Read The Book of Q Online

Authors: Jonathan Rabb

Tags: #Mystery

The Book of Q (4 page)

BOOK: The Book of Q

He pulled back. He could feel her breath on his lips, see her eyes peering up at him, uncertain.

“I … can’t stay in Bosnia,” he whispered. “I can’t stand back and watch all of this happen.”

She stared up at him. “I know.”

“No, you don’t. I’m doing the one thing I promised myself I’d never do. I’m going numb. I can’t let that happen. Priest or no priest, I can’t lose that…. And I can’t lose that with
.” He waited. “Do you understand that?”

It took her a moment to answer. “No.” Another moment. “Maybe.” She waited, then leaned into him, as if to kiss him.

“Then why did you bring me here tonight?”

“Because I know you’ll go.” Their mouths were no more than an inch apart. “And this is what I want.” She waited, then slowly drew him into her, a kiss, gentle at first, her hands sliding along his chest, his shoulders. She could feel him struggling to let her in, his need as great as hers, but still he held back. Softly, she slipped her fingers beneath his shirt, the touch of skin on skin enough to cloud his senses, his arms suddenly tight around her. She pulled him closer, his lips now finding her cheek, neck, hands to her thighs as he began to stand, lifting her with him, their bodies knocking against the stones, flashlight tumbling to the ground, light
extinguished. Neither seemed to notice as he pulled her legs around his waist, her back up against the wall, hands free to peel away her shirt, his tongue gliding to her shoulders, her breasts. He brought her to the floor, hands untangling clothes, the sudden touch of straw beneath them.

Their bodies stripped bare—his eyes clear enough to find hers in the darkness—he guided himself inside of her. The heat between them rose up through their chests, the taste of exploration on their lips, as he lifted her legs higher, her hands swelling around his thighs, drawing him in. For a moment, they remained absolutely still, the sensation almost too much. Then slowly, they began to move with one another, fingers
flesh, lips lost to cheeks, chests, the ache ever more urgent. Time seemed to vanish, waves of sound driving through them, until, in an instant of perfect tension, an anguish spread across her face, eyes ever locked on his, her legs and arms no less insistent with each thrust. Every muscle within him began to tighten, claw for some unknown sanctuary, lose himself within her, as they both cried out, the climax exquisite, bodies shaking, until they released, gasping, breath once again able to subside.

A thin rivulet of sweat slid down his back, arched at his thigh, and dropped to the ground. She began to caress him, ease her fingers through the moistness of his skin. He lifted his head, a sudden burst of cold air on his chest. He stared at her, somehow even lovelier than before. And they kissed.

Burying his brow in her, they drifted off.

Two hours later, he awoke, shrouded in darkness. A sound from somewhere behind him had jarred his eyes open, a scraping of stone against stone, his conscious mind trying to reorient itself. He blinked several times, slowly aware of Petra’s body cradled next to him. He leaned in to kiss her but was stopped short by the repeated sound of scraping. Twisting his head round, he only now became aware of the thin beam of light emanating from the far wall. Slight as it was, it forced a momentary squint.

Petra, still lost in sleep, rolled over and tucked herself into his chest.

The light was coming from below—another set of steps leading down to the onetime mosque.
No one comes here anymore, not even the refugees
. Again the scraping, a thud, as if the stone had fallen into place. Pearse quietly disentangled himself from Petra and quickly found his pants and
shirt. He put them on as the light grew stronger, bobbing, as if finding its way up the stairs. The sound of footsteps crept closer, the glare beginning to fill the far wall. Pearse remained in darkness, the shirt loose on his shoulders as light suddenly broke through, a large figure behind it. Clinging to the wall, he watched as the man headed for the stairs up to the church. He was nearly there when Petra again rolled over, the straw crinkling under her.

Light immediately flashed across the room, Pearse quick to leap from his place, his hands clearly visible in front of him, just in case the man had something more than a flashlight in his other hand. He had been caught in moments like this before; best to play the confused relief worker, hope that his size was enough of a deterrent, that the man was a Catholic, no need for alarm, no need to be seen as anything more than a harmless inconvenience.

Pearse kept his hands out as he talked, moving farther and farther from Petra.

Zdravo, zdravo,
” he said, continuing in Croatian. “I’m with the Catholic relief mission…. I was separated from my group in Slitna…. I’m just sleeping here for the night. I have papers.”

“Stop.” The light was now aimed directly at his eyes. Pearse blinked rapidly, careful not to make any sudden movements. “Your identification. Slowly.”

Pearse reached into his pocket and pulled out his travel cards. They were slightly mangled but still had all the pretty stamps necessary to convince an interested party. The light fell from his eyes, several seconds before he could focus properly.

“These expired over a month ago.”

The accent was not what he had expected, far too refined for one of the local black marketeers. And far too observant.

Pearse continued to pay the naif. “Yes … I’ve got the others coming, waiting for me in Zagreb.” A lie, but he knew the mention of
was the most likely way to deter further probing.

“I see.”

The two stared at each other. Not only had the accent and eye for detail struck Pearse as odd; the way the man was dressed seemed even more out of place. He wore a well-tailored shirt—safari khaki—recently pressed, pants the same. His hair was cut short, tiny blond spikes in strict military fashion. On his belt hung a holster, fine leather that showed no signs of aging. And in his left hand, he carried a small satchel, also
leather, also in mint condition. Most startling, though, were the boots. Pearse had seen similar ones sell for five hundred dollars in the States—hardly the type to be found anywhere within a six-hundred-mile radius of Slitna.

“You’d do well to replace them as soon as possible,” the man said, now speaking English, the accent no less disquieting. Pearse thought he saw a glint of self-satisfaction in the eyes, as if the man was quite pleased with himself for displaying such facility. “There are people in this part of the world who would shoot you for such a lapse.”

“Right. Of course.” Pearse knew he had to placate, avoid
. “My mistake.” Again, the two stared at each other, neither moving, until the man slowly nodded. Even then, Pearse’s eyes remained locked on the pair of steely grays less than eight inches from him. Trying to diffuse the moment, Pearse slowly began to inch his way farther out into the room.

The man stepped forward to block his path. For just an instant, the humor seemed to slip from his face, then return with added vigor. “Aren’t you going to finish out the night here?” An awkward silence, the smile back on his lips. “Or have I changed those plans?” Before Pearse could answer, the man’s expression shifted again. No more of the
, no more of the playful back-and-forth. This time, a cold vacancy Pearse had never seen before.

The man’s head suddenly snapped to the side as a shot rang out, his entire frame collapsing to the ground. The flashlight followed, bouncing along the floor and casting wild shadows before it rolled to a stop. Pearse stood stock-still.

“He had a knife.” Petra’s voice tore through him as light once again filled the space; slowly, he turned. She was standing, naked, gun in one hand, flashlight in the other. He stared at her, unable to focus. “He was going to kill you.”

Pearse watched as Petra slowly placed the gun on the ground. She looked dazed, only now aware of her own nakedness.

Bending down, she began to gather her clothes. Her voice distant, she repeated, “He had a knife.” She put on her shirt. “He would have killed you.” Still disoriented, she slid her legs into the pants.

Pearse could do little more than nod. He had sensed it, but never been so close, never seen the instant of death. After nearly a minute, she moved to the corpse. Before she could kneel down, Pearse pulled her in close. She clutched at him as well, both of them shaking. “I’ve never shot
someone like that,” she whispered. “Waited, watched.” They continued to hold each other until she suddenly pulled away. It was clear she wanted to say something. When he tried to ask, she shook her head once. She then knelt down and turned the body over, the eyes staring blankly up at her.

After several seconds, she said, “He’s no refugee.” She continued to pat down his pockets. Finding nothing, she moved on to the satchel. Pearse knelt at her side as she undid the leather straps.

“Thank you.”

She stopped, her eyes still on the satchel. After a moment, she flipped open the front and reached inside.

“His whole face just changed,” said Pearse. “I’d never seen that.”

“He probably wanted you to know he was going to kill you,” her voice far more animated than only moments before. “Some people find pleasure in that.” She pulled a hard plastic box from inside the satchel and placed it on the ground. While she played with the clasp, he stared at the body.

The man had an athletic build, powerful arms and hands, his grip still tight around the hasp of the knife. Gazing at the small blade, Pearse realized how close he had come to the same fate. Not that the last three months hadn’t forced him to confront his own mortality, but those occasions had been unspecified, bullets strafing in wild assault. The man lying in front of him was far more personal. A single knife meant for him.

The question suddenly dawned on him. “Why did he think he had to kill me?”

Petra was struggling with the box, using her own knife as a wedge. With a final dig, the top snapped open, a strange odor wafting from inside. “It’s Bosnia. It doesn’t take much thought.”

The rationale didn’t ring true. “No, you saw him. He made a choice.”

Petra was too preoccupied with the contents of the box to consider an answer. Inside were three rectangular piles of parchment, each one held together by a leather string sewn into the far left edge of the stack. Held together by a primitive form of binding, the bundles lay cracked and yellowed, though virtually intact. Odd symbols filled the pages, neat rows of a language neither of them had ever seen before. Petra pulled back the first leaf of the center pile, the parchment gritty to the touch, unwilling to be moved more than an inch or two. Even so, she was able to make out similar rows below, more of the incomprehensible text.

“He was obviously protecting something,” she said, trying her luck with the second and third piles. There, too, the parchment refused to budge more than a few inches. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”

Putting his own questions aside, Pearse stared hard at the three little stacks. Scanning them, he noticed a tiny mark at the top right-hand corner of each page: a triangle, one half of it darkened, the other half empty. As far as he could see, there was one on every page. He was about to point it out to Petra, when the sound of a voice crackled through the room. An amplified voice.

Come va?

The radio was strapped to the dead man’s waist, silent again, waiting for an answer. When none came, a second wave of Italian erupted.

Petra shut the box, picked it up, and headed for the stairs. Pearse was right behind her, no need to be told that they had outstayed their welcome. Reaching the top, she turned off the flashlight and sped across the pewless church; they stopped at the doors, listening for anything beyond. Hearing nothing, they slipped out and crouched low, making their way across the wide expanse of field, intent on any sound, any movement around them. At the road, they found a Jeep. Empty. All was still, the eerie quiet of a 4:00
. sky.

The hours they had spent with each other slipped quickly from their minds, survival once again the only thought.

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