It has been two week now and the burner phone had not buzzed not once. It was like carrying a curse around you; anything could suddenly happen that needed one’s attention, hence I made sure to have the burner phone with me at all times. Mr. Pablo had at multiple times caught me twirling the phone between my fingers, he would fix me with a questioning stare which I ignore every time.
I hated the suspense that came with the phone, the numerous questions that plagued my mind everyday for the last two weeks. I choose not to tell Mr. Pablo about the job, maybe because I did not want to disappoint Mr. Fredrick nor Mr. Pablo, given the fact that these days I was bothered about his opinion about me and did not want it to be bad. I still worked at the bar, but the little spirit that I used to work there left the night I met Derek.
I went to the park often, the place gave me a semblance of peace and it also reminded me of Derek and our meeting, maybe he was just busy and did not have time to remember this underdog. Today, I sat under a tree with a book in my hand, I had gone early to the library to browse through the archives under the recommendation of Mr. Pablo. It was not a shocker to find out my boss was a book lover, his most read genre was the classics and I preferred crime genre filled with suspense and twists. The one I was presently reading was The Cartel by Don Winslow, it was about America’s longest war on drugs and the characters were intriguing, it pulled at my mind like a magnet.
My hands flipped through the pages with automated accuracy, my eyes moving from one line to another as my mind visualized each scene depicted by Don Winslow. The leaves of the tree I sat under swayed gently, giving my surrounding a somber feeling. I did not hear the burner phone buzz until it almost ended, I quickly pulled it out of my back pocket, picked the call and placed the receiver at my ear.
“Hey, kid,” a familiar voice said from the other end of the phone.
“Derek, isn’t it a pleasure to finally hear from you,” I said, a little anger seeping into my voice. I was not sure he noticed, but I did not care if he did. I was angry about being kept in the dark for the past two weeks.
“Is it? Most of my calls end up with people dying,” he replied with laughter and I laughed with him.
“Are you laughing, kid?”
“You keep trying to scare me, but I know you are a big softie,” I replied lightly.
The line was silent for a while, and when Derek spoke, it was not the Derek I knew. This voice was darker and more sinister, my ears twitched and heart pounded. “You think this is cool, kid? If you don’t want your body lying in a gutter, never call me a softie,” the voice said.
“Yes, sir,” I said automatically.
“You are so gullible, kid.” The tone I was familiar with came back, but I would never be fooled again. The somber feeling was disrupted and my mind was now very alert of the situation; Derek had called me which means he had a job for me.
“Is there something you need, sir?” I asked with a formal tone, I chose not to continue the banter we had earlier.
“You are to come to the park on Sunday by 8PM.”
The call disconnected and I was left with the sour feeling of a bad start-out with my boss. The urge to read was destroyed and I decided to go back to work, at least the bar had a semi-feeling of comfort. I stood up, dusted my butt and walked back to the bar.
On Sunday night, a humid atmosphere was everywhere, the night was warm with a little chill in the air. I wore a black harmless top, a red short with sandals, my hands were in my short pockets, and I was stepping out light. I decided not to run this night, but rather take a walk to the meeting point making me leave home before the stipulated time, so I still had time to cut. People were heading home from wherever they went to, their voices speaking volumes about their fatigue as they said goodnight to one another.
I put on my earphones, listening to the music playing through them, drowning out the voices around and listening more to the voice in my head. Derek’s tone was suspicious to me, the way he said those words suggested that he could do what he said. I recalled a time in my childhood, where I happened to stumble upon a man threatening another man with a knife—that man was my father.
He left me at the orphanage at a young age, I did not see much of him except the scene of him holding another man at a knife point. I remember that as I grew I got curious, I knew my mother died while giving birth to me, but my father was still alive, so why did he not want me? I asked Mr. Fredrick and when he refused telling me, I went through my file at the orphanage and saw his address. I remember going to look for him at his trailer that was close to falling apart at the underdeveloped part of the city.
Those parts were filled with depressed people, deadbeats and lowlifes, so seeing my father there was not a big deal, but as a child, seeing him threaten to gut another fellow human was enough to scar my young mind.
Something huge was going on and I was left out of the dark, it was not for my safety, but rather it was protocol. I understood this, and I knew it was what I had to accept, but it was scary going into something that was beyond my control or could possibly be illegal. My footsteps came to an abrupt stop after the thought “illegal” registered in my mind. I stood under a lamp-post, just staring at my shadow beneath me. I suddenly turned on my heel and took three steps heading back to my apartment. I felt the burner phone buzz and stopped, took a deep breath to calm my shaking nerves. I had to see this through, I turned on the balls of my heels and continued my trip to the park.
When I got to the park it was some minutes past eight and I could see the outline of Derek physique pacing the fountain in the middle of the park. I quickened my steps to meet him and he turned when he heard me get close to him.
“You are late,” he scowled, his hands at akimbo. Today, Derek did not wear a suit, but he wore a faded blue jeans and a tight top that hugged his muscular frame.
“I am sorry, sir,” I said hastily.
“It is okay, kid. About earlier, I was having a bad day, so let’s drop the “sir” tag, feels awkward and I am just 25,” he said, scratching the back of his head awkwardly. I did not believe his lie about a bad day, but I did see his sincerity about wanting to make up for the threat.
“Sure, Derek is fine by me. I really hate formalities, besides you look more of an older brother than boss,” I replied cheekily, and playfully punched him for effect.
He shoved me playfully. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, kid. Anyway, I have a job for you and want it done before dawn.”
“What is it?” I asked as I righted myself, the push packed a punch.
“We are to deliver a parcel to the certain people called the Downworlders,” he said in that familiar business tone, all joviality gone from his demeanor. I had trouble with recognizing the name I just heard, I didn’t know any group in Area 2 called the Downworlders or where they were.
“Who are they and how do we find them?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about those bunch, and I’ll be getting us to the Downworlders, just stick with me through everything and listen to everything I say.
I did not have to worry much, Derek already had everything planned out, and all I had to do was follow. Together, we left the park, and took the part leading out of the city. According to Derek we would be taking a faster means of transportation when we get to a certain checkpoint. We walked for a long while, I tried to keep pace with Derek at all times, the night was getting darker and it was becoming difficult to see Derek who walked like a man on a mission.
“Are we there yet?” I whined like a child, my legs ached in many places and I was thirsty from the long walk.
“Less talking and more walking,” ordered Derek. I rested against a mail box in front of a building, it was pretty tall and only two apartment lights were on. I checked the time from my mobile and discovered it was five minutes to 11:00 PM; we had walked for two hours. When I looked at Derek, he was gone and I was all alone, resting on a mailbox.
“Derek!” I whispered, my body twisting in a three-sixty degree turn to find a glimpse of him.
Suddenly, a headlight flashed in front of my eyes with a rumbling of an engine. When the light turned off, I saw Derek on a Harley, it was not the kind of transport I would like, but he was the boss of the show.
“Were you looking for me?”
“Of course, you just disappeared,” I said with exasperation, the shock of being left alone in the dark was evident on my face.
“We’ve reached the checkpoint, I went to get our ride,” he replied, motioning to the Harley on which he sat on.
“I was expecting something more refined.” My eyes spoke of my disdain for the choice of ride, even if my mouth did not speak it.
“Get on, kid.” I picked up the helmet he passed to me, and got behind him on the Harley. It was difficult getting a proper sitting position, and I twisted and turned my butt every ten seconds, my hands tightly around Derek’s waist to anchor me. I have never been on a bike or had the advantage of sitting on one. The wind caressed my hair as we careened down the street, the touch of the wind touched my face and made the quarter-sized birthmark to tingle; it always stayed on my face, dormant and most time I did not know it was there, but when a person stared at it for a long while, I began to feel I had a flaw on my face.
The moon was now up in the sky more than ever and I did not need a watch to tell me it was twelve midnight. Finally, the trip came to a stop in front of a large gate with intricate designs, it was safe to say we were at a villa. Security cameras were on the two pillars holding the gate, the intricate design was the image of an eye with lines twisted to resemble a flame; a flame surrounding an eye.
“We are here, kid,” Derek said triumphantly, I guess I was not the only wanting to have this thing done and over with.
“You get in, kid. It is your gig.”
I stood in front of the one-eye gate with a frown on my face. When Derek dropped the bombshell on me, I froze for a bit to process the information that I was going in alone without moral support.
Derek told me that all I had to do was walk in, ask for the boss and hand him the small parcel in my pocket; it was easy to do, but the darkness in Derek’s eyes and the seriousness of his voice made it seem like our life depended on it. I straightened my shoulder and put on my poker face, my finger pressed the telecom and the receiver on the other end clicked. “Downworlder’s residence,” a baritone voice said.
“Scheduled delivery from the Horus,” I said. Derek had told me to mention the Horus to get access into the villa, and I held back the question of what the Horus was. I heard the side gate clock open; I pushed it open and walked in. The view inside was magnificent, lights decorated the property, buildings aligned all together to make a semi-circle. The house was in the middle, standing gigantic with pillars holding up the front.
A pool was in front of the main building, a big concrete in the middle, layers and layers on each other, each with small poles to raise the layers higher than the next. Carvings on the poles were of miniature pictures of people in chains, their mouth open in agonized screams. However, on the pillars holding the main building were carvings of a giant with a whip.
This was wealth speaking and it showed in the grandness of the villa. I wanted to see more of this beauty, so I began to make my way into the main building. The journey was short, cutting my sightseeing into half, and while I felt bad about it and wanted to go back to the tour, the sight of armored men at the front door was enough to bring my mind back to the situation—this was a job and not a school excursion.
One of them walked towards me, his gun holstered by his side with a rigid stance, enough to tell me this was not a joke. I was ushered into the building, the guard who walked towards me led the way to the study of the owner of the villa. It would be cliché to talk about the sight of the lobby of the building; a high chandelier, a spiral staircase with a rug which felt too much like an animal fur to be called fake. Wealth was good and I wanted it.
“Welcome,” a fat man, with enough smile to light the world out of its dark phase, greeted me. The guard closed the door after us and stood at the door, guarding it.
“Hello, sir,” I replied with a small smile.
“Scotch or bourbon?” he asked, his eyes twinkling like a child.
“I am fine, thank you. I am here to deliver a parcel.”
“You should reconsider.” His childlike tone changing to a more deep and cold one.
“I’ll have the scotch,” I said to please the man. When I rejected it, from my side view I saw the guard touch his gun and I knew I had displeased the man. I took the glass he outstretched to me and took a deep swig. Something was off about the whole arrangement, I recalled seeing guards not just at the entrance, but also patrolling the perimeter.
“Wise choice,” he replied, raising his glass to say cheers.
“Have a seat,” he motioned to a seat across the one he sat on like a royal, which he wasn’t far from him, his fingers were adorned with rings. I sat on the chair, half my concentration on the man who sat across me, and the remaining half on the guard whose hand still rested on his gun hostler. I wondered what a man could be doing with so many guards on his property.
“What do you do, sir?” I asked.
“What do I do? Are you new to the Horus?” he asked with a laugh.
“The Horus … What is that?”
The man laughed with a shrill tone that echoed throughout the study room, his fat belly shaking as he twisted his body to control the comedy only he seemed to understand.
“Do you know who you work for?” he asked.
“No, sir, I was told not to ask questions,” I replied.
“As you shouldn’t, that is the number one rule given to every underdog. But I’d push you on the right part, your work is illegal, so drop the parcel and ask your underlord,” he instructed, stood up and left me there speechless. I knew some of the terms he used enough to know I had gotten myself into something dangerous.
I was ushered out of the villa after the parcel was collected from me, my legs shook as they neared the gate. Derek was out there waiting for my return, I was not ready to talk to him after finding out such a huge secret. I couldn’t question him because he could kill me immediately and not bat an eyelid, now I understood why Derek acted the way he did, his tone, his action and mannerism that day we met the first time in the park.
Suddenly, I felt angry, I felt used and betrayed, the emotions rushed through me like poison, tainting my mind and making my nerves twitch. I clenched my fist to keep my emotions in check, to control the chaos I was about to unleash, it was the least I could do till I was in the home of the viper—Derek.
I walked out the way I came, took huge strides to get as far away from the once beautiful villa which now reeked of dirt to me. I saw Derek waiting beside the Harley, a pleased smile on his face, this ignited the flame once again, my eyes burned right into his, my fist balled at my side. My balled fist left my side, connecting with his jaw; although, it hurt like a bitch, the anger I felt dulled the pain enough to make me take another swing. He caught my wrist and punched my nose, stars danced in front of my eyes, I staggered and fell.
“Do you wish for death?” he asked angrily, he face twisted in an ugly way in the dark.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I fired back, using my palm to stop the bleeding from my nostrils.
“Speak English, kid. Tell you what?”
“What is your job, Derek? What am I doing with you guys?”
“I see that blabbermouth told you some things, huh?” I kept silent for a while, my nose hurting from the punch, but I was sober now and the realization of my actions shocked me.
“Yes, he told me enough to make me reconsider,” I said quietly.
“He is right. You are in a dangerous business, Mike, but there is no getting out of it,” he replied. That was enough to crumple my world, they fell around me like bricks from a bad construction, maybe my life and choices were such buildings.
“What kind of illegal business do we run?”
“It is a drug business. We are called the Horus, one of the biggest underworld black markets in Area 2.”
“I’d like to go home now,” I said.
Derek drew me up and said viciously, “You tell anyone about this and you die, got it?”
I got on the Harley with him and together we left the villa of the Downworlders. Derek dropped me off some blocks from my apartment, fixed me with a warning stare not to spill the beans or my blood would be spilled and drove off. I walked the remaining distance to my apartment. It was evident that I had gotten myself into a shit bigger than anything I’ve been in and getting out was not an option I could take.
My mobile buzzed, I picked it up and noticed an alert from the Memory Bank Headquarters, notifying me of the large sum of money which was deposited in my chip. I counted the zeros and was beyond speechless due to the gravity of its amount; this was money, what I have always wanted, but I was getting it from an illegal means. What I should do next was the big question that plagued me till dawn.
Getting new things that brought good memories was another way of getting positive memories into your chip. In the present world, a car brought by a person was expected to create new memories for him/her, giving him a happy life he could live with.
After I got the large sum in my chip, I went shopping. I brought new clothing, a new phone and a brand new bicycle. The shoe I had always longed to get was ordered from the Web and the beginning of my good memories with the new things I bought began. I cycled to work at the bar everyday on the bicycle, enjoying the wind in my hair, I never knew how fun it was to cycle. I asked to be taught by one of the kids in the neighborhood, it was interesting to watch the tires go round and round as my legs moved the pedal.
It took a while to learn the basic maneuvering method of cycling, but when I got the hang of it, it was the most invigorating feeling ever. I laughed as I rode it round my neighborhood, shouting cheers in-between.
The phone was also a joy bringer, it was the latest model and having people gather around to look at it, plus the countless of interesting features in it was like getting a chocolate cake only to eat it and taste strawberry. I played around with it all day, enjoying the game features when I was bored or was not in the mood for reading my latest crime novel.
Today was not any different; the bar was on its lunch break; while its workers went out to eat, I stayed back as always since I was the only worker at the bar. Mr. Pablo was not around as always, he was hardly in lately, and I wondered what he was up to.
I was so engrossed in the game I was playing that I did not look up when I heard the bell jingle. “We are not available today,” I said.
“Not available even for me?” asked the familiar voice that even in a crowd, I would recognize anywhere.
“Mr. Fredrick!” I shouted. My eyes were not playing tricks on me, it really was Mr. Fredrick with his funny way of dressing and his glasses.
“I guess I was wrong. How are you?” he asked. Mr. Fredrick still had that friendly smile on the face, the smile that countless times has made me spill my guts to him. He was still looking like the Mr. Fredrick I knew and loved, but I was not looking like the Mike he took care of for a long time.
“I am alright. I have gotten the hang of being outside your wings,” I said. I wanted him to be proud of me and how far I have gone since I left the orphanage.
“I can see that.” He gestured towards my outlook. I was not shabby anymore, I had grown taller and a little larger in build, and my hair was long since I chose not to get a haircut. I beamed and stepped forward to embrace him, his musky scent filtering through my nostrils, and my brain registered the memories of having such a warm hug.
“It is good to see you, Mr. Fredrick.” He patted my back to tell me it was okay and that he missed me too, his fingers rubbed circles on my back as he did anytime I was upset. The tears fell from my eyes like a torrent. I had always held my emotions back—my fear, my worries, everything that had happened recently. So being in the comfort of a trusted companion, it was safe to let go of everything.
While we held each other, Mr. Pablo walked in from his trip, his eyes roamed us in bewilderment. It was not every day one see two males holding each other, one crying and the other trying to console him. I broke away from Mr. Fredrick and wiped my tears, my eyes were puffy and it was evident I had cried a lot.
“Hey, Pablo,” Mr. Fredrick greeted, both men moved into a hug, each patting the other’s back in a friendly way. I never asked Mr. Pablo how he knew Mr. Fredrick, but they must have had a long history together, the bond was obvious in how they held each other.
“Hey, Fredrick, it has been long since you last visited,” Mr. Pablo replied as he broke the hug.
“Those kids have my undivided attention.”
“I still don’t understand the devotion you have to those kids,” commented Mr. Pablo; he was just as speechless as me, but while he was in the sideline, I was once a receiver in this devotion. I knew how deeply it ran, and I watched Mr. Fredrick now with the eyes of someone in the sideline.
Mr. Fredrick had that easy-going smile as always on his face as he shrugged his shoulder, “You would know if you had kids, Pablo.”
“Nah, that occupation is not for me,” Mr. Pablo said. My face snapped to my boss, I never knew he had no kids nor wanted none, he looked like a devoted father. “Yeah, kid, I don’t have children,” he added when he saw me looking at him weirdly.
“Who are those in the picture on your wall?” I inquired. I was perplexed to make this discovery, it didn’t add up to the pictures I saw on his wall every time I was there—it was a picture of four smiling kids with their arms around Mr. Pablo.
“You kept that picture?” Mr. Fredrick asked with a knowing smile, both of the exchanged looks before Mr. Pablo coughed awkwardly.
“It was a moment of weakness.”
“I doubt so, Pablo,” said Mr. Fredrick, he turned to me and added, “Pablo was once a caretaker at the orphanage, he was so good with the children and they loved him.”
“Really? That is so amazing. Why did you leave?” I asked Mr. Pablo.
“That is a story for another day,” he snapped. I frowned, it was odd to see Mr. Pablo angry when he was always the lively one. “What are you doing here, Freddy? And why is Mike crying?” he asked, changing the topic. My neck grew hot from being reminded of my little moment, I stared at my sneakers to avoid their stare.
“I was just about to ask him,” replied Mr. Fredrick.
“Mr. Fredrick, can I talk to you outside?”
“Sure.” I led Mr. Fredrick out, leaving Mr. Pablo standing there, confused about what happened; not only he could keep secrets.
We sat under my favorite tree, watching the park bustle as always during lunch break. The place was a shrine to many of us who lived around it, a place to come to escape, let go of your worries and just have peace. It was also a place for families to bond, couples to grow fonder and for love to grow, maybe that was why the animal on the fountain was lion. This big cat family was known for their togetherness and the strength of their pride, which resembled a family.
Mr. Fredrick sipped his coffee as he watched the scene with me, the kids shooting bubbles, the adults sitting together in pairs, watching their budding of joy run around with such freedom like the wind. Their happiness was not restrained and it would be a lie if I said I was not jealous of the freedom they had, it was contagious.
“I never had much of a childhood. My parents died when I was seven, the memory I had of them were few, but I knew they loved me,” Mr. Fredrick broke the silence, the impact of his words hitting me in the chest, they prickled. It was painful to see the man who was lovable have such a loss, it would push someone to be a better person.
“I am sorry, sir.”
“It is fine, son,” he said, “Watching those kids reminded me of my younger self.” He turned to me and beamed, he put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me into a side hug. “What’s up with you, Michael?” he asked after releasing me.
“Everything is good.”
“Yeah, I noticed. You’re looking good in those expensive clothes,” he said, arching his eyebrow. He was telling me he would not be fooled by act and he knew something was up. I felt I could tell Mr. Fredrick everything and he would understand, but did I really want to tell him. He would definitely discourage me from continuing and probably help me find a way to escape, but I enjoyed the privileges. The profit that came in was more and I knew it would increase the more I went into it, it was what I needed and I did not want to change my mind about this golden opportunity.
“I got them from a friend,” I lied.
“I see. How has Pablo been treating you?” he asked instead and I released the breath I have been holding. If Mr. Fredrick had asked more questions, I would not have be able to answer them.
“He has been nice to me. He got me an apartment when I had nowhere to go,” I said, praising my boss for all his good deeds, I told Mr. Fredrick about the late night drinking and other things we did whenever I was at his apartment.
“I pray you are happy, Michael. I have to go now,” he said as he stood up. He shook my hands, turned and left the park, turning around the corner and was gone.