Smith

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Learning Curve

“What a nice afternoon. It may be a bit warm, but nothing out of the ordinary.”

“I need to set some ground rules for our conversations,” Jake muttered. “Like you mentioned earlier, you come from a time when talking to a disembodied voice was commonplace.”

“Yes, my studies do indicate Angels and Demons, even God, make fewer public appearances than they did thousands of years ago. What do you propose?”

“Keep your mouth shut unless I need you. I can’t carry on more than one conversation at a time. Talking to yourself in public is sure to attract unwanted attention plus it makes you sound crazy.”

“I understand, but I’m sure you don’t. I have been cooped up in a small solid stone crypt for almost 3,000 years. I have many questions.”

At that moment, two men dressed in dirty blue jeans and tan shirts grabbed Jake’s arms and forced him into an alley. Recognizing one of the street toughs from the day before, Jake began struggling harder. The men seemed to be anticipating him because one of them pulled a wicked looking knife and stuck its point into Jake’s ribs. Jake stopped trying to break free and became docile as the knife tip cut deeper.

At the end of the alley, three more hoodlums stepped out of shadow. Jake’s stomach clinched. This was bad.

“You don’t listen well, American. I told you never to come near our homes again.”

Jake remained silent. He felt a pressure and the knife tip sunk a little deeper. Wincing, Jake’s eyes began to water.

“I think we’ll make you a lesson to other Jews and foreigners. Always obey our warnings.”

Jake’s ring tightened.

“I’m going to take control of your body. Do not oppose me.”

“I’m going to be hurt. At least let me fight them. Maybe I can hit one of them before the knife stabs too deep.”

“You can’t talk your way out of this beating, American,” the leader said.

“DO NOTHING. Now relax.”

Despite his fear, Jake did his best to unclench his arm and jaw muscles. It was the best he could manage. The knife tip grating against his rib was too painful to ignore and his diaphragm stiffened.

The apparent leader of the gang said, “Put him against the wall.”

As the toughs began to shift him aside, Jake felt his body go into action.

With a strength he didn’t know he possessed, Jake wrenched his arms together. The natural reaction of the men was to try to keep them in place and under control. They were pulling with all their might when Jake’s arms reversed and opened wide. The goons own strength worked against them. Their grips slithered off his arms, and they crashed into the alley building with tremendous force. The knife clinked as it hit the road stones.

Jake faced the three remaining men. Something they saw behind him made their eyes grow wide, but at last they crouched and pulled long, wicked looking knives from beneath their shirts.

Feeling his legs begin moving, Jake walked to an arm’s length distance from the leader.

“I’m waiting. Don’t you need to teach me a lesson?” Jake heard the words come from his lips, but he wasn’t trying to say anything.

The thug on his left moved fast. With a flick of his wrist, he sliced at Jake’s mid-section. Jake sidestepped, grabbed the swinging arm and pushed, guiding the man’s swing momentum in a graceful arc. The blade plunged into the leader’s gut. Following the momentum of his thrust, Jake’s fist swung in a powerful uppercut and shattered the knife wielder’s jaw. The force of the blow flipped his body head over heels. There was a sickening crunch as the top of his skull hit the road stones. Blood began pooling beneath it. The remaining thug dropped his knife and ran.

Turning to see if the men he’d thrown into the wall were going to threaten him again, Jake ogled. Where their heads had impacted the unyielding stone, the wall was stained with blood.

“Orientation lesson one. I can protect you. Now let’s get out of here before someone gets curious. I can see I will have to change my societal tolerance parameters. What in the world has the Arabic community got against you?”

***

“I need to see Avner,” Jake mumbled as they left the alley and blended into the crowd of shoppers.

“You cannot reveal my presence. To the outside world, you are the sole person responsible for your actions.”

“He’s my best friend. He’ll understand.”

“No he won’t. I’m the one with years of experience in these matters. As soon as you say anything about my existence, greed will begin gnawing at him. As he realizes there is no way to separate us, his jealousy will drive you apart.”

“What do you mean there is no way to separate us?” Jake demanded as he tried to remove the ring to demonstrate he could.

Despite his best efforts, all he could manage to do was twist it around his finger. Frustrated, Jake headed to a place he thought might provide some insight. The library.

The National Library of Israel was a rectangular stone building containing over five million books. Jake had been there before with his dad and made his way through the myriad of corridors to the Special Reference section.

Jake lied to the elderly gentleman behind the counter wearing a name tag ‘Stacks Assistant’.

“I’m working in the new dig on the Hill. What’s your oldest volume about King Solomon?”

When the man did nothing but stare at him, Jake added, “There may be some reference overlooked by other academics giving a hint where to dig. If you prefer, I’ll have Monsieur Laspor talk to you about my access authority.”

Upon hearing the name Laspor, the old man’s eyes wavered. He walked into the shelves behind him and returned with a leather bound volume almost the size of the coffee table in Jake’s living room. Handing Jake a pair of white cotton gloves, he motioned toward a table off to the side.

Jake grabbed the heavy book and lugged it to the indicated spot. Opening the cover, his eyes bugged. Flipping through the pages, the only things he could begin to interpret were the hand-drawn pictures. The rest of the book was a series of meaningless symbols.

“Now this book is old school. Talk about nostalgia.”

“I’m so happy for you,” Jake thought with a disgusted sigh. “I didn’t realize the best reference books were written in some dusty old language. This is worse than useless.”

“Let me help.”

The symbols began changing to English. Jake was astonished but held his tongue. He could read every word as if he was perusing an encyclopedia. Excited with his new found ability, Jake flipped pages toward the middle of the heavy book, amazed by the clarity of the translation.

The old ‘Stacks Assistant’ strolled by and said with a smug sneer, “The language is Proto-Sinaitic with a smattering of Egyptian Hieroglyphs when the ancient Hebrews had trouble describing certain rituals. I can translate, but even I have trouble with some passages.”

“I’m okay,” Jake responded.

“If you think the pretty pictures help with understanding the writing, I can assure you they don’t. I spent forty years learning the symbols and grammatical twists and turns of Proto-Sinaitic. Couple my knowledge with a fair understanding of hieroglyphics and . . .”

“I think I can muddle through the mire, but just to be sure, let me see if my reading skills are up to your standards.”

Leafing to a page near the center, Jake pointed and began reading, “King Solomon the Wise raised his arms to the heavens, and there came a great wind from the northeast. The Hebrew people ran in fear for any exposed skin was stripped from them by the sand. Guards sheltered behind stone walls for half a day as the wind blew. The Sun was made dark, and the people prayed for it to return. The Pharaoh’s daughter beseeched King Solomon, and the winds stopped.”

“Did I get it right?” Jake asked.

“Every word. How is it possible? I’ve spent years studying the old dialects. I had trouble keeping up with you.” The old man had an odd, wary look.

“Experimental on-line course in ancient language,” Jake lied. “Only offered in the States.”

“Hmm,” Stacks mumbled as he walked away. Jake watched him dial a phone but was too far away to hear what was said.

Returning his attention to the text, he scanned page after page until he found a picture of an Angel handing a young, bearded man a ring.

Reading in silence, Jake learned the legend of Archangel Michael giving the ring to Solomon to control demons as well as the weather and all animals.

“Just what is your part in all this?” Jake asked. “Are you a demon?”

“I am simply the interface. The ring functions require coordination which I provide. Instead of your having to deal with multiple disciplines, I take your instructions and use the most efficient method to accomplish them.”

“I’d like a nice bowl of popcorn and a coke. I’m hungry, and it looks like we’re going to be here for a while.”

“Unless you’re starving, it’s not my job to keep your stomach happy. Get it yourself.”

“Some interface you are,” Jake grumbled.

“Solomon had an attitude like yours. I see the resemblance.”

***

It was late afternoon when Jake left the library and headed toward Avner’s home.

‘Stacks Assistant’ had a strange look, but Jake attributed the attitude to humiliation. It’s not often someone meets the quintessential expert in ancient languages who looks like an 18-year old. As he left the Special Reference Section, Jake noticed the man talking on the telephone again.

Opting for a shortcut past the market, he turned down HaZayit Street. Olive trees lined the sidewalks, providing welcome shade.

Without warning, the hairs on the back of his neck prickled, and he felt an urge to step into an alcove and look back. He spied two men in dusty clothes watching him. They reminded Jake of the diggers Avner and he had run into last night on the plaza.

They tried to act like other things were keeping their attention, but their eyes kept shifting to Jake. The urge to run was overwhelming, but Smith’s calm voice intervened.

“Confront them. You have nothing to fear.”

“Right. I’m just going to walk up to someone I don’t know, who may not speak English and confront them for following me. What if I’m being paranoid and they’re simply out looking for a loaf of bread?”

“Then no harm done. If they don’t know you, then you’re just another haughty American demonstrating your country’s bias toward foreigners. Their reaction will be quite different if they are following you.”

Gathering his courage, Jake stepped out of the alcove and headed straight to the nearest man. The guy tried to ignore Jake until Jake grabbed his arm and spun him around.

“Who are you, and what do you want?” Jake growled.

The man feigned surprise, but as his eyes widened, Jake saw a reflection in them of the second guy. The man was sneaking up behind him holding what looked like a wooden bat over his head.

Feeling the familiar tightening of the ring, Jake relaxed his body.

With a speed he didn’t know he possessed, Jake crouched and drove his elbow back low into the fellow’s ribcage. He felt a snap as at least one rib broke from the impact. Turning with the momentum of his strike, Jake drove the flat of his palm into the guy’s solar plexus, forcing all the air from his lungs in one big whoosh.

The attacker collapsed into a helpless ball trying to suck air into his collapsed lungs. The bat slipped from his limp hand and rolled away.

Turning back to the first man, Jake frowned. The guy looked shocked, but he didn’t hesitate. He pulled a revolver from his tunic and shot point blank.

The hammer clicked, and Jake flinched. His mind told him there would be a loud bang as the bullet fired, but he heard no sound other than a snick as the hammer rammed the bullet primer.

The man pulled the trigger again and again but nothing happened.

“Don’t stand here looking stupid. Grab the guy.”

Jake lunged and pushed the man hard against the nearby wall. Taking the pistol from his limp fingers, Jake stuffed it into a pocket.

“Tell your boss to leave me alone or the next time I’m threatened, he’ll become the target. Now get out of here.”

The shaking thug gathered up his buddy, and they both stumbled away.

“Why didn’t the gun fire? I might believe one misfire, but six?”

“There are various methods for rendering a firearm inert. The simplest is to remove the firing pin, but there wasn’t time because he pulled the weapon so fast. I did the next best thing and turned the gunpowder to sand.”

Jake pulled the pistol from his pocket and spun the cylinder. The primer of every bullet had the impact mark of the hammer pin. The bullets should have fired.

“Holy cow.”

“I don’t like what I’m seeing. Ever since you took possession of me, I’ve been threatened. Something’s not right.”

“You’ve been threatened? Are you kidding me? I’ve had nothing but trouble since I found you. I was almost killed just now, and all you can whine about is your safety?”

“I think going to see Avner is wise. Maybe he will be able to shed some light on your recent popularity.”

“Finally you agree with me,” Jake groused.

***

Avner’s modest home was a two story stone structure with one large window to the left of the sturdy front door. It was two blocks from the market. The alcove protecting the front door from the afternoon sun was half in and out of shade.

His smiling mother opened the door, and Jake loped up the narrow stairs to the second floor. Avner claimed the bedroom was his sanctuary, but it was just an ordinary room with a lot of Xbox 360 game posters lining the walls. He was playing Ghost Recon as usual.

“Hey, you at a stopping place?”

“In a minute. How are you?”

“Weird. Ever since I met a guy named Jibar Safize Laspor, I’ve felt uneasy.”

“You met Laspor?” Avner responded by tossing aside his game controller. “He’s a strange one.”

“You know him?”

“Know of him. He was in the first group of archeologists to come here after the Solomon Tomb was discovered. Heard he’s a real jerk.”

“He wears a beret.”

“No way.”

“Yes and I think he was looking for the ring we found.”

“Careful, Jake.”

“I see you’re still wearing it. Why are you?”

Jake decided to tell the truth. “It’s stuck. I think I’m having a reaction to it or something. My finger joint feels swollen.”

“Very good dodge.”

“I never thought about that. Maybe you should see a doctor. There might be some kind of ancient dysentery or maybe crotch-rot on it,” Avner grinned.

“Ha. Ha. I didn’t come here for your humor. Don’t you know anything about Laspor?”

“Nothing special except everyone in his original group either transferred or quit. There’s a rumor the workers don’t like him but are too afraid to say anything.”

Jake frowned. Why he ever thought Avner would know something about Jibar Safize Laspor was ridiculous.

“Grab a controller and help me fight this on-line Italian kid,” Avner said. “He’s pretty good but relies on standard search patterns more than he should.”

Despite Smith badgering him to leave, Jake grabbed a controller and started playing the video game. It was almost seven p.m. when he decided it was time to leave.

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