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If you drive north from Chicago along Lake Michigan, you will pass through several increasingly wealthy suburbs. The first and oldest is Evanston. Then Wilmette, Kenilworth, and Winnetka. Winnetka is one of the richest municipalities in the United States. It may be that the average income in Kenilworth, nestled next to it, is higher than Winnetka, but Kenilworth is so small that it hardly counts.
Basil Stone had therefore been thrilled to be hired as resident director of the North Shore Playhouse, located in Winnetka. It wasn't Broadway, of course, but it was a very, very prestigious rep house. And you rubbed shoulders with nothing but the best people.
He spun his little red Lexus around the curves of Sheridan Road, which ran right along Lake Michigan and therefore was the Place des Vosges of Illinois, rue de la crème de la crème, the street that accessed the highest-priced real estate in an already high-priced area. And the Falklands' mansion was on the lake side of Sheridan, the east, which meant beach frontage, of course, and was far tonier than living across the road.
These things mattered to Basil.
Pamela had given him the street number and told him to watch for two brick columns supporting a wrought-iron arch and elaborate iron gates. And there they were. He swung in, spoke his name into the post speaker, and the gates majestically opened.
God, the place wasa castle. The drive wound in a lazy S up to a wide pillared veranda. Pamela stood on the lip of the veranda like a midwestern Scarlett O'Hara, framed among acres of flesh pink azaleas that swept away on both sides of the fieldstone steps.
"Welcome, Basil," she said, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek. He pulled back fast, not wanting her husband to see. Although everybody hugged and kissed when they met, didn't they? It didn't necessarily mean anything.
She drew him in the front door.
Basil stopped just inside, trying not to goggle at the immense foyer. A tessellated marble floor flowed into a great entry hall, stretching far back to a double staircase, which curved out, up, and in, the two halves joining at the second floor. The ceiling was thirty feet overhead. The chandelier that dimly lit the hall hung from a heavy chain and was as big as a Chevy Suburban turned on its end.
Basil looked around, found that they were alone, and whispered, "Pamela, I don't think this was such a good idea."
"Oh, please!" she said. "Don't be so timid."
Timid! He didn't want her to think he was timid. He was bold, romantic. Still ... "But what if he guesses?"
"He won't." She patted his cheek, leaving her hand lingering on the side of his face. Just then, Basil heard footsteps coming from somewhere beyond the great hall, and he backed sharply away from her.
Pamela laughed. She touched him with a light gaze, then spun to face the man who had just entered. "Darling," she said, "this is Basil. Basil, my husband Charles Falkland."
Gesturing with his drink, Charles Falkland said, "I know she'll make a wonderful Kate."
"I'm very grateful that she wanted to do the show. With her background in New York. Of course, Pamela is a brilliant actor. And as Kate, she has just the right combination of bite and vulnerability."
"Absolutely," Falkland said, placing his hand on the back of Pamela's neck possessively. "She is extremely accomplished."
Basil studied the room, taking time to answer. Must be cautious here. "Of course, you know we're an Equity house, so all the actors are professional. They'll support her beautifully."
"But why The Taming of the Shrew?"
"You'd rather we did a drama? Don't you feel that it's important for the general public to realize that Shakespeare can be light? Humorous? People are so deadly serious."
"Well ..." Falkland said, drawing the word out, "some issues in life are serious, of course. Aren't they?"
"Of course, but—"
"But enough of this. Drink up and let me just mix us all a second drink."
Falkland busied himself with the bottled water, lime, and lemon wedges that the butler, Sloan, had brought in, decanters of some splendid bourbon and Scotch, which the Falklands were too well bred to keep in labeled bottles, but which to Basil's taste in his first drink seemed like Knob Creek or possibly the top-of-the-line Maker's Mark. Not the kind you buy in stores, even specialty shops. You had to order it from the company.
"Here, darling," Falkland said, turning to Pamela. "Basil's and yours."
Pamela carried Basil's drink—in a fresh glass, he noted—to him, reaching out to put it in his hand. Her fingertips grazed his as he reached for the glass, and her thumb stroked the back of his hand. Basil's breath caught. How beautiful she was. He could scarcely believe his luck. Their affair had started the first day of rehearsals. Seeing her husband, and this mansion, knowing that she had been an actress of some considerable reputation, he could imagine that she might be bored in this big house, with a husband who looked fifteen years older.
Pamela left her hand next to his just half a second too long. Basil resisted pulling back. Surely that would only make it more obvious. But he thought Falkland had seen. Or maybe not. He'd been pouring his own drink, rather a stiff one. But he'd been casually looking toward the sofa, too, over the lip of the glass. Did he notice? After all, what would he see? A woman hands a man a drink. Just ordinary hospitality. Just what was expected.
Abruptly, Falkland said, "Pamela?"
"I just realized I've not chosen a dessert wine. I have a lovely Médoc for dinner. We're having a crown roast of lamb, and the dinner wine should be just right. But we need something to go with the zabayon and raspberries, don't we?"
"Yes, I imagine so, dear."
Basil noted that Sloan was waiting near the door that led from this great room to some unspecified back region. Briefly, he wondered why Sloan hadn't poured and passed the drinks.
"Well, go to the wine cellar with Sloan and find something special, would you?"
"Of course, darling." An expression of mild puzzlement passed over Pamela's face, not rising quite to the level of a wrinkle along her lovely brow.
"We need something beyond the ordinary for Basil, don't you think? Something that sings. A finale! A last act! After all, he is an artiste."
"Uh, yes, darling. It's just that you usually make the decisions about wine."
"Yes, but Basil is your friend."
"Help Mrs. Falkland, please, Sloan," Falkland said.
Pamela went out the door, and Sloan, after nodding to Falkland, followed her.
It was just a bit awkward with Pamela gone, Basil found. He rose, strolled about, stopping at the French windows facing the back, admiring the lake view, the private dock, and the yacht anchored there, sleek, long, and bright white even in the dying daylight. He tried a few questions about Falkland's line of work, but when the man answered at length, he realized that he didn't know what e-arbitrage was and couldn't intelligently carry on that line of conversation. Pamela was taking entirely too long with the dessert wine. She should have stayed here to protect him. After all, this damned dinner had been her idea. He wondered whether maybe she was a risk taker and liked to skate close to discovery. He'd had hints of that when he saw her drive out of the Playhouse parking lot at highway speed. Perhaps tonight she was teasing her husband. Well, Basil would have to be doubly careful, if so.
Then Falkland quoted, "`And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst; but, Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom; Kate of Kate-Hall, my super-dainty Kate.'"
"You know the play."
"Oh, yes. I was quite a theater scholar once upon a time. In fact, I met Pamela through the theater."
"I was a backer for one of her shows. She, of course, was the star."
"But she doesn't act outside of rep anymore."
"Oh, I need her all to myself. `Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee—'"
"Shakespeare has Kate present some good arguments against that point of view."
"Ah, but `Such duty as the subject owes the prince, even such a woman oweth to her husband.'"
Basil did not respond. How had he gotten drawn into this discussion anyhow? And where the hell was Pamela?
Sloan appeared in the arch between the great hall and the dining room. Basil was startled for a second to see him, and he realized how very soundproof the back regions were. One heard no sounds of cooking, or plates rattling, or glasses clinking.
"Dinner is ready, sir, whenever you are."
Basil had not studied Sloan before, since Basil had been fully occupied with other problems. But now he realized that the man was extremely sleek. His suit was as well made as Falkland's, or nearly so. His cheeks were pinkly smooth-shaven. His hair, thin on top and combed down flat with no attempt to cover the bald center, was rich brown and shiny. Therefore it was a bit of a surprise that, apparently unknown to Sloan, a small tuft, no bigger than the wing of a wren, was disarranged in back. Perhaps he had brushed against something while cooking, if indeed he was the person in the ménage who cooked.
Falkland murmured, "What say you to a piece of beef and mustard?"
Basil winced. He was getting bloody damned tired of Shakespeare. "We should wait for Pamela, shouldn't we?"
"We'll just start on the appetizer, I think," Falkland said.
Basil sat across from Falkland, himself to the right and Falkland to the left of the head of the long table, a wide pond of shiny walnut between them. Candles were the only lights. The head of the table apparently had been left for Pamela, which made some sense, since it put her between them and she was the only woman present. Or absent, as was the case currently. Basil regarded the silver at his place setting with dismay. Why five forks? There were also three spoons, but he was sure he could figure those out. One was likely for coffee. Or dessert? There was a rounded soup spoon. A fellow director had once told him on a shoot, where they were doing a two-shot of the happy couple at dinner, that a small round soup spoon was for thick soup and a large oval soup spoon was for clear soup. But five forks, only one perhaps identifiable as a salad fork? Now that he thought about it, the setup was probably designed to intimidate him. Well, he wasn't going to let that happen.
He said, "Where is Pamela? We'll be done with the first course before she arrives if we're not careful."
"She might be—quite a while. Pamela has always had a difficult time making up her mind."
Basil had no idea what to say to that. He sat unhappily in his chair, wondering why Falkland kept the dining room so dark. It would make a wonderful set for—oh, hell. The kind of atmosphere Falkland had prepared would only be good for a show with a supernatural element. Or a murder. Gaslight, Macbeth, Deathtrap.
But, of course, it was just the natural dining behavior of the very rich. For the thousandth upon thousandth time Basil reflected that he should have been born rich. Candles at dinner were probably a nightly ritual at the Falklands'. He'd used them in his production of An Inspector Calls. And of course Macbeth. Thank God he hadn't uttered the name of the Scottish play aloud. Very bad luck.
With the darkness crowding his shoulders, and the flicker of the candle flames causing the shadows of his five forks to undulate as if slinking slowly toward his plate, Basil resolved to look upon the whole evening as a set of suggestions for his next noir production. Use it, don't fight it, he told himself.
Sloan entered. He carried two plates of something that surely must not be what it looked like. Surely it was just the low candlelight that made the lumps appear reddish and bloody and undercooked.
As the plate touched down in front of Basil with scarcely a sound, he saw it was indeed raw meat.
"Steak tartare," Falkland said. "A small portion makes a perfect appetizer. As a main dish it becomes a bit much, don't you think?"
"Uh, is he serving just us two? What about Pamela?"
"Oh, Pamela won't be long. As I was about to say, as an appetizer I have Sloan serve it without the raw egg. In these troubled times, people are uneasy about eating raw egg. Although if you can buy fresh new eggs from green-run chickens, there is really no danger. And of course with these new methods of preventing salmonella in chickens, something about the properly inoculated feed, you can be quite confident. Nevertheless, for the sake of my guests' equanimity, I forgo the egg and serve the steak tartare as an appetizer.
"Traditionally, of course, it is chopped fillet steak or sirloin, twice run through the grinder. Then mixed with chopped onions and garlic and capers and raw egg. Salt and pepper. And the patty is shaped with a depression in the center. Into that depression is dropped a perfect golden yolk. It is a beautiful presentation, really, the yolk a deep cadmium yellow, and the meat around it rich red. Well, like this, actually. So fresh it glistens. Do you see?"
"Of course," Charles said, steepling his fingers as the manservant stepped back, "it can only be the very, very freshest meat."
"Uh, yes indeed."
"And never, never ground beef from the supermarket." He uttered the word "supermarket" the way another person might say "latrine." The man, Basil thought, should have been an actor himself. He certainly got all the juice out of a word.
"You're not eating. Now, these are the traditional accompaniments around it—capers, chopped onion, and minced parsley."
"Not used to steak tartare, Basil?"
"Some chefs mix in cognac as well, and garnish it with caviar. The Swiss even add anchovies. But it seems to me if you're going for the taste of fresh, raw meat, tarting it up with extraneous flavors is a waste. Don't you think so?"
"Still, to revert to our earlier topic, I wonder why it had to be The Taming of the Shrew. There are more interesting Shakespeare pieces you could do."
"Uhhh. The trustees, actually."
"The trustees wanted it? Well, then I suppose you're stuck with it. They do hold the purse strings. But I wonder, as time goes on, if you could convince them to do Shakespeare's unappreciated masterpiece. I'm speaking of Titus Andronicus, of course."
"It's reassuring to me, as a Shakespeare enthusiast, that the Julie Taymor film of it is coming out, at least. But there isn't any substitute for the immediacy of the stage."
"I agree, of course," Basil half whispered.
"Real human beings near enough to touch. And Titus Andronicus is so Grand Guignol. It was Shakespeare's breakout play, you know. Made his name. Although at the time people claimed to be upset at all the violence."
"Fascinating to think that without it, without all that excess, we might never have known the name Shakespeare."
Basil picked up a heavy Francis the First fork. He touched the chopped meat. It was lumpy and bright red, with tiny flecks of gristle or fat. He wondered whether he could tell anything if he touched it with his finger. If it was warm—? Had it been in the refrigerator, or was it body temperature?
But he couldn't bear to touch it.
Falkland went on. "And what a story. The son of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, has been killed by Titus. For revenge, she has her other two sons rape Titus's daughter and cut out her tongue."
"I know," said Basil in a strangled voice.
"Then Titus, in an antic burst of exquisite revenge, invites Tamora to dinner and unknown to her, serves her a pasty—we'd call it a pot pie, I imagine—made from her two sons' heads."
"I'm familiar with Titus Andronicus, dammit!"
"Oh, of course you are, dear boy. You're a director. Terribly sorry."
"My word, Basil, you aren't eating."
"You haven't touched your steak tartare."
It could not be what he thought. It could not. How long had they been down in that cellar? And how would Falk land dispose of the—of the rest? But then he recalled the dock, the boathouse. This mansion backed directly onto Lake Michigan. Well, of course it did. It was on the high-rent side of Sheridan. But what about Sloan? Could Falkland possibly have Sloan so much in his pocket that he would do anything Falkland asked?
Inadvertently, Basil glanced up at Sloan, standing silent and lugubrious just left of the dining-room door.
Falkland caught his glance. "Sloan is such a gem," he said. "He's been with me for twenty-three years now."
"Since I agreed to accept him from the parole board. You see, they would only let him go if he had permanent, residential employment."
"Oh, yes. I see."
"In a home with no children."
Basil stared at his plate. If he so much as sipped a smidgen of water, he would be sick. Staring at his plate was worse. He averted his eyes. But it was too late. Perspiration started up on his forehead and he could feel sweat running into his hair. His face was hot and his abdomen was deeply cold.
Basil threw his napkin down next to the army of forks. He half rose. "I don't think I'm feeling very well—"
"Oh, please. We were so looking forward to this evening."
"I think I'd better go."
He gagged out the words and could hardly understand what he himself had said. It sounded like "guh-guh-go."
The swinging door from the pantry opened. Pamela stood in the spill of kitchen light, holding a dusty glass bottle.
"It's a terrible cliché, I know," she said smiling apologetically, "but I picked out everything else and finally went back to the Château d'Yquem."
"Uh-uh-uh," Basil said, trying to stand upright, but bent by the pains knifing through his stomach.
"Basil! Are you ill?" she said.
Basil ran at a half crouch out of the dining room, through the long hall and the marble foyer, and pushed out the front door into the glorious cool night air.
"Oh, dear," Pamela said, still smiling.
Falkland said, "Fun, darling?"
"Fun. The best we've ever done."
* * *
Steak tartare is hot everybody's cup of tea. However, like
sushi, if perfect ingredients are chosen, I am told that it is
safe. The classic form is ...
FOR THE PURIST:
1 pound best sirloin or fillet trimmed of all fat and gristle. Put it twice through a grinder, just before serving. Ground meat is an excellent medium for bacterial growth, so serve it at once. Do not buy ground beef from the store. Mix in:
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/4 cup of chopped onion
1-2 teaspoons salt, depending on taste
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 egg yolk (you will need 5 eggs in total for a main dish)
1 tablespoon capers
Shape into patties—four if you are using this for a main course, eight or more as an appetizer. Generally, for a main course, make four flattish patties with a depression in the middle, and into each drop 1 egg yolk.
Serve with parsley and more chopped onion and capers.
As an appetizer, shape into balls. You may roll the balls in minced parsley or finely chopped green onions. We are also told now not to eat raw eggs. It is possible to omit the egg yolk, but if you can get green-run chickens raised outdoors, many people believe them to be safe.
AND FOR THE FAINT OF HEART:
If all this is too much trouble or too scary, here's another recipe.
For deviled meatballs, mix the chopped beef as above. Form into tiny balls and sauté in a small amount of olive oil very lightly so as not to break up. Then add about 3/4 cup of your favorite barbecue sauce. You can make it extra dynamite spicy if you like, since people will only have a small mouthful of each. Serve as an appetizer.
Copyright © 2001 Earlene Fowler. All rights reserved.
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