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The Rats, the Bats & the Ugly: Chapter Twenty Six

       Last updated: Monday, August 9, 2004 00:09 EDT



A neo-classical fronted restaurant, complete with white pillars and a vine-draped pergola, the air redolent with fine cuisine and money.

    Chip found the experience of walking up to the front entrance of Chez Henri-Pierre very strange. As part of the kitchen staff he'd never approached the building from that side. The white pillars and the trellised pergola of vines on either side of the port-cocherie were not for Vats like him. Vats came in through the security system at the back, which Henri-Pierre had no interest in making pretty.

    Chip had told Lynne Stark that it was a poor idea. Even the sudden addition of more money than Chip had ever seen in his life before to his credit balance wasn't going to change Henri-Pierre's attitude to Vats. And besides, there were ten places that Chip would rather waste his money than on his old employer.

    But the owner of INB had pushed aside his objections. "Firstly, this goes on expense account. You're not actually paying for it. ‘Soldier-Hero revisits his civilian life.’ It'll be a great human interest story. We've got Maxine Lefeur from Interweb coming along to take the stills."

    "Have you got an axe?"

    She looked wryly at him. "That's quite a comment about the $200 fillet steaks. Or are you planning to kill Henri-Pierre?"

    "No. It's just for the pine tree across the road," said Chip. "You'll need a battering-ram to get Henri-Pierre to let a Vat in the front door."

    She laughed. "Henri-Pierre just loves celebrities visiting his restaurant. Any celebrity. And as of seven o' clock this evening, when the news about your trial really hit the screens, you just became one. The call and e-mail trickle also started about then. While we were interviewing you, the news that we were doing so went onto the air. The trickle became a stream. Since then Henry has leaked some teasers through, with old background shots from the satellite pictures. The stream has turned into a flood. The station has never had this number of calls and e-mails before. People want the real story. And it turns out that there are huge numbers of people who are very unhappy about MIA's being listed as 'dead'."

    Chip shook his head. "Ms. Stark, that's not fair. You're playing with people's hopes. I'm afraid that MIA might just as well mean 'dead.' Staying alive in the Magh' scorpiaries is nearly impossible."

    "Chip. We're saying that. But before you and your rat and bat buddies proved differently, there was no such thing as 'nearly.' And there was Virginia Shaw and that alien, don’t forget. Perhaps prisoners do get taken."

    Chip frowned. "I never thought about that alien. He showed us how to make the Magh' gesture of submission. That might be a useful thing for troops to know. Mind you, he said he was there to be live food for the larvae, to teach them how to kill. I guess maybe there's not a lot of point in it."

    She shuddered. "There weren't any humans held there?"

    "If there were, they got buried. The larvae must have gone to somewhere close to the egg-racks, because that was where the Jampad was prisoner. The bats rigged explosive booby-traps all over that area, and the Magh' triggered them."

    Lynne Stark's eyes narrowed. "I'll pass this on to a contact of mine. It could be worth digging around there. You know what sort of story it would make if we found people, or," she said slowly, "their remains."

    Chip made a face. "It'd be tricky. The whole tower is designed not to be dug through. It's a double wall structure filled with fine loose stuff between the walls."

    "It sounds like it calls for mining engineers." She disappeared to make yet another call.

    Unfortunately, she'd come back, still intent on dinner.



    So here he was, in the pressed new uniform they'd gotten him for his court-martial, with the new stripes and beret badge. As an "other ranker," he didn't have a dress-uniform anyway. He walked uneasily toward the brass handles of the front door of Chez Henri-Pierre.

    "Good evening." The Maître d'hotel was new since Chip's time. He had, however, already perfected the art of looking down his nose at dubious guests. "You have a reservation?" he asked, in a cultivated French accent.

    The "Sir" was conspicuously absent in the question. "Mais oui, certainement," replied Lynne Stark casually.

    The Maître d' Hotel looked distinctly alarmed. "In the name of Stark, Gaston," she said, with just a hint of a malicious smile. "This is Lance-Corporal Charles Connolly, our newest war hero. Maxine, if you can just get a picture of Gaston here escorting the corporal to our table?"

    The Commis who had just finished laying the table was too young to be conscripted yet. But she had already done some months in the kitchen as a dishwasher when Chip had been called up. She took one look at him, and cascaded the remainder of her cutlery onto the floor.


    In Henry-Pierre's hierarchy-ridden kitchen, a Sous-chef was, to a mere plongeur, someone of vast elevation. Chip, having surviving the egalitarian winnowing of the Magh'—who didn't care what rank they killed—found it mildly amusing to think that he'd once considered himself vaguely important because of it. He'd always known that his promotion to Sous-chef had come about because the war had already claimed those Henri-Pierre would rather have had. He supposed that that was why this waif was now elevated from scrub to junior waiter.

    "Hello, Claire," he said pleasantly, as she frantically tried to pick up the spoons under Gaston's angry glare.

    She blushed and picked up spoons even more hastily, then scurried away to the kitchen. Chip has no doubt at all she would soon be telling this delicious titbit to her fellow kitchen slaves. Perhaps a few of them would remember him.

    The turnover of Vat apprentices in this place had always been a little frightening. Even by the standards set by HAR Shareholders, Henry-Pierre had been a savage class bigot. On the one hand, training as a Chef de partie in his restaurant was one of the few places a Vat could hope to earn a decent wage, eventually. You usually got enough to eat, too. On the other hand, the work and the hours were worse than almost anywhere else, not to mention Henri-Pierre's brutal discipline.

    Chip sighed. With any luck, the news wouldn't spread to Henri-Pierre. He didn't always see every diner, after all. If Henri-Pierre found out he was here as a guest... there'd be hell to pay. With the snobbery of any really excellent and successful chef, Henry-Pierre simply didn't give a damn about public opinion. A Vat war hero, so far as he'd be concerned, was just another stinking Vat. As such, not fit to be served at one of his tables.

    Needless to say, the boss' attitudes infected the top help also. The waiter who brought the menu was steely in his ignoring of just who the person in military uniform was. Chip recognized him too, but couldn't remember his name. The restaurant's front-end staff wasn't generally friendly with the kitchen staff.

    "May I recommend Chef Henri-Pierre's speciality of day? It is du brochettes escalopes de Chevreuil au Agresto, with pommes Dauphinois. And the Chef has asked me to commend his Baba au Kirch."

    The young photographer looked faintly alarmed. Chip was seized by an irresistible temptation. "It's a house speciality," he said. "Bull-nuts thrust onto splinters of old pine-plank with lumpy pignut gravy and poor-man's mashed potatoes made to stretch with boiled turnip." That would teach the waiter to pretend that he didn't know Chip from Adam.

    The waiter gasped. "You are pleased to jest!" Chip remembered that the fellow had always been one of Henri-Pierre little crawlers—which was probably why Henri-Pierre had gotten a deferment for him and not for Chip. "It is nothing of the sort. Medallions of venison-fillet skewered on Rosemary twigs, served with a verjuice-flavored creamy nut puree scented with pignoli or pine-nuts. And while Pommes Dauphinois is indeed flavored with white turnip it is certainly not 'poor-man's mashed potato.' It was a favorite of the Dauphin."

    "I read about him in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn," said Lynne Stark. "And I am dying to hear the Corporal's explanation of Baba aux Kirsch or this Flognarde aux poire."

    "Well," drawled Chip, his temper being pushed to a thin edge by a long and mentally exhausting day, the surreal familiarity of the restaurant, and the irritation caused by this slimy draft-dodging waiter, "poire refers to a pair." He gestured. "Of arthritic arms I think. And in mixed company I can't exactly explain what a Flognarde is. But the result is a Baba aux Kirsch."

    Lynne showed just a hint of dimple in her cheek. "I think I'll pass on that dessert, and on asking you what Coq à la Bière or œufs a la neige are. What do you recommend, as an ex-chef?"

    "The seafood was always the best. But it was usually hellish expensive." Chip found himself enjoying the discussion of a subject the patrons usually treated like the subject of gonorrhea. He'd also noticed the peculiar absence of seafood on the menu.

    "Corporal, after what you've been through, you choose what you'd like. For myself, I think I'll venture on the chef's speciality."

    "And for you, Mam'zelle?" asked the waiter of the lady from Interweb. She plainly hadn't had to deal with many French menus before. Both the language and the lack of prices obviously perturbed her. "Er. Something small?"

    "What about the quail?" said Chip cheerfully. "Then you can really get to understand the meaning of the word 'small.'"

    "I've never eaten quail," she said doubtfully.

    "Neither have most of the people who've ordered it," explained Chip. "But they have a lot of fun picking hopefully at it. Here. It is called Cailles en Crapadine."

    "I think I'll just have fish," she said hastily. She pointed to the top item.

    "Ah. Poisson à l'ancienne. An inspired choice, Mam'zelle," said the waiter, obviously relieved to find his way back away from Chip's comments. "And for you, Sir?" he asked, hastily, perhaps working out how Chip could translate Poisson à l'ancienne.

    "I haven't found steak, egg and chips on the menu," said Chip, looking at the waiter. "But I haven't eaten shellfish since I worked here. A civet de langouste."

    The waiter stuck his finger inside his collar. "Er. We are having a problem with shellfish, Sir. The war, you know."

    "Spiny lobster come from the north coast," said Chip, mildly irritated. He'd even been there once as an apprentice, as some of the labor needed for oyster-sorting on the trip. The place, with its wild rocky coast studded with pine-clad promontories thrusting into the blue gulf, was something he'd never forgotten. "Nowhere near the front."

    "Uh. Yes, Sir. But transport and supplies have been difficult."

    Whatever the problem was, it wasn't just that. Not by the waiter's expression. The man looked like the fairy on top of the Christmas tree, after Santa had told him where to put that tree. Excessively uncomfortable.

    Chip felt vaguely guilty. There were always problems in a kitchen, and in one run by an autocrat like Henri-Pierre, the problem was likely to be blamed on some poor Vat and retribution was likely to be nasty. He knew that Henri-Pierre would have had a blue fit about that Eminceur he'd relieved the restaurant of. No matter that the place had owed him the better part of a month's salary, which, as was he was already in boot-camp on the last day of the month, Henri-Pierre had taken pleasure in not paying him. That knife had saved his life countless times, and he owed Henri-Pierre that much.

    "Er, Chef Connolly." Ah. The man had suddenly remembered who he was. "Considering that you have honored us by coming back here, I am sure that I could arrange that steak you wanted."

    "That would do me nicely, waiter. Just fillet steak. No pretty peas arranged in a spiral, no flowers made of carrot matchsticks. No towers of toast and paté, or even crisp-fried green mango. Just good quality steak. Big enough to fill my plate," concluded Chip evilly, knowing that several hungry diners all around him would be going green as they ate their sauce-dribbled filigree slices of something expensive.

    "Uh, yes, Chef. And to start?"

    Chip was now beginning to thoroughly enjoy himself. "Gin rather than soup, I think. As a mere soldier, you don't have pretend that it's a martini, or put an olive in it and quintuple the price." Being crass was quite delightful, really—even if was a bit petty and he didn't really like gin.

    The waiter began to retreat as quickly as possible without turning and running. "I will send the Sommelier," he said.

    "You do that," said Chip cheerfully. He'd already decided. They'd have some of the Clos Verde Directors Reserve Cabernet '03. Between the Magh' destruction and the rats and bats blowing the remains sky-high, that was a vineyard that wouldn't be offering any wine for sale again for a long time. And he'd like to commemorate a memorable meal with his friends. He wished that he could bring them here. Now that would be a party! Especially fat Fal chugging wine out of the bottle. Even if they weren't human he'd rather have them for company than most of the people here.

    "There's an odd atmosphere here tonight," said Lynne Stark, commenting on something that Chip had wondered about. He'd been unsure of whether it was just that he was hearing things from the wrong side of the kitchen wall, but the normal polite muted buzz of conversation had changed. It was more like the sound of disturbed bees.

    "I wouldn't know," said Maxine, the young woman from Interweb. "This place is rather beyond my purse strings."

    "I've been here for a few business dinners."

    "Excuse me." The Sommelier had arrived. He had an ice bucket, tulip-shaped glasses, and a bottle of Piper-Krug, an estate now vanished under the Magh' tide but that had always been the Chez Henri-Pierre most expensive. "Mr. Somerville over there has asked me to bring this to you, Corporal, as a small gesture of his appreciation of what you've done for the Colony. He asked if you'd drink a toast to the memory of his late son, Captain John Somerville. He died in the Harrisburg assault."

    That brought back the harsh reality of it all. Vats died in droves. But many of the Shareholder families had lost sons and daughters, too, although the ultra-wealthy were usually able to protect their children to some extent. The system was as corrupt as could be. Working here, Chip had sort of forgotten that the bulk of the Shareholders were only "stinking rich" if compared to Vats. Back on Earth, they'd just have been considered "middle class."

    Chip nodded. "Please tell him I'd be most honored to do so. To him, and the all the soldiers who've died in this war. And give him my thanks for the bottle."



    Champagne, as far as Chip had had experience with it, was a menace to work with in such things as champagne sorbet. The purpose of the bubbles was to come out too soon and make the intended light confection into something the chef would clout you around the ear about. The idea of paying extra to drink bubbles in your wine had always seemed rather pointless to him.

    Now, however, well into the second glassful on an empty stomach, he realized that the purpose of the bubbles was not just to make you sneeze but to allow the stuff to creep up lightly onto you. The day, and even the evening, were becoming more amusing as the champagne went down. His table companions were laughing at Chip's description of Colonel Brown's face when Chip had told him how delighted he was to be back, when an enormous platter was brought to their table, carried by two Chefs.

    The two Chefs beamed and bowed. They'd both been apprentices when he'd left, and had been part of the farewell that had given him a terrible hangover for his first day as a boot.

    "Good evening, Chef. Welcome back. The kitchen staff have decided that the gin you requested would be better cushioned with this small token of our esteem. We've been listening to the story on the radio."

    The platter contained a selection of hot and cold hors d'oeuvres. Chip was expert enough to realize that to put it together in this length of time, most of the kitchen staff must have abandoned cooking for anyone else. He was touched...

    And rightly terrified. "Maurice. Janice. Before I even say 'thank you,' I want to know where Henri-Pierre is. He'll be furious if he finds out about this."

    The petite Janice smiled wickedly. "He's sitting guard over five kilos of tiger prawns in the chill-room. With a shotgun. He thinks that we don't know that he's in there. He's turning blue from the cold, but his prawns are still intact."

    "What! Why?"

    Maurice shrugged. "Somebody has been stealing shellfish from him—just prawns, lobster, and crayfish—on an industrial scale. And some wine. They don't seem so fussy about the wine. But only the best shellfish stocks vanish. Henri-Pierre is having fits. Blaming everyone. Screaming and swearing."

    "Nothing to the fit he'll have when he discovers you've been neglecting customers," said Chip. "I'm... well, flabbergasted, guys. But..."

    "He can only fire us. Or get us called-up, like you," said the hyper-careful Janice, who never took a chance on anything. "And you have proved to us that conscription is survivable. And the kitchen staff... We are all so proud of you, Chef."

    "I need you standing with them, Chip," said the photographer.

    Even at this point, everything could all still have been all right if several of the other diners had not started to cheer. It was certainly not a universal reaction. Others in the crowded restaurant looked very irritated.

    Then, with a cymbal clash of the kitchen swing-doors, in strode Chef Henri-Pierre. Most unusually, for the average chef, he had a shotgun slung hunter-style over his shoulder and he had Gaston and Dominic in tow.

    He stormed over to the table. His way was blocked by the two young chefs and a huge platter of hors d'oeuvres. The two tried to flee in opposite directions—but, without dropping the platter, could not.

    "Connolly! You Vat-scum!" shrieked the Frenchman. “What are you doing 'ere in my restaurant? 'Ow dare you come in 'ere?" He tore the platter of hors d'oeuvres from the slackened hold of the two chefs and raised it to eye-level. "And this! You—you—"

    He flung the entire platter at Chip.

    Even if Chip hadn't been expecting it, most of it would still have missed. Henri-Pierre's poor aim was infamous. As it was, Chip pushed the table over in a cascade of silver and crystal. A few things, including the platter itself and the tray of oysters, hit it. The rest...

    Chip saw a salmon and avocado mousse describe a beautiful arc and transform the haughty Mrs. Coutts with a wonderfully face-improving pink and green face-pack. The oyster tray had hit the edge of the upturned table. Oysters and their ice exploded across the room like shrapnel. An oyster splatted down into someone's beautifully bi-colored Tarragon-scented tomato and wild mushroom soup.

    Chip saw that the two Chefs, neither of whom were large, were wrestling with Henri-Pierre and his shotgun. Henri-Pierre was trying to bring the shotgun to bear on Chip.

    A waiter, in his haste to get away, ran back toward the kitchen. He forgot the cardinal table-service rule. Never run with skewers...

    The air was full of screaming. The shotgun boomed, fortunately only hitting the ceiling next to the three hundred piece chandelier. The vast concoction of crystal and lights began to peel down slowly from the molded ceiling.

    Chip knew he that would be okay with his slowshield, but this madman with a pump-action shotgun was going to kill someone. And Chef Henri-Pierre, 6'8" in his cotton socks and built like a Sumo wrestler, had thrown off the two Chefs. He was bringing the shotgun up.

    Chip looked for a weapon.

    And found a dessert trolley. As Henri-Pierre thrust the shotgun at him he thrust back with two-thirds of an entire Opéra cake. Layers of cake, coffee butter cream and thick chocolate granache went up into the barrel. Lynne Stark had also helped herself to the dessert trolley. She flung a conical glassful of Calvados Saboyon into the Chef's face. While Henri-Pierre was wiping his eyes, Chip grabbed the man who had terrorized him as a Vat-apprentice.

    "Let go the shotgun, Chef!" he yelled in his ear. "It's got cake up the barrel and will explode if you shoot!"

    It was a lost cause. Henri-Pierre was beyond hearing, and he had the sort of temper which was well-nigh impossible to control at the best of times. The spluttering Chef continued to struggle to bring the shotgun up to Chip's head, while holding him with a hamlike hand. Chip was struggling to keep the barrel down, but Henri-Pierre was stronger, bigger and heavier than Chip.

    Someone hit the shotgun hand, hard, with a full bottle of champagne, just as Chip used the full weight of his combat boots and all the leg-strength he could muster to kick Henri-Pierre in the crotch.

    With a yowl the huge Chef doubled up, dropping both the shotgun and Chip. Chip kicked the weapon under a table.

    And then the chandelier fell, light bulbs exploding and crystal flying, with the sound of police sirens in the background. Chip saw that Gaston and a phalanx of waiters were trying to reach their table, and that Henri-Pierre had staggered to his feet again and had snatched up a ham-slicer.

    "Time to run!" said Chip, hauling at Lynne Stark who was flinging yet another gateau at the Chef. With the other hand he grabbed the Interweb photographer who—

    Was busy taking pictures! Photographs while Henri-Pierre was in a rage and had a knife. Insane. In this particular man's hand, a pump-action shotgun was a lot less dangerous. Chip detested Henri-Pierre, but he'd be the first to admit he'd learned his knife-work from him and that Henri-Pierre was a maestro with a blade.

    He kicked the dessert trolley into Henri-Pierre's path. Chip didn't even wait to see the results. He just dragged his companions into flight. The right direction was "away."

    Their table, alas, was far from the doors or even a window. Too far.

    "Into the kitchen!" yelled Chip.

    They fled through the swing doors, bundling through the kitchen staff who were crowding in to see what was happening, past banks of gas-plates and ovens...

    Into the scullery. Chip lost his footing and fell, pulling down the others he was dragging. The floor was wet, and he'd stood on, crushed and slithered a number of $42-each fresh tiger prawn.

    He scrambled up. "Help me haul this table against the latch. And come on! We've still got to get out of the securit..."

    He caught sight of someone—or something, rather—at the far door.

    Blue-furred and familiar.

    Another one of those aliens. He'd met one of them in the fight for the scorpiary. A "Jampad," if he remembered the name right. The creature had said that it was the only one of its kind on this world. So what was this one doing here?

    He heard someone else say: "Pooh-Bah, I importune you! We can only carry a bottle for each of us. Methinks this case will be the death of you and I. The boss is too busy with his loot to assist."

    "But I cannot take eight bottles," complained another ratty voice.

    "Whoreson! Just take one, all of yourselves will have to share it," snapped the first.

    "What's up?" demanded Lynne Stark, seeing him freeze.

    "Rats. Come on. Leave that. Let's run." If rats were here and looting, they'd have left open a way out. That was how rats worked.

    They didn't see the rats, or the Blue-fur, but the security gate was open. Chip neatly closed it behind him.

    "And now where?" he asked. "Besides a bit further away?"

    "My car. The office to get that camera downloaded. And then the police station to lay charges," said Lynne Stark decisively. "I apologize, Connolly. You were right about his reaction. I didn't think anybody could be that bigoted-crazy."

    "I don't see the point in a visit to the police. They're more likely to arrest me," said Chip bitterly.

    "While I understand where you're coming from, let's get some charges in before your ex-boss does."

    "Uh, Lynne. Why do you have that in your hand?" asked the photographer.

    The INB boss looked at the tall conical glass, miraculously unbroken and mostly full. "I forgot. I'd grabbed it to throw, when we did a runner. Why did you decide to run just then? Not that it wasn't a good thing. The fracas was getting wild. I think your partisans in the crowd were outnumbered but they were doing a sterling job.”

    "Partisans?" asked Chip.

    "Oh, there were some of the diners for you, and others who thought that the chef would be doing the world a favor by shooting an upstart Vat. There was quite a foodfight going on. Now what is this, anyway? I wouldn't normally think about it for pudding but it seems to be what we've got." She pointed at the conical glass.

    "Au diplomate á l'anglaise. Basically what you would call a trifle, if you weren't being charged $45 for it."

    "Trifle," Lynne Stark said wryly. "I should have guessed. Why couldn't it have been double chocolate mousse? Oh well, come on. Let's go to the office. We can do the station at Wesdene precinct from there. The Mayfair one near here will be full of irate diners."

    She smiled mischievously. "Well, Maxine. Those photographs should be worth a mint to Interweb. Remember we got you this story. And we agreed to share pics."

    "For the human-interest story, yes. Not for the celebrity foodfight and famous-chef-goes-mad story," said the young Interweb reporter. "And you promised us dinner."

    Lynne's smile widened into a grin. "All I can offer you is this unconsidered trifle I picked up, and a teaspoon from the office. But later, when we've done what must be done, we'll send for some take-out chow. I have already ruined one perfectly good frock tonight. With our Chip around, the next dinner would probably be worse."

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