George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Houston, TX — June 20th, 2004
Another night, another red-eye flight.
Diane stifled a yawn and tried to get more comfortable in her seat—TJ had won the toss for the window on this leg of the trip, and was already out for the count. Just once, she wished they could find a cheap flight that didn’t turn her sleeping schedule upside down. But she wasn’t paying for the tickets, so it wasn’t as though she had much room to complain.
“The Atlanta connection was a bit cheaper,” she overheard Charles telling Copperfield, in the seats behind them. “But a two hour layover—I didn’t think that would be a good idea.” Then he dropped into French. “Vous ne savez jamais qui pourrait être regarder.”
You never know who might be watching. It was amazing how well her high-school French still held up.
“Oui, je suis d’accord,” Copperfield replied. Even to her ear, his pronunciation sounded perfect. “Yes, I agree. Chicago’s much safer. With any luck, they’ll never know we were there.”
Diane wasn’t sure who “they” were, or why a two hour layover in O’Hare was somehow safer than one in Atlanta. One airport was really much like another when it came to that, wasn’t it? Long terminals, long walks from one gate to another, and at that hour, they’d be lucky if anything was even open.
Then she remembered a dark-eyed stranger standing in the hallway outside their hotel rooms, and she felt a chill that had nothing to do with the air-conditioning on the plane. At least Charles and Mr. Copperfield were with them. Was their arrival what had driven the stranger away?
And what had that all been about, anyway? How could anyone suspect Charles of stealing from a museum? He’d purchased the jar from an estate sale, she’d filed the paperwork for him. He hadn’t even used University money.
Charles had told them it was just a misunderstanding. That they’d talked to the night manager and handed the deluded bellhop over to hotel security. There was no FBI, just a silly prank that had gone wrong when the bellhop misread his room slip. The hotel management had been extremely apologetic, and had even removed the cost of last night’s hotel room and their meals for the day off the bill.
But that guy in the hallway… maybe he wasn’t FBI, but he had been real. And he hadn’t come across as the pranking kind.
Diane was very glad they were leaving Houston, even if it meant traveling overnight again, through Chicago to Baltimore. At least it felt like they were on the trail of something interesting, if they did get to see the Qebehsenuef jar. And if it had the strange writing as the Imseti jar that Charles had in his carry-on bag, that really would be a discovery. Would the writing be the same? Or different? Maybe they could even find the rest of the set, and track down how the pieces had been separated, and what the strange characters meant. She might even consider changing the topic of her dissertation, with such a fascinating find to research.
O’Hare Airport, Chicago, IL — June 21st, 2004
There wasn’t much open in the O’Hare terminal at that hour. But fortunately, the Starbucks café was, and it was close enough to smell as they stepped out of the gate..
“Donuts, TJ?” Diane asked, looking over at his tray. “At two in the morning?”
“I’m recovering from a traumatic head injury,” TJ informed her. “I need to keep up my strength. Hey, Charles—are you done with the paper?”
“What?” Charles looked up from his tea. “Oh, the paper—“ He started to reach for what remained of the Houston Chronicle, but Mr. Copperfield laid a hand on it first.
“Actually, if you don’t mind, Mr. Greer—“ Copperfield said smoothly, “I wanted to finish the crossword puzzle in that one. But if you just want some reading matter, I’m through with this one. Fair trade?” He offered the folded Baltimore Sun across the space between their two tables.
“Oh, sure,” TJ said amiably, accepting it. “That one’s probably more current anyway.”
“Yes, it is,” Copperfield agreed, giving a little half smile. “And it’s always better to read up on where we’re going, rather than where we’ve been, don’t you think?”
“I guess so,” TJ laid the paper down flat next to his donuts so he could eat with his free hand.
Copperfield fished inside his jacket for a pen, and got to work on the crossword.
Diane looked around. The coffee shop was almost deserted; other than their own group, there were only two other people in the shop. One was a jet-lagged businessman who kept checking his watch. The other was a young woman, a college student perhaps, who was sipping at her coffee, a paperback held open on the table in front of her.
Their eyes met for a second. The girl looked away quickly, coughing a little as a little coffee apparently went the wrong way. Then she got up from her chair, stuffing the paperback into her backpack, which she swung up over one shoulder.
She had to walk by their table to get to the exit. Diane offered her a smile, one red-eye traveler to another, but the girl never looked down or back, dropping her used coffee cup into the trash on her way out.
“Well, that was weird,” TJ commented, watching the girl leave.
“Maybe she’s just tired,” Diane said, turning back to her own coffee.
“Then she should have finished the coffee,” TJ said. “That cup was still half-full.”
“How do you know?”
“It fell like it had weight. Styrofoam cups don’t. Oh, hey—Di, look at this.” He folded the newspaper and turned it around for her to view.
It was a quarter-page ad for the upcoming Stolen Treasures of Egypt exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art—the very exhibit they were traveling to see. Diane pulled it close to read the smaller print and to study the images in the background of the ad. “Why do they always use stock shots for these?” she grumbled. “I know nothing from the Tutankhamun discovery should be there. And that looks like the Khufu sarcophagus—“
“Technically, the Khufu sarcophagus was stolen,” TJ said. “Smuggled out of the country, anyway. Along with a lot of other items, probably. That happened a lot back then.”
“So does this mean it’s actually in the exhibit? Or is it just another stock photo, like the Tutankhamen death mask?” She turned to the professor. “Charles? Did the brochure list any of the artifacts specifically?”
“That’s—that’s a very good question,” Charles checked inside his carry-on bag (which also held the precious canopic jar in its well-padded container). “I don’t think the Khufu piece was listed, but have a look—“
Diane put her empty coffee cup aside and opened the brochure Charles handed her on the table, reading quickly. The text wasn’t much help—it had clearly been written by the PR department, and while it did discuss the “stolen” nature of the various artifacts, and glossed over the sordid history behind it, it said very little about the artifacts themselves. But there were a few small photos of items that did not look like generic artifact shots, meaning they might actually be in the exhibit itself.
“Looks like maybe the Khufu is part of it,” Diane said. “I don’t see any shots of canopic jars, but maybe they hadn’t collected all the exhibit pieces when they did the photos. The Khufu was… British Museum collection, wasn’t it?”
“I—yes, I believe so,” Charles agreed.
“Cool,” TJ said. “I hope it is, that would save the cost of airfare to London!”
“Speaking of Baltimore—“ Copperfield put his pen back inside his jacket and folded up his newspaper. “It’s probably time for us to start heading to our gate.”
“Oh, right—“ TJ grabbed the last half-a-donut and his carry-on bag. Diane slid the brochure and the newspaper page with the ad into her own bag for later perusal.
Mr. Copperfield was the last one in line as they left the coffee shop; he dropped the folded Houston Chronicle he’d been working on into the trash, followed by his coffee cup—which fell with a heavy, sloshing clunk.
The walk to their departure gate was, as expected, long. A few clumps of weary night travelers were already sprinkled through the waiting area, in the ages-old pattern of strangers randomly distributing themselves at polite distances from one another. There was one section of seats still unoccupied, and so Etienne, Charles, and the students settled there.
Etienne placed his carry-on bag on the floor in between his feet and kept alert. Chicago was Camarilla territory, but unfamiliar, and he had not called the local chantry for any information. Part of the perks of being who he was meant he didn’t have to tell lower-ranked Tremere—not even Regents—of his itinerary. In this case, a two-hour layover scarcely required any kind of courtesy call—in fact, had he informed the local Chantry of his presence, they might have felt obliged to pay such a call to him, and that was a bother he could well do without.
Baltimore would be another matter, but he’d have Sarah McCullough to smooth things over for him on that count. And hopefully, they’d be able to avoid stirring up the political storms that he’d gone to so much trouble to quash during his previous visit. Their hotel reservations were in Towson, the suburban city where Sarah claimed her Domain, not Baltimore proper, for that very reason.
At least Hewitt’s grad assistants had not questioned the story their professor had told them about what had really happened the night before. They might not have entirely believed it—Etienne had caught flickers of unease and doubt from Ms. Webster in particular—but he’d noticed they hadn’t protested about booking a flight out of town at very short notice, either.
For the time being, that was good enough. They weren’t his blood-servants, and therefore by Tradition, what they knew or didn’t know was Hewitt’s responsibility. But if Dr. Hewitt preferred to keep his graduate assistants ignorant of the true nature of the risks, then it might be better to bring in more experienced daytime staff and send the students back to Wisconsin. The only question was who—
Etienne felt a vague itching somewhere between his shoulder blades. He’d felt it in the coffee shop as well—when that girl had been watching them. Not the casual kind of looking around one might do when bored in a public place, but watching, with purpose. When Ms. Webster had noticed her, she’d left in a bit of a rush. Greer had been right about her coffee cup not being empty, too.
He was not surprised when a minute or so later, the same girl came into view again, walking a little too quickly to be entirely casual, and plopping herself and her backpack down in a seat where she could see them, but far enough away so as to not be too obvious about it.
She was young, casually dressed in jeans and one of those layered knit tops that were popular with the twenty-something crowd. But she wasn’t really reading the paperback she held up; her attention was elsewhere, and her colors flickered with stress, excitement, and a touch of fear.
“Hewitt,” Etienne murmured, in as low a voice as he could manage and still be understood. “We seem to have attracted some attention—that young lady over there has been watching us since the coffee shop.”
“Hmmm.” The Ventrue’s gaze flickered out to the girl and then back to his newspaper. “Why, I wonder?”
“Good question. She could just work for whoever watches O’Hare—but she does seem rather nervous about being here.”
“A little excitement in an otherwise humdrum night, perhaps,” Hewitt said. “Assuming our arrival was a bit of a surprise, at least I would hope it was.”
“There’s something else, too.” Etienne reached inside his jacket pocket and brought out a scrap of newspaper—an article he’d torn out of the Houston Chronicle—which had been far more of interest to him than the crossword. He passed it to Hewitt.
“Oh, dear….” Hewitt murmured, scanning the headline. Hotel Employee Found Dead in Staff Restroom. The article didn’t give the victim’s name, but it definitely had been their hotel. Local police thought it was some kind of drug deal gone wrong, from the evidence at the scene. “But you didn’t—“
“No. Of course not,” Etienne had to focus to keep his voice low. “No, I just gave him a cover story and sent him back downstairs. Apparently someone else was not as forgiving. I didn’t want them to see it. But we’ll have to be on our guard. Even when we get to Baltimore.”
His eyes flicked back to the girl, pretending to read her book while her gaze darted nervously back and forth—watching them, but also sometimes watching down the long terminal corridor, as if she were expecting someone else to arrive. “Which also could mean this girl is a problem.”
“She’ll be able to see what flight we get on—rather obvious already actually, since we’re sitting right at the gate,” Hewitt said.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Etienne agreed. “Which wouldn’t really matter, if this is just an issue of the local Kindred watching airport traffic. But we don’t know that for certain.”
“We could ask her,” Hewitt suggested. “See what she says—or does. If she realizes we’re aware of her too?”
“We could,” Etienne nodded. “Or perhaps… since she’s already attracted the eye of Mr. Greer there… he’d like to do the honors?”
It was true. TJ was already stealing looks in the girl’s general direction.
“She does seem to be going our way, Thomas,” Hewitt said, just a little louder, and the young man turned his head towards the professor immediately. “It’s rather lonely to travel by oneself, perhaps she’d like a bit of friendly conversation… if you wanted to go chat her up before we boarded?”
“Maybe…” TJ hesitated. A touch of color heated his cheeks. “You don’t think it would be a bit creepy? Me just walking up to her out of the blue?”
“The mere fact that you can even consider that question is already a point in your favor,” Diane informed him. “Just give her space, and if she doesn’t want to talk, take the hint and walk away. You’ve got sisters, use your imagination.”
TJ gave her an odd look. “Uh… okay, then. I’ll try not to be creepy.” he said, and rose to his feet.
Well, if nothing else, TJ could take a hint well, Etienne reflected. His gaze remained mostly fixed on his remaining section of newspaper, but he focused his attention on the grad student and the girl, sharpening his hearing and senses to pick up what he could
TJ walked over to where the girl was sitting, and sat down, two seats away. “Hi,” he said. “Going to Baltimore?”
The girl picked up her backpack from the adjacent chair and held it on her lap, wrapping her arms around it a bit nervously. “Uh–yeah,” she stammered. “Are you?”
“Yeah, me too—kinda dumb question, sorry. That’s why we’re all sitting here, isn’t it. School?”
Her colors were nervous, on edge—but it wasn’t TJ who was making her nervous, Etienne guessed.
“Are you going for school? In Baltimore, I mean. They’ve got some good ones there, I hear. Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland, and all.”
“No—grandmother,” she blurted out. “I mean, I’m going to visit my grandmother. In Baltimore.”
“Cool,” TJ answered. “So you live in Chicago, then–?”
“Evanston,” she said, looking down the corridor again. Etienne resisted the temptation to look himself.
“I’m from Iowa. Dubuque. My name’s TJ—“
She stood up, suddenly, holding on to her backpack. “I—I just remembered, I have to call my grandmother. To-uh—tell her I’m coming. I’ll be back. Don’t—don’t let the plane leave without me, okay?” Without even waiting for his reply, she turned and walked away from the gate very quickly, clutching her backpack close to her chest.
Then she ducked into the ladies’ room.
“Well, that settles it, she’s spooked,” Etienne said, and stood up, leaving the newspaper on his chair.
“You can’t go in there!” Hewitt hissed at him, alarmed.
“Of course not,” Etienne assured him. “But if I wave at you, please send Ms. Webster over.”
“What?” Ms. Webster looked up from her book.
Etienne walked briskly over to the restroom and stood near the wall, focusing his hearing inside.
She was the only one in there at the moment. He could hear her breathing, her heartbeat—both going a little fast. And yes, he was right—he heard the faint beeps of a cell phone being dialed.
“Where are you?” It was a man’s voice on the phone. “You were supposed to keep an eye on them, Chloe. Can’t you do anything right?”
“I—I know, sir, but—one of them saw me. He was asking all these questions, like where I was from and—“
“And then what? You panicked and ran off, is that it? That will only make them even more suspicious of you, you know. Where are you now?”
“I’m sorry, sir—I just didn’t know what else to—“
“Where. Are. You. Now? Just answer me.”
“I—I’m in the ladies’ room.”
“And you feel safe in there, do you? Idiot! You’re alone in there! There will be no one to hear you scream! Get back out there where there are lots of people around you. And you will get on that plane if Jacques doesn’t get there before they finish boarding. Is. That. Clear?”
She sounded like she was just shy of tears. “Yes—yes, sir.”
Etienne moved back, so he was not in immediate sight of anyone coming out of the restroom, waited.
A minute or two later, she came out, swinging the backpack up on her shoulder again, ready to face the world.
Etienne slid in behind her. “Hello, Chloe—“
“Shit!” She whirled around and made for the restroom again, but Etienne intercepted her, blocking her way and catching her arm.
“Too late for that,” he hissed. “Look at me—“
She did, reflexively; a wide pair of blue eyes met his, and just as quickly, he had her.
“Now, Chloe,” he said, in a low voice, holding her gaze, guiding her gently away from the door. “There’s no need to be afraid. Just listen carefully. You don’t want to make a scene or attract attention. Nod your head if you understand me…. ”
She nodded. There were tears brimming in her eyes; one tear escaped and ran down her cheek.
“Good. Wipe your eyes, that’s it. Take a breath, slow and steady. That’s better. One breath at a time. Now, I want you to take your phone out and give it to me.”
She dug into her jeans pocket without looking and silently handed it over.
“Thank you,” he said. “I want you to remain calm, just keep breathing slowly and steadily just like that. We’re just going to go over there and sit down, and have a nice, friendly little chat.”
TO BE CONTINUED…..