"REAL FOOD" the sign advertised, which was strange for such an out of the way pub. Real food was extremely scarce nowadays, and those few places that could even afford to sell it had to make sure that they would have a reasonable turnover of custom.
This problem had begun long before even the oldest surviving memory - only the history books told of the inexorable, predictable ending that the politicians had not been able to foresee.
Firstly it had been a single Europe, with a single currency. This of course had its problems, as the UK had been unwilling to admit at the time that it was still a very prudish nation compared with the rest of the continent. But as the UK itself had been one of the prime drivers behind the move to singularity, the nation had been forced to change its outlook on issues such as drugs, sex, alcohol and tea drinking.
Then, of course, the politicians became full of self importance. If they had achieved pulling all these countries together, why not the rest? Africa, India, America and the scattered remnants of Russia agreed immediately. There was no budging the Arabs. China and Japan too refused point blank to abandon their culture and history - The two would not merge.
Impervious to the outcries of the public they were supposed to serve and represent, the politicians surged ahead, as they had done with Europe.
It was easier this time. Africa and India only stood to gain, so offered no obstacles. The Americans, as ever, insisted they had a majority share in running the whole show, and as they had so much more money to inject, it was agreed.
The public was not happy. The idea of a democracy had been abandoned. The man on the street was not being given what he wanted. With several poorer countries now having to be supported, famines, droughts and floods, which hitherto had only been funded by charities, now had to be paid for. Money became scarce.
And then there was the population boom.
The ecology of the planet was reeling from the effects. Fish stocks were almost completely exhausted. A partial, followed by a complete ban on commercial fishing was imposed throughout the New World for a period of not less than two years. The other countries were also asked to participate, and the Arabs agreed. China and Japan only agreed that they would fish within their own waters, and would not export any of the fish caught. Sea angling took off as a major pastime.
Meat too quickly became very scarce. Soon a piece of fresh steak cost more than the average monthly wage. Prices continued to rise.
Some companies however had foreseen this problem. Biochemical food substitutes was the way ahead, and these, taken together with vitamin supplements, soon formed the staple diet for the vast majority of the New World. The one and only restriction that was placed on the manufacture of these substitutes, aside from the fact that they must not be harmful or dangerous in any way, was that they must conform to Regulation 1675.87; If tested they must show up as being artificial.
That was where I came in. The job of my department, and hence my job, was to ensure the public was not getting ripped off eating cardboard crap dressed up as fresh steak. It had its own form of evolution in that as quickly as we developed our techniques to identify synthetic foods, the various black market companies found new ways to fool us.
So it was that today I found myself heading for a small pub that one day used to rest between two minor villages - villages that now resembled small cities.
Mr. Johnson, the proprietor, had recently erected a notice advertising the fact that he now sold real food. If it turned out that he was lying, not only would he have both his licence and his pub taken from him, but he would probably find himself working in a factory by the end of next week, packing the very same meat he was probably now passing off as real. But I was not cynical and I kept an open mind.
Or at least I tried.
I pulled up outside the Pub: The Halfway House. Apt name giving its location, I just hoped the name was not designed to give a description of the food. "All or nothing" was the policy on that.
I decided against taking the gun. This was a surprise visit and the rule books said I should take it, but I worked alone and generally made my own mind up based on what I liked to think of as intuition, but was more likely to be a random decision.
There was no dog to worry about as I approached the pub; only the very wealthiest people could afford to feed pets, and even then there was a major worry about people stealing it to eat!
Johnson answered warily, saying he was closed, but my badge said he was open.
Large and spacious, the lounge looked comfortable and clean. Johnson seemed to want to stay there to do our business, offering me a free drink.
"It's real beer." He insisted.
I doubted that, but that was the job of a different department. Besides which the penalty for passing off false liquid was nowhere near the same as that for food.
"Can we go through to the kitchen?" I asked.
It too was clean. Gleaming stainless steel surfaces, pots and pans hanging from a rack suspended from the ceiling, knives attached to a large magnetic strip - all just as a kitchen should look.
"Cold storage?" I suggested.
He gestured to the far corner and we crossed the room. Opening the door Johnson reached for a plate and pulled it towards us. "See! Real steak. Want me to cook you some?"
I had been to many kitchens in this job, visited many pubs and restaurants, and I liked to think that in doing so I had a good feel for what was right and what was wrong. This was wrong. I could not put my finger on it, but here something was wrong.
I pointed to a large slab of meat on a platter. "What's that?"
"Real pork," replied Johnson eagerly. "You prefer that?"
"Look quit trying to buy me buddy, you don`t even know where to begin." I saw him swallow heavily. "Just cut me off a small piece of each so that I can test them, OK?"
In the boot of the vehicle I placed each piece into the processing machine, one at a time. As I had suspected they were both real. I stood besides the vehicle thinking, and I realised that Johnson was watching me. Had he not been so shifty, so eager to buy and please me, and had I not been such a suspicious, methodical bastard, I would have left.
Instead I got my gun.
When Johnson opened the door this time he found the barrel levelled at his face.
"I'd like another look at that cold storage area if you don't mind."
This time I realised what was wrong. Size. The area was smaller on the inside than it should have been. Not much, and if the light in the ceiling had been moved so that it appeared to be more central than it was, I might not have noticed.
I crossed the room and pushed one side of the wall. It rotated easily, revealing the carcasses that hung there. Johnson had not even tried to disguise what they were.
Momentarily stunned by the sight of the decapitated human bodies hanging there, Johnson made a break for it. Stupidly I raised my gun and fired. The bullet ricocheted wildly within the confines of the metal room and imbedded itself into one of the hanging corpses.
As I gave chase I just had time to see him disappear behind the bar.
To his credit Johnson did not even bother trying to shoot at me. Instead I simply heard a muffled shot, and rounding the bar I saw the remains of his face.
Johnson had simply saved us time. The death penalty had long ago been re-invoked - less mouths to feed. He was headed for the crematorium one way or the other, and this was the cheapest and easiest for everyone.
Where Johnson had obtained the corpses from I did not know, but I could tell this was going to be a whole new problem. Or maybe it had been a problem for a while already, and this was just the first time I had discovered it. Whichever way, I was glad that I could not afford real food.
Back at my empty flat I poured myself a real whisky. The bottle was still half full, a present I received when I got my promotion, and it would be a few months before I could afford another.
Tonight, however, I was going to drink the bloody lot.