Welcome to installment three of my short snippets of fiction here on Island Vittles! This one takes us in a bit of a different direction today, but rest assured it will all come together…I just haven’t quite figured out how yet.
This one introduces us to René. You’ll discover he’s not in the same time or place as Faith at this point…any ideas when or where he is?
I hope you enjoy it, as well as the Gumbo & Andouille recipes. Constructive feedback is always welcome. Please feel free to leave a comment below.
René Moreau’s eyes tracked up from the Embassy file on his screen and squinted slightly in the dim morning light to find his father’s head servant standing ramrod straight in the doorway. “What was it this time?”
“Fish. The greedy wench sent the taster away last night. Claimed she did not need the tongue of a child to tell her what is safe and what is not. It seems she was mistaken. ”
“Apparently.” His eyes returned to the screen, glowing insistent in his palm. “She was a passable cook at best, but her loss is a hassle we don’t have time for. We have to have a replacement for the Commencement next week. Are any of the assistants suitable, Chalmers?”
“No, sir. The most recent intake was very disappointing. I have tried to speak to the Ambassador about that and a few other pressing household matters, but he has had so much on his mind as of late…” the butler trailed off, nervously picking at a loose thread on his jacket’s worn cuff.
“So little, more like,” René scoffed. “But I’ll have to try talking to him. We need to grease a palm or two, and I don’t have his connections…amongst other things. The decrepit old bastard has to be awake sometime today,” he muttered mostly to himself.
Affronted by the disrespect directed towards the master of the house, Chalmers murmured stiff thanks and softly shut the study door behind him.
Alone again, René plugged his screen into the desk and swiveled in the ancient wooden chair to warm his hands at the meagre sod fire burning in the hearth behind him. Staring into the glowing bricks, he mentally reviewed and reordered the growing list of problems he was set to inherit when he officially took over his father’s post in six days time. They needed a cook for the reception – a good one – the party had to impress in order to recapture the attention of the Tower.
He had been raised on his father’s glory stories about the first years following the Final Failing, when masses of Rustics had migrated across miles of dead earth to gather around the Gate and beg entry. They had been desperate but capable, and had gratefully given their labour to reinforcing the City’s defenses in exchange for meagre rations and the shield of the Wall. The best mannered, such as Chalmers, had been adopted into the larger Houses as servants.
Those days of relative ease were mostly beyond René’s memory. Since the death of his mother in childbirth over twenty years ago, his father had progressively lost interest for everything outside of the Embassy, including René. Moreau House, once known for its cordial mistress, inviting rooms and grand parties had fallen into a cold, neglected wasteland of dark hallways and empty parlours. Streams of visitors trickled, eventually to none. The younger Moreau, once the centre of attention, was shuffled off to the quiet care of his nurse and tutor.
René ran warm hands down his tired face and contemplated the incredible amount of unwanted responsibility that was set to rest itself upon his shoulders in less than a week. Now, on top of it all, he had to find a competent cook on short notice, when the only Rustics outside the Gate these days were unskilled mules with barely intelligible speech.
With that uplifting thought, he pushed out a breath as he rose from the chair, grabbed his screen from its slot in the desk, and set off to find the doctor.
“He’s in and out. I’m afraid to say his condition rarely allows for rational discussion at this point,” the physician informed René bluntly as they stood before the door to the Ambassador’s suite.
“Yes, I’m well aware of his mental state, Doctor, however it’s imperative that I speak with him before…there are things…” René shook his head to stop his mouth running away. “Open the door please. Let’s see how he is.”
Tasha Moreau lifted her fair head as they entered, and snatched a hold of her husband’s limp hand when her stepson set his determined amber eyes upon her dark, dead ones.
The ripe smell of illness assaulted René and he shivered despite the room’s massive fire. “Has he been awake yet today?”
“He’s running a fever,” she hissed.
“The sweats do not preclude consciousness as far as I know, madam,” René shot back formally as he crossed to take the chair on the other side of the bed. Olivier Moreau had always seemed larger than life, but a small, restless shell was all that remained, and René encircled the other clammy, shrunken hand in his own, despite himself.
“Father, can you hear me?” he asked, as gently as a lifetime of bad blood would allow.
“Of course he can’t. Get out.”
“You and your machinations know very well what we risk if I can’t get what I should already have from him, Tasha. I suggest you get some air. I won’t be delayed any longer and you will not be present for this conversation.”
“You have nothing to say about whether I stay or go while he’s still alive!”
“Don’t push me,” he menaced, rising out of the chair to lean across his father’s rank breath and into her pinched face. With sudden decision, René replaced his father’s hand on the bed, then straightened and turned away, “We’re too near his end for me to worry about you anymore. Out,” he ordered, dismissing the Ambassador’s fourth wife without another glance. The swish of her skirts did nothing to drown out her growls as her long legs drove her from the room and towards her own apartment at the end of the hall.
“Tear the rugs from the windows. It stinks in here,” René ordered. A small boy stationed at the door moved to obey.
“The cold air won’t do him any good,” interrupted the doctor.
“Nothing can help him now, and it’s foul in here. I can’t believe it’s doing any of us any good. Do it, boy,” he said with a flick of the finger, before turning on the doctor. “He was nowhere near this bad when I saw him yesterday. You told me he would be alive for the ceremony…why didn’t you send for me? Can you wake him?”
As the first scruffy carpet came down, light rushed in to fill the room and a breeze lifted René’s short auburn hair from his creased brow. The heady weight of the room cleared immediately, and with a hand up to shade his eyes, he repeated his last question more sharply. “Doctor. Can you wake him?”
“I can try. But the physics we have are old and unreliable. They could kill him immediately. Even if they do work, his heart won’t survive their effect,” the old, stooped shoulders shrugged.
“Will he wake on his own?”
“Doubtful. No…it’s a matter of hours…he will die today.” His final pronouncement was flat, emotionless; the doctor had watched many of his brothers in adversity die, but none had been as close as the Ambassador. He stilled with grief and shock.
René grabbed the stooped old man by the shoulders and looked beyond the doctor’s shadowed eyes to reach the man within. “Then we have to try now. I have to talk to him, Louis. You know I do.”
After a moment’s pause, the doctor drew in a deep breath, moved across to his bag and drew out a syringe and vial. “Yes, yes. Of course. When I saw how he had turned overnight, I knew it would come to this,” he explained, watching the mint green liquid fill the syringe’s barrel. “If this works, you’ll have a few minutes of coherence. That’s all I can promise.”
“That will have to do. Administer it, please, then close the doors behind you.”
René burst from the room fifteen minutes later, strode past a startled doctor and Chalmers, down the formerly grand staircase, and through the front door without stopping for hat or coat, despite the clouds overhead.
The physic had worked. Olivier Moreau had surfaced, alert but spent, to waste none of his final moments in sentiment. Instead, he had tiredly keyed the remaining authentications into his heir’s screen, then gasped suddenly and quietly expired, the soft blue of the screen flickering lively in his dead hand. After closing the old man’s eyes and pulling a sheet over his face, René had sunk into a chair by the fire to settle his nerves and review the information his father’s codes had revealed.
Out on the street, his mind raced with speculation as he wove his way through the mid-day crowds out on the scrounge. He still wasn’t sure exactly what he had seen during his quick check of his screen – too much of it was in unrecognizable code – but he could tell it was far from the population counts and government statistics he had expected. A brick took up residence in his gut, and a bad feeling draped around him like a cloak as he stepped over the legs of a pitiful family camped in the sunken doorway of his destination.
He stepped down into the darkened interior of the tavern, and briefly reconsidered this spontaneous trip halfway across the Wall’s perimeter. It would be safer to return later with a small group of Embassy staff, armed perhaps, but he had never been a particularly cautious man. Besides, he was here now, and very curious about the name and address he had found, plain as day, nestled amongst line after line of indecipherable text in an obscure sub-file accessible only to his father — and now him.
A room full of rough, grimy faces turned towards him and a low, murmured grumble sounded at the sight of his golden hair, clear skin and relatively clean clothes.
“Master Moreau!” came an unseen, but friendly, call from behind the bar.
René took a deep breath and held it as he barreled his way through the crowd to the bar, willing his senses to ignore the overpowering stench and humidity of too many unwashed bodies crammed into too small a space.
The barman was a short man, unusually round around the middle, who stood atop a wooden crate, the better to reach into the tall barrel of muddy brown liquid beside him. He scooped up the next serving into a battered metal mug and offered it to René with a shallow bow. “A cup of the Copper Kettle’s finest brew, sir?”
“I’ll pass, thanks,” said René dryly, taking in his host’s colourful clothes and the silver buckle that sat atop the peak of his sizable belly; everyone else was in rags. “How do you know me?”
“Perhaps you look like your father,” said the barman through a cryptic smile as he poured the contents of the mug back into the barrel.
“I’ve been told my whole life how much I favour my mother’s side.”
“How I know you isn’t important,” continued the riddle. “Why is. Olivier sent you.”
“My father is dead. And you’re Patrice,” said René testily.
“Yes! Excellent!” exclaimed the rotund little man, nodding excitedly and clapping his hands. “You may have your mother’s colouring, but your wits are Olivier’s, that’s for certain! He didn’t look well the last time I saw him. I thought I might see you soon.” There were no superfluous emotions from, or for, the elder Moreau, it seemed.
“See me? Why? What did you do for my father?” He preferred straightforward talk and was quickly tiring of the barman’s games.
“He didn’t tell you?” the little man’s eyebrows shot up and he shook his head in disapproval as he stepped down from his pedestal. “This way, this way,” he beckoned, then ducked under the pass-through at the end of the bar and waddled to a closed door at the back.
“I helped your father procure certain items…and people. Speaking of which, I hear you have need of a cook?” the little man ventured, turning back to look up at René as he pulled a large key from one of the many pockets in his bright green trousers.
“People? Who? How do you know our cook is dead?”
“I know everything that goes on in the Moreau House, René. May I call you Rene?” he asked, turning back to the door and opening it. Without waiting for an answer, he continued. “As I said, your father found me useful to have around. I think you may too. I asked if he wanted me to find another cook after Martin disappeared, but he refused time and time again. Just let me light the lamp, then please, come in.”
“You knew our family cook?” René puzzled, his confusion and stress turning to abrupt exhaustion as he walked into the small, windowless storage room. The room was sparsely furnished with a set of mostly empty shelves, a small table and two stools. An old, chimneyless hurricane lamp cast the room in shadows. “I miss his gumbo,” he admitted ruefully, sitting down heavily on one of the stools.
In truth, he missed Martin’s everything. Occasionally, just before he opened his eyes in the morning, he could still smell the fresh bread, eggs and bacon that the Moreau’s family cook had blanketed their breakfast table with everyday. These days, he was lucky if his morning gruel was still warm by the time it made on a tray to his room.
“Yes, we need a cook — preferably one capable of cooking the New Acadian classics – my Commencement is next week and it’s imperative the party call to mind the glorious Moreau House of old. I intend to recapture the favour of the City, including the Tower.” The exhaustion which had overwhelmed him a mere seconds before was replaced with a quiet, hopeful enthusiasm.
Patrice took the lead, along with a seat at the other stool. “That will require more than just a cook, young master, but a cook is an excellent place to start! We’ll make a list, shall we?”
Serves 4 (with leftovers)
- Chicken Legs & Thighs, skin removed – 2 lbs (1 kg) (4 to 5 medium)
- Water – 6 Cups (1.5 L)
- Vegetable Oil – 1 Cup (240 ml)
- All-Purpose Flour – 1 Cup (240 ml)
- White Onion, finely chopped – 1 medium
- Celery – 4 medium ribs
- Green Pepper – 1 large
- Garlic – 4 cloves
- Bay Leaves – 2
- Fresh Thyme – 2 sprigs
- Andouille Sausage, in 1” pieces - 1 lb (450 g) (see notes)
- Smoked Paprika – 1 tsp
- Green Onions, chopped – 1/2 Cup
- Louisiana-Style Hot Sauce (or Tabasco) – 1 tsp.
Add the chicken pieces to a large Dutch oven and cover with the water. Bring to the boil over medium-high heat, reduce the heat to a simmer, partially cover, and cook until tender, about 1 hour. Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon, and strain the liquid into a bowl. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, cut the meat into 1” pieces and discard or reserve the bones for stock.
Meanwhile, make the dark roux. Heat the oil in a large skillet over med-low to medium heat. Slowly add the flour, stirring constantly. Continue to cook, stirring, until the colour of milk chocolate, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Quickly rinse the Dutch oven and return it to the stove over medium heat. Add the roux, onion, celery, green pepper and garlic and saute until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes. Add the reserved cooking liquid, bay leaves and thyme. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 1 hour..
Add the chicken, sausage and smoked paprika, as well as more water if the gumbo is too thick. Taste and season with salt and pepper, then simmer for 15 more minutes.
Remove from the heat and pick out the bay leaves and the woody stems from the thyme. Stir in the green onions and hot sauce and serve hot over rice.
- The dark roux needs constant attention and stirring. You want a dark brown colour without burning. If you stovetop runs on the hot side, leave the element on medium-low.
- To speed up the prep, roughly chop the onion, celery, green pepper and garlic, then put them in the food processor until finely chopped.
- I live on a small, Andouille-less island. I mixed up some ground pork with traditional Andouille spices, formed it into meatballs then smoked those for a pretty delicious substitute, if I do say so myself. Recipe below.
(Click on the title below for a printable version of the recipe.)
Makes 16-24 meatballs, depending on their size
- Ground Pork 1 lb (500 g)
- Grated Onion – 1 Tble
- Garlic, minced – 2-3 cloves
- Paprika – 1 Tble (15 ml)
- Kosher Salt – 1 tsp (5 ml)
- Fresh Coarsely Ground Pepper – 1 tsp
- Cumin – 1 tsp
- Dried Thyme – 1/2 tsp
- Red Pepper Flakes – 1/4 tsp
- Cayenne – 1/4 tsp
Use your hands to mix all of the ingredients very well. Keep mixing until everything is evenly distributed. Form into 1/2 oz to 1 oz meatballs, then refrigerate, uncovered, for 4-6 hours until tacky to the touch. Smoke @ 225° F (107° C) for 90 minutes.
Store, covered, in the fridge for up to 7 days.
Delicious on sandwiches, pizzas or in gumbo.