Steven was many things, most of them criminal. But in Jack’s experience, in their long friendship, he’d never been this before: the guy that disappears at the crucial moment, the guy that leaves you in a lurch.
And what a lurch.
Sure, this wasn’t the first time Jack had been in hot water, though in the past it had never been quite so…literal.
The water in question was actually not as hot as Jack had feared when he’d thrust his arm inside the belly of the beast. It was the exact temperature of a hot bath drawn to the point of too-hot-to-be-comfortable, to the point of rapidly pinkening skin and a swelling sensation plus fireworks just under the surface, not quite like the pins and needles of sleeping in an awkward position, but more like… like Pop Rocks.
The egg was unbroken in his hand, and Jack cradled it gently, his shoulder aching with the unnatural position given that he was ducked low behind his station to keep his head out of view. He cursed Steven—silently—and tried to settle, one hand holding onto the edge of the counter, the other gentle around the egg, his arm elbow-deep in the sous-vide. All he had in view were legs: Teddy’s, Jim’s, and Seth’s in the distance. Not a particularly exciting view as the kitchen carried on with the lunch service, so Jack let his mind wander while he waited out this little snag in the plan.
This all started before Il Pirata, before Hong Kong, before Jack even met Pino. Really it started with Steven not being there the day Jack was released. Jack understood. Really. He’d fucked up. Friends don’t screw friends over, everyone knows that. And Jack and Steven were friends, thick as thieves. (Literally.)
But Jack had screwed Steven over, and badly. Everyone celebrates a big score. That’s natural. What was unnatural was the sheer quantity of cocaine with which Jack had felt it necessary to celebrate. Enough for an epic binge, enough for a charge of felony possession. Hell, probably enough to tranquilize both of the cart horses pulling the Central Park carriage he’d used as an unlikely getaway vehicle.
It wasn’t just the drug arrest and one and a half year sentence. Those were bad enough, of course, but what was worse was that Jack had been their contact with the fence, and when he’d been locked up, Steven had failed to gain the fence’s trust, and it was only after months of desperate searching that he even managed to offload the thing for any price. And that “any price”? Not a good one. It paid the bills, but barely.
So Steven wasn’t there when Jack got out, and Jack knew he had to find something good, something that could serve as an apology. That was when this all started.
“A quail egg, yes.”
“Not a Fabergé quail egg made of gold and enamel with a wee little dangling ruby egg inside?”
“No,” Jack insisted. “An egg that you can eat. Or not you—sorry, buddy—but that the wife of the Chief Executive of Macau is scheduled to eat as the final course of a private luncheon at Il Pirata, two months from now. On her birthday.”
“She’s going to eat an egg worth fifty thousand quid for lunch?”
Jack deployed The Look. The Look said “Yes, Steven, really” and “I can’t believe you’re not with me yet on this one.” He said nothing. He pulled his phone from his pocket, tapped until he found the right page, then handed the phone to Steven.
“A ‘millennium’ egg.” The air quotes dripped from Steven’s voice.
Jack took back his phone, tapped some more, handed the phone back to Steven. It was the Sotheby’s page this time, instead of Wikipedia. Steven’s eyebrows shot up with the proof that Jack wasn’t lying about the value of the egg.
“Whatever happened to ‘give the people what they want’?”
‘Give the people what they want’ used to be Jack’s mantra, and as one of the people himself, naturally he served his own desires first: food, alcohol, drugs, and sex, not necessarily in that order. And all the other people? Some of them got what they wanted because they got Jack, naturally, but the ones who weren’t interested in Jack’s dick but did have deep pockets—those were Jack’s particular specialty. It only took the merest rumor or the tiniest chirp of a “little bird” expressing Mr. Deep Pockets’ desire to buy X, and Jack would be casing the joint, making a plan, and delegating to Steven any of the truly dirty business. Because Steven liked dirty (bribing the security as the foundation for a daylight robbery), and Jack liked delicate (ear to the safe, hand on the dial), and together they moved a great number of valuables from museums and banks and vaults and safes to the wanting hands of their customers.
“Don’t get me wrong, Jack, fifty thousand quid is a bloody expensive egg, but it’s still a rather small payday for us. I didn’t peg you as the type to be nervous getting back on the horse.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not nervous. This is an audition for us. An appetizer.”
Steven crossed his arms over his chest and leaned forward, tilting his chin up slightly.
“Aren’t you going to ask me what the main course is?”
“I am, Jack, or have you forgotten what my unenthusiastic-but-do-go-on face looks like? Once upon a time you and I, we had no need for words…”
“I’m going to take that as a ‘I’ve missed you, Jack,’ but I’m not going to tell you more because it doesn’t matter. We’ve got a plane to catch.”
It was sixteen hours of flight time between New York and Hong Kong, and Steven was still not entirely sanguine about the plan, so Jack used his aisle seat to maximum advantage. The mini bottles of vodka he lifted from the drink cart were a gift for Steven, along with a couple of Valium out of the overhead bin from the bag of the woman in the last row of business who Jack had spied at the gate managing a miniature pharmacy out of the bag’s side pocket. Jack had kept the Ambien for himself and washed one down with an entire bottle of water after skipping everything in the in-flight “dinner” except the dry roll and crackers.
His bladder woke him up before the landing, but only by about a half an hour. Steven’s seat across the aisle was empty, but Jack found him on his way to the lav.
“Fiona was just giving me some recommendations for things to do in the city,” Steven said, propped casually against the wall, chatting up a flight attendant. Of course. “Apparently there’s a lovely view to be had if we take a ferry to the island.”
So it wasn’t a surprise when Steven was eyeing the map in the Airport Express train with purpose.
“If we get off at Kowloon–”
“Yes,” Jack interrupted, “we can take the ferry. Consider it an early Christmas present.”
Just as they were getting off the train, Steven figured it out, and he stopped in his tracks, impeding the flow of foot traffic, but most of those stuck behind him simply stepped around, and since he stood head and shoulders above nearly all of them, he was free to level a suspicious glare in Jack’s direction.
“But you don’t like being on the water,” Steven said slowly.
“I don’t like being alone on the water,” Jack corrected. “I quite like crowds that don’t have sea legs and are preoccupied by the sights.”
“Steven. You’re the one that accused me of being too timid to get back on the horse!”
“Do you remember that exhibition in New York? The one down at the Seaport, by the old Fulton Fish Market? The bodies, all plasticized with different bits taken out. One body just the veins, another one just the muscles.”
“Yes, I remember, what’s your–“
“Did you know that there’s a company behind those exhibitions, and they have them in dozens of cities, all over the world? It must add up to thousands of bodies.”
“And do you know where they get the bodies?”
“Enlighten me, Steven, please.” Jack crossed his arms over his chest.
“Chinese prisoners, Jack, that’s where. Believe me,” Steven sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face, “I cannot believe that I’m saying this, but can we just get on to our digs and forget about exercising your fingers tonight?”
Steven fidgeted in the elevator, adjusting his watch, adjusting himself– Jack kicked the back of his heel, and Steven took a deep breath.
“You’ll like it, I promise.”
“I don’t like heights.”
“Just trust me.”
The way Steven’s eyes went wide and his jaw dropped put the smug in Jack’s smile.
“This is– It’s like where food and money come to have sex!”
"And the same could be said of this entire city,” said a low voice belonging to a tall man just over the crest of sixty. The voice and the man were contained within a perfectly tailored suit of fine Italian wool.
Jack stepped in: “Pino, Steven. My–”
“Partner in crime?” Pino finished, with a half-ironic lilting tone and an entirely unironic steely stare, not to mention—going by Steven’s wince—a very firm handshake.
“Something like that.” Jack grinned.
“Pleased to meet you,” Steven added. “What are we here for? Learning our way around the future scene of the crime?”
“Oh, didn’t Jack fill you in?” Pino asked. “This is my new restaurant, and your new place of employment.”
“For cover, naturally,” Jack cut in.
“Oh yes,” Steven agreed, but gritting his teeth, “Naturally.”
“The rest of the crew will be arriving shortly. Please,” Pino invited, “have a look around, enjoy the view, make yourselves comfortable.”
The view was typical for Wan Chai, but no less stunning for all that: a near panoramic of Victoria Harbor across the way, skyscrapers gleaming, soon to be glittering after the sun’s setting. The interior of the restaurant—Il Pirata, as proclaimed in thin, all-capital widely spaced chrome letters on the wall behind the hostess’ station—was a mix of the classic and ultra-modern. Black and white checked marble floor. Gleaming dark wood chairs and tables, the chairs upholstered in tastefully faded crimson velvet. But the chandeliers were LEDs and defied gravity: nothing (apparently) holding up the organically clustered bunches of pinpoint to grape-sized lights.
“Welcome,” Pino began some twenty minutes later, when a small crowd of twenty had gathered. “Most of you know why you are gathered here today.” Pino paused. “And the rest of you are going to figure it out within the next few minutes.”
A chuckle circuited the room, and most looked around nervously, trying to catch another in ignorance but only succeeding in admitting their own.
“All of you possess a high level of culinary training, which you will employ in order to conceal the true nature of our operation here. Let me start by introducing your leader in the kitchen, head chef and master safe cracker: Jack Bourdain.”
Jack took a half step forward and tipped his head in acknowledgment of the introduction.
“Assisting him as sous chef, as well as general gofer and greaseman, Steven Daedalus.”
Steven followed Jack’s lead, for the most part: small step forward, tip of the head, then a brief flash of cheeky grin.
Everyone got a moment in the limelight as Pino continued through the introductions. There was Teddy, poissonnier and technical wizard. Tanya, hostess and introduced as the Bettie Page until she pouted and corrected, “I prefer Mae West. I’m blond, after all.” Ramon, dishwasher and muscle-for-show, who merely grunted and scowled deeper when his name and occupations were announced.
Once introductions were settled, Pino proceeded to outline The Plan. None of it was new to Jack, naturally, since he’d helped Pino put it all together, and that meant Jack had the luxury of watching Steven follow along. He watched Steven narrow his eyes and clench his jaw at the explanation of the take. (“Consumables, Jack, really?! We’re going to debase ourselves that far?”) Then he watched Steven perk up at the walk-through of the dance itself.
It would start with the suitor: Badishenko. He was Russian oil, rumored to be cruel-hearted, and he was pursuing the Chief Executive’s youngest niece—for hero paternal connections to one of the grandest casinos in Macau, of course. The lunch—and the egg as its centerpiece—was a gift to butter up the Chief Executive’s wife, and so it was Badishenko responsible for its transportation and security.
“Russians don’t tend to fuck around,” Teddy started, when Pino yielded the floor to him, “but their tech is at least five years behind the times. The traveling safe Badishenko uses only has two locks: biometric and standard. The biometric is a retina scanner, but it only sees in two dimensions, so it can be fooled by a high-def enough recording of the subject’s eye. We’ve got a plan for that, including a restroom with a convenient peephole and Tanya…being Tanya,” Teddy nodded at her, and Tanya smiled brightly.
“Now this?” Teddy held up a plastic card. “This is an Octopus card. Everyone has one, I hope? Fucking stupid not to have one in this city; they’re amazing, not just for public transportation, but anyway, this is part two. Octopus cards come in two varieties: anonymous and personalized. Badishenko uses a personalized card in a slightly clever way to generate passcodes for the safe. Badishenko’s assistant makes a small deposit every day, and the current ruble to Hong Kong dollar exchange rate at the time of the transaction essentially adds a random salt to the passcode, which adds to the cryptographic security–”
“Teddy,” Pino interrupted. “Summarize, please.”
“Glossing over the technical details then.” Teddy held up his own Octopus card to demonstrate: “It’ll look like this, and the current balance in Hong Kong dollars and cents—four digits, left pad it with a zero if there’s less than ten bucks on it—is the passcode to the safe. The safe also has a standard Octopus balance inquiry reader for passcode entry, in addition to the keypad. So we get the egg out of the safe, put our decoy in, then return the card to the mark, and we’re golden. In theory.”
Jack had definitely forgotten how exhausting cooking was. They’d had a week to prepare, and now tomorrow was the opening, and he felt like his shoes had been filled with wet flour, sticky and heavy like cement. The journey back to the tiny flat in the mid-levels Pino had arranged felt like hours, and Jack collapsed on his bed as soon as they were in the door.
Steven cracked open a can of lager, and Jack closed his eyes.
“How’d you meet Pino anyway?” Steven asked.
“He found me,” Jack mumbled into the crook of his elbow.
“And what makes you trust him?”
Though Jack dearly wanted to roll over, curl up, and fall straight into the sleep of the nearly-dead-from-working-in-a-kitchen-for-fourteen-hours-straight, he had dragged Steven halfway around the world for this.
“My cellie worked with him before.”
“And ended up in the clink!”
“Not from working with Pino.” Suddenly Steven’s reasonable doubt tipped over into unreasonable. Jack was fucking tired; he didn’t have time for this. “You’re just mad that I picked Teddy’s tuna for the last appetizer instead of your wet sandwich.”
“I am not– No, I’m sorry, I can’t. It’s just. It’s Kobe beef, Jack, with a molten bleu cheese center, and I think you made the ‘safe’ choice.”
“Maybe I did, Sundance.”
Steven left, and Jack slept the sleep of the head chef whose restaurant was opening the following day: not like a baby.
The day of. Jack woke a minute before his alarm would have gone off and decided immediately that it was a good omen.
Steven had fallen asleep on the sofa again, legs more than half off the end, face jammed into the corner where the armrest met the back. Jack picked up the nearest liquid to hand—a half-drunk bottle of water—and poured it over Stephen’s back.
“Daylight in the swamp,” he announced as Steven groaned. “Today is the day we make off with an egg worth fifty thousand pounds.”
“And that probably tastes like the sandwich I left under my bed when I was ten smelled.”
“Different strokes for different folks, buddy.”
When things go too smoothly on a score, that’s when you know you’re in trouble. Take the job that had brought them here, for example, the one before Jack’s long detour behind bars. Using a Central Park carriage was a fucking idiotic escape plan, and yet it had worked, silky smooth as the finest chocolate mousse. So of course Jack got caught with the coke: it was practically natural law. The hard thing goes swimmingly, the easy thing trips you up.
Teddy was sensitive at the best of times and neurotically obsessive at the worst. So the fact that he was throwing a tantrum over just the start of The Plan was perfect. It made a part of Jack relax with relief, the part not trying to convince Teddy that yes, he really did have to oversalt his precious fucking yellowfin and, preferably, sneak a little cayenne in there too, to make sure it really packed a punch and forced Badishenko to drink as much water as he could, guaranteeing a trip or two to relieve himself later.
Teddy did, finally, grumbling, and Cameron served it, and then all anyone could do was wait. So they cooked. They sautéed and sauced and grilled and tossed and arranged, and the rhythm had grown so familiar that for a pair of seconds together, Jack almost forgot that the rack of lamb with vanilla-infused ratatouille wasn’t his main objective.
The kitchen door swung open, and Cameron stepped through. “Our boy is on the move, and Tanya’s waiting for him.”
The unisex restrooms at Il Pirata were a postmodern architectural monstrosity of mirrors and screens with one very important feature: from every stall there was a mirror that yielded a perfect view of the short corner hallway from the hostess’s station to the cloakroom, and as Badishenko entered the restroom and took a stall, Tanya left her station. When she turned the corner she started undoing her dress, pulling the thin straps off her shoulders and making a very nice show of adjusting her bra. When she got the signal from Mimi that Badishenko’s gaze was locked on the view and Teddy had started the retinal image capture, she undid the clasp at the front of her bra and let it fall open, revealing an exposed underwire, which she frowned at and made a show of trying to poke back inside the cloth before she gave up and removed the bra entirely. When Mimi signaled that Teddy had what he needed, she pulled her dress back up and returned to her station with a casual flick of her hair over her shoulder.
Phase one was complete.
Next was Jack’s show.
Rather than the culinary disaster of Teddy’s over-salted tuna, phase two required culinary genius. Or it would have, if Pino hadn’t arranged a plant at the table next to the Chief Executive’s luncheon. He’d recruited a French chef—Michel Valentine, from his eponymous restaurant a couple of streets over. Michel was young, handsome, and oozed his continental sexuality just enough to get away with Mimi as arm candy, her breasts nearly spilling out of a low-cut navy cashmere sweater as they lunched. At the appointed time, Michel sent his compliments to the chef, and Jack emerged on cue to receive them. As perfectly choreographed as a dance, Michel “tripped” while standing to shake Jack’s hand, bumping Jack artfully into Badishenko, who was duly distracted both by the commotion and by Mimi, bending over to help her fallen lover: slipping Badishenko’s personalized Octopus card from his inner jacket pocket and replacing it with an ordinary anonymous card was almost too easy.
Jack allowed himself a little bow when he returned to the kitchen, holding the captured card delicately between two fingers of the hand he used to gesture his thanks to his audience.
“We get it, flashy fingers,” Teddy broke in, ”you’re good at what you do. Blah, blah. Can we proceed now?"
“What’s got your panties in a twist?” Jack asked, handing over the card and moving to the safe. It had been delivered by two of Badishenko’s burly mooks an hour before the luncheon, and it was only due to be opened by Badishenko just minutes before the concluding course.
“Oh, it just occurred to me,” Teddy continued, “that this entire scheme hinges on the mark’s complete fixation on boobs. I thought I outgrew cons like this when I was twelve.”
“Oh, a whole year ago?” Steven asked.
“Screw you,” Teddy retorted.
“Guys,” Jack cut in. “Focus.”
Teddy faked the retina scan with the recording taken from the hidden camera in the bathroom then touched the Octopus card to the safe’s reader. Two soft beeps, and the safe was open. Next up was Steven: it was his job to take the real egg and move it to Pino’s office safe, but here was the moment where everything turned: Steven had disappeared.
Jack had already made the switch, retrieving the prize egg from the safe and replacing it with their forged decoy, but just as he was signaling for Teddy to take the real egg off his hands and move it to Pino’s safe, they both heard Stephen’s voice from the dining room: “Mr. Badishenko, excuse me, but I believe you may have dropped your Octopus card in the loo.”
“Shit,” Jack cursed.
“Get ready!” Teddy hissed, “Looks like they’re coming back here ahead of schedule.”
Which is how Jack ended up with his arm down a sous-vide to hide a fifty-thousand pound egg he’d just stolen.
The safe was up front on a small table next to the long table under a set of warming lamps used as the final plating station. Jack’s station was around the corner and behind the grill. As long as he stayed low enough and Badishenko didn’t examine his surroundings too closely, it would be fine.
But it wasn’t fine. Jack heard the soft beep of the safe accepting Badishenko’s retina scan, but it was followed by a low warning buzz that could only mean an incorrect passcode. Jack concentrated on keeping his breathing slow and steady. Calm, that was the trick. Calm and cool. For the moment, there was nothing he could do. He had to trust Steven.
And Steven certainly sounded cool. He waited while Badishenko tried again and received a low warning buzz again. “Perhaps that card I found in the loo isn’t yours then? I just assumed, I’m sorry– Could you check your–”
Badishenko dutifully reached into his inner jacket pocket and withdrew the anonymous Octopus card Jack had replaced there, but as he reached to try it on the safe’s reader, the lid from a stock pot sitting on a burner at Steven’s station suddenly flew off and clattered noisily to the floor. Badishenko naturally startled and looked over, and Steven surreptitiously pretended to take the replacement card and touch it to the reader while he instead touched Badishenko’s real card to the reader to open the safe. Then he switched the cards.
Or at least that’s what Jack thought he saw, but it didn’t make any sense. Or, rather, it did. Badishenko needed his real card back eventually, of course, but Steven’s impromptu stock pot explosion for a diversion hadn’t been the plan to achieve that. So why had he improvised? And even more to point: the stock pot had clearly not been improvised but rather very carefully planned.
It was all very, very strange.
And when the luncheon concluded and Jack and the rest of the kitchen presented Pino with their prize—the egg, none the worse for wear despite its brief swim—things only got stranger: Pino accepted the egg, then handed it back to Jack and instructed him to serve it to the entire team for a taste.
“The egg was never the point,” Pino explained to their shocked faces, “It was a means to an end. I’ve enjoyed watching all of you put your minds and your dormant culinary skills to the test on this job. You’ve become a team or, more accurately, a kitchen. I think you’d all do better remaining where you are as a kitchen than if you were all to go back to your individual lives of crime. So consider this–” Pino paused and gestured for Jack to hand over the plate of thinly sliced millennium egg, which he then presented right back to Jack first, ceremonially. “Consider this a job offer.”
Jack was dumbfounded, but breaking through the shock of Pino’s turn there was something that cut even deeper, and that was the fact that of the faces gathered around Pino, none of them was Steven’s. He’d gone missing. Again.
The nice thing about finding out that he’d been participating in an elaborate job interview rather than a con was that Jack felt zero temptation to go on a celebratory bender. He didn’t know what, if anything, to even celebrate, and the confusion was a natural suppressant for the mania that used to draw him in, then down down down like quicksand.
So instead of cocktails and coke, Jack walked. His feet took him to Victoria Park first, and he wandered its paths until he grew tired of all the green. Next he plunged into the late evening crowds gathering to shop in Causeway Bay, then picked up Hennessy Road and kept walking. Back through Wan Chai and all the other posh boutiques and restaurants, past the admiralty, and finally into Central, where his feet carried him to the ferry terminal. He still wanted to ride, and not just for the petty theft opportunities. The view was amazing, they said, even better island-bound at night with the skyscrapers of Central blazing bright against the night sky.
But when Jack got to the turnstile, he couldn’t find his Octopus card.
“Looking for this?” Steven’s voice called out from behind him.
“Have you been following me this whole time?”
“Nah, I’ve been waiting here. Knew you’d turn up eventually.”
"Great, thanks,” Jack huffed, annoyance flooding him in a rush. What was Steven playing at? Whatever it was, it was probably childish, criminal, or childish and criminal at the same time. He reached to take his card back from Steven, but Steven flicked his wrist and spirited the card away again.
“It’s not actually yours, Jack,” Steven explained.
Jack frowned. If the card Steven had waved in his face wasn’t his, then– “A shell game.”
“Classic for a reason.” Steven grinned. “It works.”
“Pino was always planning to lift it off him in the end. That kid, the one from Utah?”
“Yeah, Jim. Jim confessed it to me a couple of days ago, because the kid felt bad about it, how Pino instructed him to make sure Badishenko didn’t leave with his card. Another diversion, have the sweet innocent Mormon kid that everyone thinks is the only straight man in our gang of thieves take it off him. Problem is: that kid is the only straight man in the kitchen, and he finds it necessary to unburden his conscience on someone older and wiser,” Stephen gestured to himself, puffing up his chest, “and now Pino’s secret plan-in-a-plan isn’t so secret anymore.”
“So,” Jack mused, putting it together, “you’re not going to be surprised when I tell you he didn’t care about the egg.”
“Not at all.” Stephen produced Badishenko’s Octopus card again with a flourish. “This is always what he was after.”
“Dunno exactly. But I’ve got a guess. Remember Teddy’s technical details, the ones Pino told him to summarize? The key bit got through anyway, I think, and that’s the fact that this isn’t an anonymous card, it’s a personalized one. It’s got a name on it—not Badishenko’s, as it turns out. I don’t think he came into this card or that egg through normal channels. More important than the name, though, I suspect, is the address on here.”
“You’ve looked it up.”
“Simple as asking at one of the customer service desks in the MTR. Child’s play.”
"And you think it’s an ‘X marks the spot’? A treasure hunt?”
“Care to take a ride with me and find out, or are you more committed to your ferry?”
There was no question: Jack and Steven made a good team, maybe even a great one, when it was just the two of them.