Authors: Elizabeth A Reeves
After ascertaining that all of the exits were blocked, and not a single phone in the studio would work, they continued the show. That was, only after the unavoidable delay that death carried in its wake. They moved the body to a less public area, where no one would accidentally stumble over it.
How easy it was to turn a person into an inanimate object. An it, instead of a she. A corpse, not a daughter, sister, or mother.
In this case, that was a blessing. They had to move forward. They had to act as if nothing had happened. They had to act like they were starring on Broadway, and get on with the show.
It didn’t take long, once they realized that their only hopes for escape were to continue on in this cat and mouse charade. They resigned themselves to playing a new, dual game. They did not know when and if the killer would strike again. All they knew is that their only option was to keep going.
It was better than sitting around and doing nothing.
The crew fell into the patterns of their work. Makeup, lights, cameras, sound booms… they all had to be just so to get the competition back on the air. They could pretend that everything was normal, though they shot each other suspicious and frightened looks from time to time.
Chef Aire-Craft and Abe Braun stuck together. Judge and host alike, were obviously shaken by what had happened. They looked sideways at each other, each wondering if the other might be a murderer. They didn’t trust each other. They didn’t trust the crew.
No one trusted anyone anymore.
Their suspicion was delicious to the Viewer.
Human friendship, human relationships in general, were such brittle creatures. One sharp blow, and they inevitably shattered to irreparably miniscule pieces.
A murderer among them was just the right kind of blow to divide them, one and all.
They were all wrong, of course.
The Viewer was not one of them. He never had been and never would be. They were just faces to him, shadows. He was the cat, and they were mice standing on the wrong side of a mouse hole, looking for the wrong sort of cat. This was beyond their understanding. They had no idea who they were dealing with.
They wouldn’t understand, even if they knew.
That woman, that damned Goldie Locke, being here complicated things, of course, but she was a mere hiccup in his plan. He could get around her. He was in too far to stop now. No, he would just have to be a little more… careful, hunting his prey.
He had come too far to turn back now. He had to be unstoppable. He had to be a juggernaut. He had to see this through.
Abe Braun cleared his throat. He straightened the collar of his shirt and smoothed down the bristles of his beard. He had made an effort to appear unaffected by the murder in his domain, but the odor of bourbon wafting off of him showed that this courage he was showing was of the liquid variety.
He swaggered ever so slightly as he made his way to the set and his place. He stood stolidly as the makeup artist hovered over him, touching up where there was a little too much shine on his forehead, and yanking his pacifying class of bourbon out of his unresponsive fist.
Abe Braun turned on his TV smile, but there was horror behind his eyes. He wore the face of a man who had come face to face with the worst aspects of death.
The Viewer huffed from the depths of his hiding place. He was offended by them all. Abe Braun and his nearly catatonic expression was an insult to his mastery. His skills were so unappreciated.
They did not understand the brilliance of his work. They had not seen the artistry of his work, the warning that he had set there, right in front of them. He had given them everything they needed to know to get out of here alive, but they were so blind!
They thought this was a random thing.
Their ignorance would be the death of them.
They would soon know better. Soon the Viewer would have another target in his sights. They would have another piece of the puzzle.
If they weren’t too stupid to comprehend it.
Sybil Lent, Oliver Dye, and Tim Burr filed down the stairs to their places. They waited expectantly as the lights and cameras moved into position.
It was go time.
“W-welcome back to the show,” Abe Braun announced. Sweat beaded on his forehead, glinting from the lights above him. This kitchen was getting too hot for him. Oh, the irony. How many times had he used those words to taunt others? Now who desperately needed to get out of the kitchen?
The Viewer wished he could snort. If you can’t take the heat stay out of the kitchen. Cute. He’d have to use that one for inspiration.
Abe Braun cleared his throat again. When he spoke, his voice was flat. None of his usual mischief could be found anywhere on his face. “Our next dish is Chicken and Dumplings. It’s the great American classic. I’m sure you’ve eaten plenty of this in your life. Fluffy dumplings in a rich chicken gravy are a must for this dish. Now it’s time to reproduce it. Do your best. And your time starts… now!”
They had decided to shelter the players from what had happened to their comrade. The two men and tiny woman knew nothing of what had transpired while they sipped wine and nibbled on cheeses wearing expensive wrappers.
The Viewer was bemused. What a strange decision. It was a player who had died. Shouldn’t they understand what they were up against? Why were they being kept in the dark? Was there something else afoot? Were they asking their secret marauder to strike again?
Or was it something simpler?
Were they still hoping to salvage this fiasco for television?
Fools. They were all fools.
They played a shallow game, when his was so much deeper. They saw the grass, but they didn’t see the dirt or the worms. Their ineptitude would play into his hands. They were making his triumph all the easier.
The pieces of his puzzle hovered, ready to snap into place.
Soon everyone would know his work.
The players did not feel the foreboding in the air. They did not feel the pressure of the fear of those that surrounded them, making this game continue… for them. They had no clue. They were lambs, lining up for the slaughter house.
Oliver Dye was turning out to be a master of smack talk. He elbowed his way into the pantry, snatching one of the whole head-on chickens that Abe Braun had provided for them. Its head jolted nauseatingly on its limp neck as Oliver grabbed his other ingredients. Oliver Dye moved quickly, the human hurricane. He was the first one out of the pantry and the first one back to his prep table.
Tim Burr moved a little slower. He used every second of the time they had to grab ingredients. While Sybil Lent systematically darted around him, he lumbered towards the ingredients he wanted for his dish, sweeping a whole shelf of ingredients into his basket in one go.
He missed having the door shut on him by the hair on the back of his head.
“Ow,” he muttered, rubbing the patch where his scalp had been mutilated by the Abe Braun-powered door.
Usually, Abe Braun enjoyed dishing out sabotages and impossible ingredients. Usually, he egged the competitors on. It was his job to keep them from leaving with any money still in their pockets. He got his kicks from torturing them through three rounds and then sending the winner off with nothing at all.
It was a triumph of television. All the excitement, without ever having to actually dish out the dough.
Abe Braun rushed through the sabotages and didn’t even break a smile when Oliver Dye had his whole chicken swapped for a tray of chicken breasts from Tim Burr’s cart. Tim Burr gloated over his new ingredient. Whole chicken had much more flavor than chicken breasts, as long as he could get it broken down and cooked in the time available.
The competitors threw each other challenges with abandon, feeling no shame for condemning another to ride a chicken-shaped tricycle, like Tim Burr got to do, thanks to Sybil Lent, or having someone to dig through stew to find their ingredients, like Sybil Lent got to do, thanks to a vengeful Tim Burr. They wasted their time attacking each other, when they should have been focused on their ingredients and their food.
In their ignorance, they would play right into the Viewer’s plan.
They could not help but fail.
As Oliver Dye sought to make dumplings with cereal, his only source of gluten, however sweet they might be, the tension in the room began to mount. It had nothing to do with the sugary mess he was making and everything to do with the body that was hiding gruesomely behind the curtain.
Everyone, except for the players, was far too aware of that body.
How could the chefs remain so oblivious to that glorious scent of terror that perfumed the air? It pervaded the room, even over the scents of gravy and chicken, bubbling along in various cooking implements, from Sybil’s frying pan and Oliver Dye’s cast iron pot down to Tim Burr’s garbage can lid.
The time ticked down. Abe Braun glanced at the clock, the sweat rolling down his face, smearing the makeup that had been so carefully applied to all his shiny places. He could feel it now, the finger of death drawing a bony finger down his spine. He knew that there was more to come. There was no way for him to stop it.
He knew, whatever happened, that it would be his fault. It was his show, everyone was here because of his show. No one would have been harmed, if it hadn’t been for him.
How clever of him, to figure out the obvious.
Again, the judge, the wonderful Chef Aire-Craft, traipsed down the stairs to taste the offerings set in front of him. He was almost whistling as he crossed the floor to stand beside Abe Braun.
Chef Aire-Craft hid his stress better than his friend did. He still wore that congenial smile that was his trademark, and had about as much warmth in it as winter in Antarctica. Perhaps he was a sociopath, to be so cool in a kitchen of such emotional heat. His ease at dealing with this crisis was rather… heartless.
That would explain so much.
Abe Braun glanced sideways at his friend. Suspicion danced in his slightly narrowed eyes.
From his shadows, and shielded by his secrets, the Viewer watched the judge closely. Chef Aire-Craft may be an
ally, but it was his words that would condemn or save those that stood before him. He was a major player in this tragic tale of woe and revenge. He was Ophelia’s brother, to take it to Shakespeare. Or maybe he was Ophelia. The Viewer shook the distraction of literature out of his head.
Revenge might be poetic, but poetry was a distraction.
“What do we have here,” he asked the first player.
“Um, this is my version of deconstructed chicken and dumplings,” Oliver Dye said nervously. He dragged his hand through his hair, leaving it damp and plastered to his head with sweat. He was still bouncing in place a little, despite the look of stressed exhaustion on his face. The last half hour had been hard on him. He was lucky to have anything to present for the judge to taste. He was relieved to have the round over. His part was done. He could relax now.
“Interesting,” Chef Aire-Craft said, poking at the mass in front of him with his fork as if it had been grown in some kind of hospital incubator like a virus. He looked slightly repelled and mildly nauseated. He smiled painfully as he searched for something positive to say.
“I like the idea of roasting the vegetables,” he said, at last.
Oliver Dye sighed and smiled hopefully.
Chef Aire-Craft took a small bite of the unappetizing mess, nodding as he chewed. “The chicken is cooked beautifully. The vegetables are a nice addition, they’re not too soft, but not too firm, so they complement the chicken. I wouldn’t have used chicken breasts. They don’t have that much flavor, but you’ve pulled it off here. It’s actually pretty tasty. The chicken is cooked to perfection. It’s not overdone. But…” He looked up at the player and shook his head with a hint of a playful smile. “It’s not chicken and dumplings, deconstructed or otherwise.”
Oliver Dye wilted before the judge’s words. He stepped back, staring down at his plate, wondering if it was going to be good enough for him to be able to move on in the competition. He gnawed his lips restlessly, his fingers tapping on the surface of his work station.
His mind was on the money, on the limited fame that a show like this could provide. He had student loans to pay off. He had parents to pay back. He needed the money.
He wasn’t alone in his thoughts.
Everyone needed the money. Everyone needed the press.
He was just an ordinary person.
He had no idea what kind of game he was playing now.
All eyes were on the next player, Sybil Lent, as the judge tasted her food. Chef Aire-Craft tilted his head slightly, looking at the slim woman in his curiously lizard-like way. He cleared his throat and blotted his lips delicately with a napkin. He straightened to his full five foot five inches, which meant that he was looking slightly up at Sybil Lent.
“I’m not sure that I would have used coconut milk,” Chef Aire-Craft said. He reached behind him and one of the stage assistants brought him a bottle of water. He unscrewed the top and drank the entire bottle in one long slug. He handed the emptied water bottle back to the stage assistant.