Enjoy the chapter.
Chapter 7: The Leaders
“All right, which one next? Government or Wolves?” Larry asked as they left the butcher shop and stepped onto the main road.
“Er… Government has a hangout nearby, just down the street. Whaddaya wanna do?” Neil replied. Seron glanced at his watch. There was still a little more than an hour before noon.
“Let’s go.” Said Jenny. But Neil seemed even more reluctant this time.
“But Government’s the scariest gang around. The leader’s real bad and he picks fights all the time. And he always says, ‘I only listen to people who’re stronger than me. And since no one’s stronger than me, I don’t listen to nobody’.”
Seron thought before replying. “That’s not good. With an attitude like that he’s only going to garner suspicion from the police.”
“But we can’t just ignore him.” Said Jenny. Seron nodded.
“What if we get Mr. Kurtz to lead?” Natalia suggested from behind.
Seron shook his head. “I don’t think we should do that. Mr. Kurtz could obviously beat him, but we can’t get a conversation going if we hide behind an armed adult to negotiate. We’re not going there to just give them a warning; we need to completely convince Government to lay low for a while.”
“True.” Natalia admitted.
“Going is the only road.” Meg declared.
Seron cast Meg a glance and went silent.
Nick walked up next to Seron and matched his pace. “Seron, there seems to be a dilapidated fence ahead.”
When Seron looked up, he spotted an empty lot by the road. He also saw the remains of a fence that had once kept the lot secure.
Metal shafts had been driven into the ground, with rope strung between them. But most of the ropes were gone and the shafts were leaning or had already fallen. No one seemed to be maintaining the fence.
“That shaft just may make the perfect staff.”
Without a word, Seron turned to Nick.
The shafts were about 1.8 meters in length. Seron picked one up as he walked. It was clean with almost no hint of rust. The shaft was thin and hollow, which made it lighter than it seemed.
Seron used the shaft—which was taller than he was—as he might a wizard’s staff as he walked onward.
“Since when were you in the 60-plus club, Seron?” Natalia joked.
“It’s just a change of pace.” Seron lied.
About 300 meters on, they were out of the town center.
There were no more stores by the roadside, only the remains of small car factories and abandoned construction materials. The only other things of note were empty lots and a few crumbling houses. Naturally, no one was walking around.
Neil led the group into a ruined building in an abandoned lot. Supposedly it had once been a garage. There stood a rusted car, covered in grass and becoming one with the earth.
The battered shutter was down, making it impossible to see inside. But from the two small motorcycles and several cars parked outside it was clear that people were inside.
“In here. But are you sure about this? It’s not too late to back out.” Neil said hesitantly.
“I’m afraid I have to agree.” Kurtz said. Litner gave a silent nod from the back of the group.
“We’re just going to have to try our best.” Seron said, still holding the makeshift staff.
“We’ve come this far—there’s no backing out now.” Jenny agreed.
Kurtz sighed.“Then allow us to come with you and stand at the very back.”
Seron turned to Meg and Natalia.
“We’re coming too.” Natalia said before he could even open his mouth.
“Then stick close to Mr. Kurtz.” Seron said, and turned to Nick. “Here. Hold on to this.” He handed Nick the shaft.
“Of course.” Nick accepted it with a beautiful smile. Seron lowered his voice.
“It’s just a staff, Nicholas Browning.”
“I understand, Seron Maxwell.”
“And we’re not criminals.”
* * *
The garage interior was surprisingly tidy.
All the abandoned materials and rubble had been pushed against the wall, exposing the concrete floor. The windows high up on the walls were mostly intact, and the cracked panes were sealed meticulously with tape.
The garage was furnished with an old table and several chairs. When the group entered, they found eight boys discussing something. They ranged in age from their early teens to about 19. All of them were locals.
The boys were shocked when they spotted Seron and the others entering the garage. The tallest boy—who seemed to be the oldest—stood and bellowed at him.
“What the hell? We ain’t done anything!”
“Of course.” Seron replied calmly.
“We ain’t done anything! This here’s our turf, who let you in?”
The boy’s deep voice resounded through the garage.
The boy—the leader—maintained a belligerent attitude. The others kept their mouths shut, waiting to see what would happen.
Kurtz, standing at the very back of Seron’s group with Meg and Natalia, whispered. “The boy’s terrified.”
“Really?” Natalia replied, as relaxed as ever.
“Yes. He knows they’re being suspected and that they may be attacked. He’s raising his voice to try and stave off that terror.”
“I see. So that’s why they’re all gathered together here.”
“The leader’s not doing a very good job of staying calm enough to lead.”
“Looks like some muscle and a big name are all he’s got going for him. Don’t know if I’ve got any right to say this, but talk about one hell of a bluff.”
“If anything should happen, I’ll fire a warning shot into the ceiling. Your ears may ring, so I’d like to ask for your understanding ahead of time.”
Seron, Jenny, and Neil (standing between them) did not hear Kurtz because they were slowly approaching the members of Government.
Seron and Jenny were confident enough, but Neil was visibly frightened.
“I feel kinda sorry for the kid.” Larry said from behind them.
The three came to a stop about 10 meters from the members of Government.
“We’re here to give you some advice, but it looks like you’re already on the case.” Jenny said loudly enough for everyone to hear.
“Shaddap! Leave!” The leader cried, refusing to cooperate.
Jenny and Seron fell into thought, wondering how they should approach. Meanwhile, Neil trembled as though he were ready to bolt at a moment’s notice.
“What do you think?” Larry asked Nick, who was still holding the staff. Nick’s answer was brutally honest.
“The other members aside, there is absolutely no merit in assisting the leader.”
“That’s straightforward of you.”
“I believe Seron and Jenny could be forgiven for ignoring this group and moving on. Perhaps we should stop by somewhere afterwards for lunch.”
“Now that you mention it, I am getting kinda hungry.” Larry shrugged. The leader continued his tirade.
“Don’t you look your nose down on me, punk! We know you rich folks all think us villagers’re buffoons!”
‘Rest of the village aside, he’s certainly not giving us any reason not to think otherwise about him.’ Larry thought, but did not say.
“It’s not a good idea to congregate here.” Said Seron.
“Shaddap! Don’t tell me what to do!”
“The police will assume you’re up to something, and at the same time you’ll make yourselves a perfect target for the killer.”
“I told you to shut your hole! We can take care of ourselves just fine. Get out!”
“We’re talking about a hardened serial killer.”
“Doesn’t matter! Us buddies can take it!”
“I can’t say with complete certainty, but the victims of the car crash two days ago may have been shot while driving. How do you intend to fight back against someone who is armed with a gun?”
“Th-that’s what we’re all together for! We’re all ready to pound this guy into the pavement!”
“That isn’t very apparent. You even let our group inside without resistance.”
“We just let our guard down’s all!”
“Again, you are placing yourselves in grave danger by gathering here. No one will come to help even if you scream for help. It’s safer to go back to your homes and stay with your families. The killer won’t be able to easily strike in places where adult witnesses are present.”
“I said! We’re taking care of ourselves!”
“It’s not too late. You can head to the village center together and disband there.”
“Shaddap! The only thing that matters here is power, and I only listen to the strongest! And that’s me!”
“Someone stronger than you, who has no reservations about murder, will come to find you here.”
“Which is why we’re all together here, dumbass!”
A long and pointless conversation continued between Seron and the leader across the 10-meter distance. And eventually—
“…Yeah, I see now!” The leader said suddenly.
Seron and the others hoped the leader had finally seen the light, but their hopes were cruelly dashed.
“You guys are behind all this, aren’t you?!”
“Y-you’ve gotta be kidding… ‘Dense’ doesn’t even cut it with this guy. Talk about going above and beyond all expectations.” Larry groaned, his hands on his head.
But Nicholas was completely nonchalant. “Actually Larry, Seron did in fact foresee this.” He took out a hairband from his pocket.
As Larry watched, Nick propped up his staff against his chest and put his hairband in his mouth. He raised his hands behind his back and gathered his long hair, and with one hand around the ponytail and the hairband in the other he tied it up neatly.
Then he raised his ponytail again and secured it once more with the hairband to hold it up.
Nick took the staff in one hand and walked over to Seron.
“Hey.” Larry tried to stop him.
“Not to worry, Larry. Wait there and take care of the girls should anything happen.” Nick replied, turning. Though a little skeptical, Larry did as he was asked.
Seron and Jenny turned when they heard the staff.
“Not bad. It looks pretty good on you.”
“The hairstyle, Jenny? Or the staff?”
“The hair, obviously. What’re you doing here?”
“I am here as Neil’s substitute. Good work, Neil. Go back to the others.”
Nick came over to Seron, Jenny, and Neil, and gestured for Neil to retreat.
“Can I really?”
A moment’s hesitation later, Neil ran to Larry.
“Aha! Cat got your tongue, eh? So I was right!” The leader of Government sneered, making yet another mistaken assumption.
“Perhaps the Roxchean word ‘hopeless’ was invented for him?” Nick joked.
“Maybe.” “You might be on to something.”
Nick added that he would ask his father later about the etymology of the word.
“I thought you were just a pack of rich idiots, but who knew you’d actually be criminals? You’re not fooling anyone! You were gonna make us drop our guard, am I right? The killings started after you lot got here. It makes perfect sense!”
The leader’s one-man show continued. But Seron and the others were barely listening.
In fact, they were more concerned with the members of Government—all clearly confused, almost to the point of being pitiful. They seemed to be acknowledging the absurdity of their leader’s accusations.
“Don’t know about that guy, but I wanna at least help the ones behind him.” Said Jenny.
“My goodness… why do those words simply not work?” Meg wondered sadly from behind.
“Isn’t it ‘bout time for one of those warning shots, Mr. Kurtz?” Asked Natalia.
“Let’s be a little more patient.” Kurtz replied. “They say that guns should only be used as a last resort.”
“Do they? News to me.”
“Is that so? I’m also a little curious to see how Miss Jenny and the others will deal with this situation.”
“C’mon, just admit that’s the real reason.”
“Don’t just stand there, am I right or what?” The leader demanded. Seron finally spoke.
“I’m sorry to say your conjecture is incorrect. If we really were the ones behind the killings…”
“…We would have killed you all already.”
All of Government—including the leader—paled.
“Not bad, Seron.” Natalia mumbled.
“Like hell! Get’em, boys!” The leader bellowed. But no one moved.
No one argued; the leader must have been a domineering influence over his gang. But the members could not carry out such a blatantly impossible order.
Seven unfortunate boys trembled silently, at a complete loss.
“Seron, is it not about time for us to take our leave?” Nick whispered.
Seron glanced at his profiled face.
“Let us depart for lunch.”
Nick sounded so calm that Jenny threw him a quizzical look.
“You mean you’re gonna take care of this?”
“With your permission, yes.”
“…What’s that mean?”
That was when Seron broke his silence with an unusually loud sigh.
“Do something about the leader, Nicholas.”
“But please try to convince him verbally.”
“Don’t worry, everyone. Mr. Kurtz.” Seron said. At the same time, Nick strode forward.
The leader stared blankly at Nick, standing stock-still at the table.
Only when there were about four meters left between them did the leader finally regain his senses and point an accusing finger at Nick.
“What’re you tryin’ to pull?”
An elegant smile rose to Nick’s beautiful face.
“I simply wish to speak to you.”
“About what? We ain’t listening to a buncha murderers!” The leader cried, and drew a weapon.
A long sock layered into two and stuffed with sand. It was an easy weapon to make and considerably powerful to boot, dense enough to easily knock out someone with a blow to the head.
The leader held the sock by the end and wrapped it around his hand.
“Now I’ve got no choice but to fight. I gotta fight and protect myself.” He said firmly, still under a terribly mistaken impression.
The members of Government oohed and aahed behind him. “That’s the boss for ya!” One of them cried.
The leader lightly swung his arm and stepped forward.
“Beg for mercy now and maybe I’ll let you off easy.”
Nick’s answer was immediate.
“My sincerest apologies. It seems I now have a reason to strike you. I do not intend to gravely injure you, but this will hurt. I will not hesitate. I would like to apologize in advance.”
“I hope this will do the trick…” Seron mumbled.
The leader, oblivious to Seron’s hopes, was apoplectic.
He charged forward, winding back his right arm.
In an instant Nick tightened his grip on the staff. With his right hand he held the top, and with his left hand he held a slightly lower point with an inverse grip.
Nick took an evasive step to the right and swung the staff upwards.
The tip of the staff nearly glanced the floor as it cut through the air, striking the base of the leader’s right hand before it could reach Nick.
There was a scream as the leader’s fist was knocked upwards. He dropped his weapon.
Nick pulled the staff back towards himself as though gliding, and grabbed the end that had struck the leader with his left hand. Then he put his right hand closer to his left with an inverse grip.
And, barely moving his arms, he swung the staff at the leader’s left shin.
The two sounds melded into one.
The leader was forced into an awkward stance, holding up his right hand and curling his left leg. Nick lightly prodded him in the chest with the staff.
The members of Government were furious at the sight of their leader being so easily defeated.
A fat boy to Nick’s right leapt off his chair. Another boy, this one on Nick’s left, stood a moment later.
The fat boy used his figure to his advantage, charging forward at Nick using all his weight as momentum.
Nick waited for his opponent to draw near, then bowed low like a cat and swung wide from right to left.
It was the kind of mundane movement one used to sweep leaves in the yard, but the staff connected with the boy’s heel.
Tripping over his own legs, the boy fell forward and landed on his portly stomach, sliding.
The boy rushing from Nick’s left jumped over his falling friend.
And he swung his right arm at Nick as he rose.
Nick held the staff upright and stopped the punch at the wrist. At the same time, he slid, swinging the right side of the staff towards the back of his opponent’s neck and sidestepping as he swung down again.
The boy fell forward and hit the ground shoulder-first.
Nick let the staff slide down and took three steps back, then pointed the end at the boy. He took a quick breath, followed by a pause, followed by a long exhale.
It had taken him all of 10 seconds to flatten the three boys.
Nick looked over the fallen delinquents and the five remaining boys.
“Shall we continue? I could certainly do with a little more exercise.” He asked with a beautiful smile.
“No.” “It’s okay.” “No thanks.” “I’m good.” “Nah.”
“That was awesome!” Larry cried incredulously at the sight of Nick’s elegant flurry of attacks.
Neil stood beside Larry with his jaw agape.
“Not bad, Nicholas Browning.”
Natalia and Meg were also floored by the display. Kurtz alone seemed to be completely unfazed.
“Hey. Seron Maxwell.”
“Yes, Jenny Jones?”
“How long have you know about this? How long did you know our pretty boy was actually a martial arts master?”
“For a while.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Because it never came up.”
“You’re the one who brought the staff along.”
“Just in case.”
“You didn’t think Mr. Kurtz could take care of them?”
“I would have, if push came to shove. But sometimes it’s better to solve things without getting an adult involved.”
“Tch. Fine. Now let’s have a talk with Government.”
Jenny went up to the boys. The three who had lost to Nick were just beginning to get back up.
“Listen up, guys. I’m sick of trying to argue, so I’m gonna make it simple.”
Nick had dropped his stance and was standing casually. Jenny stood beside him and towered over the eight dazed boys.
“We’re not the killers. And from now on, I’m the leader of Government!”
“What?” The leader squawked, rubbing his aching right hand. The others were equally astonished.
“We beat you, which means it’s time for a change around here. You’re the one who said you only listen to whoever’s stronger than you. Does a man ever go back on his word?”
The leader could not retort. Nick spoke instead.
“Oh? You’ll be taking charge here then, Jenny?”
“Yeah. I can run two jobs easy.”
“Then what of my accomplishment here? There was so much I was hoping to do with the position of leader.”
“I’ll officially recognize your accomplishments later, Nick.”
“Is that really all?”
Having taken the position of leader over Government, Jenny gave orders to her new underlings.
That the boys should never congregate together until the culprit had been caught and the case closed. That they should remain shut up quietly in their homes. That they should do absolutely nothing even if they were to encounter other delinquents. That if they were clear on the instructions, they should immediately return home.
The former leader straddled his motorcycle and gave the new leader a skeptical look.
“You’re seriously not the killers?”
“No. And I’ll give you back the position once my vacation ends and I go back home.”
“Right… so I just gotta lay low for a while.”
“I’d tell you to lay low forever, but yeah. That’s the gist of it. Keep a low profile if you don’t wanna die.”
The delinquents scattered on their bicycles and motorcycles.
“My, I am feeling quite hungry after all that exercise.”
Nick tossed away his staff without a second thought.
Seron glanced at his watch. It was noon.