Dante’s kitchen was a clown car. Literally. I had thought that when I saw all the barflies coming out of it earlier, but now I knew for a fact that all of them had actually come through the kitchen and not through some hallway or stairway just inside the kitchen door. It was kind of like seeing a six lane highway running through a factory district, with on and off ramps here and there, and one lane in each directing reserved for local traffic. I had no idea how they managed to get this to pass the health inspection.
I felt a tug against my waist and looked up into Mooney’s smirking face. I belatedly realized he had tucked my under his massive arm and was guiding me through the mayhem of The Pleasure Club’s upper kitchen like a momma duck ushering a distracted chick across a busy road. I flashed a bewildered grin at him before turning back to watch the show, trusting him to keep me safe while I ogled.
The walk through the kitchen couldn’t have been more than twenty paces, but there was so much to see that it felt much longer. The kitchen highway skirted to the left of the work area, with little more that storage along the right hand wall so that the chefs weren’t tripping over clubbers while executing their culinary ballet. And I do mean chefs, not cooks. As the owner/manager of a coffee shop that also served food, I know the difference. I was a cook. I heated partially prepared food out of cartons. These were chefs. They made delectable food from raw and sometimes odd ingredients. And they did it with style. I watch as one huge man flipped sizzling fajita meat and peppers in skillets over open flames without making a mess or catching himself on fire—not something I was capable of!
Mooney tugged on my waist again and I was whisked through a trapdoor in the floor, the culinary dance disappearing above my head as we descended. I blinked two or three times to clear my dazzled eyes of the magic of it all. The chefs were not magic users, but they were creating magic just the same. That’s the thing about magic. I didn’t simply exist, it was born of life just as oxygen was.
Plants breathed in carbon dioxide and exhaled oxygen, which animals then breathed in to create carbon dioxide. In that same way, the chefs took the largess of Mother Earth and created sustenance for Her Children, which transformed the potential of the raw ingredients into something more easily used by higher beings like people and shape shifters. A true artist didn’t just effect the change, though. They also created magic of their own. I didn’t make magic when I cooked. I simply made food. But on the other hand, I doubt those chefs could make magic by combining herbs and intent the way I could, either.
I pulled my attention back to the present. As fascinating as the insanity of Dante’s kitchen had been, I had actual work of my own to do still tonight. I’d sent a text to Lex as soon as I got back to Mooney’s truck earlier, so it was probably him that Dante was leading us to meet with down here in the belly of the club. I looked around owlishly. Maybe not the belly of the club. This long, dimly lit and scarcely populated hall was more like an arm than a belly. Bellies tended to be busy places.
After a good long walk, during which we passed a few smaller halls and a few shut doors, Dante stopped. He didn’t turn around, though he did speak to us over his shoulder.
“In here. Please wait until I get back to get down to business.”
Mooney nodded once. I was still tucked up under his arm so he might not have seem my own nod so I mumbled a quick “you got it,” and Dante nodded once himself. He continued walking down the hall and disappeared into the gloom almost immediately, not making a sound on the rough pine floors. I felt a little zap of nervous energy at the display of shape shifter otherness. You don’t see or hear them if they don’t want you to. Most people didn’t see this side of them because they made a point of blending in around humans. I was sure that little display was meant as a warning for me. Dante didn’t strike me as the kind of wolf who made careless mistakes and he hadn’t been all wolfy up to that point. It was an unneeded warning. I am not one of those magic using humans who feels the need to throw my weight around and offend my host. Besides, if Lex came here, that meant he wanted Dante to be in on the meeting. Getting down to business without him in the room would be counterproductive.
Mooney opened the door to our left—all the doors in the long hall had been on the left and all of the side corridors had been on the right—and ushered me through, not quite relinquishing his claim on me. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t object. Normally, being hovered over annoyed the crap out of me, but something about Mooney’s hovering made me feel… safe? Protected? I wasn’t sure. “Safe” wasn’t something I had much experience with and I had been protecting myself for as long as I could remember.
“Well, aren’t you two all cozy,” Lex said, his deep cultured voice dripping with condescension. I stiffed at the tone and what it implied. Mooney said nothing, just pulled me in tighter to his side. I looked at Lex, taking in his sneering half smile and insolent posture. You know what? Screw Lex and his judgmental attitude. I liked being tucked up close to this big, sexy wolf and I was going to stay here as long as Mooney wanted me here. Life was full of risks and just then, I was willing to risk a lot to keep this feeling of being safe and wanted, even if it was temporary and probably not real.