Max had gone back to Australia by the time N'buli had sorted things out with the local police force. He needed a discreet phone call from the Governor-General’s office before they let him go, but he still walked out the front door.
N'buli didn’t mind Max’s loyalty to Dave and went straight to the airport and booked a seat on the next commercial flight to New York. They only had economy class tickets left, but N'buli didn’t care. He needed to think.
Somewhere over the pacific, he ate an over-heated Chicken Kiev and considered the name Fassbender had given him. He heard it before. From Dave.
It was just before he went out on the mission with Stevie. Dave had caught up with him at a central Sydney bar and told him about the insane comic distributor who sold rare old books for ridiculously cheap prices. The name had stuck with Dave and he wondered if it had any connection to the Goodsons.
N'buli genuinely didn’t know and their conversation had moved onto the merits of Australian Football. But now he had heard that name twice in a few days, surrounded by death and confusion. It couldn’t be a coincidence. N'buli knew there was no such thing as coincidence. He’d seen the graphs that proved it.
He checked in with LOVE the moment he touched down in New York, hours and hours after leaving Auckland. Max had flown Dave to the London medical facility, the best on the planet. and Valentina was still mourning. Derek and Amanda had a little more information.
'I questioned Fassbender again, and you were right,' said Derek over the phone. 'He had nothing to do with it. Besides, you remember that footage that we got of him running down the alleyway?'
N'buli hailed a taxi to take him into the city. 'Yeah, you said it was taken about the time Stevie and Dave were shot.'
'Not about the same time. Exactly the same time. He was running away while the shots were fired. Somebody else did it. We’re still taking Fassbender back to the island, but it’s more for his own protection than anything else. And that’s all we’ve got. We’re working around the clock to give you some more answers, but there is a weird black hole of information around this.'
'That isn’t normal.'
'Nothing about this case is normal. We’re looking into it. Is there anything else you can share?'
N'buli hadn’t told them about the Goodfun name and he’d told Fassbender to keep his mouth shut about that. He didn’t know who he could trust, yet. 'No, you’ve got it all.'
'Okay. So you’re in New York now?'
'I didn’t tell you where I was going.'
'It’s my job to know. Why are you over there?'
'I’m going to see my Dad,' said N'buli, hanging up the phone and letting the professionals get back to work.
The New York LOVE facilities operated out of an office building. There had been an attempt to move operations into big secret bunkers in the 1950s, but they quickly discovered that New Yorkers liked having windows.
Many of the LOVE agents never went near an office. Captain Tetsuo - who specialised in busting slave trading in African states - operated out of his own boat that was constantly moving up and down the African coast, and the Rogue Socialist never left the Balkan woods, while other agents only seemed to exist on phone calls and in random bursts of action.
And that didn’t even include the pro-bono freelancers like Doctor Obvious; or the mercenaries like Karma Kyle and Rydgen; or the people who seemed to exist on a whole other level of reality like Rocket Fish and King Goob.
N'buli never liked the freelance life and usually liked going into the LOVE offices, no matter what city he was in. Even though he was a child of the open air, he was still impressed by things like air conditioning and liked walking on office carpets in bare feet.
On this particular day, N'buli didn't give a damn about the carpet. He travelled to New York, where one of the largest offices was located, not to take advantage of the greater resources, but to go see his father.
The New York office was located in an anonymous skyscraper just around the corner from Radio City Music Hall and had one of the finest rooftop gardens in the city. This wasn't very surprising, considering old Mr MacGregor had been working on his tiny piece of land for about 160 years.
N'buli’s real parents had died while he had been away at war, killed by a terrible storm when they got caught out in the open, but he was still an emotional wreck after his experiences in the trenches and MacGregor had always been there for him. A simple gardener who always had the absolute best piece of advice, MacGregor had taken him into his house for most of the 1920s and always made it feel like home. He had taken the old man’s last name 70 years ago and was proud to wear it.
He saw MacGregor’s backside first, with the rest of him buried deep in a thick tangle of lilies. Nbuli gave him a minute, before discreetly clearing his throat.
'I know you’re there, you idiot,' came a voice from the lilies. 'Go and put the kettle on. I’ll be done in a minute.'
N'buli knew the drill. MacGregor’s comfortable hut was in the corner of the garden, hidden behind a large apple tree. He put on the kettle and took a seat at the small table. The hut was so small, N'buli could reach over and open the little beer fridge without leaving his seat. It was full of Iron Bru, just like he knew it would be and Nbuli took a can and cracked it open.
'Stay out of my stash, boy,' said MacGregor as he stormed into the hut. He had been grey-bearded and wrinkled from the day N'buli met him, but he looked as alive as ever. 'That stuff is wickedly hard to find in this city.'
'Sorry, Dad,' said N'buli. 'But you hooked me on this awful drink. It’s all your fault.'
'Aye, it probably is,' said MacGregor. He poured himself a cup of tea out of those awful leaves that grew on the hill on the wrong side of Loch Ness and took the seat opposite N'buli. 'Sorry, I’ve got no biscuits. Mrs Mac got me a pack of those chocolate bon-bon things, and I ate the lot before morning tea.'
'The bru will do,' said N'buli, taking a sip and taking a moment to savour the peace and quiet.
MacGregor was – by N'buli’s last estimate – somewhere about 220 years old, but he wasn’t getting any more patient. 'So what is it, son? I wasn’t expecting to see you till next week for little Billy’s bar mitzvah. You only show up unannounced like this when you’ve got something on your mind.'
N'buli took another sip of his drink before starting. 'You heard about what happened in Australia.'
It wasn’t a question - MacGregor knew. He barely seemed to leave his gardens, but he knew everything that was going on. He nodded solemnly. 'Aye, it’s a bad business. Sorry to hear about wee Stevie. He was a good lad. Give my love to Val and the family the next time you see them.' He stretched his arms out, and N'buli could hear his joints creaking. 'But at least Dave is all right. He can’t die yet, he won the last chess game we had. I need a rematch.'
'It’s a mess, is what it is. We still don’t know who actually shot them, and I feel like I’m running around in circles. I met this girl –'
'- not like that. She turned out to be a bad girl, and she told me she was from HATE.'
That surprised MacGregor. He knew a lot, but he didn’t know that. 'Are you sure?'
'I’m sure. I wasn’t involved in the HATE case because I spent the fifties in San Francisco, but you were there. I remember you telling me about it.'
'We don’t talk about HATE,' said MacGregor firmly.
'That’s the problem. Any time I’ve tried to research the case in the last fifty years, I get nothing. Nobody in LOVE will talk about it, and all I know are half-truths and rumours. That’s why I need you, Dad. I need you to tell me what I’m dealing with.'
MacGregor put down his cup of evil-smelling tea. 'Aye. It was in the fifties, like you said. The reason we don’t talk about it is that it was a LOVE problem. We caused it.'
'It was a bunch of traitor agents, wasn’t it?'
'Do you want to hear the story or not, boy?'
'They weren’t traitors, they just had different ideas about doing things, like capital punishment. A lot of them came out of World War Two, they weren’t all as well-adjusted as Val, or you. Even you had your problems.'
N'buli remembered the endless sleepless nights over the decades, too terrified to close his eyes, because he’s convinced it’s all been a dream and he’s really still back in those trenches, that he never left.
'There were only a couple of dozen of them,' said MacGregor, 'but that was enough. It all went rotten and they killed some of our top people, and we came down hard on them. Too hard on them, in the end. They were all killed in the Cape Horn siege. All except for one.'
'I never heard about a survivor.'
'Nobody is supposed to. But even though he had done some terrible things, we still couldn’t kill him, so we locked him away in a compound in Mongolia and forgot all about him. There are just enough people to care for him and keep him secure, but nobody else in the world knows about it. You went there once.'
'Back in nineteen eighty something. We were passing through Mongolia, and we stopped at that camp by the white lake. I had to check in on him, to make sure everything was okay. I made you stay in the car.'
Nbuli remembered that now. He remembered feeling angry about being treated like an 80-year-old child, but had still fallen asleep in the car. 'What was his name, Dad?'
'Ivan something. We always called him Comrade Ivan, because he believed in communism on the existential level, but he just took it too far. He’s still there, as far as I know.'
N'buli let his father take another sip of tea before springing his next question. 'So what about the Goodsons?'
MacGregor smiled as he savoured his tea. 'What about them?'
'Well, they’re the secret funders of everything we do, but we don’t know dick about them. They seem like lovely people, but I’ve seen enough of the world to know that doesn’t mean anything. And then I hear the name Goodfun twice in two days. It can’t be a coincidence.'
MacGregor put down his tea. 'I wondered when you would finally get around to asking about them. Everybody does, sooner or later.'
'Really? I can’t believe we never asked about them before.'
'Some do, and some have over the years. They always hit a brick wall, or just disappear. We don't know where they go. But even I did it, back between the wars, when I had nothing else to do. I found out everything I could about them. And you know what I found?'
'Nothing. There is nothing wrong with the Goodsons. No secrets, no sordid histories. Nothing.'
'Yeah, they're clean. I did a quick look around, and couldn’t find much.'
'I know, but they're too clean. I've been married to Mrs MacGregor for 122 years and there is still stuff she doesn't know about." N'buli knew this wasn't really true, because Mrs MacGregor had been born a boy called Gordon in a village near Inverness in 1712 and was very, very good at figuring out secrets, but he let his Dad continue. "Everybody has something to hide. But that name – Goodfun. I haven’t heard that before.'
'I looked into it a bit. Goodfun Distributors is a shell company registered in Iceland. I can’t find out who the owners are, but it’s linked to some bad stuff.'
'I’ll see what I can do,' said MacGregor. He drained his cup and stood up. He still had to stoop to stop himself from hitting his head on the ceiling of the hut. 'I’ve got some lovely petunias that I’m planning to put in near the entrance. What do you think?'
'Mrs Mac loves her petunias.'
'That she does.' He took N'buli by the hand and shook it firmly. 'Tread carefully now, lad. I don’t want to add you to that missing list.'
'Oh, you know me,” said Nbuli, flashing his best smile. “You’ll never get rid of me.'
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