Two Chef! - M. L. Buchman - ebook
Opis

-a Dead Chef thriller- Chefs are dying! Murder in a Cooks Network TV studio! Death of the master chef at a G-8 meeting in the Scottish Highlands! The FBI, the British Diplomatic Protection Group, and a far too handsome U.S. Secret Service agent are on the hunt for the same ingredient: Kate Stark! • owner of Cooks Network • former Secret Service • suspect for treason • leader of a band of misfits Can she remove herself from the mix? Or will the blend of international intrigue and lawless computer hackers ruin the meal? Death toll so far? TWO CHEF!

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a Dead Chef thriller

Two Chef!

byM. L. Buchman

Dedication

To the two fans who really helped me bring my vision to life: Dean and Shelly.

With special thanks to Vicki McQuillan at Inverlochy Castle Hotel for her kind assistance with “committing murder” in her hotel.

The Inverlochy Castle Hotel, the Fort William race, the Deep Web, and the Principality of Sealand are all real. The rest and what was done with them? Well, this is a work of fiction.

TUESDAY

Chapter 1

Maxwell Klugman enjoyed cooking competitions, or he had until he’d almost died in one. He’d never found out if he won, because his competitor’s dessert had killed both her and one of the judges. Poisoned. Enough to put a chef off his food.

A week later Kate Stark, the head judge and owner of the entire Cooks Network television station, had called to tell him the criminals were caught and to invite him back. He’d rather give up his grandmother’s sausage recipe than ever set foot inside one of their studios again. Hell, he now considered Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan to be a no-man zone; especially if that man was Max Klugman.

Ms. Stark had been nice to ask and he’d told her so, but…shit man.

Death by chocolate ganache?

Nicht.Nein. And no goddamn way.

Then Kate Stark had called again, just a week ago. Not about a show she was judging—she’d actually be out of the country on another project—but there’d been a last minute drop-out due to a broken leg and was he interested?

One day.

Sugar sculpture.

He loved sculpting in sugar.

Competitions were a different kind of adrenaline rush from restaurant work—thank god. Keeping everything running smoothly night after night in a busy restaurant like his family’s, well, it was a challenge and a royal pain in the ass. Damn Pops to hell for stroking out at fifty but not having the decency to die—instead hanging on like a dangling salami and shaming Max into taking over the business.

He’d been well down the road to making it as a sugar chef and now he was worrying about a hundred details he didn’t give a rat’s ass about. Crappy line cooks too drugged-out to show up. Compromising his own ideas about the menu to retain their loyal customers and not piss the little fuckers off. And not becoming the Klugman who destroyed four generations of shining success and family tradition.

A sugar competition was clean, pure, and jolted the nervous system like cocaine had back when he was a younger and stupider chef.

A well-designed competition started as an adrenal high and then climbed from there—a single clear punch that left you wrung out and, hopefully, triumphant at the end.

Instant gratification.

Maxwell was good with instant gratification…nothing to do with old cocaine habits, of course.

At the very highest level of sugar-work challenges, against the top competitors, the jolt climbed over some precipice he could never achieve otherwise—not even sex with his new girlfriend. It carried him into a state of simpatico with the sculpture’s hard-crack architecture—a world of precise techniques, not wondering if the bloody lump on his cutting block was actually grass-fed beef or if the fucking merchant had slipped him corn-fed instead.

German cuisine was how he made his living. The towering sculptures made of almost glass-clear sheets of pulled sugars, swirling cones of hardened ribbon sugar, and blown-sugar figurines—they were his joy. His was the only German restaurant in New York with an old meat locker turned into a dedicated sugar kitchen, maybe the only one in the world.

That Kate Stark had known that about him, and thought of him when it wasn’t even her show with the scheduling issue, just told him how damned impressive the woman really was. Not his type at all. He preferred his girlfriends to be…no real way to be all politically correct about it, not quite so terrifyingly competent. Kate walked into a room and made you want to snap to attention or bow or some such shit.

The other reason he’d agreed to do it? There was no taste testing during a sculpture competition. When he’d caved to Stark’s ever-so-perfectly couched pleading, he figured that no one could poison him if he did go back to the Cooks Network studio. He’d just stay focused on the competition.

He’d be fine.

Three hours into the competition, less than ten minutes left and he was lost within a sugar high—totally in the zone. He didn’t need to look down at his design sketches, hadn’t even at the start of the competition it was so clear in his head. He had ignored his competitors, the hot lights, the studio cameras and audience, and most of all the judges. Couldn’t let those bastards into his head while he was working—even if he couldn’t keep his wheezing father out.

Screw the man, this morning was his. He’d feed the fucking restaurant patrons later, right now they were his sous chef’s burden.

A quick glance to either side proved that his current masterpiece was in a far different class than his two competitors’. At six feet tall, two hundred pounds of melted and reformed sugar, Elsa’s castle from Disney’s Frozen was a shoo-in for the win.

He had built towers, turrets, and battlements; he even built and hung the central chandelier of spun-sugar tendrils.

The competitor to his left had chosen a similar scale, but it was much simpler depiction: WALL-E’s junk world was merely suggested—though her pastillage of WALL-E and EVE were damn near perfect. He wouldn’t mind learning a thing or two about working soft sugars from her. Nice butt too, which he could also think of some definite uses for. He’d remember that for when the current girlfriend no longer worked out.

To his right stood an elaborate and gorgeously-colored sea anemone that included the weak-finned but undeniably cute Nemo and his worried looking dad, Marlin. It was charming, but small. Read as: “No victory for you, dude.”

He so had this one.

When Maxwell pulled the ball-peen hammer out of his toolkit with less than three minutes remaining on the clock, a surprised murmur rippled through the studio audience.

His ice castle looked complete.

It almost was.

It just needed one final touch.

Time to kick some serious sugar ass.

He kept his face carefully neutral as he waved one of the cameraman in for a close-up. When he had the lens in position to spy through one of the castle windows, he made the move he’d practiced a hundred times in private.

Even the other two competitors stopped to watch what in the hell he was doing despite the last moments of the competition clock ticking down. Hang on to your silicone mats, you’re gonna need ‘em to shit on after you see this move. You two can just pack it up and go home now!

Reaching into the grand entrance hall through the towering double doors of his sugar castle, he lightly tapped the hammer in a circle around the edges of the main floor of inch-thick pressed sugar.

It was so retro to use pressed sugar, almost no one did anymore. It took an application of pressure and patience, waiting much longer than with other sugars for it to set. In a competition where every second was precious, it was considered to be a waste of time…by most. Pressed sugar was also cloudy and not a terribly aesthetic look at.

However…

He made sure the camera was in the right position then he rapped the exact center of the sheet with his hammer.

Hard!

The judges gasped as the sugar shattered with a sharp crack—normally a disastrous sound in a sugar sculpture.

A number of people in the studio audience cried out.

Even his petite girlfriend, who had watched him do this again and again, had her hands over her mouth; her pretty blond hair covering half her face didn’t hide the anticipation and excitement. Oh, it was gonna be good with her tonight. She always did something extra special after a competition and her imagination was amazing.

Maxwell withdrew the hammer. He picked up the tiny figurine of Elsa made of blown-sugar in pale blue, white, and blond, and tacked her at the center of the crack with a bit of dampened paste. Then he stepped back and let the camera drink its fill.

The pressed sugar base had shattered. The center of the break burst outward from the struck center to terminate at each of the tiny dents he’d made around the edges.

With that final stroke, he had created a snowflake pattern in the sugar floor nearly identical to the one Elsa had created in the floor of her castle with a stomp of her heel—where the figurine’s extended heel even now rested, covering the shatter point left by the hammer. The pressed sugar’s cloudiness looked exactly like ice and snow.

As people saw what he’d done on the studio monitors, they roared to their feet. Even the judges were standing and applauding. Eat that, Pops! The entire television studio went nuts, he could only hope the old bastard was watching.

Unknown to anyone in the studio, a ten thousand dollar Svantek SVAN 979 sound and vibration analyzer mounted beneath the sculpture’s display table measured this unusually loud volume.

The applause and cheering peaked, sending vibrations through the structure of the metal table itself.

The levels exceeded the preset threshold and an error signal was released.

Two tiny explosive charges interpreted the Svantek’s error signal as a firing charge, and sheared off both legs of Maxwell Klugman’s worktable on the side closest to him.

In slow motion, the legs buckled.

The table tilted.

Then collapsed.

Two hundred pounds of razor sharp towers, spires, and buttresses slowly tilted…then tumbled.

Elsa’s ice palace of sugar crashed into Maxwell Klugman’s body with a hammer blow of force that drove him to the floor and spiked him there.

His last thought ever was that he’d been done in by a Disney movie.

Shit man.

Chapter 2

Tim rocketed to his feet from his chair in the television studio audience and stared in horror.

He’d been anonymously given a ticket to the sugar competition show, a thousand dollars, a fake beard, and a Yankees ball cap. The note with it had been simple, “Stay until the end. Don’t look away. Get a thousand more.”

And he’d done it despite the show’s early hour and his total disinterest. Sugar sculpture? People gave a rat’s ass about sugar sculpture? But he needed the money bad for tuition and rent.

Now he couldn’t look away if he wanted to.

The blood splattered across the television studio.

The chef’s gaping wounds, cut deep by knife-points of sugar towers, pumped and spewed.

One competitor screamed and ran. The other stumbled back against his workstation to vomit out his guts and knocked the crystalline reproduction of Nemo to the floor.

The massive sugar-built anemone hit the concrete and shattered like a bomb. Bits and pieces scattered all the way to Tim’s second row seat.

The judges, now peppered with shards, were trying to take cover behind their table. The tall brunette in the center offered the audience a major thonged full moon as she dove under the table. Some people just shouldn’t try to wear things like that.

Most of the audience screamed and stampeded to the exit doors.

Except one.

A seriously cute blond in the first row jumped to her feet and rushed toward the bleeding man.

Tim had watched enough CSI—when he should have been working on the fashion design portfolio that was his college senior project—to know the man was past helping and no one should disturb the crime scene.

He leapt over the seats and managed to catch the woman three steps before she reached the dying chef.

She cried out one last time as Tim turned her away from the pumping blood and into his arms. She buried her face into his shoulder and wept hysterically.

He held her and watched the last of the life drain out of the chef’s straining eyes even as the studio’s staff rushed to help.

Holy fuck! Death was so…so…real!

Tim had never expected to see violent death any closer than his television screen.

The guy didn’t look all that old, even had a total babe for a girlfriend, and now his ass was fried but good. Death was supposed to happen to old people.

Shit, Tim! You wanna be some Page Six designer, you better get your ass in gear. Just might have less time than you think.

He’d always known something was missing from his designs. And now, as the dead-man’s blood flowed out slower and slower, Tim could see that his clothes were no more than a television image of a much harsher, more vibrant reality. A month left and he’d have to redo his whole design portfolio, but it would totally kick ass.

For now he simply watched reality unfold—rather “leak”—out of the chef’s multiple wounds visible over the shoulder of the weeping woman he held. He shifted a little so that she wouldn’t notice his body’s inevitable reaction to holding her.

Inside Tim’s baseball hat, a small camera peeked out at the base of the “K” in Yankees. He’d trailed the wire down through his hair, inside the back of his shirt, and to the phone in his pocket that, per instructions, he’d turned on at the start of the show. He knew enough to see that the icon on the phone screen logged onto an account in the data cloud, even if he couldn’t see which one. He’d been streaming the video from the camera since the very beginning of the show.

And now he understood why he was here. In minutes, the video would be gone from the cloud. The on-line account deleted. So, he waited until the dude was bled all the way out and the pool of blood was flowing toward them.

Man! So much blood.

He noted the attributes: shine, richness of tone, flow and movement… He waited it out because his unknown benefactor had to get full value; he needed that second thousand dollars to redo his entire line even more than to keep his apartment.

When there was truly no more to see, he guided the sobbing blond out of the studio without letting her turn toward the dead man.

In the hallway she thanked him, and apologized for getting his t-shirt all wet and snotty.

He mumbled something sensational like, “S’okay. Needs washing anyway.” So did most of his clothes.

She dropped into a hallway chair as if leaving the studio had pulled the plug on her nervous system. A network assistant rushed up to her and soon she was weeping again in that woman’s arms.

Tim almost stayed with her, then considered the equipment currently hanging on his body, the fake beard and mustache he still wore, and that the police would be here soon. He definitely needed to not be in jail as an accomplice to murder, even if he was an unwitting one.

So, he opted for a discreet exit and headed down the elevator. When he reached the lobby, he could see the police already blocking some of the exit doors.

He stayed on the elevator and rode down to the Concourse Level. As casually as he could, he strolled out the long way, past Banana Republic and Ann Taylor. He couldn’t help but window shop there a bit. The designs looked impossibly simple but were so urban chic. He wished he could have an Ann Taylor girlfriend, they always looked so casual and perfect. Not gonna happen even in your dreams, Tim. His last girlfriend had been a goth with habits even less sanitary than his own.

Holding that weeping blond for a moment—who would be like the perfect Ann Taylor model—was as close as he’d ever been. Probably ever would be.

At his apartment, a thin envelope had been slid under the door. It had the second thousand and another simple instruction, “Dump the gear.” He considered hocking it, had to be worth at least a grand retail, but that could lead to awkward questions.

Using his fan-of-CSI experience, he waited until after dark to diminish what the street cameras could see. He walked a half dozen blocks downtown wearing his roommate’s oversized Disneyland hoodie and dumped it all in a public trashcan outside the Chrysler Building wrapped up with half of a sandwich that his other roommate had left in the fridge until it was gone too green to eat.

Nowhere near his apartment or the studio.

Not a heavy tourist attraction, mostly a lot of office space.

So, the outside cans would catch a lot of garbage, but it was like there was no real reason to have a whole lotta cop patrols nosing around here to protect the dumbass tourists who couldn’t find shit in this town. Always looking lost, always asking directions. Easy marks he’d tapped a time or two when tuition got tight.

This was now a job done clean and he’d get bonus points from his roommates for braving the disposal of the rotting food.

Back at his apartment, he actually started a badly overdue load of laundry and took a shower to remove any traces of whatever. Beneath the hot water he fantasized that the pretty blond had peeled off an Ann Taylor, deep-cleavage cashmere dress in blush pink to come into his arms and hold him like the world was beginning rather than ending.

Chapter 3

Stephanie watched the live broadcast of the Cooks Network High on Sugar in her office at her Upper East Side condo. The condo had been a present from her father years before and had a commanding view out over the Central Park Reservoir and the north end of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She donated to the Met regularly enough to guarantee her invites to even the most select of their soirees.

Her office was part corporate magnate—she’d purchased a whole set of rosewood furniture that matched Teddy Roosevelt’s personal furniture; it was rich and commanded respect. It made an exceptional backdrop when she was telecommuting into board meetings at the major New York newspaper that Daddy had been smart enough to leave to her. Mom had extended clutching fingers—miraculously unwrapped from a martini glass for a moment—after Daddy had that heart attack with his mistress in the Caymans. But Stephanie had crushed her feeble efforts easily.

The other part of her office was a fitness center—the very best equipment and a floor-to-ceiling mirror; she used it diligently. Rich oriental carpets on the oak parquet tied the two halves of the room and her life together into a powerful whole. The few who entered here could never doubt the power of the woman who sat at the center of it and spun her plans.

The Cooks broadcast of High on Sugar had condensed the first two hours and forty minutes of the three-hour competition into the opening forty minutes, and then run the last twenty minutes live. A very tough editing challenge, doing a collapsing timeline like that and yet keeping it suspenseful. She’d have to make sure to keep Kate Stark’s floor manager and control-room director after she’d grabbed possession of the network; they made a very clean and very exciting product.

Perhaps more exciting this time than they’d anticipated. Though their cutaway was fast—done before the death became too graphic—it wasn’t fast enough to disguise the “tragedy” and that initial splash of blood.

Pity that they weren’t a touch slower to react. She’d have enjoyed seeing the aftermath on the live television broadcast.

But it didn’t ultimately matter. That’s why she’d paid the kid—to make sure she had the whole show even after the cameras were switched off. Her computer screen had been playing the kid’s hidden camera feed for three hours now.

Stephanie had missed the first hour of the hidden camera feed while waking George in a proper fashion. She loved how men so easily believed that they were a woman’s best time ever. All it took was a few well-timed moans, a shudder, a toss of long red hair, and dragging him against her bountiful breasts—she was still years from needing another round of work there—at just the right moment.

Poor George wasn’t even into her top third as a lover.

Her golf pro was ten times the man. Even when handicapped by the thicket off the tenth green, he’d found amazing things to do with gloved hands, a five iron, and her short golf skirt while they were looking for her ball in the rough. Very rough. She drove hard for that small clump of trees every Thursday morning after that. He’d taught her well; she rarely missed.

Her personal trainer did more than keep her body perfectly toned when he visited three times a week. He liked taking her from behind, sometimes all the way behind, which was fine, his face wasn’t the prettiest, but gods he was hung like a horse.

George wasn’t even top two-thirds now that she considered it. Frankly, her naive housemaid at the house out in Greenwich with her dildo-for-two—shimmying away and fantasizing of her someday-green card—was a more skilled lover than George.

But he had one thing going for him.

He was exactly the man she needed to make this all work.

George Madsen was the Majority Whip—making him the number two man in the US Senate. He was the “everyone’s friend” US Senator from New York with good relations on both sides of the aisle. And, most importantly, he was also Vice President Morgan’s closest friend.

Exactly the man…if only he was more of a man. Well, nothing was perfect.

Now he was gone, filling his day with what he surely thought were constructive things. That left her a chance to tip back in her office chair, sip her wheat grass-banana-soy smoothie, and watch the disaster unroll at Cooks Network.

The end result had been even better than she’d hoped.

The kid had chased some pretty blond—fuck buddy of the dying man by the way she acted—and gone right up to stare down at the corpse. The audio was crystal clear, he’d captured all the initial screams as the studio emptied as well as the quiet weepy bits muffled against his shoulder.

The kid had watched it all, every last pumping spurt of red. Stayed totally focused on it—must be the way he got off. Serial killer in the making.

He’d been smart, ending the call on the phone before exiting the building. No way to tell from the video which way he turned from the exit, though Stephanie knew exactly where to find him if she needed him again; not that he’d ever know who she was. She’d go slumming on occasion, but there were some depths she certainly wasn’t going to stoop to.

And she had what she needed.

Stephanie opened a new file and started the video clip at the drama moment of Klugman cracking the crystalline floor of his sculpture and the crowd going wild. Let it run through the explosion set up by the ex-con she’d hired down in Chinatown. She ended it the moment before the kid turned away from filming the close-up of all the blood, backgrounded by the sound of wracking sobs and the kid’s whispered, “Holy shit.”

It was so perfect.

She hit send on the video clip. Her tamed hacker would make sure it went out and went viral with no trace back to her.

She wished her personal trainer would hurry up and get here. Today she would tie him to the workout bench and fuck the shit out of him. If he recovered fast enough, she’d leave him tied there while she did her workout, then do it again. If she had her maid’s double-ender here in the city, she’d take him right up the backside. That would truly be an education for him.

After months of preparation, things were going to start happening fast now. Step One of her plan, the murder of Maxwell Klugman in Kate Stark’s Cooks Network television studio was complete.

Chapter 4

Dino watched the clip.

Kinky.

His client hadn’t told him what was going down, just offered enough teasing tidbits and a large enough sum of cash to capture his attention. He could always hack a bank if he needed cash, but shit, she’d offered a pile. Meant she was bound to be up to something fun.

And now this.

“Make it viral!” was all she’d said in the secure dropbox he’d set up for her. Which she thought made her so carefully anonymous; no such thing. Not from him anyway.

A sugar sculpture blood-bath.

He wasn’t even going to have to work at this one; the video was made to rock. He considered a theme song from Corrosion of Conformity or Dog Fashion Disco or go really retro with Metallica’s Sad But True, but decided that the original soundtrack gave it a real world grittiness that rocked all on its own.

She’d also been adamant about the video’s title: “Kate Stark Nails Another.” Another One Bites the Dust? Nah, Queen was way too mellow.

He did a quick search and scared up a video entitled “Death-by-Poisoning Double Header at Cooks Network!” It had earned well over fifty million views before censors had deleted it. It still kicked around on a lot of the smaller, edgier channels and had continued clocking a strong following.

The Stark lady was a cool one as people dropped dead all around her. Her composed dark-brunette and mystic blue-eyed beauty made a total contrast to his client’s frenetic redhead. Stark was like Betty Rubble, the classiest of the whole crowd in the original cartoon. Dino had always found Betty kind of sexy for that reason, until the live film had put a kibosh on that.

He set about building the layers so that the video’s point of upload wouldn’t be traceable. Better yet, he laid down traces that would lead to both Iran and Israel simultaneously—which would make everyone bugshit crazy just as a bonus.

Dino started humming the theme to The Flintstones.

He couldn’t wait to see what came next from this client. She definitely wasn’t going to be boring.

While he worked on the launch, he pulled up the montage of all her computers’ cameras. Bless her for wanting the convenience of computer access in every room and not knowing to put tape over the built-in webcams.

Most clients, such results weren’t very interesting, but he could always count on this one for a good show. And she liked to do it with the lights on, which meant he never missed a thing, not even this morning’s wake-up call.

He’d built a chunk of video parsing code that always captured the segments when people were “active” then looped those to his desktop. Oddly, she never did it solo—no self-gratification or electronic devices for her fit, full, and feisty frame. Four Fs for just how much the woman liked to fuck.

Though she was never completely naked. Scarlet teddies, midnight negligees, or, at the moment, the sports bra and Lycra top, but nothing between there and her tenny trainers—natural red all the way.

She had Mr. Fitness Mexican stud strapped down lying on a weight bench—which he didn’t look too happy about, though his body wasn’t complaining. Damn, who even knew there were guys built like that. You could fly a surrender flag from that sucker.

Dino watched in fascination as she proved that she knew exactly what to do with it to get a workout.

He yelled out Fred Flintstone’s trademark cheer to egg her on.

Not that she needed the encouragement.

Yabba dabba indeed! Go girl!

Chapter 5

Kate Stark wished she’d slept on the red-eye from New York to Edinburgh, Scotland, but the missed night’s sleep was hard to regret. She truly enjoyed Rikka Albert’s friendship, and the woman had a direct line to Kate’s funny bone. They were the obnoxious pair giggling like schoolgirls throughout the flight and keeping everyone in First Class awake.

That Kate had at one time arrested Rikka and ruined her career as a money launderer had actually started their friendship rather than ruining it. After five years with little contact, they’d been brought back together just two months ago when they were both kidnapped by the North Koreans.

Rikka was five-foot-nothing of intensely brilliant Eurasian. In the last few months, she’d consumed the knowledge and skills necessary to become a fine television camera operator.

When Kate had chosen the upcoming visit to the kitchen of the Inverlochy Castle Hotel as Rikka’s first field solo, the woman had offered to marry her and have her children. The fact that her boyfriend Sam had been present had neither inhibited Rikka nor fazed Sam. Of course, nothing fazed him.

At least she was pretty sure they were an item. Rikka tended to speak in circles and never on the subject where the conversation began. As to Sam Fierro—he simply didn’t speak at all.

The reason they were Scotland bound was the G-8 summit meeting being held there. Security had allowed Kate one assistant and Rikka had seemed the obvious choice. Kate figured if they focused on having fun during the shoot, it should all come out well enough. But she did wish she’d had a chance to sleep on the flight before facing the DPG.

The moment they exited U.K. Customs, they’d been toted off to a non-descript waterfront warehouse by the British Diplomatic Protection Group in a bright red police car manned by officers who actually carried firearms. They were one of the few groups in the U.K. domestic forces to be Authorized Firearms Officers; AFOs she was informed when she’d been so American as to inquire.

Once she, Rikka, and their equipment had been deemed clear of evil intent, they’d been swept up into the security system that surrounded a meeting like the G-8.

Kate was used to it as she’d spent five years serving as an agent in the Secret Service before she’d left and inherited half-control of America’s number one cooking television network. Her twin brother didn’t care about his half, so it was really hers which worked out fine for both of them. She made them both a great deal of money, but it was the cooking that she loved.

Moments like this one, a trip to interview the chef d’cuisine responsible for the G-8 meeting, reminded Kate of that. It was a connection she sometimes lost in her world of corporate finance, network programming, and a thousand other meetings. Her happiest moments had been on a show: cooking with her mother, learning a new technique, or running a cook-off between the latest James Beard Award Nominees.

As they were processed through security, Rikka kept trying to look casual, but it wasn’t working. For one thing, she was perfectly still—Erika Albert was never completely still. Also, her green eyes were so wide that Kate wondered if Rikka would ever blink again. It was never easy to tell what caught the woman’s attention, because it was often the oddest aspect of something, but it had certainly been caught here at the DPG processing center.

Kate had tried to expose her to cooking, and she’d turned into a world-class sushi chef which involved immense skill, but no cooking other than rice. A tour of Kate’s television studio hadn’t turned her into a console operator despite her massive computer background, but rather into a camera operator.

What captured Rikka about the DPG’s digs in the warehouse was beyond Kate. To her it looked like any overworked pop-up security station right down to the semi-truck that had been pulled inside the warehouse and opened up to reveal a vast array of communications gear.

The G-8 meeting of the world’s leaders was in Scotland this year. Security was at a maximum, possibly the highest in the entire history of the city. The meeting was farther north, but Edinburgh was the common point of entry.

“I’ve never seen so few guns in my life,” Rikka finally whispered. “How does that even work?”

Rikka had come out of the Chinese tong gangs working the drug and money-laundering trade in Boston. Kate had been the one to remove her, rather abruptly. So, Rikka’s frame of reference about weapons was that of course everyone had one—or two or three—at all times. Kate rather enjoyed the kinder, gentler atmosphere mandated by the British firearms policies.

Once cleared by the DPG, the two of them were tightly escorted to a helicopter waiting on the pier that stuck out into the Firth of Forth. It was a quiet July day on the Firth, mostly left to container ships and pleasure boats. The three massive red latticework sections of the Forth Rail Bridge looked very stately.

The DPG officers were hovering so close to make sure Kate and Rikka didn’t decide to escape by leaping overboard and swimming across the frigid estuary. Or perhaps the DPG just wanted to be sure that she didn’t bend down and trigger some random bomb that happened to be hidden in plain sight on the wharf lined with officers and a pair of roving sniffer dogs.

Actually, if she were running the protection detail for the G-8, she’d be escorting herself just as closely.

Whatever their reasons, the pretty brown-and-white Eurocopter EC135 Hermes VIP-version was indeed as smooth and lush a ride as the rust-red Hermes wool blazer that Kate wore against the cool July weather. The takeoff was smooth and the midday sunshine radiant on the Firth.

During the hour-long flight to the helipad at the Inverlochy Castle Hotel, two interpreters also headed for the meeting had discreetly ensured that she had their phone numbers, just in case. They were so identically dull that she wasn’t sure whose number was which. She and Rikka had traded eye rolls at how hopelessly obvious the two men were and Rikka burst into giggles, much to the men’s consternation.

Kate tried to remember the last time she’d giggled. It felt like years since she’d unbent even this much. She’d have to remember to spend more time with Rikka in the future.

It was early afternoon as the helicopter soared from the Lowlands into the Highlands. The terrain made an abrupt shift from rolling hills covered in trees to steep hills covered in low heath, long narrow slices of water filling the valleys, and the occasional barren peak soaring several thousand feet above.

The approach to the hotel was beautiful, except Kate was on the wrong side of the helicopter and couldn’t look at the hotel without one of the interpreters thinking it was a come-on. Since she’d forgotten his name somewhere back around Falkirk or Stirling, she instead admired the steep hills out her side of the helicopter.

The pilot was good, the landing as smooth as the takeoff, and the rotors spun down to a slow thud without stopping. He was clearly only waiting to rid himself of his human cargo and race back to Edinburgh for more.

For the hundred meters from the hotel’s helipad to the back entrance of the kitchen, security tried to bundle them into a Rolls Royce. Their refusal earned them a Protection Branch escort to the kitchen door.

As they walked, Kate was finally able to inspect the Inverlochy Castle Hotel. It was her first visit here and it didn’t disappoint.

The television producer side of her was captivated by the aesthetics.

It was a three-story building built in the late nineteenth century after castles had long since become meaningless except as a statement of status. And Inverlochy stated that with a passion. Built of heavy stone, but with generous windows. Bays and even turrets boasted of defense, but defense against the busy world rather than Scottish clan leaders wielding trebuchets.

Kate the woman appreciated that the perfectly groomed walkways, and gardens told her of the elegance she could anticipate within. The castle faced its own private lake. It glittered beneath the midday sun that warmed the gray stone edifice isolated upon the rolling hills of Scotland.

The former United States Secret Service agent part of her was noting patrol positions, spotted the snipers on the hotel’s roof, and picked out the communications-and-command van tucked back in the trees to the north. She picked out three outposts perched on nearby hillsides offering a wide range of view and fire; and could see where two others should be. They must be there, just too well hidden to spot at this distance.

Though the kitchen was to the north end of the building, the officers walked them around the south side. Something about not wanting to “be shot up a bit.” Kate decided not to find out whether that was British humor or British understatement and went along with the slightly longer route the agents required. They had her luggage in impound, again, so her burdens were light.

All they’d managed to keep from the agents was Rikka’s camera case, and that only after careful inspection. Discovering that its contents were worth over fifty thousand pounds if they were the ones to drop or damage it might have been a contributing factor to its rapid release.

They circled by the main entrance out front. Halfway across the lawn to a patch of friendly looking woods stood a chess game. Most of the pieces were thigh-high, the king reaching to her waist. They were so orderly on their black-and-white stone chessboard. It would be very easy to spend a great deal of time here.

“Want to play?” Rikka made a move toward one of the pawns.

“Not against you,” Kate had made that mistake before and learned her lesson.

“Bawk-bawk-bawk-ba-caw!” Rikka danced in circles making triumphant chicken noises, if there was such a thing, and flapping her elbows with her thumbs tucked under her arms. The action had both of the interpreters as well as the Protection Group agents edging away from her.

“Stop gloating.”

Rikka didn’t.

Kate ignored her, as well as she could ever ignore Rikka, and looked across the chessboard to the front of Inverlochy Castle. It was as impressive as the back, again the curious mixture of daunting and welcoming.

“Damn!” was Rikka’s whispered comment, thankfully done with her crowing for the moment. “No wonder Queen Victoria went nuts about this place.”

Kate couldn’t agree more. She felt like some poor supplicant approaching grandeur as the agents led them to the kitchen entrance.

Chef de cuisine Vivienne Jacquard greeted them warmly and then was immediately called away to taste a sauce. Her thick Scottish brogue could be heard throughout the kitchen no matter what other noise filled the air. Her manners were as chaotic as her wild red hair; cajoling one moment, berating the next, complimentary on only the rarest occasion.

Kate had done a lot kitchen interviews, and turned them into a very successful series. Kate’s Kitchen Raids had become a top show and allowed her to spend a couple days a month working with some of the world’s best chefs. That she always raided kitchens tied to major events—Hollywood premieres, the Super Bowl executive box’s kitchen, key corporate retreats in foreign luxury, and the like—had certainly added to the show’s high profile. It offered the added bonus of a sneak peak into the meals of the famous and powerful.

Though the G-8 meeting was something of a coup, so to speak.

They were gathering tonight before two days of meetings and Vivienne Jacquard’s kitchen had become the center of a very hot universe. The presidents and prime ministers of the eight largest economies in the world, at least by someone’s form of measure that always precluded the People’s Republic of China, were in attendance and expecting the very best food.

Vivienne certainly ranked in the best chefs’ category. She had taken a small seventeen-room luxury hotel in the Scottish Highlands and earned a Michelin star and three rosettes from the British Automobile Association. Those were big league levels that had helped the hotel garner Travel + Leisure’s Best Luxury Hotel in Europe award a few years back.

Kate sat at the small wood-surfaced prep station where Vivienne had plunked them down. It was the only horizontal surface not in use. A long steel counter sported iced trays of half-meter across turbot, one of the uglier but more delicately flavored flatfish. A chef was working them into individual fillets, four per fish.

In a large wash sink, another chef was processing radishes, dandelion greens, and young white asparagus—Scotland was far enough north for it to still be in season in late July.

Tall windows faced a stand of trees trimmed back far enough to shed a gentle northerly light over the tidy, white-tiled workspace. The cookware had seen a thousand meals, and their scrubbed surfaces looked it, but the steel counters were generous and a chef could travel down the cook line without having to squeeze past others.