Zollinger

 

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Prologue 

We gathered in front of our old flat screen, waiting for the season’s introductions to start. Mother had invited the families of the surrounding cabins to watch with us, so all the kids had to sit on the floor. Our flat screen wasn’t big, nor was the picture as clear as the new halo-screens, but I didn’t care.

The countdown stopped and the credits playing. I pulled myself forward, away from the noisy sprawling of my younger brothers and their friends.

"Kids, be quiet." Dad's voice boomed in the small building.

I covered my ears quickly. Dad was a lumberman, and worked most weeks down at the mill close to the border, he had to be loud.

I folded my hands in front of me and stared at the screen as the titles wooshed by. I was three when the last season started, and I hadn’t yet learned to read. But now I was seven.

"...In the last season we followed the great heroes Paladin, Priest, Druid, Forestine, and Beast, as the ascended the paths and defeated the dungeons in search for the treasure. Now, four years later, a new season has begun!"

Glen, from the cabin next to us, ran through the screen door and knelt in front of the TV with his big radio and an auxiliary cord. The door closed with a loud whack and Mother frowned. 

"Give me a second, I’ll get the sound going." he said when we began whining. After a few moments of changing the wires in the back and hitting the side of the screen, the music blasted with excitement.

Quickly he turned it down, "Sorry,"

"Introducing, the beautiful, the magical, Elvin Kay!"

Glen hurried out of the way as the screen turned black. In the corner a blue light glowed and a woman appeared in the middle of the screen, dressed in a tight green and yellow robe with two slits on either side of her hips. Flowers decorated her hair, and vines weaved around her wrists and ankles. She moved to the left of the screen and a character sheet appeared on the right.

"Her preferred fighting style is with a bow staff?" my older brother exclaimed. "of course they have to give her good armor, she won’t last through the second dungeon!"

A couple of his friends agreed and Dad yelled, "Quiet down, Konrad."

The screen flashed again. "Next is the mystical, the mysterious, Mage Magera!"

A teen girl with pigtail braids and dressed in black wool appeared. Her eyes were red and black tears streaked her cheeks. She fixed her gloves and adjusted the large stone on her chest. The character sheet appeared after a moment, and Konrad hummed to himself.

The screen flickered with a clash of thunder. It always rained in the slums, the large swamp where all the poor people lived in walled up groups. We had to be walled in because of the creatures outside, the ones that teared your skin to shreds and used your bones for their effigies, Konrad told me the stories. 

"This season we had a hard time finding the right rogue," came the voiceover. "but I think we found the right one with my personal favorite, Twain!"

A tall man appeared, sporting a pair of rough jeans and large jacket with no shirt. It looked like he had more gel than hair, and continuously checked the daggers on either side of his hips. 

"And now, for the second time running, the best engineer this show has ever seen, Estaveer is back!"

A few of the adults clapped and hollered.

This woman was older, with a long red braid and a large gun slung on her back. She had a tattoo above her eyebrow that wrapped down to her cheek bone. The pockets of her brown coat where filled with different gadgets. She leaned on her left foot and looked to the right, a practiced stance. The character sheet appeared, and one of the adults gave a yell.

"They finally upgraded her inventory!"

"Only by two, it won’t help much." said someone as Estaveer leaned on her right and ran a hand across her forehead.

"You know how much that costs per item?" said the first. "Almost a hundred diamond credits now, diamond, I barely make fifty silver in a month!"

"She’s got a good charity, that’s for sure."

The screen darkened.

"And lastly, going on his twelfth game, the famous, the greatest, the most fantastic of them all... the Zollinger Knight is back!"

The men cheered as the man appeared. My heart pounded with excitement. His armor was polished silver with gold accents. His right hand rested on a greatsword with sapphires along the grip. He focused on the camera and smiled, flashing the missing tooth he lost in the last game. 

The wind began to pick up and the TV flickered again. Tiny drops of rain hit against the windows.

"Konrad, you bolted down the satellite, right?" Dad asked.

"Yeah,"

The Knight's character sheet appeared and the adults started. 

"He needs to cool it with the tours and start donating to the other heroes," one of the mothers commented. "give them a chance to get their debts sorted."

"This season will be featuring much different dungeons than last season," said the voiceover. "if you recall the sands of-" 

Suddenly the screen went blank, something crashed outside.

Dad was the first to the window. "Konrad!" he bellowed. 

Everyone stood. Konrad sunk in his chair as four bolts followed the chunky satellite, pinging off the wall of the cabin next to us. 

"I’m sorry everyone!" Mom exclaimed. "It looks like we’ll have to cut the party short."

 

Argument 

Konrad gets a job

Alligators

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Chapter 1

I crept across the floor blindly and turned the knob to Conrad’s room. He was still out patrolling, making his room nice and empty. I hurried to his bedside table and dug into the top drawer, searching for his spare plastic key card. I scraped the bottom with my fingernail and found the latch to the secret compartment. Everything was in place, just like it was before, but no spare key. I shut it quietly and frowned in frustration, Conrad never lost the original metal key. I thought for a moment, sure I’d been clumsy at least twice in the last two weeks around the cameras, but not enough to be identified.

I turned to his closet and began searching his uniforms. It had rained yesterday after he left, it could have gotten wet. I sighed. If it had gotten wet, I'd be late anyway. In one of the jackets I pulled the metal key card from the hidden pocket on the collar. I slid my finger over the right corner, it didn’t turn on. I turned it over and held the round button on the top. Nothing. It had been waterlogged.

I put it back in the pocket and closed the door. I crept back to the room I shared with my sister. I couldn’t be late for my shift again, Colton wouldn’t forgive me. I thought about taking Mom’s card, but she’d need it by the time I got back from my pretend job.

I eased the door in place and checked on Genie, still asleep. I tiptoed to my bed and pulled up the third board from the window. I picked up the old textboard and selected Roman’s name.

No luck, going to have to go over. I knew he was frustrated when the three blinking dots turned into his simple reply, There in twenty. Don’t go over.

I waited. Twenty minutes exactly the slow rapping of knuckles against the window pane reached my ears. I rushed to the window and eased it open.

I handed him my pack and slid out the window. I took my pack from him and we started walking.

"I’ll pay to get you a card." Roman said once we were far enough away.

"It’ll be in the system, my parents can’t find out."

He sighed. "You know if you wake up earlier you could just go over the wall, or text me so we’ll both get their on time."

I shook my head. "Genie gets night terrors, if I’m gone too early they’ll get suspicious."

"You can get burner codes like the others," Roman suggested. "stay off the record so you don’t get billed at home."

I looked around. "Where’d you park it this time?"

"Just around the corner,"

I picked up the pace and clambered into the passenger side of his Cruiser. Opening my pack between my legs, I pulled out my headset and held the on button. It was old, the kind that went over your head and had a mic on the end. Roman climbed into the driver side and pulled out his headset, a small Bluetooth and a mic that stuck behind his ear and the roof of his mouth. I asked him once if it was uncomfortable to wear, he said it was at first, but he had gotten used to.

He pulled out his small control pad and connected us to the channel. He set the rectangular screen  on the dashboard so we could both see who was on.

"Ready?" he asked. His voice was breathy, like wind directly in my ear.

"Hit the blocker first,"

He used his finger to fish inside his mouth, then turned off the mute. "Mars and Summers, online." he said, his voice clear.

"Finally!" a woman exclaimed quietly, the voice module shrunk next to the name Florencia Perez. "What took you guys so long?"

Roman started the car and pushed on the gas, the sound of the wheels crunching gravel and dirt had a peaceful rhythm. He pushed the gas more, it was a fifteen minute drive to the town gate.

"The usual."

The other three laughed, Joseph Mitch, Rod Teeple, and Dona Madison, while the team leader, Ramsey Colton, kept his silent.

"We’re gonna get you a burner," said Mitch.

"Better yet, I’m just gonna get you a fake ID," laughed Madison.

I laughed with them. They didn’t know why I couldn’t get a code, but they understood that some things were better left secret.

Roman braked a little as we round a corner and pushed the gas. Through a straight stretch he muted the channel.

"Get your tablet out," he said.

I opened my pack again and pulled out the screen. I tapped the home button and the password screen flashed.

"Everyone else is in position," he continued as I entered my password.

He held down one of the apps, and our screens linked. He hit another app and my screen changed to an aerial view of the large casino. Blue dots lit up where everyone was. Mitch was inside, so was Madison. Teeple was just outside but looked like he was disguised as a valet, moving back and forth from the same building just down the block. Perez was in a car parked across the street directly in front of the casino’s doors, and Colton was in the kitchen. Two red dots blinked, waiting. One inside, and one on the building next to it.

"I’m going to have to drop you off at the hotel, just flash this badge if someone stops you and they’ll let you on the roof."

I took the shield shaped badge and slide it in the inside pocket of my jacket.

"The target’s reservation isn’t for another hour, so we’ll have some time to set things up." He hit a different app on his tablet and a face popped up. He had long blond hair and looked like a user.

“"Kentwood Nebraskan the Third?" I laughed. I swiped the picture to my tablet as Roman braked around another corner. "This guy sounds like he deserves it."

Roman laughed and started slowing down. The gate closed in and I pulled my hood up. Roman stretched his arm out and waited for the scanner to read the bar code. It beeped and the light turned red. Roman sat back down with a sigh and waited.

"Nothing works in the place."

I sunk in my seat as an officer stepped out of his post inside the wall. He slide his badge through the scanner.

"You guys need to invest in a better lock," Roman said when it didn’t work. "Twice in a row is just ridiculous."

"Not many people are out past curfew, the battery’s just having trouble." The officer said, frustrated. He pulled the radio from his belt. "Operator to management,"

"Management here, what’s wrong?" Konrad’s voice said under the static of the radio.

"Gate won’t open again, needs to another override."

The light on the scanner turned green and the rusty gate swung open.

"Thanks again," said Roman.

I waited till we were a few feet before pulling off my hood.

"What’s the game plan?" I asked.

"Mitch, Madison, and I are going to be inside to take him in. You and Perez will be look outs, Teeple’s going to make sure he doesn't get out the front, and I’ll cover the back."

Somewhere outside a creature snarled loudly. As we picked up speed the trees began to clear, turning into the short fields of citronella grass that repelled the many beasts of the forest. When we reached the gate Roman flashed his badge over the monitor and the gate slid open.

I put my tablet and headgear in my pack and threw it over my shoulders as Roman pulled in front of the hotel.

The man in front opened the door for me and I walked inside. The lobby was filled with autumn colors and sweet smelling things. I spotted the elevator and started. Before I reached the button a man stopped me and pulled me aside.

"Room access is for guests and staff only." he said.

I pulled out Roman’s badge and waved it importantly. "I’m going to the roof on official business."

He gave a short nod. "Sorry, ma’am, sorry."

I stepped around him and pushed the button. A second later a bell rang and the doors opened. I waited for the people to walk out before going inside. Soon the doors closed and I went straight to the top. I trudged to the edge and laid my pack on the ground. I pulled out my headset and paired it to the channel once more. Next I found the clickscreen. Carefully setting them on the edge in front of me, I un-muted my channel and pulled out my binoculars.

"Summers, in position," I said.

The others sounded off.

"Mitch, in position."

"Perez, in position."

"Mars, in position."

"Teeple, in position."

"Madison, in position."

I tapped one of the apps on the other tablet and the loading screen flickered. I dug through my pack, looking for the USB. After a moment I pulled it out and plugged it into the side of the keyboard. The clickscreen began flashing, loading the visual of cameras inside the casino and laying them out so I could see them all.

"Summers, do you have visual?" came Colton’s voice.

"Copy, I have visual."

The channel went silence. I watched Roman walk out of the men’s restroom, dressed in a pressed suit and white bow tie. He turned toward the camera and straightened his collar.

"Tell me," he said. "how do I look?" The movements of his mouth were delayed a few seconds.

"Hang on, it's not synced."

I hit the filter button.

"Say something," I ordered.

"Shoot or die." He pointed at the camera and winked.

"That’s better," A man in the lobby started toward the hall with the bathrooms. "look sharp, you’ve got company."

Roman turned around and nodded to the man.

"I see his car," came Perez. "just turned down the corner."

I picked up my binoculars and looked down at the street. A white Aston Vanquish with red hubcaps pulled up to the casino. Teeple opened the passenger door. The man stepped out. He was bald and had a diamond neck tattoo, but he registered as Kentwood Nebraskan.

"Target is shaved with a diamond on his neck." I told everyone.

"Got a brow ring too," added Perez as he walked through the door. "wearing a white suit, red shoes."

Teeple brought the handkerchief to his nose again. "Target is in," he whispered.

I set the binoculars down and searched the cameras for the orange name tag.

"He’s through registration," I said. "looks like he’s going for dinner before he starts gambling."

Roman pinged his location. I watched him as he walked away from the bathrooms and across the lobby.

"Identification?" said a man outside the double doors of the card room. Roman reached into his pocket and pulled out his ID. The man picked up a scanner from the stool next to him and asked, "will you be needing a bank card tonight, Sir, or did you bring your own?"

"I’ll be needing one."

The man smiled mindlessly and handed him a narrow rectangle. "You’re winnings and losses will be tracked through this, when you’ve finished your stay with us you’ll need to take this to the bank upstairs and they’ll reward you your credits, twenty percent goes to the house." He handed Roman the purple and green card. "Place your thumb on the black pad, your print will be kept for security reasons." He said as he opened the door for him. "Enjoy."

"What do you wanna play first?" Roman asked, stooping to get a glass of water so no one could see him talking.

I scanned through the feed. I only knew how to play poker, it was the only game that the both of us knew the rules. 

"See that table in the corner?" I said to Roman. "The one with the fat guy and blue haired arm candy?"

He nodded his head slightly.

"It’s fixed, same with the one directly in front of you. Go to any of the others and we’ll be fine."

Roman set his glass down and started walking. "One of these days I’m taking you to a casino."

"Why?"

"It’s a different experience, winning in person." he whispered. "I think you’d like it more than sitting behind a screen the whole time."

"We’re supposed to be watching Nebraskan," said Madison. She talked through a mouthful of spaghetti in the restaurant. "It’s kind of hard listening to you two."

"Agreed, either speak through a sub channel, or mute it Mars." ordered Colton.

Roman looked at one of the cameras and raised his eyebrow.

I pulled the down screen up on the communications tablet and selected our names. A second channel appeared with just the two of us.

Roman crossed to the other side of the room and took a glass of something sparkling from a waiter.

"Mark the date on your calendar," he whispered into the glass.

"What date?"

He took a sip and set it back on the waiters tray. "I don’t know. Just save it." He turned around and straightened his jacket. "It’s a good day to lose." he told the waiter.

I smiled. Roman sat down to a new game.

"May I see your bank cards?" asked the dealer. The seven players passed their card to him, one by one he scanned the bar code on each and handed them back. "Wonderful, how’s everyone today?"

"Feeling lucky," said the woman to Roman’s left. She was wearing a dress a few centimeters short of too revealing She tried fix the collar by pulling it higher, but it made the back lower than the stool she sat on.

"I’ve already lost a hundred and twenty diamond credits from the last game because of you," said the man behind her. He looked annoyed. "I think it’s time to take you home."

The woman scooted forward and turned toward him, showing off as much as she could without dropping the sleeves. "Aw, but baby!" she whined in a childish voice. "just this one, please? Then we can go back to the hotel, I promise." She laid a hand over her heart and batted her false lashes.

The man turned red and pulled on his collar. "Just this one,"

I let out a huff. "You’re not taking me to a high class casino."

Roman pretended to sneeze and held his handkerchief over his mouth. "What?" he whispered. "don’t want to wear the dress?"

"You can wear the dress,"

"Only if you wear the suit." He folded the cloth and stuffed it back in his pocket.

"Are you alright?" asked the woman.

Roman shook his head. "Allergies,"

"Gross," She stuck her tongue out and hugged her arms. "I can’t stand allergies, makes me break out in a sweat, I get all hot pimply and mamma has to get me tiny Tylenol."

I laughed. "She obviously never got an education."

"You’re not contagious, are you?" she asked.

"No," Roman assured her.

"Careful," I said, "I’m sure stupid is."

The woman stretched her hand out. "Luxx Brylee, two X’s, two E’s, and you are?"

"Roman Mars," he shook her hand, just for a second. "you said Brylee, you wouldn’t be the owner of Brylee Ice cream?"

Luxx let out a shriek of a laugh. "No, daddy owns the company, he just named it after me because I’m so sweet."

The last two seats were filled and the dealer passed out the cards.

"Nebraskan just ordered dessert," whispered Colton.

"He’s had like, three glasses of wine," came Madison’s voice. "met up with some girl a few minutes ago. Looks like he’s paying for her time."

I looked through the dining room feed and found Nebraskan. A woman sat close, leaning over her crossed arms on the table. Her red dress matched her nails and lipstick, her black hair spilled over her shoulders and down her collar. She whispered something to him, and he laughed. A waiter set a rectangular plate in between them, topped with a chocolate lava cake and vanilla ice cream. He picked up a spoon and fed some to her.

"I’m gonna be sick," said Madison. "shot me now."

In the card room Roman pushed three red chips to the center and wiped his nose. "What’s she look like?" he whispered.

"Remember two nights ago, when you had to deal with that old woman hitting on you all night?" I asked.

He gave a curt nod.

"Imagine her, but going on six years of an overkill diet and nine inch heels."

Roman hid is smile good, but I could see the corners of his mouth lifting with amusement. I watched his game for a moment. Luxx had a horrible hand, and her date knew it. The one on the other side of Roman had a good hand, but the one left of the dealer would get a straight if he didn’t back out.

"Guy to the left, he’s got a straight but he looks shaky. If you push him he might back out." I said.

Another round went by, then two, then three. The first raised the bet, the second called. Roman went all in.

"Oh finally!" Luxx squealed, pushing all her chips to the middle. "I couldn’t stand waiting anymore," she explained to no one in particular.

The first slammed his cards down. "I’m sorry, you lot have been a charm to play with, but I can’t afford to lose anymore."

I chuckled.

The dealer placed the last cards down and the last three players showed their hand.

Luxx excitedly pointed out Roman’s win. "That’s six hundred and forty-four credits!" she exclaimed. "Right, baby?"

Baby looked down at the floor and slowly said, "Seven hundred and eighty-nine, darling."

Roman smiled a sly smile and looked up at the camera. "It’s all thanks to my good luck charm."

The dealer held his hand out and Roman gave him the bank card. After a moment of scanning, he gave it back.

"There you are, Sir. Would you like to play again?" he asked.

"Nebraskan's moving." Madison whispered urgently.

Roman stood. "No, thanks."

He walked quickly to the end of the room. "Val, take us off the sub channel."

"Working on it." I hit the next slide of options and dragged our names back to the main channel.

"Passing through the lobby," said Teeple.

"Following," came Madison.

I watched her dot moved from the dining room to the lobby. She stopped a few feet away from him, just out of hearing reach.

"He’s brought his own private bank," she reported.

"No wonder he’s been able to rack up so much, those things don’t process for at least a week." Teeple commented.

Colton’s dot moved from the kitchens to the back door of the card room. Through the camera I watched him put on a security coat and check the pistol inside.

Roman slowed down as Nebraskan entered the room. He stopped at the bar, flashing an orange badge at the bartender to get his drink. Roman followed him to the bar and sat two seats away. Madison entered and went to the waiter in the corner.

"It looks clear," I said. "soon as Colton-"

"We’ve got company." Perez interrupted.

I grabbed my binoculars "Where?"

"West, just turned. Plate looks like Emeraude’s men."

Three black cars speed towards the casino, the Emeraude symbol painted over the plate number.

"Think they’re here for the same guy?" asked Teeple.

Colton cocked his pistol. "He’s wanted across Dorchester. They’re here for him."

"Fifty feet away, if you’re gonna grab him do it now." I told them.

Perez started her car. "I’ll meet them around back."

The cars stopped in the middle of the road and six guys jumped out.

"Get him." ordered Colton.

Two guys walked quickly toward the hotel, carrying large duffel bags and wearing red goggles. One pointed to the roof, it took me a second to realize they were looking at me. I dropped to the ground.

"They’ve seen me," I said, shutting the clickscreen and stuffing it in my pack. I shoved the binoculars inside and reached for the other tablet. Through my headset something broke and I could hear them struggling to get Nebraskan to follow them.

I stuffed the screen inside and I looked around. I couldn’t take the stairs or the elevator, most likely Emeraude’s men split and was on their way up.

I scanned the edge. Near the back of the building was the overhang of the store next to it. I threw my pack over my shoulder and ran to it, using my momentum to grab the edge and swing myself over. I sprinted to the stairs as the elevator door ringed behind me.

"He’s over here!" one of them shouted.

I opened the door to the stairs and hurried down. The first room it opened out to was a classy restaurant called the Winter Table. Several stations were laid out where robots cooked your food and served it on ice blocks. I ran to other side of the room, near the glass wall to the second flight of stairs.

"They’re following me." I said.

Roman cursed. It sounded like he got punched. "Can you handle it?" followed his voice.

"I think so,"

"Yes," said Colton.

"What?" I asked, confused.

No one answered, I didn’t have time to ask again. I descended the third flight and thought about taking the elevator, but I couldn’t risk running into anyone else. I stopped as I reached the fourth flight. If they were smart they’d have one guy running down, the first one I could hear, and the second take the elevator down to the first floor and start up. I swore under my breath, I should have taken the elevator. I went down the last steps and threw the door open. The large boutique was decorated in purple and gold tapestries. Glittering black dust covered the floor.

"What floor are you on?" came Roman’s voice.

I looked back to the gold painted door. "Six."

"Snu’s?"

I hurried inside and looked for a brand.

"No, Madeon’s."

"Stay there, I’m coming up."

"They’ll find me," I told him, ducking between a rack of dresses.

I hefted my bag and peeked over at the door, no sign of them yet.

"Miss?"

I jumped at the squeaky voice. A short woman peered up at me over half moon glasses and heavy lids.

"Can I ‘elp you?"

She sounded foreign, and wore a blank pencil skirt with a white blouse and golden cufflinks. Her heels looked new but she wore them comfortably. Her hair was slicked into a tight bun. Long threader earrings dangled below her shoulders. The name Olivia was written in boxy letters on the gold name tag. She eyed my outfit, then my pack.

She smiled. "As long as you try someding on you can ‘ide ‘ere as long as you want."

She handed me a dress and pointed to the round building near the corner. Footsteps echoed in the stairwell as I hurried the dressing rooms. I sat down on the bench, throwing my pack and the dress on the ground as the golden door hit the side of the wall.

"He’s inside," I whispered.

"I’m almost there." said Roman.

The piano music stopped and I held my breath, one of the assistants asked the man how she could help him. The first note of the new song played and I exhaled.

Suddenly the curtain parted. Olivia towered over me in my hunched position.

"Rules, are rules." she whispered. "if you want to ‘ide, try dem on. Oder wise I’d ‘ave to kick you out."

I picked up the first dress and stood. "Okay, okay."

She slid the curtain back.

"They’re forcing me to try on clothes." I complained.

I set my headset on the bench and stripped. I held up the dress. It was black with a knee high slit and made up lace sleeves. Mother would scold me for trying it on. Such a thing was meant to be worn by all those girls in the casino, looking to make a living by robbing the young rich men of the city of all that is holy. 

"Out of the way!" a man yelled. 

A heavy footsteps met up with the one in the back. "He stopped here." said the first. 

"Well he didn't take the elevator..."

"So he's still here." 

I fastened the last hook and threw my headset on. 

"They know I'm here." I whispered as quietly as I could. 

Roman didn't answer. I 

 

 

***

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