The hours after lunch were the worst, he groaned to himself. A full belly plus a boring job means a non-stop battle to stay awake. Jake was barely through the door before he felt his eyelids growing heavy. Sheesh, he thought, he wasn't even to his desk yet and he was already getting sleepy. He gritted his teeth as he strode toward his cubicle; this afternoon was gonna be a royal pain, he could feel it.
Josh sat right across from his desk, his gray fabric-lined cubicle a mirror of Jake's, except his looked like a bear had torn it up and Jake's was neat and tidy – well, mostly. From behind he could see his head drooping as he sat slumped in front of his computer screen. Jake figured he wasn't the only one fighting off the Sandman today.
He sat down in his chair and found himself staring at a folded piece of paper clipped to the desk.
He looked cautiously around the room. Who was leaving stuff on his desk?
He sighed and grabbed it. When it came out of the clip a tiny LED blinked on the end of the clip and he heard a faint beeping sound. He froze for a second, wondering what was going on, then when nothing else happened he unfolded the paper with kid gloves and spread it out.
Dbmn uif jotudujpot. Below it was a long number, also scrambled.
That's what it said. He recognized the handwriting of course and felt his heart jump with anticipation. The jumble of letters and numbers were equally familiar. It was a simple substitution code, one they'd used before, but what was with the LED on the clip? He picked it up and turned it over. On the bottom was a little timer, counting down from three hours.
Uh oh. A countdown didn't auger well.
He glanced around but no one was paying attention to him. For once he found himself grateful for the daytime somnolence that seemed to overtake everyone after lunch. Satisfied no one was watching he pulled out the decoding sheet and got to work. It was a short message so it didn't take long to unscramble it.
It read; Call for instructions.
The number below it, once he'd unscrambled it was a phone number he'd called before. He shook his head in confusion; she wanted him to call while he was at work? Wasn't that pretty risky, he wondered? But since he didn't want to keep her waiting he dialed the number, hoping no one would notice.
She must have been waiting; she picked up before the second ring. “Don't say anything, just listen,” she said before he could say anything.
Out of habit he nodded even though she couldn't see him.
She continued without pausing. “If you want an answer, you have three hours to come get it. Go to Richard and tell him, 'the Mayflower ran aground'. He'll understand.”
There was a loud click as she hung up before Jake could think to protest.
Richard? He stared at the phone thoughtfully. She was dragging his boss into this? He shook my head in disbelief then eyed the note for a moment, wondering what to do. Of course he wanted an answer but this wasn't how he'd imagined it would go down.
The timer, still counting down, made up his mind for him. He got up and headed for Richard's office. His office had glass walls he could look out imperiously on the serfs to make sure they were doing their jobs. Richard saw Jake before he got there so he went in with barely a knock.
“The Mayflower ran aground,” he said, feeling both nervous and silly at the same time.
His boss lifted one eyebrow and held up an envelope. “Are you sure this is worth it?” he asked ominously.
He narrowed his eyes, wondering what Nika had told him. “Yeah,” he managed.
He shrugged and held it out. “I'll clock you out at five,” he said dismissively.
“You'll clock me out?” Jake was caught off guard. How did she manage to pull that off, he wondered?
Richard waved the envelope impatiently. “Come on, I haven't got all day.” Jake didn't argue, he just grabbed it and left, waiting until he got to his car to open it.
Inside was a sheet of paper that contained an address halfway across town and the words, “30 minutes,” written beside it in Nika's unmistakable handwriting. He growled under his breath and jumped in the car. It was a good thing he'd gotten her message early in the day. By five o'clock traffic would be so bad it'd take him a couple of hours to get there, but even at this time of day half-an-hour was barely enough time to make it.
He stomped the gas and roared out of the parking lot, checking both ways for cops, doing the same thing the whole way there, racing through yellow lights just before they turned red (mostly) and barely slowing for stop signs when he could get away with it. Zigzagging in and out of traffic like a maniac earned him several dirty looks from other drivers.
He screeched to a halt at the address on the paper – a taco stand they'd met at once – and jumped out looking around. Now what? The paper didn't have any other instructions, just the address and the time limit.
A little old lady came up to him, walking her dog on a leash. “Are you Arnold?” she asked in a quavering voice.
“Yes,” he nodded cautiously, wondering if this was part of Nika's plan too. Sometimes she took this double-agent stuff too far.
She smiled. “You're just as big and handsome as she said you'd be.” She handed him another envelope, her palsied hand shaking slightly as she did.
“Thank you, Ma'am,” he said politely, not wanting to draw attention. A public drop like this was a bad idea. Too many eyes could get too many wrong ideas. An encounter with the police was the last thing he wanted. The old lady smiled again then moved away, her little dog in tow. He noticed she hadn't given him her name or asked for his, deliberately he assumed. That's how the game was played.
He moved over to a bus bench and sat down to open the envelope. Inside was a single sheet of paper with her flowing script on it. He read it quickly;
Hunh? He shook his head in confusion. Now she wanted him fill in the blanks on kindergarten jokes? Really? He shook his head again. The answer was obviously 'elephants' but so what? He looked around hoping for something to give him a clue what she was up to this time. As he scanned the area he saw a water fountain in the park across the street; it was a sculpted elephant squirting water out of its nose into a pool of water.
He trudged across the street to the fountain. It took him several minutes of searching to find a flat box wedged under the elephant's rear end. He tried not to think about who that imagery was supposed to resemble. Instead he set about opening the little combination lock on the box. It took him a couple of tries to figure out what number she'd used (it turned out to be the last four digits of the phone number he'd called) but eventually he got it open.
A folded sheet opened up into a large sheet, twice the size of a legal pad. On it was an elaborately drawn map. He had to chuckle a bit in spite of the situation. This was the third time she'd used a hand-drawn map like this; it was becoming a habit.
He turned it this way and that, finally getting it oriented with his surroundings. Alright, there was the elephant fountain and the taco stand across the street – at least that's what he assumed the taco she'd drawn was supposed to represent.
He stood up with the map in his hand, studying it closely. Comparing the legend with the map and the area around him he figured the scale was about two inches per mile. If that was true – he pursed his lips, calculating in his head – the map was taking him about 5 miles to the north, just past the freeway.
Getting back in his car he realized it had to be somewhere near the airport. That was the only thing that far out.
Time was marching on and traffic was slowly increasing. He checked his watch; he'd better hurry if he was going to reach his final destination before the deadline. Once again he was forced to weave in-and-out of traffic in his race against the clock.
The next hour-and-a-half was more of the same; reach his next stop, search for another clue, rack his brains to figure out what it meant, then race through the streets for his next checkpoint. The countdown was nearly finished by the time he arrived at what had to be the final goal.
He pulled into the parking lot, immediately spotting the sign for parking spot 114. It was outside his favorite bar. The spot was taken but he looked behind the numbers and found the tiny slip of paper wedged between them and the metal pole.
He opened it. There was only one word: inside.
Glancing at his watch it was almost three hours exactly since he'd started this wild goose chase around town of hers. But what was the point of it all? A test? Knowing her it probably was. He shrugged and went in. She'd promised him an answer if he could get here in three hours and he had, so now it was her turn to deliver.
He paused just inside the door to let his eyes adjust to the dimmer light. He saw her, sitting in a booth halfway back, a drink in her hand, another sitting opposite her on the table. He smiled. Well, that was an encouraging sign at least.
She glanced at her watch as he slide into the booth and picked up his drink. She toasted him silently with an impish grin then gave him his answer.
“Yes, I'll marry you.”