Uncle Nicky awoke, as he had done every day for the past two weeks, in an uncomfortable bed in a small, windowless room with blue walls. It smelled of antiseptic and fear, with a hint of llamas.
Groaning loudly, he pulled himself into sitting position and gently rubbed the back of his head. The welt that had been there since poker night was almost completely healed. Nicky wondered whether it would leave an interesting scar that he could make up exciting tales of derring do about to impress ladies. Then he remembered that if he ever got out of this place, the real story of how he got it would be quite an interesting tale to tell, even without adding embellishments involving ninjas or sharks.
He stood up quickly, because he knew that if he didn’t move fast he wouldn’t get up at all, and then there'd be trouble. He waited for the head rush to subside before pulling his neatly pressed uniform off its brass hook. He put it on with a grimace, breathing in to suck in his tummy. It was too small, and he was glad nobody could see him wearing it.
"You put me in mind of a bag of porridge," his captor had said when he first put the thing on. "but it'll have to do for now. We haven't got anymore after-"
He or she stopped short. Nicky had no idea of the gender, nationality, or even favourite TV show of his host. Said host was always covered head to toe in a cloak of crushed mink, and when appearing in public he or she wore a series of masks, each more elaborate than the last. As to the voice, it was always disguised using some sort of voice box disguiser thingy, like they use on X-Factor but better.
There was a knock at the door. It would be one of the guards, Nicky knew - they always came round to ensure he was awake, although he wasn’t really sure why. They never let him out of his tiny blue room.
"McCracken, Nicholas," a gruff voice said from the other side of the door.
"Present," Nicky replied.
"Present, what?" the voice asked with a hint of annoyance.
"Present, sir," Nicky corrected, inwardly cursing his poor memory, lack of coordination and hairy back.
"That's better," the guard said, although he still sounded pretty annoyed.
Nicky waited till he heard the footsteps clicking away down the corridor before allowing himself to exhale.
The guards weren't as frightening as their leader in all that freaky carnival gear, but they were still pretty intimidating. There again, they probably had to be. Their hob, after all, was to prevent him - and maybe many others - from leaving some kind of under the radar prison organisation. Nicky was 99% sure he hadn't done anything that would get him this kind of treatment at the hands of official UK authorities, so this lot had to be something else.
Something altogether more sinister. Ergo, it made sense to employ big frightening bastards than namby pamby liberals who believe in free higher education and eating organic food.
As a general rule, a guard would do this preliminary visit, then leave Nicky to his own devices until around lunch time, when he would be given the first of two daily meals. He tended to use the time to imagine ingenious escape plans, but so far none of them had been very plausible.
It was difficult, he felt, when there was so little in the way of tech available – no paperclips for lock picking, nothing to use as a weapon, no possibilities for disguise other than ‘ghost’ (and even then we’re talking ghost as in ‘sheet over your head like a kid at Hallowe’en). Even if there had been materials to aid him in a MacGyver style break out, he had no idea what lay beyond the confines of the blue room. On the only occasion he had been allowed to leave, they had drugged him first and laid him on a trolley with a cover over his face.
Today, for the sake of advancing the plot and of course giving Nicky something a bit different to do, the usual routine was interrupted by a second knock on the door, hours before meal one was due to be delivered on its plastic tray.
“Er,” Nicky said, “come in?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” said an old gentleman, bounding into the room with the endless vitality of someone who subsists entirely on a diet of tea and werther’s originals.
“Who are you?” Nicky asked, not really expecting an answer. Or at least, not a truthful one.
“My name is Bert,” said the old man, “but that’s not important right now.”
“If you say so. Bit hard for me to judge, mate.”
Bert looked around the room.
“Minimalist,” he observed.
“Yeah well, I just hate clutter, y’know,” Nicky told him sarcastically.
“I’m the very opposite,” Bert told him conversationally, perching on the end of the bed and swinging his legs too and fro. The rubber soles of his shoes kept scuffing against the floor, creating a high pitched squeaking noise. It was deeply irritating.
“Gonnae no dae that,” Nicky said sharply.
Bert stopped, surveying him thoughtfully.
“So,” he said eventually, “what are you doing in this place?”
“I don’t know,” he replied, “waiting for death?”
“My my, what a pessimistic world view you have.”
“Well excuse me for being kidnapped on my way home from poker and not being told anything that’s going on,” Nicky responded with a petulant pout, “I’ll make a note in my diary that I must try harder when people ask me stupid questions.”
“You were kidnapped,” Bert said interestedly, “that’s interesting. Who by?”
“How should I know?” Nick was incredulous, and slightly angry. “You? Your boss? Who do you actually work for, Bert? Do you even know?”
“Well, how much can any of us ever really know of anything, in truth,” said Bert, attempting to appear sage like. He was more oregano, in truth. A little herb joke for you, there. Just to see who’s still paying attention.
Nicky tutted, and leaned back against the wall without saying any more.
“Tell me about your relationship with your muzzer,” Bert said in a slightly strange accent.
“Your mother. Apologies, I go a bit European sometimes. I’ve been trying to curb it by watching lots of American movies.”
“Why do you want tae ken aboot maw,” Nicky asked, suspiciously. “Do you know her?”
“As a matter of fact,” Bert said, “ I think I do. I have reason to believe that I am your long lost father.”
“I find that pretty unlikely,” said Nicky, “given I grew up knowing my dad. He used to take me every weekend to do fun stuff whilst mum painted her nails and acted like a strumpet. That’s my words, not his.”
“That was only the man you thought to be your father,” Bert said, “but you see, he was sort of right about the strumpet thing. She and I were planning to run away together, but when she fell pregnant with you she called it all off. I wasn’t ready to have children, not at the tender age of forty-two and three quarters. But she didn’t want to lose her chance to be a mother. She tried to convince – Steve, was it? – that you were his. I think he believed her, mostly.”
“Say for the sake of argument that I believed you,” Nicky said, “although I categorically do not – why are you here now?”
“To rescue you,” said Bert, “and to set things right.”
“I don’t care about the absentee father thing,” Nicky said, “ Steve was a great dad. One time he took me bowling. And another time, he let me stay up past my bedtime to watch the football.”
“I don’t mean that, Nicholas. I’ve made some professional faux-pas’s over the past few years and they’ve led to some pretty dire consequences. The establishment of this facility, for one.”
“What even is this place?” Nicky asked.
“I can’t go into that right now,” Bert replied darkly. “But it’s bad to the bone.”
“And what is it that you do that led to the establishment of an organization that kidnaps innocent people as they’re on their way home from poker?”
“That’s the least of what they’ve done,” Bert told him, sidestepping the question so smoothly that Nicky barely even noticed.
“Such as,” he prompted the older man gently.
“It’s too much,” Bert asserted, “we have to get you out of here. I’ll explain everything later.”
“And how are we going to do that?”
“I am a doctor,” Bert began, “I have official access to most of the building. We will put you on a trolley and I will transport you to the exit, where a horse and carriage are waiting to whisk us to freedom. If anybody questions me I will dazzle them with my official looking ID and rapier wits.”
“Hm,” Nicky ruminated, “seems a bit thin to me.”
“Trust me,” Bert said with the misplaced confidence of a man who thinks he is always right despite a frightening catalogue of evidence to the contrary, “it’ll be fine.”