Smith

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The Ramble

The cab ride from the Millennium Hilton to The Met didn’t take as long as Jake imagined.

It could be the actual time passed faster because he was distracted by Nava’s outfit. Her black and white dress with matching high heels was captivating. Jake had never seen her in anything but clothes sanctioned by Shin Bet. The change was amazing.

A memory flashed, and Jake’s eyes clouded as he recalled an old picture of his mother. She must have been dressed for Church, and the look on her face in the black and white photo was happy. It had been taken a few days before her cancer diagnosis. Jake’s eyes misted, and he blinked away tears. Forcing his thoughts back to the present, he focused on Nava.

Based on her reputation, Jake was positive she was armed, but no matter how hard he looked, he saw no evidence of a weapon.

“What are you staring at?” she asked.

“I’m sure you’re armed but for the life of me I can’t see anything.”

She looked disappointed with his answer. Jake couldn’t think what he might have said to upset her. Trying to compliment her seemed to have the opposite effect.

“You are as dense as an oak tree. She dressed in a manner designed to be attractive. All you noticed was how well she hides weapons.”

“It’s where you would least expect to find it,” Nava replied and stared at the traffic.

"You’re finished with this one. I’ll start looking for another.”

“I don’t need your help,” Jake mumbled as the cab pulled to the curb at The Met.

Nava opened her door and slammed it in Jake’s face. Jake paid the driver who looked at him with sympathy.

She was waiting near the main entrance, and they spent the next four hours touring the relic displays and sarcophaguses in the Egyptian wing. Jake’s feet ached from constant standing, but he stayed by Nava’s side. She offered only one word answers to his questions about Egyptology, and at last he gave up trying to talk with her.

Smith didn’t help the situation. His running commentary about the true history and meaning of the exhibits became tiresome. Jake could have cared less that a mummy identified as Ramesses II was actually his younger brother, Merneptah.

Jake slumped into a wicker seat in the museum lounge after the last exhibit and ordered a Coke.

“I’m going for a stroll in Central Park to give my feet a break. If I had known you were bent on a whirlwind four hour museum tour, I would have worn tennis shoes.”

“It’s not my fault you don’t dress properly,” Nava huffed. “At least you won’t get lost if I go along.”

“Thanks. I’ve been concerned about my sense of direction ever since I met you.”

***

They headed south from The Met on 5th Avenue.

Crossing 79th Street Transverse Road, they strolled toward East Drive. It was almost 4 pm and traffic was beginning to thicken as time neared the end of the work day.

“I’ve heard the Loeb Boathouse has lakeside dining, and its food has won some rave reviews. I was thinking we could walk some and then eat a good meal. Does that sound all right to you?”

“I suppose if I’m going to be stuck with you for the rest of the day, I might as well make you pay for it.”

Though her words were sharp, the lines in her forehead had disappeared, and her eyes could be interpreted as twinkling. In spite of the aftereffects of museum boredom, Jake found himself smiling.

“My faith in your ability to appeal to females is improving. Perhaps you may not take as much remedial training as I feared.”

“Leave me alone, Smith. If you would quit meddling in my life, things would go a little smoother in our relationship.”

“You mumble a lot don’t you,” Nava said.

Thinking quickly, Jake replied, “Talking to myself helps me work through unusual situations. I’m not used to going anywhere with someone other than my father.”

“Someone as pretty as you. SAY IT!”

Jake groaned and rolled his eyes. Nava looked at him with vague curiosity until her attention focused on a red-wing blackbird hopping nearby.

The ring tightened and Jake thought he heard someone say, “I know there was a grub around here. I hope no one else found it.”

He looked, but there was no one else close enough to have said anything understandable.

Signs indicated the Boathouse was over half a mile away. The winding paths made it difficult to judge how far they walked.

There was a noticeable change in the design of the park as soon as they entered The Ramble. It consisted of a series of paths twisting through thick vegetation past boulders large enough to be a challenge to inexperienced climbers. The atmosphere seemed older and more rustic.

They saw some police patrols but nothing to indicate there was a problem. They ambled through arched stone bridges and past gurgling streams. Multi-colored birds twittered as they flew from tree to tree. Whenever a path bordered a grassy area, most of the open space was covered with people lying on blankets basking in the waning sunlight.

They had just passed a sign indicating they should take the left-hand fork in the path to reach the Boathouse when grim looking men holding pistols with silencers stepped from the bushes.

Jake felt the ring tighten.

“I can’t believe I let an idyllic day distract me. We are fortunate to have some friends nearby.”

All three men wore camouflage designed for wooded areas. Jake seemed to recall the design was oak leaf. They handled their weapons with practiced ease. There was no question they were well-trained killers.

“Get rid of the woman, Three.”

The man called Three pulled handcuffs and spun Nava around. She fought him but when he put the muzzle of his silencer in her kidney, she froze.

“Don’t hurt her,” Jake warned.

“It’s not wise to make idle threats,” the man who was the apparent leader warned.

A warning growl rumbled from somewhere in the nearby brambles, and birds spooked by the predator flew at the assailants.

Jake was sure he heard, “Aim for their heads. Humans don’t like wings flapping in their faces.”

Dark smoke began to form behind the Leader, and Jake caught a whiff of sulfur. He smiled and said, “Idle or not. Don’t hurt her.”

Bird sounds became noticeably louder.

Leader said, “Two, put a bullet in her foot. I don’t think this guy is taking us seriously.”

The man called Two aimed at Nava’s foot. His gun coughed and a bullet gouged a hole in the path. If Nava hadn’t jerked her leg, the front half of her foot would have a bloody hole.

“Keep her still, Three. It’s hard to hit a moving target. Better still . . .”

Two dropped to one knee and jammed the muzzle of his silencer down on top of Nava’s foot. She winced as the pressure on her toes increased. With no warning, a 30 inch Northern Copperhead sank its fangs into Two’s calf. Three let go of Nava and jumped away from the snake.

Jake let the tension flow out of his body and felt Smith guide his actions. Moving with blinding speed, he grabbed the Leader’s pistol and jerked it sideways. The gun thumped as a bullet fired, but the crack as the man’s trigger finger broke backwards was loud. Jake shoved him in the chest with his free arm. A claw holding the man’s heart burst through his sternum. It beat a couple of times after his eyes rolled up. The body didn’t fall until the claw yanked backwards. The heart dropped and bounced a little.

Two jumped up and batted at the snake, but it wouldn’t let go. Jake stabbed him in the eye with his index finger and pulled. Two fell holding his face and screaming. His eyeball rolled on his cheek attached to the socket by a thin thread of something like sinew. The squirming viper was still attached to his leg.

With her wrists cuffed behind her, Nava stumbled away. Three began shooting at the snake, but his aim was erratic. A dog that looked like a big German Shepherd leaped from the bushes and bit his wrist. Three screamed. The dog released him, but Three’s gun arm was mangled and bleeding badly.

“Jake. Let me handle this one.”

The sky swirled and darkened. Thunder rolled. Three tried to shift his pistol to his good hand as he stared at the snarling dog. The loudest clap of thunder Jake had ever heard shook the air. A sizzling bolt of lightning struck Three, and his body plumped like an overcooked hotdog. Steam floated off his exposed skin and scalp. He toppled with a meaty thump.

The dark smoke floated toward Nava and circled behind her. The sulfur smell was strong. Her eyes bulged as she felt the handcuff chain break. The snake slithered into the brush. The dog scampered away.

“What are you?” she whispered as she inched away.

Jake moved toward her, but she flinched.

“Please don’t be scared. There are a few things I haven’t told you.”

“I’ll say.”

Two was moaning and clutching his face. Jake rolled him over and put his knee in the man’s chest.

“Who hired you? Where can I find him?”

All Two did was groan louder. “You took my eye.”

“You’ve got one more. Want me to make it a matching set?”

“It was a computer voice on-line. Disguised.”

“How were you paid?”

“Bitcoin. Half down. The other half on delivery.”

“Delivery where?”

Jake was screaming, and Two cringed. Nava saw the interrogation failing and her training took over despite the pain in her foot and her mistrust of Jake.

“Jake, he’s blinded and his leg is swelling from snake poison. You won’t get anything useful from him if you don’t back off,” she warned. “Let me try.”

“Let me ask him. He’ll talk.”

“No, you’ve shown enough of your handiwork. I’ve got plenty of explaining to do without any more of your help,” Jake grumbled.

“Very well, but remember I’ve been cooped up for 3,000 years. I have a lot of partying to catch up on.”

“Stop talking to yourself and get off him,” Nava ordered.

Jake relented, and let her take over. He was surprised when she grabbed the dangling eye and threw it into the bushes.

“What have you done?” Two wailed.

“I’ve shown you what will happen to your other eye if I let Jake back at you. Now start thinking about what you have and what you stand to lose.”

As she talked, she began stroking his forehead and running her fingers through his hair. Her voice became soothing, and she promised an ambulance was on its way.

After a few moments, Two visibly relaxed and said, “We were to take him to a black van at the intersection of 35th Avenue and 81st Streets. Once he was in the van, our job was done.”

“You’re sure about the location?” Nava purred.

Two nodded and asked, “Is the ambulance near? I think I hear a siren.”

“No, but it might be the coroner,” Nava said as she pulled a pistol from somewhere between her legs and shot him between the eyes.

“So that’s where she hid it. A woman after my own heart. She’s a keeper.”

Jake stared as Nava stood and pointed her gun at him.

“Help me find a cab, and don’t touch me. If we work fast enough, we may be able to meet the person who arranged this whole thing. I don’t know why you’re so popular, but I intend to find out.”

***

They sat in the cab in silence.

At last Nava said, “I never put much stock in paranormal claims until now. I’m not sure what I saw, but you didn’t tear the guy’s heart out through his sternum. Something else did.”

Jake tried to decide the best way to tell her about his ring.

“Those birds came out of nowhere. The snake and the dog were an impossible coincidence,” she continued. “And smoke doesn’t break handcuffs.”

“Once the powers of the ring are disclosed to others, one of two things has to happen. Life or death. Choose.”

“Don’t even consider killing her. Can she hear you talk?”

“The only way is for her to hold your hand, and I don’t believe she’s going to let you touch her.”

Nava’s body language confirmed she wasn’t about to let Jake come near her. Maybe a rat or a spider but not Jake. Her pistol pointed at his stomach confirmed her feelings.

“I don’t have enough time to explain right now, but I promise I’ll tell you everything once we’re back at the hotel.”

She wasn’t happy but didn’t argue with him because they arrived near the intersection. Keeping to the shadows, they searched for a black van.

***

The black van was parked in front of an Episcopal Church.

The arched red doors of the Church were lighted, but the rest of the building was shrouded in darkness. High-rise apartments dominated the rest of the shadowy street.

“There is no way to get near the van without being spotted,” Jake said. “Whoever is in it is expecting to see three men and me as a hostage. If they see us approaching, they’ll take off.”

“They’re expecting a car to drive up and see you forced out the back door in handcuffs. Since no one else is supposed to know about the rendezvous, they won’t think anything is wrong until it’s too late.”

While she was talking, she pulled hair pins from her bun and began working on the lock of the car they were hiding behind. With a thump, the car door unlocked, and she slid into the driver’s seat.

“You’re amazing,” Jake said as he climbed in beside her. “Now what?”

“I’ll keep the lights off and drive up beside them. You get out with your hands behind you. I’ll take care of the rest. Now get in the back seat.”

“She rivals Sheba for strength of character. I won’t let anything happen to you, but I am curious to see her in action.”

“Don’t let anything happen to her either.”

“She can take care of herself, but I will see no harm comes to her if such is your wish.”

“It is.”

“Your mumbling is distracting. When we get back, I’m recommending you go into therapy,” Nava said.

“Therapy isn’t going to help with my problem.”

“What problem? Do you have some physical or mental condition I’m not aware of?

Jake shook his head and rolled his eyes.

***

Nava drove the car out of 35th Avenue onto 81st street.

She kept the headlights off and stopped beside the van. Jake stepped out the back door with his hands behind him. He had pulled his shirttail out and mussed his hair.

From a distance in the dark, he appeared to have been in a fight. The look must have been convincing because the van motor started, and the side door slid open. Two men dressed in black coveralls and ski masks jumped out, grabbed Jake’s arms and started to throw him inside.

At that moment, Nava got out and pumped bullets into their heads. The van jumped into gear and began driving away with its tires screeching. Nava fired another round into the driver’s window. Jake lunged at the open side door and missed.

The van lurched to a stop as if it had hit a tree. Only there wasn’t a tree. The front of the van caved in a semi-circle, and the rear tires jumped six inches off the pavement. There were three muffled thumps and blood splattered the driver’s side window and sprayed out the open side door.

Jake jogged toward the wreck and Nava warned, “Keep back. Someone may still be in there.”

At that moment, a body covered in blood appeared, slipped on the gore dripping from the open door and fell face first to the pavement.

Nava ran, kicked the pistol away from the person’s hand and nudged the body over.

It was Colonel Amanda Sauerbrum.

“Well I’ll be an Edomite.”

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