Cheng hadn’t been paying attention to the conversation so he wasn’t sure what Biadet had just accused him of. He looked around the dinner table with a slightly gormless expression. He was getting good at the whole husband thing.
He hadn’t really been very interested in anything that had happened since I’d arrived. He had more pressing matters to take care of, it seemed.
He had no interest in what had happened back in Flatland and he only asked about my plans here to be polite. I got the sense he was indulging me because Mandy was all excited about someone from over there coming back, and she’d have someone to talk to so she’d probably given him a talking to about being nice and friendly and not eating them. That was until she found out it was me.
But it wasn’t surprising that he’d have his own plans for this world. He was an archdemon, after all.
“You have an army of monsters?” I asked him. “Do tell.”
He raised an eyebrow in my general direction. “Me? No. Not as such.”
“I sense them,” said Biadet, her tone flat and undaunted. “They pulse with a desire for violence.” She looked around the table. “Can’t you feel the constant throbbing under your feet?”
“I did feel something,” I said, “but I thought the central heating was on the blink. Come on, Cheng, how many have you got hidden in the dark? Are they the big ones with wings or the freaky little things that crawl in through the ears and burrow into the brain? How big is the army? Legion?”
Cheng frowned and ran his tongue over his greasy lips. A forked tongue. “It is not an army. My presence attracts a certain level of undesired attention.” He looked at me when he said it.
“Like dung attracting flies,” said Biadet, nodding.
Cheng took a moment to stop himself from killing everyone at the table and avoiding this whole conversation. I could tell that was what was going through his mind from the way his nostrils flared. It’s a subtle thing, but if you’ve been in as many awkward conversations as I have, you learn to recognise the signs.
“They are not under the house,” he said, “or even in this world. They exist in a separate place that is close to this one, but not one the same plane.”
“The adjacent world,” I said. “That’s good. That means there’s a way to get there from here, right? You could open a portal to it, no?”
“Not without letting them in at the same time.”
“Sure, sure,” I said, “but that’s okay. Might actually be a good idea. Would make people sit up and pay attention, stop them being so preoccupied with their tedious shit if a host of demons descended on them while they were doing their Saturday shopping. People need to be shaken out of their stupor every now and then, like with punk, except the demon horde probably have better lyrics.”
I quite liked the idea of leaving the door between planes open on my way out. I might not be interested in saving this world from the horrendous mediocrity it had settled for, but I wouldn’t mind seeing it turn into a genuine battleground. Can’t get a deferment for bone spurs when the apocalypse arrives.
“That is not something I would wish on them,” said Cheng. His concern was that the demons wouldn’t have a very nice time if they were brought here. He was probably right. Treated like second-class citizens just because they happened to be foreign.
Why can’t they talk the same language as us and eat food that isn’t weird and disgusting? All they do is fly down, pull people’s heads off and suck their innards out of their necks. They’re not even trying to fit in.
I didn’t know Cheng very well. I knew who he was and what he represented in a vague way, but most of my interactions with him had been focused on not dying and getting the hell out of Monsterland.
If I took a moment to think about it, though, I’d say he didn’t think very much of people. It wasn’t that he didn’t see us as equals, he didn’t see us at all, unless someone pointed us out to him.
We were beneath him, in every sense. He’d married into the family, but he wasn’t looking to hang out with the cousins. Couldn’t really blame him, but when it came to sorting this place out, in a way that would actually be effective, he did strike me as a very promising candidate.
“Cheng,” I said in my most affable tone.
“No,” said Cheng, before I’d even had a chance to offend him with my suggestions for how he could better spend his time.
“Fine, but listen anyway. You’re new here, so you don’t know what it’s like. Lush fertile ground, dense populations, all the oil you can steal from people who are barely armed. Anything a drone can do, you guys can do twice as good and at least fifteen times more accurately.”
“Wait,” said Lillian, “are you trying to sell him on invading the planet?” She didn’t sound like she approved of the idea.
“Why not? Someone’s going to fuck up this place, why not him and his boys.”
“I wouldn’t call them boys,” said Cheng.
“Sorry for assuming their gender,” I said to him. Who knew pronouns were an issue in the demon world? “It’s hard to know what they are when most of them have no genitalia.”
“They have genitalia,” said Cheng. “Just not on the outside.” He sniffed, like he didn’t approve of that idea.
“In any case,” I said, swiftly getting off the genitalia, “I’ve been looking at this all wrong. I’ve been so busy trying to come up with ways to not get involved, I didn’t see the answer standing next to me.” I pointed at Cheng with both hands.
“Still very much no,” he said. He carried on eating with the clear intention of loading up the dishwasher and then getting back to work in his den where people couldn’t bother him. I sympathised, but only in the usual way where it wouldn’t actually stop me from badgering the shit out of him.
“Sure, you say that now, but just wait.” I had only now realised this was the solution, so I needed a little time to come up with a way to trick, I mean, convince Cheng into taking over planet Earth and making it his dominion. I doubted most people would even notice.
“Are you encouraging him to take over the planet and turn it into a nightmarish wasteland?” asked Lillian.
“You’re making it sound negative,” I said. “Encouraging people is a positive thing.”
“Not when you’re encouraging them to destroy the lives of millions of people.” Lillian was taking the moral high ground, like that would impress me. Idiot.
“You clearly don’t bother with the financial bit of the news. Encouraging people to fuck over as many people as possible is all we do. It’s called capitalism, and it works very well. Lillian, wake up, there is no good guy coming to save the day. Evil won a long time ago, and then they changed the rules so they would stay in power. You can’t supplant evil. No supplanting. Not with love and faith and good vibes. But!” I looked around the table with a big grin. “What if you challenge them not with a man in a white hat, but a big fuck off demon? Beat them at their own game. What are they going to do? Accuse the enemy of not playing fair?”
I was quite pleased with myself. All I had to do was set Cheng up with a broad plan. Start in Australia and expand through SouthEast Asia, if Risk was a good indicator of how to conquer the world (which it bloody well wasn’t). And how hilarious would it be to see the Aussies realise immigration isn’t actually a huge issue when death imps are chewing your face off. Perfect.
“I’m afraid I am not interested in the problems of this tiny world,” said Cheng. Playing hard to get, the tease.
“Colin,” said Lillian, “you can’t think like that. There is always hope. And that hope is you.”
Everyone stared at her incredulously, including me.
“No,” I said. “That’s not me. It’s him, I’m telling you.”
“Colin, I have an ability. It might not be as impressive as yours, but it allows me a glimpse of the future. And you are that future. You’re the one who can make a difference. You’re the one who can save us. You just have to believe in yourself.”
“Have you not met him before?” said Mandy.
Biadet made a strange gurgling sound.
“Was that you laughing?” I said. I’d never heard her laugh before, so it was possible.
“No,” said Biadet. “That was me choking. This chicken isn’t very fresh. It was killed several days ago. You people are barbarians.” Didn’t stop her from eating.
“Lillian,” I said, “your ability isn’t real. You may think it works, and sometimes the results might be what you expect, but that’s just confirmation bias. Whatever you think is going to happen, the universe will take a huge dump on it and then post the pics on its Instagram. Trust me, you’re way off.”
There’s not a lot I know about the future, but I know I won’t be the one with top billing and a backend deal.
“But with our help—”
“Not even then,” I said. “And don’t be fooled, your people won’t be helping me. They’ll say that’s what they want to do, but then this other stuff will happen which means, unfortunately, they’ll have to change direction and, regrettably, fuck me in the arse.”
The voice of experience; sounds a lot like the voice of rectal shredding.
Lillian looked at Cheng with a horrified quiver of the lips.
“Do not be concerned,” said Cheng. “I have no intention of laying waste to your world. Improvements like that take far too much time and commitment.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “This is to be expected. The villain’s journey always starts with a reluctant villain refusing the call to slaughter.”
Lillian stood up and threw her napkin on the table. “I’ve put myself on the line for you. I told them you put on an act like you didn’t care about anything, but you’re hiding a genuine desire to help people.”
“Ha!” said Mandy.
Biadet made the gurgling sound again.
Lillian looked around the table, ending on me. “If you go down this path, the whole world will unite against you.”
It was hard not to roll my eyes. “If that were true I’d definitely go down this road, but this lot couldn’t work together if their lives depended on it. Which it will.”
There are lots of movies where a terrible disaster or an alien invasion force enemies to put aside their differences and work together against a common foe. Get the fuck out of here.
“What about the crystal ball?” said Lillian.
“What about it?”
“It worked, didn’t it? Like I said it would. It brought her here. It let you speak to Jenny.”
“Okay,” I said, not sure what she was getting at.
“We have more of them.”
“No, more artefacts. Magical ones. We aren’t sure what all of them do, but they’re powerful. Books, rings, a wooden sword.”
That got my attention. “Where did you get them from?”
“I can’t tell you that. But I can show you.” She could see she had my interest now. “Come with me, they aren’t far.”
“Where? Locked up in the Tower of London?”
“No,” she said, like that was a ridiculous idea. “They’re stored at Bletchley Park.”
Right, because that’s not a ridiculous cliché. “Bring them here.”
“I can’t. You have to come with me.”
“What do you mean you can’t? Says who? I’m not walking into some trap. Bring them here and I might change my mind. Until then, the demon conquest idea is favourite.”
“No,” said Cheng, living up to the classic antihero archetype.
Lillian left the table. “I’ll be back.”
“Can you make it in the morning?” said Biadet. “I’m very tired. Where can I sleep?”
“In my room,” I said. Looks were sent my way. Not friendly ones.
“Okay,” said Biadet.
“We have more bedrooms,” said Mandy.
“I know,” I said. “Get your mind out of the gutter, you unrepentant tart. Don’t judge me by your standards. You sleep with a demon.”
“That was your idea,” said Mandy, outraged.
Some people never take responsibility for their choices.
After seeing Lillian out, we retired for the night. My reasons for wanting Biadet with me were purely selfish. There were all sorts of dodgy government types out there, willing to kidnap, torture and commit war crimes and then claim diplomatic immunity. I’d never get a decent night’s sleep with all that going on.
Biadet, on the other hand, was a very calming influence. I didn’t have faith in much, but you could put your trust in Biadet.
I put a pillow and sheets on the floor next to the bed.
“Are you afraid you won’t be able to control yourself if you share the bed with me?” asked Biadet.
“I’m afraid of Jenny…” I realised that was the end of the sentence.
I lay down and started thinking of a world where every evil piece of shit in a position of power looked out of their window at demons soaring through the skies and feeling like life just wasn’t fair. Born rich and privileged but still a packed lunch for a monster. It was too perfect.
I woke up in darkness. Someone was moving around the room and the window was open.
“What?” I said. I had no fear since Biadet was close by and she would destroy whoever it was if they meant me any harm.
A strange gurgling sound drifted across from the bed. I realised it was Biadet snoring.
“Hello, Colin,” said a woman’s voice. “I have come to make you an offer.” She had a slight accent.
“From who?” I sat up and tried to get my bearings. There was enough light coming in the open window to provide an outline.
“From my government.”
I grabbed my phone from under the pillow — you never know when you might need to check your emails — and turned on the torch.
She was a short Chinese woman, black hair pulled back into a ponytail, silky black clothes. Very pretty and delicate, although probably able to kill me with a well-placed kick. Not to perpetuate any stereotypes, but she had climbed up the side of a house and opened a locked window without anyone hearing her. Her knowing Kung Fu would be the least surprising thing about her.
“The Chinese government want me to work for them?” It would be very embarrassing if she turned out to be Korean.
“No. Partners. We will be partners. We will help you.”
“And in return?”
“We take forty percent, that is all. And you will speak to Cheng for us. He is one of us. His mother was one of us. You will speak to him, bring him home.”
They wanted Cheng, I was just the go-between.
“His mother was from Hong Kong,” I said. “He might not like what you’re doing over there.”
“He will understand. You will speak to him.”
I stood up. “And if I say no?”
“Very sorry.” She stabbed me in the neck with a needle.
I felt something cold seep into my blood. I could follow it as it spread. I breathed in and pushed it back. My mouth filled with white light and I spat it out. A glowing mist enveloped the Chinese girl’s shocked face like she was caught in a cloud of fireflies.
Another figure jumped out of the shadows. I hadn’t even noticed there was someone else here. The punch came out of nowhere.
I’m not proud of how I reacted, although it was pretty cool. I grabbed the girl’s hair and pulled it. Her face came towards me and caught the punch on the nose. She fell in front of me as her mate followed up with the other fist. I tuned her elbow and brought up her hand, the one holding the needle, and let the second punch take it in the knuckles.
There was a small hiss and then number two fell on top of number one. Whatever had been in the syringe, it must have been pretty nasty.
Now I had a bedroom full of people. Rumours would start and I’d never be able to hold my head up in the local supermarket.
Luckily, the two intruders were both small and light. I managed to pick them up and push them out of the window. It was their point of entry, I was just seeing them out in their preferred method. They landed with a flump on the ground below. Probably not dead but I didn’t really give a shit. I closed the window.
“You’re getting better at that sort of thing,” said Biadet. “You might not even need me to save your life anymore.”
“I probably will,” I said as I lay down again.
“Yes,” she said. “You probably will.”
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