A new weight-loss wonder food turns out to be not all it seems...
Amelia Hound stopped at the glass doors to the Barbary Building and took a long, deep breath. She had been through a tedious day of board meetings, covering subjects as fascinating as quarterly sales growth (or lack there of), psycholinguistic analysis of advertising jargon and, most depressing of all, from which department the next layoffs were going to come from. Now she had to face a last minute meet-up with the head sales reps for one of their suppliers, Finesse. She was promised that this meet-up would save RemCorp, but it would also be thoroughly exhausting.
Talking to Natalie Basick was always hard work. She was the definition of enthused. Amelia was pretty confident the sales rep was permanently coked up; no one could be THAT nervously energetic all the time without some form of illegal substance being involved.
As Amelia was wrapping up the last of her write ups for that day her mobile had rung. She could have just ignored it, especially when she saw the caller ID, but after a few extra rings she realised that Natalie would only be calling her now about something huge, something she could not possibly hold on to until morning. That meant it might be something that could put the ‘sales’ back into the ‘sales figures.’
The last year had been hard on Amelia’s industry, and her employers in particular. RemCorp were ‘dietary assistance experts’ or to cut through the jargon; they created and catered to fad weight loss programmes. Unfortunately for RemCorp the last twelve months had seen an awful lot that killed their sales. First of all there were those very homely and cheery programmes about how everyone was beautiful and could look good naked. Combining those shows with the increased access to real, useful dietary information through the internet meant that people were more and more following real diet plans and making informed life style changes.
Then along came the recession which meant a two pronged attack on RemCorp; people were less willing or able to spend money on fad diet advice and food stuffs and people were losing weight through having to buy fresh and learn to cook anyway.
Whatever Natalie had come up with, it had better be good.
Amelia took another deep breath and pushed through the glass doors into Finesse’s subtly lit lobby. After explaining who she was and what she was here for, the young and very pretty girl at the desk made a quick call, handed Amelia the appropriate ID and security passes and directed her to Kitchen 8 on the fifth floor.
Amelia had been here many times during her years with RemCorp and knew exactly where she was going. The kitchens were more than kitchens; they were experimental play areas for chemists, biologists, technicians, artists and yes, chefs, all working together to make “food that was more than just sustenance”, as the company logo said. The word “laboratories” would have been more appropriate than “kitchens”.
Amelia expected to hear the sounds of cooking, or experimenting, coming from Kitchen 8 but as she approached, the only sound was that of her heels clicking on the marble floor. She flashed her ID at the burly security guard at the door and ran her pass through the reader. The green light flashed at her and she opened the door into the stainless steel room beyond.
Natalie rose to greet her from one of the dining tables set in a walled off area to the right of the door. She looked stunning, as always; toned to perfection with a pale, English rose complexion, poured into a startling red blouse and black pencil skirt. Amelia almost felt frumpy in her pastel blue trouser suit.
"Amelia," Natalia cooed, hands outstretched to grasp Amelia's."So glad you could make it at such short notice."
Amelia resisted the urge to be bluntly honest about RemCorp's finances and instead opted for a half truth; "How could I not after how excited you were on the phone."
"Oh let me assure you," Natalie continued to vibrate as she led Amelia to a seat at her table. "This IS exciting."
There were only two other people in the huge kitchen; a man working at one of the cookers and Natalie’s personal assistant. He was young, calm and quietly stylish; a good counter to Natalie’s extravagant nature. Amelia could not quite recall his name.
The dining table was set up for them to eat; cutlery, wine glasses already filled with something red and expensive and no doubt modified in some bizarre way by Finesse, to taste of toffee or to help you burn calories. Amelia sniffed it cautiously but Natalie did not seem to notice, too busy ordering the chef to bring over dinner.
“This is all very nice,” Amelia said. “But I’m here to talk business, so let’s talk business.”
“My dear,” Natalie spoke as if to an idiot child. “This IS business,” she said, pointing at the plates as the chef set them on the table.
Amelia eyed the food. It LOOKED normal enough. A juice red steak, potatoes roasted to perfection and baby carrots dripping in butter and mint. It also smelled divine. Amelia’s stomach did a little circuit of her insides and she realised that she had not eaten for maybe twelve hours.
“Okay, the hooks in Natalie. So what’s so special about it.”
“Ah-ah.” Natalie picked up her own knife and fork. “Eat first.”
If any other company had demanded she try their new food stuff before explaining what it was, Amelia would have flat out refused. She worked for a faddy diet company but she was not on one. Amelia liked food, real food and she was not stupid or brain washed enough to believe RemCorp’s own advertising hype. However, Finesse were not your ordinary food production company. They took pride in creating nothing that was not delicious... or at least on the correct side of tasty.
Still, the kitchen-cum-laboratory setup always worried her. She picked up her knife and fork and watched as Natalie tucked into the steak.
“Honestly, Amelia, it’s delicious!”
Resigning herself to the task, and fearing the reason for Natalie’s insistence she eat BEFORE she found out what it was, Amelia cut a small piece of meat from the whole, eyed its tender pink strands and popped it into her mouth.
It tasted very much like pork, with a firm beef texture. Nothing spectacular about that; Finesse had produced a variety of foods that tasted completely different to what one would expect, apples with the texture of cucumber that tasted like tomatoes, that sort of thing. So okay, it was rather tasty, but what made it so utterly special that Natalie had insisted she come to Finesse’s HQ, ASAP?
Amelia swallowed the small chunk of flesh to ask that very question. The moment it touched down in her stomach, she realised what was so special. She felt a zing shiver through her belly and then out across her skin. It danced its way to the tips of her fingers and toes, making every hair on her body stand on end.
Amelia could not explain why, but just that one morsel had made her feel like she could take on the world, like she was on top of the world. Natalie must have seen it in her face because she chuckled, pointing her fork at Amelia; “Good, isn’t it? The intensity fades pretty quickly but after a whole meal the warm, happy buzz sticks around for anything up to 48 hours, depending on how well done you like it.”
“What does that mean?” Amelia ask, stuffing another fork full of meat into her mouth. “What have you put IN this?” Anything Amelia could think of that would create such a buzz was highly illegal in most places on the planet. Had Finesse found some new wonder drug out in one of their rainforest explorations?
“The pinker you like it, the longer the buzz lasts. We’re experimenting with cold curing it to try to preserve the buzz, but we haven’t had much success yet.”
Amelia suddenly felt apprehensive.
“You mean this... buzz is from the meat itself, not something you’ve done to it.”
“You could say that, yes...”
Trailing off? Amelia did not like that. She pushed her plate away and looked long and hard at Natalie, trying to ignore the desire to run around the room shouting “yippee!” at the top of her lungs.
“What is it then?”
Natalie grinned. It was a grin that said “there are things I know that you could not possibly imagine.” It disturbed Amelia.
“Darien,” Natalie turned to her assistant who had been standing quietly at her shoulder all through the preceeding conversation, like a giant, mute parrot. “Be a darling and have the source of this yummy meal brought in.”
Darien nodded without saying a word and marched off to the back of he lab. As she watched him slide through a door into what she assumed was a storage area, Amelia pondered her dinner plate. She hated eating fish that still had their heads, she was not in any sort of hurry to meet her dinner’s living cousin.
“Just tell me what it is, Natalie. Enough with the theatrics.”
“No, no,” Natalie waved her fingers in the air, dismissing the idea of getting this over and done with quickly. “We have to do it this way. Now, let me explain to you why we’re coming to you and your wonderful company rather than, say, some of the very up-market restaurants that would pay very handsomely to be able to give their bored millionaire customers this kind of high-inducing meal.”
“All right,” Amelia sighed, picking up her wine glass. “Go on, I’m intrigued; what weight loss properties does this mystery animal produce.”
“This... animal contains no calories.”
Amelia raised an eyebrow; “that’s impossible.”
“Well, it’s a bit of a truth fudge. You see, we’ve found a way to sort of... kill its calories after you’ve eaten it.”
“After?” Had the minds at Finesse started believing their own “we can do anything” hype?
Natalie clapped her hands and almost toppled off her chair as she bounced with delight.
“Wait and see, wait and see. Oh, you will never guess in a million years what we’ve found.”
As she spoke, the door at the back of the room opened and Darien returned, followed by two men wheeling a large dinner cart. Its contents was covered by a white cloth. The whole tableau put her in mind of medics with a gurney. The image did nothing for her appetite.
The cart came to a standstill next to their dinner table and Natalie stood up, taking a corner of the cloth in her hand. As she did so, whatever was under the cloth gave a start and a distinctly human groan.
Amelia felt bile rising in her throat. She suppressed the urge to vomit. Surely even Finesse wouldn't serve up human flesh? Besides, a part of Amelia’s mind whispered, human meat would surely contain calories.
"Now, I know exactly what you're thinking,” Natalie smiled. “But you're completely wrong."
“I damn well better be,” Amelia snapped. “Why is it moving?!”
“Now, keep calm. This is something wholly new to us. You’ll be shocked at first, I know,” she said, rolling her eyes as though talking to a child for the first time about where lamb chops come from. “Trust me though, this is going to change the world. The knowledge that this... thing exists is going to change the world.”
Amelia responded with an accusatory glare; “just get on with it.”
“Okay, okay. Just don’t react until you’ve heard me out, all right? It’s NOT human.”
Before Amelia could question her final statement, Natalie pulled the white cover from the cart, revealing what could only be described as a male human form, horribly mutilated, barely conscious and gagged. His hands had been removed, perhaps long ago because the skin had healed. He had no legs either; they had been cut off at the groin. The open wounds oozed viscous blood, clotted and dark. Its chest was a gaping hole, many of the ribs had been removed leaving the lungs exposed to the world. The diaphragm moved up and down but without the vacuum of the chest cavity the lungs did not move. The heart was also still, a shrivelled mass of dead muscle.
Yet the man was clearly alive. He writhed in his agony, fear and loathing playing across his face as Natalie grinned down at him.
Amelia’s hands flew to her mouth. Too late, the few meagre pieces of food she’d just eaten erupted onto the floor at her feet.
“Are you insane!?” she coughed, glaring at Natalie as she wiped her mouth. The sales rep seemed unphased by the vomit and the accusation alike.
“I told you, it’s not human,” Natalie shrugged. “It just looks human. Now, darling, pull yourself together so that I can explain.”
Amelia stared at the man’s face... the thing’s face, she corrected herself. She was doing her damnedest to keep her professional demeanour in place, to process and accept what Natalie was telling her as truth, in face of what were to her obvious facts.
“Well shoot,” Amelia said, her voice shaking. “Before I throw up again.”
“Its a vampire.”
Amelia blinked. Natalie had said this as naturally as she might state what colour lipstick she was wearing. It took Amelia completely by surprise.
“Don’t... don’t be absurd,” yet Amelia found herself attaching to the idea immediately.
“It’s the truth. Don’t ask me how we found out about them. I don’t have those particular details. The fact of the matter is that we did. We found these bastards and we’ve found a use for them.” Natalie was in full marketing PR swing now, and Amelia let herself get carried along by the gusto. “For centuries, millenia, these things have been killing people. They’ve been feeding on us! They’ve kept their existence secret, allowing us to think that they’re nothing but myth and legend. The perfect ruse! But we discovered that they DO exist, and now it’s our turn!”
“Our turn?” Amelia glanced at her dinner plate, she had an idea of where Natalie was going.
“It took some chemical and physical wrangling by our scientists and biological engineers, not to mention our chefs but we worked out how to cut up and cook these things without ruining the meat. It seems vampire flesh isn’t very flame compatible, if you get what I mean.”
Amelia nodded, scenes from horror films running through her mind.
“That little... zing you get from the meat? Well, we haven’t entirely worked out what that is, but it’s something to do with the vampirism. It’s like a little sip of their strength and energy. We had a slight problem with that to begin with. Most of the er... zing is in the blood. That’s why the steak has to be no more than medium rare. Too much blood and you get, erm, too connected to them.”
“Like Renfield?” The sorry creature on the cart didn’t seem to possess the charisma and prowess of The Count.
“The little worm in Dracula? Yes, exactly!”
“But not enough blood and there’s no zing,” Amelia was warming quickly to this idea, and Natalie’s lingo. She thought it was too quickly, but tried to ignore it. She either accepted what was happening or she went mad. Acceptance seemed a better option.
“You got it.”
“All right," Amelia rubbed her eyes and tugged at her hair as she set her thoughts in order. “So you found vampires and worked out we could eat them. Vive la Revolucion or something. But why come to us?”
“Oh, that’s the best bit! We came to RemCorp because you specialise in weight loss aids.”
“I don’t follow...”
Natalie turned to one of the men who had wheeled the cart in; “show her.”
He nodded, took a long, tapered piece of wood from his belt and stood over the cart. The vampire writhed, straining to look at Natalie and then Amelia. She saw his fear, heard his muffled please as he fought through the fog of his pain. Her stomach turned again and she felt a stab in her heart.
Vampire, she reminded herself. Monstrous killing machine. Hunter of humans. She forced herself to think of all the bestial vampires from fiction; the animals that live only for the kill, to terrorise and hurt.
The technician raised his arm and brought the stake down on the vampires chest. A small flame erupted from its heart, high enough to poke out of its chest cavity. The vampire screamed and the flame spread rapidly across its skin, reducing it to ash as if it had been made of tissue paper.
Amelia stared at the smoldering grey pile, transfixed by the remaining tiny dots of orange as the vampire’s pained, almost canine howl looped itself through her mind. She would never be able to un-hear that sound.
“Amelia, darling?” Natalie stepped between her and the cart, pointing at their dinner table. Amelia followed her fingers and saw, there on the plates, the same glowing embers. “I told you; we found a way to kill the calories AFTER you’ve eaten it!”
It was genius, Amelia had to admit that. Horrifying genius.
“Of course, the logistics of working out when to stake the vampire, to use the movie terminology, are the next problem. We can work on that though.”
Natalie sat back down and the empty cart was wheeled away. Darien removed Amelia’s plate and replaced it with a folder, opened to a page of words that, as she looked at it, refused to stay in place and let her read them.
This was crazy. This would never work. It was gruesome and horrible and cruel. She had seen the vampire pleading with her for his life. He was not just another animal. He was not a cow, stunned and slaughtered quickly and as humanely as possible. He was self aware, he knew what was coming. He had been butchered while alive and awake and then murdered.
She looked up at Natalie, who seemed to understand that Amelia was struggling to accept what had just happened.
“It was a monster, Amelia. It had murdered hundreds, maybe thousands of innocent people. We took vengeance on it. Broiled to perfection vengeance.”
“Just a monster?” Amelia questioned.
“A monster most foul.”
“Can I smoke?”
Natalie looked around the room and then shrugged; “the chefs don’t like it but I think they’ll let this one slide.”
Amelia struggled for a few moments with the cigarette packet, and then her lighter. She took a long, hard drag on the little nicotine stick and stared down at the burning embers as she tapped them onto her side plate.
“Amelia, I can see that you’re struggling with this. Let me say two things; I absolutely promise you that these vampires are not the sexy, romantic types that brood in the dark about the nature of their existence. They are pure killers. Secondly, and I’ll be blunt; your refusal to work with us will simply mean that we will go elsewhere. There is no legislation in place against us using vampires in our food. Hell, as far as we know, we are the only cooperation that is aware of their existence.”
That was the clincher; Amelia’s own feelings could not be put in the way of a deal like this. She had to look at it on behalf of RemCorp. She could do that.
“You think people will accept this?”
“Oh people will accept anything if it’s packaged correctly, if they’re kept distant enough from the inconvenient truth. How many people do you think know what happens in factory farms and Asian sweat shops, yet continue to buy cheap meat and clothes?”
“If this goes wrong, both our companies could be ruined,” Amelia knew she was pushing the revulsion and guilt down into her shoes. This could be the deal of lifetime, if they made it work.
“Darling, isn’t it our jobs to make sure it doesn’t go wrong?”
Amelia picked up the folder, downed another glass of wine and started reading.