321: Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area

Why is it called common sense? I’ve never found it to be very common.

Look at it this way. If I’m willing to take a ridiculous wager on a race between Jacked Jackson and Spongy Crudités, obviously I have an ace up my sleeve. I’m not going to go all in on the blind hope Damicar was secretly a crossfitter, heavyweight division.

Even if Royn thought he would still win, he had to know something sketchy was going to go down. It’s a marvellous lesson when the tortoise beats the hare, but not the one you think. Check the hare’s bank account, it’s going to show a sizeable deposit from Mr T. Ortoise.

Then again, never underestimate the ability of people to underestimate others.

Once I left my body, everything froze. Vines grew out of people like freaky alien tentacles, as usual, and the street was a mass of tendrils, connecting everything together. Apart from my body, of course. In the daylight, it all pulsated with colour. I noticed the different types of vines, pumping their various contents from one end to the other.

Royn had set off the moment I gave the signal, arms and legs pumping, his game face on. Damicar was standing still, his head turned towards Royn. I assume this was because he’d never tried running before, and was looking for tips.

Damicar also must have known this wasn’t going to be a ‘may the best man win’ contest. Wouldn’t have agreed to take part if it was. He had seen the sorts of things that happened when I was involved, so he probably expected some kind of divine intervention. I sensed something more than that from him, though. I think it was trust, although it was hard to tell without anything to compare it to. Both he and Wesley seemed to have given me this odd thing I didn’t really know what to do with. It was like someone giving you a key, but not telling you what it was for.

There wasn’t much of a gap between the two competitors yet, although a clear race leader had already emerged (around the time these two were born). It was interesting, though, how few vines were coming from Royn. What did that mean? He was a bit of a loner? All his bluster was a cover for a lonely little boy?

I have no issue with a little cod psychology to while away the hours, but now was not the time. Royn would easily win this race. I wasn’t even sure Damicar would come in second. If I allowed this to play out fairly. Which I didn’t.

Without my wooden sword, I couldn’t do much with the vines. I had been able to gnaw through the thinner ones with my teeth in the past, but there wasn’t really a need for that.

One of my other discoveries in this place had been that items that touched had a sticky black substance between them. While in the real world you might think picking something up was simply a matter of your hand enclosing and moving an item through space, it actually required the joining of the two separate entities via this goo. It was stretchy, vaguely disgusting, and could be used to bind things to each other.

I hadn’t done much research on the substance, no clinical trials and a backhander to a government minister so my patented product could be in shops by Christmas, but stick two things on either end of the black goo, and things were going to start coming together.

The other great thing about the adjacent world was the luxury of time. I worked so much better when I wasn’t under pressure. Jenny had suggested the opposite, but the advantage of working under the gun was that it got results quicker, not better. Which is what people want when they have to wait for you.

By teasing out the black goo from in between surfaces, and slowly stretching it like chewing gum, I could get it to reach objects several metres away. I slowly built up a network of webs all across the street. I joined each of Royn’s goons standing near the start to Royn. A foot to his head. A head to his crotch. I took my time — at least a couple of hours, though it’s hard to tell when nothing moves — and set up some sweet interactions.

If this worked, I could see it being my new approach to all fights. Although it was quite a protracted process, so running away would still be number one. Always.

I got six of his guys hitched to Royn by black goo, using several strands for each person. No such thing as redundancy in my world, everything that could fail, would fail. You can never have too many backups. After all the effort I was putting into this, I was going to get my money’s worth.

One last look at my fine work, and then I went back. Wesley and my younger-self were watching with interest, keen to see how this was going to turn out. An audience, but no audience participation. I liked it.

Time resumed.

Royn burst into an early and, under normal circumstances, unassailable lead. Damicar was nearing the moment where he would overcome inertia and start moving. Six of Royn’s men hurtled towards Royn.

It was very satisfying to watch. The men had no idea what was going on, and Royn was too focused on winning by the biggest margin possible to notice something was amiss until it was too late.

They didn’t just rush towards him, they flew. It was like some kung-fu movie with Master Yuen Woo-Ping choreographing the wirework. Two of them smashed into each other, but after rebounding, they boomeranged back in from new angles.

The collisions were glorious. Heads cracked with the unpleasant musicality of a glockenspiel. Royn was hit from all sides, bundled to the ground, unable to move under a pile of beefy minions.

“Keep going!” I shouted at Damicar, who had stopped to watch the carnage.

He began jogging, almost enthusiastically. It would be embarrassing if he pulled a muscle and we lost that way.

“Nice and easy. Pace yourself.”

As Royn tried to untangle himself, screaming abuse at his clueless followers, I could see some of the other men lining the route had realised Damicar was going to win. Obviously there was no way they were going to allow that. Their hands suddenly had weapons in them. My cue to start phase two.

Jumping out of my body had started to become second nature. Despite the messed up reason Maurice had got me to cut myself off from Jenny, he was right about me operating better without her holding me back. I’m not sure it was worth the loss of the only women on the planet willing to sleep with me, but at least I could spend my involuntary celibacy floating about in an alternate reality devoid of any meaningful human relationships. This place was getting more and more like a video game all the time.

Dealing with the attempts to stop Damicar was both fun and instructive. A dagger aimed at Damicar’s head ricocheted off another dagger, and ended up in the original thrower’s leg.

A billy club thrown at Damicar’s feet to trip him up, took a sharp left, and hit Royn on the chin just as he managed to get back to his feet.

The guy diving at Damicar to make a tackle went sliding across the road and slammed into the guy running to get ahead of Damicar to block him off.

It was no easy task to find enough black goo, and then tease it into the correct position. You had to get into a very zen place where it didn’t matter if the goo snapped or it didn’t quite reach, and you had to start again from another point. You had to not give a shit and let it slowly build up. Fortunately, I had played a lot of Minecraft, so I knew how to embrace the tedium.

I jumped in and out of myself a number of times to make small adjustments as Damicar trotted closer to the winner’s enclosure, projectiles whistling past him. From an outsider’s perspective, he must have looked like the luckiest git alive.

I also started the goons chest-bumping one another. Nothing more embarrassing than a premature celebration.

And throughout all this, I even made sure nothing hit any of the passersby who had stopped to watch.

It was, even if I say so myself, a thing of beauty.

Damicar paused just before the finish line, bent over and breathing hard. The last obstacle to an unprecedented win for the underdog was the underdog himself.

“Hey, Damicar, look.” I held up a bunch of onions.

Damicar’s pupils dilated and he stumbled over to me. Victory.

Now, I’m not saying that simply because Damicar was a bit on the portly side, the mere sight of food gave him the will to carry on. That would be fat shaming, which is wrong. Shame is the reason for overeating in the first place, so a second helping isn’t going to make things better, is it?

But Damicar had a thing for these onions. And a junkie can be made to do all sorts of remarkable things for a hit of the good stuff.

“I won,” he wheezed at me, snatching the onions from me.

“Yep. Congrats.”

“I… I really didn’t think you’d be able to pull it off.”

I was a bit surprised by his admission. “No? Then why did you agree to do it?”

“You have such an interesting life. It’s very attractive. My life has always felt a bit flat.”

No one had found my life attractive before. “I could end up getting you killed.”

“Oh, I know. What’s next?”

Maybe it wasn’t trust that he felt towards me after all. I wasn’t sure what it was.

“Now we just have to avoid getting ganked by your childhood friend.”

Royn had managed to get back on his feet. His men, looking shame-faced and thoroughly pissed off, were vying with each other for who got first crack at the winning team. They came stalking towards us, ready for a rematch.

I was under no illusions. My skills, cool as they might look, were akin to button-mashing. I could pull off an impressive move or two, but never the same thing twice. It was more that people weren’t ready for me that gave me my edge.

One day I would be good enough with my vine and black goo skills so that in situations like this I’d be able to quickly leap into the other world and, in a few deft strokes, get the fuckers dancing in formation. Hard to kill a guy while you do the Wah Watusi in perfect sync with a dozen other goons. See, I had ambitions in life.

“You,” said Royn, “you, you…”

What was he going to accuse me of? Cheating? I’d already told him this wasn’t going to be a fair fight. I even told him to bend the rules all he wanted. I didn’t let him, of course, but it’s the thought that counts.

“I think you owe me a boat ride,” I said.

Royn collected some of his dignity and stood up straight. One of his men held up his jacket so he could put it back on. I responded by holding up Damicar’s coat, which was a bit tricky for him to get on while holding onto his onions.

Royn was fuming. “Do you really think I’m going to let you have one of my ships?”

This was always going to be the problem. Defeating someone in real life, really rubbing their noses in it, never turned out as well you would hope. Fights didn’t end with the boss monster slowly fading from view, leaving behind cash and rare items.

It was rare for someone you thrashed in real life to go, “Yeah, well done. Turns out you are better than me, after all. Here’s a hat to complete the outfit you’ve been grinding for.”

People have a strong aversion to admitting they’re shit. For some reason, they think if they don’t admit it, then no one will think it. Like a confession is the only way they’ll ever get caught. Yeah, your horrible behaviour and the endless stream of bollocks coming out of your mouth are all just circumstantial evidence, it’ll never stand up in court. What a genius legal mind you have.

“I was hoping you would be a man of your word,” I said. “But if you don’t want to keep your end of the deal, I suppose there’s not much I can do about it. You should probably get your affairs in order and arrange for your successor. The Golden God isn’t going to be pleased.”

“Is that a threat? You think your little tricks are fooling anyone? Golden God… Ha! Why, you aren’t anymore favoured by the Golden God than I am.”

“Royn,” said Damcar. “He is the Golden God’s emissary. Ask Uncle Malmur.”

Royn reacted to the mention of Malmur’s name. “What does Malmur have to do with anything?”

“Nothing,” I said. “You should make your own decision, and then live by it. For however long that might be.”

It was fun playing the confident arsehole. The men gathered around Royn looked ready to get stuck in, but I could tell they had doubt in their minds. They had somehow been overpowered by me — who wouldn’t doubt themselves after that? Even if it was a trick, it was a trick that worked. Which made it the same as not a trick.

One of Royn’s men leaned in and whispered something in his ear. Maybe he’d heard about what had happened last night on Fish Row. Royn’s expression changed. From intense fury to medium fury with a light sprinkling of mild consternation.

Then he laughed, the way people fake laugh when they realise they’re fucked, but they think no one else has noticed. “Very well. The head of the Seafarer’s Union keeps his word. You shall have your boat. It will take a few hours to arrange and get it ready.” He signalled one of his guys to go take care of it. Or to go get the torture chamber ready.

There was still an excellent chance he would have me taken out when no one was looking. Or when everyone was looking. But at least he had accepted the loss. On the surface, he was putting on a brave face, but deep down he knew the truth. He had lost a running race to a fat man. His world would never be the same again.

“Why don’t we go to my favourite tavern and have a drink?” he said.

“Actually, I haven’t had breakfast yet. Any chance we could grab a bite to eat?”

He was happy to buy me breakfast. You might think it isn’t easy eating with assorted goons giving you death stares, but made me feel quite nostalgic.

Give him his due, once he got over the initial shock, Royn didn’t hold a grudge. Not out in the open. He had calmed down very quickly. Too quickly. I still expected a bait and switch at some point.

I told him I’d put in a good word for him with the big guy upstairs (who was actually downstairs not very far from here). We made some agreements about not putting his men in danger — they would drop us off and wait for us to return. Sure they would.

He probably thought the best way to get his revenge was to take me to the island and my fate would be sealed. He may well have been right.


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Afterword from Mooderino
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