You thought I was kidding about writing this story?
The dial rotated, and deep within the device, a circuit flipped from the OFF to the ON position. Electrical current began to flow through a nickle-chromium coil.
Nichrom is a poor conductor, and its twisted material knocked many millions of electrons from their paths toward the Earth. Screaming away into space, the subatomic particles smashed into the atoms around them. Those atoms moved, first a little, then more as the relentless rain of energy continued. Under its protective layer of chromium oxide, the Nichrom coil began to grow warm.
Somewhere close by, an LCD display changed from 29 to 30. The oven had begun to pre-heat.
Chull-Kwa Kam, pâtissier for one CIA and agent of the other, buttered the cake pans and thought of Yevgeniya. It was only a matter of time until she found out he was back in Eastern Europe. Her scrum of disaffected Russian coders would soon surely penetrate his secret identity and locate first the catering business that had hired him on, then the kitchen in the culinary school. He had very little time, but there are some things you cannot rush – in both espionage and baking.
With an upside-down pan and a single confident cut with his X-acto knife, Chull separated a circle of parchment from its parent sheet. Another. And one more. The small-time mafiosos, what the Bulgarians called Mutri, had demanded a three-layer cake for the wedding at the embassy. Yellow.
The Republic of Bulgaria and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea might at first glance seem to have nothing in common. Yet Bulgaria was once a People’s Republic as well, and its dictator once enjoyed a warm relationship with his far-eastern Brothers in Comintern. During the Cold War Era, Kim Il Sung visited the Balkan country, where he enjoyed the hot springs at Hisaria. Kim Jong-Il, it is said, very much enjoyed the Bulgarian pickled vegetables known as turshiya.
Now, though, the large and stately old building that once held the North Korean embassy to Bulgaria stands empty. After what the locals call “the changes,” relations between the two countries seem to have soured. But have money and supplies truly stopped flowing from the Balkan to the Korean peninsula? “Sour” does not always mean “bad,” as anyone who has eaten turshiya or kimchi can tell you.
Tomorrow, the former embassy would host a wedding.
Paper crackled like self-destructing messages as Chull fitted the circles into the bottoms of the pans. Butter and flower followed them, ensuring the product, when it was finished, would slide out silently and without fuss.
Fewer descriptions could be further from Chull’s current surroundings, however. The culinary school’s kitchen was large, loud, and crowded. Chull’s catering business was not the only one using the space, and his adopted team was only one of several crashing, yelling, multilingually-cursing melee of white-suited people. It was a nearly perfect cover, but it wouldn’t hold up to Yevgeniya’s sustained scrutiny.
101, read the display on the oven.
Chull sifted together flour and baking powder, remembering the meal he had enjoyed in a restaurant with reproduction wooden cannons guarding its doors, and the powerful rakiya he’d shared with Chorbajiev. Chull had matched his host drink for drink, and at the end, face pressed against the table, the Bulgarian had spoken of a nuclear physicist among the party-goers at tomorrow’s wedding.
Asparagus snapped like collarbones as two nearby chefs argued about soccer, each evidently believing the other supported a “fascist club.”
“Mr. Kam, you need mixer?” asked one of the staff in an implacable accent.
“Yeah, thanks.” The sifted dry ingredients slid to the side, ready, in the proper circumstances, to rise.
The call came as Chull separated eggs.
“Somebody got a bottle?” Chull cast around the counter-tops. “A plastic bottle for water? Hey, you, give me your water.”
A college kid held up his half-full bottle, which Chull emptied and inverted.
“Watch this,” Chull said and, pressing the button on his earpiece, “hello?”
“Privet, sladkiy moy,” chuckled a voice like sour cream. “Or should I say sladur mi?”
“Hello, Yevgeniya.” Chull held the plastic bottle over the bowl of broken eggs. Squeezed.
“You have come so close to me, and yet so far, moy malen’kiy zheleznyy gorshok. How do they say that in Bulgarian, ah?”
“I wouldn’t know.” With a release of his hand, Chull sucked one golden yolk up into the bottle. Another. The college kid didn’t look impressed. Well, screw him.
“Oh, but the heat in Bulgaria! On the Sofiskaya Embankment, it is 25 degrees. So lovely! But in Sofia, it is how hot?”
Chull glanced at the oven. “Hot enough.”
“Too hot!” Yevgeniya laughed. “I am sweating like a pig in this mean little flat with nothing to do but aim lasers through the window of…well, but that is not so important, eh? Come, sladkiy tell me what you plan to wear at the wedding. I shall ensure that our outfits match.”
“I’ll be in the kitchen, not in front of the guests.”
That laugh again, making Chull think of emulsified butterfat and pure cane sugar. “So shall I, gorshok. We are always cooking something, eh, you and I?”
“Who sent you?” Chull asked, harshness masking the voice he wanted to use with her. “If you’re in a position to coordinate…”
“I love the sweet talk,” she said. “But whisper your questions into my ear, sladkiy, not a phone. Quickly, for you are in danger. Until we see each other, keep weapon close. As they say here, chao.”
The line went dead, and Chull’s guts felt like chilled champagne. Yevgeniya was here in Sofia! But Chull would have been told if the FSB had sent her. Therefore, Yevgeniya was not working for the Russian intelligence apparatus. She had finally gone rogue, and she thought Chull was in danger.
Electricity flowed through a coil of magnetic wire, generating torque powerful enough to liquify a lump of butter the size of a man’s fist. Chull poured sugar into the mixer, and waves of sweetened fat frothed.
With the addition of flour and egg yolks, the mixture turned thick and sulfurous yellow, and with milk it gained density. Chull remembered the centrifuges in a hidden lab in Iran, and added the remaining flour.
The problem was not the embassy itself, or even that the North Koreans were renting it out as a wedding venue. DPRNK embassies were famous for their nonexistent budgets; diplomats were left to find their own source of income or else starve. Well and good, but how much of the wedding money was actually going into the ambassador’s lunch budget, and how much was being converted to bitcoin and funneled into the North’s nuclear program?
“Give me some vanilla,” he shouted at a passing college kid. “Vanilla.”
Who was Yevgeniya working for, and how far did their interests align with those of Uncle Sam? How far could Chull trust that warning of danger?
Chull whisked eggs, churning up a foam of trapped air and long-chain proteins, white as the wake of an aircraft carrier in the Sea of Japan.
Now, as the net of the embargo tightened around the DPRK and Kim Jong-Un found his foreign revenue streams cut off, what tricks might he pull here in Bulgaria? And if those tricks were threatened, what might he do to protect them?
A quarter of the foam went directly into the batter along with the vanilla, but now came the tricky part.
With a wide wooden paddle, Chull folded the remaining egg whites into the batter, balancing smoothness of consistency with the need to keep the bubbles in the foam un-popped. He let his phone ring until he was satisfied.
“Kam, are you on the telephone? All right? Kam, there is a problem.”
“Yes, Chorbajiev?” Chull poured batter into one pan after another. The oven display read 163.
“The physicist is dead, Kam,” said the Bulgarian agent. “Heart attack. His…his…how is the word. Pacemaker. It made a short circuit.”
“Let me guess,” said Chull. “It’s a new model? With wifi?”
“Had it put in America,” said Chorbajiev. “The idiot. Taka. This is Yevgeniya, right?”
“I…” received a call from her. Chull couldn’t bring himself to say it. God damn it, but he wanted to see her. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Maybe. Maybe. Is that all you can give me?”
“Well,” said Chull, looking down, “the cakes are almost ready. Just going into the oven.”
“Hold on, I will come before before they are finished.”
While egg proteins denatured and baking powder, milk, and heat reacted, Chull mixed icing and thought.
A fried physicist. A Russian secret agent separated from her agency. His Bulgarian contact, pickled in grape brandy. Secret plans, rising in the geopolitical heat.
The chef orbited around to Chull’s station. “Mr. Kam,” he said. “Is there anything you need? An ingredient you’re missing?”
Chull shook his head. “Thanks, sir, but no. I have everything I need.”
The tops of the cakes were golden brown.
At the next station over, a saucier wept, a phone pressed between shoulder and ear.
“Hey!” said the chef, “Get that phone out of my kitchen.”
The saucier burbled something in Turkish about his girlfriend.
“The Korean guy gets a phone.”
“I’m American,” said Chull, “and they’re paying me to be here. You, they’re taking money from. Hang up and get me piece of straw.”
“Eh?” said the now single saucier, “A drinking straw?”
“No a piece of straw. A little stick. To test the cakes. Uh, shish?” Chull mimed skewering something.
The skewer was just sliding into the first cake when Chorbajiev appeared at Chull’s side.
“They aren’t going to like you in here,” said Chull.
“I will only be quick,” said the Bulgarian agent. “Now tell me the truth. Has Yevgeniya called you, Kam?”
“No.” He withdrew the little wooden skewer. Dry and steaming.
“Perfect,” said Chull. “I’ll chill them and they’ll be ready for me to deliver at 10 tomorrow.”
A gun pressed into his spine.
“No, my friend,” said Chorbajiev. “I will deliver the cake. You are uninvited to the wedding.”
Chull let out a breath. “You’re making a mistake.”
“Shut up. It was mistake to lie to me, Kam.” The gun pressed harder. “Don’t make noise. You only stay here until I leave. Go back to hotel and tell your bosses that Yevgeniya broke your cover. You allowed this because you are stupid American obsessed with sex.”
Chull inserted the tester into the next cake. “How did you know about Yevgeniya, Chorbajiev?”
“Not important. Just stay out of the wedding.”
“Because the Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior didn’t tell you,” said Chull under the clatter of the kitchen. “Zhenya’s boys could run rings around them. No, you’re working for somebody far more competent.”
Chorbajiev jerked in surprise. The gun pressed just a little less forcefully into the back of Chull’s whites.
“No,” said the traitor, “I’m – ”
Chull twisted, whirled, and stabbed the wooden tester into the back of Chorbajiev’s hand. The gun clattered to the floor and Chull kicked it away while the Bulgarian double-agent clamped his hand between his thighs, eyes bugging with the effort not to scream.
“Oops,” said Chull. “Butter fingers.”
“Hey,” called the chef, “is your friend okay.”
“He burned himself,” said Chull. “Don’t worry, I’ll get him out of the kitchen. Too many cooks, and all that.”
With special thanks to Argumate, Melissa Walshe, Kim Moravec, and Martha Stewart
Daniel M. Bensen