“Don’t you want to stay a little longer here?” Vincentius said to Arona after his bath in the hot springs of the Doline. Arona’s attention was caught by the dripping drops of water on the chiseled muscles, and took a while to answer.
She stretched lazily on the deck chair, slightly disturbing Mandrake who was napping by her side. He rolled on his side and resumed his nap.
“I don’t know, the place is nice enough. To speak true, it lacks a bit in decor and natural light; still… you wouldn’t find a nicer place to rest. Look at this white sandy beach… And to think that this pool connects to virtually anywhere, anywhen. Endless opportunities of explorations and travels are drawing you towards an adventure, don’t you think.”
“I think I only live to please you, just say the word, and I’ll follow you anywhere.”
“Aw, you’ve always been good at sweet-talking me. Don’t get me wrong, I like our occasional flings… for lack of a better word, but I like my independence. I have to keep exploring myself.”
Seeing a sadness fleeting in his eyes, she added “if only to meet you again and again.”
“It was a long and boring flight.” Shawn Paul yawned, happy to finally stretch his legs on the tarmac.
Maeve rolled her eyes “I don’t know what you are complaining about, at least you managed to sleep throughout the whole thing, even the last bit on that horrid 6-seater plane. I honestly wonder how you managed…”
Shawn-Paul grinned apologetically, “I think the baby bottles of nhum did the trick.”
“I saw you glamouring the air attendant, didn’t know she’d bring you the whole inventory. Poor lass’ might have been a bit desperate for attention.”
A man was at the main door with their names on a sign.
“Hello Sir, happy to meet you, my name is Shaw…”
“Don’t bother, SP, don’t you see he’s the driver, he probably can’t understand a word you just said.”
“Yeah nah, t’is true M’am,” the driver replied. “Your mate’s Canadian accent is atrocious. Haere Mai to Tikfijikoo, right this way please.”
A red leaf fell on the nose of the biggest gargoyle and Fox stopped his rehearsal. It had been exhausting and he didn’t remember why on earth he was doing that. He also didn’t remember how long he had been speaking in front of the Gargoyles, maybe he drank the wrong potion in the morning. Glynis had given him a potion especially made for him to calm his anxiety and help him solve a few energy blockages from childhood, or in his case, cubhood.
One of the baby snoots giggled behind the back of the shrieking gargoyle.
“You don’t mess with me, little…” He found himself lacking the creativity to find any insult the could understand. It was no use cursing the little rainbow creatures, they didn’t seem to care. Fox suspected it was not because of a lack of intelligence but simply because they didn’t view life, or anything, as a problem. He took note that he should get some inspiration from that.
“What were you doing, uncle Fox?” asked Olliver.
Fox opened his eyes wide. The boy seemed taller everyday and Fox had to look up to actually meet his eyes.
“Will you never stop to grow?” he asked with a little resentment.
“Well…” the boy started with his breaking voice.
“Where were you,” asked Fox. “I thought you had left with Rukshan.” In a way Fox was relieved that it was not the case and it soothed a little the pain caused by the sudden departure of the Fae.
“Oh! Teleporting here and there,” said the boy, considering adding some semi-truth about going to school.
An idea sprouted in Fox’s mind. It was too tiny for him to know what it was but his unconscious mind was already working about a plan to catch up with Rukshan, connecting the bits and pieces left by the Fae in his tales to the children and his innocuous comments.
“What do you think about… having some dinner,” he said not yet able to formulate in his imagination that he could even go on an adventure with Olliver.
Ed Steam had called for a strategic team meeting this morning.
He looked at his pocket watch. It was only a queerter to thriety, which meant they were all late, as usual. True that time was notoriously difficult to read in these alternate dimensions, but this particular dimension had been fairly stable since Bea was taking her homeopathic pills, keeping her sneezing fits under control, and all their identities rather clear.
The next mission required a two pronged approach, with one part of the action on the Pacific Island where another doll was to be revealed, and the other at the Doctor’s lair.
The Australian tunnels were still under observation, in case the murlocks that were crawling there would be awoken by the blunderous adventurers that had gone investigating.
Frooteen past thriety. They wouldn’t come now. He probably shouldn’t have left the organization of the meeting to Aqua Luna.
He looked at the next item on his agenda. “Interdimensional call to Miss Bossy.”
True, he had to get her update on her investigation into the Doctor’s history. That would surely reveal clues as to his current whereabouts.
“How far is it?” Gloria was starting to complain, after the blue powder’s effects started to wane and give her a fit of anxiety mixed with intense boredom.
“Oh quiet!” snapped Sha, “it’s not enough we had to drag you along, don’t you start to complain. I need to concentrate.”
Gloria turned to Mavis quizzically. The bus took a bump in the road, and she giggled madly as if under the influence of laughing gas. “Look at her!” she said pointing at the vibrating cellulite around Sharon’s ankles.
“She’s got to have a brainwave, and you’ll know what next!”
Sharon started to shout “STOP! Now! Bus 57 express to Glasgow airport, then we Brexit to Norway!”
“Wot?! No bloody way! It’s going to be cold ‘ere!” Glo whined.
“The article said: a party will meet you in Bodø, Norway! It’s clear, no?”
“I have no idea ‘ow you managed to mouth that ø, but we better catch the blimin’ bus express; got a feeling diabolical nurse Trassie is goin’ to catches up on us trail!”
“Come on Maeve, you know you can trust me. These secrets are killing me! It’s not like I’m going to write them immediately in my book you know. Believe me I’d like to, but I’m probably going to procrastinate anyway, so telling me is like going to a priest, your Uncle’s secrets are going to be safe.”
She chuckled against her will. There was something endearing in the awkwardness of Shawn-Paul, and if anything he’d been a complete gentleman throughout their stay in the shabby Inn.
She didn’t trust the paper-thin walls however. And especially after the incident where they all blacked out, she wasn’t sure whom to trust. Some of the guests had disappeared too. Highly suspicious.
She’d decided to pack early. She’d found out later after the accident that her Uncle had managed to slip 2 new coupons for their next destination. One extra, in case she wanted to bring someone in.
Two tickets, each one way to Tikfijikoo. Most probably the way to a second doll and its key.
She wondered why it was at all important, she knew all the dolls and what they looked like. She’d made them!
She realized, looking back at the doll she’d managed to steal back from Lucinda, that this particular doll… was not at all imaginary! She had in fact been standing right in front of her all along these past days before leaving off to the mines and disappearing with Mr Sanso: It was a spitting likeness of Ms Idle, the dry drunk hostess of the Inn!
It seems… It was folly to imagine, but… Did she have the power to activate these dolls she’d made, and somehow materialize them?!
She had to be sure.
“Pack your bags, SP, and meet me in the lobby in ten minutes. The cab is picking us up to our next destination. Maybe you’ll get your novel done after all”, she added, with a wink.
Barbara’s office was dead silent apart from the regular bips of the machines. The whiteness of the painted walls made it feel like a psych ward. She shivered away the memories that were trying to catch her attention.
It’s been two hours since the Doctor had locked himself up in his rage-release room, a spacious soundproofed room with padded walls. Not even a small window to look inside and check if his anger had subsided. Barbara clearly preferred the trauma of the shouts and cries and the broken plates that were hidden here and there for him to use when he needed most. But when he started his therapy with the AI psych module, the damn bot suggested he built that room in order to release his rage in a more intimate framework.
Now the plates collected dust and the sessions in the room tended to last longer and longer.
Today’s burst of rage had been triggered by the unexpected gathering of the guests at the Inn. The Doctor was drinking his columbian cocoa, a blend of melted dark chocolate with cheddar cheese, when the old hag in that bloody gabardine started her speech. The camera hidden in the eye of the fish by their agent, gave them a fisheye view of the room. It was very practical and they could see everything. The AI engineer module could recreate a 3D view of the room and anticipate the moves of all the attendees.
When that girl with the fishnet handed out the keys for all to see and the other girl got the doll out, the Doctor had his attention hyper-focused. He wanted to see it all.
Except there had been a glitch and images of granola cookies superimposed on the items.
“Send the magpies to retrieve the items,” he said, nervousness making his voice louder.
“Ahem,” had answered Barbara.
“What?” The Doctor turned towards her. His eye twitched when he expected the worst, and it had been twitching fast.
She had been trying to hide the fact that the magpies had been distracted lately, as she had clearly been herself since she had found that goldminer game on facebush.
No need to delay the inevitable, she had thought. “The magpies are not in the immediate vicinity of the Inn.” In fact, just as their imprinting mother was busy digging digital gold during her work time, the magpies had found a new vein of gold while going to the Inn and Barbara had thought it could be a nice addition to her meager salary… to make ends meet at the end of the month.
It obviously wasn’t the right time to do so. And she was worried about the Doctor now.
To trump her anxiety, she was surfing the internet. Too guilty to play the gold miner, she was looking around for solutions to her boss’s stress. The variety and abundance of advertisement was deafening her eyes, and somewhere in a gold mine she was sure the magpies were going berserk too. She had to find a solution quickly.
Barbara hesitated to ask the AI. But there were obviously too many solutions to choose from. Her phone buzzed. It was her mother.
“I finally found the white jade masks. Bought one for you 2. It helps chase the mental stress away. You clearly need it.” Her mother had joined a picture of her wearing the mask on top of a beauty mask which gave her the look of a mummy. Her mother was too much into the woowoo stuffs and Barbara was about to send her a polite but firm no she didn’t want the mask. But the door of the rage-room opened and the Doctor went out. He had such a blissful look on his face. It was unnatural. Barbara had been suspecting the AI to brainwash the Doctor with subliminal messages during those therapy sessions. Maybe it also happened in the rage-room. The AI was using tech to control the Doctor. Barbara would use some other means to win him back.
OK. SEND IT TO ME QUICK. she sent to her mother.
The room was not oversized and not to bright despite facing south. It had the oddest strange decor Shawn Paul would have expected from that place. It seemed to come right out of a Victorian movie with the heavy furniture that took all the space in the room and the dark and overloaded wallpaper that sucked up the light coming through the velvet curtains.
Shawn Paul sneezed. It didn’t as much feel dirty as it felt old like his grand parent’s house. He wondered how often the Inn’s staff cleaned the room. He had to move his luggage in order to open the window to get some fresh air. It was so hot and dry. There was a drug store on the other side of the dusty road and a strange man was looking at him. A feeble wind brought in some red dust and Shawn Paul sneezed again, reducing the little enthusiasm he could have had left to nothing. He imagined his clothes covered with red dust and quickly closed the window. As the man was still looking Shawn Paul shut the velvet curtain, suddenly plunging the room into darkness.
His fear of insects crept out. He had no idea where the light was so he reopened the curtain a bit.
He then checked thoroughly under the pillows, the bedcover and the bedsheet, behind the chairs and in the wardrobe. Australia was know for having the most venomous creatures and he didn’t want to have a bad surprise. He looked suspiciously at a midge flying around not knowing if it was even safe to kill it. Shawn Paul had never been the courageous type and he began to wonder why on earth he had accepted that trip. He had never traveled out of Canada before.
Needing some comfort, he looked frantically into his backpack for the granola cookies he had brought with him. With the temperature the chocolate chip had melted and he wondered at how to eat a cookie without dirtying his hands.
Someone knocked at the door making him jump with guilt like when he was a kid at his grand parents’ and would eat all the cookies in his bedroom without sharing with his cousins.
“Lunch is served,” a woman’s voice said from the other side.
Anxiety rushed in when he saw all the people that were already seated at the only table in the lunch room. He might have gone back to his room if Maeve hadn’t come from behind him.
“Let’s go have a seat.”
He read between the lines what he was thinking himself: Don’t leave me alone. Whether it was truly what she had meant was not important.
As if reading his mind, Rukshan said as soon as he saw him “It’s a joy to see you, little devil! Don’t expect to have me here for too long though, I’m just gathering a few things before I go for my new exploration. How have you been? And aren’t you going to introduce this young lady?”
“It’s a pleasure too, have fun in the garden, but be careful not to trample Glynis’ new plantling.”
“He’s a nice kid.” Glynis was at the windowsill, enjoying the quiet afternoon air.
Rukshan smiled and said. “I like your new carpet, and what you have done with the house. Has your spell worked to get the carpenter to fix the loo? I feel bad leaving you all again while there is still much to do.”
“Don’t worry, Fox is good help, so long as you keep him away from the chickens.”
“We all have, Liz,” he said. “To my great shame.”
“Yes, indeed. Well, we need to do better and give her the great admiration and reverance she is due. I have a writer’s meeting this morning, and if it weren’t for Finnley haranguing me, I would not have completed my assignment and I would have been a laughing stock. She saved me, Godfrey.”
“It was nothing,” said Finnley.FloveParticipant
It had been a day of full work for Ricardo, rather than his frequently dull work at the paper.
Connie and Hilda were crazily busy bouncing off bits of odd news to each other and it was a sort of playful banter that even had Sweet Sophie come out of her pre-lunch-post-lunch slumber that occasionally trailed until tea time.
News of the Rim had been scarce, there was no denying. Honestly, he wondered how Bossy M’am managed to still pay the bills and their wages, however meager those (or his) were. He giggled thinking about how she probably scared the debt collectors off their wits with her best impersonation of Johnny Depp playing Jack Sparrow playing Tootsie meets Freddy Krueger.
Speaking of which, he couldn’t help but eavesdrop, while pretending to clean the coffee cups and the butter knives full of vegemite and scone crumbs.
“Dolls! Are you daft? What about all those crop circles in France instead?”
“Listen, you decrepit tart, I’m telling you there’s plenty to investigate about this Findmy stuff group. Secret dolls scattered around the world, masonic occult secret symbols…”
“Hardly matter for an insert on 4th page, dear. While on the other hand, elongated skulls, secret underground bases in Antarctica…”
“We talked about this! Conspiracy theories are off limits! We only want the real stuff, the odd happenings that hits your neighbour that you wouldn’t have known about without us reporting it! But dolls! that’s something, no?”
“Flimsy at best…”
“What else then?”
“I don’t know, seesh, what about Hundreds attending two frogs wedding in India ?”
“Already covered, too mainstream…”
“What about the Mothman of Tchernobyl?”
“We stopped cryptozoology, remember, after that pathetic chase after the trenchcoat ape that got us torpedoed in the other paper rags when we reported it without checking our facts?”
“Facts! FACTS! Don’t you get me started about FACTS!”
Suddenly, they both turned simultaneously at Ricardo, seemingly realizing his presence.
“Ric’, this cuppa isn’t going to make itself, dear.” They both said like a couple of creepily synched automatons.
Shawn Paul couldn’t help but listen when he heard Maeve’s voice. Was she at Lucinda’s again? He ventured outside his apartment with his unopened packet in his hands in order to have a clearer idea of what they were talking about.
Not him apparently. They were talking about dolls and spies. He felt a bit jealous that other peoples had such beautiful stories to tell and he struggled so much to even write a few lines. Fortunately he always had a small notebook and a pen in his pockets. He scribbled down a few notes, trying to be fast and concise. He looked at his writing. It would be hard to read afterwards.
He paused after writing the uncle’s name. Was it uncle Fungus? And the tarty spy in the fishnet, was it a photograph? And what about the bugs, was it an infestation? Too much information. It was hard to follow the story and write while holding the packet.
He realised they had stopped speaking and Lucinda was closing the door. He suddenly panicked. What if Maeve found him there, listening?
The time it took him to think about all that could happen was enough for Maeve to meet him were he stood the packet in his hands.
“Hi she said. You got a packet ?”
“Yes,” he answered, his mind almost blank. What could he possibly say. He was more of the writer kind, he needed time to think about his dialogues in advance. But, was it an inspiration from beyond he had something to say and justify his presence.
“Someone just dropped this at my door and I was trying to see if I could catch them. There’s no address.” He turned the packet as if to confirm it.
“There’s something written on the corner,” said Maeve. “It looks like an old newspaper cut.
“Oh! You’re right,” said Shawn Paul.
She looked closer.
“What a coincidence,” said Maeve, looking slightly shocked.
Shaw Paul brought the packet closer to his face. It smelled like granola cookies. On the paperclip there was an add for a trip to Australia with the address of a decrepit Inn somewhere in the wops. There was a photo of an old woman standing in front of the Inn, and Shawn Paul swore he saw her wink at him. The smell of granola cookies was stronger and made him hungry.
He was not sure anymore he would be able to write his story that day.
Konrad had to cover his brown eyes as he watched the wall collapse.
On his left was the Tower, the one-of-a-kind creation under which the Dark Lord, Garl, swore an oath. The stone from the center fell toward the right with a soft thunk. The walls surrounding the Tower were broken apart by a flash of light.
Konrad continued to the center of the twelve-tiled square he drew onto the floor to make his escape.
Two or three days later, he would meet another of his patrons, the mysterious Surt, who’d come across him first. They talked about the recent events leading up to the Dark Lord having fallen, and the dark rumors that were rampant.
Surt seemed to be one of those who didn’t believe the news. This one had only heard the official stories, but was still somewhat interested. He said, “My apologies for not making the trip to the capital earlier… it was not easy to travel in such close proximity to it.” Surt explained why he came to this place, even though he had no clue on his own.
“So what brought you here?” Konrad asked the giant.
“Surt has something you’ll want to know about the Dark Lord’s sister Nesingwarys.” Surt explained.
“What about her?” asked Konrad.
“She’s a magical girl. That sort of thing. She goes to school with a little girl with some special abilities. I’ve taken a keen interest.” His eyes narrowed. “Her abilities are her own. You know, something with the potential to kill the whole school. She’ll keep you safe. You’ll become her protector and help her survive the Dark Lord. Maybe one or two times. It’s her calling.”
“N-no-it’s not my calling!” Konrad shouted. “My calling is to protect you!”
“Surt is well versed in her abilities, and she has her own reasons not to go down the Dark Lord’s path. She has no interest in the Dark Lord, or anything related to him.”
Konrad replied with a tone of bitterness. “I will help her by keeping my own thoughts hidden, and not talking about it outside of the school.” Konrad walked away to go back and forth between Surt and Soren. Surt continued to watch him with curiosity.
Soren was looking around worried, confused, bewildered.
“Enough of all that nonsense!” exclaimed Liz, who was brimming with enthusiasm, a bit like a frothing glass of cava. “Now then, Finnley, pay attention please! I’m calling a meeting to be held this evening for ALL of our story characters. I’d like you to make sure they are all made welcome and have suitable refreshments. Yes, I know it’s short notice, but I’ll give you the key to the special pantry in the Elsespace Arrangement. Some of the characters will help you, you just need to make a start and it will all fall into place.”
“Godfrey, my good man. You know what I’m like with technical details. Your job will be to write my questions, with the relevant technical minutia. Don’t interrupt my flow with questions! Use your powers of intuition and telepathy!”
Roberto attempted to slip out of the French windows, but his yellow vest got caught on the latch.
“Not so fast, young man!” Liz had plans for the gardener. “There won’t be room inside for all the characters, so it will be a garden party. I’ll leave it to you to ensure there is plenty of outdoor furniture for people to make themselves comfortable. I’ll give you the key to the special garden shed in the Elsespace Arrangement.”
“May I ask”, Godfrey ventured, “What the meeting is to be about?”
“Indeed you may! I want input, lots of input. And ideas. The topic is Alternate Intelligence. That is a slightly better way of saying it than Artificial Intelligence, but not quite the perfect term. But we can change that later.”
In the white silence of the mountains, Rukshan was on his knees on a yakult wool rug pouring blue sand from a small pouch on a tricky part of the mandala that looked like a small person lifting his arms upwards. Rukshan was just in the right state of mind, peaceful and intensely focused, in the moment.
It was more instinct than intellect that guided his hands, and when he felt inside him something click, he stopped pouring the sand. He didn’t take the time to check if it was right, he trusted his guts.
He held the pouch to his right and said: “White”. Olliver took the pouch of blue and replaced it with another. Rukshan resumed pouring and white sand flew in a thin stream on the next part of the mandala.
After a few hours of the same routine, only broken by the occasional refreshments and drinks that Olliver brought him, the mandala was finished and Rukshan stood up to look at the result. He moved his shoulders to help relieve the tensions accumulated during the hard day of labor. He felt like an old man. His throat was dry with thirst but his eyes gleamed with joy at the result of hours of hard concentration.
“It’s beautiful,” said Olliver with awe in his voice.
“It is, isn’t it?” said Rukshan. He accepted a cup of warm and steaming yakult tea that Olliver handed him and looked at the boy. It was the first time that Olliver had spoken during the whole process.
“Thanks, Olli,” said Rukshan, “you’ve been very helpful the whole time. I’m a little bit ashamed to have taken your whole time like that and make you stand in the cold without rest.”
“Oh! Don’t worry,” said the boy, “I enjoyed watching you. Maybe one day you can teach me how to do this.”
Rukshan looked thoughtfully at the boy. The mandala drew its power from the fae’s nature. There could certainly be no danger in showing the technique to the boy. It could be a nice piece of art.
“Sure!” he said. “Once we are back. I promise to show you.”
A smile bloomed on Olliver’s face.
In the white silence of the mountain, Lhamom sat on a thick rug of yakult wool in front of a makeshift fireplace. She had finished packing their belongings, which were now securely loaded on the hellishcarpet, and decided it was cooking time. For that she had enrolled the young lad, Olliver, to keep her company instead of running around and disturbing Rukshan. The poor man… the poor manfae, Lhamom corrected, had such a difficult task that he needed all his concentration and peace of mind.
Lhamom stirred the content of the cauldron in a slow and regular motion. She smiled because she was also proud of her idea of a screen made of yakult wool and bamboo poles, cut from the haunted bamboo forest. It was as much to protect from the wind as it was for the fae’s privacy and peace of mind.
“It smells good,” said Olliver, looking with hungry eyes at what Lhamom was doing.
“I know,” she said with pride. “It’s a specialty I learned during the ice trek.”
“Can you teach me?” ask Olliver.
“Yes, sure.” She winked. “You need a special blend of spiced roots, and use pootatoes and crabbage. The secret is to make them melt in yakult salted butter for ten minutes before adding the meat and a bucket of fresh snow.”
They continued to cook and talk far all the afternoon, and when dusk came Lhamom heard Rukshan talk behind his screen. He must have finished the mandala, she thought. She smiled at Olliver, and she felt very pleased that she had kept the boy out of the manfae’s way.
Fox listened to the white silence of the mountain during that brief moment, just after the dogs had made it clear, despite all the promises of food, that they would not help the two-leggeds with their plan.
Fox sighed. For an instant, all felt still and quiet, all was perfectly where it ought to be.
The instant was brief, quickly interrupted by a first growl, joined by a second and a third, and soon the entire pack of mountain dogs walked, all teeth out, towards a surrounded Fox. He looked around. There was no escape route. He had no escape plan. His stomach reminded him that instant that he was still sick. He looked at the mad eyes of the dogs. They hadn’t even left the bones from the meat he gave them earlier. He gulped in an attempt to remove the lump of anguish stuck in his throat. There would be no trace of him left either. Just maybe some red on the snow.
He suddenly felt full of resolve and camped himself on his four legs; he would not go without a fight. His only regret was that he couldn’t help his friends go home.
We’ll meet in another life, he thought. Feeling wolfish he howled in defiance to the dogs.
They had stopped and were looking uncertain of what to do next. Fox couldn’t believe he had impressed them.
“Come,” said a voice behind him. Fox turned surprised. On the pile of his clothes stood Olliver.
“How did you,” he yelped before remembering the boy could not understand him.
“Hurry! I can teleport us back to the camp,” said the boy with his arms opened.
Without a second thought Fox jumped in Olliver’s arms and the next thing he knew was that they were back at the camp. But something was off. Fox could see Rukshan busy making his mandala and Olliver was helping him with the sand. Then he could see Lhamom cooking with the help of another Olliver.
Fox thought it might be some case of post teleportation confusion. He looked at the Olliver who helped him escape an imminent death, the fox head slightly tilted on the side, the question obvious in its eyes.
“Please don’t tell them,” said Olliver, his eyes pleading. “It just happened. I felt a little forgotten and wanted so much to be useful.”
Fox turned back into a human, too surprised to feel the bite of the cold air.
“Oh! Your clothes,” said Olliver before he disappeared. Fox didn’t have time to clear his mind before the boy was back with the clothes.
When Lucinda called her friend, Shawn Paul felt it was time to go back home. He wasn’t sure if it was his natural shyness, that he had already seen and talk to so many new people today, or if it was the fear of the unknown. What would he tell a stranger? What would she think of him, his outfit and his scarf? All that made it too much at that moment to meet someone new. So he looked at his phone and pretexted something had come up. They agreed to meet at the reception at the French embassy and he left.
Shawn Paul was walking crossing streets on autopilot, lost in his thoughts about the adventures of the day, when a crazy honking that sounded like an elephant fart brought him back to reality in front a bakery. He realised too late that he had forgotten his granola cookies on the table. But he shrugged and smiled when a little yellow butterfly flew by and landed momentarily on the rear light of a red car. He stopped and wondered how such a light creature could live in a city like this. It took off and fluttered around into the general direction of a public garden nearby where children played under the kind presence of their parents.
“Hi.” They said at the same time with the same awkwardness. Maeve’s dog was sniffing out his shoes, making Shawn Paul self conscious of himself. He feared a moment she might think he had a sloppy hygiene.
“Come Fabio.” Maeve said. “Sorry for that. Dogs…”
Shawn Paul smiled in an attempt to hide his embarrassment, and each of them went in their own direction.
Shawn Paul arrived late at the reception because he spent too much time deciding on which scarf would match his new deep purple velvet jacket. The others were already inside and drinking, their body moving more or less in rhythm with the music.
“Your dress suits you so well,” said Shawn Paul bending closer to her hear and making an effort to talk louder. A smile blossomed on her face at the compliment, contrasting with a lingering nostalgia in her eyes. She was wearing one of those black body fit dress which gave her silhouette all the contours they needed to pop out in a flattering way.
“You missed the speech of the ambassador,” she said with a wink. “Nothing memorable, it’s the same every year.”
Jerk was standing on the side, wearing a suit like one would wear camouflage clothing. He seemed to deeply wonder what he was doing there. Shawn Paul, who was wondering the same, addressed the man a sympathising smile. A moment of connection happened and went away. Jerk took a sip of his glass of champagne and Lucinda put a flute in Shawn Paul’s hand.
She took his other arm and said : “Come. There is something I want to show you!”
Moving to the city apartment had not been a bad move. It was little things like this ~ being a five minute walk from a cafe terrace…. a selection of cafe terraces, she reminded herself…after all, her old home in the country village had been a thirty second walk from a bar terrace, and she had never used it. But the idea of being able to meet friends easily seemed to be one of the appealing things about urban life, despite being vociferously against the ghastliness of concrete and traffic landscapes for most of her life. Lucinda wasn’t sure what had changed or when it had happened, or even why, but over the years she had socialized increasingly less, to the point where an occasional lunch date seemed like a jarring interruption to her routine, where a trip to a shopping centre became a dreaded ordeal, or god forbid a journey to the nearest airport, on the most horrifying things of all, a motorway. And yet, she’d been quite the social butterfly in her youth, and a part of her still felt that that was who she was, really. And yet the truth was she hadn’t been very sociable at all for years.
The decision to move to an apartment in the city happened suddenly, almost by accident. Or had it? In retrospect, Lucinda could see the signs and the little nudges, one thing after another going wrong as they usually do before a beneficial change ~ would that we could appreciate that at the time, she often thought! At the time she’d wanted nothing more than for nothing at all to change, to be left in peace to appreciate ~ and yes, she promised herself she would remember to appreciate everything more often! ~ if only, if only, nothing changed or went wrong and she could stay just as she was. But as time lurched on, dealing with one thing and then the next, and the next ~ she started to wonder. And then like dominoes falling, it all happened, and here she was. And it wasn’t bad at all.
The red woman led Shawn Paul through small busy streets. Shawn Paul had never seen that many people with dogs and parked bikes all gathered in strategic places each time he was about to catch up on her. He swore he could hear her giggle.
Eventually she entered a cafe called Red Beans. Shawn Paul steered through white tables and chairs made of wrought iron and followed her in, breathless. He had never seen the point in running before. But he still wasn’t sure why he had to catch her. What would he do? Talk to her? Ask her what she did perched on trees and smiling?
There seemed to be only the bartender who was busy with a huge coffee machine, hissing like a locomotive. A colour, a movement on his right made Shawn Paul turn, and he just had the time to catch sight of a red hat going down the stairs. She certainly went to the toilets. He thought that maybe following her downstairs would be too creepy, but at the same time he didn’t want the bartender to talk to him either.
So he went down and waited at the door. The lock was red, showing someone was inside.
Shawn Paul waited. There were many flyers of parties and events pinned on a wall, but he wasn’t the party guy and his eyes flew over the messy images and texts that seemed scattered on the wall.
After five minutes he wondered if something had happened and pushed the door. It was open and the lock was broken, always showing red. He tutted and shook his head. He had been foolish, he thought. There has certainly been nobody there since the beginning. There was no girl sitting on trees with red sandals.
He got out of the cafe and was ready to walk back to his apartment with his granola cookies. When someone called him. He turned and stared at a girl and a guy having drinks on the Red Beans’ terrace.
“I was sure it was you, Shawn Paul,” said the girl. “I thought I recognised you when you ran inside earlier, but you seemed in such a hurry,” said a girl. She had a big grin and a pony tail.
Her face looked familiar, all rosy and cheeky. She had a nice jacquard sweater and a matching skirt, and she was waving at him cheerfully. Her cocktail was full of reds, blues and yellows.
“Remember me? Lucinda, from the apartment on the other side…” she added.
It suddenly dawned on him, they had met once or twice. She had said they should meet again, but they never had. He felt a bit trapped, not knowing what to say.
“Hi,” he said, and he looked at the guy. He had never met him, that he was sure of.
The guy looked as embarrassed as himself by the intrusion.
“Hi. I’m Jerk,” he said.
“Are you going to the party tonight?” asked Lucinda pointing at a flyer on the table. She took a sip of her cocktail.
Shawn Paul was about to decline with a ready made up excuse when he saw what was on the flyer. It was a big red balloon with a red hat on a starry background. It said “Reception of the French Ambassador. Free Buffet with Ferrero Rochers and Champagne”.
Shawn Paul pulled closer one of the heavy metal chairs and sat with them.
“Tell me more about it,” he said instead.
Granola allowed herself a few moments to bask in the glow of satisfaction. At least Lucinda had noticed the side bar suggestion she had implanted on the Face It web page, and had perused the ideas sufficiently to motivate her to try out one of the missions.
“Invite a random stranger to join you,” it had said, “to join you for coffee in a nearby cafe, or invite them home for dinner, or to see a movie.” The page had included numerous other suggestions, but that was the gist. They did warn the reader that often, people were suspicious and expected a scam of some kind, and if the random stranger exhibited more that a token display of wary caution, to leave them with a cheery wave, and thank them for helping you to practice your confidence boosting exercises. Under normal circumstances, providing the level of fear and distrust wasn’t too high, this approach usually rendered the random stranger more amenable to an approach in future.
In truth this wasn’t a difficult exercise for Lucinda, for she often spoke to random strangers and quite enjoyed it, although usually she didn’t extend that to personal invitations. But the Ask Aunt Idle Oracle had been droning on and on about interconnection being the primary factor in reducing signs of aging ~ yes, strange, but true: nothing to do with food or toxins or exercise after all ~ so the coincidence of Aunt Idle’s advice mirrored in the side bar suggestion registered sufficiently for Lucinda to actually remember it, and try it out on the bored looking fellow in the supermarket.
Only hesitating slightly before extending his hand to grip hers in a surprisingly firm handshake, he responded: “I’m Jerk. Pleased to meet you.”
Granola grinned from behind the pyramid of baked bean tins, and faded out of the scene. There was work to do on the side bar method for the next clue.
Jerk’s eyes flickered over to the baked beans, registering the peripheral movement, just in time to see a disembodied foot wearing a red sandal vanish into the somewhat heavy air of the canned goods aisle.
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