Chapter 8 – Confusion, Concussion, and Conspiracy

“Where is he going anyway?” Joanne mumbled, her expression impatient as they were all hovering over their seats, trying to get a better view.

“How should I know?” Andy shot back, trying to keep his eyes on traffic instead of just paying attention to Jacky’s car.

“What if he catches us?” Bryant asked, turning sideways to look at the others.

“Don’t worry,” Ehlo said. “Your car’s new.”

Bryant wasn’t reassured by Ehlo’s words though. He still shifted in his seat as the others were crowding around to get a better look of Jacky’s car up ahead.

Yes, they were continuing on with their spying missions despite learning from Ehlo and Angela that Jacky didn’t miss the anniversary after all. And the reason why they continued with the silly mission in the first place was because they were trying to figure out what was really wrong. Sure, it wasn’t like Jacky to claim credit and clarified that he had actually come on that important day, but there was something really strange about it, especially the Lynn situation. So they had no choice but to stall. While waiting for Tony’s words.

It was actually Friday, and Bryant just got his own car. Andy was the one driving because they knew Bryant was too nervous for such a mission–or so some of them had claimed. The ones in the same car with Andy and Bryant were Joanne, Esther, and Achel. Ehlo and Wallace were actually using Janine’s car at the moment to follow Jacky at a closer distance. Ehlo had called Joanne and Joanne had placed him on speaker hence them being able to communicate during the drive.

Although some of them were puzzled of Janine’s helpfulness toward them–despite her objections to their bizarre plans, but they didn’t mind. As long as she didn’t expose them. Yet Janine was also in the car with Ehlo and Wallace. And the reason why they even had time to gather and spy was because it was actually in the afternoon. Or more like late afternoon before the sun set, and most of them were already off work.

The spying soon ended when they realized where Jacky was heading toward. Jacky had stopped at a spot by the familiar bridge. The one that separated their side of town from the other side of town.

“What do we do now?” Andy asked, his voice anxious.

“Hold on,” Ehlo said from the other side.

They had all stopped at different locations to wait for Jacky’s move. Wallace then used his own cell phone to make a call.

“What’s your status, Mrs. Yan?” Wallace asked, tapping on the dashboard and waiting for the response.

“Lynn just got here, but she looked like she’s visiting someone, not heading in to work,” Bianca reported.

“Maybe it’s her day off?” Wallace returned, putting his phone down after pressing the “Speaker” key.

“I don’t know,” Bianca said. “But it’s weird.”

“How weird?” Ehlo asked.

“I’ll call you back later, she’s heading my way.”

“Oh shoot, she’s busted,” Ehlo said after Wallace turned off his phone.

“You don’t know that,” Wallace argued, defending Bianca.

Joanne didn’t care to hear the disputes between Huang and Huo. She got out of the car and headed toward the bridge after Jacky.

“Qiao!” Andy shouted after her and tried to open his door.

But Bryant was faster. He had noticed Joanne’s move as soon as she had her hand on the handle. He followed Joanne and was side by side with her as they ascended the bridge.

“Jacky ge!” Joanne called out when they were in the middle of the bridge and Jacky was already on the other side.

Jacky, surprised, turned around to see them both heading his way. He stopped to wait for them.

“Qiao?” Jacky uttered when they were closer. “What are you doing here?”

“I just finalized the papers for my car so I picked her up at her workplace,” Bryant answered in Joanne’s place.

“What are you doing here?” Joanne asked, her eyes darting.

“Picking Lynn up,” Jacky answered. “She needs a ride somewhere so I’m just helping her out.”

Joanne wrinkled face. “Where?”

Jacky shrugged. “I don’t know either. She said she needed to find the address first.”

“And you said yes?”

Jacky didn’t respond but glimpsed at his watch real quick. “Qiao, I know you don’t like her, but I promised her so I have to go.”

Joanne shrugged, and stepped forward to grab a hold of Jacky’s right arm. “Come on, I’m going with you. To see what she’s up to.”

“Qiao…” Jacky called out, his voice edging toward the impatient side.

“I promise I won’t snap at her.”

Jacky felt like there wasn’t any harm in that so he nodded, still letting her clinging onto his arm–like a little kid. Bryant followed the two as they made their way to the senior home.

“Hello?” Bryant said into his phone a minute later when Ehlo called in.

Yes, Joanne had abandoned her phone in the car so Ehlo had to hang up and call Bryant. Considering the circumstances, Ehlo had no choice but to call Bryant anyway.

“What is she up to now?” Ehlo asked, his voice interrogative.

“I don’t know,” Bryant returned. “I’ll tell you in a bit.”

After that, Bryant hung up. He had no idea why he had gotten out of the car. Nor did he have any clue as to why he feared Joanne would be in any danger. After all, he was more than familiar with Jacky after living under the same roof for a while now. Yet he was still unease for some reason. Like how Joanne would fend if she got exposed.

So the rest of the way to the senior home, Bryant texted Ehlo to update him. Because he couldn’t just report his progress via phone call. That would get them exposed faster than anything.

As for Ehlo and Wallace, they were on their way back into town, knowing they didn’t need to follow anymore. Even Andy had driven away. It wasn’t because Andy got impatient and wanted to abandon them, but Bryant had told Andy to go ahead and go back. Andy would drive back later to pick Bryant and Joanne up. He also had to drop Esther off at Tony’s place.

When the three of them finally arrived at the senior home, Bianca was gone. Or it appeared that way when Bryant and Joanne scanned the place.

“Done with your shift?” Jacky asked as he spotted Lynn was all changed back into normal clothes again.

Joanne wrinkled her face and exchanged a look with Bryant then. Bryant shook his head, indicating he didn’t know either.

“Yes,” Lynn answered Jacky then and sent him a sweet, warm smile. Then she realized Joanne and Bryant’s presence. “Hi, visiting?”

Joanne shrugged and was still darting the spacious room. She was still clinging onto Jacky’s hand, not letting go–on purpose. It was then that Lynn realized thus turning her smile off. Yet she didn’t ask, but just turned to look at Jacky.

“You got the address?” Jacky asked, getting straight to the point, not wanting Joanne to stir things up again. He indeed felt strange that she was suddenly tagging along, remembering too well she was still mad at him.

Lynn nodded. “It’s in here.”

Lynn had tapped at her handbag.

“Let’s go then.”

Though Jacky had turned around to go but he never brushed off Joanne’s hands, unlike how he’d done so with Lynn in the past few times the others had seen with their interactions. Joanne didn’t care to analyze that bit; however, she just brought her right hand up to nudge Bryant lightly. Since Bryant was still scanning the room. Probably he was wondering about Bianca–just like how Joanne was minutes before.

“Jacky ge, that wasn’t all,” Joanne continued her previous conversation with Jacky then as they made their way to the main entrance.

Lynn looked like she was envious of the two as Bryant tagged the other two without additional input. Or possibly because Bryant was still darting his eyes looking for Bianca.

“Hello?” Bryant said into his phone again when they were outside already and he was walking on Joanne’s right. “Yeah, okay.”

Bryant said a few more words into the phone before hanging up. Even then, Joanne didn’t care to investigate but continued to talk to Jacky about something. It wasn’t until they were back to their side of town and near Jacky’s car that Joanne let go of Jacky’s hand.

“See you back at the house,” Joanne said after Jacky got in the driver’s seat already.

Jacky nodded and smiled as he buckled up. He didn’t do the usual gentlemanly gestures of opening the door for Lynn but had let Lynn do it herself. It was harder that Joanne had been clinging onto his hand seconds before, but he didn’t care to walk around to help Lynn after Joanne detached herself from him. Instead, he waved to Joanne as Joanne stepped back to stand by Bryant at the sidewalk.

“Chen Yi said he needs to go to the store for his mom and then he’ll double back to pick us up,” Bryant told Joanne as they watched Jacky’s car disappearing down the street.

Joanne nodded and then started walking along the sidewalk. Bryant knew it would be awhile before Andy would be back so he didn’t mind that she was wandering around to kill time. They were heading back into town.

“Bianca texted me earlier and said that she had a talk with Lynn.”

Joanne stopped walking and turned to Bryant. “What about?”

“She tested Lynn but Lynn didn’t know what she was talking about. Lynn’s lying about working at the senior home.”

“Why? I mean I know she’s fake, but what’s the big deal? Trying to get on Jacky ge’s good side so she could…”

Bryant nodded. “Bianca said she’s checking something else out before she heads back to the house to meet us.”

The two resumed their footsteps and headed toward a shop nearby to browse and wait for news from the others.

*****

“Give us some good news,” Ehlo said the next day at East Shore Café.

“I’m not going to lie to you,” Tony returned, settling down at a seat nearby.

Ehlo was sitting on the railing again–with Angela and Wallace on either one of his sides this time. Bryant had opted for a table nearby with Joanne and Esther. Tony had settled down at that same table upon seeing Esther. They had another meeting because they needed to discuss some matters that they couldn’t tell Jacky. Not quite yet.

“What?” Ehlo asked, getting impatient.

“I haven’t been digging,” Tony said. “I needed to take care of some stuffs at my company.”

“Toss the info to your PI,” Ehlo reminded him. “It’s not like we tell you to personally get on her tail. Or if you don’t have time, I’ll do it.”

“It’s not like it’s life and death situation,” Esther jumped in, defending Tony.

Ehlo took that time to scan Tony and Esther’s faces again. “You two got back together already?”

Esther shook her head. “No.”

“Not yet.”

“You’re off topic,” Wallace interfered, knowing he needed to steer the conversation back to the main point. “Bianca, what did you find out yesterday?”

Bianca didn’t return to the guys’ place yesterday afternoon to meet up with them. She actually stuck around and ended up following Jacky and Lynn. She was careful not to tag too close, so even Joanne and Bryant didn’t see her when she was nearby the bridge. The tagging game continued into the night–to which Jacky dropped Lynn off by the bridge and walked back to the other side of town with her. Bianca had chosen to leave when they were gone. That was why Wallace needed to ask of her progress.

“They went to some art museum together,” Bianca said. “Then to the movies.”

Joanne wrinkled her face. “That was the big secret?”

Bianca shrugged. “Maybe I’m missing something here. I should’ve followed her after Jacky left. Something doesn’t click. I mean aside from her lying about working at the senior home.”

“No need to beat yourself up,” Yvonne said then. “I got something really interesting for you all.”

They all turned to see Yvonne walking toward them. Wallace had jumped off the railing and was making his way toward Yvonne. She was one of the two missing from their meeting. The other person not around was Novia. Well, there were more people missing, like Johnny–who had been busy with all the jobs coming his way that he didn’t have time to join in on their stalking missions. Bianca was free lately and had been helping Angela and Yvonne plan for the wedding hence spending more time with them. It made sense she wanted to join in on the stalking missions too.

“What’s that?” Ehlo asked, waving his hand toward the folder in Yvonne’s hand.

“Old Dad got some stuffs for me,” Yvonne replied, opening the folder and handing some files to Wallace.

Wallace had on a puzzled expression but read it anyway.

“How did you get him to give you all that info?” Ehlo asked, still keeping his attention on Yvonne as Wallace continued to flip through the files.

“Hey, he owes me one after what I’ve been through during my last case,” Yvonne answered, like she wasn’t the least bit feeling guilty about using her connections to get her way.

“Who are you guys talking about?” Janine asked, looking from one to the other.

“Detective Chen at the local police station,” Ehlo replied.

“He’s your dad?” Janine had turned to look at Yvonne. “But you two don’t share the same last name.”

Ehlo smiled. “It’s a joke.”

Janine turned to Ehlo. “You’re putting us on again, right?”

“True story.”

Janine looked at Angela instead, knowing she shouldn’t trust him.

“I’ll tell you later,” Angela said.

“What does that say?” Ehlo asked, looking at Wallace’s intense expression as he was still flipping through the files in his hands.

“Remember how Jacky told us last night that Lynn’s parents passed away already and how she just got dumped by her boyfriend and her life’s practically a mess now?” Wallace asked.

Yes, they actually had a talk with Jacky last night. Even clearing up Jacky’s suspicion of Joanne’s sudden friendliness toward him–or more like getting back to the old days of trusting him again. After moving past that, they had promised to not attack Lynn anymore, knowing Jacky have his reasons, Jacky had disclosed Lynn’s background to them. Jacky also told them to give it some time before they will learn that Lynn wasn’t like they thought.

“And how he’s helping her gaining her confidence again thus not clarifying some things like they’re not really dating?” Ehlo continued in a very monotonous voice. “Blah blah blah…”

“Yeah,” Wallace said, looking up at the others again. “Well, she lied. And I don’t know how long she put him on. But seriously?”

“What?” Ehlo urged. “You’re killing me with your rate.”

“Not only are Lynn parents still alive, but she lives with them on this side of town. In fact, it’s not far from KFT’s area.”

“What? Then why does she pretend to live on the other side of town? And the fake job.”

“It makes sense, doesn’t it? The first day we met her, she flashed out that iPhone. Sure, she could pay for it from savings or whatever, but come on. Those clothes and…”

“Sophia’s not poor, you know,” Joanne jumped in, sounding defensive. “Living on the other side of town doesn’t mean…”

“That’s not what I mean, Qiao. What I mean is everything about her doesn’t make sense after Jacky told us about her supposed background. She doesn’t even look like she’s going through some harsh times.”

“Um, most of us don’t broadcast our grief live, you know,” Janine reasoned. “I mean, we all have to live–whether good or bad, right?”

“No, I agree with Huo,” Ehlo jumped in again. “Something’s really off.”

Just then, Bryant’s phone beeped.

“You have to go?” Ehlo asked.

Bryant retrieved his phone and picked it up, not answering Ehlo yet. “Hello.” A pause. “Yeah.” Another pause. “Okay, I’ll tell them. Thanks. Bye.”

“What?” Ehlo asked again.

“You won’t believe what happened. Novia is on her way here and she saw Lynn out shopping with some of her girlfriends.”

“Where?”

“Near Go-Go Café.”

“She recorded her? Or at least snap some pictures?”

Bryant nodded. “Of course. She wants us to see the other girls.”

“We already established that she lives around the area, right?” Tony reminded them. “It’s nothing surprising. We need to proceed to the next step.”

“I don’t get it,” Janine spoke up again. “If she lives around our area, why wasn’t she caught yet?”

“There are many other people living around our area,” Ehlo said. “It doesn’t mean we remember each and every one of them.”

“Now that we know she lives around here, we could divide up the shifts better,” Wallace pointed out. He turned to Bryant. “Novia still there? Someone could switch with her.”

“I don’t know how she knows how you operate, but she said she’ll stay there until you send someone over.”

“Novia’s a pro all right,” Ehlo complimented. “I like her style. She’s indeed a good sport. Unlike someone.”

“Hey!” Janine yelled out, knowing too well Ehlo was aiming his attack at her.

Ehlo smiled, his mischievous one. “Hey, I didn’t list any names.”

“All right,” Wallace interfered, knowing they couldn’t waste any time. “Let’s get this thing going.”

“If we know this information, why don’t we just give it to Jacky and let Jacky confront her?” Janine asked, getting up from her seat. “Isn’t it enough for him to believe us? The files are from Detective Chen after all. He has no reasons to lie.”

Ehlo shook his head, his smile taunting. “Oh, how I admire your enthusiasm, Miss Chang. But that’s not how it works.”

Angela took it into her hands to hit Ehlo then. “Stop.”

Ehlo turned to Angela. “Come on, I’m telling the truth.”

Angela sent him an evil glare again.

“It’s better to figure out her motive first,” Wallace explained, tapping the files in his hands. “Seriously, she will either break down and say she’s sorry and then ask for Jacky’s forgiveness or just plain go into hiding. What good does that do us? We have to get to the bottom of it and prevent her from coming back with more hare-brain ideas.”

“Have you guys ever thought maybe it’s not as serious as it seems? Maybe she just wants to get his attention with acting all nice and maybe throw in a false resume about working at the senior home to win some points with him.”

“I don’t know about you,” Ehlo said, his voice passive. “But you don’t tell others your parents are dead when they’re actually still alive to impress them.”

Janine wrinkled her face, trying to think up of a reason behind that. “Well, maybe…”

Ehlo had on his victory smile as he hopped off the railing. “See?”

Janine turned to Bryant then. “Say something.”

Bryant shrugged. “I don’t know, sis. But I agree with Ehlo. Something’s really off about her.”

“Let’s not argue,” Wallace said. “Yvonne and I will switch with Novia. We’ll take turns tagging her from now on. Seeing what she’s really up to. Maybe someone else is behind this.”

The others had gotten up from their seats already and were making their way toward the parking lot along with Wallace and Yvonne.

“Like?” Janine prompted.

“I don’t know, maybe Jo came back for revenge?”

“Now you’re grasping at straws,” Ehlo jabbed. “We agreed ages ago that Jo’s not capable of such schemes.”

“Time changes, things change. Who knows?”

“Want to bet, Huo?”

“I wouldn’t mind that, Huang.”

And that was how they declared war against one another. Just like that, not caring if they were supposed to be focusing on the upcoming wedding.

*****

Monday came around with some new developments. But it wasn’t about Lynn. It had to do with Tony and the Zhaos, at least partially. The news actually shook everyone within the business world, and then some more. It was so major that Joanne had rushed into Cynthia’s store with a newspaper in her hands while some of them were helping Cynthia with the opening tasks.

“You guys, listen to this!” She exclaimed.

The others gathered around, their actions halted for the time being.

“What?” Andy asked. He was actually in one of Cynthia’s morning classes–along with Kris.

“The Wind Has Changed Its Course: The Zhaos Are No Longer The Winner,” Joanne read.

“What kind of headline is that?” Kris asked, wrinkling his face.

“Paparazzi speak,” Andy deciphered, flashing on his smart-aleck smile.

“But this newspaper isn’t paparazzi,” Kris argued.

“Come on, man, most of the newspapers nowadays are all like that. You could no longer distinguish quality reporting from trashy tabloids anymore.”

“Guys,” Joanne interrupted their debate. “Let me finish.”

“Please,” Andy said, gesturing his hand.

“Stop hanging around Ehlo so much,” Kris jumped in again. “You’re acting just like him now.”

Andy shrugged. “We’re from the same clan.”

Joanne gave them a look, a threatening one. So they piped down and she resumed her reading. “After much debate within the North Star Corporation, it was announced that Sun Xie Zhi’s Sunrise will take over the new land development project instead of the Zhao’s Unex like previously. North Star Corporation had stated the sole reason for switching company was because of professionalism. There was no additional reasoning from the company regarding to the change in decision. However, according to a reliable source, it was believed that Unex had brought in many members of the Zhao clan to reap from the land development project by introducing unnecessary measures and resources. The projected loss was too high, and the ineffective leadership of Unex had caused North Star Corporation to reconsider their decision. After a brief meeting with Sun Xie Zhi, North Star Corporation had been impressed with his professionalism and effective planning hence turning over the project to his company.”

“Tony won!” Andy exclaimed after Joanne finished reading.

“What did the Zhao say then?” Kris asked, looking at Joanne.

“The Zhaos couldn’t be reached for comments,” Joanne read on. “However, their silence had confirmed the reason behind North Star Corporation’s decision.”

“Wow,” Andy commented. “Who would have thought that Vincent’s family was that despicable, right?”

“I don’t think Vincent is that kind of person though,” Joanne said, wrinkling her face.

“Come on now, you said it yourself that it’s gossip,” Cynthia reminded Andy. “They could write whatever they want.”

“I’m rooting for Tony,” Andy said, his voice determined.

Cynthia tapped her watch then. “Opening in five. If you want to discuss this any further, wait for lunch.”

“Yes, Lady Boss,” Andy blurted out, saluting.

Joanne took the hint to leave the shop also, telling them that she would be back later.

*****

That afternoon, Andy and Kris had their confrontation. At least it happened while the guys were on their way to meet up with Joanne and Achel at Go-Go Café.

“What’s with you lately, man?” Andy demanded after Andy had parked already and was getting out of the car. “Like you want to pick a fight on purpose. You snap at everything I say. It’s like you’re using me as a punching bag. It’s not funny anymore, you know. Not like I care about embarrassing myself in front of the gang. But come on now, what was with the whole me copying Ehlo?”

Kris didn’t know what to say, he kept staring at the horizon ahead and just walking. Andy was still staring and waiting for him to speak up. Andy couldn’t stand it anymore so he grabbed a hold of Kris’ shoulder. Kris reacted when he realized what Andy was doing. Kris reached up to shrug Andy’s hand off. He gave Andy a look like Andy was the one having problems, not him. Then he continued walking.

“Hey, you can’t ignore me forever, you know,” Andy reminded him, considering how the two still live under the same roof at the Chen resident.

“I don’t know why you can’t take a little joke,” Kris finally spoke up, keeping his attention on the horizon again.

“Huh,” Andy scoffed. “Oh really? So you’re Mr. Comedy now? That’s just news to me.”

Andy had every right to be sarcastic. Because since Kris joined their little group, he had been passive to most of them, but to Andy, he was always the cool buddy that would always tolerate others no matter what. It wasn’t like Kris was a doormat for most people, but he never picked fights, always looking on the positive and kept on his shining smile. Being a model and having to smile most of the time for the job had helped. That didn’t mean his mischievous days of their high school years were over, because Kris did have one of those moments of scheming with Andy. However, it wasn’t brutal or targeting his friends outright like that.

“Look, just because I’m changing a little doesn’t mean you have to go all sensitive with saying something’s wrong with me,” Kris argued, still sticking with his original answer.

“Right,” Andy continued, his sarcasm still running high. “Who are you kidding, man? You’ve been beyond happy until like two weeks ago or something. Something has to happen or you wouldn’t change like that. Not like I want to get all mushy like the girls, but seriously, you make it harder not to get all suspicious, you know.”

Kris sighed out. “Okay, fine. I’ll tell you, but don’t tell them.”

Kris had stopped walking and ended up backtracking, even dragging Andy toward the wall and hiding their presences from the others’ views.

“What?” Andy urged, feeling anxious. And regretting it a bit that he was confronting Kris.

“I’m just upset that Yan’s getting back with Tony,” Kris said, staring at Andy, wanting Andy to see his expression and not avoiding eye contact like before.

“What?” Andy repeated.

“See? You don’t believe me.”

Kris was about to walk away, but Andy grabbed a hold of his shoulder again. “Come on, man. You’re so short tempered lately.”

“What am I supposed to say? Beg you to believe?”

Andy let go of Kris but was still staring in shock. He finally shook his head. “I can’t believe you’re still holding a torch for Yan. Come on, I thought that was high school.”

Kris seemed a bit calmer now, not so hostile toward Andy anymore. He directed his attention on Andy again. “I thought so too, but after seeing her again, I…”

“So you were celebrating when she broke up with Tony?”

Kris looked down on the ground at that time, avoiding Andy’s accusing glare. He indeed felt ashamed of himself at that point. But he slowly nodded.

Andy sighed, his expression intense. “This is turning into a mess all over again.” He scanned the perimeter out of habit, his mind zooming. Then he turned to look at Kris again. “Why in the world didn’t you make your move when you had your chances these past few years, man?”

Kris shrugged. “I was easing my way into it, okay? We’ve been getting along fine and I was going to confess to her that day. But she came to our meeting with Tony.”

Andy’s expression had turned tenfold awful–if that was possible. “I don’t know what to say about this anymore. But I can tell you, Yan hasn’t gotten back with Tony yet. So if you want to tell her, tell her now or it’ll be too late.”

It was Kris’ turn to look confused–like how Andy was minutes before. “What? How could you be so sure they’re not back together?”

Andy looked like he was trying to restrain himself. “And they say I’m clueless. How long have you known Yan? She wouldn’t hide her relationships.”

“But Ehlo said…”

“How long have you known Ehlo? He’s teasing.”

And while Andy and Kris were having their little confrontation, Janine and Eddie were actually seen in the back of the café. They were also having their own heated debate. It was indeed a coincidence that they were there since they weren’t meeting up with the others or anything.

“All right, Eddie, cough it up,” Janine said, her voice threatening.

“What?” Eddie returned, playing with the straw in his drink.

“When are you going to pursue Yan officially?”

Eddie wrinkled his face, faking innocence. “What? Where in the world did you get that idea?”

“Oh, what is this? High school?” Janine blurted out, not caring for manners anymore. “We’ve been friends since forever. You think you could fool me? If I wasn’t helping you, why would I have to put up with Ehlo’s attacks all these times? Am I that nosy to stick around that long? I had to sacrifice myself because your rate was killing me.”

Eddie looked at Janine then. “You’re crazy. I didn’t tell you to do that.”

Janine sighed out, her face reflecting hopelessness. “Fine, if you want to deny it, then I won’t help you anymore. So you could go and mope on your own.”

As Janine got up from her seat, Eddie reached out and grabbed her hand, stopping her.

“Come on, Janine,” Eddie urged. “You know I didn’t mean it.”

Janine shrugged his hand off. “Who’s the one pretending he’s not interested in the new colleague?”

Eddie had his surrender expression on. “Fine, you win. So I like her, but what good is it when she already got back with her ex?”

“No, she didn’t,” Janine argued, returning to her seat.

“Ehlo said it, what more do you need?”

“He’s teasing.”

“We just met them, we don’t know how they operate, hello.”

“Both parties didn’t confirm.”

“They didn’t say anything so it could go both ways. We’re the outsiders here, you know.”

“You want to bet?”

Just as Eddie was trying to find a way to divert Janine’s intense stare from him, a new development occurred outside.

“Why are you guys standing here?” Joanne’s voice suddenly spoke up, alarming both Andy and Kris.

Andy and Kris turned around to see Joanne and Achel staring at them.

“Um,” Andy stuttered. “Admiring the new paint job?”

Joanne wrinkled her face. “Really? You couldn’t come up with a better answer?”

Andy shrugged. “Whatever, girl.”

Andy ignored Joanne’s taunting look and walked over to grab a hold of Achel’s hand. “Let’s go.”

Although Achel was staring at Andy with much suspicion too but she wasn’t the confronting type so she followed him in silence while Joanne continued to stare at Kris.

“If you want your chance, listen to Chen Yi,” Joanne spoke up at last. “Tell Yan before it’s too late.”

It was then that both Andy and Kris realized that the girls had overheard them. Andy turned around to look at Joanne then.

“I’m not that clueless, okay?” Joanne snapped, having seen Andy’s stare. “Just because I was occupied with the whole Lynn thing doesn’t mean I couldn’t see you two fighting over senseless matters. And of course I saw you guys walking toward our way but refused to come over so we have to check it out, okay?”

That was Joanne’s explanation how she had overheard their conversation.

“I…” Kris mumbled, not knowing where to start either. He didn’t realize how much Joanne had changed so it was indeed hard to accept her current state just like that.

“I’m not going to put you on the spot,” Joanne reassured Kris. “This is the last time I’m even talking about that. You can trust me not to tell Yan, because it would spoil your confession.”

After saying that, Joanne turned and left with Andy and Achel. However, she didn’t realize that Bryant had been standing nearby. He stayed silent on purpose, not wanting to alarm her. That was also when Joanne halted again. She didn’t know why. Perhaps it was the look that Bryant gave her.

“Qiao, I have something to tell you,” Bryant said before Joanne could continue on her way again.

“What about?” Joanne asked, her expression worried.

Bryant didn’t say anything more. He reached for her hand and guided her back to his car. It was also then that Kris felt abandoned–even if he knew he could follow Andy and Achel at any time. But what got him even more confused was seeing Eddie and Janine stepping out of Go-Go Café’s entrance. They must have finished with whatever they were doing hence leaving.

“Hey,” Kris muttered out a greeting when the other two had spotted him already.

“Hey,” Janine returned, her smile cheerful.

Eddie wasn’t really smiling. Not really. He just nodded and sent a wave Kris’ way.

*****

Bryant started the car before Joanne could object to this strange encounter. She couldn’t explain why but she was nervous. She also had a feeling it was along the line of her previous confrontation with Kris. She didn’t know why she knew, but it was because of how Bryant had looked at her.

Bryant didn’t speak up until they were by the bridge. It was the same bridge separating their side of town from Sophia’s side of town–as Joanne often regarded. Joanne followed Bryant after he parked and got out of the car. Bryant was heading toward the bridge.

“What’s going on here?” Joanne asked, her anxiousness obvious from her voice.

Bryant took her hands into his as they were standing in the middle of the bridge. “It was here that I got to know the real you. So it’s only right that I take you back here for this important moment.”

Joanne tensed up even more, trying to retrieve her hands from his, but he held on tight.

“What you said to Kris is right,” Bryant continued, still looking intently at her. “I think I shouldn’t waste anymore time. So what do you think?”

Joanne shook her head, withdrawing her hands successfully this time. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. We just met recently. You don’t know anything about me, except that I’m stubborn and crazy.”

Bryant smiled, taking her hands into his again. “You’re not the type to talk down about yourself, and you’re not crazy, just determined.”

Joanne shook her head again. “I can’t even believe why you would like me. Not after witnessing so many of my unreasonable moments.”

Bryant flashed on a mischievous smile then. It was rarely on his face. “You could say I’m like a moth drawn to a flame.”

Joanne had on a fierce expression then. “Not funny.”

She turned to walk away from him, but he grabbed a hold of her once again and hugged her from behind.

“Hey!” Joanne protested, attempting to undo his hands from around her. “Have Ehlo or Wallace warn you of my martial arts background?”

“If you wanted to hurt me, you already did,” Bryant pointed out.

“Last warning, let go.”

Bryant still had on his taunting smile, but let go of her. He didn’t let go of her completely though but turned her to face him again, keeping her at arm’s length. “I know you’re still hung up on a lot of things, but I want to say I’m here for you no matter what.”

Joanne shook her head, her serious expression on again. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You don’t have to accept me now. I just want you to know I’ll always be here.”

Joanne wasn’t convinced. Or it was more like she was shocked as to where all these words were coming from. She understood how she and Tang Feng got together years back. They were arguing too much and were actually trying to get one another’s attention. But this? It wasn’t like she wanted every relationship to be the same. But after their initial misunderstanding, she and Bryant got along fine. He was just one of those people that got pulled into their conspiracy. Other than that, she didn’t think he was interested in her in that way. Especially not after what he witnessed during his stay at the guys’ place.

“Why do you even like me anyway?” Joanne blurted out, frustrated that she was letting her mind zoom around to find a way to make sense of it all.

Bryant shook his head. “I don’t know. I just know I always wanted to protect you from harm.”

“So you’re into protecting wounded animals now?” Joanne didn’t mean to snap at him, but it still didn’t make sense to her. And it felt like he pitied her more than actual interest.

Bryant shook his head again. “It’s not like that. I can’t explain it, but I just know I always want to protect you no matter what.”

Before Joanne could interrogate Bryant any further, her cell phone rang. She withdrew her hands from Bryant and picked it up as he waited, still having a grip on her waist–without her realizing it.

“Yeah?” Joanne said into her phone.

“We got a surprise for you, Miss Cranky,” Ehlo’s voice teased from the other side. “Come on over.”

“What’s the big deal?” Joanne asked, annoyed at Ehlo’s choice of words.

“You’ll have to come over and find out for yourself,” Ehlo taunted on the other side of the line.

“Okay, fine,” Joanne returned, snapping her phone shut.

It was then that she realized Bryant’s grip on her waist. She brushed him off and descended the bridge.

“What happened?” Bryant asked, following her.

“Ehlo wants me to come over to their place.”

“I’ll drive you,” Bryant said, though that was supposedly an unsaid thing between the two of them these past few days.

However, Joanne shook her head this time. “I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea. Not anymore.”

Bryant stopped Joanne then, stepping in front of her and taking her hands into his again. They were already at the edge of the bridge.

“Qiao…”

Joanne brushed his hands off like many times before. “It’s not fair to you. Because I will never forget Tang Feng.”

“I don’t mind. I know he was an important part of your life and he will always be an important of your life.”

“You say that now, but what about in the future?”

Joanne stepped away from him and continued toward the sidewalk, leaving Bryant behind, thinking to himself.

*****

Ehlo’s surprise to Joanne was indeed a true surprise and not a way to mock her. Because as soon as she stepped into the room, she spotted a familiar presence by the kitchen counter like that person had never been gone before.

“Sophia!” Joanne exclaimed, her moods improving tenfold like Ehlo had promised over the phone.

Joanne didn’t care if she had sounded too dramatic. Nor did she care that she was making a scene in front of the others. She ran all the way to the kitchen and gave Sophia a hug.

“I missed you too,” Sophia said as she hugged Joanne back.

“Does Jacky ge know you’re back?” Joanne asked as they released each other.

“He’s on his way back,” Ehlo told Joanne as he entered the kitchen. “I didn’t tell him what’s really going on though.” Ehlo opened the fridge and took out a juice bottle before turning to Joanne again. “But I did tell Sophia about that lying slime though.”

Sophia’s expression turned into a worried look at the mention of “that lying slime.” “I don’t know why she would do that to Jacky. We definitely have to get to the bottom of this.”

“We have to make sure all is well in paradise again, right?” Wallace chimed in as he walked into the kitchen, winking at Joanne.

It was also then that Joanne turned to Sophia again. “Is Grandpa here?”

Sophia shook her head. “He’s still staying at the facility. It’s better there for him, but he has been in good moods and insisted that I come back to help everyone with the upcoming wedding and all.”

“That’s great!”

It was also then that Ehlo’s eyebrows moved together. He scanned the room real quick before turning to Joanne. “Where’s Bryant?”

Joanne’s smile turned off then. She didn’t have to answer though. Because that was when Bryant entered the house.

“Hey, man,” Ehlo greeted, walking toward the living room again.

“Something happened between you two?” Wallace whispered to Joanne as he spotted Bryant’s state.

Sophia had already placed a protective hand around Joanne’s shoulders then. “Qiao…”

Joanne turned to Sophia with a smile. “I’m fine.”

Sophia nodded, knowing Joanne didn’t want to make a scene at that moment. “We’ll talk later.”

Joanne nodded in agreement.

And it was like someone wanted to spare Bryant from Ehlo’s interrogation. Because just when Ehlo was about to open his mouth to ask about the strangeness between Bryant and Joanne, Jacky entered the house.

“Hey, what’s the big secret here?” Jacky blurted out, still locking the door.

“See for yourself, man,” Ehlo returned, his teasing smile on.

Jacky was about to tell Ehlo to “cut it out” yet he realized what Ehlo was trying to tell him when he looked toward the kitchen. Joanne had stepped away from Sophia as soon as she saw Jacky entering. So when Jacky spotted Sophia, their vision lines weren’t blocked by anyone. Jacky’s smile flashed on then and he headed toward the kitchen to hug Sophia like how Joanne had done before–without the running.

“All is well in paradise again,” Ehlo repeated, flashing on his sincere smile this time.

The others in the room, aside from Bryant, shared that same smile with Ehlo. It was an inside joke for them, especially those who were present that one time when Sophia returned from one of her writing hideout trips.

“Jing Jing, why didn’t you tell me that you’re coming back?” Jacky asked as soon as he released Sophia. Yet he was still holding onto her at arm’s length. “I could’ve picked you up.”

“Ehlo said he wanted it to be a surprise,” Sophia answered, her smile as bright as always–as they come to know her.

Jacky turned to Ehlo then, wanting to say a word or two. But Ehlo shook his head.

“Don’t go all mushy on me, man,” Ehlo said, his mischievous smile back on. “We all know you and Qiao needed it.”

“How long are you going to stay?” Jacky asked, returning his attention to Sophia.

“Until after the wedding,” Sophia returned, still smiling.

Jacky’s smile was even wider now. “That’s great. Oh, remember how I told you about Lynn? You’ll get to meet her.”

“Great,” Ehlo snapped at that time. “How are you going to introduce the two of them? Your other girlfriend?”

He hadn’t let that passed these past few days–as not to aggravate Jacky when they couldn’t trap Lynn yet. But now that Sophia was back, he didn’t seem to care anymore.

“Yu Rong,” Jacky said, turning to Ehlo this time, his expression intense.

“Don’t Yu Rong me, I just earned about millions of points just for that surprise, you know,” Ehlo rattled out. “Don’t make me out to be the monster here.”

“You should listen to what Ehlo has to say,” Sophia interfered, her expression serious this time.

Jacky turned to Sophia. “But I thought you supported me.”

Sophia wasn’t threatened by Jacky’s sharp look however. She stared right back at him, indifference. “Because I support you, I feel even more responsible for what happened. It’s about time I fix the mistake too.”

Jacky wrinkled his face, but he didn’t want to confront Sophia. Not when she was the sole reason for his happiness at this moment. He turned to Ehlo again. “What did you tell her?”

“Only some facts,” Ehlo answered.

But Ehlo wasn’t the person showing Jacky the folder of facts Yvonne had retrieved for them last Friday. It was Wallace. He had gone to his room earlier to get the file, knowing it was time.

“What’s this?” Jacky asked, taking the folder from Wallace.

“Read for yourself,” Wallace returned, stepping to one side, standing next to Yvonne and waited like the others.

While Jacky was reading, he finally let go of Sophia and Sophia had stepped back toward Joanne. She placed a protective hand around Joanne’s shoulder once again, still aware of Bryant’s constant glimpses at Joanne. For some reason, Joanne didn’t mind the protective gesture; unlike how she had been offended by that gesture in the past, unless it was Jacky. Now, she was glad Sophia was there to shield her from the current turmoil within her.

© Saturday, July 12th, 2014

Posted: Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

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