“Anything else, ‘hon?” Shirley asked as she finished writing up the ticket. Dave stared at the waitress with awe; his eyes flitted between his laptop and her coffee-brown eyes. She looked real. Her light pink uniform highlighted her curves. Her crisp white apron sported a coffee stain accidentally inflicted by Dave himself. It came as an absolute shock to him when he noticed a slight blush on her cheeks from his stare. She seemed happy to maintain their eye contact. After several moments Dave shook his head.
“No, thanks Shirley,” he said. Shirley smiled and placed the green ticket in front of him. Then, she spoke again after she pulled her hand away.
“If you stick around a bit…,” she winked. “…I’ll sneak you a slice of pie.” Then, she walked away toward the only other diners in the restaurant. Dave chose to visit the restaurant at lunchtime under the assumption that it would be the most lively place in the small town. At first, he was surprised to find it empty. But after deciding to test his software on the waitress and cook, he was glad he had somewhere quiet to think.
The program connected him to a database that supposedly knew everything about everyone. By searching the name of the town he was in, David could find out all about its residents. After getting the cook’s name from Shirley, he looked them up. He checked on the cook first because a small part of him was attracted to Shirley. Even if he was doing it to learn how to use the program, he felt a bit awkward looking her up first.
He clicked on the cook’s name and was greeted with everything he could ever want to know. Height, weight, birthday, all his schools, family and relationships. Everything was presented in an easy to read list with links to other townsfolk; but, one tag off to the side caught his attention.[NPC] Dave was an avid gamer in his younger days and chuckled to himself. He hovered over the tag to learn what it actually meant; he was sure it didn’t mean Non-Player Character.
Dave was wrong and hurriedly checked on Shirley’s information. She had the same [NPC] tag as the cook. He clicked on her 8-year-old son’s name and found the same. He clicked through several relationships before she brought his ticket; and, they were all Non-Player Characters. He sat in silence for several minutes wondering what it all meant. Then, he had a realization.
“Wait, does the agency know?” he wondered. Then, he had a more pertinent question. “Is the agency real?” He navigated to the head of the agency and found the same tag. [NPC]
Shirley suddenly guffawed out loud and Dave looked up to see her playfully pat the shoulder of one of the men at the other table. There were only two men, a tall one and a short one, and Shirley seemed to think the tall one was the funniest man alive. She carried on an animated conversation with him. Both men wore black suits that resembled Dave’s own uniform and he assumed they were bankers or something. He was glad for Shirley’s laughter though; it gave him a new train of thought.
“It’s a joke,” he mumbled to himself with a chuckle. “New guy initiation; that’s gotta be it.” This was Dave’s first solo assignment. Thinking back on it, his briefing did seem kind of strange. His boss didn’t have much in the way of answers for him. Usually assignment briefings were packed with information he needed to keep track of. For this assignment his boss handed him a laptop and told him to come to this small town. Any attempts to get more information were stonewalled with answers like, ‘It’s from higher up.’ It all made sense now; they sent him on a snipe hunt. Dave exhaled a sigh of relief and relaxed. He was almost curious to check his own name, but now he knew it would definitely have the [NPC] tag. As he relaxed he noticed Shirley walking over to him with a slice of pie and a broad smile. As she got closer, Dave noticed she seemed to be laughing at something.
“Something funny about my pie?” Dave asked with a smile. Shirley shook her head, then tilted it toward the two men at the other table.
“That tall drink of water is the most hilarious man, I swear,” she said. “Easy on the eyes too,” she said. “Here’s your pie, ‘hon; you got the lucky last slice. You just let me know if you need anything else, okay?” she smiled, placed his plate, then walked to the other table.
Dave enjoyed his pie and wondered how long he should drag out his initiation. He decided it would be a good opportunity to have a mini vacation at the agency’s expense. They sent him on a fool’s errand and it would serve them right if he played the part. He finished his pie and left cash on the table. He also added a generous tip that he hoped made up for spilling coffee on Shirley. He glanced around the restaurant to try and wave goodbye but she must have been in the back. Dave decided to leave instead of waiting awkwardly to give her a personal goodbye.
“Dave!” He heard his name as he walked toward his truck and spun around to see the two men from inside. They were surprisingly close behind him.
“How did you know my name?” Dave asked.
“We’re why you’re here,” the short one replied. Dave recognized his voice as the same one that called him.
“Oh man…,” Dave whined internally. If they were already giving up the game, his fun was over. But, he decided to be professional about it.
“So you’re the guys that set up this prank, huh?” Dave asked with a bit of smugness. He hoped to at least show them he wasn’t fooled at all. The two men looked at each other, then shrugged.
“No prank,” the short one said. “We’re recruiting you to our agency; so told your boss to give you that laptop and send you out here. Find out anything interesting about the people here?” he asked. Dave narrowed his eyes.
“You’re saying it’s… real? They’re really NPCs?” Dave asked. Both men nodded. Dave burst out laughing.
“Yeah right! C’mon, I believed it for a minute, but it can’t be true.”
“Look, come inside and we’ll prove it,” the short one said. Dave shrugged, nodded, then followed them back into the restaurant.
“Table for three?” Shirley asked as soon as they walked in. Dave didn’t register the question right away, he was happy to see her again.
“Hey again, Shirley, I’m back for a bit I guess,” he said with a chuckle. Shirley tilted her head at him.
“I’m sorry ‘hon, you’ll have to forgive me. We get so many people coming through here, I can’t always remember them all. But I am glad you’re here just the same,” she said with a broad smile. Dave was confused and glanced down at her crisp white apron; there was no coffee stain.
“Did you change aprons?” Dave wondered why she wouldn’t have changed sooner if she had a spare. She shook her head.
“No, but my goodness if that isn’t a mighty specific question,” she giggled, then led them to the table he sat at before.
“What can I start you gentlemen out with?” she asked. The same question she asked Dave when he first sat down. He had eaten recently and wasn’t hungry. He just wanted answers.
“Nothing for me,” Dave said.
“You’re invited to join the B.A.A.,” the short one said to Dave; he completely ignored Shirley. “The Bureau of Alternate Agencies. Part of the job is knowing what’s what.”
“I’ll take some pie, Shirley,” The tall agent said.