was therefore a cook.

When my six-month stint was up, I just stayed. By then, I had been installed as Marguerite’s assistant, and was making everything from the starters to the desserts. In the afternoons, while the other staff caught up on their sleep, I would experiment with flavors, spending most of my earnings on ingredients at Witney farmers’ market.

In the late spring, I wrote to Surrey University, politely asking if my enrollment could be deferred for yet another year. Fine, they said, but I think I already knew I wasn’t going back to life in laboratories and lecture halls. When, in late October of the following year, Marguerite swore once too often at my mother’s distant cousin and was fired, my course in life was set. Just four days short of my twenty-first birthday, I took over the kitchen, with relish, and set about the task of becoming the youngest chef ever to win a Michelin star.

For the next four years, the establishment thrived, my confidence growing at the same spectacular rate as the restaurant’s reputation. However, I was becoming acutely aware that my mother’s cousin’s bank balance was expanding rather more rapidly than my own. When I broached the subject, she accused me of being disloyal, and that was the beginning of the end. Shortly after, she sold out to a national small-hotel chain without telling me and I suddenly found I had a new boss who wanted to make changes in my kitchen. My mother’s cousin had also failed to tell the buyers that she had no contract with me, so I packed my bags and left.

While I decided what to do next, I went home and cooked dinner parties for my mother, who seemed somewhat surprised that I could, in spite of reading about my Michelin success in the newspapers. “But, darling,” she’d said, “I never believe what I read in the papers.”

It had been at one of the dinner parties that I was introduced to Mark Winsome. Mark was an entrepreneur in his thirties who had made a fortune in the cell phone business. I had joined the guests for coffee, and he was explaining that his problem was finding good opportunities to invest his money. I had jokingly said that he could invest in me, if he liked, by setting me up in my own restaurant. He didn’t laugh or even smile. “OK,” he’d said. “I’ll finance everything, and you have total control. We split the proceeds fifty-fifty.”

I had sat there with my mouth open. Only much later did I find out that he had badgered my mother for ages to organize the meeting between us so that he could make that offer, and I had fallen into the trap.

And so six years ago now, with Mark’s money, I had set up the Hay Net, a racing-themed restaurant on the outskirts of Newmarket. It hadn’t especially been my plan to go to Newmarket, but it was where I found the first appropriate property, and the closeness to racing’s headquarters was simply a bonus.

At first, business had been slow, but, with the attendees of the special dinners and lunches around the race meetings spreading the word, the restaurant was soon pretty full every night, with a need to book more than a week in advance for midweek and at least a month ahead for a Saturday night. The wife of one major trainer in the town even started paying me a retainer to have a table for six booked every Saturday of the year, except when they were away in Barbados in January. “Much easier to cancel than to book,” she’d said. But she rarely canceled, and often needed the table expanded to eight or ten.

My phone rang in my pocket.

“Hello,” I said.

“Max, you had better come down to the restaurant.” It was Carl. “Public Health has turned up.”

“She said she’d meet me at the racetrack,” I said.

“These two are men,” he replied.

“Tell them to come down here,” I said.

“I don’t think they will,” he said. “Apparently, someone has died, and these two are sealing the kitchen.”


S ealing the kitchen literally was what they were doing. By the time I arrived, there was tape over every window, and two men were fitting large hasps and padlocks to all the doors.

“You can’t do that,” I said.

“Just watch,” one of them replied while clipping a large brass padlock in place. “I’ve instructions to ensure that no one enters these premises until they have been examined and decontaminated.”

“Decontaminated?” I said. “From what?”

“No idea,” he said. “Just doing what I’m told.”

“When will this examination take place?” I asked him with a sinking feeling.

“Monday or Tuesday maybe,” he said. “Or Wednesday. Depends on how busy they are.”

“But this is a business,” I said. “How can I run a restaurant with the kitchen closed? I’ve got reservations for this evening.”

“Sorry, mate.” He didn’t sound very sorry. “Your business is now closed. You shouldn’t have killed someone.”

“Who died?” I asked him.

“No idea,” he said, clipping another padlock in place. “Right, that’s finished. Sign here, will you.” He held out a clipboard with some papers on it.

“What does it say?” I asked.

“It says that you agree to the closing of your kitchen, that you won’t attempt to gain entry-which, by the way, would be a criminal offense-that you agree to pay for my services and for the equipment used and that you will be responsible if anyone else gains entry or tries to do so without due authority from the county council or the Food Standards Agency.”

“And what if I refuse to sign?” I asked.

“Then I have to get an enforcement order and have a policeman on-site at all times, and, in the end, you will have to pay for that too. Either way, your kitchen remains closed. If you sign, then the inspection might be tomorrow, or on Monday. If you don’t, it won’t.”

“That’s blackmail.”

“Yup,” he said. “Usually works.” He smiled and offered me the clipboard again.

“Bastard,” I said. “Enjoy your work, do you?”

“Makes a change from the usual.”

“What is the usual?” I asked.

“Debt collecting,” he said.

He was a big man, both tall and broad. He wore black trousers, a white shirt with a thin black tie and white running shoes. His accomplice was dressed in the same manner-uniform for the job. It crossed my mind that all that was missing was a baseball bat to back up his threats. I could tell that I wasn’t going to be able appeal to his better nature. He clearly didn’t have one.

I signed the paper.

During this exchange, the second man had been placing sticky-backed plastic signs on the windows and doors. They were white, approximately eighteen inches square, with CLOSED FOR DECONTAMINATION and KEEP OUT printed in large red lettering.

“Are those really necessary?” I asked.

He didn’t answer. I knew. He was just doing his job, just doing what he’d been told.

I don’t know whether it was out of spite that they stuck one on the restaurant’s sign at the gate on their way out. There would be little doubt to passing traffic that the Hay Net was empty and limp, unable to feed a Shetland pony, let alone the hundred or so we had booked for dinner.

Carl appeared from the dining-room end of the building.

“It’s the same inside,” he said. “The kitchen doors have been padlocked.”

“What do you suggest?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “I’ve just phoned most of those booked for tonight and told them we won’t be serving.”

“Well done,” I said, impressed.

“Some said they weren’t coming anyway. Some said they had been at the racetrack last night and had suffered like the rest of us. And many others had heard about it.”

“Does anyone know who it is who died?” I asked.

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