I wake up in a strange bed, next to a woman who isn’t my wife.
Diffuse light penetrates through the curtains. The only sound in the room is the soft ticking of a clock. I’m looking right into the half open mouth of my supposed one-night stand. What have I done? How did I end up here? What happened? I blink my eyes and then I recognize the woman; it’s Linda from accounting. Suddenly I realize she isn’t breathing anymore.
My throat feels dry. I try to rub the sleep from my face and discover that I have a mustache and a beard. Not the usual stubble one might expect after a couple of days without shaving, but a real mustache and a full beard.
Confused and completely naked, I sneak out of bed, looking for a mirror. I find one in the bathroom and I’m shocked by my own reflection. I inspect my face, but I can’t find any familiar traits. There’s a tattoo consisting of letters and numbers under my left collarbone. I read it from right to left. It says: ONYX741. Who is this man? Who am I?
Even more confused, I go downstairs. The photos on the credenza in the living room confirm that I’m in Linda’s house. There’s a phone in the kitchen. Why don’t I call myself to find out if I know more about this mystery? By myself, I mean the person I’ve considered being me for the past 38 years, not the bearded man with the tattoo. I key in my number. The phone rings five times before someone answers. To my surprise I hear my own voice. I sound like I just woke up: “Hello? Who am I talking to?”
That’s a good question, but unfortunately, I don’t know the answer. I close my eyes, looking for something that makes sense. When I reopen them, I am in a familiar environment, in my own bedroom, with my own phone in my hand. The me on the other side of the line hangs up without any further explanation.
“Who’s calling?” My wife asks. She also woke up to the ringing of my phone.
“Wrong connection,” I say. The display of my phone shows that I was called from an unknown number.
“What time is it?” my wife asks.
I look at the clock radio and see that it’s half past six.
“It’s almost time for breakfast.”
I get up and hurry to the kitchen.
“What’s the matter with me?” I shout to myself. Am I losing my mind? Should I call a doctor? Or should I call the police? Was Linda from accounting really murdered in her bed?
I pull myself together. My wife doesn’t notice a thing when we drink our coffee. She has already forgotten about the early call. Maybe it was all a dream.
I park my car in the garage under the office building and I take the elevator to the third floor. I count the floors: B2, B1, 1, 2, 3, and ping! The door opens.
The smell of incense instantly overwhelms me. Clearly, I’m not in the office lobby, yet I’m welcomed by someone I know. Mona from Human Resources presses me against her bosom. Her cleavage gives me vertigo. The elevator door closes behind me. There is no way back.
“Welcome Steven,” Mona says, “I was expecting you. I have a nice selection of girls lined up for you. I’m sure you’ll find one that matches your taste.”
With these words, she guides me to a couch. As soon as I sit down, she disappears behind a door. I look around in wonder. There’s a posh photo album with a nude model on the cover on the table in front of me. Next to me, there’s a small bar with a dozen bottles of expensive Champagne. There are dreamy pictures signed by David Hamilton on the wall. I’m pretty sure this is what the reception room of a luxury brothel must look like. I don’t feel comfortable.
Madam Mona reappears and claps her hands: “Girls! Mr. Steven is here. Come in and present yourselves!”
Aisha from marketing is the first to introduce herself. On high pumps, her legs look even longer than I remember. She wears a red corset that accentuates a pair of perfect ebony breasts.
“Can someone call HR?” I whisper, but that would be Mona and Mona doesn’t seem to have any problem with what is happening here.
“This is Aisha,” she says, “Aisha is a real tiger in bed.”
Away is Aisha and enters Michelle from sales. I knew she had tattoos, but I didn’t know they covered her body from top to toe. Michelle turns around playfully, so that I can admire her ink in full, except for the part that is covered by the tiniest white bikini I’ve ever seen. She throws me a kiss as she walks out the room.
“That was Michelle. If you love a local exotic, she’s your girl,” Mona says, “Coming up next is Sun-Young, a Korean beauty.”
I know Sun-Young as the plain Jane at the office. She works in accounting, just like Linda, but now she’s standing in the doorway wearing nothing but a negligee in black lace that contrasts nicely with her porcelain skin. When Mona encourages her to present herself, she keeps her head down. To avoid looking me in the eyes, she stares at the floor while she shuffles from one side of the room to the other.
“Sun-Young is a tad timid, but appearances are deceptive,” Mona explains, “Still waters run deep. The gentlemen who visit my humble establishment tell me she’s unstoppable in the bedroom.”
After Sun-Young comes Indra, Michelle’s colleague in sales. Of all the girls that are being presented to me, she looks like the most normal one. That is: in the assumption that it’s a hot summer day during a vacation. I wouldn’t expect her to show up at work in hot pants and a crop top. She doesn’t need makeup to feel confident. She looks me in the eye for a few seconds, then leaves the room with a wink.
“These were all the girls,” Mona says, “Did you make your choice?”
I’m too baffled to answer. I can’t believe this is real, then again, I would never dare to dream about my female colleagues in this totally inappropriate way.
“They all look fantastic,” I stammer when Mona insists.
“I know,” she says, “But you can choose only one.”
“In that case, I’ll go for Indra,” I say.
“Excellent choice!” Mona applauds, “Here’s the key to room 8.”
She presses a button and the elevator door opens. She gently pushes me inside and says: “Go ahead and make yourself comfortable. Indra will be with you in an instance.”
The elevator closes and for a moment nothing happens. When the door reopens, I’m finally on the right floor: this is the office I know. I still have the key to room 8 in my hand. I don’t know what it’s for, so I put it in my pocket. It’s tangible proof that I wasn’t dreaming.
On my way to my workspace, I decide to check up on accounting. Linda isn’t in yet. Sun-Young hides under her desk when I peep inside. I can’t shake the impression that Aisha, Michelle and Indra glare at me accusingly when I walk past the cubicles of sales and marketing. Or is my imagination troubling me?
I’m glad I don’t bump into Mona. Harder than I intend to, I slam the door behind me when I’m in my own office. I pinch myself and it hurts. I take the key out of my pocket. It looks like an ordinary house key of which there are thirteen in a dozen.
I’m barely sitting down when my phone rings. To my surprise, I’m called from my own number. I push “accept call” and I hear myself ask an unexpected question: “Do you have the key?”
“I have the key,” I answer. I played along with Mona, now I decide to play along with myself.
“Indra will come knocking on your door momentarily,” my other self tells me.
“Indra?” I ask, “What does she have to do with all of this?”
“You chose her as your partner, didn’t you?” is my answer, “She received the address. Further instructions will follow.”
My other self hangs up and within a second the door to my office opens. It’s Indra. She has a perplexed look on her face, as if she didn’t expect to see me here. I notice a piece of paper in her hand.
“Come in, Indra,” I tell her, “Strange things are happening today.”
“Tell me about it,” she says, “I was sitting on the toilet, minding my own business, when I hear someone call me name. I leave the stall, and all of a sudden I’m standing in the middle of an employment agency.”
“I’ve experienced something similar,” I chuckle, but I’m careful enough not to disclose any details of my visit to the brothel on the alternative third floor.
“A lady at a desk told me she had found a job for me. I was to start immediately. She gave me this address.”
Indra shows me the piece of paper she’s holding. I recognize the name of the street. It’s on the other side of the city.
“When I left the agency, I ended up here,” Indra continues, “I don’t understand. What’s happening?”
“I have no idea what is going on,” I admit, “I was handed a key and I was told I had to wait for the address.”
“Strangely enough, I know that address,” Indra says, “That’s where Linda from accounting lives. I occasionally give her a ride home after work.”
“Linda from accounting?”
I can’t hide my surprise, but on second thought, this is the first thing that somehow makes sense today.
“I don’t know how to explain,” I say, “but I think Linda was murdered last night.”
Indra takes two steps back, as if I’m a killer and she’s my next victim.
I try to reassure her: “Don’t ask me how it happened, but this morning I suddenly ended up in Linda’s bedroom, pretty much the same way you ended up in my office.”
Indra looks at me suspiciously, and then seems to conclude that I’m harmless.
“She was dead in bed. There was a naked man in her house. He had a beard and a mustache. And a tattoo on his collarbone.”
Indra is looking at me as if what I’m saying makes sense, although we both know the situation is completely absurd.
“Linda wasn’t at the office this morning,” Indra says, “and she didn’t answer her phone when Mona called her. Maybe the man you saw was her killer.”
“I bet this is the key to her front door,” I say, “I think we should pay her a visit and see what this is all about.”
“OK,” says Indra, “but first let me wash my hands.”
I wait for Indra at the entrance of the staircase.
“No more elevators for me,” I say.
Indra doesn’t ask any questions. She too is cautious of ending up in a place she doesn’t want to be. We take the stairs down, but a new surprise awaits us when we open the door to the parking.
Instead of cars, we see a room full of small tables. At each table, a clerk is half-hidden behind a screen.
“Steven and Indra!” a voice calls our names, “Finally, we meet. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Ava.”
The voice belongs to a woman in a white, futuristic dress. An assistant holding a tablet stands right next to her. Indra grabs my hand and squeezes it. I squeeze back.
“Where are we?” we ask simultaneously.
“Why, you’re in the Interdim Bureau,” Ava laughs, “Isn’t that clear to you?”
She nods at a poster on the wall, featuring a man in uniform pointing his finger at us with words in capital letters: “The Interdim Bureau wants you!”
“The Interdim Bureau?” I ask, “What is Interdim?”
“You’re at the Interdim headquarters,” Ava says, “Explain it to them, Tony.”
“The Interdim Bureau is the Bureau of Interdimensional Investigation,” Ava’s assistant clarifies, “You probably only know your own reality, but that’s just one of an almost infinite number of realities. The Interdim Bureau is a place outside those realities. We keep an eye on all of them. Our job is to unravel interferences between the different realities to avoid undesired side-effects and accidents.”
“Well said, Tony,” Ava interrupts her assistant, “Sometimes loose threads from one reality get caught in threads from another reality, and then it’s up to us to figure out how to fix the inconsistencies caused by these entanglements.”
My head spins. I’m not sure I understand what they say.
Indra doesn’t spare her criticism: “Oh boy, in that case, you really screwed up in our reality.”
“I’m sorry for the inconveniences you’ve experienced today,” Ava replies, “But nothing happens without a reason. Come with me and I’ll show you what went wrong.”
Ava and Tony lead us through the many rows of tables.
“Every workstation on every table represents a window on a reality,” Tony clarifies, “Our headquarters itself is located in-between realities. We are literally unreal.”
“Literally unreal? What does that even mean?” Indra sighs, “People should stop misusing the word literally.”
“Are you sure they are people?” I ask, “They just told us they are unreal. Literally!”
We don’t have the time to start an argument about semantics. Ava and Tony halt at a workstation and we immediately recognize the images shown on the screen.
“From this table, we monitor your reality. Once again, I want to apologize for adjusting your world this morning. We wanted to get your attention.”
“Thanks for the apologies,” Indra grumbles, “You’ve got our attention; now what do you want from us?”
Ava points at a mug shot on the screen: “Steven, do you recognize this man?”
“That’s the man I saw in the mirror in Linda’s bathroom this morning,” I exclaim, “Is Linda really dead? Or was that just an illusion from another reality?”
“This man is called Onyx741. He doesn’t belong in your reality,” the clerk at the table explains, “He was convicted of several murders in a neighboring reality. However, he succeeded to escape the local authorities. He fled to your reality where he struck again.”
“To answer your question,” Ava adds, “Yes, Linda is dead. She was killed by an interdimensional criminal.”
“But that’s terrible!” Indra says, “Surely, you won’t let this happen?”
“I’m afraid it has already happened,” Ava says, “And the longer Onyx741 stays in your reality, the more its fabric will unravel. It’s the task of the Bureau of Interdimensional Investigation to help prevent this. Your world could eventually cease to exist if Onyx741 isn’t stopped.”
“I’m sorry if I sound silly,” I say, “But you still haven’t answered Indra’s question: what does all of this has to do with us?”
“As Tony just told you, we’re unreal,” Ava explains patiently, “We can only operate outside of reality.”
“To eliminate Onyx741,” Tony continues, “we have no other choice than to call on residents of the reality he’s currently in. We thought Steven would be perfect for the job, and we allowed him to choose one of his colleagues as his partner. The key to room 8 and the piece of paper with Linda’s address were our way of inviting you.”
I can’t believe my ears: “Are you saying that everything that happened to us this morning was an elaborate scheme to recruit us?”
“That’s correct,” Ava says, “The Interdim Bureau wants you to catch a criminal.”
I look at Indra and Indra looks back at me. We don’t need to think twice.
“We’re in,” we say with one voice, “Where do we start?”