Tomato soup was apparently a solid meal in this restaurant. It didn’t taste bad but it had big chunks of something squidgy that wasn’t tomato floating around in it.
I didn’t want to appear like some kind of uncultured swine so I didn’t ask the waiter what the fuck was bobbing around in my tomato soup that clearly wasn’t made by Heinz (easily the best tomato soup). I just added a lot of salt and pepper and ate it. The waiter frowned at me and didn’t give me any more bread rolls.
Archie seemed very pleased with his very small but colourful salad and what I assumed was some kind of fish. It resembled a miniature version of the face-hugger from Alien.
Cherry had a pie that came in its own ceramic pot shaped a bit like a witch’s cauldron. She wasn’t saying much but her eyes met mine every time I looked over at her. I got the feeling she was waiting for me to say something stupid although I may have been projecting my own fears on her.
This whole situation was not one I was particularly comfortable with. I had arrived back on what was apparently Earth with no powers and no status. No one knew who I was and no one gave a shit. Which was how my life had always been until recently so I should have been used to it, but things had changed and I no longer accepted my lot as the hand I was dealt. My experiences had taught me that you could fold and wait for a better hand or just cheat like everyone else was already doing.
Archie was busy ordering things from the bustling waiter and making sure the meal was to his satisfaction. He struck me as the sort of man who liked things his way. Back in Flatland, he would have made an excellent feudal baron who had men executed for not bowing to him at the correct angle.
The more I watched him the more he reminded me of Flossie. It wasn’t the dismissive way he spoke to the staff — there was only a trace of his Brummie accent — and his general demeanour was very different to the ginger bint, but he had the same green eyes and a way of settling himself in his chair after each mouthful of food that reminded me of her. And I hadn’t forgotten how she had turned into a self-obsessed little bitch when she gained some popularity for her singing in Flatland. He really was her dad, I was sure of it.
“I am very pleased,” said Archie once the meal was properly underway and he was satisfied with the level of service. We now had three waiters hovering around the table like satellites over North Korea. “To tell you the truth, Colin, I had expected I was going to need to be more persuasive in getting you to join me.”
“I’ve only agreed to take a closer look,” I said. “I won’t hang around very long if I don’t like what I see.”
“Of course,” said Archie, swallowing the alien part of his meal in one long slurp, the tentacles disappearing last. Jabba the Hutt came to mind. “All I ask is for the chance to impress you. I don’t think you will be disappointed.” He smiled at me with large white teeth but there was something a little disturbing behind the smile. Probably the alien trying to get back out.
My expectation was that I would discover something very unpleasant going on at Archie’s place. It would be nice to be proved wrong for once but I doubted it was going to happen today. When someone rich and powerful wants a better understanding of something that doesn’t belong to them, it’s usually so they can find a way to make it belong to them.
So why agree to join him? Whatever the real situation here, I was not only powerless, I was penniless and without any form of assistance. Flatland might allow anyone to level up and gain special abilities but London didn’t. You had to have the right connections here, you had to rely on other people giving you the opportunity, and you had to make money.
The last one was the most important.
You could solve a lot of issues with cash. Even if money couldn’t buy happiness (which it bloody well can), you would find it a lot easier to suffer through the unhappy times if you were loaded. Yes, there are incredibly wealthy people who still have problems, but they also have millions of pounds to console themselves with. Rich and miserable versus poor and miserable isn’t much of a contest.
Archie was willing to take me on as a member of staff. He thought that would make it easier for him to get information out of me rather than having to threaten or torture me.
In exchange, I would have a base of operations, a source of knowledge about the world I’d been thrown into, and protection from the other parties who were going to try the threat and torture method first. Obviously, the honeymoon period wouldn’t last long and Archie’s true nature would reveal itself, but I’d managed to deal with Flossie. How much worse could her dad be?
“Before we continue with what I have no doubt will be a flourishing partnership, perhaps I could ask you to tell me a little about my daughter. Is she well?”
“She’s fine. Lost a bit of weight, which isn’t a bad thing considering what a…” I stopped myself before I said something indelicate. “And, er, she’s a very popular girl.”
“What do you mean?”
I could see I had been right to watch what I said. She might have been a dolt in my eyes but this was still her father, and presumably he had some fondness for her.
“Singing. She sings a lot and people seem to like it.”
Archie’s face lit up with what I assumed was pride. Not something I often saw when speaking to people, so I couldn’t be sure.
“Yes, that’s right,” he said. “She always did have a lovely voice.”
Not when she was talking she didn’t. “Yes, beautiful. And she has a boyfriend.”
The change in Archie’s expression suggested I had maybe been too free with my sharing of info on Flossie’s private life. But it wasn’t like he could ground her and stick a chastity belt around her hoo-ha, so I didn’t see any reason to pretend. If anything, my willingness to share would help me sell some less accurate facts later on. This might not be my world but my five-head thinking would keep me ahead of these simulations.
“One of the twenty?” His face had darkened adding more scowls to his jowls.
“Yep.” The soup wasn’t so bad once you bit into it. A burst of cinnamon or something. “His name’s Dudley.”
“Ah,” said Archie, his expression softening. “Yes. That should be fine then.”
“You know him?” I was surprised by the sudden change. I had been trying to provoke Dad into a more enraged state so he let his true self slip out. This was all about who could stay in control the longest.
“Not personally,” said Archie. “But I have files on all of you, the twenty who disappeared four years ago. He was one of the less unpleasant boys to go missing.”
That was undoubtedly true but I wasn’t sure how he could know that from some file. I wondered where I ranked.
“If you have files on all of us, do you know why we were selected? Was there some kind of common factor we all shared?”
“No,” said Archie. “Not that I could find. Different backgrounds, taken from different locations, different levels of intelligence.” I didn’t like the way he looked at me when he said that, but I let it go. “ No geniuses or extraordinary talents, either. In fact, I’d say the only person who really stood out as special was you, Colin.”
“Me? How did I stand out as special?”
“You were the only one with no family connections and no close friendships, as far as my investigators were able to learn.”
That made sense. When he said I was special, he meant I was ‘special’.
“I don’t know about geniuses but some people turned out to have gifts,” I said. “Dudley for example. He has an incredible eye with a bow and arrow. He’ll keep your daughter safe.” I didn’t feel the need to tell him his daughter controlled dragons. Probably have me carted off to the loony bin.
“Bow and arrow? That’s good to hear. A man who is able to employ tools, it’s what separates us from lesser creatures.” Rather than dismiss the idea of a man amounting to much using a couple of sticks and a bit of string, he actually seemed impressed. “The rock, the club, the wheel, it changes the direction of our evolution, allows us to reach new heights. I think our relationship will be that next step for mankind.”
I think he was calling me a tool, which wasn’t the worst thing I’d been called.
“I greatly look forward to hearing more,” said Archie. “But not here. We have been lucky so far, but we won’t stay ahead of the others for very long. It is imperative we get you to a secure location where you will be safe. Excuse me a moment while I make arrangements. Calls aren’t allowed in here, it ruins the ambience.”
I couldn’t believe it would be worse than the stuffed marlin hanging from the wall but I didn’t say anything as Archie rose, a waiter rushing forward to pull back his chair.
“Excuse me, won’t you?” He left the table.
The other diners continued eating, the waiters carried on bustling. Cherry put down her fork and said, “It seems you’ve landed on your feet.”
“Seems? Can’t you look into your crystal ball and find out?”
“I told you, it doesn’t work like that. But I did expect you to be a little more cautious. You hardly know the man and you’ve already agreed to work for him.”
“I haven’t agreed to anything. But it’s okay if he turns out to be a liar. I have a secret weapon.”
Cherry’s eyebrows rose. “Really? What’s that?”
“None of this is real. Not you, not him. It’s all part of a false reality I’m trapped in.”
A slight crease appeared on her brow. “You don’t think I’m real?”
“A psychic lawyer? Even if everything else was real, no way would a solicitor have it on her business card.”
Cherry’s nose scrunched up as she continued to stare me in the eyes. It was like being hypnotised by a snake. I put my soup spoon in her pot pie (not a euphemism) and took a bite. It tasted like stale Guinness.
“I just have to wait for something to break the illusion,” I said. “Something so impossible my subconscious rejects it, and then I’m out of here.”
Cherry nodded, pushing away her plate like it was ruined now. “Psychic lawyer not enough to do it?”
She had a point. She caught on quick. “Apparently not. I suppose I’ve seen so many weird things lately, it doesn’t rank high enough on the list. But I’m pretty confident there’ll be a glitch in the matrix if I keep pushing.”
Telling her my plan might seem dumb, like Bond-villain dumb, but the whole point was to push. If I didn’t, then I’d never get things to a breaking point.
“Okay,” said Cherry. “But just for your information, the oracle on my card doesn’t refer to my psychic abilities, it’s the title given to advocates for women who suffer domestic abuse. It means I represent them for free.”
“Oh,” I said. “I’ve never heard of that.”
“You wouldn’t have. It’s only been a thing for a couple of years.”
Everything neatly explained away. Yeah, like that ever happens in the real world without someone having to hire a PR company.
Archie came back and sat down. “My sources tell me your presence had become known but not your current location. We are doing well to keep a lid on this, let’s keep it that way. The first order of business is to get you to Warlon.”
“It’s my estate in Hertfordshire. Completely self-sufficient and unassailable. Also where most of my more delicate research is carried out. You will be out of harm’s way and with friends. People like yourself.” His smile was like that of a hospitality professional. “I won’t lie to you.” ...and the record for quickest promise broken… “There are people who mean to do you harm and they will come for you. I mean to keep you safe but there is only so much I can do. We must remain vigilant and take care. Moving you to Warlon will go some way to ensuring your safety, the rest is up to you.”
He sounded sincere but then so did most diarrhoea commercials.
“Fine. Not like I have anywhere else to go. Do you provide meals or is it bed and breakfast?”
Archie smiled. “Full board. You won’t have to worry about anything. The question is how to get you there without attracting attention.”
“I’ll take him,” said Cherry. “Shouldn’t be too hard to slip out of town if we leave now.”
“Good, good,” said Archie. “They won’t be expecting that. Now, is there anything I can get you that will make your stay more comfortable? No need to worry about expense, we can get whatever you need, just name it.”
You don’t turn down an offer like that. I could get him to provide me with the most ridiculous luxury items.
“I’d like a bow and some arrows,” I said. “Nothing too fancy.”
Archie looked at me with a mildly curious expression. I think he was trying to figure out if I had taken his comment about admiring men who used tools a little too literally. “You will be perfectly safe in Warlon.”
“I’m sure I will. It’s not for my safety. It’s more of a hobby.” It was for neither reason. I didn’t have my powers here but I had learned other things while I was away. I wanted to know if I had retained any of those skills.
I might not have been as good with the bow as Dudley but I was still a lot better than most people. This seemed a good way to find out if magic was the only thing that hadn’t transferred.
“Very well. I’ll see to it.”
Cherry rose from her seat. “Come on, then. Let’s go before we get stuck in rush hour.”
We left Archie, who promised to be there waiting for us. There was a sense of urgency but also wariness. Going with Cherry rather than a fleet of black SUVs was the safer option because it was harder to spot during rush hour traffic. Also, I got the sense Cherry wasn’t quite what she appeared to be. She would deliver me safely.
We got back in her car and she set off for Warlon, an estate out in the country. I pictured a Charles Xavier style mansion for the gifted where I’d meet a team of oddballs and geniuses, so basically a bunch of irritating nerds. It was well within my wheelhouse. If there was anyone I could push to breaking point, it was going to be them.