No one messed with Allan Raymond. That was simply common sense. But, the strange thing about common sense is that it's not all that common. Stranger still, the people that don't have common sense tend to cross lines.
And when you cross a line, there's no turning back.
Dallas Boone sat slumped over his keyboard, his eyes closed tight to keep himself from watching his life spinning out of control, like a racecar moments before it skids off the track. His rumpled gray T-shirt gave the impression that he hadn't bothered to change before he fell asleep last night, while dark stains - presumably from coffee - ran across the front of it. Empty mugs littered the desk, and the lingering smell of the cheap kind of coffee, bought from the local gas station crowded the damp space.
Thick curtains let in a dusty beam of light to illuminate the dirty dishes stacked high in the sink, neglected and forgotten. A silence hung about the place, the kind that not even a ghost would dare to interrupt. Eerily quiet, even for the dead of night.
But it was in this untimely hour that the phone jangled. Loud and clear, it rang through the entire apartment complex. Perhaps the most curious thing was that everything remained still, save for the steady rise and fall of Dallas Boone's chest as he slumbered, and the soft padding of the cat that stalked the halls. The racket went on for a solid minute, and yet the most reaction the man gave was a heavy sigh.
Just as quickly as it had begun, the jingling stopped. The silence settled back down a moment after the answering machine flashed red and beeped one last time.
Message recorded. Press one to playback your message. Press two to delete your message. Press three to skip…
And just like that, the silence blanketed the apartment complex again. Only, it didn't last for long. The phone rang again, louder than before.
Dallas Boone awoke with a start. His knees bumped against the table, and he grunted in pain, cursing softly under his breath. Sluggishly and as slow as humanly possible, Boone made his way over to the phone.
His hand hovered over it as if he were debating whether or not he should answer. It was, after all, the middle of the night, and it does not do one good to accept a call at two in the morning. The ringtone ended before he could pick up, but the receiver once again flashed red with an unread message.
Message recorded. You have two new messages. Press one to playback your message. Press two to delete your message. Press three to skip…
Boone let the entire automated message play through, all the while staring down at the phone with glossed-over eyes. He gave a heavy sigh as if he had just let a big weight off of his shoulders before he picked up the phone and held it to his ear.
"Hello? …Is this Allan Raymond? I'd like to speak with you, please." A long moment of silence followed. Boone nearly put the phone down. What an odd thing to ask, he gathered, still a bit unsure of what to make of the situation. "You can call me Victor Duus. You don't know me, but I sure know you." A click sounded on the other side of the line, and the message ended.
A knot was already twisting in Boone's stomach. Already, he was glad that he hadn't picked up the phone when it was ringing. His fingers were trembling as he pressed the delete button, his skin already glistening in a cold sweat.
"I know it's you. I need you to meet me in the lobby of the Stanford tomorrow at precisely four o'clock in the afternoon. Bring the Lion's Den. If you don't show, I'll make sure that everyone knows your little secret." Dallas Boone fumbled with the phone before it slipped through his grasp and tumbled to the floor. Bile rose in the back of his throat.
His mind reeled. "This can't be happening…: Boone muttered, repeating it several times over as if that would make it true. "Lions Den, Lions Den," even though his thoughts were painstakingly clear, the words did nothing to help his forgetfulness.
Boone staggered towards his chair, finding it increasingly difficult to breathe; as if someone were squeezing his lungs and refused to let go. Fingers flying, he logged onto his computer, not at all dazed by the forty-six thousand notifications blowing up his profile on CAPTURE, the latest and greatest social media platform. Dallas Boone may have been a bumbling fool in real life, but online, he was Allan Raymond.
And Allan Raymond was no fool.
World-Renowned Food Critic.
But above all, he was an Internet Sensation. Worldwide.
It's not like Allan Raymond wasn't real. But he was, of course, a figment of Dallas Boone's imagination. The person he wished he was. The very epitome of what he wasn't. As far as the general public was concerned, Allan Raymond was a very tangible person.
He ignored his inbox, no longer caring if there was one more person following him. No, this was much more important.
The Lions Den, he typed into the search bar and braced himself for the results. The phrase barely tickled his memory, but the images it came up with were enough to make the object surface. He drew his lips into a thin line and closed his eyes, before reverting to his resting face and logging off, as if nothing at all had happened.
Boone drew in a deep breath, before logging on to his computer again and opening a fresh word document.
I’m sorry. I know it was wrong. But I did it for you. Just know that I did it for you. Allan Raymond was for you. Can’t you ever forgive me?
When you fell ill, I fell with you. The man I once was, he’s gone, my dear nephew. He’s gone. I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt anybody, and now I fear that I might have hurt you the most.
It’s just that, you were the light of my life. Ever since you were little. And even in your twenty years, you accomplished so much. Even if you never got to travel the world, even if you never got to find the perfect girl, I hope you were able to do that through Allan.
He was you, I suppose. A part of you. And not just because he had your face, shared your dreams. He was a part of me too. I think I just liked that connection. I was able to relive the best parts of my life. And the world loved it.
The world would have loved you too, my dear Justin.
I’m about to do something stupid. But, that’s what you loved about me. And I loved you for that, too. You weren’t just my nephew. You were my best friend. The joy of my day. The only thing I have left.
Now I only have Allan Raymond. And I suppose he is a bit of a fool. As I am. That was one of the only differences between him and you. That’s what separates us now. That and the mere complexities of life.
Whatever happens tomorrow, I know that it will be wrong. Whatever happens tomorrow, it might end with me seeing you. I’m almost hoping it does. I miss you, more than you could ever know.
And I’m sorry. I’m sorry I took the photos. I’m sorry I didn’t show up. I’m sorry about the Lions' Den, even if you too, knew that it was wrong. I’m sorry for everything, Justin. Truly. I’m not worthy of your forgiveness, though someday I hope you’ll understand.
Keep your chin up, kid.
The final click of his keyboard defeated Boone more than it ever should have. It didn't take long after that for his breathing to slow and conscious to drift away.
Dallas Boone was still asleep well past twelve the next day. And it was as he was finally adjusting to being back in reality again, the mishappening last night hit him like a cold ocean wave.
He flew across the room like never before, and quickly pulled up a picture of Allan Raymond. He could make it work, even if he had little resemblance to his late nephew.
Boone ran a comb through his dark brown hair, hoping it held some sort of similarity to Raymond's dirty blonde locks. A half bottle of gel, broken hairbrush, dull razer, and twenty minutes later, he was already looking more like Allan than Dallas.
A good start, but still not enough.
Allan's clothes posed a bit of a challenge. All of those garments were long gone, and had they been in his possession, he wouldn't have been able to squeeze into them no matter how hard he tried. An old suit would have to do, even though it had a few wrinkles.
As for the Lion's Den, it wasn't a surprise that it fell with his nephew, but he couldn't let them know that. He grabbed a briefcase and emptied it out, old papers and files spilling out over the soggy carpet. Boone stuffed an empty mint tin with beans and closed the lid, before placing it carefully into the briefcase.
Boone took one last look in the mirror before heading out, just barely remembering to grab a pair of dark shades to mask the blue of his eyes, much different from Allan's brown.
His palms grew sweaty as he climbed into the taxi waiting outside. The foliage rushing past made his head spin and stomach twist. With each passing second, a weight was squashed onto Dallas Boone's shoulders, and he was beginning to feel like the Greek God Atlas, holding up the weight of the world. The three-hour drive seemed much longer, each second stretching by was multiplied by a thousand.
The cab driver's spirited attitude did little to help Boone's mood. Being a younger guy in his mid-twenties, he wanted to talk about everything from the latest sports updates to his fiancée's ridiculous wedding plans.
They made it to the Stanford with three minutes to spare. Boone mumbled a hasty goodbye to the driver and paid with no tip, before trudging towards the doors of the hotel, like a convicted man walking towards the gallows.
He was greeted with a blast of cold air as he stepped through the doors and the bright aesthetics of the lobby had the opposite effect as intended, making Boone feel even heavier than before.
"Hello, welcome to the Stanford. Anything I can do for you today?" The doorman asked, his plastic smile stitched across his face.
"No, I'm here to meet someone," Boone replied, his voice gruff.
"Ah, a lady no doubt." The doorman said, still smiling that stupid grin of his. "Can I get a name?"
"I'm not here to meet a lady."
"My apologies, then. You just look so nervous, one could only assume you're about to propose."
What would Allan say to that? Boone knew just what he would say- he would give him a piece of his mind. But Justin, no, Allan would do it differently. "I'm in a bit of a rush," he said cordially, struggling to keep the monster inside of him at bay.
"I see," he replied, his oh-so-perfect smiling faltering just a little. "I'll be needing that name, then."
"Allan Raymond," Boone replied quickly, suddenly feeling a thousand times more grateful for the glasses that shrouded his eyes. That way no one could see the lies underneath the surface.
"It's an honor, my good man." His smile quickly returned. "Would you mind?" He asked hopefully, pulling out a camera.
Boone stepped closer and gave his best smile, thinkin' of the hours that he spent in front of the mirror practicing for this moment.
"Thank you very much, my wife and I, we're such big fans," he said, going on and on.
"Yes, yes, but I must go," Boone replied, backing away slowly.
"Of course, I should have known not to bother celebrities. Very sorry," he called, waving.
Boone scanned the lobby for any sign of trouble, his weary blue eyes wandering to every corner where darkness might be lurking. The lobby was practically empty, and Boone was almost certain that this 'Victor Duus' had made sure of that. No one mingled or was checking in at the front desk, but everything was deathly silent.
Dallas Boone was beginning to hate the silence.
A tall man stuck out like a sore thumb. Dressed in a black suit, and impatiently tapping his foot, it was clear he was up to no good.
Dallas Boone made a beeline towards him, still not sure entirely what to say to the stranger. "'Ello, how are you this fine afternoon?" he said, kicking himself for the stupid greeting.
"Very well, thanks for asking." the stranger replied, his voice soft and clipped. "Who are you?"
"Allan Raymond," Boone said, forcing the words out around the lump in his throat.
"Very well then. I suppose we should get on with it." The stranger said, taking off his glasses.
"And you are?" Boone said, not ready for his plan to be foiled.
"Victor Duus. I've come to collect the Lion's Den. I suspect you have it?" Greed flared in his brown eyes, burning strong like a brush fire. It was the same man from the phone, that was for sure. If only he had had more time, he could have known who this Victor Duus actually was.
"Yes. It's right here." He shook the briefcase, making the beans rattle in their tin.
"Wonderful. Hand it over."
"I need a reason, first. And money."
The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash, flipping it at Boone. He fumbled with it before it landed on the floor.
"Now. I need The Lion's Den."
"All it would take is one click of a button, and everyone would know." The man sneered, his perfectly white teeth gleaming.
"Know that you're bluffing, Mr. Raymond. Now hand it over." He reached into his pocket again and pulled out a handgun. The barrel pressed into Boone's temple. He looked around frantically, but no one was in sight. "Now."
The stranger cocked the gun. "Alright, alright, it's yours." He shoved the briefcase into the stranger's free hand.
Boone turned to leave, but the stranger grabbed his collar and hauled him backward. "One last thing, Mr. Raymond, then you're free to go. Let me see your eyes."
"I said take off your sunglasses and show me your eyes. I need to be sure."
Boone raised his shaking hand, and slowly lowered his glasses, expecting to feel a bullet pierce his skull.
The gun clattered to the floor.
"It's you, Uncle Dallas."
Boone fell to his knees, his vision blurring from the tears. "Justin?"
"But, why?" Boone said, his voice dry and hoarse. "Why?"
"You know why," Justin said slowly.
“I thought you were dead. They told me that you were dead.” He breathed, his voice falling short on the last word.
“You’re stalling.” he managed to say, after a long moment of silence. “Why? Why are you doing all this.”
Police sirens sounded outside, and Dallas Boone's breath hitched.
"I'm sorry." He pleaded, his sorrow-filled watching as a blur of uniforms and badges circled around him.
"I know," he said, watching as cold metal was clasped around Boone's wrists. "But I'm not."