82 - Chicago
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO “Who are you?” Mrs. Claire asked first. She looked as surprised as I felt.
“Don’t you know?” The man didn’t look confused at all. More amused than anything. He inclined his head towards the cards lying on the table:
THE HANGED MAN
“You know, I think this is the strangest way that anyone’s ever come to call on me.”
“Call on you?” The words had come out before I even realized I was thinking them.
He nodded. “You get prayers and the like, but I don’t think tarot card are often in the mix.”
And come to think of it, I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the idea. The tarot cards had seemed an innocent diversion, at most a way to focus my thoughts. If they really had had something to do with calling this man here… even if he was who I thought he was… Well that went a ways towards more uncomfortable possibilities.
“But who are you?” I repeated Mrs. Claire’s question for her.
But the man with the long silver hair just held a up hand, his attitude implying that not only did he expect silence to fall but that silence would fall.
And, well, it did.
“That’s not important right now,” he said after a moment, looking at the two of us. “What’s more important is that you–” He nodded at me. “–need to take that–” The piece of pottery in Mrs. Claire’s hands this time. “–to Rome.”
“To Rome?” I said, speaking over Mrs. Claire’s squawk of “you can’t do that.”
The man nodded his head, either acknowledging my question or agreeing to Mrs. Claire’s statement. “You’re right. I can’t actually.” With a rough shrug in my direction, he said, “but he can.”
Mrs. Claire immediately clutched the piece of pottery to her breast. She needn’t have though, I had no intention of taking it from her, at least not until I got some answer. “Why should I?”
“Because I asked you to.” He said it as if it were the most natural thing in the world, as natural as saying ‘because the sky is blue’.
“And you are…?” I tried again.
But he just shook his head. He reached towards a suit packet and abruptly I could feel my heart racing. It was vaguely frightening that I had picked that habit back up so quickly, to assume that that motion meant going for a gun. But it wasn’t a gun. It was an envelope. He held it out to me.
Taking it gingerly, I looked at the front, finding the logo of a well known airline looking back at me. I already knew what was in the envelope.
He nodded. “Two weeks from tomorrow.”
I blinked at him. “Two weeks? I thought you were in a hurry.”
He smiled. “I am. It’s all a matter of scale though.”
He reached into his pocket again, withdrawing another envelope. This, he handed to Mrs. Claire. “For your trouble,” he said simply.
I caught a glimpse of her envelope. There was no logo on hers, its was just a plain white envelope so far as I could tell. It was thicker than mine as well.
She peeled back the cover, peeking inside. Whatever it was, it surprised her. She looked up at the man with the silver hair and back down, then back up again. Without another word, she held out her other hand with the pottery right at me, almost poking me in the chest with it.
I reached down and took it. As I did, I thought I saw another smile playing on the man with the silver hair’s mouth. He was enjoying this.
“Two weeks?” I repeated. “All I have to do is take this… piece and these tickets and go to Rome.”
He nodded. “There’s a card in the envelope with the rest of the details. If everything goes according to plan, I’ll see you again once before then.”
I started to open it, but he put a hand on mine. His skin was cool to the touch but not uncomfortably so. “Wait until you get home. I’ve taken the liberty of calling a cab for you. I’ve already paid the fair.”
I knew a dismissal when I heard one. Trying to keep at least a bit of control over the situation–although I knew in my heart of hearts that ship had sailed long ago–I pulled out a business card of sorts for the church and handed it to Mrs. Claire. “Here’s my contact information. If either John Smith or… well, if he shows up here again, let me know, okay?”
She still looked dazed and just nodded in a distracted manner. Whatever had been in that envelope had certainly thrown her for a loop. Although I was starting to get the feeling that perhaps distracted was closer to her natural state of being.
When I turned to ask more of the man with the silver hair, he was gone. I tried to think back if I’d heard him leaving, but my memory felt fuzzy as well. Ah well, I was probably just getting tired. It was really late after all. I should be getting home anyways, I had preparations to make for my upcoming trip to Rome.
I was already home and in bed before it occurred to me that the man had never really told me why I was going to Rome. Or heck. He’d never even mentioned his name.
83 - Baghdad
SEVERAL YEARS AGO Unfortunate–or perhaps not, given then circumstances–Jackson didn’t answer. Which didn’t necessarily mean that I wasn’t crazy.
All it meant was that I was on my own.
Coming to that realization, I had only moments until I had to duck into a side hallway. I peeked back out, only for a moment, but it wasn’t the average man that I had seen earlier. Whoever it was, I didn’t recognize them, although they looked somewhat more local than the average man had. He had a long rifle slung on his back and a piston on one hip. I wondered if perhaps he had been the one to shoot me–but that wasn’t really a useful train of though, it wasn’t like I could do anything about it even if it had been.
So instead I ducked down the side hallway.
I ended up in a part of the museum that I’d never been in before. It looked much like the rest of it, little in the way of anything small still left with most of the larger artifacts covered. If there were any decorations or signs showing what period these particular artifacts had come from, I didn’t see it.
What I did see though was a way out.
Another lit exit sign, again bilingual in both the local language and English was set into the far corner of the room. There was a sign on the door with a green background that I unfortunately couldn’t read. Still, I had a feeling it said pretty much exactly the same thing that every exit door like this had–emergency exit, alarm will sound.
An alarm wasn’t something that I wanted, but an emergency exit sure was.
I tried to get a mental map of where exactly in the building I was and where the exit could possibly lead, but I couldn’t quite get it. If I were on the north or west side of the building, I would just have to get across either street and I could lose myself in the nearby neighborhoods. Granted, I’d almost surely be the only American running around with nothing more than a pair of loose cotton pants on, but still.
On the south side, I’d come out by the main entrance. That way I’d have a good chance of getting shot again. I couldn’t even remember what was to the east. So neither of those were any better.
Still, I’d faced worse odds.
Mentally psyching myself up, I reached up to push on the door…
And the alarms went off.
I jerked my hands back.
I hadn’t even touched the door. I knew I hadn’t. I’d been at least a few inches away still.
But there it was, an alarm klaxon forcing its way into my skull.
I heard shouting in a language I couldn’t even make out coming from back towards the entrance. More over off to one side of me. A second later a voice came on over some sort of intercom system, yelling to be heard over the alarm. I couldn’t make out the words, they weren’t in English anyways. I heard the sounds of people start running from several different directions.
But none of them seemed to be running towards me.
This is my chance, I realized. Whoever or whatever had triggered that alarm, they had done me a huge favor. With one alarm going off, they may never notice a second.
I shoved the door open and strode out into the…
Night? When had night fallen? I felt a sudden sense of disorientation. It had been daylight still when I’d gone in with several hours left in the day. Just how long had I been down there?
No. Not something that I need to consider right at this moment. I needed to run.
Luckily, it was the north side. It couldn’t have been better had I chosen it.
Off I ran, into the night.