing me down. Now that it’s closed, I’ve launched a new career as a food writer. My blogs about Breanne have opened up some surprising opportunities. Her rival publications are lining up to offer me assignments in their magazines, a publisher’s just bought my cookbook, and two newspaper syndicates are in a bidding war to put me under contract for a national column on food and wine.”
“Wait… you’re saying that you’re happy with how things turned out?”
Neville shrugged. “In a way, I owe Breanne a thank-you-not that she’s ever going to get one from me. Skewering Trend’s trendsetter is just too damn much fun. She’s burned a lot of people over the years, and they’re my most loyal readers.”
Neville Perry was glowing now, and it was more than the effect of the bhut jolokia. The culinary school graduate was obviously a mama’s boy who wanted fame and fortune but didn’t want to work very hard or long to get it. Writing blog entries and restaurant reviews was apparently a lot easier for Perry than running a restaurant, so he’d found a happier career path. He looked pretty proud of himself, too, and the truth is, the man really was turning his devastating failure into success. I couldn’t condemn him for that. More to the point, I was beginning to conclude that Matt’s bride-to-be had been right all along.
This man was a joker (or a joke, depending on your view of his past). But a killer? No, I don’t think so. Sure, his feelings toward Breanne weren’t charitable, but then neither were mine.
I began to get irritated with myself for going on this wild-goose chase. The day felt totally wasted. What I’d witnessed at Breanne’s magazine was classic office politics. Big deal. Alert the media. Neville Perry’s black-wrapped meat cleaver was my strongest lead-and it had led me to a dead end. I was sure of it.
I forcefully speared another piece of stingray and dipped it in the hotter-than-hell sauce. But before I could take the first bite, there was a loud crash in the foyer, and a woman cried out.
I stared in horror, the skewer hanging between my plate and my mouth, as our gentle hostess was pushed through the kitchen doorway so hard she bounced off the wall. Then the waiters and two men in kitchen smocks marched into the room single file, their hands behind their heads.
Finally, three men charged into the room. They were all in dark clothes, and their heads and faces were covered with black ski masks. The tallest of the three waved a big, nasty-looking handgun.
“If nobody moves, nobody gets hurt,” said the tall man with the gun, his voice muffled by the ski mask.
“What’s going on here?” One of the well-heeled guests rose from his chair. “What do you men want?”
You idiot, I thought. Sit down and shut up.
Too late. One of the two shorter bandits stepped forward, snatched a bottle of wine from the table, and clubbed the man with it. The woman beside him screamed as the outraged diner dropped back into his seat, clutching his head.
“Didn’t you hear me?! I said nobody move!” the armed man cried, dark eyes wild behind the mask.
The shorter bandit stepped around the gunman.
“Your wallets, jewelry, watches, and money in this bag.” He tossed a red pillowcase at the woman. “Fill it now, lady! Before jefe decides to pop someone!”