Practiced hands dolloped thick sauce onto a white plate. Ageha dipped a spoon in the amber pool and slid it across the round dish to shape the sauce into an orange fireball. He then checked on the meat. The pale golden coating of a veal cutlet sizzled in the skillet.
“Three minutes on the Cotoletta!” shouted Ageha. He made sure he was heard amidst the clattering in the kitchen.
A waiter approached the head chef’s station and placed a plate containing braised rabbit and polenta on the counter.
“Chef Kirishima, there was a complaint about the seasoning of the polenta.”
Kirishima looked down doubtfully at the dish.
“This is Shikimi’s.” muttered the head chef. He grabbed a spoon and scooped out some of the yellow mash. He gave it a taste and made a sour expression. “Shikimi, come here and taste this.”
Ageha turned his head toward the summons. Thinking that he had enough time before the veal passed the perfect temperature, he headed straight for the counter. He did as the head chef instructed and wore a perplexed look after placing the spoon back on the table.
This is way too salty.
Ageha had tasted the polenta before plating it. He had made certain it was seasoned sublimely since flavor balance was a point of pride for him. Still, he bowed in apology.
“I am sorry, Chef. There is too much salt. I will remake it immediately.”
“This was partly my fault for not checking it. I will do so from now on.” Ageha could not see the expression the chef made, but his imagination was enough to prick his heart.
The chef dismissed Ageha and told the waiter that the dish in question was on the house. Ageha hid a grimace as he returned to his station to attend to the now golden brown veal.
“Don’t take it to heart. I’m sure he’s just trying to remind you to not let your guard down,” said Yama, who approached Ageha from behind.
“I understand, and thank you. You did not have to walk all the way here for that.”
“Hey, I gotta act like the senior that I am from time to time, right?” He patted Ageha’s shoulder.
“Says the chef who was listening in on the scolding instead of doing his job.”
“You really should do something about how you treat me.” Yama’s shoulders slumped.
“It is a sign of affection.”
“I don’t want that from a guy.”
“It is all you are going to get from me.”
“Life is so unfair. I get a dude poking fun at me, while you get Rin-chan fawning over you.”
Ageha shook his head. “She does not.” He set the visibly scrumptious cutlet on the plate and decorated it with herb ribbons.
“Keep telling yourself that. That way, my turn might come soon enough.”
“She could be your daughter, you know.”
“That’s what makes it great, right?” Yama winked.
“I do not think society agrees.”
“What’s this? Getting all protective after that denial earlier?” He chuckled.
“No, I am only stating common sense.”
“Whatever you say.” Yama smirked in triumph.
Ageha ignored the one-sided victory declaration and focused on finishing his dish. Yama beelined to his station to make up for his brief procrastination.
Ageha submitted the veal for a final check, which the head chef dutifully performed. Rin, who was also present when Ageha was reprimanded, elegantly received the plate and strode into the dining room.
The rest of the night’s service concluded without further mishaps.
Ageha changed out of his uniform and into a form fitting grey shirt. Faded blue jeans barely covered the top of his brown leather shoes. He walked out of the changing room and bumped into a familiar server.
“Heading home?” asked Rin, with her trademark heart warming smile. Ageha, trading warmth with confidence, responded with his own. A pink camisole under her white jacket accentuated her supple, albeit modest, chest. Her skinny jeans put her shapely legs on display.
“Yeah, today wasn’t the best, so I wanna get home and rest.”
“I’m about to go too. Want to walk together until the station?”
I guess I can’t really blame Yama-san for misunderstanding.
“We both go the same way, so it would be strange if I declined.”
“I’d cry if you did.”
“Sorry, I feel like going home alone.”
“How mean!” She puckered her lips. Ageha normally disliked such artificial mannerisms, but Rin did it so naturally that even he found it pleasant.
Laughing at the pouting Rin, Ageha jogged to the service entrance of Sapore. Rin chased the escaping chef until they made it outside. Realizing their childishness from the looks around them, they ceased the game of tag. They walked down the sidewalk side by side in silence. The early autumn air felt comfortable so Ageha enjoyed the commute despite the distance.
“You’re oddly quiet,” said Rin.
“I was wondering the exact same thing. Usually, I can’t even get a word in.” He chuckled.
Rin aimed her elbow at his side.
“Okay, okay! Just kidding.”
Rin kept silent for a few paces and then brought up a new topic.
“I actually wanted to talk to you about something.”
So that’s why she was so silent.
“I saw the polenta incident.”
“Oh? They call it the polenta incident?”
“Yes, the sala staff decided on the name. Everyone was laughing when I told them you were knocked down a peg.”
“No.” She laughed cheerfully. She probably knew that he was only humoring her minor revenge.
“So, what about it?”
She stopped her feet. Noticing this, Ageha also stopped and turned to her. She looked completely serious.
“I know it wasn’t a mistake on your part.”
“I’m glad for the trust, but I’m not too worried about it.”
“No, this isn’t about trust. Not that I don’t trust you, I mean, I trust you, a lot, I really do! But this is…” Her eyes wandered and her hands waved about. Ageha waited for her to compose herself without interrupting.
“When I submitted an order to the cucina, I saw Matsunaga-san sprinkling something on the polenta when you were away tending to the meat. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I thought maybe he just adjusted the seasoning for you to match the flavor of Sapore’s secondo, but after the dish was returned…” She trailed off, hitting the threshold of what could be said with ease.
“I thought as much.” What’s unexpected is how much Rin observes me.
“Well, he has a thing against me, so I guessed it was his doing.”
“But you apologized immediately.”
“Excuses won’t work on the head chef, even if they are true.”
“…I thought you believed it was your mistake.”
“I don’t make seasoning mistakes.” He grinned proudly.
“…I kind of know how Matsunaga-san feels now.”
Both of them laughed about the grim topic of sabotage.
“Thanks for telling me anyway.”
“You can count on me! So, what are you planning to do? I can talk to the head chef if you want.”
“No, you don’t have to do that. It’ll just cause more problems in the cucina.”
“But what if this happens again?”
“I’ll talk to him before that, but not about this. I think the two us just got off on the wrong foot. I respect his culinary ability. I think I can learn a lot from him.”
Rin looked at him with her left brow raised and a short hum coming from her throat.
“What?” he asked.
“I thought you’d be furious. I know you take a lot of pride in your cooking.”
“I can understand him exactly because of that. I’m a section head at twenty-five while he’s in his forties. He must feel cheated.”
“But that’s not your fault. He shouldn’t lash out at you.”
“Restraint isn’t really something common nowadays. People just do whatever they feel like most of the time.”
Rin refrained from immediately replying. She made a melancholic smile and said, “It’s sad isn’t it?”
“People just doing what they want, not caring about what’s right, or who gets hurt.”
I’m like that too.
“There are still considerate people like you, Rin, so I’m optimistic.”
“Wha-!” Her skin flushed beet red…
“If only that consideration restrained your nosiness a-”
Slices of life like this were something Ageha consumed like pies: on occasion, in small portions, but with great enjoyment. Sweetness in excess induced decay, which was something he could not afford.
Their merry banter continued until they reached the station. Ageha rubbed a sore spot on his side as he entered a different train platform. Rin bid him farewell moments ago.
I don’t know if I should feel lucky or unlucky that she elbowed a human part.
Rin handed the order slip to the head chef. Kirishima succinctly relayed it to his workforce in the kitchen. Business was slow at the moment, so Rin didn’t have much to do. She gazed at Ageha and Matsunaga chatting while they worked together on a dish.
I can’t believe it’s only been two weeks since then.
She recalled her conversation with Ageha about the polenta incident. She knew he was going to talk to Matsunaga, but she did not expect them to hit it off so well.
“The salt casing seals in the moisture and allows the sea bass to steam in its own juices,” explained Matsunaga. He expertly covered the whole fish with moist salt.
“And seasons it at the same time,” said Ageha.
I didn’t expect them to be finishing each other’s sentences. She continued to observe the scene that she would have called a hallucination only days before.
Rin had always thought of Ageha as a force to be reckoned with. He was already a primo chef at such a young age and had gained the trust of the head chef through skill and discipline. Despite such a high evaluation, his ability to manage kitchen politics had exceeded her expectations.
Ageha placed the salt-encased bass into the oven. The two men continued their discussion about different methods to bake seafood.
I guess this is something that I can’t chat with him about. The sala is different from the cucina.
“Rin, stop ogling Ageha and move. You’re blocking the cucina exit,” said a tall, middle aged man with a sophisticated air about him.
“Sorry! I was just spacing out, it’s not like I was-”
“Whatever. You can go on break if you want. We have more than enough camerieri in the sala.” The spectacled chief waiter displayed a smile that would leave older ladies smitten.
“That’s capo cameriere in here.”
Seta moved through the space Rin created without waiting for a reply. Rin scolded herself, not just for blocking kitchen traffic, but also for gradually growing attracted to Ageha. She walked towards the break room while keeping Ageha at the corner of her sight.
I only got close to him to stop the other guys from coming on to me, but now…
It was not a secret, especially to herself, that Rin was attractive. She knew how to use her looks as both a tool and a weapon, and she was also aware of the drawbacks. She chose Ageha because he, unlike the other men in Sapore, seemed uninterested in her. Kirishima and Seta were also exceptions, but cozying up to someone close to her age was not only more natural but also more palatable for her.
She entered the break room and sat down on one of the chairs placed around the single rectangular wooden table. She slumped herself onto the tabletop and sighed deeply.
This is bad. I’m thinking about him too much.
She knew that she must not fall for Ageha. If she did, that would mean her plan had backfired in the worst way possible. The motive behind her selection would also become the cause of her suffering. Her thoughts slowly derailed into gloom until the door opened, and from it entered the seed of her worries.
“Oh, were you asleep? Sorry if I woke you.”
“Ageha… No, I was just thinking.”
“That’s good. I just went on break,” he said while rotating his shoulders.
“You’re done with the secondo menu practice?
“For today, yeah. Shingo-san wanted to keep going, but I asked for a break. I say break, but I’m actually leaving early today, so we resume tomorrow.”
“You two are on a first name basis now, huh?” She was unable to stop a tiny amount of contempt from revealing itself.
I’m jealous of an old man!?
She used her fairly good acting skills, which she usually employed to play coy or cute, to prevent the raging embarrassment from showing on her face.
“Yeah, we hung out a few times after service, and it just kind of ended up that way. We’re not that close though. He’s much friendlier with the other chefs in the secondo section. He’s the type that cares about those under him, I think.”
“Right, I hear they go out for beers a couple times a week.” She inwardly sighed in relief that Ageha did not catch on.
“Cooking can be a stressful job, so that’s understandable.”
“You rarely go out with the others in the cucina though. People were talking about it before.”
“That’s just a schedule thing. My nights are usually busy.”
“What do you do?”
Rin noticed that Ageha slipped into thought for a brief moment before answering.
“Keep this a secret, okay?”
“…You can count on me.”
“I work as a personal chef for a rich family.”
“Whoa, that might get you in trouble with Kirishima-san.”
“It’s not affecting my work so it should be okay, but better to keep quiet, right?” His inviting smile lured Rin into becoming an accomplice.
“You really love what you do, huh?”
“I must admit it is an obsession.”
Rin felt a certain incongruity in what exactly they had been referring to, but she brushed it off and continued their talk until the end of her break. That was only further proof of how much her feelings for the young man had grown.
Matsunaga opened the lock to his suburban house in Mitaka and lazily entered.
Again, this silence…
He cursed his loneliness. He fondly thought back to a scene just a few hours ago. The young primo chef earnestly learned from him. They initially had their differences, but that was now water under the bridge.
“He has talent. It might be interesting watching him grow.” He was repentant over sabotaging Ageha’s dish.
He removed his shoes, turned on the lights, and stepped into the living room. He glanced at the picture of his divorced wife. It was part of his routine even if he no longer thought about her. They had no children.
I might be seeing them as my kids: Hiro, Reiji, and even Ageha.
He took off his coat, threw it on the sofa, and entered the kitchen to make dinner. He flipped the switch to the light beside the door and froze at the bizarre sight that was illuminated.
Everything was covered in clear plastic.
Before he could react, something covered his mouth and he lost consciousness.
Ageha? That name was the first word that floated in his murky mind after he opened his eyes. It was because the young chef, wearing black form-fitting clothes, was standing in front of him. Matsunaga was gagged and his limbs were tied to his favorite chair in the kitchen.
“Good. It seems I can finish early tonight,” said Ageha, his voice devoid of emotion.
What the hell is happening!?
“I will make this short so listen carefully,” said the young man in the same lecturing tone Matsunaga had used on him earlier that same day. “I am going to kill you.”
Matsunaga jerked his body at the declaration. He tried to get out of the ropes, but it was too secure for his attempts to work.
“You are probably wondering why, and why I am telling you all this.”
Matsunaga stopped struggling and trembled in fear.
“First why. Polenta incident.”
Matsunaga instantly understood. Ageha had figured out that he was the culprit, and this was his vengeance.
For something like that!?
“You are probably thinking that this is unfair, but you no longer have that right because you initiated this. The perpetrator cannot be a victim. This is nothing personal. The result would have been the same if you did it to anyone else.”
Matsunaga’s fear switched to anger because he could not comprehend the young man’s words. He tried to scream but only choked on his own saliva. He coughed several times and looked at Ageha with hatred and fury.
“Second why. I wanted you to know the answer to the first. It would not be fair otherwise.”
Fair? What the hell is fair about this!? You fucking sicko!!!
“That’s it. Time to get this over with.”
The sudden deadline dictated by his captor jolted Matsunaga out of his anger. Remembering the last thing he saw before fainting, he swung his head left and right. A plastic tent was erected around the room. Even the floor was covered.
“Do not worry. It will be painless. The plastic is for the possible spillage when I fold your body up to fit in that bag.” He used his thumb to point at a black bag behind him. It looked too small to fit a man, even in fetal position.
Yellow liquid pooled under the metal chair. Matsunaga deduced that the plastic on the floor was also for something like that. Taking pride in his realization, he chuckled. He had already escaped from reality.
He saw the young man move behind him and felt something wrap around his neck. Digging deeper and deeper, the arm slowly pressed on his throat. Darkness followed.