The Most Dangerous Challenge

In many kung-fu stories, the fate of the world and even the multiverse is determined by martial arts prowess. This seems like a terrible method of governance. It feels like it would favor bullies and thugs, unlike our system that… Well, it’s got problems. This story offers a different option. Is it any better? You’ll have to decide that for yourself.

“My Prince, the Dread Masters have arrived,” said the majordomo as he bowed.

Straightening his abnormally high and over-embroidered collar, the Prince of Highlandia gestured that the unpleasant guests should be shown in.

Clad in black armor that somehow also glowed black, the Dread Masters entered the throne room. Their leader, known as the Most Dread Master, and his lieutenant, the Lesser But Still Very Dread Master strode in followed by the other Dread Masters. Their names all indicated where they all stood in the hierarchy of Dread, but since they only got longer, we will not list them here.

“The time has come, oh Prince,” sneered the Most Dread Master, “The three moons of fate have eclipsed the seven suns of destiny.”

Sighing, the Prince of Highlandia replied, “Yes, yes, it’s pretty hard to miss.”

“Are you prepared for the Challenge That Will Shape The World?” asked the Most Dread Master just as he had rehearsed with his Dread Acting Coach.

“ARE YOU?” added the Lesser But Still Very Dread Master.

“I thought I said to just glower, menacingly,” the Most Dread Master whispered at his lieutenant.

“Just thought it would help,” sullenly replied Lesser.

“Well, it didn’t!” spat the Most Dread Master, “Did it?” he then asked the Prince.

“Not really.”

“I prepared a song. A very scary song,” Lesser said hopefully.

The Most Dread Master pushed down his disappointment. Just because someone is excellent in martial arts, doesn’t mean they had any sense of theater. He had to take care of this before it became a ‘thing.’

Lesser’s face lit up. “Really?” 

“Listen, I asked you to glower because you’re so good at it. The best, in fact.”

“Absolutely! You are my best glowerer, hands down.”

“I think I need to hear that. It’s been a rough week. My girlfriend-”

“Let’s talk later, okay? After the Challenge That Will Shape The World.”

“You got it my Most Dread Master!”

Turning back to the Prince of Highlandia, the Most Dread Master intoned, “So my Prince, are you prepared for the Challenge That Will Shape The World?”

“You already said that.”

“Well, it’s literally the event that will determine the fate of every being in the realm for all eternity. It deserved to be said twice! Maybe even three times!”

“Would you like to say it again?”

“Twice, I think imports the gravity of this event,” declared the Most Dread Master in a tone he felt was both wise and threatening.

“Agreed,” nodded the Prince as he sagely stroked his beard. The beard stroke really sold the sagacity.

“As was written in the scrolls of sacred conflict, let the champions present themselves!” declared the Most Dread Master as he stepped forward.

The Prince, who was in his late middle age and had what could be accurately described as a ‘Dad Bod’, stood up.

“You? You are the champion?”

“I am,” he said with a shrug.

The Most Dread Master waited for a ‘mere jest’ or a ‘got you’ or even a ‘psych!’ It did not come.

“What happened to your loyal cadre of warriors? Johnny Lightning Hands? Myka Mistress of the Razor-Whip? Mysteroid, the Living Smoke? The Mongoose Twins, Ebi and Abi? Bunfar, the Guy with Swords for Feet?”

“Oh, they’re up there,” the Prince said pointing up a balcony. 

All his champions waved and cheered, which resulted in some clanking in the case of Bunfar who stomped his feet swords with great enthusiasm. 

“Are you not going to take this seriously?” asked the Most Dread Master with unmasked irritation. 

“Of course I am, this will shape realm forever.”

“So you think you can defeat me?” 

“I don’t think that.”

“Haha, you will-”

“…I know it.”

It was a classic burn. The Most Dread Master was rapidly losing the mystique of menace that he had spent years cultivating. Time to make some big power moves.

“Okay, Prince ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ Check this out.”

With a flicker of darkness, the Most Dread Master teleported about the throne room, shattering vases on plinths with masterful kicks and strikes. Appearing and disappearing into and out of puffs of oily black smoke, which he thought was extremely cool. The fact that the smoke smelled of potpourri was perhaps less cool than he wanted it to be.

“And that’s just the tip of the dark iceberg of my martial arts techniques!”

The Prince applauded and said, “Impressive. Very much so. I enjoyed the potpourri.”

“It’s not potpourri, it’s the scent of dying springtime!”

“Sorry, it just reminded me of potpourri.”

“Well, you were wrong!”

“Would you like to hear the challenge?” stated the Prince in a serious manner.

“Indeed I would!”

Carrying the scrolls of sacred conflict, the majordomo entered and unrolled them to a specific spot.

“I’ve been reading over the scrolls and I discovered something of great interest to me.”

“Do you think you’ve discovered some loophole that will allow you to avoid this?”

“Not at all. But listen to this, ‘The challenged, in this case, me, may choose the nature of the conflict, and the challenger must abide by this or forfeit on pain of disintegration.’”

“I know, I know! It’s a proviso so you can choose where and how we fight. It could be in the Ice Volcano on the edge of the Sea of Fire, or on a Dragon-Owl’s back in a lightning storm, or if we both are blindfolded and have to compose haiku while leaping from branch to branch in the forest of very slippery leaves.”

“Yes… And no.”

“What the hell does that mean!”

“The thing is, the challenge doesn’t have to be a fight,” the Prince offered with a smile.

“Don’t be absurd! That’s what we do! Our whole way of life is based on superiority through martial arts! You can’t just go changing it!” sputtered the Most Dread Master.

“The scrolls do not specify the challenge needs to be one of fighting.”

“Where is my Dread Litigator?” 

There was a great deal of reading and arguing between the Master and his attorney. Part of it was why their copies of the scrolls were on black parchment with purple lettering. It had seemed so very metal when they were made but turned out to be extraordinarily difficult to read. Finally, the Most Dread Master spoke.

“On advice of counsel, I accept that the challenge need not be one of the martial arts. Even though it makes a mockery of everything our most sacred and profane traditions stand for.”

“Very magnanimous of you,” said the Prince.

“I thought so,” replied the Most Dread Master.

There was a dramatic pause.

“Now, and only now, will I reveal my challenge to you, my foe.”

“It better not be trivia! If it’s trivia we should have teams!”

“While that might’ve been entertaining, I had something else prepared.”

At that, servants set up a long table and placed cloth-covered trays upon them. A distinctive acidic smell wafted across the throne room.

“By the sightless eyes of the Iron Crone… No.” 

“Hot wings. Marinated with the essences of one hundred different peppers. Including the feared Pandemonium Pepper which only grows in the darkness of Valley of the Mad. Whoever can eat the most, will mold the world for evil or good.”

While the Most Dread Master enjoyed things that would make the hardest hearts weep, he could not stomach spicy foods. Even black pepper was too much for him. But the challenge had to be met.

He took off his cape with a flourish to show he still had style, and also to prevent it from being stained. As he handed it to the Lesser But Still Very Dread Master, he said quietly, “Send a dark crane to the Dread Gastroenterologist. Tell him I will need his services very shortly.”

Sitting across from his ancestral foe, the Most Dread Master looked at this, his final battlefield, and uttered these words.

“So, no blue cheese dressing?”

But Then Again…

This is a short piece I wrote, dipping my toe in some Cyberpunk waters. A sub-genre I’m extremely fond of but one I haven’t written much in. The idea behind this is probably absurd and could never happen. But then again…

They sat in that evening in late autumn rain, waiting on a rooftop for the saleryman to emerge from the tube station. Mathis checked her gauss rifle to make sure it was still charged. There was an almost zero chance it would lose its charge, but she was meticulous. Shanna, who had set up a micro-cameras in a three-block radius checked the facial recognition algorithm installed in her eye. Still nothing.
“It’s so damn cold,” she said.
“So it is,” replied Mathis.
Neither woman spoke as the rain beat on roof as well as them. Shanna looked at her partner. Mathis resembled a middle-aged woman. In the past, Shanna asked her if she’d ever consider plastic surgery, they could make her look years younger in the time it would take to eat a meal. Mathis told her, “A middle-aged woman is often unseen, something that in our line of work is priceless.” The younger woman didn’t know if Mathis was modified to look that age or if she was that age. She supposed it didn’t really matter.
“There’s a coffee machine across the street,” Shanna observed wistfully, “Do I have enough time to get us a couple of cups?”
“Probably not,” she said.
“Damn.”
A moment passed.
“What kind of machine is it?” she asked.
Shanna zoomed in and read the name.
“Mestre Do Café. Not terrible for machine coffee.”
Mathis shook her head. “I won’t touch the stuff.”
Shanna smirked, “Coffee snob.”
“It’s not that. Did you ever hear of the Umbrella Man?”
“The legendary killer? Yeah, I’ve heard of him.”
“Do you know what happened to him?”
Shanna paused.
“He doesn’t work anymore. I just assumed he had enough credit to move up to one of the Orbitals and is living his best post-human life.”
“I too heard that rumor, though no one knows for sure. But I heard another one.”
Rain continued to piss down on both of them.
“Are you going to make me guess?” asked Shanna who was in no mood for guessing.
“No. But it is absurd,” she said.
“It has to be better than listening to the rain.”
“Very well. As you may know, the Umbrella Man had multiple body modifications, not crude chainsaw hands or obvious hydraulic legs, but subtle and bespoke enhancements. Invisible to the human eye and to all scans. These were very expensive, but then again, his own fees were such that if you had to ask, you should know that you could not afford them.”
Shanna sighed, everybody knew that part.
“One day he took a commission on a dictator. A terrible man, as all dictators are, but his security was exceptionally talented as well as true believers, which made them even more dangerous. This dictator did not drink alcohol, or use drugs and while he had an appetite for physical pleasures, his partners were scrupulously vetted. So the usual avenues were closed. But the Umbrella Man was undaunted. This dictator had one weakness, which he saw as a strength. He would not eat anything prepared by human chefs, because he did not trust them. Everything he ate or drank came from a vending machine, each picked randomly each day.”
“That’s disgusting!” Shanna said.
“I agree. But it an excellent way to not be poisoned, except for the terrible food and drink but I suspect that this man was already dead, spiritually speaking, so these synthetic meals had little effect. Now the Umbrella Man, as I heard the tale, goes to Mrs. Sai, the noted body mod specialist.”
“I know who she is Mathis, she did my eyes,” said Shanna.
“And a superlative job indeed. But the Umbrella Man wanted something unique, an untried mod. He wanted his consciousness implanted into a vending machine. Specifically, a Mestre Do Café machine.”
Shanna looked at her partner and wondered if she was taking the mickey out of her but she was not one for whimsy. Mathis shrugged her shoulders and continued.
“I am aware of how absurd this sounds. But it is genius, even if it is a bit mad,” observed Mathis.
“A bit mad? It sounds completely bonkers! Even it were true, which I don’t believe, how would he know that this dictator would chose the one he was in? That’s an insane gamble!”
Mathis smiled.
“Ah, but it isn’t. There are thousands of these machines, all over the world, from major cities to the smallest towns, they are omnipresent. However, they are all linked together effectively making them one machine, giving the Umbrella Man a would-wide view.”
“Then why not just hire a digital artiste to get into their system?”
“Mestre Do Café did not become the most prolific beverage machine by having a lackadaisical outlook on digital security. The word from my friends in the business is that their customer data is both extensive and viciously protected. But the Umbrella Man became as a spirit, watching patiently. He knew he would have only one shot, so to speak, to complete his contract. When the dictator placed his order from a machine, and it could be any machine, all he had to do was alter the synthesizing sub-routines for that one cup, and while it tasted like coffee, it also was laced with a nano-toxin that would cause a massive, irreparable stroke. Job done”
The only sound was the incessant rain as Shanna looked at Mathis. It was ridiculous. Urban legend. The sort of story you might tell over drinks or to kill time.
“That’s bullshit,” she said, “How would he get out? Why wasn’t he caught by the digital security? How did it not make it on the grid?”
Mathis checked her rifle once more and sighed.
“As I told you, it’s an absurd tale. Most likely rumor and nonsense, as you said, bullshit. However, even the most preposterous story may have a particle of truth. Do I think a cup of Mestre Do Café will kill me? No. But then again…”

An Odd Missive-Part Two

As promised, here is part two of An Odd Missive, in which Paul ventures further into a very different part of New York. Will there be more oddness? Spoilers, yes there will. Next week, the conclusion.

Paul came up a stairwell and out onto a street lined with trees and cozy-looking brownstones. It looked like an affluent neighborhood in Brooklyn, which, given the time he had just spent underground, made sense. What made less sense was that it looked like late afternoon: The sun was low in the sky and everything was bathed in a golden glow that made Paul think of warm caramel being poured over a large bowl of vanilla ice cream flecked with tiny bits of vanilla beans.
He shook his head and looked down at the card, which again contained new instructions — he wondered for a moment where his boss had managed to buy an apparently location-aware notecard. Maybe it was that “e-paper” he’d read about? Something made by Google? He shrugged to himself and read the instructions: “Walk on the even side of the street till you see the greenstone house. Turn one hundred and eighty degrees and look for the door with the brass A on it. Walk to that door and knock on the smaller door to the right…”
There was an ellipsis. Paul turned the card over: “Knock twice, then once more, and enter when bid, but not before.”
He noticed the doors started at Z and went backwards from there. Given the amber afternoon light, picturesque buildings, and tree-lined street, Paul took his time. It seemed wrong to hurry here, so he strolled. Thoughts of the work awaiting him back at the office seemed a distant and minor concern. When he had arrived at the office that morning, he seemed to be facing an endless workload, and he had resigned himself to another late night and not being able to meet friends for drinks, which, as always, depressed him.
But now, none of that seemed to matter. There was a pleasant breeze and the birds were singing, in what sounded like harmony. Could birds do that? Paul had never heard of that happening, but here it was, so he had to admit that it could happen.
Looking to his left he saw that he was close to his destination… E, D, C, B, and finally A. There was a smaller door to the right of the main door of the house, and a little path, in the small front yard that all of these houses had, split off and led to the smaller door.
He walked up to the smaller door, which had two knockers, and looked at the card again. It read, “Knock both at the same time but don’t drop the pies”. Paul looked around, but there wasn’t a place to rest the bag, so he held it in his teeth and rapped both knockers simultaneously. Twice, then once more.
Immediately, two small peepholes opened and two eyes looked out. One eye was brown with flecks of green and the other was green with flecks of brown.
“Who are you?” asked Brown.
“And what do you want?” asked Green.
“I was about to ask that!” protested Brown.
“I can’t wait all day for you to ask the correct questions!” countered Green.
“Do you believe this?” asked Brown, “The absolute temerity!”
There was a pause as Paul listened to this argument, which had the rhythm and comfort of something often said.
“He asked you a question,” Green said.
“I’m sorry?” said Paul, as he took the bag from his teeth.
“So cheeky!” exclaimed Brown.
“Perhaps he didn’t hear you,” said Green, “Maybe he’s deaf.”
“He’d have to be, to not hear you!” said Brown.
Paul looked at his card, which advised “Tell them you have a letter, but do not slide it in the mail slot”.
“Uh, I have a letter,” said Paul.
“Please just put it here,” said Green, who flapped his mail slot open.
“You’ll just lose it,” said Brown to Green. “In here, please,” as he flapped open his own slot.
“I’m not supposed to do that,” Paul said, wishing he could.
“I’m afraid we’re at an impasse then,” said Brown.
“In this we are agreed!” added Green.
Paul looked at his card, which only said, “HOT PIES”.
“I have some hot pies,” he offered.
“Savory?” asked Green, enthusiastically.
“Or sweet?” asked Brown, with equal fervor.
“Uh, both,” replied Paul.
“Why didn’t you say so!” said Brown.
“You hardly gave the poor soul a chance to slide a word in!” said Green.
“As if you every stop chattering!” said Brown.
“Please come in,” Green and Brown said in sync.
* * *
There was a click and a line appeared down the dead center of the door as it slowly swung open. Paul stepped into a long room that was bisected by a neat yellow line of paint. On the left side it looked homey, if a little sloppy; books were stacked on most available surfaces, there were odd-looking devices on the shelves that whirred quietly, and the furniture looked worn but comfortable. It seemed a place where an eccentric professor might live. The man with the brown eye (he had in fact two eyes, Paul noted) stood on that side, dressed in a green suit. His coat was long, longer than was in fashion, as Paul understood fashion, but it looked freshly pressed and fit him well.
The other side mirrored the layout exactly. Well, not entirely exactly, Paul realized. There was the same furniture, but it was neatly organized with books on shelves, odd devices in glass cases with brass plaques at the bottom, and it was spotlessly clean. Green was dressed in a brown suit, but unlike his companion — Paul was unsure if they were friends exactly — it was worn and showed some food stains.
Both of them inhaled through their noses and smiled.
“The Table,” they said simultaneously, and hurried to the center of the room, where each took hold of two seemingly invisible points on the yellow line of paint and pulled back, revealing a rectangular stone table that rose up from the floor, along with three chairs, one on either side and one at the head.
“Shall we?” they said, pointing to the middle chair. Paul sat down and placed the sack with the pies on the table. Brown produced from his pockets a placemat, small plate, and silver fork and knife. Green pulled out a greasy, crumpled piece of newspaper from his pocket and smoothed it on the tabletop. They each took their respective hot pies and ate them. Brown in small, careful forkfuls, and Green with his hands and spilling flaky crumbs down his front. Brown neatly dabbed his mouth with a napkin, though there was nothing to dab, and Green licked his fingertips and collected the remains of the pie and popped them into his mouth.
“That was splendid!” said Brown.
“Top notch!” agreed Green.
They both seemed in a very good mood, now that they had eaten. Paul thought they might be hypoglycemic; his last girlfriend had that and was a terror if she missed a meal. Paul had taken to carrying energy bars in his jacket to avoid arguments.
“Now, young man,” said Brown, “what may we call you?”
“Indeed, names are important,” agreed Green.
“But not your full name, of course,” added Brown.
“Indeed not! Keep your secret name, well… secret,” said Green.
“I’m Paul,” replied Paul.
“A good name!” said Brown.
“Solid, reliable,” added Green.
Paul did not feel quite solid at all. In fact he felt as though he was in a dream, even though it had a through-line that was unlike most of his dreams, which made no narrative sense when repeated out loud afterwards. Or so the girlfriend before the last seemed fond of telling him.
“Thank you…” Paul said.
“You’re welcome,” said Green.
“Quite welcome,” added Brown.
All three stared at each other till Brown said, “Have we introduced ourselves?”
“I’m sure he didn’t come here by accident,” said Green.
“Surely not, but it is rude not to do so,” countered Brown.
Green thought a moment and said, “Agreed.”
Brown said, “I am Lucius Parsnip, esquire.”
Green immediately added, “And I am Petronius Looseleaf, esquire.”
“So, you’re lawyers?” asked Paul.
“Oh my, no!” said Parsnip.
“We are gentlemen!” added Looseleaf.
“It’s just that–“ began Paul.
“I believe you brought a missive?” said Parsnip.
“I’m sorry, a what?” asked Paul.
“The letter,” said Looseleaf.
Pulling it out from his coat pocket, Paul put it on the table.
“Lovely penmanship,” observed Looseleaf.
“Quite. It’s a dying art, I’m afraid,” said Parsnip.
Neither reached for it, but they did look at Paul.
“Would you mind terribly?” asked Looseleaf.
“Just turning it over,” finished Parsnip.
“Sure,” said Paul, as he flipped the envelope, revealing the wax seal.
“Oh, well, this is a surprise,” said Parsnip, although he did not sound surprised in the least.
“Shocking,” casually replied Looseleaf.
They each took out a small pocketknife and sliced through the wax seal. With an exhalation of air the envelope unfolded itself, getting larger with each unfold until, lying flat, it fully covered the table. Parsnip and Looseleaf grabbed their place setting and newspaper, respectively, just as it finished. It was an illustration of a doorway standing in the middle of a forest glen. The image was rendered in black ink, but so highly detailed that it seemed almost real. The foliage seemed to flutter in a wind. Which was impossible.
“Very well, in you go!” said Parsnip hurriedly.
“No time to waste!” added Looseleaf.
Paul had enough. He stood and said, “What is going on here?!”
“You need to go through the door and retrieve Julia,” said Parsnip.
Paul, who felt he’d been a pretty good sport about everything today, said, “It’s a picture of a door! Not a real door! If this is a joke, it’s over! And not really funny!”
“It’s no joke, old boy,” said Looseleaf, who grabbed the doorknob on the paper and flung it open as he stepped aside, the door falling back and hanging off the side of the table.
Surprised, Paul leaned over and looked in. He saw a forest glen at dusk, the horizon at a right angle to where he stood. Crickets chirped, and a nightingale sang. There was an earthy smell, rich and loamy. Paul didn’t know what loam was, but that’s the word that sprung to mind.
“What is this?” asked Paul, as he looked back at these odd men.
Without a word, Parsnip and Looseleaf each bent down, grabbed one of Paul’s ankles, and tipped him over and down through the doorway. Paul felt a wave of vertigo as he passed though the doorway and landed in a heap on the forest floor. Shaking his head, which did nothing to ameliorate his nausea, he then closed his eyes, took deep breaths, and did not move. When he felt as though he was no longer going to vomit, he opened his eyes.

TO BE CONCLUDED.

Live Life Fast, Die Food

This is a short story that combines three of my passions, food, super spy espionage and quippy dialogue.

Svetlana Cortez Abramowitz, agent of B.R.E.A.D. (Baking Restaurant Elite Alliance Division) and noted mannequin model hung by her arms above the giant fondue pot filled with deadly Emmental cheese. She had begun that evening at the underground sudden death clam roll eating tournament under the last Howard Johnsons in Pyrenees mountain range.

With nothing to do but literally dangle, she lost herself in a flashback.

***

Her contact, the Marquise Du Fromage, whose family, ironically, were all lactose intolerant, was nowhere to be seen at the tournament. If her training as a secret agent had taught her anything, it was when in doubt, go to the bar. They usually had peanuts.

“I’d like a Dirty Shirley please, extra cherries,” said Sventlana.

“Right away, Ms,” replied the bartender.

“How do you know I’m not married?” she snarked.

“I don’t, that’s why I used Ms,” said the bartender as he mixed grenadine and vodka, “I didn’t want to presume.”

Taking a sip of the drink, she nodded, “You’re very woke for a bartender.”

“Part of the training.”

“Can I buy you a drink?” said a voice from behind her.

Turning, she saw a tall blond man with piercing earlobes. He had no physical scars but she was sure that he had emotional ones. Guys like him always did.

“I already have one.”

“Did you pay for it yet?”

“No, I was about to open a tab.”

“Then I could still pay for it.”

“I suppose so.”

“Put this on my Dinner’s Club card.”

“Dinner’s Club or Diner’s Club?” inquired the bartender.

“Both.”

“Yes sir!” 

Svetlana regarded the Stranger with a discerning eye, which was her left one.

“If you’re going to buy me a drink, you could at least introduce yourself,” she said eating one of her extra maraschino cherries.

“Why do I owe you something for buying you a drink?”

“How about I try to guess your name,” she suggested avoiding the issue.

“Have at it.”

“Hubert Hucklebean.”

“Do I really look like a Hubert Hucklebean?”

“I suppose not, but if I meet three Hubert Hucklebeans before the end of the year I win a free sub.”

“Meatball or the underwater kind?”

“Underwater that serves meatballs.”

“Then I’m sorry I’m not one then.”

With a flourish, the bartender placed the second drink in front of her. Taking it in her other hand, she toasted herself.

“Why don’t I try to guess your name?” offered the Stranger. 

“Please,” she replied as she sipped from the second drink.

“Myrtle McKenna?”

“Funny you should say that my college roommate wanted to be named that.”

“Did she ever change her name?” 

“Only in Delaware and Guam.”

“Smart. I’ve got another guess.”

“Shoot.”

With the ease of a Nutri Ninja pro, he flung a drugged-tipped cocktail umbrella into her neck.

“I think you’re Svetlana Cortez Abramowitz, agent of B.R.E.A.D.,” he whispered as the room swam around her. She recognized it as a Bulgarian butterfly stroke as everything went black. 

***

“I see you’re lost in thought,” said the Stranger, bringing the narrative back to the present.

“I was,” she said irritably.

“The infamous agent Abramowitz, at last, we meet.”

“We met just before, at the bar.”

“Fine. Technically that’s true.”

She smiled, one of the true joys of life was to be technically right.

“I suppose you’re wondering who I am?”

“Niles Montrose, assassin for hire and failed saucier.”

Flushed, Niles shouted, “A sauce CANNOT be too rich!”

“That’s not what your instructors at the C.I.A. thought.”

“They lacked vision. Especially the ones who were too lazy to get a new eye exam. Most places will do it for free.”

“If you buy from them.”

“It’s a good deal!”

“Only if you don’t have insurance.”

“Lots of people don’t! It’s a real problem. Much like how you are about to be dipped into the world’s largest fondue pot.”

Those problems seemed unrelated but she did have to admit to herself, she was in trouble.

“Dipping an agent of B.R.E.A.D. into a giant cheese fondue, a little on the nose, isn’t it?”

“It’s a lot on the nose and I think you know it. But look over your shoulder, you’re not alone.

Indeed she was not. The Marquise Du Fromage was also chained above the bubbling caldron.

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Svetlana inquired.

“You two seemed to be in the middle of something. I didn’t want to interrupt,” said the Marquise.

“Agent of B.R.E.A.D dies with lactose intolerant nobleman. If anyone still read newspapers that would be the headline.”

“Let’s table the discussion about the state of print and get to what your master plan is,” said Svetlana.

“And why should I tell you?”

“The Julia Childe Accords stipulate that when culinary operatives are captured the opposing agent must reveal their plans in detail. Section seven, subsection-”

“-Eighteen,” finished Niles, “Very well, rules are rules. Have you noticed how food trends have surged recently? It all started with bacon. It wasn’t difficult, bacon is delicious. Even when it started getting ridiculous, bacon milkshake and bacon sushi no one batted an eye. But then we popularized kale. Kale! It’s disgusting but people couldn’t get enough!”

As Niles monologued on, Svetlana pressed a tiny button on her clunky bracelet that was comprised of butter cubes held in stasis. The heat of the bubbling cheese quickly melted the shortening and allowed her to slip free of her shackles.

“-and quinoa! Because of us, rice was shunned like it didn’t come back from rumspringa!” declared Niles as Svetlana leapt down behind him. 

“Variety is the spice of life but how about a little salt and pepper?” she asked as she tenderized him with both fists.

They exchanged blows and recipes as they fought in the fondue dungeon until the Agent of B.R.E.A.D. jumped up, and kicked off her very pointy high heel shoes. Embedding them into the wall and trapping him.

“You’ve lost!” she said.

“I noticed. Because you have me immobilized.”

“That’s how it works. So tell me, who are you working for?”

“Oh, you’ll find out soon enough. Not because I’m going to tell you. But because of reasons. Sinister reasons.”

“You’d like that.”

“Yes, I’m actually pretty excited about that part.”

“I can tell because your face lit up when you said ‘sinister reasons’.”

“I feel seen.”

“If we could circle back to my original question about who you’re working for.”

With a smirk, Niles dropped out of his evening jacket, the shoes hadn’t pinned him, pulled out a small envelope and bottle of dark brown liquid from his pants pocket, and downed them both. A hideous crackle was heard, followed by a muffled explosion.

Pop rocks and Pepsi, she thought. The final retreat of culinary killer. Niles was moving his lips and she leaned in to hear his epitaph. He whispered, “Would you like fries with that?” and then expired.

“What does that mean?” she asked aloud.

“Pardon me,” said the unfailing polite Marquise Du Fromage, “If you could lower me down, away from the cheese caldron, I would be ever so grateful.”

“Of course,” Svetlana replied as she worked the winch, “I think now it’s time for some… dessert.”

“Is that an attempt at seduction or do you mean literal dessert?”

She unlocked his shackles and said, “I mean sweets, cake, maybe some gelato.”

“I’ll stick to the cake, gelato makes me gazeux.”

“Very delicate.”

“I wish it was,” the nobleman said ruefully. 

“Then we’ll pass… on the gelato.”

“Can I please just give you this microfilm?”

Taking the information, she said, “Right. I’ll get that that dessert… to go.”

“I’m just going to leave now.”

Just before he exited the room, the Marquise Du Fromage turned and asked, “Do you need a ride somewhere?”

Svetlana smiled and said, “In fact I do.”

“They have taxis out front. You should get one.”

“Oh, I will.”

The nobleman left, as things seemed socially awkward. Svetlana waited a few minutes. Partially to ponder Niles’ last words and also to avoid having to make more small talk with the Marquise Du Fromage who was a bit of a drip.

Would you like fries with that would later return in a most ominous way, but tonight, was all about confection.