29 – Chicago
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO
Mrs. Claire’s was everything that I expected it to be. A dimly lit front room with all manner of New Agey crystals and talismans on every available surface. A beaded curtain in lieu of a door, leading back into the shadows. The only thing missing was the eponymous shopkeeper herself.
“So?” I asked, turning to the man who’d brought me here.
He was looking around the room, an almost bored expression on his face. I couldn’t believe it. All this, all the trouble that he’d caused–or at the very least been at the very center of–and he was bored? “Just wait a minute,” he said, but even that sounded half hearted.
I started to protest, ready to give him a piece of my mind–I was usually pretty calm, but the entire situation here was pushing it–when I heard the sound of the bead door rattling against itself behind me.
“Good evening gentlemen.” A woman’s voice, so quiet it made you strain to hear it, yet somehow as clear as if she were standing directly behind you.
I turned, but the speaker was still across the room. “Mrs. Claire, I presume?” I said.
The woman nodded.
The first thought that came into my mind–and once there clung with a tenacity I wouldn’t have believed–was butterfly. With glittering folds of an overlong shawl taking the place of wings and glasses that covered almost double the normal real estate for eyes, she had a definite insectile appearance to her. The relative darkness of the room, when compared to the gems and other reflective bits of her dress certainly didn’t help matters, spinning to and fro as they did whenever she moved.
My second thought was that she was young. When the other man had mentioned the psychic, my mental image had been of an older woman, well into her 50s or 60s even. But this woman couldn’t have been much into her 20s, if even that. She looked more like an eccentrically dressed senior in high school than anything else, certainly not old enough to have earned her ‘Mrs’ or at least not to have much experience in the area.
Smiling slightly, as if she knew each and every one of those thoughts that were fluttering through my mind, she asked “and who might you be?”
There she was, halfway across the room, yet I still could here here as clearly as if she were right beside me. That was one trick I wished that I could learn. It would certainly make those more unruly Sunday services a bit easier.
I started to reply, but with a burst of motion counter to his earlier boredom, the man in the army jacket rushed forward, bringing the gun up and point it right at Mrs. Claire.
“You know why we’re here.” His voice was low, almost a growl. I couldn’t make out his words nearly as clearly as I could hers, but the intention was entirely clear. “What did you do to Alex?”
“Alex?” She looked genuinely confused, although that could well have been a side effect of the gun in her face rather than actually not remembering.
“My brother.” He pushed the gun forwards slightly, it was touching her now, putting some pressure on one side of her face.
Finally, my body got the message that I wanted to do something about the whole situation and sprang into action. I didn’t really have a firm idea of what I was going to do about it, but I knew that I couldn’t very stand by and do nothing.
Jumping forward, I had a thought to knock the gun out of his hands, but for all I knew the gun would go off when I did it. I had some experience with firearms–even for a non-combatant, basic firearms training was required. They may have been accepting of some people’s refusal to fight, but they maintained that the training would have to take place ‘just in case’. Just in case of what was never made quite clear, however.
Even while my conscious mind was remembering my firearms training, my unconscious was taking matters into its–my–own hands. With a move that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see in a movie and one swift kick, I knocked the gun from the other man’s hands and sent it skittering across the floor. I couldn’t have done it better had I tried.
30 – Chicago
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO
When the gun came to a rest a dozen feet from the three of us, both its former owner and Mrs. Claire turned to stare at me. The way that the two of them moved, almost as if at a sporting even, sent a shiver up my spine, but at least there wasn’t that knife to worry about. For the moment.
I raised both hands, hoping to show them that I wasn’t otherwise armed. Granted, after my little display there, why would it matter what I’d been holding?
Both of them were staring at me, so I said the only thing that came to mind. “Can’t we just sit down and talk though all of this like adults?” I couldn’t think why I said it, but at least it got their attention.
Mrs. Claire looked perfectly agreeable to the idea, but then again anything had to be better than having a gun shoved into your face.
The man formerly with the gun on the other hand–“Tell me.” The growl was still there in his voice, but even now the pitch was creeping upwards with some intense sort of emotion. His full attention was still foward though, focused on the girl–Mrs. Claire. I’d have thought that he’d at leat be margionally interseted in his gun, but it didn’t seem to be the case.
“Come on,” I said to him, taking hold of one of his arms and putting just a bit of pressure on it, trying to pull it back towards me, away from Mrs. Claire.
He turned towards me, but I could tell that his attention wasn’t quite in it. He was focused on one thing and one thing only. Still, he turned at least, and that was something. “What?” It was something else to have that growl underscoring words directed towards you. It almost felt like there was another presence there, one far more animalistic than than man. But a second later, and the feeling was gone.
“Let go of her. She’s not going to tell us anything like this.” She looked at me for a second then, the confusion clear on her face. I couldn’t say that I blamed her either though, I was in the straight black with a white collar, so surely she knew I was a priest. So why did I sound like I was working with this madman?
Good question. Good question indeed.
The man didn’t pull away, but for just a moment he was distracted, his attention margionally divided between myself and Mrs. Claire. That was all she needed though. Quick as a serpant, she spun in place, at the same time turning and ducking down towards the floor.
The effect was that there was no way for the man to keep his grip, not without spinning around with her. And at the speed he would have needed to go to keep up with her much tighter circle, there would have been other consequences even had he managed to hang on.
On moment, they were tangled against the wall, him holder her against her will. The next, she was a half dozen steps across the room, bending to pick something up. I had only moments to realize where she had gone and what she was doing before, for the second time in as many hours, I found myself looking down the barrel of a gun.
31 – Rome
Following Father Antonio up the unexpectedly modern looking staircase to the third floor, I racked my brain, trying to figure out why the voice on the intercom had sounded so familiar. I was so lost in my own thoughts that I almost didn’t notice when he Father Antonio stopped in front of a doorway–316, although the 6 was loose and in danger of falling off entirely. A quick rap of his knuckles on the frame and the door swung inwards; the occupant must have been waiting for us.
I stepped forward, instinctively following Father Antonio into the room and it was only after I’d already crossed the threshold onto a dark old-wood paneled floor that I looked up into the face of the woman we’d come to meet.
Never in a thousand years had I expected to see Amira again, not after what had happened all those long years ago back in Iraq. I wouldn’t have blamed her had she slapped me across the face and I started to pull back as she leaped forward. But instead of slapping me, she embraced me.
“Oh Father, it’s been so long. How are you?”
Half out of shock, I found myself returning the hug. There was warmth there, the warmth I thought had been extinguished in the desert heat. “I’ve been better, it’s been a long few weeks. And you?”
“Oh, same old, same old.” She pulled back, still keeping her hands on my arms. “You know how it is.”
I shook my head slowly. “No, I’m not sure that I do.” The entire situation was veering strongly back into the realm of the surreal again and I could feel my mind trying desperately to regain some semblance of control. “What are you doing here?”
If she took offense at my not entirely pleasant tone, it didn’t show. She even smiled slightly. “Here, in Rome? In the very heart of the modern Church? Where else would I want to be to continue my research?”
I had to give her credit for that at least; she had a good point.
“I take it you two know each other?” Father Antonio was looking back and forth from Amira to myself, a bemused expression on his face.
“Something like that,” I started while at the same time Amira said, “we’re old friends.”
We looked at each other and for a moment, it was just like those long conversations we’d had about the history and theology of the Church, back in the National Museum of Iraq. It all felt so long ago, another lifetime.
The silence stretched on a bit longer than was comfortable, Amira and myself each studying the other, trying to piece together what strange twist of fate had brought us together once again.
32 – Baghdad
SEVERAL YEARS AGO
I managed to escape from the medic’s building with only a few more awkward questions from the platoon Sergeant. I thought that I’d managed to convince him that Amira and I were friends–nothing more–although, I think that the convincing had been more for my own benefit than his.
I’d asked the medic how she was doing, but he’d just glared at me and pointed rather emphatically at the door, so I’d taken the hint and left. There was nothing more I could do for her in there any more in any case. God helps those who help themselves after all, and I’d done that much. Now all that was left for me was to pray. Glancing back into the street, I made sure that there were no more surprise gunfights about to erupt, then headed back to my bunk.
It was a little over an hour later that the medic came in, standing silhouetted in the doorway, a grim, tired look on his face.
“What is it?” I asked, rising to my feet. “Is she alright?”
“She’ll be fine. I managed to stop the bleeding and sewed her up. With a few weeks of rest, she should be as good as new.”
“That’s great!” I started to head towards the door. “I need to go talk to her.”
He raised a hand right into my way, pushing lightly against my chest. Lightly, but still more than enough to stop me in my tracks. “Not now. She’s resting.”
I looked over at him, “but you said…”
“I said that she’s going to be fine. Right now, she’s exhausted. Even just lying there doing absolutely nothing with a gunshot wound can be more tiring than running a mile.”
It sounded like a flat out exaggeration to me, but who was I to question his word. This was his area of expertise after all. “So when can I talk to her?”
He thought for a moment before answering. “This evening. If she’s awake.”
I nodded. It was longer than I wanted to wait, but if that’s what would be best…
But he wasn’t finished. “But that’s not what I came over here to tell you.”
“It isn’t?” I prepared to defend myself against the same allegations the Sergeant had leveled against me.
But he just shook his head. “No. I wanted to ask you what she was doing when she got shot.”
I thought back. I’d been about to ask about that shard of pottery. I told the medic as much.
He nodded as if I’d given him exactly the answer he’d been looking for. “Well I guess that would explain it then.”
“Shrapnel?” Instinctively I shuddered.
“There were several fragments of pottery embedded in her back, right around where the bullet went in.”
I thought back, trying to remember if I’d seen anything being hit–other than Amira herself–but nothing was coming to mind. Still, I hadn’t actually been facing her at that very moment, so it was entirely possible…
“Wait, what did the pottery look like?”
He nodded. “I thought you might ask that.” He reached into one of the pockets of his uniform and drew out a plastic bag. “Here.”
He held the bag out for me and I took it. Inside, there were reddish brown smears of what had to be blood. At the base of each, a simple shard of shard of pottery, each about an inch long and a fraction that wide. Still, more than wide enough to have caused some serious damage. There were three shards and all.
Looking back up at the medic, I saw an expression on his face that said he had another question for me, but whatever it was, it went unasked. Instead, he nodded once more and, without another word, turned on his heel and left the building.
Strange. Returning to my bunk, I set about taking a closer look at the broken shards.