The first indication that her assistant, Tara, received my email request for an interview is a slight Filipino boy someone has draped over my legs while I lay sleeping. I awake to find him, quite dead and quite naked, with his arms stretched out above his head as if he has been flying through the air with Superman. I briefly wonder what sort of terrible drug has caused me to bring home a Filipino boy and murder him, but then I realize he is waterlogged. He smells like the sea. Not the hoary smell of ocean spray that writers will wax romantic upon, but the dead and decaying stench of the deep. It is the stink of that rotten abyss where whales and U-boats venture to die.
My legs are pinned beneath the sodden corpse. I stretch out my fingers and snatch up my glasses from the night stand. The boy is on his back and he has eight nipples. Though I admit to no intimate familiarity with the physiological idiosyncrasies of natives of the Philippines, this seems out of the ordinary. To extract myself from beneath his bulk I roll him onto his stomach. It is then that I spy Tara's response to my email. Carved into the skin of the corpse's back is a crude map. I instantly recognize the coast of French Guyana, but it is a strange island set off that coast and marked with a bloody "X" that is the apparent subject of the map.
The message is disturbing, but I am most disturbed that they have spelled out the word "nine" instead of simply using the number. Fucking sadists.
I memorize the map and carry the Filipino boy to the bathtub. I have to break his arms and step on his chest to get him to fit. I say a few words over his body and then flood it with the emergency supply of bleach I keep in my cupboard. I would have liked to have given the poor eight-nippled wretch a proper burial, but time is not on my side. I have less than fifteen hours to reach a remote island in the North Atlantic and I have a sinking suspicion that Priceline will not have any good deals on a ticket. If ignore the invitation or I am late there is no telling what sort of gruesome fate I might meet at the vengeful hands of Rachael Ray.
"You'll doom us all!" Captain Jacques Lefèvre shouts.
I reckon him a Negative Nancy and I brandish my loaded pistol to remind him of my absolute authority. A glance at my watch reminds me that I have scarcely three hours to reach the island before my own doom is all but written in stone tablets. I want to vomit.
Dramamine is made for train rides and Carnival Cruises. With the Lucky Louise heaving and twisting on twenty-foot waves, her keel groaning with each precipitous plunge into a churning trough, Dramamine is a bit like applying icing to a turd and calling it cake. I go ahead and vomit.
The first mate groans and attempts to brace himself upright using the radio console. The storm that is threatening to destroy our decrepit vessel has also rendered her radio and GPS equipment useless. We know only that an hour ago - before the wind, rain and fog descended upon us - we were less than fifty miles from the supposed location of the island. The captain is certain that we will be dashed upon the rocks or capsized and eaten by sharks. As I mentioned, he is a Negative Nancy.
"Steady on," I insist.
My innards knot in horror as the deck shifts beneath my feet. The sea appears, precipitously, in front of the windscreen of the cabin. We plunge down yet another trough. The bow of Lucky Louise crashes into the sea and a white torrent surges over the fore deck. Several unfortunate sailors are swept clean away. They are lost to the storm, but I have greater concerns.
A cry from the engineer informs us that Lucky Louise's diesels have given up the fight. We are now entirely at the mercy of the storm and the possibility that we will be thrown off-course looms large in my mind. I look at my pistol and know that a single bullet to my brain might be the best thing in my future.
Minutes later, Lucky Louise utters her final, pained scream impotently into the howling winds. We come down from a 26 foot swell and she's on her starboard side, half submerged before she even hits bottom. Her iron spine snaps and her hull splinters like kindling. The lower decks are sucked out into the ocean and as she capsizes her superstructure bursts apart and pulls the rest of us out into the Atlantic.
It was so hot in the cabin, but the water is freezing even this close to the equator. I gulp pints of saltwater and fight feebly against the waves. I see the captain and first mate bobbing amid the last matchstick timbers of Lucky Louise. Then I lose consciousness, damning Rachael Ray with what I am certain is my dying breath.
"You made it," she says. "I'm impressed."
I lift my head from the tangle of kelp that had served as a pillow. The beach is scattered with debris and corpses. A dense jungle meets the sand and from within it rises the menacing cone of a volcano. A gothic castle sprouts from its side.
"You are still alive, aren't you?" She asks and I turn my head.
Rachael Ray is smiling at me and I can't help but smile back. She has a honeysuckle flower in her hair and her shoulders are draped with an unusual poncho made from corded leather. Her lips sparkle like rubies in the morning sun. One hand rests on the head of an adult hyena.
"Come on, get up mister journalist," she plucks at my shirt. "If you don't get up Brutus and I will have to assume you're just more dead meat."
The hyena licks its chops.
"L-lovely poncho," I manage.
"It's made from tendons," she replies, and lifts me up with the power of her mind.
Despite my exhaustion I follow Rachael Ray up the many twisting steps to her Vulcan fastness. Malformed hands and talons reach out to us from darkened cells built into the walls of the Volcano. Piteous cries and moans can be heard echoing from within. I recoil from ragged nails that tear a strip from my shirt and nearly succumb to vertigo as rocks tumble away from the stairs and down the side of the mountain. Rachael favors me with a smile over her shoulder.
"My failures," she says.
Brutus snaps the finger from a twisted hand and I hear a shriek as the arm is pulled back into darkness. We press on.
The gothic crenellations and ironwork grotesques of her citadel belie the modern interior. Brushed aluminum doors hiss open as we approach and strips of lighting automatically activate when we enter each new hallway. At last we arrive in a domed chamber that affords us a view of the entire island through its glass hemisphere. An iris on the floor ratchets open to reveal the bubbling lava of the volcano's magma chamber beneath our feet. Rachael hands the leash of her hyena to a robed acolyte wearing a cyclopean hood. The creature wheezes and lopes off with the hyena reluctantly in tow.
"You wanted an interview," Rachael sprawls on a leather sofa.
"Y-yes," I say. "Your popularity seems to have grown considerably since last we spoke. The TV shows, the, the endorsement deal with Nabisco, the, ah-"
"Nabisco?" Rachael sneers. "You came here to talk to me about Triscuits? About Wheat Thins?"
She rings a silver bell. Another of her acolytes enters pushing a wheeled trolley that supports an upright woman, nude and bound. The acolyte pants and brings the poor girl over to Ray and I see that the woman has a weeping wound in her side. Ray suckles at the gash.
"Yum-o," she pronounces.
Her viperous tongue darts from her mouth to lick away an errant drop of blood.
"The blood is thickened with fear and pain," she hisses, "it creates a sort of 'stoup'. Thicker than soup, not so thick as a stew. Would you care for a taste?"
"S-some say you're becoming the next Oprah, I, uh-,"
"Oprah?" She interjects with a laugh. "I am becoming the next God. I was once the master of the thirty minute meal. Now? In thirty minutes I could destroy the world."
"Did you plan it this way?" I ask, wishing I were somewhere else.
"Plan?" She rises from the sofa and opens her arms melodramatically. "Apotheosis is my birthright, you see. Circumstance or my predecessor, it does not matter, I am claiming my due."
"How?" I ask her. "This place…it's…"
"It's just a playroom for what is to come, you see," her mind pulls me to her from across the room.
She lifts me from the ground by my tattered collar. I can smell the blood stoup on her breath.
"You are a relic," her teeth are like hateful dice rolling snake-eyes. "I don't hold that against you, it's just what you are. A reminder of what was. What I have been doing, what I have created here, man and beast. The long pig meets the tiger, the lion, the shark, the eagle. New flavors, you see, new meals to enjoy. They will never even notice as they slide down the food chain. Delish!"
She lets me drop and the magma rumbles sympathetically as I hit the floor.
"You're talking about…genetics?" I ask, pushing myself upright.
"It's already in the water, in the air," she laughs. "All of the major cities. This island might be the only place on earth right now where the change isn't beginning, but it will happen even here eventually."
"You're turning people into…," I look around, as though I might find a telephone conveniently placed to allow me to warn someone.
"Into hybrids, new meats, new meals," she licks her lips again and I can see the hunger, limitless and terrible, behind her eyes.
"What about Tara? What about Steven? What about your husband?"
"Oh," she laughs, "he liked spitting that naughty, naughty boy, so I made him a few special playmates. Did you know the tick injects its digestive fluids directly into your body? John knows now, quite intimately. Take a pretty girl, a dash of tick DNA, a pinch of the right amino acids and add E-V-O-O to taste. It was much easier than you would think."
"What about the rest of them?" I ask.
"They have all become my willing test subjects," she runs a fingertip down my cheek, "just like you will."
She turns on her heel and walks back to the silver bell.
"First, I think it's time for a nice dinner," she winks and rings the bell.
I am bathed in a rosewater-filled caldarium by muscular women with bronze skin and the clicking mouth-parts of ants. Their eyes are glazed, but their questing antennae tickle my skin as their hands work to scrub away the littoral filth clinging to my every crevice. They massage scented extra virgin olive oil into my aching muscles and scrape the excess away with bath combs. By the time I am presented with a threadbare and ill-fitting tuxedo I feel a newly made man.
Thus cleaned and dressed, I am led by one of Ray's hooded acolytes to the dining room. It speaks in sibilant hisses and gestures with its candelabra to the open door. Hybrid waiters and attendants cluster about a mahogany table. Ray sits at one end and I am seated at the other. A quartet of tiny pig-men struggle with instruments suited to adults.
The meal that is served runs contrary to all of the principles of fast and simple cooking I have come to associate with Ray. She introduces each course with a flourish of a silver lid and a description of the ingredients.
"Basil and almond crusted loin of girlligator," she beams. "Savory custard of Maneagle gelatin with a sprig of mint."
My reluctance to dine on such a bounty fades as each dish I sample is better than the last. Ray eats little, seemingly content to watch me devour each course with increasing gusto. At last we reach the aperitif, a sliver of truffle and Irish Crayman paste served with a vintage Riesling.
A man has not lived until he has sipped hot Alsace Riesling from the freshly boiled skullcap of a Thai cat-man. Such an experience should never be denied the Epicurean. The subtle flavors of the Grand Cru white drift across palate and tongue like brandied hickory smoke or a sonorous melody of a favorite love song. Exquisite hints of clotted lemon, clarified butter and clover honey mingle with more exotic flavors such as saffron and epithalamus. It is as if this pitiful creature were dreaming of the most delectable wine as he was stunned for the final time. It is as though that artful butcher filleted and distilled its wondrous primitive dreams into a vintage suited for any true connoisseur.
I tilt back the skull and the let the nectar overflow my mouth. Rachael nods her approval and the band strikes up a merry, if dysfunctional, tune. Their fat hoggy fingers pluck at strings and struggle to grasp drumsticks. The music seems to Doppler in and out around me and I realize, with a pluck of horror, that my drink has been drugged.
Rachael stands, apparently nude from the waist down and quite fond of the natural look. She is the succubus and I just another morsel on her plate to be pronounced delish. I fall from my chair as I attempt to flee and find myself looking up at the fire-lit rafters. Ray looms into view, a giant, a goddess.
"Welcome to the family," she says, her leering mouth like a knife of bone. "I hope you like moles."
I can feel the change beginning in my muscles as she descends upon me.
"Keep the change," she adds as she grinds down on me with her warm forest of nettles.
I cannot help but think that she is a lousy tipper.
Are you concerned that you may be a character trapped in a Tom Waits song? Be smart and learn the warning signs before it's too late. Also, it's too late. It has always been too late.
I'm haunted by a recurring vision of a skeleton flipping me off. To avoid seeing this terrifying image in bumper sticker form, I pay someone with a blank bumper to drive in front of me at all times.
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