Friday, November 25, 2005

Chapter Six: A Shocking Revelation; or, How Not to Extract Information

I was tied up but not gagged. I was wedged uncomfortably into the back seat of the LeCar, but the windows were down and a cool breeze blew on my face. The Liber Draconis Mundi sat next to me on the seat. Ms. Plátano had at least allowed me to keep it with me. I assumed it was so I could get one last look at it before it was snatched away.

She hadn't told me where we were going, but as I wasn't blindfolded, I could see everything. We drove back through downtown and cut west. As we reached Crown Park, she turned onto the Xerxes River Highway and headed south. I watched the river flow past, gunmetal gray and steel blue, racing northward toward its confluence with the Napoleon. We drove out of downtown and into the tony southern developments, which had sprung up in the late 1800s when the city expanded after the discovery of the United States' only viable manganese deposits and an increase in the population. We turned right onto the Lincoln Creek Bridge and headed up the Thor Lake Parkway. Thor Lake sits on top of the West Hills right outside of town. It's a caldera of an extinct volcano and a very beautiful spot. I wondered why she was taking me there - usually hundreds of people visited the spot every weekend. Before we wound our way completely up the hill, however, she turned off on a dirt road that led back into the woods. After a few minutes, we reached a small shack in a clearing. Ms. Plátano stopped the car and opened the back door.

"Get out."

She took the book with her and walked toward the shack. I followed. Inside the hut were two chairs. Ms. Plátano sat in the one facing the door; I took the other. She reached up and undid the bun in her hair. It tumbled down around her shoulders, full and wavy. It was gorgeous. My suspicions about her motives returned. What was she up to? She unbuttoned one button on her blazer and crossed her legs, placing the book on her lap. Then she looked me in the eyes.

"You are confused, Mr. Shaw. You wonder what is going on." She stopped as if she had thought of something. "Are you uncomfortable?"

"I could do without my hands being tied."

"Yes. Well. Other than that, are you uncomfortable?"

"Not really, no."

She nodded. "You wonder why I left you earlier today on the bridge," she continued. "You wonder why, when you called our office in Nicaea, a man told you that I do not work for the Federal Antiquities Bureau. You wonder how I knew you would visit your friend. You wonder what I am doing right now. Your life, it seems, has become quite the mystery, Mr. Shaw. All because of this book." She tapped her long index finger on the cover. I couldn't help but notice that her nails were magnificently manicured.

I kept silent. I had learned, through many years of observation, that people love to talk. Ms. Plátano was, I figured, no different. Even if she knew the same thing, I didn't have anything to say. She held all the cards. It was obvious from this grand kidnapping that she wanted to bring me into the inner circle. So I waited.

"You have stumbled onto something much larger than you can even imagine, Mr. Shaw. Shall I tell you what we know about you?"

I still kept silent. It was obviously a rhetorical question. She tapped the book again. "You first discovered the existence of this book approximately two years ago, while you were helping a -" she paused, looked up at the roof, and nodded, "- Mr. Ignatius Polonius Frehley, who had lost his first edition signed copy of Miguel Cervantes' sequel to Don Quixote, Don Quixote and the Temple of Doom - if only Cervantes could have sold the film rights! You found the book for Mr. Frehley in, if I recall correctly, Columbo, Sri Lanka, and had to flee before the Tamils killed you. While searching for that book, you heard stories of this book. What is it with you and books, Mr. Shaw?"

"I like books. That's not a crime."

"When you returned to New Alexandria, you began researching the Liber Draconis Mundi. It's a well known artifact, after all, in the right circles. Not as dramatic as the Voynich Manuscript, perhaps, and not as controversial as the Dossiers secrets, but definitely more powerful than either. You traveled far to discover more about the book - stretching your meager savings account - and heard the full story from a disgraced commerce secretary of the Finnish government, who was trying to get back in the good graces with his true masters, but instead committed suicide two days after you spoke to him. People seem to die around you, Mr. Shaw, have you noticed?"

I glared at her. "Not my fault, Ms. Plátano, not my fault."

"Yes. Well, I'd ask your friend Evangelina Hunts-The-Tiger about that. She had several things to say about you."

That almost pushed me over the edge - I strained briefly against my bonds, but calmed down quickly. The game continued.

"So. You finally found out who had the book - Yolanda Thrackton, right here in New Alexandria. Ms. Thrackton, of the Des Moines Thracktons, whose family came here in the emigration after the Great Iowan Ovine Crisis of 1887. You were stunned to find out that the book was in the city where you grew up. You carefully sent out feelers into the occult and bibliophile communities about the book, but were rebuffed. You began stalking Ms. Thrackton in order to ingratiate yourself into her good graces."

"Now wait a minute -"

She looked up, a Cheshire-cat grin on her face. "You object to my terminology?"

"Listen, lady, you can track my life for me, even though it creeps me out. But I did not stalk her. I did follow her, but I just wanted to see what kind of places she went to. Sure, I wanted to 'ingratiate' myself, but I wasn't 'stalking' her."

"Hmmm. Well, that would have been for the courts to decide, but we've gone far beyond that. You finally introduced yourself by knocking hesitantly on the door of her palatial estate and telling her that you are a professor from Ulysses S. Grant University - an institution that does not exist, by the way - and that in the interest of research, you wanted to examine her famous library. Ms. Thrackton, a semi-recluse, was flattered by the attention of a younger, erudite, and not unattractive 'professor' -" she shifted her legs uncomfortably - "and she eventually spills all about the book. You continued to visit her for about six months, until you convinced her that it would be best if she entrusted the care of the book to you. How you did this I cannot imagine. The old lady had kept that book in a crushing grip for fifty years."

"You mean there's something you don't know? Impressive."

She leaned forward over the book, her silk blouse opening just enough to allow me a view of her smooth neck and upper chest. I still could not understand why she was flirting with me.

"Mr. Shaw, I am going to share something with you. I do work for the Federal Antiquities Bureau. However, I am a member of a rogue splinter group within the Bureau. We are unhappy with the direction the Bureau has taken. Recently, we have noticed that our director, whose name we do not mention, has been acting erratically. We believe that she has either gone insane or she is acting on behalf of special interest groups - the players' union of the National Curling Association is the most obvious suspect - who are at odds with the mission of the Federal Antiquities Bureau as set down by our patron saint and founder, William Seward; namely, that antiquities should be preserved and exhibited and shared with all, instead of being buried in warehouses and never seen again. A thing loses its power when it is out in the open, Mr. Shaw. It gains power by being hidden and accreting to it superstitions and hearsay. Our group within the Bureau - we call ourselves the Brethren - wants to seize power back from our director and the special interests - damned curlers! - and return the Bureau to its noble roots. This book may hold the key to that."

I didn't ask why. At this point, I didn't care. I was too busy trying to wrap my head around what she had told me. Assuming she was telling me the truth, it meant that the most powerful part of the federal government was engaged in a civil war, and that couldn't be good news. Something about her story struck me, though.

"Ms. Plátano? If something gains power by being hidden, why can't you use the director's name?"

"You're clever, Mr. Shaw. It has nothing to do with giving her power. She already wields so much power that it is quite frightening. However, she is also a public figure, and using her name would blow her cover. Therefore, we don't use it."

"But you are opposed to her. So you want to blow her cover. Right?"

"Mr. Shaw, we are not opposed to the function she serves within the federal bureaucracy. If we succeed in our endeavor, we don't want to humiliate her, we just want to replace her and send her off to retirement in Corfu, where all the past directors have gone. She is a figure to be pitied. I respect what she once was and her office too much to betray that."

"Are you going to release me?"

"Why would I do that?"

"You obviously need me for something. What I can't imagine, but you wouldn't have told me about your little power struggle if you were going to cut me out of the picture. So let's skip right to the negotiations. First, untie me."

She shrugged, put down the book, stood up, and walked over to me. She bent around me and quite deliberately rubbed her breasts against my left arm. I heard a switchblade click, and a second later my hands were free. Before she could move, I grabbed her arms and pulled her close to me. Her hair swept over half her face, hiding one eye, while the other bored into mine, steaming with passion. Her nostrils flared, almost imperceptibly. I heard her deep breaths and saw her chest heaving. Very slowly she licked her full lips. I felt my heart beat faster.

"Okay, lady, what's the deal here? Why the full court press?" I tried to sound tough, even though I knew she could break my grip anytime she wanted to.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Mr. Shaw." Her voice, however, was husky. "Now unhand me."

I kept my grip on her. "You have been flirting with me since we met. I am unsure why."

"Isn't it obvious?" She leaned in and kissed me, hard. Her breath smelled on kiwi fruit. Her tongue gently opened my lips and then explored the topography of my mouth. I allowed the kiss, but pulled away when she reached for my shirt.

"Uh, Ms. Plátano -"

"Call me Wanda," she said, breathing heavily.

"Uh, Wanda -"

"Oh, Isosceles ..."

"I'm not sure what you're trying to achieve, but you won't get it this way."

"What? What do you mean?"

"Well, Wanda, this. Won't work."

"Why not?"

"I'm gay."


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