If you haven’t started this story from the beginning, this one won’t make too much sense. I suggest you start here before continuing.
Jack started up the truck that pulled his and Victor’s home wherever their quests took them. They had chased Renaud halfway across the continental US in this thing, hoping to figure out where the council was keeping his mentor. Not to mention stopping their efforts to compile the registry of people like them. But now, it was obvious that they couldn’t stay there.
So together with Sarah, they dumped Victor in the trailer again. She had offered her home as a refuge, and Jack couldn’t think of a better idea, so he agreed. Within minutes she had returned to her car, soon leading the way to her apartment. Even as he drove, Jack wasn’t sure about going to the home of a woman he barely knew, especially in the middle of the night, but Sarah had insisted, and it was a safe place to lay low until Victor returned and they could figure out where that library was hidden.
Victor was awake, meeting Jack by the cab of the truck once they parked outside the apartment complex. “Where are we?” Jack’s elder asked, evidently undisturbed by being left in the dark.
Sarah’s offered her apartment until we can figure out a plan,” Jack informed him.
Victor eyed him skeptically. “You’d let us lead them to her?”
Jack immediately understood the man’s doubt. Between the two of them, Victor was the reckless one. “I don’t see how this changes anything. Renaud knows her by now or he doesn’t. The location was compromised either way,” he defended.
Victor put his hands in the air. “It was the right call. I’m just surprised is all.”
“Surprised I’d make the right call without you holding my hand?” Jack asked, incredulous.
“I’m trying to give you a compliment –”
“Thanks for waiting,” Sarah interrupted as she turned the bonnet of the truck. “I have to warn you, I wasn’t really expecting company.”
Jack smiled as warmly as he could to her. “Whatever it is, I guarantee this man’s made me stay at worse.”
Victor was bowing his head to her. “Once again, we owe you a great deal. That was very brave what you did back there.”
Sarah simply shrugged. “You did all the work.” She turned, flicking her keys toward the courtyard. “This way.”
Jack let Victor follow immediately after her, instead preferring to take the back for himself. It was a protective gesture, born from his mentor’s life on the run. They also fit into the narrow open-air stairwell this way. After a brief pause, he watched the pair in front of him enter the apartment, which had had its lights left on.
“This is cozy,” Victor commented, silently pointing out a small puddle of water as he stepped past it. As if Jack wouldn’t have noticed it himself.
The place was small, but homey. Instead of standard desk lamps or floor lamps, this living area was lit with fairy lights all the way around the ceiling, lending everything in a warm glow. An odd assortment of objects lined the walls, some more obviously fake than others, but all with a memory attached, Jack was sure. No TV, at least in here.
Sarah was immediately darting around, unnecessarily hurried in her sweep of cups and plates from the low coffee table. “Sorry,” she apologized again.
The place charmed Jack. It felt like a home – a real, always in the same place kind of location with memories included. Intimate, yet welcoming.
“Can I get you a soda or something?”
“No, thank you.” Jack smiled at her, wondering whether it would be polite or not to help. He decided as he studied the place that he didn’t want to impose on the woman any longer than absolutely needed, not if it meant risking everything here for their insane quest. First thing in the morning, they’d look for the library and station from somewhere else until then.
“I’ll take a glass of water,” Victor answered, moving a pillow on the couch before sitting.
Jack shot a glare at Victor while Sarah’s back was turned. Weren’t they taking enough from her? Did he need to act like she was their servant?
“So what’s next?” Sarah’s voice came over the sound of the faucet in the kitchen.
“Sleep, I think,” Jack answered. Rest would do them all some good. He hadn’t gotten more than an hour in the last thirty, as he was on guard when the first attack on their trailer came. Good thing, too.
To his surprise, Sarah didn’t argue. “I’m afraid I’ve only got the one bed. Lots of blankets, though?”
“The couch is fine.” This place was far beyond favorable to the trailer, security-wise. Two exits, both visible from right where he stood in the living room, but far enough apart to be useful.
“For both of you?”
“I’ll be staying awake for the time being,” Victor supplied, smiling at her.
“You’re sure we’re not asking too much?” Jack asked. If one didn’t count their brief encounter last week, They’d only really met hours ago. She was taking a lot on faith by letting them be here. Jack knew they could be trusted, but she was being very welcoming considering they were two male strangers.
Sarah’s scoff morphed into a grin. “Are you kidding? I feel great! For the first time in a week, I’m not imagining things, not alone, and not going insane.” Victor’s presence kept the craziness at bay, Jack knew. “My head is finally clear, and I’m starting to understand and unwrap this madness! No, you guys are welcome as long as you like.” Her sudden burst of energy was punctuated by a stifled yawn.
Jack nodded warmly back to her, amused. “Well, thank you for your hospitality.”
Rest only came once Jack shut his mind down, which took more effort than most days. New place, new people, same problem – it sent his mind whirring. Shutting his eyes and everything else out, he instead focused on slowing his breathing and heart rate as low as it could be convinced to go before sleep finally took over. He didn’t dream this time.
The front door opened, bolting Jack awake. A heavy hand – Victor’s – landed on his shoulder the instant he sat up, telling him it was safe. It took Jack a moment to recognize the sunlight streaming in through the sliding glass door, and a moment longer to blink the sleep from his eyes to look at the newcomer.
No, of course not. It was Sarah. That momentary comfort was replaced again by the increasingly familiar gaping hole in his heart.
She was watching him. “Good morning, sunshine.”
“Uh, good morning.” As he woke, he started to recognize more, including the fact that he was quite thirsty.
Sarah simply continued past him, into the kitchen area. Sitting up properly now, Jack recognized Victor’s glass of water on the coffee table. Untouched or refilled, he couldn’t tell, but either way, Jack was grateful. He drained it.
Victor’s eyes were on Sarah as she put down her brown paper bag. She had gone shopping, now pulling out ingredients for whatever project she had in mind. “You let her go out?” Jack asked, alarmed. Renaud had agents in town, and after last night, he was sure to know what she looked like, at least.
She must have heard him. “I wanted to celebrate! So I’m making cakes. Pancakes, anyway. My dad always preferred to put candles in his pancakes for his birthday, so that’s just kind of a thing –” she caught herself, as if suddenly realizing she was talking too much – “now.”
“And what are we celebrating?” Jack asked as he stood up, curious. It was Victor’s turn to use the couch and sleep now. Behind him, Jack could hear the older man wordlessly agree, sitting where Jack had slept as soon as the spot was available. Perhaps he could help her with her pancakes.
Sarah shrugged as he approached. “Do we need a reason?”
Her good mood was infectious, making Jack smile broader the closer he got. “I suppose not. How can I help?”
Sarah glanced around her workplace a moment. “Want to start beheading the strawberries?” A colorful word, and not one Jack had ever heard used by a person who’d performed the action. The woman’s simple naivete was a breath of fresh air in Jack’s life.
“Sure.” The knife block wasn’t hard to find, and soon they were working side-by-side producing a stack of pancakes so high they couldn’t hope to eat it in a week. Even as aware as he was at Victor’s near presence, it proved difficult to keep their joy at the simple task quiet. Everything – from her cooking to her smile – about her was very easy to be around, introducing Jack to a comfort he hadn’t felt since he lost Julia.
Soon they were eating the spoils of their labors, decidedly on the balcony where they could talk openly. Jack had chosen a corner where he could see anyone who intended to ascend the stairs as well as the court yard and vacant pool below. The crook of the rail lent a little more surface area to put his plate of pancakes, off balanced by the fork.
Sarah, on the other hand, was free-handing her meal, folding the pancake like a taco with strawberries and whipped cream to fill it.
“I often run lines from here,” she was saying. “I put my script there,” she pointed to where he sat, “and practice. Even when it gets windy, that spot’s always safe. I don’t know, I just like it here. Makes me feel like Juliet.” She flung her arms out, losing a strawberry from her breakfast as she did, and breathed in the fresh air.
“Except you’re not fourteen,” Jack pointed out, amused.
She glanced at him, as if proud that he would know that. Had she asked, Jack would have confessed that it wasn’t his knowledge, but his mentor’s that he leaned on for that information.
Instead, Sarah just wagged a finger at him knowingly. “Which is why I don’t have a Romeo.”
Jack was glad at the information. It would be difficult on their relationship if she had to explain why she suddenly had 26 other people in her head. Not to mention any potential travel, if she decided she wanted to join Victor in his quests. Jack had been so fortunate to have Julia – she could understand what he was going through in a way the rest of the world simply couldn’t.
“Whatcha thinking about?” Sarah’s question interrupted his musings.
“Hm?” Jack asked, taking a bite and buying himself time.
“That look – something relaxed you.”
Julia. She had that effect on him, even after death, it would seem. “What’s next,” he answered instead. “I don’t anticipate the rest of the day will be this calm once Victor wakes up.”
Sarah peered at him for a moment, and in that time Jack feared she saw through him. But then she smiled, seemingly deciding if he was lying or if she should let it go. She chose the latter. “You have a plan, then?” she asked instead.
Jack’s brain shifted to work mode at the question. “Somewhere in your town is a library, collected – and much of it written – by my mentor’s predecessors.” He wouldn’t be able to think of them as his own predecessors unless he had them with him. “She spent generations building a list of known associates, and we need to get there and protect it before the council does.” Jack had some of his mentor’s memories to find it – ones she had intentionally shared with him – but needed to be connected to her to access all of them. For now, he could recall the outer door, but little else. He just had to trust that he’d know it when he saw it.
“Library isn’t far. Moved to that location about ten years ago,” Sarah commented. “How far back are we talking?”
“Founding of the town. 1880s.” Raised just outside of London, it continued to surprise Jack how young cities in the Americas were, especially on the west coast. Any history that started with top hats and corsets could hardly be considered worthy of the title.
Sarah scoffed at his answer. “You’re talking like way long ago.”
Jack shrugged. “Relatively speaking.”
“Well, not for you, I guess. That’s – what – four generations back?”
“Five,” he amended. Not that it mattered much. “Does your town have a historical district?”
“From that long ago? Not really. An old movie theater, haunted hotel across the street. No library. The old library building is empty, as far as I know.” Jack made a mental note of the information, though he had already decided to search under the former city hall next. “What were you doing before yesterday?” she asked, glancing at him sideways.
“Checking other libraries in the county.” They had the virtue of being old simply because they couldn’t afford to be updated. Jack had selfishly avoided the largest city, saving it for last simply because being in a populated area had already gotten the council’s attention. Now, though, they had no place left to look.
“That sounds like fun.”
“Victor enjoyed it.”
At the mention of the man’s name, Jack detected movement from the other side of the sliding glass door. It had only been an hour, tops, since he’d taken over the couch, but he had rested some already, before their onslaught of interruptions last night.
“Well, good thing you have something they don’t,” Sarah said, pulling out her phone. Immediately Jack considered stopping her from dialing, but the council didn’t have her name, so they’d have a hard time tapping it.
“And what is that?” he asked.
Sarah glanced at him over her shoulder as she put the phone to her ear, grinning coquettishly. “Me.” Jack watched her quizzically until she continued. “Norm volunteers with the local historical society. He’s more of a World War Two and later kind of guy, but – Hey Norm! It’s me, Sarah.” A brief pause as she looked away. “Good! How’s it going for you?”
Jack took advantage of the moment to check his surroundings again, more out of habit than worry they’d actually be found. An older woman across the way, smoking on her own balcony, but without the slightest regard for them. Victor inside, now in his daily pursuit of black coffee. No one entering or exiting the courtyard below. All clear.
“Yeah, I’ve a friend here who wanted to know about local history, and I thought of you. Can I put you on speaker phone?” Another pause, and she pulled the device away from her ear, tapping the screen once with her thumb. “Norm, you’re on with Jack too.”
“What can I do for you, Jack?” came the tinny voice over the phone. Older man, maybe close to Victor’s age.
Sarah was beaming, watching him expectantly.
“Uh, I was wondering what you could tell me about the first library in town,” Jack asked, aware how loud he was being in order to be heard over the speakerphone.
“Well, like most libraries in these parts, our first was a Carnegie library. Built downtown. But it was torn down in the 60s, and they built a park in its place. The old police building has some of those bricks now, actually.”
Carnegie. That sounded too late in history for his memory. “Can you tell me when it was built?”
“The police department headquarters?”
“1902, 1905. Something like that.” Too late. Lucy had already transferred to Harold by then.
“What about before that?” Sarah asked, beating Jack to his next question.
“Women’s organizations – sufragettes and the like – had a mobile library. Do you have a specific time frame in mind?”
“1880s?” Jack answered, aware exactly how much information he was giving this stranger about their quest. Never mind. The chances that a member of the council had taken over a local historian were slim at the high end, and the council would have to be far more subtle than they had been to let this Norm be approached this way.
“Ah, that far? They wouldn’t have been here. Railroad didn’t make this place popular until the end of that decade. County seat was in Old Town before that.”
Jack was about to ask where that was, but Sarah was nodding, as if she understood. She glance at him, silently asking if he had any other questions.
He shook his head, giving her a thumbs-up to be clear.
“Great! Thanks so much, Norm!”
“Anything for you, dear! Can I ask what the project is about?”
Jack answered first, not wanting Sarah to lie to her friend on his account. “Doing a research paper on the history of information,” he supplied, wildly making it up as he spoke. “Had a gap in my timeline for this region post-American Civil War and pre-World War One.” Jack had to stop himself from calling it the Great War, like Harold had when he experienced it. “You’ve been a huge help, thank you.”
“Anytime. Hey, keep me in mind when you finish it? I’d love to read a copy.”
With how dangerous he knew writing down this information could be, Jack had no intention of making a copy once he found the book he was looking for. Still, he smiled and nodded at the phone. “Sure thing.”
“And Sarah, feel free to call me again if you have more questions.”
“Can do! Thanks again for your help!”
“See you at rehearsal?” So this Norm must be in a stage play with Sarah.
“Two weeks, right?”
“Right.” The man sounded sure, like a father trying to get his child to learn multiplication tables.
“See you then.” Sarah, on the other hand, looked unbothered by repeating her earlier words.
Jack watched as the woman in front of him thumbed the phone again before sliding it into her back pocket, grinning at him with a satisfied sass painted across her face.
He couldn’t help but admire her. For the first time in weeks, it felt like they might actually have the upper hand over the council. He and Victor had spent so much time chasing their tails, and it turned out that the older man’s stupid audacity was the key to getting ahead of Renaud.
Impatient to start their search, Jack knew he needed to tell Victor. Then they could get a move on.
“How far is Old Town?” he asked, sliding the door open and waving Sarah in.
She recognized his intentions and obeyed without addressing them. “About twenty minutes outside city limits. Maybe half an hour from here.” As he followed Sarah in, Jack watched her cringe suddenly.
“Two thirds of the historical section is under water.” That could be a problem.
It didn’t change their plans though. “No reason not to start on dry land,” he offered, trying to be polite. Realistically speaking, though, anything underwater would be ruined, and everything above was likely looted. This whole thing was a wild goose chase, but too many lives were at stake not to pursue it. Damaged or not, they still had to locate the book before the council.
“Is that Jack being optimistic I hear?” Victor asked from the stack of cooled pancakes on the kitchen counter. “I have to admit, Sarah, I’m impressed.”
“Ha ha, very funny,” Jack retorted. “Sleep well?”
“Rested well, at any rate.”
“I’ve lots more instant coffee, if you need it.” Sarah offered. Jack couldn’t help but think he’d rather be tired than drink instant anything.
“Did I hear correctly?” Victor asked from his leaning spot. “Do we have a starting point for today’s search?”
Jack looked at Sarah, giving her the credit. “We do, thanks to our lovely host here.” She gave an elaborate bow before waving off the compliment. As he watched, Jack couldn’t help but recognize that his respect for her was growing. She might be more useful than just another person to protect after all.