Sunday, 18 October 2009
CONTENTS MAY VARY - by Mark Robinson
CONTENTS MAY VARY
‘Shine the torch over here; I’m not seeing it.’
It was two am; about thirty-two hours after his guests had left the restaurant and, maybe, sixteen hours since they all started to get sick.
Food poisoning was written on the forms accompanying the bodies; the food part caged inside brackets and counter-signed by the shaky hand holding on to the torch.
‘Come on, hurry up; you want me to lose my job?’ The smell was overpowering, even to Tyrone who should have been used to it after his time working in the hospital. But, like death itself, Tyrone maintained it was something he would never get used to.
‘If you wanna roll your sleeves up and give me a hand, I’ll be done a lot quicker.’ Rubbing his running nose with the back of his bloody wrist; unsure but convinced he’d, somehow, managed to smear their blood on his face.
‘Forget it; this is your mess; you sort it out.’ Tyrone was only there so his mate wouldn’t be arrested; he felt like reminding Paul of the fact but realised he was just repeating himself.
And, what a mess it was; all Paul had been trying to do was show off the diamond engagement ring he was planning to pass on to his girlfriend, Amanda, for the elaborate dinner he had arranged. Whether it was the Salmon pate for starters or the bourguignon sauce; the ring must have slipped from his fingers and dropped into one of the pans lined along the stove.
It wasn’t until he came to get up off his chair and bend before her that he realised the ring was missing. Leaving his guests; their families and friends, Paul rounded up the kitchen staff and, together, they dredged the pots, pans and trays but the ring was gone.
Looking out across the dining hall of seated guests enjoying the celebrations, all of them unaware what they were actually present to celebrate, realisation hit him that the ring was out there somewhere; should he tell them and ruin the surprise for Amanda? A three-hundred pound diamond ring that had belonged to his mother and his father’s mother? He had to do something, but what?
Gary, his Suez-chef, told him to wait it out; if someone had swallowed it accidentally, they would surely find out when it passed through them the next day. That idea was all well and good until the diners started getting sick. Worse still when his mate, Tyrone who worked at the hospital, rang up and told him two of his soon-to-be-fiancé’s cousins were dead.
Soon the hospital admittance form read like the restaurant guest list; reading through the names of his extended family while he waited for the consultant to finish with Amanda. Later, at his dying girlfriend’s bedside, Paul had an idea; with nothing left to lose now everyone he cared about were either on their hospital or death beds, he text Tyrone and asked him to meet in the basement outside the morgue.
Neither of them knew what they were doing; Paul was a chef, whereas Tyrone worked in a hospital, granted, but that didn’t qualify him to be doing this. He was just a glorified porter; someone who signed the bodies in and out.
The sight and aroma of his food during digestion left little to the imagination; all that hard work and dedicated preparation it underwent before the plate was allowed to even leave the kitchen, now seemed like such wasted effort. He would cry if there were any tears left to shed; Amanda and this whole situation had seen to that. Was it his fault that the guests were keeling over? Was his cooking that bad? Being so busy, Paul had had little chance to sample the food and, for that, he was overwhelmed with guilt.
Not so with Tyrone; the fact that he was scheduled to cover a late shift meant he had missed the meal and was still standing, albeit in a dark morgue basement holding onto a torch while his best mate sifted through the stomach contents of his family and friends.
‘Anything yet?’ Tyrone was getting nervous; but, that was hardly a shock, he had a nervous disposition normally.
No reply except the sounds of forced breathing and effort.
‘Paul!’ Louder; an octave above a whisper.
‘What?!’ On his knees above a mass of mess, squinting against a beam of torch light. Bringing out the deep colour red around the stark white room sheathed in shadows.
‘Have you found it, yet?’ A stupid question that floated in the air between them; did he really think they would still be standing there if Paul had managed to find it? And, who would clean up the mess; someone would notice this tomorrow morning.
A noise startled them; stopped Paul from giving Tyrone the response he deserved. From outside, along the corridor, they waited like wax mannequins eyes wide toward the sound as they heard it again; a squeaking whinge like something rolling across a tile floor.
In a second, the torch beam disappeared and they were both swamped in darkness; ‘Hide!’
Paul had nowhere to go; up to his wrists in his girlfriend’s uncle, he reached for a steady surface and shot toward the back of the room, unsure if a trail of someone else’s blood would lead whoever should enter to his hiding place.
The door bounced open and brilliant light blinkered them both; Paul on his knees beneath a bench and Tyrone behind a door. Then, the room went still; like breath caught in someone’s throat; Paul guessed it was the scene he had set. Looking down at his bloody hands, then up to the streaks that had brought him over.
It was probably all over, anyway; from the questions being asked by the police at Amanda’s bedside. He was the cook so it was all his fault. Paul knew he shouldn’t have brought Tyrone into all this. About to rise from the cold floor, he heard the double doors slam shut and a lock being slid into place.
Had the person gone? A few squeaks told him no.
‘We’re locked in.’ A loud call that echoed slightly around the room.
Paul didn’t answer; neither did Tyrone. Like him, he probably wanted to know who it was. And, why they had decided to lock themselves inside. Apart from the obvious, something else was wrong.
‘Don’t make me drag you out of wherever it is you’re hiding; I’ve got somewhere else to be tonight.’
That voice; now he heard more of it, Paul realised it was being masked. Yet, sounded, familiar; like a caller on the phone chewing gum while they spoke.
Scanning the brightness for a weapon; he’d had a scalpel in his hand earlier, where was it now? Lying beside the last body.
Movement followed by a light scrape registered; ‘Hey, Paul? You forgot your scalpel, Paul.’
He knew his name; was Tyrone as worried as he was?
‘I just spoke to Amanda; shocking what a bit of food poisoning can do to the nervous system.’
Teeth clamped tight against his jaw, Paul refused to be drawn out; if this was the end, whoever it was would have to drag him out.
‘And, to think; of all the people I wanted to be lying in this room, staring at their eyelids and you’re all right, Paul. At least have the decency to fight for her like I have.’
Paul knew then that it was Gary; the kid he had partnered with through secondary school then college; had stuck to through every little high and low their lives had struck; that was, until they met Amanda.
Somehow, ever since they got it together behind his best mate's back, Paul knew this day would come; although begrudgingly standing aside, Gary had never been the same since he caught them, mouth agape like it was his girlfriend who was half-naked and not Paul’s. Their friendship had slowly spiralled; first Paul succeeded in capturing Amanda’s heart over Gary, then the head chef job before him. Lately, it had been their engagement which lead to marriage, a family equalling happiness. Maybe, that was the final after dinner mint in the box.
‘You wanted my life, Paul; my girl, my job. Then take this, too.’
Just because Gary had met Amanda before him; just because Gary had got his application in first; it had not been Paul’s intention to go after her, she had chosen him; yes, he wanted that job, but it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if he didn’t get it.
What was Tyrone thinking right now? A mutual friend from school, would he be siding with Gary now he knew this? He wanted to speak up but felt at fault, like he deserved all this; that he had been greedy in getting what he always wanted.
‘And, in the end, all you really care about is that ring; that object over the woman of our dreams. If it was me, Paul, I’d be right beside her rather than cowering in here. But, then, you and me; we’re not even the same species are we.’
Tears in his eyes, Paul leapt up from beneath the bench, whirling around to make a stand; ‘You think I wanted this?’ Waiting for Gary to bound around the corner. ‘That ring meant everything to her; if only she got to wear it for a second before she dies; after what you did to her.’ Anger curling up his fists; adrenalin surging through his feet. ‘If she dies Gary.’
Tyrone had to say something; he’d stood there as quietly as Paul had crouched until the outpour began. Blocked by the door, he had watched the morning porter bringing in the body; not realising until that moment that his shift here was over. Leaving the lights on and body inside the entrance; taking the scene in that greeted him; all that blood; those hollowed out stomachs. Before turning to go, locking the doors as he went; standard procedure when foul play was suspected.
Tyrone, in so much trouble when security came back, took a step closer and saw it was Gary lying there, dead beneath the sheet. A silence in the room so huge it had been deafening.
That was, until Paul started shouting.
© Mark Robinson April 2009.
Previous writing has appeared on Sunk Island Review, Microhorror.com, Hackwriters.com, Manchester’s Transmission Magazine, Birmingham’s Raw Edge Magazine, Short Story Library (US), Txtlit.co.uk, Post Card Shorts, Enigma and the Lulu Anthology, Never Hit by Lightning, Edited by Tucker Lieberman & Andrew Tivey.
Forthcoming publications in 2010 include A Thousand-faces & Delivered.