“They form a small community within a small community,” said Mr. Bendix. “They have done for nearly four hundred years; estimates put their numbers at perhaps 2,000 people. It is at the lowest end of self-sustaining, and we suspect they abduct others from time to time to keep their genetic pool from collapsing in on itself. There have been… bodies… found.”
“There’s always bodies,” said Dax. He was sprawling in an orange plastic chair in the Excess Café looking very much out of place. He was dressed in full biker’s leathers with the logo of a newly-popular courier firm blazoned across his chest, with the helmet on the table next to his coffee. The helmet was Prussian blue and covered in script that swirled around itself and seemed almost like ornamentation. His booted feet were on the table, stretched over to the other side and straddling Mr. Bendix who looked uncomfortable about it, but resigned. “When hasn’t there been bodies?”
“There weren’t supposed to be any bodies last time,” said Mr. Bendix. “That was supposed to be recovering two small artworks.”
“There were bodies,” said Dax. “Smelly ones.”
“Well, you know about the bodies up front this time,” said Mr. Bendix. He was wearing a pin-striped suit and looked like an accountant, though in the surroundings of the Excess Café he looked like one rather down on his luck. Or possible meeting the kind of client who had an aversion to paperwork. He had a briefcase with him that was on the floor by his feet, and his knees were crowded uncomfortably beneath the table, which was rather too small to accommodate his 6’4” frame. The table was bolted to the floor, as were the chairs, which contributed to his discomfort. “And we think we’ve found the bodies, anyway. It’s unlikely that there are more: the community is too small to indulge in mass-murder–“
“Ritual sacrifice,” interrupted Dax with a half-smile.
“–and we’ve run all the local records for the community for the last twenty years and found a total of seventeen missing persons that can’t be accounted for.”
“Fine, so you’ve found all the bodies. What do you want us to do then? If this place is as small as you say we can’t infiltrate it. No-one’s going to believe the ‘long-lost cousin’ shtick even if we were willing to try it.”
“No infiltration. No ‘shtick’ as you so eloquently put it. Nothing of the sort. This is an in-and-out job because, as you say, there’s no point trying to build a cover when there’s so few people that everyone knows everyone. One night, one quick raid and you’re out of there as though it never happened. What I nee– what we need from you is plausible deniability about the whole affair.”
Dax raised a jet-black, thick eyebrow. “Since when have we even been a topic of discussion?” he asked, and his voice conveyed genuine surprise.
“Coffee,” said Leah, the waitress, appearing at his knee. She placed down a chipped white mug between his legs and swept away the half-finished, now cold cup. “And tea for you,” she said to Mr. Bendix placing a china cup with a willow-pattern on it in front of him. The tea was fragrant and milky. “With too much sugar.”
Mr. Bendix sniffed. “That coffee doesn’t smell like it came out of a jar,” he said.
“And your tea isn’t PG Tips,” said Leah. She was just standing holding Dax’s empty cup but her voice had its hands on its hips and was glaring at him all the same.
“It’s nice to have you back, Leah,” he said. “It was really was becoming quite unbearable in here without you.”
She softened slightly. “Debs is a nice girl but she doesn’t understand tiered-service,” she said. “I could use–“
“Take it up with HR,” said Mr. Bendix raising a hand. “You know I can’t intervene.”
“He’s right, Leah,” said Dax before Leah could reply. “It’s compartmentalised in there like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Oh right, and you’d know, biker-boy!” She walked off carrying the dirty cup, and Dax noted Mr. Bendix’s eyes following her away.
“Since when have we been a topic for discussion then?” he repeated.
“Oh? Oh! You’re not, but informally… ah, let’s say not-on-topic, there are a few people who, uh, necessarily have to know that there might be the possibility of finding someone like, well, someones like you if there were to be a need for it, if you see what I mean.”
“Like us. But go on.”
“Yes, well. Us. So what we need in this case is to be able to very definitely say that you weren’t available for this even if we’d wanted you to be. Places you would have needed to have been, were we in the position to have been able to request your services, that would clearly be higher priority, if there were such a priority for things like this that don’t exist.”
Dax laughed and shifted his feet, pulling one leg back so that his knee was against his chest and his foot rested now on the edge of the table. He picked up his coffee cup and sniffed it once before sipping it, and enjoying the earthy taste leavened with notes of warm spices.
“You’ll tie yourself in knots,” he said. “So we have a job to do but we have to make sure that there’s no way anyone could show that it was us doing the job?”
“You need to show that you were doing some other job at that time,” said Mr. Bendix. “Which is a bit of a tall order, I grant you.”
“Some might say impossible,” said Dax.
“True, but they don’t know about the abilities your team have, do they?”
Dax sipped his coffee again, enjoying it. Mr. Bendix had been right: while Leah was away the café had been run like a real greasy spoon and it wasn’t much fun. His memories of the first days of the Excess Café had turned out to have been sprinkled with fairy dust, and the mugs of builders’ tea and plates of fried everything with a grease sauce turned out to be much less appetising than he thought they were. Finally he’d realised that it only worked if he went in while he was ravenous. Leah with her approach to tiered-service, where the people the Café were for got real food and everyone else got what they were expecting was a big comfort.
“There are a couple of possibilities, I suppose,” he said at last. “I have a couple of ideas.”
“I have a couple of suggestions as well,” said Mr. Bendix. “Don’t look at me like that Dax, it is part of my job.”
“I think it’s something we do better though.”
“I can provide you with suitable cover jobs.”
There was a moment of silence as the two men looked at each other over their respective cups. Then the clanging of a knife dropped on the floor broke it, and from the little kitchen at the back came a stream of invective.
“Turkish?” asked Dax, tilting his head to hear it better.
“Probably,” said Mr. Bendix. “I know the Polish chef had to go, and he should have been replaced by now.”
“I’d be glad to look over your ideas,” said Dax, carefully looking into his coffee as he spoke. “They might be useful when we’re working out how we’re going to do this.”
“I’d be delighted if they were to come in useful,” said Mr. Bendix equally carefully. There was a moment more of silence.
“Do you have them on you?”
Mr. Bendix put his cup down and picked his briefcase up.
“Isn’t that a bit old-fashioned these days? Shouldn’t you have them on a tablet and just email them to me?”
“You’ve finally got yourself an email account?”
The briefcase combination wheels span under Mr. Bendix’s fingers, and then stopped. He waited for two heartbeats and then spun them again to a different setting, and only this pressed the little release buttons. The lid clicked, and Mr. Bendix lifted it carefully. Inside was a newspaper, which he removed and placed on the table, and underneath that were three manilla folders, all stuffed to bursting. He opened the first without taking it from the case and flicked past several stapled documents until he came to a two-pager printed on ivory paper. “Here you go,” he said.
“This is tomorrow’s newspaper,” said Dax, who’d picked it up and was reading the headlines.
“Yes,” said Mr. Bendix holding out the two-pager. Dax reluctantly swapped the newspaper for it. “We’ve been having problems with the, ah, the, yes. And one of them is advance delivery of the news.”
“That’s a problem? For you?”
“Actually, yes,” said Mr. Bendix looking a little embarrassed. “But we think we’ve know why it’s happening now. And I really shouldn’t talk about it.”
“Fine, it’s your problem,” said Dax. “Right, I’d better get to reading this and thinking about how we’re going to make this work, I guess.”
“I’d appreciate that,” said Mr. Bendix. “Same time tomorrow?”
“Sounds good,” said Dax.