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Cousin Aurora Lenore
“Feel the burn, feel the burn; my legs are on fire, but this is supposed to be good,” Greg Kitchens panted as he ran on the treadmill inside his bedroom.
Suddenly, out of the corner of his right eye, he saw a red light flashing on a device lying on his bedside table. “Oh, thank God,” he exhaled, jumping off the treadmill and reaching for the device. Pushing his wet brown hair out of his eyes, he watched the LED screen scroll the words for his next assignment. Being the apprentice of a computer / technology guru had its ups and downs, but at times like this, he felt more like a secret agent than a lackey. Everything was so hush-hush. So much so, in fact, that even Greg himself wasn’t sure where his fearless leader resided. The only directions he was given was to do whatever the device stated and do it in a timely fashion. At least this one was fairly easy. All he had to do was pick up the telephone and make a call. Not an average call, however; a call using a strange gadget born in the nineteen-eighties but not perfected until nineteen ninety six. A gadget that could transmit messages to any phone in the past, present or future. Today it had to be a phone number listed for Chicago in the year nineteen eighty seven. “And to think I wanted to be a musician,” Greg said aloud before he typed in the message on the computer to be sent via phone line.
Balki Bartokomous watched helplessly as his cousin Larry Appleton paced back and forth the living room of their apartment, muttering to himself. Less than half an hour ago, Balki had witnessed their friend Bianca Pierson being kidnapped by some strange man and a hologram while Larry had been conveniently absent. He was still sore at his cousin for going off on some wild adventure without mentioning to Balki where he was going. Both he and Bianca had been frantic not knowing where he was and having to deal with their own problems. Balki had been repeatedly seeing the hologram of a girl Bianca knew, hearing her scream as she was shot each time. He still couldn’t quite shake her image out of his brain. Bianca, on the other hand, was not only trying to comfort him, but worrying about Larry and dealing with her own resurfaced childhood trauma. Now she was kidnapped and taken in her time machine to wherever, whenever.
Suddenly, the phone rang and both Larry and Balki snapped to attention.
“That could be the kidnapper; Balki, you answer it and ask them how much they want in ransom money,” Larry ordered, eyes wild.
Balki rolled his eyes and answered the phone. “Hello?”
Balki held the phone away as loud static filled the line before the noise died down. “Bianca …. held …. London …. two thousand thirteen …. Long Horn …. careful … ” a voice stated, the line cutting in and out.
“I’m sorry. We have a bad connection, Bianca,” Balki stated calmly.
Instantly, Larry grabbed the phone from Balki. “Bianca? Where are you? Are you hurt?” he asked in a hurried panic. “Hello? Hello!”
“Cousin, that wasn’t Bianca,” Balki told him matter-of-factly as Larry slammed down the phone. “They just said her name.”
“What?” Larry cried. “What else did they say? How much do they want in ransom money?”
“Cousin, take a chill pillow. They said nothing of money, handsome or otherwise. They only said few words.”
“Well, tell me, Balki; what else did they say?”
Balki tapped his chin thoughtfully before shrugging. “I don’t remember, Cousin.”
Balki started to walk away, but Larry grabbed him by the lapel of his collar and pulled him forward until they were inches away. “Balki! You have to remember! Focus and remember,” he growled.
Balki teared up. “ I can’t remember under this pressure, Cousin. Besides, you’re choking me with your bandaged hand,” he gagged.
Larry instantly let him go and shoved him on the sofa. “Okay; okay then, Balki. Just relax,” he said soothingly, fluffing the headrest of the sofa and massaging his temples. “Just relax and think back to the message. They said Bianca’s name and what else did they say?”
“Oh, wait; I’m getting something,” Balki closed his eyes. “I’m remembering something … ”
“Yes, yes?” Larry asked eagerly.
“I forgot to let the cat out,” Balki replied.
Suddenly, Larry’s body pounced on the couch and he grabbed Balki again, pinning him down. “We don’t have a cat, Balki. What … did … the … message … say?”
“Held! It said held!” Balki cried, his voice at an octave he didn’t recognize. “Bianca held.”
“Bianca held where?” Larry snarled, still not moving from his position.
“Bianca held … Bianca held …. London!”
Finally, Larry sat up and let Balki go. “Bianca’s held in London?”
“In two thousand thirteen, Long Horn and careful,” Balki rattled off with ease.
“Anything else?” Larry finally asked, hopping up from the sofa.
“I said ‘I’m sorry. We have a bad connection, Bianca’, and then you grabbed the phone and said – ”
“Never mind!” Larry cried. “Come on! We need to use the other time machine to travel to London in two thousand thirteen and look for a place that says Long Horn!”
“And be careful,” Balki reminded him before Larry punched in the information and hovered his finger over the red ‘Power’ button.
“Wakey, wakey, Sleeping Beauty!” he sang happily as he splashed a small cup of water over her porcelain face. “Come on and give me a smile.”
She coughed and sputtered before she clutched her throat and gasped for air.
“There’s my girl! Welcome to the land of the living again. Sorry I had to take you out like that earlier, but it hurt me worse than it hurt you. I think I sprained my wrist.”
“Where am I? Where have you taken me? And where’s Balki?” she asked, sitting up. “What have you done, Jacob Langley?”
Jacob grinned so wide, his teeth shown. “You remember my name. How sweet. Sweet; get it? Cause I work at a candy shop? I’m hilarious. Seriously, though; I was wondering if you would even remember who you were. I tapped you pretty hard back there.”
“I’m Bianca Pierson and if you did anything to hurt Valeena or Balki, I swear – ” she barked, trying to stand.
“Whoa, now; no need to run before you can walk,” Jacob said, extending his hand to help her, but was quickly shrugged off. He watched as she slowly stood, albeit she was bracing her back against the wall as soon as she was upright.
“Where are Valeena and Balki?” she asked, wincing in pain.
Jacob smiled down at her. “Valeena is fine and I’m assuming this ‘Balki’ you refer to was the other man in the room when I escorted you away? He’s fine, too. I left him with that look of horror on his face like this,” he told her, imitating Balki’s expression. “Is he your boyfriend?”
“Shut up and just tell me what you want,” she said coolly.
“What do I want? Other than to just be loved and accepted for who I am? I want you to know how much you ruined my life!” Jacob screamed, his demeanor changing to one of a psychopath as he lunged for her, pinning her to the wall. “As much as this sounds like a movie quote, I coulda been somebody! It should have been me; not you!”
“What are you talking about, Jacob? I just met you a few months ago,” Bianca replied shakily.
“The name’s Jacob, sweetie, but I’m sure you remember me better as your dearly departed cousin J.J.,” he grinned wickedly, watching her face turn ashen and her mouth form a small ‘o’.
Larry had just entered the information into the computer and was about to push the power button when he had an epiphany. “A-ha!” he cried, causing Balki to jump. “I know a quicker way to find exactly where Bianca is!”
“Get out of the city! How you know that?”
“Because, in my dream, Bianca placed tracking devices in our shoes. So when she was here for real, I decided to check, just in case. Sure enough, Bianca had really placed a tracking device in my loafer. So before I left, I placed the device in her sneaker, instead. So all we have to do is use the computer to detect the device and voila! It will lead us straight to Bianca,” Larry explained enthusiastically.
“Does that mean we have to run around and around and pass the stick to people until we drop?” Balki asked.
“No, Balki; not a track like you run on! A tracking device is used to locate someone. It’s just this little round device no bigger than the head of a thumbtack.”
“Oh. Well, Cousin, I don’t think that’s gonna work because I – ” Balki began.
“Balki, how many times have you tracked a tracking device in your lifetime?” Larry asked haughtily.
“Well, Cousin, I – ”
“Well, I – ”
“How many? How many times? How many times have you tracked a tracking device in your lifetime?” Larry interrupted.
Balki looked at him for a moment before looking down. “None.”
Larry raised his eyebrows. “None? As in zero? As in never ever have you tracked a tracking device in your lifetime?”
“That is correct,” Balki replied.
“Well, Balki, I can tell you that with this time machine, I – Larry Appleton – can track Bianca’s whereabouts using the tracking device I placed back in her shoe. So just watch … and learn.”
After a couple of minutes, Larry was able to pull up the screen to track her tracking device. “You see, Balki?” Larry began. “In just a few seconds, it will tell me the exact location of Bianca’s whereabouts, which are now showing that she should be … approximately on the bookcase.”
Balki looked at Larry, mock surprise on his face. “I’m sorry, Cousin; were you talking to me? I was too busy watching and learning.”
Larry exited the machine and picked up the tracking device, which sat beside Balki’s stuffed sheep Dimitri on the bookcase. “She must’ve found it and placed it here.”
“Well, I tried to tell you that there was a small round object no bigger than the head of a hunchback, but you couldn’t see past the end of your ears,” Balki told him.
Larry made a growling noise and threw up his hands. “Okay, fine! We’ll just have to go to London in the year two thousand thirteen and find something to do with Long Horn.”
As he typed the information into the device, however, he felt a twinge of guilt for not being there when Bianca and Balki needed him. If he had been in the apartment, maybe he could have stopped the strange man from taking Bianca. But on the other hand, he knew that the information he had obtained was of great importance to her. He just hoped he would be able to find her to tell her what he had learned.
“Greg, are you alone?”
“Well, hello to you, too,” Greg retorted, looking to his left, right and behind him. “Yes, I’m alone. What are you asking of me this time?”
“I need you to go to an address. You’ve been there before and I sent it to your device. I need you to go there and look for any clues of a struggle, a break-in, or anything out of place.”
“This has something to do with that ‘project’ you’ve been working on for awhile, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, Greg. It does. It’s very important. Now please hurry and if you find anything, just enter it into the device. I’ll get back to you when I can … and Greg? Thank you.”
“And yet this ‘project’ has nothing to do with mega pixels or gamma rays, does it, Fearless Leader?” he muttered to himself as he placed his phone back in his inside vest pocket and pulled out the device from his black pleated pants pocket. When he saw the address, he sighed. “Back to the house of multilingual appliances and robots who want to kill me.”
A few minutes later, he pulled his blue Scion into the drive and unlocked the door using a key his Fearless Leader had given him. As soon as he was inside, he looked around. It was quiet. Too quiet. “Here, boy; here, boy,” he called out, whistling.
A minute passed and no bells or sirens had gone off, so he proceeded.
“Intruder …. intrud … int …”, something said, it’s voice sounding lower and slower each time.
“Well, that doesn’t sound well for my attacker,” Greg said as he walked into the living room and down the hallway. Halfway down, he smelled a strange odor and then saw some sort of liquid goop on the floor. “Battery fluid,” he whispered, kneeling down, dipping his fingers in it and sniffing them. Opening the door closest to the mess, he gasped when he saw his former robot predator, in four or five mangled pieces on the floor. The robot’s LED eyes and lips were shorting out and one mangled arm, hanging by only two wires was barely moving. Greg walked over to it and picked up a large piece of its torso. “This isn’t good at all,” he said, backing out of the room.
“Mmmm!” another strange voice could be heard in the next room down. Greg wasn’t sure what was going on, but he ran into the living room, grabbed a table lamp and proceeded back to the room.
“I’m coming in and I’ve gotta warn you; I’m packing light … er, heat!” Greg shouted before he karate kicked the door down. “Hy-ah!”
Greg dropped the lamp, however, when he saw a woman sitting in a desk chair by the bed, tied up with a gag in her mouth. He knew she wasn’t the person who lived here from photographs he had seen, but he wasn’t about to refrain from helping a damsel in distress. He quickly took the gag out of her mouth and spoke before she could. “Please don’t scream, lady, or I just might join in in two-part harmony. I’m just passing through as a favor for a friend.”
“Are – are you Greg?” the raven-haired woman asked in an accent he had never quite heard before.
Greg raised an eyebrow at her, his usual lop-sided smile even more so. “Uh, yes.”
“My name is Valeena Tolstoy. I’m a friend of Henry’s. You have to untie me so we can get out of here before something terrible happens!”
Greg did as he was told. “You were tied up and the robot took a beating. If I were you or it, I’d say something terrible already has happened!”
“The woman who lives here has been kidnapped, as well! She could be in terrible danger!” Valeena told him as they ran into the other room and gathered R.O.B.’s remains before rushing out. “A man by the name of Jacob Langley took her and he’s holding Henry, as well!”
Greg skidded to a halt. “Whoa. Hold the phones. My fearless leader’s been kidnapped, too?”
“Yes! He’s been held prisoner for a few months now. Thankfully, Henry is still able to use his phone to get in touch with you. Now can we please go?”
“Where exactly do you want to go? The police?” Greg asked as they left the house.
Valeena shook her head. “It’s best the police don’t get involved. I need to stay with you, at least until Henry calls back. He needs to know that I’m safe. He’ll know what to do.”
Greg shrugged as he placed the robot parts in the trunk and opened the door for her to get in the passenger side of his Scion. So all of Henry’s secret calls were to help a woman being held against her will? His fearless leader had some serious ‘splainin’ to do when he called back, that much was for sure.
Jacob looked at her sleeping figure and sighed happily. For someone so smart and so blessed, she didn’t look as much either one lying strapped down to a bed, heavily sedated. He really hadn’t planned on sedating her, but he also hadn’t figured she would get so wound up, either. Once the reality of who he really was had set in, she became increasingly and surprisingly violent. Thank God he had managed to call for back-up or she might have managed to overtake him and escape. It was a large castle, but all he had to do was push a button to alert his two bodyguards and they would come to his aid in a heartbeat. Now, he just needed to check on his ‘other’ prisoner in the dungeon. With an enthusiastic wave to his unconscious half cousin, he exited her room and quickly ran down into the bowels of the castle.
“Well, hello, old man. Bet you can’t tell why I’m in an incredibly good mood, can you? Oh wait; I bet you can,” he taunted through the small barred window of the door.
Henry didn’t look up at him, only continued to hang his head as he sat in his chair. “Congratulations. You kidnapped Bianca. You’d just better keep your promise and not hurt her.”
“Henry, Henry, Henry,” Jacob replied, sounding disappointed. “Now you know I told you I wouldn’t harm her. However … ”
“However what?” asked, looking up at his captor.
“Well, she did become a bit rowdy, so my guards had to sedate her and keep her from causing harm to herself or others. You never warned me she was quite so temperamental.”
Jacob’s eyes twinkled as he watched Henry stand up so quickly that the chair toppled over. “Jacob Langley, I swear upon my last breath that you will pay for this!”
Jacob laughed. “Gramps, you were supposed to have had your last breath back in nineteen ninety six. Too bad you were only faking it.”
“You truly are your mother’s son, J.J.; cold and heartless and jealous to no end. I guess you wanna end up like her, too?”
Suddenly, Jacob grabbed the bars and shook them, his eyes wild. “Don’t you dare talk about my mother like that! I lost her because of you and that dreadful granddaughter of yours! Keep talking and I’ll inflict so much pain on her, she’ll wish she were dead!” he screamed before spinning around and storming off. Too bad Gramps didn’t know that Valeena was no longer in the castle, but tied up at Bianca’s house. One last check of his sleepy cousin and he’d be off to torch the place she once called home. “Sorry, Valeena; your loss is my gain,” he whispered to himself, feeling better already.
Balki exited the egg and looked around as they found themselves in the middle of a lovely park filled with people playing with their dogs, eating a picnic lunch and strolling along, hand-in-hand. “Wwoww,” he breathed, taking it all in.
“Move along, keep moving, nothing to see here,” Larry said to random people that walked by, staring at the egg-shaped machine that seemed to appear out of nowhere.
“Cousin, surely Bianca isn’t here. This place doesn’t look like the spleen of a crime,” Balki told him.
“Balki, Bianca’s not being held captive here,” Larry replied before turning to a nearby couple walking by. “Excuse me; we’re looking for a place with the name Long Horn. Do you know where we could find it?”
Balki waited patiently while the man quickly replied, giving Larry as much information as he could before walking away. As soon as he was out of earshot, Balki leaned over to Larry. “Cousin, what did he say?”
Larry looked at Balki, a confused and slightly annoyed look on his face. “I have no idea what he said. I don’t even know what language he was speaking!”
Balki nodded and saw a young lady holding an umbrella. “Excuse me, miss? We are looking for a place that go by the name Long Horn. I think it’s where General Custard and his army were depleted.”
“Balki, you’re thinking of Little Bighorn. We’re looking for somewhere called Long Horn,” Larry hissed.
“I think there are a few Long Horn restaurants around London. There’s also a shoe store, a haberdashery, a car park, a castle and a Laundromat,” she told them, counting each one off on her fingers before walking off.
Larry groaned. “This is going to take forever! Balki, what are we going to do?”
Balki scratched his chin for a moment, thinking. He wasn’t sure what a haberdashery was or even how to say it, but not one of those places sounded like somewhere for a man and his scary female hologram to hide.
Suddenly, he snapped his fingers. “Cousin, I’ve got it!”
“You know where they are?” Larry asked, hopeful.
“No, but I know who can help! We need to get out of London Bridge and go back to Bianca’s house. If anyone can help us, it’s R.O.B.!”
“Balki, you’re a genius!”
Balki looked away sheepishly. “Well, I don’t know about that.”
“Come on!” Larry cried, pulling him back into the machine and punching in the information.
A minute later, they appeared across the street from a giant fire truck parked in front of a house.
Balki cupped his hands around his eyes to shield the sun’s reflection from the Plexiglass and looked out. “If you wanted to fight fires, you could have just told me, Cousin.”
“Balki, I don’t want to fight fires! I wanted to go to Bianca’s house so we could see – oh my Lord! Balki; that is – I mean was Bianca’s house!”
Balki scrunched up his face and choked back a sob. “There was a gas leak, Cousin. She must have really bad karma chameleon! She – ”
“The house is a total loss, but thankfully, no one was inside. Damn arsonists,” one of the firemen said before getting back on the truck.
“Balki! Bianca wasn’t inside, but someone intentionally burned her house to the ground. Either they were hoping she was there, or they burned the house down to get rid of evidence.”
Balki hiccupped. “I’ll miss that self-flushing toilet and its blue water. I’ll miss her multilingual microwave. I’ll miss R.O.B. and Wakamaru!”
Larry looked at Balki, his look of shock and horror mirroring one another. “R.O.B.!” they cried in unison.
Bianca tried to mentally push her way through the fog in her brain. She needed to open her eyes, if only for a minute. Surely, she was just having a nightmare and she would be back at either her house or Larry and Balki’s apartment. “Larry,” she whispered, her mouth dry and her tongue heavy. Where was Larry? Did he really come back to the apartment or had that been a dream, as well? He had told her so much information that it was hard to process. Her grandfather had been blackmailed? Something about a murder and cover-up? And what did he try and tell her just before Balki cried out? “Larry, I need to know … ” she tried to speak. “Balki.”
Open your eyes, Bianca! she scolded herself as she tried as hard as she could. When she finally did, everything was a big grey blur. Where was she? Was anyone there with her? Why did she feel as if she had morphed into a rock? “Balki, where are you?” she asked, gazing around the room to look for any other color that looked like a human.
Suddenly, she heard a loud banging noise and she managed to let out a small whimper that sounded like “help”.
“We brought your food,” a gruff-sounding man growled as he set down a blurred mess to her right and carefully freed her from the restraints. Bianca tried to speak again, but her voice was subdued by the loud banging noise. If only someone could help her figure out what had happened after Larry told her about her grandfather. She remembered Balki screaming and something about Valeena … Valeena!
“Valeena, are you okay? Who shot you?” she mumbled, trying to sit up from whatever she was lying on. “Are you with Balki?”
When she heard nothing but deafening silence, she let a cry escape her throat. Why was this happening to her? For the first time since she was eleven, she wished her grandfather was there with her. He’d know what was going on.
“B, I’m right here. You can’t see me, but I’m closer than you think. Just hang on tight because ol’ Henry’s got a plan to save you,” a voice spoke to her inside her brain.
“Grandfather? Is that you?” she asked, finally able to sit up for a second before the weight of the air pulled her back down. “Please save me.”
Larry raced across the street, his heart beating so loud, he could hear it. “Excuse me, sir! My friend lives in that house. I need to know if – ”
The fireman took off his hat and looked down at Larry. “The house is a total loss, but no one was inside. Your friend wasn’t home at the time of the blaze.”
“No, I know that, but can you tell me if you know who set the blaze? I overheard you talking to the chief about it.”
“Sir, we don’t handle that aspect. This is a matter for the police. Now if you’ll excuse me – ”
“Mr. Fireman,” Balki cried, running to join them. “She had a robot inside named R.O.B. and another named Wakamaru. Did they survive?”
Larry looked a few feet out and saw a melted yellow blob. “Wakamaru didn’t make it, Balki,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. “That must mean that R.O.B. is gone, too.”
“Oh say it isn’t so, Cousin; R.O.B. was a good robot; even if he did help you keep your secret,” Balki sobbed.
Larry swallowed a lump of guilt that caught in his throat. It was true that R.O.B. had told Larry he would keep his whereabouts confidential. He wished he had it all to do over again. There would have been so many things he would have done differently. “Come on, Balki; let’s go,” he told his cousin sadly as they returned across the street and into the machine. “We need to go back to England.”
“Back to the drawing bridge, hoh, Cousin?” Balki asked.
“Yes, Balki. Back to the drawing bridge,” Larry repeated, not even caring that Balki got the saying wrong. Now not only did he have to find Bianca and make her forgive him, he now had to tell her that her house and robots were gone, as well. This was not looking good. Not at all.
Greg glanced at Valeena out of the corner of his eye. She looked nervous and scared, which he could relate to, but he also knew she knew way more than she was saying.
“Why can’t you just tell me what’s going on?” he finally sighed, turning on the air conditioner in his car.
Suddenly, his phone rang and he used his Bluetooth capability in his car to answer it on speaker by pressing a button on his steering wheel. “Hello?”
“Greg; what did you find?”
Greg sighed. “I found her robot bashed to bits, but I loaded the little rascal up and placed him in my trunk. I also found a friend of yours tied up in the next room, too.”
“Valeena?” Henry’s voice asked urgently. “Is she alright?”
“I’m fine, Henry, thanks to you and Greg. How’s Bianca?”
“Not good, I’m afraid. That bastard had her sedated and won’t let me see her. That’s why I’m calling. I need your help again, Greg.”
Greg cleared his throat and swallowed his nerves. “Not until you tell me what is going on. When I took this job, I was to be learning about technology and all that wicked cool stuff. But you have me using your inventions for odd jobs, leaving trails of bread crumbs and rescuing metallic creatures and damsels in distress. I need to know what in the hell is going on! Who is this woman you call Bianca and why are you being held prisoner?”
“It’s time he knew, Henry,” Valeena prompted.
“You’re right, Greg. Besides, you’ll need to know the whole story before you move ahead with possibly one of the biggest favors I’ve ever asked of you,” Henry answered. Greg noticed how tired and sad his voice seemed. It wasn’t anything like the man he had moved Heaven and Earth to work beside. “What I’m not able to finish, Valeena can fill you in. My chat time is limited here,” Henry continued.
After ten minutes on the phone with Henry and the next twenty getting the conclusion from Valeena, Greg gulped. Everything made sense, but it was all so surreal! Greg knew nothing of this Bianca woman, but yet she was definitely in danger. Why was this happening now? Why not wait for her two knights in shining armor to come save her? And more importantly, why him?
“Why haven’t you eaten anything? Don’t you know that’s rude?” Jacob asked her as he entered. She was still lying on the bed, the color gone from her face. The tray of food was still beside the bed, untouched. Surely she wasn’t giving up so quickly.
“I’m not hungry, you jackass,” she muttered, not moving. “Just exactly how long do you plan to keep me your prisoner here, anyway?”
Jacob scratched his chin thoughtfully. “You know, I haven’t really thought of that. Perhaps until I figure out the perfect trade. Your freedom for something that will benefit me forever. As of now, though, I just want to separate you from everything you love. Like I was separated when those people showed up at my house and took me away from Ma.”
“Your mother was crazy and had no business raising a child,” Bianca replied bitterly. “I should know from all those times she locked me in the closet and sent me to my room without dinner.”
Jacob bristled. “My mom did the best she could and you were just an ungrateful brat who was in the way of our happiness!”
“Are you done?” Bianca asked, finally raising her head up to look at him. “I just want to be alone and wait for your plan to fail.”
“Oh, trust me; my plan is fool-proof,” Jacob laughed. “And once my assistant gets here, the fun will begin. Just you wait.”
When he saw that she wasn’t going to respond, he exited her room and closed the door. “Alek!” he called to one of his musclemen as he passed by.
“Yes?” he asked gruffly. Although he’d never let it show, Jacob was slightly afraid of the man who towered above him at almost seven feet and was twice his size.
“Any word from Marsden on when he’ll be here? I need him to watch our newest prisoner like a hawk. I don’t trust her.”
“I just spoke with him a half hour ago. He’s on his way and looks forward to meeting the princess,” Alek replied with a sneer.
Jacob smiled. “Good. And Quinn is staying with Henry.”
“Yes, sir. No one has even come close to this area since you brought the princess here.”
Jacob rolled his eyes. “Her name is Bianca, Alek.” Good help was so hard to find these days.
“Here,” Alek said suddenly, handing him a handkerchief. “It’s happening again.”
Jacob grabbed it from his over-sized bodyguard and placed it over his face, half embarrassed. “Thanks,” he mumbled, glad it didn’t happen while he was visiting his holier-than-thou half cousin.
“This is the last restaurant with the name Long Horn, Balki; we’re running out of options!”
Balki followed his panicked cousin inside the restaurant where the cashier stood patiently. They had been to the Long Horn shoe store, the car park, and the Laundromat with no luck. Even when his cousin flashed the photo of Bianca that they had found amongst the charred remains of her home, no one had seen her. “Cousin, maybe we should have started with the Abracadabery first,” he said.
“That’s haberdashery, Balki and we’ll go there next. Someone has to know where Bianca is. We’re running out of time. There’s no telling what that crazed lunatic has done with her!”
“Excuse us; hi,” Balki introduced himself to the cashier, giving her a warm embrace. “I’m Balki Bartokomous and this is Cousin Larry Appleton. We need your help finding our friend who is CIA.”
Larry cleared his throat. “What my friend means is our friend is MIA and we were hoping you’ve seen her. Please tell us you’ve seen her,” he whined, flashing the photo of Bianca.
“Hmm, can’t say that I have,” the cashier replied in a strange American-esque accent. “But since you boys are so nice to look for your friend, let me give you one of our gift cards, good at any Long Horn restaurant.”
Balki took the envelope from the woman and smiled brightly. How nice of her! “Why thank you! I’m sure when we find Bianca, we will all have a nice dinner here.”
“Balki!” Larry hissed before turning back to the cashier. “Lady, we don’t want a gift certificate; we just want to find our friend before something terrible happens to her! Now Balki, give the lady back the envelope.”
“But., Cousin, I don’t want to give it back.”
“Balki, I said give the lady back the envelope!”
Balki pulled away as Larry tried to grab it. “But Cousin, I don’t want to give the lady her envelope back!”
“I don’t want to give the envelope back,” Balki wailed, lowering his head.
“Alright, alright, fine!” Larry hissed, embarrassed as people were beginning to stare. “You can keep the damn gift certificate!”
Balki raised his head and smiled. “Yay.”
“You two are something else. If I were you, I’d open that envelope ASAP,” the cashier replied with a giggle.
“Cousin, you didn’t tell me we would be going to ride the Space Shuttlecock!” Balki gasped excitedly.
“ASAP, Balki; not NASA. Come on, let’s go,” Larry seethed, pulling Balki along by his wrist.
As soon as they were outside, Balki looked at the envelope. “Cousin, what does ASAP mean?”
“It means as soon as possible, Balki,” Larry sighed.
Balki immediately ripped the envelope open, but there was no gift certificate inside; only a small sheet of paper. “Oh po po. The cashier lady didn’t give us a gift card; she only gave us a piece of paper that says, ‘Bianca is held at the Long Horn castle. Please hurry’,” he read.
“Balki, I don’t have time to know that we’ve been ripped off and – oh my Lord!” Larry suddenly cried out, grabbing the paper from Balki’s hands. “Balki, she wasn’t trying to give us a gift certificate! She gave this to us so we would know where Bianca is!”
“Well of course she did, don’t be ridiculous,” Balki quipped. But how did the lady behind the register know he and Larry were coming? How did she know where Bianca was? And where had he heard that strange voice before?
“Were you able to take care of whatever it is you were supposed to be taking care of?” Greg hissed as Valeena returned.
“Yes. Now we’re just waiting for the new guard?” she questioned, peeking around the corner.
“Yep. I cannot believe I am doing this. Oh – here he comes!”
“Psst!” Valeena hissed as the stranger walked towards them near the entryway to the castle.
“Hey! Who said that?” the stranger stopped, looking around.
Greg cleared his throat. “You Marsden? The name’s Quinn. I was told to take you to the prisoner.”
Marsden looked Greg up and down quizzically. “Funny; you don’t look like a bodyguard.”
“Well, that’s just rude,” Greg replied huffily. “Now!”
With one quick move, Valeena hit Marsden over the head with a nearby statuette head, shattering it into a million pieces and knocking Marsden out cold.
“Good shot!” Greg congratulated. “Okay, I’ll disrobe Marsy and once we switch clothes, you take him wherever your heart desires.”
Minutes later, Greg came out wearing Marsden’s forest green long-sleeved shirt and black slacks. Valeena laughed as Marsden’s clothes were a little loose, but thankfully not appallingly so. Marsden was now wearing Greg’s white long-sleeved shirt, black vest and black slacks. “He never looked better,” Greg joked as they carefully carried his unconscious body to the nearby time machine and stuffed him inside.
“Take good care of Bianca,” Valeena sniffed, hugging him before she entered the machine and whizzed off, leaving Greg alone in the castle, terrified yet determined not to let his boss down. He just couldn’t wait until his two helpers arrived. Surely they were on their way by now.
“Hey!” a male voice called out from behind.
“Aah!” Greg cried out before spinning around to find a tall male with blond hair and glasses. “Yeah?”
“I was hoping you would be … scarier. But I guess you’ll do. Come with me, Marsden and I’ll show you the prisoner. Careful, though; she may look harmless, but she’s tricky. You’ll need to be less jumpy and more alert,” Blondie said as he led the way through the castle. “What happened to the statue?”
Greg cleared his throat. “Uh, sorry. But don’t worry. If anyone tries anything, I’ll do exactly what I did to the severed statue head.”
Blondie turned and smiled wickedly. “I think I am going to like you, Mars . I think I’m going to like you a lot.”
Greg gulped and continued to follow his new ruthless leader. Henry, what have you gotten me into? You sure are putting a lot of faith in me and those other two guys to save you and your granddaughter. I just hope we don’t let you down.
Larry looked up at the giant structure in front of him and his jaw dropped. “Oh my Lord! Balki, this place is huge! How will we ever find Bianca in this monstrosity of a castle?”
Balki gulped. “There are monsters in this castle? I hope they are cute and furry like Grover on Sesame Seed.”
Larry looked at his cousin, eyebrow raised. “I don’t mean there are literal monsters here – wait, I take that back – whoever is holding Bianca prisoner is definitely a monster.”
Balki walked over to the time machine, pressed a button and smiled as it compacted itself small enough for Balki to fit inside his pants pocket. Larry had to admit that out of all the features of Bianca’s egg-shaped creation, that was his favorite. He only hoped that she was alright and would be able to enjoy her time machine yet again in the near future. As Larry looked up at the castle once more, his heart literally ached for her. He missed her so much that it scared him. He loved his girlfriend Jennifer passionately, but being with Bianca did something entirely different to him. While he appeared nervous and compelled to impress Jennifer at any cost, he was both comfortable and exhilarated around Bianca. With her, he felt stronger and braver than normal. He didn’t feel quite as self-conscious or completely out of his league the way it seemed when he was with Jennifer. Never in a million years did Larry Appleton believe he could feel so differently yet so captivated by two women. The only problem was, the one woman who felt the same was in Canada for six months.
“Cousin? Are you coming?” Balki asked, derailing his train of thought.
“Y-yes, Balki. I, uh, can’t believe the drawbridge is down. It’s almost too easy.”
“Cousin, of course the drawbridge is down; otherwise, how would we get across the water float?”
Larry looked at him as if he’d grown two heads. “Good point,” he replied with mock seriousness.
Don’t worry, Bianca; we’re on our way, he thought to himself as he and Balki entered the castle.
“Marsden, this is Henry Pierson. Henry, this is Marsden Campbell,” Jacob introduced.
Henry scoffed. “This is the man you’ve hired to keep watch over my granddaughter? And here I thought you had common sense.”
“He may look scrawny, but I’ve heard news of his ruthlessness. He’s perfect to watch the family’s precious jewel,” Jacob argued with a wicked grin. He had to admit that Marsden did seem to look rather puny and defenseless, but Jacob had heard from various people around the area that looks were deceiving. Rumors of how he stood guard outside the headquarters of a local crime ring and took down several men on his own had spread far and wide. Jacob couldn’t believe that before that, Marsden was just a security guard outside New York’s Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre during a play called A Year With Frog and Toad.
“Uh, speaking of ‘jewel’, where is the lady I’m supposed to guard?” Marsden asked.
“She’s below this level of the keep,” Jacob smiled. “I knew I’d like you. Eager to get to the job at hand. Like I said, though; she’s tricky. She’s smart and if she gives you any problems, just give her this,” he said, handing Marsden a syringe, making sure Henry saw it. “It should keep her calm.”
“Won’t be a problem,” Marsden said, taking the syringe and glancing over at Henry, who sat on his bed, pale-faced.
Jacob turned around to direct his new hire to Bianca’s cell when Alek entered, his face one of shock and dismay. “Sir, I need to speak to you privately.”
“If you gentlemen will excuse me for a moment,” Jacob exited graciously before closing the door to the room so he could freak out. “What was that about? What’s going on? Don’t tell me Bianca’s escaped!”
Alek nodded his head. “No, sir. Quinn and I spotted something on our surveillance footage that we think you should look at.”
Jacob ran into the great hall, where multiple televisions, computers and surveillance equipment were set up. Panic had begun to rise in his throat. No one could know where they were. Surely it was only a stray animal or just a lost innocent tourist who wandered too close.
“We spotted two individuals who just appeared out of nowhere and walked inside like they owned the place. We searched the outer halls, but found no one,” Alek reported.
“Well, are they on camera?” Jacob asked impatiently.
Quinn pointed to two men as he paused the tape. “Those are the men, sir.”
Jacob pulled his glasses further down the bridge of his nose and stared hard at the screen. One man was short and had curly hair, while the other one was a bit taller with dark hair.
Suddenly, the taller male looked up and almost directly into the camera. Jacob let out an audible gasp as he recognized the man who was with Bianca right before he had taken her! How did he and his former MIA friend find her? This was not good; not good at all. Standing up, he glared at the two men. “Well, don’t just stand there! We need to find them; and if I find them first, they’ll rue the day they ever showed their faces here!”
“Balki, it is quiet in this castle. It’s too quiet,” Larry whispered as they made their way within the bailey of the castle.
Balki nodded. “I don’t even hear the organ playing music like they do when the people on TV walk inside castles. I think it’s called “Canada”.
“No, Balki. It’s called “Cantata and Fugue” and they just play that music to add suspense to the movies. It’s usually before the vampires come out.”
Balki looked at Larry in horror. “Vampires? Cousin, what if they turned Bianca into a blood-sucking Robin Leach?”
“Balki, there are no vampires in this castle. Now can we please just look for Bianca and get the hell out of here?” Larry hissed.
Suddenly, Larry stopped in his tracks and Balki plowed into him. “Cousin, you not even slow down before you hit the brakes! Next time, warn Balki you going to do that!”
“Balki, do you not hear that?” Larry cried happily.
“What am I supposed to be listening for?” Balki whispered, but was quickly shushed by Larry.
“Bianca? Bianca! We hear you and we’re on our way!” Larry cried out, running down the hallway towards the keep.
“Cousin,” Balki began, but was shushed again. “I don’t hear her,” he quickly continued.
“You don’t hear her calling my name? Balki, she’s here! Don’t worry, B; we’re going to get you out of here!”
Balki cupped his hand behind his ear and strained to listen. Sure enough, he heard a voice softly crying for both he and Larry. But it didn’t quite sound like Bianca. “Cousin, I don’t think we should – ”
“Balki, we have to hurry!” Larry snapped as he ran down the hallway, looking in each small window on the doors in hopes to see her.
“But Cousin, I really think – ”
“Balki!” Larry turned around and gave Balki such a dirty look, it made him shudder. “Help me find Bianca!”
Balki opened his mouth to warn him again, but decided against it when Larry looked as if his head might explode.
“Larry … Balki … help me … ” the voice called out faintly.
“Balki! She’s in here! Help me open the door!” Larry grunted, trying to push the heavy metal door ajar.
Balki couldn’t see in the small window, but he assisted his cousin in pushing the door forward as hard as he could, until it opened enough for them to squeeze through.
Larry gasped as he saw Bianca strapped to a chair in the middle of a dirty, dusty dungeon cell, looking weak and forlorn. “Bianca!”
Balki gasped, too, but not for the same reason. He saw Bianca as well, but he wasn’t sure if his eyes were playing tricks on him. She looked incredibly pale and fuzzy. “Cousin?” he asked tentatively.
Larry ignored him, rushing over to Bianca. “Oh, Bianca, what have they done – AAHH!”
Balki screamed as Larry reached over to touch Bianca, only to be shocked so badly that he fell to the floor, shaking. “Cousin!” he yelled, kneeling over Larry, who shook violently. When he looked up again, the person in the chair was laughing. It wasn’t Bianca, but it was the same man who had kidnapped her.
“Welcome to my humble abode,” the man with very blond hair and tortoise-shell glasses said proudly as he stood, glaring down at Balki and Larry. “Or as the two of you will know it: hell.”
Balki watched as Larry weakly reached out to grab the man by the ankle in hopes to trip him, but the man had disappeared!
Seconds later, the door had slammed shut behind them and Balki spun around to see the man on the other side of the door, grinning wickedly. “I take it you’ve already forgotten about holograms? They’re my specialty, thanks to Bianca.”
As soon as the man left, his laugh echoing down the hallway, Balki helped Larry sit up. “Cousin, are you alright? He tried to electrolyte you!”
Larry looked up at Balki, his eyes sad and hurt. “It wasn’t Bianca, Balki. Now we may never find her.”
“She’s in here,” Alek told Greg as he unlocked the large metallic door. “The boss says to guard her with your life.”
“You got it,” Greg replied, stepping into the dungeon room and wincing as the door slammed closed behind him. As he looked across the room to the bed, his heart broke. Lying on the bed asleep was the woman he had seen in photographs at her home, but she was far from the same vibrant image in the photos. Her hair was tousled and unkempt and her face was pale. It looked as if the once vivacious woman was now gone, replaced by a human who had lost all hope. “Oh, Bianca. What has that monster done to you?” he whispered, stepping closer to her, noticing the untouched plate of food and glass of water.
Suddenly, in one swift second, he found himself pinned to the wall. The woman was now wide awake, her hand grasped firmly around his neck, crushing his Adam’s apple. “Where are Larry and Balki? Tell me now!” she seethed.
“If you’ll please let me go, I’ll tell you everything. I was sent here by a friend,” he croaked.
“Who sent you?” she asked in disbelief, not moving.
“Henry … Henry Pierson …, ” Greg sputtered.
Bianca recoiled and Greg instantly doubled over, coughing and gagging. “You’re lying! My grandfather is dead!” she snapped.
“No, he’s not. He’s being held captive here, too. He sent me here to keep you safe,” Greg said after grabbing her glass of water and drinking it in one swallow. “As for Larry and Balki, they are coming to find you.”
“So you’re telling me my grandfather is alive and Jacob is keeping him prisoner here, as well?” Bianca squeaked.
“Yes. That is exactly what I’m telling you.”
Bianca stood up straighter and looked at Greg suspiciously. “Then take me to him.”
“You want me to take you to Henry? I can’t do that. Jacob thinks I’m some guard named Marsden. But I just saw Henry a few minutes ago. Other than being worried sick about you, he’s okay. I just found out he was here not too long ago for myself. All I can tell you is that my name is really Greg, I was hired to be your grandfather’s apprentice, but basically, he’s been having me help you.”
Bianca scoffed. “Help me? You think being locked in this dungeon is going to help me? If you want to help me, get me and my grandfather out of here!”
Greg wanted to smile at her tenaciousness, but didn’t dare. “I’m going to try. Trust me, Henry and I’ve been helping your friend Larry discover the truth for a while now. Your grandfather is quite the genius. He designed a substance to mix in to someone’s drink so to make them succumb to whatever you wish for them to dream. I snuck into his apartment and put a little in his tea before bed and Henry tried to warn him of things that were to come to fruition. Exhibit A: your kidnapping.”
“Grandfather never invented anything like that! I knew everything he invented.”
“You did only up until his ‘death’. Truth is, he was hiding out, inventing gadgets and stuff like crazy!”
Greg watched as his words started to sink into her brain. Surely she knew he was telling the truth now.
“Well, thank you for trying to help Larry, but who’s going to help he and Balki find me?”
“Hopefully, they are on their way with a little help from a girl named Valeena.”
“Valeena?” she gasped. “You mean she’s not dead?”
Greg smiled, satisfied. “Nope. I saved her from her untimely demise and she is going to help your two friends from back when find you in the here and now. I just hope they get here quick. These grey walls are really starting to bum me out!”
Larry moaned as he stood up with Balki’s help. His entire body ached from the electricity that had coursed through him. He was so sure that had been Bianca calling him! Now as he thought back, it hadn’t sounded completely like her, but as if someone were only mocking her. ‘Oh, Balki, what have I done?” he asked sadly. He was supposed to help rescue Bianca, not allow himself to be tricked and instead wind up imprisoning Balki and himself.
“Cousin, you were struck by a holodeck, but you’re fine now,” Balki told him.
“Holodeck? Close but so far away,” a voice behind them chuckled.
Larry turned around and looked at the face of the man who had tricked them as he stared through the barred window. “What have you done with Bianca?” he spat.
“I’m surprised you even care, considering you weren’t even there when I came for her. Where were you, anyway?” the man taunted.
“Cousin Larry was on a very important missile,” Balki replied, matter-of-factly.
Larry looked up at Balki as he struggled to stand erect. “Balki, it’s okay. You don’t have to tell him anything.”
“But Cousin, he asked,” Balki argued.
“Yes, Cousin,” the man mocked. “I asked.” The man then looked at Balki. “So tell me, foreigner; where did Cousin Larry go?”
Larry looked at Balki to try and give him a signal to keep his mouth shut, but Balki kept his eyes straight on the kidnapper.
“If you must know, he went to find out the truth about what happened to Bianca after her grandfather died,” Balki blurted out. “And boy did he learn some things.”
“Balki!” Larry hissed before looking at the kidnapper, whose face was turning red.
“Oh, really? So I guess you found out about poor J.J., didn’t you?”
Larry gulped. “No. Not really,” he lied.
“Cousin! You told me when we were looking for Bianca at the shoe store that J.J. was taken away from his mama because she was cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,” Balki interjected.
“You said my mama was crazy?” the man exploded, rattling the bars. “How dare you interfere in my personal life!”
Larry’s jaw dropped. “Wait; you’re J.J.? Oh my Lord! You kidnapped your own cousin?”
“Step cousin!” Jacob seethed. “Alek! Get in here and watch the foreigner; I’m going to have a few words alone with our curly-haired friend,” he said as a giant of a man came into view.
“Sure thing,” Alek replied as he and Jacob stormed inside.
“Wwoww,” Balki breathed as Alek towered over him. “Someone took their chewable Flintstones vitamins as a child.”
Larry wasn’t listening, however. He was too busy staring into Jacob’s eyes as he grabbed Larry by the collar and pulled him so close that their noses were almost touching. “You screwed with the wrong Cousin, Cousin,” he growled before grabbing his arm and pulling him roughly out of the room.
“Cousin!” Balki cried.
Larry turned around in a panic. This was just like his dream when he and Balki were separated. “Balki! Don’t let him hurt Balki!” he pleaded with Jacob.
“Oh, I wouldn’t be worried about Balki if I were you,” Jacob replied, his voice ice cold before Larry caught a glimpse of the sharp metallic knife blade in Jacob’s free hand.
Balki, if you can hear me, please save Bianca and tell her that I’m sorry I failed her, he thought sadly, knowing that he might possibly never see his best friend, his girlfriend or the woman he cared deeply for again.
“Hi, Alek, I’m Balki Bartokomous,” Balki introduced before awkwardly hugging the large man. “ Please tell me that Jacob isn’t going to hurt Cousin Larry.”
“I can’t do that. I don’t know what happened, but it looks like your Cousin really pissed the boss off,” Alek replied in his gruff voice.
“Have you seen Bianca? Is she okay?”
“Look, kid; I can’t help you. All I can say is that the boss has a guard in her room with her and the boss doesn’t plan to hurt her as far as I know. I think he just wants her kept away from everyone she loves. The boss is also keeping her grandfather here, too, but you gotta keep that under your hat.”
Balki looked at him, confused. “But I’m not wearing a hat.”
“It means you can’t say anything, okay?” Alek clarified.
“Oh, okay! But why would Jacob keep Bianca’s grandfather here? He is supposed to be at the grape yard with his feet under!”
Alek scratched his head for a second before answering. “The boss found out Henry faked his death and kidnapped him about a few months ago.”
“Get out of the city! Bianca will be so happy to know that her grandfather didn’t die!” Balki cried happily.
“I don’t think the boss plans on ever telling her he’s here. The boss doesn’t want her to have any hope. He blames her for everything that happened to him.”
“But that don’t make any sense,” Balki argued. “Cousin Larry tell me that Bianca was not happy with her aunt and that J.J. was already out of the painting before she came to live there!”
Alek shrugged. “I just do what I’m told. But I tell you what. The boss has got too many people scattered about so I’m going to take you to the same room Henry is in. He’s only got me, Quinn and the new guy Marsden to look out for everyone. It’d be easier if you and Henry were together.”
Balki clasped his hands together excitedly. He couldn’t wait to meet Bianca’s grandfather and tell him all about how they met her and how Larry’s dream was coming true. “Really?”
Alek scoffed. “You really are kind of crazy. If I were you and stuck in this place, the last thing I’d be is excited.”
Balki nodded. It must have been true because in the few minutes Balki had talked to Alek, he never smiled once. If only the castle was better decorated. Grey was such a drab color. No wonder everyone was in a bad mood.
Jacob shoved Larry into a cell and slammed the door so hard behind them that it echoed through the hallway. So instead of just being on a business trip, Larry Appleton was digging into Bianca’s past and probably knew that Henry was alive and well, along with no telling what else. Just thinking about the short curly-haired idiot siding with Bianca and her grandfather made Jacob’s skin crawl. Larry would pay for what he had done. He would pay dearly.
“Look, I don’t know why you’re so upset. I really found nothing of any importance at all and I know if you just – ” Larry rambled nervously.
“Shut up!” Jacob cut him off. “Just who do you think you are, huh? Bianca’s private investigator? Just doing a little research to try and figure out her family secrets like what happened to the little boy nobody wanted? My mother did the best she could given that no one accepted her or me! All I wanted was a chance to prove myself, but Bianca was the golden child. Mother and I were nothing to her ungrateful family! Nothing!”
Larry opened his mouth to reply, but Jacob cut him off. “Shut up! I don’t want to hear your whining and sniveling excuses!”
“Please don’t hurt Bianca and Balki. That’s all I ask. If you’re going to kill me, all I ask is that you make it quick,” Larry replied.
Jacob pointed to a metal table with a giant laptop computer on it. Pushed under the table was a metallic chair. “Sit,” Jacob demanded, pointing at the chair.
Larry did as he was told and Jacob powered up the laptop and grabbed a walkie talkie from his belt loop. “Play footage for Room Four,” he said into the walkie-talkie mic.
A few seconds later, Jacob grinned as an image of the room came into focus. “You see this monitor?” he asked Larry, his face inches from Larry’s cheek. “It’s showing footage of Bianca’s cell. Your punishment will be to watch this monitor and know you can’t help her.” Jacob used the mouse pad to scroll until it showed Bianca, chained and shackled to the wall by her hands and feet. Her face was red and tears streamed down her face as she wailed loudly.
Larry’s eyes grew wide and he looked up at Jacob with horror. “You did this to Bianca? You’re a monster! Let her go! She doesn’t deserve this!”
Jacob laughed. “Oh, but she does, Cousin. This and so much more. You see that thing around her neck?”
Larry didn’t audibly reply but nodded his head.
“It’s a shock collar. All one of my guards have to do is press a button and – ZAP! – instant electricity.”
“No,” Larry cried before grabbing the monitor with both hands. “Bianca! Bianca, can you hear me? Please!”
Jacob laughed. “She can’t hear you, you fool.”
Larry felt anger bubble up inside him and he shot up from the chair so fast, he knocked it over. “I said let her go, Jacob! You have no right to do this and you won’t get away with it!” he said, his voice cold enough to re-freeze the melting polar ice caps.
For a second, Jacob looked as if he were mulling it over, before he smiled wickedly, grabbed his walkie-talkie and said one word: “Electricity”.
Suddenly, Larry heard an ungodly scream and looked at the monitor to see Bianca’s face twisted in pain and agony and the volts surged through her. “Bianca! No, no! What have I done? I’m sorry!” he yelled, leaning over and grabbing the monitor.
When he looked up again, Jacob was gone. Sitting back down, Larry looked at the monitor one last time before he crossed his arms on the table and laid his head down, his body wracked with sobs.
Continue . . . .