There was a faint roaring in his ears. John tried to ignore it, to stay unconscious, but it pulled at him insidiously, dragging him awake. He decided it was time to open his eyes. He held his breath and let them flick open, but he had to shut them quickly again when the bright light assailed them. It was scaldingly white, hot, just above his face, boring into him like the light of an interrogator. He had the distinct feeling that if he looked past it, he'd see a dark, cavernous room, walls made of stone, heavy barred doors and guards every few feet leading away down an endless corridor. The vision sparked old hurts he thought his body had forgotten, old fears he had been sure he'd repressed. He squeezed his eyes shut more tightly, and drifted.
Some unknown time later, he felt a cool breeze waft over his face. He tried to open his eyes again and this time he was greeted by a warm darkness. He peered around, not recognizing where he was. He was lying on the floor somewhere. The surface beneath him was hard and when he swept his hands over it, they came away dusty. Cement, he thought. It was dark but there was enough light that his eyes were adjusting and he could see a little.
His head was throbbing. He brought a hand up to his temple and discovered an egg-sized lump that was sore and tender. He remembered the woman, Julie?, coming at him with a frying pan. It must have been cast iron. He looked at his fingers and, in the dimness, he was pretty sure there was some blood on them. If the pan was that heavy, it was a wonder he was still alive.
He'd been stupid to have turned his back on someone he didn’t' know. Just because a woman screams and some guy is trying to rape her, apparently you couldn't trust that she was the victim of a crime. He thought about Finch's numbers, how the could be victim or perpetrator and wondered if he'd ever see his new employer again to tell him the story of his attempted rescue of a maiden who wasn't really in distress.
But what was her motivation? Was she confused and thinking that he was an accomplice of the man who'd been assaulting her? Did they lure him into the room just so she could attempt to brain him? And if that were the case, why had they brought him here, wherever this was?
John decided that the best thing do would be to get himself up off the floor and get out of there.
That wasn't as easy as he'd thought it would be. When he pushed himself up, his head swam and he nearly passed out again. That wouldn't do. He called upon years of training to pull himself back from the brink, bringing up a hand to swipe at his eyes. When his surroundings looked a bit less blurry, he managed to pull himself up to a sitting position, groaning as he did. His head felt like he'd been run over by a subway train, but he kept moving, getting up to his knees. Still dizzy, he ignored that sensation, along with the nausea that rushed over him as well. He knew he couldn't afford to curl into a ball of misery or throw up right now; both choices would make him even more vulnerable than he already was. He was apparently alone, but he doubted it would be for long. It didn't make sense that she would hit him, knock him out and them dump him somewhere only to let him regain consciousness and just walk away.
Fighting the sickness, he gradually gained his feet. For a moment, he swayed, but he resolutely drew a deep breath and steadied himself by sheer force of will. He glanced around, trying to determine which direction the small amount of light was coming from. It seemed to be off toward his left, so he decided to head that way.
John took a shaky step and then another one. His body wanted to just drop back down on the floor again, but he ignored it, knowing his life could depend on his finding his way out of here. He kept walking forward, every step making his head pound. But the light was increasing and now he could hear voices.
They seemed to be chanting. At least he thought they were. It was hard to tell over the pounding in his head. For all he knew, he could be imagining them. Or the area he was walking through. Or the entire incident. John hoped the pain was real enough that he wasn't hallucinating.
The chanting was getting louder. John saw a door twenty feet in front of him and he made for it, wanting to see if the woman who'd hit him was in there and who she was with. Confused as he was, he had no intention of just walking away without finding out why she'd hit him and what she wanted with him.
Just in case, he made sure his steps were more stealthy, and as soon as he could he moved up against the wall. Leaning against it helped the vertigo he was suffering from and also served to conceal him from anyone who might glance toward the door.
Though the chanting was even louder, he could not make out individual words and eventually realized it was a foreign language, one he wasn't familiar with. Finally, he drew close enough to the door to glance inside by resting his back tight to the cold stone surface of the wall and carefully leaning just far enough to be able to view beyond the doorway.
"There you are!" A familiar voice shouted. He cringed inwardly, annoyed that he'd been discovered. The woman he had attempted to rescue stepped through the door and smiled at him. "Sorry I hit you so hard," she said, her voice silky. John thought she didn't seem sorry at all.
"Why'd you hit me in the first place?"
She didn't answer, instead, taking his arm and pulling him toward the door, indicating the group of people inside with a wave of her other hand.
John tried another question. "Where are we?"
"Underground." She whispered the word as if it were some special secret. "This is where we worship."
He recognized it then, the fanatical gleam in her eyes. Scanning the group of people inside, he noticed they were kneeling and swaying as they chanted, heads bowed in prayerful poses. Candles flickered from all around the room, on every flat surface and on scones on the walls.
"What... what do you worship?" John asked, the pounding in his head made worse by the increased volume of the chanting. He couldn't see any recognizable icons of any religion with which he was familiar.
"I'll show you," she said, eyes gleaming. She brought her hand up as if to caress his cheek. Too late, John noticed the gleaming syringe... she pressed it into the side of his neck and he dropped like a stone.
He was being led through a long corridor. Light streamed through the area, so bright it hurt his eyes. There were doors every three or four feet on either side of the hallway, but they were all closed. John noticed they were painted black and had heavy hinges that were made of wrought iron. He became aware of others around him. They held him by the arms and guided him, but he didn't feel as though they were trying to intimidate him. He felt no concern, no fear. Only a slight curiosity.
The light kept growing brighter the farther down the hallway. He had to squint and tried to bring up his hand to shade his eyes, but someone next to him was holding onto his arm too tightly. Finally, when he could barely keep his eyes open, they arrived at the end and he was urged through. He was taken by the arms by a tall thin man in a white coat then. The man wore dark glasses so John couldn't see his eyes. The man smiled thinly and led John to a chair.
His awareness began to fade in and out. The chair seemed to be like a barber's or a dentist's. He couldn't move his arms or his legs. Were they bound in some way?
His head ached. Someone was touching it, fingers probing his temple and kneading the back of his neck, under his hair.
He couldn't see. Something had been put over his eyes. There was a loud whirring sound, like a drill or machinery.
"You'll understand," someone said. "You'll believe."
The whirring grew louder. John tried to twist away, but his body was held fast, he couldn't move his neck. The sound seemed to invade his head, his brain, his psyche. The pain was more intense than anything he'd ever felt.
John woke as the sun streamed through the dirty window in his hotel room. His eyes felt gritty, like the dust of Iraq had somehow gotten in them during the night. He pushed himself up on his elbows, feeling groggy, peering around the room as if he’d never seen it before.
His new laptop was still open on the rickety desk across the room, its screen black. The bathroom light was on, but otherwise, the only light came through the window that faced onto the alley.
Sitting up, John’s head started pounding. He felt hung over, sick to his stomach. He eased his legs off the bed and found an empty bottle on the bedside table. That surprised him; he didn’t remember drinking last night.
He didn’t remember much of anything at all. Sluggishly, he climbed off the bed and started for the bathroom. But before he got there, he turned to the laptop, fingers gliding over the touchpad. The screen lit up and he found the Google results page he had pulled up when he’d typed “I.F.T.” into the search engine. That was the last thing he remembered… when had he started drinking? Fallen asleep?
He couldn’t be doing things like this. He had a job now, someone who was going to depend on him being alert and sober, able to use the skills he’d been hired for. John ran a hand over his face, his fingers sliding over a small lump in the area of his temple. It felt like a bruise, but he couldn’t remember how he could have gotten it.
A sound in the hallway caught his attention, someone slamming a door. Then he remembered… he’d heard screams. Someone had been in trouble. He’d left his room to try to find out what was going on. There’d been a woman…
John strode to the door, ignoring the pain in his head as he strode out into the hall. The screams had been coming from the room at the other end of the hall. John walked quickly toward it, hesitating as the door opened. An elderly woman emerged pushing a shopping cart ahead of her.
“Hello,” she said, smiling up at him.
John swallowed, trying to find his voice. “Good morning,” he croaked. “Is that your room?”
“Yes, of course it is.”
“Did you just check in this morning?” John asked, trying not to sound too nosy.
“Mercy, no,” the lady responded, pushing her cart ahead of her as she moved toward the stairs. “I’ve been here for about six months.”
“Do you… “ he hesitated, thinking, “do you have a young woman who lives with you?”
She stared at him. “Honey, I’m all alone in the world. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have my shopping to do.” And she began manhandling the cart down the stairs noisily.
John stared after her for a moment longer, confused. He’d been sure the screams he remembered hearing had come from that room, but… maybe he’d been wrong. Maybe there hadn’t been screams at all. Maybe he’d just gotten drunk and imagined them.
He headed back into his room, stripping off his clothes as he entered the tiny bathroom. He relieved himself, then turned on the shower as hot as it would go. He stepped in, letting the water cascade over him, trying to wash away his confusion and his hangover.
He stuck his head under the spray, wincing as the water ran down over his sore temple. A long hallway… stone walls… black doors… chanting… John shook his head, realizing he’d had some kind of strange dream, probably caused by the whiskey he’d consumed. He couldn’t really recall the images, but probably the screams had just been part of the dream.
When he was finished, he felt somewhat better. He dried off and was pulling on his underwear when his phone rang.
“Mr. Reese? This is Mr. Finch.”
He was surprised to find hearing that voice eased the worst of his headache. “Yes, Finch?” he asked, relaxing, smiling even though he knew Finch couldn’t see him.
“We have a new number. How soon can you come to the library?”
A new number… those words sounded really good, John realized. He calculated the time it would take him shave and to get there, with stopping for a much needed coffee. “I’ll be there in half an hour,” he told Finch.
“That will be fine. I’ll see you then.” Finch hung up without further comment, but John didn’t mind. He hurried to dress in the black suit he’d picked up at Macy’s yesterday.
He had a job to do.