“Hello, Fox,” a woman I did not know with a northern accent and pleasant voice answered the phone.
This, in and of itself, is not odd. What was odd was the fact that it was a payphone she was speaking to me on. More specifically, the payphone on 23rd and 9th that I passed every day on my way to work. I could not determine why I had answered it. It had simply seemed so odd, and any detour from my horribly routine life was happily accepted.
I debated with myself for a minute, if I should respond or hang up. This woman should not know my name, I certainly did not know hers. My curiosity won me over.
“I’m sorry, who is this?” I put a hint of irritation in my voice to keep the fear out of it.
“It has been located. Pick up the artifact and deliver it to us in the alley behind the building where you work by tomorrow night. It is a small object inside of the hatch on the tank. First right turn, second tank on the left. Do not be caught. Do not get curious about what you have acquired. Do not tell anyone of your actions. Your failure to do any of these things will result in your immediate neutralization.”
Before I could ask who this caller was, the woman had hung up the phone.
? ? ?
A breeze brushed past my face, billowing my jacket out for the cold to hug my torso, the thin white dress shirt I wore doing next to nothing against the chill. The detailed gold handle to the vintage white door was freezing under my hand. The exhibit was mostly empty, save for a few curators and straggling onlookers. The whole place was white-walled, the descriptions of objects made of pure white tile. The only color in the room was the army tanks, varying in earth tones and stages of decay, the museum making a desperate attempt to preserve them. They were seen mostly on field trips, but I found that the story each machine told was far more complex than the children could comprehend. Than I could comprehend, perhaps. The chipped paint was the pages of a well-loved novel slowly ripping. The polished surfaces on the metal the reader’s last desperate attempt at saving the varnish on the well-worn book jacket. I was lost in the words before I remembered why I was there, what the woman had said to me.
I picked up my chin, careful to walk with an air of confidence I wish I’d had. I saw the entrance a few feet in front of me. I was in and out, I told myself. I was terrified, confused. But I had to do this. My life literally depended on it. I drew a breath as I neared the curator’s desk, reaching into my jacket pocket.
“May I help you?” groaned the woman at the desk. She was in her seventies, perhaps, reading glasses thick-framed and sliding down the bridge of her nose as she read a book that seemed to be as old as she. She did not lift her face to me as she flicked her eyes over me, decidedly bored.
I cleared my throat. I hoped she could not see the nervousness I felt, hear my heart pounding through my ribs.
“I’m here for school, my professor sent me.” I spoke with the air of a prig, as a college student around here would. A college student like the one like I was posing as. I pulled my student ID out and flashed it in front of her, quickly, just enough so she could see it existed, but not long enough so she could see my name. She glanced briefly at it, without a care.
“I’m here to--” I began, but she cut me off with a grunt. I tilted my head at her, giving her my sweetest, most charming smile. Another glance, a blink, and she responded.
“Go ahead. We close in 15,” she said in a huff, as if the effort it took to simply speak to me was far too much. I nod and strode off, slightly disappointed I hadn’t gotten to use my cover story.
I remembered what I had been told. First turn right, second tank. These were the older ones. As I walked past, I could imagine the explosions, feel the heat of the waves of energy from them, hear the bullets firing, the yelling. I didn’t know why. Such history, such horror, yet these tanks were simply looked at as another assignment for the kids to complete. It was incredible, but I was here for a different reason.
I approached the tank. In the dimly lit hallway, the moss-green vehicle gave off a feeling of eeriness, mystery, almost. I touched the side of it, paint flaking away beneath my fingers. I traced my hand around the sides of the tank until I felt the edge of the hatch. I drew a breath and opened it, using the tip of my finger to get underneath the paint-sealed edge. I knew what I was looking for. It was there. A small scroll of paper was what they told me to get. That was what appeared before me. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew the power it held. I reached to get it, my fingertips barely brushing the parchment before I heard the sharp click of footsteps down the hall.
I shut the port as quickly and quietly as I could. The footsteps got louder. My heart raced. I looked around for a place to be, but according to my watch, the museum was closed now. I couldn’t be here, couldn’t stay in plain sight, or I would be kicked out. I was about to give up until my eyes slid up to the open hatch at the top of the tank. The clicks got louder.
I threw my jacket in first, pulling myself up as gently as I could in my dress shoes to damage the exterior as little as possible. I used the small metal ledge around the edge of the tank to give myself a boost, and lowered myself from the top into the dark expanse.
I leaned against the cool, curved metal side, trying to steady my breath. The footsteps came to a stop in front of me. I froze. Silence hovered between us, a sheet of glass I could not break. Then they turned and walked back the way they came from with a small hmph from probably the curator that had been at the front desk.
I straightened. The paper. I picked up my jacket and exited the tank, my feet hitting the linoleum floor with a only a slight noise. I reopened the port, taking the scroll.
But before I could leave, I needed to see.
No one would have to know. I unraveled the scroll. Drawn at the top above script I could not read was the face of a creature, not human nor animal that I knew of, something new, with a sharply pointed chin and black, shining eyes, ornate patterns detailing the skin. It was beautiful, and I was terrified. I rolled the scroll back up and went to find a back door to exit from. This was a story completely different from those surrounding me, but far more dangerous.