Chapter 9: Companions
It was 15 to seven.
“Another guest! How lovely. The more the merrier.”
Mrs. Ruf merrily went about her cooking, none the wiser to the plot.
“Absolutely.” Mr. Ruf agreed, helping her in the kitchen.
“I will explain all the circumstances. Seron, when it is hard to explain with my power, please help me to explain.” Meg said, looking into Seron’s eyes.
“Yeah. I’ll be right there with you.” Seron met her gaze.
“Not much I can do now, I guess.” Larry mumbled.
“Let us pray for success.” Nick said in reply.
“What about us? What do we do?” Asked Natalia.
“Just play it cool and act like everything’s normal.” Jenny answered.
“We will be here as well.” Said Kurtz. Next to him, Litner gave a nod.
In the empty bathroom, Hartnett silently drew his handgun from its leather holster.
It was a 3-inch revolver. When Hartnett checked the cylinder, he found six .357 magnum rounds neatly loaded inside.
He slowly pushed the cylinder back inside and holstered the gun.
It was five to seven.
The doorbell rang.
“She’s here.” “She is here.”
Seron, Meg, and Hartnett all rose from their seats in the entrance hall.
As they walked up to the door, Seron took the lead and Meg and Hartnett followed.
It was still light outside and the flowers in the gardens seemed to glisten. Meg gave the gardens a brief glance before looking forward again.
Seron found Hannah Lawrence at the door.
“She has come here.” Meg said with a smile. Her pace quickened. Seron and Meg went to the door together.
“Welcome, Mrs. Lawrence. Thank you for coming.”
“You are welcome inside!”
They greeted her with smiles.
“Good evening. Thank you for the invitation.” Hannah replied, also smiling. Seron spoke up.
“Mr. and Mrs. Ruf are the ones who manage the house, but they’re busy with preparations at the moment. Please, come inside.”
“Thank you for having me.”
Hartnett hung back a few steps away, watching Seron guide Hannah into the villa.
He noticed the man before Meg and Seron did.
Hannah turned as she stepped inside.
“Thank you for escorting me.” She said to the man.
Seron and Meg noticed Hampleton behind Hannah as Hartnett rushed in.
Hartnett drew his gun and charged between Hannah and Hampleton, quickly taking aim with a roar.
“Freeze! Confederation Police! You are under arrest! Slowly put your hands in the air and kneel!”
“Damn it!” Seron grabbed Meg and Hannah by their wrists. “Let’s go!”
He pulled them away, gently so Hannah would not fall. But before he could take the final step—
“It’s all right.” Hannah said. Seron froze.
Before them, Hartnett stood with his left foot forward, aiming the gun with both hands.
“If you resist, I will open fire! Put your hands in the—”
Hampleton did as he was told, slowly raising his hands.
Once his arms were outstretched, he knelt on the spot.
“N-now get down and put your hands on the ground!” Hartnett ordered, lowering his gun.
Again, Hampleton complied. He leaned forward and put his hands and stomach against the ground.
Hartnett lowered his gun even more and continued, still tense.
“Cross your legs together! Now!”
Still on the ground, Hampleton placed his right leg over his left shin.
Only then did Hartnett finally look past the gun and address Seron.
Seron pulled Meg and Hannah along once again. This time, both complied.
When he turned, he saw Hartnett give another order. “Hands behind your back!” Then he went around Hampleton’s back.
Hartnett pointed his gun at the back of Hampleton’s head and straddled his back.
And finally, he expertly placed a pair of handcuffs on Hampleton’s wrists with his left hand. Hampleton showed no resistance.
“James Aide! You’re under arrest!”
Hampleton, who had not said a word since arriving, looked up at Hartnett with his left cheek on the pavement and smiled softly.
And he whispered one calm word.
“Wh-what just happened here?”
Seron returned to Larry at the entrance hall, Meg and Hannah in tow.
Outside the door was Hartnett, and lying under him was the restrained man, who did not even try to resist.
“I can’t believe it. He came along with Mrs. Lawrence. Mr. Hartnett’s got him, though.” Seron explained, finally letting Meg and Hannah go. “Mr. Kurtz! Restraints!”
Kurtz rushed outside. He passed by Larry with a strong cloth rope used by bodyguards and ran to Hartnett’s side.
Kurtz tied Hampleton’s legs together, then wrapped the rope restraint around his arms and upper body. Hampleton was rendered completely immobile.
Hartnett did a quick check on his belongings. He examined everything thoroughly for weapons.
Then he finally holstered his gun and wiped with his sleeve the sweat that had formed so quickly on his brow.
Hartnett and Kurtz picked up Hampleton together and carried him to the entrance hall as if he were a mannequin.
“Dunno.” “I’m not certain.”
Jenny, Natalia, and Nick came over, flabbergasted.
Hartnett laid Hampleton on the tiles in the entrance hall.
Then he pulled out a leather case from his jacket and flashed his ID at Hannah, who watched everything calmly.
“I’m Hartnett from the Confederation Police. Apologies for the sudden arrest, but this man is a known assassin wanted by the government.”
Everyone watched, waiting for Hannah’s reaction.
“I see. So you received my tip after all. Although I must say I hadn’t expected an arrest here.”
“Wh-what? You’re the one who gave us the tip?” Hartnett gaped. The newspaper club and the two bodyguards went silent.
“Yes. I am.”
“I—th-thank you! You’ve helped us arrest a very dangerous man, madam! But… I… er…” Hartnett stammered, confused. He shook his head and furrowed his brow.
The others were equally confused.
“Wh-what is going on in this way? Mrs. Hannah knew this man was the wanted man? How did you know?” Meg, who was nearest to Hannah, asked.
Hannah replied so very firmly and nonchalantly.
Meg was stunned.
“B-but how?! Aide even changed his face! How did you know that he was a wanted man? Madam, were you part of the Confederation Police force? I see, you must have discovered this man by coincidence during your retirement and hired him!” Hartnett speculated wildly.
“The answer is ‘no’.” Hannah replied.
Several seconds passed in silence.
“I told her.”
Hampleton was the one to break it.
Hampleton lay on the cold tiles, still restrained.
“I told her myself, detective.” He said, his body completely immobile save for his mouth. There was an absolutely peaceful look on his face.
“Why? You were on the run for 15 years. You changed your face, your identity, and had us chasing you around all of Roxche.” Hartnett said.
Hampleton replied quickly, as if having waited for the question.
“Because I don’t need to run anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m sick. I don’t have much longer to live.”
Hartnett was silent.
“The gods are good, don’t you agree?”
“But… but why did you tell the madam your identity?”
“I didn’t have a significant reason. It felt meaningless to hide when I was so close to death. Maybe I wanted to confess to someone. Get a clean conscience. Or maybe not. But either way, I’m grateful to her for listening to me and calling the police as I asked.”
Hartnett looked back and forth from Hampleton and Hannah, who were both the very picture of calm.
“…Satisfied now?” He finally uttered, swallowing his outrage.
“Yes. I am. I don’t have enough time left to pay for the lives I’ve taken now. Just put me in the prison hospital and be done with it. I’ll be gone before spring.”
“Damn it! I’m taking you to the Capital District!” Hartnett spat one last time, and turned to Hannah.
“Please pardon us, madam! Seron here and I happened to realize this man’s identity and brought you here because you might have been in danger. We planned to disclose his identity to you and arrest him. We had no idea this would happen.”
“I understand. But you needn’t have bothered so. I’m an old woman, I don’t have many days left myself.”
“Not at all, madam. Thank you for your cooperation. We’ll visit you again to take some official statements.”
“Of course. I’ll be in this village, so please feel free to drop by anytime.”
“Is the guest here?” Mr. Ruf asked, finally arriving on the scene. Hartnett quickly asked him to contact the police.
Seron stopped him.
“What is it, Seron?”
“I—” Seron began, extremely conscious of Meg’s worried gaze on his face. “I have a question for Mr. Hampleton.”
“What is it, boy?” Hampleton replied from the floor. Hartnett cut in.
“Wait a second. This can wait, Seron.”
“No, it can’t. I have to ask now.”
Hartnett furrowed his brow.
“Go on, boy. Ask.” Hampleton said, like a kind old man gently consoling a grandson.
Seron knelt before Hampleton. Sitting on one knee he looked into Hampleton’s profiled face.
“Were you the one who killed the three people? Yesterday and the day before, in this village.”
Meg and the rest of the newspaper club gasped.
“Seron, we can take care of that on our end. Don’t bother.” Hartnett said. But Seron ignored him.
“Did you kill them?”
From the floor came the answer.
In the very same tone, from the very same expression.
“I knew it!” “Oh my goodness!” “Huh.” “No way.” “Unbelievable.” “Damn it.”
With the voices of shock behind him, Seron quickly continued to the next question.
“On whose orders?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, boy.”
“I was told you’d killed many people.”
“Yes. At least 20 by my count.”
“Were any of those kills personal? Any you were never ordered to do?”
“Yes, that’s precisely what I heard. You only ever killed under orders. You were a professional assassin. Then let me ask again. On whose orders did you kill the three young men?”
Three seconds passed in silence. Then—
“No one.” “It was me.”
Two people gave two opposing answers at once.
“It was me. I was the one who hired him.”
Everyone turned to the owner of the voice.
To Hannah Lawrence.
“Ah, but, ah, ah,”
Meg could not find the words to speak. Seron spoke instead, rising to his feet and turning around.
“Why, Mrs. Lawrence?”
Hannah remained just as calm as Hampleton, as serene as ever.
“You knew it was me, didn’t you Seron? You knew I was his client.”
“I had a hunch, but I didn’t have any evidence.”
Hartnett was the first to butt into the cool conversation between Seron and Hannah.
“H-hold on! What are you two talking about?”
Hannah looked at Hartnett, then looked away.
At Seron’s grey eyes.
“Was it because of the flowerpots?”
At Seron’s question.
“My goodness! It cannot be!” Meg gasped. She was the only other person who knew about the flowers.
“Yes and no.” Hannah replied.
“Please tell me the truth.”
“It began with the flowerpots just as you say, Seron. When the boys knocked over the flowerpots. But my motive was different.”
“I don’t understand the difference.”
Hannah and Seron alone were the picture of tranquility, an old woman and a young man having a light conversation in the entrance hall of a luxury villa.
But around them were other young men and women standing rooted to the ground, a man in restraints on the floor across from them, and two men standing guard over him. All that added up to a scene that resembled a battle between the adults and the children.
“What’s this about flowerpots, Seron?” Asked Larry.
“Mrs. Lawrence had potted flowers next to her gate. Someone from the local delinquent gangs apparently knocked them over for fun.”
“And—and that’s why she had them killed?” Larry asked, eyes wide.
“I had nothing against them personally. They just happened to catch my eye. And they’re the only ones who go around the village at night. Those were the only reasons I chose them.”
“Because they were easy to kill, is that what you want to say?” Seron’s eyes narrowed.
“Yes, Seron. I asked Hampleton to kill a few of the local boys. And he accepted.”
‘Why’, Seron wanted to ask. But Meg was faster.
“Why? For what reasons?”
Seron quietly released the breath he was holding.
“To do something bad, Megmica.” Said Hannah. “Killing someone—getting someone killed—is something very, very bad.”
“Wh-what is good from something like this? I do not understand!”
“I don’t mind sharing with you, Megmica.” Hannah said, and began. “In Roxche, murderers are sent to hell. Do they say the same in Sou Be-Il?”
“What? Yes. Yes! Of course we say the same thing!”
Standing next to Meg, Seron narrowed his eyes and recalled the conversation they had on the autobahn.
“That’s why I did something so horrible. So I would go to hell after I die.”
“Pardon me? Did I hear my Roxchean speaking wrong? Mrs. Hannah said you would like to go to hell?”
“You didn’t hear wrong, Megmica. Yes, I do want to go to hell.”
“…Why?” Meg asked feebly. But before Hannah could answer—
“Who?” Seron asked, opening his eyes. “Who is waiting for you there, Mrs. Lawrence?”
“My husband.” Hannah replied.
“Your husband… why…?” Meg breathed.
“My husband was ordered to kill many people in the past. He would always say, ‘when I die, I’m sure to go to hell’. So I know he must be there now.”
“Why… why… why would you…?” Meg stammered again, and Seron wondered to how ask about Hannah’s husband. But—
“Madam—Mrs. Lawrence.” Hartnett spoke up. “Was your late husband by any chance called Ferdinand Lawrence?”
When she heard her husband’s name, Hannah narrowed her eyes. “Yes.”
“Who?” Natalia asked on everyone else’s behalf.
“Ferdinand Lawrence…” The answer came from Nick, who was well-versed in history. “He was Roxche’s longest-serving Minster of Justice. Nineteen years, starting 40 years ago.”
“Minister? Seriously?” Larry repeated. Nick nodded.
“I see.” “I see.” Jenny and Seron replied in unison.
Nick, who knew not when to stop when it came to history, continued.
“‘Longest-serving Minster of Justice’ also implies that he had signed just as many execution orders. This is what Mrs. Lawrence must mean.”
“Ah…” “Aha!” “I get it.” Meg, Larry, and Natalia finally nodded. Hartnett turned to Hannah.
“I see your reasoning. Your late husband did indeed send more people to hell in Roxche’s history than anyone else. But he was simply complying with the Confederation’s laws. He was—”
“—a good and dutiful man, you might say, an epithet I’m sure he must have loved to hear. He always said those who worked in law enforcement, putting their lives on the line for the people, were our heroes. He loved them very much.” Hannah said, cutting off Hartnett. “But he always said that his own actions were murders. And if that’s what he himself thought, it must be true.”
Hartnett could not argue. But Seron spoke up.
“In other words, because you believe that your husband is in hell, you hired a professional assassin to kill three people—to do something evil, and so be sent to hell yourself.” He said mechanically, simply to confirm the truth.
“Yes.” Hannah said. And she went even further. “I met Hampleton over there two months ago at the clinic in Darro, the next town over. We’re in the same boat, he and I.”
“It’s an oncology clinic.” Jenny explained quickly.
“We had the same viewpoint on hell, so I decided to hire him. It was a happy coincidence that Hampleton also happened to be an excellent gardener.”
“That is… Mrs. Hannah, you do not have children? How will they think when they see you now?” Meg asked.
“I had a daughter, but she left before me. Along with my adorable grandson. It was an accident on the autobahn.”
For the first time, Hannah seemed sad.
“I see now…” Seron whispered.
“Then your daughter is in heaven! Your grandson is in heaven! Will you not be happy in heaven? Can you not pick the heaven with flowers?!” Meg pleaded. Hannah answered.
“My daughter is with her husband and their son in heaven. But there is only one person I love most. Who else will be at his side? I am going to meet him again. I will go to his side and tell him I will be there with him forever.”
“Will your husband want this?”
“I don’t know if he’ll feel the same way.”
“Th-then! When the time you meet, he does not agree! How will you do this? It will be so sad when your thoughts are different!”
“It doesn’t matter. As long as I can be with him.”
“I… cannot understand…”
“Someday you will, Megmica. Someday, when you fall in love.”
Meg could say nothing. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
Seron could do nothing but watch.
Several seconds passed, and Natalia stepped up to put a hand on Meg’s shoulder.
“There, there. That’s enough tears, Megmica.” She said, pulling Meg into a hug.
“Anyone else have any questions?” Hartnett asked amicably.
No one responded.
“I see.” Hartnett nodded, and turned to Hannah. “Mrs. Hannah Lawrence.”
“You are under emergency arrest for the contract killing of three young men!” Hartnett said sharply.
“I understand.” Hannah replied, holding out her right hand to him as though accepting a dance. “Guide me, hero.”
* * *
The 3rd day of the eighth month.
Seron woke up at the same time again.
He changed into his gym uniform and went out onto the balcony.
“Yo Seron. You’re up too?”
He heard Larry’s voice from the garden, lit up by the blinding morning sun.
“Good morning, Seron.”
Then came Nick and Jenny’s voices. Larry and Nick were in T-shirts and jeans, Nick wearing his hair tied up again. Jenny was in red sweats, which may or may not have served as her pajamas.
“Good morning. You’re all up early.” Seron greeted the others in the garden.
“Yeah. Nick said he’d show us his moves.” Larry replied. At that moment—
“Not every day Seron gets up later than us all.”
Another voice spoke, this time from overhead.
Seron leaned over and looked up to find Natalia with her long hair hanging down from the third floor.
“Morning. You’re free till breakfast, right? You get special permission to come on up here.”
“Huh? Wait, was that your room, Nat?” Seron wondered.
“Of course, this is my room!” Meg popped up, her long black hair cascading down.
“I’ll be right there.”
Seron rushed into the bathroom and out again, then out of his room and up the stairs to the third floor.
“C’mon in.” Natalia said, and Seron obeyed.
Doing his best not to look at the sofa covered in Meg’s suitcase and her clothes from the day before, Seron walked straight ahead to the balcony.
And he greeted the girls wearing the same sweats as he was.
“Morning. Did you sleep well?”
“Yes.” Meg replied with a smile. Natalia nodded. “More or less.”
The previous night—
Having arrested the two culprits, Hartnett took them to the police station on his own car with Kurtz’s help.
There was nothing left in the entryway.
“Oh dear. We’ll have some food left over.” Mrs. Ruf said gently, stepping outside. Meg, who had been sobbing into Natalia’s arms, turned.
“I will eat the food left over!” She declared, and wiped her tears as she led everyone to the dining room. And she ate more enthusiastically than anyone.
“Yeah. Good to see you’re eating right.” Natalia said.
“When it is sad, it gets happy when I eat!” Meg said, eating through half-sobs.
Seron, on the other hand, could barely take a bite.
“I! Do not! Acknowledge! Or understand! Or give sympathy!”
Seron stared at his full plate of food and listened to Meg declare over her own.
“I will not complain to the Roxche laws! I do not think the Sou Be-Il laws are always truth!”
Meg’s outrage knew no end.
“Don’t push yourself too hard, Megmica.”
Meg ate enough to worry even Natalia, downed an entire cup of tea, and finally—
“I will sleep now.”
She stood from her seat.
Two girls with long hair and a boy with slightly long hair stood in a row on the balcony.
“Look at that. Seron’s on the third floor.” Larry chuckled in the middle of stretching his arms at the center of the garden.
“My, my. Since when was our Seron Maxwell one of the ladies?” Nick joked, stretching out holding a long wooden staff he had found somewhere.
“Wish you were first, Nick?” Jenny played along, looking at the photometer around her neck.
“Not at all.” Nick replied nonchalantly and began to twirl the staff on his right side.
The staff spun loudly, cutting through the air.
“After sleeping a night, my heart has calmed. The weather is very good today as well.” Meg said with a smile.
“Yeah.” Seron replied briefly from next to her.
He glanced at her profiled face.
She looked a little more flushed than the previous day.
“I’ll see you two later.” Natalia said suddenly, and returned to the room with her long hair swishing.
“Nothing big, Seron. I just gotta wash all this hair and dry it and style it. It takes time. I called you to take care of Megmica.”
Natalia took her towel and headed into the bathroom.
Seron said nothing, looking straight ahead.
Meg was also looking straight ahead, at the flowers and the plains beyond. Seron wondered what he should say. But he did not have to think long.
“Seron. When you have the person you love, after you die, even if it is hell, will you wish to be with her forever?”
“Yes.” He replied firmly.
Meg looked out at the rolling green plains and smiled a warm, gentle smile.
“I hope I’ll be able to say the same too.” She said in Bezelese.
“Yeah.” Seron replied in Roxchean.
Larry looked up from the gardens at Seron and Meg.
He saw a pair of shoulders side-by-side and a pair of smiling faces.
Nick, who had been swinging his staff with his lean but strong arms, stopped in a high attack position and followed Larry’s gaze.
“How sweet. Jenny, would that not make for a wonderful photograph?”
Jenny, who stood with her back to the east, was looking into her viewfinder. “Hey, don’t just stop! Keep going! Show me some awesome moves!” She ordered.
“You didn’t end up taking any photos last night, huh?” Asked Larry. Jenny replied, winding the film.
“It wasn’t the kind of case we could post about on the school walls. I bet Nick’s secret’ll sell better. Now take off that T-shirt, Nick.”
“Wha—please, anything but that, Jenny.”
“There are some orders I simply cannot abide by.”
“You’ll be Mr. Popularity, I guarantee it. Especially with the girls.”
“I respectfully decline.”
“Oh, did you want to be popular with the boys then?”
“Of course not.”
“Then take it off.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow your logic, Jenny.”
“And we are back at square one.”
“Man…” Larry looked up at the sky, listening to the pointless conversation. His blue eyes reflected the clear blue sky.