The Dinner Guest
by D. J. Burnham
|Table of Contents|
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
‘Great, bring it on,’ Tim started to regain his customary confidence. ‘Still can’t quite believe I’m actually here.’
Raznah poured them both a glass of white wine, placed the bottle on the cool marble, and proposed a toast, ‘To the love of food.’ ‘To the love of food,’ Tim repeated, clinking glasses with Raznah and studying the label on the bottle. It was a vintage Chassagne-Montrachet. He put the bottle back down again, very carefully. ‘Good grief. I’ve heard of this stuff, but never tasted it.’ He took another, less greedy, sip. ‘This is incredibly generous of you Raznah. Thank you.’ ‘Ah, I am pleased that you like it. Now, let us begin,’
The feast commenced, with a succession of coloured bowls and plates being placed on the, rapidly reducing, table space between them. It was an array of sumptuous and exotic creations, mouthwatering aromas, and stunning presentation.
As was the Palochlid custom, they shared everything, for a communal experience. Larger and smaller appetites being controlled by the diners themselves, such that nothing was wasted (a legacy of the lean post-war years), but giving everyone the opportunity to appreciate the range of subtleties in the meal.
As instructed, Tim responded to each taste sensation, with Raznah matching his choice so that he could follow his comments and reactions, whilst simultaneously enjoying what the young man was, making notes as they went along. Raznah learnt what was acceptable to the human palate and what was not, as well as which combinations elicited the most positive responses. Several hours later they both sat back in their seats, completing the experience with a 1973 Château de Laubade Armagnac. Tim’s eyes flickered shut and his head lolled a few times, before he slid onto the floor, unconscious. Raznah swirled the spirit around the large glass bowl thoughtfully, and steadily drained the contents.
Standing up, he pushed back his chair and casually walked around the table, knelt next to the collapsed form of the human, and checked for a pulse. The Palochlid systematically cleared the solid marble table of its plates, bowls, dishes and glasses. Wiped it over thoroughly with an alcohol-based disinfectant, and then heaved the body up onto the surface.
Tik’s investigation had led him to a third planet, on which a similar missing person’s report had been filed, then to a fourth and a fifth. By steady investigation and varying degrees of assistance from the local police experts, he was starting to recognise a pattern. In each case there was no explanation for the individual’s vanishing, and although the fifth planet had an unprecedented number of murders (compared to the same time period on the preceding three).
Tik was developing an instinct for the type of case which matched the others. The emerging pattern was one of chronology. As he headed away from Thallia, the timing of each successive case of sudden disappearance was a month or two nearer to the present year. It was as if he’d found himself in the wake of some invisible force.
Being careful not to fall into the trap of making results fit a theory, he plotted an extrapolated course, and contacted the law enforcing authority of any planets which came near to the resulting trajectory. Ensuring that any likely cases fell rigidly within the strict parameters which he had been developing, it seemed that his theory was holding water. Leapfrogging from one destination to the next, he set off in pursuit, but of precisely what or whom, he had no idea.
Raznah hung the corpse by its ankles and bled it into a metal bucket, which he then poured into a large, flat pan, blended it with milk, oatmeal, cooked barley, plus a little mint and suet, and baked the mixture for later consumption. He burnt off the hair and set about sectioning the body, referring to a digital projection of human anatomy on the kitchen wall, as he went along. Organs were placed in a refrigerator, to be used in the next few days, the rest was methodically butchered and placed in cold storage; except for a small section of muscle which, being unable to resist, he ate there and then as sushi, with a sesame and soy dipping sauce.
One good swing with a heavy cleaver and the calvarium sliced off like a coconut top, the brain deftly scooped out and wrapped in something akin to cling film, and stored in the refrigerator. He extracted the marrow, and finally the powdered nails, teeth and bones were poured into screw-top containers (he’d read about something called a “bone meal,” and although it didn’t sound very promising he’d give it a go).
Having wiped down the marble butchering slab and generally cleaned up the kitchen area, he set his personal access codes on the refrigeration and cold storage units containing the results of his labours. The young man’s clothes were incinerated and any residual metal objects, such as zips, coins, keys and the like, were melted down into a rough-cast ingot, which he would fashion into a new utensil on the next flight. Raznah retired to his quarters and slept deeply.
The young human had been killed by a mixture of natural poisons, many of which Raznah had first tested on himself, in order to ensure that he would be impervious to their effects. Many caused him no problem at all, but with a few he built an immunity by gradually increased doses in the two weeks preceding the meal, and with other more dangerous ones he’d identified natural antidotes, which he had taken earlier on that evening.
From several of the colossal number of deliveries from the Earth companies, he had carefully requested one natural poison, hidden within a range of similar requests, from selected suppliers. The result was to obtain just one potentially dangerous item per batch and only one per company, cleverly staggered, so as not to arouse suspicion.
His research had enabled him to gather a carefully orchestrated collection of agents, which would build into a cocktail, lethal to human physiology, when added to the dishes intended for his quarry. Amongst them were deadly nightshade, a concentrate of crushed apple and bitter almond pips, bryony and yew berries, hemlock, hellebore, death cap and fly agaric.
Raznah was no ogre — not in the cruel sense of the word — he was a fan of well conducted animal husbandry, and for him this included the manner in which the animal was dispatched. He didn’t want his fabulously sensitive palate to be tainted by meat corrupted with the wretched flavours of stress and adrenaline. The poisonous concoctions were set at precise levels, designed to gradually induce a deep euphoria, followed by the gentle, but insidious onset of a coma, and then a painless death.
The studio audience buzzed with excitement as the lights dimmed, and greeted Raznah’s entrance onto the stage with tumultuous applause. It was the third show to be recorded and he was really getting into the swing of it, the stage kitchen being a smaller, but no less familiar version of his main one. He was a natural showman, juggling the food like a drummer might twirl his sticks, as he prepared the meals. He drew attention to his four arms with puns like, ‘I always find it useful to have an extra pair of hands in the kitchen.’ With a mixture of witticisms, the emulation of animal noises to match the ingredients, and regular bursts of flambé, this was a highly polished act. The human audience adored him.
Those who saw beyond all the razzmatazz were fascinated by the intimidating array of alien utensils, in awe of the sheer grace and breath-taking speed of his finely honed moves, as his hands became a blur. Naturally he had practised and rehearsed each show, but his economy of movement, style, confidence and speed, made it beautiful to behold. A master craftsman to the casual viewer, a demigod to those in the trade.
Each evening, after filming, Raznah would return to his main kitchen and experiment with new recipes, the likes of which no other living creature would ever get to see or taste. For the first meal he cooked some of the meat very simply. Raznah was convinced that his gustatory powers were so elevated that (although the animal protein which the young man had eaten in recent years had been broken down into complex amino acids, before being rebuilt to configure his own flesh) he could taste the trace of a ghost of their source.
Perhaps rather fancifully, he reckoned that he could detect elements of chicken, beef, fish and even a few nuts and pulses. He didn’t dwell on it for long, but chuckled to himself at the irony of the human expression, “You are what you eat.” If this was indeed the case, then he probably had one of the most complex set of body proteins in the universe, such was his prodigious consumption.
In the first few years if his travels, the beings he encountered were not that dissimilar to his own, so thoughts of banqueting on them hadn’t even occurred. However, the further out he travelled, and so each new planet’s dominant species diversified further from his own, a subconscious desire to taste these strange meats grew, until, eventually, it became a conscious hunger. As they bore little or no resemblance to the Palochlids, the possibility of sampling such a food no longer carried a weighty moral penalty.
Finally he encountered a race which simply looked rather tasty, and his latent culinary drive was translated into action. It was a further eight planets before it happened again. By the time he reached Earth, he had come to regard the consumption of a carefully selected member of the host world’s society to be as much a part of the integral experience as all of the other wonderful comestibles that were on offer.
He had become an intergalactic gourmet, in an ultimate sense, although the true extent of his qualifications would remain a secret to him alone. With the immense periods of space travel involved between planets, and the spread of his epicurean celebrity, the newsmen on Earth had appropriated the term “Gastronaut” in relation to any mention of Raznah, in the media frenzy that heralded his arrival.
As the weeks passed, he gradually worked his way through the illicit provisions. He tried some thinly sliced steamed brain, fried with onions and garam massala, served with lemon peel. Feet, braised in vinegar, then baked in barbecue sauce. He had devilled kidneys for breakfast, heart baked with herbs and vegetables in red wine and served with horseradish sauce, glazed liver with an apple and port chutney, and Hungarian-style poached lung. He even had a go at simmering the ears in ginger, finely slicing them, and tossing them in a salad with some plum sauce.
After the first week he noticed an itching sensation develop on his arms and legs, gradually spreading to his entire body. Creams from the medpack seemed to subdue it, but by the second week he was breaking out in angry-looking blotches and weals, and dyspnoea set in.
A week after the end of filming, Raznah ate the last of his supplies. Then he settled in front of the thoughtfully provided MultiMed Home Entertainment Unit, to watch the first public broadcast of his show. As the closing credits rolled, his already compromised breathing became increasingly stertorous. In moments he was gasping for breath, he clutched at his throat and struggled back into the kitchen, he reached out desperately for the direct line hook-up com’ to his assistants. He never made it.
The very thing that had been implanted to protect him against Earth pathogens had, ultimately, been his undoing. The converter-tissue implant had been bioengineered to transform stem cells into specifically tuned lymphocytes, which would react with even the merest traces of hostile antigens in his system. The daily consumption of his victim, over the course of several weeks, had stimulated huge numbers of lymphocytes to become plasma cells and, in turn, to produce escalating quantities of Immunoglobulin E. Put simply, he’d become allergic to human flesh and had reached the point at which the reaction had caused fatal anaphylaxis.
Tik clambered off yet another uncomfortable, smelly transport ship, heaving his battered bag over his shoulder (filled with more case note back-up datagels from the past seven years, than personal effects) and determinedly trudged through immigration control, lurching slightly from the cumulative effects of space sickness and ship-lag, sick to the stomach with the disorientation that accompanied prolonged star-drive. Collapsing on an acutely uncomfortable human bed, in a sleazy hotel adjacent to the central police offices, he turned on the basic ent-unit, to see where he’d washed up this time. Almost every channel carried the news of the sudden death of Raznah Gastron. They’d found a body, so it was of no immediate interest to Tik, and he laid back down on the bed, staring up at the ceiling, absently listening to the news reader as he announced a change to advertised programmes.
‘Following the untimely death of the greatest chef that the universe has ever known, we are showing a documentary which recounts the life and times of the much loved, Raznah Gastron.’
What followed was a hastily cobbled together series of interviews with human culinary experts, a piece by a specialist in Palochlid history and culture, and some clumsily edited archive footage of Raznah’s shows from other planets, as well as some edited highlights from the Earth shows. Tik was barely aware of all this, but as he drifted into the early stages of desperately needed sleep, the detective in him picked up on a new theme in the broadcast.
A list of the planets which the Palochlid had visited in the past seven years unrolled on the screen. Tik sat bolt upright. It was as if someone was reviewing his own itinerary, right there in front of him. He couldn’t believe it. Was it possible that Raznah Gastron was the one to link the whole thing together? The chance of an interview had died with him, but what about his assistants and the rest of the crew? He had to get a warrant, and quickly. Tik punched the out-of-hours emergency contact number, for the head of police, into the hotel phone, and waited.
Raznah’s body was held in isolated storage, with his assistants and entire crew back on board the Palochlid ship, quarantined as a safety measure; in case whatever had killed Gastron was also a risk to them. The body was out of bounds for autopsy, as Palochlid custom forbade anyone, except a Palochlid coroner, from carrying it out. The body would be placed in stasis and returned to his home planet, for a full funeral ceremony.
Tik was under arrest and due a visit from the prison psychiatrist. He knew he’d solved the case, although what had happened to the bodies of the missing aliens was too terrible to contemplate. He’d totally lost it, and having been denied access to the Palochlids, had trashed the hotel room and the police had been called.
Restrained and imprisoned, Tik was reduced to a babbling lunatic. In the eyes of the police officers, his accusations that the charming and irreproachable chef could have been even remotely involved in such hypothetical atrocities, was totally beyond belief. The Thallian detective was obviously space sick, utterly unhinged, and — in their opinion — the moment he’d arrived on Earth had evidently latched on to the first possible link to his investiagtion that he’d come across, no mater how tenuous. Maybe the shrinks could put him back together again, maybe not.
Whatever, the last thing they wanted was some alien nutcase making outrageous claims about a recently deceased media super hero; let alone the potential to cause some kind of diplomatic incident. Tik’s possessions were placed in a high security lock-up and would be returned when, or if, he ever came back to his senses.
Raznah slowly, painfully, lifted his head up off the table, and looked around. The kitchen seemed familiar, that of a restaurant from his youth, and a dish was crossing the pass for him to taste. Suddenly he was thrown back and pinned against the wall, barely able to move his arms and head. He rolled his eyes up to see the maître d’, who slammed the dish down in front of Raznah.
A featureless oval floated above the shoulders of the crisp uniform, like a giant red egg, it seemed to observe him through invisible eyes. Raznah felt compelled to taste the food that had been set down before him, unable to stop himself, he gobbled down the entire contents of the dish. He retched and screamed, as the searing impact of concentrated chilli ripped into his delicate taste buds.
Another dish arrived, again his arms and mouth freed long enough for him to devour it, compulsively. Garlic peppered dogfish with honey-sweetened custard, then crisp lettuce leaves drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, each leaf thickly coated in a disgusting blend of cheese and chocolate. A succession of fine ingredients, rendered inedible by dreadful combinations, were forced upon him, but he was powerless to resist, and gorged on each and every item, choking, spluttering, crying, tortured by the revolting assault on his senses, tormented by the atrocities visited on such perfect raw materials. As another dish approached, he cried out, ‘Where am I?’
A voice issued from the scarlet egg face, ‘As a Palochlid, you believe in an afterlife. Do you not?’
‘Yes,’ he replied, weakly.
‘You died on Earth. Did you not?’
‘I’m dead?’ Raznah’s voice quavered with terror.
The egg nodded. ‘So where do you think you are?’
The flames roared from the burners and melted the kitchen ceiling, as the temperature became unbearable. The endless procession of gastronomic abominations resumed their relentless course towards their horrified victim.
Copyright © 2006 by D. J. Burnham