By: The people from the chatroom aka lozenger8 , fern_tree, bastardlyarmed, amber_mel, talkingtothesky, chamekke, thedrumsarereal ♥ you guys!
Art by fern_tree , who put in heaps of effort and delivered beautiful art on short notice! ♥ for that!
Beta: xiilnek , lozenger8
Word Count: 5550 words.
Warning: Allusions to sexual child abuse in first ficlet
I Gene, 1942
The broken shells and pebbles are murder on his bare feet, but they’ve started the game now and he’s determined to win. Stu may think he can hide amongst the dunes, but he wasn’t banking on Gene’s detective skills. Gene’s got good at looking for footprints, shifts in the sand. He’s honed his hearing for the wheeze Stu’s had since whooping cough. He notices things most others wouldn’t, like a disturbed rock, a disrupted gull. He’s good at finding his brother. It’s something he’s had to work on, because Stu often hides at home.
When mum had said they were going to Formby for a spell, Gene hadn’t thought much of it. He expects most thirteen year olds would be excited by the idea of a week by the seaside, so the uncoiling knot in his stomach wasn’t a revelation. It hadn’t occurred to him that because the old man wasn’t coming, he may actually get to see his mum smile. But these things have held true and it’s strange how this genuinely feels like a holiday. Mum’s at the bed and breakfast, having tea and scones, and he and Stu are adventuring.
“You won’t get me!” Stu yells, and Gene grins to himself as he realises how thick he is. He’s pinpointed his exact location in ten seconds flat, when ordinarily it’d take at least twenty.
He stalks around the dunes, taking the less obvious route, creeping up through the grass. Stu’s on his stomach, grey shorts and little legs all covered in sand, peering over the top of the dune and then ducking down, chuckling. It makes Gene smile again, to see his brother so carefree. He’s used to sullen glances and solemn promises, a lad who’d rather lock himself away in the attic with musty old books, or clamber across fields and wasteland with a magnifying glass to torture and maim ants, than a boy who’d play games with other children for the fun of it. He shuffles closer and grasps Stu’s ankle, about to yell ‘got you!’
Stu screams, a gut-wrenching, piercing scream, and Gene lets go like his hand’s on fire.
“It’s only me,” he whispers urgently. “Stu, it’s Genie.”
Stu wriggles around, drawing his knees up tight, and cries. Nine years old and scared of his own shadow.
Gene settles uncomfortably next to Stu and wraps an arm around his shoulders. “Sorry,” he says. “Didn’t think.”
Didn’t think Stu could still be this scared after all this time, when he’s just apathetic. Didn’t think about the bruises that never heal.
Stu takes deep, racking breaths, spittle and snot dribbling down his face, and Gene takes his shirt off to use as a handkerchief.
“Do you wanna talk about it?” Gene asks awkwardly. He’s avoided asking before, ‘cause he’s rather not know, when all’s said and told. A worried part of him, buried down deep, half-wonders if it’s more than a fist that makes Stu quake like this. But dad’s never touched him beyond a slap and it just doesn’t seem right, can’t be right, that something like what he’s trying not to think about could be true. It’s just wrong, that’s all it is. It’s wrong.
“No,” Stu says. “Don’t wanna talk. Just wanna forget.”
“I expect ice cream would help with that,” Gene says, injecting a lightness to his voice he doesn’t feel.
Stu nods. “That’d be nice.”
“It’d be fantastic,” Gene amends.
Gene stands and offers Stu help, and Stu stares at him for a long while before clasping Gene’s hand tightly in bony little fingers and hauling himself up.
“I’ll punch him for you,” Gene says when they’re walking along. “I’ll take him on.”
Stu doesn’t say anything, just watches him, lips pursed, light eyes serious and contemplative.
“There’s lots of other games we could play,” Gene continues, deciding on a change of topic. “We could make a sand castle later. There’ll be a bucket round here somewhere, I’m sure. We could make it pirate themed or something, like in that book you’ve been reading to me. Make a Long John Silver outta shells. I’ve some sweet wrappers we could turn into flags. I guess it wouldn’t have to be a castle, it could be a ship. We could make a sand ship.
“Or maybe,” he says, “we could get some fish and chips, nice and crispy haddock, a dash of salt and vinegar, wrapped up in paper. Sounds good, eh?”
“D’you ever shut up?” Stu asks, but it’s with a laugh in his voice, and Gene can handle that.
“Sometimes, if the mood takes. Prefer not to, though. You can get away with a lot by talking.”
“You can get away with everything,” Stu counters. He looks down at his feet, then at Gene. “Could you teach me? Like, maybe, how to punch?”
“Yeah. We could do that after the sand ship. You could punch me for your portion of our dinner.”
“I could start now.”
“Best not, though. I’ve the money for the ice cream. Wouldn’t wanna lose it.”
Gene pats his brother on the back and gives what’s meant to be a smile, but is most likely a grimace. They walk down the track, pointing out features around them, such as the seagull pretending to only have one leg, and a bright red and blue kite in the sky, but Gene has almost completely lost his enthusiasm for the day. He doubts there will ever come a time when he can feel nothing but happiness, there will always be the spectre of misery looming in his peripheral vision. And it pains him to know that this is also true for his brother, who has never deserved a life of fear.
II Sam, 1973
“Everything better be exactly the way I left it by the time I get home, Sammy-boy.”
“Or what, going to turn me over your knee? I might like that, Guv.”
“Kinky sod”, Gene said affectionately. “I can't talk long, I just wanted to make sure you're taking care of my department and if anything happens to my motor, I will turn you over my knee. Anyway, I better go since the Missus expects me to spend some time with her while we're here. I'll speak to you when I get back.”
Gene hung up the phone and started to make his way back to pick up the Missus from her little shopping trip when he heard the unmistakable sound of a child crying. Deciding to investigate he turned the corner towards the sound and discovered a small child standing there with tears flowing freely from his eyes and no adults around him that Gene could tell.
“What's wrong, Poppet? Where's your mum?”
“I.. I.. I want my auntie Heather,” the child said between sobs.
Gene reached his hand towards the child, who immediately took it. “It's okay, we'll find her. The Gene Genie is on the case and you can be my little Deputy, so dry your eyes and tell me what your name is.”
“S-Sammy” he said as Gene wiped his tears away.
“That's a nice name. I have a Sammy too, at home.” Staring at little Sammy Gene couldn't help but notice the name wasn't the only thing the child had in common with his Sam. He entertained the brief notion of Sam having fathered a child from some tart in Blackpool but he quickly squashed it. Sam had a lot of secrets, but Gene was sure this wasn't one of them. “Come on, Poppet. Let's go find your Aunt Heather.”
Gene started to lead little Sammy through the promenade by the hand, careful not to let go, but far from the scared little thing he was before he was now the one excitedly pulling Gene and pointing towards the donkeys, obviously wanting to ride one. Gene started to tell him no, that his aunt was probably worried sick but one look into those big brown eyes and Gene melted. “Okay, but just one ride, comprende?” But little Sammy wasn't listening, he was far too excited.
The trainer held onto the donkey while Gene walked next to it, carefully protecting little Sammy from falling. Watching the smile on little Sammy's face made Gene happier than he could have imagined, that smile was way too perfect for this horrible world. He never even realised he was a child person before but he suddenly found himself wondering what it would be like to have one of his own.
He knew that ship had sailed though since this was the last holiday he and the missus would spend together. It was supposed to be their last chance to reconcile but they both knew it was too late for that. Maybe if he hadn't been more married to his job than he had been to Natalie they could have had children and maybe it would have worked. But while he regretted that he couldn't be the husband she deserved, he was quite sure she'd be just fine. He knew she had her eye on that bloke, Peter, that worked at the estate agents, but he knew she wouldn't do anything about it out of respect for their marriage.
When he thought about it, this trip was less of an attempt to reconcile and more of a celebration of new beginnings for the both of them.
Still no luck finding the child's aunt he was feeling hungry and was quite sure Sammy was too, so they stopped for something to eat. Afterwards, Sammy was also wanting a stick of Blackpool Rock to which Gene was again completely unable to say no. Gene wasn't sure how, but this kid seemed to have him completely wrapped around his little finger.
Three hours had passed and Gene still hadn't found the aunt. Quite sure she’d contacted the police, and more than a little disappointed that he was unable to find her without the help of local plod he made his way to the nearest police station while carrying a now sleeping little Sammy.
He started up the stairs of the police station as a young, beautiful but frantic woman was on her way out. Upon seeing Gene she immediately became excited and grabbed little Sammy from Gene's arms “Oh god, Sammy! My little Sammy! I was so worried. Thank you, thank you so much for finding him.” She sobbed with relief as she held him tight against her, waking him blurry eyed from his sleep. “I can't tell you how grateful I am that you found him. I hope he wasn't too much trouble.”
“He was just fine. Just had a scare is all. Need to keep a close eye on him though, all sorts in a place like this.” Gene removed the St. Christopher from around his neck and handed it to Aunt Heather. “Here, this is for him, when he's old enough to have it of course. Just in case he ever finds himself lost again.” He reached forward and gave a small kiss to his forehead. “Take care of yourself. I have a feeling you're gonna go far, kid.”
Gene walked away, leaving them to finish their holiday while he finished his. The rest of the trip belonged to Natalie, the rest of his life would soon belong to someone else.
III Sam&Gene, 1973
"The city so nice, they named it twice" wasn't so nice after all.
It was supposed to be a nice weekend holiday in America - Gene had got the tickets through unknown means and had invited Sam, disguising it as a trip to learn how not to run the Greater Manchester Police like the Yankees do.
Friday night they had woken up to a drug bust upstairs. The thumping of boots was all too much for Sam and Gene to bear. Gene had a mind to go and bust the tosspots himself, but once he had got dressed and armed himself, they were gone.
Saturday wasn't too much better. Baseball was boring, the food wasn't too great, and Gene couldn't find a boozer anywhere that would give him a proper pint with the proper head on it, or one where they wouldn't make fun of his "Cockney" accent. A few heads were banged together and Gene and Sam had to make a run for it, being chased by two detectives, a young man wet behind the ears and a man that reminded Gene and Sam of Ray.
Sunday was the worst. The two detectives had noticed them on the street and gave them chase. Unfortunately, Gene and Sam were caught and dragged to the police station, where they found out that there was another Gene, Sam, Ray, Chris, and Annie across the ocean. While Sam took it (surprisingly) well, Gene took it as an insult.
"There's only room in this world for one Gene Hunt, and that's me!"
"Yeah? Why don't we see, posh boy?"
The slugfest lasted 30 minutes and resulted in two grown, immature men being knocked out, fifteen other men collectively wincing at the last attack by the two Genes and while Ray and Chris were hauling off the two Genes to the hospital, two Sams sharing a drink at the local bar.
DCI Gene Hunt and DI Sam Tyler got on the plane back to Manchester on Monday, with two massive headaches and a very watertight cover story for their trip.
IV Sam & Gene, 1976
‘Look at him, lying there in the sun. No wait, he is The Sun... My Leo lies magnificent, stretched out, basking in the warm rays. The sheer power and radiance emanating from that solitary lounger. It’s become his throne. How did I miss the golden threads in that mane? And oh god... those endless legs, disappearing upwards into snuggest of shorts. Smooth skin flushed pink with the faintest scattering of freckles just beginning to emerge. I want to count them all. With my lips...’
Suddenly, unexpectedly flustered, Sam turns and dives into the pool, desperate to cover his embarrassment and yearning.
‘Look at him, standing there in the sun. No wait, he is The Sun. So brilliant and bright and shining. My Apollo stands taut and lithe on the diving board. It’s become his plinth. How did I miss the golden flecks in those amber eyes? And oh god... those slender hips, barely supporting that scrap of nylon masquerading as shorts. Whippet-slim body flushed pink with the most impossibly perfect, pert, posterior so high and tight. I want to caress it. With my lips...’
Suddenly, unexpectedly flustered, Gene turns over on his lounger, desperate to cover his embarrassment and yearning.
V Sam&Gene, 1978
“Sam, come here a minute.”
“What? Why?” Sam looked up from his suitcase with mild irritation. While Gene had dumped his stuff down on the bed and gone to fix himself a drink, Sam had set about the task of unpacking, fastidiously sorting things into piles. The hotel room was cheap and bland but Sam was determined to make the most of it.
“Just…come here.” Gene had turned the radio on and some sort of classical jazz lilted out into the room. He was standing with bottle in one hand and the other held out towards Sam in a sort of invitation. His coat was still on but his tie hung loose and the top three buttons of his shirt were undone. Already he looked at home here; all Sam could think was that the whole place smelt musty.
Finally Sam put two and two together and came out with scepticism. “I’m not going to dance with you, Gene.” He gave him a look.
“Rubbish. We’re on holiday, fer christ’s sake. Let your hair down for once, Gladys.”
Sam opened his mouth to retort but was interrupted, again.
“Although, ain’t got much hair to let down. Why do you keep that ridiculous hair cut, anyway?”
“You know, continually insulting me is hardly the best way to get what you want, Guv.”
“Wrong again, Tyler.” Gene dropped his inviting hand but walked around the bed to advance on Sam, catching and holding Sam’s gaze with his own. “The last time I called you a bunch of nasty names,” close enough now to clamp a hand over Sam’s denim-clad crotch, “you came all over my fist, d’you remember? Came so hard you forgot yer own name.”
“That was different.” Sam swallowed, unable to look away from the depths of Gene’s eyes.
“Yeah.” When Sam spoke next it was with a distinct hitch in his voice. “You muttering things like ‘dirty little whore’ while buried balls deep inside me has a very different ring to it.”
“Fine, then.” Gene pressed even closer, leaning in to punctuate his next words with biting kisses, “Dance with me, you dirty – little – whore.”
And Sam did.
VI Sam, 1992
On the letterhead of the Dos Caminos Restaurant, Manchester:
Dear Mr Tyler, we are pleased to inform you that you are the winner of our draw for a vacation for two in beautiful Monterrey, Mexico, inclusive of airfare and accommodation. You and the guest of your choice will stay at the Hostería Obispo for one week…
* * * * *
"You haven't a clue, have you?" Emma stormed, yanking her clothes out of the wardrobe. Sam watched, astonished.
"You're so bloody obsessed with your job, you never have time for us! Last night was the first evening out we'd planned in yonks, and you didn't even remember! I had to ring the station to find out where you were!"
Sam cleared his throat and tried to sound reasonable. "I've already said I was sorry. Come on, Em. We're going on holiday in three days. We'll have masses of time together then!"
She shook her head, on the verge of tears. "You're going. I'm leaving. As always, there's a world of difference."
* * * * *
And thus it was that PC Sam Tyler found himself staring moodily out the window of his Aeroméxico flight, the seat beside him empty.
* * * * *
The first four days were pleasant enough. Sam spent hours walking through the Barrio Antiguo, marvelling at the colonial architecture and jotting his impressions in his notepad. He practised his Castilian-accented Spanish with everyone he met, and tried not to be hurt when they laughed at his pronunciation. At one point Sam rented a car and set off for Cerro de la Silla, the huge saddleback mountain that loomed to the east of the city. He hiked for a full afternoon, lost in thought as he clambered up and down the arid hills. And in the main plaza, dazzled by the heat and clamour of the market, Sam was persuaded into buying an elaborate silver filigree cross for his mum.
But the evenings were desperately lonely.
Every night was identical. Sam would shower and then walk to the Zona Rosa. The neighbourhood was alight with colour, music, laughter. Couples walked past, smiling, their arms linked. Sam would duck into the doorway of whatever restaurant looked interesting. Invariably a waiter would greet him with the seemingly disbelieving phrase, "¿Sólo usted, señor?" And always Sam would reply, "Sí, sólo yo." Yes, it's just me.
It seemed that no one dined alone in Monterrey, or in the entire country of Mexico for that matter. Sam was acutely aware of the curious glances as he was shown to a table (always less than ideally situated). As he sat down, he would flick open his notebook and diligently record the activities of the day. When the meal arrived, Sam would eat it absently, jotting down notes between forkfuls ("The Catedral Metropolitana really is a baroque masterpiece…"), his mind focused on his earnest narrative and not on the flavours in his mouth. Occasionally he would pause and listen to the conversations at the neighbouring tables, catching the occasional phrase and turning it over in his mind, still mystified by the speed and sibilance of Mexican Spanish.
As soon as the meal was finished, Sam would head back to his hotel, stretch out on the bed, have a quick wank, and very efficiently fall asleep.
Until, on day five, Sam walked into the Café San Cristóbal and ordered the Pollo en Salsa de Mango.
* * * * *
He set out later than usual that night, reasoning that a later hour would mean fewer other customers and therefore quicker service. Several night clubs blared their music, but Sam walked quickly past those doorways, glancing in almost furtively and seeing the ecstatic movement of bodies in semi-darkness. This corner of the Zona Rosa seemed to be especially raucous, and Sam was considering giving up and heading back when he spotted a small café that was sandwiched between two closed jewellery shops. The sign, with its incongruous image of a muscular Saint Christopher hefting the infant Jesus on one shoulder, struck him as wonderfully outlandish. On an impulse, Sam went in.
In the semi-darkness, candles flickered on the tables. There were no more than five couples in the café. Unlike the clamour outside, in here the conversations were murmured, a gentle hum. A waiter guided Sam to one of the empty tables and presented a menu, but Sam waved it away and asked simply, "¿Que recomenda?"
The waiter, surprised, rattled off a list so quickly that the only one Sam understood was the word for chicken. Sam repeated the word and added, "Y una botella de vino rojo, por favor." The waiter nodded, and quickly returned with a bottle of red wine. He uncorked it, pouring a glass, and then left both glass and bottle on the table.
The wine was good: rich, tannic, and heady. After a single glass, Sam's head was swimming and he could feel his body relaxing. He stole a look at the woman sitting nearest him, then did a double-take when he realised it was Emma. Or - no, of course it wasn't Emma, it was simply a woman who looked slightly like her: wavy dark hair and bright brown eyes. And certainly Emma had never looked at Sam in the way this girl was regarding her companion, her gaze warm with affection. Sam realised he had been staring when she suddenly switched her gaze to him, raising one eyebrow quizzically. He flushed and looked away, then hid his sudden confusion by pouring himself a second glass of wine. He could not have explained why he had flushed.
The second glass of wine quickly disappeared. Sam reached for his notebook, flipped it open, then paused as he realised that the light was too dim, even as he moved the tiny candle closer. He put away the notebook and reached for the bottle.
Soon Sam was afloat in a pleasantly melancholic haze. It seemed a very good idea to order a second bottle, and it too was almost empty when the waiter reappeared and set the plate down in front of him. Sam looked at the food: glazed chicken breast artfully arranged on a bed of white rice, but disconcertingly covered with some sort of orange stuff, along with small round pieces of jalapeño and some sprigs of green. Sam poked at the meat dubiously with his fork, and lifted a piece to his mouth.
The intensity of the flavour was a revelation. The sweetness and smooth texture of the fruit (fruit!) danced with the heat and crunch of the hot peppers to create something that verged on the addictive. Sam realised with a rush that he was starving, hungrier than he'd felt for days. His awareness shrank to the size of the plate before him; the murmur of voices disappeared. Each mouthful was an experience of sheer delight. Sam was alone with the sensation of eating, of tasting, and was entirely content.
When Sam had eaten enough to take the edge off his hunger, he looked around him and discovered that the restaurant was nearly empty. The woman at the next table had gone, along with her companion.
He ate the rest in an ecstasy of pleasure, then rolled the last of the wine around his mouth and swallowed. Sam caught the waiter's eye and beckoned him over.
"This was delicious," Sam said, in English, slowly and carefully. "It was the best thing I have ever eaten. I want to thank the chef."
The waiter stared at him, then nodded and went out back. Sam was spooning the last traces of the sauce from his plate when he became aware of a new presence, and looked up.
A young man, possibly the same age as Sam himself, was regarding him quietly. Sam was disconcerted by his expression, which was kind… possibly patronising? A tiny tendril of annoyance curled in Sam's mind, and he felt emboldened to voice the one desire he suddenly felt more than anything else.
"I liked this dish very much. I want to make it at home. May I please have your recipe?"
There was laughter from the back of the restaurant, and the waiter spoke. "We do not give our receta, señor. Especially to a mucosito sin modales como tí."
Sam wasn't certain of the words, but there was no mistaking the underlying contempt. The chef had still not spoken, but was still looking at Sam with something akin to tenderness.
"Please," Sam said. He became aware that there was a tremble in his voice, and struggled for a moment. "I want… I want to take home something good from this trip. I promise not to share the recipe with anyone. On my honour, as-" In a moment of inspiration, he pulled out his warrant card. "On my honour as a policeman."
"As a policeman?" the chef said softly, seeming slightly amused. He took the warrant card and cupped it in his hands, regarding it seriously, then handed it back. "Then yes, Constable Sam Tyler. I will show you how to make this food, on your honour as a policeman. Come with me."
Sam found himself being propelled to the kitchen, where the chef steered him to the counter. Copper and steel glittered around him. A queue of ingredients appeared in front of him, one by one: chilled chicken breasts, several peppers, some onions, a round fruit, and a few other things that Sam's tipsy eyes could not immediately recognise.
"I'm sorry," Sam stammered. "I didn't catch your name. ¿Cómo se llama?"
"Cristóbal," the chef said.
Sam laughed. "So that's you on the sign?" And the chef smiled back.
"Exactly. Now look."
Sam watched closely as the man took a knife and deftly cut several of the ingredients into pieces. The fruit - "un mango," Cristóbal said - looked especially challenging, its slippery flesh oozing liquid. The chef demonstrated how to hold it, then indicated that Sam should give it a try. Sam imitated as best he could, but Cristóbal made a tsk-ing sound at his clumsiness, then put his hands over Sam's and moved his fingers deliberately into place.
Sam was suddenly aware of Cristóbal's closeness, the heat of his body, a faint scent of cloves.
They continued to work together. The chef took special care with the jalapeños, showing how to cut away the seeds without touching them, and telling Sam to be careful not to touch his eyes - "It will burn, very painful." Sam found himself leaning against the man, and felt the sensation of someone else breathing. He had never been so physically close to another man. It seemed strange, yet natural, to be with someone of the same build, the same height. For a split-second he leaned his head against Cristóbal's neck.
At this, the chef turned and looked at him. Sam felt an unexpected flare of heat, saw a flash of something - recognition, desire - in Cristóbal's dark eyes. He wants me, Sam realised. Strangely, this didn't bother him as he imagined it should. In fact, he rather liked it. It seemed like an eternity since anyone had looked at Sam in that way.
"We must finish," Cristóbal said. He cradled Sam's head gently, then moved back to stand beside him. They worked together on the food in silence, Sam mirroring the chef's movements. Every square inch of his skin felt alive with awareness. He heard the chicken sizzling in the saucepan, inhaled the pungent coriander, felt rather than saw the steam escaping from the rice. Again and again Cristóbal touched him, lightly, and Sam did not move away.
And then the food was ready. In a few efficient movements, Cristóbal had set a plate between them at the counter, and gestured for Sam to sit and eat. Sam obediently took a forkful, chewed, and smiled. Cristóbal took the fork back, tried a bite, and grinned back.
"You know, Sam, I think that you can be a very good chef."
* * * * *
They ate the meal together, sharing the fork and laughing. Sam found himself talking about his childhood, the loneliness, his longing for his absent father, even the breakup with Emma. Cristóbal spoke, too, but afterwards Sam couldn't remember what he said. It was to do with family, with caring, the need to belong. The words sounded familiar, as if they were an echo of his own life. When the waiter appeared at one point, trying to catch the chef's eye, Cristóbal waved him away.
When Sam looked down and discovered that the plate was empty, Cristóbal laughed at his disappointed expression. "Sam, my friend, you must also know when to stop."
Curious, Sam asked, "Did you like it?"
"Muy sabroso y un poco picante. It was … very tasty and a little spicy." Cristóbal paused, then added gravely, "I think that maybe, next time, you can use more jalapeño."
There was a beat. Sam didn't move. Cristóbal reached out a hand, touched Sam's lips with an almost maternal gesture, then put his finger into his own mouth.
"We have a saying," Cristóbal said, smiling. "Eres como el chile verde, picanto pero sabroso. You are like a green chilli - hot but tasty."
He bent forward and placed a gentle hand around the back of Sam's neck, leaning in for a kiss. Unthinkingly, Sam responded. Cristóbal's mouth was firm against his, and as Sam felt the man's tongue softly exploring, he moaned. Cristóbal's other hand snaked around Sam's waist, pressing him close.
Sam's hands came up and cupped Cristóbal's face, felt traces of stubble under his fingertips. Their eyes met, and Sam's heart lurched at the intensity of the other man's gaze.
He pulled back.
The other man's need had the effect of a cold shower. Sam suddenly felt himself sober for the first time in hours. This isn't who I am, he thought. I don't - flirt - with men.
Cristóbal's expression was troubled. "Are you all right?"
Sam shook his head as though he was waking up. "I'm sorry. It's just… this is unexpected. I don't mean to be unkind, Cristóbal, but I'm not interested in men."
The chef's face became impassive.
"Of course not," he said.
"No, you don't understand," Sam said. He could feel his inhibitions locking firmly into place, one by one. Do not touch another man, do not cuddle with another man, do not for Christ's sake kiss another man. Sam shook his head again, confused. "I'm not a homophobe, honestly. It's just. I was with Emma up until last week. Before her, there were other women."
Oddly, it was a struggle to get any more words out, but Sam managed it. "I prefer women. It's nothing personal, Cristóbal. Just, I'm not gay. I'm straight. "
Cristóbal tilted his head and regarded Sam at length. Finally, he shook his head.
"For a policeman," he said, "you spend too much time on the wrong side of the bars."
He took both of Sam's hands up to his mouth and kissed them.
Sam couldn't swear to it, but he thought that the expression in Cristóbal's eyes was pity. He flinched.
"I don't know what you mean," he said.
"The restaurant is closed."
Sam was surprised at the abruptness of this, but nodded. "What do I owe you?"
He thought for a split-second that he saw hurt in the chef's eyes, but decided he'd imagined it as Cristóbal said briskly, "No hay cuenta. There is no bill."
The chef stood, adding, "The dinner is on the house. A gift for an Englishman who is far from his home."
Sam frowned and was about to object, but Cristóbal stopped him with a gesture. "I insist. It is my honour… as a chef."
"Thank you," Sam said.
They went to the door in silence. Before he closed the door, Cristóbal added, "Please take care, my friend. Go with God."
And within moments, the young policeman found himself outside, looking up at the sign of San Cristóbal and feeling strangely upset.
But it didn't prevent him from writing down what he remembered of the recipe when he got back to his hotel.
* * * * *
Pollo en Salsa de Mango: Chicken in Mango Sauce
The sauce may be made in advance and refrigerated, then added when chicken is cooked. Serve with white rice or cilantro rice.
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 6 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
• 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
• 2 green onions or scallions, cut into thin slices
• 4 jalapeño peppers, seeded and cut into slices (use fewer jalapeños if less heat is desired)
• ¼ cup rice vinegar
• ½ cup sugar
• ¾ cup orange juice
• 1½ cups cubed mango
• 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
• salt and pepper to taste
Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Sauté chicken breast halves 4 minutes on each side. Remove and set aside, covered.
In the same pan, in the remaining olive oil, sauté the garlic and green onion until the onion begins to soften, then add the jalapeños and continue to sauté for another minute. Add the vinegar and sugar, stirring to combine. Add the orange juice and continue to cook until the sauce is slightly reduced and the sugar completely dissolved. Stir in the mango cubes and chopped cilantro and continue to cook, stirring, another 1-2 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Return the chicken to the pan and heat through. Serve immediately. Serves 6.