The Last One Standing Chapters 1-2 Preview

Mallory dragged her finger along the stainless steel countertops, eyeing the entree waiting in the warmer. It was the first time in years that she had entered the kitchen after the restaurant had opened; she was usually the first person there and the last one to leave. She tucked her overgrown side bangs behind her ear. As she lowered herself, eye level to the plate on the counter, she knew it was perfectly arranged. The sriracha dashed across the bottom of the plate had the exact pop of color she expected. Her instincts told her something was wrong, very wrong, but it wasn’t the dish. What was it?
“I’m serious, Mals. We have, like, thirty minutes or less, and that airport is across the damn city,” Jimmy said.
Then it dawned on her: where was the sous chef?
“Where’s Luke?” Mallory asked. Panic raised beneath her skin like huge bubbles in a boiling pot. “Where is Luke?” The line cooks looked at each other.
“Haven’t seen him,” one cook said.
“Me neither.”
“He came in before open, didn’t he?” another asked.
“I think he went outside—”
Outside?” Mallory asked. “What the hell is he doing outside when we opened fifteen minutes ago?” Her heart raced, the anxiety popping like a burning cheese sauce. “And where is the binder?”
She paced in the back of the kitchen, searching for the guide she had created: a thick two-inch binder, packed to the brim with post-it notes, and a bright blue sheet in the cover slot to make sure it was visible. She scrutinized the back counters, but there wasn’t much to pick through; she never let one of her staff leave a single ingredient or utensil out of its place. She didn’t see it anywhere. She had spent an hour discussing it with the sous chef, her replacement for the next few months, the night before. While a significant chunk of it was the emergency hotel protocol, a hundred and fifty pages of it was a detailed schedule of daily specials, wine pairings, and the most important of all: what to do in case her parents showed up.
And the sous chef, and the ultimate guidebook for the Herb Crest, were gone. 
“Mals, seriously. We need to go!” Jimmy pulled at his fluffy brown hair. “You are making me anxious. I am going to need a damn cocktail after this—”
Mallory swung open the door to her office. Laid neatly on the desk was the backup copy of the guide. She hugged it to her chest, then crossed the kitchen to the back entrance, carrying the guide like a shield. 
“I’ve gotta make sure that Luke knows where the backup is.”
Mallory slammed open the back door. The sous chef, a middle-aged man with graying hair, was talking to a delivery man. The giant truck rattled behind them. The sous chef startled when he saw Mallory.
“Chef, I was asking about the—”
Mallory shoved the binder against the sous chef; it thudded on his chest.
“This is your bible for the next few months,” she said.
“I know, Chef,” he said. “My copy is in my locker.”
“This is your backup. There are two emergencies protocol sections in the back, the first is for the kitchen—”
“And the second is the standard protocol for Grand Holloway Hotel,” he said. “I know, Chef.”
Mallory turned towards the delivery man. “Hi, Mark.”
“You ready for your trip?” the delivery man asked. Mallory shrugged. “I’ll take the load inside.”
The delivery man started unloading boxes and Mallory gestured for the sous chef to go inside. “Now, there’s also a section on what to do in case Mr. and Mrs. Holloway stop by,” Mallory said, “with exact instructions about what to say in regards to my whereabouts—”
“We’ll be fine,” he said. “I remember what you said. I can sweet talk your parents. Trust me.”
While the sous chef’s face was expressionless, she could hear the smirk in his voice. He was older than her by about thirty years and had the confidence that came with age. But that self-assured manner made her uneasy. They were talking about Mr. and Mrs. Holloway, after all. They weren’t any random owners. 
But she had to trust her staff. She had hired the sous chef for his flexibility, talent, and confidence. Besides, it wasn’t like she could take back her agreement with Cuisine Channel two days before shooting. Mallory took a deep breath. Nothing was wrong. It was hard to let go of control and trust that everything would be fine without her.
“All right, everyone,” Mallory said. All fourteen of the kitchen staff stopped and turned towards her. “Jimmy and I are heading to Las Vegas. I expect all of you to be on your best behavior for Luke.” A few nodded subtly, while the rest stared at her, waiting. “There’s a flow chart poster for the usual issues on my office door, in case Luke is preoccupied, and another mini flow chart in the back of the master binder for surprise visits from the owners. And I’ll have my phone on me if you need anything.” She looked around at the staff, acknowledging each of them. “But I know you can handle it. Some of you have been with the Herb Crest almost as long as I have, and I’ve watched you perform under stress and raise the bar even higher. You’re going to do great.”
“Thank you, Chef,” the sous chef said.
“We took the liberty of making you two lunch,” the patissier said. She handed two parchment wrapped squares to Mallory. “You better win that contest,” she said. “For us.”
“Yeah! Bring back that money and take us out.”
“If I win, sure,” Mallory said.
“When you win,” Jimmy said.
“Or when you do,” Mallory said.
“Right. Like anyone would beat you.”
Mallory shook her head. “Wish us luck.”
“You don’t need it,” the entremetier called out. “Good luck, Jimmy.”
“Hah, hah. Very funny,” Jimmy said. “Nineteen minutes to get across the city and through TSA! Let’s go!”
“Remember we’re just a plane ride away—” Mallory started, but Jimmy shoved her out the door, interrupting her final words.
Once they were settled into the town car on the way to the airport, Mallory opened a water bottle. “What’s with you?” she asked. “You’re acting like me. We’re not even filming for another two days. It’s not like we’ll be late.”
“Vegas is a pilgrimage to me. Do you know how many gay clubs they have in Vegas?”
“Sixteen? Twenty?”
“Five. But that’s five different places I can go to every night, searching for the man of my dreams.”
“Or the man of the hour,” Mallory muttered.
“Man of the hour? Man of the year? How will I know unless I get out there and find him?”
It was always something with Jimmy; he needed a man like Mallory needed control. She checked her phone, expecting there to be a text from the sous chef already, but there weren’t any notifications. “I don’t understand your desire to find the perfect man,” she said. She stowed her phone. “He doesn’t exist.”
“You have no sense of romance,” he whined. “Not everything has to be broken down into a logical protocol, Mallory. Sometimes, these things happen.”
Ugh. There he was again, rambling about fate. It’s not like they’d even have time to do anything besides the show. “You don’t expect to be partying every night, do you? The Cuisine Channel contract states that we have a curfew every night—”
“Mallory,” Jimmy said. He put a firm hand on her shoulder. “I read the contract too. It’s still Las freaking Vegas. They aren’t idiots. They know we’ll bend the rules. And as long as we’re there when they need us, it’ll be fine. You need to relax. Vegas is not the place where you obsess over every last detail about the plans for your career. This is where you find yourself, where you find that other Mallory I know is buried deep inside of you. The one who used to take shots of peppermint schnapps with me after final exams.”
Mallory shook her head. They were in their mid-twenties now. When was Jimmy going to grow up? 
“I’ll relax by the pool,” she said.
“You’ll relax in the first class lounge is what you’ll do.” Jimmy tapped the privacy window separating them from the driver. “Can you hurry up?”
“We can get the next flight.” It was a perk of being the daughter of one of the wealthiest power couples in Washington. Name dropping her parents at the ticket counter for Lead The Way Airlines would result in a quick change of flights at no charge, only for the owner’s daughter.
“I need a martini!” Jimmy said. “Do you not understand when I say the words ‘Vegas’ and ‘pilgrimage’? I have every last second planned until we start filming and have that awful curfew. And if we are late because you decided we needed to stop by the Herb Crest one last time before heading to the airport, you are taking a mandatory vodka shot with me. ‘Oh, Jimmy, I just need to check that my binder is there! My binder!’ Drop the obsessive dance, Mals. Late, pre-boarding shot, and that’s final.”
And it was final. They were late. 
While waiting for the next flight, Mallory and Jimmy sipped Long Islands and munched on the sandwiches. Mallory finished the first half of the sandwich and groaned.
“Brie and apple on rye,” she said. “Is there anything better?”
Jimmy handed her a shot of Stoli Elite. The penalty had been dealt with. 
“An orgasm after a plate of garlic bread,” he said.
Once Jimmy fell asleep on the plane, Mallory traded the obligatory champagne for a water bottle. Jimmy snored, leaning his head against the window, and Mallory leaned over, staring out past him. Vast hills of brown and green rolled on the ground. She had only left Seattle one other time, and had been so nervous on the ten-hour flight that she had taken her mother’s anti-anxiety medications and slept the whole way there. But this was different; she was older now. At twenty-six, she felt ready to leave home, confident in her ability to adapt to whatever Las Vegas had to offer. It helped that she knew the language this time, and that she had experience in the real restaurant world. And it was only a two and half hour flight away from home. 
By the time Jimmy woke up, they were halfway to Nevada. Mallory was furiously texting on her phone.
“Who is it?” he asked.
“Luke. I wanted to make sure he knows what Mr. and Mrs. Holloway drink—”
“You still haven’t told them, have you?” 
  Mallory looked at Jimmy with a shocked expression. “Of course not. Why the hell would I do such a thing?”
“You’re twenty-five years old, Mals.”
“That only proves my point. You’re an adult. There’s no reason you need to be pressed under their thumb like this.”
“I am not under their thumb,” she grumbled.
“You work at the Herb Crest, a restaurant owned by your parents, in a hotel also owned by your parents. And you’re currently on an airplane, also owned by your parents. You realize you don’t need them, right? You’ve already been the executive chef at a three-star restaurant. You can work anywhere you want.”
And get the salary I have now? she thought. Unlikely.
“It’s not that simple,” Mallory said. She went to take a sip of her water but wrinkled her nose. The bottle was empty. She crushed the plastic. “I have to prove to them that the culinary arts are as valuable as any other profession. We deserve respect.”
“Your parents don’t give a rats ass about The Last Chef Standing.”
Mallory sighed. She knew he was right.
“As far as I can tell, the bottom line is money. So open the next big coffee franchise or the next pop-up restaurant. Then they’ll be impressed.” He chuckled. “And ask to buy you out.”
Her parents were constantly investing in new companies. But her hope was that by winning The Last Chef Standing, they’d see that success wasn’t always wrapped in an MBA or MD. There had to be some sort of reaction when she won half a million dollars. All of the winners had outstanding reputations, and some even went on to open up their own Michelin-starred restaurants. And in the end, it would give the Herb Crest an upgrade in status, which would benefit them as owners.
“I’ll force them to watch it,” Mallory said.
And if she didn’t convince them that she had made the right decision for her career path, winning would give her a substantial amount of money to pay for the culinary arts tuition she owed them. The constant reminder of her debt to them, even though they had more than enough money to spare for an only child’s schooling, was excruciating, like finding brown leaves in the salad station.
“Whatever,” Jimmy said. “As long as we make it to Vegas, I’m fine.”
The roar of slot machines assaulted the passengers as soon as they debarked. Mallory pulled Jimmy away from the baggage claim. 
“I told you already, they have our bags,” Mallory said.
“I swear to God, Mallory, if you make us any later for my right swipe date, I will make you embrace the powers of a fruit fly and you will find a hunk of eggplant for me.”
Mallory rolled her eyes. “In your dreams.”
Once Jimmy was convinced that the driver actually had their baggage by opening the trunk of the car himself, they slugged through the traffic on the Strip, the cars stewing like chili. Tall signs flashed pictures of cowboys and DJs, and people dressed as cartoon characters spazzed at tourists. Mallory watched two women pose for a selfie with duck lips in front of the Bellagio Fountains. She turned to say something snarky to Jimmy, but he was posing in front of his own phone.
“What?” Jimmy asked. “I’ve got to update my default.”
The town car dropped the two of them at the entrance lobby of the Network Regency Hotel and Casino, at the center of the Strip, handing their luggage—well, Mallory’s luggage—to the bell boy. Jimmy clutched his duffel to his chest. A sculpture of flowers levitating above a gurgling fountain stood in the middle of the room, surrounded by wood and marble desks along the back. A few dozen people crowded the area, most of which walked towards a glowing purple corridor, subtly labeled Casino and Dining. It wasn’t as obnoxious as Mallory had expected.
“Not bad,” she said.
“Not bad? That’s all you can say? Not bad?” Jimmy asked.
“At least we can’t hear the slot machines from here.”
“Are you afraid they’re going to keep you up at night when you need to go to bed before curfew? Do you even live?”
Because they were among the first to arrive for the filming of The Last Chef Standing, season eleven, they were given adjoining rooms with a view of the Strip. The sunset was a hazy orange, the tourists inching back and forth along the sidewalk. A man played a keyboard down the street, but the sound never reached Mallory’s room.
Jimmy knocked on the door. “Are you coming?”
“Nightclubs aren’t my thing,” she said. 
“Uh, dinner? I wouldn’t even pretend to go out until after nine.”
It would go like this: dinner would turn into just-one-drink, which would turn into we’re-near-this-club-can’t-we-peek-inside? And in the end, Mallory knew she might even have fun. But being in a new city made her uneasy, especially knowing the Herb Crest, what she loved to think of as her restaurant, was hundreds of miles away. 
“I’m kind of tired,” she said. 
Jimmy’s shoulders slumped. “But it’s going to suck without you,” he said.
Mallory smiled. He had always been bad at lying. They both knew he was more likely to get laid if she wasn’t around, hanging on his arm. “I’m going to bed early.” 
“Tomorrow night?” he asked. She nodded. She could agree to that. “I’ll bring you some takeout.”
You won’t, she thought. He would be too busy impressing some male model with abs harder than a block of parmesan to remember that he had left Mallory’s pasta in the taxi. “I’ll get room service. Thanks,” she said.
“You better not be studying.” He squinted his eyes and shook a finger at her.
“Not unless my favorite study buddy is with me,” Mallory said.
“And I’m not, so don’t you dare,” he said. “Get yourself a gelato or a daiquiri or something. You know they have absolutely everything on this little speck of land.”
Mallory ordered a wedge salad, and because she wanted to indulge a little, to ‘relax’, she added a large piece of chocolate cake. She pulled an old textbook out of her suitcase. Did The Network Regency Hotel have a bookstore? Surely, owning the Cuisine Channel, they had to have a bookstore to sell the celebrity chefs’ books. She would check in the morning. 
She laid on the bed, flipping through the textbook. The entremetier’s pill schedule popped into her mind. When the entremetier had first started, she had had a meltdown because of the forgotten meds. Mallory quickly texted the sous chef. 
Don’t forget to remind Nadia to take her pill, she sent.
He replied with a picture of the alert notification on the sales terminal. Already did, he sent.
Her mind wandered through the possibilities of things that could happen, should the staff go off of the schedule she had prepared, or worse, if her parents came back from the East Coast early. Her parents would be infuriated when they found out she had left, and for, God forbid, a cable television show, no less. But it would be worth it, if she won. And if they never found out about her leaving, that was even better.
She trusted her staff, didn’t she? They always handled it when she was around. Why would it be any different now? That was why she had felt comfortable leaving the sous chef in charge. He was good at giving kind, but firm encouragement. She trusted him.
Don’t forget Helen’s birthday on Tuesday, she sent.
I don’t think we could forget anything with the amount of reminders you’ve set for us, he sent.
Ah, he was a little irritated. Mallory would step back for now. But she knew the sous chef didn’t hold precision higher than every other kitchen virtue, like Mallory did. And it would only take one microscopic detail to tip off her parents. They never came into the kitchen unless it was to make a correction. 
Room service knocked on the door, and she tipped and thanked the doorman. She brought her food to the window. She ate looking out at the Strip. The swarms of people below were suffocating, a reminder of everything she had left behind. She had never felt this way in Seattle. 
Maybe I’ll go back on the weekends, she thought. Check up on things.
But Jimmy wouldn’t allow it, and dividing her attention like that would cost her energy in the competition. Five hundred thousand dollars was more than four times her salary. And with a chunk of money like that, she would be able to pay off the rest of her tuition, and make her parents see that she could do it on her own, no matter what ‘it’ was. She could even open her own restaurant and not give in to their offer to buy it out. It would be hers. And she’d do better than they ever dreamed.
That is, if she won.

The steamer coughed, the condensation licking the sides of the wall. But before Greg could remove the fish, the heat burned his hand. He cupped it against his mouth.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” he shouted.
“Another ginger and soy fish!” the hostess shouted at the window.
The new guy scratched his stomach. “You need a bandage, dude?” he said. He tossed his long scraggly hair behind him. Why wasn’t he wearing a hairnet?
“I wouldn’t need a damn thing if you weren’t incompetent!” Greg said. “Learn to use a steamer, learn to multitask, and stop being such a piece of shit.”
The new guy threw his apron on the ground. “I’m not getting paid enough to get battered all day. You don’t need me? I’m gone.” He stomped towards the exit, muttering under his breath. Shit pool of cooks, Greg thought, All of them.  “I liked Niche Table better before I knew the owner was such an asshole.”
“And you were better as a customer!” Greg shouted. “Eat your poke bowl like a normal human being! It’s not soup!” Greg whirled around and looked straight at the dish boy. The dish boy froze like the time he had broken a glass in the icebox. “You,” Greg said. “Get on cold plates, now.”
“But I’m—”
“Get on the cold plates and cut some tomatoes. We’ll talk about a raise later.”
Greg wrapped his hand in a towel, then resumed working on the ginger and soy lunch special. The Niche Table couldn’t afford the dish boy’s raise, but it couldn’t afford to miss another lunch rush either. He would have to figure something out. If he remembered correctly, the dish boy had lasted two weeks now. The Niche Table needed him. Greg needed him. 
As Greg rushed over to the sauces, a voice interrupted his train of thought.
“Um, Greg?” the hostess slash bartender slash waitress asked.
“What?” he hissed.
“Someone named Deacon is here to see you.”
Greg visibly cooled. “Send him in.”
As soon Greg saw his cousin’s blond hair come through the door, he threw the new guy’s (now old guy’s) stained apron at him. 
“The hell, man?” Deacon asked. Greg pointed him towards the grill pan. “I came by to ask you a question.”
“After the lunch rush,” Greg said.
“It’ll only take a—”
After the lunch rush.”
After the fusion burritos had been assembled, the salads tossed, and the fish steamed, Greg and Deacon and the hostess took turns running the meals out to the twenty-six parties dining in the only interesting restaurant in the business park. Once they were waiting on the last table to pay, Greg leaned against the back wall and sucked down a full iced tea. He forgot to keep hydrated whenever they were open, especially when he was understaffed.
Which was the norm, really.
Deacon served himself a coke. Greg would have said something about it since he technically wasn’t an employee anymore, but he had made Deacon work for free. And besides, it was only a glass. It wasn’t worth the fight. 
“You know why I’m here?” Deacon asked.
Greg crossed his muscular arms, the burn towel hanging down under his grip. His tattooed sleeves flexed. 
“What can I do for you?” Greg asked.
“You know LCS is coming up?”
Greg did know, but he stared at Deacon with icy coolness. So here it finally was, Deacon crawling back to Greg. Greg wasn’t going to take pity on him after what had happened.
“You still have that audition tape, right? I’m sure the producers would take you.”
Hah, take me. They’d be idiots not to, Greg thought. He was one of the best chefs in Vegas, maybe in all of Nevada, including all of the celebrity chefs. He had eaten at their crappy restaurants. He only had to prove he was better. 
“What happened to Jake?” Greg asked.
“He’s backpacking in Europe.”
“I told you he was a mistake,” Greg said. 
“I know.”
The look of defeat on Deacon’s face was as satisfying as cold ice cream on a hot desert day. But Greg noticed something else too. Contempt? Disgust? As if Deacon had any right to feel anything but remorse after what he did.
“I don’t know if I can leave the Niche Table,” Greg said.
Deacon sighed. “What do you want me to do, Greg? Beg you? Because that’s what this is. You are the best cook I know, so—”
“Chef,” Greg corrected.
“Chef, cook, whatever. I know you can use the money.” He scanned the room and peeked through the window at the restaurant. “I don’t see how, but I know the Niche Table needs it.”
“We’re thriving.”
“And yet you have two employees for sixty seats?”
“Three,” he said. 
“Look, I didn’t want to ask. Jake may not have the talent you do, but he had more respect for structure, and for his friends.”
“Looks like that got him far,” Greg said.
“He understands the traditions of food and knows the rules of the game. He’s seen like all ten seasons of the Last Chef Standing.”
“He needs a job,” Greg said.
Deacon crossed his arms. “It’s five hundred thousand dollars. You could put that to good use.” He nodded towards the dish boy. “Give him an actual raise instead of pretending like you will. Hire some decent cooks instead of inexperienced underpaid teens that are scared you’ll send a hit after them when they fuck up their first dish.”
Deacon had a point. The restaurant wasn’t going under, exactly. But Greg had been late on rent for the last few months, which meant extra fees, and with each new hire quitting within weeks or days or even hours of being hired, it was hard to keep up with what the hell was needed for the budget. Greg’s forte was cooking, not bookkeeping. 
Nor was his strong point keeping staff. 
And five hundred thousand dollars could help out a lot, at least for a while.
“When do you need to know?” Greg asked.
“Orientation is in a couple of hours,” Deacon said. “They can find someone random. But I figured, you know?”
“Figure away,” Greg said. He followed Deacon to the back door and Deacon handed him the dirty apron. 
“See you in a few hours?”
“I’ll let you know.”
Greg posted a sign on the entrance, See you at dinner! 6:00 PM and locked the front door. The dining area was a mess—some of the tables had spilled condiments and the waitress station was covered in straws. The chalkboard with the day’s menu was smeared where it should have said Pork Belly Burritos it said Bell    ritos. But that was easy to fix. He instructed the hostess to fix the sign and clean the dining area, and showed the dish boy how to prep for the evening crowd. He split the tip money between the two of them, and added twenty bucks each.
That’s forty bucks I could use to get a new coffee machine, he thought. Those business types were always coming in asking for coffees to-go, and he could upcharge the hell out of them. But it wasn’t worth fretting over now. If he snuck around his grandma, Nona, he could bring the machine from home.
As soon as he opened the door to the house, the smell of cinnamon and apples enveloped him in their warmth. A dish clattered against the sink in the kitchen. Greg set down the mail on the banister, next to yesterday’s mail.
“I made snacks!” Nona said. A three-tier high pyramid of powdered donuts stood proudly on a white plate. Nona gestured at the treats, her silver wig swaying behind her. “You better eat before Doris and Carol get here.”
“Is it book club already?” Greg asked. He bit a donut in half. “I don’t think there’s going to be any left.”
Nona chuckled and wiped her hands on the dishtowel. She pat Greg on the shoulder. “You can eat three more and you’d still be a tree trunk.”
Greg shrugged. He loved Nona’s cooking, and had become especially grateful for it after his year in prison. There was nothing like a home-cooked meal.
Nona grabbed herself a treat and arranged the plate, now only two tiers high, on the round scuffed table in the center of the family room. There were two extra seats than were necessary, but Nona was always ready for another guest, or for Greg to stay for the donuts. He was lucky he could eat like a horse and still have a beefy, ripped body.
As he brought a pitcher of lemonade from the kitchen counter to the table, he stopped. A bright purple bruise covered Nona’s foot. It looked like it stretched beyond where her slippers covered her feet.
“Nona,” Greg scolded. “What happened?”
“I had to move that relic.” The television that they had had since the nineties was resting against the sliding glass door. Going from the TV stand to the ground was the height of a regular-sized bureau. And that television weighed more than fifty pounds.
“I could have moved it,” Greg said.
“You rushed out this morning.”
It had been a chaotic day. “Next time, call me. I mean it.” He bit into another donut. “I can be home in twenty minutes.”
“I know you like to use your big man muscles, but I’ve got to take care of my house.” She pointed at his hand, the burn yellow and bulging from his palm. “Besides, I should be asking you that, huh? What’d you do?”
There was no use making up an excuse. Nona could see through any lie.
“I did too many things at once,” he said.
She nodded slowly. “Mhm, but I’m the one who should call you because I need help moving a TV? You listen here, and you call me next time.”
The closer Nona got to eight-five, the more eager she had become to do every task around the house by herself, and less likely she would ask Greg for help. She had made sure he knew how to take pride in the house growing up with a widowed grandmother, but age had made her increasingly needy of her independence. And when he came back from prison, she had been different. Loving as ever, but distant. Like she didn’t want to get close to him again. Like she had to demonstrate to him every day that she didn’t need him.
Still, he needed to take care of Nona, even when she refused. It was his duty. She had taken care of him for years without anyone’s help; she deserved someone to support her like she supported him. 
“Don’t change the subject. You know I can help with stuff like that,” he said. “But you’re right. I should’ve called you too. Which reminds me. You want me to ask for help?” He paused, shifting his weight. “I’m thinking about cutting some shifts for a few months. Taking a second job.”
“A second job?” Nona tilted her head like a curious bird. “That seems unrealistic. Don’t you work over sixty hours at the Niche Table?”
It was more like eighty most weeks. “Do you think you could help with the Niche Table? I’ll do the hiring, make sure you’ve got the staff, but could you handle overlooking the day-to-day?”
Nona wrinkled her nose. “What’s going on, Greg?”
“Nothing.” She stared at him, and he sighed. “A friend needs help with his restaurant.”
“You need help with your restaurant,” she said. Technically, it was Nona’s restaurant, but Greg knew better than to correct her. “Tell me, Greg.”
“Do you remember that TV show I was telling you about?”
“The audition tape you and Deacon made?” Greg nodded. She had helped the two of them record it. “What about it?”
“They’re filming soon, and Deacon needs a partner.”
“I thought he decided to partner with that hippie fellow.”
Nona remembered that kind of thing. She was always ogling young men, but she hated it when they had ponytails. When Greg told her what happened, she had called the man a dirty hippie. She was jealous of his long hair.
“He ran off to Europe. Listen, if you say no, I’ll tell Deacon.” He turned towards Nona and locked eyes with her, making sure she knew he was serious. “I know it’s asking a lot of you. But Deacon needs the money.”
The Niche Table doesn’t need it at all, he thought. None. Not at all. Don’t ask about finances.
“Then why doesn’t Deacon get a second job? Something that will last?”
“None of my business.” Greg shrugged. “It’ll only be a couple of days, here and there, whenever we’re filming. I can still work at night.”
“When will you sleep? When will you eat?”
“I’ll eat on the job.”
“When will you meet a girl?”
And there it was, the catch that hung onto Nona’s number one concern. It would comfort her to see Greg paired with a ‘nice woman’, as she liked to call it. But Greg had too much on his plate to add a feminine interest. But in the end, he knew it would make her happy. He could pretend to try.
“I’m sure there are lots of women on the show.”
Nona tossed her hands in the air. “I guess I better ask Doris and Carol if they’ve got any grandchildren we can hire. Carol is young enough; maybe she can waitress.”
The thought of his grandmother’s best friend being a waitress at his highly modern fusion restaurant gave him nightmares of his childhood; her huge chest shadowing her face as she shoved oversized antique clown dolls in his arms. He imagined Carol with a huge tray of red and yellow and blue plates, a green leaf stuck in her teeth, and bright blue lips, bombarding his regular customers at the Niche Table, turning each one into a clown too. But it wasn’t as bad as the late payments. If he could avoid asking Bobby for a loan, it would make the temporary positions worth it.
“I’ll let the staff know you’re coming,” Greg said. He grabbed two donuts, tucking them in a napkin on his way out.
“You better win that contest,” Nona said. Greg froze with his hand on the doorknob. “I’ve gotta have something to brag about when Doris brings up that rockstar grandkid again. If I have to hear about how he rode a tricycle while playing the drums at Carnegie Hall one more time, I’m going to lose my damn mind.”
“Of course, Nona,” he said. 
At the Niche Table, the bus-boy-turned-line-cook was chopping vegetables at a painfully slow rate, but Greg bit his tongue. The hostess had cleaned the dining area fairly well, nothing he could complain about, and even had the places set. She was now sitting at one of the tables with her feet propped on the bench, reading her phone. He instructed her on how to fill the soda machine and prep the salads, then gave the two of them the donuts.
On the sales terminal at the hostess table, he clicked open the audition video. A cell phone quality shot appeared, showing Greg and Deacon wearing bandanas around their foreheads in the Niche Table’s kitchen. Generic rock music played in the background, and their voices sounded through the speakers, echoing through the restaurant.
My name is Greg Miller.
And I’m Deacon Deitz.
And we’re from Las Vegas!
Greg hastily turned the volume down and glanced to see if the dish boy or the hostess had heard, but they were in the back. He realized how ridiculous the bandanas were now, but Nona had insisted that they wear them, saying it would give them the appearance of a brotherly relationship, and not just cousins. It wasn’t hard to convey their relationship before Deacon had quit out of the blue. If they had filmed it now though, they would have needed it. But they never questioned Nona. Greg dragged the file to a flash drive and called Deacon.
“Where’s the meeting?” Greg asked.
“The Network Regency Conference Center. You want to get lunch before?”
Not really, Greg thought. 
“Maybe at the hotel?” Deacon added. “I’ve got a craving for Sandy Witch.”
Greg cringed. He could whip up a better sandwich for Deacon with the leftovers they had at the Niche Table, but Deacon wouldn’t go for that. But the worst part was that if he remembered correctly, Crystal was working at the hair salon in that same shopping center.
“Does Crystal still work there?”
“You mean Rebecca? How would I know?” Deacon asked. “Is she still pissed at you?”
“You’d know better than me.”
Deacon laughed. “I don’t talk to anyone from Elysian anymore, besides you,” he said. “I’ll see you in an hour.”
Greg adjusted his shirt, almost too tight on his arms, revealing his menacing tattooed biceps. With that prize money, he could finally add to his sleeve. A black snake traveled down and back up his arm in ink, biting its own tail. He liked the idea of adding more greenery to his sleeves when the contest was over, to finally reward himself after years of never truly taking a day off. But it was only a nice thought. All of the money would go to the Niche Table, and when it was finally up and running without any help from anyone but himself, he’d add to the art on his arms. 
And for now, it was time to do an impromptu interview to be on one of the most successful cooking shows on television. He was ready. He knew he would win that prize money.
But first, he had to figure out a way to get around Crystal.

The Last One Standing coming December 2019!