by Martin Westlake
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
After his stretching exercises and a quick shower, Peter Spencer-Lord joined his family for breakfast. He loved the cat-got-the-cream sensations of this moment of the day. There was Evangeline, beautiful in body and in mind; and there were his two beautiful children, sitting obediently, awaiting permission to get down from the table.
There was the sense of immediate virtuousness — the physical exercise of the jog before the indulgence of the morning coffee and croissant — but also of more general virtuousness; by setting up a business, he was not only creating a little employment and injecting liquidity into the local economy, not only creating wealth and generating prosperity for his family, but also working for the general good of mankind. Yes, of mankind, no less.
As Evangeline was getting ready to take the children to their primary school, Peter kissed them on their heads and her on the cheek and wished them a good day.
‘Off to see your little monsters, are you?’ she said.
‘Come on, Evangeline. Don’t pull that face. I know what you think, but they’re our future — in more senses than one!’
He stepped out of the front door and breathed in the still dewy fresh air. Dash, a golden retriever, mooched up to him for a quick pat on the head. This, thought Peter, must be as good as life gets. He strode across the garden, opened and closed the gate carefully to make sure Dash stayed on the other side, and walked to the factory entrance.
As the factory came into view, his breast swelled with paternal pride. There stood the sleek, sober green, rectangular box, discreet, pleasing to the eye, with the simple legend stencilled top-centre on each wall: ‘Spencer-Lord’. He imagined hundreds of them, located in similarly discreet fashion all over the Alsatian countryside. After Alsace, why not the whole of France? Why not the whole of Europe?
The factory was only a pilot project. Peter still had to convince Yves Menton, his Strasbourg-based backer and partner, that his concept was a going concern. In the meantime, Peter had what he called a ‘day job’ in Menton’s agricultural machinery company on the outskirts of Strasbourg. But he liked to look in on the plant before he set off to the city, just to make sure that everything was okay.
Normally, old Jean would already be there, sweeping the floors or dusting the flat surfaces, for there was nothing much else to do. In the file he’d submitted for planning permission, Peter had made much noise about local job creation but the truth was that his plants were designed to run with minimum labour. Indeed, that aspect had been particularly interesting to Menton — clearly no great friend of trade unions.
Peter had taken on Jean, a former farm worker, to provide a fig leaf of employment and to help when the lorry came to load up the produce — although even that would be entirely automated once Peter was no longer reliant on local tax breaks.
The front door had been unlocked but there was no sign of the old man in the control room. Peter walked briskly around the outside of the factory, guessing that Jean had found some useful way of employing himself in the grounds, but there was nobody. That left the main tank, although Jean had strict instructions to stay away from it.
Peter went back into the building, crossed the control room and saw that the door to the tank had indeed been unlocked. He opened it and frowned. The lights were on. What did Jean think he was doing?
Peter walked once around the outside of the tank, with its smooth glass walls, but he could already see something out of the ordinary inside the tank. Peter unlocked the tank door then picked up the air hose, turned it on, and gradually worked his way into the space, carefully closing the door behind him.
The giant maggots rolled slowly away under the pressure from the hose’s nozzle. Peter proceeded delicately so as not to damage them. The floor was evenly carpeted with hundreds of the larvae, the pride of Peter’s life.
It had taken him several years of selective breeding to find the right balance between speed of growth and concentration of protein. To him, this layer of sightless, brainless creatures, each as long and as thick as a gherkin, was like a carpet of gold, representing not only the source of untold personal wealth but the solution to one of mankind’s greatest challenges.
He made his way slowly over to the mound he had seen from outside the tank. Peter’s heart thumped as he cleared away the maggots. Sure enough; underneath lay old Jean.
Peter turned off the air hose. He could just hear the faint rustling sound of the slowly wriggling, writhing maggots as he checked Jean’s body for signs of life. He did not appear to be breathing and there was no discernible pulse. What on earth had he been doing?
Peter turned the air hose back on and made his way slowly back to the tank door. Once outside, he called the police and an ambulance and his Strasbourg employers and then he waited. The sunny blue sky of the early morning was, he noted, now becoming overcast.
* * *
Dinner that evening was a sad affair. The children had liked Jean, and Evangeline had had a soft spot for his old-world Gallic charm. Peter called Menton — you never knew when such things might get into the papers.
‘All okay?’ asked Menton, immediately suspicious.
‘Everything fine in general, thank you, Yves,’ said Peter, immediately confirming Menton’s suspicions.
‘The old man I hired to help out was found dead today in the main tank, and I had to call the police,’ he gushed.
‘In the tank? I thought you said nobody was to go near those things.’
‘That’s right,’ said Peter. ‘He shouldn’t have been there. It’s all a bit of a mystery. They think it was a heart attack but they’re waiting for the results of the autopsy. It’s a minor inconvenience. If I want to keep the local council sweet, I’ll have to find somebody else, that’s all.’
‘And what about the process? How’s that going?’
‘Oh, Yves! It couldn’t be going better. Everything is working perfectly: the compounds, the ovens, the processors, the packaging machine...’
Peter couldn’t understand why, when he rang off from Menton, Evangeline was so unhappy with him. Whatever it was, it would pass, he told himself.
* * *
A day later the police confirmed that old Jean had died of a heart attack. It was never established why he had decided to enter the tank — the CCTV images showed him going in and closing the door behind him before falling over. The police told Peter people who were about to die sometimes did strange things.
To Peter’s relief, once the cause of death had been established, the police and local authorities authorised him to reactivate the plant. He had already lost a generation of maggots, though there was no practical reason for it. The police had insisted he destroy those that had been in the main tank where old Jean had collapsed. But the incident had occurred on a Monday and the lorry wasn’t due until Saturday. Peter could still get a half-load out of the week.
Then, miraculously, Evangeline had come up with a replacement for old Jean: Philippe, the son of the hairdresser in the nearest village, about fifteen minutes’ drive away. He was out of work and happy to replace old Jean until something better in the way of employment came along. Peter had invited the personable young man up to the factory, interviewed him and hired him on the spot. All in all, then, the damage had been limited and the unfortunate incident was soon forgotten.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Martin Westlake