An Ancient Key
After saving the letter to the data crystal, I shut down my computer. The Longest Distance indeed, I reflected, leaning back in my chair. Amazing how events so far in the past continued to affect the present. Amazing and encouraging.
I agreed with my friend’s decision to finally give copies of the journals and the letter to the Wanderers’ Club for the archives. Not that it was any of my business—the letter didn’t involve my family, after all. But seeing as I would be in the neighborhood and my friend wouldn’t, I was pleased and honored to serve as courier.
“Evening, Ma’am.” The liveried doorman tipped his hat as I strolled inside.
I nodded in return, giving a cheerful smile at the affectation he embodied. “Evening.” If the club ever installed high-tech doors, I’d be very sad. It would ruin the aura of old-fashioned elegance.
To my eye, the place hadn’t changed since the nineteenth century. Crossing the wood-paneled foyer and entering the parlor with its velvet draperies, overstuffed high-backed chairs and plush carpet, I loved the illusion of stepping back through time into the Victorian era.
With so many nefarious influences lasting through the ages—the Crimson Talon came to mind; my own family had, sad to say, more than enough experience fighting them—I was always happy to note that the best of humanity was equally tenacious, and places like this club persisted as well.
By perfect coincidence, I’d evidently arrived at a lull between tales. I heard the delicate chink of ice in glasses, and the low hum of conversation that showed that no one person had the floor. Also from a bygone era, the delicate aroma of pipe smoke competed with the far-from-delicate stench of cigars. Fortunately, the former far outnumbered the latter.
Much like Emilie Graves-Waring and her family, my own ancestors could boast of their own brushes with history. They’d meticulously documented many adventures. And on that thought, I knew exactly which story I wanted to share.
This particular incident from the early twenty-first century had been kept secret long enough.
“Ms. Patel, please, just ten minutes.”
The young man reminded Amina of her son, only not quite as handsome. Still, he was tall and broad and earnest like Duncan, with the same clean-cut features and blue blue eyes. The boy had blond hair instead of red like her son’s, but hey, she and her daughter were blond, so Amina wouldn’t hold that against him.
It was the resemblance to her offspring rather than his pleas on behalf of the high priestess that persuaded her. Amina didn’t need anyone—high priestess or otherwise—making additional requests on her time. Her work as a security consultant sent her all over the world as it was.
“All right, kid, ten minutes.” She followed him to one of the diner’s tables and—graciously, she thought—didn’t start her mental countdown until after the waitress brought their drinks. “What’s going on?”
He took a deep breath. His hands curled around his coffee were shaking, rattling the cup on the coaster. He jerked his hands away and clutched them in his lap. “You know all about Savannah and the Key in 1902, right? Please tell me you know all about it.”
Glancing at his hands during that swift motion, Amina spotted what she was looking for. On his right palm at the base of the thumb, a tattoo the size of a dime, photo-realistic and exquisitely detailed. A rose. A blue rose, to be specific, its hue a rich vivid royal blue between light and dark, shading slightly more toward violet than aqua on the spectrum.
“Easy, kid. Yes, I know.” Family lore had preserved what history had white washed. The destruction of several city blocks around the Savannah Museum had been blamed on the lightning strikes and devastating winds of a freak tornado. Not many people knew differently.
The Crimson Talon knew. They’d caused the disaster.
Their eons’-old nemesis the Rose Priesthood knew. They’d—barely—stopped it from becoming a global cataclysm.
And her family knew, because the great-great-grandmother Amina was named after (thanks to old Viking tradition—and promises made) had blundered into the mess just in time to be of some assistance.
The reference to Savannah couldn’t be good. “What about 1902?” Amina asked.
“They’re about to try again. To steal the urn so they can raise the demon it holds. But this time, first they want to raise Lord Master Wrothlyn himself—the founder, not one of the heirs to the name who followed—so he can lead them in reviving The Supreme Demon Lord of All. They think it’s the fastest way to purify the planet.”
Amina leaned forward, elbows on the table, and massaged her temples with her fingertips. Brilliant, just brilliant. What’s a little Armageddon as long as it gets you what you want, right? But, hey, if they were smart, they wouldn’t be Crimson Talon members, would they? “Go on.”
“The ‘Treasures of the Copper Age’ exhibition is about to go on tour.”
Amina sucked in a deep breath and held it until her gut unclenched and she could speak again. Buying time to organize her thoughts, she ran her fingers through her short golden shag of a coif. “You’re positive?” He didn’t seem to notice she was still stalling. Nothing about a tour had been announced. It should have made the trade news at the very least.
“I work in the Savannah museum. The memo should go to the board for approval Monday, this Monday three days from now. It’ll probably get immediate approval. Then the announcement will be made a day or two after that. However long it takes to draft the press release. We’re trying to change their minds, but we’re not hopeful. Then the bidding and scheduling will begin. But I’m pretty sure the first stop has already been set, so things will move fast.”
Well, ok, at least the priesthood still had some good intelligence. “How can I help?”
“Wherever the Key is hidden, we’re hoping you can ensure it stays safe. We’re guarding Wrothlyn’s tomb, and the urn in the exhibition, but we don’t have all that many people. We can’t cover a third target. We couldn’t find your parents or we would have checked with them first, since they helped your grandmother hide the Key.”
Seeing as they were at the South Pole where even the satellite uplink was sporadic, no wonder they couldn’t be reached. The unreliability of communications had been the only reason her grandmother had skipped the trip. Besides, at ninety-three years of age, Grandma preferred the dry heat of the Sahara to the lethal Antarctic cold.
Amina didn’t know where the Key was, but she thought she knew how to find out. They’d probably have to retrieve it before anyone else could, just to be safe. Without the Key—she hoped—they wouldn’t be able to conjure Wrothlyn’s spirit from the tomb. Even if the Crimson Talon decided to skip that step, they would still be without the Key to use on the copper urn that would soon be touring the country.
The Crimson Talon had a phobia about museums. The demon urn had been safe there, as it would be if it reached its destination. That wouldn’t stop them from trying to snatch the object when it was enroute.
“All right, we’ll take care of the Key. Just make sure no one gets to the tomb. And try to keep the urn from being included in with the touring items. It probably shouldn’t even be on display in any museum.” Even with their aversion, the Crimson Talon could be getting information from inside the museum as well. And they could always hire a thief.
The kid looked so relieved that for a second, Amina thought he was going to cry. Instead he sat up straighter, squared his shoulders, thanked her profusely, and said he had to report to his bosses.
They’d found it! It was a miracle. The allusions hidden in her great-grandmother’s diary had been detailed enough after all.
And it wasn’t even daylight yet. Amina wrinkled her nose against the biting rotten-egg odor of tar. Standing next to the base of the heavy crane at the edge of the pit, she didn’t envy her kids pulling the treasure from the black muck. She stayed out of the way, listening in over the tiny phone/radio tucked into her ear.
The twins got their love of heavy equipment from their architectural engineer father. It certainly didn’t come from her side of the family. The Patels were more at home in forests, deserts or swamps—or even on the open seas. Well, ok, fishing historical artifacts out of syrupy black gunk was more Patel than O’Malley. But the blindingly bright yellow construction equipment was all O’Malley.
The end of the crane had been fitted with a grappling device that made a loud squelching, sucking noise as it dropped through the water and leaves and deeper into the tar pit. Her son, sonar imager in hand, floated out there on a simple inflatable raft.
“Next time I work the crane!” he groused.
His sister’s laughter bubbled over the radio link. Then Kaitlyn’s tone grew serious. “Just tell me which way. The faster we recover this thing, the sooner you’re out of there.”
“Still checking.” He held the scanner out and swept to the front and side of his raft. “Ok, right here. Top of it is five feet down.” Duncan took a bright red scarf from his jeans pocket and stuck it in the mud directly over their target. He swiveled around to grab the rope anchoring his raft and pulled himself to the edge of the pit, where he clambered off. He aimed the industrial strength flashlight at the red so his sister could better see in the first glimmers of dawn.
Amina’s pocket vibrated. Not taking her eyes from the work at hand, she reached in and withdrew the cell phone. “Hi, Babe.”
“Hi, Babe.” Her husband’s rich baritone sent a shiver of pleasure through her, even though his subsequent question sounded annoyed. “You with the kids?”
“Yes, they’re right here. We’re at the pit. What’s wrong?”
“I’m missing a truck and a crane, that’s what’s wrong,” Johnathan said, his words clipped.
“You’re – ? Oh!” At that moment Amina heard her daughter mutter “busted” over the very sensitive radio link. “Hold on,” Amina said into the phone, then held it a little away. “Duncan Ali O’Malley. Kaitlyn Victoria Patel. We are going to have words about this later.”
“Sorry, Mom,” they spoke in unison. “Tell Dad we’re sorry, too,” Duncan added. “We’ll have the stuff back in no time.”
“We knew the site was closed today,” Kaitlyn said. “We didn’t think they’d miss them.”
Although they often acted too impulsively—but, hey, what eighteen-year-olds didn’t?—to their credit, the siblings’ contrition was almost always sincere. “We will discuss this after we’re done.” Amina forced herself to sound stern. She really wanted to laugh. ‘Larceny’ was definitely more Patel than O’Malley. “Let’s just finish so we can get your father’s truck and crane back.”
She really shouldn’t have assumed they’d asked. Just because they wouldn’t—usually—lie didn’t mean they’d volunteer incriminating information. To Johnathan, still waiting on the other line, she said, “We’re almost done, Babe. See you in an hour or two. The kids’ll bring the stuff right back.” Preferably before the rest of Los Angeles woke up.
Metallic fingers splayed, the grappling arm dropped into the pit. It splashed through the top layer of water and leaves, then made a sucking squelching sound as it hit the lake of tar beneath. At the burst of methane—accompanied by more hydrogen sulfide—Amina breathed through her mouth and chided herself for not bringing a nose plug or a gas mask.
The line went taut. Kaitlyn worked the controls and pulled an object that looked to Amina like a totem pole out of the viscous semi-liquid, dripping black chunks as it emerged. Columnar, seven feet high and two in diameter, as it shed its oily coating a hole appeared in the middle. The rectangle was a foot across and twice that height.
Kaitlyn maneuvered the artifact through the air and deposited it in the back of the waiting pickup truck, which Duncan drove the short distance to the art museum and the waiting curator and forklift. Amina helped Kaitlyn guide the crane back onto the transport truck and secure it.
By the time they were done, the artifact was in the lowest sub-basement of the museum. The level that didn’t exist. Duncan and the museum curator were coming back out as Amina and Kaitlyn got to the doors.
“Thank you all,” the sparrow of a man said, his handshake much stronger than he appeared. “It’s far more secure now.” His palm too bore the telltale rose. The priesthood had chosen the most common and iconic of flowers on purpose, as it allowed for any number of explanations. The specific placement was also deliberate. Most people were not sharp-eyed enough to spot it at the base of the thumb. Besides, the modern rose didn’t yet exist a hundred years ago, let alone thousands of years back when the priesthood was founded, and blue ones didn’t exist at all. Who would think to associate the image with the ancient order of protectors?
Duncan and Kaitlyn were already looking guilty as the curator turned and went into his museum.
“Take the crane back now,” Amina told them, her tone brooking no argument. “Put it and the truck exactly where you found them, in the exact same condition you found them. Then straight home.”
“Yes, mom.” They ran, in too much of a hurry to see the huge grin than broke out on their mother’s face the second they turned. Stifling a chuckle they’d be sure to hear, Amina went to retrieve her motorcycle. They’d be busy for a while. That tar wouldn’t come off easily.
The Key was safe. It couldn’t possibly be that easy, could it? Well, ok, maybe she shouldn’t go looking for problems where there were none. But experience and a nasty queasy feeling in her gut told her not to be too quick to consider this problem solved. But, hey, maybe this would be the exception. Maybe the matter really was settled and, just this once, her instinct was wrong.
Curled up in a plush navy recliner, Amina perused her great-grandmother’s journal. If there was anything she’d overlooked on the first read-through, she needed to find it now. Besides, even a decade after her Nanna’s passing, Amina missed her horribly. The journal read as if her great-grandmother were sitting in the next chair, happily chatting away.
The longing was selfish, of course. At one hundred eight, Nanna had been more than ready to, as she’d often said, “Get on with it and see what comes next.” Amina was old enough to understand and not hold it against her—and young enough that the gash in her heart remained jagged.
Pushing her reminiscences aside, Amina read the same page a third time. Then, carefully but swiftly, she paged back to another entry. Then ahead to another she’d marked.
There were three keys.
Did the priesthood even know? Or had that information been lost amidst their shroud of secrecy? The kid who’d contacted her sure hadn’t mentioned it.
More importantly, did the Crimson Talon know? And was there any possible way she could find out without alerting them?
The deep rumble of an engine in the driveway caught her attention, followed by the rattle of the garage door rising and then lowering. Amina marked her page and glanced up just as the twins trooped in from the garage. She could tell from their downcast eyes and shuffling gait that both of her offspring were appropriately chastened. Behind them in the doorway, their dad winked. She held his gaze for a split second in acknowledgement, but nothing in her disapproving-parent expression gave anything away to the kids. The twins made a beeline for the kitchen, saying they’d make lunch.
Johnathan crossed to the chair, braced himself on either arm, and kissed Amina soundly before resting his forehead against hers. “Babe, I’m not convinced we headed off the trouble. What’s to keep the Crimson Talon from grabbing the urn anyway and keeping it until they find a way to use it?”
She kept her voice low as well. Yes, the kids were adults now—if just barely—but protecting them would never be anything less than automatic. “You have no idea.” She showed him the passages she’d marked. “What do you suggest? Traveling all over creation searching isn’t a viable option.”
“Agreed.” He sat on the floor next to her and leaned on the arm of the chair.
Brushing aside a lock of his red hair, Amina recognized the far-away expression in his blue blue eyes. He was formulating some idea, and it hadn’t quite coalesced yet. The moment it did, she knew because he looked at her with a wicked sparkle in those blue eyes.
“I think we need to steal it first, before it goes on the road,” Johnathan said. “Preferably even before the news breaks.”
“Doesn’t give us much time.” Amina’s wolfish grin matched his own. Well, ok—the O’Malleys could be larcenous after all. Once in a while.
“Nothing like a challenge.” He stood with a single graceful motion.
“We’d better discuss it over lunch.” Amina accepted his hand up. He pulled her into his arms for a quick kiss before they followed their kids.
With its gleaming white façade and Doric columns, the museum’s look reflected its origins: a sprawling plantation mansion. In the orchard off to the left, peaches weighed down the branches. Amina fancied she smelled their sweet scent on the air even though it was too early in the season for them to be ripe.
Amina followed the drive around to the right, where outcroppings of the building hid the door to the old kitchens—still used by the museum café—and a discrete dumpster. Leaving her bike where it would be nice and close and out of sight, she strolled back to the main entrance out front.
Wearing jeans and a green tanktop—Johnathan said the emerald color matched her eyes—along with a sharp faux leather jacket, she looked underdressed but not trashy. The museum welcomed all kinds, right? They didn’t turn down anyone who paid the admission fee. She shrugged out of her jacket as she climbed the dozen steps to the three sets of double doors. She could see through the glass that the lobby wasn’t crowded. Perhaps a dozen people waited in line for their tickets.
She hung back a little, giving an older—and much better dressed in tailored suits of lightweight linen—couple beside her a polite smile and allowing them to go first. She intended to hold the door for both of them, but after his companion went inside, instead of following, the man stood blocking the door open with his foot and waited for Amina, saying “Please, go ahead.”
Accepting his courtesy, she thanked him and slipped past. He nodded pleasantly to her before he and his lady friend joined hands and got in line, their heels clicking on the white marble as they crossed the lobby. They wore matching red leather gloves, even in the heat of the sunny morning. Crimson red.
Amina’s smile froze on her face and she put a hand to her ear. They wouldn’t talk openly over the phone/radio links—that could be overheard, however unlikely—but she tapped out a red alert: three dots, three dashes, three dots that would sound like bursts of static.
A long single burst of static confirmed that Johnathan had received her signal. A robust sneeze came from Duncan. Then a most undignified belch came from Kaitlyn. Good, all three got the message.
The warning meant danger and told Johnathan to stay clear. She wasn’t sure if he would listen or not. Normally she wouldn’t, so she couldn’t really complain that he wouldn’t either. At least the twins were clear regardless. In a van a mile away, they’d hacked into the security system and monitor could the mission from there. If something went wrong, they could give information or directions to either of their parents via the radios.
It took all of Amina’s willpower not to shove to the front of the line and go roaring into the museum. She had to get the urn, and get it immediately. Because if she didn’t, the two representatives of Crimson Talon surely would.
The line at a standstill for a moment, Amina strode to the gift shop across the lobby and bought two replicas of the urn. She made sure they were well wrapped to disguise both the size and shape. It wouldn’t do to let anyone catch a glimpse of them. The clerk put each in a separate bag for her, and when she picked them up, Amina instantly understood why. Damn, they were heavy!
The crimson couple, again hand in hand, got their tickets and wandered into the museum. No one else had entered the building during the intervening five minutes, so Amina went through the queue behind right them, setting down her burdens so she could pay, then hefting them again and hoping the bags didn’t rip or the handles break off.
The museum had a world-famous mineral collection, including myriad gemstones, cut and uncut. It was their biggest draw, and the crimson couple, like most visitors, gravitated first in that direction. It was also the most heavily secure section of the building. Not so well protected were the old pottery shards and arrowheads. Well, ok, guards still meandered through those areas, but they weren’t expecting trouble.
Heading in the opposite direction, Amina circled through the Copper Era exhibit.
The majority of the museum’s artifacts were stored in the basement. There simply wasn’t room to have everything available for public viewing at the same time. The various objects were rotated between being on display and being kept in storage.
She circled the room twice just to be sure. The displays were open, although not to be touched. A metal rail separated the objects from the people there to view them. But no, the urn was not there. So Amina wouldn’t have to avoid the guards and all the patrons. She’d simply have to avoid whatever staff was currently working in the bowels of the building.
On impulse, since she had the room to herself, Amina took out one of the fake urns and placed it among the rest of the copper age artifacts. It wouldn’t fool an expert for long, but she’d take every extra minute she could get. And hey, someone in a hurry might not examine it all that closely. And she’d just cut in half the weight she was lugging around. Not wanting to leave evidence, she shoved the packaging in her remaining bag, even making sure all the stupid peanuts fit.
Now, to her true goal.
The painted-over door in the corner of the room blended in so well that a casual visitor could easily miss seeing it. Lock picks ready, Amina triumphed over the hundred year old mechanism and pried it open over the protestation of the paint. She darted through and eased the door shut behind her until she heard the sharp snap of the lock. The narrow wooden staircase—no doubt used exclusively by the servants of old— creaked ominously when she put her weight on the top step. Amina winced. Well there was no help for that. She couldn’t just stand there. Before long, someone would notice all the chipped paint.
With a light tug, she made double sure the door had locked behind her. Amina soft-footed it down the steps, cringing at every groan and squeak from the grime-covered wood. The only light came from the hallway at the foot of the stairs. Even in the shadow, Amina could see the puffs of dust wafting up with each step she took. Amina’s nose itched with the beginnings of a coughing fit.
“I’m telling you that the issue is already settled.” The strident female voice came from the hallway below, talking over a slamming door. Amina froze.
“But Professor—” Younger and male, the second person sounded like he was attempting to inject reason into their argument. Judging by the frustration underlying his tone, he wasn’t having much luck—and he knew it.
Clipped tones in reply, arrogant know-it-all of an academic. “Young man, that urn is one of the most beautiful examples of copper work from the era. It would be the height of ridiculousness for us not to send it on the tour.”
The voices stopped moving practically right below her. Since Amina had only heard talking not footfalls approach, they must have been wearing soft-soled shoes. Hard soles or high heels would have echoed off the concrete floor and walls. Amina couldn’t see them, so they must have been just off to the side from the base of the stairwell.
That was fine with her. No one walking by would spot her, but the dimness would not hide her if someone actually looked in her direction.
Her nose itched worse, and Amina squeezed it shut with her thumb and forefinger. That wouldn’t help for long. Her chest already ached from her efforts, and the muscles in her abdomen were beginning to spasm.
She had to sneeze. She had to sneeze and nothing she could do would make the compulsion go away. Nothing aside from letting out one hell of a sneeze, that is.
“Professor, if you would just wait till Director Brandensen gets back—” Amina knew that voice. She was almost positive it was the kid who had contacted her initially, the one who’d reminded her of Duncan.
They walked past and a glimpse of the man confirmed Amina’s deduction. She barely got a look at the woman walking beside him, getting only an impression, really, of someone tall and thin and wearing tweed.
“Simon, what is wrong with you?” If the exasperation in the woman’s voice was any indication, it was taking all her willpower not to smack the kid. “I have no idea why you are so fixated on this particular object. Get over it. I have no patience for your irrational obsession. Get back to work.”
“But, Professor—” A second door slamming cut off whatever else he was saying.
In agony, Amina ignored the noise she made as she raced to the bottom of the steps. She clutched her hands over her mouth and nose and breathed as little as possible through her fingers. The bag hanging from her elbow banged against her leg but she didn’t care.
Thank God! The hallway below was empty. The pair had gone through the heavy door to her left. Keeping one hand clamped to her face, she dashed to the right, getting as far away from them as she could. The corridor came to a T and Amina turned right again. She frantically yanked some tissue out of her pocket as she ran.
She got the tissues just in time.
The hall dead-ended at the door she sought and she skidded to a stop. Amina sneezed mightily, four times in quick succession, and was surprised her lungs remained in her body. Then the coughing fit hit, and she couldn’t get it to stop. Anyone on the other side of the door must have heard her, but as yet, no one came barreling through to investigate. Plus, she’d sprinted past four other doors, two on each side of the hall. Either the rooms were empty, or no one had the curiosity to interrupt whatever they were working on.
Amina bent double, alternating between coughing and taking in huge gulps of air. Each passing second got her angrier at herself. She didn’t have time for this shit!
When she could finally inhale and exhale normally again, she crumpled the tissue—now full of black snot and equally black spit—wrapped it in a few clean ones and put it back in her pocket. She risked opening the door a crack and peeking inside. The twenty-by-twenty room, like the hallway, was lit by bare light bulbs. Crude metal helves lined the walls and four parallel rows of them took up the middle of the room.
Between the rows, she could see the far wall. Directly opposite her, a section of the shelves was marked by an oversized sheet of paper or cardboard with ‘Tour’ scrawled across it in big black letters. The urn sat dead-center on the shelves, surrounded by some other copper jars and jugs.
Blocking the door open so she could hear any noise in the hall, Amina set her paper shopping bag on the floor and fished the urn out from the foam peanuts. It really was an excellent replica. But hey, for $500—including being made of real copper—it ought to be! She picked up the authentic one and felt a spark of heat. But then, nothing. She held cool metal in her hands, so she decided she’d imagined it. Putting the duplicate in the exact same position, she strained to catch any sound at all from the hall. So far, so good.
Packing the real urn in the bag, Amina made sure the peanuts covered it. Just in case, she double checked that the receipt was still handy in her pocket—in the pocket without the used tissue.
Now all she had to do was get out.
She slid the cement block out of the way of the door, careful to not let it slam. Still just inside the room, she debated a moment. She could go out the way she’d come in. Forewarned, it would be easy enough to hold her breath till the top of the steps and avoid a repeat of so ignominiously coughing her lungs out. But patrons might be in there and surely security had discovered her mischief by now. Any minute she expected someone to come pounding down the stairs after her. Back the way she’d come, definitely a bad idea.
The basement had a few employee-only exits. Best to use one of those, preferably one that came out near where she’d parked her bike. After she dumped all the packaging, the urn itself would fit perfectly in her motorcycle’s ‘trunk’.
Amina paused just a heartbeat to get her bearings, making sure she remembered the floor plans correctly. She peered into the hallway, ensuring it remained empty, silently closed the door, then got a move on.
Passing the corridor that led to the despicable steps, Amina continued to the end of the hall. She pulled open the door and marched through as if she owned the place. A half dozen round tables, vending machines, a microwave and a refrigerator. The exit was straight ahead. The room’s third and forth doors were marked with restroom signs.
The staff lunch room. Five startled faces turned toward her.
“Thank God! People!” Amina gasped. “Where is the bathroom?” Not waiting for a reply, she pretended she’d just spied the door marked ‘Women’ and made a beeline for it. A single lavatory, no stalls. Relief flooded her body so fast it made her knees go weak. Only a supreme effort, and a nearby wall, kept her from collapsing to the floor.
Well, since she was there . . .
After using the facilities and washing her hands, she finger-combed her hair and put on her jacket. The AC kept the museum awfully cold, after all.
She called Johnathan, knowing the kids could tap into the signal. “Hey, Babe, you hungry? I’m starved.” That told him she’d gotten it. He no longer had to be ready to make a second attempt.
“Better believe it. Favorite place. See you there.”
Mission half accomplished. Assuming her most sheepish expression, all innocence and charm, Amina emerged from the bathroom.
One of the men had vanished—done with lunch or getting security?—but the other four people remained. A man and woman hunched over a chess board, intent on their game. A man sat in one corner with a book and a frozen dinner. Amina addressed the oldest lady closest to her, who hadn’t yet finished her deli sandwich. “I’m so sorry to bother all of you. Would you please tell me how to get out of here?”
“Of course, dear. That’ll bring you out right beside the café.” The grandmotherly woman pointed to what Amina already knew was the exit. Perfect. The café meant the kitchen, where she’d parked.
At the top of the stairs, Amina crossed the back entry to the café and went along the back wall of the kitchen toward the exit. All she needed to do was go through the small anteroom and out to the alley and her bike.
Except that a bunch of workers—wait staff, a cook, and some bus boys—were having their smoke break right there.
Amina had already let too many people see her. She wanted to avoid adding to the number if at all possible. People tended to remember oddities, such as a ‘guest’ where she wasn’t supposed to be. So she hung back in the alcove until they trooped back inside, flinging the door open and not even seeing her standing beside it.
She held her breath and didn’t move. The instant the last one passed through the inside door, Amina flew outside. She yanked out the urn, hurling the rest of the stuff in the dumpster, and secured it in her motorcycle.
Just before she clicked the clasps shut, motion drew her gaze back to the kitchen door. The Crimson couple stood there in the open doorway, the man clutching an urn to his chest.
The woman was yanking off the gloves and complaining, “Why the hell we had to wear—” Her words faded away as they saw Amina. Judging by their slack jaws and narrowed eyes, they’d seen what Amina had just packed away. And for whatever reason—perhaps the speed at which Amina was moving, or maybe because they’d seen her hiding inside—they were now regarding their own ‘prize’ dubiously. As if that weren’t bad enough, angry shouts erupted from the kitchen behind the pair.
Well there was no helping it now. Amina swung her leg over the bike, grabbed the clutch and hit the ignition, and sped away with the roar of the bike’s engine and the wind in her ears.
Dutifully stopping at a traffic light a few blocks away, Amina tapped her ear phone. No one was charging behind her. She felt secure enough to tell the others she was out. “Hey, baby dolls, you there?” The museum was still visible in her rearview mirror.
“Mom? Yes, we’re here,” Kaitlyn answered.
“I’ll see you guys at home.” Amina wouldn’t, of course. They’d planned in advance where they’d meet.
“Ok. We’ll get Dad and see you there,” Duncan said.
Again, the overwhelming relief. If there’d been a problem, they would have said they’d see her at home as soon as they ‘found Dad’. The joy didn’t last long. Amina heard a string of curses from her daughter followed by, “What’s going on? Hold on, Mom,” from her son before the line cut out. Torture as it was, Amina waited without calling back. The twins were not just smart but lightning quick. If they needed her help, they would tell her.
As the cross traffic zoomed past in front of her, never in her life had Amina been so happy for a long light. Every atom of her body screamed for her to turn around and make sure Johnathan had gotten clear. But the Crimson Talon was back there, and Amina had the urn. Johnathan would kill her for coming back.
He’d be right of course, and she knew it. Amina was on the verge of turning around anyway when she saw the museum doors open and people come streaming out. Then she heard the most wonderful sound in the whole world: her husband’s voice in her ear.
“Go ahead, kids. I’ll see you and Mom at home.”
Amina closed her eyes and gripped the handlebars tighter. Johnathan was fine.
The light turned, and she hit the gas.
Nestled among houseboats and small yachts, the speedboat gleamed electric blue in the early afternoon light. Ensuring that no one followed her, Amina’s roundabout route took her twice as long to get to the marina. She shed her jacket the moment she parked. Sweat was already beading on her forehead, beneath her breasts and in her armpits. Humidity was not her favorite thing, nor was a temperature—not counting the heat index—of 101°.
The salty wind blowing in with the waves felt good on her exposed skin. Amina savored the tangy sea scent. Surf was high despite the sunny weather. Clouds on the horizon, the stiff wind, and the high swells told her a storm was surging in with the tide.
A flash of red caught her eye. A very distinctive red. The man getting out of a silver Porsche wore a crimson muscle shirt, his black hair in a military style buzz.
Moving efficiently but not hastily, Amina got the urn—using her jacket to hide it from sight—and jumped lightly into the boat. She spoke into her phone as she cast off. “Hey, Chickadees, I’m stopping for groceries. Meet me at Aunt Maggie’s instead.” ‘Chickadees’ was a danger word of theirs, and saying she’d meet them anywhere else told them to stay clear of the docks.
Securing the urn at her feet, Amina throttled up the engine and eased away from the dock. She revved it as soon as she was clear, sending the boat leaping forward. The powerful motor dug in and the bow lifted high into the air before the boat smashed down onto the water and leveled out. Past the furthest pier, she pushed the lever all the way down and the sleek craft shot forward as if out of a gun.
Amina headed due east, but not in a straight line. A bullet ripped into the fiberglass hull beside her. At first she didn’t bother to look back. She’d either get away, or not. Even the best marksman had a difficult time hitting a moving target. The speed of the boat combined with the motion of the ocean certainly qualified her as “moving”. She had to be careful not to zig too much and hit the waves broadside. That would capsize the boat.
She slowed just a little when she was confident she was out of range of practically any rifle. Then she stole a glance over her shoulder. Another boat left the marina, tearing after her through the turbulent water.
Kaitlyn had teased her about overkill, but there was a reason Amina had guaranteed she had a top-of-the-line speedboat ready. And someone chasing after her by sea was exactly that reason. It didn’t matter what boat he’d stolen. None of them could touch hers with regard to speed.
Navigating more recklessly than she, the shooter began to close the distance ever so slightly.
Then the wind died, utterly and completely, and the water stilled.
Even as Amina was bemoaning the sudden lack of waves, her hand on the throttle moved of its own accord and the boat soared forward. Perfect! Her pursuer fell away as if he were standing still, adrift on the water. Gunfire exploded in the air, but none of the bullets came close and the sound grew fainter and fainter. The echo of a few more shots carried across the ocean even when she could no longer see the Crimson Talon gunman.
Now it was a race between Amina and the storm.
She and the others had debated on how to destroy the contents of the urn. Fire wouldn’t help. The remains were already ashes, and far too many demons loved flames. Scattering or burying them in a wilderness forest somewhere didn’t seem wise as, however unlikely, someone could find them there and recover them. So, they concluded that the deep blue sea could best suit their needs, out past the continental shelf.
She alternated between keeping one eye on the ever-darkening sky and using binoculars to look for the gunman or anyone approaching.
Amina used a screwdriver to pry open the urn. A tiny wisp of gray ash escaped. She could see chunks of bone in with the powdery gray. After sweeping the area again with the binoculars, Amina went to the cooler at the front of the boat. Inside were twenty ziplock bags of cement specially formulated to cure with salt water. Seven larger chunks of bone needed their own bags. Amina mixed in the water then added the bone. Then she mixed the remaining bags, adding in the ash when the quick-drying concrete was gloppy and congealing but not yet hard.
It took too long, stopping as she did to search the horizon. No sign of other boats yet, but angry purple-black clouds roiled closer and closer. Still no wind, which meant that when it hit, it would hit with a vengeance.
By the time she mixed cement in the urn itself—not that she really believed the thing needed extra weight—the bags’ contents had turned into sold rock. She balanced the lid on them and poured some cement from the urn into its cap as well.
As she stood, a gale nearly blew her overboard. The cloud front had suddenly surged closer. Rough waters moved in fast as well. Time to go.
She tossed two of the bags overboard, gunned the engine and steered north, since the darkest clouds were southward. After ten minutes and five miles, she threw three more bags overboard. Perhaps overkill, Kaitlyn would say, but Amina didn’t even want this stuff landing in the same spot on the ocean floor. At least she seemed to be outrunning the storm as she got rid of her macabre cargo. Two hundred miles from where she started and well into late afternoon, Amina used both hands and sent the lid flying like a frisbee. It vanished beneath the gentle swells. Thirty miles later, she hefted the urn and dropped it overboard as well, not even the least bit sorry at the loss of such a work of art. It just wasn’t worth it.
Now, to get back in communications range as quickly as possible and let her family know she was still alive—and to make sure they were fine.
The last of the dinner crowd drifted out, leaving the pizza place empty aside from a handful of stragglers. When her family rushed in at only nine o’clock, Amina knew they’d broken land speed records to get there so fast.
“I did what we said. It went fine,” Amina forestalled their questions. “What happened at the museum?”
“I talked to Simon, before it spread all over the news,” Johnathan said, holding her hands across the table as if he’d never let them go. “A man and a woman stole some artifact,” even now he was careful to be casual and not specific, “then set off the fire alarm to get out of the museum. Apparently they got away, but at least nothing in the museum was damaged. Some self-important assistant curator—a tall, skinny tight-ass—said the staff had handled it admirably and even broke the ‘news’ than an upcoming tour would not be affected. She said the packing had already started.”
“So they did take the wrong one,” Amina murmured, barely above a whisper. “And if luck is with us,” she said, glad Simon would remain with the exhibit, “the other fake will tour. It should take the Crimson Talon a while to figure out they lost this one.”
“The longer, the better,” Duncan said. “But they won’t give up.”
Kaitlyn jabbed him in the ribs. “Don’t be so negative. We won’t give up either, you know.”
First and most importantly, thanks to my wonderful family and friends for their constant encouragement. It’s greatly appreciated! Major thanks to Michael Stackpole as well, for hosting the Chain Story where these tales first appeared, and to him and all the authors who made it so much fun. I’m also grateful to Michael Stackpole for the loan of the Crimson Talon.