Although the kitchen itself was much larger than the others he had worked in, Ben Browning was quite sure that he could soon become quite comfortable here. To begin with, the starting wage was vastly superior to what he had been making as a chef at his previous job at Tony's Restaurant.
For a chef like Ben, this was the opportunity of a lifetime, and he was still in a state of disbelief over the fact that he had even been called for an interview at all, but now, having been actually offered a position as a chef at the prestigious Moonlight Banquet Hall, a frequent meeting place of local politicians, professional athletes, celebrities and socialites, where numerous awards ceremonies, charity dinners, celebrity auctions, and upscale dinner parties were held each year, he was in awe, and felt a profound sense of pride and accomplishment.
Douglas Stratford, the owner of the Moonlight Hall, was also the mayor of New York. Stratford was always rambling on about how he had been the one to truly fix up New York City's homelessness problem. And, although at times the man did come across as very slippery, and exceedingly transparent, like many politicians, Ben had to give him credit for that, because according to local statistics, the rate of homeless people on New York's streets had in fact gone down by nearly forty percent over the two years that Stratford had been in office. Yet there were still sad reminders of the problem; when Ben had arrived, just after parking his car and heading for the door, he had noticed a homeless man, dressed in filthy, ragged, stained clothes, his hair hanging down over his face in dirty thick clumps. "Can you spare some change for something to eat please, sir?" the man said.
Ben nodded and handed him a five dollar bill.
"God bless you, my friend," said the man, clearly grateful.
"I have to warn you, there will be some hectic moments, as I'm sure you are well aware. When you have as many important guests as we do here on such a regular basis, there is always going to be pressure to have things done in as timely a manner and as flawlessly as possible. Mr. Stratford is a perfectionist, and as such, he demands that all of his employees take the same mentality, especially those who work in the kitchen, because when people leave the Moonlight Hall one thing they always tend to remember is their dinner. 'How was the food?' others will ask them, and we simply cannot afford to get negative reviews, because, as you know, we have a reputation of excellence to uphold," said Henry Phillps, the man who had hired Ben for the assistant chef position, and was now in the process of showing him around the banquet hall.
Ben nodded in agreement. "Absolutely sir, I think you'll find that I am not only comfortable working in such environments, but that I actually thrive on it. Pressure brings out the best in me."
"Excellent. That's what we like to hear. At any rate, let's move along."
They stepped through a large doorway and into a dark, cold room. Phillips pressed a button on the side of the wall and another door flung open revealing what was an enormous freezer room. They stepped inside.
There were huge chunks of frozen meat hanging from long dangling hooks all throughout the freezer.
"This is where all of the excess meat stays. Ideally, we like to have it chopped and then cooked and served fresh, but we have a rather high demand, and as such we keep as much as we possibly can on hand, since it's always better to have too much as opposed to not enough."
"All of our meat is specially selected, and we try to use only the finest cuts. No fat or bone or gristle can be left, after all, you will be cooking for some very important people, so always keep in mind the necessity to please those people comes above all else here."
A tall, heavyset man with a thick dark beard approached them, nodded politely, and offered his hand to Ben to shake. The grip was so tight that he was sure the man could have easily crushed every bone in his hand if he had had the inclination to do so.
"This is Marcus Hirsch. He is our head chef, has been with us for over ten years, and will be working closely with you in the kitchen."
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir. I am sure that we will very much enjoy working together."
Ben nodded and thanked him, and Hirsch entered the freezer, abruptly shutting the door behind him.
"He really likes working in the cold. In fact I've never met someone who likes cold areas, particularly those filled with meat, as much as Marcus does. He was a butcher before coming to work with us, and it seems that this is something that has always remained a part of him. You'll find that he can cut any and all meat to perfection, and so you and he will most assuredly make a fine team."
"I'm sure we will," Ben said, attempting to conceal the mild apprehension that he felt about working with Marcus. The man had given him an odd and slightly unsettling feeling.
Still, despite this apprehension, as Phillips had predicted, Ben and Marcus did indeed make a good team, at least as far as work was concerned. On a personal level however, they at first seemed to have very little in common, but after a few weeks, as the two grew more comfortable, Marcus told Ben a bit about his life.
From the information Ben had been able to garner, Marcus had come to New York from Germany in the mid-seventies hoping to find work, and, like so many others, in search of the ever elusive (and all-too-seldom found) American dream. His father had been a hugely respected and famous chef in Germany, Wolfgang Hirsch. Hirsch senior had owned three restaurants, one in Hamburg, one in Munich, and one in Bremen, all of them doing tremendous business, and Marcus had said that he was quite sure that his father must have been a millionaire (perhaps even twice over). At some point though, and for reasons undisclosed by Marcus, the two had had a rather nasty falling-out, and Wolfgang Hirsch had completely disowned his son, cutting him off completely. So it was at this point that Marcus had decided to come to New York, hoping to start a new life.
Of course, as is so often the case for those overly optimistic souls who venture off into a new country looking to fulfill their dreams, instead of finding that bright new life he found misery, unemployment and abject poverty. He had lived in one of the worst slums in New York's "Hell's Kitchen," a place that was roach and rodent infested, with homeless people on every corner, drug addicts, prostitutes, and other such 'parasites,' as he called them, all around him.
About a year after coming to New York, gradually becoming more inwardly aware of what a big mistake he had made in doing so, Marcus received word that his father had passed away. His sister, whom he was still somewhat close to, had sent him a letter asking him to return home for the funeral. He had thought about doing so, but because of the fact that he still felt a great deal of anger and resentment toward his father, a man who had told him that he was a shame and embarrassment as a son, and had promised that he would be completely cut out of the will, and also because of the fact that there in the USA he was truly living up to all of those things which his father had said about him, he decided not to go. Instead, he would stay, and he would go out of his way, and do everything in his power to prove that angry, miserable old man wrong, and to show that he was in fact someone important, and that he was capable of achieving everything that his father told him he couldn't.
Eventually he found work as a butcher at a local deli. The pay was mediocre, but at least it was a job, and he found that he quickly took to it. He enjoyed slicing meat, and developed an overwhelmingly impressive talent for doing so with pinpoint precision. Huge slabs of beef would be sliced into perfect thin chunks in mere minutes by the spirited young German, and he quickly developed a reputation as an expert at his craft. After a few years he had put away enough money (combined with a bank loan) to be able to open up his own deli. He was the only employee, and it was a lot of work, but he enjoyed it. The business had been relatively profitable, but some years later he had decided to sell the deli after receiving a very generous offer from Douglas Stratford, who had been a regular customer at the deli, to come and work as a butcher and assistant chef at the Moonlight Banquet Hall.
One evening, about a month after Ben had come to work at Moonlight Hall, Douglas Stratford was to have his annual charity dinner. Many of New York's most well known socialites, celebrities and philanthropists would be in attendance. Marcus asked Ben to come in two hours earlier that morning, and they set to work preparing what would be that evening's meal, as well as the deserts and appetizers. The main meal was to be sliced roast beef with potatoes and asparagus served in a sauce which Marcus claimed had been his father's recipe, but which he had adapted and refined as his own many years ago. Ben was quite impressed with the taste when Marcus asked him to sample a small piece of beef in the sauce. "That's amazing. I've never tasted anything quite like it. What's in it?"
"To tell you that would be to give away my ingredients, and I liken a good chef to a good magician. He can never fully divulge how he does one of his tricks. Otherwise, that would take away from the overall effect it would have on the audience. So it is with certain recipes, if I give them away, then anyone could create one of these masterpieces, and I refer to them as such because I think of myself as an artist when it comes to creating the most unique and interesting dishes. Instead of using paints and a brush, I use food, but in many ways the results are the same. Food stimulates the senses in very much the same way as a painting, or a sculpture, or some lines of poetry can. You understand, Ben?"
I have to hand it to him, he's a little loopy, but he sure as hell can cook, Ben thought. He had never heard anyone speak so passionately about cooking and preparing meals as Marcus Hirsch. Yes, he did have a rather wild glint in his eyes, and he was somewhat eccentric, but now, after having worked with the man for a month, Ben could say he thought that Marcus was a decent enough fellow.
The morning hours seemed to fly by, and in the early afternoon Henry Phillips came to the kitchen with Douglas Stratford himself, to see how things were coming along.
He introduced Ben to the mayor, who was dressed in a neat pinstriped suit.
"Well, I hear you're our new guy. Welcome aboard," said Stratford, limply shaking Ben's hand, and nodding in acknowledgement of Marcus.
"Just keep your eyes and ears open when you're around this man," Stratford said, pointing at Hirsch, as the German quickly reached into the oven to check on a tray of food, "You'll learn a lot from him. He's the best chef I've come across."
Ben nodded. "Absolutely, sir. It has been a privilege to work with him, and he's already taught me a lot."
"Excellent. Well, good to have met you, Ben. I'm sure all of the guests will be pleased with the meal tonight."
"I hope so, sir. Oh, and Mr. Stratford?"
"I just wanted to commend you for all that you've done to help with New York City's homeless problem. You're a true humanitarian." And I'm a true ass-kisser, Ben thought.
"Thank you, young man."
The dinner went very well that night. Most of the guests seemed to be quite impressed with the food, and this seemed to come as little surprise to Marcus, who all too modestly directed much of the credit to his new assistant when accolades were sent his way.
Douglas Stratford gave a brief speech before handing over the podium to some of his important guests.
"I just want to thank all of you for being here tonight on this special occasion. It is with great pride that we unite here with the cause of helping New York City's homeless. As you all know, since I have been in office the population of homeless people on New York's streets has greatly diminished. But we still have a long way to go, and there is a lot more that can be done, and with your generous help, we can make New York City into the Mecca of peace and prosperity and brotherhood that we all know it was meant to be. As I stand here before you I can say without a doubt that we live in the greatest city in the world." This, of course, was followed by a loud standing ovation, and Stratford once again thanked everyone, introduced the next speaker, and took his seat at the head table, next to his wife, a tall beautiful blonde woman whom Ben recognized as an actress who had been in various local independent films.
Marcus and Ben watched all of this from the doorway of the kitchen. Then they sat down and had some of the food that they had prepared. The roast beef was incredibly tender, and the warm sauce gave it a wonderfully tangy, mildly salty flavour that was just right.
"You've done really well so far," Marcus said. "I knew we would work well together as a team."
"Well thank you Marcus, but it's you that deserves the credit. You are an amazingly gifted chef, and I can see exactly what you mean about the artistry of preparing meals. Tonight's dinner was unquestionably a work of art."
Marcus shook his head, and waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. After desert was served and all of the work was completed for the evening, Ben headed home in good spirits, pleased with the way things had gone. His first time preparing a meal for such a major event, and it seemed to have went down wonderfully. Even Donald Trump, who had been one of the guests in attendance, had told Douglas Stratford to give his compliments to the chef, which the mayor did.
When Ben arrived home he immediately flopped down on his couch, tired but content. He turned on the TV and started watching ESPN Sports Centre, hoping to catch some of the highlights of the Yankees game. Then he reached into his pocket, wanting his cell phone, and rolled his eyes when he found it empty. He checked his coat pockets, but it was not in either of those.
At first he thought about just leaving it for the night, but he had been meaning to call Cindy, his girlfriend, to let her know how well things had gone that night. Since he had no home phone, it was the only way he would be able to get in touch with her.
Mumbling irritably, he pulled on his coat, headed back out to the car and headed toward Moonlight Hall. The parking lot was completely empty now, except for one car, which he recognized as Marcus's red Mercedes. As he got out of the car he saw two dark figures heading toward the side door, which was the entry to the kitchen. One of them seemed to be carrying, and then, at times, almost dragging, the other. He stayed back for a minute, relatively sure that he was still out of sight, but as he came slowly closer, he recognized the man who was carrying the other person as Marcus. The other figure seemed to either be injured and unable to walk properly, or perhaps too inebriated to do so. When they reached the door, Marcus, literally heaving the other person (who Ben could now see was quite shabbily dressed in old, filthy, stained clothes) over his shoulder, reached one hand into his pants pocket and brought out the key. Unlocking the door, he threw the other individual, who might well have been unconscious, inside, and stepping inside himself, pulled the door shut behind him. But just before the door had closed, Ben had caught sight of who it was that Marcus was carrying. It was the homeless man to whom he had given five-dollars a month ago, on the day he had started working at Moonlight Hall.
Well, maybe he has some kind of weird shit going on here at night, Ben thought. And ordinarily he would have been willing to just let things be. Marcus was, after all, a rather eccentric man, and what he did in his personal time was entirely his own business, but he really needed his cell phone to call Cindy tonight. This couldn't wait. So he went to the door, and finding that it was still unlocked from the outside, quietly slipped into the kitchen.
There was only a very dim light illuminating the far corner of the room, but Ben began to feel a little unsettled when he heard a rather brief, yet horribly loud and dreadfully hysterical scream. It was seemingly a man's voice, and it sounded awful, like a noise that a dying cat would make, a terrible, deep screech, which ceased abruptly after a few seconds.
Still unable to see very clearly due to the dim light, Ben crept slowly and silently into the room, now feeling more than a little uneasy, but simultaneously feeling an uncontrollable urge to see what, or who, had made that awful noise. Then, he saw. And what he saw froze him to the spot, despite the fact that he wanted to turn around and run out the door, with a sudden and mind numbingly shocking realization of what was going on here. He saw, in the far corner of the room, Marcus chopping the homeless man into bloody pieces with a large machete. He swung the blade down with perfect precision, cutting through bone and flesh, covering the floor and himself with blood. He hacked an arm off and casually tossed it to the side like nothing more than a used Kleenex, then proceeded to swing the blade down against the bloody torso, again and again and again. Fortunately, Marcus had his back turned while he went about this disgusting, unspeakable task, and even if he had turned, he likely would not have been able to see Ben standing in the darkness, near the doorway of the dimly lit kitchen.
The intense revulsion of it all made Ben numb and nauseous at the same time. His urge to turn away and run out the door increased by the second, yet he simply could not go. His feet would not respond to his mind's desire to go.
Why in the hell is he doing this?
The horrible answer was, unfortunately, forthcoming: Marcus proceeded to slice large chunks of bloody flesh from the carcass, and then, Ben stood and watched in disgusted disbelief as he took the pieces of meat into the large refrigerator.
Ben felt so weak with nausea and revulsion, he was sure that if he stood there for much longer that his legs would give way and he would collapse onto the floor. To hell with the cell phone, he had to get away now. He turned around and quietly slipped out the back door, but as soon as he stepped out into the night he began sprinting to his car. He got in and drove to a nearby plaza with a payphone in the parking lot, and immediately dialled 911.
"You have to send some officers to the Moonlight Banquet Hall on Parkland Street right away! There's been a murder."
"Okay sir, just try to calm down," the operator said. "What exactly happened?"
"I just witnessed Marcus Hirsch, the man who is the head chef at the Moonlight Hall, murder a homeless man. He brought him into the kitchen and started hacking him to pieces. Then he took pieces of the man's flesh into the refrigerator. Send someone quickly!"
"Alright sir, and what is your name?"
"Ben Browning. I'm calling from a payphone at a plaza just down the street from the Moonlight Hall. Please, send someone now!"
"And this man that you mentioned, the chef, is he still at the banquet hall? Are there any other people there?"
"I think he's still there, and he has a machete. I don't think there is anyone else in the building. There were no other cars in the parking lot but his."
"Okay, Mr. Browning, we're sending some officers now."
"Should I go back over there, to meet with them?"
"No sir, stay where you are. If this man with the machete is still inside you need to stay away for your own safety. We'll send someone else over to pick you up so that you can make a statement, shortly."
Ben went back to his car, got in and just sat there, still feeling extremely weak and numb from the horrors which he had beheld.
He wasn't sure how much time had elapsed before he finally saw a police car pull into the parking lot. Perhaps it had been twenty minutes, or perhaps more than an hour. His mind, still attempting to come to grips with the abominable actions of Hirsch, had lost track of time.
He went over to the car and two police officers stepped out to meet him.
"Yes. Did you guys get him? Did you arrest him? And did you find the body?"
"Good to meet you, I'm Rick Jenkins," said the cop, extending his hand for Ben to shake. "We've just come from the Moonlight Banquet Hall, sir. There was nobody there. The place was completely empty, and there was no sign of any bloody homicide, as you described."
"You mean you didn't find the dead man, hacked to pieces in the kitchen?! He must have hidden the remains. He must have gotten rid of them. He cut off some large pieces of bloody meat, cut them right off of this dead homeless man and then he put them in the refrigerator. My God, I think he's actually planning on cooking them and serving them! Why else would he have taken them to the fridge? He's a maniac, a complete and utter maniac!"
"What was the man's name again, Mr. Browning, the one that you described as the murderer?"
"Marcus Hirsch. He's the head chef. I work with him at the banquet hall. In fact, we just served a huge charity dinner there earlier this evening. It was beef...roast beef, and the people, all of these socialites, they loved the food, and now I'm wondering what the hell it was that we actually served them. I mean, he's totally fucking nuts, this guy Hirsch, and if he was planning on actually serving some of that human flesh that he took to the fridge, then God knows what that so-called 'beef' really was that we served to all those people earlier tonight. You have to arrest Hirsch! You have to!"
"Sir, we can't arrest him without any evidence. We didn't find a body, so what can we do? There is no proof that anything like what you described actually happened, and quite frankly Mr. Browning, you do seem a bit hysterical at the moment. You'll have to calm down a bit before we can take a statement from you."
"Of course I'm fucking hysterical! I just witnessed a man I work with murder someone and then take pieces of the corpse into the refrigerator!"
"Just calm down. If what you've said is true, and you didn't just imagine it, then we'll arrest this Hirsch fellow, but we need to know where he might have taken the body."
"Didn't you look in the fridge? There were pieces of human meat in there. I know that for a fact! I saw him take these large bloody chunks in there. As far as what he might have done with the rest of the remains, I have no idea. You'll have to forgive me for not wanting to stay around and watch anymore than I already did."
"We don't need any smart ass sarcasm from you right now, Mr. Browning. This is a very serious issue, and these are very serious accusations that you're making. So I'd appreciate it if you'd just calm down, get in the car with us, and come down to the station to make a statement. Will you do that please?"
"Sure, alright. I'm sorry. I'm still just really shocked and disgusted by what I saw."
"That's understandable. What you've described would be traumatic for anyone. Now please, get in the car."
They questioned him for no more than fifteen minutes after he had given the statement, and when it was all through he was told that they would be bringing in Hirsch for questioning shortly.
"But the fridge, how could you guys not have seen those bloody chunks in the fridge?"
"We looked in the freezer, Mr. Browning, and there was nothing unusual. Now as much as we'd like to give some credibility to your wild story, you have to see things from our side. If there is no body, and no evidence that any crime was committed, how can we go and arrest this man, Hirsch? And, you also said that this person whom he killed was homeless, which makes it highly unlikely that anyone will file a missing person report on this individual anytime soon. So unfortunately our hands are tied, at least for the time being," said Jenkins.
"So that's it then? You're not going to arrest him?"
"As I said, we are going to bring him in for questioning, but no charges can be pressed without a body, and without any evidence other than your statement, that this murder ever took place."
Ben slept for only a little more than two hours that night, and when he did, his sleep was filled with the horrid images of that night. Hirsch, the mad German butcher, hacking away, slicing off limbs, and tossing them aside like nothing more than refuse. And that man, that poor man who was lying dead, barely recognizable, while the psychopath chopped him up. Who had he been? Certainly he had been someone down on his luck, a man who had faced hard times, and likely had shed some tears. Who knew whether he was on the street by some terrible twist of fate, or whether it had been a slow downward spiral of drugs and alcoholism. And what did it matter? He had been a human being, and despite whatever faults he'd had, or whatever mistakes he may have made in life that had brought him to that point, he did not deserve to die like that.
Marcus Hirsch arrived at work early that morning. The sky was just starting to show its first traces of light, the sun a distant pinkish orb peeking down on the city in the western sky. He stopped and looked at it for a moment. He breathed in the cool morning air, savouring the subtle beauty of a new day. This was a time that Hirsch loved, when things were much quieter. He had always been a man who enjoyed his own company more than that of others. And what better time of day was there than dawn for people who enjoyed solitude?
He unlocked the door and stepped into the kitchen, reaching up to flip on the light-switch, then sat down to briefly glance at the morning newspaper.
The door behind him swung open, and he stood up to see that Douglas Stratford had come into the kitchen.
"Good morning, sir. You're here a little early today."
The mayor had a cold, stony look on his face, a far cry from the slick smile which he put on whenever he was in front of the cameras or in public company.
"I got a call late last night. Jenkins. He said our new guy caught a glance of you preparing some of the meat."
Marcus shook his head, "That cannot be. He had gone home hours before I brought the meat back here. No one was here, I'm sure of it. The Hall was empty."
Then, he looked over and saw the cell phone by the sink. "Is that his?" Stratford asked, pointing at the phone.
"I don't know," Hirsch said.
"Maybe he came back to get it, and saw you then."
"No, there was nobody here. I'm sure of it."
Now Stratford was visibly angry and he came toward Marcus and stood right in front of him, looking him directly in the eye.
"He must have seen something, you stupid bastard, because Jenkins said he gave a description of you cutting the meat, and then taking it to the freezer. This is the same thing that happened before with that other assistant you hired, you careless prick!"
Marcus, not at all intimidated by Stratford and his arrogant, brash demeanour, stared back at him, tight lipped and steely eyed for a moment, before saying, "Yes, and I took care of that problem, did I not?"
"Yeah, and when you did, our little operation almost came out into the open. His family was putting so much heat on the cops to find their missing son that they had Jenkins breathing down our necks for months, wanting more and more money to keep his mouth shut about everything. Now I'm going to have to pay that fucking weasel even more if you get rid of this Browning kid."
Marcus sat silently for a long while, thinking. Finally he said, "I'll see to it that he meets with an unfortunate accident, and I'll be sure that it actually looks like an accident this time. Don't worry. It'll be fine. I'll take care of everything."
"You better. And just see to it that you are a little less sloppy from now on."
Marcus was beginning to really dislike Douglas Stratford. Their friendship had soured considerably after the incident which Stratford had mentioned, when the previous assistant chef had caught Marcus hacking a local vagrant woman to pieces. Of course, Marcus had done what he had thought to be the only logical thing at the time, and had come running at the young man with his blood smeared machete and decapitated him. He had then chopped the remains into tiny bits, put them into a plastic bag and dumped them in the Bronx River. But then the backlash that had followed had been much more than he had expected. The young man's family kept ardently pressuring the police to find their missing son, and the media had gotten a hold of the story and started to run with it. Marcus had been caught off guard one day while leaving work by a local news reporter and her camera man. They had asked him, since the word had gotten out that he was one of the last people to have seen the young man alive while he was at work the previous day, if he had any idea where he might be, and if he believed that foul play was a possibility. Marcus had simply shrugged and said he had no idea where the young man might have gone. Then Stratford had thrown a tantrum, screaming and cursing at him, calling him incompetent, speaking to him the way no one had ever dared to before. He had promised himself after that incident, that he would never accept such disrespectful treatment from him again.
When Stratford had run for mayor, he had run on the platform of being able to reduce the homeless population on the streets on New York, and the when he became mayor, he had immediately taken Marcus aside and they had had a private discussion in which Marcus offered a suggestion that might help Stratford show that he was not just a man of talk, but a man of action and results. At first, when Marcus explained his methods, Stratford had been somewhat sceptical. But still, he did admit that he detested the homeless, and that he saw them as a filthy scourge, and a rotten scab on the face of New York City, which had long since worn out its welcome and needed to be removed by whatever means necessary. Marcus went on to explain that it was while he had been working as a chef in Germany that he had first had the notion to get rid of some of the local homeless in his neighbourhood. So one night he had taken it upon himself to smack one of them in the head with a hammer as he slept, and had thrown him in the back of a van, and taken him to the kitchen of his father's restaurant. No one had been there at the time (or so he thought), and so he chopped the vagrant up into pieces and proceeded to cook some of the meat. When it was done, he tasted it, after adding some of his father's secret sauce, and was astounded by how good it tasted. But then, as he was in the middle of his meal, the remains of the corpse still lying bloody and gaping on the kitchen floor, his father had walked in. Needless to say, he had been shocked and disgusted by what he saw, and he had of course from that day forward disowned his son. But for some reason which Marcus could never understand, the old man had never gone to the police. Explaining how wonderful he could make the meat taste to Douglas Stratford, Marcus had offered to cook some of it for him that evening. So he went out and found a drunken homeless man, reeking of booze and dried piss, smacked him in the face with a crowbar, loaded him into the trunk of his car, drove back to the kitchen at the Moonlight Banquet Hall, and made a meal for the mayor. Douglas had been so impressed by the meal that he had agreed that they should most certainly give some of it to some of the guests at the next charity dinner. They had done so, and the reviews had been phenomenal. Everyone had been extremely impressed, and Douglas Stratford had agreed that from that day forward they would work together and kill two birds with one stone. The mayor would live up to his promises of greatly reducing New York's homeless problem, and the chef would be able to make a name for himself as one of the most respected in the city. Stratford had told Marcus that he was on very good terms with many high ranking people at the New York Police Department, and that if he slipped them a few dollars here and there, they would be sure to turn a blind eye to any problems that might arise from their little arrangement. Rick Jenkins, a personal acquaintance of the mayor's, had agreed that as long as he received these extra dollars regularly, he would personally handle any problems that might arise relating to the Moonlight Banquet Hall. Things had worked out very well from that point on, with the exception of the small problem of the previous assistant chef.
And now it seemed that another small problem had arisen. Well Marcus planned to take care of this one in a much more careful and precise manner. It was a shame though, because he had actually been getting to like Ben Browning. But business was business, and Marcus knew that personal feelings could never conflict with what had to be done to maintain one's livelihood.
Ben sat in his car sipping from a cup of coffee, trying to decide what to do next. It was seven thirty AM, and he felt drowsy, absent minded and fearful. He did not want to be around that beast Hirsch ever again, he dreaded the thought of being in the same room with him. Yet, a part of him knew that he had to go back, and Hirsch had no idea that he had seen anything last night. Driven more by instinct than any clear and coherent determining thought, he put the key in the ignition, twisted it, and headed toward Moonlight Hall.
Hirsch seemed to be in an unusually jovial mood when Ben arrived, and he immediately handed him the cell phone. "You forgot that here last night."
Ben looked at the phone. The small red light on the top was flashing, indicating that he had missed calls. There were two, both from Cindy. He would call her on his lunch break. For now though, back to work, and back to pretending that everything was normal. Put last night out of your mind for the time being, he said to himself. And don't act nervous, or he might suspect something. He knew that you left the phone here, after all.
But when Marcus brought some meat out of the fridge and laid it down in front of Ben, he couldn't help himself from briefly turning away from it, a momentary look of revulsion on his face.
"We're going to prepare something a little different for tonight. There is a very small gathering this evening, just the mayor and a few of his close personal friends from the N.Y.P.D., so we won't need to prepare a large quantity," Marcus said.
"Would you go into the fridge and bring out some more of the meat, please?"
"Sure," Ben said, and headed over to the freezer. Just as he swung the door open he felt a sudden and tremendous burst of pain in the backside of his right calf, then another, and he crumbled to the ground, with an agonizing scream. Hirsch had swung at him again, with a long steel pipe in his hand. Another awful current of pain erupted inside his right knee as the pipe crashed down upon it.
"You saw something that you shouldn't have last night. Didn't you?" Hirsch said, lifting him up and dragging him toward the open door of the huge freezer.
"What the hell are you doing?! No, I don't know what you're talking about! I didn't see anything at all! Put me down you sick bastard!" He tried to struggle free of Hirsch's powerful vice-like grip, but the pain in his legs was too extreme.
When he had pulled Ben fully into the freezer, Hirsch stepped inside, closing the big steel door behind him, now holding a meat clever in one hand, and a machete in the other.
"There are some things that are best left unseen, Ben. You shouldn't be so damned inquisitive. People who are too inquisitive often tend to get themselves into trouble. And it would seem that that is just what you have done."
"You fucking insane, sick bastard!" Ben screamed, trying to crawl away from Hirsch, who was slowly approaching, a look of mild amusement on his grizzled face.
"I really didn't want to have to do this to you, but I promised Stratford I would. If only you wouldn't have come back looking for that silly cell phone, things might have turned out better for you. But, then again, you probably would have discovered our little secret after a while anyway. So I suppose this is for the best."
"Stratford knows about you? About how you kill the homeless and then serve them to the guests? He knows this?" Ben said, completely shocked, and feeling weak and overcome by the pain pulsing within his legs.
"Of course he knows. How do you think he's been able to decrease New York's homeless population so greatly? I've been the one who's helped him with that, and he's shown me his gratitude by allowing me to cook meals for the wealthiest and most elite members of society. And that cop you talked to, Jenkins, he knows all about our little arrangement too. Doug just makes sure he keeps him financially satisfied enough to keep things hush-hush. Incidentally, did you know that Derek Jeter has a great fondness for my meals? Oh sure, he doesn't know where the meat comes from, but hey, what he doesn't know won't hurt him, right?"
"You are a piece of disgusting trash. How can you do that to such helpless people? They're some of the weakest, most defenceless members of society, and you prey on them like the gutless coward you are!" Ben said.
"They are parasites! They corrode the streets of this city with their stench and their filth and their laziness and their ineptitude! They are a cancer that must be completely eradicated, and that is a mission which I have taken upon myself: to rid the city of this cancer!" Hirsch screamed, his dark eyes now looking wild and maniacal.
"They don't all choose to be there, you stupid imbecile. Many of them have no choice! You are just a disgusting and cruel piece of heartless garbage that's too stupid and insignificant to know that!"
Hirsch, now furious at these last words, lunged down toward Ben. He swung the machete at his head, but narrowly missed as Ben swung his body out of the way, and as Hirsch stumbled down next to him, Ben twisted the meat cleaver out of his left hand and swung it down at Hirsch, burying half of it into the big man's left leg. Hirsch cried out in pain, and tried to get to his feet, the machete still in his other hand, but stumbled and fell, blood oozing out of the wound in his leg where the clever was still partially embedded.
Ben rolled over away from Hirsch and frantically tried to stand up, but as he did so, he felt massive jolts of pain all throughout his terribly injured legs. Hirsch, unable to stand up either, due to his injury, flung himself upon Ben, raising the machete up in the air and swinging it down, but Ben caught a hold of his wrist before the blade could cut him and twisted the handle out of the lunatic chef's hand. Then without a moment's hesitation, he drove the blade fully down into Hirsch's chest, penetrating his heart and killing him instantly.
Ben looked for a moment as the blood poured out of the large wound in the chef's chest, but then quickly turned away, disgusted at the sight of what he had done. He now had killed someone. He had blood on his hands. For that he felt troubled, but it had been necessary. This beast would have killed him, just as he had killed so many poor and defenceless people before. All of their blood had been on the hands of the repugnant brute lying dead beside him, and now perhaps he was facing judgement...if there was indeed any judgement after this life. Ben wasn't sure if there was. In fact, he wasn't sure of very much of anything at that moment. Except that he wanted to be away from there as fast as possible.
After a long time, he finally regained enough strength in his battered and bruised legs to hobble out the backdoor, get into his car, and drive away.
He knew that Jenkins would come looking for him, so he didn't go home. Instead, he phoned Cindy and told her that he needed to see her right away, that it was an emergency. So she had asked to leave work early, and had met him at a coffee shop two blocks away from the office where she worked.
When she arrived, she could see that he didn't look well. "My God, Ben, what the hell happened to you?"
"It's a long story. But I'm going to tell you all of it." And he did just that. He told her everything, all of the horrid details. When he had finished she simply looked at him, dumbfounded by what she had heard.
"So what are you going to do?" she asked.
"I'm a fugitive now, or, if they haven't found Hirsch yet, I will be one very soon. And Jenkins is going to make it seem like I simply murdered Hirsch in cold blood. He knows that all of this madness has been going on, and he's been protecting both Hirsch and Stratford all along. So the police won't listen to anything I have to say about the murder being in self defence, he'll see to that, I know it. I have to get away from here, and very soon. But I just wanted to see you, and ask you if you wanted to come away with me. If not, I understand, but you have to understand too, that I could be gone for a long time. I might never be able to come back here. And after all that I've seen, I think I might have seen enough of New York to last me a lifetime anyway."
She looked deeply troubled, but after a long while Cindy said. "I'm coming with you."
He stood up and took her in his arms and kissed her. "I'll pick you up tonight. There's one more important thing I need to do before leaving. After I do that, we'll go, and we'll never look back at this place again."
It had in fact been Douglas Stratford who had discovered the body of Marcus Hirsch. He had known right away what had happened. Something had gone wrong with the plan to get rid of that foolish kid who knew too much. Still, seeing Marcus dead and covered in blood made Stratford feel no sympathy. The man had been a brute, a useful one, and a damn great chef, but none the less still a brute. Now that their partnership had come to an untimely demise, the mayor felt very irritated. How in the hell had the stupid bastard let that measly little prick get the better of him? Well the kid will have to die, at any rate. He still knows too much about what's gone on here. And now that he had killed Marcus, it would be easy for Jenkins to bring him in on murder charges, and then, if he paid the cop a little extra, he could probably make the kid have an accident on the way to jail. He phoned Jenkins and told him to come by right away.
Jenkins was very irritable when he arrived. He became even more so after Douglas told him about what had happened. "So now you want me to get rid of this kid, is that it?"
"He's a murderer. You have every right to take him in, but just be sure that before he arrives in jail, he has an unfortunate accident," Stratford said.
"How much am I getting paid for this Doug, because quite honestly I'm getting a little tired of cleaning up messes around this fucking place. First there's that incident with the other chef who caught Hirsch...preparing a meal, and now this. I'm getting sick of it, but I'm gonna help you out one more time because you're a friend. So you pay me five grand and the kid goes. I'll say he tried to attack me and it'll look like an accident. End of story. But after this, no more of this shit. I'm tired of it."
"You won't have to worry about it anymore now anyway, since Hirsch is dead."
Then, just as Jenkins was about to turn around and leave, he felt something hard pressing into the back of his head.
"Hello, Jenkins. Well, fancy finding you here. Small world isn't it," said Ben pressing a large pistol against Jenkins' head. "Turn around, but very slowly. No sudden movements. And the same goes for you, Mr. Stratford."
Jenkins slowly turned around and Ben stepped back a few inches, still holding the pistol in close firing range with Jenkins' head.
"Now here's what's going to happen. Both of you are going to do exactly as I say. There will be no discussions, no complaints, you will simply do as you are told. Is that understood, gentlemen?"
"You're really stupid, kid, you know that? Holding a gun up to a police officer like this. You're already in enough hot water already. Just give it up and let me take you in. It's the best thing you can do for yourself."
"I want both of you to get into the freezer."
There was no response, as both Jenkins and Stratford merely stared at him with disdain.
"I'm going to count to three. If you don't both head over to that freezer, get in, and shut the door, I'm going to put a really large hole in both of your heads. So start walking!"
They both did so, but not before Jenkins said, "You're really gonna be sorry for this, you prick."
They both stepped into the freezer, and Ben swung the door shut, then reached into the backpack he had been wearing, pulled out a very large lock and clipped it onto the door handle. He pulled at the door twice to make sure it was secure, then he went to see if there was anyone else in the building. There wasn't. So he reached into the backpack and pulled out the other item he had purchased on his way over, a large can of gasoline. He poured it all throughout the hall and as he stepped toward the back door, he pulled out a package of matches, lit one, and tossed it into the kitchen. The flames immediately shot up into the air and began to spread. He hurried out the back door, jogged over to his car, only looking back for a moment to see that the entire Moonlight Hall was now already being engulfed in flames. He watched them rise, and as they rose he came to the realization that this horrible place was finished, that all of the madness was over.
He picked up Cindy promptly at eight PM. They had arranged to pick up their tickets at the airport, both of them taking only two suitcases of clothing. All the rest of their belongings could stay. Everything else could stay here. To hell with this place.
Their flight took them to Mexico, where Ben eventually found a job as a chef in a gourmet restaurant where the wages were low, but where he enjoyed working. Cindy found work as a waitress and they lived a modest, but happy, life. They both tried hard to forget about New York. Over the years Ben thought less and less about Moonlight Hall and all of the horrors that had taken place there. But every so often, once, sometimes twice, a year, he would wake up from a nightmare in which a blood soaked Marcus Hirsch came toward him, a bloody machete held high over his head. Then he would come back to reality, breathe in deeply, and tell himself, it's all over now. It's all over, and it has been for a long time...