I’m not sure of the exact definition of ‘suite’ but I’m guessing it isn’t ‘less than one room’. Three signs hung on the wall of Consultation Suite 19, with not much room for anything else.
The first sign was a red circle around a potato print of a smouldering cigarette butt with a line through it.
The second was a list of detailed directions to the nearest fire exit, presumably in case the first sign didn’t take.
The third said Wi-Fi Hotspot.
I was sitting on a grey plastic chair on one side of a square table, the back of my head touching the wall if I leaned back. The sound of a man crying somewhere nearby filtered through the atom-thick plaster. Opposite me was an empty chair where my recently-acquired solicitor would have been sitting if she hadn’t been standing on the table.
They were attractive legs, slim and shapely. And an extremely short skirt. I kept my gaze averted.
“So,” Cherry Hinton said, her stockinged feet slip-sliding around on the tabletop, “not often I get to handle a case like this. Mostly, it’s chickenshit stuff for me. Not saying I’m not game, I just want to be upfront with you. Any questions, feel free to ask.”
Cherry had accepted my case immediately, and arrived at the police station ten minutes later. It was almost like she had been waiting for my call.
“What do you mean when you say a case like this?” I asked. “And who is it I’m supposed to have murdered?”
Cherry clambered down from the table with two AA batteries and the plastic cover of the smoke alarm in her hands. She heaved her misshapen leather shoulder bag off the floor and clawed out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.
The first drag deposited an inch of ash into the smoke alarm cover-cum-ashtray. A look of satisfaction passed over her face. She was around forty. No make-up, very blue eyes, curly hair.
She held onto the stub even though it looked like it was about to burn her fingers and went back in her bag for a tiny laptop. She opened it up on the table, the keyboard so small she looked like a chipmunk with her hands so close together as she typed via the ends of her long blue press-ons. Fag still smouldering.
“Didn’t tell you anything, huh? Can’t say I’m surprised. The girl went missing four years ago. Four years to the day, actually. Her name was Victoria Pelago. Ring any bells?”
“No,” I said. My circle of acquaintances was small enough for me to not need to think about it. “Never heard of her.”
“Well…” said Cherry, taking a last drag and grinding out the butt. “Four years ago, twenty people disappeared, all at the same time. It created quite the kerfuffle. Vanished into thin air. One of them was Miss Pelago.”
“If she vanished, how do they know she’s dead?”
“Ah,” said Cherry. “They’re all presumed dead. A lot of different theories have been thrown around over the years, mainly involving aliens, serial killers and movie rights — cannibalism and necrophilia were also very popular. I mean, like unreasonably so. But only one of the twenty’s disappearances was followed up with any kind of determination. Archibald Pelago is an extremely wealthy and powerful individual, so he was able to convince the CPS to keep investigating when all the other cases were closed for lack of evidence.”
“And how am I connected to any of this?”
“You were one of the twenty who went missing,” said Cherry.
“How do you know that?”
“Each of the locations the twenty went missing from were connected by tremors. That’s how they were identified. All of them were in England and they happened at the exact same time.”
“But doesn’t that make me one of the victims? And how would I get around the country that fast? I’m not Father Christmas.”
“No, that’s very true,” said Cherry. “But for some reason, her father decided you were responsible and were in hiding after committing your crimes. However you managed to commit them. He was very insistent at the time and poured a lot of money into proving it. Once he learns of your return…”
“But why me?”
Cherry shrugged. “He had private investigators looking into it, that’s all I know. You fit the profile, I guess. Loner, no girlfriend, no social circle.”
“That would make everyone with a Steam account a suspect,” I pointed out.
“I think it’s best we give the police a firm denial of your involvement and leave it to them to prove otherwise. That’ll be the best way to stop them getting overexcited and mount some kind of manhunt. Of course, you could clear this up easily enough by telling them where you’ve been. But you can’t do that can you, Colin?”
She looked at me through a second cloud of smoke like she knew I definitely couldn’t.
It seemed my leaving these shores for somewhere over the rainbow hadn’t gone unnoticed after all. They were aware of all of us who arrived in Probet.
“Victoria Pelago,” I said. “Do you have a picture of her?”
Cherry turned her laptop around. On the screen was a picture of Flossie dressed very primly in a very old-fashioned school uniform or possibly anime cosplay.
“You know her,” said Cherry. It wasn’t a question.
Daughter of a rich mogul? You’d think he’d at least get the bint elocution lessons so people could understand what she was saying.
I looked at Cherry over the screen watching me carefully. As much as I was willing to play along with this charade, I still had to be careful. Illusion or not, this was all very real for me. Getting locked away inside a prison inside a hallucination was something I would rather avoid.
“Never seen her before,” I said. “But can we deal with a few other issues that have been troubling me? I just want to get a better understanding of what’s going on.”
“Certainly,” said Cherry. She sat back, her hair touching the wall on her side, and lit another fag. “Fire away.”
When you enter a game and you don’t know what it is you’re supposed to do, you go around triggering all the dialogue options on the various NPCs. It’s tedious and you often get stuck having to scroll through a bunch of flavour text some junior game dev thought was a great addition to the game’s lore, but you have to do it. Preferably as fast as possible.
If I was going to prove to my brain that everything it was absorbing as real was, in fact, a figment I needed to break out of, then I would have to click on every NPC I met until they broke or bugged out.
“The police who picked me up, they treated me very casually for a murder suspect. Why?”
“A couple of Uber cops, wasn’t it? They had one of those tablets telling them what to do, right?” She turned back the laptop and click-clacked the keyboard. “The case has been cold for a long time, but it’s in the system. When they went to pick you up for…” She looked at the laptop screen. “...fare dodging...” she rolled her eyes at me “...it must have forced an onscreen prompt for them to follow. They aren’t the brightest. They slapped those cuffs on you and brought you in like they were supposed to. Not really much you could do to them once you were restrained.”
The cuffs were still on my wrists, although not attached to each other. They were probably an upgrade from a Taser but there was no indication how they worked. Did they zap me if I had bad thoughts?
“Okay, so derpy cops.” Not so hard to believe. “What about you? Shammy said he sent you here to find me. Are you supposed to be some kind of psychic?”
Cherry tilted her head slightly. “In this game, you need an edge. It’s my thing, makes me stand out. Sometimes I have helpful dreams, and sometimes they’re of no help at all. But I’d rather not talk about it in here. The, ah, walls are very thin. Confidentiality can be a bit of a problem.”
I could still hear the man sobbing in the next room. Lawyer-client privilege was meant to be sacrosanct, but then so were a lot of things.
“We can discuss it further after I get you out of here.”
“Okay,” I said. “But I don’t really have a good answer for where I’ve been for the last four years. Not one anyone’s going to like. Aren’t I allowed to plead the fifth to avoid incriminating myself?”
“In America, yes. Here, you can keep your trap shut and hope for the best. But it’s still innocent until proven guilty, and they have to produce evidence, which is where you have the advantage. This is going to be more of an exploratory interview, would be my guess. You see, Colin, the other reason you were brought in so quietly is because someone doesn’t want the media to get wind of your return. Not for now. I think they want to see if you’re the same person who left these shores, or if you’ve brought anything back with you. A kind of test.”
“And what about you? Are you testing me, too?”
“Yes,” said Cherry. “Recently, I’ve seen things in my dreams I can’t believe are real. I guess that’s why they’re called dreams. I don’t think you’re supposed to be here, but since you are, I don’t want things to go badly for you. If they go badly for you, there are others who will also suffer.”
I wasn’t sure what she was talking about but she seemed very serious. My life could be in danger. People in high places looking to do me wrong. My heartbeat was steady and my lifelong anxiety wasn’t flaring up. If they were going to test me, that was fine. I was going to test them, too. I’ve been told I’m a very testing person.
In my mind, a police interview room had chicken wire across greasy windowpanes and a suspiciously large mirror from behind which the occasional cough might be heard. But these mirrorless walls made no noise, and the room was painted a cheerful yellow with a sky blue trim. The seats were even padded. Cherry sat next to me, playing solitaire on her laptop while chewing on a wad of nicotine gum.
She had told me to wing it, answer what I wanted and leave the rest to her. My plan was to push this hallucination to breaking point and see where that got me.
“Okay,” said a man in a shiny grey suit like he had dressed up for the occasion. “Thanks very much for helping us out today. We very much appreciate the assistance.”
“You arrested me,” I said. “I didn’t have much choice in the matter.”
“Oh, you always have a choice, Mr Brown.” His silky blue tie shimmered. “Let me give you this.” He pushed a glossy leaflet across the table.
I leaned forward and gave the leaflet a cursory look. Know Your Rights. The same black policeman as before, but now in a different uniform. I was starting to suspect the man wasn’t in the police force at all. I unfolded the leaflet. Bullet points inside informed me of my right to expect a courteous service from my local constabulary, assurances of well-trained professionals surpassing all expectations, and an email address to send complaints.
“Okay. Let me get the introductions out of the way. I’m Detective Sergeant Len Seymour, and my colleague here,” he indicated the dark-haired man sat to his left, “is Detective Constable Esposito.”
Esposito gave me a curt wave from behind an open laptop almost as small as Cherry’s.
“DC Esposito will be recording our conversation on this computer, and you’re welcome to a copy at the end of this interview. We can put it onto a memory stick if you’ve got one with you or we can provide you with one for a nominal charge. Or we can just email it to you.” DS Seymour drummed the table with his fingers. “Whatever’s best for you.”
DS Seymour’s smile had a practised shape to it — the way muscles flexed in a gym looked capable of useful work, but never did any.
“Right. Okay. Let’s get started, shall we? Mr Brown. Colin. May I call you Colin?”
“No, you can’t.” I crossed my arms, tightening my upper body into a tangle of defiance. “You can call me the Magnificent Colin Brown.”
“That’s a bit of a mouthful, Mr Brown.”
I pried a hand out of my armpit and pushed the leaflet back towards DS Seymour.
“It says here,” I tapped the leaflet, “I have the right to be addressed by the title of my choosing. See, it says that right here, next to the motorbike cop with the dreadlocks.”
“Ah, well, that’s really more aimed at non-binary and gender-fluid—”
“That’s how you interpret it. I interpret it to mean you have to call me Magnificent Colin Brown. Your Magnificence is also acceptable.”
“Okay. As you wish, Your Magnificence.” His thin lips stretching into a placating smile. “Feel free to call me Len.”
The more polite and courteous his manner got, the more distrustful I became. Please, Mr Brown, can’t we be civilised about this? says the villain as he lowers the girl into a pit of crocodiles.
“Okay. Well, for the record, I should make it clear that we’re looking into the disappearance of Victoria Pelago. Do you know where she might be?’
“No idea,” I said. “I didn’t kill her. She probably isn’t even dead.”
“Oh, very possibly,’” DS Seymour more than agreed, the ingratiating twit, “but once a missing person’s report has been filed, we’re obliged to investigate it, I hope you can see that. She’ll probably turn up the same way you did.” He chuckled. “Can I ask where you’ve been the last four years?”
“Sure. Go ahead.”
There was a pause as Len realised I was really going to be this much of an asshat. Hey, if they wanted to find out what kind of a person I was then I was going to give them an honest depiction of what they were dealing with.
“Where have you been, Colin?”
I looked at him until he broke.
“Where have you been, Your Magnificence?”
“Around. Lots of different places. I’m a very private person so let’s just say I’ve been places I shouldn’t have and done things I’m not proud of, and leave it at that.”
A flicker of frustration crossed Len’s face. He needed to learn to pace himself. I was just getting started.
“There are no records of you having a passport,” said Len. “Do you have a ticket or a booking form, maybe? Something to show you left the country.”
“No,” I said.
“You took a plane? A train? Drove?”
It was actually quite hard to come up with a believable explanation of where I’d been, so I didn’t bother with one.
“I walked,” I said.
“You walked abroad?” said Len. “Across the sea?”
“No. I swam that bit.”
“And you swam back? Across the Channel? This morning? In those clothes?”
“Yes. It’s very cold water and I didn’t have any goose fat handy. Luckily, these are drip-dry trousers. Although, the fish aren’t very friendly. They keep getting in your pockets and stealing your loose change. That’s why I couldn’t pay the train fare.”
“Because you were mugged by a fish.”
“They don’t go around on their own, they travel in a shoal. Gang up on you. They’re basically cowards.”
He looked at me with an expression I knew only too well. The ‘this boy’s an idiot’ face.
DS Seymour smiled and slowly broadened it into a grin. “You know what I think?”
“Sure,’ I said. “You think I killed her and buried her in a shallow grave down the allotments.”
“Oh, no.” DS Seymour’s eyes popped wide. “No, no, certainly not.” Grinning, shaking his head like he’d never heard anything so preposterous. “Although, since you bring it up, did you?”
His tone suggested friendly banter, a shared experience among mates. I felt like kicking him under the table. A quick toe-poke in the shins and then pretend it was accidental.
“Anything you want to say?’ I asked Cherry, absorbed in her game.
“Seems like a reasonable question,” she said without looking up.
“I have nothing to do with this girl’s disappearance,” I said. “If you have evidence to the contrary, produce it. I can’t prove something that didn’t happen, can I?”
“Please, Your Magnificence, we’re just trying to do right by this young woman whose loved ones are still in pain from her loss. A little closure would be a godsend for them.”
“What if she isn’t dead?” I asked.
“But what if she is?”
Cherry shifted in her seat. “What if you tried solving an actual crime as opposed to hypothetical ones?” Her eyes never left her screen.
“You don’t want to think about it?” said Len. “After all, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”
“Since you mention it,” Cherry said, closing the laptop, “allow me to tell you what someone with nothing to hide has to fear from the police. Incompetence, that’s the big one, but also corruption. Then there’s prejudice, we all know how deep that runs, and, of course, personal vendettas. Also, mistaken identity, also, leaking false information to the press, and let’s not forget lack of accountability, lack of common sense and just general idiocy. Yesterday, you may recall, an eighty-two-year-old man was killed by a police car in high-speed pursuit of lunch. If the little old man had been hiding, instead of fearlessly minding his own business, he’d still be alive today. I could go on, but you get the idea.”
“I don’t know if you’re a history buff, Detective Sergeant, but there’s a reason you aren’t allowed to barge into people’s homes without due cause, and the reason is that you have a habit of abusing any power you’re given, either through malicious stupidity or petty ignorance. So, why don’t you do your part to re-establish public confidence in your profession by actually doing the work in the prescribed manner, without short cuts and fanciful stabs in the dark?”
DS Seymour’s lips parted the merest hint, but nowhere near quick enough.
“Let’s be upfront about this,” Cherry continued unabated, “the only reason you’re looking into this is because her father has the ear of some very important people who are all that remains of the last clearout of officials after the latest paedophile ring revelations to hit the Met. Let hope it’s the last one — three years in a row would be pushing it, don’t you think? For all we know, her father is the one who killed her and he’s just looking for someone to pin it on. Either way, we have now given you the thirty-minute interview Home Office guidelines stipulate as a reasonable length of time to question an individual without due cause. Unless you have some kind of credible evidence that a crime or even an accident has occurred — a body, some blood, DNA samples, eyewitnesses, video recording… No? Well, then I think it’s time to stop wasting everybody’s time, don’t you?”
DS Seymour snapped his mouth shut. He took out what looked like a laser gun. Was the simulation about to break down? He reached over and touched the gun to my cuffs. They clicked open and fell off. My wrists were red and sore. Len passed me a small sachet.
“Complimentary skin cream,” he said. “For the chafing. It can peel if you don’t take care of it.” He smiled and nodded. “We’ll be in touch once we have something more substantial to discuss with you.” He was a threatening little fuck.
A few minutes later, I was a free man.
Patreon is one chapter ahead.Afterword from Mooderino