Weirdly Normal – Side Benefits (Story Sixteen)

Her work is on the verge of improving hundreds of thousands of lives but she’s out of money, out of time, and out of options.

Until she receives a rather unusual offer…

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(c) 2024 Simon Goodson.
Story Disclaimer

Side Benefits

Dr Janet Barroso stared down at the experiment and tried to smile. She should be happy. She should be over the moon. After many, many attempts she’d finally managed to succeed in growing large sections of human muscle. This had been her goal for three years and she’d finally achieved it!

She’d achieved it… and bankrupted herself to do it. All the funding was spent. All her own savings. Her credit cards were maxed out. She’d re-mortgaged the house and had taken out loans she knew she couldn’t repay.

The various reminders for overdue payments had turned into demands, and within two or three days she expected to have bailiffs knocking on the door to repossess everything. And all that would only clear a fifth of what she owed.

But dammit, she had succeeded! Succeeded in research with so much potential, research that could help so many people. Alright, she was still far from the clinical application stage. But when it was proven safe, when she could regrow muscle from any donor, then it could be used in healing those who’d suffered major injuries, or had lost most of their muscles to illnesses such as cancer. And who knew how else it could help.

Well, she intended to start figuring that out. She still had two or three days before the equipment would be seized. She was pretty much certain she wouldn’t get any new backers in that time, no one had shown any interest in her project over the past few weeks despite her teasing the fact she’d almost succeeded in this phase of the experiment.

But she had two days in which to write up everything she’d done, to get her results out there where others could make use of them. Build on them. It would be nice not to go bankrupt, but far worse would be the world losing all her work and the advances she’d made.

She looked inside the machine once more, smiling at the muscle and flesh within. She had succeeded! She was going to celebrate! She had just enough money to buy a very cheap bottle of sparkling wine. And dammit, she was going to go home and drink the whole bottle!

Then, in the morning, she would be back. Very early. And she’d start ensuring she’d properly captured every piece of data, every finding, before the bailiffs turned up. She was even considering bringing a sleeping bag. Barricading the doors, maybe, so she could get one day extra before everything was taken.

She wouldn’t get a fourth day. The electric company planned to shut off the power by then. Three would have to be enough.


When Janet arrived at the lab the next morning there were a bunch of new red demand letters. She sighed, shook her head, and decided to get started. She didn’t even bother to check her emails, sure she’d lose an hour sifting through more demands for payment.

She worked flat out for three hours, barely taking a break long enough to make the coffee she needed to keep herself going, but she could already tell she didn’t have anywhere near long enough left. She was trying to pull down the most important information, the pieces of research which she simply could not allow to be lost, but she couldn’t even begin to work out what those were in just three days.

During one coffee break she even toyed with the idea of reaching out to those demanding payment, pleading with them to give her just a few more days. Stressing how important the work was. She shook her head. She’d done that several times already. There was no more slack. She had a deadline. She’d damn well have to work to it.

Exhaustion finally forced her to take twenty minutes away from the computer. She ate the food she’d brought the night before. Nearly stale bread. Cheese about to go out of date. All she’d been able to afford after buying the bottle of wine. And damn, it had been a cheap bottle of wine. The headache she’d been nursing all morning wasn’t helping her make progress.

As she was munching through the food, she absent-mindedly opened up the emails on her phone. These were her personal emails, not those linked to the lab, but they still had a significant number of final demands.

She scrolled past them absent-mindedly, setting them all to be deleted, then frowned as one snagged her attention. She just managed to hit undo before the mail was gone, then stared at it again. The subject line was what had caught her attention.

Urgent: We are interested in funding your work.

She was immediately suspicious. Why now? Why when she was on the verge of bankruptcy? It was almost certainly some sort of scam. The best thing she could do would be to just delete it.

Yet she didn’t. She sat there for a few moments, then opened the email. After all, what had she got to lose? She wouldn’t sign up to anything which resulted in her research being tied up and unavailable to other people, but at that moment it was starting to look like she’d lose it all anyway.

The email was short and to the point.

Dear Dr Barroso,

We have been following your work closely, and news of your continued progress is of great interest to us. However we hadn’t realised how dire your financial situation was. We believe it is of vital importance that your research continues, and we are in a position to fund you with immediate effect.

However, we do require a meeting so that we can validate your claims. Apologies for reaching out to you on your personal email address, it seems you have not received our attempts to contact you through your official email.

I hope it will be possible for us to meet this evening, say at eight pm. I look forward to hearing from you.

Francesco Rattilio.

And that was it. No details of who this Francesco was. No company name. The email address the mail had been sent from looked to be a personal one.

Could it be a con? Could she actually be in danger? There was no security at the lab, she hadn’t been able to afford that for a long time. She worked on her own, and it seemed likely this Francesco knew that. Having him turn up late in the evening seemed like a bad idea.

For most people. If he did try anything he’d wish he’d done a little bit more research on her. She held a black belt in Tae-kwon-do and was more than certain she could deal with anything which came up.

She shook her head. Most likely it was just a prank mail anyway. But what did she have to lose? Well, other than a little time, but she knew deep down she didn’t have anywhere near enough of that anyway. She hit reply.

Dear Mr Rattilio,

I would certainly be interested in discussions around funding, however I would like to understand who I might be dealing with. Could you provide a little more information about your company, and how ready you are to provide the funding?

You mentioned being aware of my difficult financial situation, but I believe it may be more urgent than you realise. If funding is not forthcoming, and extremely soon, it is likely all my research will be lost. While that puts me in an awkward situation, I will not rush into anything without fully understanding who I am dealing with.


Dr J. Barroso.

She hesitated for a few seconds, then hit send. She shook her head. She was relatively certain she wouldn’t get any reply. She finished her food, then went back to her work.


She only managed an hour before she ran out of steam again. The task was simply too great, and the knowledge she couldn’t possibly complete it in time was dragging her down rather than energising her. She’d put everything she had into the experiments, into getting them to work, and at times that had meant not taking as detailed notes as she should have.

Well, she’d made notes, but she hadn’t organised them and now many of them which had seemed so clear when she wrote them were turning out to be horribly ambiguous when she was no longer in the heat of the moment.

She was trying to pull together notes from different folders, even different devices, and tie them together. With enough time she could manage it. Time she didn’t have.

She went to make yet another coffee, and while she did she found herself wondering about the earlier email. She took out her phone and saw there was a reply. For a moment hope surged in her heart, but she forced herself to be sensible. How likely was it that someone with enough money to make a difference was going to come forward at this late a stage?

She opened the email, and found there was a little more information. The potential backer was an organisation rather than a company, and the web links provided did seem to be valid. And, when she checked, to have existed for a long time rather than having just been created as a front.

It wasn’t very clear what the organisation was focused on, though it did seem to have an interest in the biomedical sector. There was even a research project she knew quite well listed as one of those they’d funded. She hesitated for a few moments, then gave a friend who worked there a call. They were able to confirm the funding was legitimate, if somewhat limited, and that they never really had any great dealings with the organisation. Still, they didn’t give her any reason not to at least meet with the representative.

She thanked them and ended the call. Then she sat, tapping her fingers on the side for at least five minutes before deciding to go ahead with the meeting. If she didn’t she’d only spend time and energy wondering whether it had been for real, which would eat into time she needed to be working.

She replied to the mail, confirming she would meet Francesco Rattilio at the lab at eight that evening, then she got back to her work.


The buzz of the door made Janet jump. She glanced at the time, and saw it was eight pm exactly. She’d completely lost track of the time.

Dammit, she’d wanted to spend at least ten minutes getting her head straight and getting the pitch ready. Thinking about what level to aim it at. She had no idea how technical her visitor was, and now she had no time to prepare. She’d have to wing it.

She went to the door, opened it, and forced a smile onto her face. The man standing there smiled back nervously, a closed lip affair. He was small. Not just short, but small. Probably barely five feet and he seemed even smaller than that, his body almost gaunt. His small, sharp eyes darted around, not settling on anything for more than a few moments.

“Mr Rattilio, I presume,” said Janet.

“Oh no, please call me Frederico.”

“Then you must call me Janet,” she said, putting her hand out.

He looked startled for a moment, then composed himself and reached his own out to shake. His hand barely gripped hers, and he slipped it away as quickly as he could. His hand had been strangely cool. Not cold, just cool, as if he might have circulation problems.

“Please, come in,” said Janet. “I’m afraid you have me at a bit of a disadvantage. I’m not certain quite how much of my research you’ve been following, or how deeply.”

Frederico followed her in, and gave the tight-lipped smile again.

“Well,” he said. “Much of what you are doing hasn’t been released yet. But from what has been, I understand that…”

He proceeded to rattle off an impressive summary of what she had released so far. More than that, he included several key concepts which were implied but she hadn’t specifically mentioned yet. She found herself staring at him. This was no random investor. He was an expert in the field.

“I’m… I’m impressed,” she said. “With that level of knowledge I have to wonder why you need to invest in my research at all.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bombard you like that. If I’m honest, we have also tried our own research in this area. And we have been following your efforts closely. If we were ahead of you in any way I would be happy to share such progress with you, that would only be fair as we are making use of what you have already so kindly made public.

“But you are ahead of us in all areas. We have tried to grow the… the muscles and the rest of the tissues, but it always went badly wrong. We ended up with a strange mess which was completely useless.

“But you… you seem to be on the cusp of succeeding. And then to hear that you might have to shut down everything before you made that breakthrough… well, that would be a devastating blow to this area of research.”

“That’s not quite right,” said Janet.

“It’s not?” He frowned. “It certainly seemed you were on the cusp of succeeding! If not… well, we would have to reconsider the funding we could provide, though we would still like to see you continue.”

Janet laughed.

“No, it’s not that. I’m not on the cusp of succeeding. I have succeeded! Come and see.”

She turned and led him into the lab. He followed her quickly, his steps rapid, and when they reached the bio synthesiser holding the completed muscle he actually gasped.

“You meant it!” he said. “You actually succeeded!”

“I did! Last night I was able to confirm it. And now… now I’m trying to get all of my notes saved away before the bailiffs smash their way in to take the equipment, and the electricity company shuts off the power. It’s kind of a race between the two at the moment. I’m not sure who’ll win, but I know it won’t be me.”

Francesco didn’t answer. He was standing, his nose almost pressed against the glass, staring intently at what lay within.

“It’s amazing,” he said softly. “It looks exactly like the real thing.”

“It is the real thing! It just didn’t grow on a human.”

“And is it… you’ve carried out tests? To confirm it’s pure? That there are no abnormalities, I mean.”

“I have. That’s what I confirmed last night. Every test I could run shows that it is a perfect match for the donor tissue. I mean, there’s a hell of a long way to go before it can actually be used for transplantation, but now I know it’s possible.”

“This is… it’s beyond what we had hoped for!”

“I’m glad to hear that. Does that mean you might be interested in providing some funding? Even enough to tide things over for a week or two would make a huge difference. That would give me long enough to make sure all my research is properly recorded and published.”

“I… I think we might.”

He seemed… agitated. Excited, yes, but there was something more. Something which was starting to put Janet on edge.

“I do have one additional request,” he continued. “I need to make sure it truly is pure, and that there are no abnormalities. Would it be possible to… this will sound a little strange. Can I… can I taste a piece of it?”


Janet recoiled, staring at Francesco.

“Of course not!” she shouted. “Taste it? Why would you want to? What are you, some sort of cannibal?”

She stepped back, putting more space between them, and shifted her weight to the balls of her feet so she was ready to attack or defend as necessary. She’d known this was a bad idea, but she’d let her desperation win out. Which had led to this!

“No!” said Frederico intensely. “I’m not a cannibal! What a disgusting idea!”

“You want to taste a piece of human flesh. To eat it. What else should I call you?”

“A cannibal is someone who eats others of their own kind! I’m certainly not that!”

“Oh, so because this flesh wasn’t part of human it doesn’t count as being cannibalism? Is that what you’re telling me?”

“No. That’s not it at all. It’s… well… this is going to be hard for you to believe.”

“Harder than believing you’re not a cannibal?”

“I told you, cannibals eat their own kind. A human eating what you’ve grown would be a cannibal. Absolutely they would.”

“So I suppose you’re not human?”

She really should never have let him in. She half expected him to rush her, but he just stood there blinking at her. Finally he shook his head.

“No. I’m not.”

Oh just wonderful!

“All right then,” she said. “What are you?”

His eyes kept darting around, never meeting hers for more than a heartbeat. “I’m a ghoul!” he finally blurted out.

“That’s quite clear from the fact you want to eat this flesh. But that doesn’t explain why you think you’re not human.”

He frowned, then shook his head.

“No. Not a ghoul as in a human who does unpleasant things. I’m a ghoul. That’s my species. You must’ve heard tales of us. We might not be as sophisticated as vampires, or have as much raw charisma as werewolves, but we do turn up in tales from time to time.”

“A ghoul? You mean the things that eat human flesh? That would be…”

She trailed off. He’d told her he wanted to taste the muscle she’d grown. In a strange way it made sense. In a very strange way. Not that he could really be a ghoul from fairy tales. Of course not. But he could well believe he was.

Did that make him any less dangerous? No. She pulled back another step.

“Don’t you get any funny ideas about taking a lump out of me!” she said.

“Urgh!” He said. “The very idea is disgusting! Eating flesh from someone who was alive! No, we never do that.”

“You don’t?”

“No. We feed on… well, we crave human flesh. But only from those who are dead, normally for a day or two. Even the thought of eating a small part of what you have grown makes my skin crawl. If we had the time I’d much rather it was given a day or two to… well, mature. But I now know how little time you have left so I will make this sacrifice. I will be able to tell whether what you have grown is true.”

She shook her head. This was getting too weird.

“There is no way you’re not human, no matter what you’ve convinced yourself. I think it’s time you left. I have research to try and save, and you… you need to be somewhere else.”

He stood there, looking at her, his head tilted to one side. It was an uncomfortable stance to look at. It didn’t look natural. It was as if he was trying to convince her he really was what he said. Or convince himself. Finally, he smiled.

“This certainly wasn’t how we wanted things to go. We didn’t really want to reveal quite what we are, but you’ve come so much further than we expected. I can’t let this all go to waste.”

He put his hands up to one of his eyes and started to fiddle with it. A moment later he held something out in one hand. Janet saw it was a contact lens. One of those used to change how somebody’s eyes looked, but it seemed perfectly normal.

Then she raised her gaze, met his eyes, and let out a yell of surprise. The eye he hadn’t touched still looked exactly as it had. But the other one, the one he’d removed the contact lens from, was like nothing she’d ever seen. The pupil actually looked square, but even that wasn’t the strange part. A sparkling orange colour filled the rest of the eye. There was no iris… or maybe it was all iris. For a moment she wondered whether it was another contact lens, but the way it sparkled convinced her it was his real eye.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” said Francesco. “But I couldn’t think of another way to show you the truth of what I was saying. I hope this helps puts you at your ease.”

“Put me at my ease? Are you insane? You’ve just convinced me that you’re not human, which means your story that you’re a creature who feasts on humans could be true! And that’s supposed to put me at my ease?”

“I told you, we don’t eat live humans. And no, we don’t kill humans so that we can eat them days later. We are like… well, I hate the term, but like carrion eaters. Crows and other creatures like that. The creatures which clean up the world, which make certain it’s not left full of rotting corpses. I know it will seem strange to you, but then the human habit of killing creatures so you can eat them is most strange to us.”

“You just go around digging up graves and eating people?”

“No! Not for sixty or seventy years. Not that we did that a lot anyway. The desire for human flesh is more an addiction then something which is necessary for us to survive. We can survive on other creatures, and we do. Many of us haven’t tasted human flesh in decades, if at all for the youngsters. But the craving… the craving remains.

“We have tried to find any possible way of stopping it. We’ve tried every therapy and we’ve tried drugs. Research we funded had yielded some massive improvements in treatments for humans, but has never even touched on reducing our cravings.”

“That’s what the research you’ve been funding was for?”

“Partly. That and other lines of enquiry similar to your own. None have paid off so far. But yours… yours could truly solve the problem for us.”

“That’s why you want to fund me? So you can end up growing human parts to eat?”

She felt sick at the idea, even as she reminded herself the parts she grew weren’t human as in having grown as part of a person.

“Partly. We would certainly want you to continue with the medical side of it of your research as well. While that would not benefit us directly, what you have achieved is truly phenomenal and should continue. I guess you could call what we get out of your research a side benefit.”

“This… I don’t… this is just too much. I need time to think about something like this.”

“Time is, sadly, one thing you don’t have. I have it on good authority that some of the bailiffs plan to get a head start on the others. They’ll be here first thing tomorrow morning. I sincerely doubt you will have been able to extract all of your research by then. And these are not the sort of bailiffs who’ll accept no for an answer.”

“But that’s…… I can… the police will…”

“Sadly, I doubt they will. These bailiffs are incredibly effective but also extremely good at staying within the law. Just within the law. Or at least leaving no evidence when they don’t.”

Janet stood there, trying to get her mind working.

“And you’d definitely allow me to continue with the medical side of this research?”

“Absolutely! It will be written into the contract, and will prevent anyone asking awkward questions about what your research is being used for. Our initial investment would be ten million dollars. That should be enough to allow you to massively scale up your work, and our only stipulation would be that you always release half of the… products you grow… for our use. Up until the point at which there is enough to meet our needs.”

“Ten million dollars? You’re going to give me ten million dollars? Just like that?”

“Of course there would have to be a contract. But yes, just like that. And all rights to your research would remain with you. However we need to ensure that you are able to deliver what we need.”

“How many of… of those like you are there out there?”

“Within America? Something like three-thousand. Across the world, close to ten-thousand. We have never been a numerous species, and please don’t worry this will lead to a sudden increase in our numbers that threatens humanity. This is just a way to sate an addiction, a craving, we are born with and have found no other way to relieve.”

“Ten million dollars?”

She was having trouble getting her head around the number, especially after spending so long struggling for every penny.

“Yes. But I do have to insist on the rather unpleasant topic of the taste test.”

Janet laughed, then shrugged.

“Sure! Why not? The… product is complete. I don’t have any further need for it. Here, let me open it up and slice off a section. Then you can… I can’t believe I’m saying this. Then you can sample it.”

She made certain to keep the unit between her and Francesco. He took several steps back, giving her space, but she could see him leaning forward in anticipation. She cut off a small slice, she was trying very hard not to think of the word mouthful, and placed it on a clean petri dish. Then she moved forwards and held it out to him.

She could see the suppressed urgency in his movements, and nearly dropped the petri dish as his hand shot out to grab it.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “But… it’s been so long. I know this is going to taste unpleasant because it’s too fresh, but the craving is still there.”

He took the petri dish, moved his other hand towards its contents, then paused and glanced at Janet.

“Would you prefer I turned away?”

She certainly would prefer it, but she felt she needed to see it.

“No. Go ahead,” she said.

He didn’t need telling twice. He took the slice and put it in his mouth. For a moment there was a look of bliss, then it was replaced by revulsion, but he continued chewing and finally swallowed. Janet stopped struggling with what he’d done, and found herself worrying that he’d found a problem.

“Not right?” she asked.

He managed to force a smile, and shook his head.

“Oh no, it is definitely pure. But… fresh. I imagine I feel the same revulsion you would eating a slice of beef raw rather than cooked. But you have succeeded. You’ve worked miracles. And we would definitely be happy to invest the ten million, with a one million down payment tonight.”

Janet just stood there for a time, struggling to take it in. The money would change everything. Everything! She could hardly believe it. Finally her mind started to work on the practicalities.

“That’s wonderful,” she said. “We’ll need to get a solicitor to put everything in place, though, and you said those bailiffs are planning to turn up first thing tomorrow. I’m not going to be able to get the money from you and make the payments in time to prevent that. From how you’ve described them, I don’t think they’ll be willing to wait to confirm I’ve paid.”

“That’s no problem. We know a lawyer who can handle the paperwork tonight, and put together a warning the bailiffs won’t dare to cross.

“The first million dollars we will provide with no strings attached, so you can pay off all of your bills tomorrow. The contract can wait slightly, and you can certainly seek out a lawyer then to check it. Though it may be a little difficult to find one who is comfortable with the subject matter.”

“But your lawyer is? He won’t blink at the fact it’s a deal for you to get human flesh to eat?”

“Oh no, he’ll be absolutely fine with that.”

“And with coming out at this time of night? I’ve never heard of any lawyers who keep hours like this.”

“That will be no problem for Vincent. After all, he is a vampire.”

Janet went to laugh at the joke. After all, weren’t all lawyers vampires? Then she remembered just who, and what, she was talking to.

“A vampire? Really a vampire? As in sucking human blood?”

“Yes a vampire. Yes, really a vampire. And no, he doesn’t suck human blood. Most vampires don’t. They do have a craving for it at times, but for most their willpower is far stronger than the need. That’s definitely the case with Vincent.”

Janet shook her head, wondering if this was actually some strange dream or hallucination brought on by stress. Yet it felt too real for that to be the case.

“Of course,” she said. “Your lawyer is a vampire. You’re a ghoul. I suppose you’ll get some werewolves in to face down the bailiffs tomorrow morning.”

“Oh no, that wouldn’t work. Those bailiffs are werewolves.”

Janet was seriously starting to consider the fact either she or Francesco might be completely mad. If it wasn’t for the fact one of his eyes still sparkled orange she doubted she’d believe him… but that eye was extremely convincing. Which meant ghouls existed, and if they did then why not vampires and werewolves? That did raise a question.

“If the bailiffs are werewolves, how are you going to stop them from coming in here and taking everything?”

“That’ll be easy. For a start Vincent will hang around. Your lab has no windows so he doesn’t have to worry about the sun. There are very few were-creatures stupid enough to cross a vampire. Just in case these werewolves are particularly dense, Vincent will also have Stan.”

“A stan? What sort of creature is that?”

Francesco laughed. “Not a Stan. Stan. Stan is a human. A natural human. Admittedly, parts of him started out on a number of different humans, but none of them needed those parts any more.

“He’s also large enough to blot out the sun if he’s standing in the wrong place. Between you and me, he’s the kindest and gentlest person I’ve ever met. However… the werewolves won’t know that. And, to be fair, Stan won’t need to hurt them to stop them. He can just stand in the way of the doors. An earthquake might move him, but a few werewolves? Not a chance.”

Janet laughed and threw her hands up.

“All right! Get your vampire lawyer and your very human friend and let’s draw up the contract. Either this is all for real, or I have gone completely and totally mad. Whichever is the case, I might as well see it through. And ask your lawyer to pick up a bottle of champagne. An expensive one! It seems I need to celebrate either having the funding I need for my research or having completely lost my mind. Either way, it deserves a good drink!”

“An excellent idea! I’ll join you. I definitely need something to get the taste of that fresh meat out of my mouth!”

That was the final straw. Janet started laughing, and she wasn’t sure she would be able to stop. Despite what she’d said, she really didn’t think she’d lost her mind. Which meant her life was about to get exceedingly interesting. And more than a little weird!

The End

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