"You won’t snooker me twice," said Chili.
James Riggio gave his mouthful of Copper Bottom ale the attention it deserved before he swallowed and said, "I haven’t snookered you once."
"Who owns the Hubbub Pub, you or me?" Before James could say word one, Chili bulled on. "And who has the recipe for Hubbub Chili, you or me?"
"Who owns the recipe," James corrected. "You never even asked me for it until folks started calling you Chili. That’s when you decided you had hindsight squatter’s rights."
He watched Chili in the mirror that lined the Pub’s long bar. Bone-thin, always moving–even now he polished an already gleaming bar as he complained. A rusty Fu Manchu mustache, hair to match, face almost as red. An added watch-your-step about him tonight. As though what he wanted from James had little to do with what he said.
"You even worked it the same," Chili said. "Hauling in your damn wild turkey roasts last Christmas the same way you did that first vat of chili–two years ago?"
"About." A few months after James had looked around Copper Falls, Montana, bagged his deer, tried out the ski hill, and decided to sink his savings into a big old house near Main Street he was restoring by inches, kitchen first. The house was zoned commercial, he could use it for Game Chef, his catering business. James delivered a vat of chili to the Pub Monday and Thursday year round. It paid almost half his mortgage.
"If your customers were satisfied," he said, "what’s the problem?"
"This Wednesday is the damn problem. Christmas. Everybody knows why young’uns get the turkey legs, they got stronger teeth. Wild turkey is twice as tough. Your roasts–"
Turkey legs boned and rolled like veal, just as tender but–in James’ not so humble opinion–tastier: Chili made that sound like an insult.
James kept his mouth shut, except for sipping ale.
"You won’t snooker me twice," Chili said again. "I want the recipe up-front, and it belongs to the Hubbub Pub."
No way in hell would James share a recipe with Chili.
He said mildly, "We thrashed this out before hunting season, Chili. I said I’d show Seth what to do, but he couldn’t write it down. Why the trip down Memory Lane?"
Chili refilled James’ mug and pulled one for himself. A warning all by itself: Chili never drank in his own bar, even after closing.
This time he drained his mug–in swallows, not that fast–avoiding James’ eyes.
James studied him openly now, sipping his ale, running through possibilities. Only one fit.
"Merry hell," said James. "Seth’s gone."
Chili pulled himself another mug. "Bull’s-eye."
"I thought the kitchen ran ragged tonight. You’re telling me Seth walked out on you the Sunday before Christmas? Who hired him away?"
Now that James had reached his real grievance, Chili seemed to go back to normal, turning his mug just to busy his hands.
"Near as I can make out, nobody," he said. "Seth left here Friday night and hasn’t been seen since."
As often as James saw Seth in the Hub’s kitchen, it should have been easy to picture him. It wasn’t. Flyaway dun-colored hair tamed by a bandana, gray eyes, stubble, a good half a head shorter than James. Quiet. A watcher. James couldn’t call anything else to mind.
"He didn’t strike me as the kind to walk away," James said. "I’d never have trusted him with the turkey recipe."
"Me, neither. Although I guess you wouldn’t know unless a guy, you know, walked away."
"He live with his parents?" He could be young enough.
"Has a trailer up by the tracks."
Once Copper Falls had been a railroad stop. Shabby trailers now filled the yards on either side of the abandoned tracks. Squatters.
"You checked?" James asked.
"Since I didn’t take it serious till the middle of lunch today–" Chili sighed. "I drove up about four. His truck wasn’t there. Nobody in his trailer."
"Seth’s a grown man. The police wouldn’t be interested after only–what, a day and a half?"
"Why I didn’t bother them."
"They’d just say he’ll turn up. They’re probably right." James straightened to leave. "There’s always next year."
Chili’s stare was unpleasant. "You don’t read the paper, James?"
In winter? Between hunting and cooking and skiing, even sleep was an afterthought.
Chili reached under the bar for a section of the Mirror, stared down at it, folded it. Presented it to James. A quarter-page ad. The top line read like always, The Hubbub at the Pub. This time the copy continued: Why cook on Christmas? Game Chef’s famous wild turkey roasts for Christmas dinner. Chef James Riggio guarantees the first hundred servings, after that you’ll have to fight for one.
"So if Seth don’t come back, you’re stuck, boyo," Chili said with relish. "Same as me."
"For Christ’s sake, Chili, I have my own customers. Seth is not my problem."
Chili stabbed the paper with a forefinger. "Maybe you didn’t see where it says James Riggio?"
"You never even asked me."
"This here is Saturday’s paper. It’s in this morning, too. I’m running it right up through Wednesday."
Or lay there on the air. Redheads liked ultimatums and they didn’t like backing down. Unstable combination. James didn’t need a confrontation with his best customer.
"Worst comes to worst," he said like surrender, "I might have a few roasts left over from my customers."
"Worst comes to worst," Chili said right back, "you cook them roasts in my kitchen, same as Seth would have."
When James stared without answering, Chili added, "Lots of chili recipes out there, James."
Not an or, then, an or else: cancel your business and tend to mine, or you’ll have a lot less business to tend.
James thought of his slowly lengthening list of regulars. Christmas would be his biggest day ever. By far. If he cancelled on them without warning, how many would come back? He thought of the Hubbub Pub, packed to the walls seven nights a week with noise to match. Most nights some of that noise was about James’ chili. Steady free good publicity for Game Chef. If the Pub had no wild turkey to serve Christmas Day, Chili would badmouth James every chance he got.
He thought of the Pub’s Seth-less kitchen.
"I’ll take door number three, Chili."
"What’s that supposed to mean?"
"I’ll find Seth."
An hour later James headed his middle-aged black pickup north, toward the tracks. His head was now filled with facts about Seth, half of which Chili didn’t even know he knew till James started digging.
Seth was twenty-three, from someplace back east–to Chili, that meant anyplace on the far side of the Mississippi. He drove a rusted-out pickup, said Chili, older and smaller than James’ black one. Chili didn’t remember the make. James didn’t trust that–remembering cars was a male secondary sex characteristic–but he could push harder if necessary. No girlfriend Chili knew of, no other friends, either, not even a dog. Seth had equipped himself to hunt but hadn’t liked it.
Odd: if anybody should be unfazed by blood and guts, it was a cook. Maybe the sheer amount of work involved put him off.
But like everything else, it fit with James’ previous impression: Seth was a watcher, someone who liked his excitement secondhand.
James bumped over the tracks, past shabby trailers parked every which way. According to Chili, Seth’s was on the right side, second straggly row past the tracks, third trailer in. James slowed to identify it and kept driving. After another quarter-mile, he scanned for a widening of the shoulder. Probably closer to a half mile before he pulled over, far enough off-road not to be noted by casual drivers. Or drunk ones, at three in the morning. Snow was late this year, so his truck disappeared into the dark.
If he hadn’t driven the extra half-mile, would he have noticed a truck in the ditch across the road? Its paint dulled with age, scarred with rust.
James missed night goggles. Without them, he saw nobody. Meticulous search: still nobody. Lookouts were more likely if Seth’s body was in the truck: they’d want to see who came searching. If Seth had abandoned the truck and fled they would have followed.
James had dark hair, his clothes were always nondescript. He smeared his face with roadside dirt to darken the remaining pale part of him. He took time-consuming care approaching the rusted-out truck. In Afghanistan it would have been a good place for an IED, and dangerous people shared dangerous habits the world over. But he didn’t have to search it, he only had to get close enough to see if it held Seth.
Was he thinking of Seth as dead? Old habits died hard.
No blood on the outside of the truck. No blood James could make out inside, either. More, the dents weren’t new. The truck hadn’t been rear-ended. What could make a man choose to drive off a road and abandon his truck?
James put that aside for later, recrossed the road, and worked his way back to Seth’s trailer. No snow meant no tracks to follow, but he wouldn’t leave tracks, either. He still had to worry about the rustling of dried winter grasses. That meant slow. Good thing Seth had no dog.
Seth’s trailer resembled his truck: paint dulled and dirty with age, murky windows. The door was closed, but not locked. Once inside James switched on his flashlight, shading it with his hand. The trailer was neat enough that signs of hasty flight stood out. A bench-seat thrown up, the bench underneath empty. Bedding tossed aside. Disturbed dust kittens beneath the bed indicated something stored there had gone as well.
Seth had known he was pursued, taken what he needed, and fled. James thought about something Chili had said as he jogged back to his truck. Not a hunter but equipped for it.
Had military or hunting taught James, among other things, to keep a mental map of terrain he passed through? On rare occasions he was proud of his skills. More often he was grateful. More often still he wondered if they were all he had left. This was one of the grateful times: he knew where to look for Seth.
Already five a.m. Searching always took twice the time you allowed for it. Still, it was December. He had at least another hour of dark.
James drove toward the highway, where an entrance ramp cut through an aspen grove. Summer foliage hid anything, but in December bare-limbed aspens revealed several one-man tents. James parked off-road again and picked his way through the trees. Dogs warned him off the first three tents. Not the fourth. James made himself soundless the last ten feet. He lifted the flap.
"Hello, Seth," he said.
A muddle of blankets heaved upright. Dun-colored hair showed, then a pallid face, clammy with cold or fear or both.
Blankets flew every which way. "Thank God. James." Icy dirty hands clutched him. "Did anybody send you? Do they know where I am?"
"Nobody sent me. I’m a hunter. I track. I’m taking you back to my place, nobody’ll look for you there. Tell me about they on the way."
Seth followed James gratefully, shying at real and imaginary noises. Once in the truck he ducked low to be invisible.
No problem getting him to talk, he obviously thought once James knew, he’d take care of it. He had it all together, too: nothing else to think about since Friday night.
"You know Friday nights," he said. "Crazy. So once the kitchen closes, I bus tables. Some guys in a back booth were getting loud, passing their phones around, slapping the table, fist-bumping. I thought pictures of girls. Wouldn’t you?"
Something pretty twisted with girls, if Seth had to run.
"Probably," said James.
Seth shook his head. "They had pictures of game. Dead game. Who cares? But when they saw me, they got real serious. The phones disappeared and they left. Creepy, right?"
"Not so far."
"Wait. I pull up to the last light before home, and a monster truck crawls right up my bumper. That close? Of course I recognized the driver. I ran the red. He stayed with me."
"He didn’t hit you. I’d have seen the marks."
"Worse." Seth wiped his nose on his sleeve. It didn’t improve anything. "Somebody switches on a light–floodlight, I mean, like a cop. Bright as daylight. I practically floor it, but they’re still there, and the light keeps shifting, until bang! I get it right in my eyes in my rearview. I’m goddam blind. I drove right off the road."
"They didn’t follow?"
"Stayed in the truck, but I was already out of my truck and crawling away. Thank God for weeds. But why, James?"
James had more a feeling than an idea: a sullen excitement that told him he was about to find out something he’d rather not know.
"These pictures. Were they shot at night?"
"I only got a glimpse. Why?"
"Animals freeze when they’re lit up at night. Plus their eyes reflect the light. Makes them easy to see and easy to kill. You must not have looked back when you crawled?"
"I didn’t have to. The light was all over, I knew they were still there. Why?"
"Your eyes would light up, too. That’s what they wanted."
Seth shivered, but James didn’t think he understood.
James asked, "You remember the animals in their pictures?"
Seth rubbed his bedraggled hair. "A bighorn sheep. A real monster of a swan."
"With a black beak?"
"Does it matter?"
"Makes it a trumpeter swan. Illegal. Had either of them been butchered?"
"Not them. Maybe in other pictures."
"Or maybe not. They could have been poachers, Seth. A new kind. Cops call them spotlighters."
Seth kept quiet the rest of the way to James’ old house on Graham Avenue. Safely inside, he heaved a sigh and said, "What now?"
"For you?" James sniffed. "A shower. It’s upstairs."
"What will you be doing?"
"Calling an expert."
Seth clutched him. "You won’t tell anybody I’m here?"
"I’m pretty sure your friends have more important people to worry about."
Seth went up the old curved staircase without another word.
After half a mug of coffee, James felt alert enough to call Mel Travis, the Copper Falls patrolman who was his most frequent hunting partner. On his cell, so the call bypassed the switchboard.
"Something I want to ask," James said, "but the sheriff doesn’t have to know."
"Lucky you. He goes to Nebraska for Christmas."
"Good. This should be over by the time he gets back."
"Sounds like trouble."
"Sounds like a merit badge for you, Mel. Chili’s cook saw some pictures on a customer’s phone Friday night. You’ll want to hear about them. He’s here, at my house."
"Any empanadas handy?"
"In the freezer. I’ll nuke them. Coffee’s fresh."
"About time for my break."
By the time James’ main room smelled of chilies and chicken, Mel’s patrol car was at the curb. James shouted upstairs for Seth.
Mel came in and followed his nose to the basket of hot empanadas. He wasn’t much more than a big kid, but he was a decent shot and kept quiet. Liked his hunting trips accompanied by James’ food.
Seth came down the stairs, saw Mel’s uniform and stopped, looking at James.
James introduced them and said to Mel, "I need to get Seth prepping. Can you stretch your break?"
"Long as the empanadas keep coming."
"More warming up."
James slipped on transparent kitchen gloves and swung open the fridge door. Mammoth stainless pans holding some stage of turkey leg roasts occupied every shelf.
Seth said, "Jeez, James. Where’d you get them all?"
"You never heard?" Mel asked.
Seth shook his head.
"You know how to pluck a bird?"
Seth shook his head again. Lucky Seth, James thought as he listened to Mel explain the trade James had made over and over that spring and fall: he’d pluck a hunter’s wild turkey in exchange for both its legs.
"I brought him four birds," said Mel with pride. "Worth it. My wife won’t let’em in the house with feathers."
She wasn’t alone. Everybody hated the job, James included. God, was James ever included. He hoped never to be that broke again. He’d lost count when he passed fifty. By then he could probably pluck a bird in his sleep and maybe had–many days last spring, again this fall, he worked the clock around. But he had forty roasts done and in the freezer for his own customers, plus the legs thawing in the fridge.
"I already showed you what to do, Seth."
"Jeez, James, that was months ago."
Which was why James had told Seth and not Chili. "I’ll do one while you watch. But tell Mel what you saw while I work."
James took a leg from a pan of his favorite tenderizer–buttermilk–while Seth described the cell-phone pictures.
"Tell him about the swan," James ordered.
Mel asked as James had, "Black beak?"
"James asked, too. Why?" Seth asked.
"Big, with a black beak, could be a trumpeter swan. Illegal to hunt." Mel swallowed hard. "One was killed a few months back. Any shots of groups of animals? Elk? Bison?"
"Now that you mention it. In a circle, like."
"But none cut up?"
Seth shook his head.
"By God. Spotlighters."
James looked up. "Sounds like it, doesn’t it?"
Seth said, "James said that, too, but he didn’t explain."
"It’s a new kind of poaching," Mel said. "Men hunt in packs, at night. Drive into a field, train floodlights on game to blind them. Shoot all they can from their trucks. Never take meat or the head or antlers for trophies. Just leave the corpses to rot."
"Seth may have discovered why they don’t bother with trophies," said James. "They take pictures instead."
"Jeez," said Seth. "Game selfies. But don’t hunters always take pictures? Frame them, too. Chili has some at the Pub."
"Hunters kill their legal limit of legal game, and they don’t abandon it." Mel’s boyish face was stern. "Spotlighters like illegal game, like the trumpeter. They kill for fun."
"They’re sadists," said James. "Not hunters."
As they talked, James’ drew his boning knife like an extension of his forefinger from the top of a thigh down the bone, down the drumstick as well. He cut out tendons and ligaments one by one, then the bones, put a wedge under the drumstick and severed the bone with a whack of his cleaver. Bones to the stockpot.
Five minutes? Ten, max, before he spread the leg’s meat like an unrolled roast of veal or pork and said to Seth, "Next step–"
He flattened the meat with whacks of the cleaver’s flat side and spread it with a generous cup of dressing. It must have taken ten tries to get the right balance of mushrooms and spinach and onion and butter and bourbon. Ample dressing in the fridge, Seth didn’t need that recipe. James rolled the meat, smoothed the skin carefully, and tied it like the roast it had become.
"When we serve it, we add a tutu to the bone end."
Seth looked baffled. Light dawned. "You mean a paper frill."
"Your turn." James handed Seth his boning knife. "But first tell Mel about them chasing you."
Seth said, "Why would they, Deputy?"
"In Montana poaching is a felony, kid. Prison time. Worse, if you’re a hunter, you can be banned from hunting for life. We don’t enforce it much, but the sheriff has been wanting to bring the hammer down. This could be the case."
"Give him the blow-by-blow, Seth," James said.
Seth gave a put-upon sigh and described the truck coming up behind him, the floodlight blaring–
Mel was on his feet. "They shined a floodlight on you? Not just headlights? Tried to get it in your eyes?"
Seth looked at him, scared, not yet understanding why. James watched light dawn. Seth bolted for the bathroom.
Mel said, "You didn’t explain they treated him like game?"
"Tried. He didn’t get it."
Mel cocked an ear at heaving sounds. "Now he does."
James spelled it out to be sure they shared the same thought. "They may have said they’d just scare him. Maybe a couple believe it. But at least one was hunting him. Can you stretch your break?"
"With what you’ve handed me?" Mel said. "I’m back on the clock."
"Good. I have an idea."
"Hoped you might."
James explained. Mel chewed it over as thoroughly as an empanada. "Think it’ll work?"
"They already tried for Seth once," said James. "Why not offer them a second shot?"
Mel nodded. "Can’t afford to have them running loose. They miss Seth, they might move on to somebody else."
By the time Seth returned shakily to the kitchen and began prepping, Mel was already on his cell. While James supervised Seth, Mel burned his battery talking to the local teevee stations plus the Mirror
With every knife stroke Seth’s confidence returned. By the time he had wrapped and tied his leg, James actually began to believe Game Chef might survive Christmas.
"It took me twice as long as you," Seth complained.
"Take the time to do it right. You have all today and tomorrow."
James looked at the last of the empanadas and suddenly pictured a leg roast stuffed with posole and chilies. Mole drizzled across the top. Tex-Mex meets Christmas.
Maybe if he had some legs left over.
"I’ll be sure to call you first," said Mel, as he had to each name on his list. He stretched to his lanky height. "That’s the last one. Get ready for your coming-out party, Seth."
"Nobody asked to check with the sheriff?" asked James.
"Why do you think I promised to call them first? Too good to check. How’s Chili feel about tomorrow night?"
"I’m about to find out." Both men looked at James as though he were crazy. "I guarantee Chili’ll be okay with it."
"You didn’t even tell me you found Seth," Chili said.
"Couldn’t risk it," said James. "The story runs tomorrow morning. All three networks, plus the Mirror. There’s even a tie-in to your ad. Free publicity."
"You arranged it without word one to me?"
"Funny how that happens." James made his stare as mean as he felt.
Chili’s gaze wavered and fell. "I get my roasts, though."
"Seth’s working on them right now. A hundred servings, twenty-five in reserve. More if I have time and meat."
"Plus the recipe."
"I’ll write it on your chalkboard," James said.
"Give it to everybody?"
"Yup." James stared some more. He knew Chili wouldn’t fight him twice.
"Have it your own damn way," he grumbled. "Why change now?"
The story of Seth’s adventure, plus pictures of his triumphal return, unshaven and tired, led local broadcasts all day Tuesday. In the kitchen that night, James tied Seth’s blue bandana over his black mop. As unshaven as Seth, though James’ stubble would frighten small children and dogs. Chef’s jackets and kitchen gloves made cooks almost interchangeable. The big pan of turkey legs in front of him wasn’t a prop. They needed to be boned, filled, rolled, tied.
James always sang–usually country–while he cooked. Seth didn’t. James settled for muttering "Pretty Woman" under his breath. He’d run through a few choruses before he heard muffled footfalls outside the back door, enough to reckon two men waiting for James to finish and step out into the dark. Did they really not consider security cameras? But even if they had managed to disable those outside, it wouldn’t help: tonight there were cameras in the kitchen. Inside or out, the intruders would star in Mel Travis’ pictures.
Suddenly James heard feet on the far side of the swing door to the bar. Not coming in, just shuffling. He hadn’t reckoned on that. Neither had Mel, waiting in the kitchen restroom. James shifted so he could watch both entrances. His boning knife was in his right–working–hand. The cleaver beside him was for scaring.
At last the back door eased open. Damn bandana. A bill cap would hide whether his gaze was up or down. You always saw the negatives too late.
"If it isn’t Seth," said a soft voice that made James think of malls and expensive snowboards bought by dads and sentences that trailed up at the end. A dude voice.
"Only employees can use that door." James tried to sound uncertain.
The dude came far enough for James to catch a whiff of marijuana. Figured. Nearly James’ height. Forty pounds less muscle. James tried to shrink into himself.
"We came to take you on a hunting trip, Seth."
Too vague.
James said, high and scared. "I don’t hunt," and repeated, to sound more helpless, "You ain’t supposed to be in here."
"We’re not looking for another hunter, Seth."
By now both men had inched into the kitchen. Both dudes. The dangerous one must be behind the swing door.
"Just waiting for you, Seth. Aren’t we, Halsey?"
A name, at least. James said, "I ain’t through."
"You kidding? It’s a half hour past closing."
"Making up for last weekend. So he don’t fire my ass." James backhanded his nose on his sleeve.
They laughed. Tenors. Close to giggles.
"Don’t you want to see our pictures again, Seth?" Halsey asked. "Maybe we can even show you where we took them."
Still not enough, unless they had the cells and pictures on them.
"What pictures?"
The two shared a laugh. One slid a remembering hand in his pocket. "You have a memory lapse, Seth? Remind him, Halsey."
Shielded by the turkey pan, James slid his knife forward. But Halsey said, "You crazy? We show the pictures, Digger will kill us–"
Too hovered in the air. But only in the air.
It must have been enough for Mel. The restroom door opened. Heavy strides forward. Mel was committed to those two just as a rush of pub noise signaled James the swing door had swung.
James shouted, "They’re yours, Mel," and turned to face the man barging at him. Digger.
Digger was the dangerous one for sure, eyes hard and blank at the same time, gun raised, not about to have his hunting fun spoiled by a cook. More: he was hunting right now. To this man, Seth was game.
James’ fingers itched for his cleaver. But reason prevailed. Howling like a banshee, he heaved the turkey pan.
Digger ducked too late. The pan hit his face. Turkey legs, buttermilk bounced off and sloshed over his head, shoulders, arms, gun on their way to the floor. James managed to shove Digger’s gun hand up. His first shot lodged harmlessly in the rafters. But Digger was no dude–not as big as James, but berserk. That made up the difference. James wrenched at the gun till his muscles cracked. Nothing. Plus the man didn’t care where his shots went. Two, a third. James couldn’t spare a look. At least no cries of pain. He gave way a careful step, another, till he felt the worktable against his thighs. Scrabbled behind him and grabbed his cleaver. One backswing with the flat of the blade: wham! Gun and guy hit the floor at the same time.
Mel already had the other two cuffed. He held Halsey’s phone in one big cop-gloved hand, flicking pictures, his face stern. He looked up at James and nodded.
From the time its doors opened at noon Christmas Day, the Hubbub Pub was jammed. A Mirror story top of the fold describing the arrest of three spotlighters at the Pub Christmas Eve, the same story leading the morning news: the leg roasts were gone by two.
Luckily James had planned for that and had twenty backups, plus ten roasts with his pepper-mole stuffing. Just as successful, as far as James could tell.
Chili gave him a mean look. "I get that recipe, too."
"I’ll give you my master recipe," James said. "Anyone who wants can copy it."
He taped it to the menu chalkboard and stepped back to admire.
Bottle Wild Turkey bourbon
Branch water (optional)
Glass big enough to hold three or four ice cubes
1. Remove cap from bottle.
2. Sip to check freshness and temperature. Should be room temperature or cooler. Or warmer.
3. Place ice in glass.
4. Add a finger of Wild Turkey for each ice cube. (If you pour too much, sip to correct.)
5. Add branch water if desired.
6. Repeat as necessary.
Laughter rippled through the big room, from the bar to tables and booths, back to the bar. James watched Chili ponder whether to join in or flame. Then the orders for Wild Turkey rolled in. James moved behind the bar to help pour.
At the first breather, Chili groused to James, "You couldn’t of told me? So I could stock up?"
James poured a glass of Wild Turkey for Chili and clinked his own against it. "Merry Christmas to you, too."