Read Almost Perfect Online

Authors: James Goss

Tags: #Fiction - Science Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Space Opera, #General, #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #Harkness; Jack (Fictitious character), #Science Fiction - Space Opera, #Sagas, #Human-alien encounters - Wales - Cardiff, #Cardiff (Wales), #Intelligence officers - Wales - Cardiff, #Radio and television novels

Almost Perfect (11 page)

The bell rang. Rhys’s face crumpled. ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’

And Emma laughed. ‘Rhys, love. Just a tip – next time, say Simon and Garfunkel.’

‘What?’

‘If you’re asked what you were listening to just say Simon and Garfunkel. They’re safe, make you seem sensitive, and if you’re challenged you can shrug and say it was on shuffle and that you’ve got tickets to the Ting Tings next month. But whatever you do, don’t talk about your ex!’

Rhys spread out his hands, aghast. ‘I am so, so sorry… That is so tragic.’

Emma shook her head. ‘It’s OK. You’ll know for next time.’ And she smiled with all her teeth.

Next time? Rhys walked away, just a little bit of a spring in his step.

‘You were bloody all over her,’ spat Gwen as they stormed down Chippie Alley.

‘Was not.’ Rhys tried lingering meaningfully outside his favourite kebabery, but Gwen was having none of it and didn’t even break her stride.

‘You practically licked the air she breathed.’

‘She was well put-together, I’ll give her that.’

‘You could have been a bit more subtle. I thought you were supposed to be playing it cool?’

‘Heart on my sleeve, me. Always been my trouble. Salt of the earth.’

‘Well, she’s instantly suspect number one.’

‘You’re jealous! Just cos something wonderful steps into my world, you want to taser her and stick her in a cell next to a Weevil.’

‘Next to? She can bloody share a cell.’

‘Gwen, love?’

‘Yes.’

‘You’re bloody magnificent when you’re jealous.’

‘Thank you. Is there any of that lasagne left in the fridge?’

‘A little.’

‘Then you are my perfect man.’

‘I still bet I get more calls than you do.’

EMMA WEBSTER IS A MARKED
WOMAN

Gwen waited until Rhys was asleep, and then slipped out of bed and drove to the Hub. She loved the furtive feeling of wandering across the empty plaza, stepping up to the fountain, and then the click and the cold rush of night air as the invisible lift carried her down.

Sensing her presence, lights flickered gently into action, lighting up each of the storeys that the lift carried her through. Little pathways across the Hub’s floor lit up, and she stepped over to her desk, switched her computer on, then went over to put the kettle on. Ianto wasn’t around, so she figured she could make a cup of instant without getting into trouble. She guiltily kept a tiny jar hidden in her workstation. She’d tried telling him once that instant wasn’t so bad, really, but he’d just stared at her, like she was giving the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

Once into the system, she uploaded the digital pictures she’d taken of the room, along with details of the people on the register. She watched as the complicated alien machinery at the heart of Torchwood’s computer reached out into the internet, cross-matching faces and names and pulling in information – phone numbers, more photos, blog posts, one small criminal record, a wish list from Amazon, a history of dodgy dealings on eBay, some ill-advised beach photos from Facebook, a video of a restored car from YouTube, and proof that Gavin was quite the best player of Warcraft in Cardiff. But there was one name and face that Gwen homed in on. She clicked her mouse, and watched as Emma Webster floated forward, gradually filling the screen. Another click, a slight fumble, a small curse, two right clicks, and more images of her from over the years popped up on several other monitors that flickered into life.

‘She is gorgeous.’

Gwen screamed and jumped.

Bugger.

There, holding out a cup of freshly brewed coffee, was Ianto. He looked a million dollars in a neat little dress with kicky heels, like he’d been to a board meeting, followed swiftly by a cocktail party and an awards ceremony.

Gwen sat there, guilty and dishevelled, in the old sweatpants she sometimes slept in and a baggy T-shirt, her hand still clasped in shock to her breast, waiting for her breath to come back.

‘Ianto! Don’t do that!’ She was furious with herself for being scared.

‘I’m so sorry. I thought you’d like some coffee. I really didn’t mean to scare you.’

‘And what are you doing looking like Grace Kelly?’

Ianto looked a bit blank. ‘Like what?’ He glanced down.

‘Oh this? Oh, it’s nothing, really. Just something I found in the Archive. Turns out there’s tonnes down there. Sometimes it’s nice to wear really good clothes. I’ve always felt comfortable in smart clothes – you know how it is, stick with what makes you feel comfy.’ He glanced at Gwen, and smiled.

Gwen felt herself curling up. Especially when she realised there were still bits of lasagne stuck to her T-shirt.

‘Yeah,’ she said slowly.

Ianto stepped forward and settled the cup down. ‘Truthfully, I didn’t feel much like going to sleep. I’ve not been sleeping well. Nothing really planned. Did a bit of tidying in the vaults.’

‘No Jack?’

Ianto shrugged. ‘Still out trying to track down the cause of his static cloud. You know how he is. So what’s all this, then?’

Reluctantly, Gwen turned her attention back to the screen. ‘Well, Rhys and I went to that speed-dating thing.’

Ianto smiled. ‘Taking your husband speed-dating is so modern.’

‘Yeah. He turned out to be quite useful, actually. More useful than Jack would have been.’

‘I’m always useful!’ Jack strode in from nowhere, flinging his coat onto the sofa. He adopted his big beam. ‘Twenty strangers, some alcohol, and a chance to make small talk? Thirty minutes and we’d all have been in a big naked heap.’

‘Exactly,’ said Gwen. ‘Lovely fun for you, I’m sure, Jack, but we wouldn’t have learnt anything. Whereas Rhys and I—’

‘I think it’s sweet,’ put in Ianto.

‘We learned a lot. I think. I had a hunch about one of the women there. It turns out she’s one of the women missing from Tombola’s. And that’s not all.’

Jack looked at the screens, filled with pictures of Emma Webster. ‘Her?’

‘Yes.’

‘Quite the babe. I would. I definitely would. Wouldn’t you, Ianto?’

‘If you promised not to film it, Jack, then yes.’

My eyes, thought Gwen. ‘Anyway – Emma Webster. Here’s the youngest picture we’ve got.’ A school photo flashed up. It showed Emma in her late teens, a bit sullen, a bit spotty, still a bit of puppyfat. Surrounded by her classmates, she just looked cold and unhappy.

Jack leaned in closely, smiling fondly. ‘You know, I’m in one of my school photos three times. The Time Agency gave me a medal and a small fine.’

Gwen pressed on. ‘Look – here she is at her thirtieth birthday party. A couple of weeks ago.’

‘Yeah. Better. She’s grown up well.’

‘Yeah – but… she’s not… jaw-dropping. She either’s really made an effort for speed-dating, or something… different’s going on here. I mean look – here she is last night.’

They looked. They saw what she meant.

‘It’s not like she’s had work done, it’s just like she’s… better.’

‘Emma 2.0,’ said Ianto.

Jack nodded. ‘Now she’s… stunning. She’s perfect.’

Perfect. They both looked at Ianto.

He coughed. ‘I’ll go and make some more coffee, shall I?’

Two sets of eyes watched him go.

EMMA WEBSTER IS ABOUT TO
BE OFF THE MARKET AGAIN

He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me. He loves me not.

Who am I kidding?

He loves me.

RHYS WILLIAMS IS A
CHANGED MAN

After his first decent night’s sleep in days, Rhys woke up and lumbered out of bed, neatly ignoring Gwen’s stabbing foot and her murmur of ‘tea… tea… tea…’

He switched on the shower, started cleaning his teeth and hunting out some clothes for the day – all without a single thought in his head. And, when he did have a thought, it was to glimpse his reflection in the mirror and think, ‘Looking good, boy.’

He got out of the shower, marvelling at how that new shower gel really did leave him feeling tingling and refreshed. Gwen pottered into the bathroom, started cleaning her teeth and then stopped, brush motionless, foam flecking her mouth. ‘Mmmkhing hell!’ she managed, paste dribbling onto the floor.

‘What?’ asked Rhys, towelling himself down.

Gwen’s eyes were wide. She pointed at him with her brush.

‘You’re looking… well, different, that’s all, Rhys. Taller.’

Rhys shrugged. ‘A bit of attention from another woman, that’s all it takes for you to see what you’ve got, love.’

‘Ha. Ha,’ muttered Gwen. She was knackered. Jack was right. She hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep this week.

‘Hey, love, I reckon I’ve lost a bit after all, you know. I swear these jeans are hanging off me.’ He stood proudly in front of her, thumb pulling out the spare fabric.

‘They stretch, you know,’ muttered Gwen, without really looking. And then she really looked. ‘Where did you get that six pack?’

‘What?’ And then Rhys looked in the mirror. And a grin lit up his face. ‘Bloody hell, love! I’m staying at home today and washing the car. Topless.’

Gwen narrowed her eyes. Bless Rhys. Last time he lost weight, he’d been infected with an alien parasite. This time – well, she wasn’t inclined to believe that doughnuts and risotto were the magical keys to unlocking abdominal strength.

‘Well done, love,’ she said, keeping the worry out of her voice. Rhys seemed taller, broader – and even his face was a bit different. Slightly… well, more like he’d look in the movie of his life.

She looked at him stood there, hands on his hips, grinning at his reflection in the mirror. ‘Bloody marvellous, this! I look perfect!’

As she went to put the kettle on, she noticed his grey hairs were gone and really, really started to worry.

IANTO MISSES POCKETS

They were sat in the Torchwood SUV. A traffic warden was coming towards them across the car park. Jack was sat humming quietly to himself. Gwen realised, sadly, that the man had no real idea what ‘Pay and Display’ actually meant.

‘Ianto, hun, could you go and feed the meter? Quickly.’

‘Sure,’ said Ianto, and hefted something onto his lap the size of a labrador with handles. It appeared to be the world’s largest handbag. He dived into it muttering, ‘I’m sure I’ve got a purse in here somewhere.’

Gwen stifled a laugh. ‘Oh, no one needs a bag that large!’

Ianto looked up, puzzled. ‘But, I needed something big enough for my gun. And my house keys, and my MP3, and the phone, the PDA, the chargers, and a copy of
Captain Corelli
. Honestly, by the time you slip in some mints and a spare pair of tights, it’s full house, I can tell you.’

Jack arched an eyebrow.

The traffic warden tapped on the windscreen.

Jack held up his Torchwood ID. The traffic warden shook his head.

Jack looked back, placatingly, and started fishing around in his pockets. ‘Honestly, we save this city from alien disaster several times a year, and they still make us adhere to parking regulations. Do you know who really developed the internal combustion engine? Torchwood did. And this is the thanks we get. Well, that and one-way systems – the product of a tiny mind.’ Jack pouted, looking for all the world like a spoiled child. It was at moments like this, those rare moments when little things didn’t go Jack’s way, that Gwen saw the true hero. A man not frightened by vast evil, corrupt states or lost souls, but baffled by pettiness, bureaucracy and muddling mediocrity. Why he had sentenced himself to Wales, she would never really understand.

They were parked outside Rhys’s work.

That morning, Gwen had stormed into Torchwood, magnificently worried.

‘My husband’s too pretty!’ she’d yelled. ‘You’ve got to do something, Jack!’ She caught the look in his eye. ‘Don’t you go sassing me, Harkness. I am deadly serious.’

‘Sass?’ tutted Jack in mock affront. ‘I don’t do sass, do I? I prefer to think of it as kittenish charm. What do you think, Ianto?’

‘Definitely kittenish,’ said Ianto.

‘Sod the kittens,’ Gwen was in full flow. ‘Rhys woke up bloody gorgeous this morning, and I want to find the woman who’s done that to him.’

As she spoke, she was flinging photos from her phone up onto the Hub’s screens, until pictures of Rhys bobbed across the wall. Some were of their wedding, two were before and after shots of the back of his head, and one was of him this morning, wearing only a towel and waving sheepishly at the camera.

‘Look at Rhys!’ Gwen shrieked. ‘Overnight he’s gained an extra two inches!’

Jack carefully didn’t say anything. Ianto examined the intricate walnut inlay of the table surface.

Gwen pressed on. ‘It’s not natural. It’s wrong, that’s what it is. He goes on a date with a supermodel. He wakes up the next day all Abercrumpet. Shortly after Ianto wakes up bloody gorgeous. Buzzz! I rather do think there just may be a link.’

She suddenly knew she had Jack’s full attention. Finally.

‘Emma Webster. This woman is speed-dating, Jack. She is combing through Cardiff’s singletons – those she likes get a free makeover, those she doesn’t end up dead. Whatever she’s using, whatever her power, it’s not been around more than a week. She’s got her hands on some alien thing and… and… she’s using it to make her ideal man.’

‘Rhys?’ said Ianto and Jack.

They looked again at the picture of the jovial, weakly smiling bloke drifting across the walls of their boardroom.

GWEN IS THE GREEN-EYED
MONSTER

‘Oh, hi, Gwen,’ said Large Mandy from the office, laughing her normal large laugh. ‘Are you here for Rhys? He’s just on the phone. Would you like a doughnut?’

Gwen glanced at the plate full of pastries. Mandy was obviously Rhys’s enabler, keeping him fuelled on whatever crap she could lay her hands on. Ah well. She wondered how Mandy had taken Rhys’s sudden transformation. And then she found out.

‘I must say, Gwen, love, he’s looking knockout today. The girls from upstairs have been popping down to have a peek. He’s quite something – I’ll say this, married life suits him. Not like my Ted. Oh, I tell you, you wouldn’t believe the size of him these days. I always tells people I work in haulage and they looks at Ted and they laughs. It’s our little joke, see.’ Mandy laughed. ‘I’m glad we lives in a bungalow these days, or lord alone knows how I’d get him up and down the stairs.’

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