FIVE YEARS AGO
Belinda didn’t mind being the sole occupant in the staff canteen.
She’d worked here since finishing her chef’s course at TAFE, having found an ad for an advertising agency (with the irony not lost on her) desperately seeking a qualified cook for staff birthday parties. The interview with Mr Ashcroft had gone, as he put it, ‘swimmingly’, and she’d been working there ever since as the only source of culinary sustenance in the entire building.
But she didn’t mind. She was adept in the art of the onion knife, she had studied with the Sage Twists of South African Cuisine and followed a correspondence course with a small group of rehabilitated criminals who’d once staffed an entire prison cafeteria on their own with what little they’d had to hand. She’d learnt the wondrous properties and uses of bathroom lime from those guys. Heh, what a bunch of darling little guys. Like nicer versions of my sons.
Today’s meal was meatloaf and pancakes – sounded like an odd combination, but it did wonders for both the digestive tract and the palettes of any who regularly drank wine – and as such she’d just combined the final mixture for the latter. She was happily stirring away when two of the newbies came in. It was a young man and a woman who – judging by the held hands and lipstick stain on the man’s cheek – were in some kind of relationship.
Belinda checked her watch – still too early for lunch. She stepped up to the serving window. “Can I help you guys?”
The woman looked at her, smiling broadly. “Any chance you’d have ice-cream on hand?”
“Of course, over fifty different flavours.” She raised an eyebrow. “Not exactly healthy food, though. You’re not keen to wait until after lunch?”
“We’re getting married.” The woman proffered her hand to Belinda, showing a massive diamond solitaire sitting in a small white gold claw on a yellow band. “Jacob just proposed upstairs. We figured we’d celebrate before they all come down for lunch.”
Belinda smiled back, beaming. “That’s wonderful, sweetie! Sure thing, pull up a bench and I’ll whip you guys up one of my colossal rainbow sundaes!”
The man – Jacob – nodded appreciatively, smiling as widely as the woman but not saying anything else. Belinda guessed he was either too stunned or just basking in the glory of the moment. She couldn’t blame him.
Belinda set about bringing out a giant tub of rainbow ice-cream. “So what’s your name, hun?”
The woman sat on the bench next to Jacob, lying back against his chest and examining her engagement ring. “It’s Anna. Anna Farraday.”
FOUR YEARS AGO
Today it was lemon salmon with chives. It was a recipe Belinda had been perfecting for the past few weeks – Damian had mentioned one of the company executives was a fan of fresh fish, and despite her own hatred for the aquatic bastards she was cooking them anyway. It’d take hours to get the fetid stink out of her apron afterwards.
A fresh batch of trainees had just finished Basic Operations, so as well as the executive meal she also had to prepare something special for the newbies’ first achievement – apparently some fried food had been requested, and she’d relented from her former healthy eating kick and had a fryer full of wedges and another of onion rings burbling away in the background. It had been a hectic morning in the kitchen, and she was looking forward to heading home to Michael. Way better than fish and fried shit.
Halfway through the preparation she heard the doors swing open, and a second late Dac waltzed in with an array of building contractors for the new underground labs being constructed. Unlike normal Australian tradesmen with perpetual bum cleavage and too much armpit hair, these gentlemen wore black bodysuits and carried gas masks loaded with tiny oxygen tanks.
They looked quite appealing. She made a mental note to ask if Michael could borrow one of the suits later.
“And that,” Dac was explaining, pointing at the canteen, “is the ‘caf. Belinda’s the bonzer sheila behind the serving window. She’ll make you Sicilian oysters with sweet Savannah sauces if you ask her nicely.”
One of the builders looked at the buffet in front of the window with a hungry expression. “Christ, I could use some real food. All this hard work…” He winked mischievously at Belinda.
Dac stepped in before Belinda could respond. “Mate, she’s married. Nice try, though.”
The contractor didn’t look appeased. “Don’t matter to me, buddy. I been missing the touch of a woman for a while, especially one who cooks.” He began walking towards Belinda, flexing his muscles lasciviously.
Dac looked like he was about to intervene when Belinda, thinking fast, reached back behind her and wrenched out the fryer full of onion rings. Without hesitation she pelted it straight at the contractor. The man fell to the ground screaming as the fried goods burned his skin and started to melt his bodysuit. He clutched at his face in horror.
The other men looked over at Belinda, who raised an eyebrow at the stricken contractor. “Well,” she said with a wink, “if you like it, put a ring on it.”
Dac’s eyes suddenly widened. “Oh my god, that’s awesome!” He reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved his quote book. “I am so writing that down!”
THREE AND A HALF YEARS AGO
“So how serious are you?” Belinda asked, taking another sip from the hot chocolate.
Mary’s face was pale save for her eyes, red raw from crying. “Very. I’ve never felt this way about another person before. He’s just so…so brilliant.” She looked about to create a fresh wave of tears, rubbing her face with her hand. “But I can’t…I just can’t…” She trailed off, looking away before she could start crying to Belinda again.
The canteen lady reached her hand across and rested it on Mary’s. “It’s alright, hun. I understand.”
“I didn’t realise it at first,” Mary said before taking down a big gulp, “but over time…it just makes sense, y’know? We make sense. The Bogoda op – Jacob and I were so good together. We took down Operation Catastrophe and left with minimal casualties. We were so in sync. It just felt…just felt right.” A tear made its way down her cheek.
“Do you think he’s the one?” Belinda asked, already knowing the answer.
Mary coughed, maybe as a way to stop more tears. “I don’t know. I just know I don’t want to not find out. I want to find out…”
She sputtered a bit, starting to cry once more. Belinda’s heart ached for her. “She’s not right!” Mary yelled, the tears streaming afresh. “She’s not right for him! It should be me! Anna’s just a stuck-up bitch, and she’s treating him like shit! I hate her!” She smacked her hand sideways and propelled the mug of hot chocolate across the canteen, smashing it against the wall. The brown liquid ran down the plaster like a bloodstain.
Mary began to dissolve further into tears, and Belinda got up to stand above her. She rested a hand on Mary’s shoulder. “Let it out, hun. Let it out.”
“I just…I wish…” Mary spluttered, “I wish I knew…what to do…I can’t…” She gave up on words, crying as Belinda put her arms around her for comfort.
The doors opened wide, allowing Brendan entry to the canteen. He seemed jovial. “Hey, Belinda-bro! Is there any –”
Belinda reached into her apron and retrieved a broad-bladed kitchen knife. She threw it with all her force and it lodged itself in Brendan’s chest cavity. Blood splattered outwards and splashed all over the floor as he fell backwards, immediately dead.
Mary looked over at his corpse, coming back to herself for a moment and sniffing some of her tears away. “I guess…I guess you heard about the immortality Brendan’s got now?”
Belinda stepped over to the corpse and wrenched her knife free, examining the blood thoughtfully. “No, I hadn’t. I was just getting sick of his accent. I mean, it’s so put on, right?”
TWO YEARS AGO
“So he’s an experiment reject?” Glen asked.
Ash nodded, looking a little shaken. “We found him…I don’t even want to talk about where we found him. It was horrible. He was the only survivor.”
Glen chewed thoughtfully on his salad roll, still with the prosthetic vampire teeth left over from Halloween. “I’d think surviving that place’d be a curse more than anything. Is there any way we can help him?”
“His name’s Graham. They’ve got him down in Psych right now. Damian had a quick look at him – he’s in bad shape.” Ash had graciously declined any food from Belinda, and given the day’s events Belinda completely understood. “All he can do is speak in that gibberish. All those non sequiturs.”
“Has Damian mentioned the incinerator?” The awkward question seemed to come far too easily from Glen.
Ash looked horrified. “He’s a person! We’re not going to burn him like it’s Guy fucking Fawkes Day! I tell you, if Damian ever mentions that thing…” She trailed off, looking angrily at the wall.
Glen seemed to take the hint, getting up swiftly from the table and leaving his salad roll unfinished. “Fair enough, sorry, sorry. I’ll catch you later.” He departed without another word.
Belinda had been preparing a Moroccan curry for the evening’s business dinner, listening idly to their conversation. She scooped a hefty ladleful from the pot and put it into a bowl, then took it to the still-fuming Ash. She sat it next to the young lady, smiling knowingly at her. Ash looked confused.
“You know,” Belinda whispered conspiratorially, “even experimental rejects need to eat. And I know for a fact that the pre-packaged paste they use for anyone below ground tastes like arse.”
Ash eyed the bowl, then looked at Belinda. “I won’t let them put him in the incinerator.” Her voice was steely with conviction.
Belinda gave her a gentle pat on the shoulder. “You’ll take care of him, hun. I know.” Her smile broadened.
Ash returned the smile, taking the bowl and rushing out of the canteen faster than the CRUD executives on Mandatory Salad Day.
ONE YEAR AGO
The funeral would be wrapping up shortly, and Belinda was pretty certain no-one would be coming down after all that. She herself would’ve been at home with Michael, but there were scant few people still inside the building, working. As long as one person stayed in the building, she hung around to cook. People had to eat, and they may as well eat excellence.
Today it was nothing fancy – hot dogs with imported American mustard and pickle relish. She’d had maybe three or four people requiring food today.
She was surprised, however, to see the doors open softly. Jacob dragged his feet as he walked in, still dressed in his funeral attire. He’d loosened his tie, and his face was red from recent tears. He slowly walked over to a nearby table and sat down slowly, gripping the edge until his knuckles went white as he stared off into space.
Belinda approached the serving window cautiously. “Jacob…what are you doing here?”
Jacob seemed to speak into the ether. “The funeral’s over. Everyone’s gone home. I should go home soon too. Brendan’s offered to stay for a few nights while they…while they pack up her…” He stumbled and trailed off as if his jaw had been snapped shut.
“Alright,” Belinda said cautiously. “Can I get you anything?”
“I insisted on an open casket, it was in her will,” Jacob suddenly continued. “Her parents wanted a cremation, but she wanted an open casket and a burial. I fought them for it. Maybe that wasn’t…wasn’t such a good idea. She looked…ghostly.”
Belinda waited a moment before replying. Jacob had always been a man of few words with her, and having him open up in his time of grieving was not the way she’d pictured speaking to him one day. “Can I get you anything to eat?”
Jacob said nothing for a few seconds before looking at her, his face looking even redder and rawer in the fight. “I’d love a bit of rainbow ice-cream, please.”
Belinda nodded, reaching under the counter for her scoop and giving the best comforting smile that she could. “You got it, hun. One colossal rainbow sundae, coming right up.”
The entire scene looked uncomfortably like a mediation. Brandon had been yelling that a plane – specifically the stealth variant they had in the underground hangar – would be ideal for a Canada insertion, while Lonie was adamant that the law forbade it. Apparently it didn’t forbid helicopters, though, so she was requesting one of those instead.
Damian just looked tired.
“A chopper ain’t gonna cut it,” Brandon was yelling. “We can’t get an entire tactical team into one of those!”
Lonie’s glare would’ve set fire to him. “I know for a fact that R’n’D have a prototype for a spacious tactical helicopter that’s been in development for the last year! Take that instead!”
“It’s not ready! It isn’t stealth capable, and it means Dream’ll see us coming!”
“It’s either that, or you invoke the wrath of the law!”
“Then what good’s the damn law if it’ll persecute us for a freakin’ plane!”
“It’s in the legal documents! It’s right –”
“ENOUGH.” Damian’s British tones overrode both of them immediately, bringing them to silence. “Children, that’s enough. I came here for a quick bite for lunch, not to listen to you two fight like schoolgirls.” He took a deep breath before continuing. “It is clear our hands are tied in this matter, so we have no choice to but to acquiesce. As much,” and at this point he raised his hand to stop Brandon protesting, “as I hate being a stickler for rules all the time, we are up for review next week with the company owners. We can’t be seen to be shirking our responsibilities.” He fixed Brandon with a steely look. “Mr Spanner, get the prototype chopper ready.” He shifted his look to Lonie. “Stop being a hardass for rules all the time, Miss Ramona. Now, leave me to my lunch.”
The two of them gave each other a perfunctory glance before each leaving the canteen. Belinda took the opportunity to leave her osso bucco cooking and head out to speak to the British man. She needed a break after the tough batch of cookies from earlier in the day.
“Long day?” she asked, pulling up a seat across from him.
Damian smiled wearily. “You could say that, dear lady. And you?”
Belinda shrugged nonchalantly. “Just some nasty cookies, nothing too hazardous. Are they nearly ready for Toronto?”
Damian looked surprised. “How did you –”
“There isn’t much that escapes my hearing, hun.” Belinda gestured to her actual ears. “Are they ready?”
He nodded, idly picking at his spaghetti; he’d missed the Toblerone cheesecake he’d ordered for Ash’s birthday, and by Belinda’s reckoning hadn’t eaten since four this morning. “Just about. There was a hiccup with Graham 917 not long ago, but it’s all smoothed over now. All we have to deal with is this…bureaucracy.” He made a guttural noise in his throat, looking darkly in the direction Lonie had left.
“I’ve got to ask,” Belinda said, “how come you haven’t quit by now? Ever since you started here you’ve had crisis after crisis, and yet you never give up…don’t you ever just want to stop?”
Damian considered for a moment before replying. “Some days it gets pretty difficult. I’ve seen some dark chapters here, no mistake. But have I ever really wanted to quit?” He paused for a moment. “No, I haven’t. This place would fall apart without my ever-watchful eye.”
Belinda grinned, pleased with the answer. She slapped her hands, pleased, on the tabletop then stood to walk away. “Well, for gung ho bosses such as yourself, I’ve got spare Toblerone cheesecake if you’re game.”
Damian grinned in kind, leaving the spaghetti alone. “My dear, I’m always game.”
“Thanks, Belinda,” Mary said. “It’s always good to talk to you.”
Belinda smiled as best she could while wrestling the giant fish into the pot. “All good, Mary. I’m here if you need me. Break a leg on the op!” She put the phone back on the receiver. “Beryl! Beryl, get that fish back into the pot!”
Beryl – erstwhile hairdresser and occasional kitchenhand – was busy getting her own aquatic companion into another pot. “I can’t, B! ‘E’s too flippin’ ‘uge!”
Belinda grunted in frustration as Beryl’s ineptitude. “Christ’s sake, Beryl, you are the worst kitchenhand I’ve ever employed!”
Beryl’s reply was drowned out by the blaring alarm that began to sound in Belinda’s office, behind all the stoves and ovens. Belinda looked over at her useless companion, calling out, “Forget him, then! Stick him back in the tank! I need you to stick with this one for a sec!”
“But I need to –”
“FOR FUCK’S SAKE BERYL COME AND HOLD MY FISH!”
The stunned mullet that had once been a hairdresser threw her fish like a football into the spacious tank nearby before running with the speed of Hermes over to Belinda’s pot. She began to wrestle the gargantuan bastard as Belinda rushed into her office. The alarm came from her long-range com setup – she’d slaved a sat-phone to her desktop to use as a global communicator.
Not only could she cook, she could jury-rig electronics. Jack of all trades, and master of them too.
The incoming call was from her Canadian informant. She answered immediately. “What’s the word, Trent?”
“The word is ‘revelation’, my friend,” Trent replied as quiet as possible. “We’ve got a rat in the house.”
Belinda stroked her chin thoughtfully. “As we suspected. Have you called Damian yet?”
“Nope. Figured I’d tell you all this, and you can decide what to tell him yourself.”
“Smart.” She grinned. “Do we know who it is?”
“Oh yeah, I picked ‘em straight away. They’re not very subtle with all of this.”
“Well, they are working for Doctor Dream. Subtle’s not in their vocab. There’s no chance they know you know?”
“Not a chance. Nick let me see them through the mirrored glass – they didn’t see me yet. But yeah, I’ve got an ID. I say we watch them for now, see where they end up taking this.”
“Agreed. I’ll let Damian know if and when we need to – send me the details through the secure email. Anything else?”
He paused before responding, and he sounded unsure when he did. “Did the Church send anymore followers on this trip besides me and the Kiwi?”
She thought for a moment. “Not to my knowledge, why?”
“Well, that means we’ve got a third Slossblessed here. They haven’t manifested a power yet, but I can detect it. Don’t know what it is yet.”
Thatwas interesting, and added a bit of a new dynamic. Hopefully for the better. “Keep an eye on them, and if anything arises let me know. A third Slossblessed would aid the team immensely.” She was pleased. “Excellent work, Trent. Good luck in Toronto.”
“Thanks, boss. Trent out.”
Belinda deactivated the com board, pausing in thought as she heard the loud slosh of water from where Beryl was still battling the fish. A Dream mole and an untapped Slossblessed. The game had irrevocably changed now.
Yes, Belinda didn’t mind being the sole occupant in the staff canteen – because whenever someone else came through, nothing escaped her ears.