The Crime Readers' Association

Food by Hand, by Antony Johnston

When she touched me on the shoulder, I knew she had a taste for danger.

Then she said, ‘Can I eat with you?’ and there was no doubt in my mind. She was a risk-taker. Of course, so was everyone else at Restaurant Humaine, but there were degrees. I nodded and, to show I was that way inclined myself, gently closed my fingers around her hand as she moved to the chair opposite. My fingertips slid over hers, and she smiled. Never gets old. Would you believe it, she was even going to tell me her name, but I interrupted before she could.

‘No Eyes for a reason. Relax.’

She blushed. ‘I knew you looked like you’ve been to a restaurant before. A real one, I mean.’

Sure, if you could call a kitchen printed in twenty-four hours and slotted together that morning inside this cold, reverberating London warehouse a restaurant. Twenty-four hours ago, it didn’t exist. Six hours after dessert, long before SAFE could triangulate our location, it would return to oblivion.

We started with cocktails. The difference is less noticeable — unlike food, the only variance is ingredient amount and mixing efficiency — but it’s the principle. And for pop-up virgins like my attractive companion, they’re an ice-breaker. She chose a classic Manhattan. I went for a Tequila sunrise. Sue me, I like orange, and I didn’t want to get blasted. Not in my position.

‘How do they do that?’ she asked. ‘Shut off everyone’s Eyes, I mean. Is there a scrambler covering the whole warehouse?’

‘You walked through it on the way in,’ I said, nodding back at the gunmetal arch in which every diner had been required to stand before entering. ‘That’s not a normal thirty-signs scanner, like at a nightclub or theatre. It’s a combi unit, checks your signs and fritzes your Eyes for the evening. That’s why it takes longer.’

She sipped her drink. ‘It feels like being a kid again. No facial ID, no map, no contextuals. It’s weird.’

I smiled. ‘But hopefully exciting?’

She took my hand in answer. Physical contact wasn’t the reason I came to pop-ups — wasn’t the reason I spent months being vetted, weeks waiting for an alert, then dropped everything and robo’d across London with only minutes to spare — but it was a nice bonus. Plenty of diners were willing to risk the food, but drew the line at touching.

The waiter said how good it was to see me again as he took our order. Cheap trick, but impressive all the same. It wasn’t only diners whose Eyes were scrambled tonight; all the staff were working analogue too. Full dark, not even ambient tracking to give us away. I’d heard rumours SAFE was working on custom Eyes for its operatives, systems built to resist scrambling, but I doubted that was possible. Rumours like that were spread deliberately, to make everyone think the Agency was more advanced than it really was.

I ordered steak tartare topped with an egg yolk and rocket over dark rye, with a side of glazed Chantenay carrots. She asked for beef Wellington, with herb-roasted potatoes and steamed asparagus. The waiter cautioned her that the Wellington used duxelles in place of pâté de foie gras — even Restaurant Humaine had its limits — but she only cared about the meat. I overheard nearby diners placing their own orders, almost all beef, with one or two opting for pork. Arguments about which was more dangerous, especially when cooked by hand, never went out of fashion.

The woman watched in fascination as the waiter took everything down with pen and paper. I remembered my own first time, at an early pop-up in Hackney. How unsettling it had been to see everyone working analogue. It made the staff’s job much harder, and prone to error, but that only fanned the flames of excitement. When was the last time anyone’s food order went wrong at a robo? You might as well ask the last time any of us recognised a friend without contextuals. But here was this waiter, sans Eyes, recognising me as a returning diner.

That higher level was why I’d become a regular at Restaurant Humaine, sometimes travelling hours to reach their latest pop-up. Wooden chairs, an island of plush carpet, crisply suited staff… and seven human chefs, the reason I and my thirty-nine fellow diners were here in the first place. The tables were arranged to afford everyone a view of the kitchen while the chefs worked their magic, far beyond most people’s comprehension. Sure, I’d read books, big hardback things traded under tables and read in solitude, filled with dangerous pre-viral concepts like touching uncooked ingredients and storing your own food at home. But the men and women furiously chopping and stirring, calling out to one another across the apparent chaos of a human kitchen, had gone further than even I dared. They put those concepts into practice, providing an exclusive experience to a clientele hanging on their every move. An all-organic, all-analogue, and very illegal night out for those brave enough to risk it.

It wasn’t, in truth, that much of a risk. These chefs were so skilled that their food was as safe as any robo meal. But unlike their infallible mechanoid counterparts, with a human chef there were no guarantees. Ten people could order the same dish, and none of them would be exactly the same; the waiter could get your order wrong; one of the chefs might be asymptomatic, enough to slip through a thirty-signs scan but still be infectious.

None of these events were likely. None had ever actually happened at a Restaurant Humaine pop-up. But the fact they were even possible was sufficient to get people through the door. Well, that and the exciting risk of being raided by the Standards Agency for Food Enforcement, which I couldn’t deny happened most times I ate at a pop-up. At the cheaper places it was often a race to get something down your neck before the Agents jackbooted in.

Never here, though. RH was the big dog, the crème de la crème, with precautions and security measures to match. They didn’t just scramble your Eyes, they banned bags, phones, all devices. It was the only way to be sure. I’d eaten at places that didn’t run a thirty-signs, let alone scramble you, and even assuming nobody got sick during entrées they were inevitably raided and shut down. The underground restaurant business wasn’t for the faint of heart.

I turned from staring at the kitchen to find her staring at me. She looked puzzled. ‘What’s up?’ I asked.

She bowed her head and laughed at herself. ‘I tried to ask you a question, and it took me a moment to remember that I couldn’t message you.’

‘You’ve really never had your Eyes scrambled before?’

‘Once, for a medical procedure, but I was drugged-up the whole time.’

I nodded. ‘So what did you want to ask me?’

‘I wondered why it’s so loud,’ she said, sipping her Manhattan. ‘Robos don’t shout at one another all the time like that.’

I shrugged. ‘Actually, they do, but not audibly. You’re right, if our Eyes were working then half of this conversation would be messages, or at least extra contextuals on top of what we’re saying. So think about it: why should a robo have to say anything out loud?’

She nodded, understanding. ‘You’re very knowledgeable about this.’ I was about to give my usual explanation, that when dining illegally it pays to do your research, when a light came on in her eyes. ‘Oh my god, are you an undercover SAFE agent? Are we going to get raided?’ She quickly added, ‘Now that’s exciting,’ and my original response died on my lips.

Instead I leaned back and gave her what I hoped was a mischievous smile. ‘I don’t think we have to worry about that,’ I said, reaching out to hold her hand across the table. ‘Not tonight.’ She returned the smile, but before we could say anything more the waiter delivered our food, and our priorities shifted embarrassingly fast.

The first bite: always the best. In silent understanding we took ours simultaneously, carefully watching the slow spread of ecstasy on each other’s faces. You could be a spoilsport and call it psychosomatic, but that feeling was as real as the blood that oozed onto my plate.

‘Why are you here?’ I asked, suddenly curious. ‘What convinced you to plunge into all this decadence?’

She took another bite and considered the question, as if it hadn’t occurred to her before. ‘Bored, I suppose. Bored of the same old food, the same old robos and vending machines, the same old substitutes. And coming here seemed a lot safer than trying to take a plane to Macau or wherever you can still get meat, these days.’

‘So you wanted risk… but not too much.’

‘I prefer to think of it as calculated risk,’ she said frostily. ‘I’m a lawyer. I suppose it comes naturally to me.’

A step too far. I blamed the tequila, and tried to smooth things over. ‘I hear Macau’s out of the business, anyway. Sri Lanka is the new hotspot, but good luck getting that travel permit. You might as well try to fly to America. Pop-ups like this aren’t just safer, they’re practically your only option.’

We ate in silence for a minute, savouring every bite. Eventually she asked, ‘What’s your line of work?’

‘Real estate,’ I lied automatically. Normally I told people I worked in law, but tonight that was too risky. I couldn’t risk her knowing people I might claim as colleagues. ‘Hardly exciting, but it’s a living.’

‘Oh, I should get your context later. I’ve been looking for somewhere bigger, eight or nine rooms, maybe on the river.’

‘Not as cheap as it used to be,’ I cautioned. ‘But I expect you could afford it. Best get in now, while you can.’

She frowned mid-bite. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Population’s always rising,’ I shrugged. ‘Another twenty years and they reckon we’ll be back to half of pre-viral. People go up, property goes up.’

‘Best hope places like this don’t become too common, then,’ she laughed. ‘Last thing your business wants is for everyone to start dropping dead again.’ She put down her fork and touched my fingers, as if to reassure me we were still okay. Her warmth spread through me, a radiating contact glow. Then she winked and said, ‘Assuming that really is your business and not just a story, Mister Undercover Agent.’ She withdrew her hand and stood with a slight wobble. ‘Whoops,’ she giggled, ‘back in a minute.’

The cocktails must have got to her, too. I watched as she asked for directions to the sanitary cubicles, and decided the drinks were worth it after all. No robo would have ever made them that strong.

But now I had a serious dilemma. I could deny it all I liked, and she was playing along, but there was no doubt in her eyes. She knew, and if I didn’t call this in there was a risk she might report me to the Agency. Never mind that I’d reported ten other pop-ups already this year, it would be goodbye underground dining, hello prison canteen robo. I could try to claim this was my first time at Restaurant Humaine, a prelim recon, but that waiter wasn’t the only one who recognised me from previous visits. These people worked analogue half their damn lives.

She didn’t, though. So would she even remember me? We were both merry from the cocktails, she didn’t know my name, and it was her first time socialising without Eyes. How accurately could she describe me, if pressed? I’d been staring at her for the past thirty minutes, but now she’d stepped away I couldn’t remember the colour of her hair. It was… shoulder-length? No, longer. Brown. Or ash blonde?

Screw it. True, I couldn’t risk going home with her now. Not when our Eyes would come back online in a few hours’ time. But there was no reason to panic and spoil the rest of a perfectly fine evening. I took my last bite of steak, signalled to the waiter for a couple more drinks, and the warehouse doors exploded inward.

A SAFE squad trooped through the smoke, hazmats on and rifles up, the standard nobody-move-you’re-all-in-violation pre-record blaring from a loudhailer. But I hadn’t called it in. How the hell did they find the place?

Later, when they threw me in the back of an unmarked car, I caught sight of the woman being led away with the other diners. She saw me, tapped the side of her head, and winked.

Once, for a medical procedure.

Sighing, I licked a spot of mustard from the side of my mouth and wondered how many years in prison the taste would have to last me.




Find out more about author Antony Johnston here.

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