Short Story: “Legal Beef”

Is it the truth that counts, or results?

“Legal Beef”
by P. Orin Zack

“I wish you wouldn’t call it that,” said Sonja, a pained expression clouding her pale face. She hadn’t gotten much sleep in the week since her brother Francis’ arrest, and it showed, especially in her eyes.

“But it is a conspiracy theory you’re proposing,” Rick Wellingstone said, gesturing over the mass of printouts she’d brought him. “I mean, consider: you’re claiming that an agribusiness research lab and the fast food industry conspired to make people more violent, just so big pharma would have a ready market for their new wonder drug.”

She shook her head disdainfully at her brother’s lawyer. “It’s not the first time a couple of industries cooked up a lucrative deal between them, you know. And besides, none of those corporations keeps its fingers out of other industries. They’re all conglomerates, and the lab is part of the same multinational that supplies core tech for the Mars colony, which hasn’t exactly been staying out of the news lately.”

“Even so,” he pleaded, “isn’t it enough to cast some doubt over the effectiveness of the antipsychotic he was taking, without having to bring in all that other crap?”

“You just don’t get it, do you? I’m going after the reason he needed that drug in the first place. I’ve known Frank all his life, and I can tell you, with no reservations, that he didn’t have a violent bone in his body before the burger chains switched to vat-grown beef.”

The portly lawyer sank back heavily in his chair. “People,” he said, “change. Your word is not going to convince a jury to let him walk. What he did to Mr. Pell with the warehouse cherry picker was caught on video. The system’s audit trail shows him logging in and altering the program. He’s even admitted to doing it, for heaven’s sake! The best you can even hope for is a reduced sentence and mandatory psychiatric help.”

Dispirited, Sonja packed up the papers she’d spread across the conference table and left. It was nearly one in the morning by the time she got home, so she just dropped the mail on the coffee table and collapsed on the couch for the night, still fully dressed. Sleeping fitfully, she turned over at one point and jammed her toe painfully against the table leg.

“Damn!” she moaned, rubbing her foot, eyes still pressed shut against the glare from the streetlight outside. Once the pain had subsided, she squinted into the light, and noticed that a small envelope had fallen on the floor, an envelope that was bare of stamps, and had only her name written on it. She leaned over and scooped it up.

There was a folded paper inside, and it bore the letterhead of the lab that had developed the vat-grown beef that her brother, and so many other fast-food addicts, subsisted on. She flattened the paper and read what appeared to be a report on some tests that had been performed on volunteers before the FDA approved it for use in processed-meat applications and for export, in the form of seed cells and instructions, to the burgeoning colony on Mars. The conclusions, which had been underlined in red by whoever had left it for her, were unambiguous.

“Although the meat is nutritionally identical to that derived from slaughtering cattle,” she read aloud, “test subjects expressed a slight but measurable increase in their preference for violent activities and entertainment. Fast food industry customers can profit from this effect by increasing their use of marketing tie-ins to certain kinds of movies. However, since there is no discernable biological explanation for this effect, these results should not be reported to the FDA.”

Sonja lowered the paper and stared directly into the streetlight. “Proof,” she whispered. “But who sent this, and why?”

She picked up the envelope and spread it with her fingers. There was also a small scrap of colored paper inside. She drew it out and read the note. Three o’clock at an abandoned gas station. She checked her watch. There was just enough time to get there, so she threw on a jacket and ran for the car.

A man stepped behind one of the darkened pumps as she pulled up. He reappeared after she’d killed the engine and turned out the headlights, but waited for her to step out of the car before getting any closer.

“Ms. Helms?” he said just above a whisper, “Sonja Claire Helms?”

She nodded. “Yes. Why did you leave this for me?”

“Your brother Francis was one of our test subjects,” he said quietly. “You need a chain of evidence to have him acquitted. I need a way to publicize what’s going on, why there’s so much violence on Mars.”

She held up the paper. “Is there more to this? Can you prove the connection? And most important, will you testify in court?”

The man, who she guessed to be about fifty from the grey in his hair and beard, nodded. “There’s more, yes,” he said. “As to proving the connection, that’s the tricky part. And it wouldn’t really matter if I testified. I’m not the sort of expert you need.”

“Then who is? Do you have a name? A phone number?”

He took the paper, wrote on the back, and then handed it back. She held it up to the moonlight. “Caroline Bastiat? Who’s she?”

“Call her,” he said, smiling. “Now go home and get some sleep.”

*     *     *

The following morning, Sonja called the number she’d been given. Bastiat apparently had a photography studio. She was so excited to finally have a lead that she didn’t bother to ask what ‘kirlian’ meant before hanging up.

The studio was empty when she arrived, so Sonja had a look around. The walls were covered with pictures of people, animals, rocks and even food, each of which was surrounded by layers of intricately patterned colors. If this was artwork, Sonja surmised, then this Bastiat was a very talented artist. But what did that have to do with Frank? She was closely examining a striking photo of a member of the city council at the dedication of the city’s sculpture park when she heard the clatter of footsteps behind her.

“Oh, hi,” she said, turning to look at the older woman, who wore a colorful, loose-knit webbing over a rather drab dress. Sonja nervously glanced at a few of the pictures before realizing that the affectation was a reflection of her artistic style.

The woman nodded pleasantly. “I’m Caroline Bastiat. Are you interested in making a purchase, or to have your aura captured?”

Sonja mouthed the word, and then glanced back at the councilman’s picture. “That’s real?” she said in surprise. “You can capture people’s auras like that in broad daylight?”

Bastiat smiled. “Not really. That’s a composite. Floyd allowed me to do some kirlian photography of him during the opening of this studio. I posed him to match the original of that shot, and then composited his aura onto it, as you can see.”

“But the aura… that’s real?”

“Indeed it is. But you haven’t answered my question. What brings you in today?”

“That. Yes. Well, have you read about the Frank Helms case?”

Bastiat wrapped her arms around herself, as if a sudden chill had filled the studio, and grimaced. “The grisly warehouse murder? What of it?”

“He’s my brother, and I’m trying to find out why he did it.”

“You’re… But don’t the police already have a confession? That’s what the paper said, anyway.”

Sonja nodded. “They do. But I think there was more to it than just some overblown argument. A lot more.”

“And you think a picture of his aura might help? I’m flattered, certainly, but I really don’t think the judge –.”

“No, not his aura. And you’re probably right about the judge.”

“Then what?”

Sonja stood there for a long moment, wondering how to proceed. She looked around in exasperation, and then noticed a picture of a split sandwich, of which one half had a colorful aura around it, while the other was surrounded in a murky brown. “That… that picture over there. Why is there a difference like that?”

“Ah,” Bastiat said, brightening slightly. “I did that for a natural food store a few years back. The left half is filled with beef from a cow that was raised naturally. Beautiful aura. The right half of the sandwich is filled with meat from a factory-bred cow, the kind that’s pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics to compensate for the deplorable conditions it was raised in. But what does that have to do with your brother?”

“He’s a junk-food junkie. What he eats was grown in a vat, and I have reason to believe that a diet of that crap makes people violent and irrational. Do you have any idea what kind of aura that would have?”

“As a matter of fact I do. But it’s not something I’d want to hang in my gallery, or even sell to anyone. Here, I’ll show you.”

Sonja followed Bastiat to her office. The photographer pulled a manila envelope from the bookcase and laid the photo that was in it onto her desk. In the center of the picture there was an uncooked round of pseudo-beef, which was actually a higher-quality version of the muck used to make Frank’s psycho-meals. “Have you ever tasted one of these horrors?” she asked.

“Fortunately no. I’ll eat bird meat sometimes, though.”

The meat itself was designed to be appealing. Like the real thing, it was marbled with just the right amount of fat, and the color matched that of real beef as well. But the aura was quite different from anything on display. It had vibrant colors, just like the various pictures of healthy food out in the gallery, but instead of smoothly flowing into one another in broad bands, the colors that overlaid and surrounded the vat-grown meat were knotted and tangled, which gave Sonja the same nauseating feeling she’d had when she first encountered the tortured souls in Hieronymus Bosch’s surrealistic painting of Hell. She had to look away.

Bastiat slid the print back into the envelope. “Do you know how they manage to get that marbling?”

“I’m not sure I want to know,” Sonja said, wiping her eyes.

“It might help to explain what happens to anyone who eats this stuff. They grow muscle tissue in their vats, but unless muscle is exercised, it’s as flaccid as it is unappetizing. So the cretins who make this stuff built a kind of scaffolding for the muscle tissue to form onto, and then jolt it with electricity to make it twitch, kind of like Galvani did with his frog’s legs.”

An image of a vat full of twitching muscle fibers swam through Sonja’s sickened mind, raising a wave of nausea that burned her throat. “That’s ghastly,” she breathed. “It’s like they’re feeding people on the undead.”

“I’m not surprised that it affects people badly,” Bastiat said. “What I am surprised about is that the FDA approved it as food.”

Sonja’s eyes cleared, and her breathing calmed. “They approved it,” she said, “because they were only given data about its nutritional value. But the lab that created it also knew how people were affected by it.”

“They knew?”

“Yeah. Frank was in their test group. He’s been eating this crap longer than most people. And the lab knew it made people violent.”

Bastiat’s jaw dropped. “You have proof?”

She nodded. “A copy of the report’s conclusions. But there’s also a motive.”

“A motive for making people violent?”

“Money, of course. Money for tie-ins to violent games and movies, and I’d guess there’d also be a massive kickback from the pharmaceutical companies that make antipsychotics like the one Frank was taking. Only it didn’t work. The drugs couldn’t overcome the horrors that food was doing to him, not if he kept on eating the stuff.”

“But he’ll be okay,” Bastiat said gently. “He’ll get better if he stops eating it, won’t he?”

“He might, yeah, but what about all the people who don’t have an alternative? What about all of those brave souls who went to Mars?”

“Maybe,” Bastiat said, “they should all just become vegetarians.”

Sonja asked if she could borrow the envelope and a copy of the sandwich picture to help make her case, but she seriously doubted it would even be taken seriously. She knew exactly why her brother had murdered that man, but in order to clear him, she was going to have to find a way to press the corporate conspiracy angle anyway. Saving two worlds would just have to wait a while longer.


Copyright 2009 by P. Orin Zack


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