Perdita Patrone, vice president of communications at DinoLand Enterprises, Inc.
I have always loved the dinosaurs, even before they were real dinosaurs, when we were just a dinosaur-themed park with a museum, and I was working my way through college as a DinoGuide, hiking with tours of schoolkids up the DinoWalk, explaining the hunting habits of the deinonychus and explaining why brachiosauruses couldn’t rear up on their hind legs like they do in the movies.
I was there when the first eggs hatched, brittle ovals three times the size of footballs. No one on DinoLand’s executive team got any work done that day. All of us, from Steve to the secretaries to the interns, we all just hung around the hatchery that day, watching through the plastic of the incubator as the eggs wobbled and finally cracked open. Then, after the vet said it was okay, we spent hours petting newborn brachiosauruses the size of dogs. I have a photo of me from that day on my desk: I’m wearing a hairnet, gloves and a white coat and I look so happy that you’d think the dinosaur on my lap was my own child. Steve has photos like that in his own office: Steve cuddling a baby triceratops, Steve in a leather apron and hawking gloves, cradling a small allosaurus, Steve beaming with a baby brach in his arms.
Right now, Steve is standing at the head of table in the Ordovician Room’s private dining room, grinning like his face is about to break, while executives from nation’s twelve most powerful food corporations stare down at plates of brachiosaurus.
I try to ignore the feeling in the pit of my stomach and focus on what he’s saying.
“I think you will find that what I’m proposing here is something you will all want to be a part of. With the world population rising and so many people starving, the world will need a more sustainable source of protein. With animals the size of a house, that is something we can provide.”
There’s a silence while he takes in the result of his announcement, drinking in the surprise of his guests like it’s blood.
“Try it,” he exhorts them, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet.
Our guests lean over their plates, poking forks into the meat, staring at it, inspecting it. Bob Springer, the commercial beef farmer, cuts into his meat, examining it. Sheila Maphrasian, the chicken empire heiress, is staring at Steve as if she’s seen him for the first time.
“Brachiosaurus?” Her voice cuts through the air of the dark room. “Is this even legal?”
No, I think. No it is not.
When Steve first explained to me that he’d be selling the dinosaurs as meat, I was horrified, but consoled myself with the fact that there were so many hurdles between Steve having an idea and a dinosaur actually being butchered: the FDA, legal issues, animal rights groups, patents, and of course, public opinion. Any one of those things could shut this meat project down before it started. Miles of red tape stood between me and a steaming plate of brachiosaurus.
It never occurred to me that Steve would just go through with it on his own.
“Looks like chicken,” says George Herrmann, the packaged foods CEO. His comment draws a nervous chuckle from the table.
Steve’s own laugh is a little too loud. “Of course it does,” he says. “Dinosaurs are reptiles. They’re most closely related to birds – like chickens. And,” he adds, with a significant look at Sheila, “ladies will love this product, because it’s all lean meat. Not fattening.”
I can’t see her expression in the dim light of the executive dining room, but I can imagine it. Her displeasure, however, has fallen to the bottom of my list of priorities.
It wasn’t that long ago that those eggs hatched; I can still feel the air in the incubated shed, the young brach wriggling and chirping as I laid my hand on his back, my surprise at his lack of body heat. Our brachs are huge, but they’re only about five years old.
The dish in front of me steams and I feel the weight of Steve’s stare.
“You should eat it,” says Steve. His smile is beginning to look forced. I know that if someone doesn’t take a bite soon, I will be the one who has to do it. I’m his vice president of communications. It’s my job to make him look good. Except I can’t. I keep seeing that photo of the baby brach and me from seven years ago. That had been one of the best days of my life, the day the dinosaurs became a reality.
Steve leans back, the smile thinning on his face, hands clasped, and looks down the table at all the guests, challenging them to take a bite.
“Well, hell,” Springer looks up from his plate. “I’ll try it.”
He picks up his steak knife and cuts a smaller piece off the chunk he’s already removed from the filet. He stabs it with his fork and lifted it so that everyone can see it glistening at the end of his utensil. Then he takes a surprisingly delicate bite.
Everyone watches as he chews, leaning forward across their own untouched plates as he works the morsel around in his mouth. He nods and swallows.
“Well,” Maureen Ames from Freezer Foods International asks, “how is it?”
“Good.” Springer takes a sip of water. “Sort of like chicken, but with a pork consistency. Kind of. It’s actually a little like alligator meat.”
Across the table, Herrmann neatly slices off a bit of filet. He slips it into his mouth, and chews carefully.
“I don’t know about alligator. I’ve never tasted anything quite like it. It’s not fishy, but something about it reminds me of fish. Peculiar but good. You say this is a brachiosaurus? One of the ones we saw earlier?”
The rest of the table has picked up their forks and is now starting to nibble.
“It’s fine,” says a handsome dark-haired CEO from the poultry world. I can’t remember his name. “But surely your chef deserves most of the credit for that. Any cut of meat tastes good grilled and rubbed with garlic. What does it taste like with a basic preparation? That’s what I’d like to know.”
Steve grins. “I’m so glad you asked.” He reaches under the table, and presses the button for service. Presently the large embossed doors swung open and waiters enter, bearing more trays.
The first approaches the table and uncovers his dish.
“Baked,” says Steve.
A second comes to the table. “Grilled, but without spices or herbs. Just olive oil.”
A third waiter approached the table. “Boiled.”
A fourth. “Roasted.”
A fifth. “Smoked.”
A sixth. “Microwaved after having been frozen, for you packaged foods people.” Steve favors Herrmann with a wink. “Go ahead, take a bite.”
I look wearily at the line of waiters with trays. No wonder Roger was so nervous tonight; he’d known about this all along. Maybe he’d see it as a big feather in his cap to be preparing dinosaur in his four-star restaurant. I wonder if he can be trusted to keep it quiet, to not leak this information to the culinary press, because Steve’s decision to go ahead and slaughter a brachiosaurus could get us into a lot of hot water with the government. Even as my stomach roils, I’m still doing my job.
People begin to load up their plates now and still more platters were being unloaded onto the table. “As a burger. As bacon. Fried. As a sandwich meat.”
I find myself gazing at the empty seat at the table. For the first time tonight, I’m glad Doug isn’t here. I don’t like him much — I never have — and I’ve been furious with him all evening, but I don’t think I could have handled watching our chief naturalist see one of his animals served to a table of people from the food industry. Whatever the animal situation he’s facing out in The Barn, it can’t be as bad as this. Still, he must have noticed that one is missing. Didn’t he ask questions?
“I notice you’re not eating any.” The executive to my right smiles at me. His plate is loaded with brachiosaurus bacon, brachiosaurus burger patties and roasted brachiosaurus. The smell of it makes me feel ill. “Do you know something we don’t know?”
“No.” I sigh. It’s the truth. I don’t know anything he doesn’t know.
I make myself take a bite and smile.
An hour and a half later, the restaurant has mostly emptied itself of the other, regular patrons, and we are milling around in the dining room, while waiters in black sweep up expensive crumbs and fold table linens. Steve is talking excitedly to the guests, promising to replace everything on tomorrow’s itinerary with new items: instead of the spa and golf, our guests will be visiting The Barn, inspecting the hatchery and viewing the animals themselves. There are questions about salmonella that need to be answered. There will be meetings about possible new products and a discussion about how to approach the FDA. (Several executives quietly mention to me that they have contacts there who may be able to help us.) I am taking notes, because I will have to have this new itinerary ready in the morning. Tonight I will be sending frantic emails to the relevant staff members, telling them that they have to come in on a Saturday.
After the last guest has been packed off to the hotel, I’m picking my own purse up off one of the recently-cleared tables when I smell a familiar aftershave. When I glance up, Steve is standing nearby.
“Perdy,” he says.
There’s a way of smiling he has, like no one in the world is as deserving of his attention as you are. I’ve been taken in by this smile before. It took me years of working with him to realize that Steve’s smile is to him as an instrument is to a talented musician. When he’s in a bad mood, as he was earlier when Doug didn’t show up to dinner, you can sharpen knives on that smile, but when he wants, Steve’s smile can warm up the room or make you feel like you’re the only person in it. I’ve seen him use that smile on local businessmen, on venture capitalists, on senators and congressmen. Now it’s directed at me.
“Have a drink with me.”
I follow him back into the Ordovician Room’s empty lounge, with its polished black marble bar, leather couches and a fresco of dinosaurs running around the room — ridiculous, really, since no dinosaurs lived during the Ordovician period. Any of our teenage DinoGuides could tell you that.
The bartender is wiping down the bar and putting the garnishes in order when we come in. He seems startled to see Steve, but serves us quickly — an expensive red for me, a beer you can buy in a gas station for Steve — then glides wordlessly to the other end of bar to chop up limes.
“You’re upset,” says Steve.
“No, I just —”
“You’re upset,” he says again, and leans over his beer to peer at me, eyes dark with concern. “Come on, don’t I know you by now? The girl that’s been working for me since high school? The ten-year-old who fell out of a tree because she wanted to see dinosaurs? I think I know you by now, kiddo. You’re upset.”
It strikes me just how little Steve has changed in the time I’ve known him. He sits there, suit jacket long gone, expensive tie stuffed into his pants pocket, top two buttons of his shirt undone, sweaty from having burned so brightly in front of his powerful guests, stubbly despite the fact that he probably shaved right before the event tonight. This, I think, is exactly how he looked when I was ten. Maybe he’s a little grayer around the temples, but he’s still the same man who pulled me out of that pond. He’s still the same guy who gave me my first job, my first scholarship, my career and my chance to live in a world with dinosaurs.
“Look,” I take a deep breath. “I knew this was coming when you told me about your idea for dinosaur meat two weeks ago. I just—”
Steve swigs from his beer. “You just didn’t think it would come so soon.”
I nod and lower my voice, so that the bartender, still slicing limes, can’t hear me. “I didn’t think I’d be served a plate of dinosaur tonight, no.”
“And did you like it?”
I’m taken aback by his bluntness. “Pardon?”
“How did you like it?”
His eyes shine over the beer and I sigh inwardly. I decide that I have to go ahead and lay my cards on the table.
“I didn’t even taste it. These dinosaurs, they’re not meat, Steve. They are a national treasure. What we’ve done here, what you’ve done here… you can’t just butcher them.”
Steve nods understandingly and places one big mitt over my hand. “ Kiddo, I can.”
“What do you think is going to happen when one of them dies?”
“Just tell me, Perdita. What do you think we’re going to do when one of the brachs in the Herd keels over and dies from old age?”
I hadn’t thought of that. “I don’t know,” I admit, withdrawing my hand from his and sipping my wine.
Steve smiles again. “Exactly. We can’t bury something that big. There’s no way to burn it safely and we sure can’t leave it in the pen to rot. Do you see now? This is the only way we can get rid of the brachs. And if we can do that and make a profit and feed the hungry, that’s all to the good.”
Get rid of the brachs. I never thought we’d be getting rid of any of the dinosaurs. Why would we?
“They aren’t pets, Perdita,” he says, finishing his beer. “And they’re not endangered animals in a zoo, either. It’s time both you and Doug learn to see that. They are property; it will be helpful for you if you start thinking of them that way. Good night, Perdy. I will see you first thing in the morning.”
He gets up and heads for the door.
“Oh, that reminds me,” he turns back before leaving the bar. “Did you find out what happened to Doug? Where is he?”
“In The Barn.” My voice sounds dull and flat even to me. “He said he had a ‘serious animal situation.’ He didn’t explain what it was to me. You might want to check in with him.”
“Serious, huh? Well. I hope it doesn’t impact our tour tomorrow. Good night.”
As soon as he’s gone, I feel myself relax. I reach into my purse for my cell phone. It’s been off all evening. I didn’t need to have it on; the most important people in the park were with me, excepting Doug, of course, who wouldn’t call me anyway, no matter what sort of “serious animal situation” he and his team were facing.
I press the button to turn it on. The display glows and I see six new voice messages, all from the same number, on a Friday night. Six. On a bad weekend night, I might have two or three. I think of Doug’s animal situation, and take one last, bracing sip of wine. Then I listen to the first message.
“Ms. Patrone. This is Tobin Jones from the Waterford Gazette. You might not remember me, I covered the DinAwards at the high school last month. I have to talk about something with you. Call me back.”
I delete the message. Of course I remember Jones. He did indeed cover the DinAwards last month. He also covered the awards last year, and the year before that. If the Waterford Gazette has another reporter, I’ve never met that person. Jones has covered every achievement award, every ribbon cutting, every zoning dispute and every unruly patron who has ever had to be carted away from the park in a Waterford police car. I’ve assigned a subordinate to deal with him regularly — we should maintain good relationships with the local press — but I’ve mostly managed to avoid being his media contact. Until now.
I listen to the next one. “It’s Tobin Jones. Ms. Patrone, I’m very sorry to bother you on a Friday night, but I’ve received a call and I need to talk to someone at the park as soon as possible about something that’s happening tonight. Call me back. I’m on deadline.”
My pulse quickens. Either Doug’s “serious animal situation” or Steve’s brachiosaurus dinner has been leaked. I begin making notes about who to check in with first before calling Jones. I take a deep breath and listen to the next one.
“Ms. Patrone, Tobin. A little boy went missing at DinoLand earlier this evening. His mother seems to think that a dinosaur ate him. She says she heard a lot of roaring and saw ambulances and police cars but says that no one in security will talk to her about it. I’m writing the story right now and we would hate to run a piece without a comment from someone at the park. Call me back.”
I almost drop the phone in my hurry to check the next of the six messages, but it doesn’t matter, because the display lights up again. He’s calling me now.
If you’d like to see more art from Max Farinato, visit his site here. If you’d like to read more of A.J.’s work, visit her site. Want more serial fiction from Geek Eccentric? Visit MAJK’s steampunk epic To Live a Dragon’s Age.