50 - Rome
PRESENT DAY Since she wasn’t answering my question and I had no intention of answering hers, we were at somewhat of an impasse. Worse yet, she was standing in the only exit that I knew, so I couldn’t even consider running for it. Granted, there was almost surely a fire escape–was that mandated here in Italy as well?–but I couldn’t count on finding it before being kebobbed. So for long moment after long moment, we just stood there staring at each.
She seemed not to need to blink, her eyes just staring right at me–or possible right beyond me. Her pupils were so large that it was hard to tell exactly what she was focused on. The look reminded me of the occasional junkie I got back at St. Michaels–a thousand miles away now. I couldn’t think of many things I less wanted to deal with than a junkie with a sword though.
Finally, I couldn’t take the silence any more. I’d waited through far more awkward silence than this. But never before had the person on the other end of the silence had a sword that–without any doubt on my end–they would be able to use well.
“Why don’t you come in and have a seat. We can discuss whatever it is you’re looking for over a nice cup of coffee.” It never hurt to be polite after all–although if she decided to use the invitation as a cover to stab may I may have cause to rethink that particular saying. I half turned over my shoulder towards where Amira had last been sitting although she had vanished. “If that’s alright with the two of you.”
I took their lack of response to at least mean that they didn’t completely oppose my plan. In hindsight it had perhaps been a little rude to invite in the woman who had recently blown in the doorway when it wasn’t even my apartment. Then again, sans said door there was little I could have done to keep her out.
At least it broke the stalemate though. The woman didn’t raise her sword, but instead took two steps into the apartment, shivering ever so slightly when she crossed the threshold. I wondered at that for a moment, but I had more pressing matters to think about, so I pushed it from my mind.
“Here, why don’t you sit down.” I walked back to the table where Father Antonio, Amira and myself had been sitting not so very long ago. The mysterious woman didn’t move at first, giving me a chance to check if Antonio and Amira were still even at the table or if they’d moved on while I’d been otherwise occupied.
As I’d half expected, they weren’t at the table anymore. I couldn’t see or here them elsewhere in the apartment either, so perhaps they had availed themselves of that theoretical fire escape while I’d provided a convenient distraction. Part of me wanted to believe that they wouldn’t have just left me like that, but the rest of my reasoned that I didn’t even know if I would have stayed to help myself had the situation been reversed.
I turned back to the woman only to find her standing mere inches from me, looking up with those entirely too large black pools seeming to stare right into my soul.
“Whoa,” I said, backing away. I bumped into the table almost immediately, but it was several seconds before that fact actually reached my brain and my feet stopped. “Come on lady, personal space.” It came out rougher than I had intended, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“What is it?” she asked again, her gravely base once again sending my mind for a loop.
“I don’t know …” I stopped. What was the point in lying? She had to know that I’d had it. Now though, I wasn’t actually sure if Father Antonio or Amira had it, all I knew was that I didn’t. So I switched gears. “I don’t have it.”
She tilted her head back and seemed to be taking a deep breath, her shoulders rising as she did. It took me a moment to realize what she was doing.
She was smelling me.
What in the…
“You lie. It was here.”
51 - Baghdad
SEVERAL YEARS AGO It took me a few minutes to come to the realization that one of those things had just happened. Either Private Jackson had been standing there silhouetted in the doorway or he hadn’t. At first, I would have been prepared to testify in court or before God himself that I’d seen him standing there, but as time wore on and not one of the three other men in the room admitted to having seen a thing, I began to doubt myself.
At first, there had been furtive glances between the three of them, furthering the idea that they were just lying about what they had seen. Yet the more detail I tried to get out of any one of them, the more strongly they denied the entire thing. Before long, they were beginning to even convince me that I hadn’t seen a thing. It was a truly frustrating experience.
Luckily, I was saved further frustration by a faint moaning sound coming from the other table roughly adjacent to my own.
I hated to even think it, but in all of the excitement, I had essentially forgotten why I was here in this room in the first place.
Sliding my feet over the side of the table, I straightened. There was a brief moment of brilliant lights at the corners of my field of vision and I almost fell right back down, but I held steady and the moment passed. Taking no more care than I would have had I just gotten out of bed, I crossed the few feet between our tables.
I reached out and took one of her hands in both of mine.
“Amira, how are you?”
She actually looked surprisingly healthy, albeit tired. There were bags under her eyes and she was pale, but one would be hard pressed to guess that not so very long ago she’d been very nearly at death’s door.
“I’m … fine.” She looked around, clearly bewildered at her surroundings. “Where am I?”
“You’re back at my base.”
But we were interrupted by the medic, coming up to stand on the other side of the table from Amira. “You two can catch up later. Right now, we should get you into a bed.” He gestured vaguely at a trio of cots against the far back wall, each with a curtain to aford at least some modicum of privacy.
I nodded. It did make sense, the operating table really didn’t look that comfortable in the first place. “Can I help?”
The medic nodded. “I was hoping you’d say that.” He called over his two assistants. Between the four of us, we had absolutely no problem lifting Amira from the table and carrying her over to one of the beds. She was easily light enough for any one of us to carry–I could attest to that fact–but with the four of us, we could keep her much more still. Still, the medic took a moment to double check her stitches before heading off to who knew where.
“I could use some clothes,” she said after a pause. She was looking down at her own, the dirt and blood having soaked in rather badly by now. There was at least a clean area on her back where they medic had cut through and steralized for the procedure, but he hadn’t really had time for anything more than that. “And some answers.”
Clothes sounded like a good idea. They could wait a bit longer though. “Answers? To what?”
“What happened?” Nice and direct. I admired that about her.
“There was–” I started to say accident, but that wasn’t right. I still didn’t know why they’d been shooting at the museum, but they’d definitely been doing it on purpose. “You were shot.”
“Shot?” She started to sit up, but only made it a few inches before she grimaced and sank back to the bed. “Who shot me?”
“I don’t know.” I wished that I did. There were thoughts floating about in my mind about just what I would do to them if I found them most unbecoming of a man of the cloth. I fought the feelings down. “What do you remember?”
She looked at me oddly for a second before just shaking her head. “I remember being in the museum.”
“We were talking.” Her voice had taken on a sort of far away quality, as if she were actively reliving the memories as well as speaking them. “About the pottery.”
I nodded. “Anything after that?” Perhaps she’d seen something.
“No. That’s it… just…” She frowned. “No, there was something else.” She grimaced. I couldn’t tell if she were in pain or merely forcing herself to remember. “There was a dot. One of those red dots that tells you where your gun is pointing.”
“A laser sight?” The surprise crept into my voice. “Someone was targeting you specifically?”
“No, not on me.”
Even as she said it, I realized my mistake. If the dot had been on her, she wouldn’t have been able to see it. But why me? Why had I been…
“On the pottery.”
52 - Baghdad
SEVERAL YEARS AGO “On the pottery?” I’d heard her quite clearly, but I couldn’t believe it. “Why would anyone want to shoot at some old pieces of pottery?”
She shrugged, immediately grimacing as she did. “I know what I saw.”
I raised my hands to forestall her argument. “I believe you. I’m just not sure what motivation they would have.”
Abruptly, she seemed almost to deflate, the air going out of her. She settled back into the cushions on the cot. “Well whatever they wanted, I’m sure they have it now.”
“I’m guessing that you ran right over here after I got… after it happened.”
I nodded. I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.
“Well if it turns out that they were really aiming for those pieces of pottery and just managed to miss… well, they’ve had more than enough time to finish the job by now.”
“Oh.” It was all I could think to say. For some reason, I thought she would have been happier about the whole situation. She wasn’t dead after all, that had to count for something.
She looked up, almost as if she were sensing my thoughts. The ghost of a smile touched the corners of her mouth. “No, I don’t blame you. And I’m glad that you did what you did. I just…”
“You just what?”
“I just wish that I knew why.” That particular sentiment I understood. “Those pieces were a big part of my life’s work.”
I looked at her for a moment, surprised. I don’t think I’d quite realized just how much they’d meant to her. I knew that her father had arranged for them to be sent here, but other than that… I hadn’t really given it much thought. But to someone that was making her career studying the time of Jesus, any artifacts from that period would have been priceless.
“I can go back,” I offered, “see what happened. With any luck, they weren’t after the pottery after all.” I couldn’t really believe that would be any better though. If they weren’t after the pottery then they had been after one of the two of us. And if they’d been after us, there was really little stopping them from trying again and again until they succeeded at their goal.
At the moment, we were relatively safe. There wasn’t much that could have gotten through the men all around us, particularly now that they were in an even more heightened state of alert. But we wouldn’t be able to stay here forever.
Amira’s voice cut into my thoughts. “Would you?” It took me a moment to track back to the last thing I’d said, to figure out what she was asking.
I shrugged, trying to act nonchalant. I didn’t relish the idea of going back out there, but I felt oddly responsible for the whole situation. I couldn’t really put my finger on why, but neither could I shake the feeling. “Sure. If you wanted, I could wait until you felt better and then we could go together.”
A look of mock surprise lit her eyes. She started to rise, only to grimace after a few inches and have to settle back down. I got the point.
“Okay, I’ll go.” Perhaps I could get one of the off duty men to go with me. I wasn’t afraid per say, but when returning to the scene of a shooting as a potential target thereof, it didn’t hurt to be too careful.
Well, if I was going, it was better now than later. I turned and headed for the door.
After I’d left, I realized that there was one particularly interesting piece of her episode that I hadn’t thought to bring up. I almost turned back to tell her, but decided that it could wait until later.
At least that way if the pottery was gone, I could tell her that she’d managed to save a few pieces as shrapnel.