“See you later, boss!” Martinez said, hurrying to drive the brand-new car his father gave to him while he’s staying here in Manila. Rocky only shrugged his shoulders and gave me a courtly smile before following his friend.
I turned to Paolo and said, “keep an eye out on them.”
“Got it,” he said, pulling out his phone to call someone. Martinez was a known troublemaker even when he was still attending a normal school. With his family’s wealth and influence, it enabled him to do anything he wanted without facing any consequences. Only when his father had enough of his stupidity that he forced Martinez to enter North Vale. Of course, dad also managed to convince Mr. Martinez that the only way for his son to be reformed was to attend the infamous institution.
It was obvious dad was lying. There were only a few students who really get rehabilitated and as immoral North Vale’s mission and vision was, they always keep their promises on students who excel in academics to give them a better future. But there’s always a condition, as dad wouldn’t allow people to get away without gaining something in return. Students who survived North Vale’s brutal education would be given a job that they had to choose from the list of Torres-Shao’s owned businesses. It’d be seen as a great opportunity but little did they know that they’re signing lifetime enslavement from my family. And as unfair as it sounded, once a student sign that contract, there’s no escaping.
The Torres-Shao could do whatever they wanted to that person, and of course, if he or she chooses to resist, dad knew how to punish them.
Slow torture and death, obviously.
It’s how the Torres-Shao maintains their businesses outside of the syndicate. Binding the employees with a one-sided contract that mostly benefits my father, the only good part was that their salaries were hefty. Of course, it’s also one way for dad to control his people—by drowning them in money. If he continues to use it against them, they’d never think of opposing him.
He knew how to play the government’s game.
Pay people money and they’d do anything you tell them to. Living a lavish life, only a fool wouldn’t choose to have that kind of comfort. In a country like this, anyone would jump in any opportunities offered to them, no matter how treacherous the effect would be.
The Torres-Shao business doesn’t only exist here in the Philippines. After Anthony successfully won the Zhangs, we have been expanding our influence in our home country. The Zhangs have been dominating the Chinese underground society and with their power, the Torres-Shao would be unstoppable.
How Anthony did it, no one knew. Well, maybe except for Kenneth. Those two were inseparable ever since they were born. Only when Anthony decided to stay in Beijing that they parted ways. Kenneth had been busy taking care of North Vale as well as some other businesses dad entrusted him with.
Dad was more than proud of Anthony for winning the Zhangs favor. Now, he’s only waiting for Tyler to marry Maria to get into the Blaise family. Marriage was one of the ways to connect two families in the Mafia—and for someone to have a daughter in their group, the only purpose they had was to strengthen ties with other groups. It’s not uncommon for mob families to use their children into forcing blood ties, and my brothers weren’t an exception.
I heard Kenneth’s going to marry some girl from a bigwig family. I wondered if my brother ever met this woman. He hadn’t introduced anyone to us as Kenneth was a very secretive person. He never shares anything with Tyler and me and would rather keep things away from us as he was very protective of his two younger brothers.
Paolo opened the car door for me before going around to sit on the driver’s seat. I slide inside, slamming the door closed before pulling the seatbelt.
“What mall?” Paolo asked while starting the engine.
“Anywhere. I don’t mind,” I said. At the back of my mind, I’m kind of hoping I’d be seeing the guy again. But it’d be impossible as he was in another city. I would have told Paolo to drive me back to Bulacan where I met that guy, but he’d be too suspicious. And knowing how vigilant Paolo was, he’d never let me go without knowing the exact reason.
I couldn’t tell him I fell in love with someone I just met. Not only was it preposterous, but it’s also useless to even chase someone normal.
“You don’t need him. He’s just a random guy that caught your attention. Nothing more, nothing less. He’s not important.”
It hurt hearing that. It’s the first time I had ever felt this way—my heart beating fast whenever I see him in my head, those eyes that stared right into my soul, probing deeper as if it’s digging deeper and deeper to meet the devil inside me. I could only shudder in despair whenever I remember him.
The thrill he gave me when our eyes locked onto each other, I could never ever forget that sensation. It’s exhilarating as if I’m stepping into an uncharted territory filled with wonders and terror—I couldn’t wait to uncover it.
No, stop it, Liam. Just like what Paolo said, it’d be useless to even think about a guy that you’d probably never meet again. Our worlds were just so different. He didn’t know anything about us, about me. Dragging him into this side of the world would only end up with more guilt, just like that one time—
I shook my head, erasing the memory that I tried so hard to forget.
Paolo saw what I did and raised a brow. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
He was already driving on the highway, his gaze focused on the road. “Nothing,” I answered, looking outside the window to marvel at the high buildings that would almost touch the sky. I did grow up in the city, but I never had the chance to go outside that much as I was locked in the house for almost my whole childhood. And when I turned twelve, dad already sent me to North Vale to live with Tyler. It sucked that I didn’t even have the chance to mingle with other people, especially kids at my age. Hence why I’m awfully bad at socializing.
Nevertheless, thanks to Tyler’s incessant meddling, I was forced to talk to people. It somehow helped me get over my fear of facing people. Often sending me out to deal with drugs, I had to confront many men who were twice my age to convince them into buying more illegal goods that the Torres-Shao provides. Tyler said it’s all part of my training as dad wanted me to the next leader of the group.
No, more like dad wanted the monster inside me to be the new head.
I had to keep resisting or else, I’d—
“Are you still thinking about that guy?” Paolo asked.
I jolted. Was I that obvious? “N-no,” I stammered, shyly. I hid my blushing cheeks away from Paolo. I refused to be seen like some I’m some kind of teenager who had his first love.
It’s pathetic. Most boys my age would already be so busy screwing people from left to right while I’m only experiencing my first crush.
That is why Tyler’s always pissed at me. Because I couldn’t be like those other boys—the one who had committed heinous crimes without even batting an eye. While I on the other hand had to hesitate on hurting people because I just couldn’t see what the point was. But Tyler drilled into my mind that to become the leader of the family, I had to be a monster.
And as always, Tyler got what he wanted.
Paolo scoffed. “You’ll forget him soon,” he said, turning the steering wheel to the right where the closest mall was.
I pouted. I didn’t want to forget him.
My phone vibrated in my pocket and I quickly took it out, expecting it to be Tyler calling me. But to my surprise, it wasn’t.
Kenneth’s name appeared on the screen.
Picking the call, I couldn’t hide the excitement in my voice. It’s been ages since I last talked to my brother. Hard to admit it but I missed them so much.
When mom left, Anthony and Kenneth became like my parents. For dad who was always busy with his work, my two oldest brothers were the ones who took the responsibility of taking care of me, making sure that I’d stay sane while dad and Tyler torment me.
Even if I spent most of my time with Tyler, I was much closer to Anthony and Kenneth. Anthony was more of the easy-going yet sinister brother of mine, while Kenneth contrasted his lively personality with his serious outlook in life. Although he was sarcastic with his brother due to how close their ages were, he was more mature than Anthony and was more trusted by our father.
“Hey,” I greeted, a huge grin appearing on my face. Paolo noticed it but knew immediately who I was talking to. There were only a few people who could put a smile on me and of them was Kenneth.
“I’m about to come home on Monday,” Kenneth informed, his voice deep and dreary. I almost cringed when I heard him. He always sounded monotonous but when he’s extremely exhausted, it’s easy to tell since his voice resembled that of a ghost. Dead. “Tyler said you’re in Manila.”
“Yes,” I said.
I was happy that I’m talking to him but now that I heard his voice, it’s safe to assume that he was tired. Going in and out of the country to secure ties with other business owners, I’m sure it was tedious. I couldn’t help but be amazed at how hardworking Kenneth was, even if he didn’t really want this kind of job. But of course, it’s not like he had a choice. Dad was the one who gave it to him. And as his son, he had no choice but to impress him, like always.
Anthony was the only brave one who defied him. But because he was the one who dealt with the Zhangs, dad allowed him to leave the Philippines. But I’m sure he had eyes where Anthony was, reporting him of his activities with the Chinese syndicate.
“Good. Let’s eat dinner. You can stay with me while you’re here in Manila.”
He probably already knew Maria allowed me to stay a few more days outside of North Vale to get away from Tyler. “Okay,” I said. “I want to eat at that Chinese restaurant. The one we always visit before.”
“Alright,” Kenneth replied, his voice turning slightly bright.
“Sir, the investors from Decker just arrived.”
I scowled upon hearing the voice of his secretary. I could picture Kenneth holding in his breath, annoyed that someone had to interrupt a conversation with his brother. “I’ll see you soon, Liam. Behave.”
He hung up the phone. I put it down and heaved a sigh. “Was that Kenneth?” Paolo asked.
“Yeah, we’re going to stay at his place while we’re here,” I said, putting my phone back in my pocket.
Twenty minutes had passed, and we were still stuck at traffic. It’s unbelievable how much time we’re wasting when our destination was just a few blocks away from where we were. Seeing the wide road be blocked by different kinds of vehicles waiting for the stoplight to turn green was jarring, it makes me miss the route to North Vale where only a few would drive as it’s far and secluded.
One advantage of living out in the countryside.
“Are you hungry?” Paolo asked.
“Yes, a little bit.”
“Where do you want to eat?”
I thought for a second. “I’m craving for sushi now.”
Paolo chuckled. “Well, that was random.”
Finally, the stoplight changed its color to green and we were now driving straight to the mall. Paolo found the entrance and parked the car in the basement. As always, it amazed me at how many vehicles were parked just in one mall. Or maybe this was normal. I’m just too sheltered to know.
Turning the car engine off, Paolo guided me to the entryway. I clutched my jacket close to my body, conscious of the tattoos I kept hiding when I’m outside. People usually would give me a contempt look as if they knew my whole story by just seeing the ink on my body. Yes, it was one way for the people in the underground world to recognize an individual, as insignias were important for a Mafia family. It’s not as if I wanted to get it, I was forced.
“Hot, isn’t it?” Paolo commented. Unlike me, it didn’t bother him to let the others see how much tattoos he had. Taking off his jacket gave the people around us the perfect view to admire and be disgusted by his arms filled with tattoos.
I’d always applaud Paolo for being brave. Something I couldn’t be, obviously.
“It is,” I said. Wearing jackets all the time, I was used to the hot temperature. Manila might be more humid than any other place in the country, but I was fine sweating and feeling hot rather than letting people see my secrets.
I wanted to fit in.
Paolo brought me to a sushi restaurant he recommended. I didn’t know how he found this place, but he’s always been up to date with things, even if he was locked in North Vale.
There was a conveyer belt in the middle of the restaurant and only a few people were dining inside. I reckoned this place was far more expensive than the others, but money was never a problem for me.
Paolo told the waiter who approached us that we wanted to sit near the conveyer belt. There was a variety of sushi going around and I almost salivated upon seeing it. After sitting down, Paolo handed me the rest of the menu and asked if I wanted more. I ordered a bowl of ramen to which he gave me an amused look. We did just eat ramen, but I couldn’t get enough of it.
I began taking the sushi plates, devouring it as if I hadn’t eaten for a year. Paolo was just watching me with a smile on his face. He’s enjoying while watching me act like seven-year-old who hadn’t seen the world.
I finished five plates when the bowl of ramen arrived. I smiled at the waiter and thanked him before eating. “Easy, Liam,” Paolo reminded. “You’re not in some sort of eating contest.”
“Sorry,” I said. I wiped my mouth with the tissue and grinned at him. Flashes of memories appeared in my head as Tyler would punish me by starving me for days, only giving me rations of water to keep me alive. It was one of the most painful and exhausting punishments I had endured, and I never wanted to come back to that. As a result of those constant tortures, I became greedy with food, fearing that someone would take it from me. I experienced what it was like to be starved. Even if there was an abundance of food, I’d always eat as fast as I could to fill up my stomach.
It was the only way to survive back then.
“It’s fine,” Paolo said. “Just eat like you usually do. Tyler isn’t here to watch over you.”
Those words helped me calm down. I loosened up my shoulders and began eating like a human. “Sorry. My bad.”
We ate for about an hour, indulging ourselves with the unlimited sushi we could ever eat. After the twentieth plate, I finally put my chopsticks down and declared defeat. Paolo was already done ages ago and was just waiting for me to finish. I almost emptied the whole conveyer belt.
Paolo paid for our food and left the restaurant. I was filled to the brim, this kind of satisfaction was one source of my happiness. Whenever I crave something, I’d eat it as if the world’s about to end.
“So, what next?” he asked, tucking his wallet in his back pocket.
“I want to watch a movie,” I said, looking at him with eyes gleaming in excitement. I always had to hold back my emotions whenever I’m at school knowing Tyler was keeping a close watch on me. But now that I’m away from him, I could be whoever I wanted to be, and right now, I aspired to be the teenager that I’d never be. “Oh, and I also want to buy a new phone.”
“Didn’t you just say you’re not going to replace your cracked phone?” he asked, raising a brow at me.
“But…I don’t like seeing my screen with cracks,” I retorted, pouting at him. My childishness was only reserved for Paolo and a few more people that I was close with. Students in North Vale view me as this stoic and emotionless guy who would casually smile at people like a robot pretending to be human. But of course, they never knew who I really am or the many faces I wear to trick people.
Paolo sighed in defeat. “Fine. We’ll buy a new phone.”
“And I also want new clothes.”
“No, you can’t.”
“Because we don’t wear anything but uniforms at school.”
“What about during weekends?”
Paolo paused before heaving another sigh. “Fine. We’ll buy new clothes too.”
Watching a movie, drinking coffee at Starbucks, walking around the mall to buy anything I wanted with Paolo’s credit card, everything was perfect. It’s as if I really am a normal teenager living the best of his life. This was what I wanted. To roam places with no collar wrapped around my neck, men hiding in the shadows just to make sure I’d never do anything stupid, I could just be me.
I sipped the remaining coffee in my cup before throwing it in the trash. It’s already dark outside but there were still people going in and out of stores, buying whatever they needed to buy before the mall closes. Paolo led me to the parking lot, carrying all the paper bags that contained all the things he bought for me.
We had been in the mall the whole day and it’s about time we go back to the hotel. I might be free, but I could never put my defenses down against Tyler. He was a man who knew no boundaries. He’d do anything to keep me in my leash, even if he had to kill people around me just to keep controlling me.
While walking to the parking lot, Paolo’s phone rang. He quickly answered the phone call. “What?” he snapped, his gaze turning dark. I looked at him, curious about what he and the other person on the other line were talking about. “Fuck.”
Hanging up the phone call, he looked at me and said, “Martinez did something.”
I raised a brow. “What?” I asked. I expected he’d be doing something. He always brings trouble wherever he goes.
“He just abducted someone.”
“What?” I asked, feeling my heartbeat rising. “Who?”
“I don’t know yet. But it’s a civilian.”
“Oh shit,” I cursed, hurrying to Paolo’s car. “Where is he?”
“At the old storage house that Brando owns. In Bulacan.”
I felt my heart skipping a beat after he mentioned the place where I met that guy. “What? Don’t tell me he kidnapped the girl he wanted to screw?”
Paolo shrugged his shoulders. “We’ll find out.”
Going back to Bulacan would take us an hour but thanks to Paolo’s superior driving skills, he managed to find the fastest route, going into tight spaces and almost running down people just to get where we had to.
It’d be bad if Martinez causes an uproar with the civilians. It’d be my head on the platter if Tyler knew.
The old storage house that Brando’s family owned was located in a private property. Recognizing the five cars parked outside, I didn’t wait for Paolo to park the vehicle correctly. I got out, dashing towards the entrance. The guys who stood by guarding the door saw me and quickly threw their cigarettes on the ground, surprised by my sudden appearance.
“What did Martinez do?” I asked. I tried not to sound nervous. My men needed to see that I was an intimidating man like the rest of my scary family.
“He’s…beating up someone inside, boss,” someone answered, turning his eyes aware from me.
“The guy who sabotaged his date with that girl.”
I was confused as hell. Before I could scare the shit out of that guy I’m talking to, I pushed the door and went inside. Paolo was behind me, ready to beat the shit out of Martinez for involving a person who shouldn’t be involved.
I stopped when I saw the guy tied in the chair, my eyes widening in utter shock.
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