The twins giggled and fluttered the menu cards like fans around their flawless necks. Lady sighed, and wondered again what she was doing there. She scanned the crowded room, hoping to see someone to talk to, someone interesting, or at least someone who wasn’t so very gauche, so very nouveau. Instead, her eyes fell on their host, Herr Von Mueller. What on earth was he wearing? Some sort of a frock coat?
Von Mueller caught her gaze, and moved swiftly to her side. “Is there anything in particular that catches your fancy, My Lady?” He enquired.
“I’m afraid I don’t quite understand...” She confessed, waving the menu that had been pressed into her hand on arrival.
His eyes betrayed his disappointment, and for a moment Lady thought that there was something else, some hidden tension, before his tight-lipped smile resettled uncomfortably on his thin, pale face. “Ah, so My Lady was not here when I explained...” He stopped abruptly, and glanced around the room. “Perhaps – if you would do me the honour, I might speak to you privately? I would love the opportunity to explain my discovery to you in person.”
Lady stiffened as he took her arm, and then allowed him to guide her towards a curtained door. She nodded briefly to the twins to follow, and placed her gloved hand over Von Mueller’s. “A discovery, you say?”
“Yes, indeed.” Von Mueller nodded enthusiastically. “Out in the wilds of Alaska. I was half starved, and I feared that I would perish amongst the featureless, never-ending woods. By pure luck I came across a trapper; I thought he was dead, and he wasn’t far off, but his immobility was largely explained by the nearly empty bottle of the cheapest, foulest whisky at his side.”
Von Mueller opened the door and showed Lady into a small ante-room containing a couple of plush crimson couches. He handed her a glass, and continued his story. “Well, I couldn’t afford to be choosy, so I bent down and took a sip. The coarse liquid burned the back of my throat, but it was warming, and I could feel life flowing back into me. And one sip led to another, and another, and then I was, I am afraid to say, gorging myself in a most unrefined manner.”
Lady smiled. “You, Von Mueller? Surely not.”
Von Mueller’s mirthless grin widened momentarily. She wondered if he knew how uncouth, how vulgar she thought him.
He carried on, oblivious to her inner thoughts. “Indeed. But when I had had my fill, I found that I could not stand. I went sprawling over the trapper’s now lifeless body. I was drunk. Utterly drunk.”
Lady snapped to attention. “Drunk? That’s not possible!”
Von Mueller sat eagerly forwards. “Yes! So I had believed myself.” He raised his glass, the red liquid swilling around. “Nevertheless, it was so. I had discovered that while the most expensive champagnes, the rarest of wines, the finest of brandies have about as much taste and effect as water on us, the cheapest firewater, in the blood of a man ...”
Lady interrupted. “Ridiculous! Do you think that I have not, in my many years...”
Von Mueller held up a finger. “Not just ANY man, My Lady! My experiments when I returned to civilisation proved that. I was at a loss to understand the difference, until I recalled that when the blood had drained from the trapper’s face, it left it a sickly, yellow hue.”
Lady placed her glass on the small coffee table between them. “A liver problem?” She asked, thoughtfully.
Von Mueller beamed. “Indeed! I wish my insight had been so swift - it would have saved me much time and effort. Liver failure to be precise. The cheap alcohol that he had consumed in such quantities remained unprocessed in his blood, in its intoxicating form.”
Lady looked more closely at the menu. “Gin...” She read. “Whisky.”
“Yes.” Von Mueller nodded. “Different alcohols produce distinctive flavours. Gin, in particular... did you ever taste gin, before...?”
Lady shook her head, and bent over the stiff printed card. So many things she had experienced in her long life, and yet the simple mention of one she had not, could not, brought a cold tear to her eye. “And these? Sweet, it says. And here: Sour?”
Von Mueller steepled his fingers. “Once I had stumbled upon the principle, I looked for other examples - other illnesses of the blood. Diabetics, when given sugary drinks, produce sweet, honey like blood. Whilst in gout, the elevated levels of uric acid produce a tart, sour taste.” He laughed. “We tend to avoid the ill, considering them beneath us, and focusing instead on the young, the healthy, the virginal. But like health foods, what is good for us, is frequently rather bland. Even more so after a 100 years on the same diet.”
As she’d already surmised, he was a youngster, and after the passing of a mere century there was much that was still novel to him. She wondered who had turned him, and why. “But what about the prices?” She asked. “£2000 for Whisky?”
He pulled a long face. “My Dearest Lady, I hope you did not think that these trivial amounts applied to you? You are my distinguished guest.”
“But for everyone else?” Lady pressed.
Von Mueller brushed some imagined piece of lint from his jacket. “I would, in all honesty, prefer not to charge at all. But you must understand, what I provide, is not easy to provide. The ... vessels themselves are necessarily damaged in the process of grooming them. The fee helps to recuperate the costs involved, but more importantly, it serves to discourage my more hasty guests from gorging themselves. I prefer to see my creations tapped, rather than drained, and so I ask that they take just a taste.”
“I see. And after they’ve had this taste, do you then sell the vessels?” Lady queried, amused by his odd turn of phrase.
Von Mueller squirmed in his seat. “Sell, My Lady? I can and do provide them, to those who show proper appreciation. Money, certainly, from those with little imagination, or power. But I prefer other rewards.”
Lady’s heart sank. He was, then, merely a businessman, and the tainted blood was surely just another gimmick. Oh, it might keep her amused for a short while, a decade or two, but in the end, she knew, she’d tire of this as well. She should make her excuses, and leave.
She flicked a glance in the direction of the twins. “And if I asked you to groom a couple of vessels for me, what would you suggest?”
Von Mueller looked shocked. Ah, the folly of youth, thought Lady. To associate the twins fragile and ephemeral beauty with any real value. Von Mueller obviously coveted them, but did he not recognise them for what they truly were? Mere status symbols, inconsequential things that would eventually bore him as they had her – perhaps even before their fleeting beauty faded.
“My Lady, are you sure?” He asked hesitantly.
“Quite.” She asserted. “What would it take for them to become sweet and sour?”
He shook his head vehemently. “Alas, that would not be possible. Not in any case, with any surety, and not without a great deal of time and effort. But, perhaps, something else...”
“Gin?” Lady prompted.
“No,” he hesitated. “I was thinking of another, more immediate, effect. Certain modern substances – drugs - can change the blood chemistry, the taste. Also, the effects can be reversed, so that ...”
Lady fixed him with a cool gaze. “I don’t need for it to be reversible. You dangle exotic fruit before me, whetting my appetite, and then, each time, you disappoint me. Don’t tease me - entertain me. I long to be entertained, and really, I don’t mind at all how you achieve it.”
Von Mueller stood stiffly, and beckoned the twins to follow him. “Very well My Lady. I will need a little time, an hour perhaps. Would you like to rejoin the party, or order something from the menu?”
Lady reclined on the couch. “No, Von Mueller. I think I will stay here. And though I do not wish to spoil my appetite, I am rather peckish. Perhaps something... bland?”
Von Mueller flinched, and Lady smiled at his obvious discomfort. “Don’t worry, Herr Von Mueller. I will not deprive you of a valued servant. I will merely - tap him. Unless of course, you would rather I didn’t?”
Von Mueller paused at the door, and bowed. “You are my guest, My Lady. Please, make yourself at home.”
An hour later, just as Lady was thinking of sending for another servant - a young girl, perhaps - Von Mueller reappeared with the twins. She beckoned them to join her on the couch, were they sat, trembling. She regarded them with curiosity. “So, Von Mueller. What have you cooked up for me?”
“Entertainment.” Von Mueller said simply. “And – perhaps, oblivion.”
Lady froze, sensing danger. “Explain.” She demanded in an icy voice.
“Each of your twins now contains a seed of death. One, her own. One, perhaps, yours.”
Lady licked her lips, and looked at each twin in turn. “And... which is which?”
Von Mueller shrugged. “I do not know. Nor do the twins themselves. No one does. One has been injected with heparin. It is a fast acting anti-coagulant. One small bite, and she will bleed to death. The other has been injected with silver nitrate. It is colourless and odourless, and I don’t have to explain what it would do to you?”
Lady shuddered, and shook her head. “So I choose? And if I choose neither?”
Von Mueller gave a wry smile. “Then the heparin will fade, and the twin with the silver nitrate – if exposed to sunlight – may turn a rather fetching shade of greyish-blue, and you will know which was which. But where would be the fun in that?”
“Indeed.” Lady put an arm around the bare shoulder of each twin. “What is it you want in return?”
Von Mueller slid a sheet of parchment and a pen onto the table. “Nothing, really. But if you would be so kind as to sign this letter, it might avoid a lot of unnecessary unpleasantness later.”
Lady carefully read the document, and then scrawled her signature. “Perhaps I underestimated you, Herr Von Mueller. It is turning out to be a most interesting evening, after all.”
Von Mueller stopped at the door. “That is all I ever wished, My Lady. Farewell, and bon chance.”
In the corridor beyond he took a deep breath, and tried to put the pen back into his jacket pocket. But his hand was shaking too much to manage it. If Lady, or any of his other guests realised he was not who he said he was, then his gambit would have failed, and his life would be forfeit. He crossed himself at the thought. But it was worth the risk! There was no other way to gain access to such monsters. And if the twins died in the process? If Lady took the bait they would not have died in vain, for where she led, others, equally tired of life, would surely follow. Perhaps not the nouveau, he would have to come up with another strategy for them, even if it meant going back to the cumbersome ways of his father, and his father before him.
And if she didn’t take the bait? Then he would have to disappear, to start over. For even in the darkened corridors in which Lady moved, how long would it be before both twins turned blue?
The Tasting Menu by Liam Hogan was read by Lucie Howard at the Liars’ League Sweet & Sour event at The Phoenix, Cavendish Sq., London on Tuesday 9 March 2010
Liam Hogan runs a sanctuary for homeless stories. He is delighted that Liars League has agreed to take another one from him, and if there is anyone else out there who can give a good home to one of his stories, please get in touch. Most of them are house-broken.
Lucie Howard trained at ALRA. Theatre credits include Joy Division (Rosemary Branch), Hiawatha (Edinburgh Fringe) Saturday Night (White Bear), Susanna (Hen & Chickens) and A Decade Under The Influence (rehearsed reading, Young Vic). Film credits include Branded (comedy sketch show pilot) and the horror film Patrol Men.