Master Neo

Master Neo was my company sergeant-major in 8 SIR. He was an easy boss to work for, for like most army regulars he had no great love for his job, and was content to simply turn up each morning and do the minimum amount of work necessary to collect his generous pay-check. His real passion was the study of traditional Chinese fortune telling, and in the course of my two years working with him I learned that almost everything in life could be explained by a close study of that esoteric subject.

“You know, Andrew, you are a lucky man,” he would tell me. (This was his favourite lecture, repeated approximately once a week.) “You have a wide forehead, prominent cheekbones, and a smooth expanse of skin between your brows – signs that point to good health, good fortune, and success in your chosen field. Of course someone with your face would have a place in Cambridge waiting for him after finishing his service.”

“Now look at me,” he would continue. “A narrow forehead, sunken cheeks, more wrinkles than a shrivelled dick, and worst of all-”

At this point, he would pause and point theatrically to a prominent mole on his left temple.

“A blemish on my Palace of Fortune! With a face like this, it’s no wonder I’m stuck in this dead-end job. It’s all fated, my friend. There’s no use fighting it.”

Despite his remarks, in practice Master Neo proved much more willing to defy his supposedly unchangeable fate. He would spend idle hours picking away at the offending mole, as if by doing so he could physically dig it out of his forehead or at least reduce its size, and on one memorable occasion I caught him experimenting with a one of those new-fangled of “anti-aging” creams.

I still remembered how I had accidentally caught him in the act. It had been his turn to assume the role of Battalion Orderly Specialist, and he was – rather unwillingly – forced to stay overnight in camp to organise the guard patrol and remain on call in case of an emergency. (The men loved it when Master Neo was in charge, as he rarely subjected them to anything more than a perfunctory muster parade, and had even been known to waive the usually mandatory late night turn-out.) I was also staying back late that day, for a discrepancy had been found in our company stores and Captain Ng had threatened to confine me over the weekend if I did not find a way to reconcile my accounts. I was halfway through the laborious process of cross-checking the various company records when I realised I was missing a few important documents, and so I went back to our company office to retrieve them. I opened the door without knocking, not expecting anyone to be inside, and for my carelessness I was treated to the sight of Master Neo reclining Captain Ng’s ergonomic office chair, his face slathered in some kind of white cream, looking every bit like a gender-swapped, decades-older version of those beauty ads in women’s magazines.

After a hurried explanation and an even more hurried trip to the toilet, Master Neo offered to purchase my silence with the gift of an informal day off, to be redeemed whenever Captain Ng left him in charge of the company. I gladly accepted his offer, but in truth there was no need for an inducement to make me hold my tongue. I thought there was something oddly noble about Master Neo’s devotion to his outdated beliefs, and had no desire to make him the laughing-stock he would surely have become if news of his strange predilection had been allowed had the news spread. He was, in his own way, a relic of a generation that read more deeply into things, of a time when a face was not just a canvas upon which to display superficial beauty, but could serve instead as a cipher for things past, passing, and to come.

However, not everyone felt the same way. Master Neo had many detractors among the other commanders in the company, and chief among them was Lieutenant Tan, our company 2IC. His disdain for Master Neo was easy to understand, for Lieutenant Tan was a full-blooded, overly garang military buff who had lied about his asthma to secure a combat posting and then signed on straight out of BMT. As the person responsible for planning our company’s training schedule, he held our men to standards a cut above those typically demanded from the infantry, and ensured that they were always at the forefront of any exercise that our battalion saw fit to conduct. One might not have expected this attitude to win him any favours with the men, but Lieutenant Tan was in fact widely respected by those serving under him. Despite their groans every time he ordered them to repeat an improperly executed parade command, and the litany of suppressed curses that trailed behind him as he led them in a charge up a fortified hill, his men acknowledged that he led them by example, and more importantly, knew that he would repay their loyalty by fighting for their welfare whenever he could. Our company was always the earliest to book out on Friday and the latest to book back in, and their superlative performances in the battalion’s regular combat assessments were rewarded by a steady stream of nights out and days off.

I had a good working relationship with Lieutenant Tan, or Jeremy, as he insisted I call him in private. While I did not share his opinion on the merits of military service, he was open-minded (and realistic) enough to accept that not every conscript could be enthusiastic about the army, and treated me with the same scrupulously fair attitude that made him so popular with his men. Indeed, my low opinion of the army became a kind of in-joke between us, and we had a running bet going that I would either sign on or extend my service after spending a full year in his company. Sadly, I never did get to find out which one of us would end up having to cover the other’s bar tab.

The only real issue I had with Jeremy was the way he treated Master Neo. Although Jeremy had only enlisted a year before I did, he had been commissioned as an officer and therefore technically outranked Master Neo, a man more than twice his age. Most young lieutenants deferred to their sergeant-majors out of respect for their years of service, but Jeremy’s contempt for Master Neo meant that he took every opportunity to demean the latter by insisting on a strict obedience to the prerogatives of rank. Master Neo was the only sergeant-major I knew who had to stand at attention and salute each time a superior officer entered the room, a practice that, while nominally required by military law, was almost always waived among colleagues who worked alongside each other every day. Things came to a head when, in the aftermath of a particularly heated argument about the exact day on which to hold a scheduled route march (Master Neo had wanted to move it a week ahead to avoid a particularly inauspicious date, throwing Jeremy’s meticulously planned training schedule into disarray), I witnessed Jeremy ordering Master Neo to drop and give him twenty.

“Jeremy, what the fuck? You can’t do that!” I had said, aghast at the impropriety of the order. Disciplinary pushups were an informal punishment normally reserved for the rank-and-file, cadets on course, or junior commanders who had screwed up in some spectacular fashion. I had not been on the receiving end of this punishment since earning my rank and posting out to our current unit, and I had never, never, seen anyone dish it out to a Master Sergeant.

“That’s Lieutenant Tan to you, Sergeant,” Jeremy replied, his face white with barely disguised anger. “And yes, I can. If you don’t like it, go talk to Captain Ng.”

“Yeah, that sounds like a good idea, actually,” I said, and would have gone tearing off to Captain Ng’s office then and there had I not been stopped by Master Neo.

“Aiya, there’s no point la,” he said, adjusting the sleeves on his long four. “Captain Ng wouldn’t care anyway.”

I paused, for I knew that Master Neo was right. Although Captain Ng was always careful to behave cordially towards his subordinates, he was not fond of Master Neo and rarely took his side when adjudicating disputes – and as much as I believed that Jeremy’s behaviour was out of line, it was still in keeping with official military regulations that gave officers great latitude in disciplining those of lower rank.

Things had not always been this way, for Captain Ng, like most Singaporeans, was a fairly superstitious man. He had been posted to the company not long after I joined, and had initially possessed great faith in his sergeant-major’s mastery of the arcane. In those early days, route marches, live firings, physical training and even entire field camps had been shifted in accordance with Master Neo’s wishes, and Captain Ng was quick to ascribe the good results our company achieved to the luck bestowed by an adherence to star-crossed dates. But Master Neo’s string of successes bred a dangerous overconfidence, and during our annual summary exercise he had disregarded a lightning warning to press ahead with field operations on what his star-charts had indicated would be “ten out of ten auspicious day”. As one might expect, the fickle promises of the stars proved no match for the hard reality of science, and two men from Platoon 2 were incapacitated by lightning strikes when the inevitable thunderstorm caught our company manoeuvring across an open field. The higher-ups in the battalion had a collective apoplexy when they learned about this blatant safety breach, and rumour had it Captain Ng only managed saved his career by throwing himself upon the mercy of his father-in-law, a deputy permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence. As the commander directly responsible for this negligence, Master Neo was issued an official reprimand, a black mark on his record that would have buried his hopes of promotion, if had any still existed. Since that incident, Captain Ng had been much less receptive to Master Neo’s requests, and he slowly began to be frozen out of our company’s day-to-day affairs.

And so I did not protest as Master Neo assumed the position and began to knock it down.

“Down!”

“One,” Master Neo grunted, his arms clearly unaccustomed to the strain.

“Down!”

“Two.”

“Down!”

“Fuck your mother’s eighteen generations of ancestors!”

“What? What did he say?” Jeremy turned to me with a quizzical look in his eye. He could barely understand Chinese – perhaps another reason why he had never warmed to Master Neo, who preferred to speak it instead of his broken English.

“Uh, I didn’t really catch it, sir,” I said, doing my best not to grin.

“Permission to carry on, sir!” Despite his many flaws as a soldier, Master Neo had a beautiful, booming, parade-ground voice, and within the confined area of the company office it was positively deafening.

“Carry on.”

“Four!”

Later, after the other regulars had booked out for the day, Jeremy came to look for me in the Specialists’ Mess.

“Sorry you had to see that,” he said. “I might have let things get a little bit out of hand.”

“I’m not the one you should be apologising to,” I said, as coldly as I could. “If you hurry you might be able to catch Master Neo before he leaves.”

“I spoke to him already la,” Jeremy said. “He understands.”

“Understands what?” I asked. “Understands that you’ve been treating him like shit?”

“I’m not treating him like shit,” Jeremy said, raising his voice a little. “I’m just showing him the same respect he shows the rest of us. I know you like him, but all you have to do is look after the stores – you haven’t had to stay up all night trying to figure out new training plans because some senile old cheebai decided he didn’t like the way Saturn looked that morning.”

“Oh wow,” I said, clapping sarcastically. “Your life must be so hard – do you want a medal? I’m sure you deserve one for just, you know, doing your job.”

“I don’t get why you insist on defending him,” Jeremy said, ignoring my remarks. “Surely you can see that he’s a burden to the whole company.”

“I don’t care,” I said. “All I see is you mistreating a man old enough to be your father because you can’t stand his harmless little hobb-”

“Harmless? Harmless?!” Jeremy was shouting now. “Okay la, go tell that to Wei Xiang and Jin Kai, you fuck!”

I winced. Wei Xiang and Jin Kai were the two men who had been struck by lightning. I had met Wei Xiang the other day, and he had told me that the doctors thought his hearing damage was permanent. He had put a good face on it, and claimed to be looking forward to his new deskbound life, but I knew he was not coping well with his new disability. I hated to admit it, but Jeremy did have a point.

“Look, I’m sorry,” I said. “I know you’re right, I do – but tone it down a bit, can? At the end of the day, he’s still an old man.”

Jeremy fell silent for a moment, then heaved a big sigh.

“Yeah, I did go too far,” he said. “It’s just- he reminds me of someone I knew.”

Jeremy paused again, and a curiously blank expression came over his face.

“My father, he- he was a big-time gambler,” Jeremy said, speaking not to me but the air in front of his face. “Spent all his time at the Turf Club or Singapore Pools or one of those illegal gambling dens, and when he came home it was always with an empty wallet and a dangerous mood. My mother left him when I was nine, but I can still remember how they fought, and how she used spend hours sweeping up all the things he broke in his rage.”

“God, how I hated him.”

Jeremy swallowed, as if by doing so he could choke back his hate.

“And you know who kept him going?” he continued. “Who kept convincing him to back no matter how much he lost? His fucking shifu who kept telling him about the so-called ‘aura of prosperity’ that radiated from his brow. It was always just one more game before his fate righted itself, one more throw of the dice before his stars would finally align.”

“No,” Jeremy said, shaking his head. “Fortune-telling, astrology – they’re all a scam, and I can’t stand to see them ruining another person’s life.”

This was the first time I had ever heard Jeremy talk about his family. I wanted to tell him that I was sorry, that I knew it must have been hard on him, growing up – but then I did not really know that, did I? I had come from a happy, stable home with parents who were only too happy to look after my every need, and there was a chasm of lived experience between Jeremy and I that no amount of sympathy could help me bridge. And so I held my tongue, and waited for Jeremy to fill in the steadily growing silence.

“Well, that took a dark turn,” he said, eventually. “But thanks for listening. I’d appreciate it if you could keep what you heard today to yourself.”

“Of course,” I said.

“Thanks man,” he said, flashing me a smile. “And uh, are we – are we cool?”

I answered Jeremy’s smile with one of my own.

“Yeah man,” I said. “We are.”

Master Neo took an extended period of sick leave after his argument with Jeremy, and I did not see him again till the middle of October, when our battalion was ramping up for that year’s summary exercise. He called me one morning out of the blue, arranged a weekend meeting in a cafe near my house, and after swearing me to secrecy proceeded to ask if I knew any doctors who might be willing to help him fake a serious injury.

“Uh, I don’t think so,” I said. Both my parents were doctors and so were many of my family friends, but I doubted that any of them would be willing to risk a hefty fine, a jail sentence and the revocation of their medical license for the sake of an army regular they barely knew.

Master Neo looked crestfallen.

“Ah, you were my last hope,” he said, speaking his habitual Chinese. “That useless piece of trash I call my GP told me the same thing. What’s the point of paying him eighty dollars a visit if he can’t even get me an MC that lasts more than two weeks?”

I privately remarked that Master Neo was lucky his GP hadn’t simply reported him to the military authorities for malingering, and that two weeks of medical leave was a pretty good deal for what undoubtedly was a fake condition. But I knew that adopting a sympathetic attitude would make Master Neo more likely to reveal the reason behind his sudden desire to take time off, and so we spent the next few minutes ranting about doctors and their various undesirable proclivities.

As I expected, Master Neo soon decided I was someone with whom he could share his true machinations, and made me take another oath of secrecy before leaning in close with a conspiratorial whisper.

“Okay,” he said. “Here’s why I need another two-week MC. If I go anywhere near the army this month… I’ll die.”

Master Neo leant back and folded his arms, waiting for this ominous pronouncement to take its effect.

Although I knew what Master Neo expected of me, I found it hard to assume an appropriately grave expression. Over the last year, I had heard Master Neo make many wild pronouncements, but he had never come close to predicting anything as outlandish as his own death. Although training accidents were not uncommon in the military, an actual death was almost unheard of, even in particularly dangerous units like the commandos and naval divers. Furthermore, in his role as company sergeant-major, Master Neo would not be expected to take part in the actual training – as far as I could tell, in the field his job mostly consisted of sleeping in the company HQ tent and making sure that our supplies arrived on time.

Sensing my hesitation, Master Neo let out a brief grunt of disapproval.

“What?” he said. “You don’t believe me?”

“No, it’s not that,” I said, trying my best to keep any hint of scepticism out of my voice. “But are you sure you read your star-charts correctly? Dying seems a bit much, no?”

“Ya, that was also what I thought, at first,” Master Neo said, looking somewhat mollified by my explanation. “So I went back and double-checked my calculations. Here, look-“

Before I could say something to stop him, Master Neo whipped out an almanac, turned to the relevant page, and launched into a convoluted explanation about the stars and their current place in the sky. I tried my best to keep up, but in all honesty a lot of what he said flew over my head. From what I managed to gather, it seemed that a series of planets whose elements directly opposed those Master Neo was born under – his so called “nemesis stars” – would move into close orbit with each for the duration of a whole lunar month, a once-in-a-millennia event that would invariably spell fatal misfortune for Master Neo and those born on the same day. According to Master Neo, the only way for those affected to avert their fate was to strictly avoid exposure to anything governed by Mars, the star primarily responsible for the entire inauspicious alignment. And as Mars was most commonly associated with the classical element of Fire, Master Neo had done everything in his power to remove fire from his life.

This, Master Neo explained, was more difficult than it seemed. Getting rid of candles, matches and lighters had been the easy part, although Master Neo had resorted to purchasing a (technically illegal) e-cigarette in order to keep up with his daily fix of nicotine. The real problem, it seemed, lay in the numerous Chinese characters that contained the fire radical and therefore could be said to fall under the influence of the offending star. Since his flat’s Chinese name contained one of these characters, Master Neo had temporarily moved out into a rental; since his brother had also been unfortunately named, Master Neo had cut off all contact with him until the alignment ceased (one of the characters in my name contained the fire radical too, but I thought it best not to appraise Master Neo of that fact just then); he had even considered removing all the lightbulbs in his new place, but finally decided that the inconvenience of a month in the dark would be too high a price to pay. And by doing all this, Master Neo had almost succeeded in ridding his life of everything Mars-related – apart from the inconvenient fact that his job in the military required him to spend a copious amount of time around firearms, an object emblematic of both Fire and Mars.

“Well, I promise I’ll do my best for you, Master,” I said, when Master Neo had finally concluded his long explanation. “But you should probably explore other options too. As I said, I don’t think any of the doctors I know would be willing to help.”

“I understand,” Master Neo said. “Thank you for trying anyway. That’s all I need.”

Master Neo got up from his seat, then paused, a look of indecision flitting across his face.

“Actually, there’s one more thing,” he said, sitting down again. “Could you, uh, tell Lieutenant Tan to be careful too?”

“Sure,” I said. “But what does he have to do with all this?”

“Well, you know how our company office has that nominal roll with our birthdays on it?” Master Neo said.

I nodded. I was only too familiar with the nominal roll, for I had referenced it every time I issued a piece of equipment to one of our company’s servicemen.

“So one day I went to calculate what everyone’s birth-dates were in the lunar calendar so I could, uh, figure out who I should work with more often,” Master Neo said. “And as it turns out, Jeremy was born on the same day and month I was, exactly twenty-four years apart.”

“Oh, I get it,” I said. This, at least, I understood. The rotating twelve-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac was of major importance to Master Neo and other astrological types, and two people born exactly one cycle apart would share the same birth-stars and, presumably, the same fate. These conjectures were quickly confirmed by Master Neo, and he handed me a short list of common household items he thought Jeremy should avoid.

“But aren’t you afraid Jeremy might report you to Captain Ng?” I asked, taking the list and putting it in my bag.

“Yes, I suppose so,” Master Neo said. “But it’s his life at stake! I’m not petty enough to ignore that.”

Master Neo looked so serious when making this statement that I could not help but wonder if there might not actually be some truth to the whole astrology thing. And so when I booked back in on Monday, I made it a point to seek out Jeremy and tell him what Master Neo had said.

“You can’t actually believe that,” Jeremy said, after he had finished laughing.

“I mean, not really, I guess, no,” I said, suddenly far less sure of my convictions – Master Neo’s worries had sounded kind of stupid when I said them out loud. “But surely it can’t hurt to do what he suggests?”

“Sure, I guess it can’t hurt to uh, let me see…” Jeremy said, reading off the list. “Avoid all open flames, hot water, ashes, stoves, fried foods, smoke, bright lights, guns, ammunition, and explosives. Dude, I’m supposed to be leading the final assault in our CQB operation next week – it’s literally impossible for me to do that.”

“Fair, fair, I see what you mean,” I said. “But don’t tell Captain Ng about this, okay? Master Neo means well.”

“Yeah, yeah, I won’t,” Jeremy said. “Not that it’ll make much of difference. I spoke to Captain Ng just now and he was really pissed at the amount of sick leave Master Neo’s been taking. He’s gonna contact the MO and have him call Master Neo back to camp for a full physical examination.”

I whistled. Master Neo might have been able to convince his own private doctor to play along with his supposed illness, but I suspected that he would find an army medical officer much less sympathetic to his plight.

“I guess we’ll see him at the exercise, after all,” I said.

“Looks like it,” Jeremy said. “God, I actually wish he wouldn’t come back. Can you imagine dealing with that kind of crazy every day for the rest of the month?”

Jeremy paused, then suddenly broke into a big grin.

“Tell you what,” he said. “Why don’t we mess with him a little? Give me a couple of the extra smoke grenades you have in our stores and I’ll rig them to a trip wire. We’ll set it up near Master Neo and watch him have a heart attack when it goes off.”

I shook my head.

“C’mon man, that’s just mean,” I said. “You know how seriously he takes these things.”

“Alright then,” Jeremy said, still smiling. “But I bet spending the next two weeks with Master Neo in full paranoid-fuck mode is gonna change your mind.”

He was right. Master Neo was summoned back to active duty after the medical officer declared him throughly fit for duty, and promptly proceeded to annoy the living hell out of me by importing his list of banned items wholesale into our company’s day-to-day routine. These various restrictions were a mere annoyance while we were still stationed back in company line, but in the field they became utterly intolerable, for cigarettes and warm food cooked over a few chunks of solid fuel were the only comforts a soldier on exercise could reasonably expect. Everyone soon became so fed up with the restrictions that Master Neo was banished to the confines of our company’s field store, where he could let his paranoia run free without affecting everyone else in the rest of company – everyone, that is, but me.

We were halfway through the sixth day of our seven day field camp when I finally snapped.

“Okay, you win,” I said. Reaching into my assault pack, I handed Jeremy three perfectly workable smoke grenades that were officially part of a faulty batch I had destroyed that morning. “Make him suffer.”

“What did he do this time?” Jeremy asked, examining the grenades with interest.

“He made me move all our spare grenades and blank rounds into the open because he didn’t feel safe sleeping next to them under our tent,” I said. “More than half of them must have been damaged by last night’s rain.”

Jeremy sighed.

“Yeah, that does sound like something he would do,” he said. “I’ll spare you the ‘I told you so’s’ – come back later and I’ll have the grenades rigged up and ready to go.”

We reconvened later that night, after the company had finished the arduous march to the staging area for the final assault we were to execute at dawn. Captain Ng had issued strict instructions to maintain light discipline at all times, and so Jeremy and I were forced to examine his handiwork using nothing more than the tiny pin-prick of light that was the illumination a filtered torchlight was capable of producing. It took ten minutes or so of fumbling around in the twilight and more than a few close calls for Jeremy to show me how to use the rudimentary tripwire without prematurely setting off the grenades, but I eventually figured out the gist of it, and our conversation turned to how exactly to lead Master Neo into our trap.

This was more difficult than it seemed. We could not set up the tripwire in our company stores, for setting off any form of pyrotechnic (even one as comparatively harmless as a smoke grenade) within a storage area designated for ammunition was a serious offense that carried the possibility of a term in jail – and knowing Master Neo and his paranoia, it would not be easy to lure him out of his hard-won refuge. After some discussion, we decided that our only option was to set up the trap near the observation point Master Neo would be manning during the final assault, a duty not even he would be able to shirk. But this meant that Jeremy, as the commander in charge of leading said assault, would not be able to witness the fruition of a plan that was ultimately his idea.

“Don’t worry about it,” Jeremy said. “Just the thought of him screaming like a little girl will be enough to make my day.”

“Are you sure?” I said. “We can always try and think of another plan.”

“Na,” Jeremy said. “This is the best way.”

“And besides,” he added, grinning. “If anything goes wrong I can always claim I had nothing to do with the whole thing.”

I swore at Jeremy and gave him a friendly cuff around the ear. We spent another hour or so in conversation, taking about the operation, our unit, our lives, and everything in between. It was one of those glorious moments of pure connection that almost, almost makes all the pain and suffering of compulsory military service worthwhile – for in the course of shared privation all agendas, fronts and falsities are slowly stripped away, and your true self is laid bare for another to see, understand, and accept. It is moments like these that, till today, make me wonder if there is not something real in that oft-mocked military tradition of brotherhood, that fantastic myth for whose sake so much blood has been split and so many tears shed. My memory of that night remains locked in the deep recesses of my heart, a source of constant comfort in these less simple times when the cold edges of our human selves are brought forth, honed, and kept on full display.

I got up before first light the next day and armed the tripwire as best as I could without Jeremy around to guide me. Master Neo got up around fifteen minutes after the official reveille, and joined me, bleary-eyed, at the observation post I had set up for him the day before. The objective of our company’s final assault was a small building on the crest of a nearby hill, and we watched silently as Jeremy drew his men up and set off a series of smoke grenades to cover their planned route of attack.

Master Neo let out a brief grunt of approval and pointed at the smoke-wrapped building.

“Lieutenant Tan really knows his stuff,” he said. “I don’t think anyone in there would be able to breathe, let alone see.”

“Do you really mean that?” I asked, thinking of all the recent conflicts between the two.

“Ah, I know we’ve had our differences,” Master Neo said, as if reading my mind. “And he can be a bit of a cheebai sometimes. But even though I’m not a good soldier myself I still know how to recognize one. That boy will go far.”

Master Neo’s unexpected burst of self-awareness sparked a pang of pity in my chest, and something in me whispered that I should perhaps consider leaving the trap unsprung. But then I remembered the piles of equipment damage reports that still awaited my attention, and walked over to the patch of grass where the tripwire lay.

“Master Neo,” I said, beckoning him over. “I think you can get a better view over here.”

“Really? Okay,” Master Neo replied, and sauntered over to where I was standing. As he did so, his foot brushed against the taut wire hidden amongst the grass, setting off the three smoke grenades with a sudden hiss.

Master Neo stood stock still for a second, stunned by the cloud of swirling gas – then he let out a blood curdling roar, threw himself onto the grass, and began combat-rolling away from the smoke as fast as he could, screaming something incoherent about being too young to die. I could not have timed my move any better, for Jeremy chose that exact moment to begin his assault, setting off a fusillade of gunshots and explosions that drove Master Neo’s hysterics to a ear-rending pitch.

It took Master Neo a full five minutes to calm down, and when he finally came to his senses he got to his feet and jabbed an accusing finger in my direction.

“You… you little fuck!” he yelled, and I began to stammer out an apology, worried we had taken the joke too far. But then the anger in his eyes faded, his lips curled up into a smile, and he threw his head back and laughed.

“Ah, you got me,” he said. “You really got me- I think my heart almost gave out.”

“You’re, you’re not mad?” I said.

“A little,” he said. “But I suppose I did deserve that. It was Jeremy who planned this, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I said, sheepishly.

“Ah, I knew you wouldn’t have the balls to do that on your own,” he said. “You two better watch out – one way or another, I’m going to get my revenge.”

I opened my mouth to make a response, then abruptly stopped.

“Wait, do you hear that?” I asked.

“Hear what?” Master Neo said.

“The gunshots,” I said. “They’re dying out.”

Master Neo bit his lip and turned his gaze to the distant building. Like me, he knew that it was too early for Jeremy to have finished his assault. No, something was wrong, something was terribly wrong, and with a growing horror I realized that someone inside the smoke was screaming for help. There were no more gunshots now, and Master Neo and I watched, our hearts in our mouths, as a pair of stretcher-bearing medics charged into the impenetrable smoke.

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