Category Archives: Birthday Shorts


This story is dedicated to my Dad for his birthday, which was yesterday. Happy Birthday, Daddy! Love you.

Present day

Teresa sat in her husband’s private atelier, absent-mindedly petting her Beagle and staring at a small package and a letter on the table, both unopened. Charles had told her to open them when he was gone and the time for that had come. She knew inside the package was a link for her charm bracelet and it was the last piece of art her husband ever made.

But Teresa hesitated. She didn’t want to open the package, because doing so would be to acknowledge that she’d never see him again. It seemed so… final. So instead, she played with the rest of her charms, reliving the memories she’d had with Charles when he was still alive.

* * * * * *
Eight years ago

“Do you remember the first time we met, Reese?” Charles asked. Teresa smiled.

“It was on that extra credit overseas trip thing to Italy, wasn’t it? If I recall correctly, you were such a troublemaker, always getting lost and disappearing from the group,” Teresa teased and they both chuckled.

“Hey, I wasn’t lost,” Charles feigned indignation. “I was… Having personal adventures and looking for treasure. And,” he added quickly. “I found some!” Charles dug into his coat pocket and pulled out a small black square box with a pink ribbon on it.

“This is for you,” he said and opened the box with a flourish. Inside was beautiful silver bracelet sitting on a flat velvet cushion and Teresa’s breath caught. “I know we’ve only been together a year and I don’t want to scare you away or anything but… Happy anniversary?” Charles said tentatively. Teresa was speechless for a moment, admiring the braclet.

“Wow,” she breathed. “It’s beautiful! Thank you! And no,” she added and gave him a kiss on his cheek. “I don’t scare that easily.” Charles exhaled in relief and smiled wanly. He took out the bracelet and clasped it around Teresa’s wrist. It fit snugly, but the bracelet was made in such a way that it could stretch out a little when pulled.

“This was something I found while on that trip. It’s an Italian charm bracelet. Instead of having charms that dangle, the links can be engraved or painted on. This one is particularly special because each link has an axis that it can rotate about. See?” he pulled the braclet and flipped a section. “So you can show or hide any charm or charms you want.”

Teresa flipped all the sections, but they were all blank.

“Where do I get the charms?” she asked.

“Ah,” Charles said with a glint in his eye. “You don’t. I’ll paint the charms on for you, and it just so happens I have one for you now.” He lifted the velvet cushion inside the box to reveal another link, but this one had a number one painted onto it.

“I made this for you a few weeks ago, for this occasion. Obviously, it represents our first anniversary today, but I also think of all the other firsts we’ve shared. Also,” he added shyly. “You’re my one and only.”

* * * * * *
Present day

The number one charm was the first of many. Every anniversary, he’d replace a blank link with a new charm he painted for her, each charm capturing the most significant memory that they’d shared since their last anniversary. It was their own little tradition, which Teresa looked forward to every year.

The bracelet was her most treasured possession and it was even more so now, since it was all she had left of him. Teresa flipped the next few charms as continued to reminisce about her adventures with Charles in order.

The second charm was a scroll, representing their academic achievements. They’d both graduated university together that year and they’d also both managed to get jobs in their respective fields. Life was comfortable then, everything was easy and they were happy, so he’d painted the scroll as a representation of their mutual success.

They got a place together about nine months later and Charles painted a golden key to signify that occasion. When he presented it to her, Charles told Teresa that it was the key to his heart. “Cheesy Charles” was her nickname for him, as he never failed to make every romantic cliché or gesture when the opportunity presented itself. She’d never admit it, but Teresa secretly adored every corny thing he did.

Like every couple, their relationship wasn’t perfect. They had their ups and downs, but the year that followed was the worst. With the financial crisis, Charles was retrenched and Teresa had started supporting them both. It was a hard time, more for Teresa than for Charles. He didn’t seem to be fazed much and even started his own painting business, which stressed Teresa and strained their finances even further. They never went hungry or missed a payment, Teresa made sure of that, but she constantly foresaw the end, and she didn’t like it. Teresa almost gave up on him – on them – but she prided herself in being loyal and wouldn’t abandon Charles. That year, Charles painted a pair of hands that held each other tightly. It meant that they held on together no matter what.

Teresa flipped over her fifth charm – a snowflake – and remembered what had actually brought them back together and made them closer than ever. Life had gotten a little better, which only meant that Teresa saw the end of their finances further away, but she still thought Charles took everything too lightly. The charm was a snowflake because the best memory they’d shared that year was when they got trapped together in a snowstorm.

* * * * * *
Three years ago

They were driving up together to visit some rich guy that Charles was going to sell some of his paintings to, but they got trapped in their car because Teresa had decided to push on as far as they could instead of finding a motel and settling in for the night. It was already snowing lightly, but it turned into blizzard that, coupled with the darkening sky, reduced visibility to nearly nil. Teresa and Charles had no choice but to pull off to the side of the road and stop. Teresa switched the engine off and sighed.

“Don’t say it,” she warned Charles. “Don’t say ‘I told you so’.”

“I was going to,” Charles said mildly.

“I made a mistake, okay? We should’ve checked in at that last rest stop.”

“It looked like the kind of place that would have lumpy beds and no hot water anyway,” Charles joked. Teresa glared at him.

“You think this is funny?” she asked softly. “Everything’s joke to you, isn’t it?”

“Relax, Reese,” Charles replied amicably. “There’s no reason to get all worked up. Look,” he took out his cell phone. “We’ve still got cell reception. It’s not a serious problem. I’ll just call and -”

“That’s the problem!” Teresa exploded and swiped the phone from Charles’ hand. “You never take anything seriously! I’ve always had to be the responsible one. I’ve had to work hard to support us, while you just sit at home doodling away and chatting with people!”

Charles gave her a measured look as she panted from her outburst. They stared at each other in silence for a moment, then Charles suddenly leaned across Teresa and opened her door, letting a blast of frigid air and bits of snow hit their faces.

“What are you doing?!” she screamed at him and made to close the door, but Charles pinned her arms to her seat with his body weight, his face inches away from hers.

“You need to cool down!” he shouted over the roar of the blizzard with a grin. Teresa spluttered in disbelief and frustration, her mind reaching for the worst insult she could throw at him, but the gale made it difficult for her to think, so she just sat there frozen, giving him the iciest stare she could muster.

Something bubbled in her chest. Teresa wanted to be angry, to yell and scream and shout and break things. But Charles’ goofy grin made her think of all the ice and cold related jokes he would’ve made to entertain them had she not started this argument. Teresa couldn’t help herself: she snorted and suddenly all her rage just melted away. She snickered again at the thought of melting, then lost all control as her mirth overtook her. Charles’ grin got wider as he released her and sat back in his seat.

After a while, Teresa’s hysterical giggles died down and she wiped the tears from her eyes. “Charles,” she said weakly, opening her eyes to find him watching the storm from his window. She closed her door and the sound of the wind muffled.

“Charles,” she repeated when he didn’t react. She reached for his hand, then squeaked in surprise when Charles slapped his other hand to his shoulder, splattering snow all over the place.

“Cold shoulder!” he exclaimed with glee.

“I’m sorry I yelled,” Teresa apologized meekly, her smile fading. Charles settled down as well, then cupped her face in his hands and gently kissed her.

“You never have to apologize to me,” Charles whispered softly when he pulled away. He used his thumb to wipe away bits of ice and snow from her face as he spoke. “For anything. I know you’ve been under a lot of stress, but I never realized you thought I take things lightly. I’m sorry I act like that. I just think it’s a lot healthier when I don’t worry so much about things I can’t control. Worrying hinders my creativity and that’s what I love about you. You’re reliable, consistent, my one constant. I don’t have to worry about you, and that’s given me peace of mind to paint freely. Now that I look back, I suppose it does seem like I’ve taken you for granted, but I want you to know that I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, for us. I love you, Teresa.”

“I love you too, Charles,” she whispered back. “I love that you can see the funny side to everything and always know how to make me smile. It’s just that… Sometimes I wonder if you understand the gravity of the situation.” Charles laughed.

“So I suppose because of that, you feel the need to be crazy for two people, huh?” He teased her.

“Hey!” Teresa smiled and punched him playfully. Charles caught her hand as she pulled back and interlocked his fingers with hers. They sat in comfortable silence for a while, subdued from the cold weather and exhausted from their emotional exchange.

“Teresa,” Charles mumbled.


“There is one thing I take seriously.”

“What’s that?”


* * * * * *
Present day

Teresa smiled at the snowflake and flipped over the next charm: a dog. Teresa giggled at that, because it was a reminder of the year they adopted a puppy from the SPCA and Charles had humorously named her Karma. Teresa stroked Karma’s fur affectionately and she snuggled closer into Teresa’s lap.

In their seventh year together as a couple, Charles popped the question, but he presented her with the charm link instead of an actual engagement ring. He did produce a real ring after she said yes, but he thought it would be more significant and personal than a traditional proposal. Also, he thought it was funny. It was the only time he’d given her a charm before their anniversary and that was the most recent charm she’d received.

Teresa flipped the link after the ring charm, but it was blank. Of course she knew that. The last charm Charles had made for her was in the box, which was sitting innocently on the table in front of her. Finally, logic and curiosity won out and she tore away the wrapping to open the box. As she expected, sitting on a velvet cushion, was a link for her bracelet that had an X symbol. Teresa frowned in puzzlement. She racked her brains, but couldn’t remember a specific event in the past year which could be associated with the symbol. Her interest fully piqued now, she opened the letter.

My dearest Teresa,

I’m sorry to have left you like this. I wish we had more time together, but I’m happy with the time we had. We shared so much together, didn’t we?

Inside the box is the last link I’ve made for you. I was actually saving it for our tenth anniversary, so it would be ten in Roman numerals. But it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen now.

Anyway, think of it as a kiss, so every time you put it on, I’ll be kissing you. In addition, it’s all the other treasured memories we’ve acquired together, the ones not represented by the charms you already have, since I won’t be able to give you more. X marks the spot, as they say.

Thank you for the adventures we’ve shared.

You were the best treasure I’ve ever found.

Cheesy Charles



This is dedicated to one of my best friends, Song, for his birthday yesterday. At least I think it’s yesterday. I’m about 70% sure. Could be May 9th. Now he refuses to tell me because I forgot and so failed the friend test. Dammit Song. Happy (maybe belated, maybe early) birthday.

Note: This is the first part of a two part story. Click for part one.

“Greg, c’mon, don’t do this, man,” Terry urged him. Gregory had the cloak around him, but it wasn’t active yet, so it was nothing more than a tacky black cape. What had Terry feeling nervous was the small gun in Gregory’s hand, which was pointed right at Terry.

“Get out of the way, Terry,” Gregory pleaded. “I don’t want to hurt you but I really have to get out of here.”

“Where are you going with my cloak?” Terry asked without budging. He loved that cloak, even though technically it wasn’t his. And nobody was supposed to remove the cloak from the room except for specific Kyle-approved missions.

“I made it, so it’s mine and I can do whatever I want with it,” Gregory said as he waved the gun at Terry. “Move,” he spat. Terry moved aside, keeping his eyes locked onto Gregory’s. Something wasn’t right; Gregory wasn’t violent, so he must have a good reason for stealing the cloak. Wherever he was going, it seemed that he didn’t want to be found.

Gregory carefully manoeuvered his way around the tables and shelves of gadgets, all the while keeping the gun and one eye on Terry.

“You do know it’ll only last half an hour, right?” Terry asked.

“That’s why I built a bigger battery and I have spares in my pack,” Gregory replied. That explained the bulky backpack. Terry nodded.

“Where will you go?” Terry asked again.

“I can’t tell you,” Gregory’s replied was more pained and desperate this time. He’d reached the door and paused, lowering his gun. “Tell the others I’m sorry,” he whispered and shut off the lights. The room was plunged into darkness and Terry felt more than heard the vibration of the cloak. It was so gentle, so subtle, that if he didn’t know what it was, he wouldn’t have noticed it at all. Terry heard the door shut, slightly muffled by the cloak and sighed. With the cloak on, there was no way to track Gregory or contact him. Even physically following him was a near impossibility, as he’d be a little more than a mirage in the day time and practically invisible at night.

* * * * * *

“What happened?” Anthony Briggs demanded, the last of the group to arrive. Terry had called them all shortly after Gregory had left. It’d had taken him a while to pick the door in near complete darkness that Gregory had locked, before managing to make his way up from the subterranean levels of the compound to the surface where there was a cell signal.

“Gregory stole the cloak,” Terry replied and told them everything that had transpired only an hour ago. Anthony sat down and the room was silent while he processed what he’d heard. After a moment, he turned to Kyle and said, “Thoughts?”

“The doesn’t sound like something Gregory would do. We think he might be in some kind of trouble,” Kyle said evenly. “Even if he’s not, we’ve got to find him and figure out what’s going on.”

Anthony nodded in agreement. “What do you think we should do?” he asked.

“Rachel’s already trying to hack into Gregory’s workstation to look for clues,” Terry said. “We don’t want to take it to the police because they’ll just slow us down with questions and besides, they won’t find him. Like Kyle said, it’s not like him. We should give him the benefit of doubt.”

“Okay, but how are we going to find him?” Anthony asked. Kyle and Terry grinned.

“It’s ironic: the best person to track the cloak would’ve been Gregory himself. But Terry managed to come up with an ingenious plan. We want to find Gregory by sonar,” Kyle said smugly. Anthony looked at them incredulously and Terry continued, “The cloak adapts to absorb and cancel out any wave of sound that hits it. What if we use sonar to cover an area, then look for the spot where the sonar doesn’t bounce back?”

Anthony blinked. “That’s brilliant,” he said, and Terry beamed proudly.

“Rachel’s hacking into a sonar satellite as we speak and she set up my computer to alert us if Gregory’s mobile phone pings a cell tower. We figure he has to take it out of the cloak sometime,” Kyle said. “In the meantime, Terry and I are working out how far he could have gone, based on mode of transportation.”

“It’s gonna take a while,” Rachel piped up. “The satellite’s not in range yet. And once that comes in, we only have a fifteen minute window before it passes over and I have to hack the next one.”

“Why such a short time?” Anthony asked. “And why can’t you hack into the next once before it arrives?”

“The satellites with sonar capabilities stay in range for about an hour at most, usually less. It takes me a while to find such a satellite, then attack it. Depending on the security protocols, it can take anywhere between five to twenty minutes to crack. And, awesome as I am, I can’t hack a satellite that’s not within range.”


The three guys sat while they watched Rachel type furiously at her machine. Minutes ticked by and Rachel kept tapping at her keyboard, until finally, she commanded, “Boys, map.”

Kyle spread the map and showed her the locations to send sonic pulses. First was his address, which got them nothing.

“Try tracking the route back towards HQ,” Terry said. “If he’s on foot then he’s probably not home yet. I’ll bet he’s probably on foot anyway: his phone signal hasn’t appeared, which means it’s still under the cloak, and I should think it would be hard to drive or flag a cab with the cloak active.” Rachel obliged him, slowly working her way back from Gregory’s residence. They all waited with baited breath and suddenly, a blip of silence appeared on the screen.

“Huh. That was easier than I expected,” Rachel commented. She stopped and scanned the same area several more times, each return signal showing the small black blip moving closer and closer to Gregory’s home.

“Looks like he’s going home,” Anthony said. “Let’s go pick him up. Good work, Rachel. Would you stay here and monitor his progress? Let us know if there’s any changes.”

Rachel nodded they left.

* * * * * *

Twenty minutes later, Anthony, Kyle and Terry sat in Anthony’s car outside Gregory’s address, all of them staring open-mouthed at the mansion that was supposedly where Gregory lived.

“I had no idea he was loaded,” Terry whispered.

“I knew, but I didn’t expect this,” Anthony whispered back.

“So are we going in or what?” Kyle prompted, shaking them out of their reverie.

“There aren’t any lights on inside. Call Rachel first,” Anthony said and Kyle did so.

“Hey, it’s me… Yeah, Kyle, who else?… Yeah we’re outside his place now… uh huh… okay, hang on,” Kyle said. “Rachel says he’s in there and hasn’t moved since he arrived about five minutes ago.

“Okay,” Anthony said. “Let’s go, and tell Rachel to stay on the line.”

They got out of the car and proceeded to Gregory’s front door. Terry knocked on the door, but they got no answer. “Guys,” Rachel said and Kyle relayed her words. “He’s not moving. I zoomed in to focus on his house, but he’s just staying in one spot.”

“Gregory!” Terry called out as he pounded the door again. Still no answer. Terry glanced at Kyle, who hesitated, then nodded. Terry took out his gold plated lockpick set, a reminder of a different life which felt like a long time ago, and knelt to examine the lock. In a minute, he’d picked it.

“You’re slowing down, old man,” Kyle joked.

“I’m nervous, ‘kay?” Terry muttered and slipped his set back into his pocket.

“Stop playing around,” Anthony chided, taking a torch out of his own pocket. “Ready?” he asked. Kyle and Terry nodded and Anthony pushed open the door. As they stepped in, Terry noted how quiet the house was and felt a slight murmur in his chest.

“The cloak is definitely here. I can feel it,” Terry said under his breath. They crept further in cautiously into the dark house, with Terry leading the way. Without warning, he stepped on something soft and tripped over it.

“What the hell?” he exclaimed. Anthony shone his torch over where Terry had tripped, but they saw nothing but a slight visual distortion.

“Greg!” Terry shouted, reaching his hands towards the distortion. He got a grip on the cloak and pulled it off, revealing an unconscious Gregory. Terry tossed the cloak to Kyle, who cut the power and the cloak shimmered back into view. Anthony knelt down and checked Gregory’s pulse, but upon feeling nothing, immediately started CPR.

“Rachel, call an ambulance. Tell them Greg is unconscious, possible heart attack,” Anthony calmly raised his voice in Kyle’s direction. Anthony checked Gregory’s pockets and found the gun he was carrying. “Terry, take the cloak, backpack and gun and run back to the car and stow them there. Then get the first aid kit and defibrillator from the boot. Kyle, hold my torch.”

Terry hesitated, then burst into action, grabbing Gregory’s possessions sprinting to the car. He found the medical supplies easily and hurried back as fast as he could.

“Open the defibrillator and take out the pads,” Anthony instructed as he removed Gregory’s shirt.

“C’mon Greg,” Terry muttered as Anthony placed the pads onto Gregory’s chest. They all stepped back and the defibrillator charged and shocked Gregory. Anthony checked his pulse again and sighed with relief.

“He’s back,” he told Kyle and Terry. “Gregory’s back.”

* * * * * *

15 hours later

Gregory stirred, opening one groggy eye. The first thing he noticed was the steady beeping coming from his right. He glanced over and saw a heart rate monitor. Where was he? What happened? He closed his eyes in confusion and tried to remember. Okay, yes. He’d gotten home, locked the door behind him and he was moving to his living room. There was a sudden sharp pain in his chest and the world went black. He vaguely remembered pressure on his chest and a tingle, but not much else.

Gregory’s eyes snapped open. Where was the cloak? The beeping increased. He tried to sit up, but was too weak to do so. He tried to bring his right hand to wipe the sleep from his face and found that it was cuffed to the railing of his bed. White sheets, white blanket, beeping monitor: he was in a hospital. Gregory became aware of a soft whirring or purring noise and looked around. Kyle was was gently snoring in a chair beside the bed, covered by a jacket.

“Kyle,” Gregory said. Or tried to. All that came out was a soft grunt. Gregory worked his mouth a bit and cleared his throat. “Kyle,” he repeated in a clearer voice this time. Kyle popped awake.

“Gregory,” Kyle said, a little coldly. “Glad you’re awake. We know why you stole the cloak. For a nerd, you’re not very bright.”

Gregory looked confused.

“Don’t play dumb. Rachel went through your phone and found everything. Your sister – Grace, is it? – was kidnapped and the cloak was demanded as ransom, wasn’t it?”

Gregory held Kyle’s gaze for a moment, then nodded, tears pricking his eyes.

“What I don’t understand,” Kyle continued. “Is why you didn’t tell us. We could have helped you.”

“The kidnappers know about you. They said they’d kill her if I went to the police or you guys for help. At first I thought they wanted my money – I have a huge inheritance,” Gregory added and Kyle nodded. “But they specifically demanded the cloak.”

“Well, Rachel’s already trying to track the number that sent you the demands. We started looking for her while you were out cold.”

“Yeah, about that, what happened? And how did you find me?”

“We think the cloak’s vibrations countered your heartbeat and your heart stopped. You wore the cloak a lot longer than Terry used to use it, so it seems like it takes some time to neutralize your heartbeat.” Kyle explained how they found him with sonar and Gregory snorted.

“Ironic. The main thing the cloak was designed to hide me from was used to find me. Perfect.”

“Don’t beat yourself up. It’s a good design and the first of it’s kind. You couldn’t have predicted all the side effects. Oh, by the way, a package came for you earlier,” Kyle said and tossed a small box wrapped in brown paper with Gregory’s name and address neatly printed on top.

Gregory unwrapped the box and opened it. A slip of white paper with red splotches flew out and drifted onto the floor, which Kyle automatically bent down to pick up. When he straightened up to return the note, he saw that the blood had drained Gregory’s face and he was staring at the contents of the box. Kyle took one look inside and threw up into the dustbin.

It was a single human toe, the nail painted a light shade of pink.

Gregory picked up the bloodstained note with trembling hands and unfolded it. It had an address and a time for tomorrow afternoon printed on it, with three more words at the bottom.

Don’t faint again.

* * * * * *

“Okay, here’s what we do,” Anthony commanded. “Kyle, since Gregory is out, you’ll take over communications. Terry,” Anthony turned to face him. “Just go in, get her and get out, okay? Avoid all conflict.”

“Yes sir,” Terry said.

They were several hundred meters outside a seemingly abandoned warehouse, in their ops van, preparing to get Terry in and rescue Grace Thomas. They’d found out it was one of their past clients and, thanks to Rachel, they’d tracked the signals to this warehouse.

“Rachel, eyes up yet?” Anthony asked. They were waiting on Rachel to hack into the cameras around the building.

“Last one and… okay!” Rachel said triumphantly as the last screen popped into life. “This one is the closest to the building,” she said and pointed to one of the screens. “There aren’t any cams inside. Not any I could find anyway.”

Terry wrapped the cloak around himself and stuck an earpiece into his ear. “Check, one two,” he whispered and heard his voice echo in the van. Kyle nodded and gave the thumbs up. Terry pulled the hood up and activated the cloak. Terry’s world reverberated and then went silent. Kyle waited a moment then said into his mic, “Terry, can you hear me?”

Terry heard him, very faintly even though the volume was turned all the way up. The cloak muffled all noise inside itself, so they had to send the sound directly into Terry’s ear for him to hear them. Of course, when the cloak was active, he couldn’t reply, but he could take action. He deactivated the cloak and the sounds of the night floated back.

“Okay, I’m going in.”

One last check of his gadgets and Terry was out of the van, heading towards the warehouse. He crept around the corner and paused.

“Clear,” Kyle whispered. Since the receiver was at maximum volume, they had to speak softly when the cloak was inactive. Terry hurried to the door and poked a small wire under it. At the end of the wire was a camera that relayed it’s feed back to the van.

“I can’t see anything inside,” Rachel said. “It’s too dark. Try going around to the window.” Terry moved on to the nearest window and peeked in. Not this one: there were men inside. He padded to the next window and cautiously looked inside. Empty. Good. He pulled out his picks and said, “Cloak on,” before activating the cloak. The world was silenced once again and Terry took his time to pick the lock on the window. After a minute, the lock opened with a satisfying click, which got silenced by the cloak. Terry cracked the window open and climbed in as quickly as he could, not worrying about noise. Once he was in, he shut the window and paused for a beat, then deactivated the cloak, telling the others “Cloak off.”

“I’m in,” Terry said. “Okay where is she?”

“Basement level. Two levels below you. Staircase to your right after you exit the room,” Kyle said, tracking Terry’s progress on the blueprints that Anthony had managed to obtain. Since this was a past client, Briggs Security Consulting had blueprints so that they knew where best to install their security system. Anthony had covertly made a copy.

Terry poked the wire camera out the door to check that it was clear before moving out of the room. He tiptoed quietly, one finger on the cloak’s activation button, ready to fade quietly into the shadows at any moment. He made it to the stairwell without incident. Peeking down through the railings, he checked that no one was there before descending.

“Okay guys, I’m at the bottom. Where is she?” Terry whispered. He paused for Kyle’s reply, but heard nothing. Crap, he thought. He was too far underground and the signal was lost. It looked like he was going on alone, so he stowed his wire camera and proceeded the old fashioned way: take a peek and hope no one caught him.

The corridor was empty. There were several windowless doors on either side. He carefully turned the closest doorknob and found that it was locked. Terry sighed. Picking all the locks would take some time, so he got to work.

The first door opened to some sort of storage room. Everything was in brown crates, and it was obvious that Grace wasn’t in here. The second room was unlocked, but completely empty. Terry moved on. As he was picking the third door, he heard a low moan from inside the room. He froze and listened, but nothing happened. Terry unlocked the door and opened it, revealing a petite girl gagged and chained to the far wall.

“Grace?” Terry whispered. She shrank back and whimpered. Terry glanced at her badly bandaged foot and felt a flare of anger for her captors. He also noticed her pink toenails. “Grace,” Terry repeated, this time more confidently. “Shh, it’s okay, I won’t hurt you. My name is Terry and I’m gonna get you out of here.” Terry knelt beside her. “I’m a friend of Greg’s. Can you look at me to show me you understand?” Grace weakly lifted her head and gazed into his eyes. Something stirred in Terry’s chest and for a moment, he was lost for words.

“Um… I’m going to remove the gag okay? Don’t scream,” Terry said. Grace nodded and closed her eyes. Terry carefully undid the gag and she coughed, but made no other sound. Terry started working on the shackles that bound her to the wall. Precious minutes ticked by, and finally Terry picked them all. Terry tried to lift her up in his arms, but he wasn’t strong enough to carry both her and the heavy cape. Now he regretted not taking physical training more seriously.

“C’mon, I’m going to piggy back you,” he said as he undid his cloak. He managed to hoist her onto his back, then draped the cloak around them both. It barely covered them both and Grace grunted as she felt the dense cloak’s weight. He gave her the button to activate the cloak so that he could support her with both hands, and said, “When I tell you to press that button, press it quickly and don’t move. Okay?” She nodded and they both left the room. Terry was very conscious of her arms hugged tightly around his neck and chest.

As Terry started climbing the stairs, he marveled at how easy the rescue mission was. As if on cue, the door of the floor above them opened. Terry hissed “Press it!” and quickly shrank into the corner, crouching down so that the cloak completely covered them both. The world went into silence again and Grace squeaked in surprise. The man that came out the door went past them, down the stairs and back through the door they’d just escaped from.

Terry nudged her to deactivate the cloak. “Crap,” he murmured. “He might be going to check on you. We gotta move fast.” He climbed the stairs as quickly as he dared.

“What happened just now?” Grace whispered softly as they ascended. “How come he just walked right past?” Terry’s heart fluttered again at the sound of her voice.

“Invisibility cloak,” he muttered. “Well, not totally. The stairwell was dimly lit, so as long as we stayed still, he wouldn’t see us. The cloak adapts to any waves of energy that hits it and cancels it out. We probably looked like a dark corner to him. Another brilliant Greg invention.”

“My brother made this? Amazing,” Grace wondered at it. “How does it work? What’s it made of? When did he make it?”

“Later,” Terry panted. Finally, they reached the top of the stairs and Terry’s earpiece crackled to life again.

“… Terry… come in Terry. C’mon Terry…” Kyle was whispering repeatedly.

“I’m back,” Terry panted, out of breath from the climb. “No signal underground.”

“Ah Terry! You were out for nearly ten minutes. We thought we might have to come in after you,” Anthony called, relieved. “Did you find her?”

“Yes, I’ve got Grace, but we might have a problem. Some guy might be going to check on Grace’s cell. What’s the quickest way out? Grace can’t climb out the window I came through.”

Kyle quickly gave him instructions. “Come out the back. We’ll be waiting to pick you up. Hurry!” Shouts started coming from below them. Terry weighed his options. They needed speed more than caution now. Terry said, “Cloak on,” and Grace pressed the button. He followed Kyle’s instructions to the back door, ignoring all the open doors he passed. He knew he and Grace were no more than a silent shadow.

Luckily, nobody else passed close enough to notice them and reached the back door without incident. Terry opened the door and stepped into the night. He saw the van approaching and started moving towards it. He nudged Grace with his cheek again and she deactivated the cloak. Grace breathed in the cool night air and revived a bit more. She gave him a small kiss on his cheek and he blushed.

“Thank you for rescuing me, Terry.”



This is dedicated to my friend Da Wei, whose birthday was three days ago. Happy Birthday, bro!

Note: This is the first part of a two part story. Click for part two.

Kyle did his best to control his breathing. Measured breaths, in and out. He had to be calm, but his heart was pounding with excitement in his chest. Kyle glanced left and right at his seven competitors in their respective lanes who all, like him, had their hands splayed open in the air. The Locksport Games were about to begin.

“Three! Two! One!” The referee shouted and blew his whistle, signalling for them to start and the crowd cheered them on. Kyle tuned them out as best as he could and focused on the locks in front of him while he reached for his tools on the table without looking. His left hand found the torque wrench and his right, a basic pick. Smoothly inserting both tools into the lock, Kyle dexterously picked the first lock in about five seconds. The second was even easier, giving way to Kyle as if it hadn’t wanted to be locked in the first place. Kyle pushed the door open and sprinted to the next check point.

A quick glance around showed he was one of three guys in the lead, but the rest would catch up soon. The second obstacle was a door with a set of three different interconnected locks that had to be picked within seven seconds of each other, otherwise, all three locks reset themselves automatically. Kyle quickly inspected the locks and chuckled, knowing he’d be able to pick them all easily, and he proceeded to do so with no problems. The door practically fell open at his touch as he opened the third lock and passed through quickly. Another glance to his rivals told him that he was currently in the lead.

The final obstacle was a safe protected by two masterlocks. Kyle hated those. He had a natural affinity for mechanical locks, having been raised by his traditional locksmith father, but masterlocks were very different. They don’t have a keyhole to pick. Rather, Kyle would have to crack the combination by trial and error and listening to the clicks. It was tedious and time consuming. But he had no choice: Inside the safe was the button to stop his timer and mark his completion of the course. Kyle sat down and started working.

The seconds ticked by as Kyle turned and twisted the knob, listening carefully to the clicks of the lock and mentally noting number sequences. He’d had enough practice to forgo the paper and pen method, but he had to maintain his concentration. One little slip up and he’d have to start all over again. That was not a mistake he was prepared to make. Finally, after three long minutes, he cracked the first one and started on the second. Glancing up, Kyle saw that all the others had arrived in their own lanes and were working on their own masterlocks.

Kyle quickly turned his attention back to the second masterlock and started working on it. This time it was easier, since he already understood the first lock, he was able to crack the second one in just two and a half minutes. Scrambling to get the safe open, he reached in a cramped hand and slammed the button inside, stopping his timer. Kyle sagged in relief, the tension easing from his stiff muscles and the roar of the crowd flooded back into his attention. He rolled back and lay on the floor, both mentally and physically exhausted. He looked to his left and saw his main rival, Terry, grinning triumphantly back at him. Kyle groaned and closed his eyes, slamming his first on the ground in frustration. He knew he’d lost first place to Terry. Again.

* * * * * *

“And the first place goes to… TERRY WALKINS!” the announcer shouted and the crowd erupted into cheers. Kyle mock snarled at Terry as he walked onto the stage with big grin on his face. Terry smirked at Kyle then accepted his prize: an official badge and a gold plated lockpicking set. Kyle looked at his own badge and sighed.

“Second place: first loser!” Terry teased Kyle. Kyle punched him in the arm and grinned.

“You only won because of the masterlock section. I was ahead of you the whole time before that,” Kyle replied with indignation.

“But this begs to differ,” Terry took out a golden pick and waved it in Kyle’s face.

It didn’t really matter anyway. The course was designed to test them on basic lockpicking skills; normal locks, electrical locks and masterlocks. Just the completion of the course officially inducted both of them as Level Three members. The first place prize was just a token of recognition.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” a male voice spoke from behind them. Kyle and Terry stopped bickering and turned to see a man in a suit, probably only a few years older than they were. The speaker smiled at them and gave a slight bow.

“Congratulations on your new Level Three statuses, especially to you, Terry. My name is Anthony Briggs Jr. and I work for Briggs Security Consulting. I may have a job offer for both of you, if you’re interested.” He shook first Terry’s and then Kyle’s hands.

Kyle and Terry looked at each other and raised their eyebrows.

“Wait, Briggs? Any relation to the CEO Gary Briggs?” Kyle asked. Anthony Briggs smiled in delight.

“Very good. Yes, Gary Briggs is my grandfather. I’m working under him as a talent scout of sorts. I look out for young people like yourselves who’ve proven to have advanced understanding and keen interest in locks and security. I can tell you more about the job now, but you’ll have to come in to our office for a proper interview, of course. As well as a small test of our own making,” Anthony added as he produced two business cards and offered them to Kyle and Terry.

“Uh, sure, okay, I guess,” Kyle said, accepting one card.

“Just okay? Man, this is awesome!” Terry exclaimed, taking the other card. He turned to Anthony and asked, “What exactly would we be doing?”

“Well, first we’ll provide you with some training to familiarize yourself with our security systems, but after that you’ll mostly be testing said systems. Looking for weaknesses, suggesting improvements, that sort of thing. Sometimes we’ll provide you with some of our competitors’ systems to see if you can break into them. And, we’ll also sponsor you to take part in locksport tournaments representing the company, if you so desire.”

“Doesn’t sound too difficult,” Kyle commented. “Looks like you’ve got Terry convinced. Why do you want me?”

“More minds, more styles, for starters. I was watching your event. You were in the lead until the last obstacle, which means you’re better at the actual picking of locks. Terry caught up with you at the end because he was able to crack the masterlocks much faster than you could. I would think that if you both were to join us, there would be some friendly competition between you two, which would be a benefit the company overall, don’t you think?”

Kyle and Terry looked at each other again and grinned.

“Take a day to think it over, gentlemen. You can call the office and arrange an interview. Both of you could be interviewed together, if you want. I have to leave now, so I’ll bid adieu to you,” Anthony turned to leave.

As he walked past, Anthony said to Kyle, “One more reason I want to hire you: Second place always works harder.” Anthony smiled, though not unkindly, and left. Terry sniggered.

* * * * * *

They had been best friends and rivals since childhood. Kyle, the son of a locksmith, started learning about the internal workings of locks from a young age. Terry was the more mischievous of the two and, after spending so much time with Kyle and locks, was the first to figure out how to actually pick a lock. Kyle preferred to just understand and learn about how different locking systems worked. Kyle’s father tried to stop them at first, but ultimately started teaching them proper lockpicking techniques, as well as the morals and philosophies of locksport.

You may only pick your own locks, or a lock that you have explicit permission from the owner to pick. You may never pick a lock that’s in use or any system that will compromise the security of another person.

This was the pledge that Kyle’s father made them recite every day and each time he taught them. That was his condition to them when he taught the boys his trade. That pledge was drilled deep into Kyle and that was what he was thinking of while he flicked and fiddled with Anthony Briggs’ name card. He felt torn and he didn’t really know why. Working with Terry at Briggs Security Consulting sounded great, the job didn’t seem to violate his father’s code, but he just had a niggling feeling in his gut that something was off.

Kyle wasn’t sure he even wanted the job. He was quite happy helping out with his father’s locksmith business and didn’t want to leave. On the other hand, his father had approved and this was a great opportunity to work with cutting edge security systems. If Kyle was honest with himself, he found thought of being able to provide his input on complex locking systems quite appealing.

Terry had called and settled the logistics of the interview for both of them. Besides, Kyle could always decline later, if he wanted to.

* * * * * *

“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” Kyle asked Terry.

“Of course I’m sure,” Terry replied. “Google Maps said it’s here.”

They were at the edge of the city, in front of an unmarked two-storey building that looked old and weathered. This was the right place but the problem was, the door was locked. Kyle knocked on the door and waited, but there was no answer.

“I’m going to call the office,” Kyle announced.

“Good morning!” A female voice answered the phone brightly. “Briggs Security Consulting, how may I help you?”

“Hi, my name is Kyle Brooks. My friend Terry Walkins and I are here for a job interview, but we’re not sure if we’re in the right place,” Kyle read the address to her.

“Ah, Mr Brooks! Yes, you’re in the right place. Just open the door and go in.”

“But it’s locked…”

“Open the door and go in, Kyle,” she said and hung up before Kyle could protest further. Kyle pulled his phone away from his ear and frowned at it.

“What’s wrong?” Terry asked. “What did they say?”

“Well, we’re in the right place,” Kyle said as he pocketed his phone. “She said to just open the door and hung up. Pretty rude of her, if you ask me.”

“She said that? Her exact words?” Terry asked.

“She said ‘Open the door and go in’. Why?”

Terry whipped out his tools and grinned.

“No, you can’t be serious,” Kyle shook his head. “We can’t pick a lock without -”

“Without what? Permission? Sounds like she just gave us permission,” Terry interrupted. “Besides, Anthony Briggs said they would have a small test for us. What if this is it?”

Kyle hesitated.

“Wait,” Kyle stopped him. “Let me call Anthony Briggs.” Kyle took out his phone again and dialed, but got no answer. Terry turned to the lock and knelt down to inspect it.

“Don’t worry,” Terry told Kyle while he worked. “If anyone gets into trouble, it’ll just be me.” As he spoke the last word, the lock clicked and turned and Terry opened the door with a flourish.

“Show off,” Kyle muttered and they both looked in. Inside was a warehouse of some sort, with shelves of random objects. Kyle’s apprehension grew, but they both stepped inside anyway.

“Well done,” a voice said from the doorway behind them. “Most people would have just stopped at the locked door.” Kyle and Terry spun around and tried not to look too guilty.

“Mr. Briggs!” Terry exclaimed in relief and extended his hand to Anthony, which he shook.

“Mr. Briggs is my father. Call me Anthony, please. Welcome to my current place of work,” Anthony said. “I know, it doesn’t look like much, does it?”

“It’s umm… quaint,” Kyle said diplomatically.

Anthony chuckled. “Come with me,” he beckoned as he walked further in.

“Was that the test? The locked door, I mean,” Terry inquired as they walked.

“It was a test yes. I’m looking for people who are willing to push the boundaries a little. You will be working with state-of-the-art systems, after all.”

“Does that mean Kyle doesn’t get the job?” Terry asked. Kyle smacked him on the arm as Anthony laughed out loud.

“Au contraire! Kyle has shown that he has the right ethics for the job. He tried everything else first before you picked the lock. You two balance each other quite well. Besides, Terry, it’s not a competition. I’m looking to hire you both as a team. As an addition to my team.”

“What team?” Kyle asked. They had reached another door, this time with a retinal scanner. Anthony put his eye up to the scanner and waited. After a beat, the door opened for them to pass through. Kyle thought that was weird. Why such high tech security in a warehouse that was itself protected only by a simple lock which Terry had easily picked?

“This team,” Anthony waved Kyle and Terry into the room that was filled with more shelves of electronic gadgets, but organized a lot neater than the stuff outside. Two other people were in the room, seated at their respective tables, and both of them looked up when the door opened.

“Meet Gregory Thomas, electronics specialist. Graduated MIT two years ago, with Honors. He actually makes replicas of security systems and prototypes improvements.” Gregory was a nerdy looking guy who waved up at them. And the other person was –

“Rachel Rowan,” Kyle said, staring at her.

“You two know each other?” Anthony asked, surprised.

“We know her, but only by reputation. She’s known in the Locksport community because she cracks digital locks by hacking into their systems. Last I heard of her, she tried to hack into a government site and got arrested. Rumor has it she’s supposed to be working for some secret organization now. Wait a minute…” Realization dawned on him and he narrowed his eyes at Anthony, who nodded in confirmation and apology.

“Huh? What’s going on?” Terry looked from Kyle to Anthony and back in confusion.

“C’mon Terry, we’re leaving. I refuse to work with a boss who lies and a criminal who violated locksport ethics. No offense dude,” Kyle threw at Gregory, who shrugged and turned back to whatever he was working on.

“Wait, please,” Anthony pleaded and pulled Kyle aside. “Technically, I haven’t lied to you. I really am Anthony Briggs Jr. My father started this project and I’m helping to carry it out. We really do work for Briggs Security Consulting, building and testing security systems. Occasionally we get… external requests to do a job that requires our specific skill sets, or clients who would prefer more discretion. And I really would like to hire you both. This is a relatively old project, but a new team I’m putting together, and I value your lockpicking skills very highly.”

“Then you just need Terry. You don’t need me,” Kyle said quietly.

“I need a man of your morals. Someone to keep the team in check. If anyone would find all the possible legal and ethical ways of doing something, it would be someone like you. The fact that you’re so resistant to working in a questionable environment like this just proves my point. Also, we do develop and work with the latest security systems. Do you really want to give up that opportunity?”

Kyle hesitated.

“If you join us, you’ll have a say in what jobs we take. If you strongly object to any particular job or course of action, we’ll stop and look for alternatives. Tell you what,” Anthony added. “Work with us for a month. If you don’t like it, you can leave and I won’t bother you again. What do you say?”

Kyle folded his arms and considered Anthony. He seemed to be genuine enough. He glanced over at Terry, who had struck up a conversation with Gregory and Rachel, and sighed. Someone had to look out for him.



Emotional Response

This is dedicated to my friend Michelle for her birthday today. Happy birthday!

Present day
Heartless. Cold. Inhuman. Monster. Charlie had heard it all before, but made no difference. There were jobs to be done and anyone failing to do their’s would be fired. Charlie’s job was to do make sure others shaped up or shipped out.

The man sitting across Charlie was close to tears. She tried to feel something for him – sorrow, pity, regret, anything – she really did but, as usual, nothing. Logically, this was the right thing to do for the company. Purge anyone who hinders the organization, like this guy. Sloppy, careless and often late to work, she’d given him many chances and warnings in the past. Now, Charlie had no choice but to fire him as he’d become a liability to the company.

“No, please! I’ve been working three jobs, which is only just enough to pay the bills and feed my family. I need this job,” he begged.

“But you’re not contributing. You keep making mistakes. It was tolerable when they were just small errors, but now you’re costing the company money instead of helping to make it,” she replied dispassionately. Charlie looked at his employee file on her desk and continued, “It says here you have three kids. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. Did you think you were able to support a family this large with skills you had?”

“Well… My wife and I love kids and my youngest just… sort of happened,” he replied wearily.

“That just shows me that you lack foresight, make poor choices and you’re on a downward spiral that this company has no obligation to follow you into,” Charlie shot back. “You’ve become a liability and you’re showing no signs of improving. I’m sorry, we have to let you go.” Charlie snapped her employee file shut with an air of finality.

“You’re cruel,” he said.

“No. I’m efficient,” Charlie replied calmly.

Charlie got up and left the room, leaving the man in his misery. As she shut the door, she inhaled deeply, the tension in her head finally ebbing away.

* * * * * *

15 years ago
Charlie lay in her bed and stared at the ceiling, unable to fall asleep. She listened to her parents argue, as they did on most nights. She was intelligent for her age and understood most of what was happening. She wondered when they were going to tell her.

In front of Charlie, they acted sweet and caring to each other and to her, but Charlie knew they had issues. She wasn’t exactly sure what they were or how she could help resolve them, and her parents would just brush her off each time she asked.

Her parents voices drifted up to her again. They got a little louder until finally, Charlie heard a door slam and there was silence. She liked the quietness. It was peaceful and calm. Charlie turned over in her bed and fell asleep.

* * * * * *

Present day
Back in her home office, Charlie sat down and opened her desk drawer. She picked up an employee file – the file of man she’d just fired earlier that day – and slotted it in the drawer, behind numerous other files. Files of people who had worked in the company, up until she’d paid them a visit. Charlie ran her finger over the files, remembering and relishing the memories that they brought back.

Charlie laid back in her chair and closed her eyes, enjoying the serenity of her sanctuary. She lived alone, ever since her father had passed away last year. She missed him, missed taking care of him. At least her life had purpose then.

Without opening her eyes, Charlie opened another drawer, smaller than the first, and reached into it. Her slender fingers found a little velvet box and she picked it up. Her eyes still closed, Charlie nudged open the box, revealing a beautiful, very old-looking ring. It had a silver band and had a large oval shaped gem set on top. She never wore the ring, preferring to keep it safe in her home than risk losing it.

After her father died, Charlie had inherited this ring. It was a family heirloom, passed down for many generations. Charlie was a pragmatist. Everything she owned was practical and up to date. If an item had outlived it’s purpose, she sold it, threw it away, or gave it to someone else. Charlie kept nothing of sentimental value to her. She looked at the ring.

Well, almost nothing.

* * * * * *

15 years ago
Something was wrong. Charlie had yet to fully awaken, but she knew something was off. She opened her eyes.

Sunlight streamed into the window. Charlie could hear the bustling of traffic outside. She looked at the clock and saw she’d overslept by about an hour. She frowned, puzzled. Usually her mother would wake her up and get her ready for school. Charlie kicked off the blankets and went to investigate.

“Mum?” Charlie called as she padded to her parents’ bedroom and knocked on the door. There was no answer.

“Mummy?” Charlie called out again and knocked harder. She heard the bed springs groan as her mother got out of bed. The bedroom door opened and –

“Dad?” Charlie said, confused. “Aren’t you supposed to be at work? Where’s Mum?” Charlie peered around her father to look into the room, but her mother wasn’t in bed.

“She’s gone, kiddo,” her father told her sleepily and rubbed his face.

“Gone where?” Charlie asked. “She’s supposed to take me to school. When is she coming back?”

Charlie’s father scooped her up into his arms, took her inside the bedroom and sat her on the bed. He knelt down so he was at her eye level. Charlie saw that his eyes were red.

“Your mother’s gone. She left us. Last night. She’s not coming back.”

* * * * * *

Present day
The phone started ringing, breaking the tranquility. Charlie despised that machine, but she knew it was a necessity. She sighed, put down her fork and got up to answer it.

“Hello?” Charlie greeted.

“Charlotte?” a vaguely familiar female voice responded. Charlie froze. Nobody called her Charlotte. She’d been Charlie ever since her mother walked out on her and that name had finally died with her father.

“It’s Charlie,” she replied frostily. “Who is this?” she demanded.

“Charlotte, dear, don’t you recognize your own mother?”

Charlie remained silent. Part of her knew the caller was her mother, but the other part didn’t want to deal with it. She’d placed all her memories of her mother into a mental box and locked it far away in the darkest corner of her mind, never to be opened again.

“Charlotte?” her mother called out tentatively. “Just hear me out. Please. I know you’re there, dear, and I know you’re angry. You have every right to be. I’m sorry I left you and your father all those years ago. It’s just that, when I found out… well, I couldn’t bear it. I was weak.”

Charlie still hadn’t said a word, but she wasn’t angry. She felt nothing but emptiness inside her. Actually, she was a little curious now. What had her mother found out that caused her to abandon them? Charlie heard her mother sigh.

“The reason I’m calling is to talk about Dad. I know he died, but I only just read the letter he left for me. I couldn’t bear to open it until now and after reading it, I knew I had to find a way to contact you. I know this is a long shot, but would you meet me? Please? It’s about the ring he left you. You do have it, right?”

Charlie saw no point in denying she had it and now her curiosity had gotten the better of her.

“I’m not giving it to you, if that’s what you’re asking,” Charlie warned her.

“Oh no, dear, I don’t want it. You need it, but you don’t know what it does or why Dad only gave it to you now.”

“And I suppose you do?” Charlie asked, her interest now fully piqued.

“Yes. And I’ll tell you. I’ll show you. If you’ll meet up with me… Charlie.”

Charlie paused.


* * * * * *

11 years ago
“Daddy,” Charlie nudged her father, who was sleeping on the sofa. “Dad, wake up.” Her father groaned and waved his hands at her.

“I made breakfast, Dad. C’mon, share pancakes with me,” Charlie wafted the smell of pancakes from the plate she was holding. Her father sniffed, opened his eyes and smiled at her. He sat up and moaned as the hangover hit him.

“Here, Dad, I made pancakes and scrambled eggs. They’ll help to absorb the alcohol. You’ve got that meeting thing today, don’t you?” Charlie’s father looked at his watch.

“Right, yes. Thanks kiddo,” he said appreciatively. Charlie helped her father off the sofa and onto a chair, where he started on his breakfast.

“Don’t eat so fast, Dad!” Charlie exclaimed, smacking him playfully on his arm. “Relax, I prepared your suit and the documents you need for your presentation already, so that you could sleep longer and wouldn’t have to rush. Your shoes and socks are at the door and I made sure that the car has a full tank.”

Charlie’s father slowed down and looked at her with admiration.

“You just think of everything, don’t you?”

“Of course. If you don’t do your job, we won’t have money. If we have no money, I don’t get to buy myself pretty things,” Charlie said airily. “I’m just looking out for myself.”

The two of them stared at each other for a moment, then burst out laughing together.

* * * * * *

Present day
“Charlotte! I mean, Charlie, dear. My, you’ve grown,” Charlie’s mother tried to hug her.

“That’s usually what happens when you don’t see someone for 15 years. They grow,” Charlie replied, holding her mother at arm’s length. “So, what did you want to talk to me about?”

“You brought your father’s ring?”

Charlie nodded.

“Good. Before I tell you what it does, I need to tell you about your father and what kind of man he was.”

“I didn’t come here to hear you talk bad about Dad. He was a good man. Not perfect, but a better parent than you were,” Charlie glared at her mother. Charlie’s mother faltered.

“I guess I deserve that. I don’t disagree with you. He was a good man,” she said. “But what you didn’t know about him was that he was a psychopath. I didn’t find out until a few years after you were born. That’s when our fights started.”

“No, Dad wasn’t a murderer. I don’t believe it and I don’t think I want to hear anymore,” Charlie got up to leave.

“Charlotte – Charlie – wait! I never said he killed anyone. You misunderstand. Please, sit,” Charlie’s mother waited for her to sit back down. “A psychopath isn’t necessary a killer. A psychopath, by definition, is someone devoid of emotion. Someone like you.”

Charlie looked at her sharply. Charlie knew she was different, knew what she was and, over the years, she had learnt to conceal it and blend in with the social environment. Sometimes, her emptiness was useful, allowing her to make difficult choices based purely on logic, which made her perfect at her job.

“Your father told me when you were eleven years old. He knew what he was and he knew what you were. At first, I didn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe I’d married one psychopath and given birth to another. We had many arguments over that. Do you know why I loved your father? It was because he seemed to know exactly what I needed, almost as if he could read my mind. He knew when I was sad or angry and always gave me the right thing to make me feel better, whether it was a hug, words of reassurance or ice cream. I always felt safe, well taken care of. Pampered, to an extent. I wondered what I did to deserve such a sensitive man.

Then one night he explained it to me. I’d questioned why, since he was a psychopath, he was able to empathize with me. Was it all fake? A trick he’d learned over the course of his life? Then he showed me his ring. The ring allowed him to feel the emotions of others, which was why he was able to tell what I was feeling with undeniable accuracy. He didn’t have emotions of his own, but the ring let him use the emotions of others. What I saw in him was always a reflection of myself.”

Charlie scoffed. “You think I believe in magic?” she asked. “There’s no such thing. Besides, if the ring helped him, why didn’t he tell me about it himself, or give it to me to use?”

“He was too reliant on it and he didn’t want you to be like him. He also believed he could raise you to live a normal life without the ring’s help. I… disagreed. I was scared. Living with two psychopaths under the same roof was too much for me, so I ran away. If you don’t believe me, put on the ring now.”

Charlie hesitated. All her life, she just wanted to be normal. What her mother was offering was too good to be true. On the other hand, there was no harm in proving her wrong. Charlie slipped the ring onto her index finger and looked at her mother expectantly.

“See? Nothi-” Charlie gasped as her mother grabbed her hand and held on tight. Waves of unfamiliar emotions washed over her. Guilt, regret, sorrow and a bit of fear crashed again and again in pulses through her body. Charlie snatched her hand back. When the connection broke, Charlie was aware that she had tears running down her face. She had never cried before.

Charlie’s mother looked at her and patiently waited for her to recover. Neither of them said a word, just staring at each other in silence. The silence calmed Charlie and, after a while, she reached out her hand to her mother, who reached out to her as well. Charlie braced herself.

Instead of a rush of her mother’s emotions, it had diminished to a steady flow. All the feelings were still there, but Charlie was now aware of one more. It was warm and soothing and safe.

For the first time in her life, Charlie actually felt her mother’s love.


Slice of Life

This is another dedication, this time to my friend Zi Xuan for her birthday two weeks ago. Man, I really need to start on these things earlier.

Happy Birthday Xuan!

I watched him die, the knife hilt sticking out of his chest as it gradually drained the life out of him. His expression went from shock and pain to calm, perhaps even relief. He didn’t have to keep running anymore. I didn’t mean to kill him, just steal the knife, that’s all. But he woke up and attacked me. I had to defend myself and somehow during the scuffle, the knife ended up in buried in his chest.

I had won. The knife was truly mine now. As appalled as I was at killing someone, I couldn’t help be feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. I yanked the dagger out of the dead man’s chest and admired it. There was not a single drop of blood on the white blade, which reflected the moonlight streaming in from the window, but the gem set in the hilt was blood red.

Others would be here soon, so I couldn’t stay long. I needed to move, so I sheathed the dagger, hid it in my waistband and left the room. As I neared the building’s exit, I slowed and peeked out the door. There was nobody in sight. Excellent. I pulled the hood of my jacket over my head and carefully headed home.

* * * * * *

Only when I’d snapped the fourth lock into place did I heave a sigh of relief. I’d made it back to my apartment without incident and none of my security systems had been tripped. I was safe, for now at least. No matter what others might say, paranoia keeps me safe. Alone, yes, but safe.

Pulling out the dagger from my waistband, I sagged onto my armchair and examined it – properly, this time. Apart from the ruby set in the hilt, it looked quite ordinary. The sheath was a simple wooden holder, the hilt made of iron, nothing fancy. The blade itself was made out of some kind of ivory. Interesting. I retrieved my notebook, flipped to the next empty page and began to do a quick sketch with labels noting particular details. This would be useful when I get a replica made later. Which reminded me – time to test it in the safety of my sanctuary. It would be such a waste to have gone to all that trouble for a fake.

Okay, first experiment. I picked up the knife in my right hand and held it over my left arm. In my left hand was a stopwatch, my thumb on the button, ready to start timing. I hesitated; I’ve never been a big fan of pain, but then again, who has? Quickly, before I could think further, I slashed my left forearm and started the stopwatch. For a moment, I felt nothing, then the stinging pain hit me and I dropped the items from my hands.

I gasped and clenched my fist, the blood welling up from the cut as tears of pain pricked my eyes. Then, just as the pain reached a climax, I saw my wound start to close itself and felt the pain slowly diminish. I blinked away the tears and wiped away the blood on my arm, revealing a white scar with a pinkish tinge around it, but no wound. I flexed my arm, testing out my movement and felt no residual pain. The cut had completely healed and the scar was beginning to fade as well. I quickly picked up the stopwatch and stopped it. 13 seconds.

Impressive. I noted my findings and started constructing and executing more experiments. I found that the time it took to heal a cut varied with the size – the bigger the cut, the longer it took. Cuts made further away from my core took longer to heal as well. By the time I’d finished, I had cut myself more than fifty times, on various parts of my body and I was famished. All the cuts I’d made had completely healed and I felt no more pain once they did. As I munched on an apple, I noted that I felt very relaxed, probably due to the endorphins coursing through my system. Just as well, it was about time I got some rest.

I checked my security systems again, cleaned up the droplets of blood that had fallen on the floor during my experimentation and got ready to sleep. As I lay in my bed, I twirled the sheathed knife in my hands. My last thought before I fell asleep was that the ruby in the hilt seemed a little dimmer than before.

* * * * * *

I awoke with a start, my instincts taking over, every sense heightened and on alert for danger. I rolled of my bed and landed on a crouching position on the floor, automatically unsheathing the dagger I had fallen asleep with last night. I paused and listened, holding my breath. Something was off, but I wasn’t sure exactly what yet.

Seconds passed. My heartbeat slowed. Quietly, I got up and systematically checked my home defences. Nothing seemed amiss, except when I looked at my clock. That was weird. It showed 4AM, but daylight was streaming in. I stood there, confused and still a little sleep fogged until I realized it was showing 4PM, not AM – I’d slept all the way into the afternoon of the next day. I glared at the dagger in my hand, which seemed to stare innocently back at me.

I sighed and sheathed the blade. I should have anticipated the energy it took to repair the self inflicted cuts over and over again. The magic in the blade started the process, but it must have used my body’s energy reserves to finish each healing job. Come to think of it, I was hungry again.

In my exhaustion yesterday, I’d forgotten to put my mobile on the charger and the battery had run out, which was why the alarm hadn’t rung and nobody had called to see why I wasn’t at work today. Oops. I plugged it in and went to make myself something to eat.

After breakfast (or lunch, or tea. Whatever.), I made a call to my friend and closest ally I had right now: Grant. He was almost 70 years old and sort of an authority on ancient relics; weapons, in particular, and he’d helped me track down the knife.

“Hello?” Grant said as he picked up the phone.

“Grant, it’s Tom. Is it safe to talk now?” I asked cautiously. There was a pause.

“… It is now. What’s up, kid?”

“I’ve got the knife. Can I bring it over later tonight?”

“You’ve got it? Damn, who did you have to kill?”

“Later, Grant. I’ll come by around 8, okay? Dinner’s on me.”

“Okay, Tommy boy. See you tonight.” He hung up.

I had a few hours before our meeting, so I figured I might as well put the knife to good use. There was a reason I had killed for it, after all. I packed what I needed, then hid the knife carefully in my bag.

First stop, the hospital.

* * * * * *

“Mum,” I whispered. She didn’t respond, nor did I expect her to. Even after four months, her injuries she sustained from the crash that killed my father hadn’t fully healed.

I closed the door of my mother’s room and took out the knife. I sat down beside her bed and started unwrapping the bandages around her feet. I hesitated. Cutting myself was one thing, but slicing my mother up just seemed inhumane. Whoever made this knife had a seriously twisted mind.

Just to make sure she was still in a coma, I made a small nick on her foot, beside one of her scrapes. Mum didn’t react, which was good. I watched the cut I made quickly heal itself, but didn’t see any other noticeable changes. I made a shallow cut beside a large scar and waited. This time, as the cut healed, the scar shrank.

I continued making calculated incisions, working my way up her legs, healing all the cuts I could reach without taking off the cast around her leg. It was a good thing she was comatose; I don’t think I could have done it otherwise. Only when I’d finished healing all her scars did I realize I had no idea how to heal her broken leg. I guess it could wait – her life wasn’t in immediate danger – so I could as Grant what to do.

There was nothing more I could have done for my mother, so kissed her goodbye and left.

* * * * * *

“Grant!” I greeted my old buddy as he opened the door. “I brought pizza!”

“Hey Tom,” Grant welcomed me into his house with a smile. He took the pizza box from me and took a deep breath with appreciation.

As we settled down to eat, I told him how I got the knife and my findings from experimenting with it. I showed him my notebook and the knife, which he took some time to admire.

“Hey, how do I use it to heal my mum’s leg?” I asked him.

“A broken bone? Hah, you won’t be able to do that right now, not with this level of energy left in the knife.”


Grant looked at me in exasperation. “You don’t know how it works, do you?”

“Make cuts, they heal?” I shrugged. “Anyway, who cares how it works, as long as it works, right?”

“Tom,” Grant looked at me with a serious expression. “Making cuts is part of it. I’m sure you’ve found that the knife itself doesn’t completely heal a wound. It accelerates the body’s natural rate of recovery. See this ruby? It indicates the level of energy left in the knife. If it goes totally dull, it’s just a normal knife. The blade is, shall we say, vampiric. You have to kill someone and drain their life blood as energy for the knife to recharge.”

I stared at him.

“Can’t it be an animal?”

“No,” Grant replied. “And it can’t be someone who’s close to death either. The knife drains only as much life as the person has left. If you want to heal a broken bone, you first have to recharge the knife. Can you do that, Tom?” Grant nimbly twirled the knife and handed it to me hilt first.

“Can you kill someone?”

* * * * * *

Grant’s words haunted me as I trudged home. My ultimate goal was to bring my mother out of her coma, and if I can’t even fix her broken leg, what hope did I have? My father was already gone; I couldn’t lose Mum too. I would definitely kill someone to save my mother, that much I knew for sure. But I can’t kill an innocent person, or a child. No, those were out of the question. Killing the knife’s previous owner didn’t count – that was self-defense, an accident. But recharging the knife would mean I would have to actually commit premeditated murder.

My thoughts mulled about in my head and for once I wasn’t on full alert. Only instinct saved me as I threw myself out of the path of my attacker and I received a cut on my arm. That same cut would have sliced my throat if I hadn’t ducked away in time. I rolled and got up, the adrenaline already starting to course through my system and the pain of the cut faded to a dull throb. I had barely gotten to my feet when my attacker came at me again.

Man, this guy was fast. It was all I could do to parry his swing and stumble back, fighting to regain my footing. As I fought him, a small part of me recognized him as one of the other pursuers of the knife. How did he find out I was the one who had it? It’s ironic: not so long ago, I was one of them, searching for this legendary blade. We didn’t exactly work together, but as long as we didn’t step on each other’s toes, there was a feeling of friendly competition. Well, until one of us managed to obtain the blade, which made him the new target. Which made me the new target.

I mentally thanked my father for teaching me all my close combat training skills as I gradually gained the upper hand and pushed my advantage. Finally, I managed to get him in a headlock and applied pressure to his carotid artery. In a few seconds, he fainted. I held on a bit longer to make sure, then let go and he slumped to the floor.

I knew exactly what I needed to do. He would regain consciousness in a few minutes and would probably come after me again in the future. There was a chance he hadn’t told anyone else that I had the knife yet, but I couldn’t risk him doing just that. Besides, how could I pass up such an opportunity?

I pulled out the blade from my backpack, unsheathed it, and plunged it into my attacker’s chest.

* * * * * *

I stumbled back to Grant’s and told him my story.

“What I can’t figure out is,” I concluded. “How he found me so fast. I mean, no one else knew I was coming to you.”

“Don’t worry anymore,” Grant said as he patted me on the arm. “Now that the knife is fully charged, I can show you how to heal internal wounds. You know, legend says it can even reverse the aging process.”

“Really? I just want to wake Mum up,” I responded tiredly, passing him the knife.

“Yes, yes,” he said as he drew the knife out. “Here, watch carefully.” Grant removed his shirt and proceeded to make a series of cuts on the wrinkly skin of his chest. His movements were so fluid, as if guided by years of practice. He finished the cuts and they healed themselves. Then, before my eyes, his skin began to smooth over. His arms started to become muscular and his core began to fill out with flesh as well. In a few moments, he’d transformed from frail old man to a fit young man around my age.

I stared in shock and amazement.

Grant inhaled deeply and smiled. “Ah… it feels good to be young again,” he said brightly. “Did you know, this knife once belonged to Vlad the Third? They called him Vlad the Impaler for a reason.”

I shook my head mutely, only now starting to feel a little uneasy.

“I lost this once before,” Grant continued. “But now it’s back where it belongs – in my hands. Thank you, Tommy boy. But, oh dear, it seems I’ve used up all the energy in the knife again,” he said in disappointment.

He turned to face me with a hungry look in his eyes.


True Blue

This is dedicated to my friend Jia Kiat for his birthday, which was like, two weeks ago but it’s only coming out now because I was lazy and I only just finished it. Sorry, bro.

Happy Birthday!

Sarah watched in the dresser mirror as her mother dressed her in a simple black dress with a dark blue ribbon around the middle. Today was Sarah’s fifth birthday, but it also marked the first year without her father. Like her, Sarah’s mother was also in a stylish black dress and, without the blue ribbon, Sarah would have looked exactly like a smaller version of her mum. Brigid finished tying the ribbon around her daughter and kissed the top of her head.

“Happy birthday, sweetheart,” Brigid whispered into Sarah’s hair.

“That tickles!” Sarah squealed and tried to squirm away, but Brigid wrapped her arms around Sarah and swung her off the floor.

As Sarah settled down in Brigid’s embrace, Brigid opened a drawer in the dresser and pulled out a little gift box with a blue ribbon that matched the one around Sarah’s waist.

“Here you go, sweetheart. It’s from your father,” Brigid said as she gave the box to her daughter. Sarah squealed again in delight and opened the box. Inside was a beautiful black strapped choker with a sapphire set in the middle of a silver holder. Engraved on the back of the pendant were the words “For my precious princess“.

“Wow! Thank you, mommy!” Sarah exclaimed delightedly and kissed her mother.

“Do you want to put it on now?” Brigid asked. Sarah nodded enthusiastically and Brigid put her down facing the mirror. She pulled the necklace out of it’s box and unclasped it. Kneeling behind her daughter, Brigid carefully put the choker around Sarah’s neck. It was too loose, even when Brigid fastened the last clasp together, so the sapphire pendant hung just below Sarah’s collarbone, over her dress. Sarah smiled and touched the sparkling blue stone.

“Is it magic?” Sarah asked her mother in wonder. “It looks magic.”

“Maybe,” Brigid answered with a smile of her own. Sarah’s eyes widened.

“What does it do?” Sarah asked curiously.

“You’ll find out when you’re older,” her mother replied and spun Sarah around to face her. “Now, let’s go out and have some cake okay?”

“Okay!” Sarah bubbled happily.

* * * * * *

Seven-year-old Sarah sat by Christmas tree, counting the presents with her name on it. The choker sat around her neck, the sapphire resting in the hollow of it.

“Five!” Sarah finished counting with excitement.

“And Santa will bring you another one tonight, if you go to bed now,” Brigid told Sarah with a smile.

The blue stone at Sarah’s neck vibrated ever so slightly.

Sarah looked up at her mother with a serious expression as she clutched her pendant.

“Santa doesn’t exist, mommy. I’m not a baby anymore,” she pouted. Brigid knelt and smiled gently at her daughter.

“You’re right, he doesn’t exist,” Brigid conceded. “But there will be an extra present waiting for you if you go to bed now,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye.

Sarah fingered her sapphire expectantly, but the stone remained still. After a beat, she brightened.

“Okay! Goodnight mommy,” Sarah kissed her mother on the cheek and raced off.

Brigid sighed as she watched her daughter get ready for bed.

* * * * * *

“Tell me the truth, Sarah,” Brigid commanded. “Did you or did you not cheat on this test?”

“No, I didn’t!” Twelve-year-old Sarah insisted, stamping her feet in frustation.

“Then why are your answers exactly the same as your classmate’s?”

“I don’t know!” Sarah cried. “He cheated from me!”

“Sarah…” Her mother sighed. Sarah screamed in impatience and ran to her room.

Neither of them noticed the two small cracks in the crystal when Sarah took it off at the end of the day.

* * * * * *

“I had fun tonight, thank you,” Sarah smiled at Tony. Tony held her hand and smiled back. They were sitting on the warm bonnet of Tony’s car, just after their first date.

“You know, you’re the first girl I’ve ever kissed,” Tony said. The sapphire buzzed.

“I told you not to lie to me, Tony. I can sense every single lie,” Sarah reminded him. Tony sighed.

“I’m sorry. I just wanted to say something romantic, you know? To make you feel good. It’s not cool to say something like, ‘you’re the third girl I’ve kissed’. It was just a small lie, no harm done,” Tony apologized.

Sarah smiled reluctantly. He was trying to be sweet, not intentionally lie to her.

“Well,” she said. “You could say something like, ‘You’re the most beautiful girl in the world’. Go on, say it!” She nudged him playfully.

“I think you’re the most beautiful girl in the world,” Tony said immediately. The blue stone vibrated. Sarah frowned and pulled away.

“That’s… not true,” Sarah realized.

“What? Yes it is!” Tony sputtered. The stone buzzed yet again. Sarah stood.

“You don’t really like me, do you? You just want to get into my pants!” Sarah accused.

“Oh, come on! I’m just trying to make you happy. Why are you picking on every minuscule lie I tell?”

“Because if you can lie to me about small things like this, it won’t be long before you tell bigger lies,” Sarah rebuffed him firmly. “Goodbye, Tony. Don’t call me.” Sarah gathered up her things.

“You know, you’re really difficult to be around. No wonder you don’t have a boyfriend. You probably never will,” Tony told her. Sarah gave him one last disgusted look and stalked off.

As she trudged home, tears pricked her eyes.

* * * * * *

“He’s lying,” Sarah said. She was observing the interrogation from behind the one-way glass, reading the suspect’s facial expressions and body language. After years of lies, the surface of her sapphire was covered in tiny cracks. She had decided to learn other ways to detect deception and word her sentences carefully.

At 25, she was the youngest female member in the police department. She’d just graduated with a degree in Criminal Psychology and had breezed through the entrance tests. Now, she was a Profiler, but her strength was really in interrogating suspects.

“Very good. And…?” Dalton, her superior and mentor, commended her.

“…I don’t know, sir. I need to be in there questioning him. He might not be lying outright, but he’s definitely hiding something,” Sarah replied. Dalton nodded and knocked on the glass.

Detective Gabriel glanced at the glass, got up and left the room. A few moments later, he entered the room Sarah and Dalton were in.

“Okay kiddo, in you go,” Dalton said to Sarah. Gabriel gave Sarah the case file and took a spot facing the interrogation room as she exited.

“Hello, Christopher,” Sarah greeted him as she entered the room. Christopher lifted his head from his hands to look at her as she sat down.

“I’m Sarah.” She gave him a disarming smile.

“So,” Sarah began. “Why don’t you tell me why you think you’re here?”

“I don’t know,” Christopher replied miserably. Sarah’s sapphire buzzed gently.

“Oh, I think you do. We’re investigating the death of Patricia Oswald. You know something about it. And don’t bother lying to me, I can sniff out every single lie you tell.”

“Then you should know that Mrs Oswald was a nice lady. I loved her like she was my grandmother. I’m sorry she’s gone. But I don’t know how she died.” The stone was silent until he spoke the last sentence.

“Hmm…” Sarah said. “True, true, true, false. I told you I can sniff out every lie you tell. I’m thinking you didn’t have anything to do with her death, but you know someone who wanted to hurt her.” She watched Christopher closely.

He remained silent, but squirmed uncomfortably.

“Look,” Sarah said. “All we want to know is who you’re protecting and why you’re protecting him or her, when you truthfully said you loved Patricia Oswald like she was your grandmother.” She paused. “Okay, fine, you stay silent, I’ll just guess. A friend?”

Christopher said nothing.

“Family member?”

“No,” he denied. The stone quivered against her neck.

“Aha,” Sarah nodded. “You have no siblings, so… Mother?”

“She’s got nothing to do with it.” Christopher insisted adamantly. Sarah’s necklace remained still.

“Mmmhmm. True. It’s the father,” she told the one-way glass and got up from her seat.

“No, it’s not!” Christopher slammed his fist on the table as Sarah left, and the blue stone vibrated against her neck.

* * * * * *

Sarah sat beside her mother at the hospital, holding her hand.

“Mom, how are you feeling?”

“Fine, fine. I’ll be okay,” Brigid coughed out. Sarah’s pendant quivered silently at her neck, mirroring the waning confidence and ever-increasing worry she was feeling inside.

“Sarah?” The doctor called from the door. “May I have a word?”

Sarah nodded. She smiled lovingly at her mother, patted her hand and followed the doctor outside.

“I’m sorry, but there’s nothing more we can do,” he said. “Your mother has only a few months left to live.”

Sarah’s sapphire stayed still.

* * * * * *

“No one can possibly stand to be around you when you nitpick at every single lie they tell, no matter how small, inconsequential or noble they may be! You can’t control everything, you know!” Gerald yelled at her.

He slammed the door and Sarah collapsed on the floor, struggling to breathe through her anguish. She unclasped the choker from around her neck and stared at her fractured sapphire, the flaws in the stone reflecting her own imperfections. It wasn’t the first time she’d considered throwing the gem away, but she couldn’t bear to dispose of the one precious thing she had of her father.

There was a timid knock on her front door. Sarah swallowed the lump in her throat and, in a warbled but hopeful voice, called out, “Gerald?”

“No, it’s Bryan,” her neighbour replied. “Are you alright? I heard someone shouting.” The door opened slightly and Bryan peeked in. He took one look at Sarah’s crumpled form and was at her side immediately, his arms wrapped protectively around her. The moment he hugged her, Sarah broke down.

“What’s wrong with me, Bryan?” she sobbed into his shoulder. Bryan said nothing, just gently rocked her in his embrace.

“That was the twenty-seventh guy I’ve driven away,” Sarah moaned.

“You kept count?” Bryan teased.

Sarah hiccuped, her reluctant laugh getting caught in her throat. She smacked Bryan’s arm, but her tears had stopped.

“You’re just too good at what you do. You’re too good for them,” Bryan told her.

“Then why is it I’m the one who suffers?” Sarah’s voice trembled, her eyes threatening tears again.

Bryan had no answer to that and they both sat in silence for a while.

Sarah pondered over all her failed relationships. Gerald was right: she had been pointing out every single lie she was told, even if it was something harmless. She couldn’t help it; she didn’t have the option of not knowing. Ignorance was not something she tolerated from herself, but no one would always tell her the truth.

“You’re right, Bryan,” she whispered in realization. “I am too good at spotting lies. I’ll always be able to do so. No one will ever be able to lie to me and no guy will ever be able to come to love me enough to always be truthful with me. Nobody will love me, which means I can’t be loved. And if I can’t be loved, I’m not worthy of being loved.”

The sapphire shattered and the shards fell through her fingers.

“Yes,” said Bryan gently, wiping the tears from her face. “Yes, you are.”