Lucas Way shook his head, blinked once, blinked again in the dim light, and sat up in bed. Rather, he tried to sit up. He moved to kick off the covers and realized, something in the night had pinned his legs down. He twisted as if to reach down, and realized his arms were pinioned as well. He looked down towards the foot of the bed. He was not in his bed.
He was in a chair. A very sturdy chair. A dentist’s chair. Arms, legs and chest firmly and clinically strapped to the chair. This is not, he thought, how I went to sleep last night. His eyes were wide open now.
A small dark-haired woman, with vaguely Asian features, stood before him, her hands in the pockets of her white lab coat. She leaned in towards him, her head tilted slightly to one side. Her hair swayed. Lucas could feel the warmth of her breath. She spoke softly.
“Mr. Way. Good morning. This is not, I am certain, how you believed you’d wake up this day. “
“We need to talk. No, that is not quite correct. I need to talk. You need to listen. Yes, I will explain. You, sir, will listen. And then, you, sir, will explain.”
Lucas looked at her, again felt her quiet exhalations on his face. She was as close as a dentist. He searched her blank face for a clue. He thought “Who is this woman? Where the Hell am I? What the Hell is this about?”
She leaned in a touch closer. He could see a smudge on her glasses and a small zit forming on the edge of her nose.
She spoke again. “Yes. I work for a firm which manages the Usher Project. You have been a great friend of the Project, yes? And then, you briefly became just an interested observer – we no longer needed your skills and we let you go.”
“The Usher Project,” thought Lucas. “The Usher Project?”
“And now?” she whispered, “Now, you are more than a hindrance. You stand, hmm, sit in the way. But, sadly, we…the Project…still needs you. And it is my job to ensure that you understand the depth of that need.”
She leaned in so close that her hair fell forward and touched the side of his head. Lucas saw her eyes go out of focus as he stared at her through her glasses. He listened.
“Mr. Way, there is a flashdrive missing. A flashdrive- the one that will let us finish this work. You were there when the Project started, and shortly after you disappeared, so did this flashdrive.”
“We believe that you were responsible. We believe that this drive is not in your possession. Everyone in this office knows your mercenary tendencies – that is why we hired you in the first place. But we cannot continue without your assistance. For your last bit of assistance, you will work for free.”
“Free to us, perhaps at very high cost to you.”
Lucas blinked. He blinked twice more, and when he opened his eyes for the third time, he was sitting in a café. A very nice French café. He was seated across from a well-dressed grey-haired gentleman who was saying, “You still drink pastis, yes? I took the liberty. I hope you don’t mind”
Lucas found himself saying, “Uh, yes, pastis. Yes, I do. Have we met? Or worked together? I don’t usually forget my, um, confreres, but lately…” He shrugged.
The gentleman nodded. “Yes, Mr. Way. Age will get us all. Even you and I, two old friends. Out of touch? Yes, we have been out of touch. But many things have happened since then.”
“We need to talk, my friend Lucas Way. No, that is not quite correct. I need to talk. You need to listen. Yes, I will explain. You, sir, will listen. And then, you, sir, will explain.”
The pastis arrived, a pair of square tumblers filled with dark green liquid. It smelled like the south of France, summer, black licorice. The waiter placed the tray on the table between them. A small bucket of ice, a carafe of water beading up in the warmth of café, the bottle of Ricard in the center.
Way picked up the bottle, turned it in his hands, examined the label, “un vrai pastis de Marseille” it said. He stared deeply into the liquid and thought about what this conversation would bring. He placed the bottle back on the tray and picked up the carafe of water and motioned with it towards the two tumblers.
“May I?” he asked his companion.
“Of course. Please.”
He poured several fingerfuls of cold water into each glass and gently added several ice cubes.
Way lifted his glass across the table and waited. The gentleman raised his glass.
“A votre santé” murmured Way.
“Et vous” said his friend. “Now, Mr. Way. You shall know what you need to know.”
Way took another sip. He held his glass in both hands in front of him, the glass inches off of the table
“I work for the Usher Project.”
Way lowered his glass to the table, stared into the dark liquid, slowly blinked twice and found the café slowly fading from his consciousness.