Saturday, May 31, 2014

Fish-eyed angels, mov. 1: "Déjà vu"

The plate smashed into pieces as it made contact with the ground. The chair was falling down for what seemed like hours. Bits of lasagna splattered around her on the cold wooden floor. The clang of falling silverware low, slow, deafening. Charlie could feel the vibrations on her cheek.

She sat there, fork and knife in hand, spinach lasagna in a square plate in front of her. Intact. Everything was normal. And yet, she seemed to have lost her appetite. She got up. The force of the motion moved the plate dangerously close to the edge of the table. She grabbed it to secure it in place. After making sure it wouldn’t break, she left the kitchen. She grabbed her coat and left through the door. She would put it on while she walked, it was quite warm. Her pace was fast. She looked up at the silky gray sky. Might have been a better idea to take an umbrella. She didn’t care to go back for it.

It was like this for a couple of days now. It started with little things. At first, Charlie thought it was just déjà vu, but then the “flashes” became more frequent, more vivid, more immersive, to the point that she could never tell it was just a vision until it ended. Her head was killing her.

She made her way down the road, coming up to a crossing. As she was crossing the street, she noticed a woman walking down the opposite side, staring at her with huge fish eyes and a grimace on her face. A huge toad with a tempestuous mane of unruly blonde hair. Charlie stared right back, hoping that would be enough to make the toad woman stop looking. It did – the woman turned her gaze away and went back the way she was going.

Then, a loud crash. Charlie’s vision blurred, everything spun around. She felt a bump, one, two three, then a huge crash. She could see blood. Her blood. Only after a few seconds did she realize how much in pain she was. She was lying on the ground, gasping for breath. She couldn’t move her legs. She could see blood stain her white blouse. A hole on her stomach. A deep, black gash. She could take in no more breath. She thought she heard a scream, but that didn’t matter anymore. She could see nothing. Soon, the pain went away. Then, she didn’t even feel the need to breathe. Everything was black. Everything was still. She was free.

Charlie stood on the sidewalk, still a couple feet away from the crossing. The toad woman was making her way from around the corner. Charlie didn’t want to be spotted. She turned on her heel and went back home. No, she thought, not today.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Fabulous Misadventures of Matoya, the Witch III (2/2)

“Aye,” Bertha nodded. “Those two say they be chasing that monster, yet I’ve yet to see any chasing from them. I let them stay, hoping they would do something about this.”

The two men started whispering to each other yet again. “And the beast has escaped?” I asked.

“I fear it is still somewhere near. The animals are behaving most peculiar. And I can still smell it. That stench.”

I could not smell anything. To be frank, I had a hard time believing Bertha’s story. I knew of no invisible beasts. Such things most likely did not exist.

“Ye say people had their intestines ripped out of them?” Isolde asked, her blonde locks shaking violently as she hopped up and down with excitement. I could hear Cillian take a deep breath. His face became pale as a sheet once again. “I think ye know of such creatures, Matoya.”

“Aye, there are a couple. A manticore seems most likely, considering how often they lose their way on the moors. But no manticore can hide itself from sight, sister.”

“There are tales in the North,” Cillian began. Everyone’s attention turned to the red-headed lumberjack in an instant. The rosiness returned to his face twofold, as he hesitated, coughed, scratched his beard once, and began once again, his gaze fixed on his feet. “I meant to say, in the North people talk a lot about warlocks carrying out nasty rituals on all manner of creatures. They say dogs came back without tails, ducks came back with teeth, and that… and that cats went all invisible like. Them birds never knew what got them.”

“Beg pardons, Cillian, but ye’d be better off ignoring such country gossip,” I told him, his electric blue eyes now fixed on me. “What the country folk understand of the intricacies of magic is simply pitiful. Such stories have as much merit to them as–“

“I fear your companion is correct, m’lady,” a voice deep enough to reach the very darkest, most locked away secrets of my soul, interrupted me. For an instant, I was in shock. I turned to see the two men that proclaimed to be chasing the beast standing right behind me. They pulled down their hoods, at which point I realized their cloaks were clasped with the gryphon sigil – they were none other than the Knights of Haegyn. The one who spoke to me was forty to fifty years of age by the looks of him. Deeply set emerald eyes, neatly trimmed dark golden hair, a similarly well-groomed goatee, a nose of ideal proportion and shape covered in numerous scars – his face had an incredible allure to it. The speaker’s partner had a face most gallant as well, if much more youthful and naïve-looking. His sandy hair was longer, though groomed as that of his companion, his grey eyes bigger, his chin clean-shaven. A boy, no more than twenty. Probably a knight of two months, no more. “My apologies for eavesdropping, yet I believe it is no chance that our paths might cross, as I feel we might be of much aid to each other.”

“Ye didn’t seem eager to be chasing down the beast before,” Bertha said with a no little hint of irritation in her voice.

“We stood nary a chance against the creature, m’lady. And yet, with the help of this woman and her companions, we may yet slay the foul beast. For unless I am mistaken, we have been grace by the holder of the Crystal Eye, Matoya.”

I was taken aback. Still, no fear took me. There were only two of them, and I had both Isolde and Cillian at my side – should they try to take the Eye by force, I would come out the victor. And yet, I’d rather not risk anyone’s over it if it could be avoided, now. “Aye, I am Matoya. And if ye know that, ye should just as well know that despite me youthful guise, in truth I am much older than ye can most likely imagine. And I consider addressing me without introducing yerself to the lady first mighty unbecoming of a Knight of Haegyn.”

“My sincerest apologies,” said the green-eyed knight. “As you have properly deduced, we are Knights of Haegyn. They address me as Sir Gilroy and this is my protégé, Sir Alistair.”

“And why is it that ye assume we can help each other in this predicament, Sir Gilroy?”

“We both strive for the same result – vanquishing the foul creature. We were sent here by our retainer to bring peace to this moor, as there have been rumours of an invisible beast bringing destruction to the area for some time now. Yet our scouting party has dwindled along the way. Many fell victim to the beast. In the end, it is only Alistair and I that are alive. We know how to track down the beast, yet we stand no chance against it alone. You, however, m’lady, are knowledgeable about beasts of all shapes and sizes, and your spell-slinging abilities are known throughout the land. And thus, I implore you. M’lady, will you do us the honour of helping us liberate this region of the bane that is the invisible manticore?”

The two knights knelt down on one knee each, but only Sir Gilroy lowered his head. Sir Alistair fixed his gaze into me, which seemed incredibly odd. I could see Isolde’s face become blood red once again. A peculiar sense of satisfaction always overcame me whenever I saw that expression. Still, I knew something was wrong with all this. I knew knights had their duties to fulfil, but someone had to have sent them on a mission specifically to track down this foul beast. And they know what it is. And yet, as Bertha kept looking at me pleadingly, I knew that there was no avoiding this. For what good is it being a witch if you’re not a good witch?

“Fine,” I said to them. I could feel the looks Cillian and Isolde were giving me, but it had to be done. “Sir knight, know that we shall aid ye.”

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Fabulous Misadventures of Matoya, the Witch III (1/2)

The Cornerstone Inn was a peculiar case. A large wooden shack near Pilgrim’s Road, squarely in the middle of an endless moor. Such establishments often fall prey to all manner of filth, becoming nothing more than flea-ridden whorehouses frequented only by the most violent of rapists, most conniving of bandits, and most deadly of assassins. And yet, the Cornerstone Inn had somehow managed to retain its glamour. It remained clean of all lowlifes, likely due to the influence of its intimidating innkeeper, Bertha, that old hag. A feisty old woman she was, hard as a rock, stern and unwavering. Any bastard ready to stir up a fight would face a cruel fate. That fate being Bertha’s iron fist. Bertha was never one to be messed with and that was a fact few remained ignorant to.

The day we reached the establishment had been long and tiresome indeed. We’d been walking since dawn, having left mere moments after Leofwyn had delivered the news of our summons. I would not pass up the chance to meet with the Grand Hierophant, especially considering all the happenings of late. The Lord of Malady was making his move, there was no mistaking it. There was hope that this world could finally be put to rights.

And thus we’d packed our things, obscuring our cottage from sight with the eye’s power, and left. I should not complain, however, lest I express disrespect for one of my companions. It was Cillian who was carrying the lot of our possessions, with more than a shade of effort showing on his face. As the sun turned a dark orange, our shadows grew longer and darker, and the outline of a small inn grew larger, patches of dark sweat would appear on his tunic, the crystal eye on his neck swaying back and forth as he struggled to keep his balance under the huge weight of our entire stash. Isolde walked beside him, after she decided she had had enough of badgering me. Her mouth would not close even once throughout the entire journey, be it throwing insults or attempting at banter. As she hopped around between me and Cillian, the crystal eye on her neck bounced around dangerously, as if it could fall any minute. It would be no harm, however, if the chain holding the crystal in place broke. Neither of the two eyes were real, for the genuine article hung on my neck. As we’d decided I was the most potent spellslinger at the moment, much to Isolde’s wild protests. Thus, it would be safest with me. The copies would serve as a perfect distraction. Provided we only encounter shadow men and complete magical dimwits.

All the while Nevermore was making circles in the sky above us, occasionally perching on my shoulder. The bird seemed to be far more attached to me after the recent events. If only his bird brain could comprehend how ironic that was.

“See, Gillian? We’re here,” Isolde squeaked with glee. “I told ye ye needn’t heave so much.”

“That’s…” Cillian was gasping for breath, his face paler than his usual pink shade. “That’s a… bloody relief,” and with that remark, his knees finally yielded under the tremendous weight. He lay flat on his face right in front of the inn. I hurried to help him up while Isolde picked up all reagents that had spilled out of his bag. In all the hustle and bustle I failed to immediately notice something was not as it should be. The walls of the inn were all battered and scratched, the windows smudged with something that looked suspiciously like blood. It was unlike Bertha to let such a thing happen to her prized establishment.

When Cillian was finally up, I opened the door to the inn. I had expected to hear a murmur of conversations, mixed with some laughter and general jubilation. Instead, I was met with complete silence, broken only by the sizzling fireplace, by which two shady gents were apparently having a conversation until we entered, at which point they raised their heads to look at us.

“Matoya,” a gruff voice came to my left. I turned and saw the plump old woman standing at the counter. Her pursed lips resembled no more than a thin line drawn on a scraggly grey map of wrinkles and fat. Her face was as stern as ever, yet there was something unsettlingly fragile about the blueness of her eyes, the wiriness of her tangled white hair. She seemed to have shrunk two heads since I last saw her, but still ready to punch anyone that dared voice concern or pity. “Ye sure chose the perfect time to rear yer ugly head.”
“Bertha, good to see ye,” I said. The jolly tone of my voice did little to appease Bertha, however. “Pray tell, what has befallen this place. We were expecting to rest here on our way, yet I can see something is clearly amiss.”

“And right ye are. Perceptive as always, Matoya,” the old hag replied with a wry smile. “Why don’t ye sit at one of the tables. Yer companion looks like he could pass out any minute. I’ll bring each of ye something to drink and then I can tell ye everything. Of course, I expect ye to do something about this madness.”
And so we sat down. Cillian let out a sigh of relief. Bertha approached us with four mugs of frothy liquid. One was smaller than the others, filled with something else. She placed it in front of Isolde, much to my sister’s displeasure. “And what the bloody hell is this?”

“I don’t care how olde ye really are, Isolde,” Bertha said. “But now ye are a child and a child won’t be drinking any ale in my tavern.”

Isolde threw her a hateful gaze, then looked to me. She too knew that there was no arguing with the old woman, so all my face could express at this point was helplessness. As if searching desperately for a way out of this humiliation, she turned to Cillian. He nudged her to drink whatever she had in her cup. Red as a raddish, she finally gave in and hid her face behind the large stone mug.

“Let me tell ye what happened, Matoya,” Bertha said as she took a sip of her drink. “A beast the likes of which ye’ve never seen has raided this place.”

“I’ve seen plenty of beasts, my dear Bertha.”

“Aye, yet this one ye haven’t. It can’t be seen. Something invisible has come in and slaughtered two men. It flayed them on the spot. Never seen so much guts on the floor in me life. The rest of the guests fled.”

I could hear Cillian gulp. Isolde had her eyes fixed on Bertha. This time, they were  shining with curiosity. I’ve also noticed the two men at the fire place were listening in on our conversation. “All but two,” I said, gesturing toward the hooded figures.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Toluca Lake

Days seemed to have passed since they’d arrived in town. For some reason, however, Mike couldn’t recall its name.

“What’s the name of this town again, Dave?” he asked his brother. The frog tattoo on Dave’s right hand shifted in and out of sight as he swung the oars opposite Mike. The fog was incredibly thick. Had he not known his brother was with him in the boat, Mike would have thought he was all alone in the middle of the lake. All he could hear was the creaking of the boat. His brother remained silent. “The pier’s pretty far away now. Where are we going?”

Dave remained silent. The silence was almost deafening. Suddenly, the rowing stopped.

“Dave?” Mike leaned forward to catch a glimpse of his brother’s face. The fog engulfed his face like a cold blanket. He saw the oars abandoned, the seat empty. Dave was gone. Mike’s heart sank. He started frantically looking around the boat, shouting for help. Everything was silent. But then he heard it. Static. It came from the portable radio Dave had brought with him. Mike picked it up and tried to fix the static somehow, but it only got louder.

And then, in an instant, he heard nothing again, as a huge force pushed him out of the boat, head-first into the lake. He could hear a loud pounding coming from within his skull, but did his best to remain lucid. The surface was further and further away. He tried to swim upwards, he couldn’t die in a place like this, but he wasn’t getting any closer to the surface. Something was pulling him down. He looked at his feet, the black abyss of the lake was overwhelming, but he thought he could make out a pale shape around his foot. As his eyes got used to the darkness, the shape became clearer. Mike let out a scream, inaudible in the lake’s cold depths. When the hand around his foot finally let go, his lifeless body sunk lower and lower into the black abyss, passing by the hand with the frog tattoo.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

That Studmuffin Neil

Life often takes us into new, unexpected directions. A decision we make may turn out to be inconsequential in the long run, as it gets mitigated by a different course of action taken by someone else. Such was the fate of Neil. Neil was an pleasant fellow; kind to his friends, helpful to strangers, charming, smart, witty and incredibly handsome, Neil was someone you wanted to be around. There was something inherently magnetic about him that attracted all sorts of attention.

Not all such attention was desirable, however. One day, life threw Neil a curveball he never expected. It all began with a letter. It was a nice Saturday morning, beautiful weather – nary a cloud in sight. Neil expected the day to be very pleasant. He’d just eaten some delicious scrambled eggs and was having a nice cup of green tea while opening his mail which had piled up during the week. Neil’s mailbox was always full of letters, the kind written on fancy perfumed stationery, some filled with shy confessions of affection, others expressing more carnal desires. The letters were always a pleasant read to Neil. He did enjoy the attention. He enjoyed it so much that he’d even bought a magnifying glass, so that he could revel in every little letter, every stroke of pen, trace every shallow breath that shook the writer’s hand. This time, however, one particular letter made him feel something else.


The stationery wasn’t either perfumed or fancy. In fact, it looked like a regular post-it. The writing wasn’t even done by hand – it was printed out, cut out and stuck to the paper. Slightly annoyed, Neil put the paper down. He grabbed his keys and made his way to the gym. As he walked, the thought of that one letter would loom over him like a flock of hungry vultures. No, he wasn’t scared. Of course he wasn’t. He was the strongest dude he knew, so if anyone tried to force themselves on him, he would definitely have the upper hand. And yet, the very fact that he had to reassure himself of that  made him realize that he felt threatened. Before he had the time to digest that thought, he’d already reached the gym. Greeted by the familiar reassuring smiles of the coaches and some regulars, he immediately forgot about the letter.

Something was wrong. He knew it the moment he got out of the showers after the workout. The locker room was completely empty, which didn’t seem very likely at this hour. He went up to his locker draped only in a towel, taking the occasional glance behind the shoulder. When he finally reached it, the lights suddenly went out. The room was underground, there were no windows. It was completely dark. Neil grabbed his phone and used it as a flashlight to locate the door. He found it. He pulled on the doorknob. It was locked. Heavy breathing. It wasn’t his. He was about to turn around when he felt a sensation in his left shoulder, as if he’d just been stung by a bee. He placed his hand there – it was a dart of some sort, though in that instant everything became blurry. Neil fell to his knees, his consciousness fading. The last he remembered was a gentle caress on the shoulder, someone lifting him up. Then, his face suddenly collided with the floor. His nose broken, face mutilated, sprayed in a puddle of his own blood, he lay there, unconscious, naked, vulnerable.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Crosswords II (2/2)

“This is some serious bullshit, bro,” Freddie grunted.

“I agree,” Jess added. “Where did you get that disc?”

“It’s part of my job.”

“Yeah, well,” said Freddie, “if what’s on the disc is so secret and important, and we had it, how the hell did you fool them into thinking they got the real thing?”

“The DVD has this chip, or something,” Martin explained. “You saw them scan the disc for it. I just made it seem like that dummy disc had the same thing on it. I also added it to this,” he pulled out another golden disc out of his back pocket. I started to wonder if there were more. “Crosswords. The ones I thought I’d left with you. That way, even if they find us, we can stall them once again with a fake DVD.”

Freddie seemed completely baffled by the response. “How did you do that? Cause I can tell you, bro, that’s not how fucking data encryption works.”

“Well, it does in my line of work.”

“Just what the fuck do you do for a living, Martin?”

“Oh, you know,” Martin smirked. “I just type in those numbers.”

“Just drop it, Freddie,” Mia entered the conversation just when Freddie rolled his hand into a fist. “He never told me, he sure as hell won’t tell you. Still, we’re all in a pretty sticky situation now. They will find out the DVD is just filled with movies and come back. Martin says they’ll know where to look for you, so we only have one option now.”

“We need to run,” I didn’t notice when Brandi came up to us, but there she was, standing right between Jess and Freddie, her cloud of blonde hair shining briliiantly in the sunlight. Ian was just behind her, slightly taller than the others. He was looking much better, even if his hair was still slightly tangled.

“Yes, thank you, Brandi,” said Martin.

“L-like, now?” I asked. My voice was trembling. “Where to?”

“I was instructed to take the disc to a certain small town in New Mexico if a situation like this arose,” Martin’s voice, by contrast, was completely composed, almost monotone. I could never wrap my head around the way he could shift moods so quickly.

“New Mexico?” Ian joined the conversation, fixing up his wide-framed glasses that had gone askew during the stickup. A wide grin appeared on his face, his blue eyes bright with enthusiasm. “That means we’re going on a roadtrip!”

“If that’s what you want to call it, be my guest,” Martin smirked at him. Goddamnit, Martin, nobody’s your guest! This is my house! “We just have to leave now. Go back home and pack as fast as you can. We’re also going to need a bigger car, if we all want to fit in one vehicle. I was thinking–”

“Yeah, sure, we can use our van! Right Freddie?” Ian said.

“We’re just gonna need to fill her up and we’re good to go,” Freddie replied

“No,” I said. I tried to sound as confident as possible. It worked. My voice was low in pitch, stable and strong, almost monotone, just like Martin’s a few seconds ago. Everyone’s eyes turned toward me. “I’m not going anywhere. And I have no idea why you’re all so cool with this.”

“Leo, we really don’t have time for this,” Martin insisted.

“How do you expect me to just believe you like that? Why us? Why can’t you just take your stupid disc to your stupid New Mexico yourself? I mean, we all have jobs, we can’t just go like that!”

“Actually, Leo,” Ian started. “It’s summer, remember? You and I have a break in the summer. That’s kinda what you get for working at a school.”

“And I’m kinda in the middle of changing jobs now anyway, so,” Brandi added.

“And I’m sure Freddie and I can arrange a couple days off with our bosses,” this time it was Jess. I gave her a look that was meant to express betrayal, I was sure she would back me up. She didn’t seem to notice, though. “Right, Freddie?”

“Sure. If that’s what can save us from getting shot down by those two, I’m down with the idea. I think they’ll understand,” Freddie grinned at me. “C’mon, Leo. Martin’s our friend. I mean, I wanna punch his fucking guts out for letting all of this happen, but what’s done is done. I can tell he’s speaking the truth. Hell, even if he’s lying, I don’t wanna take any chances on any of us dying just like that. And you gotta admit, a roadtrip sounds like a shit-ton of fun.”

“As fun as an escape from dudes out to kill us over a fake DVD may be,” I groaned. “Fine. I guess I have no choice now.”

“Martin!” a voice came from the kitchen. It was the black guy that accompanied Martin and Mia. “It’s like you said – they’ve set up explosives all over the foundations. The sooner we ditch this place, the better.”

“But I need to pack!” I exclaimed.

“Don’t you worry about that, bud,” said the handlebar moustache guy. He’d just emerged from the staircase carrying three of my suitcases. “I got ya packed. No need to thank me.”

“What,” I said dryly.

“Right, let’s arrange a meeting spot,” Martin announced. “We all know the wood at the edge of town? That’s where we’ll meet up. You guys get your van and pick up the girls once they’re ready. Mia, Leo and I will be waiting for you there.”

“Right! Come on, Freddie,” Ian was brimming with energy.

“Alright,” Freddie said as he and Ian made their way to the door. “You guys coming along?”

Before leaving together with Brandi, Ian and Freddie, Jess gave me a reassuring tap on the shoulder. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Any of it. Was that another purely platonic touch, or did the sensual encounter the two of us had in my head actually happen? Everything was happening so fast. One minute we’re having a party and then we’re going to New Mexico with some stupid DVD, hoping the MIB won’t kill us along the way. I just… I looked at Martin. He was discussing something with his entourage, his face stern, stoic. Just that look on his face made me lose all composure. I’d had enough of that attitude, and yet I had no choice. Fuck Martin. Like, seriously, what the fuck.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Crosswords II (1/2)

“I got your disc right here,” Martin brushed his blonde bangs off his forehead. He reached down the back pocket of his jeans and held the object up against his face for everyone to see. The golden DVD gleamed  in the sunlight. Funny, the envelope was gone. And I was pretty sure the last person who had it was Jess. I didn’t think asking them about all this would be appropriate in this situation, however. In front of me, the bald man in the sunglasses pointed his gun straight at Jess. The other guy – a big, scary-looking dude – was aiming at Ian. Jess seemed pretty calm about this. She breathed some air up her face, her black bangs billowed in the wind for a split second. If anything, she looked slightly annoyed. Ian wasn’t faring so well. His slouch and his eyes closed shut made him look as if he was paralyzed with immense fear. Freddie was staring daggers at the big suited guy, but he remained silent. I could tell he was ready to rip him apart for all this. His face and ears were red, trembling with rage and helplessness, eyes barely visible underneath thick black eyebrows that came closely together in the fury he was hold back. Brandi seemed completely unfazed by this stickup, however. Sure, she was holding her arms in the air like the rest of us, but other than that she would just roll her head around slowly, as if stretching after a long workout, and that’s when she wasn’t ostentatiously yawning. I was pretty sure she was taunting them. I could hear Martin’s shallow but controlled breath behind me. “Come and get it. Just let them all go.”

I looked back at Martin. He seemed absolutely calm but for the single drop of sweat that trickled down his forehead. The sunlight reflected in his glasses obscured his eyes from view. Mia stood by his side, her black, slanted eyes cold and fixed on the larger of the two oppressors. Her hair, tied in an elegant high ponytail, was orange – this came as a surprise to me, as I didn’t remember her sporting that bright color at the party. But then again, I was completely wasted back then. The two other men that accompanied them were complete strangers to me. One of them was black and lanky with a fierce look on his face, the other was a white-man in his forties or fifties, heavy-set and balding, with a reddish handlebar moustache. Just where did Martin get those two?

“It’s not going to be that simple, you know that,” the bald man in a suit sneered. “I come over to you guys, I’m Swiss cheese. I mean, you’re still gonna lose – my buddies are on their way – but I don’t think I want to throw my life away just yet. Toss it here. Or do you want Bubba here to shoot the fat one in the knee?”

“Over my fucking dead body, you piece of shit!” Freddie growled. Ian let out a soft whimper.

“Chill out, Freddie,” I could hear Brandi whisper to him. “One wrong move and Ian’s toast. You’ll help him more by keeping quiet.” Freddie’s ears didn’t get any less red, however. I glanced at Jess and tried to give her a reassuring smile, but I felt my lips tremble as I did. In the end, it was her subtle smile that reassured me.

“That won’t be necessary,” Martin’s voice was cold and distant. I could barely believe he could control himself so well. If only he kept this cool during our crossword meetings. With an elegant flick of the wrist, he sent the disc flying towards the guys in suits. The bald man caught it between his fingers right in front of his Roman nose. The one he called “Bubba” pulled out something out of his left pocket while still pointing his gun at Ian. He hovered the contraption over the DVD, as if scanning for something. With a soft beep, a green light flashed on its surface.

“Good boy,” the bald guy smirked. “Well, Bubba, looks like our job here is done. Now, if you would kindly let us take our leave.”

“Be my guest,” said Martin. You know what, Martin? Why don’t you have your guests visit your own damn place!

The two men kept pointing guns at us regardless as they made their way to their vehicle. Everything actually went pretty smoothly. They closed the doors to their car, then drove away, just like that. Heck, Bubba even got out the car before they drove off completely, came back, put the sofa back together and left me a check to make up for the losses. Then they finally disappeared out of sight, leaving us all in a stunned silence. One, two, three seconds later, we let out a collective sigh of relief. Freddie rushed towards Ian, almost making Brandi trip in the process. I stood there, relieved to the point of being paralyzed. I couldn’t move an inch. It wasn’t until Jess threw her arms around me that I came to my senses. We both started laughing. It was a moment of pure bliss. It couldn’t last long, though, as Martin made sure he had our absolute attention with that annoying cough he always did. We let go, not looking back at each other’s faces again. My moment was gone, my chance missed, my grumpiness escalating.

“I don’t mean to be a killjoy, but we don’t have much time,” Martin said, as he took off his glasses, rubbing his blue eyes with his fingers. He waved his other hand at the two strangers and they scurried out of sight. They seemed to be looking for something. Mia took that hand into hers and tapped Martin gently on the shoulder, then picked up where he’d left off. “We can’t stay here any longer. We need to go, quick.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Why? What’s wrong? You gave them the disc, it’s over, right?”

“Wrong,” I heard Freddie say in a dangerously calm voice from behind me. I turned around – he was slowly walking in Martin’s direction, lean and threatening as a panther. He pulled out a circular, golden object out of his back pocket, and stopped right next to me. “I think we deserve an explanation. Wouldn’t you agree, Leo?”

“I don’t–”

“We really don’t have time for all this,” Martin put his glasses back on. “Yes, I gave them a fake disc and we all need to get out of here. They will pursue each and every one of us until this case is resolved.”

“What case?” Jess asked as she folded her hands. “Seriously, Martin. What the hell is going on?”

“Stop asking your stupid questions and just listen to me for once, okay?!” Martin suddenly shouted. His face went instantly red. He took a few deep breaths. “All I know is that whatever’s on this disc is top secret and those people want it. I can’t let them have it.”