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CHAPTER 3

  • Nico's villa, from what John could see, was well-secured and very comfortable, but he was feeling a little claustrophobic from being within its walls for so long, exactly ten days, without going past the gates. He needed to see something of the little bustling town outside. In Nico's domain, rules were strict, tight and hardly spoken about, so it was quite impossible to know which was being broken at any point in time.
  • Barely a week into his stay, the last thing John wanted was to be used as an example to the rest of the crew. From what he had experienced so far, Nico seemed to be an explosive ready to go off at the slightest wrong touch, so it would be wise to be wary and watch his steps as carefully as possible.
  • "I would love to have a word," John called as he sighted Nico running up the steps into the large parlour.
  • "Then come right in," Nico replied without glancing at him.
  • John strolled leisurely into the parlour in his usual way, hands behind his back and his brow creased as if in thought. One glance at him would serve to satisfy a stranger that he was the master of the villa, but the appearance of Nico on the scene would quickly set things in the right order. The man had a presence that dwarfed all else, even the roughest of ruffians cowed before him. You didn't need to ask around to know that he was feared. It shone from his eyes and his manner.
  • "What did you want to talk about?", Nico asked as John walked in.
  • "Me," John replied as he took a seat opposite him.
  • Nico eyed him for a while. Not angrily, but with a kind of curious expression like the way a fearless cat eyes something new.
  • "What about you?", he sighed at last.
  • "Seeing that you're my host, I'd like to be courteous enough to ask what you think of my seeing the town for myself."
  • "You can see the town, Mr. Baldwin. It's ours, so you're safe here, but... that's about it. Our control ends where the town ends. One step past that boundary and you're on your own."
  • "Understood."
  • John was glad and relieved to hear this new piece of information. He had no need to venture outside Quarker, at least not yet, but when that time would come, he would surely be prepared for any eventualities. As he exited the parlour, ready to begin his tour of the town, Nico called after him: "And Mr. Baldwin, be careful how you identify yourself."
  • John simply nodded and went on his way. He really did not understand what Nico meant by being careful with his identity, but he believed it was nothing too savoury. Nico had said the words with that cunning monkey smile on his face.
  • Starting from the huge gate of the villa, John began his tour. He went eastward, hoping to find a circuitous route that would take him back to the villa from the west. He was looking for nothing in particular, but he knew from experience that it would be very helpful to be minutely familiar with the town. He had an elastic memory, so storing locations and routes would be quite easy. On foot, he moved slowly along, his eyes taking in everything and everywhere; his brain picking out and storing significant landmarks and his nostrils breathing in the exotic smells all around him.
  • After strolling for about a quarter of an hour, he caught sight of some taxis whose drivers seemed idle since they were gathered, chatting loudly. Choosing a serious-looking fellow, he boarded a taxi and off they went.
  • "You're new here?", the cabman asked after stealing several glances at John from his rearview mirror.
  • "Yeah," John replied, glad to be in the conversation. "Anything I need to know?"
  • "No, nothing," the man shrugged. "Just watch your tongue is all."
  • "What sort of things should I avoid saying?"
  • "Nothing in particular, but... where do you live?"
  • "I stay with a friend just across the road from some high-walled fancy compound few miles back."
  • The taxi driver didn't say a word. He simply concentrated on the road ahead. John was quite uncomfortable with the silence and he felt the need to break it.
  • "Won't you be kind enough to tell me about some of these places we're zooming past?"
  • "Well," the man shrugged again, "that big old building we just seen is the only Catholic church around."
  • He went mute again. Just when John was about to restart the conversation, the cabman suddenly spoke up.
  • "That compound across from where you live, can you describe it?"
  • "Why?"
  • "Nothing. Just curious, I guess."
  • "Well, it's pretty big. The walls are high, the gate blue and a lot of rough guys line the walls out..."
  • "Your friend don't tell you anything about the place?"
  • "No he didn't. Why?"
  • "Well, nothing. You just do well to stay far away from it. It's not a very nice place. Now, I only tell you this because you look like a good person."
  • "Okay. Thanks. Why don't you pull over here."
  • The taxi driver pulled over and John paid him, offering him a generous tip before stepping out. He waited till he had driven off before turning back. While in the taxi, he had caught sight of something that he'd like to investigate.
  • Walking back a few hundred paces from where the cabman had dropped him, he found the place. It was a large and ancient-looking building. Though a lot of effort had been made to make it look very modern by the application of glass doors and security cameras, it still had the air of a pre-modern building.
  • Standing across from it on the other side of the road, John stared up at what really had caught his attention. It was a large stone statue mounted on the roof of the old building. It was the statue of a young chubby child whose arms were folded behind him and his eyes staring down at the busy traffic below. John knew he had seen this statue before, but where exactly, he could not recall. He was still staring at it in an effort to jog his memory when he heard a voice behind him. He turned around to find a young shopkeeper smiling at him.
  • "Beautiful, right?", she asked.
  • "Um... yeah. It's beautiful, very beautiful."
  • "You are a tourist, yes? Or a historian?"
  • "No," John quickly replied with a low chuckle. "Just an admirer. It looks very familiar, that's all."
  • "Maybe you saw it on your first visit to Quarker?"
  • "No, no. This is the first time I've been in this town and the first time I've come around this area."
  • "Then I think the sun is playing a trick with you. Come, sit and have a cold drink."
  • The offer seemed splendid enough. The sun was scorching and at the thought of a cold drink, he felt his mouth go dry and his throat parched. John was naturally wary around young women, but this one seemed harmless enough and her smile was too inviting to be ignored. He took the seat she offered and accepted the cold drink gratefully. As he sipped away, they both watched the statue on the building across the road.
  • "Have you been inside... the building, I mean?", the girl suddenly asked.
  • "No. What's in it?"
  • "Oh books, art, many things. It's a library, a museum and other things. Nice place. You should go sometimes."
  • As she talked, John took the opportunity to study her. She was very good looking and young too. Perhaps in her mid twenties. She had a healthy, jovial face that seemed to radiate joy and frankness. From her intonation, he knew she was not a native of Quarker. He guessed she was European, but he would have to ask her some other time, if he would see her again. She was saying something.
  • "... so I go there and relax. It's a nice place. A lot of history and art. Very interesting and some, very funny. Do you live here?"
  • "Um... yeah. I do. As a matter of fact, I live with a friend across the road from a fancy mansion over there with the blue gate."
  • "Nico's house?", she sharply demanded, her face contorted into an expression of disgust.
  • "Uhh... Nico?", John said in feigned confusion.
  • "You're new here, yes?", she asked with an expectant look.
  • "Just over a week."
  • "And you live in Nico's place?"
  • "Well, I have no idea where Nico's place is, but I live with a friend..."
  • "Across from Nico's place?"
  • "Uhh... Well, if that high-walled building with the blue gate is the place, then I live across the road from it."
  • The girl simply nodded and diverted her attention back to the statue. John watched her keenly and noticed a similar reaction to that of the taxi driver.
  • "You should be careful," the girl said suddenly, not taking her eyes from the statue.
  • "Careful? Why?"
  • "You live near Nico's villa is why. It is a bad place. Nico... is a bad man. Nico and his men cause a lot of trouble in this town."
  • "Wow. I didn't know. I'll keep that in mind."
  • "Good," she nodded and shrugged.
  • John's assurance that he would keep her advice in mind seemed to make her a lot more comfortable. When she turned to him, she was all smiles.
  • "What do you say?", she asked as she beamed at him. "I take you to the library and teach you many good things about Quarker."
  • "Well," John blurted, obviously taken unawares, "I... I'll be very grateful."
  • "Good," she nodded decidedly. "Give me some time. I will close the shop in... two hours. Can you wait or can you come back another time?"
  • "Uh, I'll stick with waiting. Nothing much to do back home."
  • "Good," she said, beaming and clapping her hands excitedly. "Sit and relax. Two hours... only."
  • John simply nodded and smiled back, glad to have an eager guide.
  • "Sir," she called on her way out of the shop.
  • "Yes?", John answered expectantly.
  • "What can I call you... your name?"
  • "Oh. I'm John. John Baldwin."
  • "Wilhelmina Hofmann. But everyone calls me Mina."
  • "German?"
  • "I'll be right back," she simply said after a brief smile.