Neon Red – Chapter 36

(DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. It’s important to remember this is all totally fabricated, embellished, and exaggerated for entertainment purposes.)

**********

Whatever the calamity, I did this for myself

Zayn – Calamity

I shot up in the dead of night mid panic attack and hyperventilating. The room was warping before my eyes, shadows racing up the walls. Lurching behind the furniture. Grinning at me. Haz woke up behind me, rubbing my back, trying to coax me to lie down again.

“I…can’t…” I gasped, head spinning. “Babe….I can’t…I can’t calm down…”

He flicked the light on and dragged me out of bed into the bathroom. There he got me a bath towel to wrap around my naked bottom, then helped me to sit on the side of the sink. Now he ran cold water over a washcloth, wrung it out, and set it onto the back of my neck. I watched him in the piercing light, noticing his eyes were puffy and his lips were bruised from kissing and sucking on my body. He was only half away. He looked down on me perplexed, and I wanted nothing more than to soothe the wrinkles from his brow.

“Hey…” he whispered. “Just breath. In and outin and out…” He locked eyes with me and we took several deep breaths in unison. Each one becoming a little easier. As my heart subsided, the chill of the restroom settled around us. I wrapped my arms around his waist and hugged his bare flesh. He was on fire. He took the towel from my nape and ran it’s coolness down my back, tracing the bumps of my spine.

“You scared me,” he muttered into my hair.

“Call me love…”

He pressed his forehead to mine with a sleepy groan, then whispered, “Hey, love.”

We didn’t go back to sleep. We road around on his motorbike and took in the town’s quaint scenery and empty cobbled roads. Later we wandered up Primrose Hill and watched the sunrise blaze over the cityscape like a softly unfurling fire. When I told him I was hungry, he took me to his favorite diner and we ate in peace with none of the early rising locals caring who we were.

**********

“We must first assess the potential impact on your life,” the gentlemen in the grey suit asked, seated across the desk from me in a high-rise office building in downtown London. He was a handsome sucker. Dashing even. Salt and pepper in the painstakingly trimmed beard. A dash of it at his temples. Sharp blue eyes. Broad shoulders and large hands. I was glad I’d been assigned to him and that Haz had gotten the older tubby gentleman down the hall. That way I wouldn’t have to worry about leaving him and this guy alone. Hell, even I was finding difficulty to resist his subtly deployed charms.

“Mr. Malik?”

“Please call me Zayn…”

His name was Tobias Muller. Haz’s team had linked us with an elite German intelligence firm who specialized in extortion, counterintelligence, and private investigations. Founded by the chubby bloke down the hall. Tobias had been his partner for a few years, and was apparently ex-military black ops. I looked at his pictures along the rear wall and saw him posted up with vicious canines and massive guns. A certified badass who I was glad to welcome on board.

After the introductions, he had asked me to walk him through exactly what occurred in March while his bumbling secretary offered me coffee. I declined, hoping to discourage further interactions with her. It was clear she knew who I was from the second I stepped foot in the office, and I hoped this fact wouldn’t pose a problem. Tobias assured me it wouldn’t. Any information exchanged here would be protected by radical measures of confidentiality. His secretary remained ignorant of the challenges his clients faced. No details would be exchanged that were specific to my case. She was strictly there to answer the phones, schedule appointments, and do his personal bidding.

They’d separated Haz and I to collect each of our accounts without us influencing one another other. They wouldn’t even allow Taryn into the room for moral support. She awaited us both in the hall and would provide our ride home. Similar to law enforcement procedure after any crime occurred, they didn’t want our stories crossing up or detracting from one another’s. Since Haz and I had been extorted separately and our teams had wired money on multiple occasions, we would require our own separate investigation to ensure a thorough outcome and hopefully a recovery of said funds.

Even so, I couldn’t help but wish he was sitting beside me right now, as he was the only one truly capable of understanding what it was like to be knee-deep in this hellhole and unsure of what the next hour would bring. Despite this being the worst few months of my life, this predicament had bonded us on a sacrosanct level that would not be undone.

Tobias’ face remained unchanged as he flicked through the photos to assess the equipment potentially used to capture them. He marked things in the surveillance metrics denoted around the frame and continued to research in silence. As the morning wore on, Haz texted me about how boring his guy was and that he wanted to trade. The thought of him being alone with Tobias made my blood boil irrationally. If I could help it, they’d never lay eyes on one another again. I texted back and told him to pay attention to his own PI. I followed up with a warning that this wasn’t the time for games, then silenced my phone to eliminate further distractions.

In time I explained to Tobias where the recorded incident took place, the name of the motel and its country, as well as tried my best to recall the wording in the correspondences I’d received in New York. It was all essential, he assured me. I also dug up screenshots of the cropped photos that had been leaked to Twitter.

“Thuggish scare tactics,” he shook his head. His accent was vague as he hadn’t lived in his fatherland since he was fifteen. That reduced any complications or barriers to communication a great deal, for which I was grateful. Meeting an expert of his caliber who didn’t flinch in the least when I described my mortifying situation provided a level of relief that seemed too good to be true. At times I was still waiting on the other shoe to drop. And although I was wary of letting my guard down entirely, I still dared to hope it might all work out with minimal collateral damage.

“On a scale of 1-10, how life altering would this level of exposure be?” Tobias asked, glancing over the photographs Haz had brought along. He’d given me half since I’d left mine back home.

“Youh mean if the photos were leaked?”

“Precisely.”

“Fatal…there is noh 1-10, yeah? It would end me. I would end me, maan. It would also ruin my family, my friends. Humiliate them within their community,” I gazed off unseeingly, shaking my head. “My absolute worst nightmare.”

I wrestled my phone out of my pocket and unlocked it. Now I dug through my albums until I found the one from that day. The second I laid eyes on the first photo, of Haz sprawled out and blinded folded, I grew nauseous. It was the sickest most depraved part of me, and here I was revealing it to a total stranger. Right away I deleted the album, exiling it to cyberspace in hopes it’d never surface again.

“And who, may I ask, is pictured alongside you? Lover, friend, prostitute?”

“A little of each,” I gave a weak laugh. A defeated sound. “I’m kidding. Actually…believe it or not…that’s the love of my life.”

“I see.”

“He’s famous too, y’know? Like super fuckin’ famous. That’s why it’s soh bad, innit? Soh many lives could be destroyed with this. And it’s my fault, really. I took him there…I did those things to him. I dropped the bag on this…”

“Is he aware of the blackmail?”

“Yup. He was sent the same envelope by the same creep. He’s here too. Down the hall, actually. Meeting with your partner.”

“Ah…I see.”

“He doesn’t deserve this. He has a lot goin’ for him right now. An album…a movie…his stepdad is ill…just a lot goin’ on, y’know? I can’t put this on his plate. I’d like to get rid of it before it touches him negatively in any way.”

“That may be possible.”

“Awesome. Shouldn’t it be easy to stop this guy? Since we, like, know who he is? The owner of the motel?”

“How can we be so sure it’s the owner who’s responsible for this?”

“Haz mentioned that the photos came from inside the room, right? Through the walls…the mirror. Doesn’t that tell us who’s the guilty party? It’s as simple as 1-2-3?”

“You make a valid case; however, we cannot rule out that this may be the work of a local patron of the motel with no affiliations to the owner whatsoever.”

Fuckkk, maan…I didn’t even think of that. All this time I was sure it was the owner.”

“I’m afraid there are no simple solutions. No road maps here. Every case that comes across my desk is exceptional in its own right, and therefore our resolutions are entirely circumstantial.”

“And they have noh intentions of leavin’ me alone any time soon. I wired the first ransom, and barely even a month later, they were askin’ for more. Much more.”

“It’s a hideous enterprise, Mr. Malik. I’ve seen extortions as these last for years, that is, until they call us.”

“Youh gonna save me then?” I chuckled wearily, meeting his eyes.

“We are certainly going to try.” He had a manner of speaking that commanded respect, like the glint on the edge of a knife or the barrel of a gun. For that reason, I trusted him with life.

**********

When I left, Taryn and I headed to the car to avoid being spotted by other clients, and waited on Haz to wrap things up with his PI. As we sat, I got my tenth call from G in a row. There was no way in fuck I would answer and listen to her scream at me again. I had enough on my mind as it is. What more was there to say? She hated me and that wouldn’t change anytime soon. Not at least until I brought home a resolution…or a bloody head on a stake.

My phone went unnervingly silent after her called kicked over to voicemail. Unlike the last nine times that morning, she didn’t leave one. I was pretty sure my mailbox was full, between her and her mom and my normal business calls.

Suddenly my phone started buzzing back to back in rapid succession. I unlocked it to check her messages, and there filling our text thread were all the photos I’d just deleted from my phone only moments ago. At the sight of them, I nearly passed out. I dropped the phone to the floor like it was set to explode. This couldn’t be real. None of this could be real. It all had to be a horrific dream my body refused to wake up from. Maybe I was in a coma? Maybe I was already dead?

How the fuck could she have gotten them?! How?! How?! How?! I kept my phone locked at all times. I never shared my passwords with anyone, not even T. I didn’t even save anything to the cloud. How was this possible? She couldn’t have gotten access after I told her about the extortion, since I’d left her place immediately and subsequently left the country altogether. Fuck, my temples were pounding. Taryn was shaking my arm, trying to get my attention. She had no clue what was wrong. She got out of the driver seat and slid into the back beside me as I hunched over and buried my face in my hands. She grabbed my phone off the floor.

The only possible way was that she hacked my phone. But how? I thought back over the last few months and all I could remember was how frequently she sent me links to stupid shit, and how it must’ve been a set up she established long ago to use whenever necessary. God only knows how long she might’ve been spying on me. I was fucking done. Finished. Even if Tobias managed to liberate me from the Parisian extortionists, I had an entire family of them waiting to get me back home. What made the situation worse was that this time it was personal. G was out for revenge, and she and her mother would stop at nothing until I was hung, drawn, and quartered.

Instead of being horrified like she hoped I would, I became furious. I snatched my phone from T with no explanation and texted G everything I’d been holding back for months. Calling her a sick bitch. A twisted cunt. Telling her I hated her. Telling her I’d kill her when I got back home if she did anything to leak those pics or hurt Haz in any way. By the time I’d finished raving, she blocked me. I got out and destroyed my phone, stomping it into the pavement then later dropping it into a manhole. When I got back into the car, Taryn moved back up front and didn’t ask any questions. I waited for Haz in an unblinking silence.

**********

“You seem upset.”

“I’m fine,” I drawled, looking ahead as he climbed into the range rover beside me. Taryn took off and we headed back to his place.

“Why don’t I believe you?”

“Doesn’t really matter.”

“Why weren’t you answering my texts? I was trying to explain what was taking so long.”

“My phone’s gone.”

“Where? You had it earlier. You lose it?”

“Yeah. I dropped it down a manhole—”

“What?! Z…what the fuck??”

“It’s okay. I’ll get another one in town. I tripped and it skidded over into it.”

“Holy shit, mate. Of course that would happen to you of all people,” he sighed, resting his head back against the seat.

When we pulled into his yard, we all sat in silence for a while. Everything was disoriented and out of hand. We were living out an awful movie sequence that wouldn’t end. I now understood the saying, ‘when it rains, it pours’. I also regretted telling G the truth since I now knew a firm existed that was willing to handle the problem on my behalf. Things would’ve worked out amazingly well if I hadn’t told her. If I’d just held out one more day and got to Haz, he and his team wouldn’t taken care of me. I still hadn’t told my manager Sarah yet, and if all went well, I have zero plans to. She wasn’t as well connected as the Azoffs and seemed like the sensitive type. Telling her about the situation might scare her off for good.

‘Youh know, I actually thought about offin’ myself…to make this all goh away,” I whispered to no one in particular. Harry’s head snapped in my direction.

“What?”

“Yeah…back in March, when it all first hit. I went straight to my roof and considered jumpin’. Youh were the only reason I didn’t. You’re still the only reason I won’t. I can’t leave youh alone in this.”

At that, he broke and got out of the car, running inside. Taryn shut her eyes and began sniffling up front. I don’t know why I said it, I just felt like I urge to tell somebody.

Later I sent T home to my place and went inside to deal with the mess I’d caused. Except, I couldn’t find him anywhere. I called out for him repeatedly, checking every room upstairs and downstairs, but he was nowhere to be found. I even checked the roof, but still nothing. He hadn’t left, as I could see from the rooftop terrace his cars where still parked out back. He might’ve gone walking, but somehow I doubted he slipped out the front way. I couldn’t even call him now because my phone was gone.

As I retreated, heading back down the hall to the family room, I sensed a flicker of movement from inside the office. It was a blink and you’d miss it sort of moment. I’d also checked the office twice already, but hadn’t bothered to check under the desk. There he sat, hunched beneath it like a scolded child.

“Haz…” I moved the chairs aside and sat on the floor in front of him. “What’re youh doin’ babe?”

“I don’t know what to feel anymore. This is really weird,” he sniffled. “I can’t think of you in that condition…actually thinking of…” he gagged at the thought. He alluded to the fact that if I’d done it, he wouldn’t have been long in following. I told him not to say that. Now I was the one gagging. We needed help. We needed a break. There was no light in this place. I started to tell him about G hacking my phone and finding more photos, but snapped my mouth shut. Things were already too complex. There was no need to complicate matters further. Already, I couldn’t see a way out.

Later we were contacted by the firm as they’d made quick headway. They gave us the name and address of the owner of the motel in Paris, as well as the manager who oversaw the ins and outs of its day-to-day operation. They assured us he would not be ruled out as a person of interest just yet.

After finishing the bottle of whiskey, Haz and I had made the completely unwise decision to charter a private jet to Paris and confront the bastard ourselves. Pure reckless bravado drove us the entire way, and we gassed each other up about what we’d do to him if we saw him. Blasting music on the plane. Not listening to reason. Ignoring Taryn’s pleas for us to just take a minute to think before we made our next move.

When he and I were together, things became seismic, sometimes in the worst ways. We enabled each other a lot, both addicted to pain and chaos. Nothing was too far to achieve our ends. Nothing was unconscionable. We sat across from each other, quite literally on the run and driven to our wit’s end. Willing to maul down anything obstructing our path to unmitigated freedom.

When we landed, T arranged for a cab to pick us up and take us to a car rental place. Once we got the keys for the little sedan in T’s name, we dropped her off at the hotel and hit the streets, trying to find the address of the motel manager. Turns out he lived in a dilapidated old apartment building on the edge of town, not too far from the sketchy motel we’d stayed in. There were nothing but hookers on the street at this hour, and we hit on a few.

Eventually we staked out the apartment building, watching the sky grow darker my the hour, and finally saw someone fitting the manager’s description leaving the house. He must’ve been on the night shift. He shuffled about, digging in his pockets as if he’d forgotten his keys. He was overweight and balding and put a ton of effort into grooming his facial hair. The epitome of a douchebag.

“Is that him?” Haz asked, leaning over my lap to watch the bastard squeeze into a shoddy little car parked on the street.

“Must be,” I uttered.

He started the engine after a few unsuccessful tries, then pulled away down the road, nothing but his headlights discernable in the distance.

“Let’s go!” Haz barked without warning, snatching up his empty duffel bag and hopping out of the car. Before I could protest, he was halfway across the street, so I had no choice but to climb out and follow.

“Haz!” I hissed, watching his shadowy figure dip and flail between the parked vehicles, moving out of sight. “Slow down!”

“C’mon! Hurry up!”

“You’re gonna get us killed!” I growled, watching him dart up the steep front steps of the building and vanish inside. I followed as fast as I could, tripping up the steps but catching myself before my face hit the concrete. My hands ached after they’d born my weight, as they hadn’t fully healed yet. I was also wheezing uncontrollably, coming to the sad realization I was grossly out of shape. All that relentless smoking had finally caught up with me. All of my vital organs were overtaxed, and it felt as though I was breathing through a straw, hardly able to catch a good wind.

When I made it to the top, I slung the cloudy glass door open and watched it crash backwards on its hinges. In this state, I was in no mood for further obstacles. My brain throbbed and my lungs shriveled on the brink of collapsing. I didn’t give damn what damage I caused, and that included the panels of the door nearly shattering.

At the bottom of the staircase, I set a booted foot onto the first step, but halted to catch my breath. My throat was sticky and parched. A piercing pain of exertion was already stabbing into my side, and would only get worse as I tried to climb the stairs. I deemed it odd since I’d only run one block and tackled one set of stairs, but still I was left dry-heaving like it’d been twenty.

I took care to listen and heard Haz’s steps as he scurried up multiple flights in record time. He didn’t seem physically affected in the slightest. Fuck him. Absolutely fuck him. I was already struggling and couldn’t begin to imagine the condition I’d be in if I ran up multiple flights behind him. I glanced around in desperation, in search of a lift, a dumb-waiter, a garbage shoot, a teleportation device, any-fucking-thing that could get me from point A to point B with no further energy expended. I nearly pissed myself when I spotted the old-fashioned elevator at the end of the main hall. I took one last look at Haz whizzing up his seventh story without breaking, like a fucking Kenyan, before heading down the hall and trying to remember the address Tobias sent over. I was pretty sure it was the eight floor.

The lift reeked of mildew. It clambered up at a snail’s pace, making enough noise to wake the dead. I half-feared that it’d get stuck and I’d have to crawl out mid-route, risking getting my torso chopped in half if the cart suddenly dislodged and plummeted to the ground floor. When I exited, the lights along this story were few, and the one nearest the elevator flickered without end. Garbage bags sat outside a few doors and expelled an appalling reek throughout the building. Many of the flats this high up were vacant, and that was apparent because part of the hall was roped off with caution tape.

I caught up with Haz as he darted up the last few steps towards me. He looked straight up demented. The gleam in his eye spoke of a soul at its breaking point. A stark-raving madman. To say he was frightening would be a disservice to pit he put into my stomach at a single glance. His hair was all over the place, flopping onto his berserk face. His chest heaved, finally exerted; his cheeks vividly flushed. When he found the door that supposedly belonged to the motel manager, he rapped on it a few times, but no one answered. Then he stepped back and tried to kick it open.

“Haz?! What the fuck are youh doin’?! Are youh losin’ your mind?! Chill, broh!”

“No! I want my fucking life back. I want your life back. This piece of shit is destroying us!” He grabbed the back of my neck. “We have to do what we have to do. I almost lost you. I don’t give a fuck about anything until this bastard pays for what he did.” He shoved me aside and I stumbled away. Then I stood there in inexpressible awe of what was happening. He pounded away with his booted foot, splintered the wood with each blow. On the fourth kick, the door flew back on its hinges, crashing against the adjacent wall.

A rotten smell seeped from within, like someone had cooked with loads of garlic and left the dish out to decay for days. Without another word, no game plan, and no signal, Haz ventured off into the apartment to snoop around.

“Hey?!” I panicked, but he didn’t turn back. He yelled at me to keep watch when I tried to follow. Set in my place, I stood around nervously, continually peering down the staircase to make sure no one was coming up after all the noise he’d made breaking down the door.

I couldn’t process what was happening. I was tired, cold, and utterly lost. I also couldn’t stop thinking about the nasty things I’d say to G on the phone, becoming overwhelmed with guilt despite the fact that she had hacked my fucking phone and was now threatening me with the content she’d discovered. It was as though some demonic force had risen up against me this year, hellbent on seeing me fall—

A huge crashed sounded from inside. I ran to the threshold and screamed for Haz. He called out that he was ok and that he’d just knocked over a painting. I told him to hurry the fuck up, but he didn’t respond. A cold sweat broke out on my forehead. My fingernails clung to the peeling paint of the doorframe. I thought I saw a blood streaked along the walls of the family room. It couldn’t be, could it? I stepped into the foyer to get a closer look, but stopped short when a new sound breached my ears.

Footsteps came lunging up the steps and showed no signs of slowing. If I wasn’t sane, I might’ve sworn it was a stampede based on the level of commotion it caused. Floor after floor they progressed, breathing ragged. Echoing up multiple stories like an ascending dragon. Something hair-raising told me they were headed right for me. I nearly shit myself, knees buckling. I wobbled back into the hall, leaning over the railing to peer down at who was approaching. It was a large, furious man, from what I could see. Possibly dressed like the dude whose apartment we’d broken into.

I needed to warn Haz, but refused to shout his name and expose his identity. I also didn’t want to leave and save myself, allowing this fucker to surprise him someplace inside the flat out of my reach. Once he got to the eight floor and saw his door busted open and the deadlock ripped away from the frame, there’d be no stopping him. Clearly someone had tipped him off and urged him to return home. I just couldn’t fathom who.

Yoooooooo!” I shouted into the apartment, hoping Haz would hear and come running. “Let’s gooohhhh!” I screamed, anxiously jumping up and down. Haz emerged at the end of the hall, arms full of loose paperwork and a stolen laptop. Too late, the guy was winding the final few steps now. He was a burly middle-aged dude with heavily dyed mutton chops and bushy eyebrows. He roared at us in French once he saw his place had been broken into. His verbal diarrhea seemed to have no end, and we couldn’t understand a word of it.

When Haz stepped through the doorway carrying his things, the man reached into his inner jacket pocket for either a knife, a gun, or a phone, I couldn’t tell which, but I sure as fuck wasn’t going to wait around to find out, or have him leverage it against the person I loved most in this world.

Blind instinct took over. I wasn’t concerned with surviving, as I didn’t give a fuck what happened to me anymore. It was all about neutralizing the threat that would be aimed at Haz. Without thought, I acted, summoning every iota of strength left in my scrawny body and shoving this MF-er so hard he broke through the banister and toppled down eight flights to the ground floor, striking multiple railings along the way. None of them broke his fall. The sound of him hitting the surface resounded with a preternatural blast. I covered my ears.

In the end he lay twisted. Buckled and broken like a mannequin, an inky black substance seeping out around his head in a faultless circle. A hellish halo. Then some strange part of me thought his chalk outline would look pretty gnarly—

Wait, where was I? Who was I? I couldn’t feel my hands. I stood wavering at the gaping hole in the railing, paralyzed with shock. Haz looked over at me in horror, then dropped the items from his arms and rushed to the ledge. Whatever he saw must’ve disturbed him greatly, as he shouted fuck repeatedly. I stumbled backwards, slowly realizing what I had done. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no…

Now he rushed over, shouting at me hysterically. I fell against the wall, slumping to the floor in a wide-mouthed stupor. An old woman peered out of her door a few feet away, but I wasn’t sentient enough to realize I should’ve hidden my face. Haz was just a blur. A rapidly twitching, mutely screaming blur. I couldn’t pick up any of the words that stormed from his mouth. Spit flew onto my face a time or two. All else was muffled, as though I’d been encaged underwater.

In the end he grabbed me up by my collar, dragging me to my feet, then gathered as much of the scattered evidence as possible. He shoved me up the staircase several more flights until we got to the roof of the building, not knowing what to do next. There, he dumped all the paperwork and laptop into the duffle bag, then strapped it across his body, securing it in place. Finally he shook me for dear life, trying to get me to come back to him. When my hearing and vision returned, I heard nothing but sirens.

“We have to jump!” he screamed, noticing the flashing lights below. “We can’t go back down! They’ll find us! Let’s get to the next block and we’ll circle back for the car later!” I could only nod.

With that he took off running across the rooftop and I was expected to follow. Problem was, my legs were nothing but gelatin beneath me. When he got to the ledge of the far side of the rooftop, he didn’t slow. Apparently the neighboring buildings were close enough to leap across, and he did just that. Lunging his way to the other side without a second thought. Now he stopped and turned back, frantically waiting for me to catch up.

Once I got to the ledge, I simply couldn’t jump. My phobia of heights reared its ugly head and made me skid to a halt. I couldn’t unsee the steep drop to the alleyway below. Every bone in my body would shatter if I fell. My head would break. Blood would seep from within my skull in much the same manner as the dead man we’d left inside.

Zeeeeee!” he yelled from across the way. “C’mon! Baby, you can do! I promise you can!” When I refused to go, he ran backwards, then jumped back across to join me. He grabbed me brutally by the arm and insisted we do it together. Emboldened with him at my side, we ran and leapt, and I made it across, stumbling as I tried to keep from falling forward.

“Good job…” he rasped. “Now we have to jump one more time and then we’ll climb down the fire escape.” He was right. Jumping once more would put us two blocks away from the scene of the crime, and we could lay low until the police dissipated. The next building was shorter than the one we’d be jumping from, and I was thankful the reverse wasn’t true.

“Ready?!” he wheezed. I nodded, hyperventilating. He grabbed my face and kissed me, and we took off running again. We leapt together and both made it, but my foot slipped as the old ledge crumbled beneath my weight. I went flailing, free-falling in slow motion and gazing up at Haz who screamed at me over the next ledge. Then he lunged off the roof in an attempt to catch me, sealing his fate as well.

I gasped awake in the passenger side of the rental car parked outside the motel manager’s apartment. I’d fallen asleep on our stakeout.

“Mornin’ sunshine.” Haz grunted, having kept vigil and allowed me to sleep.

“We haven’t gone in yet?”

“Are you high?”

“Maybe…” I sighed groggily, wiping my eyes and willing my heartbeat to slow down.

“Nothing’s happened yet. If I’m being straight with you, it’s pretty fucking boring, mate. They always make it look so cool in the movies. And we were too stupid to bring snacks. I’d blow anyone for a cup of coffee right now—”

“How long we been here?”

“Over four hours. Almost five.”

“Fuck…”

“Yeah, I—”

In that instant, the exact same mustachioed man I’d envisioned in my dream came trotting out of the building and down the front steps. My dream was playing out verbatim before my very eyes, with only minor variations. Instead of wearing a black wool coat, he wore a brown leather one. Instead of getting into a shitty little car, he got into a shitty little mini-van with tinted windows and no license plate. When he took off down the road, engine humming loudly, Haz reached into the backseat, grabbed the duffel bag and said let’s go.

**********

When we got back to the hotel, having not encountered anyone after kicking the guy’s door down and rifling through his apartment for all electronic devices and suspicious paperwork. Now we regrouped on the floor of the sitting room and Taryn joined us, bringing over dinner. The jet to take us home was scheduled for 7AM, and I was sure I wouldn’t get a chance to eat anything else before then. I tore into my burger like I hadn’t eaten in days, while she screamed at us for being so reckless. Haz got up to take a phone call, leaving me to be chewed out alone.

“You guys are psychosPSYCHOS!” She sat on the floor across from me in awe, examining the paperwork. Every so often, her eyes widened.

“Soh what if we are?” I asked, mouth full.

“Dude, this isn’t a fucking joke! Do you hear me?! You just committed a crime! Holy shit do I really have to spell this out for you?!”

“It was a necessary evil.” Haz contended, rejoining us. He plopped onto the floor beside me and wrapped his arm around my shoulders, kissing me on the temple. Silently showing where his allegiance lied.

“Tell that to the judge,” she quipped, flipping over what looked to be a ledger of names and addresses.

Everything was in French, so we were unsure if it was just information from the motel or something less innocuous. Either way, this dude was violating every privacy law known to mankind. He had no business taking home the private information of the motel guests to do God knows what with later. He probably made a pretty penny harvesting PII and credit card numbers and pawning them off on the dark web. That is, in addition to the extortion scheme he and his partners had likely cooked up.

“I think that’s proof enough he’s had a hand in this. What would he be doin’ with the guests’ information?” I demanded. “Isn’t all of shit supposed to be digital these days? Why the fuck does he have it written down in a book at home? That’s hundreds if not thousands of names and addresses in that book. And credit card numbers too.”

Un-fucking-believable…” Haz marveled, stealing bits of my food.

“Yeah…” T agreed, wiping her face with poorly veiled frustration; sitting back against the bottom of the sofa. “I’m still worried about this being linked back to you two. This is awful.”

“We’ll send it to the dudes tomorrow,” Haz shrugged. “They’ll take care of it. Don’t even sweat it.”

“The dudes?” T gaped.

“The firm.”

“Right, or they’ll dump you two for compromising their investigation like morons!”

“Hey, you voluntarily flew here with us! What the hell did you think we came here for?!” he piped up.

“Not this! I had no idea when I rented you that car I’d become an accessory to a robbery!”

“About that….” I began, regretful that we involved her. “M’really sorry—”

“Sorry’s not gonna cut it if a detective comes knocking on my door in the morning. The extortionists won’t be the only thing you have to worry about if I get arrested.”

“Duly noted,” I laughed. “But that won’t happen, I promise. I’ll just say I took the car without your permission.” To that, she grimaced, and I was grateful my nightmare had not been reality, as then she would’ve become an unwitting accessory to murder. 

(Thanks for reading!❤️)

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