“-And his building is the size of a stadium! It was huge, Flo , you should have seen it.” Xena gushed about the hot new CEO of Deta Industries. He had just risen to power after his dad had stepped down and announced retirement. She was scheduled to interview Mr. Luca Deta tomorrow at 11. a.m for her magazine. I could see that Xena was beyond thrilled because all throughout lunch the blonde girl had not even touched her food, and it was her favourite.
“I am so excited to meet him! Did you know that he has done so much work in the Amazon during his time interning for his father?”
“Amazon, the online store?”
“The rainforest.” she answered me with a straight face, unaware that I was only pulling her leg.
“And he has started testing for a new round of vaccinations for animals with bone defects.” She continued. Her eyes were starting to get dreamy and I snapped a finger in front of her to get her out of it.
“I don’t know what you’ll ask him about in the interview if you already know everything about him!” I teased and she pouted at me.
Reaching for a fork she said, ” You got your millionaire, I want mine.” And then laughed at her own joke. She had, since morning, been very relaxed about Reece. They met when she was returning home and Reece had excused himself to go back to work for the rest of the day.
I shivered at our morning tête-à-tête. It had been a tough but liberating conversation and had ultimately put us both in a better mood.
“Who’s lost now, huh?” Xena grinned slyly, enjoying pulling my strings as well. I struggled to cover my blush and pushed her plate of ravioli further towards her. “Eat, you’ve already lost so much energy with all that chattering.” I said playfully and she beamed at me, spearing a ravioli pocket with her fork.
She was obviously quite smitten with this guy, I might have to check him out. Xena was a sucker for environmentalists anyway. She said that they were the real heroes of the future and what not.
Our lunch was a celebratory lunch. The director of the movie had called to confirm the fact that they were indeed going to use my script for the movie and had told me that he would send over the documents for my lawyer to look over and sign them. To be honest, I had completely forgotten about my meeting with him a couple days ago; the night I had met Reece again. So much had happened these following days that I barely had any break. But today was going to be the start of our actual vacation. My best friend was here, and so were my old friends and I intended to have a blast.
The celebratory lunch was further fueled by the gorgeous best friend who had managed to land the interview for tomorrow and was in such high spirits since she toured the office building of Mr. Luca Deta. She told me he was rather handsome as well, not that she had met him.
We finished our food after an hour of Luca Deta’s praises, much to my annoyance. But then again, I was happy to see my bubbly best friend back again. She had been so down after her ex had taken that toll on her. Our lunch was delicious. The server took our empty dessert plates away as we sat in contentment.
“Let’s get the bill, I feel like going shopping into the main town now!” Xena chimed, her enthusiasm was contagious. Finding myself nodding I raised my hand for the waiter, signalling the bill. However, instead of going to get it, he moved towards the table with a small smile.
“Ma’am, your bill has already been paid by Mr. Wolf,” he told me politely, smiling at me and I let out a huff. The waiter moved away when he was called at another table.
The irritation must have shown on my face because Xena leaned forward and placed her hand on top of mine, “Relax Flo, you’re overreacting.” She told me bluntly, watching me carefully.
“I don’t want him to pay for our meals! We can handle that.” I was still slightly irritated.
“Look, spare me the I can take care of myself speech. He’s not trying to demean you, or imply that you cannot. He’s just trying to make a nice gesture. Besides, I doubt that this one lunch made a dent in his wallet. It probably didn’t even scratch.” She told me, rolling her eyes at my behavior.
“I’m going to have a word with him.”
“You do that.” She said with a laugh and that in turn made me laugh. “Now come on! Shopping awaits us!”
We gathered our coats and took our bags as we headed out the door. From the corner of my eye, I saw some movement and my head whipped to a large man who was walking a couple metres behind us. He was wearing a red t-shirt that said ‘Nirvana.’ and kept his head down as he exited the shop after us and disappeared around a corner. I decided to ignore the warning in my head and we reached our rented car (as I would put it, and borrowed as Reece would put it).
Our first stops were a couple of local retail shops that held clothes designed by local designers. Xena loved that kind of stuff, encouraging and empowering the small ones along with large brands. Me? I didn’t really have an issue, if there were good clothes then it didn’t matter where they came from or who designed them.
We spent an hour trying on clothes and buying things for our parents and friends back home. I missed my mom, I hadn’t spoken to her in so long and I made a mental note to call her when I got back to The Wolf.
Xena was admiring a pair of black ankle high boots when she stopped walking and immediately gazed out to the street from the huge glass windows. I followed her gaze to a man sitting on a public bench, dressed in a crisp suit, reading a newspaper on the opposite side of the street. He raised his head and met our gaze and then very abruptly, he raised the newspaper further to cut off our visual.
“Do you know him?” Xena looked worried and so I asked her.
“I don’t think so, but..”
“Yeah?” I urged and she put her hand to her temple, rubbing them as if to stimulate some memory. We were in the middle of a small boutique which had a rack of clothes and shoes and a large full length mirror perpendicular to a plush couch stacked against the window.
“Call me crazy, but wasn’t he in The Spaghetti Kitchen with us?” The Spaghetti Kitchen was where we had had lunch a while back. I turned once again in the sofa seat and peered outside to get a good look at him.
“The man on the table next to that really loud woman wearing the checkered pants?” Xena urged and the memory clicked.
“Yes! Yes he had been!” I stood up from my cushion, the trial clothes spilling onto the floor from my lap.
“Okay, act normal.” I whispered, feeling his gaze on the square of my back but she shook her head.
“Screw normal!” she cried and marched right up to the window. She dropped the other pair of shoes she was holding and raised her middle finger, plastering it right onto the glass. I gasped at her gesture and flew to her right.
Several people passing by gave us outraged looks but the man was staring at her in awe. His evaluating gaze turned into one of a sly smile as he shamelessly looked over at us with a wide grin. This seemed to irritate Xena even more and I knew she had half a mind of getting out of the shop to go and confront the perverted hunk.
I snaked an arm around her and used a little extra force to pull her back before she made a headway for the door, but she didn’t expect it and we both ended up tumbling back onto the couch.
“Flora!” She scolded, before quickly getting back on to her feet and glaring outside. Her face melted into a frown which she then directed at me. “We lost him.” She said with thinly disguised disdain aimed at me.
“We lost him? This isn’t a cop show!” I retorted, rolling my eyes. This girl was going to get herself killed!
“Oh would you relax! It was a public space! He wouldn’t have done anything!”
Sighing, she took her hands off her hips and offered me one. I took it immediately and straightened myself as I looked out the window. He was gone, and in his place was now some other person.
“Come on, let’s just get out of here.” I told her, slightly alarmed. The shop owner who was at the back came out of storage with a large garment bag.
“I found it!” she told us excitedly. She was a young, healthy woman, probably our age and she came forward and opened the zip of the grey bag. It revealed a stunning dark green dress which was just my size. “I told you I had something amazing. This one was one of my mother’s designs!” She continued as she removed the hanger and placed the dress gingerly in my arms.
“What happened to you two? Did you break something?” She finally asked us as she got over her excitement to take in our features. “No-no.” I assured her quickly, trying to seem like a trustworthy human being.
She looked around the store and when she was satisfied she turned her attention back to the cloth in my hands.
“You have to try it! It will match your light brown eyes perfectly!” She told me, looking towards Xena for backup. My best friend took it from my hands and held it up at a length, giving the stunning dress another look. Her face slowly lit up and she gave me an enthusiastic nod. “This is perfect.” She breathed out and thrust the dress back into my arms.
“Go.” She ordered, pointing towards a small changing room and I saluted, “Yes ma’am.”
“Oh, I see you tried on the boots, do you like them?” I heard her ask Xena behind me. “Or do you want the ones you were holding-” she continued to talk to her client.
It was the color of the forest. Dense and endlessly green. A strappy and elegant design, which ended just a few inches above my knee. The dress flared at my waist and was body hugging above and it fit me perfectly, as if it had been tailored for my body specifically and I instantly fell in love with it. It had lace on the front top half that made my chest area look curvier and more attractive.
For the second time in that shop, Xena dropped the white shoes she had been holding in her hand. She and the owner were both gaping at me in delight.
“You have to buy it.” Xena told me and I let out a small laugh.
Xena bought the white shoes along with the ankle boots she was trying earlier (the owner was a damn good saleswoman), and I got the green dress. Deciding to take a break from shopping we both entered a small lively cafe in the middle of the town square.
The waitress was a young, bright woman named Laura. We placed our order and she left us alone to handle another table. That’s when I noticed him. The large man wearing the ‘Nirvana’ t-shirt which seemed to be a ridiculous attempt at blending into the young crowd at this cafe. The second my eyes met his, he looked away, focusing on the steaming cup of liquid placed before him. Two people in one day?
I quickly averted my attention and debated telling Xena, who was scrolling through her Instagram feed, no doubt looking at Luca Deta. That girl had some serious crush, he could be another 50 shades of grey for all she knew! If I told her she was likely to create a scene, and I was all against unwanted attention, especially from potential threats.
I threw my gaze back to him. He had on really casual clothes but on his hand glinted a watch that seemed expensive and out of place. Was he posing as a young nobody? His posture was straight and effortless, like he had had etiquette classes. The napkin lay folded perfectly in his lap and his elbows never rested on the table, and he looked like he had never seen sugar come in small paper packets.
Mannered. Posing. Important.
And then it struck me that this guy was probably not human. I gasped and it got Xena’s attention. She looked up and took one look at my expression before her eyes narrowed. “What is it? Is it that guy again?” She asked without turning around and I shook my head, not letting her turn her head around. If this man was not human it was likely that he could hear us. I felt my heart beat get faster as a plan formulated in my mind.
“It’s a different man. The one who left the restaurant just behind us, if you noticed.” I whispered, keeping my voice so low that he wouldn’t be able to hear us over all the noise in the cafe.
Xena opened her phone to take a picture of herself and discretely saw him in her phone camera. He was looking thoroughly interested in his steaming cup and didn’t notice our actions.
“I don’t remember him. Are you sure?” She asked me in a whisper and I nodded confidently.
“It’s hard to miss that t-shirt,” I told her with a scared smile and she laughed as well. This was good, we were keeping up appearances. Laura came back with our orders, Xena’s a large strawberry milkshake and mine was a vanilla milkshake. We also ordered a plate of fries to share.
“Will that be all?” She asked us politely and I nodded, handing her back the menu. She took it back skillfully, eyeing a piece of white paper that Xena had slipped on top of it and went about her tables back to the station. There, she finally read the note Xena had written but all the time her face showed no emotions. I had to hand it to Laura, she was being perfectly discrete. Did she have to do this often?
We took our time to finish our milkshakes and fries before calling her over to our table with the bill. Once we were done paying, I spoke in a slightly louder tone, “Is there a washroom here? We need to freshen up.” Laura nodded politely and showed us to the back of the place and we reached a set of double doors.
“This is our only other exit,” she told us quickly, her pretty face filled with worry. “It’s from where all the ingredients come in.” she added, looking over her small shoulder once more. “You should be able to get out and away from that stalker undetected. Are you sure you don’t want to inform the cops?” She looked like she really didn’t want to do it, but offered us the option anyway. I shook my head. “We aren’t sure if he is, and we don’t want to make a scene.” We quickly thanked her and got out through the back. Circling around we made it to our car, which was parked a few meters before the cafe and was safely out of view.
Suffice to say, we sped off without looking back and were soon far away from the town square.
“I really wanted to question him.” Xena maintained through gritted teeth and I rolled my eyes. “You and what backup?” Honestly this girl needed a safety setting! She huffed at me and then turned her attention back to the road.
“Uh, I don’t really know where I’m going.” Xena admitted and it was then that I noticed the surroundings around me. We’d reached the more shady parts of the city. There were more trees than buildings and lesser people in view. In fact, there was nobody in view. Even the buildings had no lights, just a few street lamps that glinted with half their luminous intensity. One the other side of the road stretched the outskirts of the forest that surrounded this entire city.
“Did we move in the direction of our hotel?” I asked her as I unlocked my phone and tapped on the Google Maps icon. Thankfully, I had network and it connected to the server to give me our location.
“I don’t know, what does it say?” She asked, leaning over to look at the screen with me.
“It shows three hours and twenty eight minutes. It says Mast Town.” I told her with resignation. When had we gotten this far?
I checked the time : 7:15 p.m. The day sure flew by quickly. With a tired sigh, Xena turned the keys in the ignition and started the car. I didn’t like our surroundings one bit. Daylight was fading and the dark shadows were doing nothing to calm my paranoid mind.
The loud tone of my phone jolted me out of my thoughts.
“Hello?” I spoke timidly, while Xena took a U-turn.
“WHERE ARE YOU?!” His voice seemed to be a million miles away, but I felt a rush of safety at his words. Despite the scolding, a small smile formed on my lips and I forgot to reply. Xena gave me a nudge with her elbow, looking pointedly at the phone where Reece’s voice was still yelling.
“-you haven’t returned yet and I have no idea where you are! It’s getting dark outside and I don’t think that this is acceptable or responsible behavior on your end!” My smile grew wider. And then Xena snatched the phone away from me, halting the car.
“She’s too smitten to even form a sentence,” she spoke into the mouthpiece dryly and my smile vanished as horror took over. This no good best friend was such a disaster for me! I gave her a look of betrayal before reaching for the phone, but she kept it out of reach.
“The GPS says ‘Mast Town’ although this place doesn’t look like one. It’s three and a half hours away.” She told him factually and I swear to god I heard him growl.
“What are you girls doing there?! That neighborhood is not safe!” He spoke dangerously, and I knew that it wasn’t him but Zuka who was talking.
Xena tossed me the phone back, which I missed and it fell to the car floor. “He’s yours to handle.” she told me, before unlocking her own phone to restart the navigation. I reached below for the phone but just as I came back up, a loud scream pierced the air.
Both of us stiffened, alert and observing our surroundings from the windows.
“Flora? Love?! Are you there? What was that?!” Reece’s voice was loud and clear in the silence of the night and I remembered that he was still talking to me. I raised the phone to my ear, not taking my eyes off the window and spoke lowly. “I don’t know. Someone screamed near us. We can’t see because it came from within the trees.” Xena gave me a debating look which matched mine. To help the person? Or to run and get help?
“Flora, listen,” Reece spoke urgently. “You’re in the abandoned part of town. That area is dangerous please just get back into the city! You can help the person with backup!” He said desperately, simultaneously yelling instructions to someone else with him.
“The city can’t be more than fifteen minutes away.“Xena whispered and I shook my head.
“Then coming back would be half an hour. What if we’re too late?” I whispered, covering the phone speaker because I knew how Reece would react.
I must not have covered it well enough because the next second I heard him swear. “FLORA NO! I order you to not do this! You will come back to where it is safe. I have already sent men to wherever you are!”
“How long will they take? I asked him and the lie was at the tip of his tongue, “Within minutes, now leave!” He thundered and I sighed.
“Then tell them to look for a silver Honda parked near the trees,” and I cut the call. I didn’t need his worry if I was going to try to be brave right now. Xena nodded with confidence, agreeing with me that we couldn’t leave someone in the middle of trouble. My phone rang once more and I switched it to silent, not wanting to attract trouble. I took Xena’s phone and quickly sent our location to his number, and then switched it to silent as well.
He was going to be so mad.
“Don’t think about that right now,” Xena whispered, placing a hand on my shoulder and I swallowed. Taking off my heels I left them at the beginning of the tree line while Xena kept hers on as she was wearing shoes. We were lithe and quiet despite how clumsy I was capable of being. I guess the adrenaline was doing a better job this time. I lead the way, shoving a few low branches out of my way as we got deeper into the forest. I could hear Xena’s shallow breaths from behind me, the girl was as scared as me, but we kept moving forward in the general direction of the scream.
I checked my phone. Nine missed calls and 11 messages. All from the same number. It was 7:30 p.m. We’d turn back if we didn’t find anything in the next fifteen minutes, I decided.
We walked for another minute before I heard the whimpering. Xena heard it too because she slowed to a stop, putting a finger to her lips. I nodded and we walked a step or two ahead, slightly changing direction. Every second I felt like there were eyes on me, on my back, on Xena. Each step made me feel like we were giving ourselves away. I was sweating and terrified, and suddenly I wished that we had just called the cops back at the cafe. But I knew that Reece and his men would be ten times more reliable and faster than the local police.
Please don’t let us die today.
As quietly as we could, we ventured further into the vegetation until the whimpering got louder. There was a thicket of bushes, and the two of us crouched down below the hedge line, sure that just beyond this wall of twigs lay the source of the noise. There was no other sound that one might hear in a forest. It was eerie and unnatural. There were no insects, no chirping, and no breeze to move the leaves!
That’s good. It will prevent your scent from travelling far. A voice spoke in my head and I nearly yelled. Xena prevented me from falling back on my butt and gave me a bewildered glare. I struggled to get with the situation. She leaned over and moved a few leaves out of the way, peering through them. A small gasp left her mouth and she stumbled back, her face horrified.
My nerves burned with liquid fear at whatever she had seen. Xena was one of the strongest people I knew and nothing small could make her do that. I placed a comforting hand on her shoulder despite the fact that my heart was going to break through the rib cage. Xena looked like she was about to cry and I immediately, silently wrapped my arms around her.
“Shhhhh, it’s okay. Don’t cry. Xen, I need you not to cry.” I whispered, my tone strong yet pitiful. She had to be brave, it wasn’t safe yet. Xena stifled a sob and nodded, pushing me away to indicate that she would be fine. I moved to peer through the thicket when her arm snaked around mine and she was wildly shaking her head. “You don’t want to-” she whispered and I shook my head firmly.
“It will be okay.” I whispered back as quietly as possible. Her frantic eyes tried to convey her message but there was no option. I had to see, see if I could help.
Holding my heart in my throat, I turned my head back and peered through the green.
It was not okay.