The curious tale of Colin Campbell
by E.Escher - 1st Dec 2016
Hannigan's bar was crowded, noisy, dimly lit and expensive. It was not the sort of place he'd usually be found, which on this occasion made it the perfect place to relax and unwind after a particularly bizarre and unpleasant day.
A group of youngsters got up to leave seconds after he arrived, and he slid into the vacated alcove, silently congratulating his good timing. The youngsters ignored him, and lurched drunkenly away on some ill-conceived mission.
'About time something went my way today,' he muttered.
The table was wet in places and sticky everywhere else. He grabbed a handful of napkins to dry a patch, but the paper tore on an especially gummy patch, leaving a trail of soggy white lumps. He grimaced and looked around, but saw nothing that looked helpful. He felt foolish, but at least nobody was watching him. As a final idea, he dug in his pockets and pulled out a business card, using the hard edge to scrape the mess into a single blob off to one side, clearing himself a dry strip at the same time.
Well, mostly-dry. He made a mental note to keep his elbows off the table, all the same.
'Thanks a lot, uh,' he glanced at the card, 'A.G. 24-hour locksmiths.' The edge was ruined, and the card was dripping. He'd have to ditch the card, which frustrated him a little despite knowing he didn't need it. He couldn't even remember where he'd got it, or when.
When did I last wear this jacket? he wondered. It was an old suede coat with a fur-lined collar, a style that had come back into ironic fashion of late, and he hadn't worn it in a long time. A.G. 24-hour locksmiths were probably retired by now, unless the torch had been passed to a cadet, or junior family member.
He disliked family businesses. He liked to see familiar faces, but watching the kids grow into copies of their parents, often with the same opinions and prejudices, made him feel like humanity was doomed. With no family of his own, he felt like a helpless passenger on the world's slow descent into chaos.
In short, the kids of today made him feel old. Older than he was, and that was saying something.
A movement at the door caught his eye, afforded a glance as the crowd parted for a rare moment. His first impression was of long slim legs, and then the crowd shifted again and the newcomer vanished. He watched a second longer, but the crowd blocked his view.
His woes forgotten for an instant, he realised he was taking up an alcove by himself, and hadn't even bought a drink. Sooner or later somebody would notice him, and there would be a conversation, and he didn't want that. Of course, as soon as he went to the bar somebody would claim his sticky, disgusting table, with its semi-dry streak punctuated by a mess of napkins and a goopy business card. He left the card in place, propped up by the napkins so it stood upright like a tiny billboard. Might as well salvage something out of it, somebody might even call the number, assuming it still existed. There had been a change to the system a while back, they added an extra 'one' to the area codes or something. 'PhOne day', they'd called it, emphasising the one. When was that, ninety-four? Ninety-five? Twenty years ago, either way. He picked up the card.
'Uh, hi. Mind if I sit here?'
It was the woman, or at least her legs. He looked up at the rest, taking in a blue dress, jet black hair and dark eyes. She held two drinks, one clearly meant for him.
'I'll trade you. Beer for somewhere to sit.' Her eyes flickered. 'If I have to stand in this mob, somebody's going to grab something, and I'm not in the mood.'
'Okay, sure. Thanks.' He marshalled his thoughts, reaching out to accept the beer with his free hand. 'Mind the table,' he warned, 'It's somewhat, uh,'
'Yes. Please do have a seat, though.'
She put the other glass down and slid onto the opposite seat. She held a dainty clutch bag for a moment, before deciding she wouldn't put it on the table. It went onto the seat at her side instead.
'Carmen,' she said, by way of introduction, and held out a hand. He shook it, raising a brow.
'I don't come here often,' she smiled. 'Just heading off that line before you ask. You?'
'Huh? Oh. No. Been past it a few times, but this is my first visit. Probably my last, if I'm honest.'
She laughed, a quiet chuckle, and he took a moment to study her. Her hair was shoulder-length, straight and glossy black with a fringe that reached her eyebrows but didn't entirely hide them. Her eyes were dark and angular, tastefully framed by blue makeup that sparkled under the harsh lighting.
Her nose and chin were both perhaps a tad pointed, but her wide mouth and quirky smile gave her a charm he found immediately endearing. Her dark blue dress was of some kind of crushed velvet material, with a tall black collar and long sleeves. It made her pale skin look positively ethereal, although that could also have been the glare of the lights.
She wore a matching pair of plain silver rings on her left hand: one on her ring finger, and another on the lesser digit.
'Two wedding bands?' he asked, nodding toward the hand in question.
She blinked, releasing her glass to spread her fingers. 'Ah? Aha, no, not wedding rings.' Her smile faltered a little as her gaze lingered on the rings. 'I'm not married.'
'Nor me.' he confessed. 'Somehow I never quite found the time.'
'Ha. Time. Yes, never seems to be enough of it, and when there is, it's still gone before you know what happened to it. Am I right?'
'Of a certainty,' he agreed.
'So,' she began, reaching over to scoop up the sodden business card. 'you're a 24-hour locksmith?'
'Nothing so exciting. I found the card in my pocket just now. I can't for the life of me recall where I came by it.'
'Maybe it was in there when you bought the coat?' she suggested. 'It's from a thrift-pit? Second-hand shop?'
He sat back a little, and took a swig of the beer. Carmen started to lean forward, but remembered the wet table and thought better of it. 'No offence,' she insisted, 'it just looks like an old coat. Way old. Original, you know?'
'It is,' he confirmed. 'Would you believe I've had it from new?'
'I might, if you were older than you look.'
And there was the problem: Colin was older than he looked. He'd been frozen in his mid-thirties for as long as he could remember, and he could remember a long time. Several hundred years, in fact, to the reign of George the Second, and there his memory stopped. He knew nothing beyond that point. He had chosen a name and done his best to blend in, moving from town to town as his peculiar longevity became evident.
Colin quickly realised that he wasn't normal, but the true extent of his peculiarity didn't show up for a great many years. He found himself caught up in a squabble, and came away with a dagger in his ribs.
It felt like a bolt of fire through his innards, and he lashed out in pain before running for the safety of a dark alley. When he came to his senses he found the dagger still jutting from his chest, and a man's arm clutched in his hand, torn from the shoulder of his attacker like a rotted branch.
He cast the arm away, and pulled out the blade, expecting to die there and then, but fate had other plans. The wound refused to bleed, however, and he lived. He went into hiding, watching the incision heal, closing over a period of weeks. Six months after that, the scar was no longer visible.
It was only then he realised he hadn't left his rooms the whole time. He had neither taken neither food nor water, but he looked as hale and hearty as any other man, if perhaps a little thinner than he'd like. His hair, dirty and unkempt, felt like the straw it resembled, and a shaggy beard had grown to cover his broad chin. He studied his reflection in a piece of glass, and barely recognised the man looking back at him. The eyes, though, those he recognised. Pale, grey as fog, slightly bloodshot, and hiding a word of memories that he could never recall.
He cleaned himself up, trimmed the beard into some semblance of order, and slipped away. He hiked to Wales, and lived the solitary life of a shepherd for twenty years, alone with his thoughts. Thoughts that always circled back to his curious condition.
He surmised that he'd been injured during the 17th century, possibly a headwound, which had cost him his memory but somehow granted him the gift of immortality. Medical science wasn't well-developed, and he kept his secret to himself, lest he be branded a witch.
And so, if anybody asked, he lied.
'I was Thirty-four this April last,' he said.
'April last,' she murmured. 'I like that. It sounds like poetry, y'know? People just don't talk like that anymore.'
'Not in London,' he agreed, clamping down on the unease that jangled his spine. Was she playing with him? Did she suspect something? Did she know something?
He kept his smile fixed in place and kept up his side of the small talk as best he could, while his imagination ran wild, dredging up every nightmare he'd ever had about being discovered, hunted down, imprisoned, dissected... or more likely vivisected, since he wasn't entirely sure he could die...
'I expect you studied a lot of Shakespeare at school, huh?' She was probing him now, her casual expression belying the clinical precision of her interrogation. 'Or was it college? You seem pretty well educated. I'm guessing university, somewhere good but not too snobby.'
'I picked up a few bits here and there,' he replied. His instincts were screaming at him to be as evasive as possible, and figure a way out of this. If she knew his secret, why was she here? Who was she working for? Did she have accomplices in the crowd? He cursed his carelessness; distracted by a pretty young fizgig he'd paid no attention to his surroundings and lost all track of time.
Brian told him today was going to be a weird day, but he'd hoped things would have calmed down by now.
I could just get up and walk out. he mused. What's she going to do? Attack me? Shoot me?
'How about you?' he asked, taking the opportunity to take control of the conversation. 'I can't place your accent, so I'm guessing you're not originally from Manchester.'
'Zhejiang University of Science and Technology, in Hangzhou. In China.'
'You went to university in China? Are your parents rich or something?'
'Rich? My parents are Chinese. They live in China.'
'So you were adopted?'
'No.' She looked confused. 'Why would you think that?'
'You don't look especially Chinese.'
'Well, that's rude. I hope you don't expect me to apologise for not matching your preconceptions.'
'I'm sorry, I intended no offence, it's just... I've had a very trying day.'
She sipped her drink before replying. 'Me too. Just part of the job, though. Lots of awkward coincidences.'
He raised a brow. 'Really? What kind of job might that be?'
'Would you believe me if I said I was a spy?'
'An intelligencer? Actually, yes, I think I could believe that. Do you think that's something you might say?'
She laughed. 'No. If I was, I'd never admit it. I'm a field researcher for the university.'
'The, uh, whatsit, University of Science and things? In China?'
'That's the one.'
'And what is it you're researching?'
'At the moment? You.'
Her smile was so warm and genuine that he wasn't sure how to react. His pulse was raging in his ears, but he forced himself to sit still. He wasn't going to freak out until he was sure of the danger.
'Me? What makes me so interesting?'
'Your jacket. The way you use words that nobody says anymore.'
'Okay. And what do you think it means?'
She leaned forward a little, as far as possible without touching the table.
'I think you're a time traveller.'
For a second or two the rushing blood in his ears was all he could hear, as he processed her words. He was so tensed up, ready to do something, something he'd doubtless regret, that he couldn't immediately understand what she'd said.
'Hold up, did you say time traveller?'
She frowned a little, evidently annoyed at his reaction. 'I did.'
'And you're serious.'
'Even though, just so we're clear, even though time travel isn't possible.'
'Not in 2016, no. But yes, I'm still serious. You're not from this time.'
He allowed himself a smirk. 'My dear lady, you are very much on the wrong track. You think I'm from the future?'
'I'm sure of it. Of course time travel won't be viable for another two hundred years.'
'How do you know?'
'How do you think? I'm a time traveller too.'
He stared. Obviously the woman was a loon, and now she was staring at him as though she expected him to buy into her delusion. A range of emotions played out in those dark eyes: jubilation at finding something, the disappointment that he denied her conclusion, and lastly betrayal, as she realised he wasn't what she'd hoped...
The blood roared in his ears again, and a tiny nagging feeling reared its head. It was all he could do to stay seated.
'I remember you,' he croaked. 'You were in the bank this morning.'
The curious tale of Colin Campbell
Part One - How did it come to this?, Chapter 1, Earlier that day
Chapter 2, Earlier still
Chapter 3, Making a withdrawal
Chapter 4, August 18th, 2362
Chapter 5, Angel of Death
Chapter 6, Welcome to 2016.
Chapter 7, Denmark, July 2358
Chapter 8, After the crash
Chapter 9, Music of the Spheres
Chapter 10, Denmark, July 2358
Chapter 11, Harbinger FM
Chapter 12, Denmark, July 2358
Chapter 13, Excuses and lies
Part Two - So here we are, Chapter 14
Chapter 15, Quite a ride
Chapter 16, Talking the talk
Chapter 17, Leisurely pursuit
Chapter 18, Dinner Date with Destiny
Chapter 19, Chips with everything
Chapter 20, Harbinger
Chapter 21, Time to leave
Chapter 22, Manchester
Chapter 23, Colin's House
Chapter 24, On the road
Chapter 25, Chateau Harbinger
Chapter 26, Showdown