The leathery smell and heavy scent of wood pricked her nose. Birds chirped as Eden pried her eyes open with a soft moan. She became woozy as she lifted her head from the red leather ottoman. A cuff latched around her wrists, causing her to use up more strength than she liked to sit up and register where she was.
She was in the living room of a cabin. All she could see through the two mucky windows on each side of the living room were trees and low bushes. The cabin was small; couldn’t have had more than two rooms, judging from the size of the living room and kitchen. The planked wall was decorated with dead stuffed animals; boars, antelope, raccoon, deer and meerkat. Her eyes fell on a stuffed monkey placed over the sooty fireplace, staring right into her eyes as though it was still alive. Her mouth parted at once for a surprised gasp before she exhaled deeply.
She heard approaching footsteps from the kitchen back door and whipped her head in that direction. Fred entered, wearing a plaid T-shirt and black jeans. His eyes landed on her the second he was through the door. “You are awake,” he sounded fairly surprised.
She eyed him as he washed his hands in the kitchen sink. He almost looked normal. “Where am I?”
“My house. My childhood house at least,” he replied, pouring hot water into a mug.
“Your parents lived here?” She swept the cabin with her gaze.
“Parent?” he scoffed. “No, not them.”
Was he adopted? She wondered. Whatever. She wasn’t in the mood to dive into what he meant by that. “Why are we here?”
“You compromised where we were.” He tore a sachet of instant coffee with his teeth and poured its content into the mug. “I had to bring you here.” He stirred a teaspoon inside the mug.
She groaned as she shifted in her seat. Her shoulders ached from being cuffed behind for too long. “Why?”
Fred came to her with a steaming mug of instant coffee. “I will take off the cuffs if you promise not to make me put them back on.” He spoke to her as he would speak to a child. “Promise?”
Anything to get the cuff off and get blood flow in her arm. “Pinky promise,” she feigned a grin.
He unlocked the cuff and gave her a minute to flex her wrists and arms before offering her the mug. She peeked inside the pool of brown coffee and threw him a suspicious look.
“You had a long night,” he said. “You should eat breakfast. Don’t worry, it’s not poisoned.” He inched the mug closer, urging her to take it. She warily took it and Fred strolled back to the kitchen table. He lifted the lid of a plate Eden had not noticed and gestured to it, “Breakfast?”
Really? She narrowed her eyes. ‘Play nice, Eden. He has psychopathic feelings for you. You can use that,’ she heard her mind tell her. She went to the table and sat as he pulled a chair for her. She picked a fork and cagily poked it around her pancakes.
“Eat. I don’t plan to kill you,” he cut out his pancake and stabbed it with his fork, “yet.” The fork went into his mouth and came out empty.
“Yet?” she asked hesitantly. “That plan might change?”
“Only if you disappoint me again,” he smiled and devoured his food.
After the quiet and tense meal, Eden went to the window to get a good view of where she was. Fred was quick to escort her back to a woven seat in the living room. He crouched in front of her and brought his face closer to her, staring into her eyes. Eden found the act very uncomfortable.
“What are you doing?” She cocked her head and tilted her back, which made Fred lean in more.
“You have no idea how long I have waited to look into those eyes,” he brushed his thumb on her cheek, but Eden looked away with a disgusted groan. He dropped his hand with a sigh and dragged a single-seat ottoman in front of her.
He sat and propped his hands on his knees, interlocking them. “I guess Two wouldn’t get that kind of reaction,” he said.
“What does Oliver have to do with this?”
“Everything!” He tossed his hands. “It all started with him, because of him.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh, that’s right, you don’t remember,” he scoffed. “Let me remind you. Where should I start from?” he stroked his chin. “Uhm, okay,” he flicked his right index finger, “I know. I will start from the beginning.”
“Please do.” Eden leaned back in the chair and crossed her ankles. Oliver wouldn’t tell her the whole story anyway. She was ready to get answers in any way she could.
“You were eight when Master brought you—
“Hold on. Who is the master?”
He smouldered an exasperating grunt. “The man that took us,” he waved.
“Black? You call Black Master?” she huffed. “Why?”
“Because he is the Master and I am the Scholar.”
She peered at him with a facial expression that loudly said, “You need serious help.”
“But I think I like Black better,” he said into the air. “Since that is what you call him. I will call him Black, for you.”
She chuckled sparingly, “Thank you.” Then she muttered aside, “Somebody save me.”
“You were the youngest of us. He dragged you in as you cried for your daddy and mommy. He tossed you inside the cage with the rest of us. You wouldn’t stop crying. We all cried that way for the first few hours so none of us said anything. You should get it out of your system,” he chuckled. “But your tears kept flowing, endlessly, for hours. Black came back and yelled at you to stop. That only made it worse. You screamed your lungs out and cried so much the rest of us had to cover our ears. Hell, you had a loud voice,” he dragged a hand through his hair. “I knew the next time Black came, he would come with a whip. I had to get you to stop crying. Then I remembered a beef jerky I’d kept in my pocket three days earlier and gave you.” Fred sighed, “Ah, you finally stopped crying. You asked what my name was and I told you One. ‘One is not a name, it’s a number,’ you said. Then you asked for Two’s name and he said Two. You asked all of us and we answered with the name Black gave us, the numbers. ‘No, your real name,’ you stressed. ‘What is your real name?’ you asked us. It took us a while but Two answered first. ‘My name is Oliver Hastings,’ he said. You went to the wall, told him to spell his name and you scribbled it on the wall. You did the same for all of us and told us your name is E.J. You would always say, ‘My daddy and my family call me E.J but because you are all my friends, I will let you call me E.J too’. Fred laughed warmly, reminiscing. “I took care of you and helped you adjust to our life there.”
Fragments of her memories kept dropping in as Fred spoke. “Right, I remember you telling me that putting a needle in the fire before sticking it under a person’s fingernails will let it hurt more.” Her cheeks twitched in disgust.
Fred wore a cheeky smile, “You remember.”
“They are coming back.”
“Oh, I better continue then,” he shifted excitedly on the seat. “The first three days, you tried to be brave as you watched Black torture a woman but on the fourth night, your sobs woke me. As usual, I came to your side and begged you to stop crying but you won’t stop. Two woke up, crawled in front of you and sat there, crying with you. He just sat there… crying with you.” His tone showed he didn’t understand why Oliver would do that. “Either that stunned you or you find that attractive,” he twitched his lips, “I wouldn’t know, but you stopped crying. That was when everything changed. You became close pals with him,” he snorted and paused.
Eden recollected that particular memory. She remembered how scared she was that night. She should cry. It was normal for tears to flow in their situation. Fred telling her not to cry didn’t make sense to her. Oliver probably understood that, which was why he joined her. She found an ally who could relate to her distress and she decided to be brave for him and stop crying.
“About two weeks later,” Fred went on, “during one of our lectures on How to Cut People into Dices 201, Black hacked the torso of a woman and the blood splattered on your face. Your tummy revolted and you threw up.”
“I wonder why,” she gruffed aside.
“Black hated that,” he chuckled. “He took off his bloody gloves and pulled his whip. Two ran to hold him, begging him not to beat you and fighting him with his tiny hands. Black kicked him away and he hit his head against an axe on the table. The axe made a deep cut across his left brow and in seconds the blood had flowed to his cheek.”
“That was how he got the scar,” Eden realised. “He got it while trying to protect me.”
“That… that pissed you off. You went nuts. You picked a lighter from the table and a bug repellent that Black uses as an accelerant to burn his victims. Without hesitation, you sprayed his face and body, ignited the lighter and tossed it on him. He went up in flames like this,” he snapped his fingers.
Eden held her hurting head as the images rushed her. The cabin was spinning and she was spinning with it.
Fred caught her mere inches from the floor. “E.J! E.J!”
She panted heavily, her nostrils widening as she tried to hold on to the fragments of her memories before they slipped away again. She regulated her breaths and eased into her blocked memories.
After Black went up in flames, his screams of agony rocked the tunnels. His head was completely engulfed in the yellow and red flame. He yanked off his burning apron and flung it on his table of torture equipment. He bawled painfully, staggering around as the other children huddled together to move away from him.
Eden watched him with an empty expression as he burned. She enjoyed every bit of his pain and even smirked a little. Was that when she became a sociopath? Or she had always been? Was that when she was triggered?
Pirouetting around haphazardly and purely by chance, Black stumbled to a drum of water at a corner of the room. The fire went out and flames sizzled out of his now bald head and charred body. He collapsed on the ground groaning and writhing painfully.
“Two!” Phoebe called Oliver, pointing to the gas cylinder. The flaming apron Black tossed on the table had engulfed it, melted the nylons draped on the wall, blackened the wall and was now headed for the gas cylinder.
Oliver glanced at Black; pain still had him worming on the floor. This was their chance to escape. “We have to go,” Oliver said to them. He rose from the floor and ran to Eden as he wiped the blood flowing from his brow. He grabbed Eden’s hand and pulled her out of the scorching room with the others.
Fred suddenly stopped and ran back inside to Black who was still twirling on the floor in excruciating pain.
“What are you doing?” Micah asked him. “Let’s go!”
“We can’t leave him,” Fred said.
“Yes, we can and we will.” Micah breathed. “He is a monster!”
Fred stood still, not moving away from Black’s side.
“We can’t carry him.” Oliver coughed as smoke filled their lungs.
“We have to try,” Fred insisted.
“He kidnapped us. Tortured people, cut them into pieces and made us do it too,” Phoebe screamed between coughs. “If you want to save him, good luck. I’m leaving,” she said to the others.
Oliver wiped another stream of blood off the side of his temple. The room was becoming unbearably hot and the gas cylinder explosion would make it worse if they stayed any longer. “Come on, Fred!” Oliver ran in and tugged his hand before he could complain. On his way out, he caught Eden’s wrist too and ran them out of the room with Phoebe and Micah ahead of them.
Before this time they had never tried to escape. They had no idea where the exit was. After hitting three dead ends, they burst into the sunlight. They squinted and covered their eyes, slowly adjusting to being out in the daylight after several weeks of being trapped in the tunnels. All they saw around them were trees and bushes.
“Which way should we go?” Phoebe asked, pacing.
“North is that way,” Eden said. “My dad said, I can always find my way home by walking north.” She ran north and without a question, the others followed her.
Dried leaves crumpled under their dainty feet as they scrambled through the woods. About a hundred metres away, Oliver’s pace dropped to a halt. “Where is Fred?” he looked around.
They turned their heads to search around.
“Fred! Fred! Fred!” they called out.
“I held his hand until we got out,” Oliver said.
“I saw him too,” Micah affirmed, wiping soot off his face. He was a chubby kid with rosy cheeks, very different from the man Eden saw a few days before he was murdered.
“You don’t think he went back for him, did you?” Phoebe asked between pants. She has always had her freckles and curly red hair.
“We have to go back for him,” Oliver said.
“The tunnel will explode any minute now,” said Micah. “I don’t know about you but I don’t want to be anywhere around when it does,” he punctuated his sentence with a wave of his hand.
“He is one of us,” Oliver reminded him
Micah groaned and stamped his feet on the ground.
Oliver faced Phoebe and Eden, “Run. Find help.”
“What about me?” Micah whined.
“You are coming with me,” he replied.
“I didn’t say I was,” he folded his arms across his chest and shook his head.
Oliver replied with a shrug.
Micah sighed frustratedly. “Fine.” He turned to Phoebe and Eden, “I want you to know, if I die, my ghost will hunt One for the rest of his life.”
“Noted,” Phoebe said and tapped his shoulder. “Be careful,” she told them.
Eden pecked Oliver’s cheek, her two missing teeth widened at him in a smile.
“Hey, where is my peck?!” Micah protested as Oliver pulled him away.
“E.J! E.J!” Fred’s voice yanked her out of her blocked memory.
Eden groaned at her throbbing head as her eyes focused on Fred. She was back at the cabin with him. She clasped hands on her forehead, breathing heavily as she spoke, “You didn’t leave with us,” she said.
Fred cocked his head. “What?”
“When the rest of us left, you went back in,” she said, beads of sweat forming on her skin.
Fred helped Eden off the floor and lowered her onto the chair.
“Why did you go back?” she inhaled deeply.
Fred ignored her to get her a cup of water. She drank the cup of water and asked her question again. “Why did you go back to the tunnels? We were free.”
“I wasn’t,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I wanted to leave,” he dragged his long hand through his orange hair. “I walked behind you guys for a while… then I… I couldn’t. I couldn’t leave him.”
“I understood later that it was Stockholm Syndrome,” he tossed his hand around in a casual gesture. “I was loyal and sympathetic to him without reason.”
“Oh, God,” Eden groaned, rubbing her head. “Oliver and Micah went back into the tunnels for you.”
Fred turned to her,” They did?”
“Yes. The explosion happened immediately after they entered the cave. The impact threw Phoebe and me back. My skull landed on a tree trunk. That was when I lost my memory.”
Fred had no idea Two and Three went back for him and his eyes danced around in that new revelation. “Two and Three didn’t get to me but I got back to Black. We made it away from the explosion, just enough to avoid turning into roasted beef. I was injured.” He raised his shirt and pushed his waist out to Eden, showing her the brown patch of a rough-edged burn scar.
“How did you get out? The cops suspected we were at Trench Valley. They were already searching the area when we escaped. The sound of the blast led them straight to us. Phoebe told me they found us immediately and she led them back to the cave.”
“We used Black’s secret exit on the other side of the tunnel. The blast must have covered our tracks so we couldn’t be followed and got to safety. I dragged him for about four kilometres until we reached a cabin.” He strolled to the window and gazed through the woods. “Actually, the scream of a young girl drew us to the cabin. The man was hitting his daughter. Black doesn’t like that.”
“That’s funny. I remember him hitting me several times,” Eden said.
“That is because you deserved it,” Fred pointed out. “You weren’t paying attention to your lessons.”
Eden opened her mouth to reply him but decided it was pointless. It was her fault for starting to think he was normal, so she simply nodded, “Ah-ah.”
“Despite his burns and the intense pain he was going through, Black bashed the man’s head with a stone until he stopped moving.”
“He murdered him?”
“He was a bully,” he said flippantly.
“So was Black,” She sprang up from the chair. “What about his daughter?”
“Oh, she was very grateful for our help. She let us stay.”
With a puzzled frown, Eden paused to look around. “Are we in the cabin right now? Are we in Trench Valley?”
“Outside Trench Valley, a few kilometres behind it. The man’s body was on the floor, right there,” he pointed to the front of the door, “for six days. He was large and too heavy for us to move. We had to wait until Black felt better so he could move his corpse,” he stalked to the door as she spoke. “We lived with the stench for days.”
“Oh,” Eden bent over and held her tummy. “You went back to save him for this?”
“I was happy with him.” he beamed. “He stopped killing after that and started farming. He sent me and the girl to school.”
“Where is the girl now?” Eden asked.
Immediately, she heard a car park outside the cabin.
Fred peeked out the window and melted into a smile. “Here she is.”
Eden’s eyes and all her attention were on the door. She was curious to see the girl who housed a serial killer and his protégé in exchange for his father’s life. The footsteps got closer and closer before the door gave way.
Eden had experienced a lot of shocking events since she met— re-met Oliver, yet nothing could have prepared her for this twist of event. She gaped at the woman that entered the cabin. “This is a familiar face in an unusual place,” she struggled to say.
“I could say the same about you,” Vass said and landed a punch on Eden’s face. Her head whipped aside and her hair flipped over her face.
“Emma!” Fred stood between them. “What the hell are you doing?!”
“Ouch,” Eden poked the cut in her inner lip with her tongue, sucking out the blood. She lifted a finger to Vass, gesturing she paused as she went to the kitchen sink to spit out the blood in her mouth. She rinsed her mouth and felt the sting in her head. She massaged her cheek, laughing as she strolled back to the living room. “You get only that punch,” she told Vass, “just one. Although, I am still going to get back to you for this one,” she poked her cheek with a finger.
Vass pushed Fred out of the way and launched another blow at Eden. She blocked it and returned the favour. Vass tripped and landed on the floor with a hard thud. She held her face, wondering if a lady threw that punch at her face or a hefty man.
“Emma!” Fred dashed to her side.
“I told you, you get just that one,” Eden said to her.
“What is wrong with you?” Fred asked Vass as he assisted her to her feet.
“What is wrong with me?” she shrugged off his hand. “What is wrong with you? Look at the mess we are in because of her.”
“What mess?” Fred gestured with both palms. “You told me about the tracker and we got out in time. Three and Four are dead, our plan is going well.”
“Sorry to be the bearer of bad news,” she faked a smile, “but Four isn’t dead.”
A muscle beneath his eyes ticked. “What?”
“She,” Vass shot a finger at Eden, “saved her and led my team to her. She is still in the intensive care unit but she will be fine.”
Fred glared at Eden who responded with a victorious sneer.
“I will take care of her,” Fred said in a guttural tone.
Vass blocked his path by jutting her forearm out. “I will take care of her. I can easily get to her.” She eyed Eden. “I don’t understand why I am doing this because of her,” she muttered angrily.
“I’m guessing you are the one who stole the knife from my apartment?” Eden said to Vass.
Vass’s body language told Eden she was right. She was a very different person from the lady she met at the precinct, the lady Detective Kress introduced as his partner. She had mastered the art of covering her lies and obvious hatred with her smiles and beauty. Vass was pissed at her and her glare was… like that of a jealous lover. Would you look at that? Eden chuckled crudely, “If you want him, you can have him,” she said to Vass. “Frankly, I am not interested.”
“Shut up,” Vass clenched her teeth.
“What are you talking about?” Fred asked Eden with a puzzled stare.
Eden shifted her glance between them. “You don’t know?” she giggled. “She likes you.”
Vass prowled towards Eden but she was held back by Fred. Vass wrenched out of his hold and stormed out of the cabin, muttering curses. Eden watched as her car disappeared into the woods and prayed Detective Kress and Oliver were able to protect Phoebe.
She spun to Fred. “How did she make the Force? What about her extended family?”
“Not everybody has a family that cares about them like yours, E.J.”
She exhaled sharply. Sadly, that was true. “If Black stopped killing and raised the two of you, why is he killing again now?”
“Because of you,” he thrust a finger in her face.
“Me?” she touched her chest.
“I was happy watching you from a distance. I had plans to introduce myself to you one day, as a different person,” HE said coyly. “Then one day I saw Two walking into your clinic with a puppy. I thought to myself, it’s okay,” he shrugged, “they don’t remember each other. How bad can one meeting get? But he came back again and again, even let you drive his car,” he galled.
“Where did you see all this?” she asked with furrowed eyes.
“I have always been around you, always.”
She rolled her eyes up and mumbled to the wooden ceiling, “And I am the sociopath.”
“When I saw that you and Two were getting close, I realised I had to step in. Meet you first.”
She folded her arms on her chest. “So you sent a serial killer to be the middleman?”
“I told you he wasn’t there to kill you.”
“You’re sure about that?” she asked in a high-pitched voice. “You could have walked up to me as a sane person would.”
“I wanted to come myself but Black caught me leaving the cabin. I told him where I was going. He placed his hand on my shoulder and said, to be a leader, one must serve. I understood he wanted to help so I let him. When he came back with a fractured ankle and told me he dropped the flower, I knew it was only a matter of time before the connection was made. Only a matter of time before they assume Black the serial killer is back. I had to step in, starting from those that recognised him.”
“That was why you came after us,” Eden narrowed her eyes on him. “You came after us, killed Micah to protect him?” she blazed towards him. “He damaged us as kids!” She grabbed a glass jug from the stool and threw it at him. Fred ducked and it flew over his head into the fireplace. “Made us hack people into pieces!” She stormed to the kitchen, grabbed his toaster and hurled it at Fred.
“Stop! What are you doing?!” He swung aside for the toaster. It crashed into the wall behind him and shattered into pieces.
“We were kids and he made us watch as he tortured and murdered people for his amusement.” She threw plates at him. “You are just as bad as him. No, you are worse!”
“I simply wanted to get you away from Two. Don’t you get it? I want you.”
Eden breathed through her mouth. She groaned and slammed her fist on the kitchen table. “Don’t you get it?! Everything you did brought us together. Everything you did brought Oliver and me together. If you had not attacked me,” she flashed her index fingers at him, “I wouldn’t have moved to his place and gotten closer to him. I wouldn’t know the side of him that isn’t the obnoxious CEO of a corporation. I wouldn’t have known him as a good man. I wouldn’t have learnt about Black or regained my memories. Everything you did helped me remember our time together, which made me like him even more.” She inhaled deeply, squeezing her eyes shut. Following her exhale, she flung her eyes open and looked right at Fred with a dreadful stare. “Now that I have gotten all I need from you, I am done playing nice.” She leapt over the kitchen table to him.
“Stop, stop,” he held his arm out.
She ignored him.
“What are you doing?” Fred asked her.
“You don’t think I stayed quietly without trying to escape because I was considering starting a family with you in your little cabin of the doomed, did you? I didn’t resist because I wanted to regain my memory and you were so eager to help me. Now, I have no use for you anymore,” she shrugged.
Fred’s face darkened. He growled and lunged at Eden.