My Partner Has Taken Up Lurking

I know that I mentioned there are odd things going on in the shop. And that my partner has developed an unusal taste for walking. I think I prefer books taking themselves off the shelves to yesterday afternoon, though. Odd behavior in inanimate objects is one thing. Odd behavior in someone as set in his ways as Val is quite another.

Yesterday evening I went upstairs after closing, and Val was gone. I have lived with his habits for a while now, and disappearing in the middle of the day is not one of them. Especially not in the scalding weather we have here–even on overcast days it’s usually too bright for his eyes and too humid for anyone’s tolerance. (And if the next time I mention that to Val I hear one more time about Octobers in Rome . . . well, I don’t know what I’ll do but it will probably involve his sleeping in the storage room.)

As I didn’t sense any danger or other reasons to worry, I decided to make myself dinner and wait for a bit. True to form, he returned as if he routinely took midday strolls and I ought to feel sorry for him being tired and stressed by the sun!

And of course when I asked where he’d been for so long, he decided today was a day for non sequiturs.

“Did you know,” he said, “for it not being summer yet, there are quite a few tourists around?”

“It’s Washington,” I said, ignoring the space he left for me beside him on the chaise. “There are always tourists, or hadn’t you noticed by now? In any case, what are you doing stalking tourists? Bored with me already?”

“Never, honey-sweet.” He’s disgustingly sincere when he wants to be. “But I was taking a turn around the Mall–”

“No wonder you’re sun-parched.”

“–and I had an unusually strong urge to step into the Freer Gallery.” He was lucky he hadn’t fallen on the steps, given how blind the day’s sun should have rendered him, glasses or not. “Tell me, love . . . have you given any thought to who ‘they’ that are coming might be?”

I had. None of it good. There were too many “theys” in our past that might be less than welcome visitors now. “A little.”

He didn’t say anything for a moment, but I didn’t rise to the bait and ask for his thoughts. “There was a woman in the Japanese gallery looking at the screens. Well, superficially. She was on one of the benches looking at a screen of a storm at sea, or pretending to. Now, I realize that I am not the one here who has any line on the future, but . . . Nadia, if you’d only seen her.”

In spite of myself, he had my attention. I settled beside him (standing for this could be disorienting) and said, “Show me?”

I recognized the gallery, with its frosted skylights and muted gray walls. The glass cases down the long walls held painted screens, not unlike one I had in the back room of the shop, but in far better condition. I didn’t recognize the particular screens on display, but the museum rotates its displays often to protect the delicate materials. The focus of Val’s memory was an eight-panel screen I would guess dated to the seventeenth or eighteenth century and it depicted a long, multi-panel scene of a storm at sea. It had obviously been well-preserved; even in the half-light of memory the blues and golds of the water and the colored tunics of the tiny fishermen being tossed by the waves were still brilliant. Val was standing back from it, though, I suspected making an effort to be inconspicuous, and his attention was on the woman on the bench. If she knew she was being watched, she gave no indication. In fact beyond the rise and fall of her chest and the flexing of her fingers around the grip of her cane.

Cane?

Look at her face, Val told me. Not the scars. See what I saw.

Not the scars? It was hard to ignore the right side of her face and neck, crazed with white and red scars. Val, though, was focused on her eyes. They were dark, made more so by her pale features, but the look in them . . . I had seen eyes like that in the war. Mostly on those who’d been in it too long and seen far too many terrible things. She wasn’t nearly old enough to have been there; her parents probably weren’t, either. And there was something else there, beyond pain or disinterest.

Whoever she was and whatever had burned her, she hadn’t quite given up yet.

I felt a cold rush down my spine and in my gut and the gooseflesh came out on my skin. A blink and I was looking at Val again, and realized . . . . “That was you? You felt that?”

“Strange, isn’t it?” Considering he usually didn’t feel chills of any kind, more than strange.

“You think she is one of . . . ‘they’? Whoever is coming?” The strange-sick feeling was subsiding, but I still could feel the hairs of my neck on end. “Who is she?”

“A tourist, as far as I could tell. I followed her to a hotel here in Alexandria.”

“Now you’ve taken to stalking other women? I’m hurt.” My heart wasn’t in the teasing. “Do you think–could she have power? Even untapped?”

“I wouldn’t know, remember?” he said dryly. “And since that was my memory I assume you couldn’t tell anything.”

I couldn’t. I could only see what he’d seen, and even that was more than it should have been. “If we could ask someone . . . .”

“Even I can’t speak to spirits, love.”

He was right. And gentler than he needed to be. “How can we tell, then?”

Val smiled. “I thought tomorrow, when she sets off for the day, I might follow after.”

And of course, I didn’t have any better suggestions. In fairness, he is, as a rule, right about these things.

Later that night when I went to check the locks I found another message in the shop. This time, our old photos and postcards of Washington were scattered across my counter. The most disturbed seemed to be pictures of the Capitol dome. What’s so exciting about that, I don’t know. But perhaps while Val is out lurking in doorways and stalking our lady with the cane, I’ll take a walk of my own.

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