Chapter 4: Neil
A little before lunch, when Seron’s wristwatch was pointing to 11:41, Seron and Meg arrived at the center of town.
Several streets converged there, and large buildings stood around them. Huckanee Memorial Park was prominently visible in the center.
The grass was bright green, and the trees were lush with leaves. The fountain spewed water rhythmically.
Unusually enough, statues of sheep were arranged in a circle around the fountain. Children were clambering atop them.
“We shot many photographs, rode very much, and became very tired. And I am hungry.”
“I’m looking forward to lunch.”
Meg and Seron pushed their bicycles into the park.
A tiled pathway was paved into the grass, with benches lining the sides. The benches seated three and had intricately-carved armrests and backrests.
On one of them lounged Larry. He was looking up at the sky with his helmet and jacket beside him.
“You’re early, Larry.”
Larry slowly turned.
“Hey guys. You made it, huh…” He groaned wearily.
“I’m never gonna ride with Lia again.” Larry sighed.
“Oh my goodness. Has something happened to you?”
“We got to go pretty far thanks to the motorcycle, but every time we passed a store she’d wrap her arms around my gut like a constrictor so I would stop. She just kept eating and eating—cookies, ice cream, you name it. What in the world does her stomach look like? I almost felt sick watching her eat. Lia’s an extraterrestrial, no two ways about it.”
Seron and Meg exchanged glances. Meg burst out laughing.
Seron froze, like he’d been struck by lightning. Meg spoke in his place.
“And where now is the extraterrestrial?”
“Oh. Getting crêpes at the shop over there. I told her to save it for lunch, but looks like she doesn’t understand Roxchean anymore.”
“Oh my goodness. How incredible.”
Larry sighed. “I learned my lesson, so I guess it’s okay. How’d it go for you guys? Take lots of photos?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. About three rolls.”
“Good to hear. By the way, did you see the police cars on your way here?”
“No.” Seron shook his head. “Did something happen?”
“Yeah. I asked a policeman—”
“A fatal car crash?”
The restaurant they had reservations at was next to the village hall.
It was the biggest restaurant in town, packed with locals on their lunch break.
Seron and the others were seated at the table at the very end, which they had reserved in the morning. Kurtz and Litner sat with them this time, as cautious as ever.
There was nothing on the white tablecloth yet save for some cups and a bottle of water with a lemon slice floating inside.
“We didn’t pass by the scene, I’m afraid. What happened?” Asked Nick. Larry gave him the same answer he had given Seron earlier.
“It’s a bit far from the villa, but apparently a small truck drove off the road last night, then back onto the road and into a tree.”
“And?” Jenny urged Larry on.
“Both people on the truck died.”
“That’s what happens when you speed. Practice safe driving, everyone.” Natalia said nonchalantly. Larry ignored her, but she continued. “That accident must have been what we heard last night before we went to bed. You can hear better over long distances at night.”
The others recalled the previous night and nodded.
Jenny mumbled to herself and looked around the restaurant. The adults were enjoying their lunches, not particularly disturbed.
“Not a lot of distress around here considering two people died.” She commented.
“Apparently the people who died were local kids.” Larry said. “They were teenagers. The policemen warned us about them just in case—a bunch of no-good kids’ve been lurking around for the past year and a half. You know how the Capital District has gangsters?”
“Yeah. But I’m surprised there are gangsters in a small village like this.”
“Obviously, they’re not on the same scale. They’re really just a bunch of delinquents. They skip classes at vocational school or sneak around at night. There are four groups of them, and they’re fighting each other just like the gangs in the Capital District.”
“Fighting? Surely not to the point of starting knife fights or shootouts, like the gangs in the capital?” Nick asked with a smile. Larry shook his head.
“Nah. They get into brawls in the park, show off about being the strongest, or start races on their trucks. Nothing that big. There’s supposed to be about a dozen kids in each gang.”
“But it’s been a problem for the village since a lot of rich folks come to vacation here.”
Jenny looked bitter. “Tch. I leave the place for a couple years and everything turns into a mess.”
“But it’s got nothing to do with you, Jenny.”
“What was it like when you got there?”
“They were towing away the truck. It drove straight into this huge tree, and it looked like the driver’s seat was rolled around it or something. You could barely recognize it. What was it, ‘blunt force trauma’?”
It was awful, Natalia said. But neither she nor Larry looked particularly upset.
“Well, I learned that I’d never want to run into a tree. But there was something weird about the accident.”
“Like what?” Seron asked on everyone’s behalf.
“Thing is, the truck drove off the road pretty far from where the crash happened. Like 400 meters away.” Larry said, drawing a diagram on the table. With his left hand he drew a winding road, and with his right the truck.
The two hands veered apart for a time, then crossed.
“Then it went out of control and crashed into a tree, perpendicular to the road. But even if it’s a moonless night, don’t people usually notice something’s wrong the moment they go off the road?”
“True.” Jenny agreed.
Seron nodded. “Yeah.”
“But the truck just kept going down the field in a straight line. Then it swerved and crashed without even slowing down. I just don’t get it.”
“Perhaps the driver was aware that he’d gone off the road?” Nick suggested. “Perhaps he attempted to return, as though he were operating an all-wheel drive vehicle. But he mis-operated the steering wheel and drove into the tree.”
“I thought about that too. But then why would he have crashed perpendicular to the road?”
“True.” Seron nodded. “Even if he’d missed the tree, he would have just ended up crossing the road, not going back onto it. No one would do that unless they were trying to kill themselves. Larry, did the policemen tell you the cause of the accident, by any chance? I’m sure they must already know that the driver hadn’t slowed down.”
“Yeah. Driving under the influence and drowsy driving.”
“From what I could make out, the police were pretty set on it. Probably not planning on a serious investigation. They just wanted to clean up the place and end it quietly, I could read it on their faces.” Larry said. Then he crossed his arms and frowned. “But it just bugs me. Even if you were dead tired, you’d definitely wake up if you drove off the road. I’d almost wager the driver was dead before the crash. Although we’ll never know now.” He finished with a shrug.
“You took photos, right?” Asked Jenny.
“Oh. I forgot.”
“Sit down for a sec, Larry.”
“I am sitting.”
Jenny took a deep breath to give Larry a scolding—
“Thank you for waiting!”
But she was cut off by the arrival of lunch.
A plump, middle-aged woman served their food.
“It looks very delicious!” Meg exclaimed hungrily. The menu today was spaghetti served on a massive plate.
“It sure is! Eat up, kids!”
There was a veritable mountain of spaghetti on the platter-sized plate. Flakes of onion and bell pepper were sprinkled around, while meatballs fried to a golden crisp dotted the plate conspicuously.
Jenny grinned. “What do you think? This is the local specialty meatball spaghetti. It’s village tradition to fight over it while you eat. Forget you ever learned table manners.”
When the others looked around, they saw the other patrons eating their spaghetti in groups.
The waitress placed silverware on one table after another, followed by the local cheese in brick-sized blocks, along with massive cheese graters.
“Cheese is optional. But you’re gonna have to shred it yourself—which isn’t gonna be easy, I promise.” Jenny explained.
“How much longer, chief?” Natalia asked, holding up her fork. There was a sniper’s glint in her eye.
“All right. Say your prayers and let’s eat. Go!”
And so began the six-way battle.
To no one’s surprise, the first targets were the meatballs. Forks were driven into them one after another, until there were none left to be hunted down.
“Watch it, Lia! you almost stabbed my hand!”
“Outta my way, shortie. I just might end up chowing down on you instead!”
“Nat, you’ll find yourself with the stomachache of a lifetime should you eat Larry raw. But don’t think we’ll be backing down so easily. —Why not join the battle, Seron?”
“I… I’m almost too scared to step in.”
“Natalia… it is very scary.”
“Hey, save some for your president!”
When the flames of war had died down, a clear winner emerged.
“Man, that was great!”
Natalia Steinbeck, who had devoured more spaghetti and meatballs than anyone else.
“You’re an extraterrestrial and a pig, Lia. Should’ve snapped some photos as evidence…”
* * *
After lunch, Seron, Larry, Nick and Natalia lazed around on park benches.
Their bicycles were parked along the pathway, and the motorcycle by the road about 10 meters away. A litter further away was the car where Kurtz and Litner were on standby.
Seron, Larry, Nick, and Natalia lounged peacefully on the bench in the afternoon sun.
Jenny and Meg had gone to a stationery store across the street.
Natalia, the only girl who remained, brushed her ponytail over her shoulder and in front of her, looking up at the sky.
“Wow! It’s a brand-new motorbike!”
A group of children began chattering. They were boys whose voices hadn’t yet changed. But—
“I wish I had one of these babies! It looks so slick!”
“Then just take it!”
“Yeah! No one’s watching!”
—the content of their discussion was decidedly un-childlike. In fact, they were discussing a crime.
The newspaper club looked over at the source of the voices. Three boys between the ages of 10 and 12 were walking down the sidewalk.
From their overalls, comfy pants and checkered shirts, and their short, messy hair and sunburned skin, it was clear they were local children.
The boys did not realize that the newspaper club’s eyes were on them.
“With a motorbike, you just gotta cut the wire inside and you’re set to go.”
“Really? You’re so smart!”
“I bet it’d be real nice to go racing on this.”
Innocently and loudly the boys continued to plan their crime.
“Whatever shall we do, Larry? At the rate they’re planning, they’ll be riding down the street before you know it.” Nick joked.
Larry cringed and waved his hand.
Nick nodded. “Well, I suppose we can leave them be until they decide to take action. And I’m sure Mr. Kurtz and Ms. Litner will stop them if necessary.”
For some time the little delinquents discussed hotwiring, but they eventually stopped and continued down the street—there were simply too many people outside.
But a moment later—
The boys spotted Jenny and Meg stepping out of the stationery store and surrounded them.
“Tch. So now they’re going after older girls?” Natalia sighed. “Boys, go get ‘em.” She added haughtily.
“Man… Let’s go, Seron.”
Larry and Seron stood, walking over to the nonplussed Jenny and the confused Meg.
“You, Nick?” Natalia asked, crossing her legs.
“I’m afraid I’m not one for hand-to-hand combat.”
“You said that before.”
“So I did.”
“That mean you turn badass when you’ve got a weapon?”
“Well, I suppose so.”
“What kind of weapon?”
“A bomb, perhaps.”
Natalia ended the conversation and turned blankly.
She expected to see Larry and Seron holding the boys by the collar, giving them the scolding of a lifetime—
But what she saw was the opposite.
Petite Jenny was the one holding a boy by the collar, shaking him hard enough to slam him against the pavement.
And Larry was the one desperately trying to stop her.
“Somebody who was there explain this to me.” Natalia ordered, still sitting on the bench.
Before her stood five of her friends and one young boy.
The boy was part of the group they had earlier labeled ‘delinquents’. He wore shorts with suspenders and a short-sleeved checkered shirt. He had freckles and short brown hair, and seemed to be about 12 years old. He was about the same height as Jenny.
Jenny’s hands were still gripping his collar.
“No way… no…”
He stood there like an apprehended criminal, looking about ready to burst into tears.
“What’s there to explain?” Larry answered Natalia’s question. “By the time I got there, this kid became the victim, not Megmica and Jenny. The others ran off, but Jenny grabbed this one and wouldn’t let go. She can tell you the rest.”
“It can’t be… you’re not Jenfie! Let go! Let me go!” The boy cried.
“I don’t think he’s gonna run, chief.” Natalia said. “Let go of him.”
“Hmph!” Jenny snorted, practically throwing the boy out of her grip. “You idiot!”
“Ow! …What happened to you, Jenfie?!”
“Who cares? That’s got nothing to do with you, Neil. What happened to you?!”
Meg, Seron, Nick, and Larry stared as Jenny and the boy snarled at each other.
“Hey, little man.” Natalia said kindly.
“Wh-whaddaya want?” The boy turned.
“Neil! We’re older than you! Roxchean has polite language for a reason!” Jenny snapped.
“O-okay. Wh-what is it, glasses lady?”
“There’s a good boy. I’d prefer it if you called me the ‘pretty glasses lady’, but I’m a nice person. Do you want to try this again?”
“Get to the point, Lia.”
“All right. The name’s Natalia Steinbeck. Fifteen years old. How about you, little guy?” Natalia asked with a smile on her face.
“N-Neil. Neil Locksmith. I’m 11 this year… I’ll be 12 soon.” Neil replied.
“All right. I’m a school friend of that scary redhead over there. Do you know her, Neil?”
“Yeah, but no!”
Meg tilted her head. “Pardon?”
“What’s that mean?” Asked Natalia.
“Th-the Jenfie I know has long hair! And she’s quiet and cute and nice, just like a princess! Jenfie’s not s’pposed to look like a boy and act all mean! This isn’t Jenfie! It’s an impostor! It’s gotta be an extraterrestrial pretending to be her!” Neil raved, panicking. Larry put a hand on his shoulder.
“Calm down, Neil. Look. My name’s Larry Hepburn. Nice to meet you.”
“By ‘Jenfie’, you mean Jenny, right? Jenny Jones?”
“It’s okay. Jenny hasn’t been replaced by extraterrestrials. If anyone, it’s probably our pretty glasses lady who’s been abducted.”
“Shaddap.” Natalia said. Then she looked at Jenny. “Nice nickname.”
“It’s from a long time ago.”
“How do you know Neil?”
“…His dad works as a gardener in town. His dad and all his relatives are really good, so a lot of villa owners hire them. The Rufs, too. Neil came over to our villa a lot with his dad. Although that was two years ago.”
“I see. And you had long hair back then, Jenny?”
“Back then, yeah.” Jenny admitted, and grabbed Neil’s head again before twisting him around like a bottle cap.
Neil stared, wide-eyed. Jenny glared.
“What’s happened to you, Neil?! Last time I was here, you were such a bright kid! You said you were gonna be a great gardener like your dad! You were always helping him out when you didn’t have school! Now you’re just a delinquent-in-training! People are free to choose their careers, but delinquency isn’t a career!”
Neil could not make a comeback.
“It certainly doesn’t lead to many job opportunities.” Nick nodded. “But what is youth but a time to experience many things, Jenny? I’m sure your meeting here today will guide him back in the right direction.”
“That’s it, then.” Natalia said. “Let the poor kid go, chief. I think he’s had enough.”
Jenny did as she was told. “Go on home, okay? Don’t slack off just because it’s summer! And stop acting like an idiot! It’s not like you.”
“Okay…” Neil replied, hanging his head.
“Hold on, Neil. I want to ask you something.” Seron broke his silence just as Neil began walking away.
The others turned. All eyes were on Seron.
“Wh-what is it? Er…”
“It’s Seron Maxwell. Nice to meet you.”
“‘Maxwell’, like the frozen food?”
“My mother’s the president. Do you like our products?”
“Y-yeah… a whole lot. My favorite’s the cream stew and the hamburg steak.”
“Glad to hear it. —I just wanted to ask you about the fatal car accident last night.”
The newspaper club clearly saw Neil grimace. Seron cut to the chase.
“Did you know them?”
“I see. I’m sorry to hear that. If it’s okay with you, could you tell us what kind of people they were?”
“What kind of— well, they were just… just older boys. Just some bad guys with some kids working for them…”
Neil was obviously trying to hide something. Jenny frowned, but she did not interrupt Seron.
“I’ve heard that there are four gangs in this village. And these people were in one of them, right?”
“…Yeah. ‘Wolves’, ‘Jackals’, ‘Hunters’, and ‘Government’. The guys who died were Hunters.”
Larry furrowed his brow. “The first three aside, why ‘Government’?”
“Perhaps they wanted a name which sounded powerful. ‘We are the Government!’, they could boast.” Nick whispered.
Seron continued his line of questioning.
“So I suppose the other Hunters must be mourning their friends now.”
“I guess so…”
“You’re not in any of the groups yet, right Neil?”
“No. Not yet. If you want in, you gotta do something—anything—that’s real bad. Then everyone’s gonna accept you into the club. Like pickpocketing…”
“That’s theft! And it’s a crime! Don’t do it, Neil!” Jenny warned viciously.
“Since you’re not in any of them, you must be able to talk with boys from all of the gangs, right?”
Larry nodded in understanding. Seron continued.
“Just out of curiosity, was there anyone in one of the gangs who wanted to kill a rival gang member?”
Seron sounded as nonchalant as if he were asking Neil for his blood type. Neil paused, mouth agape. Then—
“N-n-n-n-no! None of ‘em are that bad! They’re bad guys, but they’re not evil! You’d get arrested for killing someone! You’d get executed! You’d go to hell!” Neil cried, waving his hands.
Seron thought for a moment.
“He’s right, Seron.” Natalia chimed in. “Isn’t murder too much for these guys?”
“You’re right.” Seron agreed. “Thank you, Neil. That’s all I wanted to ask.”
“Huh? Er…” Neil hesitated, wondering if he was free to go. “Then I’m going…”
As he turned to leave, Jenny howled behind him, “Don’t join any of them, you hear me?!”
Neil flinched and ran off.
* * *
The newspaper club followed Jenny’s schedule and left their film to be developed and printed at a photography studio.
The manager was happy to get so much business, and promised to deliver the printed photos the next afternoon. The newspaper club headed back to the villa.
Larry and Natalia set out first on the motorcycle. The others followed on their bicycles. And about 50 meters behind them followed Kurtz and Litner on their car.
Along the way, Nick asked Jenny a question.
“It was quite the surprise to hear you once had long hair, Jenny. Do you have any photos from the time?”
“Eh. Who cares what kind of hairstyle I used to have?”
Meg chimed in. “I am very sure that it would have looked good on you. Now is good as well, however.”
“Thanks.” Jenny said.” But I prefer my current hairstyle.”
“Sure. I mean, I used to have a buzzcut in primary school.” Seron added.
“You have any photos?”
The four members took their time heading back to the villa. By the time they arrived, Larry was happily polishing the motorcycle.
It was two in the afternoon.
“It’s nap time, guys.” Jenny said. “Meet back at five to help Mr. and Mrs. Ruf with the barbecue. Dismissed.”