Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/books/entry_id/1008402
by Zen
Rated: GC · Book · Sci-fi · #2217429
This is the first draft of a work-in-progress that will be updated chapter-by-chapter.
#1008402 added May 13, 2021 at 11:34pm
Restrictions: None
Act I, Chapter 3: Trail ; Echoes of the Past
~~ March 8, 2018, 1652 hours ~~
~~ Location: Beaver Lake Safehouse, British Columbia ~~


Ian trudged up the steps to the front porch of the cabin, fishing his keys out of his jeans while heaving the several reusable grocery bags hanging from both of his arms. Once he’d unlocked the door, he stepped through to the foyer.

“Ma’am? It’s just me, back from the store,” he called into the cottage.

Ian heard a faint grunt from the living room at the end of the hallway leading away from the foyer. He put his purchases down for a moment to undo his shoes, then carried his haul over to the kitchen.

He stopped when he got to the living room, where Erin Kennedy was lounging on the three-seater couch, one arm draped across the back of the seat and a white can clutched loosely in her hand: Dageraad Blonde, as usual. Another two identical cans sat on the coffee table in front of her, and from the look of them, they weren’t opened yet.

Ian put down his shopping bags again and strode over to Erin. “Ma’am, please, I thought we agreed you wouldn’t drink so late in the afternoon. It’s going to spoil your appetite.”

Erin opened her eyes slightly at the young man, lowering her beverage after a sip. “Shut it. I’m only half a can in.”

“But I had a nice dinner planned.”

“This and that aren’t mutually exclusive.”

Ian sighed quietly. “But you were doing well before I went to C.O.S. headquarters to finish up my training.”

Erin gave Ian a deadpan stare.

“You didn’t… start drinking a lot again after I left, did you, Ma’am?” Ian asked tentatively after a moment.

“Jesus Christ, kid.” Erin raked at her caramel hair frustratedly and scowled. “You bitch and moan about the most unimportant things. What are you, a housewife?”

“No, Ma’am. I’m just trying to look after--”

Ian stopped. Erin dropped her stare, her eyes shifting somewhere to the side.

“A-Anyway,” Ian said, clearing his throat as subtly as he could, “It’s not like I’m asking you not to drink at all. Just… not before meals.”

Erin said nothing for a few seconds, then gave a tsk noise and reached over to slam the half-empty Dageraad Blonde down on the table next to its unopened siblings.

“Whatever,” she said, her displeasure plain in her tone, “This dinner of yours better be good.”

“I’ll do my best, Ma’am.” Ian was no five-star chef, or even a three-star one, but he was confident enough he could make something more palatable than the first thing his mentor had tried to feed him on his first night here.

He bent down to collect the two and a half cans of alcohol, ignoring Erin’s silent grumbling, and carried them out of the living room and to the kitchen fridge. Once the cans were stored, Ian went back to put away the provisions he shopped for.

The two inhabitants of the safehouse did not speak to each other for nearly two hours. Ian quietly got to work on preparing dinner, which he’d decided was baked salmon and macaroni soup - relatively simple dishes and not too hard to make. He sliced the fish he’d bought earlier into plump squares, seasoned them with spices and put in a bit of lemon and olive oil. For the soup, he added diced carrots, celery, chicken cut into thin strips, and broth, taking painstaking care to get the consistency of the final product just right.

By the time he had the pan of salmon squares out of the oven and turned off the stove top underneath the hot cooking pot containing the soup, it was already six-forty in the evening.

Just to be sure, he took an unused spoon and sipped a spoonful of the soup he’d made. He frowned after a couple of seconds.

“Not enough salt. But I think the amount of pepper I used is all right,” he said under his breath.

A little bit of a taste of his baked salmon, however, gave him contrasting satisfaction.

“Nailed it.” He smiled, looking down at his masterpiece. “Pretty soft and flavourful.”

Ian transferred a dinner’s worth of each into a serving bowl and dish, then carried them to the dining table beside the kitchen. When he’d finished setting up the table for dinner for two, Ian called to the living room.


“What?” the woman called back, sounding slightly annoyed and - to Ian, although he’d never say this aloud - ‘bitchy’, which was normal for his mentor.

“Dinner is served.”

“Took your time. You grab my beers from the fridge?”


Ian heard the sound of a couch being relieved of weight as he hurried over to the fridge and brought out two cans of the Dageraad Blondes he confiscated earlier that afternoon, then plopped them right beside Erin’s empty plate just in time for the woman to walk into the dining area, carrying a file folder and still halfway buried in the material.

“We’re leaving tomorrow morning,” she said, heading straight for her usual seat, which was the one with its back to the cottage’s rear entrance. She sat down and finally closed the folder, placing it on the other side of her plate.

Ian took his seat across the rectangular table from her, sliding the seat further beneath the table as he settled in. “Bit earlier than we previously discussed, Ma’am?”

Erin placed her bright blue eyes squarely on his. “Can’t hurt to be early. Besides, our intel of Ocampo isn’t too particular about his habits. I want to see what routines he has before we make our move for the sample.”

She paused, looking down at the food her student had prepared, then back up at her pupil. “What do you think?”

“Of what, Ma’am?”

“About how we’re going to go about this.”

She’d never asked him before about what he thought would be the best way to proceed with a mission, or about what his opinions regarding her orders or suggestions were. Ian took a moment to consider this, using the same methodical manner he would if he were asked to navigate a minefield.

“Well, assuming Ocampo isn’t super paranoid, we can just keep close tabs on him for a few days and pay attention to who he talks to. One of those is bound to be someone relevant,” Ian said carefully.

“And then what?”
“ID any potential parties interested in this Project FENRIR. We need more intel than what we have right now.”

Erin nodded slowly. “This isn’t just about recon anymore, though. If things don’t pan out smoothly, we may have to intervene. FENRIR can’t be allowed to circulate or be produced in large quantities.”

“Well… We do what we have to, don’t we?”

“Hmm.” Erin’s eyes narrowed very slightly at him. “And are you prepared to do what we have to?”

Ian shifted a little in his seat. “I’ll… do my best, Ma’am.”

The teacher observed the student closely for a few seconds before eventually turning all her attention to the food on the table. Without another word, she heaped a couple of salmon squares onto her plate, stabbed one with her fork, and nibbled a little on one of its sides.

Ian watched her with bated breath for a few seconds as Erin chewed on the fish. Her expression went from blank, to scrutinizing, to slightly relaxed. When she took a second bite out of the same square, Ian exhaled finally.

“How is it, Ma’am?”

“Not bad.” Erin said, not looking up at him and instead busying herself with helping herself to some of Ian’s macaroni soup. “If being an agent doesn’t work out, you could at least be a housewife. With more practice.”

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

“Don’t sound so relieved, kid. I said, with more practice. And if you flunk as an agent, I’ll have something less colourful to say.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

The two of them dined in relative silence for the next half hour. Every now and again, when he sensed Erin wasn’t looking at him as she ate his food and sipped beer from her second can, Ian gazed furtively at her from his own fish and soup.

Though Erin didn’t smile once, Ian brimmed with suppressed elation at the sight of her briskly consuming the food he’d made all the same.

~~ March 11, 2018, 0202 hours ~~
~~ Location: Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver, B.C.

“Reaper to Knight. Come in.”

“Knight here. Go ahead, Ma’am.”

“Just finished going through Ocampo’s office. Nothing here except some correspondence on the on-site Dynacare intranet email system he uses. There were messages from a certain ‘J.Smith019’, and they’ve been swapping a few emails the last few weeks. Ocampo mentions the keyword ‘wolfsbane’ on occasion, but he mostly referred to it as ‘sample’ or ‘experiment’. J.S. has been asking for more details and results on the so-called experiment, but Ocampo’s not been forthcoming on that front.”

Ian leaned back on the seat behind the wheel of the rented car he’d procured a couple of days before, keeping his eyes on the villa home he’d been staking out the last three and a half hours. He’d followed Roland Ocampo from his Dynacare workplace building in downtown Vancouver and eventually ended up in the quiet, lavish neighbourhood of Horseshoe Bay, the northernmost point of Vancouver. With expensive-looking houses built practically beside the waters of Horseshoe Bay, the neighbourhood afforded a relatively secluded haven from the more energetic, frenetic bustle of the downtown core.

It came as no surprise to Ian that someone like Ocampo lived in an area like this; Ocampo was one of Dynacare’s chief toxicology executives. It was a quiet location befitting someone whose pockets were surely deep and

lined with a bit of blood money, eh, Rollie?

“Knight, what was that? Say again,” Reaper said through Ian’s earpiece.

“Ma’am?” Ian said, blinking twice.

“Didn’t catch your last.”

“Sorry, Ma’am. I was just asking if there’s more you found out.”

“Roger that. Here’s the important part: Ocampo’s set aside the next two weeks off as vacation. Officially, according to the calendar he’s got hanging in his office. Unofficially, he’s also coincided this with a meet with this J.S. he’s been chatting with, telling the mystery contact that he’ll be bringing a sample of the experiment to them on March 14th for verification.”

Ian reared his head slightly. “He left conversations like this on a work email?”

“Deleted from the inbox, but not the Deleted Items folder. Don’t underestimate human complacency, Knight.”

“Yes, Ma’am. Do we have a time and place for the meet?”

“The time was mentioned in an email. 1 AM. The place isn’t outright stated.”

Ian frowned. “Err. Sorry, but what does that mean, Reaper?”

Reaper sighed softly over the line. “It means Ocampo wasn’t provided by J.S. with a clear-cut answer. There’s just some kind of code.”


“Right. All Ocampo’s given is: ‘Beware: hitchhiker in white’.”

“That sounds ominous. And did Ocampo respond to that?”

“Nothing. That’s the most recent exchange between the two of them, and that was yesterday morning at 1123.”

“And no other leads there, Ma’am?”

“Gone through his workstation and his personal effects. Nothing.”

Reaper paused before continuing. “I tried to do an IP trace using the metadata attached to the email via my TACPAD, but the result places it somewhere I don’t buy.”

“Where was it?”

“Yantai, China. Not that that matters. It’s bullshit. The IP is a proxy - the pad told me as much.”

“Hmm. Okay. Not that we have evidence right now to challenge that even if we wanted, but somehow I don’t think Ocampo intends to go that far across the world for this,” Ian said thoughtfully, his eyes scouting out the darkened second-floor windows of 6993 Hycroft Road slightly ahead of where he had parked. The property also happened to be the literal end of the street, and the nearest house to the one Ocampo had vanished into earlier that night was a good two hundred metres to the east, give or take. It was fairly secluded.

“Agreed,” Reaper replied. In the background, Ian heard the sound of brisk but light footsteps on a concrete floor.

“Where are you now, Ma’am?” Ian asked.

“Still on Dynacare premises. Making my way out now.”

Her tone became a bit more hardened.

“Knight, we can’t allow any samples of this thing to be passed to outside parties. If this is associated with the intel you got from Braga a couple of weeks back, then it sounds as if Ocampo - and whoever else he’s in bed with - has begun testing FENRIR. Once the schematics, the formula, of this substance leaves Dynacare, FENRIR becomes easier to reproduce, not to mention distribute.”

“Agreed, Ma’am.” Ian nodded even though Reaper couldn’t see him.

“At the same time,” Reaper went on, “We also need to find out more about who Braga and Ocampo are in contact with. We need more specifics. Names, contacts. Places. Stopping the handover is all well and good, but we need to go further than that. Do you understand?”

“So far, yes, Ma’am.”

“Good. Here’s what I propose, Knight: most likely with today supposedly being Ocampo’s last day at Dynacare before his ‘vacation’, he’s got some physical sample of FENRIR on him. Maybe he took a sample out of work with him when he left for home earlier.”

Ian moved his hand toward the seat belt release button at his side. “You want me to sneak in there and acquire the sample?”

“No,” Reaper said sharply. “Even if you could swipe it, that wouldn’t lead us to the party interested in the project. We should keep our distance the next couple of days, keep tabs on Ocampo until then. We need to be at the meet, ID the involved parties, and assuming a sample is being handed off then, disrupt the event and secure FENRIR.”

The proposal was sound to Ian. He felt a measure of relief about who he was working with on this mission. He wasn’t quite sure he could get through this one alone without making some critical blunders, but this being his instructor he was speaking with, he kept that to himself.

“Understood, Reaper,” he said. “I’ll stay here and keep an eye on the place, then?”

“You sure you’re being inconspicuous?”

“Keeping my distance, keeping quiet, and keeping to the dark.”

“Good. Stay there until 0600. After that, I’ll take over for you so you can get some shut-eye.”

“I don’t mind staying up for longer, Ma’am.”

“I know you don’t, but what did I tell you about sleep deprivation and efficiency, kid?”

Ian let out a silent sigh, reciting her words to the letter. “Sleep deprivation subtracts from efficiency. Rest whenever possible.”

“Exactly. That’s one advantage of working in pairs. Understand?”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Ian nodded again in the semi-darkness of the inside of the vehicle, his breath visible as a mist in front of his face.

“All right.” In the background, Ian heard the sound of another door opening, and the faraway noises of vehicles in the streets. “I’m clear of Dynacare now. I’m signing off to get a few hours’ sleep, but if anything happens, ping me. Is there anything else?”

Ian took a moment to consider the question. It was just a good, old-fashioned stakeout, and at this time of hour, he wasn’t heavily expecting much activity from a man who didn’t know he was being surveyed. This, he could handle well enough.

“No, Ma’am. I’ve got this covered until 0600.”

“Roger, Knight. See you in four hours. Reaper out.”

The connection went silent.

~~ March 13, 2018, 1812 hours ~~
~~ Location: Lonsdale, North Vancouver, B.C. ~~

Ian took a sip of hot chocolate from the disposable Tim Hortons cup he’d ordered some several minutes ago. The beverage was hotter than he thought, scalding his tongue the moment he tried to down a meager amount. He jolted upright in his seat, grabbing a napkin from the table to wipe the trail of cocoa that had run down his chin. He reluctantly took his eyes off Roland Ocampo sitting five tables further into the store to wipe his face.

This was his fourth shift at keeping surveillance on Ocampo since the mission began. He’d mostly camped out in the trees by Ocampo’s home, out of sight, keeping his eyes and ears open for any activity whatsoever regarding the man. While previous intelligence gathered by Erin had indicated the handoff for the FENRIR sample wouldn’t take place until seven hours from now, it was possible that arrangements could be changed, and Erin was loath to miss any word of it. She and Ian had therefore been keeping as close to 24-hour surveillance on Ocampo in case anything happened. Ian had just started his watch minutes ago while Erin had pulled back to their room at the Seaside Hotel, not too far from this particular Tim Hortons cafe.

When Ian walked in here to take Erin’s place on the vigil, he hadn’t even seen his mentor swap places with him. Knowing her, however, that wasn’t out of the ordinary. This was the woman who taught him how to keep tabs on people without said people knowing. She did, however, update him on Ocampo’s movements during the last six hours of her finished shift, and reported nothing concerning with his activities and movements.

“He’s just having a bagel and some coffee here at Tim’s,” she’d told Ian as Ian was driving two blocks away from the target’s location. “He’s waiting here for Vivian and Nina to finish up with an audiologist appointment at the Hope Centre. The appointment was for seventeen-thirty. Keep an eye on him and report if anything happens, as usual.”

“Copy, Ma’am. I’ll take it from here.”

“I’m walking out now,” she said. “Reaper out.”

That brief conversation was approximately fifteen minutes ago now, and Ian hadn’t actually seen Erin since he’d sat down at a table about twenty metres away from Ocampo’s.

Vivian Ocampo was Roland’s wife, aged forty-one. She was a teacher at a preschool at Coal Harbour at Main Vancouver to the southwest, across the water and Lions Gate Bridge. She would have had to work until 1615, at which point she would have driven to her neighbourhood of Horseshoe Bay to pick up Nina, her daughter.

Nina Ocampo was twelve, the only child of Roland and Vivian. She was bright and an overachiever, according to the research Ian and Erin had conducted just days ago. Nina went to Gleneagles Elementary School, which was within ten minutes of a walk from her home. Her last class would have ended at 1530 hours, but she had Chess Club from 1530 until 1630. She would have been picked up by her mother Vivian shortly before 1700 for her monthly appointment with her audiologist at the Hope Centre, which was just two blocks east of where Ian was sitting.

Ian placed the used napkin down on his table, running through in his head the information he and Erin had compiled on Roland and his family. It was an ever-expanding pool of information they updated and rectified over the course of the last few days. It wasn’t just things concerning strictly Roland Ocampo that he needed to pay attention to, but even the routines and otherwise everyday affairs of his wife and daughter.

Reviewing the information mentally was something Ian had gotten into the habit of doing recently. It helped him stay focused for longer on otherwise boring reconnaissance trips, and it helped him notice when events in the present weren’t quite lining up correctly.

Now, seventeen minutes into his vigil, Ian noticed Ocampo reaching into his trouser pocket, eventually extracting his smartphone.

Ian pulled out his tactical pad - TACPAD, as Charlie Cole had dubbed the device - from his jacket pocket and pretended to look through it as any person would in public. The device itself was indistinguishable from a smartphone from an outside look or touch, down to the dimensions and even the Android model it was mimicking. Unlike a regular smartphone, however, it had more functions, from simple ones like localized traffic and weather reports, to more obscure ones like a secure link to Sector databases, the ability to tap into phones or computers to extract data, and even - allegedly - to act as an incapacitating weapon to unauthorized persons.

Ian swiped right at the home screen to bring up a grey microphone icon with the name, ‘D. Mic’, then tapped on the icon. With the same casual movement and disposition, he tilted the pad slightly in the direction of Ocampo’s table, such that the top of the pad was pointing toward the target. Ian had to lean a bit to the left in his seat to aim the built-in directional microphone past several customers seated at the tables between his and Ocampo’s.

Ian hit the ‘PLAY’ icon on the audio software screen.

This being a public space, it was a bit hard even for a top-of-the-line directional mic to pick up exactly what Ian wanted, but he quickly tuned out the drone and chatter of the other customers in the cafe as he watched Ocampo place his own phone to his ear.

“Roland,” Ocampo said into his phone.

Ian kept his head still, his eyes peeking out from beneath the visor of the ball cap he wore over his head, as he observed Ocampo’s face, which was fortunately turned fully to him. The middle-aged Dynacare executive’s expression was normal for a few seconds, then his thick black eyebrows knitted themselves together.

There was no way for Ian to hear what Ocampo was hearing. If he was in a library and Ocampo’s phone was using a call volume high enough, it might have been possible. But not here, at six PM in a Tim Hortons.

Still, there was no mistaking the concern casting over Ocampo’s face like a cloud.

“What?” he demanded. He wasn’t panicking, but it was clear he was starting to become uncomfortable. Whatever he was hearing, it wasn’t unimportant.

Ian pulled his cap a little lower over his face as Ocampo began surveying the store as if he were trying to find something out of place. The man wasn’t being as subtle about it as Ian was observing him, but he certainly was unnerved. Ian made a show of picking up his cup and having another sip of hot chocolate, this time taking care not to drink so much at once to burn his tongue.

“Okay,” Roland said into his phone after about twenty of seconds of not speaking into it.. Via the earpiece Ian was wearing that was wirelessly connected to the TACPAD, Ian could make out the sounds of a frightened man trying his best to stay calm - the soft smacking of lips after a nervous swallow, the whiff of air as Ocampo let out a deep breath in an attempt to compose himself.

“I understand, but I have to wait for my wife and daughter here,” he went on. Ian could see Ocampo’s eyes still darting here and there, forgoing more overt glances. “They’re going to be here in ten, maybe fifteen minutes. After that, we’ll go home, and I’ll… I’ll do as you say.”

Ian wanted badly to press his earpiece tighter into his ear, but even that small gesture could blow his cover, so he kept his hands around his cup of mocha and strained his hearing to focus on Ocampo’s audio, to keep tuning out the sound of cash registers clanging open, coffee machines buzzing, and other customers talking all around him.

Ocampo was quiet again for several seconds, then he nodded to himself and spoke once more. “Yes. Yes, I understand. I’ll… I’ll take my family and go straight home. Be on the lookout for… Yes. Yes, if anyone seems to be following, I will let you know. Yes. Try to act normal. Of course. I understand.”

Bit too late for that, Ian wanted to murmur. But Ocampo's sudden apprehension made him uncomfortable as well.

“Yes, I remember. 1 AM, where the hitchhiker in white appears.” Ocampo nodded again, a lock of his previously neat hair falling over part of his forehead as he bobbed his head. “I’ll be careful… Of course. I will see you then. Goodbye.”

‘Beware: hitchhiker in white’. And one AM. Details Ian had heard Erin recount to him two days ago, siphoned from Ocampo’s Dynacare emails. And…

“Damn,” Ian muttered. In the noisy environment of a store of the most popular coffee chain in Canada, even his curse eluded his ears. He kept his head tipped slightly but kept his eye on Ocampo, who finally lowered his phone and slid it back into his pocket.

Ian exited the directional mic software, then pulled up his TACPAD’s contacts list, which contained practically only one ‘number’: ‘Azure’.

He tapped on the name and waited for Erin to pick up, taking another sip from his cup while he waited.

She picked up after five seconds. There was a ‘ding’ noise in the background when she spoke, possibly indicating an elevator. “Go for Reaper.”

“Ma’am, we might have a problem.” Ian kept his face straight, still watching Ocampo, who seemed to be nervously nibbling on the remnants of his multigrain bagel.

There was a second’s pause from Erin.

“Explain,” she demanded.

“Ocampo just got off the phone with someone, and now he looks… shaken. I couldn’t hear the other half of the conversation, but it didn’t last long. Maybe a minute, minute and a half. It might have been J.S. he was talking to just now.”

“J.S.?” Erin repeated. Her tone shifted slightly lower. “What makes you think that?”

“Ocampo said, ‘1 AM, where the hitchhiker in white appears’ when he was on his phone. Exactly those words.”

“Are you absolutely sure that’s what he said?”


“All right.” Erin took a breath. “I didn’t notice him having any phone comms with J.S. during my turns. This would be a first. You mentioned a problem?”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Even though Ian was already speaking discreetly, he sought to lower his voice even further now. “He’s acting like he just found out he’s being monitored.”


“When he was on the phone, he told whoever was on the line that he would be on the lookout for anyone following him.”

Erin paused again.

“What did he say, exactly?” she said calmly.

Ian closed his eyes for a moment, recalling the words.

“He said, ‘I’ll take my family and go straight home. Be on the lookout for… Yes. Yes, if anyone seems to be following, I will let you know. Yes. Try to act normal.’”

“And you’re saying he looks rattled?”

“He’s trying to hide it, I can tell, but right now I’m watching his eyes flying across the whole place.”

“Has he ever acted this way when you were eyeballing him before?”

“No. Never. He’s been blissfully ignorant of anything until now.”

There was another silence. Ian redirected his gaze when he sensed Ocampo’s passing over in his general direction.

“Kid.” There was an edge to the woman’s voice that Ian could make out, like she was trying to speak through a clenched jaw.


“You sure you’ve kept your distance? Left no traces? Gave Ocampo zero reason to suspect you of anything?”

For a split-second, Ian was torn between answering right away, and giving it a lengthy pondering. He eventually opted for the former, feeling the need to make what he believed true.

“Yes,” he answered. He managed to keep a calm tone just like his mentor. “Yes, Ma’am. I’ve been careful.”

There was the possibility that Ian had slipped up somewhere and he just wasn’t aware of it, and that nagged grimly at him. His stomach seemed to deepen like a void, in a way he couldn’t explain how. It was also possible that Erin could have slipped up and not him, but he was hard pressed to believe that, because she was far better at this job than he ever could be. Yes, everyone made mistakes, but…

No. It couldn’t have been her mistake. It had to have been him.

Then, something else occurred to him. Something that made the gnawing in his stomach even worse.

“Ma’am?” Ian mumbled into his earpiece. By now, Ocampo was finishing the last piece of his bagel and washing it down with a sip of coffee.

“What is it, Knight?” she said softly.

“Way I witnessed it, Ocampo wasn’t aware of anyone keeping tabs on him until a few minutes ago.”

“Yeah… and?”

“Whoever he was talking to must have been the one to tip him off.”

Erin fell silent again. If it weren’t for another elevator’s ‘ding’ sound in the background of her audio, Ian would have thought the transmission had been severed.

Ian had a feeling she’d caught on to what he wasn’t saying outright yet, but as much as he feared the possibility, he needed to make sure that they were both considering the same theory.

“Ma’am… I don’t want to sound alarmist, but… What if someone else is watching Ocampo besides us?”

“... Who? J.S.?”

“That’s the only other person we’re aware is involved in this business,” Ian replied grimly. “Wouldn’t it make sense for him - or her, whoever it is - to watch Ocampo even before the meet?”

“If… J.S. has any reason to suspect Ocampo might go back on the deal, then that’s plausible. If J.S. was concerned Ocampo might get cold feet, or alter the deal somehow, or… Or if J.S. doesn’t wholly trust the guy, then yeah.”

That wasn’t what worried Ian the most, however.

“Right, but that’s not the biggest issue now, Ma’am. It sounded like--”

“--whoever’s watching Ocampo knows about us, too,” Erin finished for him.

“Shit,” Ian swore under his breath.

“But that’s impossible, kid. Can’t be, if we’re going to assume we’ve taken all precautions and haven’t made mistakes anywhere. I know I’ve been careful. You’ve been careful, too, correct?”

Ian wondered if that was a rhetorical question. To the best of his knowledge, he’d not given anyone any reason to suspect that he was stalking the Dynacare executive. But how sure could he be that he didn’t mess up somewhere? He was fresh out of training. Given, he passed with supposedly flying colours. He was taught by someone who was often considered the best the Service had to offer. But there was no getting around the fact that he was new to all this. God forbid he botch a mission that he was working on in tandem with the woman he respected and looked up to the most. Never mind that this was his first one since clearing training.

The reality of the situation seemed to wash over Ian with brutal clarity. He’d always known this line of work was dangerous. He’d been taught that even a simple, innocent mistake could end up with someone dead, and if he was really unlucky, that someone could be him. It was one thing to be warned about that in a training scenario, though, and quite another to realize it while in the thick of a real mission.

Even worse: what if his mistakes wound up killing Erin?

“Knight? Are you there? Knight, respond.” His mentor’s slightly impatient voice brought him back to his senses.

“Yes, still here, Ma’am. Sorry. And I’ve… I’ve been careful. I know I have,” he said, swallowing a bit. He realized he was nearly crushing his disposable cup in his hands from how tense he’d gotten.

“I believe you, kid.” These words both relieved and haunted Ian in equal measure. He wanted to ask Erin why, but she’d already started speaking before him.

“It’s impossible because no one could have known about us being onto Ocampo. No one but the people at the Service and the Sector.”

Ian gained a little comfort from hearing this from her. But only a little.

“Then… how would we explain the supposed warning Ocampo got just now?” he murmured, uneasy.

Erin’s silence for the next six seconds, by contrast, did nothing to make Ian feel better about this development. She was never one to sugarcoat; if things were grim, she’d express her opinions proportionately and call things as they were. If she didn’t like something he was doing, she’d promptly call him out on whatever it was.

“I don’t know, kid,” she said eventually after the silence.

“How should we proceed, Ma’am?” Ian asked, a bit of urgency starting to creep into his tone.

“What’s Ocampo doing now?”

Ian’s gaze lifted from his cup and landed on Ocampo again, who was just putting down his own cup of coffee and had resumed looking around the store, albeit in a far more natural and casual way than he had done before.

“He’s still here. Finished eating, looks like. He mentioned to the mystery caller that he’d wait for his family to arrive, then he’d bring them home,” Ian reported.

“And then what? Is the meet still on?”

“From what I heard, yes. Same time, same place.”

“Hmm. Okay. I have a proposal, but I want you to make one of your own first.”


“Yes, you. Of course. We’re working on this together, aren’t we?” That ‘bitchy’ undertone eased some of the discomfort building in Ian’s stomach. “What do you suggest we do from here on?”

Ian took a few seconds to consider options.

“Ma’am… I don’t want to be come off as overly cautious--”

“Uh-huh. Go on. I’m all ears.”

“--but I don’t think it’s a good idea - for me, at least, to keep tailing Ocampo. At least like this, this closely. It seems like he’s on guard now, and there’s a risk I might tip his radar if I follow him the way I’ve been doing, particularly when he’s on the drive back home with his family.”

Ian waited a couple of seconds for an insult or something similar regarding his ineptitude, but Erin offered none. All she said was: “Okay. What are you going to do instead?”

“Give this guy more space and less reason to suspect he’s actually being followed. That means… easing off on surveillance for the next several hours. At least until he meets his contact for the FENRIR drop.”

Erin paused again to think about this. By now, Ian saw that Ocampo was briskly tapping his shoe on the floor beneath his table. When Ian looked at the time on his TACPAD, he saw that it was 1825. Vivian and Nina Ocampo would be here soon.

“And in the meantime, what do we do?”

This was perhaps harder to answer for Ian than anything else.

“Well, seeing as we can’t afford to be discovered following Ocampo around, what about planting some surveillance equipment we can keep running at his residence? Somewhere hidden, near-impossible to find. Maybe a directional mic in the trees. We can at least hope to hear when Ocampo goes for his late night rendezvous. Maybe he’ll even slip up and give more clues on the exact location. In the meantime...”


“... We can get some sleep. One of us, at least. Find what we can about this location with ‘hitchhikers in white’. I know we originally planned on just trailing behind Ocampo when he makes his move, but now that seems a lot riskier.”

Erin sighed lightly. “All right.”

“Okay then, Ma’am. What was your proposal, then?”

“More or less like yours, Knight.”


“Right. He’s still there?”


“I’ll head back out now and plant a d-mic at the property. Keep some tabs on the guy even if we’re not there.”

“Can you make it, Ma’am? Sounded like Ocampo’s wife and daughter are on their way here now.”

“I can if I hurry and go now. I need you to inform me when they’ve left the store. Since following them is, as you said, riskier now… It would be best if you stayed where you are. Don’t follow them anymore.”

“Okay. I should probably come with you just in case, but...”

“I’ll be more discreet on my own,” Erin told him. “You head back to the hotel room. Wait for me there.”

“Understood, Reaper.” Ian drained the remnants of his cup of hot chocolate dry, his eyes still on Ocampo several tables away.

“See you when I get back. Out.”

Erin disconnected, allowing Ian to once again focus on all the other noises around him. His eyes stayed on Ocampo, however. Whenever the man passed his gaze in this direction, Ian pretended to either look out the window at the dark, early evening sky outside the cafe, or bury his face in his TACPAD like a young adolescent would.

By 1837, two ladies walked into the store and approached Ocampo’s table, walking past Ian’s as the toxicology executive raised his hand and waved them over with a smile that wasn’t there just mere moments ago.

The first, older woman was Vivian Ocampo. She had black, pixie-cut hair and a slender but firm frame. She wore a brown winter jacket with a fur hood and a pair of peach work trousers, and carried a briefcase in one hand. In her other hand, she held the hand of her daughter.

Nina Ocampo was shorter than her mother by a good ten or so centimetres, but built roughly the same: taller than average for her age and Hispanic heritage, and just as lean as her mother. She had a light pink backpack slung over her shoulders and wore a white parka over a dark blue sweater and black leggings. Her black hair was styled in two braids that looped around her head to form a--

Ian’s objective observation stopped there. His mind suddenly began to wander.

“What…?” he muttered, looking at the young Ocampo girl who was practically half his age.

Roland Ocampo had now gotten to his feet and wrapped his arms around his daughter in embrace. Nina seemed to squeeze her father’s torso enough that Roland appeared to laugh and hug her tighter.

Ian saw what they were doing, but his focus wasn’t on that.

It was on the girl’s hair.

Double braided, looping around her head and meeting at the back to form a--

He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head gently as if to shake off a hallucination.

“Fuck,” he said almost inaudibly, accidentally using his hand knocking over his now empty Tim Hortons cup. The cup toppled over and settled against his arm at the edge of the table.

He told himself, again and again in his mind, to keep himself together. He was still on a mission, and he couldn’t act out of the ordinary here. He had to blend in, not draw attention…

When he opened his eyes again after several seconds, he saw that Roland and Nina had pulled apart a little. Vivian had her hands on Nina’s shoulders. Nina lifted both her hands up to chest height, then made three separate but consecutive gestures.

She tapped and pointed to her left ear with her left hand.

Then she made a ‘Y’ shape by sticking out the thumb and pinky of her right hand, and made a small scooping and forward motion with it.

Finally, she stretched out all her fingers in the same hand, palm facing the floor, and made a ‘so-so’ motion with her hand.

Part of Ian hoped he wouldn’t understand what the girl had just said. Unfortunately, it hadn’t been long enough for him to forget.

“Ears still okay.”

That was what Nina Ocampo had just told her father. Since she was turned partly with her back to Ian, there was no way to see her expression, but for a second Nina turned her head sideways to glance at her mother behind her.

It was only for a second, but Ian saw the small white device lodged in her ear. Part of the device had an elongated shape that followed the contours of the helix of Nina’s ear, firmly keeping the device in place.

Ian couldn’t help himself. He dipped his head straight down until all he could see was the red surface of his table. He crossed his arms over his chest and rested them on the edge of the table. His hands formed tight fists at his armpits, and his right fist shook like a creature struggling weakly to break free against his ribs. He struggled to breathe normally as his heart thumped loudly in his ears.

He wasn’t altogether certain for how long he felt compelled to look away from the Ocampo girl, but realistically, it couldn’t have been long. When he finally braved to look up, Ian found that the table Roland Ocampo was now empty and neither he nor his family were in the cafe anymore.

A slightly frantic glance out the window to his left revealed Roland ducking into the driver’s seat of his white Chevrolet Malibu several parking spots down the lot while his daughter Nina settled into the front seat beside him, making more hand gestures that Ian actively avoided looking at. Vivian, meanwhile, got behind the wheel of a Trailblazer about three spots further away, almost out of view from Ian’s window.

The two vehicles pulled out of the Tim Hortons parking lot and eventually disappeared down Lonsdale Avenue, both heading south.

It wasn’t until the two vehicles were out of sight that Ian managed to hold his TACPAD again and send his mentor a short message informing her that the Ocampo family was en route back to the residence in Horseshoe Bay.

Ian stayed where he was for another four minutes, unable to move for the duration. No matter how much he tried, he couldn’t get that girl’s hair and her simple hand gestures out of his mind. His heart seemed to clench and his head felt like it was spinning.

It wasn’t until a moment later, when he finally got his breathing back to normal and his head became clearer, that he got up from his table and stepped out of the cafe, heading to where he’d parked his car behind the dollar store across the street from the Tim Hortons.

~~ September 24, 2010 {Eight years ago}, 07:02 AM~~
~~ Location: Bishop Grandin High School, Calgary, Alberta ~~

“Good morning, Mister Alcantara.” The head school librarian, Miss Stewart, looked up from her monitor at the large reception desk that also served as the check-in and check-out counter for books and other material. “Up early again, are we?”

Fifteen-year old Ian Alcantara shifted his weight a little unsteadily between his two legs as he hefted a large binder, his hardcopy Social Studies 10 textbook, and a pocketbook-sized copy of Romeo & Juliet in his arms while walking through the main doors of the library. He peered at the kindly woman in her fifties and gave her a miniscule, tentative smile.

“Good morning, Miss Stewart. Umm. Yes, I always am,” he replied in a small, almost whispery voice. From what he could see, the humble sized library was empty save for him and the librarian, but he kept his voice low regardless.

“First period classes don’t start until eight-thirty, if I recall,” Miss Stewart pushed her thin-rimmed glasses higher up her nose bridge, returning a more open smile to the boy. “You don’t like to sleep in much, then?”

Ian’s eyes flickered to the books in his arms, then back to the librarian’s face. Since Miss Stewart was always in to open the library at quarter to seven every weekday morning, she was often the first person in school Ian got to see every day for the past three weeks since the fall semester of 2010 began.

“I like sleep,” Ian mumbled, uncomfortably adjusting his grip on his things as the binder was beginning to slip from his arms. “But I need to get up early so I can use a computer to do some homework.”

“Oh. Do you not have one where you live? Or a phone? Lord knows everyone your age already has one. Indispensable tool, those pocket sized gadgets.”

“No… I don’t have either.” Ian shook his head, feeling foolish somehow. He had an inkling that Miss Stewart was naturally looking for an explanation just out of curiosity, but he didn’t want to get into the reasons why he was in a microscopic minority of adolescent students who had little to no personal, immediate links to the internet and the vast amounts of information online.

“Hmm.” Thankfully, Miss Stewart seemed to sense Ian’s preference to discontinue this discussion. Instead, she merely smiled, nodded, and said, “Well, at any rate, it’s nice to see you again today, dear. Don’t let me keep you from your studies.”

“Thank you, Miss Stewart.”

Ian hobbled briskly past the librarian’s desk and headed for the furthest table from the entrance, behind the last bookshelf that held the books that began with V’s and W’s, partly out of sight of the nearest aisle and right up against a vertically oriented, rectangular strip of window that overlooked Haddon Road, east of the school.

Ian dumped the items in his arms on top of the table, then removed his bulky backpack and plopped the bag down in one of the two chairs allotted to this table. After he had freed both his arms and his back from the weight he had been carrying, he ran through a mental checklist of work he needed to get done by the end of next week:

Analysis for Act I of Romeo & Juliet for English 10, outline of the skeletal and muscular systems for Science 10, and a practice essay on globalization for Social Studies 10.

Ian knew he could better handle the first and last on the list, so he chose to put in work toward his Science homework, which was due by Wednesday the following week. He would need to get on one of the library computers to use Microsoft Powerpoint to generate his outline, but he hadn’t brought his Science textbook with him this morning.

Deciding to leave his things at the table tucked away in the furthest corner of the library, Ian left the library, giving Miss Stewart a polite little nod and smile as he walked by.

The walk to the corridor where Ian’s locker was located did not take longer than a minute; Bishop Grandin was a roughly quadrangular building, with each of its four sides representing one hallway multiplied by three to reflect the number of floors the building had. The library was on hallway A3, the top floor, and Ian’s locker was on C3. He needed to walk only further north to reach his loaned locker.

When he pushed through the double doors separating A3 from C3, however, he stopped. At just five past seven in the morning, Ian knew that the hallways should mostly be quiet. He’d gleaned from his first couple of weeks at his new school that C3 hallway was primarily a Mathematics hallway, where classes from Math 10 to Math 30 Pure and Math 30 Applied were taught; not the kind of place to have any activity at this early hour.

The double doors deposited him roughly in the middle of the long hallway. His locker was to his left upon entry, closer to one end, but to his right, he could hear voices - taunting and obnoxious.

Ian took cover behind the end of the row of lockers immediately to his right and carefully stuck out a bit of his head to see what was going on down the opposite end of C3.

About ten or so strides down, Ian spied three boys his age crowded in a rough semi-circle around a girl. He instantly recognized all four of the people from this distance, though not by name. The first boy was tall and lanky, with spiky blonde hair that had to be held in place by some hair gel - he appeared to be the ‘leader’ of the group, dressed in a black T-shirt and torn skinny jeans and talking the most loudly of the three. Then there was a shorter, pudgier guy with closely cropped black hair who wore a no-zip hoodie and plainer jeans that both looked at least two sizes larger than anything Ian had in his meager wardrobe. The last boy was in the middle in terms of height and weight, with an unbuttoned checkered blue shirt over a white undershirt and olive green pants that hung a bit too low down his legs.

The girl was a little harder to place because she was partially obscured by the stocky boy, but because of her rather unique sense of fashion, Ian identified her quickly enough, albeit not by her full name. She was a bit under average height, slightly shorter than Ian, with Oriental features that Ian observed before in English 10 class as mixed with some more Caucasian qualities. Her hair was presumably long, but was done in a double braid that hugged the sides of her head and met neatly at the back and was secured by a curious, colourful hair ornament that resembled a cotton cord. She wore a plain white, button-down blouse with long sleeves, a pleated dark blue skirt that reached to her mid-thigh, socks that nearly reached her knees, and dark brown loafers. Ian made out a purple binder that she was clutching tightly to her chest as the boys surrounding her poked at her and pushed her around this way and there, but never enough to allow her to leave the confines of the semi-circle they had formed tightly around her.

“So, whatchu doin’ here, freak? Got some work to do for Speaking-As-A-Second-Language class?” the blond haired boy said to the girl, who kept her head bowed even as the guy in the unbuttoned checkered shirt to her side reached over to push her head in the opposite direction, toward the stocky boy to her other side. The gesture itself wasn’t that strong, but Ian had no doubt it wasn’t meant to be a friendly one.

The girl did not respond. She merely kept still and hung her head as if she’d resolved to endure whatever this was about.

“Heyyyyy,” Checker Shirt said in a bit of a drawn out, carrying voice and leaning his face down closer to the girl’s. “He. Asked. You. A. Question. Can’t you hear him? Your ears that fucked, freak?”

“Maybe her little ear gizmos actually block us out, instead of the reverse,” Stocky Guy said with a snort. “Let’s try pulling those out - maybe she’ll hear us then.”

“Good idea,” said Spiky Hair, and the other two cackled almost simultaneously.

Ian watched as the Stocky Guy and Checker Shirt grabbed the girl’s arms while Spiky Hair leaned in as if he were about to kiss the girl, though Ian knew neither he nor his buddies could do something so benign. The girl, meanwhile, started trying to struggle and break free from her aggressors’ grips, emitting low but desperate pleas that, in the scuffle that resulted, didn’t sound like proper words to Ian from this distance. She seemed to be uttering the words “stop” and “please”, but at best it sounded like they were in broken English. Or perhaps like a child who was only just learning how to speak.

Even then, with the scene unfolding before him, Ian recalled seeing similar - albeit less overt and less extreme - incidents of this sort between the same boys and the same girl. They were all in Ian’s English 10 class, and ever since the first week of the school year, Ian had noticed that the boys seemed to delight in making fun of the Japanese-looking girl, who from what Ian understood was deaf to some degree. At first, it was just name-calling when teachers couldn’t hear, but over the next several weekdays their antics had grown to knocking the girls’ things off her desk, flicking pieces of crumpled paper in her direction, and sometimes outright stealing the girl’s pens and highlighters.

This was the only time Ian had ever seen them get physical and rough with her. He hadn’t said a word of what he’d seen from these four people to anyone, keen to keep to himself and not be involved in anything at school, but he noticed nonetheless.

By now, the girl’s pleas for mercy - Ian didn’t need to understand her otherwise incoherent noises to know what she was asking the boys for - had grown to the point of near shouting. She was now mostly engulfed by the three boys, who continued to laugh in some warped unison that reminded Ian of the cackles of hyenas from some cartoon he vaguely remembered watching when he was younger.

This didn’t involve him. He didn’t have to do anything. He just wanted to get to his locker and get his Science textbook so he could start working on his homework. But to reach his locker at the end of the hallway, he would have to step out into the open, in plain sight of the boys who were ganging up on the girl.

Still, seeing the struggling girl and hearing her whimpers and pleas made something burn in Ian’s stomach.

“Oh hey hey hey, I think I got it,” Spiky Hair said after several seconds into the jostling, “Here… we… go!”

The girl suddenly cried out a clear “OWW!” just as Spiky Hair drew back a bit with his arm cocked slightly with something Ian couldn’t see in his hand. Without even bothering to look at whatever it was, Spiky Hair flicked whatever he was holding down the hallway.

Ian’s head tilted downwards as whatever was tossed his way bounced weakly off the floor once before stopping at arm’s length away from where he stood watching the scene in secret. Without moving toward the object, Ian saw that it had a looping shape that resembled the upper bend of a human ear, but after a certain point in the thicker portion of the thing was a thin, clear, nylon-like wire that ended in a small bulb.

He wasn’t looking at the scene then and there, but just seeing that discarded object alone made the feeling in his gut even worse.

He couldn’t stand this. He didn’t want to witness this. It was none of his business. He just wanted to go about his own and forget all about this. It wasn’t his problem.

The smartest thing to do was to just do the Science homework later on and for now, work on English or Social Studies, but even as Ian prepared to quietly turn back around and head back to the library, he heard the girl yelp again, louder this time.

“Shut up, bitch!” Spiky Hair commanded in a harsher voice, then swung a hand and struck the girl across the face. “No one here understands you!”

As the girl collapsed onto her legs and the binder she’d been holding dropped to the floor, Ian did something he regretted instantly.

“Hey, s-stop that! That’s enough!”

He heard a voice that, in his shock and daze, he barely recognized as his own. He’d practically yelled it to the whole hallway, and he couldn’t recall ever whipping out from the cover of the lockers and standing in clear view of the boys and the girl down the hallway.

At that moment, Ian wanted nothing more than to dip back out of sight and even run as fast as he could back to the safety of the library. Perhaps it was possible that he could deceive the boys into believing they heard something that sounded like a person asking them to stop? Could he do that?

But three pairs of eyes had turned toward him before his shaky legs could carry him anywhere else. Spiky Hair, Stocky Guy, and Checker Shirt exchanged brief glances before looking back at Ian.

“What did you say?” Checker Shirt called back to him with a sneer.

“I… I said...” Ian’s voice seemed to fade like a candle rapidly being deprived of oxygen.

“This is none of your business, asshole,” Stocky Guy told him with what sounded like enough venom that Ian nearly took a step back even though there were between five and ten strides between him and the group of boys. “Or what, you got a problem with this?”

“It’s… It’s not right,” Ian managed to say, albeit at a less than resolute volume.

“What?” Checker Shirt demanded impatiently, taking a step toward him. Ian took a step back reflexively. “Speak up. I didn’t catch that. Or are you just like this freak right here?”

“It’s not right,” Ian managed to croak a bit more audibly, “You’re hitting her. That’s against the… the code of conduct.”

Spiky Hair eventually moved a bit away from the girl, who had fallen silent again with her head hung and her arms wrapped around herself.

“Wait, I know you,” he said with a turn of tone that made Ian’s heart shoot up his throat. “You’re from English 10, right? Same as us. The… quiet guy sitting in the far corner.”

Ian lowered his gaze.

“So what are you saying, Quiet Guy?” Spiky Hair went on, drawing beside Checker Shirt and giving Ian a small, taunting smile. “It’s wrong? What are you going to do about it? You gonna tell on us? That it?”

Ian balled his hands into fists, trying to be braver than he actually was.

“I… I will if I have to,” he mumbled against his better judgment.

“Ho,” Checker Shirt said with a mocking chuckle. “Sure, if you can even squeak once we’re done with you.”


Stocky Guy eventually lost interest in the deaf girl as well and joined his two friends as all three of the boys began advancing toward Ian, who wanted nothing more than to just leave, if not turn back time and rethink his involvement in this matter. Why did he have to stick his nose into this?

As the boys leisurely approached him and stopped within arm’s reach of him, Ian looked past their shoulders at the girl, who was still sitting on her legs on the floor, her back against the lockers on the wall. Her arms were still around her body, as if she were trying to protect herself from further harm.

Ian hesitantly tried to squeeze between Checker Shirt and Spiky Hair and head for the girl, meaning to check on her at least, but before he could take more than two steps, he rapidly found himself sprawled on the floor and gasping for air.

“How’s that, Quiet Guy?” Ian heard Checker Shirt from somewhere above him while he laid face down on the floor, his hands clutching his throbbing stomach. He almost didn’t hear the boy over his wheezing. “Still want to be a hero?”


But this wasn’t right. It wasn’t right.

Over the sound of his raspy, distressed breaths, Ian could now hear someone else nearby. He could barely understand her words, but she sounded like she was begging for the boys to stop.

“Shut up, bitch!” Stocky Guy snarled somewhere close by, and Ian heard a slapping sound and the thud of someone else hitting the floor like him. He lifted his head and found the girl had moved from where she was, but was now on her belly on the floor, trying to pick herself up.

Stocky Guy maneuvered to her side and struck her on her ribs with the tip of his runners. The girl let out a restrained cry of pain.

The burning in Ian’s belly seemed to grow hotter. He picked himself up off the floor, regaining his balance with surprising quickness, and he charged at Stocky Guy, blowing past Spiky Hair and Checker Shirt by keeping his body low to the ground and beneath their reach.

Stocky Guy couldn’t react in time, not anticipating Ian’s move until it was too late. While Ian wasn’t as heavy as the boy, he managed to tackle the larger boy and bring him crashing to the floor.

Ian leapt on top of Stocky Guy and threw a clumsy punch at the pudgy boy’s face, his knuckles connecting with the other boy’s jaw by sheer luck. Ian had never struck anyone like this before, so while the impact of his fist stunned Stocky Guy, so did the fact that he had assaulted someone stun Ian.

What was he doing here?

This momentary lapse in attention to the present cost him, because no sooner than he’d asked himself this question, he felt rough hands grab at his shoulders from behind and drag him off Stocky Guy. Arms wound under his and he felt two hands lock behind his neck to hold his head in a tipped position.

He thrashed a little to try and free himself from whoever was holding him immobile, but his squirming was cut short by something striking him on his own jaw, sending his face jerking to the side a little and pain nearly blinding him for a second.

When Ian tried to open his eyes again, he found another fist heading straight for his face. He couldn’t even close his eyes once more before the fist collided with his left cheekbone and sent his eyes rolling upwards in his head.

“Where’s all that tough talk now, huh?” Ian vaguely heard Checker Shirt huff into his ear from behind him. “Still got something to say?”

“Keep him still a bit more, man,” Spiky Hair said with growing excitement in his voice as he put up his fists and continued to dance like a clumsy but prospecting boxer. “I’m going to knock his lights out!”

“I got ya,” Checker Shirt grunted from behind Ian, who was barely even struggling at this point; the last punch seemed to have sapped him of what little spirit he had. He could only try to brace himself for the imminent third punch. Or was it the fourth?

When the next one came, stinging pain ran from Ian’s lower lip, and he knew that the impact had torn it somehow. Despite the beating he was starting to receive, all he could think of at that moment was:

This was a bad idea. He should have just turned a blind eye to what was happening. What was the point of standing up to three guys he could never dream of winning a potential fistfight against? He’d never been in a brawl, and he didn’t know any martial arts. He was a fool for even thinking he could change anything here.

Ian braced himself for the next hit, closing his eyes and anticipating which facial feature of his would be next to suffer. The thought of breaking his nose filled him with a deep dread. How would that look for the rest of his life?

“Hey! What are you boys doing there?”

A sharp, male voice rang out somewhere behind Ian, somewhere further down the hallway in the direction of Ian’s original destination.

“Oh shit,” Ian heard Stocky Guy curse off to the side. He couldn’t see who had just walked into the corridor to witness his pathetic situation, but he could see that the boy’s face had transformed to show his apprehension at being caught.

“Fuck,” Spiky Hair dropped his fists and began to turn around toward the doors at the other end of the hallway. “Vic, drop him! Haul ass, this way!”

Ian felt the strong arms of Checker Shirt release him. Like a marionette with its strings cut, Ian crumpled to the floor.

He could barely keep his eyes open even slightly as the unmistakable, rapid vibrations of the three sets of feet reverberated in the floor beneath him and head in the direction of the nearby staircase.

“Oi, you three! Get back here! Hey!” the voice from the opposite end of the hallway shouted.

Ian didn’t care where Spiky Hair, Checker Shirt, and Stocky Guy were going. He didn’t know if they’d get caught, and he didn’t care about that, either. He’d gotten involved in all this, and now he was going to have to deal with the consequences.

Before he lost consciousness, he sensed someone loom over his prone form on the floor, take his arm with much more care and gentleness than Checker Shirt had, and tried to say something to him that he couldn’t understand.

He passed out not a moment after.

~~ 10:05 AM~~

Ian shouldered the main doors of Bishop Grandin High School and stepped out into the cool, mid-morning sunshine. He stopped at the top of the twenty or so wide steps leading down to the sidewalk and street in front of the school, then gingerly touched his left jawline and cheek. Only minutes ago, he’d gone into a washroom and looked at his face, revealing two angry bruises: one on the base of his mandible on the left, and another just above it, on the cheek. In addition, he’d split his lower lip from the one punch Spiky Hair had dealt.

All in all, rather mild, albeit visible damages to his face, but still enough to warrant the verdict he was given.

Spiky Hair, Stocky Guy, and Checker Shirt had been caught and taken to the principal’s office, where they were addressed separately by the principal, Mister Larry Sullivan. The three of them were spoken to first, then Ian was brought in and told to recount his side of the story, which he did with honesty. The girl, the deaf Japanese student who was the bigger victim in all of this, was brought in last after Ian, and Ian assumed she was being interrogated for her own take on the whole matter as well. Ian didn’t stick around to find out - he couldn’t, because shortly before he left the principal’s office, he was declared suspended from classes for the next two weeks for ‘disorderly conduct’, and his parents informed of the debacle. The principal’s phone call to Ian’s father’s cellphone number went to voicemail, predictably, but Ian felt no comfort in the lack of an immediate response to what he’d gotten himself into; he’d hear about it later today for sure.

After a brief trip to his locker with a teacher he wasn’t familiar with, Ian was escorted off the school property.

Ian adjusted the straps of his heavy backpack over his shoulders and sighed, looking up at the clear blue sky above him. The brightness of the day sharply contrasted the swirl of dread and tension building in his chest.

He never should have stuck his nose into this. He couldn’t understand why it was so hard to just ignore what was happening. It wasn’t as though it was the first time he’d seen that exact same girl from his English class being tormented by the same boys who’d beaten him earlier this morning.

Ian slowly began to descend the steps to the street to make his way to the nearby train station. Technically, he was supposed to go straight home as per his suspension, but he felt an almost compelling urge to stay away from his home, even for just an hour or two longer. The thought of facing his father and mother regarding today’s news appealed poorly to him.

He took steps dolefully, trying to drag out each instance of forward movement. He had just reached the sidewalk below when he heard the light but hurried patter of footsteps coming up behind him.

Sensing the deliberate nature of the sounds, Ian turned halfway around and found the same girl he’d mistakenly ‘saved’ in exchange for his two-week school suspension rushing down the last five or so steps behind him.

Ian watched her skirt bounce lightly and sway in tune to her brisk motions until she came to a halt on the sidewalk, just next to him. She bent over slightly to catch her breath, which came in discreet but ragged intervals, then straightened up and met Ian’s eyes. The sight of her near-black eyes focusing on him with such intensity made Ian look away.

Ian only looked back at her when she made some strange gesture with her right hand that he only partly caught in his peripheral vision.

“What?” he mumbled, more to himself than to her.

The girl’s eyebrows rose a bit, then sensing that the person in front of her seemed not to comprehend her, she repeated the gesture: a quick touch of the fingertips of her opened hand to her chin, then she brought her hand away from her face and toward Ian.

Ian blinked at her, unsure of what to say to that. After a few seconds of silence, however, the lack of talking accompanied by the sheer amount of staring became too much for Ian to bear.

“What?” he said, more loudly this time, though he was still trying to keep his voice down.

The girl didn’t repeat the gesture another time. Instead, she dug into the pocket of her cardigan to bring out a pen, then lifted and opened a notebook that Ian only then noticed she was carrying in her other hand.

She brought the pen to a blank page and began to write something down on it. Ian waited with slight impatience and reluctant curiosity until the girl turned the notebook around to show him what she’d written.

“Thank you for helping me.”

Her handwriting was fairly legible for someone who appeared to scribble that in black ink. Ian had no problems discerning the meaning of her message. When she lowered the notebook to show him her face again, she then proceeded to bend forward and give him a bow.

That dip of her head and upper body took Ian by surprise and made him feel increasingly self-conscious of possible watchers in the school windows. He was, after all, still in front of the school, and to be seen associated with this girl - or anyone - was --

The girl thankfully straightened up again before he could nervously ask her to stop bowing, and when she sought Ian’s eyes again, he looked away a second time.

“Don’t bother… I just got suspended, so--”

Ian again said this relatively quietly, mostly forgetting that the girl he was speaking to was deaf to some degree. It wasn’t until the girl had taken to her notebook to write something again that Ian looked back at her. When she was through, she lifted the notebook over her face to show him her next message, written on a fresh page:

“I’m sorry you got suspended. I didn’t want anyone to get caught up in this.”

“Yeah, well, I wish I hadn’t gotten caught up in your problems, either,” Ian said to himself in silence, but in response to the girl’s apology, he merely grunted.

The girl lowered her notebook and continued to stare at him. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable under her gaze and frustrated by his predicament in general, Ian abruptly turned around and began to walk away.

He didn’t make it three steps until he felt a definite tug on the back of his backpack, disrupting his forward momentum and making him whip around a little angrily.

“What? What do you want?” he demanded, raising his voice more than he usually would now.

The girl appeared visibly taken aback at Ian’s reaction, taking half a step back when he spoke. She appeared to fumble in place for a second, then recomposed herself enough to scribble something else down on another blank page of her notebook. When she was done, she lifted it to show him something else:

“I’m truly sorry. I hope you can forgive me. I want to make things up to you.”

She lowered the notebook just enough for her eyes to peek out from the top.

Ian gritted his teeth behind his lips. Make things up to him? How? Could she magically take his suspension away? Turn back time so he could redo this morning and do things differently the second time? He was in this predicament because of her problems.

“Don’t bother,” Ian told her again, trying to stay calm.

The girl’s eyes seemed to droop a bit, then she buried her face in her notebook and began writing something again, which she showed to him promptly:

“My name is Miyaku Williams. It’s nice to meet you. Would you consider being friends?”

When she lowered her notebook, Ian found her smiling at him tentatively. That small expressive look only served as kindling to Ian’s sour mood.

“No,” Ian replied angrily without thinking, his tone steady but cold. He had no friends, and didn’t need any. Sometimes, he was barely even aware of what the term was. “No, I don’t want any friends. I don’t want you, or anything to do with you. I don’t need anyone. Now leave me alone, and stay away from me.”

For a few seconds, both Ian and the girl looked back at each other - Ian with irritation, the girl with blankness that gradually transformed to something else entirely. She lowered her notebook to her hip, bowed her head somberly for a moment, then lifted her face again to look at Ian.

She gave him another smile, but Ian sensed something different in them. It wasn’t happiness, that was for certain, but a sort of… What was it? Hurt? Longing? He couldn’t find the best word to describe her smile. More socially competent authors would have found several applicable ones to capture the meaning, but Ian himself couldn’t. All he knew was seeing that smile of hers dampened his irritation, if only a little.

In the end, the girl closed her notebook and offered him one short bow again, then gave him one last strained smile.

She turned around without another message or gesture, then climbed the steps back up to Bishop Grandin’s main east entrance as if she were in a sudden hurry to get back indoors.

Ian watched her leave, staring at the doors well after she vanished through them. He made a show to himself of breathing a sigh of relief, which made him feel marginally better for a while. He then resumed his journey to the train station with the looming prospect of his parents’ wrath making every step he took heavier than the last.

By the time his train reached Canyon Meadows Station however, roughly midway back to his home, Ian’s mind found something else to dwell on.

That girl. Her smile. Had Ian hurt her? It was a silly question that he almost wanted to laugh at. What those other boys did to her, that was what hurt, surely. Words were just words. What Ian said could be nowhere near as bad as what Spiky Hair and his friends had done to her.

“...Yeah,” Ian muttered under his breath, if only to make himself feel he was right.

He turned his eyes back out the train window to his left, watching the yellowing trees of the park between Canyon Meadows and Fish Creek Stations whizzing by him.

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