This came from the idea of telling a story from one side of a telephone conversation. I took it a bit further and wondered what it could mean for the person hearing the conversation, if it was one she wasn’t allowed to hear. I also loved the idea of telling a superhero story without any superheroes in it, though thinking back, I’m not sure why! I’d like to thank Marvel, firstly for a lifetime of inspiration and wonder, and secondly, for not suing me
Interview time: 3:23 am
Interview Place: T. Cell 31
Interviewee: Maria Evans.
Expected outcome: Termination.
Notes: Subject has a personal link with CD, clemency requested.
It was just lunch with Carol. Of course, it’s never just lunch. She chose the place, which was why my Caesar salad cost more than I spent on food in a week. Then again, Carol was paying, so I wasn’t complaining. Our phones sat on the table, nearly touching like they’d just met in a bar but were still at the nervous flirting stage.
I needed to go on a date. I can’t tell you how badly, but when you start imagining phones having sex, you know it’s desperate.
The salad was good though, and we settled swiftly into old rhythms.
‘There has to be someone.’ I fished, just as I had done once a month, every month, for the last seven years. Carol shook her head. ‘Nope. No time.’
‘No time? But you don’t do anything.’
‘I do plenty. You just don’t know what it is.’
‘Then tell me, please, before I go mad.’
Carol smiled that winningly humourless smile of hers and shook her head. ‘Maria, you know I can’t do that. If I told you what I do, I’d have to kill you.’
If I hadn’t shared a room with her at University for three years, I’d have thought she was being serious. Carol did deadpan better than any comedian I’ve ever met. But despite the laughter beneath her words, she managed to evade the question and steer the conversation back to my boss.
I have been known to moan about him, maybe once or twice, but on this day, I spotted Carol doing it. She knew he was a safe topic to distract me from whatever I wanted to be talking about, and she guided me expertly there. Only just before I slipped, I set my fork carefully on the side of my plate, took a sip of purse-achingly expensive white wine, and shook my head.
‘Sorry, not this time.’
She raised an eyebrow and cocked her head to one side. It made the long brown hair I’d only ever seen tied up in a tail flop across her shoulder. She had such nice hair, why didn’t she put it down sometimes? She’d been evading that one since Uni as well.
‘I’m sorry.’ She asked.
‘You heard me. Not this time. This time you’re going to tell me what you do. If you really can’t tell me that, you’re going to tell me why you refuse to date.’
Her smile returned, but carried a thin line of frost that made me shiver. She placed a sliver of boiled salmon in her mouth, chewed it carefully, then leant forward. ‘If I told you what I do for a living, I’d have to k—’
‘Yeah, you always say that. But, Carol, this is me, what do you think I’m going to do?’
She shook her head, lips pressed firmly together. ‘It isn’t what you’re going to do. It what’s that knowledge would be worth to other people. You know far too much about me. I’m sorry.’
‘Fine.’ I humphed, folding my arms. ‘Can’t you at least tell me why you didn’t even turn up to meet that tech guy last month? He was cute, right?’
‘Cute, dashing, charming, all those things and more. Never gonna happen.’
I scowled at her and she replied with a smile. Always with the bloody smile. I tucked into my Caesar with a vengeance, determined that I wouldn’t talk about my boss. In fact, I wouldn’t talk about anything to do with me. If she wanted to have lunch together, then we needed to share stuff, instead of turning it into a Maria counselling session like always.
Her phone beeped. It didn’t sound like the normal beep you get from an iphone, but as I examined it, I realised it wasn’t an iphone. Then the screen lit up and I realised it was as far removed from an iphone as my mini was from the grotesquely huge Mercedes Carol had arrived in.
There was someone on screen, ready for Facetime, but he had lots of information flashing in and out around his head and behind him I could make out massive banks of computers, like something from a scifi movie. Carol scowled at the phone and scooped it up from the table.
‘Didn’t I tell you I wasn’t to be bothered?’
‘I’m sorry, commander, but—’
The rest of his voice was cut off as Carol crammed the phone to her ear and clicked one of the buttons on the side. He called her commander. Commander of what? I had a sudden flash back of me and her on the debating team at Uni. She’d been ruthless and almost always right, and we’d called her the commander, just for a laugh. Was that guy from the debating team?
I shook my head, hiding my smile as I noticed Carol glaring at me. I shrugged, mouthing ‘what’ at her and she mimed me putting my hands over my ears. Not a bloody chance. I shook my head and beamed at her. Looks like her hiding days were over. Finally, she spoke.
‘Are you sure?’
‘He’s supposed to be in custody.’
‘How the hell did he escape, the cell’s made of bloody titanium?’
‘How convenient. Who hires the guards? Actually, forget it, we can deal with that later. Where is he now?’
She listened for a few seconds, then rested her head on her free hand and groaned. It wasn’t the sort of sound I’d ever heard her make. It wasn’t the sort of sound I thought Carol knew how to make. She listened a while longer, nodding now and then, before finally speaking.
‘Okay, we have to respond immediately. Who’s in right now?’
‘Okay, that’s not too bad. Has he hurt anyone yet?
‘Uhuh. Fine. Send in the Flag.’
‘Of course I’m bloody sure. I’m surprised he hasn’t taken himself there already.’
‘Now, right now.’
She took the phone away from her head and gave it the sort of look she reserved for people who cut her up when she was driving. Then she slapped it back to the side of her head and almost shouted down it. I ducked, glancing around as I realised more than a few of the people in the restaurant were staring at us.
‘Is he in? Give me the details.’
Waiting. I almost asked something, but it didn’t seem like the right time. So I waited with her. My salad was entirely forgotten about. Carol’s face was pulled taut, like she was lifting weights instead of talking on the phone, and sweat appeared at her hairline to trickle down the side of her face.
An explosion made everyone in the restaurant gasp, then we all stood up and peered downtown. Smoke rose up from near the harbour, but we were at street level and smoke was all I could see. Carol didn’t even lift her head, let alone stand up. She was listening so intently she might have had the secret to life coming through her phone. I was beginning to think it was the secret to her life. And I was beginning to get an idea of what that secret was.
I sat back down, letting the others run shouting from the restaurant, and fixed my attention on Carol. She glanced up, saw the people leaving and nodded grimly. Then she looked at me. Had I not known her as long as I had, I might have thought someone had replaced my friend with an evil doppelganger. But I’d seen that look once before. It was the first and last time we played squash together.
Then she looked back at the table. When she lifted her drink and took a sip, her eyes had cleared a little.
‘Is he okay?’
‘Yeah, I’m not either. Right, send in the Hammer.’
There was no argument this time. Moments later, a huge flash of lightning cracked across the clear spring sky and I ducked. Carol didn’t bat an eyelid. When the clanging stopped bouncing off the buildings around us, she said. ‘Send in Big Boy as well.’
‘You think I don’t know that? We throw everything at him now, or we watch people die. That’s the call, I’ve made it, so execute it.’
She slammed her spare hand onto the table, open palmed, and I jumped. She gave me a brief, apologetic smile and waved with her hand at my salad. I thought she was joking until she spooned a forkful of her lasagna into her mouth and chewed, still listening.
Moments later, another explosion rocked the city. That, I assumed, was Big Boy. Except it wasn’t Big Boy, was it? That was just a code name. I wanted to laugh, but it was all far too real.
‘Good. How long till he gets here?’
‘Korea? What the hell’s he doing in Korea? Could you remind him we… crap. No, don’t tell him anything, except to get his ass here as quickly as humanly possible.’
She listened. I waited. The silence stretched out. Now and then, another boom would rattle down the street. The cars had all stopped and the road was filled with people leaning out their windows, staring fearfully towards the sea.
Then I noticed something else.
There were two vans across the street. Both of them had blacked out windows and neither contained so much as one curious person. Unless they were empty. But they were big and painted the sort of colour you only got with the full extras package, and I very much doubted they were empty.
Had they always been there? We must had have a hundred lunches over the years. Had they always been there? I shivered. That thought, more than the chaos going on only a couple of miles away, cut me to the bone. Did they listen to our conversations? If they did, they must have had a great laugh at my expense.
I rounded on Carol and stopped. Her lips were curving upwards at the corners and she was nodding.
‘Good. Excellent. Are the recovery teams in place? Great, that’s good. Alright. Good job. No, you were right to call me. Okay, see you in ten.’
She placed her phone slowly on the table and cleared her throat. ‘So now you know what I do for a job.’
‘Yeah. Why didn’t you tell me? That was amazing.’
Carol shook her head and I saw something in her eyes I’d never seen there, not even once. ‘I told you why. I’m sorry, Maz, it’s been good.’
She stood, slipped her phone into her pocket, and walked past me. I grabbed her arm. ‘What are you talking about?’
She pulled free of my grasp and kept walking. I looked past her and saw that both vans had their side doors open. Four men in black jumpsuits had emerged and were headed my way.
I scrambled up from the table and ran.