149 - Not Rome
PRESENT DAY The instant I saw the all together too average man, I could feel my heartbeat speeding up and mouth mouth drying out. My body was preparing to fight, remembering all to well the last time I’d been in his pretense.
I couldn’t see anything else other than the inside of whatever mammoth cargo plane had brought us here–wherever here was. The average man had called this home and the only place I had ever seen him was in Baghdad, were we back in Iraq?
He seemed to be waiting for something, looking at me, perhaps trying to determine if I had recognized him. Of course I had–how could I not–but for the moment, perhaps playing dumb was the best option.
“Who are you?” I asked. It sounded like just the right amount of incredulity, but it wasn’t the sort that one could really judge of themselves. “Why have you brought us here.”
He waited a second more as if expecting me to continue, but when I didn’t he said, “You know exactly who I am, Thomas Whitlock–” I felt Father Antonio’s gaze intensify at that and knew exactly what he was thinking. *I knew this man?* ”–and like I said. We are home.”
“Which doesn’t really answer either question,” I replied. Forget pretending. “You never did tell me your name. And how could I know were your home is? It certainly isn’t mine.”
His answer was slow and measured. “But in a way, it is. It may not be the home of your physical self, but your spiritual self–” He gestured around, seeming to ignore the fact that all I could see was the belly of the cargo plane. “–this is where it all began.”
I just blinked at him. If I was following what he meant, he meant the home of the Church. But that was in Vatican City, wasn’t it? With the Pope? But that was the one place on Earth I was most sure we *weren’t* at anymore.
“I see you are confused,” he said, a faint smile on his face. For some reason, that creeped me out more than anything else. “Here, let me show you.” He moved to one side of the doorway, clearly expecting me to follow him.
Honestly, I didn’t know what other choice I had.
I stepped to the back of the truck, hoping down onto a sort of rubbery mesh on the floor. A few seconds later, I felt as much as heard Father Antonio jumping down behind me.
Once we were both on the ground, Mr. Average raised his voice to the others back in the truck. “I truly am sorry that you were caught up in all of this. Hazards of the trade and all that. I’m sure that my men will be more than capable of… taking care of you.” Something in the way he said it sent the hairs on the back of my neck standing straight on end. I didn’t want to think of what layers of meaning such a statement could possibly hold. At the moment, I didn’t even know how *I* was going to get out of the situation, let alone help anyone else.
And for all I knew, *we* were the ones in the more dangerous position.
But like I’d said, we really didn’t have much choice in the matter.
Without another word, Mr. Average turned and started heading towards what I assumed was the read of the plane. He seemed just to assume that we would follow him.
Of course, he was right. But that didn’t mean that he couldn’t have at least asked–or even ordered–us to follow.
150 - Not Rome
PRESENT DAY Shortly thereafter, we were joined once again by Amira. I was a little surprised to see this–just how much did this guy know to separate the three of us out of the entire group that he had kidnapped? Then again, who *was* he to be able to send in an armed and armored task force into the heart of the Vatican to kidnap such a relatively large group seemingly without fear of retribution.
He wasn’t providing much in the way of answers though, just walking towards the back of the plane. I could see now that there was a large ramp there, currently pointing upwards. It was more than large enough for any one of the trucks to depart had it been deployed. That must have been how they’d gotten them in here in the first place; although it seemed overkill for a few people to walk down.
Apparently Mr. Average had no such concerns though, as when he reached the door, he fiddled with a hanging control panel for a few moments. As he did, the entire back section of the plane started to descend.
I was immediately hit with a blast of dry air, just a touch on the warmer side. It was bright outside, bright enough to be midday easily. I knew it had been well past midnight when we’d been taken but now–I suddenly realized that my cell phone had been taken from me, probably while I’d been asleep. It made sense, really, but it was disorienting to say the least.
Still, if it was around noon local time and we had just landed that narrowed down were we were to… well, to most of Europe honestly. Perhaps even the northern part of Africa or the Middle East.
Looking out into the glare, it seemed very much like a stereotypical airport. We were on a large paved area–either a runway or something like it–and in the distance I could see a section of what looked like scrub land before a tall fence. The landscape reminded me of the road trip I’d taken out west some years back, the same sort of rough, dry landscape you saw in Montana or the Dakotas.
But I doubted we’d flown all of the way back to the United States. It had taken the better part of a day to get to Rome in the first place–I doubted that such a large cargo plane could have made the trip any more quickly.
While I was studying the view, I became aware of the sensation of a warm hand on my arm. I turned to see Amira standing right beside me, her dark eyes wide. “What’s going on?” she said quietly.
“I haven’t the slightest,” I said, and it was the honest-to-God truth. Even after how much ever sleep I’d gotten, my brain still felt fuzzy.
“You’re hear because you have something of mine,” Mr. Average’s voice came from entirely too close. I looked up to see him standing no more than arm’s length away. I hadn’t even heard him move.
I’d heard this story before. “And what might that be?”
I knew his answer even before he said it. “An artifact I have every reason to believe is currently in your possession.” That was a nice blast of deja vu. “The Cup of Lazarus.”
At least he’d put a name to it this time. “We don’t have the Cup,” I said. No point in lying any more. And so far as I knew, it was true. I’d never asked which of Amira and Father Antonio had had the shard when we’d left Amira’s flat and at the moment, it didn’t really matter. Lazarus himself had most of the cup and if Mr. Average really wanted the piece we had, then he would have taken it when he’d taken my cell phone.
So what did he need us for? The cup was with Lazarus after all.
Maybe that was the way out of this whole mess. “If you want it, you’ll have to ask Lazarus for it. It’s his, after all.”
“That old fool?” Mr. Average said. His tone made it perfectly clear what he thought of that. “He hasn’t any more claim to the Cup than you do.”
“It *is* named after him,” I said.
“So?” His voice had a definite edge now. “If that were the case, your country would belong to Vespucci.” I decided that I preferred the less emotional Mr. Average. He was creepier then, but creepy was preferable to outright scary. “The Cup is mine.”
Amira cut in then, asking the question that had been running through my mind for years. “So just who *are* you then?”
Mr. Average was silent and still for so long I thought for just a moment that he’d actually turned to stone. It wouldn’t have been the strangest thing I’d seen–not even the strangest this week.
Finally though, he shook his head. The edge was gone with his voice, but the soft tone that replaced it sent shivers down my spine even worse.
“Once upon a time, I was a simple potter.”