An Artichoke Hart Adventure (Book Two)
Artichoke Hart is caught overseas when the Covid-19 novel corona virus first hits but he is quickly embroiled in a domestic adventure that takes him to the middle of the Arizona desert and what seems to be an attempt to put people on the moon to escape the deadly disease.
Amidst political turmoil, a raging virus, a group of retired (or fired) CEOs, and an unknown but capable multi-millionaire space mogul, Artichoke becomes the catalyst for stopping yet another catastrophic international incident from taking place.
The sun’s intense rays struck hard on the back of Arthur Hart’s neck as he stopped to take in the remarkable view. After a two-hour hike up Stepantsminda mountain, he had reached the rugged ridgeline where Tbilisi’s Narikala Fortress had stood since the Fourth Century. In the late-afternoon light, the ruins seemed as if they were blushing. Hart knew his own face would have a similar reddish hue. Though he considered himself in above average shape these days, a two-hour stony ascension was a cardio workout worthy of a marathoner.
Just down the path before him, the sixty-five-foot tall Mother of Georgia statue beckoned him to approach. Standing guard over Georgia’s capital city of Tbilisi, the aluminum figure held a bowl of wine in one hand and a sword in the other–a fitting symbol for a country that is celebrated for its hospitality, but that has also been forced to fend off invaders for centuries. It reminded him of the line from the sixties pop hit, Venus, by The Shocking Blue: “the goddess on a mountain top”.
Hart admired the view for a few moments, drinking half a thermos full of water before moving down the trail toward his B and B in the centre of town. He had been here for three days and had a couple left before heading back to the States. He had hoped to catch Abesalom and Eteri, a Georgian opera replete with amazing costumes. He had been told that Georgia’s world-famous Sukhishvili dancers would make an appearance which was his main reason for attending. Not really an opera fan, Hart did appreciate the cultures of all the places he travelled to and attempted to experience them when he had the chance. When his kids were a little older, he hoped to bring them with him on one of his sporadic vacations.
It hadn’t all been fun, of course. He had been invited to Cafe Stamba, a sophisticated spot serving up Georgian classics such as adjapsandali as well as international favourites like mushroom risotto. Chef Giorgi Abramashvili had invited him to visit and share recipes as well as one evening acting as Visiting Chef in Residence for an international delegation of diplomats who were attending a Climate Change Summit. He had been introduced to Chef Abramashvili’s walnut and garlic sauce as well as fenugeek, a spice, and pomegranate seeds as garnishes. He was anxious to incorporate them into his international catering menu when he returned home to the States.
As the owner of the Artichoke Hart Restaurant in Baltimore, Maryland, Hart’s reputation as a world class chef had grown exponentially since the media had divulged that former President Emerson and his family had dined at the Hart on a regular basis during his administration. Of course, Hart knew there were several reasons why the First Family had dined at his establishment, including the fact that the former Assistant Director of the CIA, Frank Daro, was Hart’s ex-brother-in-law. Frank had made the Artichoke Hart the unofficial designated meeting place where foreign leaders, state governors, military leaders, national corporate executives, and the like mixed with senators, diplomats, journalists and spies.
It also helped that Hart’s partner, Al Rocca, was a former CIA analyst and the real reason behind the success of the restaurant. A bear of a man–in a cuddly teddy bear sort of way, according to Hart’s daughter, Lucy–Rocca was dedicated to providing the best culinary experience he could… regardless of his former boss being the landlord. Rocca had no experience as a restauranteur and Hart figured that was why the place had become so successful; neither of them knew what the rules were so they just did what worked for them and their customers.
Two years ago, Hart had attempted his first off-site catering job, under Frank’s direction, in order to spy on an up-and-coming tech wizard. He had established a kitchen in Northern New York and had catered to several foreign delegates who had come to woo the young tech wizard and her new breakthrough internet technology.
In the process, he had not only realized his own potential as a gourmet chef, but also thwarted what would have been America’s first national blackout. Hart had stumbled across an old adversary and lead spy for a North Korean plot to “blind” the US early warning system using the tech wizard’s new technology.
Upon the successful capture of the spy, and for alleviating what could have been a major crisis, Frank had purchased the Artichoke Hart’s building and become the landlord. In exchange for guaranteed reservations for various government gatherings, Frank had requested Hart return to his former part-time job as a hand-to-hand combat instructor at The Farm. Although Hart had a hard time contemplating that Frank had planned the whole Korean conspiracy just to get him back to training new recruits, it was always lurking in the back of his mind that Frank had way too much control over his life.
Al Rocca had continued to run things at the restaurant while Hart had re-established the program at the CIA’s premiere training facility and everything had settled down to a modicum of normality. Occasionally, Frank would ask Hart to travel overseas on some minor surveillance mission. He would always front Hart with a cover as a travelling chef bringing recipes fit for a President to other establishments around the globe. It was a good schtick and had worked well so far for both Hart and whatever outfit Frank Daro now headed up with Homeland.
The Georgian trip was the most recent excursion. Working under the premise that he and Chef Giorgi were combining Western and Eastern culinary culture for the benefit of an international summit meeting, Hart was also tasked with trying to turn a Russian aide-de-camp who was suspected of being involved in the Trump election interference scandal. Hart had taken him aside at the end of the evening and had satisfied himself that the man had no idea what Hart was talking about. He would not make a good asset and Hart had reported as much to a disappointed Frank.
Tomorrow, Hart would be visiting Kakheti, proclaiming itself as the cradle of winemaking. Wines had been produced here for over 8,000 years and Hart was anxious to try a kisi or a saperavi. His taste buds crinkled as he sipped his water, anticipating a more full-bodied flavour the following day.
Hart was about to pick up the pace when his phone rang. Spying a rock just off the trail, he sat down and answered.
“Grab the next plane, Hart, and get home.”
“Oh, hello Frank,” Hart said, grinning. “Nice to hear from you.”
“Hart, I’m serious,” Frank Daro said, his voice sharp, his tone forceful. “Trump is going to close the borders to international flights, likely as early as Friday.”
“And what the hell could possibly warrant that?”
“They’re saying this new virus is getting out of control,” Frank said. “China and now Italy are in lockdown. Some countries are asking their citizens to come home now, before it’s too late.”
“Too late for what, Frank?”
“Right or wrong, if he closes borders, you could be stuck overseas indefinitely. ” Hart could hear Frank breathing hard. “It seems to be an unprecedented response worldwide. If the stories coming out of Italy and Spain are to be believed, we have a major pandemic on our hands.”
“I fly out in two days,” Hart said. “It would cost money to change the flight.”
“That may be too late,” Frank said. “Haven’t you been following social media? Don’t they get NBC or BBC or something like that over there?”
“I’m sure they do, Frank, but I’ve been kinda busy, you know.”
“Get a flight out tonight or first thing tomorrow, Hart,” the tone didn’t invite argument. “And turn your damn phone on. Even social media will bring you up to speed. Everyone’s wondering what to do.
“You’re not,” Hart said. “You seem to be sure this is a major disaster.”
Frank’s breathing was clear over the line. After a moment, his voice disquieted a bit, he answered: “It could be, Hart. It was only a matter of time before a pandemic hit. It’s been predicted ever since SARS sizzled out in ’02. Our mandate right now is to decipher if this is Mother Nature doing her ten-year clean up, or if this thing was purposely man-made. Either way, it’s going to alter daily life, at least for a while, we think.”
“There’s protocol for this?” Hart said, knowing the government always had preparatory plans for various disasters, from hurricanes to tsunamis to 9/11 scenarios. Regardless of whether natural or man-made, the US had contingency plans for everything. It didn’t surprise Hart that Frank would be in the thick of any kind of reactionary strategies.
“There is, but don’t forget, Trump’s in charge,” Frank said, his emphasis on the name of the President, Donald Trump, clearly expressing his impression of the man. “The CDC and Military Intelligence are already on it but how the country handles our response is largely up to his administration. Closing borders is a good move, thank God, but I’m not confident he’ll always be on the right side of the protocols.”
Hart pondered that for a while. “If you think it’s important, Frank, I’ll book a flight as soon as I can.” He had briefly wondered why Frank hadn’t suggested an exfiltration should it have become necessary. Then he shook his head. A chef and sometime-spy didn’t warrant that kind of an operation, even if he was related to the head honcho… sort of.
“Good, and come see me when you land,” Frank said. “This thing is changing daily and I need all my people on hand.”
Hart didn’t like the sound of that. Technically, he wasn’t Frank’s employee though admittedly the lines blurred when it came to the intelligence community and Frank’s infiltration of every aspect of it. He wasn’t needed at The Farm on a regular basis as the program ran itself. And the restaurant definitely ran itself, thanks to Al Rocca.
But, dammit, Hart still didn’t like thinking he reported to anyone, least of all his ex-brother-in-law, Frank Daro.
“I’ll settle in and–” Hart started but realized he was talking to a dead line. He shook his head and headed down the mountain at a brisk pace.