Cecilia broke up with me in the middle of our Saturday evening shift just before the dinner rush. I guess I should have been expecting it. The past few weeks we’d been arguing a lot, she hadn’t talked to me much when we were working together, and she’d dodged the topic when I brought up her moving in again. As I sobbed in the walk-in, thinking about all the other obvious signs I had missed, I remembered what she’d said to me when we first started dating. “Romantic stuff is hard for me. It hasn’t worked out before.” Stupid me, thinking that just because we’d been together for two years I was an exception. I let myself wallow in formerly happy memories for ten minutes. Then the timer I’d set went off, and I had to make myself presentable again. As I exited the freezer, Cecilia was waiting for me.

“You’ve got three customers at table six,” she said. She didn’t avoid looking at me as she spoke. Didn’t show any kind of emotion. “Real weirdos. I’ve got their app orders, but they’re going to be wanting the main course soon.” I walked away without responding.

My whole body was tense and as I snaked through the kitchen to the dining room I tried to breath deep to relax the muscles. At the bathroom I popped in to check my eyes and splash some water over my face. It was wasting precious time, but I’d rather make a customer wait 30 seconds than show up looking unpresentable. Even a slightly crooked tie in a restaurant like Salenim could mean reduced tips, or worse, a complaint to the maître d’, and getting dressed down by ol’ Tigerbones was the last thing I wanted for the rest of the day. Fortunately, I could probably win an Oscar as long as I acted with customers in front of me. I arrived at the table wearing my most perfect smile.

When I saw the patrons I realized I’d made a mistake. I’d been too caught up in my dumb emotions to realize that when Cecilia said it, “weirdos” was underselling the situation. Only trained instincts from six years of working in the “alt-restaurant” industry kept me from falling to my knees and begging for God’s mercy as I gazed upon the twisting forms of light in front of me. Instead I followed the advice of my first supervisor, who’d wisely told me, “Just don’t look at them so long you fucking coglione.” Of course, even as I stared up at the ceiling I never let my smile twitch.

“Welcome to Salenim,” I said. “Are you ready to start the second course?” Even seeing only bits of them in my peripheral vision, my eyes watered. It wasn’t just like looking at a too-bright object. The light these entities were made up of wasn’t ultraviolet, it was divine, a fraction of pure essence incarnated without form. I braced myself for their response. Angels don’t communicate with words or sound. You feel them deep in your soul. They pierce you, draw out the most beautiful memories and feelings of your life and reflect them back at you in a form that makes it clear what their orders are (spokespeople for the holy Word, they would never dreaming of requesting anything from a mortal). That much acute bliss directed straight at you could leave a man comatose for days if he wasn’t prepared. I drew a deep breath.

It hurt like the time I walked in on my mom having sex with someone who wasn’t my father. It hurt like finding out I had been rejected from every college I applied to. It hurt like seeing my older brother stumble into the house so jacked up on heroin he couldn’t even remember my name. It hurt like every early funeral I had ever been to. It hurt like sobbing in the walk-in when I knew I would have to get up and for five hours make customers believe I didn’t want to kill myself. I stood in front of the table, frozen, staring at the ceiling, face tear-stained, still smiling as I felt these things slide into my soul to fingerfuck every open wound. It took me a minute even after they stopped to realize it was over. Even after the creatures departed from me the memories remained in my head, so fresh I could have told you what each moment smelled like.

Okay. Fallen angels. I nodded, dreading my next question. “Anything else?”

A minute later, with refreshed memories of being homeless in Chicago, I walked towards the kitchen on trembling legs. It was too far. I had to stumble into the bathroom, practically letting myself fall against the door to open it. Another trick of the trade: don’t eat before a shift. When situations like this happen, you’ll make less of a mess. I had been in there for less than a minute when I heard a knock at the door, and a concerned man’s voice say, “Carter?”

“Give me two minutes, Miguel,” I called back. My voice was raspy. “Let the kitchen know table six wants the corpses of three lambs intended to be sacrificed in the name of YHWH, whose priests at the last moment felt the voice of the Enemy inside of them and blasphemed as they performed the ritual, forever throwing their souls into the hands of the Lord of Lies. With sides of beer-braised pork belly.” I stopped to wretch. “And fresh-squeezed hibiscus lemonades.”

“Sure, man. Look, I heard what happened with Cecilia. I can cover your tables for a minute if you need a break.”

“Two minutes,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”

One minute and fifty-four seconds later I exited the bathroom, got a glass of water from the kitchen, and checked on my tables. No one else had arrived in my section, but we were creeping up on six pm, so that couldn’t last long. I went back and looked through the window to the kitchen. Most of the chefs were using the time between the lunch and dinner waves to finish up the last bits of cleaning, while a few others were on meal prep. Julia, a tall, blonde woman who had recently been promoted to sous chef, was helping cut up mushrooms. A fat man whose face was covered in scars placed two plates on the windowsill.

“Pork belly for six,” he said.

When I returned from bringing it to the table, Julia was yelling at one of the kitchen assistants, who stood next to a cart that carried the skinned carcass of a sheep.

“-such an absolute fucking moron!” she screamed. The poor assistant looked around with a panicked expression, as if she expected one of the other chefs to come save her. She’d have a better chance waiting for rain in the desert. They were all fully focused on cooking by now. Stepping in would just mean becoming twice the target of Julia’s fury – for trying to undermine her authority and for leaving a dish unobserved. The girl have to walk through the fire herself. “What kind of fucking fallen angel,” continued Julia, “is going to order a lamb corpse and want it fucking cleaned? What the hell was going through your head?”

The assistant spoke too softly for me to hear. Tears were starting to pour out of her eyes.

“If you didn’t know you should have asked someone! They angels aren’t going to touch it, and I can’t serve my other customers desecrated meat! You’ve basically just brought me 600 dollars worth of lamb shit! Tell me you haven’t ordered the others already.”

The assistant said something and started to bawl.

“Then what the fuck are you standing around for! Sprint fucking back to the Market and pray you get there in time to stop them! If you bring me two more useless corpses I’m going be telling those angels today’s new special is teenage virgin!” The girl ran off faster than I’d imagine someone her size could move. As she disappeared into the pantry Julia called out after her, “And you better not be praying when you touch the meat!”

She saw me looking through the window and walked over. Her face, which ten seconds ago could have frightened off a demon, had softened back to its normal look.

“The key to a good desecrated lamb is to infuse it with negative emotions at every step of the process,” she said They’re at your table, right? Don’t worry, I’ll talk to them for you. Not going to put you on blast for one of my workers’ mistakes.”

“Thanks, J,” I said. “Think she’ll be able to make it in time?”

“Probably. It’s not that far into the Market.” The Market Deluxe was a massive shopping district located on the other side of space and time. We had a portal to it in our pantry, and access was key to the flexibility of our menu. “I’m sorry about Cecilia.”

I frowned. “How do you know about that?”

“Miguel told me.” She returned to check on the food prep.

Miguel came up to the window to drop off some empty plates. “Hey, man,” he said to me, “two tables for you just came in.” I grabbed his arm as he was turning away.

“Why are you telling everyone my business?”

“Who, Liara?” he said, his eyes wide, “I’m sorry man, I thought she already knew!”

“Fuck, you told Liara too?” It was hard not to yell the words. I made a growling noise and pushed him back towards the dining room. “Get the fuck back there and keep your mouth shut, man.”

The first table was a family of, as far as I could tell, normal humans. They ordered normal human food, except for the mom, who seemed fascinated by the menu. “It says the phoenix breast has been ‘seasoned with its own ashes’. Those aren’t spicy, are they?”

“No ma’am.”

“It says that this dish is only recommended for customers who digest aethereal energy. Do you think I could do that?”

“Probably not ma’am, unless you have some faerie blood inside of you.”

“Oh…. I don’t think I do.” She flipped through the menu some more. “Is the Cygnian Curry spicy?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Well… I suppose I’ll try the crab cakes. It says the butter sauce is ‘infinitely rich.’ What does that taste like?”

“It would take a while to describe.” I took their menus and hurried over to the next table. A man with sunglasses in a white suit sat across from a small, blue-skinned woman with yellow butterfly wings. They were talking intensely about something and went silent as I approached.

“Have you decided on an order yet?” I asked.

“We’ll need a minute,” said the man. Their discussion resumed as soon as I walked away. I managed to catch the words “forbidden”, “dream-lands”, and “rip-off”. I’d heard weirder combinations. Two more groups had arrived since I’d been gathering orders, filling my section. As I was heading to the kitchen after bringing them water I saw a massive figure heading walking towards me. Almost nine feet tall with a body that could frighten a gym full of bodybuilders, Tigerbones always wore grey, perfectly tailored suits from designer companies I’d never heard of (I’d looked one up once. It didn’t appear to exist on Earth). Hidden inside of it, I knew, were two hunting knives. Sometimes when his sleeves pulled up you could catch a glimpse of elaborate black tattoos on his forearms. He was bald. His eyes looked like a cat’s. I never heard him while he moved.

I’d never asked Tigerbones where he’d come from, and he’d never bothered to tell. The rumor we’d all chosen to believe was that he’d been some sort of champion pit-fighter, long ago. Miguel, the only waiter who’d been here longer than me, said he’d arrived one day five years ago after the previous maître d’ mysteriously disappeared, and since then worked every single hour of every single shift. His first action had been to fire all of the waitstaff except for Miguel, covering the rest of the restaurant’s business by himself until the previous employees had been replaced. He interviewed every new candidate by himself, hired one in thirty, and never fired anyone once he’d decided to bring them on. Neither had anyone he’d hired ever quit unless they’d moved or died. Tigerbones was the reason Salenim was the best restaurant I’d ever worked in. He was also the reason I sometimes had nightmares about my pet cat Rocky yelling at me.

“Carter,” he said, stopping in front of me and putting an arm on my shoulder, “we need to speak. Come with me. Liara will cover your tables while you’re gone.” He pulled me into a side hallway where no one could see us. “I’ve just received a very disturbing prophecy.”

Tigerbones was big on prophecies. He never told us who the Prophet was, but they seemed to come true most of the time.

“What was it, sir?”

“That tonight, a reviewer from the Cerberus Restaurant Guide will be dining with us. Perhaps they have already arrived. They will be sitting in your section. Normally in this case I would take over responsibility for your tables myself, but the Prophet made this clear: if, and only if, you are the one managing their table, we may be able to finally attain our fourth star. Now,” he said, squeezing my shoulder tighter, “how has the night been for you so far? Is there any reason to think you may not be able to perform to your usual standards?”

“I… no sir. It’s gone well sir. I was just taking care of the first few customers. We haven’t been busy yet.”

“The situation with Cecilia will not distract you?”

Fucking Miguel. “No sir. I’ll be alright.”

“Very good,” he said. He took a step back. “Have you had a cigarette break yet? Take one now. Ten minutes. No need to clock out. After that I need you at peak ability. I will let the others know the… stakes of your situation."

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