The hustle and bustle, and the overpowering mediocrity that streamed from the place, should have made the Indian restaurant a comfort after the crazy past few days. However instead it provided a clear contrast between "normality" and the life they were experiencing. Amara felt increasingly discontented with every laugh and joke the people around her produced. The casual chit-chat of other guests, the friendly care free manner of the waiter and the innocent misbehaviour of people's children felt offensive. She couldn't bear it. And they hadn't even ordered their starters yet.
"Man... do you want to get a takeaway or something instead?" asked Rayan with a deep frown engraved into his face.
Amara felt a little better to see he was having the same reaction to the surroundings as she was. She nodded once and threw the menu across the table. They got up, paid for their barely touched drinks, and left for the takeaway across the street.
Outside, the streets were littered with people on a night out, some intoxicated, most extremely loud. After grabbing their takeaway the two quickly sought refuge in Rayan's small black car.
They ate quietly, slowly, without speaking to each other. Both enjoyed the silence, but equally they needed each other's company. Like a small child frightened in the middle of the night, they gained comfort from the companionship. Then, Rayan set his fork down and suddenly stopped eating. Amara sensed his emotions changing, his senses heightening. Something was happening.
His eyes flickered up to the rear view mirror of the car and she instantly understood - they were being watched. In the darkness, she saw a car parked at the side of the road. The windows were darkened but there was definitely a shape inside. She sorted quickly through her memories of the past few hours and noted that the same car had been parked in the hospital car park. Coincidence? Unlikely. Amara had learned to never put events down to coincidence.
"Keep eating," she said in a conversational tone, but she moved her left hand onto her right knee - their private signal for acknowledgement.
He picked up his food again, "This doesn't taste as good as it used to. I'm going to chuck it I think."
"Yeah, me too - mine's a bit cold."
They got out of the car. Amara noticed Rayan subtly checking his gun was still in his inside jacket pocket. They put their food in the bin and walked down the street. Rayan looked into the darkened shop windows that lined the high street, seeing in them the reflection of the grey car with the watcher inside. There didn't appear to be any activity from the car.
"Do you fancy going for a walk - somewhere quiet?" asked Amara. The question was really about whether to risk a confrontation with the person watching. If they remained in public areas it would give them time to find out whether the person... or the organisation they represented... were likely to be dangerous or not. But as of late Amara's patience had been wearing thin, and she'd become a lot more reckless. Perhaps it was because next to the Shadow man any situation felt tame. Her fear of the dark man had conquered all her others. Every cloud has a silver lining she thought, an involuntary smile touching her lips.
Rayan paused at a restaurant along the parade, pretending to study the menu but actually deep in thought, considering the situation.
"Sure," he muttered, smoothing down his trousers - indicating they shouldn't push it too far. If it looked like it could be nasty, they had to withdraw. The fact was they had no idea who this guy (or girl) was. In the past they'd experienced everything from harmless nosey members of the public to large-scale secret organisations plotting their assassination.
They turned off the high street, Rayan and Amara walking exactly in step. Shops and pubs filtered out and the roads became bland rows of terraced houses. Quickly, they reached the darker alleyways of the town. They turned down a passage between two houses where there was no lighting. The floor was damp with leakage from a nearby pipe. Moss grew up the walls in sticky clumps, looking like cancerous green fingers clutching at the brickwork. Their trainers squelched in the dirt in unison as their pace quickened. Behind them they heard the sound of a car approaching, stopping, and a person getting out.
They stopped at an intersection of the alley. Amara placed a hand on her gun, hidden beneath her baggy sweater. Rayan did the same, breathing slowly.
At the end of the thin corridor was a street lamp. Its light dimmed as a shadow obscured its light. Amara drew a quick frightened breath, coughing a little. A memory of the Shadow man flared up violently in her mind.
Rayan placed a steady hand on her arm and looked briefly into her eyes with a reassuring gaze. She relaxed, and stared intently at the approaching figure.
His features faded into view. About 30, he had short black hair in a military style. However his unshaven face and thick-rimmed designer glasses destroyed the army look. He was only wearing a black t-shirt and jeans but didn't appear to be cold. His arms were hairy and muscular although he wasn't a particularly tall man. His walk, despite being powerful, had a slightly awkward edge to it, like he didn't connect with his body very well. He stopped a few metres away from Rayan and Amara.
"We didn't expect you to accept contact so quickly," he said. His voice was level, average pitch and totally lacking an accent.
"We?" questioned Rayan, his hand resting gently on his gun, analysing their current surroundings with a critical eye.A clear passage to the left onto the main street for a quick escape. Nothing to hide behind. No sign of others. Unclear whether the man was armed, but it was almost certain he was. People were always armed these days.
"Of course, I represent an organisation. We have been interested in you for some time. We believe we have similar intentions," the man paused, and looked around, "Which we shall discuss elsewhere."
"Will we now?" Amara raised an eyebrow, putting on her dominant, confident front.
"Yes," the man said with no trace of doubt, a demeanour that set Rayan on edge.
Amara suddenly pulled her gun and set it on the man, "Truth. Now. No fluff."
Rayan quickly drew and looked around for the inevitable companions this man had, but saw nothing. He strained to hear but he could only hear distant traffic.
"We hoped you would come willingly," the man sighed, seemingly unfazed by the loaded gun pointed at his skull.
Amara was about to shoot; Rayan could sense it. But then, as her finger began to put pressure on the trigger, there was a sinking. The ground around them warped, like it was a stretchy, elastic material. It sucked at their feet, knocking them over. Their hands pressed against it and started getting absorbed. It became runny like a thick liquid. Rayan found himself thinking of custard. He thought about his gun but had no idea where it was. Panic had rendered him immobile. He glanced at Amara who was thrashing around like a cat drowning in water, her limbs flailing but her actions not doing anything to help.
He sank. And on the way down all he kept thinking was that the ground looked the same. It's still grey. It's still a bit mossy. But it's not ground at all.