"Give me a red-eye."
The crowd shifted as the counter cleared, pushing him to the front. He'd forgotten why he came in here, where the compulsion to buy coffee came from. The steamy, high-pitched whine of the elaborate espresso device reminded him of his headache. He ordered a flat white, paid with a card.
The barista caught his wrist and gave it a concerned look.
"I hope you recover soon," she said with English, deliberate politeness.
His eyes drifted to his wrist, where a hospital band dangled. "Just discharged actually. Bit of head trouble…"
Sam drifted, the headache and lingering aftermath of the concussion pushing his thoughts aside. The barista stared at him with her green eyes, sent him a look of concern and delivered his order. "Thanks," Sam cooed.
Outside on the park bench, nursing his coffee, Sam waited for something, anything to steer his listless mind. What he needed, he decided, was something more to write about, something to force his neurons to make new connections to replace those lost. He'd been working on a novella before the accident. When Sam woke up in Great Ormond, among the beeps and pneumatic gasps of life support machines, he had found a manuscript on his bedside table. In it Wanderer, the eponymous character, journeyed through misty halls looking for a way to his home, a great library. It sounded nothing like him. Or maybe it sounded like a version of him before the accident. It didn't matter, the unsettling closeness was the same.
Another sip of coffee. A logo caught his eye. It was a heavily stylized tree that looked a like a crawling snake set on a green, canvas shopping bag carried by a blond, weedy man in a garish orange shirt. Delilah's Rare and Second-Hand Books, read the cheerful print. A wave of nostalgic, irrational joy crashed over Sam.
"Excuse me?" Sam felt himself compelled to say. "Have we met before?"
The man shot him a confused, appraising look. "No, I don't believe so. If you're a student of mine you'll have to visit me during office hours like everyone else. They're listed on the syllabus."
"I'm not a student." Sam wondered if he looked young, whether he should be complimented or offended. "I'm an author. I wrote 'The Cunning Folk' anthology,"
"Oh really?" The man paused, re-appraised him with another look. "I rather liked that anthology. Especially the way you married Celtic poetic forms with folk mysticism. I particularly enjoyed… what was it… the short story about the wise woman trying to save her daughter that the Romans crucified…"
"That's the ticket!" The weedy man slapped his forehead. "Where are my manners? I'm Dr. Nelson Pennywise, and I already know who you are, Mr. Weatherby,"
"Just call me Sam, please." Sam's brain throbbed a migranous throb. "I think I remember where I know you from, Dr. Nelson. Did you give a talk in Glasgow about the absorption of Celtic ritualism into Catholic practices?" He could feel his face grinning in fan-idolizing giddiness but couldn't feel anything. He knew he wanted to smile, wanted to talk to this Dr. Nelson, strange and familiar, but… something felt strange. A side effect of the migraine, perhaps…
"Why yes I did. What a strange coincidence eh, two admirers meeting like this. Earth gets smaller every day." Dr. Nelson shifted the weight of the bag. "I'm actually about to take my lunch, would you like to join me?"
"I'd like that very much."
"The thing you really start to notice," Delilah said in between puffs on a cigarette, "with the monks of this period, is this knee-jerk reaction to their own nostalgia."
She pointed with her latex-gloved fingers at a section of a manuscript which had the dubious provenance of being a Tallaght Monastary original. "You can see it here… oh I'm sorry Sam, I'm used to showing Nelson these things."
"Oh it's no trouble." Sam tried to be polite, standing well away from the dubiously ancient manuscript, carrying three Bean-Space disposable cups tucked into a 4-way cardboard sleeve. He watched as Delilah made antiques appraisal into some kind of exotic, absurdist performance art, complete with arcane tools and enigmatic gestures. He was sure that if this kept up she'd begin dancing with the thing in a ring of standing stones so as to divine the providence of the book.
"Nah, it's rude of me." More puffing on the cigarette, the books frowning in silent judgement at her smoke. "I'll paraphrase. 'Though they were not afraid of sword, nor storm, nor wild beasts, for death was impermanent and the laws of the land were theirs to mediate, they feared the coming of the one true god.'"
"You can see it with the saints." Dr. Nelson's muffled chuckle came from somewhere in the stacks. "Some of the monks are trying their damndest to canonize Lugh."
Sam had since sat down across from Delilah. He flipped through a pulp noir, Heimes's All Shot Up, the smell of library wafting from each page. He remembered the rush of excitement when he went to a library, being paralyzed by all the things he could know but he didn't feel it. Why did his face look interested in the words he read? Why this book? Why did he want to come with Nelson to Delilah's? More sips of coffee.
"Should I be this close, Delilah?" Sam asked, realizing that he and three coffees were probably not the safest things to keep around an eighth century manuscript.
"Wha?" she said, crumbs cascading out from her abortive attack on a ham sandwich. "No no, it's fine. Thing's a fake. No way any original manuscripts survived the collapse of Tallaghut. The forgers got the sentiments right but didn't think to do much beyond the 'tea-stained' pages trick to age the thing."
She whipped her gloves off with the quick, practiced movements of a surgeon, and tossed them into a wastebasket. Her arms stretched and twisted in a tai chi-like post-appraisal ritual. "What do you two say to grabbing a bite after I let the pensioner in the other room know that yard sales don't stock genuine illuminated manuscripts?"
Sam smiled his hollow smile, knowing his face belied how numb he felt. When Dr. Nelson suggested meeting Delilah a few days back, he'd thought that his heart would explode from the rush of life he felt. Now that he was here, with her, with them, surrounded by books, the only thing he felt was nothing. This was what you wanted, right?
In a room that wasn't a room, where the tiles felt like fresh-cut grass and the air smelled of overripe bananas, Sam waited to hear what he wanted to do today. Soon he'd walk right through that lemony door and tell himself what he wanted. He saw himself approaching, saw his favorite lab coat and his scarred assistant friend. Sam liked to think that the scarred assistant was the part of him that favored direct violent action. Sometimes when Sam wanted something different than Lab Sam did, Scarred Sam would force Sam onto the table. Sam hated going onto the table but sometimes he just couldn't argue with himself.
Today, Sam, we're going to make sure you understand the words
No gain from struggle
Happiness in work
Poverty is desired
Sam's sweaty forehead left a residue on the type writer. Vertigo. Nausea. The lonely futon on the bare floor had been shifted out of the corner of the unfurnished, spartan, studio apartment by his thrashing in the night. A document sat freshly composed on the desk. Sam crushed it into a ball and tossed it in the wastebasket.
"Remind me why we're doing this again?" Sam stage-whispered to a crampon and 'ninja glove' bedecked Delilah who was rapidly ascending the side of the abandoned hydraulic accumulator tower at the end of Brambly-Moore Dock.
Delilah would never get a chance to answer.
"Because, you dozy duffer, we're making a statement for the Movement!" screeched another woman pulling herself onto the roof. "Delilah, I thought you said this bloke was down with the Movement."
"Oh for Christ's sake Tang," Delilah shouted over a gust of ocean wind. "The man's recovering from a trauma! Let him have all the second thoughts he wants!"
Tang, a round-faced Chinese woman in her twenties inspected Sam through her glasses like she'd just caught a silverfish. "Wait. He's that bloke?"
"What bloke?" Sam said nervously, fingering the rope Delilah had pressed into his hands with orders against dropping it. He looked to Delilah, who had returned to climbing. He felt helpless on the inside, knew he looked confused on the outside.
"You! You're the addled bloke that Delilah and Nelson adopted off the streets like a little lost sex kitten."
"Excuse me?" Sam doesn't think that means what she thinks it does
"It's okay Sam," Delilah said from higher up the wall. "Everybody knows you're recovering from an accident."
"I don't want everybody to know I'm recovering from an accident! Jesus, Mary and Tap-dancing Joseph, people are going to treat me like some kind of nutter or something too fragile to bump the wrong way!" Sam could feel his vocal cords tighten in calculated outrage. Sam wants to be seen as normal.
Tang cackled. "You are a nutter. Look where you are boyo! We're climbing up an old tower that hasn't been maintained in years! If D over here had any qualms about your stability she'd have left you back with Nelson."
"What did happen to Nelson?" Sam had realized that the good doctor had simply walked away from them while Tang and Delilah debated what color spray paint to use.
Delilah, all the way up the tower and halfway to revealing that she was, as Sam was beginning to suspect, part squirrel, could not be reached for comment.
"I dunno. The Doc's always been a bit gormless. Sometimes he'll just wander down paths nobody else can see. He'll be gone weeks at a time, royal pain for the students too since the man acts like he hasn't been gone at all." Tang expertly secured the end of the rope to a mostly intact chimney. "Anyway Delilah's all done up there, AIN'T YOU NOW LOVE?"
Delilah made some kind of gesture but between her halo of wind-blown scarves and the dim light of the crescent moon Sam couldn't tell if it was a yea or nay. Tang evidently had no such problems and shoved Sam toward the rope. "Go on up; we're ready."
Sam felt himself climbing, felt his face turn from unease to grim, bloody, determination. He looked out at the moonlight glinting off the oil-black harbor. It occurred to him that he could die doing this thing that he never got a solid reason for doing. Growing up Sam had been terrified of heights, the fall from the second-story roof after a close encounter with a wayward bat had seen to that. Intellectually he knew he should be afraid but the flight response refused to kick in. Why did he want to do this?
At the top of the tower Delilah had already begun. Tiny LEDs had been scattered around the floor, giving the impression that stars had fallen here. She'd pulled out a can of spray-paint and was busily tagging the ceiling of the dilapidated tower with symbols Sam faintly recognized from one of her books. She caught him staring. "It's so others can find a Way, Sam."
He nodded, feigning understanding.
Below them Tang had eagerly begun to scrawl "Fuck Security" on the side of the tower, complete with a "no" circle around a crude drawing of a camera. "Yeah! your Panopticon is full of holes you barmy gits!" was shouted at nobody in particular.
"She's doing it again eh?" came the chipper voice of Dr. Nelson.
"Yeah," Delilah said as if his sudden, unannounced appearance at the top of an old, abandoned, industrial tower was entirely normal. "Let her have her fun."
"How the hell did you get up here!" Sam shouted.
"Did you get the words, Nelson?" Delilah didn't miss a beat.
"Yes," Nelson put his hand on Sam's shoulder and stared into his eyes. Before Sam had a chance to push him away Nelson barked, "There's no gain from struggle!"
The last thing Sam heard was a rebel yell from Tang.
Sam found himself in a medieval house out in Lower Bitchfield, a quaint English nowhere. Delilah was there, Nelson was there. They asked him questions. How did he feel? What did he want? Who was he? And Sam, for the first time in a long time didn't feel his body answer for him. He didn't know how to answer.
Delilah had given him a sad look and hugged him. She said that was sadly normal for people like him. "Nelson is right too often. He could tell from the moment he met you. He never gave that talk in Glasgow, he had to cancel last minute, had a graduate student cover for him. It was a test, Sam."
Tang had done the investigation. Sam had never been admitted to the hospital, nor was it terribly likely that Sam was actually Sam Weatherby since Mr. Weatherby had been dead for several weeks. Sam had never really been at all.
"Basically you're a living chatbot, built to seek out certain logos and phrases," Nelson had said. "To hunt down information on The Movement and forward it to people who would do us harm. It's quite ingenious in a existential horror sort of way. The best kind of spy is a spy who does not know they are a spy. One you can turn off with a simple phrase when you need to."
"If by ingenious you mean terrible," Delilah retorted. "What kind of monsters would make other people into walking, agency-free drones?"
"You know exactly who. But that doesn't matter now." Nelson gave Sam a look. "What matters is what Sam here is going to do now that he's aware again."
"What do I want to do?" Sam queried his mental congress, found it full of rage and existential dread, found it full of vague dispossessed sadness, found the mechanical calls and responses that had been his face to the world. Sam knew. Sam was his own man.
He placed the manilla folder on top of the third garbage bin behind "Anand's Indian Tastebud". There was a light mist in the air, making London into a washed up graphic tee. Sam turned and left, not looking back. Across the street Delilah and Nelson waited in the van. He hopped in the back. They waited.
After about 40 minutes of silent anticipation they had their bite. A clean-cut man in a dour, black suit emerged from a nearby apartment and made a bee-line for the garbage cans. He stuffed the folder in his coat and purposely walked away.
Nelson kicked the engine into gear and drove away, tension rapidly decreasing as the van ambled further and further away from Anand's Indian Tastebud.
"How do you feel, Sam?" Delilah asked, placing a hand on his shoulder.
It felt right. He felt right.
And that was how Sam Weatherby became a double agent.