He woke in darkness. He groaned, then moaned from the pain that groaning caused his face. He went to rub his jaw, and discovered he couldn't. His hands were bound. In fact, so were his feet. By the feel of things, he was tied to a chair, feet bound to the legs, hands strapped behind him. He squeezed his eyes shut tightly; his headache was killing him and his mouth felt like he'd used his tongue rather than his hand to grab the grip-tape back on the chute. His hand itself was only quietly buzzing away by now. Thank Papa for small mercies.
A clang, a buzzing sound, and a light flared up above and in front of him. It was painfully bright; he shut his eyes and turned his head to the side, the red of his eyelids now punctuated by bright flashing spots and lines. Gradually the red became less painful and the spot dimmed, and he ventured to open his eyes. He squinted around him.
He was in a long, narrow room. Whether he was at one end or somewhere in the middle he didn't know; he couldn't see behind him. In front of him was a table, the large ugly man from the net sitting on the front edge of the table, a smaller man in a suit sitting on a chair behind it.
“Awake?” said the large man.
Jay felt it reasonably safe to grunt an affirmative.
“How do you feel?” said the man, smiling now.
Jay didn't even bother grunting. He just looked at the man.
“Well, I guess that's unsurprising. You should see your face. It looks like we rescued you from a giant octopus attack. Sucker.”
The man in the suit sniggered. Jay smiled, very weakly. He was slightly worried about what his near future held.
“Sorry, I guess I should get down to it, shouldn't I?” said the large man. “You're not going to be in any mood for small talk, and the sooner we've finished the sooner you can be heading home for a nice hot shower and some bed-rest.”
“Okay.” Jay's voice came out as little more than a croak, but it was better than a grunt. “How can I help?”
“Well, for a start…” the man said, standing up and walking to a point halfway between Jay and the table. He leant against the wall, and continued “…I'm interested in your reasons for being in one of our trucks. And for punching one of my employees. And stealing his clothes. And falling down our chute with one of our crates. Just little things like that.” He leaned forward a little. “Please enlighten me.”
Jay shuddered a little. The man may have been exceedingly tall and solid, and he may have been as ugly as an oxen who'd met a bus coming the wrong way, but he was a little too intelligent for Jay's liking. Weren't the big ugly ones supposed to be stupid?
“Well…” Jay stopped, coughed, cleared his throat. He shook his head a little to clear it. “I'm… uh…” He stopped. He had no idea whether to go with the truth or not.
“I'm listening carefully,” the large man said. “Please, do continue.”
“I, uh…” He exhaled, looked up at the man, and caved. “I'm looking for someone. You shot our plane out of the sky, then chased us down, abducted her, and I'm looking for her.”
“And you didn't think to just ask?” The man's lips curled into a slight smile.
“Sure, because asking nicely is the first thing you think of when facing armed men who've just shot you out of the sky with a missile.”
The man's face went deadly serious, and he stepped forward and dealt Jay a ringing slap to the face that rocked the chair back on its legs and left Jay stunned. Jay gasped, as much for the pain as for the shock.
“And you were doing so well, too,” the man sighed. “Why do you always have to have smart mouths?” He turned away. “Karl, why do they always have to have smart mouths?”
“I think they watch too many movies,” Karl ventured. “Should I start the paperwork?”
“You may as well,” said the man. He turned back. “The paperwork he's referring to is, of course, a ‘notification of accidental death in an industrial accident’ form. It's a pain in the butt having inspectors out here, but it's actually significantly easier than making sure bodies stay buried. If we report it, suddenly there's nothing to be found out, no secrets to be kept or corpses to hide. It's like magic.”
He leaned forward, right into Jay's face. “It's a pity you couldn't have kept your mouth shut. Life-long slavery would have probably made an attractive alternative to you.”
Jay slammed his head forward into the bridge of the man's nose. There was a wet crunch, and the man jerked back. He straightened up, hand to his nose, blood dripping down his arm.
“Damn it, Karl!” he yelled through his bloody hand. “How do they always do that?” He straightened up, his eyes glazed, and he toppled backwards like a felled tree. Karl was half up out of his seat, gazing with horrified fascination.
Karl shook himself, and glanced apologetically at Jay. “You would not believe how many times that's happened,” Karl said. “He thinks it's only fair to give you all an opportunity, and he's always surprised when you all take it. On top of which,” Karl paused to sigh a deep, long-suffering sigh, “he always makes it his face, even with that blood-induced shock-syndrome of his.”
“I tell you,” Karl continued, with the abandon of a long-sufferer letting loose, “he's pretty intelligent, on the whole. Frighteningly so, sometimes. But just that one single, glaring blind spot, you know? And I've tried to tell him, but he gets so distressed about it.” He stood up tall, and dropped his voice, in a simultaneously authentic and pathetic attempt to imitate the other man. “Karl, I have my honour, and if I don't have that I'm just as bad as them.”
It was clear what Karl thought about his boss's honour.
“Ah well, so it goes,” Karl sighed. “He was quite clear about the rest.”
Karl took a pocket knife out his breast pocket, opening it as he stepped around the table towards Jay. He circled around behind the chair, and Jay tensed, waiting for the end. Karl took hold of his wrist, and Jay felt the straps drop off his wrists. He slumped in his chair, suddenly drained.
“It's not over yet,” said Karl, stepping around and crouching to cut the rope around Jay's legs. “Can I suggest you go to the left out that door” – nodding behind him – “and not the right. And don't be too clever. You'd have no idea how many people have thought they're being clever by going to the right, as if they're showing me. Only thing they're showing is their innards once the monkeys get them.”
Jay decided to take this on faith; Karl seemed to have been pretty good to him so far. He stood up, stretched some life back into his terribly sore muscles. He gently prodded the large man's body with his foot, looking for any signs of fakery. Satisfied, he nodded respectfully – albeit a little bemusedly – to Karl, stepped around the table, and turned left out the door.