Parker leaned over the hot mushrooms, allowing the steam to fog up his goggles so no one would see that he was on the verge of crying. This was by far the most inept thing he’d ever done in a lifetime of ineptitude. Don’t panic, he told himself. Persevere.
Perseverance was kind of Parker’s thing. He’d been mastering it since the eighth grade, when Brooke transferred to their school and instantly established a perfect GPA, which presented him with the first real competition he’d ever had to face. Her academic prowess was freakish and robotic—she didn’t even seem to be trying, while he had to scramble to keep up with her. A normal person would have given up by now, declared surrender. But Parker kept fighting. Every quiz, every test, every essay—he fought to stay number one in the class. Sometimes Brooke would pull ahead—a point here, an extracurricular credit there—but Parker would always find a way to outrun her. It was exhausting, but he was used to it. Nothing was ever easy. Why should murder be any different?
For months he’d been logging long hours at the library, researching poisonous extracts to sneak into the bizarre menu he had created for this night. The molecular gastronomy theme had been his idea—it was the only culinary subgenre where combining Oputia aciculate, aka the prickly pear cactus, with alcohol and then injecting the mixture into food via syringe would seem normal. Because that is exactly what his independent research had told him he had to do. On its own, he had learned, the prickly pear is a sweet, intensely colored delicacy. But a little-known fact was that combined with the right dose of alcohol, the cactus extract became incredibly lethal. He found a recipe that included cactus and white wine—something called “lobster spheres”—but not in lethal doses, as the recipe called for the wine to be boiled for long enough that most of the alcohol would evaporate. All Parker would have to do was make sure one serving—K’s—was cooked for the same amount of time as everyone else’s but at a much lower temperature, so the alcohol content would stay relatively high. The booze would mix with compounds in the cactus inside K’s body, bringing about a quick, mystifying, untraceable death.
Referring to his victim as “K” made all this easier, somehow. This wasn’t a person, it was just a letter signifying a character who needed to die tonight. And when the police arrived, it would look like an accident. Just a bunch of kids, unsupervised, cooking with ingredients they had no business using. Oops.
And everything would be going just as he’d planned if it hadn’t been for that damn title: HOW TO KILL K. He’d felt a cold thrill typing it alone in his room, then printing it out and holding the words in his hands. I’m really going to do this, he’d thought. No one can stop me. But it turned out there was one person who could stop him: his own idiot-ass self. Because first he’d kept that heading at the top of the modified version of the recipe, then he’d accidentally put that copy, not the regular version, in the recipe folder, and now everyone had seen it.
His one stroke of luck was that Keely was dumb enough to think the recipe was a game, and pushy enough to make everyone else play along. But if anyone with half a brain took a good look at the directions, it would be obvious that it was no game. And if K actually died tonight, “it was an accident” wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
Parker wiped the fog from his goggles and took a deep breath. Clearly he couldn’t kill K tonight. That was off the table. And to further complicate matters, Keely had the poisonous instructions now, and was currently barking them at Brooke and Sophat, who were following them as precisely as possible. So unless Parker could find a way to stop them without drawing any suspicion, they’d end up creating the poison anyway. Get this under control, he told himself.
“Where are the lobsters?” Parker asked, hoping his voice sounded halfway normal. If he were in charge of boiling the lobsters, he could control the heat and make sure the alcohol was boiled into vapor, and everything would be fine.
“I have them,” said Brooke.
“Give them to me,” he said. “I’ll be in charge of that step.”
“I’m already doing that,” Brooke shot back. “You do the foam.”
“I’m doing the lobsters!” Parker shouted. He heard the shrillness in his voice. Brooke must have too, because she just stared at him for a couple of beats.
“Fine,” she said finally. “Freak out about it.”
They switched places. On the stovetop, three lobsters lay in a pot, boiling to death. You can’t kill a lobster before you cook it, Parker knew. You have to let it die in the pot or else the meat becomes tough and dry. And it wasn’t a painless death—studies showed that lobsters felt pain and even fear in that boiling-water bath. Parker stared down at the dying lobsters, the hot air whistling through their shells as they boiled. Suddenly he felt repulsed. It felt wrong—torturing his food to make it more delectable. As if slow death and agony were steps in a recipe, like “add salt” or “boil water.”
Boil water, he thought. The boiling point of water was 100 degrees Celsius, while that of alcohol was 78 degrees. By increasing the heat, he could boil off some of the alchohol. This would dilute it and prevent the poison from forming. More water, less alchohol. If someone ingested it, they might hallucinate a bit, but at least no one would die. Holding his breath, he turned the knob to high. The burner’s blue flame leapt up, hissing.
“What are you doing?”
Parker jumped, almost knocking into Brooke. She was inches from him, peering over his shoulder.
Brooke turned the knob back to the low. “You’re gonna screw it up if you evaporate off too much wine. Just let me do it.”
“Get out of my face!” Parker snapped. “I don’t need a babysitter, I can make a fucking lobster essence.”
“You have the temperature way too high!” she said. She slapped his hand away from the knob.
Parker’s hands were trembling. Oh my god, he thought. How was he supposed to pull this off with this pathological perfectionist watching his every move?
“The directions say 78 degrees Celsius. Which is 72 degrees Fahrenheit to anyone who left their brain at home,” Brooke said, pushing Parker out of the way.
Parker kept staring at his shaking hands, afraid that if he met Brooke’s eye, she would see how angry he was. She had been basically ruining his life for years, but now she was literally ruining his life. If he couldn’t manage to sabotage this poison, then someone would die tonight, and Parker would go to prison. Fuck off, Brooke! he screamed in his head. He’d always hated her, but it had been a cold, intellectual hatred. What he felt now was new. It was boiling-hot and immediate. It was the passionate hatred of someone who tears their enemy to pieces, then drinks their blood. ♦
To be continued…