Southbound on Central Expressway.
Saturday afternoon . . .
I swear that when Ricky is driving, it’s like he’s just stolen the vehicle. Like we just did a bank job. Like there are naked girls waiting at the finish line of a race he’s imagining in his head. The other cars are so slow, relative to us, that they look like fixtures on the road. Obstacles we have to weave in and out of to avoid.
We’re heading to the Aquarium, in downtown Dallas, near where the old Reunion Arena was. I don’t know what that means, but Ricky explained it to me with a sad air of nostalgia attached to it, so it must have been a landmark.
Why are we violating the laws of velocity in physics to get to the aquarium? Because Rupert called Ricky on his cell phone, sounding like some CIA spy with his cover blown. He told us that we had to meet him, and the location had to be somewhere public and innocuous. Ricky said that he once made out with this girl at the Aquarium, and that it was a nice place for a quiet discussion. Why those two things fit together I’m not exactly sure.
Anyway, we have to meet Rupert. He wouldn’t say what it was he needed to discuss, because they were on, and I quote, “. . . non-secure lines.” So this is just like that Robert Ludlum book that I read, where they’re all super-secret agents, and everybody does everything cloak-n-dagger. It was kind of exciting, but also a bit unsettling.
Obviously, it had something to do with the book.
While we drove, I tried to explain what had happened last night and earlier that morning. Ricky mostly nodded while I mostly talked. It was hard to describe all of it, but he got the gist. I outlined my evaporating sanity for him.
“That’s insane, Jack,” was all he said.
“I think I’m on the verge of a mental breakdown,” I offered, without emotion. More as an afterthought.
“I don’t know, dude,” he said as we weaved around a small Honda something-or-other. “Go green, bitches!” he muttered under his breath. “Thirty-five miles a gallon . . . but at what price? Those cars are designed by emasculated Japanese men with no testosterone.”
“They seem like a nice choice, based on gas prices.”
He glanced at me sideways, like I’d just burped up a gallon of earthworms. “We, me and you, have drive. Ambition. Guys that design and drive cars like that—environmentally friendly cars—they’ve never seen a ghost. They’ve never seen a two-thousand year-old book that may parallel Christianity. And they’ve never, in all their years, seen monsters clawing at their soul through their chest.”
“I guess,” I shrugged.
“We’re living, Jack. Good or bad, our adventures here and now . . . they will mean something, someday. People will look back on all of this, and think, hey, that’s where it all started. That’s when the legend began.”
“You really think all this amounts to something?” I asked, turning to face him. And it was difficult because my body was pinned, by acceleration, to the front seat.
He nodded, “This ain’t band camp, bucko. We’re not exploring our feelings. This is serious, life changing shit, here. It’s our quest.”
I had never thought of it like that.
Now, in addition to being nut-bag crazy, my wingman has handed in his share of grey matter. This should be fun.
Dallas Aquarium . . .
Six minutes and eighteen seconds later we were heading down a hallway that led to the shark tank. Rupert surprised us from behind, saying, “Gentlemen,” very softly.
He was wearing a long, brown trench coat. I was waiting for him to mention James Bond, even if only peripherally, but he was much less jovial. He had this air of uneasiness about him that made me a bit nervous, myself. His eyes were darting around suspiciously.
“Are you kidding me?” I said. But neither he nor Ricky smiled. I shrugged and we kept walking.
When we got to the shark tank, we were surrounded on all sides by crystal blue water. The glass walls of the tank ascended several stories high, and encircled you so that we might have been trapped thousands of feet underwater, in some special government facility where secret things are going on. Experiments maybe, with nano-stuff and alien stem-cells. Sci-Fi Channel stuff.
Out in the water, cruising slowly back and forth were several different species of sharks. There were placards all around the area, showing small pictures of each shark, and their characteristics. But you could learn so much more by just watching them.
Rupert’s looking like he either needs to tell us something important, or he’s got to use the bathroom. All of this water is giving me the same urge—to discuss important things, I mean.
“Sharks,” Rupert said grimly, “. . . are the last creatures on the Earth that are a predator, but not a prey. They’re prehistoric, nearly unchanged by time. Sex and hunger drives them.”
“Is it true they never sleep?” Ricky asked.
Rupert nodded, “In a manner of speaking, yes. They sleep one hemisphere of their brain at a time. That way, they are always active, constantly fanning their gills with fresh water and oxygen.” English guys tend to preface important things with segue material. This is that, I guess.
The sharks really are amazing, though. Magazines don’t do them justice. You suddenly feel very helpless in a place like this. I noticed that this blue—the color of the water in the tanks—that it was the same as the color of my dreams. The same blue as the time between dogs and wolves. I hope that this glass doesn’t break.
Ricky took a half step forward and looked at the placard marked ′Blue Shark′, glancing up at the tank trying to spot one. “Prionace glauca, also called the Great Blue Shark. Found in all ocean waters, from warm temperature to tropical waters. Also known as the Blue Whaler. It has attractive, deep-blue coloring contrasting with a pure-white belly.”
Rupert pointed, “Right there, over to the left is a Blue.”
We raced all this way to talk about sharks?
We watch this long, slim shark with a pointed snout, teeth that looked sharp enough to split hydrogen atoms, and long slim pectoral fins. This one was about 10 or 11 feet long.
“She likes to feed on the carcasses of slaughtered whales,” Rupert said as we watched her swim by. She’s a bit of a scavenger in that aspect. But don’t be fooled, she’ll eat a man just as well.”
Sharks, they probably fall in my list of horrible ways to die, right around the number two spot—right behind drowning. They bother me, these sharks, because they don’t look the least bit afraid of their predicament. It’s as if they know that, at any time, if they chose to, they could blast on through the glass walls and gobble us up in the confusion.
Rupert looked nervous. Fidgety. Cautious.
“What’s up, Buddy?” Ricky said as he took a step back. He’s much more tactful than I am.
Rupert nodded, took a tentative breath, and began, “Yesterday I received a call from some people who claimed to be in Washington. Said they were following up on our request for information about the Book of Sighs. I, having already given a name on the request for reference, told them I had been the one to send the query.”
We expected that, I said.
“Yes. Of course we did. Well, they said that they would be making further inquiries into the book, and that if I got another chance to study it I should notify them immediately.”
Ricky crossed his arms, “. . . but, you didn’t do that. Right?”
Rupert looked hurt, “Bloody hell, no! But that’s not why we’re talking here in the middle of a fish tank. About an hour before I left the library this afternoon, two men approached the front desk looking for me. As luck would have it, I had already checked out, and the receptionist said as much. They left their card, after asking several more questions about both myself and the book. When they had gone, I was paged by the receptionist and she seemed unsettled by the entire affair.”
Unsettled, how? I asked.
“Well,” he said, his eyes glancing back and forth around us to make sure nobody was listening, “. . . it seems they made the claim that they were ‘Federal Agents.’ But their business card only gives a name and number. And it doesn’t look very official to me. I believe they want the book, and I don’t think it’s safe to carry it around, anymore.”
“We’re going to keep it locked-up, now,” Ricky assured the nervous librarian. “They’re not going to get a chance to put their hands on it.”
I studied Rupert, he looked like he was hanging on by a thread. Strange waves of white and blue light—reflected waves in the water—crossed past his face. “Maybe you should take a few days off,” I proposed. “Call in sick?”
He tells me, in his stuffy Queen’s English, “. . . that’s exactly what they’d expect. If I don’t go to work, they’ll think I’m hiding something.”
“Good point,” Ricky agreed. “Just be vague and see if you can figure out who these guys are working for. Probably work for some rich eccentric who wants to talk to his great grandfather, again.”
Do what you think is safe, I tell him. Be careful.
Ricky walked across the room to another placard, “How appropriate . . . the Mitsukurinidae Lamniformes. Also known as the Goblin shark. And it says they’re nearly extinct.”
Maybe the Goblin shark is near extinction. But here, on the dry side, there are plenty of goblins to be had.
Ricky turns back to the librarian, “Do you have a gun, Rupert?”
“Should I need one?” Rupert queries, now more worried than ever. And I’m sighing, wishing that Ricky hadn’t brought that up. Guys like Rupert, they obsess about stuff like this.
I tell everybody that we don’t need guns, we just need to be careful. Money makes people act nutty sometimes, and we can’t predict crazy. I found it ironic that I was giving a speech on how crazy people might act.
The sharks swimming quietly around us, they don’t look so concerned. They’re not scared. Even in their tanks, completely reliant on humans for their sustenance, they’re in control. They’re still the predators.
Perhaps we’re the ones on our way to extinction.