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Chapter 18

“Beer Between Conquerors”

That Evening

The Frozen Food Warehouse

He looked through the window at the man who had been savagely beaten both mentally and physically over the past few hours; never changing his story; never breaking from the emotional teetering back and forth between annoyance and terrified exhaustion. Alex knew decision-making under the duress of emotion was, without fail, overwhelmingly imperfect. Staring at the poor man no longer handcuffed to the chair, but shackled to the floor, he questioned any decision that could have been made differently. How can one accurately weigh facts, when the threat of being vaporized in a matter of seconds was sitting just a few feet away, eating a pizza bagel.

Richard looked like a hollowed shell, a husk that spit upon the ground whenever his metallic saliva filled with too much blood to disregard. It was time to talk to him man-to-man, face-to-face, and conquering-war-figurehead to conquering-war-figurehead.

Alex walked into the room, heaving the floor-to-ceiling thick metal door as far open as it would go, offering their prisoner a cooling realization that there was still a world out there. He sat down on a stool within breathing distance of Richard and took a fast-food burger from the sack he brought in with him. There was a six-pack of cheap Mexican beers on the ground, dripping with condensation that was drawing Richard’s eyes to the floor. His mouth was slightly agape and his breathing deep and wanting. Alex reached down and handed his prisoner a beer.

“Thank you,” mumbled Richard in a deflated tone before taking a lingering swig and placing the ice-cold beverage onto a cut on his temple. “That burger for me?”

“It is,” Alex smiled and unwrapped the ambrosia he purchased down the road for $1.99 before choosing to add bacon for thirty-nine cents more. He took a breath and began. “We need to talk about—”

Richard held up his index finger to silence the jailer as he ripped off massive chunks of the burger to shovel into his mouth. “Just let me enjoy this for a minute without hating you,” he said in the gargled tenor of a mouth filled with half of a burger.

Alex sat in silence, nursing a newly opened beer and daydreaming in the bubbles racing to the top of the bottle. Moments of eerie silence passed in the backroom of the frozen food warehouse. Once upon a time, things were stored there; things that were not reincarnations of crusading Brits.

“My boyfriend must have called every police department from Des Moines to damn Florida by now. I always check in when I’m on business trips.” He whispered, brushing his hands and washing down the remaining mustard with a hasty sip of beer. “I need to call him soon.”

“I understand.”

Richard raised an eyebrow. “You understand like, ‘hey, here’s your phone, go ahead and call up that six-foot tall glass of frosty awesome,’ or ‘I understand that you just constructed words in a sentence’?”

“The latter.”

“That’s cold, bro.”

Alex leaned in. “I’m sorry—for what it’s worth.”

He was greeted with uproarious laughter from a bludgeoned man using a Corona to lessen his numerous points of swelling. “Oh, is that the apology for putting a gun to my forehead?”

“Yes.”

“Please don’t be alarmed when I refrain from leaping out of this chair to comfort you.”

Alexander grimaced. “So why the hard-ass routine?”

“You guys think I’m a serial killer.”

“We left the possibility open, yeah.”

“Ergo, hard-ass routine.” He stopped himself. “You know the thing is, Alex, you and I are more alike than anyone else in your whole outfit. Tables flipped, should I have met Eliot first, and he sent the Freedom Train to go all Guantanamo on your face—this would be the exact same conversation, just flowing in the opposite direction.” Richard pounded the rest of the beer and motioned for a second.

Alex acquiesced and popped open a second bottle for his prisoner. There was a nod of appreciation but little more from across the table. He wondered if the conversation would eventually go anywhere.

“So, what happened with Genghis?”

Alex stopped wondering if the conversation would eventually go anywhere. “He’s dead.”

Richard set his unused napkin aside and returned his attention to Alex. “Well, I know he’s dead. A Mongolian gets his head blown off in a Taco Rita—”

“It was a Taco Baron.”

“Are you sure?”

Alex smiled. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure,” he parlayed through a smug grin.

“I’m just saying: a gunned-down Mongolian on Sunset Boulevard doesn’t exactly go unnoticed in Los Angeles. It was all over the news for a week. What the hell happened in there?”

He paused as Richard spoke, carefully considering the events of that evening for the first time since his girlfriend had revealed herself somewhat of a wildcard in this conflict. “My ex-girlfriend, who I did not know was a returner until that night, put a bullet in his head before I could extract exactly which team he was playing for.”

Richard raised an eyebrow. “Did she save your life?”

“No.” A pause filled the room with its pregnancy. “I saved hers.”

“So which side was Genghis on?”

Alex grabbed another beer and popped the top, nursing the Latin brew as he pondered the question. “He came in to kill Chloe—I’m sorry, Joan of Arc. He came in to kill Joan. We fought for a few minutes and I had him talking, and then he was gone.”

“When I was King,” Richard started with a cold indifference, like the title held no weight or value, “if I was settling a dispute between two people whose allegiances were questionable at best, I’d cut them away like a cancer and wait. I would never mention or act on it; I would just ignore the people and see how they reacted. The one who was earnestly loyal to the kingdom wouldn’t notice anything was wrong and would continue going about business as usual. The one who was guilty would notice immediately and spend all their waking energy talking into the ears of my advisors and trying to manipulate the situation.”

Alex leaned across the table. “We’ll never know what Genghis was up to because he’s dead.”

“But the other is still alive. Would you say that your ex-girlfriend Chloe has been taking time to talk into your ear, and the ears of those around you?”

He didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

Richard smiled and slid a second empty bottle across the table.

“I don’t think you’re the killer,” Alex said abruptly.

“That works out, because I don’t think I am either.”

“But they do,” Alex spoke in a grave manner. “They forget so many things. Since Paul and Marie were attacked, everyone has been focused on this idea of a serial killer trying to pick us off one by one.”

“Isn’t that happening?” Richard asked with a puzzled look on his face.

“Yes.” Alex stood up from the table. “How quickly they forget that Eliot and myself were attacked by ten men, ten of the same man, in an LA county lock up. That Harriet was followed and almost murdered at a gas station. There are more than two sides in play here and I want to get behind the curtain.”

“Do you believe?” Richard asked softly.

“Do I believe in what?”

“Do you believe that we all came back for a reason?”

Alex slid the second half of his beer over to Richard. “From a high-level perspective, I think there’s an odd specificity to the people that returned. It seems too purposeful to be random.”

“A mature perspective.”

“Having said that,” Alex walked to the corner of the table, “with so many of us already dead, I’m having trouble defining that purpose.”

“And if we’re weighing two sides of the coin like that, then—Oh, I see where you were going with that. It doesn’t matter what we think, does it?”

Alex smiled at his prisoner. “Nope.”

Richard set his hands flat across the table. “It doesn’t matter what we believe if the people trying to kill us believe we all came back for a reason. Does that scare you?”

“That terrifies me.” Alex walked to the door, but turned back before crossing the threshold back into the warehouse. “We’re at war and we need all the soldiers we can muster. When the time comes, I want you in our corner because you’re up against the same danger we are.”

“Thank you for believing me.”

Alex lowered his head, not wanting to make eye contact. “Richard, if I catch the first hint that you might be working against us, I’ll put a bullet through your skull.”

“Understood, Alexander.”

“I’m not going to leave the room or give you any privacy whatsoever, but I understand you have issues outside of what is happening here. Make no mention of being held against your will or who you really are. Buy yourself some time.” Alex slid his cell phone across the metal table and into Richard’s hands.

“Call your boyfriend.”

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