Previous scene: Elisha is given the opportunity to find her sister.
Previous POV scene: Elisha falls into the clutches of her intended target.
10 · Sun Tea
The air had a small bite to it. A coolness seeped in and penetrated Elisha’s damp clothes. A gift from the recent rain. After so many events, one would think Elisha would be used to the sudden torrents of strange weather, but the phenomena never ceased to astound her. Maybe it was because the time span in between jobs was so large that she was apt to forget the sensation. Because her marks were no easy targets, it took years of careful tracking and planning. Mistakes could not be afforded.
Yet mistakes still happened.
If that weren’t the case this time, she would have been well on her way out of town, another job well done. Perhaps she’d be sitting across from Pete, savoring a glass of Brown. It would have been a celebration drink. A bit of nose-thumbing toward her boss.
Instead she looked around the cavern in which she was either a guest or a hostage, neither of which boded well in her mind. The haze of pain and shellshock had cleared and an unusual picture unravelled: she and the old man sat across from each other in a pair of aluminum lawn chairs covered in red and green webbing. They sat not at the beach nor in front of a child’s soccer game, but among themselves, inside a lava tube that ran beneath the surface of the Mojave desert. It was likely only one of many that had been carved out thousands of years ago by rivers of molten rock. Such a location provided an ideal place for the old man to set up shop and escape the harsh summers along with the equally frigid winters. Of course the man could have lived in a modern house like a normal person, but he was obviously far from normal. Even if one hadn’t known he was special in ways unseen by the natural eye, he could make himself conspicuous if he wanted to, exposing the strange marks on his skin.
He said nothing, only taking occasional sips of tea as these thoughts charged through Elisha’s mind. His eyes were wary but calm. Elisha shivered when she realized that he was watching her, watching him. He held up the other glass of iced tea.
A moment of debate took place in her mind, but she realized that he had poured the tea from the same pitcher. That wasn’t exactly a guarantee, but she reasoned that being poisoned at this point would not seem a reasonable thing to occur. She would have been a rude guest not to accept what was offered and if she were indeed a hostage, at risk of annoying her captor further.
Besides, she was really, really thirsty.
Elisha reached over the table and took the glass.
“You mentioned my sister,” she said after taking a drink. The tea was quite good. Unsweetened, as she preferred.
The man’s voice emerged a hoarse whisper. The disproportionately large Adam’s apple on his thin throat bounced each time he spoke and swallowed. It reminded Elisha of that game at the fair where you have to slam down a ridiculously large hammer in an attempt to make the puck ring the bell.
“I also mentioned a small favor,” he continued.
Bemused, Elisha looked him in the eyes. He still had not lost his cool demeanor.
“Why do I have a feeling the favor is anything but small?” she asked quite rhetorically. “You don’t save people who have been tasked with killing you for small favors.”
He smiled his yellowed grin.
“Depends on your point of view. In the grand scheme of things, it’s small.” He took a sip of sun tea. “But you’re somewhat right. Small does not equate to easy. If anyone could do it, you wouldn’t be here. In fact, you probably wouldn’t have made it after that last little show of yours in Apple Valley.”
The man stood and reached up high, stretching taut his old flesh.
“You’re good,” he said. “But I’m better.”
He gave her a sharp look, then walked over to where Elisha had picked herself up off the ground. He looked up toward the gap in the cave ceiling and snapped his head quickly to the side. A pair of flat boards came together gently and closed the hole, putting the trapdoor back together.
“Before we get into the details of the favor, a history lesson is likely in order.”
“You are a mystery,” Elisha responded.
“Not mine, yours.”
Elisha grimaced. “I know my history.”
“You think you know your history. The trouble with pawns. Their view is limited. Can only see so much of the board,” he replied.
Elisha wondered just how right the old man was. How much did she know about the games being played in the backrooms, the lairs of the men and women behind the great machinery of which she was a cog. A good cog. A hardworking cog. But a cog nonetheless.
The old man turned toward her. “But I am inherently curious. Love to hear your view of things.”
Elisha stirred slightly. She wondered just how much she should say. It wasn’t as if she was in the military and in the case of capture, was instructed to only give name, rank, and serial number. No, her instructions had always been of a simpler sort:
If you’re captured, you say nothing. No matter what.
There was no Geneva convention in their line of work, so who was to say what would or wouldn’t be done to pull information. It was part of the reason front-line soldiers weren’t told much about their jobs. They wouldn’t have much to reveal.
“I understand your reticence. Have your own rules of the road and all that. I won’t force you to say anything. Though I’ve worked with many that have had no bones when it comes to pulling out information, never been one with a taste for it myself. Besides, most of the time, the information that comes out is useless. Even when they know nothing more, the victims begin to believe that they do, and that what they’re saying is the honest truth. Ends up more a waste of time than anything.”
The old man chuckled to himself.
“You know, of all of these useful strengths and powers we have, you’d think we’d have the ability to confidently discern truth from a lie. It’s a puzzle that’s been worked on for millennia, but it’s turned out a lot like ancient alchemy: a lot of hype, yet no gold from bronze.”
He looked directly into Elisha’s eyes. “Doesn’t mean some of us aren’t damned good at it. Just no magic to it, that’s all.”
Elisha figured she didn’t have much to lose at this point. In a best case scenario, even if she left here alive, it would soon become clear to her employers that the target had gotten away. That she had possibly become compromised. That she could no longer be trusted. The penalties for failure were harsh. For something that had come straight from the top, well, this was territory that Elisha wished never to explore. With her skills, she may be able to get away temporarily, but the Company had a wide reach. Life would not get any simpler, that much she knew.
The decision was made. She felt there was little to lose at this point.
“I’ll tell you what I know. I don’t see any harm in it. It’s obvious to me that you know much of it already.”
She took a deep breath.
“I was seven when Martha was taken away. She was eight. My mother and grandmother had warned us about strange weather which came out of the mountains, east of where we lived, but something had struck Martha’s curiosity. One day, she refused to hide with me and that was the last I time I ever saw her. A year had gone by when I was given the opportunity to find her again. My life had to change though. I had to leave home. I had to become a student of the organization for which I now work.”
There was a twinkle in the man’s eyes as she spoke.
Was he crying? Before she could tell, he turned away and took a drink of his tea. Elisha thought she saw him shivering, but it could have been a simple trick of the lantern light playing with the shadows.
“The rest of the story is just needless detail.”
He cleared his throat and turned toward Elisha. He approached and she instinctively stood. She sensed something powerful within him and she didn’t want to be the target. He gently raised his hand and placed it on her shoulder. There was a single tear running down his left cheek, carving a path along the wrinkles like a small rabbit hopping over snowy banks,.
“Yes, indeed it is.” As if suddenly aware of himself, he straightened up and reached into his pocket. He removed a small handkerchief and dabbed at his cheek. “I just realized that I’ve been a rude host. Haven’t properly introduced myself. My name is Peter Karovska. I’m responsible for what happened to Martha. This favor that I ask, not only helps you, but selfishly, is an attempt to atone for my sins.”