“And I need it by 3pm.”
Of course you do, Simone thought, and spotted the dog nosing around the sack of potatoes the kitchen porter was peeling. Today’s outfit involved a lot of pink feathers and rhinestones. The dog seemed to feel her scrutiny and looked up, baring its teeth, then lifted a leg to wee against the sack. Simone swatted a potato off the bench, landing it close enough to the dog to make it jump away, yipping anxiously and widdling on the floor as it went.
“Careful!” Mrs A snapped. “You almost dropped that on Fabien!”
Oh, if only. The dog was trying to bite the porter’s leg now. It shouldn’t even be in here. If they got inspected – her train of thought was broken by Mrs A snapping her fingers close enough to her nose that she felt the wind of the movement.
“Are you even listening? My god – just the best and the brightest in here, aren’t you?”
Simone wiped sweat from her face with her forearm. “Mrs A – I can make you a pie, but we’re getting ready for lunch right now. Having it ready for 3pm’s going to be difficult.”
“I didn’t ask your opinion on it. I told you what I wanted. If you’re not capable, I’m sure we can hire someone who is.”
You mean someone who licks your shoes like the head chef. She stretched her face into something that felt like a smile. “I will make sure you have a pie by 3pm.”
“I want you to make it. Everyone knows you make the best pastry.”
Simone swallowed a sigh. This was not on the job description. She had the whole damn kitchen to run, a busy Sunday lunch and dinner ahead, and the head chef’d be swanning around tasting things and doing his best Gordon Ramsey impression without ever actually getting his hands dirty. She’d wanted to work with him, knew it’d look great on her CV, but honestly – he did nothing but pose for photos with the diners and agree with everything Mrs A said, including her bonkers requests. Last week she’d had to put together a five course menu for a bloody doggy dinner party at the same time as get Sunday lunch out. Thank god for Zack – he not only managed to get all his people desserts done, he’d made something insane and dog-friendly for the dessert course. She wondered if he was ahead enough to take on some of her duties again. Because he was an amazing pastry chef, but she still made better pastry than him. She made better pastry than any chef she’d ever encountered. One of the top pastry chefs in London had told her she had magic fingers when she’d worked with him briefly. He’d then tried to demonstrate his own magic fingers, and she’d emptied a bowl of lemon tart filling over his head before walking out. Really, considering some places she’d worked, this wasn’t so bad.
“Alright. Any specific meat, or just meat?”
Mrs A unfolded a flier and peered at it. “It doesn’t say. Just ‘savoury pie competition’.”
Simone wasn’t surprised that Mrs A wanted a pie that she could pass off as her own, but she was at least a little surprised that she wanted to enter a Women’s Institute competition. This must be her next big thing – Mrs A, the domestic goddess, impressing all the local village ladies. Not that anyone would believe for a minute that she’d actually made the pie herself, but that was beside the point. She could go and bestow the largess of her presence on the village fete, that was already underway in the grounds. Honestly. She could have given them a little warning. Aloud, she just said, “I’ll see what we’ve got that looks the best.”
“Good.” Mrs A turned away, dismissing her. “Fabien? Fabien!” She walked off, screeching for the dog. Simone pinched the bridge of her nose, wondering if it was too early for a drink.
Lunch had begun. The kitchen roared with clattering plates and hissing pans, with swearing and laughter and the growl of extractors. It looked like chaos from the outside, gas burners roaring and chefs swinging past each other in some precarious choreography, someone shouting for service, someone else for another pan, dammit, who took his bloody pan? To Simone, it was a beautiful, controlled chaos, and she glanced at the clock on the wall reluctantly as she dropped salmon in a pan to sear and pivoted back to plate up the potatoes.
“Zack!” she called. “Cover me? I need to get this damn pie done.”
“Of course, cherie!” he said, flinging oil into a pan with an exaggerated flourish. He liked to affect some sort of weird French accent, but Simone thought he was actually from Birmingham. The accent slipped quite badly after a few beers. “Tell me how you want me.”
“Oh, hilarious.” She slapped his bum with her fish slice as she passed him. “Don’t let the heat ruin your hair.”
She was working butter into pastry flour, her eyes on the front line, shouting to the porter to bring another tray of garnish through, or to clean that spill before someone slipped, and wondering when the head chef planned to show, when the dog came into the kitchen with his ridiculous strut.
“Goddammit! Get that damn dog out of here!” she bellowed, hands thick with dough. “Freddie!”
The porter spun towards her shout, his eyes wide with alarm, and the plates stacked in his arms toppled out of his grip with the slow-motion inevitability of a slinky let lose on the stairs. “Nooo -!”
The dog yipped, the sound almost lost in the calamitous explosion of plates shattering on tile, and bolted down the front line with his tail tucked between his skinny legs. Zack yelped, aimed a foot at the dog, slipped on a half-squashed chip and lurched into the stove, catching the handle of pot and launching jus across the pass. A waitress squeaked and ducked, barely avoiding the sauce. Albert dropped his pan and lunged after the dog, who had paused in the corner by the fridges, shaking so hard his rhinestones were clattering. He saw Albert coming, gave a miserable howl, and bolted again, leaving Albert sprawling to his knees behind him. Freddie dropped into a crouch, arms out like a goalie while the older man cursed creatively from the floor and Zack tried to calm the waitress. It was only her first week, and she had already regarded the chefs with something close to terror before having jus flung at her.
“Get. That. Dog!” Simone didn’t often shout, but she was almost screaming now. Fabien feinted left. Freddie flung himself forwards, his grunt turning to a yelp of pain as he belly-flopped amid the shattered plates. Albert tried another grab, slipped on a shard of soup bowl, and landed on his back as Zack came bounding through the carnage, whipping a tea towel like a lasso. Simone wasn’t at all sure what he thought that was going to accomplish, and as Fabien sprinted for the back door she jumped from behind her counter and scooped him off the ground in a shower of half-made pastry. He wriggled and snapped, whimpering in fright, and she trapped him against her chest. “Stop it, you little git, or I’ll shove you in the freezer,” she told him. He stopped wriggling and stared at her in round-eyed fright. Although, he usually looked like that.
Someone said hesitantly from the pass, “Check on?”
No one moved. Albert sat up, rubbing the back of his head. He’d hit it on the fridge. Freddy picked a splinter from his palm. Zack offered Albert his hand. Simone shook her head at them all.
“Check on!” she shouted. “Move, move!”
There was a sudden scramble of activity, and she glared at the dog. “This is all your fault.” He wagged his tail hesitantly, and started licking buttery flour off her hands. “Stop that!” He stopped, and she became aware that there was – a smell. She closed her eyes. Oh, no. No. Stupid bloody animal. Stupid bloody scared animal. “Freddy,” she said, “Has – is there -” she trailed off, and he looked at her quizzically, broom in hand. Then he looked at her apron, and his eyes widened.
“Oh. Oh, Si, the – he – the dog -”
“I thought so.” She tightened her grip on the animal and headed for the pantry. “I’m going to go change. And put this bloody creature out of the way somewhere.”
By the time she got back into the kitchen, smelling marginally less of dog by-products, the head chef was standing over her pastry bowl, frowning at it like it was personally insulting him. He looked up as she approached the bench.
“Coffee break, Simone?”
“Calling home to mum?”
“No, chef.” She kept her face still, biting down on the words she wanted to say. No point getting fired before she quit.
“Not that busy, are we? Two chefs fine to run the whole service?”
Well, they kind of have to, since I’m not allowed to say no to making a stupid damn pie for Mrs A. “No, chef.”
“Huh. Better get back to it then, hadn’t you?” He swept out of the kitchen, whites immaculate, and Zack made an extravagantly rude gesture at his retreating back. Simone grinned.
“You guys alright? Need anything?”
“We’re on it,” Zack said. “Get your pretty little tart made, you tart.”
Albert grunted something that might have been amusement or might have been more swearing, and Simone went back to her pastry, stopping to check on Freddy. He’d managed to convince the pretty new waitress to patch up his hands, and was singing something tuneless to himself as he went back to the sink. All back to situation normal, then.
“Has anyone seen Fabien?” Mrs A demanded. She stood with her hands on her hips, blocking the pass and scowling at Albert, who scowled back and grumbled something under his breath.
“Mrs A?” Simone said, leaving the pan of braising meat and ushering the woman out of the way. “Is everything alright?”
“Fabien was meant to be with my useless assistant,” the woman said, “But he went and let him out of the office. I thought he might have come down here.”
“Mm, no,” Simone felt distinctly sorry for the assistant. “Probably a bit busy for him down here, anyway.”
“He does like it, though. I imagine he’s looking for scraps. You don’t feed him, do you? He has a strictly monitored macrobiotic diet.”
“No, we don’t. But we’ll keep an eye out for him.”
“Well. Do that. And how about that pie?”
“Just doing the meat now, Mrs A. It’ll be finished in time.”
“I should think so, too.” She crossed to the stove, almost sending Zack crashing into the counter as he tried to avoid her, hot pan raised at eye level and spitting on his hands. “Watch where you’re going,” she snapped at him, and leaned over the pan, sniffing the rich dank aroma of the cooking meat. Zack swore soundlessly at her back and shot a furious look at Simone. She gave him a what can I do shrug. “Well. It smells acceptable,” Mrs A said, and straightened up, smoothing the flat front of her dress. “Just make sure it’s done in time.”
“Will do,” Simone said, and watched as the woman walked past the stoves and out the door into the dining room.
“So, what’re you playing at?” Zack demanded. Lunch was over, clean down and dinner prep under way, the pie collected and borne away, exquisitely golden and still softly steaming, to be judged. “Where’s the mutt?”
“Out of the way,” Simone said, and checked the prep list. “Have you got the chocolate fondants done?”
“Oui, cherie – out of the way how?”
“Just out of the way so he doesn’t come crashing through in the middle of damn service, okay? What are you, dog police?”
“No, but I don’t want her in here in the middle of service again, either.”
Simone patted his cheek. “It’ll be okay, poppet. Now get your faux-French bottom into pastry and do the meringues.”
“That’s harassment, that is.” But he went to get the eggs from the pantry anyway, and she hoped she’d pushed the dog’s stupid pink costume deep enough into the rubbish. She didn’t want that being spotted.
The final judging of the savoury pies was done by the Women’s Institute chair and a local (and painfully minor) celebrity. He’d enjoyed the gin tasting quite a lot, and was trying to impress some of the younger WI members with his recollections of being disqualified in the first round of Stars In Their Eyes. He’d performed a Sonny and Cher number, but his Cher had dropped out, so he’d elected to perform both parts, donning and removing a wig frantically through the whole thing. It was, one of the women muttered to another as they watched him butcher a bacon and egg pie, a shame that they’d bothered with the whole celebrity thing. They’d have been better off getting the local pub’s Newfoundland to judge. He’d been in the newspaper too. Her friend smothered a chuckle and told her to behave herself. She was just looking for an excuse for when her spinach and feta pie didn’t win.
Mrs A stood very proudly next to her offering. Even cooled, the crust had a luscious golden sheen to it, and you could smell the rich scent of the meat wafting up. The minor celebrity grinned at her a little owlishly, and she graced him with a smile, extending one skinny hand and leaning forward enough to allow him a good look at her generous cleavage. “Mrs A,” she said.
“Divine,” the minor celebrity breathed, and the Women’s Institute chair rolled her eyes. She had thought she was too old for eye rolling, but it turned out there was plenty that called for it at this particular fete. This pie, for one.
“Made it yourself, did you, Mrs A?” she asked, making a note on her clipboard.
“Of course, Deidre,” Mrs A said stiffly. “What a question!”
Deidre examined the commercial-sized tin, and said, “What is it?”
“A – a pie. A savoury pie.”
A ripple of laughter ran across the observers, and Mrs A flushed. Deidre sighed. “What type of savoury pie, Mrs A?”
“Oh. Oh, of course. I – ah – oh. I – I seem to have forgotten.” The laughter was louder this time.
“You seem to have forgotten?” Deidre said, and the minor celebrity talked over her.
“It looks perfectly wonderful, Mrs A. I’m not surprised you forgot – long old day, eh?” He grabbed the knife from the board and stabbed at the pie, the crust flaking and splitting generously. Mrs A gave Deidre a self-satisfied sort of smile, then turned back to the minor celebrity.
“Can I help you with that?” she breathed.
“Well, actually,” he said, jiggling the knife and frowning, “Are there bones in here?”
“Bones? Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous.”
“It’s just – the knife seems to be stuck.” He tugged it out, the crust pulling with it a little, then settling back.
Deidre took the knife off him. “Let me see.” She jabbed it into the pie, and it sliced though the crust effortlessly. “I don’t – oh. Wait.” The knife had caught on something hard, and she twisted it irritably. “Mrs A, have you left bones in here?”
“Oh. Well. Now you mention it – I was using this very experimental recipe book by a rather wonderful American chef – you won’t have heard of him -”
“It’s a pie, Mrs A. A pie does not have bones in it. Not even an experimental pie.”
“Well, you would say that -” she trailed off as Deidre pulled a wedge of pie aloft, bleeding thick dark gravy and chunks of tender meat, and – and. The other thing rattled as it hit the plate, a distinctly un-bone-like sound. Mrs A leaned forward, frowning, as the other woman poked it with the knife, teasing it out of the pie. No one spoke, and the chair of the Women’s Institute hooked the offending object, lifting it aloft so it hung between them, dripping gravy.
“Is this a joke?”
They were leaning against the counters, prep done, eating pasta and drinking pint glasses of what they all would have sworn was straight lemonade when Mrs A came pounding into the kitchen and thrust the pie at Simone, her face pale. The dog collar – rather less pink and missing some diamantes – rested on top of it, some ill-thought-out crown.
“What have you done?” she hissed, her eyes tight little dots of fury. “What did you do?”
Simone gave her a confused look and set her bowl down, taking the pie from her. She peered at the collar. “What’s this then?”
“You know what this is! You made it!”
Zack picked the dog collar up and examined it with some wonder. “Holy hell, Simone.”
“Yeah. Don’t know how that happened.” Simone teased a piece of meat out of the pie and popped it in her mouth, chewing with relish. “Probably shouldn’t really eat it. Some of those stones are probably loose in there.”
Albert leaned over, stabbed a piece of meat on his fork and ate it, grunting in approval.
Zack shrugged, took the pie from Simone, helped himself then held it out to Freddy. “Seems a shame to waste it.”
“I really do apologise,” Simone said to Mrs A, who was watching the pie being passed around with staring eyes, the front of her dress twisted in one hand. “I don’t know how the collar got in there.”
“You -” the woman whispered.
“This is really good,” Freddy said, then winced. “I think I got a diamond.”
Albert huffed laughter and took a swallow from his pint.
“You’re all – you’re all insane,” Mrs A said, in the same breathy whisper. She backed towards the door. “You’re all crazy.” She hovered at the threshold, wavering, then added, “And you’re all fired!” It came out as a reedy sort of scream, and she hurried away.
“Really?” Freddy said uncertainly. “Like, now?”
“Nah. Get your apron on,” Simone said. “Service as usual.”
Zack rubbed the back of his head and looked at the dog collar. “So how exactly did it get in there?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
The head chef swanned in with a flush in his cheeks from gin tasting at the fete, and Simone handed him her notice, effective immediately. She’d been carrying the letter around since the first week, figuring it’d come to it sooner rather than later. He blustered a little and swore a lot, and she pointed out that if he gave her a bad reference she had the numbers of three waitresses that had quit because he felt their duties should extend beyond serving diners. She also suggested he get his baby-soft hands used to slinging pans rather quickly, as they had a full house tonight. Zack, Albert and Freddy hid their grins and kept their eyes on their plates, and as she walked out Zack mimed, call me. She nodded – she would. Probably when she needed a good sous chef. She headed for her car with the shouts of the head chef ringing across the parking lot like the shrieks of an angry bird. Yeah, she was done with this. The next kitchen was going to be her kitchen.
She opened her car door and looked at the little dog. “Off you go. Go find Mrs A.”
The dog stared at her with bulging eyes, wagging his tail so hard it looked like he was going to fall over.
“Come on. I have a cat that’ll eat you alive. Out.”
Fabien yipped happily, and rolled onto his back on the passenger seat.
She sighed. “Seriously? Wearing cute little outfits and being fed a macrobiotic diet was that bad?”
Fabien wriggled, watching her.
“They can’t get me for dog murder with a venison pie, but I’m pretty sure dog theft is a real thing.”
He yipped, sat up, and watched her with liquid brown eyes.
“God.” She grabbed the dog and deposited him on the driveway, where he whined unhappily. “Shoo!”
He darted past her and jumped back into the car.
“Crap.” Cars were starting to arrive, people trickling in for dinner. If she left him out here, he’d probably get run over, stupid thing that he was. And she wasn’t about to take him back inside now. “Fine,” she said, throwing her bag in the back and getting in. “One night, okay? I’ll bring you back tomorrow.”
Fabien yipped, propping his paws on the dashboard so he could see out. Simone shook her head. If the cat didn’t eat him by then.
Her phone binged at 1am. Zack.
The dog’s back.
“What?” She looked at Fabien, snoozing by the heater while the cat regarded him suspiciously from the back of the sofa. What’re you talking about?
She’s just marched in here with him. The assistant found him. Lucky, right?
“Lucky,” Simone said, and glared at the dog. He tapped his tail anxiously against the floor, and the cat growled. “I suppose one inbred mutt looks much the same as another, do they?”
Fabien scrambled to his feet and trotted to the couch, trying desperately to pull himself up next to her, and she groaned. Bloody quick-thinking assistants. What the hell did she do now?
The dog whined, scrabbling madly with his back legs as he tried to get up next to her. The cat unwound herself with a snarl and launched an attack that sent the dog yelping and crashing back into the coffee table. He cowered under it, trembling, then recovered himself and lunged for the cat, and they tumbled across the floor, spitting and snarling at each other. Simone jumped up and flung a cushion at them, and found herself the subject of two sets of reproachful eyes.
“Stop it,” she told them. “Seriously, I do not need your crap.”
The cat sat down and started grooming her rumpled fur. The dog pattered to her and put his paws on her bare foot, tail whipping. She rubbed her face with one hand. So, she had a dog now.
She poured the last of the wine into her glass and sat the floor, the cat and the dog separated by the no-man’s-land of her lap. It really had been a damn good pie. And that WI fete was going to be the stuff of legend. So all in all, yeah.