“The Shopping Centre of the Universe Mall and Gastropub,” Doctor Cratch read the sign with profound, abiding disgust. “You were right, Hatboy. I don’t like it.”
“I hate it,” Carla agreed.
Doctor Cratch pointed at her. “Me too,” I said. “I hate it, Hatboy. I hate it.”
I shrugged. “It’s the middle of the shrinking circle of Wasteland and slo-time,” I said. “I don’t know what to tell you.”
“What is a Gastropub?” Winona asked.
“Malicious Gastropub Franchisery was declared a human rights violation by the Commercial War Crimes Commission of the late Twenty-Third Century,” the Drake said helpfully.
“It’s a tavern that charges as much for its food as a restaurant does,” I explained to the puzzled Xixian.
“Hm. And what is a restaurant?”
“It’s a tavern that serves expensive food and…” I thought about it for a moment, “…doesn’t rent rooms to people?”
“I think the one in this mall is called Pete’s Pints and Deconstructed Burgers,” I added.
“Food Deconstruction was classified as a form of torture as early as 2220,” the Drake said disapprovingly. “This Pete is clearly one of history’s greatest monsters.”
“Maybe killing him will break the curse,” Mell suggested.
“What curse?” I demanded.
“I don’t know, I stopped listening after ‘it was all a dream’,” she admitted. “I just assumed there was a curse and we have to break it to clean up the Chris Mess.”
“Creepy and Mister C of 9 already went in,” Winona piped up from the back of the group.
I turned – Creepy and Mister C of 9 had been standing right beside me – and sighed. Sure enough, they were gone. I heard the raised voice of one of them – how many litres do you get for that price? What? How much of a litre? – from the row of vending machines inside the main entrance.
“Alright,” I said, “let’s go in. Everybody stay together, I think their public announcement desk is run by a hungry ghoul so if anyone goes missing we can’t-” I turned back again, and sighed. Now Winona was gone as well. I’d only looked away from him for a second, but a small group of shoppers had passed between us on their way into the mall and he’d vanished along with them. “Just try to keep the Drake in your line of sight,” I said, waving the towering figure to precede me. The Drake obligingly raised an elongated arm in the air and spread her pallid, tapering fingers. From the expressions on the faces of nearby Shopping Centre of the Universe patrons, the Creepies were the only ones who weren’t going to be keeping the Drake in their line of sight for the foreseeable future.
“What are we even looking for?” Carla asked.
“As of this moment, Winona and Creepy and Mister C of 9,” I muttered, looking around.
“Because unless you do something, they’re probably going to kill the hapless innocent day manager at that gastropub you were talking about,” Carla warned.
“Unless I do something?” I objected. “Why me?” Carla looked at me flatly. “Fine,” I threw up my hands in exasperation.
We headed into the Shopping Centre of the Universe Mall and Gastropub.