Snow was lying on the ground and rooftops outside, glowing in the bright light of the morning sun. The faint sound of birds chirping could be heard over the noise of cars driving past an expensive looking apartment, both inside and out. The curtains were half open, ("half open" being one in a heap on the floor and the other hanging precariously from the remainder of the curtain pole,) letting the sun shine directly through the large window and straight onto a young man, who was passed out on the sofa with his shirt missing and permanent marker on his face and chest. He woke up with a start, squinting into the harsh daylight and wincing at the throbbing headache his body had served him as a punishment for the large amount of alcohol he had consumed the night before. He got up slowly and stumbled towards the kitchen, tripping over empty bottles and various other hangover victims who were also passed out on his living room floor. His apartment was an absolute mess, but it was almost certain that he wouldn't have to clean it up himself.
The young man's name was Joe, and he was rich. Very rich, for someone in their twenties. He wasn't a trust fund baby though, nor a Russian oligarch looking to run the world. He hadn't inherited or stolen his money; he'd earned it through his own software company, set up after he left his last job. He was also not stupid at all and had worked out a long time ago that this wealth was the only reason he was so popular with people his age. They knew that being friendly towards him meant getting invited to the biggest parties, in the best places. While this would bother most people, Joe did not mind being befriended because of his fortune. To him, if it meant not being alone, really any reason was good enough, for being alone was a feeling he knew all too well.
He gently woke the other sleeping hangover victims, who got up and each muttered something along the lines of "thanks for last night" before not-so-gracefully making their way out the door. Joe looked around him for a moment, before going to the kitchen, where he stood slowly stirring coffee and trying to remember just what had happened the night before. All of a sudden, there was a loud knock on the door. He ignored it, and continued stirring his coffee. There was a moment of silence, shortly followed by a second loud knock, then a voice in an English accent.
"Joe, it's Peter and Ralph. Let us in?"
Joe smiled. He knew those two would be round to see him at some point. Peter and Ralph were his best and only true friends. He'd known them since he moved to England, before anyone knew him properly and were really the only people ever to have befriended him on his personality alone. They were also the only people to have stayed friends with him after the news broke of his wealth.
"Just a sec!" He called back in a heavy Dublin brawl.
He set down his mug, and shuffled towards the door. Swinging it open, he was surprised when he was greeted by not two, but three faces. On seeing who the third face was, his cheeks reddened as he disappeared back inside to grab a shirt before calling to his waiting guests.
"Come on in guys. Er, 'scuse the mess, I'll get it sorted later."
The three boys stepped into the apartment, completely unfazed by the post-party squalor that surrounded them. They had contributed to it after all. Joe was so used to Peter and Ralph helping themselves to whatever was in the kitchen that he completely forgot to offer his guests drinks, so they all stood in silence for a moment before Joe remembered that he had a third guest, which he assumed was the reason Peter and Ralph were being more polite than normal.
"Oh, sorry. Um, tea, anyone?"
"Ooh, yeah, cheers." said Ralph, who was staring at Joe's face.
"That'd be brilliant mate." said Peter, who was also staring at Joe's face. Joe looked at his best friends in confusion as they silently pointed at their own foreheads while still staring at his.
The third guest, Owen, spoke up shyly, looking at his feet.
Joe's face reddened even more as he directed his guests to the living room, before making his way back to the kitchen to put the kettle on. Joe liked Owen as more than just a friend, and everyone knew it. However everyone, including Joe, also knew that Owen wasn't gay, so he'd been far too nervous to tell him how he felt. Not that there was any need, really. He was 24 years old and still managed to be clumsy and lose all confidence (plus the ability to speak normally) around Owen, like an embarrassed child would around their 'crush'.
He quickly made up a pot of tea, before sticking it on a tray with sugar, milk, teaspoons and four mugs. He threw the coffee he'd been making down the sink and was walking back towards the living room when he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the kitchen mirror. Stopping dead in his tracks, he stared open mouthed, before turning around and slamming the tray down on the counter. Muttering swear words under his breath, he grabbed a pan scrubber and attempted to clean off the profanity that had been written across his forehead in thick black marker. "How the hell did I not notice that?!" he thought to himself as he rubbed away at his head. It worked, and the pen was soon gone, but in its place was a large, bright red stripe where he'd scrubbed at his skin. Luckily for him, Joe had quite long, messy hair, which he ruffled until it looked decent and in a way which covered most of his forehead, but didn't look too stupid.
He rushed back into the living room with the tray, stumbling his way through a sentence apologising for taking so long. The four of them sat and attempted to cure their hangovers, at least partially, by drinking tea and talking about Joe's party. They filled in memory gaps for each other, and together worked out what had happened as everyone had gotten more and more drunk. They sat for a good hour and a half talking and laughing about nothing in particular when suddenly, all of them jumped at two sharp bangs coming from somewhere in the large apartment block, which were shortly followed by screams. Peter, Ralph and Owen gave each other mildly panicked looks, then in sync, all got up and moved to the window, as though this would give them an indication of what was happening. Joe however, was still in his seat, not moving, as a few more sharp bangs exploded from downstairs. He knew exactly what the sound was. He had heard it far too many times before. On top of that, not only was he almost certain that the gunshots everyone had just heard were meant for him, he was also fairly certain he knew why.
Joe sat in stunned silence for a good few minutes before slowly coming round to the fact that someone was gently shaking his shoulder. More gunshots echoed through the hallways of the apartment block, closer this time. Everything seemed to be in slow motion, as though it wasn't happening to him and it was all just a movie. He told himself that if he just waited for a moment, a famous actor would appear and prove it wasn't real. He slowly moved his head to look at who was shaking him, and saw Owen's blue-green eyes staring at him frantically. He could see his mouth moving too, but couldn't hear what was being said. Then, suddenly snapping himself out of his daze, he could hear Owen's panicked voice speaking to him.
"We have to get out. Joe, can you hear me? We have to get out. Joe get up! Get up now!"
Butterflies filled Joe's stomach as he felt Owen grasp his hand and haul him onto his feet. He was completely awake and aware now, and began to move towards the door, pulling Owen behind him. He couldn't help but feel bitterly disappointed when Owen dropped his hand and appeared beside him, but now was really not the time.
"Where are Ralph and Peter!?" he said to Owen, finding the ability to communicate normally again.
Owen pointed to the kitchen, and it was clear from his widened eyes that he was very scared. Joe felt a pang of guilt. It was indirectly his fault that all of this was happening, and now he was indirectly terrifying one of the few people he truly cared about. Bursting into the kitchen, he grabbed Peter and Ralph and yanked the knife Peter was holding out of his shaking grasp. It may have seemed like a good idea, but a knife would be useless against a gun. He quickly threw it into the sink before shuffling his three frightened friends through the door of the kitchen. Since no one else was thinking properly under the circumstances, Joe took charge of the situation. He grouped Peter, Owen and Ralph behind him so he could act like a human shield if necessary and opened the door of the apartment slightly, so he could make sure that what he sincerely hoped was the only gunman wasn't on the same floor as them. The gunshots echoing from a few floors below his apartment confirmed that it was safe enough for them to move, so Joe quickly grabbed the coats that were on the hooks next to the door, and handed them out amongst his friends. He ran out of the door, keeping low and beckoning to the others to follow his lead. They went straight past the lift and main staircase and towards the emergency exit that lead them to a large flight of stairs, which curled around the building and hugged the outside wall.
Joe lead the group down the flight of steps, checking around corners every time the staircase wound to the side and signalling to the others to keep quiet, just like he'd been taught. Every time they moved down a few steps, Joe took great care in ensuring that their footprints were untraceable, by sliding his foot across the snow that lay thickly on the steps. He didn't want these people following him at all, let alone his friends as well. The adrenaline rush Joe felt reminded him completely of his last job, which strangely, he almost missed. Joe's previous job was known only to a select few. A select few which mostly consisted of his colleagues, and so the profession he had followed was mostly kept a secret. How he came to be in this job was known only to an even more select few...