End of the World: Victoria’s Playground
Andrew brought only his computer and a rucksack of island clothes.
“Casual dress,” the brochure said, “but serious work.” He’d tapped into it twenty times before deciding to go. War of the Worlds: A Summer Camp for End-of-the-World New Age Fiction Writers. Offered by Last World Resorts. He’d never heard of Victoria’s Playground, an island off the coast of Cape Cod, but he wasn’t a geography buff or a sailing enthusiast.
Was it the brochure that enticed him? Someone recognizing his work and urging him to apply? He sent in his sample of writing, was accepted, and mailed the check. Five thousand dollars.
He could only hope it would be worth the time and money. Maybe he wouldn’t learn a lot. He already knew a lot, but it couldn’t hurt to have published writers critique his work. With luck he’d find an agent. An idyllic setting might inspire him. The camp guides, as they were called, were of the caliber of Nevil Shute according to the brochure.
Nevil Shute’s On the Beach was Andrew’s favorite bone-chilling book as a kid. If he could learn to write like that man, it would be worth the five thousand dollars and a whole lot more.
Yes. It might be the perfect jump start for a new life. His life had stalled a bit. Nothing major. He had a beautiful wife. Children who were doing well. His work as an illustrator was fine, but something was missing. Too bad he didn’t want to write children’s stories. Too bad the stories he wanted to write were full of adult drama and disaster. Ah well.
He took the bus from Boston to Woods Hole. Near the ferry that took passengers to Martha’s Vineyard, he saw a smaller chartered boat with a sign for Victoria’s Playground. Beside it stood two dozen individuals, ranging in age from twenty to eighty, waiting for a steward to motion them on board.
It was a twenty minute trip, just beyond the first of the privately-owned Elizabeth Islands. Victoria’s Playground appeared almost devoid of vegetation, strikingly different from the islands surrounding it.
Andrew noticed a bit of give as he stepped off the boat onto dry land.
“What’s this?” he asked the captain.
The captain shrugged and remained silent.
The director of the camp jogged down the path to greet the new arrivals. He had the look of a modern day Robinson Crusoe. Andrew suspected this was for dramatic effect—shaggy red hair, unkempt beard but wearing new Dockers and Birkenstock sandals. As he ran toward the boat, Andy noticed a bounce, bounce, bounce of the ground beneath his feet.
After the enthusiastic, booze-enhanced greetings from the Camp leader—“Call me Bill”, Andrew asked about the peculiar sea sick feeling he was having on land.
“Oh that. That’s nothing. Drink a little rum and you won’t notice it.”
“No, really, I want to know what it is.”
“Okay, Okay.” Bill leaned his shaggy head into Andy’s face. Andrew stepped back. The alcohol was overwhelming. “It’s just, well, how shall I put it? This is a floating island. A lot cheaper and more moveable.”
“You’re telling me we’re on a giant raft?”
“Hey man, not so loud. We call it a floating paradise. Everything you need in 20,000 square feet. It’s huge, man. You remember the weight requirements. Remember that? How much did you weigh? How much did your luggage weigh? Well, now you can understand why. Keep it to yourself, okay? Our little secret. I’ll have a few perks for you if you can do that. In an hour you won’t know or care that you’re on a giant raft. You’ll be feeling no pain.”
Andy felt a lot of pain and it wasn’t from the gentle sway of the island. Five thousand dollars for some pickled camp leader and life on a giant raft? He looked at the group around him. No one seemed to have heard the exchange.
“We’re on a fucking raft,” he said loud enough for everyone to hear.
Bill yanked him out of line. “We always have one—a real jokester this guy.”
Andrew shook him off. “Don’t ever touch me again,” he said. “Just give me back my $5000 and let me get back on the boat.”
“No can do,” the director said. “If it were up to me sure. I’d have you off the island in a minute.” He smiled. “You can leave. You just can’t get your money back. My wife owns the place and she doesn’t part with her money. Settle down, man. Have a few drinks. Play a little. Know what I mean? What happens on Victoria’s Playground, stay’s on Victoria’s Playground.”
Andrew got his drift and hauled off to flatten him when a woman intervened. Not Bill’s wife but a fellow participant. She took Andrew’s fist, unfolded his fingers and shook his hand. “Monica,” she said. “Ignore Bill. He makes a lot more sense when he isn’t soused. This is my third trip. Honestly, I learn a lot every time I come.”
Andrew stepped back. “Really? You know this guy?”
She nodded. She was a pretty girl. He walked beside her and noticed she had a slight limp.
“You write end-of-the-world-new-age fiction?” he asked.
“I try to. I read more of it than I write. It’s saved my life really.” She rubbed at an ugly scar visible just below her very short shorts. “When things get bad or I feel sorry for myself I pick up a good book about the end of the world and my problems seem so trivial.” She studied him in a slightly provocative way. “You write, don’t you?”
“Why do you write?” she asked.
“That’s a complicated question,” he said. “I love the thrill of the chase. I like people who survive against all odds. I can invent the future, not just live in the present.”
“You don’t like living in the present?” she asked.
“No, no, I like the present. Sometimes I just want a little more . . . excitement.”
“I know what you mean.” She placed a hand on his shoulder and ran her fingers lightly down his arm.
He shrugged away from her and briefly wondered if Maria was one of the perks Bill was talking about. “I’m happily married,” he said.
“Lucky man,” she responded.
They walked side by side to the bunkhouse where the group would stay. No separation of the sexes, Andy noted, but locks on every private room. The rooms themselves were spare. A double bed, a wooden desk, a small book case, and a light.
“Get yourselves settled,” Bill said to the group. “Choose any room you like. We have security on site but make sure you lock your rooms, take the keys. We know your writing is precious, and we wouldn’t want anything to happen to it. Bathrooms are down the hall. Knock before you enter since we’re coed. The mess hall is across the way. We’ll have lunch in an hour and start the classes this afternoon.”
Bill’s speech was slurred enough for people to ask him to repeat what he’d just said. Andrew had had enough. He headed for a room upstairs, in the corner, as far away from everyone as he could get. Maria followed him.
“Do you mind if I take the room next to yours?” she asked.
Andy hesitated, the key in his hand, the door open.
“I won’t bother you, I promise,” Maria said. “I get it. You’re a happily-married man. I’d just feel secure with you on one side.”
Andy looked at her. “Are you afraid of someone here?”
Maria sighed. “You never know what might happen. A new group of people I don’t know. On an island. You just never know.”
Andrew nodded at her. “Sure,” he said.
He turned his attention to his room and his work. He didn’t need much, but this place was spartan. They hadn’t spent a lot of his $5000 on accommodations, that was clear. He Skyped his wife and filled her in on most of what was going on. He left Maria out of the picture. Not that his wife would get jealous. She trusted him, but there was no reason to worry her.
Lunch was a lot like the accommodations. Cheap food, most of it unhealthy. Hot dogs, potato chips, canned peaches and store-bought cookies. He heard a few disgruntled murmurs from other participants.
So did Bill.
“Welcome,” Bill proclaimed. “The lunch is simple. We want you to keep a clear head for your writing. Tonight we will have a deprivation dinner. Yeah, you heard me right. What would you be eating if you were alive after the war of the worlds? You’ll see tonight.”
Several people groaned.
“It’s not as bad as all that,” Bill said waving his arms haphazardly. “We need a little atmosphere to inspire good writing. We’ll have a cash bar open at four. You won’t have to feel the pain.”
People were done eating in fifteen minutes. When it was apparent paper plates were being thrown in the trash, Bill introduced his wife Jean Louise to the group.
She looked vaguely familiar to Andrew. Ah yes, she was an author he’d read as a child. He’d seen her picture on the jacket flaps. She did a series for young adults, After the Apocalypse. They became repetitive, and when he finished the third book he was done with them.
She’d actually inspired him to try his own hand at writing. He was certain he could write a more interesting series if he put his mind to it. Jean Louise had aged well. She had to be sixty but she didn’t look it. Plastic surgery he suspected.
“Jean Louise is the brains behind this organization,” Bill said. “She’s designed the writing exercises and hired the writing staff who will review your work. Everyone you meet is a published author, so your personal review tomorrow will be done by people who know what they’re talking about.
Jean Louise took over. “Each of you will be given—“ she glanced at Bill.
“A bag of tricks,” Bill said.
“A bag of tricks, like Halloween,” she giggled. “See what you have in your bag. One—” she searched for the word.
“One gadget, gizmo,” Bill took over. “Write how you might use it to save yourself if you were the sole survivor of World War III. At two, you’ll come back here, meet at the table with your name on it and share stories. Then we’ll build on your ideas.”
“What fun,” Jean Louise said with another giggle and a clap of enthusiasm.
Andy didn’t think she sounded drunk, more like she’d lost it. A touch of early dementia, too much acid in her youth? Who knew?
He took his bag and headed for his room. Maria was at his heels. She was examining her object—an empty can of Spam. “So what do I do with this? What did you get?”
“I’m going to check mine out in the room,” Andrew said.
“Mind if we work together? I hate working alone.”
“I’m sorry,” Andy said. “I work alone. I think alone. I write alone. This is serious business for me.”
Maria put one hand on her hip. “I wasn’t implying a thing, you know. What, you think you’re god’s gift to women with your muscles and your curly brown hair? You’re not.”
She flounced off. Then abruptly she turned around and marched back to him. “You think serious work gets done here? Boy, are you a sucker!”
He was already beginning to think she was right. Here he was on a floating raft with one soused director, another one who had apparently lost her marbles, and Maria, who shared some similarities with a jelly fish. Ready to cling and sting.
He sighed deeply.
A young man appeared at his side. Shaved head, a single earring, and a carefully tended beard. “Hey, man. Name’s Geoff. I see you’ve met Maria and already ticked her off. She’s a regular here, so I’m told. People say to stay away from her, but maybe it’s too late for that.”
“ It may be. She’s in the room next to mine.”
“Keep your door locked,” Goeff said with a smile.
“You’ve been here before?”
Goeff shook his head. “Not really. I got sick before last year’s session, so they bumped me to this one. I did a lot of corresponding with a friend who did go.”
“And you came anyway?” Andy said.
“It’s not that bad. At least I don’t think it is. Sad about my friend though. He was having a pretty good time. ‘Course if you gave him enough booze, he’d have a good time wherever he went. He got in pretty deep with Maria and had a time getting out. That’s why I know about her. Then something happened. He stopped communicating. I thought I must have ticked him off with too many questions.”
“Nope. He fell off the end of a pier and drowned. Drunk. They didn’t find him until the next morning.”
“Wow,” That was all Andrew could manage. “I’m sorry.”
They split up at the stairs to the second floor. Geoff’s room was down the hall, first level. Andrew headed cautiously to his, worried Maria would be parked outside. Okay, so he’d met one normal person, one strange person and worrisome directors. He’d give it a chance.
He opened his door to find Maria inside.
She was hunched over his computer.
“What the hell?”
“Don’t get your boxers in a bunch. I wanted to apologize. I thought I’d leave a note on your computer. You may have thought you locked your door but you didn’t.”
“I did lock the door. Now get the hell out of here.”
Maria stood, walked out the door and left it open. “A child of five could pick these locks,” she said.
Andrew slammed it shut, stuck a chair underneath the handle of the door and emailed his wife. He told her everything that was happening. Better to talk by email he told her because it wasn’t clear who might be listening.
His wife responded to the long diatribe. Can you get another room, she emailed? Can you get your money back and come home?
No and no. I’ll handle it. But if I’m washed off some pier, don’t believe it. Things are screwy around here.
Don’t scare me, she wrote back. Come home.
This wasn’t good. He’d managed to frighten his wife half to death.
It’s okay, he wrote. I’ll use all this in my next story. Don’t worry about me. We’ll stay in touch. If anything gets dicey I’ll get out of here.
He got off his email and looked for Maria’s letter of apology. No such letter. But someone, Maria, had been reading his stories. He knew because she’d left them open on the screen.
Damn. Settle down.
He opened his paper bag and found a melted screw driver. Apparently the end of the world had been hot and furious. The handle was charred and the metal tip was now a mangled piece with a sharp tip.
Andy sat down and wrote. He finished five minutes before the two o’clock deadline. He took his computer to the mess hall—it would never leave his side for the rest of the trip.
Geoff waved him over. “You’re at my table. Meet Ellie, Jayne, and Alex. This is Andrew.” Everyone nodded agreeably. Andy glanced around. No sign of Maria. Thank God. Bill also seemed to be out of sight, hopefully sleeping it off.
Jean Louise stood in the center of the room with a handheld microphone and read from a typed script. “You’ll read your stories and then combine them into a single post-apocalyptic short story. When you’re ready, one of our staff will review the group project and help you perfect it. Designate your best reader to read to share it with the participants. The winning group will get a prize.”
“What?” Andrew muttered under his breath. “Are we in grammar school?”
“It’s gonna be fun,” Geoff said. “Forget the stupid prize.’
Despite everything about this despicable camp, Andy discovered the assignment was fun. Each participant read his piece. Andrew’s had his protagonist use the screwdriver to kill the wounded alien, who had brought disaster on the world and was particularly sensitive to burnt metal. They took that as their centerpiece. Geoff’s broken eye glass became the way they started a fire and cooked the alien’s flesh. The others chipped in their paragraphs about a dried dog turd, half an Iphone, and a shoe lace.
“Let’s take a fifteen minute break,” Geoff said, “and let the creative juices flow before we try to write our story. I’ll return these items to Jean Louise. I know she won’t want to lose any of them.”
“If she remembers what they were for in the first place,” Andy said.
As it turned out the group write was remarkably easy. Their 5000 word short story had them laughing hysterically. The end of the world didn’t have to be grim, or so they thought.
Other groups in the room were struggling to finish on time, and no one was smiling. A few people looked over in disgust, forcing Jean Louise to come to Andrew’s table. “I hope you are taking your assignment seriously,” she said. This time she didn’t giggle.
“Absolutely,” Andy replied. “No one said the writing couldn’t be a spoof, and that’s what ours turned out to be.” Kind of like this whole week. He didn’t say those words out loud, but Jean Louise got the message.
“Why don’t we speak after dinner,” she said to him. “I’m not certain you have the right frame of mind for our work.”
“I’m sure I don’t. Does that mean I can get my money back?”
This time she did giggle. “You are a funny man. Of course not, but I would like you to get the best out of this week. And I think that might take an attitude adjustment.” She swished away in her retro hippy skirt and plastic lei, stopping at tables where she was enthusiastically greeted.
A member of the writing staff came over and introduced himself. “I’m Dom Ricardo,” he said with an accent.
“I know you,” Ellie exclaimed. “You write serials, don’t you, for the Spanish ‘End of World’ night time soap?”
Ricardo clicked his heels. “At your service. I’m flattered you know my work. You speak Spanish?”
“My boyfriend does. We watch you every night. Well, not you, but what you write.”
“Gracias. May I see what you have written?” Ricardo read the story and guffawed as he went along. “Perfecto. You should win if there is justice in this world or the one that comes after disaster.”
Andrew smiled. Okay, he had a table of sane participants and one sane reader. Hopefully, Ricardo or someone like him would read his first fifty pages.
No such luck.
The private individual review was scheduled for four o’clock—just at the time when the bar opened. Unfortunately, his reviewer stopped there first.
“Hey, hey, hey,” he said, handing Andy a tall glass of liquid the color of the ocean with a plastic dolphin perched on the side. “You are gonna love this.”
Andrew nodded, put the drink aside. No need to alienate his reviewer with the thoughts in his head.
“I thought about reading this ahead of time,” the unnamed man said. “But then I thought the real value comes if we read it together. Spontaneous like. I’ll be able to hear what does and doesn’t work.” He took a long sip from a drink that looked exactly like Andrew’s—only this one was half empty and had a plastic octopus hooked on the side of the glass.
“Let me get this straight,” Andrew said trying to keep his voice even. “You have not read my piece, and now you want me to read it out loud to you.”
“You got it. Of course, we won’t be able to read all of it in 30 minutes but we’ll get the flavor. And you know an agent or publisher only looks at the first page. If you don’t hook him then, you’re dead in the water. Let’s see if you hook me?” He took another massive swig.
Andrew wanted to hook the guy all right. With a nice piece of fishing tackle or maybe just his fist. He was done. He stood up. “You are a joke,” he said. “This place is a joke. I’m out of here.”
The guy looked up at him perplexed or bleary eyed—Andy couldn’t tell which and didn’t care. “Does that mean I can have your drink? They charge extra for the plastic animals.”
“Yeah, you can have my drink.” Andrew poured it over his head, and everyone in the mess hall grew quiet. Everyone except Bill, who charged over from the bar.
“You’re coming with me,” Bill said. “Now.”
“Like hell I am. This is a circus. No, make that a scam. I want my $5000 and a boat out of here.” He pulled Bill off him as if he were a leech. Unfortunately, all Bill had to do was raise his hand and three very big guys encircled Andrew.
“You’ve been a troublemaker since you stepped off the boat,” Bill said.
“You haven’t seen anything yet,” Andrew said. “Give me my $5000 and I’ll leave quietly. Don’t give it to me, and you’ll see what kind of hard time I’ll give you. A law suit. Social media. Bad reviews. You’ll see what I can do.”
As soon as he said it, he regretted it. Andrew wasn’t in a position of power. He looked around the room to see if he could raise an army, but everyone else had their heads down. This was his fight, and he was in no position to win it.
The circle of three closed in on him. He remembered the dead participant who “fell” off the end of the pier.
“Okay, okay,” he said. “I lost my cool. I’ve found it again.”
Bill looked skeptical. He nodded to the body guards. “Escort him back to his room,” Bill said. “Make sure he stays there. I’ll talk to Jean Louise and we’ll settle this tonight.” Bill fingered his beard. His tone changed. “We’ll come to a mutual understanding.”
As it turned out there wasn’t time for a mutual understanding. The men escorted Andrew back to his room. They positioned themselves outside in the hall as Andrew put the key in the lock.
Before he could turn it, the door swung open.
There on the bed lay Maria, eyes open, dead. Andrew yelled for help and all three men tumbled into the room.
“Jesus Christ, what have you done?” the biggest one said. “Harry, call Bill. See if he wants us to call the police.”
“See if he wants you to call the police?” Andrew screamed. “Call the damn police or I’ll call them myself. And don’t touch anything.”
“You think she’s dead?” Harry asked.
The big one shook his head and shrugged. “She looks dead.”
“Well, I’m gonna check.” Harry reached over, two fingers on her carotid. “Dead and gettin’ stiff. This didn’t just happen. She’s been dead a couple of hours at least. See that puncture wound over her heart. Sharp, small point. Looks like a . . . .
“Screw driver,” Andrew said softly.
“Hey, man, you use that screwdriver on her?” Harry said.
“Shit,” was all Andrew could manage.
“Joe, get the screwdriver from the meeting room and bring Bill back here now.”
“You can save your breath. I’m here,” said Bill.
Behind him stood Jean Louise. “Oh my goodness,” she said. “Maria! We can’t hush this one up, Bill.”
“Shut your mouth,” Bill said.
“Never say that to me again,” Jean Louise hissed. “Never again. I’m the reason you’re here.”
Andrew was now certain he was in a mad house. Can’t hush this one up? What the hell did that mean? And where was the screw driver? Jean Louise had it didn’t she? Was it really the murder weapon?
He heard Geoff before he saw him.
“What’s all the commotion? I thought you might want the screwdrier as a souvenir, so I left it for you outside your door. I guess you found it.” Geoff pointed to the screw driver on the bed, and Andrew grabbed it to examine it.
Then Geoff saw Maria. “What have you done? Sure, she’s a nuisance, but she didn’t deserve this. You must have some temper!”
“Look, you idiot. I had nothing to do with this. I was with you all afternoon, remember?”
The first body guard spoke up. “She’s been dead a while. Locked door. Your room. It don’t look good for you mister.”
Andrew raised his hand, the hand holding the screw driver, and the guard shoved his arm behind his back. The screw driver clanked to the floor.
“I’m calling the police,” Bill said. “We have no choice. You keep him subdued until they get here. Do whatever you have to do.”
Andrew stopped struggling. He slid to the floor beside the bed, beside Maria’s body. The guard let him go. “Just don’t try to get up, buddy.”
“I’m down and out. Not going anywhere,” Andy said.
A crowd had gathered in the hallway. Bill ordered everyone to the mess hall. He’d make an announcement there in a few minutes. And dinner would be served after that. Anything to keep a mutiny from occurring.
It took the police half an hour to arrive by launch. Andrew hadn’t moved and neither had his guards. They stepped out of the way when the detective and crime scene squad arrived. Andy couldn’t remember much about the night.
Questioning occurred in one of the unoccupied guest rooms. How did he know the young woman? Why was she in his room? He answered what he could, lost in a CSI world. Part of him hoped this was a prank—intended to wring out strong emotions and give everyone’s writing a jolt of new intensity. He’d never actually touched Maria—maybe she wasn’t dead, only acting.
By morning he knew it was no joke. He called his wife. She called a lawyer. Geoff offered to help in any way he could. The other participants stayed away.
Geoff looked sympathetic. “I know you didn’t mean to kill her. She can be annoying. Everyone knows that.”
“I didn’t kill her,” Andrew said.
“Yeah, sure. I just meant if you had we could all understand. She’s a bitch. All the guys here know that. A tease.”
“You knew her?”
“No. Just hearsay.”
Jean Louise overheard their conversation. “But of course you knew her, Geoffrey or whatever you’re calling yourself these days. She was all over you last year. You remember, don’t you?”
Andy studied Geoff. “I thought you missed last year—got sick and got bumped to this course.”
“That’s right. You’ve got me mixed up with someone else, Jean Louise.” He turned to Andrew. “You know she doesn’t think straight.”
“Oh, Goeff. You can’t imagine that using a pseudonym, shaving your head and growing a beard would make you unrecognizable. You, your friend and Maria were thick as thieves last year. What was your friend’s name?”
“His name was Mark. But we weren’t here together. You have that wrong.”
Jean Louise rubbed a hand over her face. “And then there was that terrible argument. Yes, I remember.” She looked as if a light was slowly dawning. “It was over Maria. She seemed to fancy Mark more than you. That was it. That was when you took sick. Right after your friend fell off the pier. I was surprised you wanted to come back, but hope springs eternal.” She looked hard at Geoff. “You thought you could make her love you, didn’t you?”
“You’re a demented fool!” Geoff said.
“Not so demented,” Jean Louise said.
“Maria confided in me. You scared her. You pushed her down a flight of stairs last year and she never fully recovered. She was determined to stay away from you.”
“That’s where I came in,” Andrew said. “That’s why she wanted to stay near me. A happily married guy who wouldn’t bother her. Who might protect her.” His face fell. “And all the time I thought she was a nut case.”
He turned on Geoff. “You did this to her and tried to frame me with the screw driver. You bastard!”
“It was obvious she fancied you. That wasn’t going to happen again. I was done with her, and I figured out a way to be done with both of you.” Geoff scoffed . “It doesn’t matter anymore. When Maria and I first met, she did care about me. Then, when she saw I was an unpublished author she lost interest. I came this time to tell her I’d signed a book deal, but it was too late. You were her hero, the self-published author of a half-dozen books. Screw you.”
Geoff grabbed the screw driver and attempted to do just that. But Andrew was too quick for him. He grabbed the screw driver out of Geoff’s hands and held it at Geoff’s throat.
“Do it. Do it. Put me out of my misery.” Geoffrey screamed.
Jean Louise stepped in. She took the screw driver from Andrew’s trembling hand. “Write about it instead,” she said.
“That’s a whole different genre—amateur sleuth, cozy mysteries,” Andy said. “Soft stuff.”
“It’s hot right now, exciting,” Jean Louise replied. “This end-of-the-world lit is becoming passé. Move on. If you have some recipes to put at the end of your cozy, that’ll seal the deal.
The lights were so much hotter than she’d expected. Tiffany could see her domed dessert listing to one side. Would Chef Grit notice? Of course she would. Tiffany resisted the impulse to push it to the left or to straighten her apron, or to make sure her blond pony tail was tidy. Instead she held her fidgety hands tightly behind her back.
Eleanor Grit was a large woman, more manly than fat. She towered over Tiffany and didn’t mind the height difference.“I’m not a judgmental person,” Eleanor said, looking down at her prey. “But I do know what I like, and frankly I know what’s good and what’s not.”
Tiffany stared up at her.
“This, my dear, is terrible. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.” She smiled broadly at her culinary joke.
Tiffany did not smile back. Truth be told, she was close to tears, but she would not cry.
“This was an overly ambitious entry for such an inexperienced baker. Baked Alaska? Too much. Too old fashioned.”
“It’s Baked Louisiana,” Tiffany said quietly. “A take-off on the older dessert. I thought it might be a bit . . . whimsical.”
“Whimsical? Whatever made you think this contest was meant to be whimsical? The winner travels to Paris for a week with the greatest pastry chefs in the world.”
Tiffany stared at the ground. I will not cry she told herself.
“You have nothing to say?” Eleanor asked. “A competent chef can always explain his choices and his rationale.”
Before Tiffany could think of a response, Eleanor had moved on. “Next,” she shouted, “Ronald Bartrow.”
A young man scurried up with a pie decorated with bits of candied mango on top. A little too much anxiety sent the pie skidding off the plate and landing at Eleanor’s feet. She stepped over it and yelled for the next contestant, Simone duChamp”.
“You”re French?” Eleanor asked. “You have that dark coloring and emaciated body French women seem to covet.”
“Ah, oui,”Simone said without a trace of irritation. She knew she was beautiful—everyone told her so. “But I speak excellent English.”
Eleanor took a bite of her gateau Gallois.
“I’m afraid you speak better than you bake.” She spit out the bite the way a wine connoisseur might spit out a sip of wine. The difference was that Eleanor did it with dramatic disgust. “Truly inedible my dear.”
Unlike Tiffany, Simone had no intention of crying. “People warned me about you,” she said. “A woman who was never that good as a pastry chef, intent on making everyone else look bad. I didn’t believe them, but I should have.”
“Stop filming now!” Eleanor yelled. “You will remove that comment and this contestant from the show.” She marched off the stage. “I”ll be back when I’m back.”
The set went dark. The crew seemed unfazed by the outburst. They grabbed a cup of coffee and asked Simone and Tiffany if they might have some of their creations.
“What’s in this Baked Louisiana?” the boom operator asked. “It’s fantastic. Hey, Joe, get some of this while it lasts.”
“The secret is Meyer’s lemons,” Tiffany said.”I might as well tell you as I’m not about to win the contest.”
The gaffer was stuffing his mouth with the gateau Gallois. “Oh my God, this is amazing.”
“Merci, monsieur,” Simone said.
The contestants who had already been shafted gathered around the table with their rejected efforts. The other contestants kept their distance the way you might stay away from someone with the plague.
“It isn’t catching,” Tiffany said. “We aren’t a leper colony.”
“You’ll be joining us soon enough,” Simone said. She turned to Tiffany. “The whole thing is rigged, that’s what my friend said. But I figured all publicity was good publicity. People watch Eleanor Grit, the chef they love to hate. Now I won’t even be in the segment. Sometimes, my temper gets the best of me.”
“Oh, I loved what you said.” Tiffany smiled broadly. “I wished I’d had the nerve to speak up to her.”
“You did fine. Saying it was meant to be whimsical was a perfect way to show what a pompous drudge she is.”
“If it is rigged,” Tiffany asked, “who do you think is the winner?”
“Look at them.” She pointed to the five contestants waiting to be reviewed. “Notice anything?”
“They all look petrified.”
“All of them?” asked Simone. “Look again.”
One contestant was seated by herself, doing her nails. She noticed the two women staring at her and frowned at them.
“You mean her?” Tiffany asked.
“Who does their nails during a bake-off? The smell alone would drive a judge crazy. A real judge I mean.”
There was no more time for speculation. Eleanor had returned to the set. Lights went back on as if nothing had happened.
“You did clear that last segment,” she said to the director.
“Good as done,” he replied.
‘Very well, who’s next?” She looked at her roster and called Ambrose Pendergrast. She tasted his offering of a flaky cherry pie.
“Hmm,” she said. “Mediocre at best. Such an imposing name and such a disappointing offering.” That didn’t stop her from taking several more bites.
Next she called the girl with the newly-painted nails. “Ashley Arora.”
Eleanor studied the young woman before tasting her seven-layer cake. “Lovely,” she said. “Both you and the cake. A wonderful presentation, your nails the shade of the frosting. Stunning.”
Ashley beamed. “Thank you.”
Eleanor took a rather large bite of the cake. It seemed as if she might have bitten into something not quite edible. She turned her back to the camera and removed a piece of tin foil. When she returned her smile was in place. “This is exquisite. Where did you get the recipe, my dear?”
“My grandmother gave it to me days before she died. Her last wish was to have me learn how to bake her seven-layer cake. She helped me in the kitchen that last day. Sadly she didn’t live to taste it.”
“Perhaps not so sad,” Eleanor said and then seemed to catch herself. “I mean she got to pass on a wonderful recipe to you. That is all that would have mattered to her.”
Tiffany and Simone nodded knowingly at one another. They made a beeline to the serving table to get their own taste of this exquisite dessert once Ashley left the stage.
Simone took the first bite.“It’s disgusting,” she said. “I think she must have substituted salt for sugar. It’s horrible.”
Tiffany took a much smaller taste. Kinder by nature, she couldn’t find words for her experience.
Ashley walked up as they were about to throw their plates away. “Oh my God, you’re not eating that are you? It’s liable to make you sick. Don’t do that.”
She ran off with the rest of the cake before either one of them could respond. Ashley dumped all seven layers in a nearby trash can.
“What was that?” Simone asked.
“Quiet on the set,” the director shouted. “We have more contestants.”
Tiffany and Simone took a seat. “I probably don’t have to stay,” Simone said, “since they took me out of the whole show. I know they like to see how disappointed all the losers are. I’ll stay with you if you like.”
“Please,” Tiffany said.
Together they watched as the last three contestants brought their desserts to the tasting table. Eleanor was in good form. Each of them got a unique dressing down.
“How does she come up with all those comments?” Tiffany asked.
“I’m sure she has a writer giving her the one-liners.”
The last contestant left the stage. Eleanor stood, ready to make the announcement of the winner. She got as far as “Ashley,” but couldn’t seem to get “Arora” out of her mouth. Instead she lurched forward and then keeled over, the camera catching her every movement.
“Oh my God,” Tiffany said. She and Simone were on their feet. “This can’t be happening.”
A crowd gathered around Eleanor. Shouts came. “Is she breathing? Get a doctor.”
“Is there a doctor in the house?”
A handsome Indian man rose from his seat. “I’m a doctor.” The crowd parted and the young man knelt beside Eleanor. He pulled out a stethoscope he apparently had in his pocket and listened to her heart. He opened one eyelid.
“Gone, I’m afraid.”
The camera crew hadn’t stopped filming. They swept the audience and the contestants for their signs of grief and fear.
A security guard stepped forward. “No one can leave until the police arrive. We have to know if this was an accidental death or murder?”
“Murder? Murder?” The word ricocheted around the room.
“Like poison?” Simone asked. And then she looked at Tiffany. “Are you feeling all right? I’m a little queasy. You don’t think that cake—”
“But Ashley won the contest,” Tiffany replied.
“Yes, but not on her merits. The cake tasted, you know, metallic.”
Simone was looking a little green.
Tiffany helped her sit down. “I don’t feel sick at all,” Tiffany said.
“Yes, but you barely had a bite. I warned you off.”
Tiffany nodded. “It’s true. I owe my life to you. We have to get that doctor over here.”
Tiffany ran in search of the Indian physician. He was off stage getting made-up.
“What? What’s going on?” Tiffany screamed. “My friend thinks she may be dying from that cake that Eleanor ate and said she loved.”
“What are you rambling on about? Look, I have a show to do next. What’s your problem?”
“What’s my problem? A woman is dead and you have a show to do?”
The young man paused and asked the make-up artist to leave for just a moment.
He took both of Tiffany’s hands in his own. “You do know you’re on a reality TV show, don’t you?”
“Of course,” Tiffany said.
“Well then you should not be alarmed. The ratings for Eleanor’s show were falling. She needed to do something. We’ll bring her back in the next episode.”
At that moment, Eleanor stopped by. “Thanks, Jeff, you were perfect."
“I guess you didn’t tell your contestants what was going on?”
“How could we and get their honest reactions? Really Jeff, you know fake news has to be very dramatic and convincing. It was, don’t you think?”
If Tiffany had had a frying pan at that moment or a good paring knife, Eleanor’s death might not have remained fake news. Instead she stormed off to let Simone know she wasn’t dying.
After a moment of hysterical relief, Simone looked at Tiffany. “The world thinks Eleanor is dead, n’est pas?”
“What if something happens before the next show and Eleanor really is dead?”
Tiffany blanched. “You don’t mean that.”
Simone studied Tiffany’s shocked expression. “Of course not,” she said with an enigmatic expression. “But I do think I may bring her a few new desserts to help her in her recovery. Anonymously of course.
Tiffany hesitated and then nodded. “I think I can help with that. I suppose if something were to happen to Chef Grit, the network might be looking for a replacement, perhaps a dynamic duo—one Southern and one French.”
“You’re a genius, Tiffany.” Simone kissed her on each cheek. “I love your concept of reality TV—when one’s fantasies become the truth.”