The chefs de partie, Benny, Suleiman, and Victor, lined up against the worktop with their arms folded across their chests, as if staging a wildcat strike. Beyond them, Ivan was still working, cooking off lamb shanks that would later be braised. Ivan was the grill man. His station, at the front of the kitchen, close to the pass, encompassed a huge salamander, a triple-burner char grill, four-ring hob, and double griddle. He kept them at full blaze. Around his forehead he wore a bandanna that soaked up some -- though by no means all -- of the sweat. He took pride in the amount of blood he managed to wipe from his fingers onto his apron. He worked split shifts, lunch and dinner six days a week, and apart from the crew who came in at five in the morning to grill sausages and fry eggs for the buffet breakfast, no one was allowed to venture into Ivan's domain. Gabriel liked to rotate his chefs between the sections, Benny on cold starters and desserts one month, Suleiman the next, but Ivan was implacable. "Nobody else knowing about steaks like me, Chef. Don't put me chopping rabbit leaves." He had a cauliflower ear, sharp Slavic cheekbones, and an even sharper accent, the consonants jangling together like loose change. Gabe had decided straightaway to move him but he had not done it yet.
Filling suddenly with impatience, Gabe walked toward the basement door. He slowed and finally halted by the chill cabinet of soft drinks and dairy desserts. If Yuri wasn't really dead, then the deputy manager would be giving first aid and questioning him closely, doing all the things that Gabriel should have done, before going upstairs to report to Mr. Maddox about all the things that Gabriel had failed to do. Gabe was aghast at the enormity of his managerial lapse. He was here not because he wanted to be but only to prove himself. Show us, said the would-be backers for his own restaurant, manage a kitchen on that scale, and we'll put up the money; work there for a year and turn that place around. They'd get word, of course. Everyone in this whole stinking business would know. And what would he say to Mr. Maddox? How would he explain? To report, say, a side of salmon as missing, suspected stolen, only to have it turn up in the wrong storeroom, that would be bad enough, but to report the death of an employee and to have the employee turn up alive, if not exactly well, that was ineptitude of an altogether different order. Damn that Benny and his idiotic certainty. What made him an expert on death? Gabe touched the crown of his head where a little wormhole of baldness had recently appeared. Damn that Yuri as well. He leaned against the chill cabinet, grimacing and swallowing, as if worry were something that had to be kept low down, somewhere in the intestinal tract.
When the deputy manager came through the door, Gabe scanned him quickly for signs. Mr. James's fingers trembled as he punched numbers into his mobile phone, and his face was unnaturally white, as if he too had bled out on the concrete floor. Thank God, thought Gabriel, preparing to act with authority. He tried to feel sorry for cursing Yuri but all he could feel was relief.
The ambulance and two policemen, a local foot patrol, arrived simultaneously. The paramedics pronounced the porter dead, but for a while all else was confusion. The foot patrol radioed a sergeant, who in turn called in the Homicide Assessment Team. By the time Maddox got in from his meeting, there were half a dozen coppers in his kitchen.
"What the hell is going on?" he said, as if he held Gabriel personally responsible.
"Get that back door locked," said the sergeant. "The fire exit, too. I've just found someone trying to slip off."
One of the plainclothes guys -- Gabriel had quickly lost track of who was who -- rapped a work surface with a slotted spoon. "Everyone needs to stay put. We'll be talking to you all individually. And I'm not interested in your papers. I'm not here for that."
Copyright © 2009 by Monica Ali
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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