The diner lights seemed harsher than usual, the cold flourescence bathing him in stark and lifeless whites. This was probably an illusion, he thought, a side-effect of memory. In comparison with the steel and formica laid out before him, the gaslight and cobblestone phantoms of a forgotten London brooded dark in the eye of his mind.
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Ella was slathering ketchup over her scrambled eggs.
"Are your eggs any good?" He said.
"Ah. I'm a hundred and thirty six."
She looked up. "What."
"I'm one hundred and thirty-six years old. Or near about. I'm not quite clear on what year I was born."
"One hundred and thirty-six?"
She put her fork down. "Right. I'm...just going to give someone a call real quick. One sec." She pulled her phone from her pocket.
For an insane moment, Christopher was certain she was calling the police. Then:
"Hello? Dad? You have a second? Oh. All right. Great. What? Oh, I'm in a diner, talking to a friend of yours. Well, he says he's a friend of your- what? His name's Christopher-" She put a hand over the mouthpiece. "What'd you say your last name was?"
"Downing. Like the street."
She took her hand away. "Downing. Yeah. Okay, so you do know him, then? Yeah. Yeah. Well, I thought you'd want to know this, he just told me he's a hundred and thirty-six years old. Is this like a thing with him, does he say that all the time, or- what? Sorry, I- what?" Her eyes flicked up to him, wide and stunned. "Really. Really. Dad. This isn't some elaborate joke, or- no. No. No, Dad, I know you're not the joking type. Just...I just...hold on-" She clamped her hand over the mouthpiece again. "He says you're a hundred and thirty-six!" She hissed.
"Dad? You still there? Yeah, I...what? Um. Yeah...sure, I guess. Hold on." She held out the phone. "He wants to talk to you."
Christopher took the little phone and pressed it to his ear. "Hello? George? ...yes, I know. Yes. Yes, it's fairly strange. No. George...no, I wouldn't do- after everything you've seen, do you really still believe in coincidence? Mm. Me neither. No, I don't know. I can't think of anything offhand, unless she's practicing magic. One moment, I'll ask." He put his hand over the mouthpiece. "You're not practicing magic, are you?"
He took his hand away. "No, she's not. What? Honestly, I have no idea, George. We should get together sometime, the three of us, and talk. If I know you, you haven't told her anything about- yes, yes I know she's right here. That would be precisely my point, George. No, I don't mean to resurrect the House. I just mean talk. No, she doesn't know about him yet. What? Well, I suppose I'll leave it up to him whether or not to tell her. Mm. You know me; a wild, madcap character, I'm sure. No, George. No. No. No, I have no intention of 'putting the moves on' anyone, thank you. Hell. Look, I'll call you again later. Everyone seems to be connected to everyone these days anyway. No, I won't get a phone for myself. They give you cancer, and you can't slam them down. Where's the good in that? Well, I suppose you can slam them, but you'll have to buy a new phone after. Mm-hmm. Yes. All right. I'll call you later, George. Right. Goodbye." He took the phone away from his ear, looked at it, then offered it out to her. "I'm not sure where the disconnect button is, sorry."
Ella pushed a button on the phone and set it down on the table. She looked up at him. "Seriously?"
"I mean, this isn't some in-joke between you and my Dad that-"
They looked at each other across the table.
"Look," she said. "This is going to take some time to get used to."
"I understand that."
"How did you do it? I mean..."
Christopher made a face. "It's complicated."
"Meaning you're not going to tell me?"
"Meaning ask again later."
"Okay. So why did you tell me?"
He shrugged. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. You're George's daughter, and you asked. I've been known to be capricious."
"Aren't you worried that I'll..." She waved a hand vaguely at the rest of the diner.
Christopher tilted his head. "That you'll what?"
"I don't know. Tell someone?"
"I don't...I mean..."
"Look," Christopher said. "I know it's terribly popular in movies to suggest that Faceless Government Agents will sweep down upon any anomalous person at the merest mention of their existence, but the fact is, that's bollocks. The people who would be interested don't have any power, and the people who have power don't care. Or don't want to accept the idea, which adds up to the same thing. Honestly. You could shout it from the rooftops, and I doubt anything would happen. I don't have a magic Youth Tonic in my pocket, so my advanced age benefits nobody, and thus nobody is interested." He spread his hands. "Sorry."
"Don't be sorry, I'm glad you're not..." She broke off. "Look, seriously, you look about thirty. Maybe thirty-five. Are you-"
"Let's go for a walk," Christopher said. "Down along the canal. We'll talk, and I'll do my best to explain myself. Anyway, it's got to be better than a bloody diner for this sort of thing. Unless you're just dying to finish those eggs."
Ella made a face.
Christopher sits back in his chair. "Is there a point to this line of inquiry?"
Manuel Lascaris pulls one of the vacated chairs away from the table, turns it to face Christopher, and sits down. "Let us not dance about the matter, Mr. Downing. I think you've done it. I do not know how, or even precisely when, but based on the words of Allan Bennett, and my own researches, I have cause to believe that you've discovered a means of prolonging life, without death."
Lascaris clears his throat. "I mean, prolonging life by preserving the body while still alive, rather than dead." He scratches his nose. "I cannot prove this, of course, and if you tell me I am mad I will go away and leave you alone, but believe me when I say that of all the people in this world, I can keep a secret."
"It certainly sounds very exciting," Downing says. "Would make an excellent monthly serial, if you wrote it all down. If you don't mind my asking, what is your interest in all this? If you're looking for the secret to eternal life or somesuch thing-"
"I am not. I have no need of such a secret." Lascaris spreads his hands. "Please. Mr. Downing, my motives are neither sinister nor purient. I ask for nothing but an opportunity to talk with you."
"Right. Right..." Downing looks away. Looks back. Folds his arms. "Anyway. It's too early to be certain about anything..."
"But you are certain."
"Yes...yes, I am." Downing sighs. "There. I've told you. Even Reiter doesn't know as much, and I considered him a friend once. I suppose I still do..."
Lascaris stands up. "Come and walk with me, my friend. May I call you my friend?"
"I suppose you'd better do," Downing says. "Knowing as much. May I do the same?"
"Of course. Now, please, come and walk with me along the river, and we will talk. I had hoped very much for this chance."
"Yes. Well..." Christopher stands up. "I can't believe Bennett told you."
"He had his reasons."
"I suppose so. Just let me fetch my coat."
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.