THE THIRD SECRET
By Larry Gaffney ©2007
Trevor Drake, who thought himself a man of the world, was nevertheless astounded when Fancher and Dr. Soon patiently described for him the exact nature of what they called “the first secret.” Drake swallowed the bit of casserole he’d been chewing and stared at them across the table. .
“You’re joking,” he said.
Fancher raised an eyebrow. “I’m not in the habit of joking about such matters. Perhaps we’ve been premature.”
Dr. Soon laughed merrily. It was a laugh that club members had heard often enough to make them wonder how a man dedicated to the sober and challenging work of neurosurgery could be so jolly. Some even called Dr. Soon “The Laughing Brain Surgeon,” though not to his face.
“I think,” said Dr. Soon, “that our friend is still processing the information. We must not judge too quickly. And no, Trevor, I assure you we are not joking.”
Drake put down his silverware. He took a sip of merlot and dabbed at his mouth with fine Irish linen. “Very well,” he said, folding his hands in front of his plate, “if you are indeed telling the truth, then I suppose I must revise my opinion of the club.”
“For the better?” asked Fancher.
Trevor Drake considered the florid face in front of him. Bald pate, gray-flecked moustache, craggy wrinkles and bright, sardonic eyes. Fancher had the face of an English lord, though in fact he owned a chain of hardware stores.
He glanced at Dr. Soon, a short, compact man whose toothy grin and laugh-lines about the eyes belied the penetrating mind within.
In the club’s comforting gloom he observed the paneled walls, the leather sofas, the Tiffany lamps. He thought of its old-moneyed, tweed-jacked members, men of substance every one.
“Why not?” he answered.
Fancher raised his glass. “To the first secret, then.” The three men drank to the toast.
It occurred to Drake that they had been sizing him up for some time. No doubt the scales had been tipped in his favor on the night Drake and Fancher had spied each other in the lower regions of a particular town house in Back Bay. In the dimly lit corridor of special, soundproofed rooms, Drake had seen Fancher coming down the stairs. Quickly he’d opened the door and slipped back into his room—back to the whimpering and the acrid smell of sweat tinged with fear—but he was certain their eyes had met for a moment. In the days that followed, neither man acknowledged the event, but now Drake understood that the unique tastes catered to by that Back Bay bordello dovetailed, in spirit, at least, with the secret of the club.
He munched his casserole, savoring the soft, spicy meat—pork, was it?—and waited to hear more.
Fancher busied himself with his meal, stuffing huge forkfuls of the casserole into his mouth, smacking his lips and chewing noisily. Dr. Soon, a more delicate eater, took up the thread of discourse. “You are aware that at certain times our club is closed to all but an inner circle.”
“Yes,” said Drake. “Frankly I’d wondered if you were indulging in some silly ritual, like bankers in Kansas who fancy their lodge The Golden Dawn or a camp of Thugees.”
Fancher snorted into his plate. “Now you know otherwise.”
Dr. Soon continued. “We are having a secret meeting on Friday evening of next week. You are invited to attend.”
“I’m honored,” said Drake. “But I confess to some trepidation. I mean . . .” He groped for the right words. “I don’t want to insult you, but what if I don’t . . .”
Dr. Soon interrupted. “You are concerned that the taste will not be to your liking. That is most amusing.”
Fancher looked up from his meal. “Damn right it’s amusing.” He nodded at Drake’s half empty plate. “Enjoying your casserole?”
Suddenly Drake understood. For a moment he felt dizzy, nauseated. But the moment passed. In its wake he felt elation. Yes, he’d have to admit he was enjoying his casserole just fine. And the small, spicy gobbets of meat?
Definitely not pork.
In the months that followed, Trevor Drake enjoyed the taste of human flesh so much that he began to get a little fat. During the secret meetings he devoured second and third helpings of boy a l’orange, roast suckling long pig, and other entrees prepared by Mr. Gumeroy, the swarthy, truculent chef brought in for these special occasions. And of course there were dumplings, and mashed potatoes, and sauces and gravy. On a day in March when he could not fasten his trousers without discomfort, he stopped at a Bally’s and signed up for a year’s worth of iron-pumping and treadmilling. And later, at the club, he ordered a salad and nothing else.
During the pleasureless mastication of lettuce and carrots, he was joined by Dr. Soon and Emilio Quatrocchi, the latter a professor of music at a prestigious university.
“Ah,” said Dr. Soon, “I see you are eating healthy today.”
“Well,” said Drake, “I’m afraid our club fare is bad for my waistline.” He looked from Dr. Soon to Quatrocchi, a dapper man of fifty with the physique of an athlete. “How do you manage to stay so trim?” he asked. “You don’t look like you have an extra pound of fat between you.”
“Discipline,” said Quatrocchi. “Pure and simple. A little less meat, a little more exercise.”
Dr. Soon laughed. “But of course our friend has discipline to spare. How otherwise could he hold a position of respect in the community while engaging in certain . . . private activities?”
Drake smiled. But the comment made him uneasy. Was Dr. Soon alluding to some “private activity” apart from their feasts at the club? Perhaps Fancher had spoken of their encounter. He swallowed a last piece of carrot and prepared to leave, when Quatrocchi spoke.
“Actually, Trevor, we have some good news for you.”
“Fine,” said Drake. “I’m always in the mood for good news.”
It was well past noon and the dining room was quiet, with only a handful of members finishing solitary lunches and reading their newspapers. Quatrocchi leaned closer. “Those of us in the inner circle have been watching you. You’ve done well. It’s time you learned the second secret.”
Drake had wondered about that. If there was a first secret, there had to be a second. Was there a third, as well? If so, he would wait to be told. Correctly, he had surmised that tact and restraint were among the valued qualities of the inner circle. One had to be tactful and restrained if one wished to indulge regularly in cannibalism.
“Once again, I’m honored.”
“For this,” said Dr. Soon, “you must be given a tour of the kitchen. If you have finished your salad . . .?”
And so the three men proceeded from the dining room into the wide hallway that led to the kitchen. Quatrocchi pushed through a set of double doors and Drake followed him into a room that nearly took his breath away. It could have been a converted ballroom, so high was its ceiling, so cavernous its depth. In the center of the room stood a gigantic fireplace with a sunken hearth large enough for a tall man to stand in without stooping. Gleaming copper pots and stainless steel utensils hung from racks over wooden countertops surrounding the fireplace. There was an electric grill, cabinets, sink and dishwasher. Curiously, the smoke-darkened, pea green walls were separated by a stairway that led to a balcony suspended halfway to the ceiling.
Dr. Soon went to the grill and spoke softly to the cook, who then gathered his staff and left the room.
Quatrocchi took a key from his pocket and opened a locked closet door. “There’s something in here you need to see,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at Drake. “Here, give me a hand.”
From the closet he dragged a heavy cast iron pole, at least seven feet long. Drake lifted one end of it and followed Quatrocchi to the hearth. With some effort they hoisted each end of the pole into holders bolted to the bricks.
“Please take note of the chain and clamp attachments at various points along the pole,” said Dr. Soon.
“Yes,” said Drake. “Hard to miss. And I note also the heavy crank on the wall, connected to the holder. We wouldn’t want the meat to be overdone on one side, now, would we?”
“Ah, but look more closely, please,” said Dr. Soon. “One of the clamps is different.”
Drake looked. And so it was. At one end of the pole, the clamp was not merely a piece of curved metal for holding a body fast to the spit, but a rectangular strip of hard black leather, charred and brittle.
Drake stared at the clamp for half a minute. Then he knew. He stepped back and placed a hand against the wall of the hearth to steady himself. With the other hand he took out a handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
Dr. Soon was now giggling like a schoolgirl. “Treated elk hide,” he managed. “Even in great heat it will not disintegrate for a long time. Naturally we would prefer to hear the screams unmuffled by a gag, but . . .what might the neighbors think?” He tried to continue, but could not contain his laughter. It was all so amusing.
Quatrocchi smiled, but there was concern in his voice. “Is it too much for you?”
“Not at all,” said Drake, his countenance restored. “I admit it threw me for a moment, but no, I’m fine with it.”
“In my country,” said Dr. Soon, catching his breath and wiping the tears from his cheeks, “all of the best chefs use this technique.”
“Yes,” said Quatrocchi. “And what hypocrites we are in the West. Are not live lobsters thrown into pots of boiling water and relished by kindly folk who dote on their pet poodles? Yet if a Korean chef has the good sense to tenderize a living dog with a blowtorch, everyone is up in arms.”
Dr. Soon shook his head sadly. “It is a fact that extreme pain releases chemicals that make cooked flesh more tender and palatable. If it is nature’s way, why should we not follow?”
“I agree,” said Drake. He thought for a moment. Then he asked the question that had been bothering him for some time. “I don’t wish to appear nosy, but I’ve been wondering . . .how do you pick out our, uh, meals? I mean, where do you find them?”
“A fair question,” said Quatrocchi. “Actually we have quite a number of sources, and while I’m not at liberty to divulge them, I can assure you that all meat is fresh and untainted by filth or disease.”
“Of course. I didn’t mean to imply . . .”
“Not at all. Later on you will learn much more. I can tell you that one of our members runs a charitable home for wayward children. When he’s quite certain he has a plump and healthy child with no meddlesome relatives who might come poking around, he donates it to the club. That’s how we operate. Always safe, always discreet.”
“I would expect nothing less,” said Drake.
“So then, asked Dr. Soon, “you are looking forward to being in the kitchen during our next roast? Tomorrow night Mrs. Huddleston will read her poetry in the salon. Then she will be our guest for dinner.”
Drake looked surprised. Phillip Huddleston was a member in good standing, a fellow trencherman at their feasts.
“Don’t worry,” said Quatrocchi. “Phillip arranged it himself. He hates the bitch.”
Drake looked up at the balcony, at the three rows of plush-backed wooden seats. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Ariel Huddleston, a pie-faced woman of forty-five with large bosoms and graying, ash-blond hair tied in a pony tail, stood at the lectern shuffling her papers. She wore gold wire-frame glasses, an ankle-length dress of purple corduroy, and hiking boots. In an unpleasant nasal voice that smacked of graduate seminars, she began reading her poetry, which consisted of two types: feminist diatribes, and flower-filled, lyrical musings on the pain of unfulfilled desire.
The men sat in their easy chairs, smoking and sipping cocktails, trying to keep their sighs and restless shiftings to a minimum. Mrs. Huddleston droned on. To Drake’s left sat the poet’s husband, hands folded in his lap, eyes shut. His face wore a beatific smile, which in other circumstances might have been taken as a show of pride. On Drake’s other side Judge Bromberg nursed a martini and drummed his fingers impatiently on the arm of his leather chair. In the middle of a long poem that seemed little more than a listing of exotic flora, punctuated by the occasional vapid statement about a woman’s feelings, the Judge whispered to Drake out of the corner of his mouth, “God save us from the botanical imaginations of lady poets.”
Finally the reading came to an end. Mrs. Huddleston descended the podium amid the applause of men whose moods had suddenly improved. For a while she circulated among them, absorbing false praise and measured smiles. Then she was led from the room by Fancher and her husband, ostensibly to view the club’s fine art collection.
Dr. Soon watched them depart. He turned to the group, his shoulders hunched in anticipation, his face glowing like a child’s on Christmas morning. “Now we must give them a moment,” he said, placing a finger to his lips.
Drake stood quietly with the other men. To his surprise, he felt a sickening twinge of revulsion. Could this be conscience, an aspect of his personality he regarded as entirely vestigial? As a child he had been a tireless torturer of small animals, even those given to him as pets. In adolescence he had orchestrated cruelties inflicted upon the gentle misfits who passed through the school system like specimens awaiting vivisection. His adult years had been characterized by utter ruthlessness, and more than a few of his business associates and their families had been left distraught and penniless. Calculatingly, he had won the affections of a woman, married her, sired a daughter, and then cast them both aside in order to pursue a lifestyle more congenial to his tastes and desires. And now, at forty, he was content with what he had become: a proud and successful businessman, and a practicing sexual sadist. He was a regular at the Back Bay brothel where young prostitutes would willingly endure mild tortures—whippings, strangulation, even the searing touch of a lighted cigar—for a price. As a preferred customer he sometimes had access to a special quarry, the confused runaway. Fresh from the sticks, convinced that the glamorous life of a high-priced courtesan awaited her in the big city, she would submit to bondage, and then Drake would enjoy the greatest of ecstasies—to torture a nubile, attractive girl who was getting more than she bargained for, whose cries for mercy were no act. And afterward, she would have no recourse but to take the money and limp off to nurse her burns and bruises, thankful she had not been part of a snuff scenario. No, what he was feeling now could not be conscience; of that he was certain. No doubt it was a vertiginous reaction to the intensity of this new pleasure. He had, after all, always stopped short of murder.
A sudden cry came from the kitchen. Nervous laughter rippled through the group, and then, led by Dr. Soon, the men surged forward.
Drake was not prepared for the sordid tableau before him. Standing shoulder to shoulder with well-dressed, eminent club members, he watched in amazement as Huddleston methodically punched and kicked his stunned, bleeding wife. Huddleston’s jacket was draped over a wooden chair and his tie was loose at his collar. He crouched low and pummeled his wife’s face, holding her head up by her pony tail, a spray of spittle accompanying the vile curses he shouted at her.
“Enough!” cried Quattrochi, leaping forward and grabbing Huddleston’s arm. “Where’s our fun if you put her in a coma?”
Weeping and babbling, Mrs. Huddleston was delivered into the hands of Mr. Gumeroy and his assistant—a gypsy, by the look of him—who roughly stripped off her clothes and fastened her to the spit. As the fire was prepared, the men climbed the stairs to the balcony and settled into their seats.
While his assistant worked the bellows, Mr. Gumeroy tended to the gag, no easy task considering the woman’s terrified screams and attempts to jerk free her head. Then he took a soft brush and basted her with oil, from her neck to her writhing feet. “Sorry if it tickles,” he said, loud enough for all to hear.
There was laughter in the balcony, and a bottle was passed around, and the men fired up their cigars and pipes. They shared conversations about business and world affairs, occasionally interrupted by the drawing of their attention to some fascinating aspect of the scene below.
Drake remained casual, smiling and joking with his fellows, reaching for the bottle of expensive gin, projecting the savoir-faire expected of a sadistic cannibal at the slow roasting of a live woman. But within, a trembling had begun at the very core of his being, and he feared it would spread outward, and soon overwhelm him in a frenzy of uncontrollable horror. As heartless and cold as he had been all his life, even though he had milked pleasure from the discomforts of bound women, nothing had prepared him for the stark terror of this monstrous scene. He wore his bland smile as a mask, while his mind shrieked that he must somehow escape from these dangerous lunatics. Hoping that the sweat on his face would be seen as a consequence of the rising heat, he silently prayed to a God he had always mocked, and waited for the ordeal to end.
Upon the long table sat three enormous plates heaped high with steaming, succulent meat. Amid the murmur of talk and the tinkle of silver and fine china came the droning voice of Huddleston, who, to Drake’s acute misery, sat directly opposite. The man went on and on about the lucky accident of his late wife’s dietary habits. Plenty of beans and corn, whole breads and eccentric, new-agey grains, and a cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables had given her the health and amplitude that translated itself into the tastiest dish he’d sampled in many a month. Their mouths full, their eyes glazed, those within hearing grunted assent. Huddleston sawed away a portion of his wife’s thigh and shoved it, crispy skin and all, into his mouth.
“Careful you don’t burst,” said Quatrocchi. “Isn’t that your third helping?”
“And I’m not done yet,” replied Huddleston, violently salting his platter. “Only pleasure she’s given me in years.”
Drake forced himself to laugh with the others. He jabbed with his fork at the meat on his plate, then buried it beneath a mound of mashed potatoes. Quickly he snuck a piece of asparagus into his mouth and chewed demonstrably, hoping this ruse would work until he was able to slip out of the room and flee the club for the safety of his home and the loaded Glock he would sleep with from now on.
But it seemed hopeless. He sensed the sidelong glances trained upon him. Although he made his plate a chiaroscuro of gravy and asparagus and potatoes, a sly watcher would notice the poorly disguised hunks of untouched meat. He had no choice but to partake of Mrs. Huddleston.
After one small bite, Drake knew that any attempt to swallow would make him vomit. Bringing a napkin to his lips, he ejected the chewed flesh with its broth of grease and saliva, aware of Quatrocchi’s puzzled glance. These men are monsters, he thought. He must make a run for it, try to escape.
He dropped the balled napkin onto his plate and stood up. His shaky legs and sickly pallor—very real indeed—would support his subterfuge. “Gentlemen, I’m sorry,” he began. “I seem to have come down with something . . .a virus, I think . . .” He pushed aside his chair and backed away from the table.
Quatrocchi stood also. “Will you be all right?”
“Yes. Yes, I’ll be fine, I think. I may have to vomit. I’ll just be off to the bathroom for a moment. Sorry about this.”
Turning his back to the table, he walked slowly, unsteadily across the thousand-mile expanse of carpet that led to the door and blessed freedom.
“Trevor!” Fancher’s voice broke the stillness like a rifle shot. “Have you forgotten?”
Drake turned his head. “Forgotten?” The word came out of him like the tremulous cry of a child. Would it give him away?
Fancher pointed to a hallway at Drake’s left, about fifteen feet from the main door. “Bathroom’s that way.”
Drake managed a wan smile. “Of course it is. I must be feverish.”
His mind racing, he entered the hallway. The silence in his wake was ominous. He knew that the ancient building was a warren of odd rooms and corridors, and he hoped to bypass the bathroom and sneak around to the front door.
The hallway was lit by a small table lamp with a cut-glass shade. Its feeble light cast dark shadows upon the wall. Drake’s tread made no sound on the thick carpet. He listened for footsteps behind him, but heard nothing. At the bathroom he turned right, down the adjoining corridor. He tried one door. A storage closet. He tried another. Locked. In the corner of his eye he perceived a flicker of motion. No, it was nothing. Just shadows at the end of the hallway. Beneath his jacket and shirt he felt sweat coursing down his sides. Now he increased his pace, half running along the corridor. He came to another door. To his relief, it was unlocked. It opened onto the dark landing of a descending stairway.
Drake hesitated. The only light came from beneath, a soft glow barely illuminating the top step and its balustrade. This did not seem the way to the front of the building, but what were his options? He would chance it. There must be a back door or a side entrance. He would keep moving till he found it. Cautiously, he passed through the doorway.
From the darkest part of the landing, a figure emerged.
Drake gasped and stepped backward. He did not see Mr. Gumeroy’s raised arm coming down until it was too late.
Mouth dry. Vision blurred. A dull, throbbing pain at the side of his head. He awoke on a cot, knowing who he was, but entirely forgetful of his circumstances. Sit up, he thought. Rub your eyes and see where you are and what has happened to you.
But he could not move his arms.
In panic he tried his legs, but they too were fastened to the cot.
Then he remembered.
A rasping cry escaped his parched throat. He pulled at his bonds, thumping the cot against the wall.
A door opened, and Dr. Soon walked into the room, smiling. “I’m so glad you have awakened,” he said. “You have been unconscious for many hours. The blow to your head was quite heavy. Mr. Gumeroy sometimes does not know his own strength.” He pulled a chair next to the cot. From his black bag he removed a pen-light and examined Drake’s eyes, holding the lids open with his thumb.
There were footsteps in the hall. Fancher came in. “How’s the patient?”
“Nothing serious,” said Dr. Soon. “He will be fully alert and aware.”
“Excellent,” said Fancher. He bent over the cot and with a rough thumb and forefinger began pinching the flesh on Drake’s side and shoulder.
Drake tried to squirm free. He winced with pain and turned his head away from the man’s rancid, beery breath. “Please,” he begged, “let me go. I promise I won’t tell.” His words came in a rush, between the catches in his breath. His limbs shook, and his heart was a mallet breaking through his chest. “I swear,” he cried, “I’ll do whatever you ask!”
Dr. Soon giggled. “It seems you have not guessed the third secret.”
“Must be the blow on the head,” said Fancher.
Tears spurted from Drake’s eyes. “You can’t do this! I’m your friend, a fellow club member!”
Dr. Soon put away his light, zipped up his black bag. “And as such, you are in the unique position of knowing the third secret because you are at the center of it.”
“Has to be a club member, I’m afraid,” said Fancher. “It won’t work any other way.”
Drake’s entreaties deteriorated into a stream of gibberish. Impelled equally by terror and despair, his head shot from side to side as he strained to break free from the ropes that held him. Without warning, Fancher gave him a tremendous stinging slap. “For Christ’s sake, man, pay attention! Where’s your dignity?”
Dr. Soon intervened. “Let us review. The first secret is that we devour human flesh. The second secret, those eaten must endure great pain, so that the meat is more tender. Now, Trevor, can you tell us the third secret?”
Though he felt himself on the brink of madness, Drake focused upon his captors. If there was a way out of this, it wouldn’t be through hysteria. “It’s obvious,” he said. “You’re treacherous bastards without honor. You take a man into your club and then kill him.”
“That’s not fair,” said Fancher. “You’ve hurt our feelings. If you’d been a worthy member, none of this would be happening.”
Dr. Soon spoke. “We have long experience of observing the reactions of a man watching for the first time someone being roasted alive. It was obvious that you did not enjoy yourself in the balcony.”
“And that performance at table!” snorted Fancher. “Do you take us for morons? A virus, indeed.”
“On rare occasion,” continued Dr. Soon, “we make an error in judgment. When that happens, we manipulate the situation to our advantage.”
“We’re great sensualists,” said Fancher. “Can’t imagine any group of men who enjoy good eating more than we do. It was Dr. Soon turned us on to the idea of cooking them alive to improve the taste. But you know how it is with pleasure. You always want more.”
“The solution was a matter of simple deduction,” said Dr. Soon. “Compare your plight to that of the late Mrs. Huddleston, whose agonies were not preceded by a period of contemplation.”
“Time to think,” said Fancher, with a chuckle. “And full knowledge of what we’re all about.” He bent over Drake’s quivering form, leered into his face. “That is the third secret. Remember what you saw from the balcony, and let the juices flow.”
Dr. Soon exploded into laughter, but Drake only saw the open mouth and crinkled eyes; he could not hear him above the sound of his own screams. He thrashed and bucked on the cot, and this time Fancher merely stepped back to watch appreciatively.
Drake was still screaming when Mr. Gumeroy and his assistant entered the room.
x x x
Rough subject matter, indeed, for anotherealm and best presented in this month of All-Hallows, this story caught my interest with its manner of telling. Note the well-paced, measured prose, the skilled characterizations, and the convincing dialog. Mr Gaffney achieves excellence with excrescence—a monstrous accomplishment. Do you agree? Demure? Tell us about it in our BBS. -GM