And what made it so delicious?
|"Please raise your hands over your head," the android requested.
Henricks complied, and he grimaced as the folds of his suit bit into his shoulders. Cheap plastic jacket, he muttered to himself. The Bureau maintained a warehouse of garments suitable for any kind of undercover work, and for this job they had given him a navy-blue suit whose color, cut, and weave looked like something out of the best Earthside shops. But the Bureau was also budget conscious, and though the plastifiber material looked like wool, it wore like a plastic barrel.
"Why'ncha put a bar up here where a fella can hang his hands?" Henricks growled. "What's taking so long?"
"Mr. Romanoff's orders," the android replied from the other side of the security X-ray.
"He's being extra careful, huh? For the money I'm laying out for tonight's spread, you'd think his guests' comfort would—"
"You may proceed, Mr. Compson," the android said. Henricks lowered his hands and took back the identity card—as fake as the suit—he'd surrendered earlier. "Through the green door," the android added.
The airlock of Gyorgi Romanoff's space yacht was as utilitarian as a battleship's, but Henricks couldn't stifle a low whistle once he was on the inside proper. A plush carpet rolled out over the floor, and curtains of brocaded velvet hung over the doorways. As for the walls—
Henricks brushed one. It was a carbon-steel blend, as was mandatory for all spacefaring vessels. But this one looked to have had a gold alloy spun into it.
A servant—this one human—led him along the corridor and into a dining room with a transparent, domed ceiling. Phobos hung overhead at the moment; as the ship rotated, Mars would come into view.
A potato-shaped table for twelve had been set out, and all but one chair was already occupied. At the head of the table, a portly man with a great gray beard rose and beamed at Henrick.
"And now our company is complete," Romanoff said. "Pierre," he addressed the headwaiter, "you may serve the soup."
As their host welcomed them anew, Henrick surveyed the other diners. None of them he recognized, though they all had the look of money to them: expensive clothes, jewelry, and a piggish gleam of cupidity in their eyes. So this is the type, he thought, and stifled a gag reflex.
As for their host: Henrick couldn't help watching him with a sidelong glance of amusement. As befit an interplanetary goodwill ambassador, the president of the Earth-Mars Friendship League was charming, gregarious, and not a little oleaginous.
He was also the last man one would expect to catch running a very secretive and illegal diners' club.
"Tonight's menu," Romanoff was saying, "is very special. It does not, as I have offered at previous dinners, feature an endangered species for your delectation. There is, in fact, nothing endangered about it. But it is, I assure you, the most illegal repast you will ever partake yourselves of."
A murmur of appreciation ran around the table; Henricks forced a smile onto his lips.
"As for the evening's entertainment," Romanoff continued, "we will make of it a game. Tonight's featured ingredient is tucked somewhere into our seven-course meal. Ferret it out," he urged. "Savor it. At the end I will invite you to guess it. I think"—the word fairly bubbled out of him—"that you will be not be less than astounded when you learn what it is."
The soup was served, and Henricks spooned it up with a pretended relish. It was brown and gelatinous with a flavor that mingled mushroom and bacon. He would have enjoyed it at any other time; here and now, he could only just choke it down.
It was followed by fish in a wine sauce; a "fungus salad" that was far more appetizing than its name would imply; papery cuts of prime rib; and more.
As they ate, the diners speculated openly about what they were eating. It all seemed quite mundane, which made the guesses sound all the more extravagant: Venusian blowbird. Reconstituted dodo. One diner—a beaky little man with a bobbing Adam's apple—suggested "the pituitary gland of a midget," which caused Henricks to nearly vomit.
But, the guests being businessmen, other topics soon intruded, and Henricks listened with only half an ear as such phrases as bear market and Phosdex futures and difference in currency regulations pushed out the culinary talk. He studied the Romanoff coat-of-arms embossed in the surface of the table with its insouciant legend: Que sera. Whatever will be. A fit motto for such a reckless man.
At the end, as they leaned back and sucked on peppermint-flavored toothpicks, Romanoff went around the table and invited each guest to name the mystery ingredient. He chuckled at each guess until he came to Henricks.
"The mushrooms," the undercover policeman declared.
Romanoff's eyes froze. "Why do you say that?" he asked. "They were only common mushrooms."
"Very common," Henricks replied. He cocked his eye at the dome, through which Mars was now visible.
"There is nothing illegal about eating mushrooms."
"Not terrestrial mushrooms. But these weren't only extraterrestrial. They were sapient."
"Good God!" the man at his right exclaimed, and came half out of his chair. "We ate a Martian?"
"Several, actually," Romanoff softly replied. "They featured in every course. But how did you guess, Mr. Compson?"
"Henricks. Agent Henricks." The United Earth marshal plucked the recording microphone—disguised as button—off his suit; it unfolded between his fingertips into a star-insignia. "I cheated. We had an informer.
"Also," he added as he slipped a thin magazine from inside his suit, "you shouldn't be so cute as to tip your menu in the title of that puff-piece you wrote for Interplanetary Diner."
He tossed it onto the table. Over the cover image of Romanoff—beaming as he lifted the mushroom-shaped Martian ambassador—was the headline: TO SERVE MARTIANS.