The Forever Engine – Snippet 10
I looked the guy over. Scars on his face and knuckles told the story of a violent life. Hard eyes told it better. Red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes, broken veins on his nose to match — a life of alcohol as well as violence. But he looked strong now, in a lean, ratlike way, and clearheaded. There was life in his eyes — not exactly hope, but defiance and self-respect. This wasn’t a hired tough; this was a man with beliefs.
His pupils were dilated. All mixed up in the smells of sweat and soot, the smells of the man and his world, there was something else, something herbal and smoky. Marijuana? Maybe so.
“What’s your name?” I asked. He hesitated. “What do you want me to call you?”
“Would you like a smoke, Grover?” I asked. The question caught him by surprise, but then he shrugged.
“Captain Gordon, give him one of your cheroots.”
“I’m damned if I will! These bastards killed Tyndall.”
“Just do it, man,” Thomson ordered softly.
Gordon threw the small cigar onto the couch. The prisoner snatched it, put it in his mouth, and grinned.
I took a match from Gordon, struck it, and the prisoner puffed the cheroot to life. The room filled with its aromatic smoke, and he leaned back in relaxed pleasure, his pain and fear momentarily forgotten.
“Captain Gordon has told you that, no matter what, you’ll hang. Well, that’s not much of a surprise, is it? Two constables, a colonel, and one of the most respected scientists in England all dead — hard to imagine they’ll let you off with a warning. My guess is, the time you spend here, smoking that cigar, is probably going to be the best time you have left in your life, so savor it. From here on out it will either be just so-so, or truly horrendous. You understand that, right?”
His smile faded a bit, and his eyes grew thoughtful. After a moment he nodded.
“Okay, good. You probably aren’t going to betray anything important to us, so instead let’s see if you can satisfy our curiosity about some smaller things. Professor Thomson figures he knows who you work for. Who’s that again, Prof?”
“The Old Man,” Thomson said.
I watched the thug’s face. If Thomson was wrong, I’d have seen disdain or triumph. Instead I saw nothing, a wall.
The Old Man. The Old Man of the Mountain? That would explain the smell of cannabis. The timing was about eight hundred years off, though.
“Well, whoever. Here’s what I’m curious about. I get that he’s killing some group of guys, and Tyndall was next on the list. But why did he want me? And why the coin?”
The prisoner took the cheroot from his mouth and studied the ash for a moment, considering his answer.
“Well, ‘e’s a collector, see? Go’ to collect all the li’l shiny bits what come frew the ‘ole.”
“The ‘ole in time. ‘E’s already got lots o’ shiny bits. Don’t think you’re the first, do ya?”
The hole in time! I sat up straight and leaned forward.
“I need to find him.”
Grover’s expression clouded over as if he realized he’d said too much. “‘E’ll find you, soon enough.”
“Yeah, well, he’s got his schedule and I’ve got mine. Where is he?”
I figured I knew the answer — Syria. That’s where The Old Man of the Mountain — Shaykh al-Jabal in Arabic — had been based along with his cult of hashshashins — fearless killers, from whom the word assassin derived. The story was they took hashish before a mission to fortify their courage and dull the pain of any wound or injury they might suffer. That had always sounded pretty far-fetched to me, and London was a long way from the cult’s recruiting area, but it wouldn’t be the screwiest thing about this place. Not even close.
Grover’s face tightened, and his eyes narrowed to slits. Everything up until then was bragging — this approached betrayal, and I had the feeling he would never voluntarily betray The Old Man.
“Look,” I said, “if he’s as good as you think he is, you’ll be doing him a favor. I’ll go charging in there, he’ll grab me, and then he’ll have what he wants. Besides, he’ll know we’re coming, right? If he knew about me and the coin, he knows everything going on here.”
We stared at each other, me daring him to talk, him calculating the angles. As I watched, I realized I was seeing the workings of an intelligent and sophisticated, if unschooled, mind. Now he was trying to figure out which play made the most sense, but not for him, for his boss.
“Stuff it,” he finally said.
Here was someone with brains, guts, and loyalty, even honor in his way, and this society had just discarded him. Then along came someone who recognized gemstones, even damaged ones lying in the gutter, and had swept him up. This wasn’t my world, and I was glad it wasn’t, because it was in bad trouble.
I gathered the plan had been to throw me in prison after the interview. Things having turned out as they had, they decided against prison, but that left my domestic arrangements up in the air. It turns out there were bedrooms on the third floor of the house for unexpected guests like me. I also found out the house had a name — Dorset House.
A maid — she couldn’t have been more than ten or twelve — showed me to my room and brought some cold cheese sandwiches and a pot of lukewarm tea. She also pointed out, with much blushing, the commode down the hall, where I was pleasantly surprised to find a functioning flush toilet.
I turned in early but had trouble getting to sleep. I wasn’t used to sleeping in odd places. A hospital, a bed-and-breakfast, that’s different. Those are places with labels, so you know how you’re supposed to feel about them. Dorset House — what kind of place was that? Also, I wasn’t sure when I was going to get a clean change of clothes, so I slept in the raw. The bed was cold and the sheets stiff and scratchy. I could have used a change of bandages on my burned back as well, but that would have to wait.
My thoughts didn’t help me doze off. Sitting in the interview room with Grover, the Cockney hashshashin, for just a moment I’d felt closer to an answer, closer to the way home. But since I’d come to this thoroughly screwed-up place, all I’d seen were hostile faces, violent death, and a London right out of a bad acid trip. I’d played this game of looking for allies, planning my next move — for what? Even if I found some “hole in time,” what then? How much closer would I be to finding what had altered my past and then undoing it? Not one inch. Lying there alone in that cold bed, I felt impossibly far away from anyone and anything I had ever cared about. And in that cold darkness, I couldn’t believe there was a way back to the warmth and light. I just couldn’t.