“What’s that up ahead, is it a balloon?”
Grant slowed the car to a crawl and they both gawked at what turned out to be a deflated beach ball on the gravel shoulder of the road.
They had been driving around for an hour, the GPS system all but useless as they looked for a turn-off marked by a balloon and a sign.
“Okay, let me check the invite again?” Katie said, pulling a card out of her brown leather shoulder bag. “Ten miles west of the wrecking yard on highway 31, look for the balloon and the sign, park in the clearing?”
Grant was sure they were on the correct road, but there had been no balloon anywhere. They were in the middle of nowhere, they hadn’t even seen another car in over half an hour.
The trees rose up green and lush on both sides of the highway, deep gutters were full of young bulrushes not yet at the fluffy catkin stage, and the sun beat down bright and hot on the black asphalt ribbon in front of them. They had passed road kill in various states of decay, a murder of crows prancing down the centre yellow lines, and a rusty, abandoned shopping cart, but there was absolutely no sign of the entrance to the restaurant where they had a coveted reservation for dinner.
“We’ve gone more than ten miles, maybe we should double back,” Grant said, squinting through the windshield, the waves of heat dancing up from the road distorting his vision and making him doubt his own mind.
“Wait, what’s that?” Katie yelled suddenly, pointing out the passenger window.
Grant pulled up slowly beside a wooden post in the gravel shoulder. A deflated red balloon hung limply from a string tied to a nail hammered into the top. Katie jumped out as Grant stopped the car. She bent down and picked up a board from the ground near the post.
‘Fair Game’ was written in a scraggled hand in red paint.
“We found it? We’re here!”
Grant turned off the ignition and got out to stand beside Katie. He took the sign from her and flipped it over.
Park in clearing. Follow path.
“What clearing?” asked Katie in her little-girl voice. Although a fully-grown adult woman at twenty-four, Katie still sounded like a child when she spoke, adding ‘like’ to almost every sentence and punctuating her speech with up-talk and vocal fry. Those things alone could be trained out, but Katie’s voice, even when she enunciated every word clearly, still came out of her mouth sounding like it belonged to a wide-eyed toddler.
They noticed that a section of the ditch had been badly filled in, and through the trees, Grant caught a flash of red as the sun reflected off the roof of a BMW parked behind some bushes.
He took the sign from Katie and bent down to prop it up against the post, facing the road, noting that the ground showed where the post had been recently sunk.
They got back in the car and Grant rolled it slowly over the ditch infill and through the bushes, to park it next to the other car. He wondered how badly scratched his paint job was going to be from all the knee-high brambles he had driven through.
“I’m so excited!” Katie exclaimed as they locked the doors. “One last selfie, okay?”
“The first clue said ‘no social media from this point on,’” Grant pointed out.
Katie frowned. “But, like, how are we supposed to TikTok? Or Insta? Or even Tweet?”
“I think that’s kind of the point of a hidden pop-up restaurant, sweetie. We’re not. It’s all about the experience, not documenting it. And you won’t get any reception once we’re up the mountain anyway.”
“But Grant,” Katie whined. “That’s, like, what we do? These places don’t invite people like us unless they want publicity?”
“Then you write about it when you get back. Besides, I don’t think they want tons of customers anyway. It’s all about exclusivity. Otherwise they wouldn’t expect people to literally climb a mountain to get there.”
Grant and Katie both looked up at the tree-covered ridge above them. It was forbidding in its height, the occasional crag and rock outcropping visible through the tops of the tall trees.
“Let’s check the info again before we start?” said Katie, opening an email on her phone.
Dear Grant and Katie,
You are invited to join us for an exclusive meal at Fair Game, a hidden pop-up restaurant running for 3 nights only.
Some of the world’s top chefs will prepare an exquisite four-course meal of wild-caught game meat, foraged foods, and local ingredients.
Only four guests will be invited each night and Fair Game will close down after only 3 nights of service.
Who are we? All will be revealed when you arrive for dinner.
Directions will be provided upon receiving your RSVP.
PS. Please keep your reservation with us a secret until after your Fair Game dining experience, as we cannot accommodate the crowds that publicity on your blog, Millennial Munchies, would create.
The Fair Game Hunters and Chefs
“Wait, that’s the invite, here’s the one with the directions?”
Dear Grant and Katie,
So delighted to hear you will be joining us for dinner on July 17th at 6pm. Here are the directions and tips for the best Fair Game experience.
Be at the newspaper box in front of city hall no later than 2pm. You’ll find directions in an envelope underneath the papers. Wear comfortable clothing and sturdy shoes as you will have to walk some distance to reach your final destination.
Looking forward to dining with you,
The Fair Game Hunters and Chefs
“Okay, and here’s the message from the news box?” Katie said, pulling the card from her bag.
Here are your directions to the Fair Game dinner. We are located in a cabin at the top of Mount Chase.
- No social media from this point forward. We will be monitoring your accounts.
- Bring this card with you to prove your identity.
- Remember that your mobile devices will not work once you are up the mountain.
We are located ten miles east of Wentworth Scrap Yard on Highway 31. Look for the red balloon and the sign on the south side, turn off here and park in the clearing. Give yourself plenty of time to find us, even with the markers, it can be hard to spot.
It should take you about an hour to get from the car park to the restaurant, as the incline is steep and the footpath, while marked, is uneven.
Make lots of noise while you are hiking up the mountain to scare off any wildlife such as coyotes or bears that you may encounter.
We will be waiting at the cabin with cold drinks and lots of great food. Enjoy your climb.
The Fair Game Hunters and Chefs
“I, like, forgot the bit about the bears,” Katie said, a scowl in her face. “Maybe I don’t really wanna do this…?”
“Oh come on,” Grant replied, frustrated with his girlfriend’s reticence. “Think of how cool this is going to be. Think of the bragging rights when we post this to the blog. Only 12 people get to do this, Katie.”
“I know, Grant, but there’s, like, mosquitoes?”
Indeed, the mosquitoes had already formed a black swarm around Katie’s head and when she swatted them away, they returned almost immediately.
Grant sighed. “It’s the perfume Katie, I told you not to wear it. It’s not cool to wear fragrance to food events, and in the woods like this, you’ll be eaten alive.”
Chastised and guilty, Katie said nothing.
“I guess it’s okay to leave the car here, it’s not like you can even see it from the road.”
“Or that there’s even, like, anybody on the road?” Katie said.
“What gear do you want to bring? The good camera?” Grant asked.
Katie shrugged. “Whatever.”
Grant hung his new Canon DSLR around his neck and scanned the edge of the clearing, spotting an orange flag off in one corner. “That must be our marker for the path,” he said to Katie, gesturing to the far end of the field.
“Okay, let’s go?” Katie said, heading off in that direction.
“Wait, you’re wearing those shoes?” he asked. Katie had ignored the instructions and was wearing a black dress with a full skirt, covered in a pattern of flowers and leaves and a pair of wedge-heeled sandals. She looked lovely, Grant thought approvingly, admiring her golden tanned skin and long brown hair marked with blonde highlights, just not for hiking. “You don’t have a pair of running shoes in the trunk?”
“That would make this outfit look soooo stupid?”
“Katie, we’ve got to climb a mountain right now. You’ll turn an ankle in those.”
She glared at him, but went to the trunk and pulled out her gym bag, extracting a pair of neon orange sneakers and some socks. “I’m taking these with me,” she said, waving the sandals at Grant.
“Nobody will care, Katie. All these chefs look like lumberjacks and bathe about as often. Let’s go or we’ll be late.” He slammed the trunk closed and they headed off in the direction of the flag.
Grant led the way through the knee-high ferns, watching carefully for the next flag to mark the way they were supposed to go. Almost immediately the trees closed in on them and the late afternoon sunshine dappled through the leaves of the high trees to create a play of shadow and light across the ground.
Anything that might have resembled a path was sparse and not well-trodden. Not very many people had come this way and Grant wondered how the chefs had gotten all the cooking gear and equipment up the mountain. Above their heads a cicada buzzed long and shrill and Katie jumped. “Stupid bug?”
Despite the difficult incline and lack of a clear path, after a few minutes both Grant and Katie felt relaxed. Birds flitted overhead, a woodpecker hammered at a tree in the distance, and despite the warmth of the day, there was enough of a breeze to keep them comfortably cool.
Mosquitoes still followed Katie like children after an ice cream truck but she was concentrating so hard on keeping her footing, even in the running shoes, that she forgot to complain about the things.
Footsteps across softer, mossy ground stirred up leaves and loam, and the sweet yet dank smell of forest swirled in their nostrils. As they reached higher elevations the soil gave way to rock in many places and they had to watch carefully where they stepped.
At around the half hour mark they came upon a small, clear stream and they cupped their hands full of sharply cold water and drank greedily. “I wish I had a bottle to fill for the rest of the hike,” Grant said, absentmindedly.
In the far distance, a howl, then a number of replies, carried across the air.
“Oh, shit, what was that?” Katie cried.
“Coyotes? We’re supposed to be making noise.”
“It’s too pretty? I, like, forgot?”
“Okay, come on, we’ll sing the rest of the way. There’s a flag over there, so we’ve got to cross the stream.”
Katie hated her singing voice more than her speaking voice and shook her head. “Just talk loud?” she said. They removed their shoes and socks and crossed the ankle-deep water than burbled down the mountain.
“Okay,” Grant said as they struggled to put their shoes back onto wet feet, “let’s talk about this dinner. Who do you think is behind it?”
“I don’t know? There are no, like, names mentioned on the invitation? And there’s no website or socials for Fair Game? They’re, like, waaaay under the radar?”
She watched Grant’s back as they walked. His strong, sporty frame was having little trouble with the incline. His athleticism was one of the things that had attracted her to him. He was blandly generic – in a good way – brown hair, fair skin, slightly nerdy glasses. But Katie had calculated that together they’d at least make some reasonably attractive children, and even though Grant was often condescending to her – most people were, because of her voice – she cared for him enough that she mostly ignored that trait.
“And what do you think they’ll serve? Some venison of some kind, I guess. A bird like partridge.”
“Venison’s not, like, in season?” Katie replied, out of breathe as she worked her way up the hill. She knew she was considered the dumb one of the pair, but Grant’s food knowledge was actually quite poor and his palate was not nearly as sophisticated as he let on.
“Venison? You’re only allowed to, like, hunt it in the fall? So if they served venison, it would be illegal or have been frozen from last year,” she said this last with a huff that prevented the questioning lilt on the end, realizing that she actually sounded as if she had some expertise on the subject. “Or farmed?”
Chagrined at being corrected, Grant let out a brusque “Oh,” and then went silent.
A rustle in the bushes quite near them caused them both to freeze. A small doe and two fawns stepped out into a clearing ahead of them, looked at them curiously and then bolted, a flurry of long legs and white tails disappearing in the trees.
“See?” Katie asked. “The babies aren’t, like, ready to leave their mums?”
Grant grumbled and walked on, singing the Happy Wanderer song at top volume.
Katie sighed and followed him, thinking to herself that they hadn’t seen a flag since they left the stream. She checked her watch; 5:45pm. “Grant? Are we lost?”
“No,” came the reply from up ahead, and Grant resumed singing.
“Are you sure?” I haven’t like, seen a flag?”
“I’m sure. I used to be on the orienteering team.”
“The what?” Katie struggled up over a sharp steep rock.
“Orienteering. Following maps through the woods.”
“You don’t have a map?” Katie pointed out. Grant stopped and glared at her.
“Hullo!!!” A voice carried across the forest through the trees.
“Katie?” Lucy Gowan’s head popped up over some particularly high ferns. “Is that you?”
“Lucy? What are you doing here?” Katie faux-exclaimed. Dammit, Loose Lucy, that was a way to ruin an evening.
“I think we’re on our way to dinner, just like you,” said a man’s voice. The voice belonged to Stewart Winslow, another local food blogger.
“Are you lost too?” asked Katie.
“No, the trail is over this way, we were just, uh, resting for a bit. That hill really wipes you out.”
Katie gave Grant a look but they both remained silent. It didn’t take much to guess what Lucy was doing in the bushes.
They pushed through the ferns and underbrush to where Lucy and Stewart stood. “Ah, there’s the flag,” Grant exclaimed, pushing on up the slope.
The path opened up to a small clearing where they could see a cabin up ahead. Walking around the structure to find a door, they discovered a pair of SUVs parked near what appeared to be a rough road.
“There was a road?” exclaimed Katie. “No fair?”
“We wanted you to take the scenic route,” said a voice from behind them. At the door of the cabin stood a tall, striking woman with dark hair and a strong northern British accent. “Welcome, I am Miranda from Quince Restaurant, in Leeds.” She gestured for the group to enter the cabin, and offered them drinks from a tray waiting on a table set with a large vase of local wildflowers.
“Please, you must all be thirsty. This is a cocktail made from gin and a tonic made with local herbs found in the woods surrounding us.”
The four diners took the frosty glasses and guzzled the icy drink. The cocktail was bright and green-tasting.
The cabin was larger than it had appeared from the outside, with a large dining table and chairs in the middle of the room, plus a door that led off into what was the kitchen, based on the smells and noises coming from behind it.
“There is a composting toilet at the side of the building, for anyone that needs it,” said Miranda. “There’s also water and towels there if you need to wash up after your trek. I’ll be introducing the chefs and explaining what we’re all about in a few minutes.”
Miranda disappeared through the door to the kitchen, closing it behind her. The group sipped their drinks and looked around. The cabin was mostly bare, with little furniture other than the table and chairs, and no decor to speak of, other than the flowers. It was clean and bright, with sunlight still streaming through the small, milky windows. Lanterns hung on the walls, presumably to be lit when dusk fell.
“So, have you heard of this group before?” Lucy asked Grant and Katie. “I couldn’t find anything on Google and none of my restaurant contacts seemed to know anything about these guys. I almost didn’t come.”
“So why did you?” Grant replied. He was never a fan of Lucy or the methods she used to get an article. “Couldn’t stand to be left out?”
Lucy flipped her long black hair. “Not exactly. But the secrecy left me curious.”
“Does anybody know you’re here?” asked Katie.
“The invite said not to tell anybody until after,” Stewart replied. “Did you tell anyone?”
“We didn’t,” said Grant. “My Mom knows I’m at a dinner event, but she thinks most of these things are weird, so doesn’t pay much attention.”
Miranda appeared again with a tray bearing four ceramic soup spoons. “Just a bit of an amuse to get you started,” she said cheerily. “This is some smoked trout, caught in the stream that you crossed. Topped with some wild mustard greens, and a Saskatoon berry vinaigrette.” The four diners each took a spoon and downed the trout like a liquor shot.
“Now, if you’ll all have a seat. Katie, Grant, Lucy, and Stewart… on behalf of Fair Game, I welcome you. First things first, there is no recording of this event in any way, so I’d like you all to put your phones, cameras and, well, your bags in general, in this basket, and we’ll return everything to you as you leave. Also, your car keys. We will move your vehicles for you while you are eating so that you can go back down the mountain by the road, not the flagged path.”
All four were unhappy with this rule.
“We thought we’d be able to take photos. So we can write about it tomorrow,” said Grant, a peevish note to his voice.
“I understand,” Miranda replied, placating him with a charming smile. “But it is imperative that no media goes out while we’re serving, and there is occasionally a weak signal to be had here on the very top of Mount Chase, so we’re just being cautious.” She handed the basket around and each diner placed all their personal effects into it.
“Oh, wait?” Katie cried as Miranda move to take the basket away. “I meant to change my shoes?” She grabbed her bag and quickly switched her running shoes for the prettier sandals.
Grant rolled his eyes at Lucy and Stewart.
“Okay? I’ve got everything?” Miranda asked. When all four nodded with reluctance, she slipped behind the door with the basket and returned with two men and a woman in chef’s whites.
“Diners, may I introduce your chefs for the evening. From The Crystal Apple in San Francisco, chef Jonathan Sparks.” A burly man with the requisite hipster beard and tattoos nodded at the group.
“Next to him, Claudine Tremblay from Le Petit Perse in Nice. And finally Nils Olafson from Solstice in Copenhagen.” A tall, thin blonde woman and a short, clean-shaven bald man both nodded.
“All of ours chefs tonight, besides being great cooks, are also expert hunters and fishers. Claudine is an Olympic medalist for both rifle and pistol shooting. All of the protein in the dinner we will be serving you has been caught entirely on this mountain. Obviously, we’ve brought in some staples, but the majority of ingredients are from within a kilometre of where we are right now.”
Chef Sparks stepped forward to explain the amuse, talking about how he had smoked the trout over wild cherry wood found further down the mountain. The chefs then returned to the kitchen as Miranda poured the wine to pair with their starters.
“Have you heard of any of these guys?” asked Lucy as Miranda left the room to get the next course.
Stewart was the expert in the room on international chefs; the others mostly stuck to writing and photographing local restaurants. “I don’t know any of these names. Or the restaurant names.”
“Maybe they’re like, sous chefs, or up-and-comers?” said Katie, sipping her glass of Riesling. “You can’t know the name of every kitchen worker in every restaurant around the world?”
Stewart shot her a dark look as she questioned his vast knowledge. “Sure, but I’d at least know the restaurants, wouldn’t I?”
“Your first course is individual pheasant pot pies with puff pastry, fennel and wild blueberries,” said Miranda as she returned to the dining room. The tiny pies emitted a fragrant steam and the diners turned their attention to their plates. The second course was a rabbit terrine, and all four diners ate heartily.
When Miranda served the main course of venison osso buco, Katie turned and made a pointed look at Grant.
“What’s up with you two?” Stewart asked, looking down at his plate. “Is something wrong with your dish?”
“Nothing?” Katie replied. “It’s just… I was telling Grant earlier that venison is not in season? So it’s weird that they’re serving it?”
Stewart replied with a suspicious expression. “Indeed. That is correct. Most interesting.”
As dusk fell, Miranda moved around the room, lighting the glass gas lanterns that hung from the walls. Katie excused herself to go in search of the toilet and Miranda handed her a lantern and pointed her to the right of the cabin door. Katie found a small shed attached to the side of the cabin and sat down to pee.
The walls of the cabin were not well insulated and she could see through the cracks into the kitchen. As was typical of a pop-up dinner, the cooking area was sparse, just a couple of folding tables, some portable gas camping stoves and a few large plastic coolers. She heard the chefs laughing. Chef Sparks had his back to the wall Katie was peeking through and was sawing at something energetically.
“Fuck, this one’s tough,” she heard him say.
“You need the hacksaw,” said Chef Olafsen in a voice with an accent that Katie thought sounded more Irish than Dutch. “Let me do it.”
As Sparks stepped aside Katie saw a flash of a thick cut of meat with a marking on it. She wasn’t quite close enough to tell, but it looked like a round red circle. Like… a slaughterhouse stamp, she thought to herself. Was the venison really store-bought beef? Was Fair Game some kind of scam?
She hurried back to the dining room where the others were waiting as Miranda served up the dessert. “Think of it as a cross between a blood pudding and a brownie.”
Everyone except Lucy, who would try anything once, looked down at their plates with grimaced faces.
“I can do this, I’ve eaten blood pudding before,” said Grant to try to work himself up to the challenge.
“Oh, you guys, it’s gooood. Don’t be such babies.” Lucy was shoveling the cake into her mouth. “I’m so full but I can’t stop eating, they’re going to have to roll me down this hill.”
The kitchen door opened and the chefs all filed in.
Chef Olafson asked in halting English, “Did you like the meal?”
“I thought it was well balanced, but I found the flavourings in the osso buco to be slightly off,” Grant said. “There was something in there that was just too sweet to go with the venison. And it wasn’t very gamey for wild-caught.”
“It wasn’t wild?” Katie said, interjecting. “I saw into the kitchen when I was in the washroom? That meat has a butcher’s mark on it? It’s either beef or farmed venison?”
The chefs exchanged a glance. “Would you like to see the meat for yourself?” asked Chef Tremblay.
“Yes, please, this all seems a little… untoward,” said Stewart. “We don’t know who any of you are, and you invite us up to this mountain under the guise of a rare game dinner and then serve us store-bought meat? That’s not cool.”
Chef Sparks smiled, “I assure you, none of the meat served tonight is from a store.”
Chef Tremblay returned with a large cut of meat wrapped in paper. She set it down and pulled back the wrapping to reveal a shank of uncooked meat, skin on, covered in tattoos.
“What is this?” cried Grant.
“That’s a leg. Oh my God, that’s a human leg!” Stewart said, incredulous, standing up and knocking his chair over.
“That’s Joseline?” said Katie, more calmly than she expected to be. “I recognize that tattoo of the pig and the cuts. It was on her left thigh?”
“Fuck! What the fuck?” Grant yelled.
Stewart’s eyes bulged. “Did we just fucking eat Joseline? From The Tasty Table? I’m going to puke.” He made retching noises as he held his stomach and tears rolled down his cheeks.
Meanwhile Lucy nodded approvingly. “Delicious.”
The others turned to her, with Grant voicing their collective disgust, “Delicious? You fucking ate a human, you dumb bitch. They fed us human! They killed Joseline and fed her to us.”
Lucy laughed. “Oh come on, don’t tell me you never wanted to try it.”
“But, it was Joseline?” Katie said, crying. “She was, like, nice?”
“Well…” said Lucy, “she was kind of notorious for stealing recipes and claiming them as her own. Which is not illegal, per se, but is not really… nice. So maybe this is her comeuppance.” Lucy looked at the chefs, with an eyebrow raised and an inquisitive expression on her face.
Katie turned to the chefs. “Is that why you cooked Joseline, because she stole recipes?”
Miranda gestured to the table. “Everyone, please sit down. There’s still more to the evening and all will be explained.” Chef Sparks went to the kitchen and returned with a tray of coffee and mugs.
Grant refused to sit. “I don’t want fucking coffee. I want to leave. This is fucked up. I want to go home.” He paced the small room but the chefs were blocking the two exits.
Chef Tremblay appeared at his side, pointing a small pistol at his head. Her French accent was heavy as she said, “You will sit down. You will listen. Then… you will go.”
The dinner guests silenced, Miranda gestured for them to drink their coffee as she spoke.
“Fair Game is a secret world-wide consortium of chefs who have had their careers sidelined by food bloggers, writers, and photographers such as yourselves. Everyone here has had their restaurant and their career destroyed by an overzealous and ignorant blogger or influencer. You are all here because you have destroyed a chef’s career or put their restaurant out of business.”
Grant moved as if to reply, but Chef Tremblay pushed the pistol into his shoulder.
“Grant and Katie from Millennial Munchies — you take shitty photos with a flash and know absolutely nothing about the food chefs have served you. The chefs who have filed a complaint against you, and there are many, feel that you have grossly misrepresented their restaurants and caused them extensive lost revenue. Stewart, from World Food Observer…” Miranda consulted a piece of paper she had pulled from her pocket. “Yeah, everyone just thinks you’re a pompous dick.”
Lucy tittered, causing Miranda to turn to her.
“And speaking of dick… Lucy Gowan, you have climbed to greater heights in your writing career than your colleagues here through the blackmail and extortion of more than a dozen chefs in your city.”
A collective “Whaaat?” arose from Grant, Katie and Stewart.
“Were you not aware that your friend Lucy, when working for a variety of local publications, goes to interview a chef, offers them sexual favours, and then blackmails them for expensive product in exchange for keeping quiet? That’s right, Lucy moves more lobes of fois gras, and more kilos of white truffles — at a huge mark-up, I might add — than most of the local wholesalers combined. She was nominated by both local chefs and suppliers, which is a first for us.”
Grant looked at Lucy with a mix of bemused disgust. “Why would you not just blackmail them for actual money?”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Lucy shrugged.
“Okay, but, what’s that got to do with us?” asked Stewart.
“There are complaints against all of you with the consortium,” replied Chef Sparks. “So… you are here. And in a moment, we will let you go. And if you can get down the mountain to safety before we hunt you down, you get to live. If not, you’ll be dinner for the next group of diners. Or for the coyotes and bears.”
“This seems…” Stewart said, in his usual condescending tone, “all a bit of an overreaction. Certainly, killing us, all of us, and others by the sounds of it, is an unwarranted response to a bad review.”
“One of your reviews caused a chef to kill himself, did you know that?” Chef Olafson pointed a finger at Stewart. “You two,” he gestured at Grant and Katie, “wrote a review that pushed a chef over the edge into a nervous breakdown. We’re doing the entire food world a favour.”
Miranda continued. “Here’s the deal. You all get a 5 minute head start and a lantern. Then we will come after you. With guns. Your cars have been moved to the wrecking yard you passed on your way here and have already been stripped and crushed, so don’t bother trying to find them. There’s nobody there at the moment, by the way, except for the dogs, and honestly I’d rather take my chances with the coyotes on the mountain.
“If you don’t make it down the mountain — and you won’t — your devices will be shipped to different cities around the world where another consortium member will post to social media that you’re on vacation and having such a fantastic time, making it look as if you have disappeared while on holiday, and then your devices will be wiped of all data, destroyed, and dumped.
“As you’ve already concluded, we are not who we claim to be. Our restaurants don’t exist, we are using fake names and accents, and we have changed our appearances quite drastically. Should you actually survive, you will not be able to identify us in any way.”
Katie raised her hand to speak. “So you are not the chefs who have complained about us specifically?”
Miranda shook her head. “Every chef who is a member goes to a different dining capital and takes part in a Fair Game event to help our group eradicate annoying ‘foodies’. This ensures anonymity and also prevents cold feet because of familiarity. It also prevents any ties or links that might be considered when local authorities start investigating your disappearance.”
“You can’t do this!” Stewart yelled. “This is absolutely unacceptable, and I demand you let us go immediately.”
Chef Olafson smiled. “My dear Stewart, but of course. Nobody is keeping you here against your will. You are more than welcome to leave. Please… have a lantern to light your way down the mountain.” He lifted the lanterns off the hooks on the walls and handed one to each of the diners. “By the way, your 5-minute head start begins now.”
Outside the cabin, the darkness of the forest closing around them as the last indigo stripes of sunset faded across the sky, Grant tried to organize everyone. “I think we should stick together, use our wits.”
It was too dark to make out the expression on Lucy’s face but her voice made her cynicism clear. “That’s a good way to die fast. We need to split up. I intend to make it down the mountain and use my sources to find out who is running this thing and bring them to justice. A story like this could get me a gig at the New York Times.”
“Always thinking about yourself, aren’t you Lucy?” Stewart asked.
“Well, and you know, for Joseline,” Lucy added.
“Ohhh…. Joseline?” Katie cried, grasping her stomach and remembering the venison on her plate and the chefs sawing away in the kitchen. “We ate Joseline.”
“Anyway,” Lucy added, “if these guys are serious, our time is running out. See you suckers later. Or not. I’ll be sure to mention you all in the article.” With that she headed down the rough path.
Stewart cleared his throat. “I agree that we should split up. I’m going to take my chances going back the way we came up. Good luck to you both, and if we are never to meet again, I just want to say that they’re right, your work really was quite shitty.” Grant and Katie watched the lantern light sway in the darkness as Stewart lumbered around to the back of the cabin.
“Oh my godddddddd… Grant, what do we do?” Katie asked.
Grant grabbed her by the hand. “We just go. Our time is running out. We just start walking.” He pulled her into the bush and headed in what he thought was an eastward direction. The lush ferns engulfed them up to their waists and they plowed through the fronds for about fifty meters when Katie cried out as her lantern went flying, sputtering out as it hit a rock. She had turned an ankle in her wedge-heeled shoes.
“I can’t, like, walk?”
“Then we’re going to die,” Grant said through gritted teeth. Those stupid fucking shoes, she’d just had to wear those shoes.
“I’m sorry…” Katie said in her little girl voice. “I didn’t mean to? Look, I’ll take them off?” She undid the shoes and tossed them away from her.
“And walk down the mountain barefoot? Fuck this, Katie, I’m done. I’m not going to die because of your vanity and stupidity. I told you not to wear those shoes.”
Katie could see Grant’s cheekbone reflecting white in the light of the moon overhead. “You’d just leave me here? To die?”
“To save myself, yeah, I think I would.” His voice chilled her. He was serious.
“Grant, don’t play. Don’t? I’m so scared? You wanted us all to stay together? And they’re going to come and kill us? They are!”
“I’m sorry Katie. I”m going to try and save myself. You’ll never make it down the mountain like that.” His voice was cold as he turned and started to walk away.
“Grant, they’re fucking going to eat me?? Jesus, Grant, don’t go?”
His light disappeared quickly as Grant moved off down the mountain. Sitting on the ground, the tops of the ferns above her head, Katie felt around for her lantern but could not find it. The soil was soft and slightly moist and the leaves and twigs she felt as she tried to crawl along the forest floor were sharp on her hands. She found a large boulder to lean against and she stifled a sob as some creature off in the trees screeched out in the dark.
A noise behind her was accompanied by a slash of light that spilled out as the four chefs, now hunters, opened the door to the cabin and stepped out to stand beside the SUVs. Katie peered around the boulder to see them kitted out with night vision goggles and carrying high range rifles. They did a perimeter search of the cabin, checking the vehicles, under the cabin and in the bushes immediately adjacent to the clearing. Katie watched as the blinding spotlights on their heads did a sweep of the ground, then heard a rifle shot ring out. As the four headed to a spot in the opposite direction, Katie bolted to a large tree and hoisted herself up.
Her ankle burned with the pain of the effort, but as she found a stable branch on which to sit, and tucked her feet up under her skirt, she could hear them below her.
“It’s just the lantern,” said a woman’s voice. Katie recognized the voice of Miranda, but her heavy northern British accent sounded different now.
Chef Tremblay replied, no longer with a French accent but sounding as if she hailed from New Orleans. “The ditsy gal’s shoes are over here. I’ll take her, I like the challenge.”
“She won’t get very far barefoot,” said Olafson, definitely with an Irish accent now.
“No,” said Tremblay, “but without the lantern, she’s got no light to follow. And no GPS tracker to find her. So an actual hunting challenge.”
They all laughed.
“Okay, same deal as last night, when you take one down, leave the lantern with them so we can retrieve the bodies tomorrow morning once we’ve gone down the mountain and checked the GPS co-ordinates.”
“I thought we were just going to leave this group to decompose?” said Sparks.
Tremblay replied with annoyance in her voice. “We are, since the cooking is done and we’re all going home tomorrow night. But we need to remove things like teeth and fingerprints in case they get found before the animals get to them.”
“Up here? Unlikely,” Miranda said with a laugh.
“Still, to be safe. Okay, let’s move out.” Their lights headed in different directions as they began to track the diners. Tremblay continued past the direction of Katie’s lantern into the heavy thicket of ferns.
Katie waited until she could no longer see their lights and the only sounds were of the leaves rustling around her and the creatures of the forest below. Her thought was to re-enter the cabin to try and find her running shoes. This was her only hope of making it down the mountain. She hobbled across the small clearing to the front door of the cabin, stopping to check the windows to see if anyone was left inside.
She peered into the dining room which was empty, but in a state of disarray, with chairs upturned and chef jackets on the floor where they had been abandoned when the chefs dressed for the hunt. Around the back of the cabin she found the kitchen empty, and let herself in through the back door. Dirty pots and bowls were stacked on a folding table near the window. Joseline’s thigh sat next to them, the mosquitos buzzing around it, seemingly unsure of their free meal.
Under the table, Katie spied the basket full of the diners’ belongings. She dug out the bag with her neon running shoes, and as she sat on the only chair in the room to put them on, caught sight of a first aid kit in the corner. To her great joy, the box contained a tensor bandage, which she used to wrap her ankle.
Katie threw the phones and wallets into her large purse. She considered adding the cameras but realized the bulk and weight might slow her down. She held Grant’s camera in her hand, his precious new DSLR, as she thought about their conversation of only a few hours before. He really had just left her here to die. The fucker. If what the chefs had said was true, they were all likely to die trying to get down the mountain anyway, but he had really and truly left her there. Katie whipped the camera out the door into the woods.
The two sets of car keys were gone from the basket , but it was hard to know if any of what they had been told was the truth. Well, they were being hunted, that much was true, Katie reminded herself. She hobbled out the back door, staying close to the building as she circled around to the front.
Suddenly, there was the sound of a shot far off in the distance to her right, and the faint sound of a scream. A chill ran down Katie’s back, and she remembered that she was meant to be scared. Up until that point, she had been running on automatic, thinking only of what she needed to do next, the steps necessary to get down this fucking mountain.
“Don’t be scared, don’t be scared,” she repeated to herself in her head. “Stay sharp. Get out alive.”
Katie crept along the side of the SUV to the driver’s door. It was unlocked and she slid into the seat. Would they have been stupid enough to leave the keys? Not in the ignition but where were their personal belongings? She had seen nothing in the cabin except the abandoned chef jackets and aprons. They clearly weren’t sleeping there so maybe their stuff was in a motel room nearby. She climbed over the seat into the back of the SUV. She felt empty gun cases, and opened a metal box with a foam interior that was empty but likely had held a sight for a rifle. She stopped every few seconds to listen and watch the dark treeline, but nobody returned. One of the chefs had probably made a kill. Would they return immediately or join the hunt for the others?
She wondered briefly which of her colleagues had been shot, feeling no remorse at the thought of any of them dying, even Grant. Especially Grant. She wondered briefly what was happening to her. She was never this cold and uncaring. But Katie had more important things to think of right now.
She slipped from one vehicle to the other. In the back of the second SUV Katie found boxes of ammunition and hidden under some other gear that looked like mountain climbing equipment, a high-calibre rifle in a hard case.
Katie pulled out the rifle, loaded it with the bullets and hoisted the strap over her shoulder, thankful that her father had insisted that hunting was a useful skill to have on the prairie farm where she had grown up. She hadn’t shot anything in many years, but the gun felt comfortable in her hands and she was confident she would be able to use it if she had to. She thought about what to do next. Was she safer trying to make her way down the mountain or finding someplace to hide?
She remembered that she had everybody’s phone and rooted through her purse and pulled out her own. No signal. No signal on Grant’s phone. The same on what she recognized as Lucy’s. Damn this mountain. Stewart’s phone offered the slightest of signals and was unlocked, allowing her to send an emergency SOS message. It made a blaring noise as it sent out a message to the contact list, and Katie scrambled to muffle the sound by shoving the phone back into her purse. Of course, she had no idea where that might go or who, if anyone, would receive it. Or if they’d be able to get to her in time.
Another shot rang out in the distance. In the opposite direction, a coyote howled. The moon was bright overhead. Katie shuddered. She thought of Lucy, Stewart and Grant, wondering if any of them were still alive.
With the gun strapped across her back, and the purse full of phones over her shoulder, Katie retreated up the tree to the wide branch where she had hidden before. Her ankle throbbed under the tensor bandage and she regretted not grabbing a bottle of water from the makeshift kitchen when she was there. Too late now, she couldn’t risk one of the chefs returning to catch her. Besides, she didn’t want to look at Joseline’s dismembered leg yet again.
Katie tied the straps of her bag around another branch to ensure the phones remained in her possession. Then she settled the rifle across her lap and waited.