Straight… no ice

Just the end of another long day. It’s been a slow one, the usual crowd of no-hopers and freeloaders trying their luck.. the sob stories, the revenge seekers, but nothin’ i ain’t heard a thousand times before.

i flick the sign round on the door – closed – guess it’s just another day, another Linden dollar – it’ll keep the wolves from the door, but it won’t stop them howling. Let ’em howl, i say. The neon light outside flickers redly through the blinds, strips of crimson like bloody claw marks across the desk. Parting the blinds, i peer through – empty, god-forsaken streets, strewn with litter and the crap of society, somewhere a trashcan lid crashes to the floor accompanied by the yowling of some flea-ridden cat… so much for Paradise Gardens – who names these places anyway?

I sigh deeply. Kicking off my shoes, i sink wearily into the creaking and worn leather chair, tapping out a Marlboro from it’s crumpled packet – i know i shouldn’t, but hell, this is sl… what harm can it do? – drawing deeply, i start to relax, watching the smoke plume upwards – caught in the neon glow, it takes on the appearance of some noob’s faded bling, bad on the eyes but somehow compelling. Can’t face the streets and that shabby tenement just yet, need anaesthesia… with a sense of resignation i slide the desk drawer open, fish out the shot glass and half-empty bottle and pour myself some liquid morphine.

First, the burn, then the mellow soothing of the liquid makes me feel better. Damn, that’s good. Almost makes me feel, well, average. Y’know, it’s not easy being a gal, doing a guy’s job, especially in this town – a place that chews you up, swallows you whole and doesn’t bother spitting you back out. If you’ve got tits and a sassy attitude, chances are you’re a hooker. Better than tits and no attitude, i guess.., then you’re just a doormat. Me? i’m no doormat, and call me a hooker… you get to taste my knuckles. Don’t get me wrong, i don’t go looking for trouble, but in this line of work trouble comes looking for me and, if it finds me, i guess i just gotta deal with it.

Decision time. It’s not a tough choice – stay and finish the bottle, or hit the road? I hit the whiskey. If it’s gonna be a long night, i’d rather spend it in the company of Jack than sat at home alone, watching cable mindrot over some microwaved slop outta a plastic box.

So, i’m sunk in my reverie, working up to a helluva hangover in the morning, when there’s a shadow at the door. Now, callers at this time of night generally mean trouble – but trouble don’t usually knock first. This one did.

“i’m closed – can’t you read?”.

Apparently not, there’s another knock on the glass, and the door swings open.

She’s a classy gal, high heels, stockings, pencil skirt and nice little jacket – not tarty, but the scarlet lippy draws your attention. She’s not giving anything away – no tag – so i figure i won’t check her profile… she’ll tell me what i need to know.

“Well, sweetheart, since you’re in, you may as well take a seat”

She seems self-assured, not nervous or twitchy, not like most of the broads i get to see. I feel i should make some sorta effort to look friendly, but the whiskey and fatigue have worked their magic – i never asked her in anways, why should i bother?

“I need your help”, she say’s in a kinda breathless way.

Well, it’s hardly the most original line i’ve been thrown, let’s face it, half the people who come to me want help… the other half want money. i need details. Remembering my manners, i dig out another glass –

“Jack Daniels?”

She looks confused and shakes her head, pretty little curls bobbing in the half-light.

“No”, she says, “I don’t know any Jack Daniels, he’s not my problem.”

I shrug, maybe this dame’s not as clever as she looks. Still, seems a shame to waste it, so i down hers too.

“OK lady, who exactly is your problem?”

“I’ve had a bit of a run in with the Penny Lane Gang”

Sheesh! Suddenly i’m stone cold sober. the Penny Lane Gang! Only the biggest, baddest, most connected syndicate in the damn city. i’d had dealings with them in the past and believe me, you just don’t wanna mess with them, try it and you’ll end up sharing the bed with more than just a horses’ head – they’ll give you the whole damn horse, live and kicking! The gang have more rackets than a tennis supplies shop and hide behind respectable businesses to front their activities. i’d never gotten to the bottom of just how extensive their empire was but it was common knowledge they were into the rag trade and the music business in a big way. i’d been to a couple of clubs the gang were known to have connections with and i’d seen some pretty dubious business taking place, believe me.

The gang, rumour had it, met to conduct their business at the Killing Moon – you gotta wonder how it got its name – not a place to go alone, perhaps that’s why it was always so crowded… they say there’s safety in numbers. Personally, i can think of safer places to go – like down in the subway at midnight. The gang is supposedly led by a mythical figure they call ‘The Godmother’ – not your fairy godmother type broad, more your rock ‘n roll, punkette. They say the souls of those who’ve crossed her wander the streets like zombies – i wasn’t about to put it to the test.

“Look tootsie, i dunno what you’ve done to rile the mob, but business is business, and i’m telling ya, all the Lindens in Zyngoland ain’t enough for me to put my life on the line for you. i’m sorry, hun, but this one’s your party, and yours’ alone”

She looks at me outta them puppy dog eyes and flutters those lashes and, for a moment, i’m almost persuaded to change my mind.

“They told me you were the best”, she said.

“Maybe i was the best, but that was a long time ago – people change. Too much water under the bridge, and friends i’ve lost along the way. i’m not what i was once was.”, i paused a moment, before pouring another slug of liver rot, grimacing a little as it burned its way down my throat. “i’m sorry kiddo, i just ain’t got what it takes.”

She looks at me, pleading in her eyes, i lower my gaze, unable to look her in the eye. She reaches across the desk, briefly touching my hand, still clutching the empty whiskey glass. I pull away, leaning back in my seat…

“i’m sorry”, i mutter, hating myself for saying it.

The chick sighs, gathers up her clutch bag, stands and starts to leave. Then, hand on the door, she stops, turns and walks back over to the desk.

“If you change your mind”, she says, grabbing a pen and scribbling on the blotter in front of me, “call me”. Spinning on her heel, she leaves, for real, this time. The door swinging shut behind her with an accusing crash.

It’s a good few minutes, and a couple more shots of JD before i move. Dammit, i never checked her profile after all. I try to read the note, scrawled on the blotter, but tired eyes and alcohol defeat me. Slowly i turn the blotter around – there it is, a simple name and slurl. i’m seeing it, but it’s not sinking in… too many other thoughts clouding my mind. What sort of job is this anyway? Perhaps it’s time i got out, before i make the wrong move or a fatal decision, before the booze and the lifestyle wear me down?

Sitting there, in the gathering gloom, i ponder over the evening’s events, idly glancing at the name and location on the blotter before me… maybe i should call – not for the money and not for the work – maybe i need to see her face again; hear her voice once more. Maybe it’s time to deal a new hand?

ooOOOoo

“I’m sorry, I’m not able to take your call right now, please leave a message after the tone…”

Dammit! That’s the third time i’ve tried IM’ing her and each time, the same automated response – i dunno whether to be relieved or worried. Relieved that i don’t have to speak to her, (what the hell am i gonna say, anyhow?), or worried that whatever she’s gotten herself mixed up in has turned sour. i’m not even sure i know what i’m doing anymore.

i never finished the bottle, the other night – somehow, for once, the thought of the inevitable hangover… the throbbing head and furred tongue next morning, just took the edge off the booze. The empty office kinda closed in around me, the certificate on the wall mocking me… ‘whadd’ya need credentials for if you’re gonna turn away clients!’. Maybe it had a point: the faded lettering, once displayed so proud on the door, now scratched and dull proclaiming in reverse, through the dirty glass panel ‘S. Haven – Private Investigator’ – Pah! P.I. my arse! More your small time debt chaser and eavesdropper, totally reliant on the petty problems and insecurities of the scumbags that cared to call themselves my clients. Only reason they come to me is ’cause i’m cheap… no-one else will take on the welfare cases and no-hopers. Huh… will ya listen to me? – may as well be talking about myself – a cheap, no-hoper, just a step away from welfare herself – and now, turning good money away, and why? – ’cause i got scared, that’s why.

i reach for the bottle again, fingers trembling slightly. Then, like i’m being drawn to it, like some old-time sailor hearing the siren’s song lilting over the waves, my eyes focus on the name on the blotter. The slightest hint of her perfume still hangs in the stale office air – which just don’t sit easy with the usual aroma of ciggies, old paperwork and impatience. Dammit! Despite my reservations, i kinda know already i’m gonna be following this one up – Penny Lane Gang, or not.

Wearily i find myself slipping my shoes back on and reaching for my coat – only it’s like i’m watching myself from a distance, like some voyeuristic waster, ogling some weird reverse striptease from the back row of the burlesque – it’s almost like my camera’s gone walkabout spying on me, instead of others, for a change – it’s kinda disorientating. Almost like some sorta robot, i watch myself mechanically lock up and make my way outta the building into the cold night.

There’s a chill wind – the sort that you can’t wrap up against and makes your eyes sting and water… that’s my excuse anyway – or maybe that’s just the smog hanging in the city air – anyhows, i’m starting to regret leaving now. Pointless hanging about, so i set a brisk pace… sooner i’m home, the better. Briefly i toy with the idea of calling a cab, but i need the fresh air to help me sober up, or that mote of resolve i’ve built up is gonna evaporate like so much mist when the morning sun hits the Hudson. The pavement rings with each footfall and the clack of my heels bounces off the shadowy walls around me. It’s deserted, but that don’t bother me much – people around here know not to mess with me – not ’cause i’m the kinda gal that bears grudges, but these poor saps know sometime or other they’re gonna be grateful for my services, so it pays to show me respect.

The long walk home…

Two blocks in and the streets start showing signs of habitation again. From across the street i catch a snatch of sax from the Pig and Whistle. The wistful, haunting sound stops me in my tracks for a moment – memories, doncha know? Half-forgotten, but still there, all the same. Was a time you could’ve called me a regular at the Pig, spent a good few happy times there, yeah and some not so happy times too, but i guess bad memories are pretty much part of life’s rich… well, you maybe know how it is. Someday, maybe, i guess i’ll find myself back sat at the bar, who knows, i may even strut my stuff on the dancefloor, but not tonight. Maybe tomorrow… maybe never. Something makes me shiver, could be the wind, could be a deeper cold within, so i move on, leaving the memories to fade, caught up with the melancholic strains of the saxophone.

The last three blocks pass without incident, or maybe i’m just too wrapped up in my thoughts to notice anything. Why the hell don’t i just TP home, like any normal person? But i need time to think, that’s what i tell myself anyhow: funny that… i know i was thinking, but i couldn’t tell you what, for the life of me. Fumbling for my key outside the brownstone, i thought i caught a glimpse of Eve, coming outta the old cinema. I waved, kinda automatic, then felt stupid when she don’t see me… ah, to hell with it, i’m not the best company tonight anyway.

Back in my room, i’m sitting slumped in the dark, the only light cast by the glowing embers of the dying fire. It takes an age, but gradually i gather my resolve – i guess this is it – do, or die. Now why did i have to use that stupid expression? i look again at the name on the piece of paper torn from the blotter before i do what i should’ve done when she first barged her way into my office, all perfume and lipstick – i call up her profile…

Aww hell, what was i expecting? Some sort of biography, the lowdown on this dame? C’mon Seren – you’ve been in this business long enough now. More than anyone, i should know that profiles ain’t worth squat most of the time. This one wasn’t giving me any clues… of course, reading between the lines, i could make a coupla educated guesses, but this dame was playing her cards close to her chest. Aside from one or two interesting groups i reckoned were worth a closer look, i was no wiser, except she was a Brit and she was into high end fashion. Only one thing for it then – another frozen moment in time, while i considered what i was about to do – if i make the call, i’m committed: not even i’m so lame i’d call her up then drop her again when the heat goes on…

i make the call.

“I’m sorry. I’m not able to take your call right now, please leave a message after the tone…”

That was three days ago and now, i’m still getting more of the same. Dammit! She must know i’ve been calling. Doesn’t help that i’m in a foul mood and nursing the mother of all hangovers and that despite working solidly on this case for three days, including calling in a few hard earned favours, i’m no further forward. Hell, i even called on ‘J’ who, bless her soul, thinks nothing of taking a stroll down Penny Lane now and again, soaking up the local gossip – and what can she tell me? – nada, nothing, not a damn thing. Seems that no-one knows this bird, either that, or they’re keeping schtum. i tell ya, i’d do the same if i knew she’d crossed the mob, but it ain’t helping my line of enquiry.

Heaving a heartfelt sigh, i realise there’s only one thing for it… should’ve done this in the first place, but hindsight’s one of those things i don’t normally allow myself the luxury of – do it right first time, or live with the consequences, i say. With that thought to egg me on, i hit teleport and in those few seconds of limbo, in the void between co-ordinates, i try to compose myself.

Well, this wasn’t what i expected. A tenement building, pretty much the same as mine, not quite the expensive condo i’d pictured her living in – i’ve arrived, like some shabby door-to-door seller, in the corridor outside, presumably, her front door. A quick check of my map says i’m apparently in downtown New York, and not the most salubrious of neighbourhoods at that – i feel right at home! Checking the radar, there’s no-one nearby i need to be bothered about, so i relax a little. Then i get an unexpected feeling – i guess you’d call it conscience – not something i’m particularly used to!

Y’see, normal situation – the job being what it is – she’s not around… so that’s my invitation to go remote with the camera and do a bit of fishing behind that door. But somehow that don’t feel right (maybe, i do need to quit this job?) so, feeling more than a little foolish, i knock the door. Obviously there’s no answer, but it seems appeasing my conscience had paid off – i find the door’s open and the security’s off – which, in my book, means ‘come right on in’, so i do. Nice place, if a little spartan for my tastes (i tend to go for the cluttered, aftermath-of-an-explosion kinda look, myself), flashy widescreen TV, nondescript sexbed/sofa, bit of fine art on the walls – but as for clues or anything of interest, again i’m drawing a big fat nothing.

This is starting to get me down – all i’ve got is a name and likely a whole heap of trouble. i’m thinking maybe a trip to Penny Lane is in order, although the thought makes my guts squirm like a bucket of oiled eels. Times like this i tend to curse my old-fashioned approach… your more modern, go-getting types would just slip on a nondescript alt, sweep in, get the goods and sweep right back out again. Not me, i’m old school – i’ve always reckoned you get better results with the old face-to-face, getting to know you methods. At least that way you get to know who your friends are, not to mention your enemies! It does make keeping a low profile kinda hard though.

So i’m bouncing the idea of taking a trip to the mob’s manor around my, still aching, head when i get an even bigger and more painful headache, courtesy of the large lump of wood that comes crashing down on my skull from behind. My last thought as i slip into unconsciousness – apart from ‘ouch’ and ‘how many times have i told you to keep your eye on the damn radar?’ – was that if i ever get hold of the geek who whacked me, they’re gonna wish they’d hit me a damn sight harder, and done the job properly…

ooOOOoo

Conciousness returned cautiously, like a kitten anxious to leave its hiding place but all too aware of the possible dangers that lurk outside. Head thumping like Japanese Taiko drummers were having a bad rehearsal in my brain, a kaleidescope of lurid pain, accompanied by equally lurid flashes of colour behind my eyelids – smeared across my slowly resurging consciousnes like some abstract painter’s nightmare vision.

Cautiously – very cautiously – i opened my eyes. The world swam before them, seesawing wildly before settling down into an uneasy steadyness, but still the flashing colours, if anything, more vibrant and nauseating than before. That thumping in my head too, wasn’t just in my head… slowly, as i started to surface from the sea of oblivion, it was dawning on me that my awakening wasn’t to be to the crisp sheets and fluffy pillows of a hospital ward, instead i was coming-to in a real dive – flashing lights, like an epileptic’s bad dream and noise that would make your ears bleed. So much for the crisp sheets… i’m lying, sprawled across a garish carpet that put those flashing lights to shame and actually succeeded in being louder than the throbbing drums. It smelt bad too: stale booze, sweat and grime – welcome back to consciousness Dippy!

Groggily, i ease myself into a sitting position and give myself a quick once-over. Nothing serious, it seems, not even a lump the size of an egg for a souvenir of my run-in with half a tree – i guess sl has its good points in that regard. Even so, my headache’s turned into world war 3, with me being on the losing side, and that damn music’s not helping.

Music? – Seems the synapses are snapping back into action, albeit with some reluctance. Blearily, i attempt the math, putting two and two together, trying to make some sort of sum – not bothered particularly by equals at the moment, just an approximate will do. Music plus lights, plus stale beer, well that approximates to nightclub to me – it would do for now,

i’m in some sort of storeroom… beer kegs and boxes. The strobing light is streaming through a half-open door and, wouldn’t you know it, right across my field of vision – shuffling sideways into the gloom, my eyes get a rest but the brain’s working overtime. Things still ain’t adding up – and it’s not just my confused state – this room, for a start. Why the open door? What kinda sap keeps a shedload of booze in an unlocked room? And me… makes no sense to club me and dump me, then leave me an escape route – at least tie me up! So i’m thinking maybe that’s the idea – these bozos ain’t kidnapped me for no ransom demand (fat chance, anyway!), seems i’ve just been given a free mystery trip – hell, they only had to ask, i’d have come quietly, even worn the obligatory blindfold. You’re getting the message i’m still smarting from that whack across the head, i’m guessing?

i try a tentative attempt to stand, hauling myself up with the aid of a nearby keg, and make my way, weaving somewhat, to the door. There’s a corridor, no-one about though – this is too easy – the music’s louder out here, still muffled though, with that fuzzy quality that makes your ears buzz and your temples throb. i make my way to where it’s loudest and come to another door. what’s stopping me TP’ing away right now? This is just stupidity, i should just get the hell outta here while i can – i’ll take my chances with my mysterious captors, maybe they just wanted to teach me a lesson, ‘keep your nose outta our business’. Makes perfect sense to me, but then ‘Stupid Seren’ kicks in and, before i can stop myself, i’m through the door.

It’s loud, it’s bright and it’s heaving with people – it is a club… well done brain – which means there’s gotta be a bar, and i need one right now, and not just to lean on. Pushing my way through the throng, i realise how outta place i must look but i just don’t care – i can see my goal ahead and i plough on regardless. Reaching for the barstool like it’s some kind of finishing tape. If there was time, i’d tell you about all those times i’ve sat on stools like this, in clubs like this, drinking myself into oblivion… but this time it’s different: i don’t know why i’m here, don’t even know how i got here…

“What’ll it be sweetheart?” The barmaid’s nothing special, though she thinks she is, all dressed up and sassy but i can tell she’s a bot. “Jack Daniels – large – no ice and hold the water”.

The drink comes and i down it, holding out the glass for a refill, too late – i realise the barmaid’s gone, doing her bot stuff someplace else. She’ll be back. But there’s something else back too – a snatch of perfume and that cool, sultry voice…

“I thought you weren’t coming”

It’s the chick from the office. The one i’ve been chasing and damn near got my head busted for the privilege too.

“Yeah, well you ain’t an easy person to find”

“Let me get you a drink”, she says, and a bottle appears in front of me. I crack the seal and pour a decent slug, seems she’s managed to make the acquaintance of Mr Daniels since our last meeting, at least.

You’d think by now i’d have all my questions straight in my head – you gotta be kidding! Now she’s here all i can think of is the liquor and her perfume. i decide to let her do the talking, casting my eyes around the place and taking in the surroundings. It’s a neat place, big and brash – popular too, judging by the crowd – there’s a decidely British vibe to the place, Union Jacks; loads of iconic Brit stuff scattered about; pictures of old British bands on the walls, and then there’s my gal – refined, cultured accent, the epitomy of Englishness.

She still ain’t volunteering any info, so i ask the first lame question that comes into my head. “What is this place?”

“This is Dugi’s”, she says, “I come here a lot.”

So this was Dugi’s Soul Mods – a place i’d heard of but never been. Well, i was impressed but i was a definite outsider here… everything about me would stand out a mile: my accent, my taste in clothing, my attitude – none of it fitted with these super-cool Brits.

“You dancing?”

The question floored me for a moment. It’s been kinda a while since anyone’s asked me that and, considering my current circumstances and recent escapades, it seemed all the more surreal. “You askin? – ’cause it’s not really my kinda scene.”

“I need to talk to you and, well, it’s safer in the crowd.”

Why the hell did that make me feel so deflated? It’s not like i was hoping for anything more, (keep talking Dipster, you might convince yourself), i could feel myself flushing under her gaze – this was stupid – ‘keep your mind on the job, Haven… it was taking your eye off the ball that got you here in the first place. Stick to business, right?’.

“Umm, yeah, that makes a lotta sense”. Hell, i was in no state for dancing, but what could i do? i knocked back another measure of Daniels – a large one – and followed her to the floor. “You take the lead, babe, you’re the regular here”.

i thought maybe she might have a chimera – make it easy for me to just go with the flow… head was still aching too much to have to think about dance steps. So i’m just thinking about clicking around her head, when she comes out with…

“One of the couple dances – click a poseball – you choose” – Now that’s just great, it’s the last thing i expected and i really dunno how to handle this, at all. i guess it’s not me calling the shots though… so i just pick the nearest one and decide to see what happens.

So there i am in her arms, my head resting on her shoulder. The music’s playing some sort of South American beat and that, along with the booze, the heady fragrance of her perfume and the warmth of her body against mine is having a real bad effect. The room’s spinning and so’s my head – i’m completely swamped by the sensory overload and it all seems totally unreal. She leans closer, and i can feel her breath against my cheek. Get a grip Haven!

Almost a whisper… “The Penny Lane Gang – they’re planning something big”, lips practically brushing my cheek, i almost miss what she’s saying, but then it hits home – suddenly i’m back in the real world, back on the case. “I could tell you more, but it’s too dangerous for me right now and you’re going to need my help in the future. There’s someone you need to speak to – they’ll give you everything you need… will you go to them?”

Aww hell, this thing just gets deeper. Why can nobody give me a decent answer? This broad is driving me crazy, and in more ways than one. Too late now though, i’m well and truly hooked. Besides, didn’t she say something about meeting up again?

“Yeah, i’m in.”

Suddenly there’s a commotion over the other side of the room. There’s some heavyweights flooding outta the door where i came in, and they look like they mean business… serious business. The girl stiffens, looking terrified: “I can’t stay”, she says and breaks away. For a long moment, she looks at me straight in the eyes, “Don’t let me down… and please, be careful”, she whispers and then, stone me, she kisses me on the cheek and TPs the hell outta there.

i’m left staring at an empty space, lost and alone on the dancefloor, a tingle on my cheek where her lips just were. The heavy mob are pushing people around, barking orders – time i made myself scarce. She’s left me a notecard. I snatch a quick look – ‘Ohnari Kobo, Kowloon’ and a number – quickly, i copy the number and hit TP, the room dissolves around me along with the noise, although her perfume remains…

Arrival. It’s hot, clammy and full of noise and bright, flashing lights. What the hell is it with these lights all the freaking time? For pity’s sake, am i never to be rid of this goddam headache?

Eastern promise

So this was Kowloon? Whoopie-doo, (can you tell i’m not impressed?), until now all i knew of China was Wong’s takeout… an all-pervading smell of grease and traffic fumes. Well the real thing ain’t much better, except the grease and fumes have a garnish of week-old trash and open sewers – nice. Place is a bit run down and quiet, which suits me, at least i ain’t got traffic to contend with – i imagine this place could get hellish during the day – it’s pretty hellish right now. Somewhere i can hear a tv set blaring and, over the top of it, some couple are having a domestic – their raised voices echoing down one of the alleyways – incomprehensible to me, and probably over some trivialiality. i guess people are much the same, the world over. Damn it’s hot! i shrug off my coat, grateful for inventories – don’t particularly fancy carrying it around with me – and i notice there’s blood on my top, now where the hell did that come from? i lose the top too, picking something a little cooler (and less blood-spattered) to wear.

i check out the notecard the girl left me (dammit, her perfume still lingers on it), checking the address she’s given me, once more. Then it hits me – how the hell am i supposed to find my way around here? They don’t even use a freakin’ proper alphabet! Why is my life never straightforward?

Resigned to a long slog and hoping someone in this god-forsaken, mosquito infested hell hole speaks English, i memorise the address – 247c Ling Street – and stuff the card in my pocket. Then a sign catches my eye ‘Information’, and in English too, unless i’ve suddenly gained some kind of visual universal translator – it all seems too easy, and i’ m right. Damn place is shut, looks abandoned and i’m back to square one.

The heat’s oppressive and i could do with a drink. I take a quick look through my inv.: tequila, Jack, voddie… for crying out loud, Haven, why the hell can’t you get your act together? Just a glass of water would be good but, don’cha know it, i’m all out of anything but the hard stuff. Skimming through my list of objects – really is about time i had a clearout – i come across a few things i didn’t know i had… home-made pizza? Where the hell did that come from? – but i draw a blank when it comes to something cold and refreshing. Frustrated, i decide to get on with the job in hand. For once, i remember to check the radar, but something’s not right – it’s buggy and won’t work properly, i sigh in resignation.

Was a time i’d have thought this was a pretty cool place – exotic, mysterious and full of the promise of the unknown. Maybe i’m getting jaded, but now it just struck me as a dump. One of those places where people come for kicks and then leave… what’s left is the odour of desperation and disapointment – hell, was that a fragrance i was way too used to. Then i catch a real fragrance, it’s familiar and, somehow, it don’t feel outta place here. i follow the sweet-smelling trail to its source: incense… a buddhist temple – empty at this late hour. Then i do a real stupid thing – shucking off my shoes (hey, i ain’t that disrespectful!), i sneak in… two minute’s later i’m outta there and off down the street. So, buddha’s a coupla oranges short – i figure my need is greater than his – i’ll take the chance of bad karma, things can’t get a lot worse anyhow.

Feeling somewhat refreshed by the oranges, i decide to check out some of the alleyways. i still can’t make any sense of the streetsigns, so i’m just gonna have to rely on instinct, which just at the moment started to kick in, bigtime. You ever get the feeling you’re being watched? i had it now in spades. Damn radar is still playing up but i’m convinced i’m being followed and in a place like this, that’s bad news – maybe the oranges were a bad idea, after all.

Nothing i can do about it – if something’s afoot, i’ll find out when the brown stuff hits the fan, until then, i’ve gotta street to find.

Lost

Countless alleyways later, i’m no further forward and i’m fresh outta ideas – i’m kinda wishing my secret observer would make his move, but no dice on that front. Can’t believe i’ve come halfway across the world to find someone – i even have their address in my pocket – and i’m defeated by this crazy language that makes no sense to me. Coming to think of it, it’s me who’s crazy… why don’t i just wait till morning? The thought feels like a good plan and i’m just about to TP home when i remember those hoodlums at Dugi’s, chances are home ain’t safe no more and, watcher or not, i’m probably better hiding out here… question is, where?

i pick a building that looks like some sorta apartment block, chances are there’s a spare room i can weasel my way into, and i’d rather be off the streets if i am being followed. It’s about this point that my karma decides to smile at me despite the oranges. Right there in the hallway, like it’s been waiting for me to show up is a sign above a door… ‘Ohnabi Kobo’ – only the dude i’ve been looking for!

good karma

Of course, karma then decides to give me the finger (damn oranges!) – the guy’s not home, so’s i figure the best thing to do is hang around in camera range and just wait for him to turn up. Too hot and stuffy in here though… i toy with the idea of going back for some more fruit but then the sensible side of me says to check out the street – must be an all night store somewhere in these parts… hope they take Lindens!

Back in the street, i spot a coupla likely candidates but, wouldn’t you know it, none of them was selling anything i needed (who the hell needs all-night avatar shops?), but at least they pass the time…

“Who you look for, eh?”

i damn near jumped outta my skin! Where the hell did he spring from? i spun round and immediately felt totally foolish as i realised i’d assumed some sorta faux ninja pose. With as much dignity as i could muster, i took a more nonchalant stance. Where the hell was he?

“Down here, stupid girl… who you look for”

i looked down to see one of the most peculiar people i’d seen in quite some time. About 3 feet tall and wearing a cross between some sort of feudal armour and second world war trenches kit, complete with goggles and gas mask. His overall appearance was deeply unsettling.

“i’m not looking for anyone, i’m, erm… just shopping”

“you lying! I watch you. You steal from temple – you been snoop, snoop at Kobo house”

“OK, you got me there. i’m trying to find Kobo. Do you know where he is?”

“What for you want Kobo?” The guy stared at me through the glass of his gasmask.

Well, this was a tricky one – trouble is, i still didn’t have a clue what i was doing here, much less why i had to speak to this Kobo fellow.

“Speak! Answer! Why you want Kobo? Who send you?”

“Look”, i said, “i don’t really know. All i do know is that a friend of mine is in trouble and she sent me here, to see Kobo, and she said he would be able to help me.”

“Friend send? Who friend? Who send?”

i weighed up my options… if the girl was in trouble, maybe this guy could point me in Kobo’s direction. Do i tell him her name or not? – i told told him her name. For a moment the strange figure stood, looking me up and down;

“I see. That make big difference!”

At that, the stranger waved the weird stick he was carrying in my direction. Next thing i know, i’m in Kobo’s house, and so’s the stranger. Except he don’t hang around – what i mean is, he changed. As i watched, he took on a new form until, stood in front of me, is your typical venerable Chinaman… the type you see in the movies.

“Welcome”, he says, and the accent’s gone too, “i’m Kobo, and this is my humble dwelling. Please take a seat.”

i do as he says and realise that this is the first time i’ve sat down since the bar at Dugi’s. No wonder i’m tired.

“Please forgive the disguise and my, er, inquisition, but one cannot be too careful”. Listening to him speak i realised he did have an accent, but he spoke with a studied, cultured inflection. “Tea?”. i nodded, tea would be good.

Now, maybe you guys ain’t too familiar with proper China tea. In my time, i’ve gleaned a bit about the stuff and, as i watched Kobo boil the water then brew the first pot, using it to warm the pot and cups, before disposing of it, draining it away over the tray, i realised here was a real expert. Now China tea ain’t like your Japanese tea ceremonies – it ain’t mystical or spiritual or anything like that, it’s a social thing – but you gotta do it right and boy could Kobo make tea! The tiny porcelain cups were exquisite and burned my fingers as i lifted mine. The tea itself was scalding hot and the tannin set my teeth on edge, but it was damn good stuff. i put my cup down and tapped the table with my finger…

Kobo looked at me quizzically “Ah, you know something of tea then?”, nodded approvingly, and poured another cup.

“i spent some time in Kuala Lumpur, where i stayed with a tea master – he taught me a few basics.”

“I see”, said Kobo, pursing his lips, “that is good… and now, you must tell me more. How do you come to be here and why did she send you to me?”

This was it – maybe at last i was gonna get some answers. i told him everything, the whole shebang, from the moment she walked into my life, erm i mean into my office, to the point i was at now. While i talked, he said nothing and the only sound in the room was my voice, accompanied by the bubbling of boiling water and the occasional tap of fingers – an invitation for another refill.

It took some time, and by the time i’d finished the tea was making me light-headed. Perhaps now i’d get some answers?

He studied me for some time after i’d finished, then seemed to come to some sort of conclusion.

“Miss Haven, I fear you have entered a world that you would be better out of – but, it is far too late for that. We will talk further about this but not tonight – it is late and you are tired. Please make yourself at home here for the night, I have things to do and will be away until the morning, until then, my home is your home. Goodnight.”

With that he left. Still no explanations and no answers, but i was too damn tired to care. i made myself comfortable on the couch and began to drift off. My last thoughts as sleep claimed me were pleasant ones… dancing cheek to cheek, in a perfume haze…

ooOOOoo

Wakefulness came slowly – the heat of the morning not helping to shift the drowsiness i was feeling. However the dryness in my mouth, no doubt the result of last night’s tea, and the hollow, empty feeling in the pit of my stomach (i’d only eaten two oranges, remember), prodded my unwilling body into wakefulness. Reluctantly. I hauled myself into a sitting position, swinging my legs off the couch onto the rush mat flooring – that’s odd, i don’t remember taking my shoes off last night, but then it was all a bit of a blur to be honest. Stretching the kinks out of my neck, i started to feel better – time to meet the day.

Making my way into the next room, i found Kobo seated cross-legged at a low, lacquered table. He beckoned to me; “breakfast: come, join me”. Well, i wasn’t gonna wait for another invite, so i kinda sprawled, as elegantly as i could, at the table across from the Chinaman. Breakfast was good – curried noodles, rice and fresh fruit and it raised my spirits considerably… now let’s hope Kobo could raise them a little higher.

“Miss Haven, do you realise what you’ve become involved with?”

“All i know is that everything i thought i knew, isn’t worth a hill of beans!”

“Ah, one of your American gwailo expressions, yes?”, he paused briefly and nodded slightly before continuing. “I am not sure how much you know of the Penny Lane Gang… I have been watching them for some time. I believe when they first began, they were only four – and known simply as the Penny Lanes – since then, their influence has grown and many have been drawn into their web – once part of ‘the family’, few ever leave”

“I understand that the Gang has, for some time now, been planning how they might consolidate their operations across the Grid and they have reached a point where they are about to make a move. Most certainly, there are rumours that their headquarters has recently undergone extensive ‘re-modelling’ – what that indicates, I do not know, but I am sure it is connected with their long-term plans.”

“Our mutual friend, who sent you to me, has inadvertently stumbled across valuable information about the group’s plans. She has secreted them safely, but is no longer in a position to retrieve them and ensure they reach the appropriate authorities – if she should try, that may be the last we would see of her.”

Kobo looked towards me, measuring me up with unblinking gaze: “That, Miss Haven… is where you come in.”

I kinda figured that was coming. Well, i ain’t come all this way just to turn tail and go back home. Besides, i was starting to feel that maybe this job wasn’t a dead loss after all – if the Gang were up to some mischief and your’s truly could do something about it, then maybe, just maybe, i might be able to make something outta this – so far – mediocre existence. I dunno how it felt to be one of the good guys, but i sure as hell wasn’t gonna turn down an opportunity to at least get a foot in the door.

“i’m in” – Kobo turned his gaze upon me again. Seconds passed, like lazily swimming sharks, just waiting their moment to explode into a frenzy. Then i see Kobo relax, dammit, the guy started laughing…

“I like you, Miss Haven. Our friend has chosen well – you have, what I believe you Americans call ‘attitude’… it will serve you well.”

Now it was my turn to relax but i didn’t get much time to enjoy the moment.

“Now, if you have eaten your fill, it is time for you to move on. The information, so carefully hidden by our friend is to be found in a small village, in the country of Wales – you are familiar with this country?”

That’s all i needed – another wild goose chase across the world. “No, i’m not familiar with Wales”. Sure some of my ancestors were Welsh, but i was pure Bronx and whatever connection there had ever been was long gone.

Kobo smiled. “I’m sure you’ll find it delightful. Now, I’m afraid you’ll be on your own once you arrive there, but a woman of your resourcefulness should be able to locate what you need!” He smiled again, before continuing… So, if you’re ready?” Once again, he had his odd wand contraption to hand and, before i had the chance to object, he waved it in my direction.

And that was the last i saw of Kobo.

Taff’s Bar

…It was raining – that insistent, murky drizzle that saturates your hair and permeates clothing. Welcome to Wales, ugh! At least Kobo had dumped me within spitting distance of somewhere i could get away from the weather – the sign above the door said Taff’s Bar and the sound of muffled singing and merriment beckoned to me. Cursing the weather but welcoming the opportunity to get outta the rain, and maybe the chance of a convivial drink or two with the locals, i briskly made my way to the door.

Y’know those old western movies, when the stranger walks into town, pushes through the saloon doors and the whole place goes quiet, every eye on the newcomer? Well, i wouldn’t say that’s exactly what happened as i walked into the bar but it wasn’t far off. The raucous singing kinda stuttered to an embarrassed halt and those who weren’t staring at me outright were casting surreptitious glances in my direction over their pint glasses. After a moment, someone coughed sheepishly and, at that, people started going about their own business again, although the atmosphere had perceptibly changed. i made my way to the bar.

A bunch of guys were perched there, not much outta their teens, all spots and poor attempts at five o’clock shadow. As i leaned on the bar, the ringleader stared, beer-blearily appraising me, dwelling just a moment too long on my tits for comfort.

“Hey, sunshine – quit window-shopping…  you can’t afford the goods!”

The kid looked a bit put out, then rallied, “Aww, I’m sorry luv, but we don’t often get decent talent in here, especially, gorgeous American girls”, he looked round at his cronies for encouragement. “How about, you spend a bit of time with us – enjoy a bit of Welsh hospitality, like?”

“Sorry kid, you’re not my type.”

“Not your type? Aww c’mon darling, you’re talking to Dai Jones, here… they don’t call me the Viagra of the Valleys for nothing, you know!”

The kid just wasn’t’ getting the message – “Like i said – you ain’t my type. Sorry boys, but none of you are, i’m just not that way inclined.”

That shut them up! And then, one of the cronies – the one with greasy black hair, slicked back – sniggered: “Well, there’s lovely. We don’t many of your kind around these parts… why don’t you stay? – you could be the only gay in the village!”

Well, that did it – the whole group of them fell about laughing, as if it was the funniest thing they’d heard in a long time. i was about to leave – dammit, i’d take the rain any day over these imbeciles, when a strident voice pealed out from the other side of the bar…

“Now you just leave her alone, you silly boys! Is that any way to treat a visitor, eh?”

The barmaid was a blousy, full-figured girl with a lilting accent – cheap perfume and a cleavage you could lose a small country in.

“Don’t you mind them daft buggers, dear, they’re silly boys – all mouth and no trousers, isn’t it? – Now what can I get you to drink?”

i’d drawn enough attention to myself already, so i decided on a safe option – besides i wanted a clear head if i was going to find what i’d come here looking for (whatever that might be!). “Just an orange juice, please.”

“Right you are, sweetheart”. The girl carried on talking as she prepared my drink, “So, what  brings you round these parts, on holiday or something?”, i opened my mouth to speak, but she got there first: “Have you been to Cardiff yet? They’ve been filming Doctor Who down the bay and they’ve been up this way too up at the old pithead. I went to have look – ooh that Doctor, he’s gorgeous!”

She passed me my drink. “Oh, sorry love… he wouldn’t be your type now, would he? – but don’t worry, plenty of nice girls around here too…”, i fished for some Lindens to pay for the drink – “Oh no, you put your money away, babe, this one’s on the house”. She winked at me in a manner that suggested that perhaps payment might be arranged by some other means – i chose to ignore it.

“Actually, i’m here on business – i’ve been sent to collect something – trouble is, i’ve no idea what, or where it is, just that it’s around here somewhere!

“Ooh, a regular mystery is it? – you should be in Doctor Who yourself! Tell you what, you should speak to our Shane: he knows everyone that goes on hereabouts, maybe he can help you out?”

“HEY Shane, come ‘ere a sec!” – this to a heavy-set guy sat on his own in the corner, nursing a pint – he looked up.

“What’s occurrin’ Megan?”

“This lady here needs some help finding something – i said you’d help her.”

The man, Shane, looked at me from his table – “Best come over yer, then”, he said and beckoned me over. i thanked the girl Megan again for my drink, which elicited a further wink, and made my way across, parking myself in an empty seat at Shane’s table. He raised a quizzical eyebrow, which i took to be my cue to explain my presence. Briefly, i explained i’d been sent by a friend to collect something – i wasn’t sure what – that she’d left in a safe place somewhere in the area.

“Well now”, said Shane, “this friend of yours – would she be some posh English totty, all dressed up and perfumed, like?”

This was turning out a helluva lot easier than i’d expected, for once! “Yes, that sounds like her. Do you happen to know whether she left something for me?”

“Now, that i wouldn’t know – but i do know she was asking for directions to the old pit – terrible urgent like, perhaps she left something there for you?”

“Could you tell me the way?” – this was even better than i’d hoped. At last a decent lead and i was already entertaining thoughts of getting back home and putting this whole business to bed – maybe even with a big pat on the back from the powers that be for stopping the Gang in their tracks.

“Better than that, my lovely, i’ll take you there – it’s not far from my house, so it’s no trouble. Come on, no time like the present!” With that he drained his glass, stood, pulling on his overcoat and made his way to the door, exchanging goodbyes as he went. With a final wave to Megan, we were outside again.

The drizzle had stopped now, giving way to a damp, soggy evening. The going was less than easy, with the soft, wet grass and mud underfoot hampering our progress, although Shane took it all in his stride. He didn’t speak much until we reached a small village and stopped outside a doorway.

At Shane’s house

“This is my place”, he said, “the pit’s up the hill, just over there, but it’s too dark to go as we are – i’ll just go in and get us some light”

The door didn’t appear locked, since it opened when he turned the handle, quickly he was through and it slammed shut in my face. Charming! So, i’m left stood outside, in the cold and wet, on my own. Feeling miffed, i cammed through the door and eventually found him in a back room, speaking to someone on the phone. Too far to be in listening range, i cursed inwardly, stamping my feet to keep warm – so much for getting some light… he was more concerned with chatting to his buddies. Ten minutes, and a good deal more cursing later, he was back with a torch.

“Sorry i was so long”, he apologised, “couldn’t find any batteries!”

The old colliery

Without further explanation, we were off again. Following a stiff, but brief climb the steel skeleton of the old pithead lift gear loomed into view through the encroaching darkness. i shivered and not just because of the cold and damp – the whole place had an air of abandonment about it – it reeked of better days and lost hopes, an industrial post-apocalyptic vista of decay and forlorn helplessness. Passing through the rusted gates, hanging drunkenly on twisted hinges it felt like passing into another, less welcoming world. We passed broken down rail wagons, the bones of tin shacks and piles of nameless decayed and rotting ironwork – a solid, unforgiving epitaph speaking of the former glories of this, now desolate place.

The overall gloominess of the place appeared to have affected Shane too – not the most talkative of people, he’d now lapsed into almost complete silence, apart from the odd grunt and laboured breath. Which is why i almost had a heart attack when he blurted out:

“We’ll try the winch room – that’s what your friend seemed to be particular interested in.”

We made our way to a squat brick building, directly beneath the massive winch gear – the steel door was firmly shut, but the brickwork around it had fallen into disarray and a gaping hole now served as an entrance. Inside, the smell of mildew, oil and the unmistakable rancid odour of cannabis. The place was pretty derelict but all the original machinery seemed both intact and in surprisingly good condition. To one end a steel cage protected the entrance to what i assumed was the lift shaft and it was to this that Shane led me.

“Your friend mentioned something about where she might find the cage – well, there it is.”

Grasping the steel shutter in front of the shaft, he gave it a hard tug. The grating opened with a harsh screech of metal upon metal, piercing the still of the night. Now i know what you’re thinking, but i’m way ahead of you. No way was i stepping in there on my own with Shane stood behind me, so i waved him forward and he stepped into the lift. Somewhat re-assured, i followed him in.

He looked at me, with a pained expression on his face – “I’m really sorry about this”, he said as, for the second time in as many days, i felt a lump of something heavy and unyielding make contact with my head from behind. Dammit! Now i know what that phone call he made was about.

Consciousness returned fairly rapidly, but i was in no state to do much when it did. i was being manhandled into the cage and i felt something being tied around my neck. Next thing i know, the steel grate is clanging shut behind me and i hear the whine of an electric motor. The cage starts to descend, at first slowly but picking up speed until i’m hurtling downwards, in pitch darkness, with the whine of the motor shrieking ever louder in my ears.

Except, it’s not the shriek of the motor – it’s my screams…

ooOOOoo

It’s not true that your life flashes before you… the only thing flashing before me was the walls of the liftshaft, passing by with sickening speed. My only thought was that i was certainly plummeting to my death.

With stomach-churning suddenness, the cage slammed to a halt. For a moment, time stopped then, as if giving itself the once-over to check for broken bones and damage, it re-started – winding up to normal tempo, like a vinyl record being spun up to speed.

Sound returned – no longer the screech and rush of the fall, but more gentle, although ominous, creaks and metallic rattles. Sensation returned – the unforgiving, cold steel floor beneath me, the gentle sway of the cage as it rediscovered equilibrium. Sight – did not return.

Momentarily panic stricken, i rubbed at my eyes, thrashing wildly – was i blind? This continued for long moments before the realisation sunk in that it was not me that was disabled, rather this pitch darkness was the normal state to be expected when deep beneath the ground. At least i was alive – whether by accident or intent, i had no idea but i sobbed with relief to know i had survived.

How long i lay in the darkness i don’t know, if felt like hours. Eventually, i started to think more clearly… then it came to me – all i had to do was switch to midday and i’d be able to see! Quickly i called up my environment settings – nothing – i tried them all. Obviously, this place was geared up to be accurate: it didn’t matter what the time of day might be, down here it was always dark. Defeated, i lapsed back into my despondent reverie.

Something Shane had said was resonating in my mind – now what the hell was it? Something to do with batteries. Of course – i needed a light! i knew i didn’t possess a flashlight but i must have something that would do the trick. Not for the first time since undertaking this crazy mission, i found myself searching through my inv., cursing my lack of housekeeping.

Now that might just do the trick – a facelight, a relic of my early days – way too bright to be flattering, and something i’d dumped long ago anyway, when i’d decided that i was more cut out for a solitary existence. Not much use even now, if i wore it but, what if i could use it as a torch? i wasn’t holding out much hope that id be able to rez it but it was worth a try. Breathing a silent prayer, i dropped it on the ground – would’ya believe it… the damn thing rezzed! Now i had light!

The fitful glow was hardly a searchlight but it lit up the gloom and allowed me to see what sorta hell hole i’d ended up in. Well, it didn’t tell me much, except what i already knew, this was a mine and a pretty cold, dark and dreary one at that.

Nothing for it then, except to get up and get on with the job. i can’t say i did so with any alacrity, rather a grim resignation that this was the way things are. Even so, after a good coupla hours of trudging, i reckon even the most dedicated person would have felt the way i did – hacked off, bigtime.

There wasn’t a piece of me that wasn’t bruised, bleeding or aching and i wanted out and when i did get out, the first thing i was gonna do was take a holiday… somewhere bright and hot where i could get a facial and a massage. Anywhere, but here!

i perched myself on a convenient boulder and considered my options. i was dead sure that i was getting nowhere – and not even getting there fast – chances were that whatever i was looking for wasn’t down this hole: i figured it was just a convenient place to lose me and i just couldn’t see Miss perfume and high heels tottering around down here. So i reckoned it was high time i pursued another avenue of enquiry, perhaps go incognito and find a way to pay back that damn Shane.

i called up a map of the area and picked a likely spot – no people but a coupla buildings that might provide some cover – and i hit the TP button. Fifteen attempts later the realisation started to sink in that i wasn’t going anywhere – dammit to hell! OK, think Dippy, what’s the options? i could call for help but so far the only people who knew anything about what i was doing (out of the good guys, that is) were my girl and Kobo and i had a feeling that neither of them would be offering any assistance. What was it Kobo had said… ‘you’ll be on your own’ – damn right i was. Then i thought of the barmaid at the pub, Megan… just maybe?

i called up my logs – there she was – well, nothing ventured nothing gained, i figured as i fired off a message to her.

That was the next disappointment in what was turning out to be a particularly disappointing day: blocked… what the hell is going on here? In despair in lowered my head, clasping my hands behind my neck – wait a sec’, what’s that? Turns out i’ve missed a vital detail – there’s something wrapped around my neck. Now my memory comes flooding back… the struggle in the cage… something being put round my neck – goddammit, i’ve been collared!

Now it all makes a load more sense. i can’t TP, i can’t IM and i’m pretty sure i can’t receive messages either. Chances are, i’m being tracked too – now what am i gonna do? Well, i’m gonna stop panicking for a start, i ain’t been in a hopeless situation yet and i’m not about to start. It’s a tricky one though.

Think Seren, think!

Slowly, the beginnings of a plan start to form – i dunno if it’ll work but i’m pretty sure it will and those swines who so far have been one step ahead of me all the way are not gonna expect this trick. Calling up my map again, i selected a new destination – this time a good distance out of radar range – and landmarked it. If my plan worked, i’d have all the time in the world before my pursuers worked out i’d pulled a fast one, but i wasn’t taking any chances – i wanted to TP as soon as i got the opportunity. Next, i worked through my plan with a fine-toothed comb – everything seemed in place – it had to work.

OK, here’s the crack – it was something i discovered, completely by accident, when i first started in this business and i ended up in a sticky situation, tied up by some thugs. After a load of struggling, in the end i just gave up and logged off. That gave me time to think and i came up with a childishly simple solution… i simply turned off RLV in my preferences. Next time i logged in within seconds, i’d loosed my bonds and was out of there.

That was my plan.

Deep breath. Ready to… Now!

Quick as a flash i’m working through my preferences: RLV disabled, and then back to the mine… and, glory be! i can remove the collar. In seconds, it was off and in the delete bin and then i’m hitting my landmark and getting the hell out of that darkness.

Well, that’s what i thought anyway! The panic set in when i realised i was still in the dark but then the rain and wind hit me and relief coursed through me as i felt the wet grass under my feet – i was out!

No idea where i was – my first concern was to find somewhere safe to hide out and then, well watch out, ’cause i was in a mean mood.

ooOOOoo

i’m not what you’d call an adrenalin freak – jumping off bridges on bits of knicker elastic is not my idea of fun. Neither is throwing myself out of aeroplanes trusting my life to a bit of silk, careering down an alpine rapid sat on an inflated rubber condom or, for that matter, crashing head over heels down a Welsh hillside, in the dark, in the rain!

Fortunately, the tumble was pretty brief – unfortunately the brevity was a result of the wooden fence that arrested my fall, mainly through forceful and abrupt contact with the crown of my head. Sometimes you get the feeling that sl is just picking on you… of all the parts of my battered and bruised body that could have possibly have tangled with a fence stave, it would have to be my freakin’ head! Just how many times can a cranium endure being bashed by a lump of wood before some serious damage is done?

Crawling to my feet and cursing like a marine, i took stock of the situation. The fall had taken me a good way down the hill and fetched me up against the aforementioned fence which, it turned out, surrounded an old farm house. The place looked pretty abandoned, which suited me, and it was just begging for a closer look. Taking care, for once, to check the radar and cam ahead, i made my way through the overgrown garden to the front door. Peeling paint and rotten woodwork were a pretty good indicator that the place had been empty for some time and, with a few hard pushes, the door creaked stiffly open. What a dump! Still, it would provide cover for the night, and maybe i might even get some sleep, but i wasn’t about to take any more risks. The stairs had collapsed in on themselves, even so i took the precaution of flying upstairs for a nose around – nothing to report. The situation downstairs was much the same – pretty empty, except for a pile of soggy mail left in a pile in the kitchen. i had a quick poke through them, more out of boredom than anything else – so you can imagine my shock when i found the envelope with my name neatly handwritten on the front!

Coincidence – i doubt it, but how the hell could anyone know i’d end up here? Well i wasn’t gonna find out anything staring at my name on an envelope… i slit it open. Inside was a card with a name and some numbers printed on it:

‘Chapel Jones, David 47-09

i’d like to say that my mind instantly sprang into action and, though a series of brilliant deductions and logical reasoning i was able to decode what was obviously a message intended for my eyes only – of course, i’d like to say that but, i can’t – i didn’t have the slightest clue what the card meant.

Nonplussed, i stared at the card for a long moment, pondering on what it might possibly be trying to tell me and drew a complete blank. Having failed to make any sense of it whatsoever, my thought’s turned to my immediate surroundings – may as well make myself comfortable, it was gonna be a long night. i dug a low prim bed outta my inventory and settled down. i lay there, running the name and number through my mind – kinda like counting sheep… less monotonous but just as effective. Within minutes i’d drifted off.

Can’t say it was the best night ever. i was plagued with bad dreams: the mine, falling, chased by an unknown pursuer and then… a sudden waft of that perfume. Is that what woke me? i checked the time – 4.00am – it was still dark and the rain had stopped, everything was deathly still, but i’m convinced i can still smell her perfume. i’m lying there, head resting on my hand, when i realise i’m still clutching that mysterious card in it, a card that still carries a faint snatch of perfume from the hand that wrote it – it’s my girl, and now i know she’s definitely trying to tell me something. Feeling somewhat uneasy, i check the radar and realise there are others up and about on this Welsh hillside, including my old friend, Shane. They’re still some distance off but i’m not about to give up my advantage so i reckon it’s time i made a move. Quickly i made my way out of the building and round to the back – downhill just seemed a much easier option than up right now.

Seems i made the right choice, within just a short walk i found myself trudging down a country lane, i wasn’t too sure that civilisation was what i was looking for just yet, but at least i knew i wasn’t completely cut off from potential help if i needed it. The lane even had a name – a tattered sign, overgrown with undergrowth told me i was on Chapel Lane.

Chapel Lane? i pulled out the card again, ‘Chapel Jones, David 47-09’ – another coincidence? i felt i was missing something important. Maybe it was all those blows to the head – i knew there was some sorta hidden meaning i should be homing in on but it just wasn’t coming. Annoyed with myself, i continued making my way along the lane when, outta the morning mist and darkness, the solid mass of a church building loomed. The noticeboard was difficult to read in the insubstantial moonlight but i was able to pick out the name… Bethesda Chapel. Of course! Chapel Lane – what else would you call a lane leading to a chapel?

That got me thinking. i pulled the card, now in rather a sorry state, from my pocket – what if… well, what if i worked on the assumption that ‘Chapel’ wasn’t part of a name at all? Was the note telling me to go to the chapel? Was there someone here called David Jones? i checked the noticeboard again – no names for churchwardens, vicars or anyone else for that matter. Never mind, i was getting a good feeling about this, i was pretty sure that my man, David Jones, whoever he might be was either to be found in the chapel, or would lead me closer to what i was looking for.

Now, i’m not the sort to be easily spooked, and would have thought that after all i’d been through recently – the mine, staying overnight at the old house – i’d be pretty cool with most situations but i gotta say that graveyards in the dark have always given me the heebie-jeebies! It’s not that i’m scared of ghosts or any of that nonsense, i just reckon that they’re not the sorta place you wanna be poking around in the dark – and anyone who is, has gotta be up to no good. Despite my fears, that thought brought a wry smile to my face – after all, i was the one who was poking around this cemetery in the dark… and, dammit, i had no idea whether i was up to no good, or even what i was up to, period!

Poking round probably wasn’t the right word for it, more like stumbling around. It struck me at that moment that there’s solid practical reasons for only going to cemeteries in the daylight, although not quite as solid as the headstone i managed to crack my shin on! Now, i dunno if it’s right to swear on consecrated ground but i guess i’m gonna find out some time, ’cause boy did i let rip! Crouched down and vigorously rubbing my injured leg, i was brought face-to-face with the offending tombstone. ‘Myfanwy Price, 1860-1912, Now in a better place.’ Well, thanks a bundle, Myfanwy… i sure as hell wish i was in a better place, right now!

Slowly, it dawned on me what i was looking at. Once more the note was in my hand – “Jones, David. 47-09” – was i looking at birth and death dates? If so, maybe i had my answer.

i dunno if you’ve ever tried finding a particular grave in an unknown location – if you have, you’ll know how difficult it can be – now throw into the mix a load of mist and darkness and you’ll have a bit of an idea of the fun i had for the next two hours. Two hours of peeling ivy off stones, tracing faded lettering with my fingers, crawling round in the wet grass and mud and peering at inscriptions, most of which were written in a language foreign to me. So, it was with a sense of profound relief, not to mention a little pride, that i finally, triumphantly stood before a single headstone that proclaimed its unfortunate owner to be…

David (Dai) Jones
born June 1847 – died November 1909

So, if this guy had died over a century ago, why was there freshly disturbed earth around the grave? Well, i had a hunch that i already knew the answer to that one, not that it made me feel any better – but there was only one thing for it. On my hands and knees, i started to scrape away at the loose earth and, sure enough, just beneath the surface (thank goodness!), i came across a small, nondescript box.

This was it, then. I clicked on the box, selected ‘open’, then cursed again – i didn’t have permission to open it, surprise, surprise. Equally unsurprising, when i checked its properties, was the fact it was created and owned by one ‘Penny Lane’. Well, i guess i had what i wanted, at last, the question was what do it do with it. It was a question i didn’t get to consider straightaway because of the sudden noises of pursuit coming from Chapel Lane.

“Look, i’m telling you Shane, she’s got to be here. Stands to reason, man. She was definitely at the old farm and this is the only place for miles .”

A voice i’d heard before, that of the ‘ever so helpful’ Shane, responded – “Well, she’d better be and I’m telling you, you’d better wallop her proper this time.”

Dammit! i grabbed the box and sprinted for the gate, before realising there were a whole bunch of them coming up the path. Wheeling about, i headed for the church doorway, praying as i went that it would be unlocked (well, it seemed the proper thing to do, since i was gonna break into a church). Seems my prayer worked, the door opened and i tore headlong into the building. Desperately looking around me, i spotted a low doorway and i dived through it. A steep passageway, with steps downward, which led to a long, low stone tunnel – the crypt, i guessed.

As i headed down the tunnel, i dropped the box in my haste. As it hit the floor, i noticed a flash of colour i hadn’t spotted in the graveyard outside. Attached to the box was what appeared to be a ticket of some sort. Curious, i peeled it off and looked at it more closely – it was a ticket, a rail ticket and on the reverse a destination and something further i couldn’t make out had been written.

A noise in the church above reminded me of my priorities. Well, now i had another destination and, what appeared to be a ticket to freedom. i typed the destination, said a silent fairwell to the green, green (and very wet) grass of Wales, and hit the TP button!

For a brief moment i thought i’d hit the wrong button – turned on the lights, instead of teleporting. i was still in the tunnel, only now it was so much brighter it hurt my eyes. To make matters worse, the ground had started shaking and there was a terrific rumbling filling the tunnel – was this some kinda earthquake? The rumbling increased in intensity and volume until, with a screech of metal on metal, it stopped.

Gingerly i opened my eyes, letting them adjust to the brightness. Slowly realisation dawned – i was still in a tunnel but not the crypt beneath the chapel, this tunnel was bright and modern, and the rumbling? – an underground train… not tatty enough to be London or New York, but nowhere near the pristine state i’d expect of Kuala Lumpur or Tokyo. Checking my ticket made everything clear –Avenue des Champs-Élysées – this was the Paris metro.

Ugh! Look at the state of me – battered, bruised, covered in mud and grass stains – hardly the picture of chic! A quick edit later, a change of clothes and i was  much better equipped to fit seamlessly into Parisian society.

There was no-one around, so i took the opportunity to regain my composure. i took out the box and took a good look at it – it just seemed a bit small to be so significant, and yet, i’d been through a lot to find it… and not just me, either. More to the point, there seemed to be a whole host of people who were determined that i shouldn’t find it – that’s what was swinging it for me. Now i had some decent light, i took a look at my ticket. i recognised the writing on the back – same as the card that had been left for me – it had to be hers: ‘au café, sous les voiles’. Now, French isn’t my strongpoint and i was struggling a bit – at the café, behind the curtains? Made no sense to me, but little else had up to now.

Feeling distinctly tired, the thought of a café seemed a good one, throw in a gallon of good, strong French coffee and i’d feel a new woman in no time at all. Only problem was, which café? Why worry? Any cafe would do right now, just keep the coffee coming, let’s face it, i was hardly the one calling the shots at the moment and i had a feeling that wherever i was supposed to be going, somehow i’d end up in the right place.

Wearily, i got to my feet. If i remembered Paris right, there was gonna be a heck of a lot of walking ahead of me. i made my way up the steps to street level and there it was – the Elysian Avenue… the road to paradise – and hopefully, the road to a decent coffee!

Avenue de Champs Elysees

It was early morning – a time of day that sums up Paris for me – a stillness, broken only by shopkeepers opening up their stores, and the smell of sewers, rising from the drains. Paris, the chic veneer with a squalid underbelly, haute couture labels with sweatshop labour – i loved the place. Here on the Champs Élysées the anachronism of the city was beautifully summed up by the sweeping white arches of Ronald McDonald’s burger palace… sweet and savoury; beauty and the beast.

Avoiding the overpriced muck served on the main Avenue, i ducked into a side street, where a surprised café owner was only just setting out ashtrays on his tables. Needing the fresh air, i elected to pay the higher prices and sit on the street – “une tasse de café fort, s’il vous plaît”. The guy raised his eyebrow, clearly unimpressed by my poor French, and disappeared inside, to reappear just a short time later with the object of my desire.

“Your coffee, mademoiselle“, said with a slight sneer, which i ignored, before he retired to his shop doorway, standing and watching me cynically through the smoke of a Gauloises. Stuff him, i thought to myself and sank back further into my chair, savouring the bitter coffee. It was hitting the spot and, as i sat there, i pondered on the string of events that had brought me here, the babe, the Chinaman, the Welsh contingent – a nagging voice at the back of my head was babbling on about being clubbed in dark places but i wasn’t listening. If i was due to be clobbered again, it’s gonna happen no matter what precautions i took, so i just mellowed and enjoyed the coffee.

The strains of an accordian drifted up the street – the atmosphere couldn’t feel more Parisian! The musician made his way towards me in that way that all street entertainers do – not exactly making a beeline for me, but weaving his way in my general direction – his impression of laissez-faire indifference was spoilt somewhat by the lack of other customers to fawn over but, i’ll give him his due, he was trying. i ordered another coffee and was treated to a brusque“Pah!” from the café owner.

Seeing my second coffee arrive, the accordian player visibly relaxed, knowing he had plenty of time to move in for the kill. He stopped a moment and chatted to the café owner, before sauntering across and serenading me. i tipped him a few Lindens and was rewarded by a further refrain.

“Merci, beautiful lady. You are very kind. Are you in Paris for long?”

“No, just passing through – perhaps just a day”

“Ah, then you must see all the sights. From here, the Tower, and the Arc, then maybe you go to Montmartre and see the views from the SacréCœur, perhaps. No?”

“Oh, i’m not here to sightsee”

“Mon Dieu, but you must!”, at this he leaned conspiratorily towards me, “the cafes are so much better up that way than these tourist traps.” He winked, then spat on the floor and moved away.

i watched him go, wondering idly whether i’d just received another coded message, i guess it did no harm to try. Finishing my coffee, i paid – no tip, not for surly service – and left, walking down the Avenue in the direction of Place de la Concorde. Turning left, i headed towards the Opéra. It had been a while since i was last here but shady dealings had left their own landmarks in my mind and i knew where i was headed.

i’d already decided to lay low for the day – for one thing, i needed sleep, and i’d prefer continuing my search after dark. There was a small hotel i knew, just off the red light district – sleazy, but clean and my plan was to hole up there for the rest of the day. Which is exactly what i did.

i woke in the early evening feeling a heck of a lot better. i’d decided to act on my hunch and check out the cafés out towards Montmartre. Leaving the hotel i struck north, heading for Rue Lafayette, watching the good time girls ply their trade from the doorways. It was a stiff walk, but eventually i reached the Moulin Rouge, where i paused a moment, leaning against a lampost and drawing on a rather crumpled Marlboro.

As i stood there, enjoying the cool night air, something stirred in my mind, an indefinable sense of Déjà vu. Staring up at the flickering lights of the windmill, something was bugging me, what the hell was it?

Moulin Rouge

Reaching into my pocket for another smoke, my fingers came upon the rail ticket i’d stuffed there earlier. i pulled it out and looked again at the note on the back. Then it dawned on me – ‘au café, sous les voiles’… not curtains – sails! The café beneath the sails. There, right in front of me were the sails of the windmill, like a beacon, calling me in. Now i knew where i was going.

Making my way through the entrance, i managed to avoid the main flow of people, anxious to get good seats for the night’s entertainment – i had another destination. Downstairs to the salon – i was sure that’s where i had to go.

The place was damn near empty, which suited me. i ordered a drink and took a seat, watching and waiting. Time passed and the minutes swelled, eventually becoming hours. i wanted to keep my wits about me but i couldn’t sit here all night without a drink and so, i waited, nursing my whisky, making it last, convinced i was in the right place.

And i was…

The perfume spoke to me before the words… “Bonsoir, Miss Haven”.

She had arrived.

ooOOOoo

You’d think that with all the time i’d been waiting, i might have had some idea of what i was gonna say… think again, the best i could manage was, “i, er… i found your box”.

She held a finger to her lips and gave a little smile. “We should not talk of such things here, besides, who says business should come before pleasure?”

i almost choked on my drink. Did i just hear her right – damn right i did, trouble is, i didn’t know how the hell i should react, so i did the only sensible thing – i downed my whiskey.

“Let me buy you another, Miss Haven, or may I call you Serendipidy?”

“Oh, thanks. Umm, please call me Seren – most people do.”

“Seren it is then”, somehow she’d called a waiter complete with bottle without me noticing. “Without ice, I seem to remember?”, she raised an eyebrow at me enquiringly – rather cute, i thought. She was drinking champagne – Veuve Clicquot, i recognised the yellow label – didn’t i tell you she had class?

“I’m sorry you’ve had such a difficult time, I feel I should be making it up to you somehow”, she continued, “but i expect you’re used to difficult customers in your line of work?”.

Dammit! She had a way of catching me off-guard without any effort at all, or maybe it was just me reading too much into her words – stay professional Seren, just do your job – but, like the lady said, who says business should come before pleasure? i needed to chill out, maybe tonight was a good time to start.

“Tell me, Seren, what do you hope for? If you could have a perfect world, what would it be?”

This broad had the knack of asking the unexpected. Well, if she was hoping for the world peace and end to war speech, she could forget it. i’m a pragmatist, not the sort to live in fairyland and my expectations are pretty reasonable, i think… “Me? i just wanna be happy, have a decent standard of living, make a few Lindens and maybe retire before i get too old to enjoy it.”

“And are you?”

“Are i what? Oh, right… erm, well the standard of living and making a few Lindens ain’t exactly happening right now, so i guess the early retirement is off the radar too. As for happy…” i realised i didn’t have an answer, so i just let it hang there, the way smoke hangs in the air from a stubbed-out cigarette. “Hell! Happiness is overrated anyway. Who needs it?”

She looked at me quizzically, “Would it make you happy if you knew what the box contained?” Y’know, i suddenly didn’t care what was in the box – i didn’t wanna know and i sure as hell didn’t want to be around when it was opened – Pandora’s casket was nothing compared to this little baby. Speaking of which, i wanted shot of it. i fished the box out and slid it across the table but then, her hand was on mine, gently pushing the box back towards me.

A gentle, apologetic smile, “I’m sorry, your task is not yet over – but we will speak of that later. For now, I’d like to know more about you… who you are, what makes you tick… why you’re here now?”

Well, she had me cornered – and for some reason i just didn’t give a damn anymore. Hell, if this girl really wanted to know everything about me, well, i dunno, something in me wanted to tell her. So, over the course of the next coupla hours that’s exactly what i did.

i told her pretty much everything about me… the young Seren, ambitious, wanting to make her mark in life, believing she could make the world a better place. Then the disappointment of finding the world was tougher than she was… years with no job, no income, no friends. The struggle to make ends meet and the seedy agencies and firms, complete with their seedy employers, i found myself working for.

i told her how i managed to make a bit of a name for myself, fighting the cause of the kinda people most PI’s wouldn’t bother with and how, over time, with a lotta luck and long, lonely hours, i finally got a partnership. Damn, it was a proud day when that brass plaque went up next to the door – ‘Haven and… ‘, well it doesn’t really matter who the ‘and’ was: i guess it’s something you put down to experience – bitter experience, at that – some things just weren’t meant to work out, no matter how good they seemed at the time.

So, it was after my world fell apart i decided to go it alone – hell, i didn’t need anyone else, i knew what i wanted and i knew i was damn well good enough to get there, no matter what opinion anyone else might hold. Hah! If only i knew then what i do now… i’d have quit there and then and got a job stacking shelves at K-Mart! Well, i guess we live and learn.

That kinda brings me up to date, give or take a few years scratching round for assignments that were pretty thin on the ground and didn’t quite pay the bills. Me sat in my dingy, two-bit, office day after day and most nights too, waiting… just waiting for something to happen. Right up until that night she walked in and boy did things start to happen then!

“Erm, i’m not boring you am i?” – it’s half a bottle later and i’m realising i’ve just spilled my life story to a dame who, to all intents, is pretty much a total stranger. Dammit, she’s a client too! What the hell is your problem, Haven? What happened to professional detachment?

She was dead sweet about it though, “That’s such a sad story”, she said, and i swear she fluttered her eyelids and then – dammit, i swear this is the truth – she took my hand in both of hers and looked me in the eye. “You’ve trusted me so far, although I’ve given you no reason to. I promise you, if you continue to trust me, your story will have a happy ending.”

i was getting twitchy… “Hey, lady! i ain’t looking for no fairytale endings, i’m gonna be just as happy with a quiet life, a decent pay check and no more whacks across my head!”

She nodded and sat back in he chair, releasing my captive hand – which, to be honest, was a blessed relief… i just didn’t know how i was supposed to handle this situation.

“Since you’ve told me so much about yourself, perhaps I should share something of myself too?”

Surprised and a little taken aback, i nodded and poured myself another slug of whiskey.

“I’m afraid there’s very little I can safely tell you but there are some things you can know. I altered the truth a little when I told you I’d had dealings with the Penny Lane Gang – the truth is, I was a member of the Gang!”

Well, you could’a knocked me down with a feather – either i was in real trouble now, or she was about to tell me something momentous. i tried to play it cool, “Uh huh…”, i waggled my glass, urging her to continue.

“Being a member, I was privy to some of the inner workings of the Gang… I worked quite closely with the Godmother herself. Her plan is simple – world domination – and, with the contents of that box, she may well achieve it! Of course, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and it became necessary for me to take a, erm, ‘holiday’, shall we say?”

Now, this was finally starting to explain things – i looked at the small box, still on the table in front of me. World domination, eh? Wow, now that was something big!

“Of course, I had to change my appearance and name, but even that can’t hide you from the Gang permanently. So I decided to seek help. I needed to find someone who would be sympathetic to my cause and wouldn’t ask too many questions… and that led me to you. You see, it’s vital that the contents of that box are brought to the knowledge of the right people – if not, who knows what might happen?”

So there it was – all i was being asked to do was save the world. How difficult could it be?

“I can tell you one more thing about myself, Seren. You see, I will have to ‘disappear’ soon and I’m afraid that you won’t see me again – at least not as I appear to you now. But we will meet again and you will know me.”

At that, she leaned across the table and drew me closer. Then she whispered something to me… her rl name.

“When we meet again, you’ll know me by my name.”

Gotta be honest, i was a bit of a mess by now. The booze, the atmosphere, the stuff she’d told me and the knowledge that now i’d gotten to know something about her, and spilled my own life story in the process – and now she tells me she’s gonna ‘disappear’ – dammit, this was just way too much!

The salon was starting to fill up – the next performance would begin shortly and what had been an intimate setting practically all of our own was rapidly becoming a cattle market.

“Seren. It’s time we were going.”

“Where?”, i asked, expecting the usual enigmatic and less than helpful answer.

She laughed and her face lit up. “We’re going dancing and then…”, she laughed again, “I’m going to introduce you to the mob!”

“The mob?”, i spluttered, “are you freaking serious?”

“Deadly serious!”. She winked. “You’re going to meet the Gafia!”

ooOOOoo

It was probably one of the more relaxed TPs i’d had since taking on the assignment. For a start, i wasn’t being hounded by a bunch of heavies or making a quick getaway to an unknown destination and, for once, i knew there’d be a friendly face at the other end. i tried not to go down the route that she was still a member of the Gang and i was being set up for a big fall… i preferred to give her the benefit of the doubt.

It was another club. Well that figured, this broad’s life seemed to consist of just two things – dancing at clubs and getting involved in plots to take over the world. Dancing, i was starting to think, was always a better option.

A coupla things struck me about the joint immediately, first, it seemd a friendly place, judging from a chorus of hello’s that welcomed us and the second thing that struck me… there was a camel on the stage! Before i got a chance to ask any questions, my girl had grabbed my arm, pulled me onto the dance floor and pointed me in the direction of the dance machine. Praying for something sedate, i picked a dance and, for once, struck lucky, managing to keep both my dignity and my balance.

“Hey, where are we, what is this and why are we here?”

Quite unexpectedly, she threw her arms around my neck and shouted above the music…

“This… is AAI, and tonight… is Jukebox Fury and we are here to have fun and to meet people!”, she laughed, twirling me around in a way i was completely unnacustomed to.

AAI

AAI was another one of those legendary places that people like me have to exercise extreme caution over – the initials apparently stood for ‘Alternative And Indie’, but in the kinda circles i moved in, we had our own version – ‘All Armed Inside’. i knew for a fact that shootouts had taken place there in the past and that the clientel, despite their friendly welcome, wouldn’t hesitate to furnish me with a brand new pair of designer concrete boots, followed by a complimentary swimming lesson, if they found out my identity. i decided to play it very cool.

“Jukebox Fury… what’s that all about?”

“Ask the DJ – he’s over there…”

She pointed out a sharp dressed guy who looked like he’d escaped from Reservoir Dogs – his tag pronounced him to be ‘El Quiff’ – he looked the kinda guy you don’t tangle with. i decided discretion was the better part of valour and resolved to steer clear of him. “What about the camel?”, i shouted over the music.

“Oh, that’s just Colin”, she replied, as if that was supposed to make everything clear.

Suddenly, there was a loud POP! – Next thing i know, someone’s lying on the floor and a cry of MEDIC! goes up. Like a rabbit caught in headlights, i completely failed to dive for cover, although my brain was screaming at me to hide. Strange thing is, no-one else seems bothered and it strikes me as odd that even in a club like this, no-one seems concerned that someone’s been shot.

The girl is gently shaking my shoulder, disturbing my panic-stricken reverie – “Hey, are you ok, Seren?”

“That gunshot!”, i splutter, “we gotta take cover!”

To my astonishment, she just laughs – “Heehee… they’re just playing – happens all the time. C’mon, i’ll introduce you!”

Guiding me across the dancefloor, she leads me to a group of girls. One of them, the victim of the shooting, is getting up off the floor, laughing and greets us with an expansive gesture. From her accent, i’d say she was Spanish or Portuguese – she appears to be unharmed (and unarmed!) and i breathe a little easier.

“Girls, let me introduce you to Seren”

After a great deal of hugging and gesturing, things calmed down a little and one of the girls looked at me quizzically: “We’ve heard a lot about you and i think maybe we can be of some assistance to you. Let’s take a seat, somewhere a little quieter.”

A small bunch of us broke away from the main group and i was led to a sofa at the rear of the club.

“So, what do you think of AAI, Seren?”, asked the girl who had previously spoken to me.

“I, er, well i kinda like it. Not really my scene, but the place is friendly, i guess”

Gafia

She laughed, “Astute answer! Particularly since you’re speaking to the owner! – You should also know that me and my girls here represent the Gafia… the Mob, to you – mess with one, you tangle with all! And i think we might just be able to help you out!”

So, this was it. Just as promised, i’d been introduced to the Mob – why, i had no idea, but i had the feeling it wasn’t gonna be good news by any stretch of the imagination. Still, i was kinda getting used to all of this shady stuff now and, since i was in up to my neck, there wasn’t much i could do to object. “How d’ya propose to do that?”

“Simple”, she said, “we have ‘connections’, and you’re going to need us to give you references”, she laughed, obviously thinking she’d cracked a great joke. Then she turned to my girl, who hadn’t said much up till now: “It’s time that you two said your goodbyes – she’s on her way.”

She nodded and took my hand, “Come with me, Seren, it’s time I was going”.

It was weird… she’s still technically my client but, after our talk in Paris, i felt a kinda connection with her that i was sure she shared and, as we walked across the room to the bar, hand in hand, it sure didn’t feel like a working relationship. We sat at the bar and she looked at me, with the same look on her face she had that first time she walked into my office – it seemed a lifetime ago.

“Let me buy you a drink”, she almost whispered, “for old time’s sake?”

I nodded dumbly and a shot of JD appeared at my elbow. She looked at me again.

“It’s time – I’m so sorry to leave you this way, but I’ve little choice. Don’t let me down, Seren.”

She leaned across and whispered, “Remember my name”, then kissed me gently on the cheek and vanished, for all i knew, forever.

Gutted. Dammit, i didnt know what i was feeling but i knew for sure that i’d been given a glimpse into the face of opportunity – for what, i dunno – and for whatever reason, somehow, i’d blown it. At least that’s how it felt – maybe i was wrong, but i sure as hell wasn’t happy. Knocking back the Daniels, i was starting to entertain thoughts of throwing in the towel, when i heard my name being called. It was the club owner and she was beckoning to me to come on over, there was another girl with her i didn’t recognise. i made my way back across to them.

“Seren, there’s someone here i want you to meet – she’s in property and I’ve been telling her you’re looking for a new crash pad… she might have just the place for you!”

Well, this was news to me, but i had little choice, other than to play along.

“Yeah”, i said, “nothing special, just somewhere i can hang my hat when i’m outta town”

“Hey!”, said the newcomer, “a fellow yank! Pleased to meet you, Seren. I’m sure I can come up with somewhere cosy for you.”

“Sounds good”, i responded.

“Well, if i’m going to be your landlady, we’d better get the formal introductions over with! I know you’re Serendipidy… as for me, well I’m known by a couple of different names, but you can refer to me as most people know me…

…I’m the Godmother. Pleased to meet you!”

ooOOOoo

So this is what it felt like to be in the dragon’s den?

My whole being experienced that horrible sinking feeling – the kind you get when you arrive at the airport, only to find that your passport is still at home. This was it… all the time they’d been toying with me, playing with me, like a cat plays with a mouse before delivering the final, fatal, crushing bite to the neck. i felt like a surfer, thrown from her board as the waved crashes over me, desperately fighting to reach the surface before the air runs out leaving me to breathe only salty water. i was gasping for air, grasping for the light and, all the time i had the disconnected, disjointed feeling of looking down on myself, dispassionately, as if from a distance, recognising, at last how she – the English girl – had played me for a fool, reeling me in and delivering me right into the jaws of the Godmother herself.

The tears had started to fall – focussing was difficult – and the sounds around me blended into a blurry haze of noise, reverberating and spewing random phrases and refrains through the buzzing in my head: “Medic!!!”“lo lo lo lo Lola”“I spoil you mods”“Chuffin ‘eck”

So this was it – i’m about to meet my maker and it just didn’t seem fair, Dammit! i wasn’t ready to de-rezz!

“Are you ok?”

The private IM cut through my thoughts – it was the Godmother. She was looking at me with a concerned expression on her face and, as i looked her in the eye, suddenly all my senses returned and slammed into overdrive – a cacophany of noise, colours and adrenalin coursed throught my body. i staggered, reeled… then everything went black.

The Godmother

It was the buzzing hum i first became aware of – an irritating, noisome, almost subliminal drone that got inside my head and set my nerves on edge. i’d kinda hoped oblivion would have been a bit more peaceful. i felt groggy, which in itself was reassuring – if i was dead i reasoned i wouldn’t be feeling anything at all. Experimentally, i tried moving – it seemed to work – slowly, i opened my eyes.

If this was the afterlife, it wasn’t what i’d been expecting. The room was a cross between chintzy Victoriana and a James Bond villain’s hideout – i was lying, it seemed, on a rather comfortable sofa, somewhat incongruous with the throbbing metal cylinder, glowing green in the corner (this was where the annoying drone appeared to have its source) and the lazer beam across the doorway.

“WB! – You had us worried for a moment, we’ve never seen anyone pass out like that in SL before”

The speaker was the Godmother who, it was plain to me now, had almost certainly planned some far more evil demise for me than i’d originally expected. The lazer beam was a clue, then i spotted the aquarium above my head and the phrase, ‘sleeping with the fishes’ mockingly floated around my head. i shivered involuntarily.

“Perhaps you’re going down with something? Would you like a drink?”

Any other time, my old friend Jackie D would have received the warmest of welcomes but my head was swimming, (with the fishes… that inner voice taunting me again), and i couldn’t think straight as it was: “That noise…”, i mumbled.

“Oh, I’m so sorry”, she replied, “I always forget to turn of the reactor when there’s people around. Give me a moment.”

There was a click, then blissful silence.

“Our Merry ‘Pussy’ Cat from AAI, was telling me all about you”, she continued, “about how you’re an explorer and that you’ve been all over SL. You must have seen some amazing things?

“Well, if i’m honest“, i replied slowly, trying to get my thoughts into some semblance of order, “i haven’t really seen all that much. i, um, seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in an unconscious state! By the way, what happened to the club?”

“Unconscious, lol – personally i don’t spend much of my time asleep. Far too much work to do… world domination, don’t you know!”, she winked at me. “Oh, you’re not at the club any more – we couldn’t really leave you lying in a heap on the floor! Allow me to welcome you to my Headquarters – this is the centre of my little empire”

Well, Gang or not, she was being very up front about things – that worried me, she obviously had no qualms about telling me her plans. Either that meant she was incredibly stupid – which i most definitely doubted – or she felt so secure that she had absolutely nothing to fear. My instinct told me it was the latter – now, if ever one was needed, was time for a quick getaway.

“Well, thank you so much for, um, looking after me”, i stuttered, “but i, really should be going now… things to do, places to see, um, man about a dog sorta stuff…”

“Oh no!”, she interjected, “You can’t leave – not after your funny turn – stay awhile. I insist. Besides, I thought you were looking for somewhere to stay, and I have just the place in mind for you”

Reluctantly, i realised there would be no escaping just now, so i resigned myself to my fate. Whilst my strength started to return, we chatted – just smalltalk but, oddly enough, we were getting on just fine. Perhaps it was the American connection but i found her easy to talk to and, in any other context, we might even have been friends… very odd. Turns out that the Godmother rented out rooms in a motel she ran in Penny Lane and she offered to let me have one. Cheap as you like and 25 prims – hell, i didn’t think i owned 25 prims worth of kit! She even offered to help me furnish the place – somehow this just wasn’t fitting in with world domination and gangland boss – maybe it was all the blows to the head, or my recent encounter with near death, but i just couldn’t make any sense of this at all.

We must have spent a coupla hours chewing the fat, after which she offered to show me around…

“Best way is by scooter”, she said, rezzing one of those two-wheeled jobs that Italian kids seem to take to, like they were born for it. Let me tell you, i ain’t Italian and i sure ain’t born for tearing along the road on some motorised bicycle! At least now i knew how the Godmother intended to do away with me – i could see the headlines already… ‘Undercover Private Detective Killed in Motorcycle Tragedy’.

“Wheeeeee!”, she shrieked as we thundered down the road, “Aaaaaaaarrrrggghhh!”, i screamed in response, convinced we were about to die!

i can’t tell you much about my first trip down Penny Lane – my eyes were tight shut for most of it. All i know is that the Godmother was one crazy woman – occasionally she rode on the road but she was just as happy careering along the sidewalk and off-road. All the time she was firing comments over her shoulder like, “Isn’t this fun?” and, “Shall we try going faster?”.

Eventually she slowed down to a more reasonable pace, although still not slow enough for my liking and, as we started on another circuit of the sim she slowed to a halt outside the Headquarters’ building.

“OK”, she said, “let’s help you get your bearings… this place on the right belongs to the main man himself – I think you met him at the club? We call him ‘El Quiff'”. i nodded, still recovering from the ride.

“Down the road on the left is the motel – I’ll take you there in a moment. There’s the church opposite, if you’re feeling the need to pray.”

To be honest, i’d been praying for the last ten minutes on the back of the scooter and, having come perilously close to meeting my maker far too often for comfort just recently, i wasn’t about to push my luck any further just yet.

“Down the bottom there, on the right you’ll find the Killing Moon pub – perhaps you’ll call in for a drink later and I’ll introduce you to the gang? – there’s lots of other places to explore too but I’ll let you find those for yourself”. She gave me a disarming smile…

“Want to take a look at your room now?”

“Do you mind if we walk?” – there must have been a note of pleading in my voice – “Of course we can”, she replied, “jump off!”

i wouldn’t say i exactly jumped off, fell is probably more accurate. i was tempted to kiss the ground but even that didn’t feel too solid to me at the moment! i followed her across to the motel, where she led me up to the first floor.

The room was small but clean and inviting. i’d already realised it would make an excellent vantage point – i could see the whole street from the balcony, with a clear view of both HQ and the Killing Moon. Was it possible i’d managed to pull this off? Surely if she’d had any idea of who i was there’s no way she’d be offering me such a strategic view – let’s face it, if she knew who i really was and what i was doing there, the only view i’d be having would be the inside of a wooden box! I took a quick look outta the back window – nothing much there, just a great view of the ocean, again i fought the notion of sleeping with the fishes and turned to face her.

“i’ll take it.”

“That’s great”, she replied enthusiastically, “you’ve got some great neighbours and i’m sure you’ll be very happy here. The girl who had this room before you loved it.”

“Really?”, i interjected, interested now, “And what happened to her?”

“Ah. We’re not really sure, to be honest. One day she, well she just disappeared, I suppose. Odd really. Coming to think of it, we’ve had a couple of people around here just disappear… Anyway, let’s not think about that! I’ll leave you now to settle in and maybe I’ll see you in the pub later?”

i mumbled a reply, not really wanting to commit myself. i didn’t like the idea of people ‘disappearing’ and i wondered if one of them had been my girl – was it some sorta veiled threat or warning? i didn’t know – this whole thing was just too damn confusing. As the Godmother may her way out, i watched her as she made her way back to HQ. Was this my arch enemy, i pondered?

i didn’t get to ponder for long as, just at that moment, a huge explosion rocked the motel…

My list of things not to get saddled with was starting to get depressingly long – English girls with lingering perfume; anyone from Wales; being bashed on the head; organised crime syndicates; world domination and getting shot – well now you can add being blown up to the list as well!

To be honest, the explosion, although loud wasn’t actually as dangerous as might be expected – except to my already frayed nerves. Following the initial boom, which resulted in me throwing myself to the floor in panic and yes, you guessed it, giving my head a fearsome whack in the process, rather than the usual shards of glass and falling masonry one might have expected, i was surrounded by a mass of bananas!

In a cacophony of wild gestures, shouts in foreign languages and bursts of flame, smoke and whirling colours, i groggily hauled myself to my feet and risked a glance out of the doorway – my neighbours had arrived!

As soon as i was spotted, i was invited in – well practically dragged to the room next door – to join in with the party. Now, you gotta understand, i’m no socialite… parties ain’t my thing at the best of times, particularly loud, raucous ones and, believe me, this was the loudest, most raucous get together i think i’d ever experienced! People were, quite literally, bouncing off the walls. It was impossible to have a conversation, not just because of the goddam racket but it didn’t help that the whole bunch seemed incapable of communicating in anything but ridiculous, outrageous gestures. Personally, i’m not a gesture freak – i have about three, reserved for those moments in life when a simple curse just isn’t sufficient – but these guys… well, you had to be there to understand.

Despite the noise and gesturbating, my few remaining sane braincells kept poking me – no matter what i knew to be true, in what sorta crazy mixed-up world did ruthless killers engage in raucous parties like this lot? It just didn’t scan at all. In fact none of this bizarre business made a lot of sense and the deeper i got, the more confusing it all became.

Take my neighbours, (please take them! As far away as possible) – far from the furtive meetings in backrooms of seedy strip joints, the order of the day – (pretty much every day, as it turned out) – was crazy partying, usually involving dressing up in outlandish costumes and bodies and making as much noise as possible. You just couldn’t escape them – their shouts reverberated down Penny Lane, and i had them all, living next door and above me, with only pixel-thin walls and ceilings to drown out the noise. Over the coming weeks, sleep was never an option.

i say weeks – at times, it seemed like a lifetime. i tell you, these people never stopped – when the Penny Lane Gang weren’t partying, they were clubbing, when they weren’t clubbing they were socialising and when they weren’t socialising… well, they were almost certainly logged off. There were odd occasions when people would mysteriously appear as ‘busy’, usually the Godmother, but i was never able to find out what went on during those moments and i thought i’d be pushing my luck a little too far if i made too many enquiries in that direction. So, it seemed, i was drawing a blank. Everything seemed legit and above board – even HQ was open to the public and i’d had a good old snoop around. Sure there were some kooky things that kept me guessing – HQ had a fully equipped laundry and a ‘family’-sized kitchen, neither of which would have looked outta place in any mob movie but there was nothing overtly suspicious.

Gangstas

The Gang itself seemed to be made up of an eclectic mix – none of whom seemed to fit into my mental picture of organised crime. It was clear that the Gang were involved in the music business and retail – somehow there seemed to be way too many club owners, DJs and shopkeepers for my liking but nothin’ i could put my finger on. It was all rather odd.

That was until one evening in the Killing Moon.

It took me some time to work up the courage to visit the ‘Moon’ – despite the Godmother’s invitation on my first day, i’d heard so many scary things about the joint i had no desire to make an early acquaintance with it, especially considering my real reasons for being in Penny Lane. Eventually my absence started to get noticed – people wanted to know why i was sitting alone in my room, when everyone else was at the pub. i quickly wore out my ‘i’m busy writing up my travel blog’ excuse, when it was obvious i wasn’t travelling anywhere. The inevitable day came when i had to bite the bullet and face the music.

i was as prepared as i could be… turns out no-one in sl has thought to manufacture bulletproof vests, so i had to make do with several layers of leather, in the hope it might be some protection. Optimist huh?

i’d already cammed the joint, knew all the escape routes and i’d rehearsed my quick getaways in my head until they felt like reflexes. It was just a case of plucking up the courage and taking the plunge. Gotta tell you, it’s the first time i’ve ever needed a drink before i’d even got to the bar!

Down the ‘local’

Rather than TP in and risk getting assassinated by a cloud before everyone could rez for me, i plumped for the old-fashioned, in through the front door, approach. Outside, i paused, memories of the last pub i’d walked into, back in the Welsh valleys, stirring in my mind. Oh well, standing outside the door ain’t gonna get me anywhere… i walked into the bar, sincerely hoping i’d be able to walk back out again.

Everything was much as i’d expected: the bar, crowded; a couple of people dancing in the lounge; the honky tonk piano and dog lying by the fire; the London Underground posters on the wall. The gunshots, fights and bodies being thrown through windows, thankfully, turned out not to be the order of the day! In fact, the surroundings were pretty convivial and any attempt to ‘liven’ things up by misbehaving was likely to be met by a stern ‘Gerroutofmapub!’ from the girl behind the bar! i wouldn’t say i was disappointed by the lack of action but, as with so many things with the Penny Lane gang, it just wasn’t what I’d come to expect and it unnerved me.

Following that first foray into what i’d thought was a bastion and stronghold of the Gang, i became quite a regular. It sure beat the hell outta sitting watching the wallpaper in the motel and, if nothing else, it kept the rowdier neighbours at arms length. i was slipping into a routine – that in itself should have given me cause for concern – in my line of work, routine means lack of attention to detail, and that can spell disaster.

Which brings me to that fateful Thursday evening…

Nothing unusual about the day and, feeling the need to unwind, i made my way to the ‘Moon’, which had become a bit of a habit. Perhaps i should have cammed the place first, but i was getting sloppy, i guess – maybe if i had, i’d have realised something was up, who knows?

Something was different the moment i walked in, the music was off for a start, (that’s a big thing around here). At first, i thought the pub was empty but then i realised that there were a bunch of people there – big players in the Gang – not clustered around the bar, as normal, but sat in a group in quiet conversation. As I walked in, i could sense an atmosphere, then one of the Gang turned to look at me…

“Ah, Seren. Good to see you… come on over and take a seat. We’d like a word with you…”

i had a very bad feeling about this. i sat down.

All eyes were on me, then the Godmother spoke –

“Time to come clean, Seren”

So, this was it – Judgment Day. It was, of course, inevitable that i’d have to face the music at some time and i’d always kinda hoped that when it did happen it would be over quickly – but it seemed that wasn’t to be the case. They wanted to see me squirm.

i hated these scenarios. Ever since i was a kid, being hauled before the headmaster in school and being asked to ‘explain myself’… as always, what was there to explain? – i’d been caught out, it was a fair cop – so let’s just get it over with. Please don’t put me through the humiliation of confession and explanations – i didn’t need the punishment of being made to give an account of myself… i’d be punishing myself enough later, if ever i lived to do it. Yes, i’d taken these people for a ride and now it was time to pay my dues – just don’t ask me to explain my reasons – that was just cruel. Maybe, though, i deserved it.

The Gang

“You should know that we’re all reasonable people here”, continued the Godmother, “and you should also be aware that we know everything about you. We know that you’re not a travel blogger – we know you’re a private investigator, that you’ve been sent here to infiltrate our operations… so, what have you got to say for yourself?”

What could i say? i’d been found out and now it was all out in the open. i felt sick to my stomach. i just hung my head and stared at the floor, although inside i was screaming. Funny how when these things happen your brain disengages and seems to go off on its own random little journey. Despite the very real gravity of the situation, i found myself idly considering the carpet… making patterns from the beer stains. There was one that looked uncannily like a big rabbit, complete with long ears and bobtail – i had to stifle the involuntary smile it brought with an elaborate cough.

Everything seemed unreal, but in high definition and with an almost surreal clarity – the pub, the pictures on the wall: but, in a strange way, more ‘real’ than ever before. All my senses were heightened – i could both hear and feel my heartbeat, oddly slow and measured, not racing as you might have expected.

“What do you suggest we do with you”, asked the Godmother.

“i don’t know” – it was the only thing i said during the whole time we were there.

“That’s not particularly helpful, Seren. So, let me tell you what’s going to happen – you are going to go back to your motel room to consider your position – sleep on it and then, in the morning you and I are going to have a little talk”. She paused, “Oh, and don’t try to leave… we will come after you. Capiche?” i nodded dumbly.

Around me, the group started to leave and soon i was alone with my thoughts. To be honest, some of what i was thinking was along the lines of ‘Seren, you idiot!’, but most of my thoughts were disconnected and wandering. i cried too, bitter, meaningless tears… they didn’t make me feel any better.

i don’t know how long i sat there – time didn’t seem particularly relevant. Somehow, i found myself back in my room where i sat and stared incomprehendingly at the wall for i don’t know how long. Eventually I crawled into bed, drained and exhausted, although i didn’t expect to sleep.

Oddly enough, sleep did come, although it was a disturbed and uncomfortable night, full of dreams and dark foreboding. i dreamed – nightmares that spoke ill of the coming day. At one point, i dreamed of the Godmother… she was sat in her Headquarters room, watering her plants and talking to them. i caught a snatch of her words, “…and what do we do to flowers that disappoint us, we prune them and then we compost the the failures, don’t we?”. In my dream, she turned, a large pair of secateurs in her hand before taking to the air. She flew down the street and exploded through my room window, hovering in the air above my bed where she glowered down at me.


“Aaarrrgghh!” – i screamed, sitting bolt upright in bed, bathed in sweat. The room was empty and dark. Shivering i sat in my bed – dammit i know none of this is real… after all it’s only pixels and code, but i was scared for my life and no amount of rationalising was making a blind bit of difference. i couldn’t get the thought out of my head that this might be my last night in sl and then what? Back to rl? Or start all over again, going through the pain of being a noob, building up my business, making a new life for myself – even then, would i be safe from the Gang?

So passed the night in fitful, disturbed sleep, insterspersed with nightmarish visions until the amber glow of sunrise crept across the Sim, illuminating my room with a comforting suffused glow that was completely at odds with my state of mind. Stirred to wakefulness, i peered through the curtains – ugh! Raining. i really didn’t want to die on a rainy day – stupid thought, but at the time it was important. I got up, collected all my things back into my inv – i wouldn’t be needing them again and it seemed the right thing to be tidy and for everything to be in order. i even considered giving away what few Lindens i had – maybe there was some charity that would be grateful of a donation but, there again, i didn’t want to die penniless. i dressed and waited…

i didn’t have to wait for long – the Godmother was an early riser – and so the last day of my life began very simply…

It began, with a knock on the door…

ooOOOoo

“Good morning, Seren” – the Godmother’s words brought a completely involuntary smirk to my face… it was the worst moment of my life, nothing at all good about it and the incongruity of her greeting was darkly humorous to me.

The Godmother cast her eyes around the room. “Oh, I see you’ve taken all your things… were you thinking of leaving?”

i could only nod dumbly in response.

“There’s really no need, Seren”, she laughed, “I’ve come to make you an offer you can’t refuse!”

She sat down on the bed next to me and continued: “I think it’s about time we came clean with you too. You see, I’m afraid we’ve been manipulating you somewhat. We’ve been putting you to the test – a test that, so far, you’ve passed with flying colours. Your English friend was working for us and she paved the way for you to come to us – you see, we would very much like you to join the Gang!”

Now, that was unexpected! On the list of offers i couldn’t refuse, that would have appeared fairly close to the bottom and yet, here was the Godmother putting it to me.

“Are you serious?”, i asked, “you want me to join the Penny Lane Gang? And what if i do refuse, what will happen to me?”

She looked at me quizzically, “what do you think will happen?”

“No doubt, you’ll hunt me down and kill me off… permanently”, i replied.

“Do you really think we’d do that?”, she said quietly, “Well, all I’m going to say is that you have the choice – you can accept, or you can walk out of that door and never come back… forget about this whole business…”

i weighed up my options. It wasn’t much of a choice, to be honest. i could, like she said, take my chances and leave but where would that put me? Constantly on the run, looking over my shoulder, always expecting the fatal knock on the door, the blow to the head… the past few months had be difficult enough – i couldn’t stand the rest of my second life living in that way.

“Count me in.”

“You’ve made the right decision”, said the Godmother and gave me a big hug. “And now, we have much to discuss and do, but first, I think you have something of mine… a small box?”

i’d forgotten about the box, crazy really when you think what i’d been through to get it. Well, i hadn’t wanted the damn thing in the first place and i still had no idea what was in it – i passed it over to its rightful owner.

“Thanks, Seren. You have no idea how pleased I am that it’s been kept safe and sound”. She toyed with the box in her hand before hiding it away. “I’m hoping it won’t be long before we can open it… and when that day comes, you’ll be there to see it.”

She paused a moment. “Now, I suppose it’s time you were told what all this is about. I want you to imagine a perfect world, Seren… one where people of all kinds got on with each other. A place where everyone can be themselves, whatever they choose to be and however they wanted to express themselves. A world where drama means fun, not hassle and where griefers just don’t see the light of day. Imagine a world full of good things, like music and dancing and art – a place where people talk to their neighbours and everybody is everyone else’s friend. Just imagine if it were possible, Seren…”

Now maybe i ain’t got the best of imaginations but i knew it would be pointless even trying to imagine what she was describing. That kinda utopia just don’t exist and, for that matter, would never happen. i guess she could see the cynicism in my face, ‘cause she nodded her head, before continuing:

“It’s not a pipedream. What you’ve been part of these past few weeks; everything you see around you is the first step towards achieving that dream. Penny Lane and the gang… it’s the shape of things to come, if we have our way.”

i thought about it a moment. Funnily enough, some of it was making sense – the whole Penny Lane vibe was something different: people did seem to get on more than i’d known elsewhere. i thought about the places i’d come across gang members – the clubs and pubs – she had a point y’know, wherever these guys went seemed to turn super-friendly. i still couldn’t believe that she was serious about making sl into a perfect world though.

“This, uh, world domination thing…”, i mumbled, “you can’t really be serious?”

“Oh, but I am – why shouldn’t sl be better than rl?”

i guess she had a point – but, even so, attempting to make a whole virtual world a better place… gotta admit the woman had balls of steel. “Just supposing you’re serious about all this”, i said, “how in the hell do you intend making it happen?”

She gave me a broad smile, “well, that box you went through so much trouble to find is going to be a big help but we also need some very special people to help us achieve our goals. People like you, Seren!”

“Hey lady! i don’t wanna spoil your party, but i think you’ve got the wrong girl here!” – i was stunned.

The Godmother frowned slightly before continuing – “Obviously, you’re nowhere near ready to go into the field just yet”, she said, “but there’s plenty we can do about that. We’ll equip you with everything you need… we’re going to send you to our training facility – we call it ‘The Farm’ – and I’m going to assign you a training partner. She’s the best we have… I’m sure you’ll get along just fine!”

“Pleased to meet you, Seren”, said a voice from the doorway.

i turned to find one of the gang members i’d seen around but not had much contact with, up to now. Small and compact, she seemed to project an almost tangible aura of vitality.

“You two have fun now”, said the Godmother and teleported away.

“So, we’re going to be partners, huh?”, said the new girl, “reckon we’re going to have a whole load of fun down at the Farm!”. She winked.

i wasn’t so sure but i kept my thoughts to myself. “Well, if we’re going to be partners, perhaps you should tell me your name?”, i asked, getting up from the edge of the bed.

She laughed, “Oh, I don’t know about that. What with me being a master of disguise!… Top secret and all that jazz, know what I mean?”, she laughed again, “Tell you what… you can call me ‘M’”.

“M?”, i queried, “you a reject from a James Bond film or something?”

The girl practically doubled over, with one of the most expansive laughing gestures  i’d ever seen: “Hahahah! I just know we’re going to have a ball together! No… nothing to do with James Bond, it’s M for Maltesers – heehee, they’re my favourite chocolates ever!”

Despite myself, i couldn’t help laughing. Her good humour was infectious and, after my dreadful night, i needed a good laugh. Walking towards her, i extended my hand in greeting when, suddenly… Whump! i found myself flying through the air, to land with a thud, flat on my back.

M’s face peered down at me…

“Heehee, i know Kung Fu!”, she laughed.

ooOOOoo

“Welcome to the Farm! You are here to learn the inner secrets of the Gang – secrets that could one day save your life. You will learn the art of concealment and how to merge into a crowd and remain anonymous, unnoticed; you will learn the art of disguise and confusion; you will learn subtle tricks and techniques that will allow you to accomplish whatever missions you are set on behalf of the Gang – efficiently, and consistently, without leaving any trace and without being detected or apprehended. At the farm, you will learn techniques that will enable you to achieve the impossible, practically work miracles and overcome seemingly impassable obstacles.”

‘M’ paused for a moment before concluding, with a wink, “It’s also a whole lot of fun”.

i grant you, ‘M’ could sure give one helluva pep talk and it was with these words that one of the more challenging and fulfilling periods of my sl began. i had been told that what i would learn during my time at the Farm would enable me to become a fully-fledged, and fully functioning, Gang member – equipped to infiltrate any part of the grid and spread the Gang’s influence, quietly, efficiently and completely. i was to be taught how to recruit new Gang members, in much the same way as i myself had been recruited and, above all, i had been told that the Godmother herself had insisted that i should be groomed to play a significant role in her ultimate plan for world domination – now known as ‘Project Black Box’.

The Project was the kingpin of the Gang’s activities, something they had been preparing the way for over many years. My role, it seemed, was to be a critical one. i had already unwittingly proved myself when i recovered the box from it’s resting place in that Welsh churchyard, (it seems such a long time ago, now). That, apparently, was only the beginning for me.

‘M’ proved herself to be an expert instructor and coach and, over time, we developed a strong friendship and bond. ‘M’ taught me the elements of unarmed combat – although i doubted that i’d ever really need it (i can run away pretty fast, when danger looms!). Secretly, i harboured the thought that she just enjoyed jumping out of cupboards, when i least expected, and wrestling me to the ground!

Amongst other things, ‘M’ taught me advanced chimera techniques – whereby i could have a whole dancefloor moving to my own rhythm before they even knew it, multiple IM co-ordination and covert camming. But there were some areas in which she excelled and these were her real specialities. One of these was the advanced use of gestures – ‘M’ was a consummate professional when it came to gesturising. Within moments of a daft typo being spouted by some unfortunate victim, she could craft a gesture and have it bouncing around the room from person to person. She could create gestures that would leave you speechless with admiration and she had the uncanny gift of throwing a gesture into a conversation with such perfect timing and aptness it would take your breath away. Sheer genius!

The other area in which ‘M’ demonstrated incredible talent was that of disguise. She could blend in anywhere and had developed the use of Alts to an incredible degree – sometimes, even i had no idea who i was really dealing with! In fact, it was during my time at the Farm that she mentioned that i had actually met her before, albeit in the guise of another Gang member: i believed her, she was that good.

Although it was serious business, the Farm couldn’t help but be great fun too. Following unarmed combat training, i progressed to armed combat – out came the melon launchers and banana guns, which we used without mercy. Then there was ‘tactical deployment and transportation’, otherwise known as ‘getting from A to B’ – a great excuse to jump in and out of every possible type of transport from hot air balloons to wheelchairs; ride on scooters and motorcycles and just about any other type of vehicle that you can imagine, including ice-skates and pogo sticks. Then there was ‘extreme teleportation’ where i learned techniques that allowed me to TP into pretty much any location with pinpoint accuracy, avoiding ban lines, boundaries and security devices.

Yes, it was great fun but it was also practical too. i was learning the craft of espionage and covert operations – things that, had i known them in my PI days – would have given me such an edge over the competition,  i could have taken early retirement and bought myself my own island paradise sim to enjoy it in. Those days were long gone though and now i was a fully paid up Gang member – yep, they’d managed to wholly convert me to their cause.

After about a month of intense training, i was summoned to ‘M’s quarters…

“Seren”, she said, “I have some good news for you… you’ve passed! You’ve successfully graduated from the Farm, with honours. Congratulations.”

i was speechless and just stood there with my mouth open. She gave me the biggest hug ever and then passed me my new group tag – ‘Penny Lane Gang: Elite Member’. i can’t even begin to tell you how proud i felt.

“Now Seren,” said ‘M’, with a huge smile across her face, “this is where the real work begins…”

ooOOOoo

i’ve been back at Penny Lane now for some months. i’ve moved out of my motel room – the Godmother has given me an apartment at HQ – it suits me down to the ground. ‘M’ and i have become very close, in fact i think it may only be a matter of time before we’re more than just work partners.

My time at the Farm has paid great dividends and i’ve now completed several successful missions for the Gang. i guess, too, that my PI days are now well and truly over – i cancelled the rental on the old office, and said goodbye to the crappy old desk, with its ringmarks from far too many glasses of whiskey, along with the dingy blinds, stained with cigarette smoke. Can’t say i’m that bothered to see them go. i’ve turned in the key to my old apartment too – i don’t intend going back to that crummy joint in any great hurry.

Do i ever get sentimental for the old days? Well, i guess sometimes the odd thought from the past still crosses my mind but, as far as i’m concerned – from where i’m standing now – those will always be the bad old days. You see, now i have a purpose; i’m part of a community and i’m working towards making a better world. Might sound a bit grand, optimistic even but, well hell, it’s funny how things like that about me have changed.

So life is good and a lot of the surprises and shocks i used to get on a regular basis are pretty much under control these days. Although, now and again, life still throws the odd curveball at me…

There i am, late one evening, sat quietly in my room, reading, when there’s a knock on the door – it’s ‘M’.

“Come in – i’m decent”, i shouted – a pointless remark, ’cause i knew she’d already cammed the joint, much as i knew from my own remote viewing that she’d been stood outside for at least a coupla minutes.

“How’s things?”, she asked casually, collapsing onto the sofa next to me. “Rumour has it that the Godmother is going to be making some sort of an announcement, so I thought I call round and we could hear it together.”

“Yeah”, i nodded, “i heard that too”.

“Besides,” she said, slipping her hand into mine, “there’s something I’d like to tell you and, if the Godmother’s going to be saying what I think she is, I don’t think there will ever be a better time to tell you.”

“Oh, right ok…”, i paused, something had distracted me… something from the past, nagging at the edge of my senses.

“What’s up?”, ‘M’ queried.

“Ummm, nothing really – just thought i caught a, umm, caught a waft of some perfume someone i once knew wore.” i swallowed, shook my head and looked at ‘M’. “Sorry. It’s nothing… you had something you wanted to tell me?”

‘M’ smiled at me in a way that always made me feel comfortable, “Yes,” she said, “it’s just that it occurred to me that I’ve never told you my name.”

I grinned at her, then laughed – “No, you’re damn right there, but which name is it you’ve been hiding from me then? Please tell you me you ain’t got another alt hiding up your sleeve?”

She laughed. “No, not an alt, but this the name I’ve been hiding from you…”

She leaned towards me and whispered a name in my ear, then kissed me gently on the cheek.

It was a name – a name i’d heard before, a rl name that had been whispered in that same ear a long time ago. A name i’d never expected to hear again. Time kinda stood still for a moment. Then, i gasped and stared at her, open-mouthed. “You gotta be kidding me… you’re the English girl! i mean, you’re…”

She nodded, smiling and placed a finger on my lips. “Shhhh. Don’t go telling everyone, now!”

I was pretty much speechless and as i sat there, she squeezed my hand and i felt tears welling up inside.

My reverie was interrupted by a sudden group message that popped up – it was the Godmother.

‘It’s time’, the message said, ‘Project Black Box is go! – all elite members please make their way to the HQ immediately’.

Wow! This was it – the big moment – but i could barely cope with what was happening. i was still reeling from the news i’d just been given by ‘M’ and i was in no state to take on board the Godmother’s message too. In a daze, ‘M’ led me to where the rest of the Gang were gathering.

The Godmother appeared and stood before us.

“I’ve called you together to be a part of this momentous occasion”, she said, smiling around at us, “today we begin our bid for world domination in earnest. Today we begin to make the grid a better, more tolerant, happier place. A place of music and dancing and colour, a place of harmony, happiness and hope!”

In front of us, the box – that most enigmatic symbol of what we were striving to do, slowly rezzed, glowing with an eerie red light from within. Picking it up, the Godmother turned to me.

“Seren, I think you know what to do…” She passed me the box.

This was it, the moment of truth, the moment we’d all been working towards and now it was time for me to play my part once again. i held my breath and clicked on the box.

i hovered over the word ‘open’ then clicked and watched.

In front of us, the contents of the box gradually began to appear and now everything began to fall into place. It all made perfect sense…

i clasped ‘M’s hand in mine and smiled at her – now i truly knew we could do it.

What was in the box? – The solutions to all our problems, the germ of an idea that would lead to a unified and successful grid. It was everything that we had searched for and would be all that we needed. There, at last, it was in our grasp.

As for what exactly we had in our grasp, well…

you know how much i like my cliffhanger endings!

S. x

Listen, do you want to know a secret
Do you promise not to tell, woh, woh, woh
Closer, let me whisper in your ear
Say the words you long to hear
The Beatles – Do You Want To Know A Secret?

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