The Millions of Me
They call me Milo, and it's short for a name that won't mean anything to you. As for this story? You won't believe a word of it, I promise you that.
It's a joke, really. We've been with you since the dawn of civilization, since monkeys became men. We've been titans and primordial spirits, we've been gods, champions, and monsters. We've been prophets and saints, healers and war criminals, inventors and killers. Hell, twenty years ago you cheered for us like we were sporting legends.
You know so many of our names, but you'll probably never know who we really are. Like I said, you won't believe a word of this. We're all just stories these days. I'm not gonna give you our entire history or anything like that, because we'll be here forever. But I can give you a slice of life, let you see what we became after the Nevermind pulled his vanishing trick and made us all disappear from your heads. Now we occupy that same fantastical rung of human imagination as do ghosts, UFOs, and elaborate government conspiracies.
All of which I've encountered, by the way. Goes to show.
Can't say I miss the limelight, though. All that pressure, all that expectation. I prefer to just do my job. Dressing up like a loon and spouting corny phrases was fun and all, but it was always kinda childish. I think the world's grown up a bit since then.
Hah, right. If you believe that you'll believe anything. Maybe I just meant I'm getting old. Just listen to the story, yeah? It starts with me running the regular wetwork for the Bureau back in Chicago, maybe five years ago now...
It began as a routine job, another ruckus caused by unauthorized superhuman activity. There's an official code for it in Bureau parlance. Everyday stuff, really.
The Bureau said that this guy Foolsfire and his little band were sympathizers to the Ultramen, a group of superhumans who rejected the system and the government, and worked without oversight as our kind used to do in the days before the Nevermind. There are still a lot of rogue supers around, of both the heroic and the villainous sort. Registered superhumans, on the other hand, work for society like any other human, as firefighters, builders, heavy lifters – you name it. Others like me work for the government, on missions only those of our kind can handle.
All too often, those missions involve taking down rogue elements. Times have changed. It's really not a time for vigilantes and supervillains any more. The world has problems enough. For the most part, good or bad, no one even knows we're here, and those nails that do stand out get hammered down.
So this band had set up shop in a derelict warehouse in Bedford Park. I was making my way from the city dressed in the getup I used to wear back then – an urban combat suit, grey and black, with the emblem of the Bureau on my chest. It wasn't an undercover mission, I wanted them to know the power I represented. You'd be amazed how often that saves you a fight altogether. On my back I used to have a second emblem, a white triangle with red corners. That was my old logo, back in the day. I had a few weapons with me – a couple of knives and a trusty Glock 22. Lethal force isn't always my first resort, but I know from long experience that there's no room for idealism when dealing with freaks like us.
I'd taken up a perch across the street, and through the windows of the depot I could see a mezzanine walkway, a nice spot for a stakeout. My vision blue-shifted.
A flash of light, and there I was. From my balcony perch, the warehouse floor stretched below me. There were dozens of them moving down there, what looked to be a gang of armed men, but only one of them stood out to me: he was dressed in the typical flamboyant style of rogue superhumans. He'd gone for a sorcerer's look, all wrapped up like some Arabian mystic in bright swaddling robes of blue and green, his head shaved bald. They told me he was a psychic, operating under the name Foolsfire, but that's about all the intel they could give. The rest was for me to figure out as I went.
I wasn't too worried. He hadn't sniffed me out from where I was, so I figured he wasn't all that powerful. Psychic types tend to be tricksy, though. But you know what? So am I.
My objective was down there on the warehouse floor, wrapped in tarpaulin. It was the size of a small car, so it was no grab-n-run operation. I was going to have take these guys out.
So there I was, looking at the situation, and I couldn't help it. I was smiling. I'm too used to winning, for me there's no game over, no threat. I don't have to worry about controlling my power, or about responsibilities and rights, not like they had to the olden days. Within the boundaries set by the Bureau, I just get to have fun. When things go right, nobody dies. Sometimes they do.
Without moving, I reached for the ever-present itch in my brain, and thought just the right thought to scratch it. My vision swam blue.
Below me I heard a dull thump, like thunder in a tiny box.
I was still up there on the balcony somewhere, watching everything as it unfolded, but I was also down on the factory floor. A perfect copy of myself at the moment of my creation. That's my main party trick, in a nutshell, but I've got a lot of mileage out of it over the years.
I walked confidently across the warehouse floor, towards the two-dozen strong detail of armed thugs.
Foolsfire turned. He was a short-stack, and scrawny to boot. And young, I realized – maybe in his mid-twenties at a push. I should've known. By the time they get old, the idealists have usually grown into ruthless fanatics, but crime scene reports said Foolsfire is the kind of villain who only kills when he has to.
He was looking me over as I approached. We were maybe five meters away from each other when I stopped, and I felt a pang of guilt. He really was just a kid.
'Turn away, hero,' Foolsfire said to me. His voice was accented, something mystical and foreign, but I'm willing to bet it was an affectation. Same for his shaved head, probably figured it made him look like his mind rays were just too much for his follicles to handle.
Call me jaded, I guess. Seen it all before. The kids just play to the clichés, these days, like the most messed-up sense of nostalgia you can imagine. Most aren't even old enough to have been there when those cliché were relevant, if they ever were.
'This is no business of the Bureau,' he added. He made of sound like off. Sounded kinda Mexican, actually. I made a show of tilting to the left to peer around him, raising an eyebrow, peeping curiously at the tarpaulin shape behind him.
'Dunno,' I said, returning to normal. 'That looks kinda Bureauish, don't you think? I could maybe see that as the Bureau's business? Yeah?'
Foolsfire smiled. I realized he was actually going to indulge me.
'Yes, perhaps they would be interested. Do you know what it is?' He smiled like he just scored a point, and I just about held off on rolling my eyes. God help me, I thought. But then came the clincher: 'It's a piece of the COG,' he said. And that I wasn't expecting. This was a bit more heavy duty than the Bureau let on.
'I would know your name,' Foolsfire said. Kinda funny, really. To me that meant he was switched on, clever enough to use his little gentlemanly act to pick up some clue as to what my power might be. Throughout our little golden age a while back, we were all about announcing them to the world through our names. Even had mottos. Mine was, embarrassingly, 'United We Stand'. I'm not embarrassed to have had a motto. Everyone should have a motto. Nah, it's embarrassing because for half my life I barely understood what mine meant. Anyway.
'No, you wouldn't,' I said, and shrugged. 'You'll learn it in maybe five minutes, when you're beaten and ready to hand yourself in. Maybe then I'll tell you.'
I was feeling pretty full of myself, when suddenly, the lights go out. I blink once or twice stupidly, as if it'll help. Then something splits my skull from behind.
By now it's instinctive to reach for that itch in my brain on the precipice of death. So I do.
And I think to myself, and to Foolsfire, in case he's listening: See you on the other side.
I watch as the injured me collapses to the ground, and with a sound like cracking bone, he explodes into blue light before he hits the floor. By the time the glow dissipates, there's nothing left of him. He didn't quite die, just made a backup and erased himself. That makes sense, right? The computer analogy always helps.
So the lights seem fine again. I can't quite figure out what's happened, but I'm guessing it's one of Foolsfire's skills. Some sort of low-level illusion, perhaps. The man who split my skull is just a flunky, a baseline human trying to work out why I'm standing here when I just got my head caved in.
That tells me he still thinks I'm a teleport, which is exactly why he's still staring at me when another dull thump reverberates behind him. That thump is a sudden explosion of blue, dust-like energy, which expands outwards before reversing direction and coalescing, in an eye-blink, into another Milo. This Milo clubs the flunky in the back of the head with the pommel of his knife before the guy can even turn around.
I turn to Foolsfire, just as the mystic shrieks 'Kill him!' and all the dozens of men in the room descend on the two of us. Except a whole bunch of those dull thumps sound, and suddenly there's dozens of me, too. I see the brief flash of panic cross Foolsfire's face, but he masters himself quickly.
'An interesting trick,' he says, because apparently he picked his lines up from Supervillains 101, and follows up with: 'Now let me show you mine.'
Okay. Well. At this stage things could've been going better. The problem being that the room is suddenly full of Foolsfire, dozens of him just as there are dozens of me and dozens of his henchmen. Should be interesting, I thought.
The Foolsfire closest me lunges at the same time as one of his henchmen. Experience and gut instinct tell me to ignore Foolsfire altogether, and this proves correct; he feints an attack at me as the flunky lunges, nightstick firing towards my right thigh. I step out of the attack and bring my knife driving down into the thug's spine as he overbalances. But then Foolsfire is on me again, and he strikes with a short staff I somehow didn't even realize he was holding. The impact fires stars into my vision, and I lose my balance, tumbling to the floor.
I don't let him get a follow-up. I create another me, up on the balcony, and give myself up, dissolving in blue light.
Seven of us are gathered on the balcony. The thing about being able to copy myself is that I can always rely on my other selves to have arrived at the same plan, sooner or later. We watch the battle unfold below, as Foolsfire pulls the same trick on a dozen versions of me; a feint, allowing the gangsters an opening, followed by an attack of his own. Sometimes he's successful, and versions of me get maimed or beaten, and explode into light. Other times we fight back, and we on the balcony notice that where we counter Foolsfire, his copies ripple and fold.
So we figure they're illusions. But then, how can he hurt us, we wonder?
One of us arrives at the answer a little sooner than the others; he's probably been watching a different scuffle.
'It's not just visual. He can simulate pain, as well. Fool us into thinking we're being hurt, fool our sense of balance...'
'But he's not powerful enough to pull the blindness trick on all of us.'
'He'll focus on one of us.'
We look at each other.
'The primary,' we all say.
Blue light, and I'm here. I stay back, hanging near the door as the battle unfolds around me. Some of Foolsfire's illusions ripple as I attack them, others land hits on me. Most of the henchmen are dead or out for the count, leaving the heavy lifting to the illusionist.
We're not so different in our way, I suppose. He's hit on the same model of illusion as I have duplication: creating yourself is just plain easier than creating anything else. At this point, I'm still trying to work out whether the real Foolsfire is even in the room. It's tricky, and I know that better than anyone.
There's this sudden, wet sound as a fist slams into me, piercing straight through the flesh like a spear. It's somewhere in my left lung, I think. I don't know, I went kind of numb at the time. My concentration broken, I watched my other incarnations explode into nothing by the dozen.
'Standing back, letting all your clones do the work,' this new hostile says. 'You couldn't have made it more obvious if you tried.' His voice has a hollow sound.
The illusion on the man wobbles, and he transforms from just another henchman into something else entirely. I couldn't even tell what he was at first glance. A second longer and I see he's either wearing his bones like they're a suit of armor, or he's got bones where his skin ought to be. Either way, he's covered in it, head to toe, halfway between a knight and chitinous insect. I took a guess that the fist that rested in me was that same material in a sharpened form. Kinda hurt. Thankfully shock dulled the pain, turning it from the shooting agony of toothache to that bone-twisting feel more like getting a tooth pulled.
So the hole in me is the size of, well, a fist, and somehow that fist feels like it's growing inside me. I know I'm not long for the world, but the funniest part is that I don't care. I'm not going to die here. I'm just going to stop. You lose. Continue?
I force the words out, though my breath feels half full of blood.
'Clones?' I echo, with a weak smile. 'What clones?'
His eyes, recessed within his outer skull, narrow as they measure me, and that expanding feeling inside me gets stronger. My face contorts in agony, but even so, I hiss out one more word:
BAM! Blue light and blue dust, bone and muscle and skin and cloth and I appear beside me. A perfect me, healthy and whole. Boneman stares at the other me for a moment, stupefied as his brain tries to shift paradigm, calculate exactly how wrong he was on a scale of Whoops to I'm Dead.
My vision goes fuzzy, but my work is done.
The wounded me explodes into atoms, and the bone guy's hand remains in place in mid-air. I see now that his hand is not only sharpened, but bone spines have extended outwards from it. Those things must've been tearing my insides up a treat.
'You know, that really hurt,' I say, rubbing my torso like I've got bellyache. I'm just trying to be polite, make a little conversation. Talking with your killer is always a little weird, but it's even freakier for them. 'Call it the down side of being born from a dying man,' I add. 'Didn't feel myself die, though. I never do. Wonder what it's like? Hell, I suppose this me will find out sooner or later.'
Boneman finally lowers his hand. A shift in attitude tells me he's almost acknowledged his defeat already, like he's about to tell me 'good game, well played'.
'So where's the real you?' he says in his hollow voice. 'A block away?'
'You're still struggling with this, aren't you?'
I manifest again, over and over again, until the warehouse is once more full of my copies. The copies who only unmade themselves in the first place to throw our enemies off for a moment longer, a little piece of misdirection on our part.
'There are copies of me right across this city, and a few outside it,' I say. 'There are fifty-seven of them in this room alone. I'm all of them. I'm none of them. There's only one me, and here we are.'
'But one of you must be...real?'
'Why just one? You play at bones, I'll show it in a way you understand. This'll hurt like hell, but I'll forgive myself. I always do.'
I take the process slow, this time. I reach into that feeling in my brain, find it, and twist it. Light flares in the spot where I'll be, exploding outwards in blue dust. It suddenly reverses direction like it's being sucked back to its point of origin, but I slow it right down. The dust coalesces into a roughly human shape, and a skeleton starts to construct itself from inside the cloud. Organs fill the gaps, and muscles, ligaments and blood vessels begin to weave themselves into the structure. The flesh appears, layering itself over muscle. I stand there naked, new eyelids closed over gaping sockets. The clothes and equipment come last, a copy of my own gear. The whole process is excruciating, but like I say, he'll forgive me. I don't even have to explain myself.
My copy opens his eyes. He looks first at the Boneman, then turns to me and smiles. I reach for the feeling in my head again, and this time I untie the knot.
My creator explodes into light, form dissolved by the halo of power. I blink with my fresh eyes, and turn back towards the Boneman.
'So that's me,' I shrug. 'Give or take.'
Apparently he's done talking, because he lunges for me, and as he does so his arm reforms itself into a blade. I've seen his main trick now, his superpower, but it's a pretty decent one. As he swings, the spines extend outwards from his hand like small spears. I can't just duck and weave, I have to stay away from that hand like it's a naked flame capable of leaping suddenly to a fireball. So I do the next best thing, tumbling like a felled tree. As I fall, my Glock slides from its holster and fires, and the bullet glances off the bone armor. He stumbles like someone just belted him, but recovers into another attack.
Bulletproof, huh? Well, only one thing for it, then.
A bone-armored boot stomps towards my face, but I'm dust before it hits me.
I'm born at Boneman's side, and the butt of my knife jars my elbow as it slams hard into his cranium. Seems a little like I tried the same trick twice, huh? But Boneman staggers, because here's the thing: armor arrests an impact, but the kinetic energy has to go somewhere, and it's not like bone offers much in the way of padding. He goes hard to the floor, his brain bouncing off the walls of his skull, hopefully softening that tissue towards concussion. A bark from my Glock reinforces the injury, and though the bullet ricochets off the bone, the recoil tells me roughly how much percussive damage I just dealt to his brain.
Harsh, I know. I'm not naturally wrathful, but I could never join the League of Goody Two Shoes, either. Someone tries to hurt me, I get cranky. I know, I know. Call it a flaw.
'This is trending toward the long side,' I announce to the warehouse. There's nothing left of the assorted thugs except battered bodies, and I rest my foot on Boneman's side as he writhes on the ground. I level my Glock with a flourish, aiming it carefully at his eye socket. 'So what say we strike a deal?'
I'm listening, says a little voice.
Ventriloquism is bread-and-butter to an illusionist. It was worth a try to draw him out, though.
'Let me walk out of here with your new toy,' I reply. 'And this fossil.'
I roll Boneman onto his back with my foot. He's out cold now. Whether he'll survive or not is up to Foolsfire, I suppose. There's probably a concussion boiling away in his head right now, and you can never tell what the outcome of one of those will be.
'On the plus side,' I add. 'I won't chase you. Just get out of here now, while you can.'
The Bureau won't like it, but I'm sticking to the instructions, and they don't pay me commission. Frankly, there are better things I can do with my time than waste it on some Brainpain wannabe.
Deal, says the voice.
I can't help but glance around the room, but there's nothing to see. Foolsfire probably left the building the moment he saw Boneman get his osteodermis handed to him. Surprised he'd leave the COG, though. Those things aren't easy to come by, he must've spent a lot of time and effort trying to acquire it.
Ah well, mission complete. I call it in to the Bureau, and it's only a few minutes before Bureau operatives arrive. They're no slouches themselves, each being a special forces vet of many years, some of them so skilled they could almost give a superhuman a run for their money, but even so they give me sideways glances as they secure the area and begin to bundle the piece of machinery into the unassuming but heavily-armored truck. They've heard the whispers, know the urban legends, but the rational part of them is saying that no single operative could've disabled this many targets and completed the objective with nothing to his name but a pistol and a few knives.
The world can't make much sense to people without powers. All those unexplained mysteries, all the curious happenings and occurrences that just don't quite add up. It must boggle the mind.
For instance, they had no idea what it was they were loading onto that van. In a way, neither did I. All anyone really knows is that pieces of the COG can be found in most major cities of the world, and that they're vital to keeping society as we know it running.
I've learned a few things about the COG over the years. Secrets were my line of work, after all. It's kind of an open secret that sometimes superhumans just up and disappear without a trace. Not murdered, not kidnapped, but untraceable by psychics, life-sniffers, trackers, everyone who could possibly seek them out. All that's left is a strange feeling of energy, like static, at their last known location, noticeable to superhumans but not to normals.
The COG network eats people, basically. Let's not pretend any more on that mystery, because we all know it to be true. How it finds us, how it chooses us, why it needs us, we might never know. No one even knows who built the network, who decided to start breaking our kind down in a way that released their energy over time like a battery plugged into the world. We tolerate it because we don't know how to do anything about it. I suppose you'd expect us to be paranoid of being vanished at any moment, and in my case you might be right. Most of us could be killed at any moment anyway, but not me – the COG is one of the few things I suspect might be capable of truly killing me. Randomly. Without warning.
Couldn't dwell on it, though. They didn't pay me to do that, and in the end, what could I even do about it? I don't know what Foolsfire wanted with this piece of the COG or what he'd even do with it. That was for the Bureau to determine when they took Boneman in for questioning.
I glanced out of the window.
Blue light left me a block from where I was standing. Less expensive than running a car, and much more pleasant than taking the bus. Turns out superpowers are convenient. Who knew?
I started walking towards the park, where I was supposed to be meeting a Bureau contact to take me to my debriefing. I only got two paces when someone gripped me suddenly from behind, arms around my chest, and I got a curious sensation like...hm, you know when your body explodes into atoms? Kinda like that.
By my own standards I suppose it's no different than copying myself. My atoms were reformed on the roof of a building nearby, nearly instantaneously, and the grip released. I turned, smiling.
Ash stood in front of me, grinning like someone just offered her a cake at half price. Can't help it, her smile gets me every time. It never worked out between us, but I'm always glad to see her.
'You're a moron,' I told her, by way of expressing that. Her smile disappeared, and she raised an eyebrow.
'Hi yourself,' she said, playing like she was annoyed.
'Seriously, jumping for the hell of it in your condition?'
'One jump doesn't make a difference,' she said flatly, and I could tell she was annoyed for real. Ten seconds in her company and I'd turned her icy already. Probably a new record. She shrugged it off anyway, and her smile came back. 'Besides,' she said. 'I had to get the drop on you so I could give you the lecture.'
'Lecture for what?' I asked. 'This time, I mean.'
'For going alone.' She turned from me and looked out over the city, in the rough direction of the Loop. 'I jumped into the Bureau after you left. I know this wasn't a one-man op.'
'I'm not one man, Ash,' I replied. 'I don't think your problem's got so bad that you don't remember that.'
She glared over her shoulder. 'You've only got one brain, and sometimes I'm not even sure about that. You can still screw up, you need someone to have your back.'
'You want to have that discussion again?' It was an old one, maybe as old as our friendship.
'Hey, I didn't mean me,' she said, suddenly defensive. 'I just meant someone.'
'We're not partners, Ash, not any more,' I said, and I don't think I kept the regret out of my voice. 'You know you can't-'
She cut me off. 'I can still help, alright?'
'How many jumps now?' I said. Straight to the point.
Her eyes found the floor. 'I'm down to five,' she said.
'So, five jumps a minute before you start feeling the burn. That's nothing, Ash. In a firefight, that's nothing. You and I both know that.'
'Yeah, yeah,' she said. We'd been over this before. 'Just wanted you to know I've still got your back, that's all. The Bureau keeps me healthy, but even they don't keep me on the sidelines. Why should you?'
'I've got my back. I don't need you risking yourself for me. I don't want it. I just want you safe.'
She shrugged. 'Tough. That's a luxury you've never had'
'Remember that time I got the Bureau to lock you up?' I said, grinning. 'Don't make me do it again.'
She grinned right back at me. It was the old days again, her and me against anything they could throw at us. 'I'd like to see you try,' she said.
I reached forward, just to see what she'd do, and then recoiled as her light blinded me, as her whole body burned up like the sun just came to life inside of her. By the time I'd even raised my hand she was gone, the light had vanished, and there was nothing left of her but a cloud of black dust in the space she'd been. I lowered my hand, and looked out over the city. Then something grabbed me around the chest again.
The next second I was in the Bureau, in Cy's office. A last little joke by Ash at my expense. The office was empty at that moment. The Bureau offices are in the Loop, I can tell you that much, but let's not go into specifics. Cy was my handler, in espionage terms, though I always tried to give the inner workings of the Bureau a wide berth. I let them send me where they needed me, picked up my pay, and stayed away from the building as much as possible. Cy's office was like a museum back then. All along the walls were cabinets containing weird weapons and artifacts, bits of armor and the like. Some of it I recognized: the pride of the collection was the Crown of Serendipity, which probably hasn't been worn for maybe twenty five years now. Doctor Skin's first exosuit was in the tallest cabinet, displayed on a mannequin. Carved on its pedestal was the Doc's motto: 'This is the March of Progress'. The Harbinger's spear was there as well, along with Ravager's entire left arm, sheared off somewhere just above the elbow. Almost got misty-eyed, looking at some of that stuff.
Cy came back as I was about to open the cabinet for a closer look at the crown, so probably at just the right moment. He greeted me with a raised eyebrow.
'Looking for something?' he said. Cy was a tall guy, very stout, the kind of guy who just seems to fill the room by being there. His beard was magnificent. He was a superhuman, and a blink by trade. Guess you won't know what that means, huh? Well, a blink is a kind of psychic who makes it his job to let other people see through the Nevermind's facade. They tend to approach the rich, paranoid or powerful (sometimes all three) and show them the truth. In the case of governments, that leads to a sudden panic when they realize they're dealing with an outside context threat, just as surely as if an alien invasion had descended or a zombie horde had arisen.
In our case, they responded by paying Cy a lot of money to keep the feds on the Loop...well, in the loop when it comes to superhuman activity. Inconvenient paranoia isn't so bad as you think – once a blink clears the Nevermind's cobwebs from your head, you realize you were dreaming all along. Near as I can tell, the facade works by scrambling the connections between facts, and adjusting any visual of superhumans down to just below the level of an uninteresting person. Our names, faces, and actions are all there in your head, but you can never run them together to equal truth, like an equation missing its symbols, and if we walked past you on the street in full costume, you wouldn't spare us a glance. If you saw us set a building ablaze, you'd remember there were some bystanders and then the building went up, but you wouldn't be able to pick us out in a lineup. Blinks never have a problem getting people to believe they are what they claim to be because as soon as they wipe away the facade, everything just makes sense. Besides, if a powerful psychic just put images in your head, how difficult is it to believe there might be others like him?
Where was I?
Ah yeah, so Cy walked into the room and asked me what I was looking for.
'You,' I replied, truthfully. 'Ash just dumped me here, but I was on my way. Was going to just take the L like a normal person, but you know how she is.'
'And how is our favorite invalid?' Cy asked.
'You have a death wish?' I replied. It baffles me how someone with next to no powers can be so casual about the rest of us.
Cy smiled. 'I'm not scared of Ash,' he said. 'And watch your tone. You're technically an employee, you know.'
I thought maybe it was jealousy. Ash can cross the world on foot in a day, vanishing in a blaze of light like an angel. Cy can make people believe in ghost stories. He was imposing physically, but beyond that he was nothing. Even his position in the Bureau wasn't exactly important. He could be replaced, and only enjoyed a few more comforts than most.
In reply to his threat, I grabbed a seat at his desk.
'Let's just get the debriefing over with,' I said.
'Before we get to that,' Cy said. 'It may interest you to know that your twin's in town.'
Would've sounded like a bad joke to a casual observer, but I knew Cy meant my actual twin. My flesh-and-blood brother. Once, long ago, he'd been my best friend. My power changed that.
'Eli's here?' I asked, trying to sound casual. 'What's he up to?' I was equal parts wary and excited. That was just the kind of feeling I got whenever I heard he was around.
Cy pulled up his chair. 'Funny story,' he said, and took a seat.