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Bella Luna (edited)
There are many questions asked to the brilliant and legendary chef Francis on a daily basis. “Where are my coquilles St Jacques?” or “How did you make this fabulous vinaigrette?” 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 and lounging around having respectful conversations with his regular-visiting customers. 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. He had been the owner of Bella Luna for 13 years, ever since his father had passed down the responsibility of his flourishing business. Before this, Francis had been competing in competitions around the country and working in several five star bakeries and diners and fast food restaurants. But he decided that he belonged in the serene, deserted town he had been raised in. However, as boring and quiet as the town appeared to be on the surface, there was a deeper, darker secret that the townspeople dealt with everyday.
There had been mysterious disappearances occurring in Newtonville lately. Every day, one person would disappear, whether it be for going for groceries or a simple bike ride around the town. It was unknown whether they had left the town, or had been brutally stabbed or hidden in a basement. There had been no bodies found, no physical evidence. The entire town would be baffled after a disappearance, 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 and friends would attempt to drown away their sorrows by ordering several plate dishes and filling the room with futile talk. Chef Francis took every opportunity of earning money to his advantage
It didn’t take long for Bella Luna to become a popular, bustled place in the desolate town. Many fast food places went out of business and joined with Francis’ instead. Everyone had become infatuated 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 simply because of how many times he had come over to order.
“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 as always, cheekily throwing a wink over his shoulder and sauntering off before Alton could reply.
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. He was always 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 incredibly 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. Small opinions became personal. 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 in his rocking chair and popped some bottles open. He regretted what he had said to her, that he wanted her to leave and never come back. But he assumed that his wife would come running back home soon. “She’s got a dead-end job. She won’t be able to survive out there for the night, and she has got nowhere to go,” he assured himself. He had been too caught up in his stubborn act to run after her anyways. He refused to cave in first.
Four days went by; four days of Mrs Cooper’s disappearance. She hadn’t come home. She hadn’t snuck back in through the window during the day to smuggle out her luggage. She hadn’t returned to her tedious, minimum wage job as a waitress. Nobody had even heard from her ever since the night of the big fight. It was as if she had vanished into thin air.
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 rocking back and forth in all day at home. His eyes were trained on the clock. Every passing minute felt like an hour, and every hour felt like days. It was driving him mad. And for the first time in a long time, he felt guilty. He felt regret. His heart ached, and he missed her more than he could have ever imagined. Usually when he was feeling this way, he would turn to his wife, who would make him a special dinner and comfort him, something that no one else could do as well as her. Being sat in the Cooper household alone with no one to talk to Alton or make him smile wasn’t something he was used to. 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 swung the front door open and ran outside.
“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 that there are any signs of return yet...” 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. Besides, we wouldn’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 bitterly, 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 to his previous position in his rocking chair, glaring at the clock.
He thought back to what the detective had said: “There are no signs of return yet”. He knew what that meant; it was their sugar-coated way of saying that wherever she was or whatever happened to her, his wife was gone for good. Alton had always imagined that he would be speaking his last words to his wife when they would both be very old and feeble, when they would have children, and their children would have children. He imagined his wife being in her death bed, her frail hands holding the blankets tightly. He imagined his last words to her would be “I love you”, rather than a string of curse words. He imagined the last thing he would do for her would be to hold her hands tightly and squeeze them in comfort, rather than shove her out of his house and tell her to never return.
“I’ve lost her,” Alton whispered sadly, feeling his vision blur up. Hours passed, and he just couldn’t sleep, so he sat by the window and watched the sky change colours.
“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 that night. 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 with trembling hands. “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. You 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 being left behind...”
“Maybe they’ve been taken into captive,” someone piped up from across the table.
“Or stolen by witches!” a large man slurred incoherently, his drink spewing out through the space in his front teeth 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 viciously and getting pieces stuck in 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 and chanting for their food.
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 the meat. When he tried to bite through it, he felt something metallic clink 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. He squinted, having difficulty reading the letters in his drunken state. They were blurring and crumpling, like the surface of a pond when someone throws a stone in it. He slumped back into his chair and held up the ring closer to his eye and focused hard. “J.C,” he read slowly. It took a long time for him to register just whose ring he was holding, but once it came to him, the bottle he was holding slipped out of his grip and fell to the floor.
At least a hundred eyes flickered to Alton, and then to the shattered bottle on the floor. Francis immediately came to Alton’s aid, kneeling down near the glass and picking up the larger pieces. “Be careful, and watch your foot,” he told Alton. But the town’s inspector only glowered down at Francis in shock. “JC,” he repeated to himself quietly, just as everyone from the other tables finally stopped staring and resumed their conversations. “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 blankets. He had taken apart the home phone and kept the front door bolted shut with an unnecessary amount of locks. He needed to isolate himself from everything and everybody from the outside world.
Alton was starving as well. 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, and he was craving something new now, something more.
The discovery he had recently made of Bella Luna was appalling. He was beyond shocked that the well-respected, generous and talented Francis had been responsible for the killings of Newtonville, including Alton’s wife. 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. Alton had to admit to himself that he could not have ever suspected Francis to be such a threatening, vile man. His image was quite deceiving to his true personality. Francis seemed to be a jolly man who would never hurt a fly. Oh, how easily the boisterous chef had 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 could know how many people knew about this secret, besides himself and Francis? Could any of the employees be in on his plan? And who could know how many customers could be at Bella Luna at 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 had instead hastily fled from the restaurant and back to his house 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 his curled-up fetal position, half-consciously gnawing 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, goosebumps rising on his arms. 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 putting together the phone again to order some food from the restaurant, because he needed more of Bella Luna’s food in his system. If he didn’t go back, he was afraid that he would slowly devour himself.
“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 over to his wife’s abandoned bed in the corner just across the room, already collecting cobwebs and dust in the corners. He shouldn’t be so conflicted. It was obvious that he should bring Francis to justice. He needed to do this, for the townspeople, for himself, and for his wife. But then he looked down at his own teeth-dented wrist. “What should I do?” he mumbled. “Should I be part of the cure or part of the disease?”
Alton didn’t bother sitting down at one of the restaurant tables. He just fled towards the kitchen, ignoring any protests from the waiters he was aggressively shoving aside.
Inside, the kitchen was engulfed in the smell that the inspector had been craving for over a week. He stood in the middle of the chaos of chefs and waiters and customers whining about their late orders. His mind spun at the sensational smell, and he stopped in his tracks to inhale the scent of the steaming gravy and meat platters. He had forgotten about how amazing the taste of the food was, and his fading memories of the delectable tastes were only revived.
A chef knocked Alton out of his dazed state as he shoved him aside. Alton came back to his senses, and he spotted Francis just across the kitchen, working busily in his corner and whistling an unfamiliar tune. He really had the nerves to be working away happily when he was ruining the lives of his respectable customers. “Francis!” he called. Francis looked up and smiled up at Alton. For the first time, the inspector noticed how insincere the chef’s smile actually was. He never crinkled his eyes when he smiled, and the smile never lasted more than a second. It looked more like a grimace than a grin. Alton could feel himself cringe under the chef’s intense 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, feigning confused, as he put the coriander into a pot.
“I’ve been here... Where else could I be?” he asked, with a testing tone of voice.
“You know what I mean. What have you been doing? Who is in that pot?” Upon hearing Alton saying “who”, Francis’ head snapped up, the colour draining from his face. A tense silence filled the air, and Francis could see, for the first time, that clever smirk on Francis’ face slip a notch.
“What are... what do you mean?” he croaked.
“I know about your secret, Francis. I found out why all the townspeople have been disappearing. I know why the food here is so much more delicious meat than normal food.” 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 as wide as saucers. He was about to make a run for it, but he couldn’t move, as if he was glued to the floor. He was too stunned, and his mind immediately thought up scenarios of what he should do... Should he make a run for it? Lie? Surrender his flourishing business on the spot? He didn’t know what to do. Francis opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off by Alton turning around and starting to rummage through the pots and pans, through the pantries and drawers, almost deliriously.
“What are you doing?” Francis demanded. Alton stopped suddenly when he found a pot full of “stakes” on the edge of the coiling stove. He looked up and sighed in defeat, holding up a stake 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. “Are... are you serious?” he stuttered. Alton nodded defeatedly, remorseful, waiting for some sort of reaction. Francis turned around suddenly, just as a large 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 cold, stiff hand on Alton’s shoulder, squeezing it and giving off that signature cocky smile. Alton still couldn’t tell if he despised it or not.
“Well, it looks like we’re a team now... Welcome to Bella Luna.”