68 - Baghdad
SEVERAL YEARS AGO “I don’t have any artifacts.” Not only was it the truth, it seemed like it might even be something that he wanted to hear. “Pottery or otherwise.”
He just stared at me, not even so much as a blink in response.
“I was just going to check on a few pieces at the museum. I never even made it though. For whatever reason, you decided to shoot me.”
He did react there, more than he had at almost any other point. He blinked. “We didn’t shoot you.”
“You most certainly did.” There was a bit more heat in my voice than perhaps was wise, but what else was he going to do with me? I reached around as best I could with one hand to point right at the spot on my back where I could feel one heck of a bruise forming. That body armor was a life saver of the truest kind. “Right here.” I briefly wondered where they’d taken it–that and the rest of my uniform.
He shook his head slightly, although it looked almost is if perhaps he were trying to convince himself as much as me. There wasn’t much force to it and he didn’t say a word however. Instead, to my surprise, he turned to head back out of the cell.
“Wait,” I called after him. I tried to keep the desperation out of my voice, but it wasn’t easy.
“I don’t know where the pottery is.”
He was through the door now, swinging it shut behind him. As he did, the light began to fade. I could feel my heartbeat picking up at that, I wasn’t particularly keen on visiting that utterly completely blackness again, particularly not if I had a chance to avoid it.
“You said that handing over the pottery was my purpose. That once I’d handed it over, you’d let me go.”
It was nearly closed now, what little light there was was fading fast.
“So let me go.” I had one last desperate chance. “I can even help you find it. I need to know where it is too.”
Although I didn’t know that I actually could do that; after all, Amira had tasked me with making sure that the pottery was safe, not just making sure it was still there. Still, it wasn’t entirely a lie and at the moment, I really didn’t have any better options.
But it was no use. With a solid sounding click and, a moment later, the sound of metal on metal of a door bar sliding into place, I was once again plunged into darkness.
I slumped back onto the cot. “Now what?” I muttered.
I wasn’t expecting a response, so when Private Jackson’s voice drifted out of the darkness, somewhere uncertainly between inches away and across the room, I once again jerked against the cuffs. “Now we need to get you out of here.”
69 - Chicago
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO Mrs. Claire wasn’t out long, although when she first woke up I was afraid that she’d suffered some sort of brain damage. She came too chattering in a language that I didn’t recognize, that I couldn’t even really describe, and for a few minutes it was all I could do to get her to even focus her eyes on me. But eventually her words slowed and her eyes focused and she switched back to plain old English.
I didn’t ask her right away what in the world had happened. Despite knowing now that she was perhaps a little more than your ordinary run of the mill fake psychic, I thought that she needed a bit of rest now. Questions could come later. Questions would come later.
At some point between the fireworks and making sure Mrs. Claire was okay, John Smith had vanished. Not like Alex had vanished of course, but likely the more traditional sort. Honestly, I couldn’t really blame him. I didn’t know if he’d known that the brother that had come back was both incorporeal and not entirely his brother–well, he’d at least claimed to know the second part–but he certainly did now. I had a feeling that I would be seeing him again, but for the moment it was nice to have
He’d taken the gun with him when he’d left too. That was a nice touch. A part of me considered that surely there was some neighbor or passerby on the street that would have called the cops at the sound of gunfire. With no gun and with the man doing the shooting having already fled the scene, that would be awkward at best to explain.
Then again, no cops had shown up. Perhaps the stereotypes of city folk forcefully minding their own business wasn’t that far off. Or perhaps the cops were being particularly slow about responding. Or perhaps the gunshots hadn’t been as loud as I’d thought. Although they’d certainly sounded plenty loud from my perspective.
Still, life already felt significantly calmer. So that was something at least.
Finally, she seemed calm enough–and English-speaking enough–to answer a few questions. I started simple. “Are you all right?”
“I think so.” She patted herself down a few times, but I doubted that there would have been anything to feel even if she hadn’t been all right. “What happened?”
I stared at her for a moment. That was supposed to be my question. “I was hoping you could tell me that. All I knew for certain was that there was some shouting and a bunch of sparklers.”
“Oh, that?” She looked down at the blackened and scorched ring all around her. “Just some aluminum and magnesium powder I picked up at that outdoorsy shop down the street. Pretty cool, huh?”
I nodded. It had been pretty cool–in that ‘oh God is the house about to burn down now’ sense of the words. “But what does it do?”
I waited for her to go on, but when she was silent, I prompted her. “And?”
She tilted her head to one side. “What do you mean and?”
“And you drove away Alex. I heard you chanting in Latin there; if I didn’t know better, it sounded like an exorcism.” I didn’t actually know the exact wording for an exorcism. Despite the Church having revised the Rite of Exorcism right at the end of the 20th century, it just wasn’t really that common.
That and exorcisms generally dealt with demons, not ghosts. Although come to think of it, hadn’t she been yelling something about a demon?
“Did I now?” She actually looked genuinely puzzled, which only made the situation seem even strange. “Huh.”
“You don’t remember?”
“Oh, I remember you coming in here with that other man.” She looked around for a moment, only continuing once she was apparently satisfied that said other man was gone. “He was looking for something, I remember that much.” A peculiar look stole over her face. “And I remember gunfire. Why do I remember gunfire?”
I sighed. This was going to take some explaining.
70 - Rome
PRESENT DAY I ran.
I didn’t know the apartment, I didn’t know the city, I didn’t even know if there was a way to get from the former to the latter.
But what I did know was that if I didn’t run, an altogether too large dog was going to chase me down and take what I didn’t have, so running was a particularly fine choice.
The first door I went through led into a bathroom, subtly feminine, yet not overpoweringly so. I felt strongly like an invader, in Amira’s personal space like that. But on the flip side, if/when I saw her again, I was sure that she would be able to forgive me for it.
Luckily, the bathroom had a second door leading deeper into the apartment. I ducked through, shutting it behind me and leaning all my weight against it. I wasn’t under the impression that such an act would do even the least bit of good, but I had to at least try.
Looking around, I realized that I must have ended up in Amira’s bedroom. Deep reds and subtle pinks dominated and it was surprisingly messy. For what little time I’d known her, I’d always thought of her as particular neat and tidy, but apparently such habits didn’t extend to her personal life.
Worse even than the bathroom, I couldn’t help but feel like an intruder there, but still I had to force myself to look the room over, searching frantically for an exit.
I saw the other door back out to the main room. Luckily, it was shut tight, but if Cerberus decided to go that way rather than through the bathroom, I had a feeling that thick wooden door would do about as much good as a sheet of paper. I needed to find a way out.
“Please God, don’t let me die here.” I wasn’t ready to die. Despite what I’d told countless parishioners countless times, I didn’t want it to be my time. It could be my time.
And then there it was.
A flicker of light in a window, perhaps from a passing car–this high up though?
A slight breeze, ruffling curtains.
There, right on the other side of her queen size bed; there was a window open to the outside world. This must have been the way that Father Antonio and Amira had gone. I could almost taste the fresh air.
I closed my eyes and murmured a quick “thank you”. At least it seemed that someone up there still liked me.
And then Cerberus hit the door behind me.
The impact was enough to shake me to my very core and toss me forward a half dozen feet. I hit the side of the bed and my top half kept going as my bottom half came to an abrupt stop. I tossed forward, falling face first into what I thought must have been a pile of dirty laundry–on the bed?
Before I had time to think, I heard a vicious cracking sound from behind me, the sound of wood being torn apart.
Rolling forwards, headless of what manner of detritus I was rolling through, I landed–hard–on the other side of the bed. Springing up, I made it to the window.
Glancing out, my heart stopped for a moment. There was no fire escape.
It started up a moment later though, hammering doubly fast to make up for lost time. There was a fire escape. It just wasn’t the series of platforms and ladders that I was used to back in the States. This was just a simple iron bar ladder built straight into the wall of the building. Leading straight down to an alleyway, there were no platforms, no room to stop, no room for mistakes.
Another series of cracks and I heard the sound of giant paws tearing at the walls and floors. That impossibly big dog was going to be through any second. I had a feeling that the only reason I’d made it even this far was because it had been too big to fit easily through the bathroom.
Thank God for small favors.
Looking down one final time, I swallowed the pit of fear that had been worming its way up my throat. I wasn’t a fan of heights nor even more a fan of several story tall, overly narrow ladders. But I really didn’t have a choice in the matter, now did I.
One last deep breath and I swung one leg out the window and onto the first rung.
It was going to be an interesting climb.
71 - Rome
PRESENT DAY About a story down, Cerberus reached the window. For a moment, that woman turned mountainous dog just stuck her/its head out into the night air, her/its head back as if smelling for me. In all likelihood, that’s exactly what it was doing.
I froze in place on the latter, wasting several precious seconds before I realized that how still I was had absolutely no bearing on if that black behemoth could smell me or not.
I started down once again, making it another floor before I heard the unmistakable cadence of human speech from the window directly above me.
Hazarding a glance upwards, I wasn’t at all surprised to see Lazarus standing there, oil slicked hair glistening in the light of the moon, deep red tie flapping in the slight breeze. Whatever he’d been saying, he’d stopped now, instead only watching me climb downward, step by step.
At first, I wondered why he wasn’t following me. It was only when I’d cleared two floors more and thought for the first time since the apartment window to look down that I realized Lazarus had absolutely no need to follow me. All he needed to do was keep me going downward–the rough semi-circle of three thuggish looking brutes right at the base of ladder would do the rest.
Hanging there still several floors up, I weighed my options. Above, ferocious woman turned dog with a growth problem back by a man claiming to be older than God–God the Son at least. Below, three thugs of uncertain skill and temperament, two clustered within feet of the rungs, the third hanging back with his hand suspiciously planted under one arm of his jacket.
It was the proverbial rock and the hard place, there was no doubt about it. Out of the frying pan and into the fire as it were. As I hung there, frozen with indecision, more and more banal cliches rushed through my mind, each coming right on the heels of its predecessor.
So it wasn’t entirely my fault when the window immediately adjacent to me swung open so suddenly and I nearly let go of my already precarious purchase.
“Come on,” a voice from inside called out to me. I couldn’t quite make out who it was, but whoever it was, they sounded somewhat familiar. Still, I wasn’t about about to look a gift disembodied-voice-from-the-shadows in the mouth. With nary a backward glance, I threw myself back into the apartment complex I’d so recently vacated.
The room I landed in was dark and completely unfurnished. It had nothing more more than hardwood floor, plaster walls, and a single bare bulb dangling unlit from the ceiling. What little light filtered in from the street cast my own shadow forward and shrouded my mysterious rescuer in a cloak of darkness. I considered that it might have been Amira or Father Antonio, but the shadowy form was too tall even for Father Antonio and thinner besides.
He–or she I suppose, although the voice would have been more than unusually deep on a woman–had long hair as well, that much I could tell even in what little light I had.
“Thank you,” I said, taking another step inside. And I meant it took. But this was no time for introductions. “But I think I’d best be on my way now.”
The shadowy figured modded. As he did, his straight, long hair caught a shimmer of light from the window and almost seemed to glow with that same silvered incandescence I only half remembered from days before.
I stopped dead in the middle of the room just shy of arm’s reach of the tall, dark stranger with silver hair.