"Lilies? Really? Don't you think that's a little too, I don't know, on-the-nose?" Charles fluttered a hand at the tall vases of lilies arranged on either side of the abstract expressionist painting on the wall, at the lilies centered between the candles in the middle of the exquisitely set dinner table.
"Well, it is a funeral feast." Peter shrugged. "And the lilies smell very nice."
"They overpower the smell of dinner," Charles said, frowning. "And after all, it's what we're here for. I can smell flowers any time, but our 'feast' is rare and unusual. Why cover up the scent?" He nodded towards the closed door of the kitchen. His hair, worn long on the sides in a feeble attempt to distract from his shining bald pate, flopped over his collar.
Peter didn't bother to answer. He had long since tired of Charles' snobbery. He stuck his hands in his pockets and turned towards the window wall; the view always calmed. His apartment was furnished in the best of taste, with an exquisite (and horrifically expensive) view of San Francisco Bay. The sun had set over an hour ago, and the rippling lights of the Bay Bridge twinkled in the middle distance.
The doorbell rang. Peter removed his hands from his pockets, turning towards the foyer.
"Don't bother, I'll get it!" Alice entered the foyer, fixing an earring. Her graceful carriage, as always, commanded Peter's respect. "That's Martin."
"Late, as usual," said Charles. "We might have started without him. I know I would have." He patted his middle, clad in Desmond Merrion merino wool. Peter knew the suit had cost the banker over $15,000; he knew because Charles had made a point of telling him that.
Alice opened the door to Martin, a tall, white-haired Hispanic man in his fifties sporting a Van Dyke beard, dressed entirely in black.
Charles snorted. "Oh, really. Black?"
Martin arched an eyebrow. "Shut up, Charles. You're such a bore."
"Oh, stop it," said Alice. She was a medium-sized black woman in her late forties, in a cocktail dress carefully chosen to set off the diamonds at her wrist, throat and ears. "Let's not repeat the last dinner. We know how that came out."
"It wasn't my fault," Charles sneered. "I was reacting to the food. I tell you, the shoulder was completely underdone, and the ribs were overcooked."
"I heard that!" A tall blond woman built on Amazonian lines stood in the open kitchen door, hands on her hips. "You're one to talk, Charles! Last time we ate at your place, you served white wine with dark meat."
"Elizabeth!" Charles gasped. "I did no such thing!"
Martin shrugged. "Sorry, but she's right."
"It was a white burgundy!"
"It was white wine, Charles," said Elizabeth. "And rather bitter, if I recall."
He drew himself up to his full height of five foot seven. "A Domaine Rive, Grand Cru, one of the most celebrated vintages of 2014! I paid over three hundred and fifty dollars a bottle!"
"Three hundred and fifty dollars a bottle?" Peter shook his head. "Charles, that's the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard."
"Five hundred, if it was a penny." Martin smirked. "Your memory is lamentable, Charles."
Charles opened his mouth to protest, and Peter decided it was time to derail the brewing dustup.
"I think you'll like the pairings tonight," he said.
"No spoilers!" Charles held up a hand, palm outward. "Don't tell us, let us guess what you've paired tonight!"
"Yes. Don't spoil us, Peter darling." Languidly, a petite Asian woman rose to her feet from her seat in the corner of the living room. "I would prefer to be surprised."
"Jasmine! How delightful! I didn't see you there!" Martin strode over, bowed and raised her hand to his lips. "You look superb, as always."
Jasmine paid him no attention, her gaze fixed on Peter. "Perhaps, if your pairings are to be the focus of our attention, we should skip the appetizers--"
"No, no," said Elizabeth. "Finger food is my favorite, as you know."
"Coming right up," said Peter, and ducked through the door to the kitchen. Alice followed him.
"Always a pleasure when he cooks," said Martin. "Remember the filets mignon á Lili he served us two years ago?"
"And the roast sirloin forestiere?" Charles sighed, his eyes misty with nostalgia.
The kitchen door opened, and Alice emerged with a serving tray. "Peter is busy with the sauce bordelaise, so I volunteered to bring this out," she said. She set the tray next to the now-empty drink tray.
Martin peered over her shoulder. "Bacon wrapped liver?"
Charles picked up one hors d'œuvre and popped it into his mouth. "He's made a prosciutto!" he said. He chewed thoughtfully. "Hmm. Marinated, yes, but fried in--"
"Sesame oil!" Martin finished. "With a garlic paste?"
"Soy-garlic," said Jasmine, picking a bit of parsley off her meat.
"Delicious," Charles murmured. "And what is this?" He picked up a leaf of endive stuffed with a shredded meat.
"Palm," said Alice. "Be careful, I believe he used a chipotle reduction on that."
Charles made a face. "Thank you for the warning." He set down the canapé. "What's next? Tacos?"
Martin said, "Hey! I like tacos!"
"But why would you heavily season such a rare meat?" Charles said. "Such expensive meat, and hard to get, why cover it up with heavy spices?"
"I like tacos," Martin said stubbornly.
Elizabeth put a cleaned bone on the plate and dabbed at her mouth with a napkin. Her smeared lipstick made it look as though she had been eating blood.
Peter leaned around the kitchen door. "Take your seats, friends. Dinner is about to be served!"
Eagerly, the assembled guests found their places, marked with name cards. Martin held Alice's chair, and Elizabeth waited in vain for Charles to hold hers. Jasmine sat at the foot of the table, leaving the head for their host.
Carrying a large platter, Peter stepped triumphantly through the kitchen door. The smell of roasted meat accompanied him.
"Oh, lovely!" said Charles, breathing deeply.
Peter set the tray on the table. Arranged artfully on it were six small plates, each with a different preparation. "You will forgive me skipping the salad," Peter said. "I thought we might indulge our palates first. This is a special dinner. Instead of one dish shared by all, each of you is paired with his own, special meal. Your favorites, I believe. For you, my dear, steak au poivre," he said, setting a plate in front of Elizabeth.
"My very favorite," she said, grinning widely. "Peter, you sweetheart!"
"For Jasmine, steak tartare, with horseradish cream." Peter bowed as he passed the plate to Jasmine, who stared greedily at the mound of raw meat on her plate.
"Your boeuf bourguignon, my sweet," said Peter, handing Alice a plate. She took it from him, looking up at him through her eyelashes flirtatiously.
"You always remember, darling," she murmured.
Peter handed a plate to Charles. "Your steak bordelaise, my friend."
Holding a fork in one hand and a knife in the other, Charles bent low over the plate, a beatific expression on his face. "Marvelous!"
Peter picked up the next to last plate, turning to Martin. "And for you, of course--"
Charles gave a shout of laughter. "Tacos!"
The others joined him in laughter, even Martin. "Gracias, amigo," he said, grinning widely.
Peter set a plate containin g a simple grilled steak at his own place.
Charles chuckled. "Six completely different dishes! Quite a challenge. How have you paired them all?"
Peter turned to the sideboard and opened the lower doors. Six bottles stood revealed. He took them out one by one, setting them in front of the diners.
"For Martin, a beautiful Malbec, from Argentina. The La Plata 2014. The light weight and fruity ambiance work well with the grilled proteins and heavy spices in the taco meat, I think you'll find." He set the bottle in front of Martin, who applauded softly.
Another bottle, still a little dusty from the cellar, was set in front of Jasmine. "So many flavors to play with in a tartare," he said, bowing a little. "I think you'll like the peppery taste of this Cabernet Francisco di Patte."
Charles nodded. "Excellent! Gorgeous minerality in that one, and a bright acid to complement the high fat content! Well done, Peter."
Peter's smile did not quite reach his eyes as he set a bottle before Alice. "Of course, the obvious choice with beef burgundy would be burgundy, but let's not be obvious. I thought something with a little more fruit would be interesting." He turned the bottle so she could see the label.
Alice cocked her head on one side. "A local wine?"
"From Mendocino," Peter said. "A little Zinfandel, some Petit Syrah. The nose has a strong cherry nuance."
Charles frowned. "Unusual choice, Peter. But the tannins in the Zinfandel should help counter the richness of the stew. I cannot wait to see what you have for me!"
But Peter set the next bottle in front of Elizabeth. Her eyes widened. "What is this?"
"An Amanti di Aleppo," said Peter.
Charles looked awed. "Amazing! How did you think of that?" Before Peter could answer, he leaned over to Elizabeth. "They dry the grapes first, to concentrate the flavor. A very good matchup to the meat. Well done, Peter! Very well done! And now for me?"
Peter set a slender bottle in front of Charles, who leaned forward eagerly.
"Already opened and allowed to breathe. I approve." Charles glanced at the label of the bottle before him, and his face registered shock. "Peter! However did you get this? I thought, well, never mind." He stopped himself suddenly.
Peter smiled. "You thought you had all the bottles from that year. But I found one, just for you."
Charles stared at his host with something like respect. "It must have cost you a fortune."
Elizabeth's expression was pained. "Charles! We don't talk about money at the table."
"Oh, I don't know," Martin said easily, inspecting the label on his wine bottle. "There's money, and then there's money. I don't think the six of us can discuss mere money." He glanced around the table, smiling. The others smiled complacently back at him. "I mean, the Koch brothers have money. The Saudis have money. Mark Zuckerberg has some money. We have, well, what can we call it?"
"Fortunes?" said Jasmine. Her dark eyes glittered at Charles.
"Wealth?" said Elizabeth. She glanced at her bottle of wine and sighed.
Alice smiled demurely. "The world, my dears. We own the world."
Martin nodded. "We have worked hard for it all." He nodded at Charles. "You built the most successful banking conglomerate in history." He raised his glass at Jasmine. "The top cosmetics company in Asia and Europe. Elizabeth, you turned your inheritance from your father into one of the largest bank holding companies in the world." He placed a hand on his chest. "The largest Latino social media network in the world." He smiled warmly at Alice. "And the international weapons market has been good to you." He turned to Peter. "I understand your pharmaceuticals had a spectacular quarter."
Peter poured his own wine into a glass. "Spectacular, yes," he murmured.
"This is so vulgar," Elizabeth said.
Martin shrugged. "I merely point out that we can, all of us, afford our . . . indulgences."
Peter raised his glass. "Then we must toast our indulgence." When all had raised their glasses, he said, "To our donor."
One or two of his friends glanced down at their plates, but all repeated his toast, then drank. They set down their glasses and picked up their forks--all except Peter, who continued to hold his glass in the air.
"Another toast?" asked Alice.
Peter smiled, and there was something cold in his eyes. "To ourselves," he said. "Let us drink to ourselves."
"Vulgar," Elizabeth murmured, but raised her glass with the others. "To ourselves."
They set down their glasses again, and picked up their forks. Silence reigned for several moments, as they all tasted their dishes. Peter cut his meat slowly, dipped it into a sauce, then set down his fork, watching his friends.
Martin was the first to speak. "Superb!"
"Mine is a little dry," said Jasmine. She looked apologetically at her host. "No offense meant, Peter."
"Actually, I was thinking mine is a little greasy," said Charles, dapping his napkin on his lips. "A trifle too well marbled, I should say."
Elizabeth poked at her meat. "This tastes gamey. How old is it?"
"It, or rather she, was alive this morning," said Peter.
"Mine is perfectly tender," said Alice. "My compliments, Peter."
"Oh, it's all in the meat," Peter said modestly. "You have to start with good meat."
Martin nodded. "Which reminds me, we need to discuss our sourcing problem."
"Problem?" Jasmine frowned, forking more raw meat.
"The slaughterhouse where we store our . . . source. . . was shut down last week by the FDA. Surprise inspection."
Elizabeth laid down a fork. "Are we in any danger?"
"Not at all," said Martin. "The manager is well paid to keep his mouth shut, and he will. But all the meat was confiscated, and the warehouse will not re-open for some time."
"What about the dark net? Have you found anything?" Martin asked.
Jasmine shook her head. "There was that woman in Germany, but she hasn't posted anything in six months. I never quite believed her anyway."
"Do you think she was an informer?" Charles asked.
Jasmine shook her head. "She may have just changed her mind about . . . donating."
"Cold feet." Charles and Martin said it together, but only Charles was smiling at the joke.
Peter shrugged. "Even with the wide reach of the dark net, there just aren't many people willing to die for others, especially for those of our . . . appetites."
"So we have no more volunteer donors. We will need a new resource," said Alice, spooning beef stew. "What about the shelters?"
Charles shuddered. "Oh, seriously, my dear. With all the drug problems? Do you really want your meat contaminated?"
Martin's expression hardened. "Alice, you remember we voted against that. We don't know what kinds of drugs we'd be dealing with. We all agreed."
"Yes, but, in exigent circumstances, can we not make an exception? Does it have to be organic?"
"There's one possibility," Jasmine said slowly.
"At this point, I'm open to any suggestion," Martin said.
Jasmine sighed. "I really hate to raise this, but there's always . . . medical waste."
Charles gasped. "Waste?"
Jasmine looked rueful. "I know. But I have a source."
"The university hospital again?" Martin asked. "I thought that . . . facilitator . . . graduated and left the state."
"Actually, this is even better," Jasmine said. "I have a potential ally in the central pathology lab."
"Excellent idea!" said Charles. "And perfectly ethical, Martin! Even you cannot object!"
Martin shook his head. "Still some legal issues with disposal of the remains, and of course the supply would be . . . undependable. We will probably not get as much meat, or as high quality."
"Not to mention the possible diseases. I mean, if someone has to have a leg amputated, there's a good reason for it, not one that appeals to me." Elizabeth shuddered.
"Positively turns my stomach," Martin admitted.
"We'll make do," said Charles. "There are ways to stretch a meagre supply. A consommé, for example, from bone broth. Or perhaps we could find ways to use the cartilage from noses and ears."
Peter made a face. "A little crunchy for my taste," he said.
Martin looked skeptically at Charles. "And what on earth do you pair with a nose?"
Alice looked up from her plate. "We can do a steak and kidney pie," she said. "The market in kidneys is quite robust. Especially in Asia." She looked apologetically at Jasmine. "Sad to say, but true."
"Possibly we will have to . . . postpone . . . these dinners," Jasmine said reluctantly.
Silence fell around the table.
Into it, Peter's words dropped like polished stones into a pool. "I have a solution."
Five pairs of eyes met his. He nodded to their plates. "The answer is sitting in front of you."
They looked at their plates.
"I don't understand," said Elizabeth slowly.
Peter smiled slightly, a frosty look in his eyes. "Does your steak taste a little . . . familiar?"
The five exchanged glances. "Familiar?" said Alice, her voice hardening. "What are you talking about?"
Peter leaned back in his chair. "I'm talking about supply. So often, we have had to break laws, smuggle, lie, hide our. . . appetites. Our needs. They--" he waved a hand at the world outside the window wall. "They do not understand. They call us murderers." Around the table, nods answered this statement.
Jasmine scowled. "They have never understood. We founded this as an ethical eating club. No . . . involuntary sourcing."
Martin patted his mouth with his napkin. "Impossible, of course, without the Internet. Those despairing souls looking for a way out, who otherwise would suicide to no profit to themselves or others -- yes, for every commodity there is a market. They supply, we demand."
Peter looked at each diner in turn. "Even those who would sacrifice themselves willingly for us are shrinking daily. The world is too small now to hide our feasts, or their source."
Charles drank deeply from his glass. "We have always known this, Peter. And we are all aware that the masses would consider us monsters."
"Why did you say the answer was in front of us?" Alice said.
"Yes, what are you getting at, dammit," said Charles.
Peter looked at his friends, each in turn. "Do you remember the last time you ate with me? Last year, it was. Do you remember what you had?"
"The pork adobo," Charles said promptly. "Although not pork, of course. Very greasy, as I recall."
Peter lifted his napkin from beside his plate. "Yes, the linens were quite stained. After you all went home, I collected each one."
Martin put down his glass with careful deliberation. "What do you mean? Are you . . . collecting evidence?"
Five stony gazes met Peter's. Elizabeth quietly picked up her steak knife. "Are you turning traitor? Have you called in the police?"
"Unwise, if so," said Martin. "You know we are untouchable. We own the police."
Peter shook his head. "You misunderstand completely. There is no need to be alarmed. I remind you all that I am in pharmaceuticals. If you think that means aspirin and vaccines, you are behind the times. You have heard, perhaps, of Dolly the sheep?"
All stared at him, bewildered.
"Good God, man," Charles nearly bellowed. "You don't mean to say you have served us mutton?"
"No, he doesn't mean that." As usual, Alice was far in front of Charles. "You mean this meat is cloned."
"Cloned?" Charles said.
Jasmine looked at Elizabeth, noted the knife in her hand, and picked up her own. "You have deceived us."
"Why did you collect our napkins, Peter?" Martin's tone was ominous. "And what does that have to do with cloned sheep?"
Alice stared down at her plate in horror. "Peter!"
"Ah, I knew you would be the first to puzzle it out," Peter said affectionately. "My Korean operation has been producing cloned meat for ten years. Pigs, cows, sheep. All of it perfectly clean. Five or six years ago, we realized we don't actually need to clone the whole animal. We can use its DNA to grow meat in vats: steaks, chops, even whole roasts. No bones, of course. But perfectly edible meat."
All five were staring at their plates, full of half-eaten meat.
"I was already aware that our traditional sources of human meat were drying up, and that soon we would have to resort to methods that would land us in jail, or at the end of a lynch mob's rope," he said. "But there is no law against this meat. It isn't from a corpse, no killing was done to obtain it, and it actually costs less than beef." Picking up his knife, he pointed it at Alice. "You left your DNA on your salad fork last year." He pointed at Elizabeth. "Your DNA was all over your dinner napkin. Charles left his toothpick behind. Each of you left something behind at my table. It was a simple matter to extract somatic cells from each of them."
"Somatic cells?" Jasmine asked in a dazed voice. "What--"
"He cloned us." Martin's voice held awe, fear, anger and even admiration. "You son of a bitch!"
Alice suddenly gave a hysterical shout of laughter. "Each of us! Each of us! Oh, Peter, you – I don't know what to call you!"
Jasmine put down her knife. "So this is – one of us?" She stared at her steak tartare.
"It is all of you," Peter said, perfectly relaxed under the glare of five angry dinner guests. "And each of you. You are eating your own flesh, grown in a vat, harvested this morning. Talk about pairing!"
To their stunned looks, he returned a happy smile. He picked up his wine glass.
"To each, his own."
And he drank it down.
Sarah Stegall writes speculative fiction, mysteries, and historical fiction. Her most recent novel, “Outcasts: A Novel of Mary Shelley”, is about the night Mary Shelley sat down to write "Frankenstein". Her other novels include paranormal mysteries (“Deadfall”, “Deadwater”), young adult (“Farside”) and science fiction (“Chimera”).
Her story, "Rearguard", in "A Tribute Anthology to Deadworld" was nominated for a Scribe Award for Best Short Story in 2017. Other short stories include “Menorah” in “Castle of Horror Anthology: Volume II”, and "Papyrus", in "Baker Street Irregulars II". She turned her love of The X-Files into the research and co-writing of the first three "Official Guides to the X-Files". Her X-Files short story “Snowman”, can be found in the X-Files anthology “The X-Files: The Truth is Out There”.
Find out more on her website: http://www.munchkyn.com or on her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/sarah.stegall.3. She tweets from https://twitter.com/Sarah_Stegall.