438: Choose Your Battles

“Take his body to the car,” said Orion.

Jack nodded at two of his men. They grabbed Samson at either end and carried him out, with Mandy chasing after them to make sure they didn’t scuff the wood floor in the hallway on their way out. She had made a full recovery thanks to my healing skills. Did she thank me? Did anyone, ever?

“I apologise,” Orion said to Cheng. “It was not my intention to harm you or your wife.”

Cheng didn’t say anything, he just stared at Orion. Probably deciding on the right wine to go with his meal.

“I noticed you didn’t mention me on your list of non-targets,” I said.

“Of course, we wish you no harm, either,” said Orion. “We need you.”

Of all the excuses he could have made, that one had the ring of truth. They wouldn’t want me dead if they needed my help to get to Flatland. But that didn’t mean they had to take me willingly. A non-lethal paralysing toxin would have made it much easier to transport me to wherever they wanted to take me. Plus, I wouldn’t be able to talk, so no updates on how well I was getting on with each of their mothers. The appeal of this approach was obvious to even me.

“Yeah, not harmed, just incapacitated,” I said. “I think it’s fairly obvious what the plan was.” I turned to look at Jack. He didn’t appear to be upset at the loss of one of his team — I guess he was used to it — but he was standing a little straighter, more ready for action in case I tried to extend my killstreak.

I’m not a psycho, although anyone who has to say that has probably already crossed a line. Murder is not something I enjoy or find easy. Again, to have to make that point would suggest it’s already too late to convince anyone.

What you learn, though, once you find yourself in a world where people think killing is as reasonable a way to solve a problem as any other, is that the advantage goes to the person who makes the highest initiative roll.

Going first has always been a key factor to winning. Playing white in chess (or in life, let’s be honest) means the game is yours to lose.

Even if your opponent is bigger and stronger, if you make up your mind to attack first, you will have the upper hand. Unless, that is, they’re expecting you to. But no one expects that of me, at least not the first time.

Normally, I would restrain myself, hiding and avoiding conflict, because you want the moment when you do go all-in to be a surprise. Not for any tactical reason, just to see the horrified look on the other fucker’s face when they realise they’re going to lose to me.

In this case, though, it felt appropriate to get it out of the way. It was clear to me no matter how pleasant these guys were being in the relaxed environment of Mandy’s home with cushions from Istanbul complementing the rugs from Marrakech, they would have taken my life without any qualms whenever it became a convenient option. This was nothing new, but the dart showed how far along that path they were already.

The contraption had been all wood. Orion had said they couldn’t take metal with them to Flatland. Whether that was true or not, they believed it, so a wooden weapon of modern design made sense. They were prepared. Everything had been planned, and I was needed in some capacity. Once that need was at an end, they would dispose of me one way or another. Death, stranding me in the void, making me watch the Justice League movie — something cruel and heartless.

I didn’t have any proof they would turn on me, but then the whole point of a successful betrayal is to not give anything away. They rely on you having to react, which means going second. You lose.

Of course, if you jump the gun, that makes you vulnerable to claims of dishonesty, lack of sportsmanship and so on. The trick here, and you can use this yourself, is to not give a shit.

Nothing sounds sweeter than the people who claim they’re tough and unflappable whining about the rules not being followed. But it’s not fair… Shut the fuck up, snowflake.

To give them their due, Jack and company weren’t complaining about what I’d done. They knew they’d fucked up, but they also knew it had been down to RNG. The device had malfunctioned or Samson had flexed his wrist the wrong way. Whatever had set it off, there had been nothing wrong with the idea, per se. Which meant, they weren’t going to think of me as someone who could beat them. I had just gotten lucky this once.

The thing is, though, if I win playing black because white made a mistake, you shouldn’t feel confident about not making a mistake in game two. The next game, I get to play white. You can play as well as you like, I’m still the one who gets to decide the outcome.

“I warned you about him,” said Mandy as she came back with the two men who had removed Samson’s body. “He made everyone feel nervous wherever he turned up over there, too.”

She made me sound like the guy who turned up to parties with his acoustic guitar.

“So, you’re famous over there?” said Jack. I think he was trying to reassess me in light of my casual offing of one of his men.

“In some circles,” I said. “Not Tom-Cruise-famous, more like Elephant-Man-famous. People come to make fun of me, and leave in tears.”

“You’re not going to trust us again, are you?” said Jack.

“I never trusted you in the first place,” I said. “It was just a matter of when I’d have to kill you. My only advantage is that you need me alive, which makes it tough for you guys, like when you’re play-fighting with your girlfriend and you’re trying to make sure you don’t actually hurt her while she’s eagerly trying to smash you in the balls. But if you plan to just knock me out and stick me in some machine to suck out whatever you need, it’s better I start reducing your numbers while I can.”

“You invited us here to kill us?” asked Jack, very casually.

“No,” I said. “That would make me a terrible host. My reputation as a premium party planner would be irrevocably damaged.”

“I was thinking of starting a party planning business,” said Mandy, suddenly interested in the conversation. “I like parties.”

It was noticeable that the death of an American in her lounge had not unduly upset Mandy. Whether she felt it was a fair result considering she had almost died, or if being married to a demon had toughened her up, it was hard to say. Either way, she was no longer the insecure strumpet willing to suck up to men so they’d look after her. Apparently, finding a man who can look after you is what you need to stop needing to be looked after.

Then again, once you see enough people die, it becomes less traumatising, especially when most of them were giant arseholes whose absence makes life a great deal more pleasant for those left behind.

“I give you my word nothing like this will happen again,” said Orion.

“And if you break your word?” I asked. I was interested in seeing how he was going to sell me on the idea of trusting him.

“Name your price.”

Smart, leaving it up to me. If only people were willing to put on an explosive collar and give you the detonator when they made promises. It feels like a person’s word just isn’t worth much these days. About the same as a carrier bag of Zimbabwean dollars.

“Okay. So, let’s go see the Council.”

Orion raised a surprised eyebrow. “You’ll go?”

“Sure. I’m curious to see what they have to say for themselves. I assume you understand if you try something, there’ll be another death. Yours.”

He wanted me to name a price, I thought something personal might make him sit up and pay attention to what his dogs were up to.

I turned back to Jack. “That goes for you, too. I know you all think you could easily take me in a fair fight, but it should be obvious by now that I don’t fight fair, because you’re absolutely right. Next time, I’ll just end all of you. I would have done it this time, but then I’d be the one who’d have to get rid of the bodies, which is more work than I’m willing to take on. I suppose Cheng could just eat you, but he says you don’t taste good. Probably all the gristle.”

My grandstanding was a cheap tactic, and only effective because I had Cheng there to back me up. Intimating we would act as a team would be more of a concern to them than me on my own, even though Cheng was probably not that interested in wasting his time on them or me.

There was no reaction from Jack and his squad, but there was also no more of the pleasant bonhomie they had exuded when they first arrived. They were just doing their job, of course. No need to make it personal.

“Excellent,” said Orion. “Shall we?”

“One minute, I just need to talk to Cheng first. In private. We’ll be back in a minute.” I moved towards the stairs that led down into the basement with Cheng following.

“I’ll stay here, shall I?” said Mandy, unimpressed by out impromptu ’boys only’ meeting.

“Yeah, thanks,” I said. “Keep an eye on things.” I looked at the tough guys standing ready to roll behind the sofa and jump out a window, or whatever tough guys did. “If she tries anything, just scream and we’ll come running back to save you,” I said to Jack.

Mandy did not look amused.

Cheng was fine with leaving Mandy alone with these strangers. I suppose true love is when you have complete trust in your wife, and it probably helped that everyone was scared shitless of him.

Samson’s death had hardly been a demonstration of my power, more like a demonstration of what a sneaky little shit I could be. Had Samson known what I was going to do, no doubt he would have stopped me. That’s what they thought. They were wrong, though. He could never have known what I was going to do because I had no idea what I was going to do until I did it.

Down in Cheng’s lab, I closed the door and lowered my voice. “I’m going to see the Council.”

“I know,” said Cheng, also speaking quietly. “Why are we whispering? The room is soundproofed.”

“Hurry up!” screamed Mandy, very audibly. “I have to feed the baaa-by.”

“How can we hear her if it’s soundproofed?” I asked.

“Nothing’s that soundproofed,” said Cheng.

“Won’t she wake the kid?”

“He’s immune. Finds it soothing.”

A kid born with the power to ignore female screeching. He was destined for greatness.

“I don’t think this is going to go well,” I said.

“Then why are you going?” asked Cheng, very reasonably.

“Mostly, because I have nothing better to do, but also because I want to get it out of the way before the cup final. Spurs are playing.”

Cheng looked at me like he thought I was wasting my life on stupid shit, which made me suspect he was also a Spurs fan. We can see each other’s pain.

“What I was thinking,” I said, “was maybe you have something lying around here that could help. A potion or something. My powers are still a bit patchy, so I might not be able to fight them off if things get sticky.”

“Why would you get sticky?”

“I don’t mean it literally. It’s a phrase.”

He looked like he didn’t believe me. “Hmm, you could try this.” He took down a large bottle containing a clear liquid from a shelf.

“What does it do?”

“If you drink it, it will kill you. It’s mostly bleach.”

“How would that help?”

“Your powers are more available to you the closer to death you get.” His innocent expression suggested he saw no problem with this approach to activating my abilities. I suppose drinking Domestos wasn’t as bad as having to eat a tin of spinach, but there wasn’t much between them, to be honest.

“Don’t you have something less… lethal? What about a smoke bomb or a magic hole I can jump into, got anything like that?” An emergency escape hatch sounded like the sort of thing I could find a use for.

“Hmm. I’ve got these.” He took a jar from the table with all his papers and computers. It looked like it was full of coloured balls, like hard boiled sweets.

“What do they do? Rot your teeth?”

“No. If you hold one in your mouth, it makes you head glow from the inside, like a lantern.”

“What’s the point of that?”

“Nothing. Charlie really likes it.”

This was the problem with new parents — too obsessed with making their kids happy. “Give me three.”

I tried to get more useful shit out of him, but he had very little of any practical use. I began to think he only came down here to get away from her upstairs. Couldn’t really blame him for that.

We returned to the lounge where Orion was sitting, browsing his phone. His men had gone back to their car. Mandy looked annoyed at the lack of attention being shown her way.

“Had a nice time, did you?”

“We were talking business,” I said, “not having a good time.” She didn’t believe me, of course. “I’m ready.”

Orion got up. “Right. Let’s get going. Don’t worry, this will be a wonderful experience, no problems, nothing to worry about.”

The more he claimed everything was going to be fine, the less convinced I was. But I did want to see if the Council was the same one and if so, I had a few choice words I wanted to say to them.

Outside, it was a pleasant afternoon, which in British terms meant it wasn’t raining yet. Wimbledon was approaching, so the summer deluge would soon be here.

“If we don’t see you again,” said Mandy from the doorway, “thanks for saving my life.”

“No problem,” I said. “Try not to be a terrible mother.” I got in the car before she could empty the baby over my head.

The trip from Hampstead to Chelsea took about forty minutes. The other car followed us, two black SUVs with tinted windows like we were some kind of security detail. Not a rare sight in West London.

Orion waited for me to initiate conversation, so needless to say, there wasn’t any.

Our destination wasn’t a big spooky house with a garish facade — you have to go all the way to Richmond for that sort of thing — it was an office block, all glass and chrome. The sign out front said it was called Brand New World Inc. Cute.

We pulled into an underground carpark full of expensive cars that looked freshly waxed. The whole place reeked of money and made me feel underdressed in my jeans and tee shirt. If the cars were making me feel insecure, I dreaded to see what the people would do.

The four guys stood by their car. I assumed Samson was in the boot. Did they have an onsite incinerator?

Orion’s driver was even more jacked than Jack. He didn’t say anything and got back in the car and drove off. Probably to have it washed and polished.

“This way,” said Orion, heading towards the lifts. The others stayed where they were.

We took the lift to the top, the thirty-third floor. The doors opened onto a busy floor, with people walking around, working inside glass offices and making phone calls in a very serious manner. I had no idea what they did here.

Orion led me confidently through the activity, ignored by everyone. We reached double doors on the other side and he placed his palm on the panel next to it, like some Mission Impossible shit. As soon as it beeped green, the whole floor fell silent. Everyone had stopped what they were doing to look at us.

Orion pushed one of the doors opened and indicated for me to go in.

It was dark inside, the blinds drawn. It was a conference room with a large table in the middle with a dozen or so chairs. Four figures were seated at the far end.

Orion flipped a switch and lights came on. It revealed a very dusty room and four mannequins wearing white masks, bent over or hanging off the side of the chair. They looked ridiculous.

“Sorry, been a while since anyone used this place. Take a seat, they’ll be with you in a moment.”

I brushed off a chair and sat down. Good thing I didn’t get dressed up. Orion turned the lights off again.

“They don’t like the lights,” said Orion. “I’ll leave you to it, then. Shouldn’t be long.” He backed out of the room and closed the door.

I sat there, waiting. Not the exciting encounter I had envisioned, so that was a plus.

Ten minutes later, as I was nodding off, one of the mannequin’s bolted into a sitting position.

“Ah, Colin, nice to see you again,” said Cowdrey.

“Yeah,” I said. “So, quick question, what the fuck?”

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Afterword from Mooderino
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