Crumbling, yellowed brickwork rose over an accidental courtyard. The southernmost wall was better maintained than all the rest and was the outside wall of a slaughterhouse; the rest were owned by buildings erected only forty years earlier and derelicted within fifteen years. Grass grew weakly through the gaps between paving stones, and two concrete planters, done in the style of Grecian urns, held long-dead roses. Now the greyish, thorned stems grasped impotently at chip-wrappers and discarded crisp-bags, urban flowers in an abandoned square. The courtyard was dark, the shadows of the buildings creating a perpetual twilight. A window in the wall of one of the buildings opened, the old wooden frame protesting the need to move and shuddering in its tracks. It stopped, only a few inches open, and there was muted swearing from behind it before strong hands seized it and jerked it upwards several times, eventually opening it to its full extent. A man climbed through into the courtyard, followed by another and then another.
“What the hell is this?” said the third man. He was wearing a neat grey suit that looked as though it had been bought off-the-peg at a high-street ‘tailor’.
“Where the hell is this?” said the second man, whose suit was substantially smarter and better fitted. “I knew you lot were secretive, Damocles, but this is going to extremes, don’t you think?”
“A door would have been nice,” said the third man. He looked down at his polished shoes, noting that they were now shaded here and there by sticky grey dust. “And maybe a cleaner? They’re not expensive, you know.”
“This is necessary,” said Damocles. He was wearing his suit over a black polo neck and thought he looked like Steve Jobs. His hair was brushed back from his forehead and had a single, thin white stripe running through it a little like a badger. He was wearing round, John Lennon style glasses with plain glass for lenses and thin black leather gloves. “Quite apart from the need for discretion,” he shot an accusing glance at the second man, “in many of our affairs, the fact that there is animal testing carried out here means that we have to be exceptionally alert with our security. It really would not be good if animal protestors or ethics groups were to try and break in and release the animals.”
“Ah, the publicity,” said the third man. He rubbed his shoes on the scrubby grass, hoping to dislodge some of the dust.
“No,” said Damocles. “The inevitable deaths. We are... aware of how to handle the media establishment, as you should know already. but the animals in here are both expensive to produce, even more so to replace, and a security breach of that magnitude would... attract the attention of JDR.”
He said nothing and gazed at the two men for a few seconds, letting that sink in. JDR was Jeremy Diseased-Rat, the owner and CEO of Data Analytics Marketetic Normalisations and, for those people able to retain the firm and their expertise, a highly volatile megalomaniac with little regard for the niceties of human interaction and gentlemanly conduct.
“Well,” said the second man, “we certainly wouldn’t want that.”
“I don’t see this facility,” said the third man, earning him a glare from the second. “Well, I don’t. This is a rotten little courtyard in the middle of nowhere, on the other side of a condemned building that smells like it was used as a hotel for incontinent lepers for fifteen years.”
“Thirteen,” said Damocles. “Though officially it wasn’t leprosy as that’s been eradicated in the United Kingdom. I believe the official records state that it was viral melancholia with unusually severe side effects.”
“Like a leg dropping off?”
“That’s not quite how it works,” said Damocles. “But why not?”
“Wait a minute,” the third man was looking nervous now and had forgotten about trying to clean his shoes. “How long does leprosy hang around for. I mean, we just came through that building.”
“I shouldn’t worry,” said Damocles. “It’s very curable these days. Anyway, you are here to see the facility and the chippo, so let’s get on with it.” He turned away from them for a moment, concealing with his body his fingers touching buttons inset into his suit sleeve, and then turned back. Both men looked slightly startled and glanced at one another.
“So... where do we go?” asked the second.
“Turn around,” said Damocles, lifting an arm and pointing just beyond them. His black gloves made him seem like a sinister scarecrow.
The two men turned and managed to avoid gasping or sounding shocked when they saw that a metal box roughly twice the size of an old public telephone box had appeared behind them. The third man stared at the floor, hunting for signs of a gap between the box and the ground to prove that it had risen out of the ground, and grunted faintly with pleasure when he found it.
“Nice trick,” he said. “This can’t be how you get the animals in though.”
“You don’t need to know,” said Damocles. “This way, please, gentlemen. And yes, it’s going to be a little bit of a squeeze.”
“The chippo,” said Damocles as the lift descended, “is what we’re calling the hippo-eating chupacabra. We tried chupahippo but no-one liked that name. Focus groups suggested that we needed something that sounded friendly and appealing, with a minority pointing out that no matter how cuddly we made it sound, this is fundamentally a beast that is capable of hunting and killing a hippopotamus. Which is a tall order even for humans. We settled on chippo as a portmanteau of the original name, hinting as to the origin of the beast, and because it reminded people in the focus groups of a wood-chipper. Which, coincidentally, is a noun that came up a lot when people saw the aftermath of the chippo’s feeding.”
“What do you mean, exactly?” asked the third man. The second man was turning pale and starting to sweat.
“The most common comment was it looked like someone had pushed the hippo through a wood-chipper,” said Damocles. The chippo is an... astonishingly messy eater.”