“Jo, it sounds fantastic!” Sal exclaimed, setting a real china teacup on her living room table. “So much better than the mail room.” She said the last with a sly wink. Or had she? Jo sometimes had trouble reading Sal; it was hard to be sure with her sometimes.
“The mail room’s not that bad,” she settled for protesting. “The people are pretty cool. Quinn’s there, and the others seem decent enough.”
“But you don’t spend any time with them,” Sal said. Jo noticed a cab pulling into the drive outside; David, just arriving home, looking like he was yelling into his phone.
“Not much time to, so far at least. I’ve been too busy getting caught up on what the company’s doing. One of these days I’m going to have to pick David’s brain, when my own isn’t over-stuffed with all this—”
The door opened then, and David’s voice carried over. He was done shouting, if indeed he had actually been doing that, but he was still a bit heated. “Look, the bottom line is this project is costing a fortune, and now you tell me your initial success reports were wrong?” He paused for a response, nodding a greeting to them as he passed through. “No! You said brain-to-brain, not—…—yes, and that was how long ago?”
He climbed the stairs to the next floor, and the sound of a door closing muted his voice beyond hearing. “Sorry, Jo, he’s so busy lately,” Sal explained, sounding tired.
“I can understand a bit better now that I work for the same company, though actually, I’ve never seen him there.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” she said. “The company has several offices, he works out of a different one. It’s not far, though.”
Jo barely heard her. David’s one-sided conversation was intruding on her thoughts like a fly buzzing past an ear. She mentally swatted at it and returned her attention to her friend; she’d put her finger on why it had sounded so familiar later.
The following Monday marked the beginning of her second week, and that half-heard conversation still nagged at her. Not consciously; she didn’t keep herself awake thinking about it. But it poked at her from deep in her subconscious mind somewhere so that she only halfway noticed.
A series of strange events distracted her from the troubling thought over the course of the weekend, anyway. It started later that same Friday night, before the weekend had even properly begun.
She’d returned home after visiting Sal and noticed that they were running low on food again. She was about to signal a cab to head up to the store when she stopped herself, remembering the physical requirements of the job. “Aww, why not,” she told herself. Gran had been much better the last couple of days, and she wouldn’t be that long. “Gran, I’m going up to the store, I’ll be back shortly,” she called. A grunted response that sounded generally agreeable reached her from somewhere in the house. She checked her pockets for phone and fob and headed out.
It had been late enough that the sun had almost set. There was no rain, but a faint hint of ozone scent made her think a storm was coming soon. It took her a few minutes to realize that that hint of ozone was all she smelled; the air was uncannily clear, with no hint of the smog that usually clung to the area even out in old downtown Dolesham. It was like the air had never been dirtied. She envied the people who’d been able to breathe like this their whole lives.
She was just reaching the point where her regular path met with the path that led past the old ironworks when the ozone scent intensified greatly, and she felt a bit of a head-rush come over her. She stopped, shaking her head in a daze to clear it, and was startled out of her wits when someone nearly ran right into her.
He was average height, but her instant impression suggested he carried himself as though he was taller. His eyes were brown but sharp-looking, intense, observant, and his hair a little mussed, as though he didn’t give it enough thought. He was dressed—
Weird, she thought, mind still reeling from the head-rush. He was dressed like a cos-player or historical reenactor. He had a well-worn and somewhat scorched leather apron with a million pockets worn over a very out-dated suit, minus the jacket. White collared shirt, brown pants, boots, and all of it looking very two centuries ago. And then there were the goggles, an elaborate contraption of switches and too many lenses.
All of this detail slammed into her mind as she barely avoided slamming into him. He was in a hurry, rushing down the street in the opposite direction, back the way she’d come. There were others following behind, all dressed in ways just as out of date, though none with quite the mad inventor look to them.
He barely registered her; in fact, she’d almost have sworn he didn’t see her at all, except to jerk and move at the last second as they were about to collide. He carried on running, looking about as though looking for someone.
“Ann! What happened? Did you see? Were you here?” he called out to the empty street. His voice was so faint she could have imagined it though, and when she blinked, he was gone.
The head-rush faded, and she’d stood gaping, wondering if she’d just seen that, or was just having really weird daydreams brought on by the new job.
The beginnings of a rumbling in her stomach brought her back to her task, and she walked on towards the store, keeping away from the old Ironworks path this time.
That had shaken her a bit, but left her more confused than anything. She’d gotten to the store just fine, collected her groceries, caught up with Fred, and had largely forgotten the whole thing. By then the rain had started again, and she’d left her umbrella at home. Just a light rain though, and of a low acidity. She’d hunched over a bit to try and keep it out of the grocery bag. “If I can’t handle this, I’ll be hopeless at the job,” she told herself.
There was little light left by this point. The sun had long since set, and the last haze of light was leaving the cloud cover overhead a dark, damp gray. The wind began to pick up, whipping her longish hair into her face, wet strands clinging to her forehead and cheeks. There were no cars on the road, but a sound approached, a rhythmic clopping she was unfamiliar with. It rang a dim bell in her memory; a sound out of a movie or something, maybe. The air smelled of ozone; there was no hint of thunder or lightning in the sky.
She was struggling with her hair and the bag in her hand as the sound approached from behind; she labored to turn. The sound was practically on top of her. She’d never seen a horse in person before, but now two were bearing down on her, carrying dark-cloaked riders. The same head-rush feeling she’d experienced earlier settled over her again.
The figure just about to run her down looked like the same man she’d seen before, but subtly different. Larger, more filled out, a few years older maybe. Definitely more grim-faced and tired looking. He was dressed for travel, his outfit from earlier gone. He looked like he’d been on the road for days, and had been injured.
His companion was a woman, though not one of the figures she’d glimpsed earlier, she thought. Dark hair, maybe black. Very pale skin, and vivid green eyes.
I shouldn’t be able to see this much detail, she thought; it was far too dark. She couldn’t even make out the color of her own skin.
She tried to execute a leap out of the way, but she was too burdened. The grocery bag anchored her by one arm, and the head-rush feeling anchored her head. She managed a jerking lurch that was aided unexpectedly, and unhelpfully, by the shoulder of the horse thundering past her; it slammed into her and threw her in the direction she’d been trying to go. Pain exploded through her arm, though in her dizzy state she barely noticed.
She staggered to her feet as the horses thundered past, and she ran awkwardly after them. The the woman looked back at her, eyes wide. Jo staggered her way into a run after them. Her head began to clear, the head-rush receding, the ozone scent fading, and just as before, the strange figures had vanished.
“Hey! This is a serious story!” she snapped as Quinn glanced at his messages.
“Sorry Jo, but you do know how weird it sounds, right?”
They were at lunch at the Capital, sitting in a relatively quiet corner of the place. “Of course it sounds weird. That’s why I’m telling you,” she huffed. “Twice. In one night!”
“Has it happened again since?”
“No, thankfully. Just on Friday.”
“So who are they?”
“Who? The people I saw?”
“Yeah, you said you saw the one guy twice, right? Same one, only maybe older the second time? So who do you think they are?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t recognize them.”
“My money’s on some sort of renaissance faire event or something.”
“Do people even do that sort of stuff anymore?” She frowned. “Not that it matters. They disappeared, Quinn.”
“Well, you did make it sound like they were in kind of a hurry both times. You probably just didn’t see where they went.”
She cocked her head, suddenly wondering. “That’s … true. Maybe. I don’t think so. But … maybe you’re right.”
For the rest of her second week she tried her best to set the unusual events to the back of her mind and focus on getting the hang of the job. True to what she’d been told, she was introduced to field work quickly.
Her training partner was Mike. She was careful to keep disapproval off her face when they were finally introduced face-to-face; she didn’t know for sure that he had brushed her off, after all.
He was a little shorter than she’d expected. Something in his voice had given her the impression of a taller man. He was maybe half an inch taller than Quinn, which put him a couple of inches taller than she herself was. He kept in shape though, which counted for something, and if he had a problem with her, he was a good enough actor to keep it hidden; he was pleasant and professional through their first briefing.
Dunn briefed them, and he was as brusque as he had been the last time she saw him. “You’re going to the Haldstad building,” he instructed them. “Mike, you take the lead. Jo, you learn from him. I have no doubt you’ll do fine; you’ve absorbed practically all of the archives so far, from what I’ve seen.”
“Any special instructions?” Mike asked.
“Yes. The Haldstad is an historic building. It was rebuilt once after a serious fire destroyed most of the first floor, and severely damaged the second. We haven’t been able to determine the state that the basement is in; make a direct inspection of it a priority.”
“Is there anything specific we’re looking at down there?” Jo chimed in.
Dunn raised an eyebrow with a hint of a smile. “Yes. You don’t need to know the specifics, but the building is of immense historical value. The more intact the basement is, the better. Because of the fire and the reconstruction, the basement is the section of the building most likely to preserve details of what it was like back in those days.”
She nodded uncertainly. The heritage value of the place would make the acquisition more difficult; it would add untold levels of red tape to the process of buying the building and doing anything with it, especially if their plans involved tearing it down for whatever reason.
Dunn noticed her uncertainty. “What we’re after is your evaluation of the property and how well preserved it looks, and that information will be used to guide further decisions on whether to go ahead with the acquisition.”
Ahhh, they so maybe then they want to ensure they’re not trying to bite off more than they can chew. That was starting to make more sense to her.