Recipe for Disaster

I turned the keys. I flicked the switches. I let the fluorescents flicker to life as I blinked through the sleep. I shrugged off my coat with a slow roll of both shoulders, pushed off my trainers and pulled out the slippers from under the bench. The best work is done as comfortably as possible. I left my keys in a bowl which balanced upon a stone troll vaguely imitating Atlas. My apron hung on the opposite peg, regularly washed but bearing many burn scars from the years. I pulled it over my head and wrapped the tassels tight, pulling them round front and tying a bow that tucked into the front pocket. As I did, a familiar jingle of leftover coins rang from the fabric pouch. The coffee machine beeped its good morning from ignition and soon the sound and smell of bittersweet relief filled the quiet space. The radio scrambled to life in my hands, turned low to add ambience, lyrics robbed of comprehension. On odd occasion coffee dripped in time to the beat. The thermostat clicked and the boiler woke like the shake of a large duvet. The pilot light waved me greeting from its small window in the machine. Good to see you too, buddy. I set my notebook on the side, edges of brightly coloured post-its peeking out from their place-holding, and clicked the ovens on one by one. The first two, immediate with their low hiss of the gas, the snap of the spark and the roar of the flame. The last, a long drawn out sigh as the spark failed to take. The clicks chased each other as I continued to press, forcing me to resort to matches. At the end of the burning head the rows of jets burst into bright blue flame one after the other like a bed of flowers blooming in the sunshine.
I dug out a mug from a shelf full of squabbling trolls, as if the fluorescents had caught them mid-argument and turned them to stone. Andrew always moved these shits around.
I poured the coffee, clicked the walkie-talkie on in its holder and pressed the signal button a couple times to let Andrew know I was down below. He double beeped back in response.
“How you doing, fuckface?” he crackled.
“All good below,” I replied, “how’s that cold treating you?” The walkie made his nasal voice whine more than usual.
“Oh, fuck off,” Andrew scoffed, a hint of a smile in his voice.
“That’s ‘fuck off, over.’” I replied.
He did not.
Content with the trio of waking behemoths I turned my attention to the beaten, boxy trunk kept in one corner. I wheeled it to the sideboard, unlatching the oversized buckles with a small key, and revealed the meticulously packed rows of jars, boxes and utensils inside. After flicking to the marked page in the notebook I picked out the correct ingredients. Mason jars of coloured spices with spring lids weary from use. Metal containers wearing the faded dirtied echoes of all the adhesive labels that had come before. Bags of fabric tied with twine, vacuum sealed plastic, and a velvet drawstring which rattled upon rest. A thick chopping board of such dark wood it looked burned. A granite pestle and mortar, carved to last, and so heavy it was more apt to break the floor first.
I sipped from the mug and ran a finger down the page. Like the rest it was dog-eared from overuse. Black pen now faded and flanked by blue and red, scribbles over scribbles and mad crossings-outs. As my finger passed I mentally ticked off each ingredient. All set.
I hurriedly composed the scene, adjusting a short stone goblin that held the spatulas. I snapped a photo and sent it to Emily. Just another day in the office.
I plucked a pair of plastic gloves from the box. The dusty talcum powder bloomed as each snapped at the wrist. It was time to prepare the meat.
The walk-in cooler was full and I had to inspect several labels before I brought out the one with the right date and let it rest, taking the chill off before baking.
I had everything I needed. I clapped once, turned up the radio then began.
Stalks were chopped into fine rings, the side of the knife pressed against my curled fingers as the blade on board kept time with the tempo.
Sprigs from larger branches were torn and pinched to release the flavours.
Spoonfuls of coloured powders and pastes fell into the wooden bowl and were mixed with gusto.
Salt crystals were ground into fine powders and mixed with a variety of oils giving way to a rainbow luminescence.
A cursory prod of the meat revealed it was ready, the divot slowly sprang back.
From the velvet bag, small pebbles were laid to rest in a vial of red wine.
The errant coins from my pouch plinked in a dish of vodka before they were consumed by blue flame.
I scooped two handfuls of the saltmix, scattered it over the meat, and then began to scrub. Coarse, firm circular motions. Feeling the landscape of flesh and fat, squeezing to the point of unrelenting bone.
I dipped the pastry brush into the spice bowl then ran it over the salted meat with confident, smooth strokes. A pebble from the vial of wine sat where each line intersected.
I swung a thurible over the meat, its chain wrapped around my palm. Once gold but now faded from decades of use, it swung gently with all the precision of a pendulum, allowing the woodsmoke to cascade and the smell to fill the room.
I removed the coins from the dish and inspected them, they were not perfect but would have to do. I placed them with a delicate tap.
Lastly, I removed the needle from the row of utensils, held it to the end of my thumb and pierced the glove and skin with it as I had a hundred times before. It stung but the sensation was familiar. I withdrew it slowly and let the single bead of blood drip over the centre. My thumb tucked into my palm and red smeared inside the glove.
From above came a slight sound of car doors opening and closing followed by echoes of several pairs of feet slowly shuffling above. The light in the corner of the room turned orange. Andrew was ready.
I regarded my work, suitably content.
This meat was male, almost six foot and older than usual. The salt crystals caught the light, giving the pale skin a diamond quality. The face rested in an eternal sleep decorated by the dark lines of the paste. The coins, sterilised and silver, lay over the eyes and one under the tongue. His hands lay at his sides in peace. I gave the naked man a final look of concern and fetched the coffin lid, sealing him inside his mahogany tomb. I ticked a couple boxes on the clipboard and wheeled the trolley to the elevator. The coffin slid into the grooves and a button press took it up to be witnessed. The light went out.
The familiar drone of the church organ CD that played through speakers behind a faux-organ construction seeped through the ceiling. I had a good twenty minutes so I snapped off the gloves, flicking them to the bin, and gave my thumb a cursory suck. I grabbed the clipboard from the now-vacant trolley and headed out the fire escape for a cigarette, propping the door with one of the many broken stone trolls from the alleyway. As I drew in smoke, distracted by the odd booming syllable of the lectern mic, I looked over the paperwork.
Mr. Baycroft had been seventy-three, a retired electrical engineer, a father of three, a grandfather of five, and had suffered from an aneurysm while gardening. For all of his successes and fortunes his entire life had been reduced to a couple of ticked or unticked boxes on a single sheet of paper. As for his body, that had lain in a wooden box adorned with glyphs and offerings to end its journey in the belly of an industrial oven. To be traded along with all the others that came before it, his flesh, muscle and bone given to something on the other side. Except, the instructions were not always clear, quantities not always exact. We had been through countless trials and errors and I thought we would be in store for a lot more before we got exactly what we wanted. After all, practice does make perfect.
My phone pinged. Bring me back something sweet, Emily had replied.
I heard the same outro track I’d heard a thousand times before, flicked the burnt-out butt to the ground and kicked the stone troll from the door letting it shut behind me. The corner light clicked green as Andrew initiated the lift, returning the dark wood box to me, and to its inevitable end. I took another glance at the open notebook, unlatched the trolley and wheeled it to the oven. The heavy metal door slammed shut behind it and I rolled the temperature dials to full.
I clicked the walkie signal a couple times and the light went out.
“Want anything from the shop?” crackled Andrew.
“Nah, all good,” I said, not wanting him to disturb me.
The notebook lay open on a different ritual, illustrations decorated the page in red and blue biro, each from a different hand. The book was vast. Sheets stapled to sheets, some faded and taped, collected over decades, maybe even centuries, to finally end up in our hands. It included a plethora of rituals, some simple, some complex, like some cruel cookbook that we had added our own notes to where we had made substitutions.
For this ritual, a new set of ingredients sat on the bench. A corpse lay in its wooden box with each hand folded over the chest, a driven stake held them all together. I used a calligraphy brush to stain the skin with the correct ash paints the notebook described. I had a scalpel in one hand and small crystals in the other, slowly pushing them under the skin into the natural ley lines of the human body, when the door was thrust open.
“I know you didn’t want anything but it’s such a nice day I thought you’d—”, Andrew said from the opening door.
“What the bloody fuck do you think you’re doing?” he followed, low and slow, as his eyes narrowed, his skin paled, and he dropped the ice cream with a wet smack.
I stared up at him, frozen, glasses slipping from my nose, sleeves rolled to the elbow. The blade of the scalpel caught the light as it hung above the flesh. He looked sick.
“It’s — uh — it’s not what it looks like,” I said meekly.
His hands shook.“Wh–What have you done to her?”
He made his way over to the open casket.
“This —” he started.
“Mmm,” I winced,
“This — ugh.” His face was disgusted.
“Look, it’s —” but he shut me up with a stare.
“This is wrong!” he whispered. “You can’’re not supposed use these crystals like that!” he said, swiping them from my hand.“These...these were fucking expensive!” He was out of breath, but persisted nonetheless. “Remember what we talked about?”
“Oh, I remember. You fix the numbers, I fix the meat.”
“Meat? Right, I forgot you were still calling them that.”
“Yeah, well you don’t have to put your hands in them everyday.” I replied.
“Still. This isn’t in the recipe,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “Recipe is more of a food thing and this…” gesturing to the decorated and desecrated corpse before us “ anything but food-related.”
“Whatever. What even is this?” He pinched the gem to the light like a diamond inspector.
“It’s meteorite from South America.  It negates the need for-”
“All I know is I paid for it, and the book doesn't say to use it like this.” Andrew  forced the stone back into my hand as he shook his head. “Next time follow the recipe, got it?”
I shrugged. “Like that’s made much difference so far.”
His eyebrows rose, but before he could utter a sardonic riposte the oven timer beeped.
I nodded and moved to the oven.
With a hand on the handle I looked at him, he was nervous too.
“Well go on then, we haven’t got all bloody day.”
I opened the large metal door. Dry heat washed out as the smell of soot and ash filled the room. I began to roll the tray out.
“Slow...slowly,” Andrew said, hovering.
“Will you just let me fucking do it.”
He stepped back.
The tray was empty save for a small mound of ash and scraps in the centre. It was arranged in a perfect pyramid. The octogram we had etched on the tray glowed green like the gas jets on low. Lines from the points cut through the middle of the pile and gave the oven a sickly hue. The pebbles placed on Mr. Baycroft remained but had lost their marble edge and were now completely black. They sat inside the eight triangles of the octagram.
“I thought they were meant to end up at the corners?” Andrew remarked.
They were. Or at least, that’s where the correct sprite was meant to leave them.
“Maybe this is something else?” he said again, filling the silence.
He leant his hand towards them but jerked it back when the pyramid shifted.
“I didn’ wasn’t m—”
“Shhhut the fuck up,” I hissed.
The pyramid shook again, small waves of ash crumbling in a miniature avalanche. We stared as the pyramid shook several more times to reveal an egg that lay at the centre. It rocked back and forth at regular intervals as whatever lay inside tossed and turned.
“It’s an egg,” Andrew said.
“Your powers of observation are astounding,” I whispered, as I reached for it.
“Whoawhoawhoa—” but my glance quieted him.
“It might be hot is all,” he whispered with a shrug.
I scooped the egg from the remains of the ashen pyramid. It was, in fact, freezing cold. I blew the remains of Mr. Baycroft from the shell and Andrew coughed overdramatically.
The egg rocked in my hands. Like a cannonball amidst stormy seas, it was heavy and constantly avoiding restraint. It was green and blue and the shell seemed to shift like oil on water, swirling like storm clouds or a rolling surf. A tap broke the silence. Andrew's eyes met mine immediately. A second followed shortly after, punctuating the silence that surrounded us. As the shell cracked the swirling reacted around it, as if the cracks were lightning in a storm.
I felt the heavy ball move against me and had to steady my hands for fear of dropping it. We had received eggs before, of many different sizes and colours and all with slightly different inhabitants. The pentagoblin had wrought its own special kind of hell over one bank holiday weekend, forcing us to replaster most of the walls. The pygmy serpent had, likewise, caused a proper mess and chewed on a couple of corpses before we managed to wrangle it into shackles. Both had fetched a high price on the market, enough for the meteorite crystals that currently lay half in and out of Mrs. Hewitt.
A fracture of shell flew loose and a torrent of sulphurous slime spilled out over my hands. I turned and handled the opening egg with a careful grip. More pieces broke and fell as the thing inside thrashed with increased frequency. Vague shapes of limbs could be made out through the thick slime and embryonic sac as the thing stretched and tore at its bindings. In a sudden crackle of shell the thing inside shook itself free.
I sighed. “It’s another fucking troll.”
“Fuck’s sake,” Andrew hissed and immediately lost interest.
The troll sat in my open hands, both stumpy legs stuck out from its drooping belly and one stubby finger stuck up its nose. Snot and bile seemed to leak from its very skin.
“Here, you take—” I gestured at Andrew.
“I’m not fucking taking it, I don’t have gloves on.”
“Always leaving me to do the dirty work,” I said, shaking my head,
“Here. Dump it in this.” He held up a bucket.
I chucked the slimy, eggy mess into the bucket and dropped it into the sink as the troll protested.
“Say a few words?” I said, but before Andrew could open his mouth I turned the tap on. He winced as the thing shrieked and thrashed for a few seconds then all became quiet.
“Here,” I said, handing him the dripping stone corpse from the bucket. “Do some of the dirty work for a change and put this with the rest on your way out. I’ve got to get Mrs. Hewitt ready for tomorrow.”
Andrew took it meekly and shuffled towards the door.
“Maybe it’s just the recipe.”
“Oh fuck off, Andrew. And clean up that ice cream on your way out.”
He did not.
I left Mrs. Hewitt resting, prepared and ready for the next day. She could wait. Enjoy another night's rest before the burn. The lights flickered out and ceased their fluorescent fizz. The keys clicked and the doors locked. I shuffled round to the front of the building, idling with my phone in hand.
I text Emily. No luck.
She responded barely a minute later. Sad face.
My foot glanced a stone troll on the ground and it toppled into a group of others. The arrangement of grotesques at the entrance was often admired by mourners, some even snapped photos for themselves despite the sombre occasion. Stumpy stone trolls sat at the front, fat stone bellies hanging over fat stone knees. Thinner, taller goblins stood or crouched behind, long fingers covering their faces as they had cowered from the water. At least these ones had been complete. Although they were the sum of our failures — nobody would pay for a troll or a goblin — the screaming half-torsos and creeping severed hands had been worse.
Emily messaged again. Always next time.
“Always next time,” I whispered, to no-one but the trolls. ​​​​​​​