I flew back to San Diego from Tokyo yesterday, and spent the day getting re-acquainted with the family and (mostly) adjusted to the new time zone. So I didn’t post the chapter as scheduled. Sue me. But I haven’t forgotten y’all. Here’s chapter Twenty-Six. As always you can totally go buy the book if you like it (it’s available in ebook and trade paperback) from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, or iTunes. I won’t be mad if you do. 🙂
Jo felt like a new person when she walked out of the bathroom. The new jeans were slightly tight, but that was not so unusual with denim. The t-shirt was loose and comfortable. She took a moment to brush out a few tangles in her hair, which as always reminded her why she kept it short, while she studied herself in the mirror over the sink. Could be a lot worse; the design on the t-shirt, a dog with its tongue lolling out in a grin, was not what she would have picked, but beggars cannot be choosers.
“What did your contact have to say?” she asked, looking at Malcolm’s reflection in the mirror.
She immediately wished she had not said anything. He gave a little jerk and blinked; her question must have awoken him.
“Not much.” He paused then, suppressing a yawn with the back of his hand, stood up and moved his arms back and forth vigorously, getting his blood flowing. “We lost several good people in the raid, and almost all of our equipment and data. We’re still trying to pick up the pieces, but it’s hard to stay in contact with everyone.”
Raúl peered at Malcolm intently, curiosity on his face, but he remained silent. Smart guy; you could learn a lot by just shutting up and listening. Sometimes more than those around you think you have.
Jo put the brush down and turned to face the two men, frowning. “Surely there was more to it than what I saw the other night. I thought you said they had people all over the world.”
Malcolm gave a half-shrug and spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “It’s complicated. When we lost Becky and Lars, we…”
A knock at the door cut off his words.
Malcolm’s face, bone-weary a moment ago, hardened as he turned to look out the peep hole – no security cameras in this place. After a moment, he relaxed, the sudden tension leaving his shoulders as quickly as it came.
“It’s our guy.” He reached for the doorknob, then paused and looked back at Jo and Raúl. “Isaac can be a bit oversensitive sometimes. A little touchy. Just be careful what you say to him.”
Jo crooked an eyebrow at him.
“You’ll see why,” Malcolm said.
Then he opened the door. Jo immediately understood what he meant.
* * * * *
Isaac would have been tall, but he stood with a stoop that left him only slightly taller than Jo. From his wrinkles, deep enough to be almost cracks in his face, he was getting on in years, pushing a hundred-ten, maybe a hundred-twenty. He had hair only on the left side of his head. It was thin, stringy, and gray. The right side of his head was a mass of burn scars, stretching from his neck, halfway down his jaw, then up to his temple. Where his ear should have been was just a hole.
Jo could understand why he would be touchy; it must be horrible going through life so disfigured, and he would scarcely want it pointed out. Why had he not had reconstructive surgery? It was easily obtained, and inexpensive.
But then, inexpensive for some was a king’s fortune for others. Perhaps he lacked the money. After all, he wore simple, almost non-descript clothing. Or at least, at first glance it was simple. But when Jo looked closer it became clear his cloth was high quality. The kind of quality that is satisfied to abstain from flashiness in favor of simplicity and functionality. A subtle musky odor surrounded him, faint enough that Jo almost did not notice it, but effective enough that it perked her interest almost before she realized what was happening.
She was forced to re-assess her initial impression. Isaac was a man of some means, but he preferred not to show it. Intriguing. Who was he, really?
“Hmmph.” Isaac spared Malcolm barely a glance, instead giving first Raúl and then Jo a thorough look-over. “That’s her, huh? Thought she’d be prettier, the way you go on about her.”
Malcolm flinched slightly, then flashed Jo an apologetic half-grin.
Isaac pursed his lips for a moment, then nodded slightly to himself and looked past Jo toward Raúl. Isaac sized him up then held out a small satchel to Malcolm. “Patch him up and meet me downstairs. I’m double-parked,” he said. Then he turned and walked away, toward the stairwell leading down to the Motel’s parking lot.
“Abrupt, isn’t he,” Raúl said. From his tone he was not sure whether to be amused or angry.
Jo could relate.
Malcolm wasted no time, but hurried over to the bed and upended the satchel. As first aid kits go, it was bare bones. A few bandages, some gauze, and a small spool of medical tape. But it did have a pair of stainless steel plates to use as a splint, and within a few short minutes they had Raúl’s arm done up far better than it had been.
Malcolm stepped back from Raul and took a second to admire their handiwork, then cleared his throat and turned toward the door. “We’d better get moving,” he said, over his shoulder. “He might just leave without us.”
It took a minute to gather their meager belongings and make their way to the parking lot. Isaac already had his vehicle started. He sat in the driver’s seat with the window rolled down. As they approached, he stuck his head out and scowled at them.
“They’re not paying me by the hour. Get a move on.”
He was certainly a pleasant fellow.
Isaac’s car was small, more a coup than a sedan. Whoever got in the back seat was going to be crammed in tightly. But there was no help for it, so Jo pushed forward the passenger seat to climb in.
“I’ll take the back, Jo.”
She looked at Malcolm incredulously. “With your long legs?” She shook her head. “I’ll be fine.” Then she climbed in.
Malcolm took a moment to settle up at the Motel office, then they were off.
Very quickly, Jo began to regret not taking Malcolm up on his offer. It was not the tight confines of the rear seats that got to her; Raúl was skinny, so even though they were forced to sit close to each other by the car, they did not have to get that close.
No, the problem was Isaac. Or rather, the fact that he never even considered activating the automatic navigation system, and he drove like a madman on a race track. He took corners much faster than he should have, pressing her and Raúl into each other. And he tended to brake suddenly. Throughout, he spewed curses at the other drivers that would put the saltiest of starliner pilots to shame.
Before long, Jo began to feel bruised from the constant rocking around and getting shoved into the side of the car, or into Raul’s bony shoulder.
And poor Raúl. He must have jarred his injured arm a dozen times or more by the time they finally stopped in front of a nondescript commercial building on the west side of town.
The building was three stories tall and square, with stucco siding and a flat roof. Thin windows that reminded Jo of arrow-slits in a medieval castle marked the building’s levels, and a single pair of swinging glass doors set in the center of the first floor offered entrance. A sign over the door read “The Ortega Building”. There was a small sign to the right, which presumably listed the various organizations housed there. Taken as a whole, the building could have been removed and set down in any commercial block of just about any city without causing any comments at all, except about the mechanism required to move it.
Jo could see why the organization, or the underground, or whatever they called themselves, would choose this place to re-organize itself.
“Well, here we are.” Isaac took the car out of gear and looked over his shoulder at Jo. “Hope you know what you’re doing, girl.”
Irritation, born from the ride and amplified by his tone, flared up. “I can manage just fine, Isaac,” Jo replied, not trying to keep the acid from her tone. “But thank you for your concern.”
He silently met her gaze for a few seconds, and Jo could almost see his wheels turning. Then he surprised her. He shook his head and chuckled. His smile made his disfigured face suddenly bright, and the glimmer of youth shone from his eyes for a moment.
“Watch out for this one, Malcolm,” he said, nudging Malcolm with his elbow. “She might give Pedro a migraine.”
Malcolm just shook his head and got out of the car. Jo and Raúl followed as quickly as they could, with all the twisting and contorting that maneuver required.
No sooner were they out than Isaac drove away. Jo felt certain he was still laughing to himself.
* * * * *
I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. Stay tuned in a few days for the next chapter, or, if you don’t want to bother waiting a couple months to read the rest book, you can always go buy it (it’s available in ebook and trade paperback) from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.