An excerpt from Beat Slay Love:
The police chief of Little Neck paused, drinking in his luck.
Here he was, the first customer to enter what was sure to become a famous local landmark once the episode was broadcast. He noticed two cameramen filming him and sucked in his gut, breathing deeply of the aroma in the restaurant. The staff must have been cooking all day.
He could smell short ribs, he thought, roasted to perfection, with perhaps a hint of rosemary and lemon added to the mix. He had starved himself all afternoon in anticipation of his meal at the Grotto. He was ready to tuck in and eat.
The romantic atmosphere was fancy but a bit eerie with empty, forlorn tables, their fake candles dark. Still, maybe he’d take the missus here when everything settled down. He might get lucky.
“Where’d that little prick go?” the Chief asked one of the cameramen.
“No, the owner of this joint,” the Chief clarified, making a note about the crew’s opinion of their boss.
“Beats me. He just ran out the back door and jumped in his car,” a cameraman answered. “His wife was with him. I got the footage. But if we can’t find Byron, there’s no show anyway.”
“Mr. Peppers ever disappear like this before?”
The two cameramen exchanged a glance. No one wanted to bring up that unfortunate episode in Duluth. The girl’s parents were still threatening to bring charges.
“Sometimes Byron gets distracted,” one of them finally said.
The Chief had suspected as much. He was a handsome devil, that Byron Peppers. The thought of meeting the show’s rugged Aussie host perked up the Chief. Maybe he could get a photo with him that he could show to his friends, not to mention the kids. His grandchildren thought he was an old fogey, but if he could snag a photo with a TV star, they’d have to shut their bratty little mouths.
“Smells good,” the Chief remarked, breathing deeply of the fragrant air.
The cameramen shrugged. They’d been let down by too many meals by now to expect anything but disappointment. Most of the restaurants Byron Peppers helped turn around lasted little more than a couple months after the show. The crew could come in and make the restaurant look better, update the menu, and draw a celebrity-hungry crowd for a few weeks, but there wasn’t much they could do about a restaurant owner who was too cheap to use good ingredients, too mean to keep a decent staff, and too indifferent to customers to give quality service.
They were approaching the kitchen. The Chief’s feet slid softly across the new white tile floor. It sure was an improvement over the warped wooden floors. Maybe he could score a short rib or two. He sure was hungry.
“Back door this way?” the Chief asked. The cameramen led the way, pushing through two large swinging doors into a gleaming kitchen that was light years cleaner than it had been just a few days ago.
“I see they kept the old pizza oven,” the Chief said. The delicious aroma was coming from within its brick walls. “I remember when it was first installed. In fact, my great uncle did the mortar work. They don’t make them like that anymore, you know.”
He stepped closer, following his nose. He prided himself on his sense of smell. He definitely detected lemon, rosemary, perhaps a hint of thyme and something else… something different. Something almost delicious but a little off. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
“Smells like your guy did a good job of getting the chef to up his game,” the Chief announced with a touch more superiority than his actual knowledge of cooking merited. “I suspect most of the stuff they’ve been serving here was frozen, at least since the old man died.”
The cameramen rolled their eyes. Most of the dishes would continue to be frozen, makeover or not. And no one would ever know the difference.
The Chief stopped in front of the oven and looked around, scratching his head. Where was everybody? Where was the chef? Where the hell was this vaunted Byron Peppers, charming host ofKitchen Turnaround? For the first time, it occurred to him that something might actually be wrong. He’d just poke around a little.
With nothing else to do, the cameramen rolled tape as the Chief rummaged around the kitchen, opening cabinet doors and lifting the lids on pots. Thus it was that they captured his gruesome discovery in glorious color and recorded his school-girl scream of terror.
Overcome by hunger and delicious odors, the Chief finally opened the doors of the pizza oven for a peek inside. He was expecting short ribs. What he saw would turn him vegetarian for the rest of his life.
The upper rack of the oven had been removed, creating a large cavern heated well above 600°F. Trussed up like a giant turkey, Byron Peppers lay roasting on the bottom rack, an apple shoved in his mouth and sprigs of herbs tucked neatly behind his ears. His eyes were open, a milky opaque. He was naked and his flesh was as crisp and succulent as that of a deep-fried turkey.
The delicious smell the police chief had been coveting was Crispy Cooked Peppers.
It was too much. The chief bent over, bringing up coffee and doughnuts for the benefit of the cameras. He puked again while the cameramen hovered around him, never missing a beat. One zoomed in on their roasting boss then out again, unsure what to do. Perhaps being behind the camera made it all unreal. But once there was nothing new to record, there was nowhere to hide. As one, they lowered their lenses and stared at each another.
“Holy shit,” one cameraman said. “Can you imagine the ratings on this one?”
Killing Byron Peppers had been easy.
It was as simple as slipping tranquilizers into his bottle of bourbon— he could always be depended on to have a bottle of bourbon nearby— and then waiting until the others left. Not long after, the obnoxious, ego-stuffed host had collapsed while trying to drunk-dial some ex-girlfriend. Undressing him was a cinch and seasoning him a simple matter of good taste.
Rosemary, of course, along with a liberal sprinkling of parsley and thyme plus a few lemons stuffed up an orifice or two. The apple in the mouth was perhaps a cheap shot, but nothing Byron Peppers didn’t deserve.
Moving him afterward had been more difficult.
Byron Peppers was no lightweight and had been as limp as twice-frozen celery. In the end, the only solution had been to prop wooden pallets up on the lip of the oven door at an angle before rolling him up the ramp and awkwardly stuffing him inside. A true chef paid attention to presentation, however. It had been worth it to climb onto the pallets, lean into the still-cool oven, and arrange his arms and legs into a neat bundle, securing everything in place with twine. After that, all that remained was to crank up the oven and leave. Heat would take care of the rest.
There was no chance of detection. Invisibility had its benefits. When you are a plump and unimportant minion, people look right through you. Yes sir. They look right through you.
Just the same, it was time to look for work in another town. This job was done. Byron Peppers was dead. It was time to move on to the others on the list.
With a rush, the unwelcome memory of the humiliation to end all humiliations` came rushing back. With it, the role Byron Peppers had played in it unfolded as if it had happened yesterday. The cruel cameras that zoomed in on every slice of a knife and highlighted every extra chin. The judges looking so smug behind their table. The oh-so-clever remarks from those who could get by on their looks alone— the cutting digs about the cuisine, the insincere suggestions on how to make what was clearly a perfect dish better, the casual dismissal that came well before the final round.
Byron Peppers deserved his fate.
Another one down. So many more to go.
There were days when Jason Bainbridge couldn’t believe how lucky he was to make money sitting on his ass, watching television and occasionally springing for an unbelievable meal.
He felt like a fool for having wasted so many years with that stupid guitar, thinking he was talented, covering the soundtrack to Twin Peaks every year with a bunch of other over-the-hill hipsters, all the while sounding like a third-rate Paul Westerberg. Just like a hundred other thirty-something, overweight losers in his hometown who had dropped out of college to become part of the starving but oh-so-cool underclass.
His palate had saved him from obscurity.
Somewhere along the way, Jason had found he enjoyed food more than he enjoyed music. Not any food, but good food, and not just eating it but listening to people talk about it, watching people make it, writing about the reality show battles unfolding on the Food Channel, the one channel he kept playing around the clock on his sixty inch flat screen high-definition television.
Forget Super Bowl Sunday. Forget sweeps week. Forget the premier of new shows. None of that mattered. What mattered was Cupcake Wars. Cake Master. Chopped. Top Chef. Kitchen Confidential. Kitchen Turnaround. Next Food Network Star. Cookie Monsters. Even Cutthroat Kitchen.
The kitchen was his battlefield and he was a warrior. A warrior of words.
The day he realized he was good at something was a shock. It changed his life.
Telling no one in case it turned out to be a flop, he started his own food blog called Forked Tongue. He covered all the reality cooking shows with the devotion of an acolyte and the wisdom of a master, critiquing every move, dissecting every recipe on where it went wrong, even making all-too-educated guesses about the sobriety of the guest judges who drifted in and out of the shows like crazy cousins visiting one another’s homes for the holidays.
He discovered he loved the virtual world. He could be anyone out there in cyberspace.
No one cared that he was slightly overweight and on a dangerous trajectory towards fat. No one cared that he was indifferent to getting his hair cut and seldom wore anything other than a grimy pair of jeans and faded T-shirt.
No one knew that his girlfriend had left him the week before, the latest in a long series of girlfriends to leave him. She had been just like all the others, not understanding why he lived in a ratty apartment and drove a clunker while making a big deal out of driving hundreds of miles for the perfect meal prepared by the rare perfect chef.
Screw them all. Life was about food and food was life.
He’d entered the blogosphere as an unknown novice. Almost immediately, Jason Bainbridge’s posts had risen to the top of favorability ratings on all of the most popular food blogs. He garnered more stars from other posters than anyone.
With each incisive blog, he grew more famous and each day he attracted more advertising attention. He branched out into restaurant reviews and food articles but reality TV chefs were his true love. One day he would achieve his dream of writing the next big exposé about the world of top chefs and the crazy men and women who battled for supremacy within it.
For now, he had expanded his repertoire to include original reporting on developments in the personal lives of the best-known chefs and speculation about their futures. He had proved to be remarkably adept at spotting a budding alcoholic, or someone suffering from the pangs of love, or, even more likely, someone trapped in the cycle of drug addiction, soon to unravel before America’s eyes. Part of the secret of his success was that he had RSS feeds on all the brand-name chefs, followed them religiously on Twitter, and was often the first out of the gate with the news of some personal disaster, thus giving him the power to shape the story for the public.
He had become a voice.
It was a Saturday night when Jason Bainbridge got the news about Byron Peppers. Had he been out drinking micro-brewed ales with his musician pals of old, he would have missed it. His discipline paid off. The report of Pepper’s death came in via a Google News alert that was little more than a brief mention by a major news site saying that famed television chef Byron Peppers had just been found dead in an obscure restaurant in some equally obscure Jersey shore town. Filming of Kitchen Turnaround was on hold. No other details were given.
Jason Bainbridge didn’t need more details. He knew instantly what this latest chef death meant.
He was probably the only person in America, maybe even on the entire planet, who followed the lives of virtually every chef who ever appeared on television. He was also probably the only person in America who remembered that a chef in Miami had been found dead on his boat not three months before, killed by a gunshot wound. His murder was still unsolved.
That in itself was not remarkable, especially given what assholes chefs could be and what hotbeds of intrigue the kitchens of high-end restaurants were. But then another chef, the owner of a small bistro in New York City, had been found dead by her staff not six weeks ago, skewered through both her hypercritical eyes.
One chef, not so surprising. Two chefs, a little suspicious. But three chefs in as many months? Something was up.
Yes, and Jason Bainbridge and Forked Tongue would break the story. Why not? There was nothing to stop him. He had a laptop and he could work wherever he could find a wireless signal. He had nothing to hold him here in his ratty apartment. He’d never gone in for cats and a dog was too much trouble. And once again there was no girlfriend to keep him from hitting the road.
Suddenly, his choice was crystal clear: he could sit there on his couch and keep being an observer of life, or he could get off his butt and go out there and make life happen.
It wasn’t a hard decision to make. Within an hour of the grisly death of Byron Peppers being broadcast on Entertainment Tonight, Jason Bainbridge had his car packed, his bills paid for the month, and his laptop stowed safely in the trunk. He was onto something and he knew it.
He put the clunker in gear and hit the road. This was his ticket to the big time.
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