7 · Favor
It was dark. The air was damp, though Elisha couldn’t say it was wet. Some facts immediately sprang to mind. Elisha remembered it had rained recently, but it didn’t seem to be doing so anymore. She was laying belly-down on the ground. She tried to turn over and look at the sky, but her body screamed out in pain, so she relented. Elisha’s face plopped back down in the dirt. Slowly, she reached out towards her sides, feeling nothing.
How long had she been lying here?
Where was here?
“Make you some breakfast?”
Elisha held her breath. A male voice echoed from the dark, but she knew it came from several feet up and from her right. It was airy but had a slight wetness to it, the man’s lips smacking on several syllables. There was also the hint of an accent, though she couldn’t source it. Her eyes had adjusted a little, but the blackness was so deep, she saw nothing.
She heard footsteps and thought she finally saw movement, but it could have been her mind trying to compensate for her eyes, based on sound. Reverberations told her they must have been in a large room.
“Sorry. Little joke.”
The voice paused.
“You know, you really ought to watch your step. Crevices run all along the earth out here and flash floods do a number on the soil.”
Elisha’s instinct was to reply with a witty retort, but as soon as she tried to talk, she sputtered and coughed. Her chest heaved against the ground. It was probably better that way. She didn’t know who she was dealing with and whether it was just the two of them or if anyone else was in the room.
What Elisha thought was a hand reached out and, in spite of her pain, she futilely slapped it away.
“Stop,” she croaked. It was a worthless gesture, but it was a simple act of defiance she could carry out.
The hand withdrew.
“The ground is cold. Let me help you up. Somewhere more comfortable.”
Her options were limited. She could feel the small wooden fish pushing into her quadricep through her front left pocket. It would seem that a little bit of luck was on her side, given that she hadn’t impaled herself on it. At least she didn’t think she had, given that the pain she was feeling was more dull than sharp.
Best to play along. Resisting now would be stupid. If she wanted to get out of this, Elisha had to find the moment of opportunity. Though likely, she was unsure if she was dealing with the target, and again, she was unsure whether they were truly alone. Right now, there were some awfully big blanks to be filled. Had the old man been underestimated or had Elisha not been told everything? It wouldn’t be the first time, but that was often the nature of the business. Even the best recon job was unable to gather every piece of relevant information. Surprises popped up all the time. It was all about extrapolating and filling in those blanks. The best approach now was to ask questions and evaluate answers.
“Why haven’t you killed me?”
It’s often good to cut to the chase. If he was the target, and as valuable as the handler had claimed him to be, he shouldn’t be surprised that he’d been marked. If he was someone else, at least the question would throw him off. Given the situation, the first thought would seem to be the most likely.
“An odd question. Should I have?”
A coy answer, which made Elisha a little nervous. She had encountered some pretty scuzzy folks in her line of work. Maybe this was one of the ones that liked slow torture. They usually opened up this way. Took their time and didn’t want the game to end too quickly.
“Who are you?” she asked. She was slowly flexing her muscles. Checking her strength.
It wasn’t a question normally posed. She usually didn’t want to find out. It only gave her a name to apply to a face and once names were given, things were no longer things. Still, it was the question that pushed itself to the front of her mind.
After a moment of silence, the man spoke.
“A question I’ll answer later,” he said. “I’m sure you’re thirsty. Unless you’d prefer to lay on the ground and eat mud, my tea is much better.” She could feel his grin cutting through the dark and thought she saw the outline move away. There was the sound of objects clanking together and a liquid being poured. Elisha’s lips suddenly felt dry and cracked.
“If you don’t want my help and you can manage,” he continued, “feel free to get up yourself. No tricks, I promise. By the way you’re moving your muscles, you don’t seem to have broken anything.”
How does he see so well in this darkness?
She recalled the handler had marked him as special. Maybe he was a Sighter–a nickname for someone with the ability to see clearly in the dark where somebody like Elisha would just fumble along. Or it could be he was just wearing a pair of night-vision goggles. Sometimes the easiest explanation was the best explanation.
As she puzzled the situation out in her mind, every part of her body seemed to ache and scream out. The man appeared to be correct about nothing being broken. Her arms and legs were bending and moving as needed, though she would be sore as hell the next day. Of course that was assuming there would be a next day.
She placed her palms down against the ground and slowly pushed herself up onto her knees. As if waiting to be kicked, she tensed her stomach muscles and turned her head slightly away.
“I’m being rude,” he said. “Let me turn on the lights.”
He took a breath.
“May want to squint or close your eyes.”
Before she could react, there was a snap, like a whip being cracked or someone stepping on a dry stick. The room lit up and Elisha’s eyes snapped shut at the brightness. She opened them slowly to a squint. Turning her head upward, she spotted two parallel lines of lanterns hanging from the ceiling. She was thankful to see a low flame dancing in each one. As her vision adjusted, she saw that the ceiling was made of black rock and curved down to the walls, which were also made of rock.
They were in a cave.
Then she looked over to where the voice had come from, wiping the blur from her eyes, confident that she wasn’t about to take a boot to the abdomen. Her vision was almost completely normal now. So much for night vision goggles. She saw that the man was indeed old and wore no eyegear. His pink, wrinkled neck hung outside of his long-sleeved, white button-up shirt. Looking closer, the flesh was covered in faded black marks, reminding Elisha of a bruised piece of meat. Her mind searched and searched until she remembered one of the snowbirds she passed on the way up to the Pisgah rim. It would seem he’d been doing some reconnaissance of his own.
“I’m sure you have several questions. Go ahead. Ask the obvious one.”
Elisha thought for a moment.
“I figured you for a Sighter, but…a Minder?”
“Hmm. The assassins usually ask what I’m going to do to them, but I guess yours makes sense. Being who you are and everything.” His hands shuffled around in his pockets and he looked up. “I’m neither a Sighter nor a Minder as you know them in the traditional sense. I have a few tricks up my sleeve though. The lanterns, they’ve been burning the whole time. Your vision was restricted. It’s a part of my security system.”
Elisha recalled the moments before she had felt herself falling. There was the shack which she had opened and found a ticking smiley faced clock.
“The shack,” Elisha said faintly. She was was struggling to catch her breath. Propped on her knees, she leaned back, stretching and cracking her joints.
The old man smiled through yellowed teeth. “A little joke of mine. A decoy. I’ve got a bit of a sense of humor.” He rubbed his hands together. “What about the screams? Do you remember the screams?”
Elisha’s hands almost instinctively went to her ears. How could she forget?
He smiled again, this time wider. “I see you do. Excellent, excellent. My favorite part.” He looked at her and his smile left him. “Sorry about that. But as you can see, it’s a necessity. I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you if I hadn’t resorted to those measures. You’re not the first to come tip-toeing through my desert tulips.”
Elisha stared at him.
“There have been others?”
She almost asked where they came from, but given the circumstances and his nonchalant attitude toward her other questions, she knew what the answer would be. Still, he replied as if he had read her question just by looking at her eyes.
“Came from the same folks that sent you. They’re dead. The people they sent, that is. Most of them by my hands, though not always directly.”
Elisha realized she had begun to let her guard down. She had to remember who she was dealing with here.
“Don’t worry,” he said with a chuckle. “They weren’t you. No reason to kill you, though things would have gotten interesting had you tried to kill me.”
“What is that supposed to mean? Who’s to say I still won’t?”
She realized she was pushing things. It was all a part of that frustration she still felt from earlier.
“Come off it, Elisha.” His tone grew insistent. “Means exactly what you think it means. Means I won’t kill you, you won’t kill me. Means I know you’re’ looking for your sister and I know where she is. Means I’ll tell you how to find her.”
Unsure of what to say, Elisha simply stared.
“But…” he continued. The word sat in the air. He smiled at her as if they shared a secret.
“What do you want?” she asked.
He poured himself some more tea.
“I only ask a small favor. Now please, come over here and enjoy some iced tea. When the skies are clear, I brew up the most wonderful sun tea.”