The Custard Tart

It was the custard tart’s fault.

The Improved Portable Steam Oven Company™ had picked Barton, Caz, and me from a carefully curated group of New London’s finest chef/sommelier teams to prepare the dessert for their summer advertising campaign. We were the brightest, most talented, and most innovative. We were also the cheapest.

Caz helped us get the gig; no doubt there. She’d passed around her portfolio and offered free trials to the panel. ‘Bribery and corruption are one thing,’ she’d said, ‘but a quick fumble can work magic in the right quarters.’
Bartie and I weren’t all that happy to share her away from the team, but she’d been right, as usual.

Caz and I disappeared into the pantry as soon as we arrived at the kitchen. We’d concluded her liberty bodice might need liberation, and I was loosening up the rivets on her corset when her steam guns went off and the ceiling collapsed.

I crawled out from under the fridge. Barton helped me up and dusted me down. Luckily for me, I was wearing a containment suit that took the main brunt of the landslide, but it made a diving suit look like a polka-dot bikini and was oily enough to fry a jam doughnut. Barton looked at his hands in distaste and wiped them fastidiously on a clean patch on the side of his trousers.

“Where’s Caz?” I said.

She peeked round the pantry door.

“Are you okay?”

She nodded, panting, her rosily rounded chest bobbing gently with each breath.

Barton looked around and picked up a dusty grey cylinder. It was his lucky hat. He’d had that top hat all the time I’d known him; he even wore it to bed. He scratched his greasy head and pushed it back on at an awkward angle. Caz handed him the tray she was carrying, reached up, and straightened the brim for him. Her corset slipped as she stretched. She manhandled her capacious coachwork back into its iron grip. Barton tilted back on his heels and winked.

She took back the tray with a sniff and plopped it, and its tart, on the table for me to examine.

A gnarled pastry border surrounded a curdled yellow filling. Tendrils of thick, oily steam coiled in the air like eels writhing in a basket.

It was by far the ugliest custard tart I had seen in a long while.

“Well…” Caz was on the defensive. “I’ve saved it as best I can, but you’d better give it a once-over. It wasn’t so bad until I bruleéd the top. It’s these new-fangled … things.” She waved the pumps attached to each of her arms. They hissed as she brandished them, and I ducked sideways, grabbing Barton on the way. “They’re too fierce. I don’t like them. They’re temperamental compared to the old ovens.”

I looked down at her, blue glints of ice in my eyes. “And this is the best you can do?” I snorted.

“Why’re you making that noise like a stuck pig?” she said. “It’s not natural. It’s not polite, and it’s not nice.”

Looking at her coldly was probably a waste of time. My full-face helmet concealed the intensity of my annoyance, and only I knew my glance was icy blue. And as for the stupid, grated mouthpiece? I stifled my contempt.

“Come here, Caz,” I demanded. “Stand right there and shut up.”

She sauntered over, her baubles bouncing as she came. For a pastry-chef she was zippy. The last one had been the size of an oak kneading tub, and twice as wooden when it came to extra-kitchen activities. Caz was neither of these things, so I forgave her a lot of sins, including her lack of respect for me and Barton. Still, she needed to pay attention when I told her off, and not insult me in front of Barty. It would only give him ideas.

I looked at her through the one eyepiece I could get to focus. If I squinted, I could get both her bumps into view, but it was tricky. I settled on the left one and carried on.

“Those ‘things’ are not only new-fangled, they’re bloody expensive, extremely useful, and provided by the sponsors. They can bake a cake in fifteen seconds, and sauté a pan of mushrooms in five.

And, for your information, I’m planning to mend the ovens. You think I’m dressed like this for my—and your—amusement?”

She smiled slyly, swishing her skirts as she looked up at me. One step closer. She laid a gloved hand on my inspection chamber, her head tilted sideways, and she flashed her dark, thickly lashed eyes at me. Why was it so hot in this bloody suit?

“Why, Chef, did you have plans for my—and your—amusement?”

Barton and I coughed at the same time.

“Barty,” I choked, “get me a drink, would you?”

He nodded and opened a tall, glass-fronted cupboard.

“Red or white?” he asked.

“Red”

He selected a large, rounded glass, deeply bellied, handed it to me and raised his pistol. I waited, holding my breath as he fiddled with the valves on his hand.

“Is that thing still under guarantee?” Caz said. She’d slipped behind me, keeping well away from any blow-back.

“What do you reckon, Barty? Will it do the job?” I needed that drink. My pressure gauges weren’t feeling happy, and I needed to bring them down.

“Hang on…” He fiddled some more. “This screw won’t budge. Have you got any lubricating oil?”

“Caz?”

She shrugged. “I’m a pastry chef, not a bloody engineer. Do I LOOK like an engineer?”

She inflated her chest again. I met Barton’s goggle-eyes. We exchanged glances and tried to keep our minds away from the multiple uses Caz might find for lubricating oil.

“I’ve got butter. Would that do?” She looked from me to Barty and back again.

“Nope.” Barton snapped, his right eyepiece now totally fogged up. “I’m fine.”

The gun fired up, he hosed a generous dose of France’s finest into the glass and handed it over.

“There you go, boss. Shouldn’t taste too much of gunpowder, I flushed it through after last night.”

I didn’t ask what he’d been doing with the pistol. He had a second job on Tuesdays as a bouncer at the Crooked Sprocket. He’d been having a few problems, and I knew he’d borrowed the new kit to put the frighteners on the little punks causing waves.

I took a sip. It was still prickly round the edges, but wet enough for me not to care.

I nodded my thanks. Barton tipped his hat in appreciation, and I turned back to the ovens. “Okay, Caz, I’ll try to get the ovens going for you.” I flexed my articulated steel gauntlets. “I think,” I muttered, “if I tweak this bit here… and push that bit there…”

A staccato burst of coughing hit me from behind. I forced the exhaust pipe back onto its flange and waved my hands to stop the soot cloud from spreading. It ignored me, stirred lazily and sifted down to coat the oven, me, Barton, Caz, and the custard tart.

I swore. Barton pushed up his goggles, his eyes owlish white holes in a sea of carbon.

“I don’t suppose we’ll still get paid?”

I shook my head, sending a further shower of soot powdering down onto the tart like black icing sugar.

Caz laughed and hefted her assets.

They were all we had left.

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