HAVE YOU EATEN?
Frederick placed the three plastic trays balanced on his arms atop the green cafeteria-style table. He sat, and after three hours of wandering through Chinatown, and another half hour queuing up at three different food stalls, it felt good to sit.
It was just after the dinner rush and most of the other tables in the Hong Lim Food Centre were empty, though some of the seats were occupied by tissue packets or umbrellas. In one particularly bold choice, a pocketbook. It was an unspoken rule of Singapore’s food markets—leaving an item behind was a way to call dibs on a seat while you were waiting on line.
A good number of the stalls were closed, their gray metal gates pulled down, but the three he wanted to visit had been open and Frederick counted himself lucky.
The crowd had whittled to office-workers catching a bite on the way home and a few older folks socializing amidst the closing. Stall owners sprayed out their cookware, thick streams of opaque water running toward the drains in the concrete floor. A stooped old man in a stained white shirt crept between the tables, pushing a broom across the floor, the sound of it like a metronome: swish swish swish.
It was hot for February, or at least, hot for what Frederick thought of February—the sun down and still pushing ninety, humidity somewhere around three thousand percent. He breathed in the smell of fryer oil and fish and spices he didn’t know the name for.
He didn’t know if he’d ever be back to Singapore, especially not after tonight, and he wanted to remember it.
That feeling of sitting in a slowly boiling pot of soup, and what a way to go.
“Well, well, well.”
Frederick looked up and found Mateo, standing on the other side of the table, looming, his black pants wrinkled, white shirt soaked with sweat, the sleeves rolled up past his elbows, showing the hint of a tattoo on his left arm, the colors muddy, the shape vaguely military. The look on Mateo’s face he couldn’t discern. It was a look that carried a lot of years.
“Have you eaten?” Frederick asked, gesturing to the empty stool across from him.
“That’s what you have to say?” Mateo asked, his face narrowing into a sharp smirk. “After all this time?”
Mateo looked around, at the emptying confines of the outdoor food market, then down into the courtyard, where a throng of people moved back and forth. Across the way, golden light spilled out from under a red awning.
“Please,” Frederick said, trying to the keep the desperation out of his voice. He didn’t want to give Mateo the satisfaction, but he didn’t want the food to go to waste, either.
Mateo lowered himself on the stool like it might explode. He placed his forearms on the table, fists clenched, shoulders bunched. Waiting for something.
“It’s a standard form of greeting in Singapore,” Frederick said.
“Have you eaten.”
“Is it now?”
Frederick nodded and picked up a pair of dinged silverware, focused on the traffic-cone-orange tray in front of him, the plate of char kway teow, and tried to get every little piece of the dish into one bite: rice noodles and Chinese sausage and blood cockles. There were crisp cubes of pork lard, too, but he couldn’t fit one on his fork, so vowed to come back. “What do you know about Singapore?”
“They take their food very seriously here.” Frederick gestured around the market with his fork. “Years ago it used to be all street food. Like you’d see in Bangkok. But it was getting to be too much. Traffic, sanitary issues. So the government moved them all into these centers. This is an expensive town, but man, you come to these hawker markets.” He shoved the fork into his mouth, chewed, the fat and salt melting. He swallowed and said, “All this food was less than twenty sing.”
Mateo nodded toward the plate. “What is that?”
“Char kway teow. And this…” He gestured to the second tray, bright-lime-green, holding a plate with an omelet that looked like it had been dropped on the floor. “Carrot cake. There’s no carrot in it. Those white chunks are steamed rice flour and white radish. These are both pretty signature dishes. But this…” He put his hand on the third and final tray, deep-regal-blue. “Hainanese chicken rice. Pretty much just boiled chicken, served with a sauce, and then the rice is cooked in ginger and chicken fat.” Frederick looked up at Mateo and smiled. “There’s a place not too far from here that Bourdain endorsed, so everyone goes to that one, but my sources tell me this is better.”
“Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.”
Frederick tapped the green tray. “Extra set of silverware.”
“How do I know it’s safe?”
“The food stalls are clean,” Frederick said. “They’re manic about it.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Do you think that little of me?”
Frederick sighed. He stabbed a chunk of the carrot cake and chewed on it, the salt from the dark soy almost blowing out his palate, so he took a sip of water before he took a slice of chicken, bathed in the brown sauce with a little bit of the rice. He chewed slowly, comparing it in his mind to Tian Tian, Bourdain’s pick. He had to concede—Tian Tian was superior. Still, it was a hell of a lot better than lukewarm boiled chicken had any right to be.
“Satisfied?” Frederick asked.
Frederick had hoped the gesture might soften Mateo a little, but the man’s face remained cast in concrete.
“After all we’ve been through, it feels perverse to share a meal with you,” Mateo said.
Frederick shrugged, leaned over the char kway teow, went hunting for a cube of lard. “You know why I like food?”
Silence. Frederick didn’t look up because he knew exactly the kind of look he was getting, and he didn’t want to get it. He speared a chunk of lard and a fat blood cockle, popped them in his mouth, chewed slow. When he was done he looked up at Mateo, who was scanning the market again, like he was looking for someone who was running late.
“The reason I like food is because it’s the one thing we all have in common.”
Mateo raised a reluctant eyebrow. “How is that?”
“Think about it.” He took a few chews of carrot cake, followed by another sip of the water. “Every culture has its own cuisine. Every city has its signature dish. You could say Hainanese chicken rice is the signature dish of Singapore and, I don’t know… pizza is the signature dish of New York. Or moqueca—that’s a fish stew—is the signature dish of Brazil. Those three dishes lined up side-by-side couldn’t be more different, right? So what do they have in common?”
Frederick asked, like he was going to get an answer, but all he got was another eyebrow, which filled his stomach with an empty space. Even after all these years, he didn’t think the gulf between him and Mateo had grown this wide, but then again, the view was probably different from the other side of the table.
“The thing they all have in common is the passion,” he said. “Every New Yorker has their favorite pizza place. Everyone in Singapore has their favorite stall, or their favorite dish that best represents their country. And every country has traditions related to food and hospitality.” He scooped a big heap of rice, fragrant with ginger and chicken fat, chewed it quickly. “Every person alive can probably name a dish they ate in their childhood that meant something to them. Something that sparks a memory. Do you get where I’m going?”
The eyebrow was still there, arched over Mateo’s eye, but something in his face cooled. Or maybe it melted in the heat. Mateo risked a look over his shoulder, at the swish swish swish sound, saw the man pushing the broom, who worked oblivious to the crowds around him.
“Tell me,” Frederick said. “What food was special to you? In your childhood?”
Mateo breathed in deep through his nose, then back out, the sound of it whistling.
“C’mon,” Frederick said. “I’m not saying you owe me, but after all this time…” He looked around, felt the condensation of the air on his skin. “This is the end of the road, I imagine. So why not indulge me?”
“My grandmother’s pancakes.”
Mateo said it quickly, and after the words left his mouth there was a look of almost-surprise on his face, like he had meant to think it, but it just spilled out.
“And what made them special?” Frederick asked.
Mateo glanced at the food. He was getting hungry. Frederick wanted to nudge the green tray with the carrot cake a little closer, but was afraid a stray movement might scare the man off, like a stray cat that knew it was hungry but didn’t know how to trust.
“They were just pancakes,” Mateo said. “They came out of a box. But my grandmother put blueberries in them. Fresh ones, she picked at this farm near where we grew up.” His eyes got softer, his voice trailing. “There was something special about the way she made them. When I visit home I get the same brand, same blueberries. But they don’t taste the same.”
Frederick took the opportunity of the nostalgic haze to push the tray a few inches closer to Mateo, who was lost enough in the memory to not really notice.
“I believe strongly in the alchemy of place,” Frederick said. “There are certain foods you really need to eat in their region of birth. It’s like how a pizza place will say it ships its water and ingredients from New York. But it’s still not the same as New York pizza. You know what I mean?”
Mateo’s lip curled a little on the end. “You remember Osaka?”
Frederick nodded. “Great takoyaki. Great okonomiyaki.”
“Yeah, I don’t get down so much with the foodie stuff,” he said. “But one day I was just really in the mood for a bagel. And I walked by this café, said it had New York style bagels, and my stomach.” He laughed a little under his breath. “My stomach did a flip. I thought, even if it’s close, I’ll be happy.”
“Let me guess.” Frederick said. “This story doesn’t have a happy ending.”
“No it does not. Thing tasted like Styrofoam.”
“They can’t all be winners,” Frederick said. “Sometimes for fun I’ll get something I know isn’t a regional specialty, just to see how they fucked it up. This one time… remember London?”
Mateo’s face reverted back to concrete. “I remember London.”
Frederick cursed himself for erasing his progress. “Sorry. Okay. But… I was at this pub one night, and they had nachos on the menu, and I thought, in the land of boiled food, I wonder what nachos looked like. So I ordered them, and you know what came out?”
That earned a laugh. “No shit.”
“No shit,” Frederick said. “There was some salsa and some melted cheese blend thing and then god damn Doritos.”
“Did you eat it?”
Frederick laughed, shrugged. “I was raised that it wasn’t polite to leave an empty plate. Probably why my cholesterol is so high.”
“Yeah, well, join the club.”
Mateo looked around one more time, less like he was looking for someone, and more like he was afraid someone might see him. Then he reached toward the green tray and picked up a fork, stabbed a slice of the chicken and popped it in his mouth, avoiding eye contact, chewing quickly, but halfway through paused and looked up at Frederick. He swallowed what was in his mouth and said, “That’s pretty good.”
“Try it with the rice,” Frederick said. “And a little bit of that red sauce. It’s spicy.”
Mateo went in for a more complete bite and Frederick speared some chunks of carrot cake and enjoyed the moment, fleeting as it was. This wasn’t his last meal, not if he didn’t want it to be, but almost certainly it was his last meal out in the world, his last one breathing fresh air, his last one where any kind of thought or passion went into the dish, so he made sure to savor each individual chew.
“So how’d you find me?” Frederick asked.
Mateo finished the helping of chicken rice and went for the kway teow, spearing a few rice noodles and a chunk of sausage. “A hunch, mostly.”
“C’mon,” Frederick said. “Give me a little more than that.”
“San Francisco, last year,” Mateo said. “We found the apartment you used. We went through the building’s trash, found the bag for that unit, and then the wrapper for Huitlacoche.”
“That was a damn good burrito,” Frederick said. “And I now regret not taking my trash with me when I left town. But that couldn’t be it. That’s not enough to go on. I paid in cash. They didn’t have a camera.”
“Dublin, two years ago, you used a burner phone, which we found, and we were able to pull some location data,” Mateo said. “Two hits at a pub popular for its full Irish breakfast.”
Frederick was fascinated, almost enough to forget his food for a moment. Then he looked down at the plates, at the rapidly dwindling portions, and realized he didn’t have much longer. He took some more kway teow.
“Three years ago, Japan,” Mateo said, going for a bite of the carrot cake. “Sukiyabashi Jiro. Tough to score reservations.”
“I worked three jobs in Tokyo before I was able to get a seat,” Frederick said.
“We had a much looser description of you back then,” Mateo said. “But we had a witness put someone we thought might be you eating there, the night of.”
“And that’s how you found me?” Frederick asked. “I mean, in this line of work you expect to be caught, or worse eventually, but a reservation? A breakfast? A wrapper?”
The bulb went off. Frederick exhaled, bowed his head. A laugh built in the center of his chest and there was no use trying to keep it contained. He let it spill out. “Food Ventures.”
Mateo nodded. “I can’t even take credit. We had a few other little pieces too, other places you ate, so we knew you were a foodie. Got a kid in our office, he’s a foodie too. So I asked him to take a look at all the evidence. Like I said, a hunch. I didn’t think anything would come of it. But he put it together. All the places we had you visiting were places recommended by this one website.”
Frederick wanted to clap his hands. He wanted to cry. He wanted to scream. He wanted to dance. Undone by a food blog. The blog he visited whenever he was in a new city, because Food Ventures was dogged and reliable in its recommendations.
It was so pedestrian.
“We knew you were doing a job in Singapore,” Mateo said. “So we looked up Singapore, found they did a list on the food centers. We’ve got men covering a half-dozen more of these. But Hong Lim had the most recommended food stalls, so, again.” He shrugged. “A hunch.”
“Well,” Frederick said. “I’m impressed.”
“Of course I am.” He piled together a big spoonful of chicken and rice, saving the best bites for last, so he could end the plate on the highest note possible. “Kind of proud, actually. How long we been at this now?”
“Going on fourteen years. I figure I had another six months before they pulled me off you entirely.”
“For what it’s worth, I’m glad it was you who caught me.”
“That seems like a silly thing to say.”
Frederick swallowed. “I’m serious. You think I didn’t notice you, a few steps behind me the past couple of years? Look, I get it. We’re playing for opposite sides and if the universe is a just place, which I like to believe it is, you’re the one who’s going to come out on top. That’s how these stories are supposed to end. So… I know this sounds ridiculous. Maybe it is. I never knew how I’d react if I got caught and I guess this is it. I’m just… glad it was you, and glad we got to share a meal before it went down.”
Mateo opened his mouth, to say something, to argue or refute, certainly not to agree, but then he closed his mouth, and picked up the fork, and took another bite of the carrot cake.
“This is really good,” he said.
“There’s this place in Little India, not too far from here, supposed to do an amazing fish head curry,” Frederick said. “I’d ask if we could swing by there before you put the cuffs on officially, but I suspect that’s not in the cards.”
“No, that’s not in the cards.”
Frederick scooped up the last of the kway teow, his heart going a little wobbly, time slowing down for that bite. Savoring the thick skin of the sausage, the slippery texture of the rice noodles. “So what happens now?”
“That’s up to you,” he said. “You want to make it easy, we both get to go to bed early tonight. You want to make it hard, you’ll be dead before you leave that seat. There are two dozen men surrounding this place and two snipers with their eyes on you. My guys, plus the locals. And you know Singapore. The government put more people to death last year than there were murders in the street. They don’t fuck around.”
“No, they do not,” Frederick said, taking another bite of carrot cake. Two bites left, maybe. Three if he stretched it out.
He considered it. Stretching it out. What that would look like.
A quick death, or a long life in a jail cell. Prison food was Z-grade meat and overcooked grains and no salt. Stale or moldy bread and coffee like it’d been filtered through a sock. Not that death sounded better, but he wasn’t excited for it.
If you’re creative, though, there was always another option.
And his appeared right on queue.
Swish swish swish.
What Mateo didn’t know is that before he took this seat, Frederick stood in an obscured alcove for a few minutes, balancing his trays, waiting for this particular table free up. Because this particular table was next to a tall metal receptacle, where diners could return their trays when they were done. It was laden with a rainbow of plastic trays, covered in plates and bowls of finished or mostly-finished meals.
“I guess this is it,” Frederick said, holding Mateo’s attention. “Like I said, I’m glad you caught me and I’m glad we could share a meal together. I may be a bastard, but I do like to adhere to some aspects of social decency.”
Mateo’s hand snaked behind him. Frederick figured he was going for his cuffs, so slowly, as if it were an afterthought, he reached up and very deliberately scratched the bridge of his nose.
The old man in the stained white shirt skidded on the floor and slammed into the receptacle, sending it to the ground in a deafening crash, plates smashing across the concrete floor, and as soon as Mateo turned to find the source of the commotion, Frederick was off the seat, moving low and fast through the maze of tables.
Mateo and his team made several mistakes.
The first was not filling the seats around Frederick with undercover agents, so that he’d be boxed in. But given the high volume of civilians it was probably deemed too dangerous. Anyway, Mateo seemed like the type who wanted to play cowboy.
The other mistake was not noticing Frederick had stopped to speak to the man with the broom, or noticing the exchange of the money, and the signal, Frederick demonstrating how he’d scratch his nose so that the man would know exactly when to push over the cart. A hundred sing well spent.
Hong Lim was like most of Singapore’s Chinatown: a maze of concrete hallways and staircases linked to parking garages and shopping malls, the entire byzantine thing immensely complicated to navigate, which meant maybe, just maybe, he’d find a clear path, especially if he moved up, toward the roof, toward the top of the city, where escape seemed harder and therefore less important to cover.
Frederick didn’t want a quick death and he didn’t want a slow death in a cell, either. He would take his chances on a violent death, even if there was just a small chance he could avoid it all and make it out of here alive, because there was a great big world out there, and still a great many things he wanted to eat.
Rob Hart is the author of the Ash McKenna series: New Yorked, City of Rose, South Village, The Woman from Prague, and Potter’s Field. He also co-wrote Scott Free with James Patterson. His next novel, The Warehouse, will be released in 2019 and has been optioned for film by Ron Howard. He lives in New York City with his wife and daughter. Find more at www.robwhart.com and on Twitter at @robwhart.