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A Mutual Friend, by Terrance Dicks

(From the 2002 anthology A Life of Surprises, ed. Paul Cornell)

Bernice Summerfield, badly hung over and desperate for coffee, collected her mug of double espresso from the Starbucks counter and looked round for somewhere to sit before she fell over.

Starbucks were the same the galaxy over, it seemed. Even in her time.

The cafe was full. Not an empty table. She looked round for a table to share. Ignoring the welcoming smiles of a number of hopeful young men - nice to know she still had it though - she chose a window table, where an attractive dark-haired woman sat alone, scribbling into a notebook.

'All right if I sit here? I can see you're working, I promise not to chatter.'

The woman looked up, smiled and nodded, and went back to her notebook. Thankfully, Benny sat down. She took a swig of coffee, followed it with another, and began to think she might live. She drained her mug and looked up to see the woman smiling at her. It was a nice smile.

'You look as if you needed that.'

Benny nodded. 'I'll say. And I need another.' She saw the woman's glass mug was empty. 'Let me get you something.'

The woman hesitated then said, 'Thank you. Lemon tea please.'

Benny made her way to the counter, got served and carried the cups back to the table. She sat down and passed over the lemon tea.

'Thank you.' The woman raised her glass. 'Cheers!'

Benny shuddered. 'Don't say that. It was too many "Cheers!" last night that reduced me to this state.'

'I promise not to chatter too, if you're in need of peace and quiet,' said the woman solemnly.

Benny grinned. 'That's all right, I'm starting to come round.'

She took another swig of coffee, thinking of the night before. Bored and restless, not an uncommon state for her, she'd persuaded Jason to dig out his time ring and together they'd come back to twentyfirst century Earth. Things had changed - for one thing, the pubs were open all day now. Jason had sodded off to buy a complete set of Britney Spears CDs as requested by Brax (don't ask), and now she was on her own. But Benny made friends easily, especially after her third drink. And she'd fallen in with a cheerful crowd of young ravers, accompanying them from pub to pub and on to several clubs. She'd woken up late next morning on the sofa in someone's flat, to hear her unbearably cheerful young hosts discussing a lunchtime visit to the pub. Feeling distinctly fragile, Benny had made her excuses and left.

'Big night out?' asked her companion sympathetically.

'I'll say,' said Benny, thinking back over as much as she could remember. Had she really danced on the table in that club? And tried to punch out the doorman at the next one?

'A word of warning,' she said broodingly 'Stay away from those alco-pop thingies, they're not as innocent as they look. They say "pop", but really, all the time they're thinking "alco".'

'I'll bear it in mind,' said the woman calmly. Benny sighed and swigged more coffee. 'I think I'm getting past this sort of thing.'

'What sort of thing?'

'The party animal lark. Time was I could whoop it up all night and dance all day. Not any more though.' The woman smiled.

'Happens to us all. I sometimes think I'm slowing down a bit myself.'

Bernice surveyed her companion frankly. True enough, she was no longer young, but she was still strikingly good looking, her dark-red hair worn with a fringe. And although she seemed outwardly calm and poised, there was a twinkle in her eye, a hint of devilment, that suggested a livelier personality not far under the surface. Bernice sensed a fellow spirit. She nodded at the notebook.

'Reporter?'

'Is it so obvious?'

'Just a guess.'

'I'm hoping to have a programme on the telly in a while. But for now I'm freelancing. What about you?'

'Oh this and that,' said Benny vaguely. 'I'm an academic. I suppose. I wrote a couple of books on archaeology. Well, wrote one and started another. I'm busy. I travel a lot, okay?'

The woman seemed to be having trouble not laughing. 'That must be interesting.'

A kaleidoscope of experiences flashed through Benny's mind.

Murderous gangsters in thirties Chicago, bloodthirsty vampires on a bleak alien planet. An Ogron private eye and a curiously charming demon Crime Lord. Giant ants running a university, guarded by bloodsucking bugs. Squat dome-headed warriors and glowing giant jellyfish...

How could she tell this nice English lady reporter of all the things she'd seen or done? Someone whose greatest worry was spelling the vicar's name wrong when reporting the village fete!

'It's certainly been interesting.' she said. 'Scary too, sometimes.'

'I used to travel a lot at one time in my life,' said the woman unexpectedly. 'With a particular friend. He was an academic too.'

'What line?'

'Difficult to say. Almost everything really. He was a sort of troubleshooter. He... fixed things.'

Benny looked at her with sudden interest. 'I had a friend like that once. He got me into a lot of trouble. And out of it. What was yours like?'

'Brilliant. Charming. Bad-tempered. Mysterious.'

'What did yours look like?'

'Silver-haired man of distinction for a while. Then he changed suddenly, and ended up all teeth and curls.'

'Had himself a makeover,' said Benny. 'Who says men aren't vain? Doesn't sound anything like mine, though. What happened to him eventually?'

'You might say he dumped me,' said the woman calmly. 'He got an urgent call home, something to do with his job. He dropped me off and disappeared.'

'Ever see him again?'

'Just once, briefly. He took me to a sort of family reunion. Then he brought me home and disappeared again.'

'Tough,' said Benny sympathetically.

'It was for a while. It was all a long time ago. What happened to your friend?'

'We just drifted out of touch. I often think about him though, keep expecting him to pop up again. He was a funny little devil, but I was fond of him.' Benny smiled.

'Funny how it's the ones you can't pin down who stick in your mind.'

'Isn't it always?'

Benny drained her mug. 'One more of these and I'll be ready to rejoin the human race.'

'Let me get it. Double espresso, right?'

Benny watched as she went over to the counter, a fantastic suspicion forming in her mind. Could it possibly be the same...? No, it couldn't, she decided. After all, there were plenty of charming, charismatic and callous men in the cosmos. Just because they'd both run into one, it didn't have to be the same one... Did it?

The woman returned and put a steaming coffee mug in front of Benny. 'That should complete the cure.'

'Where's yours?'

'I have to be off. Got a dodgy model agency to investigate.'

'Pity. Well, nice talking to you.'

'Same here.'

Benny held out her hand. 'We never even introduced ourselves. The name's Bernice Summerfield. Benny to my friends.'

They shook hands. 'Sarah,' said the woman. 'To my friends.' She hesitated, then said, 'If you do run into the Doctor again, give him my love.' She smiled at the astonished Benny and turned away. Then she turned back. 'Oh, and a word of warning to you. If he offers you a trip to Metebelis Three, famous blue planet of the Acteon galaxy - don't go!'

'I'll bear it in mind,' said Benny.

She watched as the woman turned and left the restaurant, disappearing into the crowded street.

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