The Pau arrived a short while later. When the waitress placed it before him, the lady with the red pumps and polka dot head band on the next table devoured it with her eyes. He frowned. She had just finished her meal. The nerve of some people! He looked at the pastry. It looked like any other Siew Pau he had seen before. The aroma arising from the cracks in the crust, however, was different.
Spices and herbs permeated his senses. And above all, the meat. The aroma was different. He tapped the broken crust and the dark sauce seeped out to the plate. Jerry took a tentative taste with his fingers, something he would never had done before. It tasted alien, but his palate rejoiced. With his fingers, he hacked the crust to get to the filling. It was a feeling he had never had with any of the other places he decimated as a reviewer. Elated and seduced by this Pau.
Scooping up the filling and dripping sauce on his shirt, he finished it within minutes, ignoring his scalded mouth. He had to find out how it was made. He had to know. A waiter appeared when he beckoned.
“I would like to meet the chef,” he quipped, in hushed tones, afraid the other customers might want to meet him too.
“Of course, sir,” the waiter replied and navigated his way to the kitchen.
Jerry was sure they would have known who he is and he would be able to pry the recipe from the chef. They would be obliged to surrender it, knowing well the repercussions if they didn’t. He had to have it. Not to praise it. No. He wanted it for himself. The queue outside had decreased in the sudden downpour. There were a few stubborn stragglers with jackets and umbrellas, huddling on the doorstep. He realised the couple next to him had left. He didn’t notice the woman’s blaring red pumps and polka dot head band leaving, though. A waft of heated pastry made him look up.
A tall man, scraggly man appeared, a waifish waitress behind him. Jerry stood and offered his hand.
“Compliments on the Pau, chef,” he said.
The chef wiped his hands on a ruby red tea towel hanging on his crimson, stained, apron and shook Jerry’s.
“Thank you!” he boomed.
Jerry recoiled at his voice and realised he couldn’t decide if the man was Malaysian.
“We are honoured with your presence today,” he said, voice lowered this time, “And I am glad you enjoyed our house specialty.”
Ah. So, they recognised him.
“I was wondering,” Jerry began, “if you would mind showing me your kitchen. I would love to see how you prepare your fillings.”
The chef smiled.
“Not at all. It would be a pleasure.”
He motioned the waitress.
“Suzy, please give Mr. Jerry a tour of our kitchen.” He gave her a pointed look. She nodded her compliance.
Jerry looked at both of them and stopped at the chef.
“I was hoping you would.”
The chef smiled and replied, “I have my hands full today and supplies have just arrived. I personally prepare the meat.”
He held Suzy by her shoulders and gestured to Jerry.
“Suzy is my most trusted and capable aide. She would do justice to the tour.”
And with that, he turned on his heels and strode out to the back. Jerry was a little annoyed at being shunted to an aide but he followed her as she made her way to the kitchen. It wasn’t a large affair; a long narrow corridor with steamers, stoves and ovens arranged along one end. A tall, wooden door loomed at the end of the corridor. A small army of cooks were scurrying between ovens and steamers. A smaller group of staff were hunched over a narrow stable preparing the pastry dough. The aroma of spiced meat, herbs and baking pastry permeated everything.
Jerry steadied himself and towed behind Suzy as she introduced the staff and pointed out processes. He was only interested in the Pau. As she was pointing out the pastries in the oven, he tapped her shoulder.
“Can you show me how you prepare the filling?”
She wrinkled her forehead but smiled.
“I’m sorry, sir. It’s personally prepared by the chef and he doesn’t even show us the process.”
Jerry was nonplussed. This was a first. Every restaurant fell over themselves describing their dishes and preparations to him, hoping they will at least get a neutral review.
“Well, I would like to see how it’s done. Please inform the chef that I will wait for him.”
Jerry doodled in his notebook with a fresh mug of coffee. Suzy had seated him and rushed off to the back. That was 10 minutes ago. When he called over the waiter to ask about the chef, he had brought him the coffee and apologised; the chef was preparing for the dinner crowd. The rain was not letting up. He walked over to the entrance and looked out across the street.
The lane leading to the back of the cafe was empty. He hadn’t noticed a truck or any delivery service when he came in. The chef mentioned he had to take care of supplies.
Jerry closed the door and walked back to his table. He was the only customer left in the cafe. He watched as the waiters cleared tables, twiddling his pen. Something was not right about the place. There were only one or two waiters. Suzy seemed more of a secretary than a waitress. The kitchen was too clean. And he had not seen any of the meat prepared there. He wondered why. He had also haven’t heard of the place before today but judging by the earlier crowd, it has been in the neighbourhood for a while.
Footsteps approached and he looked up. Suzy hurried towards him with another steaming mug. He grimaced. The coffee was good but he was already bloated on acidic beans.
“Will he be available any time soon?” He wanted to sound sarcastic but it came out with a burp.
Suzy apologised again. “Maybe you can return tomorrow? He is usually free before lunch.”
Jerry stood up abruptly. Never in his entire career has anyone made him wait that long.
“I definitely will,” he huffed, and shoving her aside, he walked out into the rain.
He stood under his umbrella watching the street. He detested being told off. He wondered why he didn’t just storm into the kitchen, storage or wherever the chef was. The Pau was really good. The coffee too. That probably averted an outburst. It came to him that if he waited long enough, he might get a chance to even snoop around. He saw the chef exit the store and return to the cafe.
“Well, I don’t have to wait until tomorrow after all.”
“I will unearth your recipe and by next week, you will only be a memory.”
The rain provided good cover and he noticed no one was at the front of the cafe. He ran across, the umbrella covering his face. The back entrance had a small gate which was locked. Jerry jumped over and tried the handle on the store door.
He opened it a fraction and peered inside. Putrescent gust washed out, gagging him. The interior was dimly lit. It looked like a preparation area. They must have added it after they moved in. The building on this side was painted new. He looked for tire marks but found none.
Why did the chef mention supplies being arrived earlier?
Jerry slid into the room and closed the door behind him. He brushed past two high shelves containing boxes of spices and jars of some unidentifiable substance. There was a table in the middle of the room and behind it, a huge steel door that looked like a freezer. The metal table was also something Jerry has never encountered in a kitchen. The top was smooth with small gullets on either side. At the head, a basin with a tap was mounted. A large hammer lay beside the table. He stared at it, confused.
He moved away to the metal door. It was too large a freezer for a cafe like this. He leaned back to look at the other door leading to the kitchen. It was quiet. The staff must be taking a break. He folded his umbrella and walked on squelchy shoes to the freezer door. The fetid smell of blood and entrails was overwhelming. A gust of frozen air blew out when he pulled it open. Halogen lights turned on.
The unnaturally large freezer was filled with meat hanging on hooks and covered in plastic. He recognised cow carcasses and goat parts. He stepped further into the gloom. There was a deep metal freezer on the floor. Curious, he stepped forward. His shoes slipped and he grabbed a hanging plastic. He hit the floor hard. His ankle screaming in pain, Jerry tried to sit up and hit his face onto the hanging meat. He brushed it away.
And felt fingers.
Jerry yelped and pushed himself backwards. In the dim halogen light, he traced the silhouette of a woman, her hands swaying upside down. He wiped his brow and realised he had just smeared blood on his face. Frantic, he rubbed his face on his sleeves and stood up, pressing his back to the wall for support. He moved closer to the body and pushed away the plastic. Blood soaked polka dot head band. Her face was serene, though the mouth had been smashed in. Bile rose but he fought his nausea and moved to the steel box on the floor. Frost coated the lid. His shaking fingers were becoming numb but he forced the lid to slide open.
Even before he looked inside, he knew what it contained. A naked foot lay on top of God knows what. It had been neatly cut through. He picked up a meat pick and flipped the foot. The contents below must have come from at two or three people. The heads were not anywhere. Jerry froze. He was rummaging through a meat locker filled with human parts.
The Pau filling.
He lurched violently and emptied his guts. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, Jerry backed out of the freezer, avoiding the hanging carcasses but his eyes fixed on the steel box. He had to get to the police.
And tell them what, exactly? He stumbled into cannibals?
The room outside was still empty but he heard activity in the kitchen. He knew what the table in the middle was for. It was the kind you see in mortuaries and horror movies. He had to get out. This was a mad house.
“I hope you had a good tour.”
He whirled around. The chef was standing near the kitchen entrance, a wide smile on his face. Jerry scrabbled at the door and stumbled out into the rain. Leaping over the gate and wincing, he rushed out, limping fast into the street. He looked wildly for a taxi, car, bike. Anything. The rain had practically driven everyone indoors. In the fading light, he remembered his phone. But he had to get away first. He thrust his hands into his pocket and felt something smash into his legs.
Blinding streaks of pain shot up. Jerry crumpled to the ground. Rain splattering into his eyes, he saw red pumps step into his field of vision. Suzy bent down, leaning on a sledge hammer and looked at him. Her washed out lips were twisted up at the corners and her eyes, wild.
“I told you he was busy. You should have waited until tomorrow.”
Jerry didn’t feel the blow to his head. Darkness took him as his skull caved in.