“Hey, you’re dozing off.”
Fiona and lifted her head off the desk, her eyes moving toward the doorway. Pepper was leaning against the door frame, a sly grin spread across her face. “You seem… chipper.”
“Kinda,” Pepper asked, entering the room. “Why, does it surprise you or something?”
“Not really,” Fiona said. There had been talks between her father and Princess for years regarding Pepper’s lack of emotion, and whether or not it was a serious matter. But despite her tendency toward callousness, Pepper was never a violent child, which meant that other than some unsettling mood shifts there wasn’t much of a reason to treat her any differently than anyone else.
“Funeral’s tomorrow, right?” Pepper asked, moving toward the desk.
“Yes,” Fiona said. “Both of them.” She got the feeling that Pepper didn’t really care about Anne’s funeral. After all, the two were never that close.
“So, mind telling me why you didn’t go to work today?” Pepper asked, taking the chair from the desk next to Fiona’s.
“We still have a few arrangements to make,” Fiona said.
“That would explain why grandpa isn’t going,” Pepper said, “but not you.” Fiona was silent. “Oh well,” she said with a shrug. “You could use the rest anyway.”
“I guess,” Fiona said, watching as Pepper scooted to the desk next to hers. Rather than logging onto the computer, however, Pepper turned back toward her and smiled. “So, what’re you looking up, anyway?”
“Browsing a few databases is all. Trying to see if this reptile we found has been described before.”
“Reptile? I wasn’t aware you could get fossils like that here.” She studied Fiona’s face, watching as her discomfort grew. “It’s not a fossil, is it?”
Fiona leaned back in her chair and her eyes. “If I show you, you can’t tell Dad about it. He’d kill me.”
“Scout’s honor,” Pepper said, giving a brief salute.
Fiona reached behind the computer, pulling out a yellow envelope. She handed it to Pepper and said, “I’m warning you, it’s not for the faint of heart.”
“Gotcha.” Pepper opened the envelope and began flipping through the photographs. At first it seemed she was going to make a smart remark, but when she neared the end of the stack her eyes went wide with horror. “Holy fuck, are you sure these are real?”
“They don’t appear to be fake,” Fiona said, “and they came from Twister.”
“Wow.” She slowed down, studying each picture with a puzzled look. Then, after seeing the last photograph, she closed her eyes and set them aside, her face suddenly looking weary. “For the love of all that is holy, tell me that wasn’t sub wasn’t manned.”
“We don’t know.”
Pepper stood up, clearly disturbed. “I can’t imagine how horrible that must’ve been.”
Fiona’s curiosity was piqued. She hadn’t seen Pepper that affected in her life; she wasn’t sure whether her niece was sympathizing with the possible victims or merely horrified, but it was clear that she was uncomfortable with what she’d seen. “The pictures end there, so we don’t really know what happened. Or where, for that matter.”
“So, mind telling me what the hell got you involved in that?” Her voice was rather calm, but Pepper was clearly displeased.
“Okay, how did it start?”
“My nightmares, apparently,” Fiona said.
A look of shock crossed Pepper’s face. “How?”
Fiona pointed her thumb at the door and said, “It’d be easier if I just showed you.”
* * *
“So, there’s no chance you saw this picture before you started having these nightmares?” Pepper asked. She placed the picture face-down on the table. It was clear that she was even more unnerved.
“Even if I had, it wouldn’t explain what happened to Roderigo, or how Steven can hold that weapon without screaming in pain.”
“I’d think it was a joke if it weren’t for those photos,” Pepper said. She reached over to the box and asked, “So what else is in here?”
“Nothing,” Fiona said.
“No offense, but if you’re going to be mailing a key and a couple photocopies, why not just send it in the envelope?” Pepper flipped the box upside down, and to Fiona’s astonishment, a piece of cardboard slipped out, falling onto the table with a slip of paper clinging to its back. Picking it up, she showed it to Fiona; a false bottom, carved from another box. “See,” she said, laying the box down, “if you’re going to send something that you don’t want others to see, a false bottom is an effective solution. You stick a ‘this side up’ label on it, slide in a piece of cardboard or two, and whatever is beneath it is perfectly hidden, except to the most idiotic–or brilliant–inspector. It can’t be pulled off with an envelope, and if done right it’s very difficult to spot.”
Pepper picked up the slip of paper and studied it carefully. A frown crossed her face; she seemed both perplexed and annoyed. Fiona asked what was wrong. “Nothing,” she said. “I just assumed it would be something he might be worried about Customs grabbing onto… but it’s just a drawing. Just a pair of funny looking symbols. Nothing special.” She handed it to Fiona.
On the left side of the slip, there was a symbol that reminded her of a Chi-Rho, although the resemblance was only in passing; the cross, rather than being drawn as two intersecting arms, instead had each arm drawn offset from its opposite. Each arm of the cross, along with the staff itself, passed through a circle like six spokes on a wheel, and stem, beneath the cross passed through an inverted triangle. Each arm of the cross bore a small crescent near the end, and each end of the staff a larger crescent; the symbol had been aggressively filled with ink, creating a ragged yet solid black depression on the paper’s bleached surface.
On the right was what appeared to be a sun wheel–a circle, containing at its center a much smaller circle, out from which radiated four pairs of lines to form two vertical and two horizontal spokes; the spokes passed through another triangle, itself pointing upward and overlapping a left-facing crescent, and outside the circle, each spoke was paired with an almost trident-shaped mark. Unlike the solid black of other symbol, the sun wheel was composed entirely of lines–nothing between the lines but the white of the paper itself.
There was no explanation for either symbol. Nothing was written on the paper to indicate what they were, or why they had been included in the package. Fiona couldn’t understand why Jacob would want them hidden from view.
“This is odd,” Fiona said. “They’re not Catholic.”
“They’re pagan,” Pepper said. “Or rather, I’d assume they were. I’ve never seen the image on the right, so I can’t say for sure.”
Fiona was stunned. “I take it you’ve seen the other one?”
Pepper didn’t answer. Instead, she pulled her phone from her pocket and began typing on the screen. “Yeah, that could work,” she said, tapping the corner of the screen and raising the phone to her ear. She flashed a rather eager smile at Fiona as she waited for whoever she was calling to answer. After a moment, she stood and said, “Hey, it’s Pepper.”
Pepper took a seat on the edge of Fiona’s desk, pretending to check her nails. “Yeah, I know it’s been a while,” she said, winking at Fiona. “Listen, you know those old books you picked up in Prague? You still have them?” A devious grin crossed her face. “By any chance, do you think I could get a look at them?” She chuckled. “Fantastic,” she said, checking her watch. “I’ll be there in about twenty minutes. See you then.”
“So… who was that?” Fiona asked.
“And old friend of my mom’s,” Pepper said. “He likes to collect rare books. A few years ago he got his hands on a very rare collection. There were some symbols on the books’ bindings–I think they may have been similar to these. I figure I’d check them out.”