The slog back to the RV was slightly drier than the slog out to the middle of the shallow lake. It had stopped raining, and the water had started to recede, although it would be weeks before the veldt dried out completely. All the way back, Drake and Jaime kept up a constant complaint, repeatedly asking why they had not simply taken a boat. To which the Wandering Jew would reply because they did not have one. What were they, Noah, to have anticipated the need for a boat – and one large enough to accommodate all forty-four of them would not float in water this shallow. And the way they complained, he would have made them get out and push anyway.
Back at the RV, Alvaro had hot coffee waiting for them. Accepting a cup gratefully, Drake went off in search of his last set of dry clothes. After a short visit to Johannesburg to arrange a passport for the Zulu, they were off to good old, sunny, warm and dry Australia. Angel did not like the side trip, but the three specialists had agreed from the outset that it was Drake’s mission, and the boy was right that they would eventually have to replace Brendan. He only wished Drake had chosen someone or something more practical.
Wandjina was more of a legend of a protective spirit than of a person. Like a totem guide in the bushmen’s spirit world, the Aboriginals around Uluru (Ayers Rock) believed Wandjina protected the people and the land. He was a Dreamtime Ancestor who lived in the dream world, a powerful singer from the Creation Time who took a walkabout in the world beyond this one, and who had never come back. A legend that most likely had flesh. At least, Angel thought it would be a vacation. The passport was another worry. They needed their current documentation altered to include an exit visa and a picture of the Zulu, and to do this, they needed to deal with the South African version of the snakeheads. They needed a forger, and unfortunately, here they were as likely to run off with their blank passport – it was, after all, the genuine article.
The Wandering Jew knew of a man, a former security officer of the Apartheid government, who specialized in document creation. Since the new government took over, he and his fellow security officers had fallen on hard times, and he was thinking more and more these days of following his colleagues to warmer climes. Or at least somewhere less hostile. The problem was his heavy Afrikaner accent. He might pass for Rhodesian, but never American or British. A passport from his own government was not an option due to a little indiscretion in his youth that put him on the war crimes list.
A blank American passport was too great a temptation. The Afrikaner had practiced his accent for months now, enough to get out of the country. The money and the long relationship with the Jew tugged at his conscience – almost enough to stop him. Grey hair and false eyebrows, a little spirit gum and some soft plastic, altered his appearance to the point even his mother would not recognize him. But he could not leave his clients empty-handed - after all, he would need the money to start a new life. One of his passable forgeries should suffice, at least buy him enough time to make his escape. These were very dangerous people he was dealing with.
“Can we trust him?” Alvaro asked as he and the Wandering Jew waited in a café for his contact.
“About as far as a man who’s spent two weeks in the desert without water can spit in the wind,” the Wandering Jew shrugged. “Herman thinks I am a Mossad agent. In these parts, not many will cross one.”
An hour past their appointment, Alvaro glanced at his watch and glowered at his companion.
“Relax,” the Wandering Jew teased. “He’ll be here. A man in his line of work is often detained by unforeseen circumstances.”
What was keeping Herman was the irresistible urge to try out his disguise on these two gentlemen. For twenty minutes, he was the old man sitting two tables away, quietly sipping at a cup of Americana coffee. Assured that his precautions would work, he left the café and found a public washroom in an office tower two blocks further down the street. Here, he removed his disguise, packing it with care and placing it in his briefcase. A much younger man stepped out of the washroom and walked back to the café to keep his appointment.
Normally Herman did not conduct business in public, but he didn’t want these people to know where he was living. When Herman changed his habits, insisting on meeting at a public place, the specialists took the precaution of following the Afrikaner home. Even the half up front was a sizeable investment. For the final exchange, Angel waited across the street and would repeat his tail. No use losing their bird now – not until they were positive about the quality of the merchandise.
At the table, the three men ordered coffees. Once the waitress left, Herman and the Wandering Jew exchanged envelopes under the table.
“I hope my workmanship does not disappoint,” Herman said, rising to leave before his coffee arrived.
The Wandering Jew frowned after the man, following him with his eyes. “I think we should return to the hotel and take a long look at the merchandise. I think our man has sold us a pig in a poke.”
They waited only long enough to taste their coffee before throwing some money on the table and leaving. Back at the hotel, they opened the envelope, holding the passport up to the light. The picture was fine, their forger had even added an entrance stamp, and the visa looked authentic. When holding it up against a second passport, a slight difference in the shade or tone of the ink was noticeable.
“Herman, my boy,” the Wandering Jew interjected. “You disappoint me.”
“Your man has definitely pulled a switch on us,” Alvaro sighed.
“I will go,” the Zulu replied flatly.
“I better come with you, lad,” the Wandering Jew interjected.
“I do not need help dealing with a lying, cheating Afrikaner!” The Zulu snapped back.
“Yes, lad, but if you kill him before he fixes the passport,” the Wandering Jew replied, “we’re still in the same pot of stew.”
In the end, Angel, the Zulu – who still had not told them his name – and the Wandering Jew went off to pay their forger a visit. Honour among thieves was a myth of some fiction writer. People who lied, cheated and defrauded for a living knew little beyond the con. Herman had disappointed the Wandering Jew, not because he had tried to cheat him - he had been ready for that- but because he had lost his fear of reprisals. He would now have to put the fear of God into Herman, and he was trying to decide which of his two companions would be best for the job – Angel or the Zulu.
In the end, circumstances chose for him. “My dear friend,” Herman hedged when he answered the door. “I had not thought to see you so soon. Is something wrong?”
“You know something is wrong, Herman,” the Wandering Jew replied. “You switched merchandise on me. Do you think my people went to all the trouble to secure blank passports to have them stolen?”
“No harm meant,” Herman pleaded, “these Kaffirs all look alike -.ˮ
The Zulu picked up the smaller man and slammed him against the wall. “See my face Afrikaner. I am Precious Albert, a prince of the Zulu. If you try to steal from this Kaffir again, it will be the last face you see in this lifetime.”
Replacing the passport with the original was a matter of three hours. Herman would not be rushed with his work, even with the massive Kaffir and the silent Jew breathing down his neck. Mossad had agents everywhere, he should have known he could not get away with it. He couldn’t figure out how they found him so soon.
They sat around a fire, lazing after a meal of hot dogs and s’mores. Mrs. Johns spent the evening worrying about two girls, one who would not eat at all, and a second who would not seem to stop eating. Her granddaughter lay sprawled across their two laps, sound asleep as her cousin stroked her hair. The dark-haired girl, Aiko, did not look relaxed around the child. Not all girls were comfortable with the concept of motherhood, and not all who were made good mothers later in life. Life was funny that way, and as she watched them, she had a viewing, seeing their roles reversed in a few years.
“I have been thinking,” Gwen said sleepily.
“There’s a first,” Crystal teased and earned a toe in her side.
“Anyway, about Alex and the book and everything,” Gwen continued, ignoring Crystal’s shove. “You said the games you played were always recorded. In that same book?”
“Yes,” Alex sat up carefully so as not to disturb Stephaney. “There were always blank pages at the back of the book. I never thought to count them. There always seemed to be more than I needed.”
“And did anyone else write in the book, or just you?”
“Just me. I had the neatest handwriting,” Alex replied, admitting. “Besides, I was the only girl and was volunteered for the job.”
“You remember that lecture Miss Bell gave,” Gwen drawled, leaning back to rest her head on Crystal’s chest. “The one where she got into that screaming match with Luther over?”
“The day she kicked us out of class because she gave herself a migraine?” Morgana asked, laughing. “I remember what Drake and I did in the utility closet better.
“Some of us,” Gwen retorted primly until Crystal ambushed her with a tickle. “Stop it! I at least remember what she said – or shouted.”
“Well?” Ember urged. “I’m not in your class, remember!”
“If Crystal will stop pawing my stunning, hot, steamy self,” Gwen teased, ducking a swat, “I’ll tell you. Miss Bell said:
When demons craft a trap, they don’t only look for a gateway to Earth, they often seek to weaken, trap or destroy anyone or anything that could stop them. Remember, wherever a demon appears, the person or artifact capable of destroying him is close by.”
“Well,” Gwen took a large breath, and Jade interjected.
“Oh God, here comes the lecture.”
“If you’re going to be that way, I will leave you to wallow in your ignorance,” Gwen taunted. “Those of us with a higher level of intelligence would wonder about the book.”
“What about the book?” Cantara asked, “and stow the silliness. She might be onto something important.”
“You said Zeke found the book in New York,” Gwen pressed. “How did you end up with it?”
“Zeke and Todd went to New York with Todd’s father,” Alex explained. “It was really kind of sweet of him. We were dating at the time, and I could not go on the trip – guys only. Zeke was a jock and did not go in for books, but he knew I loved to read. And I was starting to get into the occult at the time.”
“If you look at it,” Gwen explained, “the book was always meant for Alexandra. After he gave it to you, you kept it. Did you let any of the others read it?”
“Todd did,” Alex replied, “but once we found the websites, even he didn’t bother with the book except to look at the game pieces. Once he finished our first set, he wasn’t interested anymore.”
“So really, only you and Todd ever spent any time looking at the book. Did he ever notice anything odd about it?” Gwen pressed.
“Like what?” Alex muttered, pressing the book protectively against her chest.
“I’ve watched you read it,” Gwen confessed, blushing. “The pages rearrange themselves like its hiding something. Every contract with the devil has an escape clause, even those you don’t know you are entering into – because, as Jean-Claude said, there is always time for redemption.”
“No,” Alex spoke very quietly. “He never said anything, and neither did I.”
“Well, whether he noticed or not doesn’t really matter,” Gwen explained. “Only two of you spent time in physical contact with the book – he became the Game Master, and you were its main target. It would have fed on your secret desires and dark thoughts, you know, the shit we never tell anyone.”
“Now, let’s look at the pattern of the game,” Gwen continued. Everyone was sitting up listening attentively. “There were twelve players – one with a birthday in each sign, correct?”
“Yes,” Alex nodded, equally as puzzled as were the others.
“Only, if that was true, Shax would have been trapped in the Summoning Circle. One of you was lying,” Gwen went on, “and if we can figure out which one, we can start to unravel the pattern of his trap. You see, there is a kind of natural protection under your Zodiac sign, especially when you are surrounded by the stone and metal associated with it like in the game board.”
“We never really knew the others that well,” Alex offered. “I mean, we all met at school, or in the neighbourhood, and had started to hang out together.”
“We could track them down on the internet,” Morgana offered, “hack into their Facebook accounts and stuff.”
“I see where Gwen’s going with this,” Cantara added. “Summoning Circles are a two-edged sword. There were Alchemists and some Brotherhood agents who used them in the past to trap demons, but the demon tried to corrupt the summoners and gain control of the circle. Ignorance played a big part in this case – you thought you were playing a game.”
“Right,” Gwen concluded. “If we can trace the course of that corruption, we can find the underlying pattern, and that will help us navigate through the book. Somewhere in there will be the key to Shax’s weakness, and if we can find it, we can use Alex and the Wiccan Apotropaic to undo the damage he has caused.”
“Yeah,” Morgana asked, “but where do we start?”
“With the book,” Gwen replied simply. “You have a diary or log, or whatever you called it for the game?”
“Of course,” Alex replied, “all except the last night. Oh, and we played more than once. Something always seemed to happen to interrupt. Like that weekend when my bitch of a mother showed up.”
“Can you read one of the early games?” Crystal asked, “give us an idea of what we are working with.”
“The youngest drew the tile for the First Quadrant. The player with the nearest B-Day, Todd, rolled a twelve on the white die – the Ram – and a seven on the black die. The start was in the House of Libra, the quest of Balance for a grave digger’s hat. Death’s Liberty without a Cross Over. The game broke up before the twist could be determined….”
“Explain some of that to us,” Crystal urged. “What’s the First Quadrant?”
“That’s the first three houses of the Zodiac,” Alexandra explained, a hint of the old excitement she always felt playing the game creeping into her voice. “It’s the start for all the strongest patterns.”
“And where did the grave digger’s hat come in?” Jade asked.
“There was a site on the internet where you could download a list of scavenger items,” Alex paused, reluctant to reveal any secrets, but realizing keeping them could only hurt their chances to rescue her friends. “There was an obvious list we called the Sucker’s bet, but if you looked carefully, there was a secret link hidden somewhere on the page. That gave you the real list. You cut them up and randomly placed them into forty-eight black envelopes, one in the twelve squares under each quadrant. A roll of a four-sided dice determined which quest came first.”
“And the rest – Libra, the Balance and the Death’s Liberty?” Gwen asked.
“Well,” Alex admitted, “that part is more of a guess because we never made a second roll. Matt broke his ankle. It could have easily been the Grave Digger’s Liberty with either a Dexter or a Sinister Twist.”
“This is going to be harder than I thought,” Gwen said sourly, yawning.
“Time we hit the road, I think,” Miss Sweider suggested. “Let’s get some of this mess cleaned up. Make sure you use the bathroom now because we are not stopping until we get home.”
With groans and rolled eyes, the girls found their feet and headed back into the house. Away from the fire, the night was growing chilly, and thoughts of home and a warm bed began to fill their thoughts. There was always tomorrow to tackle the puzzle Gwen had set for them….