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There are many questions asked to Chef Francis on a daily basis. “Where are my coquilles St Jacques?” or “How did you make the vinegrette?” The most commonly asked question is probably: “What is your secret?” Nobody could ever understand how he could run his restaurant, “Bella Luna”, practically single-handedly, being the main chef and the owner of the restaurant, sometimes even serving food to the tables. On top of that, there was never a burnt meal or an order served late.
He is a boisterous man, that Francis. You could see pride in every step he’d take, but nobody could really blame him for this. There had been mysterious disappearances occurring in Newtonville lately. There had been no bodies found, no physical evidence. The entire town would be baffled, and the poor citizens would be in panic. But chef Francis hated panic. Every time there would be a disappearance, Francis would say, “Come on everyone! Let us leave this matter to our dear inspectors. How about visiting “Bella Luna” instead? After all, food is the greatest joy in life!” And then, the family members of the disappeared member would attempt to drown away their sorrows by ordering several plate dishes and filling the room with futile talk.
It didn’t take long for Bella Luna to become a popular, bustled place in the desolate town. Everyone had become obsessed with the chef’s food. Inspector Alton probably had it the worst. He came around a few times a week, and he had become close friends with Francis.
“What’s your secret?” Alton asked the chef for the umpteenth time that week. He had ordered the leg of lamb, and it tasted perfect, spiced and cooked famously.
“It’s a secret,” Francis replied cheekily, throwing a wink over his shoulder and sauntering off.
Inspector Alton was the town’s crime scene inspector. He was so thick-headed, not even a bullet could go through his brain. He had never solved a case single-handedly, always being oblivious to the obvious. Whenever one of the citizens would disappear, he would simply look at the evidence under his nose, barely putting in any effort. He would stroke his moustache for the effect that he was “thinking hard”, but nothing more. It was a wonder to everybody how he had even gotten the job in the first place.
Besides being dim-witted, he also had a bad temper, especially with his wife. It was the night of September, only a week after their ninth anniversary, that they had their worst fight ever. Insincere words were yelled. Touches became shoves. Eventually, Alton overpowered his wife. Her body being forced onto the wall and the fingers being pressed to her neck were nothing foreign, but this time, things were different. Things had actually gotten personal.
Mrs Cooper, Alton’s wife, had left that night, the only thing she had brought with her being her burgundy overcoat. Alton sat back at home and popped some bottles open, assuming that his wife would come running back home soon. He had been too caught up in his stubborn act to run after her anyways.
Four days went by; four days of Mrs Cooper’s disappearance. She hadn’t come home. She hadn’t snuck back in during the day to smuggle out her luggage. She hadn’t returned to her tedious job as a waitress. Nobody had even heard from her ever since the night of the fight. She had simply disappeared...
Alton would usually be helping with the searches for any missing townspeople, but he felt too numb to get up out of the chair he had been swaying in all day at home. Every passing minute felt like an hour, and every hour felt like eternity. It was driving him mad. And for the first time, he felt guilty. His heart felt like it weighed a ton, and he needed somebody to help him carry its weight with him.
It felt like his mood was finally being lifted when he saw two detectives and a police car pulling up outside his house. He slammed the front door open and ran outside, too anxious to have cared about the dent the door had left in the wall.
“Did you find her?” he breathed, running up to the detectives, who were sipping on some coffee heartily. Alton felt a spark of hope in his chest at the sight of their chipper moods. One of the bulky men stopped laughing at whatever they had been joking about, quickly putting on a look of feigning sadness.
“Afraid not,” he replied. “There were no signs of a homicide, but we can’t say there are any signs of return...” In the approaching dawn light, the detective could see how Alton’s face fell, and he put a stiff hand on his shoulder. “Don’t ya worry about her. She’s bound to come running back into your arms soon. She’d never leave without telling the man she loves. We won’t stop the search so soon, anyways.”
Alton thought back to him and his wife’s argument; he had been digging his nails into her arms and throwing furniture around heedlessly. She isn’t about to return to “the man she loves”, he thought, but of course the detectives wouldn’t know. Alton was in no mood for any more meek encouragement, so he simply nodded, bid the detectives a goodbye, and slid back into his house to watch the colours of the sky change.
“I’m so sorry about your loss,” chef Francis said for the millionth time, since he had had to visit Alton’s table for the millionth time. Alton had decided on going out to Bella Luna’s with his colleagues, and they were all drinking into the night. Jagged-edged bottle caps were being tossed off and flying over heads. Alton had drunk the most. He took swig after swig and had drunk enough to feel like he was floating high up on a cloud. But what goes up must come down.
Alton frowned and shook his head a little too vigorously, as he took his platter from Francis. “Don’t— don’t be,” he mumbled, gripping onto the edge of the table to prevent feebly collapsing onto his knees. “S’fine if she’s gone. Ya can’t lock the barn after the horses are gone.”
Alton’s friend, Jeremiah, shook his head sadly, looking around the restaurant and listening to the fiddlers’ gentle music. “I just don’t get it,” he whispered. “These people going missing can’t just vanish into thin air. There has to be some evidence, some PHYSICAL evidence...”
“Maybe they’ve been taken into captive,” someone piped up from across the table.
“Or stolen by witches!” a large man slurred, his drink spewing out from his mouth a bit as he spoke. Everyone started hollering absurd ideas excitedly. And Francis, who was still hovering over the table, ignored the commentary and looked down at Alton. He was eating the leg of lamb he had ordered, cutting the meat sloppily and getting food stuck between his teeth. Francis gulped dryly.
“There is always evidence,” he said, not loud enough for anyone to hear but himself. “What you’re looking for might just be under your nose...” He walked off nervously towards a different table, just as the people there started banging their forks and knives in unison.
Alton hadn’t heard the last part of Francis’ speech; he had been too busy stabbing his fork over and over through an especially hard part of his meat. When he tried to bite through it, he felt something metallic against his teeth.
“What’s this?” He started eating around it so that the metallic object became more pronounced, and he pulled it out. Sucking off the meat covering the front of the object, it became obvious to him, even in his half-conscious state, that it was a vaguely familiar ring. He turned it around in his palm carefully, seeing that it had deep-indented initials in it. “J.C,” he read slowly. “Janet cooper...”
In the following days, Alton had decided to shed out any sources of light from his household. Every curtain had been drawn shut. The cracks under the doors had been suffocated with cotton. He had taken apart the home phone and kept the front door bolted shut. He needed to isolate himself from everybody from the outside world.
Alton was starving too. The flesh in his stomach was practically eating itself. The cabinets were full of food, but nothing was appealing... or at least, appealing to his taste. His taste had developed greatly in the past few months.
The discovery he had recently made of Bella Luna was... overwhelming. He was beyond shocked that Francis had been responsible for the killings of Newtonville, including his wife’s. Alton knew that the meat he had been eating at his last visit at Bella Luna had been his wife’s flesh, and Chef Francis must have dropped her ring by accident when he had been cooking her. Alton had to admit to himself that he couldn’t have ever suspected Francis to be such a threatening, vile man. His image was quite deceiving to his true personality. Francis seemed like a highly generous man who could never hurt a fly. Oh, how easily had the boisterous chef fooled him?
Alton should have seized the man and placed him under immediate arrest. After all, he was a horrible man with horrible plans. Who knew how many customers could be at Bella Luna that very moment, devouring their own relatives without any clue? The thought sickened him. Francis sickened him. But for some odd reason, he hadn’t arrested the chef but fled from the restaurant when he made the discovery of his wife’s murder. He didn’t want to put Francis under arrest... but why?
Alton looked around his room, swaying slightly in fetal position, half-consciously knawing at the flesh of his wrist like a dog. The scent of his own flesh was alluring, and he suddenly found himself letting his nose crawl and whiff across his skin. He could never find the pleasure of the delicious human flesh he had been eating at Bella Luna in other meat products. Human flesh was rich and juicy, just addicting. He almost considered going to the restaurant to buy more food, because he needed more. If he didn’t go back, he was afraid that he would slowly eat himself alive.
“I’m the only one who knows his secret,” he whispered to himself. “I can bring justice to everyone and get Francis punished like he deserves.” Alton took his teeth away from his wrist before he could be tempted to chew off a piece. “Or,” he added, “I can keep his secret and let him get away with it so that Bella Luna doesn’t shut down and I can continue visiting there.”
He looked down at his own teeth-dented wrist, and he looked over to him and his wife’s abandoned bed just across the room, already collecting cobwebs and dust. “What should I do?” he mumbled. “Should I be part of the cure or part of the disease?”
Alton didn’t want to bother with sitting down at one of the restaurant tables. He just fled towards the kitchen, ignoring any protests from the waiters he was shoving aside.
Inside, the kitchen was engulfed in the smell that the inspector had been craving for over a week. He ignored the sensation and walked over towards Francis, who was standing in his own corner, chopping coriander at a fast pace.
“Francis!” he called. Francis looked up and smiled up at Alton with crinkly eyes. Alton could feel himself cringe under the chef’s gaze.
“Alton, my man!” he boomed. “I haven’t seen you for a while! Where have you been?”
“The question is, where have you been, Francis?” he said sternly. Francis looked up, confused, as he put the coriander into a pot.
“I’ve been here... Where else could I be?” he asked, testing.
“You know what I mean. What have you been doing? Who is in that pot?” Hearing Alton saying “who”, Francis’ head snapped up, the colour draining from his face. A tense silence filled the room, and Francis could feel the surrounding oxygen evaporate.
“What are- what do you mean?”
“I know about your secret. I found out why all the townspeople have been disappearing. I know why the food here has so much more delicious meat than normal meat.” Alton took off Mrs Cooper’s ring off his finger, holding it up for Francis to see. “And I know what you did to my wife,” he hissed, his mouth reeking from his empty stomach.
Francis’ eyes went wide as saucers. He was about to make a run for it, but he couldn’t move. He was too stunned... but he became even more confused when Alton turned around and started to rummage through the pots and pans, through the pantries and drawers, almost deliriously.
“What are you doing?” Francis asked. Alton stopped suddenly when he found a pot full of “steaks” on the edge of the coiling stove. He looked up and sighed in defeat, holding up a steak in two of his fingers and swaying it back and forth like a pendulum.
“Well?” he said expectantly. “What are we making for dinner tonight?”
At that moment, all Francis could do was gawk at Alton like he had just grown another head. “A-are you serious?” he stuttered. Alton nodded defeatedly, remorseful, waiting for some sort of reaction. Francis turned around suddenly, just as a group of chefs came out the spinning doors.
“Guys!” he called. The chefs turned around and quieted down. Francis sucked in a breath and breathed out, “We’ve got another one,” as he pointed a spatula towards the inspector.
Alton was flabbergasted. He looked around from face to face. “You- you all know?” The chefs nodded, and Francis put a stiff hand on Alton’s shoulder, squeezing if and giving off that cocky smile. Alton still couldn’t tell if he despised it or not.
“Looks like we’re a team now... Welcome to Bella Luna.”