Which fountain? Which pond? Would his contact wear the red scarf? Should he? He didn't own a red scarf, so he'd made do with a red hand towel, cut lengthways.
This park, this open space with nowhere to hide, was the only one he knew of with a fountain and a pond in sight of each other. An elliptical path bound the features. During the day, it was an endless loop for joggers. Few used it this late in the evening. Right now a single man occupied it, exercising some sort of yellow dog. A retriever? A Labrador? Whatever. Something big and meaty.
It was already twenty past. The breeze stiffened under the darkening sky. Despite the chill, Mr Banks was sweating. He tugged at his scarf.
He'd arrived alone, as asked. Every shadow hid a detective waiting to pounce. Every person he'd passed was an undercover cop.
It was a stupid prohibition, when you thought about it. But the Animal Care Act recognised all animals as sentient beings. And the Humanitarian Ethics Act, just a few years younger, granted all sentient beings the right to life.
The society's reputation was that of a body of people unafraid to use their canines for the purpose God intended. He remembered the solid, satisfying taste of meat from his boyhood. None of the synthesised concoctions on offer could replicate it.
He’d gleaned what scant information he had from message boards, and oblique references on desolate blogs. His contact, known only by the username flashing on-screen in secure chatrooms, didn’t give much away. Mr Banks had no idea where they were based, what sorts of people joined, or even how big the society was. But common sense told him the society had to be disciplined. And cautious.
They were watching him, he was certain. Checking he hadn't been followed. This was a test. They wanted to see him, check if he'd stick to their instructions.
He'd wait, show himself, prove he was alone. After thirty minutes he'd leave, and at home there'd be another enigmatic letter with further instructions.
Twenty-five past. A despondent breeze tugged brown curls of leaves in its wake. He kicked some away from his shoe, watched them drift into the gloom.
The winter-silent fountain was as stark as the deciduous skeletons encircling it. They lined the pond too, a blank stare gazing at the sky.
Half past. Nothing. No buzzing of the phone set to silent in his pocket. No note slipped into his pocket, no blood-red flash of a stranger's throat.
The dog walker made another pass. Mr Banks avoided eye contact, made a non-committal gesture: a nod that could mean anything from ‘good evening', to ‘nice dog', to ‘don't speak to me'.
The walker trundled out of his vision. He turned on his heel to face the distant gates. Another sigh, and he started walking. A few crunches of gravel. Three concrete slaps. The softness of grass.
A dozen steps. That was as far as he got before the hand clapped on his shoulder, stopping his heart.
He tried answering. The words snagged on his scarf. The hand gripped his shoulder, turning him around.
A slash of red at the throat. The dog walker opened his top coat button, showing the red scarf beneath.
Mr Banks smiled.
“Yes. Yes, that's me. Mr Banks. And you are?”
The stranger ignored his hand, shaking his shoulder instead.
“Come with me. You can call me Mr Maumi.”
The stranger didn't wait. Mr Banks trotted the first steps to catch up.
“So, where we're going, is it far? Should I keep my scarf on?”
The stranger thrust a thumb-sized bottle at him.
“What is it?”
“Drink. Or stay here. I really don't care.”
Mr Banks took the liquid. He unscrewed the cap. Sniffed. Odourless. He swallowed it in one go.
They left the park in silence.
* * *
Four blocks. Five blocks. Six blocks, into an area of the city he'd never been to before. Buildings swung left and right. The moon was a rippled puddle.
Mr Banks' head drifted around his mind. If he lost the stranger, he'd never find him again. He could wander for hours before finding anything familiar. Even the park was a vague memory, mud at the bottom of a pond.
An alley, oil-slick puddles and reeking of urine. Sirens, moaning a distant refrain. A mound of flattened detritus that may have been a person.
“Where are we?”
His stomach rumbled. He hadn't eaten since breakfast. He wanted to savour every bite of whatever meat they served.
Wheezing. The dog strained against her collar, breath ragged.
“Why don't you get a harness?”
The stranger shrugged.
He yanked the dog's chain, dragging her back to heel. The animal made a coughing sound, and lurched forward again.
“Why join,” asked the stranger.
Mr Banks stumbled.
“Um. Well, it's a human rights issue. If you don't want to eat meat that's fine. But there's no reason to stop other responsible adults from doing so.”
“Exactly. Why should we be made to feel bad for doing what our bodies were designed to do?”
Mr Maumi’s teeth glinted.
“That's what I say.”
“As long as it's killed humanely, what's the issue?”
Another smile. Mr Maumi looped the dog's chain, pulling her closer.
“An unpopular opinion. Must make mealtimes difficult.”
“Oh, I don’t have any family. None I’ve seen for ages, anyway. Nobody local.”
The tangle of alleys knotted around them. Mr Banks' felt like a weighted balloon. Helium on top, sandbag legs. He suppressed a yawn.
“So, when do we eat?”
“Soon enough. What's your definition of ‘humane'?”
“Killing the animal as quickly and painlessly as possible. Drug it maybe, to keep it relaxed. Stun it. Then a quick slash to the throat and it's all over. How does the society get the meat? I know you don't know me, so I understand if you don't want to tell me. But I am curious.”
“Tough times. I don't know if we'll ever reverse that stupid piece of legislation. People have moved on. Some people. We still believe in freedom. We have to go get it, bring it back ourselves. But there's freedom in subterfuge.” He pulled the dog closer again. “Once you've crossed the line, you're free to do as you please. We used to eat beef, lamb, pork, chicken. They took all that away. So we took matters into our own hands. Why stop at those boring staples, raised on the cheapest feed and almost tasteless? Real meat is free, unrestrained. Every piece should have its own taste. And, when nothing’s farmed, you have to eat what you can.”
Something rattled the darkness of the alley. A rat? A cat. The dog stopped, and cocked its ears. A pigeon fluttered its wings on a windowsill above them. For a second, the grey moon flashed a gull’s silhouette through the gap between the tall buildings.
“So many flavours to try,” said Mr Maumi.
Mr Banks nodded.
More gulls, cawing in the moonlight. The sound of lapping water. They were near the docks, at a small entrance to a large warehouse. Mr Maumi took a set of keys from his pocket. He handed the chain to Mr Banks.
“Here. Hold this.”
Mr Banks did as he was bidden.
The key cast a shadow on the ground. It rippled across an oily puddle as Mr Maumi stepped up to the dark, metal door. A padlock the size of Mr Banks’ fist held it shut. The mechanism creaked and groaned as the key prised it open. A short chain clanged against the door, echoing off the close warehouse walls. The hinges screeched as Mr Maumi pushed the door open.
The dog twitched. Mr Banks stared into the doorway. Something, some unidentifiable smell, wafted out. The dog whined.
The darkness was thick and greasy. Not even moonlight dared enter.
“Come in. Bring the dog.”
“Is this… where we meet?”
“We’ve already met. It’s where we eat.”
“I’m not sure.”
“Scary building, huh? Everyone gets nervous when they get here. This whole wharf is disused. Used to be an old meatpacking warehouse. Animals came in the front, food came out the back.”
“I’m not sure about this.”
Something clicked in the darkness of the alley. Something that wasn’t in Mr Maumi’s hand before. He pointed it at Mr Banks.
“It’s too late to back out. Get in the building. Slow steps, in front of me. Bring the dog.”
Mr Banks dropped the leash. If the dog ran off, that second could be all he needed to turn and run.
The chain clanked to the floor. The leather loop splashed into a puddle. The dog trotted over to Mr Maumi. Mr Banks’ concrete legs refused to move.
Mr Maumi wagged the gun in the direction of the door.
“You can’t run. The drugs make sure of that. And where would you go? You’re lost. There’s no-one here to report a gunshot.”
“People will come looking. My name’s not Mr Banks.”
“I know, Alan Stephens. You live alone in an apartment you own. No mortgage lender or landlord to come looking for money. You have no girlfriend. Your mother passed away several years ago. You don’t speak to your father.”
Hands trembling, Alan’s shoes crunched over the loose gravel escaping the cracks in the tarmac. They sloshed through the puddle and took him over the threshold. Heavy shapes lurked in the shadows. Before his eyes could adjust, the door clanked shut and he was in absolute darkness.
Something crackled behind him. A sharp, electric sound. A blue-white flash threw his shadow on to the skeletons of chains and hooks hanging from the iron beams. He turned. Before he could call out, the Taser bit into his neck.
* * *
Pat. Pat. Pat.
Mr Maumi looked up from his plate. The dog knew not to beg when he was eating. Instead, it had taken to lapping up the drips as they fell to the tarmac sheet.
It wasn’t an elegant meal. A slab of meat fried in an old frying pan on a camping stove, a few mushrooms tossed on the side. But, you had to eat what you could catch nowadays.
He put the plate on the floor. The dog came trotting over to clean it.
He opened his laptop. It would take several hours to gut and joint the carcass, giving him enough meat to fill his chest freezer. The river would wash away the entrails. The screen threw a ghoulish light into his features.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
You can follow me at www.facebook.com/morganclarkauthor
To purchase my novels or audiobooks, please visit https://www.amazon.co.uk/Anthony-Morgan-Clark/e/B00JTHFCCG/ (Kindle and paperbacks). For all other electronic formats visit https://books2read.com/ap/8VKGAx/Anthony-Morgan-Clark.