Bitter 253

Britta followed Dennis as he walked away. They came out of the side alley, in front of the post office. There was no one there.

All the players who had been assembled outside the post office doors, making their complaints to each other, were gone. It seemed Dr Reedy had carried out her plan to remove players while night mode was active.

Dennis didn’t stop—he probably had no idea night mode was something new to this world—and headed down the street.

The sky had turned purple and pink, with streaks of yellow cutting through it in ribbons. It was very pretty, but it was also getting quite chilly. Britta felt strangely excited by the prospect of nighttime.

“Are you sure it’s okay for me to come home with you like this?” asked Britta as she jogged to keep up with Dennis, and also to keep warm.

“Yes, it’s fine. She likes company.” His eyes slid to the side towards Britta. “I should warn you, though, she can be a bit eccentric. Some people find her… overbearing.”

“All mums are, aren’t they?”

Dennis smiled, the first time since he’d exited the bank. “I suppose so.” He tensed up and became serious again. “Do you really think you can do something about the Mayor?”

“I don’t know. I think so. It’s the sort of thing us adventurers are good at, isn’t it? Fighting the bad guys. It’s like a quest, so I should be able to complete it.”

“Yes.” Dennis’ shoulders relaxed slightly. “Yes, that’s right. You’re probably the only one who can.”

He walked a little more upright, more confident, smiling again. He wasn’t that old, eighteen at the most, Britta guessed. But he was tall and stood out. His slicked- back hair and big toothy smile made him look like a young politician.

They entered the rough end of town, near the guardhouse. Britta would have to be careful to avoid being seen by any guards. At least the light was fading so she’d be harder to identify. She hoped the small adjustments she’d made to her clothing would help.

“We should hurry,” said Dennis “it isn’t safe around here after dark.”

This was the first time it had ever been after dark, but Dennis’ programming probably told him otherwise. She was sure he was right. The lengthening shadows gave the tall houses and narrow alleys a menacing feel.

“Alright Dennis?” someone called out.

“Evening, Mr Garrard,” said Dennis to no one Britta could see.

There were more greetings as they went deeper into the slums through a maze of alleys. Britta never saw who was speaking, but Dennis knew them all by name.

By the time they reached the small cottage-like shack in the middle of haphazardly built towers, it was getting quite dark. The sky had turned an inky blue.

“Let me do the talking,” said Denis. He opened the front door, which wasn’t locked, and went inside. He held the door open for her.

Britta entered. She was in a fairly spacious room with a fireplace burning warmly at one end, and a kitchen area and table at the other. A small woman was busy working over the stove.

She was a pleasant-looking middle-aged woman. Taller than Britta, but nowhere near as tall as Dennis.

“Welcome home, dear. Oh, you’ve brought a guest. How lovely!” Her eyes lit up and she smiled. The big teeth were clearly a family trait. “Come in, come in. Warm yourself by the fire.”

“Thank you,” said Britta. “My name’s B. Nice to meet you. Mrs…” Britta realised she didn’t know Dennis’ surname.

“Just call me Clara. Dinner will be ready in a minute. I hope you’ll join us.”

Britta looked at Dennis who was taking off his coat. Was she meant to stay for dinner? And if she was, there was the matter of her second engagement of the evening, dinner with the Mayor. Could you get fat in this virtual reality?

“I won’t take no for an answer,” said Clara. “Don’t worry, plenty to go round.”

“It smells very nice,” said Britta, which was true. There was a very delicious smell in the air.

“Oh, it’s nothing special. Just a little sewer rat stew from an old recipe my grandmother gave me.” She leaned away from the stove, wiped her hands on her apron and whispered loudly, “The secret ingredient is cheese.” Her eyes twinkled.

“Sounds lovely,” said Britta. Overeating wouldn’t be a problem after all.

“Mother,” said Dennis, “there’s a reason B is here. It’s to do with the Mayor.”

“Oh, it can wait until after we’ve eaten, can’t it? He’s always so serious, just like his father.”

“Oh, his father?” Britta wasn’t sure how to broach the subject. There weren’t any pictures on the walls. Was he dead? Was he in the next room?

“Yes, the Mayor, his father.” She tasted her rat stew with a wooden spoon. “I think this is ready. Shall we sit down?”

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