They put a tiny bit of cocaine in the food, or so the rumors said. Even the biggest food snobs agreed that dinner at The Basement was worth the insane, nonrefundable, pre-paid price. In doing his preliminary research, Jeff had heard another rumor too. Some people thought the appetizer, “The Heart of the Sea,” was whale meat. It was all a publicity trick of course; one of several. As Jeff drove his packed, noisy little car to the restaurant, he wondered about the genius mind behind the marketing. Normally, Jeff would have found being in a car with so many women totally overwhelming, but he was so focused on The Basement, and the review he planned to write, that he almost didn’t care that they were there.
When he finally parked in the dilapidated strip mall, Jeff sat back in surprise and stared at their destination. It looked like a cheap dive, which he realized, with reluctant admiration, actually added to the appeal.
“This place,” his friend Tom asked as they pulled the last of the women Tom had brought out of the back of Jeff’s car, “they won’t tell you what you’re eating?”
“Right. That’s the big lure. They absolutely refuse to reveal what the food actually is. The waiters can’t be bribed to talk. The menu is just a list of the dishes of the night, without any descriptions attached. Everyone eats the same thing.”
“What if I want something different?”
“Then go someplace else, dude. Oh, and all first-time guests are required to sign a waiver. The Basement advises people with life threatening allergic reactions to stay away. It’s genius. Tell people not to come because it might kill you? Who could resist that?”
“That explains all the hipsters,” Tom sighed, gesturing at the line for the door. “I can’t believe they came all the way out here to, wherever the hell we are.”
“The crazy thing that I can’t figure out, is that everyone likes it. Like, actually everyone. That never happens. The bigger the food snob, the more they like to say they hate popular places.” He shrugged. “Maybe they do put something in the food.”
“You said they really pressured you to take this gig? You try to do some local places anyway. Why are they so excited about this one?” Tom asked as they got in the line.
Jeff froze, for just a moment, his heart pounding. Had Tom noticed what he’d been doing? Wait, no, it was OK, he was just asking about work. He exhaled slowly, and tried to act natural. What he’d been doing was awful, he knew, but he didn’t want to stop. He didn’t think he could. He loved his job, really loved the travel, the exciting food, going to other countries. But then, there were the times he asked, no, pushed, to review restaurants closer to home.
His bosses seemed to believe him when he said it was because he liked to support local businesses. The truth: he got a terrific rush from deliberately destroying the most popular new restaurants, no matter how good they were. Having the power to close a restaurant made up for so much that was missing from his life. He couldn’t admit that to anyone. Hell, he could barely think about it himself. Although, he had to admit, he was damn good at it. He’d once triggered a foodie shunning by simply stating that a new bistro was better than a low-end local chain. He’d killed them with a compliment.
He hesitated to answer Tom’s question though. This was a little embarrassing. “I’ve been to Iceland…”
Tom thought for a second, then pointed at Jeff. “Oh, man! You ate whale!”
Jeff blushed. “I did. I ate whale. I went out in Reykjavik, and ate a lot of whale. They wanted me to write this place up because there’s a rumor that the appetizer is whale meat, and I’ll probably recognize it.”
Tom leaned in and muttered out of the corner of his mouth, “How was it?”
“Gotta say, it was delicious.”
Tom was still laughing when they finally reached the front of the line. Heavily tinted windows blocked the view into the restaurant, which wasn’t in a basement at all, but on the ground floor. The strip mall probably didn’t even have basements, Jeff mused, as the large, forbidding bouncer checked ID’s, and produced the waiver on a tablet for each guest to sign.
“Why do you check ID’s?” Jeff asked, handing his over.
“Some of the dishes may or may not contain alcohol, and people under 21 are not allowed.”
He nodded. “Interesting.” He looked at his waiver. It was over 15 pages long. He guessed most people didn’t read it. Ignoring the bouncer’s impatience, he skimmed through the document. Everyone went in without him. Jeff smiled up at the man.
“I guess most people don’t really read this whole thing do they?”
“How do you get to the footnotes section?”
It looked straightforward, but Jeff wanted to be thorough for his piece. If something shocking was buried in the waiver, that could make his article.
“Tap the numbers.”
The footnotes were extensive, more than Jeff could read before dinner started. He glanced at his watch and asked for a paper copy. The bouncer immediately agreed, in a tone that suggested that he should have asked for one up front, and saved them both a lot of time.
Jeff walked into The Basement, paused to let his eyes adjust to the room’s dim light, and was immediately struck by an uncomfortable feeling that something was missing. Inexplicably nervous, he examined his surroundings, and tried to ignore the pounding in his chest. The windows were so heavily tinted that when he looked outside he only saw shadows moving in a deeper darkness. Faded posters for dated tourist destinations—their turquoise and greens now bleached almost white—hung in random spots on the walls. The floor was unfinished concrete. Young, trendily-dressed groups of people filled every one of the white plastic patio sets that served as furniture. An unexpected, but lovely belly dancer twisted and writhed among the tables to the faint rhythm of finger cymbals.
Jeff realized that there were no food smells. That must be the absence he’d felt. He was used to restaurants that smelled of food. Here he only smelled floor cleaner and the belly dancer’s musky perfume as she twirled uncomfortably close to him. Because, he understood, in sudden clarity, they served only one meal a day, to everyone at once. That explained it.
The dancer spun around him with ever louder cymbals. She smelled of rich perfume and clean, female sweat. Her scent filled his mouth, his lungs. A bead of sweat trickled slowly down her belly; he couldn’t catch his breath as he watched it slide down her skin. The room shifted behind her as she contorted in front of him, indifferent to his discomfort. He blinked, and her soft belly, her breasts, were coated with bluish-green metallic scales. Again, he closed his eyes. She was human, and so desirable he couldn’t stand to look at her anymore. Dizzy, he turned away, and in a moment of sweaty relief, spotted Tom, and the women he’d brought, at a large round table near the wall. Jeff hurried towards them, not stopping to apologize when he stepped on belongings, or shoved someone out of his way.
Tom had already ordered bottles of wine, and by the time Jeff finally sat at their table everyone was drinking and shouting cheerfully at each other over the noise of the room. So he wouldn’t have to try and interject himself into their fun, Jeff picked up his purely informative menu and feigned an intense focus. It read:
Heart of the SeaSalad:
What the Sugar Plum Fairy Forgot.
Tom leaned towards Jeff, “So it’s the Heart of the Sea we shouldn’t eat?”
Jeff shook his head. “Did you tell them?” He gestured at the three women. “Don’t tell them. It will look weird if no one eats it.”
Tom looked at him skeptically, then shrugged and turned back to the conversation.
Within minutes, a small fleet of identically dressed waiters presented the appetizers. Served on a plain white plate, the Heart of the Sea was a simple slice of translucent burgundy meat, with a light sear on two sides. Jeff nodded. It looked like whale. He tasted it. It had the texture of exquisitely tender beef, and a similar flavor, but with a familiar, faintly oceanic quality. Definitely whale. He sat back in his chair and grinned, as he surveyed the restaurant. This would be a hell of a write up. This place was going down.
Tom hadn’t touched his food, and when Jeff nodded at him he pushed it away. Then he looked at it, and with an embarrassed expression, pulled it back and began to eat.
The women were talking and laughing between themselves. To Jeff, they all looked the same: thin, with light flowing clothes, and lots of clanking, dangling jewelry. He didn’t understand them at all. But then women, always desired, always totally terrifying, couldn’t be part of his life. Impossible to think he could ever be that confident person, who could have…that. Anyway, it didn’t matter. He was one hundred percent devoted to his work, and didn’t have time for anything else. Except, really, one day, he’d like to meet a comfortable woman, someone nice. His stomach twisted, and it occurred to him for the first time ever, that he was deeply lonely.
His reverie was interrupted by the by the presentation of the salad. Eyes narrowed, he gave it a skeptical poke. It looked like an ordinary salad, with herbs and some unfamiliar field greens, tossed with crumbles of warm goat cheese and some chopped nuts. He tasted it. It was, as salads went, very decent. Disappointed that it didn’t contain anything shocking or unusual, he decided he would write that it was banal. Which, given the reputation of the place, was fair. They promise mystery, then give you a salad you could get practically anywhere. Yawn.
He looked around, and noticed how many of the men seemed to have beautiful women attached to them. The men would say something, and the women would hang on their every word. At his own table, Tom was telling some story. The place was so loud Jeff could only make out every third word, but the girls, laughing and listening attentively, seemed to hear Tom fine.
Tom. When had he started to dislike Tom? It felt like a truth that had always been there, under the surface. Sure, they’d been “friends” since freshman year in college, but really, how could he like someone who would happily let a group of girls he barely knew eat whale meat? What kind of an asshole would do that? And he was so selfish! It was just like Tom to keep the women to himself. Not that it mattered.
Lost in thought, he barely noticed when the swift, silent waiters replaced the salad plate with a small cup of white soup. Jeff picked up a spoonful and sniffed it, then let the liquid drip back into the bowl. He stared at the iridescent shimmer that danced across the surface while the noise of the room faded into the background. What made it play the light that way? It didn’t move like most liquids; it acted like a small cup of cornstarch and water. He tapped it gently with his spoon to feel it thicken. Finally, he tasted it. It was delicious, salty and sweet. With a smile, Jeff closed his eyes, and tried to identify the various flavors. Letting the soup roll over his tongue, he inhaled deeply. A version of white bean soup, it clearly contained a smoky bacon, and other familiar ingredients. But there was something else that he swore he’d never experienced before, which transformed the entire experience into something like…like a song.
Instantly mortified that he’d even thought something that trite, he forced himself to focus on his article, in which he would definitely not write that the dish was like a song. When his spoon scraped the last trace of the soup from the bottom of the cup, he had to grit his teeth to keep himself from wiping the inside of the cup with a finger and licking it clean. Frustrating. They should have used bigger cups. That could be an angle for the article, although a pretty complimentary one. ‘The soup was excellent, but the portion too small to really enjoy.’
With a sigh, he looked around for the waiters. They seemed to all be on a smoke break, or something. No one cared about him. No one. Some quiet part of his mind realized how odd and disproportionate that was, but the feeling was overwhelming. Just then, Tom laughed at someone’s joke. Of course, the others were having a great time without him. Yet again, he was on the outside. Tears stung his eyes. What was wrong with him? He bit the inside of his cheek in an attempt to regain control, and wiped his face with his napkin. For the first time in his life, death sounded like it might actually be a comforting reprieve from the agony of day to day life. It would be like relaxing into a warm soft bed after a horrible day.
“Excuse me, sir.” A waiter at his elbow took away his soup cup, and almost simultaneously placed a large platter of red meat in front of him. He stared at it. It was some kind of a boneless cut, well marbled on the edges, but lean in the center. Rare and bloody, it looked like beef. He leaned forward, took a deep breath, and blinked in astonishment. Whatever kind of meat this was, it had a truly unique smell. To him, it smelled like memories of childhood, cut grass, and sunshine, but he could never, ever, write that, either. He took a bite, and felt the meat dissolve in his mouth. He’d eaten most exotic meats at least once, but nothing remotely similar to this. The flavor was clean, yet full, with a quality he couldn’t describe, other than saying it was similar to the soup. Looking down at the generous helping, Jeff relaxed in the knowledge that there was more, almost a full plate, of this amazing gift.
As he ate, he was easily pulled into the conversation at his table, and to his surprise learned one of the women loved to read old James Beard books too. Her name was Stephanie, and she was fascinated by what he did for a living. He slid his chair closer to her. Within moments, they were all a big laughing group of easy conversation. Stephanie laughed hard at something he said, and leaned closer to talk him. She smelled like cinnamon, and her arm was warm and soft against his own. How could it feel so natural? Had this always been possible? This was turning out to be one of the best nights of his life. Forbidden Delights indeed! He’d been an idiot. Tom loved him like a brother, and would do anything for him. It was crazy that he’d ever thought anything else.
Only moments after the last person finished the meat course, the waiters appeared with dessert. Jeff’s eyes widened at the artistry of what they were about to receive. Each diner got a unique, Cinderella style shoe made out of swirls of spun sugar. A fine dusting of iridescent sprinkles made them glitter in the light. Tiny crystallized violets rested on Jeff’s snow-white shoe, and dotted the plate. It smelled like vanilla and cardamom. Tom’s was blue, covered in candy hearts and, Jeff leaned over and sniffed, smelled like marshmallows. Jeff didn’t want to eat his yet. If he ate it, the dinner would be over, and he wasn’t ready to face that.
To forestall the inevitable, he decided to explore. He got up, and wandered towards the back hallway. Feeling perfectly intoxicated, but not drunk, he noticed his thoughts were beautifully, sparklingly clear. He wondered if he should have slipped a bit of meat into his pocket to take for analysis. Next time. He’d come back with a plastic bag and do it next time. And maybe he could take some for later, at home. What a comforting thought.
Near the restrooms, he noticed a third door at the end of a long hallway. The guy standing guard looked a lot like the bouncer from the front. This was the opportunity he’d hoped to find. If he could get into a food storage area, or an office, and find out what the mystery ingredients were, it would take his story from good to epic. The kitchen, of course, would be impossible. It was bound to be way too crowded. But, they were hiding something behind this door. He could just feel it. Trying to seem casual, Jeff approached the man and asked, “So hey, is that your brother outside?”
The guard was a large, bald man. All his skin, including his face, was covered with tattoos of snakes and mystical symbols. He stared straight ahead, and didn’t respond. Jeff decided to go for it. He pulled 3 folded 100 dollar bills out of his wallet and held them up in front of the tall man’s face. When he got no response, Jeff quickly added two more bills. Without a word the bouncer reached up and gently took the bills, stepped aside, and cracked the door open, displaying a sliver of darkness.
Slipping past the man, Jeff hurried to squeeze himself through the narrow opening. The door immediately closed behind him. His brows raised as he took in the vast, shadowed room before him. He was standing on a small metal balcony, set into a wall that looked like it had been chiseled out of stone. To his left and right, the wall faded away into gloom. For all he knew, it could be a giant cavern, but of course, that was ridiculous. He looked down over the metal railing. The room was so poorly lit that he couldn’t see the bottom, either. In front of him, attached to the balcony, was what looked like a free standing, tightly spiraled, metal fire escape. And wobbled like one, he noticed, as he took his first tentative steps. Dim, dirty bulbs sporadically lit his way down with small pools of orange light. Cautious step after cautious step, the bottom of the staircase, and indeed anything below him, remained lost in shadow. A faint dripping sound echoed off the walls.
After a few minutes, Jeff realized he’d already gone down at least two stories. An uncomfortable knot twisted in his stomach when he looked up. He couldn’t see the top anymore.
“This can’t be right,” he muttered under his breath.
Just then, the steps abruptly ended at a dirt floor. Jeff stumbled forward as he took his first steps back on solid ground. This area was somewhat better lit, and once he’d gotten his balance, Jeff could tell he was in a basement. Spare white plastic chairs and tables leaned in reassuringly normal stacks against one stone wall, along with some cardboard boxes. He walked over and investigated those. They were full of paper napkins. To his right, the shadows grew darker where the walls pulled closer together into a narrow corridor. He hesitantly took a few steps in that direction. There was a sound, like whispering. He thought he heard a faint sob. Nauseatingly nervous, he made himself step forward, keep going, turned around a corner, and stopped.
At first he thought it was a woman, suspended upside down from the ceiling in the room. Then, he realized it was not a woman. Jeff stood, paralyzed, while his eyes continued to send a message that his mind, frozen in shock, refused to accept until, finally, it started to take it in, in pieces.
About ten feet in front of him, an angel hung upside down. It looked semi-conscious. Thick rope, tightly knotted around its ankles, held it suspended from a heavy wooden beam. It was nude. It was shivering. The ends of its long hair brushed the dirt floor. Jeff’s first coherent thought was that it was at least eight feet tall, and probably very strong. Then, he understood that it must be in agony from the weight of its limp, inverted wings, which had stretched its back muscles to what looked like the point of ripping. Finally, he had the dim, confused realization that something really awful had happened to the angel’s legs. Large chunks of flesh were cleanly sliced out of both legs, on both the thigh and the calf. In place of the angel’s muscles, massive square wounds oozed blood that glistened in slick streaks on white bone. Jeff gasped, and noticed a familiar smell, like fresh cut grass and summer. His scalded mind balked and stopped. Then the angel’s eyes opened. It looked right at Jeff. Jeff screamed and jumped back, almost falling into the man standing directly behind him.
“They’re incredibly hard to kill, you know,” the short man said conversationally.
Jeff gaped at him. About six inches shorter than Jeff, the good looking young man wore a dark tailored suit with a black tie.
The short man pointed at the ground under the angel. “See that circle with the symbols? We can hold it, and weaken it, but we can’t kill it. Not that we’d want to anyway, Mr. Monroe. After all, they heal so quickly that we can get a full dinner service off it every night.”
Now fully awake, the angel seemed desperate. It quickly looked around, and then focused again on Jeff. It stared at him with the pleading look of an injured animal, then opened its mouth, but no sound came out. Jeff could see the raw, red flesh where the angel’s tongue had been torn away. The angel cried silently, its body shaking with the force of its sobs. At the small man’s gesture, the bouncer, or someone who looked just like him, stepped out of the shadows carrying a bucket. He gently lifted the angel’s long, soft hair out of the way, and placed the bucket under the angel’s head.
“Angel tears,” explained the small man, “We use those as well. In the soup, of course.”
Jeff fell to his hands and knees, and vomited in the dirt. When he was done, he wiped his own tears from his eyes, and looked up at the man.
“Who are you?” he asked.
The small man shook his head. “My name isn’t important, Mr. Monroe. My job, my title, is Director of Marketing for The Basement.” He reached down and helped Jeff to his feet. “I, just like you, am a small cog in a much more impressive machine.” He pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and handed it to Jeff, turning him away from the horrific scene in the process. “Here you go. Better?”
Jeff nodded, and tried not to think about what was happening right behind him. With all his energy, he concentrated on the man in front of him.
“I trust you enjoyed your dinner?” the good looking man asked, with what seemed like genuine concern. “We work hard to ensure our customers experience an exhilarating range of emotions. First, we bring them into painful intimacy with their own personal weaknesses, and downward into the depths of despair. Then we escort them through a magical removal of those failings, and on to the peaks of delight and joy.” With a light touch, he guided Jeff back through the basement.
“Of course, each diner perceives him or herself to be the only one going through this experience. If you could see it as our waiters do, you would be surprised. Now, had you eaten your dessert, you’d have been filled with the most satisfying contentment. You would have gone home, slept wonderfully, and awakened with the thought that you must plan your next trip to The Basement right away. But, instead, you chose to come down here.” He paused, and studied Jeff. “Mr. Monroe, you’ve become aware of our trade secrets, which presents a little bit of a problem. Additionally, you write for that website, sometimes quite viciously. I find that interesting.
“I’m prepared to offer you an exclusive arrangement. In exchange for your silence about our secret ingredients, and a series of appropriately glowing reviews, and an enthusiastic critique of the competition, should there ever be any, we are prepared to offer you VIP status at our establishment. You will never have to book your table in advance, and your meals will always be comped. You will always get the finest cuts. Your friends will delight in your company even more than I’m sure they already do. Their perception of you will be forever altered, for the better, by their experiences here with you.”
They reached the bottom of the staircase.
“You care about what I put in my review?”
“Mr. Monroe. This is the restaurant business where we, just like anyone else, hope to launch a chain of similar establishments stretching right across this glorious nation. And you are a nationally known reviewer, who, by the way, could have a TV contract in his future if he plays his cards right. Who knows? You may end up in a position to promote the restaurant of your choosing to nationally revered status. Yes. We care, Mr. Monroe.”
Jeff tried to think. He desperately wanted to feel that happy, belonging feeling again. It was what had been missing from his life, from himself, for as long as he could recall. He understood that now. And a TV contract? That would be, wow. Yeah. But the angel, it was too horrifying to even think about. His throat burned from vomiting, and he felt like he had a lead ball in his stomach. It would, he knew, take him months or years to really understand what he’d seen and what it meant to him. The look on the short man’s face told him he only had moments.
“Um, is this about my, uh, my soul?” Jeff asked, his hands twisting behind his back.
The other man snorted, “No, no. Don’t be stupid. We want to own your work.” He grinned encouragingly at Jeff.
“Oh. Right. So, the… Back there. Is it suffering much?”
“Well, not like you or I would suffer. No. I think it’s more of a reflex than anything else. They’re very bizarre creatures really. You noticed it doesn’t even have genitals? They’re as different from a human as, well, as a lobster is. Don’t be fooled by the outwardly similar appearance. They’re really nothing like us.” The man reached over to the back wall of the basement and pushed a button Jeff was fairly sure hadn’t been there before.
“Let’s take my private elevator back up, shall we? I’ll give you a tour of the kitchen. An exclusive.”
Jeff nodded eagerly, “That would be great, Mister….?”
“Really, just call me The Director. I prefer to remain incognito. It helps add to the mystery. You know,” he sighed, “my job, marketing, it’s so important. You can’t underestimate how necessary it is. You’re on board with our plan then?”
Jeff nodded, his stomach tight.
“Excellent! I’m so glad to have you as part of our little team.”
The tattooed bouncer from the upstairs hall abruptly appeared, holding a tablet.
“Ah, Gregor. Thank you, and good work helping Mr. Monroe find his way down here.” The Director winked knowingly at Jeff, who decided to add this to the list of things he wasn’t thinking about.
“Now, you’ll see that we’ve simply added a short clause to that waiver you signed earlier. Yes, there are some footnotes. Lawyers, you know,” he chuckled. “Don’t worry about those. We understand you want a paper copy, and that will be provided by my assistant on your way out this evening. Just simply sign here. Well done! You now have VIP service for life. I’m sure if you ask her, that hot little piece, Stephanie, will want to come here with you again. And, I’m confident that you will get a call from some cable networks, in due time. Congratulations, Mr. Monroe, on joining the organization.”
They stepped into a small nondescript elevator. The interior was unmarked except for two buttons: UP and DOWN. The Director reached out a thin finger, and briefly hesitated. A mocking smile danced over his lips before he finally pressed the UP button, making Jeff’s legs quiver in relief.
“Now to the kitchen for your tour.” The Director smiled at Jeff.
“Oh, um, you should know,” said Jeff as the elevator doors closed. “The story’s already out that you serve whale meat.”
The Director burst into deep shaking laughter. His eyes shone with tears as he gasped, “Oh Mr. Monroe, we don’t serve whale.” He was still chuckling when the doors opened. They stepped out. Jeff and The Director faced the kitchen door, with Gregor a silent, solid presence behind them.
“Would you like to see what we fed you?” the Director giggled, glancing sideways at Jeff. “I promise you, it’s not whale.” Jeff turned gray, but nodded.
The Director started to open the kitchen door, then paused to look at Jeff, “Remember Mr. Monroe. You’ve signed a contract with us. That’s something we take… seriously.” He gestured for Jeff to go ahead of him.
As the kitchen door swung shut behind them, a young woman walked by on her way to the bathroom. Just for a moment, she thought she had heard a heartbroken wail, cut off when the heavy kitchen door slammed firmly closed. Must be her imagination, she thought. This was the greatest place. It was like they put something in the food. Whenever she and her friends came here, they had the most amazing time.
Anne Bartles is a writer and social worker who lives in San Antonio, TX. Some cats let her live with them in exchange for kibble, and her silence. When she isn’t writing, she can often be found knitting, making jam, and forcing her friends to test her food, craft and writing experiments. Anne has published two pieces on InfectiveInk and is presently editing her first book, a slightly supernatural mystery set on the Texas coast. She can be found at http://www.annebartles.com.