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Alex’s first thought, which he ruthlessly squashed, was to call his mother and make sure she was okay. His second was to call Madison Washburn and demand some answers. It was his third thought that won out, but as he started to pull out his phone, he stopped and after thinking it through a bit more, he shoved the phone back in his pocket and replaced the pages and the check back in the envelope before folding it and pushing it into one of his other pockets. Then he left his room.
“Going out,” he called to Chad and Chris as he headed for the front door, grabbing his keys off a hook.
“I thought you were going to take a shower and go to bed?” Chad asked in surprise.
“I need some fresh air. I’ll be back later.” And, not waiting for a reply, he was out the door and heading for his car. He pulled out of the parking lot and made his way through the campus, picking up College Avenue and heading for Molly Malone’s. Once there, he ordered an Amstel Light, asking for some change in quarters, and then made his way to an old-fashioned phone booth that was part of the bar’s décor. Shutting the door, he picked up the receiver, shoved a couple of quarters into the coin slot and dialed the operator.
“Yeah, collect call for Loren from Alex,” he said, rattling off a number and then waited as the operator rang Edhellond. A few seconds later, it was picked up. He did not immediately recognize the voice at the other end.
“Collect call for Loren from Alex,” he heard the operator say. “Will you accept the charges?”
“Yes, I will.”
“Go ahead, sir,” the operator said and Alex thanked her.
“Alex? This is Barry. What’s up?”
“Hi, Barry. I really need to speak to Loren. Actually, I need to speak to a damn Maia, but Loren will do.”
There was a moment of surprised silence and then Barry said, “Hang on,” and Alex heard him calling out for Loren. A moment or two later there was a whispered conversation at the other end though the words were too indistinct to make out before Glorfindel was on the line.
“Alex? Everything okay? Where are you calling from and why a collect call?”
“Everything is not okay and I’m calling from a phone booth in Molly’s because I can’t be sure my own phone isn’t being tapped. Look, just listen. I got a letter, a letter that shouldn’t have existed because Paul is dead and… look, someone has my mom and I’m supposed to kill you by August First and….”
“Whoa, Alex! Slow down,” Glorfindel said.
Alex took a gulping breath and a swig of his beer. He had managed to squash all his emotions down but now it was becoming too difficult. All he could think of was his mother and the sick butterfly feeling in the pit of his stomach wouldn’t go away. “God, Loren, they have my mom,” he whispered, full of dread and fear.
“Okay, Alex, Alex! Listen to me. Are you listening?”
“Okay. This is what I want you to do. Hang up and go to Gwyn’s. You’re too exposed where you are. No, listen,” Glorfindel ordered when Alex started to protest. “Go to Gwyn’s. By the time you get there I’ll have everything set up here and I’ll have some answers for you, I promise, but you need to go to Gwyn’s. Barry’s calling him right now to warn him. Please, Alex. Trust me.”
And those two words were all he needed to hear, for at that moment Alex did just that, turning everything over to this ancient being who had lived through all of human history. If anyone could help him, it was Glorfindel.
“Okay. I’m going.”
“Good, good. I’ll talk to you soon. We’ll get through this, Alex, I promise. Whatever’s happened, we’ll get through it. Now, get going.” The line went dead as Glorfindel hung up the phone and Alex did the same, retrieving the quarters and taking another swig of his beer, then exiting the booth, plopping the half-empty beer bottle at an empty table and walking out of the bar and to his car. Some fifteen minutes later, he was pulling into the ap Hywel’s driveway. They must have been on the lookout for him because the front door opened before he even climbed out of his car and Gareth was standing there, his expression sober.
“Alex, Gwyn’s got Loren on Skype,” he said in greeting as he stepped aside to let the Mortal in. “We’re in the dining room.”
Alex nodded but said nothing, afraid to say anything in case he broke down. He needed to keep it together for his mother’s sake, but as much as he tried to think of it as just another Agency assignment, he couldn’t. Gwyn was seated at the table with a laptop in front of him and Alex could see Glorfindel on the screen. Gwyn was speaking.
“… just showed up. Alex, take this seat.” He stood to give Alex room to sit then he and Gareth brought chairs around so they could see the screen.
“Alex,” Glorfindel said in greeting, “I have Finrod, Daeron, Val, Amroth and Ron with me. Why don’t we start with you telling us what happened so we all know what the score is.”
“What about my mom?” Alex demanded. “The Maiar were supposed to be looking after her. Where are they? Have you called them? What—?”
“Alex, calm down. One thing at a time,” Glorfindel interrupted the spate of questions. “Tell us what happened so I have a better idea of what we need to do.”
Alex nodded and took a deep breath. “I got home and there was mail waiting for me, a postcard from Felicity and a long envelope with no return address.”
“Where was it mailed from and when?” they heard Amroth ask.
Alex pulled the envelope out of his pocket and looked at the cancel stamp, but even squinting he couldn’t quite make it out. Gwyn got up and went into the kitchen, coming back a moment later with a magnifying glass. He took the envelope and held it under the light above them and examined it. “It’s a bit blurry, but I can make out D.C. so it had to have been posted there and the date… looks like it was mailed on the third.”
“That’s only three business days with the holiday in between,” Loren said. “That’s too short a time for it to get all the way across country. Mail from back East usually takes closer to five days to reach us.”
“Well, that’s what the stamp says,” Gwyn retorted as he took his seat.
“I’m not disputing you, Gwyn,” Glorfindel assured him. “Okay, let’s put that aside for the moment. Alex, tell us what happened.”
“Inside the envelope were two blank sheets of paper and a cashier’s check drawn from a bank in D.C. and in my name.” He named the figure and more than one person whistled in surprise.
“That’s a lot of pizza,” Gareth commented.
Alex shrugged. “It was the usual pay for my services, though normally, the monies would just be deposited into my Agency account.”
“Do you still have it?” Glorfindel asked.
Alex shook his head. “I closed it and transferred whatever money I had into my account at the Wiseman bank.”
“You say the pages were blank,” Val was heard to say, “so how do you know that someone claims to have your mother and they wish you to kill Loren?”
“I didn’t at first,” Alex explained. “In fact, I was about ready to throw the pages away, figuring they were only there to hide the fact that there was a check, but then, I remembered something and when I sniffed the pages, they had a lemony smell.”
“Ah, good old invisible ink,” Daeron said with a smile that was more a grimace than anything. “Kids’ stuff.”
“Maybe, but it works,” Glorfindel said. “So, someone sent you a letter written in invisible ink.”
“Wait,” Val said. “Explain about this invisible ink.”
“You take lemon juice and write in it,” Glorfindel said. “The juice dries so the page looks blank, but if you pass it over an open flame, the letters will appear. It’s a very old trick and mostly these days it’s something children play at. I didn’t think spies still use something so… antiquated.”
“They don’t, not normally,” Alex said. “This was a special thing between me and Paul Jackson.”
“Junior?” Glorfindel enquired and Alex nodded.
“We created a special code, too, and to the best of my knowledge, he and I were the only ones who knew it, but this letter is written in the code.”
“Then obviously, Jackson told someone else about it,” Vorondur stated.
“If he did, then…” But Alex couldn’t articulate the implications of this further betrayal by one he had thought of as more than a friend, but as his brother, his gwador.
“What exactly does the letter say?” Gwyn asked.
Alex gathered himself together and pulled the pages out of the envelope. “It’s a termination order for one Glorfindel of the House of the Golden Flower to be carried out by August First,” he replied. “And the order is not for Loren DelaFiore or even for Loren aka Glorfindel, but specifically for Glorfindel of the House of the Golden Flower.”
“Seems like a lot of words just to say kill so-and-so,” Gareth stated as he glanced at the pages.
“Most of this is nonsensical,” Alex explained. “The actual message is embedded within the body of the letter. You just have to know how to read it, but trust me, that’s what it says and more to the point, your name is in the Sindarin form, Loren: Noss Elloth Vallen. It took me a moment to realize that’s what it said and that it wasn’t part of the nonsense.”
“And included is the message that whoever sent you the letter has Anne?” Glorfindel asked.
“Yes. It’s the final sentence, but there’s more.”
“When Jackson and I created this code, we also created… um… sigils, I guess you would call them, to be used in place of our names. That way, if anyone were to come upon these letters, they wouldn’t know who sent them. The sigils are pretty complex. We wanted to make them as hard to copy as possible.”
“And you’re going to tell us that the letter is signed with Jackson’s sigil, which, apparently, only he and you knew about,” Glorfindel stated and Alex nodded.
“Well, that does make things interesting,” Finrod said, speaking for the first time. “And the deadline is for August First. That’s nearly a month away. A rather long deadline.”
“Especially considering that I’m not due to return to Wiseman until the third week of August,” Alex pointed out. “I really won’t have the time to take a run up to Wiseman to eliminate Loren and then be back in Fairbanks in time for my class. None of this makes any sense. For one thing, I’m out of the game. I no longer have a license to kill, so if I do this, it’s murder-one, plain and simple.”
“And that’s probably the whole point,” Amroth said.
“What do you mean?” Alex demanded.
“Think about it,” Amroth replied. “Whoever sent the order is figuring that you’ll do whatever you have to to ensure that Anne is safe, including killing someone. This way, the Enemy has, if you’ll excuse the pun, killed two birds with one stone. Loren is dead and you’re arrested on murder-one charges, so even if you’re not executed for it, since Alaska does not have the death penalty, you’re put away for life and then you’re truly out of the game.”
Silence hung over them as they all contemplated Amroth’s analysis.
“I thought the Enemy wanted me damned,” Glorfindel finally said.
“Maybe it’s willing to settle for having you dead,” Amroth stated. “Either way, you’ll be out of the picture, too. Lord Námo isn’t going to release you immediately, if ever. Once back inside Mandos, you may well remain there, oblivious to everything, until the Remaking and we lose one of our leaders. It’s a win-win situation for the other side.”
“What about my mom?” Alex demanded. “You said the Maiar would keep her safe.”
“Have you tried contacting her?” Vorondur asked.
“No. I was going to but I figured whoever’s behind this would expect me to check on her and plan accordingly.”
“Okay, time to find out what’s really going on,” Glorfindel said, his expression grim, then he raised his head and his voice and called out, “Fionwë! Olórin! Front and center!”
For the longest moment, nothing happened. Alex could see Glorfindel’s set expression and the coldness of his eyes and even though over two hundred miles separated them and he was looking at the Elf on a computer screen, Alex could almost feel the power emanating from the ellon. There was something about the face that caused Alex to shudder as he realized he was truly in the presence of something alien. At that moment, he knew he was looking at Glorfindel of the House of the Golden Flower and that Loren DelaFiore was just a façade.
There was the sudden sound of a doorbell ringing and everyone on both ends jumped, but no one moved, unsure whose doorbell it was. It was only when it rang a second time that they realized it was the ap Hywel doorbell.
“I’ll get it,” Gareth said and hurriedly stood up. Alex craned his neck to see who was at the door, but Gareth was blocking the view and then he was letting someone in and Alex felt the blood drain from him as Lord Námo walked in dressed in his Nate disguise.
“She’s dead, isn’t she?” Alex whispered in dread as Námo entered the dining room. Gwyn had automatically stood in respect but Alex just sat in the chair, swaying as if from a blow. “My mom… she’s dead.”
“No, she isn’t,” Námo said quietly looking upon the Mortal with compassion.
“Okay, what’s going on?” they heard Glorfindel demand. “Who’s there? Fionwë? Mithrandir? C’mon, someone talk to me.”
“It’s Lord Námo, Loren,” Gwyn said.
“Oh, okay… Well put him on. I want to talk to him.”
Námo raised an amused eyebrow at Glorfindel’s tone. “That screen is too small. Glorfindel, go into the media room and turn on the TV,” he ordered. “We’ll be able to communicate without all of us squinting into a ridiculously small screen.” Then he walked out of the dining room and into the living room. The brothers and Alex stared at one another for a second or two before following. In the living room they saw Námo standing before the flatscreen TV. He rested a hand on it and they watched in wonder as the screen lit up seemingly of itself for the remote was sitting on an end table next to the couch. Alex felt his world go sideways as he found himself looking at Glorfindel and the others looking back at them from the media room in Edhellond, their expressions equally ones of amazement.
“That’s better,” Námo said in satisfaction. “And now that we’re all here, let me explain.”
“Where’s my mom?” Alex demanded. “You promised—”
“Peace, Alex,” Námo said, raising a hand. “All will be explained but not if you keep interrupting me.”
Alex subsided, but then Glorfindel spoke. “Neat trick,” he said. “How are we even hearing one another?”
“Magic,” Námo replied with a trace of amusement in his voice, “or a science so advanced that it might as well be. Take your pick. In the meantime, let me assure you that Anne Meriwether is alive and well and safe. No harm has come to her.”
Alex felt almost giddy with relief, but Glorfindel’s eyes narrowed. “That may be, but it doesn’t mean she isn’t in the hands of the enemy. Alex, I think you should give her a call, find out for sure.”
“How would I know?” Alex asked.
“Sorry, I don’t follow,” Glorfindel said.
Alex sighed in frustration. “The call could go straight to voicemail and no one would think twice about it because people don’t always answer their phones for one reason or another, or the call can be transferred to wherever they’re holding my mom and, under threat of pain, she’s forced to speak to me as if nothing’s wrong. So, how would I know? It’s not like in the movies where the person held somehow says something that sounds innocuous enough but the person at the other end of the line knows it’s their way of saying they’re in trouble without alerting the captors. My mom and I never set anything like that up in advance because I never thought this day would come.”
“There is no need for you to be concerned, Alex,” Námo said. “Anne is perfectly alright.”
“Yeah? Then why the hell do I have this letter telling me to kill Loren and threatening me with my mom’s safety? Who sent this? What the hell is going on?”
“Calm down, Alex,” Námo commanded.
Alex snarled a blistering oath that had more than one person cringe, fear fueling his anger. “If one more person tells me to calm down, I will send them straight to your halls, Námo, and that includes you.”
“Well, beyond the fact that such a thing is impossible, your anger toward me is misdirected,” Námo said calmly. “Who sent you the letter is for you to discover. I’m not here to hold your hand, Alex, yours or anyone else’s, and the Maiar have better things to do than come at your beck and call. I am here to assure you that Anne is safe and no one’s kidnapped her or threatened her. Whoever sent you that letter is playing mind games with you. My advice — and it’s only that and you are free to do as you please — but my advice is for you to tear up the check and forget about it.”
“Just forget about it?” Alex demanded. “And then what? I get a package in the mail containing my mom’s ear or a finger with a note saying kill Loren or else?”
“It won’t come to that, surely?” Finrod asked, looking almost ill.
“No, it will not,” Námo said firmly.
“And I’m just supposed to take your word for it, am I?” Alex snarled and then his expression became more pleading. “Look, take me to her. Let me see for myself.”
“No. I know you can do it. Please. I’ve got to see my mom, make sure she’s all right and—”
But Alex was beyond listening and started shouting. “Damn it, Nate! You take me to my mother right now or I swear—”
At that precise moment, the doorbell rang again and everyone froze in shock.
“What is this, Grand Central Station?” Gwyn muttered as he went to open the door, speaking more loudly as he did so. “Whoever it is, we’re not buying, so you can just — holy shitake mushrooms!”
“What? What is it?” Alex and Gwyn said almost at the same time as they hurried over to see what was happening and then they just stopped in shock at the sight of Raguel standing with Anne Meriwether looking dazed and a little rumpled, dressed in pink pajamas and a pink bathrobe and fuzzy pink bunny slippers.
“Mom?” Alex whispered in disbelief.
Anne’s expression cleared and she smiled. “Artemus!” she cried, going to him and hugging him. He hugged her back, feeling totally confused.
“Mom! What? How?” He looked between Raguel and Námo, the two with almost identical smirks.
“That is what I was trying to tell you,” Námo said. “Raguel had already taken the initiative to bring Anne here.”
Anne pulled herself out of Alex’s embrace. “Woke me out of a sound sleep and insisted I come with him,” she said with a huff of annoyance. “Wouldn’t even let me get properly dressed and now I need to use your bathroom.” She said this last looking at Gwyn who raised an eyebrow.
“Gareth, show Mrs. Meriwether where it is,” was all he said.
“Just call me Anne,” the Mortal said with a smile. “You may look no older than my students, but I have no doubt you’re way older than I. Oh, thank you, dear.” This last was said to Gareth who had offered her his arm as he led her out of the living room and down the hall. “Such lovely manners. Could never get Artemus to be so polite.”
Gareth gave Alex a knowing grin, but Alex wasn’t paying much attention, staring at Raguel, still standing at the doorway.
“Well, are you in or out?” Gwyn said to the archangel. “You’re letting all the flies in.”
Raguel gave him an amused look as he stepped over the threshold. Gwyn closed the door and then stood at a loss as to what to do next, but then ingrained good manners took over. “May I offer anyone some refreshments? Tea? Coffee? A lot of stiff drinks?”
“Nothing for me, thank you,” Raguel said politely.
“Nor me,” Námo chimed in.
“I could use a stiff drink right about now,” Alex said faintly, the whole thing becoming a bit too much for him to take in. He actually swayed slightly, his vision blurring. Raguel stepped in front of him and held Alex’s head between his hands. In spite of himself, Alex found himself captured by the archangel’s gaze and felt himself falling into it. A moment or an eternity later, Raguel released him and Alex blinked, coming back to himself, feeling calmer and more focused.
“Is everything all right?”
Alex turned to see his mother standing there looking concerned. He drew in a deep breath and let it out. “Yeah, everything’s fine, Mom. How are you holding up?”
“Well, beyond the fact that some angel dragged me away from my nice warm bed and teleported me across the country in my jammies, I’m doing rather well, all things considered.” She glared at Raguel who gave her an amused smile.
“Actually, Raguel’s an archangel, Mom, like Nate,” Alex couldn’t help correcting her.
“Hmph. Raguel, is it?” Anne said, clearly unimpressed.
Raguel bowed his head in acknowledgment but said nothing. It was Námo who spoke. “Anne, I apologize for what has happened, but I’m afraid Alex would never have believed that you were perfectly fine otherwise.”
“And why wouldn’t you?” she asked her son.
“I got a letter, an order, actually. I was supposed to kill Loren and the letter said that you’d been taken hostage to make sure I carried out the order.”
“Hmm… well, as you can see, I’m perfectly all right.” She gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“That still begs the question as to who sent the order and why,” they heard Glorfindel say. “Hi, Anne.” They saw him waving and grinning like an idiot.
“Loren!” Anne gasped, tightening the belt of her bathrobe, blushing slightly. “Great! Can it get any more embarrassing than it already is?” she muttered, refusing to look at anyone.
“Anne, you look fine,” Glorfindel assured her. “We’re all grown-ups here, so don’t worry about it. I’m just glad that you’re safe. Nice slippers by the way.”
Anne blushed even more.
“What I want to know is why this is happening,” Alex demanded. “None of this makes sense.”
“I wish I could tell you,” Námo said, “but I think this is something you will have to figure out for yourselves. We’ve done what we can to put your mind at ease, Alex. What you do after this is up to you.”
“In the meantime, Anne Meriwether, you might consider remaining here for the time being,” Raguel suggested.
“You’re welcomed to stay with us, Anne,” Gwyn said. “We have a spare bedroom.”
“But I can’t stay here,” Anne protested. “For one thing, I don’t have any clothes and for another, I do have a life of my own. I can’t just disappear from it. Neighbors will wonder and the police will be brought in and really it’s too much.”
“Peace, Anne,” Námo said gently. “These are minor details. Your clothes and anything else you need can be brought here and we can make it so that your neighbors do not have any suspicions as to your absence, but I think you’ll be much safer here with Alex.”
“Nate’s right, Anne,” they heard Glorfindel say. “And look, if you want, I’ll come down and bring you back to Wiseman. You can stay with us at Edhellond, since Alex is busy with school and Gwyn and Gareth will be away all day at work. At least here, there’s always someone about to keep you company so you won’t be alone unless you want to be.”
“But I have a job, too,” Anne insisted. “Even if I do agree to stay, it would only be for a couple of more months. I’d need to get back before school opens.”
“What if I can arrange for you to teach here?” Glorfindel asked.
“Mom, think about it, okay?” Alex pleaded. “Please. Just think about it.”
“All your objections can be easily addressed, Anne Meriwether,” Raguel said gravely. “I realize that what we are asking of you is frightening. Being uprooted in this manner cannot be anything else but frightening for you, but I ask that you trust us, trust Lord Námo, who gave you advice once before, advice which you followed and never regretted.”
For a moment Anne just stared at them all, indecision written on her face, then she looked at Alex standing there, his eyes pleading, and her heart went out to him and she nodded. “Fine. I’ll stay, at least for now.”
There was a general sigh of relief.
“Well, the first order of business is to get Anne some clothes and anything else she needs from home,” Glorfindel said briskly. “I’m sure one of you can arrange that.” He glared through the screen at Námo and Raguel. “In the meantime, I’ll plan to come down on Monday and—”
“Why don’t we just put her on the plane to Bettles so you won’t have to come so far?” Gwyn suggested.
“I don’t like the idea of her traveling alone,” Alex said. “Anything can happen.”
“She won’t be alone,” Raguel assured him. “I will see to that.”
“Good,” Glorfindel said. “Just let me know what flight she’s on and I’ll pick her up.”
“Then that’s all settled,” Námo said, looking pleased. “We will leave you now.”
“Wait!” Gwyn exclaimed. “How do we get our TV back?”
“Turn the TVs off and when you turn them back on they will revert to their original state,” Námo explained.
“And my clothes?” Anne asked.
“When you wake tomorrow you will find all that you need has been delivered,” Raguel assured her. “And now we must go.” And with that, the two Ainur faded from sight.
“Okay, crisis seems to be over,” Glorfindel said.
“For now,” Finrod chimed in, “though I’m not entirely convinced. Something about all this does not add up.”
“We’ll figure it out later,” Glorfindel said.
“Alex,” Vorondur said. “I know you’re angry but I want you to focus on the fact that your mother is safe and right there in front of you.”
“Someone’s playing with me,” Alex said through gritted teeth.
“Yes, they are,” Amroth said before Vorondur could respond. “Just remember what I taught you, son, and keep this in mind as well: you did well tonight.”
“What do you mean? All I did was come whining to you.”
“No, son, you came looking for our help,” Amroth corrected him. “You didn’t go off on your own as you would have done six months ago. You came to us instead and your reward for doing so, for trusting us, is that you have your mother with you.”
Alex glanced at Anne, who opened her arms to him and he went to her gladly, accepting her embrace. “Thank you,” he whispered.
“Okay. I think we’re done here,” Glorfindel said. “Alex, be careful and be mindful. Whoever sent you that order is still out there and Eru alone knows what he or she may try next. Anne, I’ll see you soon.” With that they saw him pick up the TV remote and the screen went blank. Gareth did the same with their TV.
“Would anyone care for some chamomile tea?” he asked. “I know I can bloody well use a cup.”
“Tea sounds grand,” Gwyn said. “Gareth, why don’t you go make us some while I show Anne where she’ll be sleeping tonight.”
“C’mon, Alex. You can give me a hand,” Gareth said as he headed for the kitchen while Gwyn escorted Anne down the hall to the guestroom. After a brief second of hesitation, Alex followed the younger ap Hywel brother into the kitchen.
Raguel and Námo appeared in the audience chamber in Ilmarin where the other Valar were gathered.
“Well?” Manwë asked.
“Anne is where she needs to be,” Raguel answered.
“And they don’t suspect anything?” Oromë asked.
Raguel and Námo both shook their heads. “Though I wouldn’t put it past Glorfindel or Finrod or even Valandur to figure it out eventually,” Námo said.
“We’re playing a dangerous game,” Ulmo stated.
“We’re doing only what needs to be done,” Manwë retorted mildly. “Besides, this was Raguel’s idea, so if anything goes wrong, we won’t be blamed for once.”
“You’re too kind, Brother,” Raguel said with a smile. “Atar said I needed to help Artemus and delivering Anne safely into the hands of the Eldar is the first step. She is his fatal weakness. With Anne Meriwether in Wiseman that is one less hold the Enemy has over him.”
“But not the only hold,” Varda pointed out.
“Yet, surely the most important,” Raguel countered. “Whatever else the Enemy may plan for Artemus, I have no doubt he will be able to handle it. It’s what he’s been trained for, after all.”
“So what’s our next step?” Námo asked, accepting Raguel as his superior in this venture.
“Have you ever piloted an airplane?” Raguel shot back and more than one set of eyebrows rose.
Noss Elloth Vallen: (Sindarin) ‘House of the Golden Flower’.
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