Chapter 1: Are we Recording?
“Please state your name for the record.”
“Officially or unofficially?”
“Whatever was on your birth certificate.”
“Oh! Sorry. It’s been a while since someone asked… What? It has!”
Admiral Henry Wilkins sits back against the bench of a holding cell made pop up interrogation room. The look on his face is one of finding out the milk he’d intended for cereal had gone sour two weeks ago. His moustache curls when the man across from him gives an almost awkward laugh, his hands pulling gingerly at the cuffs keeping them together, then clears his throat.
“Tethers... Nelson Tethers. I’m...hoping you don’t need a middle name too. I seriously can’t remember that-“
“...hm.” He clicks his tongue against his teeth, and his eyes turn upwards to the metal ceiling, focused on a bolt in the hull. “Occupation, occupation...I guess Agent works fine at this point. Negotiator is a bit more...Nevermind. Agent is fine.”
The admiral’s upper lip twitches. His eyes narrow just an inch when he speaks next, “Alright. Agent Nelson Tethers…” he leans in closer to a tape recorder set on the table, “The subject is an average build, average height Caucasian male. I would put him between his mid thirties to early forties if I had to guess.”
“Well! I’m flattered I look that young-“
“Do not talk unless you are spoken to, Agent Tethers.” The admiral growls the name under his breath. He stares down the man a moment before he goes on, “The subject is dressed in a simple black suit. White shirt, black tie, dress shoes...subject was also found wearing a pair of sunglasses with a handheld tape recorder in his possession.”
He seemed to breathe deeply, looking over Nelson for a long moment, his hand coming up to rub over his chin, clearing his throat.
“Are you sure you don’t want some gum too?” The man’s handcuffs clink together as he offers a stick of peppermint-flavored gum towards the admiral, “It helps with a dry throat.”
“I’m-hrmph!-fine…” he steadies himself by gripping the bench tightly, leaning to the recorder again. “The subject also insisted on gum from one of our crew hands. Said it would help him think and cooperate more efficiently.”
“The subject has only two unusual attributes. The first is his voice. As you can tell by the interruptions, the man speaks as if he’s been recorded once before. The static and clicks heard are most akin to a classic cassette player. It is noted that the recording of his own voice found on the confiscated player sounded clear. As if he’d been standing right in front of me.”
“The second are his eyes.” And this got another pause from the admiral. A bead of sweat drifted past his brow to land on the floor below. “...the subject has mismatched eyes. Both eyes contain solid red...whites, what the hell do you-“ “The sclera-“ “Right, thanks-“
The admiral gives another pause to scowl at the man before he goes on again, “...both eyes are accented by white pupils. Both seem to have bioluminescent qualities and glow even in bright rooms. However one of his pupils has formed a...a spiral. Like the type you’d see in a cartoon, with tweety birds around your head.”
“Quite the scientific way of describing that, Admiral-“
“Do not speak until you are spoken to , Tethers.” He waits for the man to go quiet again, several minutes passing before he feels settled enough to talk, “At o’six hundred hours, the subject was spotted within the halls of the submersible. Some crew mates thought he’d been caused by a lack of oxygen within the sub. Until he began asking questions.”
“Questions have included personal information, medical history, family ties, bank account data, mortality queries, and very occasionally trivia concerning the state of Minnesota.” He glared once again, but it felt somehow more tired by the time he spoke again, “Lieutenant Jabrowski unfortunately supplied him with a lot of these trivia pieces.”
At this, agent Tethers seemed to brighten for a moment, a smile coming to his face, “Fascinating stuff, right? Did you know it was one of the first states to have Betty Crocker on the radio? And the state muffin is-“
“Tethers, if you speak one more goddamn time without me asking, I will personally see you marooned on the next shit sandbar we pass by. Are we clear? ”
Nelson went quiet for a moment, mouth shut, his eyes shifting down to the recorder tightly gripped in the admiral’s meaty palm, “...You didn’t stop the tape.”
“...” The admiral sat himself back down, his own mouth a thin line, “I am conducting the current interrogation to find out how Nelson Tethers snuck aboard our vessel and remained undetected until his recent capture one hour prior to this recording.”
“I gave you an answer when you brought me in.”
“Yeah well your answer is bullshit.” The admiral has curled his upper lip so much his moustache has turned into an M. “Our last refueling was two days ago in Honolulu. With the size of this ship it is nearly impossible for you to stow away as long as you managed.”
“Which is why I didn’t.” Nelson had sat up to look the man in the eyes. “I just stepped aboard hours ago.”
“From where?? ” The admiral slammed his hand against one of the walls, “We have stayed submerged most of this time and even when we surfaced, there were no other vessels for miles! Underwater or otherwise!”
“Right! And I stepped on board.”
“YOU DID-“ he stopped himself, breathing deeply through his nose, nails leaving faint scratches on the metal walls. “...you didn’t do that. You can’t do that. You would have been compressed like a vacuum sealed steak if not had your insides crushed from the pressure.”
“Define ‘insides’ here.”
He pinched his nose, feeling the bristles of his moustache going curly from the tension. “You’re fucking with me.”
Nelson rolled his shoulders, “If that’s what you want to believe.”
“Well I can’t believe what you’re telling me, because that’s impossible.”
“Denial is a river in Egypt, Admiral.”
The admiral looked like it took every ounce of energy not to slam his fist into his nose and shatter every bone inside. He’d been trained well and graduated top of his class however, so he brushes his hand off on his shirt, “Moving on...You can tell us who you work for next.”
“No I cannot. Next question.”
The admiral struggled again, his fist visibly clenching, “...You said you’d cooperate with the gum.”
“And it’s very good gum!” He offered the stick again, “You sure you-“
The closed fist smacked it out of his hand to sail away and land in a dusty corner-a bent over heap of sucrose and foil wrapping, “...That was pretty wasteful you know.”
“Shut up about the gum!” He planted his hands on either side of the man, a good foot and a half and fifty pounds up against Nelson’s frame, “You said you would talk, so talk! Who hired you?”
The admiral grit his teeth, one hand moving off the bench to grab his tie, his glare boring holes into his skull. “Why did they hire you??”
He was nearing his limit for this shit, his voice echoing down the metal halls, “WHY THE HELL WAS IT OUR SUB?!”
At that, Nelson’s almost bored expression changed. He was staring right at him. His mouth stood as a small, thin line, slowly curving up into a smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes as the bastard laughed softly. It would almost look warm if it wasn’t for the chill the admiral felt up his spine. “ Now you’re asking something I can answer. Do you really want to know why your sub, admiral?”
Suddenly, he felt like he didn’t want to. It was a feeling unfamiliar to him. Tall, broad shouldered, the peek of masculine fitness down to the last hair on his chest. A guy like him wasn’t easy to threaten. Yet that slow smile filled him with this apprehension, this dread...the sensation of a small animal being stalked by something far, far more cunning and dangerous then he even began to know of.
And with it came curiosity. He swallowed, and nodded his head.
“A clear answer.” Nelson’s eyes moved to the recorder and back again, “For prosperity’s sake.”
“...yes.” He gulped and moved a few inches back, “Yes. Tell me.”
Nelson’s smile widened. “My clients didn’t pick your vessel. I made that decision. And might I say, you’re a fascinating character, Henry.”
“A football scholarship straight into Naval academy. Top marks graduate. You rose quickly through the ranks up until meeting your wife for the next fifteen years. Mariah Carson.”
“Where did you-“
“Don’t speak until you’re spoken to, Admiral.” Nelson’s tone has shifted from a summers day to a cold knife in ice, then back again just as quickly. If he didn’t know better, he’d almost swear Nelson’s spiral had begun to move. “You both had a son together. Adorable green-eyed boy named James. Least, that’s what you told all the neighbors.” He sighed, tsking aloud before continuing, his head against the back wall, “Nobody believes you of course. A brunette couple having a bright-eyed redhead like him? Why on earth would people think he’s yours?”
“Admiral, please. ” His hand was cold, colder then one would have expected, as he gripped his chin to keep eye contact. “I’m answering your question as asked. Don’t interrupt.”
When did he take his cuffs off?
Nelson stared a beat, then smiled again, eyelids dropping to a more relaxed position, “Well, luck happens to be in your favor. Both of you tried so, so long for something, anything. And you finally did it-the night before you left on this tour. Three months now with a little girl.”
He moved back suddenly, out of that cold hand’s grasp, his eyes wide, “A...a girl?”
Nelson nodded, “Brown hair and blue eyes. She’ll look just like her mother.”
Despite that nagging tension, he let out a soft laugh, trying to will his hands to stop shaking, “Thats...that’s a miracle-“
“It is, isn’t it?” Nelson locks eyes with him again, holds them in place as he gives a wide smile, showing teeth. “Shame about the accident.”
A car slammed, crushing metal and glass, rubber screeching across the asphalt. The admiral staggers with a gasp, his pupils pinpricks as they stare deeply into the red pools of Nelson’s face. His heart was still hammering in his chest. The scream of tearing leather seats and the tinkle of glass still pulsed in his ears. “H-how did-“
“James goes first. That’s for the best, isn’t it?”
A sudden scream halted by a strained, gurgling groan. All is still for one, two, five seconds, before the piercing scream threatens to shatter his eardrums. A hand goes to his head, trying to block out the noise.
“I think it was...a drunk driver? Or maybe someone falling asleep at the wheel...T-bones the Cadillac right as it’s coming through an intersection.”
“M-Mariah said…I it wasn’t safe for him…” A sobbing wail had begun to ring in his ears, a sound he was starting to recognize as coming from inside his own skull.
Nelson hissed through his teeth, a look akin to sympathy on his face, “And you didn’t listen to her? Shame...such a shame…I think the worst part is when she tries to get help.”
The whoosh of cars passing by, close enough to graze his ear. Wails become desperate screams. OH GOD SOMEONE, PLEASE, MY BABY HE’S-FOR THE LOVE OF GOD-
“The second car is the real surprise.”
A dull THUD, a scream suddenly cut off, a ringing sound like a pair of eardrums bursting as a weakening heartbeat thrums its last. It’s too much. Tears are streaming from the grown man’s eyes as nauseous drool collects in his throat.
“Don’t look so depressed.” Nelson’s shoulders slump, his smile one of kindness-like a parent telling a child their dog ran off to a farm one day. “The last words on her lips were your name. Henry . That’s a nice name, isn’t it? Nice enough to give your daughter.”
“Yes, that one! I wish hers had been so quick.” Nelson had that same smile as he stood upright, “At least she wouldn’t have known any better. Still, to be stuck like that for so long...freezing to death in a morgue…” He laughed, “Trust me, it’s not a kind fate-“
The cool muzzle of the gun felt worse then the slam against the wall, cutting a small circle in the center of his forehead. The admiral’s eyes bulged, wet and red as he snarled directly into Nelson’s face. The laugh out of him was shaky at best as he pressed the gun deeper, “You...you nearly had me!! You’re lying! Dammit you’re lying about everything!”
“You’re a wackjob that snuck on board in Hawaii!! Some...some Russian plant playing mind games on us!” He laughed again, louder now, “Well! It’s not gonna work on me!! Whatever you did to get those fucking sounds, I’ll make them come out of you twice as hard. I’ll make you suffer . You hear me?!? You’re going to die, Tethers!!”
He opened his mouth to argue, to point out the muzzle pressed tightly to the man’s forehead, but it had suddenly appeared in his mouth, his jaw clenched and tightening around cold gunmetal, tasting the powder in the back of his throat. “Ohhh...with this! Sorry, thought you had maybe a combat knife on hand, a flare. Some sort of backup.”
Nelson leaned in, his finger just brushing the trigger, pulling the safety back, “Now, let me emphasize something very important to you. I could very well be lying. I also could be honest about every single fact I’ve told you today. But here’s what I do know. You are going to have no idea until you surface and get a radio signal out. It may be a few days until you hear anything back of course, the nature of the sea and all that. But the sooner you get it out, the sooner you’ll know. Right, Henry?”
The admiral had had a lot of tricks played on him today. But he would swear up and down a thousand times that the black of this man’s suit had stained a deep, crimson red in the dark of the holding cell. “Now you can go on and punish me all you want...or you could see if I’m telling the truth.” The gun slides from his jaw, leaving it hanging as Nelson holds it limply in one hand, giving a casual shrug, “It's your choice, Henry.”
The shaking has gone from his hands to the remainder of his body. The ghostly wails and screams seem to rise and fall within his head, the icy chill of a morgue cooler creeping at his back, sending pins and needles up his shoulder blades. His eyes stay on Nelson, the taste of metal and copper on his tongue. And Nelson stares back.
The moment his eyes turn to the door is when Nelson laughs, “I knew you’d make the right choice.”
He wanted nothing more then to inflict whatever pain could be worse then what his family experienced. But he could only hope they hadn’t as he bolts down the hallway as fast as his legs could take him.
He only looks back once. Right as he’s about to round the corner, he looks behind him.
There he is. Standing outside his holding cell, picking that piece of gum off the floor to unwrap and pop in his mouth. He seems to pause while chewing, as if he had just noticed the admiral was standing there. The smile on his face then had been a new one, but it was one that made him double down on his efforts to run, to escape to the main deck for an emergency breaching. The one that sent his heart racing and made him feel like a frightened, cornered animal.
The man had looked satisfied.
It was the last time he would ever see Agent Nelson Tethers-how the man was now. He would do some research on his own time before realizing how much he hated that face. At one point he had been with the FBI. At another with a secret agency that reportedly dealt solely in psychic powers. A puzzle agent in both. Dead for nearly two years now.
That was a comforting thought. The crew had witnessed a specter. A ghost, a paranoid delusion brought on by oxygen deprivation or the fear of confinement creeping in among the crew men. Some of his men would go on about the strange man who asked so many questions and disappeared as quickly as he’d arrived. Nobody had experienced what he had. He prayed none of them had.
They’d searched high and low for even a trace of him. Not even his confiscated glasses or recorder had been left. He’d even taken their own recorder, making the idea that he’d been some hallucination all the sweeter. Whatever the reason, Henry Wilkins made that excursion his very last for the Navy and retired the moment he got home.
It had taken two weeks to get an answer back, but apart from a near miss on the intersection, his wife and son were fine. And she gave birth to a beautiful brown-haired girl with eyes as blue as the open seas. So maybe it had just been a nightmare-a dream brought on by the dark seas spouted off by a polite man obsessed with gum and Minnesota.
It was the one comfort he could give when Henrietta had nightmares about a man with eyes like a cartoon.
Chapter 2: Your Imaginary Friend
Missing: Guybrush Threepwood
Last known location: Somewhere in Washington
Spotted wearing: Blue and red jacket similar to that worn of costumed pirates. Can also be seen with a hook on right hand.
If spotted: Approach with extreme caution. Subject is considered [REDACTED]
Momma used to say I was really special. She’d tickle me to sleep and just before I’d shut my eyes, she’d lean in and call me her ‘special little guy.’ Then she’d kiss me goodnight and walk out the door. And I’d usually see her in the morning, making breakfast, singing as she cooked.
I miss that. I miss it a lot.
I don’t wake up to breakfast getting cooked by my momma anymore. Just a lot of sad, special kids like me getting shuffled to a cafeteria if we’re good enough that day. The bad ones gotta eat in their rooms which is real bad cause it means they can’t watch TV with their mush. Things would be bad enough here without a TV around. And I already told them I want to go home before you ask. My stepdad said I deserved to be in here, as a punishment for what I did to momma. But I didn’t do anything!
But no matter how much I said it, all the adults looked at me like I should just shut up. All accept for one.
The kids here called him a lot of stuff. Some folks called him Swirls, other folks called him a ghost. This one girl down in wing B in the padded room calls her Teddy. But that’s what she calls everybody.
Not me. I call him Captain Wiggles. Cause he’s dressed like a captain! He’s got a hook and buttons made of gold and a big blue coat that wraps around and shifts in a wind that ain’t around. It’s hard to look at Captain Wiggles sometimes, cause he’s always moving or shifting somehow, his arms like those wiggly guys outside of the car stores. But he’s always smiling way more then any other adult in this place.
If we made sure our doors didn’t get shut all the way, Captain Wiggles would float down the halls and whistle, and we’d all follow him to the living room to play and watch those weird shows they got on for adults at night. And he’d make sure we didn’t get caught! But he was better known for his one-on-one visits.
Captain Wiggles only came a month ago, but every kid knew about him almost personally. He was like Santa Clause ‘cept he could actually give you what you wanted. A kid down in wing D got a bike! And another got a unicorn with the prettiest, shiniest hair in the whole wide world. Kids said he’d come into their rooms at night and ask them some questions, just a couple, and make ‘Em whatever they asked for, no matter how weird it sounded.
It felt like the only kid he hadn’t visited had been me. Maybe the other kids had been making it all up, that talking to you face to face stuff. But they really had gotten toys from him, so…maybe I wasn’t special like I thought.
I was tossing and turning the night he finally came. Shifting through the window bars like a snake or a scarf in the wind to come over and sit right by my bed. He was always so tall, so high up you couldn’t see his face right besides the smile. Up close like this, you could see how weird the rest of it looked. How his eyes curled and spiraled, how his mouth didn’t move when he talked in that weird voice he got. “ Evenin’, Billy! ”
I sat up in bed, holding the sheets up to hide the smile on my face, “What took you so long, Captain?”
He seemed to scratch his head with that curly hook, bits of his hair flying off like bubbles and coming back around to end up in his ponytail, laughing when he looked back at me, “ Sorry! There’s a lot of kids here! ” He looked right in my eyes with a big smile on his face, “ You know how this works? ”
I sat up even higher in bed, throwing the blanket aside so I could nod my head real hard, “Course I do!! I just gotta answer some stuff, right?”
His smile widened up to curl back behind his ears, “ Excellent! Let’s see...what to ask you first… ” He tapped his swirly hook to his chin, snapping it like a pair of fingers as he looked into my eyes, “ What’s your name? ”
I grinned-he had to start off with an easy one, Huh? “B-Billy! Billy Matthews, sir!”
He laughed when I answered, his head tilting like an owl, “ You have two first names?? ”
“Matthews is my last name!” I patted my hand on the bed, “Cmon, don’t get distracted! Gimmie something harder!”
“ Something harder? Hmmm… ” His hum trailed off, the sound wrapping round and round my head, vanishing when he made a popping sound and smiled at me, “ Okay! Who put you here? ”
Huh. That was another easy one. I shrugged and gave a laugh, rolling my eyes at the thought of him, “My stepdad did! I said a hard question-that ain’t hard.”
Captain’s smile hadn’t changed. “ Why?”
I blinked a couple of times, and laughed again cause my mouth didn’t know what other sounds to make. “Why? Cause...cause I was annoying him?”
“ Why? ”
“...cause he said he couldn’t handle me without my mom.”
He was looking at me. His face hadn’t moved an inch. It was hitting me now how weird that was for this guy. “Um...c-cause my mom went away, is the thing. He told me I did it.” I blink a few times, my brows creasing as I talked, “He told me momma always hated me. But...that don’t make any sense.”
His smile had creeped around again, curling up the sides of his head like ivy. “ Why doesn’t it make sense? ”
“Cause she never acted like she did. She used to say I was special just like she was. That I was gonna do something great.” My eyes darted from Captain Wiggles to the bed, “I...No, she didn’t leave. Adults told me she left but I know she didn’t.”
“ Why do you say that? ”
I swallowed. Stepdad had told me it was all my fault, that I made momma run away. But she hadn’t. She didn’t. “Cause I saw her.”
Captain didn’t say anything. He looked like he wanted me to keep going. I didn’t know how at first. When I’d tried with the adults before, they’d given me all sorts of pills till I couldn’t tell what was going on, till I stopped talking about it. But Captain wasn’t other adults. He’d listen to me. “I...I got scared that night. I didn’t know why but I was real scared. I went to go see momma.”
My hands grabbed a bunch of sheets off my bed. They were shaking real hard. “When I got in there...it was all red.” I swallowed again, “Red on the walls, on the ceiling, on those pretty curtains she made. All of it was red.” I found myself looking up at Captain, “My stepdad was the reddest of all.”
I couldn’t keep my eyes on him long. They went down to the bed, “I...I dunno.”
“ You do know .” He grinned at me and his eyes got real wide, “ You can answer this one, can’t you? It’s an easy question. ”
The shaking had gone up my hands into my shoulders. I felt sick. “I-I...I wanna stop.”
“ But you know this one, Billy. ” His eyes twinkled at me. “ Why did he kill her? ”
My hands ended up in my hair, “I don’t know!”
“ YES YOU DO! ” His claw didn’t look very sharp, but it somehow went right through my mattress, his smile wrapping over and over around his head, “ SAY IT! ”
“CAUSE WE’RE PSYCHIC!”
I never heard myself get so loud. I covered up my mouth before anything else could come out, but by the time I did I was shaking so hard I could barely keep them on. It hurt a lot to yell it, but once it was out… “I...she said we were both special. Gifted.”
I’d started crying, the salt getting in my mouth as I talked. “Used to be when she made breakfast, she’d flip her eggs without touching the pan once. I thought it was cool. The first time she did it around my stepdad…”
My eyes widened. “He looked like he saw a monster.”
I felt the hiccups in my chest first, bringing up my sleeve to rub the hot tears on, breathing in before I got choked off by another, “B-but she wasn’t a monster! She was my momma! A-and he took her and put me in here, so I wouldn’t tell anybody! I-I’m not a monster! I swear I’m not-not a-“
Before I could get out anything else, I felt him wrap his arms around me. Once, twice, three times, four times. He smelled nice. He smelled like that time momma took me to the beach. It made me miss her even more. “ There we go, Billy. It feels good to say it, doesn’t it? ”
My chest hurt, my head hurt. I couldn’t stop blubbering like a dumb baby into that nice blue coat of his. But he was right. I nodded, leaning my head deeper into him.
“ I’m glad you answered my questions, Billy. ” He’d leaned his head down right by my ear as he hugged me tight. “ Now you can tell me what you want. ”
“...it can be anything?”
Captain nodded, “ Anything in the world. ”
I’d thought about it before, in the beginning. Back when I was so mad, I didn’t know what to do. When I’d tried telling folks and they’d walked right past me like I didn’t matter. When I watched a kid bend a spoon and get taken off somewhere and come back like there was nothing going on upstairs. Thought about how my stepdad didn’t visit but kept on paying for my room every week. Thought about the way he’d looked at me that night.
The more I thought, the more red I saw. The more my sheets tore and knotted themselves up. The more I wanted to scream. “...Can you hurt someone for me?”
“... Anyone you want, Billy. ”
My stepdad was right about one thing. I deserved to be here. After all, if I hadn’t, how would I have ever met Captain Wiggles otherwise? Maybe that was momma looking out for me wherever she was.
She told me I was special.
For the first time that night, I got to see how special I could be.
Chapter 3: Gamble
"-and now for our top story-the body of a Mrs. Renee Estevez has been discovered early this morning in her estate at central Metepec. The body was discovered by a local dog walker after investigating signs of a forced entry at her front door. Police suspect this is an escalation of a recent string of robberies around the nearby area and are searching the city for possible suspects. Mrs. Estevez was 83."
“If you wanted to gamble with a couple of cheap thrills, go to Vegas. There’s a show or two to watch and some buffets to pig out on. If you wanted a real good time, you went to Calavera’s.
Folks said Calavera’s was a myth. A place on the move that appeared between the shimmering sands of the sunset or the dankest alleys in the middle of the city. A modern day El Dorado, where the alcohol flowed like water, the air choked a man with smoke and the women-ohh the WOMEN! Babes babes babes as far as the eye could see!”
The business card slid over the table like a snake, the hand attached to a lanky fellow with a missing ear giving a grin at his cohorts, “And I got us a ticket right inside here. Think we could stand for some celebrating, eh?”
His two compatriots look down at the card a long moment, before one with a sour disposition and a scar through his lip sneers, “Sounds like fucking bullshit.”
The man’s face fell, smacking a hand on the table, “It’s legit!! I knew a guy who’s cousin went and came out a millionaire!!”
The scarred man grabbed a leftover cigar off the table ashtray to bring to his lips, drawing a few puffs as he re-lit it. “Where’s the guy now?”
“His funeral was last week.” Their third compatriot spoke, a meeker man with a cut across his soft cheek. “Manuel went there. I saw them bury him.”
“T-that wasn’t the same guy!” Manuel laughed, drumming a finger on the card, “Look, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity here!!”
“You said that about the last heist.” The man bites down on his cigar as he says this, grimacing, “Now we gotta lie low till the cops get off our tails.”
Manuel crossed his arms, “You’re the one who escalated it, Diego.”
Diego grunted, chewing the end of his cigar before spitting it out to squash in the ashtray, “Back me up, Carlos. It sounds stupid, right?”
Carlos looked put on the spot, his eyes darting between the two like a nervous puppy, settling on Manuel, “He... was buried in a really nice coffin. Top notch ceremony. Lot of money needed for those.”
Manuel grinned, jabbing the card again before sitting back with a happy snicker, face only souring when Carlos spoke again, “But I really don’t wanna die.”
“Wipe that smirk off your face!!” Manuel snipped when Diego gave a silent laugh. “We’re not gonna die! I got a foolproof plan to make it out rich.”
“Again, like your last plan?”
“Yes-NO!” Manuel pouted, then grinned again, “Okay-even if we don’t win, chances are this place is gonna be full of money, right?”
Diego huffed, “Makes sense. A casino with no money is like a horse with no legs.”
“Right! So, I say we bring the guns.”
Carlos glanced up, “They don’t have security?”
“Don’t Trust em!” Manuel grinned wider, “Not even a bouncer. It’s on the down low.”
“Sounds like bullshit-“
“Shh! Lemme finish.” Manuel flicked the card over, “So if we don’t win at the tables, all we gotta do is pull out the guns and we’ll walk away with three times what we came in with. It all works!”
“Come on! No security at all?” Diego sits up, “You can’t expect us to buy that!”
“I’m just telling you what I know!” Manuel sat back down, “Which is we’d be idiots not to check this place out.”
The two glared at each other. In a stalemate like this, it’d take one more person to make or break what they’d do. Carlos answered that call, “Let’s do it.”
Manuel brightened immediately, grabbing Carlos in a big bear hug, “Look at you, taking a big risk mijo! I knew you’d pick right!”
Diego rolled his eyes, crossing his arms as he sat back with a huff, “I still think it’s a bad idea.”
“Ohhh but look at that smile!!” Manuel was grinning like a fiend, spotting the tiny smirk on Diego’s face, “You wanted in from the start!”
“Shut up Manuel.” Diego was trying his best to hide his expression under a fedora, Carlos picking the card off the table. It was astonishingly simple-a cream colored card with each of the corners blacked out, two words printed on the front: Manny Calavera.
“So where is this place?”
Calavera’s had picked a hell of a spot this time around. One of the older buildings in Mexico City had overnight turned into a marvel of lights, liquor and girls. A pair of them waved from the balcony window, beckoning whoever passed to step inside. There was one small hitch.
“Manuel you said there wasn’t any security.”
“There wasn’t supposed to be!”
“I don’t think that guy is official.”
The man they spoke in hushed whispers about leans by the doorway, his arms folded against his chest. He’s dressed entirely in black leather, his head obscured by a black motorcycle helmet. It was hard to tell from this angle if he was staring their way or not. It wasn’t til they shoved Carlos over that they got their answer. The taller man looked them over a beat, then looked right back towards the main drag.
Soon as the coast was clear, the three men and their leather bags stepped inside. For all the bells and whistles outside, the inside was a simple and classy affair. A few slot machines by the front but the majority was table games. Poker, black jack, roulette, dice. As they eyed their options, Diego tried to hone his sights in on one spot in particular.
“Something catch your eye?” Manuel asked.
“We need to find the boss here.” Diego hummed, “Rest of these games are rigged. We find him, we can sweep him.”
“The boss, huh?” A puff of smoke had blown by them, the smell indicating a cigarette among all the cigar smoke. The shorter man suddenly standing by them was dressed to the nines in a white three piece, putting the cigarette to his lips and sticking his hands in his pockets, “Yeah, I got a minute. Are you kids enjoying the place?”
Carlos stepped up first with a cautious smile, “It’s a pretty nice place, yeah-“
“Quit sucking up, Carlos.” With Carlos shut up, Diego looks down on the man, raising a brow, “You Calavera?”
“Far as I know.” He smiled, pearly white teeth glinting under the flashing lights of the slot games. “So what can I help with?”
“I know what kind of game you’re running.” Diego nodded upstairs, “No dealers. Three of us on you, winner take all.” He gave a crooked smile, “You can even pick the game.”
Manuel leaned on Diego, hissing through his teeth, “Pump the brakes, dude-“
“Hah!” Manny gave a laugh, pulling out the cigarette to roll between his fingers, “Awfully bold. Feeling lucky, Diego?”
His crooked smile widened, giving a shrug while adjusting the leather bag on his shoulder, slipping it off to hand to Carlos, “Guess you could say that. Not scared, are you?”
Manny gave a softer laugh, “Oh, far from it, amigo. How about you kids follow me, eh?” He stepped around the trio easily to head up the curving staircase that led to his upstairs office, the two behind Diego sharing a quick glance before following their leader onwards.
“Feh! Calling us kids.” Diego spat, a sour look coming to his face again, “The hell does that pendejo think he is??”
“Diego-“ Manuel had gripped his arm, his eyes a little wide as he spoke in a hushed whisper, “When did you tell him your name?”
Diego looked like he started to talk, stopped himself, a look of genuine mystification on his face. His brows knit upwards, then right back down as he laughed, “Lucky guess! How many names are out there for Spanish guys, eh?”
“A lot. A lot of names.” Manuel’s jaw was tight, the line of it standing out as he lowered his voice even further, “I got shivers going up my spine man. I don’t like this guy.”
“ Hey. You’re the one who wanted to come here, idiota.” Diego growled, nodding towards Carlos looking around the casino as they walked up, “Cmon, Carlos isn’t being a pussy. Suck it up.” He stared Manuel down till he was sure the man was good and quiet before giving a smirk, “Besides-“ he wraps an arm around his shoulders, “You got that nice backup plan of ours, right?”
“...y-yeah.” Manuel breathed in and let it out slow, nodding as his hands gripped the bag tightly, “Yeah, I got it.”
“There’s a good man.” Diego patted his chest with that grin on his face before turning to head up the stairs, “Just follow my lead.”
Manuel glanced at the bag again, back down the steps, and over at Carlos. If the man sees him, it’s hard to say, since he heads through the open office door quickly after Diego. With no other choice, Manuel follows.
The office itself is like pitch. Closed blinds behind a dark curtain, blocking a perfectly wonderful view of Mexico City behind the desk. And speaking of, he must have been expecting this game tonight. The desk is pushed flat against the wall and in exchange, a table with four chairs has been set up in the center of the room. In the middle of it sits an ashtray and a single, perfectly stacked deck of cards.
“Have a seat, gentlemen.” Manny offers, sitting in the back, “Any drinks? Cigars?”
“Just pick the game.” Diego says gruffly as he takes a seat in the center, Carlos going for the right side and Manuel the left. “We don’t got all night.”
Manny just smiled like he told a funny joke, “Clearly.”
Manuel leaned forward, “Er...so what’re we playing, Mr. Calavera?”
Diego had snapped his head to Manuel, mouthing ‘Mister??’ when Manny gives his answer, “Old Maid.”
The silence that suddenly fell over the space could be cut with a knife.
Manny glanced around the trio, a look of almost… pity coming to his face, “Don’t tell me nobody taught you Old Maid.”
“This is a casino-“ Diego sat up, glaring daggers right through that big forehead of Manny’s, “-why the fuck would we play Old Maid?”
Manny blinked, slightly tilting his head, “You said I could pick the game, mijo.”
“J-just play the game, Diego.” Manuel gave an uneasy smile, “What’s it matter what game it is-long as we win, right?”
Manny seemed to smile when he said that, but none of them noticed. Diego glanced between the casino owner and his cohort before sitting back down. “...Old Maid’s fine.”
Manny switches to a much warmer smile, “Perfect. Carlos can cut the deck then.” He nodded to his right, “If you would of course.”
For a second Carlos seemed to visibly tense up, giving a quick nod and fumbling for the deck, starting to deal out cards to the rest of the group. Bets were quietly set on the table, and the game quickly got underway.
Old Maid is simple. Take out the three queens and make matches until one player was left with the remaining queen. It was a game any child could understand. Not something you played at a casino. But having such an easy game meant you had to do something else to fill in the time.
“So are you boys from around here?” Manny started.
Carlos looked up, looking like he might say something before Diego shut him down with a look, turning back to Manny, “Doesn’t matter to you, does it?”
“I suppose not.” He gave a shrug, “Doesn’t hurt to ask, right?” Diego narrowed his eyes, focusing them back on his cards. So Manny kept going, “Just hope you’re not from Metepec.”
Carlos focuses hard on his cards. Manuel tenses all over, nearly dropping his hand. Diego glances up, his eyes thin slits when they focus on Manny.
“W-why Metepec?” Manuel finally asked when the silence became too much.
“Oh, it’s just terrible.” Manny began, a look of grief on his face, “Series of robberies all over the place. Thousands of pesos gone missing overnight. And that’s not even the worst of it.”
Manny set a pair on the table and picked up two from the deck, “I read in the paper that a lovely old woman got killed from one of the robberies. Mrs. Estavez I think it was.” He licked his thumb to switch a card around, “They said she was unrecognizable. Just packed with bullet holes. It was a brutal mess.”
“She only got shot once!” Manuel spoke. He stiffened, curling in on himself as Diego ground his heel into his toes.
Manny paused, staring at the three like he hadn’t even realized his mistake, before giving a laugh and a smile, “That’s right! I don’t know how I got that wrong.”
Diego’s lip curled, “I don’t know how you got it right either. Cops wouldn’t put that shit in the papers.”
“Tabloids would.” Manny gave another shrug, “And the news loves to make things bigger then it seems. If I remember right, one anchor was even saying it was a three person job the other night.”
Carlos’ fingers shook as he pulled out another pair and set it on the table. Manuel was still hissing at the pain in his foot, stifling a yelp when Diego stood up, “The fuck are you trying to say, cabron?”
Manny held up his hands, “Nothing, nothing! Just making some conversation here! We’re all friends, right? Amigos?”
“Yeah!” Manuel quickly cut in, standing to shake Diego’s heel off, “J-just friends here, I get it!” He nudges Diego, “C’mon, let’s get back to the game, yeah?”
Diego yanked his arm back, “Shut up, Manuel!” He looks back at Manny, “This pendejo has been fucking with us since we got here!”
Manuel stiffened a moment, grimacing, hands going up to run through his hair before he threw them upwards in frustration, “I told you that earlier!! We could’ve left right there!”
“ You wanted us to come here, tú hijo de puta!! Don’t put this shit back on me!”
“I’m going to if you’re gonna act like it’s all my fault when it’s convenient!”
“Hah! That’s rich coming from you! This whole fucking mess is your fault!”
“ MY fault?!”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen.” Manny waved his hand over the center table, “The game?”
“FUCK your Old Maid, man!” Diego snapped, turning right back to Manuel, “If you hadn’t shot that hag we’d be out of here by now.”
Manuel’s mouth seemed to go dry, a nervous smile and laugh coming out on shaky legs, “W-what’re you talking about?”
“She shot herself? Really?” Diego laughed, slamming a hand on the table, “You must think I’m stupid. Carlos and I both know it was you.”
Manuel’s eyes widened an inch, searching the table for something he could lock eyes on, “D-Diego, we didn’t shoot-I-you’re just tired, amigo. This game is stressing you out, right-”
“Shut up.” Diego laughed again, pulling the bag closer with his foot, pointing towards Manny, “This guy already knows what you did. Don’t act like you can keep hiding it and pretending it’s still just about the money.”
Manuel’s mouth twitched, eyes going down and back again, stuck on Diego as he went on, “Robbery and gang fights are one thing, but...you know...if it’s just about the money-” Diego leaned down, “Maybe I should help myself out too, eh? Probably a reward out there for the head of the fucker who shot a sweet old lady, yeah?”
Manny set his hand on the table with a sigh, watching the two men stare each other down, beads of sweat dripping down Manuel’s forehead. Diego’s smile widened, staring Manuel right in the eyes, “Of course...maybe I could just get the whole take and we can forget the whole night happened. What do you think?”
Manny dug in his jacket for a cigarette, giving a glance to Carlos-still holding his hand, now tight against his chest like a makeshift shield-clicking his tongue against his teeth, “Might want to move back an inch amigo.”
Carlos barely had time to give a questioning look before the table flew directly upwards to smack Diego hard in the face, pulling his hand back to lean as far as he could on the wall. It only felt like seconds, but in that brief moment one could hear the noise of rustling leather, metal clicks, and a clear struggle coming from the two men. Grunts, curses, a sudden gasp of alarm, and one, big-
The table fell, legs up in the air, and something else fell with it.
Manuel was still standing, the automatic steaming in his hand, his eyes wide and trembling in their sockets.
Diego hadn’t been so lucky.
Carlos stood up with a scream, “Fuck!!!”
Manny whistled, “One through the heart. That’s gonna be hell to clean up.” He looked to Manuel, “I’d think one to the head would’ve been faster.”
Manuel stood there, the blood of his friend beginning to run across the floor, lapping at his shoes. His toes still stung from earlier. His hands lowered, the look of shock slowly transforming into a more desperate one, a smile coming to his face as he looked to the two remaining, “You...you saw him, right?”
Carlos’ eyes darted from Manuel to Diego’s body, “I...w-we have to call somebody! Maybe we can-”
“ DON’T. Touch him!” Manuel had his automatic trained on Carlos now, breathing in shakily and letting it out in a rattle. “You saw him. He...he was gonna kill me! I had to do it!”
Carlos brought his hands up, “Manuel, drop the gun.”
Manuel laughed, high and strained, “I will if you say it! Say you saw him! He had a gun too!”
Diego’s hand was empty.
Carlos swallowed, “O-okay, he...he had a gun. He was going to shoot you.”
Manuel blinked, straightening up with a wider grin, “Y-yeah...yeah that’s right! So I had to shoot him! You see what I’m getting at! Exactly!”
Carlos nodded, his eyes wide as he forced a smile, “I do! He deserved it, even! So you can...put down the gun now.”
Manuel gave another laugh, the gun still in his hand, the other going to rest over his mouth, “He...he deserved it...Yeah. Yeah! Yeah you fucker!” He kicked Diego’s body, sending blood spurting against the door, “You fucking deserved it for all the shit you gave me! You piece of shit!” He kicked again.
Manuel’s ragged gasps were the only sound in the room, a spurt of blood from an errant artery having dashed a nice streak across his face, the manic, shaky smile wavering as he looked to the two left in the room, “...You’re both so quiet.”
Manny stared at him, taking a moment to breathe in smoke and let it out through his teeth, folding his arms to lean on the table, “What’s there to say?”
“You never said I was right.” Manuel clenched his hand around the gun, “In fact you’ve been real calm this whole time. Did you know I killed someone from the beginning?” Manuel started to lift the automatic, “Were you gonna try to kill me too?”
Manny looked at the gun for a beat, finished off his cigarette, and flicked it towards the long-spilled ashtray on the floor, “No. Just a lot of lucky guesses.” He stuck his hands in his pockets, “If you were really that smart, you would’ve shot Carlos first.”
The air sucked out of the room. Manuel’s eyes bulged, slowly looking at Carlos, who’d ended up white as a sheet. His hand was set on Diego’s former chair, while he leaned over to the leather bag on his right side, hand inside it. “...what the fuck is he talking about, Carlos?”
“Manuel, he’s lying-”
Manny tilted his head, “You didn’t see the wire he’s got on?” He gave an amused huff, leaning back in his chair, “You three really are a bunch of kids, huh?”
Manuel managed to lock eyes with Carlos, boring holes right through the other side. He held up the automatic. “It was self defense.”
“ Manuel- ”
“It was self defense .”
“Please, listen to me-”
“Say it. Say it was self defense right now- ”
“ MANUEL, STOP- ”
Manny got up, moving over to his desk to check one of his drawers.
“...” Manny came back up with a two cigars, trimming the ends of both and lighting them, offering one in his free hand. “Here. You could use it.”
Carlos was still standing upright, pistol held tightly in both hands. His hands started to shake, face contorting until the first choked sob bubbled up.
Manny let out a brief sigh, taking a few puffs off his own cigar, resting the other on the ashtray at his desk. Cards had scattered, floating on the lakebed of blood taking up the office floor. Carlos had begun to shake so badly he had to drop the gun, tears streaming from his eyes to drip down to the floor. “...Why did you tell him?”
Manny considered his answer, “Think a better question is... why didn’t you?” He looked down at the mess on his floor, “They were your friends, weren’t they?”
“...And he’s gone quiet again.” He let out another puff of smoke, moving to the side as Carlos stepped over, shakily taking the other cigar to puff on it, hacking after a second or two. “No no, Mijo you have to do it slowly. Hold it…” The next puff was a smooth exhale, a plume of smoke that curled when it hit the ceiling. Manny smiled at that, “There you go…”
“You know, feels fitting you’d end up with the Old Maid.” Manny couldn’t help but laugh when Carlos looked up, startled at that, “Yes, yes, your poker face was excellent. But you can’t fool an old hand. Probably wanted to lose the first round at the start so you could report back, eh?”
The look down at the floor told the casino owner all he needed. Carlos brought the cigar to his lips for another puff, Manny taking his draw at the same time and snuffing out the cigar in the ashtray, “Well, you tried your best. That’s all somebody can do in life, right?” He offered a hand to the young man, a smile on his face. “Least you put up a good fight while it lasted.”
Carlos looked to his hand and back up to Manny’s face. The carpet squished when he adjusted his feet. In the glowing light of the cigar, Carlos for a split second could have sworn that Manny’s hand looked almost skeletal as he took it.
“And here is your payment, señoras.” Manny handed two billfolds to the girls, giving them a wink as he leaned back with his cigarette, “There should be some extra there for the little ones at home. Maybe you can buy them something nice.”
“Just call if you need us, Mr. Calavera.” One of them giggled, waving a hand as they headed down the street. Manny waved as long as he had to, letting his face relax once the two had gone down a hill. No matter what town they went to, the girls usually acted the same once they got paid.
“So...we’re done here, I take it?”
Manny let out a plume of smoke, the smoke rising around his head, vanishing into the night sky and leaving a skeletal figure in their wake, Manny dropping the smile completely to give his poor jawbone a break, “Yeah, we’re finished here.”
“You took your time with the last three.” Eddie spoke up, moving off the building to look over the casino as the last few lights clicked off on it, “Special case?”
“Just some kids in over their head.” Manny focused on the top floor where his office laid, his expression an unreadable one with the skin gone. “Maybe in another life, things will go better for them.” Eddie’s silence lingered, Manny looking over after a moment, “...Who did you pick to go?”
“There was an older guy.” Eddie seemed to breathe in, holding it till he spoke with the exhale, “Said his grandson had his birthday tomorrow.”
Manny nodded, “Did he win big?”
“Well the guy left with a duffle bag he didn’t come with.”
Manny shook his head, putting the cigarette to his teeth again, “You’re still too soft for this.”
The streets were quiet for a moment. Some of the lights of the later opened cafes began to flick off one by one. Snuffed out to get replaced by darkness. “...We’re done here for the night. Why don’t you find something to do? Mexico City’s a pretty big place.” Manny looked over, “And you still need to do your job.”
Eddie stayed silent. The sigh from Manny was a genuine one, the worry knitting his brows staying put as he quickly patted the man’s upper arm, not lingering too long. “At least get this place cleaned up before you go. I’ll be at the motel.”
Calavera’s was a place you could go to forget a lot of things. Debt, a lover lost, the day before last-and maybe the day after if you were lucky or drunk enough. Those who walked away rich only had good things to say about the joint. Course, nobody could ever prove if these stories were legitimate or just the fabrications of somebody who struck it big.
After all, no records usually survived the fire.
Chapter 4: The Fountain
"Diana the Huntress Fountain was built in 1942 as a part of a four decade project to provide art and murals to Mexico. Believed to be based on the goddess Artemis and her Roman counterpart Diana, instead of hunting animals, Diana uses her bow to shoot towards the North sky stars. The fountain has been continuously updated and maintained to this day."
You could tell a lot about a man by what he drank.
Being a bartender had its perks. You didn’t just have to be good at mixing drinks-it was a social job, as important as any therapist or doctor but often twice as accessible. Pay a few bucks for a beer and you could spill your life story to a kind face cleaning a glass on the other side, aware that the both of you would end the night knowing the other person’s name. Course, that wasn’t to say it didn’t affect the bartender’s life to a degree.
Suddenly all you had to do was take a look at whatever someone chose at an open bar and get a glimpse at their troubles. Young men with highballs trying to look cool to their peers. Women with their hands grasped tight around martini stems, eyes shifting for any suspicious people trying to get near it. Mug after mug of the cheapest beer she had on tap, watered down and dished up to sad men at the ends of the bar-the type she’d have to scrape off her stools with a broom when the morning came.
Ramona felt this man was on the latter half, despite the fact that he’d only nursed one beer for the hours since he’d arrived. That’s what got her so curious.
In all her years of bar ownership, Ramona had never seen a man look quite as sad as this one. Dressed in all black, he would have blended into the corner like a shadow if he hadn’t taken off his helmet. He had a rugged outline-a square shaped jaw set hard on his face framing a pair of exhausted eyes that either looked like he was about to cry or he’d finished crying a long while ago. Between slow sips, he’d taken to cupping the top of his mug, tilting it slowly in a circle, his gaze off somewhere else.
“Guessing your friend isn’t coming?”
He looked up when she spoke, his eyes just a little wider, as if he’d been startled, “Huh?”
Ramona nodded to the barstool by him, “Your friend? Kept saying you were saving it for someone.”
“Oh…” The man sighed, leaning back on the counter, “Yeah, sorry… can’t have anybody sitting by me.” He looked like he’d realized something, hissing through his teeth, “Shit...you had that rush earlier, right? I could’ve-”
“Hun, you got here way before that rush.” She smiled, picking up a few glasses as she walked a little closer to start cleaning, “A guy has to keep his seat warm, right?”
He gave a half smile, looking back at his mug, tilting it again and stared at wherever the beer ended up sloshing to.
Ramona set some mugs in the sink, looking over the man for a few minutes as she grabbed a glass to polish, “You’re not from around here, are you?”
He didn’t seem to hear her at first, but nodded after righting the glass, “Yeah, guess I’m in town for uh...business.” His hand gripped the handle of his mug, taking a swig from it, his face screwing up after.
Ramona laughed, “Hey, you wanted the cheap stuff.”
He looked up quickly, “No! No, it’s uh, it’s fine. Just kinda cold is all.”
He’d been nursing that mug for hours now. The condensation had long dried out.
Ramona wasn’t about to question it though, blowing on the glass to buff out a water stain on the side, “Well, Mexico City’s a good place to do business. Mostly for all the non-work stuff.”
“I’ll have to take your word on it.” The man said, picking up the glass, draining the last of it in a few gulps to plunk it back on the counter, fishing some bills out of his jacket to set under it, “Thanks for the drink.”
Ramona started to nod, but looked up when his words sank in, “Wait, have you seriously not toured the city? When do you head back home?”
He’d picked up his helmet, starting to put it back on before giving pause, “Uhhh...tomorrow morning?”
A man dressed in black had entered her bar hours ago, staying right up till close. Normally this would be the kind of scenario that would get a bartender murdered. But...what the hell, he was kinda cute in that sad puppy sort of way. Ramona pulls off her apron, “Okay! So we got a couple hours-”
The man blinked, “Huh??”
“Well someone’s gotta fix this!!” Ramona came out from behind the bar, purse over her shoulder, “Granted the restaurants, museums, and everything else fun is closed, but I can still show you something before you go, right?”
“Wait, you really-”
“ Hey. I want to. ” She let her hair down out of it’s ponytail, walking up to the man and giving a smirk. “Besides, I gotta thank you anyway. Most of my usual creeps didn’t get through the door soon as they saw you at the end.”
He gave a laugh, the startled look still stuck on his sad face, looking pretty unsure of himself for such a big, strong-looking guy. “You’re...sure about this?”
Ramona smiled, “Just for a little bit. We’ll get you back on that plane or boat or whatever right on time, don’t you worry Mr…”
“...Riggs.” He put on his helmet again, clearing his throat, “But uh, just Eddie is fine.”
“Ramona.” She offered a hand for him to take. He seemed to consider it, but with that helmet on it was hard to tell what he thought about it as he walked by. He held the door for her, so he was probably just shy about it. He struck Ramona as the type of guy who’d had one great love that’d broken his heart years ago and just… hadn’t found anybody that fit the same.
“I’ll be honest with you, Eddie. I might’ve been cheating just a little.” She offered as they walked down the cobblestone streets, street lamps the only light source beyond some stars in the sky. “This is sort of my walk home too.”
“And you figured I’d scare the creeps off here too?” She couldn’t see his face, but she could tell he was smirking at her by tone alone.
“Alright, maybe!” She waved a hand, “Maybe just a bit! I mean, worked back at the bar. Most times I can never get those folks to leave. Not even if I wear a turtleneck.”
Eddie seemed to wince at the very idea, “Sheesh… well, it’s a desert. Guys get thirsty, right?”
Ramona gave a laugh, “Yeah, yeah. They just come at me cause it’s somebody they’re used to. Plonk them down in front of any prettier girl here in town and they’d piss their pants in fear. Get a gal like me who’s listening to them talk about some daddy issue for hours and suddenly they’re confident that their pickup lines are gonna work!”
Eddie snickered, “You’re making me wish I hadn’t scared them! Would’ve liked to see some of those attempts!”
“Pfft, seriously, you wouldn’t. They’re pathetic.”
“Oh yeah?” He stuck his hands in his pockets, giving a sort of head tilt, “Cmon. Give me an example.”
Ramona rolled her eyes, smirk still on her face, thinking back to some of the best she’d heard as she walks alongside him, “Okay, lets see… Oh! How about this one?” She cleared her throat, turning to him, “‘If kissing you were a sin, I’d happily walk through hell.’”
Eddie sputtered, “What??? That’s not cheesy!”
“It is when it’s coming from some fifty year old guy after five shots of Tequila!” Ramona laughed, wagging a finger, “Especially when it’s said in Spanish.”
“I guess, but I think you can give me a worse example.” Eddie leaned a bit closer. “Cmon.”
Ramona huffed, “Okay...how’s this? ‘If only you were a contact lense so I could have my eye on you.’”
Eddie recoiled, his giggle sounding almost pained from sympathy for whatever poor schmuck tried that, “Okay, okay, that is pretty cheesy.”
“I tried to tell you!”
“Yeaaah, yeah you did!” Eddie shrugged, “Should’ve listened.”
Ramona laughed, letting it trail off, her eyes settling on the skies as they walked along the street. Some of the few bars that were open later then hers were starting to shutter their windows for the night, the warm glow of the street lights guiding them onwards. “... Ojalá la mitad de las estrellas brillaran tanto como tus ojos.”
Eddie looked over at that, his head tilting a bit, “Uh...sorry, my Spanish is kinda rusty…what’s that mean?”
Ramona had a sort of sad expression on her face, getting ready to answer before she seemed to spot something up ahead, “Hold that thought-it’s over there!”
“Huh?? What is?” Ramona had started charging on ahead, remarkably fast for a woman in heels, Eddie almost struggling to keep up, “H-hey! Hold on a sec!”
When he finally got close, she was catching her breath, grinning at him while he panted under the helmet. “Well? What do you think?”
Eddie had to lift his helmet enough to get some air in, and when he brought it back down what stood before him was a massive fountain. It was lit up almost purple in the night, the lights reflecting off shoots of water designed to go up the fountain. Standing at the top, almost as if she was guarding it, was a nude woman holding a bow and arrow, her knee planted firmly on a rock to balance herself upon, hair flowing in an unseen wind.
“...Okay, that is pretty cool.”
Ramona let out a sigh, “I’m just glad we got here in time…” Right on cue, the lights went off on the fountain, the water stopping its flow to rest calmly in its basin. “The city planners usually turn it off a little early to save power. Usually I try to plan closing around the time they do so I can see her.”
“Does it have a name?” Eddie asked.
Ramona nodded, “Diana the Huntress Fountain. Or in Spanish that’s ‘Fuente de la Diana Cazadora’.” Her hand pointed towards the bow she held strongly in her grasp, “Her arrow is to shoot the stars of the Northern skies.”
Eddie gave an amused hum, “What, did the stars like… hit something she liked?”
Ramona hummed in kind, “Hard to say. Some folks think it’s cause they’re the only target that’s a challenge anymore. She’s just that good.”
Eddie made a soft ‘huh’ sound, nodding his head as he considered it, “She’s gotta be a pro with that rockin’ bod she’s got going on.” Ramona snorted, laughing as Eddie stiffened, quickly trying his best to backpedal, “I-I mean it’s a really cool statue! She’s got a great figure! Look, it’s not weird to find a statue hot, right??”
She couldn’t see his face, but she had to guess he was red underneath the helmet, her laugh slowly dying down till she could look back at the statue again, “...There are definitely prettier sculptures around the city. She’s just… always stuck out to me. Maybe it’s just because I get to see her so often and most folks just… walk right by her.”
Eddie seemed to calm down, looking back up at the fountain and rubbing his neck, the night still without the sound of running water going, “Well… I’m glad you showed me.” He turned her way, “It was a cool thing to do. Even if I’m just to ward off creeps.”
“Hey, you gave some insightful art commentary! I’d say that made it worth it!”
His shoulders hunched like he was trying to cover up his already hidden blush, “Yeah, well…”
Ramona laughed, leaning a bit towards him, a smirk on her face, “But her bod really can’t beat her butt.”
He seemed to stand up straight, staring at her a beat and moving around the statue to try and get a glimpse, standing still when he finally did and giving a low groan, a hand to his face, “Damn… you’re right…”
Ramona laughed at that, then bit her lip, quiet till Eddie walked back and finally looked over to see what caused the silence, making her clear her throat and turned on her heel, “Anyway! We’re uh. We’re almost to my place.”
Eddie’s shoulders slumped just an inch, “Right… Guess that’s my cue to go?”
“No! No I mean, not unless you want to.” Ramona nodded down the street, “Plus, they say most assaults happen close to home, so, yknow…”
Eddie looked like he was considering, his helmet turning slightly to look back down the street, his hands shoved in his pockets, “...I’ll walk you to the door?”
Ramona let out a relieved sigh, nodding her head. Once again she offered her hand and once more he walked past her onto the street ahead. This time she had to pause for a moment, looking at his back till he paused to look back at her, getting her to follow along. Maybe that heartbreak was still weighing down on him… maybe she was just assuming something that wasn’t actually there.
In any case, it wasn’t long before they’d reached her apartment proper. The elevator wasn’t working again, so they ended up taking the stairs to get up to her place. At one point she took off her heels just cause they’d finally bugged her enough and the stairs hadn’t been any help, the two more then a little out of breath by the time they reached her door. “Well. Here it is…”
“Yeah...does the elevator usually…?”
“Not work?” Ramona let out a chuff of a laugh, “Yeah. Our landlord doesn’t do shit for this place. But it’s a good workout, right?”
“Yeah, if you’re nuts.” He pulled off the helmet to wipe his brow, “I mean you’re on the sixth floor, like...if you got groceries or something…?”
A breathy laugh came out of her as she pulled out her keys, unlocking the door to step inside, pausing with her hand on the doorframe, “That phrase I told you earlier, in Spanish? Do you want to know what it means?”
He blinked at her. With the helmet off it was so much easier to tell what he was thinking. He still looked tired, but there was a little spark that hadn’t been there before, “Yeah?”
“It means… ‘If only half of the stars in the sky shined as brightly as your eyes.’”
Eddie had blushed a little, giving a confused laugh, his helmet going under one arm as the other scratched his neck, “That one doesn’t seem very cheesy to me...”
“It wasn’t for a time.” Ramona lingered in the doorway. This guy had work to do. She couldn’t just keep him here. She knows he said he could go, but there had to be something… “Eddie?”
“Hm?” He’d already started to put his helmet back on, that bit of pink sticking to his cheeks.
“...Do you cut your own hair?”
He blinked again, brows raising slightly, rubbing the back of his head and giving a more embarrassed look, “It’s that obvious, huh?”
“Juuust a bit, yeah.” She thumbed back inside, “I’ve got an electric razor in here… I could even you out before you go?”
Eddie made a face she hadn’t seen on him before. In a split second, his face had changed from embarassed to a look of absolute terror. Like his stomach had dropped out from under him, eyes wide and trembling as he looked at her, “... You don’t have to.”
Ramona paused at that look he had, her own going to one of concern, “Eddie? It’s...seriously it won’t take much time. Is everything okay?”
“I-I shouldn’t be here-” He took a step back, his free hand moving to wrap around his stomach like some sort of self hug, “You’re really nice but I shouldn’t-I can’t-”
“Eddie-re ally, it’s just a haircut.” Ramona gave her best reassuring smile, “Just breathe, hun. It’ll only take me a second, I swear.”
The poor thing was shaking like a leaf. His eyes kept darting down the hallway. If she didn’t see the empty hall herself, she’d swear it was like...he was scared something was coming after him. She waited till he managed to steady his breathing, the look of fear turning to something else. He looked sad at first, before that spark from before seemed to drain in an instant, and his face became something closer to...acceptance. “...Okay.” When he looked back over, the smile on his face was a tired one. “Thanks Ramona.”
Ramona didn’t know what to think of the change that went on. Maybe she just reassured herself that he’d calmed down and that was enough. Or that she was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt since he seemed like such a sweet guy. But if she had any warning bells, they soon stopped as she shut the door behind them and he was inside.
The apartment was small but comfortable-tools of the bar trade were scattered in spots on the countertops, a lamp had been left on when she left earlier, and the couch had a few blankets left on it from naps of the past. A guitar rested against one of the couch pillows, and Eddie had begun to stare at it by the time Ramona came back out with the clippers, “Oh? Noticed that old thing, huh?”
Ramona walked around, giving a self conscious laugh towards it, “Yeah yeah...tried to pick it up a few times before. Never really got the hang of it.”
Eddie picked it up, checking the knobs on the end, “Probably help if you had it tuned right.”
Ramona blinked, “You know guitars, huh?”
“Mostly electric.” He fiddled carefully with the knobs, testing a few chords before going back to fiddle again.
Ramona felt a softer smile coming on at that, plugging in the clippers and grabbing a towel to put over his shoulder to catch any hairs, “Didn’t peg you for the sensitive musician type.”
Eddie gave an amused hum, “Well you’d be right. Used to be a roadie back in the day… don’t really know what I am anymore.” He strums the chords, seemed to like whatever he heard, and set it down to sit up straight on the couch for her. “...Earlier, with that line. Who said that to you?”
Ramona stopped before she could start the clippers, “Oh, it’s kind of stupid… I used to have a fiance.”
Ramona nodded, starting the clippers again, “...It was my fault I guess. I still loved him, but… there was a guy who had another line that spoke better to me.” Her shoulders drooped, “I know… paints a whole other picture of me, doesn’t it? Some girl who just couldn’t make up her mind.”
Eddie stayed quiet. His eyes were on a window in the living room that looked over the city streets. If he focused hard enough, he could just see Diana’s bow aimed for him. But that’s only if he really wanted to.
“Alright… I get it.” The soft buzz of the clippers started as Ramona got close, “I must sound like some sorta monster, huh?” She placed a hand on his shoulder to get her balance.
The sharp jolt of pain brought everything to a halt, Ramona letting out a yelp as she jumped back, dropping the still-buzzing clippers down on the living room floor. She gripped her hand, keeping it clenched for a moment with a hiss, opening it slowly to stare wide-eyed at the red and blistering skin of her palm. Like she’d slapped her hand down on a stovetop pan just to see what would happen. The confused, pained whimper came out naturally and stifled itself when she saw Eddie stand up.
He couldn’t have been that much taller then her. So why did he feel so looming all of a sudden. He’d set his helmet down on the couch, taking off his leather gloves one digit at a time. “You really were a nice gal.” Ramona was frozen, staring wide-eyed as he approached her. In one move, he closed the distance-one hand over her mouth and the other on the small of her back. “So… thanks.”
When he looked at her, he looked so relaxed and relieved, even with the tears starting to roll down his face. “Thanks for making it easier on me.”
He hugged her so tightly she thought her ribs would break. She wanted to scream, but found it a lot harder with one lip melted over the other.
“Well, well, well, look who comes back.” Manny is still up when the door shuts, sitting comfortably by a window overlooking the port. The ocean was dark as pitch, the sun not set to rise for another hour or two, and Manny looks like he’s enjoying the view with a cigar in his teeth. “And you even got yourself a little souvenir.”
Eddie nodded, setting the guitar at the foot of his bed, taking a seat across from Manny. “What’d you do?”
“Eh, nothing much.” Manny sat back, one leg crossed over the other, “Mostly walked around the city, got a drink, tipped a few performers my last few hundreds.”
“That was generous.”
Manny shrugged, “Not much I can really use it for. And we’ll make it back the next town over tenfold.”
Eddie nodded. He looked up after a minute or two, the darkness of the helmet giving nothing besides the unsure tone of his voice, “Did you...see any landmarks along the way?”
Manny considered the question, tapping the cigar against the nearby ashtray, “Mm… just a few sculptures, some nice parks I guess... “
“You didn’t see the fountain?”
“Eh?” Manny hummed, “... I wasn’t looking out for any, no. Just came back here when I was done.”
He looked down at the soft squeak of leather, following the clenched fists up to shaking shoulders and the first shaky inhale from his companion as he put his hands on his head. The muffled sobs were the only noise in the room apart from the gentle lapping of waves outside. Manny just let out a plume of smoke and got himself comfortable, sitting back in his chair as Eddie held himself and cried.
Only thing to do now was let him burn himself out...
Chapter 5: Click, Click, Bang
Tape was recovered from Motherlobe headquarters shortly after the maze incident wrapped up. Voices are believed to be agents currently missing in action. If you know of the whereabouts of Nelson Tethers, Guybrush Threepwood, or Elaine Marley, please contact the Psychonauts as soon as you are able.
(Figuring I'll use these files for the single chapter sorta fics that fit into the TMA AU but I don't feel like making an entire separate entry for. Here's a little diddy about when the fears first began affecting people and an unexpected alliance is broken as quickly as it formed. Enjoy!)
“Agent Nelson Tethers here. I...I can’t honestly say how many more of these I’ll make. It gets a little harder finding blank tapes these days, and with the current situation, pausing to talk might seem rather...counterproductive, if I’m gonna be honest.”
The former lounge had seen it’s fair share of office parties gone wild or late night rendezvous between agents who thought the dorms were just a little too safe. Now it was still standing as one of the last secure places you could depend on finding again if you left, and finding it intact. The vending machines had been raided a while ago, mostly holding the things no agents really wanted in the moment. The lights flickered and swung on frayed wires and the walls seemed to pulse and warp, occasionally fluttering off one of the many sticky notes Nelson had stuck to it.
The man stared as one fell silently to the floor, pulling himself off the couch to stick it back into place. With a soft sigh, he continued, heading back towards the sunk-in couch space near the center of the room, “Agent Threepwood has mostly stuck to myself and Agent Marley’s side since finding us in the maze. The two went out for a supply run about thirty minutes ago.” He paused a moment, seemed to think of something, and hurriedly clambered to the coffee table to start writing it down on a sticky note, “The structure of this place has become entirely random. I tested a few possible paths that might have led us to the Motherlobe exit before. A few of them led right back to my room, which helped get some of my tools back.”
“But we’re still no closer to finding a path out.” He hopped off the couch again to pin a note to the wall-a simple ‘EXIT = FLY???’ “The current idea is we might be able to commandeer a jet if any still remain in the hangar. The trick will be to find where the hangar currently resides, and find out how far we can go before any risk comes to Threepwood.” Nelson gave another pause, looking over a few of the papers, “...Agent Riggs did return to the Motherlobe however. After establishing contact with us, he has currently chosen to seclude himself in his own dorm. We’re not entirely sure what he’s doing in there, but he insisted that we didn’t touch him.”
“...I don’t know why this is happening to the Psychonauts. Or why Guybrush has seemingly become patient zero. But I’m going to find some answers. I have to.”
One of the doors nearby slid open, Nelson stopping the recording to look over, letting out a soft gasp before coming over, “Here, lemme-”
“I-nnf!-Got him!” Elaine was helping wrangle a limp noodle of a man, curling and shifting even as he laid across her back in a slight stupor. Nelson went for his other arm, pulling on it to coil around his arm to better drag Guybrush to a couch.
“Should I ask?”
Elaine gave a hum, “Depends. Think you’d like the answer?”
Nelson took a slight glance down, unable to make eye contact with her. He got the feeling he wouldn’t, but curiosity was winning a battle against common sense. “W-what happened?”
Elaine glanced off, as if she was considering how to phrase it for a long moment as they hefted the spaghetti man onto the couch, “...He found one of his old taunt books while we were looking around.”
Nelson blinked a few times, “His...what now?”
Elaine crossed her arms and took in a deep breath, sitting on what little space wasn’t taken up, “He got really into swordfighting a few years back. Thought he could add it to his repertoire. But turns out the only thing he really wanted was the witty banter, so he...wrote a lot of it. By himself.”
There was a growing dread in Nelson as Elaine went on, his eyes slowly widening when the pieces began to click, “Oh no...did he-”
“Read every single one aloud till he passed out from lack of air?” Elaine huffed, “Yep.”
Nelson couldn’t help a groan, rubbing his face as he took up one of the loveseats opposite, “Guybrush...He’s going to be quoting them at us for days .”
“I think it just got him excited is all.” Elaine had turned her gaze to watch the man, brushing a spiral of hair out of his face, resting her hand on his cheek, “It sounds awful to say, but he probably needed something to settle him down for a bit. I can’t remember the last time I saw him sleep.”
Nelson let out a breath when he considered it, nodding his head, “It’s been a while, that’s for sure.”
“Course, I could say the same about you, Tethers.”
Nelson sat up a bit straighter, glancing her way with an owlish expression on his face, “I-I don’t know what you mean.”
Elaine gave a half smile, waving to the wall, “I don’t recall that corner there having so many notes when I got some sleep.”
“Ah…” Nelson gave a sort of sheepish laugh, “It’s a little hard to sleep, considering the circumstances, isn’t it?”
“Doesn’t mean we don’t need it, Agent.” Elaine waved a hand, almost like she was trying to shoo him off. “Go on, at least a couple hours. I’ve got watch just fine.”
Nelson always found it difficult to argue with her. Mostly because the majority of the time she was right concerning most topics. Over the last few days, he could start to understand how her and Guybrush g-...had gotten along so well.
Guybrush remembered her, thankfully, but in his current state his affection would come with increasingly longer proportions, mood swings, and the intense panic attacks that were becoming less of a surprise every day. Guybrush had always seemed like a man with his heart sticking half-out: genuine and heartfelt to most he met, but hiding a vulnerability very few people got to see. Even to someone who loved him, it had to be exhausting.
Still, Nelson couldn’t hide he was just as tired at a time like this. He worked up a smile, “I’ll try in a bit. Just…maybe take a look at some of my ideas first?”
There was a warning tone to her voice when she set a serious look on him, “Nelson.”
He raised his hands, “I’ll sleep! I promise! Just...take a look at this?”
Elaine brushed another curl out of Guybrush’s face, giving a soft sigh to herself when Guybrush leaned his face into her hand, giggling in his sleep. “...Alright. But I’m not getting up, for the record.”
“Understandable, Agent Marley!” Nelson quickly got up, having to search the walls until he found one particular corner he found promising enough, turning and clearing his throat. “Okay, so, I think our next best option for getting out of here would have to be flight. We know there were jets in the hangars when the incident occurred. We haven’t confirmed yet if all of them are gone and if we play our cards right, we can probably fly one out of here...or I’m sure you could anyway. Probably not your first time in one, right?”
“Can’t say it is.” Elaine waved a hand, “So how do we get there?”
“That’s where I’m stuck.” He dug in his jacket till he could find a pen-light, shining it towards a section of the wall. Post-its had been clustered into one spot that formed what looked like a pile of worms on paper. “I tried mapping out the maze.”
“Yes, it uhm…” Nelson cleared his throat, “Didn’t work out so well. I really can’t figure out a pattern to the changes around here. During a scavenging run yesterday, I entered the same door three times and entered three separate locations, yet I’d end up back at the same spot if I went through it again. Every time.” He waved his hands outwards, “The only possibility I could think of is rooms seem to show up if we need them. We’ve entered this break room multiple times from different directions… Could Guybrush be an influence in that?”
“If he was, it wouldn’t explain how we got back so fast...but he does seem to influence things in his sleep as well.” Elaine leaned on the back of one hand, curled under her chin, “We could blast our way through.”
“We could! Potentially-but with how closely this place is linked to Guybrush’s mind, the chances of damaging him could potentially skyrocket.” He brought a hand to his mouth, “I suppose we could do a quick test on the environment to confirm it though. A little scratch or blast onto a wall here or there.”
“Even a little scratch can be damaging on a brain though.”
“It can…” Nelson pressed his hand against his temples and winced.
“Nelson…” He hadn’t realized she’d gotten up until she was steadying his back with a psychic hand, “You’ve been researching for how long?”
“Nhn...a few days, at least.” Nelson’s shoulders slump, “Maybe I do need a little rest...”
Elaine patted his shoulder, his shoulders drooping under her touch and the look of sympathy she was giving him, “I’m keeping an eye out. Promise…”
He smiled, almost a look of relief on his face. If one looked, they could see just how deep the bags under his eyes had gotten in a short amount of time, the whites verging on bloodshot as he gives a nod, “Of course. Course you will…” Nelson rubbed over his face, stumbling from the wall to one of the arm chairs to curl up on. Elaine waited, making her way back over to Guybrush’s side with her eyes on Nelson, waiting until she could see the gentle rise and fall of his chest as he relaxed.
Elaine let out a soft breath. “What to do about you two…?” She reaches around till her hand reaches the end of Guybrush’s hair and combs her fingers through, leaning into his forehead, “I know you’re awake, dear.”
Guybrush didn’t move for a moment, his cheek to Elaine, waiting till she gave a huff and leaned in to turn his head to kiss her, grinning ear to ear with a snicker.
She rolled her eyes and put an arm around the giggly man, “Alright, alright, you got me. I’m here.”
“YOu ArE!!” He wrapped his arms twice around her waist and planted another kiss on her cheek, nuzzling against it like an especially affectionate dog. His hand found hers and his fingers seemed to curl and wrap around hers, and she accepted the hold with her own stiff fingers. “I LoVe yOu!”
“I love you too, dear…” Elaine brought up his hand to press against her cheek, her smile soon fading as she looked him over, “...We are going to find who did this to you.” She turned her head so her mouth was against his hand, “We’re going to find them and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get you better.”
Guybrush’s smile wobbled off balance, “I’M okAy?”
“You’re not, Guybrush.” Elaine took a deep breath, shutting her eyes for a moment as she leaned against his hand, “You’re sick…” she let it out, her hand squeezing around his as she brought it down, forcing a smile, “But we’ll get you out and make you feel all better. I promise.”
“WhAt if I DoN’T want to?” Guybrush was looking right at her. He was so distracted lately, the sudden focus had taken her completely off guard with the question. The smile had slipped off his face as he stared, waiting for her answer, his grip tightening on her hand.
“...” Elaine narrowed her eyes, leaning even closer to him, “ I promise. We’ll get you back.” Elaine cupped his cheek and tried to see if she could find whatever had taken her husband from her in those wild eyes. It hid away the moment she tried, and the giggle that came out of him just put her less at ease then before.
He stood up, “I ShoUlD WaLK!” He said, before simply gliding along the floor, feet barely touching as they bent and twirled, out the door before Elaine could stop him. It wasn’t him wandering off that she was concerned about-he always came back during his excursions recently, most of the time carting whatever snacks he’d managed to find out of rooms or vending machines if he could get his arm flat enough.
Elaine didn’t realize she was holding her breath until she found herself getting dizzy, letting it out slowly and glancing towards Nelson’s spot. If he’d heard any of that, it didn’t show on his sleeping body. Elaine rubbed her face, standing for the nearby sink to splash some water on it. Her hands gripped the counter as she looked into the paper towel dispenser, her reflection dulled in the chrome but managing to show just how tired she felt, hand over her mouth. She had to keep it together. Things had gone to hell, but she was a top agent. She had seen and survived far worse...hadn’t she?
But... this was bad. Guybrush recognized her right now and seemed positive about her, but she could recognize a glint of something dangerous in his eyes that hadn’t been there before. Elaine had met enough lunatics to recognize madness in a person, to see how someone could be warped and shifted by their own desires clouding any judgement that remained. She had seen it once before: in the desperation in Guybrush’s eyes when he’d woken up so long ago. The tears in his eyes as he begged for her to tell him this was all real. That he was real.
She doesn’t know if she could give the same answer she did then.
Elaine stiffened and turned at a noise behind her, her guard fully up as her eyes landed on Nelson. She’d thought the man had been dead asleep, but at some point while she’d been distracted, he’d gotten himself back up and had begun to scribble on the walls. He must have decided the notes weren’t doing enough, mumbling to himself as he scrawled patterns and words onto the surface with a ballpoint pen. With considerable effort on his part, gouging the pen like he was carving the shapes into it.
“Nelson, I thought you were going to sleep?” He didn’t turn to look at her. Elaine felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck, approaching with caution. “You need to rest. We’ll figure this out when you’re awake enough for it-“
“Where’s Guybrush?” He spoke, pausing the mumble to do so.
“He...went for a walk.” Elaine had edged herself to just behind Nelson, squinting in the darkness to see what he was writing, “Are you trying to make a map again?”
“Do you think it’ll work?” Nelson still didn’t look her way. The pen dug into the softer metal and carved away at a curved line.
“I...the plane plan?” Elaine stepped just a bit closer, “Maybe. If we find one, I’m sure I could pilot it out, but-“
“No, any of what we’re doing.” Nelson gouged in like he was trying to stab the heart of something, his mouth a thin line of tense concentration, “Escaping this maze, getting Guybrush back to normal, getting any of us back to normal .” With those words his hand clenched, knuckles white as they drove the pen in, “We’re just putting things off.”
Elaine stiffened, her eyes widening. Nelson had seemed tired earlier, but he’d been confident in his plan. Was he really having second doubts? Or was all this straining him more then she’d realized? She grit her teeth and straightened her posture, “Agent Tethers, I’m giving you an order now. Return back to bed or I’ll be forced to take action.”
“Are you scared?”
Once again, the question threw her off. “Tethers. Stop this right now. Return to your-“
“You are! You’re shaking… tell me…”
When had he looked at her? Where had he gotten that tape recorder from? Her mind staggered and reeled as he held it out to her like a natural extension of his arm, the soft red light illuminating how deep and lifeless his eyes looked, reflecting off in a way that felt entirely inhuman as he looked her in the eyes with that flat expression on his face. “Do you really think any of this is working?”
The tape rolled. The room stayed silent as a morgue. A minute clicking by. Two minutes. Three minutes. Nelson stared at her face for that time, unblinking, unmoving, until something seemed to snap him out of it as he blinked a few times, “E-Elaine? I...I didn’t… what did I-...” his eyes widened, “What are you doing?”
Elaine had jumped back about a foot from him, a hand to her temple and the other outstretched. It was hard to hear his question over her heart pounding so hard in her ears. Slowly she lowered her hand, swallowed, and took another step back, willing her heart and mind to calm down, “I...I need to go, Nelson.”
His eyes widened, “What?” He took a step towards her, “What about Guybrush?”
Elaine stepped back. “Where I am right now, I...I can’t do anything to help him.”
“I know that.” Nelson stepped forward. “That’s why we’re working together on this, right? To get out of here and find a solution, right?”
Elaine took two steps. “Nelson, I don’t know how much you realize it, but you are compromised. If Guybrush can warp this place so badly, what will he do when he gets outside?”
Nelson stopped walking, “Elaine...I’m not. I’m not compromised, I-“
“You are Nelson. I don’t know with what but...but I can’t let either of you outside.”
“I’m coming back. I will be back, but only when I can help everyone.” She’d managed to get back to the door, backed up to it, glancing one last time over the wall of notes.
Nelson gave her a pleading look, “Elaine, please . I know you’re scared-I mean, I’m terrified! This whole...thing is scary! But we can’t separate now! Guybrush needs you here! I need you here!” He reaches out, taking her arm in his grasp.
For a second, she nearly takes it back. Then she sees it. The pattern, in plain view as she stared at the wall. At the gigantic eye the notes had formed, its pupil trained solidly on her. Nelson smiled out of desperation, gripping her arm, “We need to look out for each other...you get that, right?”
When you trained yourself well enough, a psychonaut could easily control how powerful a psi-blast would be for a target. At such a close range, it was more of a challenge, but it wasn’t impossible. Elaine was a very good psychonaut. She got just a glimpse of the look of wide-eyed surprise on Nelson’s face before he dropped like a sack of potatoes, letting go of her arm in the process. Maybe if he tried to stay awake a little harder, he could have heard the muffled sob she tried to stifle before running down the hall and out of sight. The only sound he actually heard was the sound of a running tape recorder.
When he came to, it was to something nudging his shoulder. “NeLSon?” Nelson’s head throbbed, finding it harder to pull himself upright as the hand kept nudging him, waving it off. It seemed to coil around his chest, helping him sit up and brushing off his jacket of any dust off the floor. “NeLson!” Guybrush was in his face before he could blink, jumping with a start at the figure before he got a hold of himself enough to pat his shoulder.
“Oh, Guybrush...it’s just you.” He clutched his aching head, “Don’t suppose you found any ibuprofen out there, did you?”
“NoPe!” Guybrush had curled his hands behind his back however, trying very unsuccessfully to be sneaky in a way, biting his lip as he fidgeted with whatever it was, “FoUnD you SomeThInG cooler!” He must have been too excited about whatever it was. Nelson couldn’t get a sound out before the object was nearly jabbed into his face, taking a moment to make sure his nose was intact before he got a good look at it.
“Oh!” Admittedly, it was a pretty good surprise, the Rubik’s cube fitting nicely in his palms, giving it a few turns here and there out of habit, “You were over by the dorms I take it?”
Guybrush quickly nodded, “Do YOu LiKe iT??”
Nelson couldn’t help a little smile, already starting to put colors idly together as he spoke, “Honestly, I was starting to really miss it…” The ache was starting to subside to a slow, dull pain as his hands worked, Guybrush still looking like he had some sort of secret up his sleeve as he glanced around the room, “Looking for something?”
“YEah! I Am!” Guybrush looked back at Nelson and tilted his head, “WheRE’s Elaine?”
It took a minute longer then Nelson would have liked to remember what happened. The clicking sound of plastic pieces fixing themselves together getting slower, until he’d dropped the cube entirely out of shaking hands. “NElson?” Guybrush asked again, “WHeRe’s Elaine?”
Nelson covered his mouth, drawing his knees up to his chest. Now that he remembered, he couldn’t stop thinking about her face. How guarded she’d looked, how terrified that last expression had been. Her wide eyes as she looked from something beyond him towards his eyes. A hand to her temple as she decided she didn’t like whatever she saw.
Guybrush was starting to slow his movements, his smile slipping just a few inches as he watched Nelson curl in on himself with an anxious noise. “...Nelson?”