Zorendon sat first, leaving Mort with his back to the room. He usually preferred his back to a room, to watch everything and become a part of the wall. He was good at not being seen.
That’s why Zorendon had hired him.
“Because you savvy when to stay hidden,” Zorendon was saying now, bringing Mort to the conversation. “Because you know exactly how to do what we ask you to do, without question, and then you simply wait, out of the way, in the shadows, for the next order. That’s why I’ve paid you all these years.”
Mort was having a hard time focusing, for which he felt guilty. The problem was that Zorendon had taken them to Spitzy’s Steakhouse, and that was one place no one but the filthy rich could afford to go to. The menu only listed meat considered rare delicacies from around the world, then prepared by three famous chefs who were only in town four nights a week.
A reservation was hard to get, but Zorendon was one of the few with that kind of pull. That was clear from the way he’d shaken the hands of every waitress on the way in, commenting how thrilled he was to see their lovely faces. Indeed, Mort was thrilled, too, and was looking forward to flirting with whatever cute waitress was given their table.
Nevertheless, he’d felt a chill upon entering, and that chill was lingering still.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” said a deep voice from over Mort’s shoulder. He turned, and a tall Waiter stood near them, nudging a strand of blond hair back behind his ear. As he did so, Mort’s chill suddenly returned.
The Waiter continued, “I have a grilled cod with a mango glaze, fried potatoes and baked Brussels sprouts, and a honey gravy on the side.”
They waited for more, but the Waiter had stopped talking, remaining still, bent forward in a half-bow. He glanced from Mort to Zorendon, but to Mort it did not appear that the man wanted to make eye contact.
“And?” Zorendon asked, perhaps bored or simply biding time until the Manager could be summoned.
“F-For today’s special we ha-ave a seared swordfish hooked in this mo-morning off the coast of–”
“Sorry,” interrupted Mort, “this is the special?”
“The swordfish, yes. It’s grilled over a wood fire and –”
“But what about the cod?”
“The cod, sir?” The Waiter’s voice remained at an even, monotone level, quiet enough that Mort had to lean forward to hear him.
“Yes, the grilled cod with the mango glaze.”
“That does sound delightful, doesn’t it? It’s my favorite dish to eat after a long day.” Before he could go further, the Manager, a bulky man in a red jacket, seemed to glide from nowhere to stand beside the Waiter.
“My sincerest apologies, gentlemen. We’ll take care of this right a… away.” He gave Mort a quick once over, then looked to Zorendon who nodded. The Manager then escorted the Waiter toward the kitchen, and during their exit the Waiter never removed his interlocked hands from behind his back.
“What do you suppose that was about?”
“Haven’t got a clue, Mort, what do you think?”
“Perhaps he was–” but before he could finish a Waitress was pouring their water.
“Hey guys, how we doing today?”
“Great, just great, sweets.” Zorendon seemed in his element, gleeful at the sight of her, and the Waitress gave him a smile of recognition.
“Zorry, you old cat, how you been?”
“Fine, my dear, fine. Meet my employee, Mort, who is about to learn about his latest assignment.”
“Ooh, how exciting.” She snatched Mort’s hand and forced a shake and said, “Maybe you’ll tell me all about it one day.”
“Where is your bathroom?” Mort couldn’t take his attention off the kitchen door. Something about that Waiter was gnawing at his memory, like he’d seen him before. Why had this restaurant, famous for its meats and its elegant, female wait-staff, allowed a waiter to commandeer a table out of nowhere?
The Waitress pointed towards a hallway tucked by the kitchen. Mort excused himself and headed down the hall, feeling sweat along his back, a tension usually not felt during a dinner meeting of all occasions.
Once around the corner, he waited four seconds, counting silently but precisely. Then he peeked out and watched the waitress stand closer to Zorendon as he wrapped his arm around her waist. Mort thought he caught Zorendon glance his way, but perhaps it was a trick of the candle light.
He slipped through the kitchen doors. No one was inside to see him enter or yell for him to leave, which was a relief. Everything in the kitchen was in its rightful place, and for a moment he felt a calm as he watched the mechanics of the kitchen at work: pots boiling with sensuous soups, grills steaming multiple meats, and knives jammed into onions and other vegetables.
Then he realized nothing was moving — the knives, the pots, the spatulas were all just dangling or laying on their sides. The only sign of movement or anything “happening” was the steam escaping from the meat or the pots. The kitchen was otherwise empty, save for a muffled voice around the corner.
Mort approached and watched with growing amusement as the Manager spoke to a line of waiters and cooks, all with the same face and vacant stair, the same blond hair, and arms crossed behind their backs. “It’s not COD that’s the special, it’s the SWORDFISH, have you got that?”
“YES” they all said in unison, a chorus of that disturbing monotone.
“YES,” whispered one Waiter, the closest to Mort, as though just catching up to speed. The Manager immediately turned to this Waiter.
“Have you got a malfunction, boy?” The Waiter shook his head, then lowered his eyes. The Manager then reached up and suddenly TORE the skin down the cheek of the waiter, revealing a metallic jawbone, into which the Manager stuck his fingers. “Let’s get you patched up”
The Waiter seemed to slump a few seconds before suddenly jolting upright.
“All of you, back to your positions in the kitchen. Once you master your skills with knives, we’ll move you on to proper assignments.” He tapped the cheek of the Waiter back into place, then they all filed back to the kitchen, not noticing Mort who stood pinned to the wall.
Mort swallowed hard, then his mouth went dry when the Manager found him. “Finally found your way back. I won’t waste time with a lecture, then.”
The Manager reached up and tore at Mort’s cheek skin. Mort didn’t notice any pain, but lightly stopped the Manager’s fingers from finagling his switches. “Stop it now, boy. Got to reset you so you can clear your memory, get back to work for Zorendon, otherwise we’ll have to replace you again. And Zorendon doesn’t like paying for things, does he?”
Mort didn’t get to say anything else after his switch was thrown, but the smell of cod lingered for days after.
Cod is now his favorite thing to eat.