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Sandbox - Episode 2: Apple Man (Part 2)

A covert intelligence officer discovers that our universe is not what we imagined it to be.

Scene II 

Felix’s new office interior was modelled after the deputy directors. It was minimal, functional and efficient. The bare white walls contributed to the minimalism while the functionality aspect included a desk, phone and computer. Space efficiency implied a minimal amount of clutter crammed into a small space. There were no windows, but a curious-looking painting hung near the desk, which looked out of place with the bleached out confines of the office. The painting was drawn in a Monet-style, its image appearing blurry when seen up close, but featured a depressing colour palette as opposed to the creamy soft preferred by the French master. Heavy, thick brushstrokes depicted a kitchen table with various cooking utensils next to a large bowl. Next to the table was a sink containing a countless number of dirty dishes and pans. The overall picture conveyed an expression of profound dejection and gloom associated with the kitchen and cooking in general. 

“This pretty much sums up my mood whenever I have to cook and clean at home,” muttered Felix quietly to himself, reflecting on the picture. “I think I’ll keep it hanging to remind me to spend more time on the job. More money, more takeout, fewer dishes.” 

After sitting down and logging into the system network, Felix accessed the program the deputy-director had mentioned. The program booted up with the name: 

DUSK: Operation Sandbox 

There was a notice directly underneath in a bold, sharp red: 

Sharing any intelligence about the existence of this program or any of its contents to unauthorized personnel, is strictly prohibited. Please be advised to close this program and log out of any open sessions IMMEDIATELY upon leaving this computer unattended. Failing to do so will qualify as criminal negligence. Thank you for your cooperation. 

A screen appeared that looked like a simple project ticketing system. There were various accessible tabs, but the main screen displayed a table with multiple columns, such as Case Name and Status. The table contained one active case file. Opening up the file with the click of a button, he saw a brief summary of the details: 

Case File: #RC-00788
Location: The Stilmore Hotel, Downtown Toronto 

Note for investigation: Guests disappearing without a trace. Security cameras show guests entering rooms, but never leaving. Receptionist claims strange guest admitted few days prior to the last disappearance. List of missing persons includes one low-key public service employee. Local police have made no headway. No tips from public submitted. 

REMINDER 

Goal: Gather intelligence to either support or disclaim culpability of suspected shadow organization. Name of organization is currently unknown. No current suspects known. 

Accessibility: The officer may request any form of entry or monitoring activity as deemed reasonable and necessary to complete the investigation. Detainment and interrogation to be carried out at designated Toronto field office for any appropriate time period. 

Firearms: Permission to transport and carry designated field weapon Sig Sauer 226R. 

Expenses: As deemed reasonably appropriate by the investigating officer and demands of the case. All expense receipts to be submitted in electronic format via this system. See tab “Expenses”. All evidence of receipts, stubs or travel tickets to be immediately destroyed by appropriate means. Officer has full access to travel with designated firearm under the National Civil Aviation Security Program. 

Travel: For airline flights, please use integrated system search and booking. For all other means, please use cash. 

Report submission: Paperless unless specified otherwise. 

Felix opened the travel tab and booked an available evening flight to Toronto, departing within three hours, but continued to browse through the current rates out of curiosity. 

“It seems that it’s cheaper to fly anywhere but in Canada,” he muttered perplexingly to himself. ”The price to fly to New York is less expensive than to Toronto. Just like with the mail. I should be investigating this and not some sandbox.” 

He called the Stilmore Hotel from an anonymous number to book the cheapest available room for one night. Closing the program and logging out of the session, he took out a set of heavy brass knuckles from a hidden briefcase compartment. Placing them into the inner-left pocket of his all season jacket, he grabbed a small notepad with an equally sized pen and put them in another inner pocket. The jacket was jet black, waterproof and had over twenty different sized pockets, including one for carrying a concealed weapon along with as many clips as could fit inside the others. Most of the pockets were empty and usually went unused, but Felix felt more comfortable with more extra space than without it. He always wore black tactical boots even when off-duty or vacation, two things he had forgotten the meaning ever since joining the CSIS. Felix was always at work, always working. Eat, rest, work. That was the life motto that he had embodied. 

Signing out a vehicle from the transportation department and opting not to take a gun from the registry, Felix headed towards the airport. After registering with the border security service, notifying them of the absence of any concealed firearm and briefly questioned about his brass knuckles, he entered the waiting area. Ordering a caramel latte, he grabbed a newspaper to read up on the latest stories while waiting for his flight. A headline article caught his attention: 

Senator Dupon charged in biggest ever corruption scheme
The long time fighter for government transparency and vehement critic of government budgetary expenses is alleged to have rigged tender contracts for several companies owned by close friends, including his brother, in lieu of lower bids. The companies are alleged to have charged twice the average amount for services rendered. The RCMP has launched an investigation to determine the scope of Senator Dupon’s misconduct. Senator Dupon is also alleged to have used his position to appropriate an important scientific instrument from the Canadian Space Agency, the details of which are under investigation. Senator Dupon will remain suspended from his position as senator, pending active investigation. 

The article continued to elaborate on all the known details of the corruption scandal, summarized the ensuing debate on the merits of the Senate in a modern government and topped everything off with a paragraph about Dupon’s eccentric goatee. What the article failed to address was why only one senator had been singled out, the only one who spoken out against the new prime minister. It was difficult to believe only one person acted greedily in a tightly knit community such as the Senate. Dupon, no matter how rotten, stood out as the scapegoat while the others scurried like rats on a sinking ship to straighten out their paperwork and sweep their dirty deeds under the rug away from the public spotlight. 

The boarding announcement echoed across the airport, dampened by the bustling throng of passenger noisiness. Luggage carts zipped through the wide lanes of interconnecting wings, picking up an occasional senior citizen along the way and generating an annoyingly quiet buzz. People shuffled along to their designated waiting area, the sound of their steps resonating throughout the chamber-like hallways. The small wheels of countless small luggage bags screeched across the shiny, thick laminate floors. The message announcing the flight sounded like an incoherent babble, the words barely distinguishable amid the noisy hum of the airport. If it were not for the visual confirmation on the multiple screens fitted throughout the waiting area, Felix would have missed his flight. 

It was late evening when Felix arrived at the Stilmore Hotel via a cab from the airport. The cab driver wore a purple turban and had a large gold ring on his left hand, with a single ruby encrusted in the centre. Extending a fifty dollar bill, Felix asked casually, “Looks like the neighbourhood is pretty shitty and the hotel doesn’t look any better, huh?” The drive gave out a big laugh and turned his head around with a smile, “My friend, this place is the shittiest of all neighbourhoods. So much crime here, so much. I prefer to drive through here, you know? You take care of yourself eh.” Felix left the car, slamming the door shut and the cabby drove off almost instantly. 

The hotel was about three stories high and located on the edge of a busy intersection. A strip club entrance stuck out from a side of the building. There was a pink neon sign depicting a girl in high heels. She was bending down and wrapping one of her legs around a post, which lit up in neon purple. The text read: “Foxy Furious Club”. Mounted high above the building itself, was a billboard sign with the hotel’s name. Some of the individual letters shone in a bright orange while others remained unlit. The street itself featured several abandoned buildings, their windows cracked open and boarded up with mouldy wood planks. Some of the boards themselves showed signs of forcible removal and reapplication. Graffiti of all kinds was featured prominently on every available, reachable or unreachable surface imaginable. Some could have been considered tasteful art, but most was just an incoherent or foul splash of ink. There was a large paid parking lot across from the hotel, with a high fence and barbed wiring. Further along, the street was a tiny restaurant, advertising home-made cabbage rolls and Polish perogies. Piles of garbage were stockpiled near the sewer grates by the side of the road, giving off a continuously pungent odour. 

The main two-way street passing the hotel was bustling with cars. Their occupants showed no desire to make a stop here or even give it a second glance. Some suspicious looking individuals shuffled along the sidewalk, including a disturbed old man shouting untranslatable rubbish directed at no one in particular and a Korean couple photographing themselves using a selfie stick. A white teen, wearing pants pulled down to his knees, a cheap gold-painted chain and an extra-long basketball t-shirt suddenly grabbed the stick from the Korean couple and dashed off. Holding his pants with one arm, he quickly disappeared into an alley. The Korean couple, realizing they were robbed after staring at each other in dumb silence, started panicking and screaming for the perpetrator to come back. Felix’s eyebrow slightly twitched. Felix ran into the alley and chased down the kid easily, pulling him by the back of his shirt to a sudden stop. 

“Hey man fuck off, you motherfucker.” blurted out the teen with a nasty face, his mouth contorting into a revolting expression that made him look like a wrinkled onion. He struggled to wring free from Felix’s grip. 

Felix held him tightly by the shirt with his right hand. Reaching swiftly into his inner right pocket with is left hand, he jerked the teen towards him sharply, pulled out the brass knuckles and punched him square in the nose. The teen crashed onto the pavement, and his skull smacked against the dirty concrete with a hollow thump. He lay there, motionless. Checking if the teen was still breathing, Felix picked up the selfie stick and started heading back to return it to the Korean couple. It was then that he intuitively felt someone was watching him. Looking up, he saw a man in a round straw hat, wearing black sunglasses and a brown linen suit. The strange man was staring intently in his direction. The man was eating a large, red apple together and chewing loudly in the process. Felix rushed back to the hotel entrance, only to discover the Korean couple was nowhere to be found. He entered the hotel with a vexing disposition. 

The reception area looked like a tool storage shack built using scrap wood and polished with shoe shine from the dollar store. A man about two meters tall, dressed in a black t-shirt and black pants, towered over the desk with a welcoming stare. Both his hands were covered in black tattoos. The tattoo on his left hand had an image of a wolf’s head, its mouth biting down on a heart, the blood bursting from the punctures. His right hand featured a snake wrapped around a dagger with an inscription “Long life to thee”. The man had a long beard, short trimmed hair and a single silver ear piercing. He greeted Felix in a roughshod but pleasant manner. 

“Welcome, sir,” said the receptionist. “What brings you to the Stilmore Hotel? Want to stay the night or check out our lovely girls downstairs? Drinks are on specials tonight at the bar.” 

“Hello, I made a booking here a few hours ago, last name Soris,” replied Felix. “I’m sure I’ll check out everything your hotel has to offer, that’s for sure.”
“Great, Mr. Soris., my name’s Johnny. Just a moment as I get your key,” replied the receptionist. “Also, we have a strict policy of payment up front for the rooms. We only take cash. It will be $40 for the night.” 

“No problem.” said Felix and handed over two mint twenty dollar bills. 

As receptionist handed over the key, Felix asked. “So I hear that you’ve had some guests suddenly disappear from their rooms here?” 

“Hmm, where’d you hear that from? You ain’t from the police by chance are you?” asked the receptionist with a suddenly suspicious look. 

“Not the police man,” replied Felix with a short laugh. Heard about it from a friend who stayed here some time ago, said the police were here investigating something.” 

“Well, yeah we had some troubles,” replied the receptionist, his suspiciousness of Felix slightly dropping. “I’ve been here quite a while now, but just recently, I think about five people just settled for one night and were gone the next.” 

“Don’t you think they might have just left while you were away or during shift change?” inquired Felix further, trying to sound as friendly as possible. 

“No way, no freakin’ way!” replied the receptionist confidently. “I can as hell assure you that when I’m here, I’m here. The other guy who works nights says he didn’t see nothin’. But then again that guy is not the most reliable guy there is. Anyways, I think they somehow sneaked past us, but we don’t care since they paid in advance. Either way, this story got out when they came lookin’ for some girl from city hall they said. Said she didn’t come to work or home in about a few weeks. Asked us a whole bunch of questions and left. If it weren't for her, no one would have given a shit about the others, since the got no family, no relatives. Some are just plain demented sometimes, but what can you do, this is a low cost, cash-only hotel.” 

“Any chance I got the same room as that girl? That would really be weird, wouldn’t it?” asked Felix suddenly and with another short laugh. “I definitely don’t want to disappear in the night, it’s just not part of my plans.” 

“Nah man, don’t worry she was in room 50B, way across from where you are. You just get some rest. Come by the bar, have a drink, see the girls, relax. 

You ain’t goin’ nowhere tonight.” the receptionist laughed cheerfully. “Your room is straight down the hall, take the stairs, and you’ll see it at the end.” 

“Sure thing, Johnny. Thanks for helping me out,” said Felix as he headed down the hallway to find his room.

The door squeaked wildly as Felix turned the key and swung it wide open. Entering the room, he felt an urge to take a step backward and look down the hallway. The man in the straw hat was there, chewing on an apple and staring directly at him. It was a red, juicy Macintosh apple. He stood nearly motionless, only his left arm bringing the apple slowly up to his mouth to take a bite. He looked like a cool smoker from a TV ad, except without the poisonous cigarette. A surge of vitamin C had replaced the nicotine high. 

“Hey, apple man!” spoke out Felix loudly. “You know anything about the disappearances around here?” 

The man kept on looking steadily in Felix’s direction, silently chewing on his apple. Felix decided to walk up to the man and started pacing towards him. 

The man had nearly finished the apple. He finalized his degustation by gulping down the core and stem, leaving nothing left. Wiping his sticky fingers against the sides of his pants, he continued looking directly at Felix. Walking up to him, Felix repeated his question. 

“So, Apple man,” said Felix. “Do you or do you not know anything about the disappearances here?” 

The man reached down into a brown fanny pack camouflaged under his blazer and pulled out another apple. Biting down on another red Macintosh, he spoke in an eerily deep voice. “It is not what you are looking for, but how you look for it. Maybe no one disappeared, but simply got lost along a new path?” said the man and reached into his fanny pack. He then pulled out another apple and held it out to Felix. “Want to try one? They are magnificent. I once preferred yellow apples, like the Royal Gala, but over time settled on the Macintosh. If you get them straight from a local orchard, they stay nice and fresh for quite some time longer than the ones from the store.” 

Felix silently took the apple and stared at the man with a puzzled expression. 

“See you around again,” said the man and added with a slight whisper. “Try it. You might just discover a something new.” 

Felix looked at the apple resting in his hand. It was almost twice as large as any apple he had ever seen before in his life. It was almost perfect in proportion, ideally rounded, with no blemishes and a solid red colouration. The stem still had a single leaf sticking out. A refreshing fruity aroma tickled his nose. The apple smelled delicious. The apple looked delicious. It was in all respects, a flawless apple. Felix looked up, but the man was gone. 

“I didn’t even hear the old cracker walk away,” mumbled Felix to himself. “This hotel is messed up. What am I even doing here? A highly organized shadow organization, operating here in this shitty hotel? It’s as though the CSIS is playing an elaborate prank on me by giving me some mystical assignment, with no data to work with.” 

Felix went back to his room and sat down on the bed. The room was decorated with a portable wooden drawer and featured an antiquated mirror resting above it. Both were flaking a silvery coat of paint and were covered in a thick layer of dust. The walls were painted using a white primer, the smell of which still permeated the air. It was recently applied, and the windows were never opened for the room to breathe. The air inside was stuffy and toxic. A single ten-watt lightbulb table lamp with a damaged cover lit the interior with its faint, yellowish light. Sounds of the street traffic below could be heard through the window, which amplified the noise rather than reduced it. After a few moments of silent reflection, Felix took out his notebook and jotted down his thoughts: 

Shitty, low-cost hotel. Strange apple eating man.
Unexplained guest disappearances.
I’d like to disappear from here too.
Damn, I have nothing to report yet. 

He closed the notebook and took a bite out of the apple. It was so juicy and sweet that Felix gulped down the entire fruit without pause.
“Now I see why the old man keeps eating these apples. They’re not just delicious, they’re heavenly!” Felix said to himself. “And now I want more. I guess before I leave this shithole I’ll ask him where he gets them.” 

He decided to investigate the bedroom of the missing woman and headed towards the door. He exited and turned around to lock it with the key. After doing so, he walked down the hall. As he approached closer to where the staircase should be, he realized that it was pitch black at the edge. There was nothing visible beyond it. He approached the darkness, trying to peer through it, but no light penetrated it from within or without. Waving his hand through it produced no effect. It was an empty, dark space. Taking a step through, Felix felt a sudden cold chill envelope his entire body. He took another few steps forward until a bright flash of light beamed directly into his face. He shielded his eyes with the palm of his hand. The light subsided after a few moments, revealing an airy corridor. On both sides, there were enormous wooden doors with brass handles and with a ceiling so high, the end could not be seen. The hallway seemed to stretch endlessly into the distance. The air no longer smelled of rotten eggs like the hotel’s hallway, but was thick and musky, with a bold scent of burning wood with hints of cherry. The floor was made from carefully laid out greyish stone blocks, resembling an old European city street. Each door was identical in appearance, with beautifully carved abstract shapes on their exterior. There was not identifying number on the doors. Between each hung a lamp made from stained glass depicting a colourful melee of interlocking circles. The light from the lamps lit up the corridor with a kaleidoscopic hue. Felix tried opening a few doors, but they were all tightly locked. The door handles did not budge despite an intense, rigorous shake. 

“What did that guy put into that apple?” uttered Felix to himself with a growing sense of agitation, feeling sheepishly foolish. “I feel totally awake, but I’m probably tripping. I hope this isn’t some nasty LSD that will make me jump out the hotel window.” 

Felix walked straight down the corridor for what seemed like hours until he passed a white-coloured door on his left. The door stood out from all the others. It had no carved shapes, was smaller and narrower and had a rickety handle. Amid the dead silence of the corridor, he heard women’s voices and the sound of running water. It sounded as though there was water pouring from multiple showers. He turned the door handle and entered out of curiosity. An intense blast of hot steam blurred his vision for a moment. After squinting slightly, he saw several rows of open, glass shower cabinets with soapy naked women in each one. They each turned to look in Felix’s direction but were not surprised in the least. After a brief glance, they each continued with their showering business. One very curvy and tall black woman rushed towards him and attempted to pull him into her shower cabinet:
“Let’s go with me hun, you won’t regret getting wet with me,” she said with a sexy, gentle voice. 

Felix shook off her arm and rushed out back the door, slamming it shut behind him. He then continued down the corridor in a more brisk pace, his face reddened from confusion. After continuing along the monotonous path for yet another inestimable duration, he reached something new. Ahead of him, the edge of the walls gave way to open space. Walking closer to it, Felix entered a room as majestic and awe-inspiring that looked like a Gothic-styled cathedral, its greyish stone walls and ceiling featuring similar abstract carvings to the wooden doors. There were windows, with a blinding white light beaming through them from outside. The light was so bright, it was impossible to look through them. In the middle of the room, there was a wide canal filled with a murky stream that appeared to flow in both directions simultaneously. At both ends of the stream, there were two paintings in the form of an archway. The painting on the right depicted a river flowing through a small village, with a horse drinking from it, while a woman washed her clothed. The painting on the left featured the same village, except burning down in flames, with the horse’s head on a pike and the woman lay slaughtered by the water. The water flowed toward the walls of the chamber and disappeared into each painting. Looking more closely, Felix could see the water continuing to move inside each picture. Suddenly, he saw a woman run into the room from across the room from a similar looking corridor opposite to where he stood. The woman suddenly froze with a look of terror. 

“Who are you?” screamed out the woman. “Are you real? Why are you doing this to me? Let me out of here now!” 

The woman seemed by no means the frail, helpless type. Even from afar, Felix noticed her muscular build, wide, strong shoulders and iron-clenched jaws. Her thick, black hair was cut short. She was dressed in black boots and wide cargo pants. Everything took a turn for the worst, when she pulled out a gun from her inner pocket holster, pointing it directly at him. 

“I want you to tell me who you are now! Or I swear I will shoot you right now! I’ve had enough if this bullshit!” she yelled out, pointing the gun towards Felix, holding it firmly in both hands in the standard weaver shooting position. 

Felix yelled out as quickly and patiently as possible. “I am a real person. Please do not shoot me. My name is Felix Soris. I am an investigating officer. I was sent to find leads concerning the mysterious disappearances at the Stilmore Hotel when I somehow wandered in here. I also have absolutely no idea where the hell I am. Please…Do not shoot me.” 

The woman did not lower her gun and sounded, even more, skeptical than before. “If you are so real, then how did you end up here at the same time as me. Who sent you? Speak now! I swear, I’ve been stuck here for so long, I’m getting paranoid and unpredictable.” 

“Listen to me. Please.” started yelling Felix. “Did you eat a red apple when you came to the hotel? Was there a man in a straw hat who gave it to you? Because after I ate that apple, I ended up in here.” 

The woman lowered her gun slightly. “Yes, I did eat an apple, but there was no man in a straw hat. There was already an apple in my room.” 

“Don’t you see it!” cried out Felix. “Someone injected something into the apple, making us delirious somehow. I think we’re under some kind of influence of LSD or some other kind of hallucinogenic substance. I was sent to investigate a missing person’s case. I believe there are others here. Did you see anyone else?” 

The woman lowered her gun and holstered it. “So it’s Soris you said right?” 

“Yes that’s right, and you are?” asked Felix. 

“My name is Aurelia Faust, and I believe you, for now anyway.” she replied. “So since we are both stuck, any ideas on how to get out? As far as I can tell, that is one hell of a hallucinogen, as this all seems so real to me, it’s almost as though I’m in another world.” 

“How long do you think you’ve been here? It must be a very potent experimental substance, and we’re the guinea pigs,” said Felix. 

“Well, I don’t really know about the time.” said Aurelia. “If I was to trust my watch, then according to it, I’ve been here more than a week! But, that’s impossible because I’m neither hungry nor thirsty. I don’t feel tired at all.” 

“What have you been doing the whole time here?” asked Felix curiously. 

“Not much really. I spent some time wandering back and forth across the corridor, coming here. But everything is unchanged, and I haven’t seen anyone else. The only thing was a strange door leading to a shower room with some random men, one of who tried to have sex with me, but he seemed unreal, almost dream-like.” 

“Strange, it’s all very strange.” said Felix. “Maybe there’s something we need to do to shake this trance off of us.” 

He rushed to the water, crossed palms and filled them with the darkish liquid, splashing it across his face. Looking up, nothing changed.
“Damn the water!” exclaimed Felix. “Even it is probably fake. I’m probably sleep-walking right now, and this is me hunched over my toilet.” 

“Then how come I’m here too. Besides, you can’t really sleep-walk. Your body is technically in a state of minor paralysis when you sleep, so even in some rare cases, you won’t be able to move around freely anyway like we are experiencing.” 

“Hmm… You seem convincing.” said Felix. “Maybe you might have an idea about what to do?” 

“Me? Not a clue Soris.” said Aurelia. “I’ve tried everything I could. I tried opening doors, checking every corner of this place, but found nothing. The walls are thick, the windows don’t show anything.” 

“That’s it!” said Felix. “Maybe if we try shattering one of the windows open, we could escape.” 

“That would be foolish Soris.” said Aurelia. “Let’s say we are on some kind of hallucinogen. If we jumped out the window, maybe that would correspond with a real window in the hotel, and we’d be dead. Maybe that’s what someone wants us to do.” 

Felix looked at the stream of water. He pulled out an old receipt from his pocket and threw it into the centre of the water. As soon as it touched the water, the receipt duplicated and flowed in opposite directions, disappearing into the paintings. 

“Did you see that?” exclaimed Felix. “Damn that apple!” 

“Soris, what if we’re imagining this the wrong way?” said Aurelia. 

“Wait!” asked Felix. “The old apple man that I spoke to. He said something about opening my mind to something new, some kind of new possibility! I should have known he was up to some no good. But, I still don’t know what he meant.” 

“Listen Soris, I have an idea.” said Aurelia. “Try jumping across to me.” 

Felix looked down on the water and at Aurelia. “You want me to jump? This water is about two meters across. What if I end up duplicated and vanish like the receipt I just threw in?” 

“Just trust me.” said Aurelia. “You can do it. Just jump over here.” 

Felix took several long steps backwards, then ran towards the water. As he neared the water, he jumped, pushing off the edge of the floor as strongly as possible and just barely landed on the other side. 

Looking up at Aurelia, he noticed she had her gun out, pointing to the other side. Turning around, he saw the old man in the straw hat, standing at the same position from where he jumped. “Who are you? What have you done to us? Answer!” yelled out Aurelia fiercely. 

“What have you done to us you old son of a bitch? Are you experimenting on us, is that it? Who gave you the right and who are you working for!” joined in Felix. 

The old man calmly pulled out another apple with a condescending smile. Taking a few bites, he replied, “With that kind of attitude, you are truly missing the point. In fact, you have not gone anywhere from your room. You are there and here at this very moment.” 

“What do you mean!” both Aurelia and Felix exclaimed almost in tandem. 

“What I mean is, there is always another reality if you want to see it. What you are looking for, what you have been sent to find, is not here. You need to look deeper and beyond.” spoke the old man in a deep, soft voice, chewing on his apple in the process. 

“I don’t understand.” said Felix. “If you know something about this, then speak up! Explain it! All you’re doing is speaking in some kind of riddle. This is not a game!” 

The man smiled again. “Perhaps you will understand as you go about your ways. There were no other missing people. The rest of the disappearances were overly exaggerated and foul play was only suspected until Officer Faust went missing. No one really cared about the others. In any case. I wish you good luck and until next time. Perhaps we will meet again along the way.” 

“Wait!” exclaimed Felix. “How the hell do we get out of here?” 

“You don’t get out.” said the man chewing on his apple. “You are needlessly limiting yourself. Just leave and that is all. Do not think of leaving, just leave.”
Both Felix and Aurelia looked at each other perplexingly for a brief moment, but when they turned to look ahead again, the man was gone.
“I have an idea.” said Aurelia. “If what he says is true, then all we need to do is imagine that we are back in our room, or at least imagine we are walking back to it, right?” 

“If it is nothing more than a mind trick, then sure why not.” said Felix. 

“Alright then. Let’s imagine that we are not here at all, that it’s nothing more than an illusion.” said Aurelia. “At the count of one, two, three…” 

They both took a step forward, back towards the hallway and as they did so, the surroundings blurred into a swirl of bright light. They were back in one of the hotel rooms. 

Looking around Felix saw Aurelia standing next to him gazing at the interior of the room. “Do you have any idea of what just happened?” he asked with a dazed voice. 

“I have no idea Soris.” replied Aurelia. “But this complicates things.” 

“Exactly.” said Felix. “What to put on the report.” 

“You can put down that you found Officer Faust for one thing.” said Aurelia. 

“That’s something I wanted to verify.” said Felix. “What officer exactly?” 

“I work at the CSIS just like you. My task was to track down and arrest that old man we just had the pleasure of speaking to.” said Aurelia. “Instead, I’ve ended up drugged and trapped. Thanks to you, I’m back.” 

“Well, that’s strange then since no one mentioned anything about any old man being a suspect.” said Felix with a puzzled look. 

“We will just have to put down the most reasonable explanation possible for this incident.” said Aurelia. “That we were drugged, and the suspect escaped.” 

“I guess I’ll see you in Ottawa, Officer Faust.” said Felix, as he rose up and exited. 

“Take care Officer Soris.” replied Aurelia, giving him a slight wink. “I hope to see you there as well.” 

Felix returned to his room to grab his briefcase. Popping open his laptop, he booked a late night flight back to Ottawa. As he was about to leave, he noticed an apple core lying next to the bed. He pulled out a small evidence bag from the briefcase, and picked it up, sealing it shut inside. 

Scene III 

Upon arriving in Ottawa, Felix headed to the evidence laboratory wing of the CSIS. The laboratory’s existence was not well known to the public, despite being the foremost centre for evidence analysis in the world. It was even better than the CIA’s or the Pentagon’s but remained less advertised. In terms of space, it took up no more than three hundred square meters but had the latest technology at its disposal. Staffed by only about ten individuals at any given time, each of them was a specialist in a respective field, with a single director overlooking their work. The centre also conducted its own scientific experiments and classified research. It was there that Felix sought out an old classmate’s office and knocked on the door. 

“Director Pivovarchek is currently not in the office.” said a blonde girl walking up to Felix. “Can I assist you with anything officer?” 

“I’m Officer Soris.” replied Felix, turning to face the blond girl. “And you are?” 

“I am Dr. Sandra Keys, direct assistant to Dr. Pivovarchek.” said the girl. 

“I’m here to submit a biological sample for chemical analysis.” said Felix. “I need to know if there is possibly any hallucinogenic or other unknown substance present in it.” 

“Alright then, please come with me.” said the girl. “You will need to fill out a form as part of the procedure, with the appropriate case number for reference purposes and your ID. Please give me the evidence.” 

Felix handed the bag over to the girl. They approached the main desk, where Felix filled out all the details and submitted it to the overseeing receptionist.
“How long will it take to get the results?” asked Felix politely. 

“Given the current backlog, I would say about one to two weeks.” replied Dr. Keys. 

“I will also need a blood sample taken for analysis.” added Felix. “My own blood.” 

“Of course, Officer Soris.” said the doctor. “Please come with me.” 

Felix headed with the doctor to a waiting room, where a young technician pulled out a fresh syringe, a medicinal alcohol bottle, some cotton pads, two empty plastic vials and a bandage. Gripping his hand, the technician expertly punctured his vein and drew a copious amount of blood, enough to fill two vials. Placing the cotton pad on his arm, he taped a bandage over it and silently nodded Felix along his way. 

“I will be on my way then. Thank you.” said Felix and headed towards his office. 

Felix grabbed a cup of coffee on the way, added five milks and two sugars and headed to his office to file his report of the case. Opening up the DUSK program, he opened the case file’s submission system, and started typing up a detailed account of the incident, summarizing it with the following: 

Though the suspect remains fugitive, there is now reason to believe he is part of the theorized shadow organization and has not acted alone. A sample of the item believed to have acted as the conduit for a highly potent hallucinogenic compound has been submitted for chemical analysis to approve or disprove this view of the incident. However, the suspect responsible remains unidentified other than by physical appearance and warrants further investigation. 

After proofreading the report and fixing several grammatical errors, Felix submitted the report. It was then that someone knocked on his door. With a look of bewilderment, he said, “Please come in, whoever you are.” 

Opening the door, Officer Faust appeared in the doorway. She slightly closed the door behind her but remained standing next to it. “Hello Soris.” she said. “I’ve come to thank you. I know that there is probably some rational explanation to what we experienced, but thank you nevertheless for helping me out.” 

“No problem, Officer Faust. No problem at all.” said Felix. “Anytime! Glad to help. Glad I’m not totally crazy. For a moment there I thought, I would never be able to verify my story.”

“I need to run, but hope to see you around.” said Officer Faust as she left. 

As soon as she left, the desk-phone rang wildly. Picking up, it was the voice of Deputy-Director Miller. “Officer Soris. I trust you are well.” he said musingly. “I am going through your report. Quite short, but an interesting read. I need to speak with you directly. Please come by my office immediately.” 

“Yes sir, of course. I’m on my way.” replied Felix. “I will be there shortly. Thank you.” 

The Deputy-Director hung up and Felix, looking up at the picture to his left, sighed heavily, burdened by the thought of being sidewinded by some unknown, apple-eating assailant. 

Upon reaching the Deputy-Director’s office, he was immediately led in by the secretary, where he saw Officer Faust present. 

“Please take a seat Officer Soris.” motioned the Deputy-Director. 

As Felix sat down, glancing sideways at Officer Faust, the Deputy-Director continued speaking. “I have read both your reports.” he said. “And quite frankly I am at liberty to disclose some information you will find helpful.” 

Pulling out a small remote control, an enormous screen lit up behind him, revealing a picture of the old man. 

“This is your suspect, quite humorously dubbed the Apple man, as per your report Officer Soris.” spoke Miller. “This is the most recent picture we have, taken by our surveillance team precisely at 19:00 hours yesterday. As you can probably assume from the characteristic cathedral in the background, the location is Milan, Italy.” 

“Excuse me Deputy-Director.” interrupted Felix suddenly. “But, that is approximately the same time that I had encountered the suspect. He certainly could not have been in two places at once, unless there is a twin or someone identical in appearance.” 

“According to our imaging specialist, the suspect depicted here in Milan, Italy is the same suspect Operation Sandbox has tracked over the past two years. Another surveillance team captured this image precisely around the same time entering the Stilmore Hotel in Toronto.” said Miller. “Moreover, our imaging specialist has provided me with an, even more, intriguing fact. Based on both images, he has determined that they were taken at exactly the same moment in time.” 

“Sir, excuse me as well.” interrupted Officer Faust. “I simply cannot believe that the same man was in both locations at the same time. Obviously, this is some kind of double, meant to throw us off guard.” 

“You in a way, express my own sentiments exactly.” said Miller. “Of course, it is impossible. Then again, we might be missing something. Considering that no evidence is ever entirely incontrovertible, a slight margin of error is always present. That is not the reason I am showing you this man. The reason I have brought you here today is I would like you both to work together on Operation Sandbox. As of now, Officer Faust, you will be assigned a supportive though parallel role. If Officer Soris needs backup, you will assist him. If you need backup, Officer Soris will assist you. The cases you receive will be divided equally among you, and all intelligence will be shared equally. I want you both to make the apprehension of this suspect a priority. Is that understood?” 

Both Felix and Aurelia gave each other a questioning look and replied in turn. “Yes sir, understood.” 

“Good, good.” said Miller. “Well then. You are both dismissed, and I eagerly await your next reports. Good-day officers.” 

As both individuals left the office, they exchanged another quick look of silent agreement, each leaving to attend to their own appointments. Felix headed back to his office, where he sat down to enjoy another fresh brew of coffee while taking a short break to browse through the latest news. As he started skimming through the stories about a police officer who had shot a bear outside a residential home and a moved on to the latest news of Russian bombings in Europe, he noticed a strange shape shimmer in the corner of his eye. Lowering the newspaper, he saw a bright red apple resting on the edge of the desk.

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