Chapter 32: Return
TM wandered down the streets towards home, belly full of korma. As promised, Senior had eaten one of almost everything, with Lily quite happy to fill up on whatever he left. TM was glad to have gone to the meal; he really ought to see them more, he thought.
His phone rang again. Veggie this time.
‘Hey,’ Veggie said. ‘How was the thing?’
‘It was good, actually,’ TM said. ‘Yours?’
’Ohmigosh best thing ever,’ Veggie burbled. ‘The other group won, but I don’t even care.’
‘They must have been pretty good.’
‘Yeaaaaaaah… I mean, obviously the Inciting Incident were totally better, but the show was just awesome so it’s good all round.’
‘Taking part that counts, right?’
‘So lame. But yeah.’
‘You heading home?’
TM waited for an explanation.
‘Oh, yeah, that’s what I was calling about!’ Veggie remembered, sounding as if he’d surprised himself. ‘Can you come over to the arena?’
‘Well, Lauren and the Ire - that’s the other band -’
‘I know, Derrida video-called me.’
‘- anyway, those guys, they asked if me and you and Marty could meet them in their dressing room in half an hour.’
As if sensing TM’s thoughts, Veggie made a stuttering noise and clarified: ‘Yeah, I know, four girls, three guys, dressing room - don’t worry, they just want to talk to us about some collaboration or other. Pro bono, no boning.’
‘Why do they need me and you there? Surely if they’re collaborating with anyone it’d just be Marty and the band?’
‘They’ve got this idea for a concept album where they do the music with Double-I - that’s what we’re shortening “Inciting Incident” to now - and we invent a product for each song. It’s totally, like, multimedia postmodernism.’
TM swapped his phone to the other ear and tried to work out where exactly he was. He’d been walking in the general direction of Muscles & Mussels on autopilot, but now he was trying to think about how to get to the Battle of the Bands location, he was at a bit of a loss. ‘I’ll be there in… a bit,’ he said. ‘Gotta hang up and satnav it, though, okay?’
‘See you in a bit,’ Veggie said. ‘Don’t take too long, or we might all just end up banging after all.’ He hung up.
TM hoped it wouldn’t come to that; with Marty and Veggie spending regular nights in the same flat as him, he’d already seen more than he needed to of… that. He pulled up a maps app and stuck in the address of the arena, which was a shorter way across town than he’d thought. Small world.
‘Spare some change?’ somebody asked as TM turned a corner. He rummaged about in his pocket and found a spare pound, which he held out. ‘Thank you kindly, sir,’ said the person sitting on the corner. TM looked down at him.
‘Oh. Hey, TM.’
‘I haven’t seen you since… when you won that hamper at the fair three years ago.’
‘Things have gone a bit downhill since then,’ Gary Mackerel said mournfully.
’What happened to Gary’s Fish?’
‘Oh, the fish and chip shop. It just… sort of stopped making money.’
‘Man, that sucks.’
‘I should have called it something about mackerel,’ Gary Mackerel muttered, as if scolding himself. ’I didn’t want to go for the obvious pun, but apparently Gary’s Fish isn’t marketable enough…’
‘You know,’ TM said, ‘we’ve got a place that does… fish… stuff.’
Gary Mackerel brightened. ‘You do?’
TM nodded. ‘Know anyone who might be up for helping us out? We’re growing, we could use some new hands to help us with seafood supply and that sort of thing.’
Gary Mackerel burst into tears. ‘Are you… really?! TM!’ He leapt up and wrapped TM in a smelly, damp embrace.
‘Just, er… go let yourself in,’ TM said, extricating himself. ‘Door code’s 080147; you can use the showers and we’ll be back a bit later.’
‘I can’t believe this,’ sobbed Gary Mackerel.
‘You know where it is?’
Gary Mackerel nodded between blubbers. ‘I can’t believe you would - thank you!’
‘Everything’ll be alright,’ TM told him, and found himself starting to believe it too.
‘I won’t let you down!’ Gary Mackerel blurted. He gave TM one more hug and dashed off in the direction of Muscles & Mussels.
‘See you later, Gary Mackerel,’ TM called after his new employee, and carried on down the road.
TM wandered up to the entrance of the arena, a large building that had no business being where it was in among the residential streets. Marty and Veggie were waiting outside, still sweaty and flushed from - TM hoped - the Battle of the Bands.
‘Hey, loser,’ Marty said as he approached.
‘I heard you were the loser,’ TM retorted. Marty winced.
‘Set myself up for that one,’ he admitted.
‘Oh, Veg,’ TM said, before he forgot, ‘I think I just hired Gary Mackerel to come work for us, just so you know.’
Veggie nodded, not seeming to think that this was an odd turn of events in any way. ’Fair play. As long as he doesn’t try to change the name to Muscles & Mussels & Mackerel or something.’
’I think he’d probably just go for Muscles & Mussels & Gary, but point taken.’
Marty shivered. He was wearing a thick jacket, but TM could see his usual stage attire of a thin T-shirt underneath.
‘Shall we go in?’ he suggested. Marty nodded and hopped through the doors. Veggie made to go bounding after him, but TM put a hand on his business partner’s arm and walked him in. ‘So… this band just asked you if we would help them out?’
‘Yeah!’ Veggie declared. ‘Isn’t it awesome?’
TM thought about it. ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit weird that they just knew that we were inventors? Like, what are the odds they just met Marty today, heard about us and came up with this plan?’
’They probably just Googled Marty and found out about ZVTMII,’ Veggie said dismissively. ‘We’re all kind of famous now.’
‘I guess,’ TM said.
‘We’ve always just rolled with stuff up until now,’ Veggie pointed out.
‘I think maybe… not that just going with it wasn’t great, but I feel like I don’t ever choose to do anything,’ TM said, thinking out loud. ‘Weird stuff just happens around me and I react to it.’
‘Best way to live,’ Veggie said. ‘C’mon, their dressing room’s just around here.’
Veggie dragged TM down the corridors of the arena, following Marty through backstage areas filled with instruments and various unused scenery and prop items; they turned a corner into a hall labelled ‘Talent Zone’.
‘This was our dressing room,’ Marty said proudly, pointing to one of several doors around the walls of the Talent Zone. ‘And this one…’ He moved a couple of doors along. ‘Pretty sure this one was theirs.’ He knocked, then, when there was no response, slowly pushed the door open.
‘Helloooooo?’ he called. ‘I’m coming in. Don’t be naked.’
‘Or do,’ Veggie piped up.
Marty swung the door all the way open and wandered in. ‘Nobody’s in here,’ he said, looking around. TM thought he could hear movement nearby, a low growl like a breeze whipping through a narrow crack. Then Marty yelped and disappeared under the dark mass of an enormous dog.
‘Marty!’ Veggie yelled, sliding in and kicking at the beast; it hopped back, then leapt and pounced on him, pinning him down. ‘What the fuck - Keelut?!’
‘Oh, shit,’ said TM, frozen in the doorway as Riegel O’Ryan’s dog snarled and drooled in his partner’s face. Marty stared from the hound to TM, frantically mouthing ‘What do we do?!’
‘Keelut,’ said a soft Irish voice from behind TM. ‘Don’t eat his face, there’s a good girl.’
‘Motherfucker,’ Veggie wheezed.
TM didn’t even bother turning around. ‘What are you doing here, Orion?’
She swished past him, strands of her hair brushing across his arm. She was even taller than he remembered. ‘Come on, girl,’ she said to the enormous mass of muscle and fur that was Keelut, and the dog relinquished Veggie and padded over, wagging its tail. ‘Good dog.’
‘What did you do with Lauren and the Ire?’ Marty demanded, sliding over to put himself between Veggie and the Huntress.
‘Oh, that lot,’ Orion said, fingers buried in the fur around her canine companion’s ears. ‘Don’t worry yourself about them, they’re fine. Promise.’
‘What the hell are you doing back?’ Veggie half-screamed at her. ‘You took Ziggy away from us, isn’t that enough?!’
‘I mean, you know what I do,’ Orion said, shrugging. ‘You can’t figure it out?’
‘If you’re anything like Altair, you just fancied another day in the limelight,’ TM spat at her.
‘Oh, no. Poor Al. He was ever so fond of being all famous-like, even though more people loved him in the sky than they ever did on their TVs.’ Orion sighed and leaned against the wall. ’No, I’m here ‘cos we’ve lost another one, if you catch my drift. Kind of a big deal, this one. Real rock star.’
‘So somebody had to come down and bring them back, huh?’ TM said, a kind of sour understanding making its way through his body.
‘Naturally,’ Orion said, bowing. ‘Not to strum me own harp, but yours truly does it best, or so I’m told.’
‘And what the hell does this have to do with us?’ Veggie asked.
‘Not all that much, to be totally honest,’ Orion said, shrugging. ‘Thing is, you’re sort of a weak lead, but probably the best one I’ve got right now. You’re the last known harbourers of one of our little… refugees, so we figured we’d start with you lucky chaps.’
‘That’s it?!’ TM exploded. ’After what you did to us - to Ziggy - you really want to show up here because you figure maybe, just maybe, because we happened to meet her, we might just possibly have some vague inkling of where this other runaway star might be?’ He strode towards Orion, pushing his face up towards hers, standing on tiptoe to look straight into her eyes with as much wrath as he could muster. ’Are you celestial idiots so fucking incompetent at keeping tabs on your own people that you came down here, burst in on the most tangentially fucking possibly relevant people you could think of and thought that would solve all your problems?!’
Orion returned his gaze, though TM thought he might have caught the briefest twitch of her lip. ’Well, when you say it like that…’
‘We don’t know where your damn starfriend is,’ TM told her venomously. ‘You took the only one we knew, okay? So go back to your bosses, tell them to leave us the hell alone, and leave us in peace. And while you’re at it, ask them to give us Ziggy back.’
‘I don’t think I can do that,’ Orion said quietly. She broken TM’s gaze for a second, glancing down at Keelut as if asking for guidance. The dog looked up at her, tongue lolling out. ‘Orders are orders, and order is order,’ she said softly, almost as if to herself. Then she sighed and gazed at Veggie; Marty held his arms out protectively. ‘As above, so below.’
‘Altair liked saying that,’ TM told her.
‘Ah, yeah, he did at that.’ Her gaze moved back to him. ‘I heard about your run-in with him, y’know. Did quite a number on him, from how they’re telling it.’
‘He was afraid, and so are you,’ TM said. ‘You’re all scared shitless of whatever’s up there, above even you.’
‘Mice fear cats,’ she said. ‘Elephants fear poachers. I know my place in the food chain.’
‘It’s not at the top, is it?’ TM asked her, staring so intensely that his eyes began to hurt.
She exhaled, then shrugged. ‘Doesn’t matter. I’m here to bring back a target, and that’s what I intend to do.’ She reached into a pocket and withdrew a business card with two fingers, slipping it deftly into TM’s back pocket. ‘Give us a shout if you do happen to hear anything.’
Then she was gone, Keelut bounding out after her.
‘That utter bitch,’ Veggie hissed.
‘So she really is… evil?’ Marty asked, looking helpless.
‘I don’t know,’ TM said. ‘Altair – Al Tyer – he said something about things on this level not being good or evil, just sort of existing according to the laws of physics and stuff.’
‘She’s evil as shit,’ Veggie said. ‘She was my hero and she’s literally the most evil-est person in the world.’
‘What do we do now?’ Marty said. ‘Do we just… carry on like normal? Like nothing happened?’
‘We go home,’ TM said.
‘And when we get there,’ Veggie continued, ‘we call Dominika, and we discuss how we’re going to murder Riegel O’Ryan.’
‘I don’t know if –’
Veggie stood and strode over to TM, grasping his shoulders. ‘Tom,’ he said. ‘She killed Ziggy. Maybe not in the normal fully-dead sense of the word, but to all practical intents and purposes, that’s what she did.’
‘I know, and I get it, I do, but I don’t see how –’
‘It doesn’t matter how!’ Veggie snapped. ’If we have to hold O’Ryan hostage to get Ziggy back, then great. Whatever. But she’s here, she’s back in our city and she won’t just let us go, not a chance. She needs to be stopped.’
TM sighed and looked past Veggie’s red face to Marty. ‘What do you think?’ he asked.
Marty took a few deep breaths. ‘I don’t know,’ he said eventually. ’If she’s here, then somebody else is going to lose someone like Ziggy, like we did. It… feels like we’ve got to do something.’
‘Can we just go home and… think about it there?’ TM groaned.
‘Fine,’ Veggie said. ‘I’m calling Dominika.’