"Okay," Christian said, glancing around the now closed music shop. "Let me see if I have everything right. You've been invited to a meeting of a sinister secret society."
"Correct," Alfred said.
"And you believe that you should go and spy on this meeting and report back to Delia and Ms Shan who, as I'm sure we all know, are leaders of the resistance against the evil pyramid?"
"Good, good. You know, in context, that almost makes sense," Christian said. "But the next part is, you're too shy and nervous to be a good spy, so you want me to disguise myself as you using a high-tech hologram created by a supercomputer. That's the bit I'm having trouble with."
Alfred sighed. He'd been certain that Christian would be up for this. The lad seemed to be up for anything, so long as it was at least mildly dodgy.
"Look, Christian, what we need is someone who's good at bullshitting, and you are a past master at bullshitting."
An offended look crossed Christian's face. "That's really unfair. I know people think that about me, but I'm as honest as the day is long."
"No, just shitting you," Christian smiled. "Okay, I'll give it a go. So what's the stoner for?" he added, looking at Jemmy Harrison, who was sitting on a stool behind the counter. Startled, Jemmy looked behind himself and shrugged.
"Jemmy here owns and operates the hologram computer," Alfred said. "Or 'computers', I should say, because it's really about five dozen TRS-80s linked up in parallel."
"1980s IT at its finest," Jemmy said, happily. "Only, back then we didn't call it 'IT', it was 'electro-computational systemic…' uh…"
Alfred sighed again. This plan had seemed so simple, so logical in his mind, but once again reality was not being kind to his designs. He ran a hand over his bald head and sighed still further.
"Look, bottom line Christian, are you doing this or not?"
"Oh, sure," Christian said. "Sneak into a secret evil meeting? How could I not?"
"Great. Reckon you can you do in impression of me? The hologram won't make change your voice or mannerisms."
Christian slouched his shoulders, fidgeting slightly with his right hand while miming putting his left hand into a cardigan pocket. He pursed his lips and blinked repeatedly. Alfred frowned as Jemmy cracked up laughing.
"Do the walk!" Jemmy said. "You know, that shuffle, like he's wearing carpet slippers instead of shoes and he's worried they'll fall off."
"Do you mean something like this?" Christian said in a nasal whine.
"Oh, spot on! Spot on! That's wonderful, Alfred, don't you think that's wonderful?"
Christian sighed before Alfred could.
"Let's see how he looks with this hologram," Alfred muttered.
Jemmy retreated to the backroom. Not long after, Christian began to glow a sort of soft lime green. A glowing wireframe covered his body from head to toe and then piece by piece, sight of his face and body was replace by a perfect image of Alfred.
"That's incredible, Jemmy!" Alfred called. "It's like looking in a mirror. Only backwards, I suppose, because…"
Christian's 'Alfred' face suddenly vanished, replaced by empty blackness in which floated the words 'SYNTAX ERROR. READY?' A moment later, the lights in the shop went dead, and Christian resumed his usual appearance.
"I forgot how much power this uses," Jemmy called from the back. "Think I've tripped the circuit breaker. Hang on a minute."
In the dark, Alfred heard footsteps, followed by a thumping, shin barking sort of sound. A string of Jemmy's expletives was cut off by the noise of a box of cymbals falling over.
"So, what exactly do you hope that I find out in this meeting?" Christian asked, his tone suggesting that he was making conversation rather than actually being interested.
"Oh, you know, what this group is up to, what their relationship is with the Pyramid, that sort of thing," Alfred said, airily. "You know, who they're reporting to, which elder gods they worship. It's all very Lovecraft."
His eyes growing used to the half-light from the carpark outside, Alfred could see Christian grinning. "Yeah? Lovecraft, hey?"
"It's a person's name, Christian."
"He was… My word, Christian, is that Karl?"
Alfred didn't need Christian's answer to know that it was. Karl Wintergreen, his white suit torn and filthy, his straw hat battered and unravelling. He stood at the window to Jemmy's music shop looking in at Alfred and Christian. There was a wild look in his eyes, like an animal uncertain whether to flee.
Alfred looked at Christian, who nodded. "You know him better than me," Christian said. "You go."
Slowly… cautiously… careful to keep his hands in plain sight, Alfred made his way to the door. It was locked, but Jemmy's keys were on the counter. Not breaking eye contact with Karl, Alfred picked them up and opened the door. The stench hit him immediately. In the past, Karl had smelled of Blue Stratos, but now he smelled more like an open sewer.
"Karl," Alfred said.
"Alfred?" Karl said. "Alfred from the watch repair place? Is it you?"
"Of course it is, Karl. What… What happened to you?"
"I've been… everywhere, man," Karl said, his eyes distant. "I've been everywhere."
"Not like the song. I mean I have been coterminous with all points in the universe. I think."
"That's great, Karl, but…"
"I crossed vast spaces there, man," Karl whispered. "Seen the nebul-ares man. I've been to Uranus…"
"That's quite enough of that, Karl. Seriously, pull yourself together and tell me…"
With a flicker, the shop lights came back on. Karl flinched, startled by the light. Alfred wondered if Karl was going to try to run, and wondered if he would be able to bring himself to touch the grimy man if he needed to.
For a moment, it could have gone either way. Karl was breathing deeply, but holding his ground. And then Christian – who had been inching forward – suddenly glowed green and returned to looking like Alfred.
"SHAPESHIFTERS!" Karl bellowed. "Reptillian shapeshifters! What did you do to Alfred and that pain in the arse kid?"
"Hey!" Christian said. "Not cool!"
Screaming, Karl turned on his heel and ran. Alfred made a grab at him as he went. For a moment, he had the fleeing stationer, but a huge section of Karl's rotted jacket came away in Alfred's hand. Karl sped into the distance, while Alfred overbalanced and crashed down onto the Jemmy's doormat.