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The tinny song was repeating by the time Bridge determined its tune was emanating from him. After that, the process whereby he retrieved the phone from his coat pocket was lengthy and arduous. He was in need of fingers, which forced him to swap his lighter from his left hand to the right, balancing it in the center of the wide, flat stone. Only then could he pull out Rook’s cell and identify the caller.
“Hello?” He could practically feel the blue-green glow of the phone’s light on his face, thankful there wasn’t more he needed to say because he’d never manage to keep the agitation out of his voice. Instead, he held his breath, listening for any telltale sign that might provide him with more information about the caller’s identity and/or location. If Bridge were to recognize so much as a single sound, he’d run the length of the city to track it down, punishing the person or persons responsible for Laura’s death once he arrived.
Click click click.
Instinctively, he pulled the phone away from his head, the noise in his ear like the skittering of cockroaches exposed by a kitchen light. Even with the device held at a distance, he could make out the words that followed. “Mr. Bridge.”
It wasn’t a question. The speaker was well aware of who was on the other end of the connection. This was the same cool unisex voice he’d heard in Rook’s memory, and its lack of emotion sent an icy droplet of sweat down Bridge’s side. Neither male nor female, it still possessed an air of familiarity. Like the ring tone on the cell, he found himself wanting to hear more of it, as if additional words—whatever they might be—could jar something loose in his memory. Had he met this individual before, passed by him or her or it on the street? Whoever it was, they knew him.
“No need for mister,” Bridge said, pleased by the evenness he was able to project, even if it weren’t true. Inside, he was all sharp angles, but the second he let on that the caller had gotten under his skin was the same second that all was lost. Better to treat this like an everyday introduction and inform the individual that “Bridge is not my name. It’s my job.”
Click click. “Not for long.”
Again, there was no emotion. The response held all the warmth Bridge would have expected to receive had he asked a stranger for the time. Twenty minutes till not for long. Clearly, the caller felt no stake in the outcome of the conversation, which made it more the shame that Bridge did. He was ill equipped for this kind of thing. There would never come a time when he would admit to Spade his need for the cat, but Spade’s presence at this moment could have gone a long way toward improving the situation. A cool head was what was needed here, not a goddamn rock fist.
“And who are you?” Bridge asked, doing his best to channel whatever rational tendencies he possessed while still hoping he’d get an opportunity to put his oversized hand to the test. In his mind’s eye, he put the fist straight through the head of some villainous silhouette, had to plant a foot in the victim’s chest and push to retrieve his muck-covered mitt. Had the cell phone been any less durable in his tightening grip, his hand of flesh and bone would have snapped it in two.
Just when Bridge had convinced himself that the single click was the sound of his caller hanging up, there was more. “The ancient one.” The message hung in the air, as if it were an unpleasant scent mellowing with age. Before he could come up with a follow-up—much less ask it—, the sound of the other party terminating the call came over the line. This time there was no mistake. The voice had spoken its last words to him, and he was left to interpret them on his own.
The ancient one.
At first blush, it was a meaningless name. He’d never heard it before so it might as well be a random pairing of adjective and noun. And yet Bridge refused to believe that was the case. Why bother to call at all if the conversation would amount to nothing but gibberish? There had to be substance to the remark even if it wasn’t an answer to the question he asked, even if it didn’t leap out and grab him by the shoulders to shake him with its significance. Loath as he was to admit it, he needed help, and the only one he could count on was back in the van having a nervous breakdown.
Clearly, it was time to leave. Besides the need for Spade, there was nothing more to learn at the Rodchenkos’ graveside. Not tonight. If need be, Bridge could always return by the light of day. Until then, he had at least two clues to go on and an itch to remove himself from the epicenter of all this death. No doubt about it, he was better off than he’d been just an hour earlier, and yet he needed a misanthropic cat to confirm it for him. Breathing deeply, Bridge took one last look upward and stopped dead in his tracks.
Though the night sky had been littered with clouds—a holdover from the afternoon rains—, the stars had still been visible, if faint. However, at some point during his interaction on the phone, they had disappeared—all of them—, and as alarming as that was, it still wasn’t what made Bridge’s breath catch in his throat. In their place was an all-too-familiar phrase, written across the darkness in all-white capital letters.
THE ANCIENT ONE.
The longer Bridge stared at the message, the less real it became. Were these words for him alone, or was the entirety of the city looking up and scratching their heads? Eventually, what had been a three-dimensional environment appeared to flatten out before him until he was observing not an infinite void above but a smooth surface directly before his eyes. Pocketing the phone—its purpose served for the moment—, he reached out with his free hand, as if to confirm by touch what his eyes were telling him. When his index finger made contact, it came as no surprise. It traced the half-circle of the letter “C,” smudging the text.
Then the laughter began. Only, it wasn’t laughter. Like the voice on the phone, it was absent all emotion, an empty husk of what it should have been. Bridge would have thought the UNKNOWN caller had snuck up on him from behind until a chorus of other voices—all of them as dead as the first—chimed in.
What Bridge should have witnessed when he turned around was a despondent Nikolai Rodchenko seated Indian-style in the mud, head bowed and hair obscuring whatever dark thoughts were waging war in the space behind his eyes. He should have seen the faint outline of headstones lit by his lighter and leading all the way back to the vehicle and the cat. Those were the things he should have seen.
Instead, all of that was absent. Where there had been darkness, there was now sunlight, dust motes perpetually falling in the beams. Where graves for the dead had been laid out, there were now five rows of wooden desks, each six desks deep. Seated in those desks were children. Their laughter, such as it was, continued as Bridge felt his jaw tighten, his teeth indulging in the only kind of violence available to him. As bad as the cacophony was—several of the children had even begun to point now—, he could have taken it all in stride if only they had had faces.
Based on nothing more than their size, Bridge pegged the children as seven-year-olds, making them a classroom of first or second-graders at best. Though they all had individual hairstyles and clothing, their facial features were identical—to a child—, which was to say they were vacant, as flat as the desktops under their elbows. It didn’t occur to him to wonder how they were able to laugh without mouths or see him without eyes or even survive without the ability to breathe; he was too overwhelmed by the fact that he had been plucked bodily from his spot in Blackhill Cemetery and set back down again in some unknown elementary school, effectively cutting him off from all that he knew.
Unable to listen any longer, Bridge prepared to speak, unsure of what he would say or how the laughing children might react to it. But before he could open his mouth, a new voice rang out at his right, taking the matter out of his hands.
“Children!” Immediately, the hysterics ground to a halt, with only the occasional stillborn giggle escaping. Something in this new voice’s tenor identified it as belonging to an adult—for which Bridge was grateful—, but his hope for help and/or answers was short-lived. The speaker stood beside a much larger desk, a piece of chalk still held in his hand. From his position and attire—a button-down shirt and tie under a sweater—, it was clear he was the students’ teacher. However, his appearance assured Bridge that this was not someone he could turn to, for the face reflected the same absence of features as his young charges, the thinning hair on his scalp swept back from nothing but forehead, a blank expanse of skin that stretched all the way to his chin.
Leaning forward, the teacher asked, “What is your answer?” Once Bridge became conscious of the fact that he was the one being addressed, that it was his answer the teacher wanted, he did the only thing that made any sense. He spun around to run. In doing so, he revealed a blackboard covered in writing, but no exit back into his own world. It wasn’t until he paid closer attention to what had been written that he began to understand why he was there.
Written in chalk, the words THE FATHER OF HIS COUNTRY were followed by the name WASHINGTON, this last word underlined and scrawled in a different hand, as if filled in by another. The same was true of THE MAN OF THE PEOPLE and JEFFERSON directly below. JOHNSON and THE GRIM PRESENCE were next in line, and underneath that was the description that had sparked his travel in the first place. THE ANCIENT ONE. The line at its right taunted him with its emptiness because he was meant to fill it. But with what?
Closing his eyes, Bridge attempted to block out the sounds of the classroom. The natives were growing restless again, and their instructor reiterated his query. The answer was there, somewhere inside his brain—he was sure of it—, but his recall was failing him. Somehow he kept pushing the information further away instead of grabbing hold. It wasn’t until he closed his still-burning lighter and shoved it into his pants pocket that the solution presented itself, his fingers closing on the tarnished piece of copper within. Penny cool against his palm, he spoke his one-word response.
With that, the voices were gone, silenced, the laughter soon replaced by a strange slurping sound. Too late he registered that his time in the classroom was complete; apparently, his lesson had been learned. As a result, Bridge had been returned to Blackhill, and the noise at his back was that of Rook rising to his feet from his seat on the saturated earth. Had he identified it earlier, Bridge might have thought to move. That one action might have saved him a punishing blow to the back with a shovel.
Instinct quickly took over. Faced with a fall—down into Nikolai’s excavated grave—, Bridge rotated on one foot, reaching out in vain for anything he could grab hold of. The fused fingers of his right hand failed to find purchase in the air. Without fanfare, he fell backward, dropping down into the remnants of the dead man’s casket and smacking his head in the process. In this rare instance, the wallop seemed to knock some sense back into him.
Lincoln, he thought. Yet another trigger word for the dead man, and he’d been carrying it around with him all day long, a time bomb waiting to go off. Worse than that, someone had gotten him to say the word aloud of his own volition. But how? What was the significance of placing him into the classroom construct? How could anyone know that that scenario would end up with Bridge delivering the right answer? He could have just as easily said Kennedy, leaving Rodchenko as docile as a—
Rodchenko. Looking at it now, it seemed so obvious to him. The dead man had a wall in his mind, a barrier that kept all his memories off-limits, even to him. But that notion was ridiculous. If his past were truly walled off, then there were things he wouldn’t know, everyday actions he would be incapable of performing. Like using a cell phone. Or firing a gun. Or filling in a grave.
The first shovelful fell in a heavy, wet clump on Bridge’s chest as he struggled to right himself. He had fallen at the exact right angle to trap his good hand behind his back, while the walls of the casket had collapsed inward at the sides to hold him tight, like a lover’s embrace. Though he couldn’t see Rook above, he could hear him grunt each time he loaded up another scoop of sodden earth and tossed it in.
No, this “wall” in the mind had to be something else. More like a… semi-permeable membrane. It had to allow some things through, while keeping others under wraps. Walking and talking—such as they were for Rook—were permissible, but he couldn’t know anything crucial, such as who had killed him or who contacted him after his resurrection. Why? Because this UNKNOWN someone knew that Bridge could get into the assassin’s head and extract that information. For the same reason, they couldn’t leave him with instructions on what to do, how to react. However, they could leave subliminal trigger words, expressions they knew the dead man would hear only under certain circumstances. Words like Bridge. Or Lincoln.
Or The Ancient One.
The classroom was no construct. It was a memory. Bridge’s memory. The questions written on the chalkboard were from his childhood. The students were his fellow classmates. The man in the sweater was his teacher. And the one empty desk he’d spotted near the back of the room? That was his, as well. Semi-permeable membrane. Allowing him to witness the environment, but not to see any faces or hear any real voices.
As he tried to determine when or how a wall could have been built inside his own head—an impossible task given the wall’s purpose—, the first batch of mud splattered his face, and Bridge tried to bat it away with his hand of stone. Was it time to release his hold on Rock, take his chances without the weapon? The faint note in the distance made him think not. The horn on the van. Short. Short. And then a long that seemed to go on and on and on. Trouble.
Another shovelful struck him in the face, and this time it wasn’t mud alone, but laden with sharp rocks. They knocked him backward and cut up his forehead. Between the soil and a fresh stream of blood pouring down his face, he was effectively blinded and began to believe that Blackhill might well be his final stop. Before he could decide to make peace with what was happening or rail against it with what little strength he still possessed, Bridge heard a familiar tune coming from nearby. The cell phone. Unreachable at present. But then he knew immediately he wasn’t meant to answer it this time, only to listen to its now-recognizable nursery rhyme ringtone as his world fell apart around him.
London Bridge is falling down.