Home > Sweep in Peace (Innkeeper Chronicles #2)(9)

Sweep in Peace (Innkeeper Chronicles #2)(9)
Ilona Andrews

A familiar pang pierced me, worry mixed with anxiety and a dash of mourning. I missed them so much. So much. It’s been years and still sometimes I woke up and in those drowsy, half-asleep moments I thought I heard mom’s voice calling me down for breakfast.

I was in a different inn now, my own inn. Up until this moment, Gertrude Hunt didn’t need a staff. I cooked for Caldenia and me and whatever rare guest happened to stop by. Cooking for two people and cooking for a party of at least twenty, with at least four different species in attendance was completely different. Not only that, but with otrokars and vampires in the same building, all of my attention would be occupied with keeping them from killing each other. And they would expect a banquet. Of course, they would. We didn’t even have a definite date for the end of the summit. I might end up feeding them for weeks.

I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t feasible. I had to hire a cook, except a cook good enough to prepare a banquet for four different species would cost a fortune, because he wouldn’t be a cook, he would be a chef. I had set funds aside for the food but somehow in all of my preparations it never occurred to me that someone would have to be cooking it. I didn’t budget for a chef. Where could I even find one on a short notice? It took weeks to hire one.

Hi, my name is Dina. I run a small inn on Earth, two and a half stars, and I need you to drop everything and prepare meals for a party of otrokars, vampires, and spoiled merchants. I have a shoe string budget and your pay would be a pittance.

I groaned. Beast barked at me, puzzled.

I looked at the tiny Shih-Tzu. “What am I going to do?”

My dog furiously wagged her tail.

I blew the air out. Panicking never solved anything. I had to go about it in a logical fashion. First hurdle, money. Where could I get some money to hire a chef?

The only money I had, besides the food fund, was in the inn’s six-month budget. Guests came and went, and an innkeeper’s income was usually somewhat erratic. My parents taught me to always budget six months ahead and to never touch that money. If I dipped into that budget, I wouldn’t be able to cover utilities in the upcoming months, and nobody would visit an inn without running water or electricity. We had backup generators, but they were an emergency measure. If I used that money, I’d be breaking one of my parents’ most fundamental rules.

Was there any way around it? Any way at all?

No.

No, there wasn’t. I couldn’t take a business loan, because my business didn’t generate enough income to qualify me for one and because business loans and lines of credit took several days to process. Personal loans were out of the question, too. Asking other innkeepers wasn’t an option. It simply wasn’t done. Besides, without a solid track record and the inn rated at only two and a half stars, I was a bad business risk. All things considered, I wouldn’t lend myself money.

There was simply no other money to be had. I had to feed the guests. Vampires required meat with fresh herbs, otrokars had to have spices and citrus with everything, and Nuan Cee’s clan had a taste for poultry and they were particular about how it was prepared. I had to hire someone whatever it cost.

Realizing that was like dipping my head into a bucket of ice water. If there was no other way, then there was nothing I could do about it. I had to use that money and pray it would be enough to entice someone to work through the summit.

“One problem solved,” I told Beast.

Now hurdle number two. The chef.

My parents knew many innkeepers, but were friends with only a few. Our kind were a solitary lot. Innkeepers operated in secrecy. Deals were done on a handshake, meetings usually took place face to face, and each inn was its own little island of strange in a sea of normal. When my parents’ inn had vanished, even our former friends distanced themselves. What happened was odd and unexpected; nobody had ever heard of the entire inn simply blinking out of existence. Odd and unexpected was dangerous, and for people who dealt with Universe’s weirdness on daily basis, most innkeepers were surprisingly risk-averse.

I was on my own, but I did know one man who could help. His name was Brian Rodriguez. An innkeeper like me, he ran Casa Feliz in Dallas, one of the largest, busiest inns in the South-West. Like others, he had been a friend of my parents. A few months ago when I had gone to ask him for advice out of pure desperation, he helped me. Since then we corresponded a few times and he had given me his cell phone number, a huge sign of trust in our world. Begging him for money was out of the question, but asking for a loan of staff wasn’t unheard of.

I dialed the number on my cell. He answered on the second ring. “Dina, how are you?”

“I’m fine,” I lied. “How are you?”

“Surviving. What can I do for you?”

“I’m so sorry to ask this, but I need a cook on short notice.” I really didn’t want to say what I had to say next. The words stuck in my mouth and I forced them out. “Could you lend me one?”

He didn’t miss a beat. “What grade?”

“The highest I can get.”

Mr. Rodriguez paused. “Are you hosting the Nexus summit?”

“Yes.” News traveled fast.

“They’d asked me and I declined. The risk to my other guests would be too great.”

I was well aware of the risks, but I had no choice.

“Unfortunately…”

My heart sank.

“…all of my kitchen staff is really busy. We’re short-handed at the moment.”

I fought hard to keep despair out of my voice. “Thank you anyway.”

“So happens I know someone who might help,” he said. “If you’re desperate enough.”

What? My hopes soared. “I’m very desperate.”

“He was ranked as a Red Cleaver a few years ago.”

My hopes plunged to the ground, hit hard, and exploded. “I can’t afford a Red Cleaver chef.”

Mr. Rodriguez probably couldn’t afford a Red Cleaver. That was the second highest ranking. I couldn’t even afford a Grey Cleaver, which was the lowest rung. The Cleaver ranking meant certification by the Galactic Gastronomy Board, a diploma from the best cooking school in the Galaxy, and a long apprenticeship in one of the prestigious restaurants. Cleaver chefs were worth their weight in gold, literally.

“He was stripped of his certification.”

I’ve never heard of someone losing their Cleaver. “Why?”

Mr. Rodriguez hesitated. “He might have poisoned someone.”

I put my hand over my face. This was just getting better and better. A poisoner chef. What could possibly go wrong?

“Dina, are you there?” Mr. Rodriguez asked.

“Yes. I’m just wrestling with it.”

“I warned you that you would have to be desperate. I don’t believe he was ever convicted of the crime but somehow he was involved in a death of a diplomat. You would have to talk to him to get the whole story.”

With my back against the wall, I didn’t have options. The least I could was talk to him. “Where can I find him?”

“He lives in a small hole-in-the wall hovel at Baha-char. Just past the Gorivian gun merchant.”

“I know where that it is. Thank you.”

“Oh, and Dina, he is a Quillonian. They can be touchy.”

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