Hands behind his back, John was taking a stroll through the grounds of Nico's little villa. He had just finished admiring the Olympic-sized swimming pool at the back of the compound and was making his way to the front when he saw Nico heading towards him, dressed in sportswear and running shoes.
"Hello, Mr. Baldwin," he hailed in his loud oppressive voice.
The smile on his face was quite in contrast with the the sound of his voice. He had a clever way of smiling that reminded John of a cunning monkey. That smile always served as a reminder to him that around Nico, he must always be on his guard.
"Hello," John answered with a slight nod.
"Well, you can call me Nico," he shrugged. "So how was your night?"
"Not bad. Just returned from my morning run. I see you're keeping yourself busy."
"Just being familiar with the surroundings if you don't mind."
"Oh not at all."
Nico had fallen in step with him and both of them walked together toward the front of the compound, but each was studying the other closely without giving him the slightest indication of doing so. Suddenly, Nico stopped. He cleared his throat, folded his arms and turned to face John. His face was now a model of seriousness.
"So John Baldwin," he began, eyeing him critically. "I hear good things about you and I'd love to believe they're true. Henry is a trusted soul, but still, people are liable to make mistakes. So what do you think... tell me why you're good enough to take Henry's place."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Nico..."
"Nico, of course. Sorry but I'm not used to explaining myself and advertising my supposedly good qualities. Instead, I prefer to do the job and be graded according to my rate of success."
"Hmm," Nico sighed, looking thoughtful. "Well said, well said. Hmmmm... well, if that's your style, then I'll say you have the job... based on Henry's recommendation."
"Thanks," John nodded, shaking his outstretched hand.
"Welcome. But of course, there are rules. Most of them you'll learn as you go, but there are some that I'd like to highlight right now. One, orders are orders. Straight and simple. Two, no stealing from me. You'll learn about the consequences later. Three, traitors die. Are we clear?"
"Good," Nico nodded with that cunning smile on his face. "Let me leave you to your sightseeing."
With that, he was off with such speed and rapidity that if John hadn't seen him go through the door, he could have sworn that he vanished into thin air.
John was not surprised by what Nico told him. In fact, he had expected to hear something of the sort and if he hadn't, he would have been surprised or even suspicious. This new environment was jungle-like and to live through it, one had to be jungle savvy. It would not do to stick to conventional methods alone. New methods would have to be formed up and changes must be effected with time.
Day by day, John was getting more prepared and feeling more confident of his chances of survival and success in this new line of work. Yes, he had served time for dealing and possession, but Nico's business was twenty steps from drugs alone. It was a known fact that Nico controlled Quarker. He and his gang ruled every inch of the little town, placing illegal taxes on businesses of all kinds, engaging in trafficking of goods and people, running the only illegal narcotics business in the town and rumors even had it that he had his hands in some terrorism-related activities. The few law enforcement agents that were not in his pockets were always in constant fear for their lives. In fact, the entire town was covered by a web of criminals controlled by one cunning mastermind: Nico. John had heard of his ever-increasingly negative reputation even when he was far away in his home state and he had hoped to see this master spider face to face. Now that he had gotten the chance, he was even more impressed. A lot of questions nagged him.
How did a man as educated as Nico end up as chief criminal and deadly oppressor in the little town of Quarker? That was the most pressing question on his mind which begged for an answer. He would have to find out more about this man as fast as possible. Who the hell was he dealing with? Ex-military? Ex-intelligence agent? He must find out soon, but meanwhile his eyes and ears would have to be wide open.
It was a loud crash followed by a loud bang that drew John Baldwin's attention. He was making his way forward from the back of the house where he had been watching the sun set. He quickly peeped at the window and found that he could see almost nothing at all, so he walked as casually as possible toward the room where the sound had emanated from. He stood at the open doorway, a little to the left, out of sight and watched with interest the proceedings going on in the room.
"Damn you!", Nico's voice boomed loud and angry. "I asked you to find me a way, you dog and you went about it in a very slow manner. Now, he's out of our reach forever. Damn you, bastard! Damn you!"
He was fuming, howling like a madman and bounding about the room like a big cat and looking as if he would devour the cowering subordinate standing before him. John had never seen him in such a state, but this new experience served to tell him more about the man. He stepped a little to the right just as Nico seized a small but heavy sculpture preparatory to hurling it at the subordinate whose eyes had widened in fear by at least an inch in diameter. But at the sight of John, Nico relaxed his grip on the sculpture and shooed his man away.
When the man had hurried off like a rat escaping from the presence of a huge snake, he turned to John, smiling and rubbing his hands as if he were expecting to get a beautiful gift from him.
"Sorry you're meeting me at a bad time," he said as he approached John in the doorway.
"Seems I was just in time," John replied in his calm but firm style.
"Oh don't mind that. I couldn't have hurt him too badly... maybe a couple of fractures, but nothing he doesn't deserve."
He led John back into the room and motioned for him to take a seat in one of the plush sofas while he pocketed his hands and paced about the room, deep in thought like someone who had a tough riddle to solve.
"You see," Nico began suddenly, "this concerns you too. I asked that goat in human form to draw up a plan for a break into where Henry's being held, but the fool... well, you know how foolish goats are. He took a lifetime in getting a plan ready, but you see, the most foolish thing the goat did was to bring me, together with the plan, the information that Henry has just been transferred to medium-security!"
He was not looking as angry as before, but his pacing had increased two-fold in speed. He seemed more thoughtful and more in earnest than ever. John knew he had to say something if for nothing but for the purpose of hurrying things along.
"I'm sorry to hear that, Nico but what are your plans now?"
"No plans," he clipped. "The goat has managed to waste the precious opportunity. His first assignment and he messes it up. Should have trusted such an important assignment to someone with at least a more human brain."
Nico was now almost whispering to himself and John watched him intently like a research doctor monitoring his test subjects. Suddenly, he stopped pacing and turned abruptly to face John. The suddenness of the move made John's heart skip a beat and it confirmed to him the fact that he still was not immune from the influence of Nico's personality.
"That means you'll spend much more time with us," Nico droned in a grave thoughtful voice. "Yes, you'll take Henry's place and by God you better fit in properly. I believe I have outlined to you the most important of the ground rules?"
"Good. I expect you to remember them always... and one more thing, the animal that cannot keep up with the herd gets taken down. Good night."
With that, he turned on his heels and disappeared behind a curtain, making absolutely no sound at all. John knew he had opened a door and walked through it, but he just could not imagine how someone could do everything noiselessly except talking. In his estimation, this made Nico much more slippery and cunning - clearly a dangerous individual that no one would wish to have as an adversary even in dreams.
John clearly understood his statement of the lagging animal getting cut down and that made him resolve to be more on his guard. He was one criminal among a group of savage criminals led by a much more savage master. It was clear that he had a lot of work to do and a lot of records to break if he was to avoid being cut down. He didn't need a seer to inform him that the shoes of Henry Gonzalez were no small ones nor were they easy to fill. He would have to put a lot of effort in order to rise above the bar. It was a free-for-all and survival would surely be for the fittest.