Project Titans (Preview)

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What if the world’s greatest conspiracy is that superheroes do exist? (This novel will be for free in Amazon from August 07 2012 until August 08 2012)Anouk wakes up one day feeling some slight change on her life…as slight as being able to manipulate things with her mind; Olivia, on the other hand, wishes she could simply wake up being made of flesh and bones instead of water or gas; Kenji is used to entertain audiences using his ability to control temperatures with his hands, but is getting the feeling that he could be doing more for the world; instead of caring for the world, Etienne thoughts revolve around how much he hates walking since he can move at the speed of light, while Marco is pretty much content protecting the innocents alone using his extraordinary strength and senses. A secret, kept from the world for decades, will be revealed to these teenagers: Project Titans, an international corporation designed to protect the world, select five men and women with supernatural abilities in order to train and send them to missions aimed to save the world from its greatest enemies. This time, they have been chosen.



Project Titans © When the impossible happens

Esther Ruiz
All rights reserved.

PREFACE How interesting it would be to see human existence from the outside, to study it from a privileged point in the universe, the onlooker submerged in the sepulchral silence and infinite night of deep space. From this point, it is possible that life would be seen as a simple series of insignificant seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and finally years whose purpose is no more than life as routine; however, observed more closely, a sense can be glimpsed, an aim of humanity that goes beyond the simple desire to survive, a goal greater than the sum of human defects and whose reward merits overcoming all fears. And if observed even more closely, just a little more closely, the precise moment can be pinpointed, the hour and day on which any person can be touched by destiny, the moment when the true reason of existence is discovered. For Anouk, this fatal moment arrived when she was 16 and, in the same way with those outstanding lives deserving to be remembered, on the day when it was least expected. Destiny plays with a hand that never hesitates, never shows regret and never turns back; once the dice are thrown, no human power can change their effect on us.

CHAPTER 1 GIFTS Anouk It all began with a tremor, but not one of those that cause damage on the Earth’s crust when the tectonic plates violently collide. No, this one was quieter and more subtle, but just as overwhelming at the moment of causing change. One day, Anouk suddenly woke up on sensing a bothersome tremor in her left hand, unaware that this tremor was the sign of a power that would shake her entire life. Soon after, this teenager fell again into a profound sleep, absorbed as she was in her dreams of future glories. However, the tremor did not go away, but persisted, and now not only in the hand but also in the whole forearm, so much so that five minutes after having gone back to sleep, the young girl reluctantly had to get up and leave the soft bed that her mother had recently refurbished. “Mum! Mum!,” called out Anouk in that annoying tone that ill-humoured teenagers use. “Mum!” Gloria opened her eyes when she began to feel the warmth of the sun on her eyelids; David, her husband, had forgotten to close the curtains before going to bed. And now her daughter’s shouting, which seemed to go right through the walls, finally ruined her Sunday. “Mum!” Anouk knocked on Gloria’s door. “Are you awake?” Rather than a question, it sounded like an affirmation. “Can I come in?” Reluctantly, Gloria turned over, opened her eyes completely and pulled herself up onto her elbows. “Come on in,” she said, rubbing her eyes sleepily. Anouk pushed open the door and threw herself onto the bed, as she had always done ever since she could remember. “Anouk, careful with the bed!” shouted Gloria. “How many times have I told you to be careful with the bed?” Anouk lay down in her mother’s lap, her long black hair falling over her knees.

“Will you miss me when I go to university?” she asked, putting on a childish and innocent voice. Gloria rolled her eyes when she heard her daughter; her little one knew perfectly well that, with less than two years to go to finish high school, she could get round any grounding imposed by her mother with a sweet reminder of her impending departure for a foreign university. And Gloria knew that the teenager used this to avoid any telling off; however, she was incapable of hardening her heart towards her only offspring. “You know very well I’m going to miss you, sweetheart.” She kissed her daughter’s forehead with tenderness. “Thanks, Mum,” Anouk smiled; she knew her tactic had worked. “What’s up? Why did you knock on the bedroom door so early?” Gloria looked at the clock on the wall, which showed 7:57. “What’s more, why are you even awake? It’s Sunday!” “It’s my hand, Mum, it feels strange.” “Let me have a look.” Anouk raised her left hand and opened it, letting her mother examine every line and contour of her delicate palm. “I can’t see anything wrong.” “It’s not like there’s anything wrong with it, but it trembles.” Doubting, Gloria clucked her tongue. Anouk immediately understood her mother’s gist. “I’m not lying,” she said. “It’s Sunday. There’s no school today, so why would I lie at the weekend? Anyway, I’ve never missed school. I’m telling the truth.” “If you don’t want to go to the school assembly, just tell me.” Even though Anouk was effectively telling the truth about her hand, she saw an irresistible opportunity to stay at home sleeping a bit longer. “I don’t want to go to the school assembly.” “You have to go.” End of the discussion for Gloria. “Mum!” The young girl buried her head in the eiderdown. “You’ve just said …”

“… I’ve just said that if you don’t want to go to the assembly, say so.” Gloria got out of bed and went towards the wardrobe. “I never said you wouldn’t go.” “You’re like the school suggestions box: ‘Say what’s bothering you, but just for that we’re not going to change anything’.” “Sorry, but you’ve got to get ready. We’re going to school, and that’s that.” The young girl sat on the bed and beat her fists on it. “I thought this house was a democracy!” “Yeah, sure. Dream on!” Gloria took a sweater from a hanger. “Sorry, but this house is a dictatorship.” “In History they told us the family should be the basis of democracy.” Anouk once more fell back onto the pillows. “Enough of that! To be a democracy, you’d have to pay taxes, which you don’t.” Her mother held back her laughter. “Now, get ready. We’re on our way.” “Wait. Wait a minute. I’m not lying,” her daughter answered, “my hand really is trembling. Look!” She raised her left hand, but in that instant the tremors stopped and the hand stayed straight out, immobile, as if it were laughing at its owner, “OK,” said Anouk, “from boss to subordinate, I can only tell you that that was a joke in really bad taste.” Gloria laid the sweater on the bed and ran her fingers through her daughter’s hair before going to shower. “I was telling the truth, Mum!” “Thirty minutes,” Gloria called from the bathroom, “We’re leaving in thirty minutes.” “So soon?” “You’re already awake.” “Can I have an opinion?” Anouk crossed her fingers; it was a drag to have to shower so early. “No!” replied Gloria imperiously. “Fascist!” Anouk jumped from the bed and left the room in a flash in order to get ready.

Before leaving for school, Anouk looked at herself in the mirror. She scrutinized her slim body and average height, her brown skin, her long hair, her thickish nose, and her expressive black eyes. Her best attribute was her smile. Each time she smiled, her thin lips curved and her cheeks dimpled, not to mention the highlight this gave to her cheekbones. Apart from this, there was nothing special about her physically, and she was aware of this. “At least I’m intelligent” – this was her slogan. And she was a brilliant student, a mature young girl, and an excellent daughter who always lived up to expectations. “Baby, stop looking at yourself in the mirror and let’s go!” shouted Gloria from the door. Anouk took one last look at herself in the mirror, trying to find something special in the reflection. She did not find it. She saw only herself, an average human being similar to the other billions in the world. The school was made up of several two-floor brick buildings, although only the second floors, built of red brick, could be seen from the entrance to the parking lot. Around the main buildings and enclosed by lawns were some trailer houses which had been turned into classrooms. There were windows everywhere, all adorned by drawings and figures made by the pupils. The main auditorium, where the assembly would be held, was the tallest and biggest building of the school, with two doors measuring four metres by four metres through which most of the students and their parents entered, which this Sunday added up to hundreds. “It’s been weeks since a Sunday like this. Just look how many kids came to school today,” said Anouk as she put on some lipstick inside the moving car. Gloria stuck her head out of the window, trying to see beyond the line of cars waiting to park in the parking lot. “We’re not going to find a good parking space. I just feel it,” said David.

“Why, Dad, what clairvoyant gifts you have,” said Anouk sarcastically. “I’d never have guessed it, not even after seeing all this crowd.” David laughed softly. Unlike his wife, he had always understood his daughter’s sarcasm. Finally they saw a car leaving a space. From what they could make out, the woman sitting in the passenger seat was about to have a baby, leaving her frantic husband and driver of the car with no other option than to leave the parking lot as quickly as he possibly could to drive to the hospital. David rapidly headed into the empty space and turned off the engine. “Thank heavens we found a space; I was about to drive away.” Gloria was out of the car in less than a second. “David, we can’t miss the assembly, especially today when Anouk is going to read the dis… Oops.” “I’m going to what?” Anouk was out of her morning-long drowsiness and the car in a flash. “It was your Dad’s idea,” said her mother. “I’m going to save our places.” Anouk showed her indignation as her mother moved away, or rather, took flight from her daughter’s stare. “Dad, how could you? You know I hate speaking in public.” David leaned against the car, sighed deeply, and got ready to make the excuse that had just come into his head. “Look, sweetheart, if you want to be an astronaut, you’re going to face bigger challenges than speaking in public.” Blackmailing Anouk with ‘you have to do it if you want to be an astronaut’ was an infallible recipe that her parents did not hesitate taking advantage of. “No, I think the Director asked you to read but as you didn’t want to you passed the buck on to me,” Anouk counter-attacked. “Come on, honey, do it for me. Anyway, nothing out of this world is going to happen.” David put his arm round his daughter and led her towards the entrance of the auditorium. The auditorium was full to overflowing; 500 people, counting parents and children, listened attentively to what the Director was saying. Behind the stage

where the main event was taking place, Anouk was preparing herself for her assigned task - reading an extract from a poem for the students. “OK, OK, breathe, breathe,” she said to try to calm herself, “nothing out of the ordinary is going to happen.” A tall, skinny young man with a face full of acne came up to her and insisted she go out onto the stage. Anouk took a deep breath, held the poem tightly against her chest to give herself courage and walked to the lectern. About a thousand eyes scrutinized her, but she did not let herself be intimidated. She cleared her throat and began to read impeccably in a clear voice. Out in the seats, a man who knew David and Gloria and was sitting behind them leaned forward to murmur congratulations to the couple. “Your daughter is very sure of herself. She’ll go far.” “Thank you,” replied David. “In fact, she wants to be an astronaut.” “She’s already been offered scholarships to a lot of universities,” said Gloria proudly. “Yes, I heard that,” said the man, nodding. Anouk was well-known in the town for her intelligence and everyone was expectant regarding her future, which appeared would be the most brilliant of her generation. A dull sound interrupted the conversation. When David and Gloria turned back to face the front, they saw Anouk leaning down to pick up the microphone that had just fallen out of her left hand. “Don’t panic, don’t panic,” she repeated to herself, giving herself courage to face the mocking laughs that arose from here and there. “You only dropped the microphone.” But when she tried to pick up the microphone from the ground, it again slipped from her fingers and, like the rest of the audience, it was then that Anouk realized what was happening. “David, David.” Gloria’s trembling voice became sharper as she got up from her seat. David was already up and moving towards the stage amid the surprised murmurs about what was taking place. With her breathing labored, Anouk looked

at both her hands and what she saw horrified her. Now it was not just one of them, but both hands were trembling out of control, and not just that, her fingers were stretching and curling unstoppably. It was like nothing she had ever seen before and, what was worse, she felt that strange feeling inside her. Just then, her hands began to move from side to side as if by a reflexive action, followed by spasms in her fingers and a tremble in her wrists. Unperturbed, Anouk-of-the-brilliant-future watched as her fingers curled and stretched, but that was not all; she could feel a strange hotness running through her hands, from her wrists to the tips of her fingers. Despite all the commands she gave her brain, neither did her hands control themselves nor did the burning feeling diminish. When she raised her eyes, terrified, the first gaze she saw was her mother’s, who held out her arms in loving concern. “My darling, don’t be frightened. Everything’s OK,” said Gloria, trying to calm her. While Gloria held her daughter, David led both of them behind the stage at the same time as the audience gossiped about the strange events. What only an innocent soul could discern was that the microphone that Anouk had been holding was moving with exactly the same rhythms as her hands had trembled and shaken, as if it were these that were moving it by remote control. “Look, Dad,” shouted a little boy who had noticed this, “the microphone’s moving too.” He excitedly jumped up onto the stage. “The girl’s moving it with her mind, just like in the movies. She can move things with her mind!” The boy’s father begged for discretion and immediately got him down from the stage, unconscious of the truth of his son’s words. And to think that it had all begun with a tremor.

Olivia Olivia did not forget the terror, the desperation and the knot in her stomach. Each day, as the sky darkened, the young girl clutched her pillow, crossed her fingers, bit her lips and in silence pleaded that tonight no, that tonight, please, no, that tonight she would not become transformed. That the next sunrise she would awaken solid, made of flesh and bone, just like the other girls at the orphanage where she lived. And yet each morning she awakened to the same despair, finding herself changed into water or else a gaseous mass. Every day without fail, Olivia awoke transformed into liquid or gas. No-one had to tell her, but she knew that was the reason her mother had abandoned her at the gates of the orphanage. The poor woman could no longer bear to see her baby a mutant every day. One day she would be solid, entirely normal, and the next her little body became air and the next it looked diluted, like liquid. So one day she placed the baby in a basket and left it in front of the biggest home for abandoned girls in the town. When Olivia arrived at the orphanage, on seeing her lovely olive skin, her beautiful green eyes and her delicate curls, the director, a pleasant woman called Mary, thought she had found the most beautiful little girl in the world and would have no trouble in giving her over for adoption to a loving family. But all this changed one day in January when Olivia was two years old. The director, who had grown to love her, was bathing her in the tub and singing her a song. Splashing and playing with little rubber ducks, the little girl laughed and laughed, completely absorbed in the fun of the bath. When Mary had finished washing the child’s hair, she turned around to find a towel. When she turned back, she couldn’t believe her eyes – the child had disappeared. “Olivia! Olivia!” Mary cried anxiously. “Olivia!” A slight splash in the water drew her eyes again to the tub, where two invisible arms sliced through the water. With a thumping heart, the director put her hands into the tub, seemingly empty. “Oh, my God!” Mary withdrew her hands from the water when she felt an invisible body.

Quick as a flash, the director again put her hands into the tub and pulled out a little body made only of water but which immediately materialized into flesh and bone. It was Olivia, who before her eyes had changed from solid to liquid, and then from liquid back to solid. From that moment, the director decided that Olivia should be kept apart from the other girls. If a few years ago pandemonium had broken out when one of the girls discovered a mysterious lump on her back, who could imagine what would happen if the girls, aged between 2 and 18, discovered the freak that lived among them. For that was how the director began to see Olivia, as a sad freak of nature who carried on her shoulders the tremendous weight of being strange and so would be exposed to all kinds of mockery and cruelty. It was more than obvious that Olivia was treated differently, beginning with the fact that she had to sleep in a room apart and ending with the restriction of not being allowed any contact with other girls at the institution. Every day at noon, when the other girls were in class, she was allowed to leave her room and play for a few hours in the yard. At night, it was the director who took on the job of teaching Olivia in her room, as well as spoiling her with candy and little gifts from the market. Whatever the fear her condition might induce, Olivia was always Mary’s favourite. The doctor who looked after her at that time, an ambitious old man in search of fame, tried to take her to a laboratory to carry out some tests, but met with firm resistance from the person in charge of the institution. “What do you want her for? To stick her full of needles and lock her up in a plastic cage?” Mary often complained to the doctor. “You don’t understand,” the doctor replied, “We have to examine her. She’s an extraordinary case.” “It’s more important to protect her from the world, and that’s that.” And so ended the arguments between doctor and director. The doctor died before he could speak publicly of Olivia’s condition and so her case never saw the light of day. After a few isolated moments when Olivia caused terror among the personnel by changing from solid to liquid and vice versa, she

spent several years without undergoing these transformations, with the result that the director allowed her to take part in the social life of the orphanage. Unfortunately, Olivia had spent too many years isolated from the other girls and as a result had become unsociable and terribly shy. It was commonplace to see her playing by herself in the yard, or at times with the director. Sometimes, when no-one else was around, Mary whispered excuses to Olivia to justify her isolation for such a long time. “You have to understand, little one. I did it for your own good,” she said with tears in her eyes. “I didn’t want that doctor to take you to the laboratory or turn you into a circus act.” Olivia pretended to understand, but the fact was that she could not remember anything at all about her changes of state, so the director’s words had little meaning. But she pretended and nodded to every word the director said, and then both hugged and played for a long time. Until one day, when Olivia was 11, Mary had to leave. On the day of her departure, the orphanage organized a ceremony for the person who had been in charge of the place for more than 20 years. Before getting into the car that would take her far away to the house of her sick father, she went up to her favourite child, whose olive cheeks were wet with tears. Lovingly taking Olivia’s chin in her hand, she gave her a kiss on the forehead. “Olivia, I love you very much. I never had children myself but I have always loved you as if you were my own,” she said with a lump in her throat. “Forgive me for anything I’ve done wrong. I didn’t mean it. I hope you’ll be very happy.” After a long hug, the director got into the car and was driven away, but after only a few blocks she told the chauffeur to turn back; she had forgotten to do something. From the car window, Mary called to Olivia. “Olivia, don’t change!” After saying these words, the woman who had been like a mother to Olivia blew kisses through the window as she was again driven away.

For some time, Olivia thought that Mary’s last words referred to changes in her interior self, to not losing her personality, but years after Mary’s departure the young girl realized that the director had been talking about a change much stranger and more surprising. As Olivia entered her adolescence, she became a beauty 1.75 metres tall, with finely sculptured features, skin the colour of sand, and green, cat-like eyes. Her long black curls that fell down her back perfectly framed a statuesque face that, with her feminine curves, did nothing to diminish the jealousy of the other girls at the orphanage who were filled with envy for the wolf-whistles that only Olivia received from the few men who arrived at the orphanage to work. For Olivia, however, being the object of these attentions was a torture, partly because it upset her to be under the spotlight and partly because she knew that such excessive attention built a high wall that separated her even more from the other girls. Alone and friendless, the beautiful young girl would climb the trees in the yard and from their height look on the city that extended beyond the orphanage, day-dreaming of the wide world that awaited her, full of adventures and surprises. On reaching her seventeenth year, the new director of the institution insisted on giving her a birthday party, hoping that in this way she would help Olivia become closer to the other girls. However much Olivia pleaded against having any party, the new director would not change her mind and went ahead with the preparations. From between her fingers laced across her face, Olivia watched every detail of her birthday party – some balloons over here, some confetti over there, a cake. “Please, God, don’t let them hate me for this,” she said under her breath, “don’t let them hate me.” Greco, one of the more swaggering girls of the orphanage, interrupted this prayer with a shoulder-to-shoulder shove against the birthday girl. “Nice party isn’t it?” she said quietly. “No-one else had one, except you.”

Olivia breathed deeply and glanced at the decorated dining room. It was true; nobody else had had such a party, just her. For her misfortune. “It’s not so big.” Olivia tried to defend herself while Greco accosted her with cat-like movements. “And it’s not just for me; it’s for everyone.” “For everyone? Are you so sure?” Greco snorted as she pulled down a poster. “And what does this say here then?” On the poster were the words ‘Happy Birthday, Olivia’. Barely moving her lips, the birthday girl read the words in a soft voice until Greco interrupted her in her deep voice. “I said, what does it say here then?” Greco cornered Olivia against the wall. “Are you deaf, or what?” Olivia tried to escape, but Greco, 1.90 metres tall, cut her off. “Aren’t you going to answer? Aren’t you going to answer?” Although Olivia tried to restrain her tears, they flowed freely down her cheeks. “I said I didn’t want this.” “Oh, so you can afford to say no to all this?” Greco seemed more upset than ever. “You’re the only one they do something stupid like this for and still you have the guts to say you don’t want it.” “I didn’t mean that,” Olivia apologized. The frail girl tried to get away from Greco’s attack but only managed a few steps before Greco grabbed her arm and hurled her against the wall. “Leave me alone! I never asked for this,” she cried. “Leave me alone; let me go. I want to go! I want to go! I want to go! I want to go! I want to go!” At some point, Olivia realized she could no longer feel the strong grip on her arms and that Greco was moving away with a horrified look on her face. The few seconds of relief on being free were quickly replaced by terror are she saw how her body of flesh and bone was disappearing before her eyes, slowly turning into vapour. “Oh my God! Director! Director!” screamed Greco as she stormed out of the dining room.

“Don’t leave me alone! Don’t leave me!” begged Olivia. “Don’t leave me alone!” Terrified as she was, Olivia began to run after Greco, trying to stop her leaving her alone in such a hair-raising situation. “Don’t touch me!” shouted Greco as she ran from Olivia. When Olivia tried to hold on to Greco’s arm, she saw how her own turned into vapour making it impossible to touch Greco. Olivia’s body did not disappear completely but transformed itself into a gaseous mass with a human form, as horrifying as it was strange. The orphan ran towards the dormitory and tried to open the door, only to find that her gaseous fingers could not grip the door handle. In desperation, she bent down to the level of the floor and stuck her finger into the space between the floor and the door. Seeing how her vapour-like fingers fitted under the door, she pushed her arm through the tiny crack, and then her whole body. All the other girls were combing their hair and getting ready for the birthday party when they saw how Olivia’s gaseous body slid under the door. “Help me!” cried Olivia. “Please!” Getting over their surprise, all the girls jumped up and ran to the bathroom at the end of the dormitory. Some managed to hide in the cubicles while the others, less fortunate, pressed themselves against the wall, trying to escape from the freak of nature. “Help! Help!” Olivia tried to touch the other girls, but in vain. Her fingers of air passed through everything and she could hold on to nothing. Caught up in the most profound terror, the young girl left the room and began to run down the hallway until a familiar voice interrupted her thoughts. “Olivia!” shouted Mary. Olivia turned and looked at Mary, the woman she thought of as a mother, the previous director of the orphanage, who watched her with tears in her eyes and a gift held tightly under her arm. Searching for comfort from her suffering, Olivia ran to Mary’s arms only to discover once again that it was impossible to touch her. With the back of her hand,

Mary stroked Olivia’s cheek, at first cautiously, but then allowing her hand to submerge completely into the vaporous girl. “You’re made of air,” murmoured Mary. “I know,” replied Olivia. “Help me.” Olivia tried once again to hug Mary, but her arms were incapable of touching her. Mary, who had returned to the orphanage for Olivia’s birthday party, now had the titanic task of controlling her and helping her return to a solid state. Luckily for the orphan, who had regained her normality, she was dressed in the same clothes she had worn before her transformation and so was not naked. As Olivia was once more made of flesh and bone, Mary had to sit her down in a chair and tell her the whole truth – about the first time she had noticed her strange ‘sickness’, how many times the changes had occurred, and that her transformations were not limited to only a gaseous state. “Into water too?” Olivia got up from the chair. “I can also become water?” “In fact, I used to think it was the only state you could change into.” “And when did you think to tell me about this?” The young girl raised her voice to Mary for the first time. “It’s been a long time since you changed into a liquid state,” was the best attempt at an excuse that Mary could manage as she lowered her eyes and nervously rubbed her hands together. “”It only happened two or three times. I thought you’d grown out of it.” “And now, what do I do?” “You can stay with me.” Olivia’s eyes shone brightly until she remembered that Mary had left her job to look after her sick father. She loved her so much that she could not become another weight. “No, I can’t do that.” “Why not?” asked Mary, “I don’t have much, but at least …”

“Mary,” said Olivia with as much sureness as she could muster, “I don’t need a home, I need answers. Tell me where I can find them.” For the first time in a long time, Mary regretted not having paid attention to the doctor who, day after day, pleaded to be able to study Olivia’s case. However, she did remember the place where the doctor had worked and also the name of the hospital where the information on Olivia was filed. “There’s a place you can go, a hospital where there are some files about you.” Mary breathed deeply. “And files on others like you.” “Others like me?” Olivia had never felt Mary’s rejection until that moment. They were no longer like mother and daughter. Mary was normal, Olivia was not. Mary took out a piece of paper and a pen and wrote the name of the hospital and the city where it was located. When she had finished, she folded the paper once and gave it to Olivia. At the request of the new director, Olivia again slept in a room isolated from the rest, with just a tiny pile of clothes by her side, while the rest of her belongings were burned in the yard, out of fear that she suffered from some contagious disease. Over the next two years, rather than diminishing, Olivia’s sickness worsened. Every night without fail, her body transformed itself into gas or liquid. Every day she felt the impotence of being unable to exert control over her own organism. Every minute she felt isolated from the other girls, who, out of fear, refused to have anything to do with her. Her loneliness increased at the measure that a hope for a ‘cure’ decreased. Her life became a constant to and fro between hospital and orphanage but, despite the vast number of doctors who paraded before her, none was able to even diagnose what was happening to her. On reaching her nineteenth birthday, she was told that she would have to leave the orphanage and fend for herself in the world. Without hugs or goodbye parties, Olivia left the only home she had ever known with just a suitcase of clothes

and a wrinkled piece of paper in her hand. It was the piece of paper that Mary had given her two years previously with the name of the hospital she should go to. On the back of the piece of paper, written in capitals, was the name of the city; coincidentally, it was the same city where Anouk lived. Coincidentally.

Etienne On a scooter, Etienne covered the corridors of many government offices around the world. As the spoilt child of diplomatic parents, since a small child he was used to having every whim fulfilled by his family and by the army of people employed to run the household. When Etienne was 5, his father was named ambassador, carrying out his office in countries such as Mexico, the United States, Canada, China, Mongolia and, finally, France. His mother resented that the family was not able to settle in one place and, fearing for the emotional health of her offspring, she made up for it with an over-loving manner and meeting every one of his demands, which turned him not only into an arrogant and pretentious young man, but also into the terror of any nanny who tried to take charge of him while his parents were at some embassy party. Luckily for him, he always had a sense of humour and a spark that could turn him into an agreeable and sociable person, able to get along equally with a president as with a young girl who worked at the embassy, for when Etienne reached puberty, he became as infatuated with pretty young girls as he had been with scooters when he was a young boy. Unfortunately for this consummated sexual glutton, when he was 15 he was diagnosed with a strange illness that was to leave him without hair and completely bald within the space of a few months. For someone whose hair was like a national treasure, this piece of news came like a bombshell. “Why?” Why me?” he screamed at the doctor when he was given the news. “Why not you, doctor, with your hair like a spiky broom?” Despite all his vociferating against heaven, earth and all hair-care products, Etienne had lost all his hair within a few months, as well as the desire to chase young girls or carry out his crazy exploits at the embassies … but only for a brief time, for when Etienne got used to seeing himself hairless, he realized that his baldness gave him a new, wild appearance that perfectly matched his goatee beard, his wide, thick black eyebrows, his straight nose, his brown eyes, which, together with his 1.80 metres, his slim but muscular body and his huge hands,

gave him the image of a rebel without cause which he had always sought to create. From that moment, Etienne changed from designer clothes for adolescents to designer clothes for tough adults, and exclusively in black, brown, white or blue. He stopped using chauffeur-driven cars and took up motorbikes, started wearing earrings, chains around his neck and all kinds of thick bracelets that made him look wild and untamed, although in fact he still lived off his father’s money. One day in February, when he was 20 and recently expelled from his fourth university, Etienne found himself outside a Parisian café waiting for his latest conquest, an embassy trainee. On this occasion, he had ridden his personalized Harley-Davidson, put on his tightest leather pants and a cut-away T-shirt and, as was his style, a comb with which he combed his baldness as a ritual for good luck in love. “You’re looking good, my friend,” he said to himself as he checked his appearance in a shop window. “You’re hot!” He began to chew gum and leaned against the motorbike, arms crossed, posing as the irresistible bad boy of the movies. Wearing a tight tailor-made suit, her briefcase under her arm, her pony-tail, her long legs and her thick glasses, Elena, the girl Etienne was waiting for, emerged from a side street. “You look lovely!” cried Etienne from the motorbike. He began to walk towards the very distinguished-looking girl who, in an attempt to look sexy, stopped and loosed her hair. Etienne stopped mid-street and touched his chest with a hand. “Beautiful!” he exclaimed. Suddenly, Elena’s face contorted with fear at the same time as she pointed Etienne’s left. Unable to grasp her meaning, he turned his face in the direction the girl was pointing and his eyes opened like saucers when he saw a brand-new red convertible bearing down on him at speed, about to run him over. Etienne woke up lying on the sidewalk. His head was bleeding profusely while his eyes were blinded by a strange white light. When the light disappeared, he was able to get up, holding a hand to his cut head.

“What happened?” he managed to say. But there was nobody there, no Elena, no passersby who had been walking past when he was run over and not even the car itself was anywhere to be seen. “Where is everybody?” he asked himself, but it did not take him long to find the answer – they were 50 metres away. “How is this possible?” he asked aloud. It was not possible. The car was about to run him over; it had been less than a metre away. It was not possible that now he was a half block distant. And it was not that he was only so far away from the car, but also from Elena and the others. Mysteriously, he had been able to travel 50 metres in less than a microsecond. Elena and the driver of the car ran up to him, very concerned. “Are you OK?” asked the driver, at the same time as he rubbed his eyes. “Yes. What happened?” “Etienne, you’re bleeding from your head.” Elena held her hand over the wound. “We’ve got to get you to emergencies.” “I’ll be alright.” “Come on, I’ll take you to the hospital.” The driver led Etienne to his car. “You?” exclaimed Etienne, “But you drive with your arse!” “Quickly! Quickly!” said Elena as she and the driver got Etienne into the car. “There’s no serious injury, just a little loss of blood,” said the doctor who attended Etienne at the hospital. “Is he going to be alright?” Elena swallowed. Her boss’s son had just had an accident and she had been involved. “Yes, thank heavens. He managed to get out of the way.” Etienne, lying on a hospital trolley, tried to get up. “But how? How did I get out of the way?” he asked anxiously. “All I saw was the car coming towards me and then I was lying on the sidewalk far away.” “I don’t know what happened either,” said Elena seriously. “What do you mean? Elena, you were there!” Elena tidied a lock of hair that had fallen out of place and prepared herself to tell Etienne what she knew.

“I know I was there, but it was all so strange. The car was going towards you and was about to hit you when suddenly – Pow! – you were lying at the other end of the block.” “Are you crazy? I couln’t have jumped 50 metres in a second.” “I know it’s not logical, but you can ask the guy who was about to run you over. He didn’t know where you’d ended up either.” Etienne hurriedly left his cubicle and headed for the waiting room, with Elena and the doctor hard on his heels. “Not so fast, son,” said the doctor. “Remember you’ve just had your head bandaged.” “I’m not your son,” Etienne replied defiantly. The worried driver was waiting near the door, praying with his head in his hands. He got up when he saw Etienne arrive. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you. Are you OK?” Etienne sat the poor man down again and then took a seat next to him. “I’m fine. I just have this less than esthetic bandage round my head,” he replied with vanity as he looked at himself in a mirror. “But I don’t understand what happened.” “I was driving round a corner when I suddenly saw you standing in the middle to the street. I tried to stop, but then …” “Then what?” asked Etienne impatiently. “There was a light that blinded me for a moment and then you were lying half a block away.” “What?” “I told you,” Elena interrupted complainingly. “You didn’t tell me about the light.” “Because I knew you wouldn’t believe me, but this man is right. You created a light and then appeared on the other side of the car.” “What?” Etienne looked at the driver, who was nodding to confirm each of Elena’s words.

Etienne got to his feet and began to walk in circles in the waiting room. “I created a light and moved 40 to 50 metres in a second?” said Etienne sarcastically. “And it’s me who got hit on the head! You’re crazy, both of you. Both of you are …” He didn’t finish what he was going to say, distracted by an image on the television in the waiting room. With the title ‘Paranormal Phenomena’, a video of the accident he had just been involved in appeared on the screen, made with a mobile phone. At the crucial moment, Etienne could be seen a centimeter away from being run over when he transformed himself into a ray of light and flew over the car, landing, according to the news item, 50 metres away. 50 metres in less than a few hundredths of a second. Elena petulantly whispered into Etienne’s ear. “Now do you believe me, Mr. Sceptical?” “I see it, but I don’t believe it.” A boy wearing thick glasses and with his arm in plaster walked up to Etienne. Making sure that this was the same person who had appeared on television, he held out a pen and asked for an autograph. Still dazed, Etienne signed the boy’s plastered arm without really taking in his presence. “You’re the speed of light,” said the boy, as he arranged his glasses. “What?” Etienne turned to see the boy face-to-face. “What you did, you moved at the speed of light.” Almost in slow motion, Etienne again saw the images that appeared over and over on the television screen – him transforming himself into light and transporting himself various metres in a minimal amount of time. “Really?” he managed to say. “This is … amazing!” With a smile on his face, he continued to contemplate his recently found ability – he could become light and move at its speed.

Kenji Kenji lived in a tiny village forgotten by the world. The streets were unpaved, there was no running water, no drainage and no electricity, but there was extreme cold that seeped through the holes in his wooden shack. But even though it rained or snowed outside, inside Kenji’s tiny hut it was always warm. It only needed him to place his hands on the walls and through his willpower, heat began to emanate from his palms and extend throughout the hut. In the same way, if outside the infernal heat turned the hut into a giant cauldron, all Kenji had to do was touch the walls, concentrate on cold, and so cool the house. Kenji had the gift of transmitting heat or cold through his hands, even being able to freeze or melt things. He did not discover his power until he was 12 years old. Before that, he had lived bound by his circumstances. His mother Anna, a tall woman with frizzy hair, was the only breadwinner as his father had left before Kenji was born. His paternal grandfather, aware of the irresponsibility of his own son, had taken Kenji and his mother under his wing. Although at first his daughter-in-law had refused his help, it was now several years since she had been brought round. Since then, the old man, whom they affectionately called dad, had dedicated himself body and soul to protecting his grandson and daughter-in-law. Every morning, the grandfather walked the five kilometres uphill from his small wooden house to his grand-daughter’s hut to provide his help and look after his grandson. With his help, Anna had been able to make some improvements to the home, making it more cosy and less deficient and unsafe. However, they had never been able to fix the problems of the heating or air-conditioning, principally because these did not exist, so they had only the thin walls to protect them from the scalding heat or the freezing cold that seeped into their bones. But this was before the boy discovered his power. It all began at the school where Kenji, then a teenager, attended classes in order to become an educated man, as his mother and grandfather insisted. However, the tall, black-haired lad with olive skin and slanted eyes rarely paid much attention in the classroom, preferring to daydream about the circus that came to his village once a year.

This old, run-down circus boasted human ‘freaks’ among its side-shows, like the bearded woman or the Siamese twins, and the owner was always on the lookout for more to add to the collection which would make him more money from the spectators. Ever since he was a child, Kenji had dreamt of joining this travelling show and leaving his dying village so lacking in opportunities. One day, after his twelfth birthday, Kenji was in his room lying on the bed covered in blankets and trying to sleep despite the freezing draughts the came in through the walls. While he watched his breath turn to vapour because of the cold, he picked up a glass of water and began to take a sip. He regretted it immediately his tongue touched the ice-cold water. Suddenly furious with the awful conditions of his life, he took the glass between both hands and stared at the water with the fury reflected in his eyes. “Heat up,” he said between his teeth, “heat up, damn you.” After fixing his stare on the glass for a few seconds, he closed his eyes and tried to relax. ‘Oh come on,’ he thought bitterly, ‘as if my wishes could come true.’ He decided after all to drink the water without even opening his eyes. What was his surprise when, tipping up the glass and swallowing, the water burnt his throat! He had to spit out what he could. He stared at the rest of the water remaining in the glass and was amazed to see it giving off steam. His wish had come true! He had heated the water by only touching the glass! “It’s … It’s … impossible,” he murmured. But as impossible as it seemed, Kenji could not resist the temptation to again try his recently acquired skill. He filled a glass with water, got up onto the bed and placed both hands around it, concentrating on heat. It took only a few seconds for the water to start giving off steam and to boil. He let it cool as he paced his room trying to make sense of what had happened. “Let’s see,” he thought, “I can heat up water, but could I heat up anything else?” A smile crossed his lips. “Sure I can. I can heat up anything at all!”

Without hesitating, he placed both hands on the wall and within a few seconds the house had heated up as if it had a heating system. Anna, afraid, thought the house was on fire and that they should both get outside. Even though it was obvious the hut was not on fire, Anna decided on caution and decreed that both she and Kenji should sleep at Dad’s house. “Come on in, family, come on in,” welcomed the grandfather with enthusiasm. That night, Kenji could not sleep. His excitement was greater than his tiredness. The next day, when he and his mother returned to their hut, he continued to try out his power on any object he could find, proving again and again that he was able to transmit heat through his hands. A few weeks later, when the circus returned to the village, Kenji hurried to see the owner, alleging a trick that nobody in the world had ever seen before. The owner, intrigued, set up an audition that afternoon outside the big top. “I have something to show you,” said Kenji when the moment arrived, and without another word picked up a stone and held it cupped in his hands. When he opened his hands, the stone was glowing red and gave off heat. “Pretty good for someone your age,” the owner said unenthusiastically, “but these days people are used to seeing fire. We have fire-eaters, acrobats who go through burning hoops, and even the clowns use fire for their act.” “But I don’t burn things, sir,” said Kenji innocently, “I heat them up.” The man jumped up and dismissed the boy with a gesture of indifference, but not before adding, “If you could heat things up and then freeze them, I’d hire you in a second.” After his tremendous disappointment at the circus, Kenji walked home, kicking stones along the way, sniffing and wiping away his tears, thinking that his only chance of getting out of the village and its poverty had vanished. Outside a house of well-to-do people, the boy felt a surge of rage against what he imagined was the kind of privileged life these people led, privileges of the kind he would probably never possess.

He picked up a stone and without even considering if someone was watching, he was about to throw it at one of windows. “The biggest one,” he thought, “I’ve got to hit the biggest one.” Although he felt that the fingers holding the stone were numb, he held on to his desire to smash one of the windows of the house. He calculated distance and the exact spot where most damage would be done, but glancing at the stone which would act as a missile, Kenji felt his heart miss a beat. The stone he was holding was covered in a thin layer of ice that came from his hand. Stunned, he realized his hands could produce not only heat, but also cold. “Well, well, I’ve found something really interesting,” said the circus owner after Kenji had rushed back to show him his feat. “You’re hired.” “So, I’m in the circus?” asked Kenji timidly. “Of course!” replied the owner. “All you need now is your mother’s permission.” Anna never gave it. However much Kenji showed her his power, his mother did not allow him to leave the house, insisting that the boy needed to learn to control his gifts before showing them off for profit. Three years passed, three years in which Kenji did not let up day or night about the circus, but the answer was always the same: ‘You’re not leaving here’ was all his mother ever said. Throughout those three years, neither Anna nor Dad suffered from the cold at home because Kenji took charge of touching the walls with his hands and heating them up, improving on the heating system they could not afford. Both his mother and his grandfather were agreed on not publicizing Kenji’s gifts. They were wary of any presumptions of this kind in a village bursting with envy, as was theirs. But it was impossible to keep the secret thanks to Kenji himself, who bragged about his power at school. One day, one of his schoolmates, the village bully, tried to intimidate him in a corner of the school yard, but Kenji defended himself covering his fist with a layer of ice and hitting hard. “You decide how you want to end up!” he cried, “Frozen or fried.”

And at that moment, he created heat in the hand covered in ice, melting it instantly. “Diabolical!” hurled back the bully, but ran away to the exit, scared. “Perfect,” said Anna sarcastically when she found out what had taken place. “Now everyone knows what you can do.” “That’s OK with me,” Kenji defended himself. “Now they know they can’t mix it with me.” “Son, so much arrogance clouds reason,” his grandfather said wisely. “Enough of your opinions, old man.” “Kenji!” was his mother’s reprimand, but the boy went on without even looking at his grandfather’s fallen face. “You’ve no right to give me advice, old man. You’re not my father. My father’s living it up somewhere else, not just making do in this miserable village.” Pointing to his mother he spat out, “And you want to keep me here, just like you tried to keep him from going!” Anna cut short Kenji’s outburst with a well-aimed slap to his face. With his cheek burning and his pride crushed, Kenji turned on his heel and went into his room, slamming the frail door. A half hour later he left the house with an old suitcase under his arm. “I’m leaving,” he said without even glancing at Anna. “I’m going to be someone … I am someone!” Looking disdainfully at the two people who had sacrificed so much for him, he walked out of the house with his head held high but his spirit filled with arrogance and over-confidence. He went straight to the circus and asked to be taken on. It would be a waste of time to go into the details of Kenji’s life over the following three years. Rather, they can be summarized as a succession of days in which the boy travelled around the country, learned various languages and surprised one and all with his ability to melt and freeze things. Almost without effort, he quickly became the main attraction at the circus, demanding a star’s treatment but in the process becoming superficial and petulant.

Almost at the end of his third year, Kenji received a telegram from his mother, a somewhat strange thing to happen if we bear in mind that he had lost all contact with his family since that last fight. The telegram said simply: “Dad died. Come home.” Four words that encapsulated a major tragedy. Kenji’s hands grasped the piece of paper while he read the message over and over, searching for a different meaning, one that would tell him his grandfather, his only father figure, had not died. But the written word is immutable and the boy had to accept the cruel reality – his grandfather had died and he had not been there for him. For the first time, the weight of his errors fell onto his shoulders, and his spirit, until now young and carefree, suddenly aged and filled with regrets. When Kenji tried to get rid of the piece of paper, he discovered that it had stuck to his fingers, frozen just as his heart had been for these three long years. “I’ve been waiting for you for a long time,” said Anna when her son returned home. “Come on in. You’re at home now.” Slowly Kenji went into his former home, which was almost unchanged except for this strange woman with a wrinkled face and deep shadows under her eyes – his mother, prematurely aged for the suffering of having been abandoned by her son, awaited him with sallow cheeks and sad eyes. But now he was back, walking slowly, transformed into an eighteen-year-old adult. “I got your telegram,” whispered Kenji, unable to look his mother in the eyes. “I’m here to see Dad.” “To see his grave, you mean,” Anna replied bitterly. “He died two weeks ago, but I only managed to get in touch with you now.” “How did he die?” asked Kenji. “Frozen. His body didn’t resist the cold weather.” Kenji was seized by a wave of desperation and guilt. If he had been in the village, if he had only put both hands onto the walls of Dad’s house, then his grandfather would still be alive. “He sensed he would die before seeing you again,” said Anna, as she gave Kenji a crumpled piece of paper. “So he left you a letter.”

Kenji sat down and began to read the last words of his noble grandfather. My dear Kenji, Three years have gone by since you left us, but I still miss you as if it were yesterday when you walked away. I still remember your sudden departure, and seeing your mother’s silent tears only serves to rub salt into the wound. But in some place in my mind I can understand your decision – you were right when you said you would be ‘somebody’. I’ve always known it, always seen it in your lively eyes. However, you have to understand that you’ll never find that ‘somebody’ by showing off your gifts as a sideshow, searching for the approval of others to convince you of your own worth. You’ll see – you’ll never be able to see yourself through the eyes of others. Looking at yourself on the outside will only show you a pale reflection of what you really are. Look into yourself and you’ll find who you really are. If I don’t see you again, you were right in telling me I’m not your father, but I didn’t tell you that you are everything I would have wished a son to be. Take care of your mother. I miss you. Dad Kenji held the letter in his hands long enough to take in each one of his grandfather’s words. He came to himself when his mother threw herself into his arms and held him tightly. “Please come home!” she pleaded between sobs. For an answer, Kenji remained terribly silent. When Anna had the courage to look into her son’s eyes, she saw that his face had lost all trace of joy and that his eyes betrayed a sadness improper for a young man of his age. Lips trembling and tears falling down his cheeks, with a nod of his head Kenji assented to his mother’s request. “I’ll come back, mum. I promise,” he said quietly. A week later, he returned home. He promised himself that from now on he would use his gifts only for the betterment of humanity. He did not know how or by

what means he would achieve this, but he was sure that he would find the way to redeem himself for Dad’s death.

Marco The month after Anouk’s hands had trembled uncontrollably in church had ended calmly. Her hands had trembled again, but the doctors had promised her a solution to the situation, promising it was only a passing matter, possibly a secondary effect of some nervous condition that she would have to sort out but which did not have long term repercussions. And without any more worries, Anouk spent the last day of the month working in Mr. Walsh’s dry cleaner’s. Nothing special had happened, at least for Anouk, until Marco and his entourage appeared on the scene. Suddenly, there was nothing else to see, nothing else to pay attention to, nothing more except this Adonis who paraded in front of her, a beautiful man 1.90 tall with squared shoulders, muscular arms, brown complexion, sea-blue eyes, and that walk of a medieval knight, somewhere between brave and petulant. His symmetrical face was made up of a medium forehead, high cheekbones a lovely natural hue, and a square, cleft chin, all crowned with a perfectly-cut head of black hair which ended precisely where the neck began. From what his colleagues called him, Anouk deduced his name was Marco … Marco … Marco … “Anouk! Anouk! Anouk!” A middle-aged customer snapped his fingers at her and brought her out of her day-dreaming. “I’m talking to you!” “Yes, sir?” Anouk noticed the presence of the customer when he stopped shouting at her. “I’ve been talking to you for ages and you haven’t been listening!” “I’m sorry, sir,” she apologised. “What can I do for you?” “I’d like you to serve me, if it’s not asking too much,” said the client sarcastically. “Yes, yes of course. I understand. I understand.” Anouk worked part-time Monday to Friday in Mr. Walsh’s business, himself a Texan businessman with several establishments in the city. She had earned the ‘employee of the month’ award on five different occasions, not a mean feat if we

take into account that she had been working for the businessman for less than a year. The dry cleaner’s, the best in the city, was located opposite the town’s most luxurious hotel, so exclusive that the vast majority of the townspeople only knew it from the outside, not the inside. It was well-known that you could get into the hotel only if you had sufficient means and status, and that the bellboys earned more than those with other jobs because of the huge tips they received from the wealthy guests. Although Anouk had become used to seeing luxury cars and other signs of wealth pass by every day, this day she had noticed first Marco, the mysterious twenty-year-old who was arriving at the hotel, and then the poise of his colleagues as they arrived at the hotel’s doors. The group had pulled up in a new limousine, with darkened windows and shining paintwork. They got out when the chauffeur opened the door for them and stood a while contemplating the hotel’s entrance. Despite the majesty of the place, they did not seem in the least impressed and one of the girls even made a face of disgust as if it did not meet her expectations. When the limousine pulled away into the parking lot and Anouk had an unrestricted view of the five young people, she understood why they appeared disappointed with the hotel. The two men and three girls were wearing hand-made designer clothes of the latest fashion and the most expensive materials. Their accessories lacked nothing either, the girls’ bags and the boys’ gadgets being what most caught the attention of the passers-by. “That’s strange,” said one the customers at the dry cleaner’s who, like Anouk, was absorbedly watching the five young people. “The things they have aren’t even in the shops yet, and look at them, they’ve got them just as if they were extras. And you should have seen their coats and the girls’ bags! My God, I could pay off my mortgage with what they’re wearing.” “Do you know them?” asked Anouk. “I’ve never seen them around here before.” “Believe me, if they lived around here, we’d have noticed by now.”

And it was true – with such luxuries on sight, they would have been noticed even in a big city. “They must be some kind of celebrities,” said Anouk. “You can tell from the clothes, and anyway, they arrived in a limousine.” “They must be models. Just look at their bodies.” It was true. Even though it was clear Marco’s body was the strongest of them all, his colleagues were not far behind, each of them looking healthy and toned. “Maybe they’re sports people. They look strong and athletic,” suggested Anouk. “Maybe. Who knows?” After a brief chat, the five young people went into the hotel, paying no attention to the incredulous stares of those around them. “Well, they’ve gone,” said the customer. “You and I have to get back to reality.” Anouk smiled and returned to her work behind the dry cleaning counter, but something inside her told her that that would not be the last she would see of Marco. An hour later, Anouk was totting up the day’s business, adding numbers here and changing numbers there, when she again fixed her attention on the hotel opposite. The young people had left twice before, each time in the limousine, and returned with a lot of shopping. From the names on the bags, Anouk guessed they had been to the most expensive shops and easily spent several thousand. “Well, aren’t they the lucky ones,” she thought as she carried on with her work. Outside, it was already dark and the dry cleaner’s was empty, in silence and lit only by the light over the counter. But the calm was interrupted when somebody violently threw open the street door. Frightened, Anouk was about to scream. “Calm down, calm down. It’s only me,” said Mr. Walsh. “Mr. Walsh, you scared me.” The girl raised a hand to her chest. “Sorry. What are you doing?”

“Just the last for today. I’ve almost finished.” “Very good.” Mr. Walsh placed his elbows on the counter and leaned forward to speak seriously. “Something’s happened,” he said quietly. “What?” asked Anouk. “I need a favour.” It was Friday night and all she wanted to do was finish work and go home. However, she feigned interest in helping out Mr. Walsh. “I’m all ears,” she said. “Did you see those kids who arrived at the hotel today?” From the tone of his voice she immediately knew which ‘kids’ he meant. “The ones who arrived in the limousine? Of course I saw them.” “Well, it’s like this. They left a few things with me.” Mr. Walsh did not have to point to the clothes. It had been hours since a pile of expensive coats had arrived and she had guessed who they belonged to. “So what’s up? They’re ready to be delivered tomorrow,” said Anouk. “Well, the girls sent over two more dresses and I need you to have them ready for tomorrow morning.” Anouk swallowed hard. It was Friday night; it was the beginning of the weekend; it was completely unfair! “Why didn’t they bring them earlier?” “Actually, they did, but I wanted you to take charge of them personally.” Anouk raised both eyebrows. What on earth did it have to do with her what the girls wore? “You’re my most reliable employee and I can only trust you with these dresses. I’m afraid someone else might steal them.” “What are they made of? Gold, silver, scales of a Mediterranean fish or some such stupidity? Why are they so valuable? Who in heaven would steal them?”

Until now out of sight below the counter, Mr. Walsh held up two dresses, carefully folded, and placed them in front of his employee. It took only a few seconds for Anouk to understand her boss’s concern – the dresses had innumerable diamonds sewn onto the front. Not just any cheap imitation, but real diamonds. More than Anouk had seen in one place in her entire life. “Are they real?” she asked. “I didn’t want to leave them with anyone else,” asserted Mr. Walsh. “They left them with me and, well, you can see they’re not the kind of customer you can let down. I’ll pay you triple. What do you say?” Of course, Anouk had no option. Her work at the dry cleaner’s was well-paid and helped her to save for the university. “Agreed! Leave them with me. I’ll have them ready tonight and I’ll leave them in your office.” “Thanks very much. I knew I could count on you.” As way of goodbye, Mr. Walsh kissed Anouk on the cheek and left the shop, but unfortunately for her he did not lock it, a detail not missed by two thieves who had planned to rob a convenience store but on seeing the dry cleaner’s unprotected and with just one employee inside, decided on a change of destiny and to rob it instead. It took Anouk only a few minutes to clean the dresses. When she had finished, she went to turn off the computer and the other lights. When she was ready to lock up the cash register, she realized Mr. Walsh had already done so when he had left. ‘Distrustful old man’ was the thought that went through her mind. She went to the coat rack next to the counter and was about to take her jacket when the sound of the door opening distracted her. “Sorry. We’re closed,” she managed to say before she noticed the two people who had come in had their faces covered with balaclavas and each one pointed a pistol at her face. The more heavy-set of the thieves, a hulk of over two metres, advanced confidently towards the frightened girl while the thinner of the two kept a look-out.

“On the ground! On the ground now!” shouted the heavy-set thief. “Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God,” repeated Anouk as she raised her hands and tumbled to the floor. She had never seen a robbery before and much less been involved in one, and so it was hard for her to stay calm. Her stomach turned over, her hands sweated and tears of rage and panic came to her eyes. The heavy-set thief approached the cash register and, without taking his eyes off Anouk, tried to open it by banging it, but without success. “The devil take it! How do you open this thing?” “There’s a password,” Anouk murmured. “What?” was the thief’s irritated reply. “There’s …” Anouk raised her voice as much as her panic would allow. “There’s a password.” The thinner thief, and as chance would have it, the less experienced, began to walk around in circles. “It’s best we go,” he said to his companion. “Take the computer.” The thick-set thief kicked Anouk and told her to get up. “Come on. Enter the password.” And that’s when her world really came tumbling down – she had no idea what the password was. She got up as quickly as she could but her knees were trembling and she felt weak so she had to lean against the counter for support to stop herself from fainting. “I don’t know the password.” “Good try,” said the hulk. “Open the register.” “I really don’t know.” “Just enter the damned password.” “I don’t know it,” she screamed on the verge of tears. The thief pushed the gun to her forehead. “I’m not going to say it again. Open the damned register.”

Anouk took a deep breath and began to act. She began by typing in numbers that had some meaning for her boss – his age, his birthday, his telephone number – but nothing worked. “Look, man,” the second thief suddenly said, “it’s best we go. Someone could see us. Someone could come in.” As if in answer to his prophecy, the door opened and a tall, strong man walked confidently in. When he was under the light, Anouk could see who it was. “I’m sorry,” said Marco. “Are you closed?” “What do you think, idiot?” The younger thief immediately pointed his gun at Marco. “Oh, I see you’re busy.” With all the calm in the world, Marco sat down in an armchair. “I’ll wait until you’ve finished your business.” For a few moments, everybody remained motionless, disbelieving the calmness of the intruder who just picked up a magazine and began to read it, as if he were in a dentist’s waiting room and not in a shop with two armed thugs. With a look of incredulity on his face, the younger of the two thieves looked at his companion. “On the floor! On the floor!” The bigger man pointed his gun at Marco, an action copied by the less experienced thug. Marco stopped reading his magazine, turned to look at the two men and, without a trace of fear or even of worry, got up from the armchair and lay face down on the floor, still clutching the magazine. “The article’s very interesting,” was his comment. The two thugs laughed. In all their years of holding up businesses, not one of their victims had ever behaved in this way. In other circumstances, Anouk would probably have laughed too; this Marco really did seem like an idiot, calmly reading a magazine in the middle of an armed robbery. And it wasn’t even the silly gossip magazine that so interested the other customers. “Open the damned register!” The thief again pointed his gun at Anouk. “Do it now!” he shouted.

With trembling fingers, she continued to type in numbers but there was no sign that the cash register would open. “I can’t, I can’t. I’m sorry.” The thug brought his gun closer to Anouk’s face. “I’m sorry. I don’t know the stupid password.” Anouk felt as if she could not breathe and that she would faint or throw up at any moment, or even both at the same time, but adrenalin is a wonderful thing and helped her to stay on her feet. “Come on! Just do it,” insisted the younger thief. “Give us the money! Give us the money! Now!” Unable to remain calm any longer, Anouk lost it and began to scream, tears filling her eyes. “I can’t open it, I can’t.” She covered her face in her hands. “I can’t do anything!” From between the fingers that covered her face, Anouk could see Marco gazing at her with compassion. His look encouraged her to keep calm. He smiled and winked as if silently telling her that it was all going to be alright. The tranquility his look gave her evaporated when she felt the cold butt of a gun striking her chin hard. “Give us the money!” shouted the thug after hitting Anouk. “Didn’t your mother teach you to be respectful to ladies?” asked Marco in a deep, solemn voice. Anouk and the two thieves almost had a heart attack when they saw Marco standing behind the bigger of the two thugs. How on earth had he managed to get behind him so quickly? With impressive agility, Marco grabbed the thug from behind and smashed his head down on the counter, leaving him instantly unconscious, while at the same time hitting his arm with his knee and getting hold of the gun. The younger thug tried to kick Marco who, without letting go of the other man, easily moved out of the way. Using his free arm, he punched him in the face leaving him momentarily stunned. Marco threw the first thug down and prepared to take on the second, but saw a gun pointing straight at his face.

“You arrived at a bad time,” said the thief sarcastically. Anouk closed her eyes. She did not want to see what appeared to be imminent - the thug shooting Marco. Without a second thought, the thug fired at Marco’s face. Anouk let out a horrified scream when she saw Marco fall heavily to the floor. Swallowing hard and clearly jumpy, the thug climbed over the body and pointed his gun at Anouk. “Do you want to be the next?” The young girl shook her head. “Then give me the damned money!” While Anouk continued trying to open the cash register, she noticed a shadow rise to its feet behind the thug. It was Marco, full-bodied, with barely a scratch on his forehead where the bullet should have entered. “Now you’ve really pissed me off!” he said to the thief between his teeth. The young thief turned on his ‘victim’ in horror – in his usual haughty way, Marco looked at him with a smile from ear to ear. “It’s not possible,” said the thief. “You … you … I shot you!” Marco held out his left hand. In it was the recently-fired bullet. “What can I say? I’ve got good reflexes.” For a second, Marco made a fist with the hand that held the bullet; when he opened it again, all that remained of it were traces of powder and metal. “Freak! You’re a freak!” stuttered the thief, terrified. The thief threw himself at the ‘freak’ and tried to knock him down, but his body bounced off as if against a wall and not against a man of flesh and blood. With a single kick, Marco broke the man’s leg. “I didn’t want to do that,” he said by way of apology, “but you left me no choice.” The thief, dragging himself to a corner of the dry cleaner’s, picked up a metal chair and hit Marco hard on the leg. Nothing happened to Marco’s leg, but the chair bent in two. “What in hell are you?” bitterly asked the thug.

Marco stepped on the thug’s forearm, took away his gun, grabbed him by his shirt collar and hauled him up. “I, my friend, am a nightmare to people like you,” and with a single punch left him unconscious. After dropping the second thief next to the first, Marco breathed deeply. Anouk stood immobile behind the counter, trying to make sense of what she had just witnessed – a man so strong that he needed just one punch to beat someone twice his size, so agile that he could easily skip around two men, and so resistant that not even bullets penetrated his skin. “I know,” said Marco with a laugh, interrupting Anouk’s thoughts. “I’m weird.” He moved towards Anouk but, scared, she took a step backwards. Respectfully, Marco stopped at once. He dropped his gaze, aware that between himself and the person he had saved there existed a gulf named ‘fear’ and ‘astonishment’. “Don’t be afraid. I’m not going to harm you. You should call the police.” Anouk picked up the phone and dialed the emergency number while Marco tied up both thugs with improvised ropes made from some of the clothes that were hanging there. “I hope you don’t mind, but I need to do this so they don’t hurt you.” “It’s OK,” replied Anouk. “The police are on the way.” “I don’t see any security cameras here.” “They’re being repaired.” “Good,” said Marco with a wide grin on his face. “That way it’s easier to get away unnoticed. And I think it’s time I was leaving.” ‘He really is crazy’ were the words that came into Anouk’s head when she heard this. “What do you mean? You’ve got to … you’ve got to stay to explain to the police.” “Not necessary,” replied Marco. “But your … your plaque.” “My what?”

“Your plaque,” replied Anouk innocently, “the plaques they give to people like you who save people like me. You can hang it up next to the one that says ‘Champion Bullet Stopper’ or whatever.” Marco smiled, showing off his perfect white teeth. Anouk blushed even more when Marco laughed out loud at what she had said. “I like you and I’d like to stay, but I really have to go. I’m sorry.” As Marco walked towards the door, Anouk’s hands began to tremble uncontrollably. “Damn!” she exclaimed quietly. “What’s up?” asked Marco. It seemed he had heard her even though she had whispered to herself. “Nothing, nothing. Just my hands.” Marco watched as Anouk’s hands trembled. He went up to her and held out his own hands. “Can I see?” Anouk put her hands in Marco’s. Any fear she may have had of her hands being squashed by someone of such strength vanished when she felt his warm, soft fingers touching her own. “Are you nervous?” “It’s not that, it’s something that … well, I really don’t know. The doctors haven’t found out what it is,” replied Anouk. “I’m so lucky, right?” she said sarcastically. She tried to stem her tears, but it was just too much for one day – a hold-up, a man with super-human strength, and on top of that her hands had begun to tremble again. If the ceiling fell in, she would not have been at all surprised. “Hey, hey,” said Marco when he noticed Anouk was crying. “It’s all going to be OK:” Marco gently let go Anouk’s hands and raised one of his to her flushed cheek, but stopped before he touched her. “May I?”

A little confused, Anouk barely assented. Marco stroked her cheek with a soft, warm hand and wiped away the tears that slid down her face. His tenderness was interrupted by the uncomfortable feeling that suddenly swept over him – he was a fighting man, a warrior, not a sensitive hero who stroked cheeks. He put both hands behind his back and looked down like a little boy, as if such a tender act should embarrass an imposing man like him. “Everything’s going to be alright.” “How do you know?” asked Anouk. “I just know,” answered Marco simply. The police sirens interrupted the silence. Marco left the dry cleaner’s at once, but not without pausing at the door to wave goodbye to Anouk. The police found her standing in front of the cash register and the thugs still unconscious on the floor. “What did they want?” asked the detective. “What everybody wants – money.” Anouk touched the cash register. “But this crazy box refused to open.” “Well, miss, you were lucky.” ‘Lucky about what, that they almost killed me’ thought Anouk. “Yes, I know,” she lied, “but I would have loved this damned box to open instead of having a gun put to my head.” With a hand, Anouk mimed the cash register opening – which it suddenly did, as if her very thoughts had made it do so. As if her mind had ordered it. “That’s frightening,” she whispered.

If you’d like to know more about this story, you can purchase the novel in Amazon ie=UTF8&qid=1343936319&sr=8-1&keywords=project+titans#_ Thanks! Esther.

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