Stolen hearts – Season 1, Episode 4 of Starlight

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Starlight, Season 1, Episode 4: Stolen hearts

Copyright (c) Ben Foth 2021

Word count: 7953


A young and wealthy tech executive is alive and well at a work conference – then is found dead with his heart ripped out after being alone for 5 minutes. He didn’t even scream.

The ego-driven, hot-headed Omar and the rational, self-controlled Simon investigate this unconventional death, and find themselves initiated into something far more sinister than a tech startup.

Meanwhile, Bryce’s sexual insecurities get harshly triggered – and he seeks advice from Tom about his manhood.


Stolen hearts

By Ben Foth

Classical music played inside the Chateau Laurier hotel’s pristine lobby.

Dan Glass, a high-level tech executive, was in his early 30s and aging quickly. He couldn’t combat the stress of his soulless job forever. He couldn’t turn back time and relive his youthful, blissful glory days on his own terms. But certain things helped. Such as his blonde and bad companion, escort Lana Sinclair, who was over a decade younger, wearing sunglasses and a romper, nothing that obviously screamed “I’m an escort”.

But Raul, the mid-20s bellhop sharing the elevator with them, knew exactly why they were there. He and everyone he knew in the hotel industry would spot their fair share of seasoned businessmen with young, hot, tight women they only had one reason to be with.

“You’re here for the conference, I’m guessing,” Raul small-talked, ignoring Lana. “Where are you coming from?”

“Toronto,” Dan said.

“You must be used to all the big-city hustle and bustle then.”

“I have a condo near where I work, so I don’t have to deal with too much street traffic.”

The elevator dinged. They’d reached Dan’s floor.

“Have a nice stay!” Raul said. Dan and Lana didn’t respond.

Dan slid his keycard into his door. The metal lock/doorknob’s little red light turned green and gave a quick beep. Dan’s suits and casual clothes were neatly arranged in the closet. Dan picked his briefcase up from the leather chair. He removed a pair of handcuffs and a pack of condoms from it. Dan gave a sly grin to Lana, who forced one herself. She was desensitized to this part of her job.

“I have a bottle of wine to loosen us up,” Dan said. He undid his mildly expensive watch’s metal strap and placed it on the desk.

“Oooh, wine,” Lana’s whore persona said. “I need to pee first, excuse me.”

Lana popped into the hotel room’s bathroom and took off her romper. The person who invented rompers obviously didn’t anticipate this problem. As she sat on the toilet, she heard someone visit Dan, have an unintelligible conversation with him, and leave. Must have just been room service, or a friend of his also going to his conference.

Lana put her romper back on, washed her hands, and left the bathroom. She screamed. Dan was lying face-up on the hotel bed with his heart ripped out.

***

Tom Holroyd blasted some rock song Bryce Waterman didn’t know as they pulled up to the Chateau Laurier in the black Starlight company car. Tom would never drive anywhere without first putting a playlist on, mostly various rock subgenres. The two gents were dressed in black suits, black ties, and blue shirts. Bryce felt empowered, masculine, but uncomfortable in his, mostly because of the hot August air.

“Just follow my lead,” Tom said, leaving the music on. “You can pass for your late 20s, so act like you are. Let’s get in, see what’s up, and get out.”

In Dan’s room, his corpse had been unmoved. The bed had been cordoned off by police as a crime scene. Tom and Bryce slipped rubber gloves on.

“Excuse me, who are you guys?” The detective already at the scene asked.

“Specialists,” Tom said, gently gesturing the plainclothes detective away from the body, and pulling some sort of badge out of his jacket pocket. “Federal specialists. This was no ordinary murder, and it’s now our responsibility. You’re free to go, detective -”

“Freeman.”

“Right, we’ll handle this one from here, Detective Freeman. You and your company can leave. Thank you for your patience and your work so far.”

Detective Freeman and the two forensic officers with him left the room, and Tom inspected the body. Bite marks around the chest, or were they claw marks? Heart – missing. Unopened wine bottle on the desk. Two glasses. Must have been for Dan and the young woman who phoned this case in. Condoms and handcuffs beside the bottle and the glasses. No secret what this murder victim had been about to get up to. Tom snapped photos of it all on his work phone.

“So, why us?” Bryce asked. “We’re not-” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “We’re not police, so why are we investigating this? Shouldn’t we leave it to them?”

“If the cause of death didn’t look so inhuman, we would have,” Tom said. “But we heard the details through the grapevine, and we’re the only ones qualified enough to solve this case. Probably extraterrestrial, probably supernatural. Definitely unconventional. Hand me the collection kit.”

Bryce cracked open his briefcase and handed Tom the collection kit. Tom swabbed the blood around Dan’s mutilated chest and collected samples of his skin and clothes, putting it all into sealed tubes. Bryce was tempted to steal Dan’s expensive watch for himself, but he only examined it. The sole interesting thing about it besides its price and brand – an engraving of a heart with a clock inside it on its underside.

“Simon will know what to do with these. Now Bryce, my dear shadow, use your observational training. What can you tell me about this man that I haven’t already told you?”

“Well, um, he was about to have sex, obviously. The condoms and the handcuffs and the wine kind of gave that away. Looks like he’s in his early 30s. Kind of in shape, but he’s not too ripped. He probably stress-eats then works off the extra calories. He’s wearing his suit, so he was probably going to some meeting after this. Expensive watch in a fancy hotel, so he’s successful. In a hotel room away from home, so it was probably with a local prostitute, or more likely, some girl from a dating app.”

“Prostitute is more or less correct, same for everything else. Her name’s Lana Sinclair, local escort. Was apparently taking a piss when he got killed. We’re chatting her up after this. I’ll do that. You get the biological evidence back to Simon.”

***

“Lana Sinclair. Or should I say – Madeline Rautio,” Tom said in the police interrogation room, which had two defining objects – a metal table and a two-way mirror. “You know we don’t think you did it. The wound doesn’t match up to anything you could have done. But what did?”

Madeline looked only slightly shaken. “I have no idea, it must have happened in 5 minutes. He didn’t scream or anything.”

“Didn’t scream, interesting,” Tom said. “You know, if I was getting my heart ripped out of my chest, it’d hurt. I’d scream. Let’s hope you didn’t care about Mr. Glass too much, Ms. Rautio.”

“He was just a client, detective. I was only in it for his money.”

“And did anything weird or unusual happen on your way to his room?”

“Not really. He made some small talk with the bellhop and that’s it.”

Tom paused. She didn’t seem to know much else.

“How old are you, Madeline?”

“20,” Madeline looked worn-out and drained for her age. There was no youthful glow to her.

Tom wanted to say something about Madeline’s age or her profession, the oldest one. But he decided not to. She’d made her choices. She’d had her reasons. The consequences would be hers to deal with. He told the police to let her go.

***

Back at Starlight Manor, Bryce was lounging in the upstairs common room on the leather couch, much like the ones in the conference room. Paintings of dreamy, ethereal scenes, featuring extraterrestrials and humans, lined the Victorian room’s white-painted walls. A large television with a defunct fireplace behind it was the room’s focal point. Bryce had finished all his cleaning duties for the day and didn’t have much to do besides text Rachel, trying to get her out with him after work.

“Hey, Bryce,” Helene cheerfully greeted him, holding a tray of three ice coffees. “No milk and no sugar, just like you asked.”

“Thank you,” Bryce took his coffee and set it on the glass coffee table in front of him.

“Who are you texting? Don’t you have work to be doing?”

“Oh, it’s…”

Bryce flashed back to his mediocre drunk one-night-stand with Rachel. He’d been half-hard for much of it, Rachel wanted it rougher than what he was used to, and while he’d ejaculate prematurely with Madison, he had a tough time doing so with Rachel. But Helene didn’t need to know about any of that.

“…just a girl.”

“Bryce!” Helene’s face lit up. She sat on the couch beside him and crossed her black-pencil-skirt-and-pantyhose-clad legs away from him. “You’re seeing someone?”

“You sure we should be talking about this at work?”

“There’s worse things we could be doing,” Helene said devilishly. “I’m on break too. Didn’t have much to do today anyway.”

“Well, I’m trying to get her out after I’m done work. Any advice?”

“What’s her sign?”

Tom entered the room and snatched his coffee.

“Helene, thank you for the coffee, now it’s time for a meeting!”

***

The Starlight team sat around Tom in the Manor’s conference room.

“So, this is Dan Glass. He’s young for a high-powered tech executive,” Tom showed the team information about Dan on the screen. “Was staying at Chateau Laurier for a conference. Got his heart ripped out, didn’t scream. The escort he was with went to the bathroom for 5 minutes – then walked out, saw him dead. Most important detail here – He didn’t scream.”

“Could that mean he consented to it?” Jane spoke up, relieved she didn’t stutter. She knew what the group was thinking – ‘like you almost consented to selling your soul?’

“Good thinking, Jane,” Tom said. “Maybe he wanted it to happen, made some sort of bargain.”

None of the group brought up Jane’s last adventure, though she kept expecting one of them to chew her out for it. Her eyes darted down.

“In any case, it could have something to do with the tech conference at the hotel this week,” Tom said. “So we’ll send in Omar and Simon as undercover agents. Hotel staff already have me and Bryce on camera, and we’ll pose as police again if another one of these happens. And no offence to the ladies, but we’ll save you for a honeypot strategy if we need one.”

***

Omar Atallah and Simon Bannerman set their travel bags on their hotel room’s beds the next morning. Omar unpacked his belongings and stoically sat at the hotel room’s desk with his laptop. Simon paced around, making sure he’d memorized every detail of his cover story.

“I’ll get into the security feeds, you walk around and see who seems interesting among these tech geeks,” Omar said.

“Says our tech geek,” Simon said, flopping backwards onto his bed and rolling onto his side. He cracked open his travel bag and began digging through it.

“Difference between me and them is, I’m not that much of a geek, and I could probably snap these low-testosterone guys in half. You know I was going to be a wrestling champion before Starlight.”

“Millionth time you’ve told me you were on track to being #1 in Canada,” Simon took a revolver from his bag and loaded it.

“Why do you have that thing? We’re just doing reconnaissance,” Omar said.

“You never know when a doctor like me may need to shoot some wanker. Taking a page out of Chekhov’s book.”

“Why the revolver though? Why not a semi-automatic? They’re more practical.”

“Revolvers are cool, bruv.”

Simon’s cover was that of a wealthy investor – Noel Williams – looking to find a startup worth putting his money into. He scanned the Chateau’s luxurious hallways and conference rooms, looking for anyone who knew anyone. Simon compared the class of the Chateau Laurier to that of the Starlight Manor, which was mostly made of wood; it didn’t have marble floors or pillars like the Chateau.

Simon sat down for his continental breakfast and surveyed the room. A group of pretty mid-late-20s foreign white women in classy sundresses sat and gossiped at one, speaking some Central-European language. Tourists, definitely. A few more tables were occupied by obvious tech guys, with their glasses and shoddy dress and geek physiques with the occasional muscular one, all chatting about their tech ventures.

“Can I sit down here?” An ectomorph white guy with scrawny, freckled arms, a basic ginger haircut, and a cardigan draped over his shoulders said to Simon, carrying a tray of the same breakfast food Simon had picked out. He looked young. Very young. His skin was tight and lacked wrinkles or any decay at all.

“Sure, go ahead,” Simon gestured at the seat across from himself.

“Thanks, I’m Will. Will Burnett.”

“Noel. Noel Williams,” Simon shook Will’s hand.

“So, are you pitching anything, or -?”

“I’m an investor. Mostly stocks, bit of crypto, now I’m looking to get into tech.”

“Nice. I’m personally part of a startup – Watchr. Scans the Internet to find people the best deals on luxury watches. What’s yours?”

Simon looked right at Will with a straight face. “I just told you, I’m an investor, not a…”

“No, I mean your watch.”

“Nothing too fancy,” Simon showed Will his aviator’s watch on a NATO strap.

“You’re a full-time investor and you’re wearing that cheap thing? You should know the value of physical assets, Noel,” Will showed Simon his high-end luxury watch – a Rolex.

“I’m not too into the fancier stuff. I’m one of those rich people who acts poor.”

“Respectable. So are you here with anyone?”

“My partner.”

“By partner, do you mean wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend?”

“No, my business partner. Moe.”

“Well, here’s my card, Noel. In case you ever need,” Will slipped his business card into the front pocket of Simon’s shirt. “Another business partner.”

***

Back in the hotel room, Omar was reviewing CCTV footage of the hallway by Dan’s room. Why didn’t Tom ask for it earlier? If I was the one calling the shots, I’d be more methodical, Omar thought.

But at the time Dan died, there was no one out of the ordinary in the hallway. And unbeknownst to Omar, the police had already reviewed the same footage and came to the same conclusion he did – Whatever killed Dan didn’t enter through the hallway.

Simon got back. “Watch out for this creepy young skinny bloke. Says his name’s Will Burnett. He probably wants to shag me. And I’ll do it if it means stopping anyone dying, or getting away from you for a night, Omar.”

“Funny, Simon,” Omar said. “There wasn’t anyone in the hallway when Dan got killed.”

“Could have been a ghost, phasing through walls. Or may have already been in the room when Dan and his girl got there.”

“No, I checked the footage from the entire day. Dan and Lana were the only ones to enter or exit the room.”

“So ghost it is. Or an invisible being, like the invisible woman. We could be dealing with another one. Tom sure liked that one. I never asked him, if you shag an invisible woman like he did and you… Never mind. What are your guesses as to what went on? Why didn’t he scream?”

“He wanted it. He made a deal with some being to steal his heart. What a moron.”

“Yes, but what did he want? He already had money and sex and power. Those are the usual things a man trades his soul for. If you had it all, what else would you need?”

“Love?”

“No, Omar. That’s the one thing you can’t trade your soul for.”

Simon took a small bottle of whiskey out of the minibar, and poured himself a glass.

“You’re drinking this early in the day?” Omar looked horrified.

“I’m British, mate.”

***

That evening, Omar and Simon checked out the banquet hall. Kiosks for tech companies and startups surrounded the room. The mostly male crowd chatted and mingled. Simon poured himself a glass of wine.

“Want one?” Simon asked.

“No, I’m Muslim,” Omar said.

“Suit yourself.”

“Are you always drunk, Simon? You drink like a…”

“A Brit, Omar. I do drink like a Brit. Especially when you’re around. Now let’s keep focused. You… Hate being told what to do, so you lead yourself here and I’ll see what I can do.”

Omar wandered off, like a heat-seeking missile looking for its target. Simon stayed nonchalant and sipped his wine. Omar entered a circle of tech guys.

“No, man. SaaS is the future,” one of them said.

Omar nodded, pretending he knew what SaaS was.

“What do you think, Moe?” The guy obviously saw Omar’s nametag.

“I agree, it is.”

“Well, SaaS is best for startups, eh?”

Meanwhile, Simon ran into Will again and small-talked with him about apps and companies over the wine. Simon let Will do the bulk of the talking as he kept silent, nodded, and listened with submissive eyes. Classic manipulation/cover maintenance tactic.

“So why are you really here, Noel? Because promoting Watchr isn’t the only reason I’m here.”

“What do you mean?”

“How about we grab dinner tonight? Just you and me.”

Simon glanced at Omar, who looked uncomfortable, very uncomfortable trying to join any conversation he could and getting shut out, silently and intently judging everyone around him.

“Yes, let’s,” Simon said. “I’m sure my partner will be keeping himself busy. He’s the most likeable man I’ve ever met.”

Omar couldn’t stand the drinking and mingling around him. He wanted to beat the crap out of at least one of the guys there. He knew a bit about software engineering, but not about these men’s niche. Their coding and marketing talk was like a foreign language to him. Here, he was hopelessly outclassed by every man around him, even the wimpier-looking ones. His blood boiled.

Omar saw Simon effortlessly seducing Will into dinner across the room. Gay, he thought. That man’s obviously gay for Simon. I could break both of them at once if I had to. That’s the reason everyone here is too intimidated by me to talk to me. Geeks.

Omar stood there, paralyzed, unsure where to take himself. He went outside for a walk.

***

At the Starlight Manor, Bryce was mopping the kitchen floor. Someone had to, and it wasn’t Jane’s job anymore. After days and days of texting Rachel and trying to finally get her out for a one-on-one hangout, today was the day.

“Excuse me,” Jane meekly slid past Bryce and got herself a glass of milk from the metal fridge.

Tom popped some bread into the toaster and leaned on the counter. “So, Bryce, Jane… The Venusians are trying another invasion, but Helene’s playing lawyer with them. Federation law, not ours.” He said that in the same tone of a guy who’d talk about last night’s football game that he only watched to fit in.

“Federation?” Bryce asked.

“Galactic Federation. We briefed you about that, right?” Tom sipped his coffee.

“I… Don’t think so.”

“Right. Jane, can you do that? I’m busy with Helene… And the Venusians. Damn Venusians. I don’t mean to be racist, but I hate those ugly fucks.”

“So Jane, what’s the Galactic Federation?” Bryce mirrored Tom’s tone.

“It’s exactly what you’d expect it to be,” Jane said. “A bunch of countries on a bunch of planets banded together and created a galactic government.”

“And they’re just starting to discover us,” Tom said. “We’re not quite up to their standards yet, but they’re friendly.”

Bryce blankly stared at the skull on Tom’s tight t-shirt as he processed this new information. It was exactly what he’d signed up for, but still.

The analog clock on the kitchen wall struck 17:00.

“Well, I’m done here,” Bryce said. “Got a sort of date, thing to get to.”

“Have fun on your date thing,” Tom grinned as he put a hand on Bryce’s shoulder. “And don’t put a ring on it too fast, eh?”

***

“Noel” and Will faced each other at a fancy restaurant table. Filled wine glasses, pristine white napkins, and a crowd of mostly middle-aged adults surrounded them. Will looked young for his age, Simon thought. He had the skin texture and youthful glow of an 18-year-old, but the thousand-yard-staring eyes and demeanor of a man who’d seen a few things.

“So, Watchr’s looking for… Investors,” Will said. “We’ve already found a few here, but we can use as many as we can, especially if you’re a watch enthusiast. You sure like seeing all those commas in your bank account, don’t you?”

“Why yes, I do.”

“So here’s the deal – we don’t just want your money. We want you and your energy.”

“Me and my energy?”

“Yes, I know it may sound weird, but Watchr is a company for people, by people. We’re not just in it for the money. We’re in it… for your time.”

“That’s awfully vague, Will. Just get to the point – what are you really trying to take from people like me?”

“It’s an investment,” Will coldly tried to be reassuring.

Simon leaned back and crossed his arms. “Maybe I’ll invest. Maybe I won’t. In any case, talk to me when you actually want to give me some information. I don’t do vague wishy washy language.”

“I’ll tell you this – Noel – Work ages you. Time ages you. So many people look back on their past wishing they’d invested in themselves when they could have. So many people look at their future and see nothing but pain and barrenness. Your watch isn’t just a fashion accessory, Noel. It’s a reminder. A reminder that time is constantly flowing forward. A reminder of your financial power. An expression of what kind of man you are. I’m guessing you were a military man, judging by your demeanor, your skin that got most of its sun a long time ago, and your preferred style of watch.”

“You’re right. Served in the British Army. Then I quit military life to pursue finance.”

“What’d you do?”

The military stuff wasn’t part of “Noel’s” backstory.

“That’s for me to know. I held a few positions,” Simon said. “I didn’t do anything too heroic, just carried a gun and followed orders.”

“Do you wish you could go back? Start it all again?”

“Sometimes. Full-time investing pays me handsomely, but there’s no action to it. What’s the story of Watchr?”

“I founded Watchr because I’ve been passionate from a young age about watches and time. And I liked being young. Some people feel there’s no life ahead of them, and Watchr honors this. We take time – to get to know our investors and users.”

“You take time?” Simon’s eyes narrowed.

“That’s all I can tell you so far,” Will wiped his mouth and hands with his napkin, and set his fork and knife on his now-empty plate. “I can tell you more, if you’re willing to invest.”

***

Bryce and Rachel sat across each other at his favourite coffee shop during Kayla’s shift. Bryce had already told Kayla about his history with Rachel, and she was silently rooting for him to get further with her.

“Antoine keeps pestering me,” Rachel complained, staring at her smartphone. “I’ll probably see him tonight though, if he asks nicely.”

Bryce’s heart sank. Rachel was paying more attention to the text she was typing than to Bryce. He was still cute to her, right?

“So, which electives did you pick for next semester?” Bryce was still working up the nerve to ask the questions he really wanted to ask. Rachel neutrally answered Bryce’s question, but he only pretended to care for what she was saying.

Then Bryce had enough of waiting.

“Rachel, I like you.”

Rachel froze. “What?”

“Rachel, I like you. I don’t know if it’s like, romantic, or if I just want to fuck you again, but can we try and see if there’s something more here? Can we see where this goes?”

“Oh, I don’t… feel that way about you. Sorry. I’m sorry.”

“What? I mean, I like you. We slept together, so I figured you wanted to be more than friends. You said I was cute. What’s going on here?”

“Bryce…” Rachel got colder and colder. “That didn’t happen.”

“What do you mean?”

“That didn’t happen, Bryce. Ugh, why do all my guy friends end up liking me?”

“Well, there’s a lot to like about you, Rachel.”

“Sorry, it’s awkward,” Rachel stood up and speedwalked out of the cafe. Bryce almost followed her, but he stopped himself. He missed the warm feelings he’d get with Madison, the sex, having a cute girl beside him as he’d walk through campus or hang out at parties. He wanted it all back.

“Bryce, you look bummed out. What’s up?” Kayla sat down with him at the start of her break.

“She just wanted to be friends. Even if… we’d slept together.”

“Aww, well, she probably only wanted that. You’ll find a girl who wants a relationship with you someday.”

“I think Madison was the only one, honestly, and now she’s back home dating another guy,” Bryce half-angrily vented. “Every girl I know just wants to sleep around. Modern dating’s such bullshit. Where are the girls who actually want something real?”

“I mean, there’s me. I don’t do hookups. But we’re friends. You’ll find someone someday, just keep looking. You’re cute and a bit popular and you have a job and you’re in school. You’re a catch, Bryce.”

Bryce felt patronized more than anything, like he wasn’t a man, but a lost puppy. The indignation made Bryce’s blood boil.

“You know what, Kayla, maybe I need to be more confident. More of a jerk. Not so damn nice all the time.”

“Well, girls like it when guys are nice to them. You don’t need to be a jerk.”

“Yeah, when the guys are hot,” Bryce said. “Those guys can say or do absolutely anything and still get girls melting over them. Just because they’re tall and hot”

“Well, I don’t care how tall a guy is. If he’s generous and listens to me and takes the lead, that’s what I want.”

Are you shitting me, Kayla? Bryce thought. If I was Chad – 6 feet tall with a full beard and massive muscles, you and Rachel would be all over me no matter how I’m acting.

***

The next day, another person in the Chateau Laurier had a missing heart. Sophia Anderson, a 22-year-old above-average-looking blonde front desk attendant was discovered in that state in the employees’ break room – red blazer, tight black slacks that exposed her ankles, and a small women’s watch on a leather strap.

“Same pattern as Dan’s death,” Tom said in his detective persona, inspecting the body.

Part of Bryce was happy to see Sophia dead. Good. That’s what she got for looking like that, probably refusing to commit to a good man, and probably sleeping around with guys for no reason other than that they were hot and she was horny.

The dark, angry thoughts disgusted Bryce. Here lay a young woman, a human being, a unique individual who just got taken from her family, friends, and everyone who loved her… And the first thing he thought about was what her sex life must have been like?

“Wait a sex… I mean, a sec, what’s that?” Bryce pointed to a tattoo on Sophia’s exposed ankle.

“Tattoo, obviously. Heart with a clock inside it. Weird, but could be significant.”

“I saw it engraved in Dan’s watch too, on the bottom.”

“Interesting,” Tom whipped out his phone and called Jane. “Comet, go over the autopsy report for Dan Glass. See if he had any tattoos. …  … … He did? Same one Sophia had. I’m texting the image to Rocket and Lightning.”

Rocket was Omar’s codename. Lightning was Simon’s. Starlight would use these sometimes so civilians wouldn’t overhear their real names.

“We’re done here, Bryce. Let’s go,” Tom said.

Bryce stared out the window during the car ride back to Starlight Manor. He embraced his disgust, both at seeing another corpse, and at being pleased to see Sophia dead. Bryce hid his boiling anger. It felt better than pining for a girl to replace Madison. They were all sluts anyway, right? And it was his own damn fault for not being the guy they wanted to fuck.

But that girl didn’t deserve to die, he thought. She was a human being just like me. God, why didn’t all of me understand that? Why did part of me like seeing her dead?

***

Omar snooped around the halls of the Chateau Laurier, trying to spy anyone acting strangely. Then Will materialized out of nowhere.

“Can I help you?” Omar asked.

“No,” Will said. “Unless you’re interested in watches.”

Omar’s wrists were bare. “I’m really not.” You scrawny, creepy boy, he thought.

“Have a good day then,” Will walked off, staring blankly ahead of himself. Then he disappeared when Omar’s eyes left him.

Back in his hotel room, Omar rejoined Simon.

“This skinny weirdo talked to me just now. Matched your description,” Omar said. “How about you risk it and get some intel on him? It’s the best chance we have at finding out what’s really going on.”

“Yes, it must be connected to Dan and Sophia’s tattoos,” Simon said. “I don’t usually like your ideas, but I’ll make an exception for this one. I can eject when I find out enough about what’s going on.”

***

“Will, my friend,” Simon sat down on a bench overlooking the Ottawa River by the Chateau. Tourists taking photos and locals hustling and bustling were the background of this scene. “As I texted you, I decided to take you up on your offer. Tell me all about Watchr.”

“Well, it’s simple. We’re a brand, not just a company. We’re a family, not just a business. When you join us, you need to invest yourself. Not just your money, but your time. Then you’ll be more than just a human, a slave to time constraints and aging. You’ll become immortal, part of time itself.”

“How?”

“The Time Eater is what we call it. It’s the closest thing to a God this universe has. Time takes us all in the end, and some of us have chosen to embrace it and willingly accept our end. Sooner than later. Then someone in need gets your lost time.”

So it’s a suicide cult based on some extraterrestrial being? Simon thought.

“Tell me more about this Time Eater.”

“Oh, it’s powerful and majestic, more so than anyone or anything,” Will said, hypnotically. “And it works through me.”

Will pulled his sock down. A tattoo of a heart with a clock in it was on his ankle. “Come see us tonight, Noel. That’s when the real conference is happening. We’ll get you initiated.”

***

“I really don’t want any tattoos,” Simon sighed in his hotel room. “Or to join a suicide cult. My parents will kill me.”

“And I really don’t want to be around these geeks anymore,” Omar sat back in his chair. “The hotel’s nice though. I could see myself getting married here.”

“You’ll have to come with me, Omar. Both of us need to see it for ourselves, and at least one of us needs to get out alive. Let’s pretend we’re with these geeks. They’re smart in their own way, even if they’re not exactly doctors.”

“Or in shape. But if that’s how they roll…”

“Oh, cut the bravado, my friend.”

“What bravado? We’re trained fighters as well as agents. We could snap most of those guys in half if we wanted to.”

“I was going to be a champion wrestler before Starlight took over my life,” Simon mockingly imitated Omar’s Canadian accent. “I was almost #1 in Canada before my injury… Mate, they don’t give trophies out to blokes who ‘were going to be’ champions. That’s how you sound when you tell me about your past for the millionth time. And you may be a bit taller, a bit bigger than me, but you couldn’t defeat me in sparring. And I’m a doctor who likes to drink. Now, Omar, not every conflict with someone can be solved by being a tough guy. Understand?”

“Don’t talk to me like this, Simon. We’re equals. Have some respect,” Omar started to lose his vigor.

“Problem is, my definition of ‘respect’ isn’t ‘treat me like I’m the most knowledgeable, most masculine guy in the room no matter what’. I appreciate you, Omar. And that means being truthful with you. There’s a reason Tom doesn’t usually make you do field work. Now, cut the bravado. Come with me to the suicide cult meeting, and remember not to kill yourself.”

***

Bryce beat up on the punching bag in the Starlight basement gym. He put all his rage into his strikes, experimenting with what form would give his strikes the most power. The bag danced around and his knuckles began to bleed.

“You know, you can use gloves,” Tom entered the room in athletic clothing, beginning to skip with a rope and playing his favourite catchy modern rock over the sound system.

“I’m not trying to become a professional fighter, just letting my work stress out.”

“Suit yourself, just clean up after you’re done. Spar me too. You never know when hand-to-hand combat will be necessary in the field.”

Bryce tensely trained a little more, then…

“Tom, I need to admit something. It’s been weighing on me, and I trust you to hear it.”

“What’s up?” Tom shut off the music.

“I don’t know, I might need therapy.”

“How come?”

“When we were investigating the blonde girl’s corpse today, part of me… Oh God, it feels so awful to say this. Part of me was happy to see it. I couldn’t look away. It was like, I don’t know, it was like, um… Part of me took it as revenge against all the girls who didn’t want me in high school or the girls I liked after my ex broke up with me who didn’t like me. It’s like, I’d rather see her dead than see her sleeping with other guys but not me. Does this mean I need therapy, Tom? I’d never want to hurt someone like that or see someone hurt like that, but… I don’t know.”

“Bryce, that’s your shadow talking. We all have one.”

“My shadow?”

Tom sat Bryce down on the floor. “It’s not just you, brother. All of us have these dark thoughts we don’t indulge. Your shadow is the part of you that isn’t that pretty, the savage part you hide from civilized society. The good side of you didn’t go anywhere. That’s the you that’s working with us and saving lives. Don’t sweat it.”

“It scared the fuck out of me, Tom. What if something goes wrong for me and I become one of those guys who kills a bunch of women because he isn’t getting laid?”

“You won’t. The mere fact that you know these things are wrong and you’re remorseful about thinking them means you know right from wrong.”

“Right, yeah.”

“You’re responsible, Bryce. But I’ve always noticed you’re a little clueless about being a man.”

“My dad taught me that it’s all about your job. It’s like girls, people will only care about you if you’re in school or making money.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“What?”

Tom leaned back onto his hands and deconstructed Bryce with his eyes.

“How about girls, man? I’m pissed. I told a girl I slept with that I wanted more, and she just got all weirded out and left. What did I do wrong there? I see girls going for losers all the time. I see trashy guys being cooler and more popular than the responsible guys, just because they’re big and tall and go to clubs. It just goes against everything I’ve ever believed.”

“Bryce,” Tom slapped his knees and stood up. “Get some gloves and pads from the equipment storage. Get some water too. I’m about to put you through something fun.”

***

“This is my partner, Moe Abdul – Abdallah. Which one was it again?” Simon said.

“Abdallah,” Omar had his burly, hairy arms crossed.

“See, I knew it was that one. We’ve only just met and now we’re sharing a hotel room to cut costs.”

“Aren’t you rich?” Will said. “And you said he was your longtime business partner.”

“Shit,” Simon said under his breath. “Yeah, I’m drunk, mate. Don’t mind me.”

Omar gave the surprisingly sober Simon an exasperated glance.

“Anyway, follow me,” Will led the two gentlemen through the corridors of Chateau Laurier, down marble stairs, through the lobby, to a wooden door in a far wing of the hotel. This door was smaller than all the rest. Will opened it and walked down the stone staircase behind it, staring blankly ahead. Omar and Simon followed him down, into a hall made of stone blocks. Lanterns hanging on chains illuminated the room. An altar with a black curtain behind it was at the front of the room.

“This isn’t part of the Chateau,” Will said. “We went through a portal, not a door.”

Omar and Simon scanned the place. Earthen people in all manners of dress solemnly packed the room. About 30 of them, mostly older men and women. A few younger ones. All of them were waiting. None were conversing. The stone hall had the energy of a hospital waiting room.

“Make yourselves comfortable,” Will said.

Omar and Simon found a standing spot in a corner of the crowd. It’s like we’re at the world’s most sterile concert, waiting for the lights to dim and the atrocious opening act to come on stage, Simon thought.

“Looks like a cult, alright,” Simon whispered. “In a pocket dimension? Or somewhere far away?”

Omar nodded. “None of them look happy. It’s creepy down here.”

“Just wait. We’ll see what’s going on, then get out.”

Eventually, Will stood on the altar and raised his arms.

“Welcome, everyone,” he hypnotically said. “To Watchr, to the rest of your life, to time itself, to our communion. Turn back time!”

“Turn back time! Turn back time! Turn back time!” The crowd chanted in unison.

“Our latest sacrifice!” Will ominously said, holding up a still-beating human heart. “Her name was Sophia! Bless her soul for giving us her remaining time on this earth! Her remaining years!”

“Her remaining years!” The crowd cheered. Simon mockingly mouthed along and gagged.

Will placed the heart on the stone pulpit. “Now we summon him! The Time Eater! Our link to immortality! The watcher of time and all else!” He waved his hands above the heart. 

“Watcher, work through me!”

“Watcher, work through him!”

Simon and Omar rolled their eyes in unison.

The room shook and Will’s eyes widened, focusing straight in front of him. His hands shook. He cackled maniacally. “Now receive it! Show our newest members how we take our time!”

The front of the crowd lined up in single file, and took turns going up onto the altar and holding Sophia’s heart.

“This is the weirdest human sacrifice I’ve ever seen,” Simon whispered to Omar.

Sophia’s heart stopped beating, and disintegrated into dust in one of the cult member’s hands.

“She lives on through us, and our Watcher!” Will proclaimed. “Now, our next investor who seeks eternal life through us…”

A young blonde woman came up onto the altar.

“This is Madeline Rautio,” Will said. “Like our last investors, she too wants to trade her remaining years for eternal life with me, your Watcher.”

Will lifted the cuff of Madeline’s jeans, exposing her ankle. He placed his palm on it, and removed it to reveal a new tattoo of a heart with a clock inside it.

“Enjoy your remaining days in this form, Madeline,” Will said. “The Watcher will take you when it is time.”

“When it is time!” The crowd said in unison, raising their watch-bearing hands.

“He’s not wearing a watch!” One of the crowd members pointed at Omar.

“No watch!” Will screamed demonically. “Eliminate him!”

“Why do you care?!” Omar blew up, yelling in the snitchy crowd member’s face. “I just don’t like watches! Okay, loser?”

The crowd angrily turned towards Omar.

“Omar, time to put your fragile male ego to use,” Simon calmly, hurriedly said, raising his rugged fists. “They don’t appear to have weapons and most of them are built like geeks, so we can fight them all off. … Oh Christ, I really don’t want to hit the women.”

Omar and Simon stood back to back as the drained crowd started to gain energy, enough energy to shoddily attempt to assault the two gents. One by one, the spiritually drained crowd leaped at the two gents, attempting to hit, bite, take them down. But Simon and Omar threw powerful haymakers and elbows at them. Omar roared, knocking two of the attackers’ heads together.

“Sorry!” Simon winced as he knocked a growling 120lb mid-30s white woman out cold.

“Shit, that guy’s big, that guy’s big!” Omar said about one tall, built man in the crowd, who charged at Omar and knocked him to the ground, preparing to savagely beat up on him. “Simon!”

Omar flipped the man over and threw some punches onto his face, then the man clenched Omar’s neck with both his large hands, sitting up. Simon pulled his revolver from the back of his chinos, concealed by his cardigan, and shot the big man in the abdomen, who rolled over in pain.

“Happy I brought it now?” Simon said.

Simon aimed at Will, shot, and missed. Will ran off the altar behind the curtain, dragging Madeline with him. Simon and Omar ran after him, pushing away the remaining standing cult members. Behind the curtain was A/V equipment against the stone walls, and multiple doors, one of which was ajar. Omar and Simon dashed into it, entering another stone-walled hallway.

“Where’s that creepy little bugger?” Simon brandished his revolver.

He checked behind every door in the hallway, each of them leading to empty stone rooms illuminated by similar lanterns to the ones in the main hall. Then he found Will and Madeline behind one, sitting on wooden chairs. Will had his hand on the left side of Madeline’s chest.

“Found you. You can’t run forever. Now tell us, Will, what’s really going on here?” Simon said. “Dan Glass. Sophia Anderson. Whoever else’s hearts you’ve ripped out. Give us some answers.”

“Dan and Sophia both agreed to this. I don’t see your problem with it,” Will said. “So did Madeline here. We told her about what went on after she left Dan, and she wanted in.”

“Why though? Why hearts?” Simon asked.

“Electromagnetic energy, Noel. Do you know why hearts keep beating when they’re removed from the body? Because they’re receptive to electromagnetic energy in a way that the rest of the body isn’t. Our hearts are tapped into the universe’s electromagnetic fields. They keep living because of it, even when they’re removed from the body. So I… I seek to consume this energy from people who feel like there’s no life ahead of them. And give it to those who follow me, so they may prosper.”

“By ripping people’s hearts out? That’s messed up and barbaric,” Omar said. “Now who the hell are you? What’s the Time Eater?”

“I’m just Will Burnett,” he laughed. “I made up the Time Eater. Well, I am the Time Eater. It’s just easier for my followers to think they’re sacrificing themselves to some alien God than to just another human, well, demi-God. Sorry to spoil it for you, Madeline.”

“There’s only one God,” Omar said. “And I don’t think he’ll treat you kindly when you die.”

“Anyway, I’d appreciate it if you two left us alone here so I can have my way with Madeline here. Well, with her heart. Actually, no. I’ll have my way with your hearts too. And those of everyone who worships the Time Eater. I won’t die until I’ve used up the remaining time of every heart’s energy I’ve consumed. It’s not the crowd that gets my sacrifices’ remaining years, it’s me!”

Simon shot Will in the forehead. The bullet passed through him and the wound immediately healed.

“Not so easy to kill me,” Will said. “I have many years ahead of me.”

“Yeah, but you’re skinny,” Omar said. He effortlessly restrained Will in a chokehold.

Will pushed the crown of his watch. He teleported out of Omar’s chokehold and back into his chair.

“You like it?” Will said. “It’s a teleportation device I stole from Starlight. Don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them. Now if you’ll excuse me and Madeline…”

Simon sharply shot Will’s watch. Madeline yelped.

“What teleportation device?” Simon taunted. “You don’t have any other special powers, do you?”

Will placed his hand on Madeline’s chest. She resisted, then put her hand on Will’s.

“Wait, what are you doing?” Will looked concerned.

Madeline smirked and closed her eyes, focusing on Will’s heart. “If you can do that to me, why shouldn’t I do it to you, Will?”

Will started to age. First, he looked 18, then like he was in his early 20s, then his late 20s, then his 30s, then his 40s… Up until he became a withered, decaying corpse. Madeline jumped from him. Her skin and hair were glowing.

“Madeline, how’d you do that?” Simon asked.

“I felt his energy, and I moved it into me. I don’t even know how I did it.”

“Anyway, you need to be responsible with it,” Simon said.

***

“I am your new conduit to the Time Eater!” Madeline proclaimed on the altar. Light radiated from her.

The crowd was nursing their injuries from fighting Simon and Omar, while the large man had bled to death.

“…and your former leader had a selfish agenda, which I stopped! Now… Instead of him having your life, you can have yours!”

Madeline focused her abundant life force onto the crowd and into the corridor beyond the hall. The large man’s wounds healed and he returned to life. The concussed, bruised, bleeding crowd’s injuries healed. The glow slowly left Madeline. Simon crossed his arms and slyly smiled as he watched from backstage.

“It’s over, everybody go home!” Omar yelled to the crowd and shooed them out of the room.

***

“…then the door to the pocket dimension disappeared when we left,” Omar finished briefing the team in Starlight Manor’s conference room. “And Madeline got back to her life. Never found out we were Starlight. Dan and Sophia, plus some other people woke up in the morgue, and we got the police to keep quiet about it. That concludes our mission report.”

“Thank you, boys,” Tom said. “Also, Helene and I had a brush with the Venusians. Thanks to her eloquence and quick thinking, war DIDN’T break out between us and them.”

The team clapped for Helene. She curtsied. Tom dismissed the team, and Omar went down to his workshop.

“Omar!” Simon greeted him. “How about a drink, to celebrate another successful mission?”

“Man, I’m Muslim, I don’t drink,” Omar said.

“Right, right, should have remembered. You know, fighting that crowd was the happiest I’ve seen you in a long time. Been a while?”

“Yeah, but wrestling’s in the past. I have engineering and aliens and paperwork to worry about now.”

“Really? You don’t have to give it up for good, you know. There’s mats by the gym. I can be your sparring partner.”

“You really think you can beat me?”

“Well, how badly do you miss it?”

***

Omar and Simon stood shirtless and barefoot in Starlight Manor’s martial arts room, wearing only shorts. Both men were built with muscle. Omar had a bit of extra fat, while Simon was lean, rugged, and sinewed.

“Let’s see if you still have it,” Simon said, entering a wrestling stance.

Omar entered a wrestling stance too. His face lit up with joy.


NEXT EPISODE COMING 8/23/2021


Author’s notes:

  • I’ve visited the Chateau Laurier lobby once. It was pretty.

 

  • All that stuff about human hearts and electromagnetic fields is true. It’s not pseudoscientific BS. I loved working this cool concept into the story.

 

  • I like to think Tom’s favourite band is Royal Blood.

 

  • I really don’t care for the process of naming minor characters like Will, Madeline, and Raul. I just go with the first random applicable name that comes to mind, then pick a last name that goes well with the first.

 

 

  • If there’s a real Sophia Anderson who’s ever worked at Chateau Laurier, I’m fucking sorry.

 

  • The shadow self is one of my favourite Psychology concepts to think about. It’s one thing I go over with my clients, and it was really fun to work it into this story.

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