Gen 2 Ch 11: Making Connections

I was woken up by a loud conversation the next morning. The voices were those of my family members and of two other people. One voice was familiar, the other one, not so much.

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Throwing on some clothes, I headed out to see what all the noise was about.

In the living room were two men- one was my mother’s old friend, Sebastian Vanderburg, who has worked with the Hidden Springs police department for as long as I could remember. The other man was younger and unfamiliar. Despite his younger age, he had a much stricter appearance and I got the feeling he wasn’t here just to chit-chat.

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“Irene, there you are!” my mother called to me. “Captain Vanderburg and deputy Westen wanted to speak with you and David.”

I noticed how she used Sebastian’s title and not his name. The other man’s presence must have been the reason for that- she didn’t want him to think Sebastian had any kind of impartiality to our family. For someone who wasn’t really in the know of recent events, my mother had good gut instincts.

“Good morning, mom, dad, Gerald. Good morning Captain Vanderburg and Deputy Westen. How may I help you?” I greeted the two men. Considering the recent events, there were few good reasons for them to be here, but it still wouldn’t hurt to be polite.

“Ms. Meadows, I assume you are aware of the recent passing of your CEO. And of the leak of some very sensitive information regarding the company you are currently on the payroll of,” the deputy didn’t waste time.

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“I am aware, it was pretty much all over the news yesterday,” I admitted. “We were all pretty shocked—no one expected Mr. Collier to die so young. But I assume you wanted to talk with David about this? He’s still asleep.” I bit my lip. How would David fare talking to the police right now? He still wasn’t dealing with yesterday’s events too well. “Should I wake him up…?”

“That won’t be necessary yet, Ms. Meadows,” the deputy shook his head. “We would very much like to talk with you first.”

This isn’t going too well, I began to think. There was something about the way that deputy looked at me that didn’t sit well with me. It was almost like he was trying to trip me up.

“Alright, then. I’m here.” I sat down with the people in my living room. Throughout the exchange, Sebastian Vanderburg remained quiet, but I had the weirdest feeling he was here on our side. But why would he need to be on our side, unless…

“Ms. Meadows, where were you this Tuesday night, from 5 to 12 pm?” he asked without breaking eye contact.

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Oh well, we always knew this was a possibility, I thought. They were on to us.

“I worked late at the office that day. I didn’t leave the building until late that night,” I told him. It wasn’t a lie, really. I was at the office, after all.

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“I’m sorry, but shouldn’t she have a lawyer for questioning?” my father chimed in. He was a farmer, yes, but that didn’t mean he didn’t know quite a bit about the legal system.

“Agreed,” my brother chimed in. “You are violating the law by questioning her without a lawyer.”

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The deputy gave a sad smile and turned to Sebastian, who in turn calmed us down “This is not an interrogation per se. And if anything, I’m here to make sure Deputy Westen doesn’t do anything outside his jurisdiction.”

Well, that was just weird.

“Ms. Meadows, I understand how my presence here, so early in the morning after the events of yesterday, can seem very accusatory. I assure you, this is not why I’m here. However, I would like to know whether Mr. Collier Jr. was with you on the evening in question.”

“Me?” David asked, coming into the room. “What do you mean?”

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“Hello, Mr. Collier. I’m glad to see you are doing so well, despite your loss. My sincerest condolences to you regarding your father’s passing,” the deputy nodded at him. “I have to ask, were you alone on this Tuesday evening? Or were you, perhaps, in someone’s company?”

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“I was alone, until I met with Irene back at the office. We came here after work.” David just entered the room, but he also quickly caught on that something was weird here. “But why does it matter? Am I under suspicion of anything? Or is she?” He pointed at me.

“No,” the deputy gave a weary sigh. “Neither of you is under official suspicion of anything. However, I’m sorry to inform you, Mr. Collier, but your mother is our main suspect in the death of your father, Lionel Colier. Autopsy was able to find traces of succinylcholine in his system—his death was not natural and due to certain information, we have good reason to suspect Selma Collier is responsible. I’m here on official visit from Twinbrook to check her statement. When we questioned her, she has told us that she spent the times in question with her son, David. However, upon questioning, both her neighbors and yours informed me that the house lights were off for the entire night, as if no one was home. So, of course, I thought her story wasn’t quite sound. It turns out, I was right.”

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“Wait, why would you think my mother committed murder just because she lied about being with me that night? Maybe she had good reason to say that?” David defended and I didn’t blame him. This thing the deputy did? It was a trick- he knew perfectly well that Selma Collier wasn’t with David that night. But how?

“He’s right,” I added. “Sometimes women lie about these things, you know. Sorry David, but maybe she was meeting a ‘male friend’ and wasn’t comfortable admitting that to the police?”

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“In Twinbrook?” the deputy shook his head. “Look, the thing is, even if you and Mr. Collier Jr. held up her alibi, it wouldn’t have worked. You see, several people have spotted her in Twinbrook, including the workers of the motel she has checked into while in the city under a fake name. Now tell me, don’t you think it’s suspicious that the wife of a CEO of a huge pharmaceutical company arrives into a city under a fake name only a day before the man himself dies of a ‘heart attack’? And there is information pointing to her having purchased the poison?”

“Yes, it is very suspicious,” I admitted. “But it still doesn’t mean she actually did it. The Colliers have a lot of enemies. It wouldn’t be out of character for someone to try and frame her in the midst of all this.” I didn’t know why I was defending Selma Collier, but something about the whole situation just didn’t sit well with me.

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“Someone like, say, a young woman whose family was robbed by the company and who has been working at said company since high school?” the deputy looked at me.

Ah, so now he was bringing out the big guns. Even Captain Vanderburg looked shocked at this. “Listen, Deputy Westen, I realize that now, after all the information about Collier Enterprises’ illegal activities came to light, it really makes sense for me to want to hurt the people involved, but tell me, if I was really responsible for Lionel Collier’s passing would I really murder him and try to frame his wife for it, only to make up defenses for her afterwards? Would that make any sense to you? Besides, anyone can tell you that I was in Hidden Springs for this whole last week.”

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“I know you were here,” the man smiled. “And I don’t think you did it. However, if she is really innocent of murder, why is she lying about her true whereabouts and intentions for being in Twinbrook? Wouldn’t that only make her situation worse?”

He had a good point. Why would she lie about this?

Gerald chimed in again “Look, if you got the ‘proof’ of her purchasing the poison from a huge server leak, doesn’t it mean someone is out for their family for real? How do you know that information is legit? I mean, did you find any more of the poison in Selma’s possession?”

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“Well, no,” the deputy admitted.

“In fact, from what he tells me, the woman looked completely baffled when presented with the information that she was a suspect for poisoning,” Captain Vanderburg added.

“I have never seen my mother baffled by anything in her life,” David admitted. “If she was, then she really didn’t do it. Now I really think someone is trying to frame her.”

“And they’re doing a pretty good job of it,” my mother chimed in. “You guys need to think big. Who would have wanted to have both Colliers out of the way, one in jail, the other dead? Find that person and you have your killer.”

The deputy listened to all of us carefully, taking in as much information as he could. Finally, he nodded and got up.

“Thank you for your time, all of you. You definitely cleared some information up for the Twinbrook police department. I think we can go now, Captain Vanderburg.”

“Alright, then, I’ll go start up the car. Simon, Celeste, it’s been good seeing you two. And Deputy Westen, let me tell you, no one in this family would commit anything illegal. That I can vouch for.” He headed out for his car.

“Wait,” David yelled out. “So, is my mother still under suspicion?”

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“Well,” Deputy Westen shrugged, “Considering how we came by the information that accused her, her own silence and lies on the matter are her worst enemies right now. As soon as she explains her side of things, her lawyer will be able to help her.”

“So, she’s still in trouble…” David frowned.

“I’m surprised you are so worried, Mr. Collier. I thought you were dead set on exposing your family’s activities?”

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My jaw dropped to the floor. How could he know about this? Was someone tailing us the whole time?!

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The man noticed my expression and smiled “You see, in this age of nonstop surveillance, many go out of their way to disguise bugs and hidden cameras in the strangest objects, like, say, a statue, a necklace, or even a painting. And sometimes painted dragons really are watching over you. At least you had the common sense to wear gloves while breaking and entering, Ms. Meadows.”

“You know about this?! How are you not arresting us?” I blew up.

“For what? Technically, Mr. Collier here wasn’t violating any laws—he was in his father’s office. And you were with him. And since you weren’t even the ones who leaked the information… it was done from somewhere in Twinbrook… Anyways, take care, you two. Next time, you might not get so lucky.”

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And with that, he left, leaving both of us and my family just standing there dumbstruck.

“So,” my dad found his speech first. “You two want to fill me in on what was happening lately?”

Well, considering how it was his discovery that started off this whole mess, he had a right to know.

“Yeah, dad. You guys might want to get comfortable. It’s quite a story.”

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Naturally, neither of my parents was happy to hear that their kids were leading an illegal investigation and that their daughter broke into her boss’s office while he was gone. However, they understood why we felt like we needed to do those things.

“So now, someone else leaked the information you guys have been trying for years to access,” my father pondered. “From what you’re saying, I’m guessing there was a second server key that David’s father always had on him. Whoever leaked that information must have gotten pretty close to Lionel to access it.”

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“Well, there isn’t much we can figure out sitting here, in Hidden Springs,” mom brought up. “And I don’t know how much this police deputy is willing to do to get to the truth. I mean, the Colliers are a pretty hated family. Sorry, David. But it’s kind of true. So, I don’t know how much chance your mother will have now, even if she’s innocent.”

“It’s ok, Mrs. Meadows. I know how things stand at the moment. I just don’t understand why she’s lying to them,” David threw his hands up. “The deputy is right- she’s making things worse for herself.”

“I think I need to call Roman,” Gerald shook his head. “If he’s finished catching up with his wife, I think he’ll be able to learn more through his channels. And honestly, I’m just curious about who it was that leaked the information before us.”

As if on cue, his phone rang—Roman called him first.

“Gerald, are you able to talk right now? I have some information that may interest you on this?

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“Hold on, can I put you on speaker? My whole family and David are here and they’re interested in this too,” Gerald explained.

The hacker clearly agreed, and Gerald set the phone on the table for us all to hear his news.

“You guys! So, do you know Selma Collier has already been arrested?”

“Yes,” Gerald told him. “We’ve just been visited by a detective from Twinbrook who was here to verify whether her alibi of being with David that night was holding up.”

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“And it totally didn’t, right? I mean, she must have been in Twinbrook already. Here’s the deal—it seems that someone may have lured her out there with information that Lionel was cheating on her there. Which would totally be why she headed there incognito—imagine how much money she could get out of a divorce after catching Lionel in the act?”

“It must have been a trap,” David lit up. “They must have been trying to get her to the location so that she would be conveniently present when the crime happened.”

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“Yes, that is very possible!” Roman sounded really excited. “You guys! This is getting more interesting by the day—I don’t think Selma Collier is our culprit at all! I’ve been going through her online information all day, and not only are there no traces of any pre-murder research at all, but there seems to be a very interesting kind of spyware on her machine. It was really hard to detect and it’s totally that could, upon prompting from the person running it, create fake internet searches or even purchase information.”

“Who could make something like this? I know I can’t,” Gerald admitted.

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“I don’t know if I could have made it either. I remember there was this one person working in our department during that life plant research project, who would have had the skill to create something like that… She probably would’ve been able to point us in the direction of this thing’s creator if she was here still.”

“Maybe we can find her?” I perked up. This whole fake crime situation was getting out of hand: it was one thing to get the Colliers in jail for something they actually did. But to frame the wife for the husband’s murder was a little too much.

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“I don’t know. She wasn’t that young when she worked for us. She’s probably way retired by now and really hard to find, but I can take a look at what happened to her after the project,” Roman agreed.

“How do we know she isn’t the person who engineered the spyware herself?” David asked. “I mean, if she worked on your project, which got canned because of my father’s intervention, she must have also been affected? You and Gerald utilizing the internet to hack into my father—who’s to say she isn’t still alive and doing the same?”

“Well, he has a point there,” my father chimed in. “After all, revenge seems to be the fad of the day.”

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“What was the woman’s name?” my mother asked. “Maybe we can help look for her as well.”

“Let me remember,” Roman paused. “Alma? No, wait it wasn’t Alma. It was an “A” name though, for sure. Wait, I had some official records from the days of that research. Let me see if Tia kept them. Wait a bit.”

He left the phone for a while and we could hear him asking Tia for his old research papers.

“This is insane, you know,” my mother shook her head. “To go to so much trouble just to frame someone for a crime she didn’t commit, when there is probably enough in the server leak to connect her to things she must have been involved in…”

“You think Selma was involved in Lionel’s illegal activities?” I was curious.

“Well, the server leak didn’t really have her name involved in anything, did it? But, it is safe to assume she knew some things about her husband schemes,” Gerald supposed.

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“No. I don’t think she would’ve known as much as you think, actually,” David shook his head, slumping back in his seat. “I mean, my mother likes living a rich lifestyle, that’s a fact. And I’m sure she has done her best to ignore as many of my father’s legal violations as she could if it means she gets to continue living this kind of a lifestyle. But I don’t think Dad would have willingly involved her in anything that required as much trust as hiding a crime, to be honest. They didn’t have the best opinion of one another, really. So, she was likely not officially involved in any of his violations.”

“Well, that definitely gives whoever engineered this whole situation more incentive to frame her, then,” my father mused.

“I’m back!” Roman came back on the line. “Hey, guys, here’s the name of that woman who worked with us: Aileen Johnson. It wasn’t really common knowledge that she was really good with computers, since you know, people assume that the elderly are tech-illiterate, but she definitely had a way with programs. Not that she knew I knew it about her. I kind of stumbled upon her coding like crazy one day- it was a work of art.”

“Why would she hide that kind of skill? Isn’t such computer literacy really useful for scientific research?” David was incredulous.

“No idea. But everyone just mostly considered her this nice old lady, who got left penniless by her husband- I guess she wanted to maintain her image for some reason. Let’s see, maybe she went back to her hometown? Appaloosa Plains, was it?”

“Appaloosa Plains!?” my parents both jumped a little.

“And you say her name was Aileen?” my mother was on the edge of her seat.

“Umm, yes. Why, do you know her?” Roman was confused.

“Can you look up some information on her past?” my father added. “Like, past employment, marriages…”

“Yeah, shouldn’t be too hard.”

“What’s happening? How do you know this person?” David looked around confused.

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“My maternal grandfather was married to and embezzled by a woman named Aileen, years ago. And they lived in Appaloosa Plains. I mean, as soon as they discovered her scheme, that Aileen fled town, so since this woman was from Appaloosa Plains too and trying so hard to maintain her ‘nice old lady’ image, maybe she was that same person,” I explained.

“Wow… your family seems to have this kind of luck with people, doesn’t it?” he was amazed.

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“You could say that again,” my mother chimed in. “This witch preyed on my father when he was mourning my late mother and stole from him for years. Almost ruined my relationship with him, too.”

“It’s in the past now, dear,” Dad patted her. “She’s out of our lives.”

“Maybe not,” Roman’s voice sounded through the phone. “It looks like my Aileen was indeed your Aileen. What was your father’s name, Mrs. Meadows?”

“Brandon Lewis. He owned a ranch in Appaloosa Plains until his passing several years earlier,” Mom explained.

“Yep, we’ve got the same Aileen. This one’s records, which were strangely hard to break into, for someone her age, show that she is, indeed your former step-mother.”

Everyone paused, mulling over the information.

“Well…” Mom exhaled.

“That was unexpected,” agreed Dad.

“Looks like she could be our culprit, then,” Gerald scratched his head. “People like that, they don’t really change, do they?”

“So, she’s targeting my family? Where is she anyway?” David requested.

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“There isn’t really much information about her after the project’s end, to be honest. I think she moved away from Hidden Springs, though. I can look into this further, but hunting down her current location will take a couple of days,” Roman explained.

“That would be most welcome. Thanks for all your research, Roman,” I thanked the hacker.

“You guys are most welcome! Take care. I’m going to go for now—Tia’s making her famous lasagna!” the guy was clearly happy to be back home and I kind of felt bad for our family distracting him from spending all the time with his family.

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“Enjoy!” Gerald hung up the phone. “Well, what do we do now?”

“We wait for Roman’s information on Aileen’s whereabouts,” my mother offered.

“And see where that leads,” Dad added.

“This could take a while though,” I felt impatient. I wanted to know what was going on and I wanted to know now!

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“Anyway… why don’t all of you get ready for breakfast? Or rather, lunch, by now,” mother got up and headed toward the kitchen.

“Yes, those detectives woke us all up rather early, didn’t they?” Dad headed off to get properly dressed.

Gerald just went back to his room, to read some article he’s already been reading before the detective’s arrival.

I watched David with anticipation and some worry. No doubt, he wasn’t taking all this information about his family too well.

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For his part, however, he just started playing with Gerald’s cat. This in itself surprised me- Murka was a former stray and she usually clung to my brother, chasing away others. But here she was, happily purring in David’s hands, after approaching him herself. He looked relaxed, if anything.

“What are you thinking?” I asked.

“I’m thinking that I want to prove my mother didn’t kill Dad,” he replied. “I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that she could have done it. But she didn’t. And for whatever reason, she is afraid to talk to the cops truthfully…”

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“Yeah, it doesn’t sound right.”

I looked out the window, which looked out on the Hidden Springs lake. Hmm, we couldn’t do much from here, could we?

“You know, the detectives didn’t require us to stay here, in this city…”

David looked at me with interest “Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?”

“Well, it would be easier to figure out what’s going on if we could talk to Selma, wouldn’t it?”

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“I do want to talk to her. I can’t imagine what she is feeling now, if she is in jail. I mean… not like her normal lifestyle, is it?” David frowned. “And I don’t like the idea of someone being so good at framing her. Even if she hasn’t ever been the best mother.”

“I understand. We should go to Twinbrook. As soon as possible. I doubt our absence would do much at the company now, everything is in chaos already.”

“Yeah. It probably would have been similar if our original plan worked,” he admitted.

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“But our plan didn’t involve any murders and framing. And anyway, I think we need to figure out who has targeted your family all the way from Twinbrook and why.”

What I didn’t say was, if Selma wasn’t involved in Lionel’s criminal activity, someone was just going after the Colliers as a family. Which meant that, eventually, they’ll come after David too. And I wanted to make sure the police caught them before they got the chance to do it.

“Tomorrow? I can pack really fast,” David agreed. “We can leave as soon we have the tickets.”

“It’s decided then. We’re going.”

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Gen 2 Ch 10: Meet the Hacker

Author’s note: Discussion of crime, panic attacks, some cursing. 

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It didn’t take long for David to throw on the nearest clothes he could find and we headed straight to my house without making any stops. I was still not certain that everything was fine back home and wanted to get there as fast as possible.

“So, you’re saying this hacker guy who’s been messaging your brother just showed up out of the blue? And on the same day that the information leaked?” David was incredulous.

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“Basically. And Gerald sounded really excited. Which makes sense- he’s just discovered the answer to a mystery,” I chuckled.

“The guy’s identity, right?” David shook his head. “I know me saying the whole situation is suspicious is like the pot calling the kettle black, but this whole situation is really, really suspicious. How do we know he’s not trying to set us all up?”

“Fair point– we don’t. But he hasn’t thrown us under the bus this far. And according to Gerald, it is Roman Blakely, Tia’s husband—the guy who used to work on a big scientific-pharmaceutical project until he became convinced someone was trying to kill him. Frankly, after looking at the police records about his accident and all the reports he’s filed before it, Gerald and I are pretty sure he was right about that.” I filled David in on what we suspected and how a lot of it was now proved to be true. He listened carefully, asking for some details and mulling over the facts.

“And all the threats to him came straight from Collier Enterprises, right?” he stated as a matter of fact.

“It’s wasn’t clear from the information available, but he was working on a project our company was interested in. So, most likely…” I drifted off. It didn’t feel right accusing a recently deceased man of attempted murder in less than 24 hours after his passing, but we both knew that Lionel Collier wasn’t too scrupulous about breaking the law in such manner.

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“Well, I am interested to hear his side of the story, that’s for sure. Hopefully, he can clear up what’s going on. Because, now that someone leaked the information before us, I’m just curious about the identity of the person who beat us to it. And at such a bad time, too.” David slunk back in the car seat, drifting off.

He was right about one thing- we will be able to find out Roman’s side of the story.

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And here we were. As soon as the car shut off, we hurried inside, where we were greeted by the sight of my brother peacefully drinking a cup of coffee with the man I could only assume to be Roman Blakely.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t the friendly-looking man in glasses, who looked practically at home in our house.

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“Hi, you’re Irene, right?” the man smiled and extended his hand to shake mine. “I’m Roman. Or WarlordWizard, as you probably think of me. I’m really sorry to just show up like this, but I felt like you guys would all be in a state of chaos now that the leak happened.”

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“So, did you do it?” David asked straight out. “The leak, I mean.”

Roman shook his head “No. I did not. I was actually planning to meet Gerald face-to-face before making any decisions about the information, so I was here, in Hidden Springs, already. My apologies, you must be David, right? My condolences. I know my attitude toward your family hasn’t been the best, ever, but I am really sorry for your loss.”

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David was a bit taken aback by Roman Blakely’s sincere manner. “Thanks,” he mumbled.

I understood his reaction—this wasn’t what any of us have been expecting.

Gerald chimed in at this point. “Come on, you two. There’s plenty of coffee left. Roman already told some of his story to me but we’ve been waiting for you to be here to discuss the rest.”

Well, this was what we’ve been waiting for. As soon as we settled down, Roman began to explain what happened.

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“I graduated university at the top of my class and was recruited to work at the Hidden Springs scientific department and soon became a project leader. You could say not everyone was happy about that: I was younger than many older scientists working there and they had their eyes on my promotion for a while. However, they soon came to respect that I was meticulous about my research and most of the animosity disappeared. So, naturally, when the ‘accidents’ started happening, I didn’t really suspect any of the people working with me.

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You see, it was around this time that our group was assigned to the life-fruit project.” Roman noticed Gerald’s and mine amazed expressions and nodded. “Yes, the life-fruit. We all knew that a plant with such amazing healing properties will be highly desired by the majority of pharmaceutical companies. So, the project was kept on the hush-hush. However, you know how it all happens. Information leaks out. And that’s when the accidents started to happen. At first, I did think these were all real accidents. It’s not impossible for an experiment to catch fire or for a computer to malfunction. However, when these things happen on a regular basis, it is obvious sabotage is involved. Besides, after the first accident, my team was even more careful with everything than before—we took extreme care of all machinery, of every chemical present in the lab. But after the last explosion, during which most of the equipment became damaged, our funding got cut.”

Gerald nodded. Tia told us that much. But it didn’t explain his accident.

“So what happened to you? How did you ‘die’?” David blurted out.

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He asked the question we all wanted to know the answer to.

Roman sighed “Well, what happened to me was, I began to dig too deep. You see, now that I already suspected foul play with the events at the lab, my natural curiosity got the best of me. So, I tried my hand at what I now do best- hacking. Even before the project got cut, I was already scouring the darkest parts of the internet for an insight on who was responsible for my team’s misfortunes.”

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Gerald looked at me conspiratorially—like he told us, the first time the identity of WarlordWizard appeared online, it was done by someone working on Roman’s project. And now, the man himself was proving his research correct. I smiled at my brother in agreement.

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Roman continued “Not all the information was good, of course, but there was enough to piece together that Collier Enterprises was very interested in our research. They even went as far as to have gotten involved with a few questionable characters in order to arrange a break-in to what I believe was this house.”

Gerald and I both shuddered. It was one thing to know your house has been broken into years ago, but to hear about how it was arranged was certainly unsettling. David, for his part, just looked resigned to the facts.

“So, I continued to dig,” Roman went on. “And that ended up attracting the wrong kind of attention. Meaning, that things started happening to me. I got nearly run-over twice in one week, my equipment somehow got covered in extract of goldenrod, which I’m extremely allergic to, my car brakes got tampered with… And this continued after the project ended, as well. I hoped, fruitlessly, that once our project became dismantled, I was no longer of any interest to whoever was targeting me, but I suppose I knew too much and posed a serious threat. So, once someone blew up the trashcan near the house where my family lived, I knew even Tia and Clyde weren’t safe. I couldn’t have that. My presence was putting them in danger. So, I faked my death.”

“It couldn’t have been that easy, could it?” David and I both asked.

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“You’d be surprised, actually,” Roman smiled ruefully. “I picked the kind of evening when, according to statistics, most of the drunk driving happens, made sure my car was at an appropriate location for the accident to happen, messed it up enough to look like the vehicle has been involved in an accident, and blew it up. All things are possible if you try. And once the police had filled the report of the incident, I got into their system, which is sadly, very poorly defended against such intrusion, and changed a few facts in their report to match up with me dying. It worked—whoever was trying to get rid of me stopped their attempts and my family was safe. And being “dead”, it’s much easier to snoop around on the people who tried to kill you, which is what I’ve been doing for the past four years.”

“I’m sorry,” David apologized. “For all the trouble my family has caused you. I wish I could have done anything to prevent those things.”

“Hey, apology accepted,” Roman smiled. “Besides, you were practically a kid yourself. What could you do?”

“Still,” David looked down.

“So, Tia really has no idea you’re alive, does she?” I asked. She still thought her husband was dead. She had to know the truth, eventually…

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“No,” Roman shook his head. “I didn’t think it was safe to contact her. Especially after she began to work at the company. It would have put her and Clyde in danger again. But I’ve always kept tabs on them to make sure they were ok and never needed anything. If there was ever a shortage of money at home, I would always arrange for her to acquire the sum needed, through a fake lottery win or some other way. I wanted to contact them, but you know… safety first.”

“Are you going to contact them now? After all, you’re here in town and at least one of the remaining Colliers knows you’re alive,” Gerald pointed out.

“And I definitely don’t intend either you or your family any harm, Mr. Blakely,” David hurried to assure the man.

“I do want to talk to Tia,” Roman ventured. “But I don’t know how she’ll take my sudden resurrection…”

“Well, she already knows.” The door burst open, with my coworker and friend practically falling into our living room.

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And she did not look happy. “Hello, folks. Hello, Irene. HELLO, ROMAN!”

Roman, in turn, got up from his seat by the window, with a look that contained both fear and adoration. “I can explain.”

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He moved closer to his wife “I can explain, really. I’m so sorry I had to do this, but I had a valid reason for doing this.”

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Tia looked at her at her phone with an impenetrable expression “Well, I’m here and listening. And I’ve got plenty of time. Talk.”

“I was scared something was going to happen to you or Clyde, ok? I didn’t want to become the reason you were hurt or worse,” Roman pleaded with his wife.

“Well, we were hurt by you not being here. Do you know how many times I’ve cried myself to sleep, mourning you, mourning what our lives could have been?”

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“I know. I wished I could have been with you all these years. Do you know how many times I nearly broke down and just traveled back home? I had to remind myself over and over that I was going to uncover the necessary information soon and it will all be over then. I’ve missed you so much…”

“I’ve missed you too! And if I hadn’t become suspicious of Irene’s behavior lately and followed her, I still wouldn’t have known you are alive.”

So much for my subtlety.

Tia looked like she was about to start crying. But to all our surprises, she instead jumped on Roman in a passionate kiss, to which he responded in the same manner.

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The rest of us just smiled. The two lovebirds were reunited once more. Well, we now knew one thing for sure—Roman Blakely wasn’t a bad guy. But if neither he nor David were responsible for the information leak, then who was?

Finally, after a kiss that seemingly took all the air out of them, the two pulled apart.

“Will you be coming home, then?” Tia asked her husband. “Clyde will be so happy to see you.”

“Yeah. I think it might be safe now. But first, we should really discuss the situation with your company. Collier Enterprises is really going to be a mess after what happened,” Roman admitted. “And we still have no idea who leaked all this information about the company.”

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“Information leak?” Tia was bewildered. “Am I missing something? I spend all day tailing Irene,” she admitted apologetically.

“Why don’t we all sit down and relax before thinking everything over?” my brother offered.

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“So, you guys have been gathering intel on the crimes going on at a company I’ve worked at for years! I had no idea any of these things were happening!” Tia was shocked to learn about the secret deals going on at Collier Enterprises. Hers was, probably, a good example of the reaction we’ll get from the rest of the workers.

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“Basically,” I explained. “But the good news is, since none of you guys knew about these things, you won’t be held legally responsible. Right, Ger?”

“Yep. Roman and I have already looked up all the legal information about this situation. The workers weren’t in the know- therefore not legally accountable.” My brother and Roman Blakely both nodded.

“Insane,” Tia shook her head, finally resting it on Roman’s shoulder. “And now, you say, someone leaked all this online? And you don’t know who?”

“Pretty much,” David chimed in. “Strange, isn’t it? We thought the key and the server were so well-hidden and secure. It took us all this time to find the key and to get access into the server—and now, someone else got the information seemingly so easily?”

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“Well, your father must have had a copy of the server key on him. Because, from what I’ve gathered after searching for the source of the leak, the IP address that posted the information is located in Twinbrook. And your father was there right before the leak happened—whoever the culprit was, they must have stolen that copy off of him. And obviously, they must have pretty good hacking skills, as well,” Roman grudgingly admitted.

“Hmm, do you think this could be the reason that Dad… you know, died? I mean, they say it was a heart attack. Maybe he realized someone had access to his information and became too stressed out?” David supposed.

“It’s possible, I suppose,” I agreed. “Although, one would have expected a person who constantly hid so many illegal things to have a better ability to deal with this kind of situation… Sorry, that sounds kind of cold,” I apologized.

“It’s ok,” he shrugged. “You’re right though. It isn’t all that plausible.”

“Speaking of apologies, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about Roman, Tia,” I addressed my friend. “I’ve suspected he might be alive for a while now. I just didn’t want to get your hopes up and then to dash them again when it would have turned out WarlordWizard wasn’t him after all.”

“Oh, that’s alright, Irene. I probably would’ve done the same thing in your situation,” she mumbled sleepily.

She wasn’t the only sleepy one– David was also now nodding off in his armchair. He was going to have a messed up neck if he ended up spending the night asleep in it.

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“David! Hey, you want to go lie down now?” I woke him up.

“What! Oh, did I nod off?” he got up. “I have to try to call my mother again before I fall asleep for real. Thanks for waking me up.” He headed out of the room and Gerald exchanged and uncomfortable look with Roman. The later brought his hands to his head.

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“What?” I didn’t understand why they reacted in such a manner.

“Gerald warned me to be careful with David, considering the guy is already so strung up, so I didn’t mention it while he was here,” Roman explained nervously. “But, umm… whoever leaked the server information also leaked the information off of the Colliers’ private computers and accounts. And I guess, Selma wasn’t too careful or just not skilled enough to hide this, but… the information showed that she had recently purchased a drug called succinylcholine. You might have heard about it if you read or watch detective fiction…”

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“Isn’t that the ‘perfect murder weapon’ drug? The one that simulates a heart attack and organ failure in many cases?” Tia perked up.

“Yeah, the very one,” Gerald stood up, rubbing his neck. “So, you know. The wife purchases this kind of drug and in a short while, the husband dies of a ‘heart attack’… This is going to look mighty suspicious under normal circumstances.”

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“Yeah, you see,” Roman explained. “It is not unusual for some less scrupulous hackers to fake this kind of information to create problems for their targets. And since this kind of information came out without any warrant, the police would be hesitant to act upon it. Since it’s possibly fake, and all.”

“But from what we understand, Selma Collier has been unreachable for most people here all day. And from the information currently available, it seems that she is currently in Twinbrook,” explained Gerald.

“She is?” Tia asked. “Strange. I definitely heard Lionel Collier talk on the phone regarding his hotel arrangements. He was only going by himself.”

“Yeah,” Roman chuckled darkly. “It doesn’t seem like he knew she was also planning to be there. Well, the deal is, the police over there have already talked to her regarding the leak of information and she’s not supposed to go anywhere until the police decide what to do since it’s obvious she was also involved in many of the illegal transactions and arrangements listed in the server information. But it seems that, based on what the autopsy turns up, Selma could be facing a murder charge.”

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“Shit,” was all I could say. This wasn’t good at all. Now the whole company really would be in shambles and David will be the one dealing with the whole thing. As well as with the fact that there was most likely a murder committed within his family.

“Yeah. That’s why we didn’t want to say anything about it with h…” Gerald stopped speaking abruptly, looking at the door.

I turned around and saw David standing at the entrance with the expression of a gazelle caught in the headlights. It was obvious that he’s heard enough.

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“We’re so sorry, David,” Gerald reached out.

“You didn’t do any of this,” David muttered and stumbled out of the room.

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“I’ll go after him,” I jumped up, following my friend.

Luckily, he only went as far as the next room. He just stood there, looking out the window and focusing on his breathing. Trying to stave off another panic attack, of course.

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“Hey, it’s going to be ok. It’s all going to be ok,” I tried to reassure him, even though I knew it most likely won’t be. Funny how life can work out, isn’t it? Only two days ago, he was set on exposing his family’s crimes. Well, they were exposed now. Just on a higher level than he expected. And he didn’t even have anything to do with it. Which, judging by his reaction to the current events, was probably a very good thing.

“Do you think she really did it? I mean my mother. Do you think she really tried to poison dad?” he asked with a thick shaky voice.

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I pulled him into a hug, causing him to become steadier. “I honestly don’t know. I don’t really know your mother that well to be a judge of her character in this instance. I guess, it’s really up to her how this situation goes.” Well, I knew some of her character, I supposed. I knew she was staying with Lionel mostly for the money and the lifestyle she could afford being married to him. If there was a reason for her to feel threatened about her position in said marriage… well, people have done worse things than murder for money.

“It’s not impossible. If my suspicions were correct, my father may have had a mistress. It wouldn’t have been the first time of course and she never really cared before… Unless, this time, he had intentions to divorce…” David drifted off.

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“Well, no use thinking about it now. That would just drive you crazy, without any solid facts at hand. But you know what? The morning is wiser than the night. Tomorrow is a new day. I’m sure we’ll have some new information about all of this by then.”

“You’re probably right. Thanks by the way,” he pulled me into a hug.

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“For what?”

“For being here for me and not freaking out at my behavior,” David admitted. “I definitely would have gone crazy if I had to deal with these events alone.”

“You don’t have to thank me. I meant it when I said I was a friend. Despite everything.” Well, I was legitimately worried about David’s wellbeing, so I was a friend.

He seemed quite exhausted by now—this day took a big toll on him.

“Well, it’s late, so I’ll head home now,” he started, but I had a different idea.

“Why don’t you stay here tonight? Seriously, there’s plenty of space to sleep.”

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“What? I can’t! What will your parents think?” he protested.

“Nonsense. My parents will have my rear if I let you go home alone tonight in this state.”

That actually put a smile on his face. “I didn’t think they were so strict!”

“Oh, they can be, when it comes to people’s wellbeing. Seriously, let me make you the bed.”

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And so, despite all protests, David ended up sleeping in my bed, while I headed over to Gerald’s room for the night. By this time, Tia and Roman have also gone home, no doubt continuing their family reunion in cozier surroundings. They would certainly have a few things to talk over.

My brother was already half-asleep, when I finally came to bed.

“So… you’re giving up your bed for him?” he asked groggily.

“He needs it more than me right now. Besides, we can sleep in the same room tonight. Just like old times,” I smiled.

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“Hmm, you really care about that guy, huh?” Gerald joked.

“We’re just friends, dude. Seriously,” I waved him away.

“Sure…” Gerald mumbled, falling asleep.

David was just a friend, though. And one in need of a comforting shoulder right now. And there was no way that I would to be there for him at this moment.

 

Gen 2 Ch 9: Past and Present Circumstances

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.

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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.

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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!

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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?”

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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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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?”

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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.”

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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.Screenshot-73.jpg

“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.”

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“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?

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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“Lionel Collier, pharmaceutical supergiant, dead at 48.”

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“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?”

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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.

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“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!”

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“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.”

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“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.

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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.

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‘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.”

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“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…”

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“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.”

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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?”

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“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.

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“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?

Gen 2 Ch 8: About Our Guest

Author’s note: This chapter contains a discussion of mental health problems. If you’re not comfortable reading these things, you might want to skip this one. Also, like, one curse word. 

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As soon as we arrived at my house, David fell asleep on the couch. He didn’t eat or drink anything, just simply passed out as soon as a conveniently soft surface was available. I inwardly thanked myself for deciding to bring him here—he was clearly in no state to take care of himself at this point.

After grabbing only a box of juice myself, I headed off to sleep myself, making sure to check on my parents and Gerald—no doubt they would hate to wake up and find a stranger in their home. I quickly wrote them both notes, explaining that David was a coworker who had a little trouble with his transportation home last night and was my guest for tonight. With that issue out of the way, I quickly headed to my bedroom for some much-needed shut-eye.

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Waking up in the morning, I was surprised at how quiet the house was. Usually Mom was already banging pots in the kitchen or Dad was complaining loudly about annoying weeds in the garden. Or at least, Gerald was banging away on his computer like the world was ending. Curious, I went out to investigate why everything was so quiet.

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On my bedroom door, was a note from Mom. “Darling, I’m gone fishing, there’s plenty of leftover food from yesterday in the fridge. Didn’t cook today as not to wake your guest—the kid is still asleep and I’d hate to wake him. Your father is with me today, we’re having a little fishing date. Take care.”

Ah, well, that explained some of the silence in the house. Looking into Gerald’s room, I found him already awake and working at his laptop (we switched our computers because he needed something portable), albeit much quieter than usually. Upon seeing me, he smiled, “Morning, sis. What’s up with sleeping beauty on our couch? And how did yesterday go? I was wondering what was taking you so long, so I drove up to your office, but your car wasn’t there already and when I came back, you were already here, along with Mr. Sleepy.”

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“Hi, Ger. That’s my coworker David. How about I take a quick shower and explain everything? There sure is a lot to tell!” I sighed and headed off to the bathroom, but not before realizing that David was now sitting up straight on the couch and seemingly staring right at me. Well, that was a bit awkward, seeing as I only wore a small crop top and short shorts to sleep in. Any awkwardness was dissipated when he once again plopped down on the couch, still asleep.

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David must’ve been pretty exhausted even before last night, I realized while showering. I wondered how long suspicion about his father’s activities has been bothering him. Most likely, he’s been worrying about this longer than he let on.

Coming out of the bathroom, I found my brother in the kitchen, with some waffles warmed up for both of us.

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“Talk,” he urged, moving a plate towards me.

“Won’t we wake him up?” I wondered, glancing at David.

“Doesn’t look like it. Whatever is he on? He’s out like a log.”

“I’m not sure, but I think he’s in shock. It can’t be pleasant to find out your father is a long-time criminal,” I shook my head.

“Father?” Gerald raised an eyebrow.

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“Yep…” I filled him in on the events of last night, about how I broke into Lionel Collier’s office, how David also ended up in there, and about what we found out on the server. “Here’s a copy of the records,” I handed Gerald the flash-drive.

“Damn,” Gerald rubbed his head. “That must have been a lot for the guy to take in. I take it the kid is nothing like the father then? Since you told him what’s going on with us. By the way, how come you haven’t told me Collier had a son working with you guys at the company?”

“I didn’t? Hmm, I was sure I mentioned it. Maybe not,” I drifted off.

“Where was he before now, I wonder?” Gerald pondered. “It’s weird how no one really talks much about Collier’s family, apart from his wife. I didn’t even know he had a kid.”

“Me neither. I was pretty surprised when Collier brought in his son. He was at college previously, he says. He dropped out though. At least that’s what he told me.” I glanced over at the sleeping man, hoping whatever he was dreaming about was less problematic than his reality.

“Where did you say he went to college?” Gerald asked, starting up his laptop.

“Bridgeport University. Why?”

“Let’s see. University records are usually pretty easy to get into. I’m curious about the guy, now that he’s here.”

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After a few minutes, Gerald had access. “Well, looks like David was a Communications, Journalism, and Media student. Heh, I guess we have something in common. Oh, nice, he was a star student too. Straight A’s and all.”

“Really?” I was confused. I lowered my voice “He told me he flunked all his classes and that’s why he was here. And that he hated being here near his father.” Was he lying about that?

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“Let’s see. These are all his transcripts from the first two years of school. Straight A’s. Third year looks the same. The kid had valedictorian potential. Oh…” Gerald paused, his brow furrowing.

“What’s wrong?” I urged.

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“He did fail all of his classes during the Fall Quarter of senior year. I don’t get it. Clearly, the guy had a good handling of the workload previously, what happened to him? Hmm, there is some note at the bottom of the page.” Gerald continued reading quietly. After a longer than comfortable pause, he shook his head sadly “Damn… you had a good intuition not to leave him alone last night, sis.”

“I did?” I had a weird feeling about letting David go home alone last night.

“It’s a note from the student health center. Looks like David suffered a full-on nervous break-down during his last semester at college. It doesn’t say why, though. But this would explain the terrible grades. From the looks of it, he let whatever was bothering him stew long enough that he ended up in the hospital. The details are a bit hazy though. Looks like, even after the hospital stay, he wouldn’t open up to the doctors about what happened. He did go to the counselor he was referred to, though. Kudos to him for that.” Gerald closed the window, explaining “I can probably learn more in there, but I don’t really feel comfortable looking at a person’s mental health history before even properly meeting them.”

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“Understandable,” I agreed, feeling guilty for not having noticed that anything was wrong with David previously. After he went out of his way to make sure I was safe and sound previously, I felt that it would only have been right of me to do the same for him. “I think we should make sure he’s alright. I hope he doesn’t suffer another breakdown because of what he found out about his father.”

“Let’s hope not. I wonder why he wants to work with us, though. From what you’re saying, he’s pretty set on blowing the whistle on his father. But did he actually think this through? Or is he going to change his mind now that he’s slept on it?”

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“I’m not going to change my mind,” a hazy voice sounded from the couch. “I made my decision fast last night, but I’m still standing by it.”

David sat up, groggily, still rubbing his head and I wondered for how much of our conversation he’s been awake.

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“Waffles?” Gerald pushed a plate toward the man.

“Thanks?” David looked around his surroundings with some confusion and noticing the time on the clock, look amazed “How long did I sleep?”

“Long enough that you must be starving now,” Gerald once again pointed to the pancakes.

David finally joined us at the table, still looking very uncomfortable.

“We don’t bite,” Gerald joked. “It’s nice to meet you. I wish I could say my sister told me anything about you, but she hasn’t.”

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“Well, there isn’t much to tell—I’ve only been at the company recently. But still long enough to notice that there were serious discrepancies in the documents. And if I noticed, others will. I’d rather my father didn’t have any reason to endanger any more people.” David looked at his plate sadly but continued to eat.

That was good. I knew firsthand that when people were in emotional distress, their appetite suffered. If he continued to eat, he was doing more or less alright.

“So, let’s plan,” Gerald got down to business. “The quickest way to do this would be over the internet, I suppose. This way, the information doesn’t have to go through any law enforcement that might have been bribed and it will reach the biggest amount of people. Also, I’m sure I could sneak an article about this into our newspaper’s next publication.”

“Both sound good,” David nodded, seemingly relaxed by my brother’s casual manner.

“Do we want to contact anyone from the internet first?” I asked Gerald.

“Oh, he’ll be contacted, of course. And by the way, I think you may be right about WarlordWizard’s identity,” he smiled.

“WarlordWizard?” David asked surprised. “Isn’t that a comic book character?”

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“Yeah. It’s also the name of this really good hacker from the internet who’s been helping us break into the server,” I explained. “We think it is a person that everyone presumes dead, but who is actually alive.”

“Wow, sounds like a mystery show. So who is it? If you trust me, that is,” he looked uncomfortable for a moment.

“We trust you,” Gerald agreed. “You had plenty of time to call the cops on us already.”

“We think it’s Tia’s husband, Roman Blakely,” I explained.

“Roman Blakely? That name rings a bell,” David scratched his head. “I think I heard someone talking about him back in high school. Oh yeah. He won a bunch of scholarships and grants, didn’t he? I remember them calling him the top scholar of our generation or something. If I’m not mistaken, Dad wanted to hire him, but I guess it didn’t happen? I don’t actually know– I was away at boarding school during that time.”

“He was working at a different research facility. They were working on some miracle drug, but their research was getting hampered by what seems to have been sabotage. It also seems like someone was trying to kill Roman, but the details around his death are hazy and we think he faked it,” I explained. “This WarlordWizard guy seems to fit his profile, according to the facts. But what makes you think it’s really him, Ger?”

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My brother frowned, “Well, I’ve been looking through old IP addresses of the scientists involved in Roman Blakely’s old project. And one of them is also the first IP addresses that WarlordWizard the hacker has made and appearance from. So, unless we’re really dealing with some other person from his team, he is our guy.”

“But how was he so careless to use a computer at work for this stuff?” David wondered.

“Yeah, that sounds too easy to track back, like you just did,” I agreed.

“It’s not that easy to track back. One has to really know their way inside the system,” Gerald defended. “Besides, it isn’t uncommon for hackers and computer whizzes to make rookie mistakes, just like for everyone else. That’s why it’s a good thing you guys were able to access the server from Lionel Collier’s own computer. That way, if push comes to shove, he wouldn’t need to realize his information was accessed by any outside source. It’s like leaving a virtual fingerprint at the crime scene.  Well, until we get the information out, that is.”

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“Oh…” David suddenly went pale. “Shoot.”

“What’s wrong?” Gerald was confused, but I understood, remembering something that evaded my attention last night.

“You didn’t wear gloves in there, David, did you?” I asked to be sure.

He just shook his head and slumped down on the table. “I really messed this up, didn’t I?”

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“Not necessarily,” I began to think about his blunder. Was it really such a blunder after all? After all, we didn’t move things too obviously in Collier’s office and we made sure to put the lock back how it was. We didn’t break anything. And even the electronic access key was placed back in its hiding spot in the globe. Unless, Collier had reason to suspect that someone broke in, he wouldn’t need to dust for fingerprints, right? “There is no obvious evidence of a break-in inside the office; therefore your father doesn’t need to look for fingerprints. I don’t think we need to worry about this issue just yet.”

“You really think so?” David asked hopefully.

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“Actually, this almost certainly will be an issue,” Gerald grimly admitted. “Once the information about his father’s crimes gets out, no doubt the investigators will pay a visit to Collier’s office… If they find David’s fingerprints in there, especially on the laptop, he may be considered an accomplice.”

“Oh,” I didn’t think about that aspect of the situation.

“Oh, indeed,” Gerald rubbed his head. “But we’ll figure something out, I’m sure of it.”

“Well, we sure can’t do anything to attract attention to the office until the fingerprints are no longer there,” I decided. “We have to clean them off while we still have time.”

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“What?” David was looking at me like I’ve sprouted a second head. “Are you talking about breaking into the office again?”

“I suppose I am, yes. What? We did it once. It worked. And your father is still out of town, so it’s not like he’ll see us.”

“She has a point,” Gerald conceded. “We can’t let this whole thing escalate to you getting arrested.”

“This was my mess-up though,” David argued. “You don’t have to make this all so much more difficult for yourselves just to keep me out of jail, guys. I should’ve paid more attention to what I was doing back at the office. Besides, it’s not like anyone in my family is innocent of the company’s crimes. It’s only fair that I should go down with my father.”

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“Drop the self-hate, David!” I snapped. “Is this what the whole idea of revealing your father’s activities was all about? Is it really about calling attention to his criminal choices or is that all just a ploy to inflict some sort of martyr-like punishment on yourself because you think just through association with your family you deserve to be miserable? Let me tell you something—if it is just that, then let’s just quit the whole thing here and now.”

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“You don’t understand anything!” David retorted. “This isn’t the first time that I’ve suspected my father of these things. But did I do anything about it? Did I look into anything, or try to figure out the truth? No! I just went on like everything was normal, like my family was just a normal functional unit of people, and like they don’t hurt the people around them! I pretended that my father was an honest businessman who actually cares about medicine, like my mother actually loves him and not just the zeros in his bank accounts, like either of them actually cares about their children! But guess what? That’s all a big fat lie! And I’m a liar to have gone along with it for so long!”

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David was now breathing in quick jagged intakes of air and Gerald kept looking on with a shocked expression. He warned me that David might have another breakdown after the latest events, and it looked like something of the sort was happening right now. But I couldn’t contain my feelings about this. I couldn’t stop myself from letting David hear exactly what I had on my mind.

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“You think it makes you a criminal to have just been born in your family and living with them? Well, newsflash! That’s what people do. They live with their families. If they don’t like something, they leave. And most people don’t just throw fits because life doesn’t work how they think it should!”

Gerald kept shooting me warning looks- he clearly thought I was crossing the line.

David on the other hand was different now. His breathing became more even and even though he still looked pale, he was definitely grounded in reality. He was however, legitimately angry at me now.

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“You know what?” he finally managed to get out. “Do whatever you want. You have the information you were looking for and I have my knowledge that my father will get what’s coming to him. But you know what else? I’m out of here.”

With these words he stormed out of the house, leaving Gerald and I standing there stunned.

“Shit,” I cursed under my breath. What have I just done? It has been a while since I’ve allowed my temper to take over like this, but something about David’s self-deprecating behavior must have set it off. I really didn’t want to hurt him though…

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“What was that?” Gerald shook his head. “Irene, we can’t let him be by himself right now. You see what’s happening with the guy. He might do something reckless right now.”

“You’re right.” I knew deep down that I’ve messed up. I was supposed to be his friend, especially at a time like this.

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“Where did he even go?” Gerald scratched his head. “Because I don’t think I can, in good faith, do anything with this information right now, not with David like this. I don’t know him, but I feel like this will mess him up good, even if he says otherwise.”

“I know,” I admitted. “I didn’t want to hurt him either. I don’t want to hurt him. He’s been a good friend.”

With these words, I knew that I couldn’t allow this situation to be the last thing that affected David’s opinion of me. I just couldn’t.

“I’m going after him. I need to apologize.”

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Gen 2 Ch 7: Breaking and Entering

Warning: Language.

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This was it. Tonight I was going to break into my boss’s office with the purpose of proving his involvement in illegal transactions. Even though I’ve been preparing for weeks now and counted the days until this could be done, I was extremely nervous. Snooping around on the computer, from the safety of my own desk, was one thing. This was different. If I were caught in Collier’s office without an explanation after-hours, I’ll be in trouble.

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“Are you feeling alright, hon?” Tia asked from her desk near me. “You look a bit ill. Have you eaten already?”

My nerves were clearly too obvious. “I’m fine. Just didn’t sleep too well, that’s all. I’ll feel better tomorrow,” I lied, hoping it sounded natural.

“Yeah, it’s been kind of hectic lately. My own sleep patterns have been all out of whack!” she laughed.

I couldn’t help but feel somewhat guilty for not telling her about my suspicions. What if her husband was still alive, for real? She would want to know, right? She loved the man and has a son with him.

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But then again, what if Gerald and I were wrong? And what if WarlordWizard was really just a perfect stranger who had nothing to do with Roman Blakely? If I told Tia that her husband was alive and it turned out to be otherwise, she’d feel even worse than she already did. I couldn’t do that to her.

And what if he was really alive? Where was he? In hiding all of this time and digging up information on the Colliers without telling his wife about his continued existence? Letting his wife work for years at a company that was most likely responsible for his near-death and possibly endangering her? What kind of loving husband and father did that?

I shook my head to clear it of these thoughts. Stay on topic, Irene. Tonight, if everything went well and if everything was where it was expected to be, you will finally have a chance to figure out what is really going on. It’s no use going crazy over all these theories at this point.

The rest of the day passed in its usual vein. I finished most of my work (pretending that there was still a lot left), prepared all the documents that were needed for next day, cleared my desk of the least needed things, had a good lunch, and mostly just waited until everyone finally went home.

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At around 4 in the evening, Lionel Collier left the building and headed to the airport to catch his flight to the conference. His office was now empty. At 5, Lana and Tia headed off home, shortly followed by David, who actually stayed later than usual because we were nearing the end of the month, where all the monetary documents needed to be ready. I had to admit, the guy was super-efficient—even though he was serious about accounting not being his first choice of work, he was really good at math and even caught a couple of my and Lana’s mistakes, saving us a lot of time on future corrections. Having him around the office was really turning out to be pretty nice.

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And just like that, at 7, I had the office building all to myself. Checking around to make sure I was really alone and wouldn’t be discovered by a late janitor, I headed upstairs. I had the lock picks in my pockets and before I even took them out, I made sure to put on a pair of gloves. There was no doubt that what I was about to do was illegal and the last thing I needed was to leave my fingerprints on any surface in Lionel Collier’s office.

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The building was creepily quiet as I headed upstairs. For some reason I remembered the scary stories I used to love so much as a kid. In the dark now, they all seemed so much more believable. Well, yeah, I thought, I am after all about to venture into the ogre’s cave. That almost made me laugh, though I tried not to—even though the building was empty, it seemed too reckless to be noisy right now.

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Bending down in front of the office door, I inserted the lock picks into the keyhole and felt around carefully for the direction and the pressure of the pins inside the lock. Recalling to myself all the details and all the steps from my home practice, I managed to finally twist the lock. It worked. I had access to the office.

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A clicking sound completely unrelated to the lock startled me and I nearly jumped. A glance at the window, however, proved the source of the clicking to be a tree branch hitting the window because of the wind. Get yourself together, Irene, I thought. You aren’t normally that easily scared.

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Without hesitating, I entered the office. The idea to turn on the light was quickly erased from my head—Collier was supposed to be out of town and if anyone saw the lights on in his private office, it would raise suspicion. Great. That meant the most light I would have would be from my cellphone.

Even in the dark, Collier’s office looked mostly the same as it did the last time I was here. The papers cluttered on the desk, the computer, the dragon painting, the antique-looking globe—they were all in the same place as before. Well, where was the electronic key? After all, maybe it wasn’t here after all? Perhaps, Collier took it with him on his trip? Something, however, told me otherwise. I didn’t think he’d be up to carrying it through airport security for a short business trip. So it had to still be here.

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Deciding not to waste time, I focused on searching through the bookshelves. After half an hour of verifying that the books and folders contained in the shelves did not have anything inside of them and placing them the same way as before, I still had nothing. Collier’s desk was my second target.

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It had a few built in shelves and prying them open turned out to be pretty easy. While, at first, I marveled at why a criminal businessman such as Lionel Collier would keep his space so unprotected, I soon realized that he had no reason to make this place high security—there didn’t seem to be anything of importance in here at all. Unless that dragon in the painting was some sort of a real enchanted creature, I was, plainly speaking, wasting my time in here. Looks like, it’s back to the drawing board for the anti-Collier team.

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Leaning back from the desk, I nearly  concussed my head on something. That’s right, I totally forgot about the globe. Rubbing my head and knowing I’ll have a bump tomorrow, I registered the barely audible sound of something scraping inside of the globe.

Were decorative globe’s normally hollow? Yes. They usually didn’t have anything inside though…

Shining my phone light around the globe, I realized that it could be opened. Right at the top of the frame was what turned out to be a well-blended in button. I was about to press it, when I heard quiet but definite footsteps right outside the room. Hoping it was just a late janitor, I paused what I was doing and listened to the other person’s actions. From what I knew, janitors never cleaned inside of this room when Lionel himself wasn’t present. He believed they had sticky fingers, the rumor went. So, all I had to do was to quietly wait for them to leave.

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But the parting footsteps never came and instead I heard the unmistakable sound of someone inserting lock picks into the keyhole. Well, this certainly wasn’t Lionel Collier himself—he’d have the actual key. I quickly made myself fall to the ground and hide under the desk. Who would have thought?! More than one person planned a break-in to Collier’s office on the same night! This was almost like something from a crime-comedy film, except that I was looking at a very real chance of getting caught by someone who was likely a professional criminal. That seemed rather grim.

At this moment, the lock picking stopped and a quiet “Huh” sounded on the other side.

“Crap!” I muttered, realizing that whoever the other person was, they now knew the door was unlocked. Likely, they will realize any moment now that someone was inside the office.

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Then the door opened and the mystery person came in. Fitting my body under the desk as well as I could, I tried to hide myself from line of sight. Whatever this newcomer wanted, hopefully they will get it fast and leave without finding me. Maybe they’ll just assume the door was cracked open by an amateur thief who forgot to re-lock it before leaving…

The new person paused briefly after entering. My guess was they were trying to figure out whether anyone was actually in here or if it was safe to proceed with whatever their plan was. Clearly deciding they would rather proceed with their plan, the newcomer quickly made for the computer, causing me to regret my choice of hiding space. After all, there was only that much space under the desk and they’d be likely to realize someone was here.

However the person sat down at the desk without noticing that there was a little less leg space than usual. Because we were still in the dark, it was harder for them to see me hiding under the desk, but, unfortunately I also couldn’t see them. I had to admit I was curious to find out who else planned a break-in on the same evening as me. After all, Lionel Collier will be out for the whole week—they could have done it any other day.

The sound of a computer turning on followed the person’s arrival and as soon as it was on, the person sitting at the desk began to type and click furiously. Clearly, they were also looking for something in the records, it seemed. I briefly wondered how they were going to access whatever they were looking for and whether they had the electronic key…

“Damn it, where are those records?!” the person in the seat exasperatedly muttered and I recognized the voice—David. David was the guy who also planned a break-in at the same time as me.

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“There has to be a trail. I don’t believe he really remembers every little detail in his head…” he sounded irritated. “Fuck it! What was all this planning for if the stupid machine is clean!?”

In his anger, David managed to move his leg in just the right (wrong for me) way to brush against me. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for him to realize that he really was not alone in here.

Startled, he leaned back in his seat too quickly, causing it to fall over, with him nearly hitting the floor with his head.

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“Oh my god, are you ok?” I couldn’t help myself from yelling out.

“Irene?” he slowly got up to a sitting position, rubbing his elbow where he hit it against the floor. “You’re in here?”

Well, so much for staying hidden. “Hello David. I see we have a similar sense of timing for more than just bar-crawling.”

“Yeah…,” he nodded his head with a strange expression on his face. “We sure do.”

An awkward pause filled the room until he suddenly began to laugh. “Well, I don’t think we’ll be calling the cops or my father on one another, right? Considering that neither of us is supposed to be in here at this time.”

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“I suppose not,” I agreed carefully. “Although you might want to be more quiet or someone might hear us.”

“Don’t worry about that. Unless this office has a secret house elf that no one knows about, we’re really the only ones here,” he chuckled. “So, you want to tell me why you’re hiding out in my father’s office? I assume this isn’t your favorite pastime for week-nights.”

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“No, it isn’t.” Of course he had questions, but so did I. “How about this? I’ll tell you why I’m here and you tell me why you are. A fair exchange of information?”

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“Deal,” he agreed. “I’m here because I’m trying to figure out whether daddy dearest is trying to involve me in accounting fraud and tax evasion. Or something like it. You see, it seems he’s forgotten that I’m really good at math. And some of the numbers or rather a lot of the numbers in his documents don’t match. And since I work with those numbers, I would very much not like to be involved in something illegal. You?”

“How much do you know about your father’s medical research projects?” I ventured.

“Frankly, not that much. He usually just has me deal with the monetary parts of the job,” David admitted. “I don’t think he trusts me too much with sensitive information, really.”

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I took a deep breath and tried to make it short “A few years ago, my father discovered a fruit with extreme healing properties. It cured my mother’s cancer. We wanted to make this discovery available to others in need and my father ended up contacting your parents. However, when it was clear Collier Enterprises was only looking for profit rather than to actually help sick people, my parents decided not to partner with the company. Then, a few weeks later, our house was broken into, my father’s garden was destroyed, and his research involving the healing fruit was stolen. And then, only a while afterwards, Collier Enterprises came forward with a new miracle drug that was said to be very effective against cancer. Coincidence?”

“No,” David rubbed his head with a concerned expression. “Doesn’t sound like a coincidence? So, I guess you’re trying to find something to link the two events?”

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“Are you going to rat this out to your father?” my words came out somewhat harsher than I intended. But I was caught. Despite my best efforts, I was caught by the very son of the man I was trying to convict of a crime.

“Well, I haven’t called the cops or my father up until this point, and I am still fully intending to break into his records to find evidence of another crime, so no. And now that I’ve heard your story, I am rather curious myself about my father’s involvement in it. Now, we’re wasting alone time. Let’s see if the two of us together can figure out where my father stores sensitive information, shall we?”

I had to admit, I was pretty shocked by David’s nonchalant attitude towards this whole situation, but one had to admire his quick adaptation to the new development.

“It’s on a server. But you won’t be able to access it without his electronic access key.”

“Cool and where is the key?” he asked.

“Well, I was looking for it when you got here. It might be inside of that globe though.”

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“What are we waiting for then?” David quickly made his way to the decorative planet and I looked once again for the small button on the top of the model. As soon as I pressed it, the globe came open and David reached in, fishing out what looked like a small flash-drive. This was it. The thing I was looking for all this time. Hopefully now I’ll have the information I was looking for.

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“Allow me?” I sat down near the computer and entered the address of the server the way Gerald taught me to. When the access screen came up, David plugged in the key, and after a few minutes of the information loading up, we had full access to Lionel Collier’s secret records.

After only a few minutes of looking at the information on the server, David let out a long whistle.

“Well, looks like Daddy’s been busy…,” he shook his head dejectedly. “I guess money fraud isn’t the worst of his offenses.

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He was right. While the records in this server made it clear that Collier was involved in the theft at my house, it was only one small chapter in what was turning out to be Lionel Collier’s impressive rap sheet. There were records of stolen patents for medications, records of money used for sabotage of competitors and bribes for law enforcement, notes about sales of faulty products, and much, much more. Even I, who hated Lionel Collier on a personal level, was shocked at some of the things that were alluded to in the server.

“He’s been real busy…,” David drifted off, sounding awfully sad all of a sudden.

I glanced over at him, wondering if he was alright, but of course he wasn’t. After all, he just saw proof of his father’s involvement in multiple serious crimes. Any one of these instances could lead to a hefty prison sentence. There was no way at all he could be ok with this.

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“Fraud, theft, sabotage… We can’t let him keep doing this. Not now that we have proof of all this,” David stated sternly. Noticing my surprised expression, he explained, “I know I sound completely heartless saying this about my own father, but allowing him to continue these practices now that we know about them would not only be a criminal offense for us, but also just plain morally wrong. The rest of the employees think they are working for a legitimate establishment but being employed here could literally land them in jail. Or seriously endanger them. Think about it—I’m here because I noticed discrepancies in the numbers, but most of the workers here are just as good. How long is it until one of them figures out something that lands them on Daddy’s hit list?”

He was right. Some of the information in the server made it clear that Lionel Collier was involved in “silencing” certain people. I didn’t want to think too much what that entailed. The idea of dear Lana or Tia, along with all the other workers at this office, becoming endangered for some reason, made me choke up.

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“You’re right,” I admitted shakily. “We do have to do something about this. How though? He seems to have a foot in local law enforcement.”

“I know,” David rubbed his head, looking grim. He must be getting a headache by now.

“Are you sure you didn’t hit your head back there?” I worried about him. I heard stories about people getting concussions and sustaining brain injuries—hopefully David wasn’t hurt.

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“No, it’s fine, it was only my elbow. It just looks like we have a lot of work cut out for both of us. I assume you’re in? To reveal this stuff about my father?” he clarified.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “I’m in. I thought he only stole from my family… Looks like it’s all much more serious than that. I might as well stick it out to the end now. Whatever that means.

“We’ll probably all lose our jobs. There is no way this company will be allowed to stay open after these practices come to air. Just, so you know.”

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He was right. This entire company was involved in too many illegal activities to stay open once these things came to light. But the truth was worth it, right? I simply nodded.

“We need to make a copy of all this somehow. Ah, let me see if I have a flash drive big enough.” David dug inside of his pockets. “Empty.”

“Let me go downstairs quickly—I should have one.”

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I headed downstairs and fished the old flash drive out of my desk. I still couldn’t believe this whole situation was happening. I finally had proof that Collier was involved in illegal activity, but his son was helping me? This was a turn of events that I didn’t expect.

Upstairs, David was still skimming through the information with a grave expression on his face.

“Here it is,” I handed him the object. He quickly began copying the information to the device, but since there was so much information, it was going to take a bit of time.

“So, how did you know all this? About the server, about the key?” he finally asked the questions I expected.

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I sighed. “I’ve been trying to dig up information on your father ever since we got robbed.”

“Impressive. It must’ve taken some effort.”

“How are you so ok with me being here in this situation? And how come you’re helping me?” I finally demanded. “I was digging under your father. How are you not yelling at me or calling the cops right now? Don’t you consider me an enemy of some sort now?”

“No. I don’t consider you an enemy. As for why…I’m not sure I can be angry at someone whose family was wronged by my father. He doesn’t exactly try to keep people on his good side. We’re looking at proof,” he pointed to the screen and added softly. “He doesn’t really try to keep family on the friendly side either, to be honest.”

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It sounded like he could say more about bad relationship between him and his father, but he hardly needed to. It was clear that a normal parent-child relationship was non-existent in their family.

The information was now copied to the flash drive and David eagerly stood up “Come on, I think it’s high time we leave this place. I, for my part, have seen enough of this office for a while.”

We made our way out of the office, making sure to put the lock back how it was. We were still not sure how we’ll be calling down the law on Collier, so having him find the office broken into won’t do.

Outside, the night was dark. It was already past midnight. I hoped my parents weren’t too worried about my absence, but it was up to Gerald to cover for me now.

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David lit up a cigarette as soon as we were outside the building. I’ve noticed that he’s been craving for one since before we accessed the server. His nerves must be pretty frayed by now, after an evening like this.

“We need to figure this whole ‘blowing the whistle’ thing out soon,” he ventured. “Speaking of, which one of us gets to keep the flash drive with the information for now?”

“What do you mean? I thought you were going to keep it?” I was confused.

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“You’ve done most of the leg work for discovering the information, though, so it wouldn’t be fair for me to keep it, would it? Besides I’d rather the evidence wasn’t someplace where my father can suddenly turn up,” he admitted.

“True. Maybe I should take it for now.”

Something about the idea didn’t sit right with me. After all, we were both involved with this. Therefore we should both be in possession of the evidence against Collier. Also, there was another nagging thought at the back of my mind…

“Why not keep it together?” I offered.

“How?”

“Come over to my place. That way, we’d both have access to the flash drive. Besides, it’s high time that you’ve met my brother. You two will get along well, I think. Come, I’m inviting.”

“If you say so,” David didn’t sound too sure of this—understandable. I on the other hand, didn’t want him to go home alone tonight. He was trying to act normal, but it was obvious that seeing all that information about his father’s activities shocked David and I felt that it would be best if he had safe company for the time being.

“Come on. It’s late, but I’m sure there’s something to eat at home—you must’ve been here for hours.”

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We drove home with a sense of purpose mixed with exhaustion. We had a lot of work ahead of us, but that would wait until morning. Right now, we were both mentally and physically exhausted after the adrenaline of the break in wore off. A break was in order.

Gen 2 Ch 6: Getting Closer

Despite my worries about David’s presence at the office, things continued on in their familiar vein. We still came to work and did what we were paid for. There was just an extra person in the mix.

To satisfy my friends’ curiosity, I ended up telling them that I ran into David while out on the town, which was how he knew me (well, it wasn’t totally a lie). If they didn’t believe me, they didn’t say anything.

As for David himself, he seemingly understood from my behavior that I still felt really awkward about how we met. So, any interaction between us was strictly professional and while he seemed pretty amicable, I was hesitant to become too friendly with him. Yes he was nice, but he was a Collier. That family knew how to play any situation to their advantage and to charm people into trusting them—why would David be any different?

Besides, I was no closer to figuring out where his father kept the electronic server key. I studied his appearance for any accessory that could be dual-functioning but there wasn’t any visible object that looked like a potential technical device. Perhaps, whatever I was looking for was not kept on the person after all, but someplace more private. Like Collier’s office. But I had no clear way of getting in there undetected.

After several weeks of this, I was still trying to figure out how to make my way into Lionel Collier’s office. He didn’t really interact much with the office workers aside from giving orders or occasionally firing people—therefore, there weren’t many excuses for going into his private area.

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But it looked like luck was more or less on my side in this situation: Lana had recently gotten engaged to her boyfriend and, naturally, she couldn’t contain her excitement about the whole thing. Expectedly, office talk often transitioned into wedding talk. One such day, Collier ended up passing by the office and heard it. Disliking that we were “wasting office time on personal matters”, as he put it, he ended up calling a meeting for office workers in the conference room upstairs. After an hour of “discussing” what was and wasn’t appropriate in an office environment (if you asked any of us, it was an hour well-wasted), he finally released us employees to do their jobs.

 

Throughout the lecture, I was seething about Collier’s spitefulness—Lana was one of our best workers, there was literally no doubt about that. And she only talked about her upcoming wedding on our official designated work breaks. Clearly, this was not in violation of any work rules. But of course, Mr. Ogre had to go and find a problem with something! I tried to keep my annoyance well-hidden throughout his talk, instead focusing on my coworkers’ faces.

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Lana herself was sitting there with an air of someone who was used to getting lectured on things that idiots considered problematic and she didn’t seem too uncomfortable—she was still floating on clouds because of her engagement.

 

Tia was constantly looking at the clock. The meeting was towards the end of the workday and she worried that she won’t be on time to go with her son to his doctor’s appointment. Motherhood was certainly not easy, that much was for certain.

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David’s behavior was what surprised me the most. He spent most of the meeting staring at a spot on the wall with an expression that said he would rather have been literally anywhere else but that room. What puzzled me was the fact that he was clearly unhappy about being in his own father’s presence. Of course, Lionel Collier was hardly a pleasant person to be around, but I figured his own son would feel some positive emotions towards his father. Then again, maybe there were no warm feelings in that family. I remembering what Lana and Tia told me about the dysfunctional marriage between Lionel and Selma, how the only thing keeping them together was his money and her love of wealthy living. How much did these two actually care about their son? That made me feel a pang of sympathy for the poor guy—no one deserved parents like these.

As the meeting was over and we were dispersing to our workstations, I noticed that Collier dropped one of the folders he was carrying and was already on the way to his office. This was my chance!

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I picked up the folder and headed right after him. “Excuse me! Mr. Collier, you dropped your folder!”

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He was already inside and examining an antique globe, one of the many decorations of his office, but upon my entrance he turned around and nodded, “Oh, thank you, Irene, is it? All these papers! How is one supposed to keep track of everything?”

“It’s no problem, I’ll just be on my way,” I forced a smile and headed back, on my way, noticing that the door to Collier’s office had a very basic lock. This was good. I was sure I could easily pick it with proper instruction. Now, just to find the right time to do it…

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I was about to go down the stairs when something made me look out the window to the second floor patio area. David was out there all alone and for some reason I felt that maybe I should go and talk to him. After all, after that evening at the bar, we weren’t strangers.

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Stepping outside, I took in his appearance. David was young, about my age, or perhaps a year or two older, but at that moment he looked much older. One simply did not look that way because they were happy in life. In his hand, he had a half-finished cigarette, from which he was still taking urgent drags and his face held the expression of someone who really wanted to run away as far as possible and never come back.

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“Hey,” I called out quietly. “Mind if I join you out here?”

“Oh, hi,” he looked toward me, only just noticing my presence. “Sorry, let me put this out.”

He tried to extinguish his cigarette but I waved his concern aside “It’s alright. You look like you need it.”

He gave the cigarette a sad look and nodded “Yeah, I do. Whenever I’m around him for too long, I do.”

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“You and your father don’t get along?” I asked, feeling strange about discussing the Colliers’ family dynamics.

“That’s one way to put it,” he chuckled sarcastically. “He’s not exactly the friendliest person around. Never thought I’ll end up working here, next to him, that’s for sure.”

“What did you plan to do instead?” I was curious.

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“Would you believe I always loved reporting? Wanted to be a columnist, too. So much for that,” he took another nervous drag from the cigarette.

“What happened? If you don’t mind talking about it, that is,” I prodded him.

“Ah, it’s pretty simple, really. I flunked out of college. Failed all my courses in my last semester and my school was really strict about retaking them. So, once my money for staying back in Bridgeport ran out, I was basically faced with being on the streets and coming here to work at Collier Enterprises. Sounds like a dumb situation, doesn’t it?”

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“Not really. These things happen. Don’t be too hard on yourself. And hey, it could be worse—at least you don’t live with him. Besides, you being here in this town definitely prevented at least one upset drunken person from doing something stupid.” Try as I might, I was finding it hard not to feel sorry for David. He was someone who found himself in a bad situation, and judging from his behavior, he was the worse for the wear. Of course, it seemed like there was something else he wasn’t telling about the whole situation, something that was very catalytic to what happened, but I didn’t know him well enough to prod, since he didn’t reveal willingly. “By the way, I never did get to thank you properly for taking care of me that night. I shouldn’t have freaked out the way I did.”

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“Oh, that’s alright. I’m just glad I could help someone out,” he smiled genuinely for the first time that day.

“Listen, I know I can haven’t been very friendly lately. It’s sort of a bad habit of mine,” I ended up blurting out before I had a chance to regret it, “But if you ever need someone to talk to, about anything, just feel free to call me. Here’s my phone number.”

He regarded me with a sincerely surprised expression, leading me to think that he didn’t have that many friends to begin with. “Thanks. I really appreciate this.” He instantly texted me a smiley face. “Now you have my number too. Same conditions!”

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“Alright, take care then,” I parted with him and with a strangely lighter heart headed toward my desk. Ok, so David was Lionel Collier’s son. But he seemed really lonely and in need of companionship. After he took care of me on that crazy night after my breakup, I kind of wanted to do something nice for him in return.

————————————————————————

The rest of the month went by quickly. Gerald and I ended up researching ways to pick a lock (surprisingly easy information to find out, thanks to the internet) and practicing at home. Of course, we made sure to practice when our folks were out—even though Mom and Dad knew what we were up to, we were sure they’d both have heart attacks if they saw us practicing an illegal activity. After we were both pretty good with the technique, it was time to act. Now we just needed a good time to do it: I would have and excuse to stay at the office late, Collier would be conveniently out for the night, and the rest of the coworkers would be home. Otherwise there would be too many questions raised. So, literally, it was a matter of time and now that the goal was set, I had no problem patiently waiting.

At work, things were going mostly good. I was enjoying the benefits (and the pay raise) of my new promotion and still doing good work. I had to admit, if this company had a different owner, it really would have been a pretty nice place. And my fellow coworkers were good friendly people, which, as I realized by now, was quite an important thing at work. I was sincerely happy for the people I worked with.

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So, of course, I agreed to babysit Tia’s son when she had to work especially late one day. It was no problem for me at all. Tia was also trying to get a pay raise, meaning she was trying to increase her productivity at work. That implied lots of overtime, unfortunately. And being a single mother, she had double duty, both at work and at home.

Clyde Blakely turned out to be an energetic kid, who certainly wasn’t too eager to sit down and do a big math assignment. At least not without someone helping him.

“Alright Clyde, you’re looking at a long division problem. So, the number you have to divide, otherwise known as the dividend, here, is 125, right?” I explained to the boy.

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“Yes! And I know the number I divide by is the divisor. But 125 doesn’t divide by 7 evenly!” Clyde complained.

“Yep, that’s right. So what you do is this: you build a table, with the dividend underneath the bracket and the divisor outside. It’s pretty easy when you do it this way! You first divide 12 by 7, which would be how much?”

“One! 7 only goes into 12 once!” he chimed in eagerly.

“Exactly. So, you write the 1 on top of the bracket and subtract the seven from 12. The leftover 5 is carried down along with the 5 from 125, to make a 55, which you also divide by 7. Which would be how much?” I encouraged the boy.

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“The 49 divides by 7. It’s 7!” he figured out. “So we write the seven on top along with the 1. Our whole number is 17.”

“And is that where we add the zeros?” Clyde was getting the hang of his assignment.

“That’s right. See? You do get it once you think it through? Think you can solve the rest of your problem without my help?”

“Yes!” In the next five minutes the boy figured out the correct answer of 17.857 for his problem. After that, he had no problem solving the rest of his assignment. “Thank you, Irene! You should come over more often. Mom says you’re nice.”

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“Thanks, kid. I bet you would like my brother even more. He’s good with computers and could probably help you beat that video game you’ve been stuck on.”

“Really? That’s so cool! I bet he would’ve gotten along with my dad well. He liked computer games too. Speaking of, can I go play now?” he asked.

“Of course, your assignment is done, so you’re free for the rest of the night,” I let the kid go to his room, smiling to myself. I never really thought of it much, but I did think kids were pretty cool. I wouldn’t mind having some of my own someday.

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Tia came home soon, thankful for my babysitting. “You actually got him to do his homework? Wow, that is no small task!”

“It was pretty fun. I think he was pretty eager to do the problems once he figured out the technique. He’s a good kid,” I assured her.

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“That’s nice to hear. Usually I have to bribe him with comic books to do any of his assignments. Unless it’s art. He’s always eager to draw his favorite comic book characters. I guess it’s his passion,” she chuckled. “Like father, like son, I guess.”

“Your husband was into art?” I was curious. She didn’t talk much about Clyde’s late father.

“Not into art, into comic books, mostly. It used to annoy me quite a bit when we were together, to be honest—his comic books were always strewn all over the house. But now that he’s gone, I can’t bring myself to throw away those old WarlordWizard issues,” she smiled sadly.

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“It’s a reminder of him,” I nodded, understanding. And in the back of my head, it registered that WarlordWizard was also the name of Gerald’s hacker friend from the internet. What a coincidence.

“Yeah. I guess it is. Well, I won’t keep you much longer, you must be tired. Thanks again,” she hugged me and I headed home. It really had been a long day, after all.

At home, Gerald was waiting for me. “So, do you think you’ll have access to Collier’s office anytime soon?”

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“I think so. Next week, he’s going out of town for some conference on steroids in over the counter medications. I’ll just make sure I have a lot of work left to do after the others are gone home. That way, no one will be likely to disturb me while I’m searching Collier’s office.”

“Sounds good. I wish I could come with you, but there wouldn’t be any good reason for me to be at your workplace afterhours, now, is there?” he shook his head sadly.

“Hey, Ger? Can you look something up for me real quick?” an idea hit me.

“Sure, what is it?” he perked up.

“Well, about four years ago, there’s been a drunk-driving accident that killed my coworker’s husband. Roman Blakely was the name. Can you look anything up on that? He worked at a scientific facility not far from here, if that helps.”

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“Sure, I’ll see what I can find,” he pulled up his databases and after half an hour of scrolling through them, looked confused. “What was his name again? Roman Blakely? There was an accident, alright. But there were no drunk drivers involved, as I can tell. The car blew up.”

“What? Why would Tia lie about this?” I was appalled.

“Hold on. This other source says it was, in fact a drunk-driving accident…. weird. Let me go a little deeper,” he resumed his search. “Just so you know, by ‘going deeper’ I mean logging into secured databases that I should have no access to. But you know, it seems that there is some sort of a mix-up here and now I’m curious.”

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“Why would something like this be a mix-up? Hold on, which version of the accident is dated as the earliest?” I asked.

“That would be the car explosion one. And the drunk driver version came later. But why? It looks like there was some sort of a cover up,” he mused. As a new page came up on his screen, he scratched his head “Well, would you look at that! Looks like it wasn’t the first time something went badly for dear old Roman. Here’s a list of all reports he made to the cops, or tried to make—he believed someone was trying to kill him at the facility. But none of these were officially filed for some reason… I wonder why. You know, it might be that his accident was no accident after all. It might have been a murder.”

“What were they working on at his facility? It could be important,” I realized.

“Let’s see… It looks like they were working on creating a new miracle drug. And it looks like the preliminary testing actually worked, too. But then, why did the project get cut?”

“Tia said the donors decided it was more hassle than benefit to continue funding the research after multiple accidents at the lab…”

Gerald and I exchanged a look. Accidents at the lab, successful research for a miracle drug, a head scientist who thought people were trying to kill him, and in the end a car explosion—yeah, this all seemed unlikely to be a coincidence. Most likely someone was really trying to sabotage the research and the people involved in it. By any means possible.

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“I wonder if Tia even realizes any of this,” I managed to say. “Hey, is there any talk of Roman Blakely’s body after the accident?”

Gerald scrolled through several more pages of reports and turned back at me with a curious expression “None. Which is surprising. But with explosions, a lot of times there are no remains.”

“Is there any chance the guy didn’t die?” I found myself asking. “You said yourself that he suspected someone was trying to kill them. I mean, the guy wasn’t the head scientist of a project for no reason—he must’ve been smart. Maybe he decided to fake his own death before someone got him for real?”

“It’s possible, I suppose. But why are you asking about all this now?” my brother cocked an eyebrow.

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“I was just babysitting Roman Blakely’s son. Did you know that the man was a big fan of a comic book called WarlordWizard? And was apparently really good with computers?”

My brother looked at me very seriously “You think he is my hacker friend from the board?”

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“I don’t know, but it is plausible. And you said yourself the guy seems to have a grudge against our company. Think about it. They were developing a miracle drug only a short time before Collier Enterprises released one of their own. And their whole research process was hindered with accidents and likely sabotage. It is possible that Collier Enterprises was responsible for the whole thing. It’s not like a cover-up like this would be unaffordable for Lionel Collier if he really wanted to hide involvement in something illegal.”

“We really need to get our hands on that key, that’s for sure,” my brother was apprehensive. “Who knows what else is hidden on those servers?”

“That is what we’re planning to do, isn’t it? I just hope we find what we’re looking for inside that server.”

“So do I, sis, so do I. And remember, be careful. We don’t want this guy to discover what we’re up to and do something to you.”

I nodded. “I understand. I am careful. But also really eager to get a move-on with this. As for you, are you going to ask WarlordWizard about this new information?”

My brother sighed “Not yet. For now, all we have is suspicions. Unless he chooses to reveal himself to us, I feel like we should let him keep anonymity.”

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“Fair enough. I’d rather not have to keep the fact of her husband’s living state from Tia, either. Night.”

Hopefully, it won’t be long now until we could figure out what was going.

Gen 2 Ch 5: Unpleasant

“So, you want to tell me what happened?” Gerald finally asked. “I want to figure out how my sister ended up getting super-wasted on a night when she was supposed to be on a date. And what happened between you and that idiot.”

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“You’re not just going to let this go are you?” I sighed. My brother shook his head. Of course, he was an investigative journalist after all—he always had to know what was up. “I caught him making out with another woman, their new bandmate, to be precise. And of course I flipped and slapped him good. Should’ve done more but he was trying to ‘explain everything’ to me and she was fawning over him… It was gross. I can’t believe I didn’t see what a sleazebag he was for all these years.”

“Hmm, I see. And after that, you decided to get drunk? Where did you even go?” he was still incredulous.

“A nice little bar which was almost empty at the time. What? It seemed like a good decision at the time. I was pretty upset, I wasn’t thinking clearly,” I justified my behavior.

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“Obviously. Do you have any idea what could’ve happened to you in that state? How did you even get home?” Gerald asked. “I had the car that night. Which was probably a good thing, now that I think of it.”

“I hailed a cab, like any sane drunk person would do. I certainly didn’t walk home in that state,” I informed him, conveniently leaving out the part where I passed out in a total stranger’s house. “And where were you? You weren’t home that night, were you? You only came back in the morning.”

“At Katy’s. She had a promotion at work, so she invited me over to celebrate! I guess we got carried over and I ended up sleeping over at her place,” Gerald sheepishly explained.

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“Well, congratulations, bro. I was wondering when you two were going to get more serious.”

My brother blushed “Come on! It’s not like we were that innocent before.”

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“Sure, Romeo. Seriously, you should spend more time together. That girl is so into you!”

“And I’m into her,” he smiled. “You know, you’re taking this whole breakup thing way better than I expected you would. Not that I wanted you to be upset, but, you know, you’re really calm about this.”

He was right, in a way. After the emotional tempest I’ve experienced at the moment when I caught Micah cheating and broke up with him, I still felt awfully betrayed and confused as to why this whole situation happened. It hurt that someone who I spent five years in a committed relationship with and who I shared so many memories with could lie to me and start a relationship with another woman behind my back. But at the same time, this was something that was both obviously and subconsciously bothering me for the past year: the idea that he might do this. And I’d be lying if I said that not being in that relationship any more was not a relief. Which was really something to ponder.

“I guess I’m just glad this came out before he and I moved things further,” I admitted carefully. “Imagine if we did move in already, like he wanted us to. Then this whole situation would have been much worse.”

“That’s true.” My brother was quiet for a moment. “So, how’s everything going at the office?”

“Well, in a couple of weeks, Collier himself is going to be in. I was thinking this could be our chance to get something on him. After all, he’ll be closer and easier to observe, right?” I told my brother.

 

“Hmm, you could be right. You know, I think we found something too!” Gerald excitedly lit up. “You know how you were saying that all the stuff you found on your servers is just the generic pharmaceutical and business transaction information which is totally legal?”

“Yeah,” I was now hooked on the conversation, “It’s all pretty legit. And boring. Not really what we’re looking for.”

“Exactly! But is it everything? No! I think we’ve found the IP of another server. But my friend from the message board, the one I’ve been working closely with on this, has been unable to hack into it, even though he’s really good at breaking into most such places. We’ve been wreaking our heads together over this and it seems that most likely, the key to this server is not just virtual. Because, you see, we’ve been using every bit of programming knowledge to find a password to this thing and it seems that we have found half of it. But the other half is not a password—it’s most likely one of those electronic keys that only the authorized person has.”

“And in this case, the authorized person would be Lionel Collier himself,” I understood. Well, that would certainly make sense. Without the actual key, none of the workers could accidentally (or intentionally) stumble upon sensitive information. “But what exactly does it look like? So that I know what I’m looking for?”

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“Well, it is a sort of security token that is meant specifically to be used with the password to the server. Now, what exactly it looks like, we don’t really know,” Gerald explained, “Most are pretty small but they can be disguised into just about any shape these days. Not a bad idea, considering that their job is literally to protect sensitive information. I remember I saw one such key sold online that looked like a legit pencil eraser!”

“So, we’re looking for some physical object that is used in conjunction with the hopefully correct password you’ve found. If it’s something that important, I’m sure Lionel Collier is taking good steps to keep it safe,” I rubbed my temples. This was turning out to be confusing. But at the same time, it was the closest we’ve been to our goal.

“That’s what WarlordWizard and I have been thinking,” Gerald agreed.

“WarlordWizard?”

“That’s the hacker’s screen name. I told you, we stay anonymous on that message board,” he explained. “This guy’s pretty smart, he knows what he’s talking about. And he has some sort of a vendetta against the Colliers too, it seems.”

“I hope he’s trustworthy, that’s all.” Even though my brother was an adult, I worried about his involvement with this whole company of hackers. But then again, he’s been involved in this even before I decided to bring Collier down— it really wasn’t my place to tell him to cut down on interaction with his internet contacts.

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“Oh, I know what you mean. But he hasn’t been trying to hack me or anything. He’s just really set against that company. Like I said, we’re not the only ones who had bad dealings with Collier Enterprises,” Gerald gave a conspicuous smile.

“Well, wish me luck, I’ll need it, I’m sure. All I have to do is figure out where a thief is hiding the very important key to his crimes,” I laughed.

“I’m sure you’ll find it. You have the drive for it,” Gerald gave me a pat on the back. “Let’s get some ice cream, shall we?”

————————————————————————-

The day Lionel Collier arrived at the company, the air was thick with the workers’ pent up nerves. Even Lana was less chatty than usual, which I personally found kind of depressing. After all, who else was supposed to keep up the rest of the coworkers’ morale?

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Luckily, the man himself didn’t force his company on the regular office workers for too long—after coming into the office where we spent most of the workday and giving everyone the most condescending look and greeting, Lionel Collier headed to his personal office upstairs. If I was previously worried that he was going to realize I was the daughter of the people he screwed over, it seemed that my worry was baseless. He didn’t even seem to know my name, or the name of anyone who seemed unimportant to him, for that matter.

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Good, that would keep me inconspicuous to him while I worked to figure out how to expose him. Of course, I had the feeling I would need to be more visible to the guy if I were to get any idea of where his secret electronic key was. I did give him an initial look-over, but nothing in his wardrobe looked like a potential security token. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure that it would be on him—why carry something that sensitive on the person, when it could become stolen or broken? But then again, someone who often worked with sensitive information would most likely need his way of access to it no matter where he went, right?

Despite Collier’s presence, worked went on more or less as usual once we got used to the fact that the ogre was in his cave. There were still orders to be filled, sales to be finalized, and mounds of paperwork. These things weren’t going to do themselves. I made sure to do the most work of all in the office— the work was a welcome distraction from my hurt feelings over the end of my long-time relationship.

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I suppose I should’ve thanked Micah for giving me that chip on the shoulder—by the end of the month, I got promoted! Even Mr. Ogre himself ended up giving me a more-or-less approving and not condescending nod after I was told I was getting a raise. Not bad, I thought to myself. This could be very useful in the long run.

At home, my parents were still extra careful with me. They knew that something happened with my relationship and I could tell they were dying to know what it was, but they also knew me and respected my right to not open up about it just yet. I sincerely appreciated that.

Speaking of the relationship… Micah has tried to contact me numerous times since that evening by phone, text, email, you name it. I never responded. I just had no wish to face him ever again after he betrayed my trust. Yes, in a way, I was happy that relationship was over, since now my worries about it were over. But it still hurt that he was able to disregard what we had and go ahead with his infidelity the way he did. And I wasn’t planning to forgive that. Not just yet. And I wasn’t planning to talk to him anytime soon.

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Well, until he actually showed up at my doorstep. My parents weren’t home, Gerald was on a date with Katy, and I was relaxing by the fireplace after a long day of work. I really didn’t need any exes showing up at my house. Sigh. I would just have to pretend ot to be home.

Apparently it wasn’t going to work this time around. “Irene, I know you’re home! I understand you’re angry with me, but please, I just need to talk to you. I owe you an explanation.” Micah didn’t look like he was planning to leave anytime soon.

I was tempted to bash his head in with one of the kitchen chairs. I really was. But that would hardly go over well with the local law enforcement. How dare he show up at my house and act like he had any right to my time?!

Although, he was right about one thing: he did owe me an explanation of what happened. And it better be a good one!

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“Alright!” I opened up the door glaring at him. “You have 10 minutes and after that, you’re leaving and never bothering me again. Is that understood?”

“Yes.” I could tell he could see how angry I was. “May I come in, or would you rather talk out here?”

“Come in.” He walked in, looking like a dog who knew it was caught the owner’s favorite pair of shoes. “Well, time is running, what are you waiting for? Are you going to explain why you were lying to me that you were busy at work while you were really just busy cozying up with her?”

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“I wasn’t lying about being busy,” Micah began to explain, while Murka hissed at him. Good cat, she knew not to trust him. “We were really working extra-long hours before the tour. That’s probably why it happened.”

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“Is she your new keyboardist?” I asked. Now that he was here, I wanted to know what exactly it was about that new woman in his life that caused him to cheat on me.

“Yes. But I knew her before that. Remember how I told you about my old Bridgeport friend Mona?” he reminded me.

Mona? Mona Carson, his old childhood friend? Yes, he has mentioned being close friends with someone by that name. But then they both moved and lost touch with one another. Unless…

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“I’m sorry. I really am,” Micah looked extremely apologetic. “I honestly didn’t think anything will happen between the two of us. When I found out that Mona was our new keyboardist, I was just happy that we had someone who was a really good musician and that our tour would still go through. But all those long hours in the studio together. I guess we ended up discovering how much we still had in common, wondering how things would’ve turned out for us if we never moved away from one another… One thing just led to another.”

“So, you started seeing each other?” It was all coming together now. “How soon did you two sleep together?”

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“We didn’t sleep together until you broke up with me. The kiss you saw, it was only the second time it happened. Up until she and I kissed, I was still certain that things will remain platonic between us. But after that, I knew I had to end things properly with us before starting a relationship with anyone else. It wouldn’t be fair to either one of you.”

“Oh,” was all I could say. Well, at least he wasn’t planning to lie to me and see someone else while living with me. No, he was going to break up with me even if I didn’t beat him to it. “Well, I guess I’m supposed to thank you for being honest.”

“Can you ever forgive me?” he asked. “I never wanted to hurt you.”

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“Honestly, I don’t know. I understand what happened, but I’m still angry at you. And I can see myself being angry with you for much longer. Yeah, she’s an old friend, but I was your girlfriend. It shouldn’t have been that easy for your feelings for her to overpower your feelings for me, if they were ever there to begin with.”

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“They were,” he stated seriously. “I wanted a life together with you.”

“I’m not so sure anymore,” I managed through the tears that threatened to spill once again. “You should go now. It’s been more than ten minutes already.”

“So, that’s it?” he asked.

“I don’t think I can really be friends with you after what happened. I’m sure you understand.”

“I see. Goodbye then.”

After he left, I finally buckled down and allowed myself to cry. Why was I still spilling tears over him? Wasn’t I more or less satisfied that this relationship was over? Maybe… It still hurt.

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My mother found me still red-eyed and starring at the flames in the fireplace when she came home.

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“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked quietly.

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“I don’t know. Kind of,” I admitted.

“Well, I’m here,” she offered joining me on the couch. “Are you burning something?”

“Yeah. All those pictures of me and Micah. I mean, I’d rather not have them among my things anymore.”

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“It’s really over between you two, isn’t it?” she asked quietly.

“Yeah…” I ended up recounting the events of that night and of today’s conversation to her. By the time I was finished, she had her arm around me and was rubbing my back in a comforting way.

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“It’s a good thing you talked to him, dear. Otherwise, you would have always been wondering what went wrong and whether it was your fault. Now you know it wasn’t,” she offered.

“It wasn’t? Then why does it feel so awful, Mom?” I asked.

“Because your feelings are hurt! As is to be expected— you were in love with that boy and it turned out he wasn’t the one for you.  But you never know. Now that the fickle lover is out of your life, there is space for something more real,” Mom ventured with a sad smile. “Let’s admit it, you weren’t always sure of that relationship, were you? That’s why you were always trying to hide from me and your father when you were with him.”

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“You always knew, didn’t you? If you thought this relationship wasn’t going well, why didn’t you ever tell me?” I asked, surprised at how comforted I was to open up to my mother about everything.

“Well, would you have listened? You are after all as tempered as I am. You would have just made more excuses to see him and spend time with him, just to prove a point. And besides, I could have been wrong. After all, only time and circumstances can test a relationship.”

“True. Mom, how come you guys aren’t angrier at me for working there?” I asked suddenly.

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“At Collier Enterprises? Sweetheart, you’re my daughter, I couldn’t be angry with you even if you decided to be an actual criminal and succeeded at it. Besides, don’t think your father and I don’t realize what you’re really up to in there.” Mom gave me a conspicuous look and told me seriously “Just please be careful. We know there is no point trying to talk you two out of this, especially since you’re trying to hide it from us. But people like Collier, they don’t like when people try to expose them. Be very careful.”

I was awestruck “You know? For how long?”

“Please!” my mother laughed. “How else would one explain it that my school hating daughter all of a sudden became so interested in a business internship? And is now one of the best workers at her company. Congratulations on your promotion, by the way.”

“Thanks… And don’t worry, I’ll be careful. I don’t think Collier even realizes who I am. And he never even sees Gerald, so that fine.”

“Well, alright. Now, it’s pretty late, isn’t it? Go to sleep, dear. You’ve had a tough day and you need to keep your mind and heart at peace if you are to move on.”

“Thanks, Mom. For everything.”

“What else are parents for?”

————————————————————————–

Strange as it was, after that day, I did feel much better and more relaxed. The girls at work noticed my improved mood and they were happy for me. I, in turn, felt happy to have such good friends now. It looked like becoming more social really did work out well for me.

“So, we have a new worker today,” Lana informed me. “And he’s a cutie!”

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“Yeah, he’s pretty adorable. You should pay attention to him, Irene,” Tia winked at me.

“Oh, come on, you two, I don’t need a rebound.”

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“Well, you never know, maybe a rebound is just what you need now? Although, you’re right, we all work together, so that would be kind of awkward,” she admitted.

Our new coworker showed up just then.

“Hi, it is very nice to meet you,” he began to introduce himself and I didn’t even need to turn around to know who the new worker was, “My name is David. I’m your new accountant.”

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David. The guy who dragged my drunk self out of the bar. The guy I made several inappropriate passes at throughout the night. The guy whose bed I slept in while passed out from my multiple drinks. That David. Well, my day certainly took a downturn.

Before I could gather myself and introduce myself in a more or less dignified way, Mr. Ogre himself showed up in our office.

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“Oh, you’re here, son. Good. Did you set up your stuff? Come in to my office now, there are some things we haven’t gone over yet,” Lionel Collier authoritatively called to David.

“Alright Dad, I’ll be there in a minute” David quietly agreed, while continuing to set up his desk.

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Dad? Dad?!!! David was Lionel Collier’s son? This was really not going well. Before I could slink behind my desk, David spotted me and flashed a charming smile. “Oh, hi! Who would’ve thought we’d meet again, huh? Small world!”

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And then he was gone from the room, with Lana and Tia looking at me, clearly wanting answers, and with me feeling like a total and complete idiot. How could I not have foreseen this!? All these years of digging dirt on the guy and I not only hadn’t realized he had a son, but also almost slept with said son while drunk!

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I sank back into my chair, taking deep breaths. After all, this wasn’t the worst that could happen. I’ll just have to deal with this new turn of events, the same as I dealt with the other things in my life.

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Gen 2 Ch 4: Drowning Sorrows

Warning: Alcohol and it’s consequences. If the title doesn’t give a fair warning, this does.

————————————————————————–

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It was after I have walked for nearly half an hour that the tears came. First the anger, then the tears. It was really surprising, in retrospect, that I didn’t get run over by a car, since I clearly was not paying any attention to my surroundings.

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When I came to my senses, more or less, I realized that I was in a neighborhood that I haven’t been in for a long time. And next to a seedy-looking bar. How convenient—weren’t bars exactly where people went when they needed to drain their sorrows? In any case, I didn’t want to go home right now. My parents and Gerald will be there now and the remains of my ego would shatter if they saw me in this state.

The place was called Rusty Old Bottle. It looked like someplace where beat up detectives in noir movies went to sulk and drink away the fact that they were responsible for everyone keeping their distance from them. Somehow, this place was calling to me.

There weren’t many patrons inside, and the ones that were there were mostly too immersed in whatever they were doing to pay much attention to a solitary overdressed woman. This was a relief. I couldn’t have dealt with a crowd right now. Not when I was fighting back more tears.

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Taking a seat at the bar, I forced myself to focus on the menus and the decorations. Cheap neon ads cluttered the walls under fluorescent light. The gloominess of the bar seemed fit for my current mood. If the bartender noticed my haggard expression, she didn’t say anything. But of course, she must have been used to people coming here with heartbreak on their mind.

“Would you like anything to drink?” she asked.

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“Yes.” What did I want to drink? I never had anything stronger than a glass of champagne during a family celebration. I had no idea what to order from here. The words left my mouth before I thought them through. “What’s the strongest thing you guys have?”

The bartender looked me over, as if trying to figure out if I was allowed to have their strongest drink, and clearly deciding that I passed the test, suggested “You want a martini? It’s pretty strong and we make them pretty good here.”

“Yes, please.” I have never had a martini before, but then, I’ve never caught my boyfriend cheating on me before either. Today was the day for new things, it seemed.

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In five minutes, I was looking at a cocktail glass with an olive in it. Without much ado, I tried it: the taste was unusual, at least in comparison to anything I’ve drank before, but it wasn’t bad. Well, until the alcohol burned my mouth and throat. I had to pace myself with this one.

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In a few more minutes, I was done with the drink and feeling sad that there wasn’t any more left. “Would you like another one?” the bartender asked.

“Yes, please,” I gave more money to the drink-maker.

“Try this one,” she slid a greenish-looking drink towards me.

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This one was an apple variation of the drink, much sweeter, but just as strong. I could feel myself getting comfortably warm, and feeling like life wasn’t so bad after all.

I mean, I was worried that something was going to change when Micah went on tour wasn’t I? Well, now I wouldn’t have to! Because that relationship was done! The irony of the situation hit me then: I was scared he’ll cheat with some groupie, but he did it right inside the band! I broke out into a fit of giggles that escalated into an unhealthy laughter that ended up attracting the attention of several patrons who were previously busy with their own drinks. Not for long, though. And I still couldn’t stop laughing.

“Are you alright?” and unfamiliar voice asked me from next to me at the bar.

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I turned to look at my neighbor and was pleasantly surprised. “Oh, hey, it’s you!”

“Sorry, have we met before?” the young man was surprised.

“Not officially, no. I’m Irene. What’s your name?” I found myself asking, now completely focused on my new conversation companion.

“Nice to meet you, Irene. I’m David. Are you sure you’re alright? You look really red,” the young man queried.

 

“Of course, I’m alright. One more of these, please,” my drink was empty again. The bartender looked a bit unsure for a moment, “Seriously, I can handle it, it’s not that strong.”

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“This is the last one for you tonight,” she slid me another glass with a look that said she wasn’t sure if I was allowed to have any more alcohol. “What can I do for you, gentleman?”

“Whiskey on the rocks, please,” my neighbor ordered, stealing concerned glances at me.

I busied myself with my own drink. If this was the last one, I wanted to stretch it out well. I wondered why I never drank these things before, they were amazing. As was my company tonight.

“So… you’re cute,” I informed David, who looked kind of shy upon hearing that. Why though? Haven’t other girls told him that? I was sure they had.

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“Thank you,” he muttered quietly. “You’re very cute too. But please be careful, you’re drinking too much and I can imagine you’ll have a killer hangover tomorrow.”

“I can drink all I want. I’ve had a bad day.” What? I did. I deserved something nice tonight.

“I’m sure you did. But tomorrow will be much worse if you finish what’s in this glass. It probably already will be,” he tried to reason with me.

In answer, I downed the rest of my cocktail. He just shook his head.

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“Oh, loosen up. Come dance with me, David.” There was music playing, why wasn’t anyone busting out killer moves? Why?

“Can you even stand on your own? You should go home, really.”

“Of course, I can stand on my own! Look!” I got up and walked around the chair without falling or even swaying. “And it’s not like you can judge, you’re drinking too.”

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“Yeah, but I’m only having this one drink.”

“Fine, if you won’t dance with me, I’ll find someone else who will. Hey you, what’s your name?” I headed toward one of the other patrons.

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David took another sip from his glass and walked over to me “Leave the patrons alone, Irene. Seriously, you should head home before you do something you regret.”

“Like this?” I pulled him into a kiss.

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David was a surprisingly good kisser, for someone who clearly had a stick really high up…

“Irene, this is what I’m talking about!” David pulled away before I wanted him to. “You’ve just met me and you’re kissing me because you’re drunk. Tomorrow you’ll be regretting this!”

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“No I won’t,” I tried to pull him back into a kiss, but he anticipated it and managed to pull me into a type of hug that kept me from moving from his side.

“That’s it. I’m taking you home.” He led me toward a cab that was waiting outside.

“Where to?” asked the driver.

“To the dance club!” I yelled. “I want to dance, David.”

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“Sorry about this, sir. Umm, where do you live?” David tried to pry out of me.

“I’m not telling you. Since you won’t let me go dance or spend time with me.”

“Ok, driver just take us to ….,” David told the driver. “Since you don’t want to go home, you can cool down at my place, alright? Just please, no more alcohol for you tonight.”

The drive didn’t take long. He paid the driver (and tipped him well too!) and half-carried me out of the car. Well, that was no fun; his house was nothing like a dance club.

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“Come on, let’s get you something to cool down with, you’re burning up,” David’s voice was so concerned.

“Or you can cool me down,” I suggested, hugging him and pulling him into another kiss. I’ve wanted to do this since that day I saw him at the café!

“Oh man, I shouldn’t have brought her here,” he muttered to himself, but I could still hear.

“Hey, what, are you saying I’m ugly? I’m not good enough for you? I’m a total catch!” I yelled at him.

“No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. But really, I’d be more than happy to spend time with you once you sober up. I promise.” He looked so sincere.

“Ok. Can I get a hug though?”

“Alright, you can get a hug. You look like you need one, to be honest. Whatever happened to put you in this mood anyways?” he asked.

“My boyfriend is an asshole. Well, my ex-boyfriend, to be exact,” I threw out.

“That sucks. My girlfriend broke up with me too. Not today though. It was a few months ago,” he admitted.

“That’s too bad. Her loss, though. You’re hot.”

“Thanks? Now, let’s get you something to eat and fast,” he tried to make me choke down some toast, but it looked kind of gross.

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“Nah, I’d rather not.” That’s when the room began to look blurry.

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“Oh my god! You’ve nearly fainted!” David caught me before I could hit the ground. I walked around the room, on my own, trying to see what went wrong. “Why don’t you lie down? Seriously, you can take my bed.”

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“Come on, I’m not going to sleep in your bed! I’m not that drunk.” Then everything went dark and I felt someone catch me again.

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————————————————————————–

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I woke up in an unfamiliar house, in an unfamiliar bed, with a guy I vaguely remembered from last night at the bar. His arms were around me and he still slept soundly.

What the hell happened last night!?

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I jumped up, ecstatic to find that my dress and shoes were still on me. I quickly got out of the bed and stood up. Ouch! The room was spinning in me and I had the worst headache splitting my head.

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“Morning,” the man woke up and smiled. “How are you feeling?”

I looked at him dumbstruck. Now that I was awake, the memories of me tagging along with him and trying to pull him into sexual activities were becoming clearer, if still blurry in my mind. Oh no! That was so mortifying! But why was he hugging me this morning? We haven’t…?

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“We haven’t done anything that your sober self wouldn’t approve of,” he hurried to reassure me, noticing my expression. “I was holding you all night because when left in bed alone, you’d get up and start walking around the room, which, considering that you’ve nearly fainted several times was a hazard to you. You’ve nearly bumped your head on that corner there.” He pointed to a sharp wooden dresser corner.

“Oh. Thanks. I know my behavior was inexcusable.” Ha! That was one way to put it. I wanted to fall through the floor and disappear, I felt so ashamed of my antics from last night.

“It’s alright, really. You weren’t in a good state of mind.”

Oh, that’s right. They reason I got so wasted in the first place. Micah. Nope, I wasn’t going to think of him right now. Not until my poor head was better. Ouch!

“There’s cold water in the fridge,” David offered.

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“Thanks. For making sure I was ok.” It seemed I really lucked out that the person I encountered at the bar was David and not someone less qualm-less. Just thinking of the kind of situation I could have ended up in made my skin crawl.

“So, do you need to call home or anything? There’s a phone if you need it.”

Oh no! Home! I told my mother I’d be out, but certainly she was expecting some sort of a message or a “hello” by now. I wasn’t planning to be gone for so long. Looks like I’ve done it again.

“I really need to go home. Thanks for everything, again.”

I ran out of the house and hailed the first cab that was passing by. At least the driver wasn’t blasting music. That would’ve made my headache much, much worse.

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At home, no one was there, which both surprised and relieved me. I really didn’t want my family to see me in this condition. I wondered why I haven’t thrown up yet, considering how much alcohol I’ve consumed last night. Three martinis! And just thinking about the drinks made all the contents of my body rush up and I barely made it to the bathroom before throwing up.

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Still bent over the toilet, I heard Gerald enter the house.

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“Sis? Is that you in there? Are you alright?” If I heard that question one more time from someone I was going to…

… yeah, that.

“Irene? Are you sick? Oh, god, you aren’t pregnant, are you?” Gerald came over, with a worried look on his face.

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“No,” I got up to wash my face and brush my teeth, “I’m not pregnant. I’m just really hung over.”

“You drank? But you almost never drink!” he voiced. And then he scowled “Did that idiot get you drunk?”

“No, Gerald. That idiot was nowhere near me when I made my drinking choices.”

“You never call him anything bad,” he realized. “Something happened between you two.”

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“Way to go genius, yeah, something happened. But you don’t need to go defending my honor, if that’s what you’re planning to do. I’m sure he already has a charming bruise on his face today.” That brought a smile to my face—I really did hit him hard yesterday. “Now, I’m going to go lie down before I puke again, if you don’t mind.”

“Umm, yeah, sure. Do that.”

“And you clearly weren’t home either last night! So, when I’m feeling better, you’re telling me all about it!” With that I dragged myself to my bed and once again passed out, aching all over. It would be a long time indeed, before I will allow alcohol to come near me, that’s for sure.

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————————————————————————-

If my parents realized how hungover I was that day, they didn’t say anything. I’m pretty sure Gerald was partially responsible for that. Sometimes, my brother was a real life-saver.

Going to work on Monday was a different kind of torture. I knew the girls would want to know how my wonderful date night went and the idea of talking about it just made me want to gag.

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However, Lana turned out to be more understanding than ever. “Well, you look like crap,” she noted, upon seeing my face in the morning.

“We broke up,” I managed to get out, hoping she won’t pry into why.

“Well, that sucks. But I have to admit, even though I didn’t tell you so before, I always thought you could better than him,” she shrugged. “If you want to go out for drinks later, we’re here for you.”

“Totally,” seconded Tia.

“Thanks. I already did though,” I cringed, “and I don’t think I’m up for a repeat.”

“Well, take it easy now, hon. We’ll have a few days of peace here until the big bad comes in,” warned Tia.

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“You mean, the boss?” I perked up.

“Yep. Collier himself. And I guarantee our nerves will be tested to the extremes,” Lana complained.

Well, that sucked. I wasn’t planning for him to ever be here. But, he had no reason to suspect me of anything, did he? When I thought about this, I realized that Lionel Collier’s presence could actually make my goal a bit easier. After all, if I had the ability to keep an eye on him, I could possibly figure out where his criminal evidence was.

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And now that I didn’t have the band tour as a distraction, I could actually focus on this more.

Gen 2 Ch 3: Surprise, Surprise

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After Gerald’s birthday, our lives got pretty hectic. He got accepted into one of Hidden Springs’ top publications (well, of course he did, my brother is amazing) and was working his butt off to be on the front page fast. So far, he only had a small column, on one of the regular newspaper’s many pages. We all thought that was already really impressive, since he snagged the job and the column straight out of high school. It was all due to his sports book that was published sometime before he graduated high school—it became a local bestseller with sports fans and of course, the newspaper wouldn’t have passed up on such a rising star.

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As for me, I was still working hard at the office. If I needed to rise through the corporate ranks to get access to sensitive information, so be it! After all, nothing worthwhile ever came to people easily. And revealing Collier’s theft and lies was definitely very worthwhile.

Also, working like crazy at the office helped distract me from the fact that Micah and I were barely seeing each other these days. Since their keyboard replacement was not very familiar with their repertoire, the whole band was spending extra time at the studio to practice and fine tune their sound before their tour. As a result, either Micah was busy at the studio all the time, or when he was free, he’d just fall asleep, which wasn’t really surprising—they weren’t getting too many breaks at work. But as a result, he and I barely had time for one another.

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“Are you trying to make that keyboard blow up with your brain?” Lana joked, with a hint of concern. She was right; I spent the last 3 hours filling out long forms and they were all looking like an endless sea of white to me by now. Ah, this was no use to me or anyone—at the moment I was just blankly staring at the screen.

“You’re right, I need a break. And food,” I realized as my stomach rumbled.

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“Come on, Tia made an amazing risotto and there’s plenty for everyone. You need to eat something before you faint,” Lana practically led me to the office café room.

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Even before we walked through the door, the delicious smell of fresh warm food hit my nose. I really wished I could cook that well, but so far my own cooking skills weren’t much to boast about.

“This is delicious,” I mouthed through the risotto.

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“Thanks,” Tia smiled, walking in and grabbing a plate for herself. “I have to cook something full of carbs like this all the time or my son simply won’t eat it!”

“How old is he?” I asked. I knew Tia had a kid and that she often worked extra hours to make more money. It seemed the boy’s father wasn’t in the picture for a while now.

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“He’s almost 10. Only a couple more years until I need to worry about his school and who he hangs out with. Now it’s all Spider-Man and video games. But at least he’s doing well in school,” Tia fondly explained.

“I remember being that age,” I remembered with nostalgia. “Mom had to bribe me with fishing trips to get me to do my homework.”

“Seriously?! No way!” Lana laughed. “I always pegged you for an overachiever in school.”

“Nope. I did barely enough to get by until about senior year and the internship here,” I remembered.

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“I guess something finally gave you a chip on the shoulder. And look, you’re now working at one of the top pharmaceutical companies in the states. Must’ve been quite a chip,” she laughed.

“You could say that,” I said, regretting that I was letting the conversation get too close to home. “But what about you? What were you two like in high school?”

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“I was the drama kid. I took part in every school play or performance. Thought I’d be an actress for a while, until I started dating my ex Liam, and you know how that went. By the time we broke up, I was already working here and I make enough money to be really comfortable, so the idea of leaving for Hollywood or some other film city and starting over seemed like an unneeded risk. And my Emet is here. Besides, I really love Hidden Springs—it’s my home.”

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“And I was the science nerd, believe it or not. I even became president of chess and inventing clubs during my senior year. Then I got a full scholarship to SimState, which is where I met Clyde’s father. We were a couple since freshman year and I got pregnant in my junior year. Of course, Roman was right there with me in every way possible. Well, except for passing out in the delivery room. Then, after graduation, we both got hired by this science facility, since we had really good degrees. It was good for a few years,” she reflected sadly.

“What happened,” I asked, not sure if it was appropriate or not.

“Car accident– drunk driver. Roman’s car was hit really hard and he didn’t make it. I was still working at the facility and then it went under due to a lack of funding and several bad accidents involving newest research. The donors who gave grants decided it was more economically wise to shut the place down rather than continue funding us. Luckily, my degree and work experience was good enough to get me hired here, so I can still support my kid and myself.”

“That’s an unfortunate chain of events,” I shook my head.

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“Yes. But needing to support Clyde was what kept me going back then. Otherwise, I would’ve buckled down after Roman’s death,” Tia admitted.

“You’re stronger than you know, hun,” Lana gave her a shoulder pat.

Tia smiled and got up to wash her plate, “Perhaps. It takes a bad situation to bring out the best in people. Or the worst, I guess.”

“Yeah. Like dear old Lionel Colier, right? I doubt there is any situation in the world that will bring out anything good in him,” Lana smirked.

“You guys don’t like him?” I asked, surprised.

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“What is there to like? Sure, he’s attractive enough, but any illusion of his charm disappears after a small amount of socialization with him. And, have you seen how he treats his wife?” Lana asked indignantly.

“I actually haven’t really met him. I mean, I’ve been hired through the internship. He’s never been here while I worked.” That much was true.

“Lucky you. He’s a real piece of work, I’ll tell you. Every time he’s here, he makes people get mental breakdowns. Finds fault with everyone and everything, belittles the best employees. I think he just enjoys seeing people suffer. He’s just that kind of person,” Lana continued.

“Yeah, poor Selma. I don’t know how she puts up with him. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s on antidepressants,” Tia shook her head.

“It’s that bad?” I wondered. “I mean, why is she staying with him, then?”

“Pfft, please!” Lana laughed. “He treats her like half a human being. But really, what did she expect when she married the guy for his money? That’s life. If she wants out, she can leave—I doubt he cares enough to stop her. But while she has his big checks funding her spa retreats, she’ll stay.”

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“I guess some people only care for the money,” Tia looked at the clock. “Looks our break is over.”

Back in the office, I was mulling over the information about the Colliers. I guess for all their monetary status, they didn’t have a good family life. I took a moment to appreciate the fact that my parents always truly cared for one another and for me and Gerald. Family love was truly priceless.

My phone rang with a text: “Sorry, sweets, working late again. Boss is driving us all nuts here in the studio! I guess we’ll have to reschedule date night again.” Micah wasn’t going to be able to meet me again, it seemed.

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I let out an angry sigh.

“Micah’s working late again?” Lana understood.

“Yeah. You know, I could literally punch their manager in the guts for how he barely gives them any break now,” I complained. “He’s completely worn out from those practice sessions. How does he expect them to perform during the tour if they’re completely tired out before even leaving?”

She laughed “I understand your sentiment. I guess their manager is one of those “gotta push them to succeed” types. Why don’t you make it up to Micah when he’s finally free tonight?”

“Huh?”

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“Well, you know. Put on something really hot, grab a bottle of fine wine, and spend the evening with him? Maybe take a romantic bath together,” she winked.

Lana and her ideas! Although, this did sound like a sweet plan. We did both need some time together to relax. “Lana, I think you’re a genius.”

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“You’re welcome,” she smiled and went back to typing away at her keyboard.

That evening, after work, I took a lavender-scented bath, put on that new dress that Katy talked me into buying, tone-fitting makeup, and with a bottle of fine red, headed over to the studio. Sure, Micah was probably too tired for a proper date night, but we could still spend some quality time together.

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Before I left, I decided to make sure there was no needless worry about me. And that I was being more or less honest with my parents.

“Hey Mom?” My mother was cooking in the kitchen.

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“Hi, hon? What’s up?” she took one look at my appearance and smiled “Date night?”

“Something like that, yeah. I just wanted to let you know… well, I probably won’t be home at night.”

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I waited for a rebuke of sorts, but instead Mom laughed “Alright hon, just stay safe. Unless you want to end up with little ones of your own!”

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“Wow, thanks! Love you!” I couldn’t believe how well my mother took it, but then she was always very understanding of things. Dad probably would be more bothered.

It was already dark when I arrived near his studio, but I knew they were still inside—I could hear sounds of music pouring out from one of the upstairs windows. They really did sound better than ever, I had to admit. Both Micah and his band mates had real talent, a thing that is rare to come by in this world.

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I sat down on one of the benches not far from the entrance, and waited for them to finish. I wanted my presence here to be a surprise.

Eventually, the music stopped, and I could hear the voice of their manager saying they could go. This was it! I wondered what Micah’s face will look like when her finally noticed me.

“See you, Benny! Night, Jim!” I heard Micah part with his bandmates. I got up from my bench, ready to make myself seen when he was alone.

Then he himself came out of the studio.

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Right behind him was a young woman, who I haven’t seen before. This must be their new keyboard player, I realized. I briefly wondered why he hasn’t mentioned their new musician was a woman. It didn’t really matter though.

Until she pulled him into a kiss. And he didn’t pull away.

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Unable to move, I stood frozen near my bench, feeling like an idiot. The kissing couple was still oblivious to my presence. I couldn’t help but notice how gorgeous this girl was, with silky black hair and smooth curves that I certainly didn’t have. He definitely wasn’t downgrading.

Finally they pulled apart and he looked like he was about to say something.

But then he saw me. I still couldn’t move.

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“Irene…” he started out, most likely about to try and explain why I just caught him making out with another woman.

Slap! Before I realized I have moved my hand hit his face with a force I didn’t realize I had in me. The force of my hit nearly made him fall down on the sidewalk, where he ended up crouching. The woman next to him looked shocked.

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I was boiling over on the inside. How could he do this? Did he not realize that I cared about him? He just threw our relationship away, like it was nothing. How could he?!

“Just let me…” he was trying to get up and she stooped down to help him up. I felt disgusted. With them for hurting me and with myself for allowing this to happen to me. People warned me about him so many times! And like a total fool, I stood by Micah’s side. Well, no more.

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“Save it, asshole! I’m done with you,” I got out through gritted teeth and walked away, not really sure where I was going yet, but knowing that I wanted to, no I needed to be as far away from these two as my legs could carry me.

Gen 2 Ch 2: Girls Day Out

As agreed, that weekend Katy and I went on that shopping trip. Never having done this with anyone but my mother, I was pleasantly surprised—Katy had a great eye for colors and she was fun to talk to. Of course, the conversation turned to my brother.

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“So, Gerald is really planning to become a reporter, huh?” she asked.

“He does. I’ve seen his writing and it’s pretty good,” I replied.

“Oh, me too! Have you seen that sports anthology he’s been preparing? Something about the best home runs in history of baseball. The local newspapers would be idiots to pass him up!” the younger girl enthused. One could tell she was head over heels for my brother.

“I’ve seen it, yeah. He really pays attention to all the details. I think he’s already sent in examples of his writing to several newspapers around town,” I recalled. Gerald was very proactive about getting hired to a place where he would be appreciated.

“So, what do you think about this one?” Katy pointed out a leopard print skirt on a nearby rack.

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“It’s cute, but I don’t think I could pull it off. You should totally try it though,” I urged her. A skirt of that shape was clearly for someone with more curves than I possessed.

“What about this shirt? It really goes with your eye color,” Katie offered.

“Hmm, I think this could work,” I agreed. It was so strange, having a girls’ day out like this. Not in a bad way, though.

Katy and I ended up spending hours at the stores. I wasn’t originally planning to buy much, but Katy really had a great taste in fashion and ended up not only talking me into buying several amazing shirts, but also causing me to buy a club dress that I would never have considered for myself previously. She ratified this by saying “You never know when you’ll need to go to a fancy party.”

Hours later, tired out from walking and hungry, we took a break at the local bistro.

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“Whew, that was fun, we should do this more often,” Katy was still energetic despite having spent the same amount of time browsing stores with me! The girl sure had energy.

“I know, right? I’ve realized I’ve been coming of as standoffish to a lot of people, including you, and for that I apologize,” I admitted.

“Oh, don’t be! We know you’re more comfortable by yourself. Or with your boyfriend. How are things going with him, by the way?” she was curious.

“Pretty good. He’s asked me to move in with him and I’m probably going to do it. Gerald said he’s planning to stay at our house after graduation, so I don’t have to worry about our parents being alone after I move out,” I informed her.

“Oh, that’s nice. Your parents are pretty great. They’ve always treated me like a daughter, especially since Maya died. I’ve really appreciated it,” she smiled fondly.

“Yeah, there was no way Mom wouldn’t have gotten along with Maya’s kid. I think she’s been hoping ever since Maya adopted you that you and Gerald would get together. And you did!” We both giggled at the thought.

“So, are you and Micah planning to move any further than just moving in together?” Katy returned to the topic at hand.

“What do you mean?”

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“Well, you know. Rings, veils, flowers… Are you two planning to tie the knot?” she clarified.

“Oh, that. Well, we haven’t talked about it yet, to be honest. I don’t know if either of us is really ready for marriage yet,” I admitted.

“But you love each other. I mean, I saw how he looks at you,” she explained. “I think a proposal from him isn’t too far in the future.”

“Maybe, it’s going to be pretty crazy soon, though,” I shook my head. “His band is about to go on tours soon. And you know how it is; they’ll be going from city to city, performing. Sounds fun, but it’s super hectic and you barely have time to eat and sleep. I don’t know if we’ll have much communication at all when that happens.”

“That bothers you doesn’t it?” Katy understood.

“Yeah, somewhat. I mean, we’ll end up apart for months. I thought I’d be ok with it, but I’m really not. I guess I just have a jealous streak in me and the idea of him surrounded by all the fangirls makes me go crazy!” I admitted to both of us.

“Hey, it’s only understandable. Rock bands and their musicians sort of have a reputation,” she understood. “And Micah is a good-looking guy. But I don’t think he’d throw away what you two have for some groupie.”

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“It’s good to hear that. I mean, I don’t think Mom ever had the same situation—she and Dad never had eyes for anyone else, but then neither of them had a reputation like Micah’s. Maybe I am being a bit overdramatic, though. Gerald tells me I have a tendency to focus on the negative sides of everything. I guess that’s also something I have to work on,” I realized.

“Or maybe you and Micah just need to talk about this situation. I mean, he’s in town, you’re in town. Better get the difficult parts out of the way and enjoy life,” Katy suggested.

She had a point. It was a good idea to admit to Micah how I felt about this. I wondered how he’ll react though. I didn’t want him to think that I didn’t support his dream. I did. I just had issues with some aspects of it, that’s all.

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A movement outside the café caught my eye. It was a young man of about my age. I wasn’t sure why he caught my attention. Sure, he was definitely on the attractive side, but so were a lot of other people. Something about his expression just really drew me to him, and if he didn’t get into a cab and leave the very next moment, I probably would have gone over and introduced myself.

What’s wrong with you, Irene, I caught myself. That is completely unlike you. And remember, you have a boyfriend who you love very much. Seriously, what was wrong with me? This whole worry over the tour was getting to my brain.

“Everything alright?” Katy brought me back from my thoughts.

“Yeah, sorry, I drifted off, it happens to me sometimes. Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh yes, my relationship. I think I will talk with Micah about the things bothering me. You’re right, this isn’t something I need to be facing alone,” I assured her.

“That’s good. I wish you two luck. Well, this is my time to go. I’m supposed to be helping out at school in an hour. See you, soon Irene,” she took her leave and I was left outside the café wondering how to tell my boyfriend the decent way that I was freaking out about his upcoming tour.

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Well, there was no time like today! We had a date this evening and I would try to bring up the conversation. This whole tour thing was really bothering me and I wanted, no needed Micah to reassure me that everything will be alright.

When I got to his house that evening, I have mentally built myself up for the tough conversation. I hated seeming like the clingy insecure girlfriend, but my relationship could not last if I let an issue like worry tear me up from the inside and turn me into a neurotic nightmare. Both Micah and I deserved better.

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Of course, the plan for a serious conversation went out the window when I realized that Micah was leaving.

“Hey, I thought tonight was date night!” I asked.

He scowled “It was supposed to be, yeah. I’m so sorry, but our keyboard guy has just announced that he got his girlfriend pregnant and they are moving halfway across the country to be closer to his family. We’re supposed to go on tour in two months! Did he think to warn us beforehand? No! Did he think to find a replacement? Also no! So, guess what I’m likely to spend the entire next week doing?”

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“Gosh, I’m so sorry,” I realized how much of an emergency this was for their band. Our conversation could wait. “You guys now have to find a decent pianist within, how long?”

“You’re the best, Irene,” he hugged me close. “Yeah, we’re on a deadline. I only hope there is someone decent enough in town to agree to play with us and go on tour in that short time. I promise I will make up date night to you, though,” he smiled wickedly and was on his way.

“Good luck!” I called after him.

Well, that left my evening surprisingly free. I honestly wasn’t sure what to do with myself—my parents and Gerald knew I was supposed to be on a date, I had no work from the office to look over, and I didn’t really have many other hobbies at the moment.

Ring, ring! My phone went off with an unfamiliar phone number. Somewhat suspicious, I answered, hoping this wasn’t another annoying telemarketer. “Who is this?”

“Girl! Don’t you recognize me? It’s me, Lana!” my coworker’s chipper voice rang in my handset.

“Oh, hi! I didn’t realize you had my number.” I generally didn’t give out my number to coworkers.

“Oh, I have all my coworkers’ numbers,” she chimed back. “Are you busy tonight?”

“No, not really.” This could be work-related and I was always up for whatever could get me closer to the top.

“Great, let’s hang out! Meet me at the gym!” She hung up before I could refuse. I never went to the gym. While I did like sports when I was younger, that was always more Gerald’s thing. He could spend hours exercising. I preferred less physically straining activities.

I almost called her back to say I couldn’t go. Almost. But then I remembered my reflection on how I didn’t really socialize with anyone at the office. I should go. After all, Lana was literally the friendliest person in our office and she would literally do most of the talking for me. I would just have to be present.

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Meeting Lana at the gym, I was surprised at how prepared for a work-out she was. Wearing proper athletic attire and carrying a large water bottle and a towel, Lana looked like someone who spent hours at the gym. Suddenly, I felt, unprepared.

“Hey, where are your work-out clothes?” Lana asked surprised.

“Umm, I actually don’t really have any. I wasn’t home when you called,” I admitted sheepishly.

“That’s alright, you can borrow some of mine, or by something at the gym’s store, whichever you prefer,” she assured me. “But work out, we will!”

After I ended up buying some sporty clothes at the gym’s store (borrowing Lana’s just didn’t feel right), we ended up heading upstairs, where Lana shocked me by getting settled in on a weight machine that still had a few plates attached. I never imagined that my flirty feminine coworker could bench press such a weight. It was truly impressive.

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“What are you waiting for?” she called. “Join in, this neighboring machine is available!”

I sat down on the machine, unsure where to start. I never have gone to a gym before! I didn’t know any proper work-out equipment safety regulations!

Clearly my confusion showed and Lana ended up explaining everything to me. She informed me not to lift too much since I was a beginner, to keep my breathing regular and steady, and to make sure I wasn’t pushing myself to exhaustion. “That way lie awful muscle cramps and joint pain; you won’t be able to move come Monday!”

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“You’ve been working out regularly, I take it?” I asked. I was now sincerely curious: my coworker’s gym habit was totally not how I pictured her previously.

“Oh, yes! Ever since my ex unceremoniously dumped me for some chick very big boobs and the uncanny ability to hang on to his every word. He was a real jerk too, always said that women can’t do anything right. I only stayed with him as long as I did because he was my first serious boyfriend. I have to admit though, breaking up with me was the best thing he’s ever done for me. I can now bench press 70 pounds,” she finished smugly.

“That’s really impressive,” I admired. “How come you invited me over though? I definitely don’t look sporty at all.” It was true I was pretty skinny, but had absolutely no muscle and definitely did not have much athletic prowess.

“Oh, I know! I just thought you seemed stressed out and what is better stress relief than a good work-out? It’s done me heaps of good! And it’s healthy,” she reasoned. “Besides, I needed a gym buddy. My friend Jenna used to come with me, but she’s moving to another town this week and my current boyfriend is not at all into sports. Besides, we can have girl talk.”

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“True enough,” I agreed. Well, here was my chance to be more sociable with people. “I was supposed to have date night with Micah, but he’s having an emergency band meeting since their keyboard player and his girlfriend are moving without any warning and they’re trying to find a new musician.”

“Oh, goodness gracious!” Lana laughed. “That must be my Jenna and her boy toy. Yep, he got her knocked up and her family is really traditional, so they’re moving to be closer with his relatives, who are much more chill. I agree, their timing wasn’t the best—her design firm director nearly lost his marbles when she announced out of the blue that she was leaving!”

“Wow, that’s a lot of drama for their respective workplaces and families!” I laughed as much as the exercise allowed me. “At least they’ve really got each other’s backs, it seems.”

“That they do,” agreed Lana. “Well, time for cardio.”

“Oh, the exercise isn’t over?” I half-heartedly asked.

“Not just yet, hun.” She led the way downstairs to a room that was likely used for dance practice and turning on the music, started out the muscle exercises. I tried my best to follow her lead.

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“This is easier,” she explained. “Usually you need to stretch before and after a workout. But this will do for today, since it’s your first time.”

After a successful workout that left me completely juiced, Lana allowed us a break before heading home.

“You know, I never realized I would find this so satisfying,” I admitted. “You were right, I’m tired and my whole body is aching, but I feel like I’m getting stronger.”

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“Told you so. It really helps stay energetic throughout the day. Oh, and don’t forget to drink plenty, that’s another thing I forgot to mention,” Lana pointed out.

“I’m really sorry. For being so unfriendly before, at work,” I apologized. “I’ve been somewhat ignoring the people at the office.”

“No big. I can tell you always have a lot on your mind,” she smiled. “You always look like you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. It’s ok to give yourself a breather every once in a while. Exercise helps. Good friends help even more.”

“I’d like that. Us being friends, that is,” I smiled back. I never thought I’d say it, but Lana really seemed like a great person. Maybe if I wasn’t so caught up in my own personal bubble, I would have noticed that.

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“Well, that sounds swell. To friendship,” she imitated toasting with her water bottle.

After she left the gym, I headed home myself. I needed a good shower and a soft bed, but despite being completely exhausted, I’ve realized that I didn’t feel so stressed out about my work or about my relationship. I would definitely be going back to the gym, with Lana or by myself, from now on.

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Soon, it was time for Gerald’s birthday. Unfortunately, Katy couldn’t make it due to bad timing with her school appointments, but other friends made it. I even made sure to invite my two coworkers, Lana and Tia, who have also been pretty friendly at work. I mean, it can’t hurt to befriend people, right?

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Micah showed up in a much better mood than I expected.

“You look chipper,” I pointed out as the guests were on their way.

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“I sure am,” he smiled, pulling me into a kiss, “Would you believe it, we found a replacement in less than a week?”

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“Wow, that’s great. Does that mean the tour is still on?” I asked, not sure how to feel about the whole thing.

“The tour is still on! And our new bandmate is actually better than Lance was! If anything, this whole situation has worked out great for the band!” Micah went on excitedly.

“Well, that’s great!” I agreed, half-heartedly. “I guess there’s no good without the bad.”

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“That,” Micah nodded. “So, I guess I’ll see you soon? Date night is still on, especially now that I don’t have to worry about the band failing.”

“Date night is still on!” I agreed.

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After he left, I slumped in my bed. I just couldn’t tell him I had worries about his upcoming tour. Not when he was so excited for it! I guess I’ll just have to soldier through his trip without losing my mind. And, after all, we’ve been a couple for years now. This was Micah. Yes, he was flirty as hell, but he wouldn’t just throw away what we had for some groupie—it wasn’t like he hadn’t had enough temptation even here in Hidden Springs, yet he was always loyal. This was baseless jealousy on my part and I had to kick it to the curb once and for all.