Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Chapter Thirty-Five: Row Four, Column Eight

St. Louis Day was approaching, and for all her protestations about being independent and I-can-do-this-alone and blah blah blah, Compass really wished Mark was going with her. In fact, she’d rather assumed he’d insist on it. Instead, he’d waved off her offer to pay for his plane ticket with vague excuses about work, and that was pretty much the end of that conversation.

Mark was looking really awful these days: tired, bloodshot eyes, pale face. Even his bald head seemed more matte than glossy. They spent most evenings together at her place, Mark nodding off during the evening news, if he even made it that far. He was gone in the mornings before Compass woke up. As they sat on the couch one evening watching CSI: Miami, Mark’s chin dropped to his chest and he began to snore softly. He had a beer clutched in one hand, and Compass leaned across him to remove it before it spilled.

We’re an old married couple, she thought, and we’ve been dating for like, two weeks. Next we’ll be peeing with the door open and bickering about the mortgage. How did we get here so fast?

Just then, Mark awoke with a snort. He jerked and flailed a little bit, apparently concerned that the beer he was no longer holding was spilling. It was so funny watching him trying to grab something that was no longer there that Compass started to laugh. Mark turned a pair of red, bleary eyes on her.

“You think that’s funny?”

“I do. I think that’s funny. You trying to save your non-existent beer from spilling is on my list of funny things.”

“Is that right.” Mark reached over and took Compass’s diet root beer from her hand and set it on the coffee table. Then he attacked.

“What about this? Is this funny?” He knew how ticklish she was, and he was showing no mercy.

“Stop! Stop! Quit it!”

“Who’s all flailing around now, huh?”

“Mark! No! I’m gonna pee!” Compass giggled and thrashed around and then their childish play turned to something much more adult that even shocked the cats, and Compass forgot all about being half of an old, married couple.

The next morning was Fly to St. Louis Day. She had arranged to stay only two nights, figuring that was plenty of time to get the emerald if it was there to be got. The hotel was well away from the museum, which seemed safer, though Compass wasn’t entirely sure how or from what. She had not alerted the museum staff that she was coming, hoping that might minimize or eliminate the possibility of press attention. Mark offered to take her to the airport, but Compass thought he could perhaps use that time to catch up on some sleep, preferably not while operating heavy machinery that had her in it. She took the bus.

The flight to St. Louis was pretty uneventful. She dozed, ate some peanuts, drank a $4 plastic cup of bad red wine, read a little Stephen King and arrived with the usual airplane-induced headache. She was nervous about retrieving the emerald; it just seemed like there were too many ways for everything to go terribly wrong. One thought had hunkered down at the back of her brain, humming an annoying tune: what if the emerald was there?

She didn’t really believe that it would be. Undoubtedly the emerald had been discovered long ago and was halfway around the world, cutting a swathe of destruction through other people’s lives. If that was true, then the adventure was pretty much over. She would let her father know on his website, and assuming he believed her, he’d go away again, and the best chance she’d have of meeting him would be lost. Her mother would undoubtedly blame her for coming home empty-handed, never mind that she was probably not even 10 years old when the cursed stone burned blisters into some thieving stranger’s clenched fist.

But what if it was there? Then what happened? The stone belonged to the museum in England, Compass firmly believed that. But if Oliver was as dangerous as it seemed he was, what Compass firmly believed wouldn’t matter at all.

Compass leaned her head back against the seat of the taxi and stared out the window. St. Louis was draped in fog, and there was a fine mist on the windshield that the wipers didn’t seem to touch at all. Cold, wet, gray: it felt like home. The hotel was small and a bit past its prime, but it was pleasant and warm inside. Her room was clean and had an unexpected balcony from which – if she stood on a chair – she had a rather nice view of the Arch.

She debated calling Mark. It was only 8:30 pm in Seattle, but he had promised her he’d get some sleep, so she decided against calling. She turned on the TV in time to catch the local news and was struck, as always, by how weird it was to see the local weather map instead of the Seattle one she was used to. It was going to be cold and rainy the next couple of days, then sunny the day after she left. Of course. Compass got out her bathroom supplies and her pajamas, and “only 8:30” be damned, brushed her teeth and crawled into bed.

The next morning wasn’t as horrible as she’d feared. It was gray but there was no actual rain, and the morning weather guy was more optimistic about the chance of sun than the late-night weather guy had been. She called the museum and got the opening hours from the automated system. The museum opened at 10 and it was nearly that now. She ate a quick croissant from the “complimentary” breakfast bar, got bus instructions from the front desk and headed out, the key on the keychain in her pocket.

Compass was the first one in. On this dreary Tuesday morning, she had the museum pretty much to herself. The museum was small and unassuming, the displays a bit crowded in the Frank Lloyd Wright home that the museum occupied.

She spotted the lockers right away; they were hanging in the entry hallway. Some of the lockers were open, and inside the open ones were little plaques describing the contents that had been found inside. Compass had feared facing hundreds of doors and having to try them all, but there were only 50 in this particular bank of lockers, and at least 10 of them had already been opened and emptied. She looked around for someone official to give her permission to start opening. She came around a corner and nearly bumped noses with Mark.

“Hey! What are you doing here?” Clearly what he wasn’t doing was sleeping. He looked, if anything, worse than ever. Compass felt a jolt of fear. What if this wasn’t insomnia or too much late-night gaming? What if he was sick? She could feel her smile empty out, but she kept wearing it anyway.

“I decided I couldn’t let you do this without me. I took an early flight in this morning. So have you tried the key yet?”

This morning? It’s only 10.30; what time did you leave Seattle?”

“I don’t know – like, 2:30 or something? Does it matter? Let’s get the emerald and get out of here.”

Compass took Mark’s hand and dragged him to a nearby bench, hoping it wasn’t part of the display. She sat down and pulled him down next to her. “Yes. It matters. It matters that you clearly haven’t slept for at least a month, and it matters that when I ask you about it you sidestep the question, and it matters that you’re hiding something from me, and I’m already about to lose one person in my life, and I’d rather not get a double-or-nothing on the fatal-disease sweepstakes, OK? It. Matters. And I’m not opening that locker until I know what’s going on.”

“You need to open the locker, Compass. Sort of nowish. I’ll explain every-”

“No. You won’t. You say you will, but when I ask you later, you’ll dance away from the question like you do every time. If I wanted to waltz, I’d date Arthur Murray. What’s going on?”

“We don’t have time for this.”

“We have time.”

“Your father’s in St. Louis. He was on the same plane as you.”

Compass froze. This was not the news she’d been expecting. “What.”

“I figured out who your dad is – long story, tell you later – and I’ve been following him for awhile. I don’t know if he knows who you are, but either he’s figured out about the locker somehow, or he has a way of knowing what you’re up to.”

“Is he here? At the museum?”

“I don’t know. I kind of lost track of him. He got on the same plane you did, but there weren’t any free seats. I had to wait for the next flight which was at 2:38 this morning. I spent hours pacing around SeaTac wondering what was happening with you. You never turned your phone back on after you got off the plane.”

Compass fished her cellphone out of her backpack. Sure enough, it was still turned off. “Is this why you’re so tired? Because you work all day and babysit Oliver all night?”

“Your father is clearly nocturnal. I followed him over to your Mom’s place a few nights ago. What a nutcase. From what I could see from outside, all he did was crank up the music and flash the lights on and off, then come tearing out like his ass was on fire.”

Compass hadn’t told Mark about her trip to Mina’s for the money. She decided to save the story for a better time.

“So he could be on his way here? Now?” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “He could be here now?”

“Hence my urgency on getting the stone and getting gone.”


They stood up and made their way back to the bank of lockers. An older man was standing there, looking intently at each locker, studying particularly those with the open doors. Compass felt her body turn to ice, to stone, to something rigid and unbending.

“That’s not Oliver,” Mark whispered in her ear, and everything came unbent at once. Fortunately she was able to catch herself on the railing that stood in front of the display. Just then, a museum official walked into the room, identifiable by her neat blue suit and the “OFFICIAL” badge around her neck.

“Excuse me?” Compass approached quickly, hoping she could make herself heard above the pounding of her heart.

“Yes?” The official had a smooth, blue voice to go with her smooth, blue suit.

“I’m Compass Jones. I called recently about clearing out the contents of one of your lockers? I have a key.” She showed the woman her key.

“Ah, yes, Miss Jones. You actually spoke to our curator. He’s given me permission to give you access to the locker when you arrive. Could I see some identification?”

Compass wasn’t sure why that was necessary, since she’d produced the key, but she handed over her driver’s license anyway.

“Would it be possible for me to open the locker in private?” The older man who’d been there a moment ago had wandered away, but Compass didn’t want any nasty surprises.

“I can post a security guard outside the room, if you like.”

“If you would, please.”

The official left, pulling a thin curtain over the door as she went. Compass stepped over the railing, half expecting someone to shout at her to get back, and started with the first unopened locker on the top left. She had to stand on tiptoe to do it, but she managed. The key didn’t fit. While Mark sat on the floor and fidgeted, Compass went down the rows and columns, hoping each time that her key would fit, relieved when it didn’t. The 38th locker, row four, column eight, was the one. The key slid in smoothly, turned easily, and the door was open before Compass even quite realized what was happening.

“Mark.” The door was open only a crack, not wide enough to see inside, and Compass didn’t want to do this bit alone.

“Mmmm?” Mark had been dozing lightly, his back against the wall.

“I found it. It’s open.”

Mark jumped up from his seat on the floor and stumbled over to where she was. He knelt down so his face was even with the locker.

“Open it. Go ahead.”

“I don’t know what to hope for.”

“Then don’t. We don’t have time to make up our minds. Just open it, clear out the contents, and let’s get out of here.”

“I’m scared,” she told him.

“So am I.”

He laid his hand on top of hers in a gesture reminiscent of a bride and groom making the first cut in their wedding cake. Together, they pulled the door open and peered inside.


NuclearToast said...


I love that Mark is following Oliver. I love that she opened the locker. I hate that you've teased us for the next chapter.

Ash said...

OMG - Totally worth the wait! Please don't make us wait long to find out what's in the locker!!!

If I were to write a review for Compass Jones, this is what it would say:

***** (five stars)
Suspenseful, riveting, dangerous, humorous and romantic, Compass Jones is an edge of your seat thrill ride that will leave you wanting more, more, more! Your heart will sink when you realize you have scrolled to the end of a chapter. You will check back everyday, sometimes even twice a day, hoping that another gem of a chapter has been posted. The truly endearing cast of characters will lead you through a life full of hopes, dreams, dysfunction and lies. Is everyone on her side or is there an enemy in disguise? A must read!

Ash said...

Knock, knock... Hello?! Is anyone there?