N'buli had nothing to share, other than the beer on his breath and the cream that was speeding away, but he knocked on the door of the Goodsons' home anyway.
The door opened almost immediately and Mrs Goodson appeared, beaming happily. She motioned for him to come in. 'N'buli! It's so good to see you again! Don't just stand there like a big gorgeous mannequin. Come in.'
Last month, Nbuli had faced off against an army of lost Roman Centurions in the Amazon forest and defeated them through sheer force of will and his smartphone's ability to get a signal deep in the jungle, but there was something about the Goodsons that actually made him a little nervous. It wasn't just the wealth, it was the way they were just so damned nice about everything. 'I did get the cream, but the taxi driver took off with it.'
'They do that sometimes. Last week I left some new shoes in a taxi, and I'll never see those beauties again. Don't worry, I'll come up with something.' She smiled warmly and led him into the dining room, where Mr Goodson was pouring a particularly red wine. He grinned as he topped up a glass.
'That's the worst excuse I've ever heard,' he said, handing the glass to N'buli. 'I've never left anything in a taxi. It's not that hard to hold on to your stuff.'
'Yeah, yeah,' said Mrs Goodson. She headed towards the kitchen, taking a moment to kiss her husband on the cheek as he walked past. 'We can't all be as perfect as you, dear.'
He squinted in mock seriousness as she disappeared into the kitchen.
'You could try, at least,' he shouted after her, before winking at N'buli and motioning to take a seat at the table. 'You didn't need to wear a tie, you know. This isn't anything formal.'
N'buli took a seat and tried the wine. Even though he'd tried his best, he'd never really got a taste for wine, but he could still recognise a decent, unpretentious drop. 'Are you kidding? You guys are richer than God. I can make an effort to look professional, especially when I'm empty-handed.'
'This isn't a professional thing,' said Mr Goodson. 'We like to hear what is going on with the organisation, but this isn't a presentation. If it was, we'd ask for some PowerPoint or something.'
'I know, I know. But for the wages you guys pay, I can make an effort to put on a tie when you invite me for dinner.'
'Fair enough. You're looking good, though. Even with the tie.'
'What are you talking about? We don't change. I've looked like this since 1922.'
Mr Goodson looked a little vacant as he stared into his glass. 'Not physically, but you can always see somebody's true age in their eyes.'
N'buli smiled, but couldn't really tell if his boss was joking or not. He had never really got his head around the anti-aging treatments LOVE offered. Since he had joined in the early 1920s, the organisation had ensured that he hadn't aged a day. It was something the scientific arm of the group had sorted out hundreds of years ago and Nbuli still didn’t know any of the details. All he knew is that he kept taking the blue pills they gave him every day and the reflection in the mirror remained the same.
Chang Tzu, his mentor, trainer and - for one unforgettable night in Bangkok, lover - had once told N'buli that he was more than four hundred years old and there were some in the Intelligence division who claimed to have been around since Shakespeare’s day. N'buli had held his 100th birthday party in the hidden dance club beneath the Great Wall of China 19 years ago, and couldn't imagine what centuries more of life could be like. The weight of experience, the sheer drag of the decades, was already heavy on his soul and his lifespan had only just been extended past its normal length.
'It's not that bad,' said Mr Goodson, pouring another glass of wine for both of them.
N'buli suddenly felt unaccountably embarrassed. 'What? What are you talking about?'
'Ha!' laughed Mr Goodson. 'Trust me, N'buli. We've been doing this for a while. We know what that look means.'
'You know, the “Oh-my-God-I-don't-age-and-it-makes-me-feel-all-weird-inside” look.'
'Oh. That look.'
Mrs Goodson came back into the room. 'The pie is still a few minutes away. Oh.' She looked between her husband and N'buli, before scowling at them both. 'Are you getting all hung up on the not aging thing again?'
N'buli shrugged. 'Only a little.'
She walked around the dining table and sat down beside N'buli, taking his hand in hers. 'Oh, N'buli. I know it's weird, and it's why we've got so many people working on the best way to introduce this medical technology to the greater population. It's a physiological minefield, and the extraordinary people that are recruited into LOVE can only just barely got their heads around it. It tears us up to see so many people dying needlessly out there, when we've got the chance to spare them unnecessary pain, but we can't guarantee that widespread immortality won't cause more problems than it'll solve.'
'I understand all that,' said Nbuli. 'You've been telling me that for years. It's just the way it all keeps piling up, especially when you've got me tearing around the world beating up dickheads every day.'
Mr Goodson smiled at his wife. 'Remember when Chang Tzu said the exact same thing back in 1799? Poor guy, he said his memories were dragging him down to hell.'
'Wait, what?' said N'buli. '1799? I thought you guys were 20th century babies.'
Mrs Goodson laughed. 'No, we just look modern. It's a skill.'
N'buli looked back and forth between the married couple, but couldn't tell if they were joking or not. He'd never been able to tell. 'All right. So what did you tell Chang? He never seemed bothered by it in all the time I knew him.'
'Just the usual,' said Mr Goodson. 'Let the unimportant stuff slide on by, and hold on to the good times. You'll be surprised how it all works out in the end.'
'But isn't that the whole problem? How do I recognise what's important?'
'Here's a little tip,' said Mrs Goodson, standing up from the table and heading towards the kitchen. 'If it smells good, it's worth remembering.'
She left the room, as the smell of the apple strudel that was still baking in the oven drifted back through behind her.
The fake roast lamb they had for the main course - brewed up by somebody in LOVE's pro-active kitchen division - was divine and the strudel was perfect, even without the cream. N'buli ate happily as the conversation turned to some of Mr Goodson's big-issue problems with LOVE. He never tasted any kind of sugar until he was 19, but he had been making up for that lost time ever since.
Somehow, Mr Goodson was talking about HR. 'We've achieved parity with society on the cultural and gender side of things, and we have more gay people than California, but we're still sadly under-represented in staff that come from the trans-gender and disabled communities. We really need to try harder on that.'
'Have you tried asking them?' said N'buli, between mouthfuls of desert.
'It's not as easy as that, my friend. We can't force them to come with us, we have to show them we're on a journey worth taking.'
N'buli finished his strudel. 'This metaphor is getting a bit heavy for me.'
'If you really wanted to play fair, you'd do the dishes more often,' said Mrs Goodson.
'I do my share!' whined Mr Goodson. He turned back to his guest. 'She does the cooking, I do the cleaning up afterwards, that's always been our deal.'
'And I'm still not sure I won that deal. Would you like some more, N'buli?' asked Mrs Goodson, already clearing away his plate.
N'buli couldn't stop grinning. 'Yes please.'
She went back into the kitchen to cut him another slice, while Mr Goodson slowly savoured his own piece of pie, waving his fork in the air as he spoke. 'You have to take your time with your food. How are you going to enjoy it if it barely touches your tongue?'
'Life is too short to waste time over a meal,' said N'buli, well aware of the sarcasm of the statement.
'Really? And what have you got lined up for the next week that's so important?'
'I've got a sit-down with the Drunk Prophet tomorrow, and then there are some roaming cannibal gangs in the Siberian foothills to track down later on.'
Mrs Goodson returned just in time to catch the end of the conversation. 'Cannibals? Really?'
'Oh yeah. They're everywhere. There's the wendigo clan of British Columbia and a few descendants of Sawney Bean hiding away in the Scottish highlands.'
Mrs Goodson put another big slice of pie in front of N'buli. 'Well. Take care. We'd hate to see you end up in somebody's cooking pot. Got a good team to watch your back?'
N'buli didn't waste any time and had half the pie eaten before he replied. 'Nah, these types of ops are better on my own. I get Max to drop me in there, I take down the cannibal clan on my own. Usually, all I have to do is take down their biggest guy, and they follow my lead. If they can't be cured of their taste for human flesh, we drop them off at one of the islands. One of the deserted ones. Either way, the problem ends.'
'But it's not really all that easy, is it? Life is never that easy,' said Mr Goodson.
N'buli shrugged. 'No, you're right. There are still issues to deal with that can't be easily fixed. The child soldiers in the Congo, the inherent unfairness of capitalism, Sofia Morte.'
'I’ve heard of her. She's the honour-killer killer, right? Tracks down families that killed their sisters and daughters for bullshit honour reasons and gives them a taste of their own medicine.'
N'buli was surprised. He’d never heard Mrs Goodson swear before. 'Yeah, that’s her. She’s always one step ahead of us, and what do we do when we catch up with her? Her methods are horrible, but they do get results.'
Mr Goodson exchanged a look with his wife and started chuckling. 'I still don't really get it. I never have.'
'Don't get what?' asked N'buli.
'How you do it. I've been listening to your stories for years, and I still don't know how you can just walk in there on your own without any fear.'
N'buli shrugged. 'Like I said, take down the biggest guy, and you're usually fine.'
'But what if they all jump you? You've got decades of self-defence training, but that won't mean much if 20 cannibals dog-pile on top of you.'
N'buli took a deep breath. 'I still remember the first group like that I took down, a long, long time ago, somewhere in the Urals. They dropped me in there and I spent two days scoping out their camp before deciding to go for it. So I walked straight in and pissed on their fire, and then ran for my life.'
He paused for another sip of wine before continuing.
'Well, that got them running, but I spent my childhood running over half of Africa, and I had to keep slowing down to stay in sight. One point when they looked like giving up, I hid in a tree, jumped out and slapped a couple, and that got us going again.
'I just kept on running and running until only one was after me, and I knew he was the one I needed. He was the alpha male, the angriest, the one most wiling to keep going, so once I had him alone I beat the shit out of him and took control of the whole clan. The secondary team swept in afterwards, and got the cannibals going on a new path. Might have gone a bit far actually, last I heard they had all converted them into full vegans.'
Mr and Mrs Goodson exchanged another of their glances and N'buli shrugged again. 'Once you get the leader out of the way, the others usually follow. It doesn't matter if they're the Techno Lords of the lost Mayan empire or skag heads of Glasgow, people are depressingly easy to push in the right direction.'
'Really?' said Mrs Goodson. 'And just how far do you think they can they pushed?'
'That,' said N'buli, fully aware of exactly how much of a wanker he was sounding like, 'is something I'm still working out.'
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