I Am the City
Napoleon Solo tossed and turned. Every time he closed his eyes, his mind started racing. This was going nowhere fast. It was stupid and a waste of effort to worry.
"What is wrong, Napoleon?" Illya murmured.
"Nothing." Napoleon was quick to deny everything. "Nothing is wrong."
"If that were indeed the case, you would be asleep by now."
In frustration, Napoleon clicked on the bedside light and Illya pulled a pillow over his head. "Was that really necessary?"
"How can you sleep?" Napoleon sat up and crossed his arms.
"I just put in an eighteen hour day. The question should be, why are you determined to keep me awake?"
"You have the most important, highest rated food critic—"
"He calls himself a foodist." Illya rolled over and reached for his glass of water. He drank and then realized Napoleon was staring at him. "What?"
"How do you know that?"
"I can read, Napoleon. The fact that I don't have much time to read doesn't sway from the fact."
"You told me just this morning that you don't have the time or energy to read a toothpaste tube."
"When a toothpaste tube is indicative of future food trends, then I shall read it."
"He's coming here. To Taste. To you."
"I am aware of that."
"In two days!"
"What would you have me do, Napoleon? Panic, have a nervous breakdown, hide?" Illya drained the glass and set it down. He rearranged the sheet, blankets, pillows, and cats to his liking and settled back down. "All I need to do is cook for him, Napoleon, just like I do for every guest who passes through the door of Taste. He is no more or less important than any of them."
"He could close you down."
"No, he can't. The health inspector can close me down. Some hotshot expert from the City might affect my business, but he can't close me. Now, please, turn off the light. If there is cause for concern, you will be the first to know."
"Napoleon, I have had many critics here before. Why is this one bothering you so much?"
"This one is nearly local. We get a lot of traffic from the Bay area. Hell, we advertise in San Francisco. If this guy wants to, he can make our existence very difficult there.
"Then it is a good thing we are here." Illya smiled and kissed Napoleon. "There is nothing to worry about, my love."
"I wish I had your confidence." Napoleon snapped off the light. "But what if--."
"Good night, Napoleon."
He'd started in the trenches, the same as everyone else in his family. Sadly, Philip Camack displayed little talent when it came to cooking. Anything he produced was over-cooked, burnt or otherwise inedible. He would never be a chef and he knew it.
What was frustrating to him was that Philip loved food. He truly, honestly, wholly loved it, worshipped it, and made it his god, king, and guiding light. His world revolved around food. His parents were chefs and he'd been exposed to only the best from the moment he could eat solids.
Philip also had a discerning palate, too discerning, some people thought. He could taste a dish and tell someone the ingredients, in descending order of taste. This made him a hot commodity for those whose business was food.
He might never be a chef, but his reputation as a food expert grew by such bounds that he stood at the top of his field. For some people, it might be enough, but it was never enough for Philip. He always hungered for more. It might be a new experience, it might be a new flavor combination or it might be the thrill he got in bringing a world class chef to his knees. He became the top critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Not only did he get to eat at the best restaurants, he had power over them all.
Phillip tossed a sweater into his suitcase. He didn't know what the weather might be like in the Sierra Foothills, but he didn't want to be unprepared. As far as he knew, people still got around with horses and carriages up there. He wouldn't be there long, just long enough to take down this hotshot chef.
When his food editor suggested the trip up to the Foothills, Philip wasn't interested. Everyone knew to get real food you had to be in the City. You might find something edible in Sacramento, but that was it. To think of some pokey cowboy restaurant in a small podunk town could plate a suitable meal... that was preposterous.
Then he was informed that this chef a latecomer to the game, had not only had the audacity to open a restaurant in Jackson, he had five stars to go along with it. Something Philip's parents had struggled for all their lives and never achieved.
Even in the City, few restaurants won that honor. The thought that this upstart had snatched such a prize, and with so little experience, made Philip come to a snap decision. He was going to take this guy down, no matter what.
Illya stood in front of the stove and tried to ignore the nagging feeling in the back of his head. It was stupid. He knew his craft as well as any chef. He knew what he could do and he knew to trust his instincts. Illya also knew that he set the atmosphere for the kitchen. If he was stressed out, it would upset the delicate balance of his employees.
"You okay, Cara?" Matt murmured as he carried a stock pot of court bouillon to the burner.
"Why wouldn't I be?" Illya tipped his sauté pan slightly and the alcohol he was heating flamed. He shook the pan until the flame went out and touched the piece of lamb. Perfect. He grabbed tongs and placed the rack on a cutting board. It would have to rest for a few minutes before he carve it.
"With that food guy coming, I thought you might be preoccupato." Matt reached for a towel to use as an improvised potholder. He pulled a prosciutto-wrapped beef tenderloin from the oven and tested it in a manner similar to Illya's.
In the meantime, Illya reached for his next order, caramelized coriander duck breast. "I need two orders of duck!" he shouted over the din of the kitchen.
"Like say asking for two orders of duck when the order is for one? That sort of preoccupato." Matt repressed a grin.
"One order is for Napoleon. I imagine with the tasting at Vinea tonight, he's forgotten all about eating." Deftly, Illya sliced the lamb into equal portion chops and plated them. He brought the sauté pan close to the plate to drizzle some sauce over the meat.
"Reminds me of someone else I know," Henry said, placing a tray with two duck breasts upon it.
Illya grinned, cleaned the rim of the plate and let Henry whisk it away. Suddenly it didn't really matter what the critic might think, for Illya was doing what he loved with the people he loved. To hell with everything else, he thought.
"There's the turnoff to the historic downtown district." Sadie Allen was Philip's companion on adventures like this. It wasn't so much that she valued his friendship, but she adored eating out and this was usually a good way to get a great meal and not have to pay for it. The restaurants almost always comped the meal in the hopes of getting in good with the critic and getting a favorable review. That never worked with Philip, but that was fine with Sadie. If it meant putting up with his ego for a little while, so be it. Hell, for a free meal, she'd even refer to Philip as a foodist, the title he chose to go by now.
Sadie had been excited when Philip mentioned a trip to the Foothills. She'd never been there, despite the fact that is was just a few hours away. Her traveling companion was all distain and anger. She wasn't sure what this chef had done to deserve Philip's wrath, but Sadie felt a bit sorry for him. When Philip got like this, no one was safe.
"About frigging time. All these dump towns look the same to me." Phillip slowed the vehicle. He didn't trust these idiots to not walk in front of cars. The various buildings were lit and there was a lot of foot traffic. A banner across the road advertised "Forty-Niners Welcome. "Why would they celebrate a football team at this time of the year? It's not even football season."
"I think they are referring to the actual forty-niners, the ones who discovered the gold? I read something about this before we left. I think we turn here." She pointed and Philip made a face.
"Or drive through the bank. Yeah, I'll turn. The restaurant should be here... some place. It's about time, too. I'm ready to chew my arm off."
"There it is. Wow, the place is packed. You did call for reservations, didn't you?"
"I didn't think we'd need them." He pulled into the parking lot just as a car was leaving from in front of what he assumed was a wine shop. Without hesitation he headed for the spot and parked. "Why don't you go make reservations and I'll check this place out. We might be able to grab something in there to take the edge off."
"Sure, nothing takes the edge off hunger like wine." Sadie knew it meant that she was driving back to the hotel tonight. Philip loved to drink, but frequently couldn't hold his alcohol.
They climbed out and Philip slammed the door, heading straight for Vinea. A young woman met him at the door.
"Welcome to Vinea. Are you going to take advantage of our wine tasting tonight?"
"I am." He tried to push past her, but she stepped in front of him.
"May I see your driver's license, please?"
"What? I'm old enough to be your father. I won't."
"Then I can't let you drink, sir. We card one hundred percent."
"That's our policy, sir. I'm sorry."
The smell of something incredible wafted out of the door and Philip took a deep breath. "All right, if I have to." He dug out his wallet and was handed a band. "That will be good for the weekend, sir, at any of the various participating merchants and vineyards."
"What do you mean?"
"This is Gold Rush Days and this is part of a weekend long wine tasting event."
"No, sir, it takes place in all the various towns around here. Is this your first time in Jackson?"
"In this part of the state, actually."
"Then welcome to the Foothills. Enjoy Vinea!"
Sadie patted Philip on the shoulder and walked across the parking lot to the restaurant. There by the door was the coveted plaque displaying five stars. If this crowd was any sort of gauge, this place deserved each one of them.
She stepped through the door and walked up to the podium. A grey-haired woman smiled kindly at her.
"Welcome to Taste. May I have your name, please?"
"We don't have reservations," Sadie said. She was surprised that even though every table was filled. There was a sense of calm and relaxation settled upon the room. Conservation was low and everywhere she looked, people were smiling. She'd never seen that before. She smiled at one of the tuxedoed waiters and then realized the hostess was speaking to her. "I'm sorry."
"We are very full tonight. I can put you down for a cancellation."
"That will have to do. What about tomorrow night?
"That's better. I have one a 7:45."
"Perfect. We are going to be at the wine shop next door."
"Excellent. If anything comes up, I will give you a call there. Your name?"
"Sadie Allen and Philip Camack"
"The same Philip Camack from The Chronicle?"
"We will certainly do our best to get you in tonight."
"I can't ask for more than that." Sadie knew that Philip would. He'd shout and yell and demand a table. She, however, wasn't as boorish.
As she walked back across the parking lot, she spotted Philip chugging a glass of wine. Well at least that will put him in a better frame of mind. Or at least she hoped that would be the case.
Napoleon patted the mayor of Plymouth on the back and laughed. The guy knew more jokes than anyone else Napoleon knew and he always had a new one. The shop was doing a land office business and he was thankful that Illya had talked him into extending the hours tonight. More and more people came wandering in and left with at least a bottle of two. Gold Rush Days meant big business for him.
There was a couple who kept catching his eye. They didn't seem to be doing a lot of anything , except looking at their watches and staring at Taste. With the way the guy was swaying in place, Napoleon decided it was time for him to intervene.
He walked a zigzag path to them and offered a hand. "I'm the proprietor of Vinea. Is there anything I can help you with?"
"Yes, when the hell are they going to call our reservation next door?" There was no doubt the man had hit his limit.
"We didn't make reservations ahead of time. They are doing their best." The woman extended her hand. "I'm Sadie Allen. This is my friend, Philip Camack."
Bells went off in Napoleon's head, but he kept his best poker face. "Taste is full most evenings, but if anyone can get you accommodated, Roxanne can." A small table opened up on the deck and he gestured to it. "Why don't you sit down and I will have someone check for you?"
"Good. I'm starving! I could eat a horse. They don't serve horse here, do they?"
"Not the last time I saw the menu." Napoleon snapped his fingers. "Wait just one moment. I think I might be able to help you."
Napoleon headed into the back as Rand was exchanging an empty rack for a full one. "Hey, Rand, where did you put that food Illya sent me?"
"Warming oven." Rand gestured with an elbow. "Should still be to temperature."
A moment later, Napoleon carried the plate out to the small table.
"My dinner, but I'm too busy to eat it. Rather than throwing it away..." Napoleon gestured. "Bon appétit."
"Say no more!" Philip cut into a piece of the duck, popped it into his mouth and chewed. His eyes grew round and he chewed again. "Oh... oh, my."
Confused, Sadie helped herself and grinned. "Wow, that's incredible." She tried for another piece, but Philip smacked her hand away. "Hey, didn't your mother teach you to share, " she complained.
"Eat the vegetables. This is mine." His fork hovered over the meat. It was fork tender and moist. "Who made this?"
Napoleon looked around and leaned close. "The guy that caters for us."
"They should hire him next door then and fire the guy who's there now."
"Why would they do that, Philip? Look at the place. It's packed"
"But this... this is what food should be. It's sweet, it's savory, it's got fabulous mouth appeal. This is exactly the way duck should be served."
"You want to know a secret?" Napoleon glanced around and motioned him close. Philip looked around fugitively and leaned in. "Same guy."
"What? The Curry guy? Is everything he makes like this?"
"Well, I happen to think his lamb is better than his duck and the salmon is better than both."
"We'll never know," Sadie said, mournfully. "Well, at least we have reservations for tomorrow night."
Napoleon smiled at her, turning on the charm. One thing you had to say about him was that he still knew how to make a woman feel special. He watched a slow blush crawl up her neck and face. He winked and walked to the phone. He punched in a number and waited. "Hey, Henry, let me speak to Chef, will you?"
He spoke briefly with Illya and hung up.
"All taken care of. Your meal will be here promptly. Where are you staying tonight?"
"Where do you suggest?" Philip popped the last bit of duck into his mouth and sighed.
"You haven't made reservations?"
"Is that bad?" Sadie stabbed a carrot, nibbled and gasped. "Oh god, Philip, try this."
Napoleon sighed and shook his head. The things he did for his mate...
Illya yawned and let himself into their house. It had been a long night and the critic had never made it in the door. It was his stupid fault for not making reservations and not checking out the dates. No fool came up to the Foothills during Gold Rush Days without...
Illya stopped and stared at the couch. There was someone sleeping on it. He was about to shake the person awake when he saw Napoleon's note. I'll explain in bed, Illya read. Shrugging his shoulders, Illya walked past the sleeping person and hauled himself upstairs. There were days when he wished they lived on one level.
Napoleon was stretched out on the bed reading and Illya paused at the door.
"Talk about a sight for tired eyes and a sore body."
Napoleon set the book aside, took off his glasses and held wide his arms. Illya didn't need another offer. He happily collapsed into those arms and collected a long kiss for his efforts. They pulled apart and Illya settled into the hug.
"You have no idea how long or how badly I've wanted to do that," Illya murmured, his head on Napoleon's chest.
"Long one and really busy. We had as many covers as I've ever had and there are more scheduled for tomorrow. At least Winslow will be in to help."
"I know the feeling. If we have another day like today, I'm going to have to start squeezing grapes myself. "
"Any port in a storm and speaking of such, who is downstairs?"
"The critic from The Chronicle. He ended up at Vinea and never made it across the parking lot. They were foolish enough to not have hotel reservations either. I got them something for tomorrow night, but our couch was the only thing left tonight."
"The critic and his female traveling companion. She's in the spare room."
"Everyone should have a traveling companion." Illya sat up and started unbuttoning his shirt. "That said, I shall have to make room for them tomorrow."
"Roxanne can come up with something. Maybe you could put a table up in the kitchen. Let them watch you cook. Wouldn't that be an eye-opener for them? You could tell them it's a new feature - dinner with the Chef."
Illya paused as he peeled off his tee shirt. "You, my friend, are a genius." He stood to step out of his checkered pants.
"Then you may shower me with affection."
And a few moments later, Illya did much more than that.
Matt rested his arms on the pass through and studied the dining room.
"Matthew, what are you doing?" Illya set two plates to Matt's left.
"He hasn't stopped eating, Cara. How could someone that small eat so much? Present company excepted."
Illya caressed Matt's shoulder. "Beats the hell out of me, but he looks happy."
"Si, very happy, but I think perhaps it is caused by the wine your amante is plying him with."
Rocky sailed through the door and grinned at the sight of the two men. He dropped to his knees and sang to them,
Now you're so cute, I like your style
And I know what you mean when you give me a flash of that smile.
"Funny guy." Illya offered Rocky a hand up. "How's our guest?"
"He pauses only to make yummy noises and order more food. Chef, I believe you have a convert."
"Napoleon will be relieved."
"And you, Cara?" Matt's expression grew concerned.
Illya grinned at his two best friends. "I am Chef. Let's cook"