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Chapter 4: Nobody's Fool

Ryan was in his apartment, rapidly scrambling to quickly pack a bag. He knew he needed to get going as soon as possible, but wasn’t stupid enough to leave with just the clothes on his back.

He had a small bag with two pairs of clothes, the rest of it he was stockpiling with snacks and canned goods. He made sure to bring his wallet, as well. Never know when he would need to buy more food.

He zipped up the small bag, hoisting it on his back. He grabbed his keys which hung on a hook beside the door, and gave his small life a last glance. It was only a few days ago he was trudging along through each and every day, only looking forward to a paycheck at the end of the week.

He was ready to kiss it all goodbye.

Ryan picked up an envelope on the table before he went out. It was addressed to Rita. He planned on delivering it in person, but given the time, it was likely that Rita was fast asleep by now. He exited his apartment, closing and locking the door, and not looking back as he went down the elevator, and through the front door.

He bustled down the street, keeping a fast pace as he went; the envelope was fluttering in his chilly hands. He was coming close to Rita’s coffee house. His first stop. The blinds were drawn across the windows, the lights blackened. The sign inside read “Closed.” Ryan wouldn’t think she’d be open, anyway.

He checked his watch. Two thirty-three in the morning. He briefly wondered when he would get a full nights rest again. Though considering he didn’t quite have time for such idle thoughts, he grasped the envelope firmly, and took a deep breath. Exhaling, he shoved it under the space between the door as far as he could before his fingers couldn’t reach in any farther.

No turning back.

Ryan turned on his heel, determination swelling in his chest. He took lengthy strides, his mind deciding where to begin his search.

Unsurprisingly, the name “Harlequin House” didn’t appear on any popular tourist destinations. If this was going to be as difficult as the masked man made it sound, then he would have to do a bit more digging.

He tore through a local newspaper, finding nothing, and then proceeded to peer through the bigger and broader papers. He was beginning to think that even getting a small lead was impossible.

Ryan’s eyes were beginning to droop. He hadn’t slept a wink all night, much less eaten anything of note. He wasn’t very hungry. As he drearily scanned the paper, the advertisement almost escaped him.

Looking for part-time work? Drop a resume off at Christine’s Crystals. First come first serve. (Sponsored by the Harlequin House)

A direct lead? It seemed to be an easy coincidence, but there was no mistaking the name ‘Harlequin House.’ There was an address and phone number at the bottom of the ad. Ryan thought it was a miracle he saw it, anyway. It was a small square in the bottom corner of the paper. The typical onlooker would simply skim over it in their readings.

Though the shop in question was only a few blocks away from here, it wouldn’t take him long to find at all. He memorized the address as best as he could, and set off down the street. He came to a corner and waited for the traffic light to change, and followed the stream of people that crossed with him.

A turn to the left, straight down for a couple blocks, and one turn to the was right on the corner of the street. An eloquently carved wooden sign greeted him with cursive words reading out Christine’s Crystals. He walked inside, and had to stop himself from hacking up a lung.

The entire place reeked of way too much perfume. Though the chimes on the door twinkled merrily, and the rest of the store contained aisles of many different types of jewels, the stench of the perfume seemed to mask any sort of beauty by making his eyes water.

There was a definite hippie vibe to the place, above all else. The windows were covered in half-transparent scarves that illuminated the store with bleached colours of all shades and harmonious blends. It wasn’t an overly bright place, but Ryan had to admit it had its charm. He came up to the front desk, which was vacated, and scanned around for any soul. He couldn’t see anyone. There was a bell atop the polished wood, so he pressed on it, and a hearty ding echoed through the small space.

“Just a minute!” A drifting, dreamy voice called out. Ryan only had bad feelings about who was in the back of this store. A woman, clearly in her late forty’s, strolled out with an air like she was always walking on a cloud. Her long, curly brown hair traveled all the way down her back, resting at her hips, and her calm, chocolate eyes evaluated him kindly. She was dressed in what one would think a hippie was dressed in, that being a long, tan skirt that touched her ankles, and a faded rainbow shirt underneath a loose denim jacket with the sleeves cut off. She wore a tattered purple headband to tie the entire look together, and greeted Ryan with a smile.

“Yes, yes, have you found something you like?” Her smile didn’t seem fake or forced at all. Ryan wondered if she was genuinely happy. He shook his head, however, and figured he would get down to business.

“No, it’s not that. I saw your ad in the paper-”

“Oh! My, are you looking for work? You’ve come just in time, any spot you want isn’t taken, so there are no worries about-”

“I-I’m not here for a job!” Ryan interjected loudly. “Sorry,” he added, upon glimpsing the expression on the woman’s face.

“It’s...not a problem. I just...” she exhaled a long, exhausted sigh. Ryan immediately felt bad about the entire situation.

“It’s alright. I should have explained myself in better terms. I came to ask you a question about your ad.” The woman gazed at him with slightly sad, yet intrigued eyes. Ryan continued, “You say you’re sponsored by the Harlequin House. Do you have any idea of the whereabouts of this place, or even something to push me in the right direction?”

The woman glanced down at the desk, some new, complex emotion crossing her face. Ryan couldn’t quite tell what it was. She glanced around the shop, though Ryan was sure that she knew they were alone enough to have a private conversation. She motioned for him to come closer. He did.

“They’re not overly well-known, but they are beginning to make a name for themselves, the Harlequin House,” she began. “The only reason I’m still in business is because they offered me a partnership out of the blue. I was going bankrupt, and then paid all my debts off. All they want me to do now is get some extra hands around here. I don’t know what for, because I can handle a lot of this myself, but I haven’t exactly been one to judge. As for where they actually are, I don’t have enough knowledge or authority for that. They tell me nearly nothing.”

Ryan sighed. He hoped this wasn’t a dead end.

“But, I think I may be able to direct you to someone who does know.”

Ryan looked up at her. She had a hard, determined look on her face now.

“I know they’re up to something. I have a pen pal who lives a long ways from here - he’s one of the, er, higher-ups of the company, though he’s told me he’s trying to crack their code. Apparently I’m not the only small business who’s been benefited by them with little expense.”

“Thank you so much, I”m sure I can find him,” Ryan couldn’t believe his luck.

“B-But he lives way off the beaten path, it’s treacherous and nearly impossible to reach there by car-”

“Then I’ll walk. I’m looking for someone else, too, so this might just help me find them...”

The woman was gazing at him with some sort of fascinated look. Ryan supposed that the casual way in which he said ‘walk’ may have sounded a lot more jerkish than he meant it to, as if he walked great distances everyday.

“I’d recommend you get a ride as far as you can, dear, the mountains become dangerous at night - or really at any other time.”

“The mountains?" Ryan’s mouth was agape. He didn’t exactly think far meant that far.

The woman gave a sad chuckle. “Surprising, isn’t it? I asked him what possible reason he could have for living in such a place, but he only said he wanted the peace and quiet. Each to their own, I suppose. Are you sure you’re still up for it?” Ryan nodded, though he felt a churning in his gut that was rather unsettled from the idea of skipping through the wilderness.

“Seems like I can’t stop you then.” She bent over underneath the desk, the sound of papers and other trinkets rustling as she pulled out a tattered sheet of paper and a pen with a selection of colours to choose from. She was about to write something, but stopped. She looked at Ryan with a grin and asked, “What colour?”

“Uh, green is fine,” Ryan wasn’t overly sure why she was asking. The woman scribbled down upside down words. Ryan was almost certain they were directions. Sure enough, as she flipped over the paper, a hastily scribbled map with word directions on the side were just barely legible.

“Sorry about my messy writing,” she apologized. “But it should be enough. Out of curiosity, who are you looking for?” Ryan pocketed the note, a grim reminder flashing across his eyes. The woman must have noticed, because she instantly stuttered out an apology, her face flushing a light pink.

“He’s very important to me,” Ryan interjected, his eyes reflecting something unseen. “Even though I only met him a few days ago, he kind of took a shine to me, and me to him.”

“How old is he?” said the woman after a pause.

“Nine and three-quarters,” Ryan answered instantly. “he was taken, so it’s up to me to find him again, right?”

The woman opened her mouth to say something, but seemed to think better of it, and instead gave him a heartwarming smile.

“I wish you the best of luck.” She shook his hand.

“Thanks, er...”

“Judy. Call me Judy.”

“Then what’s with the name of the shop?”

Judy laughed. “Christine was my mother. She’s long since passed, but I couldn’t bring myself to change the name. Speaking of the store, why don’t you take this?” She reached inside her shirt and pulled out a necklace with an ebony, sharp crystal at the end. “If you’re going on a journey, you should have all the help you can get.”

She placed the bark-like, pitch crystal in Ryan’s hand, and Ryan was surprised to feel it to be smooth and warm.

“I...I can’t...” Ryan trailed off, unable to find the right words.

“You can. I think you’ll need it more than I. It’s called Black Tourmaline, and it’s supposed to ward of negative energy. Take it, please.” Judy insisted. She closed Ryan’s hand over the crystal and gave him a smile.

“Thank you,” he breathed, and was on his way.

“...if you can’t do this measly little task, then you can kiss your little one goodbye.” The man in the mask gave one last sadistic grin towards the camera, and suddenly dropped the expression. His smile turned into something more playful, and the knife against my throat slackened.

“That’s a wrap, fellas!” he called. “I’ve always wanted to say that,” he added afterwards. I stood by in horror, unsure of what to do. The bars of the cell opened with ease, and the man motioned for me to come out. I didn’t move.

I was scared. I hardly knew where I was. I wanted to see Ryan again.

“Come on, kid, we don’t have all day.”

“Aren’t you going to keep me prisoner?” I asked stupidly. It was such a straightforward question that I immediately regretted uttering it.

“Hon, if we were to let you live in a box like that I’m sure you’d develop schizophrenia or something along those lines. I’m a lot more kind to my guests than you think. Now, come along, I need to show you around.”

The way that he said guests sent a shiver through my core. I only had bad feelings about what was happening, but decided to follow anyway. What choice did I have?

I gazed upwards at the villainous man who led me across the seemingly elongating hallway. He had a cheery, pointed face. I had intentionally expected him to speak with a drawl, but instead he spoke with an unnatural enthusiasm that was so sharp it could pop a balloon.

Maybe it was all an act. The intense psychopathy I sensed from him was clearly present in the way he forced a smile at passersby. The corners of his mouth never quite met the twinkle of his eyes.

His eyes were an icy blue, seemingly penetrating through the eyes. In the short times he had looked me straight in the eye, I felt as though he saw something more. Maybe he was hiding it in his wide grin.

Maybe he knew.

No, that couldn’t be right. I’d kept myself well-enough under wraps. I put tape over every hole that could be prodded, it was unlikely that something could leak so easily.

And yet, I couldn’t tell whether this man was truly friend or foe. Clearly, he should be an enemy, considering he swept me away so swiftly I barely had time to blink. But his demeanor and odd body language seemed to place him as something completely different.

“Now, I know I look fascinating, but you should really pay attention to where we’re going,” the man said with a curl in his lip. I averted my eyes from his slender figure, fixating my gaze on the shining tile that clicked under our feet.

“Who are you?” I finally gathered up the courage to ask.

“That’s what I’d like to know.” He looked to me with expectant, snake-like eyes.

My breath caught in my throat. I cleared it, and spoke, “Marcus. Now what about you?”

“Don’t sound so eager, Mark.” The man waved away my question. “We’re almost to where you’ll be staying. You can find out anything you have questions about from the staff.” He placed a thin hand on my shoulder, squeezing a little harder than necessary. I gathered the message clear enough.

We came to a tall, thick, wooden door with simple engravings welded into it. The engravings swirled around each other, adding a simple, minimalistic design to the surface. The man opened the door with a mighty push. It creaked as though it had never been opened before, though the interior looked like it had just been polished five minutes ago.

Tapestries hung on the walls, depicting abstract pictures that I couldn’t understand. The one that made the most sense was a clown in a faded suit frowning and staring out of the painting. The rest of the wall was shaded in a dim, red hue of light that could only make me think of blood, and the carpets weren’t any better. It was a less intense scarlet, but the crimson fabric still sent off all the wrong messages.

There was a dramatic, giant mass of a bed that seemed only fit for a princess, its sheets pale as a vampire. The nightstand that sturdily stood beside it was polished a dark brown, as well as any other wooden furniture that eerily stood in the room, such as a low table, the dresser, and the desk.

But the most offsetting thing about the entire room was the fact that is was almost singularly filled with dolls, giant stuffed animals, and one sinister-looking, stuffed harlequin figure that sat in the middle of the room. It had no arms, two dangling, striped legs, an impossible smile, and a jester hat to top it all off.

“Welcome home, Mark.” The man whispered, a short chuckle escaping his lips. His laughter echoed in Mark’s head as the door slammed shut.

He was trapped.

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