A receptionist helped him to contact 13 and they arranged to meet that morning in a café on the 13th floor. 13 said that another unnamed word would join them; Treason, Ubiquarian hoped. He went to another café to while away the time and as seemed the case throughout the building, the clientele treated eating as something of a chore, not to be enjoyed or savoured, merely performed. There was no bustle, just a muted clang of crockery, a barely audible clink of cups and minimal conversation. He was weary, disoriented and longed for a return to normality…the same normality he’d opted to escape from so recently.
The digital clock on the wall of the canteen showed that he still had an hour to kill before his meeting. His life had previously abounded with human contact and mental stimuli to the extent that he often longed for some free time but now that he had some, it was unwelcome. Ennui and lethargy were alien to Ubiquarian and he felt time drag almost to a standstill.
Immediately after his confrontation with Ubiquarian, Onesie called Criminal.
‘Where the hell have you been?’ Criminal asked. ‘We’ve searched high and, er, we’ve been concerned.’
‘I’m OK. I got some hassle in the C-block so I made myself scarce for a few days.’
‘In C-block? You were being hassled? Why didn’t you tell me? Surely you know that I can get things sorted out...especially on my own manor. Where are you now?’
‘I’m in the temporary accommodation block and…’
‘What in God’s name possessed you to go there? That’s not going to raise your profile, is it? Get your arse back over here.’ He lowered his voice to a more conciliatory tone. ‘Look, you’ve got friends here and we want you to be accepted so…’
This time, Criminal was cut short. ‘Criminal, I rang to tell you that one of the guys who gave me grief in C-block is here now as well. He looks different but it’s him, definitely.’
‘What? He followed you there? In disguise? Who is he? Where can I find him?’
‘Right now, it looks like he’s leaving the place. I stopped him in a corridor and…’
‘You what? You mean he’s seen you and fled. Follow him and let me know where and who he is. OK?’
‘OK,’ said Onesie. ‘This is like being in a film. Hur, hur, hur.’
‘Just get moving…now!’ yelled Criminal. He ended the call and threw down his mobile in disgust as Cad and Criminal looked at him, eyebrows raised. ‘Unbelievable! What an idiot! Why did we get involved with that clown? I don’t care how much we get paid if he gets into the OED; it won’t be enough. He says someone was giving him grief here so he bolted for the refugee place and was followed there by the same bloke who’s now in disguise. How much can we believe from that idiot?’
‘He’s too stupid to make it up,’ said Cad. ‘So, he’s probably right. Has he any idea who the pursuer is?’
‘No. Onesie said something to him and he’s now scarpered.’ Criminal rolled his eyes. ‘I told him to follow the bloke. Trouble is Onesie is hardly likely to do that without being noticed.’
‘You say someone was giving him grief here in C-block,’ said Crook. ‘Well, the other day in the bar when we were trying to get Onesie used to how normal people behave in public, he clammed up at one stage when two words gave him the stare…Conspiracy and Crusade. I didn’t think anything of it at the time – if you look like Onesie, you have to expect that – but he did seem spooked by it and it was the next day that he disappeared.’
‘This is starting to make sense,’ said Cad. ‘I had a visit from Clever and some decent bit of totty asking whether I could help them find their friend…Crusade. He’s been missing for the last few days. I think we have our suspect, chaps.’
‘Yeah and that paranoid Conspiracy guy mentioned Crusade the other day when we grilled him on why he was asking questions about Onesie,’ added Criminal. ‘So…we know who we’re looking for, we know he has it in for Onesie, we know he’s disguised himself and we know where he’s holed up. The only problem is that we’re relying on someone who dresses like an infant to keep tabs on him.’
‘Don’t you think we should contact Retailer and let him know that we’ve found Onesie? He does, after all, have an interest in this and he’s paying us.’
‘I don’t think we should,’ Cad said, glancing at Criminal. ‘Not yet. If we contact Retailer and something actually happens to Onesie – like he really does disappear – it makes us culpable. However, if we keep schtum and he disappears, then it hasn’t really happened on our watch, has it? Besides, Conspiracy can vouch for the fact that we were actively trying to find him.’
Criminal smiled. ‘What a calculating mind you have, Cad. If I didn’t know you better, I’d even go as far as to say that your prime concern isn’t Onesie’s safety.’
‘Perish the thought, old boy. Now, let’s move on to more interesting matters such as that bit of totty who accompanied Clever…Crumpet. I now have an extra incentive to find Crusade. If we find him and he returns to the fold, I might be a hero in Crumpet’s eyes but if Crusade’s done the nasty on Onesie, old Cad here can regretfully inform the fair Crumpet that her friend was a bit of a scoundrel and she may wish for a replacement in her affections. Ding dong! Anyway, that’s for another day…or evening. Presuming Onesie stays out of harm’s way, let’s start raising his profile?’
‘Got any ideas, Cad?’
‘I thought the Word of the Year awards would be a good place for us to make an appearance with him. The organisers are suckers for having a few disreputable types like us turn up on such occasions…makes the whole event a bit edgier or some bollocks like that. They’d love to see something kick-off and pretend to be outraged. We could introduce Onesie to Celebrity or Publicist or, best of all, any boy band types present; boy bands and Onesie are the sort of idiots who’d make natural companions. We just need to wangle an invite.’
The theme tune to The Bill – Criminal’s ringtone – sounded and Criminal answered the call:
‘Oh, good…Well done…And he didn’t see you…Oh, never mind about that...Definitely still there, you’re sure?...Good work…No, there shouldn’t be any need but do if you wish…Good man…Call if there’s any problems.
‘We may have underestimated our man-child friend. He’s actually tracked down Crusade to Fibonacci House where he seems to have settled down for the night. Onesie is so taken with this new game – and so eager to impress – that he’s going to wait there and keep tabs on things. I don’t think there’s any need to rush things. We can saunter over in the morning and see what’s what.’
‘Can we trust him not to do anything stupid?’
‘Probably not but he’s so pumped he won’t let Crusade out of his sight. An early morning visit from us would be less conspicuous than one at this time of night. Besides, I’m all in. I need some sleep first.’
Ubiquarian was the first of the non-regulars to arrive at the 13th floor café in Fibonacci House that morning. A coffee made him feel sharper, more alert as he watched the numbers eat breakfast with an air of detachment. They only looked animated when a new arrival wearing a white shirt with a monogrammed 1 in purple stitching on the breast pocket swept regally into the café followed by a small entourage who jostled to take his order.
This had to be 1 and Ubiquarian leaned forward to get a better view as the rest of the clientele either tried frantically to catch his attention or coyly avoided his gaze. 1 looked around with an imperial, haughty expression; a barely perceptible nod here, a casual raise of the eyebrow there. His minions reached a compromise as one ferried a cup of coffee to him, another carried a plate and a third handed him cutlery and a napkin. They all bowed as they did so and immediately retreated to a nearby table where they sat, attentively awaiting a summons. Thirteen hadn’t exaggerated in describing 1’s egocentric nature and the display of self-abasement from 1’s minions was almost embarrassing to watch.
So enthralled was Ubiquarian in this circus that he failed to notice another arrival. Only when he saw a new expression on 1’s face and followed his quizzical stare towards the newcomer did he see Treason, dressed in her preferred dark colours – a midnight-blue cardigan, black t-shirt and a knee-length black skirt. So, it was her that 13 had invited. In the word buildings, she would regularly turn heads and, here, amid drab surroundings and the homogeneously-attired numbers, she looked even more exotic. 1 stared in her direction and summoned one of his team who, after a brief exchange, marched purposefully across to Treason and motioned to 1’s table. She shook her head and the minion looked aghast. Distraught, he returned to 1’s table where he received a stern rebuke.
More hesitantly, the chastened assistant retraced the path to Treason’s table. Almost all eyes were now trained on Treason as she patiently listened, waited for the assistant to finish, shrugged and leaned across to say something to him. The assistant gasped and, now completely flustered, returned to his table and spoke contritely to 1. 1 twitched, waved the assistant aside and glanced around the café where diners averted their eyes back towards their food. The room hushed as surreptitious glimpses were sneaked towards both 1 and Treason. Treason, either oblivious to this or enjoying herself, noticed the arrival of 13 and waved cheerfully to him, beckoning him to her table.
1 bristled with indignation, stood up and walked over to Treason’s table. It was only now that 13 saw 1 and his hand flew to his mouth. Treason, engrossed in buttering toast, ignored 1 although he stood just a few feet away from her. She sipped her coffee thoughtfully and, finally, looked up, nodded politely and spoke. 1 stared at an empty chair. Treason looked at him again, this time with a puzzled expression, shrugged and returned her attention to her breakfast.
Ubiquarian was tempted to applaud this vignette of polite contempt but he empathised with 13 who stood frozen a few yards away. Since Ubiquarian was about to join Treason and 13 anyway and hoping to deflect some of 1’s ire away from 13, he stood up and waved to 13 who still lingered. 1 threw a disapproving glance at 13 and swept out of the room with his three underlings scampering after him.
13 stopped at Treason’s table and beckoned Ubiquarian over. Ubiquarian swallowed, brushed some lint from his jacket and slowly walked towards the pair. He could sense many pairs of eyes now trained on him but he was indifferent to them. He tensed as he waited for the moment when Treason would see him.