Alfred's usual lunch was a roast beef sandwich with horseradish. Most of his life, he'd eaten that on white bread with the crusts cut off, but his doctor had all but twisted his arm over his diet and so now he ate it on multigrain with crusts and alfalfa sprouts.
Today, though, today he was doing a thing that he rarely did, and that was eat out. He did this perhaps once a year and never happily. The great comfort of a regular lunch is never having to decide what to eat, but he had left his sandwich at home in the fridge, so it was eat out or go hungry. And eating out meant making a decision.
Alfred leaned on the counter of his shop and chewed his lip. There was a food court in the South Hertling Mall, but that was far enough away that he felt justified in ruling it out. And both of the food outlets at the Mega Centre had been destroyed at the coming of the Pyramid. That left just two choices, Carol's or the kebab shop.
The nice thing about Carol's was that he could easily order a roast beef sandwich on multigrain bread with alfalfa sprouts, which would certainly please him no end. On the other hand, he felt in a disgruntled sort way that he if he was going out, he ought to eat something out of the everyday. He sighed the weary sigh of the tortured everyman ground down by the mundane horrors of life and trudged from his shop to have a meal that was slightly too greasy for his tastes.
As he left, he noticed Fanaka's spooky girlfriend and hurried on, happy not to have to talk to her. She caused mixed emotions in him. On the one hand, when she turned up to share lunch with Fanaka, he found himself jealous that he had no one to eat with. It had been years since Alfred's marriage had collapsed. On the other hand, she scared the everliving bejeesus out of him. He gave a friendly not in her direction and hurried on without waiting for a response.
He took the long way around to the kebab shop, round past the Gulf of Carpet-aria and through the little gap between Hoonworld Auto and the health food shop. That way he missed going past the music store, for fear of a running into the proprietor Jemmy, and ending up on the receiving end of some interminable anecdote. And at last he found himself in front of the grim, foreboding façade of the kebab shop.
The kebab shop always bothered Alfred. It offended him as a small businessman that such a large building had been rented for such a small shop. The actual kebab sales area was just a little hole-in-the wall place, while the free-standing building it was embedded in was a square, two-storey building made of cyclopean stone blocks. It was showy, expensive and probably a violation of the zoning laws.
The shop's owner, Stavros, was out front, chalking up some specials on the a blackboard that was bordered with pictures of craftsmen's tools. "Alfred," Stavros said. "Don't often see you here! What can I get you?"
Stavros was a tall, thin, thoughtful looking man of about forty. His hair was greying but thick and he had an intense look in his brown eyes that Alfred found disquieting. His employees, to a man, wore polo shirts with all the buttons open, showing off chest hair and usually a medallion, but Stavros wore a white shirt and grey pressed pants and somehow never got grease on them.
"Hello, Stavros." Stavros was right, Alfred seldom came by this way even for a chat. And now he was expected to make conversation... What about... Weather? Family? Did Stavros have kids? Was he even married? The man wore a ring, but it had a weird device on it that made it look unlike a wedding band.
"Going to the Centre meeting next Friday?" Alfred hazarded.
"No, I think not," Stavros said, with a shake of his well-groomed head. "It's all gotten a little strange since… you know." He gestured slightly in the direction of the Pyramid. "Besides, I'm having some friends around that night."
"Do you mean here? Because sometimes if I'm driving past, I see lights—"
"What are you having?" Stavros smiled. "No don’t tell me, I think I remember. Chicken yeeros with barbeque sauce, yes?"
The lunch rush was over, and there were two workers behind the counter, but still Stavros made a point of donning his leather apron and serving Alfred himself. Sighing, Alfred took a seat on the stool furthest from the other customers.
"How are the meetings going?" Stavros said.
"Oh, they're going," Alfred said. "Fund raising for the Handy Pavilion people still behind bars. And of course pep talks from… you know."
"She is a good woman," Stavros said, laying out sliced tomatoes with mathematical precision. "But misguided."
"How do you mean?"
"What if… now hear me out… what if the Pyramid is not our enemy? Your kebab, sir."
Alfred unwrapped the foil around the delicacy and took a bite of the soft, salty meat. It needed horseradish.
"But it's a huge evil looking Pyramid with an eye in the top," Alfred said. "That makes it a bad mysterious Pyramid, right? I mean, that's pretty certain."
"Looks can be deceiving."
"Not that deceiving."
Stavros leaned in close. "Ditch the Centre meeting this week. Come by here. There's a few of us who aren’t happy with the way things are going. Come and listen, have a talk."
Alfred squirmed. He was not the sort of person who liked going behind the backs of others, but on the other hand he was a sucker for peer pressure. Perhaps that was why he chose not to have many friends.
"I don't know…"
"Look, we're not opposed to... you know who, and the others. We just think we should, you know, think things through a little more before we do anything drastic."
Alfred sighed again as he felt his resolve crumble. Don't do anything drastic. There was no slogan that could have better captured his soul.
"All right, I'll come," he said.
Stavros smiled and put a can of soft drink next to the kebab. "No charge," he said, and there was something in the way he said it that made Alfred want to go and eat his lunch outside.
As he stood up to go, he saw a homeless guy outside the door, shuffling along, hunched over in the remains of an old grey suit. No, not grey. That suit was probably white when it was new…
A shock ran through Alfred as he recognised the vagrant. Karl! It was Karl Wintergreen, missing since the Battle. Alfred waved to get Karl's attention, but the move seemed to spook him. A look of horror flashed across his bearded face and he turned and ran.
Alfred tried to follow, but a large man was entering the shop just as he tried to leave. By the time the doorway two-step had been accomplished, Karl was long gone.