"Rose," I said tactfully, as she began ripping up some of Steve's clothing and tying his limbs together with them. "I'm sure if you'd just allowed time to get to know Steve then you would have found him quite charming..."
"Jim, listen carefully," she said in that patronizing voice she has. "There are four golden realms in Fogworld. Four. That means only four people in the entire world currently alive today have drunk Fog Juice besides Bulstrode. That would be you, me, Frobisher and Penfold. Steve is going to get possessed by Bulstrode, if he hasn't already."
"Hasn't already?" said Frobisher. "But he's not a zombie. He was conversing quite naturally."
"We know Bulstrode can possess people directly," she continued, securing Steve's wrists behind his back with a piece of shirt. "We've seen it. He can make them walk around like normal and speak. So far he's just done it to try and kill us, but he may get smart. Try to fool us. I wouldn't doubt anything at this point."
"I suppose you're right," I sighed. "Just one other little matter that needs raising."
"He was the guy who told me to find the Gatekeeper and all that. I was hoping to ask why."
For an instant Rose seemed a little frustrated with herself, then her expression shifted quickly to determination again. "Yes, well, you can ask him when he wakes up, right? How long can we hold up here? What kind of supplies do we have?"
We turned out our pockets. It was a pretty depressing inventory. Besides my flintlock and ammo I had two Stinger bars I had kept in reserve and an old Merlin sticker of Roger the Dodger that belonged in a Beano sticker album from 1994. Penfold produced a Nutri-Grain that had been tossed around so much in the last few weeks that he was afraid to open the wrapper to see how it looked. Rose just had her cutlass and a few crumbs from a piece of maggotty seabiscuit she had had in her pocket a few weeks ago. And Frobisher had a whole bunch of fascinating Japanese weapons and ninja tools, which he just kept producing more and more of from any number of hidden pockets for a full half hour, but absolutely nothing edible.
"I don't even know what half of this stuff is," I said, picking through the arsenal laid out on the tunnel floor.
"That's a Kunai," said Frobisher helpfully. "It's for killing people. That's a shuriken. That's for killing people too. Those are foot spikes. They're for injuring severely people you intend to kill..."
"Okay, great," I interrupted. "So as soon as we find something we can kill we'll be laughing, but as it stands you can put all that crap away until we find something else we can eat."
"What about over there?" Rose said, pointing. I followed her finger, and saw a cardboard box in the corner of the room. You know how, every time you see someone get fired in a film or TV show, you always see them putting stuff from their desk into a big cardboard box with a lid, sadly contemplating each object and the memories of happier times they bring? It was one of those cardboard boxes, with 'STEVE'S BOX' written along the side.
"You're not... actually going to open Steve's box, are you?" said Penfold with a quaver in his voice.
"Because it's Steve's box! His special accountant's box! You can't - ugh - you can't just fiddle around inside an accountant's box, it's obscene. It's like fiddling around inside his pants."
Not for the first time I realised that, when it came to the mysterious ways and secret rituals of accountants, I had barely scratched the surface of the iceberg. In any case, Penfold seemed genuinely distressed at the thought of laying our filthy hands on Steve's special secrets, so I opted to compromise. "Okay, how about this. We'll see how long the supplies we have last us, and if they run out before we figure out what to do next, then we'll have a look in the box."
"I guess that's fine," he said unhappily, clearly not fine with it at all.
"Now then," I said. "Shall we start on the crumbs?"
It was a bit later.
I don't know why, but there was virtually no conversation taking place. The cheerful discussions on the outcome of fights between any number of science fiction and comic book heroes that flowed so naturally when Frobisher and I got together refused to pour, and similarly the sort of derisive chatter that Rose and I enjoyed as a couple whenever something slightly mainstream came on the TV just lodged in our throats and would not come out. Perhaps even the closest of friends clam up in times of extreme duress. Maybe it was the presence of Penfold nerding up the place. And then of course there was the zombie horde, still reaching through the gate and occasionally moaning.
"I'm going on a picnic," I said in a monotone, "and I'm taking anthrax, beer, coffee, doughnuts, estrogen, flamingoes, glue, horses, ink, jelly, Knackwurst, lemonade and murder."
A long, miserable pause.
"I'm going on a picnic," went Penfold. "And I'm taking anthrax, beer, coffee, doughnuts, estrogen, flamingoes, glue, horses, ink, jelly, Knackwurst, lemonade, murder and Nurofen."
"I'm going on a picnic," said Frobisher, who was strangely into this. "And I'm taking anthrax, beer, coffee, doughnuts, estrogen, flamingoes, glue, horses, ink, jelly, Knackwurst, lemonade, murder, Nurofen and oestrogen."
"We've had estrogen," I said.
"We've had estrogen with the American spelling, I was using the Anglo-European spelling."
"How would that work, anyway? Would you have one test tube full of estrogen with an American flag, and another with a British flag? Leaving aside the whole question of why anyone would take estrogen to a picnic, of course."
"You can do hormone replacement anywhere," said Penfold. "Perhaps the relaxed atmosphere of the picnic... never mind."
"Why don't we just go into Fogworld?" said Frobisher. "Maybe we can figure something out there."
"What, and leave our bodies at the mercy of Steve?" said Rose. "We'll just wait for him to wake up, get what we want to know, then update our plans accordingly."
"Hungry," I whined.
"You shouldn't have eaten those chew bars so fast. And you could have at least offered us some."
"You said you didn't like chew bars!"
Rose rolled her eyes. It was very annoying. "No, I said I didn't want any chew bars just then. I wouldn't mind a chew bar now. Or anything to eat. I haven't eaten since yesterday."
"Me neither," said Frobisher. "In all the excitement I just sort of forgot."
"That happens to me," said Penfold. "Sometimes I get so into a good accounts book I just don't even notice how hungry I am."
"I don't think that's quite the same thing."
"Penfold," I said, with authority. "Let's take a look at that Nutri-Grain."
Obediently he split the wrapper, and we all craned in to see. The contents weren't in the least bit appetizing. Being drenched in seawater and repeatedly crushed hadn't been kind to it. It was the first time I had ever seen a Nutri-Grain bar that could actually be poured.
"Right," I said, getting up. "I'm opening the box."
"Oh, please," said Penfold. "Couldn't you wait a bit longer? We could finish off the picnic game?"
"Penfold," I said patiently. "I want you to imagine that there's some kind of timed explosive in this box, and it's set to go off in exactly two minutes. I want you to imagine what it would be like to be caught in that explosion. The flames bubbling your flesh, trying to roll and put out the fire, but it's futile because the initial blast ripped off all your arms and legs, and then you finally breath your agonizing last through the big hole that has been punched in your torso and die a troubled death. And then we're all in the afterlife talking about how much that sucked, and then someone says 'if only we'd opened the box like Jim had suggested, we could have had time to defuse the bomb, instead of sitting around playing the bloody stupid picnic game.' And then you'll feel very silly, won't you, Penfold."
"Just open the box," he muttered.
I almost expected a whiff of dry ice to come out after I opened the lid. Penfold certainly seemed to be, judging by the way he flinched. But inside, there was little more than the usual contents of an office personal effects box - a couple of mysterious framed photos, some rolled-up posters, a handful of frayed Dilbert strips cut out from the newspaper, each still marked with blu-tack stains, an enormous oak crossbow, and you'll forgive me if I stop listing things at this point.
"Whoa," I said, hefting the crossbow. "Not the kind of thing you'd keep on top of your monitor."
"We keep them around in case of accountants going feral," Penfold informed us. "I've seen feral accountants go through into marketing departments before we implemented that policy. They always kept one near Steve, because everyone knew he wasn't far off... he must have found it."
"Ammunition?" asked Rose, ever practical.
I hunted around a bit. "Bingo, in this pencilcase," I reported. "Tranquilliser rounds, by the looks of it."
"Oh, well, that's perfect, right?" said Frobisher. "We give Steve a nip and he's out for the count as long as we need."
"Could you please stop touching Steve's box?" whined Penfold, hugging himself.
"Could you please stop calling it Steve's box?" I whined back. "I need to see if there's anything we can eat." It didn't seem likely, the more I explored. But I did know that paper was vegetable matter, so if nothing else we could try and convince our stomachs to digest that. "Oop, wait, here we go," I said, finding and holding aloft a thermos flask I had found under some old payroll reports.
"Anything in it?" asked Frobisher.
I gave it a shake. It did seem to be half-full of something. I took off the cap and had a sniff, then almost immediately recoiled back. "Whoa," I whoaed. "It's alcoholic. Really alcoholic."
And then there was another of those moments where something extremely important struck me from behind like a big whip with spikes on the end, and dread did its little dread dance down my spine. Were this a film, there would have then been one of those shots where the camera zoomed in on me but zoomed out on the background. "Except... that alcohol isn't supposed to affect me anymore. The only alcoholic drink that can affect me is... Fog Juice."
"Steve has Fog Juice?" said Rose.
Instantly I grabbed the crossbow, that I had left aside so carelessly, and checked that a clipful of tranquillisers were loaded. Then I leapt to my feet and attempted to aim the point at both Rose and Frobisher at the same time. "Stay back!"
"STAY BACK!!" I yelled. I could feel spittle foaming at the corners of my mouth, but circumstance prevented me from wiping them. "Penfold, get behind me. Now."
He was surprised, but did as he was told. Perhaps he had been on the wrong end of a tranquilliser crossbow before. Rose, meanwhile, was staring at me, somewhat aghast. "What is wrong with you?"
"Four golden realms, that's what you said," I said, calming down a little bit now I seemed to be in control of the situation. "There are four golden realms in Fogworld and four people who have drunk Fog Juice. Now we know that Steve drank Fog Juice, so that means one of us is the odd one out, right?"
"Right..." said Frobisher, hands up.
"The way I see it, I know I can only be sure that I drank Fog Juice and so did Penfold. Those occasions I saw with my own eyes. You two I never saw drink Fog Juice. Either of you could be Bulstrode! You could have been Bulstrode all this time!"
"Jim," said Rose, doing the placatory hand gesture people do in these situations. "You're being irrational. You've seen us both in Fogworld, right?"
"So what?! Bulstrode can manifest there too. And he's got special astral powers none of us have. He could have taken an image of either of you easily."
Rose and Frobisher glanced at each other, suddenly realising my point. This was turning into something from one of those logic puzzle books you buy to do on the train. At this point, the one of the two who was a genuine Fog Juice coinoisseur realised that the other was the impostor, and would attempt to communicate it to me. At the same time, the Bulstrode puppet realised the other had found him out, and would now attempt to bluff me.
"I drank Fog Juice," insisted Rose. "How else would I be here? In the South Pacific? That's what Fog Juice does, doesn't it? Shifts all your problems around?"
"I swear I did too!" went Frobisher. "It was brown fizzing stuff in your flat, what else would it be?!"
"Look, look, how about this," said Rose. "Maybe Steve didn't drink Fog Juice. Maybe he had it just in case."
"I guess," I conceded.
"I guess I've made my decision." And then I shot Rose.
A narrow dart, the barb thankfully only just sharp enough to break the skin, flew into Rose's shoulder. She gasped and yanked out the dart, but it was too late. "You stupid bas-" was as far as she got before she succumbed and flopped to the floor.
Frobisher let out all his breath. "Oh, thank Christ," he said. "I realised she had to be it, because I definitely drank Fog Juice. What made you realise?"
"She was just trying too hard," I said, casting the crossbow aside and leaning against the wall to wipe the sweat and spit from my face. "And, well, just little subtleties in her body language and facial expression and things like that, little details I can pick up on, you know."
"So it was a guess, then."
"No, it was not a guess."
"Oh, come on, you had a one in two chance, it could have been-" his speech was interrupted by a sound best described as 'FWITLK', and his torso grew a tranquilliser dart. "Ow! Dude, that really hurts!" Then he fell over.
I turned slowly around, feeling somewhat downcast, and saw Penfold with the crossbow, a look on his face that was not his own. "I hope you don't mind me going for your friend first," he said, in a similarly disembodied voice. "Only a ninja is rather an unpredictable factor."
"No," I said, backing off. "No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Penfold drank Fog Juice. I saw it. I saw it with my own bloody bleeding bastard eyes!"
"What we see can deceive us," went Bulstrode through Penfold. "From looking through your little friend's memories, it seems his stomach wasn't strong enough for such a potent brew. He stuck his fingers down his throat the moment you were out of the room. I'm afraid his tragedy will continue to be that he never knew the significance of any of this."
I probably should have seen it coming. I backed off a little too far, and ended up too close to the portcullis, and the grasping hands of Bulstrode's slaves. Greyish accountant hands gripped me, four or five to each limb, and hauled me off the ground. It was decidedly un-erotic. Buls-fold took a tired step towards me, glared at me as one would an intrusive bluebottle, and threw the crossbow aside.
"Let's talk about this like gentlemen, then," he said.