Oscar’s supremely relaxing bath-time was finally interrupted by a door slamming and a familiar voice calling, “I’m home!” This was followed, after a few seconds of silence, with Delta calling “Oscar?”
“I’m in the bathroom,” Oscar replied. “I’m in the bath,” he added as the door knob started to turn. Delta stopped turning the door knob and instead stayed in the sitting room and spoke to him through the door.
“It’s time to go down to lunch,” she said. “So get out of the bath and get yourself dried and dressed. I’ll be waiting out here.”
“Can I use one of your towels?” Oscar asked as he started to sit up and get ready to get out of the bath.
“My towels? Why don’t you just use the drying room?”
“The drying room?”
“Behind the curtain. It’s a shower but also a drying room. Make sure you press the right button.”
Oscar looked over his shoulder to the curtained-off cubicle. He shrugged, got out of the bath, put a towel around himself to mop up the drips, then decided to give the drying room a go.
Behind the curtain, he felt very much like he was about to have a shower. The curtain was drawn, with the towel thrown over the rail. He stood in the middle, facing the buttons on the left-hand wall. It wasn’t hard: one said ‘shower’, the other ‘dry’. He reached out and pressed ‘dry’. He felt immediately warm and cosy. The warm air wasn’t really blowing on him the way it does from a hand dryer, but he was aware of it being around him. In a matter of seconds he was completely dry, including his hair. He wrapped the towel around himself again and collected his wash bag on the way to the door.
He tentatively opened the door a crack and peered through. Delta was sitting on the sofa opposite the bookcase, reading a magazine. He stepped through the door and crept over to collect his clothes from his suitcase. Delta didn’t look up as he took his clothes back into the bathroom to get dressed.
Once dressed, Oscar joined Delta in the sitting room.
“Let’s go then,” Delta said, setting the magazine down on the coffee table. “I’m starving.”
“OK,” Oscar said, and followed her from the room.
He realised that he didn’t know what he was going to see on the other side of the door. He knew the he had come up in a lift and walked a short distance on soft carpet, but that was all.
Through the door, Oscar followed Delta the short few steps to the lift. As they waited for the lift to come, Oscar looked the other way up the brightly-lit though windowless corridor. The carpet did indeed look soft – it was the same as the one in Delta’s sitting room. The short corridor had three other white doors leading off it, which Oscar assumed led to other rooms like Delta’s.
In the lift, Delta pressed G for the ground floor and lift started to move.
“Which floor were we on?” Oscar asked, looking at the panel to see how many numbers there were.
“Four,” Delta replied. “Oh yeah, you didn’t see anything last night, did you?” Oscar smiled at her. “I’d forgotten you haven’t seen any of the headquarters yet. You are going to love it,” she said decisively.
The ride down to the ground floor was pleasant enough. Oscar had a quick look at himself in the mirror in the lift, wearing suit trousers and a shirt without a tie. He hoped he was appropriately dressed. Delta was still wearing her black dress and white cardigan so he thought his plain white shirt probably was suitable.
The lift doors opened to reveal a pale pink lobby with modern paintings on the walls. Through a tall window on the left, Oscar saw a small, paved courtyard, surrounded on all sides by high stone walls. There was a garden bench down there, and a round table with four chairs around it.
Delta led the way to a set of double doors opposite the lift. She pulled open the right-hand door and held it for Oscar go through first.
Oscar blinked and stifled a ‘wow’. This was where she had lunch? White, linen cloths covered the many tables, around which sat all sorts of people, some smartly dressed like Delta, others wearing more casual attire. Above them a sparkling, crystal chandelier hung from the high ceiling. Light also came from the full-height windows which gave magnificent views of a sloping lawn and glistening lake with trees beyond. There was a grand piano on the far side of the room; although no-one was playing it, Oscar was still deeply impressed.
Delta touched Oscar’s elbow, whispered, “Shut your mouth,” and led him over to an empty table. He hadn’t realised he’d be staring open-mouthed and hoped no-one had been watching him. As soon as they sat down a waiter in a grey waistcoat set two cake stands on the table: one with three plates of cakes, the other three plates of sandwiches. Delta thanked him and he bowed as he moved away.
“Help yourself,” Delta said as she herself took three sandwiches with one hand and put them on the plate that was in front of her. Oscar obeyed and started to eat. He didn’t want to talk about the place or ask too many questions while there were so many people around so he ate silently. Delta seemed happy with this – she’d clearly not been lying when she said she was hungry.
The waiters in the grey uniforms moved seamlessly between the tables, taking away empty plates and bring out more towers of sandwiches and cakes. Some carried trays of drinks which they distributed to various tables. Bottles of fruit juice were brought to Delta and Oscar. Delta nodded her thanks as her mouth was full. Oscar simply smiled, lost for words. The drink was yellow like orange juice but smoother and sweeter like mango.
The level of chatter was generally quite low, although a group of young men at a table nearby were talking passionately about a game they were crowded around a laptop watching their friend play. At a table near the piano, someone had just taken a guitar case off his back and he sat down to join his friends, many of whom were trying to persuade him to go and play the piano. Oscar’s attention was then drawn to two girls who had entered. They both had long hair down around their shoulders like Delta’s. One wore a knee-length dress not dissimilar to Delta’s, the other tight jeans with boots and a loose-fitting, striped jumper. They approached Delta and Oscar’s table.
“Delta!” the one in the trousers called, her arms out for a hug. “When did you get back?”
“Late last night,” Delta said as she wiped her mouth on her napkin. She stood up to hug her friends, then invited them to join her and Oscar for lunch.
“How was your trip?” the other friend asked. “What did you bring me? Apart from this piece of eye candy,” the friend added, nudging Oscar. Oscar blushed and took a gulp of juice.
“This is Oscar,” Delta introduced him. She had sat back down opposite him. “He was also working in Salzburg. We were on the same flight coming home yesterday. Oscar, this is Bristol.” She indicated the blonde on her left, who had just sat down and helped herself to a sandwich from the new stack the waiter had just brought them. “And this is Cordelia.” Oscar’s new admirer grinned, waved and seated herself next to him, opposite Bristol.
“So, how come I haven’t seen you around here before?” Cordelia asked.
Oscar cleared his throat. “Well, because I haven’t been here before,” he answered. “I only arrived yesterday.”
“I can show you around if you like,” Cordelia suggested.
“No need,” Delta interjected. “He’s going to see Amelia after lunch.” This was news to Oscar.
“Lady Amelia?” Cordelia asked.
“Yes,” Delta replied. “I had my debrief this morning and Oscar’s going to see her this afternoon.”
“Who’s Lady Amelia?” Oscar asked.
“You don’t know?” Bristol set down her glass and stared at him.
“I only arrived yesterday,” Oscar said defensively. He looked at Delta for help.
“Sorry, I haven’t really seen you to tell you anything yet. Don’t worry, we’ll soon fill you in.”
“Lady Amelia runs this headquarters,” Cordelia said helpfully. “She sets the missions and debriefs you afterwards. She’s in charge.”
“Missions?” Oscar asked.
“As in when you go somewhere and do something… Delta, I thought you said you met him on a mission.”
Delta blushed. “I met him when I was on a mission. I didn’t say he was on the mission.”
“Are you even Friarrn?” Bristol asked, incredulous.
“Not so loud!” Delta hissed. “He hasn’t been to see Lady Amelia yet. He hardly knows anything about Friarr. I’m sure she’ll start his initiation soon but…”
“Initiation?” Oscar asked. There were too many new and slightly scaring words being used for Oscar’s liking.
“Nothing bad, just telling you what school you’ll be in and getting you started on your course to learn all about…”
“Look, Delta,” Oscar said, quietly enough that only those at the table could hear, but forcefully enough that Delta knew he was serious. “I have no idea what is going on. You brought me here yesterday when I couldn’t go home. You blindfolded me so I couldn’t see anything as I came in. All I have seen is your sitting room and this dining room. Now you’re talking about initiating me into something called Friarr and sending me on a course. What about the rest of my life? I have a house and a job and…” he stopped short. He wasn’t sure if he did have a house or a job any more. “And a family…” He lived alone. “And…”