Storytime: A Matter of Taste.

June 1st, 2016

“Well I say it’s all about marbling.”
On hearing those words, Hal shrank a little in a small but nourishing part of his soul and knew that the next half-hour in the little diner was going to be very draining indeed.
“Marbling?” Fred snorted – loudly, Fred’s nose could move a lot of air very firmly, and his torso could hold a lot of it in reserve – and pushed back his plate. “Picky, picky, picky! No proper human sits still long enough to develop that kind of fat deposits. Would you eat a ‘marbled’ grasshopper? No! Such things are contrary to the spirit and essence of the-”
“Essentialist!” spat Tina. Literally spat; her teeth had trouble keeping all that vigorous disdain inside the confines of her mouth. “Would you boil down the full diversity of the human experience to a single strip of habits to fit your tastes? Even a hundred thousand years ago there was more variation in habits, customs, and general fattiness in the tender subcutaneous layer than your pitiful imagination would admit!”
“And yet you compare their ideal meat to that of the ideal domestic cattle, an animal specifically born and bred to contain such an over-idealized cut of fat and flesh! You ignore reality in search of decadence!”
“They’re not so bad as far as fat goes,” interjected the man who had been vying with Hal for the title of the quietest of the four; a broad-sided beefwall more chest than anything else. “I mean, if you compare humans to the rest of the primates, they’re clearly among the fattie-”
“See?” demanded Tina, waving his words aside with one hand and pointing with the other. “Gorilla Jim agrees with me!”
The beefwall frowned. “I eat more than g-”
Fred’s nostrils flared once more. “Oh wonderful, you have the least-discerning cannibal of them all on your side. Oh wait; how many people has he eaten again? Actual, real people. One? One –half?”
“I ate my own brother!” shouted Jim.
“Just his heart,” sneered Fred. “That’s more a macho thing than a meal anyways. Really, I’m amazed we let you in here.”
“Elitist,” said Tina.
“Plebe,” said Fred.
“Narrow-minded twits,” said Jim, quietly, so no one would hear him.
“People!” said Hal.
They looked at him.
“It’s all about the people, we agreed on this when we started this club. Yes, we may disagree on the nitty-gritty-”
“Taxonomy above the genus level is NOT ‘nitty-gritty!”
“THE NITTY-GRITTY,” repeated Hal, loudly, “but! But! BUT! We are all united on this one firm principle: human flesh is delicious, and worth eating, and worth discussing.”
“And we’ve done precious little of either for the last six months,” said Tina. “Bickering doesn’t count, and neither do pork chops, no matter how skillfully prepared.”
“Pigs are intelligent animals,” said Jim. “Better this than chicken.”
“Whatever you say, Gorilla Jim.”
“I eat more than go-”
“Let’sEatJeff” said Hal.
They looked at him.
“Pardon?” said Fred eventually.
“Let’s eat Jeff.”

Hal wrote ahead, of course. It would’ve been rude to do otherwise.
And Jeff phoned back to confirm, of course. It would’ve been unpunctual to do otherwise.
“So, how’s the wife?” asked Jeff.
“Don’t have one, Jeff.”
“Oh! Right, right, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. How’s the husband?”
“I’ve never been married to anyone at all, Jeff.”
“Oh! Blast it. I’m very sorry, you know.”
“I know, Jeff.”
“So, how about that weather?”
“It sure is.”
“Right on the money.”
“So, we’re thinking of a honey glaze.”
“Although Jim suggested applesauce.”
“Really? How unorthodox.”
“It’s the pork chops at the diner. He’s gotten a taste for i-”
“Oh, right, Gorilla Jim. That explains it.”
“He eats more than gor-”
“But the fact remains that I don’t give much of a twig for your prep methods, Hal. I trust you lot implicitly. My concerns are a little more… fundamental.”
“Such as?”
There was a sigh down the line, full of dust and worn-out alveoli. “I’m seventy-five, Hal. I’m not quite the prize I used to be. Even if you marinade me down to tenderness there’s no GAME in it, Hal, there’s no SPORT. Why, I couldn’t put up a fight against a gradeschooler these days, let alone you four strapping young things. That’s what, half the fun gone to pot? Two-thirds?”
Hal frowned.
“There, you see? I knew you’d recognize the predicament we’re in.”
“How about a proxy?”
There was silence from the other end of the line.
“No, no, it’s quite all right, I was just thinking. And you know what? I think you’re right. A proxy! Spot on. My choice, of course?”
“Absolutely. You know more of the community anyways.”
“Yes, yes I do. You know, I think my brother Reggie might know just the one for this. Plenty of fine young things under him who’d be game for a shot at your troop under fair rules.”
Hal grinned.

They assembled that Thursday at dawn outside Jeff’s estate, loaded for bear.
“Jeff,” said Fred.
“It’s an expression,” said Tina.
“I’ll have no truck with nonsense regardless of its pedigree,” said Fred. “If I were loaded for bear I’d be carrying something much bigger than a garrote and a plastic bag.”
“I’d expect something less clumsy and manual, with that talk.”
Fred looked down – or rather over – his nose at her with some difficulty. “SOME of us,” he said, ”never had the money for a license.”
“Convicted of petty theft, more likely. Tell me, what was it? Twinkies? Or are you more of an Oreos man?”
Hal cleared his throat in what he hoped was a diplomatic manner. “We’re all pretty heavily armed at the moment – in a variety of ways – and maybe we should put any… personal differences on hold while that’s the case.”
“Not Gorilla Jim. What’d you bring, anyways?”
Jim looked hurt. “I’ve got my knife, and you know I wrestle. And I told you, I eat more than gori-”
“Right, right. You never stop telling that story about the chimpanzee, you know.”
“It was a genuine accomplishment! You have any idea how much stronger they are than us?”
“It could be Andre the giant and Hulk Hogan’s offspring; if it’s half your weight I’m still not impressed.”
“For your information the proportion of muscle to fat and bone in an adult male chimpanzee by weight is EXTREMELY-”
Hal swung open the gate to Jeff’s estate, then swung it closed, then open, then closed again, drowning any and all possible words in a sea of endless creaks and wails.
“All done?” he asked brightly. “All done! Right! Let’s go get Jeff.”

They fanned out into the bushes in whatever semblance of stealth each possessed. Hal was lightfooted; Tina and Jim soundless, Fred a silent thunder.
“Call in,” breathed Hal.
“Nothing yet,” whispered Jim. “Tina?”
“All quiet over here. Fred?”
“I’m FINE.”
“Sure. Any sign of him?”
Fred sighed at full length.
“Oh for shit’s sake,” said Tina.
“Answer. The. Question.”
“Fred?” asked Hal.
There was a muffled thud.
It took two minutes of circling to find Fred. The back of his neck, however, was still missing.
Jim prodded it gingerly. “Snapped clean.”
“You call that clean?” said Tina. “For a job with steak knives, maybe!”
“Relatively,” said Jim.
A branch snapped near them.
“Was that you, Hal.”
“Was that you, Jim.”
“That was him, then.” Tina cocked her pistol needlessly. “Get ‘im.”
They rushed the nearby bushes and grappled in hand to hand combat for thirty seconds before realizing they’d grabbed each other.
“Where is he? Is that him?”
“That’s me. Is this him?”
“That’s ME. Is this him?”
“That’s Hal.”
“Sorry,” said Hal.
“Shut up,” said Tina. She squinted at the woodlands. “Where the hell’d this guy come from? He got Fred! From behind! You can’t sneak up on Fred, he has the biggest personal space bubble I’ve ever seen in a human being! WHO IS HE?”
Hal shook his head and found he couldn’t stop. “Reginald,” he blurted out. “Jeff – I remember this, I remember it now – he told me once his brother Reginald had a-”
“What’s he run, a green beret training academy?!”
Hal wracked what was left of his sanity for a reply. “A zoo, I think,” he said oddly.
“A zoo,” said Jim.
“Yes and plenty of the younger keepers are very fit and I guess when he said he’d ask Reggie I just assumed that-”
“A zoo,” said Tina.
“I suppose so ahahahaha but really that’s not-”
“You idiot, are you telling me you signed us all up to be EATEN BY A LION?!”
Jim squinted into the trees. “A tiger, probably,” he said. “They’re more comfortable hunting alone, and I doubt he’d be able to spirit away more than one animal from its exhibit for any real length of-”
“Shut up, Gorilla Jim.”
“I eat more than-”
“GorillasGorillasGorillasGorillasGORILLAS” shouted Tina. “Now, here’s the plan, since Fearless Leader here has turned into seven pounds of jelly in a four-pound bag: we stick together, back to back, and we make for the house. If it can’t see a weak spot it’ll stick its distance – they’re scared of humans – and there’s no way in hell Jeff’ll be able to take us once we’re indoors.”
“Are you sure it’s scared of humans?” asked Jim.
“It’s a wild animal. Of course it is, they’re all nervous and shy around things they don’t understand.”
“It’s a zoo animal,” said Jim. “It’s spent its entire life surrounded by us. I’d say it’d be pretty relaxed. And if he was comfortable siccing it on us, I’d say he picked one that’d had issues with its handlers before. So it knows it can hurt us.”
They stood there for a moment, and it seemed like the forest got just a little bit quieter as they listened.
A leaf landed on Hal’s shoulder. He flinched as if shot.
“Run,” commanded Jim.
“Run,” agreed Tina.
“Run?” queried Hal, who was already halfway down the path to the house.

The screen door slammed open and shut twice in rapid succession.
“You tried to lock me out,” said Jim accusingly.
“I panicked,” said Hal. “And besides, it’s a screen door and it’s a tiger.”
Jim gave him a pained look. “I know, but I’m trying to pretend otherwise.”
“Where’s Tina.”
Jim opened the door. “TINA?” he yelled. Leaves swirled.
He shrugged and shut it again.
Hal slumped a little further against the wall. “Do you think it’s full now?” he asked hopefully.
“Killing spree, more like it,” said Jim. “I’ve heard of this, but it’s usually not very well documented, happens in the middle of nowhere in places with bad records. It’s pretty amazing to watch, really.”
“Couldn’t agree more,” said Jeff happily.
They turned around.
Jeff smiled at them. He had an extremely large glass of expensive fluids in one hand and a friendly wave in the other and a large, aesthetically-pleasing sort of balcony beneath him that put about fifteen feet between the top of Hal’s head and the start of its railings. It had a gorgeous view of the grounds and the verandah and no obvious way up.
“Couldn’t resist the urge to get a good view of the proceedings,” he admitted. “Good job the lady didn’t make it, eh? I’d look a vain old fool standing here with a bullet hole plugged in me.” He slapped his knee and made a hearty wheezing laugh.
“You’re looking really good,” said Hal, ceding full control of his mouth to whatever entered his head.
“Amazing what a little show does for your nerves,” said Jim. “I mean, last weekend I was practically bedridden but whoops! One little phone call from you, a little action right now, and my goodness! I could just about go for a run now, you know?”
Hal glanced over his shoulder at Jim. The other man was leaning against the wall next to the screen door, sniffing occasionally and twitching his eyelids at the outdoors. He shrugged.
“His name’s Tony,” said Jeff.
Hal turned back again. “Pardon?”
“The tiger. His name’s Tony. You see, there was a contest to name him, and well, all the schoolchildren were writing in, and you know how kids are. Alliteration and commercials: catnip for the little buggers.”
Hal laughed.
“I’m sorry?”
“Catnip. I just thought it was funny, that’s all.”
“Oh, I see. Yes, it’s striking the effects this sort of situation can have on your sense of humour. Did I ever tell you about the time I was locked in a meat locker with Big David Daniels thirty years back with only a sharpened toothbrush? I was so busy looking for him I walked into a frozen cow carcass and lordy, I broke down laughing so hard he couldn’t help but join in. Bad move: I recovered first and got him in the ribs.”
“Amazing,” said Hal.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say THAT. But it was a lovely kill. Got some good spareribs off the man, too. Had a good chest.” Jeff peered critically at Jim, still lurking near the screen door. “I hope he fills up on you two. No offense, but you’re awfully stringy and Jim here’s as tender as a plank.”
“What’d you do to it?” asked Hal, with a certain aimless curiosity that he was beginning to suspect was endemic to those about to die.
“Me? Surprisingly little, my boy. He was a good cat for years – napped in the sun, played in the water, ignored the cameras – and I suppose someone threw one pebble too many at him from atop that wall surrounding their pit. Vaulted the fence, vaulted the wall, mauled the latest (and last) offender, paced in circles around the corpse until the tranquilizers came. Reggie put in a good argument for his life, the poor old soul, but he was going to lose. Fortunate timing, really – as far as anyone else knows, this lucky lad is currently breathing his last in an extremely potent lungful of ethers. This is a bit more of a holiday for him, eh? One last hurrah for the old sod.” Jeff sucked in his cheeks and puffed out his moustache a little. “Do you reckon he’s imagining you as all those lousy little children that threw pebbles and peanuts? I suspect there’s not a great deal of difference in size from his perspective. His own is considerable, of course, and I mean really what’s about eighty pounds here or there when you’re closer to a quarter ton than not.” He nodded down at Hal happily, as if inviting him to give his own theories.
Hal swayed on his feet. He wondered if he was imagining the smell of blood or if that was starting to seep out of him now that he’d run out of urine. He opened his mouth and something asked the question: “What kind of tiger?”
“Ask him,” said Jeff. He nodded again, and this time Hal realized not at him at all.
He turned around.
Jim was still there. The screen door wasn’t. The latter was dangling from its hinges; the former dangling from Tony’s mouth.
Siberian, a random bit of his brain that was still six years old told him. The largest living cat.
The colours were surprisingly vivid. Bold orange. Pitch black. A shockingly pale white neck and belly.
Except for the eyes, which were a very mild and washed-out sort of yellow, and which were both boring through Hal’s skin and into the smallest and most rodent-like portions of his soul like a heated gimlet.
“Good show!” said Jeff heartily. And the cat moved.

It was only just as Tony began to leap – muscles uncoiling under his skin like giant springs – that Hal realized his mistake; Tony wasn’t looking at him at all, Tony was looking THROUGH him at –
He ducked. Or rather, collapsed very quickly, and watched over four hundred pounds of fur and teeth and claws and general sharp edges flow by, passing just over the tip of his nose like a beautifully-painted freight train and up up up UP.
Much of what happened next Hal inferred later, from the sounds jangled nerves had hesitantly suggested to be true as they echoed in ears that were more or less going entirely unnoticed at the time. But from what he tentatively guessed, Tony had vaulted his third and final wall.

That was all later, of course. After he’d made it to his car, considered phoning the police before remembering all the discarded weaponry they’d left strewn over Jeff’s grounds, made it home, thrown up four times, and had the longest bath of his life.
He closed his eyes and wondered how long tigers could live on four human bodies, two of which were mostly muscle or wrinkled skin. He wondered how far they could track human scent. He wondered if they held grudges – then he remembered the look Tony had given Jeff, standing above him, behind a fence and instead he wondered if they deliberately HUNTED DOWN grudges.
Then he forced it all out of his mind and stood up.
He had a lot to do. Posters to put up. Pamphlets to put out. Discreet enquiries to make. Phone calls to fill with euphemisms.
By god, whatever else this day was, it would NOT be the end of the North American chapter of the Human Taste club, least of all at the hands – paws – of a creature that wasn’t even sophisticated enough to kill solely for food.

In the end he did concede to marketing though, and put Tony on the pamphlets.

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