After filling in some paperwork and accepting a few more pamphlets — the same black policeman offering me assistance with my interview aftercare and possible PTSD — I was released into the wild. I exited the police station like a chimp raised in captivity (with my own computer and someone to change my nappy) faced with a future in the jungles of Borneo without a map or handy phrasebook in the local lingo. Only in my case, it was Westminster, and the natives were far more dangerous.
Once Cherry had shamed the police into letting me go, it was all very efficiently handled. I’m not sure what they got me to sign, but I signed it anyway. It wasn’t like any of my signatures matched. The whole writing your name in a way only you can is very 2005, if you ask me. Whoever came up with this version of the present could have at least included retina scans and locks that required you to place your palm on a palm-shaped lightbox.
Cherry Hinton, lawyer and soothsayer, had said she would meet me out front. I pushed through the revolving doors and gave the heavy glass partition an extra push to keep it spinning.
The street was quiet and devoid of traffic. Lots of parked cop cars, though. I looked around for any telltale signs that this wasn’t the real world. It was very convincing, I’d give them that. The kind of top quality rendering you only notice is shit when you see it on telly three years later.
The air smelled like London, a distinctive mix of diesel fumes and smugness. Living here meant you were at the heart of the action. You might not be the one making the decisions, but you lived near someone who was. The rich, the wealthy, the powerful, they were all around you. And you could feel pleased about how little a shit you gave about them.
I would probably have been better able to spot any discrepancies if I’d ever bothered to pay attention to my surroundings when I’d been in the real London. It hardly seemed worth it. They were forever knocking stuff down and putting up new stuff that failed to live up to their promises.
This version of the United Kingdom didn’t feel very united. Brexit was more or less done, Boris was Prime Minister. He was in No. 10 and everything. If something that unreal hadn’t popped me out of this illusion, I wasn’t sure how far I needed to go to burst the illusory bubble I was trapped in.
The rest of the world didn’t appear to be faring any better. Trump and China were deeply entrenched in a battle to see who could behave in the more retarded manner, and it was actually quite close. I could see I would have to push the boundaries of what was considered plausible if I wanted to smash my way out.
I dumped the wad of pamphlets I’d accumulated into a litter bin and walked down the steps, spotting a green convertible squeezed in between a precariously tilted police motorbike and a garish orange and yellow van with Dog Unit written along its side. Cherry raised her hand while doing her lipstick in the mirror. The car was a vintage Triumph Spitfire in good nick. It looked great but probably wouldn’t make it to the end of the road before conking out. British engineering had its moments, but reliability was our downfall. Once we lost the ability to force children down mines and could no longer make free use of the resources of any country we deemed ours, it all came unglued. Ah, the good old days.
“Thanks,” I said as I walked up to her car. “Do you send me an invoice or is it cash in a plain brown envelope? I’ve never had to pay a lawyer before. I’m not sure of the etiquette.”
“It’s all taken care of,” said Cherry.
“Pro bono?” I asked. I’d heard it on TV.
“Not at all. You have a benefactor. Perhaps you’d like to meet him?”
“I thought you were going to fill me in on how you knew I’d be coming back, and who else knows.”
“That too. All will be revealed.”
It was a risky proposition — just because Cherry had helped me out didn’t mean she was on my side — but when you’re in a fake reality, whether you’re a hero like Keanu in the Matrix, or in hell like Tim Robbins in Jacob’s Ladder, knowing you’re inside an manufactured reality is what gives you power over it.
Even if I didn’t have the ability to do magic, I could still make things difficult for people who felt they had to play by the rules. Cheating at cards becomes less devious when the other person puts snooker balls on the table and ignores your Royal Flush to pot the yellow in the side pocket.
Not caring what they — whoever they were — planned to threaten me with was how I would beat them. What were they going to do? Kill me? I’d been through worse.
“Okay,” I said, and got in the car. Cherry was taking me somewhere to meet someone. Fine by me.
The care was loud without a roof, making it hard to talk, which was also fine. I kept looking over my shoulder to see if we were being followed.
“What are you doing?” asked Cherry, half-shouting over the roar of the engine.
“I don’t think the police are just going to give up.” I’d seen enough movies to know how this worked. The cops let you go but they’re convinced they have their guy, so they put a tail on you, or a bug, or send in an attractive undercover officer to seduce a confession out of you. It wouldn’t work on me, of course, but I would still have preferred if they sent a woman, in case it did.
“They’re not all evil buggers. The police. Some of them are just doing their job.”
“That wasn’t the impression you gave in there,” I said. She had ripped poor DS Seymour a new one.
“I was just doing my job. Nothing personal. I used to go out with a bobby, back when I was just starting out. Beautiful boy. He quit and became a model. Catalogue work, mostly. “
“Was he black?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
Our destination wasn’t too far. A pub called The Mullard in a side street with no parking. Cherry pulled up on some double-yellows and switched the engine off. If she got a ticket she would probably go to court and talk her way out of it. I sensed she was good at her job, but whether she was a real psychic or not wasn’t clear. She downplayed it quite a lot which made me think there was something there.
The Mullard was a fairly rundown place with a painting of a rosy-cheeked, strawberry-nosed chubby man hanging on a sign. From the bucket seat of Cherry’s car I looked up at the creaking sign as it swung back and forth and asked, of no one in particular, “Why is there a picture of Les Dawson up there?”
“It’s Arthur Mullard,” Cherry informed me.
“Who’s Arthur Mullard?”
“I don’t know.” Cherry looked up at the sign. “Who’s Les Dawson?”
Apparently, neither of us was very knowledgeable about 20th century British comedians.
“This is where we’re meeting my mysterious benefactor?” I asked. “He’s not some escaped convict about to be sent to Australia, is he?” An even worse thought struck me. “Wait, he isn’t Australian, is he?”
“Are you always so quick to judge on appearances?” asked Cherry.
“It’s a pub. In London. Full of racists and drunks, probably.”
“We’re round the corner from Scotland Yard,” she pointed out.
“I know. They’re the ones I’m talking about.”
She shook her head at me. “This is one of the most expensive restaurants in London.”
I took another look at it. “Looks a bit of a shithole, to be honest.”
“Exactly,” said Cherry. “Imagine how good the food must be if they care this little about the state of the front.”
It didn’t smell like a typical pub once we entered but the walls were covered in a collection of sports paraphernalia. The clientele were mostly older and well-dressed. Waiters bustled between the tables.
A smartly turned out woman waited to greet us and then show us to a table where a man was waiting. He stood up as we approached. He was tall and broad, around fifty, I would guess, and dressed in an expensive-looking grey suit with a blue and red striped tie. Big square jaw and oiled back hair with a high hairline made him look like a banker or maybe the owner of a League One football club.
“Archibald Pelago,” he said in a mild Brummie accent as he offered me his hand. He was smiling so I took it. Would’ve been rude not to. “Call me Archie.”
I looked at Cherry as I shook his hand. “Isn’t this the guy who thinks I murdered his daughter?”
Cherry nodded. “Probably best if you clear the air to prevent any further misunderstandings.”
I took the news in my stride. The girl who saved me from the guy after me turns out to be working for the guy after me? Nothing to see here, business as usual.
I had expected some kind of agenda from Cherry. You don’t just roll up and help someone out of a murder conviction because you had a dream telling you to. She could have been a psychic, she could have been a nutjob, but she was very definitely a lawyer. Just doing her job.
“If you’re on his side,” I said as I sat down, “why not let the police hang on to me.”
“That’s my doing,” said Archie. “I wanted to make sure you were the real thing. I also needed to keep the wolves at bay. There are a number of parties who will be interested in your return from wherever it is you’ve been. The police being involved will make them a little more wary. Shall we order?”
“What parties?” I asked, looking at the menu the waiter had slid in front of me and not being able to tell what any of it was. The writing was very curly.
“Various governments, including our own. A few major corporations. Some private individuals. And the Chinese.”
“The Chinese don’t count as one of the various governments?”
“The Chinese deserve a separate classification of their own,” said Archie. “They won’t be operating through regular channels.” He smiled again and a chill went down my spine. “Try the fish. It’s very good.”
I put the menu down and looked at Archibald Pelago with Flossie in mind. Was this really her dad? If so, why wasn’t he asking about her?
“I know my daughter is alive,” he said. Mindreader, apparently. “And that you know her.”
“How do you know that?” I asked him.
Cherry entered the conversation, “The computer DC Esposito was using in the interview. It was a lie detector.”
“A very sophisticated one,” added Archie. “It can read the changes in skin temperature and moisture levels in the pores on your face. It’s very good. I should know, I supplied them to the police.”
“You made them?”
“I invented them,” said Archie.
“Strange. Flossie never mentioned you were an inventor. She didn’t mention you at all.”
He was smiling broadly at the mention of her name, much more genuinely than before. “I am not surprised. She lives with her mother and considers me a… bad egg. That was her term for me. I broke my marital vows, you see. One of those things. But my daughter is no less my daughter whatever my transgressions. I am relieved to learn she is alive, if not quite in the same plane of existence.”
“How do you know where she is?” I asked, turning to look at Cherry. “You?”
She shook her head. “My insights are patchy at best.”
“I have gathered a number of, shall we say, experts on the subject. They are all very much looking forward to meeting you. This matter has been the subject of intense study by many different groups for many, many years.”
Archie took a bread roll from a waiter and looked at it. “He is a… consultant, from time to time.” He tore the roll in half and took a bite.
“And what is it you expect from me?”
“Why, a way to travel to the other side.” He said it like it should have been obvious. You’ve shown it’s possible. Together, we can bring the others home. And perhaps enrich both our worlds.”
The roll I’d been handed was still warm. And not out of the microwave. This was a pretty swanky place, if a little strange. I looked around at the random items hung from every wall and picture rail. Tennis rackets and snowshoes. Cricket bats with faint signatures scrawled across the yellowing willow. On one wall there was a full-sized canoe. And many framed black and white photographs of men with their arms around each other’s shoulders.
“This is quite an odd place,” I said as I buttered my bread.
“‘A little oddness is a small price to pay for one of the finest eateries in the city,” Archie said. “The Mullard is one of North London’s best-kept secrets. From outside it could easily be mistaken for an old rundown pub.”
My gaze travelled around the room. “From inside, too.”
“Come work for me, Colin. I will provide you with everything you need. No expense spared.”
It was a fair offer — anything I wanted. More than fair. Downright suspicious, in fact.
I could see a father going to any lengths to secure the safety of a missing child, but he didn’t give me that impression. He wasn’t a worried parent. He was more like an excited businessman seeing dollar signs. Perhaps that was going too far. The discovery of a new world would excite most people, especially someone with a scientific bent.
And he clearly had been working on this matter for some time, probably before we all made our big jump across the universe. Kind of coincidental that his daughter would end up being one of the twenty.
And there was one other issue. I was still convinced none of this was real.
Although, once you’re in the Matrix, it stops being about whether there is or isn’t a spoon. If you can use it to put soup in your mouth, it’s real enough.
I still had to navigate my way through this world that was enough like mine to be familiar and yet completely alien. At some point, the people I would decide to rely on would let me down. Some of them would try to harm me, and it would hurt. Not the emotional kind of pain — that shit slides right off me — but I preferred not to get punched or kicked or stabbed. Paper cuts were also best avoided.
But while I tried to figure my way out of this mental prison, it wouldn’t hurt to have some help. Especially if there were other parties out there hoping to waste my time. Choosing the right group was the tricky part, but that was where Flossie’s dad had the advantage. I already knew he was a lying sack of shit. No surprises coming at me from that direction.
What his real deal was, I didn’t know. And I doubted he would tell me straight out. But if I played along and shared the knowledge I had — which frankly wasn’t much — I would be in the ideal position to work out what he was really up to. I’d also be in the ideal position to get royally fucked, but when was I not in that position?
“Okay,” I said.
“Yes?” He sounded surprised but quickly masked it. “Excellent. This will be the start of something very special, I can tell. We’ll work out the details after lunch. I’ll show you around the facility, introduce you to a few key people. Nothing too strenuous, you’ll have plenty of time to settle in.”
He ordered something in French, which sounded even more exotic with a Brummie accent. I ordered tomato soup. No point going crazy my first day back.
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