He had somehow lost track of time and it was already night, with the streets almost empty, in a way Paris streets are never empty.
N'buli raced at full pace down the middle of the street, but Mr Goodson was still there. Always just out of the corner of his eye, never quite approaching, but always there. N'buli smashed the window of a parked car and had it hot-wired in less than seven seconds, peeling out into the road.
Mr Goodson was still there, everywhere N'buli looked he could see the man disappearing into doorways and darting around corners. And then there was a bright splash of light, the stench of burning ozone and Mr Goodson was in the car with him.
'Really, N'buli. You’ve got to see this from our perspective.'
N'buli fastened his seat belt and slammed on the brakes, sending Mr Goodson flying forward, crashing through the windshield, bouncing off the bonnet and slamming to the road. N'buli reversed at speed, spun the car around, hooked it around a corner and was almost gone before a garbage truck appeared out of nowhere and slammed into the side of N'buli’s car.
Unhurt, N'buli pulled himself clear. Mr Goodson got slowly to his feet from where he had fallen, picking the glass out of his face and showing no sign of pain. He also got out of the garbage truck and there were more of him coming down the street.
They all parted for Mrs Goodson, who came walking down the centre of the street. There were no cars or anybody walking. It was like the city had been switched off, except for N'buli and the Goodsons.
'N'buli. There really isn’t need for this,' said Mrs Goodson, producing a plate of hot biscuits out of nowhere. 'Why don’t you just calm down?'
All the Mr Goodsons spoke as one. 'There really isn’t any need for this.'
N'buli took off to his left and down the closest alleyway. He ducked into the empty kitchen of a restaurant and out into the main dining area, where every single diner looked like Mr and Mrs Goodson.
'Really, N'buli,' they all said together. 'We can talk about this.'
He blinked and all the duplicate diners merged into two figures, both sitting at the nearest table with large, juicy steaks and several bottles of wine.
'If you're going to carry on like this, we have to tell you the new rules,' said Mr Goodson.
'You have to know how things work,' said Mrs Goodson.
N'buli considered diving through the front window of the restaurant, but he knew they would be waiting outside. And he did need answers. He took a seat at their table and poured himself a glass of red. 'All right. What’s this all about?'
Mr Goodson laughed as he cut off a slice of his steak, popped it in his mouth and spoke with his mouth full. 'Oh come on, N'buli. We’re not going to give everything away yet. You’ve still got some way to go.'
Mrs Goodson reached across the table and took N'buli’s hand. 'We can’t make it easy for you,' she said with genuine concern. 'That’s how it works.'
He pulled his hand away and took a deep swallow of the red. 'How are you doing this? Did you spike my last coffee or something?'
'No,' said the Goodsons at the same time.
'I’m sorry,' said N'buli. 'This has all happened so fast. I’m having a little trouble adjusting.'
'Oh, you’ll be fine,' said Mrs Goodson, waving away his concerns as if they didn’t matter. 'That’s why this is happening to you. You adjust faster than anybody.'
'So adjust to this,' said Mr Goodson. 'You’re not getting any real answers here. The journey is the thing, and you’ve only just begun.'
Now N'buli couldn’t get the Carpenters tune out of his head, but Mr Goodson kept talking. 'But we’ve changed things now. Everybody back at the Paris office thinks you attacked me for no reason, and then dived out a tall window.'
'I didn’t attack you.'
'That’s not how they remember it, or what all the security tapes will show. These kind of…-' Mr Goodson took his time searching for the right word – 'edits are easy. Now, you’ve got all of LOVE after you, you can’t trust anybody and reality may not be entirely inflexible. What are you going to do, N'buli?'
N'buli MacGregor stood up, drained his glass and slammed it back on the table. 'I’m going to figure out what is going on, and I’m going to fix it.'
'Well, you better hurry,' said Mrs Goodson. She nodded out to the front window, where N'buli could see several LOVE agents closing in on the restaurant. He recognised those two – he’d trained them at some point in the seventies – and could tell they were serious by the way they were moving. Agent Black and Agent White joined them, and each man pulled out their Bliss Gun.
N'buli pointed a stern finger at the Goodsons. 'To be continued.'
He ran for it, back out through the kitchen. The Agents outside saw him and gave chase. Black and White ran through the dining area as the other two agents took off down the street outside.
Neither of the Agents even glanced at the Goodsons, as if they could not even see the couple. Mr Goodson offered his wife a taste of his steak.
Her eyes opened wide in appreciation. 'Oh wow! That’s really good!'
N'buli ran down an alley, across a busy street and through a tiny shopping arcade. Paris was alive again, filled with people and vehicles and dogs that looked humiliated to be on a leash, and he had to duck and weave his way through the crowd.
But so did his pursuers. There were two right behind him, and two more who were probably coming in from the left to cut him off. That’s what he would have done.
N'buli ducked to his right and suddenly found himself running along the bank of the Sienne, jumping over old lovers and angry young men arguing about Sartre.
There was a bridge 200 metres away and N'buli knew if he could get across that, he could get into the other side of town, where he knew of a dozen secret passageways that no other LOVE Agent had ever seen. But there were still the two coming in to cut him off, and-
He ducked as Agent Black leapt over a fence in front of him and started running down the steep bank towards him. N'buli tucked and rolled, and Black was coming in so fast he couldn’t stop, tripping over his own momentum, straight into the river. N'buli took off again.
Glancing back, he could see Black in the water, swimming for the other side. The Sienne was crammed with tourist barges and restaurants on the water, and N'buli knew he should beat him there easily.
And then the two Agents who had been trying to cut him off finally got in front of him, up on the bridge. N'buli didn’t slow down and bounded up the steps. The bridge was just for pedestrians, but all the by-standers quickly backed off.
There was no animosity on the faces of all three men as they approached each other.
The first Agent used his big feet and tried to kick N'buli’s head off, but he ducked beneath it easily and took out the Agent’s knee with just enough force to avoid permanent damage. The second Agent lunged forward, but N'buli just punched him square in the nose, and he dropped down beside his partner, blood and tears streaming down his face.
N'buli was about to move again when Agent White came out of nowhere and punched him in the side of the head.
The hit was hard and N'buli’s world was spinning. He fell to one knee and tried to shake the ringing out of his ear, just as White stepped forward and kicked him in the jaw.
He rolled with the hit, but it still hurt like hell and he fell on his backside. White stepped off and rested his hands on his knees.
'Damn, man,' the Agent was saying, his words cutting through the sudden harsh fog in N'buli’s head. 'I hate this running shit, man. Can’t you just come with us?'
N'buli got back to his knees. 'I’m not going to the island.'
White stood up straight and rolled his shoulders. 'People like you go crazy all the time, and we put you on the island until you’re better again. You’re too dangerous to be crazy, N'buli.'
N'buli smiled. 'And you guys should stop trying to use my own tricks on me.' He dived forward and drove his head deep into Agent White’s gut. N'buli’s instincts were that White had a soft belly and it proved right, as the Agent crumbled up into a little ball next to the other two.
N'buli really wanted to say something witty, but he didn’t have the breath for it, and his head hurt like a son of a bitch, so he just carried on across the bridge.
He got to the other side and ran down random side streets. He was in one of the older parts of the city, with quaint cobblestones and buildings with serious history. There was a decent safe house a few blocks away, if he could remember where it was again. It must have been 30 years since he had needed to use it.
N'buli stopped at a slightly familiar intersection and tried to catch his bearings. He was still standing there five seconds later, when a dripping wet Agent Black appeared and violently tackled him to the ground.
There was no way N'buli could roll with this one and he was winded by the double hit. Black rolled away and got to his feet as N'buli tried to stand, but his knees went out from under him and he collapsed in a heap. It was only then that N'buli noticed a blade in Black’s hand, dripping with blood. N'buli looked down and say a red stain on his shirt start to spread, just under the right shoulder.
'Getting old, and too scared to use proper weapons,' said Black, slicking back his wet hair. He went to adjust his collar, but never got the chance, because he was standing in the middle of the street and a car ran him down.
'Huh,' said N'buli, rising his head up off the cobblestones with no small effort. The large car which hit Agent Black screeched to a halt and somebody with very familiar boots got out and ran towards him.
'You took your time,' he croaked, just as he gave up and slipped into unconsciousness.
Valentina just sighed as she picked N'buli up and put him in the back of the car.