The Gourmand by EW Farnsworth
The handwritten invitation arrived at Monsieur Renard’s estate two weeks prior to the event. Enclosed with his invitation was a menu with the main course of sautéed cheek, preceded by a first course of grilled sea bass and followed by a bracing blood sausage nesting in choucroute. The three courses were complemented with matching vintage wines. Naturally, a dessert of flan and chocolate pieces with coffee completed the perfect meal.
The gentleman knew he did not need to worry about transportation as the same black carriage drawn by four black stallions would convey him to the nearby country house where guests would converge for this special meal and wait until it was time to return them to their homes.
Renard liked the idea that everything was planned in detail including security. He would wear a black mask, and his black tuxedo with black cummerbund would camouflage his identity. Indeed, he had no need to know who the other dozen guests were, only that they had been vetted for their discretion and briefed in the highly unlikely case they should become involved as witnesses in the authorities’ continuing investigations.
The maître d’, Monsieur Duplais, scrupulously attended each customer personally. He served as the cut-out for the anonymous sponsor of the special meals, and he passed special requests discreetly before, during and after the events. Tall, dark and extremely gaunt, Duplais would have been the perfect villain in a pre-code horror film. His black mask covered his upper face, leaving his moustache and enormous teeth in a continuous leer. Through two small eyeholes his orbs flashed with intelligence and, yes, humour.
Monsieur Renard had been referred to the exclusive dining club by a close business friend who shared his exotic, elicit tastes, but once he began partaking of the meals, his friend disappeared leaving him on his own to negotiate his fare. Fortunately, the prix fixe included both transportation and tips. Bills were to be paid in advance in one-ounce gold coins, with no receipts or records of any kind.
Renard had remarked on the absence of women customers, but Duplais must have misunderstood. He said, “If you desire to eat in one of the curtained areas on the second floor above the main dining room with courtesan companions, we can accommodate your wishes—but for an additional fee.” The way the factotum smiled made Renard’s blood run cold. He never raised the issue again.
As he counted out the fifty gold coins at his polished dining-room table in front of Duplais, he wondered how accounts were kept for the club’s expenses. He shrugged as that matter was none of his business. He watched as the maître d’ counted the coins again to verify the amount before he placed them in a plain leather pouch with a drawstring. Renard imagined the spectral man going to each of the month’s customers, finally amassing a total of 600 gold coins in twelve pouches.
Duplais was always impeccably polite during these transactions. When he departed, he simply vanished. Renard no longer thought about the integrity of the operation that provided his coveted repasts. From his first satisfactory experience, he had received what he had paid for. So, he had no reason to complain. His desire for variety had led him to suggest the next meal’s offering of cheek, an idea that, Duplais told him, met with total approbation of the management.
So that there would be no doubt about Monsieur Renard’s wishes, Duplais had arranged a separate visit to present colour photographs of the living specimen for his approval. He asked whether Renard wanted to meet the individual involved in person, but the customer demurred. He had seen the young woman on many occasions in the city light opera performances. Her “suicide” in the local production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly had given him the inspiration, which became an obsession greater than any lust he had known.
Renard decided not to ask practical questions about the what, how and when since he knew the who, where and why. He was vaguely uneasy about having made his request, but Duplais and his invisible master seemed to have no qualms. For them, a customer had made a request, and the rest was business as usual.
Renard’s timing was, as always, impeccable. The last performance of Butterfly was to take place the evening prior to the day of the feast. As actors and actresses were always in transition after runs of performances, a missing actress would probably not be remarked as unusual. So as to heighten his sense of anticipation, he decided to attend the opera’s final performance in a box seat he selected for its perfect view of the stage where Cio-Cio San’s use of the seppuku knife would be most visible.
Renard could hardly wait for the performance. His imagination already envisioned the poor but beautiful woman’s death, and he rationalized his culinary request as a way of extending the former geisha’s life indefinitely, which was certainly more fitting than what Pinkerton had intended for her.
The cast of the opera outdid all its prior efforts, making Puccini’s music strike deep into the hearts of the audience. There was literally not a dry eye in the house when the young jilted Japanese woman thrust her father’s knife into her heart. Renard’s eyes flooded with tears. His handkerchief could barely keep up with the flood of his emotions. For him, it was anticlimactic to see the actress come to life for the curtain calls.
The next evening, the black, closed carriage arrived at his door. The driver leapt down to open the door for him. He was careful not to misstep as he entered the vehicle. To his surprise, the young singer sat in the seat opposite his own. There was no mistaking her smile or her mannerisms, and she was wearing the costume of Cio-Cio San, looking at him as she had looked at Pinkerton the night before on stage.
“Well, Monsieur Renard, what shall we talk about?” she asked in her Asian accent.
The startled man was speechless. He rode all the way to the estate where the meal was going to be served. Duplais escorted the pair to a curtained room on the floor above the main dining area. There, the young opera singer performed her geisha tricks for the gentleman sitting across from her. They ate the sea bass with a delicious white wine. Then the actress clapped her hands in anticipation of the next course, which she proclaimed to be her favourite.
Duplais served the main course. On a covered steaming platter was a shaved head with sautéed cheeks as had been ordered specially by Renard. But the cheeks did not belong to the female singer who played Cio-Cio San. Instead, they belonged to the young man who had played Pinkerton.
As the two enjoyed the cheeks, the woman told Renard how she had been betrayed by the actor in the same way the characters in Puccini’s opera had behaved. She demurely looked aside as the truth sank in and her companion realized the folly of his idealized vision.
When they had eaten a sufficiency of the main course, they were served the blood sausages with choucroute. The singer applauded the sausages and called for the chef so she could congratulate him. But the chef was a female whom Renard recognized as the woman who had played Kate Pinkerton on stage. She bowed before his companion as she received the young woman’s compliments.
Renard realized he was caught up in a drama outside his ken. The two female singers clearly had a close relationship, and both had reasons to hate the man who had played Pinkerton. When they looked at Renard and asked how he had liked the dinner he had requested, he smiled, but too late he recognized that the implement in his companion’s hand and now directed at him was the stage prop knife that had taken two lives in the fictional story of Butterfly.