Chapter Two

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Martin huffed, annoyed, as he walked among the throngs of tourists and shoppers who had overtaken the city—as they did every Saturday at around this time. Martin found himself muttering “pardon me” repeatedly as he waded through the...

Martin huffed, annoyed, as he walked among the throngs of tourists and shoppers who had overtaken the city—as they did every Saturday at around this time. Martin found himself muttering “pardon me” repeatedly as he waded through the crowd. He shifted his messenger bag, tugging it more closely against his body. Pick-pockets were rampant this time of year.

Martin sighed with relief when he saw the cross walk at “Brine Street.” He quickly turned the corner and quickened his pace towards the café, hoping to arrive on time at least. As the crowd thinned out a bit, he was able to spot the tiny café with a painting of the River Thames behind the logo. Martin had barely begun to cross the street when he heard a familiar voice call:

“Oy! Right here, Marty!”

Martin stopped and immediately noticed a familiar figure waving in the distance. He realized it was Chess, employing all of his exuberance to signal him over. Martin jogged across the street, feeling his tension melt away. The morning had started off poorly enough, but Chess always guaranteed good conversation and a laugh even at the worst of times.

Chess stood up and extended his arms. “What’s up?” Chess greeted affectionately in a high-pitched tone.

“Your cock,” responded Martin playfully as he gripped his friend’s shoulder. “Speaking of which, you still want mine?”

Chess’s lips quirked slightly. “Right ‘ere on the table, Mate.”

“You’re a bit kinky.”

“That’s what you said when I chained you to the bed.”

“I still have the marks, you know. I consider them love bruises.”

The two friends laughed aloud at their inside joke, startling a group of passersby. They settled into soft chuckles as they sat down at the patio table.

Chess rested his elbows on the table and leaned forward. “How’re you holding up these days?” he asked.

Martin slouched against the hard plastic chair, resting a hand on his messenger bag. “No different from any other, I suppose. I do online IT work from my cave; answer stupid questions about computers via CloudCast; feel strange about Jenny.”

Chess’s brows rose while a bright smile decorated his face. “Jenny? That one again? She hasn’t let up, I see.”

Martin scoffed. “No, she hasn’t. It seems like every day she contacts me via CloudCast to talk about something or the other. After hours, of course.”

“Are you gonna go for it?”

“No.”

“Why not? She’s fit, right?”

“Yes…she is.”

“So ask her out for coffee then!”

“I’m not interested. Besides, you know how complicated office romances can get. Rumors are the last thing I need to deal with.”

“You’re not exactly at the office, Marty. You’re sitting in front of a PC screen at home or doing a visit.”

“And?”

“And that’s it?”

Martin pursed his lips, his blue eyes set upon his friend. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that it’s been too long—five years too long.” Chess paused and licked his lips nervously.

“Go on, Chess. Whatever you’re going to say, get on with it.”

Chess sighed heavily while raking his fingers through his dark brown hair. “Look, I’m worried ‘bout you,” he began. “You haven’t been the same since Charlie died. You’re always in your flat, getting pissed and watching the tele—“

“That’s not the case,” Martin replied tightly.

“Oh, yeah? When was the last time you went to the pub with me and the gang? Or DJ’d at Spinz? Or been out on a date, for Christ’s sake?”

Martin instinctively brought a fist to his mouth to conceal his pinched lips. It was a defense mechanism, an outward tell of Martin’s avoidance of the truth. Charlie had hated it, and he knew Chess would recognize it, so he averted his gaze to the sidewalk.

Chess nodded, studying Martin’s body language. “Yeah. I thought so.” He leaned in closer, as if to share a secret with him. “Which is why we’re here. I came up with an idea. I think you should get a pet.”

Martin dropped his hand and eyed his friend warily. “Come again?”

“This is how I look at it. If you’re not gonna leave your cave, you might as well have something to keep you company, right?”

“Ok. Let me see if I heard you correctly. Your plan involves me being responsible for a puppy or anything else I have to feed every day?”

“Yeah.”

Laugher tumbled from Martin as he shook his head with disbelief. “You’re shitting me!”

“I’m not,” Chess responded seriously. “And who said anything about a puppy? Look here.” Chess pulled his cell phone from his jacket pocket. He then tapped onto the “Web” logo to display a holographic image.

Martin moved his chair closer to get a better view. The hologram featured a short middle-aged man standing in front of a small shop. A smile was frozen over the man’s round face as he hugged his arms around what looked like a giant three-eyed frog.

Martin regarded Chess dubiously. “What’s this?”

“It’s called Stewart’s Exotic Pets. Located on Yorkshire Street—a couple of blocks from here. Guy in the photo, of course, is Stewart. I checked him out. His shop’s legit and all the reviews check out. Look.”

With a flick of a finger, Martin slowly scrolled through the holo’s review page, quietly reading. As Chess mentioned, many of the reviews were positives—with the exception of a few activist types questioning the shop’s ethics.

One review caught his attention, though. It included a picture of a blond haired young woman and a small boy, probably her son, who was embracing a one-eyed rabbit with violet fur. Martin’s gaze fixed on the strange creature. He knew many new animal species had been discovered in the last few years and were housed in zoos. Were they were also sold as exotic pets now?

Martin’s eyes fell on the “Watch Video Review” option at the bottom of the picture. He tapped it and watched silently as the woman chimed on about the excellent service they received. Meanwhile, the boy cradled his new pet, stroking the creature’s head while the animal’s fur glowed an intense carnation pink.

Martin stopped the image and turned to Chess, his mouth agape. “What the hell was that?” he asked with quiet shock.

“Idear for a new companion,” Chess replied, matter-of-factly.

“Chess. It glowed.”

“Well, you don’t have to get that one, you know. There are others. An’ they aren’t that pricey either. About 20 credits and up at least.”

“But—“

“Come on, Marty! Give it a go. If you don’t like anything, you can walk out. But what’s the harm, right?”

Martin sighed as he pressed the “Home screen” button on Chess’s phone. He silently stared at nothing, contemplating his friend’s proposal and the creature on the hologram. Chess was right. Since Charlie’s death, he had changed quite a bit. He used to DJ and meet with mates at the pub on the weekends. Now he barely picked up the phone to ring anyone. Maybe this is something worth considering, he mused.

Martin sighed. “Fine. Let’s go to the zoo and look at the animals,” he joked sarcastically. “I stress the word ‘look.’ I still think you’re mad.” Martin slid away from the table and stood up, towering over Chess.

“You won’t regret it.”

“I’m already beginning to. Let’s go before I change my mind.”

 

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