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Authors: Elizabeth A Reeves

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BOOK: Cutthroat Chicken
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Sybil Lent flinched.

“Coconut milk is a funny thing. Though, it does pair well with the curry you added to the dish, it doesn’t belong in this dish. It’s an interesting idea. It’s original. But, when you’re being original, it still has to be delicious, especially when it’s something everyone knows and loves, like chicken and dumplings. Something’s lacking in this dish. It doesn’t come together. It doesn’t have that buttery richness and fluffy soft dumplings that I expect from chicken and dumplings. It’s more like a curry chicken coconut stew… with these little… I guess they’re dumplings added in as an afterthought. The dumplings themselves have an… odd texture. They have a strange mouth feel. It’s not a traditional chicken and dumplings, of course. In a restaurant, I wouldn’t order this dish again.”

Sybil Lent nodded, her cheeks flushed. She had spent too much time trying to sabotage Tim Burr, and now she was paying the price. Her food had been rushed and subpar. She wasn’t surprised that the taste was off.

Despite her calm demeanor, she was barely holding herself together. At any moment she was ready to burst into hysterical laughter or tears. It was all she could just to stand still and keep her face from betraying her devastation.

“But, really good effort,” the judge said in an offhand manner, as if it were just a kind afterthought. He turned away, dismissing her from his mind immediately, once her face was not in front of his.

Oliver Dye smiled with something that looked like relief. He’d had much better comments than Sybil Lent. He felt pretty confident that he would be moving on.

 

How could the players not feel the hush in the air, the tension of the room, waiting to see what would happen to them next? Would the killer strike again, or would all return to normal? How many victims would he kill? How many would get out of here alive?

Of course, for that poor, deep-fried girl, nothing was ever going to be normal again.

 

Tim Burr, the last player to be judged in this round, was sweating almost as much as Abe Braun. He’d had a rough round in the competition. He and Sybil Lent had spent far too much time playing the game instead of cooking. Even stealing Oliver Dye’s beautiful head-on chicken had been a horrible mistake. He’d been dancing with Murphy’s Law all round. Everything possible had gone wrong. He stared down at his plate wishing fervently that he could just chuck it into the trash and be done with it. Only a deeply engrained childhood belief that something was better than nothing had saved the plate from destruction.

Chef Aire-Craft looked down at the mess in front of him and shook his head sadly. “I think you know what I’m going to say.”

Tim Burr nodded. His brightly colored tattoos rippled as his massive arms clenched with tension. His jaw was set beneath the brilliant perfection that was his beard.

It really was a fantastic beard.

Tim Burr was ready for the worst Chef Aire-Craft could throw at him. He could take it.

“It’s obvious that you had some serious issues with your time management,” Chef Aire-Craft said, mild scorn touching his voice. “You’re far too experienced of a chef to serve something like this. You know and I know that there’s nothing acceptable about this chicken. This chicken is…”

From the shadows, the Viewer pricked his ears, waiting for the verdict.

“…way too pink for me to eat,” the judge continued. “It’s not just pink, it’s completely raw. It looks like it hasn’t even been warmed up, let alone cooked. Chicken sashimi is never a good idea. I think we all know why I can’t eat raw chicken. I don’t want to spend my weekend in the hospital, thank you very much. The sauce is nice, though. It’s beautiful, frankly. And the dumplings are what I expect when I think about chicken and dumplings. That’s what makes this plate so disappointing. There was so much that was going right for you. That chicken is just… hard to ignore.”

“So, what’s the verdict,” Abe Braun asked, his voice tense. “Which of these Chicken and Dumplings impressed you? Which one is going to be sending someone home? Which one of these chefs will be leaving us now?”

His words hung ominously in the air. No one was breathing—the chefs, because they all wanted to win; the host, judge, and crew because they knew what was hiding behind curtain number three.

The entire crew was all too aware that there might be a second side to this elimination. Would sending one of these players off be the same as sending them to the chopping block? Would another player… die? It seemed likely. Why else would the killer have instructed them to keep playing the game?

“The chef that will be leaving,” Chef Aire-Craft said, perhaps acting as judge and executioner. He spoke calmly and slowly, looking from one player to the next. He showed no fear, no compassion. He was a cold man, Chef Aire-Craft. “Will be Chef Sybil Lent. I’m sorry, but your dumplings were too weird for me to get past, and I didn’t understand the coconut milk.”

Security followed the woman as she left the room, her shoulders hunched in miserable defeat. It was the first obvious emotion she had shown all day. She moved slowly, despite the way security was urging her to move more quickly to the designated safe room, where she would be under guard.

This was all the proof the Viewer needed to know for sure that the people he stalked did not understand the little game they were playing. They imagined that his game was meaningless and cruel. They thought it was a mere extension of their own game, but with higher stakes.

They could not be more wrong.

His next victim stood there, smiling with relief at the second chance he had been given. His round, red face was excited and determined.

Tim Burr could almost taste the money that would be his prize when this round was over. His grin was filled with confidence at his imminent victory. He had always known that he was destined to be a winner, now he would prove it to all those who had ever doubted him. He’d show them that food tattoos were awesome, not ridiculous. Even his wife, Molly, would have to see that.

He could already taste the satisfaction that would be his when he took that money and built that cat shelter.

Molly hated cats.

Tim Burr grinned.

He would not smile for much longer.

He was doomed.

Chapter Six

 

They found him in the same tub of gravy he had forced Sybil Lent to sort through to find her ingredients. No one screamed. The crew just let out a soft moan, half fear and half resignation.

Tim Burr was so large that the vat of gravy had overflowed, leaving lumpy gravy puddles in every direction and making the room smell like Thanksgiving. Crew members slipped and fell in the gelatinous goo, trying to get to him, though he was far past saving. They made it to his side, eventually, covered in the same slime as the body.

“Well, I’m never eating gravy again,” Abe Braun muttered.

“I’ll second that,” Chef Aire-Craft responded. “That is, if we get out of here.”

Abe Braun shot him a dark look.

Chef Aire-Craft, naturally, was completely oblivious to having said anything inappropriate.

Tim Burr’s dead blue eyes stared vacantly at nothing, his face frozen in a rictus of horror. Even death had not erased his last seconds of terror from his face. His skin was pale and clammy, almost as white as the gravy he was immersed in. His eyes were sunken hollows, staring eternally into nothing.

He’d been erased. A vibrant, larger than life man, turned to empty nothingness in such a small period of time.

“What happened,” asked the host, his voice gruff. Abe Braun’s fear was making him testy. He didn’t like being cornered, by people or circumstances. He felt all-too accountable for the two deaths that had happened on his show. He was also determined that no one would know that he was worried or scared.

The worst, to him, was not knowing the identity of the killer. It could have been anyone. It could have been
all
of them. He shuffled in place, not meeting the eyes of any of the crew around him. As far as he was concerned, they were all guilty.

He cleared his throat and continued his query. “Did he drown? Rather, was he drowned?”

The blond woman, that cursed Goldie Locke, looked up from the body, her dark eyes full of infinite compassion. Strange that such a small, cute creature should have such depths. Reading this book by its cover would be a terrible mistake.

Goldie Locke gently shut the corpse’s eyes, pausing a moment in prayer or farewell. Her lips moved, but no one could hear what she was saying. She rose to her feet and shook her head. “No. This was no drowning. There is no gravy in his mouth or nose. He was already dead when he was… dumped here.”

One of the crew stumbled into the shadows and disgorged himself of his lunch. It wasn’t the same crew member as before, though it was a wonder that everyone in the crew wasn’t being sick. He stumbled back towards the others, scrubbing at his mouth, as if wiping the taste away would also wipe away the scene in front of him.

“Stay together,” Goldie said, reaching out a hand to stop the crew member’s progress into the darkness away from the set. She gave the crew a tight smile. “There is safety in numbers. I don’t believe that he would attack us all, if we stayed together.”

“It says k-k-keep playing again,” a young woman whispered. She was dressed in black, like most of the crew, and had a knot of tangled brown hair on the top of her head. She had been one of the first people to approach the body, and she was smeared all over from where she had slipped and fallen into the gravy.

She pointed down at the mess of gravy on the floor. The words had nearly been wiped out by footprints, but it was still there, barely legible. Just enough of the letters remained that they were able to recognize the message.

Keep playing
.

Abe Braun curled his hands into fists. He threw back his head and let out a roar of frustration. The crew startled away from him, staring at his transformation. Abe Braun was given to sharp, intellectual criticism, not shouting.

“Stop this,” Abe Braun shouted. He stared out into the darkness. His words hung hollowly in the air, desperate and powerless. “I will do anything!
Anything
! Take me and leave the others alone! I will do whatever you ask. Just stop this senseless massacre! Please!”

There was no answer from the silence. There was no sign that his plea had been heard. The shadows kept their secrets, giving nothing away.

Abe Braun’s grand gesture was ignored.

Goldie touched his sleeve. She shook her head, a kindly and sad smile on her rosebud lips. “You can’t bargain your way out of this. We just have to… play his game and hope to survive.”

Abe Braun threw off her touch and stormed away from her. His hands were shaking violently, so he shoved them deep into his pockets. At least that way the shaking was somewhat contained. He was a controlled man. He was used to being in charge of his situation and proactive. This helplessness was his own personal version of hell.

“I guess we continue, then,” he said, after a moment. He took a deep breath and visibly shook off his emotions. He shoved them down and locked them down deep, where they would not affect his judgement again. He had control of his composure again. He would not allow himself to break like that in the future. He would be stronger. He needed to be a leader—a good leader. This was his show. It was up to him to get as many of his people out alive as possible.

He couldn’t help anyone if he was paralyzed with fear.

“OK,” Goldie Locke said, drawing the attention of the crew back to her. Her voice was business-like. “What do we know about this situation? We have one corpse parmigiana and one corpse and dumplings. Since those were the items on the menu, I think it’s safe to assume that the next round of competition will tell us what to look out for. What’s the next course that you have planned?”

Abe Braun cleared his throat. “Um, flan. Why?”

Goldie Locke’s lips thinned. “I just hope we’ll be safe this time,” she said.

Abe Braun gulped. That was another food that he would never be able to look at again.

It was impossible to hide the fact that something was wrong from the remaining players. Just in bringing back Sybil Lent, the contestant that had been eliminated in the last round, let the players know that something was happening out of the usual.

Sybil Lent and Oliver Dye glanced at each other as they took their places, their eyebrows asking the questions that they couldn’t voice. Oliver’s restless body motions became more frenetic. He cracked his neck and swung his arms, ready to face his next challenge.

Sybil Lent’s face was a study in determination. She had been eliminated and now had a chance to redeem herself. There was no way she was going to let this competition slip out of her hands. She glanced towards where Tim Burr’s station had been.

“Where’sss Tim,” she asked Oliver Dye in a whisper, hissing on the ‘s’ with her unique speech pattern.

Oliver Dye shook his head. “No clue. He never came to the player’s lounge. He missed out on some awesome grub, though.” He tried to smile, but it looked more like a facial twitch or tic. He wasn’t going to be able to handle the pressure much longer without melting down completely.

And that was without knowing that two of his competitors had been murdered.

Abe Braun took his mark. He had pulled himself together, both mentally and physically. He straightened out his shirt until it hung perfectly, the way he liked it. He wiped and straightened out his glasses. With a smile firmly plastered to his face, he took his place. He nodded to the cameras. He was ready to roll.

“Welcome back,” he said. “We’ve had a little surprise since the last round. Although Sybil Lent was supposed to go home last round, you can see that she is here on the stage instead of Tim Burr. Due to unforeseen circumstances—a personal situation, our last contestant was… eliminated.”

Someone in the shadows snorted at his unfortunate choice of word.

“Er… I mean, he was disqualified,” Abe Braun said hastily. “Because of that, we are happy to invite back our last eliminated… er… We brought back our last contestant!” Sweat beaded on his forehead, but he was managing to keep his composure for his tense crew.

The cameras zoomed in on the contestants, giving Abe Braun a moment to whip out a handkerchief and mop up the sweat that was making his forehead shine under the lights. By the time the cameras were turning back to him, he had the handkerchief tucked back into his pocket and a slight smile, as was appropriate, on his lips.

“Our next round is the dessert round,” he said smoothly, with no indication of his former internal turmoil. This why he was the mastermind behind this show. He was a consummate professional, even in the face of this dire controversy. “We will be heading to Mexico with this tasty favorite—flan! Who doesn’t love it? A rich custard made with eggs, cream, and sugar, dripping with a sweet syrupy sauce. It’s time to work your magic and go home with the money! This is our last round! Your time starts… now!”

BOOK: Cutthroat Chicken
2.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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