Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Dark

The Dark Expanse - Novella 1

*About the book *

*Title Page *

*Chapter One *

*Chapter Two *

*Chapter Three *

*Chapter Four *

*Chapter Five *

*Chapter Six *

*Chapter Seven *

*Chapter Eight *

*Chapter Nine *

*Chapter Ten *

*Chapter Eleven *

*Chapter Twelve *

*Chapter Thirteen *

*Chapter Fourteen *

*Chapter Fifteen *

*Chapter Sixteen *

*Chapter Seventeen *

*Chapter Eighteen *

*Chapter Nineteen *

*Chapter Twenty *

[*Chapter Twenty-one *]

[*Chapter Twenty-two *]

[*Author’s Notes *]

  • *

  • *

*About the book *

Amidst the darkness of your slumber is where you’l find the

Colosseum, an astral battleground fil ed with children. Limited only by their imaginations, they can transform into the wildest of

creatures. Under the watchful gaze of the Overseer, they clash in

hopes of becoming one of its Elite.

Hidden deep inside the vast expanse, the Associates lie in wait. They are a faceless organization who decides which children enter the

Colosseum. This company conceals itself in the shadows, using the

youngsters to aid their agenda in the real world.

Max Carter begins to question his vocation in life. He knows this isn’t wise, considering his employers are the Associates. Not many people are aware of their existence, but they are woven into society. When Max receives a cryptic message, he learns that the company isn’t the only thing prowling the dark expanse.

Wesley Finton is chosen! Not by the Associates, but the sinister

figure who lurks at the edges of our sleep. Once inside the arena, Wesley discovers a strange power dwel ing within him, and a vile plot to exploit the children within its walls.

*Title Page *

*The Dark Expanse *

*Astral Clash Series *

*HENLEY GREY *

  • *

*Volume One *

  • *

  • *

  • *

  • *

  • *

  • *

*Digital Edition *

[*Copyright © 2017 Henley Grey *]

All rights reserved. This novel is a work of fiction. Names and [*characters are the product of the author’s imagination and any *]

*resemblance to actual persons, living or dead is entirely *

*coincidental. *

*Chapter One *

Larva oozed from the ruptures in the granite as it flowed over

the stone scales. The molten rock began to move. Clouds of ash

erupted from the joints as the gigantic dragon’s wings opened out and the beast released a thunderous roar. Flames filled the sky, the rock jaw snapping apart, as plumes of thick black smoke bellowed out. The beast’s huge talons contracted, digging deep into the Colosseum floor, its long tail whipped back and forth with ease. The eyes burned with rage, the intense orange and reds pumped around its body like a

human’s life blood.

Moving along the edges of the dragon’s reach, the figure

furiously whirled his sword, a green energy imbuing the blade. The katana crackled with each spin through the air. The ninjas normally dressed as civilians or all in black, although this manifestation had chosen the popularized white outfit. His eyes narrowed, he had no

admiration for the beast before him.

The dragon’s head lowered, ashy smoke pouring from its mouth

and nasal cavity as it prepared for the attack. The wing span almost reached either side of the arena, a formidable sight; a dangerous

opponent, a mythical monster. The energy peaked and the blade

became a blinding, shimmering blur of emerald sparks and waves. He leapt skywards and flung the katana in front of the colossal stone dragon. The sword sank six inches into the ground before streams of light speared outwards. Green pulsating beams wrapped themselves

around the rock, constricting the granite, and tightening its wrap upon the mythological beast.

The dragon became enveloped in emerald chains of power, its

legs, wings, tail, and neck all constricted by an alien force. The ninja moved in closer now. With a flick of his wrist he fired an array of multi-colored darts, every one as brilliant as the next. A trail of color

streaked in their wake as they impacted on the rock. Each one exploded as the creature roared in frustration. He raised the scabbard above his head and called upon a higher power, a source of energy

required to slay such a beast; a power he’d never needed until this moment.

The dragon drew in its wings, the larva spilling onto the arena

floor, vanishing in an instant. With an almighty heave, it screeched menacingly before shattering the binds and taking to the air with a ground trembling push. The updraft from the monster took the ninja by surprise. His concentration broke as easily as the beams of light.

Falling backwards, the scabbard slipped from his grip. His eyes

focused on the creature as it crashed to the floor. A wave of invisible might thrust against the shinobi; he felt his body being pushed across the amphitheatre.

Another roar followed, the power within the molten rock

released an ancient force, primal and devastating. A burning inferno of flame and granite erupted from its gaping mouth. Swirls of orange met with vibrant red surges as the Colosseum filled with wave upon wave of blistering heat. A ferocious field of blazing fire engulfed the shinobi as the dragon unleashed its rage.

*Chapter Two *

Music played somewhere behind him, the repetitive thumping

drilling into his head like an unrelenting jackhammer. Max climbed out of the car and looked down the road for its location. The road seemed empty; no cars and no people. Max shook his head, cursing

them under his breath. He crossed the road and entered the Greasy

Spoon café. It was as empty as the street outside; the middle aged waitress was the only staff on this early. Edward sat in the booth near the window, a piping hot mug of coffee in front of him as he perused the morning paper.

Max took his seat, opposite Edward like always, but something

was different. On the surface the facade was normal, yet beneath, he sensed a complication. Max waved to the waitress, ordering a coffee with his typical charm. “Milky coffee, two sugars please love,” he said.

She smiled back, acknowledging his order.

“The boy is stronger than we anticipated,” Edward began, his

eyes not leaving the article.

“Yes.” Max agreed. “I have it in hand though.”

He questioned his colleagues reassurance, “How so Maximus?”

“I have set a plan in motion, to slow his progress. Until we are

ready,” he explained.

The waitress placed the white mug in front of Max and with a

smile walked away. Edward had already paid for his coffee as usual.

No matter how early Max arrived, Edward was always here first,

reading his broadsheet.

“What have you pitted him against to hinder progression?” he enquired. His tone seemed intrigued but his eyes remained firmly on the paper.

Max snorted, “An Elite.” He wanted to laugh, but it was not the

place. “I have woven a bit of magic and the two of them will clash soon.”

“And if he wins?” Edward remarked.

“He won’t; he’ll lose,” Max said slightly angered. “He will lose

and then that will set him back long enough for us to ready

ourselves.”

“And if he wins Maximus?” he repeated.

“It’s Max, don’t call me Maximus,” he pointed at Edward. “Or

anything else that amuses you.”

His eyes left the page for the first time. They weren’t angry

eyes, or even dangerous; more mysterious. Something sinister

dwelled behind them. “I asked you a question,” his voice became

lower than before, his tone more intimidating. “What if the boy

wins?”

Max stopped pointing, wrapped his hands around his coffee and

shuffled uneasily in his seat. “I can’t see how he can. But if he does, then I have no idea,” Max relented.

“I see,” Edward looked back down at the article. “We will have

to hope you are indeed correct.”

“Nobody has ever defeated any Elite on their first attempt.”

“You forget who he is?”

“No,” Max assured him. “I’m aware who he is, but how would

he achieve that so fast?”

Even Max had noticed a sudden lack of conviction in his words.

The doubt grew like a fungus, every time he thought about the

situation he was less convinced of its success.

“You seem unsure, Maximus,” Edward smiled.

“Look, we need to slow him down. Do you have a better

suggestion?”

“It is not my place to suggest, I am merely here to convey the

Association’s concern.”

“Okay then, tell the Associates,” Max paused to compose

himself. “I have it in hand, the boy will lose his next battle, and everything will be back on track.”

“Very well, Maximus,” Edward replied, turning the page.

“Is that all?” Max asked.

“Yes unless you wish to go into detail.”

“No, I wouldn’t. I have knocked over a few dominos to get a

reaction,” he explained.

“Then, our business is concluded, Maximus,” he said folding up

his newspaper. “Enjoy your coffee.”

*Chapter Three *

Edward left the café. He buttoned up his black coat to the neck

and put his fedora on. Tucking the paper under his arm he made his way towards the city center on foot. The morning was cold, but there was no rain for a change. The sky looked clear and the sounds of the town coming to life crept from the streets. Max and Edward met

frequently, nothing as serious as this had come up since the formation of the Association. It weighed on Maximus he thought. Even in that brief conversation, Edward had seen his colleague go from confident, to flustered, to unsure.

He looked up and down the high street before crossing. Edward

lowered his head not to avoid the cold wind, but for the man he had just sat with. Maximus would not last. It was just a matter of time before the weight of the situation would crush him. It was a shame.

He had shown much promise, but like many things in life, it wasn’t to be.

The waitress picked up the full cup of coffee, which had turned

lukewarm. She gazed at Max, his charm was gone. He just sat,

looking out of the window, oblivious to her. “Penny for your

thoughts?” she asked.

Max turned and smiled. “Sweetheart, you can have them for

nothing.” He smiled and his charm simply returned, like switching on a light.

“Your friend, he never drinks his coffee,” she said. “Why does

he order it?”

“He’s a strange man. Most likely doesn’t like the idea of sitting

in here for free. But…” Max took a sip of his drink, “It’s a bloody good coffee,” he grinned, adding a playful wink.

“Thanks,” she replied, her face beaming as she made her way back to the counter.

Max turned his attention to the window once more, looking at

nothing in particular. He was just thinking, wondering if he had made the right decision. How could he be wrong? Nobody could be that

powerful so fast. It takes time and effort. Unless he had been

preparing for something he was unaware of all his life, he couldn’t defeat the manifestation Max had chosen. With another shake of his head he dismissed the notion completely and finished his beverage.

The street appeared busier, the music still blared out from

somewhere. But now it was a little less sharp. The everyday noise had dampened it slightly; it no longer pierced his head. He fastened his seatbelt, started the car, and pulled out. His orange Ford Focus zipped through a couple of amber lights, narrowly missing the reds before turning onto Mansfield Road. Traffic cameras prevented him from

continuing his normal style of driving. Keeping it at forty, Max still made very good time. He arrived at the hospital less than ten minutes later. It took ages to find a parking spot outside of the blue zone, where he needed to be.

The vast campus housed the hospital, several car parking

structures, and two more medical buildings specializing in different treatments. Max headed into the largest building, not through the

main entrance, but through a lower level. The hospital seemed

strangely empty, considering the lack of parking spaces outside. He weaved through plain cream corridor, after plain cream corridor, until he reached the elevators. Max waited, tapping his hand nervously on his leg. He was eventually joined by more people; two nurses heading to work.

The dark haired nurse was short and fat. Her blonde friend was

taller and much thinner. The contrast between the two caught Max’s eye and he couldn’t resist glancing over every now and again. Their

blue uniforms also contrasted; one hung loosely, the other pulled tight. The elevator doors opened and the three of them entered. Max pushed the floor he needed; the nurses selected the floor before his.

The elevator groaned as it made its way up through the levels.

Coming to a halt, it jerked suddenly before the doors slid open and the nurses left. Alone again, Max tapped his hand on his leg. He hated coming here. He had never enjoyed this, but it was part of the job.

He used the hand wash and waited at the door of the ward he

had visited every day for the past six weeks. It was opened by a

familiar face, a young Asian man Max knew as Fong. In his time

visiting he had seen a variety of different kinds of nursing staff. Not all of them were good, but Fong was a caring one.

“Hey Max,” he said cheerfully.

“What’s up, Fong?” Max replied stepping through into the busy

ward. It was the doctor’s rounds, so people seemed a little busier than they would later in the day when it calmed down. Max wiped the last of the hand sanitizer resin onto his jeans as he made his way toward the private rooms.

*Chapter Four *

Room seven’s door was closed, as were the shutters on the

window. Max opened it as normal and made his way inside. Every

day was the same, but it still shocked him on some level every time he came in. Thomas Kern was only eight years old, with light red hair and freckles. Strawberry blonde was how his mother described him.

Max had told her he was from the school, a teacher or some such

thing. She was far too distraught to pay that much attention, as other matters took precedence over confirming his story. The fact was Max wasn’t here to hurt the boy. He was here to monitor his progress and report back to Edward, who informed the Associates.

He took a plastic moulded chair from the corner of the room and

sat next to the young boy. All the tubes, breathing apparatus, and beeping noises were far less comforting than you would imagine.

They were there to help him, but to see his motionless body

surrounded by such things gave off little hope. Max took a book from his pocket; the paperback novel with worn edges had been with him a long time. He poured a glass of water from a bottle he had brought there with him days earlier and began to read. Nobody knew if people in comas could perceive the world, but Max did. Max knew perfectly well that Thomas could hear every word he said; his tone, the way he spoke, everything.

A few hours had passed. Max was half way into the novel when

Miss Kern entered the room. She was a young mother, only twenty

four. Sandra had given birth to Thomas right after leaving school.

Max closed the book and stood up as he greeted her like every other day, with a warm hug.

“Good morning Miss Kern,” Max said, squeezing her tightly.

“Sandra, how many times do I have to tell you?”

“Always once more,” Max smiled. He had recalled the line from a film.

“How’s my little fighter doing today?” Sandra said, kissing

Thomas’ head. Her short blonde hair nestled on the young boy’s brow as she whispered words of comfort to him.

“I’ll leave you two alone,” Max said attempting to make his

exit.

“No. Please stay?” Sandra asked.

“Are you sure?” Max said. He knew he would, just as he had the

last seven or eight times she had asked. They hadn’t spoken; she had just cuddled her boy as he read.

“Please.”

“I could start from the beginning if you like,” he said, showing

her the paperback.

“You don’t mind?” Sandra said settling herself next to Thomas.

“Of course not, I love this story.”

“I’ve never been much of a reader,” she admitted. “Actually, the

last week or so, I’ve heard more books than I have read,” she laughed.

“This book was given to me by my late granddad. He had read

this to me when I was very young. I loved it, just as I loved him.”

Max lowered his head, closing his eyes before adding, “God rest his soul.”

“That’s so sad and sweet,” Sandra said. She wanted to hug Max

now, but she was already snuggled in close to Thomas. Sandra kissed the boy’s head softly as Max began to read.

Sandra listened to the words and slipped away into the world the

book described. She hadn’t even paid attention to the nurses passing

through who were checking up on Thomas. She hung on every syllable, and prayed her son could hear the words and picture the

story as she did. Sandra squeezed him a little tighter and glanced at her watch. It was almost 2:00 p.m. She hadn’t eaten yet. Suddenly, her stomach reacted as if it too had seen the time.

“I think I need to get myself something to eat,” she declared, a

rumble punctuating the point.

“Would you like me to get you anything?” Max asked.

“No,” she said. “But would you come with me? I wanted to ask

you something.”

“Of course,” Max said, placing the book on the chair.

“See you in a few minutes sweetheart,” Sandra said, kissing her

son once more. “Love you!”

“Be back in a moment champ,” Max added, as he followed her.

*Chapter Five *

They walked to the cafeteria and not a single word was uttered,

which surprised Max. He had expected an outpouring of emotion by

now. He had been expecting it for a week or more. He’d inserted

himself into their lives; he had gradually gone from being a visitor to becoming a friend. Some of the nurses had even thought he was

Thomas’ father. Thomas’ dad was absent. He was only a young kid

himself like Sandra; only in his mid-twenties. But, he had run away from his responsibility.

The hospital cafeteria still appeared to be quite full from the

dinner rush. Max picked up a couple of sandwiches and two cups of

tea while Sandra found some seats. Tea wasn’t Max’s choice, but he chose the same as Sandra, as well as the cheese and onion sandwich.

He walked to the table at the far corner.

“Here we go,” he said, placing them down carefully.

“Thank you Max,” Sandra replied.

The room began to empty, the last of the afternoon rush

returning to work, leaving the two of them privately in the corner. The green and silver furnishings were on show along with the light wood edging. The colors looked elegant and inviting. Max supposed that’s what eateries went for.

“Why do you do this?” she asked Max outright.

“Do what?” Max asked innocently.

“Why are you here every day?” she said nibbling the corner of

her sandwich. “I mean, it has been almost two months, and every day you’re there when I arrive. No matter how early, you’re always there with a glass of water and your book.”

Max looked at her curiously. That’s how it felt to him with Edward when they met. “It’s complicated,” Max said. It wasn’t

though. He knew exactly what was coming and what to say. But he

needed her to pry it out of him. Max needed Sandra to feel as if they had shared a secret; then, and only then, would she share hers.

“How is it complicated? I just want to know,” she asked. “Is it

my boy or me?”

That was a surprise. Max hadn’t anticipated her being so bold.

This was good, getting straight to the point, “Hmmm.”

“Don’t ‘hmmm.’ Just tell me, why are you here?” She used a

demanding tone Max had never heard before.

“I was here because of your boy,” he lied softly, looking at the

table. “But I stayed because of you.” Max sounded genuinely sincere.

“Both of you.”

“That’s what I needed to hear,” Sandra said, placing her hand on

his. “You’ve been a rock. I swear, without you I would have broken weeks ago.”

Max was getting closer to where he needed to be. He could

sense the conversation turning in his direction. He just needed to lead Sandra into the right questions. “You’re stronger than you think.”

Max said. That wasn’t a lie. “When I heard about your boy at school, it reminded me of… Sorry, I mean, it reminded me of…” He

deliberately cut it short.

“Come on Sandra,” he thought, “pick up the ball. Pick it up and

run girl.”

“Reminded you of what?” She enquired.

“It doesn’t matter, honestly.”

“Please, Max, what did it remind you of?” she pressed.

“When I lost my brother, I was young, and it affected me more than I thought.” Max lied. He had a sister, and she was fine. She was living happily on the Australian coast. “I went to see Thomas to show support from the school, but when I saw him, all I could see was

Jared.” He continued his story. “It was selfish, but I hoped if I could be there for your son, the way I hadn’t been able to for my brother…”

again he deliberately trailed off.

“But now you’re staying for us?” she asked.

“God, yes,” he said sincerely. “After the first week I sensed a

connection.”

“I did too,” she gladly interrupted.

“You did?” he said. “Of course you did,” Max thought. “You

were made to think that.”

“Yes. It’s like I’ve known you my entire life Max,” she confided

in him.

“I feel the same way.” “Almost there now,” he silently said to

himself. He continued the conversation, “You’re not mad at me?”

“How could I be? You have been at my son’s side more than

anyone in my family. The way you read to him, keeping him and me

company.”

“Thank you for understanding,” he said. Okay, now the baits

been laid, let’s spring the trap. “I had a horrible dream the other night; I had told you all this, and then you hated me. It has been playing in my mind for a few days.”

Max’s answer came instantly. The color drained from her face,

leaving a pale white mask. The table fell silent as Max looked at her.

He needed to act surprised and he did it with consummate ease.

“Have I said something wrong?”

“No, it’s just that I’ve had a dream the last few nights,” she replied. “You saying that just reminded me of it.”

“What happened?” Max asked. His trap sprung perfectly, “In

your dream.”

Sandra paused and took a mouthful of tea. Swallowing, she

began, “I dream, I’m in the hospital. You’re there, reading as always.

I’m sitting with Thomas,” she paused. “Then a man comes in, dressed in black; black coat, black hat. He walks over and begins to pick up Thomas. I try to stop him but I can’t move for some reason. I scream, God do I scream, but no one hears me.” She quickly took another sip.

“You’re sitting right there, but you can’t hear me. You just carry on like nothing’s happening.”

Max’s expression changed swiftly from a look of surprise to one

of concern. “Then what happens?”

“He takes my boy out of the room. Then I can move, so I run to

the door, but no one’s there. I turn around and Thomas is back in the bed, but it’s not him. It looks like him, but it’s not him,” she stops for a second, “and every day I think when I walk through the door, my

boy’s going to be gone.” Sandra cried. Max quickly moved to her

side, his warm hug comforting the young woman.

Max held her while she wept. His mind however was not on the

crying Miss Kern, but on the fact that he had located the source. She was the one. She didn’t know it, but her son’s condition was her fault.

Now Max needed to find out about her family history. Maybe other

children in the family could be like Thomas.

*Chapter Six *

Max had not returned home until one in the morning; he had

stayed at the hospital all evening. Afterwards, he had taken Sandra to her place and spent the rest of the night talking and drinking bargain red wine from the local supermarket. Tired and ready for bed, he

opted for a taxi. The alcohol may have been cheap, but he was

intoxicated. He struggled up the steps to the house. Even inebriated, something felt wrong. Max stepped back and looked up at the house.

Nothing seemed out of place. The three stories of the Victorian built house sat sturdily halfway up the road. A row of tall trees, bare from the harsh weather, were perfectly pitched on either side of the house.

The bright red door with the brass knocker was still locked.

He pushed the key into the door and fell in, rather than walked.

The door closed behind him, and he turned on the light. The hallway was empty; everything seemed undisturbed. The staircase directly in front of him led up into the dark. A mirror to his left hung on the wall next to the coat rack. With a struggle, he pulled off his jacket and slung it at the hooks. It would lay crumpled on the floor until

tomorrow morning. He walked into the sitting room and flicked the

light on.

“Morning Maximus,” Edward said. He sat in the high back

chair, with his black coat still buttoned and a fedora on his head.

“What the hell are you doing here Edward?” Max blurted out.

The alcohol was suddenly giving him a confidence he had always

lacked around Edward’s kind.

“I moved up our meeting time. I see you have been…,” he

paused, “Enjoying yourself.”

“Oh yeah, listening to a woman prattle on about her woes is just

what a guy like me enjoys Ed,” he slurred at the man with contempt.

“May I remind you Maximus, your assignment is to infiltrate the whole family?”

“Look Ed, can I call you Ed? Never mind, I don’t really care.

Right, Ed.” Pausing, he thrashed about trying to remember the point he so badly wanted to convey. “Oh yes! My assignment, yes, well it’s all in hand.”

Edward took his hat off, placing it on the arm of the chair.

“She’s been dreaming again,” he said bluntly. “It is not how it should be.”

“What?” Max shrugged, slouching himself into the chair next to

the kitchen.

“Her dreams – they are…” he paused again. “Wrong.”

“Hold on, she told me about the dreams. They were exactly how

they should be. You were taking Thomas, and she was helpless.”

“Correct. As you say, they ‘were.’ Now they are not. You are

helping her.”

“Shut up!” Max shouted. “I haven’t even slept yet.”

“No you haven’t, but something you have said or done has given

her strength,” Edward explained.

“I’ve only done as I was instructed.”

“You’re intoxicated, belligerent, incompetent,” Edward stood

up. “You were not instructed to do those things.”

Max sat for a moment. He knew he was safe; they wouldn’t kill

him here like this. It would be too complicated. But even in the state he was in, he felt scared. “Tell me, how do I fix this?”

“We will meet again in the morning. When you are awake,”

Edward said. “We’ll discuss your plans to rectify the situation.”

“Will I wake up?” Max asked bluntly.

“As far as I know, the Associates have need of you,” he smiled,

as he put on his hat. “Until then, every day is a gift.”

“Thank you Edward,” he said.

“Maximus, it is not me you should thank.” Edward walked past

him, the big red door clicked shut, and Max finally fell asleep.

Dishevelled hair and the appearance of red, baggy eyes greeted

Max in the mirror. Still slightly drunk, he splashed water onto his face. Four hours of sleep had not helped him. In fact, he felt worse than ever. He was meeting Edward in less than an hour, and the

feeling of dread far outweighed the sensation of sickness. He stared at his watch; he didn’t even have time to get changed. Quickly he raced out the door and into the street. No car! He’d have to use the tram, but even then he might not make it in time.

Max’s jog gradually turned into a sprint as he navigated his way

through the streets and alleys. No one was around this early, apart from a few paper boys and a milk float, none of which paid any

attention to his absurd staggering run. Once he was onboard the tram, Max slumped himself down in the chair as the bell rang and the doors closed. He paid for a return ticket and clutched the receipt as he gasped, trying to catch his breath. The public transport was fast.

During rush hour, it was packed and uncomfortable, but when it was empty like this, it was a pleasure to ride. The tram moved along the tracks and everyone except emergency services gave way. Max knew

he would have at least two or three more streets to get through after he reached his stop. He’d never been late. The Associates didn’t take kindly to tardiness and after last night, Max wasn’t ashamed to say he was terrified.

The next stop was the Boulevard; Max set off like a greyhound out of the traps as the tram doors slid open. He darted across the empty street and zigzagged through Cedar Road, and then Alberta

Terrace. Max could see the café in the distance. Looking at his watch, he was six minutes early. He slowed his sprint to a brisk walk as he tried to compose himself. Max had stopped panting as he walked

through the doors. He froze for a moment; the booth by the window

was empty. No coffee, no paper, no Edward.

*Chapter Seven *

Was he late? He looked at his watch. No, that wasn’t it. He was

still ahead of schedule. During his drunken stupor had Edward

changed the time? And had he forgotten?

“Morning,” the waitress said.

“M-morning,” Max replied. “Has my friend been in?”

“Not today. He might be running behind,” she cheerfully

replied. “Coffee?”

“Please,” he said, taking his usual seat.

“Terrible news about that kid,” she said, placing the coffee

down on the table.

“What kid?” Max asked. There was an air of urgency in his

tone.

“Some bastard stole a critically ill child from the hospital last

night.”

“Jesus Christ,” Max said. They’d taken him; that wasn’t the

plan, he hadn’t investigated the family.

“I know they want to find a teacher for questioning. What’s the

world coming to? A bloody teacher,” she remarked.

“Sorry, did you say a teacher?”

“That’s what they said on the radio.”

Max sobered up almost instantly. Everything was as clear and

pristine as a freshly cut and polished diamond. It was a trap, but not for her – for him. They had planned to snare him all along.

“I have to go,” Max said, dropping some loose change out of his pocket onto the table.

“You haven’t touched your coffee,” she called after him as he

rushed back outside.

The sound of sirens coming closer sobered him up more. They

weren’t fire engines or ambulances. They were the police, and they were coming for him. Why had the Associates set him up? This was

setting a precedent he could have never foreseen. Max took off down the street, ducking into an alley between two houses. He had grown up around here, so he knew a fence separated him from the next street along. Rushing beyond the gardens, he dived between the broken

panels and into the adjoining street.

Max had managed, in five minutes, to clear seven streets and

had taken refuge in a park, using the bushes as cover. Sitting under the green foliage, he tried to understand what had happened. The

assignment was to get into Sandra Kern’s life, find out who had

passed the ability on to the boy, and then intensify the search into her family if it came from the mother’s side.

“Christ, Edward! What did I do? Why do this?” he asked

himself, pulling his knees up to his chest. “Okay, let’s do this,” Max said squeezing his eyes shut.

The building was tall, about seventy levels high. There was no

name, just the huge plain silver and glass structure surrounded by a dark expanse. Max stood outside the revolving doors. They continued to spin even though no one was walking through them. He didn’t

know what he was expecting; he wasn’t sure about anything anymore.

Through the glass he could see a familiar coat and fedora. Edward

was making his way towards him. Moving through the doors, he

greeted Max with a nod.

“Edward, why have you done this!” Max shouted.

“Maximus, I had nothing to do with it. This comes from…” He

gestured upwards with his eyes.

“Why did you take the boy?” he asked. “I hadn’t even checked

his family tree.”

“Last night, another was found,” he explained. “Far more

powerful and of a matured age.”

“How is that possible?”

“Sorry Maximus, the child needed to be taken. We have neither

the assets nor the time to deal with two situations.”

“But why set me up?” Max asked.

“Smarter people have made the decisions.”

Max threw his arms into the air, his face flustered and filled

with restraint. He wanted to lose his cool; charge into the Associates and tell them what he thought, but there would be no way back.

“What do I do?” he asked. “What is my assignment Edward?”

“You’re a free agent Maximus. Choose to run, or turn yourself

in,” Edward explained. “But if you ever try to tell anyone about the Associates you will be dealt with swiftly.”

“Why don’t they just kill me?”

“They haven’t said why,” Edward said, moving closer to Max.

“Maximus, if they wanted you dead, you would be. The fact that

you’re still here strengthens my belief that you still have a place here.” He whispered, “Just not now. I have seen many things

Maximus; believe me when I say your time is not up.” Edward smiled as he stepped back. “Take care Max,” he said, holding out his hand.

With a firm shake, Max vanished.

The park was still empty when he opened his eyes; it was too

early for kids to be playing, and too late for drunks to get forty winks on the benches. Coming out from under the bush, he took a moment

to think. What do they know? They knew where he’d be, but were

they aware of where he lived? It wouldn’t be long before a CCTV

image was released to the press. Max decided to run, so he needed to be fast. He needed clothes and money. He sprinted towards the tram stop and prayed that the police wouldn’t be swarming around the

Victorian house when he returned home.

The journey back was a little busier. Max found himself next to

a young kid, probably fourteen to sixteen years old. It was so hard to tell just how old youngsters were today. They dressed like adults and acted like adults, but few were really mature. This boy however was dressed as Superman from the DC comic books. Max glanced

sideways at him, his face staring directly into the screen of his mobile phone. He hoped it was for a fancy dress party, or for a worthy

charity, and not a fashion statement.

Max had subconsciously flicked the collars up on his shirt,

trying to be inconspicuous. He didn’t know if his picture from the hospital security cameras were circulating. He had actually made

himself look a little shifty. Luckily for him, a good proportion of society looked that way nowadays.

His road was quiet, just as it had been a few hours ago. The cold

was seeping into his core. The adrenaline from earlier had passed, and the effects of the night before, combined with the morning weather, took their toll on him. Max thought seeing a police car would give him another sudden burst of adrenaline, but he didn’t want that.

Nervously looking up and down the street, he searched for anything suspicious. Only a few steps away from his gate he paused, doing one more quick sweep of the street before dashing up the steps. His front

door key had been in his hand since he was on the tram, ready and waiting. He pushed it into the Yale lock and twisted it before forcing the door open with his shoulder and entering.

The hallway was not swarming with police. He thanked God

under his breath. Everything seemed as it had been when he left, his winter coat crumpled up on the floor under the mirror. The stairs led up into the daylight. He needed to grab some clothes he thought,

mounting the steps two at a time. He glanced to his right into the living room and froze.

It wasn’t the police or Edward with another surprise visit, but

there it was – on the cushion of the high back chair. It was exactly where Edward had been sitting in the early hours of the morning. A paper – a plain, folded newspaper. Max’s gaze never faltered as he moved backwards and walked over towards the chair. He reached out

and collected up the paper. It was The Guardian, and the page was

open to the puzzle section. Max had never seen Edward do a

crossword puzzle. He asked himself, was this a clue? Or was it just lack of sleep, alcohol, and fear playing tricks on him? He lowered himself into the chair and read the page. He didn’t know why; surely he should be rushing to get his things and leaving.

“Two across,” he said out loud to himself. “Take.”

“Six down.” His voice sounded cracked, “Nothing,” Max shook

his head; they were incorrect. The answers were all wrong. Some of the words didn’t even fill the blocks available. He took a moment and focused on the words, his eyes scanning over the crossword. A red

pen had been used to mark only certain ones that were incorrect. Max read them out loud, hoping he wasn’t going mad. “Take… nothing…

leave… now,” he read aloud. “Meet… at… Portman… Road,” he

continued, sounding like he was reading a telegram. “This can’t be my imagination,” he convinced himself. He looked at the puzzle

again, and saw question thirteen circled as opposed to crossed out.

Max grinned, “They aren’t done with me,” he sighed in relief.

“Take nothing, leave now and meet at thirteen Portman Road.

Edward, you clever bastard,” he declared, rolling up the paper and heading out. He paused at the door, looking at his coat on the floor.

“Screw it, it’s too cold, I’m taking you.” He put on the coat and

headed outside into the street.

All the way to his destination, Max wondered what awaited him.

Was it a new assignment? Maybe it was Thomas? It wouldn’t be the

police, or death, he was certain about that. They’d have been at his house, lying in wait. His mind shifted to Sandra. She must have been going out of her mind. He imagined her cursing him, hating him. Max never wanted to hurt her. He wanted the transition to be less horrific.

The street was hidden on both sides by huge overhanging trees.

Even with bare branches, there were enough of them to block the

view easily. This gave Max some comfort as he made his way down

the gravelled road. Tall weather-worn walls hid the houses from eye level; each entrance had a thick wooden gate, also ravaged by time.

The wood was all cracked and stained, the edges splintered and

discolored. Max stopped mid-stride, his eyes widened as he reached his destination. On the fence in red paint was the number thirteen. He smiled to himself as he peered inside.

*Chapter Eight *

A large well-kept house stood about twenty feet from the gate

entry. Concrete slabs covered the entire area; Max stepped in and

closed the gate behind him. He looked around, but saw no one; it was quiet. Not even the sound of traffic from the main road broke through the dense tree line.

“Hello?” Max said, almost silently to himself. He made his way

across the garden and nervously edged up the three steps to the

entrance. The door was white, with a brass letter box and a small glass window. Max looked through, but the warped nature of the glass

made it impossible to make out any shapes inside.

“Do I knock, or just go in?” he quizzed himself. “Well they

must be expecting you Max,” he replied out loud.

The door was unlocked. The release mechanism popped as he

turned the handle and moved inside. It was warm, much warmer than

outside. The house was empty, not just of furniture, but carpets,

wallpaper, everything. The smell of freshly painted wood hit him. The strong aroma made him wince as he entered the first room. It was the lounge, and it was not empty.

A brand new bed was awaiting him, still wrapped in plastic, an

arm chair, two big cardboard boxes, and a chest of drawers. They all sat neatly in the center of the white room; a beige carpet had been laid in here, but nowhere else.

On the chair sat an envelope made of red card weight paper.

Max pondered whether he should open it or just leave. His curiosity got the better of him and he decided to open it. With a swift tear, he emptied the contents onto the chair. Max reeled in surprise as a silver necklace and a piece of paper fell out. He opened the note which

simply read:

We need to talk.

“Who did?” Max thought looking at the design. He memorized

the symbol on the necklace. He didn’t know where it came from, but it was like the one he had worn for the last six years. He opened his jacket and removed the chain from around his neck. Even after

everything that had happened today, this jewelry still held value to him; it felt safe. He put the new one on, and uncertainty overwhelmed him. Where would this emblem take him? He perched himself on the

edge of the new bed, the plastic cover crumpling under his weight.

Max closed his eyes and made the transition.

Surrounded once again by the dark expanse, Max felt strange. It

looked the same as any darkness, but something lurked in the

shadows. He turned around on the spot and saw no buildings, no

structures at all, just the expanse.

“Welcome,” a voice said from inside the void. It was stern and

powerful, not inviting.

“Where am I? Who are you?”

“You have been chosen, Max Carter!” the voice declared.

Max asked, “Chosen for what? Where are you?”

“Here,” the voice replied again, this time not surrounding him.

Max looked at the shadowy form. The expanse had manifested.

“Who are you?”

“A friend,” it replied.

“Why do I doubt you?”

“Max Carter, you have been cast out of your order. I have

chosen you. I have given you your life.”

“Why was I cast out?” Max asked angrily, “What did I do?”

“You showed weakness,” the voice answered immediately.

“Why do you want me then?” Max posed the question.

“I see you Max. I see you for what you can become, not what

you are.”

“Where are we?” he asked, looking around, “I’ve never seen this

expanse before.”

“This is your home. You’re safe here. Nobody will harm you,

nobody can find you as you slumber now Max.”

“What about you?” he replied.

“I have work for you. Important work if you want it,” it offered.

The form swayed like a smoky shadow. Parts were breaking away

before reforming moments later.

Max took a second to weigh things in his mind. He had few

options, but this voice, this thing, could provide him safety. How could he refuse? What was he left with? “What work?” Max finally

asked.

“It is an assignment, as always,” the voice explained. “I will

protect you from the Associates, and when the time is right, you shall return…” The voice raised in volume, “A new man!”

“They will take me back?”

“No,” it replied bluntly. “You will be one of them.”

Max gasped, “An Associate?!”

“Yes, whatever is left of them,” the voice told him.

Max couldn’t see its face, the expanse hid it from him, but he knew it was smiling, maybe even laughing. “You’re going to take

over the Associates?”

“Yes,” it answered matter-of-factly.

“You’re one of them aren’t you?” Max asked. “You must be, to

be this powerful.”

The voice fell silent. Max heard the howling wind from the

expanse in the distance. The form continued to whirl like a smoky

vapor. “There are more things in the expanse. Darker, more powerful things than the Associates,” the voice finally answered. “Don’t be afraid Max, you have been chosen.”

“I’m not afraid.” Max replied honestly. A sensation of safety

washed over him.

“Good.”

“What is my assignment?” Max requested.

“All in good time,” the form evaporated into the dark, leaving

Max alone.

Max flopped back onto the bed and opened his eyes. With a

huge sigh of relief he laughed. What had just happened? He’d been

chosen by something more powerful than the Associates? How had it

used Edward to pass along a message? There were too many

questions and Max was too tired. He needed to sleep. At least he

knew his slumber would be safe – for now.

*Chapter Nine *

The blue and silver birthday paper tore easily as it was stripped

away piece by piece. Wesley, faced with his own reflection, cocked his head to one side and squinted at his mirror image. An unruly mop of blonde hair, jeans, and a top with the comical phrase, ‘I’m with stupid,’ did the birthday boy little justice. Wesley smiled and looked at his mom, “You got me this year. I had no idea it was going to be a mirror.”

“Well your dad got you what you wanted,” Holly said, the edges

of her mouth curling slightly. “So I thought I’d get you something you might actually need,” the slight curl now forming a full smile.

“It’s great mom, thanks,” Wesley said, giving her a kiss on the

cheek.

The mirror stood over six feet tall. Made from dark mahogany

wood, with a perfectly exquisite hand crafted design which adorned the outer edging, everything culminated at the pinnacle of the piece with a single symbol. Too busy admiring his own reflection to notice, Wesley was joined by his uncle and his dad. The well-dressed man

was Chad, Wes’ uncle. He was wearing a tailored royal blue suit, a starched white shirt, silk tie, and chunky gold cufflinks. Chad Finton was dressed for success, unlike his brother who, like Wesley, wore jeans and a T-shirt.

“That’s a creation of sheer beauty!” Chad exclaimed, adjusting

his tie in the mirror.

“That it is,” his dad agreed, puffing his chest out.

Chad looked at Joe trying to suck in the gut he’d spent the last

ten years cultivating. With a laugh he jabbed at him, “You’ll pass out before that goes Joe.”

“Shut up! It’s all paid for,” he retorted with a degree of pride.

“Tell you what, Wes.” Chad threw an arm around the young

man. “There’s hope for you. I’ll get you an appointment with my

guy.”

Enthusiasm filled his voice. “The suit guy?!”

“Of course,” he winked.

“Sweet,” Wesley said turning to his dad. “Did you hear that?”

“Yeah, every man needs a suit son, isn’t that right Holly?” Joe

said.

Holly continued to smile. “A man looks good in two things; an

expensive suit and…” She was interrupted.

“A coffin,” Chad jokingly added with a devilish grin.

Holly laughed. With a shake of her head she made her way into

the kitchen, closely followed by the trio of Finton men. Chad and Joe were still exchanging childish insults with each other. The buffet was huge; the three of them paused in the doorway to marvel at its

magnificence. Holly knew it was excessive, but her motto was, ‘Too much is better than not enough.’

Pork pies, scotch eggs, and sausage roll segments filled several

silver trays. Sandwiches with ham, and salad filled another. Bowls of crisps and dips were strategically placed around the table, so no one would struggle to reach them. Then there were sweets, trifles, and the big one, a lavish blue and white marzipan sponge cake which sat

center table, Happy Sixteenth Birthday was written in the middle,

with the traditional sixteen candles.

“Now that’s a nice looking spread Holly,” Chad said first.

“Looks great love,” Dad continued.

“Thanks mom, it’s awesome,” Wesley said, concluding the praise.

“Sit down then, come on,” Holly urged as she placed the plates

around the table. “What time’s Luke getting here?” The doorbell rang before he had a chance to answer. “Never mind,” she said.

“I’ll get it,” Wesley replied, rushing to the door.

*Chapter Ten *

More like brothers than friends, Luke and Wesley had been

inseparable since they were eight years old. The two of them had

grown up together, sharing everything; good times and bad. The good outweighed the bad by a huge percentage. Luke nodded as the door

opened. “Happy birthday leg-end,” he jabbed humorously at him.

“Thanks mate,” Wes replied.

Luke’s eyes bulged at the sight of the feast. “Whoa, this is

amazing!” he said in astonishment.

“Thank you Luke. Sit down,” Holly said warmly.

“Hi, Mr. Finton,” he said, sitting down. “And hi Mr. Finton,” he

added, turning to Chad.

“He’s Mr. Finton. I’m just Chad,” he corrected him.

With a deep breath, Wesley blew all sixteen candles out in one

puff. Wesley accepted the mandatory applause for a moment before

making a wish and cutting the cake.

“What did you wish for?” his dad asked.

“He’s not allowed to say Joe, you know the rules,” Chad

reminded him.

Wesley smiled sheepishly as he handed his mom a slice of cake.

“I couldn’t tell you even if I wanted to.”

“Secrets, secrets, secrets,” Chad laughed edging forward to get

the next piece, which Wesley duly passed to him.

The talk around the table was mostly about Wesley’s previous

year. He had excelled in all his classes and was on course for getting top grades in his exams. The topic of conversation didn’t interest

Wesley or Luke, having lived the year. Later, the five of them laughed at Chad’s stories; his latest exploits in faraway lands.

“So what’s Russia really like then?” Holly asked.

“It’s a fantastic place. St. Petersburg is filled with magic,” Chad said full of wonderment.

“How long were you there?” Joe asked.

“Three weeks this time,” Chad said, finishing the remnants of a

sausage roll segment.

Chad Finton spent most his time working abroad. Luke and

Wesley often wondered what exactly he did. He always avoided the

question, or answered cryptically. Luke had jokingly said he was a spy, like James Bond or Jason Bourne, only better dressed.

“I’m off to Taiwan next week,” Chad continued, washing the

sausage roll down with a mouthful of water.

“What’s in Taiwan?” Luke asked inquisitively.

“I’m working on a deal for some property over there; nothing

too interesting,” he said vaguely. “So what did your dad get you?”

Chad said changing the subject.

“A new game,” he replied.

“It’s got some mad ratings in the magazines,” Luke chimed in.

“Do you have it as well?” Chad asked.

“No, not yet,” Luke said, with disappointment apparent in his

tone.

Even though they were all full, the five of them managed to find

room for more cake. Wesley and Luke moved into the living room,

leaving the others in the kitchen. As Holly was starting to clear away

the table, Chad and Joe leaned back in their chairs in an attempt to ease their stomachs.

“Can I ask?” Chad began. “Why wasn’t Wes a bit more pleased

with his present?”

“He’s sixteen. He can’t appreciate a mirror like that,” Holly

replied.

“No, not the mirror,” he explained. “The game. He didn’t seem

that happy.”

Joe sat forward, “It’s because Luke hasn’t gotten it yet.”

“Oh, right.”

“He has a brother and sister. Money is tighter you know,” Holly

explained.

*Chapter Eleven *

Luke checked out the screen shots on the back. “Damn, it looks

brilliant.”

“Yeah,” Wes said indifferently.

Luke knew straight away why his friend was less than pleased.

“Don’t worry bro. You can get some practice in before I get it,” Luke reassured him. “Then I can own you!”

“Like that’ll make any difference,” Wes laughed.

Uncle Chad strolled into the lounge, his hands firmly in his

trouser pockets, and a genuinely curious look on his face. “So is that the game?” Chad asked, gesturing with a nod.

“Yeah, it’s sweet. Check it out,” Luke said, passing the case

over to him.

“Looks good,” he replied, glancing at the cover. “Wes, give me

and Luke a minute please.”

They exchanged uneasy glances before Wesley stepped out,

leaving the two alone.

“What’s up Mr. Finton?”

“I told you, call me Chad. You’re like family after all,” he said

perching himself on the arm of the chair.

“Sorry, Chad.”

“I noticed Wes wasn’t too overly excited about his present.”

“That’s because I haven’t gotten it yet,” he said before admitting,

“It’ll be awhile before I can get it.”

“Tell you what,” he began. “We don’t want Wes having an unfair advantage. That wouldn’t be right.” He reached into his pocket producing a gold clip holding more money than Luke had ever seen at one time. He peeled off a few notes and offered them to Luke, “Get yourself the game.”

“Holy cow!” Luke exclaimed at the wad of cash. “I can’t take it,

sorry. My dad would go mad.”

“Why?” Chad asked in surprise.

“It’s too much; he’d think I’d nicked it.”

With a little laugh, he grinned. “That’s easily remedied.”

Luke stared at him confused, “How?”

“Well,” Chad’s grin became mischievous.

Luke had thought he looked quite devilish. A couple of red

horns and a pitch fork and he would be set.

“You take the money, buy the game, and throw away the

receipt. If your dad asks where you got it, you tell him I loaned it to you while I’m away working. If he doesn’t believe you, you get my

number off Wes, I’ll confirm the story, and everyone’s happy. Then in a couple of weeks your dad’s forgotten all about it and you can trade it in for something else.”

Luke’s eyes squinted as he began to go through what Chad had

just said. “Man, that would work,” he confirmed cheerfully.

“Of course it will,” Chad said pushing the cash into the

youngster’s hand.

“You’re a legend, seriously.”

“A serious legend,” Chad looked thoughtfully for a moment. “I

like that.”

“Thanks!”

Luke darted enthusiastically into the kitchen, no doubt to tell

Wesley, Chad thought. He put his money away as Joe joined him.

“Couldn’t help yourself, could you?” Joe smiled.

“You know me.”

“That I do, I knew as soon as you asked about the game.”

“Come on, you remember what it was like with us. Mom

couldn’t get us anything unless we both had it. And Luke, he’s like family.”

“I know, I was going to buy him a copy, but his dad’s a proud

man,” Joe said taking a seat. “He’d see it as charity.”

“That’s fair enough, but I work around that stuff for a living,”

Chad laughed. “I told him if his dad asks, say I loaned it him.”

“Jesus Chad, you got him to lie?”

Chad’s laughter turned into a belly laugh, “A teenage kid lying

to his dad? I think that was probably already happening before that game came out.”

“You’re a bad, bad man,” Joe said, throwing his hands up in

disapproval of his brother’s methods.

The small gathering had been a complete success. Everyone had

eaten their fill, and then some. The leftovers were wrapped and put away; they would easily serve as snacks over the weekend. Luke left after thanking them for their hospitality and made his way to the local supermarket to buy his game. Chad and Joe were talking in the living room while Holly helped her son into the bedroom with the mirror.

Wesley had taken hold of the bottom and Holly was guiding it

through the door before they lowered it down with a bump. The pair stepped back and looked at themselves in the glass.

“You really like it?” she asked.

“It’s unusual,” Wes admitted. “But it’s very, me,” he confirmed

honestly.

“I’m pleased that you like it. I’ll let you get on with your

shooting game.”

“It’s a first person shooter, mom,” he corrected her.

“I’m sure it is,” Holly laughed, as she left his room.

*Chapter Twelve *

It was almost ten before Wesley embarked on a snack raid. His

stomach had recovered from the earlier bout with the birthday buffet and it was clearly ready for round two. Ducking his head into the

fridge he filled a plate with a couple of sausage rolls, scotch eggs, and three quarter-cut sandwiches. Wesley paused as he debated with his gut if it was up for another piece of cake. The buffet scored a

psychological win as Wes shook his head. It didn’t matter, the only wins Wesley was interested in were the ones on his console against Luke, but sadly they were nonexistent. The pair had battled on every type of game; sports, fighting, you name it, and Luke had bested him on them all. Wesley didn’t mind. Well, not that much anyway.

“How’s the game going Wes?” Chad asked.

“I’m getting owned,” Wesley happily told him.

“He’s that good?”

“He’s a monster!”

Holly sat with a drink and a magazine. Finally enjoying her

well-deserved break, looking relaxed, she smiled at Wesley as he

made his way back up to his room.

“Go get him son!” his dad called out to Wes positively.

“Well,” Chad said getting to his feet. “I’m calling it a night.

Holly, the food was, as always, perfection. Joe,” he turned to his brother, “you’re a lucky sod.”

“I know, I know.” Joe replied with a huge grin on his face.

“Thanks for coming Chad,” Holly said, the pair walking him to

the door.

“See you soon brother.”

“That you will,” Chad said with a wave.

Joe gave Holly a peck on her cheek before hugging her. “I am a

lucky man,” he confirmed.

“Yes, you are. And don’t you forget it,” Holly jokingly declared

as the two of them switched out the lights, and made their way up to bed.

Holly tapped on Wesley’s door, before popping her head in,

“Don’t stay up too long now, you have school tomorrow,” she

informed him.

“I’m just getting finished up now,” Wesley said.

“Night then. Happy birthday sweetheart,” Holly said, closing the

door shut.

The bedroom was a typical teenager’s room. A mishmash of

posters from bands and movies, to scantily clad girls and video game vixens adorned the walls. The unruly shrine of clothes in the corner were usually scattered about the room, but Wesley had the foresight to tuck them out of view before his mother came in. Even Wes’ desk was a mess; the black glass with silver trim was covered in comic

books, school folders, and sketch pads.

Already yawning, Wesley said his goodbyes to Luke and made

his way to bed. He sat on the edge and kicked off his sneakers, threw his T-shirt and jeans onto his shrine, and then glanced at the huge mirror. He couldn’t escape the unnerving sense it gave off as he closed his eyes and settled in.

*Chapter Thirteen *

It was cold. Reaching out for the quilt, Wesley tried in vain to

find it. His hand thrashed around trying to locate the cover. He was on the cusp of waking and didn’t want to disrupt his sleep anymore. He knew if he opened his eyes that would be it. He could hear noises; a howling wind. Not convinced he wasn’t still partially asleep, Wesley suddenly felt alarmed.

Something was wrong. Although he was on the border between

slumber and being cognisant, it wasn’t like a dream. The sensation, the noise, it seemed real. Wesley knew he had to open his eyes, but he was too scared. He had to force himself to do what he feared.

It was a darkness like no other. At first he thought maybe his

eyes needed time to adjust, but it wasn’t that. Wesley was now wide awake. He climbed to his feet and just stood there motionless. The odd shiver shuddered through him as a howling wind, seemingly from the distance, echoed. In the midst of the bleak chasm, Wesley looked around without moving. His eyes tried to find some light or at least an end to the darkness. The sensation of uncertainty was strong, but it was gradually being replaced by an overwhelming sense of dread. He wanted to scream, but who would hear him? He considered running,

but to where? Too afraid to move, or speak, Wesley remained still.

The expanse that had swallowed him up was not a dream or a

nightmare. It was real, and that scared him beyond anything he had ever encountered before.

The echo of cheering rippled through the desolate blackness,

like a wave of water rolling towards him. It was as if the sound was picking up momentum before it crashed against his ears like rocks on a shoreline. Out of nowhere, something appeared. It was an enormous structure in the midst of the nothingness, shocking him for a split second. Wesley moved forward. One step, after the other, each one

filled him with confidence. No longer scared, Wesley could see the building clearly now. Gigantic columns and massive pillars of rock formed an unyielding colosseum in the abyss’ darkness.

Another cheer erupted from within the rock walls as more

details came into focus. So close now, every crack and chip in the dry sandstone was visible. The color and magnificence of the structure was vivid and vibrant. “It could only be a dream,” he thought. A huge doorway stood atop of the stone staircase which reached from out of the blackness.

Another sensation ran through Wesley – excitement. He was

actually excited. It was obviously a dream; a wondrous, exhilarating dream. Wesley felt stupid for being so scared only moments ago, but now, seeing the colosseum and hearing the cheers, what else could it be but a dream?

A giant figure stood motionless at the foot of the steps. So

consumed with the building, Wesley had not even noticed him. Dark

blue robes covered his muscular physique. A red rope hung around

the doorman’s waist. With a hood covering his face, only pale white hands could be seen. A moment of uncertainty passed over him. It

wasn’t fear, Wesley was confident of that, but he didn’t know what to do next.

“Contender,” its voice was deep and emotionless, “Or

observer?”

“What?” Wesley questioned without thought.

“Do you fight or do you watch?” The cadence in the voice was

unwavering.

“Watch,” he replied.

A door in the sandstone began to rumble open as he raised his

arm. “Enjoy!”

Passing him, Wesley’s uncertainty swiftly vanished. “Thanks,”

he said casually ascending the steps. The sensation of sand under his bare feet felt real. But strangely, it was not uncomfortable. His jaw dropped as he stepped through the doorway into the belly of the

colosseum.

The atmosphere was thick and heavy. A wave of heat hit him

just as that immense sound had. A deafening cheer erupted again from the crowd of people that lined the tiers. His view was blocked from where he stood, so he pushed his way through the masses. The smell of perspiration and the unexpected sense of clamminess from the

bodies were so tangible and real. Wesley forced his way between

them. Reaching the edge of the tier, he looked out over the colosseum floor. It was three times bigger than a soccer field, and covered in soft golden sand. The arena was made for battle, and the multitude of

hyperactive spectators had come to see just that. Wesley waited with eager expectancy at what would appear in the amphitheater below.

Directly opposite Wesley, on the other side of the Colosseum,

was a section that stood out as different from the rest. The Tuscan and Ionic columns that made up the theater were not used in this particular area. He could clearly see that they were different. The rounded

Corinthian stone had mosaics depicting images Wesley had never

seen before; symbols and writings that, strangely, he expected to be Roman, but was not. The fact that the colosseum seemed similar to a Hollywood re-creation of that period, he had just assumed it would be the same styling, but he wasn’t sure why.

Between the Corinthian pillars, cut off from the rest of the

enthralled crowd like a private box, sat shadows. They were not

shadows in the general sense; they were covered, and he couldn’t

make them out. They were actual shadows! They seemed to have

been crafted from the very darkness beyond these walls. They formed figures; seven in all. Six of them sat in a line in front of the seventh -

he sat alone. He was sitting, not on a throne, but on the hard rock seats that everyone else used. Though it was obvious he, she, or even

“it” was the main player here. He was some kind of Emperor or

Overseer, and for that reason, he appeared darker than the other

shadows. It was deeper, and more menacing, but Wesley didn’t know

how he saw that. Like the expanse outside, he knew that it was no

ordinary darkness, but he couldn’t explain how.

Falling silent as the shadow took to its feet, the audience waited for something. It was only now that Wesley had actually taken notice of them. He’d barged his way through to see the arena, noticing the sweat, heat, and noise, but failing to see their faces. They were all children, every one of them. The ages varied; some older than Wes, but the majority were younger. He couldn’t see any adults. All the kids were unaccompanied, and for a moment, he had worried for their safety, but it was merely a dream. A magnificent dream, no doubt,

brought on by the late night food raid. They always said cheese gave you nightmares. “What the hell had that cake done?” he thought.

Suddenly a voice boomed out. It did not echo through the

columns of stone or fill the air like an explosion of light. It exploded directly inside Wesley’s mind. “Intense!” he thought. It was like

wearing headphones; the voice appeared to speak only to him. But

why wouldn’t it? The dream was his. Everyone else, he’d just passed in the street. Although, even Wesley wondered if he had ever seen

this many people, but the mind was an incredible thing.

“It is time for the event!” the voice announced. “The contender

has reached the required echelon to challenge.”

This was interesting, Wesley thought. A nervous anticipation

now coursed through him as he stood on tip toes to get a better view.

“Enter the contender!” The voice declared drawing out the last

word.

A cheer of support erupted from the crowd as Wesley made out a figure at the far end of the colosseum. Dressed all in white, he drew a sword and began to limber up; kicking, swinging, and slicing at the air. Wesley assumed this was the contender as he looked to the other end.

“And now,” the Overseer announced, “the Champion!”

Wesley’s eye caught the line of shadows as one of them leapt

into the sky. Its form suddenly evaporating into the ether before a mammoth swirl of black smoke appeared at the far end. Like a

whirlwind, it spun furiously, increasing in size and speed. A roar from within the swirling blackness erupted, and the assembled cheers of the people unexpectedly rose to a level that made Wesley grimace. As the whirling began to slow, the formation of the creature was complete.

“Oh my God!” Wesley exclaimed. His shock and excitement

melded together to form the expression which was frozen onto his

face. It was an enormous dragon made of rock. Black stone formed

the beast; a thick larva ran between the cracks of its body. Molten magma spewed from its mouth like a waterfall. Wesley looked back

at the ninja, and felt hopelessness for him.

“Clash!” the voice said filling his head, more clearly than the

crowd’s applause.

Wesley had realized the man in white was a ninja. Although he

had never been that interested in ninjas growing up, he went along with it. After all, somewhere in his mind, he had decided that the ninja would fight the seriously overpowered dragon. But why? He

couldn’t say, but it was amazing to watch. A display of blinding light was followed by rapturous applause as the Shinobi, who Wes had

already written off, did the impossible. The sword had produced

emerald chains that had wrapped around the creature, constricting its

movements before performing a spell in the center of the amphitheater.

Wesley stepped back. He had actually felt the force of the

dragon’s roar as had everybody else. The beast took to the air.

Wesley’s eyes and mouth opened wide. The dragon was free. An

earth shattering boom shook the colosseum as the monster smashed

into the ground. Wesley knew what was coming next; he could see the smoke, the fury, the power. The creature released a roar so thunderous and deafening that the crowd was silenced as the ninja was engulfed.

The dragon’s rage was there for all to see. Whirling funnels of flames soon became monsoons, filling the theater with a seething heat.

Blistering flames of a searing red color rose to fifty, even sixty feet in height.

Then it was just gone. The arena was empty of fire. On the floor

lay a small boy, no longer a ninja. He was but a child, not even ten years old. Wesley did a double-take. What happened? He tried

desperately to make sense of the dream but he couldn’t. Wes turned his gaze to the dragon as it reverted back into the mysterious shadow it had once been. The voice spoke again as it returned to the other shadows.

“The valiant Shinobi has lost,” the Overseer said, without a hint

of surprise. “The Champion wins!”

A round of applause echoed around the arena as the people took

to their feet. Wesley’s view was blocked again as he tried to see the child on the arena floor. Then the cheers started to cease, slowly diminishing. Turning to his right, Wesley saw the crowd vanishing.

Like puffs of smoke they just floated off out of existence. Shifting his attention to the left he was faced with the same. Within seconds,

Wesley was alone. The noise, the heat, the atmosphere, it was all

gone. He looked at the adjacent tier; the shadows remained seated, as did the Overseer.

He had the weird impression that they were watching him.

Although they had no eyes, no features at all, it still felt that way.

Unable to take his eyes off of them, Wesley debated shouting, calling, or doing something as similarly pointless, before he noticed it. The leader had gone. The Emperor, King, Overseer – whatever it was – had vanished just like the other members of the crowd.

“Wesley,” the voice said.

The sound wasn’t filling his head like before, but it was very

close to him. Wesley turned around. The shadowy apparition stood

before him, reaching out a hand. Wesley moved back quickly.

“This is where you wake up!” the voice shouted.

His eyes popped open, and he shot up in bed. Wesley’s body

was rigid from the fright. Wesley glared angrily at the leftovers of his birthday buffet on his desk. He wanted to give the food a piece of his mind, but which piece? Even Wesley wasn’t sure what was in there.

In fact, he felt ridiculous being scared by his own subconscious.

Wesley swung his legs out of the bed and held his head in his hands.

“What was that, Wes?” he questioned himself out loud. “What a

dream,” he continued. After all, he couldn’t call it a nightmare, could he? He had been through all the ranges of emotion; fear, exhilaration, wonderment, inconceivability, and just plain weirdness, which was

surely more than just a nightmare.

After going downstairs for a glass of water, it took Wesley a few

hours to settle before he felt able enough to go back to sleep. He was apprehensive at first as he lay back down, not a hundred percent sure if he would continue the previous dream. After wrestling with the

possibilities, he closed his eyes and drifted off once more.

*Chapter Fourteen *

The morning was sharp and crisp against Wesley’s ears as he

stepped out of his house into the cold November air. A heavy frost had fallen during the night, and the road was covered in a layer of white. The yards along Alberta Terrace were a glistening white

spectacle. Cars were left running before their owners dared face the cold. Ducking his head, Wesley attempted to shield himself from the seasonal wind that whipped viciously at him. His school boots

crunched loudly along the street. In the distance was Nottingham

Road, where vehicles had already backed up from the rush hour.

A bright red Audi TT with black alloy wheels and a body kit

had been in Wesley’s sights almost all the way down the road. The

pasty faced driver hadn’t moved an inch in all that time. He mouthed obscenities into the cold air, hoping the traffic would listen to him; it wouldn’t. Wesley couldn’t help laughing. Catching him, the man shot him a glare. Wesley stopped and gingerly navigated his way through the cars. He could feel the driver’s stare burning into his back as he turned off the main street onto Hamilton Road.

It was dark, the tall trees blocking out the frosty morning

sunlight. The houses sat back from the pavement. The newly built

homes were made from red brick and gloomy looking grey slates. A

car sat in every driveway. Even though they were different makes,

they all looked pretty similar in design. As he reached the end of the road, he could clearly see his school in the distance. The two Science buildings speared high into the sky. The English and Math buildings came into view next. The campus was old, and time had turned the

browns and greens it had once been painted with into a more dismal dreary tone.

Wesley told himself it wouldn’t be long as he waited at the

traffic lights. He was in his final year and couldn’t wait, not that he

was confident of a prosperous future. In fact it hadn’t even entered his head. He just hated school, he wasn’t bad at it. He was actually good at his classes. It wasn’t that he was bullied or unpopular, he wasn’t.

Wesley happily coasted the cusp of the two worlds; neither noticed nor ignored. It was a pretty bland existence; very much like the school decor he thought, a smile forming on his face.

He entered the Guildford school yard, through the big rusty

gates, a group of buzzing first year kids passed Wesley like airplanes around a tower. He winced at the noise. Not long now, you’re almost there! The truth was simple; it was getting harder to keep his interest each day. Wesley didn’t think he was better or smarter than everyone else. Another formation of first year’s buzzed past him again with a high pitch squeal. Some he did, he thought to himself.

“Wes!” A familiar voice hollered from the English building to

his right. “Wes!” he repeated.

Wesley saw Luke and quickly altered his speed from a casual

walk to a brisk pace. Luke was dressed in the same green and black uniform as Wesley, his bag hanging off his shoulder by one strap.

“Man, that game is mint,” Luke began instantly.

“Yeah, it was okay.” Wesley was less than impressed.

“What’s up, Wes?” he asked genuinely.

“It’s nothing,” Wesley replied.

Luke knew he was being less than truthful. “Come on, what’s

up? You’ve never gone funny on me over games before.”

Wesley smiled. Luke was concerned that he was out of sorts

over the beating he’d received at his hands last night. “No, I’m used to that,” he laughed. “I had the weirdest dream Luke, I mean

completely crazy insane.”

The school bell rang, and Luke looked over his shoulder into his form room. “Tell me later yeah?”

“Yeah sure, later,” Wesley said as they both went their separate

ways for registration.

Break time came around quickly. Wesley sat on the wall by the

soccer field with a half-eaten Mars bar in his hand. It wasn’t long before Luke joined him. They both sat facing the dull looking A-block silently.

“So what was this dream?” Luke finally asked.

“Man, it was crazy.”

“I expect nothing less from you Wes.” Luke laughed, “It has got

you spooked though.”

“Dragons and ninjas, a colosseum filled with kids and a weird

darkness. It was so dark,” he explained.

“Darkness normally is dark, Wes.” He laughed, trying to make a

light hearted joke.

“No, this was something else. It felt real,” Wesley said

solemnly.

“It was just a nightmare. You’ll get over it.”

Wesley nodded in agreement, not saying a word.

They sat there for a minute, again in silence. Luke wasn’t sure

what to say. He knew making a comical comment wasn’t a good idea,

but that was what he normally did when he felt at a bit of a loss.

Wesley remained silent, not wanting to sound like an idiot to his

friend. Luke decided to go with another idea; make fun of something else.

“Look at her with him, silly cow,” Luke said, gesturing towards Sadie Kirk and Darren Morgan. “She’s all over him,” a touch of

jealousy seeping into his tone.

Sadie was the most popular girl in school; beautiful, smart, and

from a rich family. She had everything going for her. Choosing to

spend her time with Darren annoyed Luke. He was an idiot, but

because he excelled in sports, he was considered cool.

“God, I hate him,” Luke sneered.

“You’re just jealous,” Wesley said with a grin. “You love

Sadie,” he added.

“Oh, so you’re back now?” Luke smiled. “I thought you were

going to stay miserable.”

“You love Sadie,” he repeated in a mocking voice.

“Shut up,” he said, punching Wesley playfully in the shoulder.

The joking stopped in an instant. “She’s coming over here,” he

announced pointlessly to Luke.

“I know,” Luke replied. “Did she hear us?”

“No, no way,” Wesley confirmed.

With long, flowing brown hair, green eyes, and a sweet smile,

Sadie carefully assessed the two of them. She turned to Wesley, her look more focused on him. “I wasn’t sure which one of you I saw,”

she said. “You both look alike.”

Wesley and Luke looked at each other, and then back at Sadie.

“I’m sure it was you,” she said pointing at Wesley. “But, you’re

wearing clothes now,” she said nonchalantly.

Now Luke was looking at Wes, “No clothes?”

“Umm,” Wesley just made a noise.

“If I see you again, I’ll say hello,” Sadie smiled at him. It wasn’t the usual smile she wore. Then, she returned to Darren, who gave a disdainful look at the pair of them.

Luke still looked at Wesley, his face housing the biggest smile

ever. “What did you do Wes?!” The urgency was clearly abundant in

his voice.

“Nothing,” Wesley replied.

“Liar! Come on Wes, tell me,” he pushed.

“Honestly, I have no idea why she said that.”

“I do. You got freaky didn’t you? You sent her some Facebook

pictures of your sweet ass.” He burst into laughter.

“No, no. I didn’t.” Wes raised his voice, “I really don’t know

why she said any of that.”

“I know, because hot girls always come up to us like that and

say they saw us naked,” Luke joked. “You know, it doesn’t matter. I want no part in the perverted things you do on Chatroulette.”

“Bloody hell Luke,” he jabbed.

“You sicken me!” He laughed harder than before as he jumped

off the wall. “Later pervert,” he finished, making his way to his next class.

Wesley waved dismissively as he made his way into the

building.

*Chapter Fifteen *

The rest of the day went slowly, most of it taken up with

thinking about the conversation he’d had with Sadie – well, at least her part in it. Wesley’s “Umm” didn’t count as a contribution. Was she going to start a rumour about him? Maybe try to make Darren

jealous, so he’d beat him up? There were far too many things it could be. The fact that she didn’t seem nasty didn’t go along with any lines of thought he had. Sadie had been liked by everyone through ninety nine percent of secondary school. Why would she suddenly turn into a bitch these last few months? None of it made sense. And where would she have seen him naked? The only places he took his clothes off

were in the shower, and in bed. Wesley was observant. He was certain he would have spotted her in either.

The final bell rang and Wesley made his way out of school.

With Luke’s late morning starts and after school activities, they rarely walked to and from school together. He paid little to no attention to anything as he headed up Hamilton Road. His mind was planted

firmly on more important things. He crossed Nottingham Road and

moved along Alberta Terrace. Wesley reached his house, opened the

front door, and went straight to his room, knowing the house was

empty. He lay on his bed and stared blankly at the ceiling. “What a weird day,” he thought. A buzzing noise from his desk attracted his attention. It was his mobile phone. He guessed that it was probably Luke was sending some amusing texts about his perverted exploits

that never happened. He gazed at the screen. “An unknown number,”

he thought, opening it up. He read the single word message out loud,

“Tonight.”

What is tonight? It must be a wrong number. Quickly thumbing

in a reply, Wesley snapped it shut and lay back on the bed. Where

was he, he thought to himself. The phone buzzed again, with the same answer.

“Who is this?” he mumbled replying to the anonymous text. He

waited. There was nothing. A minute’s wait felt like ten. Wesley sent another; this one less friendly. Still no reply. He decided to call the number. He wasn’t exactly sure why, but he just did.

The call rang and rang before being diverted to voicemail. It

wasn’t personalized, so that gave Wesley no information at all. After the tone, he began, “I think you have the wrong number.” With

annoyance in his voice, he continued, “I don’t know what you mean

by ‘tonight’ so please don’t text me again.” He snapped the phone

shut.

The phone began to buzz in his hand. He paused and took a deep

breath before answering. “Hello?” he asked anxiously.

“What time you coming into the game?” Luke asked cheerfully.

With a sigh of relief he shook off the anxiety, “After tea, about

seven thirty?”

“Sounds good. Later pervert,” Luke said hanging up.

“Bloody hell,” he hung his head. Wesley knew he was going to

be getting that from now until the next name sprung up. Plus, it would have to be worse than that to replace it, he thought.

During dinner Wesley seemed distant to his mom and dad. They

didn’t question him. They thought it was best to leave him awhile

before asking any awkward questions. When he finished up early to

get onto his game, they figured it couldn’t be too serious. The meal had been Chicken Kiev with a cheese sauce. Wesley had wondered

about the cheese, especially after that dream. The decision was quick and simple. He was hungry, so he ate it.

Wesley was furiously smashing the buttons on his controller in frustration as he lost again. This put Luke’s winning total into the high fifties.

“Oh damn, that’s another win for team Luke!” he celebrated

over the headset in Wesley’s ears.

“Yeah, rub it in dude.” Wesley sounded defeated.

“We are the champions! We are the champions!” Luke sang to

the classic Queen track, doing it no justice with his tone deaf vocals.

“I’m calling it a night,” Wesley said, completely dejected.

“Okay man. We still up for town tomorrow?”

“Yeah, I’ll be up for that,” Wesley confirmed, turning off the

computer.

Even though it was late, Wesley found himself reading a book

rather than going to sleep. After the strange text earlier, the dream, and the general weirdness this Friday had brought him, he just

couldn’t bring himself to allow sleep to take over. It wasn’t fear; he hoped it wasn’t anyway. Wesley let out a yawn. His eyes became

heavy. Slumber was calling him, stronger than ever, and he couldn’t resist it any longer. He kicked off his shoes, lay back on the bed, and closed his eyes.

*Chapter Sixteen *

The car was parked outside the hotel, the engine idling quietly at the roadside. The street ahead led towards one of the town’s soccer clubs, Nottingham Forest. Although not the oldest, it was the most successful. The driver sat, looking at the building adjacent to the club gift shop. It was a tall four story house turned into a bed and

breakfast. Flower baskets hung beside the door and even in the

lackluster November light, the building was a brilliant white.

Martin tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. The radio

played another popular eighties tune he’d grown up with. He had liked this station since the advertisement campaign with the dancing

hamster. Martin wasn’t nervous, anxious, or scared. Even though he was sitting in a stolen Renault Clio, he was aware that no one would report it.

The car was silver, almost brand new, and still had that new car

smell. All the new cars were quiet; the occasional vibration was the only indication the vehicle was running. He mouthed the words to a Cher song. Suddenly, Martin glimpsed two police officers in his side mirror. They were making their way across the top of the road

towards the River Trent. Carefully watching them, he made sure they paid him no mind then returned his attention to Cher.

Most people in his situation might panic. Not Martin; he was

confident in his ability. The owner was taken care of the night before; he wouldn’t be getting up anytime soon. No one cared about a plain car, on a plain street. The news followed the music, and Martin

listened to the top story with interest. The child taken from the

hospital was still missing, and the man they believed responsible was still at large. Martin grinned; Max was still on the loose. What a dark horse. He had expected Max to be under arrest within a few hours, but no; he’d evaded them. Martin met with him occasionally and frankly,

he didn’t like him. They’d not had a falling out or exchanged insults; he just got a vibe. The authorities found his car and traced him to a house, but after that, the trail went cold. Martin wasn’t surprised, they were all non-entities now, just inserted where the Associates required them and then removed with no fuss.

For instance, his current assignment was an extraction, not an

abduction. Some would say it was worse. The minute he finished, he would vanish. Not literally, but all enquiries would end with the

drunken man. He didn’t care why the man was selected; he seemed

ordinary enough. Perhaps it was the roll of a die or a random name in the phone book. It didn’t matter. He was chosen, just like the girl.

Martin picked up the bottle of flavored water from the cup

holder and took a mouthful. He reeled at the sweet taste of the lime and coughed. Between the two cars on his right, he saw her. She was a young black girl, eight or nine years old, her hair in pigtails, and wearing a red jumper with a reindeer on it.

“Someone’s getting into the Christmas spirit early,” he thought.

He turned the steering wheel on the spot, and prepared to pull out.

The young girl took the hand of her big brother and crossed the road.

He was big; six feet tall, heavily built, and a person Martin didn’t want to tangle with. All he wanted was the girl. They entered the

Nottingham Forest ticket office. Martin released the handbrake and edged the Clio out slightly. “Come on,” he thought. “Let’s be having you,” he joked to himself.

The brother fumbled with his tickets, paying less attention to his sister as they walked from the building. Martin grasped the wheel

tightly as he crept out. Even now, on the move, he wasn’t nervous.

The young girl stepped out into the road – a little too far. Martin gunned the engine. The silver Clio sped off, heading towards the girl.

Martin needed to keep it under the speed limit of thirty; twenty five if possible. With so many factors, being alert was essential.

The car roared too loudly, and the brother looked up too soon.

“Damn it!” Martin snapped at himself. His attention switched from

the girl, to her brother. “What are you going to do?” he asked. The burly young man was faster than Martin had anticipated. Without a

word, he reached out and pushed her clear of the oncoming silver

Renault. Martin put his foot down hard. The thud of his body hitting the Clio was loud, and the crunching sound that followed as the car threw him clear at forty was gruesome. Screeching to a halt, Martin saw the booklet of tickets flutter to the ground beside the brother, as he jumped out. The little girl who had been shoved to safety, now sat between the same two cars where Martin first saw her.

Her eyes filled with tears as she cried silently to herself. Martin couldn’t be sure if she was crying because of her brother or because of the large cut on her knee. Martin had no time to ask. He needed to move fast. He clenched his fist and punched the girl in the face, not as hard as he could, but close. She crumpled to the floor like a child’s rag doll, a bruise forming almost instantly on the side of her cheek.

He reached into his pocket and took out a red ink stamp. He grabbed the motionless child by her arm and lifted her off the ground as he pressed the marker onto her skin, just above the elbow. The symbol glinted for a moment, and then he let her go. She collapsed once more to the ground.

Quickly hopping back into the Clio, he reversed from the curb

side. Martin allowed himself a second to look at the unconscious

brother. He would blame himself. He would feel at fault even though he couldn’t have done anything. Martin drove away and followed the road around to the right before swinging a left onto the main road without even looking.

*Chapter Seventeen *

Not exceeding the speed limit on the way back, Martin pulled up

on the driveway. He wiped the steering wheel over with a white cloth, then the gear stick and door handle. The damage to the front of the car was minimal. The brother had sustained more injuries after being

thrown clear he assumed. The front door was already open, just how Martin had left it.

The corner house was big; not monstrous, but overbearing. The

long drive was comprised of crazy paving and gravel. The place was fairly new, maybe two or three years old. The bay windows and porch front were all done in white PVC, giving the features a nice modern touch. Inside was no different; everything was state-of-the-art, stylish and clean. Martin changed his jacket and left the one he’d worn

hanging purposefully on the edge of the living room sofa. He checked his watch, noting the time.

Martin made his way through the back garden, took out his

mobile, and dialed the Emergency Services. He waited for a response and selected “police” from the list provided, using a shaky nervous voice. Then as someone answered he said, “Err, hello. I saw…” He

was getting into character. “I saw a Clio, a Renault Clio being driven all crazy and it nearly ran me over. I was on Zulu Road when he came screaming past.”

“Can I have your name, please?” the lady asked.

“No, sorry; I don’t want to be involved. He just pulled up on his

drive. You can’t miss it. The front end’s all smashed in.” Martin

finished, hanging up the phone. He took out the battery and SIM card, tossing them into a hedge before discarding the mobile around the

corner into a trash receptacle.

*Chapter Eighteen *

Bridlesmith Gate was as crowded as usual with shoppers

ducking in and out of the stores hoping to find a bargain for

Christmas, which was fast approaching. Martin had taken a shortcut through the shopping center, saving himself a good ten minutes. He made his way up towards the meeting; his attention was caught by

two street entertainers. Dressed in white and silver, they looked like living snowflakes. The pair performed tricks with a large glass ball, the kind a clairvoyant would use to tell your future. Martin grinned at the two of them. “If only the ball could tell them their future,” he thought. No doubt it would consist of a twenty four hour dead end job at a fast food establishment, once they realized their current work wasn’t paying anything but bus fare.

Passing by a few more shops along the way, Martin glanced

inside several of them. They were busy; from the brand named

Pandora franchises, to the lesser known Willis’ clothing brands. The news reports said the high street, or small town “Main Street,” was dying; some even claiming that it was dead and buried already, but from Martin’s point of view it looked to be vibrant. He stopped and looked up at the four story book store.

The cream archway and dark brown wooden frames were

luxurious. The floors above it were older, and more distinguished.

With thin, tall windows in sets of three, the top held more character, more history, but that could be said for most of the buildings in the town center. The shop fronts had been designed to bring in the

customers, at the expense of the structure’s past. Once inside the bookstore he headed straight for the escalators.

As he rode up slowly from the ground floor, Martin could feel

the coldness from outside giving way to warmth. By the time he had reached the second floor he was quite hot, only his ears taking a little

longer to submit. After each escalator ride, Martin needed to make his way through a section of books before he reached the one to take him up to the next floor. The third floor held the biographies and he

caught sight of a few well known celebrities who had made sure their book was ready for the Christmas rush. If only he could write a

biography. His antics today would interest someone, he was sure of that.

The coffee shop wasn’t that busy; only a few of the tables had

been taken up. Martin saw him sitting by the window and moved over to the counter to order a large café latte and an all-day breakfast roll before heading over to meet his new acquaintance. The man was

sitting in a comfy brown and cream striped chair, although he looked rather uptight in his buttoned up, long black coat. A coffee sat in front of him, along with a copy of the Independent, which was spread out across the table.

The teaspoon rattled on the saucer he was carrying, as he moved

towards the gentleman. Martin gazed at the pictures that adorned the coffee shop walls. They were huge pictures depicting the making of the drink he was about to enjoy, or some beautiful person drinking from the cups with the brand logo on the side. Advertising usually took place outside the shops, to draw in the customer. Yet this place advertised inside and out. “How peculiar,” Martin thought, settling himself into the comfy chair opposite the man.

“What went wrong?” the man asked, without looking up.

“Nothing,” Martin replied, wiping the rich coffee foam from his

top lip.

“Is that so? Nothing? Really?” his tone was not judging, but

sounded authoritarian.

“No, went sweet as a nut,” he said simply. “I’m Martin by the

way.”

“Edward,” he stated coldly before adding, “Would you care to explain?”

“Explain?” Martin asked. “Explain what? I had an extraction. I

extracted. I had to set up the guy, so I set him up.” With a shrug he added, “What needs explaining?”

Edward looked up from his paper. His gaze was cold. “You

hospitalized someone and assaulted the target.”

“Hey, I had to, to…” Martin screwed up his face as he searched

for the word.

“Improvise?” Edward interposed.

“Improvise, yes! I had to improvise.” He continued, “I faced a

difficult situation. I was required to ‘improvise’ and I completed my assignment.”

Edward’s stare was unwavering. “You were not supposed to run

down the child’s brother. Nor were you supposed to…” he stopped talking as the young Ukrainian waitress brought over Martin’s food.

The moment she moved away, Edward asked with a slight hint of

surprise in his voice, “You ordered food?”

“Yeah, I’m starving.”

Edward sat back in the big comfy chair and shook his head. He

looked at the man as he bit into his breakfast roll. “You know some of us were born for this work,” he began.

Martin looked up from his plate, assuming Edward was talking

about himself.

“Some were made, through training or experience, but some,”

he paused looking at Martin harder, trying to see through him. “Some just enjoy it too much.”

Martin smiled as if he’d just been complemented. “If you do what you enjoy, you’ll never work a day.” His food rolled around the inside of his mouth like clothes in a dryer as he spoke.

“The Associates were not impressed,” Edward remarked, his

eyes falling once again onto his newspaper.

“Okay.” Martin stopped chewing. “So what happens now?”

Edward remained silent.

“Well, do I get a warning or something?” he enquired,

swallowing his food with a gulp. “You’re the man here, right?” he

continued. “You’re the link to them, so what now?”

“Nothing,” he said simply.

“Nothing? So what’s the problem?” He had confusion etched

across his face.

“The problem is, your actions could set in motion a series of

events that have not already been foreseen,” Edward explained. “Then measures will have to be implemented that could expend resources

needed elsewhere.” Edward didn’t look up from his article, but he

could feel Martin’s glazed over expression. “You have a new

assignment,” Edward said. He understood why the Associates used

people like him; sadly they didn’t give a thought to the ones who had to deal with them.

“Is it a good one?” he asked eagerly.

Edward couldn’t believe the simpleton in front of him was

completely oblivious to what he had just explained. It was as if he’d been talking in another language because he couldn’t grasp it; he just ignored it. “It’s an assignment you must follow to the letter. You will not deviate from it. You will not elaborate or improvise. You will just do as you are instructed.”

“Sure, I’ll do as it says,” Martin said competently.

Edward was not filled with confidence, but the assignment itself

was not difficult. It was, however, very important.

“Is it true?” Martin said in a hushed tone.

Edward was intrigued enough to raise his eyes from the page.

“Is what true?” he replied in a low voice.

“That Max is dead.”

Edward looked with a cool glance. “Why do you say that?”

“Just something I heard. The police haven’t found him and from

what people are saying…” He paused. “The Associates can’t locate him. So he must be dead, right?”

“Must be,” Edward replied. Sitting there, looking at Max’s

replacement, he realized how he missed him. Even though Maximus

was just a pawn in a chess game that was beyond all of them to

comprehend, he would still have run rings around the clown that sat opposite him now. “Can I ask, who are these ‘people’ you heard such stories from?”

“You know Edward, no one and everyone.” He took another bite

from his half eaten roll, his reply cryptic and frustrating. “The

grapevine,” he added, seeing Edward was not happy with the first

answer.

Edward produced an envelope from his inside pocket and passed

it to Martin.

He wiped his hand on his jeans before taking it, and quickly

swallowed down the last of his roll. “Do I read it now?” he asked.

“I would, yes,” Edward replied looking at his watch. “The person of interest in the assignment is due in the city center very soon.”

“Oh, right. Okay,” Martin said, opening the letter.

“And Martin?” Edward stood up. “I wouldn’t pay much

attention to the grapevine.” He placed his hat on his head. “It has a tendency to wrap and snare itself around the most obtuse of people.”

Martin looked at him with confusion. “Right.”

Edward smiled as he folded up his newspaper. The glazed

expression he had imagined earlier on Martin’s face was real. “Good day.”

“Bye,” Martin replied as he began to read his new assignment.

*Chapter Nineteen *

The sound of the bells rang in Edward’s ears long before he

reached the center of town. Swiftly moving between the trams, he

passed the town hall. The building was the pinnacle of the

Nottingham skyline, and had been since its completion in 1929. With a huge clock dome at the peak of its two hundred feet, it loomed over the market square. The keystone entrance had been salvaged from a

church after the great fire and the listed building, like many in

Nottingham, was filled with history.

Edward had grown attached to the city. He had lived here most

of his life and watched it change on an almost daily basis, not only in appearance, but socially. The town had lost much of its wonderment, discarded for more modern popular styling. He made his way up

Queens Street to High Pavement, which ran the length of the town

center. Filled with traffic that dragged itself slowly along the one way system, Edward could remember when it was a quick bus journey

from one side of town to the other. Years later, that same commute has increased to over thirty minutes.

Unable to shake off the stupidity of his new assistant, Edward

tussled with his options. Should he inform the Associates that the person who had replaced Maximus was nothing more than a thug?

Surely they already knew. Maybe that was why they had replaced

him. Perhaps they needed a blunt instrument? Edward had worked his way through the ranks, but he still saw himself as a peg for a hole.

“Maximus,” he thought. “What happened to you?” It was true

he’d vanished from the Associates sights; he had heard that for

himself, even though he wasn’t supposed to. Edward felt a pang of

guilt inside, although they saw everything, or at least appeared to.

He’d had no choice but to inform the higher powers of Maximus’

behaviour. Edward did not expect what followed; it was beyond any

assignment he had ever taken part in. As he walked into Victoria bus station, Edward hoped that wherever Maximus was, he was okay. He

never wished the young man harm, but that wasn’t always enough.

*Chapter Twenty *

The letter was typed in italics, printed on a plain white sheet of paper. The instructions were simple; a time, a place, and a brief

description of the individual. Martin banged his coffee cup down on the saucer in disgust. A few people cast a curious glance in his

direction. “Observe,” he thought angrily to himself. “Observe the

person of interest only.” This assignment was beneath him. He had

just performed an extraction, and now he was a watcher. Was this a punishment? It didn’t matter; it was rubbish, but he had no choice.

Edward wasn’t here to shout at now, and it wasn’t like he had a

telephone number he could call, or even a company he could visit.

The place where he needed to be was the Ye Olde Salutation

Inn. He didn’t expect that the person he was to observe would be

drinking there, more likely just passing by. Martin had often

wondered how the Associates got such accurate information about

events yet to occur, but like most things in his line of work, answers were not forthcoming. Quickly checking the time, he made his exit

and headed down the road adjacent to the bookstore.

His pace quickened, not because he was running late, but

because of his mission. Passing St. Peter’s Church, he glanced to his left to see a man busking on the street. He played a saxophone; the tune was familiar even though the title escaped him. Martin cut

between a group of Japanese tourists photographing the church and

headed up Hounds Gate. A building to his right caught his attention.

He had passed it a million times, but today he stopped and stared. Just like the tourists he’d just pushed through, he gawked at the red and blue bricks that formed the modern church which stood behind a deep blue railing fence. He imagined his employers were located in such a place; not so much a Church, but somewhere just as palatial.

Further up the road, he passed a group of youngsters lining up outside a works agency building. A man with bright red spiky punk

hair stood out like a sore thumb. Martin grinned, his mind taking a short break from cursing his assignment. He scrutinized him closely.

Martin could see that he was complaining to a young girl over his lack of pay. Agencies paid as little as possible, and this worker had

obviously grown tired of making them more money than he earned.

Martin had no sympathy for him. If he got a haircut and tried to be less of an “individual,” perhaps he could get a job where he wasn’t exploited.

The Salutation Inn was now within Martin’s sights. The white

building stood defiantly on the corner, with rich dark wood around the windows, roof, and chimney. The Inn had stood on that spot since

1240, boasting the title of oldest building in Nottingham. Martin had never once crossed the threshold to enjoy a drink. Perhaps today was the day he would; or maybe not.

He hadn’t even had time to light up a cigarette before the bus

pulled up. Martin’s assignment hit a snag instantly. The description he had been given fitted both of the young boys that got off the bus. The two lads were blonde, and wore jeans and similar blue jackets.

Luckily for Martin, they appeared to be together so he wouldn’t have to choose which one to follow. He kept his distance as they moved up Maid Marion Way towards the traffic lights.

The pair looked to be in their mid-teens and Martin couldn’t

help but wonder what interest the Associates had with either one of them. Perhaps one of them was dating a boss’s daughter and they

wanted him disposed of. Martin laughed quietly to himself as he

slowed his pace. He would have enjoyed that job, but wasn’t that

lucky; not today anyway. He crossed Maid Marion Way and

continued to keep a close eye on them as they walked leisurely up

Friar Lane. Martin pressed the traffic light button repeatedly as if he

expected it to change faster. With a brisk jog, he made up some ground on them as they stopped outside Nottingham Castle. Martin

stopped and turned to face the shop window next to him.

The window opened out into an art gallery. The walls were

covered with exciting, vibrant works of art. Sadly, he had no interest in such things; they were wasted on him. He looked at the boys out of the corner of his eye. They were exchanging heated words, and then to his relief they began to laugh. He was genuinely worried that he’d have to choose just one of them to follow.

The next few hours were long and arduous on Martin. He had

followed the pair around Nottingham Castle, through the exhibits, into the gardens, and then to the cafeteria. Now sitting by the window, the two boys were no longer talking. Martin noticed one of them seemed uncomfortable, possibly due to the previous two hours of walking, but he wondered if it was something else. If he had to choose one of them now, it would most definitely be him. The world in which Martin

worked had a knack of making you uncomfortable.

As he sipped his coffee, Martin gave the two boys names. The

one on the left was “annoying kid one” and the other “annoying kid two.” When annoying kid one talked, annoying kid two remained

silent. Martin wondered what his employer wanted with an annoying

kid. He turned away for a moment and looked across the room. At the counter was a skinhead, wearing a black tracksuit with red stripes down the arms and sides of his legs. Martin got a vibe off him. He didn’t know what it was, but he didn’t like it.

With his attention now focused on the stranger, Martin felt edgy.

The man appeared to be looking at the same two lads that he was. It appeared that he was cleverly using the reflection in the stainless steel counter; nevertheless, he was watching them. Martin wondered if he was another agent of the Associates, watching the other boy. Martin

didn’t realize his gaze had become a stare and that he had engrossed the man’s attention.

The man smiled a knowing smile as he left his seat. He made

Martin nervous as he walked past him.

“Hello, Martin.” The man said as he walked into the restroom.

“Max!” he said, under his breath as he recognized his voice.

Quickly leaving his chair he followed him into the bathroom.

“Hey, Max. I thought you were dead,” Martin said, confident that they were alone. He lost sight of him as he moved inside. The turquoise tiles and toilet cubicle doors reflected in the big mirrors above the brilliant white sinks.

“Martin…” Max replied, his voice low and stifled.

“Where are you?” he asked moving around the side of the

cubicles. “Hey!” he snapped, the irritation evident.

He pushed open the first restroom door and nervously peered in.

Empty. The next, he used the tips of his fingers to push it open.

Empty. With only one left now, he growled, “Hey, stop messing

around. You’ve got nowhere to go now, pal.”

Angrily, Martin kicked open the final door. As it banged against

the wall he saw a flash of red. Almost instantly he felt his legs buckle as he fell to the floor. He could hear laughter as he writhed around holding his face. Martin could feel the blood pumping furiously from his nose, seeping between his fingers.

Max crouched beside him, still clutching the fire extinguisher he

had taken off the wall an hour before Martin arrived.

“Well, well, well,” Max said mockingly. “Guess the Associates

didn’t foresee this, did they?”

“Screw you!” Martin replied, his voice muffled by his hands, but Max heard him clearly enough.

“Tell Edward the boy is off limits,” Max told him, his mocking

tone now serious. “If I see you following him again, I’ll kill you.”

Max stood up, “Or anyone else that you send after him.” Max raised the extinguisher and then slammed it down again on Martin’s head.

As he left the public toilets, Max looked over at the window.

The two boys had gone. He wasn’t worried; he had been told where

they would be in a few hours. Max casually walked over to his coffee and took a sip before leaving. The cold wind was stronger up here.

Max wasn’t sure if it was colder or just fierce because of the altitude.

He made his way along the path, walking between the trees and

bushes, before reaching the cobbled stones in front of the Castle.

The voice that had spoken to him in the dark expanse was

powerful. It had outwitted the Associates, and that was no easy feat.

Max couldn’t help feeling pleased, having already dealt a blow to the people that had cast him out. He pulled on a black beanie hat, still not used to having no hair. The November air had soaked into his scalp, a sensation he had yet to become accustomed to. But, changing his

appearance in the current situation was not only required, it was

imperative. If Max was going to complete the expanses wishes, he

needed to stay one step ahead of the authorities.

[*Chapter Twenty-one *]

The mobile rang incessantly in his coat pocket, and Edward

eventually stopped in the street. He removed a glove and fumbled

precariously around in his pocket and then answered the small silver and blue phone. He was greeted with a single phrase, “They want to meet.” The voice was gone as abruptly as it had arrived. Edward

looked up the road as he put away his phone. He had almost made it home, he thought, as he slipped his hand back into the leather glove.

Edward had to forgo the public transport he had used earlier;

this time there was more urgency. Opting for a taxi, Edward flagged down a local cab and swiftly travelled back towards the center of

Nottingham. The driver was in his late fifties with greying hair. He wore a pressed black shirt that had the ranks logo on the breast

pocket. The car was impeccably clean. It was evident to Edward that the man took pride in not only his appearance, but that of his car too.

The blue Ford Mondeo sailed through the traffic lights, the

driver’s experience unmistakable as he timed the bursts of speed to correspond with the amber and green lights. Although he sometimes

exceeded the speed limit, Edward could see the man’s face in the

mirror. He was the picture of calmness, completely in control of the situation. That left Edward to look out of the window and muse about this urgent meeting.

Before getting out, Edward tipped the driver extra for his hasty

arrival. The refurbished townhouse stood six floors high. The large red door opened as Edward approached, his presence obviously

expected. He moved directly to the elevator, not looking at the people that populated the foyer. He may have been curious, but he wasn’t

willing to see something he shouldn’t. The best option when attending a meeting of this nature was literally to keep your head down.

In the elevator, the mirrored panels and highly polished brass edging and rails spoke of luxury. The plush red carpet under his feet was immaculate. Very few people used this particular elevator and

Edward was not surprised. The doors parted and he stepped out into the waiting area. There were no names, signs, or logos on any of the walls. The previous two floors were solicitor’s offices, but Edward had no idea what the person did who sat inside the big room, behind the oak door.

A young blonde girl greeted Edward as he paused at the

reception desk. Her hair was up in a bun, exposing the expensive

jewelry which plunged down along with her neckline.

“Hello, Edward,” she said with a broad smile. “He is waiting for

you,” she confirmed.

Edward graciously replied, “Thank you,” making his way

through the oak door.

The man sat behind a huge Victorian desk, a large green leather

chair hugging his ample size. He wore a dark grey suit, a black tie, and a pair of thick rimmed spectacles. Edward was unaware if he was one of the Associates or another player like him, maybe higher up the pecking order.

“Take a seat Edward,” he gestured to the chair opposite him.

“We need to talk about…” he paused as Edward sat down. “Martin

Hampton.”

Edward wasn’t aware of his second name, but he wondered if

they had read his thoughts. Had they realized he was unhappy with

Maximus’ replacement? “I wanted to talk to you about him,” Edward

replied candidly.

“Really, you’ve heard already?” the man asked. His eyes were

wide behind the thick glasses.

“Heard what?”

He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms, “Tell me what

you wanted to say about him.” It wasn’t a request, Edward knew that.

“I don’t feel that he is exactly what this role requires,” Edward

said. “Compared to his predecessor, he’s a square peg in a round

hole.”

“Yes, yes,” the man replied. It stunned Edward visibly, his head

cocking slightly to one side. “I had my issues with him, long ago.” He continued honestly, “But due to unavoidable circumstances we

needed a thug.”

Edward nodded; he had guessed as much. However, the

straightforward responses were disconcerting. Plain and simple was not how things were usually done, plus people like him were not

informed or kept in the loop.

“Unfortunately, with the arrival of the child, and then finding

the new matured boy… things have gotten…” he bit his bottom lip,

“Murky.”

Edward stroked his chin with his hand. He tussled with asking

another question. With the frank nature of the meeting, he wondered if he would get an answer. “Can I ask,” he began, “how is it possible for the boy not to have been seen?”

“We wondered the same thing. At first we believed it was a

freak accident. A technical error if you will.”

Edward leaned in, “But now?”

“It was no error. He has been shielded from the Associates,” he

explained.

Edward moved back. His astounded reaction was caused by the fact that he had gotten two answers from the one question; the

Associates were not all seeing, and this man was just another pawn.

“The choice of selecting Martin Hampton was because of his

aggressive nature.” He continued, “We needed someone to follow the boy. Someone we believed would be able to defend himself, because

we suspected the boy was being watched and protected.”

“And he was?” Edward knew he wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t.

“Mr Hampton was left unconscious, beaten with a fire

extinguisher,” the man explained.

Edward swallowed down the enjoyment of hearing the news.

Karma was a wonderful thing. “A fire extinguisher?”

“Yes, it was a messy altercation,” the man confirmed.

Edward asked, “Do we know who or what was responsible?”

“Sadly, it appears that whoever is behind it also uses,” opening

out his hands, “individuals such as ourselves.”

Edward removed his hat. He had never considered himself an

“individual.” He was just like everyone else; he had a job that slowly ground him down and a non-existent social life, just like millions of other people.

“A warning was given,” the man continued.

His attention returned to the conversation. Edward was

intrigued. “A warning,” he repeated, not questioning. Who would dare warn the Associates? Who would cross them, let alone warn them in

advance?

“Yes, before Martin Hampton was knocked out, he said anyone

who follows the boy will be killed.”

Edward asked, “Any idea who the pawn is?”

The “individual” looked at him, a flicker of resentment in his

eyes. It was obvious he did not like being referred to as a pawn.

Unfortunately for him, Edward wasn’t bothered now. He realized he

was nothing more than a peg, just like him. “The ‘pawn,’ as you put it,” unfolding his arms, “is a previous acquaintance of yours.”

Edward furrowed his brow, “Who?”

“Max Carter.”

[*Chapter Twenty-two *]

The painkillers still hadn’t kicked in yet. The bag of frozen peas he had wrapped in an old T-shirt was still being held against his face.

Martin sank into his chair. The black checked, three-piece sofa was positioned in the corner of the room. The fourth corner led into the hallway. A black wooden table stood in the center, covered in

newspapers, magazines, and takeout containers. Martin put his feet up on the edge, the pain thudding fiercely in his head.

Before he had a chance to curse Max again, a sudden knock on

the front door disrupted him. Three slow, measured bangs on the door left Martin with no qualms as to who it was.

“Come in!” he yelled, wincing at the sound of his own voice.

A moment later he heard the door close and Edward stood in the

living room. Martin peered at him with his right eye, but made no

attempt to stand up.

“Hello Martin.” Edward smiled, allowing a diminutive amount

of satisfaction to show. “I take it the assignment wasn’t a ‘good one?’

Martin sat up, annoyed at his remarks, “Ha-ha-ha, funny.”

“So it was Maximus then?” he continued, ignoring Martin’s

sarcasm. He granted him that, for the time being anyway.

“Yeah, he’s not dead.”

“Evidently,” he replied.

Martin removed the makeshift cold compress from his face. The

full extent of his injuries was now on show. A severe gash across the top of his nose, the force of which had caused his eyes to bruise a deep blue and purple that matched the large bump on his forehead.

“Looks nasty,” Edward remarked, holding in a laugh he desperately wanted to let out.

“It feels worse.”

“Yes, I assume it would,” Edward allowed himself a grin.

“Where did this happen?”

“At the castle. I watched the boys for a good few hours…” he

was interrupted.

“What boys? I was told you were only to observe one boy.”

“Yes, I did. But the two lads looked alike. I had to follow them

both, I couldn’t choose between them,” he retorted angrily. “It’s not like I had a photo.”

“Continue,” Edward said with a nod.

“Anyway, they stopped off at the cafeteria. I noticed a man by

the counter; shaved head, tracksuit,” he looked away for a second and then continued, “He noticed me, and then I recognized him.”

Edward furrowed his brow, “How exactly?”

“His voice; he called me by name. I followed him into the

toilets, and then…” he slapped his hand against the compress, “he got me!”

Edward looked at the checkered seat to his right. “May I?” he

asked politely.

“Yeah, sure. Sit down.”

He removed his hat, ran his fingers through his hair, and sat

down. “The warning?” he continued.

“He said, and I quote, ‘Tell Edward, the boy is off limits.’ ”

“He told you to tell me, not the Associates?”

“Yes, you. He obviously thinks you’re higher up the food chain than you make out.” He tipped his head back, applying the compress again, “I can see why he would think that.”

“You believe his threat?” Edward asked.

“Oh, I believe him. The way he slammed that fire extinguisher

into my face,” cautiously removing the peas. “I wasn’t sure he hadn’t finished me off then and there.”

Edward looked around the room, taking in the pictures that hung

on the walls. They were framed movie posters from classic films like The Godfather, Scar Face, Good Fellas, and Carlito’s Way. He

noticed that they were all gangster movies. Did he think he was some kind of enforcer for the mob? Was that why he was such an

aggressive man? Edward pondered the questions in his head.

“Who’s he working for?” Martin asked.

“How do you know he’s working for anyone?” Edward

enquired.

“Max knew I would be there. He knew the kids would be there

too. He had to have been told. So, if it didn’t come from you or the Associates, it came from his new bosses.”

“Hmmm,” Edward remarked. “How do you know he wasn’t

following you?”

“The fire extinguisher he hit me with was already in the stall,”

Martin began. “He had to have put it in there before I even arrived.

Add to the fact that he told me the boy was off limits and not the boys.”

My, my, my Edward thought. Perhaps the bang on the head had

knocked some sense into him. “Yes, you’re correct.” Edward

conceded. “It would appear that there are other parties interested in our asset.”

“Who though? Who’s got that kind of power?”

“We will have to see, Martin.”

“I won’t.” Martin laughed, “I’m out of it.”

“Martin, you are never out of it,” Edward informed him. “There

is no out. Only if the Associates allow it are you able to be out.”

Martin tossed the bag of peas on the floor forcefully. He

clenched his fists and rocked back and forth in his seat. “This is bull, what am I supposed to do?” he snapped angrily.

“Find Maximus and the boy,” Edward said plainly. He didn’t

fear Martin. He could understand his frustrations, but he didn’t care.

Like him, he had made a choice, and now he needed to live with it.

“And how exactly do I do that?” Martin sarcastically asked.

Edward sighed. The bang didn’t knock as much sense into him

as he had hoped. “The boy.”

“What about him? Don’t forget my last stint ‘observing’ him

didn’t end well for me,” Martin’s sarcasm still rife. “Plus I’ve been warned off.”

“You do not heed his warnings; there are powers at work here

that are greater than Maximus.”

“Yes Edward, and he works for them,” Martin tersely answered.

“You’ve seen what the Associates have done, and you doubt

them?” Edward enquired.

“No, I just don’t understand how they didn’t see this

happening.”

Edward laughed out loud; a deep belly laugh. He couldn’t hold it in any longer. He’d wanted so much to laugh the minute he heard about his altercation. “You idiot,” he said. “You utter fool.”

Martin rose from his chair, “What?!” he snapped.

“Who said they didn’t see the events clearly?” Edward asked,

“My boy, you are expendable. If the Associates decide they want you to take a beating, you take it; it is not for you to question.”

“You mean they knew I would get a kicking?” he asked

obtusely.

“Perhaps they wanted to see if there was another player. Thanks

to you, they know.” Edward still smiled broadly at Martin as he

retook his seat, more calm, but still full of rage.

“Okay, so what do I do now?”

“Find Maximus,” he repeated.

Martin questioned, “How?”

“I’m sure yours, the boy’s, and Maximus’ paths will cross again

sooner or later,” Edward remarked, taking out an envelope.

Martin recoiled slightly at the sight as Edward placed it on top

of an empty pizza box. “Take tonight off. Read the assignment

tomorrow before midday.” Edward stood up, placing his black fedora on his head. “I will be in touch.”

“Okay,” Martin replied, watching him disappear into the

hallway. The door clicked shut a moment later. He applied the

compress once again. “I hate this job,” he muttered under his breath.

[*Author’s notes *]

Did you enjoy this book?

If you would like to know about future releases, please email me at

[email protected]

Document Outline

  • About the book
  • Title Page
  • Chapter One
  • Chapter Two
  • Chapter Three
  • Chapter Four
  • Chapter Five
  • Chapter Six
  • Chapter Seven
  • Chapter Eight
  • Chapter Nine
  • Chapter Ten
  • Chapter Eleven
  • Chapter Twelve
  • Chapter Thirteen
  • Chapter Fourteen
  • Chapter Fifteen
  • Chapter Sixteen
  • Chapter Seventeen
  • Chapter Eighteen
  • Chapter Nineteen
  • Chapter Twenty
  • Chapter Twenty-one
  • Chapter Twenty-two
  • Author’s Notes
  • About the book
  • Title Page
  • Chapter One
  • Chapter Two
  • Chapter Three
  • Chapter Four
  • Chapter Five
  • Chapter Six
  • Chapter Seven
  • Chapter Eight
  • Chapter Nine
  • Chapter Ten
  • Chapter Eleven
  • Chapter Twelve
  • Chapter Thirteen
  • Chapter Fourteen
  • Chapter Fifteen
  • Chapter Sixteen
  • Chapter Seventeen
  • Chapter Eighteen
  • Chapter Nineteen
  • Chapter Twenty
  • Chapter Twenty-one
  • Chapter Twenty-two
  • Author’s notes

The Dark Expanse - Novella 1

Amidst the darkness of your slumber is where you’ll find the Colosseum, an astral battleground filled with children. Limited only by their imaginations, they can transform into the wildest of creatures. Under the watchful gaze of the Overseer, they clash in hopes of becoming one of its Elite. Hidden deep inside the vast expanse, the Associates lie in wait. They are a faceless organization who decides which children enter the Colosseum. This company conceals itself in the shadows, using the youngsters to aid their agenda in the real world. Max Carter begins to question his vocation in life. He knows this isn’t wise, considering his employers are the Associates. Not many people are aware of their existence, but they are woven into society. When Max receives a cryptic message, he learns that the company isn’t the only thing prowling the dark expanse. Wesley Finton is chosen! Not by the Associates, but the sinister figure who lurks at the edges of our sleep. Once inside the arena, Wesley discovers a strange power dwelling within him, and a vile plot to exploit the children within its walls.

  • Author: Jack Hammond
  • Published: 2017-06-19 18:50:10
  • Words: 21625
The Dark Expanse - Novella 1 The Dark Expanse - Novella 1