Saturday, November 26, 2005

Chapter Five: On the Run; or, The Mysterious Man With the Tattoo

I sat in my apartment, more than a little perplexed. I had run home immediately after the disappearance of Ms. Plátano, concerned that the incident on the bridge was just a cover while her two burly agent companions visited my apartment and searched it. The FAB was not known for their respect for warrants and due process - from what I heard, they were almost above the law. However, when I returned home, everything was undisturbed. I opened up the secret hole in my floor and checked the book, actually daring to open it in case the FAB had replaced it with a cleverly made copy. Just one look, however, was enough to tell me that the Liber Draconis Mundi I had was the one I had secured from Ms. Thrackton before her unfortunate demise. So I sat down and tried to figure out just what the hell was going on.

An hour later I still had no answers. I knew there were various forces after the book, and there was no reason why they shouldn't just take it from me. I had no real defense. The FAB might be bound by some sense of propriety, but Octavian Bench certainly wasn't, nor were any other people after the book. So I wasn't sure why I still had the book or even why I was still alive.

I decided to do some research into the Federal Antiquities Bureau. They were a shadowy organization, supposedly funded by the sale of several artifacts on the black market. The sale of the missing link, known as Coong Paow Man, to Archibald Fermata in 1976 netted them close to a billion dollars, if the dying words of that old beggar I met in Montevideo were to be believed. So they operated almost completely off the books, showing up on the federal budget only for such items as "cloche hats - $30,000." But they did have an office in Jefferson, down in the state capital, Nicaea.

"Federal Antiquities Bureau, West Coast Headquarters, how may I direct your call?" said the receptionist after I dialed the number.

"Yes, uh, Agent Plátano, please."

"Whom shall I say is calling?"

"Isosceles Shaw." I saw no reason to lie. She abandoned me, after all.

"One moment, please."

I waited, listening to the punk rock classic "Let's Razor Our Eyelids Off" as played by the Cairo Philharmonic Orchestra. After almost a minute, a man's voice said, "Who the hell is this?"

"Um, I'm looking for Agent Plátano. I, uh -"

"Who the hell is this?"

The belligerent tone made me regret my candor. I dissembled. "I'm, you see, and old, um, boyfriend of, you know, Agent -"

"We know where you are. New Alexandria. 267 Sylvester the First Street, Apartment Four. You shouldn't have called, Mr. Shaw. We don't like callers."

"Wait, wait. I just wanted to talk -"

"No one by that name works for us. You were fooled, Mr. Shaw. Now you will pay."

I hung up. Breathing hard, I went to my secret hole in the floor and pulled out the book. Nothing else mattered now. They knew where I was, and I did not doubt that they were coming to get me. I cursed my stupidity. Far too brazen a move, especially when dealing with such a powerful organization. I had allowed my belief that Ms. Plátano - or whoever she was - had been flirting with me, as well as the fact that she let me go. Now, if I hadn't before, I had the wrath of a truly frightening federal agency focused on me. So stupid.

I grabbed my wallet and ran out the door. I had no idea where I was going to go or what I was going to do. I didn't want to involve any of my friends in this - I already felt guilty about bouncing ideas off of Ghoti - but I didn't have any place to go. Then I remembered - my bicycle was still at the Bar at the End of the Universe. It gave me, at least, a destination.

As I ran through the alley behind my apartment toward the bus stop, I heard the sirens. The FAB had obviously enlisted the local police to pick me up, and I was glad that I knew all the secret pathways in my neighborhood. I turned the corner at Second Avenue and almost ran right into a patrol car. The car was stopped and the policeman was out of the car, talking to what was obviously an FAB agent, as he was dressed in khaki pants and a Hawaiian shirt, the standard-issue uniform. They appeared to be setting up a roadblock at the end of my street. I crossed Second Avenue and slipped into the gravel alley behind the row of houses where the trash bins were set, strolling slowly so as not to attract attention. I reached First Avenue and turned north, crossing my street a block and a half away from my apartment building. As I looked east, I saw the police had already cordoned off the street and there were several sinister-looking purple vans outside my home. It had been four minutes since I hung up the telephone.

I hopped on a bus and went north to the bar. It was almost eleven in the morning, so Cyrus wouldn't be awake yet, but his brawny son Genghis let me in. Genghis was a year older than I was, but looked half my age. He was six feet nine inches tall and weighed close to 300 pounds. His face was scarred by two lines down either cheek, mementoes of bar fights from long ago. Despite his capacity as bouncer at the bar, he was a gentle soul and extremely erudite. Cyrus had insisted that his four sons and four daughters all attend college.

"Your bike's in the storeroom, Isosceles," he said as I entered the darkened bar. The Bar at the End of the Universe opened at noon, and the staff hadn't arrived yet.

I had an idea. "Anyone ask about me this morning, Genghis? Anyone come by the bar looking for me?"

"Nobody. Why do you ask? You in some trouble or something?"

"Probably not. A misunderstanding, at worst. Just wondering."

"Somebody was asking about you last night, though." He grinned, as if he was happy to share this nugget with me.

I stopped. He was enjoying it. I asked him who it was.

"Dunno. Some dude. He had a snake tattoo on his chest and he was wearing a leather vest, tight shorts, and not much else. He was sitting in the booth next to you, and after once when you went to the bathroom, he talked to Ghoti briefly and then came over and asked me who you were. I told him that you were the Dauphin of France. That flustered him a bit. He said that it would be very bad for Dad if I didn't tell him who you were. I told him you were the Dalai Lama. He considered hitting me for a moment, then thought better of it. Lucky for him. All talk, despite the muscles."

As he spoke, my heart sunk and I felt a chill spread through my body. Every word he said was a dagger. A snake tattoo. The booth next to me. Talked to Ghoti. I knew something was stranger in that booth than the threesome with the salamander and the cabbage. I didn't know the significance of the snake tattoo, but it couldn't be a coincidence that the Liber Draconis Mundi was involved. The fact that he spoke to my best friend was very disturbing, not because it seemed to negate my trust in Ghoti - his memory was selective and poor, and he had been drunk last night - but because he knew about Ghoti and that he was my friend. I didn't want to be responsible for any pain I caused him.

"Thanks, Genghis. Did you keep an eye on him?" Genghis was a fine bouncer, and I knew he looked after good patrons.

"Sure. He went back to his booth and continued to engage in his activity - nasty stuff, I tell you, that poor salamander - while still eavesdropping on you. I lost him during the fight, but when I found him again, his companions had left and he was pounding Seabreezes, looking unhappy. He left before you, and when you left, he was nowhere to be seen. He may have followed you later, but that's not my problem."

"Thanks a lot, Genghis. This helps."

"'A misunderstanding at worst,' eh, Isosceles?"

"Looks worse all the time. Listen, can I give you my cell phone number? I'd like to know if anyone else comes by asking about me."

He took the number, I took my bike, and I left the bar. I still wasn't sure what I was going to do or where I was going to go. Morton was right - none of my friends would help me. I had called in too many favors over the years. As I cycled away aimlessly, I decided I would try to find out what this guy had said to Ghoti, if he could remember. I remembered that Ghoti said he had to work in the afternoon, so he was probably still napping. I had often woken him up in college, so this would be nothing new.

Ten minutes later I skidded to a halt a half a block from Ghoti's house on Hemlock Street. The police weren't there. So far, so good. I left my bike in a bush along the sidewalk, took the book with me, and slowly approached the house. It was quiet, but I couldn't be sure that the police and the feds weren't watching the scene. I walked into the backyard of a neighbor's house and looked at the back of the house. Still nothing. I strolled through the backyards to the street behind Ghoti's house and still saw no presence of authority. Finally I had circled completely around the block, making a circuit of six houses around Ghoti's, and saw no reason to believe that his house was being watched. I walked up to his back door, which I knew was never locked, and entered the house. I crept up to his bedroom and went inside. Ghoti was sprawled on the bed, naked and snoring. I walked to the side of his bed and shoved him.

"Get up, Ghoti."

He rolled over and fell off the bed. He cursed and poked his head over the side of the bed and shook his head. "Whadafug -? Oh, Isosceles. What? Where the hell am I? Shit, my head hurts. What the hell time is it?"

"Listen, Ghoti, I don't have much time. Last night a guy asked about me while I was in the toilet. He had a snake tattoo on his chest. What did he say?"

"Come on, Isosceles ..."

"Ghoti, you know how important this book is. What did he say?"

He held his head in his hands and wiped drool from his mouth with the bed sheets. "Jesus, Isosceles ..."

"Ghoti ..."

"Fine, fine." He scratched his chin. "He was, you know, checking you out. He wanted to know if you, you know, were into that. I told him to fuck off."

I furrowed my brows. Could that be it? Could the guy just be cruising for some rough trade? Genghis said he never really gave anything away, just asked about me. From what I had heard in the booth, he wasn't adverse to much in the sexual department, and it was certainly possible that all he wanted was some action. Not everything could be about the book, could it.

"Damn, Ghoti, I'm sorry. You know, with all the shit I told you about last night, and this mysterious guy ..."

"Yeah, sure, I know." He looked over at the clock. "Look, I don't have to be at work for another two hours, so could you ..." He looked over at the door.

"Sure, sure." I left the house, completely baffled. It seemed like everything was pointing at this guy as part of my problem, but maybe he was just checking me out, like Ghoti said. I walked down the street, still thinking, and retrieved my bike, still unsure where I was going. I started slowly to ride away, when suddenly I realized something. Back in college, whenever Ghoti lied, he scratched his chin. It had been so long that I had forgotten. Up in his bedroom, right now, he had scratched his chin. He was lying about the man in the bar. Why? I turned around, ready to head back up to Ghoti's house and confront him, when a Renault LeCar screeched around the corner and pulled up next to me. Before I could stop, the passenger door opened and I smashed into it, flipping up and over and crashing onto the ground. I moaned and looked up. Ms. Plátano stood above me, smiling and holding the pistol at me. "Hello, Mr. Shaw. Why don't you get in the car?"


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