Monday, November 28, 2005

Chapter Three: A Visit to the Newspaper; or, The Wrong People to Anger

Needless to say, by the time we staggered home at dawn (Cyrus kept the Bar at the End of the Universe open all night), I had convinced Ghoti about the significance of the Dragon of the World. He limped and I walked south on Longitudinal Avenue, laughing about escapades we had had together 20 years before back at Buford State University. After I explained the idea of the Draco Mundi to him, he had decided to reminisce instead of confronting the reality of it, and I was fine with that. I had gotten what I wanted from him - a response from someone who had never heard of the book before. In my research of the book, I had come across only converts to the cause, completely blind to the idea that it might all be a lie. Ghoti was naturally skeptical, and although he still looked askance at the story of the book's creation, he accepted that the Dragon of the World was real and a possible threat. That was enough for me. I resolved to delve into the mystery of the book at the earliest opportunity.

"Don't you have to work today?" I asked him. He was limping worse than usual, and weaving poorly.

He waved his stump. "Later," he muttered. "This afternoon. I need a nap. You?"

"It's Saturday."

"Right." We had reached his bus stop, and I made sure he was sitting upright on the bench. I bent down and looked at him face-to-face.

"Listen, Ghoti," I said. "I know I can trust you, but you cannot tell anyone about this. The Liber Draconis Mundi is far too important to fall into evil hands, and evil hands are looking for it. They may come after you."

That sobered him up slightly. "Am I in trouble now, Isosceles?" His voice was slurred.

I told him that since we rarely saw each other, those who wanted the book would probably not discover him. I just wanted him to keep his mouth shut about his new knowledge. I trusted Ghoti, and knew he didn't really need the warning, but I wanted to make sure. I had few friends, and saw them rarely, so I wanted to make sure Ghoti was safe. I figured he was safe since almost everyone knew him as "Insane Larry."

After leaving Ghoti, I headed home. I had ridden my bike to the Bar at the End of the Universe, but I had left it there, knowing Cyrus would take care of it for me. The walk in the early morning sun would help clear my head and allow me to think about my next move. So far, I knew only what the Dragon of the World was and why someone would want to access it. I didn't know how the book would help me stop it, or even how someone could use to book to gain control of the Dragon of the World. I was still anxious about reading the book - I remembered Ms. Thrackton's warnings. Even if she was a crazy old woman, she had possessed the book for over 50 years and probably knew all of its secrets. Therefore, I wanted to be careful when I actually read the book.

When I reached my apartment I made a conscious effort to stay awake. I have a set pattern and don't like to violate it. If I choose to stay out all night, then I simply go without sleep. Therefore, when I got home, I made a large breakfast. Food helps me stay awake. Since it was the weekend, I decided to head down to the office of Morton X. Morton, the top reporter of the New Alexandria Benchmark. He was another college friend of mine, and I knew his spent his Saturday mornings at his desk, catching up on various stories he was tracking.

The Benchmark building was located on St. Thomas Becket Street, at the southern edge of Emerald Park. I took the trolley into town and cut through the park, pondering my dilemma the whole time. Morton would know more about Ms. Thrackton's death than what was printed in his newspaper, I was sure of it.

Morton's office was on the tenth floor. I was always amazed when I visited the Benchmark building - it was one of the largest newspaper buildings ever constructed. I thought, not for the first time, that the Bench family never did anything in small amounts, especially not when their city was involved. I found the reporter staring out the window northward, across the park and toward the Napoleon River and Jackson Island. If I had looked carefully, I might have been able to see my apartment north of the river.

I said his name and he broke from his reverie. When he put his glasses back on and focused on me, his face clouded. He was never happy to be interrupted when he was reflecting on the news, especially by someone like me. Despite our old friendship, Morton and I had drifted apart in the intervening two decades.

"Shaw," he said, in his strangely effeminate voice. Morton's voice was completely mismatched to his body - Morton was a large man, very hairy, and quite slovenly. It was unusual - in college he had been the same way, but I hardly ever saw him eat. I asked him once why he was so big, and he simply smiled and said, "Babies have a lot of calories."

I nodded and sat down on his pristine desk. Morton, unlike every other reporter in the newsroom, kept his desk spotless. No one knew where his notes were, yet his stories were always unimpeachable. He glared at me and pulled a chair from the adjacent desk over so I could sit on it. Still smiling, I sat down.

We stared at each other for a few minutes. It was a game we played - he wanted to know what I was doing there, I wanted information, but neither one wanted to break first. The unspoken rules, however, said that we couldn't do anything else until one of us did. It was going on seven minutes before I caved. "Yolanda Thrackton, Morton. She died a few days ago sitting in a high-backed leather chair in the lobby of the Winchester Hotel. The Metro section ran the story."

"I am aware of Ms. Thrackton."

"There's more to it than that."

"How do you know, Isosceles?"

"I was sitting in the chair opposite her when she died."

Morton was rarely surprised; twenty years as a reporter in the Alex will inure most people to that, but this nugget took him off-guard. "You were there?"

"I watched her die, Morton."

Morton opened a drawer in his desk and extracted a Manila folder. He placed it on the opposite side of the desk from me.

"Okay, I'll bite. What's that, Morton?"

"In time, Isosceles. Tell me about Yolanda Thrackton."

I told him the whole story. Unlike Ghoti, I didn't care about Morton's survival all that much. He had put himself in danger plenty of times, and knew the risks. I trusted him enough to keep anything I told him under his hat, at least until he could write a story about it, at which point it probably wouldn't have mattered anyway.

When I finished, Morton sighed and shook his head. "Isosceles, you're a fool. You always want to get involved in stuff like this. You're in over your head."

"I may be. I don't care. What can you tell me about the story? What I read in the newspaper couldn't have been all of it. Did you go down to the Winchester?"

He shrugged. "If you want to die, Shaw, that's fine with me. I'm not writing a story on it anyway - our esteemed editor killed any investigation we may have wanted to start into Ms. Thrackton's death."

"You never let that stop you before."

Morton was quiet for over a minute. Then he said, "All I know, Shaw, is that we wanted to report that Ms. Thrackton was murdered. It was quite obvious. I spoke to the coroner after the autopsy and he wrote that it was poison, but the police didn't care. Commissioner Brunswick was adamant that the report say she died of natural causes."

He stopped and stared out the window, and for a moment I thought he wouldn't continue. Morton often started speaking of something and then trailed off, leaving his audience disappointed. This time, however, he was just pausing briefly. He sighed again and said, "After I spoke to the coroner, I followed him. Something about it just didn't seem right. He ended up at the Forum."


"You're damned right. Listen, I want to take down Bench as much as the next guy, but I'm not stupid. If Bench wants this book, then you'd do well to give it to him. Just drop it off with the guard at the front desk and forget about it, Isosceles. It's not worth it."

"Do you know what Bench could do with the book?"

"I don't care. Bench isn't stupid. He's not going to kill everybody. He loves this town and the people in it - as long as they don't cross him. That's why I dropped it when the coroner went to the Forum. I'd only go after Bench if I knew I could take him. I can't this time."

I had an idea. "Why not? He doesn't have the book, does he? I doubt if he killed Ms. Thrackton, because it's not his style - he would have just bought the book from her. So someone else must want it. But now I have it, and I can use it as leverage. We can use the book to bring him down."

Morton shook his head. "If there is someone out there willing to defy Bench to get this book - and your theory sounds plausible - then I definitely don't want to get in the middle of this. Bench, for all his faults, is the soul of the Alex. Maybe that makes our soul evil, but it's still our soul. Who knows what would happen if the book ended up with the people who oppose him."

"What's in the file, Morton?"

He shoved it over to me unopened. "My file on Bench. Don't worry - it's all copies, I have the originals. When you said you were with Ms. Thrackton when she died, I figured you would want to get involved with Bench sooner or later. You're stupid, but you're brave. You always get into things like this, and usually someone has to save your ass. Remember Kinshasa, Shaw? You still owe Evangelina a date for that. I just want to tell you that if you go up against Bench, you'll be alone. I won't help you. Evangelina certainly won't. All you friends at the college will be scared shitless. Ghoti will crawl into a bottle. You'll be alone."

I smiled. "What about Pax?"

He smacked me on the head. "Don't talk about him, you idiot. Now get out. Have fun. I don't expect to see you again."

I left him to his reverie, disappointed. Although we had drifted apart, I always respected his investigative journalism and felt that his fear was unwarranted. Octavian Bench VII, the scion of the Alex's first family, may be a formidable opponent, but my father, on those days when he wasn't getting high on elephant dung extract, always said a man is judged by the strength of his adversary. My father was foolish in many ways, but he had an insight into the human condition that even now, after he had been dead for several years, I still marveled at and discovered newly. If I was to struggle with Octavian Bench for the book at its mystery, then I would be elevated, even in defeat, which was almost certain. I was joyous as I left the Benchmark building.

My elation lasted only until I got on the trolley and began the trip north. I noticed immediately that someone was shadowing me. At the end of the trolley stood a woman, who was not looking at me in such a way that I knew she wanted to. She was wearing a dark blue blazer and skirt, and her black hair was pulled into a severe bun. Despite that, I could tell she was very beautiful. She was speaking on a cell phone, but I doubted if there was anyone on the other end of the line. I wondered how I could determine if she was following me, and getting off the trolley seemed the easiest way. At the last stop before the river, I hopped off and began to walk east. I tried not to look behind me, because I wanted to get to a point where I could watch for the woman. I walked five blocks along the greensward by the river until I reached the arch of the Lewis and Clark Bridge. On the opposite side of the bridge I climbed up against the stone piling and waited. I could hardly hear anything over the noise of the traffic passing over the bridge above me, but after a few minutes I thought I heard footsteps. I slowly looked around the corner and was confronted with an identification badge. I backed up so quickly I stumbled and fell on my butt. I looked up. The badge was held by a hand that was attached to an arm that belonged to the woman on the trolley. She was smiling.

"Bernard George Shaw?" she said.

"I prefer Isosceles."

"Yes. Mr. Shaw, I'm from the Federal Antiquities Bureau. You have in your possession something that is in the country illegally. You are not entitled to this thing. You must turn it over to the government."

I slowly got to my feet. I looked at her badge and could tell it was genuine. I had heard of FAB. You did not want to mess with them. They were even more terrifying than Octavian Bench VII. I did the only thing I could. I ran.


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