Houston, Texas — June 19, 2004
“Oh, cool,” TJ said, playing with the TV remote. “The new Tomb Raider movie’s on pay-per-view.”
Diane looked up from her book. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said at last. “That is SO not real archaeology…”
“Of course not,” TJ said. “Nobody makes a movie about real archaeology. If there aren’t curses and traps and magical artifacts and shit, nobody would watch it.“
“Not to mention guns and boobs,” Diane said sourly. “You’re not really going to put that on Charles’ credit card, are you?”
“I’ll pay him back,” TJ said. “Chill out, will you? It’s just a movie. You want to pick something else?”
“No, I was about to go to bed anyway, soon as I finished this chapter. Which I can do in the bedroom. Rot your brain if you want, just don’t cite Lara Croft in your footnotes.”
TJ chuckled. “That’s an idea—at least then I’d know if my advisor was actually reading my footnotes—“
Diane rolled her eyes, took her book and notecards back into the bedroom and shut the door.
By the time the movie was finished, TJ was comfortable and drowsy. He spent a moment considering whether sleeping in a real bed in the next room was worth the effort it would take to get up off the couch.
The next thing he knew, he was awakened by a persistent knocking at the suite’s main door.
Pushing the hair out of his eyes, he sat up. Charles and Mr. Copperfield weren’t back yet. Maybe Charles had misplaced his room key. With a grunt, TJ lurched up to his feet. “Charles, is that you?”
More knocking. “Room Service!” A male voice, somewhat muffled by the door. “Open please, I have food you order.”
“Huh?” TJ left the chain on the door, but opened it just a crack to peer out into the hallway. “We didn’t order anything.”
“Yes, yes, I have order for this room, it says right here, 824. I have receipt, see?” The uniformed bellhop held up a piece of paper, but TJ couldn’t really see what was written on it. “Let me in, I show you.”
Well, it was possible Charles had called the kitchen, if he and Copperfield were on their way back—and there wouldn’t be much else open at this hour. “Alright, just a moment—“ TJ said, and shut the door so he could take the chain off. “When did he call—“
No sooner had he unlatched the door than it opened, abruptly smashing into his face, knocking him back against the wall and down. “HEY!” TJ yelped, landing hard on one elbow, his vision blurred, his head ringing with pain.
The bellboy pushed his cart into the room, barreling past him.
TJ tried to get up, but a wave of dizziness and nausea kept him from moving; it was all he could do to not throw up right then and there.
“Get him up,” he heard a someone say, in a hissing whisper. “Bring him to the door. Bring him to me—“
Then the bellboy bent over him, grabbed his arm and started pulling him up again.
“Oh, hell no, you don’t—“ TJ growled and rolled sideways, knocking the smaller man off balance and down to the floor as well.
* * * *
Charles tipped the limo driver and followed Mr. Copperfield into the hotel lobby. Focused on putting his wallet away, he nearly ran right into the Tremere’s back as Copperfield stopped short, unexpectedly.
“Oh, I beg your pardon—” Charles started.
Copperfield held up a hand, warningly. His gaze was focused upwards, as if he was trying to peer through the vaulted, beamed ceiling itself. “The wards—” he said. “Something’s wrong.”
Then he took off, walking rapidly towards the lobby bar. Charles followed.
“What? What’s wrong?”
Copperfield went straight to the waitress’ coffee station, scooped up the three-quarters-full pot of decaf from the warming plate, and then made a direct beeline for the elevators, his speed picking up but still staying short of an actual run.
Now getting more alarmed, Charles stretched his own legs to catch up. Something was wrong; though he wasn’t sure how exactly he knew. Or was he just reacting to Copperfield’s urgency? He wasn’t sure about that, either.
Copperfield took one look at the bank of elevators—none of which were on the lobby level at that moment—then went straight to the emergency exit and the stairs, still balancing the steaming pot of coffee in one hand.
But once in the stairwell and out of mortal sight, Copperfield did start running, at a speed no human could match. By the time Charles had reached the base of the stairwell, Copperfield was already well past the third floor. Charles picked up his own pace as best he could, gripping his walking stick tightly in one hand while trying to unscrew the top knob with the other, following the scent of coffee up all eight flights to their own floor.
* * * *
Diane had been awakened by TJ’s first yell, but it had taken her a few seconds to realize what she’d heard was not part of some ridiculous movie soundtrack. A few thumps and a metallic clang from the other side of the door brought her up to her feet.
“TJ?” she called, padding over to the connecting door in her bare feet. She listened, hand on the doorknob.
A grunt and a crash answered her. Diane pulled the door open, and narrowly missed getting kicked by one of TJ’s flailing feet as he grappled with a uniformed bellhop on the floor in front of her.
She yelped in alarm, and jumped back. Something moved in her peripheral vision; she glanced up and saw someone standing in the hall.
“Don’t just stand there, help—“ she started to yell, but her voice faltered when she saw the man’s eyes. She felt a sudden chill pass through her, as if her very blood had been run through a refrigerator. His eyes were so dark, so compelling. She couldn’t look away.
“Come here, girl. Come to me.”
Diane took a step towards him, and he smiled. The chill she’d experienced just seconds before abruptly melted away, and now a seductive languor stole through her body. There was a such a promise in his smile, desire in his dark eyes, all focused entirely on her. “Come, my beauty,” he whispered, “Come to me.”
Two steps. Even as she walked towards him, some little part of her was still protesting, Stop, what are you doing? This is wrong, who is this guy, what about… about… something… Her train of thought trailed off to nothing, the rest of the room seemed to fade away. He stood outside the door, smiling, waiting for her. She could already imagine his hands on her, feel her body yearning for his touch. Only a few steps more—
At that moment TJ managed to get better traction in his floor struggle, and shoved the bellhop directly into the cart, which in term sent it skidding sideways into Diane’s hip. The plate of food it had contained went flying, and the glass of iced tea tipped over as well, its frigid contents dashing down her bare leg.
“Ow!” She glared at TJ and the sprawling bellhop for a second. “Dammit, TJ, what are you doing? I was almost—“
Almost what? Shit!
She turned again, looked back at the door, but the figure standing there was gone. Her heart was pounding in her ears, and for a second she felt a pang of loss. Where did he go?
“Diane, look out—“ TJ gasped from the floor.
The bellhop scrambled to his feet, eyes wild. TJ was down, but still moving. There was blood running down his face, and his hair was loose and wild.
Diane looked around sharply for something heavy, and picked up the solid brass lamp from the desk, wrenching it free from the wall socket.
The bellhop looked at Diane, brandishing the lamp, and at the open door. His original belligerence seemed to be fading quickly into uncertainty now that he was clearly outnumbered.
TJ grabbed the bellhop’s ankle. “Oh no you don’t—“
The bellhop kicked TJ hard his other foot. With a grunt of pain, TJ let go, .
Diane advanced, but the bellhop was only interested in escaping. He shoved her roughly aside and made for the door, only to encounter another even bigger obstacle—Mr. Copperfield, who threw the contents of a pot of hot coffee right into the man’s face.
The bellhop cried out in pain, hands raised to his face; it took almost no effort on Mr. Copperfield’s part at all to knock him down again, and hold him down with one knee solidly placed on the man’s chest.
“Mr. Greer, Ms. Webster—are you alright?”
Diane set the lamp down and knelt next to TJ. “I’m okay. TJ got hit with something—“ She looked up, suddenly. “What happened to the other guy?”
“Other guy? There was another one?” Copperfield asked.
“In—in the hallway—“ Diane said, pointing, just as Dr. Hewitt arrived in the doorway, a long, narrow sword blade in one hand, and the wooden barrel of his walking stick in the other.
“Good lord,” the professor exclaimed. “Whatever in the world is going on up here?”
* * * *
“Here,” Diane pressed the iced washcloth into TJ’s hand. “Hold that on your head.”
“Thanks…” TJ groaned and did as he was told.
“So,” Copperfield said, staring rather coldly down at their captive. Ramon (at least that was the name on his employee’s badge) was sitting in the desk chair, his wrists bound behind him with the strap from TJ’s carry-on bag. His face was puffy, red and blotchy.
“I only deliver the food,” he repeated, his eyes shifting between Copperfield’s glare and the more tangible threat of the sword blade in Charles’ hand.
So, Charles’ walking stick had concealed a sword inside. Diane wondered why she was in the least bit surprised. She also wondered how he’d gotten it through airport security.
“But as my young associates have already stated, we didn’t order any food,” Copperfield said. “In fact, your order form here says this order was for room 624.”
“No, no, cook write on slip very clear, room 824,” Ramon insisted. “Please, I am only doing my job!”
“What about the other guy?” Diane asked.
“What other guy?” Charles echoed.
“You said that before,” Copperfield nodded. “Tell me what you remember—he was outside the door the entire time? Or did he ever come inside?”
Diane frowned. “He was outside, standing in the hall. Just watching. He wanted me to come out. To come to him.”
“He told you to come?” Charles asked, sharply. “What did he look like?”
“I—I don’t remember, exactly,” she said, flustered. The more she tried to remember his face, the less of it she could see. “I think he had dark hair…. Some kind of accent. Not like this guy’s, though. Something else. Then TJ and that guy there knocked the cart into me, and when I looked up again, he was gone.”
“Perhaps I should go take a look,” Charles said. “See if he’s still lurking about.”
“No, he’s long gone, I imagine,” Copperfield said. He turned back to the bellhop. “Ramon,” he said sternly, “Look at me. Yes, like that. I want your complete and undivided attention. Now, I want you to tell me everything you saw and heard tonight, starting with the cook giving you the order. “
“I am going to lose job,” Ramon whimpered.
“Remember the cook giving you the order,” Copperfield continued. “Don’t think about anything else. The cook gives you the order, you see the number on the paper. What do you see? What room is the order for?”
“824,” Ramon said. “He say, take this up to 824. So I go do that….”
“Did you talk to anyone else in the hallway? Or the elevator? Anyone at all?”
“No… I… the man in the elevator, he…” Ramon’s eyes blinked rapidly. “He has badge. FBI agent. He… he says he needs my help—“
“FBI?” Diane started, but Charles held up a hand, and put his finger to his lips meaningfully. She fell silent again. FBI? Really? Then how come he didn’t say so back then? And what the hell would the FBI want with us anyway?
“Of course you would want to help the FBI.” Copperfield’s voice had changed. Before he had been stern, dangerous. Now he was reassuring, sympathetic, his voice smooth as honey. “What did he ask you to do, Ramon?”
“He say… he wants me to go into room, and look around. Search… He say people in 824 steal valuable things from museum. I should go check, and then he will call police.”
“Did he come with you to the room?”
“No… he followed to door. He said… I could go in without warrant.”
Copperfield held out the kitchen’s order form. “And this is for what room number?”
“I told you, 824. See, it says right there!”
Even Diane could see the slip of paper now, where the numbers 624 were clearly written in black felt-tip ink.
Copperfield frowned, and exchanged a glance with Charles. “Interesting….” He then turned back to their prisoner.
“Ramon, tell me about this FBI man. What did he look like? Tell me about him, as much as you can remember.”
Ramon swallowed hard. “He… wears very good suit. Nice tie. He speaks good Spanish. His face…. “ He blinked again, more rapidly. “I don’t remember. He looked like FBI man. Like on television.”
“An FBI agent? Oh, dear,” Charles murmured, and turned to Diane, speaking in a low whisper. “Did he look like an FBI agent to you? Did he have a badge?”
“No,” she whispered back. “I mean… I don’t remember seeing a badge. I think he was wearing a suit… It was dark, I really couldn’t see him clearly.”
Charles glanced over towards the suite’s door. The entryway light was on. “Dark? Even in the hallway?”
“I told you, I don’t remember!” Diane snapped. It came out a little louder than she had intended. Even Mr. Copperfield was looking at her now. Her cheeks felt flushed.
“Anyway, shouldn’t we be calling the police? For this guy, I mean,” she said, waving her hand at Ramon. “That’s their job, isn’t it, asking questions? Finding the other guy?”
Copperfield glanced at Charles again.
“Of course, you’re right,” Charles assured her. “That’s what the police are for. But heavens, look at the time. You must be exhausted—especially after this rude intrusion woke you out of a sound sleep! There’s no need for you and Thomas to be involved in the rest of this. You two go on to bed—we’re going to call the hotel security right away about this little incident, I assure you.“
Her agitation faded away, giving way to fatigue. At that moment, there was nothing more she wanted than to crawl back into her bed and pretend all of this had been a bad dream, especially the guy in the doorway, whose face she could no longer remember.
“But—but what if the—the police want to interview us, too—“ she managed, as Charles was gently ushering her and TJ back towards the adjoining bedroom.
“They can just call you in the morning,” Charles assured her. “Not tonight. I’m sure they’d much rather talk to you when you’re awake and thinking clearly. Don’t worry, Diane. Everything will work out just fine….”
With that reassurance, she was able to sleep.
To Be Continued….