The tie didn’t look right, no matter how many times N'buli started over again. He always had a problem with ties, even if he knew the importance of them. A good tie would get him into any building in the world, if the will behind it was strong enough. Now it just looked too short and that wouldn't get him in anywhere.
N'buli cursed loudly in a long-dead language and considered going tie-less.
'You can’t go tie-less,' said Valentina. She always knew what he was thinking. Sitting at the window that showed half of New York’s Central Park, with her back to him, she still knew exactly what he was thinking. 'It’s the Goodsons. You have to put on a good show or they’ll kick us out of these nice apartments they’ve set us up with, and we’re off saving the world while operating out of youth hostels. And I don’t like youth hostels. They all smell like young people.'
'We all smell like young people,' said N'buli.
Valentina shook her head. 'No. We might look fabulously young, but our scents give away our true age.'
N'buli failed to hide his disappointment. 'Do I really smell 119 years old?'
'I’m afraid so.'
'Huh. So what do I smell like then?'
'Like old books and fine red wine.'
'You scare me.'
'You know I have an excellent sense of smell. It's what kept me alive, back in the war.'
N'buli started over again. 'I know how important it is to stay on the Goodsons' bright side.'
She snorted, stood up and came over to give him a hand, but he waved her away and she veered off towards the vodka cabinet.
'Then quit bitching about it,' said Val. She looked inside the cabinet. They were all out of the good stuff, but there was plenty of the bad. Val grabbed the cheapest bottle and poured herself a shot. 'You're their favourite agent, always running into the face of danger and all that shit. And you're charming as hell.'
She knocked back the shot and headed for the door, leaving N'buli to his infinite struggle.
'You could come with me,' pleaded Nbuli, just as she reached the door. 'Two people are better than one.'
'Can't. Family dinner tonight. All 13 of us.'
Something clicked in Nbuli¹s head and the tie somehow ended up in the right shape. 'So it's all up to me again?'
'It's always up to you,' said Valentina, closing the door behind her.
Dave had six hundred dollars in his pocket, had all day to wander around New York and hadn't bought any new comics in three months. He was primed to spend every cent of it.
He spread the money around, dropping a little at the Jeff Haley’s store by the Empire State Building, taking the train out to Brooklyn to spend a good chunk of it at Starship, then back into the city to polish off the rest at Metropolis Comics.
Dave got to his favourite comic shop half an hour after the week’s new releases went up on the shelf, but spent most of the next hour flicking through the store’s collection of Silver Age stuff, wondering why the hell it took him so long to fully appreciate Kirby.
When Jeremy the owner finally showed up, Dave proudly pulled his latest score out of his backpack.
'Check it out.'
'It’s an Archie comic. In Egyptian.'
Jeremy flicked through the comic. 'It seems to still make sense.'
'If Archie stops making sense, in any language, there’s no hope for the rest of us.'
'So what were you doing in Egypt?'
Dave shrugged. 'Saving the world.'
'Huh,' said Jeremy, giving Dave the look he expected. Dave knew nobody believed him when he just told the truth, so he avoided lying altogether. Jeremy genuinely thought he worked in IT.
'Anything good this week?' asked Dave, flipping through the pile of new arrivals and wondering where to start.
'There's always something good. What are you after?'
'I need something fast and exciting and colourful. It's been that kind of month.'
'That's what you say every month.'
'I'm a fast and exciting and colourful guy,' said Dave, turning around to search for back issues of Kamandi so he didn't have to see Jeremy's smirk.
Everybody in LOVE knew about the Goodsons, even if they stayed right out of the action. The Goodson family had been funding the organisation for as long as N'buli had been a member, but he had only seen them outside their comfortable suburban home twice - once at an Arthur Miller play in 1958, and the second time during the 1986 crisis. They seemed happy to stay at home and let the Agents come to them.
It was a nice neighbourhood, N'buli had to concede that, as the taxi drew closer to the Goodson home. The Goodsons had always lived in Queens, in a modest area that nobody really noticed. Their one major condition of their funding was that an Agent came out to their home every Sunday night for dinner and a debrief to tell them of the week's main happenings. N'buli was their favourite Agent - he hoped it was because of his sparkling personality, but knew it was probably because he kept getting sent on the really interesting missions.
N'buli had no idea how rich the Goodsons were, but they were definitely one of the top 10 wealthiest families on the planet. They would have to be to fully fund LOVE - the group had offices, houses and halls in every major city in the world. There were at least 7000 direct employees and they were all paid very well. There were also innumerable charitable donations, humanitarian efforts and social programmes and their cost alone must have run into the billions of dollars. All under the radar, all out of the news.
N'buli was also clueless as to the source of their wealth, but hadn't worried too much about it. He had seen the benefits of their philanthropy hundreds of times over and knew the Goodsons were good people, trying to do the right thing. Nothing else mattered.
Mrs Goodson had called him as the taxi had been over the river, asking him to pick up a bottle of cream to go with her apple strudel. Now he was running late because every convenience store he'd stopped at had been out of cream, or it was all well past its best expiry date. He had finally found some in a store that didn't have any glass windows, and picked up a six pack of beer for his troubles.
He polished off two of the beers before the taxi driver noticed and threatened to kick him out for drinking in his cab. N'buli had tossed $20 notes at the man until he stopped complaining and finished off two more by the time the taxi pulled into the Goodsons' street.
N'buli wasn't ready yet and it cost him another $60 to get the driver to pull up a few houses down, as he took his time with his last two beers. He liked the Goodsons and enjoyed the Sunday dinners. Mrs Goodson made the best gravy he had ever tasted and Mr Goodson always had some new imported beer or fancy wine to share. But he also didn't like talking up his achievements and sometimes – just sometimes - the Goodsons were just a little bit too eager.
He finished his drinks, paid off the cabbie and stepped out into the night. It was a brisk evening and winter was coming on in this part of the world. N'buli had never got used to the cold, even after all those years, and knew he would be basing himself somewhere further south for the next few months.
'First things first,' he muttered to himself as the taxi drove off. He started walking down the street, and managed to get two houses away before he realised he'd left the cream in the cab.
It was a Tuesday, he was stuck in Vancouver and Max wasn't back on duty for another three days, so he locked himself in the local flat and played his favourite drinking game on his own. Setting up the DVD player, he took one shot of vodka and lemonade for every time somebody got shot in the head during the original Dawn of the Dead.
Max was fucked by the time they cleared out the mall.
He woke up sometime after three, feeling like somebody had sneaked in and poured battery acid down his throat.
He got to his feet, staggered in to his kitchen and downed half a bottle of coke.
'Chug a lug, Donna,' moaned Max, before tottering off to bed.
Val caught the regular cross-country evening flight and was at the family home in Malibu by eight, just as Ivan was finishing up dinner preparations. She would have preferred it if they could all have got together at their real home on the shores of the Black Sea, but most of the family were now working at the research facility in Portland, and it was a lot easier for them to get down the coast, rather than across to the other side of the planet.
Val and Ivan had been married since 1962, when he'd saved her life in Uzbekistan and she had never been tempted away. Ivan had never officially joined LOVE, but had stayed at home to raise the kids while Val was off around the world. They had 11 children in the first 15 years of their marriage, before deciding enough was enough. Each of the kids had eventually joined LOVE in some capacity, with the family showing a talent for scientific research that still baffled her. She blamed Ivan's genes for their pacifism, even though she hadn't killed anybody since eighteen years before their eldest had been born.
The first of her kids were arriving at the house and Val said hello to all of them, but stayed on the phone, remote controlling a sweep and clear operation in Eastern Pakistan. The team there were being lead by Sergeant Rockford Strong, who had been showing the world how tough he was since the Korean War, so Val knew they were in good hands. But she also knew there was no need for complacency and her approach to detail had been keeping agents alive for even longer, and she recommended the best way to dispose of Ebola-laced cookies while rolling the meatballs for dinner.
After all, the Pakistani office was one of the busiest and most dangerous postings LOVE had. Agents in that area had to tip-toe around all sorts of local political niceties, without showing their hand. LOVE agents were dedicated to getting rid of as many weapons as possible and Sgt Strong's team were busy cleaning out a terrorist ammo dump that had been found in the foothills when they stumbled across a range of highly toxic baking.
'Maybe we should just blow it up,' suggested Sgt Strong, relying on his usual high explosive solution.
'No! Don't burn it!' she barked down the phone. 'You never know what kind of toxic gas dangerous cupcakes can give off. Load them in a box, take them out into the desert and bury them somewhere in the middle of nowhere, where nobody will even find them.'
'Roger that,' said Strong. 'I'll take care of it personally.'
Half an hour later, Strong sent through the all clear, indicating his team was pulling back to the safety of the cities. He disappeared into the desert night and Valentina signed off, just as Ivan was finishing up his sauce. They had been married for 49 years and he still did most of the cooking. Now that the kids were grown up, Ivan spent most of his time perfecting his cooking and tinkering away at the Great Russian Novel, and had made slow progress on both.
He let Val sample the mushroom sauce as she hung up the phone and she had to take that last thought back - he was making great progress with the cooking. She signalled for another taste, but Ivan wagged his finger.
'Ah, ah, ah. First, no more calls. Now is the time for family.'
Val smiled and tossed the phone over her shoulder. It bounced off the floor and slid under the refrigerator. 'Now is the time for family,' she said, leaning in for her sauce.