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Old April 1st, 2012 (03:01 AM).
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 21
Gender:
Nature: Impish
Chapter Twenty-Six: In Which We Encounter A Second Man in Black

'Do you have any previous experience? Circle one (1) of the following:
I have worked as: a member of an antagonistic Team/a petty crook/a criminal mastermind/a henchman or minion/a demon's thrall/none of the above.'

—From the Team Galactic Application Form


Silence.

I was awake now, or at least I thought I was, but there was still total silence. No traffic outside, no radio music, no birdsong...

Complete silence.

I was sitting down, for some reason. Why was that? I'd gone to sleep in a bed, hadn't I? Or had I? My head was pounding and I couldn't even think, let alone remember; it was like the morning after I'd been stabbed by the Croagunk, but a thousand times worse.

OK, Pearl, I thought to myself. Open your eyes. Ignore the pain and work out what's going on.

And so, with an immense effort, I pulled my eyelids apart—

—to see utter blackness.

My heart rate soared and all at once I snapped back to full wakefulness on the back of a wave of adrenaline; in quick succession, I realised that I was blindfolded, gagged and tied to the chair I was in. In addition, I could feel something in my ears; I guessed they must be the reason I couldn't hear anything.

Oh, cal, I thought. Oh cal oh cal oh cal oh cal—!

I screamed then, or tried to, and tried to wrench myself free in the grip of a wild burst of all-consuming panic; I felt my muscles tense and clench and my fingers curl into fists so tightly that a surge of pain washed through my palms, but nothing happened. I was too well-secured.

I'm not altogether sure what happened next. I think it was more of the same – more thrashing and crying out for help – but I can't be certain. Everything had that heady, confused immediacy of panic about it, and it jumbled itself in my mind like sand caught in the surf. All I can safely recall are the little things that jumped out and stuck in my head, discrete flies in the emotional amber: I broke three fingernails against the chair arm; I burned my wrists with the rope; I tried to kick free and my shoe fell off.

I think it must have been about five minutes later that I stopped and slumped back in my seat, all my passion leaving me in one sudden rush. I took the chance to stab my panic in the back while it was taking this break, and, having thus calmed myself, tried to take some sort of rational stock of my situation.

OK, Pearl, I thought. Stay calm. Be cool. What are you tied with? Tape, it feels like – so that's not going to come undone. Where is it? Wrists, ankles, elbows, waist. OK, someone really doesn't want you going anywhereor maybe, I thought in a flash of inspiration, they're inexperienced and they don't have faith in their ability to tie someone up effectively. That line of thought was interesting, but didn't lead anywhere, so I moved on. What else is there? Earplugs – pretty good ones, by the sound of things – and a gag and blindfold. I pondered that for a moment. The blindfold and gag seem to be tape too, which is going to be hell to get off since they go all the way around your head. There's something else to the gag, too – a rag or something, in your mouth. Ew. I hope that's clean.

At that point, I realised I was in danger of driving myself insane, so I stopped analysing my situation for a moment and took a few deep breaths before continuing.

The most important thing, I said to myself, is that you're here and tied up at all. That means that whoever kidnapped you doesn't want you dead.

Doesn't want you dead yet, corrected an annoying little voice in the back of my head, which I ignored, partly out of irritation and partly out of fear.

So there's hope that you could get out of this alive, I went on. Right? So stay focused, Pearl, and stay cool, and you might just get through this.

OK. That was the future dealt with. Now for the past: how the hell had I got here?

I thought back to the night before. At Ashley's direction, I'd gone through the old man's wallet, and found out his name and address – though right now I couldn't remember either of them. After that, we'd left, and Ashley had decided he wanted to go to sleep. I remembered thinking that was weird, but I wasn't going to argue with the possibility of sleep and neither was Iago. We'd headed back to the Hrafn, said hello to Wednesday on the way past, and...

I frowned. Past then, everything was shrouded in some black amnesiac fog; I couldn't remember any of it.

Maybe I was drugged
, I thought. That would explain the headache, and maybe why last night's so fuzzy.

Just then, I felt fingers brush my ears, and I would have jumped right out of my skin if I hadn't been tied down. All that time with no stimuli whatsoever – and then, entirely without warning, a sudden human touch. It was a wonder I didn't pass out.

Whoever the mystery person was, they removed the earplugs, and the sounds of the world closed in around me again: birds outside, a distant wind, leaves rustling. No cars, though – so we couldn't be in the city.

“All right,” said someone. It was a man's voice, with a faint accent – was that Hoennian? Or Swedish? “Are you awake there?”

“Mmph,” I replied, trying hard not to sound sarcastic. I didn't really want to make this guy angry, but equally I couldn't talk.

“Ah. I suppose that must mean yes.” Footsteps, moving away a bit – and then coming back. An odd metal sound, and now something cold on my cheek—

“This might sting,” said the man. “Actually, it definitely will. And probably hurt a lot more than stinging. In fact, I'm not altogether sure why I said it might sting in the first place.”

That sounded ominous, but I didn't have time to work out what he might mean by it: as soon as he'd finished speaking, he ripped the tape off my face, and what felt like my entire scalp with it.

He waited for my shriek to die away, and said:

“You're welcome. I mean, I have just ungagged you. I could have left you like that, you know – perfectly justifiable, seeing as how I'm a criminal and all. A master criminal, you might say.”

“Really,” I managed to whisper through cracked lips and a hell of a lot of pain. My mouth tasted of cloth; I'd spat out whatever was in it, but it was full of that unpleasant dry sensation that you get when you accidentally fall asleep with your mouth open.

“Oh yes,” said the man, who I now saw was dressed all in black, wearing sunglasses and sitting opposite me. “Well, I'm not so much a criminal right now, seeing as how I'm working for a respectable organisation, but still. I have a long and distinguished career behind me as a crook.”

I coughed and tried to clear my throat.

“Where am I?” I asked, looking around. There weren't many clues – this was just a bare room, unfurnished save for the two chairs and a table nearby. From the light, I could tell there was a window behind me, but I couldn't see it.

“Somewhere west of somewhere else,” replied the man in black enigmatically. “From whence there is no escape.”

I stared at him. In the midst of my confusion, in the midst of my fear, a little bolt of disbelieving ridicule struck me.

“Did you just say 'whence'?”

“Yes,” said the man self-consciously. “What's wrong with that?”

“Nothing,” I said, swiftly deciding not to tell him it sounded stupidly pretentious, “it's just not a very commonly used word.”

“I'm a master of words,” the man in black told me, with a touch of pride. “Words, crime... In fact, there's very little I can't do.”

A curious thing happened then. I could've sworn I heard, somewhere in the back of my head, Ashley's voice muttering dryly to me:

A veritable polymath.

I had to suppress a smile. It was true: the man in black was peculiarly ridiculous for a kidnapper.

“What do you want with me?” I asked. It was a grim and uncertain sort of matter, and considering it brought me firmly back down to earth.

“Me?” He touched his breast. “Me? I want nothing with you other than payment. Now, my employers, they want you detained here until someone can come to collect you.” He shrugged. “Apparently they have no dedicated kidnappers of their own, so they hire in people like me to do it.”

“And who are those employers?” I asked.

The man in black smiled patronisingly and waved a condescending finger.

“Now, now, now,” he said, shaking his head in what must have seemed to him to be a very graceful way, “you and I both know that I can't tell you that. Of course, you have to ask me, because when people get kidnapped they always ask their kidnappers who they work for – but I can never answer, because it is tradition that the kidnappers never tell those they've kidnapped who they work for.” He sat back and took a bottle and a glass from the table. “It's how things work. Tradition, you know?”

He poured a liberal quantity of something disturbingly red from the bottle into the glass and sipped at it.

He's clearly an idiot, said the mysterious voice again, and this time I was sure I heard it. It was definitely Ashley, and it was definitely coming from inside my head. Feeling that if I ventured nothing, I would gain nothing, I thought back tentatively:

Ashley?

The voice made, however, no response, and I gave up. There would be time to ponder this strange phenomenon later; for now, I had to try and get some information out of the man in black. He really did seem to be an idiot, so I had fairly high hopes I'd manage to get something.

“Do you have any other questions?” asked the man in black. “I think you've done the Big Two now – you know, 'Where am I?' and 'Who do you work for?' – but you might have more, for all I know.”

“Who are you?” I asked.

“That's basically a variation on 'Who do you work for?',” he said, clicking his tongue in annoyance. “You should know I can't answer that.”

“OK, OK.” I thought. “Um... What can I ask you?”

“You may ask me,” said the man in black after some consideration, “how you were kidnapped, and how I came to be here. Yes. Yes, that'll do. So.” He looked at me expectantly, and with a couple of misgivings about his sanity, I asked him:

“How did you kidnap me?”

“Ah!” said the man, setting his drink back on the table and leaning forwards eagerly, “now that was all very clever. Totally ingenious – well beyond anything the Diamond has had to deal with before, I should imagine.”

I raised an eyebrow. I seriously doubted that.

“You may scoff,” said the man, shaking his head sorrowfully, “but you haven't heard my plan yet. It's a work of pure genius. Also, don't forget that I could kill you at any moment,” he added. “There are foul beasts well beyond mortal ken lurking behind you right now.”

I heard the rustle of limbs and the scrape of claws behind me, and suddenly felt a whole lot more serious. This guy was a kidnapper and a criminal – was it really that big a step to believe that he was a murderer, too? I looked back at his face, inscrutable behind his tinted sunglasses, and bit my tongue to stop myself saying anything.

“That'll do,” he said, pleased. “Now, to kidnap you, I had to learn of the Diamond's one weakness.”

Ashley had a weakness? Did he mean swans? I pictured the man in black scaling the walls of the Hrafn Hotel at night and stealthily slipping waterfowl into Ashley's room through the window, incapacitating him while he slipped into my room and drugged me in my sleep—

“Pay attention!” snapped the man in black petulantly. “Don't go slipping off into daydreams while I'm monologuing. It's very rude.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Won't happen again.”

“Now, as it so happens, my employers were able to furnish me with this information,” he continued, making a steeple of his fingers and leaning forward even further. He was almost bent double now, and looked very stupid indeed, though you could tell he thought it was a striking pose. “And so I discovered that Mr. Lacrimére is a borderline chocolate addict.”

I came very close to laughing out loud here, but, remembering the unknown thing behind me – whose shadow I now noticed, all sharp edges and points, on the wall in front of me – I held it in.

“When early that morning he left to get chocolate to sustain him as he thought, I slipped in, clubbed the Kadabra on guard over the head with a monkey wrench and injected you with a potent sleeping drug. Then I disguised you as an elf so that no one would ask questions, carried you into the back of my van, and drove out here.”

An elf? I looked down at myself, and saw with some surprise that I was dressed all in green.

“What was that part about the elf?” I asked, failing to see the relevance.

The man in black looked at me askance.

“Are not elves universally reviled in Sinnoh?” he asked.

“No. We don't even have elves. I don't think anywhere does, actually.”

“Blast. That's forty minutes of my life I'll never get back. And the money for the costume and the make-up kit!” The man in black sighed mightily and looked despondently at the floor for a while, after which he took a consolatory gulp of his drink. This seemed to revive his spirits a little, and he sat up again. “Well, I was misinformed then. No matter. I still caught you, from right under the Diamond's nose. Now, the other question, if you please.”

“What other question?”

“Oh, keep up!” he cried, slamming his glass onto the table. “For God's sake, I'm being an excellent villain here, and you're spoiling it all! Don't you remember that I said you could also ask me how I came to be here?”

“OK, OK!” I replied, alarmed. I had no wish to discover what it was that lurked behind me, and I had a feeling that if I irritated the man much longer the monster and I would soon be on frighteningly intimate terms. “How did you come to be here?”

“Well,” he said, striking an elegant pose, “frankly, it was a stroke of luck that I ran into my employers when I did. A series of unfortunate events had robbed me of my previous job, my rightful recognition as both a master criminal and a great global hero, and of my best friend.” He sighed again, with scarcely less might than before. “I had planned to set up my own Team, but unfortunately I lacked both the capital and the manpower, and so I took to wandering the world in a state of disconsolation, falling back on my old street performance tricks to fund each aeroplane flight.” Here, he gave me a look, and I guessed I was supposed to say something.

“What sort of street performer were you?” I asked tentatively.

“An acrobat,” he answered, with an air of melancholy. “A Baroque acrobat.”

I thought about asking how an acrobat could possibly be Baroque, but in the end decided against it, seeing as I wasn't entirely certain what Baroque meant.

“OK.”

“Well, I had flown into Jubilife from Barcelona,” continued the man in black, “and was performing in Hagai Square – do you know it? It's so beautiful in the spring – when I was approached by a man in a suit who knew my name.”

I did know Hagai Square, and I therefore knew that it was about as close to a demolition site as a functional city square could be without actually being demolished. The only people there were drug dealers and kids with knives, and I didn't think any of them would have given a Baroque acrobat anything but a mugging. For the first time, I began to wonder exactly how much of this story was true.

“He said to me, 'Are you—?'” He broke off. “Ah, but I can't tell you my name,” he said. “I'll use a fake one.” He thought. “He asked me, 'Are you Theophilus Danderine?'”

I tried to suppress more laughter, half-succeeded and snorted loudly through my nose.

“Are you all right?” asked the man in black. I nodded, not trusting my voice, and, satisfied, he continued: “And I said, 'Yes, that's me.' And then he said, 'I represent—' Ah, but I can't tell you who he represented. I'll think of a fake organisation... He said, 'I represent the Sinnish Bakery League, and we have a job we think is admirably suited for a man of your skills.' And I said, 'What might that be?' To which he responded by telling me to meet him in a certain place if I wanted to know more. So, to cut a long story short, I did, and got this job. In the process, by a remarkable coincidence, I was reunited with my friend, who, as it happened, had also been contacted by the Bakery League for a kidnapping job.”

Fighting the urge to laugh at the idea of a Theophilus Danderine being employed by the Sinnish Bakery League to kidnap me, I asked:

“Am I allowed to ask who he's kidnapping?”

“He's kidnapping someone you know very well,” said the man in black with a sinister smile of unsurpassed melodrama. “And I'm sure you'll meet soon, don't you worry about that.”

All desire to laugh left me in one sharp rush. That sounded ominous.

“What do you mean, meet?” I asked. “Who is this?”

“All in good time, Pearl, all in good time,” said the man in black, evidently pleased at having finally got a scared reaction out of me. “For now, let me just tell you the story of how I got into crime.”

“Why?”

“Because it's very important,” he said. “It's important that I be as fully developed as possible.” He grinned broadly. “After all, I am the main character.”

---

Town Called Malice, rendered in all the wondrous glory of a ringtone. A groan. A hand, groping across the table.

“Whuh?”

“Good morning, Cynthia darling.”

The voice was very cold, and very familiar. All at once, Cynthia was very wide awake.

“Ash? What—?”

“Where's Pearl?”

“What?” She sat up and brushed a lock of her overlong hair from her face. “What do you mean, where's Pearl?”

“I mean, where have your associates spirited her off to?”

“What are you talking about? We haven't done anything!”

“You mean to say it wasn't the League?”

“No!” Cynthia swung herself out of bed and felt on the table for her hairbrush. Whatever happened, she had to comb her hair every morning, or it tangled; wearing it four foot seven inches long meant that it was insanely prone to tangling. “No, Ash, I trust you—” She broke off abruptly, brush six inches from her head. “Wait. She's gone missing?”

“Yes.” He paused. “I... Cynthia, I'm concerned. If it were you, I know you wouldn't harm her. But whoever this is...”

Cynthia brought the brush down hard on her head and started dragging at her hair with the sort of force that indicated extreme concentration.

“Is it the Galactics?” she asked. “Could they be—?”

“No, darling, it couldn't be them. They already have me exactly where they want me, unfortunately. The problem is, if it isn't the Galactics and it isn't the League—”

“Then who the hell is it?” breathed Cynthia, yanking hard again and taking out a clump of three-foot hairs with a wince.

“That's what worries me,” said Ashley. To anyone else, his voice would have seemed as cold and distant as ever, but Cynthia, who had seen perhaps more of his wild and alien mind than anyone living, could detect a hint of worry in there – and it surprised her. To her knowledge, he only ever expressed worry about two people, and neither of those was Pearl. “Cynthia, have you identified the people who attacked me outside Hearthome?”

“I had Lucian go over them,” she said. “They were drones.”

“I hate those things,” remarked Ashley, remarkably calmly. “An obscene use to put a human body to.”

“I hate them too, Ash, but that's not the point. They look like Sporeola from Italy.”

“Medici?”

“I think so.”

Ashley paused.

“I sincerely doubt the Medici have had Pearl kidnapped.”

“She is the weakest one in your close circle, Ash,” reasoned Cynthia. “There's me, Maylene, Pearl, Iago and... well. Her.”

She didn't really like to think about her, or mention her either. She was an unpleasant reminder that Ashley was much than her lover, a relic from times past when he had walked the pages of history as something less than human and much more.

“I don't dispute that that's why they've had her kidnapped,” Ashley said. “Only that it is they who have done it. The Medici gave up on me two hundred years ago.”

“What about the cruise liner in the fifties?”

“I thought we'd agreed never to mention that,” said Ashley sharply. “Please. It was a very unpleasant time for all concerned.” Cynthia heard his shiver in his breath down the line. “I shall never be able to stomach sangría again.”

“Sorry, Ash. I forgot. But we can't rule out the possibility.”

“Fair enough, fair enough.” Ashley paused again. “Can you spare anyone? With Pearl gone, I have to spend even more of my time on this investigation and I can't look into this.” He almost sounded angry, Cynthia thought. “Is anyone free?”

“Fantina's in Europe right now,” she said. “I could get her to investigate, but she won't be pleased—”

“Someone has kidnapped my friend,” Ashley replied forcefully, and Cynthia knew for certain that something was up then; Ashley never called anyone his friend. He had a lover, and her, but that was it. He avoided friendship like the plague, ever-conscious of his immortality; Cynthia was well aware that the only reason he had ever seduced her was to earn his freedom – discounting her, he had had no other lovers since 1943. She counted herself lucky that he was still capable of love, and that she'd managed to trap him with it. Not that she would ever use that metaphor herself. “I think I'm entitled to irritate Fantina a little.”

“All right, all right!” said Cynthia. “I'll call her.” She hesitated. “So why... what's so special about Pearl?”

That had come out far more defensive than she'd meant it, she realised, and swore under her breath.

“She's a friend, Cynthia,” replied Ashley, sounding vaguely amused. “Only this, and nothing more. There's nothing special about her except how... not special she is. I spend too much time with the gifted, I think. I like her ineptitude.”

That had better be all you like about her, thought Cynthia darkly, and then shook the thought from her head. It was stupid of her.

“Now, darling, I'd better go. Tell Fantina to call me as soon as she finds anything.”

“Yes. Sure.”

Almost without noticing, Cynthia became aware of two dark shapes hovering in the corners of her vision.

“I'll see you soon,” continued Ashley. “Once this mess is cleared up and I see Maragos in League hands.”

The black-gloved hands moved swiftly: one over her mouth, another around her arms. Cynthia's eyes widened—

—and then the phone dropped silently onto the carpet.

“Goodbye,” it said. “I love you.”

Unsurprisingly, there was no response. After all, the room was empty.

---

It rolled around her temples, crashed down her sinuses, rumbled along her synapses and burst into little explosions behind her eyes; it cracked across her eardrums in jagged lines, and roared in her pineal gland, wherever that was. What was it, Liza wondered. Was it thunder? No, too protracted. A bulldozer? No, if a bulldozer was this close to her, she'd be in the process of being run over. Jet engines? No, that was just stupid.

“Turburweggip, umn.”

A voice? It might be, she supposed, but what sort of human could have this earthquake for a voice? And what language was it speaking?

“Tummerwackup, ummin.”

Actually, that sounded kind of familiar. It sounded a lot more like words now.

“I said, time to wake up, woman.”

Cold water and an unfriendly toecap swiftly moved Liza from drowsiness to reality, and she jerked her eyes open with an almost audible snap.

“What the hell!” she shrieked, and then managed to focus. Before her was a veritable Goliath – probably the biggest creature she had ever seen that still looked vaguely human. He must have measured three feet from shoulder to shoulder, and his black clothes looked like they weren't meant to be nearly as skin-tight as they'd become. “Jesus Christ,” said Liza, shaking water out of her hair. “Your mother had some serious child-bearing hips.”

The giant's brow lowered, almost completely obscuring his eyes, and Liza once again felt the toecap. Steel, she thought, clutching gingerly at her sternum. Definitely steel.

She was in a small, windowless concrete room, sitting up against one wall. On the plus side, she appeared to be completely unrestrained; on the minus, she had a sneaking suspicion that the colossus in black would be more than adequate restraint in himself.

“OK,” Liza wheezed, trying to get her breath back. “I get it. No sarcasm.” She broke off to cough for a moment. “What's this about? Is this another client being overzealous? Because I'm not taking offers right now. Check my Criminet status.”

Social networking for global villains had taken off in a big way in the last few years; Liza had registered eighteen months ago and the number of job offers had tripled overnight. Currently, though, her status was 'On a job', and so no self-respecting client ought to be getting in contact with her.

“No,” said the giant, and his voice sounded like a landslide in a distant valley. “Not that.”

“Then what?” Liza climbed to her feet, leaning heavily against the wall, and stared up at him with considerably more insolence than she felt. Though there were a remarkable number of things she did not know about herself, she was certain that she could be snapped in half fairly easily by this man.

“Not my business to know,” rumbled the giant. “Just caught you.”

“For who?”

Whom, a little voice at the back of her head corrected her, but Liza let it go; such fleeting missives from the past were common enough, and if she'd heeded every one she would gone mad a long time ago. Perhaps she had already, she reflected distantly. After all, her mind was pretty damn broken.

“Some people who want you and some others,” replied the giant shortly, and he would say no more on the subject.

Liza closed her eyes and felt for broken ribs.

“Who else?”

“People you know.”

You don't talk much, do you? Liza thought, but she didn't dare say it, on account of the possible snapping in half.

“I'm working with some very powerful people right now,” she said instead, testing the giant's reaction. “People who wouldn't like to see me kidnapped.”

“I'm working with some more powerful people,” rumbled the giant. “Now shuddup, woman.”

Liza raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. They stood in silence for a while, until she asked:
“So... are you just going to keep me in here?”

“No.” The giant sniffed deeply. “We're waiting for someone to come and pick you up.”

“Where will they take me?”

“Not my business. Or yours,” added the giant, upon reflection.

Liza sighed, and slid back down the wall to sit on the floor. Whatever was going on, it seemed it was going to be tediously cloak-and-dagger.

---

I'm really not sure why the man in black didn't take me straight to wherever his employers wanted me in the first place. I mean, when the man in the brown tweed suit came to pick me up, he asked him to come along too. He didn't seem to have been expecting that, and seemed quite nervous during the helicopter ride. At least, I assume it was a helicopter, from the noise – I was blindfolded again for the journey, and all I could hear was the clattering roar of the rotors.

I have no idea how long the trip was; just like before, time seemed elastic, stretching out in weird strings. All I know is that it gave me far too long to worry about what might happen to me at the other end. Where was I being taken? Was I going to be killed? Would the man in black's employers have better fashion sense than the brown suit guy?

By then, I knew I was working myself up to the point of hysteria, and forced myself to take some deep breaths – which did absolutely nothing to calm me down. A few minutes later, when the helicopter touched down, I was about ready to explode with terror.

There were a few long moments of absolute silence, and then someone grabbed my arm and pulled me up.

“Come on,” said a cold voice – the brown suit guy, I thought. “Time is of the essence.”

“Where are we?” I asked. My voice sounded all wrong: small and wavering, like a broken blade of grass, or a beaten Budew.

“Yes, where are we?” It was the voice of the man in black, and he sounded like he was blustering. A lot.

“That's not important. It's time to move.”

“What the devil is this?” cried the man in black. “I demand to know what's going—”

There was a click, and the man in black's tone changed abruptly.

“Or I could just go along with you and not complain,” he said. “Out of interest, what calibre is that?”

“.458,” replied the brown suit guy. “It's meant for big game.”

“Ah,” said the man in black. “Er. Lead on, then.”

I gulped. Things were not looking good.

We left the helicopter – I could tell because I almost fell down the steps, and because of the sudden rush of fresh outside wind – and walked across what was presumably the helipad to a door that opened with a peculiar grinding sound. I reached out to touch it as we went through, and found it was made of stone.

Where the hell are we, I wondered. What kind of place had stone doors?

We walked down a long set of cold corridors, with so many twists and turns that before long I was more dizzy than scared.

“When do we get there?” I asked.

“Silence,” commanded the brown suit guy. “Unless you have a burning desire to discover what the inside of your chest looks like.”

I didn't even dare reply. I was entirely certain that he was serious.

At length, we came to a halt, apparently at random, and I was manoeuvred up against a wall.

Don't people get put against a wall when they're about to be executed by firing squad? I wondered, and then immediately put the thought out of my mind. It didn't bear thinking about.

A moment later, my blindfold was removed, and I saw that I was right, that the person dealing with me was the brown suit guy. Bizarrely, I seemed to be in a dentist's waiting-room – and sitting and standing around, looking about as confused as I felt, were about ten other people. I recognised two as the kids from the park in Eterna, Kester Ruby and Felicity Kusagari, and another one as the man in black. There were two other men in black as well, one very large and burly and one positively gigantic, and a man in a green overcoat, and a girl a few years younger than me with a blue hat. Then there was another boy, and Liza and Tristan, and—

“Stephanie?”

“Pearl?”

We would've got further than staring, but the man in the brown tweed suit stopped us with a wave of what I now saw was a ridiculously large gun.

“The sound of the human voice is incredibly irritating,” he said. “My fingers are liable to become twitchy if I hear much more of it.”

No one spoke after that. I tried for a moment or two to communicate with Stephanie via a system of meaningful glances, but gave up pretty quickly; we really weren't having much success.

A moment later, another man in an identical brown tweed suit brought in another captive, and I realised with a jolt that it was Cynthia. Her hair was a mess, and she hadn't been given time to get dressed, but it was definitely her. Even if I hadn't recognised her, the abuse she was hurling at her captor would have given it away in a second.

“...I don't care if you've got a sodding elephant gun, I want to know where we are! Are you listening? No, I know you're not going to shoot me, you grazhny bratchny, or you wouldn't have sodding kidnapped me. So where the hell—”

The man escorting her clamped one hand over Cynthia's mouth.

“Here,” he said, shoving her forwards. He looked very tired, I noticed. “She's your problem now, Preston.”

Preston – my brown suit guy – didn't seem best pleased by this, but his compatriot withdrew with such speed that he didn't get to complain.

“Shut up and stand over there,” he said to Cynthia, who very nearly punched him in the face; as it was, she just glared daggers at him and stomped over to me.

“Pearl?” she said. “Is that you?”

“Who else would it be?” I asked, with a wary glance at Preston. However, he seemed to have admitted defeat with Cynthia, and chose to ignore us.

“It's difficult to tell with that weird make-up on. What are you wearing, anyway?”

“I'm disguised as an elf,” I said, not having the energy to explain. “Anyway, I could ask you the very same question.”

It was true. She was wearing black silk pyjamas and – more confusingly – a hairbrush jammed into her hair.

“Whatever. Do you know where we are?”

“No. I just got here.”

At this point, the Kester kid stepped forward as if to say something, but Preston presently reasserted his dominance by aiming his elephant gun at him, and he stepped back again smartly. Apparently only Cynthia got to break the rules.

“What?” Cynthia turned to look at him. “Do you know where we are?”

Kester looked at Preston, and Preston shook his head. Perhaps predictably, Kester remained silent.

“Let him talk to me,” commanded Cynthia, but Preston shook his head.

“Orders from above,” he said. “You, her and one other person only. No one else is to speak.”

“Well, who else is it?”

“He's not here yet,” replied Preston. “He's the last one.”

Right then, without any sort of warning or ceremony, a man appeared in the seat next to me. He had steel-coloured hair and sharp green eyes, and he was in the middle of lifting a forkful of lobster to his mouth.

Everyone froze. I mean, I knew that teleportation was possible – Psychic-types could do it – but I'd only ever seen it a couple of times, and I didn't doubt that more than one of those present had never witnessed it before.

The man with the fork paused too; the only parts of him that moved were his eyes. They roved left, then right, and then he put down the fork carefully on the magazine table beside him.

“Blast,” he murmured genially. “He must have got out.”

“Indeed he has, Mr. Stone,” said Preston. “I believe he's ready for you all now.”

“It's true,” agreed a voice from nowhere. “We are all assembled, and I am very pleased to be able to welcome you to my new... well. Shall we say lair?”

As if enough bizarre things hadn't happened already today, the walls fell backwards and away, like the painted pieces of scenery I now saw they were; beyond, sandy flagstones stretched away into infinite darkness in all directions.

“What the hell...?” I stared out into the vast space, trying in vain to make out any details – but there were none. Wherever we were, it was bigger than anywhere I'd ever been before, and I'd been to some pretty big places in my time.

“Hell indeed!” said the mysterious voice, and I saw a figure approaching through the dark. It was tall and thin, and try as I might I couldn't distinguish anything of it beyond something black that flowed out behind it. “Yes, Pearl, we are indeed in hell. I made it, I live in it, and I invite you all to share in it!”

“Oh my God!” cried Kester abruptly. “It's you!”

Everyone else except me turned to stare at him.

“Um... not to insult you or anything,” said the girl with the blue hat, “but the rest of us had already kind of figured that one out, Kester.”

Kester went red.

“Ah,” he said. “OK.”

“If you please?” said the figure, which was now close enough for me to make out its black globe of a head. “I was about to do the dramatic revelation.”

“Sorry.”

The figure stepped forwards into the lit area that had once been the waiting-room, and pulled the globular mask off to reveal he had the same face as the man who had just teleported into the seat next to me.

“Welcome, friends, enemies and countrymen,” he said, with an avuncular and supremely threatening grin. “I'm so glad to see that everyone survived the first act. I've been unavoidably detained at Hoennian President Loganberry's pleasure, but I'm here now, and we can all begin Act Two of my grand plan.” He looked over at me. “But of course,” he said. “You have no idea who I am, do you Pearl?”

I shook my head. I hadn't wanted to admit it, since everyone else seemed to recognise him, but I hadn't the faintest clue who this guy might be.

“Allow me to introduce myself.” He held out a long, pale hand. “My name is Zero, and I'm here to kill you all and destroy the world.” He smiled broadly. “Again.”
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For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.