Mrs Hashiji’s smile was as soft and sweet as ever, but her eyes were stone-hard. It was the expression of someone who hadn’t asked a question, but rather had made a statement.
Matheus fumbled over his words for a moment, before realising that he didn’t have a polite way to decline. ‘I- Well, I can’t see why- I’m, um,’ he composed himself, mastering the mess of emotions fighting for supremacy behind his eyes. ‘Of course, Mrs Hashiji,’ he said at last, ‘It would be my pleasure.’
Hashiji led Matheus to the table in the back corner of the coffeeshop where Pretorius was still sitting. Pretorius nodded to the two of them as they approached, lifting his eyes briefly from the newspaper.
‘Costa,’ he acknowledged, as Mrs Hashiji returned to her seat across from him. Matheus immediately saw why he hadn’t spotted her when he’d been standing in the line. She was small enough that when sitting at the table, the other customers completely hid her from view.
‘Won’t you take a seat, Matheus?’ Hashiji said.
Matheus looked at the fixed bench around the table. He didn’t even need to gauge the space between.
Without saying a word to the pair, Matheus turned around, walked over to the nearest table that had a free chair, and placed two enormous hands on its back. ‘I’m terribly sorry to bother you,’ said Matheus to the couple at the table, with his warmest smile, ‘But might I take this chair?’
The couple politely agreed. Matheus thanked them and returned to the others with the chair.
As he walked, Matheus found himself studying the faces of Hashiji and Pretorius. Hashiji was still smiling, but her small, dark eyes seemed a little sad. Pretorius’s scowl was as hard as ever, and was still fixed on the newspaper.
They were not the expressions Matheus was looking for. With a pang of guilt, he realised that he had grabbed the chair as abruptly as possible to maximise their embarrassment. Embarrassment that hadn’t materialised.
‘You’re the least sneaky man I’ve ever seen, Costa,’ said Pretorius without lifting his eyes from the table.
‘What do you mean?’ said Matheus, perching on the chair in his usual way.
‘Oh come on,’ he said, equal parts irritated and amused, ‘It was like you’d spotted your dentist across the room.’
Once more, Matheus felt the irritation of having his politeness called into question. Internally, he seethed.
‘My sincerest apologies,’ he said, slowly annunciating every word as if it were an incantation, ‘It has been a long day that I fear shall only grow longer. I didn’t want… I thought it best to not engage in a conversation.’
‘And our apologies for disturbing you, Matheus,’ said Mrs Hashiji. She smiled a little, ‘And for surprising you just now.’
Matheus smiled back in spite of himself. ‘You’re quite forgiven.’
‘Good,’ said Pretorius, ‘Because it was very funny to see you jump out of your skin like that.’
Matheus bristled. Tried to detect a note of cruelty in Pretorius’s voice, but he seemed good-natured enough. Matheus elected to let it go.
‘So,’ he said instead, ‘Might I ask what we are discussing?’
Matheus caught the brief glance that Pretorius and Hashiji exchanged, but could not parse its meaning.
It was Pretorius who spoke first. His voice was lower than it had been before. Conspiratorial. ‘The other day, when we were called into Parma last, do you remember Agent Sandy asking us if we’d experienced anything weird? Anything supernatural?’
Matheus felt his tension and suspicion multiply. He tried not to let any of it show on his own face while in turn studying Pretorius’s expression. Matheus couldn’t detect anything beyond his usual scowl.
‘I do remember that, yes,’ he said in response, ‘What of it?’
‘Did you tell him the truth?’ Pretorius spoke directly, almost harshly.
Matheus thought long and hard about what his response should be. But before he could formulate it, Mrs Hashiji stepped in.
‘We have both received threats, Matheus,’ she said, ‘Myself and Dr Pretorius. The threats made seemed to be supernatural in origin. Neither of us told Sandy about them.’
Matheus opened his mouth again to speak, but couldn’t find anything to say. His thoughts were a mess as he turned to face first Pretorius and then Hashiji. Surprise and fear were the most obvious feelings, but he was surprised to find a note of defensiveness too. Of wanting to protect the pair.
‘What happened?’ he finally managed to say.
‘I was approached by a man in my store,’ said Hashiji, ‘My abilities mean that I can see certain things that others cannot. I saw an aura of menace around him. Heard whispers of flames.’ She took a sip from her tea, and made a face at its taste, ‘He was also carrying a hammer and threatening to “make me pay” if that wasn’t clue enough.’ She placed down her cup of tea and began to search through her bright red handbag, ‘He left this in my letterbox.’
Mrs Hashiji produced a crumpled piece of paper. Something had been scrawled on one side. Matheus pushed his small spectacles a little way up his nose and tried to read it, but it was incomprehensible.
‘I’m afraid you may have over-estimated my linguistical abilities,’ he said.
‘”Linguistic”,’ said Pretorius, his eyes still studying the newspaper, ‘The word’s “linguistic” – sorry, carry on.’
Matheus gritted his teeth, ‘My apologies, Pretorius. Thank you for the correction.’
‘Hey, don’t mention it,’ said Pretorius still reading, ‘Just buy me a drink sometime as thanks.’
‘Irish Gaelic is the language,’ said Hashiji before Matheus could think of a retort, ‘”May the gates of paradise remain ever closed to you. Your time is coming.” Or words to that effect. My Gaelic is rusty.’
Matheus looked quizzically at Hashiji. ‘You speak Irish Gaelic?’
Mrs Hashiji’s head tilted side to side once or twice, ‘A little. Languages are a… hobby of mine.’
Matheus nodded. It sounded suspiciously convenient to him, but now was not the time to confront her about it.
‘As for me,’ said Pretorius in the gap, ‘It hasn’t been quite as dramatic,’ he drily smiled at Matheus, ‘Nor has it been vampires, for that matter. I work from home, but I have an office at City University. I go to pick something up from the office, and I discover that my computer was hacked.’
Matheus frowned. ‘While disquieting, I fail to see how that is a definite link to the supernatural occurrences.’
Pretorius frowned back, and reached into his pocket, pulling out a smart phone. It was modern and clearly expensive, two things that Matheus hadn’t imagined would appeal to Pretorius. The professor moved his fingers in a blur for a moment and brought up a photograph. Pretorius showed it to him.
Matheus squinted for a moment and pushed up his spectacles. Then it clicked what he was looking at. It was a picture of a small, cramped office, with stacks of books and papers haphazardly arranged on the table. Between them, was an ancient desktop computer. The image on the computer was disturbing.
Static had filled the screen. The light and shadow of the static seemed to form a shape. A human head. Its features were indistinct, but it’s eyes were two, black shards. Hard lined. On its forehead was a symbol that Matheus didn’t recognise – It looked like a cup, or a bowl, with jagged edges and a rounded semi-circle at its base. Below the head, in a distressing, vivid-red font, were the words:
We will find you.
‘I know what you’re thinking,’ said Pretorius, ‘Melodramatic arseholes, aren’t they?’
Matheus had not been thinking that. His brow was furrowed behind his spectacles, and an uneasy feeling was growing in his stomach. It wasn’t fear, or at least it wasn’t a fear of whoever had written the message. It was foreboding.
He turned his eyes from the phone to Pretorius. In contrast, the older man was smiling, albeit with more than a little bitterness.
‘According to the receptionist,’ continued Pretorius, ‘My office has also been visited by an extremely enthusiastic non-student several times a week recently. She asked after me repeatedly, and then disappeared.’
Matheus felt the unease rising.
‘We wanted to ask you, Matheus,’ said Hashiji, ‘Away from Sandy and Parma and so on, has anything like this happened to you? Has there been any threats against you, supernatural or otherwise?’
Matheus didn’t respond for a long time. The words of Hashiji hung in the air as he looked at the table between the two, studying the pale green swirls of the foam in his tea. Both their eyes were on him, and he knew that he would have to answer soon.
When he finally did speak, Matheus was surprised to hear the anger in his voice.
‘Why are you asking this? As I recall at the discussion that the boy Luis Guerro organised, both of you stated that we should all go our own way.’ Matheus looked directly at Pretorius. ‘You, as I recall, were by far the most adamantly against the idea of us forming into a collective. You explicitly said that no one of us should trust any of the others. Why are you drawing me into this now?’
Matheus paused for a moment. He removed his spectacles and polished them with a small micro-fibre cloth he kept in his breast pocket. His emotions simmered down.
‘What I think you should do,’ he continued, ‘Is just tell Sandy what happened to the two of you, and let Parma deal with it. That is what they are there for.’
Pretorius stood up, his scowl deepening. He did it as abruptly as he could, which wasn’t all that abrupt given the cane.
‘You’ll have to forgive this old man bladder,’ he said, his voice even sharper and brusker than usual. He limped his way slowly to the washroom.
Matheus felt guilt, which was dulled by the fact that he had no idea what he had done wrong. He looked at Mrs Hashiji, who was watching Pretorius go with pursed lips. She made eye contact with Matheus, held his gaze for a moment, then spoke. Slowly and firmly, but not unkindly.
‘Matheus, they came to where we work. Do you realise what that means?’
Matheus processed for a moment, but Hashiji continued.
‘The people going after us, it’s obvious that they seek vengeance for our actions. They want us to pay for things that we had no control over. But they should have no knowledge of who we are in the real world. How would they know where we work? Who else knows that the owner of a small store, or an editor of scientific journals, or a part-time librarian were responsible for a monstrous, supernatural attack?’
Matheus thought the question rhetorical at first, but the realisation came slowly over him. Matheus felt the familiar horror of realising just how many people were against him. The feeling of putting a foot on a step that wasn’t there.
‘Parma,’ he said, in a quiet rumble.
Mrs Hashiji nodded, and smiled in a way that Matheus was becoming familiar with. It was a smile that was infinitely sad, but full of bravery and empathy.
She paused for a long while, stirring her tea, and taking a sip. All the while the words hung in the air between them. Finally, she spoke, her voice soft. ‘Now you know why Dr Pretorius is so scared. There are even fewer people to trust than we had at first hoped. It may be that we will have no choice but to trust one another.’
‘For the record,’ said Pretorius, returning to the table, ‘I’m not scared. I’m angry.’ He slid uncomfortably along the bench and back to his original position. ‘Also for the record, I still don’t think we should start a “superhero team”, or whatever dumb way of putting it that kid had. I just think we need to watch our backs, especially with the information we give out to Parma.’
‘You think Sandy is somehow connected to the threats?’ Matheus said. He thought about Sandy. Though he didn’t like the man, he couldn’t imagine that he would so this.
‘Maybe,’ said Pretorius, ‘But probably not. Sandy strikes me as too squeaky-clean to get involved in anything like this.’ He took a drink of the black coffee before continuing. ‘But that’s the point with the authorities. It only takes one of them with an axe to grind leaking out, say, a list of our workplaces to some of the people who want vengeance for the attack, and that’s us in the meat grinder.’
‘Do you think anyone would do that?’ Matheus asked.
Pretorius was about to speak, but before he could, Mrs Hashiji answered. ‘There are people in Parma with little love for us, I don’t doubt it. I met one of them the last time we were here.’ Hashiji paused, then looked away from the table and out the window of the coffee store, before continuing, her voice a little more distant than before. ‘I, like you two, have only disjointed memories of the attack. But I have no doubt that we fought some Parma Agents before we were stopped. We may have even…’ her mouth stayed open, but her eyes frowned, Matheus noticed. After a pause in which he and Pretorius waited to see if she would continue, she closed her mouth, smiled her sad smile, and said softly, ‘It is likely that we may have killed some of them.’
Matheus felt oddly like laughing. It was somehow dreamlike, as if everything taking place were happening to someone else. He was sitting in a small coffeeshop on the Eastside sipping a green tea latte, with people all around them talking about their days or their jobs or what they saw on TV, and this little, sweet, middle-aged Japanese lady had just calmly stated that he, her, and seven others had killed a number of secret agents without anyone, including them, knowing why.
Matheus’s hand clenched. Strength, unbelievable strength, compressed his hand into a tighter and tighter fist. The tension rose up his arm, into his torso, and as it did it brought unbreakable certainty. He knew she was right. He knew what he had been forced to do. He knew the world that he had been forced into.
Matheus hope the others didn’t notice the anger on his face.
He looked at Mrs Hashiji. She was still looking sadly out of the window, her hand rested on the table next to her half finished tea. As quickly as it had come, the anger vanished, replaced by pity. Matheus could handle the thought of himself as a monster, he could live with that. But what they had done to this sweet, kind, little woman was something that he could barely face. Matheus wanted very badly to reach out his own hand to pat hers. To let her know that they would work this out. But he didn’t. He couldn’t.
‘So, in conclusion Matheus, that’s why we think that we should avoid giving Parma any more information than we have to,’ said Pretorius. ‘Who knows who might get ahold of it from them. We three have to be especially careful.’
Matheus frowned, ‘Why we three?’
Pretorius smiled his smile. It had as little joy in it as Mrs Hashiji’s, but instead of sadness, it seemed to mask a mingled bitterness and anger.
‘I don’t see the kid or the blind guy getting called in here every few days. If they were, I’ve no doubt Luis would send us all a text message saying how cool it was that he got to meet a real life James Bond. No, it seems to just be us three they’re focusing on for now.’ Pretorius leaned back on the bench. ‘And I bet you know why.’
Matheus sighed. He removed his spectacles and his cloth from his chest pocket. ‘Because of the nine, we three were the ones who did the most damage.’
Pretorius’s grin broadened. ‘That’s right. Flattering, isn’t it?’