I didn’t fancy eating anywhere by myself that evening. There was a crowd I sometimes spent time with, a sort of fried-egg shaped friendship group, a bit crinkly at the edge, some genuinely pleasant people in the yolk and a lot of rather shallow and flavourless trend-followers around them. But it would be more pleasant than eating by myself. Before I decided where we should meet, I had to choose my target.
Thinking about Max’s warning, I aimed without a particular play in mind. A single spontaneous review was unlikely to do a lot of damage – or boost a first-tier noticeably. But I’d heard interesting things about a place called Die Ner in Covent Garden. It was a Sahi affilliation, so I tucked the Double-Diamond away and fished out a dormant contract I played with in the name of Lucretius Segnit. He had built up a considerable celebration allowance in the last year, so I fiddled his birthday and booked a table for ten.
Antony was in the bar when I got there, drinking Northumbrian lager. We chatted about shallow social things while I cracked the shop lay and started reading the place from the inside out. Our table had been ready for twenty minutes, but the staff wanted to keep us at the bar. I didn’t mind. It wasn’t my allowance I was drinking.
Antony’s friends arrived, together with a half-Samoan skinner called Timeo and a pair of sisters I had met before. We headed to our table in the dark rear of the restaurant.
This wasn’t a gimmick eatery like Eis had been. You could actually eat ten times a week here on a Sahi grade eleven, if you knew the exchanges, but I don’t think you’d want to. They had settled their menu a good long time ago and it wasn’t going to change any time soon. To access it here all you had to do was make your personal query gesture and it slid into view on the back of your sub-dominant hand. I watched Meera and Aruna scrolling through it with their elegant, lozenge-shaped fingertips.
“What do you fancy, ladies?” I asked. “Do you want a recommendation?”
Meera cocked her head. “Have you eaten here before?” she asked, coquettish and a little rushed. She’d had a strong drink before arriving, then.
I replied with a single nod. My eyes began reading her and running a tickertape of physical stats through her rather restrained aura. Height 1654, weight 5423 + 158, plenty more. I pinched it out with a hidden fingertip gesture.
“Perhaps you might enjoy the lobster quinoa salad,” I said. “Quite refreshing. Very reminiscent of a splash of seawater over the gunwale of a speeding catamaran.” It was in my interest for as much variety as possible to arrive on the table, of course. I watched Meera scroll back up and then flare her nostrils – almost certainly to find reviews on the social bands.
Her sister was seated beside me and hadn’t looked up. “I don’t know where to start,” she said. “There’s so much more choice than I’m used to.”
I leant into her personal space. “Then cross out anything you’d have normally. Live a little, Aruna!”
She looked up directly into my eyes. Something flashed there. “Well, there’s this fricasee of porq with araquee blossom and wild rice…?”
“Why not?” I replied.
“Oh, urgh, it’s tankmeat,” she said suddenly. “How tacky.”
“Try it,” I urged. “You might be pleasantly surprised.”
She looked unconvinced.
“Try it! If you don’t like it, have mine. I’m having the turbot in whitest sauce.” The top of the menu. “You can try both, if you like.”
She didn’t know how to take that. The invitation to actually eat off my plate… perhaps it slightly revolted her, as it would so many. Yet at the same time there was that transgressive playfulness. She was a couple of years younger than me and much more used to conventional eating habits. I was sure that she had never needed to scavenge behind eatery waste-chutes to quieten a churning stomach.
“Why not, then?” She gave a flick of her rather spectacular hair. “Four-score years and ten is my lot, after all.”
The food came. It was good, unspectacular, the service unobtrusive and convenient, the wine I had chosen was drinkable and not extravagant. But the dessert posed a problem. As the waiting staff brought out the new dishes, something caught the edge of my attention. A scent. I had ordered a dish of pickled pears – something I had never eaten before – and it came, quite beautifully presented on a heavy cut-glass plate, garnished with tiny sprigs of mint in flower. But there was a taint in the flavour, even before I put it in my mouth.
I had stopped chattering and bent over the food to really smell it. Filling my lungs and dialling my nasal diagnosts to maximum sensitivity, I tried to identify it. Was there a hint of raw meat in this? A contaminated board, an unclean knife, a stained wipe… Perhaps even the hands of the waiting staff… And not any meat. Uncooked… Liverish… Whale meat?
The others had noticed my change in attention and were watching me. I ignored them. Lifted a spoon of pickled pears to my lips and savoured.
Beaver. Definitely beaver. I knew it. I had eaten beaver three times. Once in Canada at a rural festival, once in Deptford in a swanky sea-themed hole and once in Milan. I had eaten the tail, the flank, the brains and the loin. If that had not been sufficient for me to gain an exact flavour profile, then nothing could. I had eaten it more times than I had eaten many tankmeats.
I was going to enjoy this.
“What’s wrong, Rafe?” asked Timeo with a rumble. “Is something wrong?”
“Yes,” I replied. “I don’t generally expect to find stray flavours in my food – least of all in a finely balanced dessert like this.”
I raised a hand in the old-fashioned way. And clicked for service.
Our tableman had been fine – so far. How would he handle this?
“Your preparation area is contaminated,” I told him. “And it is very likely that you could cause a serious reaction in someone unfortunate enough to be susceptible.”
“I’m very sorry sir. You would like something else?”
“No. Not at all. I would like to talk to your head chef. You can tell him that Rafael Castleman of the Open Menu has some advice for him.”
The tables nearby had also fallen silent now. Silence rippled out like a stone disturbs still water.
Only a few moments later – to the house’s credit – the chef arrived. He was a tall, lanky man by the name of Giroflet. I’d never come across him before.
“What seems to be the problem, sir? I understand you do not enjoy the dessert?”
I gave him a toothy grin. “No, that’s not right. I’m quite enjoying myself. And I would have enjoyed this very-well executed little dessert if there hadn’t been an awful taint.”
He looked at me quizzically, whipped a forked spoon from his breast pocket and tried the dish. “What do you taste, Mr Castleman?”
“Beaver,” I replied.
He looked at his waiter. “The gentleman tastes beaver.”
“I do,” I replied. “Distinctly.”
“It is impossible,” he replied. “I taste nothing.”
“But I taste everything,” I said, pushing back my chair. “Have you ever eaten beaver, chef?”
He disregarded my challenge. “I can taste nothing of the sort,” he said calmly. “There is no beaver in the kitchen and there has never has been and there never will be such a ridiculous ingredient while I am chef.”
“You have a contaminated preparation area, chef,” I said, “And I will be writing exactly that unless…”
“Unless nothing,” he snapped. “Unless nothing. I expected nothing less from you, Mr Castleman. Or rather, Mr Segnit. Threats. Attempts to bully and bluster and bluff your way on an empty hand. I do not even desire to know what it is you want from me. I know your ways. I know your slant, sir, your thumbscrew words and reviews. But here nothing will work. In my kitchen I have the most up-to-date volatile chamber available commercially. And if you so desire, we can take your dish of pears and combust it right now. And exactly what flavours are present, perhaps we can let everyone see.”
I had to smile. The man was going to give me exactly what he wanted. The irony was that however up-to-date his volatile chamber, it could not compete with the three Rettier diagnosts implanted in my opthalmic bulb, each running their own identification protocols on every bite that I ate, every scent that I smelt, every savour that drifted past my nose. And I hadn’t even had to ask them about this – plain, simple old unaugmented memory had done it.
“Ideal,” I said. “I see no purpose in wasting any time.”
The kitchen had been in full swing, the very middle of service, but when the chef and I entered the brigade were standing back from their positions. Giroflet marched to a glass-fronted cabinet built into the wall and remotely slid a door aside with a gesture. “You will not be familiar with such equipment, Mr Castleman,” he said with a sneer. “Typically more useful for creating than criticising, but in this instance, perhaps demonstrative.” He nodded me the readout it stood, void and green in my upper left eye, while I waited with crossed arms for him to press the button.
He did so, and in a flash of intense heat and low pressure the food sublimed straight off the dish, its molecules unaltered. Every volatile was charted, right down to the single molecule.
Not a single shadow of beaver anywhere.
I immediately replayed my own readings. The two Rettier 409s in tandem had tasted, said their memories, nothing but perfectly ripe Wilson pear, cider vinegar pickle, anethole, menthole… Nothing indicative of raw meat.
The 309 said the same – after a rapid reboot.
So how had I tasted raw beaver?
The chef was looking at me. “It grieves me that you no longer have a dish of pears to enjoy,” he said. “But if you came with another intention – not the intention to enjoy the food set before you – who am I to cross your path? Please leave this kitchen. And my restaurant. And do not try to bluff with me again.”
A security man in his uniform black had appeared from somewhere, but I had no intention of staying. Return to the table and admit I had been wrong? Return to that silent room where I had faced the chef with such conviction? When my own nose had lied to me? What was this.
“Your machine says there was no beaver in this, but if I tasted beaver then I tasted beaver.”
“I think you are over-taxing your imagination, Mr Castleman. A hysterical experience, perhaps. And if a single subjective opinion should react in such a way… Well, I dismiss it!”
A heavy hand grasped at my sleeve, but I shook it off. “Get off!” I shoved a pastry chef out of the way and headed towards the service entrance.
“You’ll think hard before publishing a review based entirely upon your imagination, I’m sure,” said the chef. “Although perhaps rather more of what you have written was made up than you ever realised.”
His tone was so disgustingly smug that I wanted to spit. I wanted to throw something with clang or slam a door. I was searching for the last phrase to end it all.
I had nothing left to say.