Anna rode up to the fifteenth floor trying to reorder the long, dark hair tangled like seaweed around her sopping collar with one hand, while gripping the useless remains of a wind-savaged umbrella in her other. However penned up she’d felt in her office all morning, ‘getting out’ for lunch had proven a very bad idea.
Seven inches of rain just since Saturday, with no end in sight, according to the weather guy on Channel 12. The year’s unprecedented autumn colors, so impossibly luminous through October, had all been swept at once into the city’s storm drains now, blocking sewers and flooding large stretches of her route to work. Traffic everywhere was gridlocked.
Disgorged from the elevator, Anna headed for the women’s room to pat herself as dry as possible with paper towels, achieving little but an upgrade from ‘squishy and dripping’ to ‘damp and bedraggled’ before returning to her office suite. Happily, her student assistant, Maggie, didn’t even look up from typing as Anna passed through the reception area.
Inside her office, Anna gazed briefly at the wide plate windows where gray downpour all but obliterated her usually sweeping view of the city’s university district. Then she sat down and opened her email to scan the never-ending flood of messages from clients and field workers on three other continents in six time zones. As administrative coordinator of IDEP, the university’s international Infectious Diseases Education and Prevention program, such correspondence consumed half of her time. The second half was consumed by the development of training and support resources for the program’s scores of international field workers. Overseeing the management of clinic and classroom facilities in half a dozen countries accounted for a third half. Managing the program’s core staff here on campus, and the relentless pursuit of improved project funding composed the fourth and fifth halves of her workload. Helping people make the world a better place had always been her passion, but she did wonder sometimes if she weren’t trying to help a few too many of them all at once these days.
It was several minutes before she noticed the envelope someone had left on her desk. When she saw what was written on it, her mouth fell open. She was up and halfway to her office door to ask Maggie where it had come from when her cell phone rang. She brought it to her ear.
“Dusty! How weird you should call. You’ll never guess what—”
“Anna,” he cut in, “something… I just had a really weird encounter at Ricky’s Market. Some creepy guy shoved this letter at me. You won’t believe who it’s—”
“Matt Rhymer?” she cut him off in turn, gaping at the envelope in her hand.
There was a pause. “How do you…”
“I’ve got one too,” she said. “It says, ‘Please deliver to Matthew Rhymer.’ Someone left it while I was at lunch. I just got back and found it now.”
Dusty swore quietly, then again more fiercely.
“What is it?” she said. “Have you read it? What does it—”
“It’s a load of crap about some lady who’s on trial for something,” he said. “But, Anna, this guy was weird as they come, and if they knew right where to find us both, it’s something organized. Like really organized.”
“They, who?” she demanded, staring at the envelope as she headed back to her desk.
“I don’t know who,” said Dusty. “The letter doesn’t say. But the guy at Ricky’s said something about justice, and that if they didn’t find Matt, it would matter to everyone in the city. I’d call the police if I thought they’d care, but there’s nothing in the letter that makes enough sense for them to care about. When are you planning to leave work?”
“I don’t know. Why?”
“I’ll come pick you up. You shouldn’t leave there alone.”
“That’s ridiculous. This isn’t some suspense thriller, Dusty. No one in the real world—”
“Don’t tell me about the real world, Anna. I grew up in it, remember? So did Matt. And where’s he been all these years? Doing what? With who? In the real world I come from, someone starts talking about ‘justice,’ you better watch your back. So don’t leave that building ’til Thom or I get there, okay? I’ll leave him a message.”
“I’ll say it again,” he cut in impatiently. “They knew right where to find us both. And I’ve kind of grown to care about you, Mom.”
She just caught her laugh before it escaped. Dusty had never called her or Thom ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad.’ He’d been far too old for that—in so many ways—when they’d adopted him, and Anna was barely six years Dusty’s senior anyway. “Fine then, son. But I have more than enough work to keep me busy here all night if necessary. I can wait to be escorted home until you’ve finished whatever else you need to do.”
“All I need to do is call Thom and go get Colleen. If these people know where you and I are, they might know where she is too.”
“You really think that’s necessary?” she asked.
“Humor me,” he said curtly.
“Well, be careful out there, okay?” She could just imagine him racing through the city in a panic and skidding into some light pole. “The streets are a mess.”
“I’ll drive like an old lady,” he said, and hung up.
She closed her phone, and stood staring at the envelope. She wasn’t usually the sort to open other people’s mail, but there seemed no hope of delivering it, and given the circumstances, she felt entitled to know what it said. She pushed the flap back and pulled out a thick sheet of costly stationery covered with the same elegant green script in which the envelope had been addressed.
The Lady is put to trial. You will know why and by whose hand. He and his are searching for you everywhere, wanting that last, incontrovertible nail with which to seal her coffin. Though your absence would seem to our great advantage in this regard, the Lady now insists that everything we have fought for depends upon your presence. Thus, it seems that we must win the race to find you. Happily, I believe we are still the only ones with any idea where to look. I beg you, Matthew, if this reaches you, come to us. I trust you will remember where and how.
It seems you have grown far more skillful at hiding than I imagined possible on the morning we first urged you to try—unless you are simply dead somewhere.
I hope with all my heart that you are not.
If the Lady is overthrown, this city will be left without even the pretense of lawful restraint upon his harvest. Of all your kind, you alone know what that will mean. You alone will see and understand what’s happening, year after year as it unfolds. Even if you feel no obligation to help us, come to help your own.
I dare not sign this letter, but trust you’ll know who it is from. If this finds you, leave any reply where first I told you such things could be left. That place is still safe, known only to the very few with whom I trust my life each day.
Whatever your decision, I hope this finds you well, old friend.
Anna read through it all a second time, then shook her head and set it down. What a bizarre note—in such oddly antiquated language. Dusty had been right, though. Nothing here the police would care about. She picked it up again, walked to her office door, and leaned into the reception area, holding up the letter.
“Where did this come from, Maggie?”
Maggie stopped typing and looked up from her monitor. “What is it?”
Anna gave her a quizzical look. “It’s a letter, left on my desk while I was out to lunch. Didn’t you put it there?”
Maggie shook her head, nervously. “On your desk?”
“Yes. …Did you see who left it?”
Maggie shook her head again, looking anxious. “I went down to the cafeteria for a salad, but I was only gone for ten minutes. Really. I ate up here… Is it something bad?”
“I’m not sure,” said Anna. “But, in the future, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t leave the office unattended while I’m gone. You can go to lunch before I do, or after I get back. I don’t care which, just check with me ahead of time.”
“Okay,” Maggie said, her shoulders hunched as if Anna had just swatted her. Anna hadn’t the bandwidth to care as she went distractedly back to her desk.
Someone had come into her office during the only ten minutes when no one had been there. The door was never locked during the day, of course. People left things for her now and then, usually with Maggie, but sometimes on her desk… People who worked here, anyway, and knew where her desk was…
She wondered if Dusty could be right to worry.
She fished out her phone again, to call Thom, wondering what he’d make of this. He was one of the most grounded, practical people she’d ever met, in spite of, or perhaps because of, all he’d been through. That sturdiness was no small part of why she’d married him. And his own experience might offer some better sense of what to do.
When the call went straight to voicemail, she guessed he must already be talking with Dusty. “Call me,” she said after the beep, and hung up.
With a sigh, she sat down and returned to her backlogged email.
She’d been at it for less than twenty minutes when a new message appeared at the top of her inbox. Its subject line made her gasp aloud. With a tingle of disbelief, she opened it, and grabbed her phone to call Dusty back before she’d even finished reading.