Monday, 27 May 2013

The Humble Devil - Chapter 5

Chapter 5

Melo looked around to make sure there was nobody in the corridor and quickly snuck into his room, quietly closing the door behind him.  There was no need for any of the staff to see him carry an assault rifle around. He shuddered at the idea of having to deal with police on top of all their existing problems.  But now that nobody could see him, Melo carefully placed the weapon on the table and reached into the small bag he had thrown over his shoulder. Inside were all the cleaning utensils for maintenance, and a half-empty bottle of rum that he took from Cree. Lord knows he deserved the damned drink. Throwing the cleaning kit on the table, Melo proceeded to search the cupboard for a glass – drinking a thousand dollar rum out of the bottle seemed a tad juvenile. Having only managed to find a cup he finally sat down at the table with a sigh. It’d have to do.

The soft light of the small lamp that stood on the table, even mixed with the erratic blinking of the half-muted TV was not enough to illuminate the table properly. Drunk and drowned in twilight Melo picked up the gun. Quickly, with a steady, almost surgical precision he removed the studs and took off the stock. Next came off the handle. One by one every piece took its own place on the table. The removed mechanism unit and mobile assembly were carefully placed next to a clean ashtray, where Melo had stored all the removed studs.  He took a sip of the rum, and involuntarily smiled. Say what you will about the ungodly price, but the rum was good. The kind of rabid bitterness he usually got from most hard drinks was not present, instead it went down smoothly. Too smoothly perhaps. He took the bolt, twisted the amp lever – removing it, and pulled out the firing pin. The drumming of the rain, heard even through the quiet murmur of the telly, was getting on his nerves. The details of the case just weren’t sitting right with him. The entire thing – the town, the people, the killings, the guns… it was all making him a bit paranoid. He quickly dismantled the head and with a strong jerk twisted off the bipod. Melo shook his head and refilled the cup.

“Morning’s always wiser…” He said quietly under his breath and, taking a piece of special cloth, started cleaning the barrel. Once that was done with, it took him a bit of effort to locate the brush in the bag. His vision was slowly getting blurrier as he found himself amidst a warm, soothing haze. All of his worries slowly became insignificant, as he steadily and carefully cleaned the firing mechanism and the chamber with a brush. All other metal parts he worked over with a piece of clean cloth. The rum was taking effect all the more quickly, as it made friends with the scotch he drank earlier. Melo could no longer hear the TV, his mind completely, blissfully blank, as he pushed the firing pin back into the head and installed it back into the assembly.  Next the mechanism unit was returned back to its place. Then the handle… then the stock… Finally the bipod found its way back. Barely conscious, Melo staggered to his bed, falling asleep before his head could touch the pillow. Only the drumming of the rain and the quiet murmur of the telly remained, along with an empty bottle of rum.

The morning was murky and just as unwelcoming as the evening before it. Liene stretched in her bed and got up. Looking out the window she shivered a little. She was feeling cold just by looking at the weather. If anything it seemed to have gotten a bit worse than yesterday.  The wet brown leaves were spun around the street by strong wind, giving it a dirty look. Liene sighed and, quickly throwing on her jeans and shirt, disappeared in the bathroom. Rain or no rain – teeth gots to be brushed, eh?
The bathroom was small but tidy, as usual with most ensuite rooms. A tiny bar of soap was sitting on the sink, next to three tubes of toothpaste. Liene shot her eyebrows up in surprise. That was quite unusual, but she wasn’t about to let anything free go to waste. She quickly popped one of the tubes open, and pocketed the other two. As Liene began brushing her teeth she could feel her mouth going slightly numb, much to her surprise.  She grabbed the tube again and read the English description carefully.
   “Lavendik-Straub toothpaste. New Innovative Formula! Say NO to bleeding gums!” Followed by a long list of chemicals and other ingredients and warning: “May cause a slight feeling of numbness.” Liene shrugged and continued brushing, if anything it really was better than most other things she normally used. Unless it was all a ploy by their enemies!? Maybe they planted this toothpaste here for her to use! And the mouth feels numb because of the poison they put in it?! Could it be that she was being sneakily assassinated at this very moment-

“Heeey, Liene, are you up yet?” Rami’s voice, followed by a hard knock on the door snapped her out of it. She quickly washed out her mouth and rushed out of the bathroom.
“Yes yes, I’m coming” She swung the door open, nearly tackling Rami in the process. “Crap, sorry gramps!”
“Never mind,” Rami waved his hand dismissively, purposely ignoring the nickname. “Cree is waiting already. And I don’t want to hear his sarcastic remarks this early in this shitty morning, so let’s go.”
“Well, somebody’s grumpy…”
“I’m always grumpy.”

The door to Cree’s suite was slightly creaked open in an inviting way. Music could be heard from the inside. It felt a bit nostalgic to Liene – he was listening to Die Toten Hosen. Hearing German again, for the first time in weeks was refreshing.  The room itself looked very different from yesterday. The excerpts from local newspapers and pages from the case file covered the walls. The glass table that used to stand in the centre of the room was gone and the glass from it was mounted on the wall, making an impromptu whiteboard. The photos from four specific victims were pinned to it with writing done in a red marker listing key similarities between them. Before Liene had a chance to express he legitimate feelings of “what the flying fuck” Cree himself entered the room from the kitchen. He looked surprisingly energetic. His suit’s jacket was gone, leaving him in a white shirt and black vest. Rolled up sleeves added to the dishevelled look, created by messy hair and faint black circles under his eyes. He placed the jug full of coffee that he had in his hand on the cupboard and waved at them.

“Good morning ye lazy bastards! Grab some coffee and freshen up, we have a lot of work to do!” He opened the cupboard and pulled out several cups, gesturing the due to grab them.
“W-what the hell have you done to this place?” Rami finally managed to squeeze out the lingering question.
“Huh? I turned it into a proper workplace, obviously.” Cree raised an eyebrow. “Stop asking retarded questions bro.”
Rami opened his mouth to say something, but failed to come up with a decent enough comeback. Liene in the meantime gladly poured herself a cup of hot coffee. If anything she was glad to drink some proper brew, and not the dissolving instant shit-drink they served back at her work.  Taking a nice savoury sip, she turned to Cree.
“When did you get the time to do all this?”
“Mmm? Ah, tonight. I did it tonight.”
“Really? Did you even get any sleep?” Liene raised her eyebrows in disbelief.
“Please,” Cree smirked. “Sleep is for weaklings! Hahahahah!”

“Kill me… kill me now….” With a loud moan Melo stumbled into the room. “Seriously, just shoot me… ughhh…” He had sizeable black bags under his eyes. Arms trembling and with a breath that could rival a dragon’s, Melo was a positive wreck. A massive splitting headache signalled the mother of all hangovers. Liene jumped up and helped him down into a chair while Rami reasonably turned down the music.
“The hell happened to you, Melon?” Liene scurried about trying to find something that would make him more comfortable.
“Good half a litre of a 45% high quality Rum on top of a litre of cheap 55% scotch, that’s what.” Cree replied with a smirk. “Told ya to be careful with Appleton’s - it hits heavy if you’re not careful.”
Melo only groaned in response.
Cree sighed at the glare Liene and Rami gave him and disappeared into the kitchen. A minute later he returned with a cold can of Duvel in his hand.
“Here, have this then top it off with coffee, should bring you back to life.” He threw the can to Melo. “Nothing better to beat a hangover than a can of Belgian lager, eh, bro?”
Melo caught the can and quickly popping it open, began drinking greedily. Less than a minute later he leaned back into the chair with a sigh of relief.
“Thanks that helped.” He gratefully nodded to Liene and picked up the cup of coffee she brought for him. “So, where are Wolf and Hema?”
Cree shrugged. “Late as usual, I suppose. We’ll wait for them, and then go over the plan for today.”
Rami and Liene nodded in agreement.

It was some good twenty more minutes before Wolf and Hema finally showed up. Cree was about to chew them out for being late, but it turned out the duo had good reason. They came in carrying several plates filled with food: several burgers, chips, salad and jugs of sauce. Suddenly everyone, Cree included, realised that they didn’t have a single bite since they got off the plane. The hunger hit them like a truck – hard and quick. In seconds the food was divided between everyone, and for a few minutes, everyone just ate in silence. The much needed breakfast charged everyone up, giving the gang back the energy they didn’t even realize they had run out of. Even Melo seemed to get the colour of life to come back to his face.
Finally once everyone was done with their plates and coffee, Cree clapped his hands and jumped up from his chair and approached the makeshift whiteboard. Picking up a marker he drew a vertical line and marked each side “Recon” and “Info” respectively.
“Alright guys, the plan for today is simple. We’ll be splitting into two teams - Reconnaissance and Information Gathering. The recon team will go with me,” He wrote his name into the recon column. “And survey the known crime scenes. Get a feel for the area, so to speak. The info group, in the meantime will be in charge of gathering as much intel on this little town as possible. Should prove to be quite challenging, since this town has no digital footprint at all. Any volunteers?”
Rami raised his hand. “Info. And I want Liene with me.” Liene moaned in disdain while Cree turned to Rami in surprise.
“Really? I thought she’d be more useful with the recon.”
Rami shook his head. “Since we can’t use internet we’d have to go to the council building to check their physical records manually. And I really bloody doubt that they will let us go through everything. Soo… we might have to gain access to restricted files in a more… direct way. Catch my drift?”
“Hehe, I see.” Cree smirked and turned to Liene. “Any objections?”
“None at all.” Liene seemed a lot more enthusiastic, now that a prospect of breaking and entering was introduced. Cree nodded and wrote their names into the info column.
“But!” Liene raised her finger. “If we’re talking about stealing records from a protected building, we’ll need at least one more person as a lookout. Somebody inconspicuous, somebody young, with an honest face… “A pause hung in the air as everyone turned to Hema at the same time. He blinked a few times before realizing what was going on.
“But-but-but, we don’t know if you’ll have to break into anything, do we? Aren’t we getting a little bit ahead of ourselves? Maybe you won’t need me at all!” His voice was filled with notes of desperation.
Rami shrugged. “While you do have a point, it’s better to be prepared, rather than to be caught shorthanded.”
Liene, Melo and Wolf all nodded at the same time. Cree then clapped his hands with an evil smile, “It’s decided then!” and wrote Hema in under info.
Hema fell back into his chair and hung his head. “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa……”

Cree turned to Melo and Wolf with a silent question in his eyes. Wolf shook his copy of the case file he picked up from Cree yesterday and stood up.
“Recon, I want to examine the crime scenes myself. Something in the forensic reports just keeps on nagging me.”  Cree nodded and put his name on the board.
Melo stood up with a grunt, checked the Beretta he had holstered on his back, and then slapped himself on the face twice to wake up completely.
“Not much of a choice really. Only fresh air, only recon, only hardcore!”  Having said that he cocked his gun and holstered it back.
 Cree’s smile turned vicious. “Everything is decided then. Now…” He walked to the cupboard and pulled out a plastic bag. He emptied the contents onto the now vacant chair, where Melo had been sitting – inside were five cheap phones. “Burners, pre-paid. We contact each other in three hours or once we discover something. As usual, ditch if compromised. All understood?”
Wolf picked up his phone and handed the rest to the others.
“Business as usual then?”
“Indeed.”  Cree smirked and then threw Rami a car key. “The one on the left is yours. Drive carefully.”
“Wait, didn’t your friends drive off in the second car?”
“Don’t think too much about it,” Cree frowned. “They returned it yesterday night.”
Rami nodded and headed out. Liene and Hema quickly followed suite. Cree casually straightened out the sleeves of his shirt, grabbed the jacket and winked to Melo. “Roll out?”
Melo nodded. “Damn straight.”
“Wolf, you got your gun?”
“Yeah,” Wolf patted his side. “Safe and sound under the sweater.”
“Good!” Cree then reached behind the chair and pulled out his over the shoulder holster. He put it on, tightened it with Melo’s help, and put on the jacket - concealing the weapon completely. He then paused for a second sniffing the air.
“Hmm… looks like I’m driving.”
Melo snorted. “Get going, smartass.”


Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Humble Devil - Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Liene and Hema barely had the time to close the car door, when they saw the second Land Rover pull around the corner. Even through the wind shield it was clearly visible how excited Cree was. Henrik and Neo, on the other hand, were looking as gloomy as always.  All three men jumped out of the car, not bothering to switch off the engine and unloaded two big cases and a backpack from the trunk, dropping them onto the pavement with a deep thud. Neo then headed back to the first car, throwing a passing glance at Liene who tried to look as inconspicuous as humanly possible; while Henrik jumped back into the other. A few moments later both vehicles took off, letting out an ear piercing tire squeal.  Cree sarcastically saluted them as a farewell, and then turned to the duo.
“Well, well, well,” He spoke with a sarcastic grin; then picked up the backpack and threw it to Liene. “Someone’s been naughty! Glad ya made it back in time.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Schwachkopp” Liene winked and scurried off towards the hotel – the cold wind was getting to her.
Cree snorted and turned back to the two cases on the ground.
“Wait a sec, I’ll help you out.” Hema hurried over and grabbed the handle of one of them; yanking it upward with all his strength. However his knees ended up buckling instead, as the surprisingly heavy case refused to leave the ground.
“Woah woah,” Cree immediately waved his hand towards him. “Let’s not touch that, shall we bro? I’ll take care of this; just hold the damn door open for me for a sec, ‘kay?”
Hema flushed and let go of the bag, obediently heading for the main entrance. He was growing increasingly frustrated with himself and others, however. ‘Tis true that he was never the “muscle” of their group, but he didn’t appreciate them treating him like some fragile child either. As he held the door in open position and turned towards Cree, somewhere deep inside he couldn’t help but malevolently hope that Cree will fail to pick up the bags as well.
“Oh ‘cmon, at least buy me dinner before ya start undressing me with yer eyes bro!” Cree grinned nastily as he approached. Hema flushed once again and moved out of the way, letting him pass.

                Ten minutes later everyone gathered in one of the bigger VIP rooms that Cree took for himself. The faint smell of alcohol hung in the air, as Melo and Wolf dragged in chairs for themselves from the unused rooms.  Rami was sitting on the bed, beside the two cases that the sarcastic bastard had just recently brought in with himself. Hema and Liene seated themselves on the spacious sofa; Liene popping open a bottle of cider that she picked up on her way. Cree on the other hand relaxed in a comfortable velvet recliner with a glass of rum in his hand. He was still breathing heavily from pulling his cases up four flights of stairs. Melo couldn’t help but notice the label on the bottle, carefully placed on a small glass table beside Cree. “Appleton Estate 30.” Good lord… so much for not being wasteful. Cree didn’t seem to mind however, as he nonchalantly sipped the obscenely expensive drink. The rich, warm taste of the exquisite liquor seemed to give him his strength back.  As soon as everyone was properly settled in, he carefully placed the lead glass tumbler on the table, and dug himself deeper into the recliner with an ominous smile.
“Alrighty now, five idiots, two hours,” As he was speaking, Cree threw his hands outward, accentuation each number in a flashy manner. “What did ya’ll manage to cobble together?”
This came as no surprise to the group; Cree used to do this little ritual all the time.  
Rami spoke out first, setting the tone.
“Adersund, about nine hundred miles north of Stockholm. No digital news or media available on the web that would encourage tourism.” Rami spoke in a calm, static manner, listing every discrepancy as to the point as possible. “There are traces of the information being hastily removed. Whatever caused this city to be taken off the grid – it’s recent.”
That said; Rami tapped twice on the panel of his laptop. Melo spoke out next, answering the signal.
“Well, we took an eight hour long drive in inconspicuous cars from the biggest airport in Sweden, instead of using our private jet to land in a local airport. Also upon arrival we were being spied on by a guy in the lobby. Professional. Blond hair, blue denim jacket. I’d say about… six feet tall; maybe less. Wouldn’t be able to pick him out of the crowd, to be honest.”
A moment of silence hung in the air.  Nobody else seemed to have noticed the man. Satisfied with the reaction, and himself, Melo continued.
“Throw in the fact that Cree has taken precautions to protect us against assassination, and I would guess that we’re under government surv. Am I right, you bastard?”
Cree snorted.
Melo smiled and leaned back into his chair, tapping twice on his armrest. 

This time it was Wolf’s turn to speak. He stood up from his chair, and started pacing about the room impatiently.
“Interesting…  I spoke to the bartender. There seems to be some kind of event coming up in two weeks’ time. It was marked on the calendar. But the moment I asked about it he got defensive, said that it is a reminder for an upcoming storm. A load of bull, if you ask me.” Wolf took off his glasses and began nervously cleaning them, before tapping twice on the wall.  

Liene didn’t bother to stand up.
“We… walked about for a bit,” She winked at Hema. “And found out that a lot of the houses on the outskirts are abandoned.”
“You walked all the way to the outskirts?” Melo raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“Yes.” Liene lied without as much as batting an eyelid. “The whole city has a bit of a ghost town feeling to it. I don’t like it.”
“Couldn’t be worse than the water caves though,” Hema snorted. “However I do see where you’re coming from. The few people that we’ve seen exhibit signs of stress and paranoia. All of them are spooked by something.”
“So…” Melo took a nice long sip of his scotch before rounding everything up. “As of late, something happens in this town, regularly enough to be put on calendar and freak out the citizens. The government does not want it to get out and removes every bit of info about the city from the web; however it does not stop the people from moving out. We are brought in as a last resort and are under constant surveillance to make sure we don’t leak anything out. Sounds about right?”
Cree smiled so wide it looked like his face was about to snap and jumped up from his chair. “BINGO!”
“Alright, bear with me for a moment…” Cree picked up his backpack and pulled out a thick folder. Same folder that they’ve seen three days ago back at the lounge. He handed it to Wolf and took a deep breath, getting ready for a long winded monologue.

“You are indeed quite correct about almost everything, my friends. Here’s the short version of the story. It all began some good three years ago, on a windy April afternoon. A senior citizen by the name of Agneta Olsson was on her way to buy some milk, when she spotted somebody lying on the asphalt, in the middle of the road. Being a compassionate good citizen she hurried over to see if the person needed some help. Ironically enough, she was the one that needed help afterwards, poor thing nearly scored a heart attack. The body was sadly beyond helping. Its head and both of its hands were missing. The forensic team were unable to locate the missing parts, or identify the exact way in which the injuries were inflicted – by all means it seemed like they were quite simply ripped off. In fact even identifying the body was impossible. The male victim was wearing naught but his underpants at the time. The specialists were able to tell that he was undressed before he was killed, as identified by the bruises on legs and torso, from when the body fell over.  

“Now here’s where it starts to get weird. At first the police figured that the victim was one of the citizens.  However no people had gone missing from the city in months.  Also the forensic team was able to determine a disturbing detail – the hands of the victim were removed before he died. They could tell from the blood splatter that he wandered a few meters between getting them ripped off and his head removed as well. Also from the blood patterns they could tell that the cause of death was decapitation, and not something else. He remained alive and conscious all the way until his head got ripped off. The gruesome murder shook the little city to the bone and yet, as if to mock everyone, there were no clues left behind on the scene. And without the identity of the victim the investigation stumbled, fell and was forever placed on the shelf along with other dead cases. It was to be forgotten and disappear into obscurity.

“Or so they thought, anyway. Right up until another windy morning on exactly the same day next month; when they found the second body. It lay in the middle of the road, much like the previous victim. Head and hands removed and all clothes gone save for underpants. This time investigative teams were called in from the capital. The official theory was that of a serial killer. However after three weeks of combing the scene with a fine toothed brush, even the Stockholm big shots came up with nothing. The teams were pulled out and the case shelved. …Until a week later, on the same day as before, a third body was found. By this point the government officials were having none of it and hushed the entire deal. Nobody was willing to risk such shameful failings of the police force to get out to the media. The city was flooded with officers and a curfew was instated for the three days around the projected murders. They were going to stand awake for three days, hoping to catch the bastard that was committing these horrible murders.

“…The fourth body was found on the same day as before, in an alleyway only five meters away from the nearest police patrol stand. Many officers lost their jobs that night, but it did little to stop the mysterious killings. Fifth body was found a month later, as if on schedule. And then the sixth… The seventh… Since then, for three years, on the third of every month a handless, headless body was found in the little rural city of Adersund. For a grand total of forty-one victims. We are contracted by a certain individual in the Swedish government to make sure there are no forty-second, forty-third and et cetera. We have three weeks to solve this case and neutralize the killer, before the elections take place.”
Cree finished speaking and sat back down into his recliner. The atmosphere in the room was so thick – one could cut it with a knife. Everyone was slowly processing the information, trying to comprehend the horror of what was facing them. Hema shivered at the irony of the situation: this was definitely worse than the water caves.

                “So what do ya say, my friends? Are ya in, or out?” Cree asked with a serious look on his face.
Rami slowly closed the lid of his laptop.
“I’m guessing this is why you didn’t tell us back at the lounge?”
Cree nodded. “Indeed. I was afraid the temptation to just say no would be too much.”
Rami frowned and stood up from the bed.
“I don’t know what infuriates me more; that you still don’t trust us with these things, or that you used such a tactic to force our hand. Either way every deal has a business side that we must cover first. How much are we getting?”
Everyone turned to Cree, who stood up and approached one of the cases on the bed. He opened it up and one-by-one pulled out five brown envelopes of considerable thickness. He threw one of them to Rami, who caught it with ease.
“Ten grand each. Plus another forty if we succeed. Fifty grand each in total. You get it cash in hand, no declarations or taxes.”
The room fell silent once again, as everyone picked up and examined their envelopes. Fifty thousand pounds in three weeks was an overwhelming amount of money. Easily more than most of them made in a year. Granted the risk was most likely high as well, but even if they failed – they still got to keep the ten thousand. Finally this gig started to come together.
“By the way, where’s yours, Schwachkopp?” Liene raised her eyes towards Cree, tapping twice on her envelope.
“Oh,” he shrugged in response. “I got paid my considerably bigger share back in Dresden. How d’ya think I paid for all of this?”
Liene examined him musingly. How did he really? However much Cree got paid, she really doubted it would be enough to pay for a personal jet, of all things.
“Well then, since you have apparently already spent your share on all these luxuries, how could I say no? I’m in.” She replied with a cheerful tone and raised her slim bottle of cider in the air as a salute.
Rami muttered under his breath, then stuffed the envelope into his pocket.
“You’ll be the death of me, bastard. I’m in.”
Wolf and Hema shared a look then stood up as well.
“Ain’t gonna pass up a ten thousand cash trip. We’re in.” Hema spoke out with a grim smirk on his face.

All eyes the turned to Melo, who was still sitting in his chair, silent. He didn’t even touch his envelope; it still lay on his armrest as if nothing happened.
“Well bro, what’ya say?” Cree asked, picking up his tumbler with rum from the table.

Melo studied him with a bemused looks for a second, then calmly took another sip of his scotch and raised the glass in the air.

“Bitch please. You had me at hello.”

                Some good half an hour later, Cree told the guys to get back to their rooms and get some rest. Their real challenge was going to start the next day, and he needed them all well-rested and level-headed. Melo was the last one to leave the room, when Cree stopped him, and asked to close the door.
“There’s one more thing, Stef.” It’s been a very long time since Melo heard his friend call him by that name. A very long time indeed. Melo tensed up; most of his inebriation gone.

“What is it? Please tell me it’s good.”

Cree smiled faintly, then flung both of the cases open and signalled Melo to come closer. He quickly removed a few protective layers of clothing and electronics, leaving Melo to gawk at the sight. And what a sight it was! Both cases were filled with weapons. All of them were very familiar, if a bit unsettlingly nostalgic. Two FAMAS assault rifles lay at the centre the case, six 9mm Berettas were stowed in a neat little line. Three silenced UMP.45’s completed the picture. The other case contained body armour, ammunition and a Benelli M4 semi-automatic shotgun. While he personally never fired one before, it was still familiar to Melo. M4’s were quite popular back in Afghanistan, due to how essential they were for breaching.
He shook his head to avoid another flashback then turned to Cree, whispering.
“How in the hell did you get all this?” His voice was a little raspy from surprise.

“I have my ways,” Cree smirked with a grim expression, then pulled out one Beretta, reloaded with a slight of hand and handed it to Melo. “I am not kidding when I say that we’re in deep shit, brother. Whether we succeed or fail, this gun will fire. And when it does, I’d rather you be holding it, than a blond haired swede in a denim jacket.”

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Humble Devil - Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Liene was carefully studying the neat rows of houses that whizzed by her window, as both cars made their way through the narrow snake-like streets of the city. Everything was clean and quiet, with very few people walking about. She quickly dismissed the lack of pedestrians due to the brewing storm. Indeed if she was the kind to be superstitious, she’d say that the gods themselves were not welcoming of their group. In the eight hours that it took them to get to Adersund from Stockholm, the blissful warm weather changed to a cold darkness with penetrating wind. The distant roars of thunder signalled the coming of a rainstorm. However her attention was fully occupied by the houses. Something just didn’t feel right, but Liene could not put her finger on it. Was it the grim look of pedestrians who scurried about their business, raising their collars and shielding from the wind? Or the wandering police officers who always had one hand on their weapon? She saw at least three pairs of them. Always in pairs. Always looking. Great, she thought, at this rate all we need is to be taken to an island mansion with four other people and the picture will be complete. Cree was also uncharacteristically quiet during the whole ride, only exchanging a few brief words with Hema every now and then. That fact together with gloomy atmosphere and weather made her really uncomfortable. She shook her head trying to make all the unsettling thoughts go away.

   Despite her gloomiest fantasies, however, the cars stopped in front of a completely normal establishment, in the centre of the city. And not in a cemetery or something just as joyful. Liene glanced over it with a scrutinising look. The four stories high building, while not by any means large, dwarfed the neighbouring houses and shops. Large letters crowned the main entrance. They were in Swedish so she didn’t really understand what they meant. Liene then shifted her attention to Henrik, who jumped out of the car and proceeded to hastily unload the bags. She took that as a not-so-subtle hint and climbed out as well, along with Hema and Cree. Melo, Wolf and Rami were already standing near the entrance with their bags. Their driver was also there. He was visibly younger than Henrik. His short hair was hidden under a worn leather ball cap. Nothing about him seemed out of place or suspicious. Logically, Liene considered that to be incredibly suspicious in and out of itself. Nobody who worked with Cree was ever normal, by any definition. Maybe he was a spy? Or a fanatical cultist? Did he worship the elder gods and ate human liver for dinner?! Or! Maybe he was an alien! That must’ve been it! This whole town is infested with shape shifting aliens, and Cree has successfully infiltrated them in order to steal their technology! That’s probably how he makes his living! Selling the stolen alien technology to the governments of the world! It all finally makes sen-
“Hoo~kay, guys!” Cree’s loud, sharp voice snapped Liene out it. He was visibly struggling to speak over the deafening winds. “Grab your bags and go settle in. Henrik, Neo and I still have some things to take care of. Will be back in two hours. Save me some pizza or something, ya bastards!” That said he jumped back into the car along with both men, and drove off kicking up a small cloud of dust and leaves. For a second everyone stood silently, trying to figure out what the hell just happened. Liene shot a glance at the second car that was left behind, then smiled and slapped Rami on the shoulder.
“Lead the way, gramps! With Schwackopp gone, it’s up to you again.”  The heavy slap took him completely by surprise, making him stumble ahead, nearly dropping his neat little sports bag. As usual he was the one with the least amount of luggage. Rami grunted and then threw a silent pleading look towards Melo.
“Alright, alright, no need for puppy eyes bro.” Melo scratched his head then grabbed his bag. “Let’s go. Dutch and Swedish are… somewhat similar, so hopefully they’ll understand me.”  That said he headed off into the building. Rami let out a sigh of relief and followed after him. “Thanks.”
It was a generally unspoken rule that whenever Cree was absent it would fall to Rami to make decisions for the gang. A rule he apparently had no say in. Lord knows he did not have any desire to lead. He was perfectly content supporting Cree in whatever shenanigans he was up to, but stepping up to the helm? Hell no. Nothing good ever came of it.
His thoughts racing Rami disappeared inside the hotel.  Liene quickly followed him, continually teasing him about wussing out once again. It was at this time that Hema softly tugged on Wolf’s sleeve. He had a puzzled look on his face and was continually looking around.
“Hey Wolf. I just realised…”
“Cree didn’t bring any luggage with him.”

Melo looked around the lobby, making sub-conscious notes of windows and exits. Vantage points were very few and far in-between, making it a very undesirable place to be ambushed. Not much cover that could stop a bullet. Perhaps it was good that nobody was about to start shooting. Not yet anyway. Melo sighed, catching wind of his own thoughts. The time he and Cree spent in the French Foreign Legion drilled many habits deep into him. Most of them were only getting in the way of normal civil life, but he still prized them. If there was one thing he learned from training and working with his friend – it was that there was always something lurking around the corner. In this case it was a woman in her forties, dressed in maid uniform. It was worn, yet clean and tidy. She scurried towards the reception desk, where a grey haired man was tending the counter. He was in his fifties and wearing an informal white sweater. His eyes gave away a man who lived his entire life in the suburbs – calm and bland, devoid of any spark. The gold ring on his finger showed signs of weariness, much like the one on the maid’s hand. They must be married, ten years at least. There was also a third person in the room - a young man with short blond hair. He was hiding behind the doors that lead to the bar. Whatever the purpose he was spying on them for, he was doing a fairly good job at staying hidden. It looked like no one else noticed him, but Melo said nothing.
He approached the counter and addressed the sweater man, trying to speak as slowly as possible. “Mag ik even uw aandacht. Heeft u kamers vrij?” He hoped that saying things in a formal manner would be easier for the Swede to understand. However, much to his surprise, the man responded in near perfect English.
“Ah! You must be Mister Wright’s group! We have been expecting you for quite long time! My name is Erik, I am the owner of Hogfjallshotell. Your accommodations are ready.” That said he handed Melo a slim wooden box and pointed to the maid. “My wife Maria will show you the way.” 

Melo signalled the group to pick up their bags, and they all followed Maria up the wooden staircase in silence. Needless to say they had no idea who Mister Wright was.  Probably one of Cree’s aliases. Melo could guess as much. When they reached the third floor the maid bowed and turned away to leave. Rami, confused, called out to her. “Wait a second, which room is ours?” Maria raised her eyebrows in surprise. “What do you mean? All of them, of course. The top two floors are yours.” Having said that, she turned and quietly disappeared down the stairs, leaving the confused group in silence.
“Well, this is… something” Liene scratched her head, and looked around. “Maybe there’s something in that box, Melon?” Melo nodded and opened up the box. Inside, laid out on the red velvet, were twelve numbered keys. Melo couldn’t resist throwing a curse.
“That fucking bastard!”
The room was quite small, but tidy. Same could be said for the ensuite bathroom and the tiny kitchen area. A small television set was hanging on the wall opposite the bed. The tiny fridge contained a few packets of frozen meals, a packet of apple juice and a small complimentary cheesecake. There was no minibar in the room, most likely to stimulate customers to use the on-site bar downstairs. Thankfully there was still an incredibly overpriced bottle of scotch on the shelf, hidden amidst the even more overpriced bottles of water and packets of nuts. Melo popped it open and, not even bothering to find a glass, chugged a mouthful. By this point he really needed a drink. He dimmed the lights slightly and crashed on the bed, turning on the tv and letting it chatter away on some program he didn’t give two shits about. His mind was occupied by the past.

    Many people would look back on the rough training days in the Legion with horror. He didn’t, however. That is not to say that Melo had it easy in there, or liked it. He struggled more than most, his near sightedness and weight made it that much harder. The constant teasing from the sergeant and the heat were absolutely insufferable. It was… hell. But if he hadn’t been there those seven years ago he would have never met him. That crazy bastard with a maniacal glitter in his eye. He wasn’t much slimmer than Melo, and was also wearing glasses. Nobody expected him to last more than a week. Yet he had the gall to tell the sergeant to “bring it on”. Stupid. Ballsy, but stupid. You never want to get the Sergeant on your case. Sarge came down on him like a rabid dog. And yet… After fifteen weeks only four of them stood tall to receive their kepis.  Stefan, Christopher, Mark and Francois – they were friends that had each other’s backs through thick and thin. The boot camp formed a strong bond between people.  As soon as the ceremony was finished – a plane took them straight to Afghanistan. They were only eighteen at the time.

  After a year of bloodshed and fighting they went on to be transferred to Gabon, as part of the Second Foreign Parachute Regiment.  By that point Chris has become a Corporal, while “Fannie”, Mark and “Frank” were Legionnaires 1st Class. Chris managed to get them that transfer in hopes of getting some peace and quiet. And for almost a whole year – they did. Stefan didn’t even mind the scorching heat. Every night he would dream that the remaining three years of service would go by just as quietly. Fate, however, decided otherwise. One day, in broad daylight, the outpost was attacked by insurrectionists. God knows for what reason. Maybe they were hoping to get their hands on the Legion’s weapons. Maybe they just wanted to stir up trouble and picked a smaller target. To this day Melo did not know. The battle was short – but devastating. By the end of the violent shootout only two remained alive in the building. The image of Chris hunched over the lifeless bodies of Mark and Francois still haunted him. It was then that Chris ripped off his dog tag and threw it onto the body of one of the attackers. Stef did the same. That day, Christopher and Stefan died alongside their friends in that outpost. Instead, Cree and Melo survived, and before leaving, set the building on fire. Neither Franc nor Mark would want to be buried in the dry soil of Africa. At least, Melo hoped, their ashes would find their way back home. 

 He sighed and took another sip from the bottle. Whatever Cree got them involved this time was a tad more dangerous than their previous antics. How did he know that? Easy. While Cree has always had the tendency to be flashy, he was never wasteful. There was only one reason for a soldier to get twelve rooms for six people. They learned that the hard way in Afghanistan. Neither the help nor the owner knew in which room exactly they were staying. Anyone coming to kill them would have to check all the rooms on both floors one by one, buying them time to get prepared to escape… or fight. Melo reached into his pocket and squeezed the handle of his knife.
“Just what the hell did you get us into this time, Cree?”

                As soon as he dropped off his bags, Wolf headed back downstairs. He once again admired the homely feel of the foyer and pushed open the doors to the bar. Several wooden tables were occupied by patrons, most likely the other customers that lived on the second floor.  Aside from a single table where three senior men were having a quiet discussion they all sat on their own. Some were occupied by reading while others watched the TV on the wall, right above a fake fireplace. It was showing a football match between two local teams whose names Wolf did not recognize. The dim lights in reddish lanterns were suspended close to the ceiling, letting the room sink in the pleasant darkness and creating a sense of privacy. All tables had their own lamps on them, which the customers could turn on in case they wanted to read.  A man in his thirties with receding black hair was tending the bar. He was sporting a black t-shirt and jeans despite the chilly weather.  Wolf sat down at the counter and the bartender immediately approached him.  Wolf quickly pulled out a sheet of paper he kept in his pocket, and slowly read out one of the lines.
“Talar du engelska?” He didn’t know how accurate his pronunciation was, but the bartender smiled and replied in English. He had a very uneven accent – typical for someone who was used to only saying certain phrases and not the others.
“Yes I do. What would you like?”
“A beer please, lager” No need to stand out with a fancy drink, Wolf thought to himself. Almost everyone else in the bar was drinking beer. The bartender quickly poured him a big pitcher. “Put it on tab please. Mister Wright.” The man nodded and quickly jotted down a note in a big book behind the bar. It must’ve been normal for customers to put their drinks on tab, since the book was completely filled with rows and rows of accurate notes. Wolf took a nice big sip of the frosty drink, and then turned to the bartender once again.
“I’m sorry I did not catch your name.”  Wolf tried to sound as casual as possible.
“Alright, Adam, it’s my first time in Adersund. Is there anything interesting to do around here?”
The bartender took a minute to think then finally answered.
“You can go watch a movie at our cinema. Också there is a nightclub down the street. I’m afraid that is all, Mr. Wright. We are a small town very. I’m sorry.” Adam had a very distant look on his face. He clearly did not enjoy forcing himself to speak in a foreign language. Looks like the ever present Anglicisation did not reach this far north. Not yet, anyway.  Disappointed, Wolf returned to his drink, still scanning the surrounding for anything of interest. It was then than his eyes hit upon a calendar that was hung on the wall right behind Adam. Three days were crossed out with a red marker, less than two weeks from now.  Wolf once again turned to bug the bartender.
“Excuse me, Adam, what about holidays? You seem to have some coming up very soon” He pointed at the calendar. The bartender gave Wolf a confused look then looked at the wall and sighed. “Ah no, that is no holiday. That is just to remind of curfew.”  He quieted down abruptly, as if having said something he should have kept himself from saying.  Wolf, sensing that he was on to something, decided to press a bit harder. “A curfew? What for?” Adam gave him a displeased look.
“I must have not used the word right. There is a big storm coming from west. We keep people reminded to stay in their houses”
Wolf smiled. “Oh, that’s good to know. Thanks!” He then took his pitcher and moved to one of the vacant tables in the centre of the room, pleased with himself. For all intents and purposes, he had just hit a jackpot.

                Liene carefully approached the lonely Land Rover, left behind by Cree’s companions and tugged at the door. Closed. She then pulled out a long thin key and put into the keyhole. The metal piece slid into the slot easily and with a quiet click the door opened. Hema, who was standing behind her, looked around nervously. “We should not be doing this” Liene just waved her hand dismissively. “Yeah yeah, criminal activity and whatnot. Now hurry up and climb in!” With that said she quickly jumped into the driver’s seat. Hema, left with no other option, followed suite. After just a bit of fidgeting with the ignition Liene managed to start up the engine and the car slowly took off.
 As they drove through the streets taking turn after turn Hema pulled out a notepad and began marking their route. Neither of them knew how to operate the GPS in Swedish, so it was the only way for them to find their way back. A few minutes later they found themselves driving past the familiar houses on the outskirts of the city.  Liene immediately slowed down to a crawl and started dissecting them with her eyes. “Hey Hema, do you see anything weird with these houses?” She quietly asked, without taking her gaze off of the buildings. Hema, who was still anxiously squirming in his seat, looked out of the windows. “Well there are no blinds in some of them. Or flowers.” The sudden realization hit Liene like a truck. She slammed the brakes, almost making poor Hema kiss the dashboard, and jumped out of the car – heading for one of the houses. As she looked through the window into the completely empty home, Liene kept cursing herself for not noticing something this obvious sooner. This is why the streets looked so overly clean and empty earlier – most of the houses on the outskirts were abandoned!
 “Liene! Come back quickly!” Hema shouted from the car. There was obvious panic in his voice, so she obediently returned to the vehicle.  He immediately shoved his phone into her face. “I told you this was a bad idea!” On the screen a message was opened. It was from Cree. “Hey Hema, will be back in 15 mins. Tell tranny-granny to drive the car back. Henrik won’t like it if he finds out you guys took it. Cheeers~ :* “  Liene’s eyebrow twitched as she hit the gas and turned the car around. How did that bastard always know? Hema finally breathed a sigh of relief and began reading out the directions, as they backtracked their way to the hotel.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Humble Devil - Chapter 2

Chapter 2

The two hour long flight passed in a blur, and very soon the gang landed in Stockholm Arlanda Airport.  It was a chilly Friday morning, and they still had a long eight hour drive to their destination – a small town of Adersund, in the northwest of the country, ahead of them. However the long and arguably dangerous journey was not what occupied their minds as they walked down the boarding stairs of the shiny private jet that took them there. The majestic machine was glowing proudly in the rays of the morning sun. The airplane lacked any corporate signs or writings, like most commercial planes, instead it was painted jet black and only had a single symbol painted in gold on its side – a stylised raised eyebrow and a crooked slim smile. The expression was all too familiar to them, as Cree exited the vehicle with the exact same look on his face.
“Welcome to Sweden, my friends!” He said throwing his hands up into the air, as if to welcome a cheering crowd. Thankfully there was no crowd there, only two fairly worn Land Rovers with their respective drivers. “Guys, grab your luggage, I’ll take care of this quickly” Cree said with a wink and slid down the safety railing, waving at the drivers. “Hej Hej! Henrik! Hur mår du?” One of the men smiled and said something in return, too quietly for any of them to hear over the sound of the still revving engines.
Hema huffed and picked his big bag off the small conveyor that lowered their luggage from the plane. Even though the flight in what could only be described as an overly luxurious aircraft (seriously, it had a dance pole in there for Christ’s sake) was very comfortable, his legs were still itchy from sitting. He swayed under the weight of his luggage and slowly headed towards the cars, where Cree seemed to be passionately arguing with the two men in what Hema could only describe as a barking language. In the meanwhile Liene, still very happy from the free on-board champagne easily picked up her bag, which was at least three times the size of Hema’s, and turned to Rami and Wolf to say something. However after a few failed attempts at communication Rami waved his hands at her pointing to his ears and then to the engines, which were just above them. Liene gave an understanding nod and trailed off after Hema.  The guys grabbed their (far smaller) bags and jogged over as well, giving one last look of admiration to the plane. 
Cree and the man he previously called Henrik were still arguing about something. That is to say Henrik was yelling at Cree, waving his hands as if trying to convince him of something, while the bastard stood there with his arms crossed and a displeased look on his face. “Du är galen, Cree!  Du-“ He got cut off by Cree raising his hand. “Håll käften, Hen. Kör!” Henrik quieted down, glanced at the gang and gave Cree one more judging look before signalling his friend, who remained silent the entire time, and started loading the bags into the cars.
 “The hell was that all about?” Wolf slowly approached Cree, giving a nod towards the two men. Cree waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t bother yourself with it. It’s all right.” However Wolf couldn’t help but make a note of a very visible frown on his face. As if noticing that, Cree quickly put on his usual smile and turned to the rest of the gang. “Well what are ya’ll waitin’ for, ya bastards?! Jump into the cars!” Then he turned on his heel and headed for the front passenger seat in the first car.  Liene patted Hema on the back with a wink. “Well, let’s go” He smiled in return and nodded. As they both disappeared inside the backseats of the first car, Rami quietly turned to Melo, who was observing his surroundings with a concerned look on his face.  “Did you get any of that?” Melo shook his head. “Parts of it”
“Please tell me it’s good.”
“It didn’t make much sense… but what I got wasn’t nice. I can definitely tell you one thing though, bro.”
“What?” Rami leaned in closer to Melo’s face.
“Shotgun.”  Melo said quietly and smiled.

  The country was quite beautiful this late in August. The road they took only twice passed through cities, and even they were rather on the smaller side. Although Wolf quite honestly preferred it that way. The deep pine sight forests were a welcome after the empty plains of California that he was so used to, or the endless urbanization of England. He kept noticing multiple road signs warning them of various wild animals in the area. Two signs in particular got his attention as they got more and more common the further north they went.  Bears and Wolves. Sweden was known for its Brown Bears and Gray Wolves – neither were an animal Wolf had any excess desire to meet with during this journey. Judging by what Cree told them a day earlier their destination was a city, so he still had hopes that they wouldn’t need to venture into the forest. Although who the hell knows what Cree had in his mind, he thought, especially after their last job in Hawaii. Wolf still couldn’t get over his fear of water caves after that last gig. Or whales. Or harpoons. Or cotton candy. Come to think of it, he has developed quite a lot of traumatic phobias since they first started working together five years ago.  Wolf sighed and opened up his laptop. It didn’t matter; really, he wasn’t going to quit just because of a few bruises and scars. The gigs always paid well and the company was great.  Although, he probably wouldn’t have quit even if the money was shit. One too many times did he have to save one of them from falling into a ravine, or getting eaten by a shark, or flat out getting shot. He couldn’t leave his friends alone with that maniac.
 Realising that he still didn’t get a 3G dongle for Sweden and thus there was no internet Wolf closed the laptop and turned to Rami, who was sitting beside him. “Did you find out anything?” Rami, who as usual was the only one with enough foresight to prepare himself a dongle beforehand, shook his head. “Nothing.  Literally. I can’t find any information on Adersund aside from their official website.” He quickly ran the site through web translator, only to find nothing of interest. Wolf raised an eyebrow in disbelief. “What about news? All cities have their sources of local news. At the very least a local post office would provide some form of information to the citizens. How big is the city?” Rami sifted through the information on the translated page. “Eight thousand one hundred and forty eight souls, according to the voting bill of 2008. And no, nada, nothing, absolute zero!” Rami was clearly getting frustrated. “There is not a single bit of news that I can find anywhere. It’s like the bloody town doesn’t exist at all!”
Wolf fell back into his seat, his mind quickly processing the information. It didn’t make any sense. The city was clearly real; Cree didn’t have enough willpower to hold back something like a “Fake City” from them for this long.  He would’ve blurted it out by this point at least once. Also faking a voting bill was quite a bit harder than creating a website.  His eyes quickly sought out the driver, scanning the front panel of the car. He immediately noticed a GPS navigator. While the writing didn’t make much sense to him, he still managed to single out a single familiar word: “Adersund”. That didn’t make sense. The city existed, it was a fact. But a city that had no news or correspondence whatsoever? Or, more accurately, a city of over eight thousand people that had no digital news?  It was easier to believe that pigs can fly. No, wait, that metaphor didn’t work, they have seen pigs fly before. This situation is more like… Honestly, no idea. This kind of occurrence was a thing unto its own.
 Wolf dug deeper into his seat and closed his eyes. Mind racing for a possible explanation. Then it struck him. Struck like lightning strikes a palm tree in the middle of Antarctic. He quickly turned to Rami again. “Look up the tourist section. See if you can find anything.” Rami gave wolf a confused look then dug into his computer. Minutes went by one after another. The more his fingers raced across the keyboard the more his face lit up. “Well?” Wolfe stretched out towards Rami in anticipation. Rami took of his glasses and rubbed his eyes, then put them back on and started speaking. “There is no tourist section on the official website as well. However, I pulled up the HTML source code – there are traces of a page called “turistattraktioner”. I can guess what that word means. The page was removed quickly, and rather sloppily. There’s residual code left all over. But if I try to look up the city on other tourist websites I’m getting this!” He turned the laptop to show it to Wolf. Several tabs were open showing various websites with text highlighted and their translations next to them. Wolf clicked through some of them – they all said very similar things. “There’s nothing in here but a number of warnings on bears, wolves and elks. Also that one forum post describes the city to have problems with alcoholism…” Wolf murmured to himself as he went through the information. “As I thought, this means...” he finally spoke out loud.
“…That somebody with enough power tried very hard to make sure nobody ever goes into that city, or otherwise finds out what’s going on inside” Melo, who was seemingly asleep the entire time in the front seat suddenly spoke out, opened his eyes and then turned to the startled Wolf and Rami with an evil smile. “Well well, this is getting really interesting…”

Neither of the three noticed the look their silent companion driver gave them as soon as Melo finished speaking.

Liene was blissfully asleep on the back seat; all the champagne during the flight must’ve finally claimed the girl. One could only guess what she was dreaming about, but she was definitely smiling. Hema sighed and then leaned forward, towards Cree’s seat. “How soon do you think we’ll get there, Cree?” He spoke with a slight Arabic accent. Egyptian, to be precise. Cree still had the annoying habit of listening for the hints of nationality in a person’s voice, before hearing what they are actually saying. However this habit saved his ass way too often to be considered “bad” per se. It was just annoying when speaking with people he already knew. “Uhmm..” He looked at the GPS for a few seconds. “I’d say we should see the city in about twenty minutes or so.” Hema fell back with a sigh of relief and then chuckled.
“You know, I actually found the two hours on that plane to be hard. You should have told me that we still had eight hours in a far less comfortable car in store, haha.” Cree smiled and reached to take off his glasses. Now that they’ve been out of the sun’s reach the tint had disappeared completely, revealing deep black circles under his eyes. Hema habitually inspected his old friend once again. The man in the front seat right now was quite different from the flamboyant rockstar-like man-child that got off the plane just a mere few hours ago. Both his black suit and his face looked worn and tired. The brown hair that he kept boyishly shot up showed more than one sign of greying. His eyes looked lifelessly on into the distance, as if looking past the deep blackness of the forest and the hills – deep into the unknown. Hema shuddered unconsciously. It was hard to believe that the man in front of him was in his early twenties. Just two years older than himself. 
“Maybe I should’ve, but I didn’t wanna scare ya too soon. “ Cree’s voice woke Hema up from his thoughts. He once again looked out of the window, at the even line of pines, rushing past them in a blur. “Well in a forest this deep we won’t so much see the city as much as end up in it won’t we? Hah!” Hema said jokingly. Cree laughed out loud, as if gaining his usual energy back. “True enough!  And speaking of which, look!” 

All six of them, despite riding in different cars looked out of the windows at the same time, as if on command. Even the sleeping Liene opened up one eye. The big wooden sign with the word “Adersund” shot by them in a flash. Both cars immediately slowed down, abiding the speed limits.  As the first accurate rows of houses showed themselves from beyond the treeline Cree’s face took on his usual evil smile – all shreds of previous weariness gone in an instant. The usual manic look in his eyes was back. And with it – his voice, filled with as much excitement as blood thirst.
“We’re here.