The first baked potato went down nicely. It always did. Loaded with all the toppings, the pillowy starches glistening with melted butter, white hummocks of sour cream speckled green and brown with chives and bits of bacon. He chased it with another before switching to a plate of au gratin for a change of pace, just warming up for the main event: the steaks. He figured he’d have one of each cut, maybe experiment with different levels of doneness. A delay occurred between the New York cut — rare, dripping red with succulent juices, nearly fork-tender — and the medium-rare filet mignon. He filled it with another appetizer, shrimp cocktail, each little coral-hued morsel slurped down noisily. So good. At intervals he swilled a glass of red wine — a chateau something-or-other, he could never be bothered to remember the appellations, simply trusting the sommelier, waiter, or bar-tender to recommend the appropriate accompaniment — swishing each mouthful vigorously to dislodge any stray bits of protein or strands of vegetable matter.
The top sirloin, medium, he found a trifle tough, but gobbled it down contentedly enough with a few healthy dollops of steak sauce for lubrication. He knifed through the medium-well chateau briand which he found tolerably tasty though he suspected a certain amount of flavor had been cooked out. He waived away the well-done bone-in ribeye not out of satiety but boredom. He could still eat. He still had room. He always had room.
He called for the desert cart and indicated that each selection would be acceptable. While waiting for the server to deliver the creme brulee, vanilla cherry tart, chocolate three ways, and apple crumble ala mode, he retrieved from the briefcase beside his chair what was, despite his personal views about the status of the steaks, the actual main course of the meal. Sealed into lubricated condoms were the broken down components of what he assumed, though certainly had not ascertained or inquired about, was a handgun. He examined the dimensions of each. One or two looked a bit tricky but still within his capability. A couple bottles of brandy or port might help relax his jaw and throat muscles enough to get the parts down. Even with the three bottles of wine and the pair of aperitifs he had only the barest buzz going. Inebriation wasn’t as impossible for him as a full stomach but it still took some doing.
Assisted by fortified wine and the assortment of desserts he earned his living, the tangible evidence of some malfeasance or other disappearing permanently.
Marcus Unger was a glutton, a man who’d never experienced a surfeit, heartburn, indigestion, or even an uncomfortable sense of bloat. He didn’t appear out of the ordinary. If anything he was on the thin side. His childhood appetites were certainly normal but his anxious parents, with the assurance of exasperated, even disbelieving pediatricians, wrote off his prodigious consumption as a healthy appetite and a robust metabolism. Marcus himself grew up considering himself entirely normal. It wasn’t until after high school that the ribbing and half-serious queries of his friends ginned up enough curiosity within him to consider making his own inquiries. That curiosity he shelved after a visit to the family general practitioner and glimpsing an estimate of the price of consulting specialists. The unsolved mystery cost him no sleepless nights; complaisance was second nature, one might even grant it primacy.
It wasn’t until a stint in the Navy — the armed forces seeming to Marcus the path of least resistance — that another impetus to investigate his gift arrived. He was on leave in San Francisco, wandering aimlessly through Chinatown, grazing through one buffet after another. Passing by a narrow storefront his attention was drawn by a hand-painted sign claiming that a certain Doctor Wong, practitioner of ancient and mystic Eastern healing arts could diagnose infallibly, among other things, “digestive tract ailments of whatever nature, source, or symptom, no matter how esoteric or unknown to Western medicine.”
While Marcus did not consider himself to be suffering from any ailment, he was willing to concede that his symptoms were uncommon. To a tinkle of little brass bells he entered a cramped chamber of wonders, a dim space packed with oddities and large glass jars and carboys whose contents were revealed by pasted-on calligraphed labels. Not, of course, in English. From behind a beaded curtain emerged a venerable, bespectacled figure in black silks who seemed composed primarily of white beard. Marcus submitted himself to examination by Dr. Wong (for it was the great man himself)à an examination consisting primarily of proddings by a stiffened, arthritic finger, grunts and mumblings from deep within the beard, and about a dozen cups of fragrant tea.
It was thus that Marcus learned the facts that were to set his feet on a new and utterly novel career path. “Only a small portion of your stomach opens to your intestines,” Dr. Wong informed him. “The majority of your stomach is a conduit, a portal to a place located nowhere in Heaven or Earth. Little of your meals are digested. Most goes – elsewhere.”
Marcus did not immediately formulate a plan upon absorbing this information. Initiative, drive, ambition were foreign to him. His was not the entrepreneurial spirit. It was not until after he’d completed his active service that he stumbled upon his future. He was lazing one evening at the home of his friend and purveyor of marijuana when their repose was interrupted by the peremptory demands of the police for entry. Recalling the words of Dr. Wong, Marcus volunteered to dispose of his friend’s stash. By the time the police gained entry he had gobbled down all traces of contraband. A toxicity analysis of blood, urine, and saliva samples that he acquiesced to provide were free of any taint of cannabis.
Word spread. Demand accumulated for his services from a class of clients possessed of uniquely compelling needs to dispose of items quickly and irretrievably. It was not an overnight success of course. A certain degree of distrust had to be overcome from a category of humanity that already tended toward suspicion. But satisfied customers who appreciated Marcus’ incuriosity and nearly bovine complaisancy served as valuable word-of-mouth advertisers.
And so Marcus Unger began plying spoon and fork rather profitably. His contractual stipulations were few: cash payment and an evening at a fine – and discreet – restaurant. First time clients were often surprised at how similar the two outlays turned out to be. But they did not complain. Marcus delivered. He swallowed numerous firearms, broken down into manageable components. He downed thumb drives, hard drives, ledgers, wallets, footwear with distinctively worn tread patterns. He didn’t care what. He only noticed the makeup of the main course incidentally to the act of consuming it. Once he gulped down, wedged into the filling of cannoli, what he suspected were human fingertips. It did not even give him pause. The mascarpone was smooth and delicious, and the prosecco he washed it all down with was fruity and delightfully effervescent. Life was a banquet and the courses never ceased.
Marcus leaned back in his chair, conjuring up a belch of satisfaction in celebration of an excellent meal and a job well done. He beamed with his accustomed contentment, a svelte buddha. The fee should keep his feedbag full until the next contract came along.
He belched again and frowned. That belch was not artificial. Strange. When he swallowed air it simply vanished down the rabbit hole along with most everything else he consumed. Why –? His abdomen spasmed. A discomfort settled in his gut and spread. That was new and he didn’t like it one bit. A hint of pain followed, accompanied by an equally novel sense of unease. Complaisance, long unchallenged, was dethroned, usurped by accelerating dread.
So many years of dumping things through to someplace else. And now…. Something stretched within him, something thrust upwards. He gagged, then transitioned to sustained, agonizing retching, horrified as he realized that the conduit was not just a one way passage after all.
Something was coming the other way.