People like Duncan rule the world, they always have. They don’t run governments or even control politicians — I don’t think they really care what the rest of the world gets up to. They have their own world, a compound somewhere with high walls and high-tech security where even the police have to make an appointment to get in.
And then they come out to hunt. Their fun is making money and beating their competitors. It’s a grand tour, sailing the world looking for sport, riding in the prow of a whaling ship, looking for a spout of water to aim their harpoon at.
The rest of us, we’re how they can keep score. Our choices matter. Coke or Pepsi? Nike or Adidas? We get to decide the winner. Other than that, we don’t matter at all. We’re interchangeable, our money all looks the same.
“The girl, as you call her,” said Duncan, a little smug in having won me over so quickly, “is trapped in another dimension, as I’m sure you know.”
“Okay,” I said, unwilling to confirm anything. I wanted to see where this was going. If he wanted my help, eventually he would have to tell me what it was he wanted me to do. The way he was prevaricating, the way everyone had avoided coming straight to the point, suggested two things. One, it wasn’t going to be something I liked. And two, they had no real idea how to tell me what they needed without making it obvious I didn’t need them.
“There was a time when we could see beyond this dimension, to the world beyond, but then we couldn’t. There was only darkness. But now there’s the girl.”
He kept saying the word dimension with added emphasis, like he was conveying some new meaning of the word.
“She’s blocking you?”
“No, I don’t believe so. But her appearance may allow us to unblock the way.”
I was pretty sure unblock only had the one meaning, but he was probably trying to instil a sense of urgency and importance to what he was saying. Personally, the only way to get me fired up about a mission is to have the words kebab and extra chilli sauce in the briefing. I’ll put together an away team in under sixty seconds.
“And you know this how?”
“Lillian was able to piece it together,” said Duncan. He sounded like a proud father.
“Right. Lillian. Who’s dead. Forgive me for saying so, but you don’t appear very cut up about her loss.” I looked over at AJ. “Neither of you do. Why is that?”
The two men exchanged a knowing look.
“The thing with Lillian,” said Duncan, “is that she always comes back.”
I waited for the rest of the explanation but he seemed reluctant to give me more details. Story of my life. Well, I’d had just about enough of that shit.
“What do you mean? She’s a vampire? She regenerates from a drop of blood back to full health? Bullets bounce off her impenetrable skin?”
“I don’t know,” said Duncan. “I have no idea how she does it. I’ve even seen her corpse and personally buried her, and then she appears the next day as though nothing happened.”
Suddenly this was sounding rather familiar. Was Lillian something similar to Richina? That didn’t make any sense.
“How long has she been able to do that, the coming back to life thing? I mean, how long have you been aware of it?”
Duncan frowned and pursed his bottom lift. “Maybe… a year.” He looked over at AJ who was nodding. “Around that. She may have been doing it a lot longer, of course.”
“And is that all you know about her?” I asked. “She turned up one day and you put your complete trust in her and didn’t ask any questions?”
“It’s not that easy to get any answers out of her,” said Duncan. “She can be very evasive. But useful. Very useful. You don’t just turn someone like that away because they have a few secrets. We all have our secrets.”
No arguing with that. “Do you not think that maybe, just maybe, she’s using you to get whatever it is she wants, and after that, she’ll kill you and feast on your dead bodies? Random example.”
“That’s an oddly specific random example,” said Duncan.
“No,” I said, “not where I’ve come from it isn’t.”
“I realise you don’t trust me,” said Duncan. “I knew it the moment I set eyes on you. That boy, that man, he’s seen a lot of crazy shit, he knows the kind of people who’re out there and what they’re like, and he will never, never believe anyone who offers to help him out. Right?”
“Sure,” I said. “You don’t need to be a psychic to figure that out.”
“I’m not,” confirmed Duncan. “But I’ve been around people like you long enough to know I can’t force you to do what I want. I can’t threaten you and I can’t bribe you. You don’t really need me.”
“Okay,” I said, not at all sure where this was going. “So… I should see myself out?”
“Just because I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to, doesn’t mean you won’t see the sense in what I’m suggesting.”
“Rounding up the toffs and trust-fund kids and shipping them off to Fantasy Island? To be honest, Duncan, I don’t think it’d be fair on the poor bastards who live over there. They might be a bunch of primitive weirdos with no respect for life or liberty, but they still don’t deserve a stream of rich twats descending on them like Spring Break in Miami. It’s a pretty fucking dumb idea, Duncan. I don’t see myself joining in.”
I had reached a point in my development as a man where I could tell a rich and powerful mogul that he was an idiot. You’re not supposed to talk to your elders like that, but those rules were formed when elders actually gave a shit about the rest of us. Nowadays, they’re only interested in funding research into longevity drugs so they never have to let go of the steering wheel, so why bother passing along any of their wisdom? They’ll be in charge forever.
“Now, give me a chance,” said Duncan. “Whatever you may think of my ideas, you’ve got to admit the other guys aren’t going to make things any better. A lot worse, I’d say. Wouldn’t you?”
“I’m not sure there’s any difference,” I said. “I’m still not convinced you aren’t working together. Make me think I get to choose one side over the other when it’s all the same side. You or them — honestly, who gives a shit?”
“You really don’t care?” Duncan looked shocked. He had expected me to at least want to be on the winning side, even if it wasn’t his.
“I don’t see any advantage in helping either of you. I’ve always found the problem with getting what I want is the people I end up stuck with to help me. I’m sure there are some quality personnel doing good work out there, the sort of people you thank at awards ceremonies, but I’ve never been teamed up with them. In my case, one brain has always been better than two. And way, way better than six. It’s just really hard to stab yourself in the back, especially if you’re not very flexible in the first place.”
Turning people down is its own art. And very enjoyable when the offer is from someone who thinks they’ve got what everyone is after. It’s what they want, after all, so it’s insulting when you reject it. In reality, you’re rejecting them.
“What I have,” said Duncan, not particularly fazed, “is resources that you will need. No matter what you plan — unless you intend to hide under a rock somewhere — you will need specialised equipment and people who can follow orders. I can provide them. And if, later on, you decide you don’t want to help me reach my goal, that’s fine, just walk away. No strings.”
“Really?” I said. “You expect me to believe you’ll do what I want on a ‘pay what you think it’s worth’ basis?”
“It shows I have great confidence in my plan, doesn’t it?” said Duncan.
“Yes,” I agreed. “You believe you’re brilliant. And you’ve done well for yourself, so maybe you are. But a lot of deluded people make money. They just cheat and lie and have good lawyers.”
“True,” said Duncan. “But I can’t force you into doing what I want. And if I had you killed, assuming I could, what would that get me? Some petty satisfaction? I’m not a vengeful man, Colin. I make deals. I sell ideas. I think I can sell you on what I’m planning, and I think you’re the only person who can get me close to my goal. I’m willing to bet on you. All you have to do is whatever you were going to do anyway. And when the time comes, as you said, pay me what you think my help is worth. If you don’t believe it’s a good idea, what am I going to do?” He shrugged like he couldn’t think of anything.
He did have resources that might come in useful. The bank of psychics upstairs, for a start. There were bound to be things they could enable me to do, like allowing me to talk to Jenny again. This time I might even pay attention to what she was trying to tell me.
“So, I can do what I want, and decide whether I want to help you right at the end?”
I watched him closely as he confirmed the deal, looking intently in his blue eyes for any sign of duplicity. He looked like he was lying through his teeth but then that’s what he looked like all the time, so not very revealing.
“There are some small issues we’ll have to deal with,” said Duncan.
“Oh, yes? Like what?”
“The problem,” said Duncan, “is that I came into the game late. By the time I was aware of any of this, the top people, the vital resources, all of that was already in the possession of others. We have only a few psychics, and they have limited energy. The best and brightest are employed by our competitors.”
“Their psychics are better than your psychics, are they?”
“Simply put, yes,” said Duncan, “but we plan to amend that. We are going to take their psychics.” His chest was puffed out and he was all fired up.
“You’re going to kidnap their psychics? You know they have ex-army types and what-not, right? I don’t think they’ll let their psychics go that easily.”
“We have ex-army types, too. And we have you.”
“That’s going to be a pass for me, dog.” Easiest no of my life.
“You don’t know the plan, yet,” said Duncan.
“A hard pass.” Firm but polite, the trademark Colin move. “I’m leaving. Let me know when Lillian comes back, I’d like to talk to her.”
Duncan raised his hands. “Alright. Just think it over. AJ is at your disposal. He’ll take you anywhere you need to go, arrange whatever you need. Once Lillian returns, I’m sure you’ll have a change of heart.”
It sounded like AJ’s job was to babysit me. And as for Lillian, I still wasn’t sure what to make of that.
“Thanks, but I’ve had my fill of being driven around. I’ll get a taxi. It was nice meeting you, Duncan.”
“What about my train? Don’t you want the tour?”
“Another time.” I backed out of the room. The door opened for me. He was showing me how agreeable he was and how it was all my own decision. Like I was going to fall for that old chestnut.
AJ escorted me back up to ground level. He didn’t say anything but he had a knowing grin on his face, like he knew how this would turn out. I’d agree to Duncan’s deal, everyone did, I’d come around because everyone did. At least, that was the vibe I was getting.
Nov was still where I’d left him and his psychics were enjoying whatever was showing on the inside of their helmets. The screen on the wall was blank.
“Did it go well?” asked Nov.
“Wonderfully,” said AJ.
“Do you think I could try talking to the girl again?” I asked Nov.
“Our psychics will be available again once they’ve had a little rest.”
“How long?” I asked.
“A week,” said Nov.
“Right. See you later, then.”
“Are you sure I can’t give you a ride anywhere?” asked AJ.
“No thanks.” I walked away and he didn’t follow.
I exited the building and took a deep breath. I had managed to come out of the meeting without getting involved in a mass kidnapping plot. I saw that as a win.
If the game depended on how many low-level psychics you could round up and stick in a blender, I wasn’t really interested. I planned to have a chat to Cheng about what alternatives there were.
Then I saw the police.
There were two of them, male, plump (of course), in white short-sleeved shirts and standing next to the car AJ had stolen earlier.
I could hear them talking on the radio asking for verification of the number plate.
The obvious thing to do would be to turn around and walk the other way. Nothing to do with me, officer.
But I was in a bit of a tetchy mood. Why should I have to do anything to avoid getting involved? I was just a passing member of the public. I confidently strode past them.
“Excuse me, sir,” said one of them. “Is this your vehicle?”
“Er, no.” I smiled and turned my head to face the direction in which I was innocently walking away.
“Could I take your name, please?”
“Er, what? Why?”
“Just a normal check, sir. Nothing to be alarmed about.” He gave me a reassuring smile.
“I’d rather not get involved,” I said. I could have just given my name, or even a false name, and been on my way. But being asked for my papers like this was some kind of military dictatorship really rankled.
The whole point of defending our freedoms is so that we aren’t subjected to this sort of bullshit. Yes, it makes life slightly harder for cops and government types, but that’s the price we pay for allowing people to do what they want without the need to justify it.
“Your name?” he insisted.
“No, officer, I’m not going to give you my name or show you my ID or answer any questions. It’s not my job to help you, it’s your job to find whoever stole that car. It certainly wasn’t me, so do me a favour and leave me alone. Take me in if you have a reason and I’ll call a lawyer. Otherwise, please get out of my way.”
I doubt the old me would have had the balls to talk to someone in authority with this kind of forthrightness. I was being confrontational, but the police — and I think this goes for pretty much any country — are full of twats who like to bully people. My days of being bullied were well behind me.
Constable Dipshit stopped smiling. “How did you know the car was stolen?”
The car was parked outside the church like any car might be. It looked clean and in good working order. No broken windows.
“Because,” I said, “you were just reporting it a minute ago when I was standing right behind you. They’re called ears, you clown. This isn’t an episode of Columbo where the first person you see is the murderer. Where did they train you? A passing circus?”
His partner, who had said nothing so far, was smirking by the car.
“I simply asked for your name,” said the officer, slightly red in the face. “It’s hardly an abuse of power.”
“That’s exactly what it is,” I said, continuing the conversation when I should have found a way to be on my way. I had only recently had a run-in with the police, so I didn’t actually want to be taken in for being an unnecessary pillock. “You can’t just inconvenience the public because you feel like it. Why not go the whole and go ask that black dude if it’s his car.” I pointed at AJ who had emerged from the church. “I mean, black people steal cars as much as white people do. I’m sure he won’t mind answering your random, shot-in-the-dark questions. Probably never gets to help the police with their inquiries.”
As I said it, I realised it would have been useful to set them on AJ so I could give him the slip, but I’d said it with such sarcasm, I could see the copper recoil from the suggestion.
“It’s fine, sorry to have troubled you. Have a good day.” He backed off towards his partner, who was enjoying the show immensely. Lucky for me, the British like nothing more than seeing each other in massive discomfort. I set off.
When I turned the corner, there was a very small Smart car waiting on the kerb.
“You better get in,” said Lillian, not looking very dead.
“How did you not die from the poison gas?” I asked her.
“I’m not immortal, if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m psychic. I changed the gas last week when I saw what a klutz you are. Let’s go. You don’t want to keep Jenny waiting.”