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. OcksĂ„ 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.

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