After spending much of the day in the hospital, the two chefs exited the wide double doors of the clinic. Nightfall had set in. The moonlit sky revealed a few twinkling stars. A cool breeze caressed Troy’s face as he walked along the fluid pathway outside the hospital. He stepped through a lush garden decorated with water features that reflected the white light of the full moon. He placed himself on the smoothest rock he could find.
Troy lit a cigarette, inhaling the smoke. He promised his sister he’d quit smoking but after all that happened today, he undoubtedly deserved one.
Troy glanced at Ethan and then at his cigarette. “Sorry…I didn’t mean to—”
“It’s alright,” Ethan assured. “It’s been a rough day.”
“Yeah… I might need more than just a cigarette today. I could kill for a glass of wine.”
Ethan turned his attention to his link. “How’s she looking?”
Troy blew out a large puff of smoke. “She’s in a coma. The Doc said she doesn’t know when she’ll wake up, but she’s stable for now.” He rubbed his wrinkled forehead and sighed. “Why she does what she does is a mystery to me.”
“What does she do?” asked Ethan hesitantly.
“She’s a parliament member of the FSP. She was meant to be the newly appointed Minister of Defence and Military Veterans.” Troy sat on one of the islands in the parking lot. “I told her not to take such a high position in such a pivotal department because she’d likely have a target on her head. I was right.”
He picked up a pebble from the sandy patch at his feet and walked over to the small pond. Four coy fish swam gracefully in the sparkling water. Troy remembered the day Ester eagerly joined the FSP.
“It came out of the blue,” he began. “I didn’t expect it, and I would’ve guessed neither did my sister. But she took the offer without a moment of hesitation.” He dropped the pebble in the water creating a small splash, and the gentle ripples distorted his reflection.“After that she changed. She became colder…More distant.”
“Maybe the older politicians gave her a hard time,” Ethan suggested.
“A ‘hard time’ doesn’t make you want to put a bullet in your head. She was traumatised and desperately looking for a way out. I could see it on her face every time she came home.”
“Why didn’t she retire? Resign? Surely, they would’ve been happy to let her go if she was causing so many problems?”
“That’s what I thought too… I suppose she pushed past all the hate and kept moving forward. She said the truth was worth fighting for. If I was her, I'd shut my damn mouth and keep my head down... Live a normal life.”
“What was she advocating for that gave her so much heat?”
Troy sighed. “She advocated for building bridges between citizens of the Belt Settlements and South Africa.”
“I see…” Ethan mumbled. Troy knew it was controversial to even mention the Belt in conversation and expected a much harsher reaction from Ethan. He was grateful, however, that his friend didn't press the matter any further.
“Long story short…It didn’t work.”
Ethan shrugged. “I wouldn’t expect it to. It's the Belt.”
He checked the time on his wristwatch and then pulled out the odd note he was given by the doctor. I’ve only got one hour left.
“We best get going,” he said. “It’s unsafe to walk around this late in these areas.”
The night had reached its darkest as the clock struck midnight. As Ethan and Troy silently strode on the paved sidewalk, Troy could feel the dark alleyways watching them. The deep pockets of darkness could hide anyone or anything lying in wait for prey. He trailed behind Ethan, constantly looking over his shoulder to check if they were being followed.
The streetlights began to flicker, and the dreadful darkness closed in on the both of them. The street was empty with the odd car driving past every few minutes.While he had been to worse places than this, the personal insecurity he felt the first time did not diminish one bit.
Troy was sick of the rampant crime in his country. The idea that he needed to sleep with one eye open every night or that he needed to look over his shoulder every few seconds tired him out. South Africa was the most welcoming country when the sun shone, yet it was one of the cruelest when nightfall set in.
Troy nervously glanced at his wristwatch intermittently while surveying their surroundings. He quickened his walk, and Ethan followed not wanting to be left behind. We just need to reach the station in one piece, Troy assured himself.
The chef’s heart skipped a beat when two drunk men approached them. They swayed from side to side as if about to fall on their face at any moment. Troy spotted a gun laying loosely on the belt of the drunk man. He flicked his suspicious eyes to the holstered weapon and placed an arm in front of Ethan. Ignoring the perplexed expression on his friend’s face, Troy tightened his grip on his weapon.
Please...Just keep walking, he pleaded.
The streetlight sparked and the bulb flickered. Each time, the distance between them lessened. Every footstep became as loud as deafening thunder. Troy slid his sleeve over his arm to cover up his watch and zipped up his jacket.
The two men passed Troy and Ethan. The chef listened to their footsteps to ensure they were still walking. He listened to the tapping of their feet on the cracked pavement and their slurred conversation until it faded into the cruel night. He wasn’t sure if they had stopped walking or if the footsteps were too far away for them to hear. He wasn’t about to find out which one it was.
He heard Ethan breathe a heavy sigh of relief as the two men passed. Troy glanced at the note once more and stopped in his tracks at an intersection.
“We need to get to the station, Troy,” Ethan said in a hushed voice.
“You need to get to the station. I need to tell my parents that their daughter is in the hospital,” he lied.
The station stood just a few hundred meters in front of them. It lit up the area around it like a beacon of light that promised safety and security. This station was far smaller than the one near Ethan’s house. It looked more like an office building colored snow-white with some graffiti on the side wall.
“It’s just a few clicks away,” Troy said. “Just don’t stop walking and walk as fast as you can without arousing suspicion.” He stared into Ethan’s eyes, emphasizing his next statement. “Don’t.Stop.For.Anyone.”
Ethan hesitantly nodded. “Stay safe, Troy.”
The scientist jogged across the street and in his distressed state, tripped over the curb. He hissed as his knee bled slightly from falling on the concrete. Troy watched Ethan from a distance as his friend gathered himself and continued his walk to the station.
Troy turned away once he saw Ethan enter the station. The station was the safest place he could be and within a few minutes, Ethan would be safely back home. He leaned against a plastered wall. Five minutes left, he thought. He shut his eyes and controlled his shallow breathing to calm himself.
Three anxious minutes remained. Troy knew the longer he stayed out in the open the more dangerous it became. Even more so when he was alone. He opened the letter and read it through once more. I am at the right place, right? He asked himself. Inked in bold cursive handwriting, the letter read:
It's time to come home...
The stamp of a scorpion in red ink lay at the bottom of the page. Troy closed the letter and stuffed it in his pocket. His eyes widened as he sensed three pairs of footsteps quickly approach him from behind. Before he could react, he felt two men binding his wrists behind his back and a forearm wrapping around his neck. The grip tightened, and Troy tried gasping for air. His head spun as he could feel the life being sucked out of him. With Troy’s eyes closing, he caught one last glance at one of the unknown attacker’s disfigured faces before passing out.
Coughing and spluttering, Troy gained consciousness as he tried freeing himself from the restraints. For a few seconds, his view of his surroundings was distorted until all the water squirted onto his face dripped off.
All he could gather was he was in a small room no larger than the size of his bedroom with one dim light bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling. Two armed thugs stood on the opposite side of the rickety steel table. The design was unusual. Everything was either metal or carbon fiber. The walls, the floor, the ceiling and the door.
His bruised body felt lighter. His ears pained which gave him an excruciating headache. His sense of bearing had been tampered with somehow. He tried yanking the ropes binding him, but the restraints were barely loose enough to allow circulation to his hands.
“Rise and shine, buddy!” yelled one of the thugs as he poked Troy.
“I’m here to talk to the boss. Not his minions,” scoffed Troy.
“Oh, don’t worry. The boss will be here soon. You just sit tight.”
It’s not like I’m going anywhere, smartass.
The two thugs engaged in some idle chatter with each other. Troy was too exhausted and in debilitating pain to listen to them. He needed to conserve the little energy he had left.
Soft but unmistakable footsteps tapped on the ground. The footsteps of his doom. The unsettling whisper of his past coming to haunt him.
Troy gulped as he straightened himself in his chair, trying to hide his fear. The room had been silenced by the sinister figure’s footsteps. The door creaked open as a grotesque shadow stepped into the dimly lit room. His demeanor radiated darkness darker than the night. His cruel eyes looked down on the short man bound in a chair.
“Leave us,” the man boomed.
The two thugs scurried and almost fell over each other to exit the room. Now all that remained was the shapeless shadow as it eclipsed Troy. It seemed as if the entire room darkened even farther with his presence.
Troy plucked up the courage to say a few words. “What do you want from me?”
For the first time in ten years, Troy heard the gruff voice he feared most. “A favor…"
Troy shifted in his seat. His hands were coated with nearly enough sweat to slip through his restraints. But even if he wriggled himself loose, he still had to slip past a giant of a figure between him and the door. It was clear that he’d have to face this man in front of him.
The ghastly figure glided across the steel floor. Even the lightest of footsteps would clatter on the floor yet his was barely audible. His greatest weapon was not a sword nor a gun but fear. The way a slave feared his master. The way a man feared his death.
He had not yet emerged from the shadows. His upper body towered over Troy blocking the light bulb in the room like a solar eclipse. He drew a knife and spun it around his finger like a toy, its jagged edge glinting in the light. The light, when it reflected off the blade, revealed the man’s face. Sigvald, The Scorpion. At least, that’s who Troy knew him as.
His beard had become whiter since last he saw him. His neatly trimmed mustache flowed on either side of his mouth and joined with his beard like two rivers feeding into the sea. Scars had been scattered across his face making it difficult to look at without wincing.
He slid the knife in between Troy’s hands and the ropes and cut them. Troy massaged his wrists as he stood up from the chair straighter than a pillar.
“Let’s take a walk,” he said almost in a whisper.
Troy nodded and followed him closely. Outside the door was a narrow hallway also made from steel with highlights of white carbon fiber. It was better lit than the room he had exited from. The bulbs created patches of lights with small pockets of darkness along the way. The dust filled Troy’s nostrils forcing him to hold back a sneeze. The facility was surprisingly low tech. Nothing digital in sight. It was as if Troy had traveled to the 20th century and was trapped in a World War II bunker.
Sigvald approached a rusted brown door. It looked like cast iron. Heavy and dense but brittle from the rust. The door handle banged against the wall and using two hands, he pulled the door open. It screeched as it scraped against the steel flooring. As it opened, some dust rose, and they both let out a cough that shook the walls of the facility.
The room he entered was barely large enough to fit all the equipment in it. Space was a luxury this room was not granted. It seemed to be a storage room converted into a surveillance room given the shelving on two of the cracked walls. The exposed piping on the ceiling of the room dripped slightly and pooled in a red bucket underneath it. The two entered the room and Sigvald switched on the screens. After several seconds of static noises and the charging of the antennas, the screens switched to black and white footage with a small neon green tab in the top right saying, ‘live feed’.
Troy’s eyes widened and his heart sank in his chest. Scrambled and intermittent footage of the doctor checking up on his sister. Another showing his boss overseeing the cleaning up of the kitchen before they closed. Two more spying on his apartment entrance.
“Ever since the day you left. All but your sister’s hospital bed…”
By the state of the screens and computers, it could have easily been here for ten years. He hadn’t forgotten about him even though Troy wished to God he did. He thought he was finally free, but it seemed the cage just got bigger and the chains longer.
“Did you do it? Did you blow up the station?” Troy hissed clenching his jaw and gritting his teeth.
“No. Why would I hurt my own spy?” he asked with a wry grin.
“Who do you think gave her that offer? Do you really believe that the ruling party would accept her with such open arms without some strings being pulled?” he asked rhetorically. “She accepted that offer for the same reason you’re going to accept mine. To protect her family from me.”
That’s why she didn’t quit. Despite being driven to suicide, she didn’t pull out. Every ounce of pain she felt, and every waking moment of misery all led back to the one man he hated the most.
“Why?” Troy pleaded. “Why are we so damn special to you that you want us? Can’t you find some other henchman to do my job?”
“There’s only one person more loyal than a man fighting for himself. It’s a person fighting for their family.” As Sigvald took a step forward, Troy moved back. “Your sister suffered. She cried and she pleaded for your freedom.” He took another step forward. Troy continued retreating, the fear and guilt growing in his eyes. “She slept every night with one eye open. For you. I gave her a way out. I placed a bullet and a gun on her table but when she loaded it and pointed it at her head, someone stopped her.”
Troy was backed up against the wall. His heart raced. His forehead dripped with sweat. The redness in his dry eyes worsened. Despite the burning sensation, he was too afraid to blink. She sacrificed her own life to make sure he lived his and he had not a clue. She never said a word about it. Despite complaining and venting, she always smiled at Troy. At first, he thought there was something off about her smile. Over the years, however, he forgot what her true smile looked like. All that was left of her was a facade of happiness that masked a bleeding heart.
“You have a great debt to pay her, Troy,” his most hated enemy whispered. “And I am offering you a chance to repay it…with me.”
Troy mustered up the courage to take a step forward so that he was only inches from Sigvald’s face. “What if I kill you right here?”
“If my heart stops beating… So does hers,” he replied.
“You’re bluffing,” Troy said, shaking his head. “That’s impossible.”
Sigvald took out the gun from his pocket and loaded a magazine into its chamber. He pulled the gun slider and it clicked into place. With the silver barrel facing him, he handed Troy the loaded gun.
“Would you like to take that chance?”
Troy took the gun and pointed it at Sigvald’s head. His hand quivered. The gun felt heavier in his hands. His arms became numb, and his fingers froze around the smooth trigger. Sigvald leaned forward until the barrel of the gun was flush against his forehead, taunting him. Troy relaxed his arm and dropped the gun on the floor. The clattering of the steel echoed through the confined room. He felt the floor vibrate.
Sigvald grinned and pulled away from Troy. Folding his arms behind his back, he walked out of the room, silent as a ghost.
“You have two weeks. Choose wisely.”
"You haven't left me with much of a choice," Troy responded.
Sigvald looked over his shoulder with only his one eye visible to Troy. "I decide when we're done. The quicker you learn that, the better."
Left alone in the confined room, he dropped to the ground and leaned against the rough wall. Anxiety bubbled in his belly like a steaming pot. He knew what he had to do but the thought of doing it made him sick to his core.
Then a thought so devilish and disgusting entered his mind. One that he never thought he could conceive. A thought so outlandish he wished it never entered his mind. I would have been free if I just let her die that day...
1. Does the conversation between Troy and Ethan at the start of the chapter explain why Troy dislikes the FSP?
2. Is the introduction of Sigvald here better than his initial introduction in Steve's flashback in chapter 2?
3. Does the choice given to Troy by Sigvald feel compelling?
4. Can you as a reader see any parallels/mirrors between Ethan and Troy?