Three men stood on the pavement before a small shop. Golden lettering in old font declared it to be "Knapp-Shappey's Transport: Directions, Drives, and Drop-offs." A van bearing the same logo blocked two of the men from view, but one remained visible to passersby. If any one of them had spared a glance his way, they might have glimpsed the sudden paling of his pinked cheeks and the slow banishment of the smile that had once cheered his face. But no one did, and so no one (aside from the two behind the van) saw him disappear.
Arthur Shappey, of Knapp-Shappey's Transport, cringed. "I do believe that was a mistake, Douglas."
"Oh, come on," Douglas Richardson, prime transporter and once renowned Master of the Skies, replied dismissively. The bundle under his arm slipped out of his hold and tumbled to the ground, evading his one faint attempt at capture. "He's ruined my marriage. Surely I've built up enough credit to allow some light teasing."
A winter wind swept down the sidewalk, prompting both men to take shelter under the shop's eves.
Arthur pressed on despite the noise. "I don't think so. See, what I've got that you haven't, is empathy--the real sort--and I'm telling you, you've really hurt Martin's feelings."
Douglas rolled his eyes and snatched the parcel for Japan from the ground before it could be blown to the other end of London. Quickly, he snarked, "Thank you for that astounding insight, Arthur," and, with a dramatic step and proud chin level, he blinked out of existence. It was done with rather more flourish and pizazz than the first man's disappearance.
Arthur gasped and jerked backward, blinking rapidly. "Wow!" he exclaimed. "That gets me every time. Mum!" he called, pushing open the door of the shop. The bell rang out half-heartedly and the overweight woman behind the counter looked up in much the same fashion. "Douglas has gone after Martin." He was met with a familiar singe of irritation. "No, Mum, he felt a bit regretful when he left; I think he means to apologize!"
His mother waved a hand, as if to sweep it all away. "What a pointless interruption," she groused. "Fine. I'm sure Martin's work ethic won't keep him from the delivery for very long, anyhow. I assume Douglas probed where he shouldn't have again? Is that what this is all about?"
Arthur nodded, hands behind his back. "Yeah, and I really wish he hadn't. It makes me wonder if he knows all my secrets, too." He twisted his face up, presumably into a “troubled” expression, but it was no secret that he was actually thrilled with the idea of having his mind read.
The woman pinched her lips together, flipped the page of an open book, and scribbled a note in the margin. "You don't have any secrets, Arthur. They are impossible to keep if one is, as you are, unable to withhold information."
"That's not true!" Arthur protested, coming up to the counter. "I haven't told you what Douglas said about Martin, have I? That he--"
"YES, and let's keep it that way," the woman interrupted hurriedly. "Now be a dear and hand me the Anderson account. He's trying to escape last week's delivery fee. Anderson, I'll tell you, now that's a special kind of idiot. Maybe even more than you, dearest heart."
Arthur paused, hands over the book, and studiously did not look up. She was feeling awfully pleased with herself, and he knew what that meant. "I don't think that was actually a compliment, mum."
There was a moment of inactivity. Arthur looked up.
She had unfolded her spectacles and settled them low on her nose. Her eyes scanned the log book. "Smart boy," she quipped.
Now sure that he hadn't been granted a shred of compliment, Arthur put the account on the counter. He leaned over and kissed her forehead quickly, before she could swat him away.
She mumbled something that Arthur didn't understand, but assumed was mildly insulting, and he laughed.
It didn't matter what his mum said; there was always something very fond in her feeling when she spoke to him. She couldn't lie to him, not in emotion (where it mattered), and in return he never lied in anything. Couldn't, actually, because it inspired tremendous, crippling guilt at having taken absolute truth and given none in return. It made their relationship very simple; in fact, all of Arthur's relationships were simple.
Arthur went into the back room and attempted coffee, and though it wasn't for Martin or Douglas, he still thought of them. He wondered how, if Douglas could read the contents of a mind so extraordinarily clearly, he could justify deceit; he wondered why, if life could be so very simple, Martin always encountered trouble.
The attic was cold, as always. The bed was perfectly made, the floor swept clean, but Martin's person was not so impeccable. He wasn't crying, but his face burned with the remnants of embarrassment and anger.
He had a job to do, a delivery due in Paris ASAP, but he needed a moment. Normally, his fervor for transport and perfectionist tendencies would have had him at the site ten minutes ago. It was true that Martin wasn't feeling normal, however.
In the next second, a change in the atmosphere chilled Martin's skin even further, and a cold wind whipped momentarily through the enclosed attic. "Douglas," he breathed, shifting hastily from his curled position into a hardly more dignified sprawl. He craned his neck to the right, in the direction of his bed. The sneering face of his rival and partner looked down on him from the center of the room. "I-I, this is my home!" he protested, wetting his lips with sudden, intense agitation. "How could you have possibly known--?"
The intruding man sighed and reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose. "Martin, have you forgotten that I happen to be able to read minds, and that our employer, who I will remind you is aware of where all her employees live, is a remote viewer? She led me straight to you. I assure you I did no sleuthing of my own, or stalking, for that matter."
Martin's face colored rapidly. "Well, I had hoped that your run-in with the E.B. had granted you the slightest bit of restraint. Of course I was wrong." He laughed humorlessly and pressed himself harder against the attic wall. "Why do I overestimate you like this?"
Douglas regarded him silently for a moment. He caught Martin's eye and held it. "So, you're actually upset, are you? You're going to let a bit of fun between friends interfere with your work?"
Instantly infuriated once more, Martin pushed himself up from the floor. "A bit of fun between friends? You call that fun, Douglas? That was humiliation! That was none of yours, or anyone's business but mine! Don't come here and tell me I'm a fool, you arrogant sod, because I know it already and not for the reasons you're claiming."
The man sighed, as if put upon by this display of emotion, and held out a pacifying hand. "Look, I've just come to say I'm sorry--"
Sickened, Martin interrupted him. "Right, okay, you're sorry. You're very sorry, though you do think I'm making it bigger than it is, and you wish I'd just get over it. Really, it's my problem, but you'll apologize for the sake of your damn job! But, of course, I understand how you feel--I do! As if happens, this is the only job I can get, too, though I didn't dig around in the mind and pants of the boss' daughter to land myself here!"
It was quiet, aside from Martin's slight panting, and a slow regret grew in his belly. It was ridiculous, he told himself. He'd said nothing that wasn't true, he'd given back no more than Douglas had initially given, and this guilt was the product of manipulation--of mistaken allegiance to a man he'd mistaken for a friend.
Said man took a small step back from Martin and sat neatly on the edge of his bed. It protested his wait shrilly for a moment but quieted in the next. Then, he spoke. "Yes, I deserved that, didn't I?"
Martin's hands couldn't find a suitable place to be, and made it their duty to awkwardly fidgets from position to position as confusion set in. "You did," he confirmed, voice a notch too high on the last note.
The man, senior to Martin in what seemed every way, rubbed a hand over his lined face. Dull light seeped in through the dusty window above the bed and shifted through his wavy, thinning hair. He looked up at Martin and held his gaze again, eyes steady, but something in his demeanor was kinder. "I'm a liar, Martin; but, believe me when I say I regret any decision that would bring harm to our relationship."
Silence prevailed, and Martin wallowed in it. He sat, exhaled quietly; turned his head away from that calm, carefully apologetic stare; and called himself an idiot. "Me too," he said and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he was in Paris.