We arrived at the dining hall doors at 4:50. They were locked. Our only option was to wait, exposed to attack. After all, if someone had gotten a machine gun or something, it was going to be a real quick series run. At 5:00, the doors swung open with a hollow electronic noise. We entered from the West side, but there were other entrances coming from every direction. Jenna emerged first from the South side, followed closely by Brad. Marcus, Robert, and Marissa came from the East, while Henrietta walked in through the North doors. We stood awkwardly for a minute, the tantalizing aroma of the beef stew pervading the room.
"So who's bumped Tasha off?" Asked Charlie, cutting to the point.
There was some nervous laughter.
"I think we ought to agree right now that no one is going to be murdering anyone," said Brad, curling and uncurling his fingers.
"Might be more effective to just agree that we'll all kill the first bastard that does," Charlie suggested. It wasn't a bad idea, at that, and it met with general approval.
"It's logical," commented Robert in a slow, pondersome way. "But logic only works if you're dealing with sane people."
There was silence.
"I don't know about all of you," said Marcus, "but I'm hungry." He moved forward and pulled out a chair. He reminded me of my younger brother's college friends—the ones that spent half of their time stoned, and the other half wishing they were.
I was the first to follow him, but after I'd sat down, some of the tenseness eased and everyone sat down to eat.
"So, how do we know who's crazy? I'm not, you know, I was innocent," added Marcus.
A small chorus of "me too" rose, and I observed that Charlie and Robert, like me, were not singing that tiresome dirge. I suppose the others thought they might sway sympathies at home. My eyes drifted up to the crown molding, where at least three little red dots silently flitted.
The conversation drifted away from us at that point, replaced by the familiar sound of silverware clinking. I noticed there weren't any knives, and as I looked around the table, I saw that Robert was experimentally pressing a finger to the fork tines. They couldn't be any duller if someone had rammed them into a rock a couple of times. He caught my eyes, and winked. I looked away, discomfited.
Tasha came in around half past. I was almost finished with my share at that point. She had changed clothes to a little black dress, as if she was going to a cocktail party. I heard Henrietta snort at the other end of the table. Tasha ignored it, posing for a minute in the doorway, inviting all the male eyes in the room to take her in as a matter of habit. She was wearing six inch stilettos. She was, to put it nicely, the type of girl you threw popcorn at when you went to go see a good gore-fest; the type who couldn't hear an ominous cello to save her life, literally.
"We thought someone had killed you," Marcus called.
"How horrible," Tasha cried, pulling herself upright from a suggestive slant.
"Would have been such a waste," I heard Charlie murmur to my side.
I watched Tasha as she walked over to her seat, clearly waiting. Eventually Robert complied, standing up and pulling her chair out for her. She made doe eyes at him.
I took another sip of my stew. Tasha's was a clumsy strategy, but who knew, it might be an effective one. She couldn't have been more than twenty, and had a well-toned, expensive physique. If she let her body do the talking for her, she might make it through this.
Then again, bodies that well-trimmed don't usually come with a mute option.
"I don't want to kill anyone," she wailed, her blue eyes taking on a watery sheen. "I didn't mean to kill Laura, that bitch! If she hadn't hit on Trevor, I wouldn't be here!"
"And if Greg hadn't stepped in back of my pickup, the accident wouldn't have happened," Marcus added, breaking in between bites of bread.
"Wasn't "Greg" the brother-in-law sleeping with your wife?" asked Robert. Everyone paused, waiting for the answer. Marcus nearly dropped his bread, but tried to recover.
"Don't know anything about it," he muttered, taking a long drink of water.
"Wouldn't that be incest?" I asked, fascinated. I was having fun, despite myself. All rules were out the table, including the need for pleasantries.
Marcus slammed the glass down on the table, but it was Robert who answered.
"His wife was adopted," he murmured, watching Marcus with an amused expression.
"S'pose you read that in the damn tabloids," Marcus grunted. I looked at him with new eyes. Perhaps I'd fallen pray to stereotyping a little too quickly. I speedily resolved to not do it again. I might not have the chance to repeat the mistake.
"You can learn a lot from reading," Robert said mildly, before removing the napkin from his neck and refolding it on the table.
"Am I right in understanding that we're in accord over the matter of not killing one another?"
We all nodded, slowly.
"Then someone really shouldn't have poisoned the girl. Very… unsporting."
I spat out my soup, but it was unnecessary. I wasn't "the girl." Tasha's eyes had rolled towards the back of her head, her delicate features dyed a very unflattering shade of crimson. As I watched, her head dropped into her bowl, splashing the red stew all over the table cloth. Droplets formed on her blonde hair and dripped out of the sides.
I'd stepped away from the table without thinking. We all had, some chairs turned over in our haste.
Charlie, who'd kept his wits about him, pressed two fingers to Tasha's neck. After a second, he stood up, his eyes meeting mine. Evaluating.
Silence greeted this statement.
"Well, someone get her fucking head out of the fucking stew," Brad shouted.
"Language!" remonstrated Marissa. It was the first anyone had heard from her, and seemed so horribly out of place, and yet so strangely appropriate, that I had to stifle a laugh.
"Fuck language!" Brad replied, his eyes bulging as he wiped a napkin across his forehead.
Charlie, however obliged, wiping his hands on Tasha's dress afterwards. I forced myself to look at her red, bloated features. This could be you, I instructed myself, and lemme tell you, I sobered pretty quickly.
"Goodnight," Robert called as he headed towards the South exit. "Sleep well."
"Well this is great," Charlie said, stepping back. Tasha fell forward again, once more splashing stew, and everyone winced. I stepped forward to help Charlie prop her up better, and my fingers accidentally touched his. Our eyes met, and I looked away first, not daring to say anything with so many people around. This was the first test of our new-formed alliance. It would be so easy for Charlie to say something, to tell everyone about the little gray-green flask. He'd be wrong, but I'd be dead.
"She wasn't here," Henrietta pointed out. "When we made the agreement. She wasn't included.
Everyone was jittery, and even though Henrietta got some wondering looks, all of the room's occupants were prepared to accept this explanation for the course of events.
"Well, ok, but no more, hear?" Marcus announced, playing for leader of the group. I kept looking at Charlie.
"We'll call this a practice round, but anyone who tries another murder will have to deal with all of us," he said. I noticed he had his crossbow in hand for the first time. I wondered if he'd had it under the table the whole time. I needed to wake up, but I didn't miss the way he said "us" sounded an awful lot like "me," which for reasons involving sharp arrows carried a lot more weight.
"It's time for bed, I think. Julia and I will deal with the body."
There weren't any protests. While the room cleared, Jenny Kai walked over to where Charlie and I stood.
"I'll help," she said, looking at Charlie. "I found stairs down to a wine cellar that'll work well."
I looked at her little frame doubtfully. But with the way she was looking at Charlie, I thought she had other things in mind than body-stashing.
"I don't think we've met," I interjected. Not that I held out a hand or anything, but if Charlie and I had an alliance, we had an alliance. The last door closed.
"No, not much. I'm Jenny Kai. You're Julia Brown. I want in on whatever you two have going." She had sharp little dark eyes, like a terrier.
"Why?" Charlie asked.
"Because if this is the effectiveness of group resolution," she gestured towards Tasha, "then I think that safety is in factions."
"How do we know…"
"How do you know anything," she interrupted. "As a gesture of goodwill, I'll show you my weapon." She reached behind her, slipping a hand into her petite jeans, and began to pull. In a minute that held a little more breathiness than I thought strictly necessary, she held a whip.
"And I have a lot of experience with it too."
Charlie shifted his crossbow.
"Yeah, I've had a bit of crossbow time too, hunting."
I stayed silent, but when both of them stared at me expectantly, I reached into my shirt and pulled out the vial. Charlie cocked an eyebrow. I shrugged.
"This way I know where it is. Anyway, how is it strange to keep it in my shirt, but not in my…"
"Poison?" interrupted Jenny. I got the impression she was reconsidering the intelligence of her choice of faction. Or perhaps admiring it. It was always hard to tell with Jenny.
"I don't know," I replied a little testily. "Someone labeled it 'Shaw's Life Restorer.'"
"Well, now's our chance to find out," Charlie said, motioning towards Tasha.
I would have protested, but I'm not completely stupid. Reason got to my brain eventually, waving little red flags. If it was poison, I wouldn't have to waste that much to satisfy Charlie, and anything else was inconceivable.
I carefully unscrewed the top, revealing a little dropper from which a single drop dangled. I held it over Tasha's gaping mouth, and released.
We stood there for a minute, watching.
"I think she's becoming more…" Jenny began. She was interrupted when Tasha started, launching upward, her eyelids working furiously. She stumbled slightly, falling back into the chair, but remained clearly reanimated.
"Son of a bitch," said Charlie. I couldn't tear my eyes from the site of Tasha's clear pulse.
"Oh my god, I think someone tried to poison me, I could taste it, it was all icky, and, and bitter, and awful!" sobbed Tasha in a virtual flood of vapidity. "Thank you for saving me, I felt all cold, and then I couldn't breathe, and is my makeup ok? Why does my face feel wet? Is it in my hair? I can't wait to get off this stupid show and then I'll…"
With a sound like a branch snapping, Tasha was cut off. She looked down in horror at the crossbow arrow sticking out of her chest, before she began to choke.
"Thank god," Jenny commented. "If you weren't going to, I was."
Finally silent, Tasha fell back against the chair, dead once more. I looked wonderingly at the vial I held as Charlie removed the arrow. Waste not, want not. It had ruined the back of the chair though. If everyone was smart, they wouldn't ask at the next meal.
"Well, that's handy," he concluded.
"It's impossible." I replied.
"But very handy."