‘You know I never wanted to be one of you monsters. Never! But you guys never gave me a choice!’
‘When is Vern going to stop whining about it?’
‘Excuse me for expressing my distaste for my conscription.’
‘Why don't you get a cup of coffee and calm your ass down.’
‘I am calm!’
I chuckled to myself as I eavesdrop unintentionally on the same conversation for the thousandth time. The organisation was as lively as always. Bickering early in the morning, people with bed hair lounging around on the white velvet sofas, some getting coffee with their eyes partially closed, just another lovely morning at Pokepie Corporation. Don't ask me, or anyone here for that matter, about how we got that name. The organisation existed long before any of us joined and whoever came up with it must either have an obsession with Pokemon and pies or thought that a cute name would make us seem harmless, less suspicious. I can't argue with the latter, but if it's the former, I need to have a word or two with the director about names, if he was still alive.
The aroma of coffee and the scent of air fresheners wafted into my nostrils as I plopped down lazily beside Vern. Clad in an overcoat, he was covered in black from head to toe; perhaps to hide his gigantic frame, or his modified body parts. He turned to face me. I still can't get used to his bionic eye. It's creepy.
‘Good morning to you Vern. As cranky as ever I see.’
‘Morning Azir and don't you get me started.’
I laughed and pretended to nod sympathetically, which only sent him into another tirade about discrimination at the workplace. Honestly, I do feel sympathetic towards Vern. Empathetic actually. He had a job, a family, a normal life. And we took that away from him. ‘Freaks of Nature' sounds like an appropriate label for us, though I prefer to think of us as the next step in evolution. Vern used to work in one of our labs as a researcher until one of our guys blew him up and the only way to save his life was to substitute his organs with technology. Technology that can completely take over the functions of organs was unheard of and has never worked despite countless tests and simulations. Vern's survival was a beautiful miracle, but when his wife saw him after the operation, she broke down. Can you imagine the one you love most in the world, pointing a horrified finger at you and calling you a monster as if they don’t recognize you? Neither can I. She kept the children away from him and told them that their father was dead. That was honestly the most revolting scene I have ever seen and coming from me, that's saying something. I have no idea how he coped, but he did. And now he was one of us ‘enhanced humans', but of a different kind.
Does physical ugliness really make one a monster? It's all a matter of perspective. I pondered this as I sipped my daily morning English breakfast tea from a Chinese teacup. The boss' sudden arrival interrupted my train of thought. I took a quick glance at the giant clock that took up most of the office's side wall. (The boss really emphasizes on time management above all else.) The hands indicated that it was 7.16 am, which means the boss wasn't due to arrive for another 29 minutes. This could only mean two things.
- Something really bad has happened and he wants to call an emergency meeting. Usually involves someone dying or close to death, like Vern's case.
- He went to Sherry's for breakfast. She sells absolutely amazing crepes that are always sold out before 7.15 am every morning. The boss is a crepe addict, but he rarely eats that for breakfast.
I prayed to God it was the latter. I surveyed around the room and saw looks of anxiety and confusion similar to mine, especially among the executives like myself. When the boss was in a bad mood, us executives always get the brunt of the assault. The tall lanky figure in a blue and silver Armani suit swiftly made his way to the executive's lounge in large, purposeful strides, passing the work desks of the other employees without batting an eyelid or greeting. The sound of his leather shoes deafening against the black leather tiles. The executive's lounge was located on the center of the top floor, encased in glass and surrounded by work desks of employees. I suppose it was designed to be easily accessible in case of emergencies and to inspire others by allowing them to watch the executives at work. We gritted our teeth in anticipation and horror as the glass door slid open without a sound. The boss moved like a panther poised to strike, silent but with an air of deadliness. All eyes were on him, yet none of them daring to make eye contact. There was an uncomfortable silence as the boss took his usual armchair towards the front of the lounge. We exchanged wordless conversations and deduced that something terrible must have happened, based on his behavior. After two minutes of uncomfortable silence, the boss finally opened his mouth, his voice firm and deep.
‘Executives. Today I have important news that requires everyone's attention.’
He reached into a paper bag that most of us have failed to notice when he walked in. For the first time since I joined Pokepie, the boss looks unsure. Could it be nervousness? Anxiety? What was this news that could unnerve even the boss?
‘I have received instructions. My wife ordered me to bring crepes for all of you, even though I do not understand the reasoning behind such an action. It is supposed to ‘further our relationship in the office’. Please consume them before we begin our morning meeting.’
Raindrops splashed against the pavement. The little crevices between the rocks caused little puddles to form. You come home from a bad day at work, just broken up with your girlfriend or just trying to have a friendly chat with a stranger next to you at a bus stop; rain can be noisy and frustrating. Reading a book in a cozy armchair, listening to Adele or just falling asleep on your bed, rain can be very comforting and calming. It's all a matter of perspective. Lightning flashed across the night sky with thunder booming in the background. I was supposed to be scared, but I wasn't. In fact, I was thrilled by the organized chaos brought by rain. Dad had said that bad guys always appear on dark rainy nights, but I paid no heed to his warning. I always came out to play whenever it rained, day or night. I found rain fascinating. The way millions of water droplets seem to materialize out of nowhere and cover the sky captivated me every time. Mum would always fuss over how I came home dripping like a wet turkey and how the back alley was dangerous. That didn’t stop me from sneaking out of the back door as usual, only to be greeted by an unusual scene. A dark figure was leaning against the brick wall. In the dark, I could only make out a grey hoodie and dark blue jeans. Why was he out in the rain? I looked on with curiosity and descended the small flight of stairs slowly as he noticed my presence.
He limped towards me hastily. His face was shrouded by the hoodie, but another flash of lightning revealed a desperate curl on his lips and a long scar that stretches across his cheek to his jawline. Unsure of what to do, I screamed for mum. He immediately broke into a run and brandished a small knife. I started crying and clambered back towards the door. I willed my legs to run but my knees went weak instead. My fingers touched the doorknob. It felt cold. It was too late. Cold hard steel sliced through my flesh as if I was made up of water, just like the rain. Pain shot through my lower right back and I lost all ability to think. I collapsed head first onto the concrete floor; I screamed and cried my lungs out desperately. Help me, please! I could feel the knife sliding out of me. The puddles of water were now of my blood. Excruciating pain gripped me as I barely remained conscious. I gasped for air as I tried to steady myself on my knees. Every little raindrop falling on me felt like a mini impact bullet. I saw the man running past me from the corner of my eye and with my last shred of willpower, I grabbed his jeans inches away from my face. Protecting mum and dad was the last coherent thought my brain could churn out. I squeezed my eyes shut and clenched my fists as tightly as I could. I had to protect them. I felt the man fall over, followed by a loud splash. The last thing I remembered before I lost consciousness was mum screaming, ‘Monster!’
I sat up in my bed, perspiring profusely despite the air conditioner being set to 20 degrees Celsius. I raised a hand to cover my face while propping myself up on the other, breathing heavily. To be plagued by the same dream for over 9 years, how pathetic. I steadied my breathing and looked at the glowing clock hanging on the wall. 3.25 am. Three hours and ten minutes before I have to get ready for work. I sighed, crashed backwards onto my pillow and studied the ceiling. In the darkness, I could barely make out the shape of the light bulbs. Just a dream.
I woke up to the sound of my alarm clock ringing loudly by my bed, face still buried in my pillow. I intentionally bought one with the most annoying ringtone to ensure that I will not sleep through it. It sounds like somewhere in between a horse’s neigh and a bird’s chirp. I turn my head sideways groggily to face my alarm clock and slam my palm on the off switch before letting out a groan. It is a Friday. Less than a day to the weekends. When you've worked for five days straight in a suffocating, cramped and depressing office, two days of fresh air sounds very inviting. I perform my usual routine of lumbering into my toilet like a bear in a china shop and brush my teeth, shower and put on a decent set of suit and tie. 6.51 am. I assess myself one last time in front of the full body length mirror on the adjacent wall to the door. My hair is still visibly wet from the shower. I have black hair that miraculously turns brown in the presence of sunlight and has the uncanny ability to turn out either really neat or really disheveled, depending on its mood. Its stubborn nature makes it almost impossible to style without some heavy duty hair gel. It isn't exactly neat today but sweeping my fringe to the left such that it doesn't cover my left eye should make me presentable enough. Gel is only reserved for special occasions. Satisfied with my appearance, I step out of my little studio apartment and hummed the tune of ‘Photograph'. That song has been playing on repeat on my mental music player recently.
It was still relatively early in the morning for Stockholm. Traffic was smooth and in my Ferrari California T, I made it to the office in just under ten minutes, perks of owning a monster car. To be fair, Residence Perseus is located right in the center of Stockholm City Centre, which means I can get to anywhere I will ever need to go in thirty five minutes tops. I usually take the Rolls Royce Phantom to go to work since there's hardly any opportunity to exceed 90 km/h in the city unless I go for a spin at an unearthly hour. It was gathering dust in the multistory carpark so I decided to let it exercise once in a while. I pull over in an outdoor parking lot that has ‘EXECUTIVES ONLY' painted over it in yellow and make my way into the main building. Pokepie Corporation's business tower is designed after the double helix in our DNA, an architectural marvel. From a distance, it looks like a tower of pancake shaped glass boxes held together delicately by two massive slabs of twisted, stainless steel that make up the backbone of the building. 35 percent of it is made of glass, quite a huge portion even among the fanciest structures in the country, or in the world for that matter. It stands out so much amidst the cobblestone streets and ochre-coloured buildings that it has become one of the tourist attractions in Stockholm, which would be quite contradictory to the aim of lying low. Perhaps the idea is to divert attention away from our covert operations with a flashy front. Building up a strong corporate image so that no one will ever suspect our involvement in the other world - a simple misdirection technique often used by magicians.
The familiar revolving door made of, you guessed it, glass, welcomes five thousand employees every day. The sound of black leather shoes and heels against the marble floor greeted me as I pass through the door, into the incessant, unintelligible chatter of a million voices. I recognize a few and briefly greeted them as I make my way towards the elevator.
‘Hey Barry, how's it going?’
‘Ivy! You're back at work already? How is it like being a mother? Glad to have you back.’
‘Hansel, looking good as always. Like your hair.’
I flash a smile at the receptionist before entering the elevator. She nodded and smiled in acknowledgement. We call her Princess Thiara because princesses wear tiaras. Her full name is Thiara Akterhall. She's been in the company for as long as I can remember despite being only twenty-seven this year. Rumour has it that she once dated the founder and with a supermodel figure like hers, it's no surprise that even the founder cannot resist her charms. I mean she is the very definition of an hourglass body, not to mention her perfect facial features. She has a sharp nose, angular cheekbones and a defined jawline. Her luscious lips, if she chooses to play with it, could make any man grovel at his at her feet for just a taste. Above all, her muted soft green eyes with uneven shades of black that reminds me of the most beautiful of jades can instantly captivate anyone that unwittingly stares too long into it. Add in wavy dark brown sugar coloured hair that falls across her shoulders, partially hiding her elegant collarbones as a finishing touch, it's easy to mistake her for a Greek goddess. As someone who has worked here for two years, I am just immune enough to keep myself from staring. The new guys who're seeing her for the first time are always fun to watch as they trip and stumble on their way to the elevator.
I punch the highest floor – 45. Blue light illuminated the number. I waited as a few more people in business suits and dresses enter and hit the floors they want to go to. The elevator would be the only flaw in the structure of the building. It looks like several glass tubes with droplets of water moving around in them, right in the center of the helixes. Then again, it's a matter of perspectives. Some are of the opinion that the elevators add a unique touch to the building. A familiar face enters the elevator on the 25th floor. I sigh and shake my head in disapproval as Jerry walks in, clad in nothing but a bathrobe, nodding his head to the music blasting from his Beats headphones. He hung the mini purple boombox on his neck when he spotted me rolling my eyes at him from the back of the elevator.
‘Azir, amigo. Why the long face this early in the morning?’ He spoke to me in a thick Spanish accent. Words beginning with th- sounds are pronounced more like z-. Experience has told me that no matter how much I lecture him about proper office manners and etiquette, nothing ever gets through that thick skull of his.
‘Put on some clothes. Morning meeting is about to begin soon.’ Believe me, this is as polite as I can get with this guy. He slings an arm around my shoulders and I sigh as he started to drone on about the importance of relaxing once in a while, in that self-proclaimed ‘sexy' voice of his. Jerry was shorter than me by quite a margin, but his grip was firm. If he was Japanese instead of Spanish, he would make the perfect yakuza boss with that shaved head and muscular build of his. He hits the gym at least four times a week, giving birth to a body that's more intimidating than aesthetically pleasing. As soon as the elevators slide open slowly on the 45th floor, I free myself from his friendly grip and trod towards the executive's lounge. The hour hand of the gargantuan clock on the glass wall pointed a little away from 7. 7.14 am, perfect for a little pre-meeting tea and idle conversation. With Vern, Jerry, Phil, who had the pleasure of filling up the last spot furthest away from the screen, and me, seven out of the nine executives are assembled around the long rectangular table. Out of the executives, the only real friends that I made were Vern, Phil and Ling Xiao. Jerry is obviously an airhead and the rest are all a little peculiar in their own ways. Phil, Vern and I share an unshakeable bond ever since Phil and I were tasked with escorting him to break the news of his accident to his family. The three of us hit a bar for a drink after the confrontation. Vern cried, Phil cried, we all cried. Though unspoken, that experience was an invisible thread that ties us together, a secret that we share, one we would carry with us to our graves.
Ling Xiao is the newest member of the executives, joining Pokepie Corporation only a year ago. We showed her around and invited her for lunch at Outback Steakhouse. Looking back at it now, none of us knew the nuances of how to treat a girl. Vern who had been married for five years was no exception. Ling Xiao hated steak with a passion, but just giggled and took it in stride. We love her for that. I'm twenty-four, Phil is thirty and Vern is thirty-five. A twenty-two-year-old girl hanging out with a group of whiny, boring old men would definitely seem out of place, but she isn't uncomfortable with it. In fact, she’s always the one to lighten the mood for us whenever we are all depressed about life like whiny, boring old men.
The boss trooped in together with several assistants, carrying large stacks of files. The only one unfazed by this was Jerry, still twirling his pen around his fingers with a smug smile plastered on his face. Huge stacks of papers are never a good sign. Usually, the boss would just casually step into the executive's lounge and drone about not using our powers carelessly or something regarding the company's next move, often met with uninterested nods. Then we are dismissed. His iconic coloured suits are replaced with a dull black one today. He took a seat and when he took off his shades, he looked like he aged ten years overnight. There are wrinkles of fatigue on his forehead; his mouth slipped down at the corners, his hair uncharacteristically slightly out of place. It's still neater than mine, but it was always perfectly combed to the back. He orders the assistants to leave the stacks of papers on the table and dismisses them with a weary smile. Clearing his throat to get our attention, the morning meeting begins.
‘Executives. Today I have important news that requires everyone's attention.’ He divides the files into ten stacks and passes them around the table. He gives us a moment to look through the files and I immediately understood. I wince at the grotesque images and closed the files after briefly browsing through the first ten pages. I bury my face in my right palm and took a moment to compose myself before observing the others. Everyone looks horrified to different degrees, except Alden, the oldest member of the executives. He flipped through the files with an indifferent look on his face as his eyes, set dreadfully within their sockets, perused the files as if they were shopping catalogues. Occasionally, he would run his hand through his silver crown. Nobody would be surprised if Alden turned out to be an ex-military commando. A long scar stretching from his right ear lobe across his wrinkled cheek and down to his jawline often fuels rumours about his alleged violent past. A dragon tattoo ran down the back of his neck, probably spread out across his muscly back. He must have gone through serious training to still be the fittest among us while looking like he should be sitting in a retirement home and playing board games. I eye him with distaste. I understand that he is a veteran and all but he could at least show some sympathy when his colleagues are murdered in cold blood. The boss clears his throat again, signaling everyone to put down the files and demanding our attention.
‘As all of you have seen, we have a serial killer on the loose. The ones he, she or they are targeting, are us.’ Hearing it directly from the boss' mouth makes the threat seem more real and imminent than it had been just seconds ago. There were a few things I gathered from the files. The American twins, Rachne and Rona, were brutally murdered in ways we have never seen before. Rachne's body was found hanging from a protruding horizontal pole by her shirt, five stories high, at an alleyway. Her sister was buried in a deserted part of Brunnsviken Park, with only her head aboveground. Both spots were fairly secluded and difficult to find so it’s safe to assume that they are only concerned with us, which means that personal revenge is quite a likely possibility. Our company can be unscrupulous sometimes to achieve our objectives. The next thing was, we don't know if Rachne and Rona were together when they were murdered but even assuming that they were separated, the killer must have had tremendous strength to overpower them. Furthermore, judging from their matching clothes, the twins were probably together. There aren't many in the world who can contest the twins in battle when they're together. In fact, they can be counted with the fingers on one hand. That could mean two things. Either they were ambushed by a large group with weapons, or the killer is an enhanced human very adept at using his or her powers. Their clothes and bodies were relatively clean with almost no signs of battle or resistance. There is one possibility that I hate to consider. Either they were taken out without even seeing the attack coming, or they could be betrayed by someone they trusted, possibly someone among us. The hole through their heart is the least useful clue. Anything could have made a hole like that. Lastly, the fact that the boss actually told everyone at the table could mean two things. He trusted every one of the executives and had never considered the possibility of a traitor in our midst. I highly doubt it; the boss always practices more caution than anyone else, which brings me to the next possibility. He had investigated himself and found nothing. He had no choice but to ask from help from the executives, even if it meant alerting the possible traitor. Though every one of us is eccentric in our own rights, we are known to be very resourceful.
‘Azir, you look like you have something to share.’
I look up at the boss, suddenly aware that I had been staring into space for the past five minutes. I smiled. I couldn't trust everyone yet.
‘Oh, nothing boss. I was just at a loss for words there. It was just too much of a shock for a Friday morning.’
The boss nodded thoughtfully.
‘Indeed. That is all on the agenda today. I know it's a lot to take in and I ask you all not to be complacent and take the necessary measures to ensure your own safety. I want to make it clear that catching the perpetrator of this heinous crime must be a priority for everyone at this table right now. I ask that every one of you remain vigilant and use all of your available resources to hunt down this fiend. Dismissed.’
With a dull thud on the long wooden table, the boss hoisted himself up on one hand, quickly picked up his files and left through the glass door. As the door slid back automatically, the murmuring started. Anxiety, fear, excitement and arrogance filled the air. Of the six, four of us are noticeably talking in worried tones while Jerry and Alden seem relaxed. Jerry is probably an idiot who doesn't realize the gravity of the situation. Alden is experienced and powerful enough to hold his own against the killer I assume. I am quite confident in my defensive capabilities as well. Phil is visibly more distressed than the rest, as he should be. He is the weakest one amongst us with the least mastery over his abilities. The noise was slowly increasing in decibels and giving me a headache. I have a lot to think about.