Chef’s heart stopped. He had never been so glad to see the stupid punctuation cat at the end of Skip’s text message. They were the words he’d been waiting nearly three weeks to hear. All of the frustration of waiting – the same frustration he’d felt at least a hundred times before – had hit him more than he had thought possible. He’d been unable to keep down any solid food the last six days. More than once, Marcus had instructed Chef to leave the restaurant because of his inability to focus.
His fingers trembled across the screen of his phone. It took him three attempts to type a simple message in response. The only thing eclipsing his shame at having to try it so many times was the sense of accomplishment at being able to successfully type it out, through his excitement.
Are you sure? Where?
Nearly three weeks. He’d waited nearly three weeks to receive the first message, but as agonizing as those weeks had been it was drunken honeymoon sex on a paradise beach wrapped in a velvet towel compared with the thirty seconds it took for Skip to respond.
I’m always sure. 18326 Simondi Ln =[^.^]=
The door to the kitchen swung open, admitting Kevin. Smiling as if he’d just had his first kiss, he said, “Chef, it’s time to go hunting,” in a singsong voice.
Chef had to admire the kid, he’d kept the ‘hunting’ bit going longer than any waiter since Skip. He unfolded his arms, phone in one hand and long-handled, wooden spoon in the other. “It is. Give your orders to Marcus for today, I have to run.” He handed the spoon to Marcus, placed his hand on the Sous-Chef’s shoulder, and turned away, pushing the door open into the alley.
Good job, Skip
The address was across town. Had he received the message any later it would have taken the rest of the afternoon to get there through traffic. As his tires skidded across the pavement, he hoped he wouldn’t be caught in the rush. He reached back, twisting his shoulder uncomfortably, under the back seat, feeling for the backup hammer he kept there for hunting without Liz. Cold steel met his fingers and brought a smile to his face.
Chef drove through an intersection, not noticing the STOP sign. He looked around, relieved not to see any police around. It would have made him laugh, being pulled over by the police on his way to a murder.
A text message came through, but Chef waited until the next traffic stop to check it.
Thx. When is the Hunt? =[^.^]=
Biting his lip, he dropped the phone on his lap. He shouldn’t be going alone, he knew, especially with the potential for meeting a group of murderers and thieves at Simondi Lane waiting for him, but he didn’t care. It was finally time to put the whole ordeal to rest. How could he wait a minute longer? What he’d told Liam was true, every time Chef killed it ripped something away from his soul, but this time … this time he looked forward to the feel of Ethan Hatcher’s skull cracking under the hammer. He couldn’t wait for his hands to be sticky with the man’s blood while he cleaned up the mess head wounds always leave.
Chef’s Ford rolled to a stop, facing a red light. He picked up his phone and replied to Skip’s text.
Tonight. Would you tell Liz? I’m busy at the restaurant.
Busy at the restaurant. The same lie he told Amberly so he could hunt Ethan down. It was convenient, but hollow.
Chef turned right onto Sycamore. It was a major vein running through the city that covered both notoriously good and bad parts of town. Though he’d never been that far down Sycamore, he knew approximately where he’d end up. It was going to be a long trip down the road. He reached over and switched on the radio. Aerosmith’s Walk This Way began playing. Superstition was never something he believed in, but if there was such a thing as a good omen, this was it.
Kk. You tell Liam, tho, I don’t have his # =[^.^]=
High-rise buildings with shiny, all-glass exteriors faded away in favor of strip malls and smaller shopping centers, and even those lost interest in sticking around after a while. First were nicer houses, smaller banks, and a school every now and again. Coffee shops and used bookstores dotted the road, some overflowed with hipsters while others looked abandoned, with no visible distinction between the two.
Just as suddenly as the shopping centers had fallen into middle-class suburbia, so too did middle-class suburbia turn to low. It started with just one boarded-up business, then stone or brick houses became nonexistent, fading into wood or vinyl siding. The lawns in front of houses lacked the recently manicured look of those just a few blocks behind, though not yet neglected.
Amberly just called me. She wanted some “Legal Advice.” Call me. ~*Liam*~
Chef tried to ignore Liam’s message and focus on what he was about to do. He reached into the back seat, seeking his hammer with the tips of his fingers. Having to lean further back, he finally found purchase, and pulled it up into the front seat with him. The rubber grip felt comforting in his hand; at the very least, it was something he could hold on to. He couldn’t think about what Liam was trying to say to him. At a traffic light, Chef switched from Aerosmith to Queen. “The show must go on,” he said to himself, and smiled ruefully.
Trash littered the lawns in front of the houses Chef passed. Some lawns a vibrant green and overgrown, others starved for water, cracked and brown. All showed neglect in their own way. The siding on the houses that weren’t boarded up were more often cracked or desperately in need of repair. He rolled up the windows of his car, feeling suddenly unsafe.
Liz knows. My place @ ten. =[^.^]=
A street sign hung askew, barely attached to the pole holding it. It read SIMONDI LN.. The breath caught in Chef’s chest, his jaw clenched. He turned right onto the street and slowed, scanning the numbers on mailboxes. “18326 … 18326,” he muttered. “Jesus, this place is a disaster. They should condemn the whole damn block.” Only half of 18224 stood on its own, the other half had collapsed in a heap of rotting wood and urine-stained furniture. The lived-in portion and the pile of rubble were separated by a tarp stretched over the exposed area and stapled down. Other houses were in worse condition.
Chef knew the house before he saw the number on the mailbox. It was the house with the rusted out ’73 Volkswagon Beetle on blocks out front. He didn’t notice the condemnation notice, or the police tape, until he pulled much closer to the house, but he wasn’t surprised to see them. The house was a faded powder blue, with some char marks around a window that he guessed led to the kitchen. He didn’t slow as he passed, or look too closely at the house, to avoid looking suspicious to anyone that might be watching. Instead, he turned down the next side street, and parked about halfway to the next street up.
He checked his phone and sent a reply before exiting his car.
I’ll be there.
Chef turned off the phone, stashed it in the glove box, and exited the car. He locked the doors and set the alarm, convinced that no matter what precautions he took his car would be stolen. Walking down the broken sidewalk, he did his best to conceal the hammer he carried up the sleeve of his jacket, certain that he wasn’t fooling anybody that happened by. The first chance he got, he ducked into the back yard of a house. A wading pool filled with stinking brown water and empty beer cans lay in the crunchy brown grass, waiting to be played in.
He hopped over the fence to the house behind it, and then two more fences, taking care to watch for anyone that might take notice of him. Fortunately, though, the neighborhood seemed as abandoned as it was in disrepair. After watching the powder-blue house for twenty minutes, not seeing any signs of movement, Chef approached the back door of the house. The boards that had been nailed on either side of it had been torn away and discarded, and the house was clearly in use.
Ascending three pitted concrete steps, Chef ducked into the back door. He brought the hammer out of his sleeve and clutched the handle.
Pain exploded in the back of his head. Silver streaks flashed across his vision before the world faded to black.