by Chris Ward
Immortals who aren't superheroes, mega-capitalists, vampires or freaks. Ordinary people.
| Chapter 1
Molvus moved through the pub collecting dirty plates, cutlery and mugs as he deftly skirted the laughing customers, his long arms and large hands easily scooping everything up as he automatically repeated his usual "Finished with that mate?" without waiting for a reply. He always knew when they'd finished.
He returned the full tray to the side of the kitchen at the back of the room, unloading it quickly into neat piles next to his sink with its constantly running taps. Smoothing his hands over his almost-bald head he frowned at the topmost plate accusingly.
Picking up the plate he walked back into the dining room, scanning the crowd before advancing to a table near the bar.
"Excuthe me thir," he said in his best Igor voice - Molvus did Igor very well, even Igor said so - "I think you've forgotten something," and he scraped the pellet of chewing gum off the plate, placing it into the gaping mouth of the surprised woman staring up at him.
"There we go," he said, pushing up her chin to close her mouth with his index finger before turning round and stalking back to his dishwashing room.
Peals of laughter broke out behind him as the other customers laughed at Scarla, her face red as she spat out her chewing gum. Her hand reached inside her long overcoat as she stood and turned towards the retreating Molvus but other, stronger hands pulled her back down to her chair. "Don't even think of it!" they laughed at her. "He has all the kitchen knives in there, you'll only hurt yourself."
Scarla grunted. "I've been stabbed before, it doesn't hurt that much," she said grumpily, shrugging her overcoat back onto her shoulders. "That was just plain rude anyway. And it's MADAM not SIR," she shouted over her shoulder at the unhearing Molvus.
"You should know that Molvus doesn't like people leaving gum on his plates," chided Afrila. "How would you feel if your boss left stuff all over the house?"
"They DO leave their bloody stuff all over the place and they always have done. That's not the point, I don't go round stuffing their dirty knickers into their mouths," and she took a deep draught from her beer. "Anyway Molvus doesn't like people leaving anything on their plates. He's maniacal."
Scarla looked surprised when the rest of the table burst into fresh peals of laughter at her words.
"Pots and kettles, Scarla," accused Hethron. "If anyone's maniacal at this table it's you!"
Robriot's head appeared around the door of the kitchen. "Shut up Scarla! Touch Molvus and you'll never eat in here again!"
Scarla scowled and settled deeper into her chair. She and Robriot had history and she didn't want to open old wounds by getting into an argument with him now.
The conversation moved on to the menu and what to order.
"It's an aubergine, chef," Molvus told him. "Cripe down at Robert told me about them, says they're delicious fried in olive oil."
Robriot looked at him doubtfully. Molvus had become a good friend over the past two years since he hired him, but he did have something of a reputation for eating anything and everything indiscriminately; who could forget the Portuguese Stone Soup incident?
Molvus saw the doubt in his chef's eyes. "Really, give it a go, it sounds great chef."
Robriot rolled his eyes. "We'll try it for family meal tonight, now don't you have some dishes to wash? I'm short of saucepans and service is about to start."
Molvus grinned as he returned to his Plonge, the room dedicated to scrubbing and scraping and shining every plate, spoon, saucepan and dish used by both staff and customers in Le Bouillon. Of course it wasn't Cripe who'd recommended the aubergine - it was their vegetable supplier Decoufl/SPAN> who'd slipped Molvus a few coins to persuade his chef to try his new vegetables line, and Robriot was a sucker for trying anything he thought Robert was trying to develop; the competition between them was famous in the newly-born restaurant world in Paris in the decades after the Revolution. Molvus suspected Robriot had a sneaking respect for his competitor, although publicly he decried the show-off chef who'd named his restaurant after himself.
He jingled the coins in his pocket, wondering what he'd spend them on after work; perhaps one of Madame Artier's new girls, one of those peasant maids she'd been bringing in from the south (same as the aubergines), all dark eyes and full hips. Like the aubergines. Molvus grunted and settled down to scrape the saucepans the cooks had done their best to burn during their mise en place before the service.
They ate the aubergine before service started that evening; Robriot, having never seen one before, had just boiled it like a potato. Now potatoes he loved, "Only good thing Louis 16 ever gave us," he'd say every time he served them. Unlike the potato he hadn't peeled the aubergine, and its skin turned out to be thick and bitter. Robriot frowned at Moldus. "Are you sure Robert is serving these?"
Moldus grinned. "I'll check with Cripe, see how they cook them." He spat the uneatable skin back onto his plate. "Inside isn't too bad, you should mash it up with some dried fruit, maybe some olive oil."
His chef looked thoughtfully at the mashed aubergine in front of him. Perhaps Moldus had an idea.
It was a quiet service that evening, 25 covers and no problems for the three of them - Robriot cooking, Afrila doing the patisseries and Moldus scurrying around collecting and dirty plates, preparing the occasional vegetable, keeping things clean. Midnight came round quickly enough and Robriot told the waiters to go home and come in early the next day to finish setting up the dining room. Moldus had already cleaned the last plates and cutlery and had mopped down the floor throughout the kitchen. "Don't want anyone slipping on a cabbage leaf," he always said.
Robriot told him to go home - Afrila was long gone, lazy cow - before taking a last look around the kitchen himself. Tidy enough, he thought, Moldus did a good job even if he was a bit maniacal at times. Perhaps because he was a bit maniacal.
The two had met about 10 years ago, working in an auberge about 20 kilometres outside town on the Route de Lyon. But it wasn't until Robriot had scraped together enough money to rent his own restaurant, hiring Moldus and Afrila to work for him, that they'd realised they had more in common than just a history of working in the catering business.
Two days after starting to clean and set up their new kitchen, Moldus had cut himself on a broken bottle that one of the waiters had dropped. Afrila had told him to hold it under some running water and Robriot and Moldus had said, as if in chorus, "Don't worry it'll heal up quickly enough."
And it had. The cut - it wasn't serious, two or three centimetres long and not very deep - had stopped oozing blood in less than a minute. Five minutes later there was no trace of it on Moldus's hand and Robriot realised what that meant; Moldus was like him, he couldn't be hurt or wounded or killed.
Robriot had realised that he himself was effectively immortal 20 years before when, as a teenager, he'd taken part in the Revolutionaries' storming of the Paris Battery to capture supplies of guns and gunpowder. He'd been an ecuyer de cuisine, a step or two up the kitchen hierarchy from kitchen boys and apprentices, for a Marquis down near Fontainebleau when the fighting started. He'd happily joined in the bloodletting, always unhappy with the way the Marquis and his children treated their staff as if they were as disposable as potato peelings.
Although he was only 15 at the time he'd become a squad leader, leading his ragged band of men and women into the thick of the fighting for the battery and was one of the first through the doors when they'd penetrated the inner defences. Just in time, in fact, to see the wild-eyed battery Captain touch a flaming torch to the pile of gunpowder around the barrels of explosives inside the main armoury.
The next thing he knew, he was waking up inside the hospice of Sainte Austile alongside the Seine, a nun peering into his eyes, smiling.
"Well you're a lucky young man," she told him when he asked where he was. Apparently the force of the explosion had blown him clear out of the building where his body had been found on a pile of stones and, when his rescuers realised he was still breathing, he'd been brought to the hospice.
It was a few days later that he'd found his body cured cuts and injuries almost instantly when he'd pricked his finger with the needle he was using to sew up his shirt. The needle had gone right into the end of his thumb, blood welling out instantly. He'd put it into his mouth, sucking up the blood, but when he took his thumb back out there was no sign of the wound at all. Normally Robriot had bled like a stuck pig every time he'd cut himself, so he stuck the needle deliberately into the thick pad of flesh at the base of his thumb. And watched, incredulous as the blood started to pool in his palm, and then just as quickly dried up, the wound closing and healing over.
Even when he really cut into himself with a knife the result was the same: some blood, then healing over.
Confused he'd kept his story to himself until the day Moldus had cut himself on the broken bottle. Later that night he'd shared his secret with his dishwasher.
"OK," Moldus said slowly. "I see."
He looked around the empty kitchen before telling Robriot his story. At the age of seven he'd been playing beside the river Saone where he lived with his grandmother, his parents long dead, when he'd fallen in and drowned. Well, everyone thought he'd drowned until his body was found five kilometres downstream, trapped in a bed of reeds.
"They carried me back to my grandmother's house and a bit later I found that I couldn't cut myself," said Moldus. "Well, I could cut myself but then it just healed right back over again. Then when I was 10 I fell out of a tree and thought I'd broken my leg, but in two minutes the pain had gone and voil I could walk again."
They started comparing injuries and healing stories: broken fingers and an arm for Robriot, numerous cuts and an eye poked out in a bar fight for Moldus. "My eye...just...sort of grew back in," he said. "It was right out and my head just sort of sucked it back in."
Robriot grimaced. "And do you find you age?"
"Not really," said Moldus. "After falling out of the tree when I was 10 I kept growing until I was about 18, but I haven't changed in appearance much since I was about 22 or 23. You?"
"Same," said Robriot. "I've looked at the same face for the past 10 years. Haven't aged a day."
"We're going to live for ever," said Moldus. "We'll never die."
Robriot grimaced, then smiled. "Who knows? Live for today because tomorrow we die."
His dishwasher snorted in amusement. "No more aristocrats to kill now, why not?"
But they'd both been born about 40 years ago and both looked as though they were in their mid-20s. Not enough of a difference for people to be really suspicious but they were both used to remarks now about 'How young you look! What's your secret?" from the laughing ladies they knew.
Robriot and Moldus kept their secret to themselves; who would believe them? And what was the point anyway in telling others? "Hi, I'm immortal, we'll know each other for a few dozen years and then when you die I'll still be here and I'll find someone else..."
Eventually they realised that they couldn't go on living in the same place for ever; people who'd been children when they first met them started to get suspicious when Robriot and Moldus just didn't age, whilst they themselves got older and older. When you've known someone for 30 years and they still look 25, the same as when you met them, well. That was just weird.
So the pair got into the habit of moving every 20 years or so; Paris then Lyon then Marseilles, moving towards the sun. They got a job working for an English aristocrat - Lord Crumbly, they called him, an ageing Baron who lived most of the year in his villa in St Jean Cap Ferrat on the Ce d'Azur. They learned English from his staff and moved to London when the old man died, using money he'd generously left them in his will to set up a little bistro restaurant in the British capital. French food was very la mode in the late 19th century with their English clients.
When they got bored running their own restaurant they sold up and went and worked at the new Ritz hotel with Escoffier, the first world-famous chef who treated them like dirt and stole and cheated his way through the English upper-classes. He and Cesar Ritz, after whom the hotel chain was named, had been fired a few years earlier from the Savoy after stealing thousands of pounds worth of silver cutlery and valuable wines and spirits from the hotel. Moldus and Robriot saw Escoffier's style at first hand - cheating staff out of their wages, helping himself to anything and everything that passed through the kitchen's delivery doors, charging customers outrageous prices for 'Vintage' wines that were recycled old bottles with prestigious labels into which they were ordered to pour Vin Ordinaire and then re-cork them.
But it taught them a lesson: go where the money is. "Bank robbers rob banks because that's where the money is," Escoffier told them. "I apply the same principle to rich people - they have so much money, these nouveau riches, they just want to show off how rich they are to their friends. So I help them. If they want to buy a bottle of wine for a hundred pounds because it will impress their fellow diners, well, who am I to stop them?"
So when Escoffier moved back to Paris the pair left the Ritz and set up a small, exclusive restaurant in the heart of the increasingly fashionable Mayfair district of London, serving a maximum of 30 customers a night with outrageously priced food and wine. The English aristocracy and newly-wealthy businessmen lapped it up
Then came the First World War and chaos in Europe, France, Germany, the whole of northern Europe was a battlefield; England quickly got into war-mode and, while the rich remained rich, they started to become more discrete with their spending and business tailed off in the Mayfair restaurants, so Robriot and Moldus sold up and took their money to the United States and New York.
The roaring twenties went very well for them, their French restaurant becoming one of the most chic in the whole city - especially after they met Afrila, their old patissier again.
They'd last seen her working in Lyon, the first town they moved to after leaving Paris. She'd left to set up a boutique patisserie back in Paris declaring that restaurant hours 'Didn't suit' her. The war had come and she'd moved, like them, to New York. And now, in 1925, she looked the same as she had in those post-revolutionary days in Paris.
"You're looking well," Moldus told her as they sipped glasses of pastis in their restaurant's bar. Afrila blushed. "Oh you know, I look after myself."
Moldus looked at Robriot and smiled. "Come on Afrila. We all first met a hundred years ago. A HUNDRED years. And then you were at least 25, like us. What happened to you? Come one. You can tell us. We're the same. We're all just ordinary immortals here."
Afrila, it turned out, like to boast. She wanted to be the kind of Immortal, with a capital I, you read about in books: a Superhero, a Vampire, a Business Magnate (note al the Capital Letters), a Billionaire who ruled the world.
But she wasn't. She was a baker. Well, that was what Moldus and Robriot learned to call her when they wanted to annoy her. "I'm a PATISSIE!" she'd scream. "Bakers make fucking bread and get covered in flour! I make elegant patisseries and vienoiseries for discerning clients, not lumps of fucking bread for the fucking proletariat!" She got quite upset like that, which was why they called her a baker from time to time. Just to upset her.
Once you discover you're immortal you can go one of several routes: Crafty and cunning, where you invest and build for the future; Careless, where you take on risky jobs and do silly things just because you can; lazy where you do as little as possible to get by and, basically, live as comfortably as possible with the minimum amount of effort; or interesting, where you move around and do stuff that interests you because you can, learning as you go along. Moldus and Robriot were mostly in the latter category, they decided, although Moldus in particular claimed strong allegiance to the Lazy side.
Afrila was in a category a few others tumbled into without realising it: the would-be famous, those who realise they're never going to die and try to become the sort of immortal who gets written about in books. Generally, very few of these sorts of immortals really exist.
"I've never met a celebrity immortal," said Moldus as Afrila recounted her various encounters with celebrities through the ages from Cleopatra and Hannibal and Caesar through to Kennedy and Ghandi and Mother Theresa by way of Bede, Harald Bluetooth (I gave him the idea for the name! No really!), William the Conqueror, Henry VIII, Nikolas Tesla and every politician, pop singer and film star you could think of. "And Einstein," she added. "Wouldn't do a bloody thing with his hair."
She was a bit vain, really. Well, a lot vain, always combing her hair and adjusting her jewellery. Unlike Moldus and Robriot, Afrila looked to be in her early '40s - "Thirty-three, darling!" she'd correct anyone who tried to guess her age. Three thousand would have been more like it though. It seemed pretty likely, despite her exaggerated boasting, that she had lived in ancient Egypt in the court of Cleopatra, although as some sort of slave in the kitchens rather than as the great queen's handmaid as she liked to tell it. She knew far to much about baking Egyptian cakes to have spent much time giggling around the bath of ass's milk, Moldus always said.