Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Cheesehead by Kristen McHenry

Vladimir, prodigal cheese maker, goes to great lengths to impress the girl of his dreams, but arch rival Garrett Deever is determined to undermine him; by Kristen McHenry.

Go ahead, judge me. Just remember that at some point in your tidy life of dry-cleaned suits and pristine credit, you too, will know desperation. I was like you once - a cocky son of bitch, a hotshot, an up-and-comer, sure I was going to get everything I wanted. That was before Garrett, before Misty, and before Fabiano's grand re-opening in Mac's Famous Food Mart. Before I ended up in this hellhole, where the "cheese" consists of oily slabs of dye-injected milk fat. It's such an insult to humanity I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, Garrett Deever, who I blame for everything.

It started with money problems. The artisan cheese business was slow. There's only so much you can produce when you're working on a five-by-two counter in an apartment kitchenette. And ever since the DIY crowd got wind that cheese-making would boost their hipster cred, they all started getting in on it and flooding the market. They got a lock on the local farmers' market, which wouldn't let me hock my wares. That crap about having an unlicensed kitchen was just a bullshit excuse. They're threatened by a real man who knows his art and can execute a Gruyère that makes the ladies scream. I know for a fact that those bearded pansies never made cheese in their lives. They pick it up from Running River Farms in their Suburus and tell the chicks they spent years cultivating the Asiago.

So when I read that Mac's Famous Food Mart gutted its specialty cheese kiosk and leased the space to Fabiano's - the Fabiano's - I had to get in. I had thirty-eight dollars in the bank. My last batch of Vlad's Virile Dill Havarti went bad when the mercury hit 93 degrees on the same day my cheap fridge died. I had to earn some scratch fast. Besides, Fabiano's needed me if they were going emerge from the flaming wreckage left by Mac's, a piss-ant operation run by mouth-breathing college students who didn't know a Stracchino from a Neufchâtel. That wouldn't fly at Fabiano's. They hired the best, and I was it. I've been studying cheese since I was three years old in my mama's kitchen. Sure, I didn't start making it until a few years ago, but experience means squat when you're born with a gift.

It turned out Fabiano's hand-picked their staff before they even started planning their grand opening. And their star player was none other than Garrett Deever, the prettiest of all of the pretty boys, a baby-faced Swede with big blue eyes who turned all the ladies into babbling idiots. I'd hated Garrett ever since he was featured in Curds and Whey with his big, blond, extended family posing around his mother's rustic farmhouse in Jönköping, where they handcraft cheese for their family business. Look, I don't give a damn if some hack wants to ride on his family's coattails, but I draw the line at using mass media to tell the world microwaving mozzarella curd starts is "fine". No self-respecting artisan would microwave the curd. You dip the curd in progressively hotter water so you don't scorch it, and temper it using a salt water brine. But Garrett suddenly decided he was an expert because a bunch of photographers were sucking up to him.

When I read the article, I fired off an e-mail to the editor. He published it on their site, and within hours, it blew up all over the online cheese-making community. Garrett managed to get everyone on his side and make me look like the asshole. I have my own following, but when this shit went down, a lot my readers started following his blog instead of mine. On top of it, he had the gall to humiliate me by starting a Tumblr with some drunk photos of me he dredged up on Facebook, posting quotes from our argument next to the pictures. When I told him to take it down he insisted it wasn't his. But I know damn well he was posting under a pseudonym. A baby-face and an accent may fool some people, but I know the real Garrett - a smarmy pit viper on the take. He was even diabolical enough to post a plea on his blog that whoever started the Tumblr take it down because "we're all one artisan family".

Garrett Deever was in for a world of hurt. But first I had to get myself onto Fabiano's payroll. When I applied, it was a no-go. They had their crew, and even when I went over my resume with them in detail, they wouldn't make a place for me. Espresso Monkey, the coffee stand across from Fabiano's, was hiring, and they recognized a quality candidate. I had pulled a few shots at Happy Bean in my time, and I knew my way around a macchiato. They put me on swing shift five days a week. Fabiano's was an open kiosk twenty steps away from Espresso Monkey. It was agony to be so close, but at least I could keep an eye on Garrett Deever and correct their staff when they gave misinformation to a customer. It wouldn't take long for them to notice my talent and hire me on.

It would be a fast climb to management, and after a few years, I'd have enough scratch saved to open my own shop. Then, the world would know who I was, and by that time Garrett Deever would be lucky to have a job wrapping Kraft cheese slices on an assembly line. I didn't even mind the humiliation of slumming it at Coffee Monkey because I knew it was short-term.

Coffee Monkey staffed two people to a shift, so it was easy to get away. My co-worker was Nim, a chunky, blue-haired art student who was willing to keep her mouth shut about my time at Fabiano's if I let her skim the tips. My first day on the job, they still had their grand opening banner up, and of course they trotted Garrett out to flirt and offer free samples to women. I watched this sickening tableau for a while before I left Nim and walked over to get a closer at look at their featured Blues. They'd gotten their hands on some prime stuff: Bleu d'Auvergne, Bleu de Laqueuille, Bleu de Septmoncel, even Bleu Des Causses. I couldn't afford it on a barista's wage, but a man can look.

Then Garrett Deever himself slimed up next to me with a platter of Moncenisio. "Peace offering?" he said, thrusting the cheese at me.

I didn't want to take his product, but it was Moncenisio. I grabbed a chunk, ate it, then took another. As much as it burned my hide, pretending to make nice with Garrett was a better strategy than open conflict.

"Thanks," I said.

Garrett set the tray down. "Listen, I thought you got a raw deal with all that mozzarella silliness. I understand your way. It is a good way."

I seethed at him for calling the conflict "silliness" when it's at the core of a battle for the very soul of artisan cheese making. But I kept my mouth shut. "Forget it. Water under the bridge."

Garrett grinned. "We good?"

"We're good." We did the dude handshake and I took another piece of cheese. "Sweet gig you got here," I said.

Garrett nods. "Fabiano's is top notch. I will soon have an apprenticeship."

"Yeah?" Of course, he'd manage to smarm his way into an apprenticeship. It was probably with Bernard Brosseau, who contracts with Fabiano's once a year to grace their star employees.

"With Monsieur Brosseau, of course! Can you believe? I am a very lucky man, Vladimir."

"Yeah, congrats. So, when are you guys going to be hiring around here again?"

Infuriatingly, Garrett shrugged. "Only when someone quits. And so few quit Fabiano's. We get health insurance!"

I knew that. And I knew the staff because I had taken their names from Fabiano's website and run searches. Rebecca Rhodes, formerly of Rhodes farms in Vermont, Whitney Soames, Edwardo Bianco, Martin Dubois, Antoine Bonnet, and Ansel Graak. Whitney was a Le Cordon Bleu graduate, Edwardo was the son of a famous local restaurateur, Martin's family owned Dubois Farms in Minnesota, and Ansel ran the blog "Curdious" about his cheesemaking exploits with his Mormon girlfriend. The only mystery was Antoine. He didn't even show up in a Google search.

None of them were going to leave Fabiano's. Martin had two kids and Whitney was single and pregnant. Edwardo just bought a high-end condo, and Ansel was about to propose. Rebecca and Antoine were beginners trying to get their careers off the ground. They all had a stake in sticking around for a long time.

As Garrett stood gloating next to his tray of del Moncenisio, a woman approached - a saucy stunner in a vintage sundress, with legs a man would kill to glance at, big green eyes, and glossy brown hair cut in a Louise Brooks crop. I dropped the toothpick that I'd been holding and tried not to stare at her. She was wearing a weird necklace of beaded wires that made her even sexier.

"Excuse me?" She had that sort of breathy girl-voice that makes a man want to lift a car over his head. Garrett practically tripped over his wing-tips to get to her. He shoved himself between us and edged me out of the way.

"Yes, madam?" he asked, pasting on a sleazy grin. "Can I help you? We are sampling a lovely blue from the Piedmont region of Northern Italy."

Her nose wrinkled. "I don't know. I usually stick to cheddar."

"You must try," said Garrett, handing her a sample. "You will fall in love, I guarantee."

She took a tiny bite from the cube of cheese, paused, then finished the rest of it in one gulp. When I saw her face glow with pleasure, I fell in love. This woman, this cheese-naif, had it. Taste. Potential. She was green, but she could be taught. I could mold her, no pun intended, into a connoisseur.

"Oh, my goodness, it's heaven!" she said. "May I have one more? I've hardly eaten a bite all day."

"You may have as many as you wish, Madame." Garrett winked at her.

"That's good, but if you want the Cadillac of blues, you need to try this little beauty here." I whipped a wheel of Bleu de Septmoncel from the display and worked off the wrapper. "Smell that," I told her. "Close your eyes and take a deep whiff. What you got yourself there is a hint of nut and cream; but with an edge. A rebel soul."

"Mm." She smiled. My forehead was sweaty and something was wrong in my chest; a thudding pain that was making it hard for me to stand upright. I fought it down. I was Vlad Bardzecki the Second. I was confident. Chicks dig confidence. You go all weak-kneed in front of them, they lose respect.

"You like that," I said. "You're in tune with it. You got a little edge too, don't you?"

She blushed.

"Garrett, the lady would like a sample. Crack this baby open and give her a taste."

Garrett looked confused. "Olin didn't authorize us to use that for samples."

"So? You're gonna let the man tell you she can't have a taste? "

Garrett smiled and took the Septmoncel. "I will open it just for you, Madame." When he went behind the counter, I maneuvered her out of earshot.

"I'm Vlad." I took her hand and kissed it gently. "It's a pleasure."

"Misty," she said. "Misty Malone."

She'd probably heard a thousand jerks say, "A beautiful name for a beautiful woman," and I wasn't going down that road. You give a dame like that too much too soon, and before you know it, she moves into your place, dismantles your Heroes of Cheese altar, and clogs your drain with bobby pins.

"So, Misty." I said, "You got plans for the evening?"

"I -"

"You do now," I said. You can't give chicks too much time to think. You have to take control of the situation, tell them what's what. Otherwise they get cagey. "Give me your phone."

She fished her phone out of her giant handbag and gave it to me. I punched my number into her contacts. "I get off at 9:00. Call me at 9:10 sharp. I'm taking you out."

"Okay." She blushed and patted her hair. "I'm looking forward to it, Vlad."

"Good. Now get out of here. I gotta work."

She skedaddled, and I watched her round little butt sashay in her dress as she walked off. Damn. Garrett emerged with the platter, and I took a handful of Septmoncel. "Too late," I said. "She split."

Back at Coffee Monkey, I negotiated with Nim for the day's tips since I didn't have a dime on me to show Misty a good time. She drove a hard bargain, but we worked it out, and I got enough scratch to take Misty to Lillian's Hometown Grill. Once I dazzled her with my cheese knowledge, she'd be so into me she wouldn't notice that she was eating diner grub.

Misty called at 9:10, and I told her to meet me at Lillian's in twenty minutes. It was just enough time for me to gel my hair and wash my mouth with a Listerine sample I swiped from the mini bin. I looked good. Nim said it was too hot for leather, but I disagreed. My jacket went everywhere with me. Luckily, I had thrown on my red tee that morning. Red is an aphrodisiac for the ladies. I did a breath check, flicked some dirt off my boots, and headed out.

Misty was there when I arrived, sitting at the counter nursing a milkshake. "I hope you don't mind that I started early," she said. "I was craving ice cream."

I took a deep draw from her straw. Boysenberry. Interesting. I'd have taken her for a cherry vanilla girl. "I love a woman who indulges her appetite," I said.

She ordered onion rings and a flank steak. I got the chicken fried steak and garlic mashed. "So," I said. "What's your thing in life, Misty? What do you do?"

"Dog portraits. But no one wants those since the recession. So I was helping out at my friends' T-shirt shop, but that got slow, too. Now I make jewelry." She reached into her bag and pulled out a string of beads. "I made this. I have an Etsy page."

"Did you make that necklace?" I pointed to her sexy neck.

"Mm-hm." She touched it and smiled. "It was a cinch. But what about you, Vlad? Do you like selling cheese?"

"I don't work at Fabiano's," I said. "Yet."

Her eyes widened. "Why not? You're so knowledgeable!"

The cardinal rule of impressing a lady is to ask her about herself, but something about Misty's deep green eyes and that chiseled bob of hers made me give in and let it all spill. I told her about Garrett Deever, the mozzarella war, the ruined batch of Havarti, and how I got screwed out of a job at Fabiano's. I told her about my ambition to nab that apprenticeship, save up, and open a shop that was so good it would destroy Fabiano's forever. I told her my dream of a farm where I could create my own blue, a blue that would shake the cheese world to its foundations. I told her about the coffee table book I wanted to write, featuring my handmade cheeses. By the time I finished, I had her. She even teared up a little at the part about the farm. When I stopped talking, her mouth was open a little.

"You'll swallow a bee," I said.

She took a swig of her shake. "You're going to get everything you want, Vladimir. I get feelings about things, and I can tell."

Chicks always think they're psychic, but something about Misty Malone made me believe her. After dinner, we went for a walk along the pier. I draped my jacket over her when she shivered, and felt like a lion when she threw her arm around my waist to give me a squeeze.

After that, Misty started coming over every night. It was a lot more fun to make cheese with her around. The landlord finally replaced the fridge, so I was able to show her some tricks of the trade. She was a quick learner and an appreciative eater. She had instinct. I started sending her to Fabiano's when Garrett was on shift to flirt with him so he'd give her samples. It didn't take that brazen vixen long to start knocking whole wheels of high-end cheese into her bag as she roped Garrett into conversations about the subtleties of Broccio versus Broccio Demi-Affine. She was smooth. Garrett never saw a thing. For good measure, she'd slip a few boxes of crackers into her bag on the way out. Nim would shoplift us some wine (in exchange for tips), then Misty and I would go back to my place and have a feast.

Things were good, but after six months, no one had quit Fabiano's and I was still stuck at Coffee Monkey. They didn't pay much, and poached cheese and diner food wasn't going to cut it forever. Reality would set in, and Misty would realize that she was with a broke-ass barista. I talked a good game about the business, but Vlad's Vainglorious Creations hadn't sold a wheel of cheese in months.

One night over champagne and a feast of Emental Grand Cru and strawberries, Misty looked around at my apartment and frowned.

"You need more room if you want to grow the business," she said. "When is Fabiano's going to hire you? We need the money and you need the apprenticeship."

"I'm trying, babe, but those bastards ain't budging. Nim said Whitney's not even taking maternity leave."

Misty's eyes went dark and shifty. She chewed a cracker and dusted her hands off on her dress. "Well, if they're not going on their own, maybe we could... nudge one of them along somehow. Create an opening for you."

"Whoa. I don't know what's on that little mind of yours, but -"

"Oh, I don't mean anything bad! I just mean... let's say someone went away for a little while. Just long enough for you to secure a position. Then that someone could come back. Good as new, no harm, no foul."

I squinted. "What are you suggesting, babe?"

"Nothing! Just that... maybe there's a way we could get someone to disappear. We would hold them for a while. Just until you got their job. And then they could be released. Like a butterfly."

I stared at her. In the late evening sun, she was radiant. All of the cheese had filled her out a bit, and her face was soft and round. I would do anything for her, but kidnapping wasn't in my wheelhouse. Besides, pulling off something like that was complicated.

"Of course, we couldn't keep anyone here," she said. "We could use the basement of the tee shirt shop. It's closed for the summer while Jen's in Europe. I still have my key. It's boarded up and Jen won't be back until September."

I'm not one of those candy-asses who gets "anxiety", but I was starting to feel a little edgy. Misty finished her drink and poured herself another. "It would have to look like they left on their own, so we'd need to write a resignation letter. We'd have to plan for family and friends getting suspicious." She furrowed her brow. "Of course, there was that guy you couldn't Google. Adam? Anthony?"

"Antoine," I said. "Antoine Bonnet. I've asked around about him. He lives in a dump over in the Central District. No TV, no internet, can you believe that? He's a shut-in except when he's at Fabiano's. No family. Rumors of a brother in Houston but nothing confirmed."

"Does he have a cat?"

"A cat? What the hell does that matter?"

"If he's locked in the basement, you'll need to feed his cat."

"Dame, I'm telling you right now I ain't feeding no cat. I want an in at Fabiano's, but you're talking about a felony. I'll work shit out in my own time, okay?"

Misty's face suddenly didn't look so soft. She jammed a piece of cheese into her mouth, hoisted her bag onto her shoulder, and snatched the bottle of champagne. "You know, Vlad, I'm beginning to think you don't want to be a better man for me." Then she turned on the waterworks. "I can't keep living on fried chicken and skirt steak. You're wasting your talent and I won't stand around watching while you do it!"

"Come on, baby. You're talking about kidnapping!"

"There's no other way," she hiccupped. "No one's going to leave on their own. And I feel guilty ripping off Garret. He's nice."

At the mention of Garrett, my heart popped like a bad gear. I was gut-slammed by the hellish realization that even Garrett wasn't that stupid. He'd been letting Misty steal. He had it bad for her and this was all of part of some sick master plan to snatch her out from under me. That bastard. I bet he'd been telling her that I was a loser, a dreamer who didn't have the chops to deliver. I wanted to charge over to Fabiano's and break his smug little jaw, but I had a sobbing woman on my hands, and a man has his priorities.

"Garrett's not nice," I told her. "He's hot for that ass of yours. That's why he lets you steal cheese."

Misty folded her arms. "He's a gentlemen, and besides he has a girlfriend!"

I sneered. "Oh, is that what he told you? Sure, he's got a girlfriend. He's got ten. He's a man-whore, Misty. And I told you how he tried to destroy me online! I thought you were on my side!"

Misty was rummaging fiercely in her bag while I was setting her straight, and she finally found what she was looking for. She held it up to me, her eyes burning. "This is the key to Tees by Jen! on 3rd and Jackson. It opens the back door into the screen print room and the basement. If you ever want to see me again, you will take Antoine, you will stick him in that basement, and you will get his job at Fabiano's." She slapped the key onto the table and marched to the door. "Leave him food and water and don't rough him up. I'm not a monster." She slammed the door, and I was left with nothing but a plate of crumbs and the literal key to my future with Misty Malone.

I remembered seeing Antoine a few weeks ago, subbing for Whitney when she had the pukes. Physically, he was nothing - about 5'7" and a buck forty-five. Mousy hair down to his shoulders, John Lennon glasses, and pasty skin. I'm not one to brag, but the Bardzecki men are muscular guys, and I pump iron, so I was pretty ripped. Physically, this guy wasn't going to be a problem. It was the logistics I had to think through. Misty was better at that stuff than I was, but she was gone, and if I wanted her back I was going to have do the hard thinking myself.

I knew enough about crime to know it was best to keep it simple. You get too elaborate, shit backfires on you real fast. I took my cheese journal from the kitchen, wrote "Kidnapping" and tapped my pen on the page. I'd need some way to get Antoine to the shop basement. I'd have to set a trap; make the prey come to me. I could invite him to pick up some expensive imported stuff, then wrestle him to the floor and lock him up. I'd have to do it without him figuring out who I was, which would mean a disguise. Then there was the resignation letter. I'd have to whip up something plausible and make sure it got delivered to Olin's hands personally. And I didn't know how long I should wait before I threw down for the opening at Fabiano's. Too soon, I'd look like jerk, too late; I'd risk losing it to some upstart, or worse, a crony of Garrett's.

Bottom line: I'd get Antoine to the T-shirt shop under some ruse, lock him up, and bribe Nim to take the forged resignation letter to Olin and tell him Antoine had asked her to drop it off. I'd play it cool for a few days, then sidle up to Olin with a fresh copy of my resume and a sample of my hand-crafted goat cheddar. Then I'd be in. Once I had the position secured, I'd cut Antoine loose. He'd come back with some crazy story of how he'd been kidnapped by a masked man, but everyone would assume he had a psychotic break and was making it up. He'd leave the state, a crushed and broken man. That was a tough break, but in the end, it was for the best.

The next morning I hopped the 43 down to Jackson Street. I got off a few stops ahead of the shop (diverting suspicion) and walked until I found it. Flyers advertising a martial-arts convention were plastered all over the plywood that covered the windows. I walked around back to an scraggly courtyard, tripped on a hoe, and flung that sucker into overgrown grass.

I worked the key in the knob, wrenched the door open, and flipped on the light switch. It was a cramped shop with two dust-covered screen printing machines, a jumble of bulging boxes, and a cash register. It took me a minute to find the stairwell to the basement because it was behind a rack of Tees. The second door at the bottom opened into a basement room with a kitchenette, a bathroom, and a saggy couch.

There were no windows, and I could secure the door with a padlock. Once I got the locks and chains installed, it would be escape-proof. If Antoine screamed, the noise from the machine shop next door would mask the sound. I tested the faucets and the toilet. Both worked. This would be like a vacation for Antoine. Hell, I was doing the guy a favor.

It was time for a visit to Nim. I hopped the D Line to the Laylor School of the Arts and found her in the dorm parking lot smoking clove cigarettes and playing a round of seven-card stud with some punk poseurs in the back of her Ford pick-up. I swung myself up and told the punks to take a hike. I left Nim with a manila envelope, and, after brutal negotiations, the promise of my first month's pay at Fabiano's. The way I saw it, it was the equivalent of an agency fee. Her delivery was going to get me in the door. Once my career took off, a month's pay wouldn't matter for squat.

The morning of the event, adrenaline was partying in my veins and I was coated in sweat, but I was ready. Like an elite athlete, I had visualized the event over and over until the execution was flawless. I double-checked the items in my duffle bag, and headed to Tees by Jen!

As "Bradford A. Desmond the Third", restaurant tycoon, I had placed an ad on Enzyme, a cheese making message board, offering to sell some top-of-the-line equipment at a quarter of its value because I was delaying the opening of my new eatery due to a bout with throat cancer. Nim figured out Antoine's screen name on Enzyme, and I found out he was in the market for a new cheese press. I put the listing up, Antoine replied in less than an hour, and we set up the meeting. We agreed to meet at 10:00 a.m. sharp, but I planned to get there an hour early to install the lock, get into my ski mask, and do a run through.

When I opened the door to the back of the shop, I started shaking. Usually, criminals start out small - vandalism, or dealing a little pot. I was tackling a felony act right out of the gate. My face broke out into a streaming sweat but I tried to keep my mind on the job.

I stocked the kitchenette with grub, and got to work installing the lock. That's the first thing that went to hell. I'm a crack carpenter on account of the summer I spent helping my uncle install drywall, so I was confident I could knock that job off in twenty minutes tops, but it turns out that shit requires precision. Something went backasswards with the alignment of the plate. When I turned on the Dremel to back out the screws, the power went out. I looked everywhere for the fuse box, but I couldn't find it, so I was stuck with a shitty lock and no power. I had to jerry-rig it with a cheap hasp. When I stress-tested it, it held okay, but fixing it meant a risky extra trip back.

I dug the ski mask out of my bag and pulled it on. I looked menacing as hell in the mirror over the cash register, but I didn't have time to admire myself. It was getting close to ten, and I still had to practice my accent. Bradford A. Desmond the Third had a Scottish brogue. Between the brogue and the hoarseness from throat cancer, he sounded completely unlike me. There's no way Antoine could identify me by voice. I rasped a few "come ins" and "down this ways" to warm up, and did a final sweep to clear out any human detritus a forensics team could catch. It was two minutes to ten.

When the rap at the door came, I was so wound up I almost screamed. "Yes?" called in a raspy brogue. "Who is there?"

"It's Antoine Bonnet? To look at the press?"

"Right. Let yourself in, mate. It's just round the corner down the stairs. Sorry about the lights. I had a wee bit of trouble with me fuse." I crouched, ready to grab his legs so I could swing him down into the basement. My hands were sweat-drenched, and I hoped my gloves would stay on during the fight. Not that I expected much of a contest.

He shuffled around the corner, and as soon as I saw his skinny legs, I dove on him. Then my nose exploded and my left eye burst open. Jesus Christ. The bastard managed to punch the shit out of my face before I could even get a decent grip on him. I almost lost him because I was dazed and half-blinded by the blood, but when he started bucking, adrenaline kicked in and I got focused fast. I had a good foot and half on him, but he was wily as shit, and stronger than he looked. He was close to slipping out of my grasp, but I finally managed to submit him with a right hook to his jaw. I got him in a headlock and dragged him across the threshold. Even with my arms around his neck, he was thrashing like a madman, and I was running out of steam. My mask was sticky with blood. He reared up and head-butted me in the chin. I bit my own tongue so hard it started swelling. I slammed him onto the floor and kicked him in the stomach hard enough that he was too winded to get up. I staggered out, yanked the door shut, and was just getting the padlock snapped down when he slammed himself against the door. I dropped the lock twice but finally managed to clamp it shut. His body slam had splintered the wood. I'd have to reinforce it when I fixed the lock.

"Hey!" he yelled. "Why are you doing this? You son of a bitch! You're not going to get any money for me." He pounded on the door. "Let me out!"

"Ride it out, you pussy. You got snacks and a place to shit. It's just for a few days."

He body-slammed the door a few more times, but he was weakening. I'd given him a pretty solid beat down, even if he did manage to fuck up my eye. He'd calm down eventually. I treated his water supply with crushed Valium, courtesy of Nim.

I had timed this operation to coincide with my days off. Bags of frozen peas took the bruising down a bit, but it was still ugly. And it was killing me not to have the scoop on Fabiano's. I'd instructed Nim to drop off the resignation letter the morning of the kidnapping, so they had two full days to get used to the idea, but they were a tight-knit group, and this was going to cause some buzz. That's when I'd swoop in with a clean copy of my resume and save the day.

When I got back to work, Nim laughed and asked how the other guy looked. She didn't want to know anything about the cloak-and-dagger shit with the letter and the Valium, but she was smart enough to comprehend it wasn't strictly above board.

When I glanced at Fabiano's, I saw Garrett with his head down, talking to Whitney and Ansel. They looked glum. I ambled over. "I hear you got a new shipment of Dunsyre coming from Scotland this week."

Whitney frowned and Garrett shook his head. "Perhaps next month. It needs more time in the cave."

"Jesus, buck up. What's a month's wait?"

"It's not that," Whitney said. "Things have been weird since Antoine left."

"He didn't even say goodbye," said Ansel.

"He did not want a big fuss and sadness," Garrett told him. "He is a shy man."

I stifled a snort. "Whoa." I said, "You mean he just quit?"

Garrett nodded. "He asked Nim to give a letter to Olin. He said -"

"He said that he needed to leave town for a while and figure out his life." Said Whitney, narrowing her eyes. "That's not like him. His dojo is here. His friends are here. He -"

"His dojo?"

"He was earning a blue belt," said Garrett. "He had many friends."

So that's how he fucked up my face.

"Shit. That's tough. Now you gotta train somebody new, huh?"

Whitney rolled her eyes. "Real subtle, Vlad. Olin's not even going to look at resumes until the quarterly reports are in, so don't reach for his fly just yet." She grabbed a wheel of Livarot and stomped off.

"When is he going to have those numbers?" I asked Garrett.

He shrugged. "Soon." He leaned in to me and lowered his voice. "I promise I will tell you the instant I hear."

I narrowed my eyes. "He's not planning to give the job to one of your punk relatives, is he?"

Garrett looked hurt. "Olin does not believe in such ways."

Yet another delay to the start of my career. In the meantime, that lock needed to be fixed before Antoine decided to karate chop the door down. The next morning I headed over to Tees by Jen! with a stronger hasp and a new lock. As soon as I opened the back door, Antoine started moaning and thumping at the inner door. I slipped on my ski mask just in case.

"Shut up," I said. "You're fine. Do me a wee favor. Look round the room for a fuse box. I need to tighten the screws on this plate."

"Are you kidding me?"

"Come on, bloke. It's only for a few more days."

"Fuck off. By the way, this food is processed garbage."

"Look for that fuse box or I'm going to come in there with restraints and you ain't gonna like it."

"Good luck, asshole. You forgot a little something when you prepped this guest room. You come in after me, you're gonna get cut."

I hoped he was bluffing, but just in case, I needed something for protection. I headed out for the hoe I'd thrown into courtyard. A blow to the head would shut him up for a while. As I pushed the outer door open, I felt resistance, then my nose exploded for the second time in a week. A knee rammed into my gut so hard I almost puked. I heard a crack and felt a searing pain my left ribcage. I couldn't breathe because my neck was being squeezed. I felt like I going to pass out when I heard another crack. Somehow my mask had come off and my forehead had been slammed into the door jamb. More blood. My stomach was still balled up from the kick and I couldn't seem to get any leverage. I was seeing double and dry-heaving. Zip ties were jerked onto my wrists.

"In here!" Antoine yelled, pounding the door. My assailant stomped his foot on my back, pushing my chin into the floor, then yanked me inside and flipped me over onto my back. He stuck his beefy face in mine and spat on me. "Stay here," he said. With three kicks, he broke the basement door down, and Antoine staggered out.

"Antoine, you okay, buddy? He hurt you?"

"I'm okay, Tom. How did you find me?"

"Story for another time, man. Mom's been worried sick."

Shit. So the brother in Houston was real. I tried to talk but I coughed up a sheet of blood instead.

Antoine's brother grabbed me by the neck, flung me forward, and cut the zip ties. "I called the cops while I was outside, so there's no sense in running."

Antoine stared at me. "What the fuck, man! You're that barista dude who's always hanging around Fabiano's, aren't you?"

"That's just a temp job," I gasped, "until Fabiano's hires me."

Antoine smirked. "They're not going to hire you. Olin promised any new openings to Garrett's cousin from Ohio."

A swell of rage and adrenaline exploded through me, and the pain faded. All I could think about was ruining Garrett Deever's face, Garrett Deever, who took everything from me. Garrett Deever, who didn't deserve his life. Garrett Deever, who had backstabbed me for the last time. I heard myself scream, a roar of anguish and wrath, and my body was moving, kicking Antoine and Tom as they tried to grab me. I was a dervish, an animal. I fled, powered with the mania of a man who'd felt the bite of injustice one too many times. Blood flew from my face and I was half-blind, but I was possessed. I ran for Misty and for our life together. I ran for the goddamned respect I was owed. I ran for good-quality Swiss. By the time I got to the door of Mac's Famous Food Mart, my chest was on fire and I was limping, but my rage boiled over.

As I staggered towards the kiosk, Garrett Deever was tying the Fabiano's apron strings on a younger, blonder version of himself. He heard the cop's shouts and turned his head towards me. He looked surprised as hell, but not as surprised as he was going to be. I leaped over the display, grabbed him by the throat, and drew back my hand back. The fact that that punch never landed is my biggest regret. Instead, my arm got yanked back so hard it popped, then the ceiling dropped on me and I was out.



My ribs still hurt sometimes and my nose never straightened out, even with the finest medical care in our state prison where I sit, cellmates with a schizophrenic who thinks Velveeta is the king of cheeses. I've tried to educate him, but there's only so much learning a 300-pound serial arsonist is open to. They got me for kidnapping, possession of stolen property, criminal trespassing, assault and forgery. The forgery charge was courtesy of Nim, who ratted me out when they threatened to name her as an accomplice. The whole thing went sideways in the first place because Antoine's brother, a detective in Houston, was in town for the martial arts convention. When Antoine didn't show up for his dojo's exhibition match, Tom got suspicious and talked to Olin. Once he saw the resignation letter, he put the pieces together pretty fast.

I got a job in the prison kitchen and eventually worked my way up from the slop line to manager, but I don't have any say over the food. We're locked into a contract with a national chain, and I can't get so much as a wedge of low-end Brie in here. I refuse to call orange squares of pressed chemical powder "cheese". But what doesn't kill a man makes him stronger. Every time one of those monstrosities gets slapped onto a piece of bread, it just makes me more determined to get what's mine.

Misty visits twice a week. She got in good with one of the guards and smuggles me in something nice when she can. Last week, it was Brebis du Lavort. She says none of the original crew has quit Fabiano's, but that's nothing to me now since those bastards blacklisted me. Nim dropped out of art school to manage Coffee Monkey. Antoine made black belt and won a couple of big fights. Misty says he's socking away his winnings to open his own shop. Garrett the Weasel King managed to talk Whitney into marrying him, and he's raising her kid as his own now. Antoine's kidnapping made national news, and with all the publicity (How Far Would You Go to Get Your Dream Job?), Fabiano's expanded. They also beefed up their apprenticeship program, and Garrett's cousin got in. I've got Misty doing damage control on my blog, but she says I don't have a chance in hell of getting my reputation back any time soon. Everyone took Antoine's side, thanks to Garrett Deever and his fake moral outrage.

It doesn't matter. I'll be out one day, and when Vlad Bardzecki the Second unleashes his greatness upon the cheese world, Garrett Deever better blow town, because I'm coming for him. I'm coming for the entire artisan cheese world, and they'd better prepare for a reckoning.

12 comments:

  1. you almost have to feel sorry for Vlad, but he had it coming.
    great story, lots of good lines
    well done

    Michael Mccarthy

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  2. That was really enjoyable. I was happy to see Vlad and Misty stayed together

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  3. Thanks, Anonymous! I feel the same way about poor Vlad. He did have it coming, but the poor guy couldn't seem to help himself.

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  4. Thanks for commenting, Jon. I couldn't bear to separate the two after all Vlad went through.

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  5. A rich and rewarding story. Well-constructed and thought-provoking.

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  6. Fun and pulpy and no pits! Nice and tight and believable plot. My only editorial nitpick would be to take the Dremel out...It's cordless, so the electricity going wouldn't be an issue, and a Dremel seems more whimpy than what Vlad would use. Read the whole story all the way through with no snacking breaks. That's how entertained I was :)

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  7. I love the references to all the varieties of cheese... increases the empathy one feels for Vlad... he truly believes in his art... martyred beneath a round of Bleu de Septmoncel.

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  8. Great stuff here. I really love the authentic voice especially as it devolves into just enough hysteria. The references are used very well providing a sense of flavor without requiring a PH.D. Cheesemaking. Very impressive work.

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  9. A wonderful read for any competitive cheese connoisseur with a sense of humor! I loved it!

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  10. The faux tough guy talk on varieties of cheese--for most this would be a paragraph joke, but you extended it fully through the piece and pulled it off, difficult to do with a parody. Enjoyed it. Hope the next piece is on designer chocolates.

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  11. I was lured in by the promise of cheese and the story delivered on it. Good stuff. It was clever and I thought you did a great job with Vlad. He isn't easy to like but you kept just the right balance so I'd keep reading.
    --Wendy

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  12. Kristin: great fun; I thoroughly enjoyed reading it!

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