35 - Chicago
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO
Staring down the barrel of the gun in Mrs. Claire’s hands, I let go of the man and slowly raised my hands. “Let’s not do anything hasty now, shall we?”
Her eyes flicked from the other man to me and back. “Why don’t you tell him that.”
“I did.” I backed away at an angle from the both of them, trying to keep my movements slow and evenly paced enough that I wouldn’t get shot on accident. There wasn’t much I could do if she for some reason decided to shoot me on purpose.
But luckily for me, as I moved away, both the gun and her attention switched to the man in his army jacket. “Now,” she said, “let’s try this again. Only without all of the vague yelling and grabbing.”
With no response from the either of us, she nodded and went on. “Let’s start with our names, shall we? I find that always managed to clear the air.”
“Thomas,” I answered simply. “Thomas Whitlock. Tom if you’d prefer.” Nearly anyone that knew me called me either Tom or, when standing on ceremony, Father Tom. It felt strange to sound so familiar with a woman I’d not only just met but also was holding a gun on me, but the words just slipped out.
“You’re a preacher-man?” she asked, keeping both eyes and gun trained on the other man–I abruptly realized that in all the chaos of the night, I didn’t actually know his name. Better perhaps not to pass along that particular fact to Mrs. Claire though.
I nodded. “Over at St. Michael’s.” There were half a dozen St. Michael’s in the greater Chicago area–and that was just the Catholic ones–but unless she asked, I didn’t feel much need to go into any more detail.
She didn’t ask though, instead turning her attention over to the other man. I turned my head as well. “John Smith,” he said. There was a dry tone to his voice.
She snorted. “Of course it is.”
“No really–” The dry tone remained. “–want to see my ID?”
She shook her head. “That won’t be necessary. If you feel like lying to me, I’m sure Father Joe and his God will have more problem with you than will me and mine.”
I blinked. My God?
She continued. “And of course the both of you know who I am.” She pointed to the neon sign in the front window we’d seen on the way in. It was backwards from here, but I still knew well what it said.
“Mrs. Claire is your real name?” I asked, somewhat surprised. For whatever reason, it fit the role in my mind of what a psychic’s name should sound like–but at the same time it sounded like a stage name, chosen more for appearance than given at birth.
She shrugged. “Real enough. What’s in a name after all?” I noted that she’d dodged the question, but at the moment, she was the one with a gun in her hands.
“So what’s next then?” I asked.
“Well preacher-man, the next question is an easy one.” She raised the gun a few inches, pointing now at the other man’s head rather than at his torso. “What are you doing here and why did you attack me?”
36 - Chicago
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO John Smith–if that was his real name–growled his reply. “I already told you that. I’m here about Alex.”
“And who, precisely, is Alex?”
If she was lying, she didn’t sound it. Granted, I wasn’t always the most adept at picking out lairs, despite years of practice.
“My brother,” Smith said. “You talked to him a few weeks ago.”
She shook her head, no sign of comprehension lighting her eyes. “I’m sorry?” Of course she still didn’t lower the gun.
“He was dead.” His voice was flat now.
A spark of something at that, perhaps she was actually recalling the event? “I run seances. Is that what you’re talking about?”
“Of course I am woman, how else do you think I would have been talking to my dead brother?”
She took one hand off of the gun and wagged a finger at him, tutting as she did. “Temper temper, young man.” This despite her being quite obviously a decade or more his junior. “That’s not going to get you anywhere in life.” Her finger returned to the trigger. “Particularly not with me holding a gun on you. Now now, let’s try that again. When did you say you came in for your seance?”
I could see him bristling visibly under the rebuke, but to his credit he took a deep breath and actually answered her question honestly for once. She asked a few more details, all of which he’d already told me on the drive over. It was only when she’d gotten right to the end of what I already knew that her eyes finally lit up with recognition.
“Gaia below–” It had the sound of a curse, although not one I was particularly familiar with. “–you’re him. Your brother…”
I couldn’t help myself. “What? His brother what?”
Her eyes snapped to me. I noticed that her hands were shaking slightly on the gun now. “He really did it. He really came back.”
*What?* That was the big surprise? That was what Smith had me waiting for all this time? I’d thought that was what this whole meeting was all about, to figure out more details about why he’d come back, not to listen to Mrs. Claire acting all shocked about it.
To my surprise, she lowered the gun, setting it down on a nearby table. She turned and took the few steps to the nearest chair and seemed to almost visibly deflate, sinking into it.
I turned to Smith, noticing that he looked as surprised as I was. What in the world was going on?
Before I could even ask, Mrs. Claire spoke from her seat. “I can’t actually do it you know. Speak to the dead. I know that I say I can, but that’s all a show to get people in the dead. Really, it’s all a crock. A load of bull that at least pays the bills.”
“But you just said…” I started, but she cut me off.
“And then here this nice young man comes in–” She gestured vaguely in Smith’s direction. Neither *nice* nor *young* had sounded sarcastic, but after the events of the evening and given their discrepancy in ages, I couldn’t see how she could have meant either one. “–with all of his drunken friends and they want a seance.”
She took a deep breath. Her head was folded into her hands by now, but she voice still carried across the room, perfectly understandable. “It was a perfect target, what more could I ask for? A few rigged lights, some remote controlled bumps in the night, and I could tell them all what they wanted to hear. I could tell you that your brother had moved on to some happier place, that he would be waiting for you there some day.”
*Did she even know that he’d committed suicide?* I thought that Smith had at least mentioned that in his story, but perhaps they hadn’t thought to mention it that night.
She hesitated, taking a deep breath before continuing. “But that all sort of fell apart when the guest of honor *actually* showed up.”
37 - Baghdad
SEVERAL YEARS AGO To my surprise, the shards of pottery actually felt slightly warm to my touch, warmer even than the over dry air all around. There were three of them, each about an inch long and a fraction that wide, almost like curved needles. I shuddered to think of those driving themselves into Amira’s back, of the medic having to go in and cut them back out.
At least he’d cleaned them–or at least I assumed so–although there was still a faint reddish tinge to the slivers that I hadn’t really noticed in any of the pieces in the collection.
Why were they shooting at us?
The thought came to my mind unbidden, but once it was there, it was impossible to get it to leave. They very idea that any sort of local resistance would want to take back the National Museum wasn’t so unbelievable, I supposed, and I had been in uniform, but why had they opened fire like that? If they had taken the time to look, they would have realized that I was alone–at least so far as military personel went–and that I was unarmed. They could have just walked in and perhaps even taken my prisoner. Two birds with one stone as it were.
But they had opened fire, wounding one of their own in the process. Or did they even think of Amira as their own? Did they consider her a true Iraqi or did her mother’s heritage and her contant travels cloud the issue somewhat?
No, surely that wasn’t it. There had to have been a reason that they’d come to the mueseum, why they’d opened fire. The only thing left that I could think of was perhaps there was something at the museum. Something that they’d wanted there…
I suddenly felt restless, sitting there near my bunk. I couldn’t very well ask Amira what she though of the whole situation, the medic had said that she would need time to recover. Perhaps in a few hours I could stop by and ask. But until then, my only real option was to head back yet again to the museum.
Resolved, I stood and headed for the door. As I put my hand on the handle to open it, it swung open with an excessive amount of force, forcing me to step back or be knocked to the floor. My annoyance vanished, however, when I saw who it was who had swung open the door–a young soldier, fresh out of basic, but more importantly he was one of the men that the medic called on when he needed an extra pair of hands–and more particularly the expression on his face.
“Come quick, padre. It’s your Iraqi girl.”
Without even waiting for a response, he turned and was gone. The door had managed to swing shut before my brain caught up with the situation and before I could follow him. He was no where to be seen when I got back outside, but I knew where he would be. Returning to the medical station, I burst in to a scene of barely ordered chaos, a machine blaring away with one of those particularly long drawn out, medical sounding beeps, two assistants running about, responding to the medic’s order with the well trained efficiency that comes from army training, the medic himself with bloodied gloves, working frantically on Amira’s back.”
“What happened?” I asked, standing there in the doorway. I couldn’t risk going any closer without being even more in the way. “I thought you said that you fixed her.”
“Not so much,” the medic grunted, not so much as glancing up at me. “I must have missed something.”
“But what…” I couldn’t help it anymore, I stepped forward into the room. One fo the assistants, fetching who knew what from one of the shelves by the door nearly collided with me and we both danced back and forth for a few steps before I just stopped, stock still, and let him dodge around me. “What can I do to help?”
“Glad you asked, padre.” He did look up this time, but only for a second. There was a grim look in his eyes. “How much do you care for this girl? What would you do to save her?”
It would have been a relatively straight foward question not so very long ago, back before the Sergant’s acqusations. Now there were layers of meaning, meanings that I didn’t have either the time or focus to deal with right at the moment. “Whatever it takes.”
38 - Rome
PRESENT DAY “So let me get this straight,” I said, once Amira’s words had had a chance to sink in. “You’re saying that this cup managed to somehow not only records the very words that Jesus spoke as he was raising Lazarus from the dead, but that somehow those very words have imbued it with power over the dead?” I couldn’t help but let some of the doubt and uncertainty creep into my voice.
Amira just smiled and shrugged. “That’s pretty much it, yeah.”
“Oh.” I sat back in my chair. They’d always said that God worked in mysterious ways, but this was among the first times that I’d seen the phrase applied quite so literally.
“It’s more common than you might think,” Father Antonio said. He’d been so still and quiet throughout Amira’s tale, I’d nearly forgotten that he was even there in the room with us. Now, he was studying me rather intensely. “There are all sorts of relics like this from all throughout the history of the Church.”
“Oh yeah? Like what?” I wasn’t trying to be difficult, but I couldn’t help asking it. Surely this was some sort of elaborate joke, surely he wouldn’t be able to come up with other artifacts off the top of his head.
He shrugged. “Oh, all sorts of things. The Spear of Destiny, pieces of the Crown of Thorns, the Shroud of Turin, fragments from the cross itself, just to name a few.”
Of course he’d gone straight for some of the best known relics, although to my own knowledge only the whereabouts of the shroud were actually well known.
“I thought that the Church didn’t have an official stance on whether or not the shroud was actually real.” I vaguely remembered a statement from the Late Pope John Paul II essentially saying that it wasn’t actually a matter of faith, that the Church had asked scientists to continue to look into the matter, to answer whatever question that they may.
“Oh, it’s real all right. They all are. So many relics these days are fakes, made in the middle ages or even more recently, but every once in a while, something real slips through.”
“And they all have powers?” I asked, still not convinced.
He nodded. “Most do, to varying degrees. Some though, we aren’t quite sure what they do. Or even if they do anything at all. Still, better to be safe than sorry.” He said it with an apologetic wave of his hands, as if sharing a secret that may not have been his to share.
I still wasn’t convinced though. The mysteries of Faith, I was well familiar with, I had grown up with them and studied them for years while at the seminary, but this was new. This wasn’t something that was covered in the standard courses. I turned to Amira, “What about you? How did you get involved in all of this?”
“Besides the obvious, you mean?” she said. I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant, but from the way she said it, it sounded as if I should have been. So I just nodded and gestured for her to carry on.
“Well, about a year ago, I was working here in Rome. On a dig site up on the northern end of the city. One night, a stranger approached me, an older gentleman, tall, with long white hair. He said–”
Abruptly, Father Antonio raised a hand, cutting Amira off mid-sentence. “That is perhaps, a story for another time, don’t you think?”
Amira’s mouth was still hanging open and she shut it with an audible snap.
The thing was, her description sounded awfully familiar. It sounded just like the man that I’d met only days previously, the one that had sent me here in the first place.
The one that had somehow been struck from my memories.