“What about his little friends, love?”
“They won’t get very far,” she replied. “The bats can have them.”
Mark looked up and saw, much to his horror, jaws of bats opened wide, dripping with saliva.
The others were staring hard at Mark, waiting for him to deny it – to be enraged by the false accusation.
Mark stayed put. He wanted to know what John was up to. That’s what Diane would have done, too.
He reluctantly forced himself to look away from the others, as much as he hated it, and remained silent.
John laughed and turned back to Jennifer. “What do you have in mind, love?”
“Make the descendant himself the deal instead.”
John gave Mark a snide grin, and his large cheek bones beneath the thin layer of skin jutted out, making his face looked even more like a grinning skull.
Mark shuddered and looked away. It didn’t take a genius to figure out how much the idea had pleased John.
“He’s obviously the only one who’s unharmed so far.”
The others turned to look at Mark in disbelief.
“Indeed.” John nodded slowly. “He must have been protected by the power of his ancestors.”
“And that proves why we haven’t gotten to the treasure room yet! He wants to make sure he’s the only one who gets out alive with the treasure.”
Mark almost laughed aloud again, but he bit his lips and kept his face straight. The descendant. King Ealdakin. Magnus. What was all that about? If he were truly the descendant of anyone important, his father and grandfather would have told him…
“My lord!” objected Jennifer. “That wouldn’t be in your best interest. Please reconsider the deal.”
“Seems to me,” she said, cocking an eye at Mark, “that the descendant of King Ealdakin obviously wants all of the treasure for himself!”
“How is that so?”
“Time is running out, my friend.” He tossed the sack to Mark, who caught it and looked down curiously. “Open it!”
Mark obeyed. He untied the string with shaky hands and peered into the bag. He gasped.
John’s eyes turned cold. “Yes, there they are.”
Mark looked up.
“Now, tell me,” John continued, “descendant of King Ealdakin of Magnus. What shall you choose? Your friends or the treasure room?”
“You!” hissed Becky, her eyes hard.
“John,” said Logan grimly.
John stared back distastefully. “Want your agrestic friend back?” he asked the redhead. “Then you’d better do as I said.”
“What have you done to George?” asked Logan with clenched teeth.
“That,” he went on, “brings us back to the important point I was making.”
John smiled as a bag appeared on his palm. It was made of sackcloth.
Standing before them now was a tall, young man with sunken cheeks and sunken eyes – precisely the depiction of a pale, walking corpse. Or, as Becky had called it, “a walking stick.”
It was the new kid from school. Except that he seemed older now, taller, and queerer than when he was in school. There was also something about him that seemed antiquated.
“See?” first George said in low, terrifying voice. “What did I tell you, love?” Jennifer seemed satisfied.
The others kept their mouths shut, hoping that Logan would do the same. No luck.
“Who the hell are you?” Logan growled. “Show yourself!” He broke free from the hands that grabbed him, but only for a brief moment. He was pulled back again. “Bet you’re ashamed of yourself,” he went on furiously. “That’s why you hide behind a mask!”
Mark was horrified. He jumped in front of Logan before he saw a flicker of anger in the first George’s eyes.
Sure, the truth about Becky and Logan’s betrayal had hurt – as it had come as a total shock, completely out of the blue. But for Mark, actions came first and feelings later. He just couldn’t bear to see another person getting hurt.
Luckily, no one else got hurt.
Some of them, though, were beginning to wonder whether this was a good sign, for the first George seemed to grow in height yet shrivel in body mass at the same time.
Mark flinched in surprise, and he heard Becky crying out in alarm.
As for Mark, he was feeling beyond useless and hopeless. He felt a quick tug at his heart as he first looked at the stony Diane and then at the petrified George Number Two.
The first George caught Mark’s eyes. A wicked smile flickered across his mouth.
Mark looked away, trembling.
Next came the unexpected, dreadful moment.
Logan cursed, sending a wave of panic over the others.
No one had ever seen Logan look angry before. So the sight of him, fists clenched and eyes filled with utter hatred, made their stomachs queasy. This explained why they were so quick to stop him – who was now bellowing like a mad beast – from lunging at the first George. Even Andrew got up to help.
For some reason – before they even saw what was happening – everyone else in the room had a sick feeling about this.
Yet they hadn’t expected this.
Entering the room, with hands also twisted and tied behind his back, was no one but George himself.
They froze in horror.
Staring at the second George made their skin crawl. No one, not even Logan, could tell if he was the real George.
“Well, well,” crowed George, turning to Jennifer. “Seems like we’ve got ourselves two traitors. Haven’t we, love?”
“I’ve always thought they’re unreliable,” she answered, throwing sharp glances at the two. “I should’ve –” But George cut her off.
“Shhh, love,” George said softly as though he were trying to stop her from revealing something important. He gave her hand a squeeze. “I’m always prepared. Am I not, love?” He snapped his fingers casually.
Jennifer laughed nastily. “Indeed,” she replied and smiled sweetly at George. It was the million dollar smile that Logan used to crave for. Not very long ago.
Mark suddenly understood. It wasn’t an accident at all that they’d stumbled upon this strange place. They had been led here by “Thief”.
“Now you’ve figured it out,” Jennifer said, watching Mark’s grim face. “You ought to know how serious we’re about this.”
“But we don’t have to be serious about this anymore, pal,” said Logan, looking at his best friend.
“Right,” Becky said agreeably. “Listen, George,” she went on. “I don’t know what she had done to you. But don’t you remember? About what we said? And what we’ve decided?”
The redhead nodded. “The treasure room, this strange city, and stuff about tying people up. They’re not even the part of pact! Let’s forget about the whole thing, pal.”
“Let’s go home,” said Becky.
There was a brief moment of silence that hung in the air so thick and so still that it nearly suffocated them.
Every set of eyes was on Logan now, and he looked down, unable to meet Mark and Andrew’s eyes. What he couldn’t figure out was George. How George had become strange all of a sudden and what’s gotten into him.
“Of course I haven’t forgotten,” Logan muttered. “It’s just – there’s just one thing.”
“What’s that?” snapped George.
Logan knew very well that George was losing his patience, but he must do the right thing: to reveal the whole truth, since there’s no turning back now. He wished he didn’t have to do this. But if Andrew could do it – to act loyal and brave, and to admit his own fault – so could he.
He took a deep breath. “Remember, buddy?” he asked. “We’re supposed to cover up for Jenny’s break-in. So she could get the antiques – for whatever the reason it is.” Then his voice lost its daringness. He said quite flatly, “You and Becky get cash for the job. And I get a date with Jenny.” Logan quickly turned his head to one side without actually looking at the cowboy and Mark. “Sorry.”
Andrew and Mark gasped. “Thief” had been with them the entire time, and they didn’t even know it!
“No?” George gave a mocking laugh.
Jennifer sneered. “Since he’s being so cooperative,” she told George, “why don’t you let him do it?”
“An excellent idea, love.”
“Do what?” asked Logan, alarmed.
“Tie up Wimp and do what you want with him.” She smirked.
George joined her and smiled unkindly. “Most importantly, I want you to enjoy yourself.” A pause. “But do not kill him! I need him alive.”
Logan’s jaws dropped. “No!” he blurted out before he could stop himself. “I mean – no problem, dude,” he corrected himself in a smaller voice. There was a look of horror on the cowboy’s face. “Not a problem at all… Except I don’t really see why…” His voice trailed off.
George’s eyes were narrowed into slits. “Have you really forgotten which side you belong?” he asked harshly. “Or do I have to remind you?”
“Please, George.” Becky’s voice was trembling but pleading. “I’m sure Andrew didn’t mean a word he said.”
Jennifer snorted, but Becky went on as though she didn’t hear it.
“Let’s forget it, okay?”
George turned his piercing gaze on her, who wanted more than anything to look away. It was tempting. But she dared not. It would only make her seem less trustworthy.
Logan caught on fast. “Yeah, buddy!” he joined in, trying to sound more cheerful – but it fell short.
George grunted. It wasn’t much of an answer, but the redhead felt encouraged.
“Forget about him, pal. Why waste time and strength on someone like Wimp? Know what I mean?”
George considered that, and almost immediately, the cowboy stopped screeching. They could still hear him moaning, though.
Logan let out his breath. He felt a rush of relief. If only he could convince George to stop inflicting pain on Andrew altogether…