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The Mountain of the King

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On the letterhead of the Dos Caminos Restaurant, Manchester:

"Dear Mr Tyler, we are pleased to inform you that you are the winner of our draw for a vacation for two in beautiful Monterrey, Mexico, inclusive of airfare and accommodation. You and the guest of your choice will stay at the Hostería Obispo for one week..."

* * * * *

"You haven't a clue, have you?" Emma stormed, yanking her clothes out of the wardrobe. Sam watched, astonished.

"You're so bloody obsessed with your job, you never have time for us! Last night was the first evening out we'd planned in yonks, and you didn't even remember! I had to ring the station to find out where you were!"

Sam cleared his throat and tried to sound reasonable. "I've already said I was sorry. Come on, Em. We're going on holiday in three days. We'll have masses of time together then!"

She shook her head, on the verge of tears. "You're going. I'm leaving. As always, there's a world of difference."

* * * * *

And thus it was that PC Sam Tyler found himself staring moodily out the window of his Aeroméxico flight, the seat beside him empty.

* * * * *

The first four days were pleasant enough. Sam spent hours walking through the Barrio Antiguo, marvelling at the colonial architecture and jotting his impressions in his notepad. He practised his Castilian-accented Spanish with everyone he met, and tried not to be hurt when they laughed at his pronunciation. At one point Sam rented a car and set off for Cerro de la Silla, the huge saddleback mountain that loomed to the east of the city. He hiked for a full afternoon, lost in thought as he clambered up and down the arid hills. And in the main plaza, dazzled by the heat and clamour of the market, Sam was persuaded into buying an elaborate silver filigree cross for his mum.

But the evenings were desperately lonely.

Every night was identical. Sam would shower and then walk to the Zona Rosa. The neighbourhood was alight with colour, music, laughter. Couples walked past, smiling, their arms linked. Sam would duck into the doorway of whatever restaurant looked interesting. Invariably a waiter would greet him with the seemingly disbelieving phrase, "¿Sólo usted, señor?" And always Sam would reply, "Sí, sólo yo." Yes, it's just me.

It seemed that no one dined alone in Monterrey, or in the entire country of Mexico for that matter. Sam was acutely aware of the curious glances as he was shown to a table (always less than ideally situated). As he sat down, he would flick open his notebook and diligently record the activities of the day. When the meal arrived, Sam would eat it absently, jotting down notes between forkfuls ("The Catedral Metropolitana really is a baroque masterpiece…"), his mind focused on his earnest narrative and not on the flavours in his mouth. Occasionally he would pause and listen to the conversations at the neighbouring tables, catching the occasional phrase and turning it over in his mind, still mystified by the speed and sibilance of Mexican Spanish.

As soon as the meal was finished, Sam would head back to his hotel, stretch out on the bed, have a quick wank, and very efficiently fall asleep.

Until, on day five, Sam walked into the Café San Cristóbal and ordered the Pollo en Salsa de Mango.

* * * * *

He set out later than usual that night, reasoning that a later hour would mean fewer other customers and therefore quicker service. Several night clubs blared their music, but Sam walked quickly past those doorways, glancing in almost furtively and seeing the ecstatic movement of bodies in semi-darkness. This corner of the Zona Rosa seemed to be especially raucous, and Sam was considering giving up and heading back when he spotted a small café that was sandwiched between two closed jewellery shops. The sign, with its incongruous image of a muscular Saint Christopher hefting the infant Jesus on one shoulder, struck him as wonderfully outlandish. On an impulse, Sam went in.

In the semi-darkness, candles flickered on the tables. There were no more than five couples in the café. Unlike the clamour outside, in here the conversations were murmured, a gentle hum. A waiter guided Sam to one of the empty tables and presented a menu, but Sam waved it away and asked simply, "¿Qué recomenda?"

The waiter, surprised, rattled off a list so quickly that the only one Sam understood was the word for chicken. Sam repeated the word and added, "Y una botella de vino rojo, por favor." The waiter nodded, and quickly returned with a bottle of red wine. He uncorked it, pouring a glass, and then left both glass and bottle on the table.

The wine was good: rich, tannic, and heady. After a single glass, Sam's head was swimming and he could feel his body relaxing. He stole a look at the woman sitting nearest him, then did a double-take when he realised it was Emma. Or − no, of course it wasn't Emma, it was simply a woman who looked slightly like her: wavy dark hair and bright brown eyes. And certainly Emma had never looked at Sam in the way this girl was regarding her companion, her gaze warm with affection. Sam realised he had been staring when she suddenly switched her gaze to him, raising one eyebrow quizzically. He flushed and looked away, then hid his sudden confusion by pouring himself a second glass of wine. He could not have explained why he had flushed.

The second glass of wine quickly disappeared. Sam reached for his notebook, flipped it open, then paused as he realised that the light was too dim, even as he moved the tiny candle closer. He put away the notebook and reached for the bottle.

Soon Sam was afloat in a pleasantly melancholic haze. It seemed a very good idea to order a second bottle, and it too was almost empty when the waiter reappeared and set the plate down in front of him. Sam looked at the food: glazed chicken breast artfully arranged on a bed of white rice, but disconcertingly covered with some sort of orange stuff, along with small round pieces of jalapeño and some sprigs of green. Sam poked at the meat dubiously with his fork, and lifted a piece to his mouth.

The intensity of the flavour was a revelation. The sweetness and smooth texture of the fruit (fruit!) danced with the heat and crunch of the hot peppers to create something that verged on the addictive. Sam realised with a rush that he was starving, hungrier than he'd felt for days. His awareness shrank to the size of the plate before him; the murmur of voices disappeared. Each mouthful was an experience of sheer delight. Sam was alone with the sensation of eating, of tasting, and was entirely content.

When Sam had eaten enough to take the edge off his hunger, he looked around him and discovered that the restaurant was nearly empty. The woman at the next table had gone, along with her companion.

He ate the rest in an ecstasy of pleasure, then rolled the last of the wine around his mouth and swallowed. Sam caught the waiter's eye and beckoned him over.

"This was delicious," Sam said, in English, slowly and carefully. "It was the best thing I have ever eaten. I want to thank the chef."

The waiter stared at him, then nodded and went out back. Sam was spooning the last traces of the sauce from his plate when he became aware of a new presence, and looked up.

A young man, possibly the same age as Sam himself, was regarding him quietly. Sam was disconcerted by his expression, which was kind… possibly patronising? A tiny tendril of annoyance curled in Sam's mind, and he felt emboldened to voice the one desire he suddenly felt more than anything else.

"I liked this dish very much. I want to make it at home. May I please have your recipe?"

There was laughter from the back of the restaurant, and the waiter spoke. "We do not give our receta, señor. Especially to a mucosito sin modales como tí."

Sam wasn't certain of the words, but there was no mistaking the underlying contempt. The chef had still not spoken, but was still looking at Sam with something akin to tenderness.

"Please," Sam said. He became aware that there was a tremble in his voice, and struggled for a moment. "I want... I want to take home something good from this trip. I promise not to share the recipe with anyone. On my honour, as—" In a moment of inspiration, he pulled out his warrant card. "On my honour as a policeman."

"As a policeman?" the chef said softly, seeming slightly amused. He took the warrant card and cupped it in his hands, regarding it seriously, then handed it back. "Then yes, Constable Sam Tyler. I will show you how to make this food, on your honour as a policeman. Come with me."

Sam found himself being propelled to the kitchen, where the chef steered him to the counter. Copper and steel glittered around him. A queue of ingredients appeared in front of him, one by one: chilled chicken breasts, several peppers, some onions, a round fruit, and a few other things that Sam's tipsy eyes could not immediately recognise.

"I'm sorry," Sam stammered. "I didn't catch your name. ¿Cómo se llama?"

"Cristóbal," the chef said.

Sam laughed. "So that's you on the sign?" And the chef smiled back.

"Exactly. Now look."

Sam watched closely as the man took a knife and deftly cut several of the ingredients into pieces. The fruit − "un mango," Cristóbal said − looked especially challenging, its slippery flesh oozing liquid. The chef demonstrated how to hold it, then indicated that Sam should give it a try. Sam imitated as best he could, but Cristóbal made a tsk-ing sound at his clumsiness, then put his hands over Sam's and moved his fingers deliberately into place.

Sam was suddenly aware of Cristóbal's closeness, the heat of his body, a faint scent of cloves.

They continued to work together. The chef took special care with the jalapeños, showing how to cut away the seeds without touching them, and telling Sam to be careful not to touch his eyes — "It will burn, very painful." Sam found himself leaning against the man, and felt the sensation of someone else breathing. He had never been so physically close to another man. It seemed strange, yet natural, to be with someone of the same build, the same height. For a split-second he leaned his head against Cristóbal's neck.

At this, the chef turned and looked at him. Sam felt an unexpected flare of heat, saw a flash of something — recognition, desire — in Cristóbal's dark eyes. He wants me, Sam realised. Strangely, this didn't bother him as he imagined it should. In fact, he rather liked it. It seemed like an eternity since anyone had looked at Sam in that way.

"We must finish," Cristóbal said. He cradled Sam's head gently, then moved back to stand beside him. They worked together on the food in silence, Sam mirroring the chef's movements. Every square inch of his skin felt alive with awareness. He heard the chicken sizzling in the saucepan, inhaled the pungent coriander, felt rather than saw the steam escaping from the rice. Again and again Cristóbal touched him, lightly, and Sam did not move away.

And then the food was ready. In a few efficient movements, Cristóbal had set a plate between them at the counter, and gestured for Sam to sit and eat. Sam obediently took a forkful, chewed, and smiled. Cristóbal took the fork back, tried a bite, and grinned back.

"You know, Sam, I think that you can be a very good chef."

* * * * *

They ate the meal together, sharing the fork and laughing. Sam found himself talking about his childhood, the loneliness, his longing for his absent father, even the breakup with Emma. Cristóbal spoke, too, but afterwards Sam couldn't remember what he said. It was to do with family, with caring, the need to belong. The words sounded familiar, as if they were an echo of his own life. When the waiter appeared at one point, trying to catch the chef's eye, Cristóbal waved him away.

When Sam looked down and discovered that the plate was empty, Cristóbal laughed at his disappointed expression. "Sam, my friend, you must also know when to stop."

Curious, Sam asked, "Did you like it?"

"Muy sabroso y un poco picante. It was ... very tasty and a little spicy." Cristóbal paused, then added gravely, "I think that maybe, next time, you can use more jalapeño."

There was a beat. Sam didn't move. Cristóbal reached out a hand, touched Sam's lips with an almost maternal gesture, then put his finger into his own mouth.

"We have a saying," Cristóbal said, smiling. "Eres como el chile verde, picante pero sabroso. You are like a green chilli − hot but tasty."

He bent forward and placed a gentle hand around the back of Sam's neck, leaning in for a kiss. Unthinkingly, Sam responded. Cristóbal's mouth was firm against his, and as Sam felt the man's tongue softly exploring, he moaned. Cristóbal's other hand snaked around Sam's waist, pressing him close.

Sam's hands came up and cupped Cristóbal's face, felt traces of stubble under his fingertips. Their eyes met, and Sam's heart lurched at the intensity of the other man's gaze.

He pulled back.

"Sam?"

The other man's need had the effect of a cold shower. Sam suddenly felt himself sober for the first time in hours. This isn't who I am, he thought. I don't — flirt — with men.

Cristóbal's expression was troubled. "Are you all right?"

Sam shook his head as though he was waking up. "I'm sorry. It's just… this is unexpected. I don't mean to be unkind, Cristóbal, but I'm not interested in men."

The chef's face became impassive.

"Of course not," he said.

"No, you don't understand," Sam said. He could feel his inhibitions locking firmly into place, one by one. Do not touch another man, do not cuddle with another man, do not for Christ's sake kiss another man. Sam shook his head again, confused. "I'm not a homophobe, honestly. It's just. I was with Emma up until last week. Before her, there were other women."

Oddly, it was a struggle to get any more words out, but Sam managed it. "I prefer women. It's nothing personal, Cristóbal. Just, I'm not gay. I'm straight."

Cristóbal tilted his head and regarded Sam at length. Finally, he shook his head.

"For a policeman," he said, "you spend too much time on the wrong side of the bars."

He took both of Sam's hands up to his mouth and kissed them.

Sam couldn't swear to it, but he thought that the expression in Cristóbal's eyes was pity. He flinched.

"I don't know what you mean," he said.

"The restaurant is closed."

Sam was surprised at the abruptness of this, but nodded. "What do I owe you?"

He thought for a split-second that he saw hurt in the chef's eyes, but decided he'd imagined it as Cristóbal said briskly, "No hay cuenta. There is no bill."

The chef stood, adding, "The dinner is on the house. A gift for an Englishman who is far from his home."

Sam frowned and was about to object, but Cristóbal stopped him with a gesture. "I insist. It is my honour... as a chef."

"Thank you," Sam said.

They went to the door in silence. Before he closed the door, Cristóbal added, "Please take care, my friend. Go with God."

And within moments, the young policeman found himself outside, looking up at the sign of San Cristóbal and feeling strangely upset.

But it didn't prevent him from writing down what he remembered of the recipe when he got back to his hotel.

* * * * *

Pollo en Salsa de Mango: Chicken in Mango Sauce

The sauce may be made in advance and refrigerated, then added when chicken is cooked. Serve with white rice or cilantro rice.

Ingredients:

• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 6 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
• 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
• 2 green onions or scallions, cut into thin slices
• 4 jalapeño peppers, seeded and cut into slices (use fewer jalapeños if less heat is desired)
• ¼ cup rice vinegar
• ½ cup sugar
• ¾ cup orange juice
• 1½ cups cubed mango
• 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro (fresh coriander leaves)
• salt and pepper to taste
Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Sauté chicken breast halves 4 minutes on each side. Remove and set aside, covered.

In the same pan, in the remaining olive oil, sauté the garlic and green onion until the onion begins to soften, then add the jalapeños and continue to sauté for another minute. Add the vinegar and sugar, stirring to combine. Add the orange juice and continue to cook until the sauce is slightly reduced and the sugar completely dissolved. Stir in the mango cubes and chopped cilantro and continue to cook, stirring, another 1-2 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Return the chicken to the pan and heat through. Serve immediately. Serves 6.