Author’s Note: This chapter deals with topics that are problematic for some, like mental health problems and death. So, if you’re not comfortable reading about this stuff, you’ve been warned.
Rushing out of the house, I had no idea where David might have gone. I stopped by his house, just to be sure, but he wasn’t there. I thought of heading back to the office to look for him, but something told me he wouldn’t be there.
After hours of searching the neighborhood and nearby shops for any sign of the man, I was confused, tired, and not a little worried. I really didn’t mean to set David off like this, but my big mouth just had to go and say those things. Well done, Irene, well done.
Almost admitting defeat, I was about to head home and see if Gerald can track him through phone, but passing near the Hidden Springs cemetery, something caught my eye. David! He was here!
I wasn’t sure how to approach him after our spat, but at least he was here and safe. When I saw him, it was as if a rock fell of my chest. If something happened to him because of my behavior, I would have never forgiven myself.
I walked over quietly- he looked to be deep in thought.
“Hey,” I made my presence known. “May I join you?”
David looked over and to my surprise, gave a small smile. “Yeah. You’re welcome to.”
“Look, David, I’m sorry about what I said. I shouldn’t have blown up at you like this. I didn’t mean to say anything hurtful.”
“It’s ok,” he calmed me down. “I understand.”
“You do?” He really didn’t have to excuse my behavior.
“Nobody’s perfect, Irene. We all do things we’d rather we haven’t done.” He looked away and back toward the gravestone that we were sitting next to. After reading the name on it, I understood why: Emily Collier. Judging by her picture, the girl must have been closely related to David- she looked too much like him. According to the dates listed on the gravestone, she died a bit before her 16th birthday. Which was, coincidentally, only a couple months before David’s breakdown.
“She was my sister. We had a six-year age difference, but we were always extremely close. She was my best friend in the whole wide world.” David sounded nostalgic. “She wasn’t like the rest of us. She had the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known. So I’ve always tried to look out for her. But then, high school came and Dad had me shipped off to prep school, which put a big distance between us. I still made sure to keep in touch, of course. We would call and text all the time, whenever we weren’t in class.”
“You were really close…” I murmured, understandingly.
“I never liked prep school, but I saw it as a necessary evil. It was giving me the education I would need to get accepted into my dream college and that would enable me to get out. Out of this family. Away from these people. Into a different lifestyle. I would do my best to get Emily away too—she was getting no benefit from my parents’ company.” David chuckled bitterly.
“When I did make it into college, Emily was already in middle school. A star pupil, all the teachers called her. So, as soon as it was time for high school, our folks had her enrolled in the same prep school as me. I knew it was a bad idea from the start and I tried to tell father, but you know how he is—he’s always right. Well, right from the start, Emily hated the place. She didn’t tell me that straight out, of course, but whenever we talked on the phone or over video-call, you would just be able to tell that she wanted to be out of there. So I studied harder and harder—if I were to have a good job and income, Emily could come and live with me once I graduated. She could go to normal school, where she wouldn’t have to live….” He couldn’t finish as the tears overtook him.
I wasn’t sure what to do—I never had to deal with a person in such a distraught state of mind. Tentatively, I placed my hand over David’s, which surprisingly made him more relaxed. He continued his story.
“Then, when senior year came, I was elated. I was in the top percentile of my class and already had my eye set on several good publications. I was close to making it out. But something changed with Emily. I didn’t know what it was until it was too late. Whenever we talked, she would keep our conversations short; whereas, once, we used to tell each other everything, she would now barely tell me anything. She made some new friends at the prep school. I was happy to hear that, would you believe it? She was no longer alone!” He half-laughed again. “Then, halfway through the second week of my classes, I got the news: Emily was dead. As it turned out, she got involved with the wrong kind of crowd, the kind that liked to party, or rather, over party. I don’t know where the school administrators were looking, but there was a lot of alcohol going around at these get-togethers. Emily got her hands on way too much of it—the autopsy showed death by alcohol poisoning.”
David’s breathing became a little too quick and before I knew it, I put my arms around him to steady him. He visibly relaxed and his breathing became less shallow.
“You don’t need to tell me these things if it’s too difficult, you know. You don’t owe me any explanations for your life, David.” To be honest, I was quite worried for him because he wasn’t reacting well to these recollections.
“I think I should though. I want you to understand why I want my father to go to jail. If he didn’t send her to that school, nothing would’ve happened. Do you think he even took any legal action against the school? Ha! As if! He blamed her. He blamed Emily. He said that if she should’ve been more responsible with her decisions it wouldn’t have happened. How can a father act this way after the death of his child? Tell me!” David was furious and I agreed with him- Lionel’s response to his daughter’s death was a bit too heartless.
“Is this why you’ve flunk out of school?” I understood.
He nodded. “Yeah. I couldn’t stop blaming myself. If only I could’ve gotten her out sooner, she would still have been alive. She wouldn’t have gotten involved with that crowd if only she was with someone who actually took care of her. If she wasn’t so lonely, she would have been fine. So, I went into a downward spiral. I stopped going to classes, stopped doing any work, and wouldn’t talk to any friends. Sharon, my girlfriend at the time… she tried to stick it out with me, but I did my best to push everyone away, even her. In the end, she couldn’t take it anymore and broke it off between us. Not that I blame her.”
He paused for a little while before continuing. “I was practically a zombie. I wasn’t properly alive—half the time, I wouldn’t even get out of bed for days. Not that I could sleep much though. I kept recalling that phone call, imagining that party. Eventually, my lack of sleep, barely eating and constant chain-smoking showed a result: I passed out outside of my dorm and my classmates called the ambulance for me. The doctor who put me back on my feet wasn’t a stranger to such symptoms and he quickly got it through to me that if I didn’t start taking care of myself, I wouldn’t last long myself. Also, he hooked me up with a good counselor, for which I will never be able to thank him enough. Little by little, I came to my senses. But then my money ran out and since I dropped out of school, I ended up back here. Well, you know the rest.”
“I’m so sorry about your sister and about what happened to both of you. No one should ever go through this.” I pulled him into a hug and he didn’t protest. I imagined a terrible fate like this befalling Gerald and shuddered inwardly. No wonder David was in such a state.
He eventually pulled away from me, and looking me straight in the eyes stated “We have to do this. We have to release this information. To the public, to the cops, to whoever can do something. It’s a matter of conscience at this point. The more people know that Lionel Collier is a criminal, the higher the chance that he will be held accountable. Even if he manages to buy his way out of facing charges this time around, people will know what kind of person he is. This is, really, all I want. I know it’s too late for Emily, but others can still be kept safe from him.”
“Ok,” I nodded. “We’ll do it. I’ll talk to Gerald right this evening. We’ll publish everything through as many channels as possible. But I’m serious—you can’t let those fingerprints be in your father’s office. I understand that you blame yourself for what happened to Emily, but taking the fall for something you didn’t do will not bring any justice to her. Honestly.”
“I know…” he admitted after a pause. “It’s just… you know, she had her whole life ahead of her. Why did it have to happen?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I guess that’s life. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. The best we can do is to continue on and keep looking out for the people we care about. And to hope for the best.”
He honestly smiled at that “I didn’t know you were such an optimist?”
I chuckled “I guess Lana’s company has rubbed off on me.” A thought occurred to me that I didn’t have previously “Hey, that night we’ve met. Is this why you went to such great lengths to make sure I was alright?”
He nodded “Yeah. I saw a young woman getting drunk and all I could think of was that if Emily had someone there to watch out for her, she could have still been alive. I couldn’t just sit by quietly.”
I appreciated the gesture even more than before. “Thanks again. I really appreciate it.”
“It was the least I could do.”
It was dark and rather chilly by now and I was sure David was still exhausted from these past few days.
“Alright, so here’s what we’re going to do. I will go into the office tomorrow and clean of those prints, that is not up for debate. And after that, we publish everything through Gerald’s channels. Ok?” I presented the plan to David.
He nodded, this time much more calmly “Ok. Let’s do it. I think you’re right about me not thinking clearly about this. I guess I was trying to go after some form of self-punishment. But I admit your plan makes more sense at this point. Really.”
“So, you’re not going to do anything to endanger yourself, right?” I had to be sure he was safe.
“No. Honestly. I’m sorry for scaring you guys like this. I mean, I overheard some of your and your brother’s conversation. It’s ok, I know you guys were concerned about my behavior. But I’m not going to be a danger to myself, really,” he reassured me.
“What about tonight? Where are you going to stay?” I was still worried about him being alone.
“I actually do want to go home,” he admitted. “Something about sleeping in one’s own bed and not in the middle of someone’s room.”
“Hey, I would’ve given you the bed…” I started, but he interrupted with a smile.
“I’m joking. Thanks for having me over. It was nice to be surrounded by other people, for once. Take care, Irene.” With that, he headed off home and even though I still worried, it seemed that our conversation has done him some good. Perhaps, he really did just need to talk to someone about this whole ordeal?
The next morning, I entered the office with a clear plan: once again, wait for the others to leave, go back into the office and wipe all the areas we’ve touched clear of possible fingerprints. It was an unexpected hassle, but one I was happy to complete for a friend.
However, everything in my mind went up in smoke when I saw the state of the workplace. Everyone was in shock, the workers were not at their stations, and they were speaking together in worried voices, the looks of morbid curiosity on their faces.
My first thought was that somehow, due to very bad luck, David and I were discovered last night. Perhaps there were hidden security cameras? Or a witness to our break-in? But if we were the cause of all the hustle, why was no one looking at me at all? If anything, they were mostly congregated around newspapers and computer screens…
Running into our office, I headed straight towards Lana and Tia. They were also talking about whatever had everyone’s attention.
“Hi, what’s going on? Why is everyone acting so strange?” I asked upon reaching them.
They looked at me with surprise. “Don’t tell me you haven’t heard?”
Lana gave tossed me the newspaper and it was right there, in big letters across the front page.
“Lionel Collier, pharmaceutical supergiant, dead at 48.”
“What?!!! He’s dead? How?!” I was incredulous. This was too easy. The Big Bad didn’t just kick the bucket hours before he would be caught.
“Well, the newspaper states it was a heart attack. It’s unexpected, sure, but these things happen I guess,” Lana shrugged. “But what happens to us now? The company, that is. Does Selma just become the new owner and do we just keep on working as usual? Where even is Selma?”
What was going to happen, indeed? If Collier was dead already, then was there a point in releasing all the information from his server? Gerald, David, and I would have to discuss the whole thing.
Where was David anyway? His desk was empty. He was actually ok, right? Did he even know the news?!
This whole situation was taking an unexpected turn.
“Are you ok, hon?” Tia looked at me with concern.
“Yeah. I’m just worried about David. It’s his father, after all.” It wasn’t exactly a lie now, was it?
“That poor boy. He must be in quite a state now,” she shook her head.
My phone rang, making me jump. It was Gerald.
“Sorry, I have to pick this up,” I excused myself and headed out on the balcony, for some privacy.
“Irene! We have a problem,” my brother started without any preambles, “It’s out. The information’s all out. It’s plastered all over the internet, along with the news of Collier’s death!”
“What!!! But we weren’t going to publish it until…”
“I know! I didn’t do it! I have no idea who did!” my brother was baffled. “I didn’t realize anyone else had a copy of the files. I know I didn’t send it to WarlordWizard or anything…”
My brother trailed off. My mind went right to David’s empty desk—was he really reckless enough to do this? Maybe he was. My heart lurched. I really hoped he wasn’t reckless enough to do anything else.
“Irene, is David there with you?” Gerald asked. “I can’t reach his phone.”
“No, he’s not here.” A new surge of worry hit me. He was still alright, wasn’t he? Was it a big mistake to let him go home last night? On the spot, I made up my mind about my next decision “I’m going over to his place right now.”
“What about the fingerprints?” Gerald asked.
“That’s not the most important thing at this moment!” with that I hung up and ran out of the office. Some of the workers looked at me funny, but they had more serious concerns at the moment than a random employee’s erratic behavior.
The drive to David’s house wasn’t long but it certainly felt that way. I just hoped I would be there before he was able to make any rash decisions.
Arriving at his house, I began to knock on the door like the world was ending. To my surprise, it opened by itself. Running in, I saw David sitting on the floor, looking wide-eyed at the screen of his laptop.
‘David!” I half screamed. “Thank goodness, you’re ok! You are ok, right?”
He was looking at that screen without really seeing it. Barely moving his lips he managed to let out:
“He’s dead. My father’s dead…”
He was definitely not ok then. In fact, he looked positively feverish. No wonder he was in such a state.
“I never meant this to happen, Irene. I wanted him to be held accountable for his crimes, but I never wanted him to die, I swear,” he muttered bitterly, taking in fast shallow breaths. “He was still my father.”
“I know, David. But this wasn’t your fault. Really, it wasn’t. The information was leaked after he passed- his death wasn’t caused by the news. So, you really aren’t to blame for this. Please don’t be so harsh on yourself.” If David was the one who leaked the server info, then of course it made sense that he’d feel the need to blame himself for this.
“Information? What are you talking about?” David steadied himself as much as he could. “Did you and Gerald decide to go ahead and publish the server content already? I thought we were going to wait…” he drifted off, with a slightly hurt look.
“Us?! No! We were going to wait! Wait, you didn’t publish it?” I looked at David with expectation.
“Me? How? I gave the flash drive to you.” David shook his head. Now feeling calmer. He slumped against the wall, trying his best not to let the new information overwhelm him.
“Oh, of course, of course. Sorry, I went kind of crazy when I heard the news, too,” I joined him on the ground, staring at the screen. This really was the worst kind of timing. “It’s just, you know… I showed up to work, the news is going abuzz with your father’s death, the information is out, and you’re not there. I was worried something bad was going to happen to you…”
“You were worried about me?” David looked up surprised.
“Of course. This whole mess is kind of my fault too. And why wouldn’t I be worried? We’re friends, after all.”
He gave a weak smile. “Thanks. It means a lot to me.” He took a big gulp of breath and much more steadily asked “So, what are we going to do now? Dad’s dead, all the dirty laundry is aired, everyone is going crazy. The company is probably in chaos right now. And I’m a total wreck on top of it.” He sighed.
“You’re not a wreck, David,” I found myself understanding him. He was just going through a bad time and circumstances were making it all so much worse. “We didn’t expect this whole situation to happen. We never expected your father to pass away that young, that’s for sure. How is your mother, by the way? How is she holding up?”
“My mother? Oh… you’re right. She must be wondering why I haven’t called all this time.”
He got up, knees still unsteady, and dialed his mother’s phone number. For several long minutes, the dial tone kept on beeping, until the robotic messaging system told us the owner of the phone was unavailable.
“Maybe she’s disconnected her phone after too many calls?” I offered. Selma Collier must have been getting concerned calls from the entire company now. It was understandable how something like this would be overwhelming at a time of loss.
“You’re probably right. I should go there right now, then. See if she’s home and needs any help.”
At this moment, my own phone rang. It was Gerald.
“Irene? Any info on David?”
“No, he didn’t even have the information to leak it. He’s only just found out about it from me. He’s in a bad state after hearing about his father’s death though. So we’re going to try and see if Selma is home since she’s not answering her phone.” Of course I was going with David. The last few scares he’s given me were more than enough—I wasn’t letting him out of my sight until this whole situation calmed down.
“Actually, that’s why I’m calling you. Umm, you should both come home right now. There are some new developments here.” Gerald was whispering in a conspiratorial voice. The voice he used when he had just discovered some very interesting information or when he thought he had new information for our search.
“Gerald? What’s going on back home? Is everyone safe?”
“Yes! As far as I know, all the people present here are safe. But… he’s here. WarlordWizard’s here! And you were totally right about his identity, for reals. Now you two need to get here. He… kind of has some information that could really shed a new light on things.”
I hung up, feeling both excited and drained at once. So, Roman Blakely was really WarlordWizard. But how was he related to all of this?