Oliver Lucas fumbled with the tap, doing his best to keep the blood on his knuckles from smearing onto the spring loaded knob as he attempted to wash the battered fingers of his left hand. It was quite the challenge and he was starting to get angry.
If only airlines had regular taps, he thought, or those timed pressure taps.
But no, the mandates of efficiency and conservation stood head and shoulders above the needs of passengers whose day-old scars started to crack and bleed in the dry cabin air of an eight hour flight.
Oliver finished washing his left hand and started in on the right, trying to finish before the newly washed knuckles began to bleed again. He succeeded, for the most part, then reached into his toiletry bag for a washcloth. He gingerly padded at his fingers until they were mostly dry, hardly noticing as fresh red splotches joined the faded brown blood stains already speckled across the washcloth. He fished the last remaining packet of liquid bandage from the bag, ripped it open with his teeth, and began slathering its contents across his abused knuckles, ignoring the burning of the antiseptic. He tossed the packet into the trash slot and began waving his hands gently up and down in front of him to dry the bandage.
“Not a bad price to pay,” he muttered to his reflection in the dingy plastic mirror. The man in the mirror nodded back at him and quirked a smile with one corner of his mouth.
Oliver leaned forward, inspecting his appearance. His khaki shirt was threadbare at the shoulders and bore the wrinkles of a transatlantic flight. His face was tanned from the unrelenting sun and snow glare of the last two weeks and the scraggly stubble of an underdeveloped beard was starting to show. His red hair was a disheveled mess from sleeping on the airplane. He ran a hand across the stubble on his chin and considered shaving before returning to his seat.
A soft knock sounded on the door of the tiny bathroom. Oliver started and reached for his bag, then cursed softly as he remembered that he was aboard an international flight. The handgun he had carried for the last two weeks was locked away in a safe in Reykjavik.
Relax, he told himself, it’s probably just another passenger who needs the toilet.
The knock came again. This time it was followed by the softly accented voice of a flight attendant, “Sir, are you alright in there?”
“Yes. Fine,” he replied, zipping his bag and reaching to unlock the door. “Coming out now.”
Oliver had hardly taken a step out of the restroom when he was nearly knocked over by a small boy pushing past him. The boy slammed the restroom door shut and Oliver looked to the flight attendant. She was about his height, with a thin frame and blond hair. Not exactly his type, but certainly pleasing to look at.
She smiled apologetically at Oliver. “I’m sorry sir, he was quite desperate and your compartment had been occupied the longest.”
He stole a glance at her name tag. “No worries… Eowyn. Just a bit of first aid for my hands. Had a bit of a rough time of it on a glacier in Iceland.” He flashed her a grin and waved one hand, knuckles towards her. As Oliver had expected, the flight attendant’s eyes lit up at the sight of his newly bandaged fingers.
“Are you a scientist?” she asked.
“You could say that, but not studying the ice or volcanoes. More of a historian looking for clues to the early settlers,” he explained.
“Fascinating. My sister is studying history at university.”
“Oh? What’s her favorite time period?”
She frowned and appeared to concentrate for a few seconds, then replied, “I don’t really know. She talks about the Celts a good deal though.”
Oliver smiled at that. “Neat people, the Celts. Can’t say I’m an expert on them myself, but I have a friend who worked at a dig in Brittany.”
She nodded and seemed about to say more, but at that moment a soft tone sounded from the service compartment. “It’s been lovely chatting with you, sir, but I have a call to attend to. I hope the remainder of your flight is enjoyable.”
She dipped her head to him and slipped past, catching hold of the beverage cart and pushing it down the aisle in front of her.
That was when Oliver noticed the man.
He sat three rows away from the restroom compartment, half way between Oliver and the place where the stewardess now stood dispensing a cola to an elderly passenger.
The man was staring at Oliver with undisguised interest. His dark eyes, small holes of black under a heavy brow, bored into Oliver across the rows. Oliver had never seen him before, but he certainly didn’t like the way he was looking at him.
Oliver turned away and returned to his seat. He didn’t need any trouble on the plane, but he would have to be careful when they debarked. He hoped that he was simply being paranoid.
Oliver traveled under his own name, of course. Airline security being what it was these days, it wasn’t safe for an average person to cross borders under a false name. But as soon as he was through Icelandic immigration control, Oliver had switched to one of the false identities he had purchased anonymously online several years back. He had scrupulously maintained that persona throughout his time in Iceland, up until the moment he stepped up to the ticket counter in Reykjavik to pick up his return ticket. If he was being followed, and that had yet to be proven, the dark eyed man had probably just booked a last minute seat when he heard the ticket agent announce which gate Oliver’s flight would leave from.
Oliver settled back into his seat for the remainder of the flight. There was nothing he could do until the plane landed. There was no point in worrying unless the dark eyed man continued to watch him in the airport.
Arriving at Dulles International Airport, Oliver found himself crammed into a gangly large wheeled passenger transport with a hundred other weary travelers, including the dark-eyed stranger. Oliver made an effort to appear unconcerned. He neither watched nor obviously avoided the man from the plane. He still suspected that he might be suffering from a touch of paranoia. For all he knew, the man would clear immigration and walk right past the baggage claim to board a plane to California or New York.
As the travelers spilled from the hallways of the unloading terminal and began sorting themselves into the lines for immigration, Oliver slipped through the crowd and made for the restrooms located across from the roped-off queues. He spun on his heel and backed through the door to the men’s room, using the moment before the door swung shut to scan the crowd for his pursuer. He didn’t spot the man, but decided to wait a few minutes and see what happened. If he really was being followed, there was no telling whether the dark eyed man was a citizen or not. Oliver couldn’t count on losing him in the tangle of the immigration lines. Better to find out now whether the man was a threat or not.
He walked past the first row of stalls and turned a corner. He tossed his backpack onto the counter between two sinks and leaned against the wall. From here he could just catch the reflection of the door in the mirror, but didn’t think it likely that anyone coming through the door would notice him in the narrow sliver of the dressing mirror that was visible from the first row.
Oliver pulled his phone out of his pocket and flicked it out of airplane mode, then waited for it to acquire a signal while he watched the door. The phone buzzed in his hand as the data connection activated and pulled down his emails. He glanced away from the door and skimmed the titles of the e-mails in his priority inbox. One of them caught his eye and he pulled it up.
One side of Oliver’s mouth turned up in a crooked smile.
Just then, the restroom door opened.
Oliver glanced at the sliver of a reflection visible from where he stood. The man entering the restroom weighed at least three hundred pounds and had blond hair. Obviously not the dark eyed stalker. Oliver slipped his phone back in a pocket and pulled a comb out of his bag. He waved a hand under the sink to wet his fingers, then started slowly combing his thick red hair, but stopped when the man didn’t turn the corner to the second row of stalls. A moment later he heard the clatter of a stall door locking.
The bathroom door opened again.
It was the dark-eyed man.
Oliver watched him in the mirror. The man paused and surveyed the first row of stalls, sinks, and urinals. Then he moved forward and out of the field of reflection. Oliver tensed, listening carefully, ready to spring if the man came around the corner. He heard a stall door bang open. Then another. Then Oliver heard a loud thudding, followed by an angry shout as the man’s hand pounded on the stall occupied by the blond traveler.
“What the hell, man! Occupied here.” An angry New York accent, most likely the large blond man who had entered the bathroom after Oliver.
The banging of stall doors continued as the stranger worked his way down the rest of the row. Oliver waited, tense, his battered fingers flexing.
The stranger rounded the corner and spotted Oliver.
He swung a fist at Oliver’s gut.
Oliver spun to the side and ducked, letting the swing slip past him as he rammed his elbow into the stranger’s ribs. The stranger’s dark eyes bulged and he let out a huff of air, then he seemed to recover and brought his fist down on Oliver’s neck. The blow dazed Oliver and he dropped to his knees. He grabbed at the man’s jacket as he fell. That caught the stranger off balance and Oliver heard a dull crack as the man’s chin slammed into the countertop. The stranger went limp and Oliver pulled his feet back under himself and sprang up, slamming into the stranger’s right side and spinning him round so he leaned stunned against the counter.
Oliver stood straight and grasped the man’s collar with one hand, holding the other up in a tight fist. He pushed his face in close and hissed, “Who. Are. You? Why the hell are you following me?”
The man’s eyes came into focus and he glared at Oliver. He worked his jaw slowly and with obvious pain, but his gaze never left Oliver’s face as he spoke. “You took something that doesn’t belong to you.” He growled in a thick accent that Oliver took to be Eastern European. “Give it back and we won’t kill you.”
Oliver chuckled and pressed his thumb up against the stranger’s bruised jaw. The man clenched his teeth and groaned in agony.
“I don’t recall stealing anything from your part of the world recently,” he whispered. “So unless I miss my guess, you’re just pissed that I stole something before you had the chance to steal it yourself.”
He slid his thumb back down the man’s throat and waited, his gaze questioning.
The man spat, the spray spattering across Oliver’s chest and right shoulder. He growled at Oliver, “Those who watch us all see what you are doing. You’re playing a dangerous game, Mr. Voight. The people I work for have connections. What have you got? Nothing but a dangerous hobby and a target on your…”
A toilet flushed in the first row of stalls and both Oliver and the dark-eyed stranger froze. Their eyes locked. Oliver tightened his grip on the man’s collar, but dropped his fist. He reached into the man’s jacket and grabbed him by the belt. “If he comes round the corner, you slipped and I’m helping you up,” he hissed.
The man nodded. Whatever enmity existed between them, both knew it would be bad news to have airport security alerted to their tussle.
They waited. There was a click, followed by the hiss and splash of water running from an automatic sink tap in the next row. The blond New Yorker could be heard muttering something to himself, then the faucet stopped running and the restroom door squeaked open and banged shut.
Without breaking eye contact with the dark eyed stranger, Oliver rammed his knee into the man’s groin. As the stranger’s dark eyes bulged, Oliver released his grip on his collar and slammed a fist into his already bruised chin. The stranger’s eyes rolled up in his head and he gasped. His knees went weak and Oliver let him collapse onto the floor, then delivered one swift kick to his stomach.
“Give my regards to your employers,” he said, grabbing his backpack from the counter and jogging for the exit.
Oliver slowed just before he reached the door and left the restroom at a stroll, not letting himself look back as the door swung shut behind him. He strode directly to the citizen check-in line and fished his battered passport from the side pocket of his khaki cargo pants. The line moved forward at a shuffle and Oliver pulled out his phone, both to kill time and to look as normal as possible as he kept one eye on the bathroom door. About three minutes later he saw the restroom door swing open and the dark eyed stranger walked slowly out, wincing with every step.
The man scanned the crowded check-in line and locked eyes with Oliver, who smiled, waved, then gestured towards the check-in line with his free hand. The man glowered, then limped towards the line marked for visitors holding European citizenship.
Thirty minutes later, Oliver was through security and heading towards the immigration exit when he heard raised voices from behind him. He turned and saw his pursuer gesticulating wildly as three security officers moved in on him, Tasers out and pointed at him. When he continued to protest, one of the guards shot him. Oliver smiled as the man fell to the tiled floor, twitching at the end of the Taser wires. He reached into his pocket and felt the worn pages of the burgundy passport he had slipped out of the dark eyed man’s jacket pocket during their encounter in the restroom.
Oliver figured it would take a few hours for the man to convince the TSA that he wasn’t a terrorist, then a while longer for him to contact his embassy to work things out. Chances were that even then the man would be deported to his homeland without ever stepping foot on American soil.
All told, Oliver was pretty sure that he was rid of his pursuer. Still, whoever was behind this had arranged for him to be followed all the way from Iceland to Virginia, so it would be wise to take precautions. He pulled out his phone and tapped the name of his cousin, Amber, who was supposed to pick him up at the airport.
She picked up immediately. “Welcome home Ollie. Where you at?”
“Just got through immigration. Listen, I had some company on the plane. Looks like another collector isn’t pleased with me winning this round. Would you mind picking me up at the Tysons Corner food court instead? I don’t want to risk anyone spotting your car.”
Amber didn’t miss a beat. By now she was used to Oliver’s tendency to attract attention from unsavory rivals. “Sure, but you’ll have to tell me the story when I get you.”
Oliver ended the call and shrugged his backpack on, then strode past the crowds surrounding the baggage claim, rode the long escalator to the ground floor, and pushed his way through the revolving glass doors into the sweltering heat of summertime in northern Virginia. He joined the line at the cab station and was soon settled into a barebones electric Kia with vinyl seats and rubber floor mats.
“Where you going man?” The driver asked, his head bobbing side to side with the rhythms of the jazz music coming from his radio.
“Tysons Corner Mall.”
“At this time of day? Man, sit back and chill. You’re in for a long ride.”
Oliver did just that. He kept an eye out the window until the taxi had pulled away from the curb, just in case the dark eyed man had somehow managed to get past security and come after him, but nobody in the throng appeared concerned with Oliver. As the taxi pulled out of Dulles, merging into the crawl of Beltway traffic, Oliver finally allowed himself to breathe easy.
He pulled the passport out of his jacket pocket. The cover was even more battered than his own. He flipped it open and examined the photo on the first page. It was his man.
Nikola Simo. Latvian citizen. 36 years old and well traveled, by the stamps nearly filling the little book.
Impossible to know if this was the man’s real name without calling in some favors with his European contacts, but Oliver was willing to bet that it was. False passports were growing more difficult to come by these days and, in this business at least, the rewards really weren’t worth the risk of being caught with false identity papers. In the grand scheme of things, a few relics acquired for a wealthy collector weren’t worth a stint in federal prison or, worse, the holding tank of some third world nation that caught you in a lie during immigration.
Probably another treasure hunter, Oliver thought. Just someone who happened to be a few steps behind me in tracking down the temple, or maybe one of Leo’s lackeys.
Oliver chuckled at the memory of slipping out of the ice cave alone, leaving Leo Cay and the others who had tried to double cross him to call for an emergency rescue or freeze to death beside their disabled snow crawlers.
Dangerous, sure, but certainly not as deadly or well-organized as the Creed or its agents might be, if they turned out to exist after all. The man hadn’t even penetrated the false identity of Daniel Voight that Oliver had used while in Iceland. Though it was concerning, that thing he had said about those who watch.
Oliver shook his head. It was probably nothing more than an expression.
He pocketed the passport and closed his eyes, smiling a little as he recalled capturing his most recent prize. It had been quite an adventure, with more than one near brush with death, several broken bones on the part of people who got in his way and, if Oliver was completely honest with himself, a good dose of betrayal all around. Still, he had got what he came for and managed to slip out of Iceland with his false identity intact and his prize safely smuggled off to home.
Oliver pulled out his phone and once again checked the delivery confirmation message. The package had arrived yesterday, right before he boarded the airplane.
He settled back into the seat to wait out the ride.
The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke