“These are almost beyond my comprehension, Ceil.” Carl sat in one of the two club chairs in his living room. The four items from the Samuels box were arrayed in front of him, on a reading table that fitted over the arms of the chair.
Ceil was being huffy about the whole lot. She had become less and less convinced of the authenticity of the articles as time had passed. At this point, her skepticism was catching up to her original awe.
“Maybe they’re just clever fakes. He’s in the antiques business, remember? And according to Silvia, he’s very good at passing off fakes for genuine.”
“I’m not so sure. I can’t speak to the provenance yet, but I’d bet each one is from the period he’s indicated. I need to do a little research on the Astrolabe, but at this point, I’m prepared to say that it’s Spanish, it’s from the 15th century, and it was one of the finest of its kind. If I’m right, then Columbus could have used it, or one just like it. There’s a guy at Columbia who can confirm all this, or put the lie to it. Holds the chair in European Medieval studies, and knows more about navigational instruments from that period than I could find in all my reference books. I’ll call him tomorrow.”
Ceil remained unconvinced. “He’s a master at fakery. Why should we believe what he’s written about these things? There is one thing, though. I had a dream about these things recently. And Samuels mentioned my dream in his note.”
Carl cocked his head slightly. “Really? That’s quite significant, I think. What would be his motive for making this up?”
Ceil considered a sarcastic response, then caught herself. “What about the history he’s alleging? A relic from Christ’s cross? The gold cross worn by Joan of Arc? Columbus’s sextant? Come on, Carl, this guy is just playing with us.”
“Why would he do that? He’s already shown us he can do whatever he wants to us. It’s an Astrolabe, by the way. It predates the sextant by 200 years. What was it Silvia said in the hospital this morning? He’s old. Very old.”
“Two thousand years old? His note says he took possession of these things directly from their sources. So he was on Golgotha when Christ was on the cross? He was in Spain when Columbus returned from the New World? These are clever fakes, Carl. He created their provenance to make them more interesting. He’s just fucking with us, Carl. Because he can.”
Carl was considering her remarks. In his hands, he held the gray metal box that was the fourth item on the table.
“I wonder. Remember how this all started? With unexplainable images being sent to Jennifer through an old mirror. Just suppose Samuels is what he says he is. At least two thousand years old. An immortal, if you will. Just suppose….”
“Carl, don’t go soft on me now. We’re in the fight of our lives, and I need you to be at your most brilliant if we’re going to….”
“Shut up, Ceil. You’re being logical. Logical doesn’t seem to apply to these circumstances. I want to discuss the facts as we know them. Let what we know to have happened dictate what we conclude. None of this makes any sense when you analyze it against our past experiences. So let’s start again. If we set our imaginations free, we may see these ‘facts’ in an entirely new light.”
Ceil struggled with that. She knew the advice was good, knew that Carl was a genius at analyzing puzzling contradictions that had stumped all others. Yet her training, her past life, had relied on applying conventional logic to thorny problems. The conflict played out on her face as she worked it through. Twice she started to speak, then stopped. The whole internal drama took less than a minute, and when it was resolved, she was suddenly calm.
“You’re right. My way isn’t working. Let’s try yours.”
Carl smiled. “We have to unfocus here. I want to do an unstructured free association with you. Just bear with me on this, OK? It will make your skin crawl to do this, but grin and bear it. Are you with me still?”
Ceil nodded, knowing that Carl was taking the right approach in this situation, and knowing he was absolutely right—her skin was already about to leave her body.
For almost an hour, the old code breaker and the has-been spy lady let their imaginations run wild. And in spite of various dead-end paths that required them to go back and try again, the possibilities they developed were mind boggling. Some of them, the most far-fetched and unlikely, were correct.
Ceil left Carl’s place just after ten p.m., her mind racing with concepts she had never seriously considered a possibility before. Carl had been brilliant at leading the discussion, but she had contributed as well. Once she had agreed to it, the whole discussion had been—tolerable. Painful but tolerable.
She was too preoccupied to notice the white van that pulled out from the curb half a block behind her. It came at her full tilt, without lights, running up on the sidewalk, swerving away at the last second, tires screeching. Fifty feet ahead of her, it stopped.
Ceil, whose instincts had kicked in and driven her up against the side of the building, gathered herself and her dignity and walked to the curb.
She squared herself with the idling van down the street and, in a classic gesture of the human spirit, held up both her hands, middle fingers fully extended.
Ceil hailed a passing cab as soon as the white van pulled away. “Drop me at Charles near Broadway. There’s an extra twenty if I’m there in less than ten minutes.”
The cabby, a middle-Eastern type with a full beard, looked her over carefully and decided she was not kidding him. In an accent thick with the suspicions of a newly arrived Turk, he smiled once and said “Show the money.”
Ceil held up two twenties and placed them in the sliding tray. He scooped them up and put the car in motion all at once, and Ceil was thrown back against the cab’s grubby plastic seats.
It was a harrowing ride, completed in under seven minutes. When Ceil emerged a couple of block from the Time Traveler, she smiled warily at her driver, who flashed her a gap toothed smile of his own, and said “You like?”
Ceil zipped her squall coat to the top against the chill that had settled in, and began a slow and invisible (she hoped) walk toward Samuels’ shop.
Five minutes later, she was positioned in a doorway across the street, barely concealed by an intervening lamppost at the street. It was a poor hiding place, but it was the only shop in the area without the steel shutters that protected the others.
There was a light on in the back of the Time Traveler, but she had seen no movement inside. Without warning, and much to her surprise, Samuels appeared in the door window. He was staring directly at her. She made a conscious effort to make her image even smaller, less visible, and in response, Samuels smiled broadly and waved his arm in a friendly manner.
She gave it up then, moving out into the feeble street light, stopping defiantly near the curb. She was less than fifty feet from him now, as he stood at his shop’s front door, grinning.
Ceil felt incredibly foolish at this point. Her aim had been to—what? Catch him coming out, then run across the street and shoot him?
Samuels made a show of unlocking the door and opening it. He stuck his head out and motioned for her to come over. When she did not move, he called to her in a clear voice.
“Come in, Ceil. You look ridiculous hiding over there. If you’d behaved like that in Germany thirty years ago, you wouldn’t have fared so well. Now come in and get warm. I promise I won’t bite.”
Ceil was both stunned and mortified. How could this bastard almost kill her friend and her niece one minute, and act like nothing had happened the next? It was true that her hiding place had been pretty pathetic, but it suited her mood, to pretend to hide and still be openly defiant. She wanted nothing more than a one-on-one confrontation, and this cold-blooded killer was offering her tea and friendship!
“Suit yourself, but it is cold out. I’ll be in the back. I’m leaving the door open. I’m unarmed, of course. When you’ve had enough of playing hide and seek, come in and we’ll talk. I feel I owe you an explanation of sorts. By the way, I suspect you were able to conceal poor Steven so that Detective Wilson didn’t stumble over him. That shows some competence on your part. I have a fresh pot of coffee on the burner, Ceil. Don’t be a spoil-sport, huh? We have things to discuss, you and I.”
It took her a full ten minutes to swallow the bile in her throat and cross the street to the Time Traveler’s front door. She felt, more than anything else, like a foolish rookie right now. Samuels was controlling everything—the pace, the events, the settings. Nothing was going as she had imagined it, and the realization that he was way ahead of her on every front was galling.
As he had said, the door was unlocked. She pulled her weapon out of her bag as she passed through it. In one practiced motion she jacked a round into the chamber and thumbed off the safety. She knew that the anger building up in her would make her careless, and she didn’t care. She was mere feet away from the monster who was threatening her friends and her family, and she was fully prepared to put an end to it. If he had a weapon, or even if he didn’t, she would make her world a safe place again by the simple act of pulling the trigger on her nine-millimeter handgun.
It took her several minutes to ascertain that Devon Samuels was no longer on the premises. She searched his small back room first, then the basement storeroom, and finally the front of the shop. It was during this row by row search of the store itself that she noticed the note taped to the front door.
She was certain the note wasn’t there when she’d entered the shop. So how had he managed to get out and leave the note there? To Ceil, it was another blow to her crumbling self image as a competent warrior—this man was bent on destroying her only area of competence!
The note said:
“I got tired of waiting. Time to visit your friend Carl.”
Ceil’s attempt to contact Carl using her cell phone was not successful. No answer.
She improved her record time on the ride back to Carl’s building by a full minute, but she knew she was already too late. Samuels had probably been there even before Ceil entered the store.
Her heart sank as she sat in the cab and considered her plight. Her world consisted of two old friends and her niece. She knew other people, but in truth nobody else mattered to her. These three were her family, and she loved each of them as intensely as if they were her children, or her spouse. She was fifty-six years old and her life came down to this—Carl and Jennifer and Silvia. And Devon Samuels was now in a position to destroy each of them, at his whim. In spite of her resolve to stop him, she knew now that, short of finding him and putting three slugs through his evil heart, she was not going to be able to stop him from hurting her family.
She cried then. She had not shed tears since old Bill Tetrick’s death at the hands of the East Germans, fully twenty-five years ago. She was careful to conceal her grief from the cab driver, this time a Lebanese, but the tears streamed silently down her cheeks, and she made no effort to wipe them away.
When the cab screeched to a stop in front of Carl’s building, she had already put the forty dollars into the tray, and she blotted her eyes on the sleeve of her jacket. She took a very deep breath, and then raced for the building entrance.
She did not expect to find Samuels here either, although she was prepared if he should still be there. He was not.
The scene in Carl’s apartment was quite similar to the one in Jennifer’s. The door was ajar. The bodyguard was sitting in one of the club chairs, his neck snapped, his eyes staring at the door.
Carl was stretched out on a long oak library table. His eyes were closed, but she could see his shallow breathing right away. She went to him immediately, without even searching the apartment. She was beginning to trust Samuels’ M.O. now. He would be long gone, probably by at least ten minutes.
Ceil grabbed Carl’s right hand with her own and placed her left on his neck, to check his pulse. It was irregular, but strong.
She saw now that Carl was clutching the gray metal box in his right hand, his fingers closed tightly over it.
Carl came awake then, with a start. He shook his head and tried to rise off the table, but Ceil pressed him back.
“Easy, Carl. Just take your time. Can you speak?”
He couldn’t, not for a minute or more, and it was clear that he was quite bewildered by it all. He was very pale.
He managed to croak out a question. “The babysitter?”
Ceil shook her head.
“For sure. He left me stranded at his shop. He stays just out of my reach. Did he hurt you?”
“Don’t think so. I have no memory of it. Guess he wasn’t ready to kill my yet.”
“Time to get you to a safe place, old friend. No arguments.”
“I suppose. I need some time to consider all this. And to open this box. Maybe it will have some answers for us.”
Devon Samuels followed the underground passageways easily. To anyone not familiar with the labyrinthine path, it would have seemed hopeless, for these concrete and stone corridors were random and curving, without apparent pattern.
They were old. Far older than the buildings perched above them. Yet in spite of their age, their condition was pristine. No cobwebs, no dirt, no scurrying rodents. Just narrow tunnels that frequently branched off at irregular intervals.
There were well lit, by a series of glowing spheres suspended from the coved ceiling. The lights were about ten feet apart, and they spread an even illumination that did not cast shadows.
Samuels did not notice the lights, or even his path. He had made this pilgrimage uncounted times before, and nothing was different about this trip.
He came at last to the door he was looking for, and as he approached, it slid silently into the wall. Beyond the entry was a large all-white room, with a high domed ceiling. Again the same spherical lights, more closely spaced now, provided even, uniform light. There was a faint hum, something like that given off by fluorescent lights, but the lights were clearly not fluorescent. Samuels knew it was the power supply that kept the lights and other equipment powered that made the hum.
There was only one piece of furniture in the room, a chair. It stood out in sharp contrast to the bare white walls and white floor. One might have imagined that such a room would have ultra-modern furnishings, but that clearly was not the case.
The chair was a Louis 15th armchair. The wood was close-grained polished mahogany, with intricate inlays of beech, ebony and ivory. The fabric was silk brocade, in delicate shades of rose, off-white and cerulean blue. It was easily worth several hundred thousand dollars, even more if its actual provenance as the French King’s boudoir chair was known.
Samuels went directly to the chair and, after adjusting its position slightly, sat down. Immediately an entire wall of the white room came alive with moving images. There were at least six centers of interest there, each separated from the others by a narrow border of darkness.
Samuels focused on the center one, and at once the other five dimmed but did not disappear.
A beautiful woman, of somewhat advanced age but with such symmetrical and perfect features that one would overlook her maturity, stared directly at Samuels.
“We are concerned about your activities with the Larkin woman. It is not our practice to amuse ourselves with those not of our family. You have distressed family members in order to cause trouble for her. And you have terminated outsiders who were not a threat to us. Two of the men could have been diverted by other means. Two others could have been incapacitated, rather than killed. Please explain yourself.”
Samuels smiled briefly. “The Larkin woman is a pleasant diversion for me. This is an opportunity to test an outsider by placing obstacles in her path and observing her responses. She is clever and well focused. She has stayed in character, and she is adaptable. There is much to like about her, perhaps much we can take from her. One becomes—weary, from time to time. The Larkin woman provides some interest. I like her.”
The stunning older woman frowned. “Forming attachments to individuals outside our family is dangerous. It is a failing of yours. Would you like to see clips of other such encounters you have engaged in?” Immediately three of the other screens brightened.
Samuels put up his hands. “Not necessary. I’ve been somewhat careless in the past. Reminding me of that does not become you. I learned from those situations, and will not repeat them.”
The woman was quiet for a moment, considering his response. “I wonder. Perhaps you could benefit from some retraining. You have become flamboyant, I fear. Please explain your decision to terminate Steven Holt and Boyd Ranney. They were not family members. They did not present a threat to you or to our presence. Such a decision requires Council approval, as you well know.”
Samuels did not appear to be disturbed by her criticism, or her questions. He was fully at ease.
“I informed the Council shortly after each event. Steven represented a real threat to a family member, one I was about to bring into our active gene program, and I didn’t want to take the risk of losing such a high value asset. There was a side benefit of being able to use his remains to test the Larkin woman.
“The second termination was unplanned. Ranney had the potential to become a real threat to us. He knew enough about out recovery of failed assets to draw attention to us, and he had the means to exploit that, through his newspaper. I debated over the decision for some minutes, and opted for the safer approach. Besides, he was an obnoxious person. No one will miss him.”
The woman sighed deeply. “You are dangerously close to a charge of abusing your power. I will confer with my associates before I bring you home to answer them. You do try my patience.”
“I know, but measure the positive result of my actions before you drag me back. I’ve done more to raise the standards of our family assets than anyone else. This won’t happen again. And I may yet derive benefit from the Larkin woman. She’s been associated with family for years now, without knowing it.”
“I’m familiar with her activities. I abhor the violence she employs. All right, I’m leaving you with full authority, for the moment. No more outside killings, period. No exceptions. Finish your current assignment of failed asset recovery soon, and without drawing any more attention to our activities. Are we clear?”
“We are clear.”
The screen dimmed momentarily, and Samuels got up from the chair. All the images disappeared then.
Samuels smiled comfortably. He had learned how to play the game a long time ago. As long as his results were positive, (his were amongst the top within the family), he could do as he pleased. This occasional small slap on the wrist was a small price to pay.