The three quickly finished their drinks. Matheus wanted to savour it. It was rare that he allowed himself a treat like this, but three-thirty had already come and passed and they didn’t want give Parma any more misgivings.
As they rose to their feet, Matheus brought up whether it was a good idea for them to arrive all at once.
‘Should we elect to stagger our entrances,’ he suggested, ‘They may suspect less that we were talking. In all likelihood, they may be far less suspicious.’
‘No need,’ said Pretorius, his hand wafting away the idea. ‘They probably know we’ve been talking, and if they do, they’re gonna be far more suspicious of us all arriving in five minute intervals like clockwork.’
Matheus frowned with irritation. Mrs Hashiji seemed to notice and smiled sweetly at him. ‘There is no harm in revealing that we three had drinks together before the meeting,’ she said, ‘We need to be as honest as possible. Unless the information may prove harmful.’
Matheus felt his irritation recede, but not entirely.
As they left the coffee store and walked the block to the Parma building’s entrance, their conversation ended. Matheus glanced at Mrs Hashiji. She seemed lost in thought, her expression sad and distant. The Lord only knows what she’s thinking of, Matheus thought.
He found himself reflecting once again on the feeling of unreality. Less than two weeks ago, he had not known either of these people. Now, he and they were casually discussing lying to the authorities concerning a violent incident that they were all involved in. It was unsettling.
He was wondering to what extent he should really be trusting them, when Pretorius’s gruff voice shattered his thoughts.
‘You two were also told by Sandy that we’re here to conduct some tests.’ It was not a question.
When Mrs Hashiji didn’t respond, Matheus felt compelled to speak up. ‘Sandy mentioned something concerning them to me, yes.’ There was another silence, and Matheus once more felt the necessity to end it. ‘To what do you think that they might include?’
‘Powers,’ said Pretorius. ‘Can’t be anything else, right?’
‘You’re talking about the tests?’ said Mrs Hashiji, as if coming out of a daze, ‘I too was curious about them. I thought that they had finished testing on the night of the accident?’
Pretorius shrugged. ‘Probably they’re trying out a different idea. They know what our abilities are. Now they’re trying to work out where they came from. An origin.’
Matheus realised that he knew something Pretorius didn’t. He coughed politely. ‘Sandy mentioned to me that they had access to a new consultant that could garner fresh insights into our situation.’
He carefully watched the reactions of the other two. Mrs Hashiji merely nodded her head slightly, as if slowly processing what had been said.
In contrast, Pretorius deepened his scowl, and began to pound the pavement even harder with his cane. ‘I should have guessed that…’ he said, his voice gruff and low.
Arriving at the site of the Parma station, the three walked through the underground parking lot. The air was cool and damp down here and thankfully the parking lot was free of people. That was, until they turned a corner and found Agent Jackson stood next to the doorway to the station.
Jackson was bulging out of a dark, almost black suit, incongruously contrasted by a bright blue tie with small pink spots. He was staring at a mobile phone, tapping it with one pudgy index finger and squinting. When he noticed them approaching, he raised his eyes in recognition, but didn’t say anything.
Matheus found himself imagining how the three of them must look.
The squat woman, the lanky man, and the enormous brute, he thought with mingled embarrassment and resignation. The circus has come to town.
It was Mrs Hashiji who spoke first. ‘Sorry for keeping you waiting… Jackson, was it?’
‘At three thirty it was Jackson,’ he said, his high-pitched voice terse, ‘Now it’s three forty-five, that’ll be Agent Jackson, as in “So very, very sorry that we wasted your time here today, Agent Jackson.”’
Mrs Hashiji had taken a step ahead of the other two to speak. Matheus was thankful – Hashiji seemed to have better people skills than himself and Pretorius combined. She tilted her head apologetically. ‘Time ran away with us I’m afraid, Agent Jackson. But how have you been since last we saw you?’
Jackson snorted, then began running through the security protocols to be let into the building, turning his back to them. ‘I’ve been working on your case, Mrs Hashiji. Day in, day out, I’ve been working on the case. Instead of investigating matters that need my immediate attention, I’ve been pouring over case files and histories in stacks tall enough that if they fell they might seriously endanger my health, looking for precedent for the accident – Abe, it’s me,’ he interrupted himself speaking directly into the wall-mounted intercom, ‘You can divert power from the forcefields, or whatever the hell it is you do.’
He turned back to them with a smile that was more than halfway to a grimace.
‘It’s got to the point that when I sit down at the dinner table at the end of the day, instead of seeing my wife’s delicious turkey-meatloaf, I just see another overloaded case file until the Mrs slaps my face a few times.’
Matheus studied Jackson. He did indeed look tired. Small bags were forming under his eyes and, though he had never looked healthy, his skin seemed even tighter than before. Combined with the conspicuous coffee stain on his shirt, he looked like a man who’d spent too many hours in his office when he should have been sleeping.
He also noticed that the small, regularly spaced pink spots on his tie were actually cartoon donuts. Matheus wasn’t sure whether to attribute that to tiredness, or a severe lack of fashion-sense.
Mrs Hashiji laughed good-naturedly. ‘I am certain that you will find whatever is responsible soon.’
Agent Jackson smiled at them all. ‘I am certain we will.’
The elevator doors opened.
‘Pile in,’ said Jackson, ‘It’ll be a squeeze, but it’s only a short trip.’
Pretorius and Hashiji made moves to enter the elevator. Matheus coughed as politely as he could, which still sounded like a car struggling to start. ‘I am afraid that my new form is not quite so suitable for elevators and other such means of conveyance.’
Jackson stared at Matheus, and even gave him a top to bottom glance. ‘Are you sure?’ he said, ‘It’s capacity’s ten people.’
Matheus wasn’t sure if Jackson’s words were intended to prickle him or not. If they were, then they had succeeded, but he forced himself to chuckle. ‘Perhaps a little more exercise up and down the stairs,’ he said with a humourless smile and a small pat on his stomach, ‘And I will be slim enough to ride the elevator to my heart’s content.’
‘Hm, exercise,’ said Jackson, glancing down at his own not inconsiderable girth, ‘I heard of that idea once.’ He leant over to the intercom once more, ‘Abe, would you please let Mr Costa into the stairwell, he’s decided he’d like to shame the tub of lard that’s talking to you right now.’
To the left of the elevator doors an unremarkable door the same grey colour as the walls unlocked with a barley perceptible click.
While Hashiji, Pretorius, and Jackson took the elevator to the station, Matheus made his way down an unremarkable staircase. It had clearly only ever intended to be an emergency exit, with blank concrete walls stained dark with damp and stairs made from a metal lattice.
Matheus trod as carefully as he could on the staircase, wincing at every protesting creak from the metal. In reality, he knew that it would have probably been more sensible to take the elevator. Though precarious, the fact that it was built to take a set weight that he was still fairly certain he was under, meant that it would have been a much safer option.
But Matheus didn’t want to give Jackson the satisfaction.
After five flights that Matheus thought would go on forever, Matheus was on a concrete landing with a fire exit door in front of him. He paused for a moment. Slowly, he brought up his right hand to his left one. Gently, his huge fingers moving slowly across its surface, he traced the lines on his left hand down to his wrist.
His fingers brushed lightly over his watch. It was a large watch, and by the standards of most people it would be hilariously oversized. On Matheus’s enormous wrist though, it seemed tiny and delicate. A child’s watch.
His fingers brushed the strap. It had been carefully designed to be used by him, so he had little difficulty in making sure that it was securely fastened. He undid it, fastened it again, making sure it wasn’t too tight or too loose. He felt the stiff leather of the strap against his pliant, vaguely tacky skin.
He gave the skin of his arm a squeeze, flexed his fingers. Slowly, Matheus confronted the fact that there was nothing else he could do to delay walking through the door and joining the others. Sighing a little, he reached up for the handle and opened the door.
‘You get lost?’ said Jackson, scoffing.
‘The stairs rather took my breath I’m afraid,’ Matheus responded.
‘Well, you better catch it fast – some of these tests may get physical.’ Jackson indicated the small, elderly white man behind the counter, ‘Y’all better sign in with Abe here.’
Abe neither said a word nor looked at the three of them as he pushed the book to them, nor as they signed their names, nor as they pushed it back. Matheus was used to people pretending not to notice him, so he found himself looking for the telltale signs in Abe’s face. But he either was a better actor than most, or he genuinely didn’t care who they were.
The trio followed Jackson as he led them through the anonymous corridors of the Parma building. Jackson was clearly walking as fast as he could go, which wasn’t altogether that fast. The three of them were keeping pace easily.
‘The reason we are in a rush is that it isn’t just myself, Sandy, and Monica whom you are wasting the time of today – oh no. We have brought in, at great expense, I might add, a specialist in he field of supernatural abilities, a Dr Moon. She’ll be asking you to perform some fairly simple mental and physical challenges involving your powers. She’s a busy lady – a very busy lady – so we need to make sure that when we arrive there we make sure that we are on our best behaviour.’
‘Busy enough that you had to call us all in at the same time instead of one by one,’ said Pretorius. The hint of smugness in his voice did not go unnoticed by Matheus.
Jackson clicked his tongue, but then continued as if Pretorius hadn’t spoken.
‘The tests today will hopefully give us information on the nature of your powers, and hopefully some insight into their origins and…’ he paused, ‘Side-effects.’
It didn’t matter that Jackson didn’t turn or change his tone or indicate him in any way, Matheus still knew that the line was directed at him.
The awkward quiet was broken by them emerging into a large office. Other agents, dressed in the same dark suits with brightly coloured ties familiar from Jackson and Sandy were sat at computers in various cubicles, about six altogether. Between the cubicles a few agents were chatting with each other over coffee.
After everything else Matheus had seen of Parma, it struck him as being unexpectedly real. More casual. To Matheus, it could have been the office space of any mid-sized metropolitan police station. Other than the lack of windows, there was nothing to suggest that this was the underground headquarters of a highly secretive, supernatural agency. There was even a wilting plant and a water cooler in the far corner.
As they walked into the room, Matheus noticed a few eyes glance up at them, then glance away with barely any recognition.
He remembered what Hashiji had said. That from what she had seen, people at the station were still resentful of them. Matheus narrowed his eyes as he glanced around the room. It certainly didn’t feel like they were avoiding looking at them, but then maybe they were trying to hide it now. Probably they were all thinking about him.
You’re getting paranoid, he chided himself, internally, You’re not always the centre of attention.
As he lumbered his huge body through the double doors and into the space, he wished that he could believe himself.
One of the agents did maintain eye-contact with them, however. A small, squat woman, wearing purple-framed glasses. She was sitting at a desk in the back corner, away from the others, typing at a desktop computer. When she saw the three of them walk into the room she fixed them with a stare that suggested they were unpleasant task that she would now have no choice but the deal with. It was the look someone might give a clogged toilet. She stood up from her desk and made moves to join them.
Jackson smiled at the approaching woman. ‘Agent Maria!’ he said, ‘Just the person I wanted to see.’
‘That’s Pelligrini, Jackson,’ was the woman. Just from her voice, Matheus instantly disliked her. It was a grating drawl that bored straight to the centre of his head like a dentist’s drill.
Jackson chuckled. Even with his back turned to Matheus, he knew that it was forced. ‘You’re old-fashioned, Pelligrini, that’s what I like about you. Sandy and the others ready for us?’
‘They’re ready, but there’s a change of plans.’
Jackson had been walking diagonally across the office space, with the rest of the group following him, clearly trying to pass Pelligini without lingering. Now he came to a stop, giving his full attention to her.
‘What’s changed?’ he said, his mouth hanging open slightly in genuinely concern.
‘Moon’s cancelled,’ said Pelligrini. Matheus couldn’t be certain, but he thought that he detected a hint of genuine satisfaction in the woman’s voice.
‘You’re shitting me,’ said Jackson, incredulously.
‘You’ve got Richmond instead.’ She definitely relished passing on bad news.
‘Lintz!?’ Jackson almost shouted. Seemingly embarrassed, he lowered it to his usual speaking volume, ‘Where the hell did they even drag Lintz in from?’
‘Look on the bright side,’ she said, ‘The Maxwell will still be coming.’
‘Oh, good!’ said Jackson, with mock enthusiasm, ‘Well, that’s all fine then! I mean, gee-whiz, I thought that we might have some trouble here until I heard that the Maxwell was still coming.’
Pelligrini didn’t say anything. She just continued smiling smugly at Jackson.
He stared at her for a second longer, and then slowly shook his head. ‘Shit…’ he said under his breath. He looked back at the three of them. ‘So, scratch everything I said about Dr Moon. Today you’ll be seen by Richmond Lintz. Feel free to slacken your behaviour.’
‘Excuse me, I don’t want to trouble you,’ said Pretorius in a voice that suggested he wouldn’t lose sleep if he did, ‘But can we move things along a little? I actually have things I was hoping to do today.’
‘Well excuse me,’ said Jackson, fixing Pretorius with an angry stare, ‘But I wasn’t the one who arrived twenty-minutes late.’ Pretorius’s words did seem to focus him however, as he began walking with purpose towards one of the far doors in the office. ‘Well, without further ado, enjoy the tests.’
Jackson opened the door and indicated for the three to enter the room.