Somebody was shouting.
With much more effort than it should take I opened one eye, then the other, and rolled over to the other side with a pillow over my head.
After everything that had happened yesterday, I wanted nothing but to sleep. For days, if I could! Maybe when I woke up I'd find out this was all a dream and this whole time I'd been sleeping in my room, perfectly safe in my perfectly daft, boring life.
There was some more shouting I could hear even through my polyester armour and footsteps on the floor right next to me. A door opened and closed with a creak and a thud.
Something was wrong.
I sat up and instinctively reached for my phone, only to realise I'd lost it weeks ago. To check the time, I had to walk over to Elskan's empty bed and look at the digital clock on his bedside table.
And apparently, I'd slept for three full hours.
Should be enough for my beauty sleep.
The greetings I got were like a slap in the face. People were running everywhere, shouting and arguing, Will walked past me without even noticing I was there and a huge crowd (by our standards) gathered right outside of the kitchen door.
“Anyone seen her yet?”
“What's going on?”
Ignoring all the tumult and pushing my way past the Rebels blocking the doorway, I immediately found the source of all the chaos.
Caroline Fox was gone.
“If this girl escapes, not only will we lose the biggest leverage we could have ever hoped to have, she'll bring them right to our doorstep!” The leader of the Rebels stood by an empty chair in the middle of the room, the remains of the plastic straps we'd used to restrain her still visible on the wooden armrests and legs.
Elskan and the other outlaws were there too, and from what I could gather, they seemed about as rested as I was.
“We should have probably designated someone to stand guard over her.”
“And you didn't?”
“It didn't seem necessary.”
“But how could she have escaped? This whole place is brimming to bursting with people.” William argued.
“Ask around then. Maybe someone has seen something and didn't think it important to tell us.”
When the young outlaw grabbed his brother and closed the door behind them, we were left alone to talk about the situation, and Tommy crossed her hands.
“Well, good job…”
“We'll find her,” El assured her with a scowl. “She couldn't have gotten far.”
“None of the traps we have sounded over the night. Did they?” I contributed with what I thought was a smart little detail.
“All the traps the Rebels managed to set off when we led them in here?”
“Oh, yeah… that's true.”
“We had Foxglove at our mercy for all about one whole night and we idled it away!” The Rebel wailed again.
And in the middle of all this chaos, a phone started ringing.
It played its simple, catchy tune and clanked and rattled over the top of the wooden table as the vibrations kicked in.
“Is that them?”
“Who are we supposed to be expecting? Foxglove? The police?”
“There's usually a whole team of people behind the phone,” I tried to help with what limited knowledge I had. All a courtesy of late-night chin wags with my older sister.
“Everyone keep quiet! I'm gonna put it on hands-free.”
“Wait! Who's going to talk?”
“Me,” Tommy decided for herself, and grabbed for the phone.
There was a moment of static.
“Hello.” A pleasant voice answered. “Who am I speaking to?”
There was a slight pause as Tommy regained her composure. “The people who kidnapped Caroline Fox.”
“And what's your name?”
When she looked to us for some ideas, she got a shrug from me, a resolute shake of the head from Elskan and a blank look from Mark. “People call me Tommy.”
“Good. Listen, Tommy, I'm sure we can find an easy way out of this. If you return Caroline back safe and unharmed, we can promise you a-”
There was some strange noise coming in from the other side and a second later the call continued, way louder and angrier than before.
“You bastards, where do you keep my daughter?”
Like a clap of thunder from a clear sky, the deep voice of Hector Fox, our arch-nemesis, boomed through the small kitchen. There was no need for him to be present personally; people shivered and cowed all the same.
“If you think you can get away with this, you are very, very wrong. I have crushed bigger worms than you for far lesser slights than this.”
“Wherever you may be hiding in this tiny hole of a town, you can be sure I will use every expense available to find you and get my hands on you.”
Though the voice of the original caller could be heard over the speaker, complaining and disagreeing with their boss' unconventional methods, Fox went on in disrupting the carefully planned out operation.
“I refuse to negotiate over the phone like some cowardly dog. If you want to talk the terms, you will come to me and face me like real men. I will be waiting for you in my headquarters.”
“Erm…” Tommy looked from one of us to the other.
“Of course I promise you safe conduct as long as you don't try anything stupid. Come and speak to me if you think you have the guts to do it. The gates of Lyonhall are open for yo-”
With that, the great warmonger's voice broke off, leaving us standing there confused and completely baffled at his words.
“Aren't we supposed to be the scary ones?” Mark finally broke the silence. “The ones stating the terms and threatening the distressed father and such…”
“I don' think Fox cares to understand how these situations work.”
Tommy frowned at the phone. “This has got to be a trap.”
“It's one hundred per cent a trap,” I seconded her.
“It's not a trap,” Elskan disagreed. “We've got his daughter. If anything happens to the envoy, he knows he will never see her again.”
“Which is bullshit, because none of us have the guts to actually hurt her,” Mark said.
“And we don't even know where she is right now.”
“But Fox doesn't know any of that. To him we are nothing but outlaws holding his daughter; savage bastards, able to do anything to anyone. And we have to keep it that way. For now.”
Without wasting any more of our precious time, we formed a small search party and divided what few people we had into groups of two and three to go and look about. One of the last ones to leave were Will, Manny and Ashley and the older brother approached us before they departed.
“Are you sure this is going to work? Most of them don't know the area the way we do. Hell, even we haven't properly scanned the whole place until like a few days back.”
“True… and that reminds me of one particular location that might be worth going through, if you wouldn't mind checking it out.”
“The spooky house?”
“And remember that Caroline has no idea where she is either. She'll be as lost as any of us when we came to this place for the first time. Use that to your advantage, if you can. You're in charge here until we return, you got that?”
As Will turned to go, his chest puffed out with sudden pride and Ashley gave me one last smile before I watched with an unspoken sense of dread all the small groups disappearing into the bushes one by one. I was still waiting for my own designation in all this, and something told me I wasn't going to like it. All my suspicions were confirmed when El pulled me aside to talk to me.
“Now, Tony… we're going to go and visit our friends at Lyonhall.”
“Why me?” I asked with unconcealed desperation in my voice.
“Everyone else in this camp knows the fortress only as a distant landmark. The two of us, though- we've been there before. We've seen the dungeons, the interior and the courtyard inside and out. Now, I don't know what's going to happen out there, so we need every advantage we can get.”
“You, me and Tommy,” he frowned. “With James missing, I can't think of anyone else who'd be better to help us negotiate the terms with them. Are you ready for this?”
Of course I wasn't. This whole situation was just ridiculous!
“Sure… Anything else?”
He stopped for a moment, thinking. “Make sure to go and take a piss before we leave. I'm not sure our hosts will be kind enough to show us a way to a toilet.”
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I've never flown by a plane and by that point in my life I'd never been out to the open seas before, but I could imagine the things my stomach was doing during that short ride must have been a pretty good preview of what it feels like. Noticing the two blank plates of our stolen car and our masked faces, the guard standing attention at a small booth beneath the hill didn't even ask any questions, made a single call and let us go.
It was so bizarre to revisit this place again in such a short period of time, and under such different circumstances at that.
The metallic gate leading up to the courtyard had been repaired and improved, I noted. The last time we were here, we'd managed to smash it clean off its hinges. The soldiers replaced it with new massive doors made of wood and metal. Up here, too, two foxes stood guard at their little posts and stared us down as we passed through.
The grim courtyard opened up in front of us.
Crude white plastering was falling off in places and the dark red roofs looked down at the rows and rows of armoured vehicles standing in the courtyard. Dozens of soldiers marched around, going about their morning routine, putting on an impressive show for anyone unlucky enough to get inside… and for anyone bold enough to enter out of their own design.
“This is where it all started,” I whispered, and El nodded in agreement.
The significance of that sentence was lost to Tommy, who looked around in disgust. “They should have turned this place into a museum. Not a military base.”
“Maybe in a different time,” Elskan wiped his nose and pointed a finger. “They probably made some place for us over there.”
The car stopped next to a row of jeeps parked against one of the walls and we were led out of the vehicle by an armed escort and into the large doors I recognised from my last visit. The white, murky hallway hadn't changed. The only difference was that instead of ushering us down into the deep cellars and dungeons beneath the fortress, we ascended the stairs up to the second floor.
It was absolutely mental to think the very people we were trying to save must have been locked up right under our feet, waiting to be rescued.
We continued marching forward.
In the tense silence, I could hear Tommy breathing and Elskan's daps squeaking gently on the polished floor, driving me crazy. We passed doors and wide windows and a couple of less military-looking staff members, and at the end of a long hallway adorned with years old antlered heads mounted on the walls, an extraordinarily ornate double door opened to reveal a spacious white office.
The distressed father was waiting for our arrival in the middle of the room, surrounded by what I assumed were his best men. As the heavy door slid open with a ponderous grace, Fox immediately looked up from his table in expectation. His eyes grew wide and he made a sudden move as if to lunge at us before one of his officers grabbed him by the shoulder.
Then, calming down, he spoke. His voice was a deep rumble, one of those that might remind you of an iceberg crashing down into the abyss.
“Here you are.”
He looked exactly the way I remembered him from our first encounter, if only a little more battered, with veins clearly visible on his forehead and bags under his eyes. And a little more intimidating. Seeing him up close, hulking over the men beside him, was a sight for sore eyes.
“Hello,” Tommy greeted him plainly.
“Are you afraid to show yourself?” Fox glared at our covered faces. “I would prefer to know the names of those who attacked my family.”
“Maybe calm it down a little so long as you have some family left,” The Rebel replied with some surprising ferocity.
The threat didn't appear to have had much of an effect on him, other than to make him even more furious.
“And who is this hummingbird I've heard about? I would like to speak with him personally.”
Elskan glanced over at me and frowned. “Hummingbird is the name of our group, apparently. By speaking to us, you are speaking to everyone.”
“Listen closely, then,” Fox wasted no time. “The town hired us to keep order among you scum. This very week we managed to smash one group of outlaws and I did it because it was my job. You, however, you have crossed the line. If you didn't have my daughter, I would have you executed on the spot. No trial, no prison, no second chances. When all of this is done I will find you and I will march you through the gates of the hell itself.”
He stepped closer to me and stared me right in the face like a bull about to charge.
“Now then, let us discuss the terms of your upcoming demise.”
“We will-” Elskan's voice broke in the middle of the sentence, as if he realised we'd just made a terrible mistake.
“We will exchange your daughter for the Rebel prisoners you captured two days ago.” Tommy stepped forward, her chin held high. “Men, women and children... all of them. There will be no exceptions and no one will get hurt. We'll be the ones to choose the place and time. And if you don't like a single of our terms, you can say goodbye to your little girl.”
Fox turned his fury in her direction. He was clearly not pleased to be speaking to a woman.
“Sixty people for one young woman… that seems to be hardly fair.”
“Sixty people for a child sounds perfectly fine to me.”
“An exchange of captives, then.” He looked to one of his soldiers and nodded. “Where?”
Tommy was silent for a moment and I realised we'd forgotten to discuss this simple detail before.
“Blaxhall,” she shot.
“Blaxhall,” he repeated, pondering the name.
“Yes. It's not far from here. Full of civilians…” Tommy grinned. “You're going to like it.”
“Very well. And the time?”
This time she looked to us for help. There was a long moment of uncomfortable silence. We should have seriously rehearsed this conversation.
“Tomorrow morning?” I dared to venture as my two companions looked in my direction. I hadn't come all this way just to stand idly aside and keep silent. “Eight or nine in the morning?”
Fox looked down at his watch and smiled coldly.
“That gives us nineteen hours to prepare and you nineteen hours to say your goodbyes.”
“Just so there's one of us to say it out loud…” Tommy was now getting equally riled up. “This is all your own doing. We're all in this mess simply because you assholes had to come down to our town and destroy everything for everyone. But hey… I get it's easier to attack someone for no reason than to actually go and start asking questions. After all, we all went to preschool once.”
Suddenly, in a split second, Fox drew a handgun out of the holster of the nearest man and pointed the barrel straight in her face. The Rebel leader froze in place with terror, and even some of the rough, seasoned soldiers stepped back in shock.
“Tomorrow you will bring me back my daughter,” Fox stared her down, his voice as calm as a grave. “I am going to hug her and I am going to bring her back home and keep her safe. If you somehow manage to get out of it, all of you and all of your people will pray you didn't survive. Now throw them out of here.” He pressed the weapon ino the hand of one of our escort.
The light breeze outside was more than welcome, because for the past twenty minutes or so, I'd been looking for a good opportunity to pass out.
The soldiers watched us cross the yard and stand by the stolen car, where El suddenly stopped and turned to the Rebel.
“Do you want some help getting into the car?”
The sudden stop and the strange change of mood made her wince. “What are you talking about?”
“I wouldn't want you to trip over those massive balls you seem to have, right? So...”
I didn't get the joke outright. We both just stared at him in utter disbelief, exchanged a glance and looked back at the outlaw. Then, in the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by dozens of armed soldiers staring us down from all sides, Tommy dared to let out a hearty laugh.
“Let's get out of here, you two.”
“No, I'm serious,” Elskan went on on our way back. “The dude's got some five meters. Four, at least. And you stood up to him like it was nothing.”
Houses and cars ran by us, roads appeared and disappeared out of our sight, and the mood seemed to change for the better. We were alive, after all, and even if the negotiation didn't go as smoothly as we might had hoped, things weren't as bad as they could have been and the Rebel started talking.
“I've been thinking about something. And it might sound a little strange.”
“Go on,” El nodded.
“The last few days, horrible as they may have been, finally made us make some change in this town,” she began uncertainly. “We don't just out bread and help old people cross the street... we are actually and officially standing up against Foxglove! And whatever the outcome of all of this could be, people will remember that. We might be just a tiny group, just as Ash said, but I think we've started something that... I don't know, could grow into something bigger.”
“Just... Cheers to you guys for being out there with me.”
Whatever we might have started out there, the outlaw wasn't as pleased with the outcome as Tommy seemed to be. His smile faded, and he looked out of the window.
“I used to visit my grandma there when I was a little kid. She's gone now,” Tommy shrugged. “It's literally a single cornfield away from your forest. We can hide in it, run through, disappear and scatter... I thought it was pretty fitting.”
“It's a good call,” Elskan shifted in his seat. “Let's just get back home now. Can you step on it a little?”
I glanced into the rear view mirror. “Why? Is someone chasing us?”
“No. I just didn't listen to my own advice.”
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There was still work to be done before we could call it a successful day and back in the camp, after El had returned from his visit to the nearest bush and we'd climbed the small hill to the clearing at the top, I could see Will jogging to reach us.
“I've got some good news and some bad news. Which one do you wanna hear first?”
“The bad, of course, so we can act on it.”
“The bad news is that we won't be able to use any awesome cover-up plan.”
“Because we found the girl!” Will grinned at us victoriously. “She was hiding in the basement under the kitchen. In all that chaos, I guess none of us figured to look down there.”
We could all but stare at him as he went on, feeling more and more relieved with every word we heard. “Manny got properly knackered from all the searching, split up without telling anyone, and went back home to get an early lunch, I guess. He couldn't find anything in the fridge, so he went down to get something canned. That's how he found her, covering under a table.”
“And everything went alright?”
“She tried to talk him into helping her and then punched him in the face a little, but everything's fine. Just don't talk about it in front of him. He sounded pretty embarrassed about what happened.”
“Don't worry,” El laughed, “Let's have a look at her then, and we'll tell you what went down at Lyonhall.”
In our absence, the two brothers moved the girl's chair down into the basement. It was easier than dragging her up the stairs, kicking and biting the way she was. That was smart. I would have done the same. When we entered the small space under the kitchen, we found her tied and taped to her seat once again; each of her limbs was firmly attached to the wood by at least a dozen random zip-ties, tethers and a wider assortment of whatever else they managed to find around the camp.
“We really wanted to make sure she wasn't going to get out a second time,” William explained this overblown precaution. “
“Good on that.” El nodded in agreement and leaned forward to speak to the young woman. “Hey there.”
“What do you want?”
“How was your day?”
“Yeah… go to hell.” Caroline showed him her deep frown.
“You should be nicer to us.” El looked from me to Tommy and smiled. “We've arranged a little trip for you first thing tomorrow morning. You'll see your friends again.”
“We spoke with your father today. He seemed to be pretty upset about you missing.”
The outlaw grinned in amusement. “You'll be here for at least one more day so do you got everything you need? Food and water? Or do you want to go to the toilet again?”
Her expression changed to a face of quiet mistrust and her stomach growled as if in answer to his question. “I'm a little hungry.”
El gave Will a look. “It's not like we had any time to cook with all the running and searching about,” the young outlaw defended himself. “It's not like any of us ate anything either.”
“So we don't have anything to eat?”
“Manny said he was going to go and make something.”
“Then go and help him and bring it here when you're done. Thanks.”
Tommy watched him disappear up the stairs and then looked from the girl to the two of us and whispered.
“We should figure out some solid plans for tomorrow. This is the grand finale. There's no way we can just march in there and try to wing it the way you usually do.”
“We should count on something going wrong too.”
“We should expect absolutely everything to go wrong,” Elskan agreed with her.
“If it came to the worst… How many guns do you have, for example?”
The dim basement grew quiet as El thought about the answer. “With those four weapons we snatched during…” his eyes darted to me, “an action we had before we knew each other, and the other bunch we got a few days back, that makes for a grand total of... seven guns...”
“Right. How about the ammunition?”
“Whatever's left in them.” El shrugged.
Without another word, Tommy threw her hands up in frustration.
“We just have to make sure it doesn't come to open conflict. That's what we want anyway.”
“And do you really believe that's the way it's going to play out?”
He didn't have an answer to that, unfortunately.
Keeping quiet and out of the conversation, mainly because I didn't trust myself with any overly important decisions, I noticed Caroline hanging on every single word they said with her eyes half-closed as she tried to eavesdrop on us.
“Yeah, we should probably continue this conversation somewhere else.”
We stayed talking and plotting long into the evening. The supper came and went and so did the people, chiming in with their own questions and ideas and disappearing back into the woods. The core of our small group remained unaltered and soon we exchanged the cramped surroundings of the camp for the freedom of the forest and walked along more or less familiar paths. We passed the creepy old house that never got to become a proper hotel, showed Tommy the long winding paths on the northernmost side of our territory, met a couple of her Rebels sitting by a low, quiet river and whispering to each other as we passed, and got lost in the bushes until we found our way back to the wooden cabins.
By the time we returned, we had a pretty good idea of the way we wanted things to go down tomorrow and got the word out to as many people as we could. As the very last item to cross off the list, I made a round around the camp to make sure everyone had a safe place to go to once the storm had passed over.
We figured it would be a good idea to ask all the Rebels about their whereabouts. Most of them had families and friends in different parts of Britain, people to confide in and places to hide them. The ones who didn't and the ones who decided to stay in the town were unfortunately on their own.
Once the exchange took place and all the Rebels were freed, there would only be so much time to scatter.
Finally, my path led me back to our wooden cabin and my injured roommate. Even from afar, I could hear the sounds of work being done, metal clanking on metal and loud cursing when things didn't go the way he wanted them and sure enough, as I opened the door, I could see him bent down over the failed invention he'd managed to craft from the last of Einstein's bombs and curious, I stepped closer to look over his shoulder.
“I'm just finishing up my project.” He turned around to face me. “There's nothing more to be done as far as I can see, so I'm just keeping busy while we wait for tomorrow.”
“Why are you spending so much time working on this thing? It doesn't even work and we should all get some sleep. ”
“Why? I guess it's just…” he stopped with his eyes to the floor, clearly regretting he'd ever started to explain anything. “If something happens to me tomorrow, or any of the other days for that matter, I just want something cool I created to stay there after me, you know? I think that's an inkling all of us have in one way or another.”
“Something cool you created?” I couldn't believe his words. “As if that was a problem you have. You're gonna have a kid, aren't you?”
“You're gonna be a dad.” It was perhaps a little strange, but the realisation hit me just at that moment amidst all that chaos.
He smiled. “Yeah… we didn't really have any time to talk about it yesterday, did we?”
“So what do you think of Anne, now that you've met her?”
“She seems… fierce.”
“That's a nice word,” El chortled, immediately growing more serious as he realised something. “You probably don't know-”
“James explained everything while you were getting stitched up,” I assured him. “At least I hope it was everything…”
“Right. I hope he's okay.” He frowned at the mention of his friend and I quickly came up with a way to divert his attention.
“So what are you doing here anyway? The second great scrapyard of Nederstone?”
Looking at the almost completely transformed bomb I could make out all the hanging, massive wires and tubes we'd seen the last time were gone, replaced by a much cleaner look.
The remaining wiring was hidden inside of a dark plastic handle fashioned with a kind of an elongated trigger on its underside. This new design seemed much neater and sleeker than the last time he tried to present the thing. The biggest new addition was a long, sharp blade sticking out from the front; a replacement for the leaden metal rod he'd attached to the device to, in his own words, help direct the surge of lightning.
“Are you trying to make it look like a sword?”
“Why not?” El rose from the table, shrugging his shoulders. “I figured it was more or less a natural progression from the last design.
“Looks fancy. Do you want to take it with you?”
“I'm not even sure it's gonna work. After the last debacle...” There was something bitter in his smile.
“You did get some tips and tricks from Einstein, didn't you?”
“I got a few. I did.” he frowned now. “Though I'm afraid the man appears to be just a tad smarter than me. I'm trying to make it work the way I want to and even with a clear explanation I just can't seem to get it right. I haven't had any time to test it either, with everything that's going on... But I might take it with us. If anything goes wrong, we're gonna need every last bit of firepower.”
I just nodded to that. The implication was... more than uncomfortable.
“I don't think anything could go wrong, though.” He must have noticed my discomfort. “We've got all the best individuals of this town, we've forged our plans, and we've got Fox's daughter back, and as long as we keep young Caroline close, they won't dare to touch any of us.”
“And after that?” I asked. “When we exchange her for the Rebels and James? What exactly is going to stop them from arresting all of us or blowing us to shreds?”
“Yeah, that's a... that's a conundrum...”
He cleared his throat and looked back down at his work.
“You know you don't have to go with us if you don't want to, right?”
That sentence took me properly off guard. He didn't know I'd been dealing with that thought the whole day. I could just stay in the camp, safe and sound behind a wall of trees and concealed from any harm, just like the few individuals who'd chosen to lie low during the exchange. I could wait and watch my friends do all the work and no harm would come to me if I wished to.
“I was the one who dragged you into all of this, and I don't want to be responsible for anything that might happen to you. I was lying, of course, when I said that nothing could go wrong. There's a whole myriad of things they could do and we would never expect it… To be honest, if it hadn't been for James, I probably wouldn't even be here. I would have taken Anne two days ago and run.”
“How is she doing?” I dodged his original question, and a curious thought crossed my mind. “Did you even tell her all of this is happening?”
“Of course I did! Who do you think I am, Tony? Come on!” El laughed bitterly. “I might have withheld some things, of course. She knows she should be ready to move. That's enough. How about you? Have you packed up your things?”
I glanced over to my modest sack of clothes in the corner. “The little that I had.”
“Good. I don't think there will be any time to do it tomorrow. And you do have a place to go to, don't you?”
“I do. I have a family in Swansea. My parents,” I shrugged. “Sam might come with me or maybe she might decide to stay. If she does, I'm sure she'll take care of herself.”
He smiled. “She looks like it.”
“How about you?” I asked.
“For us, it's whatever may be up north. It's a shame to leave such a nice little camp behind and it won't be easy to blend into a new place, but maybe we'll get lucky in a bigger city, like Norwich. And after that... I haven't really had the time to think about it. It would be nice to see Scotland, I suppose... though with a pregnant woman and the way I am right now…” He groaned.
“How is it looking?” I referred to his wound. “Does it hurt?”
“It looks like it's gonna be healing for a few months and then if it does I'm gonna have a nice big scar and a nice cool story to remind me of the time we fought an army. Let's talk about something more cheerful. How about you and that Rebel girl?”
“I have no idea what are you talking about.”
I stayed there chatting with the outlaw until he finished his work, then when Ashley and Tommy came by to wish us goodnight, the two of us went over to the kitchen to get some tea and sat down outside in front of our cabin, watching the sky grow dark.
“What did you used to do?” a question came. “Before Lyonhall and all of that?”
“I used to work with computers before they kicked me out.”
“An IT-guy?” El laughed. “I can still remember my parents, you know, telling me I'll get nowhere in life sitting behind a computer. A few years later, all my classmates got easy jobs as the demand jumped up. Then again, they probably didn't have too much foresight.”
I'd never heard El talk about his parents before or much of anything else from his past. Considering this was likely the last night we'd ever see each other, I figured a little bit of honesty couldn't hurt.
“And what did you do before the war?”
El took a sip from his mug. “When I got out of school, I wanted to be an actor for a while. I tried a few auditions, but the problem was no one wanted a young guy with no experience... so I started working on a construction site. You know, just to get some money for a while.”
“And that's where I got stuck for the next ten years.”
That seemed awfully odd to me. With his kind of brain, I would have expected Elskan to have been a professor or at least an engineer or something.
“You don't always get what you want in life.” He sat at the edge of his seat and leaned closer to me. “Do you know what I've always dreamt of, ever since I was a kid? I wanted to be a pirate. Just like captain Bokbok.”
“Of course! To sail around and visit all these incredible, exciting places, making discoveries along the way, singing shanties and stealing and visiting islands and seas and doing whatever I want… to be a free man.”
“I suppose that last part worked out pretty well.” I looked around us.
“I suppose it did,” El smiled.
Something told me it was my part to confess. “When I was little, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I watched all those action movies where they explored ancient temples full of traps and ran away from gigantic boulders and… I don't know. In reality, it's a whole lot of paperwork and a bit of sitting around with a tiny brush in your hand. It wouldn't work out anyway. They wouldn't take me with a brain like I have and I suppose they wouldn't take you with a name like Elskan Tesoro.”
At my last words, El stopped with the mug halfway to his mouth and watched me without another word.
“Hey, Tony, my real name is...” he hesitated for just a second. “Well, what does it matter now? Elskan is just a nick I used to use in online games when we were younger and eventually my friends back home started calling me that rather than by my real name. When we arrived in England, I needed an alias and since we were already used to people calling me El, I decided to make it easier for both James and Anne.”
“Well... If anything goes wrong tomorrow, it was a pleasure to meet you, Elskan.”
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Tony.”
Our mugs clinked as we raised them in a silent toast.
“So what does it even mean?” I had to ask after a moment. “Since you chose it, you know.”
“I don't know. Something in Spanish?” he laughed. “I seriously have no idea. I've had it since I was like fifteen and I've never really thought about it that hard.”
After that, the conversation shifted over to popular games and movies of our past years and to half-forgotten villains and superheroes that would probably bore you to death if I decided to recount the whole talk exactly the way it happened.
“Why did they bust you? For real?” I asked, finally.
“What do you mean?”
“That first day. I met you in prison.” I tried to refresh his memory.
“Oh, well. Yeah. We never hunt in this forest,” he started, looking absently over my shoulder. How that was relevant to the story, I had no idea. “Manny doesn't like to see that. The way we treat animals will be one of the main reasons we'll be frowned upon by future generations, and there's no need to endorse that any further.” He shrugged. “We needed meat though, and after a long talk with James, I made my way to town. Back then we still had some money left, and I was determined to use the last of it to buy something that could help us hunt. I didn't really know what it could be, but I was sure I'd find something eventually.”
“They took you just for doing that?” I frowned. But that wasn't the end of the story.
“On my way to the store, I saw the butcher shop, and I had a sudden change of heart. Maybe I could just buy some supplies, ration them over a few days and we'll see what happens next. But you know the pricing of meat these days and looking over the price tags I thought to myself, why would I give away the last of our finances for something... when I can just take it for free…”
This story was starting to sound way too familiar.
“And they caught you.”
“And they caught me.”
He smiled. “You and I aren't so different, apparently. The next thing I knew, I was in a locked car headed to Lyonhall, and I wasn't sure what was going to happen next, but I knew I had to get out no matter what. I have way too many people who rely on me and I couldn't just leave them out there all alone to fend for themselves.” El took a sip from his mug. “Will, Manny, James, Anne… I noticed the door of my cell seemed a little wobbly and there was some crazy sucker just next door willing to help me escape.” He laughed. “So I took my chances.”
That was one of the last things we talked about that day as he succumbed to his own private thoughts and left me brooding over my tea about what was about to come. We spent the rest of the night sitting in silence, watching over the green sea around us.
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