436: First Impressions

After speaking with Archie on the phone, I felt much more positive.

I had a plan, I had an objective, I was in the process of getting from A to B. I was on my way. Very professional, very businesslike.

Which was all very well, but it’s not like professionalism is my area of expertise. I’ve had a good look all around my wheelhouse, and the records show a distinct lack of well-made, clearly worked-out ideas.

What I was doing was putting myself into an arena where every other person had a better idea of how to get what they wanted in that setting.

I’d spent my whole life avoiding those sorts of scenarios because I know I’m at a huge disadvantage to everyone else. Yes, I could end up being the winner, it’s possible. It’s also possible I could win the lottery. But the word ‘could’ has always been defined as ‘won’t’ in my personal dictionary, and I think that’s the correct translation.

What most people do is substitute in the word ‘hope’ and that makes them capable of all kinds of delusional bullshit. First, they inject the hopium, which is the gateway drug to copium, and before they know it, they’re voting for tax breaks for millionaires because one day they could be in that same tax bracket.

It’s just very sad to see someone lose their mind like that. Don’t do drugs kids.

Going into this thing blind with Archie as my guide was obviously dangerous. Archie was using me, so I was only safe around him until he got what he wanted. I knew that.

But if Cheng was really here, and I could get to him, then my prospects would vastly improve. Assuming Cheng didn’t end up killing me.

This was what gave me the confidence to attend a social gathering of this size and swankiness — no matter how risky it was to get involved with super-rich arseholes who used people and then threw them away like once-worn socks, it was nowhere near as risky as fucking with a demon king.

Rich people would make you promises about how they would make you rich too and then take all your money, but demons ate your soul.

I looked up the event online, to see what sort of thing it was. A gala was just a big party where people paid a lot of money for the tickets and did coke in the toilets. As long as I didn’t stick out, I could probably make it through the evening without embarrassing myself. I could.

What I learnt from my extensive online research was that the Evan Tang-Han Gala in Honour of the Anchor Trust for Cultural Friendship was the most fake organisation I’d ever come across.

Other than when it was happening and the people who would be performing (all Chinese musicians I’d never heard of) there was no clear explanation of what the event was for or who they were raising money for. There was definitely a Chinese flavour to the event, but I couldn’t tell if it was pro or anti.

The general vibe was that it was a cultural thing, spreading the Chinese way of doing via the medium of music and dance.

I don’t know if you’re a history buff, but the Chinese view on culture, especially their own, has been somewhat extreme in the past. They had a revolution about it. They decided to reboot their culture from the ground up, and they did it by killing everyone who had ever read a book. So a cultural exchange with the people’s republic held all sorts of connotations.

In any case, it was going to be music and lots of people, so I would be on my feet a lot. Comfortable shoes was what I was thinking.

I did find a map of the layout of the Albert Hall, so I knew where the doors were and also the bathrooms. Knowing how to make a quick exit and where to safely shit yourself are the fundamentals of any night out.

Eventually, I fell asleep and dreamed about Jenny. She was in a bad mood and refused to talk to me but wouldn’t say why. It was very realistic.

When I woke up, there was someone knocking on my front door. Groggily, I unpeeled myself from the bedsheets and answered it.

The driver was standing outside with a bunch of shopping bags.

“Mr Larwood asked me to give you these,” he said. “They’re for tonight.”

They were very posh bags that made you want to put them somewhere for safekeeping so you could use them when you wanted to impress people when you went shopping at Tesco’s.

“Let me know if any of the sizes are off, I’ll get them changed. Oh, I’ve moved in next door for the time being” He smiled. “Hello, neighbour.”

“Tony’s gone?”

“He’s fine. We had him treated, patched up, everything fixed. He’s still in the hospital for now, but he’ll be back in a few days.”

I went back inside. Having the driver next door was probably going to be a convenience, but it also meant surveillance on me was being turned up a notch.

The bags contained a couple of suits, a bunch of shirts, a variety of bow ties, including a clip-on one, and dress shoes that looked narrow and uncomfortable.

I recalled the shoes I’d found the first day I’d landed in Flatland. Broken, loose-fitting, pinching the heel and the toes. These looked worse.

I showered, I brushed my teeth, I ordered some food that was delivered by my new neighbour. The delivery guy had been intercepted on his way up, apparently.

None of the clothes Archie had sent me looked any good on me, but that probably said more about me than the clothes. My job wasn’t to look good, it was to not look like an idiot, so I put on a dark blue suit and a light blue shirt and put a bowtie in my pocket.

I still looked like an idiot, but one that hadn’t made much of an effort. Lazy Idiot > Tryhard Idiot, as everyone knows.

The rest of the day, I tried to get my magic going. It was tough, only getting the odd glow out of my finger and not for very long, but the fact it was possible at all was enough to give me a copium overdose.

The driver knocked for me around seven and he was dressed up, too, in a blue suit with a blue shirt. His version was obviously a lot cheaper than mine, but he still managed to make it look better.

I wasn’t bothered. My mind was focused on getting to Cheng and then there was a large blank space and then I was back in Flatland. The perfect plan.

As the driver opened the van up for me, he said, “Oh, Mr Larwood arranged an escort for you. He thought it would help you blend in better.”

I climbed in and was faced with an extremely long pair of legs that led up to a short dress and eventually there was a face.

Like most people, I know what a beautiful woman looks like because I’ve been shown pictures my whole life. You tend to get jaded after a while. Fat schlubs on their sofas critique the women on the telly like they’re connoisseurs. But it’s different when you see one in person.

It was like someone had managed to make Instagram filters work in real life.

She had a lot of makeup on, the tan was oddly unreal and her long black hair could easily have been a wig. Maybe fake tits; could easily have had work done on her face. But everything together resulted in a strange mixture of gorgeous and ridiculous. You really wanted to grab hold of bits of her, not sexually, just to see if they were detachable.

“Hello, you must be Colin,” she said. Her voice was neutral, not excited, not disappointed. Very professional. “I’m Elizabeth.”

“Um, yes. Hi.” I sat down next to her but as far apart as the seats would allow. “Nice to, um, meet you.”

It wasn’t that I was nervous or overcome with lust or even shyness. I just didn’t have any experience of this kind of situation.

Archie wanting me to have someone on my arm made sense, but wasn’t she going to attract too much attention?

Perhaps that was the idea. Focus on her, ignore me.

And maybe it would make them less curious about who I was. After all, a stumpy little weird guy with a leggy stunner was sort of a trope among the rich elite. The Ecclestone companion.

“So, ahhh, Archie sent you, did he?”

“That’s right.”

“And what instructions did he give you?”

“To take good care of you.” She smiled, all perfect teeth, not one drop of sincerity. “The gala is going to be a little intense. You may feel intimidated by the opulence on display, but there’s really no need. It doesn't make them better than you.”

She was starting to get on my nerves. She wasn’t wrong, but still. Annoying.

I could have told her about all the kings and queens I’d hung around, but she probably wouldn’t have believed me. And it wasn’t like they had been social/festive engagements. Usually, they were more the prison/execution sort of thing.

“I’ll be fine,” I said.

“Tell me, Colin,” she said, shifting everything to be more alluring and available. Although, maybe I was wrong. Maybe she just had one of those cleavages that followed you around the room. “What is it that you do? I’ve only been told you’re very important, but no one seems to know why.”

“Don’t you think there’s a reason why no one told you?” I said, my irritation easily overriding my natural inclination to ignore her.

My tone made her flinch a little.

“There’s no need to be rude.”

“There’s no reason not to,” I said. “Reason is not why we do things.”

“No? Then why do we do things?”

“Because we can. Or because we’re paid to. Why don’t you do what you’re paid to do.”

She looked annoyed now. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Archie sent you to do a job, didn’t he? You only have to get me into the gala without attracting attention. Not ask questions above your pay grade. After that, you’re free to do as you please, I won’t be needing your services. Any of them.”

She looked confused. “What services?”

She was playing it coy, but she’d already tried to put me in my place so I didn’t feel bad putting her in hers.

“Whatever it is you usually do for the men you’re hired by, that’s not what I need you for. Archie seems to think it will be easier if—”

“What the FUCK are you talking about?” Her voice went needlessly loud considering I was sitting right next to her. “You think I’m a whore?”

“You’re an escort, aren’t you? I don’t see any reason to quibble about the exact—”

“No. I am not an escort. Dad asked me to escort you to this stupid party because he thought I could help you fit in.”

“Dad? You mean Archie? He’s your father?”

I really did think I could go a whole evening without embarrassing myself. Ten minutes in and the dream was over.

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