Authors: Elizabeth A Reeves
Elizabeth A Reeves
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any similarity between actual persons living and dead is purely coincidental. Any uses of locales, establishments, or events are used fictitiously.
Copyright 2015 © Elizabeth A Reeves
Dedicated to Keith, Kevin, Noah, Kasen, Eliot, and Hyrum—my goofy boys who rock my world. <3
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Elizabeth A Reeves
He watched the flickering screen, his beady eyes taking in every motion, every nuance of the players on this particular stage.
He despised them all. Did they claim to have talent? They fought like petty children. There was no artistry here.
How many times had he watched players like these, braggarts in speech, but criminal in their actions? How many times must he see the needless slaughter of innocents, their lives wasted, and do nothing?
This time, they would pay. They would all pay. They would regret their actions, but it would be too late.
It was time for them to die.
They never noticed him. They never even glanced his way. The backstage for this atrocity was busy, full of light. And he was easy to ignore. No one would ever expect him to be here. Even if they saw him, they wouldn’t understand the danger they were all in.
The host and his latest judge were enjoying a pre-show bourbon. Graying blond and shining black hair, slicked for the camera, shined as they leaned their heads together, conspiring over the epic foolery they ruled over. They laughed as they slaughtered the English language with puns that would kill any refined palate. It was disturbing how they tossed aside the language of the greats, like Shakespeare and Stephanie Meyer, only to turn to the painful pun-ishment of the like of Piers Anthony.
Oh, the humanity.
But they were safe, for now. They were not his target. Their crimes were nothing to him, though it wouldn’t have bothered him one bit if some hot sauce got dropped into the bourbon they were downing.
No, the Viewer was patient. He would wait for the first wrong-doing, then he would spring into action. There would be no doubts as to why these players had to die. No, everything would be clear. He would be a hero of justice, a vigilante putting right the wrongs of this tainted industry. At last, it would be seen for the callous and rotten world that it truly was.
He sat in the shadows, waiting.
The players entered their bright-lit stage. They laughed and preened before the cameras. Their words meant nothing. He could see their pulses dance in their throats. They were nervous.
Well, let them be nervous. It was wise for them to worry.
The host made his appearance. Abe Braun, one of the most recognizable faces on any screen, straightened his sports coat and smiled for the camera. He thought he was so clever, with his fancy words. He thought that he was evil—adding puns to the punishment he doled out. He relished the tortures he put his contestants through. He relished their agony and shame, as they sought to do the impossible. In his eyes, he was a veritable demon.
He had not even seen the face of evil yet.
The contestants were a varied group, as always, though oddly suited to competing against each other. They filed down the stairs and to their stations, one at a time, making awkward smack talk to pass the time.
The Viewer eyed the four of them. Which one would be his first victim?
Sybil Lent was the first of the competitors, a wispy, older woman with large, vague eyes that belied the cunning mind she possessed. She was a calm woman. She stood with a half-smile on her face as her competitors mocked and taunted. She was above such behavior. Let the children play. She was here to win. She carried a hushed air around her. When she did speak, her voice had a softly hissing quality to it. An accent, perhaps? Or maybe a speech impediment. Either way, it did nothing to detract from her cool calm exterior.
Oliver Dye was the second competitor. Opposite in many ways to the woman to his left, he was tall, young, and aggressively nervous. He kept swinging his arms and shouting random words of self-encouragement, such as “Boo ya” and the eternal “I gots this”. He wore a beard, or, at least, an attempt at one. It was patchy and thin in places, and did nothing to hide the babyish aspects of his face. Taking him at face value, however, would be a mistake. The announcer made sure all the other chefs heard his improbable credentials.
“Whatever,” Sarah Bellam, his neighbor on the other side, muttered. “You don’t have the real life experience to win this thing.”
“I’ve cooked all over the world,” Oliver Dye responded. “I’ve been named the best new chef. Boom!” He made a show of exploding his own fist, a satisfied smirk behind the mask of his so-called beard.
Sarah Bellam rolled her eyes. She was young and pretty, with an olive complexion that went well with the shocking red of her lipstick. She was dressed in an unapologetically feminine 60s era dress, complete with saddle shoes and a rather rockabilly hairdo that looked like it might come tumbling down at the slightest breeze. She had a no-nonsense, tough-girl expression on her face.
“You guys are going to wish you were me,” she said cockily. “Maybe I’ll take you all out for drinks… after I win the money.”
Oliver Dye snorted. “Sassy,” he muttered under his breath as he shifted restlessly back and forth like a one-man hurricane.
Tim Burr was the last, and largest of the competitors. He was easily as big around as he was tall, yet there was nothing soft about his body or him. He wore a beard that was more than an attempt, and a chef’s coat of brilliant red plaid, which went well with the surprising red of that impressive face fur. He had his well-inked arms crossed in front of him. His arms were decorated with a cacophony of beautiful ingredients. From eggs to lobster, they were all embedded in living color on the canvas that was his skin.
“I’ve been a chef for longer than most of you have been alive,” he said, gruffly eyeing Oliver like an old dog eyes a new pup in the pack. “I’m here to win the money and take it home to start a shelter for geriatric cats.” He scowled dangerously at Sarah Bellam, who had appeared to be close to saying ‘aw’. He was no man to cross, he implied with his expression.
Abe Braun cleared his throat. “Now that we’ve introduced everyone, and passed out some rather impressive bundles of cash,” he grinned wickedly at the camera, “let’s get this game started!”
The competitors shifted restlessly. They were eager and waiting, like trembling thoroughbreds waiting to see the gates open before them.
“First course,” Abe Braun announced. “Chicken Parmigiana. Just your every-day average breaded chicken served with tomato sauce, cheese, and spaghetti. Make the best one, and you’ll stay in the competition—that is, if the other players don’t sabotage you first! Spaghetti, set…Your shopping time begins… now!”
The fool. He had condemned his players so glibly. He thought he was clever. Well, he would know soon enough. Abe Braun would not be proud for long. He would face reality and he would cringe away from it. He would beg for mercy.
But there was no mercy here, not for his kind.
The players squabbled. They would do anything to win. They did not care what they had to do to their fellow players, as long as they would win. There was no dignity between these thieves.
He didn’t care what they did to each other.
It was all in the execution.
Their execution, to be precise.
The scents of cooking and lies filled the air. The players could not see the impossible task that had been set for them. They only saw what the host wanted them to see. He made the task seem possible, despite tasks such as making pasta from scratch for one player, and no tomatoes allowed for another.
The chefs raced from oven to deep fryer, sweat streaming down their faces. One cursed quietly under his breath, trying to cut up his meat with a spoon, which had been gifted him from a fellow competitor.
For this stage, it was business as usual.
It would not be for long.
It was only a matter of waiting.
Someone was bound to fail.
And when they did…
He would be there to show them the wrongs of their ways.
The timer clicked down. The last three seconds were full of fumbling desperation—fingers turned to graceless thumbs as the competitors struggled to plate their dishes.
Abe Braun cleared his throat. His smile was wide. It didn’t bother him one bit that the competitors in front of him could crash and burn. All he had to do is stand in front of the camera and be brilliantly witty. He had that in the bag. He reveled in the misery he had concocted for these players. This was his game—he was the puppet master here.
He rubbed the scraggly beard on his chin, today was apparently the battle of the beards, as he chuckled at the chefs that stood in front of him. Burnt fingers? Delightful! Dropped dishes! So delicious!
This show was his baby, his triumph. He loved every moment of his benign forms of torture.
The chefs struggled to get their masterpieces on the plates in front of them. Salt was thrown onto plates, sauce was sloppily splattered across china. The scent of burnt ambition filled the air.
Abe Braun stood there, the smug master of his own domain. It was good to be the king.
Let him believe that for a moment longer.
He counted down the last seconds out loud, his voice ringing strong.
Oliver Dye let out a yelp of frustration as the counting raced down.
“And that’s time,” Abe Braun said. “Put your hands up and step away from your plates!”
Four sets of hands whipped into the air.
The round was over.
The faces before him glistened with sweat, beading from stress and from the lights that glared down at them. They were a miserable group. They kept glancing down at their dishes, wondering if they had managed to do enough to keep them in the competition.
He waited in the shadows. His eyes missed nothing. Every bead of sweat, every shaking hand, every pulsing heartbeat in the throats of the competitors he saw and took note of. He tasted triumph. This was the moment he had waited for, to punish the undeserving. To triumph. Someone would lose here. Someone would fail.
And someone would die.
The judge appeared. He wore a smile on his face and criticism as a weapon. Unlike the strained and sweat-slicked faces before him, he was calm. He smirked at the contestants as he joined the host. He was a neat man. His hair was brushed neatly to one side. His round face looked congenial, though he was anything but that. Even the tattoo, just visible below the sleeve of his shirt, was precise and thought out.
He was successful and comfortable with his success. The camera loved him. The viewers loved his harsh critiques disguised under that gentle-seeming exterior. The camera fed his ego. He fed off of it, a great beast of confidence and surety.
“Greetings, Chef Aire-Craft,” the host said. He slapped the chef on the shoulder in a rehearsed motion. These were not men comfortable with casual intimacy. After all, they were American. “We are honored to have you and your renowned palate in our midst,” Abe Braun continued. “How do you feel about Chicken Parmigiana, sir?” He made a grand move, gesturing towards the players as if they were dogs in a show, waiting to have their teeth examined and tails pulled.
Funny how these chefs lined up to compete like this. They never saw it as degrading. They never thought of the fools they made of themselves.
The competitors shifted uncomfortably before the two formidable egos in front of them. Eyes glanced down at the plates in front of them. Would they be enough? Or would they fail? Tension, thick as blood, lay heavy on the air. It tainted the air, filling pulses, driving hearts to beat faster.
Silence fell with a gasping breath.
“I quite enjoy it,” the judge said cheerfully. He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “It is one of my favorite dishes.” He put emphasis on his words. These players were not going to get off lightly, hoping that he wasn’t familiar with the dish.
Of course, that’s how Abe Braun had designed it.
None of the chefs groaned. They didn’t need to. Their fear and tension were worn nakedly on their faces. They stood like statues, taunt with anticipation. One wrong breath and they would shatter,
“I expect perfectly cooked chicken, a gorgeous sauce, and al dente pasta,” Chef Aire-Craft continued. For a moment he appeared to hesitate on whether he should kiss his fingertips in that grand all-too familiar gesture.
Thankfully, he decided not to go that far. That was too cliché, even for him.
The judge addressed the first player, pretending that the dish in front of him didn’t disgust him. He poked at the food with his fork, dissecting it before it ever reached his mouth. He made a show of studying it, smelling it. He tasted it, nodding with a thoughtful expression on his face. His expression was unreadable. He was a professional.
“Tasty,” he said, as if it mattered. That was not the kind of word that dreams hung from. “I like the use of roasted peppers for your sauce. It’s… unusual.”
Sybil Lent flinched. Her face was as still as stone, but her hands, gripping her arms, gave away her concern. She had fought hard in this round of battles. She had managed to pull together a plate that she thought had a chance of moving on. If only the judge agreed with her.
“The chicken is perfectly cooked,” the judge continued. “But, honestly, the cracker breading is a little… strange. It’s not really appetizing. It’s… gummy. Maybe if you had deep fried it instead of baking it, you would have gotten a better texture. I wouldn’t have used crackers for a parmigiana crust, however. That’s not very traditional, is it?”
Chef Aire-Craft moved on to the next player, not knowing that he had saved this one from a grizzly death.
Sybil Lent was safe.
Their Viewer watched with his full attention. Someone would fail, he knew. It was inevitable. Someone always failed.
And, when they did, they would meet their doom.
It was such a perfect day for a cooking competition.