Two weeks later, after reading every cookbook with tips she could get her hands on—mostly from the used book store at the corner—and cooking as many things as she had time to make—her neighbours were quite pleased with this—Gwen stood outside The Wooden Rose, staring her enemy down. I've been in Afghanistan. I've faced boys with trigger happy fingers and men who know the best way to kill with a single stroke. I've driven in convoys that have been subject to IEDs. I can damn well take on a single restaurant. She straightened her posture, made sure that her "uniform" of black slacks and a plain black tank-top under button-up black blouse was creased properly and looked acceptable, then walked up to the door and pushed her way inside.
It was eleven o'clock in the morning and The Wooden Rose didn't open until five. But still, the doors were unlocked and sitting at a cluster of tables in the otherwise empty house, were seven other people. All of them were wearing some form of slacks or trousers in dark colours and a plain shirt, but all of them looked far more at ease than Gwen felt.
"You must be the last one, then," one of the men said. He was sporting a bow-tie and shaved head and his dark eyes took their time in looking Gwen over. She knew what he was doing; assessing her, sizing her up. Enemy or Ally? She met his gaze evenly, this part of the day, at least, something she understood. After a few moments, the man looked away. Gwen sat down at a chair a couple over from the man and didn't say anything to him or anyone else. It looked as though no one else was really willing to say much, either, so she wasn't out of place.
After a good ten minutes of waiting, the doors opened again and Alaric walked in. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt under a worn jacket and had the look of someone who was awake far earlier than normal. He grumbled in and walked past the students, all of whom were thinking that he was another student. But when he stood at the door to the kitchens and said, in a rather annoyed voice, "Well come on, then," they jumped up to follow.
The kitchens were silent, a strange thing for Alaric. He liked them to be busy, full of the noise of sizzling and chopping, of people and energy. Giving a huff as he turned his back on the stoves, he gestured to one of the stainless steel countertops in the centre of the room. The students gathered around.
"Alright. I imagine you all know why you're here. I am Alaric Bennet, head chef at The Wooden Rose and also your teacher," he said, looking around and meeting each student's gaze, cementing his authority. The only one who didn't look away was the pretty girl at the end of the table.
There were four men and four women, so it broke down pretty well. Of the men, the one with the shaved head and bow-tie looked the most confident. There were two that looked completely average, one with brown hair and one with blonde. The last was an overweight man who looked as though he indulged in his food a little too much. Alaric didn't care, as long as the cooking was good. The women were all different, more so than the men. There was the one he had already noted, with her light brown hair tied severely back and eyes of steel. There was a short, petite woman with wispy dirty-blonde hair cut in a pixie style. A third was tall and willowy, with long features and a nose slightly too small for her face. The last was squat and had her eyebrows drawn together in a fixed expression of determination. There were no visible tattoos and no annoying piercings.
"Since we'll be working pretty closely together in the next couple of months, we'll need to know everyone's names. Go around, say your name and the job you last held," Alaric said, throwing in the last bit simply because he was curious which of the men was the Lieutenant.
Shaved-head went first with, "James Warren. I was a sous chef specialising in sea-food at the Golden Dragon."
"Bob Kasey, head chef at Jimmy's Tavern, over on First street," Average looking blonde said.
"Tom Kavanaugh, chef at Young Spices," the average-looking brown hair said.
"Robert Wallis, chef at Karma, the Indian restaurant off of Regent's Park," the overweight man said. Alaric frowned for a moment, completely sure that one of them would have been the student Walter Smythe had admitted. The women went next, with "Allison McKher, sous chef at Kippers on Third" the small blonde, "Sarah Lewis, chef at Martin Alder's" the willowy woman, "Jennifer Yaxley, sous chef at Bellton" the squat woman. Then, steel eyes straightened her shoulders, met Alaric's gaze without a hint of fear and said, "Gwen Townsend, Lieutenant, Special Forces, British Army."
Alaric allowed his lips to twitch into a smirk of surprise. This was a twist he hadn't expected. He would have to have a conversation with Walter regarding his information. Still, the fact that the Lieutenant was a woman didn't mean anything. She was still somewhere she didn't belong and it was going to be up to him to make sure that she knew that full well.
With the introductions out of the way, Alaric explained the schedule—each student would be working at The Wooden Rose, five days a week with lessons in the afternoons—and showed them the menu. Then, loathe to waste any more time, he began whipping this motley crew into shape.
"Chop that celery finer," Alaric snarled at Allison. "The knife isn't going to kill you if you know how to use it properly."
"If you don't add more oil to the pan, soon, that duck is going to catch on fire," he shouted at Tom.
Each student received his or her fair share of abuse, including James and especially Gwen. By the time they were allowed a break, it was two in the afternoon and all of them were sweating. Alaric allowed them half-an-hour for lunch—they could very well eat the ruined dishes they made; it would make them learn faster. As soon as he was out of sight, having chosen to go eat out at the loading docks, they all collapsed against the counters or breathed a sigh of relief.
"I feel like I'm back at cooking school," Sarah complained, rubbing her head. "I haven't been yelled at this much since I don't know when."
"I mean, I heard rumours that Bennet was tough, but I never expected that he was this bad," Robert said, looking at his slightly charred chicken breast. Under the pressure of Alaric's fiery tongue, everyone had fared worse than they normally would have. Except Gwen, who wasn't afraid of the temper but hadn't yet gotten around to the level of greatness that the other students were obviously used to.
"I know someone who used to be a kitchen assistant here and she said that Bennet was probably the most terrifying guy that you could ever deal with," James said. He alone had managed to make an eatable meal, though from the way that he was wincing, it hadn't been done up to snuff.
"What about you, Gwen?" Jennifer said, half-heartedly pushing her chicken around on her plate. "What did you think?"
Gwen considered, "He wasn't nearly as bad as my commanding officer. If you were late out of bed or couldn't do the training right, you would know about it. And so would the whole complex."
That brought about a chorus of laughter, though James merely smirked and raised his eyebrows. Sarah leaned closer to Gwen, smiling, "What was it like, being in the Special Forces? You must be thinking that we're a bunch of wimps, tired and complaining about only half a day's work."
Gwen swallowed the bite of food she was chewing and shrugged. She knew what it was like to have to eat food worse than this and she wasn't going to pass up the opportunity for a meal, no matter how bad. "You'd be surprised how much you can manage. Half of the people I served with were whining like crazy the first day of training. But you will get used to it."
Again, people laughed and, for the first time in a long time, Gwen felt as though people liked her. That is, until Alaric walked back into the room, saw how little everyone but Gwen had eaten (she surreptitiously mopped up the last of her sauce with a bit of bread) and began to chew them out about how, if they weren't willing to eat there own food, how could they expect anyone else to do so. Gwen was certain that his voice echoed for minutes afterwards, though it just as easily could have been her ears ringing from the shouts.
They worked until four and got an hour off to go do whatever before the restaurant opened. Gwen chose to run across the street and take a quick shower, revelling in the luxury of warm water on her skin instead of blisteringly cold rain. She changed into something a little less sweaty but equally subdued and went back to the restaurant, making it there fifteen minutes before it opened. And if she thought that classes with Alaric were something to behold, watching him run his kitchen was a terrifying, mesmerising experience in of itself.
The kitchen staff was obviously skilled and knew the drill, but even so, it was like watching a well-oiled machine. The students were the only ones who got in the way, stuck as they were at ingredient preparations. Alaric shouted frequently, mostly trying to get people to move faster as the orders came in, yet there were moments when he was quiet and pensive, watching the sizzling brussel sprouts in an iron pan while he tenderly sautéed them or plated a dish with expert precision, rubbing a clean towel along the edges of the plate so that the customer only got perfection.
Then, the evening wore on.
The busier the kitchens got, the more people began to make mistakes. The more this happened, the more frustrated Alaric got. His acid tongue was beginning to whet itself on the nearest target which was, more often than not, one of the students. Even Jack, the manager, was unable to curb more of his employees anger. Though, when Jack was around, Alaric was certainly quieter.
"If you burn one more dish," Alan snarled at Sarah, who had been promoted to roasting some vegetables for one of the stews, "then I don't care how qualified you are, I won't let you back into my kitchen."
"I'm doing the best I can, chef," Sarah barked out in reply, looking harried and upset. "I ned more olive oil and the burner keeps sticking on the highest setting."
"Good cooks know better than to blame their equipment," Alaric hissed. Gwen watched all of this as the moved her knife across the cutting board, the strokes even and swift. Knife work was something she was familiar with, at least.
"She's right, though," Gwen said as Alaric turned to storm away. He acted as though he hadn't heard her, but Gwen was certain that his face became slightly red from anger. She nodded at Sarah, "You're right. I've been watching you work."
"Thanks, but the chef is right. I shouldn't blame my equipment, just learn to compensate," Sarah muttered, keeping her head down as she tossed the vegetables in the pan. Gwen blinked. Had this cook, who had just said that she was doing the best the could and acknowledged that it wasn't her fault, just lay the blame on herself? She didn't understand. No soldier would be able to blame himself if this gun weren't working. She shook her head, returning her attention to the parsley she was chopping.
Eventually, the night ground to a halt and the temperature of the kitchen seemed to change dramatically as the last burner was turned off. All of the people in the kitchens, students and staff alike, let their shoulders slump with relief and started the clean-up. People rubbed knots out of their shoulders and, as the kitchen returned to its sparkling state, left one by one, until only the students remained.
"Alright," Alaric said, looking over the people in his tutelage. They were pleased to know that he looked tired as well, though there was an air of satisfaction about him as well. "Alright. You did well enough. Now go home. You'll be here by noon tomorrow and we'll start this process again."
The students nodded to each other, smiling weakly as they stretched and wandered over to their coats. Gwen was about to put hers on, more than ready to get a good night's sleep, when Alaric called her name. "Gwen."
"Yes?" she said, turning. James and Allison stopped as well, curious, but one piercing look from the head-chef told them to get a move on. They did so. Finally, only Gwen and Alaric remained. "Did you need something?" she asked.
"You are supposed to be getting private lessons," Alaric said. Gwen felt her belly tighten. She had nearly forgotten that Walter had told her she would be getting extra lessons to catch up. She was desperately tired and wanted to go home and sleep. Instead, she hung her coat back up and rubbed her eyes before stepping forwards.
"Yes. Sorry, I forgot," Gwen said.
"If you aren't willing to put in the work, just say so," Alaric snapped. Gwen stiffened, ready with a retort.
"I never said-"
"Because you don't belong here, and we both know it. You aren't a chef and, maybe, maybe, you might be one, but not because you went to my school. This is for people who have worked their asses off from the time they were young to get where they are, now. Not for people who come back from fighting and say that they deserve everything and more, simply because they were doing good for Queen and Country."
"Now, listen here-"
"So you had better put in the work to get caught up to where my other students are, or you can get out of my kitchen right now," Alaric finished, drawing his brows together and curling his lip in a look of anger and disgust. Gwen clenched her jaw and took three deep breaths to keep from punching the man. Fighting to prove her place in the Army had been one thing, but this was something completely different.
She clapped her heels together and straightened to attention, her gaze fixed on a point on the far wall. "I'm willing to do the work, sir!" she barked. Alaric scowled. He had hoped that she would just give up and go home, leaving him to his life, but she was a veteran. He had to remember that she had to be determined or she wouldn't have gotten as far as she did. But that didn't mean he couldn't break her. He just needed to work a bit harder.
"Fine," he said. "Then let's get started."
Three hours later, at midnight, Gwen staggered into her flat, feeling as though she had just been through a day of intensive training. Her shoulders hurt and she was certain that there was still sweat trickling down her back. Her head was swimming and she was doing her very best to control the urge to put her fist through the wall.
This was just as bad as her first days of training. She felt out of shape and full of indignation at the quips and snide remarks made at her expense. She was certain that she wasn't wanted, or that people thought she couldn't handle the work, but she was going to prove them wrong. Now, it wasn't so much a way to get started on a new life, but a gauntlet thrown to prove herself. And she would do it, no matter the cost.
Still, as she dragged her feet through the door and exhaled in relief at the click behind her, Gwen had to admit that she was tired. It didn't help that she was still malnourished from her time on the streets. It would take time and a whole lot of calories to build up her strength again. For now, though, she would settle on a nice, long sleep.
A red blinking caught her eye, and Gwen stared in surprise at the answering machine to the phone that Walter had insisted she get installed. She had a message. Who could possibly be calling her? She didn't even know her phone number. She certainly hadn't handed it out to people. Tentatively, she pressed the play button and waited for the message to begin."Hello, ah, this is Graham," the message began. Gwen raised her eyebrows but did nothing. "I am calling at the request of, ah, Mr. Smythe... He, erm, wants me to make sure that your first day at the, ah, school went well..."
There was a pause on the machine and for a moment, Gwen thought that was all and she could safely go to bed. But then, "And, well, I don't mean to pry or be rude, but you haven't pulled out any money from your bank account. I just wanted you to know that, ah, that money is for you to use... however... Well, I'm sure you're busy, but if you would call back, tomorrow maybe, that would be great." He proceeded to give the number to the office and rang off rather awkwardly, as though he wanted to say more but couldn't. The blinking red light went away.
Gwen played the recording again and wrote down the number, choosing not to read anything into the message Graham had left. If she were vain, she would think that he was trying to express an interest in her. But she wasn't and she was pretty certain that he wasn't, so that was that. The mention of the bank account was strange, though. She didn't think that Walter or his office manager would be monitoring her spending habits—though when she mulled it over while lying on her bed, it made sense. He was trying to make sure that she was a good investment for his money and that his initial judgement wasn't wrong. She hadn't needed anything, though. Walter had been extremely generous in furnishing the flat and purchasing a wardrobe and groceries.
The more she thought about it, the more it waffled between being an odd statement and perfectly sensible. When the answering machine started taking on the shape of a floating genie head and spouted information on the best possible method of sautéing broccoli, Gwen dropped into a deep sleep.
It did not stay that way.
First, there was the corridor, dark and filled with rubble and rocks that might cause a noise if someone placed his foot wrong, barely wide enough for a single person to go through at a time, let alone a whole squadron. But that didn't matter to Gwen because she could see exactly where to place her feet in the green-tinged light of her night-vision goggles. She held her gun with practised precision and her gear was a comfortable weight which kept her pleasantly warm in the cool desert night. Her fellow soldiers were with her, one in front, four behind, all briefed and prepared. It was meant to be routine.
There was a noise and her commanding officer halted the group with a raised fist, the air suddenly filled with tension as Gwen and the others checked their weapons, ready to fire at a moment's notice. They scoped out the area, looking at eye height or just above, waiting for enemy militants to appear with weapons or explosives in hand. Only, the threat wasn't from above.
A meow filled the air and Gwen flinched, looking down at the cat which had shifted some of the rocks. It was a feral cat that had once been a family pet by the way that it wound about Gwen's feet. She tried to shake it off as silently as possible, but the creature was persistent. She was growing more desperate, now, as the squad started to move forwards again. She had to get rid of the cat without making noise or the enemy would know they were coming.
She heard her squad mates move again, trying to get around her as she stepped over and around the cat which persistently tried to get her attention. One of them—Damon, her best friend—stepped in a spot that hadn't been cleared. He was three people behind Gwen and it was that distance alone that saved her life.
There was a click, and before anyone had time to react, the air was filled with the roaring of a thousand machine guns or a lion inside your head. Fire seemed to come from everywhere, so powerful that Gwen was knocked off her feet and fell on her gun, pinning it to the ground. She tried to move, but couldn't. Something was keeping her down, immobile, completely useless. Her commanding officer yelled something incoherent, his words lost in the terrible ringing that filled her ears. Gwen did her best to move to his aid.
She couldn't get her gun or herself unpinned before the air was filled, not with fire, but with bullets. Muzzle flashes blinded her in through the goggles and she did her best to see where her commanding officer was so that she could help him, give him the back-up he so desperately needed. She spotted him and gave up struggling; what was the point when his lifeless eyes stared at her, blood dripping slowly from his mouth and the various bullet wounds which riddled his body. She closed her eyes and blacked out, unable to cope with the realisation of what had happened.
The scene replayed itself in Gwen's head, over and over until the image of her commanding officer lying dead before her, her friends dead behind and her squad mate's body pinning her to the ground, were all that she saw behind her closed eyes. With a scream of terror that made it perfectly clear she couldn't take any more, Gwen woke, sitting straight up in bed and returning to reality. Reality, though, was more than she could handle at the moment because it meant that was she had just seen wasn't a dream. It had really happened and she was really the only survivor of an attack-gone-wrong, honourably discharged and given a ribbon to "ease her way."
She buried her head in her hands, entangling her fingers into her hair as the tears came. They always came, great gasping sobs that shook her entire body and made her tremble with the need to scream out and beat something to a pulp. The scars she had retained from that event were more than the few burns and scrapes from the blast. They were written on her soul, unable to heal.
She had never seen what had happened after her commanding officer had died, but a briefing from a General had made it seem as though the militants hadn't bothered to check that the British soldiers were dead. They just left, not bothering to secure the site or claim their victory. All they wanted was the destruction and death of those they saw as their enemy. It was certainly achieved. Gwen had been rescued when the Major at the base hadn't heard from the squadron in over an hour. She was taken to the medical tent then to hospital back in England. She hadn't left for three months.
Now, she was sitting on a bed paid for by someone who believed she was honourable, worth saving. Gwen knew the truth and, though she might pretend otherwise, her incompetence was like a bad stench that followed her around. She would do her best, but despite her determination, people would come to realise what she was and what she was not. Certainly Alaric already had.