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“Black and white. To see the world through such a narrow perspective is remarkably comforting, because one can only identify with either two views – black or white. In theory, this could simply encompass everything, to the extent that someone can only be good or evil, or that one could judge another’s actions as right or wrong, or it could mean that everything is formed in two groups, but that is simply not the case – there must be something inbetween. Grey matter… But that is harder to visualize. How do you see something that’s not there, when it doesn’t even exist?” -- ‘Hold onto the Dreams you hold Most Dear’. Andrew Canis, 2030

Cryptids

Frankie Piscitelli

1


Something hidden, something older Something younger, something bolder Made from fire, ice, air or steel Whatever you see, may not be real The flow of water, the beauty of flora The lightning’s spark, the glory of fauna The mind’s eye knows more than some The spirit of one can become No matter what comes or what may be You can always know there is more to see Whenever two meet, dusk or dawn Something will be born.

Cryptids

Frankie Piscitelli

2


Prologue The Black Panther stalked the forest with ease, each paw padded silently through the leaf litter. The panther’s lithe form gracefully glided through the forest undergrowth, its shining black coat rippling through the dense springawakened bright-flowered foliage. Its grey ashen pearls for eyes gleamed intelligently, scanning its surroundings for any hint of a potential meal. Droplets of spring dew dropped upon the feline’s fur coat, adding glittering diamonds to its majestic body. Any onlooker would have observed a dark shadow from another world winding its way through the bush. This was an animal that didn’t belong in Southern Sussex, outside the coastal town of Bexhill-on-Sea. The Black Panther is a colour variant of many different large species of big cats. This case in particular was a melanistic form of Panthera pardus, more commonly known as the Leopard. They retain all physical and biological similarities except for darkening of all of their spots. If one were to look closely, they would see a faded pattern of spots upon the panther’s coat. The allele for the trait is recessive, meaning that the likelihood of a melanistic form of panther appearing is unlikely. They are one of a kind. Golden streaks of warm, morning sunlight penetrated the oak treetops, enlightening the surrounding mottled greens and browns of the British woodland. There was a clearing within the forest. It was partly shaded between two oaks whose branches had become inexplicably tangled into a knot as they desperately struggled to drink the sunlight. It was within this clearing the Black Panther made its first appearance of the morning. Its black coat was more of a hindrance than help in this unfamiliar habitat, as the light forest was not dense enough to provide adequate, shadowed cover for this particular predator. Some Leopards are crepuscular; they are more active during dawn and dusk, and this Panther was no exception on this particular morning. A rustle of leaves nearby caused the Panther to leap into a bush for cover, again stealthily unable to make any noise. The cause of the disturbance soon emerged ten seconds later – a Roe Deer. Slender, tall and thin, the hoofed animal timidly emerged into the clearing opposite the stalking Panther. If the Panther could have felt surprise it would have done, because the deer was an albino. Instead of the usual rusty red fur, the deer’s coat was pure white and the eyes were a jaded pink. The deer was petite in form and notably a female due to the absence of horns. Her ears were rabbitlike and twitched in the direction of any noise the forest produced, whether it was the cheerful chirp of a morning passerine or the drone of a grasshopper. Bending its neck, the deer sniffed the ground tentatively. It didn’t like whatever it smelt because it immediately stiffened itself, its clueless eyes rolling obliviously. If the panther was to strike, it should be soon. The panther bared its fearsome pearly whites, the skin of its jaws retracting to reveal canine daggers. The faintest hiss of breath escaped its lips as it stared its prey down, unbeknownst that it was being watched by an otherworldly presence. The panther waited patiently until the deer turned its rump to the clearing. The pounce was quick – and entirely effortless. The panther’s legs were strong and compact, they pushed down the tendons in the bones bending slightly, and then the legs propelled the predator out of the bush, flying mid-air for a split second before its jaws found their target; the deer’s neck. The deer had no time to react, as the panther bore down upon the victim, its four paws landed heavily on the deer’s back with a muffled thud, followed by a squelch as the canines found the main artery in the deer’s neck. A waterfall of maroon-red blood poured out of the deer’s neck, staining its white fur. After the first bite, the panther raised its head and purred proudly, and then it pushed down upon its victim with its 55kg of muscle and fat, preventing its prey from escaping. A rasp of breath escaped the deer before the panther’s canine found the windpipe and the deer’s hoarse cry was extinguished like a dying flame. The deer lay it’s head on the dirt and its life was gone. The kill had been eerily quiet and flawless. Not a living thing in the forest expressed a single sound for an entire minute. This panther was designed and made for hunting and killing; millions of years of evolution had slowly patented it, changed it and moulded it to fit its ever-changing ecosystem. It was this animal’s surprising temperament to adapt to its surroundings, even starkly contrasting habitats from the Congo Basin rainforests to the British woodland. It was an example of nature’s path to perfection – coined by Charles Darwin as evolution.

Cryptids

Frankie Piscitelli

3


Chapter 1:

The Dog, The Cat & The Bird . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Andrew

Canis

It was always unavoidable. Like tax, or hunger. It was going to creep up upon Andrew sooner or later. That’s what he told himself every night, like a philosopher’s mantra, except his had more holes in it than a sieve, with less respectability. And ohmygod his father made so much noise when he stumbled up those stairs, and that night, the last night Andrew would spend in Bexhill, he was lucky – Andrew heard the muffled slam of his bedroom door. The monster had retreated back to his den. He relaxed – a good night’s sleep was hard to come by during his childhood. As he warily drifted off to sleep he anxiously caressed a bruise on his arm. A last thought was claimed by sleep. My body’s a canvas but I’m not the painter. * Like most quiet children with a big imagination, who Andrew knew now were genetically inclined to become creative minded individuals, apparently; artists, writers, performers, Andrew had an imaginary friend when he was seven years old. One who would talk to him through the school gates at break-time. Rowan laughed at all of his jokes, and even if he didn’t say them aloud, Rowan laughed anyway. That was the beauty of friendship – like minded individuals. Once upon a time, even Andrew’s parents could see him. Then the switch flicked and Rowan was gone. Why are there only three chairs at the dinner table, daddy? Silence. Daddy, don’t be silly, we need another chair for Rowan! Mother would abruptly stand up from the table, knocking her cutlery and scattering it across the floor. Without a word, she removed herself from the room, wrapping her arms around herself and covering her face. Andrew’s last image of her was a wisp of shawl in the doorway. He could still hear the echoes of his mother’s cries. Seven-year-old Andrew turned to his father, aghast at how he had offended his mother so. What did I say, daddy? His father wouldn’t reply; only rub his temples so hard that the skin would turn red and crinkle like old parchment. In the space of a minute, his father had aged ten years. Andrew recalled he looked like grand-dad. Andrew would eat his pasta in silence, oblivious to the heavy atmosphere. Days merged to form weeks and weeks smoothly slid into long months of silences at the dinner table. Fuelled by a child’s determination and inquisitiveness, Andrew’s torrent of questions wouldn’t stop. He couldn’t understand why his parents refused to acknowledge that Rowan was not there anymore. Had he moved house without telling Andrew? That was rude, he had thought. Soon, his parents had gotten tired of being interrogated, so Andrew found himself directing his questions towards a different person altogether, someone called Doctor Stark. Andrew thought Doctor was a very strange first name, and he said so when he met Doctor for the first time. Doctor had smiled understandingly and patted Andrew on the head, as if he had said a joke. Andrew waited for a reply, but he instead asked Andrew how he was doing. Andrew frowned, his brows knitting together. He realised he had been doing a lot of frowning recently. He hated being mocked or ignored by people, especially adults, and he soon grew to dislike Doctor very much. The forced way Doctor asked his questions unsettled Andrew. They would talk once a week about random things; homework, TV, even the weather, and soon the questions would become more personal, more intrusive, but seven-year-old Andrew had yet to come across “social boundaries”, therefore he answered these questions with renewed fervour. Doctor wanted to talk about the relationship between his mother and father, did they laugh? Talk? Did they go out together? Are you happy? However, the more prying questions were asked, the more Andrew clammed up, until he wouldn’t talk at all. Andrew wasn’t interested in any of those things. I will be happy when Rowan comes back. Doctor was frowning now. His thin glasses glinted maliciously. “Rowan is not real, Andrew.” Doctor had said. “The sooner you realise that, the better.” What happened next was a blur to Andrew, the next thing he knew glasses were smashed on the floor and there was a bleeding cut on Doctor’s nose. After that session Andrew never saw Doctor again. The label of schizophrenic with semi-delusions was slapped upon Andrew’s medical record like a sell-by date and that was the end of that. If kids at school avoided Andrew, they definitely did now. He remembered their staring eyes clearly, bored into his memory, waiting for Andrew to do something crazy. Paranoia set in. Andrew became defensive. Parents talked. Teachers were wary. Father was stressed. Andrew was alienated for a crime he didn’t commit, for cherishing Rowan’s memory inside of his mind and never letting go. In retaliation, he alienated the world by delving into books and immersing himself in fantasies where he

Cryptids

Frankie Piscitelli

4


would run away from the relentless stares and never look back. The guilty daydreams, that he would only allow himself to fantasise about once a week, were ones where he would imagine Rowan had come back from wherever he had gone to play with him again. Andrew was lonely at home and at school, his father would sit in front of the TV, not talking. Mother visited less and less. When she did come back, they would talk loudly, their voices raising in harsh crescendos, finishing with a dramatic slam of a door, usually the front. Safeguarded in his mind, his Rowan’s memory was the only shred of constant happiness Andrew had left. The memory of when they made a fortress out of blankets and toys. Was it real? Andrew began to doubt the reality, too. But he remembered that as clear as day. Did that make it real? Who knew? Those daydreams helped Andrew sleep at night, and that’s when the dreams came, where he retreated into elaborate fantasy worlds where the grass was blue and the animals could talk. Sometimes they were more real than life itself. Andrew became so quiet and reserved that father decided to move away from Hertfordshire to what he positively called a seaside getaway aptly named Bexhill-On-Sea. The move didn’t help, though. Now there were only two chairs at the dinner table, with his father’s new best friends Beer and Cider, Andrew’s mother was nowhere to be seen. Gone, in a cloud of smoke, like that magician on TV. * He’s never asked for anything in his life. He’s never accepted something someone else has offered to him. He’s never wanted something he didn’t need, like the next rock album or the latest gadget. He’s never even asked for money or clothes. Andrew makes do with what he has (which isn’t much at all), and that is not something he brought upon himself, an injustice he tells himself late at night. It’s simply the life he had been given and he likes to think he’s doing the very best with it. I’m fortunate enough to understand how to take care of myself, Andrew prided himself in thinking. I’m not egotistical or anything (I can almost hear Robert chiding claim! in my head), but judging by my youth that’s a good life skill to have. To his surprise it wasn’t hard at all. Remembering to wash his clothes every now and then in the river (the washing machine had been broken since Christmas), scavenging for a new pair of shoes from a nearby dumpster when the previous pair became too small (there would always be a new pair after winter in the back alley behind Clarkes, thrown out to make way for the summer line) and he would lift whatever money was on the table-counter when he passed it – because it might not be there the next morning. It’s not a hard life. An arduous life, maybe … but it’s not a hard one. * Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. A constant soundtrack in the mornings. Sitting at the table, opposite his father who was consuming cornflakes with the volume akin to a digger, the familiar frustration welled inside of him like hot irons sizzling in a fireplace. Frustration because he would give anything to be anywhere but here right now. They say don’t wish your life away, but he’d give an arm and a leg to press fast-forward to take him a couple of years ahead. To grow up. One flake was ensnared by his unshaven beard. Andrew watched it dangle there, by the thread of a single wisp, spinning in a sick pirouette of crushed corn. The sight made him feel a little ill. No matter how bleak life is, you always have a choice, Andrew had always thought. The choice to change your life may seem too drastic, too dangerous, too far outside of one’s comfort zone, so not everyone has the guts to go through with it, he mused. However, he started executing that choice today. His life is going to change. For the better? He wasn’t an optimist, yet not a cynic either. Andrew liked to think he lay somewhere in-between. “Happy birthday,” said his father flatly. “Grab a Carlsberg and have a drink on me.” What if my father wasn’t an alcoholic? Congratulations, said the snide voice in his head. You’ve cracked my childhood complex wide open, he bit back in retaliation. Father and son stared each other down, two hunters locked gaze, neither willing to give up. Father uttered more beer under his breath and stood up to leave. The front door creaked shut, and then slammed itself, like it always did, leaving behind a silent echo. Andrew whispered under his breath. One. The birds chirped outside. Two. Something in the house creaked. Three. Was that burnt toast he smelt? Four. Take a last look around. Five. Time to go. Andrew leapt to his feet and scrambled along the narrow hallways. He didn’t have much time; the corner shop was only around the corner, surprise surprise. Three minutes, four tops was all he had. Bounding up the stairs three at a time, adrenalin coursing through his veins as he exhibited a prime example of the fight or flight response, Andrew

Cryptids

Frankie Piscitelli

5


launched himself into his father’s bedroom like a cannonball. Three words described Maurice Canis’s room: dark, dank and desperate. The shadowed, mildewed curtains saw to the dark. The un-washed piles of clothing made up the dank. A combination of the two created the desperate element – a man desperately on the brink of losing the ability to take care of himself. Losing? Try consciously abandoning. Andrew felt like a ghost as he quietly looped around the bed, carefully avoiding piles of papers and folders. A logo caught his attention, like someone calling you from far away. Peering at it, he tore it off the edge of the paper. It was drawn out of thin black lines; an animal hybrid symbol of some sort with the head of a wolf, the whiskers of a cat and the wings of a bird. It was standing on its hind legs and bearing its forelegs proudly. Without thinking, Andrew pickpocketed it. Probably his mother’s old files, she’s not around anymore. Andrew’s forgotten what her face looks like. Moving swiftly on, he found himself at his father’s bedside table. It was pad-locked. Producing a straightened paper clip, he made short work of the lock. Youtube can teach you a lot of useful skills. Click, click. Swinging open the door, he grinned mischievously in triumph. His red passport lay in his hand. Locking his passport away was a crude method of tying Andrew to Bexhill. But now that he was eighteen, the unwanted companionship of ball and chain was about to be no more. He was almost free of his prison. Grabbing his escape card, he was ready to spring away when he saw a picture of him in the cabinet. Andrew’s grey eyes glinted curiously. Snatching the photo, he scanned the uncanny face staring back at him defiantly. It was him, but not him. Andrew… yet not quite Andrew. He’d never had his hair that length had he? The eyes were different, too more brooding, less cunning. Cheekbones less pronounced in the shadow. The overall facial shape more circular, instead of his pointed features. Andrew, but not Andrew. Could it be…? “BOY!” A roar erupted from downstairs; Andrew’s father had returned with a pack of beer to boot. Thump-thump-thump. Those stairs aren’t going to last long… was the last thought in Andrew’s head before Maurice charged into the room and found Andrew crouching in the corner. “What are you doing in my room?” growled Maurice, his blood pressure running faster than a racehorse. In the darkness, Andrew’s eyes flashed dangerously. “You think you can sneak into your father’s room like a rat and steal his money?” “I’m not interested in your scattered pennies,” said Andrew coolly. He rose defiantly, adolescence had given him confidence, and he fed off of confrontation. He threw the photo of his doppelganger onto the bed and milked the drama for what it was worth. “Care to explain what this is? Andrew dreaded the answer, but at the same time wanted the truth more than anything else in his life. If Rowan was real, it would only fuel any plans of running away from home. Andrew waited patiently and bit his lip. “Sit down.” His father spoke with a strained softness that didn’t suit his rough voice. “It’s about time I told you the truth. The whole truth.” “I’d prefer to stand,” stated Andrew plainly, crossing his arms and holding up his chin. He knew this would only feed the fire of his father’s anger. He enjoyed un-necessary kindling. Cursing under his breath, his father started again. “You were seven. At home with ma. I was out grocery shopping with… with… him. Rowan.” “So it was true. I did have a brother.” Andrew would never admit it, but the words pulled at his heartstrings. It was all true, everything bad thing he ever thought about his father. Could it possibly be the day when my father finally acknowledges the truth?” “Yes, yes, alright,” groaned Maurice dejectedly. “Rowan was real. Your brother was real. It was all a sham to protect my career. Are you proud of yourself now?” “Ecstatic,” Andrew said darkly. He wasn’t. He couldn’t believe it. He felt like he had stepped into a dream where his world had turn upside down. Somehow, he tried to stay in tune with his father’s words. “It was a car crash. Back in the day when your mother had a good heart, she said she’d prefer to spare you from the grief of losing your brother in such a gruesome way. It was all her idea, I swear!” “I’m sure it was,” muttered Andrew. His voice, usually strong and confident, now took on a heavy quality. The sadness of the truth was too much to bear. “You were too afraid to admit the fact that you killed him on a DUI charge.” Andrew held up court papers from the cabinet. “I think I can figure the rest out for myself. You made the glorious lie to save the family and clear your name of any permanent criminal record, whilst I’m branded a liar and a potential schizophrenic, packed full of drugs enough to stop any kind of coherent thought inside my head, all for treasuring the memory of my brother inside my supposedly addled brain.” Andrew shook his head. He knew this was true, no matter how much he tried to deny it at night, the truth gnawed at his subconscious. Dreams of his brother were often so real he would wake up and believe them. “On what planet did you think that forgetting an accident would help us all move on?” Andrew said softly: “Tell me dad – is your conscience clear now? Was the lie worth all the trouble?” Even though Andrew’s voice was quiet, his words burned with a vicious fire that licked his insides. The injustice made him feel sick. He had always wanted a brother, and now he had been denied his very memory. He locked eyes with his father. He secretly wanted him to feel awful, to fall upon his knees in mercy. But his father was speechless. Andrew wondered whether it was strange for him to see his remaining son discover the truth. “We thought it was best at the time. People make mistakes.”

Cryptids

Frankie Piscitelli

6


“I don’t think the word ‘mistake’ really covers this mess.” Andrew’s vision glistened with tears. He wiped them away defiantly. He didn’t want to give his father the satisfaction of seeing him cry. “If it’s a lawyer you want, you can find your own.” Maurice said defiantly, misconstruing Andrew’s eye brush as anger. “I’d like to see you try and create a case on this,” he scoffed. “Christ, try and find your mother if it helps! Good luck with that, she could be anywhere by now with that professor she ran off with.” At that moment, underneath all the monumentally lithospheric layers of anger that formulated Andrew’s DNA, he felt only pity for his father. Pity that he was laying blame at his mother, who, as far as Andrew knew, had his best interests at heart. Well, that was before she decided to disappear in thin air, never to be seen again. Perhaps the guilt had eaten her away, whilst her husband turned to booze. It was all a child’s game; and Andrew was caught in the middle of the awful truth. “At least my mother showed remorse for what happened,” said Andrew valiantly. He inwardly felt silly for standing up for a mother he didn’t quite remember, but he felt like it was the right thing to do. “Forgive me for prying, but do you have any shred of emotion left in that brain-dead beer box of yours? Any regrets?” The frosty bite was clear in his voice now. Somehow, beneath the hurt, he found the strength to hurt his father back. Maurice barked a horrible laugh and wheezed, sitting on the bed. “My God, boy, you think your mother was hearts and rainbows? Why do you think she left? She couldn’t face the death of her favourite son! I’d like to see her defending you in court. Well, I guess you better find her first.” “Judging from what you’ve just told me, I don’t really want to believe anything you say anymore,” said Andrew, snatching up Rowan’s picture and the DUI papers before his father could take them away. He rounded the bed. “I don’t need a lawyer, I have all of the evidence I need to make a case against you. I’m going to clear my name and everyone will finally know I’m not crazy. Well, in a medical sense anyway. It was tough growing up to be sane around you. Actually, you know what I want? I want to leave this place. No wonder mother left, I should have run away years ago.” For a lack of a more heartfelt goodbye, Andrew left his father to his devices and went to his own room. Underneath his bed was a massive, packed travel-bag, stuffed with clothes and separate wads of money scattered inside – Andrew dragged it out, stuffing the papers inside and donned it with difficulty. Everything he’d need for the next few days’ journey was inside. Andrew hesitated at the top of the stairs. He glanced at the door of his father’s room. “I’m off to school. See ya.” Andrew had perfected his nonchalant send-off a week ago. There was no reply. Stepping quietly down the stairs so that the weight of his bag wouldn’t make them creak (watch the third step!), Andrew grabbed the door’s metallic handle. This would be the last time he would leave the house. The cold metal felt foreign to him now. Letting go, the cold echo was imprinted on his hand. He stepped outside and took a deep breath. Running away from home didn’t feel special or liberating at all. It felt like any other day; grey and drizzly. Andrew walked on without a glance bank at the godforsaken dump that had been home for the past five years. He couldn’t shake the doorknob’s cold metallic imprint from his hand – it was like a tattoo that had been branded upon him in his sleep. Shouldn’t you have said goodbye one last time? His forgotten mother’s disembodied voice in his head. Nah, goodbyes aren’t my thing, Andrew replied sombrely. * The thickets of Bexhill Wood provided the perfect spot for reading; the birds chirped pleasantly, a breeze would gently tickle your hair, and the green aromas from the forest accented Andrew’s mood dreamily – cool, calm and collected. He had time to kill before he was going to run away for good. There was never a bad time for a bit of light reading, especially when it came to Darwin’s Origin of Species. The copy that Andrew held used to belong to his mother; it was the only possession of hers that he had left. Andrew had hidden it under his bed and he had never understood why. Maybe it was because he selfishly didn’t want his father to share this little piece of his mother, he wasn’t exactly sure; he just knew it was one of his most prized possessions. The book was riddled with scribbling’s, notes, diagrams and equations, Latin names of animals, none of which Andrew truly understood. Nevertheless, he would read it religiously, hours into the night, searching for the reason she left hidden in the code. From what his teenage mind could understand about evolution, he knew now that the process affected every form of life on the planet, from the grass he was sitting on, to the blackbirds swooping above him, a process that made them specifically adapted to live in their environment. Maybe I evolved to be what I am today? Humans were crippled when compared to animals, Andrew thought; crippled by the affliction of the creative mind. Self-analysing and emotions had played a definitive role in Andrew’s life, after all, it was the love he held for his late brother that ultimately broke his family apart and the repression of his memory that moulded Andrew into a precocious introvert. That’s what the teachers called him, anyway. Was that a tear in his eye? Andrew batted it away harshly, leaving a red mark on his cheek. Crying never helped anybody. The behaviour of crying could be summed up to secretomotor functions in reaction to an emotional response, to let others around you know that you were in distress. It was all hormones, really, hormones dancing around in your bloodstream to make you feel something. Reducing himself to blood and bones helped Andrew to get a grip on difficult situations. Crying didn’t provide any evolutionary advantage since nobody was here to see his plight, so in the end it was useless. The birds ignored him. They carried on singing.

Cryptids

Frankie Piscitelli

7


Origin of Species snapped shut. Etched onto the front cover was a message, scrawled presumably by his mother;

Living in the shadows, hidden Evolution’s guilty pleasure. Whenever he read that message, Andrew felt like prying eyes were watching him, bodiless, ethereal, floating around in the darkness of his room. Not malicious at all, just watching him read. He felt the oppressive presence now; the hairs on his skin saw to that, and the familiar muscle tense spread throughout his body. He scanned the forest around him, watching the leaves rustle in the early morning breeze. There was a bark from the bushes ahead. Andrew’s head snapped up. Neuro-motor response. Bright grey eyes greeted Andrew. A tiny grey border terrier with a big fluffy head was barking incessantly, hopping on the spot as if on hot coals, partially hidden in the long grass. The dog was tiny, the size of a football. “Go away.” Andrew plucked some dirt and threw it at the nuisance. He wanted to be alone with his book and his sardonic misery. “Go on, get it!” The dirt disintegrated in the air and the dog ignored the soiled assault. Instead, Andrew tried a different tack. He got up, leaving Origin of Species and his bag behind. Andrew grasped for the dog, but it jumped out of his reach and became even more frenzied with loud barks. Suddenly, it used its small, stunted, bushy tail to point behind Andrew. Astounded, he slowly turned around. The clearing he was just sat in was undisturbed, except for grass stems shuffling ahead. Something was moving in the bushes, he couldn’t see what it was, it soon stopped – whatever it was had slinked back into the forest. All of a sudden he mentally kicked himself – Origin of Species was gone. “What the…!” He checked underneath his bag. Nope. He rounded on the dog, ready to chase it down, but it was nowhere to be seen, leaving Andrew alone in the clearing. But the bloody book was right there… Andrew scoured the muddy dirt. There was something odd about how the grass bent here… and there… he used to track deer in the woods when he was younger, so he could easily trace mammalian paths through the woods, but these were no hoof prints – there were three clear indents – paw prints. He splayed his hand next to them – they were almost as big as his. It was either an example of tabby cat gigantism, or he had a big problem on his hands. Andrew shoved his bag into a bush and snapped a couple branches to camouflage it from gypsies, grabbed his phone and a kitchen knife, and silently began to follow the tracks into the woods. Whatever it was had taken the last solid thing his mother possessed, and he wasn’t about to let that go without a fight. As he stalked, he numbly realised his father had no idea Andrew was planning to run away, so nobody knew where he was. Some haughty voice inside his mind told him this was a bad idea so in classic Andrew-esque fashion he turned a deaf metaphorical ear to it and carried on. However, Andrew wasn’t the only one who planned to leave Bexhill for good that day. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sara Leo . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Bexhill Harrow High The school courtyard was packed with students who had travelled from all four corners of Bexhill-On-Sea to attend their morning registration count. Rowdy teenagers ran in every direction in groups, chatting animatedly about the past weekend’s events and happenings. This particular Monday morning was a misty one. The sky was full of grey, wispy clouds that insisted on blocking sunlight from reaching the school below, but all the students were oblivious to the weather except one girl who sat alone tucked away in a corner. A bell rang – it was time for the students to disperse to their individual classes. In two minutes the courtyard was empty except for the girl. The eighteen-year-old girl had strawberry blonde hair that was darker at the roots and speckled freckles scattered across her face and arms, with fair skin and very thin figure. Her bright azure-blue eyes were inquisitively wide. Sara tapped her foot absent-mindedly as she sat on the bench with her arms folded. She held the anxious air of somebody impatiently waiting for something, yet simultaneously reluctant for it to happen. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Robert Avery . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Bexhill Harrow High He watched Sara with calm placidity, thinking carefully about what they were going to do today. The two of them had been waiting for May 22nd for six months now, yet even so it wasn’t enough time to mentally prepare them for the

Cryptids

Frankie Piscitelli

8


implications of running away from home. You hear about it on TV; tragic young children, early teens, their pictures gaunt and sad, but Sara was an exception. Her once bright face was down-heartened, her wide eyes hooded, her hair tangled. Despite this she was the prettiest girl Robert had ever seen. A girl who gave no effort on her appearance was a troubled woman, thought Robert. That was one of his father’s many quotes. Sara used to be the most popular girl in school. Sara was like a book, the words regret, anxiety and bliss formed the creases of her frowns and smiles, exclaiming to the world her emotions without restraint. That was one characteristic Andrew disapproved of, but Robert loved her emotional sincerity. But now she reminded him of a flickering light, buzzing with faded energy. It was up to him to ignite her again, because Andrew definitely wasn’t going to do it. All of a sudden she looked up and saw him standing there. Robert felt the blood rush to his ears as if he had stumbled upon something private, like a deer foraging in the woods. Spooked; she half stood up, and then sat back down again, unsure of whether Robert was going to come to her. He raised a hand in greeting and gave a shy nod. He crossed the courtyard with long strides. He was wearing chino’s, an eagle-crested belt with a striped shirt tucked tightly in his trousers, donned with a waistcoat finished with a colour palette of mottled greens and browns; Sara had admired his vintage fashion sense many a time, remarking that he looked like he was from the 80s. Robert seemed to glide across the courtyard, sitting down next to Sara and clasping her hand in his. “Hey.” “Hi,” Sara whispered. She squeezed his hand and smiled. Robert’s heart leapt. There it was, in all its beauty. “Packed?” “Yep.” Sara patted the travel bag next to her. “Bit much?” “Don’t want to be caught short-handed. You never know what you mind need, right?” “Right.” The exchange was quiet but comfortable. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Robert faced Sara, regarding her with those intelligent eyes; Sara had always felt like Robert knew more about her than he let on. Despite the situation, Sara laughed. It was a hearty laugh full of honesty. Music to his ears. “You’re really asking me now? Of all times to ask?” Robert joined in with a chuckle, and then a shrug, turning away and nodding, humouring himself. “Yeah…” he muttered. They paused for a beat. “I really appreciate you, you know. I want you to know that.” Sara knew that Robert never spoke unless it was for very good reason. He was a humble friend. Sara regarded him with interest and put a hand on his shoulder. Robert turned to face Sara with those dark and modest eyes of his. “I know.” She said. “Where’s Andrew? You don’t think he’s done a runner, do you?” Robert shook his head. “This was his idea. He’ll be here, trust me. He wants to get out of here, probably more than we do put together, and with good reason. Everyone deserves a clean slate.” They sat in silence together, waiting for Andrew. * . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .About 8 months ago Robert harked back to the first time he had noticed Andrew. Note the word noticed, not met. One does not meet Andrew - one experiences the anomalous oddity that is Andromedo Canis. Although they were in the same class it took three years for Robert to put a face to the name. They were both quiet kids so they each gave a wide berth to everyone else, including each other. It was Andrew’s nose-ring that had put Robert off; he thought that he was one of the Goth freaks that smoked outside the gates. The greasy fringe didn’t help first impressions either. Everything about Andrew’s early appearances screamed go away and don’t talk to me. Dark, haunted grey eyes peered out of the fringe curtain, a quality Robert would later learn to be a product of anxiety and lack of sleep. He remembered the day, almost a year ago, as if it was yesterday. He was walking into school listening to his iPod, thinking about choir practice at the weekend, when he heard loud shouts piercing through Pavarotti’s D-note, a difficult feat in itself. Taking one earphone out, he scanned the school parkway for the disturbance and his eyes met Andrew’s father’s. He almost flinched. He was giving Robert a scathing look as if he was intruding on a private family matter, despite the dispute being held at the school’s public gates, and then he rounded on his son, Andrew, who Robert instantly recognized from English class. Andrew was on his knees. His father grabbed his arm and shoved him through the gates. “Get in there, you filthy scum. And if I see you snatching from my wallet again I’ll report you,” he had spat. “Stay out of trouble,” Maurice called over his shoulder, his big form lumbering out of sight around a corner. Robert watched Andrew pick himself up and brush himself off. Everyone was staring at him and whispering. Robert was about to step forward to offer a hand, but Andrew shot him a dirty look. It was the same look his father had given. The words don’t pity me were etched in every corner of Andrew’s face, although his eyes betrayed him. They were helpless. Instead, Robert watched him limp off into school, the jeers and jibes of the other students never-ending. From then on, he kept an eye on Andrew in class, who would sit at the back, letting his fringe hang across his face as if he was

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plotting to wire the room with explosives. Robert was careful not to let Andrew notice he was watching, he never wanted to be on the receiving end of that look if he could help it. Robert’s father was a vicar, and with his mother, the three of them would go to church every Sunday, singing hymns and saying prayers, giving thanks and shaking hands, all in the name of God. Robert enjoyed the experiences very much when he was growing up. Everyone was nice and pleasant. They ruffled Robert’s hair fondly, which he always enjoyed, and they said he was growing every day. Not like at school, where the teachers snapped at students who swore under their breath back at them. Robert ignored them, he had his happy place. His father would often go and help with community service, and encourage Robert to do the same. Altruism was Robert’s staple ingredient when growing up, and he was endowed with it. Father Collins returned home from one such volunteering day a couple of days after Robert had watched Andrew arrive at school. “Just came back from painting the town hall.” Father kissed his mother on the cheek. “That poor Canis boy, you know, the one who lives down on Sidwell street? Such an unhappy chap. A lot of pent up anger there. I hope he finds God soon.” Robert approached Andrew one lunch time. He was sitting alone at the edge of the canteen. “Can I sit with you?” he asked. “Do whatever you what,” was Andrew’s instantaneous reply. Robert sat opposite the boy and ate his salad. “You’re the pastor’s son, aren’t you?” asked Andrew. “Yes.” “You dress like a cross between a librarian and Doctor Who, I can’t tell which.” Robert was about to get up when Andrew spoke again. “I know your father.” “Yeah, I know.” “Has he spoken about me?” inquired Andrew. Robert saw through the nonchalant air immediately. “A couple of times… He says you’re a piece of work.” Robert let that hang there for a second. Andrew didn’t say a word, apparently he deemed that a satisfactory answer. “What did you do?” asked Robert. “Huh?” “Community service. What did you do?” “My father threw his shoe through a window.” Delivered as if that was the most normal explanation. “Why are you doing community service and not him then?” “Jesus, what is this, twenty questions? Because my father is a liar. You saw what he’s like,” said Andrew, meeting Robert’s gaze. There was that look again. Don’t pity me. “I know you saw me that day.” Robert just nodded. His sights shifted to over Andrew’s shoulder, the bright blonde hair of the girl behind him caught his eye. He lingered there, just watching her turn to her friend and laugh. Andrew clocked the shift in a split second and turned around. “Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” he chided. “Is that the Leo girl?” Robert shyly looked down and picked at his food. Damn, I could feel myself blushing. Father says never to say damn… Damn, he was still thinking it! He was then aware of Andrew laughing hysterically. “Getting ‘I heart Sara Leo’ tattooed on your forehead would be just as obvious,” chuckled Andrew. His laugh was like a harsh bark. “I see you ogling at her in Math. You don’t know how to hide your emotions, do you?” “She hangs out with just girls.” Robert was speaking into his salad. “I can never get her alone.” Robert felt a punch on his shoulder. “Ow!” Andrew lent in as if he was about to tell Robert the secret of how to get girls to fall in love with you. “Let me tell you a little known secret, girls go crazy for boys with an edge.” “That tactic work out well for you, then, does it?” As soon as the words left Robert’s mouth, he almost regretted it. Andrew looked like he was about to punch him for a split second, then he chuckled that harsh, gravelly laugh again that didn’t match his youthful appearance at all. “Nice. Didn’t think you had the edge in you, choir boy.” Andrew mock-applauded him. “Tell you what; I know exactly how to get Sara’s attention. What are you up to Saturday night?” “Isn’t that the night of Jess’s Christmas party?” Everyone knew about it and everyone was going, the biggest event of the year before they broke up for the holidays. Andrew grinned. Robert soon became accustomed to expect trouble after that crooked grin. Before Robert realised it, he was standing in front of Jess’s house that Saturday night. Alone. He watched his classmates get dropped off by the parents, stumbling out of the cars with bottles of vodka and Santa hats sticking out of their bags like drunken tokens. They whispered and pointed; was that the pastor’s son? I thought he was celibate… Laughter. Robert smiled and waved awkwardly as they passed, naively oblivious of their chiding. He was waiting for Andrew. His

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text was very specific, stay outside the house and don’t move. He had given him a black leather jacket and an old shirt of his father’s to wear, he said it would look ‘sick’, although Robert thought he looked like a complete twat and the jacket was so heavy his shoulders sagged. And instead of looking sick it smelt like it. Robert was about to call it a night when he heard a voom-voom-voom coming from the road ahead. A spotlight sprung out of the darkness and a silhouette turned the corner, with a final tire screech the motorcycle skidded to a halt at Robert’s feet. The rider was kitted entirely in black; the helmet came off and Robert gaped in shock. “Are you out of your mind?” breathed Robert. “Where did you get that thing?” “Nicked it from the lot uptown,” said Andrew, swinging his leg over the engine and kicking the wheel lock roughly. Robert watched how easily Andrew navigated himself around the vehicle in astonishment – he’d ridden this thing before. “Their locks are piss easy to pick. Now, take this - ” he thrust the helmet into Robert’s arms “ – and ride a couple of lengths up and down the street. Maybe ride into the driveway for dramatic effect, you know.” Robert stared at him. “It’s true what they say. You are bloody crazy!” Andrew shrugged. “Look, are you gonna ride this thing or not? I have to take it back to the lot before the midnight checks. Go on, choir boy, live a little.” There was something about those two words that buried Robert’s sanity and logic into a deep, dark hole in his mind. With difficulty, he swung a leg over the bike’s breadth and prayed to God under his breath he wouldn’t kill himself. * An hour later, Andrew was re-locking the bike at the lot. “Dude, you were so awesome! That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen! You should be on Top Gear!” “Did you see me do that skid next to the front door? Jess screamed like a banshee!” Andrew barked his laugh. “Literally the funniest thing I’ve seen in time.” “I lost sight of you,” said Robert. “Where did you go?” “Went inside quickly to see what the party was like.” “Did you see Sara? Do you think she saw me?” asked Robert excitedly. “Did she see me?” “Man, I’m not sure; I was too busy watching you make a name for yourself, choir boy.” Robert sighed. “You know, I don’t even care. That was the coolest thing I’ve done in… in… ever since I can remember.” Robert stood awkwardly in front of Andrew, with the bike in-between them, the adrenalin rush still pounding in his ears. He wanted to thank Andrew but he didn’t know how to say it without it sounding a bit lame. Andrew sniffed awkwardly. “Look, let’s skip the conversation where we tell each other how much fun we’re having, how we should do it again sometime, someone cries, there’s this moment of comradeship or something crappy and lame – yeah, let’s skip all of that – I don’t do special moments. Okay?” Robert smiled. “If you say so.” Over the holidays, Robert realised he enjoyed Andrew’s foul language and rude jokes, and even began making excuses to leave church to graffiti alleyways with him. He had a natural flair for expressing colour in art, Robert noticed. Andrew’s sardonic musings about teachers, parents, school and life in general were pretty funny. Instead of accepting things, Andrew actively challenged every single thing in his life by pushing the boundaries, from the clothes he wore to the authority crises he often landed himself in. Andrew’s belligerent attitude was refreshingly jarring, like eating a spicy curry after soft, creamy yoghurt during his entire life. Robert found himself questioning things in his own life too, including the Catholic faith. His parents were not happy about this at all. “What does the Bible say about adoption?” asked Robert one day. At the tiny dinner table, his father thought for a moment, his brow knotting. “Adoption… I believe is mentioned a couple of times. Of course!” He snapped his fingers, the way he always did when he remembered something. “Exodus 1:15 to 22, when Pharoah had ordered the Hebrews to be slaughtered, a humble man named Jochebed bore a child during this unfortunate time, so he wrapped the boy in a waterproof bassinette and set him along the River Jordan, where he was found and raised by a the royal family with a new Christened name – Moses!” “But you didn’t discover me on a river.” “No, son,” laughed his father. “We adopted you when you were only two years old, didn’t we, Tina?” “Yes, you had the most gorgeous little nose. Like a little button,” cooed his mother. “I remember we picked you up from the nursery and you looked at me with those amber eyes of yours and I knew you were the one.” “You were my Moses,” said father proudly. “I’m not parting seas any time soon,” joked Robert. “In time.” Robert wasn’t sure if he was joking. “Blimey, even Jesus was, in a way, adopted by Joseph, and raised as his son.” “Well, not really,” reasoned Robert. “Jesus didn’t need a father. He had God.” “God is everyone’s father,” his father replied simply. “But there’s something I don’t understand…” Robert almost held his breath. “If God loved his son, why did he let him

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to be murdered?” “Ah, therein lies the ultimate sacrifice. Jesus’s death gave birth to forgiveness and consideration in the human race, and rid us of all of our sins.” “Oh. But there’s so many sin, everywhere in the world. Does another son of God have to die for the people to be absolved of sin?” “No, son. The people will have to pray that God will forgive them.” “How does he forgive them if he is in Heaven?” “Where is Heaven?” “Heaven is… above us. It’s where we go after life, it is somewhere we can be free of our sins.” With his Andrew-specs on, as he had affectionately coined the term, he saw these answers for what they truly were – hollow and unbelievable. When Robert would relay a fact, Andrew would aggressively growl ‘proof’? Robert had mentioned proof about God once at the dinner table; the quiet debate he was hoping for was far from the truth, it was as if the Apocalypse had arrived a year early. It took a month for his father to speak to him normally, as if Robert had announced he had transmitted a highly contagious STD. Never again. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Andrew Canis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Bexhill Harrow High (6 months ago) Robert was Andrew’s first true friend since he had moved to Bexhill six years ago. He was telling Andrew about the time he asked his parents about adoption as they walked to school together. “Sounds like a warzone,” muttered Andrew, half-listening. Most of the time he was annoyed by Robert’s jittery mannerisms, but when he spoke about doing something bad or egging someone’s house, there was a spark in his eyes that Andrew loved to see. To this day, he still laughed over the image of waist-coated baby-faced Robert, mounting the motorcycle. He’d never seen anyone more out of their comfort zone. “It was. I’ve never seen Father so angry,” explained Robert. “I’m not sure whether he’ll ever speak to me in the same way ever again. My belief in Christianity has always been the elephant in the room. You know he’s put a copy of the Bible on my bed stand? I know he wants me to read it but I can’t bring myself to dive into it. I guess my parents always assumed that I would be a vicar like my father.” “Why do you have to be exactly like your father?” questioned Andrew. Robert noted that he was sticking his nose up again, defiantly, like he always did when he disagreed with something, usually against something Robert had said. “I don’t know… I think it’s because I don’t know any different. It’s in my DNA.” “See, that’s where you’re wrong,” said Andrew, grabbing his arm. “The blood that runs through these veins doesn’t wholly determine who you are or what you’re going to be when you’re older. Social learning theory,” he stated simply, tapping his grubby nose. “Bandura. He says that people and animals can learn new skills from environmental cues, so it’s not all hard-wired in your genes.” “Sometimes the things you say really don’t make any sense,” sighed Robert, shaking his head. “What’s your father like, anyway?” Before Andrew could answer, there was a shout and a scream ahead. They run forwards to the school gates. There was a small group of people huddled in the road, crouching. Had someone…? Andrew and Robert ran forwards and tried to squeeze forwards. “I’m fine – I’m fine! Let me go!” An impatient voice broke through the mayhem. Two girls were helping another to her feet. It was Sara Leo. “Babe, are you okay?” asked one of them, brushing away dirt from Sara’s school blazer. “You just collapsed!” Sara sighed. “I’m alright. Just, I need some air…” She looked extremely pale and her eyes were sunken, the skin around them purple. Her freckles were much more pronounced than normal. The girls led her away to sit on the wall whilst another ran to get a teacher. Andrew turned to Robert. He was staring at her with his mouth open, his hand clutching his chest. “I thought she had been run over,” he breathed, his voice breaking with near-grief. Andrew shoved him forwards, breaking him out of his reverie. “Come on, Romeo. She’s fine. Let’s get to class.” * “Nice skid-mark, Avery? Your holy father sacrifice the motorcycle?” A flying donut landed in Robert’s milkshake, splattering Andrew and him both with pink froth. Canteen lunches were always a treat, thought Andrew, as he watched Robert gingerly wipe milkshake off of his waistcoat. The boys who had thrown the missile sauntered away, roaring with laughter. Andrew rolled his eyes. “Why do you wear that stuff, anyway?” muttered Andrew. Robert shrugged. “Makes me look different.” “I’m so sorry about those guys; they will never learn to behave themselves!”

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Andrew and Robert started and looked up. It was Sara Leo, hands on hips, blonde hair flowing gracefully like waterfalls. A disapproving frown was shot in the boys’ direction. She was actually talking to them. “Jeez, I thought you were a teacher, you speak like one,” muttered Andrew, then he caught Robert’s face and almost choked. He was staring at Sara, his mouth open in a comical ‘O’, in disbelief that she was speaking directly at them. They looked like such an unlikely trio. Long-fringed Andrew decked out in his dark, unwashed hand-me-downs, babyfaced Robert in his smart bowtie and vintage fashion sense and strawberry-blonde Sara, standing over them disapprovingly, her freckles clustering across her nose. Sara picked up a tissue. “Let me get that for you…” “Yeah, I got it,” snapped Andrew, brushing her away. “If I wanted my mum here to smother me I’d call her myself.” “The dog bites I see,” remarked Sara in surprise. She brushed Robert off instead. “What about you? Need a hand?” “S’not all he needs,” muttered Andrew under his breath. “What’s that, sorry?” “You missed a bit on his shoulder,” said Andrew, emphatically pointing out a tiny blob on the edge of Robert’s waistcoat. His eyes were glazed over as Sara tended and straightened his blazer; he looked like he was in heaven. Andrew gave him a wink over Sara’s shoulder whilst she fussed over Robert. “I absolutely adore this waistcoat!” exclaimed Sara, rubbing the material. Andrew mouthed throwing up. “Where did you get it from?” “Vintage Emporium,” mumbled Robert to his tie. “No. Way. I love that place too! I just love love love their fashion sense! They do the sweetest broaches!” Sara squealed in delight, her face positively beaming. “See?” She showed him a pink butterfly in her hair. Robert’s face turned beetroot and he mumbled something Andrew didn’t catch. “Oi, Sara!” There was a shout from across the canteen. Andrew leaned across the table; he saw the boys who had thrown the donut were waving at Sara impatiently. “What are you doing talking to them? You becoming a Bexhill Loser?” “Screw you, Ryan,” she called back. “They’re not losers!” “Yeah, seriously, why are you committing social suicide by hanging out with us?” asked Andrew aggressively. “Wouldn’t you rather be with your Power 12 gang over there? Isn’t that what they call you girls?” Sara ignored him and slid clumsily onto the bench next to Robert. Robert tried to act nonchalant by tapping his spoon but instead threw yoghurt onto his blazer. “I saw you guys come over to help me the other day when I collapsed. I wanted to return the favour,” she said simply, unaware of Robert’s mishap. “I’m glad to see I haven’t wasted my time.” “What’s that on your arm?” Andrew leant across the table and grabbed it. There was a plaster across the skin, with white cotton wool underneath and a spot of blood. “Measles jab. Got mine early,” she said simply. “Someone touched it and I don’t like blood.” “You’re lying,” said Andrew, taking a big bite out of his burger. Sara watched in distaste as a bit of salad stuck to Andrew’s lips. “You really don’t trust anyone, do you?” she replied indignantly. “It’s a measles jab, I’m telling you.” “We had measles jabs last year, and they last for five. It’s okay.” Andrew tapped his nose. “We all have secrets.” “Yeah, well,” said Sara, ruffling her hair. Andrew would later understand that was a mannerism portraying when Sara wanted to say something she didn’t want to. “I have one on you, now.” “Oh, yeah? Let’s hear it.” Andrew gave his trademark smirk. Sara grimaced. “Cerys wants her money by Saturday, latest.” Sara glanced across her shoulder. “She needs to pay her dealer then, so she needs the money pronto.” Andrew didn’t bat an eye. “Tell her to count on it.” Sara nodded, gave a brief half-smile in Robert’s direction, and then left the table. Robert rounded on Andrew. “You took drugs at Jess’s party?” “Dude, the party blew. You were having bundles of fun on the bike so I nipped inside for a quick line.” Robert stared at him in disbelief. He then shook his head vigorously as if shaking away an annoying fly. He spoke with his head in his hands. “You need to come to Church this Sunday after you pay Cerys, and absolve your soul of its sins. It’s the only way you can repent.” Andrew dropped his fork with a clatter. “Excuse me? I don’t need to do anything. Why are you suddenly getting so high and mighty about this stuff? It’s not like you’ve been a saint these past few months either choir boy. You said yourself that you were having the most fun you’ve ever had on that bike that I stole for you.” “I know, I know… but everything we did, it was all wrong.” Robert rubbed his temples again. Andrew was reminded of his father. It was this action that truly told Andrew that a person was in distress. Was that a flicker of guilt he felt? “If it helps, I’ll confess too.” “Forget it.” Andrew left the table. Despite his dramatic exit that day, he paid Cerys on Saturday and Andrew found himself outside of Bexhill Catholic Church on Sunday at the end of service. The regular church-goers milled in the open-plan flower beds, chatting animatedly about Vicar Avery’s latest sermon over acceptance, whilst they shot vehement glances at Andrew’s black garb. He snorted loudly, earning himself more glares. Ignoring them, he entered the Church.

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This was his second time in a church. The first time he had gone to Christmas Mass with Rowan and his family. He remembered singing at the top of his lungs with his brother to Amazing Grace, but that was another memory that he wasn’t supposed to have. It was one he had been taught by Doctor to perish. Since then, he had always felt like he was contaminating the pristine air as if he had stepped into a clean spring after rolling around in the mud. God had seemingly snubbed the memory of his brother, so in turn he snubbed God. Or should he say the idea of him. Andrew sauntered along the aisles of pews, watching them pass in their orderly rows. He caught sight of a blonde head and slid down the pew to sit next to Robert who was praying silently. “So I felt guilty about how we left things on Friday,” quipped Andrew loudly, his raspy voice echoing in the Church. “I was thinking – who’s that?” Robert was staring at a picture of a smiling toothless toddler with an eagle broach. “It’s me when I was a baby,” said Robert quietly. “Oh. That’s great. Anyway, I just came from Cerys’s house and her dad walked in on us making out on the bed, it was so awkward.” Robert turned to him in astonishment. “Are you going to take this confession seriously?” “Chill your beans, choir boy. I’m here to see my soul get rebirthed. Or whatever. Something along those lines. Anyway, she wants to go out sometime.” “Who?” “Cerys! Will you keep up? But I’m thinking it’s a bit too soon. She keeps texting me and stuff. It’s textbook girl behaviour. Origin of Species says that it’s imperative for the female of the species to find at least one mate, whilst the male is only interested in spreading his seed, so to speak, no matter what the species.” “Reading a book about evolution doesn’t automatically make you know every single thing about the human race.” “It gives me a better understanding of them, that’s for sure,” said Andrew, scratching his early stubble. Robert spitefully thought it made Andrew look homeless. “So when are we confessing our sins? It’s going to take me at least an hour, you know.” “We’re not going to confession.” “What? You’ve finally seen the light? Or didn’t, in this case.” Andrew chuckled at his own joke. “Listen,” said Robert, turning to face Andrew and holding up his baby picture. “Do you know what this is?” “A bad Pampers advert?” Andrew shrugged. “This is the only thing I have left of my childhood. You can understand that, can’t you?” Andrew’s eyes clouded over. He didn’t like relating the conversation back to himself. “Look at this,” Robert turned over the photo. A handwritten message was on the back.

Dear Arnold, I told you he would grow wings one day. Elena. “Arnold and Elena are my parents’ names. That’s the only thing I know about them from Tina and Jerry, my adoptive parents. This is the orphanage’s address here. I found it in town. I was thinking they must have some old files from when they donated me, maybe even an address or a postcode. I’ve asked my Father whether he’ll help me find my parents but they’re too busy trying to find work. Things… aren’t so great money-wise, and I don’t want to upset Mother, I know she’ll be devastated, she’ll think that I’m replacing her. She’s sort of over-sensitive that way. Do you think it’s crazy? That I’m thinking about my biological parents?” “Everybody wants to know where they come from. It’s only natural. It says so in the Origin of Species.” “Stop Darwinising me and drop the Andrew-specs. So you’ll help?” Andrew took the photo and noted down the orphanage’s address. “You can count on it.” After hours of persuasion that this was the quickest way to find out Robert’s parentage (He soon realised that Andrew wasn’t the ‘sit down and think’ kind of guy), that night Andrew and Robert broke into the orphanage using a spanner, a nail and a thin filer. Robert handed Andrew the tools and watched as he dexterously dismantled the window in three minutes flat. Robert stared in disbelief. “Still want to go to confession?” asked Andrew, flashing Robert his trademark smirk. He just shook his head; he didn’t trust himself with words at that moment. Dressed in all black, they sneaked into the main office. Robert thought that they looked like the lamest robbers in the entire world. Armed with a paper clip, Andrew made short work of their file cabinet and as Robert held the torch, he swiftly flicked through the paper separators. He found the compartment “Avery” in the “Adopted” cabinet. It had sickening heart stickers on it and photos of smiling children. “Why are you helping me?” whispered Robert. Andrew opened his file. “Because one of us deserves to have a happy ending. Shed some light, choir boy.” Robert reached across Andrew’s head so he could read the papers. There was a tense minute of no reply. “What does it say?” hissed Robert. “Not much…” said Andrew, not one to sugar-coat his friend’s disappointment. “All it says is that a nurse dropped you off eighteen years ago. She was… hang on… oh man, this shit is messed up.” Robert kneed him in the back roughly. “Don’t make this up! Just take the files and we’ll read them later.”

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“And what will the orphanage say when they find out files with your name on are missing, genius? Let me read it, okay? I need to understand it properly. Your file is basically made up of scattered notes…” A pause, which felt like a life-time for Robert. “Okay,” said Andrew finally, closing the file. “I have a Bexhill address. I’ll fill you in when we get out of here.” They put the files back and slinked back out of the top window, taking care not to move or touch anything. When they were out of sight and in a back alley, Robert rounded on Andrew, shoving him into a wall. “Woah, calm down - ” “What did it say?” Robert said. His voice was dangerously even. Andrew looked into those deep amber eyes. The mischievous spark was replaced with a hungry plea for information. Andrew knew in an instant that Robert wasn’t angry, only terrified that Andrew knew something about him that he didn’t, and that made Andrew feel like… what was he feeling? Hurt, that his friend mistrusted him in such a way? He wasn’t sure. Andrew pushed him away slightly. “Okay. It’s okay.” He chose his words carefully. What he had read in Robert’s report was disturbing to say the least. “The address that I found didn’t… well, it’s neither of your parents, that’s for sure, but the person will probably know where to find them.” “Who are they? Aunt? Uncle? Cousin?” “Um, not likely. Do you want to meet them or should I?” “How will I know what to say if I don’t even know who they are? Why don’t you just tell me what you found in there?” blustered Robert, getting more frustrated with every passing second. “Look, it’s not that simple, can you chill out already? What I read…” Andrew tried to find the words. “I stumbled upon something that I think someone would like to remain private. It’s an anonymous matter. It’s not about you!” Andrew raised a hand before Robert could speak. He knew if he said anymore he would only confuse Robert. “It’s nothing to do with you. I’ll go to see them, okay? First thing tomorrow. I’ll skip school and I’ll meet you at lunch-break and I’ll tell you everything I know. Does that sound like a plan?” “How do I know I can trust you?” “Listen, mate. I’ve learnt not to screw you over, okay? You’re the son of the town vicar, if you wanted to trash my reputation, you could,” Andrew gave a crooked smile to lighten the mood. He held out his hand. “I promise I’ll meet you tomorrow.” After a moment, Robert reluctantly shook it. * Andrew knocked on the door. The first thing he did in the morning was walk straight to the address and found himself in the upper-class area of Bexhill. He heard footsteps drawing closer, and he still had no idea what to say when the door opened. When it did, he was greeted with a fifty-something man dressed in a smart suit. “Can I help you?” said the man, flipping his tie into a Windsor knot. He eyed Andrew’s Lostprophets tee warily, as if it was about to attack him. “Hi, my name is Andrew Canis. Is Amanda Styles in?” The man stopped threading his tie mid-way and stared at Andrew. “What is this visit concerning exactly?” he asked cautiously, his eyes flickering behind Andrew. “Why do you want to see my sister?” He raised his hands in the classic ‘I mean no harm’ fashion. “I just want to talk about the adoption of Robert Avery. I don’t mean any trouble at all. I’m not a reporter; I’m here on behalf of a friend.” Andrew waited for a few moments for the man’s reply. The man was apprehensive at best and Andrew gleefully noted he had caught him off-guard. He then beckoned him into the house. “I think it’s best if you come in, Mr. Canis.” Andrew followed him into the house. “Andrew,” he corrected hastily. It felt wrong in so many ways to be addressed as a mister. The man led him into a quaint living room where Andrew was politely motioned to sit on a plush sofa. The man held out his hand and Andrew shook it. “Edmund Styles,” said the man, who sat himself opposite Andrew. “You have about five minutes before I need to head off to the office. If you’re looking for Amanda herself, she passed five years ago.” The mention of death had Andrew thrust into an adult conversation. He automatically straightened his posture. Behavioural explanation? He wasn’t sure. Appearance bias, maybe, Darwin would say. “I’m sorry to hear that,” Andrew found himself saying, scratching his chin uneasily. “Thank you,” said the man. There was an awkward pause. Andrew thought it best to launch right into it. “Right, I know about your sister, and about what she did eighteen years ago. I’ve read the files.” Andrew tried not to read into the brother’s reaction, so instead ploughed on. “I know she suffered from bipolar disorder, a condition which I can relate too. I myself was misdiagnosed with a mental condition that I have lived with for the past ten years. I understand the social consequences that come with it.” So far, Andrew was impressed with how important and clear his voice sounded, so he carried on with renewed fervour. “It’s because of this that I thought I’d spare Robert Avery the details, I only want him to know who his biological parents are, not how he was taken to Bexhill.” Edmund gulped loudly. “It’s okay,” assured Andrew. “Honestly. A man with your reputation… if something that scandalous was revealed… well, I can only imagine how disastrous it would be. If people knew about what I was, life would never be the same for

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me. Out of respect for your family’s privacy, I’ll keep her secret.” Edmund’s mouth pursed. Andrew had done his homework before he arrived; Edmund was some kind of big hot-shot in the political cabinet up in London, but he lived here in Bexhill to take care of his ailing mother, a fact that conveniently helped his public image. “I can’t thank you enough,” continued Edmund, his professionalism returning. “I can assure you that Amanda, if she had lived to this day, would have regretted her crime. I’ve given Robert’s new family a helping hand every month to help with the unfortunate child’s upbringing.” Edmund composed himself. “But I know you didn’t take the liberty of tracking me to my address and telling me of your decision face to face. So what is it you’d like in return? Money?” Andrew stared at him, sort of offended yet equally tempted by the offer. “No… I was wondering whether you could tell me anything you knew about Robert Avery’s biological parents.” Edmund thought for a moment. “Robert is a good friend of yours, I can tell. You value your friends highly, I see.” “He’s like a brother to me.” The words had left Andrew’s mouth before he realised what he was saying. He cringed inwardly. There was no way he would admit that to the choir boy’s face. “I wish I could say the same for my family…” Edmund stood up. “Wait here, I think I have something upstairs I can show you.” Andrew waited until Edmund return with a thin letter. He back down and appeared to be skim-reading it. “This was from Amanda’s diary. I remember reading something… ah, here.” Edmund tore the address from the page and handed it over to Robert. “This is the Avery’s address. My sister was Elena Avery’s nurse a very long time ago. Granted, probably over eighteen years ago. As far as I know they still live there.” Andrew took it and nodded. “Are you sure you want me to keep this?” “It’s fine. Oh, and take this.” He took a wad of notes out of his wallet. Andrew counted a hundred. “A thank you for your understanding. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to be getting to work.” * Before that fateful day when the boys had broken into the orphanage, the two of them, sometimes accompanied by Sara, would often eat lunch together on the school grass outside. One of Andrew’s favourite spots in the woods was behind his house. He would never invite them inside, for obvious reasons. The woodland was dense and smelled like a true forest should; it was delicate, warm and melted with that green plant-ish smell that made Andrew’s nostrils flare. It was here that Andrew’s acerbic tone would mellow into a satirical undercurrent. Instead of ripping everything apart to shreds with his words, he would instead poke fun at the fat birds or the funny shaped branches. In his favourite spot, where the unlikely trio would often sit, was below the branches of two oak trees that had become tied together in the uncoordinated act of growing. The branches were gnarled and barky, but there was something about the curved way the branches interconnected themselves that was really beautiful. Sara would remark about it every time they came to the clearing. Such a ‘Sara comment’, Andrew would often mockingly chide. He soon discovered he had unlimited ammunition against Sara’s constantly positive attitude, often taking her down a peg after she would make an overenthusiastic comment about something as ordinary as an unusually green leaf, but she would refuse to stoop down to Andrew’s sardonic level. Andrew never really understood why she preferred to hang out with them now, rather than the popular girls. All he knew was that she was getting paler and paler every time he saw her. Those Measles jabs were really taking it out of her, he had thought at the time. How wrong I was… The day after Andrew had visited the Councillor’s house, he had invited Robert to have lunch with him in the oak clearing. Sara wasn’t invited, boys only. She had pulled a hissy fit. “Have you taken a vow of silence you’ve neglected to tell me about?” inquired Andrew, when they fell onto the ground with their sandwiches. “I prepared myself for an onslaught of questions.” Robert just shrugged. He wasn’t looking at Andrew. He had been silent the entire journey and the familiar retorts weren’t firing back, Andrew’s previous conversation schemas falling apart. Something was clearly awry. “Hey? Dude what’s going on?” Robert slowly produced a crinkled page out of his pocket and wordlessly passed it to Andrew. “You’re seriously freaking me out now.” Andrew said. He unfurled the paper and began reading: Dearest Robert, As you no doubt are aware our lives have not gone as planned. Your mother and I wished we could tell you in person but an opportunity has presented itself and you know fully well what we think about opportunities. We’ve gone to London to look for work with a friend of a friend and hope to be back soon. We’ve left all the money we can spare by the drawer under the kettle and we’ve secured you a job downstairs in the newsagents. We wish things had turned out differently but this is the only way. We don’t know when we’ll be back. Take care of yourself and hope to see you soon, God is with you Love Mum and Dad x Andrew finished reading, and then re-read it. “What is this?” He exclaimed finally. Robert murmured something under his breath.

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“Huh?” “Twenty pounds. That’s all they left for me, under the kettle. Twenty pounds…” “I don’t understand…” said Andrew. Robert shrugged again and stared mistily into the distance. Finally he spoke. “When I was younger I always knew money was tight despite Father’s job. We moved from vicarage to vicarage, there was this one time Father hadn’t packed everything come moving day and our stuff had to be dragged out on the street before the moving van could pick us up to take us to our next placement. Mother and Father told me to smile when social services visited, otherwise they would take me away, they said. Luckily we would always land a big promotion with Mother’s shop when that happened.” Andrew gulped. That was no promotion; he knew now it was the Councillor donating to Robert’s family. “Things have been really bad recently. We got a warning on our bills. Mother almost took out an un-official loan and Father got angry. They would pray every night at the dinner table for a promotion. Turns out God doesn’t pity his own subjects.” “What does this mean? When… are they coming back?” Robert didn’t reply. For one horrible moment Andrew had absolutely no idea what to say. He had an overwhelming wave of empathy for Robert that caught him off-guard; the welling of his throat told him that he was going to choke with grief soon if he didn’t swallow. Having alcoholic father was one thing, but being abandoned by both your parents was another completely. Then a silver lining cut through his unsuspecting empathy like a knife through butter. “I – I have your parents’ address.” Andrew tried his hardest to keep his voice even. He had to be strong for his friend. He handed Robert the note Councillor Edmund had given him. “I Google mapped it in the library this morning; it’s an apartment block off of Jardin Des Tuileries. Paris.” “My parents… are French?” “Looks like it.” Robert nodded. His expression was unreadable. Suddenly he embraced Andrew in a tight hug. “Thank you,” he said into his shoulder. “No problem. Can I breathe now?” They separated, shaking themselves off, Robert turning that familiar shade of rosy when he had done something embarrassing. Andrew decided to quickly change the subject. “So what are you going to do?” “Well I guess I’m going to have to live on my own. I have Mother’s shop; I can take food from the fridge and freezer. I wanted to call my parents, but… I’m not sure if I will.” “I meant about the Paris address. Are going to…?” “Go there?” Robert thought for a moment, and then smiled. The spark in his eye was back. “Hell yeah.” “That’s the spirit!” roared Andrew. “We should surprise them! After our final exams! My birthday is on May 22nd, we’ll be eighteen! We can hop on a train and just… just go!” “‘We’?” Andrew stopped in mid-cheer. He just realised what he had just said. “Oh, um…” Robert waited for him to speak. “Listen, you know about my dad, right? Bundle of laughs? Always inviting people around the house?” Robert raised his eyebrows. “I’m familiar.” Andrew kept on opening and closing his mouth like a fish out of water, finally finding his words. “I – I can’t exactly stay here. I just… can’t. It’s toxic. And he’s only getting worse. I’ve tried getting him help but I can’t do that if he can’t help himself. I feel like I’m being suffocated in that house, my breath is stolen away every time I walk through that front door and every time I do I have this urge to run away and never look back. And I really want to act on that urge.” “I have no money for university and I haven’t even made any plans for going there. It’s not for me. I wrote to Gloucestershire University but they rejected my application on the grounds of my medical history. No university is going to want to teach an unstable paranoid schizophrenic.” Robert looked away guilty. It was the first time Andrew had admitted his condition out loud. “But you know I’m not, right?” “I know. You’re bloody mental, I’ll give you that, but you’re not a schizophrenic.” “It’s on my permanent record.” Andrew swallowed again, biting his lip in anger. “When I was thirteen, my dad started drinking hard-core. I thought the move from St. Albans would help. Change of scenery and all that. No way, it didn’t. I remember walking down the stairs one night with a baseball bat thinking we were being burgled, because my father would throw bottles at walls. Just for fun. That’s become a regular occurrence now. Sleep is a luxury. The damage my father does to the house when he’s smashed he blames on me. Do you remember the shoe through the window thing? Yeah, that was him. He got me doing community service for the past six months. I finish next week.” “One day last year he came back from the local so hammered he couldn’t even stand up. I’m standing there on the stairs with my baseball bat, clutching it like a bloody life-saver, when he starts calling me a good-for-nothing twat. Imagine that, your own father, cussing you down? As if that wasn’t enough, he rounds on my mother. She’s not around, but that doesn’t stop him from dragging her name through the mud too. A whore, that’s what she is, apparently. She ran off with some fancy pants zoology professor with a PhD and a hundred million more brain cells than my father will ever have, but he’s probably killed them all off. Personally I don’t blame her; I’m not one to hold beef. Scratch that, that’s the biggest lie I’ve ever told because I didn’t know what I was thinking; I’d raised the bat before I’d even thought the

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thought. I remembered going blind from anger at my dad for saying all these things. I knew he thought them, but to say what he thought about me out loud made them all real. Then the bat smashed my father’s arm with as much force as my thirteen-year-old arms could muster, which isn’t a lot – my dad yanked the bat out of my hands, making me fall tumble down the stairs two at a time like a doll. “Then he hit me. Not with the bat, with his fist. So hard I think I blacked out. Next thing I remember I’m in my bed with a massive bruise on my arm. The doctors would later say it was self-harm. That morning I knew I had to leave if it was the death of me.” Robert nodded slowly. Andrew’s face burned – he had never, ever told anyone that story before. “We’ll find a new life in Paris,” said Robert. “My parents will take us in. Start again. Clean slate. Deal?” “You got it, choir boy.” “I want to come too.” Andrew was on his feet faster than he could think. Sara Leo was creeping out of the bushes, biting her lip in apology, as if that made up for eavesdropping on the conversation. “Have you ever heard of the word: ‘privacy’?” shouted Andrew, rising to his feet faster than he could think. His temple was throbbing. At that moment, he had never hated anyone as much as Sara Leo. “Look, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” pleaded Sara. Andrew hated the way her voice became pitchy and weird when she was upset. “I – I never knew your father abused you… that’s so…I’m so sorry for you.” Sara’s big blue eyes pleaded with him to take her hand. Andrew smacked it away. Robert blanched. There was that look again. Don’t pity me. “What are you doing here?” Andrew whispered dangerously in a low tone. “When you guys told me not to come I thought you guys were bitching about me…” “Well, we certainly will be,” growled Andrew. “What did you hear?” “I – I’m sorry, I heard everything about you leaving. I want to come with you. To Paris, I mean.” “And I suppose you want a five-star hotel and a jacuzzi, will you? Two words: not happening.” “Wait.” Robert was on his feet now, holding the both of them back whilst their stared daggers at each other. “Can we at least hear her out?” Andrew emphatically nodded, the sarcastic way he did when he didn’t agree with something. It was moments like this when Andrew acted like a spoilt know-it-all brat that Robert was tempted to punch him in the face and have done with it. Luckily his father taught him not to succumb to violent impulses. Andrew would say he was straightjacketed. He turned to Sara, ignoring him. “You know we won’t be coming back here to Bexhill. We’re running away for good.” “I know that.” Sara’s big, inquisitive eyes grew wider at the thought. “I want to leave too.” “Why on Earth would you want to leave?” shouted Andrew to the sky, laughing hysterically. Robert thought he looked like a mad man. “You have your life so perfectly set up for you! You have a cooked meal at your beck and call, every single fucking day! I have to scrounge from bins to find something worth eating because my father can’t even be arsed to feed me let alone for himself!” Andrew couldn’t help but keep shouting. He felt naked and victimized after sharing such intimate details about his life to Robert and to have them overheard by Sara. “Did your stupid hair filter our conversation? Robert and I have nothing here, he was abandoned by his parents, I was – my father is a - ” “I KNOW, I HEARD YOU!” shrieked Sara, cutting over Andrew’s tirade. He stopped in mid-sentence. “I’m sorry that I eavesdropped, and I’m sorry your parents are so shitty, I really, truly am. But you think my life is so perfect, do you?” she spat. Andrew watched in shock as the girl he once thought of as a priss now looked a little demented, mad even, her blonde hair fraying in wisps. “Pat yourself on the back,” she said, teeth gritted. “You were right, I lied. Enjoy how it makes you feel, catching a girl in the lie, Andrew Canis, because it won’t happen again. Seeing as we are all sharing sob stories why don’t I share a little of mine?” She roughly rolled up her sleeve and ripped off the arm bandage, the material stained with fresh blood. “I’ve just come back from the hospital where I donated my two hundredth and seventy-forth blood donation to my older sister Libby. She’s leukemic. Fourth stage. It’s regressed now, but my blood is the only blood that can keep her alive. My parents conceived me as a saviour child. That’s my purpose in life, to save my sister’s life over and over and over again. Pretty fantastic , right? Knowing that you exist to help another person exist? You’ll start doubting that when you’re nine and you’re so faint from blood loss that you can’t eat, sleep or even walk without fainting. I donated my kidney to her when I was thirteen. I had my sweet sixteen birthday party in the hospital waiting room. She’s at medical school now, funded by my parents, of course, who kindly told me over dinner the other day that they have no money to send me to university, so if I was to go, I will have to get a job and pay rent off my own back, whilst Libby filches off of dad’s bank account like a leech.” “Thank you,” huffed Sara through deep breaths, waving her arms around weakly to emphasize her points. “She hasn’t, ever once, said thank you. She’s such a bitch.” Sara’s voice shook now. Tears welled up in her eyes, ready to cascade over her puffy face. As her body shook, Andrew could see how thin she really was. A leafless tree. He felt like if he touched her she would shatter into a million pieces. “Sometimes I feel like my life is being sucked out of me. Literally” He found himself muttering about lawyers or rights to your own body. He may have mentioned My Sister’s Keeper. “Not gonna happen,” she sniffed, wiping her nose. “Who will pay for it?” “But if you leave… won’t your sister…?” Robert asked quietly. “The doctors say she will be okay for now. A couple of years. But I need… I need to leave this place. I can’t spend

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one more day in that hospital. I was on first name basis with all the nurses in my sister’s ward by the time I was ten, so they could let me in for donations and check-ups. That is not something a ten-year-old girl should know. So, to answer your question, Andrew, I want to leave because my family don’t love me in the way that they should, and I’m sick of being the unseen hand to my sister’s excellence. I don’t want to be a Bexhill Loser forever.” Sara disappeared into the forest, leaving Andrew and Robert alone with their thoughts. “One question,” said Robert. “How are three Bexhill Losers going to pay for three tickets to Paris?” Andrew reached into his pocket. The hundred pounds he had been given by Councillor Edmund was still in his pocket. “I have an idea…” Through the winter term of school Andrew, Sara and Robert began to save extra money. Andrew stole from his drunken unaware father, Sara asked for extra pocket money in exchange for chores around the house and Robert took a small salary from the shop downstairs, which was left entirely in his care. They talked about train prices and decided the Eurostar was too expensive, and instead started looking at cheap ferry prices. No ferries to France left from Bexhill, they were all from Dover. They needed a train to get there and a ticket only added to the price. Down-heartened, they continued searching for deals. They weren’t leaving until May, and there had to be some kind of special offer that they had missed. But the more time they took to search for tickets, the more expensive they would get every few days. Their access to the internet was limited as Sara was only allowed to surf for homework. Soon the prices escalated so high that their funds wouldn’t keep up, even with Andrew’s seed money from Councillor Edmund. It took time for Sara to adjust to her pledge to join Andrew and Robert. She had emotionally invested herself and made a grand speech, so she thought it would seem fickle if she backed out now. Nevertheless she always had the seed of doubt growing and sprouting in her mind, nagging at her every thought or discouraging her hope that she could find suitable work in Paris. Something basic, anything, even waitressing, was exciting for her. Whenever she tried to shake them away, they would abate but grow back a few days later. No matter how much she hated to admit it, Andrew was right; she had it the best out of all three of them. Home cooked meals, a warm bed and general home comforts that the others would wish for. But all of that counted for nothing. Her parents were cold and distant. She found over the years she had nothing in common with either of them, and her sister was an unpleasant person who turned up her nose at anything unworthy of her attention – Sara was sadly included in that category. Her parents turned a blind eye to this clear deficiency in their home, since they only valued the sacred life that was Elizabeth Leo, for she could do no wrong. As the doubt played on Sara’s mind, so did a growing pool of pity that she would wallow in at night. If her parents didn’t need her anymore, was there much use in her staying? In April, their plans were looking bleak. They hadn’t booked any train or boat tickets to France and they only had a month to do so. Tensions were running high, but they stuck together and Andrew stubbornly persisted searching for cheap tickets. A2 Exams were drawing close in May, and they discovered that they had little time for revision. They had to pass their exams because they figured that they needed at least some qualifications under their belt to find a job in Paris. They all agreed if they ever wanted to continue onto higher education, which was unlikely within the UK due to the increase in student fees, they depended on these grades to support them wherever they might end up. The thought that kept them all focused was the view of Robert’s parents’ apartment on Google Maps (a grandiose penthouse with two eagle statues and a mauve oak door) and that they would be accommodating enough to help them on their feet in Paris. When May finally came around, and they still had not booked any transport across the Channel, Andrew bugged Robert to call his parents now but Sara stood firm in her belief that his reunion with his biological parents should not be over the phone. Robert received a phone call at the beginning of May. “Hello, is that Robert Avery?” “Yeah, speaking. Who is this?” “This is Toby Keith from UK Inland Revenue from the South-eastern Department. Are you the current owner of the Oasis newsagents on Trinity Street in Bexhill-On-Sea?” Robert hesitated. There was no avoiding that question. He said yes. “Okay. We’ve got it noted down here that the shop is scheduled for a thorough audit. We will be sending a team down on May 23rd. Please mark this day on your calendar. Good day to you sir.” The line disconnected. Robert stared at the phone. They had been planning to leave on May 28th. If this company arrived to check the shop they would see that the manager position was being run by a seventeen-year-old student in sixth form without any former managerial experience, no references and worst of all that he was living on his own with no benefits. He would be put back into the system and the wrong people would likely take action. Robert conferred with Sara and Andrew. Andrew said that there was no time to book anything anymore, prices were elevating themselves higher and higher and if they were to take more money from the shop then it would only be more noticeable to the Inland Revenue. They felt like they were sinking in quicksand and if they didn’t arrange something quickly enough their escape plan would be over. Andrew convinced them to allow him to talk to the sailors on the docks, to find out whether any of them would take them aboard their boats to France for a fee. Andrew assured them all that they all had valid passports and weren’t illegal immigrants of any kind.

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Andrew eventually found a sailor in the beginning of May who would take them across the Channel. His name was Gregory Tinbergen, a big, stocky man with a gravelly voice and stupid button eyes that made him look like a fat doll. He gruffly agreed to store them all below deck with the fruit and vegetables if they paid him an outrageous sum of one hundred pounds. This was, of course, a rip-off and Andrew said so. Tinbergen flat out denied a lower price as they haggled during the next month. They were getting desperate and they were running out of time. Tinbergen was to set sail on May 22nd for the French coastal town of Dieppe. Andrew paid a deposit of one hundred, and they would pay the rest on the day they dock in France. Andrew took a mental note to eat as much fruit as possible when they were below deck to get their money’s worth. Robert called Jackson, the external beneficiary owner of the newsagents below his apartment, and told him that the three of them were going on a compulsory school trip in the last two weeks of May and therefore couldn’t deal with the Inland Revenue. Jackson was busy at the time and bought the story, letting Robert know that he would send a colleague from Paris to take over the shop on the evening of May 22nd. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sara Leo & Robert Avery . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Present Day, Bexhill Harrow High School Robert and Sara sat in the drab school courtyard, lost in their memories and thoughts of the past year. A breeze passed across the yard, moving windows and making doors creek. Distant conversations of the students inside the walls of the school floated across the wind like ghosts, litter and plastic bags drifted silently across the cobbled, stony floor. It occurred to Robert and Sara that this was probably the last time they would see the school, where they had spent a better part of five years of their lives. It was time to fly the nest. * Sara and Robert were sitting tensely at the back of the class room in the last school lesson that they would ever attend. They watched Mrs Fernandez chatter on incessantly about the Spanish words for all the different types of fruit, pointing at pictures on the wall with a beaming smile. The class looked on monotonously. Students sitting nearby glanced at the unnecessarily large bags under Sara and Robert’s feet but didn’t ask any questions. It was well known that the trio of Andrew, Sara and Robert kept themselves to themselves nowadays. Sara’s leg was jutting to and fro anxiously which was putting Robert off his work. He, on the other hand, was reasonably relaxed. “Why are you noting words down?” whispered Sara out of the corner of her mouth. “Something to do,” muttered Robert. “We’ll be fine. As long as we keep our passports on us 24/7 and have a steady flow of cash, we’ll be fine.” Robert listened to Sara’s breathy mutterings fondly. She had had to set up another student bank account because her parents monitored her current one. Even though they didn’t particularly notice her on a day-to-day basis, they would of course eventually realise she had left and that she was spending money in France. Sara had since asked for money in cash so that she could cash in her new winnings from her chores into the new account without transferring the funds, which would give them away. BWEEEEORRRR. BWEEEEORRRR. BWEEEEORRRR. A blaring fire alarm cut through Sara and Robert’s thoughts and everyone in the class collectively jumped out of their seats. Mrs Fernandez stopped in mid-sentence, her arms in mid-expression, and then the whole school erupted as four hundred students simultaneously made their way to the tiny exits. The speakerphones clicked on and the headmistress’s voice spoke out of thin air, “This is not a drill. There has been a gas leak in the downstairs science department. Teachers, lead your pupils to the fire exits immediately. I repeat; this is not a drill. The emergency services will be here soon.” The classroom was deathly silent until one girl screamed and everyone began panicking. Mrs Fernandez hurriedly tried to collect all the students and get them to line up and leave the room carefully but it was no use, blue blazers zoomed past her and bags were thrown to the floor in the attempt to leave as quickly as possible. Robert glanced over at Sara, she had frozen in her seat. “Come on!” shouted Robert over the din of the school. “Our bags!” “Leave your bags! Just get out of the building - !” shouted Mrs Fernandez was caught in the flow of students out of the door. “Yeah, right, why don’t I just throw my life away,” muttered Sara as Robert helped her strap and click the bag into place on her back. Their bags had their passports in, their money, their documents and everything they needed for their journey, so it took a whole minute for them to both get strapped on. All the students had already left the classroom. “Hurry!” They made their way through the maze of tables and chairs to the door until a loud bang beneath them shook the class room. Sara swore loudly. Below them was the chemistry department where they kept all the flammable toxins, which were inevitably reacting to the fire. They briefly lost their balance but steadied themselves on the tables. They

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exchanged a brief, anxious glance before they ran to the door, Robert letting Sara through first. They stepped into the corridor and were pushed and shoved by the English class running down the corridor as they ran for the exit. Before they could join hands, a burly guy shoved Sara into Robert and they lost balance, the weight of their bags forcing them to swing in cumbersome freestyle. Sara stuck out her hand for Robert but he spun out of control and hit a glass display cabinet nearby, knocking it to the floor with a loud smash. Robert fell heavily on the glass on his side with a shout. The pain was intense, like a needle-shot in his arm. He closed his eyes briefly in pain and tried to get up but was kicked in the rib as a crowd of students ran over him. “Robert! Oh God! Are you okay?” Sara emerged from the crowd. Robert saw smoke rising from the windows opposite them in the corridor. The last few students ignored them as they ran to the exit. Sara helped Robert to his feet and to her dismay she saw a prick of glass had entered the back of his arm. “Can you stand?” “Yeah. I’m fine. Let’s go.” Sara thought otherwise. Robert was clutching his right side and wincing. “We’re on the second floor,” said Sara, pointing to the direction of the nearest fire exit. “This way.” They could see it ahead; it was about ten metres away down the corridor and through a set of double doors that were swinging wildly from the last straggler. They hobbled with their bags until a bigger bang shook the foundations of the school, followed by a few crashes above them.. There was a deafening crack. One of the school’s pillars was shaking, along with the beams across the ceiling it was supporting. Cracks were appearing on the ceiling. Sara and Robert watched in horror as the plastic ceiling began to cave in above them. “Oh God,” breathed Sara. She dragged Robert back just in time before the giant jagged crack in the ceiling widened and opened like the mouth of a giant monster, belting out dust, flooring, chairs, and tables into the corridor. Soon the entire hallway was filled with a dense cloud of dust and debris with the hiss of displaced air like a giant, invisible basilisk circling them. Sara and Robert were blasted by a cloud of dust, so they turned and fled the other way down the corridor, coughing and spluttering. “The languages floor is on top of the science labs! The fire must have spread there from the kitchens!” yelled Sara over the din behind them as the far ceiling caved in. As the ceiling settled itself, another sound joined the clamour of the people outside the school. A muffled crackling below them filled Sara and Robert with dread. Sara tripped over Robert in their haste and fell, splaying out her hands to absorb the shock of the fall. Sara yelled in fright. “What’s the matter?” asked Robert, helping her to her feet. Sara showed Robert her hands. They were red. “The floor’s hot,” she breathed in astonishment. The fire was directly below them. Sara had a brief, terrifying image of the flames licking the ceiling below them, heating the corridor like a furnace… “GO!” shouted Robert, taking Sara and they bolted down the corridor. They emerged through double doors and to their left was a staircase down to the bottom level. They peered over the banister, but the smoke was too thick to see anything downstairs, so no exit there. They continued on down the corridor. Ahead were the administration offices. “I think they have a fire exit in there!” shouted Sara and she ran ahead. Robert grabbed her arm, swinging her back as she skidded to a halt. “Wait. There’s someone on the opposite balcony!” exclaimed Robert, peering into another set of double doors to their left. He pushed them open. They were on the balcony above the main assembly hall. Here, they would have seating for pupils who couldn’t all fit downstairs. Robert jumped down the steps and looked across the hall which was approximately ten metres long and eight metres wide. It was full of chairs and the stage below was void of anything except a stand. The vacant room was hazy and smoky. Robert had to wave smoke away to view the opposite balcony. A crying boy, a pupil from the younger years, about eight years old, was banging on the doors on the opposite side. They must be locked, he thought frantically. Separating Robert and the boy was a good ten metre jump. Dangling from the ceiling were vertical ropes evenly spaced about a metre from each other. “What are these?” “They’re from the gymnastics tournament. Remember? The gym didn’t have any shackles to hang the ropes from and they never took them down,” explained Sara. She looked at Robert hopelessly with her sea blue eyes, and then it dawned on her. “You’re not,” she growled. “I have to!” “You’re going to… It’s not… It’s a ten foot drop, Robert!” “We don’t have time to unlock the other door over there, there’s no way around unless we go from downstairs,” said Robert helplessly, taking off his bag. “I know I can do this.” Before Sara could say anything, Robert hooked his legs onto the edge of the balcony and jumped into thin air towards the nearest rope. For a split second, Sara watched in horror as a heart-stopping image of Robert hung in mid-air, arms and legs reaching forwards as he moved silently through the smoke and caught the rope his hands, swinging him back around. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Robert The rope burn on his hands was excruciating and the cut on his arm was a constant throbbing pain but Robert blinked

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through tears of pain. Desperately, he clung to the rope with his arms and held it between his legs as he swung out of control through the smoky mist back towards Sara and the balcony he had jumped from. He caught a split second comical sight of her shocked face as inspiration struck him like a bolt of lightning. With his feet, he pushed back from the tip of the balcony towards direction of opposite balcony and the trapped boy. Moving forward at a rapid pace with his new momentum and holding his breath from the smoke, he glanced the nearest rope, stuck out his arm as far as it would go and caught it roughly, releasing his leg hold on his rope so that he swung around wildly in mid-air, until the momentum brought Robert back around and he could clutch his new hold with an iron grip, securing himself once again to scout the next rope. Robert didn’t have much time. With this rope he was no longer near the balcony to get a boost so he had to rely on his remaining momentum to get to where he needed to be. His long blonde hair whipping his face, he spotted another hanging rope out of the corner of his eye. It was at an awkward angle but he had no choice, if he let the rope lose its momentum he would be stuck hanging in the middle of the hall helpless. Again, he stuck out his arm and made contact with the rope at the end of his fingers. Curling them was no use, he lost his grasp. Shit! Robert could already feel the rope losing its sway as he slowly glided back towards Sara’s balcony. His ribs burned from the kick earlier. He could hear the boy’s cries. His heart beat wildly inside his chest and his lungs burned from exhaustion. The rope swung again and Robert leaned forward with his upper body and the opposite balcony rushed towards him. Sticking out his arm again he managed to roughly clasp the third rope, but he had let go too early - he swung around wildly in a wide circle with his body flying in limbo, gripping the rope for dear life as the cut in his arm dripped blood on his shirt. Robert watched as the wall of the hall suddenly turned into balcony which hurtled towards him at surprising speed. The top edge of the balcony was going to hit his legs. Withdrawing them upwards at the last split second, he let go of the rope, aiming to propel himself over the balcony edge and onto solid ground. The rope swung back and Robert’s arm snapped with the backwards momentum and for a chilling second he began to fall backwards over the edge of the balcony. He heard Sara scream his name. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Sara “ROBERT!” Sara screamed Robert’s name before she even registered what she was doing. For a tense few minutes she had watched Robert not-so-gracefully swing from rope to rope with surprising agility. Then, on the third and last rope, he had let go and the backwards force had taken him back with it. Robert was falling onto the edge of the balcony but he managed to curl and drop himself on the other side of the barrier with a loud clatter. Sara released a deep breath she didn’t know she was holding. Her legs gave out and she fell onto a chair and clutched her chest, silently willing her heart to stop racing. She watched Robert clamber up the steps with to the younger boy and motion for him to climb on his back. Icy dread poured through Sara. There was no way the two of them could swing their way back over here; the ropes simply wouldn’t hold their weight. Another bang and the hall shook. Smoke rose from the windows. “Robert, wait!” she shouted desperately. “I’ll go around and unlock the doors!” “No, there’s no time,” Robert shouted back. The boy was small and spindly; he wrapped his legs around Robert’s waist and his arms around his neck. Robert, on the other hand, didn’t seem to feel the added weight. He nimbly jumped onto the balcony barrier. “Sara!” he shouted across the hall. “What can I do? You’re trapped!” shouted Sara. She was beginning to lose it. She honestly couldn’t see a way out of this nightmare. “I can get over there,” Robert shouted back. “But you have to promise me you won’t say anything about what you’re going to see. Do you trust me, Sara?” Sara had tears flowing from her eyes now. Through the smoke she could see Robert’s lithe, athletic form perched on the edge ready to jump an impossible distance. The boy’s face was covered with smoke but she could see his eyes wide with fear. Oh God, no, please, no. If he fell, she would never forgive herself. I think I love him… The thought floated through her mind as if it had always been true. If only she had called off the whole plan, nipped it in the bud, they wouldn’t have these fucking bags weighing them down, they wouldn’t be in this situation. Her face began to burn and her breaths became ragged. She gasped for air, completely overwhelmed. “Sara! I need to know whether you trust me! You can’t tell anyone!” “YES!” Sara cried out, her voice cracked. She wiped her nose and coughed from the smoke. She gasped again as the heaving breaths took over. “Yes, of course I do, I always will!” Robert jumped and he didn’t reach for any of the ropes.

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. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Andrew Canis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Bexhill Forest As soon as Andrew stepped inside of the forest it exploded with the sounds of the wild. The tweets and twerps of the songbirds above him sung a welcome-back chorus as he explored his special place, which he knew like the back of his hand. Bending down to examine the leaf litter, he clearly saw the tracks of the large feline that had stolen Origin of Species imprinted in the soft soil. Andrew set off at a careful pace. Deeper and deeper into the forest Andrew went. His baggy black trousers kept on catching themselves on spiny bushes and he had an unpleasant brush with a stinging nettle. His ankle abruptly began to itch and play on his mind, so he kept one eye out for a doc leaf to rub on it whilst following the trail. That wasn’t the only thing itching – his birthmark on the back of his hand prickled uncomfortably. They had been there ever since Andrew could remember and had not bothered him until now. He rubbed them absent-mindedly. Andrew could smell the scents of the forest; all the flowers, the bluebells, the lilies and the daisies. They had welcoming smells that warmed his chest as he breathed them in. It must have rained the night before because the soft, tickly scent of dew hung heavily in the air like a distant memory. Itchy pollen floated in the air, along with the scratchy scent of grass. More unpleasant odours like the dung of the forest wildlife were apparent, too. The smells cleared Andrew’s head of any distractions like they always did. Here he could come feel truly alone. If there was one thing he was going to miss here in Bexhill, it was the forest. Andrew wasn’t aware of this, but his progress was being followed by bright grey eyes from the trees above him. Briefly, Andrew lost the trail. By careful examination he discovered that the trail replaced itself with something with much heavier footsteps and a wider paw. Moving along carefully, he frowned and scratched his head. These new tracks were from a human man wearing sneakers, judging by the patterns left on the soil. Andrew could easily see the Nike tick imprinted in the soft mud. No matter how hard he tried to backtrack or search, he couldn’t find the original tracks of the large feline. Nevertheless, he continued to follow the tracks which lead him to his favourite clearing where Andrew and Sara had agreed to follow Robert to Paris a couple of months ago. The gnarled oak branches were still the same above it, connecting the two trees forever. The sight in the middle of the clearing took Andrew’s breath away; a dead deer lay sprawled in the middle of the clearing. But it wasn’t any normal deer, and as Andrew stepped out he realised to his surprise that the deer was an albino. Its white fur had been defiled by splatters of red blood. Andrew immediately identified it as a roe deer by the slim build, instantly ruling out the Red and Fallow. The horns were absent; the deer had been female. Andrew bent down to the carcass for a closer look, his heart beating wildly. He kept his ears pricked for any sound from the forest, but it wasn’t revealing its secrets. The deer’s neck had been savagely ripped and mauled by the predator. Deep teeth marks had ripped the artery, spilling the deer’s red blood and staining ground and leaves. Its mouth was open in a silent scream and its legs stuck out at un-natural angles. Seeing such a gruesome sight in the clearing gave Andrew a desperate urge to push it away and pretend this kill had never befouled his beloved hide-out. A twig snapped behind him, whipping around and stepping back over the deer carcass, he was faced with the Black Panther. Fuck, his heart pounded. Its head stuck out of the thick bush, its eyes gleaming brightly in triumph at locating its second quarry of the day. It bared its fangs and uttered a guttural sound that made Andrew’s stomach churn. A paw appeared, a muscled foreleg and then the silky, shimmering black body in its entirety emerged from the forest like a demon from another world, its tail slowly curling and uncurling behind it. My God, they look bigger in real life, thought Andrew. A ridiculous thought floated through his mind as he locked his gaze with the Black Panther’s shining eyes, this is how people in the movies die. Should have gone straight to schoolWhat was I thinkingShould have told Sara and RobertOh God Sara RobertShould have made amends with DadCan I surviveCan I run. For what seemed like an eternity Andrew stood paralyzed before the Black Panther, not two metres away, as the creature bent its legs and prepared to pounce. Andrew stared at it so hard that it seemed like the rest of the forest melted away and all that existed was him and the Black Panther. Then suddenly a gust of air whooshed over Andrew’s head as something jumped over him. The Black Panther released an amazing roar that instinctively made Andrew duck and cover his head. Adrenalin surged through his blood and he pushed up with his feet and as result clumsily fell backwards into the bush behind him. He heard grunts and the sound of a scuffle behind him, but he didn’t turn to look. Expecting at any second to have the Panther’s paws sink into his shoulders, Andrew got his footing and ran for his life as fast as his legs would allow him, ripping apart the bush with his bare bleeding hands. Andrew ran so fast he tripped and fell head-over-heals, crashing through the forest like a runaway train. Breathing heavily, he found his feet again, briefly glimpsing trees and bushes as he practically flew past them, his feet barely making contact with the ground with every stride. He used low-hanging branches to swing over thick bushes. Every fibre of his being was telling him to never stop running away from the predator or he will surely die. He knew now what that deer must have felt like and he felt an overwhelming outpouring of guilt and horror and sickness for any creature that had ever been chased in its life. Survival of the fittest. The adrenalin pumped more and more, the pounding of his

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heart beat was so loud it felt like his heart had travelled up its stomach and into his head until such immense pain exploded in Andrew’s head that he fleetingly thought the Black Panther had jumped on him and crushed his skull. A bright white light enveloped Andrew’s vision and a serious of several loud clicks sounded in his ears. Then he returned to the green and brown blurs of the forest and found that he was still running, but now with both arms and legs, and yet it didn’t feel ungainly or uncomfortable. It felt right and amazing and wonderful. The wind whistled in his ears. He was running so fast he couldn’t see where he was going. Andrew didn’t understand what was happening but he just knew he was still running. The fear scorched in his veins. Seconds later he burst out into a field in a shower of leaves and twigs, skidding to a halt on his forelegs. He looked around wildly and strained his ears. The only sound he could hear was his heavy breathing, nothing else. No growls and no padded footsteps. Andrew waited for a moment until his lungs stopped burning and his breathing had returned to normal. He noticed a puddle of rainwater nearby and peered into it. Instead of Andrew’s face, he looked into the snout of a Grey Wolf. The wolf cocked its head curiously back at him from the reflection, its nose-ring twinkling. Huh. That’s new. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sara Icy cold water splashed across Sara’s face, bringing her back to reality. What she had seen couldn’t possibly have happened. It must have been the chemicals from the science lab affecting her vision perception. The hall had been dark with smoke. There were a number of viable factors that could have contributed to a hallucination. Stress, for instance. Sara was still shaking from the ordeal. They had made it to the fire escape just in time. The boy had been saved. Sara clutched the sink until her knuckles turned white and bowed her head, unable to look at her dirty reflection in the misty, crusted mirror. Her hair was a tangled, knotty mess that clung to her sticky face, which was patched with dirt. Her light t-shirt stuck to her body in sweat patches. She was in the public bathroom in the centre of town in Bexhill-OnSea. Robert was outside. Sara knew in her heart of hearts that none of these theories that were racing through her head were true. What she had seen had happened and the sooner she accepted that the better. She felt like she was in a dream that she couldn’t wake herself up from. Splashing her face with water again, she convinced herself she was awake. Tying her hair back into a bun, she gave her face a quick scrub to rid it of any dirt patches, changed her shirt with a spare from her bag and left to go home for the last time. * “Anybody home?” Sara opened her front door tentatively and stuck her head inside. She had hidden her travel bag in the bush next to her driveway. The Leo household was located in a middle-class area of town. Inside, a visitor could see that it had been decorated by people with very lavish and ornate taste. The wood panelled floors of the entrance hall had been recently polished and their auburn glow was bright in the afternoon sun that streamed in from the open door. Paintings in grand frames hung from the deep maroon-covered walls that depicted distant green fields and forests. The colours were all sharp and focused, yet smoothly complimented each other. A chandelier hung from the ceiling. To Sara’s right was the spiralling staircase that curled upwards above her head to the second and third floors. To her left was the living room. Sara walked to the middle of the entrance hall tentatively, silently praying that there would be no reply and she could take off in peace. “I’m working, what’s the matter?” A sharp voice emerged from the office opposite her. It was her father’s voice. Sara peeped her head around the corner sheepishly. He had his back to her, sitting at a desk in front of a computer and stacks of papers about the housing market. Sara wondered whether he had heard about the fire. She cleared her throat. “I’m home from school.” “I heard.” That was his only reply. He didn’t turn around to face her. A pause. “Where’s mum?” “She’s out food shopping.” “I’m going out to see Andrew and Robert.” “You know full well what I think of those boys,” said her father sternly, turning his curly-haired head and peering over his glasses at her with his condescending eyes. He looked more like a physicist than a real estate agent. He had a weary face, with horn-rimmed glasses and disapproving features. His mouth was thin and unforgiving. “They’re nothing but trouble.” Sara couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah. I guess I’ll have to agree with you there,” she said quietly to herself. “Before I forget to remind you, Libby’s starring in the Town Hall production of Hamlet tomorrow night as Ophelia. So cancel any plans you have that evening.” He had returned to whatever he was working on. Sure, daddy. I’ll cancel leaving to go to France for you. Like I cancelled my first holiday to Spain with my girlfriends to attend Libby’s graduation. and my basketball tournament so I could watch Libby playing the flute. Like I put my whole life on hold for her. “Sure thing, dad,” said Sara. She left him to his work. A lump formed in her throat but she ignored it. Sara ran up the

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stairs, taking care not to make much noise. The sooner she could do this the better. Bursting into her room, she left a note she had written the night before on her pillow. Her vision glazed over briefly but she blinked the tears away and sniffed loudly. She tried not to look around the tiny, cramped room she had spent the last eighteen years of her life growing up in from a baby to a young woman. The memories flooded her mind’s eye and she stood there, unable to move as she glossed over her premature life in her head at a thousand miles an hour. Truthfully, she had anticipated this day anxiously for the past year. Scenarios had played themselves out in her head, where her father would sweep her off her feet and hug her tightly, telling her not to go, that he’ll love and appreciate her forever. Her mother’s face, shiny with tears, promising her that they could start over and be a happy family that valued one another. Sara spent sleepless nights, dreading May 22nd like doomsday…but she had made her choice. She had made it for Andrew and Robert. She opened her eyes and the first thing she saw was a leopard doll on her bedside table. Without thinking, she took it and stroked the fur. It was soft to touch and she realised nothing had brought her such comfort. Her lips trembled. The leopard’s eyes stared back at her inquisitively as if to say: “why are you crying?” Sara didn’t think she could dignify that with a coherent answer. She was at a loss for words. She hung her head and her blonde hair fell like curtains, covering her freckled spotted face. A dreaded feeling of loss and hopelessness threatened to take her over as she clutched the doll tightly at her chest and she let the tears fall only for a moment. She allowed herself ten more seconds in her room; otherwise if she took any longer she would never leave. She closed her bedroom door behind her, taking the leopard doll. Sara reached the bottom of her stairs and looked at the office door that stood ajar. She thought long and hard about her options for the future. A few minutes passed and Sara closed the front door of her house, stuffing the leopard doll in the bag and donning it. Sara walked on to meet Robert by the pier. She didn’t allow herself to look back.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Bexhill

Coast

It was quarter past five in the afternoon when the tide rose on the Bexhill-On-Sea coast pier. The De La Warr Pavilion stood proudly against the clear blue sky, its glass windows magnificently reflecting the sunbeams, creating an stream of bright light when eyed from the right angle. Its main hub looked like the end of a tail folding out from a glass monster, the strip of the venue stretching for thirty metres or so parallel to the closely-cropped grass and the concrete promenade. The miserable grey clouds had dissipated in the afternoon to reveal the azure abyss above. The only disconcerting blip was a rising pillar of smoke a few miles inland that heralded the fire of Bexhill Harrow High School. Despite the misfortune that had struck the town, the coastline was as buzzing as any spring day. News of the fire had not spread to the locals that had vacated their cottages to stroll along the promenade. Tourists pointed and awed at the sea, skipping stones from the pebbled beach. Skate-boarders zoomed past elderly couples stretching their worn legs, families and children laughed brightly as the wind carried their red and orange kites higher and higher into the blue sky. Friends chatted animatedly over ice cream that was kept cool by the mild sea breeze. The ocean gust played with people’s hair and clothes, rippling them with a hint of a salty tang. Below the promenade, the mottled grey, pebbled shores of Bexhill were being gently caressed by calm waves that washed against the rocks with a soothing hiss. Some brave souls had changed into swimwear to soak up the last rays of the dying sun that was about to set itself to sleep in the sea. As the afternoon wore on, the sun sank lower and lower. Seagulls cawed above it all, gracefully circling the beach for any scraps of a meal, their majestic wingspans silhouetted from below. One gull rode a gust from the sea and floated to the ground, perching itself on a bin next to a bench. Upon the bench sat Sara and Robert. The gull peered curiously at the two of them with a small dark eye but they paid no attention to the bird. The gull cawed nervously, and then picked at the spoils of the bin. Sara and Robert said nothing for a long time. They had been waiting for Andrew for about an hour. A busker nearby was playing a slow tune on his guitar. They were silent and misty-eyed – lost in their thoughts and encapsulated within their memories of their coastal home. The wind ruffled Sara’s knotted hair and it blew back over her shoulders. Robert glanced over at her. Sara was squinting, focusing on nothing in particular. Robert felt a strong surge of warm empathy that coursed through him that he couldn’t express into words. “Have you always known…about…?” Sara let the question hang in the air. She turned to look at Robert and he saw in her eyes, not fear, not shock, but pure concern. “Last year,” he said, nodding slowly. “Round about the time my parents left. If they could see me now, they’d think I was an angel.” Robert kept a straight face for a few seconds, and then couldn’t resist - he curled his lips and Sara’s face burst into a bright smile that made the sun above them shine a little brighter. Sara began to laugh so hard the gull shrieked and flew away with an angry flap of its wings. Robert watched her warmly. As her laughter died she focused on something past his head so he turned around to look. Andrew stood on the grass behind them. He looked worse for wear. His black baggy trousers were torn in several places and tattered with dirt. His grey t-shirt hung loosely and his hair was curled and sticking up at the back. He gave a half-smile. Sara and Robert got up to embrace him. Andrew hugged them back so hard it hurt and his heart warmed at their touch. It felt like he hand come home, and he made a promise with himself that they should hug more often.

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“Where have you been?” whispered Sara in his ear. They let each other go after half a minute. Robert brushed a leaf off of Andrew’s shoulder whilst Sara busied herself with his hair. “We thought you were in the fire.” Andrew couldn’t help but grin. “Got a little side-tracked.” “Decided to bunk the last day of school, huh?” said Robert, giving a playful punch on his shoulder. “Not your style. Happy birthday, by the way.” “Thanks. It was, until you hear this.” Andrew told them about the Black Panther. As usual, Sara gave gasps of fright and awe in all the right places whilst Robert listened to the story silently, brooding to himself and keeping quiet until Andrew had finished. Andrew tactfully left out the part where he had turned into a wolf. After all, he had to choose the right moment to reveal that little gem of information, and somehow the day they ran away from home didn’t really seem like the time. “So you never found your mother’s book?” asked Sara. Andrew hung his head dejectedly. “Big Cats in Britain aren’t completely unheard of,” said Robert. “But so close to the town…?” “I know. Guess I bit off more than I could chew.” “That’s not funny,” said Sara immediately, but Andrew swore he could see her lips curling at the edges. “Did you say goodbye to your dad?” Andrew’s face momentarily darkened. Someday he would have to tell him about the family scandal, but again he had to choose his moments. “I didn’t have to say goodbye. I think he knows I’m gone for good.” Sara and Robert knew better than to pursue the subject from Andrew’s shadowed eyes. “What happened to your arm, choir boy?” Andrew asked. Robert’s cut was bleeding through his shirt again. “And what fire are you guys talking about?” “Um…gymnastics accident.” Andrew looked mystified. Sara just stared at Robert, who shrugged nonchalantly. Sara launched into the story of Harrow High catching fire, and everything that had happened since, including what happened in the great hall and Robert saving the boy. Robert watched her carefully as Sara spoke, talking so animatedly with hand actions and noise effects. They both smiled fondly as she told it so dramatically. Sara had edited the story, of course, without a bat of an eye in Robert’s direction. “Sounds like I’m not the only one who had an adventure today,” said Andrew. He stared forlornly at the pillar of smoke forlornly. “You two are some great Samaritans. Where’s the boy now?” “We left him with a crowd of students next to the fire trucks,” explained Sara. “We thought it was best. The school was being hosed down when we got out. Everyone was being kept back at the risk of any more explosions.” “Did anyone see you?” “No. It was chaos,” said Robert. Andrew nodded. “Have you guys got everything? Passports? Money?” They all had a double check of their luggage. “Where’s Tinbergen’s ship?” “Down the pier. It’s about a five minutes walk.” They walked in comfortable silence. Somehow, each other’s company soothed their troubled thoughts and they immediately felt at ease. Soon they reached the docks and Andrew pointed out Tinbergen’s fruit barge. It certainly wasn’t first-class transport, but it’ll do, thought Andrew, but it will get us from A to B. It was twice as big as a yacht, with a large brig where they presumably kept the fruit crates. The crew were big, burly men with unfriendly faces and gruff voices. Tinbergen was at the stern, barking orders and pointing his stubby fingers. Sara turned to face her friends. “I really appreciate you both.” “Aw, shucks, you’re going to make me cry,” said Andrew, pretending to wipe a tear from her eye. “Can we save the drama for later?” “I’m serious,” said Sara. “If it wasn’t for you guys, I don’t think I would ever have the guts to get out of here. This is us,” Sara breathed heavily and brushed the hair out of her eyes, “taking control of our lives.” “Aye-aye,” murmured Robert. “I know we’ll find your parents. I’m sure of it,” said Sara. “Oh, shoot!” Sara slapped her forehead. “I didn’t get you a present.” Andrew eyed her incredulously and carried on. “Just get me two berets next year when we’re living in Paris. Who knows, maybe we’ll find my mum and clear my name,” said Andrew. “What makes you so sure all of a sudden?” “Because I have you two,” he said. “The most resourceful friends anyone could ever have. Here’s to starting a new life. That’s better than any present you could have gotten me.” He held out his hand. “A warm bed,” said Robert, placing his hand over Andrew’s. “And good food.” “Most importantly, a happier life,” said Sara sincerely, her hand last to join the pile. “Yeah, yeah, whatever,” said Andrew. “Let’s just get this show on the road.” They beamed at each other. Even Andrew, grinning like an idiot, felt elated, like he could take off into the air and leave the ship behind. Finally, his dreams were coming true. He was running towards a future that he was sure was better than the one he was stuck with here. He took one last look at the town he had called home for the past five years and made a silent, secret vow to return under happier circumstances someday. His last thoughts were of his father, and

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how he hoped that he could find a way to forgive himself. Andrew knew that his father’s path to sobriety meant leaving him to his own devices and he hoped that he would get help soon. The sun began to dip into the sea, transforming the sky into a brilliant bronze. A streak of light reflected from the sun across the ocean’s surface to Bexhill, like a shining path into the heavens. Tinbergen’s ship gave a blaring horn. The big sailor noticed them and beckoned them over with a pudgy hand. “Looks like that’s our ride,” said Andrew, his grey eyes shining brightly. The three of them walked down the pier into the sunset. As they walked, Andrew felt like he was taking part in the ending of a tragic, sad book but deep inside he knew that it was the beginning of a new, happier one. Behind them, a grey terrier watched them eagerly from the promenade. It licked its paws and smoothed its ruffled grey fur and then it scarpered forwards and followed the three teenagers aboard the ship.

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Chapter 2

The Authoritarian (& His Prisoners) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Genie Anthera . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .San Diego, Westgate Hotel On the other side of the world it was four in the afternoon and the sun was setting on the waterline of San Diego, releasing its blazing orange tendrils to roam across the rippling ocean, creating a dazzling effect. The sunlight licked the water passively as the sleeping star settled further and further beneath the water, transforming the west coast American sky into a deep shade of amber. The skyscrapers of the San Diego skyline, when viewed from the lusciously spaced balcony of Room twenty-eight of the Westgate Hotel, became golden pillars of promise and hope. They were regarded with mulled interest by Genie Anthera as she took a deep puff of her cigar. The woman in her late twenties had stretched herself upon a deck-chair on her balcony, taking in the wonderful view of the afternoon sunset. The smoke from her cigar hung lazily around her in the heavy, warm southern air. A cool breeze swept it all away. She admired the evening in absolute silence. Genie was dressed in a formal manner; black overalls, a tight, knee-length skirt with her tanned legs on show, whitecollar shirt tucked into a black belt and a jacket that was hung over the side of her chair. Genie was a beautiful woman in a naturalistic wild way. She was Hispanic and olive-skinned, with sharp green eyes and long, flowing chocolatecoloured hair that fell upon her body in waves. Genie’s facial features were rounded and smooth, her eyelashes were exceptionally thick and her mouth curled at the tips. She took another puff of the cigar and looked at her watch. Almost half four pm... she was expecting someone. There was a knock on the door. “Come in,” she called from her perch on the balcony. Genie looked casually over her shoulder and saw her partner Eddie Cole enter the room. A heavyset man with broad shoulders and an imposing figure, his appearance didn’t compliment his comical personality. “Nice,” said Eddie, evidently liking Genie’s style. “Don’t mind if I do,” he said, snagging a cigar from her pack on the table. “Help yourself,” said Genie with her wispy voice. Eddie glanced at her as he fired up. She looked like a predator taking a rest after eating a large kill, he mused. “The conference starts in half an hour. God, I’m starved. I really should have eaten something before we left,” murmured Eddie. Genie nodded her assent. “Me too. How long do you think it will take?” “Shouldn’t be long. We know the ins and outs of the case; all we need to do is get you up to speed on all the major details and then we can get started on exposing what those biotech nerds are really up to.” They dipped the ashes in the ash tray and sat in silence, enjoying each other’s company. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Andrew Canis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .The English Channel There was something about the sight of the rippling waves of the ocean that comforted Andrew. Standing on the deck of the ship and leaning on the railing, he squinted into the distance to try and discern the point at which the ocean ended and the sky began. But there was no in-between, only a fuzzy line that separated the counter-acting bodies of water and air. The rocking of the ship calmed his thoughts. Instead of feeling on edge like he always did at home, he was finally peaceful. Robert was right – maybe he had finally found salvation in leaving Bexhill. The cool, ocean breeze ruffled his matted hair and refreshed his circular thoughts about Rowan, his late brother. Andrew had always known that he had a brother, despite his parents’ and multiple psychiatrists telling him otherwise. His memories of Rowan, faded and grey, hovered at the back of his mind like old, worn photographs that he frustratingly couldn’t zoom into. He stared at Rowan’s photograph. They must have been identical twins. The effect was chilling, it was as if someone had stolen his childhood identity and posed for a photo. Nevertheless, Andrew stubbornly clung onto one memory of him and Rowan making forts out of their bed sheets, mattresses and toys. A muted voice, as if far away, would chant – “Higher, Andrew! Raise the blanket higher!” And he would – Andrew remembered raising the blanket higher so his brother could slink in from under the bed and push his table inside the fort, so that when the mattress would create a makeshift roof. Andrew remembered spending hours in the shadows within their castle, pretending that their parents’ thudding footsteps on the stairs was a terrifying three-headed dog searching for them. There was one person to blame for his death, the truth of which manifested itself like a hollow hole in Andrew’s chest. He stared hard at the fading coastline of England, his grey eyes turning to iron. His father’s lies were poisonous fuel that added to his bitterness. One curious thought floated through his head – If he had known about Rowan’s reality, would he have still left?

Cryptids

Frankie Piscitelli

28


Of course I would have, thought Andrew. What would have been the point in staying? What’s done is done, his brother was long gone. Two lives running concurrent, one snuffed out before the other. Before, Andrew judged and pitied his father ferociously in his mind, picking apart everything that he ever did and chipping away at the shadow of reverence he once held for him. Now, he understood a little bit more about his misery; and he knew he was a broken man, a slave to his addiction, vying desperately for the conditioned reward of the alcohol. Pavlovian conditioning at its worst. The last shreds of respect he had for his father were dying. Andrew thought he was a slave to his alcoholic desires. He knew this was harsh, and he secretly hoped that someday he would get back on his feet. Andrew knew that he was not to be part of that process, since he himself reminded his father of his past mistakes. When Andrew had been rooting around in his father’s bedside table just yesterday morning, he had folded and taken most of the papers he had found there. Late last night when Sara & Robert were asleep in the brig he had stayed awake and, with the light from his phone, began leafing through documents of insurance companies and old work files. Most of it was uninteresting, but he found evidence of a legal case concerning a custody battle of a certain Andrew Canis. His mother had tried to gain custody of him, yet his father had eventually won what had seemed like an ugly legal battle. In the courtroom, his father had accused his mother of being unfaithful, a fact that, no matter how Andrew spun in his head, was true and that denied her credibility on the parental scale it seemed. But his father’s claims didn’t stop there. He had then gone on to accuse his mother of psychiatric delusions, but he didn’t specify what they had been. Andrew frowned. It was not news to him that his father was a liar, yet he couldn’t trust his mother either. It hadn’t been the first time his father had made that accusation, after all, but on the other hand he didn’t know his mother at all. Where did the truth lie? There was no firm documentation that his mother ever suffered from any mental illness, so Andrew was rather mystified. An alcoholic father and an apparently a crazy mother. Andrew half-smiled. He couldn’t say he was exactly proud of his origins, but he knew one thing – judging from the year long legal battle which had undoubtedly caused his father to move away from St. Albans, his mother had fought tooth and nail to keep Andrew in her life. If life with his father had been a gruelling experience, he refused to believe that a life with his mother would be any worse. Andrew pondered his thoughts on the deck of the ship. The sun hung high in the bright, sparsely clouded sky. But he was not alone on the deck. Curious, grey eyes peered at him from behind the mast of the boat. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Genie Anthera . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .San Diego, Westgate Hotel Genie and Eddie finished their cigars and went to their separate rooms to get ready. Donning her jacket and getting her purse, she applied some make-up whilst Eddie threw on some aftershave next door. They had booked rooms next door to each other. Genie’s room was a single, but it was glamorous. A stand and a breakfast tray from the morning had been pushed into the corner. The walls were painted an immodest shade of gold where a widescreen forty-two inch TV was attached. The storage space was big enough to hold her entire home wardrobe. As she was leaving Genie caught her reflection in the mirror. For a split second she had noticed a string of bronze in her hair, but as she flicked it away she realised it was the sunlight from the window. Indifferent, she left her room and the door locked itself. Genie stowed her card key in her handbag. Eddie was already waiting outside. “Ready?” Eddie straightened his suit jacket. “Born ready,” affirmed Genie. They linked arms and walked down the hallway to the elevator, and pressed ground level. “You know, I’m surprised you recovered so quickly from your…accident. But then again, it is you. You’re like Catwoman.” “I was under the best care in the country. It was expected of me.” Her answer was as frank and direct as always. Eddie smiled; she truly seemed back to normal. The doors opened and they stepped in. A man was inside, leaning at the back looking at his phone. He was wearing a linen-white shirt that hung loosely to his body and beige shorts. “Do you have the briefing files that I passed onto you?” “Of course.” “Did you read them?” “No, I didn’t think they were important. Of course I read them you imbecile.” The man behind them chuckled. Genie clocked him out of the corner of her eye. He was an Indian fellow with a bright smile. She turned her attention back to Eddie who was also grinning. “It’s an interesting case,” muttered Genie. “To be honest there’s really not much to go on. Hopefully the team have discovered some developments over the weekend.” “Let’s hope so.” The doors opened and they left the elevator, entering into a wide, cavernous space that was lusciously decorated with over the top décor and a copious amount of plump cushions and wide, ornate sofas that looked as if when you sat on them you would happily stay there for the rest of the day. The desk clerk smiled and nodded as they exited the Westgate Hotel and emerged onto the San Diego sidewalk. Palm fronds and fountains greeted them on their way out of the Hotel’s entrance park.

Cryptids

Frankie Piscitelli

29


They carried on talking as they walked briskly along the busy pathway, past traffic and pedestrians. “To be honest I don’t see the point of this conference,” said Genie. “I’ve read the case and I understand whatever there is to understand, and if we’re going to be truthfully honest here there isn’t much to make sense of. Whoever wrote or organised this case ordered the information haphazardly. The facts and claims produced here,” she tapped her handbag, “are not water-tight. Going public with this information against such a multi-national and successful company isn’t agreeable for the press and our image. Most of it is guess-work.” “I fully agree with you on all accounts. I’m pretty sure Cooper isn’t planning to put all of this into effect. Publically, I mean.” “He sure as hell shouldn’t. Does he know who the company’s benefactors are?” “I don’t think so.” “In my opinion, we need to know who exactly they’re employing, where they are getting their money from and most importantly what exactly they are researching and why their profits are so high when no research is even published. If we’re even going to get close to understanding their ultimate cause, we need to get in contact with someone within the inner circle.” “This could quickly get complicated and its cases like this where your direct moral compass could really come in handy,” said Eddie. “I’ll do my very best. But I’m not a biologist.” “Didn’t you study Biology once upon a time?” “Yes, but not at a degree level. This is hard-core genetics that’s listed here. It doesn’t take a scientist to realise that any biologist would be baffled at the sight of these biological chains. The codes listed here have chemical reactions that shouldn’t be happening within an organism’s body. The biological fact-files name genes that quite frankly I’ve never even heard of. I’m out of my depth. We need to hire a biologist, one that knows the facts and the basics to separate the theory from truth. I can get in touch with one from the University if necessary.” “Oh Genie. Is there no end to your excessive knowledge?” After ten minutes of walking, they passed the NBC studios and arrived at the CIA headquarters of San Diego. The building, like all other skyscrapers, was tall, imposing and like a glass beanstalk towering into the amber sky. Genie and Eddie had been hired together for the CIA when they recognized their natural flair at dealing with difficult social situations, their direct moral compass and physical fitness and experience. Eddie held the door open for Genie and she walked inside. Eddie followed her lead. The entrance hall had a low ceiling and black marble flooring. Everyone’s footsteps resonated within the room. There were many suited men and women walking to and from the front doors, with an important, busy air. Straight ahead of the glass doors was a desk made out of the same marble as the flooring, shaped like a curved C bent against the wall behind it. To either side were two elevators and two sets of stairs. The whole room looked unexceptional and characterless. The media portrayed the CIA with glamorously high-tech rooms full of whirring gadgets with agents in trimmed suits running to and fro frantically. Genie had never cared for the media; she gave the drab room a once-over and thought that they would be disappointed if they could see it. Genie turned to face Eddie. “We were followed on the way here.” “Sorry?” “The guy in the elevator. He gave us a ten second head-start, not nearly a long enough distance. He kept a five metre pace behind us. I tried to shake him off at the junction of Edgware and Yale but he snuck behind a telephone box.” “Genie…” Eddie said her name at the same time as he sighed. “No. Don’t do that. You can’t sigh my name.” “You’ve only been back two weeks.” Genie shrugged. “I know when I’m being followed Eddie.” Genie walked on and Eddie reluctantly followed her. She could feel his worried eyes on her back but she ignored him, her pride swallowing her up in a sphere of invincibility. Genie approached an elevator and her assistant, Beth, walked out. “Hi Genie!” she said cheerfully. She was much younger than her, very petite and cute and a great PA. Although a little ditzy and clumsy, she conducted her job professionally. “I was looking for you. Okay, so you’re scheduled to meet Laurence Cooper and the specially hired team that he’s assigned to the Fiendsyl case.” All three of them stepped back inside of the elevator, Beth at Genie’s shoulder. Beth moved in for a hug but Genie awkwardly rebuffed her efforts with a firm handshake. She didn’t like human contact. “It’s good to see you Beth,” she said stiffly. “It’s good to have you back, Genie,” affirmed Beth with a bright smile. “Nothing’s really changed around here. Randy still hasn’t cut his hair that makes him look like a Great Dane.” She tittered briefly. Genie didn’t laugh. “Okay,” said Beth, she ignored the awkward situation by producing her iPad from her bag importantly. Genie’s brash attitude was renowned in the office. “I trust Eddie passed onto you the files you need to review the case?” “I surely did,” said Eddie, grinning his wide, boyish grin again. Genie rolled her eyes. “You obviously read it.” Genie turned to Eddie and gestured at Beth, “Someone who clearly has faith in my professional abilities.”

Cryptids

Frankie Piscitelli

30


Beth read from a document on her iPad. “Cooper wanted to have another conference to glean over the case, since it’s such an unusual one, and he also wanted you to be there so we could discuss our next course of action in a group. He said it’s better if you hear it from him.” “So we can add that to what we’ve got so far. Enough chit-chat, let’s familiarize ourselves with Fiendsyl. Oh, and Genie, if you don’t mind me saying, you look remarkably healthy for someone who was shot last year.” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Genie Anthera . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Downtown LA, 1 year ago On March 20th, 2011, Genie and Eddie were strolling through downtown San Diego on a breezy spring evening. The stars were bright and the road was devoid of all human activity. There were no cars the two of them were the only people on the street. They were talking animatedly. “You are such a stingy tipper,” said Genie. “That waiter is counting the coins as we speak,” she prodded Eddie’s chest accusingly. Picking a fight was always fun with Eddie because he was so easy to wind up. They were stumbling back from a pleasant dinner party with their fellow co-workers. Genie didn’t particularly like any of them except Eddie. He had a way about him that made her open up like a book. Nobody else in the world made her feel like that, not even her boyfriend. “It’s not my fault the only change I had in my wallet was a couple of cents. Who wanted that hotdog ten minutes before we sat down?” It was Eddie’s turn to playfully push Genie. “Seriously, Genie, I have never known anyone to eat as much as you.” Genie shrugged and mumbled “high metabolism.” “High metabolism, my ass,” scoffed Eddie, his southern twang becoming more apparent in his drunken state. “You’re freaking Cat-woman.” “Wait, stop,” said Genie, putting her hand in front of Eddie suddenly. He did so and watched her intently as she immediately morphed into law enforcement mode, her facial features hardening. The fun and boisterous Genie slipped away in a split second; the transformation was alarming. She stared into a blank space ahead like a hunter staring down its prey. Eddie realised she was listening for something intently. He looked around doubtfully. “What? Is your spidey-sense is tickling?” Genie slapped his arm. “I can hear a walkie-talkie. It’s coming from that police car,” Genie ran forwards and three cars ahead she found her quarry. It was indeed a police car, but it had no driver. The radio inside on the dashboard flashed its red light angrily for attention. Eddie caught up to her. Attention Unit 34. There is a burglary and an assault distress call coming from Terrawood Street. Please copy. Genie did a quick scan of her surroundings. There was not a peep coming from either corner of the street and the houses on both sides looked quiet. It was past midnight. On an impulse, she tried the door of the car and found that it was open. “What are you doing?” asked Eddie. “How did you hear that?” Genie ignored him and leant inside to pick up the radio. She pressed the talk button. “This is Unit 34, copy. The police car I’ve found is empty. This is Genie Anthera speaking with Eddie Cole; we are Detectives of Homeland Security and the CIA. I used to work at your precinct and your head officer is Ethan Vouch. We will take your call.” Genie clicked the radio off. It was silent for a few seconds and a voice said: “Copy that, Ethan remembers you and gives permission. Take care; we believe there are two violent burglars at the house who are keeping a lady hostage upstairs. One man is loading a truck full of her possessions. At least one of them is armed. We’re sending back-up,” The radio clicked. “Genie, what the fuck are you doing?” asked Eddie, putting his hands on his head. Suddenly he looked like a fish out of water. “Enforcing the law,” she said, as she took a handgun out of her handbag and cocked it. “Terrawood Street is around the corner. We can make it.” Genie tied her long, flowing hair back into a bun and shot Eddie a determined look from her amber eyes. “We’re drunk.” “Tipsy,” she corrected. “Subjective,” muttered Eddie, but Genie had already bolted in the direction of Terrawood Street. There was no talking her out of it. Genie had sunk her claws into this mess and she wasn’t letting go no matter how hard Eddie tugged. He jogged to catch up to her and from the corner of a nearby house they could hear the commotion from the robbery down the street. There was a brief gender-ambiguous shout from up ahead, and Genie clocked the only house with its lights on three doors down on the opposite side of the street. As they advanced, keeping their cover amongst the parked cars, they constantly kept watch for passing citizens. Genie saw a dark-haired man silhouetted by the streetlamp carrying a TV with the cable trailing noisily behind him. Heaving his loot into a van, he scurried back into the house like a rat. He was harried and his clothes hung loosely to his body. Genie couldn’t decipher any physical features, other than the man was

Cryptids

Frankie Piscitelli

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tall and thin. “Ready?” asked Genie. “Here goes nothing,” muttered Eddie. “Cover me around the back,” she said. Eddie left and crept around the side of the house. Genie gave him a ten-second head start. The man re-emerged with a microwave. Genie stealthily emerged from behind the van, aimed her firearm across the bonnet. “FREEZE, LAPD,” she roared and the man dropped the microwave with a loud crash. Glass scattered everywhere. “PUT YOUR HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE THEM!” Genie couldn’t see the man fully due the light behind him. He put his hands above his head. “I’m not supposed to be here!” he whimpered. Genie advanced around the car, determined to face the criminal. “Please!” the man begged. Even in the darkness Genie could tell by his shaking voice that he was very young. “I’m a student. P – p – please! Let me show you my I.D.” The boy was clearly terrified. He was shaking uncontrollably and looked like he was about to keel over. “Is your accomplice armed?” asked Genie, advancing cautiously upon her quarry. “Please! I never meant to do this! She’s not hurt, I promise! My friend forced me to do everything!” “Shut up,” snapped Genie. She was listening over his babble for any sign of Eddie in the upstairs window where the light was on. She assumed that’s where the home-owner would be. “I can show you my I.D. It’s in my back pocket.” There was a loud crash from the house. In the split second afterwards, Genie had glanced at the top window and heard a bang. The man was holding a gun. Looking down, she saw a scarlet puddle emerge from her stomach. Her world spun and she hit the concrete hard. * It only took six months for Genie Anthera to fully recover. The bullet had passed through her abdomen magically missing all vital arteries. The doctors called it a miracle. However, it had nicked the side of her stomach, which had needed to be patched up in surgery. The surgery took eight hours due to complications arising from Genie’s condition. Her surgeon discovered in the O.R. that she was a fighter, her blood pressure dropped only once throughout the emergency surgery but otherwise her heart kept a steady beat. She didn’t flat-line once. Genie had to undergo physiotherapy to fully regain the use of her arms and legs after resting in a hospital bed for five months. Her nurses and therapist discovered that she had remarkable stamina and resilience for any task she was presented with, no matter how daunting. Instead of seeing the exercises as a chore, she regarded them as challenges. Genie was determined to be back on the force as soon as possible. Luckily, neither Genie nor Eddie were asked to take a breathalyser examination at the hospital. Despite coming from a formal dinner with wine, none of their co-workers had spoken up about the incident. The fact that the renowned agent Genie Anthera had been shot and almost killed was too much of a tragedy to make a fuss about. Eddie and Genie’s friendship had been scarred ever since. He had never forgiven her for rushing into such a situation at an inappropriate time. Genie was stubborn – she stood by the belief that she did what was right and that it would have taken too long for the police force to despatch a squad to their location. Genie did, however, learn one thing – which was that taking a step back was never a bad idea. The man who had shot Genie had never been found. There was no accomplice, only an elderly woman who had been tied up to her bedpost, blindfolded with a sock stuffed in her mouth. She had never seen her attacker clearly. The woman had died of heart trouble a few weeks later; Genie never got to meet her. They had never been able to identify Genie’s shooter. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sara Leo . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .The English Channel Sara was below Andrew in the brig of Tinbergen’s ship with Robert. The night before last they had set sail from Bexhill. Their quarters was full of crates of fruit and had hammocks tied up to sleep on for the night. Since it was the storage area, it wasn’t cramped in the slightest, it had lots of room to spare and the fresh smell of fruit was rife and pleasant, albeit overpowering. The three of them had pushed a large crate of bananas in front of the door, as well as locking it. It was an added precaution against any unwanted night-time visits from the grimy crew. Since they were carrying their entire lives in their bags, including money, passports, information on trains, and bank accounts… they took no risks. Sara had expected her sleep to be uncomfortable but it was surprisingly soothing. Andrew had kept them up late at night, talking endlessly about Paris and what kind of work they could find there. He made invigorating declarations about their new lives that somehow inflated a balloon of hope inside of Sara. She had slept well that night, hugging the leopard doll with dreams about Paris to keep her company and little thought of her estranged family back in the UK.

Cryptids

Frankie Piscitelli

32


There was something about the new, optimistic Andrew that inspired Sara. She hoped this new attitude would holdfast until Paris. A year ago she knew him solely as the strange Goth boy who shot scathing looks during class. And now, despite his circumstances, he was looking a hopeless situation in the eye and didn’t fail to see the tiniest sliver of a silver lining. Unlike her… Sara felt ashamed that she had lost control in the assembly hall yesterday. Sara kept re-living the feeling of powerlessness that had threatened to over-take her completely. Sara promised to herself silently, as she brushed her wild, knotted hair in the grotty mirror, that she would never feel like that ever again. If she could help it. Sara winced. “I wish they’d turn that bloody thing down.” “What’s that?” Robert was sitting on a crate of fruit behind her reading a book. “The radio upstairs. They should turn it off or at least tune it because it’s driving me crazy.” The static was coming from upstairs and was extremely distracting and grating on her mind. “I don’t hear anything,” shrugged Robert. The door opened and Andrew entered. “Hi,” said Sara brightly, brushing her hair vigorously. “Wow, what did your hair ever do to you to piss you off?” Robert chuckled and then grimaced as his bruised hip burned. The cut on his right arm was bandaged with the help of Sara’s first aid kit she had brought in her bulging bag. It was by far the biggest out of the three; and seemed to have everything necessary and unnecessary in it. “You guys should get some air. It’s really refreshing up on deck.” “Yeah, in a sec…” muttered Sara, pronouncing every word with a hearty stroke of her hairbrush. “Just…after…I…finish… oh, for the love of…” She threw her brush down in defeat. Her long, blonde hair had now seemed to gain an entire new volume. It was bouffant and thick, and from the looks of Sara’s pout she wasn’t enjoying the change of style. She folded her arms grumpily. Andrew sat on a crate, letting his legs dangle in the air. “I was thinking we should go over what we talked about last night. About what we do once we land in France.” Robert closed his book and crossed his legs, learning on the side of the ship. Sara sat on her hammock, letting it sway. They both gave him their full attention. “Tinbergen says we’re heading for Dieppe, which is a small town. I did a little research and it does have a train station. It’s on Boulevard Clemenceau and is a five hundred metre walk from the harbour.” “Perfect!” exclaimed Sara brightly. Always the enthusiastic one, thought Andrew sardonically, but he bit his lip. “Yeah, exactly. So we don’t have to worry about extra transport, and they have direct trains to Paris. Before we know it guys, we’ll be dining on French wine and cheese.” Before they could revel in their success, there was a knock on the door which opened before Andrew could reply. Tinbergen strode in. He was overweight with a pot-belly; small eyes that were almost absent within the fat of his face, and a perpetual grimace that made him resemble a pug-dog. Overall, it wasn’t a welcoming look and his personality wasn’t more positive. Tinbergen said a gruff hello. “Hope you slept ‘ight.” “Yeah, we did,” said Andrew, putting on a sweet and polite tone. He could see Robert trying not to laugh in the corner. “The hammocks were very comfortable, thank you. We appreciate it.” “If you want breakfast, you can come down into the kitchen and I can see what I can scare up for a price.” Andrew fumed. The man had scammed him out of a hundred pounds and he wanted them to pay for breakfast? “No, thanks,” he said through gritted teeth, the sugary tone dissipating in a millisecond. “We’ve got our own food packed in our bags.” Tinbergen’s small eyes narrowed. “If I find that you’ve been munching on my business there’ll be hell to pay, boy.” The word “boy” made Andrew shiver. “We’re not touching the fruit.” “Good. ‘Cos you better not be,” he said, raising a threatening pudgy finger. “Now I want to set one ground rule on this ship. You three don’t go wandering off into the corridors past the kitchens. That’s the crew’s quarters,” he said, shuffling his large bulk in what Andrew had assumed was an important manner. “I also wanna inform you lot that we’ve made a slight change of course. We’ve set sail to Gijón, not Dieppe.” Andrew’s stomach plummeted through the ship to the ocean floor. “But that’s in France, right? Further down the coast?” “Nope. It’s the Spanish north, mate.” Andrew was on his feet faster than he could think. “You said you were sailing to Dieppe.” “Yeah, well, that’s before we got a bigger order of fruit we gotta pick up,” said Tinbergen. “I gotta run a business you know; I’m not some damn ferry service for the young and poor.” “Can’t you use the money we gave you to cover the costs?” “No can do.” “It’s fruit, not gold!” spat Andrew, panic bubbling in his stomach. Sara and Robert immediately tensed. The rocking of the ship suddenly made Andrew feel very sick.

Cryptids

Frankie Piscitelli

33


“Shut yer smart mouth,” said Tinbergen, his bulging features re-arranging into an angry, pinched face. His eyes were dark and malicious. “You’re on my ship so you do as I say, and you three brats go where we sail with no backchat. We’re going to Spain and we go our separate ways there.” And with a last glare at the three of them, the burly sailor retreated and slammed the door. Andrew stared at the doorway in horror. “Spain,” said Sara. Her voice was tone-deaf. Robert was deathly silent. “Spain,” repeated Andrew, trying to process this information and avoiding their eye-contact. The plan had worked perfectly so far, why was this happening? He couldn’t think of anything to tell the others on how to fix the situation. They didn’t have enough money to travel cross-country. It was Robert who broke the silence. “I have an idea.” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Genie Anthera . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Present Day; CIA Base of Operations, San Diego Beth led Genie and Eddie through another pair of glass doors into a wide, spacious conference room that was centred around a large black marble table shaped like an O in the middle. Beth said her goodbyes and the two partners entered the room. Genie conducted a quick headcount and saw that there were seven other people sitting around the table on swivelling designer chairs, each with their own briefcases, laptops and pens ready to take notes. Standing at the front with his hands behind his back was their supervisor, Cooper Park. An extremely tall man at 6’7”, he towered over those seated before him. He had stubble, dark, cropped hair and brown eyes that looked like they had seen their fair share of difficult and harrowing days. His Armani suit didn’t look like it had a speck of dust on it. His age was questionable – he could have been in his mid-thirties or late forties. Nobody knew his true age or how long he had been working at the CIA. Genie and Eddie seated themselves opposite him. The atmosphere in the room was rife with anticipation. Genie nodded at everyone and they murmured greetings. Genie was acutely aware of the lingering looks at her but she paid them no attention. She knew them all, roughly, and they had varying attitudes towards her ranging from the frosty to the friendly. They were waiting for Cooper to begin. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” said Cooper, nodding in approval. “Let’s get right down to business, shall we?” “As you are all no doubt aware the CIA have been monitoring a genetic-advancement company known as Fiendsyl. They are based in Miami, Florida and according to their press conferences they have been focusing their efforts on animal and human gene splicing and improvement. We’ve copied some of their equations for you to look at here in the files. Their funding comes from a number of sources, mainly big-name stock-holders and donations of other smallerscale biologist groups that support their work. Their main aim is to test and improve certain characteristics of organisms. Their research and laboratory results are not revealed to the general public, this in turn raises ethical concerns of many Animal Rights groups. As you know, the law states that all biological tests must be approved by an ethics committee, however the owner of Fiendsyl, Posi Emidio, an entrepreneur who has successfully climbed the capitalist ladder, refuses to reveal details of his work on personal grounds. Emidio has assured the board that no unethical work is being conducted.” “We believe otherwise. No company can conduct science experiments and not leave behind a trace. We’ve discovered that they have order forms for all the necessary biological and botanical apparatus. Nothing out of the ordinary there. However, Fiendsyl has also purchased order forms for extremely powerful military weapons that quite frankly do not coincide with the nature of their business. They’ve purchased bazookas, tranquilizer rifles, silicone nets, bulletproof glass and a hell of a lot of concrete and building supplies, enough to build bomb shelters. Not only that, a vast amount of land-reclaiming sediment, large enough to create an island, was purchased over twenty years ago. These orders were purchased covertly and with the strictest confidence within Fiendsyl.” “How did we come into possession of these forms?” asked Genie. “Undercover sources,” said Cooper flatly. “I’m not at liberty to divulge any names; we have many double-agents in the field detailing and researching what Fiendsyl are doing and why. We have agents working in their accountancy and receptionist staff, taking notes on every single employee of Fiendsyl and loading them onto a database located on a server that all of you can access. I’ve given you each a username and password that you must memorise by the end of the day. You must destroy the paper afterwards. Our main suspicion about Fiendsyl is that they are conducting illegal experiments. When making ties or friendships with the staff, our agents find them to be secretive and rather off-hand. Their employees are an eclectic mix of personalities. As soon as we think we are onto a lead about their biological cases, they suddenly pack up their offices and leave. Somehow they are able to cover their tracks. It seems that we’ve underestimated Fiendsyl’s resources and capabilities. A company does not buy an office, work there for three months, and then leave unless they have secrets. Their main offices are located throughout America, but their actual labs where they undergo experiments are harder to locate. The reasons they give for requiring such heavy fire-arms are that they for security and safety, because their main branch in Miami are situated in a rough area. But you and I both know that it doesn’t take a bazooka to keep out the town hoodlums.” Genie frowned. She knew most of this information. Cooper carried on talking through the case, what Fiendsyl had

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purchased and their theories on why they needed such heavy protection and firepower. As Cooper talked, Genie took a mental note of all the information that didn’t add up and cross-referenced that with any discrepancies she had found in the file. The case had been organized poorly and she could see a number of irregularities. “We’ve got a lead.” Cooper handed out a photograph of a twenty-something-year-old woman in a busy street, focusing her attention ahead of her; she appeared to be completely oblivious to the photographer. She had fair skin and was mixed race with full lips, long straight black hair, a slim build and glasses. She was carrying a laptop in her crossed arms and a rucksack on her back. She was wearing a grey tank top underneath a tattered lab coat with dirty sneakers. “Meet Faith Withers – Fiendsyl’s most recent employee, twenty-three, an expert microbiologist, a recent graduate from Miami University with a Masters BSc in Genetics. We were going to contact her but Fiendsyl got to her first. I won’t go into the details but it seems Fiendsyl is recruiting again. With all of their scientists presumably dead, injured or disappeared we think they’re running out of biologists. They’re recruiting freshmen from universities, literally picking them up like fresh fruit from a farm.” Murmurs spread through the room. “How do you know their scientists are dying?” “Look here, it gets worse.” Cooper passed around pixelated photos from a small camera device that had been blown up to A4 size of what appeared to be a bombsite which stretched for a mile into the distance. There was rubble and debris, remnants from an explosion arranged into neat, tall piles. Genie noticed that the picture looked like it had been designed by an abstract Photoshop fanatic. The piles bent at odd angles that would not normally stay upright, and she couldn’t quite make out what the rubble was made out of. It appeared to be parts of rock and dirt, along with man-made material like sheets of steel, glass and concrete, fragments of some sort of building, Genie presumed. The trees of the forest surrounding the rubble were bent backwards from the force of whatever decimated the area. Cooper let everyone absorb the picture. “Holy Jesus,” muttered someone. The rest of the room let out a few curses. “A few miles north of Seattle, this rubble was found by a hiker hunting for his Thanksgiving turkey. Instead, he found this. The man called 911. When they finally dispatched an investigation team the rubble had disappeared. The man in question had luckily taken a photo before they arrived.” “I don’t understand. What disappeared?” an auburn-haired woman in her late forties asked. “The rubble. Everything. Every single rock and piece of concrete had disappeared. When we contacted and interviewed the man and he told us that he had sat there waiting for the emergency services to arrive when a dark fog suddenly covered the area. Keep in mind that this was at one in the afternoon on a reasonably clear-sky November day. The man described the fog as constantly moving. It enveloped him and the surrounding field within a matter of seconds. Soon, the fog became so thick the man couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. He became scared and confused. Then, he said he woke up on the ground. The surrounding area had been replaced with long-bladed grass, flowers and lowgrowing plants. The emergency services turned up ten minutes later. The man was later charged with wasting the emergency service’s time and faced a one-month jail sentence.” The room was silent. Everyone began shuffling their papers and clearing their throats uncomfortably. “The photo could have been edited,” said a man with glasses to Genie’s right. “His phone was checked by our technicians and they can confirm that this photo was taken at 1:23pm in the afternoon of Wednesday, November 24th 2010.” “Wasn’t there a road connecting the location to a nearby highway?” “There’s not a single dirt track to prove that there ever was one. Or a building, for that matter.” “I don’t understand why this is relevant? Didn’t this happen last year?” “One of our sources recently discovered that Fiendsyl once had an office at the exact co-ordinates that this photo was taken a few years ago. That’s when this man’s story finally became credible.” “So you’re saying…what this rubble used to be was one of Fiendsyl’s laboratories? What the hell happened to it?” “That’s what we have to find out,” sighed Cooper. * Cooper gave out individual tasks to everyone in the room and dismissed them. They all got up in unison. When everyone was out of the room except Genie and Eddie, she approached Cooper. “Sir, you haven’t given me a mission.” “Anthera, at the request of your therapist it’s advisable that you sit this one out. You’ve still got two weeks left on your break-time.” Genie gritted her teeth, her cheekbones visibly hardening, suddenly making her look extremely fierce. If there was one thing Genie hated, it was being told what not to do. “My therapist has been cut loose. I’m ready.” “I’m inclined to disagree.” “I’ve passed all of my physiotherapy and I can do it right here, right now.” “That’s not necessary or the problem,” said Cooper, losing patience. “Then what is? The problem is that your evidence here lacks any valuable source. Why give me the case files?” “You’ll be working here in San Diego. Or in the research centre downstairs, if you wish. I want you to conduct background research on all the locations of Fiendsyl’s laboratories.”

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“But we haven’t discovered the locations of any labs yet, except the home plant in Miami.” “Exactly. I want you to find them and I have full faith in you that you will. I expect great things from you, Anthera. Use that great mind of yours and don’t let me down,” said Cooper as he placed a re-assuring hand on Genie’s shoulder. Even though Genie was relatively tall at 6’, she felt small and insignificant facing Cooper. Genie bit back her words as Cooper turned his attention to Eddie. “Cole, I want you to fly to Seattle and investigate the abandoned site and the surrounding forest. We’re flying you out tomorrow. Here are your flight details.” He handed Eddie his boarding pass. “Look for anything. Clues, scratch marks on trees, leftover rubble, anything you can find. Interview the locals if you see fit for any mysterious activity in the area. I want you to keep your wits about you. Something tells me Fiendsyl isn’t entirely about genetics.” “I can contact my old Biology professor from the University,” said Genie. “He may able to make sense of these equations.” Cooper picked up his briefcase and straightened his tie. He looked tired and old. “That would be extremely helpful. Good luck to you both.” He left the room, shaking hands with both of them, leaving Genie and Eddie alone. They walked to the elevator in silence. “I fancy taking a trip,” said Genie suddenly. Eddie looked at her curiously. “We’re in the middle of a case, Genie,” said Eddie and he pressed the ground floor button. “I’ve always wanted to dine on top of the Space Needle. I’m coming with you to Seattle and you’re paying for dinner.” Eddie rounded on Genie as the elevator doors slid shut. “Are you trying to get fired?” he hissed. “Cooper specifically said to you to find the laboratories! You’re disobeying direct orders! You’re not picking up random police calls anymore!” “That doesn’t mean I can’t take my research with me. There might be a lab in Seattle. And you suck at interviews.” “Yeah, sure. It’s on the corner of blown-to-smithereens street,” hissed Eddie, folding his arms crossly, evidently annoyed at the jibe. “You know as well as I do there isn’t another Fiendsyl lab anywhere near Seattle.” “For my job I’m not ruling out the possibility. I have a hunch that clearing is going to provide answers.” “Didn’t you learn anything from not following orders?” asked Eddie. “Of course I did. I learnt to follow my own orders,” said Genie. “You’re a hypocrite, you know that?” said Eddie, as he pressed the ground floor button and the elevator began to descend. “I know. A hypocrite working in the name of justice.” Genie smiled triumphantly to herself, and she could sense that Eddie was smiling too. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Sara

Leo

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .The English Channel Sara entered the ship’s kitchen, her mind taut with the latest conversation she had had with Andrew and Robert. Talking with them and making plans never failed to increase both her anxiety and her appetite. Even the kitchen smells fishy, she thought. It was a tiny room with a low roof, a wooden table with benches to sit and eat at, one fridge for a crew of seven, and a few cupboards to her right and an extremely dirty work-top. Water was leaking in the corner, dripping into a puddle next to the sink. A rotten apple with one bite mark lay in the water. There were dog prints around the room. That’s strange; Sara hadn’t seen a dog on board… Sara wrinkled her nose. Opening the cupboards, she found only random spices and old cereals that had long gone out of date. She heard the door open a few seconds later; one of the crew members had followed her inside. He was in his late thirties, wearing a white tank top that showed off his grubby shoulders and patchy arms. He smelt horribly of sweat. Sara glanced at him and returned to rifling through the cupboards. “Ah, you must be one of the newbies that are tagging along in the brig,” he drawled. “I’m Steve.” He held out a dirty hand. Sara turned and looked at it. She couldn’t even see his original skin colour. She shook it nonetheless out of courtesy. “Sara.” She smiled wanly, and returned to foraging in the cupboards. “Do you know if there’s anything to eat around here?” “You could try the fridge. I think there’s some fish you could rustle up?” Sara opened the fridge. Inside, there were three herring piled up on the second shelf. They were raw and Sara’s nose was assaulted by a very salty tang. “You know, I think I’ll pass on that one…” she said, closing the door slowly. “Where you guys headed?” asked Steve, leaning next to the door and folding his arms. He rested his leg on the bench in front of him. There was something about the way Steve comfortably arranged himself that unsettled Sara. “Dieppe. In France,” she said, awkwardly pausing by the worktop. She didn’t really fancy engaging in conversation with this man. The three of them tended to avoid all contact with the crew but in Sara’s present situation there wasn’t much room for ignoring him. He was blocking the door. “Not what I heard,” chuckled Steve.

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Sara smiled to herself. “Something tells me we might have a change of course soon.” Steve’s grin slipped away and was replaced by an offended frown. “What’choo laughing at?” “Nothing. Er, it’s something my friend said earlier.” She felt the hair on the back of her neck prickle uncomfortably. “I don’t like girls who laugh at me,” snapped Steve, his tone changing suddenly. “Do you laugh at your two boyfriend’s?” Sara was rattled. “Neither of them is my boyfriend.” As soon as the words left her mouth, she regretted it. “That’s not what the crew’s sayin’,” said Steve, and he chuckled again but this time it was a nasty laugh at Sara’s expense. She suddenly felt very hot and trapped in in the small room. The rocking of the ship made her feel dizzy. “I don’t care what the crew says,” she muttered in a small voice. She stepped towards the door and put her hand on the door knob. “I want to get out.” Steve’s hand grasped Sara’s and squeezed. She tried to pull away but the man’s grip was too tight. She tried not to look at him and tugged out of his grip. “Did I tell you about the extra fee girls have to pay on this ship…” Steve murmured. He was so close to her his breath was tickling her hair. It smelt of rancid fish. Sara’s hair fell like a curtain over her face and she froze. Her eyes bored into the door knob. She felt like she couldn’t move. There it was, creeping up on her like snakes in long grass, wrapping around her body. That feeling of powerlessness that she had felt before. The man’s grip on her arms was tight and she was frozen. The dread engulfed her. She couldn’t escape him. “It doesn’t take much…” Sara could see Steve’s other hand going to her hip. He gripped her tank top and he tugged to take it off. What happened next happened too fast for Sara to comprehend. Before she knew it she was thrust against the wall roughly under Steve’s grip. He grabbed for her top again but she blindly batted him away, their arms locking awkwardly as she tried to push him away, her bushy hair blocking her vision. Steve tugged at her hair and she let out a blood curdling scream that chilled even her own blood. Steve’s hand blocked her mouth. “Shut the fuck up you little – “ Sara bit down as hard as she could. She felt her teeth sink into Steve’s hairy arm, the mixed taste of his unwashed flesh and blood rancid on her tongue. Steve yelled in pain and she kicked him in the groin roughly. He fell to the floor and smacked his head with a dull thud. Sara licked her lips. She raised her hand and felt a cascade of blood fall. She carried on screaming and closed her eyes in shock. Except something about the noise changed. She sounded primal and deep. A roar from a monster hidden within her was finally finding its voice. She looked down upon Steve and saw him looking up at her in horror. Sara stopped roaring. “What the fuck are you?” he whispered. The door busted open. A metal pipe descended upon Steve with a sickening crash; a rib was broken. He dove out of the way and Andrew struck again, splintering the wooden floor. He turned to Sara. “Come with me.” He grabbed her around the waist and dragged her out of the kitchen out onto the deck. She clutched onto Andrew so tightly her fingers were numb. She felt dirty in a way that a shower wouldn’t fix. Robert looked on in horror, the jealousy of Andrew saving Sara before he could positively etched into his face. He ran towards them. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Andrew Canis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .The English Channel Andrew carried Sara cumbersomely into their brig quarters and laid her on a crate. She was silent and practically catatonic. Andrew wrenched the taps onto full blast and took off his t shirt. It was splattered with dark splodges and with a sick feeling he realised it was that man’s blood. He dabbed it in water and began wiping the blood off of Sara’s face. “He attacked me,” she whispered. Her teeth were stained with blood. She looked like a vampire fanatic. “I know,” was all he could say. The door slammed open. Andrew tensed, ready for a second round. He cursed himself for leaving the pipe in the kitchen, but it was only Robert. He was by Sara’s side in a heartbeat. “What happened?” “One of the men, that’s what happened. Fucking nutjobs. Lock the door.” Andrew felt Robert’s jealous eyes scald him for a split second but he obeyed him. The door was clicked shut and he returned to hover by their side, clearly unsure of what to do. Andrew irately ignored him. “You saved her?” Robert said eventually, putting too much emphasis on the ‘you’ for Andrew’s liking. “I did what I had to do,” said Andrew, overlooking Robert’s indignant tone. “Sara? Can you hear me?” “Yeah, yes, I’m fine…” she seemed to be returning to normal. “I can…” she reached for Andrew’s t shirt and went to the sink to clean herself. Robert took Andrew aside and spoke in a low voice. “How did you find her?”

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“She went in the kitchen to find something to eat, and then I heard her scream. I grabbed a pipe and ran as fast as I could. And then…” “Then what? What?” pressed Robert. “Her scream. It turned into a roar. I thought… I thought the panther was on the boat.” Robert stared at him. “Maybe it was that pig of a man…” “Maybe. If all goes to plan later they won’t touch her again. You still up for it?” “You bet.” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Genie Anthera . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Hard Rock Café, San Diego Genie hated social gatherings. They were her worst nightmare. Small talk and conversation were not one of her strong points; she found them to be a waste of her time. Following a thread of conversation about something that mildly interested her wasn’t interesting to her in the slightest and so she would make no effort to follow it on at all, which is why most people who didn’t know her very well found her rude and uninviting. Tonight was Genie’s “Welcome Back Party” at the Hard Rock Café, on the corner of 4 th Avenue, heralding her fullblown recovery from the dead after the shooting. If there was one thing she hated more than social events, it was a social event centred around her. Genie met Eddie and his girlfriend Tracy at the front of the Café, below the big red and yellow sign. Downtown San Diego was alive and bustling at 21:34. Genie was a little late. Tracy was over-enthusiastic. Genie found her ‘too’ friendly, and she always seemed to be happy about everything and anything. Since she was Eddie’s girlfriend, Genie put up with it. Tracy’s bubbly personality worked to her advantage since Genie’s rude silence was attributed as shyness in Tracy’s book, but Eddie knew better. They ushered Genie reluctantly through the front door. Genie was hailed as some sort of heroine. She had been working at the CIA for a while and the team seemed intent on getting to know her. They called and whistled at Genie as she came in, and she was met with many hand-shakes and uncomfortable hugs. Genie hated people coming into her personal space without her permission. The only person she was sort of happy to see was Beth, who rescued her from her comrades and took her to the bar. “You’re not on any medication?” asked Beth. Genie shook her head vigorously. “Perfect. Two gin and tonics, please.” The two women sat at the bar, away from the main crowd who had nestled themselves into a corner booth. Some twenty people had turned up straight from work. “Big turn-out,” stated Genie. “Yeah, tell me about it, right? I mean, people can’t wait to get out of the office. This Fiendsyl case isn’t exactly jettisoning us out in the field. You’re kind of famous here at the CIA.” “Famous…?” repeated Genie, twirling her drink with the lemon. “Come on. You were shot! And survived! You’re like our fallen angel, except, you got up.” “I don’t know about that,” said Genie, sipping her drink and leaning on the bar. Beth was beginning to be all girly and shrill which began grating on Genie. Beth continued talking about the Fiendsyl case and how odd it was. “You’re right there,” agreed Genie. “Cooper wants me to stay put whilst he sends Eddie out to Seattle to check out the rubble site.” “You don’t agree?” “Damn right I don’t. He won’t say why but I know what he’s thinking. He thinks I’m not ready.” “But you are.” Beth knew exactly want to say, bless her cotton socks, thought Genie. “Of course I am. Eddie wants me to consult my therapist Carson. I haven’t been in therapy in five months!” Genie’s frustration surprised her and she realised she felt much stronger about the subject than she realised. She took a sip of her drink to calm herself. “Plus the fact I hate that man.” “He’s looking out for you. Eddie, I mean,” she reasoned. Genie huffed. “I know. It’s sweet. He thinks he knows best, but…” She wasn’t so good at explaining her feelings. “I feel so restrained. I want to be out in the field. Fighting crime the way it should be fought.” “I get it. You’re going through a dry spell. It’ll pass, I promise.” They carried on talking through the night. Well, sort of. Genie let Beth talk about her life and she ‘mmm’d’ and ‘aaah’d’ in all the right places, and nodded enthusiastically when she felt like she had to agree with something important that Beth felt strongly for. Various people that she vaguely knew from previous cases came up to her to offer their best wishes. They were sharpminded individuals, like Genie, who knew when someone wanted to be left alone. Genie sipped her drink and felt herself getting a little more drunk. The hazy feeling of the gin spreading from her stomach through her body, making her problems feel a whole lot lighter. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed somebody familiar across the other side of the bar. He had dark, chocolate

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skin and was wearing a linen-white shirt. His hair fell in long, dark strands behind his ears. He had a sharp, toned face and was sitting at the bar nursing a tall drink that also looked like a gin and tonic. Their eyes locked across the bar and he half-smiled at her. Genie frowned back at him. It took a few seconds for Genie to place him in her register, and when she did, she set her drink down and strode confidently in his direction, leaving behind a surprised Beth. He tracked her progress around the bar with intelligent, scheming eyes. Genie reached him and he looked bemused. “Why are you following me?” she demanded. “I’m sorry, miss. Can I help you?” he said, blinking in rapid succession and smiling in a baffled fashion. “You heard what I said. Why are you following me?” Genie repeated. Her voice was quiet but dangerous. Beth had followed her over. Genie had her hands on her hips. Her hair was falling in wild tangles around her impatient face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the man said slowly, narrowing his eyes. Genie’s lip curved. He was lying. “Don’t play games with me. I saw you in the elevator earlier today. You followed me and my friend to our offices for ten minutes.” The man shook his head slowly, at a loss for words. Genie stared him down, waiting for an answer. She was a 110% sure it was the same man. He even had the same shirt on. Genie felt a firmer hand on her right shoulder and instinctively knew it was Eddie. “Genie, what’s going on?” “This man. He was the one who followed us today,” said Genie, her voice level. She watched as Eddie glanced at the man, then back at Genie. She didn’t falter her gaze at Eddie, silently telling him she wasn’t messing around. Eddie finally gave an apologetic glance to the man. “I’m sorry. Give us a minute,” he said. Eddie steered Genie, who was silently fuming, away from the man. Genie glimpsed back at the man and for a split second she swore she saw him smiling tauntingly at her, his chocolate eyes were triumphant, but his face was blocked by the edge of the bar. Eddie led Genie outside onto the sidewalk. Cars were speeding past on the main road. Night had fallen onto San Diego City. Before Eddie could speak, Genie barked: “I’m going to save us a lot of time here, Eddie. Do you believe me or don’t you?” Eddie looked reproachful and then he shrugged. That was all the answer she needed. “I’m going back to my hotel. Goodnight.” Genie stormed past Eddie, who called after her: “At least let me walk you home!��� “I’ll call a cab,” she shouted back. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Robert

Avery

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .The English Channel “I told you he would grow wings one day.” Robert’s father, his adoptive father, once told Robert that he believed that God would show himself to the world one day by sending angels from heaven to Earth to absolve us of our sins. So that the humans can learn from their past mistakes and start again. He used to say the world was on a precipice for change. He used to say he could feel God’s presence getting stronger and stronger every day, and that His messengers will spread the word of His return and eternal salvation. When Robert had told Andrew, of course he had scoffed. It was a fanciful thought; however he couldn’t let it go. “I told you he would grow wings one day.” Ever since Tinbergen’s ship had set sail from Bexhill, those words repeated themselves like a mantra within Robert’s head. They had plagued his dreams the previous night, whispered by a mystery voice as it drifted through the discoloured shapes and feelings of Robert’s anxious mind. As he climbed the ladder to the roof of Tinbergen’s cabin, at the boat’s uppermost point, his worrisome thoughts were lifted away with the rough sea breeze. As the afternoon waned, the sky had let loose a light drizzle from the grey heavens and the ocean became choppier. Robert had to struggle to keep his balance. The roof was slippery and his worn trainers weren’t gripping it. His bruised hip from yesterday burned at his side. He heard a crew member shout below. “Hey, what do you think you’re doing up there?” Robert glanced down onto the deck and could see the burly janitor looking up at him curiously. Andrew was behind him with Sara, leaning on the edge of the boat with his thumbs up and grinning excitedly. Robert was following his instructions; climb the ships cabin and wait for Tinbergen to appear. Sara was leaning on Andrew, pale from her ordeal. He locked eyes with her. I would do anything for you, he thought desperately. I will save you of your sins. “Oi! Tinbergen!” shouted Andrew. “What’s going on here?” Tinbergen emerged from his quarters, turning his puny, wispy-haired head from side to side. Tinbergen had his back to Robert.

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“I’m not a hound scum you can summon with a shout,” spat Tinbergen angrily, his crew men gathering around, interested in the imminent confrontation. Robert saw Sara shrink behind Andrew, clearly nervous. “What do you want?” “What the - ? This isn’t a fucking playground! Get down from there!” shouted Tinbergen when he noticed Robert. Robert ignored the shouts and closed his eyes in order to concentrate. He willed his body relax, and then suddenly his back began to burn and ache. It felt like something was churning inside of him. He felt his skin and bones shifting to make way for something sprouting out of his back. Two things, in fact. The first few times Robert had morphed it had been intensely uncomfortable and painful. It was like going through growing pains at a hundred times the normal speed. Robert thought about it– every-time he morphed his body would go through a massive instantaneous biological change that would at first exhaust him, but over the past year he had practiced morphing alone in his room. Eventually morphing became less painful, as his body got used to the change, yet it was still discomforting. Now, with the sea breeze and the rocking of the ship comforting him, he found the transformation went extremely smoothly and without a hitch. Two beautifully magnificent feathered wings sprouted from his back through the two cleanly cut holes in his dirty t-shirt. The first bones of the wings were attached to the bottom of his shoulder blades, and they branched upwards into a curved arc above Robert. The wings unfurled their golden feathers and they bristled in the sea breeze. Andrew and Sara watched in awe, they subconsciously clocked his wingspan at roughly two and a half metres wide. Robert felt the wings connect to his nervous system instantaneously, and he stretched them as the nerves came alive. It felt like stretching his legs and arms after a long car journey. They felt stiff and un-used. Robert gave them a flap but lost his balance against the gust. Instead, he bent them horizontally so that the strong wind wouldn’t blow him off of the ship. The sea breeze tickled his golden feathers. It felt nice. A beam of sunlight shone through the clouds and a miniature rainbow materialised above the ship. Robert opened his eyes for the first time. The crew members were all either on the floor or standing frozen with their mouths open in a comical “O”. Tinbergen was staring at Robert whilst clutching the railing on the edge of the ship. One man jumped over-board, shouting in fear. Their fear stung Robert’s heart like a dart of poison, spreading through his veins. Their eyes were full of judgement and dread. Robert didn’t care. He was above them all. They couldn’t judge him; he was here to judge them. “What… what are you?” shouted Tinbergen. His voice was raspy and small. “Robert… you look incredible!” shouted Andrew. “Oh my God,” breathed Sara. Her blue eyes were sparkling. “Your boyfriends a freak!” came a shout from the crew. She looked like she was about to cry. The spray of an ocean wave hissed loudly. He scanned the crew. He saw a man leaning on the rails opposite him. His arm was bandaged and bloody. He was staring daggers in Sara’s direction, which Robert was returning to him. Robert’s blood boiled. He didn’t often get angry, so the sensation was quite unfamiliar to him. He had read in books that angry people’s vision blurs. He knew now that wasn’t a figure of speech. The disgust welled up at the thought of that man causing Sara harm, the unjust of it all making him feel sick. But he had the power of revenge. Robert acted on instinct. No man was to make Sara cry on his watch. He leapt into the air, the sea roaring in his ears as he dived towards his target. He heard a distant shout and ignored it. He focused on the man, his eyes popping comically, his face zooming towards him at great speed. The collision almost knocked the wind out of him. Robert tried to grab the man but he was out of his grasp – he fell into the rolling sea with a splash and Robert swerved out of the way and into the air, the bright sun blinding his vision. He turned and rode an air current, clumsily landing back on the cabin roof, taking care to bend his knees to absorb the landing’s impact. The crew were in uproar, running around and trying to throw rope into the sea to help the man. He got what he deserved, thought Robert gladly, his heart thumping with the adrenalin rush, a curious feeling of invincibility enveloping him. I could take over this ship if I wanted to. It was Andrew and Sara’s faces that brought him back to normality. Sara was beaming brightly and stepping forward to get a closer look. Andrew’s face was engulfed in complete awe as he shadowed his eyes with his hand to get a clearer view of Robert’s wings. Robert couldn’t help but grin back at his friends’ awestruck faces. He had a sudden mad urge to laugh hysterically. Not a single line of judgement or fear was etched in either of their faces. That comforted him. “Freak!” screamed one of the crew members, who quickly jumped overboard and landed in the sea with a loud splash. “So you see,” said Andrew, turning to Tinbergen, who couldn’t take his eyes off of Robert. “The deal goes like this. Either you sail back to Dieppe or we drop each and every one of your crew in the water and sail ourselves. We have certain… friends waiting for us on shore. Our creators won’t be happy if they find out that we’ve been shipped to the wrong country. Who knows… maybe they’ll take you in for experiments…” Tinbergen tore his eyes away from Robert to face Andrew, clasping his hands together desperately. “Please! I’ll take you anywhere you want! I’ll give you anything! Just don’t hurt me!” Andrew half-smiled at Tinbergen. Sara crouched behind him, looking at the man pitifully. “Take us to France and I won’t tell my friends about this incident. Deal?” “Deal,” said Tinbergen, without hesitation. Andrew’s face broke into a triumphant smile. “Now go turn the boat around,” said Andrew. “We’ll get your men back.” Tinbergen hurried back below deck to follow Andrew’s commands. Their coup had been staged successfully… none

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of the crew members dared come near Andrew, Sara or Robert, they edged slowly away from them and ran to the hull of the ship. The trio took out the life jackets from a nearby box and threw them to the men who had jumped overboard. Even Steve. As he gripped the rope and jumped back on board he growled, “this isn’t over, pretty,” under his breath so only Sara could hear. It took some time but eventually Andrew convinced them that they weren’t going to eat them, and the frightened men grabbed the floats and were dragged back onto the ship. The rest of the crew had scarpered into the lower quarters, leaving Andrew, Sara & Robert alone on deck. The sun was shining brightly through the grey skies above. “You lie really well. Worryingly well, actually,” said Robert, high-fiving Andrew. His golden wings sparkled with dew in the re-born sunlight. “Thank you,” said Sara in a small voice. “You should have left him to drown,” replied Robert indignantly. Sara’s shock was clearly evident so he changed tack, “I did it for you.” Andrew just shrugged. “If only we really did have friends who were freaks like us,” he mused. “That reminds me, there’s something I need to tell you guys about what happened to me in the forest yesterday…” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Genie Anthera . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .San Diego, Westgate Hotel Genie lay in the hot bath tub, soaking in the warm water and crooning in the minty smell of the bubbles. The rippling sound of the water resonated off of the marble walls in her echoic hotel bathroom. As the water settled, silence resumed. It comforted her. After she had left the party, she had run a hot bath to cool down. As her doctors had suggested after the accident, when she felt her ‘emotional outbursts’ come on. She hated obeying doctor’s orders, but she knew she had to calm down. Genie yearned to forget the memory of herself at her most vulnerable after her ‘incident’. She considered it shamefully embarrassing. Sometimes memories of her struggling to walk again would pop up in her mind at a time when she felt at her most collected and powerful… and then it would destroy her. She would have to retire to the bathroom and breathe breathe breathe , like the doctors said, until the feeling passed. She had despised and loathed her time at the hospital. The pitiful stares of her friends and nurses as she attempted physical therapy for the first time filled her with resentment at how she was shot down, literally, in the prime of her career. Their eyes. She could never shake the feeling of those eyes on her, welling with tears at how she had become so weak and needy. An unwelcome emotion surface every time she thought about her unborn baby – guilt. Guilt towards something she couldn’t possibly have avoided… Or could she have? The decision to answer the police call that night held more weight than Genie could possibly have predicted. Eddie would never say the words aloud, but she knew that he thought she had no business getting herself involved in that burglary call. Anyone who knew Genie well enough, and those people were few and far between, would know that if she hadn’t answered the call, she would never have forgiven herself for walking away and not bringing a potential criminal to justice. Either way, Genie reasoned, it was the better of two evils – Genie had unfortunately picked the extremely short straw. Why Eddie didn’t believe Genie was a mystery to her. She had sworn she had seen the man who had been following her yesterday at the bar. She had no patience for people who didn’t take her word, as Eddie had found out the hard way. Genie closed her eyes and let the frustrating thoughts flow out of her head and be replaced by the scent of the hotel’s bland bubble wash. Whilst she was bathing, she didn’t need to think about anything that upset her. Only she existed right now and that’s how it was going to be. Genie pushed the bubbles away from her stomach. She had found her scar. It was ugly and purple, a little bit above and to the right of her belly button. Underwater, the gruesome burn marks rippled unpleasantly. Only the doctors who had treated her had seen it; she had never shown anyone the scar. The bullet had entered her cleanly through her abdomen. Genie stared at it for a long time. Her therapist had made her promise not to stare at it for more than five minutes, since she used stare at it for days on end until someone would find her in her apartment… silently brooding. Genie stared at the ugly mass and thought about what she had lost the day she had gained it. She had lost many things. As her vision engulfed the scar, Genie’s mind floated back in time, to a point when she was lying in the exact same position in her hospital bed exactly one year ago. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Genie Anthera . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Los Angeles State Hospital, Room 25, 1 year ago It was a chilly evening. The window in the room had been left open and an unwelcome breeze chilled her to the bone. The thin, crispy blanket didn’t provide much comfort. Her room was small, cramped and had a strong, sickening smell of disinfectant and everything in it was a combination of muted whites and greys. Genie was in the bed, half-asleep, her dishevelled hair wilting over her thin, pale face. Her head looked shrunken and gaunt. Her forehead was cut open by the

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pavement when she had fallen; it had recently been sutured but dried, crusted blood surrounded the edges. Her left eye was swollen. Her face was discoloured with bruises. The steady beep of the heart monitor was the only sound in the room which was dark and heavy with shadows and pain. The door opposite her creaked open. A head poked through. It was a man with cropped tawny hair, trimmed stubble and wide, sorrowful eyes that looked like they had done their fair share of shedding tears in the recent hour. “Honey?” the man croaked. Genie jittered awake with a gasp and a moan. The pain from her abdomen flared. The surgery had finished two hours ago and the anaesthetic made her groggy. “Danny?” she whispered. She tried to open her left eye but it was too swollen. “Shhh…” crooned Danny, coming to her side. “Oh, baby.” He took her hand, the skin contact kick-starting Genie’s heart, the monitor beeping more regularly. “Danny.” Relief coursed through her like a warm drink after a long, cold winter day. Everything would be better with Danny by her side. He looked like a broken man. “They said you were shot,” he murmured. His voice was shaking. “I got here as soon as I could, but my flight was delayed. I’m so sorry.” “It’s okay. You’re here now…” A shining tear fell down Genie’s bruised cheek. “I can’t believe… this happened to you.” A strangled moan. Danny bowed his head, unable to look at his fiancée. Genie watched him, a growing sense of frustration and emotional pain welling in the pit of her stomach, mixing uncomfortably with the physical wounds. She longed to get up and hold him close to her. The warm contact of their hands wasn’t enough, the rest of her body felt cold and disconnected. She was damaged and numb. She didn’t have any energy to sit up so she grasped his hand harder, holding onto the only human contact her weakened muscles could find. Danny was shaking. “Danny. There’s something I have to tell you,” she whispered. Danny looked up at her. His brown eyes sparkled with tears and his broken face broke her heart. “I lost the baby.” Danny stayed by her bedside sobbing and trembling for two hours. Genie’s news had destroyed him. She lay there in the bed, completely powerless to help her fiancée through his pain. No words came to her rescue, except the useless It will be all right and We’ll get through this which drifted around in her mind, tantalizing her with false hopes and truths. She didn’t say them aloud. There was no point. The doctors said that her fallopian tubes were ravaged by the bullet and that there wasn’t a way to fix them. There wasn’t any hope for a family now, which is something Danny had wanted ever since he had met Genie. It had taken years to convince Genie to settle down at the behest of Danny’s incessant repetition of “What if something happens to you?” Now Genie had paid the price. Every sob from Danny tugged at Genie’s heartstrings. A nurse came in at the stroke of midnight to take Danny away. As he shuffled to the door, his shirt stained with tears, they exchanged a simple look. Danny didn’t return the next day. Or the day after. Or the day after that. The hospital offered to call him but Genie vehemently refused. The relationship that Danny and Genie shared was that of two kindred souls that could exchange a complete conversation with a single look. The look that passed between them in the hospital room that day told Genie everything she had needed to know; that Genie had failed him, and he wasn’t coming back. In that single look, Genie knew that Danny, consciously or subconsciously, blamed her for this. Genie was left to follow the hard and winding road to recovery alone. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Genie

Anthera

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .San Diego, Westgate Hotel (present day) Genie took a deep breath and exhaled slowly; closing her eyes as she returned to the present, lying peacefully in the hot bath with her ugly scar staring back at her. The last memory of her and Danny together was bittersweet. She did not care for him anymore. The moment he had closed that door any emotional ties to him were cut as easily and effortlessly as string. Because she had lost something more tragic than a boyfriend that day – she had lost the ability to give life. But Genie’s cheated infertility state was nothing compared to her reckless rage. She still woke up screaming in the dead of night to invisible fears, the rage dissipating into pitiful shame instead. Shame that her addled brain still plays tricks on her. The rage towards the man who had shot her is constant, though. She didn’t deserve to be robbed of her dignity, her fiancée, her baby and most of all, her bright future. Wherever he was, the man was going to come to justice. Genie swore to it under her breath every night before she fell asleep like a haunting prayer, that she would take his life in return for the one he took from her if it was the last thing she did. An eye for an eye.

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“Some people react differently to authority. There are some that constantly find themselves under unwanted watchful eyes, and like any caged animal, will find a way out of its prison. There are some who vie for their authoritarian’s praise, aiming to be remembered in this huge and unknown world. There are some people whose personalities conflict with each other, causing strife and disagreement. Then there are some who defy authority all together, defeating opposing authority with the idea of the unknown. If there was one thing I learned on that fateful journey across the Channel, it was that man fears the unknown more than anything else. At the end of the day, everyone answers to somebody.” – Andrew Canis, 2030.

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Chapter 3

U. M. A. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Xander Prime . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Outside Canóvanas, Puerto Rico The dead goat lay sprawled on the grassy field. It was roasting in the sun, flies buzzing around the carcass incessantly. Its limbs stuck out at odd angles and a pungent odour of rotting flesh hung heavily in the humid air. The kill was exactly what Xander was looking for. It ticked all the boxes; a small puncture wound in the neck at the precise area of the carotid artery, with most or all of the blood sucked and drained which made the leftovers of the goat look like a mangled, withered doll that had been shaken vigorously then dumped on the grass. The most shocking feature of the carcass was what the killer had done with the internal intestine. They had been ripped out of the abdomen, without a single bite. It had been strewed around the kill haphazardly and torn apart. They looked like overgrown worms. Flecks of flesh dotted the grass. This gruesome crime scene of the natural world made twenty-three-year-old Xander Prime scratch his thick black hair with his pencil and wonder what could have possibly killed this innocent farm animal. Anyone who had met Xander would tell you that he was full of questions. Questions concerning topics that nobody had the answer to. Conspiracies, ancient myths and classical history were a few of Xander’s many side-projects. However his main interest was undoubtedly cryptozoology. He had studied Animal Behaviour BSc at Exeter University and had foolishly hoped to major in his controversial and scientifically overlooked field which of course had never come to fruition due to lack of funding and experience. Xander’s year was the last to graduate; after that the course was terminated. Xander was the last of a dying breed. Very few professional cryptozoologists existed in the world and it was a stroke of luck when Xander got a call from an interested Romanian professor, Ricardo Ratko Ms based in Miami, Florida, who needed help tracking and collating data concerning sightings of a particularly ferocious cryptid in Puerto Rico. Two weeks later, Xander had found himself on a trip of a life-time, hoping that this mangled goat carcass could make or break his budding academic reputation. “Hey babe.” Xander turned. Behind him was Ella. She was a Masters student hailing from Miami University, studying under Ratko’s supervision. She was studying something to do with the influence of introduced species to island ecological networks. Or maybe it was about monkeys… He wasn’t exactly sure, all he knew was that she was blonde, beautiful and had long legs. “Hey yourself, buddy. Don’t touch. My hands are bloody.” Ella reached the carcass. “Fuck me!” she exclaimed, her hand covering her mouth in shock. “Tonight, I promise,” purred Xander, kissing her neck. Officially they were here on the university’s dime, but that didn’t stop them engaging in extra-curricular activities. “You’re so beautiful.” “What the hell killed this thing? It’s got the rest of the herd scared shitless.” A few metres away the rest of the herd were hidden inside a tiny cubby shed, peering out at Xander and Ella with blank, staring eyes. They gave a nervous bleat. “You sure the farmer didn’t accidently run this poor critter over in the night?” “Unfortunately not. If he had, I wouldn’t have a reason to be here,” said Xander. Ella raised her eyebrows in mock sadness. “Well, I’d have a reason…” He kissed her again. “Not in front of this,” she said, waving a hand to get rid of the incessant flies. “Was it Cujo?” Xander made a buzzer noise. “Wrong again. One more wrong guess and you’re off the show.” Ella shrugged. “I’m all out. Tell me, if you’re such an expert?” She flashed him a brilliant smile. “My first guess? The El Chupacabra. It’s a legendary creature renowned in Central American folklore as a reptilian creature that hunts at night and feeds primarily on livestock. The people here call it the various names, but they think it’s a demon of some sort. Kills like this one have been reported all over Mexico and the surrounding Caribbean islands and it’s a long-standing mystery. It’s said to have claws so sharp it can cut through flesh with a single touch. Sightings are even rarer, but are sporadic throughout the 20th century. The Chupacabra is one of the most famous cryptids and its existence has been refuted for decades. Until I came along.” Xander buffed out his chest importantly. “Oh yeah?” teased Ella. “Definitely. This kill means I’m one step closer to discovering a U.M.A.” “Come again?” “An Unidentified Mysterious Animal. The Chupacabra is one of them, but they’re officially called cryptids. They are animals that have been seen all over the world but are un-described by science due to lack of,” Xander made sarcastic quotation marks, “scientific evidence, but I know they’re real. There are thousands of scattered sightings and reports. Like Bigfoot. The Loch Ness Monster. The stars of urban legends, myth and folklore, that kind of thing. They’re supposed to have biologically advanced powers, too.” Ella looked on doubtfully but Xander ploughed on, ignoring her. “It’s my dream to discover one. The Chupacabra’s English name is the goat-sucker, because it’s said to feed on goat’s blood.” Xander bent down. “See here? The puncture wounds on the neck? This poor blighter must have bled out in seconds. These cuts reach the ceratoid artery. They’re evenly spaced and each exactly three centimetres deep. I’ve never

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seen a wild animal kill so precise before.” “And how many wild animal kills have you seen in total?” “Including this one?” “Hm-hm.” “Two. My dad found a dead fox in my back garden when I was eight.” Ella laughed and pecked him on the cheek. “I’ll wait by the truck. Don’t be long.” Xander admired the view as she walked away, and he sure as hell wasn’t looking at the rainforest. God he was a lucky man. He turned back to the kill, took out a syringe and took three blood samples from the goat. It was a difficult feat, considering the carcass had been almost sucked bone dry. He made a couple of observations and added them to his Notebook whilst balancing it on his knee. There were no other marks on the body. It was as if the killer had bitten the neck without making any other contact with the goat… unless the stomach injury had happened first? In that case it didn’t make any sense. The amount of blood that would have been lost by screwing up the goat’s insides would have seemed like a waste of energy and precious blood. Unless the Chupacabra had killed for the fun of it…? Xander grinned. He loved working in the field. There was definitely something suspicious going on here. Snapping his Notebook shut, he trudged back up to the house to interview the farmer. His name was Antonio, who was a warm and welcoming local, despite the unusual circumstances. He had been happy for Xander to come and inspect the kill, except he was short-tempered when Xander and Ella had turned up several hours late. Xander and Ella had gotten held up at the hotel, but that was just their excuse. He complained to them that none of the goats would go out in the field because he had to leave the carcass for when Xander arrived. Xander had quickly apologized, not really paying any attention to him and had instead jogged off in the direction of the kill. Xander rapped loudly on Antonio’s door and waited for a welcoming call before entering through the wooden front door. The inside of Antonio’s house looked like a barn. The wooden floor had parts of hay strewn across the floor and in front of him was a small wooden table and a tiny television set had been set into an alcove in the top-right corner of the wall. Antonio was making coffee for both of them in the kitchenette to Xander’s left. “Yo, buddy.” “Would your girlfriend like some coffee?” asked the farmer. “Nah, she’s fine,” said Xander. He wanted to get straight to the point. He flipped up his Notebook ready. “So what time did you find the goat?” Antonio looked momentarily affronted at the sudden start of the interview and stuttered his first answer. “I’d say it was morning,” said Antonio. His English had a slight Spanish lilt to it. He placed Xander’s coffee on the counter between them as he sat down on a stool and cupped it within his hands. “What time was that exactly?” asked Xander. Antonio thought for a moment, his brow knotting in irritation. The boy was impatient. “I’d say it was around six in the morning? The first thing I do when I awake is check the goats for any fox killings and re-fill their hay hamper.” “That was no fox kill, bud. Obviously. Did you move it?” “Move what?” “The body.” “No. I dare not touch it. It’s cursed.” “Excuse me?” Xander’s head snapped up at the farmer from his laptop. “Any kill by El Chupacabra is cursed as soon as its teeth enter the blood stream. If you touch the body of the goat then the skin you touch it with will burn with dolor infinito.” “I’m sorry bud, I didn’t quite catch that last bit you said?” “Ah, how do you say it in English…” the farmer murmured, his eyes darkening with dread. “I think it’s pain. Neverending pain.” Xander stared at him. “A little heads up would have been nice.” His humour was lost on the farmer. “The El Chupacabra is not of this world,” said Antonio darkly. “The goat that has been killed has already infected the herd.” “But I thought you said they didn’t leave the hut all day? That they didn’t approach the body?” “It doesn’t matter. The curse spreads through the air, using the humidity as its medium. I’m culling the herd tonight and moving to another plot the next day.” Xander was dumbstruck. Before him stood a scared and shaken local. Despite the outrageous nature of his claims, Xander understood his fear. It was an example of a well-known fear that any human in doubt would experience – fear of the monster under the bed. Fear of the unknown. Xander knew that the legend of the Chupacabra was a bonfire story passed from generation to generation in Puerto Rico to spook kids. But somehow Xander knew in his bones that parts of the Chupacabra story were very real. Xander’s excitement coursed through him like electricity, igniting his fire. “Do you know anyone who might know anything about the Chupacabra?” asked Xander. Antonio thought for a beat. “Nobody in Puerto Rico speaks of the demon unless it can be avoided. But I do have something that can help you on your quest.” Antonio left into a back room for a minute whilst Xander patiently sipped his coffee. He returned with a wooden box the size of a large hard-cover book with a curious symbol of an animal

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carved on its lid. Xander couldn’t discern any details upside-down. “This has been passed on to my father from his fathers before him,” said the farmer, placing the box carefully onto the counter. “Can I took a look at that?” asked Xander, peering at it curiously. “Of course.” Antonio passed the box over the counter. Xander swivelled it the right way up and saw that the animal was canine in nature, with the whiskers of a cat and the wings of a bird. It had been inscribed within the oak with great care and looked extremely old. The wood splintered at the edges. Xander’s brow furrowed. “What’s the symbol here?” Antonio shrugged. “I don’t know.” “How can you not know?” asked Xander, losing patience. “Isn’t it a family heirloom?” “You ask many questions, young man,” said Antonio, affronted by Xander’s sudden switch of temperament. “But what is inside is what I wanted to show you. If you let me open it, I will give it to you.” Xander passed the box back to the farmer. Opening the catch maddeningly slowly, he pushed the lid up and unfolded a long roll of parchment, taking care not to tear the thin paper. Xander looked on with increasing curiosity, his eyes wide. “This is a map of the Caribbean National Forest. It’s not far from here. Take a car and drive to Campo Rico. It’s said that the Chupacabra resides somewhere within this jungle, along with a host of other life-forms that are not found anywhere else in the world. Take it.” Antonio passed the map over to Xander, who had enough sense to handle it extremely carefully. He did a quick scan of the map. It was written in ink and the material felt like old parchment. In the bottom right corner it said in very curly, elaborate hand-writing: ‘Kiekar Forest’. “Kiekar Forest? Is that…?” “That was the forest’s birth name before it was found by the Americans.” Xander nodded slowly. Every individual tree had been carefully drawn, with a few lakes here and there within the forest. Hills and contour lines also scurried across the page like snakes through grass. Judging by the clarity of the contours, the jungle was relatively mountainous. A key at the top right of the map told him that the forest was about ten kilometres by six kilometres wide. There were many crosses dotted around, and there were some dots that were labelled with Spanish location names which were presumably old ruins. Xander would have to translate these back at the hotel. His heart was jumping in his chest. He could feel that he was one step closer to the Chupacabra. And consequently, academic fame. “Thanks bud! Thank you very much!” said Xander, shaking Antonio’s hand vigorously, placing the map within the box and putting in in his shoulder bag along with his HP notebook. Antonio nodded. “Que te cuides,” he said quietly to himself, but Xander was already out the front door, leaving a dust trail in his wake.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Ava Denters . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Offices of the Vegas Gazette, Las Vegas The click-click of heels on hard woven carpet signified the arrival of renowned journalist Ava Denters in the Vegas Gazette offices. Her auburn, curly hair fell in locks in a bob-style above her shoulders. Her eyes were big, brown and inquisitive as they focused ahead of her, ignoring the murmured conversations around her. She stood at a meagre 5’4” yet nevertheless; every head in the office turned to gaze at her slim figure and arrogant posture as she confidently strode along the long pathway between desks to her office. At her heels was a fellow journalist, Dwayne, who had mousy-brown hair and a constant, twitchy demeanour. “What brings you back to the homeland, Mrs Denters? Doing more freelance work for Mr. Randall, I presume?” His short legs struggled to keep up with her fast pace. She didn’t turn to look at him as he spoke. “You presume correctly,” she said in clipped tone, leafing through her notes and trying to create the blatant façade that she was too busy to talk to him. “Well, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a story here, I mean, I think we’ve got the Sim City covered. Oh, I mean Sin City,” blustered Dwayne, almost tripping on Ava’s heels. Ava gave a noncommittal ‘pfft’. “Yeah, right. You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you?” she said darkly, the corners of her mouth curling, flashing Dwayne a bright, cheeky smile. “There’s always a story to tell here. Randall always saves the best scoop for his favourites.” “What scoop?” exclaimed Dwayne. “That’s right. Randall saved his best player and I’m getting ready to score a home run on the Hidden Gang. I’m going to blow them wide open.” Ava had reached her office door now and fished her keys out of her Gucci bag. Dwayne looked dumbfounded. “Who are they?” “A group of animal smugglers and traffickers. Oh, and I guess I should give you their address and contact number, too? You suck at spying, Dwayne.” “You always get the best cases,” groaned Dwayne. “That’s because I am the best at what I do,” said Ava. Modesty was lost on her. “Ava, tell me…” he said, leaning in closely. “How do you do it? You always get the best inside scoops as if you’re not

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even trying. Like the fraud case last week. You got incriminating evidence in a matter of hours. How in the world do you get your intel so quickly?” Ava opened the lock on her door and regarded Dwayne curiously. Out of the corner of her eye she could see everyone whispering quietly to each other, their eyes scanning her with jealousy. Even though she was a freelancer and tended to work sporadically across the USA, she had gathered quite a reputation back in the Gazette. Ava beckoned Dwayne closer with her finger, as if to tell him a secret. Dwayne’s baby face brightened and he leant in expectantly. Ava waited a beat and then just tapped her nose and said nothing more. Dwayne looked like he was about to burst a nerve in his temple. Ava entered her office and closed the door behind her, leaving behind a speechless Dwayne on the opposite side of the blinds. She twisted the knob and closed them, shutting him out completely. Sighing as if she had just gotten rid of an annoying fly, she sat at her oak-panelled desk and cleared the clutter away with one swipe of her arm, letting the crunched paper, empty coffee cups and stationary fall to the floor. She looked around the stuffy office fondly. She hadn’t been here in months. Randall, the head honcho here at the Vegas Gazette had always reserved this office space for Ava whenever she wanted to come back to her home territory to write a story for them, to the chagrin of many other full-time journalists who were stuck working in the cramped office with limited elbow room. Books lay slanted on the book-case to her right and she was pretty sure the coffee machine was in dire need of cleaning. Despite all of the urgent tidying that needed to happen, she instead busied herself with her new case notes and began to familiarize herself with a the Hidden Gang. Ava Denters was twenty-five years old but looked much younger. She had a round face, with big cheeks and a bright smile – a smile that resembled a child’s who had successfully pulled off some mischievous, wicked practical joke. The base scoop Randall had gathered for her was scandalously juicy. It would kick up quite a fuss with the animal rights groups here in Vegas, that was a given. Were there were scandals, there was always money. And when money was involved, there were rich and famous people with reputations to tear down. Controversy was her drug. Nothing gave her more of a thrill than sticking her nose into other people’s business, finding something shocking and exposing them to the entire world. There was a knock on Ava’s office door. Through the glass windows she could see Dwayne was back. Jeez, didn’t this guy have a life? “Don’t just stand there, come in,” snapped Ava, beckoning him impatiently. She had a lot of notes to get through and she didn’t like time-wasting. “Hi, miss. Randall sent me. Is there anything I can get you? Coffee? Tea?” “Tea?” repeated Ava, blanching in an over-the-top fashion. “We’re not British. If I want brown tasteless water I’ll ask for it. I fancy a Cornetto.” “A… a Cornetto?” repeated Dwayne. “Yes. A Cor-net-to,” said Ava, stressing each syllable unnecessarily. “It’s an ice cream. Now go. There’s a corner shop around the street that sells them.” Dwayne left without another word and Ava sighed, rolling her eyes. A Cornetto would be great in this warm, summer heat. Her office was stuffy and only had one window looking out to the street below. She was on the third, top floor so her office was one of the stuffiest. She was dressed in a tank top and a cardigan, with skinny jeans which were uncomfortable in the heat. Ava flicked through her notes, reading up on the background of the Hidden Gang. They were said to be a gang who specialised in the illegal trafficking of animals, mainly exotic, as she already knew. They transported tropical animals from Africa or South America into the USA. They were poached and then held in sub-mediocre conditions with little food or water, bla bla bla. It was the same immoral, scandalous bullshit that readers die to hear about. The main mystery was where the animal ended up after they crossed the border. Ava theorized that the Hidden Gang probably sold them on to crazy animal collectors who vie for unobtainable pets. Of course, this violated all sorts of animal rights and Ava was keen to oust them all for a breaking story. Maybe she could capture a photo of a poor tiger in a cage… that would surely be a winner for the front page! Ava chuckled at her little rhyme. Ava would often tease all the big papers with a huge scoop, and see who offered the highest price and sell it onto the highest bidder. Because of her credibility, Ava got away with this cheap tactic. They all knew who she was and had offered permanent positions at their publications, but she had declined them all. From her experience, freelancing paid the best and she worked her own hours, how she wanted, when she wanted. Just the way she liked it. Dwayne returned fifteen minutes later with her Cornetto. She gave him a couple of dollars and ripped the packaging open, revelling in the cold, icy taste as she relaxed into the heat of the room. The warmth made her sleepy, and now the cold ice cream spread through her body, waking her up. There was another knock on the door. Looking up, she saw her brother. James Denters was also twenty-five and her twin brother. They couldn’t look more unrelated if they had tried. Where Ava was small and slim, James was broad-shouldered, toned and tall at 6’3”. He looked much older than he was. James had the polar-opposite personality of Ava’s – he was kind, caring, introverted and was intuitive when it came to the moods and emotions of others, a quality that had been reversed for Ava. He had light, hazel eyes, dark eyebrows, thick, prickly stubble, chiselled jaw, cheek-bones and a thin mouth with short, wavy black hair. James was a handsome man who was a trendy dresser. Ava saw to the latter. Entering without permission, he sat down on the only other chair in Ava’s office and lent forwards, smiling a trustworthy smile.

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“Hey, Sniffy.” “To what do I owe this surprise?” asked Ava, surprised at the use of her child-hood nickname. James had teased Ava when they were young kids because of her poor immune system – Ava was always subjected to flu of various proportions and when the summer holidays came around she would be struck with a fierce onslaught of hay fever. “I’ve got a lot of work to do so make it quick.” “I’m doing well, thanks for asking. Last lecture of term so my students bought me something to celebrate.” He produced a cheap bottle of Champagne and two glasses. “Shame. Can’t drink on the job,” said Ava without looking up. “Ah,” said James, disappointed, putting it away. “I’m kidding. God, Randall loves me so much he would let me throw a hen party up here and he wouldn’t bat an eye. Pour me a glass.” “You sure…?” said James, peering through her office blinds. “Positive. Live a little, James.” He poured them two glasses and they clinked amicably. “You have five minutes. I’m looking into a new case.” “I came to see you about this new story you’re so desperate to dig your teeth into, in fact.” Ava raised her eyebrows to show that she was listening, and continued eating her Cornetto haphazardly and reading her notes. She washed it down with a gulp of champagne, the unpleasant tastes mixing awfully. But she didn’t care. She was on top of the world. “The Hidden Gang are not people you want to mess with, Ava. They can be dangerous.” That definitely brought her back down to earth, but she scoffed James anyway. He was always trying to bring her down. “Why? Are they going to set their tigers on me? They’re animal smugglers; I think I can handle them. Stick to the walls. Soundless cameras. I know the drill like the back of my hand. I could do it in my sleep, Prickles.” Ava rolled her eyes. “I shaved a few days ago,” said James, “but the prickles seem to grow back at double speed,” he murmured. James rubbed his thick stubble. Ava had always teased James about his early facial hair growth. He had started growing thin bristles on his chin at thirteen, to the hilarity of his sister. “Get to your point,” said Ava. “I’ve got a lot of work to do today.” “Clearly,” said James, watching his sister take a generous bite out of her ice cream, drips of it falling on her desk. Ava gave him a sarcastic glare. James thought she looked foolish; one hand grasping a melting ice cream and the other a half-empty champagne glass. “Okay, well let’s just say I’ve gotten wind of the Hidden Gang and illegal trafficking is not all they do with the animals. I’ve heard they use them for biological experiments. They not only sell to exotic pet handlers, they sell to bigger companies and organisations as well.” Ava paused, watching James intently, waiting for the bombshell to drop, but he stopped talking and Ava threw up her hands impatiently, almost dropping her ice cream. “Earth to James! Care to share any names?” “You’re the journalist, you find out,” he said simply, shrugging and leaning back on his chair. “Jerk,” she muttered. She leafed through her notes, looking for a name that had cropped up as she was reading. “Okay, what about this Jason Bates guy,” she said, handing him some photos of a dark-haired man with shadows under his eyes and an upturned nose that made him look rather disfigured. He was exiting a car park. “He sounds like an interesting fellow.” Ava read from the papers: “‘Has been involved in underground drug deals in Vegas for years on end and in the past year has found work with the Hidden Gang’. Sounds pretty damn shifty to me. I guess what I’m trying to say is… has he ever come up in your line of work?” asked Ava, wording the question carefully. James was a historian and cultural anthropologist who often lectured at the nearby university, but he had other interests in zoology-based subjects. She had touched upon a subject in particular the two siblings never usually talk about. It was James’s turn to feel uncomfortable. The awkward pause lasted only a second. “No, I’ve never heard of him before. At least I’ve never met him, so he could be what you think he is. But I know what kind of people he works with and they’re not pleasant. They have no morals, Ava, and they will stop at nothing to get what they want. They may conduct their activities underground but they’re under-handed when they need to be. Nothing they do leaves behind a trace; they don’t call themselves the Hidden Gang for nothing. I know full-well what kind of resources they have at their disposal. If they find out about you, and that you’re investigating them, it won’t be good. I guess what I’m trying to say is be careful and if you need help, you know who to call.” Ava absorbed the information and the underlying message. “Who do they sell the animals onto?” “Let’s just say they sell the animals onto people who can utilize their powers for all the wrong reasons. Sniff, now’s not the time to let your pride swallow you whole. You can bite off more than you can chew with this story, I know it.” “There’s the difference between you and me,” said Ava quietly. “You feel, I do. You think too much, and thinking gets you nowhere. I act and I write on impulse and look where it’s got me! I’m the most coveted journalist on the west coast.” James sat silently until Ava finished her champagne.

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“Your point?” were his only words. “Second thoughts, I think you should cancel the case.” Ava rolled her eyes. “James, you can’t look after me all the time. Let me chase this story and see where it leads me,” Ava implored. “And if I get overwhelmed, I’ll call you, okay?” James nodded slowly. Ava could see the cogs in his brain working overtime. James finally said: “Even if you don’t get overwhelmed. Call me if anything comes up. Promise?” “Double promise,” affirmed Ava linking their small pinkies as a sign of good faith between them. They downed their drinks. Like any bickering sibling, the antagonistic words exchanged between them were quickly forgotten. “I guess it’s safe to say it’s not animals they traffic,” murmured Ava. “No. They traffic cryptids. Don’t underestimate what they can do.” “I’ve got plans tonight but I’ll come see you tomorrow.” James looked relieved. “Okay. See you then.” And he left. Ava sat down on her chair and threw the Cornetto in the bin, suddenly losing her appetite. Cryptids. This certainly changed the game.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Sara Leo . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .The English Channel Sara was up on deck. She knew Robert was behind her, keeping a beady, watchful eye. Ever since her attack the boys had never let her out of her sight. She hadn’t seen the man since yesterday and she assumed the rest of the crew were either reprimanding or congratulating him on his brave attempt. During the night the boys had taken alternative watch on the door every few hours whilst they let Sara get a full nights sleep and regain her energy. Except she didn’t sleep a wink, knowing that that man was on-board. She shivered. It wasn’t cold. She just wanted to shake the memory of that disgusting pig’s hands on her. No matter how hard she tried, the ghost of his grip was as strong as ever and the taste of his blood in her mouth even stronger. The boat gave a lurch and she almost retched. “Hey.” A voice grounded her to the present day. Andrew joined her. He was holding a mug of spilling tea. Sara watched him, puzzled. “Since when do make tea?” “I wanted to - ” Throat cleared as he passed the mug to her, almost knocking the hot beverage. He was talking to the ocean. “I wanted to make sure you’re okay.” “You want to know if I’m okay,” she replied listlessly. “Well, I’ve run away from home and I’m on a boat in the middle of nowhere which is full of pervy old men, one of whom tried to rape me. Now, I could go on and on about how lovely the view is but I don’t think it’s quite going to match the wonderful experiences I’m having - ” “Just answer the question,” Andrew cut through her tirade, his former rudeness not quite as potent as before. Sara was baffled. He still wasn’t making eye contact with her. “I’m fine… I’m good.” She expected to say ‘fine’ again but that unfamiliar ‘g word’ had replaced it at the last syllable, making her words stumble out of her mouth as if she was trying to say two things at once. Andrew frowned at her then swung his arms awkwardly. “Good, good,” he said in a voice unlike his own. “Let me know if you, er, like, need anything then.” He made to leave. Sara watched him go. He is such a weird boy, she thought. “There is one thing that’s been on my mind,” Sara called out to him. Andrew turned around. “Yes, my princess?” His former sarcastic composition returning in a heartbeat with a sardonic bow to boot. “How is it that you can turn into a wolf and Robert can fly and I can’t do… anything?” Andrew thought for a moment, scratching his stubble. “Maybe it’s because you’re a girl?” “Fuck you, Andrew.” Sara shot him a scathing look. He was still tittering as he left to join Robert across the stern. They didn’t stray too far out of her line of vision but their conversation was out of her earshot. She watched them curiously. Sara wasn’t entirely clueless or stupid, despite Andrew’s constant undermining reminders that she was ‘common’; she knew full well of the extent of Robert’s crush on her. He didn’t exactly hide his affections very well, if at all. Sly glances across the boat’s stern. Backing up her answers a little too enthusiastically in class back at school. Giving her the last of his salad in the canteen because it was ‘healthy for her’ during lunch. These were a couple from a long list of clues pointing towards Robert’s flame he held for her. Not to mention knocking her potential rapist into the ocean and leaving him to drown. She was as clueless as to what to do about it as Andrew was on how to appropriately act in emotional situations. During the fire she had panicked. That’s all her thoughts about Robert where, when he leapt into space to save the boy. Just panicked emotions about losing a friend. That’s what she told herself late at night, anyway. It wasn’t like she hadn’t tried to rebuff him, because the entire thing was very awkward for their trio dynamic.

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Whenever they spoke, just him and her, she tried to focus on her bad qualities to deter him, such as her hair or her freckles, or negative facets of her personality, yet this roundabout tactic always seemed to coax a cheesy praise-giving response hand-picked from a romantic film that Robert’s obviously watched in private that made Sara blush not only from embarrassment but from shamefulness as well, because every time it happened it seemed as if she was fishing for a compliment she didn’t deserve. Andrew’s stance on the entire ordeal was hard to tell. He would make jibes about the crush, but they would be tasteful, and sly, the deliverance of his snipes two-tailed and open-ended so the true meaning of them was questionable, but it was enough for Sara to know that Andrew knew about it. However, there were prime moments when Andrew could poke fun at Robert; however he would let them slide. If there was an opportunity to dent Robert’s pride, Andrew wouldn’t let up. And Sara knew that was not how Andrew rolled, so there was definitely something going on there. Did they ever talk about me? She wondered, as she absent-mindedly rolled the empty tea mug labelled “I heart ME”. The mere thought made her cringe; she could just imagine the conversation now: Hey Andrew, so I was wondering, I might ask Sara out on a date… with Andrew’s snarky reply as clear as day: Oh man, you could do some much better than that emotional train-wreck. No, no, that wasn’t Robert’s style. He’d probably shyly ask her to lunch with him during class break. The idea of that was sweet; really, Sara would love to spend some time with him if the circumstances were different and the thought of them eating lunch together was long gone and plus unfortunately it seemed like they were stuck with Andrew’s presence permanently in the foreseeable future. Sara could imagine him interrupting her daydream lunch with Robert back in the Bexhill canteen because he had no other friends, sliding in with his lunch-tray intrusively. Hey guys! Am I being a massive third wheel or what? Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Sara almost dropped the mug in the ocean. Even imagining the conversation was too mortifying.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Xander Prime . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Canóvanas Roads Xander’s rental truck rocked uncomfortably on the pot-hole infested rainforest roads of Puerto Rico. Night had fallen on the island and the humid, warm air hung heavily. Even with an open top, Xander was sweating in his thin tee. Ella sat next to him in the passenger seat, pouting, with her arms folded throughout the hour-long journey. Palm fronds and foliage licked the truck as it dug its way through the undergrowth towards a more urban road. “It was a great first day, don’t you think?” Xander asked, breaking the tense silence. “Fantastic.” “The crazy old man gave me a map.” “Brilliant.” “Wanna see it?” “Nope.” “What’s your problem?” snapped Xander, glancing over at Ella whilst trying to keep his eyes on the road. The stars above glinted. The moon was blocked by dark clouds. “I just want to get back to the hotel. The rainforest gives me the creeps.” “There’s nothing to be scared of, doll,” shrugged Xander. “Chill.” Ella looked at Xander as if he had slapped her. “Yeah, sure. Nothing to be scared of. Only a freak of nature that roams the forests at night ripping animals’ bowels out.” Xander sighed. “The only reason you’re afraid of it is because you don’t know anything about it.” “I know it plays hopscotch in goat intestines. That’s enough for me.” Xander frowned. For some people, his thirst for knowledge was lost on them. The brilliant allure of the unknown was like a moth to a flame for him; Xander being the knowledge hungry moth in that metaphor. He let the conversation hang in the air between them like an annoying fly neither of them wanted to address. He could see the main road ahead, the headlights of other cars zooming past the turning. Suddenly, a flash of red leapt out of the bush to their right. Xander braked hard, lurching them both forward into the dashboard. Ella yelped and the tires squelched in the muddy soil. Xander blinked; on the road ahead of them was a shadow. Xander could make out four legs and two small red gems for eyes that gleamed in the night. Ella screamed. It was a piercing, terrified scream that made Xander jump in his seat and hit the horn, the two sounds cutting through the silence of the jungle night like two contrasting knives. Xander glanced back at the road and the shadow was gone. Ella was breathing heavily. Xander’s heart pounded. “What are you waiting for?” exclaimed Ella in a hysterical hiss. “Step on it!” Xander didn’t need to be told twice. They joined the main road ahead in silence.

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Xander and Ella didn’t exchange a single word until they were back in their cramped hotel room. It was small and basic. It had white stone walls, one double bed with a nightstand and a dusty TV on a small table opposite the bed. A tiny bathroom was wedged into the corner through a thin door with a low roof. Xander dropped his bag, opened it and produced his small HP laptop. He sat at the desk and began typing up the experience. Behind him, he heard Ella go directly to the bathroom. She didn’t emerge until fifteen minutes later looking rather pale. Xander swivelled in his seat. “Are you okay?” Ella nodded. “That was freaky,” he said, rubbing her arm. She had her arms awkwardly folded across her chest and her head dipped, determined not to look at Xander. He carried on stroking her arm comfortingly, at a loss of what to say to her. He couldn’t get those piercing red eyes out of his head. She lightly brushed his hand away and sat on the bed. She didn’t move. Xander stared at her, puzzled. He scratched his head dumbly. “Do you… want to talk about it?” “What’s there to talk about? It was a squirrel, nothing more.” She opened up her laptop. “I have to type up some notes for Ratko,” she said. “Yeah, me too. It’s been a long day.” However he frowned at her ‘squirrel’ comment, but turned to boot up his Notebook. They worked in silence for ten minutes, the air in the room heavy not only with humidity but with unspoken words. “Do you want to go swim for a bit?” asked Ella. “I can’t concentrate in this heat.” “Nah, I have to analyse the blood samples from today and send them to the big boss in Miami.” Two minutes passed. “How about hang out on the balcony for a bit? I’d love some fresh air…” “Look, I’m sorry if I don’t take my work as seriously as you do, but I really need to get this done. I have a job to do here and I fully intend to do it,” said Xander, puffing out his chest importantly. Ella scoffed and made a non-committal ‘pfft’ noise. “What’s that supposed to mean?” said Xander quietly. “It’s not much of a job…” she mumbled into her chin, not looking at him. Xander blinked in surprise. “I’m getting paid,” countered Xander. “Unlike you.” “To chase a ghost story! Cryptids don’t exist, Xander!” “What do you know about it?” said Xander, his voice rising in volume. “You’ve studied Zoology for four years and you think that’s all there is to the natural world? Sorry to disappoint you but there’s more out there and I know it. You saw what I saw on that road.” “That could have been anything, Xander, anything. It was a shadow.” “Okay,” said Xander, pacing now, determined to prove her wrong. Those red eyes leered in his mind’s eye again and he tried to ignore them. “Okay, what about the goat? Don’t tell me you know of any endemic animal on this island that kills livestock like that.” Ella bit her lip. “Exactly,” he said, nodding and smiling humourlessly. “Don’t look down upon me and my profession again.” Xander’s biting words didn’t shock him. There was no way he was going to let cryptozoology be looked down upon. There was an awkward pause were they didn’t say anything for a few moments. Ella sat on the bed, her head turned defiantly away from Xander, her nose stuck up in the air. “I have to call Ratko,” mumbled Xander. He left the room and went to the balcony with his phone. Closing the door behind him, he watched Ella sit with her back to him on the bed and he thought about what she had said. He admired the view of Canóvanas below him and the rainforest on the horizon. I’m going to find the Chupacabra. Xander dialled his boss’s number and waited for the call to connect, his discontented feelings towards Ella’s words slowly fading away like a forgotten dream, replaced with high hopes. “Xander.” Ratko’s scratchy voice answered. “What have you got for me?” “Good evening, I – I didn’t wake you did I?” asked Xander. He didn’t know why, but he was always nervous when speaking to Ratko. He was in his mid-forties and had that aura of respect an aged man has about him. “I was about to retire, yes, but I have time for a quick update.” “Okay, great, yes, well… Ella and I travelled straight to the goat kill from the airport today. The kill itself is fascinating, sir, the bowels are cleanly removed from the abdomen using the sharpest, most serrated claws I can imagine judging from the cuts. It almost looks as if they are surgical cuts. All of the blood had been…” “Did you do what I asked of you?” Ratko’s sharp voice cut across Xander’s account. “What? Oh, yes, I took a blood sample. I sent it to your offices today.” “Excellent. Good work.” “There’s more, sir. The farmer gave me information where appears to lead me towards where I could find the El Chupacabra in its natural habitat.” “Really…?” Ratko’s voice took on a curious quality. His interest was certainly piqued and Xander felt a surge of pride for himself. “Go on.” “He gave me a map for the Caribbean National Forest, but he called it something else… Kiekar Forest, that’s it. He

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said that the locals began to avoid it when the Americans arrived and secured it as a National Park. I’m travelling there tomorrow to ask if Ella and I can camp out in the rainforest. I’ll start my search tomorrow.” “I’m very pleased you called, Xander. This is extremely good news. All the evidence points towards the Chupacabra’s existence. I trust that everything is going smoothly?” “Well, if truth be told, Ella is a little out of her depth.” “How so?” “I don’t think she wants to camp in the rainforest tomorrow.” There was a long pause. Xander waited. “Are you asking me for more money?” came Ratko’s voice at last. “What? No! Of course not!” said Xander, completely surprised. “Don’t worry; I’m still going to the forest tomorrow! The pay is very generous, sir!” “Remember who you’re working for, Mr. Prime. We’re counting on you here in Miami. The sooner we find the Chupacabra, the better.” “I didn’t know we were working to a schedule…” “That’s not of your concern. There are others who are searching for the Chupacabra too… Now, do you still have the satellite phone I gave you?” Xander took out the thin, box-like phone out of his bag. Ratko had given it to him in the airport before he left. It was a digital phone that made long distance calls when signal was hard to come by. “Yes, I have it.” “When you are in Kiekar Forest, call me when you find the Chupacabra, regardless of the hour of night. Understood?” “Of… course. Yes, I’ll call you,” said Xander, a little bit dazed from the sudden change of tone. “I will be joining you in the rainforest in five days as planned to meet the Chupacabra myself. As I said before, I’m about to go to bed. Thank you for calling. Goodnight.” The line clicked as Ratko disconnected. Xander let out a breath he didn’t realise he was holding. For some reason, the scratchy, hissy voice of Ratko freaked him out. His rough East European accent had become heavier throughout the conversation. Nevertheless, Xander was gleeful. He had pleased Ratko that he had found hard-evidence of the Chupacabra’s existence. Ratko was to fly out on May 27th on the coming Friday, presumably to see the cryptid for himself. It disturbed Xander that Ratko referred to “meeting” the Chupacabra… as if it were a person. Back in Miami, when Ratko and Xander were going over Ratko’s papers on cryptids together, Ratko would refer to the cryptids in reverence and awe, more so than the boyish interest that Xander displayed on the subject. Furthermore, Ratko would be oddly secretive of his life’s work, often snatching papers right out of Xander’s hands when he would be about to read them. Despite his boss’s odd behaviour, Xander was thrilled to be working in the field. Xander slid the balcony door back, chuffed with the day’s events, thinking that it really couldn’t have gone any better.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Ava Denters . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Las Vegas, the Bellagio Ava sat in her mini Sedan. It was sleek, small, and compact. It drove smoothly across the incline up towards the entrance to the Bellagio. On the Vegas strip, the mini was overshadowed by the likes of the eight-person limousines and Hondas that raised the bar for cars throughout Las Vegas, but Ava was fond of it nonetheless. It was elegant and didn’t have a lot of presence, which was perfect for a journalist who was poking around in business where she had no right to be poking. Stepping out of her vehicle, she handed the keys to a porter who drove it to the valet. The entrance hall was painted a modest bronze. With her nondescript black rucksack, skinny jeans, low-cut top and Ray Bans sunglasses, she fitted the bright-eyed holidaymaker charade imprudently hoping to make some serious cash at the casinos. Ava had other ideas. Hurrying across the bustling foyer in her ripped sneakers, she entered the Bellagio. It had a lowlying roof but it was a broad room, dotted with sofas and desks. The floor was marble with elegant patterns. Cameras flashed here and there. The glass roof in the middle had makeshift flowers attached to it made out of a thin, flappy material. The multi-coloured flowers ruffled on the ceiling, all the colours of the spectrum were being eaten up by the hungry eyes of tourists and their cameras. Fellow gamblers, visitors and hotel residents strayed to and fro from the entrance and the casino hall to Ava’s right, which Ava made a beeline for. Checking her watch, Ava saw she was running a little late. She picked up her pace, her short legs power walking through the crowd. Even at 23:33pm the Bellagio was exploding with laughter and life. The casino hall, where Ava now found herself striding confidently through, was thick with cigar smoke, which she inhaled passively, calming her. She was trying to give up smoking but would always relapse terribly by the end of the week. The activity around her seemed over-powering. Black-jack and roulette tables, casino machines and private poker tables were all crowded with people of varying ages, each with their own string of conversation that Ava was privy to snippets of as she crossed the room. Beeping noises and bright lights followed her progress from the machines, and she had to force her way through a queue for the Cirque du Soleil, which was about to start in the main theatre. Ava found her goal – the woman’s

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restroom. Locking the cubicle behind her, she routed around in her bag and produced a thin but strong wire mesh. Opening the toilet lid, she placed the mesh carefully over the water bowl, and then put her bag in the toilet. Ava doubled checked the lock behind her. It was secure. She listened for anyone else in the toilets. Silence. Ava checked her watch again, and then she hurriedly undressed. If anyone had been in the woman’s toilets at 23:34, they would have seen a tiny mouse scurry out of the bottom of the last cubicle next to the wall. A single nicotine patch floated to the ground. * The mouse scurried through the closing door of the bathroom, frightening a woman who was entering it. It half-ran, half-hopped on the carpet of the Bellagio, its paws sticking to the thick fur of the rug. It was like running through a boggy marshland for the little rodent – its claws kept snagging on the fur. The mouse strategically kept to the sides of the wall to avoid attention. The lady’s shrieks were a distant blur to it now. Creeping through the backs of the machines and swerving through chair legs, the mouse found the entrance doors to the theatre. As a mouse, Ava was no different – she was a woman on a mission. Ava’s transformation into a tiny field mouse was a blessing in disguise when it came to her career. She had eavesdropped on countless private conversations concerning criminal cases across America that gained her a ruthlessly reliable reputation within journalist circles. Every major magazine department in the entire USA were tripping over themselves to hire her and her 100% accuracy rate. Not one grain of her information has been turned out to be untrue. Along with her infamous audio recorder, Ava, by the age of twenty-five, had ousted many artists of fraud and organized crime into the public domains, all thanks to her freaky party trick. Now Ava had to take extra caution in the crowded Bellagio. The crowd that had assembled for Cirque du Soleil performance bottle-necked into the doorway and there was a risk that the poor mouse would get squashed. The mouse looked on at the crowd. There was only one thing to do. The mouse jumped onto a boot, hanging on for dear life to the laces. If her brother could see her now, she thought. Ava felt like she was going on some sickening rollercoaster ride as the owner of the boot took extra-long strides to beat the crowd and get good seats. With every footstep Ava would cling on for dear life as the shoe would rise, and then fall heavily with a thud, shaking the mouse. It squinted as a lady’s heels came dangerously close to brushing Ava off of her precarious perch. Nobody noticed Ava’s un-ticketed entrance. Luckily, the man beat the crowd and entered the theatre proper. Waiting for her chance, Ava leapt off of the boot as the man paused to get a look at the stage. Ava had no time to waste. She hopped down the stairs to the edge of the stage, which was ominously dark. Ava scurried, her long hairless tail dragging behind her. She left a trail of dust, heading through a door into the backstage. From the best her night vision could tell, she was in a dark, empty hallway. A ray of light and a spark of conversation to her left heralded the actor’s dressing room. Past that, she saw a darker entrance and stairs leading below the stage. She headed that way. Taking care to make as little noise as a tiny mouse could, she hopped down the stairs into even thicker darkness. Ava reached the bottom with a small hop. In her mouse form, her lungs could only take in so much air and she was breathing heavily. Looking around inquisitively, her whiskers quivering tentatively, she could discern she was in a cavernous room that was empty. Her heightened sense of smell picked up a musky, mouldy moth-eaten odour that blocked out all others. The only light was from the dressing room upstairs and a row of windows at the far back of the room, which lit up a square patch in the middle of the room with silvery moonlight. The room was as big as the stage above it, which was roughly the size of a tennis court, but square. The mouse scurried into the nearest corner of the room behind boxes of props and old vintage clothes that had been costumes once upon a time. Sniffing, it found a bag hidden in the shadows. Ava appeared in her human form and hurriedly dressed from the clothes found in the bag. Morphing left one rather vulnerable in the clothing department, after all. Ava had been tipped off of a meeting between an undisclosed amount of gang members of the Hidden Gang at this very place, below the stage of Cirque du Soleil, at 23:35. She had been tipped by a friend of a friend in journalism, who was working in Paris. She had placed the clothes here a week ago, along with her trusty tape recorder which she immediately switched on. Her friend was returning a favour from a past case when Ava had given him a helping hand. Or in her case, a helping paw – Ava had spied on an important company recruiter in Paris to gain incriminating evidence concerning tax evasion. In the journalism world, making friends with other journalists was risky, but it paid off if you knew where to invest your time and efforts. Ava didn’t know what to expect, and her source wouldn’t reveal how he managed to come by the information of the meeting. If it was a trap, well, Ava knew how to slip out of uncomfortable situations un-noticed. She crouched in the shadows waiting. Ava couldn’t check her watch in the dark but she knew that the time had gone past 23:35. The muffled sounds of the show beginning upstairs was un-mistakable. The water-works of the play was simply amazing. Soon the stage would be full of water fountains and arcs, bubbles and water jets over the crowd. Listening, Ava could hear the stage flooding with water above her now, the sound of rippling water flowed into the cavernous room, causing Ava to have the uncomfortable feeling she was about to drown. The water-works were created by cryptids, of course, she knew this. James and Ava had come to see this play here at the same theatre three years ago.

Cryptids

Frankie Piscitelli

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Ava had remarked about the art of water as the play ended and James had told her about the cryptids’ involvement. Ava had stormed out. It seemed like those devilish creatures followed her wherever she went… Time ticked by. Was it Ava or was the room slowly getting darker? It was also rather chilly. I should have packed a coat… Her thoughts turned to cryptids. They were common knowledge to her brother, however her dislike for them was akin to a person’s dislike for an over-active dog. Distasteful and full of ignorance – she ignored their presence as best as she could. How her brother put up with owning a couple and living with them here in Vegas she would never understand. The cause of her dislike ran deeper within her, however. A creak in the darkness put her wandering thoughts to a stop. Ava strained her eyes in the room, looking around from behind the box for any sign of movement. Another creak, to her right now. The light burst from the windows was obliterated, plunging the room into total darkness. Looking up, Ava saw a silhouette of somebody trying to open the window. They struggled at first, the old framework creaking. It eventually cracked, the window swinging wildly open. Ava watched in anticipation as a second figure appeared at the window. With a growing sense of dread, she watched as the first shadow mounted the second and the two slowly glided into the room from the window, the light eliminating them. It was a lanky man with spindly limbs with an ugly, upturned nose. Jason Bates, the crook from her files. He was riding on the back of a dark, furry, bat-like creature with giant wings which flapped silently. Its dark eyes glowed in the dim light. There was a steady clicking noise as if someone was pressing a biro pen back and forth. Ava’s heart sank. It really was true. The Hidden Gang definitely weren’t animal smugglers. They were cryptid-smugglers. The bat creature slinked into the inky shadows with a hiss. It was bigger than any bat Ava had ever seen or heard of. Bates didn’t say a word, he just stood there in the highlighted square, looking expectantly at the staircase in front of him. To Ava, he looked like a right piece of work. His face was scarred and his mouth was turned into a permanent sneer. His ears were round and stuck out from his head. His history and criminal record had reflected accordingly unto his cryptid; dark, mysterious and foreboding. The clicking continued incessantly, unsettling Ava. A few seconds later another man walked down from the stairs that Ava had arrived from. The man was tall, with what appeared to be dark navy hair that was wavy, long and oily. It fell to his shoulders. He had a thin face with a long, pointed nose, the kind that looked as if it had been stretched. He had small, piercing green eyes. If his appearance wasn’t striking enough, his clothes saw to that. He was dressed in a tight black t-shirt, black tights, white socks and a necklace with a symbol that Ava wasn’t close enough to see in detail. He was wearing a maroon cape which the man wrapped around himself. It dawned on Ava that either this man had appalling fashion sense or he was performing in Cirque du Soleil. She sort of hoped for the latter. “Damon.” Bates nodded stiffly and spoke as if it pained him. Ava could sense the tension between the two men. It looked as if Bates didn’t approve of Damon’s appearance. Ava prayed a second name would come up in the conversation. Her tape recorder was recording. “Mr. Bates,” said Damon. His voice didn’t match his colourful outfit. It was thick and sharp, like a knife, and full of undermining undertones. His eyebrows arched menacingly, as if disapproving of Bates’ tattered clothes. “I trust your journey went smoothly.” “It did. My partner here saw to that.” The bat gave a hiss. The steady clicking was still happening. “Tell your boss thank you for the Ahool. The gift is much appreciated.” “I will pass on the message.” There was something in Damon’s voice that told Ava he probably thought ‘passing messages’ was below him. “What is that incessant noise?” asked Damon crossly. “Ahool is using his echolocation to check for any intruders. The waves bounce off everything in the area. He’ll know if anything moves.” Ava froze. If she moved from behind the box, the bat would know in a split second. She could morph, but, she didn’t fancy her chances of racing the bat to the stairwell. Another reason why she hated cryptids – they made everything ten times more dangerous, even eavesdropping. “Fine,” said Damon, his turquoise eyes twinkling impatiently. “I have to be back upstairs in a matter of minutes. If they notice I’m gone they’ll think I’ve escaped from the performance.” “Why are you in this show anyway?” asked Bates. Damon frowned. “To strengthen the bond between me and my cryptids.” “They’re mere animals,” spat Bates. “Nothing but tools.” Damon’s expression turned dark. Ava could only see his side-profile but she knew that Bates had offended Damon personally by uttering that sentence. “Far from it,” Damon uttered in the darkness, his head bowed. “Have you not heard the legends? They are more intelligent than some humans I know. These creatures hold the key to what we’re working towards. We may be exploiting them, for they have power we can only dream of possessing, but we have to learn to respect them.” “Whatever,” said Bates, clearly uninterested in Damon’s reverence. The insult was un-noticed by the bat, but then Ava remembered it may be deaf, since all bats are. “I was sent to tell you that the latest smuggling of devil dogs from Mexico is complete.” “What about our main target?” “We’re working on it. A blood sample is on its way from Puerto Rico to see if it truly is the Chupacabra making those kills. There’s a team that’s going to be dispatched into the field in five days.”

Cryptids

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“Excellent. I must say your contacts have been invaluable and the capturing tools you’ve purchased for us have been of good use.” “Of course they are. They cost three times more than your yearly profit. Here’s a small portion of it.” Damon produced a brown envelope and gave it to Bates. Looking inside, he nodded. “Nevertheless, I think you’ll find the payment very generous.” “Sure is,” said Bates, and his disfigured face broke into a horrid grin. “How many cryptids do you guys have?” His voice rasped eagerly. Damon eyed him warily. “Enough for now.” Damon assured. “We’ve sold them onto other clients to pay for our resources. Others that have potential��� we keep for ourselves.” “Now that I’ve got you here I have to know…are the rumours true?” whispered Bates, lowering his voice. Ava pricked her ears. “What rumours?” “That one of them escaped. The code black,” said Bates. He was speaking very quietly and Ava had to strain her ears to listen – she was worried the recorder wouldn’t pick up their voices. Damon’s face was clouded in shadow which gave Ava chills. His big green eyes unsettled her further. He reminded her of a praying mantis surveying its victims. “There have been… developments. He’s escaped.” “‘He’?” “Yes, he. I was there that day he escaped. His power was like nothing I’d ever seen before. He’s got some of their power…” Damon looked off wistfully into the shadows, remembering a terrifying day in the past. His eyes were wide at the horror replayed within his mind’s eye. “He’s angry at us,” he whispered. “And he’s angry at anyone who uses cryptids, and that means you, me or anyone else. Over the past eighteen years he’s grown to despise humans and cryptids alike. He believes the bond they share defies why cryptids exist. He believes that cryptids should have free rein on this world,” Damon leaned in to Bates. The room’s darkness was so oppressive Ava thought it was interfering with her hearing. “If I were you, Bates, I’d watch your back and hide your Mark. Tell your friends to be careful and not attract any unwanted attention in Mexico. He’s looking for us and it’s only a matter of time before he finds us all.” Bates shuddered. “Is it true he is part human?” “Yes.” An icy chill spread through Ava. She didn’t know what they were talking about, the mention of bonds and marks went over her head, but it sounded like they had made a cryptid. How could it be part human…? “What happens if he finds us?” “I don’t want to be there when he does.” Before Damon could continue, Bates began to snap his head to and fro as if looking for an annoying fly. Ava’s heart jumped as Bates almost looked in her direction. It took a few seconds to realise that the clicking had stopped. “What is it, my sweet?” Bates hissed. The clicking started again in quick succession. He stepped back, looking around wildly. Damon looked mystified. Muscle cramp spread through the back of her thighs. Leaning back, she balanced herself on her arms without rising from behind the box. Ava bit her lip to keep her from moaning. Had the bat heard her? “What’s wrong?” “Someone’s here.” “Nobody’s here,” snapped Damon, his voice icy and his eyebrows raised menacingly. Ava’s heartbeat went wild. How could they not hear it? Bates wasn’t listening, he disappeared into the shadows and returned a few seconds later, a bit calmer than before but he looked nervous. Ava let out a shaky breath. “This boss of yours…” said Bates. It was clear Damon’s latest words had chilled him. He was shaking. “Does he have the power to get Code Black back?” Damon paused at the doorway. A curious expression clouded his face. From Ava’s perch, she couldn’t discern what it was. Bates watched him patiently. “I pray to God that he does,” said Damon quietly. “Now, I have a show to get on with. Good day to you,” Damon turned and with a swish of his cape, left the room and climbed the stairs. Bates snuck the money into his jacket pocket and retreated into the shadows. A few seconds later a dark blur emerged and glided silently out of the window into the moonlight. Ava was left alone in the darkness. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .James Denters . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Los Angeles, Crenshaw District James didn’t believe in magic. Or ghosts. Or witches. Or anything supernatural, for that matter. However, when it came to the amazing animals called cryptids and their incredible powers, there was nothing he wouldn’t believe. That afternoon, James caught a domestic to Los Angeles and took the tram to one of the more colourful districts. He took his faithful Border collie, named Collie, who flew in the hold without a fuss. He eventually arrived at his destination in LA. It was a miniscule shop that was squished in-between a Wiccan ingredient store and a bakery that dealt weed below the counter. The shop windows were dusty and dark. James

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couldn’t see what was inside except for a single dream-catcher hanging in the door. A few candles were the only signs of life inside. James honestly didn’t know what to expect as he opened the door that greeted him with a loud creak and was welcomed by an out-of-place merry bell jingle and the aroma of cinnamon incense. He was only coming here because of word of mouth. If there was trouble, Wanderlusters like James would come here. That much was common knowledge, the rest he had to make up for himself. Judging the shop’s size from the outside didn’t do it justice, somehow the floor space was larger but incredibly cluttered with all kinds of curios from around the world. African masks, beaded embroidery, shisha pipes, shiny rocks and gems, exotic plants and the skins of many animals. Dangling from the ceiling were snake-skins of all different sizes and colours. James followed a winding maze through the clutter to a small, darker room in the back. Collie silently treaded at his heels. A tiny woman sat at on the floor. Scattered around her were a deck of cards and a pile of bones. “Sit down, my child. Bringing you to my eye level makes us equals, and that is what we are.” James did as he was told without a word. Collie sat silently beside him. The woman’s skin was incredibly wrinkled as if she had aged twenty years in the space of ten minutes. The woman’s eyes were bright with a lilac tint. They looked like they belonged to someone much younger than her. She had a small, withered mouth with thin lips. He didn’t know her true age, but he she was pushing eighty. She was dressed in a loud green and purple shawl and baggy trousers, with a necklace of bones that pooled in her lap. Her name was Trina. “Where’s Xatoo?” “He’s in the store cupboard meditating. You know how he is. One eye looking forward, the other back.” Xatoo was her token cryptid, a term used by those described a cryptid that they live and travel with like faithful pets, however the bond between them is much stronger than the average man and his dog. Trina’s token cryptid was a large avian creature that stood upright and had wings folded across its front at all times, as if it was wearing a cloak. James hadn’t seen it in years, let alone in full view. Like most cryptids, it preferred to stay true to its nature and hidden from sight. Trina and Xatoo had been together for decades. Trina had met Xatoo back in the sixties when she was living with the Inca tribe in Peru. It was said that Xatoo could see the future with its right eye and the past with its left. Or so the legend has it. “Will he be aiding us in your Sights today?” “I’m afraid not. He’s been very quiet, as of late. Quieter than usual.” James nodded. He was speaking quietly. Glancing past Trina, the store cupboard door was open a tiny crack. He could hear heavy breathing and a rustle of feathers. He sniffed. The smell of cinnamon was over-powering. “The scent helps him concentrate,” she whispered. James nodded and waited a few seconds for Trina to prepare herself. She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, absent-mindedly rubbing a snake-head on her necklace. “You come here seeking guidance, yes?” “That’s correct.” “Concerning?” “There’s been a couple of disturbances recently. There’s a group of people abusing cryptids. They call themselves the Hidden Gang.” “Ah, yes, I’ve heard of them. Their name is ironic, no? It seems they’ve caused quite a stir.” James laughed. It was too loud so it died in his throat prematurely. “Nevertheless,” said Trina slowly. Her voice was silky-smooth. “Something must be done. But as always, when there is strife, whom will make the first move? The moment you stepped into my shop means the first pawn has moved forward. The pieces are in place and now it’s up to us to play the game.” “Enough of the drama,” she shook her tiny head. Her wispy hair shook comically. She licked her dry lips. “I want to tell you a piece of information that may help you in the weeks to come. There was a prophecy that was made eighteen years ago, by the very person speaking to you now. Yesterday, that prophecy has been fulfilled. You must know this prophecy, because it applies to the grand scheme. Eighteen years ago, in this very room, Xatoo and I were conversing about the future and the past with a certain fellow who shall remain nameless for confidentiality’s sake.” James opened his mouth to protest but Trina silenced him with a raised hand. “The man had come to me for guidance, like you have today; concerning something incredibly personal and therefore he shall not be named. Back to my compelling story,” she gave a light cough that James would bet good money was for dramatic effect. James’s mouth twitched into a smile. She knew how to get your attention. Even the air felt heavy around them. “All of a sudden I felt a warm gust surround me. It was a big gust, mind you. It made quite a mess of my shop. I was taken aback. Xatoo sat there motionless, of course, completely oblivious to his surroundings. I clutched Xatoo’s feathered arm in surprise and suddenly I blacked out.” “When I had come to, the man was in a state. He thought I had passed. He had called the hospital. A lot of good they would have done if I had passed, mind you. Anyway, he told me that I began uttering a prophecy in a voice that was not mine. It was deep and male.” James’s eyes flickered momentarily to the store cupboard. He heard another rustle of feathers coming from inside. “You don’t think…?” “You see, I lied about who made the prophecy,” chuckled Trina. “It’s a question of semantics, if you believe it. The man certainly thought I was possessed at the time. Apparently throughout the casting of the prophecy I was clutching

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Xatoo’s arm like a life-saver. If I remember correctly, my memory isn’t quite what it used to be, see, the prophecy goes something like this: ‘Three babies, born to separate, distant parents. One wolf. One leopard. One eagle. Each animal, to match the legends of old. Three teens fated to cross the English Channel, leaving behind their suffering past to look forward to a bright future. However, they will be followed on their travels by a mirror three. One cryptid, one woman and the last being… malevolent. One of the three descendants is fated to sacrifice themselves on July 10th, 2012’. They will be the key to what it is you seek.” James stared at her. “This is the truth?” “I speak only what the man relayed to me.” “A name would be very helpful - ” “It’s not my place to give that to you,” said Trina softly. * James politely thanked Trina for her time and left the shop. It was widely known to the select few who knew of Trina’s existence that she can be eccentric. She liked to play games with those who come seeking her advice. James knew her through his father, who had met her on his travels during his younger years. It seemed that as her age ripened, so did her sense of humour. He wouldn’t admit it, but he was a little disgruntled. How on Earth could he check the story’s credibility if she wouldn’t give him the man’s name who had been present? As he left, she had smiled as if she had said something of value. To his dismay, James found that he had left the shop with more questions than answers, and that she hadn’t even answered his first questions about the Hidden Gang. He was no closer to finding them. And no closer to understanding how he should go about meeting them. Or if he should. Was it his responsibility? James had the nagging feeling that if he didn’t do something, no-one else would. He took it upon himself to step up to the plate and stand for what was right and moral in the world. James, lost in his thoughts, stepped out onto the road. Collie barked at his heel and he turned to face her. Suddenly, bright lights shrouded his vision and before he knew it he was knocked off his feet, colliding with the pavement hard. His head collided with the cobbled ground. Sharp pain. Someone shouted. His vision blurred. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Andrew Canis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .The English Channel One of Andrew’s many talents was eavesdropping without a sound. The morning after Sara’s assault in the kitchen, Andrew had taken the liberty of following her attacker into the crew’s quarters. He really didn’t need his vision to stalk him – he could have smelt his way through the corridors by following the stench of rotten fish. Andrew wrinkled his nose. Curiosity always won him over. After all, eavesdropping during his childhood was brilliant practice. The crew were playing poker in the room. “What did you do about the order from Spain, cap’n?” asked Steve. Scrape of a chair as he sat down. “Had to cancel it, didn’ I? If those freakshows hadn’t blackmailed us into going we would all be eight hundred pounds richer. Shipping cocaine was the best financial decision I’ve made since I started evading tax.” The crew grunted their agreement. Andrew shook his head. He should have known. “I tell ya, that girl is a piece of work,” drawled Steve. “When she attacked me - ” The nerve of him! He must be passing off the incident as her fault, “it was like she had turned into a feral cat or something. I swear to God and cross my heart when she screamed at me there was a flash and she was a giant were-cat!” There was a brief, heavy pause, and then, “Lay off the drugs, mate,” said Tinbergen gruffly. The crew chuckled but there was a nervous undertone. “You all saw that boy with wings. You never know what else they could do…” Andrew’s heart leapt. Could it be? Robert and him weren’t the only ones who could…? These were very interesting developments indeed, thought Andrew gleefully. Sara as a wildcat. He should have guessed it with that wild hair of hers. Andrew had given his newfound talent a lot of thought recently and there was only one explanation that Origin of Species explained in brief words – he was evolving. A knock. Andrew jumped. Down the corridor, a rolling pin rolled around the corner. Andrew’s two circle marks on his hands itched incessantly, so he scratched it roughly until his hand turned red. Was it the bad lighting or was his birthmark even darker? Following the sound, he turned a corner and found white powder scattered across the floor. Dog footprints were marked clearly in them. He pushed the door ahead open where he found crate upon crate. Another storage room, he proposed. But for what? Fruit, or cocaine? He hoped, for his sake, it was the former. His heartbeat belied his mind. Ever since Jess’s Christmas party he had been scrounging around for hits of cocaine in Bexhill, but it was hard to come by, and he knew his tolerance for it was increasing. He hated being a slave to the neurones of his body. Some days he wanted to rip them out and start afresh. He knew it was hypocritical to judge his alcoholic father so, when he was slowly becoming an addict himself, yet he glossed over that part in his mind. Nobody had to know. At the end of the day, statistics would always point towards him becoming an addict too. That was

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defeatist biological thinking, he knew it, but the allure of the drug clouded his vision. He grabbed a handful of packets and stuffed them in his pockets, making a silent exit. Andrew reached deck and found Robert and Sara talking. They were closer together than normal. Andrew cocked an eyebrow. “I never really liked my hair,” said Sara, tugging at it roughly with a brush. The slightest raise in temperature and it puffs out like a stupid bush.” “I think it… I think it makes you look pretty,” said Robert in a small voice. From where Andrew stood, he caught the comment, but Robert’s low murmur was most likely carried away by the wind because Sara carried on chatting incessantly about all the hair products she used to use back home. Usually, Andrew would swoop in and kill the amicable mood with a foul joke, preferably one of a misogynistic nature, but somehow he didn’t have the heart to satirise their special moment. Instead, he cleared his throat awkwardly. Robert positively jumped. “What is it?” said Sara, trying and failing to hide the sharpness in her voice. “If you must know, m’lady. There have been developments. I was taking a pleasant gander downstairs and let’s just say it’s not just fruit that Tinbergen… deals with.” “What are you… oh,” Sara in took her breath sharply. “We should have known… Bloody hell, Andrew, you couldn’t be bothered to do background check on these guys before you agreed to let us on this drug dealing boat?” she said shrilly. “Keep your voice down. What was I supposed to do, waltz into the police department, who I’m on brilliant terms with, by the way, and check their criminal records? We dock in Dieppe in two hours. Let’s just sit tight and we’ll be out of this nightmare soon.” Andrew honestly didn’t know what the point was in telling them what Tinbergen’s true business was, but sometimes he liked to wind Sara up just for the hell of it. I’m sure some doctor out there would slap on sadistic undercurrents to his medical record if they could, he thought to himself as he watched Sara storm away in a huff and he was rewarded with an angry scowl from Robert. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .James . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .LA

Denters

James blinked. He saw bright lights and heard voices. He had the vague sense that he was moving. “Sir? Can you hear me?” A voice rang sharp in his pounding head. James slowly came to. There was a gentle rocking. “Yes, I…” A raspy cough. “I can hear you.” “Can you feel this?” There was a sharp prick of pain on his right leg and then the left. “Yes, I feel that.” God damn that hurt. “What happened?” “You were hit by a car and you fell onto the pavement.” A man came into view with green scrubs. James numbly put together he must be in an ambulance. A bright light shone into both his eyes. “You’re in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. You may be suffering from a mild concussion. It was lucky this lady was here to call us.” James tried to sit up. His right arm was sore from where he had fallen, and his head was groggy. He figured he must have only been out of consciousness for a couple of minutes. “I’m so sorry I over-reacted, I have to say I’ve seen one too many car accidents.” A woman’s voice. James turned to see the silhouette of a dark-haired woman sitting on the bench, swaying with the ambulance’s jolted rhythm. James made to get up. “I’m sorry sir, but you will have to lie down. We need to check for any spinal injuries. You should be okay judging from the way you landed but it’s only protocol.” “My dog… Collie…” Collie jumped up on his lap, licking his face. “Someone please get that dog off the table!” said the paramedic, exasperated. “It’s fine, really. I’m not injured,” said James, stroking Collie. He felt better knowing that Collie was by his side, despite the migraine that was threatening to make him scream. “A stubborn one,” muttered the paramedic. “We’ll decide that,” returning to his prods and tests. “We’ll be at the hospital in ten minutes.” James turned to woman’s fuzzy form, mumbling to her blurry shape like a blind fool: “Thank you for calling them. I appreciate it.” “No problem,” said the woman. “Lucky I was nearby.” Her eyes sparkled apprehensively, flickering to James’s forehead. He gingerly reached towards it and felt warmth there. “Your head is bruised and cut,” said the paramedic. “Rhonda, I need you to help me stitch this up.” A green-faced paramedic sat in the corner. “Randy, I c – can’t! I’m only an intern… so much blood…!” Randy looked like he was about to shout at her, but thought better of it. “Please excuse my colleague; it’s her third day on the job. Out of thirty medical school graduates we get the ridiculously squeamish. Miss, would you give me a hand?”

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“Sorry?” said the woman. “All I need you to do is hold the thread whilst I thread the needle - ” “That’s not necessary,” said James. “I need to get back to where you picked me up from…” “No – no!” said the woman. “I can’t!” The paramedic ignored both of their complaints. “It’s simple. All I need is your hand.” “No! There’s no way I could – I have a shaky hand…” James touched his cut again and winced. It was a deeper gash than he originally thought. Rhonda, the younger paramedic, looked like she was about to throw up. Without thinking, he grabbed the woman’s hand. “Listen. Have you ever sown a button onto a coat?” he asked her. “What…? I…” “Have you ever patched a duvet?” “A couple of times, but…” “If this gash doesn’t get sown up I’ll bleed from the head. That could lead to advanced concussion or permanent migraines.” Useless information from a summer medicinal course three years ago floated through his mind. “Please.” James squeezed her hand. “I know you can do this.” He gazed into her eyes, silently willing her to agree. He could feel the warm blood dripping out of his cut. “Okay.” The paramedic helped her thread the string through the needle. “Rhonda, make yourself useful and give our friend here a mild anaesthetic. What is your name?” “James. James Denters.” “Okay James, can you count to three for me please?” James the anaesthetic made him feel lighter than air. The paramedics gently lead him onto his back, and he fell asleep, the woman’s face floating out of view as he reached cloud nine. He didn’t even reach two. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Andrew, Sara . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Dieppe, France

& Robert

Andrew, Sara and Robert were at the front of the ship in an instant when they overheard they were arriving at Dieppe. It was early evening in France and Robert had changed his father’s watch to an hour forward to match the time zone. Together, they watched in silence as the dark outline of France’s coast edged closer and closer. Andrew could discern the buildings and ships by the harbour. The crew around them busied themselves with the boat as Tinbergen steered the ship alongside a wooden pier. A man threw a rope to another sailor on the shore and he tied it to an anchor as the ship slowly gathered to a halt. “We’re here,” breathed Robert excitedly. “I can’t believe we made it!” exclaimed Sara. The three of them ran down to the brig to collect their bags. Sara passed Steve coming out of the brig who shot her an evil glare. She tried her best not to make eye contact. They collected their massive bags and stepped off the boat with the help of a harbour porter. “Who are these kids?” he asked, as he helped Sara onto the pier. “Friends of yours?” Tinbergen scowled. “Don’t go there.” The man regarded the trio in surprise as they stood awkwardly on the pier. “Well, go on then, scram you little freaks!” shouted Tinbergen. “Thanks for the ride!” said Andrew. He threw the remaining fifty pounds at Tinbergen and he over-enthusiastically waved goodbye. “Can I have a picture to remember you by?” The sailor gave him the finger. “I hope we never see each other again.” The harbour was almost empty. People were milling around here and there, chatting in French. They jumped onto the solid ground of France from the causeway. “Feels so good to be on ground again!” said Sara, closing his eyes and savouring the feeling of the ground not swaying back and forth constantly. “Can I just say that I’m glad none of us discovered we had a weakness for sea sickness during that trip?” said Robert. “Yeah, that would have made the journey just that little bit more eventful,” said Sara. “As if we need more drama in our lives,” said Andrew. Robert was standing silently still, not saying a word. “You alright, choir boy?” asked Andrew. “I…” it looked like he was at a loss for words. “This is the first time I’ve been abroad.” They watched Robert as he looked around. He looked like he was marvelling at his surroundings, but his face slowly fell. “It looks just like England,” he said, sounding disappointed. The three of them burst out laughing. Andrew forgot how good it felt to laugh; he clutched his stomach as the three of them fell into a fit hysterics as the laughter carried them through. People were beginning to stare at them in wonder. Sara was brought to her knees, buckling under the weight of her bag and trying to lean on Robert to get up but he was shaking too much from trying to take in breaths in-between

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laughs. The three of them eventually descended into chuckles and sat on the rock wall, their rucksacks hanging over the edge. They sat there for a few moments as the after-laughs died out. “That wasn’t even that funny,” breathed Andrew. Sara hiccupped. “Now, our next destination.” Andrew pointed at a sign ahead. “The train station.” Following the signs wasn’t hard and the walk wasn’t too far. Dieppe only had a few main roads; one running parallel along the coast and one going straight across the middle of town. The trio followed it, admiring the quaint atmosphere that Dieppe provided. It felt like an old town with a lot of memories. As they walked, they joked and laughed about the boat, about Dieppe and about everything they could think of. To Andrew, it felt like they had come home from an edgy school trip that had ended up going horribly wrong but everyone was still having a good time anyway. Within fifteen minutes they found the train station. Stepping inside, they took off their bags. An official was checking passports nearby. “Right, passports out team.” They rifled around for a few moments. Andrew was the first to produce his, then Robert. They waited patiently for Sara to find hers. Her blonde hair fell into the rucksack as she lent further and further inside. The comfortable silence quickly transformed into a tense wait as the longest minute of Andrew’s life stretched on and on. He had to break the silence. “Sara…?” “Yes, I’m looking.” Her head emerged. Her face was pasty with sweat. Sara began to pull out an endless supply of shirts, blouses, cardigans, shorts, skirts, jeans, and underwear from her bag, dumping them on the floor. The bemused boys watched her huff and puff as she emptied the entire contents of her bag. It was the second time the residents of Dieppe stared at them. “For the love of God,” said Sara, exasperated. “Sorry,” she said briefly to Robert before she took her bag and turned it upside down; letting the remainders fall out of her bag onto the massive pile she had created. Robert bent down to help her look, gingerly picking up one of her knickers. She slapped it out of his hands and continued rifling through the pile in a manic fashion. Andrew tensely watched her. She eventually stood up and sat down on the bench, looking at the floor resolutely. “My passport’s not in here.” “Okay,” said Andrew slowly, trying to breathe evenly. “Did you pack it?” “Yes, of course I packed it!” cried Sara. “It was definitely in here!” “You’re 100% sure?” “120% sure,” affirmed Sara. People in the train station were beginning to shake their heads at them in despair. “That only means one thing,” said Robert quietly. “They stole it.” “Oh no…” muttered Sara. “Okay,” said Andrew, taking off his bag. “You two stay here. I’m going back.” “I’m coming with you!” shouted Sara, but Andrew was already jogging out of the station. “It’s my passport!” Andrew stopped by the doors. “If I’m not back in ten minutes, come looking for me. I have a plan.” Then he was gone. “Him and his plans,” muttered Robert, shaking his head. “I’m so sorry,” whined Sara, putting her head in her hands. Robert recognized it as the classic ‘defeated Sara poise’. “Don’t worry. His first plan to get us here to France and that worked; I bet you his second plan will work too.” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Andrew Canis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Dieppe Harbour Andrew ran down the Dieppe High Street as fast as his legs could carry him, rushing past cafés and restaurants, whose smells tantalizingly invited him to go in. People moved out of his way instantly. Swinging past a big tree, he was back by the coastline within two minutes. Scanning the harbour, he instantly recognized the burly silhouette of Tinbergen on his ship. With a plummeting feeling in his stomach, he jogged over to the boat. One of the crew was already untying the rope from the pier anchor. Were they leaving already? The crestfallen expression on Tinbergen’s tiny pug-face was almost comical. “You,” was his only word of welcome. “Yeah, me. Look, my friend’s left her passport on here; can I check in the brig for it? I’ll be two seconds.” Tinbergen’s face turned an unappealing shade of purple. “As if you haven’t already asked me for enough,” he growled. The temple on his forehead was throbbing madly. “All I’m asking for is one minute to check the brig.” You fat bastard, he almost added. As Andrew’s words left his mouth, the ship’s horn blared. It was preparing to leave. It was already drifting away from the pier. Andrew looked around wildly – was anyone watching him? Could he pull off a morph here to intimidate them again? Andrew wasn’t sure if that would work again… “So long, boy,” said Tinbergen. A chill ran up Andrew’s spine, reminding him of his father back in Bexhill. The two men, old and young, stared each other down as Sara’s future drifted away from Andrew. He backed down, ready to jump onto the ship. It was now or never. Without Sara’s passport, they couldn’t leave Dieppe.

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“He’s going to jump on ship!” shouted Tinbergen, sounding genuinely afraid, his eyes popping madly. Luckily the harbour was empty. Out of nowhere, Steve emerged from below deck and brandished a knife across the water. “Take one step closer and I’ll cut your freaky guts out right here,” he rasped. He looked mad. His arm was bandaged. He had whitey eyes and was shaking madly. He must have just taken a fix. Andrew stood frozen, staring as the ship drifted further and further away from him… A grey blur whizzed past Andrew, jumping over the water and onto the boat. He blinked. On the edge of the boat was a small shabby grey dog the size of a tabby cat. It had striking markings; a dark grey stripe began at its snout and extended back behind its ears, before splitting into two grey lines across its back. Its wagging tail was short and bushy. Its legs were bulky and its forepaws were scrambling to get a hold of the edge of the ship. When it regained its balance, its stance was comically antagonistic. Andrew burst out laughing, but it changed to an alarmed shout as Steve raised the knife at the dog. The dog nimbly pushed up with its hind legs and dodged the knife in mid-air, spinning around it smoothly. Andrew had never seen a dog move like that. The dog racked its front paw against Steve’s injured arm, who howled in pain. Blood erupted from the junkie’s sensitive skin. The dog landed deftly on its feet with a triumphant woof. The knife clattered and fell into the ocean with a plop. Andrew couldn’t believe his eyes. Tinbergen was at the door of the captain’s quarters, shouting at Steve to “get a grip and hack the dog to pieces!” Andrew bent his knees. He could still make the jump if he did it now, but the dog did something that took Andrew’s breath away; it raised its front paw as if to say stop. Andrew almost heard the instruction in his head. The dog then scarpered through Steve’s legs in the most agile manner Andrew had seen and disappeared into the ship corridors. Steve crawled to his feet. “You damn hound!” he shouted and he chased after it. Tinbergen rounded in fury to Andrew: “Is this your dog?” he blustered, spit flying from his mouth. Andrew only shook his head. Words failed him. The boat floated away at a snail’s pace as Andrew waited on the pier for a tense minute whilst Tinbergen stared at him awkwardly. There was a scuffle and a bang from the hull of the boat. Andrew hoped that the dog wasn’t hurt. A beat later, the dog scarpered out of the brig – what was that in its mouth? – something red… Sara’s passport! Andrew couldn’t believe his eyes, but the surprise didn’t stop there. The dog jumped onto the boat roof and from there jumped onto the adjacent boat that was next to it. Steve shuffled out of the brig, holding his face. It was bleeding profusely. “It scratched me!” he yelped helplessly. The dog nimbly hopped from the yacht’s edge, to the roof and then slid down the yacht’s sail pole to the next pier. Andrew ran down the pier and jogged to the next to meet the faithful canine. He knelt before it. The dog did indeed have Sara’s passport in its mouth. Its unusually long tail was wagging back and forth excitedly. “You clever, clever dog,” muttered Andrew proudly. The dog’s eyes were big and wide. Andrew had never seen such bright eyes on a dog; they were incredibly grey like his own. He had the funny feeling he had seen them before and the out-of-body feeling of déjà vu washed over him. The angry voices of Tinbergen’s ship drifted away out to sea. “How did you know that this was what I was looking for?” asked Andrew. The dog’s iron-grey eyes shone a little brighter at that. Andrew looked at the dog in wonder; he had a strange feeling the dog understood what he was saying. He took Sara’s passport from its mouth. It was covered in slobber, but it was a passport nonetheless. He pocketed it. The dog’s mouth opened wildly and Andrew couldn’t help but laugh. The dog was clearly grinning, and coupled with the big, wide eyes, the effect was strikingly amusing. The dog hopped on the spot, its shaggy grey fur bouncing with it. It barked triumphantly. It was a playful yip of a small dog with too much energy for its own good. . “Where did you come from?” Andrew found himself asking in wonder. The dog skittered to the edge of the harbour and with its tail, pointed to Tinbergen’s boat. Andrew was astounded. “You were on the boat?” he asked. The dog hopped as if to say yes. “Why didn’t you say hi?” The dog then looked disheartened. There were two tufts of grey fur above its eyes that curved as if to say I was shy. A light bulb blinked in Andrew’s head. “The footprints in the brig… it was you showed who me where the cocaine was!” The dog nodded. Andrew chuckled. “And you were in the woods in Bexhill! You warned me about the panther! You’re like a little guardian angel, except, canine.” The dog hopped on the spot again and looked very proud of itself. This dog had a sweet tooth for mischief. Yet… it didn’t look like any ordinary dog in the slightest. In fact, Andrew felt like the dog was really listening to what Andrew was saying as it peered up into his face. “I wonder what your name is; you don’t have a collar…” The dog then raised one eyebrow as if to say as if I need a collar. Andrew shook his head slowly, unable to believe what he was seeing. The dog clearly understood what he was saying and was displaying emotion. He reached over to stroke the dog and as his fingers touched its fur his hand burned for a couple of seconds. Letting out a yelp of pain, he saw something that took his breath away. The two circles, his birthmarks on the back of his hand became encircled by a bigger one, enveloping them both and then separating them by a curved line. It was like an invisible pen was drawing on Andrew’s hand, the nib of it causing a wicked tickling sensation on his skin. He watched in bemused astonishment as one side became shadowed to create an unmistakeable Yin-Yang symbol. “You did this, didn’t you?” he whispered in awe. Suddenly, the dog turned on the spot, looking at its surroundings. Just as well, as if he could answer me, thought Andrew in wonder. Did I just refer to the dog as a he? He stood up, the symbol briefly forgotten; because he somehow

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anticipated that the surprises weren’t over yet. He watched as the dog ran to a nearby number plate. Andrew jogged to keep up. Passers-by were watching them fondly. The dog pointed at the number-plate with its tail. It read: ERGH 4Y7. “That’s your name?” Andrew said, bewildered. The dog shook its shaggy head vigorously, its grey locks displacing themselves over its wide, inquisitive eyes. Using its tail, it circled the “E”. “Okay… E? That’s part of your name?” The dog gave a swift nod then ran across the road at the same surprising speed. Andrew ran to catch up and found it next to a dilapidated shop for Motors De Le Marc. The sign was above a broken window and the dog was comically jumping as high as it could to reach it, but it could only jump about half a metre off of the ground. Andrew had to give it an A grade for effort at least. “Err…I’m inclined to say your name is Marc. And your second name is motors.” The dog rolled its eyes. Andrew barked out a loud laugh. He pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Nope, the dog was still there, looking at him expectantly with its grey, intelligent eyes. “Right, ‘M’. Got it. Next letter?” Then, the dog began pointing at Andrew. “Huh? Me? I have no idea where you’re going with this…” The dog sat on its hind-legs and looked exasperated, but carried on pointing at Andrew with its tail. “Okay, me…boy…human…oh, Andrew!” The dog jumped in success. “A! The next letter is A, okay…” Andrew and the dog found themselves on the pier once again. The dog was motioned towards the silhouetted dot that was now Tinbergen’s ship. Andrew could still hear Tinbergen’s rough voice floating on the sea breeze like an unpleasant smell that wouldn’t go away. “Ocean?” The dog shook its head. “Boat?” Nope. “Ship?” Not that either. The dog got up on its hind-legs, buffed out its chest and squinted his eyes. The impression was uncanny. “Tinbergen!” Finally, the dog ran to the same number plate as before and circled the ‘E’ once again. “So, your name is…” Andrew collected all the letters together. “Emate? Your name is Emate?” The dog sat down and panted. Its snout was big and broad, and its wide mouth looped underneath it in a big arc transforming it into a goofy grin. Andrew bent down to face the dog. He felt as if the dog deserved a formal introduction and a thank you. “Well, it’s very nice to meet you Emate and thank you for rescuing my friend’s passport.” “Hey! Andrew!” Andrew turned around to see Sara and Robert, holding his bag and waving madly. “Did you get it?” shouted Robert, his lithe body shape tall next to little Sara. “Oh, please tell me you got my passport!” wailed Sara, running across the road, her rucksack making her look very ungainly, the straps flying madly behind her. Andrew couldn’t help but grin and laugh at the sight of them. He looked back down at Emate, who was wagging its tail and looking at Sara and Robert inquisitively. “You won’t believe what just happened!” shouted Andrew. Andrew was sure that this was one memory he wouldn’t forget in a hurry. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .James Denters . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .LA State Hospital James flickered awake. This time, he was sitting upright. He was in a dark room full of sombre looking people. A TV was in the corner playing the news. A desk was opposite him with a nurse behind it. The macabrely hopeful air of a hospital waiting room. He tried to speak but groaned instead. His voice was a little weak. H felt a hand on his arm. Turning to his right, he saw the woman who was in the ambulance. That reminded him; he touched his forehead gently. The gash had been stitched up. “It’s not my best work but I hope to improve,” said the woman softly, dabbing a damp towel on it. James winced. “The paramedic said it will hurt for a couple of days but hopefully the cut will seal itself together. He went to get help, so if we wait here he should be back soon…” James nodded groggily. “Where is… Collie…” “Your dog? Over there,” the woman gestured over in the corner where Collie was avidly watching the news, panting. “He’s been watching the news without a bat of an eye. I’ve never seen anything like that.” “She,” muttered James. “Collie’s female.” “Oh.” “Thank you,” said James huskily. His throat was sore for some reason. “None needed. Just being a good Samaritan.”

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“No, I mean, for the stitches,” said James. “You did a good job.” The woman nodded slowly. They sat in silence for a couple of beats. “In the ambulance… you said something about seeing on too many car accidents. What did you mean by that?” “My mother died in a car accident when I was young.” James fell silent out of respect. His head was swimming from the anaesthesia, so he couldn’t think of anything he could say. “Your wallet fell out and your I.D. says that you’re from Nevada,” said the woman, clearly in an effort to turn the conversation back to him. “What brings you to L. A.?” “Just… seeing an old friend.” “So… you’re not saving the world?” James stared at her. “Pardon?” “When you were under you mumbled something about saving the world… and some kind of prophecy. I don’t know what that anaesthetic was but it was pretty funky stuff.” James laughed wheezily. “I’m sorry you had to hear that.” “No problem, it made the ride to the hospital entertaining.” “I’m James.” He held out his hand. “Jenni. Jenni Wei.” The woman smiled. It was the rare kind of smile that made the colours in the room brighter. “This may seem a little forward…” James was interrupted by a cough. “But I’d like to say thank you properly at some point. Would it be very forward to ask you out to dinner?” “Not at all,” said Jenni, her eyes sparkling. “I would love to, I should patch up people’s foreheads more often to get free dinners. How does tomorrow night sound?” James nodded and laughed but it quickly dissolved into another cough. “Have you heard the news today?” Jenni asked curiously. “No…? I’ve been out of touch all day.” “It’s terrible. These three kids have gone missing in the UK. They suspect that they died in this horrible fire started at their school yesterday.” James watched the news anchor read out the report. There were shots of burnt, charred rubble and sprays of water from the red fire engines putting out random flames that persisted. The headlines read: “Three teenagers missing. Police are starting the search tonight. Suspect casualties of the Bexhill High Fire.” Their pictures were up; two boys, one girl. One boy had matted black hair with a fringe hiding his grey, piercing eyes, whilst the other two were blonde. The girl had lots of freckles and the boy had a distinctively sharp, intuitive face. “What’s weird about it all is that they have no idea where they went,” said Jenni gravely. Her voice sounded like it was coming from far away. “They’ve searched all the buses and trains that left the town today and yesterday. And they’ve done a wide sweep search of the surrounding forests. It’s like they’ve disappeared into thin air.” James’s heart leapt. “They didn’t leave on land…” whispered James. “What do you mean?” asked Jenni tentatively. She frowned at him in surprise. “Hey, can you turn this thing up?” James asked the man at the reception. He increased the volume and the grave voice of the news anchor spoke clearly. “Earlier this morning, the parents of missing eighteen-year-old Sara Leo found a heart-breaking goodbye note that was left behind on her pillow. The note reads: “Dear Mum & Dad, this is probably the hardest letter I’ve ever had to write. Words can’t express what I’m feeling right now, but I’ll give it a go. You may or may not realise, I’m a truly unhappy person. Whether that’s my own fault or yours remains to be seen, but from my perspective you two, as well as Libby, play a pretty big part in my unhappiness. Not only am I unhappy, I feel unloved. I feel like I was given life only to heal and ease Libby’s suffering, a purpose which you make no mistake in reminding me of, and a reason that only caused me suffering in the end. I’ve felt second to her all of my life. Always. That’s not what pains me the most, though. The moment I had hit rock bottom was when I overheard you two talking about me on my 18 th birthday. You know the conversation I mean. The fact that you considered…” During this part of the note, Sara Leo’s writing is illegible, but the note continues with shaky handwriting. It’s clear the young woman was extremely upset at the time she wrote this… “tells me all I need to know. I look back at this message and feel like these words paint the picture of a sad little girl who wants attention. But I don’t think so. I’m a young woman now. I’m free to choose want I want to do, and I want to move away from home. Far, far away. I want a future that’s not under Libby’s shadow, and I believe I have the power to make that happen. Don’t look for me.’ To this point, we have no leads as to where Sara, or her fellow MIA friends Andrew Canis and Robert Avery, could possibly be. It’s unsure of whether they died in the fire before they had a chance to run away or if they left during the commotion of the fire, which would theoretically be the perfect distraction. They are being treated as the main suspects since the cause of the fire remains unexplained. Seven students were lost in the fire, yesterday, and the families are putting together a service to mourn the deceased. The great search continues here at Bexhill-On-Sea, England. Thank you.” The TV lost its signal and the picture fuzzed and eventually faded. Collie whined. Three teenagers crossing the English channel… A wolf… A leopard… and an eagle. They will be the key to what it is you seek. “I think I’m going to have to take a rain-check on our date.”

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“These creatures are truly amazing; their powers must be revered and respected accordingly so. They inspire dreams, ideas, passion and fear. They can represent the elements of water, fire, earth and air. I’ve seen the power that they possess first-hand. They are the most mysterious and wonderful things on the planet. Yet they are also dangerous, and there are those who do not learn to respect their power. But above it all, they are my most faithful companions. When I found my mother’s limerick back in Bexhill, I was enraptured in what it could mean. I obsessed over it. When I met Emate by the docks and he gave me the Mark, I felt like my dreams had come true. I felt like I had met my oldest friend, a friend who is still with me to this day. Cryptids gave me a goal in life, and they taught me to chase my dreams to the ends of the world.” -

Cryptids

Andrew Canis, 2030.

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Cryptids

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Cryptids - Origins 1 to 3