“I’m not kidding,” Chris said to the other two, still shaking. He didn’t know he was shaking until now. He managed to sit down in one of the chairs in front of the counter.
“What’s going on here?” Angela asked, scanning her eyes for Ehlo’s presence.
Ehlo came back around then with his phone on his ear. “Come on, pick up.”
Angela could see the panicked state Ehlo was in. In fact, as she turned to check on Chris again, she saw that he was still shaking. Margaret had turned her annoyed look off and was now by Chris’ side, patting his shoulder for comfort. Angela did the next thing she thought would help the situation. She took out her own cell phone and called Jacky. Well, she was going to call him, but he called her first. Because her phone vibrated as soon as she was about to call him.
“Hello?” Angela answered, trying to keep calm. “Yes, we’re fine. The line’s tied up because Ehlo’s trying to call Wallace.”
“Wallace’s not home,” Jacky said. “I was just at his place earlier.”
Angela wrinkled her face. “What?”
“I don’t know what’s going on either. I’m going to contact Tony next. I wanted to check in on you guys first. I just left Sonia’s place. She’s with me now. We’re going to Alyssa’s. Bianca and Suzie are there with the others already.”
“Do you want us to meet you there?”
“No, stay there for now. At least until we can get a hold of Wallace.”
Angela was able to hear the anxiousness in Jacky’s voice. “What?”
“Lock your doors.”
After that, Jacky hung up.
Angela was still pondering about matters, but she knew this was serious. She turned around to close the door to the deck before locking it. She had used the dead bolt on it too before closing the curtains as well.
“What’s going on?” Margaret asked. “Is it that serious?”
Angela had on her worried look also. “I don’t know. But it’s good to take some precautions. Until we can sort this all out.”
After saying that, Angela went to the front door and made sure it was locked still. She also did the dead bolt on it like she did with the back door.
“You guys had any windows opened earlier?”
Chris and Margaret shook their heads as Angela was making her way back to them.
“What’s going on?” Ehlo asked as he finally gave up on calling anyone.
Angela quickly recounted what she just learned from Jacky.
“I told Ambrose,” Ehlo said, settling down at a chair next to Chris after Angela was finished with her tale. He was tapping on his cell phone as he was trying to think.
“It might not be that extreme,” Angela said.
Ehlo looked at her. “What else could it be?”
“How about we listen to the news first?” Angela gestured toward the living as she said that. “At least learn some details before we make any more assumptions.”
Ehlo knew she was right, so he walked with her to the living room. Seeing the other two’s actions, Chris finally pulled out of his trance and headed to the living room as well. He made sure to gesture for Margaret to follow as well. Chris had settled down at the spot next to Angela—but at a distance—while Margaret took the small chair nearby. They were waiting for another commercial to finish. It wasn’t the same commercial loop from earlier since they were occupied with calls, so they didn’t bother paying attention to the previous news segment like they should have. They barely registered some scenes being shown previously.
“Here’s an article,” Margaret said as they were still waiting for the commercials to finish. She was reading from her phone. “He was found last night around 9 when the security guards were patrolling the area. His body almost swept out to sea if they hadn’t found him when they did. It said that they started their round earlier than expected.”
“Did they provide any additional details?” Ehlo asked, looking at her.
Margaret scrolled down a bit more to check. “He had personal items on him. They said it might not be robbery, but it’s not confirmed by the authorities. Not yet.”
“Maybe the local channels have more details,” Angela said. “Since they’re on standby right now.”
Ehlo nodded and returned his attention to the TV like the other two. Margaret searched some more on her phones for additional updates until the news came back on.
“We’re back at the location,” An on-screen anchor said. “As you can see behind us, our local authorities are still working hard to process the scene. It doesn’t look like there’s a high chance of recovering additional evidence because of where the body was found. Most of the evidence—if there were any in the first place—must have washed out into the sea by now.”
“This is pointless,” Ehlo said, getting up at that time. “At the rate they’re reporting, we don’t know when it’s going to be confirmed with anything.”
Angela turned to look at Ehlo who was walking away from them, but she didn’t get up from her seat.
“Detective Chen and his team have been keeping their lips tight about the details of the investigation,” The news anchor continued as Ehlo reached the counter and retrieved the orange juice carton that Chris abandoned previously.
“Detective Chen?” Ehlo asked, turning back to the screen.
As if that was the answer to their anxiousness, Ehlo’s phone rang. He fidgeted with it a bit before he could answer. “Where the hell have you been, Huo?”
“Love you too?” Wallace returned.
“Yeah, I don’t have time for this right now. Where are you?”
“For a guy sending me seventeen texts and making ten calls, you sure are sending mixed signals.”
“Oh, come on, man.”
Wallace smiled on the other side, which Ehlo wasn’t able to see, of course. “Yeah, I know everyone’s unease with what happened. But Detective Chen wasn’t easy to crack. We had to go after JT.”
“What? You’ve been chasing Detective Chen down to pester him like those paparazzi?”
Wallace wrinkled his face. “No, we left awhile back. We bumped into JT outside and got some information out of him.”
“Who is ‘we’?”
“Oh. So, what did JT say then?”
“He thinks it might not be Da Fa, at least that was what he said when we suggested it because of what Will found out recently. He said Will has a lot of enemies, even if he’s really careful. He has this reputation that everyone knows but can’t really do anything about. Not unless they could get out clean, like not drawing suspicions onto themselves, you know.”
“Yeah. So, does this mean we don’t have to hide?”
Wallace wrinkled his face again. “Who told you to hide?”
“Jacky panicked when he couldn’t find you.”
Wallace smiled. “Yeah, don’t have to hide, just be careful though.”
“All right then.”
Wallace hung up after that.
“Well?” Angela asked as Ehlo lowered his phone.
“We can go out again, just be careful.”
“So does that mean…?”
“Wallace said he and Yvonne talked to JT. JT doesn’t think it’s Da Fa since Will does have a lot of enemies.”
“So, we worried for nothing?” Chris asked, getting up from his seat. The colors seemed to return to his face as well.
Ehlo nodded. “Never hurt to be careful, though.”
“I’ll get breakfast going, I guess.”
Ehlo shook his head. “How about we go out and test the water a bit?”
Chris wrinkled his face. “What?”
“He means we’re eating out, Chris,” Margaret translated for Chris.
Chris scratched his head. “All right then.”
So the four of them made sure to clean up and locked up before heading out.
“I can’t believe I let your panicking influenced me,” Ehlo said about an hour later when they were all sitting at East Shore Café together.
Jacky didn’t say anything yet just shrugged.
Yes, because they were already all gathered, some of the people who were at Alyssa’s received a call from Ehlo and met up there.
“You panicked way before anyone called,” Margaret pointed out.
“Yeah, Huang,” Wallace agreed. “Do I have to remind you how many times you called and texted me?”
Ehlo scoffed. “Whatever.”
“All right, food’s here,” Angela said, placing a tray at their table.
Sonia was the other person who went to get food. Bianca and Suzie weren’t there since they went home already. Wallace had received a text from Ehlo on his way home, so he and Yvonne came and joined the others as well.
“So, we’re just going to gloss over the fact that Will’s dead and just have breakfast like nothing’s going on?” Eddie asked, eyeing them all.
Yes, Eddie was also there, because he was hanging out with Andy earlier when they were at Alyssa’s together. He actually tagged along with the others out of curiosity.
Ehlo shrugged. “It’s not like we could walk into Detective Chen’s office and demand all details.”
“I think Wallace already did that,” Andy pointed out.
Ehlo turned to Andy. “No one asked you, kid.”
Andy tossed his hands up in the air before resuming his food consumption task.
Jacky shook his head at the two guys’ banter before turning to Eddie, feeling like he needed to clarify for Eddie’s sake. “Seriously? I think we have to sit this one out, even if it’s just waiting for news to come out like any normal citizen. I might get called in later because I was on Will’s contact list. Other than that, I don’t think you guys have anything to worry about.”
“Yet,” Ehlo added.
“You don’t need to crank up the gloom and doom, Huang,” Wallace jumped in. “Everyone’s already scared as it is.”
Ehlo shrugged. “I’m just living in reality, Huo.”
“Live in reality all you want.”
The others exchanged looks among themselves before continuing with their meal. Although they agreed that it wasn’t something to gripe over as of this moment, even with Ehlo’s constant banter with Wallace and Andy, it just wasn’t the same. The vibe was all wrong and somehow, the others had the feeling, they were just maintaining a front for everyone else’s sake. Sure, they probably weren’t in any danger, but they were still shocked by the development of the situation. Even if they didn’t know Will, it seemed so abrupt that someone they supposedly talked about and was concerned for suddenly showed up dead. Not to mention how it made Ehlo’s passive-aggressive comments to Ambrose became a reality.
All in all, their breakfast and/or lunch get together contained an underlying awkwardness throughout. So, it wasn’t an exaggeration to say that most of them were relieved that the meeting finally ended around noon. They were just cleaning up and leaving one by one when something happened. Well, Jacky was saying how he was going to leave first since he just got a call from Producer Lin about something. He was by the parking lot before anyone in their group paid attention.
“Jacky ge!” Joanne yelled seconds before it happened.
“Jesus Christ!” Ehlo yelled and took off running.
What happened? A car lost control and just continued to ram into the sidewalk. Jacky hadn’t anticipated it since he was so used to the area. He wasn’t the careless type either since he usually would check his surroundings, especially what happened to Tang Feng years ago—and so close to the area too. Yet he heard his phone beeped again, so he had to make sure Producer Lin didn’t cancel the meeting. He wasn’t sure if he heard Joanne and Ehlo’s warning first or if he got knocked over first. But when he finally regained himself, a girl was on top of him. She soon got up and helped him up also. But before he could speak up, she turned and rushed toward the car. The car wasn’t stopping yet. It was still going. It seemed like the driver was also trying to control the car.
“Help me!” The driver yelled over the chaos at that time.
“You okay, man?” Ehlo asked as he finally stopped in front of Jacky.
The others were coming up behind them and they were just in time to see Jacky nod. Before they could say anything else, Jacky pointed toward the girl who had knocked him out of the way, avoiding his inevitable tragedy. She was still chasing the car.
“She has to be crazy, right?” Ehlo asked. “I mean, come on chasing a car is like…”
Before Ehlo could finish, Wallace was also making his way toward the car.
“Forget what I said,” Ehlo muttered, still watching by the side with the others.
As it turned out, the girl had somehow grabbed a stick from the sidewalk and flung it into the car’s window on the driver’s side. The others felt like she had to be crazy because it had a higher chance of hitting the driver than her intended target. And they were right. Yet what they didn’t know was that it had caused the driver to steer left, crashing right into the sidewalk once again. But this time, it hit a tree and stopped. That was when Wallace came up to them. He helped her check on the driver and pulled the other party out.
“I’ll call the authorities,” The girl said, trying to find her phone.
“No need,” Yvonne’s voice reached them then. “I already did.”
The girl stopped searching and turned to see Yvonne walking up to them. In fact, the rest of the group was not far behind.
“Hey, thanks for earlier,” Jacky said, walking up to the girl at that time.
The girl took a quick glance of the crowd before turning back to Jacky. “Be more careful next time.”
She turned to Wallace again to see that the driver was already safe. “I think it’s best to step as far away from the car as possible.”
“You mean it might explode?” Ehlo joked, walking up to them.
It seemed like the girl either didn’t get Ehlo’s joke or something since she nodded.
Ehlo wrinkled his face. “It didn’t flip though.”
The girl finally acknowledged Ehlo properly and stared him down—like he was the one who just came from Mars. “You do know those are just movies, right?” She turned away before Ehlo could think of a retort. “I think if you guys want, take a few pictures before the authorities arrive. You can give it to them later. They might not be here in time before it explodes.”
“For the last time, it’s not going to explode,” Ehlo said, sticking with his original answer. “You’re the one watching too many action movies.”
The girl turned to Ehlo again and shrugged. “Okay, do whatever you want. Since you’re the expert.”
She left after that.
“What?” Ehlo said, wrinkling his face in confusion.
“Huang,” Wallace called then.
“What?” Ehlo asked, annoyed and walked over to Wallace.
“We need to get the hell out of here.”
Ehlo wrinkled his face and looked Wallace again. “What? You also believe her wild…”
“Now!” Wallace said, grabbing Ehlo’s hand and gesturing for the others to go as Yvonne helped him haul the driver of the car out of there as well.
And somehow, they miraculously rushed out of the perimeter of the car in time. Because like that mystery girl said, it exploded. Granted, most of them were on the ground since they were affected by the impact. But, perhaps, it was better to have a few scratches from the fall than being back there.
“Damn!” Ehlo swore and turned to check on the others.
“Where is she?” Wallace asked as he helped the others up one by one.
They scanned the area, but it seemed like she was gone. She either walked really fast or had entered East Shore Café. That had prompted them to head back to search for her. At least, some of them, because Wallace and Yvonne had volunteered to stay with the driver to wait for the authorities.
“Where is she?” Ehlo asked, still brushing dust off himself.
That was when Jacky checked the ground where he had landed earlier and spotted a shining object. He knelt and reached for the item to realized it was a cell phone. The reason for it not shattering into millions of pieces yet after that little collision of theirs was because it had landed on a patch of grass—and also because the phone had a durable case.
“Her cell phone’s here,” Jacky, waving it for the others to see.
“Scout it for info,” Ehlo demanded, reaching for the phone.
Jacky wrinkled his face. “Seriously? That’s invasion of privacy.”
“So? She might be involved.”
“I don’t think she’s involved,” Eddie disagreed. “I meant, she warned us about it.”
“She disappeared just like that, maybe she was the one who set it up. You never know. It was just a warning for us, not to kill us, get it?”
“So now you’re into conspiracy theories?” Andy asked, feeling amused about the situation.
“I don’t have time to explain it now. Come on, hand it over.”
Jacky was still reluctant. It was like he felt a sense of loyalty or at least gratitude toward the mystery girl for saving his life hence not complying.
“It’s me or the police, man. Your pick.”
“You know he has to hand it over to the authorities regardless, right?” Eddie pointed out.
Ehlo had on his fierce expression. “No one has to know.”
Jacky thought about it before pressing the power button. It was, obviously, locked. “It’s locked.”
“You see her picture on there as a screensaver? Maybe there’s a clue to her passcode.”
“It’s a picture of some guy,” Jacky said.
“Give me,” Ehlo said, finally succeeding in getting the phone. “What a handsome face, huh? How could he have anything to do with her?”
“Rude,” Joanne commented, taking the phone from Ehlo and handing it back to Jacky.
“What?” Ehlo asked. “I have legit concerns, okay?”
“She was right about the car exploding and she did save Jacky ge,” Joanne pointed out.
“She was the rude one, hello.”
“You want her to be polite and all and explain it to you for fifteen minutes, so we could all die at the same time, is that what you’re saying?” Chris jumped in then.
“Forget you all,” Ehlo said. “I’m leaving.”
“We can’t leave yet,” Jacky said.
“Why the hell not?”
“For one, we were involved in the whole incident, at least saw something happened,” Chris jumped in to explain. “We’re supposed to wait around for the authorities to come.”
“And our cars could be rigged,” Andy said.
“What?” Ehlo asked, looking at the two like they were crazy.
“Come on, Ehlo,” Chris urged. “It’s not like I want to admit it either, but you said you want to live in reality, right? This is reality.”
Ehlo sighed out and turned to check on the others who were heading inside to search for the mystery girl. He could see Angela, Achel, Sonia, and Margaret coming back.
“Anything?” Ehlo asked.
Angela shook her head. “No. We didn’t see her. She wasn’t in the restaurant earlier either. We asked around.”
“Maybe she was just passing by?” Andy asked.
“Really?” Ehlo returned, his face beyond amused. “You don’t just walk by the parking lot of a restaurant out of nowhere. Unless…”
“You’re back to say she’s involved?” Chris asked.
As if mentioning said mystery girl would somehow summon her, the cell phone in Jacky’s hand rang.
“Whoa!” Ehlo shouted. “Creepy.”
“Hello?” Jacky said into the phone around the same time Ehlo jumped.
“Oh, good, it’s you,” The mystery girl’s voice came on. “Keep it for me, would you? I’ll be back in four months. I’ll call you up to retrieve the phone later.”
“I can’t keep it though. I mean, we’re still waiting for the authorities to come and they would want to investigate everything and…”
“Oh, how could I forget?”
Jacky heard a nervous laugh on the other side.
“My passcode is 384760, you can tell the authorities that I’m going to cooperate fully. My information is in there. I have nothing to hide anyway. It doesn’t matter if they take it.”
“I’m using a friend’s phone right now, so the call history should tell the authorities whose phone it is I’m calling from and confirm that particular call if they want to go that far.”
“You don’t have to tell him so much details,” A familiar voice said from the other side. He sounded like he was chiding her, yet it contained a sense of gentleness in it. Possibly a little playfulness as well.
“I’m going to hang up now,” The girl’s voice came on again.
She didn’t wait. Their connection was already disconnected. Jacky took the phone away from his ear before trying to unlock it. He thought she was bluffing. Call it paranoid—courtesy of Ehlo, but he doubted it would work. However, it did.
“She gave you the passcode?” Ehlo asked.
Jacky nodded, his face more wrinkled than ever. It wasn’t like he wanted to check her cell phone—and violated her privacy, like how he had criticized Ehlo previously. Yet, that voice…
“What are you doing, man?” Ehlo asked, hovering over the phone. Ehlo was able to catch a glimpse of the girl’s picture and the same guy from the front screen earlier. The wallpaper on the unlocked screen was different. Ehlo still thought the couple didn’t match, but he decided not to comment.
“Checking her call history,” Jacky responded, clicking into the icon.
“Why?” Ehlo asked. “What did you find out? Was I right?”
Jacky shook his head this time. “I don’t know. But I swear I heard Jun’s voice.”
“Like Novia’s Jun?” Eddie asked, stepping closer to the two.
Jacky nodded and focused on the phone again. He had scanned the parking lot earlier to make sure the authorities weren’t around yet while he was doing his own poking around. So, the screen got locked again and he had to unlock before proceeding.
“Oh, dear,” Ehlo said, his voice troubled.
Yes, the call log indeed showed Jun’s name in it. In fact, Jacky even clicked into the contact to make sure it was indeed Jun’s number. Ehlo had taken the hint and used his own phone to retrieve Jun’s number to verify. The mystery girl actually labeled her contact name as ‘Pitiful Jun’ (可憐的駿).
“How small is this world anyway?” Eddie asked, having stole a glance at the screen as well.
Jacky heard the sirens coming closer so he clicked on the power button to shut the phone off, pretending like he hadn’t been messing with it all this time. As he turned to look at the streets again, he sensed a hand on his shoulder. It was more like a sudden firm grip. He turned to see Ehlo turning pale.
“You all right?” Jacky asked, seriously concerned.
“Jun said he hated rich people,” Ehlo said. “Okay, it was written on his face and his attitude. Does that mean he rigged that guy’s car to kill you on purpose?”
Jacky wanted to laugh at Ehlo’s way over the line theory. But he saw how the others had on their worried expression too, so he didn’t laugh.
“Isn’t it a bit extreme though?” Chris asked, although he was looking equally worried. “I mean, why would he waste his time when he could just move on? I mean, if he did, that girl wouldn’t save Jacky or us, right?”
“It would explain why and how she got there so fast,” Ehlo reasoned.
“If she sabotaged his plan, then why are they still talking to each other then?”
“Maybe they’re having a fallout and she’s calling to send us a signal?”
“I thought you said she’s evil, now you’re suggesting she might be in danger and we have to somehow save her?”
“Didn’t say it. Still think she’s crazy.”
Before Chris could speak up to dismantle Ehlo’s wild guesses, the authorities finally arrived. They stayed quiet and waited as the authorities started at where Wallace, Yvonne, and the driver were first—with the explosion still frying the car and all. They eventually were able to talk to the authorities one by one and ended up having to wait about two more hours to get their cars checked out. The checking part was actually fast, but the authorities needed to call in for resources first. Jacky and the others had to regretfully hand over the mystery girl’s phone to the authorities—like they had expected. They also had to include the fact that Jun might be involved, no matter how wild the theory was.
The next morning, everyone resumed work or whatever plan they had like normal. However, there was a sense of distraction stirring among them. Specifically, the ones in Cynthia’s shop and Novia’s shop. Yes, they were forced to tell Novia and the others about what happened because Jacky and Ehlo had confirmed that the number the mystery girl called from was really Jun’s. For the first time—and possibly the only time—they waited for the gossip magazines to publish some kind of “leak” or “exclusive” article about what was going on. Although Jacky was almost hit and could be considered involved, the authorities still didn’t share what was happening—and only delivered the typical line if they found anything or needed additional information, they would contact them. And it looked like their prayers were answered because by lunch time, Ehlo stopped by Cynthia’s shop to share some news. No Wallace this time. It was probably one of those rare times that Wallace wasn’t seen around the shop. But the day was still halfway through. Anything was possible.
“How do you like that, huh?” Ehlo asked them as he slammed the magazine on the table dramatically before sitting down next to Andy.
Andy gave him a look before retrieving the magazine to read. Cynthia and Achel were also there but they were carrying some type of conversation before Ehlo barged in and disturbed the atmosphere.
“Tian Cheng’s young master almost got killed, but who was that beauty who saved him? Was this a case of reversed heroism?”
Ehlo rolled his eyes—although he had read the headline earlier as well. “Beauty? Seriously, she’s far from decent looking. They’re really pushing it with the word ‘beauty’ here. I might have to send them a dictionary.”
“You should purchase one for yourself while you’re at it too,” Wallace’s voice teased then.
Yes, the day was indeed still young, and Wallace walked in after saying that. He was holding another magazine in hand.
Ehlo got up from his seat and stared Wallace down at that time. “What are you talking about, Huo?”
“You’re just bitter she was right.”
“She was lucky.”
Wallace shook his head and took the only empty seat left to Ehlo’s right. “If you weren’t busy arguing with her, you would’ve seen the liquid spilling out from the car. That was probably her first clue.”
“She was talking to me, how could she see it?”
“She wasn’t looking at you the whole time,” Andy jumped in. “She was probably checking the car while talking to you.”
Ehlo turned to Andy then. “Whose side are you on, kid?”
Wallace smiled and handed Andy the magazine he was still holding. “Mystery girl solved. Those gossip magazines sure work fast.”
Andy put the one he was reading down and took Wallace’s magazine. “Wan Da’s youngest daughter once again found herself in an embarrassing situation. Would this black sheep of the family stop drawing unnecessary attention to herself?”
Ehlo stopped eating at that time and grabbed the magazine from Andy while he was trying to turn to the first page for the full article. “Wan Da’s youngest daughter? She’s Ricky Chang’s daughter?” He wrinkled his face. “How come she looks different here? Plastic surgery gone wrong?”
The other magazine where they were talking about Jacky and the mystery girl, there was only a picture of Jacky. Considering how the paparazzi wasn’t there to capture some kind of controversial picture, they could only use Jacky’s picture for the story. This magazine, they had set two pictures side by side. However, compared to how they had seen the girl earlier, this one was a glossy shot of her. That was why Ehlo was confused about her physical features.
“She wasn’t wearing makeup yesterday when we met her,” Wallace said as he was taking a sip out of his teacup.
Ehlo wrinkled his face. “What? Not wearing makeup?”
“You know not everyone has to wear makeup, right?”
“She should cut herself off from the female population then.”
“You seriously can’t let it go, can you? By your statement, Angela should exclude herself from that club too? She doesn’t wear makeup most of the time, except for some special occasions. Besides, what about at home?”
Ehlo wasn’t tongue-tied. “Terrible comparison. Of course, it’s different at home. Also, Angela’s not someone of the high-profile families. This girl isn’t even trying.”
Wallace smiled. “I don’t see you dress up every single day, Young Master of Winston & Co.”
Ehlo pointed at Wallace then. “Hey, that’s not funny.”
“Don’t want to listen to me? Listen to the two best candidates here then.”
Ehlo knew he walked right into that one. Yet he turned to Cynthia and Achel at that time. The other two were just listening and trying to finish their lunch, not wanting to engage in Ehlo’s fuming episode. They didn’t realize that they could be pulled in. Seeing Ehlo’s expression, they felt like they had no choice but to answer.
“Wallace’s right,” Cynthia said, placing her spoon down and addressing the group in general as she answered. “Although I knew all the pros and cons of running a business, wearing makeup was one of the sacrifices I made. Because I knew running my own business, I could control the level of makeup I wear and the types of clothes I wear, unlike other employees out there who have to comply with stricter dress codes. The best part of the day is coming home and taking that makeup off.”
Cynthia looked like she was done talking so Ehlo turned to Achel at that time. Achel had on her timid expression.
“Don’t you dare attack her,” Andy jumped in, seeing Ehlo’s radar eyes.
Ehlo scoffed and turned to Andy. “Coming from you?”
“Ehlo ge, don’t be mad, I’ll answer,” Achel interfered. Her face still looked like she was uncomfortable.
“You don’t have to answer us,” Wallace reminded her. “I’m just trying to make a point with Ehlo. You know how he is.”
Achel nodded. “It’s no big deal. It’s just that, I don’t want to see everyone upset.”
“I’m not upset,” Ehlo clarified. “We’re just sharing opinions here.”
Achel nodded again. “What Cynthia jie said is true. I’m lucky I have her as a boss now, so I don’t have to wear makeup at all if I don’t want to. As long as we keep it professional, everything else doesn’t matter.”
Ehlo looked like he was thinking it over then. “Huh, how come Yvonne make it look so easy?”
“Something we could all be jealous of,” Cynthia joked. “She’s really confident and always dresses or wears makeup for herself. She loves what she does so that shines out for us to see.”
They stayed silent for a few minutes before Ehlo realized something. “Wait a minute.”
“What?” Wallace asked, taking another sip from his teacup.
“If Jun knew this girl, why does he hate rich people?”
Wallace shrugged. “She’s an exception to the rule?”
Ehlo wrinkled his face. “That doesn’t make sense. You know where Wan Da stands? They’re number 5 right now. That’s like higher than mine or Jacky’s parents.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know?”
Ehlo looked unconvinced. “Seriously? Does he live under a rock?”
Wallace shrugged again. “How should I know?”
“I have to grill Derek later. He said last night that he didn’t know where Jun went after that night, you know, when he and Novia broke up. But now we know, huh?”
“Didn’t Derek say he only know Jun because they were roommates?”
“That’s a lot of trust to put into moving with someone all the way across town.”
“I think Derek might have mentioned Jun was trying to hide from a past girlfriend.”
“Aha! Could it be this crazy girl? He knows he can’t escape anymore so pretended to be an asshole and forced Novia to break up with him to protect her.”
It was Wallace’s turn to look unconvinced. “Seriously? I thought you were trying to analyze this in a serious manner. Now you’re just looking for an angel to blame her again.”
“I just don’t trust her, okay?”
Wallace shook his head and got up from his place. He wasn’t leaving. Not yet. He cleaned his cup and put it to dry before signaling to Cynthia that he was heading out.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you!” Ehlo yelled after Wallace.
“Whatever, Huang!” Wallace yelled back.
The others continued eating, so they could get back to work. Ehlo left soon after as well, still trying to digest all the information they just learned. Even if the gossip magazines had exaggerated, but Ehlo knew there was at least one true to it to spin the lie from. And he vouched to get to the bottom of it. That was also why he took both magazines with him before he exited. Andy didn’t object since he wasn’t interested in the topics anyway. It was a good pastime when he was bored. Not anything to dwell over.
That afternoon, Wallace was back at the shop with Yvonne. Yvonne had actually pointed toward Novia’s shop and said that she would be back later. Wallace had a meeting with Cynthia, so he nodded.
As Yvonne entered Novia’s shop, she spotted Joanne at the counter helping Novia organizing some items. She was surprised, considering how Joanne and Bryant had skirted out of each other’s way since what happened last year. Although Bryant had his own busy schedule, it wasn’t impossible that he would drop by the shop from time to time.
“Hey,” Novia greeted Yvonne. “What can I do for you today?”
“Hey, I was wondering if you have time to make me a sign for next week’s showcase?”
Novia gestured toward the counter. “Let me check my log.”
Yvonne nodded and followed her.
“I think I could get it to you by this weekend if you don’t think that’s cutting it too close,” Novia said a few minutes later.
Yvonne nodded. “That’s fine.”
Novia brought out her notepad at that time and let Yvonne do the drawing before they discuss further details.
“I’m leaving,” Joanne said a few minutes later.
Novia nodded. “Thanks, Qiao.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“Why is she here?” Yvonne whispered to Novia after making sure Joanne was already out of earshot.
Novia shrugged. “She overheard me mentioning that I needed help earlier when I came to visit Janine at lunch, and she was visiting Yan. So, she volunteered since she said she was free this afternoon.”
“You think she moved on already?”
Novia shrugged again. “I don’t know.”
“You sound like Wallace every time I ask about them.”
Novia smiled. “Isn’t that something we’re all trying to do? I mean, trying to not meddle into their situation.”
They continued on with their discussion regarding the design Yvonne wanted after that.
On the outside, as Joanne stepped out of the shop, she spotted Bryant walking toward her. It was probably a coincidence. After all, it was his cousin’s shop. He had every right to be there. So she took a deep internal breath and forced herself to turn away. As she was about to cross the street to Cynthia’s shop though, she spotted a car coming toward them. It wasn’t like it was on the street and was hindering her crossing plans hence her having to wait. No, far from it. It looked like it was coming straight for them.
“Bryant!” Joanne yelled out as she leapt toward him.
Bryant’s attention was on Joanne the whole time, so he wasn’t aware of the current traffic. Even so, it was usually quite deserted around the area. Foot traffic was more common around there since it was a small street. He only turned in time to a shadow of a car before feeling someone grabbing him out of the way. Then he was slammed against the wall. He heard an “ugh” next to him. He turned to see both he and Joanne were against the wall. She had endured half of the impact since she had dragged him out of the way and into the wall out of desperation.
“Qiao, you all right?” He asked, trying to steady himself. He reached out to help her stand upright again.
That was also when Novia and Yvonne ran out of the shop. Novia spotted Joanne and Bryant while Yvonne had her attention on the out-of-control car. Before anyone could say anything, they heard some crashing sounds across the streets. The other three turned in time to see that the car had crashed into the shop.
“Wallace!” Yvonne yelled out as Novia pulled her back.
“Hold on,” Novia said, seeing another car coming up to them.
It was just a regular car this time. And that car was there in time to see the impact of what happened. That person even got out of the car to check.
“I’ll call the cops,” He blurted out.
“What are you doing here, Jun?” Novia demanded, walking up to that person.
Yes, that person was Jun. Coincidences of all coincidences, he had showed up just in time. Or was it intentional?
“I’ll check on Wallace and the others,” Yvonne said since Novia already let go of her shoulder.
“Me too,” Joanne said as she had finally regained herself and had already let go of Bryant.
“I’ll go with you,” Bryant said.
Joanne didn’t want to argue, so she let him be. She followed Yvonne, making sure to check both ways carefully this time.
“Seriously?” Andy yelled out as soon as they were inside the shop. “We have to do renovation again?”
Yes, the car had crashed into Cynthia’s shop.
“I don’t know what happened,” The driver said. “One minute it was working, then it was out of control.”
“Tell it to someone who believes in fairytale,” Andy scolded. He was seriously channeling his inner Ehlo at that point. Because that would be something Ehlo would say in such a situation.
Aside from Andy and Achel who were in front of the shop arranging some items earlier, Wallace and Cynthia had used the front area as their meeting location after they closed. They were just lucky that Wallace had seen the commotion in time to grab Cynthia out of the way. Because the others could see that a table was smashed out of shape under the car.
“Wait, is it going to explode?” Andy asked, trying to check the car—like he remembered how the others had checked yesterday.
“Two in two days,” Wallace mumbled while checking the car as well. “I think we better get out of here, just to be safe.”
Cynthia nodded, looking around the shop.
“You have anything important here?” Wallace asked. “If you do, better take it now. I speak from experience.”
Cynthia nodded again. “I’ll be back.”
“I’ll go with you.” Before he followed Cynthia though, he turned to the others. “The rest of you, out now.”
The others didn’t question him but cleared out as told. The driver looked confused, yet Yvonne had dragged him along on her way out. Sure, she was mad worried about Wallace, but she knew she had to trust him.
“Could you believe our luck?” Andy asked with much bitterness as they were standing across the street looking at the shop, now having a big hole in the middle with a car still stuck out of it.
“Qiao, let’s take care of that first,” Bryant said then, looking at the scratches on Joanne.
“I’ll go get the first aid kit,” Novia said, rushing back into her shop.
“The cops should be here soon,” Jun informed them as the others found a spot to stand while waiting for Wallace to come back.
“Good,” Andy mumbled. Then he realized something. “Wait, why are you here?”
“I heard what happened and came to check on you guys,” Jun responded.
“Who did you hear it from then?” Yvonne asked, looking at Jun with her radar eyes. “Your daily gossip magazine or your new girlfriend?”
Jun wrinkled his face. “What? I watched the news earlier when I got a chance. I thought I stopped by the shop since I know I’m not welcomed at your places.”
“I was laughing at Ehlo’s outrageous theory earlier,” Andy said at that time. “But now, I’m thinking he might be right.”
Jun turned to Andy then. “What did you hear?”
“You and your new girlfriend cooked up this new game to target the so-called rich people. Newsflash: she’s Wan Da’s youngest daughter. You know she’s rich too, right?”
“What? You mean Jan? You guys met her before?”
“She didn’t tell you that she ran into us yesterday?” Yvonne asked, still eyeing Jun with her suspicious expression.
Novia had returned like since Andy mentioned about the youngest daughter of Wan Da yet she had stayed silent after handing Bryant the first aid kit to help Joanne.
“She said someone almost got ran over,” Jun said. “She lost her phone, so she had to use mine to call that person. Who almost got hit?”
“Want to take a guess?” Andy asked, his hostility still high.
“Look, I don’t know what’s going on here,” Jun said, turning to Andy again. “But I just came here to check because I wanted to know if you’re all right. If you think I had something to do with it, why would I stick around? Or more like, why would I drive toward the scene today and even volunteered to call the cops?”
“Just to cover your ass, maybe. In some cases, the perpetrator loves to stick around the scene to watch. You being here gives you the perfect opportunity for that. Isn’t that right, Yvonne?”
“Hey, even if that’s true, why would I make myself the center of attention? You guys would suspect me as soon as I show up.”
“Jun’s right,” Yvonne said. “He wouldn’t get away with it if it was really him and he showed up now.”
Jun sighed out then, turning to Yvonne. “Thank you.”
“You’re still an asshole for how you acted before, you know?”
Jun sighed out and finally turned to Joanne—who had already been bandaged up by Bryant at this point. “Look, I know it’s too late and you’ll never believe me anyway, but I apologize for everything that I was a part of previously, okay?”
“Apology not accepted,” Andy jumped in before Joanne could say anything. “You sounded hostile as hell, how is that an apology? Try adding some sincerity into your voice. Or are you even capable of that at all?”
“I accept your apology,” Joanne said, surprising everyone—even Jun.
“You do?” Jun asked, his expression displaying obvious shock.
Joanne nodded. “Yes, what you said was harsh. But you were right. They shouldn’t have babied me after all these years. But I also want to clarify that I never wanted them to do that. What I wanted was for everyone to stop fighting, especially that day in front of Tang Fen’s grave. In fact, the cemetery is where people are resting. None of us should have behaved like we did.”
Jun looked like he was really ashamed. His head was lowered at that point and he was staring at the ground. “I know.”
“But because you didn’t know, unlike some people, it’s easier to forgive than say people who knew but withheld information so the rest of us could fight till the death.”
After saying that, Joanne turned to leave.
“Qiao,” Bryant called out, rushing after her. “I…”
Joanne didn’t turn around. She brushed his hand off and continued down the street.
“Why is she leaving?” Wallace’s voice asked that time.
The others turned to see him and Cynthia safely crossing the street and was making their way to them.
“It’s a long story,” Yvonne said, feeling helpless all over again.
Wallace turned and saw Jun at long last. “And why are you here?”
Jun sighed out. “I can leave.”
“No,” Yvonne said. “You have to stay.”
Jun turned to look at Yvonne. “Because I’m a suspect?”
Yvonne nodded. “I don’t believe it’s you either, but you know procedure. The way things are, they’ll drag you into the station one way or another in the future. Might as well get it out of the way now. I’ll vouch for you later when they ask.”
“You don’t need to. I mean it, because…” He had paused and scanned the others’ faces real quick.
“If Yvonne said you didn’t do it, then you didn’t do it,” Wallace chimed in as he walked over to stand by Yvonne.
Jun was even more surprised that Wallace had backed him up. Then he realized that Wallace probably trusted Yvonne’s cop instinct, not him. He nodded and stood to one side, staying silent to wait for the authorities like the others.
When Friday rolled around, Ehlo had a new plan. Or at least a change in tactic. They were at Uncle Ben’s stall that afternoon after work, trying to get some fresh air. That was when they learned of the plan. Interestingly, it was the same four who were seen at the place when tabloids were still writing about the whole CW fiasco. The four of them also sat at the same spot.
“So, I decided already,” Ehlo said.
“Enlighten us,” Wallace returned.
Ehlo had on his cunning smile. “Instead of the usual gloom and doom talk, how about we invite him over for a meal?”
Chris exchanged a look with Jacky and Wallace before turning to Ehlo again. “What do you mean?”
“Also, who’s the ‘him’ in this scenario?” Wallace added.
“Jun, of course,” Ehlo said, annoyed. “Haven’t you heard what I said like five minutes back?”
Chris exchanged looks with Jacky and Wallace again. “Uh, no?”
Ehlo looked like he was offended. “You were tuning me out again?”
“Look, man,” Chris said, playing with his neatly trimmed beard at that time. “You’ve been going on for the past five days about some conspiracy theory and it’s not like there’s anything new about it. You can stop now. No one’s here to entertain the idea anymore. Why don’t you just pack it up and move on to some other topic, like maybe Jacky’s birthday next month?”
“When’s your birthday then?” Ehlo asked, more than annoyed by now.
“It’s in November.”
“Oh, so you’re younger than me? That means you don’t get a say.”
“Really? Is this how it works?”
“Just wait it out several more days,” Wallace said at that time. “He’ll tired himself of talking about Jan.”
Ehlo turned to Wallace. “When did I mention Jan?”
“We all know why you’re suddenly talking to Jun again, man. You’re trying to extract info from him about Jan and her possible motives, which are none.”
“How would you know?”
“So, we’re doing this again?” Jacky asked, scanning everyone’s faces before focusing on Ehlo.
“When had he stopped to even begin again?” Wallace jumped in.
Their food finally arrived so Ehlo actually resisted the urge to respond. At least, until Uncle Ben was already gone, of course.
“You think you’re funny, Huo?” Ehlo finally said when he was sure Uncle Ben was out of earshot.
“Let it go already, man,” Chris stated his previous point of view. He took a pair of chopsticks from the wooden cup in the middle of the table and cleaned it before diving into his noodles bowl. As he came up for air, he turned to Ehlo again. “Jan’s seriously living rent free in your head, huh?”
Ehlo scoffed. “You’re trying to use psychology on me, right?”
Chris shrugged. “It’s not working so far, so why bother? Why do you hate her so much anyway?”
“I don’t hate her, I just know she’s up to something.”
“Yeah, for a person full of motives, she sure got exposed fast.”
“Maybe because she’s arrogant enough to think she wouldn’t be exposed as easily.”
“I think I know why you hate her so much.”
“Again, listening skills, I don’t hate her. And what are you suggesting now?”
“Because she reminds you of you.”
Jacky and Wallace stopped eating at that time and turned to Chris. They even shifted their visions toward Ehlo, feeling the air had reached another level of intensity. It took Ehlo about a minute to react. He was indeed stunned into silence.
“What?” Ehlo asked, not really looking for an answer. “She’s like me? That’s your best strategy now? Trying to get me to drop it by saying she’s like me? How in the freaking world is she like me?”
Chris wasn’t fazed by Ehlo’s outburst. It was like he was used to Ehlo’s dramatic flare nowadays, so he wasn’t threatened by that demeanor. “You know when we first met?”
“I will cut you some slacks because you thought I was going to steal Xiao Han from you. But aside from that, you were acting all mysterious. Your talking pattern? Start half, leave it unfinished, so everyone’s confused. Everyone who didn’t grow up with you, that is. You said to me like several days in a row that you didn’t like Jan’s attitude toward the whole situation, how she should have disclosed more information, especially at such a crucial time. You even discredited her effort by saying that she should be patient with everyone and explain stuff. In summary? She has terrible social skills, also, according to you. But don’t you see you have the same talking pattern as her? But I would cut her some slacks, because given the circumstances, she was trying to get people out of there as soon as possible, so it made sense she didn’t want to play the polite card at that time.”
“I don’t think we could make a fair conclusion about her, though,” Wallace jumped in.
“I’m just paraphrasing the man himself,” Chris said, gesturing toward Ehlo with his chopsticks.
“Hey, that might be true, okay?” Ehlo continued, ignoring Wallace and Chris’ latest comments. “But she’s so condescending.”
“Like you don’t act like that with Chen Yi too.”
“It’s a joke, he knows it.”
“Oh, come on, man.”
“You wanted to talk about Jan, I’m breaking things down for you, you just don’t like what you’re hearing now.”
“It’s not like you know her enough to defend her. She could be some…”
Chris stopped eating again and glared at Ehlo. “You’re right, we don’t know her. That’s my point this whole time. So, why are you attacking her if you don’t know her any more than I do?”
“That’s why I want to invite Jun over and grill him on it, of course, we have to dial down on the aggressiveness level.”
“You mean just you, right?” Chris paused again to take a sip of the soup before continuing. “Just let it go and wait for the cop’s investigation. You’re not a cop, stop running around playing detective.”
“You have so much faith in our justice system, don’t you?”
Chris shrugged. “I just know my limits. Besides, didn’t you tell Eddie that we had to leave it up to the authorities on Will’s matter? Although no one died in this case, fortunately, but the same concept applies.”
Ehlo looked like he wanted to reconsider his position, so he used that time to eat some more before continuing. “You seemed like you’re into this Jan girl. Why are you defending her so much?”
Chris had on his amused smile now. “So, that’s where we’re going?”
“Well, you want me to drop the other subject.”
“I would be happier if you drop talking about Jan or conspiring about getting info from Jun in general.”
“Well, you can’t, so might as well answer this one.”
“Why should I?”
Chris had on his amused smile again. “So, we’re doing this? Okay, I’ll play. If Jan didn’t need to go out of the country for her trip, I would have asked her out.”
Ehlo wrinkled his face in shock. “What? That’s insane. Even for you.”
Chris seemed unfazed. “What? Still can’t handle the truth?”
“I have a feeling like you’re just trolling me now. Feeding me with the most outrageous answer just because.”
Chris shrugged. “How do you like it that someone could finally drive you crazy with random info?”
Jacky smiled then. “He got you there.”
Ehlo turned to Jacky at that time. “Oh, shut up.”
“The truth is really hurting, huh?”
“What about you then? You’re going to say you would ask her too? Just to double his trolling?”
Jacky shrugged. “I could ask her out, especially after she saved me, you know. It wouldn’t be bad to get to know her more.”
“That’s a gratitude meal. I’m talking about interested in her romantically.”
“I think she has a boyfriend. You know, that guy on her phone you kept talking about but not as often as about her or Jun.”
“What if she doesn’t?”
Jacky shrugged. “I don’t know. I need more information before I could decide.”
“Thank you for your honest answer.”
“So, you like it that he’s politely rejecting her,” Chris jumped in again. “You know, comparing to my answer favoring her.”
Ehlo turned to Chris again. “I don’t believe for a second you would be interested in her. You know how much time you spent on grooming that beard and mustache of yours? You’re high maintenance.”
“Which actually would make sense if they do end up together,” Wallace said at that time.
Ehlo turned to Wallace with a look of disdain. “Really? You’re already planning their future together?”
“You started it, Huang. Don’t start what you can’t finish. Or in this case, don’t start with the questions if you can’t accept the consequences in form of answers.”
“Why would they fit though?”
“The less time she spends in front of a mirror, the more time he has to himself.”
“You don’t know there are his and hers bathrooms, right? You walked right into my territory, Huo.”
Wallace smiled. “You might know houses, but I have experience in the dating business.”
“Huh, that’s interesting,” Chris jumped in, not caring if he had annoyed Ehlo even more. “I never knew that.”
Wallace had on a proud look. “That was the days when Alyssa was still the owner of the shop.”
“It doesn’t matter, Huo, that level of high maintenance of his,” Ehlo said, gesturing toward Chris for emphasis. “She can’t pass the test just based on first meeting.”
“If you’re still griping over the fact that she doesn’t wear makeup. You know there’s a difference between wearing makeup and keeping to general hygienic grooming, right?”
“It’s not that, see how messy she was?”
“Yeah, I think you wouldn’t turn out so shining either if you had to grovel for the ground and then ran about a block to stop a car from its mad speed,” Chris said.
“I’m surprised you’re this hard on her, Huang,” Wallace said. “I thought you would jump onto her team by the time the tabloids kept piling in on her with being the black sheep of the family. Don’t you usually support those rebellious ones?”
Ehlo glared at Wallace again. “Sometimes, you have to meet people before you decide. And unfortunately for her, I already met her.”
Chris rolled his eyes. “You know what? Just for that, I’m going to marry her one day, so I can see you explode in front of all of us.”
That over the top declaration from Chris got every one of them all right. Because he just said that so casually about a major event in his life. Not to mention, marrying someone just to see Ehlo’s reaction?
“You know what, man?” Ehlo said, gritting his teeth. “Just for that, you’re officially kicked out of the group.”
Chris shrugged. “Fine with me.” He got up from his place and went to pay. “Remember to look in the mail for our wedding invitation.”
“He has got to be kidding, right?” Ehlo asked the other two after Chris was by where Aunt June was already.
Jacky shrugged. “Probably. I mean, she has a boyfriend. Unless he somehow manages to break them up and then install himself into the whole situation. But then again, even if that happens, it might not work out in his favor either.”
Ehlo clutched the area near his heart in a dramatic way. “Oh, good. I was about to have a heart attack if he’s serious.”
“You know why he’s not going to succeed, Huang?” Wallace asked then.
Ehlo raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
“Because I’m going to jump in at the most crucial moment and steal her away,” Jacky said.
Wallace slapped Jacky a high-five after that and got up to pay as well.
Ehlo’s expression at that moment was really priceless. “Oh, forget the both of you!”
Yes, they were all trolling him. It was high time that they were paying him back for these past few days of having to endure his conspiracy theories.
© Saturday, September 19th, 2020
Posted: Wednesday, January 20th, 2021