Attempting to open his eyes was like breaking the seal on a Pharaoh's sarcophagus.
If he had his choice his eyes would remain closed forever. But that luxury was lost to him. It was time to awaken. So he tried. His lashes clung together as if glued with prehistoric amber. His eyes rolled against coarse grit that burned. In the end he was forced to use wild contortions of his facial muscles to pry his eyelids apart. The simple act of blinking left him short of breath.
A ceiling fan was the first thing he saw. Then, a meandering crack in pale stucco.
With the return of this one sense, others reluctantly followed. The smell of stewed prunes tangled with a spicy aroma that made him think of peppers, and the char of burnt, gamey meat ran like a thread through both. He heard the vociferous honking of dozens of geese and a barking dog who let out a yelp of pain. A strange gusting noise, like rushing wind funneled through a tunnel, droned in the background.
He thought, This isn't Scotland.
Heat baked his skin, left it dry and taut like tanned leather. It was a foreign experience. His blood was thick from the colder climes. Or, it had been. As he lay there he realized his body was adapted just fine to the intense heat, almost as if... almost as if he'd been here long enough to acclimatize to it.
Where was he?
He took stock of his body. He was weak. His limbs weighed as much as stone but they responded when asked. Someone had taken care to keep him active and prevent his muscles from atrophying. He could move his hand, albeit it was a simple action that felt as monumental as shifting a mountain. His fingers brushed over the coarse cotton blanket he lay upon, investigating. He heard the scrape of his nails across its surface.
A little more movement gave him more sensation: his fingers touched his hip, clothed in more cotton but of a thinner weave, nearly silk-like. He'd never worn such diaphanous material before. Modest, he blushed, wondering at how he must look in it.
But the embarrassment diminished quickly as more pressing concerns seized his attention. Besides the honking geese he could hear muted voices somewhere in the distance. He struggled to decipher the language. Perhaps French?
More voices unwound for his ears, these speaking a guttural, phlegm-y language. Recognition flared and died. He couldn't remember where he'd heard it before. He had a flash of memory: boat docks, a day at a market... sharing the taste of a warm spice with a woman with blue eyes.
Spurred by a growing paranoia, he pushed himself slowly upright. The effort left him breathless and faintly dizzy. He was in a small, plain room with smooth stuccoed walls. Dark wood furniture carved in heavy geometric shapes gave the room weight, and colorful woven rugs on the floor told him what he had already begun to accept: he was far from home, perhaps in another country.
The bed he lay on was not the only one in the room. On the other side of a small table stretched another bed as narrow as his. It appeared unslept in, the bedding undisturbed. He looked immediately for an armoire and saw one, its doors open. No clothes hung from it. He saw no valises in the room although a large, man-sized truck sat beneath the glass-less window.
He rose gingerly to his feet. The dizziness increased. He felt top heavy. He worried his ankles would twist and send him tumbling to the floor. But they held firm and he was able to take a trembling step forward, then another. He felt like a newborn foal, testing shaky limbs. But his mind was full of the knowledge of an adult man, and it was racing as he came to the open window.
The scene outside stole his breath. He overlooked a busy dirt roadway that curled around a roundabout. Hordes of horses trotted past pulling creaking carts laden with fruits, fabrics, and unidentifiable goods. Wild dogs roamed in herds, sniffing piles of garbage. Men swaddled in cloth from head to toe guided goats through the traffic with bored absentmindedness.
What set his heart to pounding so fiercely that he feared he would pass out was the sight of the carriages which were not carriages. They raced forward without the power of horses. They belched dark smoke and growled like beasts. The sound that he had originally attributed to geese came from these alien contraptions, a relentless, angry honking. They were machines he had never seen before and there were dozens upon dozens of them like a horde of mechanical monsters.
Gasping, he collapsed against the frame of the window and turned his face away from the raucous scene. His eyes fell on the small table. A newspaper rested there. And also a letter.
He stumbled to the table, falling against it and bracing his hands on its smooth surface to keep his balance. More dark wood, polished from age more than care. The paper that rested atop it looked blindingly white in comparison. The sheet was remarkably light and uniform when he picked it up. Someone had written him a note in a strange blue ink.
I write this letter in the hopes you will never read it. But I must do so. I fear they are on my trail.
His mind went blank. The words filtered through his brain but refused to take root. The letter slipped through his fingers and drifted like a feather to the floor. His eyes fell on the newspaper: La Presse de Tunisi.
He was in Tunis.
He saw the date on the paper: 1997. Over a century had passed since he had last closed his eyes.
He stumbled again, his feet tangling. He gave up the fight against gravity and fell to the floor, knobby knees cracking against the floorboards. He passed a trembling hand across his face, absently noting that his cheeks were line-free and hairless.
A sob caught in his throat when he thought of Vivian's hands caressing his face, of her lips against his. He shook his head violently. No. He mustn't mourn. She was right: they'd known in the beginning that this might happen.
But a howl of anguish sought to escape his throat. He should have been able to save her.
He sat sprawled on the floor and watched with blank eyes as the shadows climbed the walls. His stomach rumbled. He must not have eaten for days, but he couldn't bring himself to care. Outside his room he heard the sound of cleaning staff moving about the riad. None knocked on his door. Vivian had ensured he wouldn't be disturbed before he was ready. She always thought of everything. His Vivian...
He closed his eyes and saw her face against the back of his eyelids. Her red hair, her blue eyes -- their children would have been fiery and beautiful. But as soon as he imagined their brood he shuddered. No. He would never be so cruel as to bring children into his nightmare. Not even for Vivian.
But Vivian was dead...
He snapped his eyes open when more painful images threatened to consume him. He rose stiffly to his knees, wishing he felt his age, but mostly feeling tired. He crawled to the immense trunk beneath the window. Looking at it, he realized abruptly that this must have been how she'd transported his body. He smiled sadly at her ingenuity.
What a waste.
Inside the trunk he found the promised bundles of clothing. He also found packets of foreign money in various currencies, a pair of rectangular reading glasses, a soft bound book which claimed to be an atlas, and he also found a notebook. He opened the latter cautiously, and had to swallow down a sob of grief at seeing Vivian's meticulous handwriting filling page after page. He spent a moment just tracing the neat, familiar script with his fingertips. Then he corralled his despair and studied what she'd written.
There were instructions on how to hire transportation, descriptions of countries, names of world leaders, a concise history report, and several pages referring to 'electronic devices'. He didn't understand any of it. His ignorance made him break out into a cold sweat. He had never felt so acutely alone, so out of his depth. He could not shake the tremor from his fingers.
Beneath a 'bus' map he found a small booklet bound in something akin to leather but not quite. It was navy blue and stamped in strange gold gilt. Above the image of a bird was the word, Passport, and beneath it, United States of America. He thumbed through the booklet's pages and found a remarkable color image of himself next to basic information putting his age at thirty-one. He could easily make out the rich copper hue of his wavy hair and even the gray-green tint of his eyes. The photograph was sheened with an unexplainable iridescence that reminded him of oil slicking a water puddle in the sunlight. The image seemed like magic. He was afraid to hope it was so.
He tossed the book away from him, sending it skidding across the floor. He covered his face with his hands. The manic honking from outside burned his ears. The dry air seared his lungs. The darkness crept further into his room, oppressive and ominous. He pressed himself into a corner and curled into as tight a ball as possible.
He dozed. He dreamed. He woke drenched in sweat. He stared at the shadows and wished for the past. Hours later, having exhausted his self-pity, he crawled across the floor and picked up the passport booklet. He stared at it for a long moment before he brought it back to the trunk. With dry eyes he withdrew Vivian's instructional notebook and thumbed to a section she'd called History. He slipped the reading glasses over his nose and began to read about a great world war.
That meant it had rained every day since the New Year. Fair Haven's Chamber of Commerce was no doubt wringing its hands and knocking back the scotch by the gallons.
Dorian peered over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses out the window to his left, past the sheer white curtains and through the beveled glass. His view overlooked the planter boxes, and beyond them the perpetually clean sidewalks and the quaint cobbled main thoroughfare of Fair Haven which was normally thick with tourists. But not today. Not this week or the last. The days had been dreary and gray and not even the numerous art galleries and antique shops upon which the town's fortune rested could lure people out and about.
Had he been the owner of the ice cream and candy shop across the street he might have been worried. Were he the manager of the bijou theatre where melodramas played six nights a week he might have anxiously checked the Weather Channel for news of the storm's break. But he didn't worry about the rainfall. His little shop, Gayle's Fine Antiques and Curiosities, was doing quite well for itself. He could afford a quiet day or two in which it was just him and his collectibles.
Not that it had even come to that point. Despite the inhospitable weather there were two customers in the shop, browsing the contents of shelves and curio cabinets, investigating the two side nooks which led off the main room, and eventually wandering upstairs to the gallery where the most valuable paintings hung or sat on wooden easels.
Valuable. It was a throwaway word in here. In truth, there wasn't a single object in his shop that he deemed not of value. It was merely a question of whether that value was monetary or based on something else. He was very particular about what he bought and sold in his shop. Only the strange, beautiful, and wonderful adorned the shelves and walls. That particularity was why he could afford a quiet afternoon or two. People were willing to pay nearly anything for objects they considered priceless.
One of today's customers was an older woman in her late fifties, dressed smartly in a St. John pantsuit and carrying a Louis Vuitton exclusive bag. She was fairly typical of his usual customer, as Gayle's generally attracted people who didn't blink twice at spending several thousand dollars for a footstool purportedly once used by an Arabian sheikh. Dorian didn't sell necessities; he sold the type of items wealthy people bought when they were bored.
Or when they were strange.
He removed his glasses before he rose from his stool and rounded the small drafting table where he had been writing notes about a cuckoo clock he'd purchased from a private showing last week.
"How may I help you?" he asked as he joined her before a four-foot tall wooden carving of the Hindu god Ganesh. "Dorian Gayle at your service, madam."
She appeared startled at the address but then smiled warmly at him "You have a wonderful shop, Mr. Gayle. Very unusual and very inspiring. I'm especially impressed with this statue. Can you tell me more about it?"
"It's fascinating, isn't it?" He walked slowly around the statue, admiring the Hindu god in its elephant incarnation from every angle. "I came across it in a dwelling in the Dharavi slums. In India. I'd heard a rumor that one of the neighborhoods -- a very poor, unfortunate trash heap of suffering -- had found hope from a carving of Ganesh which was reported to sing."
"Sing?" The woman laughed softly and regarded the statue. "I don't hear anything but the rain outside."
Dorian reached out and ran his fingers along the cool wooden trunk of Ganesh, aware of her eyes on him as he did so. "I thought the same as you when I heard the story. However my curiosity got the best of me."
"I suspect it often does, Mr. Gayle," she said with a husky laugh, "if the contents of this shop are anything to go by."
He inclined his head in acknowledgement. "I'm very fond of the unusual."
"So I've seen. Please go on."
He smiled at the veiled interest in her voice. "As I said, I'd heard the rumor of a singing Ganesh statue and was intrigued by it. I asked a taxi driver to take me to the neighborhood in question. He agreed to take me for seven hundred rupees, which was far more than it should have cost for the journey."
She looked intrigued. "Why did he charge you more?"
"It was late. Nearly ten at night. It wasn't the type of neighborhood where a foreigner should have wandered by himself. My friends warned me that I was inviting myself to be robbed or worse. But I wanted to know how this rumor had grown to be. I felt that it was worth the risk, and the price."
She reached out and delicately touched her fingers to Ganesh's hand, which held a stone fruit. "You're very brave."
"I'm more curious than brave," he told her with a smile.
She returned it. The faintest hint of color touched her cheeks.
He dropped his gaze to the statue again. "My driver took me to a hovel deep in the heart of the neighborhood, just a plank-walled room without doors, called a hutment. The floor was dirt. A family of eleven lived there on ant-ridden pallets. Chickens and pigs ran loose, defecating where they chose."
"How terrible," she gasped.
"It was beautiful," he corrected her. "They didn't possess any furniture except for a small stool upon which this carving sat, but their home was decorated brilliantly with all the colors of the rainbow."
Her brow creased. "Colors? I don't understand. How could that be?"
He smiled as he remembered the scene. "Neighbors and locals came to worship and pay tribute to the singing Ganesh, and when they did they brought with them baskets of flowers and bright orange marigold wreaths. To show their faith they delivered fruits and vegetables of every kind, a cornucopia of food. They tossed handfuls of colored ground powder called gulal all around the base of the statue, but of course the powder didn't land in one place; it carried, dusting the walls and floors of this wretched shack with clouds of the most brilliant color imaginable. That miserable little home had become transformed by this Ganesh statue into a glorious temple. It was incredible."
Her face reflected the wonder he had felt at the time. "And did they resent your presence there, Mr. Gayle, as an outsider?"
"Not at all. They believed it was Ganesh's goodness that had encouraged me to visit. They had no tea to offer me, but they invited me to observe the tributes." He touched Ganesh's trunk again. "That's when I heard the singing."
She shot him an anxious look, as if her hope that the myth was true battled her common sense surety that it couldn't be.
Dorian gave her a sly look. "This statue is large, isn't it?"
"Nearly as large as a person," she agreed cautiously.
"Imagine it sitting in a corner in a home with only the moonlight streaming through the cracks in the walls to illuminate it. It is surrounded by mounds of flowers and fruits." Dorian laughed to himself. "Now imagine the family's youngest son, a boy of seven, crouched behind Ganesh, singing softly as each new worshipper approaches."
"It was all an act! A fraud!" she said in shock.
"It was an act of survival," he corrected her gently. "And some may say of faith. By keeping up the pretense that this statue could sing, this family was providing themselves with tributes that would feed them. By keeping up the charade, they were giving hope to their neighbors that Ganesh listened to them. All things considered, there are worse things a starving family could have done to survive in an Indian slum, don't you think?"
She cocked her head, her face settling into a thoughtful expression.
"I made an offer on the statue which I knew would feed the family well for several years, even though I knew that in truth, this is a simple carving and nothing more magical." He paused. "Or is it? We place value on objects for the most shallow of reasons: because we believe it to be rare or because someone else desires it. But this statue held true value for that family. It kept them alive, and it brought magic to their friends and to their neighbors."
He walked around to the back of the statue and squatted. "If you look here," he said, pointing at the wood, "you can see the little boy's fingerprints. The powdered gemstone had stained them, you see. Here is where he crouched and braced himself against the statue while he mimicked the holy voice of Ganesh. Do you see them?"
She came around to his side and dropped down. She let out a murmur of wonder and reached out to let her fingers hover just above the two tiny purple fingerprints pressed to the wood.
"This little boy made magic," Dorian said softly, "for all of those people who lived without magic in their lives. This statue is a true relic, a true holy artifact."
"How much," she whispered, "are you asking for this, Mr. Gayle?"
Dorian straightened and extended his hand down to her. "I think you will find the price more than reasonable."
She paid with her black American Express card and arranged for delivery of the Ganesh statue for later in the week. Dorian sat back on his stool and regarded the window again. It was still raining and the streets remained mostly empty. A single navy BMW, 5 series by the look of the grill, idled in the parking lot of the ice cream shop across the street. A plume of exhaust smoke trailed from its rear bumper. Its front window was illegally tinted, obscuring the view of the driver.
Dorian admired the car for a moment, being a fan of European sportscars, but he wondered what the car was doing there, especially since it wasn't actually lined up within the lines of a parking spot but was perpendicular to them, facing Dorian's shop. Odd.
"Does everything you sell come with such a fantastic story... and equally fantastic price tag?"
The question startled Dorian out of his observation of the BMW. He turned from the window and searched the shop until he found his second, admittedly forgotten, customer. The large man had remained silent during the sale of the Ganesh statue and Dorian had assumed he'd left at some point although he realized, belatedly, that he should have known better since the electronic bell hadn't chimed to indicate his exit.
Earlier, Dorian had watched the man browsing. At the time he'd taken him to be an antique hunter since the man's obsessive interest in each object he picked up had seemed to suggest a man of knowledge looking for something which had been mistakenly priced below value. Not many of his sort came to Fair Haven. The antique shops here were skewed towards wealthy clientele and bargains were rare. The people who shopped in the artists' colony often prided themselves not on what they had saved, but on how much they'd spent.
But Dorian decided his initial assessment of the man was an incorrect one. He wasn't certain he could lump this man in with his usual customers. For one thing, he was dressed unusually. The khaki rain coat turned up at the collars could be attributed to the weather, but Dorian was unaccustomed to seeing one so old, frayed and stained, as if the man had recently been mugged. Nor did he think the coat had looked very good when it was new. He recognized it as a cheap box store brand which the typical Fair Haven resident or visitor wouldn't be caught dead in.
The man wore a blood red scarf bunched high around his throat and lower face, covering his jaw and mouth and the tip of his nose. It left only his eyes and forehead to express emotion, and these weren't much help as the man's eyes were a deep, bottomless brown and half obscured by thick, dirty blonde hair. In fact, Dorian thought he could glean as much from the man's hair as from anything, for that scruffy, poorly cut mane told him volumes -- mainly that this man might be eccentric, but he didn't belong shopping in Fair Haven.
The other clue that suggested the man was an atypical customer was the boredom in his voice as he'd asked about the Ganesh statue, as if he were completely unimpressed by Dorian and his shop. Dorian had built a reputation in the colony which was well-respected. He had come to expect to be fawned over, both because he was successful and sold mysterious objets d'art, and because he was, quite frankly, a very attractive man.
But he'd heard none of that in this man's voice, and Dorian felt an ancient wariness rise to the surface of his consciousness.
"If I wanted to buy this, for instance," the man went on in his muffled, disturbingly deep voice as he held up a brass snuff box, "would you tell me it had once held the face powder of Cleopatra?"
Tamping down his annoyance, Dorian smiled faintly. "I doubt you'd believe me if I did. I'd probably tell you John Dillinger had given it to his mistress the night before she betrayed him to the FBI. You seem like you'd enjoy that story more."
What little Dorian could see of the man's face remained bland.
"How did you come by all of this?" he asked Dorian.
The insinuation that some of the shop items might have been stolen did not go unnoticed.
"I purchase much of it from estate sales," Dorian said tightly. "Others are brought in to me by their owners." He slid smoothly off his stool. "Is there something in particular that I may help you with? You don't seem to have found whatever it is you're looking for. Perhaps you'd have better luck at Haven Collectibles two doors down."
"That's a gift shop."
"Yes, it is."
"I'm not looking for trinkets."
Dorian gathered the frayed edges of his patience. "Then may I ask what you are looking for?"
"I may have found it, Mr. Gayle. If that is your true name."
Hesitation had fallen out of habit a year ago. "Yes. It is."
"Dorian Gayle," the man said very distinctly. "An odd name. A memorable name."
"Thank you. My mother was a fan of Oscar Wilde. And you are?"
"Oscar Wilde, huh?" The man made a snorting sound and Dorian had the irritating feeling the man didn't believe him. "You can call me Thomas."
Dorian inwardly laughed. As if he intended to call this stranger by his first name. "And your last name?"
Finally, some emotion showed on the stranger's face. His brown eyes crinkled at the corners as if he were smiling behind the scarf. "Brand. Thomas Brand."
"Well, Mr. Brand, if you've found what you're looking for then let's see about transferring it into your possession." He left his stool and approached the other man, even though he harbored doubts that Brand could afford whatever it was he thought he wanted. "What is it that's caught your eye?"
When he drew nearer to Brand, however, his jovial disdain for the man took on a tenor of apprehension. Brand was larger than he'd appeared when half-hidden by the shelves he was standing behind. Six-two, the man appeared to have been a player for a major league football team or even been a professional wrestler. He was built bluntly and without much style, like a wall -- blocky and huge -- at least in comparison to Dorian, who was, he liked to think, elegantly fit and a respectable five feet eleven inches. He had no doubt Brand could snap him across his knee without much effort.
To show that he was intimidated by Brand's size was not an option, however. Dorian possessed too much pride for that. He hid his unease behind a falsely solicitous smile.
"Yes, Mr. Brand? What is it you're interested in?"
Brand placed the brass snuff box he had been holding in his meaty -- and alarmingly bruised and scarred hands -- back on the shelf from which he had removed it. His brown gaze bored into Dorian. "I'm interested in you, Mr. Gayle."
Struck speechless, Dorian could only stare at him.
"I'm also interested in a trunk," Brand went on. "Steamer style. But you're my priority."
Flustered, Dorian took a small step backwards. While this wasn't the first time he had received a come-on from another man, this was the first time a man had been so graceless about doing so.
"Mr. Brand," he began, uncomfortable, "I'm afraid you've --"
"The trunk should be large enough to transport a person," Brand said, turning away to survey the shop again, "and sturdy enough to be carried from country to country." When his eyes returned to Dorian their color seemed to deepen to the color of graveyard dirt. "And it should be at least a century old."
The shop's phone began to ring. It was a striking, discordant sound in the sudden silence that had befallen the shop.
Brand reached into his raincoat. Dorian half-expected him to pull out a gun. Instead Brand came out with a business card pinched between two thick, rough fingers. He held it out to Dorian. Too stunned to do anything else, Dorian blindly took the card.
"Call me when you're ready to discuss things," Brand told him in his gravelly voice. "I've rented the white house at the top of Pleasant Drive, so you'll be seeing a lot of me."
The phone continued to ring as Brand moved to the door. Dorian felt caught in a whirlpool, unable to move forward or back. Cold air and moisture swept into the shop as Brand opened the door to the accompaniment of the cheery chime. His bulk filled the doorway, his broad shoulders nearly brushing the frame on either side. He turned his head in profile.
"Time has caught up with you, Mr. Gayle. Don't try to run from it." He stepped out into the rain and began striding swiftly down the sidewalk, head down and shoulders hunched bull-like against the downpour.
The chime of the shop bell as the door drifted close broke Dorian out of his stasis. He ignored the ringing phone, which stopped after one more ring, and raised the business card.
Scribbled beneath in pen was a phone number.
All of the blood in Dorian's body dropped to his feet. He dashed to the door and flung it open. The rain shocked his system as it spattered across his face. It pattered softly against the fine fabric of his satin vest and tried to slip behind his silk cravat. He ran out to the sidewalk. He searched wildly for Brand, a hundred questions and demands on his lips.
Yet for as large as the man was, he had somehow managed to disappear like a wraith. The streets were wet and bare. The falling rain drowned any sounds of footfall. Dorian stood for a moment longer, dripping and cold, before he reluctantly conceded defeat.
Back in the warmth of his shop he looked down at the business card he'd crumpled in his fist. His heart thundered as he re-read the names printed there.
Thomas Brand. Guardian of Tempus.
He'd never heard of such an organization or occupation. But he had no doubt that Thomas Brand was a man intent on bringing trouble to Dorian's doorstep.
A thought struck him and he moved quickly to the shop windows. The BMW across the street was gone. For the first time that day, he was completely alone.