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So B and I got an early start in the morning heading back to town (last night he decided to level with everybody and let me use his real name, 'Balthazar'… but all his friends, including me, just call him 'Balto', so that's what I'll use from now on). We ran out almost all the petrol in my old Land Rover getting out there, though, so we had to stop for petrol.

We had no trouble getting out of the hotel…I didn't see the ironing man. Balto pulled camera duty; I drove. My name is Pietro, by the way, if you hadn't gathered that by my previous entries. Pietro Querini (pee-ET-tro cor-EEN-ee, like the 15th century sea captain). If we don't survive this ordeal, I want the cops to know who they are looking for. You already know what I look like, so perhaps it will help to provide you with a description of Balto: he is a couple inches shorter than I, with dark hair, a dark tan, a slender swimmer's build, and a Roman profile.

A quarter-hour of driving later, we stopped at a petrol station off the highway. It looked like we were in sort of a bad neighborhood, so I wanted to make this a quick pitstop. I could see a carful of chavs hanging about by the old telephone stand near the air pump, and with what's happening lately I didn't want to contend with them. Balto got out and prepared to dispense the petrol with one hand, holding the cassette recorder with the other. I walked into the shops to grab a bit of food for the drive and to pay for the fuel. Normally when I visit the shops it takes me forever; presented with such a wide range of choices, I naturally short-circuit and can't decide. Today, however, I just knee-jerked a can of energy coffee for myself and a soda for Balto, and a big bag of cheese crisps for both of us, as well as another pack of batteries for the camera.

As I approached the counter, I was in my own little world, trying to figure out where I was going to find cassettes for the recorder. I put all my stuff on the counter and waited patiently as the bored-looking clerk rang it up and gave me a total. I was digging out the Euros when the store phone beeped and the clerk picked it up. “Hello?” he asked. “Yes, I can give you the numbers. Will you hold a moment? I'll be right back.”

He put the phone on the counter and gestured to me as he walked away. “I will be right back, sir, I have to go get something.”

I nodded, and looked out the window at Balto. He was pumping fuel into the Land Rover and looking at me through the video camera, but he had a strange expression on his face. I instinctively looked behind me, and saw no one but one of the chavs milling about in the candy aisle. Probably thieving it up. I waited, folding my arms in impatience.

A peculiar sound came to my attention, and I deduced it to be the phone lying on the counter. It was making a strange, staticky sort of noise, like an old 56k modem, soft and tinny from the earpiece. I noticed a flickering motion out of the corner of my eye. It turned out to be a flatscreen monitor on the counter behind the bulletproof window. I leaned over the edge a bit to see the screen and saw a CCTV vantage point of the shop's interior in black and white. Thin scrims of snow revolved up and up over an image of myself with my belly up on the counter, my head stuck into the employee's area. On the CCTV display I noticed someone standing behind me, and it wasn't the Chicago Bulls jersey wanker in the candy aisle with his hat on sideways.

What transpired next happened in the course of about six seconds.

I would say that the man I saw in the monitor was dressed all in black; black trousers, black boots, a black shirt, and a long black jacket with the hood pulled over his head…but that wouldn't be quite correct. It seemed more as if he were dressed in shadow. The outer edge of his dark figure was cloudy, indistinct, a shimmering not unlike low-quality streamed video. Of his face beneath the hood, all I could see was his mouth and chin. He was saying something, but I heard nothing. He was tall, at least a foot taller than myself, and thin. I looked over my shoulder and saw that I was alone at the counter. My heart began to hammer in my chest; my entire body felt as if I were encased in ice.

I looked at the display. The hooded man in black stood behind me, motionless, no more than four feet away. He appeared to just be gazing at my back. His sleeves were too long, stretched…the cuffs dangled at his knees. I heard the clerk returning from the back room, his sneakers squeaking on the tile floor.

The man clothed in shadow slowly reached toward my back with one of those too-long sleeves, and I could see his fingertips sliding out of it. The clerk stepped into the employee area behind the counter, a strip of receipt paper in his hand with numbers on it that he began to read into the phone. I frantically slapped a 20-Euro note on the counter. The clerk jumped even as he made a face at the garbage streaming out of the phone. As I scooped up all my things and ran like hell out of the shops, the last thing I saw on the CCTV screen was the hooded man's head turning, unseen eyes watching me.

As I fled, a hoarse voice behind me coughed quickly by my left ear, “Youcanrunbutwecanhide.” Balto was already sitting in the Land Rover waiting to go as I threw myself into the car with my things. He made every effort not to squeal tires as he took off. “I fucking saw that shit, Pete,” he said, slamming into the highway, ignoring oncoming traffic. A Volvo blew the horn at us, and he gave them the finger, his face contorted into a rictus of both rage and terror. “I saw that …thing, with the camera. When you were looking at the drinks, it came out of the freezer room in the back and followed you.”

My face went numb. After a couple hours of driving, the highway hypnosis calmed us down considerably. I forced myself to relax, and sampled the cheddar crisps with Balto. I want to tell you that he drove like a madman, weaving in and out of traffic, but once we were a sufficient distance away from the petrol station he slowed until we were moving at a mere trundle. I suspected that it was because he was growing afraid of going to my apartment.

A few hours later, we arrived at Balto's flat. He lived on the other side of the city from me, in a modest (read: cramped) duplex behind a grocer. He went to unlock the door, then handed me the camera and stood to the side. I glanced around the parking lot through the viewfinder, and, satisfied that no one was lurking outside, I motioned to him. He unlocked the front door and threw it open, and I stepped into the doorway gazing through the camcorder, ready to fight or run.

“What the fuck!” screamed Balto's roommate T, who was sitting on the couch completely devoid of clothing. His girlfriend was similarly disrobed, and we had accidentally committed (and filmed) the grievous act of coitus interruptus. I blinked, startled, still holding the camera to my face. I saw no frightening apparitions other than the guy's piercing and the tribal-art tattoo just above the girl's arse. The two of them leapt off the couch and started putting on their kit; his girlfriend K put both legs through one leg of her knickers and ran into the back hallway. I heard the bedroom door slam shut.

“What the fuck kind of stunt are you at, mate?” said T in a thick accent, pulling his trousers up. He was an Irishman from the UK going to the same college Balto attended, and the same lanky height as myself. His eyes were beady, his eyebrows were all but invisible, and his hair was the color of Cheetos. “Are you in the business of shooting surprise pornography, then? What is this, now? You should fucking call a man before leaping into the midst of his depravity like some sort of fucking Amish gestapo.”

I was locked into place with shock, but Balto charged in around me and said, “We need to borrow your pistol, T.”

“What do you mean, my pistol? Into holding up banks now in addition to violating my sexual rights?”

“We're in a bind, man. Your pistol, we need it. For protection,” I said, lowering the camera and stopping the tape to save record time. I decided this was my cue to go outside and let Balto be diplomatic.

I sat on the stoop in the sunlight, and realized that if I wasn't hurtling down the road in a vehicle, I felt incredibly vulnerable. A few minutes later, T and Balto came out of the apartment. T had put on a pair of sandals and a white vest (otherwise unfortunately known in the US as a 'wifebeater'), and he was carrying the 1911. He gestured casually with it as he spoke. “I'm comin' with you clowns,” he said, clattering down the stairs. “You need a real man to deliver you from evil, I say.”

I stood up and pointed the camera at him. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….”

“I shall fear no evil,” said T, waving the pistol at the camera with a grin and tucking it into his waistband and putting on a loud Hawaiian shirt. His ensemble made him look like a gawky cross between Prince Harry and Hunter S. Thompson. “Because I am the baddest motherfucker in the valley.”

That sounded like it came from Pulp Fiction, and that was close enough for me. Anyone that can quote Samuel L. Jackson waving a 1911 in a safety-orange shirt with tiny hula-girls on it was my kind of warrior. We loaded into the Land Rover and left.

We got to my flat in ten minutes. T was already opening his door as we slid into a parking spot, and he was standing at the front door with his hand under his hideous shirt as I came up with the keys and unlocked it. Balto turned on the camera and pointed it at the door, and I ceremoniously kicked it open. T charged in, pointing the pistol this way and that like an extra from Law and Order, and Balto was right behind him, following his every move with the Sony DCR-TR7000 Handycam. For some reason, my stereo was playing Phil Phillips - “Sea of Love” at top volume.

“Do you see anything?” I asked Balto, leaving the door open in case of a hasty exit. I heard T take the safety off the 1911. He told me no, and I started gathering the things I was going to need to stay at Balto's place. The man in the sack mask knew where I lived; I wasn't going to risk meeting him again trying to conserve the comforts of staying in my own flat, even though I knew there was a possibility of running into him anywhere.

As I carried a gymbag full of clothes out to the Rover, I reflected on how much the paranoia was taking out of me. I found that I kept stopping to listen for the breathing of unseen “Disciples”.

I went back into the flat for my laptop. Balto and T were standing in my bedroom; T was looking at the footage from the security cams at the psych center. I shutdown the computer and waited for it to deactivate. Balto walked over to my bed and started dragging the blanket off it and rolling it into a sloppy ball. “Do you want your bedclothes, Pete? We don't have–”

All three of us froze.

From the Leatherman out of my satchel to the carving knife from my kitchen, every knife in my flat was lying on my bed in a messy pile. One particularly vicious steak knife was stuck through a piece of paper. I tore it off and held it up to show my friends the symbol scrawled on it: a C turned a quarter clockwise and a V superimposed over it. On the other side were the words “CAECUS VOBIS”.

Fiction


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