Soft Centre

Enter the softest centre sensation. James Reece sat looking at the advertisement which took up a full page in one of the country's biggest selling newspapers. He sighed. They'd even got the advertising right.

Whoever the hell they were.

You'll never taste anything like it again.

He read the shoutline again, then put down the newspaper and looked at the small chocolate egg cradled in his hand. There was a child aged about six seated across the train compartment from him, and Reece saw the child looking at him as he removed the wrapping from the small egg and considered the top of it.

The child had one too, its mouth stained brown with melted chocolate. Yet still it watched Reece as he raised the egg to his own mouth, pausing for a moment. The kid was beginning to irritate him. Eat your own, you greedy little git, he thought as he bit into the egg. The soft filling flowed onto his tongue. The child continued to look on so Reece checked that his mother was looking elsewhere then made an angry face at the prying child which rapidly averted its gaze and continued eating its own egg. Reece noted with added annoyance that it was one manufactured by his rivals.

Endless eggs.

No one had ever heard of them in the confectionary business. Two weeks before Easter the shops had been suddenly flooded by the miniature chocolate eggs, the media bombarded with advertisements extolling the excellence of both the chocolate and more particularly, the filling.

You'll never taste anything like it again.

The short line from the advert flashed into his mind again like some kind of neon splinter. Endless eggs seemed to have just the one line in confectionary. They had appeared from nowhere in time to capture the lion's share of the Easter trade, sales of their own 'soft centre sensations' (the phrase was beginning to irritate him) out-stripping even the largest of the chocolate manufacturers. As Reece felt the velvet smooth filling slide across his tongue, he had to admit the damned things were delicious. What could his competitors possibly put in them to make then so wonderful? As an advertisement copyrighter his mind was already filled with cliches to describe the taste, but Endless Eggs had done their publicity well. So well in fact that even the firm he worked for, which was the largest confectionary firm in the country and the best known, had found the profits for the eggs, which it had practically cornered the market in, halved.

Hence his journey.

The train was now travelling through heavily wooded countryside, the trees closing over the swiftly moving carriages like thick arms, momentarily blocking out the light, but then, as the trees thinned out, the train began to slow down. The station it pulled into was weather-beaten, rain dripping through the holes in the platform canopy from the recent shower. The sky was still overcast and, as Reece stepped out of the carriage, he thought he heard a low, distant rumble of thunder. The sky was like wet granite.

He chewed the remains of the chocolate egg as he walked out of the station, leaping into the solitary taxi which stood on the rank outside, just ahead of a woman struggling with two heavy suitcases.

"Where to, mate?" asked the driver.

Reece murmured something and almost laughed.

"I don't actually know," he said, feeling a little ridiculous. "I'm looking for a company called Endless Eggs. Do you know whereabouts the factory is?" That was another thing which Reece and his employers found strange about their new rivals. No one seemed sure where their factory was. And yet, he wondered, how could a firm with such a huge output and such massive distribution remain hidden?

They obviously intended keeping their recipe a secret. Reece had only discovered which part of the country they operated from by following one of their delivery vans and hunting through the driver's cab while the man disappeared into a hedgerow to relieve himself. Even retail outlets didn't seem to know where to contact Endless Eggs. Whenever stocks were depleted it was if the vans arrived, fully laden, via some kind of telepathic message. The secrecy coupled with their massive success was making Reece even more irritable.

"They haven't got a factory," the driver told him finally. "But I can take you to their warehouse."

No factory? Reece shook his head.

"If you could, please," he said as the car pulled away.

"Who are you then? Work for them, do you?" asked the cab driver, flipping open the glove compartment of the car.

"No, I work for a firm called Cammary's, we're in the same kind of business," Reece told him.

"Oh yeah, I've heard of them," said the cabby removing something from the glove compartment. Reece noted with annoyance that it was one of Endless Eggs' confections. The driver bit into it, wiping some of the slippery filling from his bottom lip.

They drove in silence for about three miles, rain now pattering on the roof of the cab, the wind gusting occasionally through trees which flanked the road on both sides.

No factory, Reece mused, when suddenly the cab came to a halt. The driver pointed across a field towards what looked like a huge aircraft hangar. But, as he peered more closely through the veil of rain, he saw that it wasn't a field. It was a cemetery.

The driver told him that the huge warehouse was the home of Endless Eggs.

Reece thanked him, paid him and hauled himself out of the car, watching the driver wipe a tiny blob of sticky fluid from his mouth before turning and driving off.

Reece stood for a second in the driving rain, before scuttling off towards the trees and the cemetery beyond.

The warehouse loomed ahead, a massive grey building which seemed to have pushed its way upward from the dark earth itself. Why here, he wondered? In the middle of nowhere and next to a cemetery for Christ's sake? There were no windows in the warehouse, no sign of workers in the muddy area around it. In fact, there was no sign of life of any description. No sign of life. Very funny, Reece thought while standing next to a headstone covered in mould.

A low wall separated the area around the warehouse from the cemetery and he clambered over it with ease, cursing as his feet sank into the thick mud on the other side. As he walked, the mud threatened to wrench his shoes off, but he pressed on, moving towards a door in the side of the warehouse.

He paused beside it for a second, his hand hovering over the door knob. There was no sound from inside.

No churning conveyor belts, no crashing machinery. Just a strange sound which reminded him of a bullock lowing. He listened to the rumbling for a moment, puzzled when it was periodically punctuated by a loud rasping noise. Then silence again.

Reece pulled open the door and slipped inside.

The warehouse was in complete darkness. He couldn't see a hand in front of him. All he could hear was that infernal rasping.

It was the smell which made him gasp.

Dear God, it was unbearable! He felt sick, sure he would vomit. His lunch was trying to claw its way back up from his stomach.

He stumbled in the gloom, hands held out before him like a blind man. Indeed, in the impenetrable darkness he may as well have been blind.

A second later he might have wished that he was.

The lights came on with a suddenness which made him cry out; huge banks of fluorescents exploded into life in the high ceiling above him, illuminating the warehouse and all its contents.

Everything.

Including the creature.

Reece wanted to scream, wanted to be sick, wanted to fill his pants. He wanted to do all these things at once. He knew he would.

The monstrosity which almost filled the warehouse was a sickly grey colour, as large and as bloated as a small blimp. It seemed filled to bursting point, like a gigantic boil, seething with movement which he could see through its thin, almost translucent skin.

This thing didn't defy his powers of description, it questioned his very sanity.

It seemed not to see him, but merely dipped its head forward into a metallic trough which Reece could see was filled with a thick yellow fluid. And, in that fluid, small organisms moved. Writhed and twisted like swollen obscene pond-life. He realized they were maggots. He listened to the slurping sound as the creature drank from the trough, ten, a second later, there was a loud spattering and he watched in horror as, from its rear end, hundreds of spherical brown objects spilled in a steaming torrent.

They look just like chocolate eggs, he thought and he began to laugh.

They were 'chocolate' eggs.

He was still laughing when the figure approached him. A tall man wearing overalls who nodded affably at Reece as if he was perfectly at home in the company of the deranged. Reece could hear his own wild laughter echoing inside the warehouse, mingling with the slurping and the spattering as more of the eggs spilled forth from their vile home.

"You're from one of the chocolate companies, too, aren't you?" asked the man in the overalls. "There was another here the other week." He smiled thinly. "Everyone wants to know my secret. What is it that Endless Eggs put in their products? And now, you know." He turned towards the creature.

Reece had one more rational thought in his mind as he dropped to his knees, his sanity wiped out in one blinding moment as if it had been chalk washed from a blackboard.

The creature reminded him of a battery hen, not in appearance but in the way it fed. The trough; the food; the way it laid eggs.

Laid the eggs.

That thought sent him into another mad spasm of laughter.

"Unique, isn't it?" said the tall man, "The creature's digestive system turns the corruption here," he sticks one hand into the yellow mess and brought it out dripping, "turns it into something sweet; something palatable."

You'll never taste anything like it again.

The shout line seared into Reece's mind again as he lay on the floor of the warehouse looking up at the creature.

"Something we can all enjoy," the tall man said, smiling benignly. "And it isn't so bad really. I mean, do you know what goes into the fillings of the other chocolate eggs?"

© Shaun Hutson 1990