Chapter 3

Like promised, the next day Joyce went into town to investigate further about the unsolved murder case. She had a good excuse to be around the more crowded area. She had to make a delivery to one of her clients, and she had planned to draw in more business by distributing flyers anyway. It wasn’t like she had to go out of her way or act differently than what she already planned. It was a workday so Nic didn’t offer to go with her. He just recently found a job at a shop near his apartment building so he was busy with familiarizing himself with the work there. She was glad she didn’t nag him to go with her–or it would be harder to make up an excuse to drive him away temporarily. Claudia had calmed down after a night’s rest and seemed to be a better mood this morning. Joyce guessed all that bottled up emotions inside Claudia had unleashed last night hence leading to some improvement in Claudia’s state. She could only hope Claudia was heading toward a better path–for the sake of her own health.

“I’m here to see Stacey,” Joyce said at the front desk of an office inside some classy building.

The clerk delivered her words through an intercom before motioning her through a door. She thanked the clerk and left. After the delivery, she left the building and headed for the city hall. As she was on her way, she made sure to distribute her flyers like she had intended, wanting to act casual.

“What types of paintings do you have?” One of the passersby asked.

“I could paint almost anything,” Joyce answered, flashing on her all business smile. “What would you like to paint?”

“How about sunsets? Real sunsets like they show on Earth, not fuzzy ones seen here.”

Joyce’s smiled faded. “That’s almost impossible, but I guess I could try by watching those shows on TV instead of actually painting on location.”

The other party looked like he was reconsidering things. Joyce took the opportunity to spring some questions on him.

“Say…” Joyce began–as casually as she could. “I’m thinking of doing some gothic sets, remember we have the angels and demons gathering several months back, do you remember what was it like? I wasn’t able to make it at that time.”

“It was better not to go,” The other party said. “It wasn’t worth anyone’s life.”

Joyce feigned realization around then. “Wait, wasn’t someone killed that night?”

The other party nodded. “Most of the ones who attended the party went home already, but the rest of us who lived on that side of town had to just discover the body like that. Actually, I don’t remember much anymore. But some people have to pry this one girl out of the way so city patrol could take care of things.”

Joyce feigned interest to push forth more elaboration. “Oh?”

Another nod came. “I think the authorities are still looking for her though. They want to bring her in for an interrogation to understand better about some items they found at the dead girl’s apartment.”

Joyce wrinkled her face–as if to think over the matter. “She disappeared? Or got killed too?”

The other party shrugged. “Who knows? There’s no news of her, the authorities are actually putting up a reward for people who could find her.” A pause. “So anyway, I don’t think you should look for any type of inspiration with that gathering. It has bad luck written all over it.”

Joyce nodded, understanding. She quickly thanked him for his warning as he left.

Sighing out, Joyce went back to distributing flyers, wondering how long before she could acquire enough information to fill the gaps of Claudia’s story. But she didn’t have to wait long. Just as she rounded the corner leading toward the city hall, she spotted Nic walking with someone. Actually, two guys. She found it strange and had to check her watch to make sure she wasn’t paranoid. It was hard not to be paranoid after hearing Claudia’s tale.

“Nic!” Joyce called out before her nerves got the better of her.

Nic spun around in no time and looked almost surprised to see her there. But he soon recovered and made his way toward her.

“I thought you have to work,” Joyce said, scanning his face for possible conspiracy.

“I had to go run some errands,” Nic replied, smiling. “Why are you here?”

Joyce held up her stack of papers. “Trying my luck.”

Nic shook his head. “I almost forgot. You delivered your painting to Stacey already?”

Joyce nodded. “That’s why I’m free to roam around now.” Then she pretended to notice Nic’s companions from seconds ago. “Oh, I’m sorry, was I interrupting anything?”

Nic took a quick glimpse in the other two guys’ direction before turning back to Joyce. “Oh, no. We live in the same area. They happened to be going in the same direction so I just tagged along.”

Joyce nodded again–as if that was the only thing she knew. “Oh. Can I walk with you while I distribute these or no?”

Nic took another glimpse at the other two guys. “Sure, I guess they wouldn’t mind.” He grabbed onto her left hand and led her back to where his two companions were waiting.

“Hey, guys, this is my girlfriend, Joyce,” Nic rattled out as they were standing in front of the two guys. “These are my neighbors, Wallace and Tony.”

“Hey,” Joyce greeted them, waving with her stack of papers still in hand. Then she noticed Tony’s tanned skin. “You’re an earthling too?”

Upon hearing the word “earthling”, Wallace flinched and wrinkled his face. He turned to look at Tony. It was more out of anger than surprised. Or so Joyce thought it looked like.

“It’s hard to get such tans here,” Joyce explained, still smiling.

“Oh, uh…” Tony stumbled.

“He’s actually my friend from Earth,” Nic told Joyce, putting a protective hand around Joyce’s shoulders. “But you know…”

Joyce nodded, understanding quite well that Nic was hinting about keeping it under wraps for the moment.

“Anyway,” Nic continued, still having a protective hand around Joyce. “Let’s get going before I’m fired.”

He had tried to keep his tone at a humorous level but Joyce could sense the nervousness within. Yet she didn’t expose him. She just followed along as he led her away from the two guys and pretended like he wanted to be with her only, keeping a distance ahead of the other two. Joyce didn’t bother turning around to check on the other two, but just continued her conversation with Nic the rest of the way to the city hall. Apparently, Nic had to get some paperwork done for his boss so he had to go there. As for Wallace and Tony, they went in opposite directions when Nic and Joyce entered the city hall. What Joyce found strange was how Nic had kept his hand around her shoulders the whole time and didn’t let go until they entered the city hall. And she was able to sense the nervousness he was experiencing while his hand was around her shoulders. Was that fear of being exposed? Or was he trying to protect her from his so-called friends?

*****

Joyce didn’t get to snoop around at the city hall like she thought her plan would sail toward eventually. It had to do with Nic. Half because she was still thinking about Nic’s strange behavior when she encountered Wallace and Tony, and the other half because she didn’t want to risk it. Whatever that meant. Perhaps she had been influenced by Claudia’s paranoia.

“Hey, what do your friends do?” Joyce asked casually on their way back.

“Wallace’s a mechanic at this one small shop near our place,” Nic answered. “Tony’s still searching. He’s still trying to adapt.”

Joyce nodded. “I hope he finds something soon.”

“He will, if he doesn’t want to starve. Wallace’s been lending him some money.”

“Oh, talking about that, I’m curious about where you guys live, how about a visit?”

“No way!”

Joyce was quite taken aback by Nic’s sudden outburst. Yet she tried to remain calm. “What are you talking about? Are you hiding some girl at your place?”

Nic tried to relax and slapped on a smile. A forced one, but Joyce chose to ignore it.

“What I mean is,” Nic said, clearing his throat once. “It’s a little more complicated than that where I live.”

“What could be so complicated on this planet?” Joyce asked, not wanting to let Nic off this time around.

“Trust me on this one. You don’t want to go there.”

Joyce still had on her unease expression. It was like she had hit a nerve or two. Nic looked around for a bit before turning to face Joyce again. They had stopped walking.

“I saw the way they were looking at you earlier,” Nic said at last. “I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

“Are they…” Joyce let the question hung because she seriously didn’t know how to phrase it. If she had said the wrong word, it might cause Claudia major harm. She can’t risk it. Even if Nic had expressed his worries for her, she had already promised herself in keeping Claudia safe. She can’t risk anything at this point.

“Just stay away from them,” Nic said after a few more minutes passed.

Joyce nodded, not wanting Nic to get suspicious. Though it could be read that she saw how worried he looked so she didn’t want to make him worry even more.

*****

Joyce walked home alone. Nic had to go back to work. She didn’t mind. But she was still curious. Her mind was a jumble. Nic seemed so full of life and outgoing since the moment she met him. Why was he displaying such an attitude all of a sudden? Or was her paranoia kicking in after hearing that story from Claudia? But she couldn’t have imagined the hostility between the three guys when she appeared in front of them, could she?

Two more blocks down the road and she was lost. She was walking in the wrong direction of the city hall to head home. Though she swore she couldn’t have. But then again, she could have because she was too busy thinking about Nic’s sudden strange behaviors and then Claudia’s words. No matter, she would find her way out of there. It was still daytime, still gloomy but at least there was visible light to make it back home before dark. Just as she wanted to yell out some sound of victory because she had found a side path leading back to the main road, she heard some sounds. More like voices. Arguing with one another. She stopped to check. It wasn’t like her to be so gossipy, but she could have sworn it was Nic’s voice. She edged closer along the wall and indeed, it was Nic’s voice. And Wallace. And Tony. She pinned herself against the wall, trying harder than ever to listen in.

“She’s really your girlfriend?” Wallace’s voice asked.

“I’m not done yet with his exposing my identity,” Tony’s voice followed.

“Hey, calm down, okay?” Nic said, his voice still sounding calm–like he had advised the other two. “She doesn’t know anything. I only told her we’re from Earth because like we could hide that from anyone here long. It’s better to tell her that than make us look even more suspicious. Remember what happened with Cyndi and Claudia? They got too suspicious that they kept asking questions and then spying.”

“She’s really your girlfriend?” Wallace repeated his question.

“Drop it already, God. I need some sort of identity, don’t I? She’s a good masquerade for my reason here, okay?”

“I saw the way you looked at her,” Tony jumped in. “And the way you were being protective of her.”

Nic scoffed then. “Huh. I was pretending to protect my girl from other guys’ staring, okay? It’s the same anywhere. Chicks dig that, they think it’s cute. I’m trying to score points here and keeping myself safe in the long run.”

“You’re not staying here that long anyway,” Wallace reminded him. “Why bother to go through so much trouble?”

“The cops are still investigating Cyndi’s murder. I have to pretend I’m living my life, don’t I?”

Joyce risked a glance at the three of them. She had spotted some sort of shadow on the floor. She guessed a tree was around. If she would just lean a tad forward, she would be shielded from that tree. But she was wrong. The item projecting the shadow was some stack of hay hanging halfway from a wheelbarrow. And she only managed to see Wallace and Tony’s backs before Nic saw her. He was looking straight at her. Panicked, she pulled back and made a run for it.

© Monday, October 8th, 2012

Posted: Thursday, October 11th, 2012

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