Thinking back, Alderney Finch could pinpoint the day the dreams began. It was not long after he returned from his trip to Venezuela. The three-week tour had brought him to the brink of bankruptcy, but only the finest cacao beans were good enough for the chocolates at House of Finch. He rather grandly named the shop House of Finch, when in reality it was a cramped two-up two-down in an area of London yet to become fashionable. That day, while working on a new batch of strawberry and balsamic vinegar truffles in his tiny, backroom kitchen, the razor Alderney was using to cut the delicate slivers of freeze-dried fruit slipped. The tip of his index finger popped off with a crunch. For a moment nothing happened, then blood spurted from his ruined digit with such ferocity that a scarlet mist appeared on the opposite wall of the kitchen. It was so red it put the strawberries to shame, and Alderney stood transfixed by the colour of his own life pumping onto the cold, white marble. The pain flooded in sharply, snapping him out of his stupor. Wrapping his hand with a muslin cloth he used for herbal infusions, he staggered out of the kitchen, through the small shop front and flagged down a taxi. The tinkle of the bell over the shop door was still ringing in his ears when he got to A&E.
After a six and a half hour wait with his hand held in the air to stop himself bleeding to death, he was finally stitched up and sent home. The nurse berated him for not bringing the end of his finger. Of course, thought Alderney to himself, the first thing he wanted to do when he was spraying blood in every direction like a fire-hydrant was get down on his hands and knees to look for the foreskin of his now circumcised finger. Idiot woman.
When the taxi finally dropped him back outside the shop, he checked his watch, but the smears of blood on its face made him feel wobbly and nauseous. Alderney decided the best course of action was to go to bed and worry about cleaning up in the morning. As he stumbled through the kitchen in the dark, he absentmindedly grabbed a handful of lime and basil bonbons to nibble while he climbed the stairs to his flat. He popped the first sweet into his mouth, hoping it wouldn’t make him feel sicker than he already did. Instead, the burst of flavour on his tongue was so intense it bordered on orgasmic. The white chocolate shell provided a smooth vanilla capsule for the violent citrus cream, which exploded onto his taste buds at the optimum melting point. The greenness of it was breathtaking. The basil note was dense and damp like a rainforest, and lingered gently once the initial hit of the lime had faded. In all his twenty-three years as a chocolatier, Alderney Finch had never tasted anything so heavenly. He crammed the other four bonbons into his mouth at once, wanting to drown in the ecstasy of his creation. By the time he reached the landing, they were all gone, and he considered running back down the stairs and shoving his face in the tray, guzzling the remaining chocolates like a pig at the trough. But fatigue got the better of him, so he let himself into the cramped flat, took off his blood encrusted whites and lay down on the bed fully clothed. The throbbing in his finger was on the edge of unbearable, and if he didn’t sleep now he would be up all night with the pain. He put his bonbon frenzy down to not just low blood sugar, but simply low blood, and he resolved to try one again in the morning once he had some rest.
…the shadow serpent slowly inched its way up the side of the pyramid. Slithering over each step, the snake made its sinister progress to the top. Soon the sun would be gone, and the shadow would be made flesh. A low rumble reverberated through the stone, getting louder and louder until it became a thunderous roar. A thousand voices chanting together. Chanting the name…
Alderney awoke to find his clothes damp with cold sweat and a deep ache in his bones. His whole hand pulsed angrily, and he was sure the cut had got infected. But, it was Saturday, the busiest day for his little artisan chocolate shop, and he couldn’t afford a day off. So he heaved himself off the bed, peeled the t-shirt off his clammy back, put on a clean set of whites and padded downstairs to open up.
The scene that greeted him was more charnel house than chocolate box. Blood stained the ceiling and dribbled down the wall tiles. Blood congealed on the floor and streaks of blood decorated the strip lights. Blood encrusted the frosted glass window and blood pooled in his stainless steel mixing bowls. A thick puddle of the stuff had coagulated on his marble tempering slab in what looked like of a map of South America. And worst of all, there was a fine blood spatter decorating the tray of lime and basil bonbons he so greedily scoffed down last night in the dark.
But they were delicious.
Maybe just one more, then I will throw the rest away, Alderney decided. He picked up one of the small, white chocolate domes and held it up for inspection. His blood had fallen onto the shiny surface in a uniform fleckle he could not have recreated it with his airbrush if he tried. The overall effect was certainly pleasing on the eye, like an inverted fly agaric toadstool. His saliva glands anticipated the sharp, mossy, sweetness of the filling. Into his mouth it went. It was good. Even better than he remembered.
Next to the tray of lime and basil bonbons sat the unfinished strawberry and balsamic truffles. His blood had settled onto the surface of the dark paste, giving it the look of black suede. Alderney glanced up at the clock. He only had half an hour until the shop was due to open. No time to make any more batches today. He quickly dusted the truffles with cocoa powder, and carried both trays through to the glass counter to fill the display.
Business was brisk, and the strictly controlled air-conditioning in the shop cooled the fever Alderney knew was brewing. He had a twang of guilt the first time someone asked for the lime and basil. But, he had bills to pay and he knew they were the most delicious chocolates he had ever crafted. In a quiet period he snaffled one of the strawberry and balsamic truffles. It was a sensory feast. The mouthfeel was exquisite. Fresh strawberry fizzed like pure summer on his tongue, then the curious, dark acidity of the balsamic came through. Alderney couldn’t believe the miniscule amount of blood on the chocolates had done this, and throughout the day managed to convince himself it was his talent as a chocolate artiste, his flair for flavour combinations and his search for the finest ingredients that had brought forth such divine creations.
…the figure on top of the pyramid cast a long shadow. The air was dense and sticky, and steam rose from the crowd below. All around was the constant drone of chanting. The same word over and over and over. The serpent knew the moment was at hand. He was being called. Soon he would take his rightful place above the masses. Soon they would show their devotion. They would give freely, and he would take hungrily. Their warm, lifeblood would fill his belly. It would pour down the steps of the pyramid, bathing his followers in a sea of red. They would writhe in an orgy of bloodlust…
When Alderney woke on Sunday, the smell of copper filled his nostrils. Blood soaked his pillow, and the dressing on his finger oozed and hung limply from his hand. No time to go back to the hospital though. Alderney Finch had work to do. Recipes had been pinging around in his mind, and now he had all day to make them a reality: rosehip and mint fondant, pandan leaves with a sprinkle of curry powder, gianduja spiked with English mustard, pine resin toffee, crispy wafers of parmesan cheese coated with coffee granules, sugar crystals infused with lemon and seaweed. And all enrobed in the darkest, sexiest, silkiest chocolate, made only with rare criollo beans grown on the shores of Lake Maracaibo. He worked all day and night, tempering, mixing and tasting. The sodden bandage fell from his hand as soon as he started, and although he felt the slow drip, drip, drip down his wrist, he ignored it. When he fell into bed as the birds were starting their morning song, Alderney was convinced he had made the finest cacao confections the world had ever known.
…on top of the pyramid the priest stood, his face shrouded in darkness. The outline of his feathered, golden headdress was black against the purple sky. He awaited the kiss of the serpent’s tongue with arms outstretched and chest bared. A thick crack of lightening lit the gloom. The priest’s eyes flashed red. His tongue flicked out between his lips, testing the air. From his mouth came one word: the name, the spirit, the snake, the god, the divine, life, sex, food, death. One word…
‘Quetzalcoatl!’ shouted Alderney, waking himself up with a jolt. The strange gibberish faded from his mind as he scrabbled to remember the name of the girl lying next to him, before she woke up. Katie? Claire? Christina? Kelly. Yes, Kelly. Or was it Kerry?
Alderney had been celebrating. Hard. His week had been nothing short of amazing. Every batch of the new flavours sold out within hours. The social-media buzz around his shop was going crazy. He had been given a five-truffle review in The Chocolate Bible and The Chocolatier wanted to interview him for their next issue. On Saturday the last remaining creations sold by midday, so he had gone out, got far too drunk and had to be escorted home by the fine young lady who now lay in his bed, drooling on the pillow. As if on cue, she opened her eyes and said drowsily, ‘Morning.’
‘Keeley. My name’s Keeley. Don’t worry, I can’t remember yours either. But this was fun. Let me know if you wanna hook up again some time. I’ll leave you my number.’ And with that, she gathered up her clothes and left the bedroom, struggling to squeeze past the sacks of cacao beans crowding the hallway.
Despite his pounding head, Alderney needed to get his next collection of chocolate concoctions underway. The London Confectionary Awards were in a few weeks, and House of Finch was a late entry in six categories. His finger was healing nicely, and once he had taken a couple of paracetamol for his headache, he set to work on a bouchon filled with parsnip and champagne cream. But no matter how hard he tried, the chocolate for the cork-shaped shell would not temper. In frustration, he gave up on tempering and started working on the flavour infusions. The cream kept curdling and the caramelised parsnips were burned, giving an acrid, bitter taste. After throwing his third attempt in the bin, Alderney felt the excesses of the previous night catching up with him. Unable to keep his eyes open, he slumped down in the corner of the kitchen, falling asleep within seconds.
…the priest’s red eyes were alive with the spirit of the shadow serpent. His body was merely a vessel now, filled with an unrelenting hunger.
‘You know what you must do,’ the priest spoke as he raised his hands above his head. The obsidian shard flashed as he brought it down in an arc onto the naked chest laid bare on the altar. The sharpened edge pierced through flesh. The crowd let out screams of exaltation. As the blood spilled out and ran down the steps, so the crowd rushed forward to dance in the divine rain.
‘Quetzalcoatl is hungry. Feed him. Feed him. Feed…’
‘…him,’ Alderney murmured as he stirred. Feed him. Staring at the abandoned trays of mistakes and abominations strewn around the kitchen, he knew exactly what he had to do. Reluctantly stroking the raw, pink tip of his healing finger, he reached for the razor blade.
House of Finch swept the board at The London Confectionary Awards, and Alderney was the new star of the chocolate world. Countless interviews and photo shoots followed. A newspaper column, a recipe book and even a television show were all on the table, and he had to hire an agent to keep on top of everything. He ended his lease on the shop, moved out of the miniature flat, and into a penthouse apartment overlooking the river. He lost count of how many times he explained away his bandaged hands to journalists and daytime television presenters with anecdotes of his clumsy kitchen antics: a knife slippage here, a scald with a hot pan there. But inevitably, the dreams came again.
…the priest plunged his arm into the chest cavity up to the elbow and wrenched out the still pulsating heart of the girl prone on the altar. Her face was a mask of agony. The priest leered gleefully over the body as he raised the organ to his mouth.
‘Quetzalcoatl is hungry.’
The priest’s tongue flickered out to caress the heart. Its two prongs shivered in separate anticipation of the feast…
He found Keeley’s number on a folded receipt in his wallet. He must have put it there when he moved. She had underlined her name three times, so he wouldn’t forget. They met at a bar, then Alderney asked her if she wanted to see a chocolate factory. She made a joke about his Willy Wonka, and they set off. Alderney had been either blind drunk or foggily hungover the last time he was with Keeley. Now, as he followed her down the steps of the tube station, he could see how young she really was. Easily half his age. She talked continuously about soap operas, her friends, the new summer blockbuster she had just seen at the cinema, whether her cat was pregnant and if so what she would call the kittens. When they finally reached his new workshop, he was almost looking forward to what he was going to do, just so he could shut her up. Almost.
Alderney turned on the lights at the bank of switches by the door, and Keeley let out a gasp. The room was more like a laboratory than a kitchen, with two long white benches stretching the length of the slim space. There were copper kettles, freeze driers, juicers, blenders and a huge condensing unit with glass bulbs that hung down like fruit. Two metal canisters of liquid nitrogen stood shoulder to shoulder in the corner and next to those was a sack barrow stacked with crates of lavender honey. Alderney watched as the girl stared up open mouthed at the array of stainless steel spatulas, spoons, tongs, whisks, ladles, sieves, mashers, muddlers, scrapers, graters and grinders hooked on a rail above their heads.
‘Oooh, it’s cold in here,’ Keeley said, pulling her jacket tight.
‘Why don’t we have a little something to warm us up then? How about some hot chocolate?’
Keeley raised an eyebrow. ‘I know you’re old, but I didn’t think you were inviting me back for a cup of cocoa.’
‘Trust me,’ said Alderney, as he turned to his workbench, ‘You’ve never tasted hot chocolate like this before.’
And he was right. The spiced rum, fresh chilli and lime sugar mixed into the bitter chocolate drink masked the chemical taste of the crushed Zopiclone tablets perfectly. He carried her gently to the marble slab at the far end of the workshop, like a father carrying his daughter to bed from the car late at night. Alderney wept silently as he got to work, licking the tears away with a tongue that did not seem to be his own.
The franchise deal for House of Finch was signed the following year. Soon there would be Houses of Finch in London, Tokyo, New York and Abu Dhabi, with more planned the following spring. Alderney put all thoughts of Keeley to the back of his mind, concentrating instead on creating new and ever more adventurous flavours for his chocolates. But when he closed his eyes at night, he would see her sleeping innocently on the marble; his own personal Snow White. Except, he had done what the huntsman never could. He wondered if her cat ever had those kittens.
Alderney drank. A lot. He took pills to help him sleep. Not Zopiclone, he told his doctor. Anything but that. He welcomed the dreamless sleep that came with the drugs, but inevitably they stopped working. And the day came, as he knew it would. Sweating chemicals from every pore, his face reddened with broken blood vessels, Alderney tossed and turned in his designer bedsheets, afraid to stay awake, frightened to fall asleep.
…the priest, the pyramid, the jungle and the sky were all gone. There was only black. The serpent spoke, his voice everywhere at once.
‘I am hungry. Feed me.’
Alderney swung his feet over the side of the bed, the thick carpet cushioning his bloated frame. He trudged slowly to the kitchen. The sleeping tablets he had washed down with a large measure of single malt gave him the sensation of being puppet master of his own body. The time lag between thought and movement was impossibly long. The arm that reached for the knife block seemed to cover a distance of many metres before his hand curled itself around the carbon-handled boning knife. As he thrust the blade up into the soft flesh below his sternum, Alderney caught his reflection in the window. His eyes were two dots of red. His tongue flicked out. The forked end quivered. Quetzalcoatl smiled.
He was going to feed.