Robert Sorola got comfortable in his chair while he read through the agenda one more time. His son, Reggie, he’d sent upstairs to the kitchen with the vaguest of shopping lists. Neither of them had what you could call a refined taste. Both their lives had been peppered with such hardships that whenever food came into sight – whatever food came into sight – it was a case of how much they could claw their way before they found it swept away by someone who figured they were just doing their job.
Not these days. Robert Sorola had risen through the ranks. Beginning life poor as a church mouse, he used his cunning and intellect to turn travesties into triumphs. You could toss a grenade at him and he’d turn it into a fireworks party. And you’d happily hand over cash to attend and likely be persuaded to buy a souvenir keyring too.
Yes, Robert was powerful, but only currently in the circles he moved in. He had enough on his plate assigning tasks to his pack of cohorts without getting involved in the affairs of the kitchen staff of the headquarters he and the crew met in once a month. Procuring refreshments was a task delegated to Reggie, who was only too happy to oblige. Witnessing the expansion of Reggie’s waistline over the last six months of plotting the takeover gave his father a good enough idea of why. Should never have taught the kid to skim off the top.
Robert may have selected Percy’s as their base, but it was Reggie who’d found the place. And in doing so, had wormed his way back into his father’s good books after a worrying few months in which Reggie devoured ecological documentaries and borrowed (or stole, given some of the long-passed return dates) natural history books from the library and started talking about his idea to own a farm. Robert had known to bide his time. He knew his son would come round eventually. The Sorola destiny was more in the chemical than biological branch of the scientific world.
Minutes now embedded firmly in his memory (of which, thanks to the supplements he’d helped developed was of a larger capacity than most), Robert surveyed his surroundings. Experience had taught him to expect the unexpected. He bore the wounds from earlier forays – barging into places in his youth without first placing ear to the ground, almost falling right into the jaws of predators. He was now older and wiser. As was his wife, Cassandra, who once dared to wonder aloud why Robert didn’t ever try making friends with the enemies. After he rearranged her mouth, he knew she’d keep her thoughts exactly that afterwards. Thoughts. No more spouting crap she’d obviously picked up from vacuous Disney films from the television services he’d paid for.
With a grunt, Robert rose and began to pace around the basement. It was his ritual to sweep the room to look for any signs of interference since their last visit, any traps. And it gave him something else to focus on. It wouldn’t pay to face the others while still wrestling with Cass in his head. Annoying wench that she was. Still, at least she had borne him a son. A son who was nowadays demonstrating he wasn’t entirely useless. A son who stood guard while he and the adults convened. And to his credit, he hadn’t let an intruder pass him by so far. Although the thought still crossed Robert’s mind that his son may have been keeping any curious parties occupied by asking such things as did they know the exact process by which the meat being served in the premises had arrived on its plate or what their thoughts were on chickens being kept 20 to a cage and how that effected the taste of the egg (“It tastes like depression!” Reggie had declared one dinnertime about a year ago, leading Cass to weep into her apron and Robert to drag Reggie upstairs by the ear, to then destroy the surprise Easter egg he’d bought for his son right in front of his trembling face. Robert then plucked brown shards out of the mess, chewed them and told Reggie he was powered by depression. A great sadness at the cards life had dealt him was what had driven him to become the formidable unit he was today and if Reggie didn’t like his eggs he could go out and look for another family willing to take him in and feed him).
Robert heard a noise and glanced up at the door. The others had begun to arrive. As he murmured greetings it struck him, not for the first time, what a motley bunch they were. Which was funny, given on how the enemies like to jibe about how they all looked the same. Racist nonsense. There was Bill, who had a permanent tickly cough after being a guinea pig for one of the early trials. Tony, whose shiny coat was never a good enough distraction from his poor hygiene habits. Now, practically falling down the steps in his usual clumsy manner, was Ryan. Robert didn’t approve of the way he wore his whiskers long but admired the brain underneath it that could do sums faster than a calculator. Willlie next, the scar on his cheek catching the dull glow of the single dusty bulb Reggie had manoeuvred the table under earlier. And finally Vic, with the patchy hair – a side effect from another misstep in the trialling processes.
The air was now thick with stale male sweat and filled with raspy breathing. None of them were quite as young as they used to be. Although having the relative sanctuary of the basement had somewhat renewed their vigour and the passion for their cause. Yes, Percy’s was the worst restaurant in town. Which made it good for them as 1) they were unlikely to be disturbed, 2) if they were spotted, it was rare that the observer cared, and 3) leftovers. So, so many leftovers. Yes, they might not always be packaged up very well but Robert had never heard Cass complain when, with the help of his son, he dragged home a lovely glistening piece of ham. And yes, once or twice he’d had to rifle through the bins instead of seeing what was left on the grease-streaked kitchen countertops if meetings overran (curse that Vic and his padding out of the Any Other Business sections with hare-brained ideas, always gleaned from non-trustworthy sources – yes, curse you too, social media). But the indignity of scavenging was a small price to pay in this new time of scarcity.
Robert cleared his throat, and the small talk began to die down and eventually cease. Upstairs, someone dropped a piece of cutlery (and kicked it under a table rather than bother to bend down and retrieve it, from the sounds of things). Before any further mishaps could threaten to steal the limelight, Robert began.
“Welcome, gentleman. This may, as you know, be our last chance to meet in person for a while.” Ryan took a loud slurp from his water bottle, earning him a glare. When Robert finally broke the gaze, he turned attention to the other sets of beady eyes that weren’t so invested in their hydration.
“So I especially appreciate your attendance,” Robert continued. “Tonight is a night that will go down in history. After our success with launching the virus, tonight we begin – starting with this very humble restaurant – to roll out the vaccines. The long overdue human testing will begin!”
The assembly of rats squealed their approval while the unwitting test subjects upstairs placed what would be, for some of them at least, their final orders.