The same thought kept going through Alveera’s mind round and round again: I can’t believe I’m doing this. She’d spent many hours during the past four years watching other people do things like this, fully believing in their actions, but now she was beginning to doubt herself. The queue of bathers ahead of her followed a curve around a wall of cement made to look like it had been carved out of the Earth. With the wall in the way, she was still to catch her first glimpse of him in real life. When she did, all her doubts were washed away.
The resemblance was uncanny. He was well built, a good six feet something with broad shoulders and sturdy if not sharply defined muscles. His expression was stern, that of someone who took everything very seriously, and was aided by a wavy, long-flowing beard reminiscent of a choppy sea coloured in greys and whites. His moustache was equally luscious. Despite the age suggested by the greys and whites, he still had a full head of hair, a thick mass of ringlets she’d previously believed impossible to have in this kind of humidity.
I am doing this.
Two days earlier, Alveera had met her version of a celebrity: Hatten Feldman, pre-eminent writer and documentary maker, as unpopular in the general public as successful among his followers. Her first encounter with his work had been during her university years. His first book, The Super-Mole Conspiracy, had been on a corner bookshelf in a quirky, X-files themed café she’d frequented at the time. Initially picking it up as a joke – a sentiment she now regretted – she had been hooked after only a couple of paragraphs. How had she never heard of him? How hadn’t everyone?
Four years, nine books and seventeen documentaries later, she had walked into a very similar café on the opposite side of the country to meet him in person. Hatten Feldman. The man – no, the hero. An unsung one, but she knew that was just a matter of time.
There was a hint of a smile on the man’s lips, but otherwise he remained unmoved. It was obvious he was used to his followers reacting to him in this way. “Hello… Alveera, I presume?”
She nodded vigorously as she caught her breath.
“Please, take a seat. I’m glad you could make it. Not everyone does.”
He gestured towards the chair opposite him, which was covered in several thin stacks of paper, each stack oriented differently, each sheet printed and heavily scribbled on. With shaky hands, she pulled the chair back and moved the stacks onto the equally occupied table, managing to sit down without her nervous knees buckling under her. Heart still pounding, her ears drummed as the blood rushed through them. When she looked up at him, she found him looking back with an expectant expression on his face.
“I’m sorry, did you say something?” she asked.
“I said you need to move along with the queue.”
She blinked. The voice had come from behind; the next person along in the queue, a woman in her early forties, was directing an impatient look at her. Mumbling an apology, Alveera turned around and closed the gap between her and the two girls ahead, a gap which had grown by several feet while she re-lived her meeting with the Professor.
She muttered a curse under her breath. Her plan was to not draw any attention to herself, but this was already the second time she’d messed that up. The first had been soon after entering the waterpark, when she had changed into her bathing suit: a plain, no-frills, black one-piece suit, it made her stand out like a sore thumb amongst the wide range of bikinis, trikinis, surfer shorts, speedos and many more combinations which she hadn’t even known existed, each and every one making her feel like she was dressed for the last century. Whatever had happened to simplicity?
Concerned about having drawn the attention of the last person she wanted to notice her, she took a tentative peek around the two girls and up ahead. She sighed with relief. He didn’t seem to have noticed. A hint of a frown still on his face, his sole focus was on two things only: his wristwatch and whoever was at the head of the queue. Every twenty seconds or so, he would wave the next person along towards the wide open plastic shark maw that was the start of the water slide. As soon as they began their descent, he turned to speak to the new person at the top of the line, presumably to instruct them on what not to do on their way down.
She watched him from a distance, trying to read his lips, trying to find out what he would say when it came to her turn.
“I asked whether you wanted something to drink.”
“Oh. Some tea, please. A chamomile.” It would help her to relax.
He called for the waiter, a man in his late forties or early fifties who dressed as if he was in a 1920s café. “Chamomile for the lady and black coffee for me. Use this water for both, though,” he added, producing a bulky glass bottle and handing it over to the waiter, who, to Alveera’s surprise, didn’t seem in the least bewildered by the request. “Fluorides,” he explained to her after the man had walked away, “they inject it into the tap water to keep us under control. I never leave the house without my own water. It comes from a well I have in the back yard.”
As she made a mental note to reconsider the source of her drinking water, the Professor flipped through the unruly mess of papers spread out over the table, eventually locating a dossier file reminiscent of those in 1950s spy movies. He held it in his hands for several silent seconds, his eyes blankly staring at it as if they could see through the thick brown paper. Then, apprehensively, he held it out to her. Hands still shaking, she took the mysterious envelope from him.
“Before you read through it, I need to explain to you how this all came about. I’m warning you, though: this is the biggest secret I’ve ever uncovered.”
Although it had barely been five minutes since Alveera had waded out of the wave pool, even her hair had dried out under the relentless sun which blazed down on anyone senseless enough to not be in the shade. Whoever had designed the water park clearly had done it during the winter, forgetting what it was to be unprotected from the scorching rays, and now Alveera and her fellow queuers were suffering the consequences.
Someone went down the slide. The queue shuffled along a couple of feet. Alveera followed. Twenty, thirty seconds. Another person went down. Shuffle. Follow. Down. Shuffle. Follow. The rhythm was hypnotising in its monotony, and in combination with the sun soon left her in a daze. Through the blurriness now around her, she could pick out the vague silhouette of the man she was here for. Was he looking at her too? Was he the one doing this? She could feel a faint tickling on her brow and over her heavy eyelids. Was this some kind of curse or charm he was casting on her?
Instinctively, she rubbed her face with the back of her hand, a primitive attempt at fighting back against whatever sorcery sorcery he was using. To her surprise, it worked. Suddenly, her vision became much clearer. Lines came back into focus, shapes re-appeared, forms were re-defined. She looked down at her hand and snorted with amusement. Just sweat. She’d gotten carried away by sweat in her eyes. A chuckle escaped her. Then she fainted.
“It all started about a year ago now. I was working on a new story on the microchips they put into every new car to take over them at any time. Pondering why older cars also seemed to have them – after all, old cars were suffering accidents at very similar rates as the new ones – I realised it had to be because the car mechanics were in on the whole thing too, so I decided to pay a visit to several garages in my area to see if I could identify a pattern or some other clue connecting it all.”
“I knew there was something up with my old Subaru ever since I’d taken it to the garage. Did you find any proof of this? I could show you my car if that helps.”
“What? No, no, forget about that part, it’s not the important bit. What matters is what I found in one of the garages – not so much what, actually, but who. One of the mechanics in the third place I visited looked very familiar to me.”
“Someone you knew?”
“That’s the thing; I was convinced I’d seen him more than once before, but I couldn’t remember where. He wasn’t too tall, probably under six feet, with jet black hair and a prominent moustache. He wore blue overalls, but in the garage’s summer heat had slipped the straps off and tied them around his waist, leaving his chest and torso exposed and revealing well-honed muscles under his pale skin. His boss was touting him as the best car mechanic he’d seen in his life, telling me he would find whatever problem my car had and fix it within twenty-four hours.”
“And did he?”
“Did he what?”
“Fix it within twenty-four hours. It’s just that my car has been making a strange whirring noise for a while now, but my local garage couldn’t find the cause. I thought maybe-”
“No, no, no, focus! I was only pretending my car was broken, there was nothing wrong with it. Actually, that’s not true, it did have an issue at the time, but that’s not the point. The point is that I was sure I recognised him from somewhere and, if only I could figure out where from, I might be able to use the information to my advantage and find out more about the car chip conspiracy.
“Although I spent the following days visiting other garages, my mind always went back to this mystery man whom I somehow recognised. His boss had been unable to tell me anything other than his name – Heff – but it didn’t really help. And even if I did figure it out, I didn’t know if I’d be able to leverage that in any useful way.
“After more time puzzling over it than I care to admit, I took a trip to my city’s art museum. I find that spotting all the secret messages hidden in the historical paintings really helps me to relax. Did you know Shakespeare and Goya were the same person? It’s pretty obvious once you look at the Black Paintings from the right angle. Anyway, that’s not important here. What’s important is that it was at the museum where I recognised him.”
“He was at the museum?”
“Yes. Well, no. That is, I recognised him in one of the paintings. A replica of Velázquez’s Vulcan’s Forge.”
Alveera had a vague memory of having seen the painting before in print – a textbook, maybe, or some book on art history – but couldn’t remember any of its details. There was no need to, either, as Professor Hatten quickly produced an A4 copy of it. It was covered in so many scribbles and notes, however, that the figure of the titular deity was the only part that was still recognisable.
“This here is Vulcan,” said the Professor pointing at the picture, “the Roman god of fire and smithery. In his previous stint as god of the Ancient Greeks, though, he was known as Hephaestus.”
Alveera’s eyebrows jumped. “Hephaestus? Heff!”
“Exactly,” smiled Hatten.
During the hour that followed, he explained how this first discovery had led to him tracking several others he was convinced were also Ancient Greek gods. Hera worked as a midwife in a small-town hospital; Hermes was just a couple of promotions away from becoming Postmaster General; Aphrodite was the madam of one of the largest brothels in the country. His plan was to expose them in the simplest and bluntest way possible: someone would walk up to them when they least expected it and would ask them outright why they were hiding the fact that they were ancient deities. And that was where Alveera came in…
She was looking out at the ocean – no, not out, she realised, but down from above. Was she floating in the air? She didn’t know and she didn’t really care; all she cared about was the sea below, squirming and roiling in its infinite blueness. The air was warm, but she saw no sun, no light, only water, unfathomably deep and blue.
Suddenly, a figure appeared from her left, swimming just below the surface. A fish of some kind, white as a cloud, which glided along in smooth, elegant strokes of its tail. There was no way of telling what size it was, as she had nothing to compare it to, but something inside her told her it was big, very big – larger than her, probably. Another one appeared, this one from the right. Then another one, and one more. Soon, a swarm of them was slithering around in a complex tangle that slowly merged into a single, continuous surface of pure white. More of them kept joining until they formed a large circle, leaving a smaller circle inside for the ocean blue. In the centre of it all the water began to whirl round and round, faster and faster, until a gap appeared, an opening into the dark belly of the sea. The hole grew slowly but steadily until its diameter was about a third of the larger blue circle it was in. Three concentric circles, black, blue and white.
Without warning, her body began to move of its own accord, floating up and away, higher and higher, until she realised it wasn’t her who was moving away, but the entire ocean that was sinking. Except it wasn’t an ocean; it was an eye. It wasn’t sinking either, simply drawing away. White sclera, blue iris and black pupil. Two eyes, in fact, staring into hers. His eyes.
Still in a daze, she said the only thing she could think of.