I awoke slowly, my eyes gritty and my mouth dry. The sun was painfully bright even through my clenched eyelids. I knew I wasn’t going to like what I saw when I opened them. One thing was for sure—I wasn’t in my apartment. The distant cry of an eagle floated through the hot, still air, confirming the worst. I wasn’t even on the same continent.
I raised my hands to my eyes and levered myself into a sitting position, fighting down nausea. I discovered a short beard on my chin. I wasn’t even in the same week. I looked around the bleak landscape and tried to piece together how I had got there.
The last I could remember I was sitting in one of the swankier bars in the city, chafing at the high price of beers. It not the sort of bar I’m generally found in, but if someone wants to talk to me about giving me money I’ll meet them on the north pole.
It’s not that I’m broke, not really, and the prospect of working isn’t that attractive, but I have to put beans on the table. And sometimes a job comes along that actually sounds interesting. This was one of those jobs. Challenging yet marvelously undefined.
I had not met my new employer yet; we had only spoken by telephone. His voice had been reserved and upper-crust English, and he was not one for idle conversation. “We wish you to do some research for us,” he had said in clipped syllables. “Your Professor Grayson thought your unique combination of talents might serve us well.”
“That’s a generous way to say it,” I said. It was a very kind way to describe my inability to stick to anything. When people asked me “what I did”, the inevitable question when you meet someone in a society that defines who you are by what you do for a living, I usually just said, “a little of this, a little of that.”
I hadn’t seen the good professor in many years, and while we got along well enough I was surprised to hear he would recommend me for a job. He had thought of me as a waste of potential, or so he told me over beers. I pointed out to him that once the boulder uses its gravitational potential and rolls down the hill, it takes a lot of work to get it back up to the top for another roll. Better to wait for the right moment to roll in the first place. He thought human potential might be different than potential energy, but that’s what anyone at the bottom of the hill is going to say. He had come to rest in a nice place, a secure university job, respected worldwide by his peers, head of a close and loving family, and he had no wish to be dragged up to the top of the hill for another go.
My boulder still teetered at the top, waiting for the right moment to start rolling. Or so I told myself.
“This job is going to be a delicate one,” my potential employer told me. “We have made a discovery and we wish to have your help in understanding it. The assignment will require diplomacy and tact, as well as your documented abilities in archaeology, anthropology, and particle physics.”
Tact I thought maybe I could do. Diplomacy was a long shot. “No problem,” I said.
“Good. It is likely this conversation is being monitored by others interested in what we have found. You may assume that henceforth all your communications will be similarly monitored, and all your Internet activity will be closely watched as well. For that reason I wish to meet with you in person this evening.” He told me the name of the place.
“What’s going to keep them from having someone at the next table?”
“That is a problem for me to solve, Mr. Nolan.”
“All right then. I’ll see you there. I’ll be wearing a red carnation.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“That’s a joke. It’s something people on blind dates do.”
“I know what you look like, Mr. Nolan. I’ll see you there.” He hung up.
Julie was going to be pissed. I dialed her number as delicately as I could, already thinking of ways to placate her. “Hi, sweetie,” I said when she answered.
There was a pause. “You’re standing me up tonight, aren’t you?”
“But Pookie, it’s for a job. A really good job.”
“Laying tile for a twelve-pack again?” She never let me live that one down.
“No, hunny-bunny, a real job. For real money.”
“But it’s my birthday.”
“I know. I’m real sorry. I’ll make it up to you.”
“I knew something like this was going to happen. I just knew it. Any time I make plans you come up with some excuse to get out of them. How long have we been going out?”
She knew the answer. “Two years,” I said.
“Two years. And you still haven’t met my friends. They think I’m making you up. Gloria thinks I should find someone else I have more in common with. Maybe she’s right.”
I bit my tongue. Gloria was one of Julie’s friends I had met. The last time her name came up I had said, “Gloria is a bitter woman who wants no one to be happy if she can’t be happy.” It did not go over well. Julie knew the truth about the other woman, but she was loyal to her friend. I can’t fault her for that; if she was less tolerant we would have split up long ago.
Diplomacy and Tact. “Listen, this job is different. It’s a research job.”
“What sort of research?”
“I’m not so sure, yet, that’s why I have to meet him tonight.”
“But it’s my birthday.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Couldn’t you have met with him tomorrow?”
Probably I could have. I was not unhappy about having an excuse to avoid the party. I’m not so good in crowds, and when I finally met her friends it was going to be all the worse for the delay and the stories I’m sure Gloria was spreading. “They’re in a big hurry. They only called me a few minutes ago but they want to get started.”
“I told everyone that today would finally be the day. None of them believed me, but I swore it would be. You swore it would be.”
“Look, I don’t know how long the meeting will be. I’ll come by as soon as it’s over.”
“I don’t know.”
“Call me by nine and tell me how it’s going.”
“Call me or it’s over.”
“I may not be able to call. There’s a lot of secrecy—”
“Call me or it’s over.”
“They’re all going to be laughing at me tonight.”
“No they won’t.”
“They all think I’m stupid for staying with you.”
I had to admit to myself that they were probably right. Maybe that’s why I didn’t want to meet them. “I’ll make it up to you, I promise. Once I get this job it’ll be different. Not just the money, but you’ll be able to tell your friends you were right about me.” I hoped that was true.
“It’s my birthday.”
“I know, honey. I’m sorry.”
“I just—hold on. There’s someone at the door.”
Great, I thought. Gloria was there early to help set the party up. The rest of the conversation would have her sniping in from the background. I waited, listening to distant voices. Finally Julie picked up the phone again.
“Oh, my God, Honey, they’re beautiful,” she said.
“You’ve never sent me flowers before, ever.”
That was true enough.
“They must have cost a fortune,” she continued. “I’ve never even seen some of these flowers before. What are they?”
“I, uh, don’t know, really. I didn’t pick them out. In fact—”
“I’m sorry, sweetie. I know it’s more important in the long run that you finally found a good job. I’m excited for you. For us. You know what you wrote on the card?” She suddenly turned shy. “I feel the same way.”
It was not without some misgivings that I approached the bar that evening. Flowers don’t just drop from the sky. Either my new employers had predicted with uncanny accuracy my difficulty or they had been listening to the conversation and were able to get a bunch of exotic flowers to Julie’s place in minutes. Or something else. It was unsettling to say the least.
I got to the bar early, figuring to establish a little space and watch people come and go. I nursed my beer and tolerated the faint disapproval radiating from the bartender. I’m not a formal man at the best of times. I had had enough time to become afraid of all the patrons. As each came in they would look at me appraisingly, and in my head they all became spies for some hostile power. In retrospect, I may have been right.
At the appointed minute a slender, elegantly dressed man with a bowler hat entered and left his umbrella and coat by the door. Without even glancing around he walked over to me, his gait royal. “Mr. Nolan,” he said as he reached me. He offered his hand.
His withered hand was still strong as I shook it. “Nice to meet you,” I said. That was the last thing I could remember before waking up here.
I was thirsty. My hand was still running over my fuzzy cheeks, and I found that my beard was neatly trimmed. I looked at my hand, and then at my clothes. What I had been wearing was out of place at a nice bar, but now I was in silk. I had never owned tailored clothes, but these sure fit me well.
A shadow fell over me. I turned to see a mountain of a man, also immaculately dressed but not as dusty, standing over me.
“Well,” he said with a gravelly voice, “it looks like sleeping beauty is finally awake.”