Thursday, November 24, 2005

Chapter Seven: Undercover in the Federal Antiquities Bureau; or, What Would You Do to Save the World?

"What?" She dropped her arms from my face.

"I'm gay. Whatever you're doing won't work."


I was beginning to wonder if Ms. Plátano had been stunned deaf. "I. Am. A. Homosexual. Do you understand?"

She stood up and wandered away from me. "I - I - We didn't know - We didn't - How? You're -"

"Gay. Yes. No big deal, Wanda. I can still call you Wanda, right?" I winked at her. She looked at me, puzzled.

"Bullshit. We would have known." She walked back over and leaned over me, glaring angrily into my face.

"You just kissed me and rubbed against me. Rather passionately, I might add. Check the evidence."

She looked at me quizzically for a moment, then understood. She reached down and examined the evidence, or lack thereof. "Shit," she said quietly. "How did we miss that?"

I stood up, smiling. "It's no big deal, you know. Have you seen me with a woman since I came to your attention?" I was enjoying myself way too much, I knew, but she asked for it.

"Well, no ... But we never saw you with a man, either."

I blushed a bit. "Yeah, well, it's been a tough few years. Ever since Colin left me to enter politics ..."

She quickly composed herself. "Fine, Mr. Shaw, you're gay. Fine. I'm horribly embarrassed and don't know what to say. Can we move on now?"

"Only if you tell me why you were trying to seduce me."

She sat heavily on her chair. "Well, you are attractive, Mr. Shaw, but that's not it. You see, my bosses and I, well, the rest of the Brethren here in Jefferson - we're heavily concentrated in the state, because of the presence of Octavian Bench, among others - well, we decided that it would be best if, you know, we, um ..."

"Had sex?"

"Yes." She was remarkably subdued, almost a different person from the cool, confident agent she had been only a few minutes earlier. "Listen, it's not something I'm terribly proud of. I'm a federal agent, Mr. Shaw, and I do things in the service of my country. Things I might find reprehensible - uh, not that sex with you would have been reprehensible, but, you know ..."

"I get it, Wanda. Things you wouldn't do on your own initiative. Don't worry."

"Yes. Well. I once had to tell people I was a Presbyterian. A Presbyterian! Can you believe it? I also once had to infiltrate a comic book convention. I could tell you horrible stories ..."

She shook her head of the memories. "My point is, we decided that we should assign a female agent to your case. You appear to have ... emotional attachments to the tasks you take on. We studied your work -"

"I don't like to talk about my job."

"We know. But you still get emotionally involved in it. So we knew that you would be emotionally involved in this book, but that wasn't enough. We needed you to be emotionally involved in helping us."

"Why? Why not just take the book and be done with it? Why do you need me?"

"Mr. Shaw, we in the Brethren are locked in more than one power struggle. First, we are trying to retake the Federal Antiquities Bureau from our sadly misguided director. She, meanwhile, is probably trying to secure this book so that she can read it, use its power, and lock the book away, thereby increasing its power. She may also be in league with Octavian Bench, who would use the book in the same way, perhaps sharing its power with her. We are, of course, opposed to Bench as well - we think the book should be open to the public and displayed, which would destroy its power. And, of course, there is the third party."

"Share, Wanda. You know you want to." Now that I had her on the defensive, I was going to press.

"This third party, we believe, are the ones who poisoned Ms. Thrackton. We know we didn't do it, and we doubt very much that Bench and the mainstream Bureau would be so ... crass. This third party, we believe, are quite ruthless. More ruthless than Mr. Bench, which is impressive."

I sat quietly. She was still debating how much she was going to tell me. I knew, however, that she had gone too far, and needed to spill it all.

"This third group is, well, it's almost silly ... they claim to be the true owners of the book."

"Ms. Thrackton was the true owner of the book."

"Not according to these people. They claim to be descended directly from Rufus, the mad monk of Lindisfarne. Rufus, as you know, fled to Constantinople, where he became involved with Sebastian, the court magician. Sebastian the woman. Certain texts indicate specifically that she had several children during the reign of Nicephorus, at precisely the time Rufus was at court. No one else was as close to Sebastian as he was, and the people in this group claim direct descent from their pairing. Rufus also had a mistress in Tashkent."


"Yes. Others in this group claim direct descent from her. They claim she had at least one child with Rufus before he died, and was pregnant when he died. These people say that the book should be theirs because they are all descendants of the book's creator."

"The children of Rufus."

"That's what they call themselves, incidentally. All the men in the group have red beards - the women, too, if they can grow one. They are quite fanatical."

"And you're not?"

"Isosceles, we need your help." She leaned forward again, but all sexual pretense was gone. "This is a fabulous artifact, one of the greatest ever. It's stunning that the Thracktons ended up with it - we're still trying to figure out how they got a hold of it. However, since we have all been looking for it for so long, we all know each other. You're a wild card - they know who you are, but they don't know which way you're going to turn. We can use that."

"What makes you think I'm going to go your way?"

She leaned back and put her hands behind her head. "Seducing you was just step one, Isosceles. If that, um, failed, I was to kill you. I already have the book. As a wild card, you have some value. But only if you're on our side. We can't afford people like you running around screwing everything up."

"You have the book. Take it. I don't care anymore. Publish it. Set it up on the front porch of the Smithsonian. Take it on a grand tour."

"You could really let it go?"

"Well, I'll admit I'm pissed off. I wanted to read it, discover what was in it, try to master it. But I'm sick of you people. Poor Ms. Thrackton - killed by, what, crazy descendants of a crazy monk? My best friend lied to me, and I still don't know why. Another acquaintance of mine is scared to do his job. Your colleagues are calling the cops on me. I like the adventure, but I also like living. You people are stupid."

She frowned. "You don't seem like a quitter."

"It's more than that, Wanda. I don't like to quit, but I also don't like being screwed with. That's all you people do. I'm sick of it."

"Well. Like I said, we need your help. Yes, I have the book, but I can't just go public with it. We still don't control the Bureau, and we can't simply walk into the office of the Benchmark and slap the book down on the desk of your friend Morton X. Morton and say, 'Here it is.' Octavian Bench would get it before it ever reached the public. We have to make sure he and the Bureau and the Children of Rufus cannot get it. They have to understand that there is nothing they can do. That's why you have to help us."

"You have to give me the book back."

"I don't know if that's a good idea."

"That's the deal. Yolanda Thrackton gave it to me. For whatever reason, she trusted me. I don't know if I can trust you."

"I haven't killed you yet."

She had me there, but I wasn't giving in. "No book, no deal."

"Where are you going to put it? That hole in the floor of your apartment?"

"Don't worry. I know a place even you won't be able to find. I'll hide it and you won't even know when I hid it. You'll think I still have it. But I won't. So."

"Will you listen to our plan?"

"Give me the book."

She reluctantly handed it over. It felt warm from her touch. I petted it slowly. "Go ahead, Wanda. I'm all ears."


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