FICTION: The Meal by Carl Innes

It was the thirty third such meeting of the New World Hellfire Club. The membership had dwindled over the years to the point where it was only he, Dawson Welch, Dr. Pattel and Mr. and Mrs. Simpson that were active members.  Oh, Clive Lester would pop in intermittently, however he was in such demand as a war correspondent that his visits were few and far between. And in truth his sabbaticals were not so much about gastronomic indulgence, but rather an opportunity for his ego eccentric incessant stories to take centre stage. Tales of daring deeds from the far flung corners of the globe, punctuated only by the occasional mouthful of whatever was on offer. How tedious.

Dawson basted the sweet breads once more with the garlic and sage infused butter and looked out of the window of his kitchen over the elegant manicured gardens, whose maintenance he financed but took no part in. He sighed and let his mind wander back to the glory days of the club. In 1992 there had been twenty two members. Each and every one of the group had been personally vetted by Dawson who had used his extensive wealth to employ the services of reputable private detective agencies. Thus he was able to ensure that all applicants nominated were not undercover police officers, or worse still, investigative journalists.

But that had been at the height of the clubs activities, since then members had drifted away over the years. Many had become fearful of discovery; others lamented the lack of any true gastronomic adventures to be had anymore. Some simply sought out new ways to sate their desire for forbidden indulgences. Whatever the reasons it was now just the four who attended the bi-annual dinner parties that attempted to push back at the constraints of traditionally perceived acceptable dining. But tonight was to be different. Tonight would mark the resurgence for the club, of that Dawson was certain. What he had discovered, what he would be presenting, would be nothing less than legendary.

Dawson smiled to himself as he took the sweet breads from the heat. He turned to the fridge from where he recovered the liver pate that was to be the first course. He painstakingly constructed each of the small plates ensuring that he grated equal amounts of truffle on each. The pureed salsify was settling in the stainless steel warmer. Dawson had tasted the root vegetable that tasted surprisingly like artichoke hearts and found that the infusion of the merest hint of citrus might be required.

Dawson took a deep breath and checked the three tier convection oven. Inside the roasting tray a cornucopia of assorted root vegetables nestled alongside the somewhat conservative portions of layered meat whose skin was now an alluring hue of light brown. Everything would be ready on time. As if on cue the doorbell rang.

As Dawson made his way to the front of the house he paused for a moment to cast an experienced eye over the dining room settings to ensure he had forgotten nothing. Satisfied he made his way to the oversized double oak door and with his normal aplomb opened his home to the guests. “Greetings one and all!”

The club had a long standing tradition of punctuality for numerous reasons and true to form all three of the guests were standing on the threshold. Dr. Pattel nodded in return and smiled tightly at Dawson. The ferret-like eternal academic was hunched over a bottle of something red as if shielding it from the elements. As Dawson stepped to the side allowing entry he wondered why the Doctor even bothered bringing wine anymore. The plebeian fool never spent more than fifty dollars on a bottle and consequently was guilty of almost single-handedly ruining some of their collective dining experiences with his border-line vinegar. The Doctor offered a tepid handshake as he stepped into the hallway. Tess Simpson smiled her caustic smile as she issued Dawson a token kiss on both cheeks. Probably something she’d picked up in Europe on her last sojourn. She looked vaguely surprised. The ravages of plastic surgery were always more evident when she attempted to display any form of emotion. What was she wearing? It was definitely a Marc Jacobs original, but the deep purple dress was obviously intended only for the waif-like heroin inspired models that graced the cat walks, rather than a middle-aged, portly, soft drink magnate’s wife from Boston.

Her husband Neil was a shrewd and calculating man with quick eyes that missed nothing. He was reserved and conservative in both views and oratory. It probably suited his purposes to have such a simple unassuming wife who asked no questions and could barely formulate a thought of her own. Neil was in prime shape for a man of his years, a sure sign thought Dawson, that he was still playing the field. Neil simply nodded at Dawson as he stepped into the house.”Dawson.”

Dawson took the coat from Mrs. Simpson who proceeded to giggle for some unknown reason. Dawson smiled graciously at her inappropriate school girl antics and hung her coat before leading the trio though to the dining hall. Another tradition of the club was that they not be given over to undue conversation before the meal at hand. All rumination and cogitation should be reserved for the dissecting of the culinary offerings. They were after all an exclusive clandestine dining club, not a sewing circle. Dawson had placed himself at the head of the table with the Simpsons at his left and right and with the Doctor to the left of Mrs. Simpson. Once seated the visitors looked obediently at Dawson who smiled contentedly at the faces before him.

” I promised you something special, not purely in terms of gastronomic delight but also in terms of historical relevance. Indeed, not just for our club, but for mankind in general.” Dawson realized he probably looked quite smug but he didn’t particularly care.

Tess gawked, the Doctor wrung his hands and Neil raised a single eyebrow in disbelief, (a technique he’d practiced since viewing a screening of ”Goldfinger” at his local cinema when a boy). “That’s quite a claim old chap”, he said wryly.

“And one I do not make lightly I assure you. Now without further ado I shall begin. Neil would you be so good as to serve the wine while I attend to our meal?”

Neil rose and made his way to the large carvery unit that ran the full length of the dining room where Dawson had left handwritten cards detailing which bottle should be served with which particular course. Neil dutifully read the cards and selected the appropriate bottle.  Dawson himself practically skipped back to the kitchen in anticipation of what was to follow.

As normal the meal would be served and then the guests would attempt to fathom what they had actually eaten.  It was inevitably quite amusing and the reason why Dawson always preferred to be the host. The eclectic array of food served over the years had initially been quite impressive. Lion tartar, an engastration of wild fowl, (beginning with a swan and finishing with a humming bird), and who could forget the live monkey brains? However after a while there were only so many endangered species one could consume let alone actually purchase, given the extent of new world caution and subsequent scrutiny in relation to wildlife in general.

There had of course been the inevitable foray into the world of cannibalism. Dawson had found a young woman on line from Brazil who had willingly parted with one of her legs for a mere ten thousand dollars. Dr. Pattel had performed the amputation at his surgery after hours. Her stabilization and recuperation was conducted at his remote Catskill retreat in upper New York. The plan had almost gone awry when the woman had broken down in tears at the airport before her return flight, when customs officers had asked to look inside her prosthetic leg. The leg itself had been unremarkable in terms of taste and only the knowledge of what the pot roast actually contained titillated the diners in attendance the night in question.

Dawson returned to the dining room with a large silver platter holding four portions of the liver pate. The general consensus was favourable but not enthralling. The sweet breads followed to much acclaim and Dawson’s decision to serve them with a port reduction was much lauded. Then came the roast with root vegetables. The trio took their time with the main course as if they knew it was intended to be a ruse. Their instincts were right of course thought Dawson. But no matter how refined their taste buds, no matter how honed their sense of smell he knew they would never ever guess what they had just eaten.

When the last plate had been cleared away Dawson returned from the kitchen nonchalantly nursing a brandy. His guests were in the midst of deep debate but he could contain himself no longer.

“Well what’s the verdict?” he asked as he sat down at the head of the table.

Neil had actually been making notes during the meal and he referred to his small note book as he spoke.

“We have you on the pate. The Doctor initially thought ostrich but there was a texture I recognized from my travels out east…….it was dolphin liver wasn’t it?

Dawson raised his glass in congratulations and waited for Neil to continue. The Doctor and Tess beamed.

“Now for the sweet breads. A nod to your culinary prowess here. Only the most assured chefs can infuse a degree of subtlety and fragrance into a gamey and coarse liver from a Silverback Gorilla.”

“Bravo.” Dawson took a log sip of his brandy letting the alcohol burn the back of his throat before swallowing as he regarded the others. Neil eventually sat back and tossed his notebook on the table.

The other two diners looked somewhat crestfallen.

“Fine. I’ve no idea.”

Dawson was in his element. Now so close to the revelation he wanted to savour the moment so he pretended to examine the contents of his glass. He allowed the silence to linger.

Tess sat forward again. “Was it parrot?” she asked tentatively.

Neil looked embarrassed as Dawson shook his head. “No my dear Mrs. Simpson it certainly wasn’t parrot.”

The Doctor wanted in on the debate.”Rat! It was Amazonian Swamp Rat wasn’t it?”

Dawson confined his amusement to a brief chuckle.”No Doctor, not rat”.

Neil let out an exaggerated sigh.

Dawson asked innocently,” The verdict?”

“Exquisite” said Neil begrudgingly.

“Succulent and rich but it did taste rather like chicken” gushed Tess apologetically.  Neil rolled his eyes. Dawson looked over at the Doctor.

“Heavenly” said the Doctor meekly.

Dawson eyed the Doctor. ”Indeed” he said before abruptly standing up.” I think I will let the fare speak for itself. If you would be so good as to follow me.”

Dawson turned and walked quickly out of the dining room and the perplexed guests had to hurry to catch up with him. They arrived at his side at the door to the wine cellar which was locked. Dawson produced a solitary key from his waistcoat pocket which he inserted into the lock. Opening the door he took the flashlight from where it was hanging just inside the door. As he descended the steps he motioned to the others. “Follow me but leave the door ajar we need the light. And no excessive noise please”.

The cellar was pitch black and as Dawson reached the bottom he turned on the flashlight. The conventional bulb had been replaced with one of a blue variety. They all stopped on the stairs and as they did they collectively heard the scampering of small feet and the sound of a metal chain being dragged along the ground.

“What is it? Tess asked in a frightened whisper.

Dawson did not answer but let the beam from the flashlight search the gloom. In the far corner the beam hit something small that seemed to recoil from the light. With the movement came the sound of dragging chains once more. Then there was a shrill squeal that cut the moment causing all present to flinch.

Dawson sighed, ‘It’s caught up again”. He turned to Neil passing him the flashlight. “Hold it steady for me would you?”

Neil tried to track ahead of Dawson as he walked into the gloom. After a few steps he bent down and on the ground was part of a long chain which had become hinged on an exposed beam. When he unhooked the chain he did not let it fall to the ground but instead held it at waist height, so that it angled down to

whatever was chained at the other end. Neil instinctively tracked the torch along the chain and there a few feet away from Dawson was the captive. The chain was connected to a metal collar that had been placed around the throat of a small creature that was sitting on its haunches, huddled over; it’s back to the group. The thing was fleshy and small, it appeared to have limbs and there were two perpendicular fresh scars on its back, the only apparent blemishes on the whole body. Whatever it was slowly turned its head slightly looking over its shoulder fearfully and in doing so revealed a shock of curly hair and two doleful eyes.

“MY GOD IT’S A CHILD! Shrieked Tess.

“Christ Dawson what have you done?” questioned Neil hoarsely as he placed a protective arm around his wife.

Dawson tuned to face his accusers looking decidedly bored despite the panic in the air. “It’s not a child for god’s sake. Let’s ask the expert.  Doctor?”

Dawson turned and once again and concentrated the beam onto the small being at the end of the chain. The Doctor who had been standing on the bottom step started moving towards Dawson. He took the flashlight from Dawson’s hand and went right up to the creature that was now curled up once more. The Doctor shone the beam over the creature’s back and began a cursory examination. The flesh was bounteous; obviously the creature was not malnourished. The being, he estimated was must be about the size of an average two year old. The tight locks of what appeared to be sandy blonde hair stopped at the nape of the neck. There were the two scars that ran either side of the spine starting just below the hairline and ran for about five inches. Although fairly recent the scars looked healthy enough with good oxygenation and no sign of infection.

The Doctor tuned to Dawson, “I need to see the front”.

Dawson obliged the Doctor by stepping forward and raising the chain he was holding to chest height. This resulted in the creature being partially lifted from the ground. As it happened the creature let out a little squeal and brought its hands to the collar in an attempt to relieve the pressure. The creature began to turn around to face the group. Another squeal! This time from Tess who sank into her husband’s embrace even further.

The creature did indeed resemble a small chubby child. Plump cheeks with folds of flesh echoing through the arms and legs. But the face told a different story, although young in appearance there was something about the eyes. Large, almost to the point of being caricature in nature. Deep blue, innocent and yet at the same time, ancient. And then there were the nether regions. Where the sexual organs of one particular type should have been there was nothing. The skin in the groin was as smooth and unblemished as a doll’s.

Even from the steps Neil could see the strange creature as it balanced on tip toes to prevent itself from choking. “What the hell is it? A dwarf? A hermaphrodite?” he sounded disgusted.

The Doctor was obviously enthralled. “No you are wrong on both counts. No evidence of dwarfism and for the record hermaphrodites display sexual characteristics of both male and female genitalia. Whereas this poor unfortunate creature has neither.” He paused momentarily as he continued his visual examination, “Humanoid yes, human……..no. “

Silence fell over the occupants of the wine cellar as they watched the small gasping being revolving slowly at the end of the chain. Eventually the Doctor looked back to Dawson, “I take it you are aware of this things origins?”

Dawson smiled, “Of course.”

He maintained the creature’s plight as he began his narrative. “Do you remember earlier this year when my mother fell ill?”

The Doctor nodded. “The tumor…… turned out to be benign”.

Dawson nodded,” Exactly. However before we received the results my mother was struck with a case of good old Catholic guilt. Hadn’t stepped inside a church for thirty years but now wanted to make amends with the big guy upstairs. She went back to church the next day to begin to make a case for herself in case the news was going to be bad. And thanks to the notion being planted by the new priest down at Saint Anthony’s I found myself on a last minute trip to the shrine of Our Lady of Good Hope, in Champion.”

“Wisconsin?” The Doctor asked quizzically.

“Exactly. Apparently the Virgin Mary appeared to some Belgian immigrant back in 1859, blah blah blah. Anyway the water spring at the site is supposed to have recuperative properties. Miraculous recuperative properties”.

“Hence the trip” interjected the Doctor.

“Yes indeed. So as a dutiful son I booked my mother on this last minute trip and two days later my mother lined up with countless other wretched individuals to drink the waters in the hope of some divine intervention.”

The creature was looking a little worse for wear so Dawson let a little bit more of the chain out briefly but then reapplied the tension.

“The line up to drink the waters at the shrine was over two hours long so I left my mother and went for a walk up the hill the far side of the shrine. I was about a mile away when I heard a squawking from up in a nearby tree. And there was this fellow caught up in some wire in the tree hanging upside down.”

Neil was growing impatient, “I still don’t get it. What are you saying? What has this to do with the meal tonight?”

Dawson looked at the Doctor who had been nodding gently throughout the story. “Care to hazard a guess Doctor?”

The Doctor now knelt and took out a pen from his jacket pocket. He used the pen to touch the skin on the back of the creature and pressed gently around the scars. “Recent evidence of the removal of small appendages. You removed them. What were they?” The Doctor turned to Dawson.

Dawson smiled widely. “How did you describe the last course Doctor? Do you remember?”

The Doctor looked bemused. “Heavenly?”

Dawson nodded. “Exactly” he whispered dramatically.

The Doctor stood looking stunned. “They were wings weren’t they? You served us the wings from this….this thing…..”

“This isn’t a thing” admonished Dawson. “It’s…….”

“An angel?” asked the Doctor.

Dawson chuckled. “Close but no cigar.”

The Doctor was enthralled. “It’s a cherub…a cherub isn’t it?”

Dawson nodded. “Yes, from what I gather after fairly extensive research this is indeed a cherub”.

Neil was furious. “You served us the wings from a heavenly creature are you nuts?”

Dawson was about to answer when the Doctor chimed in again. “How on earth did you get it back?”

“Told my mother I couldn’t fly and I would need to drive back as I had a middle ear infection and the pressure would be awful. Returned to the tree that night and the thing was still caught up. Popped it into my suitcase and into the trunk of the car. Didn’t take it out the whole way back. Risky? Only a little.

Neil was incredulous. ‘And it didn’t die? It didn’t suffocate?”

“I don’t think it can die’, mused Dawson. “Let’s just say I’ve experimented since I got it back…..and I’m pretty sure it’s immortal.”

“Christ” said Neil.

“Yes indeed” replied Dawson.

“Aren’t you afraid? Of repercussions? God if it’s an angel then you’ve damned yourself! Christ man you’ve damned all of us.”

Tess fainted into the arms of her husband who none too gently lowered her onto the steps as she recovered. Dawson now seemed exasperated. “Don’t you think I’ve thought of all this? This little chap had flown into some wires near the shrine and then crashed into a tree. Perhaps all the shrines have cherubs around them that aren’t normally seen by humans but this chap is either the worst cherub ever to don a set a wings or, as I tend to believe, he’s been cast out.”

“Cast out?” repeated Neil.

“Yes. My theological studies have unearthed a great deal about this type of thing. If they fall out of favour with the boss they get cast out and then they are pretty much on their own. There is no record of any fallen angels having ever been readmitted to heaven. For us to actually to be able to see him and then to have him floundering about in a tree is ridiculous. My guess is that whatever he did was of such magnitude that God no longer wants him and doesn’t particularly care what happens to him. Yes, he has been cast out.”

Tess had come to and had been listening while sitting on the steps. “Flown? Wings? Where are they now? Oh my god! That’s….” Tess leaned forward and threw up. A disgusted Neil sidestepped her and came to where Dawson and the Doctor were standing.

Neil was more composed now. “So you rescued this little bugger only to kidnap him, then smuggled him out of state, tortured him and then chopped off his wings and fed them to us? Correct?”

“Not quite” said Dawson.

“How so?”

“This isn’t the first time I removed its wings.”

“What? They grew back?”

“Yes, and relatively quickly. Doctor?”

The Doctor knelt back down to examine the cherub’s back. He put the torch close to the scars. “You’re right, there appears to be evidence of cartilage pushing through the wound. Is that what happened last time?

Dawson was getting tired of holding the chain and handed it to Neil who smiled widely as he took control.

“Yes. Within two weeks the re-growth was complete. I had no idea it would happen. But you do realize what this means?”

Neil was already nodding and grinning inanely. “You can serve up angel wings every two weeks. You can charge a fortune to anyone who wants to partake.” Neil laughed. “My god man you‘ll have the depraved from around the world knocking down your door. It’s brilliant!”

Dawson attempted a degree of modesty. “Obviously there are many details to consider but I thought we’d reach out initially to our old friends in Juarez. They have deep pockets and many connections. Anyway let’s go back upstairs and share a tipple, we need to brain storm.”

Dawson and the Doctor began to turn towards the stairs. Neil held on to the chain and stared at the cherub who again had his back to the other occupants of the cellar. Neil finally gave the chain a malicious tug before letting it drop to the ground.  On the way up the stairs Neil helped his wife to her feet as he followed Dawson and the Doctor who were already chatting away. When the door shut and darkness reclaimed the basement the cherub stood and began to weep for the first time in its existence. The cherub had not wanted to cry. The cherub wiped its eyes and stood in the darkness holding back further tears. But it was too late. Suddenly the thunderous beating of mighty wings began to resonate throughout the vast house as Gabriel arrived and began to seek out his brother.

Carl Innes

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“Born and raised in Herefordshire,  Carl Innes is a former soldier and police officer who now works as a federal correctional officer in Ontario, Canada. A busy family man Carl writes supernatural/horror screen plays and short stories in the dead of night when his personal demons come to visit. Carl lives in hope that he might be successful enough to be able to finish his working life as a writer, and not have to don body armour or a stab proof vest ever again.”

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