“It’s not kick-you-in-the-face spicy, it’s: fire-breathing-dragon-guzzling-gasoline spicy.”

Well that’s certainly an interesting subject line. I thought, immediately captivated by the colorful vocabulary. As a successful food critic, I naturally received hundreds of emails per day of restaurant owners requesting I review their business. I never paid much attention to their desperate pleas; it was embarrassing to lower themselves in order to garner my attention. However, emails from my colleagues were always much rarer and therefore more alluring to me.

I began to read more, each word raving about the “most delicious” meal he had ever eaten. He highly recommended the restaurant to me. At first, I deigned to decline, simply writing it off as luntistical nonsense. But then he claimed their spicy dishes were so unique, he had never tasted anything like it; in fact never tasted anything to that level of spicy before. It was certainly an arrogant claim. However, as I continued to research the restaurant, I saw more and more wild claims of unfinishable meals, watering eyes, and burning throats.

That was when I noticed that I had not been sent even a single request by the restaurant to come and taste their soon-to-be world famous food. I was slightly insulted, but mostly intrigued. I began the drive to what I foolishly believed would be just another restaurant, not a meal that would change my entire world.

The host pretended not to know who I was. Of course, she had to, but she was able to be very professional as she guided me through the sleek red and black booths. Gold accents glittered sophisticatedly in the low red light coming from various lamps along the walls. Gold was considerably difficult to incorporate without causing a tacky aesthetic; however, I was a food critic, not an interior designer. I sat and patiently perused the menu.

“Can I get you started with any drinks this evening?” A young waiter with a pleasant, round face calmly held their notebook at the ready. They also seemed not to recognize me, as their brown eyes held my gaze steadfastly.

“I’ll have the chef’s choice wine. Surprise me.”

“Of course, ma’am.”

They brought me a specialty red wine, almost overwhelmingly sweet at first but with a crisp bitter tang. It was an incredibly unique flavor. I refused to be impressed so easily, however, as I continued to scan the menu selections. They had a wide array of foods from chicken to seafood to pasta dishes. All of their sauces were secret recipes, unique to this restaurant alone. No wonder it had such raving reviews.

“Are you ready to place your order, ma’am?” The waiter had returned almost silently and held their notebook at the ready.

“I’ll be having tonight’s special,” I answered. “And a refill of the wine.”

The food looked incredible. A steaming plate of seasoned chicken with sauteed vegetables served over rice and a side of salad was set in front of me within ten minutes; impressive service considering how packed the restaurant was. I cut delicately into a piece of chicken, sprinkled with what appeared to be pepper and a seasoning I couldn’t quite identify. A slight orange glaze coated it as well, most likely the house special sauce that was held in such high regard. We’ll see about that.

Before I could take even a single bite of the delicious looking meal, a loud crash and several screams interrupted what had been a quiet murmur of late evening conversation. I tried to stand up but people began rushing by in a panicked frenzy, desperately trying to escape some unseen danger. I was more annoyed and confused than worried, still I pushed my way into the stampede and walked towards whatever they were all running from. Perhaps not the greatest survival instincts, but a disturbance of this magnitude would certainly affect the restaurant’s rating and I was curious anyhow.

I immediately regretted my curiosity as the crowd parted enough for me to glimpse the horrible scene that had ruined my much anticipated meal. A man lay prone and stiff on the floor, fingers curled in an unnatural position, one hand grasping at his throat and the other reaching towards the sky as if somehow God himself could have descended to save him from what must have been a painful few last moments. His jaw was locked open, eyes wide and bloodshot in agony, foam and drool spilling from his lips. My stomach heaved and I was suddenly grateful I hadn’t gotten to try the food at all.

As one of the only patrons who hadn’t immediately fled the scene, I became the person questioned by the police. I tried to answer through a daze, unable to get the awful image out of my head. They had eventually given up and moved on to the next person, leaving me sitting on the cold concrete curb outside, my only company the flashing lights of the vehicles and the other people who seemed worlds away. I was worlds away from where I had been just a couple of hours earlier.

A cause of death was never released, at least publically. Before I was finally allowed to go home, I questioned the crime scene analysts who had been collecting samples. One rudely turned away, mumbling something about being “legally bound to secrecy,” but the other was a fan of my work. Clearly she had good taste. She told me in a hushed tone that while no autopsy had been performed yet, all indications pointed towards poisoning, and a nasty one at that.

That was the last update I, or anyone else, was privy to regarding the case. It was very hush-hush, the cause of death ruled accidental. I knew well enough that most accidental cases were just cover-ups to placate the public, but no amount of digging got me very far.

Permanent trauma didn’t stop me from revisiting the restaurant, eventually. It was over a month later before I could go back, but there hadn’t been any more incidents and my therapist had mentioned exposure therapy. Of course, she hadn’t thought it would work in my case and I had only gone to one session, but what did a qualified professional know about my psyche anyways? A month was more than enough time off work and I figured I would never be able to move past this if I didn’t face it.
Besides, maybe someone here had been told more about the “accident”. I hated to admit it, but a large amount of my work leave was spent researching, rather than actually recovering. I had been able to find very little information about the case itself, so instead I did a deep dive into similar cases in the past. There were a disturbing number of unsolved poisonings where the killer or the poison had never been identified, or both. What most of them shared in common was an accidental ruling for an official cause of death and an internet thread of conspiracy sleuths that also contained a frustrating lack of information.

The waiter’s voice snapped me out of my reverie. It was the same waiter as before, still the same calm and unfazed demeanor. Before they could take my order, I interrupted them.

“Did you find out what happened, what really happened last month?” I asked hurriedly.

“The incident report was already released to the public,” they stated with a firm but questioning look.

“I see,” I responded. Clearly this waiter was going to be of no help. “I’d like to order now then, if you don’t mind. I’d also like to speak to the manager.” They nodded and took my order before heading back to the kitchen. I carefully watched them navigate the empty restaurant towards the back room.

The restaurant’s dinner crowd was relatively quiet, unsurprisingly. Although it had been over a month since the incident, the death was still largely in the attention of the public, although interest had greatly diminished since the official autopsy had been performed. Most of the people eating at the tables around me looked like they were from out of town, most likely true crime fans excited to eat at the same restaurant as a crime scene that was still so fresh.

The manager never had a chance to show up. Neither did my food, for that matter. It was interrupted by the second victim crashing loudly to the floor, the same horrifying and desperate look in her eyes. This time, instead of panicked shouts, the restaurant had fallen dead silent. I was sitting all too close for comfort, as the only sound in the room was the gasping and gurgling, quickly cut off by a final, loud choke.

The shocked stillness broke all at once when the manager loudly threw the door to the back room open. The majority of patrons scurried out of the door, not eager to see the body or be held for questioning by police. A few quickly snapped pictures as if it was an erupting geyser rather than a dead woman. I rushed to my feet and was at the manager’s side in a second. I thought seeing the victim would be easier this time, but I suppose it never was. The manager checked her pulse before beginning chest compressions, shouting for someone to call 911. A waiter stood behind him, speaking grimly to the operator over the phone.

This time, the police were much more interested in their investigation. A one time public poisoning was a fluke, a jilted lover or even a genuine accident. A second time, the same place with the same circumstances was not a coincidence, and they knew they couldn’t sweep it under the rug this time. There were also far fewer witnesses that bothered to stick around, so their questioning was much more thorough.

“Around what time would you say Mrs. Adams arrived at the restaurant?” a short cop with a badge that read “Officer Smith” asked from behind a thick yellow notepad. Although, he may not have actually been all that short. I had been complimented on my impressive height of 6’2 constantly throughout my life, and the three inch heeled boots I had chosen certainly didn’t make me seem any shorter. Intimidating other people was one of the things I enjoyed about my profession, metaphorically and literally.

“Ms. Larson?” Officer Smith cleared his throat awkwardly.

“Sorry,” I apologized emptily, not at all interested in the investigation. I sighed before answering, “I think she was already sitting before I got there.”

“And when would you say she got her food?”

“I don’t know, maybe ten or fifteen minutes before she…” I trailed off as he scribbled something in his notebook. Another one of the officers motioned to him from the side and he glanced over with a slight sigh.

“Alright ma’am, I’m just going to need you to stay here. We have a few more questions for you,” he strode off, an ill-fitting uniform hugging his body just a little too tightly. He was too far away to hear what he was saying, so instead I watched as the paramedics loaded a black body bag on a stretcher into the ambulance. One of them yawned. How was it possible they had become so desensitized to such a puzzling tragedy? I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping tonight.

“Ms. Larson,” Officer Smith returned with his partner in tow. I snapped again out of my thoughts and turned. “We found a record of your testimony from the previous investigation into the death of Mr. Winthrow. Were you present during both incidents?”

“Yes, that’s correct,” I answered carefully.

“And is it also true that your purpose for being present tonight was attempting to look further into the previous incident?”

“I wouldn’t say that was my only purpose–”

“And you were placed on medical leave for reason of mental instability as well as recommended to a psychiatrist to which you only attended the first of five required sessions?”

“I’m sorry, what exactly do you want to accomplish here?”

“Ms. Larson, these are simply standard questions. We just need you to cooperate and answer truthfully,” the other officer chimed in. I shifted uncomfortably and frowned.

“Am I under arrest?”

“No ma’am.”

“Then am I free to leave?”

I walked away as they hesitated to answer, but neither made a move to stop me. I was quite frankly appalled at the notion that I would be questioned just for very circumstantial and out of context evidence.

I saw three more deaths on the news in the following weeks. Only one of the victims had died in the restaurant, the other two had both died in their own homes. All of the details matched exactly what I had seen, so there was no doubt now that all five poisonings had been connected to the restaurant in some way. The restaurant itself had now been closed down under investigation for “health code violations” but I knew it was far worse than that. However, according to scanners and official news reports, the police did not.

This time, the restaurant was utterly deserted. Not a single other car or person was in sight, yellow crime scene tape still flapping abandoned in a slight breeze. I stepped over it easily, and slunk around the building, looking for an entrance. Around the back was the staff lot, which I also assumed would be empty since the restaurant had been shut down, yet there was a bright red Subaru parked (poorly, might I add) next to the back door to the kitchen. The door was slightly ajar, a rock placed in the entry to hold it open. That was my ticket in, but I was aware now that I wasn’t alone.

The sounds of someone sorting through the chaotic clutter of the restaurant’s kitchen echoed loudly out the door, light streaming out as I peeked in cautiously. I caught sight of the manager searching through the cabinets, collecting a pile of something on one of the many counters. I almost jumped out of my skin when he spoke,

“It’s here, somewhere. Those idiot temp staff must have moved them,” he spoke in a tense and worried tone. I turned to run, thinking he had spotted me, before realizing he was talking to someone on the phone. Either way, he wasn’t supposed to be here either.

“It’s almost finished,” the manager reassured whoever was on the other line. “I will call you back when I find it. I’m going to check the storage.” He hung up and slammed the phone down on the counter with a huff of annoyance. Then he stormed off towards a door on the left side, out of my line of sight. This was my chance.

I carefully pushed open the door and slipped inside, staying low and quiet. The pile that the manager had been collecting on the counter was of a few dozen strange glass vials and plastic containers, all poorly labeled with masking tape. Messy scrawl covered the tape, crossed out hastily with marker. The manager still hadn’t returned, so I grabbed one of the smaller vials and popped the top off, cautiously whiffing the strange orange liquid. It was thick, and small clumps had formed. It smelled bitter and sharp, almost like paprika or– the chicken.

The chicken that had been served to me only a matter of weeks before smelled exactly like this vial. That’s when all the pieces came together; the poisonings in connection with the restaurant, the unsolved cases, the sudden popularity and success. The restaurant staff themselves were poisoning the guests.

All I couldn’t figure out was why.

Being lost deep in thought, I didn’t even notice the manager approach me from behind until the barrel of a gun pressed against the back of my head.

“You’re not supposed to be in here,” he muttered angrily. I froze, not even blinking, anticipating the loud gunshot and blinding pain. At least, if I was shot in the head, it would be quick. “Give it back.”
“What?” I choked out, trying to think of a way out of this situation.

“The vial in your hand; give it back,” he demanded. He couldn’t shoot me because I was holding the vial, and it would fall and shatter if he did. I turned slowly, vial in my hand as if to pass it to him. I had no intention of giving him the vial. He lowered his gun and reached for it, so I ducked and ran to the other side of the counter, crouched behind it. He swore loudly.

“I’m not playing games! I need that back right now.” He began to stomp over to me, so I quickly shuffled away, glancing over the counter to check his position. He saw me and fired a warning shot into the air; I yelped and ducked back down.

“Unless you let me go, you’re not getting this back,” I warned.

“Do you think I’m stupid? You know way too much.”

He was right, of course. If I managed to escape, I would immediately take this vial to the police station as evidence. Although, they hadn’t been very helpful before, so maybe I would have to move further up the chain. I spotted a broom standing upright against a wall just to my left. If I could reach it, I might have a fighting chance. Staying low, I went to grab it, but evidently had strayed too far from my hiding place.
Pain bloomed brightly from my shoulder, registering before the sound of the gunshot even did. I immediately dropped to my stomach with a cry of pain, curling in to protect my shoulder. I had dropped the vial but it stayed intact and rolled a few feet away. The manager picked it up with a smirk, looking down at me disdainfully.

“Nice try,” he said smugly. He tucked the vial into his apron and pointed the gun at me, finger tensed over the trigger. I sucked in a breath sharply.

“Wait, I-”

He didn’t wait.