Amanda sighed as she waited in line. Boy, were Americans fond of their coffee. It was a nice place, this coffee shop. It was quite typically brown in general, with wooden panels on the floors and walls, and wooden furniture. The waiters and waitresses wore brown aprons over green t-shirts, and white caps on their heads labelled 'Welcome Home' in cute lettering, and sweet smiles were plastered to their faces. The customers were calm and polite, pleasant chatter filled the atmosphere and there was little chance of fights or arguments in this place - quite opposite to the pubs that they chose to spend their time in, come night.
Amanda took out an envelope from her coat pocket and opened it up, reading the letter from her friend back in Italy as she waited. She couldn't focus on the details of its contents, however.
Someone was following her.
Amanda had felt eyes on her back as soon as she'd left her flat a few streets (or blocks, as they called it here) away, and she could feel them now, looking over her shoulder, trying to read her letter. Amanda had tried not to let it bother her, but she thought she knew who was stalking her. It was a woman in a figure-hugging track-suit, with short, choppy black hair, who wore large headphones around her neck. She didn't look hostile, so perhaps she was just trying to make a friend?
May as well drown that kitten in the river quick.
As the person in front of her finished placing their order, Amanda walked up to the counter and smiled, “Hi. I'll take a dark coffee and one of those plain scones,” she said, but then turned and acknowledged her stalker, “What will you be having, ma'am? Don't worry, it's on me.”
The woman raised her brows, but murmured her order and they both went to sit down at a table.
“So...” said the woman with a sheepish smile, putting one arm behind the behind the back-rest of her chair, “Noticed me, huh?” she spoke with a very slight southern-American drawl.
Amanda was not amused, “Who are you and why have you been following me?”
“Rebecca Crane,” she replied, putting out her hand. When Amanda didn't take it, Rebecca shrugged and went on, “You must be Amanda May. We've been looking for you.”
Amanda looked irritated, “I'm sorry, 'we'?” she snapped.
“This isn't gonna be easy to explain...” Rebecca said. She took out her phone for a second, fiddled with it before putting it down on the table and continuing, “I know you're paranoid, but you don't have to be. We're friends.”
Their beverages and breakfasts were served by a smiling waiter that Amanda was familiar with. Usually, she would have chatted with him, so he stood there expectantly. When she poured milk and added sugar to her coffee without acknowledging him; he frowned, loitered for a little more and then went away.
“I'm not sure I want to be friends, Rebecca,” Amanda said, picking up her mug and sipping at it, “You haven't exactly given me many reasons to jump at that opportunity.”
Rebecca nodded, understanding that it wasn't easy to become best buddies with someone who was stalking you, but explained, “We know you were in some kind of relationship with Daniel Cross.”
Amanda almost jumped on hearing his name.
His name... It had been over five months since last she'd seen or heard of Daniel. She looked at his silver ring marked with a small red cross, sitting comfortably on her thumb. The ring that he had left for her. He used to wear it on his little finger, Amanda recalled. She would have worn his brace too, but after she'd discovered that it was a weapon in disguise - Amanda had opted not to. Completely unsuitable for a school environment. But she kept it in her wardrobe at home, and would look at it in wonder for inadvisable amounts of time. It was a thing she could grasp at, to prove to herself that her mystery man had been real.
Amanda huffed, feeling a little more amiable and said, “Did you know him?”
“He...” Rebecca thought on it for a moment, looking for the right words, holding her mug of coffee and drumming her thumb against it, “he used to be a friend of my friends, Hannah Mueller and Lucy Stillman.”
“Is that how you knew about me and him?”
“No, now that's a different story...” Rebecca hesitated, visibly becoming uncomfortable with the conversation, “Did... Did he tell you about his work?”
“How much do you know?”
“That he was an agent for a secret organisation. He used to run off every now and again, and then come back after about a week or so.”
“Well, an... agent was there when Daniel died. He mentioned you and asked us to look out for you.”
Amanda's eyes became soft and sad, “He's dead...?” she whispered.
Rebecca covered her mouth, “You didn't know?” she asked gently.
Amanda put her head in her hands. It wasn't fair to say that it felt like the entire sky had broken and fallen on her head at the news. It was like a smaller sky had, though. She was stunned for a moment - Daniel might have been absent for a long time, but up until now he hadn't quite been gone. Not for Amanda.
Amanda took a deep breath before saying, “A part of me did. Daniel thought that he might not come back after the 13th of December, he told me that. Told me not to wait for him, not to be sad... But another part of me believed - maybe hoped - that he had just left me. It's just... just... too real, hearing it, you know?” she sniffed and sighed, “God, I miss him...”
Rebecca put a hand to Amanda's and smiled apologetically, “I didn't mean to just drop it on you like that. Sorry. He died on the 14th, actually. He's buried in Rome.”
Amanda wiped her face with her hands and looked up, “He asked you to - what? - look after me?”
“G-oo-d Morning, Rebecca. I hope I'm not too late,” said a new voice, “May I join you?”
Amanda turned and saw a bespectacled man standing next to the table, who was already pulling out a chair. He had closely-cropped ginger hair, and wore a V-neck sweater over a white shirt.
“This is Shaun Hastings,” Rebecca told Amanda, making the introductions, “he's a friend. Shaun, Amanda May.”
Despite herself, Amanda scoffed on noticing Shaun's British accent, “A pleasure. Fancy meeting a Briton deep in the States.”
“Oh, isn't that a delightful change of pace?” Shaun agreed, rolling up his sleeves and leaning back in his seat, “Where are you from, Amanda?”
“I'm a Londoner. From Chelsea, specifically. Yourself?”
“Chelsea! Lovely,” Shaun said, “I'm from-”
“Well, I guess I'll just pretend I'm not here,” Rebecca said, folding her arms and laughing.
“Sorry,” Shaun said before turning back to Amanda, “You must forgive Rebecca, she's a bit of a... how, how to put it? A... busy-body. Yes, a busy-body. Anyway, it might have been mentioned to me in a badly-spelt text-message that you were the - for want of a better word - girlfriend of Daniel Cross? Might I say that your taste in men is quite absurd?”
Amanda pursed her lips and furrowed her brows, taking immediate offence, “Might I say that my taste in men is certainly better than your taste in sweaters?” she retorted.
Shaun scoffed, “On the contrary, at least my sweaters don't go on lunatical killing sprees.”
Amanda sighed, appreciating the sharp elbow that Rebecca gave Shaun. But Amanda didn't need this.
“This is a waste of time,” she said, standing up and leaving a few dollars in tip on the table, “Thank you for confirming my suspicions about Daniel's disappearance, Rebecca, but as much as I would love to discuss James-Bond-themed fantasies with you and trade verbal blows with your insensitive, infant-minded friend-”
“Oi!” Shaun protested.
“-I have a class to teach. It was nice to meet you both,” she took up her scone and turned to leave.
“They're looking for you too,” Rebecca called after her.
Amanda stopped in her tracks and breathed through her teeth in frustration. She turned back and pulled out her chair slowly before sitting back down, “Who's looking for me?”
“Same sort that Cross worked with,” Shaun said.
“And that's not you guys?”
Before Rebecca could stop him, Shaun said, “Oh no. We're his opposition.”
Amanda paused for a second, narrowing her eyes, “And the people he worked for killed him...?”
“No-” Shaun began.
“What are you doing?” Rebecca said sharply.
Shaun ignored her, “-Desmond killed him,” he said.
Amanda turned her eyes skyward in irritation, “And Desmond is...?”
“Desmond Miles. Cross's primary target.”
“So his opposition?”
“So one of you?”
“One of you - Desmond - killed him - Daniel - Shaun?”
Shaun paused, at a loss for words.
“What do I say now? 'Yes, of course I'll join the fucking cult that killed the man I loved'?” Amanda said bitterly.
Rebecca glared at Shaun, “Hastings missed the point, Amanda,” she said, “The people that Daniel was working for ruined him. You know all those problems that he had? They made him like that, Amanda, with the all experiments that they did on him.”
“And why should I trust you?” Amanda asked.
“I don't have the evidence on me now, but I could show you the proof,” Rebecca said, “If you came with us.”
“Thing is,” Shaun said, “that if you did come with us, you'd be stuck with us. There would be no turning back to your old life. Blue-Pill/Red-Pill situation, I'm afraid.”
Amanda looked at them both in turn. Her lips had become dry and her mind buzzed with questions, but said, “I appreciate what you're doing, but I think I'll settle for the Blue Pill this time around. Daniel told me nothing, he said it would protect me. If it was good enough for him then, it's good enough for me now.”
“Cross used you as a means of escapism, Amanda,” Shaun said, “He protected you only as much as his... desires allowed. If he really wanted to shield you from harm, he never would have touched you. Either way, it's not enough - your capture might not be on top of... his employers' list, but it's there. You are not safe.”
“Then I choose to stay in danger,” Amanda said coldly, “Honestly, I don't even know you people and - that in mind - I don't really want to accept your help.”
“Fine,” Rebecca conceded, but she took a slip of paper out of her pocket and passed it to Amanda, “but, if you change your mind, you'll find us here.”
“It's a temporary location, so don't take forever to make the sensible decision, eh?” Shaun added.
Amanda put the slip in her purse and turned away without another word.