ANNO DOMINI ~Allium~ [Beta version]
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BOOK 2, CHAPTER 14: SCANDAL WITHIN THE DIVIDE
The long line at Mugly Muffinz 2Go was typical for the bakery-café that Friday afternoon. However, Lindsay Voigt was determined to get her blueberry scone and iced mocha latte with almond milk during her lunch break. She’d skipped breakfast, and her rumbly tummy had been embarrassing.
“Hi there, Lindsay,” the cashier greeted the young office worker girl with long, light brown hair and brown eyes.
“Hey,” Lindsay replied with a smile, looking at the overhead menu, “I’ll have… What the heck? You guys got expensive!”
“Yeah, earlier this week.”
“This is the second place I’ve been to today to raise their prices.” Lindsay pouted. “Oh man, I don’t wanna pay that much. I guess I’ll just have a blueberry scone and skip the mocha latte.” Her smile went flat. “I can make some coffee back at the office, but they always stock the crappiest of crap.”
“Sorry,” the cashier said, reaching with tongs into the display case full of fresh pastries. “Oh, I saw your cosplay pics online. They look awesome.”
“You like them?” Lindsay said, blushing. “Thank you! I make the costumes myself. I know I post them on the internet, but it’s still embarrassing sometimes…”
“It’s crazy how much you can look just like D.Va from Overwatch, or Lydia from Beetlejuice,” the cashier said cheerily, “because you’re so plain in person with your hair in a bun and office clothes.”
“Huhhh,” Lindsay’s eye twitched as she tried to keep smiling, “plain, eh?”
“Must be all the fancy makeup you use in the pictures!”
“Y-yeah,” Lindsay said as she inserted her credit card into the chip reader. “My job has a strict dress code, so I need to use the hair dyes that wash out easily.”
The cashier handed Lindsay her receipt and blueberry scone in a bag, then leaned over the counter and whispered, “I have three separate accounts online just to follow you.” He winked. “I really support your artistic qualities.”
With that, Lindsay exited Mugly Muffinz 2Go at a brisk pace. On the city bus back to work, she wore her wireless earplugs, listening to orchestral arrangements of songs from the Kingdom Hearts II video game soundtrack streamed from her smartphone. Even without her iced mocha latte, her commune back to the Chicago Police Department was relaxing.
At the office, she headed to the breakroom and promptly prepared a pot of coffee, then ate half of her scone while waiting for the brew to finish. However, because she was in a hurry, she accidentally spilled some hot coffee on her hand when trying to pour herself a cup, causing her to drop the carafe on the floor. A mess of wasted coffee and glass was the result.
As she scrambled to clean up the spill that spread across the tiled floor, Detective Ulysses Townshend strolled into the breakroom. He was humming what sounded like a made-up TV show theme song, holding a folder in his hand. The trench coat-wearing detective stopped in the doorway, assessed the situation quickly, and then snickered.
“Miss Voigt!” he announced. “Unless I’ve been uninformed, this is your fifth coffee pot. What a milestone.”
Lindsay looked at Townshend, pouting.
“Don’t make fun of me,” she said, picking up the large pieces of glass and throwing them into the trash.
Townshend walked over to the mess to help pick up the glass.
“You need to be more careful,” he told her, holding a shard of glass. “This still feels pretty hot. You could’ve really hurt yourself.”
“I already did,” she said, forcing a smile while showing him the red spot on her hand. “I don’t think it’ll blister, but it caught me off guard.”
Officer Duke Harrison and Officer Lars Briggs entered the breakroom together and noticed what had happened.
“Uh-oh,” Briggs said amusedly, “Lindsay did it again.”
Lindsay grinned from embarrassment.
“Yeah, today’s been kinda rough,” she said meekly. “I woke up late, then my bus got stuck in traffic. I couldn’t even eat breakfast this morning, since my favorite doughnut shop really upped their prices. And I just went to lunch at my favorite café-bakery, and they upped their prices, too!”
Nodding, Harrison acknowledged what Lindsay had said.
“Food prices are increasing,” he said. “My son’s lunches are getting expensive.”
“I think it’s because everyone was so sick a little while ago,” Lindsay said as she grabbed more broken glass off the floor. “Like, people were spending money on food to stay nourished with the ghost flu. Maybe. I don’t know.”
Townshend paused when Lindsay said that.
“That’s no fun,” he replied, “being sick.”
Lindsay swept the remaining bits of glass into a dustpan.
“Thank you, Mr. Townshend,” she said gratefully as she emptied the dustpan into the trash. “Thanks for your help. I can take this trash bag out.”
“You’re welcome,” Townshend told her. “Make sure to take the entire trashcan out to the dumpster, or the glass will tear through the bag.”
“Heh, that happened the first time I broke the coffee pot,” Lindsay said as she picked up the relatively light trashcan. “I’m sorry for this. I’ll see you all later.” She hurried out of the room, leaving the three men in silence.
Townshend took a seat at the table with Harrison and Briggs, and Harrison glanced at the folder the detective had brought in.
“Are you on an assignment, Detective?” Harrison asked.
“No, but my time’s been well spent,” he said rather gleefully. “You see, in this folder,” he briefly waved the closed folder in the air, “are copies of the medical files for Ivan Dudek’s family. I just read them a moment ago.”
The two officers gave the detective intent looks.
“He was the man who held up the pharmacy,” Harrison said, “because his wife and daughter were very sick.”
“You obtained them, then.” Briggs raised his eyebrows. “You said you liked pulling strings, but I’m impressed how well you do it sometimes.”
“All I had to do,” Townshend explained, “was say I was looking for connections to the break-in at the Cook County Medical Laboratory and Research Center, which was true. I’d been waiting for a coroner’s report, but nobody died. Guess I’m just a pessimist.”
“Did you find what you were looking for?” Briggs asked.
“Sure did,” Townshend said with a sly smirk. “Med records are confidential, though, so I can’t talk about it much. Even so, I still can’t rule out the possibility that there really might have been a criminal connection to that disease, after all. The locks were destroyed in a peculiar way, and the alarm’s disarming code was entered, meaning the perpetrator somehow obtained that information. It’s all intriguing.”
Harrison and Briggs exchanged surprised looks.
“So…what you mean is,” Briggs said quietly, “somebody was responsible for that freak illness that hit the city.”
Harrison shook his head and said, “You’re saying this was…” he leaned forward and dropped his voice, “a biological attack?”
Not saying anything, the detective slowly leaned back in his chair, gazing toward the off-white, acoustical, mineral fiber ceiling panels. The fluorescent light covers were dusty and slightly yellowed.
“What do you plan to do now?” Harrison asked after the void in the conversation.
“Nothing yet,” Townshend answered straightforwardly. He leaned forward again to face the officers. “I have nothing else to go off of. The missing lab workers are still missing, but that’s being handled by missing persons detectives. Forensics are still unable to confidently determine how the perp broke in, and narrowing down a suspect has been less than successful; no fingerprints or DNA have showed up, and all alibis have checked out. For now, I’ll take a more passive role and let the specialists gather the technical details for me.”
In the silence in which the officers merely shrugged at Townshend’s conclusion, Lindsay reentered the room with a charge of positivity.
“I got another coffee pot!” she sang happily as she displayed the new carafe in her hands. “Can you believe Chief Coppery has an entire backstock of these? He’s so smart.”
Townshend grabbed his folder off the table, stood up, and then patted Lindsay on the shoulder.
“Good job, Miss Voigt,” he said, giving her a thumbs-up.
Lindsay cooed with delight as she loved being praised, because she often got scolded for causing accidents. Harrison and Briggs chuckled.
“I’m taking off now,” the detective said with pep. “I have a client to meet. Take care.”
When Townshend left the room, Briggs turned to Harrison.
“He really takes on one case after the next,” he said.
“That’s Ulysses Townshend,” Harrison replied, watching Lindsay set the carafe in the coffee maker. “He just can’t sit still, that’s for sure.”
Getting into his car in the parking lot, Townshend took one more look at the folder he held. With a sigh, he put it in his briefcase on the passenger seat.
“Ivan Dudek’s wife and daughter had indeterminate illnesses matching the description of the ghost flu,” Townshend said to himself, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. “Their samples were, indeed, sent to the Cook County Medical Laboratory and Research Center, almost immediately before the break-in, but after the news of the disease being unlike any other.” He started the car, smiling. “It’s just as I suspected. Hopefully, the perp was trying to cover up a biological attack of an experimental disease, because that’d make this lots of fun for me.”
Agrarian-Schism, Incorporated was the most influential agricultural and food distribution entity of the Midwestern United States, with its headquarters located in Chicago, Illinois. The corporation oversaw a vast majority of the region’s production, processing, and wholesale of food products. Over the years, Agrarian-Schism, Inc. had served its purpose with loyalty and upstanding morality.
Alas, the general public was unaware of a recent blemish in that coveted morality. Signs of a scandal within the company caught the attention of upper management. In order to squelch the problem before it could take root and sprout, Ulysses Townshend had been contacted to investigate the company from within.
The headquarters building featured a luxurious terrace rooftop. Staying true to the company’s backbone, the terrace rooftop resembled an agricultural terrace: a lush garden with the layout arranged in steps descending eastward, providing an excellent view of Lake Michigan from nearly any location on the rooftop. A water fountain at the highest level of the stair-like terrace flowed delicately along well-positioned marble aqueducts, resulting in smooth, artificial waterfalls that poured like veils of glass.
When Townshend exited the elevator room, the extravagant image of the rooftop stunned him with its aesthetic grace. He turned to the gray-suited man who served as his host and guide through the building.
“This is a wonderful terrace,” Townshend said earnestly.
The gray-suited man gave a modest smile.
“Yes, it is. This is where many important meetings are held, especially when guests are invited. Good timing, too.” He smirked. “The weather shouldn’t get in our way today.”
Townshend followed his guide down the steadily descending garden. Archways lined with leafy vines formed a pleasant path alongside the aqueducts, and if it wasn’t for the view of Chicago’s skyline, the detective would’ve found it hard to believe he was in the midst of a giant metropolis.
At the lowest level of the terrace was a long, rectangular table with twelve wicker chairs around it. Townshend quickly noticed the furniture material was for outdoor use, and the arrangement gave the impression of a meeting room.
Despite the number of chairs, only one was occupied when the detective approached—a black man…young, tall, and stocky…Regal Landers. He was buried in a thick book and was unaware anyone else was present.
“Regal,” the gray-suited man said politely, “this area will be needed soon for a meeting.”
Regal looked up from his book and at Townshend for a second.
“A meeting?” He closed the book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. “I didn’t know there was one scheduled today.”
“It was intended to be low-key,” the gray-suited man replied. “Your father arranged for the meeting recently, because he is concerned there may be a problem.”
The wicker chair creaked as Regal stood up, relieved of the husky weight. As the young man stood upright, his substantial size and height were revealed to Townshend.
“What kind of problem?” Regal asked apprehensively in his deep voice.
“Your father wishes to keep it confidential for now, at least until he can inquire further into things.”
Regal moved his eyes from the gray-suited man to the detective. Something was suspicious, and he didn’t want to admit it.
“It must be serious for Papa to treat it this way.” He turned to the detective wearing a long, tan trench coat. “I take it you’re a detective or lawyer, and you’ve been hired by my father to investigate this problem.”
Townshend smiled, stuffing his hands into his coat pockets.
“Due to the confidentiality, all I can say is yes, I am a private investigator. My name is Ulysses Townshend.”
Regal returned his own small smile.
“Well, whatever this problem is,” he said, “I’ll leave it to you, Detective Townshend.”
“I will do my best.”
The young man nodded courteously, and headed through the rooftop garden toward the elevator.
“That was Regal Landers,” the gray-suited man told Townshend. “He’s Desmond Landers’ son.”
“Son of the CEO,” Townshend said contemplatively. “He certainly seemed composed.”
“Yes, he is a bright and steadfast young man. We expect great things from him as a future heir to the company.” He nodded toward the table. “Please have a seat. The chairs and table have been dried, and the weather forecast predicts no more precipitation. Desmond is on his way.”
Townshend took a seat in the nearest wicker chair, which was unexpectedly comfortable. Within minutes, a group of several people exited the rooftop elevator room and made their way to the bottom of the terrace.
Of the group who had arrived, an older black man stood out among them. While not as tall or muscular as Regal, the man in question was no doubt Regal’s father, Desmond Landers, as he wore an identical stern countenance. The detective stood up to greet the company figureheads, and the gray-suited man began the introductions.
“Mr. Landers, this is Detective Ulysses Townshend.”
“Good day, Detective.” Desmond displayed the same reserved, soft-spoken characteristics as his son, although his handshake was powerful and like a rock. “I’m Desmond Landers, CEO of Agrarian-Schism. It’s a pleasure to have you here.”
“Thank you, sir,” Townshend replied with zest. “I have to say, this terrace is wonderful. Very tasteful, although I’m surprised such a thing exists with a view like that.” He gestured toward the surrounding skyscrapers and overall scene of the cityscape, dull and bleak in the wake of last night’s thunderstorm, with the blackened Lake Michigan stretching eastward.
Desmond smiled. “Yes, if only you could see it under fairer conditions. I expect there will be no rain to interrupt us out here, and the furniture should have been dried by my assistants.” He addressed his accompanying team, saying, “Let’s get this meeting underway. We have much to discuss.”
Everyone took their seats around the long rectangular table, six people in all. Townshend opened his notepad out in front of him on the table, turned past the recent doodle of a porcupine using its many quills to knit numerous sweaters and scarves simultaneously, and he wrote a dated headline on a fresh blank page.
Townshend started by taking everyone’s name and position in the company. Each person represented the top tier of their respective department, and it became clear that Townshend was meeting with the entire upper echelon of the corporation, the C-suite individuals responsible for the company as a whole.
“Everyone here are the only ones aware that something is amiss in the company,” Desmond explained, “as far as we know, that is.”
The detective’s eyes swept across the executives sitting around the table.
“Who was the one who first noticed something was wrong?”
The gray-suited man raised his hand (Cole Stevens, Chief Financial Officer).
“That’d be me,” Cole said.
“And what, in a nutshell, is this problem?” Townshend asked.
Desmond felt the eyes of his top-tier employees. He took a deep breath before speaking.
“We believe there is an internal scandal in the company,” Desmond said morbidly.
“Someone who works for you is doing something they shouldn’t be?” Townshend asked. “A serious crime, I take it.”
“That’s what it seems like,” Desmond said.
“Cole,” Townshend said to the CFO, “you said you were the first to notice something wrong. Can you elaborate?”
“My job is to oversee the financial structure of the company,” Cole explained. “I track cash flow, analyze financial data, and manage any investments—those sorts of things. Two weeks ago, when my team compiled the last financial statement, I saw that the numbers weren’t quite adding up.”
“I see.” Townshend was scribbling his notes as quickly as Cole was speaking. “Go on.”
Nearly an hour and six notebook pages later, the last member of the business leaders finished explaining their evidence of a scandal as perceived from their respective place in the company. When Townshend scanned over his notes of the explanations, it was easy to see why the top members of the business were alarmed.
“According to what you all said,” the detective said with a smirk, “this would put the entire company in a hairy situation. All of this happened without anybody at this table giving the green light?”
“That is correct,” Desmond Landers answered with a nod. “That is a clear indicator that this is the result of somebody’s actions, either bypassing or forging our permission.”
“Let me verify what I’ve been told.” Townshend summarized his notes aloud. “Employee wages in the food production and processing sectors have been increased, and done so in tandem with an increase in your wholesale prices to retailers. Since your products and services are in high demand, your retailers are willing to pay the increased price, but they are forced to raise their retail prices in stores to make a profit. This has caused food prices to soar in this region.
“You also said the wage increases compared with revenue from retailers weren’t balanced, so the ratio for cost of labor and income was the first giveaway. Although, the company didn’t suffer much from this, leading you to believe part of the perp’s plan was to maintain a functional income and not jeopardize the company—or possibly to avoid immediate attention, perhaps both.”
The corporate leaders nodded in agreement.
Townshend continued, “About twenty percent of your assets for distribution, warehousing, and transportation have been sold off to overseas buyers. That alone is a problem.
“Next, and most interestingly, an acquisition with your largest competitor took place in which you retained the company, despite any sign of shareholder or other approval. All acquired assets from that merger remain inactive and unmanned, meaning there is no compensation for your aforementioned assets that were lost when sold to overseas buyers.
“Also, it has been general knowledge for all of you here that this merger is in violation of antitrust laws; your company is now considered a regional monopoly with nationwide influence, yet it happened anyway, and any official approval or disapproval doesn’t seem to exist.”
“It’s all true.” Desmond spoke gravely as the other chief officers looked on with disdain. “This company has been performing actions that are the exact reasons why monopolies are heavily regulated. By raising the costs of production and choking distribution for over two-thirds of the Midwest’s agriculture, total control over the industry’s supply and demand are creating high price fixation and artificial scarcities of goods. We are witnessing a food crisis as a result.”
“All without anyone here knowing or giving permission…” Townshend tapped his pen on this notepad. “Have you tried reversing any of these actions? I assume you’d have the power to do so, although it would take time.”
“I’ve tried,” Desmond said, “but they keep reverting back. It’s like somebody is keeping an eye on me, making sure I can’t undo their actions.”
Townshend nodded. “This really is a grave situation for you. It could be very easy for people to call you out for serious violations.”
Desmond’s face said it all.
“I’m aware,” he said firmly, “but the Federal Trade Commission and shareholders seem unaware. Our investors and other business partners have yet to say anything, too. It’s as if they either don’t know, don’t care, or—”
“Or they were the ones rigging it from the beginning,” Townshend blurted out. “Whatever the case, you all have a good reason to be up in arms at this point.”
A silence of mutual agreement ushered in a moment of nonverbal distress around the table before Desmond spoke again.
“That’s why, Detective, we ask you to investigate this for us before anyone takes notice. We have already hired a team of legal advisors, and they don’t seem to be making much progress. We suspect internal corruption to some degree, which we’d like you to investigate, so that we may cover all of our options.”
“I’m no expert on this particular subject,” Townshend said, “but you may want to bring up this situation with your business partners, shareholders, investors, and government agencies before they catch wind. Otherwise, if they find out before you tell them, it might only make you appear more suspicious.
“However,” he continued, “I see a flipside to that. It’s likely that the people involved with this scandal are among the partners, shareholders, investors, and government—approaching them with the issue may be part of their plan, in which case you’ll be falling into whatever trap they’ve set for you. If that’s what’s going on, then you’re making the wise decision of secretly investigating things first, so you’ll have evidence to retaliate against their ‘trap’ when you confront them with all this.”
The company’s executives looked at each other, impressed by Townshend’s wit and relieved that their plan of investigating the situation was possibly a good maneuver.
“Unless,” Townshend told them sharply, looking them all in the eye with a serious manner, “unless at least one of those involved is among us here.”
As expected, a collective gasp emerged from the flabbergasted company team as they exchanged looks. On average, they looked insulted, which was partially a ploy to mask their newfound suspicions of each other.
“You don’t believe that, do you, Detective?” Desmond asked, appearing slightly desperate. “One of the perpetrators is…here?”
With a passive shrug, Townshend said, “Possibilities are possibilities. Besides, you wanted me to look internally, so this is an obvious starting point.” When the executives merely stared at the detective, he continued. “I find it hard to believe a single person or small group has been able to pull this off, unless they have a lofty position and easy access to all corners of your company. Otherwise, a larger group of lower-rank peons may be involved, but undoubtedly with the help of someone at or near the top, whether that top person be inside or outside the company…maybe they’re among your affiliates or even the law. That all begs the question of their motives.”
The C-suite members calmed down, acknowledging what Townshend had explained after getting over the shock of being accused, even if it was just an indirect accusation.
“Now, moving on.” Townshend started a new section in his notepad. “I’d like each of you to give me the lowdown about the departments you direct. Give me your hierarchy and names of all managers, supervisors, and such.” He grinned happily as he fingered all of the soon-to-be-used papers in his notepad. “This is going to be fun, I can tell!”
The main entrance of the Agrarian-Schism headquarters building was rather modest and plain, with large, stone-carved steps leading up to the glass doors. Regal had just finished work and was standing at the bottom of the steps, texting. Somebody walked up to him, making him look up from his phone.
“You’re Regal, was it?” Detective Townshend, wearing an inviting smile, asked the husky young man. “Desmond’s son.”
“Yes,” Regal replied. “How was the meeting?”
“Informative,” the detective said, sounding oddly happy. “I’m not allowed to tell you any details, though.”
“I understand.” Regal looked up at the headquarters building. “This company has been a great thing. A lot of honesty and genuine humanity has built it, so I don’t blame my father for being disturbed by a major problem. To schedule an appointment with a private investigator must mean he suspects something serious.”
“Rest assured that I’ll do what I can to get to the bottom of things,” Townshend told him. “So, I’m told you’re an accountant here. The man who escorted me, Cole Stevens, is the head of your department.”
“Yes,” Regal said. “Just because I’m family, I don’t have any special benefits as far as my job itself. I do my part because it’s what I applied for, and it’s what I’m fit to do.”
“Well, keep working hard, young man!” Townshend patted Regal on the shoulder, which was about eye-level to him. “Maybe you’ll climb the ladder and be able to have meetings in that fabulous terrace.”
Regal smiled from the praise.
“Definitely,” he said confidently.
Townshend nodded. “All right, young man,” he turned to walk away, “take care of yourself.”
“You too, Detective, and thank you for your help.”
The detective made his way down the sidewalk as Regal looked on.
This company is a cancer to the natural world. Regal glanced up at the tall Agrarian-Schism building reaching toward the dull cloud cover. Entities like this exist to destroy the greatest blessings the land has to offer, wringing it dry from greed.
A text message appeared on Regal’s phone, which was short and to the point.
["Meet me now."]
Regal stared at his phone, knowing exactly where he had to go and what the meetup would entail…and he wasn’t excited at all.
Something must be done to preserve the earth. Only you are capable of keeping the balance of nature in check, Regal.
These words were felt in Regal’s heart, and they were as different as words heard are from words read. Yet, they were sanctity, guiding him as a parent guides a child by the hand. Where they led him, he was safe and encouraged.
“It really is up to me to do what’s necessary,” Regal said to himself, typing a response text message, “even if it means meeting this bastard.”
Regal’s fiancée, Chanel, was already home when he made it to his spacious apartment. He saw her sleeping on the couch, and he angrily looked at her for a moment before closing the door, making no effort to keep quiet as he crossed the living room to the guest bedroom. Opening the bedroom door, he was met by the person waiting for him inside.
The other person said nothing, but waited for Regal to close the bedroom door, then activated the magical barrier to seal in their encounter from any who might try to listen in.
“She’s asleep.” Regal was direct with his words to his guest, voicing his disapproval. “I take it that was your doing again?”
Through the dark sunglasses, the masked, cloaked visitor faced the large black man.
“I did,” the altered voice replied. “It’s a precaution. Get used to it.”
Regal scowled, biting his tongue. He dared not cross his guest.
“Let’s hurry this up,” Regal muttered. “I want this meeting to be quick.”
“You told me in your texts that Agrarian-Schism is under investigation.” The masked guest did not move when speaking, maintaining a confrontational stance. “A private investigator.”
“Yes. This is the first I’ve heard of it, but it seems like my father is aware of what we’re doing with the company. I did my best to keep the financial statements normalized, but something must have slipped past me. It makes no sense…”
“You are my scapegoat if things go wrong.” The guest took a step forward, the first motion since Regal’s arrival, and pointed a gloved finger at him. “I’ll ensure that you are the one blamed for interfering with that company. It is your responsibility, and it’s your problem if you get caught,” the altered voice took on a smug inflection, “and there’s no backing out of it, no matter what.”
Regal tightened his strong fists in anger. However, being upset would only spell disaster.
“So,” Regal said through pursed lips, “just what are you doing to the company?”
“Whatever I wish. You explained to me the advantages of using Agrarian-Schism for our deal, and I’m making sure those advantages are taken.”
“Food prices have skyrocketed, so something is happening. And if you do things I’m not aware of, then it’ll show on the financial statements…which I think had happened, and why Papa felt the need to investigate.”
“That’s not your concern,” the guest said, “so mind your own part in this.”
“I know my part,” Regal was reluctant to submit, “and I’ll stick to my part. But, just as a warning, you better be careful. Your recklessness could backfire, and you could draw unwanted attention…and you may not be able to shake it forever. I don’t know how long we’ll be able to hide all this.”
It could’ve been Regal’s imagination, but he seemed to sense a sneer behind the dust mask, ski mask, and sunglasses.
“I’ll kill that private investigator with my own two hands if I must.” The guest’s arrogance was obvious.
“I have the right to believe there may be others involved in some sort of investigation with the company,” Regal added darkly. “You’ll have your hands full with all of them.”
“That will be bad for them, and truly devastating for you…” the guest turned their obscured head toward the bedroom door leading into the living room where Regal’s fiancée slept, “…and for those close to you. If you slip up, I will make you pay.”
Rage swelled up inside of Regal. The guest noticed this response, and watched for any sign of insubordination, ready with several torturous spells and hexes to counter such an act…but Regal held it back.
“I’ll…do what I can.” It was physically painful for Regal to speak so politely toward the despised guest.
“These are the conditions of your contract with me,” the guest told him. “I came to you in your time of need, when you had nothing else to turn to when your fiancée was pronounced terminal from that heinous disease. But then it disappeared. Everyone infected recovered. You signed with me for nothing, and yet you’re still bound by my conditions forever.” The guest crossed their arms; they seemed to be enjoying themselves. “How dare you call me the reckless one?”
Regal couldn’t say anything. He absolutely needed to refrain from doing so, or face the consequences.
After all, the guest was correct, as Regal’s heart could hear the otherworldly messages speaking directly to him.
Because of you, Regal, the parasites of this world are beginning to starve. Without them, nature will be unblemished and free of danger.
“Don’t worry,” the masked guest said, stroking the high-quality cloak’s hood with a gloved hand, “you’re still important to me. You help me a lot. There’s a universe-sized scheme playing out, and both you and I are key players. Doesn’t that make you feel important? Aren’t you aware of the deep, romantic role you play in something so big that you can’t begin to comprehend it?”
“Not really,” Regal grunted in disgust. “Do you feel that way?”
In the few seconds in which the masked guest faced Regal, not speaking, not moving, the tension alone was likely strong enough to peel the paint from the walls. Slowly, the guest’s gloved hand was raised in front of the impossibly dark sunglasses. The fingers twitched, as if wanting to curl into a fist, yet they did not.
Without lowering the hand, the concealed face angled itself in Regal’s direction, and the rest of the cloaked body assumed a sort of depraved, mangy position; it was all very, very slight, almost unnoticeable—a dreamlike scene that seems to constantly change and flow, yet a person is unaware of the change until they look back at the memory after waking.
The voice, distorted far beyond its natural timbre, also assumed the same dreamlike variations when the next sentence was spoken.
“I feel nothing.”
No movement of the legs was necessary as the visitor moved closer to Regal, who had no choice but to allow the distance to shrink between them, feeling as if the room itself was growing smaller, and accepting the odds that it could have been.
What filled the air in that very moment was unlike the concept of tension. The effects of whatever lived inside the masked visitor was the reason why the paint on the bedroom walls began to chip away, dusting the floor. The carpet furled as it was cooked by something no human technology could detect nor replicate. No matter how potent, “tension” in that regard could not peel paint from a wall.
Then it stopped. The masked guest was so close that Regal could see his own sweat reflecting in the opaque sunglasses.
A gloved hand reached out, grabbing Regal’s chin to turn his head down.
“Follow your heart,” the fabricated voice said through the dust mask, “but you’ll lose it if you compromise the grand design.”
Shallow breathing was Regal’s only response as he watched the guest leap backward.
And the guest declared, “Now…Sleep!”Regal had lost consciousness before realizing he was falling to the floor.