The knocking at the door would not stop.
Rand cracked an eyelid, its weight crushing and saw the red-eyed clock radio staring back: 10:21 a.m.
It was Saturday. He wasn’t working. Why was someone banging at his door?
“Hold up!” he yelled through a parched throat. “I’m coming!”
He yanked a pair of dirty khakis off the floor, threw on a clean T-shirt and splashed water onto his face. On the sink sat the bottle of Advil. The now familiar cure for late nights of too much drinking. He emptied four into his hand and tossed them back.
The knocking started again.
“I’m coming! Hold your damn horses!”
He figured it couldn’t be too important. It could wait a minute longer. If it was the police, they would’ve have identified themselves as such. If it was an emergency from a relative or friend, they could’ve come around to his back door. It was probably a relentless Jehovah’s Witness or someone to finally repair his air conditioning.
In the kitchen was the remnants of yesterday’s coffee, sitting thick and bitter. He poured it into a dirty mug, heated it in the microwave, extracted it with tentative caution, then slumped across the den and cracked open the front door.
A crisp grey suit, white pressed dress shirt, no tie met him.
Head clean shaven. No trace of stubble on his white cheeks. Deep black eyes.
He was tall, but not too tall, Rand himself coming in just under six foot three, the slight paunch still not betraying his athletic past.
“Yes,” he offered lifting the cup to his face slowly slurping in the elixir.
“Mr. O’Neal, may I come in?” the voice was delivered flat. Rand thought he detected a slight accent, – English, Welsh perhaps?
Rand eyed him. Lifted the cup of coffee to his lips again. Studied the situation.
“I would welcome you in, but who are you and, not to be acerbic, what do you want?”
A slight smile crossed tight lips.
“It is a long story, one to be better discussed sitting down or,” then motioning to Rand’s cup, “over coffee.”
“With all due respect, I need a little more than that,” Rand said. “Sorry, I’m not going to invite just anyone into my house without some identification or explanation. I’ve got a 9 millimeter on me and I am not afraid to use it,” he lied.
Rand had never owned a gun in his life, though he did have a smart collection of pocket knives in his closet and a baseball bat leaning behind the door.
“Of course, of course. Apologies.” The man at the door set his briefcase down and reached into his pocket. He withdrew a small business card. A plain white simple matte.
London Athens Salzburg New York
Rand turned it over. There was nothing else. No phone number, website or address. He felt the man’s eyes studying his face.
“Okay,” Rand took another long sip of coffee, the Advil and caffeine burning a hole in his stomach. “Now I know who you are Mr. Venator, but what do you want?”
“I am here to discuss your late grandfather’s estate. There are a few items that weren’t in the will I need to wrap up on behalf of my company.”
“I thought everything was handled. Are you affiliated with Haskins & Hall?”
“No, not exactly with that firm, but, rather, shall we say affiliated with your grandfather’s work.”
Rand paused. Urged his brain to work. Tried to force himself to wake up.
“Can this wait? I worked yesterday and then had a rather late night. Plus, all of my grandfather’s papers and research are either at his home or at Emory. I don’t have access to any of his papers at the moment. My grandmother and the attorneys are handling all the legal work with his will. Candidly, I don’t think I can help you right now.”
“Actually, you can help us now. I just need a few minutes of your time.”
“How about we meet around dinner tonight or sometime tomorrow?”
“I am terribly sorry Mr. O’Neal, but my company wants me to handle this as soon as possible,” Venator looked at his watch as if to emphasize the point. “It is of the utmost importance to our interests.”
What the hell? Rand thought, but his curiosity overcame his tentativeness and he opened the door all the way, “Okay, come in. Excuse this mess, this chaos. I had a few friends over, we had a late night and –”
“That is okay,” Venator interrupted, “I remember what it is like to be young and carefree.”
Rand nodded, picked a pile of books off a chair and offered Venator a seat. He sat across from him on the couch, a rickety coffee table between them filled with several empty beer bottles, a tattered notebook and a scattering of newspapers. Rand was less wary, but still on guard. He still didn’t know if this guy was with law enforcement, NSA, or CIA. And Aeolus – wasn’t that Greek or Roman? – Industries. He remembered a half-memory of the word from somewhere in his studies.
“Can I get you a cup of coffee? Yesterday’s goodness. Just a minute to re-heat.”
“No thanks,” again the tight smile. “This shouldn’t take longer than a few minutes.”
Venator set the briefcase on the floor, unlocked it and lifted a small envelope that he flipped open with an immaculately groomed fingernail.
“Very good then. Here is where we stand. Mr. O’Neal, I believe you were recently provided with a key to a safe deposit box, correct.” A statement, not a question. “According to our records, the box was accessed yesterday close to 3 p.m. Did you retrieve the contents of the box and, if so, have you had an opportunity go through it?”
“Uh, yes, I did retrieve it, but, no, actually, I haven’t had the chance to look through it,” Rand said. Damn. Damn. Damn. How had he forgotten about the small gleaming wood box that was tucked inside the safe deposit box? He had accessed it Friday, but the box had stayed tucked in his briefcase throughout the rest of the day and into the night when he and Adam had invaded Rosses Point Pub and worked hard at decimating their supply of Guinness. Eventually, when reason started to fade and wallets grew thin, a cooler head prevailed and they went to Rand’s home.
Rand recalled carelessly tossing his briefcase into his bedroom closet. In the rush and the blur of night, it was the last thing on his mind. He wanted to be in a good place – physically and mentally – before peering into it. He needed a break from the ever-present ghost of Henry O’Neal and he figured any more ventures into the past he wanted to tackle clearheaded, sober and in solitude.
“But, how do you know about – ”
“Never mind that, Mr. O’Neal. The question is, A) Do you still have it and, B) How much are you willing to sell it to us for?”
“Uh, I believe I still have it.”
“Mr. O’Neal, please,” the tight smile spread into a full grin. “Belief is assigned to demons and angels. You either have it or you do not and considering the fact that none of your friends left with it last evening, I assume it is still in your possession.”
Even the fresh caffeine swimming to Rand’s brain was not enough to test the fathom of this man’s words. Belief? Selling it? How does he know I have it? Friends leaving with it last evening?
Seemingly reading his mind, Venator said: “Well? Let’s not beat around the bush as you Americans like to say. How much are you willing to part with it for? My company is willing to offer $100,000. Tax-free, of course. Cash. No questions asked.”
Venator must’ve read the confusion on Rand’s face so he continued, his voice dropping an octave, a sickly sweet persuasive tone, “That’s right Mr. O’Neal. $100,000. That’s over three times a year what you make now. Granted you will get a nice settlement from your grandfather’s estate when your grandmother dies, but how about now? Why, you could buy a new car. A house. Take an extended vacation in Italy, Thailand or even Ireland again.”
The “again” was what grabbed Rand’s attention. Something was wrong. Very wrong. This man knew too much. Not only of the present, but of the past. Rand had visited Ireland many times with his grandfather, but had not been to the Emerald Isle in over six years.
Rand’s mind began working. Play dumb. Play dumb. Play dumb.
“Hmmmm…let me think about it.”
A pinch of irritation in the eerie collectiveness of the man’s eyes.
“Hmm….how about this Mr. Venator? Let me brew a fresh pot of coffee, shower and think about it. Then we can meet for dinner and make a deal.”
“We cannot wait until dinner. I have a plane leaving in a few hours. We need the box immediately.”
Again, Rand detected increasing irritation in the man’s voice.
Who are “we?” Rand wondered.
“Okay, how about this then. Let me clean up and shake these cobwebs out of my head. I had a late night, like you said,” Rand managed a grin. “Then, say, let’s meet again in about an hour – ” he glanced at the clock on the wall. “How about noon at, let’s see, at Chesney’s Coffee shop, just around the corner – you probably drove past it – and wrap it up….I just need a little time to wake up. As you can tell, I’m not a morning person.”
The man’s lips pursed, but, his eyes remained cool. Rand felt an immediate tightening of the air around him. A type of animal tension between the two of them.
“Very well, then,” the man said. “But we won’t do much more negotiating than over our current price. $200,000 is an extraordinary amount. That said, one hour. 11:30. I will see you then.”
“Thanks,” Rand exhaled, even though he did not know why he was thanking him. For some reason he felt indebted to the man for providing him the extra time after the tense exchange.
“Of course, Mr. O’Neal. I understand. Such decisions must be weighed on with a clear head.” The tight-lipped smile again.
Rand ushered him to the door and watched him walk toward the street where a new silver Mercedes sat with the engine humming. The windows were tinted so he could not see if there were additional passengers in the vehicle.
The car silently glided away on shiny rims and polished wheels. Rand could not make out the license plate. Damn. That would have helped. He could have someone at the paper run it and figure out what in God’s name was going on.
Across the street he saw his neighbor, the ever-present Mrs. Brown and her poodle on her front porch watching the scene. With her insatiable curiosity and penchant for gossip, he knew she would be at his door within the hour. He knew he would ignore her knocks as he had done many times before. He did not have time for idle talk.
The coffee growing colder in his hand, his mind began to spin.