Sunday, November 26, 2017

Chapter Sixteen: The Cryptic Old Stranger

Jericho stirred, the night still clinging to him like a warm, moist blanket. Something was out of place. It had been many, many years since battlefield deployment, but the night had the feel of the cold, quiet desert moments before the inky skies were burnished with a staccato chemical sunrise. The impulse to panic never made it to Jericho’s consciousness as years of training mechanically galvanized his actions apart from any rational thought. He didn’t move, except to slip a hand under his pillow, and close it around the substantial grip of his Sig Sauer P320 chambered in .40 S&W. In one smooth motion he slid the weapon out and levelled it as he sat bolt upright, his legs swinging over the edge of the bed; his wide-spread toes gripping the carpet fiercely.

Beside the door was a dingy table and a dingy chair, and in the chair was a dingy man. He sat still, almost contemplative, his features briefly haloed in crimson as he took a healthy pull on the pipe he was smoking. The rich, fruity smoke tumbled lazily toward the HVAC unit mounted below the window, curling and wreathing before being sucked outside to explore the rest of the world.

“What in the actual fuck!” Jericho growled, flipping on the bedside lamp. He blinked, and so did his uninvited guest.

The intruder sat comfortably, as if he were in his own home, without a very powerful handgun pointed at his face. He was old, with a scraggly white beard and hair tucked under a tom o’ shanter cap. His white mustache was stained yellow from frequent indulgence of the pipe. The tom o’ shanter was a plain beige color, but his shirt was plaid, and over the shirt he wore an open knit vest that looked for all the world like an ugly Christmas sweater contest winner. His somewhat crooked thumb polished the bowl of his Ser Jacopo Picasso Smooth Hawkbill.

“Forgive an old man his…impetuousness. And for God’s sake put that gun away.” The man’s voice was kind and soft, even compassionate. Jericho didn’t know what to do, so he carefully put the gun back under his pillow. With the initial shock ebbing, his body was trying to return control to his rational mind, but his rational mind was still clouded with sleep.

“How about some coffee?” Jericho muttered, standing and fumbling with the single-serve pot that stood sentinel over the nightstand.

“Please. Jericho, Nemesio asked me to speak with you.”

Jericho poured water into the coffee maker, and then tried to open the foil packet that housed the single-serv coffee bags. “You don't say.” Somehow Jericho had ended up tearing both the foil packet and the bags inside, and coffee grounds spilled onto the carpet where they looked perfectly at place. “About what?”

“This question you had for him – it is Kabbalah, no?”

Jericho sighed loudly enough to register his displeasure. He pushed the on button, but the coffee maker just sat, stubborn and silent. He hit the button again, then again. Then he realized that the coffee maker was unplugged. “Not really. I mean, it's a tarot deck. Crowley was an opportunistic clown, and yeah, there’s plenty of Kabbalah “magic” in his work. Not sure I need an expert, though.”

There was barely enough room for Jericho to bend down and search for the tail end of the cord, and he ended up bumping the nightstand with his rear-end, sending one of the plastic coffee mugs clattering to the floor.

“Perhaps not.” The old man smiled, “But I’d like to help you nonetheless. These things may have portent that you are oblivious to.”

Jericho finally snagged the end of the cord with his left hand, noticing as he did so the beige Velcro shoes his guest was wearing. His more rational mind, starting to finally gain traction, wondered why a man who looked like Kris Kringle at the nursing home had broken into his hotel room at 0 dark thirty. He plugged in the coffee maker.

There was only one packet of regular coffee, which Jericho had destroyed, so he opened a sachet of decaf, more carefully this time, and set it in the coffee maker. Scooping up the plastic mug remaining on the nightstand, he headed to the sink for water as he collected his thoughts.

“Basically, I came across this symbol, and asked Nemesio about it. He didn’t have a clue.”

Jericho grabbed the pad of paper from beside the phone and quickly scratched the Hebrew shin enclosed in a triangle. He handed it nonchalantly to his visitor, but watched carefully for a reaction.

The man’s face was a mask, and in some ways, that told Jericho more than any expressed emotion could of, and Jericho felt a sense of foreboding fingering his spine.

The man pushed his hat back slightly, and set his pipe down on the end table, a little dottle spilling over to melt small holes in the cheap nylon carpeting.

“Well, context is important, young man. Where did you come across this symbol?”

Jericho hesitated, then began telling him about Zeke until the entire story came tumbling out. Somehow he felt better, and his guest seemed to sense that.

“It is as I thought.” The old man rose to his feet and collected his pipe. “This is a mark of judgment, Mr. Slade. It is used by a dark order. It sounds like your friend was involved in something he shouldn’t have been. My advice is to let it go.”

He turned toward the door, but stopped and grasped Jericho’s arm with a surprisingly firm grasp. His voice was low and level, but quite firm. “Let it go, Jericho.”

The door rattled shut, and Jericho took a sip of crappy, lukewarm decaf and sighed.